Thursday, March 30, 2023

Natural Theology by Geerhardus Vos

Reformation Heritage Books, 2022, 106pp
Gerhardus Vos will be know to readers of this blog for his famous work, Biblical Theology, published by the Banner of Truth Trust. Vos served as Professor of Biblical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary from 1892 until his retirement in 1932. His main interest during that period was in tracing the redemptive-historical flow of the Bible’s big story. Prior to that he taught at the Theological School at Grand Rapids, where among other things Vos lectured on dogmatics and natural theology.
It is commonplace to say that God has two books in which he has revealed himself; the ‘Book of Nature’ and the ‘Book of Scripture’. The task of natural theology is trace what can be seen of God’s self-revelation in the created order. In a useful introduction to the work under review John V. Fesko places Vos’s contribution to the field of natural theology in the context of Reformed thought. John Calvin and his fellow Reformers drew on the teaching of earlier theologians to emphasise that while God reveals his existence to all in nature (Romans 1:19-20), natural revelation cannot give saving knowledge to sinners. Fesko argues of Cornelius Van Til’s negative attitude towards natural theology was a departure from the mainstream Reformed teaching as represented by Vos.
The main body of the work is drawn from notes made on Vos’s lectures on natural theology by his students at Grand Rapids. His lectures would follow and question and answer format. This is retained in the text. But what may have been an effective means of communication in the lecture hall does not work quite so well on the printed page. The Q&A approach makes it more difficult for the reader to follow the overall drift of Vos’s argument and a sense of momentum is lost.
That said, there are good things here. Vos gives attention to the meaning of natural theology. He discusses the strengths and weaknesses of arguments for the existence of God. The Professor interacts with older and more modern objections to arguments for God’s existence, many of which are still doing the rounds today.
*Reviewed for the Banner of Truth Magazine, 

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Pure Church: Recovering God's plan for local churches

Edited by: David Skull, Andrew King & Jim Sayers
Grace Publications, 2022, 283pp

I've been using this book as a tool for discussing church membership with someone who is not from a Baptist background. Meeting up to discuss a chapter or two at a time has helped to clarify the biblical teaching on the church that we seek to put into practice as a fellowship. The aim of this work is to sketch out a biblical vision of church life from a Grace Baptist perspective. The premise here is that God has a plan for how local churches should function and that he has revealed that plan in Holy Scripture. Of course, there are true gospel churches other than of the Grace Baptist variety. That is acknowledged in the first chapter, on The Visible Church. The visible church is the manifestation on earth of the universal church of Jesus Christ to which all genuine believers belong, irrespective of the denominational label. But the visible church is only made manifest when a local congregation holds to and holds forth the message of the gospel. 

That is the place to start when it comes to the biblical doctrine of the church. Not in finding snazzy new ways of 'doing church for the 21st century', but by having a sound grasp of the gospel of salvation that calls the church into being. These are the truths of 'first importance' defined by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 and helpfully outlined by Jim Sayers in the first chapter. Issues such as church membership and the proper subjects of baptism are second order doctrines. They may not be essential for salvation, but they are certainly not unimportant when it comes to recovering a biblical understanding of church life. 

Evangelicals have sometimes justified serving in theologically mixed denominations on the grounds that having unconverted members in the churches makes them a 'good pool to fish from'. Convinced Baptists believe that according to the New Testament local churches are gatherings of converted and baptised people where the Lord's Supper is celebrated. These matters are helpfully discussed in chapters two to five, on Conversion, Baptism, Membership and The Lord's Supper. 

On the Day of Pentecost Peter urged his hearers, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." (Acts 2:38). Luke then tells us, "So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls." (Acts 2:41). That repentant and baptised people were added to the Jerusalem church strongly suggests a properly defined church membership made up of converted individuals. We should also bear in mind that it was possible for someone to be removed from the membership of a local church should they stray into serious error, or fall into open sin. The fact that they could be put out implies that they were formally received into the church in the first place. 

We live in highly individualistic times in which the consumer is king or queen. That may be well and good when it comes to choosing our favourite breakfast cereal, but such an attitude can be disastrous when it comes to following Jesus. The Lord has not simply saved a bunch of random individuals. He is gathering people together into his body, the church. If we may continue with Luke's description of the rapidly congregation at Jerusalem, "And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." (Acts 2:42). Discipleship and discipline are two sides of the same coin when it comes to how local churches seek to form converts into fruitful followers of Jesus. See chapters six and seven. 

Discipleship is an essential element of the Great Commission, Matthew 28:19-20. It involves both formal teaching by pastors and teachers in the church and also members caring for each other and encouraging one another in the life of faith. Church discipline acts as a corrective when church members stray. Its purpose is to safeguard the purity of the church and to restore the straying member to faithful Christian discipleship. The Lord Jesus has given his local churches the keys of the kingdom that they may admit to their number those who have made a credible profession of faith and remove from their number those whose credibility as believers is in doubt. Attention is drawn to Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Corinthians 5. 

Chapters eight and nine deal with the Independent governance of the church and church leadership. Baptists believe that each local church is independent under the lordship of Christ and subject to the authority of Scripture. The church members' meeting is the key decision making body of the church. Leaders are appointed by church members and may be removed by them if necessary. The biblical pattern for church leadership is one of a team of elders who share in the oversight of the flock, one or more of whom may be called to 'labour in the word and teaching' (1 Timothy 5:17) on a full time basis. The qualities required of overseers are detailed in 1 Timothy 3:1-7. Deacons are appointed to meet the practical needs of the church in line with Acts 6:1-7 and 1 Timothy 3:8-13.  

For all the right and proper emphasis on the importance of local churches comprised of baptised believers, the value of inter-church fellowship is also underlined in the final chapter on Gospel Unity. Churches with a shared confession of faith such as the Second London Baptist Confession, 1689 may wish to form formal associations. Confessional Grace Baptist Churches can enjoy fellowship with churches from other Evangelical and Reformed groupings. This may involve meeting together for times of ministry and prayer, or supporting shared activities like youth work. 

Despite the title, the writers of Pure Church do not claim that Grace Baptist Churches have reached a state of ecclesiological perfection and purity. Far from it. But they do hold that it is for the good of individual believers and churches when God's plan for the local church is followed. The various authors of this book have strongly Reformed Baptist convictions, but they do not lapse into sectarian polemic against those who belong to other church groupings. The stance taken is sometimes more 'Strict Baptist' on church membership and the Lord's Supper than all Grace Baptists would be willing to countenance. Surprisingly perhaps, the teaching of the Second London Baptist Confession on matters covered here isn't cited by the authors, which is something of an omission. That said, the work offers a lively and compelling vision of church life such as may be discovered in the pages of the New Testament. 

Monday, March 27, 2023

Cultural Christianity


Several years ago we spent our summer holidays in Carmarthen, West Wales. Disaster struck. I ran out of books to read. But ever the intrepid traveller I endeavoured to remedy the situation by popping into a local bookshop. Browsing the history section, a book with an orange and gold cover caught my eye. It was Rubicon by Tom Holland, who was originally from Salisbury. The book told the story of the rise of Julius Caesar. It was a bloodthirsty tale of ambitious men jostling to become top dog in Rome.

Caesar made a name for himself when leading the campaign to subdue Gaul. It is said that in pursuit of that goal he slaughtered a million Gauls and enslaved a million more. Today we would call him a war criminal and demand he be tried for his atrocities at the Hague. But the people of Rome hailed Caesar as a hero. The glittering prize of being appointed ‘dictator for life’ was bestowed upon him in 49 BC. Although his life was cut short when Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March in 44 BC. (This is discussed on The Rest is History podcast with Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook, 13 February 2023). 

At first Holland admired the heroes of ancient Greece and Rome, but the more he immersed himself in that world, the more he was disturbed by their casual cruelty. The author realised that he was viewing the actions of the likes of Julius Caesar from the perspective of a culture that was deeply steeped in the Christian faith. Christianity teaches that all people are made in the image of God and are therefore worthy of dignity and respect (even Gauls!). That was the basis of modern day human rights. Jesus said, ‘blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth’. Caesar wouldn’t have agreed with that. But today we champion the underdog and demand that the poor receive the help they need.

Tom Holland doesn’t claim to be a personal follower of the Lord Jesus, but he does recognise that some of our most cherished values derive from the Christian faith. His book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind shows how the faith has shaped our culture. But it is one thing to admire ‘Christian values’ and another to actually be a Christian

The Christian believes that Jesus is the Son of God who died upon the cross for our sins and rose again from the dead. Jesus promises those who believe in him a place in his everlasting kingdom. Cultural Christianity may admire the faith for its benefits, often picking and choosing the bits it likes, while rejecting the rest. But the kingdom of heaven is not to be selectively admired from outside, but entered as a person is transformed on the inside. As Jesus said, "Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

* For the March edition of various local parish magazines