Thursday, January 31, 2013

Together for the Gospel? (1)


Last Saturday I headed to the Land of My Fathers with one of our deacons for the Evangelical Movement of Wales' Church Leaders’ Day. The conference was entitled Together for the Gospel? The programme included two keynote addresses and a wide variety of seminars. To kick of my report on proceedings here is  a flavour of Stephen Clark's address on United Churches for the Gospel? 

The speaker bemoaned our tendency to define ourselves by our distinctives not the gospel. He shared something of what has been happening in Bridgend, where he is Minister of Freeschool Court Evangelical Church. The woman who anointed the head of our Lord was commended by Jesus because she did what she could. Similarly, the situation with regard to evangelical church unity in Bridgend may not be perfect, but the churches have done what they could to unite together for the gospel. The town of 150,000 people has seven gospel churches, all affiliated to Affinity. Together they have held missions and organised special events such as a Bible ministry weekend, pastors meetings, pulpit exchanges, school assembly coordination, resource sharing etc. The churches are FIEC, Apostolic, Gospel Hall, Charismatic, Independent, Independent Baptist, and Freeschool Court, which is Reformed in its basis of faith. All these churches hold to an agreed statement on ecumenism.

Clark spelt out the biblical teaching that justifies inter-church fellowship between evangelical congregations that may not agree on certain distinctive beliefs and practices. If we were around in the 1st century, would our churches have remained in fellowship with the church at Corinth? That church was far from perfect, but still a true church, 1 Corinthians 1:2. In  Matthew 25 Christ’s sheep are separated from the goats because of what the sheep did for the least of his disciples. We must love all of God’s the elect people, even Arminians. If we believe God only blesses Calvinists we are in effect Arminians ourselves.  

We are not same situation as the New Testament. Now there are various churches in an area. A distinction must be made between primary and secondary truths, 1 Corinthians 3:11, 15:1-4, John 3 - the new birth, Matthew 28 – the Trinity, 2 Timothy 3:16 - the authority of Scripture, Galatians 1 – justification by faith alone. We cannot have fellowship with those who deny the gospel, 2 John 10. The exclusivism of the gospel maintained so that the inclusivism may be maintained. All may be saved, but only through Christ. The evangelical fellowship of churches in Bridgend are not part of Churches Together. Cultural preferences cannot affect fellowship. We must not add to the gospel.  

Some theological principles also need to be taken into consideration. We must proclaim whole counsel of God and maintain unity with the people of God. The Bible reveals a hierarchy of principles 2 Chronicles 30 and Leviticus 10 are cases in point. It would be ideal if all evangelical churches were also Reformed, but that is not the case. The principle of gospel unity must override differences on doctrinal distinctives that are not essential to the faith.

Historical examples of evangelical unity were given. George Whitefield had a high regard for John and Charles Wesley. Note also C. H. Spurgeon on John Wesley:
You know, brethren, that there is no soul living who holds more firmly to the doctrines of grace than I do, and if any man asks me whether I am ashamed to be called a Calvinist, I answer, I wish to be called nothing but a Christian; but if you ask me, do I hold the doctrinal views which were held by John Calvin, I reply, I do in the main hold them, and rejoice to avow it. But, my dear friends, far be it from me even to imagine that Zion contains none within her walls but Calvinistic Christians, or that there are none saved who do not hold our views. Most atrocious things have been spoken about the character and spiritual condition of John Wesley, the modern prince of Arminians. I can only say concerning him, that while I detest many of the doctrines which he preached, yet for the man himself, I have a reverence second to no Wesleyan; and if there were wanted two apostles to be added to the number of the twelve, I do not believe that there could be found two men more fit to be so added than George Whitfield and John Wesley. The character of John Wesley stands beyond all imputation for self-sacrifice, zeal, holiness, and communion with God; he lived far above the ordinary level of common Christians, and was one of whom the world was not worthy. I believe there are multitudes of men who cannot see these truths, or, at least, cannot see them in the way in which we put them, who nevertheless have received Christ into their hearts, and are as dear to the heart of the God of grace as the soundest Calvinist out of heaven.
Is the Evangelical Movement of Wales really a “movement” that is going somewhere, or is it stuck? Separation from error is still important, but Ruth Palgrave’s booklet on Affinity, They Have Forgotten is a case of “monstrous special pleading” to which Clark plans to respond with a booklet of his own.

Evangelical churches should work together for conversions, mutual  challenge and fellowship, Psalm 133. 

I pretty much agree with the principles, but I'm not sure how exactly Clark's model would work in a small town like Westbury, where we are the only church not in Churches Together. We are members of the FIEC. That involves us in a wider evangelical grouping. We also meet with the local Grace Baptist fellowship of churches, where there would be more agreement on theological distinctives. Under the FIEC banner seven local churches meet in a 'cluster group' in order to deepen fellowship and encourage each other in mission. There is some variety of theological emphasis and differing approaches to Sunday worship in the churches, but we don't allow such matters to get in the way of our partnership in the gospel. Several local Grace and FIEC churches have been doing open air preaching work together. Maybe that's the way ahead for an area like our own with several small towns and villages rather than in a large-ish town situation like Bridgend. We can be 'United Churches for the Gospel' on an inter-town and village basis. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

An Affinity for discussion

I'm not going to try and summarise the contents of the papers delivered at last week's Affinity Theological Studies Conference. My guess is that they will be posted in Affinity's online theological journal, Foundations at some point anyway. (See here and here for papers from the 2011 conference on the doctrine of Scripture). My aim is to reflect a little on some of the issues raised by the papers and to say a word or two about the format of the conference. 

1) Bringing the ancient text of Scripture into dialogue with cutting-edge concerns

We live in a world that has thrown up new moral concerns; economic globalisation and social justice, the legitimacy or otherwise of the use of torture by democratic regimes in combating terrorism, not to mention bioethical  issues such as embryonic stem cell research. The Bible may not address these matters directly, but are there biblical principles that can be brought to bear upon them? Part of the role of the church is to try and help its members to think biblically about the whole of life and that includes ethical reflection on economics, war, medical research and so on.

2) Brining the academy into dialogue with the church

Most of the speakers were academic specialists in their field. A couple were also pastors with a background in law and economics respectively. Responding to the issues under discussion involved grappling with biblical ethics in general before specific matters could be addressed. That in itself is a demanding task, requiring thought on the relationship between general and special revelation, the differences between Old Testament and New Testament ethics, the nature of Christian love and the intersection of the "Two Kingdoms"; that of this world and the kingdom of God. The papers given by Stephen Clark, Joshua Horden and Paul Helm were more directly theological. On the biblical studies front, Gordon Wenham offered an excellent study on the Psalms as Torah. Andy Hartropp, both an economist and theologian helped us to think through the Bible's teaching on wealth and social justice. Leonardo De Chirico's paper offered a fresh, if controversial   approach to bioethical issues. Pastors aren't usually specialists in the areas just mentioned. That is why it is important to bring the academic lectern into dialogue with the church pulpit. Part of the role of Christians in the academy is to help enable pastors to equip the people of God to face the ethical challenges of the 21st century.

3) The value of discussion

Discussion is an important element of the Affinity Theological Studies Conference. Papers are circulated beforehand for delegates to read and then introduced by their authors at the event. When that's done conference-goers gather in small groups of around half a dozen people to work their way though a list of pre-set questions. This helps to facilitate a structured discussion of the various papers. Following that delegates convene for a plenary discussion, where speakers are questioned and the issues thrashed out. It's probably fair to say that the small group sessions work better than the plenaries. I like discussion and found the format stimulating. Sometimes the papers were lacking in the area of practical application so it was helpful to try and work out how we might apply what was written in a local-church context.

4) Controversy

As I've already hinted, Leonardo De Chirico's paper was probably the most controversial of the lot. In fact, Joshua Horden used the introduction to his paper as an opportunity to critique De Chirio's key proposals. The Italian pastor argued that human life in the image of God does not begin at conception, but when the embryo is implanted in the womb. In the plenary discussion session he made it clear that he is not in favour of abortion, or research on embryos. But he has no problem with IVF that involves the destruction of 'surplus embryos' on the grounds that in nature several embryos are lost for every baby that is born. The speaker made implantation in the womb determinative of human life in the image of God, as from that moment the embryo stands in relationship to its mother. He cited Scriptures such as Jeremiah 1:5 and Galatians 1:15 to seek to prove his point. But as was argued in discussion, it is doubtful that the Bible makes a clear distinction between conception and implantation when speaking of the womb. Also, the idea that human life in the image of God, or 'ensoulment', does not begin at conception, has a distorting Christological effect. The church confesses that at the incarnation Christ assumed a full human nature, body and soul. Contrary to Apollonarian error, the divine logos did not take the place of the soul of Jesus. From conception the incarnate Son was a divine person with a complete psyco-physical human nature. If ensoulment is ordinarily delayed until implantation, then that involves an 'Apollonarian' stage on Christ's human nature, which is inconceivable according to orthodox teaching on the person of Christ.

Given the controversial nature of De Chirico's paper there was some potential for heated debate in the discussion sessions. But points of disagreement were raised courteously and the speaker attempted to clarify and explain his views in a gracious and thoughtful manner. Although some delegates agreed with him, most, I think were unconvinced. However, his paper and the discussions that followed drove us back to the Scriptures to explore what the Bible teaches on the beginning of human life.

The conference broke up early due to an expected heavy snow fall, so no panel discussion took place. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

To Affinity and beyond!

Right then, later this morning I'll be hitting the road and heading off to the Affinity Theological Studies Conference on The Bible and Ethics. I managed to read all six papers and am looking forward to chewing the fat in the discussion sessions. Some papers have raised controversial points, so there shouldn't be any problem in generating debate. I'll hopefully post a report when I get back.

Monday, January 14, 2013

In Christ Alone: Living the gospel centred life by Sinclair B. Ferguson

In Christ Alone by Sinclair Ferguson

It's long been my practice to leave a book in the car that I can read when waiting for a doctor's or dentist's appointment or something. That way waiting time isn't wasted time. However, since investing in an Android tablet, loaded up with the Kobo e-Reader, I've been grabbing the tablet when I expect to be waiting around for a while. I've invested in several e-Books, usually at knock-down prices, but one of the first I downloaded was In Christ Alone by Sinclair Ferguson. It was going for only £0.99 at the time. Unbelievable. The title is really great for occasional reading, when you've got five or ten minutes to spare, as it's made up brief and punchy chapters that get straight to the point. 

If you are not already acquainted with Sinclair Ferguson's writings, then this might be a good place to start. You couldn't wish for a better theme than life in Christ and the theologian certainly warms to it. This title is informed by the theological acumen and exegetical skill that we have come to expect from Ferguson's pen, or keyboard more likely. But especially here, his gifts as a theologian and biblical scholar are at the service of a pastor-teacher with a keen desire to help the people of God live out of the fullness of their union with Christ.

Ferguson draws on the riches of God's Word to paint a fine portrait of the person and work of the Saviour. He is the second person of the Trinity, the Word made flesh for us and our salvation. He is our Prophet, Priest and King. He died for our sins and was raised from the tomb that we might live through him. In Christ we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. By virtue of our union with him we are justified and called to a new life of faith and holiness. Ferguson gives attention to the practicalities of life in Christ, devoting pithy chapters to matters such as prayer, guidance, the mortification of sin, Christian liberty and humility in service. In the the final chapter we are given a glimpse of the rest that remains for the people of God.

This work is Ferguson at his best. In Christ Alone is theologically profound without being complicated, devotionally warm without being sentimental and practical without being a spiritual self-help manual. When reading I often had to pause and silently worship the Christ who brought me into saving union with himself by his Spirit and into communion with our God and Father. I doubt reading Hello magazine or a leaflet on the health benefits of tea while waiting for an appointment would have have the same effect. Highly recommended. 

Friday, January 04, 2013

Stephen Charnock on Christ and the theodrama

I know that posting quotations isn't proper blogging, which should involve at least some original writing. It's just typing stuff out. But I couldn't resist this one, which I came across when reading A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, by Joel Beeke and Mark Jones. Puritan divine, Stephen Charnock sounds a bit like a seventeenth century version of theodramatist-in-chief, Kevin Vanhoozer (interviewed here). Charnock places Christ at the dramatic centre of the communicative action of God,  
Christ is the stage wherein all the attributes of God act their parts. (From Charnock, The Knowledge of Christ, in Works; 4:139). 
As Vanhoozer more recently put it,
Thinking of doctrine in dramatic rather than theoretical terms provides a wonderfully engaging and in integrative model for understanding what it means to follow – with all our mind, heart, soul and strength – the way, truth and life embodied and enacted in Jesus Christ. (From Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, p. 16.)
Admittedly, for Charnock  drama is a one-off handy metaphor, rather than the key idea that shapes his theologizing, but is is interesting to note this Puritan precedent for Vanhoozer's  theodramatic proposals.

Kevin Vanhoozer's follow up to Remythologizing Theology is  Divine Action and Providence, his contribution to Zondervan's promising looking 'New Studies in Dogmatics' series

Thursday, January 03, 2013

The blog is mightier than the tweet

Blogging increasingly seems like the elderly relative of the new media family. Young uns prefer to Tweet and update their Facebook status. But there is only so much that can be said in  Twitter's 140 character limit and  a Facebook status doesn't lend itself to a anything longer than a sentence or two. There is something to be said for articles that can explore subjects in a more reflective and considered way. Blogging is just the thing for that. John Stevens is master of the lengthy blog post.

That said, if my blog is anything to go by, most of my readers apparently prefer to access my blog content via Google Reader, email subscription or Facebook and Twitter feeds rather than visiting Exiled Preacher directly. With its longer posts, Blogger remains distinct from Facebook and Twitter, but feeds enable the grand old man of social networking to mix it with the new kids on the block. I probably get more comments and feedback on my blog posts on Facebook than on blog itself. 

Unbelievably, Exiled Preacher has been going for around seven years. I don't blog as frequently as I once did, but I continue to enjoy posting items on a reasonably regular basis. I probably do more personal newsy stuff now than I used to, but I still like to post up book reviews, theological reflections and do the occasional current affairs comment piece. Blogging is also a great format for interviews, of which I've done several. If I've written something for a local paper/magazine, Evangelical Times, or a theological journal it'll usually end up on the blog. Cyber-recycling.

So, I'll probably keep posting my displaced fragments from an exiled preacher. For the time being anyway. 

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

So, that was Christmas (and New Year)

Pre-Christmas was the usual whirl of activity. On the last day of term, Friday 21st December I did the Bible reading at the town's secondary school Carol Service, Luke 2:1-20. Last January I became a parent governor at the school, where our two are in years 11 & 13. Then we had an encouraging 'Evening with Carols' at a local sheltered housing complex on Friday evening. It was good to have some visitors come along to the Carol Services of both churches I serve on the Sunday before Christmas.

With schools breaking up on the Friday before Christmas, the 'Big Day' seemed to arrive with little warning. We'd done most of the shopping, but that left quite a bit of pressie wrapping to do. All seems a bit of a blur now. Had some nice presents, mostly clothes and some other bits and pieces. A  navy blue Ben Sherman Harrington jacket will help complete the midlife crisis ageing-mod look.

Preached on Isaiah 9:6 Christmas morning, emphasising God's gift of Jesus, "unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son us given". Quoted Thomas Goodwin's wonderful mash-up of Isaiah 9:6 and 1 Corinthians 1:30:
For would we have peace of conscience and the guilt of sin removed? He is the “Prince of Peace”, and is made “righteousness” unto us. Are we in depths of distress, terrors within, terrors without, out of which we see no redemption? He is the “mighty God;” “able to save to the utmost,” being made “redemption” to us. Want we grace and his image to be renewed and increased in us? He is “the everlasting Father;” a father to beget his likeness in us, and everlasting to maintain it [for] ever, when it is begun once: he is made “sanctification” to us. Want we wisdom to guide us? He is the “Counsellor,” and is made wisdom to us. All we want he has, even as all he has we want.
Not  sure that the old Puritan would approve of Christmas, but there we are. 

Wanted to go for a walk on  Boxing Day, but it was raining pretty heavily. So, we decided to have a game of  Monopoly. We've got the newfangled set where you use credit cards rather than cash. My daughter won, accumulating over £130 million. Something like that anyway. 

Managed to get out for a walk the day after. Sarah and I went for a wander around Shear Water, a local beauty spot. 

On Friday we went to Wales and had a lovely time seeing my family. My mum and sister and her family still live in the village where I was brought up. Always good to see Bassaleg again. On the way home we went to IKEA in Bristol and bought some stuff. Never been there before. Good quality. Cheap. Quite impressed. 

On Saturday we headed for London, partly to see Sarah's family and partly because I was booked to preach at Stanmore Chapel on the Sunday. The pastor is Colin Leyshon, who I first met when studying at LTS in 1989. Preached on Galatians 4:1-7 in the morning and Romans 8:35-39 in the evening. I struggled a bit in the morning, but felt more free in the later service. While we were away I finished the Kindle version of In Christ Alone by Sinclair Ferguson. It was only £0.99 from Amazon. A very helpful read at bargain basement price. Look out for a review soon. 

Back home on Monday. Went to a New Year's Eve party at Barnaby and Verity Alsop's place. Barnaby, another member of the 'LTS Mafia' is pastor at Bulford Chapel. We had a good time, eating, drinking and chatting away merrily. We played Monopoly Deal, a playing card version of the board game. Fun, even though we didn't win.

My reading highlights for 2012 were Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3 and Iain Murray's moving biography of Archibald Brown. I hope to get through a sizeable chunk of RD Vol 4 this year. It's the biggie of the set. Over 900pp. On my 'to read' shelf I have What is Jesus doing now? by my good friend Gary Brady (to be reviewed for ET), The Mission of God, by Christopher Wright and some other stuff, including a volume of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's sermons. I've caught the e-reading bug and like to snap up Kindle special offers when I can. I've made a start on Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life by Joel Beeke and Mark Jones and downloaded Pillars of Grace, by Stephen Lawson. I got the former for only £6.48. It is now £19.27 for the Kindle version, £34.40 hardback.  The early bird... and all that.

Who, but the Lord knows what 2013 holds for us? We trust in him and in his name we go forward into a new year.