Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: Aslan's other name is Jesus

Yesterday we headed off to Salisbury for a bit of Christmas shopping and to see the latest Narnia film, Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I think the White Witch must have cast an evil spell over the cinema as it was almost as cold inside as out. Hopefully it won't be a case of 'Always winter, but never Christmas'.

The film was well done and was a more faithful adaptation of C. S. Lewis' book than Prince Caspian. We opted for the 3D version, but I'm not sure that the format added much to the film. When the 3D effect is obvious it looks unreal and when stuff doesn't seem to protrude from the screen, you think, "What's the point in paying extra for this?" It worked best during the storm at sea scenes when water appeared to spray the audience.

The film was acted well and beautifully realised, with some good special effects. The sea serpent looked suitably terrifying. The story's Christian message was not downplayed. At one point Lucy asks, "Without faith, what do we have?" Lucy and Edmund have to battle against temptation in different forms. In a kind of conversion event, their cousin, the obnoxious Eustace's life is transformed  on encountering Aslan.

Towards the end of the film, Aslan informs Edmund and Lucy that they will return to Narnia no more. Lucy asks him if he is present in her world back home. The lion replies,

"I am ... but there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there."

The line is a reminder of Lewis' intention in bringing his readers into the imaginary world of Narnia, that through the Aslan figure, they might get to know the One who died for undeserving sinners. Liam Neeson, the actor who provides Aslan's majestic voice recently said, "Aslan symbolises a Christ-like figure but he also symbolises for me Mohammed, Buddha and all the great spiritual leaders and prophets over the centuries.That’s who Aslan stands for as well as a mentor figure for kids – that’s what he means for me."

However, those who knew C. S. Lewis best flatly deny that, saying the author could not have been clearer. He wrote that the "whole Narnian story is about Christ”. Jesus Christ, the lion of the tribe of Judah is Aslan's "other name", Matthew 1:21, Revelation 5:5-7.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Some New Year reading

At the Aber Conference back in August I pre-ordered Bread of Heaven: The Life and Work of William Williams, Pantycelyn, Eifion Evans, Bryntirion Press, 2010. I had forgotten all about the order, when one dark evening a week or so ago the postman knocked at our door. His hands were full of letters and packages, so with a torch in his mouth he did his best to ask me to sign for one of the items. Amongst the packages was Bread of Heaven. I've enjoyed other works by Evans on the 1859 and 1904 Revivals in Wales, and above all his excellent biography of William Williams' contemporary, Daniel Rowland, (Banner of Truth Trust, 1985). I'm really looking forward to getting started on this one after the Christmas holidays. 
Then there's the mighty Reformed Dogmatics in four Volumes by Herman Bavinck (Baker Academic). I read Volume One the year before last and made a start on Volume Two early in 2010, but due to other reading commitments I had to leave it aside, only to pick it up again last week. There is no one quite like Bavinck for depth of treatment and breadth of learning. On The Names of God, "God has most abundantly revealed himself in the name 'Father, Son and Holy Spirit.' The fullness that from the beginning inhered in the name Elohim has gradually unfolded and become most fully and splendidly manifest in the trinitarian name of God." (Volume Two, p. 147).

For my degree studies I focused on the meaning and significance of the resurrection of Jesus. I believe that the resurrection of Christ is not always given the emphasis it deserves in Reformed theology and Calvinistic preaching, although there are some welcome signs of change in this regard. See the work of Richard Gaffin for one, especially his Resurrection and Redemption and also more popular-level books like Ordinary Hero: Living the Cross and the Resurrection by Tim Chester. So, I was pleased to receive a review copy (for Protestant Truth magazine) of The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, Michael R. Licona, 2010, IVP/Apollos. It's a weighty 700+ pager, but from a quick flick through, it looks like a fascinating and important study of the historicity of the resurrection of Christ.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A White Christmas

Yes, it's that time again when you can't visit the shops without being subjected to "Christmas music". I don't mean carols like Hark the herald angels sing or Handel's Messiah, but Merry Christmas by Slade or Mistletoe and Wine by Cliff Richards. It's enough to make you want to stay at home and buy all your pressies on the internet.

I suppose that one of the best loved of these songs is White Christmas by Bing Crosby. You know how it goes, "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas...". In fact, by the wonders of modern technology, Welsh opera singer Bryn Terfel has recently recorded a new version of this song, where he sings a duet with Crosby, who died 33 years ago.

I'm not going to try and second guess BBC Wiltshire’s weather forecasters by predicting that our county is going to see it snow on December 25th. That’s not exactly my job. But whether that happens or not, I want to suggest that it is possible to have a White Christmas this year. "What do I mean by that?" Well, for Christians the coming of Jesus is often associated with snow. Take a couple of well know Christmas carols,

See amid the winter’s snow,
Born for us on earth below,
See, the Lamb of God appears,
Promised from eternal years.

And most famously perhaps, In the Bleak Midwinter, in which it snows rather a lot,

Snow was falling,
Snow on snow,
Snow on snow
In the bleak midwinter,
Long, long ago.

I have to say that Christina Rossetti’s words don’t sound half as good when spoken, as when they are sung to Gustav Holst’s wonderfully haunting tune. Singing that carol certainly conjures up visions of a snowy, white Christmas. But what I have in mind by a white Christmas is taken from a passage in the Book of Isaiah. He was the Old Testament prophet who foretold that Jesus would be born of a virgin,

"Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel" (7:14)

Isaiah also said concerning Jesus,

For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
(Isaiah 9:6)

This same prophet issues an invitation from the Lord to all who will listen,

"'Come now, and let us reason together,' says the Lord, 'Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow'" (Isaiah 1:18).

That is what I mean by a “white Christmas”, the Lord’s gracious offer of forgiveness and cleansing.

This fresh start is possible because of Jesus. Joseph was told concerning Mary, "And she will bring forth a Son and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." (Matthew 1:21). Jesus came into the world to die on the cross for our sins, so that those who believe in him might be forgiven and be put right with God.

Having a White Christmas needn’t be just a dream. Because of Jesus, "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow'".

* Broadcast on BBC Radio Wiltshire as part of a pre-Christmas "mini service". Listen here, about 41 minutes into the show.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Westminster Conference Report #6

Malcolm MacLean on Andrew Bonar

This paper is available online, so I won't be providing a detailed report. But here are some notes on Bonar's preaching and prayer life that will hopefully serve as an aperitif that will whet your appetite for the main course. Go ahead, read the whole thing here. You will be humbled and challenged by Bonar's example of prayerful godliness and ministerial fruitfulness.


1. Verses not Books

Bonar was a very ordinary preacher with a peculiar preaching style. He was not an orator, but built up his churches by the preaching of the Word.

He preached from Bible verses, rather than working his way through Books of the Bible, seeking his texts from the Lord. He always preached Jesus. A sense of the presence of God accompanied his preaching.

His sermons would last 1/2 hour.

Bonar preached for conversions.

He prayed for more freedom and power in preaching.

His preaching was imaginative. His people got the point of his message, which was not soon forgotten.

2. Simplicity

Bonar used a straightforward style, preaching not to scratch heads, but pierce hearts.

3. Christian life

He emphasised holiness of life in his preaching, urging his congregation to follow biblical examples of godly living.

4. Enraptured with the Saviour

He preached Christ in every sermon.

Bonar's preaching made the Bible seem like a new book. Unseen things became real.

Prayer life

Bonar kept a diary in which he recorded his private prayers. He once spent three hours in prayer before first sermon. For him the Lord's day was a day of prayer. He regarded prayer as the Minister's chief work. In his private devotions he always read the Bible before prayer. He viewed prayer as a letter to Jesus.

Concluding thoughts on Westminster 2010

Having to give an address made attending the conference a little scary, but I enjoyed hearing the other papers, which were helpful and stimulating. Each paper (apart from the one on Bonar) was followed by a period of discussion. It was good to renew fellowship with old friends and also to speak with some people for the first time. I was encouraged to hear from a LTS student that one of the reasons he chose to study at the Seminary was reading my blog interview with the current Principal, Robert Strivens.

When attending conferences It has been my habit to make notes with pen and paper. A bit retro, I know. An old fashioned hack amongst the geeky laptop set. The trouble with that method is that even at the best of times, my handwriting is virtually illegible. Speed-writing to make fullish notes meant that I couldn't always make out what I had written, which rather defeated the object. But for Westminster I made notes on my X10 Mini-Pro mobile phone, which has a nifty slide-out QWERTY keyboard. I downloaded a 'Documents to Go' app, which enables me to create and edit Word documents. Now I can acutally make some sense of my notes. Cool, eh?  

Next year's Westminster Conference will be held on 6-7 December at Regent Hall, Oxford Street. The change of venue will be good as the PA and acoustics at the Whitefield Memorial Church were pretty poor, especially on the first day.  

2011 Papers:

1. Christian Liberty and the Westminster Assembly
2. The covenanting experience
3. Obadiah Holmes
4. Socinianism then and now
5. Puritanism - where did it all go wrong?
6. John Eliot

The 2010 papers will be published in the Spring. Audio recordings are available now. Order via the Westminster Conference website.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Westminster Conference Report #5

Daniel Webber on 'Doomed from the start? The Edinburgh Conference of 1910'

The Edinburgh Conference generated a huge sense of expectation. It was not a church conference, but an event for Missions and Missionaries. It is now remembered as the precursor of the World Council of Churches, rather than for its missionary vision.

1. Roots

A concern for world mission was inspired by the Evangelical revivals of 18th century. Similar gatherings had met since since 1854, dedicated to the evangelisation of world. Later meetings were more ecumenical in character, although the word "ecumenical"  not used of the 1910 Conference as it was a Protestant event to the exclusion of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

2. Leaders

Student leader, John Mott, who later helped to found of the World Council of Churches.

Organiser and scholar, with a gift for diplomacy, Joseph Oldham.

Edinburgh 1910 was a conference like no other. A kind of business meeting for missions. Its focus was not on  education and inspiration, but the study of missionary policy. Reports were commissioned and discussed. Evangelistic action was to be based on analysis of factual reports. A new science of missiology was in the making.

Eight comission papers were prepared for discussion on subjects like 'The Gospel to the World', 'Preparation of Missionaries', 'Unity and Mission'. The decision was made that there was to be no discussion of doctrinal and church differences. In the USA contingent there were high  hopes for church unity. Provision made to discuss this matter.

 There were 1215 official delegates.

3. Conference sessions

Scottish Minister Alexander Whyte attended the opening session, which  began  with Lord Balfour reading a message from the King. This led to the spontaneous singing of the National Anthem. Quite what the American delegates made of singing "God save our gracious King", I don't know.

Balfour hoped that the desire for unity on the mission field might lead to greater unity at home.

Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson raised the expectation of a new era of worldwide evangelisation. He hoped that the centrality of mission might lead to coming of kingdom with power.  Missionary conquest of world was within the grasp of the churches.

Commission reports were discussed, with Mott chairing the meetings in Napoleonic style. Responses were limited to 7 minutes. There were also times of prayer.

A resolution was made to set up continuation committee to consider whether an international missionary was to be body formed. The Conference closed with the singing of the Doxology.

Mott acted as chairman of the continuation committee, with Oldham as secretary. A framework of ecumenical structure was set up, which led to the founding of WCC in 1948.

Edinburgh 1910 was doomed from the start to be remembered as catalyst for ecumenism rather than for its vision for mission.

4. Factors

1) Divergence of views

When it came to the Commission Reports there were differences over  the self-government of indigenous churches and the issue of cultural sensitivities. The world was divided between Western Christendom and Eastern Heathendom. It was not regarded as legitimate to evangelise in predominantly Roman Catholic or Orthodox countries. This reflected the Anglo-Catholic influence on the Conference.

There was a naive optimism on the part of Mott. He wanted to get things done with little thought of the cost in terms of doctrinal faithfulness. The scope of mission was changed from all the world to the non-christian world. There was no clarity on the gospel or on what it means to be a Christian in the New Testament sense.

2) No consideration of theological matters.

The Ango-Catholic delegates insisted that the Conference would involve no doctrinal discussion. In Comission 2 on Native Churches, dependence on Western Creeds and Confessions was deprecated in favour of  'self- theologising'. Conference leaders were theological liberals. John Mott was a 'Liberal Evangelical'.

Theological indifferentism was the order of the day. This was not a distinctly  Protestant  Conference, holding to the 'Solas of the Reformation'. Evangelicals attended, but non-Evangelicals controlled the event.

3) Preoccupation with unity

The key sub-plot of 1910 was a call for unity, which featured in each Commission. Commission 8 was devoted entirely to unity. Evangelicals wanted more interdenominational co-operation, but the leaders of the Edinburgh Conference wanted a broader approach, with the  inclusion of Anglo-Catholics. Leaders went to great lengths to keep the Anglo-Catholics on board. Objection was made to regarding Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Churches as non-Christian. It was said that 1910 could not be a truly ecumenical gathering without without RC and EO delegates. There was no room for the evangelisation of RC's and EO's.

The New Testament has a lot to say on Christian unity, but not at expense of gospel. We must face the questions: What is the gospel? What is a  Christian? What is a Church? What is our mission to world? Edinburgh 1910 offered a new vision for ecumenical mission. With its focus on institutional unity, it was doomed from the start to be remembered as the forerunner of the WCC, rather than for its missionary vision.

5. Conclusion

The assembly was not sufficiently focused on mission. It was sidetracked by the ecumenical agenda. With the involvement of Anglo-Catholics and theological liberals there was no agreement on the gospel. This diverse theological outlook was reflected  in the commission papers. Evangelicals who participated did not stand out against this, or threaten to withdraw. But  within decades, most Evangelicals would separate themselves from WCC-style ecumenism.

The 1910 Edinburgh Conference led to two developments. The founding of the WCC in 1948, and the specifically Evangelical assemblies for world mission, beginning with the  Lusanne Conference in 1974.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Westminster Conference Report #4

Sam Waldron on 'The Uneasy Relationship of Repentance
and Sola Fide in the Reformed Tradition'

I. Reactions to Legalism

A. Sola Fide and Repentance in Calvin

Calvin followed Luther on justification.  The double benefit of justification and sanctification is received on the believer's union with Christ. (See diagram below, click for a clearer view). In Calvin, repentance is an aspect of regeneration, by which the Reformer meant progressive sanctification.  Repentance follows faith and is born of faith. Repentance and regeneration = progressive sanctification, which is the fruit of saving faith. John 1:13. However, in Psalm 130:4 repentance, involving conviction of sin seems to precede faith.

The tensions in Calvin on repentance and faith were due to his concern to uphold sola fide, that justification is by faith alone, apart from works.

B. Faith and Then Repentance in the Marrow Men

1. The Marrow Controversy and the Marrow Men

Church of Scotland minister, Thomas Boston 'discovered' The Marrow of Modern Divinity by Edward Fisher. The book helped to clarify his thinking on the free offer of the gospel over and against Hyper-Calvinist tendencies. The Marrow of Modern Divinity was condemned by the Church of Scotland. Church authorities disliked the free offer of gospel. In their teaching the gospel in effect became a new law.

2. The Distinctive View of Faith and Repentance of the Marrow Men

Faith takes logical, causal and experiential precedence over repentance. The gospel is freely offered to all, not just 'sensible sinners' or the consciously penitent. Faith will lead to repentance. Once again, the concern is to safeguard sola fide.

C. Faith and Then Repentance in the Sandemanians

An extreme concern to safeguard sola fide. No will or affections in saving faith. Faith is intellectual assent. Faith precedes repentance. Andrew Fuller wrote against Sandemanianism. He emphasised that faith cannot exist apart from repentance.

II. Reactions to Easy-Believism

A. Repentance and Then Faith in R. L. Dabney, A. W. Pink, and M. Lloyd-Jones.

According to Dabney, we believe because we have begun to repent. Pink taught that in conversion, there is both a  turning from sin and turning unto God. Repentance comes first. Also, in Lloyd-Jones' early teaching, repentance come first, Acts 20:21.
B. Repentance and Sola Fide in Norman Shepherd
Shepherd was extreme in his opposition to antinomianism. He pointed out that the Westminster Confession does not use the formula 'justification by faith alone'. For Shepherd, Luther's teaching on justification by faith alone is problematic. Repentance includes good works and new obedience, so justification is by believing good works.

III. Resolution: Repentant Faith and Believing Repentance

A. Historical Representation: Spurgeon, Ryle, Gerstner, and John Murray

Repentance and faith are inseparable, neither has priority. Like Siamese twins.

B. Relational Considerations

1. Response to Calvin

Calvin  protected sola fide, but his deficiency is that he included repentance in transformative sanctification.
2. Response to the Marrow Men

There is no need to make repentance follow faith if repentance is properly defined.
3. Response to the Sandemanians (and Easy-Believism)

Easy believism leads to spurious professions of faith and is a gospel of cheap grace.

4. Response to Dabney, Pink, and Lloyd-Jones

Teaching that repentance is prior to faith can be a from of neonomianism - making the gospel into a new law.

5. Response to Shepherd

Shepherd  imports good works into repentance and a makes repentance a condition of justification.

Faith and repentance are inseperable. Sola fide is preserved when faith is held to be repentant faith that turns from sin, and repentance is understood to be believing repentance that turns to God for the mercy and salvation  that are freely offered to sinners in the gospel.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Westminster Conference Report #3

David Gregson on 'The 1611 English Bible: An Unlikely Masterpiece'

 1. A 1000 years of the Bible in Latin in England.

Pre-Tyndale there was no complete Bible in England. According to John Wycliffe the main problem facing the English Church of his day was lack of faith in the Bible. He translated portions of Scripture from the Latin Vulgate into English. Even that was regarded as an act of sedition.  

The Constitustions of Oxford 1409, made reading the Bible in English a crime punishable by death.

The ad fontes emphasis of the Renaissance saw a renewed interest in the original Bible languages, Hebrew and Greek.

The invention of Caxton's printing press in 1476 would enable the easy dissemination of the Bible in English.

The Reformation, beginning 1517, with the posting of Luther's 95 Theses, stimulated Bible translation, giving the Word of God back to the people of God.

2. Revolution brought about by Tyndale's translation of Bible into English

William Tyndale was persecuted by the authorities for wanting to translate the Bible into English. He fled to Europe, where he was  translated the New Testament and a large part of the Old Testament into English before his arrest and execution in 1536.  

Today we have a plethora of translations. We should be grateful that we live after 1611.

3. Other English translations of the Bible into English

Miles Coverdale completed Tyndale's work, finishing the translation of the Old Testament into English. The Matthew's Bible incorporated the work of Tyndale and Coverdale. As Tyndale died he prayed, "Lord open the king of England's eyes". His prayers were answered when Henry VIII proclaimed that a copy  of The Great Bible, largely based on Tyndale's translation should be placed in every parish church in England.

 The Geneva Bible was produced by English Protestants taking refuge in Geneva  during the reign of Queen Mary. It was a study Bible, containing diagrams, maps and a commentary on the text of Scripture. It became the Bible of the Puritans. The Bishop' s Bible, an Anglican translation was a failure.

4. Hampton Court conference that led to 1611 translation of the Bible

The Puritans lobbied King James I for Church reform. The king chaired conference. Bishops were against further reform. It seemed that there were to be no gains for the Puritans. Then John Reynolds suggested a new translation of the Bible. The king agreed. The best Hebrew and Greek scholars in the land were tasked with making a fresh translation.

5. The six companies of translators and the rules they had to follow

The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge supplied two companies each.  Another two were based in London.

The translators had to work in accordance with the King's rules - 15 instructions, including:

The Bishop's Bible was to be followed unless Hebrew or Greek demanded revision.

No marginal notes. James  disliked the Geneva Bible because its notes seemed to legitimise the overthrow of kings.

Old ecclesiastica words like 'church'  rather than 'congregation' and 'bishop' rather than 'overseer' were to be retained from the Bishop's Bible.

6. Some of the translators

Lancelot Andrews was a learned man, but a poor pastor. The Seperatist Henry Barrow was executed after being  interrogated by Andrews.

 Lawrence Cheriton was president of Emmanuel College, Oxford. He was a powerful preacher. Once, after speaking for almost two hours, he proposed to stop, but was urged, 'for God's sake, go on'.

7. Final touches to 1611 English Bible

The translation was carefully checked. According to Miles Smith's preface, the aim was to 'Make a good translation better.' His Bible quotes were from the Geneva Bible, not 1611 translation.

8. Use of the Received Text

Based on Erasmus' Greek New Testament.

9. The English used by translators on 1611 Bible

The translators were experts in Classical Greek, hence the elegance and excellence of the 1611 Bible. But the New Testament was in the more common koine Greek. The translators' literary style included many Latinisms. The words 'church' and 'charity', were used rather than 'congregation' and 'love'. The use of 'thee' and 'thou' was declining by 1575, but the translators retained these archaic forms over 'you'.

10. How 1611 replaced Geneva Bible.

James I banned the printing of the Geneva Bible. Archbishop William Laud suppressed the Geneva translation. By the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the 1611 Bible had surged ahead of the Geneva Bible.  USA settlers took the 1611 version with them to the New World.

11. 1611 Never authorised

The word 'authorised' was  not used in relation to the 1611 Bible until 1824.

12. An unlikely masterpiece

Despite its origins in the failed (from the Puritan point of view) Hampton Court Conference, and the doubtful character of some of the translators, the 1611 Bible was a masterpiece that had a massive impact on the religious life of the English speaking peoples of the world and  English language. It's phrases are now part of everyday speech,  'Am I my brother's keeper?',  'sown the wind, reap the whirlwind', 'signs of times', 'looking unto Jesus'. Interestingly, most of these examples derive from Tyndale.

With next year marking the 400th anniversary of the publication of the 1611 Bible, we should certainly thank God for this landmark translation of his Word into English.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Westminster Conference Report #2

Guy Davies on 'Puritan Attitudes Towards Rome Revisited'

I won't try and summarise my own paper, but here is an excerpt.

II. ‘A very naughty business’: John Owen’s ‘Guide in differences of religion between Papist and Protestant’ 

I have chosen John Owen as my exemplar of Puritan attitudes towards Rome partly because he devoted a considerable amount of time and energy to the controversy. Besides, I think that it might be best to interact in some depth with one Puritan thinker rather than take a more diffuse approach. Owen’s basic attitude to controversy with Rome is almost as instructive as what he actually had to say.

i. Background

Owen’s main anti-Roman writings may be found in Volume 14 of his Works. The majority of that volume is taken up with Animadversions on Fiat Lux and its sequel, Vindication of the Animadversions on Fiat Lux. Volume 14 also includes a shorter piece, The Church of Rome no Safe Guide. In the Animadversions Owen engages in controversy with John Vincent Cane, a Franciscan Friar. In 1661 Cane published his Fiat Lux . It was a blatant attempt to take advantage of the recent upheavals in Protestant England in order to try and win the country back to Rome. His argument ran something like this: “Just look at what has happened to your once peaceful land since leaving the Roman Catholic fold. You Protestant Christians have divided into mutually hostile camps. The nation has been torn apart by religious unrest, Civil War, revolution and regicide. Come back to Rome and all will be well. You know it makes sense.”

The restoration of the monarchy, with Charles II returning to England in 1660, did not succeed in healing old wounds. In the aftermath of the Civil War there were bitter recriminations for the Puritans. The newly installed pro-king, pro-Church of England authorities set about mercilessly persecuting their Puritan fellow Protestants. Cane chose his time well. The opportunity seemed right for his Roman propaganda.

In a sense, Cane’s Fiat Lux was the English equivalent to Cardinal Sadoleto’s Letter to Geneva. Sadoleto sought to exploit the troubles and tensions in Geneva that led to the banishment of John Calvin to woo the city back to Rome. Famously, the exiled Calvin was prevailed upon to answer the Cardinal on behalf of Protestant Geneva. It is a mark of John Owen’s recognised theological clout that the Lord Chancellor, Lord Clarendon sent him a copy of Cane’s Fiat Lux, requesting that the divine answer it on behalf of Protestant England.

ii. John Owen’s Reformed Catholic Attitude Towards Rome

Although he was willing to take on John Vincent Cane , the veteran Puritan minister was no anti-Roman sectarian. In common with many Puritan polemicists, Owen regarded Protestants as the true Catholics. It is instructive that early Puritan, William Perkins’s anti-Roman work was entitled A Reformed Catholique.

Richard Sibbes expressed the typical Puritan thinking on catholicity,

Then, if the question be, which is the catholic truth – Popery or our religion – I say not Popery, but our religion. That which ‘without controversy,’ all churches have held from the apostles’ time…that is catholic.
The problem was that Rome had added its own inventions to the Catholic faith and had therefore become less than Catholic in its teachings. Not for the Puritans what seems to be the view of many contemporary Evangelicals that after the close of the New Testament era, church history all but ground to a halt, only to begin again in 1517 at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Owen was steeped in the creedal heritage of the church. His Trinitarian theology was unashamedly that of the Council of Nicaea. His understanding of the Person of Christ was shaped by the Definition of Chalcedon. Owen was well read in the Church fathers, especially Augustine.

It is sometimes suggested that John Calvin and those who were faithful to his legacy rejected wholesale medieval scholastic thought. However, while Calvin was critical of the speculative excesses of the schoolmen, he drew freely on the resources of scholastic theology in developing some of his key ideas. Similarly, John Owen engaged with scholastic theology and made eclectic use of medieval Catholic literature in his own constructive theological work. In opposing Arminianism he deployed the anti-Pelagian arguments of great medieval schoolman, Thomas Aquinas and others in the Dominican tradition.

In addition, Owen knew what was going on in the world of 17th century Roman Catholic theology. He made a careful study of the controversy between the Augustinian Jansenists and the Semi-pelagian Jesuits. One of the foremost defenders of post-Tridentine Roman Catholicism was Robert Bellarmine. Owen’s extensive library contained a well thumbed set of Bellarmine’s works. In short, he knew what he was talking about when it came to controversy with Rome. Carl Trueman rightly argues that John Owen,

deserves to be taken seriously as a leading proponent not simply of English Puritanism…nor simply of Reformed Orthodoxy, but of the ongoing Western anti-Pelagian and Trinitarian tradition that stretched back from the seventeenth century, past the Reformation, though the Middle Ages, and back to the writings of the early church Fathers.
Accordingly, Owen carefully scrutinised Roman doctrine in the light of Scripture. But also he endeavoured to out-Catholic the Roman Catholics by appealing to the church fathers in order to show that distinctive Roman doctrines such as the universal authority of the pope were not in fact Catholic teachings, that is doctrines that Christians everywhere and at all times had believed. He argued that the Roman Catholic Church was divisive and schismatic in its attempt to foist its distinctive dogmas on all Christian churches.

In his interaction with Cane, Owen does not adopt the stance of a bitter Protestant polemicist, gleefully exposing Romish errors almost for the fun of it. Sometimes he betrays a little irritation with his interlocutor, but on the whole his tone is calm and reasoned. On occasion the great divine even permits himself a little ironic humour. Remarking on this William Goold, editor of Owen’s Works writes in a Prefatory Note to the Vindication, “he reminds us in his humour of the cumbrous gambols of the whale.” In dealing with Cane’s claim that the Roman Catholic Church had never fallen into error he summarises his opponent’s argument like this,

The Roman church did never at any time adhere to any opinion, but what the Roman church at that time adhered unto.
If you will forgive the mixed metaphors, in his dealings with Cane Owen resembles an indulgent cat toying with an overconfident mouse. But this feline divine has sharp teeth and pointed claws. When roused the old Puritan could be devastatingly incisive in dealing with his opponent’s weak arguments.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Westminster Conference Report #1

  Garry Williams on 'The English Reformation Today: Revise, Reverse or Revert?'

Here are some notes on Garry's paper.

Revisionists historians such as Eamon Duffy and Christopher Haigh wish to overturn the traditional Protestant view of the English Reformation. Some Evangelicals seem to want to reverse the Reformation for the sake of unity with Rome. Protestants might wish that we could revert to English Reformation, but that is not without its problems.

I. Revise

Duffy and Haigh

1. Re-examination of the state of church

Anticlericalism in England not as popular as once thought. There was no great cry for reform of the pre-Reformation English Church. The Church was part of everyday life for most people.

2. Slow speed of the English Reformation

The Reformation took time to settle in because it was  not generally embraced by the masses.

3. Mary's reign was more successful that thought

Mary was a competent monarch. England was more conservative than once believed. People were happy to revert to Rome under Mary's reign.


1. The traditional Protestant view was not necessarily right. The Whig school of history suggested that the English naturally embraced Protestantism, gladly throwing off the Roman yoke for the sake of the liberty of England. The idea that the English were 'naturally' Protestants, embracing the gospel and wanting reform is based on an overly optimistic view of human nature.

After the reign of Mary, the Elizabethan Act of Settlement, which made the country Protestant once more was won by only 21-18 votes in Lords. Unlikely victory for Protestantism more an act of God than historical inevitability due to the essential English character.

Older Protestant views of the Reformation  are distorted by the revisionists. The older writers did not exaggerate poor state of church prior to Reformation.
Anticlericalism was present prior to the Reformation, but there was no universal outcry against the Church as such. Anticlericalism did not amount to Protestantism - witness Erasmus.

The Roman Catholic Church was part of the fabric of people's everyday lives. Some parishes were conservative, others were more reformist.

Desire for reform was disproportionately represented in the political power base of England.

2. The historical study of wills made during the period of the English Reformation can lead to misleading conclusions. It is possible to tell whether a person was Catholic or Protestant by their will, whether Mary and saints mentioned or not etc. Wills underestimate the progress of the Reformation movement amongst young.

The impact of Bible. According to Duffy, the Roman faithful  had Harmonies of the Gospels. They knew Bible stories through stained glass windows. But the harmonies were more about Mary than Christ. It has also been pointed out that it is difficult to explain the message of   Romans in a stained glass window. 20,000 English Bibles were printed in 1534. As people read their Bibles they began to notice discrepancies between the Roman dogma purgatory and the teaching of Scripture. Also the Bible does not have Rome's great focus on Mary. 

Preaching. In  1570 not many clergy could preach. By 1584,  400 or more preachers were produced by Cambridge University. The Oxbridge Universities were rapidly becoming seminaries for preachers who proclaimed the Protestant message.

English  Protestant identity was reinforced by events like the Spanish Armada of 1588. Defeat of the Armada was widely celecrated. Charles I attempts at  re-Romanising England were strongly resisted. One of the factors that led to the Civil War.  All this indicates that the English Reformation went deeper than the revisionists suggest.

3. Mary's attempt at Re-Romanising England was a model counter-Reformation experiment. It is no defence that Mary may have been a competent ruler. She could have been wrong, but competent. Archbishop Pole made massive efforts to re-Romanise England. Roman propaganda, coercion and  persecution of Protestants. The Reforation was too deep deep seated to be easily reversed. Elizabeth may have put dissidents to death, but Mary oversaw the most intense religious persecution in the 16th century. Elizabeth had dissidents put to death for political subversion. Mary had Protestants martyred for their faith. The grim industrial efficiency of her reign of terror does not count in her favour.

At the heart of the revisionists' attempt re-rewrite the  English Reformation is a theological disagreement.  Mary's actions were sinful. She took a stand against gospel.

II. Reverse

Is the Reformation Over? by Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom. Their argument is that Rome has changed. Differences remain, but not so serious as to prevent co-operation between Roman Catholics and Evangelicals.

Claimed that 2/3 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is agreeable to Evangelicals. But we must respond to Rome as a complete system, not just cherry pick the bits with which we agree. Evangelicals and Catholics Together fudges justification by faith alone. No alone. Debates on justification not regarded as too important.  J. I. Packer says that we are not justified by believing in the doctrine of justification by faith alone. That is true in a sense, but what might be true on individual level is not true of Roman church as a whole. The Reformation is not over.

ECT is ecumenism of trenches. Evangelicals and Roman Catholics  against secularism. But our enemy's enemy is not our friend. The gospel must define with whom we have fellowship on an ecclesial level.

ECT gives little attention to the Mass. Seen as a  mistake and irrelevance, not for what it is, an act of idolatry.

III. Revert

Simply reverting to the English Reformation of the 16th century is problematic

1. It was Reformation by Parliamentary Statute.

2. The Church of England was only church allowed and Protestant dissent was stamped out.

3. The Reformation in England was unsatisfactory. Cranmer wanted to further revise the Prayer Book to make worship more like the Genevan pattern, but did not succeed. Puritans wanted dynamic reform, but they were blocked.

4. The situation in modern day UK is not like the 16th century, but more like 1st - paganism, pluralism etc.

5. Beware of an unhealthy Reformation antiquarianism. We must be concerned for gospel witness today.

6. The English Reformation spread by preaching. Consider the need to identify and prepare ministers, 2 Timothy 2:2.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Westminster Conference musings

Well, it's all over and done with now. I'll probably post some more detailed reports over the next few days, but here are a few thoughts on the conference.

It's difficult to know how my paper on Puritan Attitudes to Rome went, but the discussion that followed was quite lively and afterwards people made some encouraging comments. It was good to get it out of the way on Tuesday afternoon so I could sit back and enjoy the rest of the conference.

The theme was Standing Firm: Still Protestant?, and the need to be clear on the issues that divide Evangelicals from Rome was emphasised in a number of papers. Daniel Webber highlighted Evangelical weakness in this area at the 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference, where Ango-Catholics were allowed undue influence over proceedings. Garry Williams' address on revisionist readings of the Reformation also brought the controversy with Rome into the picture. Sam Waldron gave a stimulating paper on sola fide and repentance.

But it wasn't all about the Reformation vs. Rome. David Gregson gave a delightful paper on the "unlikely masterpiece" that is the 1611 English Bible. The conference was brought to a fitting conclusion with Malcolm MacClean's heartwarming talk on Andrew Bonar.

Some might wonder whether concentration on the centuries old battle with Rome is relevant to contemporary Evangelical churches. But as the controversy is about getting the gospel right, it is doctrinal indifferentism to pretend that the sole authority of Scripture and justification by faith alone are no longer worth fighting for. We can do no other.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Westminster Conference

I'm off to London for the Westminster Conference, where I'm due to give a paper on Puritan Attitudes Towards Rome. I'm looking forward to hearing the other addresses, but the thought of delivering my own paper is a bit scary. Saying "yes" when invited to speak seemed like a good idea at the time.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Paul Helm on Nature and Grace

Some notes on the second of Paul Helm's talks at the recent Pastors' Forum.

In talk two Helm focused his attention on different aspects of natural theology. He stressed that "the natural" is not neutral in a secular sense. Twentieth century Reformed theologians often had a negative attitude towards natural theology, but that was not necessarily the case among the Reformers.

We considered the image of God and the fall, what is lost and what remains.

1. The image of God was in some sense lost at the fall, but it is renewed in redemption, Colossians 3:9-10. Human nature disordered was by loss of image. This was the typical view of both the Reformers and medievals such as Aquinas.

2. Loss of the image left human nature entire, in a state of "pure nature". This was the later Roman Catholic view, but was opposed by Augustinian Jansenists such as Paschal.

The Westminster Confession speaks of the "light of nature". Natural law is not on a track that is independent of revelation, but by the light of nature all human beings, have a sense of right and wrong. Loss of the image in the fall has to be qualified by Genesis 9:6 and James 3:9. Nevertheless, even if the image is not totally lost in the fall, the image as distorted by sin is restored in Christ.

Reformed attitudes towards the natural


His Christocentric approach left no room for natural theology. Witness his "Nien!" to Brunner's proposals on natural theology.


After the French revolution Western culture became overtly anti-God. In Kuyper's world and life view  there is an antithesis between Christianity and culture. The idea of "pure nature" is an aberration.

Van Til

Natural theology means autonomy from God and is Arminian.


The fall did not erase the knowledge of God, who reveals himself in both general and special revelation. Each human being has a sense of God. But the sensus divinitatis, perverted in false religion, still exists in every human heart. The light of nature is spoilt by sin, but it is not erased.

There is the earthly kingdom of this life and the kingdom of God. In the earthly kingdom, we have civil order and gifts of common grace such as the arts and sciences. The earthly kingdom has to do with temporal matters and the kingdom of God with eternal realities. The Christian lives in the kingdom of this world, subject to God's providential care, but he belongs to the heavenly kingdom. The Christian benefits from the gifts of common grace bestowed by God upon all humanity; music, medicine, maths, logical argumentation etc. In accordance with his negative view of nature, Kuyper set up Christian Universities in Holland and led the Christian Anti-Revolutionary Party. But there is no need for "Christian maths". For believer and unbeliever alike, 1 + 1 = 2. There can be no such thing as "the Christian view of politics", as politics belongs to the earthly kingdom, which is governed by the light of nature. 

Amongst other things, a retrieval of Calvin's theology of nature will help to prevent believers ghettoising themselves by, if possible, solely using  educational services, enjoying arts and studying sciences that are explicitly Christian in orientation. While only the special grace of God can save us and fit us for the heavenly kingdom, we have cause to be grateful for the rich gifts of common grace and the light of nature, which still shines in the heart of every human being.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Paul Helm on Athens and Jerusalem Revisited

Last Thursday I headed off to the Land of my Fathers for a Pastors' Forum meeting. The speaker was my good friend Paul Helm. The key theme that spanned all three of his talks was the relationship between nature and grace. Here are some notes on what he had to say.

Talk 1 - Athens and Jerusalem Revisited

A whistle stop tour of ancient Carthage, Jerusalem, Athens and Hippo.


Carthage, 200AD. Tertullian posed the question, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" He opposed a hybrid of Christianity and philosophy. Does this make him an irrationalist, fideist? No. He was not against reason, saying that Christianity is  believable because it is rationally impossible. He warned against the hybridisation of the faith, not the use of reason per se. He recognised that at some points there was concord between faith and philosophy. 


Is is possible to translate the faith into other thought forms?

To answer this question, Helm took us to the heart of our faith, the cross of Jesus. Pilate had an inscription placed on the cross, reading, "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews", in Latin, Greek and Aramaic, John 19:19. The basic idea of Jesus  being the King of the Jews was accurately conveyed in all three languages.

 Language is at heart of the Christian faith, as is translation. Jesus' words as recorded in the Gospels were originally spoken in Aramaic, not Greek, but the New Testament gives us an accurate record of his speech. The gospel message, "This is the King of the Jews" is translatable because Christianity is an international faith. Abrahamic covenant, Genesis 12. Great Commission, Matthew 28. Pentecost, Acts 2.

Translation is problematic - John 19:19. Some meaning is lost as the words are translated into Latin, Greek and Aramaic. But NT Greek is adequate to give us access to Jesus' words, even though in translation nuances of meaning are lost and gained. Speakers of Latin, Greek and Aramaic may have had different ideas of kingship, but the basic the idea that Jesus was crucified as the King of the Jews was conveyed  to all three language groups by Pilate's inscription. Whatever fine nuances may have been lost in translation did not matter.

Cognitive meaning is conveyed in translation. Content test - "King of the Jews" means the same when translated into French and English. In translation the words are true in either language, because Jesus is the King of the Jews. The truth of gospel is true in other languages.

Postmodern obsession with context is a gross exaggeration. People of all all languages will cry, "Worthy is the Lamb". Is cultural context important? Yes and no. Cultural sensitivity is needed, 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, yet as in John 19:19, the truth is essentially the same in any language and culture.

What of a culture that has no word for king? Translate, "Jesus is the CEO of the Jews"? Retain "king" in translation and  explain what it means. Or appropriate a word that approximates "king" and extend its meaning. But this does not mean that Helm favours a "dynamic equivalence" approach to Bible translation. It is one thing for Christian apologists to attempt to translate the faith into the language and thought forms of a culture, but in Bible translation, the aim should always be an accurate as possible rendering of the original. This applies even if there is no equivalent concept in the language into which Scripture is being translated. If a people have no idea of snow (Isaiah 1:18), then it is the task of Christian teachers to explain that it is very white, cold stuff that falls from the sky.

From Jerusalem to Athens:  Acts 17

A case of "natural theology". At Mars Hill Paul quoted pagan authors. In the pagan poets, what is true of God was misapplied to false gods. Since we are God's offspring, how can God be an idol, Acts 17:28-29? Paul's address involves a conceptual translation of Genesis 1, using the language of pagan poets. "Let us make man in our image", Genesis 1:26. "We are also his offspring", Acts 17:28. But the gospel is not translated, as Jesus' resurrection (Acts 17:31) had no counterpart in pagan thought.


In Book 7 of his Confessions Augustine describes how he was delivered from Manichaeism by reading "certain books of the Platonists". By their writings he was  freed from seeing God in physical, embodied terms. The Platonists, by which he  probably meant Plotinus, taught him that God is an immortal Spirit. Augustine begain to understand the creature-creator distinction more clearly and now saw sin a defect, rather than in the dualist terms of the Manichees. This did not make him a Christian, but he became convinced of the existence of the true God through the Platonists. Plotinus even helped Augustine in his reading of Scripture. The philosopher wrote of  the One producing a second hypostasis as the sun produces light. Augustine saw John 1:1-5 as the biblical counterpart of Plotinus' writings. In fact the philosopher was trying to defend Platonism against Christianity, but Augustine was willing to "spoil the Egyptians" by using the insights on the philosophers in the service of faith seeking understanding. However, the theologian was not carried away by all this. He knew of both convergences and divergences between Christianity and philosophy. Plotinus knew nothing of the Son being of the same essence of the Father who had begotten him, Word becoming flesh, or of Jesus saving sinners by his death on the cross. God has hidden these things from the wise and the prudent (Matthew 11:25), who, professing themselves to be wise, became fools, (Romans 1:22).  I suppose that in a similar way, a modern day sceptic might be delivered from his atheism by reading a scientific critique of Darwinism. He might then come to believe in the existence of a Creator, but he would still need to hear and respond in faith to the gospel in order to become a Christian believer.


The gospel can be communicated in different cultural contexts. It is permissible to translate faith into a culture when there are cognitive equivalents, but no further. Liberal theology eliminates the  historical singularities of the faith; the incarnation, atoning death and bodily resurrection of Christ, in an attempt to make Christianity culturally acceptable. This is not an option if we wish to be faithful to the biblical gospel. However, "natural theology" may provide common ground between the Christian and the non-believer and so give us a point of entry for the gospel.