Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor's Heart, by Harold L. Senkbeil

Some serious cases of pastoral abuse came to light in 2020. In February it was reported that Steve Timmis was removed from his role as Acts29 CEO following allegations of abusive leadership from members of staff. Acts29 President Matt Chandler announced, “For where we’re headed next, we needed to transition Steve out of this role.” 29 members of staff at Acts29 made written complaints about Timmis’ leadership style. They were dismissed from their jobs and forced to sigh NDAs to obtain severance packages.

Timmis also faced accusations of pastoral abuse in relation to his leadership role in The Crowded House Church, Sheffield. Reportedly Timmis sought to mentor and disciple his flock into a church that operated “24/7” and spanned all areas of life. A family was confronted by Timmins for not attending an impromptu church barbecue. Melvyn Tinker stopped working with Timmins over concerns about his controlling leadership style,  “If Steve is challenged in any way, which he always takes as a threat, then the tables are turned and the challenger is made out to be the one at fault,” said Tinker, who saw the same pushback emerge during the decade his son, Michael, was a member of Timmis’ church. “This is classic manipulation.” (Christian Today).

Following these allegations Timmis stepped back from leadership of The Crowded House Church. In April 2020 it was announced that The Crowded House has commissioned Thirtyone:eight to undertake an Independent Learning Review concerning the leadership of Church. They invited anyone who had been harmed by the leadership of the church to express this and for their experiences to be heard and considered. The review has now been published so lessons can be learned by the wider church community, see here. The Crowded House accepted the findings of the review, which found "evidence of a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour in the name of our Christian vision and ministry" here.

Why bring all this up in a book review? I certainly don't have an axe to grind when it comes to Steve Timmis and The Crowded House. He is but one example of pastoral malpractice in the Evangelical world, Yet men like Timmis and Mark Driscoll are often lionised within Evangelicalism as just the kind of leaders the church needs in the 21st Century. They embody a dynamic entrepreneurial leadership model that gets things done and quickly. 'Move fast and break things' is the motto of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, but pastors are in the business of people, not things. Leaving a trail of broken people in our wake is not a price worth paying to make our church leadership vision a reality.

This emphasis just outlined has led to a subtle change in the the the way people describe Christian ministry. Talk of pastors, elders and deacons has been supplanted by ‘church leaders’, or the ‘church leadership team’. Business models of leadership have been appropriated. But we are not to model ourselves on highly driven bully-bosses like Steve Jobs. Our model is the Chief Shepherd of the sheep, who is meek and lowly in heart. Someone can be  a great communicator and well-regarded preacher. They are certainly ‘able to teach’. But the biblical qualities required for overseers focus more on character than communicative gifts, 1 Timothy 3:1-3, Titus 1:7. 

We need to get back to classic model of pastoral ministry; the cure of sin-broken souls through prayer, ministry of the word and the sacraments. Which is where The Cure of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor's Heart comes in. Senkbiel is a veteran Lutheran pastor with many decades of ministry experience. Brought up on a farm  the writer observes that a farmer will become so attuned to the rhythms of sowing and reaping and the needs of his livestock that they shape his habit of mind, his very character. The farmer knows that nature won't be rushed, Cultivating crops and  rearing animals takes time and attentive care. 

It's the same with pastoral work. Patience and watchfulness are essential elements of what the writer calls a 'pastoral habitus'. A man does not enter pastoral ministry with a fully formed habitus. We become pastors by being pastors. A pastor is a servant of Jesus, a steward of mysteries of the gospel. The Lord is pleased to work through tools he places in our hands by his Spirit; word and sacrament. It is through the ministry of word and sacrament that we give hope to the dying, comfort to the bereaved, and counsel to people in their struggles with temptation and sin. 

The work requires prayer, patience, attentive diagnosis of spiritual ailments and the wise application of scripturally prescribed cures. We are to approach the task with a sense of insufficiency. Our personal stores of drive, charisma, charm can't make people into fruitful disciples of Christ. We must minister in power of Jesus. He can change people, we cannot. 

Acting as if that is not the case is practical Pelagianism. We can't make our people into more faithful Christians by forcing them to conform to our rules and expectations. We will end up leading by guilt trip, not pastoring by grace.  It is sadly possible for us to be be Calvinists in our studies, but Pelagians in pastoral practice. As the author points out, “To make pastors you need the person and power of the Holy Spirit who forms and shapes men inwardly to be fit vessels for the treasures of God’s transcendent and transforming gifts in his gospel and sacraments.” 

The emphasis on gentleness and patience in ministry is biblical enough, 2 Timothy 2:24-26. But this does not mean that for Senkbeil it's a matter of 'there, there, never mind' sentimentality. There is a an uncompromising toughness to his approach. The writer knows that gospel ministry is a conflict zone for which pastors need to don the whole armour of God. People in our care who are consumed with guilt and shame do not need a pat on the head, but the truth of justification by faith alone applied to their souls. Believers whose lives have been ruined by toxic relationships and addictive tendencies need to be brought to see the good news that God is transforming them into the holy people he wants them to be. 

If pastors are to minister to others, we first need to learn how to meditate upon and apply the word of God to ourselves. Senkbeil gives some practical advice on how to do that, as well as on how to sustain a life of God-dependent prayer. Given the unique privileges and burdens of pastoral ministry the writer recommends that pastors seek out a brother minister who can hold them to account and to whom they can unburden the souls. 

I said the author is a Lutheran minister. Some aspects of his approach were not to the liking of this Grace Baptist pastor. I wouldn't go along with his use of crucifixes, images of Christ, and so on. That kind of thing tends to freak me out a bit, but there are many good things here that will help us cultivate a stronger pastoral habitus. The classical model of gospel ministry commended in these pages by Senkbiel serves as a necessary corrective to dynamic entrepreneurial styles of church leadership that have sometimes had a toxic effect on Christ's flock. He is the Great Shepherd of the sheep. Pastors are but sheepdogs. 

Consider this picture of the relationship between a sheepdog and shepherd as a vivid illustration of the bond between a pastor and the Good Shepherd who has enlisted him in service to his sheep. The sheepdog is iconic of a faithful pastor’s work: one ear tuned to the voice of the Great Shepherd, the other tuned attentively to the sheep. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Anselm on the suffering of the impassible God

Reading through Anselm's Why God Became Man I came across a remarkable passage on how the impassible God is said to suffer in Christ. This is important, because many Evangelicals seem to have abandoned divine impassibility in recent years. J├╝rgen Moltmann has been highly influential in precipitating  the turn from impassibility. He argued that the theological task must be reconfigured in the light of the Holocaust. A God who cannot suffer is of no use to a suffering world, "Only a suffering God can help' was his famous dictum. 

We may instinctively recoil from the idea of impassibility, as if by that world it is being suggested that God is cold, remote and apathetic. Such a God would be indifferent to the miseries of life in the veil of tears. However, when our forefathers confessed that God is 'without body, parts or passions' (here), they did not mean that he is without emotions, but that he is devoid of emotional spasms. A 'passion' is a temporary feeling of elation or irritation, a flash in a pan. There is nothing 'flash in a pan' about God. He is eternal and unchanging in his being and attributes. 

Impassibility is not a defect in God. He is not emotionally stunted or remote. God is love. He is totally satisfied in the perichoretic union and communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit within the fullness of his perfect being. It is out of his self-sufficient aseity that God relates to us as his creatures. He is not dependent upon us for love or emotional completion, but he generously stoops to bring us into the the loving fellowship of the Trinity. That is why he made us in his image. That is why he acted in Christ to reconcile us to himself after the fall.

The impassible God loves without sentiment and burns with wrath against sin without the least irritation. He is free to reach out to us in our suffering without being overcome by it. Divine impassibility is the grounds of God's covenant faithfulness. His self-generated and eternal love cannot be stretched to breaking point by the failings of his chosen people. In his impassibility God is never discouraged or disappointed. Nothing can quench his determination to save hopeless sinners. His is an impassioned impassibility. 

The impassible Father spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all at Calvary. That does not mean the Father was coldly indifferent to the suffering of his Son. He loved him infinitely as he hung and suffered there (John 10:17). But he loved us too and it was only through the willing sacrifice of his Son that the wrath of God could be averted from sinners, 1 John 4:10. For that happen the impassible Son had to be made flesh to suffer and die for us. And so to Anselm, reflecting on the passion of the impassible God in Christ, 

For we affirm that the divine nature is undoubtedly incapable of suffering, and cannot in any sense be brought low from its exalted standing, and cannot labour with difficulty over what it wishes to do. But we say that the Lord Jesus Christ is true God and true man, one person in two natures and two natures in one person. In view of this, when we say that God is suffering some humiliation or weakness, we do not understand this in terms of the exaltedness of the non-suffering nature, but in terms of the weakness of the human substance which he was taking upon himself.... For we are not, in this way implying lowliness on the part of the divine substance, but are making plain the existence of a person comprising God and man, (Anselm of Canterbury: The Collected Works, Oxford, 2008, p. 274-275.

Note that Anselm does not merely say that the human nature of Jesus suffered for us, but that the person of the Son, impassible in his deity, suffered for us in his human nature. What we need from God is not the sympathy of a cosmic fellow-sufferer, but one who has acted to save us from sin and suffering. Only a suffering God in Christ can help us. Calvary reveals the true the depths of God's limitless, unchanging love for sinners, Romans 5:6-8. Impassible love is not needy and vulnerable, but free and outgoing; flowing from the Father, through the Son and by the Spirit to the world. 

As the Puritan Poet Edward Taylor (c1642-1729) meditated,

Meditation 1
What Love is this of thine, that Cannot bee
In thine Infinity, O Lord, Confinde,
Unless it in thy very Person see,
Infinity, and Finity Conjoyn'd?
What hath thy Godhead, as not satisfide
Marri'de our Manhood, making it its Bride?

Oh, Matchless Love! filling Heaven to the brim!
O're running it: all running o're beside
This World! Nay Overflowing Hell; wherein
For thine Elect, there rose a mighty Tide!
That there our Veans might through thy Person bleed,
To quench those flames, that else would on us feed.

Oh! that thy Love might overflow my Heart!
To fire the same with Love: for Love I would.
But oh! my streight'ned Breast! my Lifeless Sparke!
My Fireless Flame! What Chilly Love, and Cold?
In measure small! In Manner Chilly! See.
Lord blow the Coal: Thy Love Enflame in mee.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Confessional Christianity, an antidote to evangelical biblicism


In his review of Canon, Covenant and Christology: Rethinking Jesus and the Scriptures of Israel by Matthew Barrett, Robert Strivens stated, "as evangelicals, we must cease to be mere biblicists and become faithful exponents of Scripture deeply rooted in a well-rounded dogmatic theology." I very much agree and think this is one of the pressing issues of our time. 

I'm sure that a naive biblicism that is uniformed by the theological heritage of the church is one of the reasons why evangelicals have got themselves into such a mess with the doctrine of God. Some advocates of the eternal submission of the Son make 'will' a property of the persons of the Trinity, rather than the divine being. But hang on a minute. If 'will' is a property of persons, rather than being, and the incarnate Son has two wills, is he therefore two persons, divine and human? According to classic Christology, the incarnate Son is one person with two natures, with a will appropriate to each nature, divine and human.

One of the reasons for subscribing to an elaborate confession of faith such as the Second London Baptist Confession is that our forebears were self-consciously Reformed Catholics. Their confessions bear the imprint of the great creedal heritage of the church. Subscribe to them and you subscribe to Nicaea and Chalcedon and identify with an Augustinian account of salvation by sovereign grace. 

But they didn't stop there. They were Reformed Catholics, who sought to reform church doctrine and life in the light of our supreme authority, which is the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures. Hence the Particular Baptists set out their own distinctive views on the covenants, the church and baptism, while holding to the Catholic creeds and the solas of the Reformation. 

Many contemporary evangelical doctrinal statements adopt a minimalist approach that fails sufficiently to root the church in the Great Tradition of theological orthodoxy. Neither do they set out why Independent Evangelical or Baptist churches operate as they do in the light of clear biblical principles. 

The older confessions provide us with a dogmatic framework in which the key teachings of Scripture are set out in a coherent and systematic way. They are an aid to interpreting the Bible in the light of theological reflection of the church over many centuries. Familiarity with the historic creeds and confessions of faith  can help save us from many a doctrinal blunder. 

That is not to say that the confessions are to be regarded as infallible, or unimprovable. The Westminster Confession was revised by the Independents in their Savoy Declaration and again by Particular Baptists in the Second London Baptist Confession. But we should think long and hard before adopting an interpretation of Scripture that is out of synch with the confession of faith we have pledged to uphold. 

That is especially the case when it comes to what they have to say on doctrines of first importance, like the doctrine of God and of Christ the Mediator. According to the 1689 God's will is a property of his being (Chapter 2:1), not the three persons (Chapter 2:3), see here. With that in mind, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not distinguished in terms of one person submitting their will to that of another, but "by several peculiar, relative properties, and personal relations". 

In other words that "the Father is of none neither begotten nor proceeding, the Son is Eternally begotten of the Father, the holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son". There is an order in the Trinity, but no hierarchy of will. How could that be when will is a property of the divine being, which is wholly shared by the three persons? 

Making 'will' a property of persons plays havoc with the doctrine of Christ. As pointed out earlier, we confess that the Lord Jesus has two wills. The incarnate Son is not two persons, however. That would be Nestorianism. The confession rightly affirms that the incarnate Son is a divine person with a human nature, Chapter 8:2

Prominent Evangelicals in the US and UK have strayed from this historic teaching, holding that the Son eternally submitted his will to that of the Father. They have often done so using naively biblicist arguments in which the relationship of the incarnate Son to the Father in the economy of redemption is read back univocally into the ontological Trinity. It is enough to say that the missions of the Trinity reflect the eternal relations, without positing a plurality of wills in God. 

A more rigorous confessionalism would have helped prevent the theological confusion that is apparent in evangelical circles. Elders (pastors among them) and deacons should be expected to subscribe to a confession like the 1689. A more basic doctrinal statement such as the FIEC Doctrinal Basis may be required of church members, but the officers should ensure that church teaching and life is in line with a more wide-ranging and detailed confession of faith.

The biggest divide in evangelicalism is not between those who adopt traditional or progressive worship styles, or lockdown defiers and lockdown compliers; it is between confessional Reformed Catholics and doctrinal minimalists. We see further when we stand on the shoulders of giants. Time-honoured terms such as 'person', 'relations', 'being' and 'will' have meanings that were carefully defined in response to doctrinal error. Heretics could also quote the Bible. A simplistic biblicism was not sufficient to combat heresy. The teaching of Scripture needed to be explained and defended using non-biblical terminology. Hence the precise and exact language found in the creeds and confessions of old. 

When we step off the shoulders of the theological giants we become short sighted. Those who ignore or redefine key theological terms cannot always see the consequences of their doctrinal missteps. Making 'will' a property of the persons rather than the divine being makes for a subordinationist Trinity and an incoherent Christology. This is just one example of why we should strive to become "faithful exponents of Scripture who are rooted in a well-rounded dogmatic theology." Let us 'hold fast our confession, faithful to the end'. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Mystery of Christ: His Covenant and His Kingdom by Samuel Renihan

The big problem with The Mystery of Christ: His Covenant and His Kingdom by Samuel Renihan is that it wasn't readily available in the UK. I managed to blag a review copy, but otherwise British readers would have needed to shell out a tidy sum in p&p to obtain a copy. You can see Part 1 of my review here. It is an excellent a treatment of covenant theology from a Reformed Baptist standpoint. The title traces the the broad sweep of redemptive history in terms of covenant and kingdom. It's rich in biblical insight and theological depth. The Particular Baptist perspective does justice to the lines of continuity and discontinuity between the old and new covenants. The 'mystery of Christ' shines through brightly, both in the 'covenants of promise' of the Old Testament and, of course in the new covenant in which the covenant of grace comes into its own. The good news is that Founders Press have now sorted out UK distribution, so you can buy it here. Just in time for Christmas.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Anselm On The Incarnation of the Word

My idea of getting all Christmassy was to read On The Incarnation of the Word by Anselm of Canterbury. Better that than waste time putting up a tacky tree. It's a remarkable little work in which the great Medieval theologian sets out to refute the idea that the Father and the Spirit became incarnate as well as the Son. He set down his thoughts in a letter addressed to Pope Urban II. 

The work is a marvel of tightly compressed theological reasoning. Its occasion was a controversy between Anselm and 'a certain cleric' he encountered when he was abbot of a monastery in Bec, France. This cleric held that, 'if the three persons are only one thing and not three things... then the Father and the Holy Spirit as well as the Son became flesh', p. 233. 

Anselm initially wrote to refute this error while still ministering in Bec. The cleric in question seemed to have recanted his heterodox views. It transpired later that he only recanted because he feared the population might kill him. Meanwhile, once the danger had passed, he continued to teach the incarnation of the whole Trinity. Partial copies of Anselm's refutation were doing the rounds and now as Archbishop of Canterbury Anselm felt the need to respond in a more thorough and complete way to the French cleric's 'novelty'. 

Despite his high ecclesiastical rank and theological ability. the Archbishop felt ill equipped to defend the faith. He likens the task to a man endeavouring to stabilise Mount Olympus. He wrote not so much to confirm the faith, as to satisfy Christian brothers who urged him to put pen to paper in response to the error under discussion. And this was no mere intellectual exercise for Anselm. He saw his task as one of faith seeking understanding the things of God. Our minds need to be illuminated by the Spirit if we are to receive and experience  God's truth. 

Anselm did not believe that doctrinal disputes can be resolved simply by appealing to the text of Scripture. Some heretics don't believe in the authority of the Bible. Others interpret it in a perverse sense. It is necessary therefore to use theological arguments derived from the Bible to expose error and defend the faith. That does not mean, however, that everything is up for grabs. The Catholic faith that is based on Scripture and confessed by the Church should be received and lived out by faithful believers. We must believe in order to understand the mysteries of God's Word. 

In terms of the Trinity, Anselm assumes the orthodox teaching that there is but one will and power in the being of God, which all three persons share, as each is fully divine. Yet there are not three gods, but one. Plurality in God is a property of the persons, not the divine nature. Were plurality a property of  nature, God would be composed of parts, which he cannot be. God is the perfect being. In all composite entities are some things superior and some things inferior. God cannot be anything less that perfect in his simple and undivided essence. He is a being than which none greater can be conceived (Anselm's Proslogion). 

The persons may be distinguished not in terms of their shared nature, but on account of their personal relations. The three are not interchangeable and there is an order of persons in the Trinity.  The Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten of the Father, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. These distinctions may not be misattributed. The Son is Son because he is begotten of the Father, the Father is Father because he begets the Son.

The personal distinctions are real, not modes in a unipersonal god. The same man may be a father in relation to his son and a son in relation to his father, yet he is one person, not two. The situation is quite different in the Trinity, where there are three distinct persons in the one God. 

It was fitting that the Son should become incarnate rather than the Father or the Holy Spirit. Had the Holy Spirit taken human flesh, reasons Anselm, there would have been two sons in God, the eternal Son of the Father and the human son of Mary to which the Holy Spirit had become personally united. Had the Father been born of Mary, according to Anselm, 'two persons of the Trinity would take the name of grandson, since both the Father would be grandson of the Virgin's parents, and the Father's Son would be the Virgin's grandson, although the Son himself would have no part from the Virgin'. (p. 251). 

The economic missions of the Trinity reflect the eternal processions. It was signally appropriate that the only begotten Son of the Father should have become the son of Mary. 'Therefore' continues Anselm, 'no divine person other than the Son ought to become flesh, since there cannot be any least inappropriate thing in God. For although we declare that the Son in his humanity is less than the Father or the Holy Spirit, yet the latter two persons do not on that account surpass the Son, since the Son also has the same majesty whereby he himself is also superior to his humanity.' (p. 251). 

It is not right to say that because there are three persons in the one God that all three persons therefore became incarnate. The incarnation was not an act of the divine nature, but an act of a divine person, namely the Son.  Neither do we say that the Son as the second person of the Trinity became a human person at the incarnation. Rather, the Son took a human nature in addition to his divine nature into the unity of his person. Having said that, the external acts of the Trinity are undivided so the Son did not become man apart from the Father who sent him and the Spirit by whom his human nature was conceived in the womb of Mary. 

Anselm's On the Incarnation of the Word might seem to address a rather abstruse point; that the whole Trinity became incarnate, rather than simply the Son. Who would ever say such a thing these days? His letter is worth reading, however. Anselm's grasp of Catholic trinitarian dogma is is remarkably clear and profound. The arguments he deploys to refute his opponent's theological novelty are in full accord with the Nicene Creed and Definition of Chalcedon

The simplistic biblicism of some sectors of Evangelicalism has left its pastors and theologians incapable of doing much more than trading proof texts. Our ability to engage in theology as a work of 'holy reason', or 'faith seeking understanding' is often weak and underdeveloped compared with Medieval theologians such as Anselm, the Church Fathers, the Reformers and their Orthodox Reformed successors.  

The Reformers did not jettison the creedal heritage of the church. The Westminster Confession of Faith and its Congregational and Baptist derivatives (the Savoy Declaration and  the Second London Baptist Confession) bear all the hallmarks of historic doctrinal orthodoxy. See this Tabular Comparison for Chapters II (The Trinity) & VIII (Christ the Mediator). We are Reformed Catholics, recognising that while Scripture alone has magisterial authority for the church, the ancient creeds have ministerial authority, as they accurately summarise key Bible teachings and help to guard against erroneous ideas. 

In recent years Evangelicals have denied the eternal generation of the Son, which is a key component of trinitarian theology, here and here. Others have posited that will is a property of persons rather than the being of God, which leads to them saying that the Son eternally submitted his will to that of the Father, here. Anselm is a better guide to understanding the relations between the three persons in the being of God and what that means for the incarnation. 

The Trinity and the incarnation are the two great mysteries of the Christian faith. The role of creeds, confessions and classic treatments of these doctrines is not to fully explain the fundamental truths of Holy Scripture. Rather, such texts serve to erect a fence around the high mysteries of divine self-revelation. In doing so they act as a safeguard against error and provide us with sound parameters for faith seeking understanding. 

As to 'Why God Became Man', that's next on my 'Christmas with Anselm' reading list. But I guess that tree tinsel decked-tree will have to go up sometime. 

Providence Baptist Church Online Carol Service

 So here's our Online Carol Service with carols to sing along to at home, Bible readings by members of the congregation, a nativity video with a dragon in it and a message from me, 'Jesus: After Darkness, Light'. 

Friday, December 11, 2020

Christmas Services at Providence & Ebenezer

Things are quite different for our two churches this year. At Providence we would normally have Christmas parties for our Bright Sparks playgroup and One Way Club for primary school aged children. Bright Sparks hasn't been operating since the March lockdown and One Way Club has moved online for now. Providence usually has an All Age Carol Service on the Sunday before Christmas, which is often well supported by families from our playgroup and children's work. None of that will be happening, I'm afraid. 

But we still want to share the good news of Jesus with people in our local communities. The poster above has info on the Providence Online Christmas Activities. The Online Carol Service on Sunday 13 December at 4.00pm will include carols to sing along to at home, readings from the Bible, a nativity video featuring a dragon, and a message from me. I'm also looking forward to interviewing Phil Heaps on his book, Who Stole Christmas? at 6.00pm on Sunday.

At Ebenezer Baptist Church we'd usually have a 'Time for Tea+' Christmas Special, a Carol Service followed by a festive spread. In place of that will be livestreaming a Carol Service on Sunday 20th December at 4.30pm. 

You'll find all these services and activities livestreamed to our Facebook page, or you'll be able catch up later if you prefer.