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.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Thinking About the Doctrine of Adoption

The use of the term ‘adoption’ to describe membership of the family of God is a Pauline metaphor, occurring in Paul’s letters to the Romans, Galatians and Ephesians. But in order to have a full biblical appreciation of the doctrine other teachings that approximate to the concept of adoption must be included, teachings such as John’s references to children of God and the teaching of Jesus on the Fatherhood of God which are recorded in the Gospels. In the New Testament two standard terms, in the main, are used to describe this relationship with God: huios (son) and teknon (child), with Jesus and John using teknon and Paul using both terms. Two other areas that must be considered are (1) whether or not humans are God’s children by his act of creation and (2) Old and New Testament statements which indicate that Israel, as a nation, had a relationship of sonship to God. These all need to be taken together in order to gather the full biblical understanding of belonging to the family of God.

I would add that the primary source for the Christian understanding of this doctrine is the Bible. It may be the case that other sources, such as the study of comparative religions, may provide evidence that there has been or still is a concept of sonship among humankind. Arguments also may be deduced from theistic philosophy concerning the likelihood of the supreme being functioning as a father. The basic reason for this emphasis on the exclusivity of the Bible is that the Bible is divine revelation and when correctly interpreted is the final authority on the doctrines it contains.

The necessity of correct interpretation means that attention needs to be paid to the historical understanding of the doctrine. It is claimed that in the past the doctrine of adoption was not given the attention it deserves, either at a scholarly or at a popular level, until the theological controversy in mid-nineteenth century Scotland following the publication of the first series of Cunningham Lectures, delivered on the subject of adoption by R.S. Candlish, a leading Free Church of Scotland preacher, ecclesiastic and theologian. His volume resulted in a major response from Thomas J. Crawford of the Church of Scotland, who strongly opposed the view of Candlish, arguing that humans are God’s sons by creation. There were also two minor responses to both Candlish and Crawford from Dr. John Kennedy of Dingwall in his Man’s Relations With God and from Peter McLachlan, a Free Church of Scotland minister in Glasgow who wrote The Divine Sonship of Man. Hugh Martin, a Free Church of Scotland minister, also wrote a lengthy review of Candlish’s book in The British and Foreign Evangelical Review.

Concerning previous studies on adoption, Kennedy commented: ‘The act of adoption constitutes a new relation to God. The line of this relation has not hitherto been distinctly traced. This was not done even by such theologians as Calvin, Turretine, and Mastricht. The distinction between the result of justification, as affecting the relational status of those who are in Christ, and the peculiar effect of their being adopted as children of God, even those eagles failed to see. Their successors have hitherto added but little to their labours in this department of theology; and notwithstanding a recent discussion, by learned Doctors, of this subject, a clear definition of adoption, and a just description of its effects, on the relation between believers and God, are still awanting.’

The debate between Candlish and Crawford also resulted in American contributions to the doctrine, with John L. Girardeau, professor at Columbia Theological Seminary in South Carolina, writing a short treatise on the doctrine and his son-in-law R. A. Webb, professor of Systematic Theology at the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, writing a volume on adoption. Both writers differed from Candlish but did not adopt all of Crawford’s objections. In recent years, there have been popular treatments of adoption by Sinclair Ferguson (at the time, professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia), Mark Johnston (a pastor in London) and Robert Peterson (professor of systematic theology in Covenant Seminary in St Louis, Missouri).

Sinclair Ferguson suggests two reasons for this previous neglect: first, at the Reformation, the focus was on the doctrine of justification and ‘the idea that we are also made sons and daughters of God was often hidden by the bright glow of our justification by faith’; secondly, in the nineteenth century, liberal theology placed such an emphasis on the universal fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man that evangelical Christians tended to keep clear of the doctrine of adoption.

Douglas Kelly, commenting on the fact that the Westminster Confession of Faith is the only historical confession to give a chapter to the doctrine of adoption, says that this means that ‘those in the official Westminster tradition have far less excuse for this omission than others’. He further comments: ‘This neglect, I think, has been detrimental to the teaching and pastoral balance of large segments of the entire tradition.’

Although the Westminster Confession does have this chapter on adoption, the inadequacy of its treatment has been recognised. Hugh Martin, for example, after acknowledging the Confession’s treatment, goes on to say that ‘as to any scientifically theological treatment of the doctrine, such as they [the Confession and Catechisms] have so conclusively and exhaustively bestowed on the question of justification by faith, we entirely agree with Dr Candlish in thinking that there is here a very remarkable contrast. Of the grounds or grounds of this privilege and relation we find in them absolutely nothing, save the vaguest and most general reference….Of God’s procedure in constituting the relation, they leave us in complete ignorance. On the believer’s action in apprehending it, they are equally silent. Of the connection between adoption and regeneration, they tell us nothing. And as to what relation or connection subsists between the Sonship of Christ and the sonship of his people, they do not even raise the question. But assuredly, these are just the aspects of the question which it behoves theology, as a science, to face, discuss, settle and formulate.’

R. A. Webb gives three reasons that indicate the importance of the doctrine: (a) ‘adoption’ is a biblical term which connotes a biblical idea, and that the Spirit of God ‘was not trifling when He inspired its use as one of the verbal symbols through which He would communicate the mind of God to man’; (b) the intrinsic preciousness of the paternal relation of God to his people, and their corresponding filial relation to him, creates a very high claim for adoption; (c) adoption deserves to be magnified because of the distinctive office which it performs in the scheme of saving grace.

For further comments on this important doctrine, see http://www.scalpayfreechurchofscotland.co.uk/RTE/files/fcadoption.asp