Primer, Theological ‘Fast-food’ & Staying Sharp Together – An Interview with David Shaw
Along with the inflatable crocodile and Kubb, I tend to find that summer holidays are a good time to prioritise packing some fiction into my suitcase. (Sadly life somehow feels too chaotic the rest of the year to follow through on a novel – or perhaps it’s just that now I get most of my story-telling through the medium of the screen rather than the page?) But one of the exceptions to the fiction rule in this summer’s suitcase was Primer. Published just twice a year, Primer is eighty (very readable) pages “designed to help those in church leadership stay theologically sharp and engaged”. And it’s brilliant!
Primer was only launched last year, but I think it’s a gem of a resource for those in positions of leadership in a church to marinate on together (anyone from pastors, elders, wardens, small-group leaders, staff-team, PCCs, etc). Its editor is David Shaw, who is part-time Tutor in New Testament and Greek at Oak Hill College and part-time Theological Advisor for FIEC (The Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches). David kindly took the time to answer some questions about Primer and the vision behind it.
David, for those of who’ve not comes across Primer yet, what exactly is it? It’s not quite a magazine, and it’s not quite a journal – it definitely looks too cool for that. So tell us a little bit about the story behind Primer.
Sure. The basic conviction behind Primer is that good theology is vital in church leadership. As Kevin Vanhoozer says, pastors are called to be “ministers of reality” – helping the church and the world to understand what God has done through Jesus Christ. To do that church leaders need to have a good grasp of theological truths and know how those truths shape life and ministry. One of the key aims of Primer then is to help anyone involved in ministry to have a better grasp of what God has done through Jesus Christ.
Primer is published by FIEC once every six months, taking one theological issue at a time. So far we’ve published issues on Scripture (Nov 2015) and the doctrine of sin (May 2016). In each issue we have articles that survey the contemporary scene, reflecting on the debates and reviewing the best resources available. We also re-print a classic historical text from church history on the topic in every issue. We want to help pastors draw down the treasures of church history, but we also know those texts can be intimidating. For that reason, we ask someone to annotate each historical text, putting it in context, explaining tricky bits, and reflecting on its significance for today. Then towards the end, there will be articles or interviews that focus more on the difference that topic makes to pastoral ministry and church life.
I guess a lot of us involved in church leadership might find time to attend a couple of conferences each year, perhaps making it through the occasional book (and starting a few more!). In the busyness of ministry the idea of ‘Further Reading’ often seems limited to flicking through whatever blog posts and online articles come our way! Why would you say Primer is worth investing in?
Great question! Two things to say here. First of all, because good theology is central to church leadership we want to encourage church leaders away from that kind of online fast food. There’s lots of good stuff online of course, but it’s often overwhelming, distracting and disconnected. In addition, most theological issues can’t be dealt with in 140 characters or a blog post. They do take time, and so we want to encourage people to settle down and dig a bit deeper. We’ve even tried to help that in the design of Primer – it’s supposed to feel like something you enjoy, value, and spend time over. On the other hand we know church leaders are under pressure and that’s why we worked hard to save them time by giving them an 80 page digest that focus on one topic, boils down the issues and keeps the realities of ministry in view. That’s why we hope it’s worth investing in, putting the kettle on, and pulling up a chair.
Who would you say Primer is for?
So far I’ve been talking about church leaders and others involved in ministry. We have written it with them in mind, but Primer is also designed to be a training tool to raise up new leaders. The artwork and layout make the topics accessible, but it’s stretching enough to train men and women to think and serve with a clearer theological framework. There’s also a website (primerhq.com) which has discussion resources for each article.
It’s been a few months now since Primer was launched. What’s your take on how it’s been received – and how are churches are using it?
We’re still working hard to get the word out and to help people understand what Primer is – as you say it falls somewhere between a magazine, journal and textbook) but we’ve been really pleased to hear how Primer has been received. I’ve heard from many church leaders how much they appreciate the combination of depth and the practical outworkings of doctrine. I’ve heard of pastors reading it with their assistants, elders or leadership teams, and some church book groups using it too.
For your second and latest issue you’ve focused on the topic of sin. In some ways that seems quite a bold option. Maybe we think we don’t particularly need to read 80 pages about sin, or we might just have reservations about suggesting something on that topic to our leadership team. What made you choose this emphasis? And what would you say to someone who feels the pull of those responses?
I recently read that “it is impossible to have an adequate conception of sin without an adequate conception of God.” I think the reverse is true as well. We will not be able to understand who God is and how amazing the gospel is until we grasp the reality of our sin. In that way understanding sin fuels worship. That would be a good reason to spend time thinking about it. Another is that we don’t often reflect on how to communicate the reality of sin. This was a particular focus in that issue of Primer. So there are articles that focus on how we can better communicate the Bible’s rich and varied account of sin, and there are articles that help us engage with issues like addiction and a ‘victim culture’ that denies sin and thinks everything wrong with the world is someone else’s fault.
One of the things I’ve enjoyed about the two issues so far is the blend of the types of articles: interview, book review, pastoral issues. What’s the thinking behind that?
Basically we want Primer to be a one-stop shop for whatever doctrine we’re covering. You can find book reviews and academic articles about topics, but it’s really hard to find something that combines depth with coverage of the best resources of past and present and rubs all that in to church life.
Absolutely – and I think you’re nailing it. So tell us what we can look forward to with Primer in the future?
The third issue (due out in Nov 2016) will be on the topic of gender and sexuality, with contributions from Ed Shaw, Sam Allberry, Sharon James, and Alastair Roberts. We’ll be looking in depth at Genesis 1-2 to see how that speaks to the issues of homosexuality, same-sex marriage and transgenderism. Articles will also outline the ways in which Christians are responding to these issues and help us wrestle with the medical, theological and public policy aspects of them.
The fourth issue (May 2017) will be on the doctrine of justification in the year that will see the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 theses. We’ll have Matthew Barrett, Gregg Allison and David Starling among others helping us to understand the history of the doctrine and its significance for the Christian life and ministry.
Thanks for your time David. Just finally, for someone looking to get hold of Primer, or perhaps order a few copies for the leadership team, what’s the best way to do that?
You can order Primer from The Good Book Company, and you’ll find it on bookstalls at Keswick, Word Alive, the EMA and other Christian conferences.