Friday, May 27, 2011

Heroes of the Faith: Ignatius, Polycarp & Irenaeus by Sinclair B. Ferguson

Ignatius of Antioch: The man who faced lions 
Polycarp of Smyrna: The man whose faith lasted 
Ireneas of Lyons: The man who wrote books
 Sinclair B. Ferguson, Banner of Truth Trust, 2010, Hardback 40pp

These three books are part of a new series, Heroes of the Faith. When complete it will introduce readers to notable members of the Christian family from the first to the twentieth centuries. The author’s intention is to provide younger children with role models of Christian faith, love and endurance.

Such qualities are certainly found in abundance in the first three characters whose stories are told in the series. Great friends, Ignatius and Polycarp faced a martyr’s death because of their love for the Lord Jesus. Irenaes was a bold defender of the gospel who wrote an important work, Against All False Teaching.

The books are beautifully produced, with eye-catching illustrations, informative maps and well-chosen excerpts from the writings of the three “heroes”. 

Writing with great simplicity and directness, Sinclair Ferguson does much more than give potted biographies of Ignatius, Polycarp and Ireneas. He interweaves their life stories with a clear presentation the gospel that they lived to preach.

Children will enjoy these exciting stories of heroic faith. Ideal for use in times of family worship with younger children.  

* Reviewed for Protestant Truth magazine. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Journals, journals, journals

You wait for ages for a good theological journal to arrive (especially in the case of Affinity's much-delayed Foundations) and then three come along.

Themelios Volume 36 Issue 1 - May 2011 - here.

Foundations: An International Journal of Evangelical Theology No. 60 Spring 2011 - here. This issue includes papers prepared for the Affinity Theological Studies Conference on the doctrine of Scripture.

Scottish Bullentin of Evangelical Theology 28:2 Spring 2011. Devoted to the theology of Herman Bavinck  - here. You'll need to order this one - here.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Spirit divine, attend our prayers

The other week I spoke to the Westminster Fellowship on Word and Spirit in Preaching.  In the discussion time someone asked if I thought that it was right to pray to the Holy Spirit. In the paper I had argued that we should pray to the Father for the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13), but I didn't address the issue of whether it is appropriate to pray to the Holy Spirit. However, I gave my interlocutor the benefit of my opinion, saying that as the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity that it is appropriate to pray to him. 

I said something like this: Communion with one person of the Trinity always involves the other two due to the co-inherence of the persons in the godhead. On that basis, prayer to the Spirit is  not to the exclusion of the Father and the Son. However, the usual form of prayer is to address the Father in the name of the Son by the power and presence of the Spirit. 

As a biblical precedent for praying to the Spirit a brother suggested the case of Ezekiel being told to "prophesy to the wind/breath [of God]", Ezekiel 37:9. That settles it, then. Kind of. 

Racking my brains for some reading materials on this issue, I recommended that the friend who raised the question take a look at On Communion with God by John Owen (Works Volume 2 in the Banner set). 

I must have read Owen's wonderful treatise on communion with the triune God some twenty years ago or more, but a smattering of what he said still sticks in my mind. In the light of our discussion at Westminster I thought I'd dust off Volume 2 of Owen's Works and re-read his treatment of communion with the Holy Spirit.  The pertinent material is found in Chapter VIII Particular directions for communion with the Holy Ghost (p. 268-274, see here).   

1. Theological reflection 

Owen sets his treatment of communion with the Holy Spirit in the context of the doctrine of the Trinity. 
The divine nature is the reason and cause of all worship; so that it is impossible to worship any one person, and not worship the whole Trinity....  
The proper and peculiar object of divine worship and invocation is the essence of God, in its infinite excellency, dignity, majesty, and its causality, as the first sovereign cause of all things. Now, this is common to all the three persons, and is proper to each of them; not formally as a person, but as God blessed for ever. All adoration respects that which is common to all; so that in each act of adoration and worship, all are adored and worshipped....  
When we begin our prayers to God the Father, and end them in the name of Jesus Christ, yet the Son is no less invocated and worshipped in the beginning than the Father, though he be peculiarly mentioned as mediator in the close, — not as Son to himself, but as mediator to the whole Trinity, or God in Trinity. But in the invocation of God the Father we invocate every person; because we invocate the Father as God, every person being so. 
 Owen reflects on the Trinitarian pattern of prayer in Ephesians 2:18,
Our access in our worship is said to be “to the Father;” and this “through Christ,” or his mediation; “by the Spirit,” or his assistance. Here is a distinction of the persons, as to their operations, but not at all as to their being the object of our worship. For the Son and the Holy Ghost are no less worshipped in our access to God than the Father himself; only, the grace of the Father, which we obtain by the mediation of the Son and the assistance of the Spirit, is that which we draw nigh to God for. So that when, by the distinct dispensation of the Trinity, and every person, we are led to worship (that is, to act faith on or invocate) any person, we do herein worship the whole Trinity; and every person, by what name soever, of Father, Son, or Holy Ghost, we invocate him. So that this is to be observed in this whole matter, — that when any work of the Holy Ghost (or any other person), which is appropriated to him (we never exclude the concurrence of other persons), draws us to the worship of him, yet he is not worshipped exclusively, but the whole Godhead is worshipped.  
 And so he concludes his rationale for communion with the Holy Spirit 
This is the sum of the first direction:— the grace, actings, love, effects of the Holy Ghost, as he is our comforter, ought to stir us up and provoke us to love, worship, believe in, and invocate him; — though all this, being directed to him as God, is no less directed, on that account, to the other persons than to him. Only by the fruits of his love towards us are we stirred up unto it.
Note the words "and invocate him". Owen is recommending that believers pray to the Holy Spirit. 

2. Practical direction 

This emphasis is also brought out when the Puritan divine gives some practical directions for communion with the Holt Spirit. Owen asks, 
Doth he shed abroad the love of God in our hearts? doth he witness unto our adoption? The soul considers his presence, ponders his love, his condescension, goodness, and kindness; is filled with reverence of him, and cares [takes care] not to grieve him, and labours to preserve his temple, his habitation, pure and holy.
...our communion with him causeth in us returning praise, and thanks, and honour, and glory, and blessing to him, on the account of the mercies and privileges which we receive from him; which are many.
And so directly to the matter of prayer,
Also, in our prayers to him for the carrying on the work of our consolation, which he hath undertaken, lies our communion with him. John prays for grace and peace from the seven Spirits that are before the throne, or the Holy Ghost, whose operations are perfect and complete [Rev 1:4-5].... 

Again: consider him as he condescends to this delegation of the Father and the Son to be our comforter, and ask him daily of the Father in the name of Jesus Christ. This is the daily work of believers. They look upon, and by faith consider, the Holy Ghost as promised to be sent. In this promise, they know, lies all their grace, peace, mercy, joy, and hope. For by him so promised, and him alone, are these things communicated to them. If, therefore, our life to God, or the joy of that life, be considerable, in this we are to abound, — to ask him of the Father, as children do of their parents daily bread. And as, in this asking and receiving of the Holy Ghost, we have communion with the Father in his love, whence he is sent; and with the Son in his grace, whereby he is obtained for us; so with himself, on the account of his voluntary condescension to this dispensation. Every request for the Holy Ghost implies our closing with all these. O the riches of the grace of God!
3. Concluding meditation

And so John Owen provides a good biblical and theological basis for the believer to pray to the Holy Spirit. The usual order of prayer should be to the Father by the Son through the Spirit. But prayerful communion with the Holy Spirit is a privileged part of the Christian's fellowship with the triune God. 

Spirit divine, attend our prayers,
and make this house thy home;
descend with all thy gracious powers,
O come, great Spirit, come!

(Andrew Reed) 

Friday, May 20, 2011

Herman Bavinck on the essence of error

In the light of reading Alister McGrath's book on Heresy (see my review), I was interested to come across this thought from Herman Bavinck,
Now in the confession of the Trinity we hear the heartbeat of the Christian religion: every error results from, or upon deeper reflection is traceable to, a departure in the doctrine of the Trinity. (Reformed Dogmatics Volume 2: God and Creation , Baker Academic, p. 288, 2006
According to Luther, "The cross tests everything".  But the cross only functions as the definitive revelation of God and an act of redeeming grace in the context of the doctrine of the Trinity. If Christ was not God the Son, his sacrificial death did not disclose the fullness of God's love for the world. If Christ was not God the Son, his sacrificial death would not have been sufficient to atone for the sins of the world.

As the New Testament bears witness, Calvary involved the whole Trinity. Christ the Son offered himself to God the Father through the eternal Spirit (Hebrews 9:14). As such the cross tests everything. 

What we believe concerning God and ourselves must be assessed in the light of the saving work of the triune God at the cross. Arguing from resolution to plight, that it took the death of the Son of God in his humanity to save us demonstrates how how seriously God takes sin. Arguing from plight to resolution, that for us to be saved the Son of God had to take a human nature and die demonstrates that we could never hope save ourselves. God commends his love to us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us and God's love is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit whom he has given us, Romans 5:8, 5. 

Heresy distorts the doctrine of God and devastates the doctrine of salvation. A low view of Christ will lead to a light view of sin and a light view of sin will lead to a low view of Christ. As John Owen once wrote, "A Socinan Christ for a Pelagian man". We believe in nothing less than a Nicean Christ for an Augustinian man. 

Monday, May 16, 2011

Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth by Alister McGrath

Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth,
by Alister McGrath, SPCK, 2009, 282pp

Somehow the notion has gotten around that ideas condemned by the church as heretical are a lot more interesting and attractive than stodgy old orthodoxy. In fact some scholars to try to suggest that what are now regarded as heretical versions of the faith were in fact more authentically Christian than orthodox teaching. To make things worse, it is claimed that orthodox Christians were the big bullies of church history. They were not above using the dark arts of political manipulation to impose their will on the church at the expense of poor, downtrodden heretics. On a popular level Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code perpetuates the idea that the development of orthodox Christian faith was little better than a grand theo-political conspiracy. 

Some years ago the fashion world proclaimed, 'brown is the new black'. Now it seems that the history of Christian doctrine is being rewritten to say that, 'heresy is the new orthodoxy'. Indeed, given postmodern suspicion of truth claims, the great heresy is to say that there is such a thing as heresy in the first place.

It is very much with this  revisionist context in mind that Alister McGrath gives attention to the subject of heresy, which he defines as "an inadequate, distorting, or damaging conceptualisation of faith" (p. 80). The writer charts the development of Christian orthodoxy and discusses the origins of the idea of heresy. He describes early heresies, Ebonitism (Jesus was simply a great prophet), Doceticism (Jesus only seemed to have a human body) and Valentinism (early Gnosticism), showing why they were dismissed as inadequate and misleading representations of the Christian faith. In the second century AD when the above heresies arose, the church was a persecuted body within the Roman Empire with no support from officialdom when it came to policing false teaching. The aforementioned errors lost the battle of ideas simply because they failed to do justice to the gospel as disclosed in the New Testament.

When it came to combating later classic heresies like Arianism, Donatism and Pelagianism, the political situation had changed somewhat. The Christian church had received official recognition from the Roman Emperor, Constantine. The Emperor had a vested interest in having divisions between Christians healed for the sake of the harmony of his domains. It was Constantine who called the Council of Nicea in 325 AD in an attempt to resolve the dispute over Arianism. However, he left it to the church leaders to determine the outcome of the council, which declared that Jesus as the Son of God is homoousios [of the same essence] with the Father. Arianism was thus declared a heresy. It seems that if anything, Constantine's sympathies were with Arius, giving the lie to the oft- repeated claim that Nicea was a political stitch up. 

A later Emperor had the decision of Nicea overturned. The orthodox belief that Jesus is fully God was declared a heresy. Athanasius, champion of the deity of Christ was banished and Arians rose to positions of power in the church. But despite political interference, the orthodox stuck to their guns. At stake was whether Jesus was the final revelation of God and the Saviour of the World. Only if Christ was fully God and fully man could he reveal God and save us from our sins. Arianism was not the victim of dodgy theo-politics, it simply wasn't an adequate conceptualisation of Jesus as he is described in the New Testament.

Again, while the errors of Donatism and Pelagianism awakened the interest of the secular authorities, the primary interest of the church was not power politics, but right belief. Donatism was a separatist movement that took a hard line with regard to Christians who had capitulated during times of persecution. The Donatists held that the right administration of the sacraments was dependent on the holiness of the Minister. Augustine rightly saw that this approach failed to appreciate the frailty of man in sin and the reality of God's restoring grace. 

The issue of sin and grace was also to the fore in the Pelagian controversy. Augustine emphasised man's total need of grace in salvation. This was summed up in his payer, "Lord, command what you will and give what you command." Pelagius on the other hand taught that human beings are able to obey the law of God and merit salvation for themselves. Augustine argued that Pelagianism did not take into account that sin had so affected human nature that only the sovereign grace of God can save us. Pelagius' views were rightly condemned as heretical.

McGrath defends the notion that certain beliefs should be regarded as heretical because they undermine the gospel and distort the Christian message beyond recognition. But he also recognises that "heresy" can sometimes be used as a lazy term of abuse to be hurled at one's theological opponents. A case in point is the Roman Catholic denunciation of Protestants as "heretics" at the time of the Reformation. Mainline Protestants held to orthodox beliefs on the Trinity, the person of Christ and salvation by grace. But they questioned certain Roman Catholic teachings in the light of what they found in the Bible. Roman Catholic distinctives such as the Mass, purgatory and papal authority were not the subject of Ecumenical Councils. Disagreement with them hardly constituted heresy. Indeed, it might even be argued that the doctrine of transubstantiation is heretical in its implications. The claim that the body of Christ is present whenever and wherever the Mass is celebrated, is a denial of Chalcedonian orthodoxy, as it involves a property of Christ's divine nature (omnipresence) being attributed to his human nature.  

Protestants held that the Bible is the supreme authority in the church. For McGrath this meant that Protestants had some difficulty in coping with newly minted erroneous beliefs that developed within the Reformed fold. They stood with historic orthodoxy when it came to ancient heresies. Protestants responded effectively to old heresies in new guises, such as Socinianism (a kind of 17th century  Arianism). But what of novelties that sprang up within Protestantism, such as Arminianism? After all, false teachers quote the Bible as well as the orthodox, and unlike the Ecumenical Councils, no Protestant grouping can claim to speak for the whole church. According to McGrath, all the Reformed could do in response to the challenge of Arminianism was to call the Synod of Dort and attempt resolve the issue by putting it to the vote.

There are a couple of problems with McGrath's account of the Reformed Churches' response to Arminianism. First, while the teaching of Arminius and the Remonstrants who followed in his wake threw up some new challenges, it was in some ways an old error. In effect Arminianism was Semi-Pelagianism in 17th century clothing. Second, in their Canons, the Synod of Dort produced a well thought-out biblical and theological rebuttal of Arminian error (the so-called Five Points of Calvinism). The Synod appealed to Scripture rather than attempting to resolve the controversy simply by counting heads. 

The issue of biblical authority in relation to heresy is not unique to Protestants. Athanasius battled with Arius over the meaning of the Bible's witness to Christ. The Council of Nicea aimed at setting forth the church's understanding of Scripture. It did not seek to supplant or augment the authority of the Bible. The Reformed insistence on the supreme authority of Scripture is of a piece with the historic position of the Christian church. A similar approach may be found in church fathers such as Augustine. No one is arguing that the fathers' attitude to biblical authority hampered them in dealing firmly with heresy.

It could even be posited  that the principle of sola scriptura is a positive strength when it comes to combating error. It enables Protestants to respond creatively to new forms of false teaching rather than virtually being imprisoned by older creedal formulae. The medieval Roman Catholic Church failed to subject its doctrine to proper biblical authority. As a result sub-biblical dogmas such as the Mass and purgatory were allowed to develop almost unchallenged. It is essential that the church constantly reviews her teaching in the light of the Bible.

New errors demand that the church reflects afresh on the witness of Holy Scripture. Innovative ways of expressing and safeguarding old truths may be called for. In the face of the Arian threat, Nicea used the improvisatory formula that the Son is homoousios with the Father to uphold what the church had always confessed concerning the Lord Jesus Christ. A strong emphasis on biblical authority gives the church the ability to respond innovatively to fresh challenges to the orthodox Christian faith. The Synod of Dort's crystallisation of Reformed teaching in the face of Arminian error is an example of this kind of thing. 

McGrath has certainly nailed the myth that heretical teachings were more interesting and authentic versions of the Christian faith than classic orthodoxy. The fact is that heresies were and are failed attempts at exploring and explaining the gospel. They fall short of true wonder of the truth as it is in Jesus. Orthodox belief was not imposed on the church at the whim of civil and ecclesiastical politicians. Rather, orthodoxy prevailed because it offered a faithful definition and defence of the core teachings of the New Testament concerning God as Trinity, the incarnation of Christ and salvation by grace.

The writer also has some fascinating things to say on cultural and intellectual motivations for heresy. In a chapter on Heresy and the Islamic View of Christianity, he shows that criticism of Christian teaching in the Koran is often based on heretical versions of the faith rather than orthodox belief.

Today as much as ever the church is called to contend for the faith once delivered to the saints. The New Testament repeatedly emphasises that false teaching must be taken seriously, Matthew 7:15-20, Galatians 1:6-8, 2 Peter 2, 3 John 9-11. If anything McGrath could have been a little more strident in warning of the dangers of gospel-denying error. However, his book is a timely reminder that truth matters and heresy isn’t as attractive at it is sometimes cracked up to be. It is the task of the churches to demonstrate just how wonderfully compelling and life-transforming is the orthodox Christian faith. The truth and nothing but the truth will set you free (John 8:32).

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Forgiveness: what does it say in your Bible?

A church member had fallen out with his grown up son. The fault was largely the son’s. He had left home and made rather a mess of his life. However, realising the error of his ways, the son wished to be reconciled to his father. The father was having none of it. He turned his son away, refusing to have anything to do with him.

In desperation the son asked his father’s pastor to see what he could do to heal the family rift. The wise old minister visited the unforgiving man. He knew just the Scripture that would speak directly to the situation. It was Luke 15:11-32, the parable of the prodigal son.
The pastor began to read the passage to his church member, but he took the liberty of altering Jesus’ parable. Rather than the father welcoming the prodigal son with open arms, his version went like this, “The father told his son that he was not welcome home, ‘You have done wrong in wasting your share of the family inheritance. Now you must live with the consequences. Be gone!’” The pious church member piped up, “Hey, that’s not what is says in my Bible.” “Oh yes it is!” Replied the minister. The penny dropped. The unforgiving father had allowed his resentment at his son’s behaviour to govern his life rather than the Bible. Thus rebuked, he forgave his son and they were reconciled.

It is all to easy to pay lip service to the Bible while failing to live out its teaching, especially when its teaching is hard for us to put into practice. Perhaps that is especially the case when it comes to forgiving others who have wronged us in some way. We ask God to forgive our sins and he does because Christ died that we might be forgiven. If that is the case, then we should be quick to offer forgiveness to others, costly thought that may be. Being a Christian is all about receiving and giving forgiveness, “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32). Is that what it says in your Bible?

For News & Views, West Lavington parish magazine.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Seeking to preach the Word in the Power of the Spirit

Today I'm off to the Westminster Fellowship in London, where I've been invited to preach and also give a paper on Word and Spirit in Preaching. Here's an excerpt from the lecture on seeking to preach the Word in the power of the Spirit:

Jesus taught that Christians should pray expectantly to the Father for the gift of the Holy Spirit, “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” (Luke 11:13). Preachers are especially in need of the Spirit's work in their ministries.

The apostle Paul did not regard preaching in the power of the Spirit as being in any way automatic. He constantly urged the churches to pray for him,
praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints— and for me, that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak. (Ephesians 6:18-20)
This boldness is given in answer to the church’s prayer when preachers were filled with the Holy Spirit, Acts 4:29-31.

We should not allow Charismatic excesses to blind us to the need for Spirit empowered preaching. This was certainly recognised by earlier generations of Reformed writers. Of course, the Spirit may use a preacher who does not agree with the view that I am arguing for here. He is sovereign and gracious. But neglect of the role of the Holy Spirit in preaching may have the effect on turning preaching into little more than a well-delivered exposition of the Bible rather than an event where the God of gospel grace is encountered by his Word.

Charles Hodge comments,
It is important that we should remember, that, in living under the dispensation of the Spirit, we are absolutely dependent on a divine Person, who gives or withholds his influence as He will; that He can be grieved and offended; that He must be acknowledged, feared, and obeyed; that his presence and gifts must be humbly and earnestly sought, and assiduously cherished, and that to Him all right thoughts and right purposes, all grace and goodness, all strength and comfort, and all success in winning souls to Christ, are to be ascribed. (Systematic Theology Volume III p. 47).
 We need to realise afresh that our preaching will be entirely ineffective if it is in “word only”. We need the mighty power of the Spirit to come upon us. Martyn Lloyd-Jones concludes his Preaching and Preachers on just this note,  
What then are we to do about this? There is only one obvious conclusion. Seek Him! Seek Him! What can we do without Him? Seek Him! Seek Him always. But go beyond seeking Him; expect Him.
 I am certain, as I have said several times before, that nothing but a return of this power of the Spirit on our preaching is going to avail us anything. This makes true preaching, and it is the greatest need of all today - never more so. Nothing can substitute for this.
This 'unction', this 'anointing', is the supreme thing. Seek it until you have it; be content with nothing less. Go on until you can say, 'And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and power.' He is still able to do 'exceedingly abundantly above all that we can ask or think.'" (Preaching and Preachers p. 325)
It is not enough for us to simply deliver a well crafted sermon. We need the dynamic presence of the Spirit of Christ to transform our preaching into an encounter with the living God. As E. M. Bounds puts it, “Unction in the preacher puts God in the gospel”. (SEP p. 116). I conclude, then that the relationship between Word and Spirit in preaching may be defined in this way,
The Spirit's empowering presence enables preachers to proclaim the Lord Jesus with boldness, liberty and life-transforming effectiveness. His presence makes preaching an event where the God of the gospel is encountered in all the fullness of his grace and power.
That, I know is the greatest need in my own ministry.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

On reading Bavinck's proof texts - an easy method for slackers

I don't know about you, but when it comes to reading books that include a large number of lists of proof text references, my instinct is to skip the list and not bother to look up the relevant Bible passages. Reaching for a Bible and flicking through hundreds of pages to pursue multiple references to texts in Genesis, Numbers, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Romans etc. is too much like hard work. However not looking up the relevant texts makes me feel guilty for being such a slacker. Besides, what we want from a theologian is theology that has been mined from the Bible, not simply a handy summary of Reformed doctrine that has little to do with the text of Scripture. John Frame rightly says,
after all has been said, theology really cannot do without proof-texts. Any theology that seeks accord with Scripture... has an obligation to show where it gets its scriptural warrant. It may not simply claim to be based on "general scriptural principles", it must show where Scripture teaches the doctrine in question. (The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, John Frame, P&R, 1987, p. 197)
Bavinck includes many lists of Bible references in his Reformed Dogmatics. Currently I'm about a third of the way through Volume 2, God and Creation. I've just started Chapter 6, on The Holy Trinity. The theologian gives consideration to 'Old Testament seeds' of the doctrine of the Trinity. He carefully sets out his view that while the Old Testament may lack the fullness of the New Testament's revelation of the triune God, we may find "components that are of the highest significance for the doctrine of the Trinity" in the Old Testament (p. 261). Dozens of texts are adduced with regard to God's name, his work in creation by Word and Spirit and the angel of of Lord. Bavinck is a competent guide to the Scriptures to which he refers his readers. It is evident that he has given careful thought to the meaning of the passages cited. He is aware of differing exegetical approaches to the texts in question. Failure to pursue his lists of Bible verses would have deprived me of the wonder of encountering afresh God as Trinity in the pages of the Old Testament.

Anyway, the post's title promises an easy method of looking up proof texts. This is my labour-saving suggestion. Rather than arduously flicking your way through a printed copy of Holy Scripture, use an online Bible, such as With the Passage Lookup feature, tap in the reference in abbreviated form. For example Hab 2:5-6. If you want to see a verse in its context, you can even click a button to bring up the whole chapter. It's much quicker (at least for me) to type  abbreviated Bible references than leaf my way through a shiny black leather Bible with elegant gilt-edged pages.

If you have already figured out how to do this for yourself and were looking for an even more simple way of looking up proof texts, then sorry to disappoint you, but as far as I've discovered this is as easy as it gets. Indolence is the mother of invention, but it has its limits. 

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

A Dictionary of European Baptist Life and Thought, General Editor John H. Y. Briggs

A Dictionary of European Baptist Life and Thought
General Editor John H. Y. Briggs
Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2009, xxiii + 541,
ISBN: 978-0-567-03367-3

This dictionary includes entries on subjects from Abortion to Zwingli. The editors’ purpose in compiling this  volume was to provide European Baptists with ‘an authoritative reference work to assist them to nourish their own constituencies in Baptist identity’. My assessment of this work is shaped by my convictions as a “Reformed Baptist”, that is a Baptist holding to the decidedly Calvinistic Second London Baptist Confession of 1689.

As is acknowledged throughout this dictionary, Baptists do not speak with one voice on all theological matters. From its beginnings in the sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe, the Baptist family was divided into three main groupings; Anabaptists, General or Arminian Baptists and Particular or Calvinistic Baptists. What Particular Baptists think about predestination is quite different from their General Baptist cousins. Added to this, some Baptists have not always been keen on being tied to creeds or confessions of faith. This makes it difficult to say with certainty what Baptist thought might be on various theological matters. However, given this diversity of belief, the dictionary emphasises that most Baptists are broadly Evangelical in their doctrinal outlook.

From the reviewer’s standpoint the dictionary’s theological entries are the least satisfactory aspect of this work. Every effort has been made to be fair to the Calvinistic and   Arminian strands in Baptist theology. But the fact that the Baptist movement is divided along these lines does not make for a coherent presentation of the doctrine of salvation. The article on Sin speaks in terms of ‘total depravity’ and the entry on Regeneration stresses that the new birth is a monergistic act of God, but the piece on Humankind makes the virtually Pelagian statement that, ‘Humankind is able to follow the law of God, though recurrently fails to do so.’

It is repeatedly emphasised that Baptists hold to the final authority of Scripture, but the entry on Infallibility and Inerrancy of the Bible dismisses the traditional Evangelical position on biblical inerrancy, preferring to say that the Bible is ‘entirely trustworthy’ rather than without error. This represents a weakening of biblical authority. Also, little reference is made to Scripture in the dictionary’s treatment of major theological subjects. A case in point is the entry on the Trinity. Mention is made of the unorthodox view that in the Trinity God is asexual, the Son male and the Spirit female. But the biblical basis of the doctrine of the Trinity is not even hinted at. Neither is an account given of the Church’s historic confession of Trinitarian theology at the councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381). It might be objected that space constraints did not allow for more in-depth treatment of this doctrine. However, given the central importance of the Trinity for Christian theology, that is not a valid defence, especially when the ample space devoted to other subjects of lesser magnitude is taken into account. The entry on the Trinity amounts to approximately one half-page column, while just over four columns are devoted to Social Class. Similarly, the article on Justification includes no references to the text of Scripture. The entry sets out the elements of the traditional Protestant understanding of the doctrine and discusses the relationship between justification and sanctification. But the reader is not referred to the biblical basis for this truth in Romans, Galatians or elsewhere in Scripture for that matter. Part of the dictionary’s stated aim was to provide a one-stop resource for Baptists in Eastern Europe, where theological literature is not so readily available. But Eastern European Pastors looking for a deeper understanding of the biblical doctrine of the Trinity or Justification will find little help here.

The atoning work of Christ is close to the heart of Evangelical theology. Yet this doctrine has recently been the subject of heated controversy, ranging around the teaching of penal substitutionary atonement. The article on Atonement mentions Steve Chalke’s view that this understanding of the cross amounts to ‘cosmic child abuse’. It is suggested that Chalke had ‘extreme versions’ of penal substitutionary atonement in mind. However, Chalke is on record as opposing the very idea that Christ bore the penalty of sin at the cross. The entry fudges the issue, saying that the controversy over Chalke’s views shows that there is room for differences of opinion in Evangelicalism on penal substitutionary atonement. Chalke, a prominent Baptist Union Minister is later singled out as a paragon of Evangelicalism (Evangelicalism, Baptists and). Along similar lines, the issue of whether the Bible teaches the eternal, conscious punishment of the wicked or some form of annihilationism is left an open question. See Annihilation and Universalism and Judgement.

Some of the theological contributions are more helpful, but on the whole, the dictionary’s treatment of Baptist theology leaves a lot to be desired. The reference work’s treatment of the Baptist view of the Church is much better. There are solid entries on Baptism, Believer’s Church and Volkskirche, and Separation of Church and State. Pieces devoted to why Baptists reject Roman Catholic teaching on issues such as the Infallibility of the Pope and Purgatory are clear and incisive. But the dictionary is more open to Baptist involvement with ecumenical ventures such as the World Council of Churches than many Reformed Baptists would be prepared to tolerate. Articles on the pastoral Ministry imply that this form of Christian service is open to women as well as men. But on biblical grounds many Baptists would not accept female pastors. In keeping with the Baptist tradition associated with pioneer missionary William Carey, the dictionary has a strong emphasis on Mission, both in terms of preaching the gospel and helping the poor.

Articles are also devoted to on ethical concerns such as Abortion and Euthanasia, where the reference work’s stance is in line with mainstream Christian thinking. Interestingly, the entry on Just War Theory opens up the differences between those in the pacifist Mennonite camp and most other Baptists. Sadly, the piece on Sexual Orientation contents itself with describing various attitudes towards homosexuality the Baptist community rather than seeking to set out the authoritative biblical teaching.

The historical and biographical entries make for fascinating reading. It is moving to follow the story of the growth of Baptist churches in Eastern Europe despite much persecution during the era of Soviet Communism. Articles are devoted the Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin and key Baptist figures such as C. H. Spurgeon. In the interests of historical accuracy it should be pointed (contrary to what is said in Images:Icons, Baptist use of) that Welsh preacher Christmas Evans was only blind in one eye.

There are some good things here, but the dictionary’s disappointing handling of important theological subjects means that it is unlikely to receive a ready welcome among all European Baptists.

Review published in issue 20.1 of the European Journal of Theology.