Thursday, January 28, 2016

Training for the Ministry in the Reformed Baptist Tradition by Robert Oliver

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On Wednesday we had a meeting of the Bradford on Avon Ministers' Fraternal. Our longstanding Chair and former Minister at Bradford on Avon Baptist Church gave an address on the subject in the title above. Here are some brief (and rough around the edges) notes. 

In 1644 the 1st London Baptist Confession was drawn up and approved by seven London Baptist Churches. But to understand the emergence of Reformed or Particular (that is Calvinistic, not fussy) Baptists we have to go back a little further in history. 

The English Reformation that had developed in fits and starts since the reign of Henry VIII was brought to a juddering halt by Queen Mary. She set about to literally burn Protestantism out of England and many faced a martyr's death. 

Some English Protestants fled to Calvin's Geneva for refuge. There they encountered a more thorough reformation than they had witnessed back home. The regular preaching of the Word was especially prominent. This emphasis on biblical exposition and application let to the printing of the Geneva Bible, replete with notes and other study aids. 

As the Geneva Bible came into the hands of godly English-folk it stimulated a desire for sound biblical preaching. 

Mary died and was followed by Elizabeth I. Hopes were raised that the new monarch would give fresh stimulus to the Reformation in England. However, virtually all she would allow was for the Church of England to revert to it's pre-Marian state. The Elizabethan Settlement set the Reformation in stone. Queen Bess was certainly no great fan of preaching.  

The Puritan vision of Reformed Church driven by a revitalised preaching ministry was going nowhere fast. Some began to question the very idea of a State Church. They held that churches should be allowed to reform themselves according to the Word of God without having to wait for permission from the State. There were the Separatists.

Initially they were not Baptists. A persecuted minority, they sought refuge in Netherlands. In 1596 they drew up a confession of faith. This, with some revisions, was the basis of 1st London Baptist Confession of 1644.

A pioneer Reformed Baptist movement began to emerge among Separatists in 1630 London. Initially they questioned the validity of  CofE baptism, as they had seceded from the 'corrupt' church. The position of believers' baptism was adopted in 1638. General Baptists had already rejected infant baptism, but they were Arminian in their theology and baptised adults by effusion. The Reformed Baptists were Calvinistic and advocated believers' baptism by immersion.

And so the 1644 confession was agreed. The Calvinistic stance was in part due to the influence of William Ames. Ames was an English Separatist who found refuge in Holland. He was present at the Synod of Dort and authored the widely read, Marrow of Theology.

None of early Reformed Baptists had  had any formal theological training. Their pastors were artisans and merchants. But they had been brought up on a solid diet of sound Puritan preaching. Eventually theology graduates joined number such as Samuel Cox.

The RBs held that Ministers of the Word needed to be proficient in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. Early pastors Christopher Blackwood and John Tombs were scholarly men. 

With toleration granted to Baptist in the 1650s, RB churches proliferated. Gifted preachers and evangelists such as Richard Gifford were mightily used by God to spread the Word and plant new RB churches. 

The RBs disapproved of 'disorderly preaching' by unrecognised men. Church approval was required for 'lay preachers' or 'gifted brethren'. It was insisted that churches not the not the magistrate should grabt this approval to competent and orthodox men.

When the monarchy was restored with the return of Charles II, only Anglican worship was allowed. Non Anglican preaching was officially banned, but Baptists such as John Bunyan and Benjamin Keach continued. 

In 1677 the 1st London Confession was revised and the 2nd London Baptist Confession drawn up. It made provision for preachers who were not pastors or elders (26:11). The updated confession was formally adopted by RB churches in 1689 when Dissenters were granted toleration.

The need for training was recognised. Both for pastors and 'others who are gifted and qualified' to preach. Training was initially provided by local churches. But Academies also began to emerge. Some RB's like Samuel Howe saw no need for 'human learning'. But that was not the general view. 

In 1679 Broadmead Baptist Church in Bristol was left a legacy by wealthy merchant Edward Tyrell to establish a training ministry associated with the church. Bernard Foskett led the Bristol Academy with distinction from 1720-58. He was proficient in Hebrew and Greek, taught systematic theology and Bible handling skills to a growing body of students.

Dissenting Academies sprung up across the country to train men for the Ministry, as Nonconformists were not allowed to attend university at the time. The Bristol Academy trained preachers from all over UK. As well as the Academies some candidates for the Ministry received personal tutoring from experienced pastors. 

The Baptist Academies tended to be more confessional in orientation and held to trinitarian orthodoxy, while other Nonconformist Academies drifted into Unitarianism, to the detriment of the Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches. 

With Robert's historical overview in mind we discussed training for pastoral and preaching ministries today in the UK RB scene. Currently there is no dedicated RB seminary. Reformed Seminaries and Bible Colleges tend to be interdenominational. That can be a strength in terms of fostering catholicity of spirit, but may be a weakness in terms of fostering a distinctive RB ministerial identity. 

We had a planning session over lunch to draw up a schedule for the year ahead. Robert announced that he was standing down as Chair after many years of distinguished service. It was kind of fitting that his swansong as Chair was an historical talk on training for the Ministry. Two subjects that are very close to his heart. I first came across Robert when attending the London Theological Seminary in the late 1980's and he was appointed Church History lecturer. 

I joined the Bradford on Avon fraternal when a newbie pastor in Stalbridge, Dorset in the early 1990's, and have been attending regularly since we moved to Westbury in 2003. Being part of this 'Band of Brothers' has been of real encouragement to me over the years. I'm sure Robert's wise and gracious chairmanship of the fraternal has been much appreciated by members past and present. We were glad to hear that he intends to continue meeting with us despite stepping down as Chair.  

Monday, January 11, 2016

Anglican Primates' conference: the church militant or muddled?


There's nothing that draws the attention of the media to church-related matters so much as stories involving splits and sex. A story featuring both factors in one is the religious affairs correspondents' equivalent of the Holy Grail. As ever, our dear old Church of England is happy to oblige. This week Justin Welby has convened an Anglican Primates' meeting at Canterbury with the hope of holding the fractured communion together. The issue that threatens to divide global Anglicanism is, of course, homosexuality. 

Cue calls issued by the Liberal wing for the church to repent over its treatment of gays. While Evangelicals warn, "Everywhere we see the danger of Christians committed to a gospel without salvation, reconciliation without repentance, a Saviour without a cross and a Lord without a word." 

This being the Church of England with its habit of muddling through crisis after crisis, conciliatory voices are hoping that the grand assemblage of Primates will find some way of agreeing to disagree. Apparently, church needs both the Liberals with their 'love for people' thing and the Evangelicals with their 'love for doctrine' thing. 

After all, writes David Ilson, Dean of St. Paul's, "The Church is not a body defined by rules and dogmas, but a fellowship of diverse people joined together by faithfulness to following Jesus Christ." OK, but it is pretty hard to know what faithfulness to following Jesus Christ looks like without at least a smidgen of agreed dogma concerning his identity and the purpose of his work. If there is no doctrinal agreement on who Jesus is and what he came to do, there can be no grounds for meaningful fellowship. Is Jesus the Son of God incarnate who came to save the world from sin? Or was he a very nice, spiritual sort of fellow who taught a kindly message of inclusion and tolerance? 

Faithfulness to following the 'Evangelical Jesus' will look quite different to following your 'Liberal Jesus'. The question of which is the authentic Christ of the New Testament brings us back to doctrinal matters and we can't go there because 'doctrine divides', and the main thing is to hold the CofE together come what may. That's the case even though its various 'wings' fundamentally disagree on what constitutes the gospel, consequently what constitutes a Christian, and what therefore constitutes the church. 

Not being an Anglican I don't have a dog in this particular fight. The nearest I've got to any primates lately was spotting an elderly silverback gorilla when visiting Longleat Safari Park. But this story does raise some interesting questions. Even for a Baptist. The first is, what on earth are Evangelicals still doing in the CofE, and is there anything that would prompt them to break with Canterbury en masse?

The Liberal ascendancy in the 1980s didn't do it, with David Jenkins describing the bodily resurrection of Jesus as 'a conjuring trick with a bag of bones'. Womens' ordination was meant to be the tipping point, and then female Bishops. Tipping points come and go, biblical authority is flouted, historic church teachings are jettisoned, but Evangelical Anglicans don't seem to be able to to let go of Mother Anglican's apron strings. 

And now this. Will the acceptance of active homosexuals as Ministers of the Church finally tip Evangelical Anglicans over the edge? I dunno. Given the precedents, what do you reckon? Some may say that Christian teaching on sexuality isn't a core doctrinal issue anyway. In a sense that's right. What Scripture says about sex in general and same sex relationships in particular isn't up there with gospel-defining truths such as the doctrine of the Trinity, the incarnation of Christ, his sin-atoning death and bodily resurrection etc. Why should Evangelicals leave the CofE over a second order issue? 


Which brings us to another question, what's the relationship between church and culture when it comes to deciding what Christians should believe and do? In this case, does God as Creator have the right to order the form of our human relationships, and has he deigned to reveal that form to us? Most Christians would say, 'yes' and 'yes'. If the the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture rather than fashionable opinion is to function as the ultimate authority in the church, then it is clear that male-female marriage is only legitimate context for sexual intimacy. That's it. Period. If anything Jesus tightened things up on that point, jettisoning the Old Testament's rather lax approach to polygamy and divorce, Matthew 19:3-6. When the apostles of Christ were confronted with same sex relations in Gentile culture of their day they made it clear that such behaviour was not acceptable for Christians.


The church is called to follow the teaching of Scripture as an expression of her submission to the lordship of Christ. If he is our Lord and Head, we cannot simply ignore or reject those bits of the Bible that might be upsetting Guardian readers. In 1930's Germany the church was being pressurised to conform to the culture. By way of response the confessing church drew up the Barmen Declaration, which included the points:

8.11 Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death. 
8.12 We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God's revelation.
What is at stake here is the church's loyalty to Christ's revealed will. It is not our calling to conform to the world and it's patterns of thought, but to confront the world with the challenge of the gospel. When contemporary church leaders suggest that we should listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the church on the issue of same sex relations and then we hear them simply reaffirming fashionable liberal opinion on the matter, we know that they have well and truly lost the plot. In that case, apart from the clergy decked out in fancy dress and a few rituals, what's the difference between the 'church' and the world?  We have no other source of revelation besides the Word of God. And if any teaching of the Word of God is subject to sustained attack, the task of the church is not to surrender, but stand and fight. As Martin Luther put it, 
If I profess, with the loudest voice and the clearest exposition, every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christianity. Where the battle rages the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle-field besides is mere flight and disgrace to him if he flinches at that one point.
For how much longer can Evangelicals remain in the forever flinching Church of England? Less the church militant and more the church muddled. 

And yet, one final question needs to be faced. Has the church always treated people who feel same sex attraction with the respect and love that is their due as human beings made in the image of God? The call to repent referred to above is not altogether misplaced. The conservative position of Nigerian church leaders would be all the more credible if they campaigned against the demonisation and criminalisation of gay people in their own land. The cry of the church should not be, 'lock 'em up', but 'Christ came into the world to save sinners', whatever their race, gender, background or sexual orientation. That was certainly the gospel-centred approach of the apostles, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. Christians wrestling with same sex attraction should be treated with great pastoral sensitivity and offered the love and support of the church. It is good to note that UK Evangelicals are now beginning to adopt a much more caring and thoughtful approachsee here

This is not a matter of the church needing both Liberals with their 'love for people' and Evangelicals with their 'love for doctrine' to deal with this matter in an appropriately balanced manner. Framing it like that is just an ecclesio-political way of papering over gaping wide theological chasms. Rather, the church's witness must forever be characterised by costly compassion, 'speaking the truth [however unpopular] in love [extended to all people without exception]', Ephesians 4:15. Christ our Lord demands nothing less. We'll have to wait and see to discover what the Primates have to say, and then what Evangelical Anglicans do by way of response. 

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

The Star of Bethlehem by Stuart Burgess

The Star of Bethlehem: Lessons for Today,
Stuart Burgess, Day One Publications, 2015, 62pp

In this little book Professor Stuart Burgess aims at unpacking the message of the star of Bethlehem. That special sign in the heavens that led the wise men of Matthew 2 from the East to Jerusalem, seeking the King of the Jews. And then from Jerusalem to the very place in Bethlehem where Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus could be found. 

The book is simply written and is designed to help people who are seeking Jesus today to find him and experience his saving power. It also serves to remind believers of the wonder of Christ's coming into the world as man, and what that means for us.

Burgess worked on the Hubble Space Telescope that has beamed back to earth some amazing images of the universe and has an abiding interest astronomy. He sees the star of Bethlehem as a supernatural phenomenon that was specially sent by God to guide the wise men to Jesus. The writer unfolds the narrative of Matthew 2 in a simple and easy to grasp way that draws the reader in, making telling points of application along the way. 

If I had a criticism of the book it would be that Burgess somewhat confusingly chops and changes between reflecting on the star of Bethlehem and describing Jesus as a star in his chapter headings. While that is an entirely appropriate biblical designation for Jesus, it can be a little confusing when 'A guiding star' of one chapter heading, meaning the star seen by the wise men becomes, 'A star of grace' and 'A hated star', meaning Jesus in other chapters. 

But that said, this is an engaging little work that will encourage people to seek the only true Star, Jesus Christ, to whom the star of Bethlehem once pointed.

The book is dedicated to Hannah Stone, a young woman in our Providence congregation who was suffering from seemingly terminal lymphoma cancer, but in the goodness of God was recently given the all clear.