Sep 30, 2009

An Interview With Keith Mathison

15 Min Read

I first came in contact with Keith Mathison while in college. I attended an historically Dispensational college where a giant Clarence Larkin Dispensational chart adorned one of the classrooms. I came across a new book through Tabletalk magazine called Dispensationalism: Rightly Dividing the People of God? published by P&R in 1995 by a guy named Mathison who, I discovered, was a student of the seminary where many of my professors graduated from, namely Dallas Theological Seminary, a seminary known for its Dispensational ways, a seminary, nevertheless, that I held and continue to hold in high esteem on account of its high standards in training its students in biblical languages and exegesis. Though I myself had never come under the influence of the classic Dispensational hermeneutic (thanks largely to my former professor Robert W. Carver from the Bible Presbyterian Church), the book provided me with a helpful introduction to the hermeneutics behind the hermeneutics of classic Dispensationalism. Aside from its ugly cover (perhaps the real secret to the book's success), the book became a huge influence among many of the students at the college, although it could not be found among the recommended reading lists on professors' syllabi.

Three years after getting my hands on the book, I met Keith at the 1999 Ligonier Ministries' national conference. He gave one of the further study seminars on eschatological heresies. When we met he didn't speak much, but I soon recognized that his reservation wasn't due to any sort of awkward shyness but because he's one of the most sincerely humble men I have ever met who honestly thinks he doesn't really have much to offer others--he reads, researches, and writes for the simple reason that he loves to study the Word of God and the theology of the Word of God. His writing is simply the result of a life consumed by serious and disciplined study that others, by God's design, have the opportunity to take part in.

In the summer of 1999 when I began my course of study at Reformed Theological Seminary I needed a job, and the best thing I could find was at Ligonier Ministries working in the development department every evening. It was then when I met Keith's dear wife, Tricia. We worked together for about four months until she informed me that Keith was going to begin working on the newly formed Ligonier School of Theology to write curriculum, and that Ligonier would need to hire someone part time to help fill the gap left by Keith on "frontline" where the toll-free calls come in. She suggested that I might apply for the job, which I did and was hired the next week. For the next year Keith and I shared a desk (we're both quite clean and organized, so it worked out well), and in 2001 we both went to work in the editorial department of Ligonier Ministries and served as editorial assistants of Tabletalk.

As I continued my course of study in seminary, Keith continued to write book after book providing the church with thoughtful biblico-theological answers to many of the hard questions the church has faced throughout her history. We have worked together now for about a decade, and every day my appreciation of Keith grows. I thank our Lord for entrusting to this servant from a small Texas town with such a scholarly, ecclesiastically focused, and genuinely humble ministry. I sincerely believe that his books will remain on the shelves of serious students of theology for centuries to come, if the Lord should tarry. It is my hope that in this interview you will come to learn from Keith as I have learned from him, to the end that we might grow in wisdom for God's kingdom and glory, not our own. (For further explanation as to the reason why I have conducted this interview please read my introductory article here.)

Keith A. Mathison (M.A., Reformed Theological Seminary; Ph.D., Whitefield Theological Seminary) is dean of the Ligonier Academy of Biblical and Theological Studies and an associate editor of Tabletalk magazine at Ligonier Ministries. He is the author of Dispensationalism: Rightly Dividing the People of God?; Postmillennialism: An Eschatology of Hope; The Shape of Sola Scriptura; Given For You: Reclaiming Calvin's Doctrine of the Lord's Supper; and From Age to Age: The Unfolding of Biblical Eschatology. He is editor of When Shall These Things Be?: A Reformed Response to Hyper-Preterism and associate editor of The Reformation Study Bible.

Keith, please provide a brief bio of where you're from and when and how you became a Christian.
I was born in 1967 in Texas City, Texas (site of one of the worst industrial accidents in U.S. history). I was raised in Alvin, Texas (home of Nolan Ryan and holder of the U.S. 24 hour total rainfall record--43 inches dropped by Tropical Storm Claudette), an event that I vividly remember since it occurred the summer of 1979 before I began seventh grade. The summer after graduating high school, God granted me faith and repentance while I was reading a pocket New Testament given to me by one of the folks from Gideon's. I was married in June 1990, and I have two children.

What is your list of the top ten books that everyone should read?

  1. John Calvin - Institutes of the Christian Religion.
  2. Martin Luther - Commentary on Galatians.
  3. Robert Bruce - The Mystery of the Lord's Supper.
  4. John Owen - The Mortification of Sin.
  5. The Nicene Creed, The Chalcedonian Definition, and either The Three Forms of Unity or The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms.
  6. F. F. Bruce - The Defense of the Gospel in the New Testament.
  7. Geerhardus Vos - The Pauline Eschatology.
  8. Neil Postman - Amusing Ourselves to Death.
  9. J. R. R. Tolkien - The Lord of the Rings.
  10. Although it's not a book, I would encourage every Christian to read and re-read John Newton's letter "On Controversy."

What are the five most helpful blogs to your life and ministry?
Not in any particular order:

  1. Greenbaggins (Lane Keister)
  2. De Regnis Duobis (Jason Stellman)
  3. Old Life Theological Society (D. G. Hart and John Muether)
  4. Helm's Deep (Paul Helm)
  5. Between Two Worlds (Justin Taylor)

Name one book you're currently reading that you think might be helpful for others.
Michael Horton's The Gospel Driven Life.

What other book(s) are you currently reading?

When did you write your first book and why did you decide to write it?
I wrote my first book not long after transferring from Dallas Theological Seminary to Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando in 1992. I wrote it to summarize the reasons why I could no longer embrace dispensationalism. I wrote it in case any of my friends from Dallas wanted to know why I had rejected dispensationalism. I did not submit it to any publishers at that time. Not long after arriving at RTS in Orlando, I took a job in the seminary bookstore. The manager there, Darren Edgington, read the work and one day when he was on the phone with P&R Publishing, he mentioned it to them. They asked to see it, so after polishing it up a bit, I sent it to them. Some months later I received word that they wanted to publish it. It came out in 1995.

What is something that many books or writers are lacking today?
This is a difficult question to answer because I see many things lacking in my own writing. Anything I might say critical of other books and authors likely applies to me as well. I aspire for several things in my writing, but I am well aware that I often fall short of my own goals. If I may put it like this, there are very few authors who recognize that there is an aesthetic element to the craft of writing. It becomes painfully evident, however, when you read those authors who are aware of it. There are certain writers who simply have a way with words. They know how to turn a phrase, and they are a delight to read. Consider G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, Annie Dillard, C.S. Lewis, H.L. Mencken, Flannery O'Connor and the like. These writers are not thinking only of what they say when they write but also of how they say it. In the fields I study regularly there are some authors who simply stand out because of their way with words. I think of men such as Alec Motyer, Sinclair Ferguson, T. D. Alexander, Peter Brown, and Carl Trueman. These men write books with substantive content, but they have also learned how to use the English language to communicate their ideas in a way that is not ugly or tiresome.

This is part two of an interview with Keith Mathison. Click here to read part one.

If you could study under any churchman in history who would it be and why?
John Owen. Owen was perhaps the most brilliant English-speaking theologian of the past five-hundred years, but he was not content to deal with theology only in the abstract. He was also deeply concerned with the Christian's growth in grace. Owen was about the mind and the heart.

If you could have a one-hour discussion with any living person in all the world who would it be and why?
Major Dick Winters (portrayed in the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers). When I saw Band of Brothers for the first time, I was very moved by the interviews with the soldiers who served under Major Winters. Their own actions were extraordinarily heroic, but their respect for Winters' leadership brings several of them to tears in these interviews. I was also very impressed by the interviews with Winters himself. In one interview, he quotes a passage from a letter he received from a Sergeant Mike Ranney: "'I cherish the memories of a question my grandson asked me the other day when he said, Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?' Grandpa said 'No...but I served in a company of heroes....'"

What counsel has proven to be most helpful in your life?
My father always encouraged me to do my absolute best with whatever I was doing. It did not matter whether it was mowing the yard or taking classes at school. If something is worth doing, it's worth doing well.

What is one piece of advice you can offer the up and coming generation of seminarians?
Do not let the Bible become a mere object. Remember that it is the very Word of God. When you spend semester after semester dissecting every detail of the Hebrew and Greek text, it is easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees.

What is one piece of advice you can offer the up and coming generation of Christian writers?
Read John Newton's letter "On Controversy." Then read it again.

What are three characteristics you look for in a particular church where you would be a member?

  1. Deliberate focus on the One whom we worship rather than the ones who worship.
  2. Preaching, prayer, and singing that are biblical.
  3. People who love God and their neighbors.

What word of admonition and word of encouragement do pastors most need to hear?
It would take a man far wiser than myself to know what they most need to hear. I can share, however, what I would like them to hear. My experience in churches over the last twenty years gives me reason to believe that many pastors tend to forget that even believers need to hear the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, as often as they gather together. I'm not speaking about altar calls or evangelistic appeals. I'm speaking about the good news that believers have forgiveness of sins. I'm speaking about the good news that believers are justified and that the ground of our justification is not our own good works, our church attendance, our giving, our witnessing, our praying. The ground of our justification is the perfect righteousness and merit of Christ, which is imputed to us. Even as Christians we have a tendency to fall into a Pelagian mindset. And week after week of "bootstrap" sermons contributes to that mentality and subtly causes us to trust in our own good works. On the other hand, week after week of "berating" sermons usually tells us something we already know full well - namely, how utterly wicked and sinful we are. Obviously, sermons have to fit the congregation and the circumstances. There are those in every congregation who are not sufficiently impressed with the sinfulness of sin - particularly their favorite one. But once this issue (the law) is dealt with, the remedy (the gospel) needs to be clearly expressed. We need to be constantly reminded that it is by grace that we have been saved, that if we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, that the ground of our justification is Christ's righteousness, not our own. As far as an encouraging word, I would remind the vast majority of pastors who faithfully serve in small churches, who will never publish a book or speak at a conference, that the church has spread around the world because of God's use of men like them.

What word of admonition and word of encouragement do laypeople most need to hear?
I do not believe most laypeople have any idea how much work their pastor does. There are people who think that the pastor works an hour or two on Sunday and that's about it. The schedule of the faithful pastors I know is more like 24/7. They are on call all of the time, and most are underpaid. Many parishioners have entirely unrealistic expectations about how many things one man can do. I would strongly encourage laypeople to refrain from criticizing their pastor and to pray for him instead.

What is the greatest doctrinal threat facing the church today?
I don't know that I can single out one major threat. Every point of orthodox Christianity seems to be under attack from one angle or another somewhere in the world today. Not that it ever stopped, but we do seem to be witnessing in the U.S. a resurgence of prominent attacks on the doctrine of Scripture.

What is the greatest ecclesiastical threat facing the church today?
Again, it depends on where you are in the world. Christians in Iran face different threats than those in China, and both face different threats from those in the United States or Europe. Speaking only of the United States, where do you even begin? The books outlining the problems with preaching, with the sacraments, and with worship more broadly considered continue to roll off the presses daily. We have preaching that focuses on anything but Christ and Him crucified, hymns that are little more than insipid teenybopper love songs to Jesus treating Him as if He were a high school crush, neglect and or blasphemous perversion of the sacraments (Google "Clown Eucharist" for one of the more extreme examples). Many of us, very apparently, do not really believe in the God who revealed Himself in Scripture as one who takes worship very seriously.

What is the greatest threat today regarding the believer's spiritual maturity?
Probably pride and hypocrisy. These destroyed the scribes and Pharisees. These destroyed the Roman Catholic Church. These can destroy any individual or institution.

In one sentence, what does it mean to be a Christian?
A Christian is one who trusts in and follows Jesus to the end.

What are some of your daily/weekly routines that you find helpful in your life and ministry?
Pillow fighting with my little boy every night before his bedtime.

What would you say are the most important lessons you have learned in the last decade of your life as it pertains to your ministry?
I already mentioned John Newton's letter "On Controversy" twice in responses to questions above. He teaches a number of things in that letter that have profoundly influenced my writing ministry. I write a lot on subjects that are inherently controversial (e.g. eschatology). Newton encourages writers on such topics to think about those they are opposing in their books, about those who are reading their books, and about their own hearts. He observes how easy it is to cause spiritual harm to others and to ourselves in the midst of controversial writing. It would take too much space to go into all of the details, so again I encourage people to find this letter online and read it. Suffice it to say that these lessons have encouraged me to think more carefully about my writing.

Looking back on your life if you could go back and do something differently what would it be?
On a serious note, I wouldn't wait until my senior year of high school to read the Bible for the first time. On a less serious note, I definitely wouldn't watch the Exorcist as a twelve year old while home alone. I certainly wouldn't have tried to swim across a flooded and debris-strewn bayou after a record setting flood.

If there were one thing you would like the church to understand about your life and ministry what would it be?
I've always seen my calling as analogous to those who supply ammunition to the men on the front lines. I'm trying to provide helpful tools for those who are in the trenches, those doing the really hard work.

Considering that everyone leaves a legacy from his life, what do you want to be your legacy in the church after you go to be with the Lord?
I hope people will say that he loved the Lord, he loved the Lord's people, and he loved his family.