Monday, March 01, 2021
Friday, February 19, 2021
If God falls, everything falls - truth, science, art, nature and history, the state, society, and the family. if there is no God. there is also no idea, no more thought in which things can rest and by which they are knowable.... Everything that we receive from the past is old and outmoded, not only in religion and Christianity, but also morality and art, all the wisdom and civilisation of antiquity. Everything must be reformulated on the basis of modern culture: school and science, marriage and the family, state and society, religion and morality. There is no shortage of reformers [in our day]. (Bavinck, Eglinton, p. 236)
Is not that a prescient description of our own times? When Christians in the UK campaigned against the redefinition of marriage, arguments based on the Bible or 1000's of years of tradition were swept aside as 'old hat'. Modern society was moving in only one direction and opponents of same-sex marriage were on the 'wrong side of history'. In Bavinck's day, whether women should get the vote was a matter of discussion. Now the very idea of what constitutes a woman is at the centre of the controversy raging around 'trans rights'. Mothers and Fathers are being relabelled, 'gestational parent' and 'non-birthing parent'. Bavinck was right. If God falls, even the basic facts of human biology have no secure place to rest. There is no shortage of 'reformers' in our day too.
Monday, February 08, 2021
‘Will this never end?’ we may have asked ourselves as Covid infection rates have spiked, followed by yet another lockdown. Our political masters are beginning to hint that there may be an easing of restrictions by spring time. Millions of those who are most vulnerable to the ravages of Coronavirus have already received their first Covid-19 jab. It is hoped that the over 50s will have had their initial injection by the end of March, all adults by September. At last we now have some light at the end of what’s been a long dark tunnel of a pandemic.
The rapid vaccine roll out is tribute to the scientists who developed the jabs and the health workers who are administering the injections. Our political leaders also deserve credit for buying up large quantities of the vaccines and ensuring they get into people’s arms in double quick time. You can sense the relief and joy of those who have already received their jab. We can begin to look forward to returning to what passed for normal life before the pandemic.
I don’t know about you, but seeing that old life depicted on TV or in films makes me feel rather nostalgic. Relatives and friends meeting up, giving each other a friendly hug. People happily standing close together, rather than avoiding one another like the plague. Crowds enjoying a music concert or sporting event. ‘We used to be able to do that’, you think. Well, hopefully we’ll be able to do that kind of thing again in the not too distant future.
But there is a prospect of something better than ‘back to normal’. Jesus came not simply to wind the clock back to the time before sin and death entered God’s world. He came to bring a new creation. Sin and death will be no more. The glory of God will shine brightly. That’s why the Son of God came into our world to die for our sins on the cross and be raised from the dead. One day he will return to make all things new. Those who believe in Jesus already belong to that new and better world, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
* For the February editions of Trinity Parish Magazine, Dilton Marsh and News & Views, West Lavington
Wednesday, January 27, 2021
Wednesday, January 06, 2021
I have several titles in my Kindle library snapped up at knock down prices which I intend to read this year. I've already made a start on Nothing Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God by Matthew Barret. Very good it is too at £0.49. Sticking with the doctrine of God, I've read the free sample bit of The Son Who Learned Obedience by Glenn Butner, on the eternal submission controversy. A really good taster, which invites purchase of the full download.
But there's also Trinity Without Hierarchy: Recovering Nicene Orthodoxy in Evangelical Theology edited by Michael F. Bird and Scott Harrower to consider (£2.21). And not forgetting The Triune God (New Studies in Dogmatics) by Fred Saunders (£2.99). Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by Dane Ortrund comes highly recommended and was going cheap on Kindle (£2.96).
I had Bavinck: A Critical Biography by James Eglinton as a Christmas gift in glorious shiny hardback. I was disappointed by Ron Gleason's biog of the great Dutch Dogmatician, but Eglington's effort looks to be in a different league. The intro and first chapter alone are rich with insight into the subject's life and times. (I also get an endnote all to myself and a mention in the bibliography. Just saying).
A family member kindly gave me an Amazon voucher for Christmas. I shall probably use it to invest in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl R. Trueman. I also have my eye on Deity and Decree by Samuel D, Renihan, having enjoyed his From Shadow to Substance and The Mystery of Christ.
That little lot will hopefully keep me busy on the reading front for a bit.
Tuesday, January 05, 2021
Monday, January 04, 2021
Thursday, December 31, 2020
Timmis also faced accusations of pastoral abuse in relation to his leadership role in The Crowded House Church, Sheffield. Reportedly Timmis sought to mentor and disciple his flock into a church that operated “24/7” and spanned all areas of life. A family was confronted by Timmins for not attending an impromptu church barbecue. Melvyn Tinker stopped working with Timmins over concerns about his controlling leadership style, “If Steve is challenged in any way, which he always takes as a threat, then the tables are turned and the challenger is made out to be the one at fault,” said Tinker, who saw the same pushback emerge during the decade his son, Michael, was a member of Timmis’ church. “This is classic manipulation.” (Christian Today).
Following these allegations Timmis stepped back from leadership of The Crowded House Church. In April 2020 it was announced that The Crowded House has commissioned Thirtyone:eight to undertake an Independent Learning Review concerning the leadership of Church. They invited anyone who had been harmed by the leadership of the church to express this and for their experiences to be heard and considered. The review has now been published so lessons can be learned by the wider church community, see here. The Crowded House accepted the findings of the review, which found "evidence of a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour in the name of our Christian vision and ministry" here.
Why bring all this up in a book review? I certainly don't have an axe to grind when it comes to Steve Timmis and The Crowded House. He is but one example of pastoral malpractice in the Evangelical world, Yet men like Timmis and Mark Driscoll are often lionised within Evangelicalism as just the kind of leaders the church needs in the 21st Century. They embody a dynamic entrepreneurial leadership model that gets things done and quickly. 'Move fast and break things' is the motto of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, but pastors are in the business of people, not things. Leaving a trail of broken people in our wake is not a price worth paying to make our church leadership vision a reality.
This emphasis just outlined has led to a subtle change in the the the way people describe Christian ministry. Talk of pastors, elders and deacons has been supplanted by ‘church leaders’, or the ‘church leadership team’. Business models of leadership have been appropriated. But we are not to model ourselves on highly driven bully-bosses like Steve Jobs. Our model is the Chief Shepherd of the sheep, who is meek and lowly in heart. Someone can be a great communicator and well-regarded preacher. They are certainly ‘able to teach’. But the biblical qualities required for overseers focus more on character than communicative gifts, 1 Timothy 3:1-3, Titus 1:7.
We need to get back to classic model of pastoral ministry; the cure of sin-broken souls through prayer, ministry of the word and the sacraments. Which is where The Cure of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor's Heart comes in. Senkbiel is a veteran Lutheran pastor with many decades of ministry experience. Brought up on a farm the writer observes that a farmer will become so attuned to the rhythms of sowing and reaping and the needs of his livestock that they shape his habit of mind, his very character. The farmer knows that nature won't be rushed, Cultivating crops and rearing animals takes time and attentive care.
It's the same with pastoral work. Patience and watchfulness are essential elements of what the writer calls a 'pastoral habitus'. A man does not enter pastoral ministry with a fully formed habitus. We become pastors by being pastors. A pastor is a servant of Jesus, a steward of mysteries of the gospel. The Lord is pleased to work through tools he places in our hands by his Spirit; word and sacrament. It is through the ministry of word and sacrament that we give hope to the dying, comfort to the bereaved, and counsel to people in their struggles with temptation and sin.
The work requires prayer, patience, attentive diagnosis of spiritual ailments and the wise application of scripturally prescribed cures. We are to approach the task with a sense of insufficiency. Our personal stores of drive, charisma, charm can't make people into fruitful disciples of Christ. We must minister in power of Jesus. He can change people, we cannot.
Acting as if that is not the case is practical Pelagianism. We can't make our people into more faithful Christians by forcing them to conform to our rules and expectations. We will end up leading by guilt trip, not pastoring by grace. It is sadly possible for us to be be Calvinists in our studies, but Pelagians in pastoral practice. As the author points out, “To make pastors you need the person and power of the Holy Spirit who forms and shapes men inwardly to be fit vessels for the treasures of God’s transcendent and transforming gifts in his gospel and sacraments.”
The emphasis on gentleness and patience in ministry is biblical enough, 2 Timothy 2:24-26. But this does not mean that for Senkbeil it's a matter of 'there, there, never mind' sentimentality. There is a an uncompromising toughness to his approach. The writer knows that gospel ministry is a conflict zone for which pastors need to don the whole armour of God. People in our care who are consumed with guilt and shame do not need a pat on the head, but the truth of justification by faith alone applied to their souls. Believers whose lives have been ruined by toxic relationships and addictive tendencies need to be brought to see the good news that God is transforming them into the holy people he wants them to be.
If pastors are to minister to others, we first need to learn how to meditate upon and apply the word of God to ourselves. Senkbeil gives some practical advice on how to do that, as well as on how to sustain a life of God-dependent prayer. Given the unique privileges and burdens of pastoral ministry the writer recommends that pastors seek out a brother minister who can hold them to account and to whom they can unburden the souls.
I said the author is a Lutheran minister. Some aspects of his approach were not to the liking of this Grace Baptist pastor. I wouldn't go along with his use of crucifixes, images of Christ, and so on. That kind of thing tends to freak me out a bit, but there are many good things here that will help us cultivate a stronger pastoral habitus. The classical model of gospel ministry commended in these pages by Senkbiel serves as a necessary corrective to dynamic entrepreneurial styles of church leadership that have sometimes had a toxic effect on Christ's flock. He is the Great Shepherd of the sheep. Pastors are but sheepdogs.
Consider this picture of the relationship between a sheepdog and shepherd as a vivid illustration of the bond between a pastor and the Good Shepherd who has enlisted him in service to his sheep. The sheepdog is iconic of a faithful pastor’s work: one ear tuned to the voice of the Great Shepherd, the other tuned attentively to the sheep.
Tuesday, December 22, 2020
For we affirm that the divine nature is undoubtedly incapable of suffering, and cannot in any sense be brought low from its exalted standing, and cannot labour with difficulty over what it wishes to do. But we say that the Lord Jesus Christ is true God and true man, one person in two natures and two natures in one person. In view of this, when we say that God is suffering some humiliation or weakness, we do not understand this in terms of the exaltedness of the non-suffering nature, but in terms of the weakness of the human substance which he was taking upon himself.... For we are not, in this way implying lowliness on the part of the divine substance, but are making plain the existence of a person comprising God and man, (Anselm of Canterbury: The Collected Works, Oxford, 2008, p. 274-275.
Note that Anselm does not merely say that the human nature of Jesus suffered for us, but that the person of the Son, impassible in his deity, suffered for us in his human nature. What we need from God is not the sympathy of a cosmic fellow-sufferer, but one who has acted to save us from sin and suffering. Only a suffering God in Christ can help us. Calvary reveals the true the depths of God's limitless, unchanging love for sinners, Romans 5:6-8. Impassible love is not needy and vulnerable, but free and outgoing; flowing from the Father, through the Son and by the Spirit to the world.
As the Puritan Poet Edward Taylor (c1642-1729) meditated,
What Love is this of thine, that Cannot bee
In thine Infinity, O Lord, Confinde,
Unless it in thy very Person see,
Infinity, and Finity Conjoyn'd?
What hath thy Godhead, as not satisfide
Marri'de our Manhood, making it its Bride?
Oh, Matchless Love! filling Heaven to the brim!
O're running it: all running o're beside
This World! Nay Overflowing Hell; wherein
For thine Elect, there rose a mighty Tide!
That there our Veans might through thy Person bleed,
To quench those flames, that else would on us feed.
Oh! that thy Love might overflow my Heart!
To fire the same with Love: for Love I would.
But oh! my streight'ned Breast! my Lifeless Sparke!
My Fireless Flame! What Chilly Love, and Cold?
In measure small! In Manner Chilly! See.
Lord blow the Coal: Thy Love Enflame in mee.
Friday, December 18, 2020
One of the reasons to subscribe to an elaborate confession of faith such as the Second London Baptist Confession is that our forebears were self-consciously Reformed Catholics. Their confessions bear the imprint of the great creedal heritage of the church. Subscribe to them and you subscribe to Nicaea and Chalcedon and identify with an Augustinian account of salvation by sovereign grace.
But they didn't stop there. They were Reformed Catholics, who sought to reform church doctrine and life in the light of our supreme authority, which is the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures. Hence the Particular Baptists set out their own distinctive views on the covenants, the church and baptism, while holding to the Catholic creeds and the solas of the Reformation.
Many contemporary evangelical doctrinal statements adopt a minimalist approach that fails sufficiently to root the church in the Great Tradition of theological orthodoxy. Neither do they set out why Independent Evangelical or Baptist churches operate as they do in the light of clear biblical principles.
The older confessions provide us with a dogmatic framework in which the key teachings of Scripture are set out in a coherent and systematic way. They are an aid to interpreting the Bible in the light of theological reflection of the church over many centuries. Familiarity with the historic creeds and confessions of faith can help save us from many a doctrinal blunder.
That is not to say that the confessions are to be regarded as infallible, or unimprovable. The Westminster Confession was revised by the Independents in their Savoy Declaration and again by Particular Baptists in the Second London Baptist Confession. But we should think long and hard before adopting an interpretation of Scripture that is out of synch with the confession of faith we have pledged to uphold.
That is especially the case when it comes to what they have to say on doctrines of first importance, like the doctrine of God and of Christ the Mediator. According to the 1689 God's will is a property of his being (Chapter 2:1), not the three persons (Chapter 2:3), see here. With that in mind, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not distinguished in terms of one person submitting their will to that of another, but "by several peculiar, relative properties, and personal relations".
In other words that "the Father is of none neither begotten nor proceeding, the Son is Eternally begotten of the Father, the holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son". There is an order in the Trinity, but no hierarchy of will. How could that be when will is a property of the divine being, which is wholly shared by the three persons?
Making will a property of persons plays havoc with the doctrine of Christ. As pointed out earlier, we confess that the Lord Jesus has two wills. The incarnate Son is not two persons, however. That would be Nestorianism. The confession rightly affirms that the incarnate Son is a divine person with a human nature, Chapter 8:2.
Prominent Evangelicals in the US and UK have strayed from this historic teaching, holding that the Son eternally submitted his will to that of the Father. They have often done so using naively biblicist arguments in which the relationship of the incarnate Son to the Father in the economy of redemption is read back univocally into the ontological Trinity. It is enough to say that the missions of the Trinity reflect the eternal relations, without positing a plurality of wills in God.
A more rigorous confessionalism would have helped prevent the theological confusion that is apparent in evangelical circles. Elders (pastors among them) and deacons should be expected to subscribe to a confession like the 1689. A more basic doctrinal statement such as the FIEC Doctrinal Basis may be required of church members, but the officers should ensure that church teaching and life is in line with a more wide-ranging and detailed confession of faith.
The biggest divide in evangelicalism is not between those who adopt traditional or progressive worship styles, or lockdown defiers and lockdown compliers; it is between confessional Reformed Catholics and doctrinal minimalists. We see further when we stand on the shoulders of giants. Time-honoured terms such as 'person', 'relations', 'being' and 'will' have meanings that were carefully defined in response to doctrinal error. Heretics could also quote the Bible. A simplistic biblicism was not sufficient to combat heresy. The teaching of Scripture needed to be explained and defended using non-biblical terminology. Hence the precise and exact language found in the creeds and confessions of old.
When we step off the shoulders of the theological giants we become short sighted. Those who ignore or redefine key theological terms cannot always see the consequences of their doctrinal missteps. Making will a property of the persons rather than the divine being makes for a subordinationist Trinity and an incoherent Christology. This is just one example of why we should strive to become "faithful exponents of Scripture who are rooted in a well-rounded dogmatic theology." Let us 'hold fast our confession, faithful to the end'.