Monday, September 30, 2019

From Shadow to Substance by Samuel D. Renihan

From Shadow to Substance: The Federal Theology of the English Particular Baptists (1642-1407)
Samuel D. Renihan, Regent's Park College, 2018. 389pp

Holiday reading #3

In the seventeenth century English Particular Baptists (believers in the Calvinistic doctrine of particular redemption or definite atonement) faced the charge that in rejecting infant baptism for baptism on profession of faith, they had jettisoned a key tenet of Reformed covenant theology. They were no more 'Reformed' than their European Anabaptist cousins.

The Particular Baptists protested that they were Reformed, not a bunch of dodgy continental radicals. They were in full agreement with the defining Reformed dogma there are only two types of covenant. The covenant of works that God made with all humanity in Adam and the covenant of grace that God made with the the elect in Christ. In the covenant of works eternal life is granted on the basis of obedience to God's law. In the covenant of grace eternal life is granted on the basis of Christ's saving work, and is received by faith. Salvation is either on the basis of works or grace. There can be no middle ground. So far, so Reformed.

The point at issue between Particular Baptists and Reformed Paedobaptists was the relationship between the old covenant and the covenant of grace. Was the old covenant an administration of the covenant of grace, or was it in some way a republication of the covenant of works? Renihan sets his study in historical context by tracing the development of Reformed covenant theology from John Calvin and other formative writers to the mature thought of the Orthodox Reformed divines of the  early 17th century. A consensus view emerged as represented by the Westminster Confession of Faith that the covenant of grace was variously administered during the Old Testament period and that the Mosaic covenant was just such an administration. But the consensus was not universal.

Renihan's thesis is that the position advocated by Particular Baptist writers was in keeping with  a major strand of thought located within the diverse field of Reformed covenant theology. They were not the only ones who held that the Mosaic covenant was not in fact an administration of the covenant of grace. John Cameron (c.1579-1625) taught that the covenant of grace was promised, but not promulgated in earlier biblical covenants. The Sinai covenant promised life in earthly Canaan, and was subservient to the covenant of grace, which was only promulgated in the new covenant.

As such, Cameron reasoned, Sinai was neither a full-blown covenant of works, or the covenant of grace, but something in the middle, which served as a means to an end. The end being the covenant of grace that promised life to all who believe in Christ. The old covenant was a type of the greater blessings what are offered under the new covenant. Israel enjoyed the earthly benefits of the Mosaic covenant, but by faith looked beyond the types and shadows of that dispensation to Christ and his redeeming work. 

A similar line was taken by the Puritan divine John Owen (1616-1683). In his massive commentary on Hebrews he argued that the old covenant was a covenant of works in subservience to the covenant of  grace. He included the Abrahamic as well as Mosaic covenants within this purview. The old covenant had to do with carnal realities such as Abraham's family line. The covenant was with Abraham and his 'seed', sealed by circumcision. God promised that Abraham's 'seed' would possess Canaan. The covenant community was bound to obey God as a condition of remaining in the land. The Mosaic covenant further clarified Israel's covenant obligations in the shape of the law. Again, for Owen the old covenant foreshadowed the new covenant in Christ. But when the new covenant was established, the carnal ordinances of the old were abolished.

Owen posited that under the old covenant it was necessary to sort Abraham's seed into two lots, carnal and spiritual. First, Abraham's natural descendants, from whom Christ  would one day come, but not all of whom were elect. Second, those, who, like Abraham believed the promise of salvation in Christ, and were among the elect. With the advent of the new covenant, the carnal aspect is done away with, said Owen, for Christ, the 'seed of Abraham' had arrived. That is why circumcision is not the sign of belonging to the new covenant community, but baptism. Only those who believe in Christ now belong to the covenant people of God.  Owen was a Paedobaptist, but his construal of the relationship between the old and new covenants played into the hands of Particular Baptist writers. 

Nehemiah Coxe (1650-1689) was especially taken with Owen's treatment of the covenants. When it came to the Mosaic covenant, Coxe simply referred his readers to Owen. His innovation was to take Owen's arguments and apply them in a more consistent way to the Abrahamic covenant. Paedobaptists insisted that the Abrahamic and Moasic covenants were administrations of the covenant of grace. Just as under the old covenant, the promises were made to Abraham and his seed, so now under the new covenant, the same principle applied. Therefore the children of believers should be baptised, as baptism is the new covenant counterpart of circumcision.

But, Coxe pointed out, if Owen was right, that does not follow. The Abrahamic and Mosaic dispensations were covenants of works that foreshadowed the covenant of grace, but they were not to be identified with it. The new covenant was a testament, and the testament only came into effect on the death of the testator, Jesus (Hebrews 9:15-17). Moreover, carnal aspects of the old covenant such as  membership of the covenant community by ancestral secession from the Patriarchs and an earthly promised land had been phased out now that a new and better covenant was in operation. Belonging to the new covenant people of God was not defined by birth, but belief in Christ, followed by baptism.

Paedobaptists countered, what about Acts 2:38-39, where Peter says that the promised the gift of the Spirit, "is for you, your children, and for all who are far off"? Coxe and others replied that not even Paedobaptists taught indiscriminate baptism of "all who were far off". The plain teaching of the New Testament was that baptism followed repentance and faith. That is what happened on the Day of Pentecost, Acts 2:41-42. Baptism was not therefore to be extended to the infant children of believers.

The theological deductions of the Paedobaptists from the Abrahamic covenant did not hold water (if you'll forgive the pun). Following the regulative principle, Particular Baptists held that worship ordinances such as Baptism and the Lord Supper had to be derived from definite  biblical commands, not supposed deductions from Scripture. Besides, if a 'deduction' contradicted an express command, the deduction was bound to be wrong. Particular Baptists certainly believed in making deductions from Scripture, but theological reasoning had to be subservient to the express teaching of God's Word. Particular Baptists were consistent in their application of the Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura to the matter of baptism, its mode and subjects. 

Deprived of 'signs and seals of the covenant' Paedobaptists alleged that children of Baptist parents were little better off than children of the ungodly. 'Not so' said the Particular Baptists . There is no evidence that children of believers baptised in infancy partake of the blessings of covenant of grace unless or until they come to faith in Christ. The same is true of children from Baptist families. Yet children from Christian homes have the great privilege of being exposed to the means of grace in their families and through their involvement in the life of the church. When the children of Baptist parents profess faith in Christ for themselves, they are duly baptised in line with the New Testament pattern.

Particular Baptists Churches published the First London Baptist Confession of Faith in 1644. A Second London Baptist Confession was agreed in 1672, but was published more widely in 1689. The second confession largely follows the wording of the Presbyterian Westminster Confession (1647) as revised in the Savoy Declaration (1658) of the Independents. (See Tabular Comparison of the three documents). The Baptists wished to be identified with mainstream Puritan Orthodoxy, while maintaining their distinctives on covenant theology, the church and Baptism.

John Owen was a key figure in drawing up the Savoy Declaration. The Particular Baptists agreed with his position on the covenants and also that the church should be a gathering of 'visible saints'. The inconsistency between the Independents' doctrine of the church and their Paedobaptism would later lead to the 'Halfway Covenant' controversy. This was over the status of unconverted children of believers in the Congregational Churches of the New World. Should they be admitted to the Lord's Supper, for example? No less than Johnathan Edwards would come a cropper on that one.

Interestingly, the original Particular Baptists emerged from Independency, taking Congregational principles one step further to embrace believers' baptism. Despite often being painted with the same brush, Particular Baptists had little in common theologically with their European Anabaptist counterparts. They were resolutely Reformed in soteriology rather than Arminian. Treading the same path, I was converted in a Congregational Church and was a Paedobaptist before embracing Reformed Baptist convictions. 

Anyway, besides Nehemiah Coxe, Renihan also gives detailed attention to the views of other Particular Baptists such as pioneers Andrew Ritor and John Spilsbury, and later writers, Philip Cary and Benjamin Keach, teasing out some of the nuances of their positions on the covenants and baptism.

The Particular Baptist divines of the Puritan period were fine theologians who demonstrated a clear grasp of the issues at stake as they engaged in polemics with Paedobaptists and sought to develop their own constructive theological proposals. Contemporary Reformed Baptists would do well to learn from the insights of their illustrious forebears.

As the debate on baptism rumbles on in our own day it can sometimes seem like our Presbyterian friends have the weight of theological argument on their side, while Baptists hurl back a few well-chosen proof texts. Renihan has demonstrated that the Particular Baptist position has a good pedigree within the Reformed family. Indeed, it could be advanced that the Baptist stance represents Reformed covenant theology in its purest and most consistent form.

Renihan's mastery of the primary sources is admirable as he takes in the sweep of Reformed thought from Calvin and Bullinger through to Coxe and Keach. Historical theology at its best retrieves the riches of past theological reflection to help the church understand the teaching of Holy Scripture more deeply and accurately in the present. Renihan's title is a great example of historical theology at its best. But there are still unanswered biblical and theological questions. Cameron, Owen and the Particular Baptists regarded the Sinai covenant as a covenant of works that was subservient to the covenant of grace. I agree that the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants were not administrations of the covenant of grace, but does that mean the the old covenant was in fact a post-fall covenant of works? I'm not so sure. One for a future blog post, perhaps? [Two, actually on the Old covenant and the covenant of works and the covenant of grace respectively - GD].

Be that as it may, Samuel D. Renihan's highly informative and engaging work throws important light on one of the biggest questions in Christian theology. Namely, how are we to construe the relationship between the old and new covenants? As Paul taught, the old covenant had 'a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ' (Colossians 2:17). The Particular Baptist tradition enables us to see with clear vision that in Christ we have the substance of a better covenant, established on better promises. 

Friday, September 27, 2019

Thank God for Harvest!

A big local event is the Frome Cheese and Agricultural Show. We went along the other Saturday. Yes, I know it’s a Somerset thing, but there were no doubt quite a few people from our part of Wiltshire there too. We enjoyed the showcase events including show jumping, falconry, stunt shows and racing pigs. What’s not to like? We also were impressed by the prize livestock on display; cows, goats, sheep and chickens. The main attraction is, of course, the cheese. There were countless varieties on offer, with plentiful free samples to tickle the taste buds. We even bought some.

Living in our part of the world we never too far away from fields and meadows boasting crops and livestock. Attending an agricultural show is a reminder of all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes.  We may sometimes take for granted that the food we buy in shops is there for us to eat because of the hard work of the farming community. Good on them.

The agricultural year follows the annual round of the seasons. In the Bible God promised, “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” The Lord has kept his word. Each year the earth produces enough food for people all around the world. If some are left hungry that is often because of man’s cruelty and folly. Countries like ours have more than enough to go around. In fact, our challenge is to cut down on food waste. But even in a wealthy land like the UK some people are dependent on food banks.  That is an indictment on our society, but it is also an opportunity for us to share what we have with others.

The friends at Crosspoint, Westbury tell me that they often receive especially generous donations of food at Harvest Time. Many churches hold Harvest Festivals and take in donations of produce and tinned goods that are then deposited at the local food bank for those who need it. That is only fitting. The food we eat is a gift to us from our faithful Creator. As Paul testified in the Bible, God  “did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” Should we not, then thank God for harvest and seek to ensure that no one in our community has to go without?

A centrepiece at Harvest Festivals is often the Wheat Sheaf Loaf. The loaf reminds us that God gives us each day our daily bread, and much more besides. But there is something even more important than food. Jesus urges us, “Do not labour for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.” He spoke of himself saying,  “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live for ever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Jesus came to die for our sins and rise again that through faith in him we might have eternal life and find true satisfaction, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”

Harvest Services

Providence Baptist Church, Dilton Marsh, Westbury 
Sunday 6 October All Age Harvest ‘Explore Service’, 10.30am, Evening Harvest Service, 6.00pm
Join us in thanking God for Harvest. 
Display of produce. 
Food donations will be divided between the Westbury Food Bank 
and Leonora Pilgrim Home for the elderly Christians, Chippenham

Ebenezer Baptist Church, West Lavington 
Sunday 6 October Harvest Service, 4.30pm
Join us in thanking God for Harvest. 
Display of produce. 
Food donations will be divided between the Devizes Food Bank 
and Leonora Pilgrim Home for the elderly Christians, Chippenham

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The Great Awokening: schools and gender identity ideology

The Saturday edition of The Times highlighted an interesting juxtaposition. The News section ran a story on how children are being pulled out of Birmingham schools in protest against LGBT education (here). Apparently, since the row erupted, some 400 children have been withdrawn from schools in Birmingham, which is 15% up on last year. Parkfield School, which has attracted protests due to its use of the controversial No Outsiders programme has lost almost 50 pupils to other schools. Meanwhile, officials fret that homeschooling may lead to a higher risk of extremism in the Muslim community.

The Comment segment of the paper carried a column by Janice Turner, Cult of gender identity ideology is harming children. The columnist is a longstanding and courageous opponent of gender identity ideology because of its harmful effects on children, girls in particular. For her troubles she has been attacked on social media as a TERF, which being interpreted means, 'Trans Exclusionary Reactionary Feminist'. Turner details some of the materials that are being pushed at primary school aged children. BBC Teach informs baffled 7-11 year-olds, "We know we have male and female, but there are over 100 if not more gender identities now.” Turner claims that, "The government’s own No Outsiders programme simply teaches primary kids that some families have gay parents, and boys can like mermaids just like girls." But there's a bit more to it than that. See this analysis by Transgender Trend

The writer also highlights some freshly minted draft guidance from the EHRC. The very body meant to be monitoring application of the 2010 Equality Act advises that trans girls (i.e. boys who identify as girls) should be allowed to use girls' changing rooms. Girls who object will have to be found somewhere else to get changed. This guidance is plain contrary to the 2010 Equality Act that safeguards private spaces for women and girls on the basis of sex, not gender identity. 

If LGBT education was simply about destigmatising children with two mums or dads, few might object. Children can't choose what kind of families they are raised in. But the unstated object of what often passes for LGBT education is to smash 'heteronormativity' (see here). You know, that oppressive ideology that teaches it takes a man and woman to make a baby, and that children are on the whole best brought up by their biological parents. All the better if those parents are in a stable, loving relationship. Like, married. Of course, the pernicious ideology of 'heteromativity' is ripe for smashing. Never mind Global Warming, future generations of the human race depend on it.

Encouraging children to question their 'gender identity' has led to a surge of referrals to the Gender Identity Dysphoria Service. In 2009/10 there were 77 referrals, by 2018/19 the figure had risen to 2590. In 90% of cases, gender dysphoria is resolved when children pass through puberty. Of the 10% who are prescribed puberty blockers, 90% then progress to cross-hormone treatment and beyond that to gender reassignment surgery.

Trans advocacy groups such as Mermaids actively push gender stereotypes. They suggest that tomboyish girls who shun glittery dressing up clothes for stamping around in muddy puddles might consider that they could in fact be boys trapped in the 'wrong body'. Similarly, boys who don't much like your typical boyish pursuits are made to wonder whether they might 'really' be girls. Next step puberty blockers. You know where that leads. Radical surgery and lifelong medication. Things that people would usually want to avoid for themselves and certainly their children.

The Birmingham school protesters have overwhelmingly been from the Muslim community. This is an interesting feature of the story. A key motivation for globalist advocates of mass immigration was that exotic incomers would shake things up in stale old, pale old Blighty. According to the liberal establishment the working and lower middle classes were way too socially conservative in outlook. Mixing them up with people from other cultures would broaden their horizons and make the great unwashed a bit more cosmopolitan.

What the dim-witted liberals failed to notice was that they had encouraged people who were way more socially conservative than the natives to move here. Loads of them. Rather than the incomers making locals go liberal, they brought with them positively unenlightened views of women and gay people. Honour killings and FGM are now a thing in 21st century Britain. Not to mention gangs of Asian men preying on vulnerable white teenage girls.

In The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, Douglas Murray points out some startling figures from recent surveys. 52% of British Muslims thought homosexuality should be made illegal. Whereas only outside of London only 16% of the country believed homosexuality to be 'morally wrong', the figure rose to 29% in the capital. Why? Murray explains, "the ethnic diversity of the capital meant it had imported a disproportionate number of people whose attitudes the rest of the country would now regard as morally backward." (p. 53-54, 2018 paperback edition).

The great irony is that in pushing an ultra-liberal LGBT agenda in schools, the Government is facing a backlash from an unlikely alliance of social conservatives, concerned parents and radical feminists. It takes spectacular genius to have united Muslims, The Christian Institute, Mumsnet, and Germaine Greer. Why, the issue of gender identity is even threatening to cause a schism in Stonewall. In a letter to the Sunday Times, gay rights pioneers and feminists wrote concerning Stonewall's stance on trans issues,
We believe it has made mistakes in its approach that undermine women’s sex-based rights and protections. The most worrying aspect of this is that all primary-school children are now challenged to review their “gender identity” and decide that they may be the opposite sex if they do not embrace outdated gender stereotypes... 
If Stonewall remains intransigent, there must surely now be an opening for a new organisation committed both to freedom of speech and to fact instead of fantasy.
In his latest book The Madness of Crowds, serialised in the Daily Mail, Douglas Murray discusses the trans issue. Apparently, schools are now teaching that boys can have periods. Questioning of the use of puberty blockers is labelled 'transphobic'. Yes, it really is that mad. Murray also weighed into the singer Sam Smith's announcement that being 'gender-fluid', he wished to be referred to as 'they', or 'them', rather than 'he, or 'him' (see here). The writer pointedly refuses to mangle the English language to suit the pop star's self-identity. 

Christians will want to treat people struggling with gender dysphoria with compassion and respect. But that does not mean going along with an approach that seeks to transform someone's body to conform with their disturbed state of mind. Given the stubborn realities of genetics and reproductive anatomy, a person cannot truly change sex. Some who have tried now live to regret it. Neither should anatomical males be allowed access to female only spaces on the basis of their 'gender identity'. Society at large should not be forced into affirming someone's chosen 'gender identity' and then have to address them by whatever pronouns they wish. Truth matters and compelled speech is not compatible with free speech. The Asher's 'Gay Cake' cake ruling demonstrated that. Male/female sex differences are a given that should be affirmed and celebrated, not denied. Without them there would be no human race at all. Heteronormativiy is the norm for a reason.

In his book Dominion, Tom Holland shows that as far as secularism is concerned, imitation is the deepest form of flattery. Christians enjoyed spiritual enlightenment in the form of the 18th century Evangelical Revival. Its preachers proclaimed, 'old things have passed away, behold all things have become new'. Rationalists had their very own Enlightenment that aimed at overturning the old order, ushering in a new age of science and reason. Now the Great Awakening has become  a Great Awokening. The gods of 'woke' identitarian religion are fierce and unforgiving. Those who refuse to bow down to the idol of gender ideology are threatened with a good roasting on social media, or face demands that they be sacked from their jobs. 

May our response be that of Daniel's three friends in the Bible, who refused to worship Nebuchadnezzar's image of gold on pain of being thrown into a burning fiery furnace, "our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Daniel 3:17-18).

What are concerned parents to do about LGBT Relationships Education in schools? Noisy protests at the gates doesn't seem to be the most constructive way of doing things. But parents should take an interest in how their children's school plans to approach the trans aspect of Relationships Education. Some will do the bare minimum necessary to ensure compliance with statutory guidelines. Others will push the boat out to be 'inclusive'. Children will be informed that girls can identify as boys and visa versa. or go for one of over 100 gender identity options. A sure way to unsettle and confuse young minds.  

Gen up. The Christian Institute has some good materials to look at. Be prepared to have an informed and respectful conversation with Headteachers. Write to your MP, or the Secretary of State for Education. After all, Protocol 1, Article 2 of the ECHR insists, "The State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions." Transgender Trend has a useful guide that can be used by governors and teachers to highlight concerns over some of the materials that are being used in schools. Together we can make a difference. It's time the Great Awokening was put back to bed. 

Friday, September 20, 2019

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Faber & Faber, 2015, 362pp

"I will remember their sins no more"
(Jeremiah 31:34)

Holiday reading #2

As a boy I was fascinated by the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. I re-read a version of story time and time again. The Buried Giant is set in the time that followed the great king's death. Arthur's nephew, the brave knight, Sir Gwain is still on the scene. The formerly warring tribes of Britons and Saxons are at peace. 

The story focuses on elderly Britons,  Axl and Beatrice. The tenderly devoted husband and wife set out from their village on a quest to find their missing son.

In an unexpected genre twist for the novelist, Kazuo Ishiguro fuses [post] Arthurian legend and Lord of the Ringsy tales of ogres and dragons. It's an atmospheric blend, "Icy fogs hung over rivers and marshes, serving all too well the ogres that were then still  native to this land."

As well as icy fogs, a mist hangs over the land and people's memories are fading. The murky past is only recalled in brief snatches. Christians as they are, Axl and Beatrice worry that perhaps even God has forgotten.

They hook up with Wistan, a Saxon warrior and Edwin, the boy he rescued from ogres. The couple believe their son is now living in a Saxon village. The party stops at a monastery for the night, where all kinds of weird stuff happens. And a big fight.  

While in the monastery Wistan protests he is offended at the Christian God of mercy. He much prefers the pagan alternatives who deal in justice. You get what you deserve. The idea of grace is indeed offensive. Why should people get what they don't deserve?

That is why some voices within the church have tried to tone down the scandal of grace by teaching that good works contribute to salvation. In The Buried Giant  the monks expose themselves to horrific suffering in an attempt to atone for the sins of the land. 

Anyway, all is not as it seems. Wistan's mission to slay the dragon is at cross purposes with that of good old Sir Gwain. The fog of forgetfulness that hung over the land was there to blot out the remembrance of Arthur's atrocities against the Saxons.

The dragon's breath was the source of the the mist. In slaying the beast Wistan hopes to awaken a "buried giant" of revenge that will lead to renewed conflict between Britons and Saxons. Only then will justice be served. 

But what effect will the receding mist and with it the recovered memory of past misdeeds have upon Axl and Beatrice's relationship? Their dearest wish was to be ferried to the island of the dead together, but for that to happen the ferryman must test the reality of their love. 

We probably can all identify with the cry of the psalmist David to the Lord, 'Remember not the sins of my youth' (Psalm 25:7). More recent sins too. But what hope is there that our sins will be forgotten? Jeremiah prophesied that God would make a new covenant, under which the Lord promised, 'I will remember their sins no more'. (Jeremiah 31:34).

Not because a mist of forgetfulness had ascended to the high heavens, but because God descended in Jesus to die for our sins on the cross. By faith in him our sins are forgiven and forgotten. That's grace for you.

When it comes to Axl and Beatrice, as the book ends...

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Tom Holland on 'Dominion' at Bristol Festival of Ideas

A few years ago when our children (now twenty somethings) were still children, we holidayed in Carmarthen. We saw Toy Story 3 in the cinema, so it must have been summer 2010. I'd finished my 'holiday reads' and was on the look out for another book. On the shelves of history section at Waterstones I spied a bright orange volume with gold lettering, Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland. I'd never heard of him, but there was something about the subject  that grabbed me. The schoolboy Classical Studies O Level student was evidently the father of the man who bought and then devoured, Rubicon. And after that, Persian Fire, Millennium and Dynasty, all by Holland. 

I enjoyed the author's sweeping, cinematic style and eye for telling (usually gory) detail. I sometimes wondered what it might be like if he turned his hand to Christian history; the origins of the faith and its impact on the world. So it was that yesterday evening the wife and I found ourselves in a Bristol branch of Waterstones to hear Tom Holland give an interview on his new publication, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. And the thing that according to Holland shaped the Western Mind was the Christian faith.

I say 'interview, ' it was more like a highly animated freestyle talk, with the flow interrupted and then redirected in its course by an occasional question. Holland explained how he came to write  Dominion and expanded on some of the key ideas in the book.

As a boy Holland was fascinated by the ancient Greeks and Romans. In their overweening power and brutality the Caesars seemed more like terrifying dinosaurs than men. But as he wrote Rubicon he found himself strangely repelled by their enormities. Julius Caesar slaughtered a million Gauls and enslaved a million more to get a name for himself and was duly acclaimed as a hero of Rome. We think, 'Not so nice.'

But why? It dawned on Holland that he viewed ancient Rome through Christian spectacles, or at lest through lenses that had been ground by two millennia of Christian history. The Christian faith inverted the values of antiquity. Suffering not slaughtering was heroic, weakness was strength, shame was glory. For at the heart of the Christian message was the belief that the Son of God took the form of a slave and was crucified for the sins of the world. The cross, which had been a brutal symbol of Roman power was transformed into a symbol of redemptive love. Christians proclaimed that this Jesus, risen and ascended, not Caesar was was world's true Lord. Their message brought down the lofty from their thrones and exalted the lowly.

The foremost exponent of the Christian faith was the apostle Paul. He grasped the universal implications of faith in Jesus. Through him the God of Israel would become the God of all peoples and all peoples would become one in Christ, Galatians 3:28. Holland thinks that Paul is a little ambiguous on how Jesus should be understood in relation to the God of Israel. I'd say that inserting him into the Jewish Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4), as he does in 1 Corinthians 8:6 makes it pretty clear that for the apostle Jesus should be included in the divine identity. (See God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament, by Richard Bauckham). 

The teaching of Paul's New Testament letters sent seismic shocks rippling around the world and down the centuries to this present day. Paul explained that the old covenant in which the Ten Commandments were engraved on tablets of stone had gone. Jesus had ushered in a new covenant in which the law was written on the hearts of believers by the Spirit. Even non-Christians had the 'works of the law' written on their hearts, giving them a sense of right and wrong. Paul helped develop the idea of the conscience as an inbuilt moral arbiter. Unlike in Islam you didn't need a direct divine command for every rule and regulation in society. Man-made rules based on 'the light of nature' would do. This helped to pave the way for Western secular states, subject to the rule of human law. 

As we were in Bristol it seemed fitting that slavery got a mention. Slavery was regarded as a normal part of life in ancient times. It was rife in Greece and Rome. Vikings used Bristol to transport the English slaves they had captured. The city made its wealth as port for the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Nowadays slavery is regarded as an abominable infringement of human freedom and dignity. Such is the taint of association with the slave trade that there are calls for Bristol's Colston Hall to be renamed. How do we account for this change in attitude towards slavery? 

The Church Father Gregory of Nyssa preached against slavery in the strongest terms.  But it wasn't until the 18th century that Christians more widely began to grasp that slavery was an intolerable evil that had to be stamped out. Are not all men made in the image of God? Did not Christ die the death of a common slave to redeem us from slavery to sin? Quakers and Evangelicals threw themselves into the campaign for the abolition of slavery, championed by William Wilberforce. 

Protestant England persuaded Catholic France to follow suit, arguing not so much from biblical principles as did the Evangelicals, but appealing to the Roman idea of 'human rights'. This universalising tendency was extended further as British imperialists sought to pressurise Islamic countries to abolish slavery, this time appealing (with little basis) to Muslim texts. And so the idea of culture-transcending universal human rights, so beloved of liberals and neo-conservatives alike was born. 

Drawing upon the Reformation teaching on the witness of the Spirit to the truth of the Bible, Evangelicals would speak of the enlightenment of the Spirit that gave them fresh insight into Scripture. This enlightenment had a transforming effect on their personal lives and led to attempts at reforming society, the abolition of slavery being one example. A line can be traced from Medieval reform movements, to the Reformation, to the Evangelical Revival. But these were movements to reshape the church and the world in line with the Christian faith. 

In the 18th century others proclaimed a new age of Enlightenment, not because they understood the Bible in a new way, but because they rejected it in favour of science and reason. The object of their reforming zeal was an overmighty church that had to be cut down to size so that people could be set free from oppression. As Holland pointed out, the irony was that Enlightenment rationalists had bought into the Christian idea of pulling the lofty from their thrones and exalting the lowly. They took that a little too literally in Revolutionary France. Similarly, today's woke lefties with their hierarchy of oppressed victims are, consciously or not, drawing upon a faith that has Jesus 'crucified in weakness' at its heart.

I mentioned seeing Toy Story 3.  Apart from the Christian faith would we even have the Toy Story series, shot through as the films are with key values such as love and self-sacrifice? The Romans would have had Woody and Buzz slaughter all the 'enemy' toys, and then  each other as the vied for supremacy.

In the interview Holland made many more fascinating links between Christianity and the contemporary world, taking in figures as diverse as John Lennon, Nelson Mandela, and Richard Dawkins. But I'll leave it there, otherwise this report will end up as a book review before I've even read the book. I duly purchased a signed copy after the talk, so watch this space.   

One last thing. On a personal note, Tom Holland confessed to having a rather fluctuating Christian faith, with perhaps one breakthrough moment. When making a film on Islamic State he was close to an area where the Islamists had crucified people, much as did the Romans. The cross was an instrument of terror, the threat of which cowed people into submission. Under IS the cross had none of its Christian connotations as a symbol of self-giving love and forgiveness. That seemed to speak to Holland in a deep way, but I sensed he's maybe not quite there yet in terms of personal faith in Christ.

I was reminded of the time recounted in the Acts of the Apostles when the King Agrippa had Paul address his assembled court with Roman governor Porcius Festus in attendance. Paul, bound in chains, gave a well-argued defense his faith and conduct. Agrippa responded (in the Authorised Version at least), "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian." I think I can hear Paul's response echoing down the centuries and addressing Tom Holland, "I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost and altogether such as I am, except these bonds." (Acts 26:28-29). 

Monday, September 09, 2019

Providence Baptist Church Anniversary Weekend

Over the weekend we celebrated the 209th anniversary of Providence Baptist Church. As has been our custom for the last few years, we had the same speaker for the Saturday afternoon meeting and the Sunday services. This time it was the turn of Gary Brady, who's been pastor of Child's Hill Baptist Church, London for over 30 years. Like me he trained for the Ministry at London Seminary

It was good to have friends from other local churches join us on Saturday, where Gary preached on Psalm 133, offering a biblical vision of unity within and among gospel congregations. The meeting was followed by a buffet tea, where we continued to enjoy fellowship together. 

On Sunday Gary preached on John 4:13-14 and 1 Corinthians 15:55-57. The messages were engagingly delivered, insightful and encouraging. I'm not one of those preachers who expects others to listen to him, but doesn't much like listening to others. It was refreshing to be under the ministry of the Word, taking in rather than giving out. You'll find the messages here

It was a pleasure to have Gary with us at ours for the day. We've know each other for years, often meeting up at conferences and things, so it was good to be able to catch up and talk about all kinds of stuff. We showed Gary the local sights. Westbury boasts several picturesque ponds and of course, the famous White Horse that overlooks the town. We took a detour past the school where I serve as a governor. We'll have been here for 16 years this December and feel very much part of Westbury.

Among the hymns Gary chose for the Saturday meeting was 'Blest be the tie that binds' by John Fawcett (1740-1817). I didn't realise until Gary mentioned it when he introduced the hymn, but the writer was a Baptist Minister. He was Pastor of Wainsgate Baptist Church, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. Apparently he was converted at the age of 16 under the ministry of George Whitefield. Fawcett served for seven years at Heben Bridge, despite a small income and a growing family. In 1772 he received a call to the large and influential Carter's Lane Baptist Church in London. He planned to accept,  but at the last minute changed his mind and stayed put. It was to commemorate his decision that in 1782 he wrote the hymn, 'Blest be the tie that binds'. 

In modern day parlance, Fawcett was a 'somewhere' pastor, rather than an 'anywhere' pastor. Some ministers crave a wider ministry. They always seem to be off speaking at conferences in their home country or overseas and don't tend to stay for long in one pastorate. Others prefer to cultivate a deeper ministry in terms of rooting themselves in one place. They form a strong attachment to their congregation and community, a 'tie that binds'. I'm not saying pastoral  'somewheres' are better than 'anywheres'. There are 'varieties of service, but the same Lord'. George Whitefield for one was a pretty useful 'anywhere' preacher. But there is a lot to be said for going deep, rather than wide. 

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam by Douglas Murray

Bloomsbury Continuum, 2018 paperback edition, 371pp

Summer reading #1

I read this on the beaches of Costa Balanca. We holidayed in Alicante, the Spanish coastal resort. The city is dominated by Santa B├írbara Castle, a formidable hilltop fortification. It is so called because on Saint Barbara's day, 4 December 1248, the castle was captured from the Moors by Castilian forces led by Alfonso of Castile. It wasn't until 1492 that the final Moorish stronghold on the Iberian peninsula fell. Today the Muslims are back, not by conquest, but immigration. Muslims form a sizable minority of around 2 million people in modern day Spain. From what I could see relations between the Spanish population and their Muslim neighbours are peaceable. But Spain has not been altogether free from Islamic terrorism. Most recently in 2017 14 people were killed and hundreds maimed when a 22 year old Moroccan drove a van into crowds milling along La Rambas, Barcelona. 

Another victor over the Moors is buried in Saint Denis Basilica Cathedral, Paris. At the Battle of Tours in 732 Frankish leader, Charles 'The Hammer' Martel defeated the armies of the Umayyad Caliphate. Martel is credited with preventing the wholesale Islamisation of Europe. These days the Saint Denis district of Paris is a Muslim majority area. The Jewish population has halved. Armed guards are posted at the Cathedral doors to protect the clergy working inside. In Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, northwest of Paris, an 85-year-old parish priest, Father Jacques Hamel had his throat slit while leading Mass by terrorists shouting "Allahu akbar!" 

In The Strange Death of Europe Douglas Murray (@DouglasKMurray) tells the story of how we got ourselves into this position. "Bridges, not walls" was the slogan deployed by advocates of mass immigration such as Tony Blair and Angela Merkel. Europe should be open to the world. Yes, for the benefit of people fleeing the sword, famine and pestilence, but also for the good of Europe itself. Why be old, stale and pale? We need an influx of young workers whose taxes will fund caring for our ageing population. We need multicultural diversity to mix things up a bit. Think of the extra culinary choices, the 'world music', the mind-broadening conversations.

Foreigner suspicious locals might resent it, but Europe's got it coming. We once exercised colonial rule over faraway lands, enslaved people and the like. Now it's payback time. Some payback. Rather than being of economic benefit, immigrants are often low skilled and require welfare support, social housing and intensive healthcare provision. Mass immigration has irreversibly changed the character of some communities, without the original inhabitants of those communities ever being asked if they wanted change. Indigenous Londoners now find themselves in a minority in their own city. 

Radicalised Muslims have brought mayhem and murder to European streets. In the UK Asian Muslim gangs have been locked up for grooming and sexually abusing disadvantaged white girls. In Germany and Sweden the arrival of large numbers of immigrants has coincided with an uptick in the number of rapes and sexual assaults on women. But, as Murray acidly puts it, "if there is a bit more beheading and sexual assault than there used to be in Europe, then  at least we also benefit from a much wider range of cuisines." (p. 57).

Now I'm sure most people see the value of at least some immigration in terms of filling job vacancies and cultural enrichment. The UK has benefited from an influx of peoples from former colonies and beyond. Immigrants often work hard and take every advantage of living in a developed country that offers opportunity for all. The trouble with mass immigration is the difficulty in integrating large numbers of newcomers so that they embrace the culture of the host country, rather than expecting the culture to adapt to suit them. That is complicated further in Europe where society is in a state of flux, having lost its Christian moorings. It is mass immigration and its effect on European identity that Douglas Murray has in his sights in this disturbing work.

Angela Merkel was a leading architect of European mass immigration. In August 2015 she announced there would be 'no limit' on the number of migrants Germany received.  Her open door immigration policy impacted the whole of Europe and had unintended effects. More pressure was heaped on hard-up Greece and Italy as thousands boarded unsuitable boats to land on European shores and then make their way on foot to more welcoming countries such as Germany and Sweden. Douglas Murray details how the small Italian island of Lampedusa was suddenly overwhelmed by vast numbers of immigrants. The number of arrivals expected in Germany in 2015 was upped to 800,000, four times the number taken in one year earlier.

Eastern European countries hastily threw up border fences to keep the waves of immigrants out. Little was done to check exactly who was arriving in Europe, or to ensure that those who came claimed asylum in the first country in which they arrived. The boarderless Schengen Area made traversing across the continent all too easy. The November 2015 terror attacks in Paris exposed the ease with which people with ill intent could exploit the open boarders approach espoused by Merkel and other European leaders. 

Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait hardened their hearts at the plight of refugees fleeing from war zones and famine in Syria and North Africa. Muslims from poorer countries could not be expected to integrate with their more well-heeled fellow religionists. Political leaders from Eastern Europe did not want their Christian cultural traditions undermined by the arrival of large numbers of migrants. The attitude of politicians and people from Western Europe was somewhat different, warped as it was by a sense of guilt over past colonial misdeeds. As Murray somewhat sardonically puts it, "Contemporary Europeans may not be the only people in the world to feel that they have been born into original sin, but they certainly appear to suffer from the worst case of it." (p. 162). 

That is one of the reasons why Merkel and others opened the door to mass migration. They wished to atone for past imperial transgressions. Murray cites a case of a white European woman who apologised to an immigrant who brutally raped her and was therefore deported from Germany. As he points out, Europeans are not unique in having aspects of their history of which they might be rightly ashamed, "any student of history much conclude that every community, race and group of humans is not only capable of doing terrible things, but has managed to do such things" (p. 171). Only Western Europeans (and Australians) seem driven to try and expunge their guilt by means of grovelling apologies for historical crimes and masochistic acceptance of whatever pains may be thrust upon them at the hands of violent attackers. We've got it coming.

Murray identifies the decline of Christianity in Europe as a key factor in the continent's crumbling sense of identity. Liberal scholarship helped undermine confidence in the Bible, as did Darwin's theory of evolution. Nothing has been found to replace the faith that shaped Europe for thousands of years. Europeans no longer believe in Adam's origin sin and the fallenness of all humanity,  only their own collective guilt. They no longer have a Christ to atone for their sins, hence the misguided attempts at self-atonement.The author laments the emptiness of much of what passes for secular culture, which he finds either trite and superficial, or parasitic on its Christian heritage.

Guilt is a powerful, yet flawed motivator for action and has badly skewed the European response to the immigration crisis. Mercy towards "the stranger, the fatherless and the widow" needs to be balanced by a just concern for one's own family and people. Little thought was given to the effect of mass immigration on European society and values, or ensuring that our own people were not needlessly put in harm's way. The answer to what Murray calls 'the tyranny of guilt' that is crippling European society is the very thing that its people seem to have rejected, Christianity. A strong sense of guilt-inducing moral responsibility is a lingering legacy of the faith. But Christianity also tells of Jesus who died that sinners might be forgiven through faith in him; "if the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed", John 8:36. 

The Christian faith may prove more resilient than Murray admits. He has little time for Evangelical Christianity, but Evangelical Churches in Europe are growing, albeit at a slow rate. Globally-speaking Evangelical Christianity is flourishing, especially in China, South America, Africa, and even in Muslim majority lands like Iran. The tide of the 'Sea or Faith' may yet turn, even in Europe. Witness the transforming effect of the Reformation and movements such as the Evangelical Revival of the 18th century. It was the Evangelical Revival that spawned the abolition of slavery associated with William Wilberforce and many other great social reforms of the period. In the UK today churches in areas with large immigrant communities are reporting an increasing number of people from Muslim backgrounds converting to Christianity. Murray's prescription for cultural renewal; Cathedrals and Shakespeare certainly won't cut it. A return to Europe's Christian foundations offers hope. 

Murray is not anti-immigrant, it needs to be said. He appreciates the way in which migrants have been welcomed by native Europeans. He acknowledges that the majority of incoming people are peaceable, even if their views are sometimes worryingly hardline. He is not unmoved by the plight of thousands fleeing conflict and poverty for a better life in Europe. Murray offers practical suggestions for dealing with the immigration crisis such as setting up safe refugee camps in Syria and North Africa. It is certainly more cost effective to supply tents for camps in Syria than Sweden with its frozen winters. Far easier too for refugees to return home once it is safe for them to do so when they are cared for in locally-based camps. People are less likely to risk their lives crossing the sea in rubber dinghies if they know they will be cared for nearer to home. To its credit the UK government has poured millions into creating and maintaining secure and well-provisioned refugee camps. 

None the less, Murray argues that the mass immigration policies pursued by New Labour, Angela Merkel and others were badly misguided and could prove culturally ruinous for Europe. Politicians and the media have tried to shut down public discussion of the negative aspects of large scale immigration. Reports of mass sexual assaults on women at a New Year's Eve party in Stockholm by Muslim young men were suppressed. Similarly with child grooming gangs in Rotherham and Oxford. The authorities were slow to act for fear of whipping up anti Muslim sentiment. There is a growing disconnect between the views of ordinary Europeans and their political masters on the effects of mass migration. Shutting down debate and hushing up legitimate concerns won't help matters (see Murray on The truth about hate speech). Politicians urgently need to give attention to ensuring immigrant groups are properly integrated under the rule of law.

Integration may prove difficult. One of the hopes entertained by advocates of large scale immigration was that newcomers would help innately conservative natives become a little more liberal and cosmopolitan in their attitudes. But what if a large proportion of migrants are even more socially conservative than your typical European or Brit? Witness the protests over LGBT education in schools in cities like Birmingham where there are large Muslim communities. Birmingham was also the scene of the 'Trojan Horse' scandal involving an attempted takeover of state schools by Muslim governors. Their strategy was to try and Islamise education rather than welcoming the Westernisation of their children. The government responded by renewing its drive to promote 'British Values'. But it was successive governments who encouraged people with scant regard for our values to settle here en masse in the first place. That's why 'honour killings' and FGM are now issues that need addressing in 21st century Britain. Not to mention an increase in Antisemitism. Immigrant communities tend to have a higher birth rate than the native population. Integrating people who want to maintain their distinct identity and cultural norms could therefore prove even more challenging in the years ahead. Murray worries that mass migration may end up destroying what made Europe such an attractive place to live in the first place.  

The author's Jerimiad makes for challenging reading. Some may not like the case he presents, but the facts he marshals cannot easily be gainsaid. In an Afterword Murray brings his account up to date and reflects on the 2017 London Bridge and Manchester Arena terror attacks. Europe's political elite wanted "bridges, not walls", but as I witnessed last weekend, the bridges of London now have walls to stop pedestrians being run over by terrorists. Douglas Murray explains how we got ourselves into this position. He isn't quite so good on explaining how we're going to get out of it.

Not exactly a fun holiday read, admittedly. But who said holidays should be all ice cream and sticks of rock? One August Bank Holiday Monday I took a volume of poetry by R. S. Thomas to the beach.