Friday, February 27, 2009

An interview with Phil Arthur

This interview with Phil Arthur was originally for the Men for Ministry blog. But I, well he thought that it might be of interest to readers of Exiled Preacher. For good measure I asked him a few supplimentary questions.
Key: "MM" = Men for Ministry, "PA" = Phil Arthur, and "GD" = yours truly.

MM: Could you tell us a little about your family background?

PA: I was brought up in the North East of England in the heartland of the Durham coalfield. I was born in 1952 in Sunderland, which was then proud to call itself the biggest ship-building town in the world. There were still something like half a dozen working shipyards along the banks of the River Wear at that time. I was only a few months old however when my parents moved a few miles South to my father’s birth-place, a small colliery town known as Seaham Harbour. He spent most of his working life at the Vane Tempest colliery. Like the other Seaham pits, this had, before nationalisation, belonged to the Londonderry Coal Company. Ulster folk may not know this, but Durham coal made the fortunes of successive Marquesses of Londonderry. There I stayed until my parents moved to Sunderland when I was ready to start my schooling, perhaps sensing that the educational opportunities for the first-born son would be greater in the large port. It turned out to be a wise decision on their part as in due course, although like most working class boys, I grew up on a council estate, I went to a good school and was able to pass the dreaded “eleven plus” and finally went to Bede Grammar School for Boys, named after our regional saint.

I could not say that I had a Christian upbringing. Although Mam and Dad attended at Brethren Meeting at the time of the wedding and for some months thereafter, the move to Sunderland broke the pattern of their church attendance. I was too young to be fully aware of such things at the time, but their second son, my brother Stephen, was born with severe brain damage and I think this stark providence and the trials that came with it also proved difficult for them. I can recall a moral and decent upbringing. My father was hard-working, decent and courageous and would rather have starved than stolen. He was pathologically incapable of telling a lie. In his eyes, it was something that Englishmen just did not do. He was also steeped in the camaraderie of his mining heritage, loved the dialect of his boyhood and was a great Dad. I was sometimes sent to Sunday School at a local Mission Hall and like English kids of my generation benefitted from the fact that school RE syllabuses actually taught us huge swathes of both Old and New Testaments. Nevertheless, I did not attend an actual Church service of any description until I was eleven years old.

MM: When and how Ddid you come to faith in Christ?

PA: At age eleven, as the only boy at the bus stop in our council estate waiting for the bus that would take me to grammar school each week day, the uniform made me mighty conspicuous. Was that why Mam and Dad got a council house exchange to an area nearer the town centre? I’ve often wondered. In short order I made new friends and got involved in both the Scout Troop and the choir at the local Parish Church. I enjoyed Scouting immensely. As a badly co-ordinated youngster who did not have good ball skills growing up in one of England’s football hotbeds it was a relief to find things that I could enjoy and outdoor sports became a passion. Singing as a boy soprano at Matins and Evensong every Sunday for roughly three years also meant that Thomas Cranmer’s superb prose in the Book of Common Prayer was so firmly embedded in my head that it has not entirely left me to this day, though nowadays I am just about the least Anglican Englishman you could find. The church in question was the kind that was called “Low Church”, Protestant without really being Evangelical. I remember the Vicar once getting tearful as he preached on the Saviour’s sufferings in Isaiah 53 but to be honest, I was bemused by this display of emotion.

A number of things came together when I was fourteen. One was that my voice broke. Aside from the loss of pocket money (nine shillings a quarter and half a crown for every wedding) there was not the same incentive to show up at the parish church apart from the monthly church parade for the Scout Troop. Secondly however, concerned at my parents non-attendance, old friends from their Brethren days had contacted an Evangelical Church in the town with a fine history, a certain Bethesda Free Church. I came home from Scouts one night to find one of the Elders paying a call on Mam and Dad and was persuaded to start attending the Saturday night youth club, a boisterous affair where they took over a local school and had the use of their badminton courts, gym, table tennis facilities followed by refreshments and an epilogue. It was not long before my mother and I were both attending the Sunday evening gospel service. In those days, the mid ‘60’s, this was often packed. To hear 300 voices sing “All hail the power of Jesu’s name” to “Diadem” was enough to make the hair stand on the back of your neck. After six months or so, as I also became steadily integrated into the youth group and incidentally felt increasingly convicted of sin under the preaching of the then pastor, Rev. David T. Jones, I “went forward” one evening when a visiting preacher, Jim Osman, from a nearby former mining community called Shiney Row was the preacher.

Loads of us “went forward” in those days. I look back with mixed feelings on the fact that I did so then (it was in February 1966). Sadly, I think that it confuses two great and linked inward realities, namely “repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21) with an outward act that was originally conceived of on the American frontier in the early 19th century and which became fashionable in Britain from the mid 19th century onwards. Is everyone who is “decisioned” actually converted? In retrospect, I think that I probably was but equally, I think that I had problems to do with assurance of salvation for some time because my focus was all on what I had done that night in 1966 instead of on what Christ had done for me at Calvary and it was only with the passage of some years that my faith became secure and settled. Reading Lloyd-Jones volume on Romans 5 titled “Assurance” was itself an enormous help to me in that area.

As I look back on evangelical life in the 1960’s, I recall two tendencies that troubled me at the time, though as a teenager I was not well placed to react to them. The first was a kind of nervous anti-intellectualism, a sort of defiant “know-nothingism”. I think on reflection that this stemmed from the loss of confidence that ensued within the Evangelical movement when Darwinism first emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century. It impinged on me, a bright grammar school boy, admittedly from a decidedly blue collar background, as a mentality that was inherently distrustful of the idea of sending young people to college, a course of action that was bound to unravel their faith. I can remember the old timers misapplying scripture, “Philip son, the world by wisdom knew not God”. Secondly, these were the early days of charismatic renewal. Many of my contemporaries bought into the idea that you could only live a power packed life, a life that would count for God, if you experienced the second blessing and were endowed with the usual package of gifts, tongues, prophecies and the like. I remember being distinctly unsure of this agenda without quite knowing why. In the autumn of 1970 I went up to Queens’ College at Cambridge to read History and opted to read early modern History simply because, as I thought, it would introduce me to the period immediately before the modern History I had studied at A Level. Looking back, I see the hand of God in all this as it gave me three years prolonged exposure to the Reformation. Among other things it gave me heroes that I could respect. Luther and Calvin and others knew what an intellect was for: it was to be used to the utmost for the glory of God. It was also clear that the Christian leaders of the sixteenth century knew nothing of the second blessing theology that was being urged on the churches in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s yet their lives had counted for God. I found that an enormous relief!

MM: When did you feel the call into full-time service?

PA: By the late 1970’s and newly married (to Barbara in 1976) I was youth leader in a newly planted Reformed Baptist Church, Sunderland Free Church. I had just begun to cut my teeth as a preacher, filling in when the pastor was away on holiday and accepting occasional engagements in small local churches, mostly Independent Methodist Churches dotted around the colliery communities in the North East. I was also teaching history in a comprehensive school in a new town called Peterlee only a few miles south of Sunderland. I can honestly say that I loved my teaching career. I was working in a subject area that I had a natural affinity for and still do and was teaching youngsters from the Durham coalfield. I was among my own kind and was glad to be so. At the same time, little by little, I found that my services as an occasional preacher were in increasing demand and friends sometimes expressed the thought that I ought to be “in it full time”. At first however, I simply wanted to increase my effectiveness as an occasional preacher. At this time, before any of our sons were born (we have three, now all grown up), Barbara and I used to help out at the children’s camps run by the Evangelical Movement of Wales. One year while at a camp at their HQ at Bryntirion near Bridgend, I learned that the movement runs a four year ministers’ training course by correspondence with residential weeks in summer and at Easter. I was still thinking merely of sharpening my abilities as a lay preacher, wanting to avoid the well-known accusation “ten thousand, thousand are their texts but all their sermons one” so I was somewhat taken aback when I learned that the movement would only admit students who sensed a clear call to the full-time ministry. This drove me to prayer and careful consideration and it was another two years before I applied to join the course in 1981, completing it in 1985.

By this time I had moved on from the comprehensive school and was lecturing at a tertiary college, still in Peterlee. Had it been left up to me, I would have never considered moving outside the North East. In any case, by this time our church in Sunderland was without a pastor and it was important for me to stay there for a time to help provide stability. Nevertheless, I had come to the attention of a small, newly planted Reformed Baptist Church in the North West in the historic city of Lancaster, just south of the English Lake District. I was called to be their first pastor in 1988 and by God’s grace I have been there ever since. Without any conscious effort and certainly without any virtue on my part it has become a long pastorate. During that time we have planted a daughter church in Ulverston, a courageous venture for a church which is not itself all that large.

MM: Please explain how you see the North of England spiritually.

PA: Thinking firstly of geographical coverage of gospel witness, this is an extremely difficult question to answer. In the first place, it is a big region and this makes generalisation very difficult. There is no one “North”. As a son of County Durham, privileged to spend three years at a Cambridge that was then still a bastion of the English class system I found it remarkably tiresome that the products of the public school system immediately assumed that you would follow Rugby League and punctuate your speech with “Eeh bah gum!” It might be helpful, but even then, only up to a point, to think in terms of four regions: Yorkshire on one side of the Pennines and Lancashire and Cheshire on the other and then further North, the recently created county of Cumbria that roughly corresponds to the Lake district just south of the Scottish border on the West and over to the East, the old counties of Northumberland and Durham that make up the North East. The problem is that each of these mini regions is far from monochrome in terms of culture, dialect variation and fierce parochialism. The usual tribalism that goes with loyalty to one’s football team is another factor. Sunderland and Newcastle for instance are only twelve miles apart and the accents are almost indistinguishable to anyone except a local but the mutual antipathy goes right back to the fact that they took opposite sides in the Civil War. Having made that point, if I were to avoid any kind of denominational or party labels for the time being, the coverage of the whole North of England by churches that value systematic expository preaching is distinctly patchy. Some areas are very well served, such as the old Yorkshire woollen towns and Lancashire south of the Ribble whereas other areas are much less well covered, such as rural Northumberland and most of the Lake District.

If you had asked me this question ten years ago I would have noted two parallel tendencies. On the one hand I think you could have pointed to the near collapse of the mainline denominations at least in terms of their Evangelical credibility. This deserves a paper in its own right of course and each one differs from the others because of complex factors that have developed over a long period of time but to risk a very broad generalisation, bodies like the Church of England, United Reformed Church, Baptist Union and Methodist Church would each have an Evangelical wing that would vary in strength and size from one denomination to another. Equally they would all have a liberal wing too and this wing would often control the power structures of the denomination in question. Over against that, smaller groupings like the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches and the Grace Baptists are much more rigorous in their Evangelical identity and are often explicitly Reformed. These have often seen new churches planted over the last three decades and pastors called where no pastors could be supported before.

One new development and it has only emerged in the last decade or so, is the rise of a number of regional gospel partnerships. To be fair this is a nationwide phenomenon. A number of them exist in the South of England too. To the best of my knowledge, there are three in the North, one in the North East, one in Yorkshire and the other in my region, stretching all the way from Cheshire to the Scottish border and even taking in a number of churches in North Wales. These organisations are essentially alliances of local churches that cut across denominational lines and in theory at least it means that Anglican evangelicals frustrated by the compromises of liberals within their denomination over, inter alia, homosexual ordination, can join up with free churches in plans to train apprentices, plant churches and engage in other joint ventures. How far the North West partnership is typical of others throughout the country I cannot tell but it has already developed a distinctive ethos with its commitment to the Cornhill training course and the impression that it works hand in glove with UCCF. So far at least, all of its church planting schemes have taken place in university cities. A good proportion of its churches would have a commitment to a Reformed view of soteriology, though I am not convinced that this would be true of all of them and I am by no means convinced that all would have Reformed views of worship. So far, in the North West at least, a preponderance of churches that have signed up for the regional partnership are Anglican though I am given to understand that this is not the case in every region of the country or even of each part of Northern England.

It is probably too early to tell how things will shake down but the rise of the regional gospel partnerships is already forcing a rethink of the issue of Anglican and Free Church relationships after the disagreement that arose between Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John Stott at the National Assembly of Evangelicals in 1966. Free Church participation in these partnerships means that in practice many churches in the constituency that up until recently believed that evangelical unity would be best served by insisting that evangelicals in mixed denominations should leave them have changed their stance, sometimes overtly so, sometimes without realising it. This may or may not be a positive development; only time will tell and opinions will vary across the spectrum. It is certainly a very significant one.

MM: What do you think are the greatest struggles men in the ministry have to face today.

PA: Of course we face many struggles on many levels and I wonder whether this is partly why there is something of a crisis in recruitment in the ministry at present. Even so, I am not sure that the “greatest” struggles are any different to the ones that our ancestors faced. Richard Baxter in 17th century England or Thomas Boston in 18th century Scotland did not have to face the telephone, answer thirty e-mails or worry about such things as post-modernism or whether the emerging church is the new, accessible face of authentic Christianity or a sell-out to the spirit of the age. They did understand however that a minister’s worst enemies are what Isaac Watts called “my inward foes”. Given that one sin can undo a ministry I wish I feared Satan and temptation far more than I actually do. Human nature is complex and I wish that I feared my own slippery heart far more than I actually do. If the Bible actually tells the truth about the human heart, namely that it “is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer 17:9), so much so that no one can fathom it, then I will never entirely be able to trust my own motives this side of heaven. I wish that I had quelled self-love and the innate tendency for self-promotion and self-seeking, even self-worship far more than I have. Given that I serve someone who loved me and gave himself for me, I wish that my service for him was more consistent, more hard-working and more characterised by the spirit of joyful sacrifice. As I get older I find that I can do less. That is simply a natural consequence of the ageing process. Well, over against that, there is something within me that wants to react as Spurgeon once did to some doctor’s advice: “They tell me that I shall wear out my constitution. If I had ten constitutions I would gladly wear them all out for Jesus Christ.” My longing is that since I cannot now accomplish as much in a week or a month as I could ten years ago, the Lord might grant me to do what little I can with more of his blessing upon it.

MM: What would you regard as encouraging/discouraging developments in the ethos of churches today?

PA: This is difficult. I could end up sounding like a stereotypical grumpy old man, which would not help anybody, though if it helps my middle-aged street-cred I confess to preferring Townend to Kendrick for the most part. One development that has been apparent in the last couple of decades has been the way that the consumerism that has been a feature of life in Western society at large has affected patterns of evangelical church life. I am not convinced that many modern believers choose the church they attend by making a sober decision based on doctrinal principles: “what do these people believe and teach?” Rather, Christians behave like consumers in the sense that they choose the church on the same basis that they would choose a restaurant or a clothes shop. If it does not provide the service they expect or need, they take their custom elsewhere. They may be customers pursuing slightly different brands in different niche markets but when push comes to shove what often tells you all you need to know is the reasons they give for leaving one church and going to another: “there was nothing there for the kids”, “we didn’t like the worship” (which is often shorthand for “not enough music”) or even, more rarely, a doctrinal quirk of the pastor. In the world of the consumer, choice is sovereign and they vote with their feet.

In similar vein, I fear that pragmatism often wins out over principle when decisions are made about evangelism. The pragmatist is the person who asks himself “what will work, what will get the people in?” It is not necessarily inherently wrong to be asking ourselves such things provided we don’t forget to ask first, “what has God said?” When it comes to the whole issue of public worship this is now an uncomfortable pressure point. Forty years ago Baptist churches in general and indeed most Protestant Christians outside the Anglican tradition worshipped according to what was sometimes unkindly called “the hymn-prayer sandwich”. This had come down to us from Puritan times and was originally a consequence of their attachment to the regulative principle of worship, the belief that nothing ought to be used in the worship of God that does not have his explicit command. This rationale had been largely forgotten and by the time of my boyhood it was largely supposed that public worship was simply a matter of taste. Austere, traditional worship was for austere, traditionally minded people. Pentecostals and charismatics went for something freer because they had that kind of temperament. Personally, I am sorry that most of the discussions I hear about worship seem to centre on the idea of doing what it takes to keep the customer satisfied. Whether something is seeker-sensitive or user-friendly is no doubt important but might be missing an even more important question. Before we ask what the service did for the person in the pew (or the plastic stackable chair) ought we not to ask what it did for the Almighty?
GD: I once heard you give a talk on Puritan family life, based on the exploits of a fictional couple, Richard and Abigail Adams. Any plans to develop your paper into a full-blown historical novel?

PA: The talk that you heard was a repeat of a paper that I originally gave at the Westminster Conference in 1997. The original remit was "The Puritan Family" and the only way that I could think of coming at it was to invent a fictional Puritan Family that would nevertheless be true to life and typical of, say, the early 1640's. Brian Edwards made the same suggestion as you did a few years ago. I have two main problems in bringing it to birth. The first is that I owe Day One two other books before I can even think of it (a commentary on Romans and a Travel Guide on Oliver Cromwell). Both are taking longer than they ought. Secondly. As the original paper took a year's worth of work outside the normal life of one local church, to produce a book made of seven or eight chapters of similar length would be quite daunting really.

GD: Oh go on. We have enough commentaries on Romans, so keep Day One waiting on that one and get to work on your Puritan blockbuster novel. You know it makes sense. Now, what is the biggest problem facing Evangelicalism today and how should we respond?
PA: I am tempted to reproduce G. K. Chesterton's famous contribution to "The Times" correspondence on "What is the problem with the world?" (or something of that sort) where he wrote, "Dear sir, I am, Yours truly etc." I always feel that the biggest obstacle that I have to overcome is myself. Still, that's not what you meant, is it? I suppose one of my fears is that contemporary Evangelicalism might sell out all too easily to a bogus concept of relevance, namely that in bending over backwards to ask those outside the church to set the terms on which they will give our message a hearing, the whole idea of "felt needs", we forget that fallen man's perception is fatally skewed anyway. It is certainly true that Western society contains large numbers of people who would confess to vague feelings of uneasiness about whether material wealth really satisfies, whether physical health and well-being really is the main thing and whether searching to authenticate oneself by way of thrill-seeking will be enough to answer the longing for significance that is part and parcel of our nature as human beings. While all of this is undoubtedly true, there is an even more pressing need that people don't recognise and won't admit to, their need to flee from the wrath to come.

GD: What is the most important theological book that you have read in the last twelve months? It is a must read because...
PA: I am currently reading David Wells The Courage to be Protestant. I like his trenchant style, though whether it is partly because it is a matter of having one's own prejudices confirmed....

Once I have completed that I mean to have a serious stab at engaging with the New Perspective, though I feel honour bound to reading Tom Wright before I read Piper's critique. I am beginning to wonder whether, in this year of Calvin's anniversary, I ought to read through the Institutes and perhaps see if I can do a sort of Institutes challenge in our church. Now there's a thought.

If you had asked me which biographies I had been reading, that would have been much easier. As a former historian of sorts, I am automatically drawn to them, both sacred and secular.
GD: Sorry to tax your brains by asking for a theological book. Care to name your top three songs or pieces of music?
PA: Over the years a lot of students who have supposed that my views about music in worship have stemmed from the fact that I am just an austere old duffer with austere tastes, have been surprised to learn that in musical terms I am a "folkie" though I tend to prefer it somewhat more on the trad side. (When my wife and I were courting we were regulars at a well-known folk club in the North East and I would take part as a floor singer.) I like my own roots. No musical instrument on earth is more beautiful than the Northumbrian small pipes (there are several web sites where a sample of the haunting sound can be heard). A fine modern exponent of the tradition is Kathryn Tickell who has several albums to her name. Otherwise folk music of all sorts and types appeals to me. From Ireland I like the Chieftains and Boys of the Lough. I respect the way that Kate Rusby sings in her own accent. I agree with Gary Brady that Julie Fowlis is fine. One song that really lifts my heart is the Christmas song "Chariots" by the English folk artist and aficionado of all things to do with the Morris, John Kirkpatrick.
GD: So, you're not a musical old duffer, you're a folkie with Morris dancer sympathies. That's alright then.
Well Phil, that just about wraps things up. Eeh bah gum and all that. Good to talk to you and thanks to Men from the Ministry for allowing me to "borrow" and adapt their interview.

Morris dancers - Eh up, where's Phil?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Jesus: Dead or Alive? by John Blanchard

Jesus: Dead or Alive, by John Blanchard
Evangelical Press, 2009, 40pp
This is the new evangelistic booklet by John Blanchard. The author examines the evidence for Jesus' resurrection from the dead. He discusses the many conspiracy theories that try to explain away Jesus' bodily resurrection and finds them wanting. The New Testament evidence for Jesus having risen from the dead is ably marshalled and persuasively presented. The empty tomb has huge implications for our understanding of Jesus. His resurrection shows that he is the Son of God and Saviour of the world. Having broken death's power, Jesus is the giver of everlasting life to all who believe in him. I commend this clear and compelling booklet to all who wish to investigate whether Jesus is dead or alive.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Pastors' Forum

The inaugural meeting of the Pastors' Forum is due to take place on Wednesday 11th of March. Professor Donald Macleod is scheduled to speak on "The Holy Trinity". See programme below for more details. I hope to attend together with some friends from this part of the world. Speakers for forthcoming Forum events include Richard Gaffin, Don Carson, Carl Trueman and David Bebbington. Looks like this could be an exiting development that has the potential to be of great help and encouragement for pastor-teachers. Drop me an e-mail if you would like some more information.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The 1859 Revival in Wales (Part 1)

A three-part series based on a talk given at one of our Wednesday evening Prayer Meetings.
2009 is a big year for anniversaries. For many it is the year of Charles Darwin, with 2009 marking the 200th anniversary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species. The more theologically minded will be aware that 2009 also marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of a certain John Calvin. But now I would like to reflect on another important anniversary – that of the 1859 Revival in Wales. Let me begin by quoting R. S. Thomas’s poem, “The Chapel”. R. S., the somewhat cantankerous Welsh poet, nicknamed the “Ogre of Wales” was a Church in Wales Clergyman. He is reflecting on the decline of “old time religion” in the Land of my Fathers,
A little aside from the main road
becalmed in a last-century greyness
there is the chapel, ugly, without the appeal
to the tourist to stop his car
and visit it. The traffic goes by
and the river goes by, and quick shadows
of clouds too, and the chapel settles
a little deeper into the grass

But here once on an evening like this,
in the darkness that was about
his hearers, a preacher caught fire,
and burned steadily before them
with a strange light so that they saw
the splendour of the barren mountains
about them and sang their amens
fiercely, narrow but saved
in a way that men are not now.
But 150 years ago in February 1859, preachers did catch fire and people were saved – around 110,000 in the space of twelve months. In our days of decline and setbacks we find ourselves wondering,

And shall we then for ever live
At this poor dying rate?
Our love so faint, so cold to Thee,
And Thine to us so great?

We need an encouraging reminder of the great things that the Lord is able to do for his people, Psalm 145:4-7. So let us look at what the Lord did in Wales in 1859. What follows is only a brief sketch of what happened rather than an exhaustive account.

1. “The Low State of Religion”

Wales is sometimes known as the “Land of Revivals”. There is definitely something in that. For a period of 170 years the land of my birth experienced a number of powerful outpourings of the Spirit. It all began in 1735, the year in which Daniel Rowland and Howell Harris were converted, and ended in 1905 as the revival associated with Evan Roberts and others began to peter out. But we must not think that the Welsh churches were in a constant state of revival. They were not. Powerful revivals were followed by periods of decline and deadness. The years before the 1859 were characterised by just a time. The Churches were orthodox. The Calvinistic Methodists held tenaciously to their Confession in the face of growing attacks on the doctrine of Scripture. But church leaders bemoaned, “The inefficiency of the ministry… the low state of religion” and the “hardness of the times”.
In some respects the period before the 1859 Revival mirrors our own. We have many sound churches where the Word of God is preached faithfully. But the spiritual state of the churches is low and we seem to be having little impact on the world. Of course there are differences too. The Christianity is no longer the “default faith” for people in our land as it was in Wales during the Victorian period. We live in an increasingly post-Christian society. We have to face the challenges of religious pluralism and the consumer society. But I think that part of the battle is acknowledging that there is a problem and that we are desperately in need of a fresh outpouring of the Spirit.

2. Hopeful Signs

One of the main instruments of the 1859 Revival was David Morgan. An entry in his diary for 1855 gives us a glimpse into his soul,
"It is a big thing to have a feeling that God would revive His work. Whoever possesses such a feeling will be compelled to do all he can to revive the Lord's work. By reading the history of the Church we find that the great cause fluctuates up and own through the ages, but whenever the Lord draws near to save there was some considerable expectancy amongst the godly for His coming. As well as praying, we should be doing out utmost to revive the work. So did the godly of old; they prayed and they worked." (Revival Comes to Wales, The story on the 1859 Revival in Wales, Eifion Evans, Evangelical Press of Wales p. 25).
Renewed interest in revival was awakened by reports of what had been happening in New York in 1857-58. Businessman Jeremiah Lanphier was deeply concerned about the prevailing spiritual conditions of the day. He wanted others to join him in a lunch time prayer meeting at Foulton Street. He handed out some 20,000 fliers advertising the first noonday prayer meeting on September 23, 1857. For the first thirty minutes he sat alone praying. Eventually, steps were heard coming up the staircase and another joined. Then another and another until Lanphier was joined by five men. The next Wednesday the six increased to twenty. The following week there were 40. Lanphier and the others then decided to meet daily, and within weeks thousands of business leaders were meeting for prayer each day. Before long over 100 churches and public meeting halls were filled with noonday prayer meetings. God moved so powerfully that similar prayer meetings sprang up around the nation.

Lanphier’s Pastor was one James Waddell Alexander. He laid great emphasis on prayer for revival, writing in a tract, Pray for the Spirit, ‘what we especially need is for the whole church to be down on its knees before God.’ The headings give us the gist of his teaching:
1. There is such a thing as the outpouring of the Holy Ghost.
2. The influence of the Spirit of God is exceedingly powerful.
3. The Spirit whom we seek is the Author of Regeneration and Sanctification.
4. The Holy Spirit sends those gifts which are necessary for a successful work.

It is reckoned that tens of thousands of people were converted as a result of those prayer meetings. News of these remarkable events began to filter through to Wales, creating a fresh longing for Revival. D. Evans, a minister from Aberaman published an address that he gave to his congregation on the Foulton Street revival under the heading, The Great Religious Revival in America; Or God’s Triumph over Mammon in the New World in 1858. He concluded,
"In order to be blessed with a similar gracious visitation we must think of and exercise the following things - 1. To repent and be humbled before God because of our sins... 2. The prayer meeting must have more attention from God's people; and the characteristics of their prayers must also change... 3. Christians must also make a personal effort, as well as pray in public... 4. There is every encouragement for God's people in their endeavours, and also for sinners to turn to the Lord." (Revival Comes to Wales, p. 32-33).
Soon revival prayer meeting began to spring up across the land. As Matthew Henry once put it, “Before the Lord does a great work he first sets his people a praying.”

How we need to pray, Isaiah 64:1, Acts 4:29-31. While prayer meetings are neglected and private prayer is simply going through the motions, we cannot expect but little from the Lord. May this report of what the God did in 1859 stir us up to pray for a fresh outpouring of the Spirit.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Blogging in the name of the Lord: Jeremy Walker

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

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

JW: I am one of two full-time pastors at Maidenbower Baptist Church in Crawley in West Sussex (in the UK). The other is my father, Austin Walker. I was born in Crawley in 1975, and God drew me to himself during my teens, although the road was made much harder and longer by my sin and stubbornness. I studied English Language & Literature at the University of Leicester before working for five years for the Ministry of Defence in London, at which time I also returned to the church in Crawley. During these periods, God was again pleased to work in my heart, this time forming a desire for the ministry of his Word (see below). In January 2004 I was publicly recognised as a pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church. Later that year I married my wife, Alissa, and God has blessed us with two delightful sons, Caleb (now two and a half) and William (going on four months).

GD: Your blog is called "The Wanderer". Please explain.

JW: One main source of the title and tagline of my blog is The Wanderer (or here), an Old English poem that I genuinely enjoy and on which I wrote an essay while studying at university, which explains its relevance. This wanderer is called an eardstapa (‘earthstepper,’ if you like), and this is why my blog address is http://www.eardstapa.wordpress.com/.

Another source is the writings of John Bunyan. The current tagline is the opening line of The Pilgrim’s Progress – “As I walked through the wilderness of this world . . .”, but Bunyan’s other great allegory, The Holy War, begins with a similar notion: “In my travels, as I walked through many regions and countries, it was my chance to happen into that famous continent of Universe.” These two books had a profound effect on me in my early years, and capture something of the idea of an interested pilgrimage.

In addition, the notion of being an outcast and a stranger (echoing that Old English poem again) is a Biblical one. Speaking of the faithful, the writer to the Hebrews describes those who “had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented – of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us” (Heb 11.37-40). Again, there is that seminal text in Psalm 119: “I am a stranger in the earth; do not hide your commandments from me” (v19). This is good company to be in.

My only concern is that the name can sound vague and indefinite. Wanderers are not necessarily going anywhere, but Christians are pilgrims – travellers with a definite destination. However, I wander through various media, seeking to observe things of use and interest, scavenging as I go, and so it does not seem too out of order.

Being a Walker myself, these various themes seemed to chime nicely, and so I went for it.

(Well, you did ask!)

GD: Beginning to wish I hadn't! Now, what made you start blogging?

JW: One motivation has been the Thomas Principle of Double Usefulness. If I am seeking to do something of value in one context, blogging is an opportunity to put it to work in another.

I also had friends who were blogging, or I would occasionally come across or be sent posts from various blogs. As I started to actually keep track of a few more visible blogs, I realised that a significant exchange of information and ideas was taking place on the web, and that – although I don’t know that any blogs are presently as effective as certain preaching and/or writing ministries have been – they are discussing and advancing ideas, and supplementing a lot of preaching and writing (and, for some, may be a primary source of information). I decided to try to keep abreast of and involved in that sphere. The opportunity for engagement and overlap with others trying to advance the cause of Christ is encouraging and attractive; being aware of currents in theology, and keeping abreast also of the spread of error, is necessary.

Finally, there was the desire to contribute to and maintain a Christian presence on the web, and the hope that someone stumbling across some of my material might be won to Christ. I try to make sure that I post something stimulating and useful to unbelievers on a fairly regular basis, as well as summarising my sermons.

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

JW: I think the demand to try to compress one’s thoughts into brief, pointed and clear units is probably helpful. One older volume on pastoral theology suggests that a pastor should always be working on something “for the press.” Perhaps a similar function can be ascribed to the blog? If Sir Francis Bacon was right, “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.” Blogging contributes to those qualities in varying degrees. Ready writing generally demands ready thinking and provides for ready speaking. It is a good discipline with beneficial effects. For one thing, writing something generally helps me work through and analyse and assess more carefully than I might otherwise. It demands a more thorough and careful engagement than I might otherwise give.

I also think that the ability to bring nuggets of stimulating truth on a regular basis can be positive. Blogging can be useful in providing a taste of something more substantial, or a pointer to a sermon, book or essay of greater significance; it might prompt someone to put in a bit more effort in another medium. I think it can be a useful means of catching the momentary glance of a generation for whom attention is generally fleeting. However, I would still call blogging more a means to an end than an end in itself.

There are several weaknesses that come to mind. For one, blogging can be very shallow. The brevity that serves well in some respects can contribute to a lack of depth and development in structure and argument. For another, blogging seems to be inherently ephemeral. What is written one day (or even one moment) before simply gets lost down the line, regardless of the relative value of various posts. (I saw that Justin Taylor also highlighted the structural hierarchy issue in one of your recent interviews.) Again, the medium militates against meditation. Almost by definition, blog-reading is skim reading. Few posts are going to demand, require or receive a thoughtful, prayerful, careful reading. Furthermore, because most posts need to be kept shorter, there is a lack of continuity that prevents the development of a solid argument either over time or in the course of one longer piece.

Then there are some things that straddle the divide, such as the reach of the internet and the availability of blogging to so many people. The former is fine with regard to truth, but a problem with regard to error; there are many who set themselves up as experts on a theme or subject without any real credibility except their ability and willingness to write and comment at almost unfeasible length and with surprising tenacity.

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

JW: That’s a tough question to answer. My father was a key man, as he was the pastor under whose ministry I sat in my formative years. A lot of the structure of my theology and the channels in which my convictions run owe a great deal to the formal teaching I received from him in the church, and the informal instruction from my parents while growing up. I think one of the most significant parts of that legacy is my attachment to the truths of the Scripture as summarised in the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith.

However, given that I did not really develop an interest and start reading theologically until I went to university, my more mature theological development was substantially informed by reading in the Reformers, Puritans, and their successors as I pursued a reasonably voracious but largely unstructured and self-governed reading scheme during my university years.

When I was being assessed for the ministry, my father and several other men provided me with a more structured reading scheme designed to fill in some of the holes. Their selections (and my willingness and ability to stick with them!) added a third layer.

Over that time, a number of names rise regularly to the surface: John Calvin; Hugh Latimer; Charles Spurgeon; Andrew Fuller; John Bunyan; John Murray; John Owen; Stephen Charnock; Robert Traill; Sinclair Ferguson; B. B. Warfield. These are some of the men who have definitely and distinctly drawn, driven, pushed or pulled me in various directions.

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

JW: My mature sense of what it means to preach (and how to preach) has been developed most by reading sermons and the biographies of preachers generously equipped and greatly used by the Spirit of God. In that degree, I am somewhat eclectic, and you would probably see different influences depending on the kind of sermon I am preaching at any time. In that respect, past preachers would include Charles Spurgeon, George Whitefield, John Calvin, Hugh Latimer, various Puritan authors and preachers during various revivals of religion. Of recent or current preachers, I find the clarity and winsomeness of Ted Donnelly, the fire and directness of John Marshall, the passion and earnestness of Albert Martin, and the penetration, warmth and insight of Sinclair Ferguson, to be instructive in different ways. I never heard either Dr Lloyd-Jones or Professor Murray in the flesh. There are particular qualities of a number of other preachers whom I have heard occasionally that I wish I could emulate more. In addition, the faithfulness and sincerity of my own father remains, for me, a model of long-term, committed pastoral ministry. He is also the preacher to whom I have been longest exposed, but my interest in and responsiveness to sermons was fairly limited when I was younger.

You will see from a later answer that during the time in which I was being assessed and then more directly trained, a number of good and faithful men had the opportunity to stick their oar in. Most of them (and their congregations) had an impact in varying degrees on my preaching ministry.

I fear that I am giving the impression in these answers of being an unusually eclectic and distracted magpie. That may be so!

GD: You might say that, Jeremy. I couldn't possibly comment. Moving on, how would you describe the relationship between preaching and the power of the Holy Spirit?

JW: In one word, indispensable. A preacher is equipped by the Spirit of God, relies on the Spirit of God in both his laborious preparation and prayerful delivery of a sermon, and depends upon him for the fruit of all his efforts. We ought to look constantly for the immediate agency and powerful operations of the Holy Spirit in all our work, both publicly and privately, in all our pastoring and preaching. When we consider his person and work in relation to the Lord Christ, his work in and upon those whom the Father is drawing to Christ, and his relationship to those who are in Christ, I think that no-one could say any different. He turns a divine spotlight upon the Saviour so that he can be truly seen and known. By him God works that work of new creation, making the light of inward illumination to shine in the hearts of men. By him the Lord writes the law on the tablets of our renewed hearts. By him, Christ indwells his people and they are conformed to the image of the Son in accordance with the divine will, as the Spirit strives against sin within us and assures us of our peace with God. Where do you stop?

In practice, I think everyone who honestly seeks to be a witness to the truth as it is in Jesus, and to encourage and direct the people of God in their sanctification, will come quickly, repeatedly and ever more deeply to the conviction that apart from the power of the Spirit we can accomplish nothing. How much, then, we need to be praying that the Triune God would work powerfully, and that – knowing him – we might know him more; that, having life, we might have more of it; that, having truth, we might understand more; that, loving him, we might adore him increasingly; that, serving him, we might be more holy; that we might never grieve the Spirit by antagonism to his person and work. The preaching dynamic between our glorious God, the preacher he has sent, and the congregation to whom that man preaches must be enlivened along every plane by the Spirit of the living God.

GD: Amen to that! Describe your call to the pastoral/preaching ministry.

JW: I am informed that, when very young, if my siblings and I were kept from church through sickness, I would drag out an old suit and conduct a service – complete in all its parts – from halfway up the stairs. I remember once thinking in my younger years (and I might even have uttered it in an unguarded moment) that I might be a preacher. That was some time before I was converted, and before my more developed resistance to the truth, but even then I confess to thinking that the idea was preposterous.

Into my teenage years, I became bitter and cynical, and forged for myself a downward spiral of rebellion and misery. Nevertheless, God in his mercy drew me to himself, but by means that left me somewhat exhausted spiritually and lacking in assurance. Coming out of that period just as I was leaving for university, I would have said that I was the last person you would have chosen for the ministry of God’s gospel.

As I went through university and got involved in a local church and came to know more Christians in different settings I was given a variety of opportunities to serve, and people began to drop hints, which received a stiff ignoring. I even avoided the Christian Union, having the notion hovering in my mind that involvement in CUs could become a stepping stone to something more. I developed what you might politely call a Jonah complex – fleeing from the call of God – and I do not know that I had many counsellors and overseers upon whom I would have relied to guide my thinking at that stage.

However, during my time at university the Lord was pleased to give me a degree of assurance of salvation, and more accurate and impressive views of the person and work of the Lord Jesus. Having had my own internal Reformation in being saved, and coming to see something of the wonder and glory of God’s grace in Christ, verses like Romans 12.1-2 impressed themselves upon me: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” Gripped by the mercies of God in salvation, I struggled to face what it meant for me to offer myself a living sacrifice to God. I was probably conscious of what it might mean, and not keen to pursue that possibility. I began to feel the pressure of which Jeremiah speaks in chapter 20, verse 9: “Then I said, ‘I will not make mention of him, nor speak anymore in his name.’ But his word was in my heart like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I was weary of holding it back, and I could not.” I went down various avenues to relieve this pressure in small ways, but it continued to develop.

By the time I left university, I had a job in London, and returned to my home church in Crawley. Within a few months, and for various reasons, I was pretty miserable, wandering round with a face like a robber’s dog. I remember the pressure building, and to-ing and fro-ing as to whether I should say anything to someone. I went that year to a Banner of Truth youth conference. I heard a sermon in which a comment was made about Jacob wrestling with God, and the point was made that God was wrestling with Jacob, a somewhat uneven contest (you would have thought that after trying that with regard to salvation, I would have learned my lesson). During the weekend, someone read a psalm – I cannot remember which one – but I remember it adding weight. What made it worse was that my home church was, at that time, going through a torrid period: looking on it as my father’s son, as well as a church member, there was nothing remotely attractive about many aspects of the pastoral office. Anyway, at some point on that Lord’s day, I called my father with a 10p piece (before mobiles, at least for me) and told him that, though I only had a couple of minutes, there was something I wanted to discuss with him when I got home, and that he was to make me tell him what I had in mind on the phone and not let me fudge it or put it off on my return. I did sit down and explain where I was at on my return, and things went from there.

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

JW: I have no formal ministerial training. To avoid any charges of nepotism, once I had discussed the matter with my father, he sent me to our good friend, Pastor Achille Blaize. He then set me a reading list that – with hindsight – was designed to do me good if I survived it, insofar as it was also a test of my resolve. In consultation with Pastor Blaize and a few other men, a programme was developed in which I would continue with my reading and personal study while on the train to and from London, and at nights. I was given some direction in that reading and study, together with a number of preaching opportunities. There was no immediate possibility of my being trained more formally (for financial reasons). A variety of factors meant that I preached more than might have been the case, although I found the twin burden of holding down a responsible job in London (model: Daniel) and trying to teach and preach sometimes two or three times a week over sometimes lengthy periods (model: Paul) something of a challenge. After five years, God in his providence provided for the church in Crawley to take me on full-time with a view to bringing the process to a head. For the next two years, I served and studied full-time. I was sent out several times to different churches that we knew well for three to six weeks at a time. The pastors of these churches had different areas of expertise, and different graces and gifts, and I would live in their homes and shadow them through that period. The churches, though mainly Reformed and Baptist, were of different sizes and ages, with different histories and profiles. However, they were each marked by faithful men seeking to advance Christ’s kingdom by Scriptural means in accordance with Scriptural principles. After two years of this, and despite some final and sometimes painful obstacles, the church recognised me as another pastor alongside my father.

If this all sounds drawn out and painful, I should add that I often think that the Lord has made those things which I ought to value hard for me to obtain, in order that I might prize them highly and hold fast to them.

With regard to the benefits of this system, I believe it broadened my horizons and expectations. I was stretched in my thinking and doing by a number of different men who challenged me in different ways and at different points. One would read pastoral theology with me, discussing it page by page. Another gave me a stack of reading and study to do at my own pace, but quizzed me every few days, expecting me to challenge his thinking and defend my own. Another sent me away to read B. B. Warfield on the person and work of Christ, and when I came back asked me to teach it back to him. From each I got sober, honest feedback about my preaching. I watched men who were not merely theoreticians but practitioners, men who were working out their convictions in the crucible of church life, facing real challenges, joys, and disappointments. They would offer counsel and advice as we worked through the issues of church life. They thrust me into situations which I would never have seen otherwise. Their various personalities and gifts demanded different responses from me. Living with them, there was no place for me to hide. I saw them with their wives and families, working out personal godliness. I could ask them honest questions as we went, and they were men who gave honest answers from a wealth of experience. I am grateful for this process, and the friends and mentors I enjoy as a result of it.

GD: What do you find most difficult and challenging about being a pastor?

JW: Pursuing a close walk with God and cultivating personal holiness as a man before God; loving the people of God with a Christlike, sacrificial love, and serving them accordingly; labouring diligently and without distraction, concentrating on my pastoral priorities; praying as a pastor for those committed to my care as an under-shepherd; and, an apparent lack of fruitfulness in ministry, both with regard to sinners being saved and saints growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

GD: What do you find most thrilling and encouraging about being a pastor?

JW: The humbling reality that I am serving the living Lord of heaven and earth, and the God of my salvation, in order to glorify his name by preaching Christ; the fact that God can, at any time, accomplish what he pleases in his saving and sanctifying purposes, using even me; the privilege of giving myself to prayer and the ministry of the Word; and, those occasional moments when you see or hear of a spiritual breakthrough in someone’s life, in which God has given you a part – someone to whose awakening and regeneration God is pleased to make me a contributor, watching a new light of understanding dawn in the eyes of one of God’s people, seeing someone enlivened and energised to seek the glory of God, observing someone stirred to employ their graces and gifts in the advance of Christ’s kingdom.

GD: 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?

JW: I would like to speak to many, but I think I would choose Charles Spurgeon. I believe that he was an unusually Christlike man, and I love the way his redeemed humanity shone in his life and work. I also think that he was more of a reformer than we often give him credit for. I would want to hear him preach and see him live: I think “Watch and learn” would be the order of the day. I would ask him how he might face the challenges and use the opportunities of the 21st century, and see if he would give me counsel on preaching and pastoring. I am sure there would be many surprises and lessons.

GD: Name your favourite contemporary theologian. Why so good?

JW: That is not easy, but perhaps Sinclair Ferguson. I remember him saying that he had made the study of “the three Johns” a priority of sorts: John Calvin, John Owen, and John Murray. So, with Sinclair you also get the cream, the condensed goodness, of those men of God. I enjoy the breadth and depth of his understanding of the Word of God. When he expounds a verse of Romans, for example, you know he views it in the light of the whole Bible, has it in the context of the entire book, and sees it within the structure of that particular portion of the book. I appreciate the evident learning that lies behind the simplest pronouncements, and I value the simplicity of his teaching: he can bring truth to bear with clarity and directness at an accessible level. I am grateful for his approachability and friendliness, and willingness and ability to understand and answer questions. I like his humour and his humanity: he is happy in his own skin. I admire the stability and conviction that enables him to minister in a variety of settings without compromise of his conscience and reputation. I also appreciate the Christ-centredness of his teaching and preaching: he never fails to exalt Christ my Lord, and I delight in that. He is a gospel man.

GD: What features of the Reformed scene in the UK cause you concern and what fills you with hope?

JW: Many things concern me. I am distressed by the attitude of many younger Christians (including younger pastors and theologians) to our inheritance of faith and life. Many of the truths that I hold dear have been purchased at high price in past years, decades, and centuries. I see many now squandering their inheritance, and giving up spiritual territory for which men gave their lives because they seem to have no sense of value of the truth, if they even realise what they possess. We have so great a wealth of truth, and yet seem too easily to go through the motions of truly assimilating it in our hearts.

I think there is also an increasing willingness to imagine that one can play God’s game by the world’s rules. John Owen somewhere suggests that where true religion declines, men will turn either to excess and wildness (I think he calls it ‘enthusiasm’ or fanaticism) or ritualism and formalism in order to fill the void. I fear that that is happening as men who sincerely desire God pursue him by means that he has not appointed. I think that there may be a willingness to taste and experiment with spiritual poisons that have long since been exposed as just that. We seek God in places and ways that God has not told us to seek him. If we want God’s blessing, we should seek it where the Lord says it will be found. If we want the water of life, we should stay in the channels where God says it will flow, even if they are now drier than we wish.

On the other hand, we can be far too introspective. This can work itself out in at least two ways. Often we appear to be simply smug. We are confident we have the truth. We look down on those who have less than we have. We pat ourselves on the back within the confines of our Reformed enclaves because of our purity and faithfulness, congratulating ourselves on what we have and are, and assuring ourselves that our smallness and lack of influence are a testimony to our purity and faithfulness, and a mark of our true worth. But those enclaves are too often becoming arid, and the souls within them are shrivelling. We can even turn our backs on the world, and become practically hyper-Calvinistic. Along the other track, I am concerned at a sense of resignation – even fear and despair – that I see among some saints. There are some who ask, “Who will show us any good?” and seem to wonder if God will ever lift up the light of his countenance upon us (Ps 4.6). This can lead to an inability and even unwillingness to bring the truth to bear on our society and to preach and apply the Word of God by all appropriate means and with freshness and vigour – people just batten down the hatches and hope the challenges will go away.

The truth must neither be traded (exchanged for that which is not worth having) nor hoarded (kept locked away where it can do no good, but is forgotten even by those who possess it), but displayed and invested, confident that God will accomplish his purposes.

My main hope is that God is still God. I long to see his church revived and the gospel advancing in this part of his world, and I know that he can do it as and when he wills. I also know that he will be glorified, and am often encouraged to think that the darker the darkness, the more the light of the gospel is demonstrated to be truly glorious. It is encouraging to go on meeting young men – my peers and younger – who are being called into the ministry (though we need many more), a good many of whom have an intelligent and passionate commitment to the truth. I also have the privilege to do a fair bit of preaching outside my own home church: as I do so, I meet many faithful saints with a continuing appetite for the truth, and a longing for God, and a commitment to pray for his glory. There are faithful churches, some smaller and some larger, with faithful saints who are the salt of the earth, and their delight in the truth and appreciation for preaching and constancy in prayer does my soul good. They truly are waiting upon the Lord, and waiting for him. Also, when you think of the availability to the church of Christ of books and sermons expressing ‘Reformed’ truth, I know that one divine spark could light the tinder of truth in men’s hearts, that one divine shower could bring to fruition the seed that has for so long been sown.

We need a sense of Christ’s church as both fortress and outpost, standing firm in the world and carrying forth the gospel to the world, and doing both in the power of the Most High God. He can give us that.

GD: With 2009 being the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth, tell us three vital insights that you have gained from the Reformer.

JW: The three things I would suggest – and they are interlinked – are:

Commitment to the Triune God himself. B. B. Warfield put it in this way: Calvinism “lies in a profound apprehension of God in His majesty, with the inevitably accompanying poignant realization of the exact nature of the relation sustained to Him by the creature as such, and particularly by the sinful creature” (Works, 5:354). This is really the starting point of Calvin’s Institutes. Calvin is a man captured and captivated by the Triune God, and who therefore sees himself also in proper perspective. Until we perceive God accurately as revealed in Christ, our eyes opened by the Spirit, we can neither be saved nor can we serve. When God opens our eyes, then we begin to begin to know and adore him as he is. That believing view should once and for all bind us with humble joy to the God of our salvation, recognising that what he does he does for his glory, and we should do the same. It sets our compass for time and for eternity; it will keep us faithful.

Commitment to the truth of God in the Scriptures. Calvin knew that God was known pre-eminently through his written down revelation, and he set himself to know him and obey him as he has revealed himself and his will. We should be instructed by his honesty in handling the Word of God, his readiness to submit to all its nuances, and not to impose his system on Scripture, but to have Scripture fashion his system. I appreciate that a man of his genius is ready to say – repeatedly – that he has reached the limits of revelation as God has given him light, and that he must go no further, but pause and worship where he cannot understand. There is a wonderful integrity to his teaching on this account. When dying, Calvin could say, “I have taught faithfully, and God has given me grace to write, which I have done faithfully as I could; and I have not corrupted [mutilated] one single passage of Scripture nor twisted it as far as I know; and when in a position to arrive at an artificial meaning through subtlety, I have put all that under my feet, and have always aimed at being simple.” I think if more preachers and teachers could say that with sincerity and in truth, the church would be substantially healthier. Under this heading I would include his preaching and teaching ministry. He sought not only to understand and follow God’s Word for himself, but to communicate its truth with simplicity and clarity to those whom he served. What sermons and commentaries that attitude produced! What a model for Christians, especially those who preach and teach!

Commitment to the service of God. This is really the outworking of the former two. Because God is who he is, and because we know him as revealed in Scripture for our salvation, how can we but consecrate ourselves and our all to his glory? When I read of Calvin’s life and labours, his Christlike willingness to serve, and to suffer in serving, I know myself a spiritual pygmy. Calvin gave himself entirely to God. Again, Warfield: “He who believes in God without reserve, and is determined that God shall be God to him in all his thinking, feeling, willing – in the entire compass of his life-activities, intellectual, moral, spiritual, throughout all his individual, social, religious relations – is, by the force of that strictest of all logic which presides over the outworking of principles into thought and life, by the very necessity of the case, a Calvinist” (Works, 5:354-5). That being so – and I think it is – I submit that we need more true Calvinists.

GD: What is the biggest problem facing Evangelicalism today and how should we respond?

JW: I would suggest that our biggest problem is inaccurate and shallow apprehensions of the glory of God shining in the face of Christ.

I think this lies at the heart of so many other problems: it contributes to the coldness, slowness, and dullness of our hearts; to our tendency to worldliness; to our problems with true worship; to our readiness to search for solutions apart from the gospel; to our ineffectiveness as witnesses for Christ; for our tendency to idolise certain men; for our lack of freshness and initiative and vigour in gospel endeavour; for our readiness to search for solutions to the problems of the world apart from the gospel; it allows us to concentrate on building our own empires rather than that of Christ; it contributes to our fear; it robs us of our joy; it undermines our faith; it cripples our hope; it enervates our preaching; it dilutes our praying. Only let Christ be enthroned in our hearts as the Lord of Glory, our Immanuel, seen and known and felt as he truly is as the Son of God and Son of Man, and we shall have our perspective made right and willingly lay all the faculties of our redeemed humanity on the altar as living sacrifices.

We should respond by preaching Christ and him crucified to all the world. I do not mean by this just preaching “Calvary sermons” but a full-orbed gospel that declares Jesus in his saving and reigning fullness, Lord of faith and life, head of the first and of the new creation, with rights over men by virtue of his creative and redemptive work. We must make him known as Saviour and Lord in every sphere of life. We must work out and practice his gracious government in our lives as members of churches, families, and societies. We must proclaim God in Christ in all his majesty and mercy and might: preach him as such, pray to him as such, live for him and before him as such, sing of him as such, obey him as such, delight in him as such. This is why we need the Spirit of God to work powerfully among us: he will glorify Christ by taking what belongs to him and declaring it to us (Jn 16.14-15). If we believe in Jesus as Lord and Christ, we must live before him as such and make him known as such in dependence upon him, within and beyond his church.

GD: Care to name your top three pieces of music?

JW: Not really! This is one of those questions where I would like to give a cheating answer, and sub-divide by style, tradition and/or period. That would give me endless choices, which is helpful as I don’t think there are three stand-out pieces for me: I listen to a lot of soundtracks, hymn and psalm compilations (some of the older Welsh hymns come near the top of the list for me), instrumental (everything from Beethoven and Mendelssohn through to Ludovico Einaudi), and still remember fondly some of the music from my days at university.

However, I know you get shirty about cheating answers, so I offer three pieces of instrumental music (i.e. neither hymns like those of William Williams nor choral works by men like Thomas Tallis nor more up-to-date stuff) that generally make me stop concentrating on other things to concentrate on them:

Going Home (Theme of the Local Hero), Mark Knopfler.
Farewell to Stromness, Sir Peter Maxwell-Davies.
The Battle (from The Gladiator soundtrack), Hans Zimmer.

GD: What? Me get shirty when interviewees surruepticiously try to get away with listing more than the mandatory three pieces of music? Never! Now, what is the most important theological book that you have read in the last twelve months? It is a must read because....

JW: That is tricky. As I look over my reading list there are perhaps two that stand out for me, and I give them together because they deal with the same truths in different ways (a formal cheating answer!). They are the most important in the sense that they have done my soul most good and I would most want others to be captured by the same truths. They are In Christ Alone: Living the Gospel Centered Life by Sinclair Ferguson (which I reviewed here) and Life in Christ: Walking in Newness of Life by Ted Donnelly. Sinclair’s volume is almost a complete, boiled down Christology in itself, holding up the person and work of the Saviour, and pressing home those things upon us. As I read it through, I found myself wanting both to meditate and to preach on each of these texts as fresh insights and delights were brought to my heart. Ted Donnelly’s book is more focused and perhaps more ‘popular’ – what does it mean to be in Christ? Both books consider who Jesus is and the benefits of our saving union with him. They overwhelm you with a sense of the wonder of the gospel, and the glory of the God of the gospel. To know what we must be, we must know who we are; to know who we are, we must know our standing in Christ. These books instruct us on what it means to become and to be a true disciple of the dying and risen Jesus.

While there have been some other books on the same or related topics that I have enjoyed, few have accomplished in the same way the binding together of such simplicity and clarity and profundity on such a glorious theme in modern dress. They are both humbling and uplifting, constraining and liberating.

GD: Hmmm. A "formal cheating answer", that's a new one. But with books by Sinclair Ferguson and Ted Donnelly, I can't compain too much. Right, which blogs do you enjoy reading and why?

JW: I don’t know that I enjoy reading many blogs – it tends to be particular posts rather than particular blogs, either something that serves a particular purpose or meets a particular need or advances a particular interest. I prefer more substantial and stimulating posts. I was recently disturbed to discover that I follow over 50 other blogs from a variety of points on the theological compass, but I tend to skim them through an online reader and pick out what seems valuable.

GD: Well Jeremy, thanks for dropping by for this conversation.

JW: The pleasure and privilege are mine. Thank you for inviting me.

GD: No problem. Great talking to you. Bye!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Engaging with Barth in the USA

Engaging with Barth: Contemporary Evangelical Critiques, edited by David Gibson and Daniel Strange has now been published in the USA by T&T Clark. With Barth's theology gaining influence in Reformed circles, this really is a must read for those who wish to engage with his thinking in a critical yet constructive way. With a stellar list of contributors including Henri Blocher, Oliver Crisp, Paul Helm, Donald Macleod and Carl Trueman, this is the book for a Classic Reformed perspective on Karl Barth. You don't know what you've been missing across the Pond. This most helpful work has been out over here since early 2008! See here for an interview with co-editor David Gibson on the occasion of the book's publication in the UK by IVP/Apollos, and here for my review.

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!