Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Keeping The Sabbath

There are at least two dangers facing us with regard to Sabbath-keeping today. The first concerns the fact that we live in a multi-faith society in which various religions have different holy days. It is possible for many to assume that Sunday is the Christian holy day in the same way as Friday is the Moslem holy day and Saturday the Jewish holy day. Instead Christians should regard the Sabbath as holy, but they should do so because it is God’s day, the one day of the week that he has chosen for himself.

The second danger facing us is that we choose tradition rather than the Bible as our guide for how to keep fourth commandment. This is not a new method; the Saviour had to confront a similar outlook among the religious people of his time. It was also the outlook that Isaiah rebuked in Isaiah 58, a chapter in which the Lord through the prophet rebuked his listeners because they used the Sabbath for their own ends, even although they were engaged in religious activities. In that chapter Isaiah points out that true Sabbath-keeping does not involve putting on an outward appearance of repentance. Instead it demands that God’s people help the needy by acts of compassion (he mentions, for example, that it is an occasion for feeding the poor at one’s own table). It is amazing, when we read the Gospels, to discover that the religious authorities rebuked Jesus for doing acts of compassion on the Sabbath. They had been blinded to God’s requirements by their own rituals.

What are appropriate attitudes to have on the Sabbath? There are many things that could be said in addition to doing works of mercy. One attitude that should be expressed is joyful gratitude to the Saviour for coming to our aid when he died on the cross. The Lord’s Day, the Christian Sabbath, was the day on which he arose from the dead, and it has become a weekly reminder of the victory he obtained. The Sabbath is a day for celebrating with others the triumph of the Saviour.

Each Sabbath is also an opportunity for getting things into perspective again. During the week we are taken up with other matters and sometimes they can divert us from focussing on God. The Sabbath is an opportunity to review the previous week from a spiritual perspective and assess whether or not we were dedicated to the Lord in what we did in our homes, in our work, in our pleasures etc. It is also an opportunity to ask for grace for the coming week’s activities so that we will do them for the glory of God. If we conclude that there are some things that we could not do for his glory, then we should not do them.

Isaiah 58:8-14 contains great promises for those who keep the Sabbath in a proper manner: answered prayer, spiritual vitality, spiritual growth and recovery, increased fellowship with the Lord. May it not be the case that the cause of the low level of spiritual life found throughout Christian circles in our country today is a failure to keep the Sabbath as God wants it to be done. It may help us if we were to meditate on Isaiah 58 for a few minutes every Sunday.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

The Rise of Evangelicalism by Mark Noll (IVP)

The Rise of Evangelicalism by Mark Noll is the first volume in five-volume set that will consider the development of evangelicalism in the English-speaking world since the seventeenth century. The author, a well-known writer on American evangelicalism, is co-editor of the series with David Bebbington. This volume covers most of the eighteenth century, focussing in the main on the revivals associated with Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield and John Wesley, and discussing some of their effects on British and early American society.

While the term ‘evangelical’ had been used almost as a synonym for Protestant in the century following the Reformation, Noll has chosen to use it as describing a movement that has minimised denominational distinctives and instead stressed the necessity of the new birth and holy living. This movement rose out of English Puritanism, European Pietism and Anglican spirituality, and it is not difficult to sense it was a reaction against a sterile form of Protestantism. George Whitefield stands out as the spokesperson for this movement and no doubt denominational distinctives were not a priority for him (others were not so ready to abandon their convictions on church polity, as was seen in the refusal of Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine to endorse Whitefield when he preached, with much success, in Church of Scotland congregations).

The second half of the seventeenth century was a time of significant change. Developments in international trade between Europe and America were utilised by the evangelicals to begin and maintain trans-Atlantic links that furthered their cause. They also became increasing involved in attempting to improve social conditions, with the best-known response being their opposition to the slave trade.

Noll has written an engaging and comprehensive account of a movement that can be observed from two different viewpoints. At one level, the large number of converts from the revivals that gave it much of its impetus was the work of the Holy Spirit, as were the spiritual practices that these converts engaged in. At the same time, the movement was a social force that contributed to the changing culture that was adjusting to the opinions of the Enlightenment. Noll manages to maintain both viewpoints in balance as he steers the reader through a complex story.

This volume is an excellent beginning to what should be a valuable collection.

1 and 2 Timothy by William B. Barcley (Evangelical Press)

The author of this hardback commentary is Associate Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi, and pastor of Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Learned, Mississippi. This combination of theological training of future pastors and weekly Bible exposition to lay people enables him to provide a commentary that is both biblically accurate and readable. He gives greater space to 1 Timothy (200 pages), which he subtitles, ‘The priorities of a godly church’, than to 2 Timothy (90 pages) which he subtitles, ‘The final words of the great apostle’. Each biblical book is divided into sections and sub-sections, with identifiable application passages occurring frequently. These application passages will be of help to preachers who use this commentary.

Regarding 1 Timothy, he notes that the issues dealt with by Paul are still of importance for today’s church, such as features of public worship, the role of women, the nature of preaching, the qualifications for leadership, and practical help for the poor. These and other issues are explained in a lucid and succinct manner and will help any who consult this work.

Since 2 Timothy was Paul’s last letter before his martyrdom, it is more poignant than 1 Timothy, and reveals the tenderness of his heart in his concern for the spiritual development and ongoing faithfulness of his close associate, Timothy. Barcley also stresses the attitudes of commitment to people and confidence in them that marked Paul as a servant of Christ and gives his opinion that ‘the greatest characteristic of Christ’s servants is not their personal strength, not their charismatic personality, not their gifts and talents. It is their reliance – reliance on others, reliance on the grace of God. Is that at the top of your church’s ministerial job description.’

This commentary is recommended for preachers who wish to review their ministries, for church leaders concerned about fulfilling their roles, and for church members desiring to have a biblical understanding of church life. Barcley observes that ‘the modern evangelical attitude that the Christian life is simply “Jesus and me” is a departure from biblical growth. The Bible knows of no proper Christianity, and certainly no health and growth in the Christian life, apart from active involvement in the church of Jesus Christ.’ This commentary is a challenging reminder of the importance of Christian service in the context of Christ’s church.

An Iron Pillar (A biography of William Romaine) by Tim Shenton

This 450-page biography of a leading Anglican evangelical preacher of the eighteenth century is a detailed treatment of his life and times. Romaine was one of several outstanding preachers provided by Christ to help in the process of revitalizing his church during and after the Evangelical Revival in Britain that is linked to the activities of Whitefield and Wesley. This biography is a helpful addition to our reading of this period.

In the volume we meet many of these preachers and others. Indeed, the one defect I found with the volume was the regular inclusion of details of fringe characters (no doubt they were important figures in their own ministries or activities, but I did not find these snippets of information as essential for appreciating the life and times of Romaine). But I would not want that small negative comment to detract from the benefit of reading this fine book.

Romaine, who died in 1795, was born in 1714 to a devout and prominent Christian family in Hartlepool. He possessed a great intellect which was displayed in his university studies and also in the compilation of a Hebrew concordance and dictionary (unlike many, he increased in his understanding of Hebrew throughout his life!). He moved to London, hoping that his abilities would secure him an ecclesiastical position. Yet his godly family background and intellectual capability were not sufficient to make him an effective communicator of the faith. Contrary to previous accounts of Romaine’s life, the author provides persuasive evidence to show that Romaine was not only a cleric but also a preacher of evangelical doctrine before his conversion. His hearers were impressed by his lectures but their lives were not transformed.

The times in which Romaine and others preached was marked by immorality and drunkenness among the poor, scepticism among the rich, and dead orthodoxy in the national church (the doctrine of Christ’s imputed righteousness was particularly detested). One observer commented that when Romaine was converted, there were about twenty evangelical preachers in the Church of England; by his death there were about 300. This growth can be traced in part to the regular weekly time of prayer begun by Romaine and his friends to address this area of concern.
Once he was converted, Romaine’s preaching changed and he became one of the most earnest and effective evangelists of the period, with thousands being converted through his preaching. He quickly became a leader of the evangelical party in the Anglican church (he remained a committed Anglican throughout his life even when he was prevented by church authorities from using their properties to preach the gospel).

Further opportunities to preach came through Lady Huntington’s provision of places and other forms of support. Many believers were fed through his regular Bible expositions and he achieved the considerable feat of managing to preach through the entire Bible. He used the printed page, primarily sermons, to correct false opinions and provide guidance for many who could not hear him physically.

His commitment to Anglicanism did not prevent him ministering alongside preachers from the various non-Anglican Protestant groups, and he became a leader within English Evangelicalism in general.

As is the case with each of us, it is easy for our strengths to become our weaknesses, and this was the case with Romaine. His energy and determination were strengths when he was engaged in spreading the faith, but sadly they could make him stubborn and publicly foolish (as when he persisted in debating against the scientific discoveries of Isaac Newton and others) or zealously involved in popular but wrong movements (he vehemently and successfully opposed giving naturalization to Jews living in Britain). When he devoted his abilities to spreading the gospel and strengthening the faith of believers, he was a great tool in the Master’s hand; when he involved himself in other activities, his chosen actions were questionable. Despite these mistakes, he was used by his Master.

This volume deserves to be read by as many as possible. Ministers should read it because it describes a servant who was devoted to the calling of his Master and whose service was owned by his Master. Those interested in church history will discover fresh insights into a crucial period of British church life. Believers should read it in order to be stimulated to pray for revival. The features of the time in which Romaine and others worked for the Lord are very similar to our own: immorality in society, breakdown of family life, rampant poverty, and an ineffective church. It is well-known that these features were widespread throughout western Europe at the lifetime of Romaine. In France, they led to the horrors of the French revolution of 1789; in Britain, the Lord sent revival and enabled his church to begin changing a corrupt society. This interesting volume should challenge us to pray for a similar, if not a greater, revival.

Commentary on Colossians by John Davenant

This comprehensive commentary was originally published in Latin in 1627; the English edition was published in two volumes in 1831 (about 850 pages in total). Included in this one-volume edition is a substantial biography of John Davenant (1576-1641) by the translator of the commentary, Josiah Allport.

In addition to the many helpful footnotes provided by the translator, particularly with regard to references by Davenant to writers from the early church and Reformation periods, there is a useful index of subjects dealt with in the commentary and a list of intriguing theological questions discussed by the author.

The author was a celebrated theologian (he was the writer of an important work on the doctrine of justification) and churchman (he was Bishop of Salisbury), as well as being one of the Church of England delegates at the Synod of Dort in 1618. As was the case with several theologians of the Anglican Church at that time, he did not accept limited atonement, and indeed wrote a dissertation in defence of an unlimited atonement. 

Nevertheless, as a leading scholar of the Reformed Faith in England, his vast learning and his devotional habits enabled him to produce a commentary that was not only outstanding in its original edition but also an excellent resource for subsequent generations of preachers. It is not surprising that this work was highly recommended by Spurgeon and others for its depth, accuracy and discursiveness.

Obviously, the commentary does not deal with issues that have been the topic of recent discussion of this letter. Nevertheless, this commentary will be a very useful help for preaching through the Book of Colossians. The language is straightforward and easy to understand, and his comments are usually relevant to aspects of the passage about which preachers and others need insight, whether it deals with important aspects of Christology or areas of Christian living. 

In conclusion, I would suggest that his remarks on Colossians 4:3-4 on praying for ministers and on preaching by ministers, if implemented, would result in edifying sermons.

God's Words in Human Words

I have wondered sometimes what it was like to observe the influence of higher criticism on evangelical institutions in Scotland during the second half of the nineteenth century. Having attended some of the events at the recent Society for Biblical Literature meeting in Boston, I now have some awareness of what the past influence would have been. My appreciation is not based on travel back in time, but on witnessing a discussion arranged by a prominent American Christian publisher with a notable evangelical pedigree. The discussion concerned a recent Baker publication called God’s Words in Human Words, sub-titled ‘An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship,’ written by Kenton L. Sparks.

The author of this work responded to the panel who discussed his book, none of whom found fault with his departure from evangelical standards concerning the inerrancy and reliability of the Bible. In his comments, he stated emphatically that he did not believe in Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy (it was put together several centuries later); he was convinced that many Old Testament prophecies had not been fulfilled within their possible time span, and so were failures (I did not hear him say anything about the possibility that some divine promises of blessing are conditional upon appropriate responses of those who heard them); and he was adamant that the apocalyptic sections of Daniel come from the second century BC and not from the accepted time of Daniel. Yet he announced that he was an evangelical, teaches at an institution which claims to be evangelical, and is published by a company that says it is evangelical.

As I listened to his response, I realised that all I had to do was imagine that the speaker was Robertson Smith in the final third of the nineteenth century in Scotland. He too shared the opinions now expressed by Sparks and also claimed to be an evangelical while teaching at an evangelical seminary (the Free Church College in Edinburgh). Despite the initial interest and success of Smith’s views within the church and the profit made by publishers of his works, the results of his (and others) teaching were catastrophic for evangelical churches, denominations and theological institutions that adopted them as they were for publishers who advocated them and for the thousands of professing Christians who accepted them. Yet the applause of acceptability by the educational elite did not mean that tolerance of error was a means of spreading evangelical influence.

Will the current attempt be any more successful? There is wholesale rewriting of the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures taking place today across the evangelical spectrum. Great interest is being aroused, and desire for literature on the topic is seemingly insatiable, with many leading publishers involved. Inevitably, more books will follow, but perhaps we can find out what they will contain by looking back to see what their predecessors wrote about when the same views were articulated by the higher critics of the nineteenth century. The large evangelical denominations of Scotland in the nineteenth century quickly disappeared, and one of the reasons for their decline was their willing embrace of higher critical views.

Of course, the other detail that the whole discussion reveals is that the term ‘evangelical’ and its equivalents are so meaningless that using them conveys no accurate information about the user until he/she gives further details. At one time, in twentieth century Western Evangelicalism, it was assumed that an evangelical was an inerrantist as far as the Bible was concerted. No doubt, some scholars such as James Orr can be mentioned as being different from that rule. But that is the point – he was an exception. Today, the exceptions are those who believe in inerrancy and it seems that they are observing the speedy decline of the evangelical movement, a decline that is hastened from within evangelicalism itself.

There are other lessons from that period as well, which may have more relevance for those who accept the inerrancy of the Bible. One response to the higher critics by evangelicals was to abandon doctrinal convictions under the illusion that while it was essential to maintain a high view of the Bible it was not so essential to maintain accurate views regarding other doctrines of the faith and they could be adjusted and tweaked in order to make them acceptable to all who acknowledged the inerrancy of the Bible. Doctrines such as sovereign election and particular atonement were minimised. Instead of compromising with those who opposed their views on inerrancy, many compromised on other doctrines. History tells us that such a response, while enthusiastically adopted for a while, even perhaps by a large number of supporters, does not protect the church from decline.

Another response was to adopt the lifeboat mentality which saw that the church was sinking and instead of trying to repair the holes launched lifeboats to pick up those who were sinking in the waters. The lifeboats were evangelistic efforts and missions, which initially had great success, as the number of defunct buildings testifies to us today. But this response did not prevent the church from declining, and in some cases from disappearing altogether.

No doubt other lessons can be deduced. Perhaps others will assume that the ones I have highlighted have been distorted. If I have done so, I apologise. Yet I would suggest that one important response was missing during the decades when higher criticism was rampant and seems to be missing today as well. This response is also sadly missing in me, and it is a lack of serious prayer about the whole issue. Pointing out the errors and defects in various movements and writings is the easy part; getting on our knees and pleading with God to purify his church and restore his cause is another matter altogether.

Music in the church (1)

Recently, during a trip to America, I attended three different congregations in which music was an important feature of their worship. The first congregation was composed mainly of older worshippers (about one hundred of them), but among them was an organist and a choir of about a dozen people. It was obvious to all in the congregation who could hear them that their voices were well past their best days. I don’t mention this to demean them; all I mean is that they did not help the audible worship of God.

The second congregation numbered several hundred (at least five hundred). It did not have a choir or an organist; instead it had a music group with four singers. The musical instruments were very loud, as was the singing of the group. In fact, it was so loud that I could not hear the voices of the large congregation. All that could be heard was the group on the stage, which means that I was observing a concert instead of taking part in the worship of God. The event was no different from a secular concert in which the attenders listen to a group and sing along to the songs without disturbing their neighbours’ attention on the group.

The third congregation was a Presbyterian church in a university city. Most of the congregation was young, with a few older persons in attendance. It also had a group, although unlike the previous one it did not play rock music or scream into the microphones. Instead they sang traditional hymns. Nevertheless their voices also drowned out the sound of the congregation and, in addition, some of the group looked bored stiff.

In each congregation I wanted to inform them that there is a better way to use their voices in the praise of God. Instead of using musical instruments to drown out their voices, they should abandon their instruments and use only the voices of the congregation. In the first and third congregations it would have helped if the worshippers had sat together instead of all over two large buildings. Of course, such would have to sing with all their hearts.

Why tell this story? Because my denomination is considering introducing musical instruments into its public worship services. No doubt some will say that there are congregations in which the above scenarios do not occur. Strange to say, as I think about the very many congregations in which I have observed the use of musical instruments, I cannot think of any which did not have one or more of the above features.