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.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Seeking the Lord – RRF 2014

Few conferences are as unfashionable as the Reformation and Revival Fellowship, and few are as relevant.

We believe in prayer and preaching, and that is what we get.

The messages at Swanwick in November can be summarised under a few grace-filled imperatives.

Look: Graham Hind, MD of Evangelical Press, led us to Hebrews for the opening sermon, exhorting us warmly to look to Jesus as the full and final revelation of God, our present help and our future hope.

Seek: Kenneth Stewart of Glasgow Reformed Presbyterian Church wonderfully applied the life of Asa focusing on ‘The Lord is with you while you are with him’ (2 Chron 15:2). We were reminded that though he initiates the covenant relationship, God in his dealings with us is responsive – if we seek him he will be found by us but if we forsake him he will forsake us (though not losing our salvation). This is not legalism but the normal covenantal relationship, based on and sustained by grace but calling forth wholehearted seeking.

Pray: the heart of seeking. It is labour; persist in it; wait in it.

Contend: Derek Cleave took us to Jude. We are to contend earnestly, by living the faith as well as watching for error. Most people slide into error not because they intend to, but through laziness and carelessness in handling what they read and hear. Like Asa, Noah, David and Gideon we can be most likely to fall when we are comfortable, perhaps with major battles fought and won behind us.

This was a delightful conference, rich in ministry and fellowship. These are all messages for the church today.

For full addresses or CDs visit www.reformation and or contact Jim Lawson 01642 648512.

Next year (16-18 November) the main speakers will be Joel Beeke and Geoff Thomas; please contact George McIntyre for booking: 01564 772966; .

Saturday, 1 November 2014

The Tower of London and the Crown Jewels

On Thursday we went on a family trip to the Tower of London. We saw the poppies of course but we spent most of the day in the Tower itself. The crowds were enormous - it took over an hour in the queue to see the Crown Jewels alone. I slightly surprise myself to say that I thought it was worth it. They were magnificent - and an official description of them is given below as I would probably get it wrong.

The religious connotations are interesting - the three swords of temporal justice, spiritual justice and mercy, for example; the orb representing Christ's rule over the earth; the two sceptres, one with the cross to represent temporal power, the other with the dove to represent equity and mercy; the St Edward's crown used for the coronation, the Imperial State crown used on other occasions, the Cullinan diamonds (the largest in the sceptre, the second in the Imperial state crown), the Koh i Nur in the late Queen Mother's crown. And all the gold plate used for the anointing and the eucharist.

We also went to see the White Tower, and walked around the walls. Then we walked to the Monument and climbed its 311 steps. Then a no. 15 bus up Fleet Street and the Strand and a meal in Northumberland Ave. Then a walk through Leicester Square to the M&M shop, and Piccadilly, and finally a quick photo by Harry Potter's Platform 9 and 3/4 on King's Cross Station.
A good day.

"The Crown Jewels, which are part of the Royal Collection, are displayed to millions of visitors every year, guarded by Yeomen Warders (‘Beefeaters’) in the Tower of London. The Jewel House at the Tower has been used for the secure storage of the precious ceremonial objects, commonly known as the ‘Crown Jewels’, since the early 14th century, when Westminster Abbey (the alternative store) was found to be unsafe. Although attempts have been made to steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower, notably by Colonel Blood in 1671, none have succeeded. The present display of the Crown Jewels was opened by Her Majesty The Queen in 1994.

At the heart of the Crown Jewels display are the ceremonial and symbolic objects associated with the coronations of English Kings and Queens. These are usually referred to as the Regalia. They include the crowns of Sovereigns, Consorts and Princes of Wales, both past and present, sceptres, orbs, rings, swords, spurs, bracelets and robes, all of which have a specific part to play in the ritual of the English coronation service. Much of the Regalia is in use to the present day, a feature which distinguishes the English Regalia from most of its European counterparts

The oldest piece of the Regalia is the 12th century gold Anointing Spoon, used to anoint the Sovereign with holy oil. Apart from the three steel coronation swords (the Swords of Temporal Justice, of Spiritual Justice and of Mercy), this is the only piece that survived the destruction of the pre-Civil War Regalia in 1649-50. This destruction was ordered by Oliver Cromwell, following the execution of King Charles I in 1649. The gold objects, including pieces probably dating back to the time of Edward the Confessor in the eleventh century, were sent to the Mint for melting down, and the gemstones were removed from their settings and sold. Cromwell was determined that these potent symbols of royalty and kingship should be completely eradicated.

At the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, King Charles II ordered new Regalia, modelled on the forms of the lost Regalia used by his father. This new set of Regalia was completed for Charles II’s coronation on St George’s Day (23 April 1661) and cost the enormous sum of almost £13,000.

The principal piece of the Regalia is St Edward’s Crown, with which the new Sovereign is actually crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury during the coronation ceremony. This is made of gold and decorated with precious and semi-precious stones, including sapphires, tourmalines, amethysts, topazes and citrines, and weighs a substantial 2.23kg. It was last used to crown Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953.

The most famous of the crowns is the Imperial State Crown. This was re-made for the coronation of The Queen’s father, King George VI, in 1937 and is set with over 3,000 gems. The stones were all transferred from the old Imperial Crown, which had been re-made on a number of occasions since the 17th century, most recently for Queen Victoria in 1838. This crown incorporates many famous gemstones, including the diamond known as the Second Star of Africa (the second largest stone cut from the celebrated Cullinan Diamond), the Black Prince’s Ruby, the Stuart Sapphire, St Edward’s Sapphire and Queen Elizabeth’s Pearls. The Sovereign traditionally wears the Imperial State Crown at the conclusion of the coronation service, when leaving Westminster Abbey. It is also worn for the State Opening of Parliament.

The other principal pieces of the Regalia used during the coronation, all dating from 1661, are the Ampulla, the gold flask in the form of an eagle which contains the holy oil used for the Anointing; the Sovereign’s Orb, representing Christ’s dominion over the world; and the two sceptres, The Sovereign’s Sceptre with cross, now set with the First Star of Africa, representing the monarch’s temporal power under God and the Sceptre with Dove, representing equity and mercy. The Spurs, which are not worn, are there to represent knightly chivalry and the Armills or bracelets, represent sincerity and wisdom. A new pair of gold Armills was presented to The Queen by the Commonwealth for the 1953 coronation.

During the coronation service, following the Anointing, the Sovereign is invested with the Imperial Mantle of cloth-of-gold, woven with the National Emblems, and when invested, places on the altar the elaborately jewelled Sword of Offering. Both of these were made for George IV’s coronation in 1821.

Among the famous gem-stones on display at the Tower is the First Star of Africa, now mounted at the top of the Sovereign’s Sceptre. This is the largest flawless cut diamond in the world and weighs 530 carats. This and the Second Star of Africa of 317 carats (in the Imperial State Crown) were cut from the celebrated Cullinan Diamond, the largest diamond ever found. Weighing over 3,000 carats, the Cullinan was given to King Edward VII by the Government of the Transvaal (South Africa) in 1907.

The legendary Koh-i-Nur (‘Mountain of Light’) diamond, presented to Queen Victoria in 1850, is now set in the platinum crown made for the late Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother for the 1937 coronation. This diamond, which came from the Treasury at Lahore in the Punjab, may have belonged to the early Mughal emperors before passing eventually to Duleep Singh. It was re-cut for Queen Victoria in 1852 and now weighs 106 carats. Traditionally the Koh-i-Nur is only worn by a queen or queen consort: it is said to bring bad luck to any man who wears it.

Among the other notable jewels on display is Queen Victoria’s small diamond crown, made for her in 1870 to wear as a light and comfortable alternative to the much heavier Imperial State Crown. The Imperial Crown of India, set with around 6,000 diamonds and magnificent rubies and emeralds, was made for King George V to wear at the Delhi Coronation Durbar in 1911. It has never been worn since.

In addition to the new Regalia, Charles II acquired a large quantity of new gold altar and banqueting plate, costing a further £18,000. A selection of this plate, including the Maundy Dish, still used by the Sovereign on Maundy Thursday, the St George’s Salts, formerly used at coronation banquets, and the Charles II font formerly used for royal christenings, together with the Lily Font, which is in current use and was made for the baptism of Queen Victoria’s first child, is also on view in the Jewel House".

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The New Testament and the People of God

This volume, one of the early ones in Tom Wright's corpus on NT theology, was published in 1992. I have had a copy on my shelf for almost as long. This month I read it (mostly in Nigeria, during free afternoons whilst in Anyigba to teach at the seminary of the Christian Evangelical Fellowship of Nigeria and then preach at their annual Convention).

The book has about 150 pages of prolegomena on literature, theology and history and how they need to be studied to produce NT theology; 140 pages at the end on the church in the first century; and 200 pages or so in the middle on Second Temple Judaism (2TJ).

It is a good read. It helps to see Christianity in the light of the Judaism of the period (allowing for not taking Wright's interpretation of 2TJ uncritically) and this is certainly an area where I have done too little study in the past.

When reading Wright, one would really think that Jews of the era were just potential Christians waiting to hear of Christ, so friendly is his presentation of 2TJ. In reading the NT, one is in a different atmosphere altogether, whether in the letters of Paul or the gospels. But - it is interesting to note that when, in dealing with the areas of continuity between Judaism and Christianity, Wright seems to be drawing much more on the Old Testament - on which I am sure most of us would have little disagreement. 2TJ seems to feature rather less in this section, as if the degree of continuity between it and Christianity is not so marked.

Wright just hints at what will in later volumes become his re-interpretation of Paul and particularly the doctrine of justification.

Two things are particularly irritating about Wright's polemics against traditional evangelicalism: his setting up caricatures of his opponents, 'straw men', particularly that of the evangelical who apparently never does any serious study; and his little jibes here and there about conservative evangelicals who are (for example) 'more familiar with the Pelagian controversy than with 2TJ'. I have rarely met any evangelicals familiar with the Pelagian controversy. But the point Wright is trying to make of course is the hoary one about interpreting Paul through Lutheran or Augustinian lenses.

All I can say is that looking at the NT through Luther's lenses still gives a much truer and more consistent interpretation of the Scriptures than that informed by the Judaism of which Wright seems so enamoured.

Monday, 22 September 2014

What does 'Reformed' mean?

(This article, rather long for a blog, first appeared in slightly varied form in 'Reformation Today' last May, and was the basis of an address (at short notice!) to the Yorkshire Reformed Fraternal in September. I also used it in Argentina in August 2013 and I think it appeared on the Banner of Truth online journal. It may raise my audience to three figures if I put it here too!).

Key words for understanding Reformed Christians are radical and consistent.

1. We are radical because we trace biblical truths to their depths. We are not content with superficial definitions. ‘God’ must be explored for all he is worth. He is not an object of scientific study, but in his Word he has given us so much information about himself that not to analyse it and synthesise it as rigorously as possible would be an affront to his condescension and kindness. In what follows I shall indicate other areas where the Reformed Christian is radical. We want to get to the depths of ourselves; the depths of the way of salvation; the heart of what it means to be a Christian.

In practice, we want to live our faith. Reformed Christians have therefore been at the forefront of battles for liberty of conscience and have not infrequently been a revolutionary force in the church and the world. Any idea of ‘Reformed’ that sees it as a synonym for staid, boring and predictable is a travesty.

2. We are consistent in that we work the truths of Scripture through to their logical conclusions as far as possible. In this sense we are heirs of Calvin who was one of the most penetrating and systematic theologians of all time. We believe the Bible is the revealed Word of God and therefore has an internal consistency which does not have to be forced but is to be discovered. However, if there are two apparently opposing or apparently contradictory truths revealed in Scripture – the most obvious one being the sovereignty of God and the free will and responsibility of man – we leave them to stand together and do not force them into a false harmony. In this we are like Calvin himself who was always insistent on allowing Scripture to have the last word even if he could not make logical sense of it. In this, too, we are unlike some other traditions, such as hyper-Calvinism and Arminianism, which make the mistake of putting logic above Scripture.

Let us now look at some Reformed distinctives. It can be seen that while we share the ‘big issues’ with other evangelicals, our radicalism and consistency contribute to making Reformed Christianity the clearest and strongest formulation of Christianity that the church has yet attained.

1. Scripture.

Conviction of its authority is shared with others but we have a further emphasis on its:

a. necessity. We are in darkness without God’s Word to us. ‘By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God…’(Heb 11:3). Reformed Christians begin with a conviction of human spiritual blindness. This is a consequence of our greater insistence on total depravity.

b. sufficiency. We need nothing other than Scripture. This provides a bastion against the temptation of mixing Scripture with philosophy, Roman Catholic ‘tradition’ or modern claims to ‘prophecy today’.

c. internal consistency. As stated above, Reformed Christians have been foremost in systematising Scripture. We develop doctrines and from them Confessions. The great confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are of course Reformed. These provide great strength for Christian living derived from doctrine.

i. Presupposed is the unity of Scripture as God’s Word. ‘Men spoke from God’ (2 Peter 1:21) and acted feely in so doing, but God superintended their thinking and speaking so that what he wanted written they wrote. Can we grasp this ‘dual working’ with our minds? No, but we believe it and it is entirely rational. As a result the Bible is a unity, the work of one Mind.

ii. Presupposed too is the importance of the human mind as a receiver of revelation and the way reason can grasp revelation. God spoke and the universe came into being. He made man and woman in his image to respond to him, to glorify him and to enjoy him forever. Integral to this is the human mind. By it we receive God’s Word, we speak back to him (in prayer) and we speak God’s Word to others.

iii. The importance of the mind in living the Christian life cannot be over-emphasised - truth comes to us through the mind in conversion and as we love and understand the Word of God so we will grow as Christians.

iv. But Calvinists insist that the mind must always be subordinate to the Word and when we cannot understand we must not distort or ignore Scripture to fit our systems.

v. Typical of the Calvinist sense of the unity of Scripture is the development of the theology of covenant as the unifying structure of Scripture, and of God’s self-revelation in the twin doctrines of Law and Gospel. Law and gospel comprise a conversation throughout Scripture between God’s demand and his provision, between his righteousness and his grace.

vi. Covenant, Law and Gospel, as all else in Scripture, are fulfilled and culminate in Christ.

d. dependence for its reception on the witness of the Spirit - who confirms our faith in Scripture as God’s Word.

2. The Supremacy of God in all things.

The Reformed Christian is ‘God entranced’. We see the glory of God as the goal of all of life and eternity and God’s purpose in all his work. It is of immense and ultimate comfort to the believer that God is sovereign in creation and providence (Gen 50:19,20; Isa. 46:9-11) and in salvation (Acts 2:23, 4:28; John 6:37, Jonah 2:9; Eph.1:3-11).

3. The utter dependence of man in all things.

- though not merely passive or inactive. Although we have a deep conviction of man as totally depraved and work this out more consistently than other evangelical traditions, we do not have a low view of man as created. He is glorious, created as the summit of creation and his glory makes his fall only the more tragic and culpable.
In creation, God made us; in Providence, he governs us; in salvation, he saves us, for we are spiritually dead.

A combination of these views of God and man lead to the ‘Five Points’ of Calvinism which is not by any means all there is to Reformed Christianity, but Reformed Christianity is certainly not less: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election. Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints.

The same combination of views gives us a profound dependence on the Holy Spirit in living the Christian life. Calvin was called the ‘theologian of the Holy Spirit’.

What is not so commonly understood about Reformed Christians is that they also hold

4. A high view of the church.

It is the body of Christ - Eph. 5:25-27. If we hold Christ as precious, the church must be precious. We are drawn together by Christ. We regard our assembling together, too, as precious.

a. The marks of the church are: preaching (Christ exercising his prophetic office among us); the sacraments (Christ exercising his priestly office) and discipline (Christ the King among us).

b. Our worship is to be governed by God’s word. The ‘regulative’ principle is that only what is prescribed in God’s Word or clearly implied in it, is acceptable in worship services. This liberating principle frees the church from human laws, for example the tyranny of Roman rites, or of human imagination such as in modern man-centred worship, or entertainment style worship.

So Reformed Worship will usually consist of: the Word of God read and preached (1 Tim 4:13; Acts 2:42; 2 Tim 4:2); prayer (1 Tim 2:1; Acts 2:43); praise (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16; Mt. 26:30); the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:23-26).

The regulative principle is biblically based on the necessity of revelation to enable us to approach God and the sufficiency of Scripture for approaching him. In particular we look at the Second Commandment with its emphasis on spiritual worship, and at Leviticus 10:1-3 where Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, were severely punished for offering to God not what had been forbidden but simply what had not been commanded. See also Deut. 4:12-15; 23-24.

c. Worship is also to be rational, simple and Christ centred.

d. The task of the church in relation to the world is to obey the great commission – to go into the world and make disciples of all nations. It is in this way more than any other that we obey the ‘cultural mandate’ of Genesis 1. Historically Reformed Christians have been in the forefront of experiencing and praying for revival as the great means by which God advances his kingdom.

5. The Christian Life.

a. It begins with evangelical experience. The experience of Isaiah (6:1-3) though in itself unique also provides a great model for conversion – conviction of sin, cleansing by the sacrifice of Christ and glad response to his call to serve him.

b. It is lived ‘before God’ - coram Deo - a motto of the Puritans. Reformed Christians will have a grateful and positive attitude to God’s law – seeing it not as an imposition or as something from which the gospel and the Spirit release us, but as the form of life which we are now to live - ‘O how I love your law’ – Ps 119:97. We have been delivered from the bondage of law-breaking to enjoy the freedom of law-keeping. That includes the Fourth Commandment. Kevin DeYoung acknowledges the place of a high view of God's law in Reformed thinking when he says 'I support the third use of the law seeing as how this Calvinist understanding of the law is enshrined in every Reformed confession and catechism.' It is difficult to see how 'New Covenant Theology' can properly be called 'Reformed'.

c. It embraces all of life: home, politics, work, studies, culture, arts, sciences. The ‘cultural mandate’ (Gen 1:27) still applies to man. This means witnessing, in word and life, to Christ’s Lordship over all things. Reformed Christianity engages with all creation.

i. The Renaissance and Reformation of the sixteenth century opened up scientific discovery and Calvinism in particular made the gospel a real force in the world. In For the Glory of God, American historian Rodney Stark argues that though one cannot say that the rise of modern science in the seventeenth century was a particularly Protestant movement, it is indisputable that it emerged in western Europe and nowhere else at that time. It can be persuasively argued that a faith that presented God as rational, responsive, dependable and omnipotent and the universe as his personal creation thus having a rational and stable structure awaiting human comprehension, was the framework that made science possible. See A.N. Whitehead, Science and the modern world (1925). The emphasis is again on reason ‘thinking God’s thoughts after him’. In no way has Christianity been an enemy of science. Calvin wrote, for example, ‘…there is need of art and of more exacting toil in order to investigate the motion of the stars, to determine their assigned stations, to measure their intervals, to note their properties’ (I.5.2) and again ‘If we regard the Spirit of God a the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself nor despise it wherever it appear…’ (II.2.16).
God’s laws undergird everything. They give consistency, order, reliability, predictability. Nietsche gave a back-handed compliment to Christianity when he said ‘I fear we have not yet thrown off belief in God for we still trust grammar’.

ii. The Calvinist principle of ‘vocation’ gives honour to every human enterprise however humble because God called you to it and you do it for his glory. ‘Vocation’ is not a preserve of the clergy.

Christians are being renewed in the image of God and should be foremost in subduing creation to the rule of Christ. We do so as we live obediently to his will in our calling.

iii. The Christian life centres on seeking after God and communion with him, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. John Owen’s Communion with God and The Glory of Christ reflect the dynamic of the spiritual life. Again, we are wholly dependent on the Spirit in this.

iv. There is a proper perspective on life - our ‘short and uncertain pilgrimage’ to the ‘city that has foundations’ yet we are to seek ‘the welfare of the city’ on earth to which God has called us.

v. We are longing for Christ’s return and believe in revival. Whatever our framework for the last things (and Reformed Christians would differ: most would be ‘amillenialist’ or ‘postmillenialist’ and have confidence in the flourishing of the gospel in this age even if we do not all hold the optimistic views of many of the Puritans or Jonathan Edwards) we look to Christ’s return for the ultimate demonstration of his glory, our own glorification with him, and the completion of his work of redemption.

vi. The Reformed Christian is always reforming. ‘Perfecting holiness out of fear of the Lord’; pursuing that ‘holiness without which no-one will see God’ (2 Cor 7:1; Heb. 12:14).

Friday, 19 September 2014

The War that Ended Peace

Margaret MacMillan's prize-winning volume on the causes of the First World War is a must-read for anyone interested in that complex but elusive subject; in modern history generally; and in how wars start - a nervous subject given President Putin's antics in the Ukraine.

Professor Macmillan begins in Louvain, Belgium, and the destruction in the early days of the war of the magnificent library by the advancing Germans. There follows a survey of Europe in 1900 by way of describing the exhibitions of the various countries at the Paris Exposition of that year.

Then begins the history proper as each of the big players is examined in turn from about the mid 19th century - Great Britain and 'splendid isolation'; 'Woe to the country that has a child for a king' (Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II); Dreadnoughts and -the Anglo-German rivalry; the Entente Cordiale (France and Britain); Britain's relationship with Russia and how the Triple Entente was formed to match the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy; the creaky empire of the Habsburgs - (Austria-Hunagary); the Balkans including Serbia and Bulgaria - and the crumbling Ottoman Empire.

After that - 'What were they thinking?' What was the mindset of the nations in the early years of the last century? What were the philosophies that motivated people? Social Darwinism gets a few mentions as a powerful influence - struggle is inevitable and the fittest will survive.

Then comes a description of the decade or two leading up to the war - crises in the Balkans and Morocco. War seemed very close more than once, and the climb-downs and compromises left a fragile and volatile legacy, a powder keg that only needed one crisis too many to set it off. Sarajevo and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the spark that ignited that keg.

What were the factors leading to war? Militarism, especially of Germany; imperialism as the Empires tried to protect their interests around the world and in Europe, or in the case of Russia and Germany, felt they needed to catch up with the older Empires; nationalism as subject peoples sought liberty. There was pride and the upholding of honour. There was sheer stupidity, stubbornness and incompetence - Macmillan leavens her history with delightful and often hilarious pen-portraits of many of the key politicians of the time. The crises in the Balkans and Morocco in the decade before 1914 slowly edged the world towards war so that before 1914 many observers were saying that war at some point soon was inevitable.

Macmillan concludes: 'Was Wilhelm II to blame for the Great War? Was Tirpitz (the German naval chief who began the naval race with Britain)? Grey (the English Foreign Secretary who, it may be argued, had he been more decisive and made it clear, earlier, to Germany that Britain would support France wholeheartedly if Germany attacked, may have averted the crisis)? Moltke (the German army chief)? Berchtold (Austria-Hungary's Foreign Minister)? Poincare of France? Or was no-one to blame? Should we look instead at institutions or ideas? General staffs with too much power, absolute governments, Social Darwinism, the cult of the offensive, nationalism? There are so many questions and as many answers again. Perhaps the most we can hope for is to understand as best we can those individuals, who had to make the choices between war and peace, and their strengths and weaknesses, their loves, hatreds and biases….And if we want to point fingers from the 21st Century we can accuse those who took Europe into war of two things. First, a failure of imagination in not seeing how destructive such a conflict would be and second, their lack of courage to stand up to those who said there was no choice left but to go to war. There are always choices'.

And that must be true. Mustn't it?

Friday, 12 September 2014

Abraham at the John Owen Centre

Monday and Tuesday of this week saw about 60 men and one lady meet at Kensit Evangelical Church for the annual John Owen Centre Conference. This was the third in a series on biblical characters - Adam, Noah and now Abraham.

First off was Philip Eveson with a wide-ranging overview of Abraham in Genesis which helpfully set out the ground to be covered.

David Green then focused closely on the theme of 'seeing' in Abraham's story, suggesting that God's self-revelation rather than (or at least prior too) faith was the real theme in Abraham.

James Mulroney gave a rather technical paper on typology (Christological, tropological and homological) drawing on the Isaac narrative in Genesis 22.

Peter Law gave a helpful 'Martyn Lloyd-Jones' lecture in the evening on the 'Three Abrahamic Faiths' but it was rather narrowed down to two as he rather skated, as he admitted, over Judaism. Much of it was a useful summary of Dan Strange's new book on the theology of religions, 'For Their Rock is not as our Rock'.

On Tuesday, David Shaw gave an excellent paper on 'The Justified Abraham', focusing on N.T. Wright's interpretation of Romans 4, and giving us a helpful survey of Wright's current thinking.

Martin Salter for credobaptists and David Gibson for paedobaptists gave their respective takes on how their traditions see Abraham and come to divergent conclusions. This was interesting and well done - it is not an easy thing to debate like this. My conclusion was that though Gibson probably spoke better (and for twice as long as Salter - which says something in itself) a few well chosen questions began to chip away at the credibility of the paedobaptist superstructure.

Finally Robert Strivens mercifully gave us a straightforward biblical exposition of NT texts showing how Paul's missionary vision was informed by the Abrahamic covenant. Good stuff to go home on.

Next year's conference is on 'How pragmatism is ruining the church'(or similar). We return to Big Names with Melchizedek (probably) in 2016.