Monday, January 28, 2008

Ten things on Christian spirituality

1. The essence of Christian spirituality is communion with the Triune God. It springs from the communicative love of the Father, who has elected us for fellowship with himself through the sacrificial death of the Son and the sanctifying presence of the Spirit.

2. Christian spirituality is in fact Spirituality with a capital "S". The Holy Spirit is the agent of true Spirituality. He brings those who were dead in sin and cut off from the life of God to new birth by his sovereign and gracious power. The believer has been made holy to God by the definitive action of of Spirit. This leads to a Spirit-empowered life of holiness, characterised by the mortification of sin and the vivification of righteousness, in obedience to God's commands. Christian spirituality is holy Spirituality.
3. Christian spirituality is rooted in the believer's union with Christ. We participate in the fruits of his atoning death and mighty resurrection. In Christ, we are forgiven and put right with God. The believer has been crucified with Christ to the old life of sin and raised with him to the new life of holiness. The risen Christ dwells in the hearts of his people by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit's task is not to draw attention to himself, but to glorify Christ and communicate his life-transforming presence. The goal of Christian spirituality is that the believer should be conformed to the image of God's own Son.
4. Christian spirituality is sustained by constant prayer. Through the blood of Christ, we are given access to the Father by the Spirit. Prayer involves worship, praise and communion with God as well as petition and supplication. The Father is pleased to answer the prayers of his people in Jesus' name, in accordance with his abundant mercy and sovereign will. The believer should make time each day for sustained prayer and meditation.
5. As God's authorised self-revelation, the Scriptures play an essential role in Christian spirituality. The Spirit who gave the written Word bears witness to the truth and authenticity of Scripture in the mind, heart and life of the believer. The Scriptures disclose the Triune God of the Gospel and reveal the basis for Christian spirituality in his saving acts. The Word of God read and preached is a means of grace that promotes the development of spiritual growth and maturity - Psalm 1. There can be no true spirituality apart from Scripture.
6. Christian spirituality develops in the context of the communion of the saints. It is not a privatised quest for self-fulfilment, but is expressed in love for the people of God. The Church exists to foster a spiritual life of compassion, service, witness and worship. She does this by exercising the ministry of the Word and prayer, and administering baptism and the Lord's Supper. Any spirituality that sidelines involvement in church life is a travesty of the Gospel.
7. Many versions of spirituality are focused on self-realisation and self-discovery. Not so Christian spirituality, which is primarily concerned with self-denial and the realisation of God's glory. An encounter with the Holy One will bring us to see the wickedness of our selfish pride that refuses to let God be God. Authentic self-awareness will bring us to cry out, "Lord, have mercy upon me, a sinner." Only those with a humble and contrite spirit will really be able to appreciate God's amazing grace. Such will give him all the glory for saving us from sin. Soli Deo gloria.
8. The spiritual life is shaped by biblical doctrine and theological reflection. But true Christian spirituality is also deeply experiential. As the old hymn put it, "True religion is more than a notion/ something must be known and felt." The Spirit of truth makes us existentially aware of our sin and need of Christ. God's love is shed abroad in the hearts of believers by the Holy Spirit whom he has given us. By the Spirit, we cry "Abba, Father", as we sense God's fatherly love embracing us. We have assurance of our adoption as the Spirit bears witness with our spirits that we are the children of God. We know Jesus Christ as a living reality. He is Christ in us, the hope of glory. Though we have not seen Jesus, we love him and believing, we rejoice with glorious and inexpressible joy. Communion with the Triune God means having distinct, experiential fellowship with each person of the Trinity. Now, our union with God in Christ is constant and fixed, while our communion with him is subject to change and fluctuation. But experiential Christian spirituality will be content with nothing less than being strengthened by the Spirit, that we may know the love of Christ that passes knowledge, that we may be filled with all the fullness of God.
9. Christian spirituality leads to practical action. The most "spiritual" Christians, like William Wilberforce, have also been those who have done the most good for their fellow human beings. Christians have been saved to serve by doing good works for the glory of God. Our faith works by love. Yes, that primarily means love for the saints, but we are to show love and practical concern for all men, even our enemies.
10. Christian spirituality is eschatological. Our communion with God in this present world is an anticipation of our fellowship with him in glory. Even now we have been raised with Christ to newness of life. The Spirit is the "earnest" or down-payment of our inheritance. We hope for the coming of the Lord, the resurrection of our bodies and the renewal of the universe. We look forward to being rid of all vestiges of the sin that mars our communion with God. Then we shall be made like our Lord Jesus and he will be glorified in us. The distinction between heaven as God's dwelling place, and the earth as our home will be rendered void as God comes down to dwell among his redeemed people. He will wipe all tears from our eyes. We will rejoice in the Spirit and see the Lamb in all his glory, world without end.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Pierced for our Transgressions, a review

Pierced for our Transgressions: rediscovering the glory of penal substitution,
by Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey and Andrew Sach, IVP, 2007, 373pp.
The doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement was once one of the distinguishing features of evangelical Christian theology. It could almost be taken for granted that evangelical theologians and preachers taught that Christ died on the cross, bearing the penalty of his people's sin. This consensus has recently been called into question by a number of influential figures in the evangelical world. We find a case in point in the now notorious comments of Steve Chalke and Alan Mann on penal substitution,
"The fact is that the cross isn't a form of cosmic child abuse - a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed." (The Lost Message of Jesus, Zondervan, 2003, p. 182)
Such remarks demand a response. Does penal substitution really construe the cross in those terms? Messrs Jeffrey, Ovey and Sach have risen to the challenge of explaining and defending the biblical teaching on penal substitutionary atonement. Their book was probably one of the most discussed theological works of 2007. Tom Wright (who endorsed The Lost Message of Jesus) entered the fray with a highly critical review. This, and the writers' response can be found here. Pierced for our Transgressions comes with ten pages worth of ringing endorsement of from some top evangelical luminaries including Don Carson, Jim Packer, John Piper, Sinclair Ferguson and John Frame. Given all the attention that the book has already received, why bother with a review? Well, it is possible that some people may not have read it yet!
What I liked about this book can be expressed in three words: style, structure and substance. The authors write in an easy, accessible style. Undue technicalities are avoided. But this does not mean that a depth of theological reasoning has been sacrificed for easy simplicities. The book has been designed to be read by any thoughtful Christian who wishes to grapple with the controversy over penal substitution. Although the work is polemical, you will find no carping criticism of the views the opposed by the writers.
The book is helpfully structured. It comes in two main parts, Making the Case and Answering the Critics. In part one, the controversy is introduced. Then the biblical material examined at some length. A pretty formidable case is made that the Bible does indeed teach that Christ died bearing the penalty of sin. Next, attention devoted to the theological framework for penal substitution. This view of the cross is related to the themes of creation, sin, the covenant of grace and intertrinitarian relationships within the Godhead. Due emphasis is given to the different biblical perspectives on the atonement. The cross was an act of victory over sin and the devil. By the death of Jesus, we are also redeemed and reconciled to God. Penal substitution lies at the heart of each of these biblical concepts. The doctrine of union with Christ ensures that cross does not amount to the legal fiction of guilt being arbitrarily transferred from sinners to the Son. Jesus died for his people, to whom he was united in the eternal purposes of God. The authors' defence of definite atonement gives strength to this argument.
The writers reflect on the pastoral implications of penal substitutionary atonement. Knowing that God sent his Son to bear the punishment of our sins assures us of the depth of his love for us. This also teaches us that God will always be true to his word. He said that sin always leads to death. The only way that we could be saved from death and condemnation was for Jesus to die in our place. God did not "bend the rules" to save us. By the cross, he saves in truth and justice. Knowing this should give us every confidence in God's promises and a passion for justice in God's world.
It is often argued that the penal substitutionary understanding of the cross stands at odds with the teaching of much of the Church throughout the centuries. This point is not decisive. What Scripture says is the thing that really matters. But a chapter on historical pedigree of penal substitution gives the lie to the oft repeated suggestion that the teaching was invented by Anselm, only to resurface in a modified form at the Reformation. A whole host of quotations is produced, spanning the the Patristic, Medieval, Reformation and Modern periods. Figures like Athanasius, Augustine and Calvin, as well as more recent evangelicals such as John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones, all taught penal substitution in the clearest terms. We should think very carefully before abandoning this historic doctrine. So ends part one. A masterful case has been made for penal substitutionary atonement. But can that case withstand the many criticisms that have been levelled against the doctrine? Part two seeks to answer the critics.
Various objections are considered and responses given. Some argue that penal substitution is not really taught in the Bible, others that it sanctions "the myth of redemptive violence", and is unjust. It is said that the doctrine distorts our view of God, and undermines the Christian life. The writers take these criticisms seriously. They engage with their opponents fairly, firmly and with grace. Almost every conceivable objection to penal substitution is stated and then countered. Misunderstandings are cleared up and false aspersions challenged, while the clear biblical teaching is set forth. The structure of the book, where the constructive theology of part one is followed by the critical dialogue of part two, enables the reader to assess whether penal substitution is in fact grounded in the witness of Scripture. I'm sure than on reading Pierced for our Transgressions, you will agree that it certainly is!
When it comes to matters of substance, the writers have given us a clear, biblically grounded and theologically rich exposition of penal substitution. Here we encounter the triune God of the gospel. His just wrath is provoked by human sin. We deserve to be punished for transgressing his holy law. Yet in his love for us, God took our punishment upon himself in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus willingly offered himself to God as a propitiatory sacrifice on behalf of his people. In the cross we see God's justice and love working together harmoniously for the salvation of sinners. By his penal substitutionary death, Christ triumphed over Satan and redeemed the people of God from slavery to sin. Here is the ground of the believer's justification and the basis upon which God has reconciled the world to himself. The eschatological renewal of the cosmos is rooted in fact that on the cross, Christ was made a curse for us. In him, God's curse upon our fallen world is removed. In the many splendored cross, we see the glory of God displayed as never before.
I heartily commend this well-argued and compelling account of penal substitution. If you are sceptical about this doctrine, but have an open mind, then pick up this book and give it a fair hearing. If, like me you don't need convincing of this truth, then Pierced for our Transgressions will enrich your understanding of the cross. It will also equip you to refute many of the objections that are currently being raised against the teaching. An appendix gives preachers some valuable advice on avoiding unhelpful illustrations that will detract from the true meaning of the cross of Jesus. See here for dedicated website.

Read this book and rediscover the glory of penal substitution!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The recurring challenge of mysticism

The Mystical Meister Eckhart
On Monday, Fred Serjeant, our outgoing Fraternal Chairman, addressed the Westcountry Reformed Minister's Frat. on the subject of mysticism. Here are some notes on what he had to say.
1. Introduction
Mysticism appears in one form or another in the three main world faiths; Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The phenomenon has appeared throughout the history of the Christian Church. Mysticism can often seem attractive to those who are interested in the spiritual growth. Contemporary evangelicalism is open to mystical influences. We need to understand the attraction of mysticism. What is lacking in evangelical piety that makes mystical spirituality so alluring?
2. Definition
Mystics desire to achieve a state of union with Ultimate Reality. Mysticism has five key characteristics:
1. An Ultimate Being exists
2. An Ultimate Being can be known
3. An Ultimate Being can be perceived by human sense
4. An element in the soul is akin to the Ultimate Being. Man is possessed of a divine spark, so that to find God is to find oneself.
5. The goal of mysticism is union with the Ultimate Being.
Mystics aim to transcend the phenomenal world to attain a fresh perspective on Reality by entering an altered state of consciousness. This will lead to a direct experience of union with God.
3. Roman Catholic mysticism
It has been suggested that a mystical strain may be found in Augustine of Hippo. But that claim cannot be substantiated. The apopaphic spirituality of Gregory of Nyssa and Basil of Caesarea was was tinged with mysticism. But Christian mysticism only really comes into its own with the pseudopigraphal writings of Dionysius the Areopagite in 5-6AD. He pioneered the via nagativa, the negative way. According to these writings, mystical union with God is achieved by a process of purification that leads to illumination and ultimately deification. Despite their dubious provenance, the Pseudo Dionysius literature helped to stimulate mystical tendencies in the Church.
In the 12th Century, the Franciscan movement drew on Dionysian mysticism, as did Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits in the 16th Century was also of a mystical bent. His Spiritual Exercises helped to popularise mystical spirituality.
4. How mysticism influenced Evangelical Protestantism
The 14th Century mystic Meister Eckhart is a key figure. Eckhart taught that, "The core of the soul is the core of God." And, "If I were not, God were not." John Tauler a disciple of Eckhart was a popular preacher, whose views were to have an impact on evangelical spirituality. But the later, 16th century mystics were all opponents of the Reformation. Loyola is a case in point. Luther was once attracted to the mystical way. Later, he came to see that mysticism is incompatible with justification by faith alone and a forensic understanding of the atonement.
The German Pietist movement was a reaction against dead orthodoxy and formalism in the Lutheran Church. The Pietists leaders looked back to the likes of John Tauler for inspiration and used his writings as a resource for spiritual renewal. John Wesley's parents were steeped in the mystics and he came under the spell of Tauler and the mystical Madame Guyon. Wesley was also infuenced by the Pietistic Moravians. The preacher was to adopt a more critical attitude towards mysticism, but to the end of his days, he would recommend Thomas A' Kempis' The Imitation of Christ and other mystical works to his Methodists. Wesley's view of sanctification as a crisis experience where the believer is swallowed up in God, and filled with perfect love smacks of mysticism. His teaching fed into the Holiness movement of the 19th century, associated with the Keswick Convention and figures like Andrew Murray and Oswald Chambers. The mystical way of purgation which leads to illumination followed by union with the divine can be traced in many who took their lead from Wesley. This can be found in some of our hymns, "But we never can prove the delights of his love/until all on the altar we lay". A spiritual crisis will only follow extreme negation of the self. This kind of thing may also be seen in A. W. Tozer, who had a great admiration for the mystics. Pentecostal emphasis on the "Second Blessing" is a development of Wesley's teaching on perfect love.
Some contemporary evangelical writers are returning to the mystics in an attempt to stimulate the spiritual life of the churches. But mysticism is ultimately based on works rather than grace. It teaches that the goal of union with God can be achieved by human techniques and programmes. This is a denial of the total depravity of man in sin. We need to develop a properly biblical spirituality that is based on our experience of the God of saving grace.
5. Discussion
The meeting was opened up for discussion and various points were raised. Mysticism aims at man's ontological union with God by bringing out the "divine spark" in the human soul. But our union with God us not ontological, it is soteriological. Union with God in Christ is the basic presupposition of the Christian life. That is where be begin. Divinisation means being made like Christ and sharing his resurrection glory, not being subsumed into the divine essence. A properly biblical spirituality is based on communion with the triune God. It is rooted in the election of the Father, the sacrifice of the Son and the sanctifying work of the Spirit. We, like the Puritan John Owen need to work out a trinitarian experiential theology. We must beware of putting so much emphasis on Scriptural doctrine that we leave little room for the direct work of the Spirit in Christian experience. Holiness is not achieved in a mystical crisis event that follows purgation and illumination. Our holiness begins with definitive sanctification on union with Christ. Then, the life of holiness is worked out in the Spirit-enabled activity of mortification and vivification.
We often encounter "soft" mysticism in evangelical Christians who claim that the Lord has told them to do this or that, even if their impressions or feelings are contrary to Scripture. But we should not prize our subjective experiences above what God has revealed in the Bible. That way lies Quietism and the Quaker emphasis on "inner light" over and against the light of the written Word.
In his paper, Fred quoted these words, "Mysticism begins with mist and ends in schism." There is certainly something in that. We need to beware of mystical tendencies and respond to the challenge of mysticism by constructing an evangelical, that is a gospel-based account of the believer's experience of union and communion with the God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Friday, January 18, 2008


It has become fashionable to question the traditional Protestant teaching on the imputation of the 'alien' righteousness of Christ to the believer. Richard Gaffin recently wrote that,
"righteousness, as imputed, is, in an absolutely critical sense, anything but 'alien'. Here imputation, realised in union with Christ, results in a 'fellowship of righteousness' [Calvin's words]. It is an imputed righteousness, which does not, indeed cannot, exist apart from that union. Why? Because it is not an abstract entity but his righteousness that is imputed to me, reckoned as mine." (Always Reforming, editor A. T. B. McGowan, IVP, 2006, p. 286).
I found myself nodding in agreement when I first read that statement. It is certainly true that Christ's righteousness has become ours because of our union with him. He is "THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS." (Jeremiah 23:6). So far, so good.
But reading John Webster's Holiness gave me pause for thought. Webster insists that the holiness of the church and the individual believer is an alien holiness. Now, Protestant theology has long held to the alien nature of justifying righteousness. This safeguards the gracious character of justification. We are justified by Christ's righteousness, not by any works of our own. But Webster insists that holiness too is 'alien' partly because he wants to distance himself from social trinitarianism. That school of thought tends to overemphasise the Church's participation in the life of the Trinity. The distinction between God's intertrinitarian fellowship and the Church can therefore become dangerously blurred. This is what leads Webster to posit that the Church's holiness is in fact an alien holiness. Her holiness is the gift of God's electing grace, effected by the cleansing power of Christ's blood, created and sustained by the sanctifying work of the Spirit.
"The Church's holiness is therefore an alien sanctity. Because the Church is holy by grace, and because grace is a movement of relation and not a mere handing over of a commodity, then in the case of the Church the attribution of holiness is not a matter of straightforward ascription of a property. God's holiness is proper to him; indeed, it is him, for he is originally holy. The holiness of the Church by contrast, is not a natural or cultural condition. As with all the predicates of the Church, the Church is what it is spiritually, that is, by virtue of the presence and action of the triune God. (Holiness, John Webster, 2003, SCM Press, p. 62-63).
This stress on the alienness of the Church's sanctification reminds us that holiness cannot be possessed or domesticated by the Church. She is holy by virtue of the gracious activity of God.
So, maybe there is some value in retaining the notion of alienness. Yes, we are united to Christ so what is his has become ours. We are righteous and holy in him. But our union with him is not ontological, it is soteriological. The distinction between the believer and Christ remains intact. It is his righteousness and blood alone that saves, apart from anything that we have done. In this sense, righteousness and holiness are properly alien to us. They certainly lie outside of us until we are united to Christ by faith. I am not suggesting for a moment that Gaffin's construction would deny this last point. He emphasises that it is Christ's righteousness as imputed that is not alien to the believer. But even when Christ's righteousness is imputed to us, we are accounted righteous in him and because of him not for anything in us. The older language of alienness reminds us that both righteousness and holiness are gifts of grace, not achievements of the believer.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Good Eggs

"A righteous man regards the life of his animal,
but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel."
Proverbs 12:10.

The UK Government is set to ban the production of battery-farmed eggs from 2012, and not a moment too soon (see BBC news report). For years we have only purchased free range eggs and eaten free range chicken meat. Of course, free range products cost more than the battery-farmed stuff. But what price a good conscience? The ban on battery farming should help to bring costs down eventually. I'm reminded that good old Wilber, who campaigned against the evil slave trade, was also an early advocate of the humane treatment of animals. What a good egg he was!

Battery farm grief

Free range joy

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


If you read Exiled Preacher via a RSS or Atom feed, you may soon get the feeling of deja vu all over again. Occasionally, I re-read old posts, especially if someone has left a comment on an item that was published a while ago. Sometimes I cringe when I spot typos or statements that, in hindsight were not quite on the money. A couple of these, on posts that still attract Google referrals have really bugged me of late and I think that some editing is in order. Of course it is easy to correct these errata, but it means that some not so golden oldies will reappear in my feeds. So, if this happens, don't worry. You have not been caught up in some Groundhog Day time loop, it is just me setting the record straight.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Blogging in the name of the Lord: Dave Bish

This is the third in our series of interviews with Christian bloggers. In the hot seat today we have...

Dave Bish

GD: Hello, Dave Bish and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.

DB: Hi Guy. I'm 28 and have been a Christian for 10 years. I grew up in a church-going family attending the local liberal-anglo-catholic village church. I faced with the crisis moment of going off to University and realising I could leave give it up, but the gospel found me through Bible readings and Anglican liturgy. Now, I look back and see God opening my eyes to the inescapable beauty and glory of Jesus Christ that that sinful teenager really needed.

During my time at University I met my wife Em who is a music teacher who I'd recruited to sing in my student-band. We still occasionally write songs together through I'm just as happy to be cooking with her, watching weird films or building a garden shed.

Over the last decade I've spent 3 years studying maths, one year selling money in a high street bank, a few months as a pro-web designer for a dotcom at the height of the boom and the rest working with UCCF:The Christian Unions in South East and South West England.

GD: Your blog is called "the blue fish project". What made you start blogging?
DB: I've run the blue fish project since sometime in 1998/9. It was a forum for evangelistic articles and theological musings of a young Christian, all of which are now lost to the sands of time which is probably a good thing.

GD: Why "the blue fish project"? Sounds kind of cool, but is there some kind of deep, hidden meaning?

DB: Thank you. In honesty there isn't anything that deep to it! Some suggest is the phonetic similarity to my name but that's simply not the case.

Essentially when I was a student we developed an evangelistic website to go with a course we were running in our Christian Union. The course initially had a purple and orange fish for a logo and then Ire-coloured it blue which was a great improvement. Later we dropped the course but I kept the website and the fish and developed the name which is probably something of a variation on The Blair Witch Project which was released around that time.

GD: Oh, so that's it? It's just about a blue fish. Ah well. Now, what to you enjoy most about blogging?

DB: I find writing really helps me to think, always has. If that was all then I'd just write a private journal. Blogging adds an audience which means there is some accountability but also the opportunity to encourage and inform others. That adds extra satisfaction and motivation to the writing.

GD: What bugs you most about blogging?

DB: Personally I really enjoy it and don't feel that it's ever been a burden to keep it up. If it was I'd stop probably. About blogging more broadly, much of what is blogged is written from a position of fairly high ignorance. My own blogging included at times I'm sure. I love protestant freedom to study the Bible but wading through the sea of shared ignorance can be a challenge and something we have to be aware of.

GD: Right, you are UCCF Team Leader. What does that involve?

DB: UCCF is the family of University and College Christian Unions in Great Britain, part of a global family (IFES) in 152 nations. We're basically about seeing student-led gospel-loving mission teams active on campus to make disciples. As Team Leader my part in the equation is to supervise local staff who in turn serve these Christian Unions, in my case across the South West. That involves a mix of discipleship and management and several other things. In our region this year we have five staff and nine volunteers who work with us on our Relay-discipleship training programme.

I'm also able engage in some front line student work which includes speaking at CU team meetings, evangelistic events and training weekends. Last term that meant teaching John's gospel in Falmouth and Exeter, Luke's gospel in Bath and speaking on a couple of weekends on 2 Timothy. Ahead I'll be teaching Galatians in Plymouth and engaging with the ideas of Richard Dawkins at Exeter, along with the question of why God sends people to hell.

Looking ahead I'm excited by where UCCF is going. In September we'll-hold our largest student leaders conference (hopefully with 900people), joined by John Piper where we'll launch our fifth gospel project. This is an initiative to release about 400,000 copies of Mark's gospel into the hands of Christian students to give to students who aren't Christians. I'm excited to be developing some of the accompanying resources this term as we head towards the launch. Nothing compares to seeing God's word spreading.

In all this I'm seeking to see students in Christian Unions, grasping a vision for being mission teams on their campuses, centred on the gospel, confident in the scriptures. In line with this my highlight of last term was seeing about 200 students gather for an event we called Transformission, exploring the glory of the cross throughout the scriptures. Solid doctrinal stuff warmly taught by our Theology Advisor Mike Reeves (see forthcoming

GD: How would you assess the spiritual state of student life in the UK?

DB: The ever growing student world is marked by the same apathy and antipathy as the rest of society towards the gospel. Ultimately any analysis is going to be both negative and positive. Our campuses are full of human beings who will be the movers and shakers in the years ahead and by and large they do not know Christ. The harvest field is big and ever growing. Many of those have never set foot in a church, never opened a Bible and don't know the first thing about the gospel. Some of the baggage is clearing away but evangelisation is hard.

That said, I see great signs of life in many students. It was a delight to see 700 student leaders at our national conference last September centred around exposition of Romans and training tracks on Doctrine of God, Revelation, Salvation and Creation. I rejoice at the appetite I see in Christian students for the word of God, and their passion to make Christ known where they are.

GD: I suppose that University Christian Unions attract a large range of students with an evangelical church background. This must give you a good insight as to what is happening in the churches. What gives you encouragement and what causes you concern in what you see?

DB: Again much of both. Clearly many churches are doing outstanding ministry to teenagers. I'm blown away by the maturity, depth and clarity of many first year students who throw themselves into godly living and gospel proclamation. I've met students in the past term who have come to study but consider making Christ known to be vital, and they're seeing friends become Christians!

The other side of the coin is an often woeful Biblical illiteracy which leads to a small and lifeless Christianity that easily compromises with the world and lacks joy. Whilst many churches must be opening the Scriptures with their teenagers it would appear many are-not. That is deeply concerning.

The situation is never too pessimistic though. God changes people through his word, and opportunities abound to open the scriptures with students and see them transformed by the Spirit.

GD: UK Christian Unions have been subject to some discriminatory measures in the last few years. What's going on?

DB: They say what happens in society has previously happened in the Universities. If so, there may be challenging days ahead. A number of Christian Unions have begun to feel pressure from Students Unions Equal Opportunities policies that exclude societies who wish to have membership and leadership restricted to those who share the convictions of the society. Basically that means it breaks the rules for a Christian Union to insist on having Christian leaders.

This has played out in some loss of privileges and difficulties in obtaining facilities at times. We're hopeful of resolution and glad of partnership with the National Union of Students in developing guidelines for Students Unions and Christian Unions. As our society at large grapples with the shift from being a so-called Christian nation to being much more pluralistic we need to engage with these kind of issues. Things may not always workout in our favour, and I'm reminded that we're never promised an easy life as we life and speak for Jesus.

GD: You are also involved in the excellent "BeginningWithMoses" website. What kind of things might readers find over there?

DB: Our goal is to draw people into God's word with a particular emphasis on Biblical Theology, keeping God's word in it's context in God's story of salvation. The site is overrun with book blurbs and reviews and articles. The two star attractions I would say are David Gibson's paper Assumed Evangelicalism which many have found to carry incredible insight into the state of the church. The second is our Biblical Theology Briefings which are papers we commission from preachers who provide their sermon text and their working, helping us to see why they said what they said, what pitfalls they tried to avoid and what resources were helpful.

GD: Who has had the most influence on your theological development?

DB: The shockwaves of Norman Grubb's question in 1919 are clearly influential as I've spent most of my Christian life involved in the ministry of UCCF. I suppose two people have been particularly formative. One is Graeme Goldsworthy through his books on Biblical Theolgy, like Gospel and Kingdom which set my bearings in approaching God's word (along with Peter Jensen's The Revelation of God). Six weeks waiting for a credit check to come through so I could start working for a bank in the summer of 2002 was well invested in Biblical Theology, shortly after which I found myself caught up in

Secondly, John Piper's work has been influential. I suppose I've felt the effects of his work especially with reference to the sovereignty of God and to preaching (via the heavyweight The Justification of God and heartwarming The Supremacy of God in Preaching). In the Christian Union at Bath I was often involved in leading worship, and I observed the strange effects of my keyboard playing on people as we sang. That drove me into God's word and to seeing the connection between the glory of God and evangelism, particularly in Acts 17v16-17 as Paul is provoked by idolatry and so proclaims Christ. It was a life changing moment when I opened Let the Nations be Glad in 2002 to find that someone else had noticed this connection before. My Christianity was gradually rewired from defaulting to a fairly arminian charismaticism to being a God-centred Reformed Charismatic.

Working that out into a life and ministry that loves the gospel of grace former colleague Marcus Honeysett (author of Finding Joy) was very helpful. He tells, in Finding Joy, of the day he asked a Christian Union "when you do evangelism, why do you do it?" only to discover "because you make us feel guilty when we don't" - adventures with Marcus, and the deep pleasure of studying Galatians with many have worked the doctrines of grace into my heart and from their into life, firstly in my ministry as a husband and then with UCCF, my local church and beyond.

Looking ahead I'm getting into Calvin's Institutes and the Puritans, mostly thanks to the energy of UCCF's Theology Advisor Mike Reeves. Already they're stunning and shaping me.

GD: Last year, IVP published Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the glory of penal substitution. Why is IVP/UCCF so passionate about defending penal substitutionary atonement?

DB: The centrality of penal substitution is hardwired into the whole history of IVP, UCCF and the global IFES family. We formed through a break away from the Student Christian Movement about 90 years ago, when a student, Norman Grubb asked "is the atoning blood of Christ central to what you do?". The reply given was "we believe it, but it is not central". And so Grubb and his gospel partners walked away to start what we now call UCCF The Christian Unions. We're passionate about it because it's absolutely vital. Take away penal substitution and everything else falls apart eventually.

History has shown us that by keeping this at the heart of what we do vast numbers of students have been reached with the gospel as this movement of cross-centred mission teams has spread globally. It would seem that this has had a deep impact of the church in the UK and Ihope will continue to do so.

It's no surprise that we in UCCF found ourselves at the heart of controvery over penal substitution last year. In our day the goalposts have moved. The SCM leaders still believed the doctrine and that can't be taken for granted today. Still we press on in good company, illustrated through the endorsements on Pierced for our Transgressions and the birth of New Word Alive this coming Easter.

150 years ago Charles Simeon was involved in student work in Cambridge and said that nominal Christians could prove the importance of the cross, but it's real Christians who glory and delight in it, and would shudder at the thought of glorying in anything else. UCCF cannot move from such cross-centred ground.

GD: I'm reading Pierced for our Transgresstions at the moment and very good it is too. What is the most helpful theological book that you read in the last twelve months? It is a must read because?

DB: If we take Pierced for our Transgressions as a must read then I'd have to say, Sam Storms' Signs of the Spirit is my 2007 book of the year. The essence of the book is Jonathan Edwards classic but virtually unreadable Religious Affections. Storms interprets the book to make it an incredibly readable guide to what real Christian life looks like.

GD: I haven't seen Storm's book, but I didn't find Religious Affections inaccessible and I read it as a relatively young believer. But anything that introduces people to the riches of Edwards can't be bad. Care to share your top thee songs or pieces of music?

DB: In an attempt to sound slightly cultured, I really like Elgar's Enigma Variations but that comes from a very narrow classical experience. More recently I enjoyed Eyes Open by Snow Patrol. I spent a week listening to the album whilst preparing to preach on Ecclesiastes 1 last year, which was good. On a more 'worship song' level Grace Unmeasured by Bob Kauflin of Sovereign Grace Ministries is a real favourite for it's devotional reformed theology.

GD: If you like Elgar's Enigma Variations, you should try his Violin Concerto (Nigel Kennedy) and Cello Concerto (Jacqueline DuPre). Eyes Open is a good album with some great songs. But I'd better not say any more about by enjoyment of pop/rock music. One of my informants tells me that some preacher is going around denouncing pastors who make lists of "worldly music" on their blogs. I wonder who he's getting at? I don't really go in for 'worship songs', unless it's Welsh Revival Hymns or something. Now, which theology blogs do you most enjoy and why?

DB: Martin Downes writes from deep wells of study and wisdom so I always appreciate his blog. Likewise Adrian Reynolds is very helpful. Neither of them blog as much as I'd like but I know I'll always find good reformed theology from them and they should be more widely read than they are. Outside the UK, Mark Lauterbach is a great blessing to the church with his consistently gospel-centred blogging. I'd also want to include photo blogger Dave Simpson, who doesn't strictly write anything. He is however a Christian with an eye for the mundane, spotting things that God sees and we often neglect.

GD: Well, thanks for dropping by for this conversation Dave. It's been great talking to you.

The next candidate for the "hot seat" is......

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Experience Meetings

During the Evangelical Revival in 18th Century Wales, converts to the Calvinistic Methodist cause were gathered into small groups to share their spiritual experiences. I think that it is a good thing for Christians to testify to their experience of the Lord and his ways. We had such a meeting on Wednesday evening and it was wonderful to hear the saints speaking of God's goodness to them during the last year. Some had known times of trial, but each was able to speak of the Lord's help and grace.
William Williams is better known these days for his hymns, but he was also preacher of the gospel and a discerning spiritual leader in the Calvinistic Methodist movement. He wrote a book, The Experience Meeting, to commend such meetings to believers and to give guidance on how they were to be conducted. This book was translated from the original Welsh by Bethan Lloyd-Jones, wife of the famous preacher Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. My copy was jointly published by Evangelical Press and The Evangelical Movement of Wales back in 1973. The work has since been reprinted by Regent College Publishing (here).
I would commend experience meetings to pastors and church leaders. Believers may at first feel a little reticent about sharing their experiences, but it is worth persevering. It is moving to hear of the Lord's dealings with our people. We can pray more meaningfully for one another as we open up and speak of those things that are closest to our hearts. These meetings can be a real stimulus to experiential godliness and life in the Spirit.
Williams' book takes the form of an imaginary dialogue between Theophilus, a wise spiritual counsellor and Eusebius, a new convert. Theophilus explains to his young friend why experience meetings can be profitable for believers. Here is one of his reasons,
"This kind of meeting is profitable because it gives us the opportunity to declare the work of God on our souls, and to praise His name for it. David calls upon the saints (Psalm 66:16) saying: 'Come and hear, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what he hath done for my soul'. And everyone, who is of the same spirit as David, again longs to declare the great things that God has done to him, wanting all the Lord's people to give thanks on his behalf. Oh! how difficult it is for a man who has received great treasures, and those unexpectedly, either from a loved one or in any other way, not to reveal this to all those who would rejoice with him! The woman who found the silver piece that she had lost could not conceal the matter, but called her friends together, saying: 'Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost'. How much greater the desire of the godly man, who has been long in darkness and has now come into the light, to tell of the Lord's mercies to him! Oh! the joy of contemplating forgiveness of sins! Of viewing the eternal love of the Lord and the treasures of grace in the promises of the New Covenant! - it is such that a believer cannot refrain from telling it forth with the greatest joy." (p. 16).

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Blogging in the name of the Lord: Derek Thomas

This is the second in our series of interviews with Christian bloggers. In the hot seat today we have...
GD: Hello Derek Thomas and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.

DT: Thanks for inviting me to the Exiled Preacher, Guy. Your site is one of my favorites (I’ve succumbed to American spelling on all things containing the diphthong ou! Truth to tell, I can’t be bothered switching language preferences on Microsoft Word!) [That's OK, so long as you don't start speaking with an Americano-Welsh accent like Catherine Zeta-Jones. GD]

Well, like yourself, I’m an exiled Welshman. In fact, I have lived outside Wales more than I have lived in it. I grew up in a small village called Llanybydder on a dairy farm, was converted through reading John Stott’s Basic Christianity in 1971, graduated from Aberystwyth University in Applied Mathematics in 1974 and left my homeland in 1976. I still have family who live in or near Carmarthen, so I make my annual pilgrimage back and break into song crossing the (new) Severn Bridge!

I studied theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (1976-78) and did doctoral studies in the mid-90s. For almost seventeen years, I was minister of an Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Belfast (where W. J. Grier had been their only minister for half a century). I now teach Systematic and Practical Theology at RTS (since 1996) and am on staff at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi where my good friend Ligon Duncan is the senior minister. I am also the Editorial Director of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals’ ezine, Reformation21.

O yes, I am also married to Rosemary (coming up to 32 years) and have two children and one granddaughter.

And a dog named Jake.

And a cat named Maxamillian Beauregard!

GD: That's a funny name for a cat. Now, where did you train for the Ministry and what did you find most helpful in your training?

DT: Ah, as I said, I studied at Reformed Theological Seminary (which then had only campus in Jackson, Mississippi). I still look back on it with a great deal of affection. I had the privilege of having John R. de Witt as my Systematics professor whose love of historical theology gave kindled in me a respect for the reformed tradition. He was at the time translating Ridderbos’s volume on Paul from the original Dutch (he was related to him) and so a nuanced respect for both biblical and Systematic Theology came through in that Vosian-Ridderbosian tradition with its high view of covenant theology. His own doctoral work had been in the Westminster Assembly and my respect for the Westminsterian tradition was cemented during those years, too.

My greatest privilege was sit under Simon Kistemaker’s lectures and act as his student assistant. His lectures were never terribly exciting—just very sound and very earnest. No one could make New Testament Introduction (authorship of 2 Peter, or the latest theological vagaries of Willi Marxsen on the resurrection) sound so earnest as Dr. Kistemaker.

What I got most of all from my seminary training was an unshakeable confidence that no matter what theological skepticism may arise, the inerrancy of the Bible will stand the test. Thirty years later, I have never questioned the Bible’s inerrancy. I’ve come across many a thorny problem, but I still believe the Bible’s foundational authority—in “jots and tittles.” I am grateful to the seminary for that fact more than any other.

GD: Who taught you most about preaching?

DT: Geoff Thomas! I’m a great fan of Animal Planet on TV and often hear about the importance of “imprinting”—when new born infants “imprint” on those they first come across and regard them as their parents. Within a month or so of my conversion, I heard “Geoff” preach (on Matthew’s Gospel). It was passion incarnated in a wiry Welsh persona and I was won over within seconds. His Westminster Seminary infused theology: lots of John Murray-esque carefully crafted theological divisions, E. J. Young’s careful exegesis of the text and a steam-roller Van Tillian apologetic. And, of course, a love and respect for Lloyd-Jones (though less so then than now, I think—the young man’s daring to be different).

Preaching is best caught than taught, I think (and these days I teach young, and not-so-young, men how to preach!), and for me, I have surely been influenced, subliminally if in no other tangible way, by the preaching of such living (!) examples as Sinclair Ferguson, Al Martin, John Stott, Donald Macleod, and in more recent years, Ligon Duncan. To this day, however, after preaching now for some 35 years, I still find myself gesticulating and “Geoff” comes to mind (as much in my wife’s as in mine!). It has been thirty years since I sat under his preaching, but I still find myself unconsciously mimicking him.

GD: You spent some years in pastoral ministry before becoming a theology professor. What was the wisest piece of advice that you were given as a pastor?

DT: I can’t answer this question without thinking of something John Piper said in a class I was teaching and to which I’d invited him to address. He was asked this very question by a very serious-minded young man and a Piper-groupie! Without a second’s hesitation, Piper answered, “Eight hours sleep a night!” To this day, I’m not sure whether he was trying to destroy an all too obvious idol or giving sane and very practical advice. If it was the latter, I have never kept it a single day!

However, it is a great, if difficult, question! Something I heard someone saying of a statement by Robert Murray McCheyne: “that a congregation will forgive you almost anything so long as they think that you love them.” I never rose to those heights and the dear folk in Belfast could raise a series of failings on my part, but I still think this is the best advice to give a young minister. In America especially, the ministry has become a professional activity: ministers have offices where people come for a consult if necessary but in Belfast it was a requirement to be in the homes of people and involved in the most intimate way in their lives.

GD: How does having been a pastor affect you approach to teaching theology?

DT: In every possible way, I hope. I have no interest in teaching anything I cannot use for preaching. There’s a branch of theology that is so utterly academic and theoretical that I cannot maintain any interest in it. Of course, I am still a pastor and preach every week, often more than once a week. I am constantly preparing sermons and finding myself asking how does this or that piece of theology apply to this or that situation that I am aware of in the congregation. I often think of those words of J. I. Packer in Knowing God: “Disregard the study of God, and you sentence yourself to stumble and blunder through life blindfolded, as it were, with no sense of direction and no understanding of what surrounds you. This way you can waste your life and lose your soul.”

GD: Who was the most influential figure in your theological development?

DT: John Calvin and John Owen mostly. Iain Murray told me (back in 1977), “make one theologian your life’s interest and hobby.” It was good advice. He suggested I make Samuel Davies (1723-1761, Fourth President of Princeton) and, of course, of Welsh descent! I never did make Davies the focus of my study, but another of Welsh Descent: John Owen. But in the late eighties, I was gripped by a passion for Calvin that led to doctoral studies based on his sermons on Job. Today, my library contains over a thousand volumes on Calvin alone!

The opening sentence of The Institutes of the Christian Religion alone is worth a lifetime’s contemplation: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”
Not everyone would agree, of course. My favorite criticism of Calvin (monstrously over-done and deliciously vitriolic) is by Will Durant, the famous author of the eleven-volume series, The History of Western Civilization. “We shall always find it hard to love the man, John Calvin,” Durant writes, “who darkened the human soul with the most absurd and blasphemous conception of God in all the long and honored history of nonsense.” Who would desire to read anything by Will Durant after that?

What is it about Calvin that so inspires me? [Hey, I ask the questions around here! GD] This: his disciplined style, his determination never to speculate, his utter submission to Bible words as God's words, his submission to Christ’s Lordship, his sense of the holy, his concern to be as practical as possible; the fact that godly living was his aim and not theology for the sake of it. In a forest of theologians, Calvin stands like a Californian Redwood, towering over everyone else.

GD: Some scholars have suggested that systematics should be abandoned in favour of biblical theology. How do you view the relationship between the two disciplines?

DT: People who say things like that need counseling! They definitely shouldn’t be let lose in seminaries or the pulpit. It is a bit like suggesting that all you need be a good doctor is study the intricate workings of the heart or brain without ever studying human anatomy! In order to appreciate the parts one needs to understand the whole. I drive these days using a GPS system. They are one of God’s great gifts to us who cannot read a map! But the art of trying to get from one point to another is to understand where these points are in relationship to each other. For that, I need the map to “pan-out” to see the big picture. I need from time to time very detailed maps of the center of this or that city, but I also need to know how to get there and how to back again.

GD: What do you make of Kevin Vanhoozer's theodramatic proposals?

DT: Tricky question! Does anyone really understand what Vanhoozer is saying? Or for that matter, Lindbeck and von Balthasar, both of whom have influenced Vanhoozer, I think, on the use of “theo-drama”. All three have hoisted their sails to the ship called “The Wreck of Hodge” blaming him for reducing theology to something essentially cognitive and propositional. Vanhoozer’s postconservative (rather than postliberal as Lindbeck) and postfoundationalist approach—“canonical-linguistic” as Vanhoozer prefers to call it (privileging neither propositional truth abstracted from the diverse literary genres of Scripture nor certain types of procedure for generating knowledge), is (in my opinion, open to interpretive diversity. If I’m not mistaken, this is where Vanhoozer wants us to get to: “The nonreductive evangelical catholic orthodoxy advocated in the present work is itself an attempt to preserve both the diversity and the integrity of a theological dialogue already canonized in Scripture.” The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Westminster John Knox, 2005), 275–76.

But, I may be misreading him. That’s a very real possibility given the level of complexity at which he writes.

GD: What do you enjoy most about being a systematic theologian?

DT: Twenty weeks of vacation! I’m kidding. Seriously, I have to pinch myself every day to think that I get paid to do this! My calling and inclination coincide and this is a sweet providence indeed. I get to study a little bit of everything! Not just this or that part of Scripture but the whole of it – in relation to history and Christian thought and philosophy. In the words of the sixteenth century theologian, William Perkins: “I study the science of living blessedly forever.” [A Golden Chain, 1616 edition , 11]. I’ve always liked that definition basically because the systematic study of God fills me with a joy that is unspeakable and full of glory.

GD: Having twenty weeks holiday must be nice, though. You no doubt have lots of time for writing and stuff. You have already written several books including biblical commentaries and theological works. Are you working on anything at the moment?

DT: “Working” is a good verb for it. I recently co-authored a book with my wife called Love, Sex and Marriage published by Evangelical Press! I’m terrified now that I’ll be asked to speak on this theme at conferences everywhere! I am also co-editing (with John Tweeddale) a volume for 2009 celebrating the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth. It will consists of around twenty chapters written by very well-known authors on aspects of Calvin. The Banner of Truth is set to publish that work. I’m also trying to put together a volume in the Reformed Expositional Commentary series (P & R) on Acts. And further on the horizon is a book on the theology on Bunyan.

GD: All sounds very interesting. Right, you recently wrote that, "It is to be feared that the democratisation of the theological process (every blogger now demands the right to have centre stage and equal validity) destabilises serious theological engagement. The church's affirmation of its 'tradition' becomes engagement with last week's posting." Ouch! Have you anything good to say about theology blogging?

DT: Did I really write that? [Yes, you did! - here] Well, it’s true that the blogosphere has given every Joe Wannabee the sense of entitlement to be heard on every possible topic under the sun without any kind of peer review. I famously had a student try and tell me his opinion of something John Calvin had written (which I’d just informed the class about) that he’d never read. I said, “Your opinion is invalid. If you have not read it in context, frankly I’m not interested in your opinion. Nor should anyone else.” He was offended and told me so. I told him that he needed to see how postmodern he was!

There are good blogs and bad blogs. But blogs are here to stay. They give us an insight to what people, who otherwise might have been talking privately in a coffee shop, are saying and thinking. Frankly, if that’s all it is meant to be, I have no problem with it. But blogs need to be modest about their own self-importance in the theological world. Except for yours, Guy, which is great!

GD: You have been known to blog over at Reformation 21. I suppose that's all right then?

DT: Well, yes! I am the grand Poobah of that blog!

GD: Apparently you are a big fan of the gargantuan works of Wager, Bruckner and Mahler. That's like heavy, man. Care to name your top three pop or rock songs?

DT: Rock passed me by, I’m afraid. I seem to recall the Beatles et al of the sixties, but even then I was more into Beethoven than the Beatles. I do like some current popular music, for about three minutes! Even as I write, Donner (The Niebelungen god of thunder) is singing, “He da! He da! He do!” Is that not deep or what?

GD: I didn't know that Wager went in for "He da! Ho da!" type lyrics. That sounds kind of cool. I'll have to order a box set of the Ring Cycle straight away. Now we're on the subject of music, I must put this question to you: Are you, like me, worried that listening to heavy rock music like Led Zeppelin and all the head-banging that goes with it might have a damaging effect on the mind of a theologian?

DT: My good friend Carl Trueman is a case in point, don’t you think? His head needs examining, if you ask me and I blame Zeppelin. You’re right on the money, Guy!

GD: What made you think that I meant Carlos the Mosher? Now to Welsh issues. Do you still get the hireath, if so what do you miss most about Wales? The weather perhaps?

DT: My favorite movie is, How Green Was My Valley (1941)! Brilliant! When they gather outside the coal mine and start singing, well… I’m a puddle. I’ve not read Richard Llewellyn’s book written in 1939 (I believe), but I must get round to it one day.

It’s all very eschatological, don’t you think? What I miss isn’t there anymore. I went to visit the farm I grew up on a few years ago and was summarily told I was on private property. Actually, I was on a main road merely looking at the house. Home, I have decided along with the puritans, must be viewed sub specie aeternitatis. The home I long for is the Wales of the new creation. Yes, Wales in a new earth. What a prospect!
GD: I know what you mean I don't feel totally at home in England. But when I visit Wales, I don't really belong there either. My home village of Bassaleg has changed considerably and old friends have moved on. An eschatological Wales is a very inviting prospect indeed. But back to the present, what would you say is the biggest challenge facing evangelicalism today?
DT: Evangelicalism faces many challenges but I am fearful that given the way the New perspective on Paul has taken root so easily within evangelicalism, our sense of how firmly rooted we are in foundational truths has been severely shaken. I’m not sure the new perspective is itself the biggest challenge, but it is a crucial one – one in which the very gospel itself is at risk.
GD: What is the most helpful work of theology that you have read in the last twelve months. It is a must read because?
DT: John Piper’s The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (Crossway, 2007). No one can avoid the new perspective’s intrusion into the interpretation of the most important doctrine of all—justification by faith. Everyone who has an interest in a clear understanding of the doctrine which Luther described as the ‘standing or falling of the church” should read it carefully. We owe Piper an immense vote of thanks for writing this book and helping the church in its hour of need.
GD: Lastly, which (if any!) theology blogs do you enjoy reading most and why?

DT: Apart from ref21, yours, of course! And Mohler’s. And my wife and daughter are chipping in, “Girl Talk”.

GD: We'll it's been tidy talking to you, Derek. Thanks for dropping by for this conversation.

Stay tuned for more Blogging in the name of the Lord interviews.....

Monday, January 07, 2008

Engaging with Barth: An interview with David Gibson

David Gibson is co-editor with Daniel Strange of
Engaging with Barth, 18th January 2008, IVP

Karl Barth, portrait by Oliver Crisp

GD: Hello David Gibson, and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.

DG: I’m married to Angela, and we have a one year old son who gives us a lot of joy and amusement. We currently live in Aberdeen, Scotland, where I’ve been working on a PhD in Divinity at Aberdeen University. With the mixture of staff and fellow students it has been a wonderful department to be a part of for three years. My life background before the Aberdeen years was really quite varied (my dad is Northern Irish, my mother is English, I was born in America, spent my early years in E. Africa, later years back in N. Ireland, and a long time in England. I have an Irish accent, an English wife, and a Scottish son)! My main academic interest is John Calvin.

GD: You are involved in a forthcoming book, Engaging with Barth. When did you start engaging with Barth?

DG: Both Daniel and I first encountered Barth as undergraduate students, myself at Nottingham University and Dan at Bristol University. We say a little about what this was like in the Introduction to the book. I then read Barth a lot more extensively during my MA at King’s College London, and my Ph.D here in Aberdeen reads the exegesis of election in Calvin and Barth. I didn’t actually come to Aberdeen to work on Barth, but my Doktorvater, Francis Watson, persuaded me to have a look at the use of the Bible in Church Dogmatics II/2 and I’ve never looked back!

GD: This is a good time for such a volume, as Barth seems to be enjoying something of a resurgence at the moment, especially among theological students. Any idea why?

DG: It’s hard to generalise here, and the situation varies from place to place, but I think you’re right that Barth is the man to be reading in quite a number of places around the world. This interest is probably caused by the number of leading theologians operating at present who have been deeply influenced by Barth in one way or another – they teach courses on Barth, write good books on Barth, and so attract good students to study Barth under them. In reading Barth seriously, I think theological students soon find themselves inside what Henri Blocher refers to as ‘a doctrinal cathedral’. Barth was off the scale in terms of individual brilliance and the sheer size and scope of what he attempts is intoxicating.

GD: Why do you think that Barth's theology is proving attractive for evangelicals at this time?

DG: It’s probably even harder to generalise here, and I don’t want to steal too much of Carl Trueman’s thunder as he comments on this in his Foreword. There’s the obvious attraction of Barth’s desire to be creedally orthodox in a way which is just absent in so much of modern theology. Allied to this there’s probably something of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ approach which sees in Barth both a kindred spirit and superb resource for responding to theological liberalism and cultural hostility to the gospel. Barth is passionate, often quite moving, and he writes about God and Christ and the gospel in deep and profound ways. There’s plenty more things which could be said like this.

At the same time, a complete answer would have to engage with the fact that Barth’s attractiveness to evangelicals is hardly explicable without reference to the increasing fragmentation and diversity within worldwide evangelicalism. When we talk about evangelical theology and Barth, one of the least addressed questions is: what do we mean by ‘evangelical’? To give just one example of the problem, in some quarters today a distinction might be made between being ‘evangelical’, and being ‘an evangelical’. The former is someone committed to the gospel; the second is someone committed to the gospel and its understanding within one particular tribe within a particular cultural world, and so on. The former might be seen as biblical and Christ-centred; the latter might be seen as parochial, sectarian, or even as a relative (modernist) new-comer to the theological scene. As a profound gospel thinker, Barth’s thought lends itself more easily to those who want to describe themselves as ‘evangelical’, but not as ‘an evangelical’ – and I think that’s because this distinction recognises that there are aspects of Barth’s thought that are at odds with how historic confessional evangelicalism has understood the gospel and its various entailments. Where ‘evangelical’ is understood with some of these blurred edges, never mind the massive diversity that exists within the ‘evangelicalism’ tribe, then the answers as to why Barth is attractive to ‘evangelicals’ depends on where we are along that spectrum. Barth himself was fairly hostile towards conservative evangelicalism as he knew it. Doubtless there were caricatures and misrepresentations on both sides, but it is also probable that underlying the antipathy was the recognition of a fundamental clash on certain theological issues. You could argue that where historic confessional evangelicalism is increasingly attracted to Barth it is because, at least in some areas, we see the issues less clearly than either our predecessors or Barth himself.

GD: What, in your view, are some of the problem areas of Barth's thought as far as evangelicals are concerned?

DG: Classically, I suppose the problem areas have been Barth’s doctrine of Scripture and the issue of his incipient universalism (or not). I think these remain important topics and vital areas of concern. But evangelicals have been less interested in the fact that what Barth thinks in these areas is simply the logical consequence of prior decisions taken most notably in his doctrine of God, and in his understanding of revelation and Christology. Focussing on certain problem ‘topics’ in Barth can run the risk of misrepresentation because of the complex web of his thought, and some kind of comprehensive analysis is required. Obviously, the book highlights what we feel are some of the main problem areas within this matrix.

In brief, I would say some key areas are: (i) Barth’s understanding of election in relation to the triune being (and here I’d say that a McCormack-ian type reading of Barth on this topic is a major problem); (ii) his understanding of Christology and theological method (a big part of my thesis is expanding and developing Richard Muller’s distinction between soteriological and principial christocentrism, with Barth offering an example of the latter which is problematic in many areas); (iii) certain aspects of Barth’s exegesis. Brevard Childs has commented that Barth’s theology is the most ambitious 20th century attempt to rest dogmatics on exegesis, and this is a tremendous opportunity for worthwhile engagement with Barth. Evangelical engagement here can bring a depth of exegetical seriousness to bear on what Barth does with the biblical text and, with humility and grace, ask probing questions about whether in certain cases the exegetical foundations truly support the dogmatic edifice.

GD: You have assembled some of the big names in Reformed theology to contribute to Engaging with Barth- Oliver Crisp, Paul Helm, Donald Macleod, Henri Blocher and so on. I can't think of another book with such a stellar cast. How did you manage to get so many top theologians on board?

DG: Daniel and I wrote each of them a letter outlining the project and promised them that if we sold more than fifteen copies of the book we’d enter each of their names into a hat for a free prize draw, with the winner receiving an all expenses paid holiday of a lifetime.

GD: Oh, that explains it! Now, Sung Wook Chung's Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology was published in 2006. Why do we need another book on Barth and evangelical theology?

DG: The Chung volume interacts with Barth from different points along the kind of evangelical spectrum I mentioned above. It’s a valuable book for showing the diversity of possible responses to Barth within the ‘evangelicalism’ stable. At the same time, when you talk of Barth’s convergences and divergences from evangelical theology in this way then it’s not always completely clear what exactly Barth converges with or diverges from. Although not all the contributors in our book are coming from exactly the same place, the engagement with Barth is more from the perspective of classic Reformed theology and we think this makes for a very interesting kind of interaction.

GD: Why do you think that a distinctively Reformed Theology is best placed to respond to Barth?

DG: When we press Barth with questions from within the Reformed tradition we are engaging him on the terms of a theological impulse which he himself favoured. (Garry Williams is particularly good at making and modelling this point in his chapter on the atonement in Engaging with Barth). Many of Barth’s radical theological revisions start from the foundation of Reformed presuppositions before Barth then goes off in his own direction, and so engaging with the new direction means unpacking such presuppositions and exploring the validity or otherwise of what happens to them in Barth’s hands. To discuss theology with Barth in a Reformed accent means you can cut out a lot of the prolegoumenal throat-clearing and get straight down to business. At the same time, because of Barth’s own love of the Reformed Scripture principle, Reformed theology is only really best placed to respond to Barth as it shows itself to be faithful to Scripture.

GD: What do you think that evangelicals have to learn from Karl Barth?

DG: The most profound lessons are probably still ahead of us; in many ways it is still too early to assess Barth’s legacy, either for evangelicalism or anything else. But in the meantime my own list would be a big one, consisting of both the specifics of his thinking on certain issues (some of my favourites – alongside reservations – are in the area of his theology of interpretation), as well as more general issues.

Limiting myself to the generalities, I’d say three things: (i) he teaches us to be catholic, (ii) to be Reformed (ii) and to do theological theology.

(i) Catholic. Barth’s doctrine of election is a good case in point. I think what Barth attempts here is magisterial simply because of the sheer range of material he commands. The extent of his engagement with a diverse chorus of witnesses within the theological tradition is really very impressive indeed. But it’s not just impressive – it’s instructive, and on a whole range of issues such as theological method, historical theology, and the analysis of presuppositions in doctrinal formulations. Evangelicals can tend to talk about the doctrine of election in terms of Calvinism vs Arminianism, and reading Barth shows you just what an emaciated conception of the doctrine this is.

(ii) Reformed. Barth’s own theological development is explained at least in part by his discovery of the theology of Reformed Orthodoxy during his Göttingen years and its subsequent impact on his thinking. The way Barth engages with this tradition and lets it seep into his own thinking is a pointer to its possession of resources which are capable of powerfully reconfiguring a theological landscape. At the same time (and here I’m really thinking of his doctrine of election) I have found that Barth teaches me to be Reformed precisely by the ways in which he departs from classic Reformed theology – his new path is not as satisfying as the old path properly understood. I know that’s counter-intuitive and certainly on election many of his readers go the other way. But wrestling with how Barth reads election in Scripture alongside wrestling with how Calvin reads election in Scripture, I have come to feel that Barth’s position sits uncomfortably across the biblical testimony whereas Calvin’s position (and I don’t think it’s perfect) emerges more comfortably from a straight-forward exegesis. Barth’s theological critique of Calvin has a conceptual and rhetorical power that I don’t think he is ever able to match exegetically. Eventually, that is problematic for the theological critique.

(iii) Theological theology. I agree completely with Ben Myers’ earlier observation on your blog [here] about the immense value of reading Barth to learn to think theologically. Barth’s writings contain the kind of engagement with theological material which I don’t think evangelicals are always very good at reckoning with (e.g. detailed discussion of the divine perfections; thinking through the meaning of divine aseity). The way Barth articulates doctrines functioning in relation to each other within the dogmatic enterprise has a range and depth to it which I think modern evangelical systematics rarely achieve. (In this regard see John Webster’s essay on ‘Jesus Christ’ in The Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology – you don’t have to agree with everything he says here to feel the weight of a lot of his insights about the shortcomings in evangelical theology). Of course, there are other resources within Reformed theology for these ends, but Barth makes an important contribution here too.

GD: I really enjoyed Webster's Holiness and found his theological method very refreshing. Famously Barth loved Mozart, what are your three favourite songs or pieces of music?

DG: I won’t impugn the good reputation of your blog or humiliate myself by telling you!

GD: You must like some really silly stuff! Care to tell us the best work of theology that you've read in the last 12 months? It is a must read because?

DG: I’m afraid I’ve broken the rules here. Apparently good Ph.D students read widely in a number of different fields to come out properly rounded individuals. My wife thinks that possibility for me was lost a long time ago, and over the last year I’ve pretty much only been reading Calvin and Barth, or books on Calvin and Barth. I’ve found Richard Muller’s work to be immensely helpful: he’s a formidable scholar and the breadth of his learning means that he sees across the centuries very clearly. My thesis, building on some of Stephen Edmondson’s work and on the basis of the preface to the 1539 edition of the Institutes, argues that Calvin’s Institutes is itself a hermeneutic i.e. it offers a reading of the biblical plot-line (meant to guide others in their reading of Scripture) which is reflected in the way Calvin reads the biblical texts in his commentaries (historically there is a developmental relationship between the Institutes and the commentaries, with the former being shaped by the latter). Wrestling with the argument of the Institutes has been an extremely valuable exercise for me. It is a deeply pastoral work, with immense riches for preachers, and for those reasons it’s probably the best thing I’ve been reading this year.

GD: Nice. I'm enjoying reading through the Institutes at the moment. Now, what do you hope to do once you have finished your studies?

DG: I have just submitted my Ph.D thesis and so am nervously waiting for my viva! But at the same time I have just started working at High Church, Hilton, Aberdeen, as the Associate Minister. It’s where Angela and I have been since arriving in Aberdeen and it’s a great church family to be a part of and to serve. We’ll be here for at least three years and after that, who knows …?

GD: David, thanks for dropping by. I wish you all the very best and hope that my copy of Engaging with Barth arrives soon! [Update the book has now been published, see my review here].

Book Website

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Blogging in the name of the Lord: Paul Helm

This is the first in a new series of interviews with Christian bloggers. In the hot seat today we have...
GD: Hello Paul Helm, and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.

PH: Thanks for inviting me to answer a few questions, Guy. I greatly enjoy Exiled Preacher, and your help with my own site has been invaluable. As you know!

I taught for many years at the University of Liverpool, then moved to King’s College, London in 1993, resigning in 2000, and I am now ‘freelance’. I am a compulsive writer, fairly bad-tempered, and privacy matters to me, which is why this answer is short!

GD: Your blog is called Helm's Deep. What kind of thing might readers find there?

PH: You called it that, remember? [Oh yes, you have me to blame for that. I couldn't resist punning your name with the scene of a great battle in Lord of the Rings (GD).] It’s chiefly a discussion of issues in which theology and philosophy intersect. Each month I try to post the draft of a paper that is ‘in press’, and an ‘Analysis’ in which I discuss an issue (in 2000 words or so) where philosophical ideas may illuminate or clarify theological positions. This month, for example, I have a concluding Analysis on making choices between alternatives when the evidence for each alternative balances, or is unknown, and the choice must be made. At the far end of ‘guidance’, you might say. Along with this there’s the concluding half of a longer paper on one of my favourite themes, God and time. Shortly I’ll have Analyses on the will of God, and papers on the problem of evil, Edwards on the Trinity, and J.I. Packer’s ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God, to mark its 50th anniversary.

GD: Do you think that blogging has a useful part to play in the theological process?

PH: No more than the printing press does. In my case more people read the sort of thing I write than would otherwise be the case. But most religious blogs I come across are dire.

GD: Are you a theological philosopher or a philosophical theologian?

PH: The first, I suppose, since philosophy is what I am trained in.

GD: Tertullian said, of philosophy, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" How would you answer that question?

PH: I don’t think Tertullian was quite correct if his words are taken to advocate a principled avoidance of philosophical concepts and arguments. When in Athens Paul did as the Athenians did, and quoted Aratus and Epimenides with approval, and of course he has extended arguments, as in I Corinthians 15. This has to be weighed, however, against what he wrote to the I Corinthians 1 and 2 about the wisdom of this world.. Philosophy is necessary for at least two reasons: one is that the opponents of the faith often resort to philosophical concepts and arguments (sometimes without realizing it) and have to be answered in kind, and the other is the principle ‘the meaning of Scripture is scripture’.

GD: Who has had the biggest influence on your theological development?

PH: Theological development, did you say? I’m not sure there’s been much of that since I was about 18. Up till then, my father. There’s been a bit of theological intensification since.. But in my case How I Have Changed My Mind would be the title of a rather slim book. When I was about 18 ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God bowled me over.

GD: The validity of systematic theology is much under discussion at the moment. In his contribution to Always Reforming, Richard Gamble seemed to argue that systematics should transmute into biblical theology. In his The Drama of Doctrine, Kevin Vanhoozer has proposed that theology should be reconfigured in terms of theo-dramatics. Do you believe that systematic theology as practiced by Hodge and Berkhof has a role in contemporary theological reflection?

PH: For some reason the phrase ‘systematic theology’ has prestige. So there are all sorts of crazy proposals for calling this and that ‘systematic theology’. (It’s rather like someone wanting to call some Heath-Robinson contraption a Rolls Royce). The content of systematic theology should correspond with the label on the jar; it should be systematic, that is, connected up, coherent, consistent, contemporary, and as clear as can be, and it should be about God and his ways.. In view of these requirements, the Hodge-Berkhof tradition of systematic theology is indispensable. What I have chiefly complained about in print (in my usual cantankerous way) is that Hodge and co. have been dismissed in a shamefully unscholarly manner by various evangelical theologians (not including Richard Gamble) who should have known better – he is allegedly ‘foundationalist’, an ‘Enlightenment’ thinker, ‘inductive’, ‘scientific’, as a result of which he and his kind have been rubbished.. These epithets have been hurled at the poor man from ignoramuses who do not seem ever to have bothered to open the first pages of volume I of his Systematic Theology to see how he actually operates. What kind of scholarship is that?

There may well be other types of theology besides ‘systematic theology’ but they should be clearly labeled too.

GD: In your book, John Calvin's Ideas, you argue that the Reformer was no stand alone figure, divorced from the currents of medieval scholasticism that preceded him and the Reformed scholasticism that followed him. I think that the point was well made. But in which ways does Calvin stand out from the scholastic crowd?

PH: In at least these ways: He was of an anti-speculative turn of mind, and hence generally (though not always) spurned ‘What if?’ questions that the scholastics tended to favour. And he was firm on faith as involving fiducia and as well as assensus, which as a result makes theology a much more practical business than the run of the mill medieval scholastics thought of it. Augustine was a great influence of course, but then he also influenced Thomas Aquinas. But what evangelical these days reads anything before Luther? Or C.H. Spurgeon?

GD: In your contribution to Engaging with Barth, you discuss the theologian's doctrine of election. As I understand it, Barth held that God constituted Jesus as the elect man for the sake of all humanity. Evangelicals will have problems with his construction because of its universalistic overtones. But it seems to me that Reformed theology has often downplayed the role of Christ in election, making the doctrine seem a little abstract and remote. Calvin, however taught that Christ is the "mirror of our election". Would you agree that we should return to a more Christ-centred doctrine of election?

PH: I think that we ought to have problems with Barth’s construction not only because of what you mention, but also because it diminishes and even eliminates divine freedom.

But yes, the Pauline idea of union with Christ is fundamental provided that it is carefully handled Believers are chosen in Christ, but not (as far as I can see) because of Christ. Calvin’s phrase about Christ as the mirror of election has more to do with assurance than with the character of election per se.

GD: Does God take risks?

PH: No. He knows the end from the beginning and works all things after the counsel of his own will. However, ‘risk’ can be used to name some of what we, as creatures, are not sure of, and it may be said that the Incarnate Logos took risks in this sense, but I don’t favour such talk. It does not seem to resonate with what we find in the Gospels. (See Light Upon the River, Hymn Texts by Christopher M. Idle (St Matthias Press, 1998), note to ‘And did you risk yourself, O Christ?’ (p.134))

GD: This year marks the 250th anniversary of the death of Jonathan Edwards. What, in your assessment are the some of the key strengths and weaknesses of the great man's theology?

PH: The strength is also the weakness: a confidence in human reason which is in some respects breathtaking (the relentlessness of his argumentation in Freedom of the Will), in other respects ridiculous (his view of the continuity of things and people through time, as expressed in his Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin). In many ways he is an archetypal 18thcentury figure. Interesting that the influence of the Enlightenment should reach so powerfully into the recesses of New England; there is irony here, an arch-conservative using the ‘latest thought’ (in Edwards’ case Newton and Locke), to assist ole’ time religion. Perhaps there’s a lesson for us.

While one cannot but recognise his greatness Edwards has always seemed to me to have been a tiresome person, aristocratic, tactless and remote, and something of a know-all (justifiably perhaps!), but not someone I’d like to have had as a pastor. Sorry, I’m straying from your question.

GD: Tell us the most helpful theological book that you have read in the last twelve months. It is a must read because?

PH: ‘Helpful’ is an unhelpful word for me. I’m often helped by ‘unhelpful’ books. However, among the helpful books I’m helped by are some of the writings of John Frame, a long-standing friend. I think his Salvation Belongs to the Lord: An Introduction to Systematic Theology, (P & R, 2006), is very good.

GD: I too enjoyed Frame's book (see review here). Care to share your top three songs/pieces of music?

PH: Not easy. I enjoy the standards of classical music, and also W. Coast Jazz - Mulligan, Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Brookmeyer, etc. I’m also interested in jazz improvisations of classical themes and classically-influenced jazz from players such as Jacques Loussier, and more recently e.s.t.. In 2008 I’d like to explore the music of David Rhys-Williams a bit.

On another note I value Stuart Townend’s hymns, as many do, and also the ‘classical tradition’ of Watts, Charles Wesley, the Olney Hymns, Toplady etc.. But their use is rapidly vanishing; the days when people learned Christian doctrine by singing it are going, and we are being offered Telly-Tubby lyrics instead.

GD: Singing "eh-oh" a la the Telly-Tubbies doesn't quite seem appropriate for Christian worship. Watts, Wesley and Townend are much better. Now, what, in your view is the great challenge that faces evangelicalism today and how ought we to respond?

PH: To remain true to evangelicalism while nevertheless gaining the attention of people who are (apparently) a thousand miles away from it.

GD: Which theology blogs do you find helpful?

PH: I browse hardly at all. But as I said earlier, I am a fan of ‘Exiled Preacher’. That’s surely a positive note to end on!
GD: You are too kind. Thanks very much for stopping by for this conversation.
Who will be the next candidate for the hot seat? You'll have to wait and see.