Thursday, 26 February 2009

Scottish Puritans (two volumes), edited by W.K. Tweedie, rpt. 2008, Banner of Truth

This hardback set was originally published by the Wodrow Society in the nineteenth century with the title Select Biographies; the contents were edited by William K. Tweedie (1803-63), a Free Church of Scotland minister in Edinburgh who not only functioned as an editor but was a popular author on various topics.

The volumes contain accounts of the lives of several well-known Covenanting ministers (John Welsh, Patrick Simson, John Livingstone, David Dickson, William Guthrie and James Fraser of Brae) as well as shorter items, some by outstanding women, which indicate the high quality of Protestant spirituality that was found during that period in Scottish history.

While each of the various items has its own significance, the records of two individuals highlight the importance of these volumes. Volume 1 is largely taken up with John Livingstone (autobiography, letters, sermons, addresses, and an intriguing collection of incidents experienced by several ministers) and Volume 2 by the Memoirs of Fraser of Brae (written by himself, and a recognised masterpiece of spiritual self-reflection that is comparable to Bunyan’s Grace Abounding).

Livingstone was a Lowlander and Fraser a Highlander from Ross-shire, but whether that distinction mattered at the time is doubtful. While some readers find self-analysis by others a difficult genre to read, the writings of these men, and others in the volumes, should lead us to ponder the life of God in the soul of man (to use Scougal’s well-known title).

Of course, there is much more than self-analysis in these volumes. In addition we read stirring accounts of men and women who suffered much for Christ, yet retained a deep attachment to his cause. Moreover, the preachers whose ministries are recounted saw powerful movements of the Spirit, and much can be learned from their emphases.

The volumes are a reminder that profound spiritual experiences, movements of the Spirit in conversions, and powerful opposition to the true church, which today we tend to identify with other parts of the world, was at one time the lot of the church in Scotland. Although at times written in a manner difficult for modern readers, the volumes are worth persevering with, and are recommended for those who wish to read spiritual classics from Scotland’s privileged past.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Christmas Evans -- No Ordinary Preacher, Tim Shenton, Day One

Wales, in the past, has experienced spiritual revival and produced outstanding preachers of the gospel. One such preacher was the one-eyed Baptist pastor Christmas Evans (1766--1838) and in the years of his ministry he was involved in periods of spiritual awakening when churches of which he was pastor were blessed with occasions of great gospel blessing. Evans was naturally gifted in many ways, especially in oratory and a creative imagination (he was known as ‘the John Bunyan of Wales’), and these gifts combined to make him a very attractive preacher in his day.

Like all other servants of God Evans had defects: some seem to have been the consequence of inadequate theological training (which appeared when he became involved in doctrinal disputes) and others were connected to his personal traits (at times he could be severe with those who disagreed with him, and sometimes he let his penchant for humour come out in inappropriate situations). He had a tendency to place far too much reliance on dreams as a means of divine instruction, when it is possible that they were connected to his vivid imagination. Nevertheless he could sway great crowds when he took them to Calvary to observe the suffering Saviour, and a preacher who can do this on a regular basis is worth his weight in gold (and Evans was a big man physically).

This paperback is an abridged version of a previous biography of Evans by the author. It contains thirty short chapters and is designed to make the story of Evans accessible for ordinary readers. The account informs contemporary readers of some of the great things God did in the past in days of spiritual awakening, and should cause them to long for similar, even greater occurrences today.

In addition to highlighting the God-given abilities of preaching that Evans possessed, the book also stresses the importance of prayer in his life. Two quotations from Evans himself reveal the reality of prayer that he knew: on one occasion he said, ‘A thousand prayers bubble up from the fountain of my soul’; on another occasion he stated, ‘I never succeeded in anything for the good of others without making it a matter of prayer.’

Since Evans was noted for his quick wit and humour, here is an example of it. One day, while travelling across some hills on a summer’s day, he met a preacher with the surname Herring. Herring greeted Evans by saying how unusual it was to meet Christmas in the middle of summer. Evans replied that it was not as surprising as meeting a live herring on top of a mountain.

The story of Christmas Evans is one with which Christians, especially preachers, should be familiar. There are several biographies of him, and this one is a good choice with which to begin.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

My book on the Lord's Supper

Since I mentioned my book in the previous blog, further details about it can be seen here.

In this post, I will include the foreword by Douglas Kelly and the endorsements (in alphabetical order) on the cover.

Foreword by Douglas Kelly (Professor of Systematic Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA)

It is my pleasure to write this foreword for my long-time friend, Malcolm Maclean, both out of high esteem for him and his ministry, and also out of excitement over this much-needed volume on the meaning and practice of the Lord’s Supper.

Over my many years as a theology professor, I have longed for a clearly written volume of modest size on the subject of the Lord’s Supper. My desires have been that it would start off with fair-minded Biblical exegesis of crucial passages; that it would look honestly (while avoiding bitterness or exaggeration) at the different (and competing) understandings of the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper among the major Christian traditions; and that finally it would state attractively, but humbly (with awareness of conceptual limitations of any viewpoint), the insights of John Calvin on the spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.

I have wished for something like this, not only as a professor, but also as an ordinary church-goer. For at times, I am disappointed at being told at communion services what is wrong with the non-Presbyterian views, and then there is a ‘full stop’ before the elements are passed out. I wonder, do these ministers have no idea what Scripture actually teaches about how the risen Christ is using the Lord’s Supper to strengthen the bonds of union with himself? I will be surprised if Malcolm Maclean’s new book does not greatly help them get beyond the mere negative critique of defective views, into something beautifully positive and full of life for the congregation of believers, as well as seekers.

All of these long-desired things, I have – to my great pleasure and gratitude – been given in this work of Malcolm Maclean. I normally do not like preparing forewords to books. But this one was an exception: I could barely put it down! While it is fairly and soberly written with academic care, somehow it is beautifully and intriguingly written, so that it keeps you wanting more, and will simply not let you go until you have finished it.

Malcolm Maclean adds something in addition to the points I had for years desired in a book on communion, and I am glad he did so. He ‘earths’ the theology and practice of the sacramental life that is based upon faith in the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, in the experience of the Reformed Churches in Scotland for the last 500 years. His account of sacramental Calvinism in Scotland does not pass through rose-tinted glasses. It combines appreciation with necessary, realistic critique. But somehow, it all comes alive, and leaves one hopeful for the future of local churches, who are determined to minister fruitfully Word and sacrament in their own generation and culture.

This book will become a required text in the course I teach each year on ‘Church and Sacraments’ at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte.

Endorsement by Dr. Iain D. Campbell (Free Church of Scotland,Back, Isle of Lewis)
Malcolm Maclean’s study of the biblical basis, historical development and practical administration of the Lord’s Supper in our churches is a rich blend of scholarly analysis and pastoral insight. The question of what Jesus is doing in the Lord’s Supper rather than what we are doing challenges the subjectivism that drives much of our practice, and restores a much needed emphasis on the Supper as a means of grace. This study is highly recommended.

Endorsement by Mark Johnston (Grove Chapel, London)
Few things are more precious in the ordinary life and experience of the church than the sacramental meal instituted by Christ. Yet few things are more poorly understood and appreciated by his people. Round the Lord’s Table we not only meet with Christ and hear his voice – which is true on every occasion his people gather in his name – but we also commune with him. In the language of the Book of Common Prayer: here his people ‘feed upon him by faith in their hearts with thanksgiving.’

Malcolm Maclean has done the church of the 21st Century an enormous service by providing a resource that opens up the meaning of sacrament so helpfully. He not only unpacks its significance as he explores its theology, but by looking at the past he also makes us think again about the practicalities of how it should be celebrated. All who long to benefit more fully from the Lord’s Supper will do well to read these pages.

Endorsement by Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas (Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi)
A veritable tour de force on the theology and practice of the Lord’s Supper in Scottish Presbyterianism which will be of interest to the entire church. Maclean’s handling of the subject is comprehensive and sure-footed, delving into practical areas of frequency and observance as much as the theological principles which underpin the Communion Service. A timely and important book that will aid in the rediscovery of importance and function of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in the life of the church.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Affinity Conference, 'The End of the Law.'

For three days last week, I attended the Affinity theological conference which considered the function of the law. It was good to meet with individuals whom I had not seen since the previous conference, and also to have the opportunity of listening to theologians from Britain and America.

As far as I could work out, there were two different groups attending the first day (those who accepted the traditional threefold division of biblical laws into moral, ceremonial and civil, and those who prefer to regard all of them as law); on day three, there were several more groups in attendance (such as (a) some confused as to what the role of the law is, (b) some curious to find out which theologians are on particular sides of the debate, (c) some concerned about how their congregations are going to react).

I don't want to say very much about the conference papers, each of which was good in its own way, because they will probably be published at some stage. Also some of those attending the conference have already blogged about the various sessions, and can be found by a Google search. Here are two other personal reactions.

First, there is an increasing distaste for the Sabbath among evangelicals, especially younger ones. It was evident that many attendees had no interest in obeying the fourth commandment in a Christian way, and had no intention of accepting the arguments of any who wished to defend the permanence of the Sabbath. Of course, some may just agree to differ. Yet the problem is that both views cannot be right. Either the Sabbath is an important Christian requirement, given at creation for the worship of God and the benefit of the human race, or it is not. If Sunday is not the Sabbath, then there is no necessity for Christians to keep the day as belonging to God or for them to meet together on that day. In fact, if it is not the Sabbath, then churches which arrange such services are imposing a human tradition on God's people and should be shunned by all concerned to uphold New Testament practices.

Second, there is a reluctance to accept the value of historical evangelical interpretations if they happen to go against a person's own idea of the meaning of a Bible verse. The oft-mentioned question 'What does the Bible say?' actually was used in a manner which stated, 'Do you want to know what I think the Bible says?', with the emphasis that such an individual's view was correct and everyone else wrong. No doubt, some will respond by saying that sometimes an individual has been right and all others wrong, which of course means that they regard that individual to be on a par with heroes of the faith who did stand alone.

I suspect that those who support the new emphases (called 'new covenant theology', which is just another example of a biblical description, which belongs to all Christians, being hijacked by a group) will merely repeat the many examples of spiritual movements in the past who imagined they were going by the Bible alone and somehow always deduced that the Sabbath was not for them. Most of these groups disturbed the church for a while before disappearing.

Another factor is the similarity between the new emphases and dispensationalism. This was mentioned at the Conference, and disputed. But the similarity is there in that both deny the relevance of God's law to God's people in the New Testament period. I don't want to say anything about this point except to say that I personally heard the same arguments of the 'new covenant' followers being used in Brethren groups in the 1970s. I was not convinced of them then, and I am not convinced of them now.