Monday, July 30, 2018

The Incredibles 2

Our children were still young when the original Incredibles movie came out. They loved seeing it in the cinema and must have watched the DVD countless times. As did we. 

A good children's film will also appeal to adults who watch the thing through grown up eyes. The Incredibles series is a case in point. 

The sequel isn't a lazy rehash, either. Same basic scenario; superheroes are outlawed. But the characters have developed a bit and the baddie element is entirely different. You could see that Mrs Incredible/Elastigirl is being played when she does her superhero thing. By whom? Nice twist. Great visuals, evoking a 1960's style retro view of the future. 

A couple of things hit home. Why was it that Mr Incredible found it so hard to rejoice in his wife's publicly celebrated exploits? Even with his enhanced strength, he was unable to straighten out the inward curve of human nature that makes it 'all about me'. His wife's success as Elastigirl made Mr. Incredible seem like a failure. Galling. Embittering. 

Dad is left to look after the kids while mom hops on a motorbike to save the world. Harder than you'd think to be a stay at home father. The sleep deprivation-induced parent fatigue will ring true for anyone who's had young kids. Where was Edna Mode when you needed her? Fixing things for his children proved just as much an adventure as Elastigirl's derring-do. 

At least when ours were babies they didn't disappear into another dimension every now and again, or shoot laser beams from their eyes, or go on fire. Let alone replicate themselves multiple times over. That would have been a bit much. 

We booked to see a late showing (8.00pm start - 10.00pm finish), hoping the cinema would be more or less a kiddie free zone, full of nostalgic empty nesters. But, no. Place was packed with young mums and their chattering, popcorn spilling brood. Incredible. 

Friday, July 27, 2018

An Introduction to the Baptists by Erroll Hulse

Audubon Press, 2008 edition, 128pp

A friend who has been coming along to our church for a while from a Methodist/Church of England background asked if I could recommend an introduction to the Baptists for her to read. She was interested in our history and beliefs concerning the local church and baptism. I had a rummage around on the net and this is what came up. I was familiar with Erroll Hulse, a well known figure in Reformed Baptist circles, but I'd not come across his book before. As you can see this is a 2008 reprint of a title that was originally published in 1976. 

As Hulse's introduction to the reprint indicates, 'Much has taken place since 1976'. Well, yes. But no attempt was made to revise this new edition, which gives it badly dated feel. This is especially apparent when it comes to the chapter devoted to Baptists in Russia Today (make that Soviet Russia, with the Iron Curtain still firmly in place) and the one on Baptists Worldwide, where the figures cited are way out of date, and take no account of the growth of Reformed Baptist Churches in the Philippines, and elsewhere in recent decades. 

The author's description of early Baptist history in Europe and the British Isles is more surefooted. English Particular Baptists are distinguished from their Anabaptist cousins by their espousal of Calvinistic theology. They parted company with Calvin and the Reformers when it came to believers' baptism and the doctrine of the gathered church. 

Hulse introduces some of the major figures in English Reformed Baptist history. Potted biographies are given of William Kiffin, Hanserd Knollys, Benjamin Keach, John Bunyan, Andrew Fuller, and C. H Spurgeon, among others. Strangely, while William Carey is mentioned, little is said about his life and labours. Others, such as Benjamin Beddome don't get even a look in. The chapter on Baptists in America 1620-1976 was an eye-opener for me. 

Hulse's treatment of Baptist beliefs is typically trenchant in its advocacy of Calvinistic doctrine and Baptist principles on believers' baptism and the gathered church. He wholeheartedly recommends the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, 1689 as an expression of Baptist convictions.More perhaps could have been said on the Baptist belief in the separation of church and state that set them apart from the Magisterial Reformers and the Anglican settlement. Omitting justification by faith from his list of doctrines that need defending in these days (Chapter 6) is another example of this work showing its age, given the controversy generated by the New Perspective on Paul, not to mention ecumenical dialogues between Evangelicals and Romans Catholics in recent years.

The final chapter on Baptists and the Way Ahead makes some excellent points, almost anticipating the emphasis found in Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever. Although Hulse insists on only four hallmarks of  biblical faithfulness for Baptists: The Word of God should prevail in preaching, evangelism, church order and in daily life. Both in the historical and doctrinal sections the author also urges the importance of revival, defined as a mighty outpouring of the Spirit upon the church. 

In an appendix, Reflections on the Lord's Supper, Hulse argues for a 'Strict Baptist' approach to the Lord's Table, where only baptised believers share in Communion. Not all Reformed Baptists take such a 'strict' stance. Some would even allow convinced paedobaptists into the membership of a Baptist church, with full access to the Lord's Table, so long as they did not stir up controversy on the issue. An appendix to the 1689 Confession allows for such variation in practice. 

The book provides a useful Introduction to the Baptists. I will give a copy to my friend and it will be interesting to discuss it with her. But a similar work for the 21st Century is badly needed, one that brings things right-up-to date in terms of historical developments, and that deals with some of the pressures affecting the Baptist movement today. A little less jargon, 'free-willers', etc, would also help. Anyone know of a more suitable basic intro? If not, sounds like a job for Robert Oliver, or Michael Haykin. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

John Owen and English Puritanism by Crawford Gribben

John Owen and English Puritanism: Experiences of Defeat
by Crawford Gribben, Oxford University Press, 2016, 401pp

'By their books you shall know them'. If the shelves of someone's study are adorned by sixteen white and green volumes, The Works of John Owen, they are likely to be 'Reformed' types. The kind that attend Banner of Truth Ministers' Conferences, and the like. Whether those hefty tomes have been plucked from the shelf and read is another thing. For John Owen (1616-83) is a difficult man to read. Only a few brave souls have ventured beyond Volumes 1 and 2, possibly 6 at a stretch. But the set serves as an identity marker. Merely to posses it is enough. Perhaps the proud owners hope that the wonders of Puritan divinity will infiltrate their souls by osmosis?

For those who wish to make more of a determined effort actually to read Owen, the green and white volumes are both a help and a hindrance. We must salute the efforts of W. H. Goold in gathering Owen's writings together and the Banner of Truth Trust in reprinting them, but Goold's orangising system was a little haphazard. He tended to group Owen's writings thematically rather than chronologically. It is difficult, therefore, to trace developments in his thinking over time. Oddly, Volumes 1 and 16 include some of the divine's posthumously published final works, Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ (1684) and The True Nature of a Gospel Church (1689). 

That is one of the reasons why Crawford Gribben's biography is an indispensable guide for serious readers of Owen. He sets our man's literary output against the backdrop of his life and times so we can see the political and religious contexts in which he operated. Situating Owen's writings in this way helps to serve as a reminder that he was no ivory tower theologian. His pen was often directed to responding to some of the pressing controversies of the day such as Arminianism, Socinanism, and, of course, Roman Catholicism. In addition, Owen sought to explain and defend his Independent churchmanship against both Presbyterian and Anglican antagonists. While we would hardly call him a social libertarian by today's standards, the Puritan argued for religious tolerance. At least as far as orthodox Protestants were concerned, whatever their ecclesiastical stamp.  

Owen is a difficult man to read. While the details of his public career are known, his inner thoughts are hard to fathom. Owen rarely made autobiographical remarks in his writings. He left behind no journal to which he bared his soul. You will search his works in vain for references to how Owen felt on the death of his first wife, or the loss of all ten of his children. Notwithstanding these constraints, Gribben manages to piece together a life of Owen that helps us get under the skin of the public figure. 

Owen's career began as a pastor of small congregations in rural Essex. He accompanied Oliver Cromwell on his Irish campaign. Owen was often asked to preach to Parliament, including the day after the execution of Charles I. He became Vice Chancellor of Oxford University, defending that great place of learning against radicals who had little time for the world of letters. I hadn't realised before that the English philosopher John Locke studied under Owen at Oxford. With the return of Charles II Owen, fell out of favour. He was removed from Oxford and returned to pastoral ministry, serving  Independent congregations until the end of his life. 

The Restoration brought new challenges for Owen. His writings had to be published anonymously, with different emphases for different audiences. He warily sought to defend his Independent convictions against those who labelled him a dangerous sectarian and Republican rebel. Meanwhile, the Puritan preacher who criticised Cromwell's Protectorate for its love of worldly grandeur now celebrated Charles II as a paragon of Protestant piety. He knew that the King rather than parliament would be more likely to extend toleration to nonconformists. 

The work is a salutary study of what happens when the godly get what they so often wish for; political power. Puritanism could not be imposed on the population of the British Isles by parliamentary decree, or through Cromwell serving as Lord Protector with the support of the army. England was not the New Jerusalem after all. Parliamentary victories at Marson Moor and Naseby did not mean, as Owen and others argued, that political Puritanism had divine sanction. Christians function best as a counter-culture within society, rather than as the Establishment using its power to foist the highest standards of godliness upon a largely unregenerate nation. We are meant to function as  'salt' that preserves meat from decay, not fillet steak. 

As the subtitle suggests, the author sees 'experiences of defeat' as key to understanding Owen's character. It could be argued that the whole Puritan movement, of which Owen was a leading light ended in defeat. The Church of England was not lastingly reformed along Presbyterian or Independent lines. Episcopal church government was re-imposed on the restoration of the monarchy. In 1662 around two thousand Puritan Ministers were ejected from the church. This was a massive 'experience of defeat' for Owen, but it was not the only one. As a young man he had to leave Oxford University due to the anti-Puritan policies promoted by Laud. He became an Independent when Presbyterians dominated national life. In first pastorate, Owen bemoaned the poor spiritual state of his congregation. In his last phase of ministry, he mourned over own lack of pastoral effectiveness. Yet despite all this, it would be wrong to see Owen as a dejected and defeated character come the final period of his life. In his Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ, Owen turned his eyes away from this vain world and its vicissitudes to Christ. He confessed,  
There is no glory, no peace, no joy, no satisfaction, such a foretaste in this world, to be compared with what we receive by that weak and imperfect view which we have of the glory of Christ by faith; yea, all the joys of the world are a thing of nought in comparison of what we so receive. (Works Volume 1, p. 415). 
As Gribben suggests in his Conclusion, while Owen's public life may have been characherised by a series of reversals, his published Works would afford him a kind of victory in later generations. Evangelicals turned to his writings for their theological depth, practical piety and experimental warmth. George Whitefield commended Owen to his fellow-Methodists in the 18th Century. C. H Spurgeon ensured he had an audience among Calvinistic Baptists in the Victorian era. Owen's writings played an important role in the resurgence of Reformed theology associated with the ministries of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and J. I. Packer in the 20th Century. Renewed attention is being given to Owen in the contemporary globe-spanning Reformed movement. If his Works were read by those who posses them beyond the familiar Volumes 1, 2 & 6, that would save John Owen from yet another 'experience of defeat'. Yes, he is a difficult man to read, but for those who persevere through the thickets of complex sentences and strange neologisms, there is theological gold in them there white and green tomes.