Thursday, June 27, 2013

Herman Bavinck on Evan Roberts


For some years my big reading project has been Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics. I'm now on Volume Four, which is the biggest of the lot, weighing in at 944 closely printed pages. The theme of this fourth and final tome in the series is Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation. I'm nearing the end of chapter two on Faith and Conversion. It's good stuff, typical of Bavinck's thoughtfully biblical approach to systematics. His paedobaptist predilections are beginning to intrude a little more than a Baptist would like, but you can't have everything. 

The theologian has a section on 'feeling sin and loving God' in conversion. He wisely rejects the tendency of some Pietists to insist on the need for a long penitential struggle prior to conversion. Bavinck laments that under the influence of that kind of thinking, "a great many Christians...year after year complain about their sins but almost never enjoy the heartfelt joy in God through Christ nor ever arrive at a peaceful and quiet life of gratitude." (p. 158). That experience is all to common in Gospel Standard Baptist Churches, where great attention is given to conviction of sin, but poor sinners are offered little by way of encouragement to trust in Christ for themselves. 

Bavinck then reflects on the Methodist view of conversion, where a long penitential struggle is replaced by an acute crisis of misery over sin followed by the ecstasy of forgiveness. This crisis is often accompanied by loud exclamations, tears and dancing and leaping with joy. Wesley and Whitefield were relaxed about that kind of thing, notes Bavinck, but Jonathan Edwards was more circumspect. I think the theologian is being a little hard on Wesley and Whitefield here. They did not take emotional outbursts as a stand-alone indicators of  new life. Both men looked for lasting fruit following conversion. 

It is at this point that Evan Roberts gets a mention, together with the 1904 Welsh Revival. Bavinck  mentions certain ecstatic and visionary phenomena that occurred among the Camisards and during the Nijkerk disturbances under G. Kuypers. I don't know what he's referring to here, but evidently the theologian perceived a link between these strange 'disturbances' and the ministry of Evan Roberts. He says, "And when the revival in Wales under Evan Roberts produced the same psychological and physical abnormalities and sparked them in other countries...opinions again strongly diverged." (p. 159).

That's it, really. It seems that Bavinck was a little suspicious of the 1904 Welsh Revival, impacted at it was by some strange goings on under Evan Roberts' ministry. Whether there was any room in Bavinck's theology for a doctrine of revival, I'm not really sure. But his treatment of conversion is full of biblical understanding and sound pastoral wisdom. While all conversions involve hatred for sin and love for God, there is no such thing as a stereotypical conversion experience. We avoid subjecting people to penitential despair by not proclaiming the threatenings of the law apart from the consolations of the gospel. 
True conversion, grief over sin, and genuine restoration to God and his service, therefore are brought about not just by the law but even to a much higher extent by the gospel... Law and gospel, accordingly, work together in human conversion. The law points pedagogically to Christ; but the gospel also sheds its light on the law. (p. 163).
 So, there we are. Herman Bavinck on Evan Roberts. Who'd have thought it?


Monday, June 24, 2013

Imagine Church: Releasing Whole-Life Disciples by Neil Hudson


Problem: the vast majority of people in the United Kingdom don't attend church on a regular basis. This is a something of a problem because the key task of the church is to re-evangelise the people of our 'post-Christian' nation. As few non-Christians turn up for church building-based meetings and activities, how are we going to reach them with the gospel so that non-believers become disciples of Jesus? Neil Hudson's solution to this problem is not another quick n' easy church grown gimmick or faddish programme. Rather, his book invites the reader to re-imagine church as the place where whole-life disciples of Jesus are formed, equipped and sent out into the world. The purpose of the activities of the 'gathered church' is to enable believers to live as the 'scattered church' in every area of their lives.

Hudson is not against gathered church-based evangelistic activities, such as toddler groups, children's clubs and special meetings, but he argues that the mission of the church should not be exclusively, or even mainly viewed in terms of such things. Every believer is a missionary and we carry out that mission as we submit every area of life to Christ's Lordship. This sounds fine and in a sense the writer is saying nothing new here. How many times have pastors told their congregations that being a Christian is not simply about what we do on a Sunday?  But do preachers always apply the teaching of the Bible to the whole of life, or is application often limited to the life of  the gathered church? 

The book helpfully and insistently makes clear the vital connection between the 'gathered church' and the 'scattered church'. All too often there is a disconnect between the two and when that is the case the church fails in it's task of making whole-life disciples of Jesus. Hudson gives some practical hints and tips for overcoming this disconnect. We often have Missionaries tell stories of their work in church meetings, but seldom do we invite Christian doctors, teachers, accountants, car mechanics or mothers of small children to do the same. The writer suggests that church members be given the opportunity during Sunday meetings to speak of what they will be doing at the same time the next day. That kind of thing can help reinforce the message that what believers do as the 'scattered church' is of value and importance for the kingdom of God. The 'gathered church' is better able to support and  pray for its members when we know what our friends are doing during the week. 

So far so good, but I do have one or two 'issues' with Imagine Church. The first is that little attention is given to the shape and form of the church according to the teaching of Scripture. A book on church life should have at lest attempt to sketch out a biblical ecclesiology, but Hudson is content to say that the Imagine Church thing would work equally well in a "traditional church, a middle-of-the-road church or a new church." More worryingly, confessional theology doesn't seem to count for much either, "So it doesn't matter if you are...post-evangelical, post-charismatic or neo-reformed." Well, it does and notwithstanding some excellent things in this book, Hudson's pragmatism on the doctrine of the church and church doctrine is disappointing. 

Next, while the book often uses the word 'mission', no real attempt is made to define the mission of the church in biblical and theological terms. Is a Christian doctor, teacher, accountant, mum, or whatever carrying out the mission of the church as they go about their daily work? Granted, part of the mission of the church is to equip its members to be whole-life disciples for Jesus. But it would be difficult for many Christians to act as 'fishers of men' in the workplace by speaking explicitly of Jesus to their colleagues. That kind of direct gospel witness is often best carried out in the context of the organised activities of the 'gathered church'. How many NHS Doctors' Surgeries, State-run Schools, offices or factories would allow gospel preaching meetings, or run Christianity Explored Courses and the like? The individual believer's work is his or her calling from God and is to be carried out as an act of service for the Lord, but this is not a direct expression of the mission of the church. The church's mission is not medical, educational, financial or industrial, but evangelical; to proclaim the gospel of salvation to all peoples. Yes, all believers are missionaries, but only so far as they bear witness to the good news of Jesus in the context of their daily lives. If a disconnect between the 'gathered' and 'scattered' church is no good thing, a disconnect between 'gospel' and 'mission' isn't the answer. 

I didn't set out to write a negative review of this book and I don't want to put potential readers off from having a look at it. Hudson's central case is good and he presents it in a winning way. He certainly got me thinking afresh about seeing the church as a community of whole-life followers of Jesus. As a preacher I need to give more attention to applying biblical truth to every area of life. It's true that if we are going to re-evangelise the nation for Christ, mission cannot be limited to the programmes and activities of the 'gathered church'. The 'scattered church' needs to get out there in the community, the workplace, wherever, living as whole-life disciples for Jesus and bearing witness to him by their walk and talk. Then and only then will we be the 'salt of the earth' and the 'light of the world'. Just imagine if church was more like that. 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Stourhead curios


A bit wet today. Wasn't sure what to do or where to go. Listened to British Lions vs NSW Warathas on TalkSport this morning. A good 47-17 win for the Brits. Opted to go to Stourhead, a favourite haunt this afters. At least if it rained we could head for the House and have a look round. As it happened the rain held off, but we visited the House anyway and spotted one or two curios amongst the Chippendale furniture grand family portraits. 

A well-meaning guide assured us that the rock star below was Noel Gallagher. It's really 'the Modfather', Paul Weller. I'm guessing that the woman in the photo is the Hoare family member who still lives in the House and that the young man is her son, who, judging by is Weller-ish barnet and threads is a bit of a Mod. 


























The airy library is floor-to-ceiling with handsome, leather-bound books. Some of the ancient tomes are obviously a little poorly. Never seen a bandaged book before.

When visiting Stourhead we usually enter the gardens via the bottom gate, near the Spread Eagle pub. As we visited the House first this time, we used the top entrance. The pathway has a viewing point that shows off the rhododendron-strewn gardens and lake to great effect. 

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Fragments

Monday

Sarah and I attended Graham Harrison's funeral at Emmanuel Evangelical Church, Newport where he had ministered for 47 years. Seeing his coffin arranged in front of the pulpit from which he used to preach was a sobering sight for any Minister. In his sermon Stephen Clark referred to Harrison's use of the words of Richard Baxter, "I preached as never sure to preach again, as a dying man to dying men." But, like Abel being dead, he still speaks, calling us to herald the good news of salvation from sin and death through Christ crucified and risen. 

The simple service was a fitting tribute to Harrison's memory and a powerful witness to the gospel he lived to preach. One of the elders, Trevor MacMillen spoke warmly of Mr. Harrison the man and the Minister. Stephen Clark's message was based on 1 Corinthians 2:2. In Harrisonesque fashion Clark called upon any non-Christians present in the service to come to Christ without delay. He offered gospel consolation to those who mourned Mr. Harrison's passing.  Preachers were urged to proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified, seeking empowering presence of the Spirit. 

At the graveside Hywel Jones prayed one of the most amazing prayers I've ever been privileged to hear. It was theology on fire, directed to God on behalf of his grateful, hopeful, yet sorrowing people. 

Before heading for home we called in on my mum in nearby Bassaleg, which was nice. 

Tuesday

Took an assembly at a local Primary School in the morning on 'Friendship and Trust', with special reference to Matthew 14:22-33. Jesus is a friend in whom we can trust. He will never let us down.

In the afternoon I went along to a Governor's Training Session, where we were encouraged to evaluate our performance using twenty questions suggested by an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Education Governance & Leadership, see here. It was a useful exercise that will hopefully help us be a more effective governing body. 

Wednesday

Prepared for the evening's Bible Study on Hosea 6:4-6. Visited a couple of church members. Led the Prayer Meeting/Bible Study. On the first Wednesday of the month we pray for other churches in our FIEC Cluster Group, using a Prayer Diary. 

Emails ping back and forth all day. Church stuff, Fraternal stuff, Governor stuff, Grace Baptist Mission weekend stuff etc. One day I'm going to get confused, send a deacon on a Teachers' Pay training session and book the Clerk to the Governors into a theology seminar. That'd be a shock for 'em both. 

Thursday

Prepared Sunday morning's sermon on Matthew 5:17-20. Pastoral visit. Managed to get a bit of reading done - Imagine Church by Neil Hudson and On Christian Doctrine by Augustine. 

Friday

Hasn't happened yet, Proverbs 27:1.