Like father, like son (mostly)

Posted: March 22, 2010

By Amy Robertson

Front banner: Dr. Ray Ortlund (right), Dr. Eric Ortlund (left).

Dr. Ray Ortlund. Submitted photo.

inner conversation at the Ortlunds’ is a little different when Dad’s in town.

That is, Dr. Ray Ortlund, SERVE 2010’s keynote speaker, and his son, Dr. Eric Ortlund, Briercrest College and Seminary’s assistant professor of Old Testament, are both Old Testament buffs. And when their families get together, the two men can hardly contain themselves.

Though they’ve both always preferred books to social gatherings, they haven’t always shared such a passion for the Old Testament. Ray fell in love with biblical studies and biblical language during his graduate studies at Dallas Theological Seminary.

It took Eric a decade or two to catch up.

While Ray served his last few years as the associate professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill., Eric completed an undergraduate degree in philosophy and classics.

It was just as Eric was finishing his studies in philosophy that the world of the Old Testament began to beckon—and it wasn’t his father that made it so attractive.

Eric was first “seduced,” he says, by the beauty of the Hebrew language. He began an M.Div. program and took a position as a youth pastor, believing, like his father, that the purpose of higher education in biblical studies was to preach and minister the Gospel more effectively.

The more he studied the Old Testament, the more he could hear “the language above the language and the poetry beneath the prose.” The way the Hebrews “sang their world” was “beguiling”—and after two years, he says, he couldn’t help himself. He wanted more. He switched into an M.A. in Old Testament and Semitic Languages—the same thing his father specialized in. Then, also like his father, he moved on to do a Ph.D. in Old Testament.

Today, Eric nearly giggles at the fact that he gets paid to teach the Old Testament, confessing that he’s half-afraid that someday, someone will find out how much he loves it and make him do something more like “work.”

Dr. Eric Ortlund. Photo by Amy Robertson.
But as much as he loves to chew on the things that only fellow Old Testament scholars find fascinating (he openly admits that they—his father included—belong to a tribe of their own), for him, there are no “purely academic” questions.

“We bend all our energies to understand and love the Lord Jesus more deeply and serve his people more skillfully,” he says.

“God unfailingly does meet us over his word. I can’t change my students or make them learn, and yet somehow it continues to happen.

“I view teaching in every way as ministry. It is ... meant to transform us for service in the Kingdom, to be done for God’s glory, in the power of the Spirit—for divine goals with divine means.”

Ray feels the same way. He’s currently the lead pastor at Immanuel Church in Nashville, Tenn., and he loves the Old Testament.

“I love the cultural remoteness from us today,” he says.”It is God’s eternal truth, but it is located historically so far from us. We really need that. It is so freeing to be lifted up above our narrow little slot in time and hear voices from unimaginable distances, speaking to us of eternal things.”

He loves the message it preaches and the people it preaches to even more.

“The best part of my role is the privilege of bringing two things together—the Gospel and our city,” Ray says. “I have never seen any city anywhere with too much Gospel, too much freedom from the past, too much forgiveness, too much hope. Nashville has a Gospel deficit. It’s a privilege to try to remedy that a little.”

As the keynote speaker for Briercrest’s SERVE conference March 26-27, he won’t be speaking about the more obscure Hebrew nuances in the book of Isaiah (though he hasn’t promised he won’t mention one or two). He’ll be speaking about the spiritual power in preaching.

“Our preaching of the Gospel should have both truth and power, both doctrine and dynamic, and more than a merely human dynamic,” he says. “There should be the presence of God. Why? Because, as Jonathan Edwards famously stated it, authentic Christianity is ‘a divine and supernatural light imparted to the soul by the spirit of God.’ That’s what Christianity is.”

Perhaps the next step is teaching together. For now, they’ll stick to dinner conversations.

Dr. Ray Ortlund is the author of the Gospel Coalition blog "Christ is deeper still." To visit, click here.