Friday, February 13, 2009

Blogging in the name of the Lord: Gary Benfold

This is the fifth in a series of interviews with Christian bloggers. In the hot seat today is...

Gary Benfold

GD: Hello Gary Benfold and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.

GB: A Yorkshireman by birth and conviction, I've pastored two churches. The first was in Aylesbury, 1981-97, and now here in Moordown, Bournemouth since 1997.

GD: Your blog is rather grandly called "The Preacher". Please explain why.

GB: Ah, well: the truth. I was thinking I might start a blog one day and playing with the controls to see if I could make it work. when it asked for a name for the blog I wrote the first thing that came into my head; suddenly, there was the blog up and running and I was stuck with it. If anyone knows how to change the name without losing the address, I'll gladly change it for something a little more modest. 'The Pastor' perhaps. Or 'The Well-balanced Calvinist.'

GD: After a little technical advice from yours truly, it looks as though you are now A Yorkshire Preacher in Exile, which is a bit less pretentious. The "Exile" bit sounds a bit familar, though. Now you'll probably get e-mails from concerned readers in the States asking why you've been banished to Bournemouth. What made you start blogging?

GB: Somebody's got to tell the truth...

GD: That's true. What are the strengths and weaknesses of blogging as a medium for theological reflection?

GB: The major weakness of course is that the ignorant can pretend to be knowledgeable and mislead others. A major strength though is that it can help those of us who want to learn, by encouraging interaction with people we may rarely, or never, see. Then, too, there are some very fine people blogging: I discovered Helm's Deep recently (through your blog, I think) and have discovered that Paul Helm ruminates there, on questions big and small, in most helpful ways.

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

GB: Martyn Lloyd-Jones, without doubt. I was 'awakened' under his itinerant ministry in 1973 and when I came to Christ, he was the only Christian I knew outside my own small church. So the first Christian book I ever bought was his 'Studies in the Sermon on the Mount' and his influence has been with me ever since.

GD: Who has taught you most of what it means to preach the Word of God?
GB: Again, Lloyd-Jones. I've been listening afresh to some of his sermons recently - reading them is one thing, hearing them is another. What simplicity! What passion! He is to preaching what Ronnie O'Sullivan is to snooker: he makes it look so easy, I think 'I could do that'. And then I try it...

GD: Describe your call to the pastoral/preaching ministry.
GB: The first stirrings came, perhaps ironically now, under the preaching of Roy Clements when I was a student. He was expounding 2 Timothy and bringing us face to face with God and the importance of the gospel, and I remember thinking 'If I could do that, I would gladly give my life to it.' Then, over the next couple of years, the conviction grew that God was calling me to this work, and I began to preach and ask the advice of others as to whether to proceed.

GD: Where did you train for the ministry and what did you find most helpful about your studies?
GB: I trained at the London Theological Seminary, which was undoubtedly right for me at the time. It was the early days of the seminary with the original faculty: Harrison, Davies, Jones and Eveson. Most helpful, of course, was the conviction 'God can do it again' which came through in all the lectures.

GD: They were still there when I studied at LTS from 1988-90. Their godliness, giftedness and passion for preaching in the power Spirit has had a deep and lasting impression on my life. What do you find most difficult and challenging about being a pastor?
GB: Personal holiness. No disappointment compares with my disappointment here, or with the fear that this is The Reason why I am so little used by God.

GD: What do you find most thrilling and encouraging about being a pastor?
GB: I had a letter just last month from a couple who'd been converted 20 years ago. Since that time, they've developed, sacrificially, a ministry helping bring the gospel to children in Romania and Moldova. Year in, year out, they've done a work that the world never notices, but that makes a vast and eternal difference in the lives of countless children. I remember so clearly when that couple had only minimal interest in the gospel; and I remember too the wife stopping me in the street one day to say that they had both come to the Lord. Nothing, nothing, compares with the thrill of that; and it's made all the richer by their 20 years of hard work.

GD: If time travel were possible, which figure from post-biblical church history would you like to meet and what would you say to him/her, assuming they didn't run away?
GB: Would it be Spurgeon, or Whitefield? Spurgeon, I guess - though the choice is a difficult one. What would I say? 'Tell me again about the loveliness of Christ.' I know that can sound very syrupy; but what else could I possibly want CHS to talk about?

GD: I can't think of anything better. Name your favourite contemporary theologian. Why so good?
GB: Don Carson - at times I call him my 'subordinate standard'. He's clear, careful, and contemporary. He has his eyes firmly on the primacy of the gospel. And even when I don't agree with him, I'm sure he's thought things through carefully and is at least attempting to be faithful to the whole of the Biblical text.

GD: The Don is certainly one of the best. You are a member of the FIEC Council (Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches). What is your vision of the role of the FIEC in the contemporary church scene?
GB: The FIEC does a significant work in encouraging independent churches, many of which are small, to keep the gospel at the heart of their existence. I know many people argue that it doesn't do it well enough, and point at other problems (real or perceived); but no body is perfect, no body will satisfy everyone. I would like to see it develop in some important ways if it's to continue - not least, by facilitating local gospel outreach. I don't mean this in any way as a criticism of FIEC or anyone else: but it's true, I'm convinced, that if we pursue 'Fellowship' we never get it. If we work together to proclaim the gospel to the lost, true fellowship results.

GD: You've just come back from the Affinity Study Conference: The End of the Law. Did you find it helpful?
GB: Yes, I did - but not in ways that you might expect. For example: I came to understand for the first time why an evangelist friend of mine hates theology so much! Theology as I understand it is designed to glorify God by increasing our knowledge of him in ways that a) help promote true Christian living and b) help in our proclamation of the gospel. If we don't have theologians to keep us on track, we'll soon, I suspect, lose the power of the gospel. But: we spent some time on the question of whether Calvin held to Common Grace or Natural Law. An interesting question perhaps for historians of philosophy and theology, but of NO RELEVANCE AT ALL in reaching my lost and hell-bound neighbours.

GD: Did you find out what happened to the Autumn 2008 edition of Foundations?
GB: No; forgot all about it. Old age...

GD: Oh well. Maybe it'll turn up some time. Have you ever been mistaken for Gary Brady? If so did you feel flattered or depressed?
GB: Yes, regularly. What's depressing is that he's never been mistaken for me! Even worse, it's gone to a new level. 'Oh, you're Steve Brady?' 'You mean Gary Brady?' 'Yes, sorry. You are, aren't you?' 'No.' There's a Steve Benfold, too - but that would just be too complicated.

GD: Thinking about it, Gary Brady was the guinea pig for Blogging in the name of the Lord. He sat in the "hot seat" for the very first interview (here). The fact that you've both featured here will probably add to the confusion. Now, what do you make of the new Gospel Partnerships that are springing up around the UK, bringing Evangelical Anglicans and Nonconformists together? Is separation from the mixed denominations now a non-issue?
GB: Are you trying to get me into trouble? [As if!] Many churches are so weak it makes sense for them to work together on a local level in such things as outreach and training. No, separation from mixed denominations isn't a non-issue; I could never be involved in such a denomination (I think!). But the question of what to do with those genuine evangelicals who are involved in mixed denominations is a different one. Melvin Tinker (Anglican, St. John's, Newland, Hull) makes a distinction between Evangelical Anglicans and Anglican Evangelicals. An EA would be Anglican first, and of an evangelical shade - so that his first 'fellowship' is going to be with other Anglicans. An AE, on the other hand, is first and foremost an Evangelical who (for whatever reason) is within the Anglican denomination. The Keele Conference saw the (temporary, perhaps) triumph of EA over AE. I don't see how I could have any meaningful fellowship with someone for whom Anglican (or: Presbyterian, or: Baptist) was more important than Evangelical - indeed, I'm not sure how they could be Evangelical in any meaningful sense.

GD: What features of the Reformed scene in the UK cause you concern and what fills you with hope?
GB: My concern about the Reformed scene is that Reformed folks haven't always made the distinction between 'Reformed' and 'old-fashioned.' It is reformed to believe in Particular Redemption; it is old-fashioned (and sinfully so?) to pray in thees and thous. I believe that this is one significant reason why the 'Reformed Revival' of the 60s hasn't led to much. But I'm filled with hope while ever God reigns.
GD: Care to name your top three pieces of music?
GB: Beethoven's Violin concerto, played by David Oistrakh; Beethoven's Emperor Concerto (the Violin Concerto is played on a violin, but the Emperor Concerto isn't played on an Emperor - presumably because there aren't any around any more) as played by Ashkenazy; and Elvis singing 'Don't' or 'It's now or never' or 'Something Blue'.

GD: With 2009 being the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth, tell us three little known Calvin facts.
GB: If they're little known, I wouldn't know them. Except, perhaps, that his 'real' name is Chauvin, which makes him the first Chauvinist?

GD: What a vexing question. We'll have to ask Paul Helm. With his Calvin, A Guide for the Perplexed, he should know. What is the biggest problem facing Evangelicalism today and how should we respond?
GB: A failure to distinguish between big things and little. We're so good at criticising one another for little things that when we have to protest against, say, Chalke's comment about 'cosmic child abuse' it's just one more whinge from a whinging group.

GD: What is the most important theological book that you have read in the last twelve months? It is a must read because....
GB: John Piper's The Future of Justification. Though I haven't finished it yet, it's a must read because this is THE issue in evangelicalism; this is the place where we are being attacked from within. Piper manages to be polemic and peaceful, thorough and gracious - a model of what theological defence should be.

GD: I really must get around to reading that book, especially as its available online for free! Which blogs do you enjoy reading and why?
GB: Yours of course; for the style, and erudition, and choice of guests. Pyromaniacs, for their defence of important theological and practical issues. And anybody who drops in a comment on my own blog, because by definition they must have discernment and tenacity. Unless they disagree, of course.

GD: Thanks for those kind words, although the choice of guests has been going down hill a bit recently. Well Gary Brady, er..... Benfold. Thanks for dropping by. Great talking to you!


Jonathan Hunt said...

Now THAT was an interview. Did you see the suggestion that praying in thees and thous might be sinful? We want more on this topic! And the line about being reformed not meaning being old fashioned? AMEN and AMEN.

Gary Brady said...

Thanks again (both). I liked best the very honest answer "Personal holiness. No disappointment compares with my disappointment here, or with the fear that this is the Reason why I am so little used by God." PS did the Es and As get mixed up when talking about Anglicans?

Guy Davies said...

I did ask Gary (Benfold)to clarify the point on Anglicans, saying shouldn't the "Anglican first" group be AE - "Anglican Evangelical" rather than the other way round? But he assured me that "Anglicans first" are EA and "Evangelicals first" are AE.
I found it a little confusing too. But what would a Welsh Nonconformist know about Evangelical Anglicans or Anglican Evangelicals for that matter?

Gary Benfold said...

Mixed-up EA and AE? No. It's the difference between a noun and an adjective. White dogs and brown dogs are both dogs; a white dog has more in common with a brown dog than it does with a white rat. OK so far?

So, an evangelical Anglican (noun: Anglican) may see himself as having more in common with a liberal Anglican - the noun takes precedence over the adjective. Still OK?

But an Anglican Evangelical is first and foremost an Evangelical; he has more in common with a Free Church Evangelical than with an Anglican Liberal (or, to be more blunt, an Anglican-Catholic).

It's OK: you're both Welsh. You haven't worked out yet that 'w' isn't a vowel. I understand. I'll be patient. Because, you see, you're Welsh Christians: again, the noun has prominence. You have more in common with English Christians than with Welsh Atheists. Yes?

No? Oh, I give up.

Guy Davies said...

I don't get the dog bit. The analogy doesn't follow. You have posited a white dog and a brown dog. Yes, they are both dogs. Neither is a white rat. That's fine. But what we are discussing is whether someone who is first and foremost an Anglican is an AE or an EA. For your analogy to follow, you would have to propose a white dog or a dog white, not a white dog or a brown dog. Rats don't even come into it. What's the Rat equivalent of AE's or EA's?

In talking about nouns and stuff you're just trying to baffle us with grammar. Someone who is first and foremost an Evangelical Anglican is an EA, like me and Gary (Brady) are Christan Welsh, not Welsh Christians. So there!

Gary Benfold said...

Trying to baffle you with grammar? G Brady has an undergraduate degree in English - he is therefore too, too easy to baffle with grammar.

However, I hadn't expected this to be as hard as trying to explain theology to an Arminian.

The noun is the Big Thing - OK? A big ship is a ship, a small ship is a ship. A big aeroplane is not a ship, and not nearer to a ship than a small ship is.

Anyway, look, it's not my distinction. It's Melvin Tinker's distinction. And he's an Anglican. So what would he know?

Guy Davies said...

So what does that make an Evangelical Anglican with a white and brown dog and a pet rat on a big aeroplane? A Baptist?

Gary Benfold said...

Only if the white and brown dog is very wet. But you're getting there!

Mark Barnes said...

Gary - I understand, so I don't think the problem can be with Welshmen. It must be with Welshmen over a certain age…

Guy Davies said...

Yes, Barnesey because with age comes wisdom and you have to be very silly to understand what Mr. Penfold is going on about.

Gary Benfold said...

This is getting silly - to say nothing of rude. The basic problem is that both 'evangelical' and 'Anglican' are adjectives that (in some circumstances) act as nouns. That's why Guy's white dog/dog white isn't an analogy at all. 'Dog' is never an adjective, and 'white' does not stand as a noun.
The nearest real analogy I can think of will leave me open to charges of racism, but hey ho. In the phrase 'Black African' both 'Black' and 'African' are really adjectives. But 'African' is doing service as a noun. If you talk about 'Black Africans' and 'White Africans' you are saying that the significant thing about them - the 'naming word' - is that they are African. (Because in English the adjective comes first.) But if you say 'African Blacks' and 'American blacks' - well, then, it is now 'blacks' that is doing service as a noun and you are saying that the signicant thing about these people is that they are blacks.
Guy and Gary are being misled by the word that comes first in the phrase, and I wonder (seriously) if that has something to do with the Welsh language?

Guy Davies said...

Calm down Gary. Of course these comments are silly. They are meant to be. Sorry of you find that rude, but what's the harm in a little light hearted banter? This is only a blog.

Gary Benfold said...

Oh well that's all right then. Me, I wouldn't dream of it.

Guy Davies said...

I would.