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Sunday, November 29, 2020

Plague Journal 2: Week 4


22-28 November 

Prior to the national lockdown for England, which expires on 2 December, Wiltshire was in 'Medium Risk' Tier 1. That seemed fair, as infection rates were among the lowest in the country. From 3 December we will be in Tier 2 'High Alert'. Some good lockdown did us. Could be worse, nearby Bristol will be in Tier 3, but Coronavirus cases have skyrocketed there, so tighter restrictions may be justified. According to BBC figures, Wiltshire currently has 98 cases per 100,000, compared with a national average of 152. And cases are falling week-on-week. We will be in the same tier as Liverpool, which has 138 cases per 100,00. 

The only parliamentary opposition to ever tighter restrictions is from backbench Conservative MPs. Labour seems to have a policy of backing the government's measures, yet accusing ministers of doing too little too late and too ineffectively. According to news reports the PM has been spooked by the threat of a backbench revolt against his more draconian tiering system under which the vast majority of England will be placed in Tiers 2 & 3.  The government has promised to look again at imposing blanket restrictions on whole counties. Sunset clauses will be added to the legislation to allow MPs to keep things under review.

Glad to hear it, but this is another example of a failure of party management by the Johnson government. Didn't the Tory whips warn the PM that the crew were feeling mutinous before the new tiering system was announced? In an article in Saturday's Times, Michael Gove issued alarmist threats that the NHS will be overwhelmed unless the government's plans are supported. Backing down now makes those dire warnings smack of crying wolf, or, if the treat is genuinely believed, gross irresponsibility. Either way, not a good look.

Church-wise, it is great that places of worship will be allowed to reopen in all tiers once lockdown ends. We are looking forward to gathering for worship on Sunday 6 December. Being in Tier 2 will mean no 'routine' pastoral visits to lonely and isolated church members. Given the time of year outdoor meetings won't be any good for the elderly. We'll have to keep in touch by phone. In Tier 2 no interaction is allowed between members of the congregation when meeting indoors. In Tier 1 interaction was permitted within in groups of 6. With that in mind, Zoom meetings will need to continue alongside in person gatherings so people can hang out and chat after the 'service' element has finished.

On Wednesday afternoon I went for a walk and chat with a pastor friend, It was good to catch up and enjoy fellowship together. Pastors are under pressure these days. We need to support each other in the work of the ministry. 

On Sunday 22 November I spoke on Jeremiah 11:1-17 in the morning Zoomer and on Acts 2:37-41 for Bradford on Avon Baptist Church's Livestream Service, which our people also watched. For our Zoom Prayer Time I gave a Bible Study on Psalm 66. We had a Providence officers' meeting on Thursday evening via Zoom in preparation for a Members' Meeting on 1 December.

Everything seems to be happening on 1 December. The Westminster Conference from 2.00-5.00pm, school governor meetings from 5.30pm, and then the Members' Meeting at 7.30pm. All online.

In the week I finished, The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor's Heart by Harold L. Senkbeil. Must post a review soon. I used an Audible credit to download, The Journey to the Mayflower: God's Outlaws and the Invention of Freedom, by Stephen Tomkins. Made a good start, four chapters in. With chapter headings seemingly borrowed from songs by The Jam, 2, Going Underground, where can you go wrong?

On Saturday we went for a morning walk along the towpath of the Kennet & Avon canal. Lockdown in Wiltshire, it could be worse. It did get worse. Wales lost to England in the rugby, 24-13. Scant are the consolations of this sad world. There will be no tiers in glory. 
Kennet & Avon Canal

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Jars of Clay: Peace for the Anxious Soul, by Catherine Haddow

10ofthose, 2020, 200pp

The other Sunday evening I had the privilege of conducting an online interview with Catherine Haddow, where we discussed her Bible-based approach to helping people who are suffering with anxiety. Our conversation ranged around the material set out in this book and her earlier work, Emotions: Mirrors of the Heart. People with anxiety problems have spoken of how they were helped by what the author had to say, which is great. Jars of Clay deals more thoroughly with some of the issues we were only able to touch on in the interview. 

Haddow doesn't decry secular approaches to treating people with anxiety, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, but she goes further, arguing that the things that make us feel anxious reveal what we really treasure. CBT can help straighten out people's thought processes, but it cannot touch the heart, or change what we value as most precious to us. Had it been available to him, Gollum* may have found CBT of some use, but his heart would still have craved 'The Precious' Ring of Power above all else. What's your 'Precious'? That's what you'll be most anxious about losing. 

Emotions are part and parcel of our being made in the image of God. We are fallen creatures, however, living in a fallen world. Our emotions are therefore distorted. What Haddow calls a 'constructive concern' about our own welfare or that of loved ones can become a crippling anxiety. Fear is the right response to danger, anxiety lingers on after the reason for fear has dissipated.

As 'embodied souls', human beings are a psychosomatic whole. Anxiety therefore affects our bodies as well as our spirits. High blood pressure and harmful chemical reactions may result from anxiety. Anxiety attacks have debilitating physical effects. On the other hand, some physical disorders such as thyroid problems can cause sufferers to feel anxious. Drug treatments for anxiety can be helpful when prescribed by a GP, but, like CBT, they can't get to the heart of the matter; what we truly treasure. 

Anxiety can have a disruptive effect on a person's Christian life. All-consuming worry can make God seem remote and his promises unreal. The bright light of the gospel may be eclipsed by overwhelming anxiety. The anxious can become withdrawn as they seek to insulate themselves from anything that might trigger their negative feelings. They stop attending church meetings, so they stop hearing the word of God preached and miss out on supportive Christian fellowship as they move in ever decreasing circles. Feeling secure has become their 'treasure'. 

The author's focus is not on techniques for dealing with anxiety, or phycological processes, but a person, Jesus Christ. We may bring all our anxious cares to God through him, Philippians 4:6-7. The psalmists poured out all their troubles to the Lord, Psalms 42-43. The apostles set their many sufferings in the light of our eternal hope, 2 Corinthians 4. As we learn to trust the Lord with our cares, he strengthens our faith and enables us to grow in grace. 

Anxiety may have a number of different causes, relational, material or health. Each of these factors reveals what the soul truly values and is scared of losing; a cherished relationship, financial security or physical wellbeing. While it is right to make proper provision for ourselves in these areas, the believer's greatest treasure is the gospel of salvation in Christ. All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are in Christ. Nothing we could lose in this life is comparable to our Saviour, the one who us 'chosen by God and precious'.  

The book's title is taken from 2 Corinthians 4:7-9. God places the treasure of the gospel in the clay jars of our fragile humanity. We don't have to pretend to be stronger, or more resilient that we really are. The Lord knows our sins and weaknesses, yet loves us all the same. Although outwardly we are wasting away, inwardly the Lord is renewing us by his grace, a grace that is made perfect in weakness. 

Catherine Haddow's approach to helping people with anxiety is deeply biblical and gospel-centred. She helps us to apply the good news of Jesus to our anxious souls. We are not to listen to ourselves as our overactive minds clog up with worry. We must preach to ourselves, remembering what Jesus has done for us in his death and resurrection, what he is doing in us by his Spirit and what he will do for us when he returns. As we are captivated by the hope of the gospel, our present distresses will seem light and momentary when compared with the eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 2 Corinthians 4:17-19. This is not a quick fix, but a call to renewed devotion to the Lord Jesus. Like Paul we need to count whatever gain we have as loss for Christ, Philippians 3:7-8.  

Jars of Clay keeps it real. The author is open about her own struggles with anxiety and gives anonymised case studies of  people whose lives have been blighted by worry, yet who have found peace through faith in Jesus. Practical tips are provided for mitigating some of the physical effects of anxiety. Quiet meditation on the Word of God is commended as an alternative to Mindfulness. The book is well written and helpfully structured, making it easy to follow the basic argument. Anxiety is a 'smoke alarm' that alerts us to what we really value as 'The Precious' thing in our lives. The more we treasure Jesus, the less we will be consumed with this world's 'uncertain riches', Matthew 6:19-21. 

Anxiety isn't just a 'woman thing'. Men may also become consumed with worry, Male mental health is an issue of big concern in our society. Men as well as women will benefit from reading this title and taking its message to heart, Pastors should read it too. It will help you minister more effectively to care-worn members of your flock. More than that, read Jars of Clay as  part of your pastoral self-care. 

Sadly men have dropped out of ministry, overwhelmed with the burden of the work. Paul knew 'the care of all the churches', yet his sufficiency as a minister of the gospel was not in himself, but God. If we are not careful we can treasure ministry success above the Master, which is a sure recipe for anxious insecurity. We who preach the word and apply it to others, also need to partake of its rich treasures for ourselves. 

Thank God that in Jesus we have One why says, "Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28). 

* Please note, Catherine Haddow doesn't put J. R. R. Tolkien's character Gollum in the psychologist's chair. Any gratuitous  LoTR refs are the reviewer's. 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Plague Journal 2: Week 3


15-21 November 

On Sunday morning I spoke on Jeremiah 10:17-25 in our Zoom service, on 'Facing Affliction with Faith.' In the evening I conducted an interview with Catherine Haddow 'Anxiety: A Mirror of the Heart'. We discussed her Bible-based approach to helping people with anxiety issues.  

We had our Zoom Prayer Time on Wednesday evening, where I gave a Bible Study on Psalm 65. On Friday evening I livestreamed the latest One Way Club video on the Story of Moses. Last week  I also made a video on 'Daniel in the Lions' Den' for a primary school assembly. 

It was deadline time for the two parish magazines for which I write a monthly article. I usually use the same piece, but with different services info for the Providence & Ebeneezer Churches.

Our Bradford on Avon Ministers' Fraternal, of which I am chairman, resorted to Zoom for our meeting on Wednesday morning, Michael Payton of Chippenham gave an inspiring talk on the Huguenots. What those faithful French believers had to suffer put the inconveniences of lockdown into perspective. 

The lockdown rules don't allow for 'routine' pastoral visiting, so my wife and I keep in touch with people by phone, especially those who live on their own, or are unwell. The rules do allow two people to meet up outdoors, also I arranged to for a walk in Longleat Forest with a church member who lives near there. 

News is percolating through of a small number of churches defying lockdown rules and meeting regardless. Some are claiming to meet under the guise of a support group, others are simply ignoring government guidance and gathering anyway. Sadly, and perhaps predictably this has been the cause of some division between and within Evangelical churches.  

As I've indicated, we have moved all our services online for the lockdown period. That doesn't mean I am convinced the government was right to close church meetings. I have written to my MP and signed a letter of protest. But I don't believe that Christians are being signalled out for hostile treatment by the government. All faith groups are being treated the same and other sectors such as cinemas and pubs have had to close their doors. Sometimes we may best commend the gospel not through bold defiance, but gracious submission, 1 Peter 2:13-17.

Although we are locked down, the word of God is not bound. Livestreams of our services are reaching more people than would have been the case before the pandemic. The online interviews have garnered a good number of  views. The Catherine Haddow one has attracted almost 800 views. 

We used to run 'Bake Through the Bible' outreach events aimed at engaging whole families with the gospel. Our Hall would often be buzzing on a Sunday afternoon. The family who were the driving force behind BTTB this week produced the first episode in an online version, which was really well done. Take a look at Bake Through the Bible: Episode 1, which has had nearly 600 views so far. 

Still, I'll be glad when the current lockdown ends on 2 December and we can start gathering for worship once more.

Biss Wood

Friday, November 20, 2020

Interpreting Eden: A Guide to Faithfully Reading and Understanding Genesis 1-3 Vern S. Poythress

Crossway, 2019, 390pp 
Much ink has been spilt over how to interpret Genesis 1-3. In recent decades controversies have raged between those who see the opening chapters in the Bible as little more than ancient Near Eastern myth and those who accept the creation account as a foundational part of Holy Scripture.

Even among Evangelicals a number of different approaches have been adopted. Some see Genesis 1-2 as a literary framework which teaches that God made an orderly universe. As such, there is not necessarily a conflict between the Bible and modern scientific accounts of the origin and age universe. Others insist that Genesis 1 tells us that God made all things in 6 x 24-hour days. If that interpretation brings the Bible into conflict with modern science, so be it. Another view (held by Reformed theologians Herman Bavinck and Michael Horton, for example) is that the days of Genesis 1 are God’s workdays. They are analogous to our 24-hour days, but not identical in length.

In setting out his constructive proposals on how to interpret Genesis 1-3, Poythress doesn't tackle the issue of how to understand the days of creation head on. He takes a more indirect approach. The author insists that the Bible should be read theologically as the written word of God. Whatever the Bible teaches must therefore be received as truth. God is the Creator and sustainer of the universe. The order and regularity of the created realm that makes science possible is the result of his faithful providential care. Strictly speaking the Bible offers no scientific theories, instead it describes creation and providence in terms of everyday human experience of the world, which is a perfectly valid perspective.

In terms of its literary genre, Poythress sees Genesis 1-3 as historical narrative. He works through the creation account in some detail, offering a wealth of insight. One of his main points is the relationship between creation and providence. Genesis 2:1-4 tells us that God is now resting form his work in creation, but his providential rule continues. There was something unique about the work of creation described in Genesis 1-2, but we can understand the essential meaning of those chapters in the light of our everyday experience of the world around us. We must take care, however, not to confuse creation with providence. 

6 x 24-hour creationists argue that because in God's providential ordering days are now 24 hours in length, the same time scale must be applied to the days of the creation week. Poythress advances that such a view is in danger of applying the norms of providence to the singularity of creation. The sun does not make an appearance until day 4, so days 1-3 at least were not solar days. Also, there are other measurements of time besides solar days or modern clocks that count the passing of 24 hour periods to the second. Nature has its own ways of marking the passing of time. Ordinarily fruit trees take a number of years to grow from a seed to a fruit bearing maturity, while the trees planted by God in the Garden of Eden seemingly sprung up 'good for food' instantaneously. Similarly, God created Adam from the dust of the ground as a mature adult and Eve from his rib, while we are formed in our mothers' wombs and grow to maturity over many years. The regular rhythms of providence cannot simply be read back into God's unique work of creation. 

Some 6 x 24-hour creationists posit that God must have temporarily speeded up physical processes during the creation week. That explains how the light from distant stars is visible on earth, which at the current speed of light must have been travelling for billions of years before it reached our planet. "God supernaturally made all the processes of stars occur at near infinite speed so that the stars went through 'a long history of events' in an instant of time." (He made the stars also, Stuart Burgess, Day One, 2001, p. 24). Yet, as Poythress points out, if God did things so differently during the creation week, that makes it difficult to insists on maximal continuity between our 24-hour days and the six days of creation, p. 252-258.  

The author concludes that, "God really did create the world in six days" (p. 289). He affirms the special creation of the first human pair and the historical fall of man into sin, But, according to Poythress, we need not hold that the days of creation were 6 x 24-hour periods. He argues that in the Hebrew mind days were measured more as periods of work and rest rather than strict 24-hour units. Genesis 1 depicts God’s work of creation on each day, followed by rest until the whole was completed. God then ceased from his work of creation on the Sabbath day. The days of the creation week are analogous to ours, but not necessarily the same in length. With this scheme in mind Poythress holds that the Bible’s teaching is broadly compatible with the modern scientific account.

This book contains valuable reflection on the relationship between the Bible and science, Genesis and ancient Near Eastern mythology, and creation and providence. Numerous appendices give detailed attention to matters raised in the main body of the work, such as 'Genesis 1:1 Is the First Event, Not a Summary' and 'The Meaning of Accommodation' in theological discourse. Poythress avoids offering simplistic solutions, calling upon the reader to re-examine their views afresh in the light of God’s Word. 

* An edited copy of this review was published in the The Banner of TruthDecember 2020 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Where Has All The Gospel Preaching Gone? by Roger Carswell

This little booklet came as a freebie with a book I ordered from 10ofthose.com. It was very kind of the publishers to send me a gratis copy. Although it was a bit like receiving the gift of a book on losing weight, or how to smarten up your appearance. What is the giver trying to say? 

Roger Carswell is a gifted evangelist whose soul winning ministry has been wonderfully used of the Lord in the UK and beyond. He thinks he's spotted a gap, or maybe even a gaping hole in much of contemporary Evangelical preaching. There isn't much of the evangel in it. Expository preaching may expound a Bible passage and apply it to the congregation, but the gospel of salvation isn't necessarily proclaimed and a response called for.

Does Carswell have a point? Yes. Whatever text they are handling, preachers should always set the little story of a particular Bible chapter or verse in the context of the big story of God's redeeming grace. And Jesus is at the heart of that big story of creation, ruin, redemption and renewal. 

But it isn't simply a matter of bringing the gospel into a sermon. The gospel, or al least some aspect of the gospel should flow from the text, into the sermon and be applied to the congregation. That doesn't mean John 3:16 always gets tagged onto the end of every message. The gospel is as broad as it is deep in its declaration of the plight of man and the power of God. 

Regular hearers of our preaching should be left in no doubt that they are sinners who need to repent and believe in the Saviour who died for our sins and rose from the dead that we might be put right with God and have the hope of eternal life. 

It may be easier to do that when preaching from some Bible books/passages than others, but it can and should be done at all times. In the evenings I'm currently preaching through Peter's sermon on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2. You can't avoid proclaiming Jesus' saving crucifixion, resurrection, exaltation and new life in the Spirit. Peter even tells us how to apply the message, Acts 2:37-41. 

In the mornings I'm preaching through Jeremiah and the other week I gave a sermon on Jeremiah 10:1-16, 'The stupidity of idolatry and the supremacy of God'. 'Not very gospely', you might say. But my headings give the drift of the message: I. In our folly we put idols in God's place, II. Let us put God in his rightful place, III. In his grace God put Jesus in our place. The great exchange of the gospel undoes the grim exchange of sin. 

I think one thing pastors need to work on in giving their preaching an evangelistic edge is the introduction to their messages. This should flag up a link between the passage in hand and people's need to hear the good news of Jesus. The pandemic has highlighted the plight of man in sin, for which the gospel alone has the answer. Let's make that clear, rather than simply jump into the text with some remarks about the background of a passage, or whatever. 

Carswell argues his case for bold evangelistic preaching biblically and with the support of some of the great evangelistic preachers of the past such as C. H. Surgeon and Octavius Winslow. He could also have enlisted the help of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. While he is best known these days for his great expository series on Romans and Ephesians, on Sunday evenings at Westminster Chapel, he would herald the gospel that sinners might be saved. 

Maybe one of the reasons behind the decline of evangelistic preaching is that we tend to think of outreach primarily in terms of personal witness and small group study. The preaching of the Word to the gathered church is not necessarily seen as an evangelistic event. Perhaps it is assumed that every member of the congregation is already converted, but that is a dangerous assumption to make. 

Besides, non-Christians should be made welcome in our services. They need to hear the gospel if they are to be reconciled to God. Such was the case in the church gatherings of the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 14:24-25. The fact that our services are now broadcast online for all to hear should make us all the more determined to proclaim the gospel that people might turn to Christ for salvation. 

A timely call for pastors to, 'preach the word... do the work of an evangelist', 2 Timothy 4:2, 5. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

'Anxiety: A Mirror of the Heart' an interview with Catherine Haddow

On Sunday evening I interviewed Chartered Psychologist Catherine Haddow. We discussed 'Anxiety: A Mirror of the Heart'. In her books, Emotions: Mirrors of the Heart and Jars of Clay: Peace for the Anxious Soul, Catherine has sought to show how faith in the Lord Jesus Christ can calm our anxious souls and give us peace.



If someone reading or watching this now is feeling overwhelmed, even suicidal, where can they turn for immediate help?

·       The Samaritans 116 123 (24hrs).

·       Shout is a 24/7 text service if that feels easier. Text 85258.

·       If you are a young person (or you're concerned about a young person) you can call Papyrus Hopeline on 0800 068 4141 9am-midnight. Or text on 07860 039967

·       Book an emergency appointment with your GP or ring 999 or go to A&E even in lockdown.

There is no shame, there is help available, your life matters, there is hope, you are not alone.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Plague Journal 2: Week 2

8-14 November 

This lockdown feels a lot different to the last one. That's because it is. Restrictions aren't so tight as in the Spring. Back then people were massively spooked into slavish compliance with the rules. The occasional Coviditiot aside.

This time people are more questioning of the need for lockdown, although, so far as I can see most are still doing the 'Hands, Face, Space' thing. But this is Wiltshire, hardly Covid-central. 

Last time round the abrupt closure of places of worship felt to many preachers like they were a bird flying into a window. Fly, fly, fly, bump. This time it was more like a duck making a smooth landing on the village millpond. A rather grumpy duck, admittedly. But at least now we've mastered online services, taking to Zoom like a duck to... You know the rest.

We had a Zoom service on Sunday 8 November in the morning, where I spoke on Jeremiah 10:1-16. In the evening I did a 'service' on Facebook Live, with a message on Acts 2:33-36. Our Zoomers are pretty straightforward affairs. I open in prayer, read the Bible, give a kids' talk and then a message. That segment is also livestreamed to Facebook. After that we have a song video, open prayer time, another song video, closing with the benediction. After the service has finished I leave the meeting open for people to grab a coffee and have a chat. Much like we used to in the old days before Covid struck. 

I don't agree that places of worship should have been forced to close during lockdown. There is little evidence that churches have been Covid hotspots. For many older believers church meetings are their main form of social contact. Above all, gathered worship is not a 'non-essential hobby', but an important component of the Christian life. 

But I don't believe churches should defy the lockdown law that was passed by parliament. We are not yet being forced to deny that Jesus is Lord and instead burn incense on Caesar's altar. Few would deny that under at least some circumstances the state may order the closure of places of worship and other venues in the name of public safety. That said, it is perfectly fair for Christians to challenge the ruling via judicial review, which I hope is successful. 

On Friday evenings I do a story video for our Virtually One Way Club, mainly for primary school aged children. We've been looking at the story of Moses and last Friday it was the Ten Commandments. Again, it's via Zoom (with only me in the meeting), streamed to FB Live. 

I read Catherine Haddow's book, Jars of Clay: Peace for the Anxious Soul in preparation for an online interview with the author on Sunday 15th in the evening. Very helpful it was too. I hope to post a review on the blog sometime this week and also share the interview video here. 

On Saturday Sarah and I visited Westonbirt Arboretum. Last time we visited in October 2018 the acer trees were decked in their autumnal splendour. The glory had faded somewhat by mid-November but it was still an enjoyable day out. We managed to dodge the heavy showers. Finding the Gruffalo in the woods gave me inspiration for Sunday morning's children's talk. 

Thursday, November 12, 2020

The Mystery of Christ: His Covenant & His Kingdom by Samuel Renihan (review part 3)

Founders Press, 2019, 217pp

See here for part 1 and part 2 of this review series. 

Constructive appraisal 

In The Mystery of Christ: His Covenant and His Kingdom, Samuel Renihan has admirably traced the grand plot line of the Bible in covenantal/kingdom terms. He has done justice both to the continuity and discontinuity of old and new covenants, as the mystery of Christ is progressively revealed. While the  writer draws on the riches of the Particular Baptist theological tradition, this is a fresh study in its own right and yields many valuable insights. That the Davidic kings were in effect the federal heads of the Mosaic covenant is one. The author admirably highlights the eschatological dimensions of Christ's covenant and kingdom. 

His characterisation of the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants as 'covenants of works' is not quite so convincing. Renihan certainly does not take the Meredith Kline view that Sinai was a republication of the Adamic covenant of works based on strict merit (p. 111). But in some sense he holds that the Old Covenant operated as a covenant works, as least as far as appropriating the blessings of life in the Promised Land were concerned. 

If, however, threats of chastening judgement and promises of reward for obedient faithfulness constitute a covenant of works, then the New Covenant could arguably be construed as such. In the New Covenant the covenant of grace comes into its own, yet God's judgements upon Israel are taken as a warning to the church (1 Corinthians 10). Christians may also appropriate Old Testament promises of reward, but stripped of their shadowy form and seen in the light of eternity (Matthew 25:14-30, Ephesians 6:2-3). Note the many threats and promises in the Letters to the Churches in Revelation 2-3. To be clear, under both Old and New covenants, rewards were dispensed graciously by the Lord, rather than earned or merited. 

If the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants were not covenants of works and neither can they be identified with the Covenant of Grace, what are they? Renihan is nearer the mark when he says, 'There is no covenant prior to Christ that reveals His covenant as directly as the Abrahamic Covenant does. The unilateral free gift of the earthly typical promises most clearly demonstrates the unilateral and free gift of the heavenly antitypical promises to the elect.' (p. 100). Further, he writes that 'the covenant of circumcision [made with Abraham] was a covenant of guardianship. It is a covenant that constitutes Abraham's descendants the womb of the Messiah.' (p. 101). 

The giving of the law at Sinai did not compromise the gracious character of the Abrahamic covenant, as Paul makes clear in Galatians 3:15-29. The law functioned as a guardian until Christ came. It 'increased the trespass' (Romans 5:20) by exposing the sinfulness of sin that those who were under the law might seek the righteousness of God by faith in Christ (Romans 10:3-4). 

The Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants were not recognisably covenants of works. They were 'covenants of promise'. Through their shadowy types and figures they spoke of the promised Messiah who would be born of Abraham's line. 'They are Israelites, to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants... and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever.' (Romans 9:4-5). 

This criticism should not detract from the work as a whole. For too long Paedobaptists have cornered the market in covenant theology, while Reformed or Grace Baptists have lagged behind. Renihan's title is an important contribution to covenant theology from a Baptist standpoint.  That said, readers will not find heated polemic here. The author makes his case in a gracious and winsome way, insightfully handling the text of Scripture and ensuring that doctrine leads to doxology before the glorious mystery of Christ. 

I am most grateful to Founders Press for sending me a complimentary review copy of this book. I would urge them to make it available more widely, as importing the title from the USA is prohibitively expensive for readers in the United Kingdom.  

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Glen Scrivener interviews Tom Holland: How Christianity Gained Dominion

I enjoyed Glen Scrivener's interview with Tom Holland when we saw it on Sunday evening, although much of the ground they covered was familiar to anyone who had read Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, or watched other conversations with the author.

Holland's rehearsal of the argument advanced in Dominion was interesting enough. His thesis being that enlightened liberalism owes more to its Christian heritage than is often admitted. Ideas of equality, universal human rights and secularism didn't just spring from nowhere. They are rooted in the Bible and Christian theology. 

It was also fascinating to hear Holland commenting on how his book on the origins of Islam, In the Shadow of the Sword was received rather differently in the Muslim world to Christian reaction to Dominion. The author received death threats for subjecting origin myths of Islam to historical scrutiny. Christians have by and large welcomed Dominion, giving it warm reviews. Certainly no death threats. Tellingly, secular humanists have been most critical of this work because it shatters their origin myth that the Enlightenment rejected everything based on Christian superstition in order to usher in a new age of reason. Not quite. 

One of the key features of Dominion is Holland's ability to spot where a moral position that is so common in the West that it might seem like part of the natural order of things, is in fact rooted in Christianity. Take a concern for the poor and disadvantaged, for example. That concern lies at the heart of Black Lives Matter, however much the movement might disavow the Bible in favour of Marxism. As Holland points out, however, BLM and other identitarian causes have failed to take on board the Christian doctrine of original sin that chastens our claim to moral superiority. Hence the shrill denunciation of anyone who has the temerity not to 'take the knee', even if they are black. Go woke, go Pelagian.

Towards the end of the interview Scrivener asked Holland where he was when it came to a personal commitment to faith in Christ. He acknowledged that he had lost his faith in liberalism as a system of universal values supposedly derived from pure reason. But his comments on believing in and following Jesus were rather opaque. Holland spoke of 'surrendering to the story' of the Bible, irrespective of whether that story is grounded in history. He was willing to take that existential leap of faith because the Christian story offers him a compelling moral and spiritual vision.

Scrivener doesn't press Holland on this, even though the Christian faith is based on the great historical claim that Jesus rose from the dead. If that isn't true, 'we are of all men to be pitied', as Paul put it. Reflecting further on why he has not yet made a personal commitment to Christ, the historian commented that he was not impressed by the pronouncements of church leaders during the pandemic. To him their message was one of health and safety, not heaven and hell. Disappointingly, they seemed to make little attempt to draw upon centuries of theological reflection on plagues and pestilence to help us discern what God might be saying to us in these Covid-stricken days.

He may have a point, although at least some of us have been trying to apply the message of God's Word to men and women living in darkness and the shadow of death. It turns out that Holland has been playing cricket over the summer, rather than attending church, where he might have heard the urgent call to repent and believe the gospel. 

In Dominion Holland demonstrated that the 'Christian Revolution' transformed Western society in ways that we do not always appreciate. But Christianity is not primarily an agent of cultural change. It proclaims the way of salvation through faith in Jesus who died for our sins that we might be put right with God and rose from the dead to give us the hope of everlasting life. 'Cultural Christianity' wants some of the societal and existential benefits of the faith, but resists Jesus' costly call to 'follow me'. It's just not cricket. 

Here's the interview: 


Tuesday, November 10, 2020

'Anxiety: A Mirror of the Heart' an online interview with Catherine Haddow

With a new national lockdown for England in place, many people are feeling anxious and fearful. On Sunday 15 November at 6.00pm I will be conducting an online interview with Chartered Psychologist Catherine Haddow. The focus of the conversation will be ‘Anxiety: A Mirror of the Heart’. In her books Emotions: Mirrors of the Heart and Jars of Clay: Peace for the Anxious Soul, Catherine has sought to show how faith in the Lord Jesus Christ can help to calm our anxious souls and give us peace. The interview will be livestreamed on the Providence Baptist Church Facebook page then made available for viewing later.

Monday, November 09, 2020

Systematic Theology by Robert Letham


Crossway, 2019, 1072pp.

For many years Systematic Theology by Louis Berkhof was the standard text in the field of Reformed systematics. More recent publications were conspicuous by their absence. That is no longer the case. A welcome fruit of the resurgence of the Reformed faith in the mid 20th century has been the production of a number of fresh works of systematic theology in recent years. Among them are Robert L. Reymond's A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith and Michael Horton's The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. Herman Bavinck's magisterial four volume Reformed Dogmatics  has also been published in English translation, but, as the title suggests they are works of dogmatic, rather than systematic theology. 

The traditional approach of systematic theology as exemplified by Charles Hodge and Louis Berkhof has been called into question by Kevin J. Vanhoozer. In his The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology, Vanhoozer argued that doctrine should be reconfigured in terms of the great drama of redeeming grace. The purpose of doctrine is to enable the people of God to play their roles in the theodrama. Michael Horton takes this into account in his The Christian Faith, but Letham adopts a more traditional approach to systematic theology. While he acknowledges the insights to be had from speech-act theory 'theodrama' isn't the organising principle here. 

Systematic theology is an attempt at setting out the key doctrines of the Christian faith in logical order as an interconnected whole. Logically speaking the doctrine of God is the most important of all, which is where Letham beings, rather than with the doctrine of Scripture. After discussing the Revelation of God, Letham devotes three chapters to the Trinity before giving attention to the divine attributes. The work as a whole is thoroughgoingly trinitarian. It is the one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit whose sovereign will is done in creation, providence and redemption.

Perhaps surprisingly the writer does not engage at length with the controversy over the eternal submission of the Son to the Father. He none the less makes it clear that while there is an order of persons in the Trinity, the divine will is a property of God’s being shared equally by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Talk of the Son eternally submitting his own will to the Father’s is therefore misplaced. Letham takes issue with the ‘Covenant of Redemption’ which he sees as having subordinationist overtones, preferring to speak of the Divine Counsel of the Trinity.

In line with his sovereign plan God created the material world and declared it very good. Letham helpfully underlines the value of value of the material realm throughout his work. This is affirmed in that the Son of God took human nature into union with his divine person at the incarnation. As the God-Man, Jesus came not just to save our souls, but to rescue the created order from sin and its effects. The believer looks forward to partaking of the divine nature at resurrection of the body, and the life of the world to come. The chapters on the incarnation are  models of biblical insight, compressed historical study and critical interaction with contemporary trends in Christology. 

This is a work of covenant theology. The writer points out that God has always and under every covenant administration dealt with human beings in the basis of grace regulated by law. The Adamic covenant did not offer life on the basis of strict merit, but a 'voluntary condescension on God's part in terms of a covenant'. The Mosiac covenant was not a republication of the Adamic covenant of works, but a further continuation of the Abrahamic covenant. The author sees the Abrahamic/Moasic/Davidic covenants as administrations of the overarching covenant of grace. Reformed Baptists would counter that the old covenant dispensations were not in fact administrations of the covenant of grace, but gracious anticipations of the covenant of grace what was enacted by Jesus, the Mediator of a new and better covenant. A distinction needs to be maintained between covenant of grace promised in the Old Testament period and promulgated in the New, Ephesians 2:12, Hebrews 9:15-22. 

The work of Christ is discussed under the headings of his ministry as prophet, priest and king, although his prophetic work receives scant attention. The theologian gives full coverage to the different aspects of Christ's atoning work as our great high priest. Penal substitution and definite atonement are defended ably and biblically. Jesus' ascension into heaven and reign are discussed as attention is given to our Lord's kingly role. In common with many systematic theologies the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is not given the place it deserves in treating the saving work of Christ. As Richard B. Gaffin Jr argues in his Resurrection and Redemption: A Sudy in Paul's Soteriology, P&R, the resurrection of Jesus is central to the basic structure of Pau's doctrine of salvation. Although. to be fair, Letham's chapters on eschatology towards the end of the book make up for the lacuna here. 

Over and against the individualistic tendencies of the West, the author discusses the application of salvation and the Christian life under the heading, ‘The Spirit of God and the People of God’, with a strong emphasis on the church. The various features of salvation are rooted in the believer’s union with Christ. The value of the Lord's Supper and Baptism are underlined. Having said that, Reformed Baptists will not find themselves in agreement with some aspects of the theologian’s treatment of baptism and church membership. Baptist understandings are sometimes airily dismissed rather given due consideration as a legitimate line of thought within the Reformed tradition. 

The chapters in Part 8, 'The Ultimate Purposes of God' offer a magnificent vision of the Christian hope. Letham understands Romans 9-11 to teach that there will be a widespread turning to Christ on the part of Jewish people before the Lord returns. That will give a massive stimulus to world mission. A great multitude that no man can number will be saved from every tribe, tongue and nation. There is a sobering chapter Hell as a Place of Eternal Conscious Punishment, but the hope of the believer in terms of resurrection of the body and everlasting life in the new creation are to the fore. 

Letham writes with clarity, precision and occasionally, humour. His handling of biblical materials is insightful. He traces the historical development of key doctrines in such a way as to cast fresh light on the Word of God. While irenic in tone and catholic spirited, Letham does not shy away from controversy, engaging amongst others with Karl Barth, proponents of feminist thought, and New Covenant Theologians. 

The work is shot through with a spirit of devotion and doxology as the author directs the thoughts of his readers to our glorious triune God, his sovereign decrees and mighty acts. His Systematic Theology deserves to be the 'new Berkhof', but better. All we need now is a full work of contemporary systematic theology written from a Reformed Baptist standpoint. 'Who will go for us?' 

* Reviewed for the Banner of Truth Magazine. A shorter version of this review can be found in the November edition. 

Friday, November 06, 2020

Plague Journal 2: Week 1

In the original series of Plague Journals, I described church life in lockdown from March to June. I was looking forward to not having to do a #2. I suppose no one's forcing me, not even the government's guidance for lockdown in England from 5 November. But here we go again.

We weren't at all prepared for the previous lockdown. I had never done a livestream service, or even a video recorded one for that matter. I just used to turn up to lead a service in a church building, someone would see to the audio recording for the website, and that was it. Quaint, eh?

Last time around I had to get to grips with Facebook Live, YouTube recordings and then livestreaming Zoom meetings. It was sometimes a bit frustrating and occasionally rather messy, but we got there in the end. You would never call our efforts slick, but it was a case of better online than nothing when we weren't able to meet in person.

The Ebenezer congregation started meeting for our afternoon service at the Chapel in early August. At Providence we've had building works to contend with, as well as a global pandemic. We've been meeting on Sunday mornings in rented Halls since around mid-September.  

As well as each fellowship's gathered services on Sundays, we've have a mixture of Zoom and Facebook Live services on Sunday evenings. Our Wednesday evening Prayer Time is on Zoom. Elements of the Zoom meetings are also livestreamed to Facebook. 

The good thing with Zoom is the immediacy of having people in the meetings as the Word of God is proclaimed. Plus the facility for open prayer and the streaming song videos for people to sing along to at home (when muted). And then when the 'service; has finished people can fix themselves a coffee at home and chat together, much like we used to do pre-Covid following our Sunday and Wednesday meetings. 

We were in Tier 1, where the lightest restrictions applied, until midnight on Wednesday at any rate. But even here following the guidance means informal interaction between members of the congregation after our services was severely limited. That's why we've been keen to maintain an opportunity for members of the congregation to hang out together via Zoom. 

That said, online meetings are no substitute for gathering together in person to worship the Lord. Not all of our people are able to Zoom. Some watch services as they are livestreamed on Facebook, or view a recording later. Others receive audio recordings on CD. Still, at least now we're set up for online meetings until we can gather again in early December, God-willing.

In Tier 1 we used to be able to call at people's homes for pastoral visits. The new lockdown guidance allows for individuals to meet with one other person who is not from their household in outdoor settings, which will give some scope for pastoral meet-ups. We managed to visit a number of older church members before Thursday, as meeting with them outside wouldn't be practical at this time of year. 

My views on the rights and wrongs of lockdown and the closure of places of worship can be ascertained from a email I wrote to our MP, Dr. Andrew Murrison and a follow-up email

Anyway, enough of that. Reading-wise I've almost finished The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor's Heart by Harold L. Senkbeil. His Lutheran predilection for crucifixes, candles and an occasional puff of incense freaks me out a bit, but his emphasis on developing a pastor's heart that cares for for God's people and longs to see the lost won for Christ is a necessary one these days. As is his repeated point that our work must be bathed in prayer and carried out by means of word and sacrament in the power of the Spirit. One chapter to go. I'll post a review when I'm done. 

I'm sure that one of the problems with some of the high profile cases of pastoral abuse that have come to light recently is a wrong conception of pastoral ministry. We tend to lionise dynamic entrepreneurial leaders with brilliant communication gifts, like Mark Driscoll or Steve Timmis, rather than pastors who love and care for the flock, patiently tending to their spiritual needs. 

Back in September I gave a talk on 'Avoiding Pastoral Abuse' at our Bradford on Avon Ministers' Fraternal. I highlighted reports of abusive pastoral leadership at Crowded House, Sheffield. Safeguarding group thirtyone:eight have now published their Independent Learning Review so lessons can be learned more widely. A return to what Senkbeil calls 'the classical model of pastoral ministry' would certainly help.

I've just taken delivery of Jars of Clay:Peace for the Anxious Soul, by Catherine Haddow (10ofthose). I profited from her earlier work, Emotions: Mirrors of the Heart. With levels of anxiety heightened due to lockdown, I'd due to conduct an online interview on 15 November at 6.00pm with Catherine on 'Anxiety: A Mirror of the Heart', see  here for more info. I've already jotted down some questions for discussion and I'm hoping Jars of Clay will give me additional food for thought. 

You can catch earlier interviews with Jeremy Marshall on 'Faith Overcoming Fear' here and Stuart Burgess on 'Faith and Science' here. Yes, these are dark and uncertain days, where fear and frustration are all too evident, but the pandemic has also given us many fresh opportunities to speak of the light of Christ to those who are dwelling in darkness and the shadow of death. 

We had an enjoyable week off in N Devon last week and gathered for worship with the friends at Bradford on Avon Baptist Church on Sunday. We had an  encouraging day there, including taking the Lord's Supper for the first time in months. Meanwhile, the Lord was at work in the Providence congregation, who met in a rented hall in the morning. An older gentleman who one of our members had taken under his wing and brought along to services came to saving faith in Christ. We thank God for his grace to 'D' and pray that he may be the first of many who come to know the Lord in the months ahead. 

Westbury before lockdown


Westbury during lockdown

Follow up email to our MP on lockdown and church closure

Dear Dr Murrison, 

Although I note you did not abstain or vote against the government's lockdown legislation, as did some Conservative MPs, I am grateful to you for raising your concerns about the closure of places of worship. You are quoted as having said, 

"I am concerned about places of collective worship... I understand the logic behind proscribing those activities, but we have to treat the British public as adults and individuals with autonomy and agency. I respectfully disagree with the decisions that have been made on those fronts, and I hope very much, particularly if this sadly has to be continued beyond the beginning of December, that they are looked at again."

I hope indeed that the government will look again at this matter, which is currently subject to legal challenge.

It seems passing strange that Matt Hancock confirmed to the House that a person may travel overseas to end their life by assisted suicide (here), but people are forbidden to gather in a Covid secure church building for the worship of Almighty God. 

Best wishes, 

Guy Davies 

Ps. 

Had I seen the BBC report before I sent the email I would also have mentioned that according to the UK Statistics Authority, lockdown was based on dodgy data. It's disgraceful that businesses have been and places of worship have been forced to close and people deprived of their basic freedoms when the data presented painted an overly alarmist picture. 

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Email sent to our MP on lockdown and the closure of places of worship

Dear Dr. Murrison,

Thanks for taking the time to interact with Westbury church leaders the other week. You may recall that I asked for your views on the possibility of another national lockdown and whether it was the government’s intention for churches to stay open over the autumn and winter period.

You said that you supported the three tier regional approach, where restrictions were commensurate with infection rates. We agreed that as Covid cases in the South West of England and elsewhere in the country were relatively low, a complete national lockdown was not merited and would have significant negative effects. Until Saturday evening that was also the policy advocated by government ministers.

The slides shown in Saturday evening’s press conference only served to confirm the regional disparity of Covid infection rates. According to figures quoted on the BBC News website Wiltshire had 98 cases per 100,000 in 21-27 October, compared with Manchester with 483 per 100,000. An England-wide lockdown from 5 November to 2 December will have a dire effect on the UK’s faltering economy, people’s mental health and non-Covid health needs.

In my opinion government should have persevered with a proportionate regional approach to combatting coronavirus.  Additional measures could have been imposed in areas where Tier 3 restrictions had not succeeded in bringing infections down, with extra financial support being given to affected areas.

Will you therefore consider voting against a second national lockdown when measures are discussed in Parliament this week?

The vast majority of places of worship have complied with the government’s Covid secure guidance since reopening in the summer. As far as I am aware no church in the UK has been identified as the source of a coronavirus outbreak. It makes little sense that the government has ordered the closure of places of worship for all but private prayer for the duration of the second lockdown period should one be imposed. 

Gathering for worship is an important aspect of the Christian faith. Online meetings are no substitute for in person meetings. At a time when many are anxious and fearful people the church has a message of comfort and hope through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Not everyone has access to the internet, so it is vital to the church’s mission that the doors of our places of worship remain open.

Will you consider supporting any move to amend the government’s lockdown legislation that will prevent the forced closure of church gatherings and other religious meetings?

Young people are least at risk from Covid-19, yet their life prospects have been disproportionately damaged by the pandemic, with school closures, lockdowns in University halls of residence and high rates of unemployment. Will you please seek to ensure that the government makes good on its promise to keep schools and universities open, and that more is done to improve the job prospects of the up and coming generation.

Thanks for all you do on behalf of your constituents. May the Lord guide the government and MPs as these matters are debated and voted upon in Parliament this week.

 Best wishes,

 Guy Davies