Engaging with “Engaging with Martyn Lloyd-Jones”
Engaging with Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Life and Legacy of ‘the Doctor’
Eds. Andrew Atherstone & David Ceri Jones
Apollos, 2011, 376pp., paperback, £16.99
I have never been “of Lloyd-Jones.” I am, in respect of him, as one born out of due time. I did not know him; I did not meet him; I never heard him preach in person (if I did, I was too young to remember). I have only encountered and engaged with him on the written page, through recordings, or at second or third remove, through men who knew and (usually) esteemed him, even if they did not always agree with him. Nevertheless, the landscape through which I travel is often shaped by his influence. Although it is less the case now than even I can remember, there are many for whom the phrase, “The Doctor said . . .” remains a powerful tool in any debate, if not invariably the final nail in the opposition’s coffin. Such an assertion, introducing some pithy though often unsubstantiated declaration, is sometimes considered to put any discussion to bed. I do not deny that many of the books that I read, the men with whom I associate, the organisations from which I benefit, or the conferences that I attend, have some direct or indirect association with ‘the Doctor.’ There is a legacy here, and how to handle it is no theoretical question.
It was therefore with great interest that I received and read the recent Apollos volume, Engaging with Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Life and Legacy of ‘the Doctor’ (hereafter EMLJ), edited by Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones. At least two friends urged me to obtain it, for several and varying reasons.
EMLJ contains an interesting spread of essays from an interesting range of characters. J. I. Packer provides the graciously honest foreword, and this is followed by eleven chapters from a variety of pens (including the present and immediately past principals of London Theological Seminary, giving at least a sprinkling of Lloyd-Jonesian legitimacy or inner circle fairy dust to the proceedings). An opening essay by the editors charting the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the key biographies is followed by situating Lloyd-Jones (MLJ) in the context of the interwar Calvinist resurgence. With these foundational studies accomplished, the remaining essays focus on various issues (Wales, revival, the charismatic controversy, the demise of preaching, ministerial education, fundamentalism, Karl Barth, Roman Catholicism, the Anglican secession crisis, and the Protestant past, topped off with a thorough bibliography).
In itself, the book provides – sometimes in that academic-gossipy kind of way – a variety of fascinating insights into the period during which Lloyd-Jones was one of the acknowledged leaders of British – and wider – evangelicalism, and in which today’s senior figures were yesterday’s young bucks. The standard of research is generally high and the tone is generally measured. Thoroughly engaged, I read through the book with little break, fascinated, enlightened, stimulated, stirred, annoyed and corrected.
As a whole, EMLJ provides great help in forming an intelligent understanding of the spiritual and ecclesiastical environment in which (conservative) evangelicals operate (albeit from a certain perspective), especially if we are coming into our inheritance rather than passing it on. It provides a context of sorts for many of the books, articles and sermons that someone like myself might read or hear, and which we might otherwise receive in something of a vacuum. It therefore allows us to appreciate the subtext of certain volumes, or emphases in them (bearing in mind, of course, that a volume like this, in its parts and perhaps even as a whole, is not free from bias or its own agenda). This process of illumination does not necessarily result in an Oz-like pulling back of the curtain to reveal the shabby and manipulative old man behind, but it does enable us to make a more measured assessment and balanced judgement of the things passed on. I hope that, as a result of reading, I have a more complete awareness not just of where certain battle lines have been drawn, but why they are drawn in those particular places, and how deeply they are drawn. The issues are clearer. I can see more readily where I stand, and am better able to understand why I stand there and why others stand elsewhere.
Although some of the chapters are a little light, several of them are outstanding. Certain aspects of the alleged Lloyd-Jones cult come in for a hammering, but the book is by no means uniformly negative. There is a degree of appreciation and even an evident fondness at points, although some are more clearly critical of the man and others are more descriptive and engaging. Indeed, several chapters demonstrate a degree of insight and balance from men who, standing at a distance, appear to be making a genuine effort to understand and assimilate the issues of character and emphasis that Lloyd-Jones leaves to us.
In responding more particularly, I want to single out three elements which run through the book, breaking the surface in several chapters and often dominating one. To me, they were areas of particular enlightenment and engagement, central issues in the legacy debate.
The first is the charge of separatism and sectarianism (allied with fundamentalism). In this regard, Andrew Atherstone’s chapter on “Lloyd-Jones and the Anglican secession crisis” is probably one of the most complete and reasonable treatments of the issue that I have read, even if my conclusions, based on his evidence, might be slightly different (a matter of perspective, of which more is to follow). In other chapters, the tone is more tendentious. David Ceri Jones speaks in what sounds like a consistently accusatory tone of a sectarian and independent (Independent?) spirit. John Maiden refers to MLJ’s “posturing for relations between evangelicals” (233) and a misjudgement concerning the threat of Rome that “may have clouded [his] judgment with regard to his separatist policy” (259). Robert Pope speaks patronisingly of the Doctor’s apparently quite risible convictions about the infallibility and sufficiency of Scripture and its impact on his teaching about cosmology and anthropology, eschatology, and ecclesiology. Others strike a similar tone: MLJ’s appetite for Independency gets a fairly thorough kicking.
Of course, much of this debate centres on MLJ’s “appeal for a radical rethink of evangelical ecclesiology and his call for secession from doctrinally mixed denominations” (261) at the National Assembly of Evangelicals at Westminster Central Hall in October 1966. At this meeting, having been asked to preach, Lloyd-Jones declared (rather than debated) the need for orthodox evangelicals to band together, leaving behind the doctrinally compromised denominations. To his supporters it was (as Atherstone is at pains to point out) intended as a positive invitation more than an assault on others.
It seems to me that John Stott put his finger on a key point of contention in his immediate riposte: “I believe the Scripture is against him in that the remnant was within the Church and not outside it” (271). Here the issue of ecclesiology is clearly defined: what is the church, and what ought she to be? Perhaps deliberately or otherwise, I think the volume as a whole reveals a tendency toward Anglican vindication or at least rehabilitation, an historical step of sorts toward the kind of rapprochement that underpins such initiatives as Gospel Partnerships, in which free church and Anglican evangelicals buddy up for the sake of gospel advance. In such an environment, and with such goals in mind, it is understandable that “separatism” becomes the grand charge.
In responding to this, I respond unashamedly as a Dissenter – an Independent and confessional churchman of Baptist persuasion. Whatever the historical precedents by which I arrived at this point, and whatever the influences which governed that arrival, I do not hold to these principles by virtue of an historical accident or a mindless tradition, but out of what I hope is an intelligent conviction and deliberate intention. I recognise that I inherit something of the more separatist Puritan tradition at this point (rather than the Puritan tradition as a whole).
As Atherstone seems to acknowledge, the point at issue is the very nature of the church: “‘gathered church’ vs. ‘national [or territorial] church’” (274, quoting David Winter). This is no small difference, and it is a weakness of the MLJ legacy in the circles that owe most to him that ecclesiology seems to be, at times, almost a moot point, the one issue we have all tacitly agreed not to discuss. I do not wish to be misunderstood. While I have no intention of falling into the ‘Some of my best friends are Anglicans’ defence, I wish to make it plain that I am not antagonistic to Anglicans individually or personally, and appreciate many of them as true men of God and brothers in Christ. However, I have no appetite whatsoever for Anglicanism as a system. Indeed, I think it is demonstrable (even in terms of the balance of EMLJ) that the immediate trend of the Anglican communion following 1966 – and particularly some of its leading evangelical lights like J. I. Packer (for all his brilliance as a scholar), whose 1970 contribution to Growing into Union and subsequent involvement in Evangelicals and Catholics Together – surely bears out Lloyd-Jones’ concern that the ecumenism of the evangelical Anglicans (and, perhaps, others) was too broad and undiscerning, too much Romeward (to some in EMLJ, such a trend may not be entirely desirable, but one gets the impression that saying so is considered a little narrow, even churlish). If anything, Anglicanism nationally and globally seems, in its public pronouncements, character, convictions and affiliations, in a worse state now than in the days of which the book speaks. In that sense, it seems to me that Lloyd-Jones’ challenge has been substantially vindicated.
I acknowledge that I speak as one who would not and could not be Anglican because of the perceived nature of the church quite apart from the matter of its doctrinal character. I can, indeed, relate to a man who is himself an Anglican out of a set of convictions that he is prepared to argue from the Scriptures. However, what I cannot understand is the notion – too characteristic of free churchmen as well as national churchmen – that ecclesiology does not matter. By definition, the man who works toward a gathered church and the man who works toward a national church are working toward two significantly different things, and that must have an impact on what they can plan and execute together.
However, it also seems that the weakness of Lloyd-Jones’ call for unity in the truth and necessary secession from the unfaithful lies not so much in what he was calling men from as what he was calling them to. It is consistently described in EMLJ as a call for visible unity among evangelicals to match the spiritual unity of the evangelicals. But in what should this visible unity consist? And what might it look like? The issue of the extent or otherwise of MLJ’s ecclesiology has been addressed robustly, from both sides, by Iain Murray and Carl Trueman. In EMLJ we are reminded of R. T. Kendall’s recollection that, when he asked MLJ if Westminster Chapel was a church, MLJ answered, “Just barely,” (214-215), giving some credence to the contention that the Chapel was “a preaching station more than an ecclesial community” (214). At the same time, we must take into account Dick Lucas’ riposte to such charges in his essay, “Who Else? An Appeal for True Preaching!”:
It grieves me when I hear Westminster Chapel, in the Doctor’s day, described as simply a “preaching shop.” That is ignorant, and takes no account of its peculiar position and opportunity. Have such critics ever read The First Forty Years, Iain Murray’s brilliant Volume One of the Lloyd-Jones biography? Do they know nothing of his labours in Sandfields, in Wales? There, if you like, was a true living church and community of a rare kind.
If the emphasis on the preacher and preaching did perhaps undermine some other elements of a healthy gospel church, then it also points toward the important question of what visible unity looks like. Perhaps MLJ did have some more concrete notions than he expressed, beyond the sorts of affiliations and associations he seemed to champion, but a substantial ecclesiology (beyond Independency) and a confessional standard were not, it seems, offered. The solution seems to have been an undefined, unbounded, doctrinally indistinct grouping, a solution that – to the mind of a man described by a friend as “one of those mad Independents who actually believes what he says” – is not entirely attractive, regardless of the nature of the problem. MLJ’s well-known concern for things he believed to be of first importance and readiness to leave aside things he considered to be secondary may be the root cause of this seeming gap in his proposals and the uneasiness some feel about them. I am sure that most of those who feel that visible unity needs a more well-developed doctrinal foundation would advocate something that fits with our own preferences and assumptions, but one does not have to be pursuing the full-orbed and ripe Presbyterianism which seems to be behind Carl Trueman’s expressed concerns in order to wish for a little more definition.
In this regard, then, I have little sympathy for the charge of separatism. It seems to me that Lloyd-Jones was substantially right in his assessment of the problem. Nevertheless, despite the allegedly positive nature of his call to separate, he did not appear to present more than an outline of a coherent and positive solution.
A second issue to stimulate much mental juice is the matter of the charismatic controversy. As anyone can see, there are at least two distinct elements to the inheritance here, perhaps best represented by the two publishing streams of the Banner of Truth and Kingsway/Crossway. Both the so-called cessationists and the so-called continuationists are often (though not always) very ready to claim MLJ for their own. Reading one or the other stream as the dominant element in MLJ’s thinking (and interpreting the other in its light) allows one to perform these mental gymnastics. Such confusion is more than adequately depicted in the relevant chapter of EMLJ, with other details supplied throughout. MLJ’s intense focus upon revival, his near-reverence for the great men of the eighteenth century (especially in Wales) and his apparent embrace of the phenomena associated with revival, his doctrine of the sealing of the Spirit as an experience separate from and subsequent to conversion, his willingness to entertain certain spiritual gifts as abiding demonstrations of spiritual power in the church, a failure to censure certain controversial figures – all these things have justifiably led to his being championed by the charismatic camp. At the same time, many of those who knew him well either are marked by their silence or have tried to maintain that MLJ’s convictions and practices were more nuanced than they might appear, including some who put him down as “theoretically Pentecostal” (129). Others have abandoned him as a safe guide in this matter.
In the key chapter, if all we read is to be believed, we find some being told, “I am against Pentecostalism and still am” (129), while MLJ also gives what sounds like substantial support to key individuals in the burgeoning ‘Reformed Charismatic’ camp, maintaining a degree of public distance while offering significant private encouragement.
Again, for those of us who do not have the benefit of hearing doctrine or practice personally explained, or watching them immediately worked out, we go only on what we read and what we hear. If that leaves us with a degree of confusion, then it appears to be justified. If we find ourselves needing to separate one thing from another, contending with others who want the cachet of a big name (but who rather wish that certain seeming contradictory things had been left unsaid), then both sides of the spectrum seem to be in the same boat. In this respect, it would seem that those who are mystified by MLJ’s legacy with regard to the charismata and associated issues have every right to be. EMLJ helps to explain and describe rather than to resolve this conundrum.
A final area of contention is our approach to learning and history. Again, Lloyd-Jones’ attachment to and interest in the past is a constant in the book, coming to particular focus in key chapters, especially the last. Here, John Coffey – in what seemed to me to be a vaguely sneering chapter – assesses MLJ’s approach to church history. This chapter might be read alongside Philip Eveson’s chapter on ministerial education, in which the tension between a scholarly appetite and a scholastic tendency, between intellectual rigour and mere intellectualism are well spelled out. Taking these emphases into account, we find Coffey identifying the two significant strands of historical engagement as retrieval and interpretation (294).
He is helpful in analysing the relative selectivity of the retrieval (for example, among the Puritans), reminding us that the Puritanism that many inherit through readily available volumes is a Puritanism that has already been sieved and sifted in accordance with certain theological convictions (300). Building on this notion of a selective retrieval, perhaps the more significant issue has to do with the interpretation of data drawn from this carefully defined pool.
Coffey makes plain that Lloyd-Jones did not come to the study of history without intent: he came to it as a pastor (302). He ties this in with MLJ’s ominous warnings “against a purely academic interest in the subject” (302-303), his “acute ambivalence towards academic scholarship” and his “suspicion of scholarship, intellectualism and scholasticism” (303). At this point, our academic may well have slipped automatically into a defence of the academy. As Coffey describes it, MLJ’s approach was “unabashedly utilitarian,” setting out “to draw lessons from history” (304) leading to an account of history that was “avowedly partisan” (305). He takes issue with MLJ’s interpretation of key figures and events in church history, as we apparently find Lloyd-Jones focusing, perhaps overmuch, on certain periods and persons, and finding principles to demonstrate and examples to support his presuppositions. This takes us back, for example, to the issue of ecclesiology and churchmanship. We have portrayed for us a frustrated but historically competent J. I. Packer chewing his nails as – rather than his own vision of Puritanism as a moderate movement of theological and spiritual renewal within the national Church – MLJ stands unrestricted and unanswered on the platform depicting Puritanism as an anti-Anglican drive for a pure church combined with warm experimental Calvinist piety (324).
There are at least three questions we can ask: What was Lloyd-Jones’ approach? Was it legitimate? And, at what points did he err?
I agree with Coffey that MLJ – while a brilliant enthusiast and committed student – approached church history first as a pastor and preacher. He did not come as a professional historian or academician.
But is this a legitimate approach or is it inherently flawed? The answer may, in part, depend on one’s sphere. That is not to suggest that a pastor or preacher can suspend proper principles of interpretation in dealing with history. There are classic errors to be avoided, and objectivity is to be pursued even where neutrality is impossible. However, the pastor does not often approach church history with the same degree of relaxation as some professional scholars (and this may be where a mutual suspicion perhaps creeps in between the pastor and the professional, the pulpit and the academy). Without intending to sound pretentious, under the particular demands of the ministry, a man does not come merely to survey, to observe and to report, but to learn, to be directed and to be armed. Busy pastors and preachers, faced by challenges and conundrums within and without the local church, tend to seek patterns, principles, models, lessons, warnings and applications. We desire not only counsels for correction but also allies for encouragement. Pastors map the past over the present, and vice versa, not setting out to commit the heinous crime of anachronism, but rather to discern by comparisons whether the battle lines are shifting, and which regiments are friends and which foes. Their interpretive framework – as with any Christian historian – should be formed by convictions derived from Scripture. Trying to apply those Scriptures to their own lives and the lives of those under their care, they look for historical illumination of an issue.
To be sure, this can lend itself to one-eyed perspectives and slanted interpretations. To be sure, the work of the professional historian can be profoundly helpful in preventing unreasonable or unfair assumptions. However, to ask a true preacher – and I don’t think anyone denies Lloyd-Jones that – to suspend that calling and its faculties while he pores over his dusty tomes is to ask a chap to stop breathing while he does his exercises. Such an approach to church history, seeking validation or contradiction, testing and discerning, seeking to make history a working tool, is not in itself wrong. There may be times when a proper partisanship is both right and necessary, and when pastoral demands drive the pastor-preacher’s study and shape his conclusions, both with regard to his retrieval and his interpretation.
So, did Lloyd-Jones err, and to what extent? Was he guilty of simply harnessing the chariot of history to the steeds of his own agenda? I appreciate the question, because there have been occasions when I have read some of MLJ’s treatments of people and events and bristled slightly at what seems a degree of selectivity in substance and application (of course, this is usually where my personal or pastoral attachments or convictions – would that it were a more instructed and nuanced historical awareness! – point me in a different direction).
There seems little doubt that MLJ’s engagement with church history was driven by the needs of the hour and by his position (assumed by himself and others) as something of a spokesman for conservative evangelicalism as well as his role as a pastor and preacher. Allied to his resistance to mere scholasticism and intellectualism, such an engagement is prone to certain biases and potential mishandlings. There were times when he seemed to manhandle history – a selectivity of retrieval and a slant of interpretation – to make his point. But let us remember that there are very few historians who never fail in this regard. That others facing alternative perspectives and reaching alternative conclusions are subject and succumb to the same pressures is not in question. The question is not whether or not we bring our biases to the study of history, but which biases we bring.
Without wishing to suggest that Mr Coffey is guilty of ‘bad history’, it seems that he approaches his topic with what is meant to be the broadminded and balanced perspective of the professional academic historian (very different from the Lloyd-Jones trajectory). As such, Coffey’s chapter can read like a product of the Academy and perhaps the Church (with its national capital), defending both institutions against the charges of a man who was rightly suspicious of both. Coffey’s chapter in style and substance is no doubt very much the product of his own views of how history should be retrieved and interpreted. It ends with the somewhat bland assertion that “while Lloyd-Jones’s historical project was a powerful influence within evangelicalism, it was in competition with rival understandings of the Protestant past.” While true, this is more of a open-ended summary than anything approaching a definite and definitive conclusion. Such an end point may do for the academy, but it does not always wash in the study or the pulpit.
So what are we left with? An open-ended summary or anything approaching a definitive conclusion? As so often, to embrace unthinkingly is to embrace foolishly. That Martyn Lloyd-Jones was a man of great gifts, true graces, multiplied talents and abounding usefulness does not seem to be in question. That he can stand on his own two feet, even at this remove of time, is well evidenced by this collection of essays. That he inspired great affection and enduring commitment in many who knew him well, even in those who sometimes disagreed with him strongly, should not then surprise us. But he was a man, and therefore we should not be surprised that he erred and sinned. To defend him as if he could do no wrong would be to dishonour him. The tensions of his teaching and practice were not resolved during his lifetime, and are not resolved now. He was a complex man who leaves a complex legacy.
Our challenge is not to decide whether or not we are “of Lloyd-Jones.” That does not dignify him. Surely there are few men of any spiritual stature who could say with integrity that they stand absolutely where MLJ did on every issue? Neither is our challenge to make an industry of discussing his faults and weaknesses, lifting the famous Geneva gown with a flourish to reveal the feet of clay (and perhaps using that to undermine or cast doubt upon issues in which he was both right and bold). That is not gracious or honest.
Our challenge is to make a humble, careful, prayerful assessment of the man and the legacy, and – determined to serve God in our generation to the best of our ability in accordance with the light that we have – to learn all that we can, and to leave anything that we must. In some respects, one of the chapter conclusions of EMLJ could almost serve, with a little judicious blanking-out and filling-in, as a postscript to the whole: “Lloyd-Jones’ unimpeachable status as the doyen of the evangelical movement led many to claim his legacy in order to legitimate their own viewpoint concerning [fill in the blank]. He had become a totemic, and yet contested, icon in the struggle for theological dominance in the contemporary church” (155).
I think that Lloyd-Jones deserves a better legacy than that. If nothing else, such a man deserves inheritors who are not ashamed to think for themselves in the light of Scripture, who have the courage to state when they agree with him and why, and to hold the lines that we are persuaded must be held, but the integrity to accept the feet of clay. If we are persuaded that he was right to call for separation from doctrinal and practical indifferentism, laxity or error, though he might have failed to set out an alternative vision with sufficient clarity and coherence, then we can and should say so. If, with regard to the person and work of the Holy Spirit, we cannot and will not follow him to all the places he eventually leads, then we can and should say so. If, with regard to his approach to learning and history, we stand substantially with him while recognising that these convictions occasionally betrayed him into selectivity of substance and emphasis, then we can and should say so. We must learn both from his strengths and his weaknesses, from those things we are persuaded were right or wrong judgements and convictions, from those things we perceive as magnificent determinations and those we perceive as misguided entrenchments.
The battle, especially for those of us who are following on and learning from this period, is surely not first and foremost to discern who can claim ‘the Doctor’ and to what extent, not to see who can hide behind that Geneva gown on the most issues. Rather, our task, with a dignified, honest, appreciative, intelligent, genuinely and properly critical stance, is to know our own times and to discern and embrace those elements of the legacy that best equip us to stand for God and truth.