Friday, December 02, 2016

Some help from Beza on the eternal submission of the Son

Controversy has been raging on the other side of the Pond over whether we may rightly speak of the eternal submission of the Son to the Father. See here for my thoughts on the matter. But I've had some second thoughts. Kind of. For one, would it not be better to speak of the submission of the Son to the Father in eternity, rather than the eternal submission of the Son? The latter expression may be taken to imply the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father, which strains homoousios almost to breaking point. The Son is of the same divine being as the Father and God in his own right. Any talk of subordination is therefore inappropriate. 

That the Son submits to the Father in eternity, concerning his role as mediator and Saviour of sinners is less open to objection. Now we are talking about 'God for us' (or the economic Trinity), rather than 'God in himself' (the ontological Trinity). Besides, Scripture itself speaks of the elect being chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4) and of grace being given us in Christ before time began (2 Timothy 1:9). In eternity the Son submitted to the divine purpose that he should become flesh, die and rise again to save his people from sin (Galatians 4:4-6, Philippians 2:5-11).

But this was a divine purpose to which the Son was also party. As Calvin showed, Christ is both the electing God and the One in whom we were elected (see here). Calvin's successor at Geneva, Theodore Beza also grasped this point clearly. Richard Muller summarises his teaching, "Beza denied the charge that speaking of Christ as the executor of election he lost sight of Christ as the foundation of the decree. Beza resolved the issue of making a distinction between Christ as mediator and Christ considered according to his divinity as eternal God: 
On the one hand, therefore, Christ is considered as the efficient cause of predestination with the Father and the Holy Spirit; on the other hand as being the first effect of predestination itself, on account of the servants mercifully elect in him." (Christ and the Decree, Richard Muller, Baker Academic, 2008, p. 82).
The Son no less than the Father was involved in the decree to save via his mediatorial work. In eternity the Son submitted to the triune decree that he would be sent into the world by the Father and through the power of the Holy Spirit. And so it was that in the fullness of time he came to seek and save the lost.

Stressing the co-equality of the Son with the Father and the Holy Spirit as the efficient cause of predestination in no way compromises the order of persons in the Trinity. The Three are not interchangeable. Each has his own distinguishing personal characteristics. As to their persons, the Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten of the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. That is why it was singularly appropriate that the Father sent the Son to accomplish the work of salvation by the Holy Spirit. 

The divine persons do not jostle for position, with one seeking to force the others into subordinate roles. The Three are One in being, will and acts. The Son seeks the glory of his Father, the Holy Spirit the glory of the Son and the God the Father is glorified when the whole universe acknowledges that Jesus Christ is Lord. It was in line with this attitude of 'other-seeking-glory' that in eternity the Son willingly submitted to become man and die for his chosen people. Before he went to the Cross, Jesus prayed to his Father who sent him into the world, "Father, the hour has come, glorify your Son that your Son also may glorify you." (John 17:1). 

The cause and effect of the decree to save are the will and actions of the triune God; all for the glory of the One God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Christ as the electing God, the Elect One and the One in whom we were elected

Been tying to make an assault on some as yet unread books on my shelves. I've not bought anything new for a while, no books to review and no lectures to prepare for. At least for a bit. I got hold of this one must have been a couple of years ago. When I was thinking about election in Christ in the writings of Thomas Goodwin (see here). If ever I do some more degree level studies, I'd like to do some work on election in Christ. Don't know whether that'll ever happen. 

Anyway, Muller is an important interpreter of Calvin's thought and has gone to a lot of trouble to trace the lines of continuity between Calvin and the Reformed Orthodox tradition that followed in his wake. Basically, if you think Calvin was a 'pure biblical theologian' and that the Reformed Orthodox were little better than a bunch of hair-splitting scholastics, you need a good dose of Muller to set you straight.

As you can see from the title, the subject under consideration is Christ and the decree. In the first chapter, Muller expertly sets out Calvin's teaching on the subject. It's a marvel of biblical insight and conceptual clarity. Muller gives special attention to the interplay between the Reformer's thought on the person of Christ and the divine decree. 

The Son as God is author of the decree to save together with the Father and the Holy Spirit. In their internal will as well as in their external actions, the persons of the Trinity are undivided. In that triune decree the Son is chosen to carry out the work of mediator. As the Elect One he will take human nature to redeem those who were chosen in him. Muller explains, "Christ stands as mediator, between God and man but also between the decree and its execution and must somehow be subordinate to the decree." (p. 36). The eternal decree is fulfilled in time through Christ's incarnation and saving work. Calvin is clear that the Son was subordinate to the decree only in as much as he was mediator who would take on flesh, not as God, per se. Muller further summarises Calvin's thought,
As mediator Christ is subordinate to the decree while as Son of God he is one with the Father and in no way subordinate. The Son of God stands behind the decree while the Son as mediator is executor of the decree. The relationship between the distinction concerning the decree and its execution and the extra calvinisticum now becomes clear. In the execution of the decree or work of salvation, the Son is wholly given, in subordination to the eternal plan, as mediator. But the Son as God a se ipso cannot be wholly contained in the flesh or in any way subsumed under the execution of the decree. (p. 38)
Yes, Christ was designated the Elect One in whom we were elected to salvation, but he was never less than the electing God, homoousios with the Father and united with him in saving purpose. The value of Calvin's Christocentric doctrine of election is that his account directs the believer to Christ as the 'mirror of our election'. We don't have to try and pry into God's hidden decree to see whether we are elect. We simply look to Christ. He is the Elect One in whom we were chosen. If we are in him now by faith, then we were graciously elected in him in eternity, Acts 13:48. The eternal decree; its execution in time, and its application in the experience of the believer are in, through and by Christ. He is all in all. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

We do not lose heart

A little while back someone asked me how I managed to stick it out, serving two small churches. I didn't really know what to say. It was like being asked how I managed to stick it out being married to my wife (although in fairness she's probably had to do more 'sticking it out' than me). I ummed and ahhed a bit to buy some time and then blurted out, 'because I love them'. That was it, really. We've been through a lot together over the years. There have been difficult times, disappointments and setbacks. I've had to bury dear friends, try to comfort the bereaved, and offer support to people with serious illnesses. People have come and gone, returned and then  gone again. Some have shown an interest in the gospel only for it to fizzle out. I've been at it now for thirteen years.

On the other hand, we've seen conversions and baptisms. The churches have grown in love for one another. We've become vastly more active in witness and community engagement. We long to see fruit for our prayers and efforts, but keep on praying and testifying to the gospel in different ways. Maybe the stereotype is that smaller churches are that way because they have a rigid 'us against the world' mentality. But our people have been fixed when it comes to gospel faithfulness and flexible when it comes to trying new ways of doing church and engaging non-Christians with the good news of Jesus. 

Last week I attended a prayer meeting for the group of seven churches in our local FIEC cluster. I led the meeting and asked a leader of the host church to give us a word of encouragement from the Scriptures to get us going. He spoke from 2 Corinthians 4. As he read the chapter I was struck by the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:1, 'we do not lose heart'.

It's not as if the apostle had it easy. Especially in his relationship with the church at Corinth. He had heard all about their divisions, doctrinal deviations, and failures in church discipline. Not to mention that some members of the congregation were critical of him personally. Much preferring the effortless glamour of the 'super apostles' than old Paul. 'Ha' they said, 'his bodily presence is weak and his speech of no account'. (2 Corinthians 10:10). What a thing to say of a preacher! 

Yet Paul refused to be discouraged. The source of his indomitable resilience? The 'mercy of God' (2 Corinthians 4:1). Yes, there's a lot that could get us down in pastoral work, but 'having received this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart'. And however hard things may be at the moment, the future is gloriously bright. Another reason not to lose heart, 2 Corinthians 4:16-18. 

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Inventing the Universe by Alister McGrath

Hodder & Stoughton, 2016, 247pp

Many people believe that science has disproved the Christian faith, or at least that science and Christianity are in conflict, with science the hands-down winner. As a teenage atheist the author of this book would have pretty much agreed with that scenario. But then he began to have doubts. It dawned on him that while science has helped us understand the workings of the natural world, it cannot provide a framework for living a fulfilled and purposeful life. For that kind of thing we have to go beyond the confines of empirical research and scientific theory.

The likes of Richard Dawkins seek to perpetuate the conflict between science and faith, but as McGrath demonstrates, a more harmonious relationship between these two perspectives on life can be achieved. Christian thinkers believed that the rational world is capable of rational explanation because it was created by a wise and rational God. That very idea helped to give birth to modern science. In calling in to question the conflict narrative beloved of the new atheists, McGrath explodes some of their dearest myths; Galileo vs the Church, Huxley vs Wilberforce and all that. The facts are quite different to the accounts trotted out by scientistic propagandists. 

Reality is so big and complex that no one perspective on life can give us a glimpse of the whole. When both science and faith are allowed to contribute to our view of reality, a more richly textured picture emerges. Conflicts emerge when science tries to do the job of faith and visa versa. Science can explore the natural world and devise theories on how the world works, but it cannot provide answers to ultimate questions such as; 'Why does the universe exist?', 'What is the purpose of life?' and 'What is a well-lived life?' That is where faith comes in. But faith cannot tell us that the chemical composition of water is H2O, or provide an explanation of how traits are passed on via DNA. Science and faith are mutually enriching, with the former offering answers to 'How?' questions, and the latter to 'Why?' ones. 

Sometimes the boundary between science and faith is not easy to discern. For, example, McGrath cites an experiment designed to prove the existence of the human soul by showing that bodies decreased in weight at death. The experiment was flawed. McGrath concludes that there is no such thing as the human soul, the idea of which he attributes more to Plato than the Christian faith. But if souls exist at all, they are spirit, not matter and are not therefore capable of being weighed. You don't have to be a card carrying Platonist to notice that the Bible speaks of the human spirit existing beyond death in some way, 2 Corinthians 5:8, Philippians 1:21, 23. 

Rather than Christianity acting as an impediment to the scientific enterprise, it has on occasion provided a necessary corrective to the prevailing scientific viewpoint. Many scientists held to the 'steady state' view of the universe. Partly because if the universe has always existed, there is no need to invoke a Creator. However, the discovery of background radiation in the 1960's pointed to the afterglow of a 'big bang'. The universe had a beginning after all, just as the Christian faith had claimed for two thousand years. 

The relationship between the Christian faith and Darwin's theory of evolution has been fraught with tensions. Some Christians have been strongly opposed to the theory, others have tried to reach an accommodation with an evolutionary account of origins. McGrath is in the second camp. Certainly the theory of evolution does not in itself disprove the existence of God, as some have claimed. Few would dispute that some form of evolutionary process helps account for the wide variety of plant and animal species we see today. Sticking points would be whether God created the original 'kinds' of Genesis 1:11-12, 1:20-21, 1:24-25, which then diversified into myriads of different species, and of course, the special creation of human beings depicted in Genesis 1:26-27. McGrath prefers Augustine's approach to Genesis 1 to that of modern day Creationists. He has little difficulty with the idea that human beings evolved from primates. 

But as McGrath stresses repeatedly, even the most widely accepted scientific theories are subject to revision or even rejection as better understandings of the facts are achieved. The shift from the 'steady state' to the 'big bang' account of origins is a case in point. Sometimes theology needs correct its understanding of the Bible in the light of scientific developments. Galileo's discovery that the solar system is heliocentric brought into question the church's overdependence on Ptolemy's earth-centred astronomical model. In that case a model that was alien to the Bible had skewed how people understood its teaching. Herman Bavinck regarded the creation days of Genesis 1 as "workdays of God", or "the time in which God was at work creating", which he thought not likely to be the work of a few hours. Unlike the good Bishop Usher, who posited that God created the world in 4004 B.C, Bavinck admitted that the Bible does not provide exact data on the age of the earth. As McGrath points out, Bavinck's contemporary B. B. Warfield did not believe that the antiquity of man was a theological issue. What mattered for him was not the age, but the unity of the human race. Once more science had called into question a common approach to reading the Bible in terms of the age of the universe. Nevertheless, there are also times when theology needs to hold its ground against the scientific consensus, as with the insistence that the universe had a beginning. Bavinck argues,
As the science of divine and eternal things, theology must be patient until the science that contradicts it has made a deeper and broader study of its field and, as happens in most cases, corrects itself. In that matter theology upholds its dignity and honour more effectively than by constantly yielding and adapting itself to the opinions of the day. 
Perhaps theologians need to exercise a little more patience before giving wholesale acceptance to a Darwinian account of the origin of human beings. The special creation of human life in God's image and the historic fall of man into sin are difficult to square with the theory of evolution. How can they be accounted for in evolutionary terms? Especially as the reality of human sinfulness is a key feature of McGrath's case. 

Criticisms aside, the author makes some telling arguments against new atheist writers such as Richard Dawkins who claim that religion is the root of all evil. If only we could get rid of God in favour of science, they say, all would be well. As McGrath points out, things aren't quite so simple. Anti-God advocates of scientism fail to take into account that science can be harnessed for harmful ends, such as the production of napalm. Besides, notions of good and evil make little sense if there is no God. And if there is no God, then the idea of the divine is but a human invention that has been used to justify all manner of bad stuff. In that case, it's not God's fault, but our own. Religion is the product of our twisted human hearts that are inclined towards evil. Just as the Christian account of human fallenness suggests. John Calvin taught that the heart is a 'factory of idols'. Man-made religion as opposed to the worship of the living God is always destructive and debasing. The fact that new atheists are so outraged at the the impact of 'bad religion' is a backhanded compliment to the standard of absolute good and righteousness may be ascribed to God alone. 

Contrary to what is sometimes claimed, McGrath points out that science in itself cannot adjudicate on matters of good and evil. Such value judgments take us beyond the realms of  empirical investigation or rationalistic theorising. Many of the moral principles that we hold most dear are not the product of atheistic humanism, but the Christian faith. Christianity posits that all human beings are of equal worth and value, and should therefore be treated with dignity and respoect. Early adopters of Darwinism advocated eugenics. The survival of the fittest, and all that. Richard  Dawkins tells women that they must abort their babies should they be discovered to have Downs Syndrome. We need to look above and beyond science to discover a sense of moral purpose. 

Atheistic scientism is a form of reductionist 'nothing buttery' that offers an impoverished view of reality. The perspective offered by science needs to be supplemented by that of faith. Science has expanded our understanding of the vastness of the universe, in which the earth is but a tiny blue dot. When viewed in that way, human life can seem insignificant and worthless. Those with faith are also overawed by the magnitude of space, but we are assured that this is God's world and he cares for us,

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
    and the son of man that you care for him?
(Psalm 8:3-4)

McGrath's work will challenge the thinking of those who have been influenced by Richard Dawkins and others. He exposes the inadequacy new atheism's take on science and proposes a more constructive engagement between science and faith. He doesn't so much set out to give a defense of the Christian faith, as offer his readers a compelling vision of the intellectual depth and coherence of the Christian worldview. Inventing the Universe will also prove stimulating for Christians as they reflect on the relationship between science and faith. Not all will agree with every point, I certainly didn't. Tensions between science and faith will always exist to a degree, as there is some crossover between the two perspectives on life. They offer differing origin narratives, which can only be reconciled with some difficulty, for example. But McGrath's main proposal that the 'maps' supplied by science and faith may be combined to provide a more richly textured account of reality is surely welcome. If taken on board it will help provide a way to move on from angry conflict to a more fruitful, engagement between science and the Christian faith. 

Thursday, October 27, 2016

What are you seeking?

The other day I was standing around watching cows eating grass. As you do. They seemed contented enough, munching away on the green stuff. What more could a herd of cows want? I mean, so far as we can tell, cows don’t bother their heads with questions like, ‘why do we exist?’ or ‘what’s the purpose of life?’ Never mind that malarkey. All cows seem to want is a meadow full of lush green grass to graze.

Human beings are different. We don’t simply live to eat. Hopefully. We seek a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Children are for ever asking their parents, ‘where are we going?’ and ‘why is this, that, and the other?’ Our curiosity about the world has driven philosophers to ponder the meaning of life and scientists to explore the wonders of nature.

Yet this quest for meaning and purpose can often seem frustrating. Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson sighed, “All my life I have sought something I cannot name.” Some people try and find meaning in life by seeking fame and fortune. Few find those things. Those who do are often left feeling empty and disappointed by what they have achieved. Witness the messed up lives of many pop stars.

Others throw themselves into education, work, their hobbies, or what have you. Such things are good in themselves, but they cannot give us what we seek. There is something about human beings that longs for something bigger than anything this world can offer.

The Christian thinker Augustine of Hippo put his finger on it. He prayed to God, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts and restless until they find rest in you.” Don’t spend all your life seeking something you cannot name. God has reached out to us through the One who came to give rest to our restless hearts. His name is Jesus.

* For a variery of local rags & mags: White Horse News, Trinity Parish Magazine, News & Views, Market Lavington & Easterton News.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

John Owen and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Unity

2016 marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Owen in 1616 and the 50th anniversary of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones' address on Evangelical Unity on 18th October 1966. Both men gave attention to the matter unity between Christians. Lloyd-Jones was a student of Owen and drew upon his work on Christian unity. However, I argue that Lloyd-Jones' strategy for achieving  greater unity among gospel churches was flawed in that was tied to Evangelicals coming together under one organisational umbrella group. In a previous post I looked at 'John Owen and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Schism'.

The Puritan ecclesiastical experiment of the Commonwealth era had failed to unite all reform-minded believers under a single form of church government. Some favoured a drive to further reform the Church of England, others preferred Presbyterianism or others still, Independency. With the monarchy restored in 1660 the Church of England with its Episcopalian system became the State Church once more. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer was imposed on all Church of England congregations, leading to over 2,000 Puritan pastors being deprived of their livings. Anglicanism was the only officially recognised religion in England. 

It was payback time for the regicidal Puritans. Non-Anglicans faced sometimes viscous bouts of persecution. The well-known trials and tribulations of John Bunyan are a case in point. An attempt was made to impose Protestant unity upon all Christians in the land by means of the power of the State. But as Owen pointed out, rather than fostering true spiritual unity, the State-sponsored imposition of Anglicanism, Bishops, liturgy and all, only exacerbated divisions still further. Owen argued that God alone is Lord of men’s consciences. The Head of the Church had not left himself without witness when it came to the government, life and worship of the church. What he has commanded, man has no right to supplement, much less ignore.

Owen pleaded for toleration on the part of Nonconformists, arguing that doing so would not undermine the unity and peace of the nation. People should have the right to “do church” in the light of their understanding of Scripture and for the benefit of their souls, rather than be forced to conform to a Church that would not reform. Anglicanism was in danger of being as imperious and intolerant as Rome in insisting that unity could only be found under her banner and looking to the State to persecute Dissenters.

In 1672, Owen published A Discourse Concerning Evangelical Love, Peace and Unity. Our divine understood that inter-church unity could not be created institutionally, by forcing all Protestants to join the Established Church. True spiritual unity said Owen exists at three levels:

First in the Catholic Church on earth, which “is comprised that real living and spiritual body of his, which is firstly, peculiarly, and properly called the Catholic Church militant in this world. These are his elect, redeemed, justified, and sanctified ones, who are savingly united to their head by the same quickening and sanctifying Spirit” (15:78). All true believers belong to and are one with the Catholic Church on earth. They may disagree over many things and differ on points of church government, and yet “they esteem the things wherein they agree incomparably above wherein they differ.” (15:80). Those differences are to be handled not by one group of Christians riding roughshod over another because they have the power of the State on their side, but as befits their unity in the gospel. “It is love, meekness, forbearance, bowels of compassion, with those other graces of the Spirit wherein our conformity to Christ doth consist, with a true understanding and due valuation of the ‘unity of faith…’” that alone will enable believers to avoid the evils associated with entrenched differences between churches. To what extent do we give expression to our unity with the Catholic Church on earth that perchance exists outside of our hermetically sealed Reformed bubble?

Second there is the visible Catholic Church “comprehensive of all who throughout the world outwardly own the gospel, there is an acknowledgement of “one Lord, one faith, one baptism:” which are a sufficient ground of that love, union and communion among them” (15:82). It is in this manifestation of the Catholic Church “that salvation is to be obtained and out of which there is none.” (15:84).

Convinced Independent though he was Owen certainly did not want to limit the visible Catholic Church so defined to his own Independent church grouping. He regarded it as an “absurd, foolish and uncharitable error, which would confine the Catholic Church of Christ unto a particular church of one single denomination”. (15:84). Striking a consolatory note, notwithstanding his differences with the Church of England, Owen said he regarded her “to be as sound and healthful a part of the Catholic Church as any in the world.” (15:85). So far from being a narrow minded sectarian was Owen that he insisted, “Unto this Catholic Church we owe all Christians love, and we are obliged to exercise all the effects of it, both towards the whole and every particular member, as we have advantage and occasion.” (15:86). Owen was no sectarian Donatist, then. To what extent does our love for fellow Christians overflow our church groupings, to embrace believers in the mixed denominations, Charismatics, and others?

Thirdly Owen discusses the church of Christ in terms of those who profess the gospel and gathered into particular churches. All believers are obliged to belong to a local church. But in line with his principles, Owen did not recommend an “any church will do” approach. Should a local church degenerate from the biblical pattern and seek to impose unscriptural practices upon believers, the godly may separate from such a congregation and in doing so should not be regarded as schismatic. Owen stresses that in such situations reform-minded believers should not show themselves difficult rabble rousers. They are to attempt “peaceable endeavours to reduce [the church] to the order of the gospel” (15:97). All the time showing “charity, love and forbearance towards the persons of those whose miscarriages at present he cannot remedy.” (15:97). But if sincere Christians found themselves having corrupt practices and erroneous teaching forced on them, Owen counselled that they should peaceably withdraw and seek fellowship in a more biblically sound church. At a local level unity should not be sought at the expense of biblical purity.

What, then, according to Owen are the defining characteristics of gospel church unity that we are bound to seek?

1.      It is spiritual “the unity of the Spirit”, the product of being ‘spiritually and savingly united to Christ” (15:108), not the product of imposed uniformity.
2.      It is “unity of faith”, based upon “A precise and express profession of the fundamental articles of the Christian religion”. (15:108). Owen is not interested in lowest common denominator ecumenism, or sectarian exclusivism. Unity in the essential truths of the gospel is what matters. 
3.      It is a unity of Love. Love knits together all members of the body of Christ as the “bond of perfection”. This gospel love is not pernickety and excluding, but “acts itself by forbearance and condescension towards the infirmities, mistakes and faults of others”. (15:110). Is that always the case with us? Are we sometimes too quick to write others off?
4.      It is a unity in the orders of rule and ordinances of worship instituted by the kingly authority of Jesus. Where churches receive grace and gifts from the Lord Jesus to this end and seek to act in line with the Word, says Owen, “no such variety or difference will ensue as shall impeach that unity which is the duty of them all to attend unto.” (15:110). He is not demanding absolute uniformity of view and practice, but unity in diversity among churches that gladly submit to the rule of King Jesus laid down in his Word.

During the Restoration period Owen and his fellow Nonconformists faced a very different situation to ours today. Dissenters are no longer subject to persecution because we do not belong to the Church of England Established by Law. Much of Owen’s work on the doctrine of the church was an extended plea for the right of Nonconformists to exist persecution-free. That is no longer the need of the hour, thank God. But we are gospel-bound to pursue church-level Evangelical unity and Owen helps us to understand what that means. Evangelical unity flows from the gospel we believe and is shaped by the gospel of love. It is not about bringing all church groupings under one umbrella structure, or seeking to obliterate denominational distinctives. As with the poor, differences over church government, baptism and worship styles will be ever with us. But both within and among Gospel Churches we must do all we can to give expression to our unity in the gospel. How that works itself out in practice will differ in our various situations. Sometimes more fellowship will be possible with other neighbouring churches, sometimes less, but we need to find ways of expressing our unity in faith and love. Isolationism isn’t an option for true Independents. 

Sure, Affinity, the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, Grace Baptist Associations, Evangelical Presbyterian and Evangelical Anglican groupings, Gospel Partnerships and so on have a role in fostering unity between our churches. But is none large and comprehensive enough to serve as a pan-Evangelical Big Tent, where the “fundamental articles of the Christian faith” are confessed, but conscientious differences respected. Lloyd-Jones’ vision for Evangelical unity was strategically flawed in that he sought to replace the institutional unity of the World Council of Churches and British Council of Churches with that of another organisation, the British Evangelical Council. While we may agree that Evangelicals should separate from church groupings where there is no realistic prospect of reform, the answer is not as Lloyd-Jones put it in his 1967 address Martin Luther and his Message for Today: “Come out of it! But come together also…into an association such as this British Evangelical Council… Come out! Come in!” (Unity in Truth, D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Evangelical Press, 1991, p. 43). 

Dr. Owen grasped what Dr. Lloyd-Jones apparently did not at this point, that Evangelicals were already “in”, in the sense that together they belonged to the gospel-proclaiming Catholic Church in its local manifestations. Joining the BEC would not necessarily have broken down barriers between Evangelical Churches. What was needed there was a greater catholicity of spirit, more love for one another across denominational divides, a deeper determination to submit to the Lordship of Christ, come what may. Come out! Yes. But come out because you are in and that unity needs to be seen in action as gospel churches partner together to reach the nation for Christ. Lloyd-Jones would have been better advised to have stressed the basic principles, as did Owen, and not to have tied his vision to a single organisation.

Inter-church unity is organic, not organisational. As John Owen says in The True Nature on the Communion of Churches,

Take in the whole, and the union of churches consists in their relation unto God as their Father, and unto Christ as their only immediate head of influence and rule, with a participation in the same faith and doctrine of truth, the same kind of holiness, the same duties of divine worship, especially the same mysteries of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the observance of all the rules of Christ in all church-order with mutual love, effectual unto all the ends of their being and constitution, or the edification of the Catholic Church. (16:190).  

Though there may be differences among gospel churches, our essential union is an expression of the oneness for with the Lord Christ prayed in John 17:20-23, that his disciples may be “perfect in one”. Giving that oneness visible expression is vital to the mission of the church, John 17:21.

There has been a welcome revival of interest in Puritanism among Evangelical Christians in the last few decades. That interest has largely focused on the rich treasury of Puritan devotional writings. But we must never forget that Puritanism was a movement dedicated to the reformation and revitalisation of the church. Reading the Works of John Owen Volumes 13-16 it is evident that he was a pastor-theologian; a theologian of the church and for the church. His ecclesiological writings are a standing reminder that, Ephesians 5:25-26.

* From my Evangelical Library conference paper: Reading John Owen: Volumes 13-16 

Monday, October 17, 2016

John Owen and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Schism

2016 marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Owen in 1616 and the 50th anniversary of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones' address on Evangelical Unity in 1966. Both men gave attention to the matter of schism or divisions between Christians. Lloyd-Jones was a student of Owen and drew upon his work on schism. However, his charge in 1966 that Evangelicals in the mixed denominations were guilty of schism was decidedly un-Owenic.  


John Owen was a leading voice of the Independent Churches. In the 17th Century the Independents were dogged by the charge of schism. They were Protestants who had separated from Rome. Schism number 1. They were Puritans and then Nonconformists who had separated from the Church of England. Schism number 2. They were Independents who allegedly had separated from the Presbyterian churches. Schism number 3. Understandably Owen didn’t find being labelled a 3-fold schismatic much to his liking. ‘schism scwism” might be our response, ‘so what?” For one, causing needless divisions among the people of God is a serious matter. John 17 for instance. For two, didn’t Evangelical Churches (whatever their ecclesiastical polity) face a similar charge when we refuse to get involved in Churches Together and the like? We’re splitters and no-one like a splitter.

Owen’s response to the charge of schism that was leveled against the Independents was a novel one. In Of Schism, Vol 13, published in 1657, he didn’t start with things as they were in his day with the Popery/Protestant divide and the splintering of Protestantism. Neither did he simply rehearse the denunciation of schism on the part of the Church Fathers. Augustine and the Donatists and all that. He took a rather novel approach. “Right” he said, “what does the Bible have to say about this?” Crazy, eh? Going back to the Bible’s he discovered that in the Good Book the word schism is only used of divisions within local churches. Never is it used of people who leave one local church and join another, or set up another, for whatever reason. Some in the church at Corinth were guilty of schism because they lined up behind their favourite preachers, or allowed social distinctions to rend the body of Christ at the Lord’s Supper. There’s schism for you.

But what of Christian unity on a bigger scale? Well, there’s the Universal Church. At that level, union consists of all who are chosen in Christ and saving united to him for salvation by the Spirit. That unity cannot be shattered because it is spiritual and organic, not organisational. No schism there, then. Then there’s the unity of the Visible Catholic Church. That is the church worldwide that professes the gospel. To split off from the Catholic Church so defined is not schism, argues Owen, but heresy and apostasy, 1 John 2:19.

Hang on a minute, Dr. Owen. What about the Roman Catholic charge against Protestants? As we have seen, for Owen, the Roman Catholic Church was no true Church, having apostatised from the Visible Catholic Church by defecting from the gospel. What about the Puritans and Non-conformists who left the Church of England? Owen argued that believers are not in any way obliged to align themselves with a territorial Protestant State Church. There is no biblical justification for such an institution. Owen confessed himself a member of the Church of England in the sense that he was united with the Visible Catholic Church in England composed believers in the nation who professed the gospel. But that did not mean he was guilty of schism for not being a member of the Church of England Established by Law by Henry VIII and his heirs and successors.

Believers are duty bound to gather themselves together in churches where the gospel is preached and godly discipline applied. When a local church of whatever denominational stamp refuses to reform itself according to the Word of God, it is the duty of believers to separate from it. Doing so was not to be regarded as schism. Neither was the fact that Independents differed from Presbyterians on certain points of church government and wished to put their beliefs into practice in their local churches.  

One Daniel Cawdrey, a Presbyterian minister at Great Billing, Northamptonshire took it upon himself to offer a response to Owen’s Of Schism in a pamphlet with the less than reconciliatory title, Independency a Great Schism. Suffice to say, the carping Cawdrey was no match for Owen in terms of theological acumen. Not to mention generosity of spirit.  Owen penned a Vindication. Reading it you sense his hurt at having his views and person traduced so roundly, even to the point of occasional tetchiness. Who can blame him? Owen felt himself reviled from one end of Cawrey’s work to the other. He was vilified as, ‘Satan, atheist, sceptic, Donatist, heretic, schismatic, secretary, Pharisee, etc”. (13:214). But the controversy also brought out the best in Owen in terms of his generous catholicity of spirit. He was certainly no sectarian Donatist and made it clear that he did not believe as Cawdrey had alleged that Independents were the only true churches.

Owen responded to a further critical rejoinder from Cawdrey. It is obvious that he found the controversy rather a chore. But he felt obliged to respond at length and with his customary thoroughness. This is Owen at his most cumbersome, taking pages and pages to say what could have been said much more succinctly. Eventually he called an end to what he called “this tedious debate” (13:269). For which his poor readers ought to count themselves grateful.

The main point as far as Owen was concerned, is that schism is a local church issue, not inter-church issue. But even if it was permissible for the term ‘schism” to be used of divisions between local churches, it wasn’t the Independents that were at fault. It wasn’t them that insisted that all local churches should belong to the Established Church of England. It wasn’t them that refused to reform the government of the church after a more biblical pattern. It wasn’t them that failed to exercise church discipline to weed out the notoriously ungodly from the flock. It wasn’t the Independents who imposed ceremonies, a fixed liturgy and canon law upon churches, all contrary to the mind of Christ. And then persecuted those who would not conform. That was the Church of England.

Owen did not write off the Church of England altogether, however. Writing, now in response to Dr. Stillingfleet on The Unreasonableness of Separation (1681), he said, “We do allow those parochial assemblies which have a settled, unblameable ministry among them to be true churches, for far as they can pretend so to be”. Then comes a lengthy, paragraph-long string of qualifiers. Parochial assemblies may be regarded as true churches although they had no power to choose or ordain their own ministers, or reform themselves according to the word of God, and that they neglected evangelical discipline and the like. Owen waspishly concludes, “Whatever can be ascribed to such churches we willingly allow to them.” (15:376-377). Where reforming such “parochial assemblies” proved impossible, peaceable withdrawal was not schism. Even then, Owen was not proposing total separation, just that Independents could not conscientiously engage in full communion with an unreformed Church of England. That was not what Scripture described as schism because it did not invoke stirring up divisions within a local church.

What, then do we make of Dr. Lloyd-Jones” charge in 1966 that Evangelicals in the mixed denominations were guilty of schism because they failed to separate from their error-tolerating denominations and come together as churches? He argued “that for us to be divided - we who are agreed about everything that really matters…is nothing but to be guilty of the sin of schism.” (Knowing the Times, D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Banner of Truth Trust, 1989, p. 254). Strong words. But if Owen is right, the charge of schism is a category mistake. Schism is local church issue, not an inter-church issue. Lloyd-Jones was aware of Owen’s work in this area. He devoted his 1963 Westminster Conference address to John Owen on Schism, in which Lloyd-Jones very much commended Owen’s attitude and approach. (The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors, D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Banner of Truth Trust, 1987, p. 73-100).

According to New Testament as demonstrated by Owen, schism is the sin of causing needless divisions within a gospel church. Divisions between gospel churches are another matter entirely. If a gospel church is in fellowship with a church grouping in which the the gospel is denied, and the situation cannot be remedied, that is a grievous disorder. We should separate from error. But Lloyd-Jones was wrong to say that Evangelicals were guilty of schism simply because their churches belonged to a 'mixed' denomination.

When it comes to the contemporary church scene we are often the ones accused of schism. Ours may be the only church in town not in Churches Together. But Churches Together has no biblical mandate. We are not obliged to be in it. It is no schism to be out of it. Especially as the grouping obscures clarity of gospel witness and is in danger of violating the unity of the Catholic Church by having Roman Catholics and unreconstructed Liberals involved.

We are schismatics, however, if we are the cause needless divisions within our local churches. We are failing in our duty of Christian love if we shun fellowship with other Evangelical churches because of differences over secondary matters.  

* From my Evangelical Library conference paper: Reading John Owen: Volumes 13-16 

Friday, September 23, 2016

Biblical Church Revitalization: Solutions for Dying & Divided Churches by Brian Croft

Christian Focus, 2016, 133pp

There has been a lot of emphasis on church planting in recent years, and rightly so. Where villages, towns, or areas of cities are without a gospel church, planting one there is a vital means of discipling believers in the locality and reaching the community for Christ.

But what of places where there already is a gospel church, but the work is in danger of fizzling out? That is where church revitalisation comes in. Which, I would venture to suggest in an urgent priority for many churches in the UK at this time.

Churches may be in need of revitalisation for a number of reasons. Brian Croft's book is directed at helping pastors turn around churches that have become badly dysfunctional in the way they are run, and as a result have become spiritually stunted and inward looking.

Croft was called to  Southern Baptist Church in the USA that had a reputation for chewing up and spitting out pastor after pastor. By the grace of God the situation was transformed and the church is now in a much more healthy place.

The writer does not offer a 'silver bullet' formula for breathing new life into moribund churches. He acknowledges that ultimately only the power of God can do that. But the Lord is pleased to use the means laid down in the Scriptures. Pastors involved in church revitalisation need to be men who are dedicated to God-dependent prayer and the authoritative preaching of the Word. They must be willing to give loving pastoral care to believers who may have been left bruised and broken by their involvement in a difficult church. In some situations biblical patterns of authority and leadership may need to be recovered, such as the plurality of elders who share in the pastoral oversight of the flock. Somewhat confusingly, but for reasons he explains, Croft speaks of the 'plurality of pastors'. 

The book offers a healthy dose of realism. Some of the examples Croft gives of just how bad things were in the early days of his pastorate are hair raising. Plots were hatched to oust him. Some church members were bitterly critical of his ministry.  But as he prayerfully persevered, things began to change. 

Croft emphasises that men involved in church revitalisation work don't need to be super-pastors. The Lord is pleased to use broken people to turn around broken churches. But pastors in difficult situations are going to need spiritual resilience, grit and determination if they are going to stay around for long enough to see the Lord work to turn the church around. 

The writer acknowledges that mistakes were made along the way and patience was needed on both sides. I'm not sure that he acted wisely when he saw off an opponent with a threat to block his future ministry prospects unless he backed down from causing trouble in a members' meeting. To my mind, a man with such an ungracious attitude was an unsuitable candidate for church ministry full stop. The person in question should have been blocked from ministry as a matter of principle, unless a change of heart was in evidence. It's a reminder that no pastor gets it right every time. Especially when fighting on all fronts it isn't always easy to pick our battles. Thankfully, it it Christ's church, not ours and he is able to overrule our blunders.  

Aspiring pastors considering a call to a 'challenging' church will be able to do so with their eyes open having read this book. They will find encouragement here to look to Lord in their struggles, knowing that his strength is made perfect in weakness. That said, no book can fully prepare a man for the sometimes harsh reality of the ministry. In a way all pastoral ministry is church revitalisation work, and brings with it suffering and trials, as well as great joys. 

This volume on church revitalisation will not provide answer for every ailing fellowship. Some may be dying because they have become inward looking and out of touch with their local communities. Others may be making every endevour to reach out, but, as yet have seen little discernible fruit. Croft does not address those kinds of scenarios. 

But as this book shows, difficult churches should not simply be written off. Dry bones can live by power of God's Word and Spirit.

The text could have done with a bit of de-Americanisation for the UK market. E.g. I was surprised to learn that Southern Baptist Churches are unique in having a congregational form of church government. That will come as news to FIEC and Grace Baptist Churches in the UK, to say no more.

None the less... 

A good one for men who are training for pastoral ministry.

An encouragement to brave souls battling it out to revitalise a dying and divided church. 

*Reviewed for Evangelical Times

Friday, September 09, 2016

Reading John Owen Evangelical Library Conference

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of the great Puritan theologian and Independent Church leader. 

On Monday, September 26, 2016, there will be a special one day conference on Reading John Owen. 

The conference will take place at the Evangelical Library and will be from 10 am to 4.30 pm.

The main focus will be on key themes in Owen's 16 volume Works

Programme: 

10.00 Coffee
10.30 John Owen, Preacher, theologian and writer Nigel Graham
11.20 Owen on Christ and the Holy Spirit (Volumes 1-4) Jeremy Walker
12.10 Owen on justification, sanctification and apostasy (Volumes 5-8) Robert Strivens
1.00 Lunch
1.40 Owen the preacher and Calvinist (Volumes 9-12) Gary Brady
2.30 Break
3.00 Owen pastors, churches and Romanism (Volumes 13-16) Guy Davies
3.50 Final panel question session
4.30 Close

Hot drinks provided. Bring your own lunch.

The cost will be £25 for the day.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Building MAT-land

OK, guv'nor, so you're contemplating heading for MAT-land? Eventually, so we're told, we're all going to have to make that journey into the, if not unknown, at lest the not very well researched. That much was evident from this week's Education Committee's session on MATs.

The pace of change since the publication the Educational Excellence Everywhere white paper has caught almost everybody on the hop. Politicians, policy wonks, governors and Headteachers found themselves struggling to take in the the idea of universal academisation by 2022. With most schools in Multi Academy Trusts. Even the NGA carried on with its 'Federations First' campaign when it was obvious that MATs, not Feds are the future. 

But what does that future hold?  

A formidable panel of educational researchers was assembled to tell the Education Committee how much they don't know about MATs. Not, I hasten to add because they couldn't be bothered to find out, but because no one seems to know an awful lot about MAT-land. We'll, National Schools Commissioner  Sir David Carter and his trusty team of Regional SCs reckon they do, but they're not telling anybody. 

Now, academics never knowingly overstate their case. They're so immersed in the details of their field of expertise that they cannot help but be conscious of evidence that calls into question received wisdom, or casts doubt on common assumptions. Things are rarely as straightforward as they seem.

Which is a bit vexing if you're a dilettante amateur looking for some clear cut answers. Which is what I am in education terms.

'Any evidence that joining a MAT improves school performance?' asked committee members. 'Difficult to say. Needs more research.' replied the expert witnesses. 'What makes a successful MAT?' Ditto. 'What might be learned from similar systems  overseas, like the US Charter Schools?' Ditto. Oh, but it seems that Labour academies were good, Tory ones not so much.

Now, I'm not affecting a Gove-like disdain for experts. Maybe it's simply too early to draw hard and fast conclusions from what's happening in MAT-land. More independent research undoubtedly needs to be done as we head towards a MAT-dominated, fully academised system. The fruit of that research then needs to be absorbed by policy makers. Not to mention governors and Headteachers who are looking to join or set up MATs.

Would be quite nice to find out what kind of pre-existing MAT set-up should not be touched with a board ruler. (Do teachers still use those long board ruler things?) Or what should the MAT we may be forming look like if it's going to be highly effective as opposed to utterly shambolic and totally dysfunctional? We need to know these things.

Some issues became clear, though, as the committee quizzed the researchers. It's quality of teaching that matters above all else, not structures and governance systems. Well, yes. But surely closer collaboration  will help spread best practice when it comes to teaching and learning, CPD, etc?

It looks like collaborative clustering within smaller geographical areas might be a goer, as opposed to large chains that stretch from one end of England to another. Having a shared vision and purpose is key. However, some schools in 'clustered' MATs ain't doing so well.

More research needs to be undertaken into what makes for an effective CEO, whole MAT outcomes, MATs and the % of SEN pupils, rates of exclusions, whether in some cases improved outcomes are at the expense of a narrowed curriculum, etc.

All rather ambiguous

Next up to give evidence was a number of representatives of Christian education providers; RC, CofE, Oasis Trust, a chap from FASNA, and a secular bloke, who didn't appear to be involved in running any educational body, but was most concerned about Christians doing so.

This panel was a bit more forthcoming when it came to the features of a successful MAT. Among them are things like a clear vision and strategy, good leadership, governance structures appropriate for the size of MAT, and the facilitation of school-to-school support.

It was agreed that some issues needed more thought, like the role of local governance in MATs, Ofsted's ability to inspect MATs in the context of a common framework, and how LAs will function in a fully academised system.

Listening to the evidence given, a number of points began to crystallise, at least in my mind, on what may make for a successful MAT. And by that I mean one that helps form rounded and grounded students with high aspirations for themselves, as well as in terms of exam results.

1. Unity in diversity matters 

MATs must offer an overarching vision and strategy that all its schools share. But at the same time, individual schools should be allowed to maintain their own character and ethos; faith or non-denominational, sporty, or arty, or whatever. 

2. The right systems matter 

Well motivated and highly capable people will founder in an ill thought out system. MATs need Schemes of Delegation that are fit for purpose, setting out what responsibilities lie at board and local governance levels, the powers of the CEO, what decisions may be made by individual Headteachers, and so on.

3. Sharing best practice matters 

At their best MATs will allow successful schools to spread good practice when it comes to teaching and learning. But that needs to be done with sensitivity and care, as what works well in one school (a town secondary, say), may not translate to another (a rural primary). At least not without being adapted to suit. Copy and paste jobs won't work. It's vital to understand the difference between sharing best practice and imposing uniform solutions 

4. The balance between accountability and autonomy matters

MAT boards and CEOs should know their schools and be prepared to intervene rapidly if standards slip. But hyperactive micromanagement squelches innovation and growth. Earned autonomy is what's needed.

5. People matter

The optimum MAT system will fail if it's operated by a bunch of knaves and fools. Knaves who want to use a seat on the board as a nice little earner. Fools who haven't a clue what they are meant to be doing. Boards should be comprised of skilled-up stakeholders. Local people, parents etc, who have the moral purpose to make sure funds are used to raise learning outcomes, not line their own pockets. People with the right mix of skills and experience to ensure the MAT works effectively for the benefit of all schools and their pupils.

The future of education is ours to shape. 

MAT-land has not yet been covered over by hard concrete and filled with immovable brick structures.

That lack of solidity is a bit scary. But it's also an opportunity to adapt and innovate. To a certain extent it'll be up to governors, Headteachers and CEOs to make of it what we will.

Let's make sure that we build the system with care so that MAT-land becomes a place where teachers excel and children flourish.