About a week ago I finished up four full days of teaching at the Italian Theological Academy in Sicily. I’ll share a few anecdotes below, but first I want to say thank you. The Lord was so kind to answer your prayers and give me strength that was so unmistakably from His hand. In the midst of sickness at home, a fire at the airport the night before I left, and missed flights for various reasons (3 in total), I made it safe and sound to Sicily. And although, when all was said and done, I laid down to sleep at 3:30 am the morning of my first day of teaching, the Lord gave me strength and kept me mentally alert. Most importantly God was gracious to make His Word clear so that the students could better understand the person of Christ and the person of the Holy Spirit.
Before the class I had preached twice in Italian. So the prospect of teaching for several hours (something like 25) was intimidating to say the least. The help the Lord provided served as a great encouragement that He will continue to give me the grace I’ll need to minister more and more in Italian. That isn’t to say that there weren’t errors made or that it was just like it might have been in English, but maybe I could explain it this way: there were moments in which I really felt like ‘myself’ as a teacher; glimmers where the difficulty with the language faded into the background and gave way to the desire that my hearers grasped God’s Word.
The time I spent with the students in class, chatting theology during the break, and hearing about their lives over meals was a joy. Each of the students was hungry to learn and had plenty of questions. One student consistently came up with insightful reflections and observant questions, often wondering things about the connection between two doctrines I’d never before considered. Due to the complicated nature of his questions (and my even more complicated and long-winded responses), I’d jokingly ask for questions from the class with the exception of that student.
Another student serves as the only elder in his church in Northern Italy, while working a full time job. His sermon preparation happens in the early hours of the morning each day before he heads to work. He found out about the formal training the academy offers about two years ago and ever since he has been hooked. The director of the academy and I had talked about the possibility of giving the students a break Sunday morning and not having the early session before morning worship, but this dear brother, so hungry to learn, pleaded that we have it. My heart was refreshed by his tenacity to learn and his longing to get the Bible right. I was glad that we could have the session.
If you asked me what the hardest part was, I’d answer immediately: The session after lunch. Rare were the moments when I thought, “Oh man, this isn’t going well.” The longest one lasted about half an hour. It was after lunch Sunday. I taught a session of the class for an hour and a half, I preached in the worship service, and then we ate a big meal, the kind that involves various lasagnas, pastas and meats (note the plurals). The only person more tired than the glazed-over students was me. And it just so happened that this section on the Holy Spirit’s Ministry in the Old Testament was the only section of my syllabus that had several wrong Bible references. This all came together to make for an interesting time after lunch. At one point I had a guy reading a chapter in numbers for about 5 minutes straight, while I searched frantically for a verse that actually said something about the Holy Spirit, only to have to say at the end, “thanks for reading that text, which really is quite fascinating, but unfortunately it doesn’t actually say anything about the Holy Spirit…let’s move on.”
As has been alluded to, the course focused on Christology and Pneumatology (study of Christ and the Holy Spirit). We began the time with some introduction on the theological task, emphasizing the theological task as worship. We talked about the importance of always pondering the person of Christ in the light of the redemption He accomplished that we never could. John Calvin, whose Institutes are also available in Italian, says it this way:
Now it was of the greatest importance for us that He who was to be our Mediator be both true God and true man…Since our iniquities, like a cloud cast between us and him, had completely estranged us from the Kingdom of Heaven [cf. Isa. 59:2], no man, unless he belonged to God, could serve as the intermediary to restore peace. But who might reach to him? Any one of Adam’s children? No, like their father, all of them were terrified at the sight of God [Gen. 3:8]…The situation would surely have been hopeless had the very majesty of God not descended to us, since it was not in our power to ascend to Him (II.XII.1).
We also talked about the practical nature of theology and that we must never accept the artificial distinction between theology and practice. We can’t very well live for Christ if we know not who He is. Also, given that Jehovah’s Witnesses are the second largest religion in Italy, it was important to equip the men with a robust understanding of the deity of Christ.
Sadly, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is considered to be the doctrine of Pentecostals and at times receives little attention from non-Pentecostal evangelicals. It is, as James Packer has said, “the Cinderella of the Christian doctrines.” So I was glad for the opportunity to deepen my understanding of the Holy Spirit. We spent a great deal of time talking about the Holy Spirit’s role in the transition from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant. This helped prepare us to understand the book of Acts, the miraculous spiritual gifts (e.g. tongues) and the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Again I felt the material was especially pertinent as there are many Pentecostals in Italy.
I sat on the plane headed back, ready to see my family, with a heart grateful to have played some small part in encouraging these men who will in turn have the opportunity to encourage others.