Thursday, October 22, 2015

Jonathan Edwards for the Church edited by William M. Schweitzer

Jonathan Edwards for the Church: The ministry and the means of Grace,
Edited by: William M. Schweitzer, EP Books, 2015, 309pp. 

Jonathan Edwards has long been recognised as a towering intellectual genius. His works have attracted attention in the worlds of philosophy and academic theology. But Edwards was above all else a pastor and preacher of the gospel. Most of his time and energies were devoted to church-based ministry. This multi-author book endeavours to redress the balance by focusing on what Edwards had to say on the ministry and the means of grace,

Lessons are drawn from the preacher’s life and teaching and attempts are made to apply what may be learned to our situation today. The book will be of special interest to pastors, who will find Edwards’ vision of pastoral ministry both an inspiration and a challenge. Edwards was a pastor-theologian, a diligent student of the Word who devoted himself to the exploration and defence of the great doctrines of the Bible. But his sermons were not intended to be lectures that simply informed the minds of his hearers, but messages that reached their hearts and transformed their lives as the truth of the gospel was proclaimed and understood.

Edwards experienced several seasons of revival under his ministry in Northampton. His knowledge of the Word and the human heart helped him to discern what was genuinely of the Spirit and what was merely of the flesh during those revival periods. His balanced approach exemplified in his key work, The Religious Affections, helped him guard his people from unbelieving scepticism and hot-headed fanaticism.

Chapters are devoted to various aspects of Edwards’ ministry and thought including the means of grace, persevering in faithful ministry, the power of the word and Christ as the scope of Scripture. The essay on Edwards’ vision of God’s excellences is outstanding. Some of the chapters could have done with a little more editorial attention. The preacher’s dismissal from his Northampton pastorate is discussed at length in chapter 4, but chapter 5 begins by going over the same ground.

Occasionally one can hear the sound of axes grinding. It is claimed that unlike some contemporary Evangelicals, Edwards had little time for contextualising his message to address his cultural situation. (Are you listening, Tim Keller?) But he was a keen student of Enlightenment thought and adapted his language accordingly. Describing conversion as giving a ‘sense of new things’ is a case in point. That said, his ministry could have done with a little more contextualisation when it came to preaching to Native American Indians in Stockbridge, where he made no attempt to learn their language, preferring to use a translator. 

An appendix includes a sermon on revival by William Macleod. It is stirring enough, but the preacher has a dig at Christians for using the internet and Facebook. I'm not sure that Edwards would have agreed with his strictures. He was no techno-Luddite and it may even be claimed that the preacher was far sighted enough to predict the internet. He prognosticated, "There will be so many contrivances and inventions to facilitate and expedite their necessary secular business that they shall have more time for more noble exercise, and that they will have better contrivances for assisting one another through the whole earth by more expedite, easy, and safe communication between distant regions than now." (See here). Admittedly, the preacher didn't anticipate people informing the world that they had just made a cup of tea via Facebook, but I think we have reasons to believe that he would have blogged and perhaps even tweeted. Edwards' Miscellanies would make for perfectly formed blog posts. 

Criticisms aside, the writers have done a good job in setting forth Edwards’ vision of a Spirit empowered, Christ centred, and God glorifying ministry. A vision that needs to be recovered in our churches today.

* An edited version of this review will appear in Evangelical Times

Friday, October 02, 2015

On finishing reading 'Reformed Dogmatics' by Herman Bavinck


Working my way through Bavinck's mighty four volume Reformed Dogmatics (Volumes 1-4, Baker Academic) has been my big long term reading project. The other day I finished the final volume. Looking back through the blog I notice that the set was delivered in May 2008 (see here). Didn't realise that it's taken me over seven years to get through the whole thing. Although I must admit that my progress has been rather fitful, with months sometimes passing between reads. That said, Bavinck's work needs to be absorbed rather than skimmed if you're going to get the best out of it.

Reformed Dogmatics is easily the best systematic theology I've yet encountered. It puts Berkhof and Reymond in the shade and is far better than Hodge. Right across the whole gamut of systematics  RD is marked by fresh and insightful exegesis, sensitivity to the flow of biblical revelation, awareness of the doctrinal heritage of the church, and deep theological reflection. The work is an organic whole; a mighty exposition of the being, persons, will  and acts of the triune God. 

In an era of the theology tweet and bite sized books for busy pastors, Bavinck offers something substantial, profound and satisfying. His approach is thoroughly presuppositional. Bavinck begins with God and ends with him. He is presented as the Alpha and Omega of theology, it's self-revealing source and ultimate goal. Here is a work of theology as faith seeking understanding that is designed to shape our minds in the light of God's Word, move our hearts to worship in response to God's Ways, and stir our wills to be about God's Work. If pastors aspire to be pastor-theologians for the sake of the people of God, they would do well to study Reformed Dogmatics. Let the man himself define what he means by dogmatic theology:  
Dogmatics is the system of the knowledge of God as he has revealed himself in Christ; it is the system of the Christian religion. And the essence of the Christian religion consists in the reality that the creation of the Father, ruined by sin, is restored in the death of the Son of God and re-created by the grace of the Holy Spirit into a kingdom of God. Dogmatics shows us how God, who is all-sufficient in himself, nevertheless glorifies himself in his creation, which, even when torn apart by sin, is gathered up again in Christ. (Eph 1:10). It describes for us God, always God from beginning to end - God in his being, God in his creation, God against sin, God in Christ, God breaking down all resistance through the Holy Spirit and guiding the whole of creation back to the objective he decreed for it: the glory of his name. Dogmatics, therefore, is not a dull science. It is a theodicy, a doxology of all God's virtues and perfections, a hymn of adoration and thanksgiving, a "glory to God in the highest" (Luke 2:14). (RD Volume 1, p. 112)
From Volume 1-4 Bavinck unfolds the great drama of creation, ruin, redemption and renewal. He constantly returns to the thought that God in his grace has not abandoned the world that he made in rescuing it from sin. Rather, by grace he redeems, restores, and perfects it. The climax of his eschatological vision is not the believer dying and going to heaven, but the new creation.
The state of glory will be no mere restoration of the state of nature, but a re-formation that, thanks to the power of Christ, transforms all matter into form, all potency into actuality, and presents the entire creation before the face of God, brilliant in unfading splendor and blossoming in a springtime of eternal youth. (RD Volume 4, p. 720).   
See here for blog posts on various aspects of RD.  My next 'big read' will be The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way, by Michael Horton, Zondervan. Our people bought me this to mark my 10th anniversary in the pastorate in 2013, but I've been keeping it until I'd finished reading Bavinck. It's always good to have a 'biggie' on the go. In my formative years as a preacher I read Preaching and Preachers,  by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. I was struck by his counsel,  
Time must be found for reading, and we turn now to the more intellectual type of reading. The first is theology. There is no greater mistake than to think that you finish with theology when you leave a seminary. The preacher should continue to read theology as long as he is alive. The more he reads the better and there are many authors and systems to be studied. I have known men in the ministry, and men in various other walks of life who stop reading when they finish their training. They think they have acquired all they need; they have their lecture notes, and nothing further is necessary. The result is that they vegetate and become quite useless. Keep on reading; and read the big works. (Preaching and Preachers by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Hodder and Stoughton, 1985, p. 177).
You can't get much bigger or grander in scope and scale than Herman Bavinck's great magnum opus. Delve into his Reformed Dogmatics. Don't just take my word for it. It's Doctor's orders and will do you good.