Thursday, February 05, 2009

Catch the Vision by John J. Murray

Catch the Vision, Roots of the Reformed Recovery
by John. J. Murray, Evangelical Press, 2007, 191pp
The 20th century witnessed a remarkable recovery of Reformed Christianity. John J. Murray has given us a gripping account of the men and movements that were used by God to herald the gospel of sovereign grace. This is an important piece of history. We are now well into a second generation of Reformed preachers and churches who did not come under the direct influence of the likes of Martyn Lloyd-Jones. We can take it for granted that there are now literally hundreds if not thousands of Reformed preachers and congregations in the UK, not to mention what has been happening in the States. Reformed Christianity is now a well established part of the Christian landscape, with many conferences, publishers and movements seeking to strengthen the cause. But this is a relatively recent phenomenon.
In the opening chapter, Losing the vision, Murray charts the factors that led to a decline of the Reformed faith towards the end of the Victorian period. Liberalism undermined the church's trust in the Bible and preached a man-centred, anti-supernatural Christianity that was void of life transforming power. By and large Evangelicalism in the UK lost its Reformed identity and morphed into a more genteel version of American Fundamentalism. C. H. Spurgeon seemed to sense that the Reformed witness he had fought so valiantly to maintain was on the way out. He told his students,
"What is being done today will affect the next centuries, unless the Lord should speedily come... For my part I am quite willing to be eaten of dogs for the next fifty years: but the more distant future will vindicate me."
As the book shows, this prediction proved wonderfully true. Murray introduces to some of the forerunners of Reformed recovery, highlighting developments among students after WWI. He also draws attention to the work of a number of influential Ministers. Concerned about the lack of fellowship between evangelical churches who had left the mixed denominations, E. J. Poole-Connor, founded the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches. A. W. Pink's magazine Studies in the Scriptures helped to create an appetite for the soul nourishing doctrines of grace. W. J. Grier of Belfast was active in promoting solid Reformed literature.
But under God, the Reformed recovery was given its greatest impetus by one man, Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. The discovery of Reformed theology through reading the works of Jonathan Edwards and B. B. Warfield transformed the life and ministry of the medic turned preacher. From his Westminster Chapel pulpit, he was able to influence a new generation of evangelical leaders. Never a great organiser, he was not one for setting up new ventures. But he was an enthusiastic supporter of the efforts of others in the Reformed cause. Douglas Johnson enlisted him in student work. He became "the theologian of the IVF" (Inter Varisty Fellowship, now UCCF) and was involved in the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. Although he left Wales in the late 1930's, he still exercised leadership in the land of his birth, giving advice and assistance to the men who began the Evangelical Movement of Wales. Through the Westminster Fellowship of Ministers he was able influence a new generation of pastors, showing them the riches of Puritan and Reformed theology and encouraging the practice of expository preaching.
Murray laments the loss of Lloyd-Jones' leadership. His passing undoubtedly left a huge hole in Reformed Evangelicalism. But I think that the desire for another big figure to lead the Reformed world is misplaced. We should not become so reliant upon one man that over twenty years after his death some people still find themselves facing the issues of today by asking, "What would the Doctor have thought about this?" It is probably just as well that the preacher was not an empire building organisational genius who was bent on imposing his every diktat on the early Reformed movement. Then over-reliance upon the man would have been tragically worse. Murray suggests that in part we have Lloyd-Jones' typically South Walian contempt for committees to thank for his lazzes faire attitude to organising the growing Reformed cause. As the great man said, "The South Walian's laziness, plus his genius, makes him despise committees. He is not concerned with carrying things out." (See Chapter 9, endnote 20 on p. 181). I don't know about being a genius, but this South Walian doesn't think much of committees either. It should also be said that Lloyd-Jones did not want to be followed slavishly. One of the great burdens of his ministry to pastors was to encourage men to think for themselves.
However, as Murray goes on to show Lloyd-Jones was not the only man who was used of God in the recovery of the Reformed faith. J. I. Packer discovered the Puritans while a student at Oxford University. He was dissatisfied with the Keswick Holiness teaching that was typical of the day. It didn't seem to speak to his experience of the Christian life. Trying to "Let go and let God" was of no help in his struggle with sin. But in John Owen, he found a biblical realism on indwelling sin and how to deal with it. He was hooked, and devoted his life to opening up the deep wells of Puritan experimental theology. He was involved in setting up the Puritan Conference, which Lloyd-Jones agreed to chair. Relations between Packer and "the Doctor" were strained over the issue of evangelical involvement in the mixed denominations. But through his writings such as Knowing God and Amongst God's Giants, Packer did much to further the Reformed cause.
Indeed, books played a large part in the rediscovery of Reformed and Puritan teaching. Murray devotes a chapter each to Geoffrey Williams, the founder of the Evangelical Library and Iain Murray, who helped start the Banner of Truth Trust. Nowadays the market is awash with good books, both reprints of older works and the writings of contemporary Reformed authors. But that was not the case in the early to mid 20th century, when sound literature was scarce. Geoffrey Williams helped to preserve some of the long neglected treasures of Reformed literature and make them available to reading public. The Banner of Truth Trust is now such a fixture in the Reformed world that it would difficult to imagine life without their publications. But it all began with the tentative circulation of a magazine and the reprint of Thomas Boston's A Body of Divinity. Iain Murray and others were told that Puritan reprints would never sell. But the doubters had failed to notice a change in the spiritual climate. Christians whose appetite for good books had been whetted by the preaching of Lloyd-Jones snapped up the new Banner titles like hotcakes.
The Scottish Presbyterian theologian John Murray also helped to boost the Reformed movement in the UK. He was professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. But although he was based in the States, he was able to exercise an influence over Reformed pastors in the Great Britain. Murray was invited to speak at some of the early Banner of Truth Ministers' Conferences in Leicester. With his winsome "old school" Highland piety and keen theological mind, he was able to demonstrate the permanent vale of Reformed teaching. Over and against Lloyd-Jones, who advocated pan-evangelical unity that included Arminiams, Murray insisted that unity should be based on an explicit confession of the Reformed faith.
But where does all this leave us now? For the first generation engaged in the recovery of Reformed theology there was the excitement and joy of new discovery. Now we are seeing men and women who have been involved in Reformed churches for the whole of their Christian lives. The present generation needs to appreciate afresh the sheer wonder and grandeur of the Reformed vision of the Triune God of sovereign grace. Let us not take for granted the advances that have been made in the last fifty years. What happened in Spurgeon's day shows that gains can be lost if we are not careful. Some revisionists within the Reformed movement are beginning to question some of the old assumptions. Andrew McGowan recently argued that we should reject inerrancy in favour of infallibility. Others are looking longingly in the direction of Karl Barth for theological inspiration that is Reformed but not as we know it. May we continue to hold to the faith of our fathers. In a final chapter Maintaining the vision, Murray sets out his prescription for the maintenance of a faithful Reformed witness in the 21st century.


Anonymous said...

Thankyou for your review, I read the book just after Christmas and praise God for that revival of interest in reformed things post world war 2. I agree things do seem to have stunted after the seventies, to such an extent where personally I think we are in trouble ... in the next 15 years how many reformed / conservative evangelical churches are going to shut ?

I read Colin Hanson's comments on the Ref 21 blog about how he would like to have included a section in his young restless and reformed book on the UK. I don't see alot of the young restless and reformed here !!! we all (and of course I generalise) seem a bit happy with our lot, smug in our doctrine and lazy in our outreach.

I think Murray missed a no of things in his diagnosis of why things stunted, I'd be interested to hear what you think went wrong ...

O that the Lord would stir us and we would see a fresh revival in interest in Reformed things.


PS if I seem a bit gloomy, I live in Birmingham, without a reformed church in the city limits (there are a few sympathetc pastors) and probably the only people who know the 5 points and the 5 solas (outside of a few score (in my estimation)) are probably non Christian theology students at the university.

Guy Davies said...


No need to encourage to a Welshman for being gloomy.

Yes, Murray could have been a little more incisive on why the movement seems to be floundering at the moment.

With regard to what I think may be wrong with Reformed Christianity in the UK, have a look at this older post:

(You'll have to copy n' paste the URL into your browser).

Anonymous said...

I went to the link and I agree. Your top point is vital (more conversions) - none of the the men mentioned in Catch the Vision were evangelists (Lloyd Jones, may have been to a point ???, but that is not what he is known for and his legacy to the churches has not been evangelistic zeal).

They also have come from a fairly narrow group socially and in line never really sought to reach much beyond this (they continued the over emphasis on student outreach in our circles, which whilst UCCF et al do a great work - you would think that everyone in the UK has a degree - but that is another subject ..)

I have a theory that as reformed Christians, we have been far to introspective in our outreach and (like most of conservative evangelicalism) are happy with transfer growth and student work in our churches.

The era when the revival of reformed things in the UK occurred, was also the era of when in living memory (probably the time when the Huguenots fled France, may beat this ??) of greatest opportunity for church growth in the UK, I am referring to the Carribean immigration to the UK and we blew it. It is so insignificant to reformed historians, I have seen no mention of it in any of the histories and biographies of the time and I have tried to read all I can.

The interesting thing now is maybe we will in many places (like my city) have the opportunity to start again, and in the grace of God, live out the the gospel of grace and the great commission together.

And here to me is the most encouraging thing about the young restless and reformed book, the growth of interest in reformed things among African Americans. In their history they have an 'almost' failsafe apologetic against reformed theology ... 'your theologians backed slavery'. And to our shame many did .. but God in His grace is bringing African Americans to the doctrines of grace ... so that the only time I have heard any reformed theology in any media (outside of our own) in Birmingham was in a rap record (by a reformed African American)on a local radio station. That gives me hope in the gloom that God could move and give a new and more broadly based love of the gospel of redeeming grace.