Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Keeping The Sabbath

There are at least two dangers facing us with regard to Sabbath-keeping today. The first concerns the fact that we live in a multi-faith society in which various religions have different holy days. It is possible for many to assume that Sunday is the Christian holy day in the same way as Friday is the Moslem holy day and Saturday the Jewish holy day. Instead Christians should regard the Sabbath as holy, but they should do so because it is God’s day, the one day of the week that he has chosen for himself.

The second danger facing us is that we choose tradition rather than the Bible as our guide for how to keep fourth commandment. This is not a new method; the Saviour had to confront a similar outlook among the religious people of his time. It was also the outlook that Isaiah rebuked in Isaiah 58, a chapter in which the Lord through the prophet rebuked his listeners because they used the Sabbath for their own ends, even although they were engaged in religious activities. In that chapter Isaiah points out that true Sabbath-keeping does not involve putting on an outward appearance of repentance. Instead it demands that God’s people help the needy by acts of compassion (he mentions, for example, that it is an occasion for feeding the poor at one’s own table). It is amazing, when we read the Gospels, to discover that the religious authorities rebuked Jesus for doing acts of compassion on the Sabbath. They had been blinded to God’s requirements by their own rituals.

What are appropriate attitudes to have on the Sabbath? There are many things that could be said in addition to doing works of mercy. One attitude that should be expressed is joyful gratitude to the Saviour for coming to our aid when he died on the cross. The Lord’s Day, the Christian Sabbath, was the day on which he arose from the dead, and it has become a weekly reminder of the victory he obtained. The Sabbath is a day for celebrating with others the triumph of the Saviour.

Each Sabbath is also an opportunity for getting things into perspective again. During the week we are taken up with other matters and sometimes they can divert us from focussing on God. The Sabbath is an opportunity to review the previous week from a spiritual perspective and assess whether or not we were dedicated to the Lord in what we did in our homes, in our work, in our pleasures etc. It is also an opportunity to ask for grace for the coming week’s activities so that we will do them for the glory of God. If we conclude that there are some things that we could not do for his glory, then we should not do them.

Isaiah 58:8-14 contains great promises for those who keep the Sabbath in a proper manner: answered prayer, spiritual vitality, spiritual growth and recovery, increased fellowship with the Lord. May it not be the case that the cause of the low level of spiritual life found throughout Christian circles in our country today is a failure to keep the Sabbath as God wants it to be done. It may help us if we were to meditate on Isaiah 58 for a few minutes every Sunday.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

The Rise of Evangelicalism by Mark Noll (IVP)

The Rise of Evangelicalism by Mark Noll is the first volume in five-volume set that will consider the development of evangelicalism in the English-speaking world since the seventeenth century. The author, a well-known writer on American evangelicalism, is co-editor of the series with David Bebbington. This volume covers most of the eighteenth century, focussing in the main on the revivals associated with Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield and John Wesley, and discussing some of their effects on British and early American society.

While the term ‘evangelical’ had been used almost as a synonym for Protestant in the century following the Reformation, Noll has chosen to use it as describing a movement that has minimised denominational distinctives and instead stressed the necessity of the new birth and holy living. This movement rose out of English Puritanism, European Pietism and Anglican spirituality, and it is not difficult to sense it was a reaction against a sterile form of Protestantism. George Whitefield stands out as the spokesperson for this movement and no doubt denominational distinctives were not a priority for him (others were not so ready to abandon their convictions on church polity, as was seen in the refusal of Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine to endorse Whitefield when he preached, with much success, in Church of Scotland congregations).

The second half of the seventeenth century was a time of significant change. Developments in international trade between Europe and America were utilised by the evangelicals to begin and maintain trans-Atlantic links that furthered their cause. They also became increasing involved in attempting to improve social conditions, with the best-known response being their opposition to the slave trade.

Noll has written an engaging and comprehensive account of a movement that can be observed from two different viewpoints. At one level, the large number of converts from the revivals that gave it much of its impetus was the work of the Holy Spirit, as were the spiritual practices that these converts engaged in. At the same time, the movement was a social force that contributed to the changing culture that was adjusting to the opinions of the Enlightenment. Noll manages to maintain both viewpoints in balance as he steers the reader through a complex story.

This volume is an excellent beginning to what should be a valuable collection.

1 and 2 Timothy by William B. Barcley (Evangelical Press)

The author of this hardback commentary is Associate Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi, and pastor of Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Learned, Mississippi. This combination of theological training of future pastors and weekly Bible exposition to lay people enables him to provide a commentary that is both biblically accurate and readable. He gives greater space to 1 Timothy (200 pages), which he subtitles, ‘The priorities of a godly church’, than to 2 Timothy (90 pages) which he subtitles, ‘The final words of the great apostle’. Each biblical book is divided into sections and sub-sections, with identifiable application passages occurring frequently. These application passages will be of help to preachers who use this commentary.

Regarding 1 Timothy, he notes that the issues dealt with by Paul are still of importance for today’s church, such as features of public worship, the role of women, the nature of preaching, the qualifications for leadership, and practical help for the poor. These and other issues are explained in a lucid and succinct manner and will help any who consult this work.

Since 2 Timothy was Paul’s last letter before his martyrdom, it is more poignant than 1 Timothy, and reveals the tenderness of his heart in his concern for the spiritual development and ongoing faithfulness of his close associate, Timothy. Barcley also stresses the attitudes of commitment to people and confidence in them that marked Paul as a servant of Christ and gives his opinion that ‘the greatest characteristic of Christ’s servants is not their personal strength, not their charismatic personality, not their gifts and talents. It is their reliance – reliance on others, reliance on the grace of God. Is that at the top of your church’s ministerial job description.’

This commentary is recommended for preachers who wish to review their ministries, for church leaders concerned about fulfilling their roles, and for church members desiring to have a biblical understanding of church life. Barcley observes that ‘the modern evangelical attitude that the Christian life is simply “Jesus and me” is a departure from biblical growth. The Bible knows of no proper Christianity, and certainly no health and growth in the Christian life, apart from active involvement in the church of Jesus Christ.’ This commentary is a challenging reminder of the importance of Christian service in the context of Christ’s church.

An Iron Pillar (A biography of William Romaine) by Tim Shenton

This 450-page biography of a leading Anglican evangelical preacher of the eighteenth century is a detailed treatment of his life and times. Romaine was one of several outstanding preachers provided by Christ to help in the process of revitalizing his church during and after the Evangelical Revival in Britain that is linked to the activities of Whitefield and Wesley. This biography is a helpful addition to our reading of this period.

In the volume we meet many of these preachers and others. Indeed, the one defect I found with the volume was the regular inclusion of details of fringe characters (no doubt they were important figures in their own ministries or activities, but I did not find these snippets of information as essential for appreciating the life and times of Romaine). But I would not want that small negative comment to detract from the benefit of reading this fine book.

Romaine, who died in 1795, was born in 1714 to a devout and prominent Christian family in Hartlepool. He possessed a great intellect which was displayed in his university studies and also in the compilation of a Hebrew concordance and dictionary (unlike many, he increased in his understanding of Hebrew throughout his life!). He moved to London, hoping that his abilities would secure him an ecclesiastical position. Yet his godly family background and intellectual capability were not sufficient to make him an effective communicator of the faith. Contrary to previous accounts of Romaine’s life, the author provides persuasive evidence to show that Romaine was not only a cleric but also a preacher of evangelical doctrine before his conversion. His hearers were impressed by his lectures but their lives were not transformed.

The times in which Romaine and others preached was marked by immorality and drunkenness among the poor, scepticism among the rich, and dead orthodoxy in the national church (the doctrine of Christ’s imputed righteousness was particularly detested). One observer commented that when Romaine was converted, there were about twenty evangelical preachers in the Church of England; by his death there were about 300. This growth can be traced in part to the regular weekly time of prayer begun by Romaine and his friends to address this area of concern.
Once he was converted, Romaine’s preaching changed and he became one of the most earnest and effective evangelists of the period, with thousands being converted through his preaching. He quickly became a leader of the evangelical party in the Anglican church (he remained a committed Anglican throughout his life even when he was prevented by church authorities from using their properties to preach the gospel).

Further opportunities to preach came through Lady Huntington’s provision of places and other forms of support. Many believers were fed through his regular Bible expositions and he achieved the considerable feat of managing to preach through the entire Bible. He used the printed page, primarily sermons, to correct false opinions and provide guidance for many who could not hear him physically.

His commitment to Anglicanism did not prevent him ministering alongside preachers from the various non-Anglican Protestant groups, and he became a leader within English Evangelicalism in general.

As is the case with each of us, it is easy for our strengths to become our weaknesses, and this was the case with Romaine. His energy and determination were strengths when he was engaged in spreading the faith, but sadly they could make him stubborn and publicly foolish (as when he persisted in debating against the scientific discoveries of Isaac Newton and others) or zealously involved in popular but wrong movements (he vehemently and successfully opposed giving naturalization to Jews living in Britain). When he devoted his abilities to spreading the gospel and strengthening the faith of believers, he was a great tool in the Master’s hand; when he involved himself in other activities, his chosen actions were questionable. Despite these mistakes, he was used by his Master.

This volume deserves to be read by as many as possible. Ministers should read it because it describes a servant who was devoted to the calling of his Master and whose service was owned by his Master. Those interested in church history will discover fresh insights into a crucial period of British church life. Believers should read it in order to be stimulated to pray for revival. The features of the time in which Romaine and others worked for the Lord are very similar to our own: immorality in society, breakdown of family life, rampant poverty, and an ineffective church. It is well-known that these features were widespread throughout western Europe at the lifetime of Romaine. In France, they led to the horrors of the French revolution of 1789; in Britain, the Lord sent revival and enabled his church to begin changing a corrupt society. This interesting volume should challenge us to pray for a similar, if not a greater, revival.

Commentary on Colossians by John Davenant

This comprehensive commentary was originally published in Latin in 1627; the English edition was published in two volumes in 1831 (about 850 pages in total). Included in this one-volume edition is a substantial biography of John Davenant (1576-1641) by the translator of the commentary, Josiah Allport.

In addition to the many helpful footnotes provided by the translator, particularly with regard to references by Davenant to writers from the early church and Reformation periods, there is a useful index of subjects dealt with in the commentary and a list of intriguing theological questions discussed by the author.

The author was a celebrated theologian (he was the writer of an important work on the doctrine of justification) and churchman (he was Bishop of Salisbury), as well as being one of the Church of England delegates at the Synod of Dort in 1618. As was the case with several theologians of the Anglican Church at that time, he did not accept limited atonement, and indeed wrote a dissertation in defence of an unlimited atonement. 

Nevertheless, as a leading scholar of the Reformed Faith in England, his vast learning and his devotional habits enabled him to produce a commentary that was not only outstanding in its original edition but also an excellent resource for subsequent generations of preachers. It is not surprising that this work was highly recommended by Spurgeon and others for its depth, accuracy and discursiveness.

Obviously, the commentary does not deal with issues that have been the topic of recent discussion of this letter. Nevertheless, this commentary will be a very useful help for preaching through the Book of Colossians. The language is straightforward and easy to understand, and his comments are usually relevant to aspects of the passage about which preachers and others need insight, whether it deals with important aspects of Christology or areas of Christian living. 

In conclusion, I would suggest that his remarks on Colossians 4:3-4 on praying for ministers and on preaching by ministers, if implemented, would result in edifying sermons.

God's Words in Human Words

I have wondered sometimes what it was like to observe the influence of higher criticism on evangelical institutions in Scotland during the second half of the nineteenth century. Having attended some of the events at the recent Society for Biblical Literature meeting in Boston, I now have some awareness of what the past influence would have been. My appreciation is not based on travel back in time, but on witnessing a discussion arranged by a prominent American Christian publisher with a notable evangelical pedigree. The discussion concerned a recent Baker publication called God’s Words in Human Words, sub-titled ‘An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship,’ written by Kenton L. Sparks.

The author of this work responded to the panel who discussed his book, none of whom found fault with his departure from evangelical standards concerning the inerrancy and reliability of the Bible. In his comments, he stated emphatically that he did not believe in Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy (it was put together several centuries later); he was convinced that many Old Testament prophecies had not been fulfilled within their possible time span, and so were failures (I did not hear him say anything about the possibility that some divine promises of blessing are conditional upon appropriate responses of those who heard them); and he was adamant that the apocalyptic sections of Daniel come from the second century BC and not from the accepted time of Daniel. Yet he announced that he was an evangelical, teaches at an institution which claims to be evangelical, and is published by a company that says it is evangelical.

As I listened to his response, I realised that all I had to do was imagine that the speaker was Robertson Smith in the final third of the nineteenth century in Scotland. He too shared the opinions now expressed by Sparks and also claimed to be an evangelical while teaching at an evangelical seminary (the Free Church College in Edinburgh). Despite the initial interest and success of Smith’s views within the church and the profit made by publishers of his works, the results of his (and others) teaching were catastrophic for evangelical churches, denominations and theological institutions that adopted them as they were for publishers who advocated them and for the thousands of professing Christians who accepted them. Yet the applause of acceptability by the educational elite did not mean that tolerance of error was a means of spreading evangelical influence.

Will the current attempt be any more successful? There is wholesale rewriting of the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures taking place today across the evangelical spectrum. Great interest is being aroused, and desire for literature on the topic is seemingly insatiable, with many leading publishers involved. Inevitably, more books will follow, but perhaps we can find out what they will contain by looking back to see what their predecessors wrote about when the same views were articulated by the higher critics of the nineteenth century. The large evangelical denominations of Scotland in the nineteenth century quickly disappeared, and one of the reasons for their decline was their willing embrace of higher critical views.

Of course, the other detail that the whole discussion reveals is that the term ‘evangelical’ and its equivalents are so meaningless that using them conveys no accurate information about the user until he/she gives further details. At one time, in twentieth century Western Evangelicalism, it was assumed that an evangelical was an inerrantist as far as the Bible was concerted. No doubt, some scholars such as James Orr can be mentioned as being different from that rule. But that is the point – he was an exception. Today, the exceptions are those who believe in inerrancy and it seems that they are observing the speedy decline of the evangelical movement, a decline that is hastened from within evangelicalism itself.

There are other lessons from that period as well, which may have more relevance for those who accept the inerrancy of the Bible. One response to the higher critics by evangelicals was to abandon doctrinal convictions under the illusion that while it was essential to maintain a high view of the Bible it was not so essential to maintain accurate views regarding other doctrines of the faith and they could be adjusted and tweaked in order to make them acceptable to all who acknowledged the inerrancy of the Bible. Doctrines such as sovereign election and particular atonement were minimised. Instead of compromising with those who opposed their views on inerrancy, many compromised on other doctrines. History tells us that such a response, while enthusiastically adopted for a while, even perhaps by a large number of supporters, does not protect the church from decline.

Another response was to adopt the lifeboat mentality which saw that the church was sinking and instead of trying to repair the holes launched lifeboats to pick up those who were sinking in the waters. The lifeboats were evangelistic efforts and missions, which initially had great success, as the number of defunct buildings testifies to us today. But this response did not prevent the church from declining, and in some cases from disappearing altogether.

No doubt other lessons can be deduced. Perhaps others will assume that the ones I have highlighted have been distorted. If I have done so, I apologise. Yet I would suggest that one important response was missing during the decades when higher criticism was rampant and seems to be missing today as well. This response is also sadly missing in me, and it is a lack of serious prayer about the whole issue. Pointing out the errors and defects in various movements and writings is the easy part; getting on our knees and pleading with God to purify his church and restore his cause is another matter altogether.

Music in the church (1)

Recently, during a trip to America, I attended three different congregations in which music was an important feature of their worship. The first congregation was composed mainly of older worshippers (about one hundred of them), but among them was an organist and a choir of about a dozen people. It was obvious to all in the congregation who could hear them that their voices were well past their best days. I don’t mention this to demean them; all I mean is that they did not help the audible worship of God.

The second congregation numbered several hundred (at least five hundred). It did not have a choir or an organist; instead it had a music group with four singers. The musical instruments were very loud, as was the singing of the group. In fact, it was so loud that I could not hear the voices of the large congregation. All that could be heard was the group on the stage, which means that I was observing a concert instead of taking part in the worship of God. The event was no different from a secular concert in which the attenders listen to a group and sing along to the songs without disturbing their neighbours’ attention on the group.

The third congregation was a Presbyterian church in a university city. Most of the congregation was young, with a few older persons in attendance. It also had a group, although unlike the previous one it did not play rock music or scream into the microphones. Instead they sang traditional hymns. Nevertheless their voices also drowned out the sound of the congregation and, in addition, some of the group looked bored stiff.

In each congregation I wanted to inform them that there is a better way to use their voices in the praise of God. Instead of using musical instruments to drown out their voices, they should abandon their instruments and use only the voices of the congregation. In the first and third congregations it would have helped if the worshippers had sat together instead of all over two large buildings. Of course, such would have to sing with all their hearts.

Why tell this story? Because my denomination is considering introducing musical instruments into its public worship services. No doubt some will say that there are congregations in which the above scenarios do not occur. Strange to say, as I think about the very many congregations in which I have observed the use of musical instruments, I cannot think of any which did not have one or more of the above features.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

James Morison (2) -- Becomes a pastor in Kilmarnock

Following his time in Morayshire, Morison went further into the Highlands, to Tain, at the request of Presbytery of Elgin to serve its station there for two months (December 1839 and January 1840). A chapel had been built there four months previously. On arrival, he discovered that the Secession influence was minimal, with about sixty people on average attending the services. 

According to the biographer, Morison brought about a great change in the attitude of the community, with young men being forced to think seriously, some professors of religion realised that they were not possessers of it, and several infidels abandoned their unbelief and became eagers spreaders of the faith. Many came to him for personal counselling. 

Despite this enlarged interest, little is said in the biography of permanent growth of the Secession church in Tain. Perhaps these converts remained with the Church of Scotland and would have joined the Free Church in 1843.

Morison's preaching and its results inevitably led to several calls from Secession congregations. In March 1840, he preached for the first time in Clerk's Lane Church, Kilmarnock (the congregation in which he eventually became a pastor). Prior to receiving its call, he had thought of becoming a travelling evangelist because of the clear influence his preaching was having on hearers all over the country (including his own family). Generally it was his emphasis on God's universal love that enabled listeners to sense inner peace. This developing situation led him to write his first public tract in which he explained his methods for dealing with those who had spiritual perplexities caused by lack of assurance. He was aware that some of his comments would offend the more conservative ministers of his denomination.

At that time, Morison held to what his biographer calls 'Moderate Calvinism' in which he believed that the atonement of Christ was universal. He realised that this belief had implications for the meaning of the doctrine of election. After some thought, he found an answer in the order of events in God's eternal decree, in which his election of some sinners comes after his decision to provide a universal atonement for all sinners. 

His biographer does not indicate whether or not Morison asked the obvious question, 'If God planned a universal atonement, why did he not also arrange a universal election?' His attempt to harmonise a universal atonement with a limited election only creates more problems and does not provide a satisfying answer, and Morison himself later realised this was the case.

The congregation in Kilmarnock had begun in 1777 and had enjoyed notable ministries. However, the pastor who immediately preceded Morison had been forced to resign because of his inability to please two opposing groups within the congregation. One group was nominal and the other was evangelical. Their building could hold 1,000 listeners. 

A listener of Morison's first sermon prior to receiving the call stated that the address gave him 'a marvellous and blissful relief from the doubts which filled my mind by the Calvinistic notions I had received from the Shorter Catechism and the preaching I heard on Sundays'. This individual became a close friend of Morison's. Evidently, even as a probationer seeking a call, Morison made no attempt to hide his differences with Scottish Calvinism.

When the call was signed, it was clear that the congregation was divided, with a substantial group opposed to Morison. Yet the eagerness with which his supporters desired his ministry led him to accept the call. Before he could be inducted, he faced presbytery trials on September 1st, 1840. The demands of the trial were great, but they also revealed Morison's abilities. 

He had to give a lecture on 1 Peter 1:6-9, exegete Philippians 2:5-11, and preach on 1 Timothy 1:5. In addition, he was examined on the Hebrew text of Psalms 141-150, on the Greek New Testament, and on Church History of Britain and Ireland under Cromwell. He also had to deal with the issue of whether or not a sinner can do anything acceptable to God without the influence of the Holy Spirit. 

Despite his insistence that Christ's death was universal, his trials were unanimously sustained, although he noticed that almost all of the members were initially prejudiced against his views. Perhaps his views were allowed because he said that he held to the opinions of John Brown, a theological professor in the denomination's college.

Morison then had to be ordained. On October 1st, the Presbytery met for the ordination and it quickly became clear that several members were concerned about some of his comments in the tract he had published. His explanation was accepted, although he advised to be more careful in what he said, and also to suppress the circulation of the tract. This Morison agreed to do and the ordination took place.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Features of the Preaching of Jesus

I have been preaching through the Sermon on the Mount for a few months and have now completed the series. The final sermon attempted to identify features of the sermon that caused his listeners to be astonished at the Saviour's authority. Below are some suggestions that seem to me to be obvious in this regard.

The first quality of the preaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is its comprehensiveness. When we begin to list the topics he mentions, we soon discover that there are a great number. He speaks about divine attributes, his own activities, the work of the Spirit, prayer, good works, attitudes of the heart, witness by his disciples to others, and many others. What is striking is that he does not go into minute detail about one topic, instead he interlinks a great number of topics. Perhaps this is the reason why his listeners did not find his sermons boring.

A second quality of his preaching, and it is connected to the above point, is his conciseness. Jesus merely states his teaching, and leaves it there. We can take almost any of his comments and see that this is the case. For example, each of the Beatitudes contains several truths, and I am not suggesting it is inappropriate to preach a sermon on each one. Yet we must note that originally each one of them is a concise statement, and each was similar to many other concise statements that made up the sermon. The opposite of concise is long-winded, and often long-windedness obscures truth whereas conciseness declares it.

A third feature of his preaching is creativity and in this heading I would place two sub-features. One is originality and the other is illustrations. Obviously there is a sense in which Jesus was original in his teaching because of his unique understanding of the meaning of the Old Testament. But that is not the meaning of originality that I have in mind. Rather what I mean is that he presented truth in a way that was exclusive to him. In other words, he did not imitate another person, but was himself. The truth he preached was revealed through his own personal identity. As Oswald Sanders describes it, ‘What He said was original in its manner of formulation, in its spirit and atmosphere. It was free from the clich├ęs and casuistry of the Jewish teachings. Old truths were stated in new ways that challenged fresh thought and action. His teaching carries its own stamp of greatness. It was original because his ideals and standards of greatness on many things were the very antithesis of generally accepted standards.’

His creativity was also shown in his frequent use of word pictures or illustrations. He refers to his disciples acting like salt or influencing like light; he pictures a person building a house on a rock and another person building a house on sand. He asks his hearers to imagine the Day of Judgement when individuals will say that they have preached in his name. And he compares prayer to the Father to the interaction between a parent and child over the everyday matter of asking for food. It is obvious that Jesus stressed the value of illustrations as an important means of communicating truth, and the illustrations that he used were taken from everyday life which all his listeners could understand. It is possible to take an illustration from the world of science that would appeal to those with such understanding but which would only confuse other people. The Saviour only used illustrations that his listeners could understand.

Fourthly, the preaching of Jesus was corrective in dealing with the errors of other teachers. We can see this aspect in the section in Matthew 5 in which he exposes the wrong teaching of the scribes and Pharisees, when he deals with the sayings from old time. In his correction, he did not delve deeply into how they came to their erroneous views. Instead he stated each wrong view as it was commonly understood and proceeded to explain in what ways it was wrong.

This corrective quality in his preaching was accompanied by another essential feature, the feature of courage. The Saviour was a very courageous preacher, bold in affirming the truth of God. For Jesus, error was a lie, not merely an opinion, and therefore he strenuously refuted it. Because it was a lie, it would inevitably lead to deception and take people along a wrong road. Therefore he courageously corrected false views and did not deal with them in a mealy-mouthed manner.

Fifthly, Jesus preached with conviction. This is one reason why he used the above-mentioned features. He knew that each aspect of the message he taught was essential truth. Therefore he taught in a serious way, whether he was speaking about the necessity of true sanctification (as depicted in his teaching about slaying indwelling sin) or about the inevitability of the Day of Judgement. For Jesus, there were no doctrines which he could preach without conviction. He instructed earnestly the whole range of his teaching.

Sixthly, Jesus preaching consolingly. He knew that his followers would face huge problems as they lived for him in a hostile world. Ahead of them were troubles that would have terrified them if they had seen them beforehand. In addition, they would all experience personal failings, they would succumb to temptation, they would wonder if restoration was full once they repented. Therefore, the Saviour emphasises again and again the wonderful reality and variegated manner of divine consolation. There is comfort from God for every circumstance, and Jesus gives a wide range of them in the Sermon on the Mount.

Seventhly, Jesus preached conscious of God. We see this in the Sermon of the Mount when he teaches that the sun is God’s sun, that the rain is sent by God, that God clothes the flowers of the field, that God is present with his people when they give to the poor, when they pray, and when they abstain from lawful actions. This was the world-view of Jesus – he lived in the presence of an omnipresent God who knew all things and possessed all power.

Eighthly, Jesus’ preaching centred on himself. While it would be wrong for any other preacher to preach about himself, it was entirely appropriate for him to do so because he was the message. The gospel is about what God has done in Christ, therefore if a message is not Christ-centred, it is not the gospel. It is possible to preach a biblical message that is not the gospel; it is possible to preach a series about great doctrines of the faith and fail to preach the gospel. This happens if the message is not related to Christ. Jesus always preached himself: in the Sermon on the Mount he says that he is the One who will fulfil the law and the prophets (5:17), who speaks with divine authority (‘But I say unto you…’), who reveals the Father in a variety of ways (to see this we need to look at each reference to the Father), and who will be the Judge of all humans at the end of history (7:21-23). Elsewhere in his addresses in the Gospels, he speaks about other matters about himself.

Those features found in Christ’s preaching were in him in a far higher way than they will be found in other preachers. Nevertheless, they should be found in all preachers of Christ. True preaching will be comprehensive, concise, creative, corrective, marked by conviction, consoling, conscious of God and Christ-centred. This is what we should pray for when praying for preachers we know.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

James Morison (1)

I am reading the biography of Principal James Morison, who was a celebrated character in nineteenth century Scottish theology. Brought up within a Calvinistic denomination, he rejected several of its doctrines. Later he was charged with heresy and founded a new denomination as a consequence. Below are some thoughts that come to mind as I make my way through his book.

James Morison is not a well-known figure in Scottish theology today, but for most of the nineteenth century he was a very influential figure because of his theological ideas and his denominational initiatives. If he is known today, it is because several of his commentaries have been reprinted, although it is likely that most who purchase them have little idea as to who he was.

Morison was born in Bathgate in where his father was the minister of the United Secession Church, the body that traced its origins to the secession from the Church of Scotland led by Ebenezer Erskine. When he finished his schooling, he went to Edinburgh University where he proved himself to be a fine student, although as was common in those days he engaged in far too much studying and brought ill health upon himself.

There is no doubt that Morison possessed great intellectual ability, a fact acknowledged both by his University and his theological teachers. The United Secession Church’s faculty included men like George Lawson (author of The History of Joseph), Robert Balmer and John Brown (author of commentaries on Romans, Galatians, Hebrews and Peter, as well as books on Isaiah 53 and much else); the latter two were later to be accused in church courts of believing in an universal atonement, an issue for which Morison himself came into trouble.

During his theological college days, Morison wrote a paper in which he denied the eternal sonship of Christ (while maintaining his deity), and the author of this biography gives evidence that George Lawson approved of this idea. It is surprising how a theological student was licensed in a Scottish Presbyterian denomination after defending such a notion, yet Morison was. But perhaps it is not surprising if Lawson and others were willing to defend him.

Morison was sent to Morayshire, on the verge of the Highlands, to act as a missionary for the summer. During his few weeks in this locality he became convinced of the universal nature of the atonement and stressed it in his preaching, even although he knew it was not in line with the Westminster Confession. He preached a universal atonement and great crowds flocked to hear him, although he was still only a novice in preaching.

It may be that Morison’s preaching in this part of the world prepared for the ultimate disappearance of evangelical Presbyterianism in that area because a couple of decades later several Free Church leaders left the denomination, embraced universal atonement, and formed Plymouth Brethren assemblies.

Morison was driven to clarify the extent of the atonement because he noted that his listeners were troubled by lack of assurance, and his preaching a universal atonement seemed to sort out this pastoral matter. Of course, the issue of assurance cannot really be sorted out by convincing a person that Jesus has died for him because he died for everyone. The only ‘assurance’ that deals with is the concern of someone who is troubled as to whether or not Christ died for him. It does not deal with lack of assurance that is based on whether a sinner has true faith in Christ, or whether he possesses a merely temporary faith.

At that time in the late 1830s, revival fires were stirring in various parts of Scotland and Morison wondered if the growth he experienced in those listening to his preaching was part of this revival. The book that he chose to help him was Charles Finney’s Lectures on Revivals, and he heartily approved of Finney’s methods, recommending them to his father, the minister in Bathgate.

So before he has become a pastor, Morison has adopted several theological views that were at variance with Scottish Presbyterian doctrine and practice up till that time: (a) he denied the eternal sonship of Jesus, (b) he stressed that the atonement of Christ was not for specific individuals but was for all people, and (c) he advocated evangelistic methods that had caused spiritual confusion in America in the Second Great Awakening through the methods of Charles Finney.

The Courts, The Church and the Constitution

The Courts, The Church and the Constitution (Aspects of the Disruption of 1843),
Lord Rodger of Earlsferry, Edinburgh University Press, 2008.

The author of this interesting work is a former Lord President of the Court of Session and a Law Lord in the House of Lords. He was asked to give the inaugural series in 2007 of the Jean Clark Lectures, connected to the Foundation which she set up for the development of Scots Law.

Most people in the Free Church of Scotland are aware that several law cases preceded the Disruption of 1843 as the Evangelical party in the then Church of Scotland made several attempts to change the practices of the church. There are many books written from the Free Church point of view, such as Thomas Brown's Annals of the Disruption, Robert Buchanan's The Ten Years Conflict, and Peter Bayne's The Free Church of Scotland. Books critical of the Free Church's position were published at the time, although they have been largely forgotten.

Usually the information possessed by Free Church people as regarding what took place in the decadeprior to the Disruption has been received from writers of the Evangelical party who were involved in the disputes or from subsequent writers concerned to justify that outlook.Yet we recognise that there is often more than one way of looking at an event of crucial importance, and the author in this volume considers these legal cases from the viewpoint of the legal system, in particular the judges involved.

The book contains three lengthy chapters, each with a considerable number of helpful endnotes. Chapter one focuses on how the crisis in the Church of Scotland developed in the years prior to the Disruption, and considers why the Evangelical party concluded that the judges were failing in their duty to apply the various protections guaranteeing the independence of the Presbyterian Church from the state that were included in the Treaty of Union in 1707. Chapter two details the involvement of lawyers and judges in both sides of the church dispute, and assesses the response of the judges to what they perceived as the Church’s determination to resist their legal authority. Chapter three then examines subsequent legal disputes connected to the issue of church and state since then, including the 1900 Free Church case and the 2005 Percy case when a female minister in the Church of Scotland challenged the authority of the denomination to dismiss her.

The basic issue under discussion is the relationship of church and state, and in particular the extent to which the state can interfere with the decisions of a court of a Presbyterian church in Scotland. This particular matter is further complicated today by European laws and by a range of other laws that reflect the reality that Scotland is no longer a Presbyterian country (if one goes by church attendance). We can immediately think of the effects of human rights legislation among others.

As one who finds lawyers’ reports to be often incomprehensible and written in language understandable only to the initiated (a feature not confined to legal writings), I began to read this book with reluctance. Yet I was surprised how easy it was for the author to hold my attention as he guided me through the various stages of the several legal cases and explained what was taking place. His material is enhanced, at least for those interested in Free Church history, by several snippets of information connected to our past, both from 1843 and 1900. While the contents of the book will have interest for those involved in the legal profession, it is written in a style that is easy to read. In fact, the only negative comment I would make is the price (£30 for a 142 page large paperback).

Biography of Francis Schaeffer

On our recent holiday (a fortnight in August), which included attending a conference in Aberystwyth in Wales and a week in Ireland, I read Colin Duriez' new biography of Francis Schaeffer called Francis Schaeffer, An Authentic Life and published by IVP.

There is no doubt that Francis Schaeffer was one of the leading Christian thinkers of the twentieth century. Through his several books published between the late 1960s and the early 1980s, he enabled many Christians to assess all of life from a Christian viewpoint. As with many others who read them, his writings helped me in several ways, even if at times I did not agree with all his conclusions, and I am still grateful to God for the way Schaeffer helped me as a young Christian in the 1970s.

Since I was familiar with his books, I was quite surprised, when reading this book, to discover that I knew very little about Schaeffer apart from his work connected to L’Abri in Switzerland. I had assumed that he had always been serving Christ in the manner for which he became well-known, such as helping individuals to think through the reasons for believing in the existence of God, or working out practising faith in Christ in the changing world of ideas that marked the first decades of the second half of the twentieth century, or assessing the drift of Western society further into an anti-Christian morass which he did by analysing art and music as well as philosophy.

This volume is not an assessment of Schaeffer’s ideas. Instead it is a biographical account that surveys the various periods of his life. Inevitably, aspects of his ideas are introduced, but only as they help explain the developments in his thinking as well as other changes in his life. The main incidents in his life are explained clearly, with as much background information as is necessary. Since the author met Schaeffer during his years at L’Abri and is personally indebted to him, there is an obvious sense that the author prefers the intellectual emphases of Schaeffer during those years rather than what he stressed before he began L’Abri. Nevertheless, we are given a well-written biography of a very important Christian thinker.

This biography gives many reasons for becoming familiar with Schaeffer and his work. I will mention five that struck me as Iwas reading it.

First, the life of Schaeffer is another reminder that the Lord often takes his servants from unusual backgrounds and prepares them for future roles. Schaeffer was born into a working class family in Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1912. His parents at that time were not Christians, indeed they regarded the church with suspicion; furthermore they were not interested in literature of any kind or in the arts. Yet Schaeffer as a teenager became interested in philosophy and literature and also discovered the beauty of classical music. Later in his teenage years, he became a Christian after reading through the Bible and discovered that it answered the questions about life that he was asking. It is obvious that even then God was preparing him for his future ministry among the questioning young people of the 1960s and 70s.

Second, Schaeffer shows us that it is possible to change direction in ministry and yet have an effective influence in unexpected ways. He was a respected leader in a separatist denomination in the United States (the Bible Presbyterian Church which was formed as one response to the theological liberalism of early twentieth-century American Presbyterianism; another was the Orthodox Presbyterian Church). No doubt, his thoughts had been developing even during the years that he was within that denomination, but it was a visit to post-war Europe to investigate the state of the church there that seems to have been the catalyst for his change of direction. At that time, the Protestant church was tottering against liberalism on the one hand and being misdirected on the other by the increasing influence of Karl Barth and other neo-orthodox theologians. Barth may have been asking the right questions, but he was providing the wrong answers (Schaeffer had previously studied Barth and other such theologians during his time at Westminster Theological Seminary). Schaeffer determined to provide biblical answers to the many questions arising in the minds of many people as they saw a new world appearing, especially as a consequence of the 1960s.

Third, I found this book to give a moving insight into the quality of family life that surrounded Francis Schaeffer. The involvement of his wife Edith in his work is described well, and at times it is easy to see how much she contributed to his ministry. Her missionary background in OMF, where her parents had served the Lord in China withoutadvertising for financial support and by adapting themselves to Chinese culture and language, helped the Schaeffers for the years in which they lived by faith, especially after their move to Europe.

Fourth, the volume reveals the surprising breadth of Schaeffer’s abilities. Although he is best-known for his intellectual analysis of the thought world of his time, he was also an accomplished children’s evangelist (he instigated an organisation called Children for Christ, which developed helpful practices for communicating the gospel to children). Of course, there may be an obvious lesson in this -- if we cannot explain the faith to children, will we be able to explain it to adults.

Lastly, I would suggest that Schaeffer’s life exemplifies two important principles of Christian leadership. The first is that he discovered the basic outlook of a true leader is to implement an answer to a simple question, ‘Where would God have me serve him best at this stage in my life?’ The answer for Schaeffer was demanding and required courage, but he discovered that the God who called also opened the doors and provided the means. Connected to this discovery is the emphasis Schaeffer placed on prayer, and some marvellous examples of answered prayer are given in this book. But I am not going to specify them, so if you want to know what they are, you will have to read the book.