I spent a little less than five days in beautiful downtown Toronto for the Graduate Research and Writing Class at Toronto Baptist Seminary. The trip started off like many such trips, with a six-hour delay in Bogotá. I met a very interesting family while I was waiting. The husband is English, and the wife is Colombian. They are working in a new church plant in Bogotá; we had an interesting conversation in Spanish/English. I felt bad for them, since they had three small children and were traveling to the airport in Toronto and then on to London! I really never should complain about a trip with my kids from Colombia to Iowa!
The class was helpful. The other five students were Asian; in fact, they say that 25% of Toronto is of Asian descent. Each day we ate out together at a Japanese restaurant, and on Thursday night one of my fellow students treated me to a Korean meal. Absolutely delicious! We cooked the bacon at our table with a hot plate, and mixed it with about twenty different sauces and vegetables.
The University of Toronto library system was amazing. They say it’s the third-best system in North America after Harvard and Yale. I believe it! I don’t know how many buildings their system has, but I visited about six libraries that have theological works. I spent one evening and one morning gathering resources on John Gill, the 18th century Baptist. We also spent a day in the research course gathering resources from the U. of Toronto libraries. I admit a slight bit of jealousy towards people who study at TBS. The U. of Toronto is about a twenty-minute walk from the Seminary, which indeed is worth the effort. The campus felt a little like Iowa State, except a lot bigger and with more castle-like structures. The massive brick structures, wooden floors, and old-world style libraries make you want to study!
I enjoyed breathing in the ambiance of TBS. Every seminary has its own strengths and weaknesses. In the case of TBS, the influence of Dr. Michael Haykin is palpable. Although I didn’t meet him, I could see how the students have an uncanny depth of understanding in church history thanks to his influence. For example, within fifteen minutes of arriving at class, I was discussing John Gill’s theology with a Chinese student. He happened to be the resident student-expert on the history of Jarvis Street Baptist Church, which was surely the strangest Baptist church building I’d ever seen (gothic Baptist architecture? Who’d have thunk it?).
Later that week I met the person who influenced me towards TBS, Ian Clary. He is a graduate of the Th.M. program at TBS and has been accepted in the Free University of Amsterdam’s Ph.D. program. I had originally run across some of his work online and began to wonder where he’d studied. When I found out he’d studied at TBS, I wrote him with a few questions, and he was more than happy to answer them. When I was finally going to meet him, I wondered if his face-to-face personality would match his online persona. I was thrilled to find him even more affable than expected. We happily talked all things Baptist, church history, etc. It’s not every day you can ask about how Richard Muller’s lifework relates to so-called Hyper-calvinism. Again, I felt my horizons broadening.
This leads me to ask, “Why bother with church history?” I think that more than ever I see the importance of studying this discipline. How much wisdom are we missing because we don’t even know who Richard Baxter was? Or Alexander Carson? Or John Gill? The works of these men have weaknesses, but they also provide a wealth of wisdom… and not just in theology, but in practical areas as well, like counseling and ethics. I, for one, have been enjoying my reading in John Gill. In spite of his weaknesses, the guy was a theological giant. I would call him a mediator of the Puritan tradition to the Baptists. Sadly many Baptists have very little consciousness of church history: as Carl Trueman might say, they think that their theology just dropped out of heaven – “Just the Bible brother.” Okay, our only authority for faith and practice is the Word of God, but how we interpret the Bible has been positively (and negatively) shaped by almost two thousand years of church history. If we are ignorant of our heritage, we will commit the same errors as our forebears or perhaps new ones that we could have avoided. This is extremely important when we are church planting. If we foster a rootless faith, our churches will end up like many Baptist churches on the Colombian coast – “Baptist” in name only. May God grant us wisdom to learn from the past in order to chart a course for the future.