Saturday, August 13, 2022

An unexpected visit to the National Gallery

The car started to make a funny noise as we travelled to London for a family visit. The idea was that we would stay in London from Thursday to Saturday and then set off to Eastbourne for a two week break. 

But as we turned off the M4 we noticed the car sounded a bit odd. Like our old school unleaded guzzling Ford Focus had transitioned into a whining elecric job. Freaky. On arriving at our destination a peek under the bonnet revealed a fluid leak. Not engine oil, but whatever it was, there was quite a bit of it. Too much to risk proceeding with our journey without getting it looked at. 

A visit to a garage on Saturday morning revealed that the power steering pipe needed replacing. Couldn't be done until Monday at the earliest. We were stuck. In London. Where there's always stuff to see and do.

Like arty stuff in an air conned gallery during yet another summer 2022 hot spell. And so we braved the sweltering Bakerloo line and headed for the effortlessly cool National Gallery. 

We hadn't visited for years, so it was like bumping into old friend after old friend as we wandered through the various exhibition rooms. There's Rembrandt as a young man and then as an oldie. The greatest self-portraits ever? And his epic Belshazzar's Feast. 

I wanted to see Turner's The Fighting Temeraire. There it was. Like, wow. The ghostly old ship being towed to the breaker's yard by the fiery, modern tug boat. That sunset. On the way we saw Gainsborough's portraits of gentry couples proudly posing on their estates, shooting a confident gaze at their  viewers. Placed next to tenderly intimate depictions of the painter's young daughters. 

Then the Monets and Reniors. Not to mention Van Gogh's Sunflowers, Chair and Wheat Field. It was the visual eqivalent of playing a setlist of all your favorite songs, with some welcome surprises thrown in. And this was a rushed 2 hour visit in which we sampled only some of the artworks on display in the grandeur of the National Gallery. All for free. To think, we could have been travelling to Eastbourne. 

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

An Introduction to John Owen: A Christian Vision for Every Stage of Life, by Crawford Gribben

Crossway, 2020, 190pp

Crawford Gribben has written a full scale biography of John Owen entitled, John Owen and English Puritanism: Experiences of Defeat. This is something different. Here Owen's story is interwoven with his teachings on how the Christian faith casts light on every stage of life, from childhood to death and eternal life. Novices will find this a useful way of getting into Owen and will be stimulated to dive deeper. Seasoned Owen readers will discover fresh insights into some of his key writings. 


John Owen was a particular favourite among early Particular Baptists such as Nehemiah Cox. They valued his account of the relationship between the old and new covenants, which they saw as tending in a Baptist direction. Owen was an Independent and a paedobaptist, however. He wrote in defence of infant baptism, but he had a cordial relationship with the Particular Baptists.  Unlike other contemporaries he did not accuse them of being schismatic Donatists because they insisted on baptising believers who had been 'baptised' as babies. 

Owen's advocacy of infant baptism made for tensions in his ecclesiology. He acknowledged that in the apostolic church "all baptized initiated persons, ingrafted into the church" were recognised as "sanctified persons" (p. 57). Further, "the proper subjects of baptism" are "professed believers... and their infant seed" (p. 58). But this did not mean children of believers should be admitted to church membership, at least not until they had made a credible profession of faith. Admitting unconverted people into the church would have compromised the Independent's vision of churches as a gatherings of visible saints. 'Well, quite', Owen's Baptist friends may have been tempted to say. 

Issues of baptism aside, Owen firmly believed that the children of believers needed careful instruction in the faith. To that end he penned The Primer and The Principles of the Doctrine of Christ, Unfolded in Two Short Catechisms. These texts were intended to supplement the teaching children will have received in church meetings.   


The rise of William Laud not only made church life difficult for Puritan-minded types. It also made things rather challenging for godly students at Oxford and Cambridge. Certainly for Owen, whose dreams of pursuing an academic career at Oxford were dashed. 

Owen's university days had given him a good grounding in theology, but it was through the ministry of an unknown preacher in London that he was converted. Now he had an experiential knowledge of the truths he had studied so diligently at Oxford. 

Owen returned to the city in 1651, where he was appointed dean of Christ Church and then vice-chancellor of the university.  He took the opportunity to preach to the young people in his charge. Knowing the danger of having only an intellectual knowledge of the truth, the laid great emphasis on  practical godliness. John Locke was among Owen's students, but he didn't take kindly to the Puritan's attempts at fostering reformation among the student body.  

Two of Owen's sermon series preached to students at Oxford later became the basis of some of his most celebrated works, On the Mortification of Sin and Of Communion with GodIn the second title, Owen sought to show how the believer may enjoy distinct communion with each person of the Holy Trinity. He wanted his students not only to have a clear understanding of orthodox theology, but also to deep delight  in the one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

Middle Age

The Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 spelled the end of Owen's role as a prominent public figure. He was dismissed from Oxford and had to keep a low profile, giving himself to pastoral ministry among Independent congregations. Owen now had to plead with the authorities to grant toleration to Puritans who would not conform to the Church of England. He argued that Nonconformists were law abiding citizens who sought to contribute to the common good of England. They were no threat to the established order and should therefore be accorded liberty to practice their faith free from persecution. Owen's ideas were later taken up by his old student, John Locke, in An Essay Concerning Toleration, which is often regarded as a key text in the development of classic liberalism. 

For Owen, middle age involved an experience of painful defeat that followed the collapse of Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth. But if this world often meant suffering for the godly, Owen consoled himself, "It is but yet a little while before it will be no grief of heart unto us for to have done or suffered any thing for the name of the Lord Jesus." (p. 116).

Death and Eternal Life

John Owen looked forward to better days for Christ's 'peaceable kingdom' on earth. Jesus would not, he believed, "leave the world in this state, and set up his kingdom on a molehill." (p. 128). But in later life he lost confidence in his ability to understand what God was doing in history. Gone was the old certainty that the Lord was on the side of Parliament, showing his approval by granting the Ironsides victory over the Royalists at Naseby and Marston Moor. After all, the Charles II was now King, and those identified with the Good Old Cause found themselves on the losing side. He reflected, "I do not know... a greater rebuke, in the whole course of my ministry, than that I have been labouring in the fire to discover the causes of God's withdrawing from us without any success." (p. 130). 

John Owen died on 24 August 1683. He knew that death is not a kindly friend, but an unnatural rending of body and soul due to sin. But death could be welcomed, none the less. For the believer death means the end of a lifelong struggle with sin and a departure from this world to be with Christ. Despite the disappointments and reversals he experienced of his earthly life, Owen did not die a broken, disillusioned man. One of his final works was Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ, in which he sought to set forth his view of the supreme glory of the Lord Jesus. The believing soul, which has glimpsed the glory of Christ by faith will at last see him by sight. "the sight of God in Christ, which is intellectual, not corporeal; finite, not absolutely comprehensive of the divine essence, is the sum of our future blessedness." (p. 139). 

In his conclusion the author reflects on Owen's lasting impact on society and the the church. The old Puritan's ideas on religious toleration helped to sow the seeds of classic liberalism. His theological writings are the subject of renewed attention in the contemporary Evangelical world. 

Crawford Gribben has ably opened up John Owen's Christian vision for every stage of life. An excellent read. 

* I am grateful to the author for kindly sending me a free copy. 

Wednesday, August 03, 2022

A tough question

With Boris Johnson announcing that he is standing down as Prime Minister various candidates have been vying for his job. Now the list has been whittled down to the final two, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. It is up to Conservative party members to decide who will be the next occupant of 10 Downing Street. You would expect journalists to quiz the candidates on what they would do about the cost of living crisis if they gained power, would they cut taxes and so on. But these days it seems than no media interview or hustings event is complete without politicians being asked: ‘What is a woman?’ Tough question. 

The dictionary definition is ‘adult human female’. No surprises there. But giving that answer could get a politician into hot water with those who believe that anyone who says they are a woman is a woman. Even if their anatomy suggests otherwise. Debates over the ‘trans’ issue have become a highly contested aspect of today’s ‘culture wars’. Everyday words are changed to reflect this. In guidelines produced by one NHS trust ‘mothers’ are renamed  'birthing parents’, ‘fathers’ as ‘second biological parent’. There is great concern over the number of children being referred to the NHS Gender Identity Development Service because they believe they were born in the wrong body. The vast majority of children seeking help are girls. It was recently announced that the Tavistock child gender identity clinic is due to close, following criticism the quality of care provided in an independent review

Of course, people suffering from gender dysphoria should be treated with respect and given all the help they need. But there is no escaping biological reality. Each cell in our bodies either has two X chromosomes (female) or one X and one Y chromosome (male). That cannot be changed. It is the way God made us, “So God created mankind in his own image, male and female he created them.” The Bible honours the created differences between men and women, but also insists that male and female are of equal value and worth before God. 

Jesus counted women as well as men among his early followers. According to the gospel accounts it was women who first discovered that Jesus’ tomb was empty and saw him risen from the dead. At the time of the early church society was deeply divided between ethnic groups, salves and masters, men and women. Yet the Christian message was one that brought people together. It teaches us that we are all sinners, but through Jesus we can be forgiven and be put right with God. To believe in him is to belong to his people, where there is “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

*For the August edition of various parish magazines