Saturday, 16 May 2015

Sri Lanka April - May 2015

It has been my privilege to travel three times to preach and teach in Sri Lanka, the last two occasions with the Grace Fraternal group of churches.

My hosts have been pastor Benet Surendran (‘Suresh’) of Grace Evangelical Church, Colombo (a church of three congregations, English, Tamil and Sinhalese, each with its own pastor) and pastor Huthin Manohar, a former LTS student, who is principal of Baldaeus Theological College, Trincomalee.

After preaching at Grace on Sunday 26th April I travelled with a group from the church to Trincomalee for a three-day youth conference. About 29 youngsters from five churches attended; I preached once and spoke four times on ‘Thinking Biblically’ from Romans 12:1,2. Three other speakers, including Suresh, covered different topics including very practical ones like how to apply for jobs. After a day’s rest back in Colombo I spoke at Grace church’s own three-day Family Conference at a centre near Colombo. I preached three times and gave a variety of papers including two on ‘parenting’ (a brave thing to do, as I discovered, in a different culture).

Back, then, to Trincomalee (I think I spent 33 hours on this road in all!) for a course in New Testament Introduction with 25 students at Baldaeus. Not all are Reformed but it is exciting to see those from different theological traditions coming to appreciate the richer teaching of the Calvinistic heritage. Some of the young men here will be pastors; all are committed to working in their churches in Sri Lanka. I flew home on 8th May.

All my preaching was translated into Tamil and in some cases into Sinhalese as well. It is precious to enjoy fellowship with these kind and generous believers but language is a real barrier with most. It is good to see the ravages of war receding and the economy appearing to pick up, including the all important tourist industry. The election of a new President has given the Tamils at least a new optimism politically.

Spiritually there is much to give thanks for; pray for the fruit of the ministry of the word; for the overcoming of divisions and rivalries; and that our God ‘may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of the Lord Jesus may be glorified’ in Sri Lanka (2 Thess 1:11,12).

Overseas trips (especially on my own) give me a chance to catch up on reading too. I am having a crusade at the moment to read books which have been sitting on my shelves for a while. So I took with me 'A Pair of Blue Eyes'(a lesser known novel of Thomas Hardy); 'The Weight of Glory', a selection of C.S. Lewis essays, which I read twice; 'Travelling to Infinity', Jane Hawking's memoirs of her life with Stephen, made more piquant by the fact that I watched the film version, 'The Theory of Everything' on the flight to Colombo; Bradley Green's 'Covenant and Commandment'; Tom Lennie's 'Glory in the Glen' (revivals in Scotland 1880- 1940) and I began to read before coming home 'The Cambridge Companion to Puritanism'.

Two other films I was able to watch, this time on the way home (well, it is an eleven and a half hour flight), were the third in the 'Hunger Games' series, 'Mockingjay I', and the film version of the musical 'Les Miserables'.
Reviews some other time may be...

Friday, 27 March 2015

The Bible among the Myths

David Green of LTS recommended this book by John Oswalt a few years ago at a John Owen Conference and I have just got round to reading it.

Oswalt sets about convincing the reader that the religion of the Bible is not in the same category as pagan religious and its contents are not to be classed alongside myths (and he has a concise but useful discussion about what 'myth' is. He also points out that the Bible's approach to, and use of, history is not just different from but out of a different worldview from pagan religions.

His basic contention is that the bible is defined by transcendence, mythical approaches to religion and revelation by continuity (or we might say pantheism or panentheism).

It is a thoroughly stimulating work, useful at the level of apologetics in a world which is rapidly departing from transcendence, as well as being useful in its own field of Old Testament studies.

I read the book through and then read it again quickly to get hold of his main points. I would thoroughly recommend this for any minister or thoughtful Christian - or non-Christian - as a powerful antidote to the creeping pantheism of the age and to a diminishing grasp of the Bible's uniqueness.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

The Role of Works at the Final Judgment

I have just read this 'Four Views' book edited by Alan Stanley.

Robert Wilkin gives the Dispensational View: works will determine rewards but not salvation. At the judgement seat of Christ (not the Great White Throne judgment) each believer will be judged by Christ to determine his eternal rewards, but they remain eternally secure even if the judgment reveals they have failed to persevere in good works, or even (apparently) in faith.

Tom Schreiner gives the more or less Reformed view - he makes a good fist of presenting the case for works being evidence that one is saved. Works provide a necessary condition, but not the final ground or meritorious ground, of salvation. The trouble is he does this without any reference to Romans 5:12-21 or even mentioning the word 'imputation' . It is all based on the New Testament text (or some of it) without reference to the riches of systematic theology (which of course is also based on the Bible's text) so it all seems a but thin even though correct as far as it goes.

James D.G. Dunn gives a 'New Perspective' view - that judgment is according to works, meaning based on works, but also according to faith. His very postmodern view is that since the New Testament appears to hold together 'justification by faith and not by works' alongside 'judgment according to works' (by which he means not what the Reformed view does, but that works have some merit) we should not blend them in such a way that one diminishes the force of the other. He is happy to allow Scripture to contradict itself.

Michael Barber gives the Roman Catholic view, that works merit eternal life, but that they are only possible because of the grace of God and though union with Christ by faith.

So different views are presented clearly, and as usual responded to by the others. Most noteworthy are: (i) the antinomian leanings of Dispensationalism, as works are not insisted upon as evidence of salvation'; (ii) Schreiner's failure to utilise the weaponry of Systematic theology and even of all of the NT to support his case; James Buchanan's 'Justification' has better arguments, written over 150 years ago; and (iii) the closeness in practice between the New Perspective (or at least Dunn's version of it) and the Roman Catholic views, even though in fact they are different in detail. Dunn makes comments actually rejoicing in ecumenical closeness between his view and the Roman view.

In the end both of them leave us leaning on ourselves rather than on Christ. It is difficult to see how either can give any assurance of faith - one is left trusting the mercy of God, not his justice in Christ; there is no assurance of judgment having already been passed on the believer in Christ. In both presentations Christ is almost finally irrelevant, certainly secondary.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Westminster Fellowship: The Law in the Believer's Life

Robert Strivens of LTS gave us today a clear introduction to this important but contentious subject.

First he outlined the more familiar Reformed view, basing himself on Ernest Kevan's 'The Grace of Law', and then outlined very helpfully the 'New Covenant Theology' (NCT) views of Wells and Zaspel, Douglas Moo and Tom Schreiner.

Robert carefully indicated where these men differ as well as where their NCT becomes clear.

Discussion ranged widely. We discussed the Sabbath issue, noting the difficulties of the Reformed view as well as its basic correctness, and the difficulties of practising this theology without becoming legalistic. The need to argue our case more exegetically and with respect for the text was urged, rather than relying too much on systematic theology, especially Confessions, which however accurate they may be do not cut much ice with a younger generation of evangelicals. 'Is it in Scripture'?" is there challenge, and it is not an unreasonable one even though it can be pushed to unreasonable lengths.

The blessing of the law and of the sabbath was stressed, as well as the importance of the Creation roots of the sabbath and the moral laws generally.

One book I have recently read and would highly recommend is Mark Jones' 'Antinomianism: Reformed Theology's Unwelcome Guest?'. This is a fairly brief book (130 pages) but it covers an enormous amount of historical, biblical and theological material and I have found it immensely clarifying as well as challenging: how many times have I in an excess of zeal in one direction or another made statements in sermons that were either antinomian or legalistic? Two conclusions may be drawn: firstly, we should not judge men too harshly in their speaking or writing when they make an occasional statement which seems to be in error on either side. Secondly, we should nonetheless strive for precision of thought in preparation and of expression in preaching to avoid making mistakes. Who is sufficient for these things?

Oh yes - one major and helpful thesis of Jones' book is that the big failure of the antinomian is ultimately Christological. This is well perceived, and ironic, if true, as it is of course the mantra (which is what it can become) 'Preach Christ' is the very thing they are trying to do. Grace become their 'thing', a technique for the successful Christian life, and is divorced from the person and work of Christ in all his richness.

This was a very useful day, and it was good to see about 28 men there in the morning.

Union with Christ - Affinity Theological Study conference

About 65 of us gathered at the very ;peasant King's Park Conference Centre in Northampton last week for about 15 hours of concentrated study over three ays on the wonderful theme of 'Union with Christ.

Tim Ward, director of the Cornhill Training Programme, opened the batting (cricket metaphors were prominent during the conference) with the theme in Paul, focussing on Galatians. It was helpful to seeing the theme of 'union with Christ' as the 'webbing' against which Paul deals with particular themes e.g. justification. Even if it is not the particular theme Paul is dealing with, it is always there almost as an unspoken (though sometime every prominent) assumption in his whole schema.

Cornelis Bennema of WEST showed us the prominence of the them in John, especially in John 13-17.

Bob Letham gave us a good introduction to the theme in Calvin and spent time emphasising the importance of the Lord's Supper (or 'Eucharist' as Dr Letham likes to call it).

John V. Fesko of Westminster West provided insight into a debate that John Owen had with a William Sherlock, a Socinian (pretty much) in the 1670s, explaining why Owen had to write a vindication of his great work 'Communion with God'.

David McKay of Belfast produced a refreshingly straightforward introduction to covenant theology's understanding of justification and union with Christ, and Paul Wells formerly of Aix en Provence but now Eastbourne, produced the longest paper but a most helpful one on sanctification. But then, it is a big subject.

WE had all received the parers in advance and in theory e wet two have read them ; some had. The lecturers then give a short ( mostly ) introduction to the paper, and then we spent 45 minutes or so in discussion with set questions. These were really excellent, in my view, chaired helpfully by Paul Yeulett in our case and with Bob Letham in the group. We also enjoyed a very warm time of prayer in groups on Thursday evening.

This was a helpful conference, enhanced by excellent facilities and good food, in that something was learned from the papers, the theme of union with Christ was impressed upon us in all its importance, and the fellowship of kindred minds, albeit with some creative differences was precious.

What will we study in 2017? Someone suggested eschatology - not a bad idea and something new I think, if this were taken up.

John Owen's 'The Person of Christ' (Christologia)

We had a good day at the John Owen Centre Reading Group (which used to be called the Theology Study Group) on 23rd February. WE had set yourselves the challenge of reading our great mentor's work on The Person of Christ, the first work in volume one of the 16 volume set.

Reading it was a pleasure once one got into its 272 pages, including 27 page preface, but at times, with much else to do, I felt frustrated at not having time to do it justice, though I did get to the end. I had read it long ago, in about the year 2000, and was gratified to see some marginal scribbles along the way.

Owen gets rid of some inadequate formulations of the mystery of the incarnation and hypostatic union, and is magnificent on the functional importance of the doctrine of Christ's dual nature and unipersonality. Some of his passages rise to the sublime as he soars with his subject; some, it has to be said, plod clunkily along and take some deciphering.

His relatively brief section on the doctrine of the hypostatic union itself is faithful to Chalcedon and repays several readings and much study - more time than we had.

Owen is adamant that all the acts of the mediator are done by the person of the God-man and not by either one or the other nature.

Go to this book for yourself - there is no more edifying subject in all of theology than to study the person of Christ.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Westminster Conference 2014

We had an enjoyable couple of days in Regent Hall, Oxford Street, on Tuesday and Wednesday this week.

The theme was 'Authentic Calvinism' and one of the great games at the Westminster Conference is trying to see the link between the talks and the conference title, and indeed why one title is chosen one year rather than another.

Stephen Clark began with a good overview of Whitefield and Howell Harris, asking the question why such godly men seemed to be so unrealistic and out of touch with their humanity when it came to marriage. There is an ancient tradition of suspicion of sex and marriage in the Christian world, but the lack of self-awareness Harris and Whitefield showed and their insensitivity to the womenfolk in their lives spoke more of a super-spirituality in trying to reconcile their preaching ministries with the idea of marriage, than any deep rooted dualism or depreciation of marriage in general.

The discussion raised a number of interesting issues about whether there was a creation/redemption dualism in the 18th century. It certainly seems as if there was. The rationalism of the late 17th and the 18th century led to a reaction by the pietists, and ever since evangelicals have been prone to denigrate the mind, the body and culture in relation to the spirit. But the pendulum can swing in the other direction. We rarely seem to have recovered the harmony that the Reformers and Puritans generally seem to have displayed, better than their successors in the 18th Century.

The subject deserves to be discussed but perhaps a firmer historical or theological basis than the marriages of two unique figures (one of whom at least was probably mentally imbalanced at times) would be needed to ground the discussion.

Adrian Brake gave an excellent presentation on the life and legacy of Thomas Charles of Bala. Geoff Thomas chaired the discussion beautifully, asking a number men to give personal views on how we may in practice combine the life of the mind with a devotional heart. This changed the ethos of the day - we became more serious, and more practical.

Andrew Davies closed the day with a warm-hearted and erudite overview of the international nature of Calvinistic Methodism.

Wednesday began with Canadian Mark Jones speaking on antinomianism. His knowledge of the 17th century debates is vast and he has written a well regarded book on the subject. But his presentation was rather piecemeal and even very intelligent men who spoke to me afterwards had found him hard to follow. It would have been more satisfying to have had a cogent presentation of the subject; as someone said to me, his style would have been great for a seminar, but not the best for a conference like this.

But the discussion was helpful, and we managed to get it onto modern day problems.

Robert Strivens helpfully outlined the life and legacy of Richard Baxter, and we had a lively discussion as to what this legacy was. Robert made the point that his dodgy theology particularly on justification (and one might say the atonement too) did not seem to be very evident in his best known pastoral and evangelistic works -Call to the Unconverted and Saints Everlasting Rest.

Finally Andrew Young gave a good overview of the international ministry of John Knox - matching up with the international nature of Calvinistic Methodism (there, see, I got the connection).

The discussions as always contained many good points and some good questions, but rarely if ever soared to the level of a debate. But it was all heartwarming and edifying, and good to see old friends (and boy, are we all getting old together - not only grey heads, but the same grey heads, come to the Westminster Conference, which is even more worrying).

Thanks to the committee for putting the programme together - an enjoyable two days near lots of good coffee shops.