Friday, March 23, 2007

The Lloyd-Jones problem

I'd better say this first: I'm a great admirer of "the Doctor". As a young Christian I read his sermons on Romans with great relish. My theological outlook has been influenced by the ministry and writings of the great preacher. I think that he was right to force Evangelicals to face up to the challenge of the ecumenical movement in 1966. His call for church-based evangelical unity was admirable and prophetic. I share something of his burden for revival.
However, there is a problem. Not perhaps with the man himself, but with the way in which his name and views are used to stifle debate in some circles. Am I the only Reformed minister who feels a little frustrated at conferences and fraternals when the following happens? A man gives an excellent paper. The subject is opened up for discussion. Views fly back and forth and an interesting exhange of views develops. Suddenly someone stands up and says, "I remember that we talked about this at the Westminster Fellowship and the Doctor said...." And that's virtually it. Once the name of Lloyd-Jones has been invoked, debate grinds to a standstill.
Now, I know that Lloyd-Jones was a very wise and gifted minister. We can learn a lot from him. But I think that he would be horrified were he to turn up at some of our meetings. He was a provocative, original and independent thinker, not a man who parroted the view of others. In his sermons on Romans he often disagreed with Calvin, Hodge and Haldene. He refused to hide behind names. We should not be hiding behind his. Today's ministers face new challenges that demand fresh, Biblical thinking. Trotting out "the Doctor said...." just isn't good enough. We need to learn what we can from him and then move on to serve God faithfully in our generation.

27 comments:

David Shedden said...

This is quite provocative! I'm reading Spiritual Depression at the moment. A year or so ago I returned to Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. I remember relishing them first time round.

But I have to confess that I now find MLJ's sermons difficult to use or apply. I don't really know much about the conference and fraternal circle that you describe, but I think I would cringe to be present at such events. Do you think MLJ's status is hindering the cause of Christ in England today?

Exiled Preacher said...

I still really enjoy reading Ll-J. I'm catching up with his sermons on Romans 9 at the moment and finding them most helpful.

I'm not complaing about the man himself, but they way in which his views are sometimes unthinkingly deferred to in some circles.

Ll-J is a divisive figure in the UK. Some blame him for single-handedly dividing British Evangelicalism, which is unfair. Others seem to cling to his every utterance in an uncritical way.

We can learn from his emphasis on Reformed doctrine, experiential Christianity and preaching with power. The cause of Christ in England needs a good dose of these things. But we have to learn to think things through Biblically for ourselves, just as he did.

A hindrance? Not in his life and teaching. But some of his followers are unwittingly hindering real debate and discussion in his name.

michael jensen said...

This is a brave post indeed! But -hear hear!

I come from far away, and never felt the influence of MLJ, so I find his ongoing influence on things round the UK a little hard to fathom.

Josh McManaway said...

I just use "Hegel said" on everything. It's an argument-stopper for sure. It doesn't really matter if Hegel actually said "whatever"; nobody reads him (and if they do, not well enough) to know otherwise.

Exiled Preacher said...

Josh,

I don't think that "Hegel said" would carry the same clout as "Ll-J" said in the fraternals and conferences I attend.

MJ,

He was a hugely influential figure in the UK and beyond. He did so much to encourage the recovery of Reformed Christianity in the 20th century. He remains one of my heroes. I recommend Iain Murray's two vol biog, The First Forty Years and The Fight of Faith, Banner of Truth Trust.

From what I know of "the Doctor", he would have been horrified at the "Ll-J says" tendency. We honour his legacy best when we try to face the challenges of the contemporary world with fresh Biblical thinking.

Alex said...

I don't know if you've seen the the internetmonk.com post lately called "Photoshopping Luther", but it speaks to this practice of saying "x theologian said x." I've also written about it at my blog.

John said...

Guy,
As Michael has already said this is a brave post from you but I think that it also needs to be said that the closer men actually were to Lloyd Jones the more they will appreciate what you mean by it. There are a few corollaries and nuances of the 'doctor-said' end-of-conversation phenomenon that ought to be mentioned. For example we have:

• The lost leaders: who, having grown tall under the shelter of a mighty oak, dissipated their strength, rightly or wrongly, in smaller contexts, narrower pursuits or even ever decreasing circles.

• The revival context: where even the best and most active of men have reacted to the revival focus of DMLJ either by sounding the discouraging note of nothing-can-be-done or by leaving no place in their plans for divine intervention.

• The split in the ranks: It is tragic that there is absolutely nowhere where leaders of the Reformed Charismatics and of the rump of the evangelical nonconformists can meet.

• The loss of debate: Since the doctor is credited with reintroduction of debate to ministerial circles it is sad that some people who obviously never got the point have turned his debating points into final authority.

• The weariness of age: not only old men tend to hark back to some 'golden age' when everything was in its proper place but it is no surprise when old allies of great men fail to see the opportunities for mission in their determination to hold fast.

• The cost of travel: Some people still travel huge distances to get to the Westminster Fellowship but the hike in the cost of rail travel back in the 1980's knocked the heart out of its usefulness as a truly national fraternal.

Exiled Preacher said...

Alex,

I hadn't read internetmonk's post or yours. I have now. Thanks for the heads up. I think that we should learn from theologians past and present, but not follow them slavishly. That applies to Luther, Calvin, Lloyd-Jones & whoever. We should be critical learners.


John,

Good points. From now on, if someone says, "According to the Doctor..." I'll respond "Ah, yes, but according to John Kilpatrick...".

Jonathan Hunt said...

I have greatly enjoyed ML-J's preaching, but not read much of what he wrote. People often bemoan the lack if a 'giant' like him today, but frankly the 'hagiography' of him in some circles makes me rather glad there is NOT!

As my pastor-uncle often says, you won't travel far within conservative evangelical circles before you encounter the doctrine of 'The Infalliability of Martin Lloyd-Jones'. He would, as you say, have been horrified.

Martin Downes said...

Guy,

Good post.

I love Lloyd-Jones. Growing up in ex-Brethren independent circles he was pretty much unknown to me. I read him without any baggage as a student and simply loved it. Hard to get into at first but in the end I read everything that I could find. And Murray's 2 volume bio is pure gold.

But...

His emphasis on apologetic/evangelistic preaching (yes it really was apologetic) has been lost by those who champion him the most. I don't know why. It may be because the non-conformists that followed didn't exert any significant influence in the UCCF world post 1970.

Last year my heart sank when there was a seminar at a well known summer conference titled "What would the doctor say about evangelicalism today." So were we really meant to imagine what a great leader who died 25 years ago would think so that we would know what to do? And then there was the ministers conference with a key address on 1966 and 2006 ("they think its all over..." I wish it was)

And finally, was his emphasis on revival really meant to paralyse local church evangelism in the way that it has?

Jonathan Hunt said...

Martin

I was tempted to mention the 'we love MLJ but we won't talk about his policy of preaching an evangelistic sermon every Sunday' issue... but you did it first, so I am glad to jump on the bandwagon.

JH

Exiled Preacher said...

Jonathan,

I agree. People often say (even pray), "What we need is another Spurgeon or Lloyd-Jones". But, as you say the Lord has his reasons for being economical in raising up exceptionally gifted leaders. We always need to remember the closing verse of 1 John.

Martin,

I think I may know the conferences you were alluding to. The "What would the Dr think...?" was an especially cringe-worthy title. As I remember, the speaker skilfully distanced himself from the title, which he had not chosen. He argued that we need to apply fresh Biblical thinking to the issues of our day just as Ll-J did in his time.

He then brought to our attention to some contemporary concerns like open theism, the new perspective and emerging church. That's the way to do it. None of these things were big issues in the Dr's day. They are now.

Are you going to be involved in the open air at this year's Aber?

Andrew and Carolyn said...

Hi Guy

A really good post, and a most helpful sting of comments. Like Martin I have come to Lloyd-Jones later on, and have come to love his readings - and the MP3s I've been able to get from the mlj audio website.

I hadn't realised how misapplied his influence had been until I spoke to someone at last year's Banner Conference who told me (with sadness)that his parents forsook going to church services to stay at home and listen to tapes of MLJ!!

Thanks for the wise balance and sensitive tone of your very informative post.

Martin Downes said...

Guy,

I haven't been asked to lead the open airs this year. Maybe, like the prayer meetings, they rotate. We may even be in America this summer anyway (although it will be a shame to miss Ted's preaching).

I didn't go to the seminar, but I was under the impression that the title was chosen by the speaker.

Guy, do you know why separatists like us in the UK Reformed constituency (I use the term separatist in a good way) are fixated with other people's theological errors? We always have seminars on them (on the broad evangelicalism that we are not really part of in a meaningful way) and not on our own problems and issues. Any idea why?

Exiled Preacher said...

Thanks Andrew,

I thought that this one would have been a "post and duck" job. I was expecting some abuse from Ll-J loyalists. But it seems that at least a few people agree with my sentiments. Maybe Doctorites are too busy listening to his tapes to read by blog?

Martin,

Hmm, good question. I suppose that, in the most positive light, we need to be informed about contemporary trends and respond to the Biblically. But it easy easy to criticize other while failing to consider our own ways.

Maybe someone should do a seminar on "What's wrong with Reformed Christianity in the UK". It's easy to diss emergent types, while failing to ask why our own constituency is so moribund.

Martin Downes said...

Guy,

We do need to be informed of wider issues you are right but we shouldn't stop at that without asking some hard questions about ourselves. There's plenty of the former and zero of the latter. Plus those wider influences are unlikely to get through our defense system.

Exiled Preacher said...

Martin,

I agree with you entirely. There are many issues that we need to face:

Why aren't we seeing conversions?

Why are Reformed Christians so liable to fragment over secondary issues?

Why do we so often mistake traditonalism for faithfulness to Scripture?

Why does our preaching seem to have so little effect?

The list could go on. I haven't got the answers, but we need to be discussing such questions, not just heresy hunting.

Will you be going to the Banner Conf?

Martin Downes said...

Guy,

I believe that you have a blog series there. I will be going to the Banner.

Jon said...

I went to Aber 2004...

BIG mistake...

You know why? Because it was the 100th anniversary of the Welsh revival 1904...

Once you realise that "the Doctor" isn't Doctor Who it's fine though. But you're right Guy. The church needs to get over the Doctor.

This is exactly the problem of the "Reformed" church i.e. reformed carries with it the implicit idea that old is better - we reform the church but what to? Well... when I was younger the church was better... therefore reform means getting back to the way it was.

As a side note: I find it alarming how quickly the Reformed church can revert to "confessionalism" which is the very thing that most Reformed people hold against the RC church. This is the main problem Reformed churches need to combat - they need a better idea of history and tradition in ecclesiology.

Exiled Preacher said...

Jon,

I was there in '04. 2004 I mean, I'm not that old!

All the "Doctor" talk must have been confusing for you. Did you expect that he would turn up in his TARDIS accompanied by Billie Piper?

I'm not sure that the problem with the RC's is that they have a confession. It's that they have the wrong confession.

Creeds and confessions can be a good thing when used wisely. But I take your point re the danger of traditionalism.

Jon said...

Guy,

I have a very positive take on tradition. I think what I meant to express in the post was that the Reformed church of today often cringes at the word "tradition" in a post-Reformation mindset i.e. tradition = bad. However, I am fairly convinced that the Reformed church gives itself over to traditions of it's own making i.e. the confessionalisation of confessions until they effectively take the place of tradition in the church.

I'm doing a module of Creeds and Confessions at uni at the moment and I've been struck by how quickly confessions become confessionalised. I notice on you sidebar you have a number of statements of faith:

Just think - Nicea - Chalcedon did very well for the church for a good 1000 years whereas the FIEC statement of faith has probably gone through a few editions since about 1996 for example (I don't know but in my experience this would seem likely).

I think the nature of the confessions of nowadays is that they become something MORE than what they were say in the Reformation and I think this can lead to problems i.e. the reception of Reformation confessions today - how does that/should that happen?

Jon said...

Sorry... I've gone off topic there. I just want to tie it in to the discussion so far.

I think I'm arguing that the Reformed idea of tradition is misconstrued and that they often mistake what they charge the RC with i.e. high view of tradition within their own churches simply overlooking it.

I think the main problems with the Reformed church is its idea of tradition and the relentless grip which the Reformed Church is subjected to by this idea of tradition. The very fact the church is called Reformed (harking back to 1500-1600 just goes to show how important the Reformation tradition IS to the Church.

Thoughts? Too harsh maybe?

Exiled Preacher said...

Jon,

I think that tradition has a very important role on the life of the Church. Where I part with RC is that they put tradition alongside or above Scripture. For me, our traditions, though valuable must be scrutinised by the Bible and rejected if found wanting.

The Reformers weren't anti-tradition per se. They were anti unbiblical tradition. I stand in the Evangelical and Reformed tradition, because I believe that the Reformers rediscovered the essentials of Biblical Christianity.

Acknowlagement the value of tradition is recognition that the Spirit is at work in the life of the Church. The Church does not infallibly interpret or practice the Scriptures. But we can learn from what the Spirit has said to the people of God through the Word in past generations. That is part of the communion of the saints.

Have you seen Vanhoozer's The Drama of Doctrine? He has a very helpful discussion of the relationship between Scripture and tradition in the life of the Church. He also addresses the issue of creeds and confessions in a most original and helpful way.

See especially Parts 3 & 5 of my review series, where I summarise his arguments. here

Jon said...

I'm not saying there is no space in the Reformed Church for tradition - just that the current Reformed approach to tradition is no different to the Roman Catholic. If the Roman Catholics have Scripture and Tradition the Reformed Church has Scripture AS Tradition. Not only do the Reformed Church hold the Scripture as the sole authority, but they traditionalise all the baggage which must rightly come with the interpretation of Scripture.

To me, the Reformed Church is guilty of exactly what they whinge about in the RC church.

All I'm trying to do is to get to the root of the problem "What is wrong with the Reformed Church at the moment?" - I think it lies here. That the Reformed Church is often in danger of elevating the Reformed interpretation of Scripture over and above what the Scripture says - that's not a totalising claim.

Take for example the accounts of John Macleod Campbell (who incidentally I don't agree with on many points!). When he was condemned (1831?) by the General Assembly on the subject of 'universal atonement' the texts cited against him were entirely from the West Conf of Faith. Not that that WASN'T based upon Scripture - merely that they saw the authority coming down THROUGH the tradition of the WCoF.

Ultimately, the Reformed tradition is such that these day, many of those people come to the text of Scripture with Reformed tenets in mind and understandably reach the same conclusions as they begin with - Reformed doctrine is Scriptural.

I see the fear of being wrong in many of our Reformed congregations and exegesis - please realise that I do understand that many of us seek to wrestle with some of the tendentious ares of Reformed faith - but for the most part, the faithfulness in the Reformed Church is to the tradition rather than to the Scripture.

I think that's what I've been tryinig to argue in the last few posts. NOT that Reformed Church in theory is wrong but that Reformed Church in praxis is wrong - I see this in the points you posted in the post above.

Anonymous said...

In your original post, didn't you commit the very sin you sought to condemn? This is the problem, not that other people do it, but that we do - that's a DMLJ quote by the way.

Exiled Preacher said...

Anon,

What do you mean by that?

Will said...

It takes a brave Calvinist to criticize MLJ!

MLJ's books are some of the greatest Christian works ever published. I have just finished his volume on Romans 6, and am about to start the first volume on the Sermon on the Mount. The depth of exposition and richness of his teaching never fails to amaze me, and I credit him, along with C.H. Spurgeon and J.C. Ryle amongst my favourite Christian authors, and crucial in drawing me into a Reformed understanding.

Yet I suspect that like all great figures, MLJ has cast a shadow that can be quite difficult to escape! It is all to easy for people to simply hark back to a golden age, or a much loved figure, instead of facing up to the present problems, and looking to apply the principles that drove their ministries. For all MLJ's greatness, as John Piper's biographical study indicates, he definitely had his faults. "Call no man master" said Ryle, and definitely he was correct.

Problems with the Reformed Church? Well, as controversial as it might sound, I suspect a fair proportion of the Reformed body in this country give little place to the experimental working of the Spirit; in fact probably could even be said to be quenching the Spirit. Sound doctrine is great, but unless the Spirit applies it to us and empowers us it remains mere knowledge.

Every blessing
Will