Friday, 18 September 2020

Coping with Criticism: Turning Pain into Blessing

My new book just published: This book is a must for all those starting out in pastoral ministry and essential for all those wishing to continue in it. By a combination of superb biblical exposition and sensitive application reflecting a wealth of personal ministerial experience, the author not only shows how to endure criticism but flourish through it. I really enjoyed and benefited from reading this. I could have done with it 40 years ago! A little gem of a book. Melvin Tinker, Director of Theology, The Christ Church Newland Network, Hull To be able to handle criticism well is a skill which all pastors need to learn. Any ministry, even the best, will take flak from time to time and it is easy to fall into crippling self-pity. When we are criticised what we need is a cool head, Biblical common sense and the comfort of Christ. This excellent book provides us with all three. John Benton, Director for Pastoral Support, The Pastors’ Academy, London Seminary Available from and and (soon) bookshops.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

The Subversive Puritan: Roger Williams and Freedom of Conscience

AT last I return to my blog. and I do so shamelessly to promote a new book that Evangelical Press has published for me. It is a biography with some contemporary application of Roger Williams (1603-83) who founded the state of Rhode Island in the seventeenth century.

Williams went to Massachusetts as did many Puritans to find freedom of worship. When he arrived he found the Puritans were not as pure as he would have liked, not was he as free as he would have liked.

Williams fought for decades to establish Rhode Island as a state for those 'distressed for conscience', a concept that made him obnoxious to many Massachusetts Puritans, though in the end some of them expressed a grudging admiration for him and some remained close friends.

Williams obtained a charter that broke church and state apart (as American Historian John Barry says). Freedom of conscience and separation of church and state were the two pillars on which his colonial venture was based.

Williams wrote a number of polemical works, a beautiful devotional book for his wife, and a remarkable guide to the language of the Native Americans (the Narragansetts) with whom he established exceptional relations.

But what of liberty of conscience today? And is religion necessary to the stability of state? Can we exist on civility or do we need the gospel? Can religious exclusivism survive within political pluralism?

Does Williams have something to teach us today? Contemporary authors like Os Guinness, Martha Nussbaum, Miroslav Wolf and Teresa Bejan think so. So do I. You can find this book on Amazon and on 10of as well as on Evangelical Press's own website.

Garry Williams (Director, Pastors' Academy, London Seminary) says:

In this engaging volume Mostyn Roberts provides us with an introduction to the life and theology of Roger Williams, as well as an encouragement to learn lessons from him on how to live in our own times. Mostyn deftly sets Williams in his historical context on both sides of the Atlantic without bewildering the reader with too many of the vicissitudes of seventeenth-century political history. As Mostyn shows, Williams held some views still rightly regarded as eccentric, but his theory of mere civility as a viable basis for society is very close to the contemporary ‘two kingdoms’ theology that finds that basis in natural law. Even for those of us unpersuaded by the two kingdoms project, Mostyn’s work can only serve to help us engage thoughtfully over the question of an adequate foundation for civil society. And the story of Williams and his trials is itself fascinating and well-told: what an extraordinary challenge these people faced as they sought to construct societies from scratch on the other side of the world!

Michale Haykin of Southern Baptist Seminary, writes,

This new biography of the key Puritan thinker Roger Williams is most welcome. Like many pioneers, Williams had some quirks and oddities in his thought, which Mostyn Roberts' biography does not hide, but his clarity of thought about the necessary matrix of true Christianity was nothing short of remarkable and this is why he must be remembered. Drawing upon the latest research on the Puritan author, Roberts outlines the contours of his life with special focus on his thought about religious liberty and why it is so important today. An excellent and truly thoughtful volume.

Sharon James, adviser to the Christian Institute says,

If you visit the famous ‘Reformation Wall’ in Geneva, Switzerland, you will see a huge statue of Roger Williams. Sadly, he is little known today. As founder of the first ever colony to allow freedom of conscience and religion, and author of one of the first landmark works defending religious freedom, Williams deserves to be better remembered. We now take it for granted that freedom of thought, conscience and religion are fundamental to a free society, and we look back with horror at the religious persecution and coercion of a past age. So we should honour Roger Williams, who suffered much for insisting that force never produces genuine faith, and that compelled worship is abominable to God. Mostyn Roberts has filled a real gap by providing us with this clear and comprehensive account of Williams’ life and thought. Helpfully, he does not gloss over Williams’ undoubted oddities and eccentricities, but through it all the essential courage and conviction of a great man shines out.

Friday, 1 April 2016

When style trumps substance

So what do we make of Donald?

It may be that the storm over his quickly retracted advocacy of punishment for women who had abortions (if it were ever made illegal) has done for him. But the question remains - why has he got so far? As one commentator said recently, even six months ago it would have seemed impossible.

Obviously he gives vent to and has tapped into a deep anti-establishment feeling. The UKIP factor writ large. Also very UKIP is the anti-immigrant stance - fear of and hatred of foreigners - in his case Muslims and Mexicans. Not that all immigration control is wrong nor is the desire for it racist or xenophobic. Trump's rhetoric on the subject however is in a class apart. He articulates the American equivalent of the visceral pub rant.

The saddest feature in all this is what it says about America - even though not half of Republicans have voted for him according to the stats.

That he could get this far though is a demonstration of something gone wrong with the American dream. A dream severed from its spiritual and moral moorings becomes a nightmare.

Americans have justly always cherished - though almost idolised - freedom. Trump promotes it as the licence to trample on anyone who gets in your way to the top.

The capitalist dream has flowered in America. Trump represents it in its corrupt form as the worship of mammon.

He personifies both self-aggrandisement posturing as freedom with all the bullying and condoning of violence that implies; and the vaunting and flaunting of money that comes with the idolising of wealth.

Add to that the apogee of the cult of personality that he represents and you have a toxic mix. Style, heavily lacquered, over substance.

There may be signs the wind is changing. The rant at the political establishment and political correctness can only go so far - for most people. Let us hope so. Though nothing is certain.

But he is a wake up call to us in Britain.

Who would be our equivalent of Donald? And what do we need to do to restore trust in and respect for our political institutions? And our politicians?

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Tim Ward on Stott and Lloyd Jones on Preaching - Westminster Fellowship

The February visit of Tim Ward (Director of the Cornhill Training Programme) to the Westminster Fellowship was a bit like Daniel wandering into the lions' den clasping a bunch of lecture notes, but it was greatly appreciated and we are grateful to Tim for putting a lot of careful thought into his paper. He gave us a comparison of the theologies of preaching of Dr Lloyd Jones and John Stott. What follows is an incomplete account taken from my notes.

We need a theology of preaching. It is not enough to say ' we preach because in certain situations it works (but in another culture/situation we'd do something different)'.

Tim wanted to concentrate on the commonalities rather than on what separates the two men. Yet we cannot ignore the cultural differences - LJ from Wales, Stott through the English public school system. Without lapsing into caricature, this difference is significant. Does this not have some bearing on what might be called their great emphases viz.

LJ : a sense of the presence of God was paramount.
Stott - clarity was paramount.

'Have I ever preached once in my life?' said LJ. This is a crucial statement.

Their great books - Preaching and Preachers - and I Believe in Preaching. The man is important for LJ - the personal element.

No mention of 'anointing' in Stott.

Four aspects to a framework to analyse their positions:

1. Church setting of preaching.

LJ hated tape recording - the individual listening is too much in control. The very presence of a body of people is a part of preaching. Faith comes by hearing - the message received in a congregation. A monologue expresses the gospel best.

Stott similar on this.

Four elements in preaching: (i) The preacher divinely called, commissioned and empowered; (ii) a shared faith between the preacher and hearer; (iii) a Word from God in which the people encounter God; and (iv) an event in which God speaks through the minister. All of these are best combined in preaching in church: 'God's people in God's presence to hear God's Word from God's minister'.

Preaching is one of the marks of the church; the Word preached creates the church.

In the west our deep rooted individualism makes us resistant to such a view of preaching. Our philosophical tradition, wealth and consumerism turn us into people who do not readily become corporate people. We have individual Bibles in church!

2. The proclamatory character of preaching.

The preacher is declaring something. All may evangelise but only the preacher proclaims. More than teaching, it is a revelation, an exhortation.

3. The Prophetic character of preaching

A man with a burden from the Lord (LJ's view) - an OT prophet. He is a mouthpiece of God, standing between God and man.

Also Stott - a bearer of a Word from God.

4. The Prophetic character of the preacher himself.

NB the significant (even if not intended) titles of the two books.

This is perhaps where the greatest difference comes. LJ speaks of the moment when the preacher is wholly taken up. Stott speaks of the preacher and people together brought face to face with God. Is this two men describing the same thing? Stott is keen for the preacher to be hidden - the best man at the wedding, self-effacing. Is this being 'English'? LJ says the preacher must hide his pride and eloquence and make no shows of cleverness, but he cannot get himself out of the way - you are part to the means of grace.
'I am here to tell you...' would never be heard from Stott who preferred 'we' in preaching, not 'you' when addressing the congregation.

In all this there is a deeper issue, the continuation in the minister of Christ's offices of prophet priest and king.

In discussion:

Is there not a important difference in theologies of the Holy Spirit? Yes said Tim - LJ's preaching is in some ways his pneumatology at the service of his ecclesiology.

It was commented that both men put a high value on godliness in the minister.

LJ it should be remembered, regarded Jonathan Edwards as the 'Everest' of theologians, who insisted on the importance of extraordinary outpourings of the Holy Spirit to revive the church.

My comment.

One wonders if a summary of the difference between the two men would be that Stott concentrates on preaching as something man can do and the Anglican tradition tends to major on that - clarity, technique, teaching how to preach - while LJ was much more conscious of preaching as something man cannot do - hence his question 'have I ever preached?'. Of course, Stott believed in the necessity of the Holy Spirit and LJ did not belittle 'ordinary preaching' or the importance of doing it well - but the emphases are in the one case on teaching men to do it better, and being content to leave the Word to do the work ( ex opere operato is perhaps too strong a phrase but it leans in that direction) while LJ leans to the absolute necessity of the Holy Spirit and our inadequacy - hence leading us to pray with greater urgency and feeling that true preaching usually evades us altogether. The typical result is a striving for God in the latter case; in the former, a sense of complacency in the act of preaching.

We thank Tim for stimulating us to think these things through.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Newish Atheists

I have been catching up with atheist literature.

First came God is Not Great by the late Christopher Hitchens. It is a racy read as befits a book by a journalist. In the end though it is not compelling - you look for arguments and get anecdotes. You expect a reasoned discussion about why atheist regimes (Stalin, Hitler) killed more than religious ones in the 20th Century and get an angry diatribe about the support given to said regimes by the Pope and the Orthodox church. I agree - it is appalling - but hardly demolishes Christianity or whitewashes atheism.

It is interesting to see the arguments these writers marshall: religion kills (all the wars religion has caused); it is hazardous to health (refusal to allow condoms in Africa); metaphysical claims for existence of God are unconvincing; arguments from design fallacious; revelation – OT is a ‘nightmare’, NT is evil, the Koran borrowed; the miraculous is tawdry; hell is immoral; religion's corrupt beginnings (Mormon - yes well...); religion not needed for moral behaviour; the East is as bad as the west (not according to Sam Harris who rates Buddhism as light years ahead of anything in the West); child abuse; collusion in secular totalitarian regimes (as above); it resists rationality and seeking truth; above all it is manufactured.

My appetite whetted I went for Atheist Universe - The Thinking Person's Answer to Christian Fundamentalism by a less well known author, David Mills. Four fifths of this book is about the scientific issues of creation and evolution. Hardly in itself the answer to Christian Fundamentalism. There were a couple of other chapters - on hell, the non-danger as he sees it of internet porn and a brief dismissal of the notion that America was founded on Christian principles.

Most engaging was Sam Harris's The End of Faith. Like all the 'new atheists' he is fixated by a definition of faith I have yet to come across in any reliable Christian context - that it is 'unjustified belief', or believing without any evidence.

Armed with this mis-definition Harris brilliantly picks apart religions: it is anti-rational and dangerous, there is no place for it in civilised society; progress is not possible in religion; fear of death is at root of much of it; evidence – religion is satisfied with relying on none; there are legitimate experiences that we call religious but which can be brought under the government of reason and should be; good and evil – based on what causes happiness or suffering; we need a study of consciousness - spirituality without religion – Buddhism rocks, Christianity, Judaism and Islam suck; remember how Christianity treated witches and Jews; the horror that is Islam; we waste too much time and money fighting sin - especially drugs, and Christianity holds back medicine (embryo research etc).

And so on.

Harris has written other books, on ethics (The Moral Landscape) and spirituality without religion (Waking Up). He is the most penetrating of the new atheists so far but - I shall be interested to see what he makes of the morality and spirituality issues in his books. I know John Lennox has had a go at his morality without religion arguments (see Lennox, Against the Flow , a superb exposition of the book of Daniel).

But in the end I have not found a compelling argument to give up believing in God and in Jesus Christ. Or in the glories of a personal God, of the Trinity, of eternal love, of a personally created universe and of man in his image, of the beauty of holiness, of eternal life, of the wonders of God's law, of inviolable justice, and yes, of the horrors of hell, of the glories of the Bible and God's plan for his people, and of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.

Unverified belief Harris calls it. But there is plenty of evidence. And there is the human soul - an idea he plays with. And there is a knowing that is not based on the senses but does not contradict them (usually) and is stronger and deeper than them. How can these atheists be so sure that what they cannot sense is not there?

And I think what a skimmed milk universe these people live in, how thin, tawdry, empty. After all, their philosophy is bounded by what can increase happiness and decrease suffering. What? Is suffering the worst evil? And is earthly happiness the greatest good? How sad.

Monday, 9 November 2015

The Lion and the Unicorn

I picked up this book by Sir Arthur Bryant in a second-hand bookshop in Welshpool, mid-Wales, last week while on a half-term holiday.

It is a collection of articles from the many written between 1936 and 1985 by Sir Arthur Bryant for the Illustrated London News, as a weekly column.

He calls it the 'The Lion and the Unicorn' because these two animals, he thinks, symbolise something of the British character - sometimes great strength and courage, sometimes quixotic idiosyncrasy.

It is delightful book. There are articles about Bryant's boyhood - born in 1899, his father a personal secretary to King Edward VII, Bryant lived in Edwardian London in a house adjoining Buckingham Palace mews. This must have contributed at least in part, one feels, to the romantic patriotism that drove his adult work as a historian.

He writes in one article of how he became interested in history, through marriage into the Shakerly family of Cheshire, and being given the opportunity to sift through their treasure trove of family papers, giving him access to living history over many centuries.

Other articles cover the years leading up to the Second World War, though they do not make any reference to the fact that Bryant was an early admirer of Hitler and wrote an approving (apart from Hitler's attitude towards the Jews) preface to an English edition of Mein Kampf. He was also a supporter of appeasement but once war broke out he was the soul of patriotism and wrote many stirring pieces about the English spirit and values that apparently did much to help the war effort.

He writes interestingly on the oft neglected post war years. Later articles cover the changes of the 1960s; there are a number, too, simply revelling in the England of quaint cottages with wood fires, country house hotels and stately homes that Bryant loved and hated to see passing; a few on animals (read hastily) and finally several on Christianity of a decidedly culture-laden variety.

He is conservative but not necessarily Conservative, which is refreshing. He was married and divorced twice. He died in 1986. He was reputed to be the favourite historian of four Prime Ministers - Churchill, Attlee, MacMillan and Wilson, who knighted him.

Bryant is an engaging writer. He is also a substantial historian, with biographies on Charles II and Samuel Pepys that are still highly regarded. My first encounter with him, in my teens, was his affectionate history of medieval England, Makers of the Realm. It makes you feel proud to be British (or, at least, English broadly defined).

But Bryant is not popular with professional historians, and not only because he was hugely popular with the public, which academics normally do not like (as with C.S. Lewis). His scholarship and analysis were undoubtedly deeply tinged with the rose-tinted spectacles of a sentimental attachment to Olde England. It is Christian (in all the right rather Whig ways) with the right values which we are determined to fight for when pushed. This was not just to boost the war effort - he really was in love with the England of his boyhood and what he saw England to be in the past.

Yet it is not all romance. He has well reasoned arguments and much of what he says is broadly true - perhaps it is just because he was the last of a rather Victorian kind of patriot that he seems out of place in the mid 20th Century - let alone when you read him in the 21st.

Yet - he is just right for a holiday when you want something edifying, informative, not too demanding. I may brush off my copy of Makers of the Realm for Christmas! He certainly beats dusty old scholars of the more cynical variety.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Openness Unhindered : Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert - Rosaria Butterfield

Those who enjoyed Rosaria Butterfield's story of her conversion in Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert will be delighted to see her sequel.

Rosaria, now a Presbyterian pastor's wife (homeschooling, almost inevitably) begins with a summary of her conversion but with new insights. She reminds us that she was saved more fundamentally from being a sinner than from being a lesbian; and was saved by Jesus Christ, not by becoming heterosexual. There are profound wrestlings here with the nature of sin (in 'Gay Pride' there is more sin in the 'Pride' than in the 'Gay').

She then looks at the whole conversion process and her subsequent Christian life through the eyes of experience and doctrine. Her intellectual penetration and sharp writing remind one of C.S. Lewis; her spiritual insights and her theology are thoroughly Puritan.

Butterfield makes an important distinction between 'admitting' sin and 'confessing' sin. The former is acknowledging it, which may lead to confession, but too often today, she alleges, becomes 'well I sin but I live with it' whereas confession is to hate it and turn your back on it.

She writes of repentance, 'You can't bypass repentance to get to grace...grace does not erase my need for the law'. Repentance is the posture of the Christian. Her struggle with indwelling sin is a million miles away from the "Jesus plus Nothing equals Everything" type of gracism; grace shines all the more brightly, as in the Puritans, because of the insistence on law and the necessity of obedience and repentance.

She rejects the concept of 'sexual orientation' as a construct of the late 19thC traceable to Freud which deprives people of their true identity in the image of God. She also points put how heterosexuals are easily tripped up here into feeling a kind of moral superiority. She also rejects the use of the word 'gay' as a self-identification by Christians who struggle with same sex attraction.

Butterfield's analysis of these areas is well worth reading, coming with the ring of authenticity from one who has struggled not just with 'SSA' but with a committed lesbian past. When discussing the idea of homosexuality being unnatural, she argues that Romans 1 is dealing with practice, not inner disposition. But - is that really what Paul is saying when he speaks of 'dishonourable passions' and of women 'being consumed with passion' one for another? This is not easy, but I did not feel Butterfield quite faced this issue squarely.

The last main chapter of the book is all about hospitality - and I struggled to translate her life in Durham, North Carolina to a commuter belt Hertfordshire village. But the principles bear consideration.

The acknowledgements are cheesy - two and a half pages, thanking everyone under the sun. But that is becoming fashionable in American books.

A great book though, essential reading in our day, a good counterpoise to some recent evangelical works where one detects a tendency towards soft-peddling sin in this area.