Thursday, February 19, 2009

Blogging in the name of the Lord: Iain D. Campbell

This is the sixth in a series of interviews with Christian bloggers. In the hot seat today is...

Iain D. Campbell

GD: Hello Iain Campbell and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.

IC: I am a pastor in the Free Church of Scotland, currently serving a congregation in the Isle of Lewis, which is part of the chain of islands known as the Outer Hebrides or Western Isles, off the northwest mainland of Scotland. I grew up in Stornoway, the main town on Lewis, studied at the University of Glasgow and the Free Church College, Edinburgh, married my school girlfriend, Anne, a teacher of pupils with severe and complex needs. We have three grown up children, Iain, working in Lewis, Stephen, a student in Glasgow, and Emily, just about to leave school and study in Glasgow. When I finished College in 1988 I pastured a congregation on the Isle of Skye for seven years, and came back to my native island in 1995.

GD: Your blog is called "Creideamh", meaning?

IC: ‘Creideamh’ (pronounced kray-jif) is the Gaelic for ‘faith’. I speak Gaelic and English, and preach in both languages every week. The blog is at http://www.creideamh.blogspot.com/.

GD: What made you start blogging?

IC: It was something I told myself I would never do. I thought there could be nothing more narcissistic than publicising one’s own opinions. However, I took a different view on it when I realised that it was a useful outlet for some material that I was writing. I had started writing a weekly column for our local island newspaper, the Stornoway Gazette. Someone taught me that if something is worth doing once, it is worth doing twice, so the blog became a forum for posting some of these columns online, and the blog has evolved – as most do – into a pastiche of reflections on things sacred and secular.

GD: What are the strengths and weaknesses of blogging as a medium for reflection on ministry and theology?

IC: As Carl Trueman says, everyone has a right to give one’s opinions, but not everyone has the right to be heard. I think that a lot of blogging IS rather narcissistic, but it is good to know what people are thinking and what is going on throughout the church. I find blogs especially useful for keeping abreast of the latest publications, and I like people blogging on conferences which I am unable to attend, for example. The greatest weakness is the lack of accountability. We just throw our opinions into the electronic market place of ideas, and the boundaries of orthodoxy just keep shifting, if they don’t get eroded altogether.

GD: Describe your call to the Christian ministry.

IC: One of the main influences on my young life was my ministerial grandfather, who ministered faithfully in two small rural parishes for the duration of his ministry. I think God stirred within me when I was very young a desire to be like him, both as a Christian and a minister. By the time I came to leave school, that desire had become an irresistible conviction, confirmed both my own reading of the Word, and by two sermons I heard at the time, one on Peter’s call to be a fisher of men (by one of my predecessors in the congregation I now serve) and another on the labourers required for the harvest. I applied for the ministry before I finished school.

GD: Where did you train for the ministry and what did you find most helpful about your studies?

IC: One of the advantages of applying for the ministry before beginning as an undergraduate was that the Church had a say in the subjects I studied, so I spent four years at Glasgow University studying Greek and Hebrew, and then three years at the Free Church College, where all our candidates for the ministry do their theological training. Although we are a small denomination, we have been able to maintain a theological College; the advantage of that system is that the theological training itself is confessional and Church-based. It was extremely helpful to enter College with a good grounding in the biblical languages; that freed me up to concentrate on theological subjects which really interested me. I loved the exposure to Christian authors past and present which my theological training gave me, and the one thing I miss most about living on a lump of peat in the Atlantic is that there is no good academic and theological library to hand.

GD: Who has had the most influence on your theological development?

IC: Wow. Where do I start? Palmer Robertson helped to crystallise my views on covenant theology as an architectonic principle of biblical hermeneutics, Jonathan Edwards opened my eyes to the theological basis for Christian experience, Herman Bavinck taught me the proper scientific method of doing theology, John Owen underlined the importance of thoroughness in reflecting on Scripture, Donald Macleod and John Murray taught me that theology is grounded in exegesis – I owe a great debt to these and many others, all of whom, in different ways, have shaped my thinking.

GD: Who taught you most of what it means to preach the Word of God?

IC: The late Rev Murdo Alex Macleod came to Stornoway Free Church in 1984. He was an outstanding preacher, and modelled faithful biblical preaching with the right blend of exegesis, application, oratory and passion. Good preaching needs all four, and to hear Murdo Alex was to hear good preaching. I don’t know if I deliberately modelled myself on him, but subconsciously perhaps knew that that was the kind of preaching I wanted to deliver.

GD: What keeps you going in the ministry?

IC: The encouragement of my wife and family, the prayers of my congregation, and the assurance that my work is not in vain in the Lord.

GD: You wrote on your blog of Isle of Lewis, "as far as evangelical Calvinism is concerned, the particular lump of peat on which we live has been a theatre in the past for some remarkable works of God." Like Wales the island has been touched by revival. How do you view the phenomenon of revival in relation to the teaching of Scripture?

IC: I view revival as a more-than-ordinary work of the Holy Spirit. That is to say, I believe the Holy Spirit works ordinarily through the means of grace, through prayer, private and corporate, through the preaching of the Word, through the fellowship of God’s people, and through the sacraments. The giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost led to Christ being exalted in the proclamation of the Gospel, and bore the fruit of believers continuing in the apostles’ fellowship, breaking of bread and prayers, as they witnessed for Christ in a fallen world. I believe that these are still the marks of Holy Spirit ministry, and I expect these evidences of the Spirit’s presence in our congregation week by week, enabling Christians to mature and grow, and drawing sinners to follow Christ.

Nevertheless, there have been times when the Spirit has worked in ways that were manifestly out of the ordinary, where an unusual number of people were converted on single occasions, for example, or where the presence of God was experienced in a remarkable way that led to renewed consecration and commitment to Christ. For example, in the last couple of years we saw an unusual number of young schoolchildren converted – there was a discernible work of the Spirit that began unexpectedly and drew to a close. That was a reviving of the Lord’s work among us, and was a shadow of some historical incidences of revival.

I also like to point out that you cannot revive what is dead – you can only revive what is living. Revival is not a matter of many converts; it is a matter of deeper love to Christ, and a deeper concern to follow him on the part of his people.

GD: Wise words. If time travel were possible, which figure from post-biblical church history would you like to meet and what would you say to him/her?

IC: I would love to meet John Macdonald of Ferintosh. He lived from 1779-1847 (I have written on him on our church website at http://www.backfreechurch.co.uk/), and was one of the great evangelists of the Highlands and Islands. I would love to have attended his first communion in Ferintosh when, in spite of having recently been widowed, he preached in the open air on the words ‘I will betroth you to myself forever’ with such power and effect that, as his biographer John Kennedy says, ‘the widower was lost in the spouse’. I would discuss some of his Gaelic religious poetry with him, and ask him what he thought of New Covenant Theology.

GD: This year marks the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth. Can you give three good reasons why we should read the Institutes?

IC:
(1) to give us a thorough grounding in the teaching of the Bible
(2) to humble us before the majesty of God, and
(3) to make us better preachers.

GD: There has been a recovery of Reformed theology both in the USA and the UK over the last 50 years or so. What can be done to maintain and advance the Calvinistic cause in the 21st century?

IC: Let’s get back to our creeds, confessions and catechisms. Let’s hold them up as models of theology which are not at variance with Scripture, and which ought not to be thrown out just because they are old.
GD: You expressed deep concern over Andrew McGowan's The Divine Spiration of Scripture. We have also seen the controversy over Peter Enns' views in the States. Why do you think that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is being questioned by some within the Reformed camp at the moment?

IC: Without imputing these reasons to either of the scholars you mention, I think that Reformed scholars have tried to accommodate too much in the interests of academic respectability; I also think there has been a renaissance of interest in Karl Barth, and the domesticating of some Barthian elements is evident in the discussions on inerrancy. I think Enns’ use of the incarnation as a model for reading Scripture doesn’t work – because the incarnation was a unique event not to be taken as an analogy for anything – or proves too much, since the humanness of Christ was itself inerrant. In fact, Enns’ development of the human element of Scripture is little more than old liberalism dressed up. McGowan’s insistence on jettisoning the idea of inerrancy is puzzling for what he does not say: what is to be gained by dropping a word designed to emphasise that there is no error in the Bible? In both cases we have seen Reformed theology take a step too far in an unhelpful direction.

GD: Yes, I agree [see here for my paper on McGowan and inerrancy]. What did you speak on at the recent Affinity Conference, "The End of the Law"? And what did you make of the Conference as a whole?

IC: My paper was on the threefold division of the law, and defended the Westminster Confession’s position that the moral law of the Decalogue is absolute and binding on the believer as a rule of life, while the ceremonial laws are abrogated and the civil requirements modified to the extent of their ‘general equity’ or ‘universalisableness’ (? Is that even a word [Not one that I've come across!]). The New Covenant theologians came out fighting at that point, and the role of the Sabbath in the new covenant kept coming up as a test case on whether the ten commandments were still binding.

My view is disarmingly simple. I see the moral law of the ten commandments as unique, and given in a unique manner. Israel’s ceremonies were a particular application of these moral requirements in her religious life, anticipating the final ceremony in Christ. Her civil requirements were a particular instantiation of the Decalogue within the theocracy. The new covenant emphasised an internalisation of these moral commandments on hearts that long to keep them.

The conference made me realise the appeal of New Covenant Theology as something that is seen as more ‘Christian’, more ‘Christ-focussed’, more ‘biblical’. But the Westminster Confession solidly emphasises that its position on the law accords and complies with the gospel, and, by the work of the Spirit, shapes us into Christlikeness. To me the gospel is the good news of the death of Christ for law-breakers, by which His law-keeping is the ground of my acceptance with God. He is able to redeem me from the bondage of my law-breaking into the freedom of law-keeping. Without the abiding validity of the moral law I have no way of defining sin or righteousness. The danger I see in New Covenant Theology is that it opens the door to a new antinomianism – and that is not a route I wish to go down. I AM a new covenant theologian, and I want to say with both David and Paul ‘I delight in the law of God’.

GD: Care to name your top three/songs or pieces of music? No bagpipes please. This is a civilised blog.

IC: OK I got a bit carried away in answering that last question. No bagpipes? Some rules I don’t delight in.

(1) Three priests from Ireland singing Hacia Belen, on the album ‘The Priests’
(2) Mary Ann Kennedy and Na Seoid singing ‘Sios dhan Abhainn’ – this is a Gaelic, a cappella version of the song ‘Down to the River’ which is sung in the movie ‘Brother, Where Art Thou?’
(3) David Nevue playing ‘Come thou Fount of every blessing’ on the compilation of piano solos entitled ‘Adoration’.
GD: Reformed Presbyterians lay great emphasis on the Westminster Standards and often refer to the WCF in response to contemporary theological concerns. Shouldn't our primary appeal be to the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture? How do you view the critical relationship between the Bible and the Church's Confessions of Faith?

IC: Great question. I think the relationship is like a father and mother – drawing on Calvin's analogy that if God is our Father (speaking to us in the Bible), the church is our Mother (speaking to us through her confessions). Confessions and creeds (on which I've recently been blogging) are statements of consensus views on theological topics, and help to identify church positions. But they are always subservient to the final authority of the Bible. So mum can always be overruled by dad because he is the head of the home!

I think Scott Clark's recent book Recovering the Reformed Confession demolishes a lot of the myths around the 'I don't want Confessions, I just want the Bible' idea. For instance, he says, very astutely, 'It is one thing to have a high view of Scripture. It is another thing, however, to have a theology, piety and practice which are actually biblical' (p198). He also reminds us that 'Christian theology must be driven by the Scriptures, but no one reads the Scriptures without a theology' (p201).

The consensus of the church, expressed in dogmatic form, is not on the same level as Scripture, but it does contextualise our reading of the Bible for us, and avoids the pitfalls of wooden fundamentalism. There is no dissonance, therefore, between appealing to God's Word and approaching it with a commitment to a confession, like Westminster, which we find to be in agreement with that word. It's like listening to dad's voice while being curled up in mum's lap.

We never 'do' our theology in a vacuum, and even the most strident anti-confessionalists express their views on the teaching of Scripture in their own words, and make creedal statements. It is impossible to have theological discourse without listening to the voice of the church in her creeds and confessions; and the merit of the Westminster Confession, for example, is its insistence at the outset that the only judge by which controversies, opinions and doctrines are to be examined 'can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the scripture'. I think my mission now is to demolish the myth that creedal Christianity is somehow at variance with Bible study!

GD: That'll be some mission. What is the biggest problem facing Evangelicalism and how should we respond?

IC: I think our single greatest crisis is a crisis in preaching. Where are the great preachers of the twenty first century? Why have we turned sermons into gimmicky crowd-ticklers that don’t work unless they are full of jokes? Why have we concentrated on trying to make the church attractive to the world? Why do we think we are not preaching unless we are working through a series? Why do we give our sermons titles? Where is the passion in our pulpits? And where is the prayer in our churches for gifted men with fire in their bones to herald forth the word of life?

GD: Indeed! Now, what is the most important theological book that you have read in the last twelve months? It is a must read because...

IC: Can I have two? [Oh, I suppose so.]

The first is Covenant, Justification and Pastoral Ministry, edited by R. Scott Clark for the faculty of Westminster Seminary California. I plug this book everywhere. It is a call to return to a solid, covenantal basis for theology, sets the current crises over justification in context, and encourages preaching which is Scripturally grounded and applicable to our hearers.

The second is Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the glory of penal substitution, by Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey and Andrew Sach. It too is a clarion call to have the cross at the centre of our theology and proclamation, coupled with a warning that if we do not understand biblically what took place on the cross, our faith will be impoverished. Jesus took our place, was punished by God for us, and saves us only by being cursed at Calvary. It is one of the most important books on the atonement to have appeared in recent times.

GD: I haven't seen your first suggestion, but I certainly endorse your second choice. [See my review]. Which blogs do you enjoy reading and why?

IC: I’ve discovered widgets, so you can drop by my own blog to see which blogs I read regularly. There are men out there – Al Mohler, Mark Dever, Martin Downes, Gary Brady, Justin Taylor, and numerous others – whose insights, critiques and comments are worth turning to again and again. Although my contribution to http://www.reformation21.org/ is modest compared to some of my fellow-bloggers there, it is one site to which I turn every day – a blog worth the paper it’s not written on.
GD: Thanks for dropping by Iain. Great talking to you, och aye!

2 comments:

thebreadline said...

Great interview -- glad to have you both at work in the kingdom! PS: what's with the anti-bagpipe thing?? I'd like to know what pipers/bands he enjoys! (I will be watching for a follow-up)

Exiled Preacher said...

Sorry Mr Breadline, but as I said this is a civilised blog, so you won't find any bagpipes here. Not now, not in response to a follow-up question, not ever.