Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Joy of Les Miserables


My mum has seen the musical version of Les Miserables twice.  It’s one of the longest running productions on the West End. Apparently, the show has been seen by 70 million people in 52 countries and 22 languages around the world. I saw the film of the musical when it came out a few years ago. But it was only in watching the BBC’s recently screened Les Miserables that the power of the story really came home to me. If you missed it, you can probably still catch it on BBC iPlayer. It is a brilliantly acted, magnificently staged and thought provoking drama. One of the most emotionally powerful things I've seen on TV for a while. 

The story follows the twists and turns in the life of Jean Valjean, a convict who became a respectable businessman. The prison chief, Javert did not believe that it was possible for Valjean to come good. Once a criminal, always a criminal. He vows to hunt Valjean down when he is released from jail. Javert stands for justice without mercy,  justice with no hope of forgiveness. 

As a former convict, Valjean could find nowhere to lay his head until a kindly bishop gave a bed for the night. True to form, Valjean stole the bishop’s silverware and headed off into the night. The police hunted him down and were about to force the thief return what he had taken from the bishop. Then something unexpected happened. The police wanted Valjean to face justice. Back to the prison hulks. But the bishop did more than show mercy, forgive the thief and let him off. He gave Valjean two silver candlesticks, explaining to the police that he must have forgotten them when he left in the night. That was a true moment of grace.

Graham Harrison was systematic theology lecturer when I attended London Seminary, (1988-90). He used to say, "Justice is God giving us what we deserve. Mercy is God not giving us what we deserve. Grace is God giving us what we do not deserve." How amazing is grace!

Such grace is a rare thing in today’s world. Look at what happened after Liam Neeson confessed to revenge fantasies the other week. Yes, what he thought about doing was wrong. He said as much himself. But many were quick to pounce on his remarks and label the actor as an unforgivable racist. Social media has turned us into merciless little Javerts for whom there is no conception of grace and no hope of redemption for those who have done wrong. With grace there is always hope, for grace gives us what we don’t deserve. Valjean certainly didn’t deserve a second chance. He knew it, and the grace shown him by the bishop turned his life around. That’s the joy of Les Miserables

The Christian faith is all about grace. God sent Jesus to satisfy the demands of justice by dying for our sins upon the cross. In his mercy, God offers us forgiveness for the wrong things we have done. Grace goes beyond even that. Those who believe in Jesus are welcomed into God’s family and given the hope of eternal life. In the BBC drama, when Valjean lay dying, his eyes were fixed on the silver candlesticks given him by the bishop. Grace enabled him to die in peace. "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me". 

* For News & Views (West Lavington) Trinity (Dilton Marsh) parish magazines 

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Christ and Covenant Theology by Cornelis P. Venema

P&R Publishing, 2017, 462pp

For my next trick, I, a convinced Baptist will review a book on covenant theology. Maybe that seems a bit like a strict teetotaler venturing a view on the finest vintage port, when never a drop has touched their lips. Or a Vegan discussing the best cuts of beef, when all they know is nut roasts and cabbage. Covenant theology and Baptists? Er,  no.

Well, it's a yes, actually. Covenant theology isn't the preserve of Presbyterians and other paedobaptist types. Baptists get a look in too. After all, we believe the Bible and there's a lot of covenanty stuff in there. The thing is, what's the nature of the various biblical covenants, and how do they relate to each other?

For starters, did the relationship between God and Adam take the form of a covenant, and if so, what kind of covenant was it? Important, this one. What we make of the Adamic administration will help to shape our view of subsequent covenant dispensations. Venema argues convincingly that the arrangement between God and Adam in the Eden took the form of a covenant. That applies, even though the word berith isn't used in Genesis 1-3, or elsewhere in Scripture to describe the arrangement, with the possible exception of Hosea 6:7. Venema cautions against word/matter fallacy insisting, De vocabulo dubitetur, so salva ("the word may be in doubt, but the matter is certain"), p. 422. In other words, if it walks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's not exactly a pigeon, is it? 

The essential elements of a covenant being present, Reformed theologians have variously labelled the relationship that obtained between God and Adam as a "covenant of works/nature/life". If Adam had obeyed the terms of the covenant, his reward from God would have been eternal life and blessedness for himself and all humanity in him. The penalty for breaking the covenant was death for Adam and all humanity. 

Scholars following the lead of Meredith Kline hold that the "covenant of works" was established on the basis of strict merit. Adam's obedience would have earned him and all men in him eternal life in fellowship with God. Venema begs to differ. The promised blessings far exceed Adam's just deserts. Perfect obedience was simply God's due and in itself merited no reward. The Westminster Confession of Faith speaks of "some voluntary condescension on God's part" by which the Creator covenanted to reward Adam's obedience. If there is merit here, it is "covenanted merit", not strict merit. 

A nifty Tabular Comparison of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) and the Second London Baptist Confession (SLBC) shows that Baptists followed the Presbyterians in regarding the arrangement between God and Adam in covenantal terms. See Chapter VII. The wording of point 1 of this chapter is virtually the same in both confessions. For some reason the Baptists dropped the clarifying statement in WCF VII.2. Not sure why. Would anyone notice if I popped it back in?  Greg Nichols has a helpful treatment of the Adamic Covenant in Appendix 2 of his Covenant Theology: A Reformed and Baptistic Perspective on God's Covenants (Solid Ground Christian Books, 2014, p. 321-358). He agrees with Venema that while the "covenant of works" demanded perfect obedience from Adam, it operated on the basis of God's undeserved favour, not strict merit in terms of the immeasurable reward offered. 

Adam failed to win the blessings of life eternal for humanity under the "covenant of works". But all was not lost. Both the WCF and SLBC state that, the Lord was pleased to make a "covenant of grace, wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ" (WCF VII. 3 SLBC VII. 2). Christ is the covenant head of God's new humanity, as Adam was the covenant head of sin-ruined humanity. According to Reformed expositors, this covenantal understanding of Adam and Christ is borne out by Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:20-22, 42-49. 

From Adam to Moses. A dispute has arisen in the Reformed world as to whether the Mosaic covenant was a republication of the "covenant of works". Kline and those who follow his line insist that the Sinaiatic dispensation promised blessing in return for strict obedience. Although Venema makes no reference to him here, the Puritan John Owen also advocated the republication view, which proved influential among early Particular Baptists. Given the emphasis on law in the Mosaic covenant and the link between blessing and obedience/curse and disobedience in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the Owen/Kline view seems to have something going for it. Leviticus 18:5 seems to bear this out. 

Venema gives a fair summary of the views of Reformed theologians who argue that the Moasic covenant was in some sense a republication of the covenant of works. He then proceeds to pick that position apart. In terms of Reformed Orthodoxy, the WCF sets the Mosaic economy in the context of the covenant of grace (VII.5). The SLBC omits this helpful material. Shame, that, as it serves to emphasise the overarching unity of the covenant of grace under its different administrations. Be that as it may, the decider on this issue isn't confessional statements, but Scripture. 

The author gives special attention to the republication lot's trump card, Leviticus 18:5. The apostle Paul for one seems to say that the text in question promised life as a reward for obedience, which is a bit covenant of worksy, to say the least. See Galatians 3:12 and Romans 10:5. Venema places Leviticus 18:5 within the context of the Mosaic covenant as a whole, where it was addressed to God's chosen and redeemed people to whom the law was given as a rule of life. Only when divorced from the covenant of grace does the law become a demand that damns. That was the problem with which Paul was confronted in the form of legalistic Judaism. Hence his concern to contrast Leviticus 18:5 understood as meritorious demand with the opposing principle of justification by faith apart from the works of the law. Baptist theologian Greg Nichols concurs, 
Thus the Mosaic covenant did not promote legalism. It did not teach sinners get right with God by the works of the law. It was not a republication of the pre-fall covenant of works. It called Israel as a society to gospel obedience. God built the Mosaic covenant on the foundation of the need for regeneration and justification by faith. (Covenant Theology, p. 232). 
Things get a bit more controversial from a Baptist point of view in the chapters that follow on covenant and election. The sticking point is whether the children of believers are included among God's people under the new covenant as they were under the old. Venema, upholding the WCF tradition says, 'yes', me, a 1689er says, 'no'. But there are points of agreement too.  The covenant of grace is the historical outworking of the covenant of redemption between the persons of the Trinity in eternity. There is therefore a relationship between election and the covenant of grace. Agreed. With this thought in mind Venema deals sensitively  with the issue of Election and the Salvation of Children of Believers Who Die in Infancy (Chapter 6). Baptists do not regard their children as members of the covenant people of God until they profess faith in Christ, but with the WCF the SLBC holds, "Elect infants dying in infancy are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit" (X.3 - both confessions). 

Now to points of disagreement from a Baptist perspective. Under the old covenant not every member of the people of Israel was personally elected to salvation through faith in the promises. Paul makes that clear in Romans 9:6-18.  The circle of the covenant community was  wider than the circle of the elect. In fact, among the circumcised descendants of Abraham there was only a "remnant chosen by grace" (Romans 11:6). Membership by natural descent was precisely the weakness of the old covenant, which made it ripe for abolition, Jeremiah 31:31-34. Under the new covenant belonging is not based on birth, but belief in Christ, Galatians 3:26-29. That is why the sign and seal of the new covenant is not circumcision, but baptism on profession of faith. One of the ways in which the new covenant is superior to the old is that the godly are no longer a remnant within a largely apostate covenant community, as was often the case with Israel. The church is a gathering of visible saints, more closely corresponding to the elect than was the case under the old covenant. Paedobaptism undermines this, sometimes muddying the waters quite badly. (No baptismal pun interned). 

Acts 2:38-39 isn't the clincher for Paedobaptism that Venema claims. The children of Peter's hearers "and all who are far off" would only receive forgiveness of sin and the promised Holy Spirit on repentance from sin and faith in Christ, sealed by baptism. Unless Venema is willing to allow that "all who are far off" are eligible for baptism before they come to faith in Christ, as well as the children of believers. No? Well, then. That said, Paedobaptism notwithstanding, the WCF exhibits a much richer understanding of Baptism and the Lord's Supper as signs and seals of the covenant of grace than the SLBC (compare WFC XXVII with SLBC XXVIII - scroll down the Tabular thing a bit). In Baptist circles baptism can be reduced to a rather damp way of publicly professing one's faith, rather than a means of grace. 

Next up Venema devotes three chapters to discussing Federal Vision teaching, which involves a pile of wrongheaded ideas that have been influential in American Reformed Presbyterian circles. FV holds that every church member and their children must be assumed to be elect, even though some may fall away. Infant baptism is regenerative, although again, some who were baptised as infants may turn away from the faith. Justification is merely forgiveness, with no imputation of Christ's righteousness. The works believers perform as an outworking of their faith have a role in their final justification. Venema refutes these notions with his customary thoroughness. I couldn't help thinking that freaky FV notions wouldn't have developed within a framework of Reformed Baptist theology. For me reading these chapters was a bit like eavesdropping on two people arguing. One you think is a bit wrong (Venema in his Presbyterianism), but the other you reckon is totally off the scale (the FVs). 

I wish less attention had been given to FV nonsense and more to the subject of the final chapter, Covenant and Justification in N. T. Wright's Interpretation of Romans 5:12-21. Wright's views certainly have more of a global reach than the rather domestic FV controversy. Here is Venema at his best. He states Wright's position with fairness and clarity, and then shows how his understanding falls short both in terms of exegesis and theological reasoning. Wright claims that his biblical studies approach to Romans 5:12-21 avoids importing later theological concerns into his reading of the text. But systematic theology has something to offer when it comes to setting individual passages of Scripture in the context of the whole counsel of God, and showing how various biblical doctrines fit together as an interconnected whole. As in Adam all stand condemned, so all who are in Christ are constituted righteous, justified by faith alone. The broken symmetry of the Adam/Christ relationship in Romans 5:12-21 is best understood in covenantal and forensic terms. Wright's focus on identifying who belongs to the people of God doesn't quite cut it. 

Christ and Covenant Theology is a big read that demands careful thought and attention. Baptists may not always agree with his conclusions, but will find in Venema a stimulating dialogue partner as they seek to develop a distinctively Baptistic covenant theology. The writer's emphasis on the central importance of Christ in the covenant of grace is surely welcome,
Christ is the Alpha and Omega, the origin and end of God's loving and gracious purpose to dwell in everlasting communion with his covenant people...All the ways of God find their beginning and fulfillment in and through the work of Christ, and this is most powerfully testified through the history of the covenants. (p. 434).  
* A boiled down version of this review will be published in the Banner of Truth Magazine at some point. 

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan B. Peterson


Like many people, at least in the UK, I first came across Jordan Peterson when his interview with Channel 4's Cathy Newman went viral. See here if you've been living on another planet of late and haven't yet seen it. I was impressed with Peterson's ability to hold to his own under sustained onslaught from Newman with her liberal bias against conservative views. He refused to be misrepresented when she repeatedly took his arguments to their illogical conclusion. At one point Newman was lost for words. 

Jordan Peterson is a clinical psychologist and a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, Canada. He rose to public prominence when he refused to comply with his University's policy of enforcing staff and students to refer to transgender people by their chosen pronouns. He regarded the guidance as intellectually dishonest and a violation of free speech. Angry protests followed.

Peterson's 12 Rules for Life has sold over two million copies. His lecture tours have attracted huge crowds across the world. Young men especially have fastened onto his message of personal responsibility. The professor often appeals to the Christian faith when articulating his views, drawing upon biblical stories to illustrate his points. I was intrigued and wanted to find out more; following him on Twitter (@jordanbpeterson) and watching interviews and talks online. When Audible offered me a free download as a trial offer, I chose 12 Rules for Life

Audiobooks aren't really my thing. I'm a pretty fast reader, so having a book read to me seemed like a ponderously slow process. When reading a book I feel like I'm working, but sitting and listening I'm tempted to start doing other things rather than concentrating on what I'm hearing. Anyway, in fits and starts stretching out over several months I finally made it to the end. 

Others have offered reviews in which they work their way systematically through each of the '12 Rules'*. I'm not going to do that. In case you're wondering what they are, you'll find them listed at the bottom of this post. What I propose to do is reflect on some of the big themes Peterson touches upon in his book and subject them to theological analysis. You see, although the writer is happy to mine the Bible for parables and principles, he gets a bit cagey when pressed on his own personal faith position. Peterson recommends we live as though God existed because the Nietzschean alternative is too awful to contemplate. For the Christian God is not a hypothesis invented to make life bearable. He is the one who makes life both possible and meaningful. 

God

Many people on nodding acquaintance with the Bible say they find the God disclosed in the pages of the New Testament more appealing than the one revealed in the Old. The ancient heresy of Marcion persists. Yahweh is a jealous God of wrath and rage. How different is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. But there is only one God according to Christian belief. Both covenants testify to his mercy and justice. The supreme demonstration of which divine attributes is seen in the love-placarding, sin-bearing, wrath-averting death of Christ at Calvary. 

Unusually, in a kind of reverse Marcionism, Peterson prefers the God of Moses to the God of Jesus. A God of wrath seems somehow more fitting, given the state of our sin-ruined, suffering existence. The problem of evil weighs heavily in 12 Rules of Life. Peterson does not shy away from the reality of sin in the human heart and the suffering it causes. It can be a struggle to resists the nihilistic pull of hatred for the world and chose life. Hence the injunction of Rule 1 'Stand up straight with your shoulders back'. Don't be cowed by what life throws at you. Adopt a confident posture and begin a journey of self-improvement one step at a time. 

Wisdom 

There is a lot of good practical wisdom to be found here. You can see why Peterson's message is proving so popular, particularly among men, who have long been told they are either dangerously 'toxic', or totally useless. It's great that millions of his readers are being taken to the Bible as a source of truth and insight, whether that's the story of Cain and Abel, or Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. This is not to say that Peterson has grasped the gospel, however. In a coda at the end of 12 Rules for Life he quotes Matthew 6:33, "But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you." He takes the text as a cue for us to pursue the highest priorities in life in terms of our self-development, career and relationships. Husbands should honour their wives as Mothers of God, fathers treat their sons as Sons of God, men should look out for their daughters, adult children care for their parents. 

Rules or redemption?

Fine sentiments indeed. But this is not the gospel. Such is the nature of sin-ruined humanity that 12 Rules for Life isn't going to set us straight. Not even the Ten Commandments could do that. What we need isn't rules, but redemption. The Son of God had to be born of his virgin mother, suffer and die on the cross for ours sins, and be raised bodily from the grave. In Christ the believer has died to the old life under the reign of sin and been raised to a new one under the reign of grace. We need the power of the Holy Spirit to transform our lives from within that we may walk in the way of God's rules for life. The message of the Bible is not one of self-help, but grace. 

The great Puritan divine John Owen wrote pithily, 'A Socinian Christ for a Pelagian man'. In other words, a Pelagian message of self-improvement does not require God the Son to die for our sins. With the appropriate teaching and the aid of good examples, we can find the right path. The trouble is, as Owen knew, 'A Chalcedonian Christ is needed for an Augustinian man'. Peterson's conception of human nature might seem gloomy, but it is nowhere near gloomy enough. Human beings are made in the image of God. That is what gives us our value, dignity and moral responsibility. But we are fallen creatures, totally depraved and ruined by sin. The 'chaos' for which Peterson's Rules are the prescribed antidote has its roots in the fall of human beings in rebellion against their Creator; "sin is lawlessness [anomia]", 1 John 3:4. Augustine understood that sin warps our love, causing us to turn away from God and in upon ourselves. That way lies ruin and eternal loss. Only by grace can our track record of failure be forgiven. Only by grace can we be rightly ordered to love God and others above self. 

Lessons

But the church does have something to learn from Jordan Peterson. He is unafraid to voice and defend his socially conservative views in public and will not allow the hostile media to misrepresent his position. All too often the church had buckled under pressure when it comes to upholding biblical marriage, and so on.  Peterson works hard to apply his teachings to his readers and listeners lives in helpful ways. This has made a real difference to people who have acted upon his guidance. Preachers also need to 'state, illustrate and apply'. Yes, our imperatives must be based on the indicatives of the gospel, but transformational imperatives there must be. Let's not forget that the aim of preaching is to equip believers to play their roles in the drama of redemption in which evil is defeated and God's good purposes prevail. Peterson's success also shows that there is an audience out there for a message that addresses what it means to live a purposeful life in a broken world. The church should have something to say about that, right? 

12 Rules for Life 

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back
  2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you
  4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
  5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
  6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
  7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
  8. Tell the truth – or, at least, don't lie
  9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't
  10. Be precise in your speech
  11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
  12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

*Other reviews: 


Monday, January 07, 2019

Called? Pastoral Guidance for the Divine Call to Gospel Ministry by Michael A. Milton

Christian Focus, 2018, 231 pp 

It is a momentous thing for a man to feel that the Lord is calling him to gospel ministry. Michael A. Milton sets out to guide his readers though the various stages of responding to the Lord’s call. His work is full of practical hints and tips, often drawn from Milton’s own experience. A theology of calling is sketched out. Several chapters are devoted to choosing a seminary (may I recommend London Seminary) and the privileges and pitfalls of seminary life. Attention is given to the early phase of gospel service after training has been completed. Then there is the matter of persevering in the work over the long haul. 

While there's good stuff here for budding pastors, the work has some flaws that mar its usefulness. The present title is a reworking of previously published material with the aim of making it more relevant to the global church. For all that, it is still very much a product of American Presbyterianism. Talk of the role of denominations in recognising and training ministers and of ‘parish ministry’ will be alien to large swathes of Evangelicalism in the United Kingdom and beyond. The author’s attempts at humour don’t always translate well. In explaining a theology of calling to the ministry Milton refers to Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles, but 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 on the appointment of elders/overseers barely get a look in. The book is a little ‘bitty’. Some chapters are based on sermons preached by the author. A letter and hymn penned by him are thrown in for good measure. This makes the work seem more like a selection of occasional writings than a book-length discussion of what it means to be called to gospel ministry. 

Of course, the blurbs at the front commend the book in glowing terms, "compelling", "marvellous", "a treasure". This is overly generous. Sorry to sound so critical, but the job of a reviewer is to give potential readers the benefit of his honest opinion. That said, anyone seeking to discern whether the Lord may be calling them to gospel ministry will derive some benefit from Milton’s down-to-earth pastoral guidance. Men aspiring to pastoral ministry should also take a look at Lectures to My Students by C. H. Spurgeon, Preaching and Preachers by D. M. Lloyd-Jones, and Preaching Pure and Simple by Stuart Olyott. 

* A version of this review will be published in Evangelical Times

Friday, January 04, 2019

Facing the Future with Hope


 
Standing at the threshold of a new year is exciting and daunting for the same reason. None of us has got a clue what’s going to happen in the next twelve months. If we knew exactly what lay ahead of us, life would lack surprises. Where would be the fun in that? That we don’t know what lies ahead of us means that we may well be in for some nasty shocks. That’s the daunting bit. For some fear of the future becomes so crippling that they can’t get on with life. Telling such people, ‘Don’t worry, it might never happen’ won’t cut it, because it might. What then?

But it really is no use worrying. It changes nothing, only our ability to cope with the things that life has in store for us. Someone once said, “Worrying is carrying tomorrow's load with today's strength - carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying doesn't empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.” That someone was Corrie ten Boon (1892-1983). We might think that her sentiments are fine if a person has had a carefree life. That certainly wasn’t the case with Corrie. Her father gave Jewish families shelter during the German occupation of Holland in World War Two. Their activities were discovered by the Gestapo. Corrie’s father died after nine days imprisonment in Scheveningen Prison. Corrie and her sister Betsie were sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp, where Betsie passed away.

Corrie survived. Inspired by her Christian faith she devoted her life to helping people in need, setting up shelters to care for fellow concentration camp survivors. During her time in Ravensbrück Corrie had to learn to trust in the Lord one day at a time. Jesus said, “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” He assured his followers that their heavenly Father knew the things they needed and would provide for them. With faith in our hearts we can face down our fears. As the apostle Paul reasoned, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

Yes, the future is unknown. Who knows what 2019 will bring in terms of global events, Brexit, or our personal circumstances? But the Lord  has these reassuring words for those who trust in him, “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for peace and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

Happy New Year!

*For Trinity, Dilton Marsh parish magazine 

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Light of the World


 
Back in November we paused to remember the end of World War One. On the eve of that conflict UK foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey remarked, ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime’. With that sentiment in mind, the dry moat of the Tower of London was lit up with 10,000 lamps in the nights leading up to Remembrance Sunday. The installation was aptly named, ‘Beyond the Deepening Shadow’. The terrible events of 1914-18 and subsequent conflicts remind us that this world can be a dark place, where sorrow and suffering reigns.

God can sometimes seem remote from all this. What does he know of heartache and pain? But the message of Christmas tells us that God entered this world in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. In one of his books C. S. Lewis made this remarkable statement: “Once in our world, a Stable had something in it that was bigger than our whole world.” He was talking about God in the flesh, Jesus Christ. The One who was small enough to be laid in a manger, an animal’s feeding trough, was at the same time big enough to hold the whole world in his hands. In Jesus, God became human to bring human beings back to God.

Jesus came to take upon himself the darkness of our sin, suffering in our place upon the cross. But the forces of darkness could not put out the light of God’s love in Jesus. He rose from the gloom of the tomb, “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” The Christmas lights with which we decorate our homes and high streets are a faint glimmer of the true light of Jesus. By faith in him we may move beyond the deepening shadow into the light of hope. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Silent night, holy night,

Son of God, love's pure light;
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.
*For December editions of News & Views, West Lavington and Trinity, Dilton Marsh - parish magazines

Christmas Services at Providence Baptist Church 

Sunday 16 December
10.30am— Carol Service with Bible readings and carols
4.00pm— All-Age Carol Service
The afternoon service will be interactive, suitable for any age. We will be looking at why Jesus Christ came in to the world. Followed by a festive spread.

Sunday 23 December
10.30am & 6.00pm - Services with carols and a Christmas message

Christmas Day Service
We welcome you to join us at 10am
“Christ the Saviour is born”

Christmas Services at Ebenezer Baptist Church

Sunday 23 December 
4.30pm, Time for Tea Plus Christmas Special. Carol service followed by a festive tea

Christmas Day Service
We welcome you to join us at 10.30am
"Christians awake, salute the happy dawn' 

See the Providence & Ebenezer Baptist Churches website for more info. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Providence Baptist Church Carol Services

When love came down...

Sunday 16 December
10.30am— Carol Service with Bible readings and carols
4.00pm—All-Age Carol Service
The afternoon service will be interactive, suitable for any age. We will be looking at why Jesus Christ came in to the world. Followed by a festive spread.

Sunday 23 December
10.30am & 6.00pm - Services with carols and a Christmas message

Christmas Day Service
We welcome you to join us at 10am
“Christ the Saviour is born”

See the Providence Baptist Church website for more info. 

Thursday, November 15, 2018

London Theological Seminary 1988-90

Yes, I know, they've since re-Christened it 'London Seminary', but when I started there some 30 years ago, it still had the 'Theological' bit. I could have applied to what was then the 'Evangelical Theological College of Wales' in Bridgend (now Union School of Theology - confusing isn't it?), but I wanted to spread my wings and train for the ministry outside of Wales. The irony is that the faculty was then composed almost entirely of Welshmen. Hywel Jones was Principal, Philip Eveson served as Resident Tutor, Graham Harrison lectured in Biblical Doctrine and Andrew Davies taught Church History. There was one token non-Welshman in the shape of Merle Inniger, who lectured on Missions. 

The student body was quite international though, with friends from the Philippines, Korea, Malaysia, Ghana, Australia, Germany, Italy, Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales. I was among the youngest of the students, at 22 years of age. Most were men of riper years. I used to joke that I was among the few LTS students who qualified for free milk. 

I had only been a Christian for around four years when I began my studies and I wasn't especially well taught. In fact, there were gaping holes in my knowledge of theology, biblical studies and  church history. Added to that I had left school at the age of 16 and so wasn't used to writing essays and other academic work. I had very little experience of preaching, either. Looking back, it was a wonder they accepted me, but they did. Not sure why.

I had a thirst for knowledge, which was something. Before going to LTS I had devoured Martyn Lloyd-Jones' sermons on Romans and Ephesians and various other Puritan and Reformed books published by Banner of Truth, Evangelical Press, and so on. I may even have ploughed through Berkof's Systematic Theology. Back then I was a Calvinist with Congregational churchmanship, and had strong Lloyd-Jonsesian emphasis on revival and experiential Christianity. Now I'm a Baptist, but the other elements are still very much part of my outlook, reinforced by my time at seminary.

In terms of the teaching, I especially appreciated Hywel Jones' lectures on Isaiah, John and Hebrews. Such insightful exegesis and theological depth. Philip Eveson's treatment of the Wisdom Literature, particularly Ecclesiastes has yet to be bettered in my mind. He should write a commentary. In Eveson's lectures on Galatians he critically engaged with the 'New Perspective on Paul' way before the Evangelical world has woken up to what was going on in Pauline studies. I remember he took such a long time over Amos that some of the other Minor Prophets were given scant attention. One student popped out for a toilet break and missed Obadiah. Learning Hebrew and Greek was a struggle, but I've tried to keep up the languages with the help of Logos Bible Software and other aids. 

Graham Harrison's teaching of Biblical Doctrine included a large element of discussion, with a strong element of pastoral application. He took no prisoners when it came to cutting 'know-it-all' students down to size. 'Well you're wrong' he would sometimes insist. Andrew Davies' lectures on Church History would occasionally morph into preaching. His treatment of 'Word and Spirit in Puritanism' and the Moravian Revival were cases in point. Such was the power of those addresses it was impossible to take notes. Andrew once rebuked students who thought it was quite amusing that they had failed to hand in their assignments. He looked over the top of his half moon spectacles in Headmasterly fashion and boomed, 'Gentlemen, I trust we are not funny men trying to be serious, but serious men who know when to laugh'. Scary. 

When Mr Davies stood down due to ill health, he was succeeded by Robert Oliver of Bradford on Avon. His lectures were quite different in style to Andrew's, but equally well appreciated by the students. You could take notes. Merle Inniger taught World Religions and Jeremiah. He was a gracious and irenic character, often responding with 'I can go along with that' to students' remarks.  

Considering the seminary put such a premium on the importance of preaching, not much time was devoted to the mechanics of sermon prep. Just one or two lectures, as I recall. But students were expected to speak in Morning Devotions and could expect some feedback afterwards. Once when it was my turn, Hywel Jones invited me into his study for some 'post match analysis'. He asked what I would think if instead of making a cake, my mum had just plonked a pile of ingredients on the plate. Apparently, my message was a bit like that. No theme or structure, just the raw materials. 

We also had to submit sermon notes to members of the faculty, who then gave us the benefit of their opinion on our efforts. I can't recall what my sermon was meant to be about, but Robert Oliver helpfully suggested that I divide my material up under three or four headings to give the message some structure and a sense of momentum. To this day, my sermons have an intro, first, second and third points, then a conclusion. As I understand, the seminary now gives much greater focus to homiletical matters. 

We had visiting speakers come in to address specific subjects like time management and ethical issues. The college deliberately took no position on Baptism, so a Baptist (Bob Sheehan) and Presbyterian (John Nicholls) came in as advocates of their respective views. Those sessions always led to heated discussions among the students, as did many other things including the Lloyd-Jones' teaching on the work of the Spirit and the meaning of Romans 7. We always seemed to be arguing about something, or other. Mostly good-naturedly. 

I must say that moving from Bassaleg, a village just outside Newport, South Wales to Finchley, London was something of a jolt. I'd lived in the village all my life. I seemed to know everyone and they seemed to know me. London by way of contrast was big, busy and anonymous. 

I met my wife while at LTS. She was a member of Kensit Evangelical Church, which meets in the same building complex as the seminary. Philip Eveson married us in July 1991. I doubt we'd have met otherwise, got hitched, and had two children. 

Don Carson preached on John 1:1-18 at the End of Year Service when I left the seminary in June 1990. His dad was there, so some time later was interesting to read Carson's Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor, an account of the Don's father. 

My first pastorate in Dorset reflected what Thomas Hobbes said about life. It was 'nasty, brutish and short'. But the move to the Westcountry meant I got to know the folks at Providence Baptist Church as a visiting preacher. By a spooky providence, 2018 marks 30 years since me starting at London Seminary and 15 years ago today, on 15 November, I was inducted to the joint-pastorate of Providence & Ebenezer Baptist Churches. In the early days of my current pastorate I completed a BA (Hons) in Theology with the Greenwich School of Theology. I'd like to do further studies sometime, who knows when? 

People ask me who I studied with at seminary, but they rarely recognise the names I reel off. Most have served in glorious obscurity rather than being 'big name preachers'.

There are several London Seminary men  in our locality including Ben Midgley at North Bradley Baptist Church, former principal Robert Strivens at Bradford on Avon. It's always a joy to renew fellowship with alumni at fraternals and conferences. 

I'm grateful to the Lord for my time at London Seminary, which helped set me up for a lifetime of ministry. No training course can prepare a man for every eventuality of a pastorate, but I hope something of the ethos of the college has rubbed off and will never leave me. As seminary founder Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones held, the greatest need of the church and the world is for the preaching of the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit. 

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 history...is 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?