One of my friends here (a fellow PhD candidate) and I have an on going conversation about what makes a theologian have a lasting impact. When talking about someone like say, Karl Barth, there is a school of thought that says he had some sort of innate genius. There are others who would argue that he happened to be the right person at the right time. As we discuss it more, I think that we are both convinced that lasting impact has more to do with the environment surrounding a person than the innate genius of the person. That is not say many of the people we remember weren't geniuses. It is just acknowledging that there are many who were geniuses but have been forgotten.
We can look at countless examples of people that really should be more widely read than they are. Take William Ames. He had an enormous impact on Dutch Reformed Theology (and therefore much of Reformed theology). He was present at the Synod of Dort and his opinions helped shape some of the conclusions reached. Nevertheless, if someone has heard of him, most likely they have only read his Marrow of Theology. This isn’t a bad thing, but there is so much more that one can read from him. He was a giant of the faith and very few would even know who he is. Now take the countless number of saints who no one knows about (many times because their writings didn’t survive or they didn’t write). They lived, they died, and they were forgotten.
This conversation is interesting for PhD students mainly because there is a larger question of why does this matter? Will my research have a lasting impact? The honest answer to that question is probably not. The most I would hope for is that my thesis moves the conversation forward a little bit. However, having a massive impact, being a ‘Luther, Calvin, Spurgeon, or Packer’, an honest assessment of things tells me that is probably not going to be the case.
It is easy to delude ourselves into thinking that we will make a bigger impact than we actually will. Yet, I am not writing this as a lament. I do not bemoan the fact that my research will most likely not be read in fifty years because this isn’t that important. Don’t get me wrong. I love what I am doing. I think it is valuable, but the important things are when I get home and pray, read, and spend time with my family. The important things happen on a Sunday morning as I gather for worship. The important things happen when I am at the gym making friendships with people I would otherwise never have the opportunity to talk with. The important things happen later this year when we pick our little girl and see our family change forever. These are the important things.
I read a quote from Nicolaus Zinzendorf. I haven’t been able to confirm the exact quote. It is the last thing he said to missionaries leaving Herrnhuter: Preach the Gospel, die, be forgotten. The closest thing I have been able to find in context is this:
Remember, you must never use your position to lord it over the heathen. Instead, you must humble yourself and earn their respect through your own quiet faith and the power of the Holy Spirit. The missionary must seek nothing for himself, no seat of honor or hope of fame. Like the cabhorse in London, each of you must wear blinkers that blind you to every danger and to every snare and conceit. You must be content to suffer, to die, and to be forgotten. - Zinzendorf
You must be content to suffer, to die, and to be forgotten. In a generation or two, if I am fortunate, my family may remember who I am. However, if I am faithful to invest in the important things, I trust that my impact will be great. The Lord has promised to build his church. Sometimes the Lord builds his church through gigantic heroes of the faith. More often than not, however, it is the simple, ordinary, and everyday means of being faithful to the calling the Lord has put in front us. My calling is to do this research. Some people will read it. It may have some effect on the academic world, but most likely the biggest impact I will make will be in my family, my church, and my friendships. So, I will preach the Gospel, die, and be forgotten.
Bavinck put it well when he wrote in The Sacrifice of Praise:
[G]odliness is beneficial towards all things, having the promise not only of the future, but also of the present life. Whoever seeks first the kingdom of God and its righteousness unto them all things will be added. The best Christian is the best citizen. With their confession they neither stand outside of nor in opposition to the natural life. But highly and proudly they carry their confession into the world and everywhere plant the banner of the cross. The gospel of Christ is a joyful message for all creation, for mind and heart, for soul and body, for family and society, for science and art. For it delivers from guilt and redeems from death. “It is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”
Let us be content then to suffer, to die, and to be forgotten.