Following on from Part 1 of this report, on the Affinity Theological Studies Conference on, "The Truth Will Set You Free: The Doctrine and Function of Scripture in the 21st Century":
Stephen Clark got down to brass tacks with a paper on The Use of the Bible in the Church. Our authority is the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures. The Bible is God's clear and present word to the world and the church. Scripture was given for this purpose, "that people may come to know the Living God, who has been revealed supremely in the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, and then grow in their knowledge of him and their likeness and conformity to him: in Paul’s memorable words, that everyone may be presented mature in Christ (Col. 1:28)." The reading of Holy Scripture is an essential component of the public worship of God. The Bible should ordinarily be read in this context by Ministers of the Word. What the church sings and the language of her prayers should be informed by the Bible. In preaching, Scripture should be expounded accurately and in the power of the Holy Spirit. In Preachers should not offer distorted readings of the Bible for the sake of practical application. The case was given of Joel Beeke's commendation of Jephthah's daughter as an example of "contagious submission" (see here). The Bible should be brought to bear on the ethical dilemmas faced by the people of God in the 21st century such as embryo research, civil partnerships etc. Pastors should help believers to feed themselves on the riches of God's Word so that the church is nourished on a rich diet of biblical truth.
The paper that generated the most discussion and debate was Dan Strange's piece, Not Ashamed! The Sufficiency of Scripture for Public Theology. Strange reminded us of Stephen Green's appearance on BBC's Question Time back in 2005. The Director of Christian Voice met with howls of derision from the audience when he persisted in answering questions from the Bible. The debacle was an indication of what can happen when the Bible comes into contact with the public square. This raises the question of how we might best speak Christianly in the public arena at a time when the Bible is no longer held in high regard. Strange set out two alternative proposals for "public theology" from within the world of Reformed theology. First, the "two kingdoms view", that emphasises the distinction between the temporary kingdom of this world and the eternal kingdom of God. The civil realm is subject to the "light of nature" or "natural law" that is common to all humanity (Romans 1:18-32, 2:14-15), while the church, belonging to the eternal kingdom is subject to Scripture. The Bible is not sufficient for the public arena, "We will not cure cancer …by reading Scripture, we will cure it by investigating molecular biology, organic chemistry and other related disciplines" (citing T. David Gordon). Second, Strange drew our attention to the "transformationist" model that seeks to bring biblical truth to bear upon the public square. In this view, the Bible must be allowed to supplement and inform the light of nature. Scripture is sufficient for public theology. So says John Frame,
When people are converted to believe in Christ, they bring their new faith and love into their daily work. They ask how Christ bears upon their work as historians, scientists, musicians, how this new passion of theirs affects art, entertainment, medicine, the care of the poor and sick, the justice of courts, the punishment of convicts, relations between nations.
Strange commended the second view, arguing that much of what passes for "the light of nature" is in fact the legacy of the impact of Christian moral teaching in the United Kingdom. The more post-Christian our country becomes, the more we will need to make the source of our values in the Bible explicit. We cannot have biblical ethics apart from the gospel revealed in Holy Scripture. Society is transformed as more and more people become Christians and then act as salt and light in their daily lives,
And when we are anxious that speaking ‘Christianly’ will threaten our place in the public square and our contribution to social transformation, we need to remember that real social transformation will only come about through conversion through encountering Jesus in the Word of God and by the regenerating and illuminating power of the Spirit. In summary, given our current context, our public theology is public apologetics.
The "transformationist" model is big enough to include a role for "the light of nature" in public theology, but it rightly insists that the Bible must be allowed to speak in the public arena. The relative value of the "two kingdoms" and "transformationist" visions and the practicalities of speaking Christianly in the public square stimulated a lot of discussion and debate in the break-out groups and plenary discussion session.
The final paper was given by Hywel Jones, entitled, Preaching the Word in the Power of the Holy Spirit. Jones challenged the view that the Holy Spirit works invariably whenever the Word is preached. In keeping with the teaching of Scripture itself (1 Corinthians 2:1-5, 1 Thessalonians 1:5 etc) the speaker gave due emphasis to the importance of the preaching of the Word while also highlighting the need of the sovereign power of the Holy Spirit in preaching. This was his key proposal,
The Spirit and the Word are therefore not on the same plane of reality. The former is God; the latter is not seeing as it is the product of the Spirit (2 Tim. 3: 16 – 17). This means that the Spirit is as free and sovereign in his activity as is both the Father and the Son and that the Word that is his product is also his instrument. He remains the agent.
This needs to be said, as some, most notably John Woodhouse of Moore College, Sydney have been teaching a Lutheran conception of the relationship between Word and Spirit that virtually imprisons the Spirit in the Word. His views are influential among Evangelical Anglicans in the UK. Where such teaching holds sway, preachers will not be encouraged to seek the empowering presence of the Spirit in their ministries. All they need to do is preach and the Spirit can be relied upon do his work. The Reformed view is that the Holy Spirit works with his Word as he pleases. Jones quoted the words of John Stott's statement that Word and Spirit should never be divorced, and that the Spirit is needed to make the Word effective,
Also note the words of John Owen,We must never divorce what God has married, namely his Word and his Spirit. The Word of God is the Spirit’s sword. The Spirit without the Word is weaponless; the Word without the Spirit is powerless . . . The truth of the Word, the conviction with which we speak it, and the power of its impact on others all come from the Holy Spirit. It is he who illumines our minds, so that we formulate our message with integrity and clarity. It is he whose inward witness assures us of its truth, so that we preach it with conviction. And it is he who carries it home with power, so that the hearers respond to it in penitence, faith and obedience.
When God shall be pleased to give unto the people who are called by his name, in a more abundant manner, “pastors after his own heart, to feed them with knowledge and understanding”, when he shall revive and increase a holy. humble, zealous, self-denying, powerful ministry, by a more plentiful effusion of his Spirit from above: then, and not until then, may we hope to see the pristine glory and beauty of our restored unto its primitive state and condition.
Hywel Jones' important paper was an attempt at sketching out a theology of Word and Spirit in preaching. But it was more than that. It was a passionate plea for preachers to seek a greater measure of the power of the Holy Spirit as they proclaim the Word of God. Such preaching is the crying need of the world and the church. The trouble with the Moore view is that it does not encourage preachers to seek more of the empowering presence of the Spirit so that they may preach the gospel "not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction" (1 Thessalonians 1:5).