Monday, April 28, 2008

"Old hymns good, new hymns bad"

Some believers operate on the Orwellian principle, "Old hymns good, new hymns bad." Maybe that's because only the best of the older compositions are still in use today. The worst are best left in the depths of hymnological oblivion. See this little gem from Cotton Mather (1663-1728),
Ye monsters of the bubbling deep,
Your Maker's praises spout;
Up from the sands ye codlings peep,
And wag your tails about.
As Alister McGrath comments, "It certainly rhymes. But it's not exactly inspirational." (Christianity's Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution from the sixteenth century to the twenty-first, SPKC, 2007, p. 302).

Preaching as a Spirit empowered speech act

We live in a very visual society, where words are often dismissed as “just words”. This is something of a problem for preachers, for words are our stock in trade. But words are never really “just words”. They always do something. This is the helpful insight of speech act theory. This way of viewing language was formally proposed by J. L. Austin in his How to Do Things with Words (Oxford, 1962). Kevin Vanhoozer makes speech act theory a major component in his theological constructions. The theory breaks language down into three component parts: locutions, illocutions, and perlocutions. First of all we have locutions – basic units of speech or words and sentences. In theological terms, we confess that Scripture reveals God Word in words – locutions. But we use words to do things. With words we declare a man and a woman husband and wife, we ask for a glass of water, or order a ticket for the cinema. This is the illocutionary effect of language. By speaking, I have acted. In Scripture we have God’s own illocutions – his speech acts. By words, he makes promises, utters warnings, and enters into a covenant relationship with his people. Scripture is not simply a record of God’s words. In the Bible we have the communicative action of the triune God. But it is one thing for God to speak words and to do things with his words, like make promises. But what guarantees that God’s words will be received for what they are? God may make a promise, but it is another thing for us to trust in that promise! This is called the perlocutionary effect of language. And it is here that the work of the Holy Spirit comes into its own. He enables people to respond appropriately to God’s communicative action in Scripture. Vanhoozer sums up the point,

What God ultimately communicates in his crucified Word is the reality of salvation itself: a share in the divine life. And yet, this intended effect - fellowship with God through union with Christ - is not an automatic consequence of God's utterance. Not all communicative acts are received for what they are. So, the Word accomplished something on the cross (makes atonement for sin; declares pardon); this is the illocutionary aspect. Yet it does not really communicate salvation until and unless it is received and appropriated by the hearer [the perlocutionary aspect]. The Spirit's role is to minister Christ, to make what God is saying and doing in the cross effective." (The Drama of Doctrine, WJK, 2005, p. 66).

We see this in 1 Thess 1:5, Paul's preaching was "not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance". What was that word? The gospel of God. Where is that gospel now revealed? In the Spirit-breathed Scriptures. But it is not enough simply to declare the Spirit-authored and inscripturated gospel message. The Spirit who gave the Word must also be active in the proclamation of that Word so that it is received for what it is,
"For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe." (1 Thess 2: 13).

It is through this distinct work of the Spirit that the preaching of the word of God is the word of God to those who hear it. The Spirit so empowers the proclamation of the Word that preaching becomes a revelatory event where the God of the gospel is encountered. This results in the salvation of sinners and the transformation of saints.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Spirituality

An edited version of my Morning Thought, for BBC Radio Wiltshire
I’d like to conclude this week’s Morning Thoughts by talking about spirituality. Did you hear about the man in Bradford on Avon who got trampled by a herd of cows? Seems like he only escaped “dairy herd danger” because a passer by came to his aid. I don’t know what effect this has had on the unfortunate gentleman’s spiritual life. But events like that can make us think about spiritual and eternal matters. Lots of people today have realised that there must be more to life than fleeting riches of this world. Their souls long for spiritual fulfilment. God has made us for himself and we can find no rest apart from him. Some try Transcendental Meditation. Others just like rambling in the countryside in an attempt to find the divine in nature – just look out for those cows!

Christian spirituality is a bit different. It is not first and foremost a human attempt to seek God. It’s the other way around - God has come down to seek us. The Father sent his Son Jesus Christ into our world to bring us back to him. By his death upon the cross Jesus has dealt with all the wrong things that separate us from God. For the believer, God is not some distant, far off being. He has drawn near to us by the presence of his Spirit. In Jesus we can know God as our heavenly Father. Just think of that – having a Father/child relationship with your Maker!

Our relationship with God develops as we pray and read his Word, the Bible. But Christian spirituality is no private affair. It leads to involvement in a believing community, the church. We grow spiritually by worshipping together, learning together, and caring for each other. So, if you are interested in spirituality, do something worthwhile this weekend. Why not go along to a church where you can find out more Jesus, who came from heaven to bring us near to God?

Well, Graham, I’d just like to say thanks very much you for having me on your show this week!
You can listen again here, about 45 minutes into the show.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

True Beauty

An edited version of my Morning Thought, for BBC Radio Wiltshire
I know that the skies are grey and overcast this morning, but nothing can detract from the beauty of spring time. On the estate where I live I can see nature springing back to life after the deadness of winter. The old trees are green with leaves once again. Cherry blossom adorns the streets. If instead of talking to you now, I was walking around a Wiltshire beauty spot like Stourhead Gardens, then the sight would be even more impressive. Right now, I can imagine the glimmering lake and the trees and flowers in all their glory. What a wonderful world we live in!

But there is nothing necessary about the beauty of the world. Things sometimes function very efficiently without being especially beautiful. The street light outside my house isn't great to look at compared with a lovely old oak tree, but it illuminates our street pretty effectively at night. The beauty that we encounter every day is a sign of the Creator's loving generosity. He does not want us simply to exist in the most efficient way possible, he made us to live. He created us with the capacity to enjoy the world that he made for his glory and our pleasure. "But" you might say, "there is also much ugliness in the world." Yes, that is true. Rainforests are devastated, rivers and seas polluted. Some people have to live in soulless, graffiti strewn "concrete jungles" rather than pretty Wiltshire towns villages. Not to mention the moral ugliness that often confronts us - the ugliness of greed, hatred and selfishness. That reminds me of the old expression, "as ugly as sin". Sin, rebellion against the God of beauty has brought ugliness into our world.

So, how can we recapture true beauty? Not by conforming to the idealised images of physical perfection that we find in the fashion magazines. We can't all be supermodels. Even if we could, through the marvels of plastic surgery, that would not make us truly beautiful people. As the saying goes, that kind of beauty is only "skin deep". True beauty comes from knowing the God of beauty. If you want an example of a beautiful life, don't look at the latest Hollywood heartthrob. Consider Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I don't mean look at a picture of him, because we don't really know what he looked like. But think about the life he lived. Jesus shows us the beauty of love, grace and truth. In an act of unimaginable beauty, he laid down his life for his friends, dying on the Cross for us. Jesus embraced the ugliness of our sin so that by trusting in him, we might be forgiven and made whole. God raised Jesus from the dead. His body that was flogged, crucified and disfigured was gloriously transformed. In Jesus, true beauty is restored. Those who believe in him will be made like him. "May the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us" (Psalm 90:17).

You can listen again here, about 45 minutes into the show.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Information Overload

An edited version of my Morning Thought, for BBC Radio Wiltshire
The other day we were talking to some friends of ours about the olden days before wall-to-wall television. Younger listeners may not be able to remember this, but when I was growing up, programmes were not broadcast 24/7. There were gaps in the schedule. In between programmes, a test card was shown, depicting a girl playing noughts and crosses with an evil-looking clown doll. Our children were amazed at this. “You mean kids couldn’t watch Spongebob Squarepants whenever they wanted?”

We live in a time of information overload with facts, figures and stories constantly streaming into our homes. We have our daily newspapers, radio bulletins and 24 hour rolling news on the TV, not to mention the internet. Whatever you interests, you can now get information on tap: celebrity gossip, sports updates, political analysis, world news…the list goes on. It’s certainly good to be informed of what’s going on locally, nationally and internationally. But who can cope with this constant stream of information? It does my head in.

Very often we read and hear of bad news. Reports feature conflict, financial instability and global warming. Now, I’m a minister of the gospel, not a reporter, and this morning I have some good news for you. The very word “gospel” means good news.

Good news must be true. Factual accuracy is the basic criterion of any news story. I am a Christian not because my faith helps me get through life as a kind of crutch. I am a believer because I am convinced that the Christian message is true. God sent his Son Jesus Christ into our world to bring us back to him. Jesus died on the cross for our sin and was raised from the dead. The Bible gives us eyewitness accounts of these great events. Here is the gospel truth.

The best news stories change they way we think about the world. They may even prompt us to take action. Famously Bob Geldof was inspired to campaign against poverty after seeing Michel Buerk’s film on the Ethiopian famine. The Christian gospel is certainly life-changing. This message offers those who believe forgiveness, a fresh start in life and hope for the future. The lives of countless thousands of people have been transformed by the good news of Jesus Christ.

Some stories dominate the news agenda for a few days and then are quickly forgotten. But good news has lasting value. In a sense, the gospel of Jesus Christ is old news - around 2,000 years old. But it is still, fresh, relevant and up-to-date. It deals with some of the biggest issues that we could face as human beings: Does life have a purpose? How can we know God? How should we live? How can we face death itself? I believe the Christian message helps to answer such questions. That’s why I think the gospel is good news for everyone.
You can listen again here, about 45 minutes into the show.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

What are you waiting for?

An edited version of my Morning Thought, for BBC Radio Wiltshire
My mum used to tell me that “Good things come to those who wait.” Well, what are you waiting for? At this time of the morning [6.50am], you might be waiting for the kettle to boil for that first refreshing cup of tea. You could be waiting for a lift to work. If you are listening on one of those newfangled mobile devices, you might be outside, waiting for a bus. Maybe you’ve ordered something and you’re waiting for the postman to deliver the goods?

Perhaps you are waiting for something a bit more significant? Will you ever get to meet that special someone? Is "so and so" ever going to text you back? Will you get the job you’ve applied for? Will you win the Lottery? If like my sister, you’re an expectant mum, you’ll be waiting for the birth of your baby! High minded philosophical types might be waiting to find out the meaning of life. If you are waiting for the secret of eternal youth and beauty.....don’t hold your breath.

Sometimes we can wait and wait for something and when it turns up, we are disappointed. Once I ordered a few CD’s. They were supposed to have been delivered in three or four days, but they took three of four weeks. Every day I would eagerly anticipate arrival of the post. But time and time again, I was just greeted by junk mail and bills. At last they came. Yesss! However, most of them were damaged and had to be returned for replacement, which only meant more waiting. Ah well.

Right at the end of U2’s early album War is the track “40”, so called because the words are based on Psalm 40 in the Bible. It goes like this,
I waited patiently for the LORD;
And He inclined to me,
And heard my cry.
He also brought me up out of a horrible pit,
Out of the miry clay,
And set my feet upon a rock,
And established my steps.
[Psalm 40:1&2]
Those who wait on the Lord will find him a rock of stability in a fast-changing and uncertain world.
On Christ the solid rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand.
He’ll not disappoint you. So, hurry up and wait for what’s worth waiting for because,
those who wait on the LORD
Shall renew their strength;
They shall mount up with wings like eagles,
They shall run and not be weary,
They shall walk and not faint.
[Isaiah 40:31]
You can listen again here, about 45 minutes into the show.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Money, money, money

An edited version of my Morning Thought, for BBC Radio Wiltshire
This isn’t a subtle plea for Graham Seaman [show presenter] to play a certain Abba song. Please don’t. And no, I'm not proposing to devote today’s Morning Thought to giving listeners the benefit of my financial advice. If you want to know how best to invest your hard earned dosh, a Baptist minister probably isn't the man to consult. I can tell you all about the unsearchable riches of Christ, but just don't ask me for an opinion on stocks and shares. However, money does matter. Recent news bulletins have focused on the impact of global financial instability. The Prime Minister tells us that his first waking thought is how he can help hard working people weather the economic storm.

Listeners of a certain age might remember a group called the Beverly Sisters. They were a kind of 1960’s version of Girls Aloud. I’ve only heard of them because my mum liked them, honest. Anyway, they had a song called, "Money is the root of all evil". But that’s not quite right. It is an unavoidable fact that we all need money to get by in life. Without it we could not provide for our families. Apart from monetary gifts, charities would cease to function. Money builds schools and hospitals. We may use cash to buy gifts that express love for our nearest and dearest.

Money then can be the means of doing great good. The old song lyric was fact a misquotation of a verse in the Bible. What Scripture really says is, "the love of money is the root of all evil" (1 Timothy 6:10). Some people begin to love money. The pursuit of riches is the be all and end all of their lives. But that is not a wise way to live because greater wealth does not guarantee greater happiness. Also, we can't always rely on money. One of the Bible's many proverbs warns us, "Will you set your eyes on that which is not? For riches certainly make themselves wings; they fly away like an eagle toward heaven." [Proverbs 23:5]. Quite!

The Christian faith teaches us work hard to provide for ourselves, to be contented with what we have, and to trust God to supply our needs. Jesus said to his followers, “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. [Matthew 6:31-33]. If we look after God's concerns, he will look after ours.

A wealthy man died and someone asked, "How much did he leave?" The response was "Everything!" How true. The Bible reminds us that, "we brought nothing into the world and it is certain we can carry nothing out." [1 Timothy 6:7]. The only wealth that will last forever is treasure in heaven - eternal life in the Lord Jesus Christ. Isn’t it time you made a sound investment in your eternal future?

You can listen again here, about 45 minutes into the show.

Friday, April 18, 2008

BBC Radio Wiltshire 'Morning Thought'


Readers may be interested to know that I'm scheduled to do Morning Thought on BBC Radio Wiltshire at around 6.50am each morning from Monday 21st to Friday 25th April. Frequency 103.6, 104.3 & 103.5FM, or listen online. I'll posts the scripts on the blog day by day.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

By schisms rent assunder

It seems to me that Reformed evangelicalism is becoming increasingly fragmented. We have rightly emphasised the importance of separating from gospel-denying error. But have we attached the same value to church unity? Many in our constituency would probably agree with Martyn Lloyd-Jones' call for separation from error in the 1960's. But we seem to have forgotten that his main concern was not separation, but unity. Indeed, he began his famous 1966 address [see here & here] by saying, "My subject is church unity". In his message he dealt with the sin of schism, which he defined like this, "It is division among people who are agreed about the essentials and the centralities, but who separate over secondary and less important matters." (Both quotes from Knowing the Times, Banner of Truth Trust, 1989, p. 246 & 253).
We are living in the wake of the recovery of Reformed doctrine in the 1960's and 70's. We should thank God that many churches now hold to the doctrines of sovereign grace. Those in the Reformed movement have a great common heritage, but cracks are appearing in the edifice of evangelical Calvinism in the UK. Partly lines are being defined more sharply. For example, some traditionalists with their love for the AV and older hymns have virtually equated their traditions with faithfulness to the gospel. Meanwhile progressives may have been too ready to embrace change for change's sake, needlessly alienating their more conservative brethren. Local fellowships are dividing over such matters, with break-off groups weakening the witness of the churches.
What are we to do about this?
1. We need to distinguish between essential gospel truth and secondary issues
Many of the points of dispute outlined above divide believers who are as one on gospel basics. Such friends may even be agreed on Reformed theology. Does it specify in any of the great Reformed Confessions which Bible translation or hymn book we should use? Is it right to divide churches on matters are not even covered by Reformed confessional theology? Where there are honest disagreements over matters like church government and Baptism, such issues should not be allowed to drive a wedge between churches. Our unity is based on the gospel not on uniformity in secondary matters. Brian Edwards makes a helpful distinction between "essential truth" that is vital for salvation, "significant truth" covering matters like church government and baptism and "phantom truth". He defines "phantom truth" like this,
"Those many things that are so very important to me and for which I can so easily make a big issue, but in reality they are simply part of my culture, tradition or personal preference and have little or nothing to do with the Bible. Evangelical churches normally argue and divide over phantom truths (which are not really truths at all) and rarely over vital or even significant truths. In other words, we make a big issue about issues in reverse order to their true significance." (See this interview with Brian Edwards).
I think that there is a lot of sense in those words.
2. We need to cherish Christian liberty
As children of the Reformation, we admire our forefathers who stood for the liberty of the gospel in the face of the spiritual tyranny of Roman Catholicism. We cheer the Puritans for refusing to submit to the Anglican Act of Uniformity. Should not we of all people recognise that other believers are free to come to different conclusions to ourselves about adiaphora or things indifferent? Take the increasingly contentious issue of education. As far as I'm concerned it is up to Christian parents to decide how best to educate their children. Ours attend State schools. But if other parents decide to send their children to a fee paying Christian school or to home school, that's up to them. It is wrong to suggest that there is only one principled option for Christian families. What right to we have to judge our fellow Christian "worldly" for singing contemporary hymns, drinking alcohol in moderation and such like? No one seems to know who said it first, but there is wisdom in the old dictum, "In things essential, unity; in doubtful, liberty; in all things, charity."
3. We need to cultivate spiritual maturity
Paul pinpointed spiritual immaturity as a factor in the fractious Corinthian church,
"And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal?" (1 Corinthians 3:1).
The fractiousness of the Reformed scene does not say a lot for our spiritual maturity. We need to work on cultivating the mind of Christ so that we esteem others as better than ourselves (Philippians 2). Yet we are often immature and censorious. Some are sadly too quick to leave churches when they don't get their way rather than staying to work things through. But does not love cover a multitude of sins? One of the Proverbs tells us, "The discretion of a man makes him slow to anger, And his glory is to overlook a transgression." (19:11). No church is perfect and it takes grace, wisdom, patience and faithfulness to be involved in any fellowship for the long haul. The same principles apply when it comes to expressing unity between gospel churches.
I rejoice that Evangelical and Reformed unity, although fragile, still does exist in the UK. It finds expression in various Minister's conferences and at the grassroots level. It is great that many churches are working harmoniously together for the spread of the gospel. But we dare not ignore the cracks.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Tom Wright in the New Statesman

In an issue dedicated to Belief is Back, The New Statesman features a profile of Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham under the heading, The dead will be raised! . Wright discusses the place of faith in public life, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill and the state of Anglican evangelicalism. As might be expected, he boldly states his belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus and spells out the implications of this truth for politics, philosophy, the arts and the environment.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Spurgeon on why pastors should be theologians

In his Lectures to my students, recently reprinted by the Banner of Truth Trust, Spurgeon insists,
"Brethren, if you are not theologians you are in your pastorates just nothing at all. You may be fine rhetoricians, and be rich in polished sentences, but without the knowledge of the gospel, and aptness to teach it, you are but a sounding brass and tinkling cymbal." (p. 78)
Pastors should strive to be pastor-theologians. Ministerial training should not simply give men Bible handling skills. Ministers of the Gospel must learn to think theologically so that they can teach the people of God the whole counsel of God. The ability to do this is best cultivated by careful and prayerful reflection on Scripture in conversation with the great theologians of past and present. Pastors will profit from reading the classics like Augustine's Confessions, Calvin's Institutes and the great Puritan works. But we also need to keep abreast of newer works like The Holy Trinity by Robert Letham (P&R) and The Drama of Doctrine by Kevin Vanhoozer. He who walks with the wise will (hopefully!) become wise.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Perichoresis in the Gospel According to John

I'm due to preach this Sunday on John 14:7-14. In that remarkable passage, Jesus tells Philip that to see him is to see the Father because he is in the Father and the Father in him. Jesus also explained that he performed sign-miracles because the Father who dwelt in him did the works. Here we are given a remarkable insight into the relations between the Father and Son in the Trinity. Theologians speak of this as the co-inherence of the persons of the Trinity or perichoresis. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit each occupy the same divine space. Each shares the same eternal being. The Father dwells in the Son and the Son dwells in the Father. Father and Son dwell in the Spirit, who in turn indwells the Father and the Son. John of Damascus reflects on this with great precision and care,
"The subsistences dwell and are established firmly in one another. For they are inseparable and cannot part from one another, but keep to their separate courses within one another, without coalescing or mingling, but cleaving to each other. For the Son is in the Father and the Spirit: and the Spirit in the Father and the Son: and the Father in the Son and the Spirit, but there is no coalescence or commingling or confusion. And there is one and the same motion: for there is one impulse and one motion of the three subsistences, which is not to be observed in any created nature." (An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith Book I, Chapter 14. Properties of the divine nature (see full text here).
The biblical revelation of the co-inherence of Father, Son and Holy Spirit gives us an window into the intimate and loving communion that exists between the persons of the Trinity. Each is not merely with the other, each is in the other. The life of each one is bound up in the life of the others. Donald Macloed suggests that the one flesh union of husband and wife in marriage, which itself reflects the union between Christ and the church gives us small hint into the meaning of perichoresis. But he knows that human analogies and even the analogy of Christ and the church can only take us so far.
"The appropriateness of the marriage metaphor stems from the fact that marriage is a real confluence of two distinct lives; and that, at its most intense moments, it point to a deep human striving towards a degree of appropriation, penetration and mutuality which remains unattainable and yet always beckons. In the divine existence, there are neither physical nor mental barriers to complete co-inherence. The mutual understanding is complete; the experience of love is complete; the sharing is of common purpose is complete; the co-operative involvement in creation and redemption is complete." (The Person of Christ, IVP, 1998, p. 141 & 142).
Such is depth of the divine perichoresis that the external acts of the Trinity are undivided. Each shares in the work of the other, although each makes a distinctive contribution to the divine acts. That is why Jesus said that the Father who dwelt in him did the miraculous works. On one level, they were the acts of the Son as he turned water into wine, caused the lame to walk, opened the eyes of the blind and raised Lazarus from the dead. But on another level, the Father who indwelt the Son was working in and through him. We should not overlook the role of the Spirit. According to Luke 4:18ff (following Isaiah 61:1), Jesus was anointed by the Spirit to "open the eyes of the blind" and so on. In each of Jesus' works, the Father and Spirit were also active.
In terms of the work of redemption, the Father gave up his Son to suffering of the cross. The Son also gave himself for us when he offered himself to God by the eternal Spirit. That is why there was no division in the Trinity when the Father forsook the Son at Golgotha. Father and Son remained one in being, love and purpose even as it pleased the Father to bruise his Son and put him to grief for our sins. The mystery of divine perichoresis remained intact. Maybe we could even say that the perichoretic union was never more completely expressed than when God was in Christ reconcling the world to himself. The Son went to the cross that the world might know that he loved the Father (John 14:31). The Father loved the Son becasue he laid down his life for us (John 10:17).
Because of their co-inherence, to know one person of the Trinity is to know the others as well. The Father is the Father of the Son and cannot be known apart from him. The Son comes to us as one sent by the Father. The Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and the Son, who brings us into fellowship with God in Christ. The one God comes to us in his threeness and the three persons are disclosed as the one God. That is why Jesus said to Philip, "He who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'?" (John 14:9). This brings us to the words of Gregory of Nazianzus, that so greatly delighed John Calvin,
"No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the Splendour of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Them than I am carried back to the One. When I think of any One of the Three I think of Him as the Whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking of escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of That One so as to attribute a greater greatness to the Rest. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the Undivided Light." Orations 40.41 (here).
Jesus said, "believe the works, that you may know and believe that the Father is in me, and I in him." (John 10:38).
Almighty God, to Thee
Be endless honours done,
The undivided Three,
And the mysterious One:
Where reason fails, with all her powers,
There faith prevails, and love adores.
(Isaac Watts, 1674-1748)

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Interesting stuff


Here's are some things that have caught my eye (or ear as the case may be) in the last few days,

Blogging:

Paul Helm offers a "modest Calvinfest" for his April blogs. Check out John Calvin - What's the Big Idea? The Prof should know having written the excellent John Calvin's Ideas (see my review).

Gary Brady offers his thoughts on the Banner of Truth Conference.

Music:

I'm listening to Welsh diva Duffy's Rockferry. Great voice and some nice retro soul numbers with a modern edge. Radiohead recently performed a concert at the BBC's Radio Theatre. Check it out here.

Reading:

Christanity's Dangerous Idea by Alister McGrath, SPCK, 2007. Only 6 chapters in so far. But a very illuminating and entertaining read. Sample:

"It is easy to find much to criticise among the senior clergy of that age [pre-Reformation], whose appointment often rested on the influence of family, fortune and power rather than any merit on their own part. In 1451, Duke Amadeus VIII of Savoy secured the appointment of his son to the senior position of bishop of the city of Geneva, later to be noted for its association with John Calvin. The appointment was not a great success. But what can you expect from an eight-year old?" (p. 23).

I've also been given Banner's handsome new reprint of Surgeon's Lectures to my students to review for the Protestant Truth Magazine. A May deadline is looming and the book is over 800 pages long. It's a difficult job, but someone's got to do it.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Banner 08 Report

Joel Beeke, Gwynn Williams, John Aaron, Martin Holdt, Stuart Olyott & Ian Hamilton
I really enjoyed this year's Banner Ministers' Conference. It was a refreshing time of ministry and fellowship. There was a healthy emphasis on the practicalities of the pastoral-preaching ministry. Gwynn Williams' opening sermon on 1 Thessalonians 1 focused on the need for Spirit empowered preaching. Only such preaching will produce lives characterised by faith, hope and love. In his first message, Joel Beeke urged us to be "Christ preachers" - men devoted to preaching Jesus Christ and him crucified. He sought to exemplify this Christocentric focus in his other addresses on Preaching Christ's Forsakenness from Matthew 27:46 and Preaching Christs Offices from Luke 22:31-32. As we have come to expect from Beeke, his preaching was marked by a good combination of careful exegesis, sound theological reflection and warm experiential piety.
Stuart Olyott gave attention to pastoral issues. In his own unique style he faced us with the challenges of Shepherding all our People and Raising up leadership in the Local Church. How we often fail on both counts. In the first of his addresses, Stuart directed us to the clear biblical teaching in Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:2. He then sought to give some very helpful practical advice on how best to pastor all the people in our congregations. Right at the outset he stressed that our initial response to his message should be heartfelt repentance, not simply a determination to do better. In the second talk, the preacher based his thoughts on 2 Timothy 2 and urged us to be involved in training up the next generation of Christian leaders. Stuart also gave the Conference's closing sermon. He preached on 1 John 1, stressing the importance of honest confession of sin and that we need freshly cleansed in the blood of Christ. That is message from God that we need to hear.
Ian Hamilton spoke on The Minister's Calling, based on Romans 11:33-36. Our preaching must be an expression of breathless wonder at God's amazing grace in Christ. Such proclamation will marked by grace-constrained humility that will lead to a note of exultant adoration of the God of the gospel. In a second address on The Minister's Character, from Isaiah 42, we were reminded that our ministry is the expression of our Christian lives. Preachers therefore need to be holy men of God. As Robert Murray M'Cheyne once said, "It is not great talents that God is likely to bless, but great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is a terrible weapon in the hand of God."
John Aaron spoke on 'Shall a Nation Be Born at Once'? Lessons from the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists. Aaron, a physics teacher by trade has translated the mighty 2 volume, 1600 page Tadau Methodistiaid [The Methodist Fathers] for the Trust. The work is due for publication in the summer. Delegates could pre-order the set for the discounted price of £24. How could I refuse? In a rather lengthy paper, Aaron piled quote upon quote to give us an insight into Wales' revival years from 1735 to 1905. During that period there was a remarkable growth in genuine biblical Christianity. In 1730, there were only seventy Nonconformist churches in Wales. By 1851, the number had gown to 2,088. By the middle of the 19th Century, over 50% of the population of Wales could be found worshipping in evangelical churches on the Lord's Day. But there was more to this presentation than statistics. Aaron gave us a glimpse of the rich, God-centred and thoroughly trinitatian piety of the Calvinistic Methodists. Sadly his account also reflected the rapid decline of vital godliness in Land of my Fathers. Now less than 2% of the people profess evangelical Christianity. "Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?"
Tuesday and Wednesday mornings featured short but valuable slots on unction in preaching and lessons from Spurgeon. There were also a couple of panel discussions dealing with theological issues and the practicalities of life in the ministry. The practical emphasis of the conference was certainly challenging and helpful. But Banner usually features at least some mind stretching theological teaching that opens up whole new vistas of truth. That kind of thing was perhaps lacking this year. Yes, we need to be good pastors, but to do that we need to be pastor-theologians.
These events are not simply about the items on the programme. They are opportunities to renew fellowship with old friends and to meet other ministers from the UK and overseas. The food provided by Leicester University was up to the usual high standard. Which is more than can be said for my football skills, as I helped both sides I played for to loose. I hosted the gathering of "The Taffia", a fringe meeting of mostly Welsh ministers. My room was "G8", an appropriate venue for our annual summit. Geoff Thomas asked us in turn to say a word or two about our fathers. This was a painful experience for some, with stories of unbelief and death, but an opportunity for others to testify to the godly example of their dads.
It was good to meet up with a some fellow bloggers notably, Gary Brady, Gary Benfold, Martin Downes and Alan Davey. Stephen Holland and I manned a display for the Protestant Truth Society. I didn't buy many books this year, just The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions, compiled by Arthur Bennett, Calvin and the Calvinists by Paul Helm and Stuart Olyott's booklet, Reading the Bible and Praying in Public. The last title is very useful. Among other things, Olyott suggests maintaining eye contact during Bible reading. This helps to ensure that the minister captures the attention of the whole congregation. To do this, hold the Bible in your hand and look at the people every now and again during the reading. I made a point of watching Stuart put this into practice as he read the Scriptures during the Conference. I was so impressed that I tried it out on Sunday. Members of the congregation noticed this and some commented on it after the service. One wondered if my eyesight was failing as I held my Bible aloft for the reading, rather than laid it on the lectern. Another asked if I was showing off my new shiny black leather Bible with its bright gilt edged pages. Ah well. At least it grabbed their attention in some way.
Dates for Banner 2009: 27-30 April. Main Speakers: Sinclair Ferguson, Derek Thomas & Garry Williams. Possible Big Theme: 400th anniversary of the death of a certain John Calvin? CD's of this year's ministry, including an all-in-one MP3 CD will be available soon from the Banner of Truth Trust. Stuart Olyott's addresses especially recommended.