Friday, December 15, 2017

After Darkness Light

December is the darkest month. 21 December is the shortest day of the year, with only 7 hours, 49 minutes and 44 seconds of daylight. But it is also the brightest month of the year when High Streets and houses are lit up with a dazzling array of Christmas lights. 
The association of darkness and light is appropriate for the message of Christmas that Christians celebrate at this time of year. Of Jesus it is written “the light shines in the darkness”. 
It is true that the world can sometimes seem a dark place, what with conflicts, natural disasters and personal tragedies. We hope that there will be light at the end of the tunnel, but the tunnel can sometimes seem very long and very dark. 
In his account of the Christmas Story Luke tells of shepherds watching over their flocks by night. Suddenly an angel of the Lord stood before them and the glory of the Lord around them. Some Christmas lights! Not even the grandest High Street illuminations could beat that. 
The angel had been sent with news that would light up the shepherds’ lives, ‘Today in the City of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Christ, the Lord.’ The shepherds hurried to see the sight. That very night they saw a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a lowly manger. That baby was none other than Jesus, the light of the world. He came to, 
shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace. 
Jesus took on the darkness of sin and death by dying on the Cross for our sins.  He rose again from the dead, the ultimate triumph of light over darkness. The Lord Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’ Are you following the light of the world?

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Westminster Conference 2017 Report

Stephen Clark
When I was at the London Seminary many moons ago, students used to refer to the Westminster Conference as Back to the Future because attending was a bit like travelling back in time. Without the aid of a DeLorean. We were young and foolish then and didn't perhaps appreciate the value of what might be learned from the past. 

We tend to think that how we see things now is 'it', while years ago peoples' views were historically and culturally conditioned. The fact is, we're just as culturally situated today as people were years ago, but just in different ways that we don't always appreciate. 

Also, we can get into thinking that how we understand things now is inevitably better and more enlightened than in the past. 'This is the 21st century, you know'. You'd have hoped that in some ways, having benefited from the breakthroughs of yesteryear, that we would have more light than our forefathers. At least that is how it ought to be. But if we see further it is only because we stand on the shoulders of theological giants such as Tertullian, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Bavinck, and so on. 

It needs to be said that progress in understanding and isn't always a case of 'onwards and upwards'. Important gains can be lost, vital insights forgotten that then need to be re-appropriated. If we lack an awareness of the Great Tradition of church history, the danger is that we will read the Bible simply in the light of our own personal limits of knowledge and experience. 

We can then be blinkered to some of the things that God is showing us in Holy Scripture because they fail to resonate with where we are. That can especially be the case in the realm of spiritual experience and communion with God. We only see in the Bible the what we have thus far experienced ourselves, rather than allowing Holy Scripture be the measure of our experience of God. 

That fact is that Reformed Evangelicalism in the UK isn't exactly in the throes of a mighty revival at the moment. We may view expressions of our forefathers like, the 'felt presence of God', or 'full assurance of faith', or a 'plentiful outpouring of the Spirit' as rather quaint, or weirdly mystical. But perhaps they knew something in their communion with God that is more rare today. That is what made them better able to expound upon what it means to experience the 'joy unspeakable and full of glory' of which the Bible speaks. 

In his paper on 'The Holy Spirit and the Human Heart' Stephen Clark drew upon the wisdom of the past to show that in the Reformed tradition the Holy Spirit is said to work 'in, by and with the Word' in regenerating and sanctifying the heart. As a sovereign, divine Person, the Spirit is not so bound to the Word that Scripture read and preached always has the same unvarying effect upon its hearers. The Spirit's work may be more or less intensified and dramatic in its effects. It is therefore both legitimate and necessary to pray for more of his empowering presence. 

I spoke on Thomas Goodwin's work, A Child of Light Walking in Darkness: Knowing, Losing and Recovering a Felt Sense of the Presence of God. John Owen urged his readers to pursue a deeper experience of God, “If there are no such things, the gospel is not true; if there are, if we press not after them, we are despisers of the gospel. Surely he hath not the Spirit who would not have more of him, all of him that is promised by Christ.” Goodwin would have us, "Sue this promise out" that "Holy Ghost [may] come and fill up your hearts with joy unspeakable and glorious, to seal you up to the day of redemption." 

Andrew Young gave a paper on 'Calvin - Worship and Preaching', setting before us the Reformer's high view of the worship of the gathered church ordered according to the pattern of Scripture. It is true that the whole of life is worship, or at least should be. But there is something distinctive about the collective worship of God's people on the Lord's Day, where our God addresses his people by his Word and receives the prayers and praise they offer. 

Phil Arthur spoke on Jacob Arminius, his life and views. A warm, insightful and generous-spirited paper on a theological opponent from a good old Reformed Baptist. Benedict Bird charted the Calvinistic response to the challenge of Arminianism at the Synod of Dort (1618-19). Both papers served as a reminder that we have much to learn from the theological controversies of the past, as well as from what those who went before us knew of the presence of God in their lives.

Mark Thomas brought the conference to a fitting conclusion with his address on 'William Williams Pantycelyn (1717-91). The life of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist leader, preacher and hymnwriter was sketched out and valuable lessons were drawn out from his works. Williams embodied a combination of solid Calvinistic doctrine and deep experiences of God. Mark urged us not to allow our current experiences to place a limit on what might be know and experienced of our glorious God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

Sometimes we need to go back to the past to be stirred up to pursue more of God in the future than we have yet known of him. It is surely not unbiblical mysticism to seek what God holds out to us in his Word: full assurance of faith, our Father’s smile and loving embrace, joy unspeakable and full of glory in Christ, and the direct witness of the Spirit. As Goodwin would say, let us ‘sue this promise out’ of a ‘more plentiful communication of the Spirit’ than we have hitherto known or experienced.  

Times of discussion followed all addresses bar the final one. The papers will be published sometime in 2018. 
1. Speak, I pray Thee, gentle Jesus!
O, how passing sweet Thy words,
Breathing o’er my troubled spirit
Peace which never earth affords.
All the world’s distracting voices,
All th’enticing tones of ill,
At Thy accents mild, melodious,
Are subdued, and all is still.
2. Tell me Thou art mine, O Savior,
Grant me an assurance clear;
Banish all my dark misgivings,
Still my doubting, calm my fear.
O, my soul within me yearneth
Now to hear Thy voice divine;
So shall grief be gone for ever
And despair no more be mine. 
(William Williams)

Monday, December 04, 2017

Westminster Conference 2017

I'll be off to the Westminster Conference bright and early tomorrow morning. Early anyway.

I'm due to give a paper on A Child of Light Walking in Darkness: The Felt Presence of God. The Child of Light... bit in the title refers to a work by the Puritan Thomas Goodwin. It's essentially a series of sermons on Isaiah 50:10, with some extra 'box set' material thrown in for good measure.

My brief is to reflect on what Goodwin has to say on knowing, losing and then recovering a felt sense of God's presence and favour. Also interacting with the views of Goodwin's old pal, John Owen.

Getting hold of Owen's stuff is easy enough. Banner of Truth published his 16 Volume Works decades ago and they are still in print today. I purchased my set when a student at the London Seminary (1988-90).

Goodwin ain't so easy to obtain. Banner has only published Volume 8 of his Works. Odd titles are available as e-books, but not A Child of Light Walking in Darkness. Only realised that after I'd agreed to speak at the conference. Something of a problem. 

Handily, my old church history lecturer at the seminary, Robert Oliver lives nearby.  He is also a member of our local Ministers' Fraternal. Robert kindly lent me Volume 3 of Goodwin's Works, which includes A Child of Light...

Goodwin's piece isn't too long. Owen on Psalm 130 takes up most of Volume 6 of his Works. Took a while to wade through. But, as ever with Owen, was worth the effort. 

I was a bit unwell towards the end of September and into October, which slowed me down when it came to writing up the paper, but I got there in the end. 

I'm looking forward to hearing the other speakers (see here for the programme) and also to meeting up with some old friends at the conference. 

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Seven Leaders: Preachers and Pastors by Iain H. Murray

Banner of Truth Trust, 2017, 279pp 

The author wrote this book out of the conviction that lessons of abiding importance may be learned from godly and able preachers and pastors across the ages. It will be of interest to men aspiring to pastoral ministry, or who are just setting out in that work. Here they will find role models to follow whose example will both challenge and encourage them. More seasoned pastors will also find help here. If we are not careful it is easy to drift into going through the motions of ministry, rather than our work being the overflow of deep communion with God. These pages will provide a necessary corrective. Those not called to preach or pastor will none the less find their souls stirred by Murray’s accounts of seven exceptional Ministers of the Gospel.

Attention is given to seven men: John Elias, Andrew A. Bonar, Archie Brown, Kenneth A MacRae, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, W. J. Grier and John MacArthur. Murray does not so much give us potted biographies of these varied characters, as attempt to show what made them tick. These are very different men, called to serve the Lord at different times and in different situations. Some had more academic training than others. All were wonderfully used by the Lord to accomplish great things for him.

While certainly not like peas in a pod, these ‘Magnificent Seven’ Ministers had a number of things in common that helps account for their usefulness. They were all strongly Calvinistic in their doctrinal emphasis, some at times when the Reformed faith seemed to be going out of fashion. They maintained their stand for the sovereign grace of God because they were convinced that the great truths commonly labelled ‘Calvinism’ were in fact nothing less than biblical Christianity.

The importance of prayer and communion with God in ministry is highlighted in the chapter on Andrew A. Bonar. The thoughtful reader will be humbled, challenged and made to yearn for a deeper walk with God through Bonar’s example. A missing note in some Evangelical circles today is the need for the empowering presence of the Spirit in preaching. The preachers described here were men of the Word, yet they also longed and prayed for the Spirit’s work upon their preaching and in the lives of their hearers. He alone is able to give the Word preached its life-transforming effectiveness.  

All were evangelistic preachers, in that they intentionally addressed their messages to the unconverted, aiming at their salvation. In addition, Murray shows that these gifted preachers worked hard to make their content-rich sermons as clear, logical and easy to follow as possible. Helpful instances are given as to how they did just that, especially in the chapters on Lloyd-Jones and MacRae. 

Martin Luther once wrote, “It is not by reading, writing, or speculation that one becomes a theologian. Nay, rather, it is living, dying, and being damned that makes one a theologian.” The same may be said of pastors and Murray describes how the Lord made these men tender hearted shepherds of the flock by bringing suffering and trials into their lives, This is especially brought out in the chapter on C. H. Spurgeon’s friend and contemporary, Archie Brown. 

Some chapters are stronger than others. Elias, Bonar, Brown and Lloyd-Jones are highlights. I'd barely heard of MacRae, but enjoyed Murray's pen portrait of the Isle of Lewis pastor. I found the one on W.J Grier a little hard going. The MacArthur chapter was good on preaching and Scripture. 

The book as a whole is a standing reminder of one vital fact, “what a preacher is as a Christian is of greater consequence than his natural gifts. In the words of M’Cheyne: ‘It is not great talents that God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.’” The great burden of this work is a call to return to the apostolic pattern of gospel ministry, 'we will give ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word' (Acts 6:4). In that order. 

* Reviewed for Evangelical Times

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Too young to die? by Andrew Stone

Day One Publications, 2017, 125pp 

I can't really attempt to review this book, as it's difficult to be objective about the story of a family who are dear friends of ours and members of Providence Baptist Church, which I pastor. But I'm more than happy to recommend it. 

The book is based on emails Andrew Stone sent to friends and family give updates on his daughter, Hannah's health situation. She was delayed in going to study history at Bangor University, as acute kidney failure necessitated a transplant. Early in the second year of her studies Hannah was diagnosed as having a lymphoma tumor at the back of her nose. Chemotherapy followed by radiotherapy seemed not to have been effective in removing the tumor. The family were told to prepare for the worst. But God had other ideas.  

It was a privilege to have been asked to contribute a brief foreword to the book. Reading it brought so many memories flooding back. Some of them painful, some of them joyful.

The Lord has not promised to insulate his people from times of suffering and trial in this life. Knowing that in theory is one thing, experiencing the reality of intense suffering is another. This book gives us a glimpse of faith in the crucible of affliction, as the Stone family learned to trust in their God and Father in unimaginably difficult circumstances.

Andrew’s emails reproduced here were written to keep family and friends informed of Hannah’s latest news in order to stimulate prayer and thanksgiving to God. As you will see, they are heartrendingly honest, full of gratitude to God, and above all expressive of the reality of the Christian hope in the face of suffering and death.

Seeking to give pastoral support to the Stone family during the period of Hannah’s illness and recovery, I often found myself asking the question posed by Paul in connection with his ministry, “who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16).

The apostle supplies the answer in following chapter, “our sufficiency is from God” (2 Corinthians 3:5). As these pages testify, Andrew, Susan and Hannah certainly proved that to be true in their own experience. All who trust in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ will find the same. 

This is an ideal book for believers facing times of suffering and trial. It is also a powerful and moving testimony to the grace of God to place into the hands of non-Christians.  May it be widely used by the Lord for his glory. 

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Value of a Soul

O teach me what it meaneth:
  That Cross uplifted high,
With One, the Man of Sorrows,
  Condemned to bleed and die.
O teach me what it cost Thee
  To make a sinner whole;
And teach me, Saviour, teach me
  The value of a soul

(Lucy Anne Bennett (1850-1927)

Upon that cross of Jesus
  Mine eye at times can see
The very dying form of One,
  Who suffered there for me;
And from my smitten heart, with tears,
  Two wonders I confess,
The wonders of His glorious love,
  And my own worthlessness.

(Elizabeth Cecilia Clephane  (1830-1869)
Two Victorian era hymnwriters. Two quite different valuations of the human soul. Lucy Anne Bennett wants Jesus to teach her the 'value of a soul'. While Elizabeth Cecilia Clephane confesses 'my own worthlessness'. Is that the 'value of a soul', worthless? Stephen Hawking has said as much. More or less, "The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies. We are so insignificant that I can't believe the whole universe exists for our benefit." But he's a self-confessed atheist for whom human beings are mere physical entities. Souls and their value don't come into it. We're "chemical scum". Period. 

But hang on a minute. While it is not the case that the whole universe exists for our benefit, the 'anthropic principle' is widely recognised. The universe is fine tuned for human life and is understandable, at least to some extent, to the human mind. That in itself tells us something about the unique status of mankind. Maybe we're not so scummy after all. 

The Christians faith has a high estimation of human beings. We are made in the image of God, who created us as 'living souls'. With that in mind Marilynne Robinson writes, "humankind is the true and appropriate object of [God's] love". She speaks of, "our ontological worthiness to be in a relationship with God" and says, "To properly value this pledge of fervent love, the Incarnation, we must try and see the world as deserving of it" (The Givenness of Thingsp. 155, 272 & 201). 

Jesus asked, "what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" (Matthew 16:26). His words place a high value on human life. When placed in the balance, a single soul outweighs the whole world. To lose one's soul to gain the all the riches of the world is an eternally bad deal. We can go beyond that when we factor in the gospel. It is not the comparative value of the world that defines the worth of a soul, but that "the Son of God loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:20). 

In his classic work on the atonement, The Cross of Christ, John Stott devotes a chapter to Self -understanding and self-giving in the light of the Cross. In it the writer notes Dr. Hoekema's criticism of the words of Clephane's hymn cited at the top of this post,
No, no, Dr. Hoekema objects. We cannot sing that. 'And my own unworthiness' would express the truth, but not 'my own worthlessness. Is it 'worthless' be a child of God, a member of Christ and an heir of heaven? So then, a vital part of our self-affirmation, which in reality is an affirmation of the grace of God our Creator and Redeemer, is what we have become in Christ. 'The ultimate basis of our positive self-image must be God's acceptance of us in Christ'. (The Cross of Christ, John Stott, IVP, 1986 p. 283-284).
Stott's emphasis is subtly different to that of Robinson. While she speaks of the 'ontological worthiness' of human beings as objects of God's love, Stott highlights the grace of God. This is appropriate because sin has rendered human beings unworthy of God's love and deserving of his judgement. That certainly does not mean we are worthless. Pace Robinson, however, the measure of human worth is not to be sought in our ontology. It is disclosed at Calvary. Stott once more, "It is only when we look at the cross we see the true worth of human beings. As William Temple expressed it, 'My worth is what I am worth to God; and that us a marvellous great deal, for Christ died for me'" (op cit, p. 282). That is why the first two lines of Bennett's stanza answer so well to the last two, which isn't necessarily the case with the opening and closing lines of Clephane's verse.

Love in it's fullest and deepest expression is not based on the inherent worthiness of the loved one. It is a self-generated flow of love from the lover to his beloved. Shakespeare meditated on this in Sonnet 116,

Let me not to the marriage of true minds 
Admit impediments. Love is not love 
Which alters when it alteration finds, 
Or bends with the remover to remove. 
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark 
That looks on tempests and is never shaken; 
It is the star to every wand'ring bark, 
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken. 
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks 
Within his bending sickle's compass come; 
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, 
But bears it out even to the edge of doom. 
If this be error and upon me prov'd, 
I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd.

God saw alteration in us when Adam fell and we in him became a sin-ruined race. Yet God's eternal love for his people did not alter. It looked on the tempest of our sinful rebellion and was never shaken. If Robinson is right and God loves human beings because they in some way deserve it, then the game's up because sin has rendered us undeserving and therefore unloveable. The ontology of the gospel is different. Thankfully, it is rooted in what God is - love, rather than what we have become - sinners. Don Carson reflects,
Doubtless the Father finds the Son lovable; doubtless in the realm of disciplining his covenant people, there is a sense in which his love is conditioned by our moral conformity. But at the end of the day, God loves, whomever the object, because God is love. There are thus two critical points. First, God exercises this love in conjunction with all his other perfections, but his love is no less love for all that. Second, his love emanates from his own character; it is not dependent on the loveliness of the loved, external to himself. (The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, Crossway, 2000, p. 63). 
The value of a soul is that God loves his people, sinful and unworthy though they are. They are worth something to him. Worth the death of his Son to redeem them. If "God is love", that is his love in action, 1 John 4:10. Our love for one another should be a reflection of God's love for us (1 John 4:11). Those who love the God who first loved us will love his people. We recognise the image of God in our neigbour whom we are called to love as we love ourselves. We must love our enemies as God loved his foes and sent his Son to die for them (Romans 5:8, 10). Carson once more,
John’s point in 1 John 4, “God is love,” is that those who really do know God come to love that way too. Doubtless we do not do it very well, but aren’t Christians supposed to love the unlovable—even our enemies? Because we have been transformed by the Gospel, our love is to be self-originating, not elicited by the loveliness of the loved. For that is the way it is with God. He loves because love is one of his perfections, in perfect harmony with all his other perfections. At our best, we know that that is the way God’s image-bearers should love too. (Op cit, p. 63-64)
The Cross teaches us the true value of a soul; worth the death of the infinite Son of God that we might not perish but have everlasting life. It should be said at this point that when construed biblically, talk of the 'value of a soul' should not be taken to mean that the spiritual side of human nature is of great worth, but the physical is a worthless cask. Christ assumed a human body and soul to redeem us as complete human beings. The Bible never describes the soul as distinct from the body as 'eternal' or 'immortal'. Eternal life is resurrection life, John 6:40. We shall be raised immortal, 1 Corinthians 15:53-54. The value of a soul denotes the worth of a human person to God, body and spirit. 

If we value souls we will treat them with dignity and respect, whoever they may be. Irrespective of race or class. We will endeavour to do people good, serving them in whatever ways we can. We will seek the peace of the community of souls in which we live, be responsible citizens of our nation, and contribute to the common good of the world. Above all, if we value souls, the love of Christ will constrain us to preach the gospel to people that they may be saved. And we will love saved souls, for "if we love one another, God abides in us, and his love has been perfected in us." (1 John 4:12).

And teach me, Saviour, teach me
  The value of a soul

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson

Virago, 2015, 322pp 

Another holiday read. 

Over the last few years I have made my way though Robinson's Gilead trilogy; Gilead, Home and Lila. I have been entranced by the fictional world she has created, full of finely drawn, characterful characters. The novels are slow burners rather than racy page turners. They offer a thoughtful and compassionate account of the human condition. We are broken and flawed, yet we may hope for mercy and redemption. Robinson's fictional output is an extended meditation on the meaning of grace. 

Imagine what it would be like to have Marilynne Robinson expand on some of the theological themes pondered in her novels. You, know where old pastor friends, John Ames and William Boughton discuss predestination, or try and make sense of suffering and evil in God's world. We need imagine no more. For here, without the intermediary of her fictional characters, Robinson attempts to do just that.

In a conversation with Barak Obama, a transcript of which appears at the end of the book, the author gives a matter of fact explanation for publishing these essays, "I give lectures at a fair rate, and when I have given enough of them to make a book, I make a book" (p. 289). Fair enough.

It's obvious from her novels that the writer is deeply familiar with the thought of John Calvin. Here she avers, "I am a Calvinist...I really am a Calvinist" (p. 116). She loves Calvin's humanistic appreciation of the dignity of human beings and his admiration for man's dazzling achievements, 'the manifold agility of the soul, which enables it to take a survey of heaven and earth; to join the past and present; to retain the memory of things heard long ago; to conceive whatever it chooses by the help of imagination; its ingenuity also in the invention of such admirable arts'" (p. 26). 

Robinson deprecates reductionist accounts of human consciousness on the part of some Neuroscientists, for whom the "self" is an illusion created by electrons in the brain. As she points out, however, "If Shakespeare had undergone and MRI there is no reason to believe there would be any more evidence of extraordinary brilliance in him than there would be evidence of a self or soul" (p. 11). The old humanists were on the right track, who "took the works of the human mind - literature, music, philosophy, art, and languages - as proof of what the mind is and might be" (p, 11).

This should not be taken to mean that Robinson is anti-science. Far from it. She returns again and again to the counter-intuitive world of quantum physics, where the normal rules that govern the physical universe seem to break down into randomness. Robinson sees this as in line with Jonathan Edwards's conception of, 'the arbitrary constitution of the Creator'. What she calls "the givenness of things" (p.84). Things are as they are because that is what they were given to be by God.  

Science is the product of the human impulse to understand our world. And understand it we can, at least to some degree, which is a remarkable thing in itself. "Einstein said the the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible" (p. 154). That the human mind can comprehend the universe is testimony to the fact that God has created it and made us in his image that we may see his wisdom displayed in his mighty works. 

One of the impressive things about these essays is their range. Robinson is a true polymath. Chapters are devoted to the Reformation, the theme of Grace in the plays of Shakespeare, the idea of Servanthood in Protestant thought. There are essays on Metaphysics and Theology. The chapter, Son of Adam, Son of Man, is a mini-biblical theology. While the essays are diverse they cohere around a key thought; the dignity and value of human life against the vast backdrop of universe. She is content to put human beings centre stage because they have the distinction of being made in the image of God. The sustained application of this theological principle is one of the things that makes these essays so illuminating. 

Avid Robinson readers will also appreciate the insight given into her creative writing processes, "I feel a novel begin to cohere in my mind before I know much more about it than it has the heft of a long narrative" (p. 218). It's fascinating to learn that John Ames just 'showed up' when Robinson was in a Massachusetts hotel room waiting to spend Christmas with her sons. As she took up a pen to to write on blank piece of paper, the first sentence was in the voice of the old pastor (p. 302).

There is a basic flaw, however, in Robinson's configuration of Christian theology. A surprising one for a self-confessed Calvinist. She certainly accepts that man is a fallen creature and takes sin seriously. But not, perhaps, seriously enough. For all Robinson's talk of grace, she writes of "our ontological worthiness to be in a relationship with God" (p. 272) and "To properly value this pledge of fervent love, the Incarnation, we must try and see the world as deserving of it" (p. 201).

Gilead, we have a problem. The words just quoted are dangerously close to advocating a kind of 'L'Oriel theology', 'Because you're worth it!' That is a misconception, for if grace is deserved, it is no longer grace. What makes God's love for the world depicted in John 3:16 so amazing is that the world in its sin lies under God's condemnation (John 3:18) and is subject to his wrath (John 3:36).  There is nothing in us to compel God's grace. Grace is his free, undeserved favour, or it is nothing at all.  

This failure to attach sufficient gravity to the plight of human beings in sin means that Robinson struggles to find a place in her system for the Cross. She is happy to see the death of Jesus as a pledge of God's love for the world, "a gesture of such unthinkable grandeur and generosity-over and above the generosity of Creation itself" (p. 197).  But she admits to having difficulty with the idea of Jesus' death as sacrifice (see p. 193-195). The author wonders where that conception would leave those who lived and died before the Cross.

A close reading of the New Testament shows that Christ's sin-atoning death had a retrospective as well as prospective aspect, see Romans 3:24-26 and Hebrews 9:15. Robinson's answer to the question, 'what of those who lived before the Cross?' is somewhat different. She sees Christ as an active presence in the world from the beginning through his identification with the poor, needy and oppressed (p. 200). 

In all, Robinson offers a pretty thin doctrine of the atonement. Certainly not one that is recognisably Calvinistic. Calvin's account is considerably thicker and more robustly biblical, "Christ, in his death, was offered to the Father as a propitiatory victim; that, expiation being made by his sacrifice, we might cease to tremble at the divine wrath." (Institutes of the Christian Religion, II:16:6). Robinson, I venture to say, wouldn't put it quite like that.

In Lila, the novelist has her eponymous lead character imagine, "In eternity people's lives could be altogether what they were and had been, not just the worst they ever did, or the best things either." That way Lila could dream of seeing her old departed friend and guardian Doll once more, despite the fact that Doll had little interest in the Christian faith. Even wicked old Mack would be there, "wondering what the catch was". (Lila, Virago, 2015, p. 259-260). The universalstic drift of of Lila's vision is obvious. It is a projection of Robison's belief that the piety of sincere pagans is acceptable to God (p. 207). All people will be restored in the end; our friends, our enemies, to a 'heaven of souls' (p. 239). Where that leaves Matthew 25:46 and other biblical texts, I'm not exactly sure. Again, the saving necessity of Christ's death and faith in the same are not given sufficient weight.

I am a great admirer of Robinson's fictional output. There is much to mull over in this beautifully written set of essays. But something is lacking here. Where is the balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul? The full depths of God's love for human beings is revealed in that "while we are still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). We did not deserve to have Christ bear our sins. We do not deserve to have his righteousness reckoned to our account. "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God" (Ephesians 2:8). Grace is the ultimate given thing. Rather, grace is God giving himself to us and for us in the person of his Son. The cry of the redeemed is not, "We are ontologically worthy to be in a relationship with God." No, to the Lamb in the midst of the throne they sing a new song,

“Worthy are you to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
    from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
    and they shall reign on the earth.”
(Revelation 5:9-10).

The redeemed people of God shall be with Christ, be made like Christ and will reign with Christ. Then we will see the the heights to which human beings can be raised by the grace of God. At last we will see what is man. 

Monday, August 21, 2017

"Fetch down some knowledge from the clouds": the pedagogy of Isaac Watts

Isaac Watts 1674-1748

Writing up a review of The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson I was reminded of what she had to say on Isaac Watts's contribution to pedagogy. In her chapter on the Reformation, she reflects on the educational impulse of Protestantism, "The bookishness of the Reformation might be said to have generalized itself to become an expectation of legibility in the whole of Creation." This bookish attitude was not at all elitist.  William Tyndale famously wished that a ploughboy might be as adept at reading Scripture as a priest. Robinson explains, "This sense that revelation, scriptural and natural, was essentially available to everyone, pervades Reformation thought" (p. 23).

In line with this impulse Robinson points out that the Congregational Minister and hymnwriter Isaac Watts also authored a groundbreaking and influential work on pedagogy entitled, The Improvement of the Mind: A Supplement to the Art of Logic. Watts wanted education to be enjoyable as well as informative for children, drawing on their natural curiosity about the world. Robinson includes a quote from The Improvement of the Mind to illustrate his approach (p. 23-24), 
Fetch down some knowledge from the clouds, the stars, the sun, the moon, and the revolutions of all the planets. Dig and draw up some valuable meditations from the depths of the earth, and search them through the vast oceans of water. Extract some intellectual improvements from the minerals and metals, from the wonders of nature among the vegetables and herbs, trees and flowers. Learn some lessons from the birds, and the beasts, and the meanest insect. Read the wisdom of God, and his admirable contrivance in them all. Read his almighty power, his rich and various goodness, in all the works of his hands.
As a Dissenter Watts was not permitted to study at Oxford or Cambridge. University was only for the communicant members of the Church of England. Nonconformists devised an alternative system of education, the Dissenting Academies. They were set up to to train men for pastoral ministry and provide a the sons of Nonconformist families with a standard of higher education to rival anything Oxbridge had to offer. 

Young Isaac's earliest education was at the hands of his father, also named Isaac. At six years of age Watts was sent to a Free School at Winkle Street, Southampton. He then headed to London to study at the Nonconformist Academy at Stoke Newington Green. His biographer comments, "Watts was in an educational tradition that has enriched the life of this country. The Dissenting Academies played an important role in the development of modern education." (Isaac Watts Remembered by David Fountain, 1978, Gospel Standard Baptist Trust, p. 76).

Isaac Watts penned several works on pedagogy including a number of catechisms, a Discourse on the Education of Children, and The Improvement of the Mind Parts I & II. He championed learning in the medium of English alongside Latin, the traditional language of scholarship. The forward looking educationalist suggested the use of card games to teach grammar, astronomy and other subjects. But there were limits. The Congregationalist Minister was strongly opposed to students attending balls, gaming houses and the theatre. The ways of the world could be picked up more safely by reading the Spectator

In an age when strict, if not harsh, educational discipline was the norm (enough to make Michaela seem soft), Watts urged teachers to endeavour to win the hearts and minds of their pupils, 
He should have so much of a natural candour and sweetness mixed with all the improvements of learning, as might convey knowledge into the minds of his disciples with a sort of gentle insinuation and sovereign delight, and may tempt them into the highest improvements of their reason by a resistless and insensible force. 
Dr. Johnson was a great admirer of Watts's The Improvement of the Mind.
Few books have been perused by me with greater pleasure than his Improvement of the Mind, of which the radical principles may indeed be found in Locke's Conduct of the Understanding, but they are so expanded and ramified by Watts as to confer upon him the merit of a work in the highest degree useful and pleasing. Whoever has the care of instructing others, may be charged with deficiency in his duty if this work is not recommended. (Isaac Watts Remembered, p. 76). 
Marilynne Robinson worries that we are in danger of losing the educational impulse of Protestantism in Western society. She laments, "we are now living among...the ruins of the Reformation" (p. 26). As a result, "Now we are more inclined to speak of information than of learning, and to think of the means by which information is transmitted rather than of how learning might transform, and be transformed by, the atmospheres of a given mind" (p. 28). More a case of fetching information from the Cloud than scanning the clouds for glimpses of the glory of God. Robinson concludes, "The Reformation is another beautiful and worthy heritage, another stream of cultural and spiritual wealth, also deserving of advocates and interpreters" (p. 30). An apt sentiment for the year that marks the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

God created all men equal

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal”, so says the American Declaration of Independence. Race riots in Charlottesville, USA have led to those words being quoted to call out the evil of white supremacy. President Trump’s seeming hesitancy in confronting racism has led to his judgement being called into question by leading lights in his own Republican party.

The truth that the framers of the Declaration of Independence held to be ‘self-evident’ is based on the teaching of the Bible, “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Genesis 1:27). That is why people of whatever nation, race, or creed, whether they be male or female are to be treated with equal dignity and respect. Equality does not mean uniformity, but whatever differences there are between people, the fundamental principle of equality remains.

An old song by my boyhood heroes, The Jam bears witness to this principle. In Man in the Corner Shop they sang,

Go to church do the people from the area
All shapes and classes sit and pray together
For here they are all one
For God created all men equal

The church is not confined to one nation, race or social class. Jesus sent his followers to make disciples of all peoples. The songs of heaven would make any racist decidedly uncomfortable. The saints in glory sing to Jesus,

You are worthy
For you were slain,
And have redeemed us to God by your blood
Out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation
(Revelation 5:9)

The Bible teaches that all people are equal in three important ways:

1. All people are created equal. 
2. All people are equally in need of salvation. 
3. All people are equally welcome to receive Jesus as Saviour and Lord. 

* For Trinity parish magazine

Saturday, August 12, 2017


Saw this last Saturday. The film shows the Dunkirk evacuation from the perspectives of land 'The Mole', Sea and Air. Out of the hundreds of thousands involved, Nolan focuses attention on a handful of Tommies, a couple of RAF pilots and the escapades aboard a small civilian boat piloted by Mr Dawson, played by Mark Rylance. While the epic scale of the rescue is brought home we are not allowed to forget the personal heroism of the individuals involved. 

The film is visually stunning, loud, and immersive. The aerial balletics of  the dogfights between RAF Spitfires and their Luftwaffe opponents are especially gripping. The main roles are well acted, including the chap from One Direction, who plays a bit of a baddie. Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance give standout performances, adding emotional weight to the film. 

Talk about tension. So many rescue boats are bombed from the air or torpedoed that you begin to wonder whether anyone got home. Thankfully over 300,000 did. Those who returned to Blighty worried they would be labelled cowards, but Churchill's well judged, 'We will fight them on the beaches' speech set the tone. 

The providential rescue of the British Expeditionary Force was an important factor in the allies' eventual victory over Nazi Germany. No Dunkirk, no D-Day.

Dunkirk is a powerful reminder that rescue involves sacrifice. That was also true of 'The' event that shaped our world.