Stuart Piggin ThD Address
A Call to Engagement
Address by Stuart Piggin at his being awarded the ThD degree
16 June 2023
In the good providence of God, the Australian College of Theology has developed into ‘a consortium of evangelical theological colleges’. What is the future of evangelicalism in Australia? The lesson of history is that we evangelicals have been strong in the past where we have engaged with all the challenges of our emerging nation, when we have been attentive to the national soul.
We might think of the evangelical movement historically as a negative reaction to the rationality of the Enlightenment, as some sort of disengagement from progressive thinking, but those two fountainheads of our movement, John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, were very strong on reason and they were not quick to disengage from those who did not share their convictions.
They were both ardent students of the Bible, but they also read voraciously, even the works of the most sceptical of Enlightenment philosophers, such as David Hume.
“I am glad,” wrote Edwards, “to read such corrupt books; especially when written by men of considerable genius; that I may have an idea of the notions that prevail in our nation.”
It was because Edwards especially was able to make sense of the Reformed faith while engaging with the ‘prevailing notions’ that what is now known as Evangelicalism by the end of the 18th century had become a major movement, while the Deism of the Sceptical Enlightenment was looking decidedly old fashioned.
There must always be some in every generation who, through engagement with the notions that prevail in our culture, can make the Reformed faith meaningful to those who hold such notions.
In that respect Chris Watkin’s Biblical Critical Theory is exemplary. Modelled on Augustine’s The City of God, Watkins traces God’s scheme of redemption through the whole of the Bible and demonstrates its cogency whilst riding the tsunami of the influential deconstruction movement of the French philosophers on whom he has written with respect and empathy.
Another brilliant analysis on how to remain true to the Reformed faith and yet engaged with a culture hostile to it, is ACT graduate David Rietveld’s Being Christian after Christendom. Since the notions that now prevail in our culture default to non-Christian values, it is exhausting to defend all the values of Christendom, and rather pointless since we cannot be understood by those who think so differently. So, it’s liberating to focus instead on maintaining our personal engagements with those whom the Lord allows us to share life’s journey and address their issues with love and patience.
A second point I would make about Engagement is that without it we will never address the most tenacious problem in our nation, the need for reconciliation with first Australians. At graduation ceremonies at Macquarie University we are welcomed to country by one who describes himself as a proud descendant of Maria Yellowmundi. Historian Grace Karskens tells us that she became, ‘the matriarch of a vast family, and her descendants now number in their thousands’.
In the first decade of the nineteenth century, her father and grandfather quickly came to the conclusion that the invader could not be defeated and that the best terms of engagement should be negotiated, rather than withdrawal and non-engagement and fighting another day which our modern historians tend to commend as the more acceptable way.
Maria’s dad allowed her to be the first Aboriginal child enrolled in the Native Institution at Parramatta. She topped the colony in the exams, defeating all the white children and the rest is history, a rare example perhaps of a successful cultural adjustment. It’s significant that at least five Christian families were engaged in her nurture and development, and the descendants of every one of those five families are active in Christian work today.
It is in the relationships of family life that the chief engagements are to be found. Christian family dynasties are an important factor in our history along with race, class, and gender on which modern historians focus.
A third point we could make about the place of engagement in Australian history is that one of the great myths of our history is the so-called separation of Church and State. On the basis of this doctrine, which is the doctrine of non-engagement, secularists tell us to mind our own business and keep off the turf of cultural and social life. Christians, on the same basis, tell the bureaucrats not to interfere – leave us free to practise our personal faith.
In fact, through most of our history, whilst believing in the separation of church and state, we have practised the interdependence of the two. Particularly in the fields of welfare, health, and education, the altruism of Christians has produced massive social capital for the state.
That is what the idealogues in the ACT government have overlooked in their current takeover of Calvary hospital in Canberra. Their thinking is that disengagement from a church institution is a quite legitimate expression of the separation of church and state. It also amounts to an attack on freedom of religion, in spite of denials by the perpetrators.
Freedom of religion is best worked out through the challenge of church/state interdependence rather than their separation. But this means the church needs the state as much as the state needs the church. We wanted to be left alone to address child abuse as a pastoral problem. The state has rightly said, nope – it’s criminal.
And now the ACT has to engage with state education authorities in order to get accreditation and University status. It’s a hard slog. We can grumble and resist, but Professor Dalziel and his merry crew understand that such a response cannot deliver.
Evangelical history and biblical truth show us the better way: the way of engagement.
We are called to show the love of Christ to all,
- to the members of our families,
- to those in the realm of ideas who oppose the Christian faith,
- to our indigenous brothers and sisters with whom the work of reconciliation is a future imperative;
- and to compliance-demanding bureaucrats in welfare, schools and colleges,
and to show Christ’s love to all, we have to remain engaged, like the archetypal evangelical, William Wilberforce, co-operating with all when the cause is right.
You are engaged in a great work: we want all ACT students to be able defenders of the faith, but we also need them to be propagators of the faith, and that requires of them to become specialists in engagement. Australia needs engaged Christians: ah have a dream: cascading through the streets of Alice Springs, I see cadres of ACT engagement-specialists determined, like those five Christian families who nurtured Maria Yellowmundi, to show the love of Christ to Aboriginal children who currently have no place to call home, but who through the love of God, will come to feel at home in their own homeland, so that they will enjoy with us a life of confident anticipation of our eternal home.
Receiving this award has already radically changed my thinking on a fundamental point. If you are a Doctor of Philosophy, you’ll be used to saying, ‘actually, I’m not a medical doctor and I’m not a philosopher either’. But, if you have a Doctor of Theology, you can’t keep on insisting that you are not a theologian.
Problem is, I’ve been saying that, foolishly rather proudly, all my academic life. When I get into trouble, as I regularly do, with my more conservative friends for my theological views, I always say, well, after all, I’m no theologian, I’m just a historian.
I’ve always thought that in many disagreements within the evangelical fold one side is speaking theology and the other history. One side says, ‘women should not teach men’ and the other side says, ‘John Wesley said no one read the Bible better than his sisters, and no-one preached it better than his mother’ – do without women, you do without the best.
Or a famous case in my Anglican tradition: the Principal of Moore College from 1911 to 1935 was DJ Davies. He was unpopular with the conservatives, who labelled him a liberal. But I’ve always believed his problem was that he was a church historian rather than a biblical theologian.
This won’t do. Surely, being an historian should not be used as an excuse for being a lousy theologian or no theologian at all.
There has been, many believe, no better theologian than Jonathan Edwards. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, you will remember, said, ‘I think of Luther and Calvin as the Himalayas, but Jonathan Edwards is the Mt Everest.’
Yet Edwards spent his life developing a new way of doing theology and it was history. On his appointment as President of Princeton he wrote famously to the Trustees:
“I have had on my mind and heart, (which I long ago began…) a great work, which I call a History of the Work of Redemption, a body of divinity in an entire new method, being thrown into the form of a history; considering the affair of Christian Theology, as the whole of it, in each part, stands in reference to the great work of redemption by Jesus Christ; which I suppose to be … the grand design of God.”
The grand design of God, encapsulated in the Gospel, is his work of redemption, the focus of Christian theology which is best demonstrated in history. But one responsible for communicating such history cannot have an ‘any old theology’ -will-do mentality, can one?
The perfect model of the true marriage of theology and history is arguably John’s gospel. The writer not only had access to eyewitnesses of all that the Lord had done in his ministry, such as Luke obviously had, but John was himself an eyewitness. It is of great significance that this gospel, which from the perspective of historical method, is the most demonstrably consistent with historical truth, is also the most theologically ambitious and mature. Great theology requires great history and vice-versa.
The view that there is some unbridgeable gap between history and theology has created the view that there is an irreconcilable difference between the so-called historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. But testimony of the historical quality found in the gospels, based on eyewitness evidence, not only shows us who Jesus was, but also who God is.
Ultimately, the responsibility of the Christian historian is the same as that of the theologian, namely, to make God known.
Since the calling of Christian historian and theologian alike is to reflect and reflect on the self-disclosure of God – no less – it is a high calling indeed.
And we really are – as we should be – truly grateful to the ACT for all the encouragement, education, training and recognition, for all the help it gives us with this high calling.
 Edwards to John Erskine, 11 December, 1755, Works of Jonathan Edwards, Yale University Press, vol 16, 1998, 679.
 Christopher Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s unfolding story makes sense of modern life and culture. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Academic, 2022.
 David Rietveld, Being Christian after Christendom, Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2023.
 Grace Karskens, The Colony: A History of Early Sydney, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2010, 450.
 Jonathan Edwards , A History of the Work of Redemption (WJE Online Vol. 9) , Ed. John F. Wilson, 1989, Yale University Press, 555.