Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Anniversary Services with John Stevens

We had FIEC National Director, John Stevens, preach for our 208th Providence Baptist Church anniversary services over the weekend. He spoke very helpfully on the Parable of the Sower, Mark 4:1-20, The Parable of the Lost Sheep, Luke 15:1-7 and The Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25:14-30. You can find the messages here, which are well worth listening to. During the Saturday afternoon meeting I quizzed John on the mission of FIEC and his role as director. We had John for lunch on Sunday, so it was good to chat to him about what's going on here and the wider evangelical scene. See here for a blog interview I did with John a while back. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Religion and Worldviews: The Way Forwards?

The Commission on Religious Education Chaired by Dr. John Hall, Dean of Westminster has published its report, Religion and Worldviews: The Way Forwards. Governors would do well to reflect on its proposals, which, if adopted by the DfE would involve substantial changes to the way in which Religious Education is taught in schools and academies. I am RE link governor in a LA maintained secondary school.

In many ways the report is a solid piece of work, surveying the state of Religious Education in a fast changing educational environment. Put simply, the subject is in decline. The figures cited on p. 10 of the report tell their own story. The total number of RE GCSE entries has dropped from 425,000 in 2010 to 255,000 in 2018. In part the decline is due to the near extinction of the short course RE GCSE, for which many secondary schools used enter their students with a nod to locally agreed SACRE requirements. In 2010 there were 255,000 entries, now 26,000. The increased take up of the full course has in no way compensated for the flight from short course entries.

The life was choked out of the short course RE GCSE because the qualification barley registered on schools' Key Stage 4 performance measure tables. That was the Department for Education's doing. Neither is RE included in the EBacc group of subjects, meaning it has to jostle for students' attention alongside a plethora of diverse options in the Attainment 8 'Other Element'. The government's academisation programme hasn't helped. Academies don't feel especially bound to follow the SACRE syllabus agreed by Local Authorities. According to the report, many academies don't teach RE at Key Stages 3 or 4 (see p. 8). On that basis it is proposed that a National Entitlement to a Study of 'Religion and Worldviews' replaces the current locally-based system. 

Things have certainly changed since the 1944 Education Act mandated the teaching of Religious Instruction in all schools. And that meant the study of the Christian faith, irrespective of whether or not a school was denominational in character. The report notes that the UK has seen massive demographic changes in the period following the Second World War. Not to mention huge shifts in religious adherence and social attitudes. With this in mind, the subject has for many years taken a multi-faith approach, with Islam, Buddhism and other world religions being taught alongside Chrristianity. Now, the report argues, RE must evolve still further in order to reflect the contemporary situation. 

Note the title of the report, Religion and Worldviews. It is proposed that 'worldviews' such as  secularism and atheism, should be included in the RE syllabus alongside religious beliefs and practices. In a way this is a welcome development, underlining that secularism is not a neutral norm, but a belief system with its own set of presuppositions that should be subject to the same critical scrutiny as religious beliefs. 

But there are nevertheless concerns with the 'Religion and Worldviews' approach. One is that Religious Education is struggling for curriculum space as it is. If the subject is also to cover non-religious outlooks in some detail as well, the time devoted to studying religious faith will diminish still further. It could be argued that virtually every other subject on the curriculum is taught from a secular standpoint. Does God get a mention in Science lessons? Is History interpreted as the unfolding story of God's providential action? Do Geography teachers tell their students, 'The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof'? Um, no. Not unless we're talking about a school with a dedicated Christian ethos. Humanists UK and the National Secular Society have welcomed the report. Well, they would, wouldn't they?

Besides, if students are going to understand life in modern Britain and where our most cherished values come from, they are going to need a solid grasp of the Christian faith. Secularism often piggy-backs on historic Christian teachings, while at the same time dissing the piggy. Ideas such as the unique value of each individual human being, and the notion of universally applicable human rights are rooted in the biblical teaching on human beings created in the image of God. Historian Tom Holland is currently working on a book that explores the Christian foundations of Western culture (see his article in the New Statesman on Why I was wrong about Christianity. Note also David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions: The Christian Faith and its Fashionable Enemies. Contemporary Western secularism cannot be understood unless it is set against the backdrop of a culture that has been permeated by Christianity.  

You would not have guessed this from the report, which is something of a lacuna, given that the commission that produced it was chaired by a high up Anglican ecclesiastic. I fully understand that Religious Education is not theology, which is my academic discipline. Theology proceeds from a position of faith in God's self-revelation seeking understanding. RE attempts to help schoolchildren understand various religious (and non-religious) beliefs and practices, without stipulating that any one of them is true. But that does not mean all belief systems are worthy of equal attention in terms of enabling students appreciate their own history and culture.

The commission's approach signals a move away from the stance of the Education Act 1996, which says that RE should "reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian, while taking account of the teaching and practices of other principal religions represented in Great Britain." In line with that, the Agreed RE Curriculum for Wiltshire aims to develop pupils' "knowledge and understanding of, and their ability to respond to, Christianity, other principal world religions, other religious traditions and world views". That seems about right to me. 

Where Christianity is mentioned in the report, which is rarely, it tends to be in the context of the numerical decline of the faith in the UK. This is used to justify a greater emphasis being given to other faiths and worldviews. The decline of Christianity is an undeniable fact, borne out by the latest social attitudes survey (here). But the figures need a bit of unpicking. Where churches have embraced theological liberalism, attendance is dwindling. More evangelical churches that hold to traditional Christian beliefs and values are growing, albeit slowly. It is certainly not the case that the world as a whole is becoming more secular. Christianity is the world's largest faith and is continuing to advance across the world, even in Europe (here).

Christianity of an evangelical stamp is growing exponentially. In Mexico, to give one example from South America, evangelicals have grown from 2.1% of the population (800,000) in 1960 to over 8%, numbering over nine million by 2010. In China the evangelical church has grown from 2.7 million in 1975 to over 75 million in 2010. (Figures from Operation World, 2010). There is a danger with the 'Religion and Worldviews' approach that students will be given a parochial vision of religious trends that downplays the importance of Christianity as a vibrant, global faith. 

By all means teach Islam and Buddhism, secularism and agnosticism, even. But let's not neglect to inform our children of the incalculable influence of Christianity on our nation's story. Even Richard Dawkins has argued that the Bible should be taught in schools, "European incomprehensible without an understanding of...Christianity" (here). The writings of William Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy are full of biblical allusions that can't be grasped unless one is on nodding acquaintance with Scripture. 

It's difficult to agree that the 'Religion and Worldviews' proposals outlined here will chart the way forwards for RE. For the way forwards to be clear students need to be given a sense of where we have come from in terms of our national history and culture, and also a sense of where the world is heading in terms of global religious trends. That's not going to happen if the Christian faith is reduced to a bit part in Religious Education. 

Having said all that, many of the report's recommendations are to be welcomed, including its proposals on ensuring all schoolchildren access a high quality a 'Religion and Worldviews' syllabus that is taught by knowledgeable professionals. Emma Knights of the National Governance Association has blogged on how governors should question senior leaders in their schools on 

  • How are we meeting our statutory duty to teach RE?
  • How are we supporting our RE teachers and extending their subject knowledge?

Monday, September 10, 2018

John Owen on excommunication and the gospel

As Mark Dever reminds us in his Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, biblical church discipline is an essential aspect of church life. Church discipline has two main elements: 

1. Formative, which involves teaching the disciples of Jesus to observe all he has commanded us (Matthew 28:18-20).  

2. Corrective, which involves rebuking those who are straying from the faith, and may even include removing people from church membership on account of serious error, or open sin. 

Puritanism was a movement dedicated to the further reformation of the Church of England along biblical lines. Independents wanted to churches to comprise not of everyone who lived in a parish, but of people who had been truly converted, and whose lives adorned the gospel; congregations of visible saints. Early 'Reformed Baptists' would have agreed, while they parted company with their Independent brothers over infant baptism. Given that the Puritans were by definition zealous for the purity of the church, it is not unexpected that they were sticklers for church discipline. Their opponents sometimes labelled them 'Donatists'. 

Donatism was a movement in the early church that refused to readmit into the membership of the church Christians who had renounced their faith during periods of state-sanctioned persecution. Augustine of Hippo was a great opponent of Donatism. He argued that the church is made up of saved sinners. The holiness of the church is not maintained by the unwavering faithfulness of believers, but by renewed application of the gospel. Augustine held that the Christian life is one of constant repentance from sin and faith in the blood of Christ. Lapsed believers could therefore be restored to the church on expression of sincere repentance and a pledge of renewed faith in the Saviour. Augustine's pastoral realism and compassion for straying sheep is rooted in the witness of Scripture, 1 John 1:5-10, Luke 17:3-4. Donatism was condemned as a gospel-denying heresy. 

Puritans like John Owen contested the charge that they were Donatists. In his The True Nature of a Gospel Church (Works, Volume 16), Owen sought to set out his mature thinking on church life from an Independent perspective. As the title suggests, the divine wanted to work through how the gospel is to permeate every aspect of ecclesiology. That includes church discipline in its corrective element. The gospel must be allowed to determine the purpose for which a person might be removed from church membership and the basis upon which they may be readmitted. 

Owen readily acknowledged that corrective church discipline had been subject to much abuse. Under the Roman Catholic system excommunicated people could be deprived of their livelihoods and property, arrested and even killed. If the pope excommunicated a ruler, subjects were within their rights to rebel against their prince or even assassinate him. Owen insisted that excommunication from the church was a purely spiritual matter, having only to do with removal from the privileges of church membership. A church member could be excommunicated for persisting in serious doctrinal error or for flagrantly sinful conduct. 

The process of excommunication should be overseen by the elders to whom the rule of the church was committed. But the consent of the whole church was to be sought before a person was put out of the fellowship. And their consent gained to readmit someone who had been excommunicated, but had been brought to repentance. Owen gives special attention to Matthew 16 & 18, 1 Corinthians 5, and 2 Corinthians 2:6 in this regard.

The excommunicated person is to lose all the privileges of church membership. They are “handed over to Satan”; that is put out of the church and placed back into the world. Excommunication is a most solemn use of the keys of the kingdom. What is bound on earth will be bound in heaven. The whole process is to be bathed with prayer. Should a wayward member withdraw from the church to avoid church discipline, they are still to be formally excommunicated, Owen advised. 

The aim of excommunication is not to punish the straying believer, but recover them to the fellowship of the church. Should the person in question genuinely repent during the disciplinary process, it must be halted, and they should not be put out of the church. This is in line with the gospel, which promises forgiveness on the basis of repentance and faith. Similarly with those who have been excommunicated and then repented, “the principle design of the gospel…is to evidence that all sincerely penitent sinners… are and shall be pardoned and accepted.” “It is no dishonour to any church” says Owen “to have sinners in it who have evidenced sincere repentance.” (16:176-177). Church discipline must be gospel centred. Owen for one was no hard-line, unforgiving Donatist.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever

3rd edition, 2013, Crossway, 300pp

'The Turning'. It's a big thing, apparently. Started in Reading. The founder Yinka Oyekan received a vision from the Lord telling him that unless he managed to get all the churches in his locality working together on a mission, there would be no blessing. But if he managed to unite them, the Lord would surely bless. That's all the churches, mind, whether Roman Catholic, middle of the road Church of England, Liberal Methodist, Baptist and not forgetting Evangelical fellowships.

People who expressed an interest in the Christian faith as a result of the mission would then be directed towards church that aligned with their preferences. Quite how churches who don't agree on the evangel are meant to do evangelism together isn't explained. Neither is how a church can be a church in any meaningful sense if the gospel isn't preached among them. Ecumenical pragmatism, it seems, is the order of the day.

What we need is a turning back to Scripture to see what constitutes a gospel church. Mark Dever's work will help to point us in the right direction. I'd long heard of the 'Nine Marks' principles, but never quite got round to reading this seminal text.

As mentioned in an earlier review, someone who has been coming along to our church asked if I could recommend a simple introduction to Baptist history and beliefs. That was Erroll Hulse's Introducing the Baptists. While rummaging around in the study, trying to find something suitable, I picked up Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever. I think a friend must have given me a copy a little while ago. It wasn't quite what I was looking for when it came to a Baptist intro, hence the Hulse title.

But having flicked through Nine Marks, I thought I should give it a proper read. It's a well known work on Baptist Church principles, focusing on the features of a healthy church, not simply on the details of church polity. Many of the 'marks' no doubt feature in non-Baptist churches. Congregationalists would probably agree with much of what's written here. Dever writes from a  'Reformed Baptist' standpoint. But if anything, greater attention could have been devoted to Baptist distinctives on baptism, membership and the relationship between church and state. 

Now, the Reformed tradition holds that there are two essential marks of a true church: the pure preaching of the Word of God, and the right administration of the Sacraments. Church discipline is sometimes taken as a third mark, although if marks one and two are applied properly, church discipline should also follow.

Dever accepts the two traditional  marks, but goes beyond them to address the issue of what a healthy congregation looks like in practice. In all, as the title suggests, he sets out nine marks of a healthy church. I have heard some people criticise Dever's attempt to boil things down in this way as somewhat reductionist. Selective would be a better way of putting it. The writer doesn't profess to have put together an exhaustive statement  of New Testament teaching on the life and government of the church. But if we wish to see thriving and healthy Bible-based churches, we will do well to give attention Dever's Nine Marks. Especially as some of these marks are sadly neglected in contemporary Evangelical fellowships. I'm not going to discuss each one in turn. You can find a summary of them on the Nine Marks website:

The work is America in its setting, so it takes a little effort to contexualtise its teaching for the UK church scene. But the underlying principles are biblical and therefore applicable to all cultures.  Some points seem counterintuitive. Dever argues that making it more difficult to become a church member and being willing to remove people from membership will help ensure healthy growth. How can being picky about who can come in and getting some out lead to growth? Because that's what the Bible teaches and the gospel demands. It is therefore vital that we have a clear understanding of biblical theology, the gospel, conversion, evangelism and church membership. Churches should comprise of what the Puritans used to call 'visible saints'. The church is most effective in reaching the world when she church is distinct from the world. 

In these individualistic times it is encouraging to read a book that emphasises the importance of church life for evangelism, discipleship and spiritual growth. The basics of biblical church leadership are also spelled out, literally. In relation to local congregations, leaders are the BOSS, B=Boss, O=Out Front, S=Serve, S=Supply. Practical tips and a variety of other bits and pieces are included in the appendices. 

Dever offers no 'silver bullet' that will guarantee overnight church growth. His is a call to the long term task of forming gospel-centred, biblically faithful churches in which believers may thrive and where non-Christians can encounter the message of salvation. The writer offers the Puritan pastor William Gouge as an example of longevity in ministry. He was minister of the same church from June 1608 until the day of his death, 12 December 1653. The height of the preacher's ambition was 'to go from Blackfriars (his church) to heaven', and so he did after a forty-six year pastorate. No quick fix, but long obedience in the same direction is the order of the day. Read and consider whether the fellowship in which you are involved bears the marks of a healthy church. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The ministry as a protected oasis

The full-time gospel ministry is still a protected oasis. We are relieved of so many of the tensions and temptations that the men to whom we minister are meeting each day. They work with their minds and bodies in this evil world and give their hard-earned money to us so generously that we may spend our days—think of it—in the quiet of our studies, in the Bible, in evangelism, and in pastoring God’s people. I hope you will never join with those ministers who sit around grumbling in their fraternals about all the alleged hardships of being preachers. What a marvellously privileged life we lead. I trust that you earnestly believe that if it be God’s will for you to spend the rest of your life caring for this particular congregation you will happily do so and thank the Lord at the end of each day for such blessings. [Beeke, Joel R.; Derek W. H. Thomas. The Holy Spirit and Reformed Spirituality: A Tribute to Geoffrey Thomas (Kindle Locations 377-383). Reformation Heritage Books. Kindle Edition.]
The limitations of Easyjet hand luggage meant that I wasn't able to bring a bundle of books with me on holiday. Even bookish pastors need to pack clothes, shower gel and a toothbrush, etc. Theology and biblical studies titles are my 'staple diet', so I like to have a change when we go away. This summer my 'big read' was David Lloyd George: The Great Outsider by Roy Hattersley. I'll post a review sometime. I also packed The Mystery of Providence by John Flavel, which I dipped into and The Buried Giant by Kazuo IshiguroBut such was the length of the Lloyd George biog (640pp), that I wasn't even able to make a start on the novel. 

The three volumes mentioned above were in hard copy. With Kindle, however, you can carry an almost unlimited amount of books, which take up no more space than (in my case) your mobile phone.  I'd been reading the Kindle edition of The Awakening of the Evangelical Mind by Owen Strachan for a while, turning to it to redeem the time spent in a hospital waiting room, or something. It's a fascinating account of the recovery of Evangelical scholarship during the middle years of the 20th century. Having read a chapter of Flavel one holiday Sunday, I then loaded up The Awakening of the Evangelical Mind, to find that I only had a few pages left and so quickly finished it. What next? Among my as yet unread Kindle books was The Holy Spirit and Reformed Spirituality, edited by Joel Beeke and Derek W. H. Thomas. It's a series of essays, published in 2013 to mark the 75th birthday of Geoff Thomas. 

Knowing Geoff as I do, it was interesting to read the opening chapter, a biographical introduction by Geoff's son-in-law, Gary Brady. Chapter 2 is by Paul Levy on A Minister Who Has Produced Ministers. Paul includes a quote from Geoff among the opening paragraphs of his contribution. It's the one at the top of this post. It really struck me when I read it, as I've come across my fair share of grumbling ministers. The assumption in some conferences and ministers' meetings seems to be that many of us are either deeply unhappy in our work, or nearing burn out, or ready to quit at any moment. We therefore need to be treated with kid gloves, 'there, there, poor pastors'. No doubt some preachers find themselves in the midst of horrendous difficulties. Their churches are riven by splits. Seemingly intractable pastoral problems rumble on. I get that. But Geoff's words remind us of the immense privilege of being called to full-time gospel ministry. Less grumbling and more gratitude should be the order of the day.  

Monday, August 06, 2018

All welcome?

You might have thought that these days people would give racism short shrift. 2018 marked the 25th anniversary of the murder of black teenager, Stephen Lawrence in a racially motivated attack. In a welcome sign that things have moved on since then, there was widespread public outrage over the way in which members of the ‘Windrush generation’ were treated by the Home Office. Commonwealth citizens who had lived and worked in this country for decades were threatened with deportation for not having the correct bit of paper. The scandal led to the resignation of Amber Rudd, who was Home Secretary at the time. Her successor, Sajid Javid pledged to make sorting out the mess a matter of urgent priority.

Our part of Wiltshire is hardly a ‘multi-ethnic melting pot’, but I hope we give black, Asian, or minority ethnic people a warm welcome when they chose to live among us. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of a day when people would not be judged by the colour of their skin, but the content of their character. By the same token, people who move to the United Kingdom will need to accept that as citizens of the of this country we are all subject to the rule of law. And that the law applies to everyone, whatever their cultural background. Rotherham MP Sarah Champion was vilified for pointing out that it was largely British Pakistani men who were involved in ‘grooming gangs’ that preyed on white girls. She should have been supported for having the courage to speak out in the name of vulnerable youngsters. The notion that people can't be expected to behave acceptably because of their ethnicity or culture is in itself implicitly racist. 

Racism is based on the assumption that one race is better than another. The Christian faith undermines that prejudiced view. The Bible teaches that all human beings are made in the image of God, and are to be treated with dignity and respect. That is why we are to love our neighbour as ourselves. The Bible will not allow for the idea that one ethnic group is somehow morally superior to others. It teaches, ‘All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’. The Christian message of love and acceptance is for everyone. Jesus came to bring people from ‘every tribe, tongue and nation’ back to God by dying for the sins of the world.

In these days of ‘identity politics’ people seem to be competing to show they are better than others on account of their gender, class, skin colour, political affiliation, or whatever. Such an attitude has no place in the church, where all are recognised as equally human and equally in need of Jesus, Galatians 3:27-28. All welcome.

*For Trinity, Dilton Marsh parish magazine 

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

School governors as public servants

What are school governors, exactly? We aren't paid a penny for our pains, so we're amateurs. 'No way', say some. 'We're not dabbling dilettantes. Unpaid professionals, us.' I hear what you're saying, but by most definitions, being a pro means at least three things: you get paid, you're qualified, you've been approved by an official body to work in a 'profession'. Like a doctor, lawyer, or a teacher. 

By that definition govs only meet one of the criteria. We're recognised as govs by being appointed to a GB. Apart from that, there are no formal qualifications and we don't get paid. If meeting only one of the criteria will do, then my kids were pros when they got paid a few quid a week to do a paper round. With more than a little help from mum and dad. 

Now, governors are often people from a professional background, but not exclusively so. All you need to be a parent governor is to have kids in the school you're governing. Stay at home mum/dad, mechanic, marine engineer, whatever. Doesn't matter. The parental perspective is valuable in itself. GBs tend to be a bit more picky when it comes to the skills of people they co-opt to the board. At least, they should be. 

Even then, governors aren't meant to function as education professionals. It's not for us to run the school on a day-to-day basis, or undertake lesson observations to judge the quality of teaching. That kind of thing is rightly left to the edu-pros. Govs have a strategic rather than operational role. What that entails should be explained to new recruits via induction and training. An effective chair will ensure that their GB keeps to its side of the strategic/operational dividing line.  

Not even chairs are paid for their efforts. Strictly speaking, they are amateurs too. But not in a bad way. I'd like to reclaim amateurism, doing something for the love of it, from its negative, bumbling connotations. Prior to 1995 Rugby Union was an amateur game. I'm old enough to remember the Welsh rugby team of the 1970's, Barry John, Gareth Edwards, J. P. R Williams, etc. YouTube them and prepare to be dazzled by their sporting wizardry. Amateurs one and all. Oh for a GB comprised of governor-equivalents. If schools had a Six Nations Championship rather than Performance Tables, they'd smash it. 

It's not as if the coveted 'professional' label is wholly unproblematic. You can have a professional gambler, foul, hit man, and so on. The 'professionalisation' of governance has had some unwelcome side effects. In one Multi Academy Trust, a PR firm owned by the vice chair of governors was awarded a contract for £243,567 here. Talk about conflict of interest. Some good old Corinthian amateurism wouldn't have gone amiss there.

Intellectual honesty is called for. The 'unpaid professional' thing is an oxymoron and no one likes an oxymoron. School governors are not educational professionals. When asked, most want no remuneration for their role. And there is no PGCE equivalent for govs. Bumbling dabblers, then? Hardly. Governors are volunteers, not conscripts. No one forced us into it. Our schools need us to be skilled-up stakeholders, ready to scale the commanding heights of strategic leadership. 

If 'professionals' isn't quite appropriate and 'amateurs' sticks in the craw despite my best efforts, how should we be labelled? I suggest school governors should be called 'public servants'. That chimes in well with the  Nolan Principles of public life to which our Codes of Conduct rightly refer.

Governors, we are public servants. Agreed?

Monday, July 30, 2018

The Incredibles 2

Our children were still young when the original Incredibles movie came out. They loved seeing it in the cinema and must have watched the DVD countless times. As did we. 

A good children's film will also appeal to adults who watch the thing through grown up eyes. The Incredibles series is a case in point. 

The sequel isn't a lazy rehash, either. Same basic scenario; superheroes are outlawed. But the characters have developed a bit and the baddie element is entirely different. You could see that Mrs Incredible/Elastigirl is being played when she does her superhero thing. By whom? Nice twist. Great visuals, evoking a 1960's style retro view of the future. 

A couple of things hit home. Why was it that Mr Incredible found it so hard to rejoice in his wife's publicly celebrated exploits? Even with his enhanced strength, he was unable to straighten out the inward curve of human nature that makes it 'all about me'. His wife's success as Elastigirl made Mr. Incredible seem like a failure. Galling. Embittering. 

Dad is left to look after the kids while mom hops on a motorbike to save the world. Harder than you'd think to be a stay at home father. The sleep deprivation-induced parent fatigue will ring true for anyone who's had young kids. Where was Edna Mode when you needed her? Fixing things for his children proved just as much an adventure as Elastigirl's derring-do. 

At least when ours were babies they didn't disappear into another dimension every now and again, or shoot laser beams from their eyes, or go on fire. Let alone replicate themselves multiple times over. That would have been a bit much. 

We booked to see a late showing (8.00pm start - 10.00pm finish), hoping the cinema would be more or less a kiddie free zone, full of nostalgic empty nesters. But, no. Place was packed with young mums and their chattering, popcorn spilling brood. Incredible. 

Friday, July 27, 2018

An Introduction to the Baptists by Erroll Hulse

Audubon Press, 2008 edition, 128pp

A friend who has been coming along to our church for a while from a Methodist/Church of England background asked if I could recommend an introduction to the Baptists for her to read. She was interested in our history and beliefs concerning the local church and baptism. I had a rummage around on the net and this is what came up. I was familiar with Erroll Hulse, a well known figure in Reformed Baptist circles, but I'd not come across his book before. As you can see this is a 2008 reprint of a title that was originally published in 1976. 

As Hulse's introduction to the reprint indicates, 'Much has taken place since 1976'. Well, yes. But no attempt was made to revise this new edition, which gives it badly dated feel. This is especially apparent when it comes to the chapter devoted to Baptists in Russia Today (make that Soviet Russia, with the Iron Curtain still firmly in place) and the one on Baptists Worldwide, where the figures cited are way out of date, and take no account of the growth of Reformed Baptist Churches in the Philippines, and elsewhere in recent decades. 

The author's description of early Baptist history in Europe and the British Isles is more surefooted. English Particular Baptists are distinguished from their Anabaptist cousins by their espousal of Calvinistic theology. They parted company with Calvin and the Reformers when it came to believers' baptism and the doctrine of the gathered church. 

Hulse introduces some of the major figures in English Reformed Baptist history. Potted biographies are given of William Kiffin, Hanserd Knollys, Benjamin Keach, John Bunyan, Andrew Fuller, and C. H Spurgeon, among others. Strangely, while William Carey is mentioned, little is said about his life and labours. Others, such as Benjamin Beddome don't get even a look in. The chapter on Baptists in America 1620-1976 was an eye-opener for me. 

Hulse's treatment of Baptist beliefs is typically trenchant in its advocacy of Calvinistic doctrine and Baptist principles on believers' baptism and the gathered church. He wholeheartedly recommends the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, 1689 as an expression of Baptist convictions.More perhaps could have been said on the Baptist belief in the separation of church and state that set them apart from the Magisterial Reformers and the Anglican settlement. Omitting justification by faith from his list of doctrines that need defending in these days (Chapter 6) is another example of this work showing its age, given the controversy generated by the New Perspective on Paul, not to mention ecumenical dialogues between Evangelicals and Romans Catholics in recent years.

The final chapter on Baptists and the Way Ahead makes some excellent points, almost anticipating the emphasis found in Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever. Although Hulse insists on only four hallmarks of  biblical faithfulness for Baptists: The Word of God should prevail in preaching, evangelism, church order and in daily life. Both in the historical and doctrinal sections the author also urges the importance of revival, defined as a mighty outpouring of the Spirit upon the church. 

In an appendix, Reflections on the Lord's Supper, Hulse argues for a 'Strict Baptist' approach to the Lord's Table, where only baptised believers share in Communion. Not all Reformed Baptists take such a 'strict' stance. Some would even allow convinced paedobaptists into the membership of a Baptist church, with full access to the Lord's Table, so long as they did not stir up controversy on the issue. An appendix to the 1689 Confession allows for such variation in practice. 

The book provides a useful Introduction to the Baptists. I will give a copy to my friend and it will be interesting to discuss it with her. But a similar work for the 21st Century is badly needed, one that brings things right-up-to date in terms of historical developments, and that deals with some of the pressures affecting the Baptist movement today. A little less jargon, 'free-willers', etc, would also help. Anyone know of a more suitable basic intro? If not, sounds like a job for Robert Oliver, or Michael Haykin. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

John Owen and English Puritanism by Crawford Gribben

John Owen and English Puritanism: Experiences of Defeat
by Crawford Gribben, Oxford University Press, 2016, 401pp

'By their books you shall know them'. If the shelves of someone's study are adorned by sixteen white and green volumes, The Works of John Owen, they are likely to be 'Reformed' types. The kind that attend Banner of Truth Ministers' Conferences, and the like. Whether those hefty tomes have been plucked from the shelf and read is another thing. For John Owen (1616-83) is a difficult man to read. Only a few brave souls have ventured beyond Volumes 1 and 2, possibly 6 at a stretch. But the set serves as an identity marker. Merely to posses it is enough. Perhaps the proud owners hope that the wonders of Puritan divinity will infiltrate their souls by osmosis?

For those who wish to make more of a determined effort actually to read Owen, the green and white volumes are both a help and a hindrance. We must salute the efforts of W. H. Goold in gathering Owen's writings together and the Banner of Truth Trust in reprinting them, but Goold's orangising system was a little haphazard. He tended to group Owen's writings thematically rather than chronologically. It is difficult, therefore, to trace developments in his thinking over time. Oddly, Volumes 1 and 16 include some of the divine's posthumously published final works, Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ (1684) and The True Nature of a Gospel Church (1689). 

That is one of the reasons why Crawford Gribben's biography is an indispensable guide for serious readers of Owen. He sets our man's literary output against the backdrop of his life and times so we can see the political and religious contexts in which he operated. Situating Owen's writings in this way helps to serve as a reminder that he was no ivory tower theologian. His pen was often directed to responding to some of the pressing controversies of the day such as Arminianism, Socinanism, and, of course, Roman Catholicism. In addition, Owen sought to explain and defend his Independent churchmanship against both Presbyterian and Anglican antagonists. While we would hardly call him a social libertarian by today's standards, the Puritan argued for religious tolerance. At least as far as orthodox Protestants were concerned, whatever their ecclesiastical stamp.  

Owen is a difficult man to read. While the details of his public career are known, his inner thoughts are hard to fathom. Owen rarely made autobiographical remarks in his writings. He left behind no journal to which he bared his soul. You will search his works in vain for references to how Owen felt on the death of his first wife, or the loss of all ten of his children. Notwithstanding these constraints, Gribben manages to piece together a life of Owen that helps us get under the skin of the public figure. 

Owen's career began as a pastor of small congregations in rural Essex. He accompanied Oliver Cromwell on his Irish campaign. Owen was often asked to preach to Parliament, including the day after the execution of Charles I. He became Vice Chancellor of Oxford University, defending that great place of learning against radicals who had little time for the world of letters. I hadn't realised before that the English philosopher John Locke studied under Owen at Oxford. With the return of Charles II Owen, fell out of favour. He was removed from Oxford and returned to pastoral ministry, serving  Independent congregations until the end of his life. 

The Restoration brought new challenges for Owen. His writings had to be published anonymously, with different emphases for different audiences. He warily sought to defend his Independent convictions against those who labelled him a dangerous sectarian and Republican rebel. Meanwhile, the Puritan preacher who criticised Cromwell's Protectorate for its love of worldly grandeur now celebrated Charles II as a paragon of Protestant piety. He knew that the King rather than parliament would be more likely to extend toleration to nonconformists. 

The work is a salutary study of what happens when the godly get what they so often wish for; political power. Puritanism could not be imposed on the population of the British Isles by parliamentary decree, or through Cromwell serving as Lord Protector with the support of the army. England was not the New Jerusalem after all. Parliamentary victories at Marson Moor and Naseby did not mean, as Owen and others argued, that political Puritanism had divine sanction. Christians function best as a counter-culture within society, rather than as the Establishment using its power to foist the highest standards of godliness upon a largely unregenerate nation. We are meant to function as  'salt' that preserves meat from decay, not fillet steak. 

As the subtitle suggests, the author sees 'experiences of defeat' as key to understanding Owen's character. It could be argued that the whole Puritan movement, of which Owen was a leading light ended in defeat. The Church of England was not lastingly reformed along Presbyterian or Independent lines. Episcopal church government was re-imposed on the restoration of the monarchy. In 1662 around two thousand Puritan Ministers were ejected from the church. This was a massive 'experience of defeat' for Owen, but it was not the only one. As a young man he had to leave Oxford University due to the anti-Puritan policies promoted by Laud. He became an Independent when Presbyterians dominated national life. In first pastorate, Owen bemoaned the poor spiritual state of his congregation. In his last phase of ministry, he mourned over own lack of pastoral effectiveness. Yet despite all this, it would be wrong to see Owen as a dejected and defeated character come the final period of his life. In his Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ, Owen turned his eyes away from this vain world and its vicissitudes to Christ. He confessed,  
There is no glory, no peace, no joy, no satisfaction, such a foretaste in this world, to be compared with what we receive by that weak and imperfect view which we have of the glory of Christ by faith; yea, all the joys of the world are a thing of nought in comparison of what we so receive. (Works Volume 1, p. 415). 
As Gribben suggests in his Conclusion, while Owen's public life may have been characherised by a series of reversals, his published Works would afford him a kind of victory in later generations. Evangelicals turned to his writings for their theological depth, practical piety and experimental warmth. George Whitefield commended Owen to his fellow-Methodists in the 18th Century. C. H Spurgeon ensured he had an audience among Calvinistic Baptists in the Victorian era. Owen's writings played an important role in the resurgence of Reformed theology associated with the ministries of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and J. I. Packer in the 20th Century. Renewed attention is being given to Owen in the contemporary globe-spanning Reformed movement. If his Works were read by those who posses them beyond the familiar Volumes 1, 2 & 6, that would save John Owen from yet another 'experience of defeat'. Yes, he is a difficult man to read, but for those who persevere through the thickets of complex sentences and strange neologisms, there is theological gold in them there white and green tomes.