GD: Hello Mostyn Roberts and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.
MR: Born 1956 of Welsh parents (my father a Presbyterian minister) in Ealing, London. One younger sister. Moved back to Wales when aged three. School at Newtown, mid Wales. Read law at Pembroke College, Cambridge where I came to know the Lord. Practised law in Croydon, Kent and Northamptonshire. Came to Calvinist convictions largely through the influence of the work of Francis Schaeffer, reading the Institutes when I was 25 and friends who gave me Puritan paperbacks and Lloyd Jones books. Trained for the ministry 1988-93. Pastored churches in Stockton on Tees and Welwyn where I have been since late 1998. Married Hilary in 2002 and have two boys.
GD: Your blog is called “Harp from the Willows”. What made you start blogging?
MR: In a conversation about something with Hilary in December 2009 the subject came up and she said ’You ought to start a blog’. Not accustomed to obeying my wife so readily, surprisingly I did just that. Her faith in some of what I have to say is touching, but her assessment of my technical skills is more realistic: she bought me Blogging for Dummies that Christmas.
GD: Why, “Harp from the Willows”, what’s that about?
MR: ‘Welwyn’ is an olde English word for ‘willows’. I am Welsh, whose national instrument is the harp. I live in Welwyn. Hence…
Biblically, of course, to take your harp from the willows is a metaphor for a renewed faith in God, reversing the ‘hanging up our harps’ of Psalm 137:2.
GD: What are the strengths and weaknesses of blogging as a medium for theological reflection?
MR: 1. Strengths: (i) The freedom to say what you want (within reason) whenever you want to, to whoever may be listening / reading. (ii) A channel for ‘offcut’ thoughts that may otherwise not see the light of day. (iii) The sheer scope of the audience. Mine is probably minute compared with yours, Gary Brady’s or those I once heard called uberbloggers. I am very much an unterblogger and probably have as many visitors in a year as you would in a week. But it is still exciting (if puzzling) to think that I have a committed readership in Latvia. And why, one week last autumn, did I get 19 visits in a few days from Chile? Did the miners look in? The value (which I admit I have sometimes doubted) was brought home to me once last summer. I had done a short piece on the obedience of Christ. A Catholic called ‘Nick’ commented, basically disagreeing with my stance and attacking too the whole doctrine of penal substitution. He referred me to a 12 page article on his blog. I wrote twenty points in disagreement. He replied in twenty points. I replied. He hasn’t come back to me. But it made me think hard. That interaction alone (almost) made last year’s blogging worthwhile.
2. Weaknesses: (i) superficiality of thought (though this is not necessary) and (ii) cyberstorms flare up and subside without satisfactory resolution. But is that not true of most academic debate?
GD: Why did you become a pastor?
MR: As a solicitor I felt that law was not to be my life. My heart was in the study of the Bible and theology, in teaching the Bible, investing in people’s spiritual lives and building the church. For seven years I went though a process of weighing this up, in conversation with trusted counsellors. In the end the way seemed clear, and opened up. I have never seriously doubted that it was right even when I have felt utterly despondent.
GD: Where did you train for the pastoral ministry and what did you find most helpful about your training?
MR: At Spurgeon’s College, south London. I was in a Baptist Union church and this was the most evangelical of the Baptist colleges. The most useful things were the study in Greek of the New Testament; the Old Testament course with Martin Selman; and the experience, as one committed to Reformed theology, of being in a theological minority.
GD: What is the best piece of advice that anyone had given you on preaching?
MR: I am not sure if it was ever given to me as specific advice but a conviction that directs me is ‘Trust the Word’. Given that the work of the Holy Spirit is essential to its efficacy, nonetheless an implicit confidence in the power of the Word seems to me to be foundational to preaching. It delivers one from the itch to be ‘original’ and ‘entertaining’ and all manner of other human distractions, without denying the need for careful preparation and presentation.
GD: Do you ever feel like giving up on pastoral ministry, if so what makes you carry on?
MR: I have often felt pastoral ministry to be extremely painful, not least when I was voted out of a large Baptist Union church in the North East. But I have rarely thought for very long, if at all, that I wanted to be out of the ministry. I really could not envisage wanting to do anything else. What has carried me through difficult times more than anything else has been the conviction of God’s sovereignty. I derive enormous strength and joy from knowing the Lamb is on the throne; ‘… the clouds you so much dread are big with mercy…’.
GD: You teach systematic theology at the London Theological Seminary. What is the relationship between systematics and preaching?
MR: First, preaching is the logical conclusion to systematics (ST). B.B. Warfield says: 'The systematic theologian is pre-eminently a preacher of the gospel and the end of his work is obviously not merely the logical arrangement of the truths which come under his hand, but the moving of men, through their power, to love God with all their hearts and their neighbour as themselves...' For this, he needs to 'be having a full, rich, deep religious experience of the great doctrines with which he deals; he needs to be living close to God'. This sums up my conviction.
Second, ST is necessary for preaching. Don Carson describes biblical theology as a ‘bridging’ discipline, ST as a ‘culminating’ discipline. The gospel itself is a system. Look at Paul’s letter to the Romans. ST is rather denigrated today from various directions: (i) Much is said about ‘narrative’ theology and preaching. Narrative is important, and the gospel is rooted in historical facts. The object of saving faith, however, is not historical facts in themselves, but the divine meaning and saving import of those facts (not just ‘Christ died’ but ‘Christ died for our sins’). Otherwise we are telling a story without a moral, a ‘joke’ without a punchline (if I may be allowed an inappropriate metaphor). ST gives the ‘point’ of the narrative. (ii) There is suspicion of metanarrative. Yet any worldview, even the postmodern sceptical one, has some form of metanarrative. ST insists that the Bible is a unity, and reflects the mind and purposes of God for his creation. This may be unfashionable but it is reasonable, and essential to understanding and preaching Scripture. (iii) There is also a false antithesis between ‘doctrine’ and ‘story’ or ‘life’. ST consists of a lot of propositions and propositions are suspect today. Warfield however quotes HCG Moule to good effect: '[All saving truth a believer enjoys is doctrine]; it is made to live in the heart by the Holy Ghost given to him. But it is itself creed, not life. It is revealed information'. That Christ condescends to faith by way of propositions is a wonder of grace, but it is true. Let us seek more of the Holy Spirit to make truth live, not relinquish the importance of propositional truth.
GD: I’m thinking about training for the pastoral-preaching ministry. Why should I choose LTS?
MR: I am delighted to hear of your intention Guy; we look forward to seeing you. [Very funny. Not sure they'd let me in again. GD]. LTS is not the place to come if you want a theology degree (which, let’s face it, is not difficult to come by these days), or want to study theology as an intellectual exercise or even just to make yourself more useful as a Christian worker, though that is a worthy goal. For the man convinced that the Lord is calling to him to some form of ministry of the word, however, LTS offers excellent, vocationally appropriate training. The academic level is high, higher I would say than I received at Spurgeon’s for which I was awarded a degree; but more specifically it is taught by men in, or with long experience of, pastoral ministry. It is theology tailored to practice, which is true theology.
GD: If you had to recommend only one work of systematic theology what would it be?
MR: I would still recommend Berkhof if you want only one. It is comprehensive and is above all else easy to use. He is succinct and you can find what you want quickly, whereas in more modern systematics, even when they have benefits over Berkhof in other ways (which many do), you can wade through pages to find your subject.
GD: Some great systematic theologians never wrote a complete systematic theology (e.g. B. B. Warfield, John Murray). Is there an aching space on your library shelves that you wish could be filled by “Systematic Theology by....”?
MR: I have often thought that Sinclair Ferguson would have benefited us greatly with a systematic theology. After all, he does great stuff for children.
GD: Maybe he'll do a Systematic Theology for kids? What do you make of Kevin Vanhoozer’s proposals on reconfiguring theology in terms of theodramatics?
MR: You have asked me this before and I have made little progress in the opinions I expressed in March! (1) I do not see the need for his ‘reconfiguration’, which seems to proceed on the unverified assumption that doctrine as we traditionally know it is ipso facto abstract and dry and not relevant to people. When I read our great creeds and confessions and the history out of which they came and what they have meant to generations of Christians, often in great afflictions, I cannot swallow that. (2) It all seems terribly complex and no improvement at all in terms of accessibility for people. Am I really helped by seeing God as a script-writer, a theologian as a dramaturge (which I have never heard of in any capacity before anyway) or the Holy Spirit as ‘Director’? Is it not bordering on the irreverent, except as a passing metaphor? (3) Try as one may, to see the redemptive work of God as ‘drama’ would I fear suffer the same fate as such theological words as ‘myth’. Theologians may try to persuade people it does not mean ‘fiction’ but people will think differently.
So – not convinced, not impressed. Some day I may read him!
GD: That might help. I understand that Vanhoozer is currently on a book aimed specifically at pastors along the lines of "Faith speaking understanding: doing church in the theater of the world". Now, if time travel were possible, which figure from post-biblical church history would you most like to meet and what would you say to him/her?
MR: Oliver Cromwell. I would ask him –‘Do you think it possible that you might have been mistaken?’ (I don’t think he was on the big issues, but I would still love to ask him!)
GD: Name your top three songs or pieces of music.
MR: Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto; Gounod’s ‘Judex’ from ‘Mors et Vita’; most things by Paul Simon.
GD: What is the most helpful work of theology that you have read in the last twelve months? It is a must read because...
MR: Though I greatly enjoyed and would heartily recommend the Christian Focus edition of The Marrow of Modern Divinity, I think it is pipped to this post by Hugh Martin’s The Atonement. Elegantly written, this work exalts the atoning work of Christ primarily by putting it firmly in the context of his priesthood, and so demonstrates like no other comparable work the inseparability and mutual dependence of his atoning work and his heavenly intercession. Essential reading for any minister and theologian, heart warming and elevating.
GD: What is the biggest problem facing Evangelicalism today and how should we respond?
MR: “Dear Sir, I am, yours faithfully…”
But if you want a longer answer:
In general? The biggest problem of the people of God is always within themselves, not from outside. Idolatry, immorality and injustice begin within. So I would have to say generally that lack of faith in some form will always be our greatest problem. How is that remedied? Faith comes by hearing. We need more Spirit-accompanied preaching and humbler listening to God’s word.
More specifically: I would like us to have a discussion about this statement of Calvin near the beginning of The Necessity of Reforming the Church: ‘If it be inquired, then, by what things chiefly the Christian religion has a standing existence amongst us, and maintains its truth, it will be found that the following two not only occupy the principal place, but comprehend under them all other parts, and consequently the whole substance of Christianity, viz., a knowledge, first of the mode in which God is truly worshipped; and secondly of the source from which salvation is to be obtained’. I think it would do us good to ponder the importance of our public worship in light of the tendency today to say ‘ as long as our doctrine is OK’ all else is (almost) a matter of indifference.
GD: Which other blogs do you enjoy reading and why?
MR: Yours (no flattery intended) for stimulation; Gary Brady for the range of information, even when (I am sure he will not mind my saying) it’s useless; Paul Helm when I am feeling energetic; Al Mohler for good Reformed journalism; Iain D Campbell for edification; I keep meaning to visit Colin Adams’ blog; Jeremy Walker and Martin Downes can be very helpful.
GD: Well, thanks for dropping by for this chat, Mostyn. See you at the Affinity Theological Studies Conference next week. Reading the papers, looks like it's going to be a good un.