When I was at the London Seminary
many moons ago, students used to refer to the Westminster Conference
as Back to the Future
because attending was a bit like travelling back in time. Without the aid of a DeLorean. We were young and foolish then and didn't perhaps appreciate the value of what might be learned from the past.
We tend to think that how we see things now is 'it', while years ago peoples' views were historically and culturally conditioned. The fact is, we're just as culturally situated today as people were years ago, but just in different ways that we don't always appreciate.
Also, we can get into thinking that how we understand things now is inevitably better and more enlightened than in the past. 'This is the 21st century, you know'. You'd have hoped that in some ways, having benefited from the breakthroughs of yesteryear, that we would have more light than our forefathers. At least that is how it ought to be. But if we see further it is only because we stand on the shoulders of theological giants such as Tertullian, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Bavinck, and so on.
It needs to be said that progress in understanding and isn't always a case of 'onwards and upwards'. Important gains can be lost, vital insights forgotten that then need to be re-appropriated. If we lack an awareness of the Great Tradition of church history, the danger is that we will read the Bible simply in the light of our own personal limits of knowledge and experience.
We can then be blinkered to some of the things that God is showing us in Holy Scripture because they fail to resonate with where we are. That can especially be the case in the realm of spiritual experience and communion with God. We only see in the Bible the what we have thus far experienced ourselves, rather than allowing Holy Scripture be the measure of our experience of God.
That fact is that Reformed Evangelicalism in the UK isn't exactly in the throes of a mighty revival at the moment. We may view expressions of our forefathers like, the 'felt presence of God', or 'full assurance of faith', or a 'plentiful outpouring of the Spirit' as rather quaint, or weirdly mystical. But perhaps they knew something in their communion with God that is more rare today. That is what made them better able to expound upon what it means to experience the 'joy unspeakable and full of glory' of which the Bible speaks.
In his paper on 'The Holy Spirit and the Human Heart' Stephen Clark drew upon the wisdom of the past to show that in the Reformed tradition the Holy Spirit is said to work 'in, by and with the Word' in regenerating and sanctifying the heart. As a sovereign, divine Person, the Spirit is not so bound to the Word that Scripture read and preached always has the same unvarying effect upon its hearers. The Spirit's work may be more or less intensified and dramatic in its effects. It is therefore both legitimate and necessary to pray for more of his empowering presence.
I spoke on Thomas Goodwin's work, A Child of Light Walking in Darkness: Knowing, Losing and Recovering a Felt Sense of the Presence of God. John Owen urged his readers to pursue a deeper experience of God, “If there are no such things,
the gospel is not true; if there are, if we press not after them, we are
despisers of the gospel. Surely he hath not the Spirit who would not have more
of him, all of him that is promised by Christ.” Goodwin would have us, "Sue this promise out" that "Holy Ghost [may] come
and fill up your hearts with joy unspeakable and glorious, to seal you up to
the day of redemption."
Andrew Young gave a paper on 'Calvin - Worship and Preaching', setting before us the Reformer's high view of the worship of the gathered church ordered according to the pattern of Scripture. It is true that the whole of life is worship, or at least should be. But there is something distinctive about the collective worship of God's people on the Lord's Day, where our God addresses his people by his Word and receives the prayers and praise they offer.
Phil Arthur spoke on Jacob Arminius, his life and views. A warm, insightful and generous-spirited paper on a theological opponent from a good old Reformed Baptist. Benedict Bird charted the Calvinistic response to the challenge of Arminianism at the Synod of Dort (1618-19). Both papers served as a reminder that we have much to learn from the theological controversies of the past, as well as from what those who went before us knew of the presence of God in their lives.
Mark Thomas brought the conference to a fitting conclusion with his address on 'William Williams Pantycelyn (1717-91). The life of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist leader, preacher and hymnwriter was sketched out and valuable lessons were drawn out from his works. Williams embodied a combination of solid Calvinistic doctrine and deep experiences of God. Mark urged us not to allow our current experiences to place a limit on what might be know and experienced of our glorious God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Sometimes we need to go back to the past to be stirred up to pursue more of God in the future than we have yet known of him. It is surely not unbiblical mysticism
to seek what God holds out to us in his Word: full assurance of faith, our
Father’s smile and loving embrace, joy unspeakable and full of glory in Christ,
and the direct witness of the Spirit. As Goodwin would say, let us ‘sue this promise out’ of a ‘more
plentiful communication of the Spirit’ than we have hitherto known or
Times of discussion followed all addresses bar the final one. The papers will be published sometime in 2018.
1. Speak, I pray
Thee, gentle Jesus!
O, how passing sweet Thy words,
Breathing o’er my troubled spirit
Peace which never earth affords.
All the world’s distracting voices,
All th’enticing tones of ill,
At Thy accents mild, melodious,
Are subdued, and all is still.
Tell me Thou art mine, O Savior,
Grant me an assurance clear;
Banish all my dark misgivings,
Still my doubting, calm my fear.
O, my soul within me yearneth
Now to hear Thy voice divine;
So shall grief be gone for ever
despair no more be mine.