Hopefully there will be a couple of things from the Walker quill forthcoming this year – one longer work on the pilgrim life and one shorter booklet on the topic of repentance. I hope to offer more details soon, but I thought I might at least let you know.
It may have been ever thus, but there seem to be an increasing number of books – often from the fields of biblical or systematic theology – that present themselves as having discovered or provided the overarching theme of the Scriptures as a whole, the lens through which the whole should be read and interpreted. At other times, there is a supposed historical precedent which, we are informed, must govern the way in which we handle not only uninspired texts, but even the Scriptures themselves. Perhaps there is even an experimental approach: we have had such-and-such an experience, therefore it must be validated by the Word of God.
Every other theme or text is then shoehorned into the grand scheme, trimmed and hammered until the squarest of pegs slide into the roundest of holes. Sometimes, there is something that is compelling about such presentations, and much light is shed on the Word of God. One might still not accept the demand that this be the point at which we stand in order to change the world, while appreciating the help given in seeing this as a weighty theme or principle. At other times, I am concerned at how blunt or even crass that process is, with some shallow little epithet becoming the cookie cutter into which every text or doctrine must be forced. We end up reading our Bibles with a combination of myopia and tunnel vision, and not just those that come of being fallen creatures.
At the same time, most of us are probably accustomed to reading the Bible through a certain set of lenses. We come to the Word of God with certain notions, and these – consciously or unconsciously, possibly even subconsciously – inform our hermeneutics. This is largely inevitable. We open the Bible with certain presuppositions, a certain system influencing if not governing the way in which we read.
As a result, we tend to find in the Scriptures what accords with our own convictions. You might recall John ‘Rabbi’ Duncan’s attempt at self-definition: “I’m first a Christian, next a catholic, then a Calvinist, fourth a paedobaptist, and fifth a Presbyterian. I cannot reverse this order.” I wonder if (with necessary adjustments and extensions, depending on our beliefs) we also read the Bible through those kinds of lenses, in more or less that order?
So the key question must be, who makes the lenses and sets them in the frames? Here is a great challenge for us if we are to be faithful and humble readers of the Scriptures. Prayerfully dependent on the Holy Spirit, we must adjust our lenses and our frames to ensure that the Scriptures come into focus as they are, and not adjust the Scriptures so that they can be read through our lenses and frames.
This, I think, is one of the particular things that I appreciate about the expositions of Calvin and some of the other older writers. Please understand that I am not seeking to set up a Calvin versus the Calvinists dichotomy, or necessarily trying to endorse the system that often goes by the name of Calvinism. Rather, I am talking about the way the man handles the Bible. And I think he handles the Bible humbly and faithfully. There is no doubt that he reads with certain presuppositions, as do we all. But when he reaches a given point in his handling of a text, and noticeably where it is something which pushes his system – starkly and mechanistically considered – out of shape, he does not start trying to kick the text into shape, but he takes off his shoes, for he is standing on holy ground. And that is something we all must do.
Spurgeon once said, “Brethren, we shall not adjust our Bible to the age; but before we have done with it, by God’s grace, we shall adjust the age to the Bible.” If we are to do that, we must also ensure that we do not adjust our Bible to the system, but the system to our Bible. As we read, we must allow every line to have its full and honest weight, to be interpreted historically and and linguistically and grammatically in accordance with righteous standards, and to submit to whatever we find. To be sure, we do not and cannot come nakedly to the Word of God, and it would be folly to suggest that we do and can. But let us be done with shoehorning the Bible, in the whole or in part, into a preordained system. If I find it in my Bible, I must believe it. If I do not, then I am not bound by it, and neither can I bind anyone else to it. We cannot use the Bible to legitimise what we have already decided must be true. If God’s Word declares it, I receive it and embrace it, even if – where reason fails, with all its powers – there faith prevails and love adores. We worship even when – perhaps especially when – we cannot fully comprehend. Let us make sure that – whatever we start with – we are continually adjusting our frames and refining our lenses to ensure that the fixed points of the Word of God inform everything else that we believe or do, and live and worship accordingly.
Here is your starter for ten …
You may be in the sad condition of not really knowing what you are missing by not knowing Fuller. One way to get a taste of the man as a preacher is a selection from his sermons providing a thirty day devotional. It may be a little late for the start the year, but I would like to think it would provide a real blessing to your daily spiritual routine at some point over the next twelve months. It’s dirt cheap, seems to be only available on Kindle, and you can grab it at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
Would you allow me to draw your attention to a book? It is my father’s work, and concerns a man that you may not know, a seventeenth century Baptist called Benjamin Keach. Keach was one of the movers and shakers of the century, a prominent London Baptist who faced fierce persecution but also saw sweet blessings. He was a pastor of the church which can be traced to the one meeting today at the Metropolitan Tabernacle.
Might I also say that it is not just a tale for Baptists or historians, though both would find it delightful. His example as a man who wrestled toward truth, stood fast in accordance with his convictions, was prepared to suffer for the cause of Christ, and served the Lord and his people faithfully and fruitfully, makes him a worthy study for any Christian, perhaps especially any pastor.
This is a revised second edition of what is now the standard work on the life of this Baptist pastor and preacher, taking account of research conducted since the original publication. It can be found at the publisher’s website, and it is available in hardback (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk) and paperback (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk) and now has the virtue of an index, making it more useful to scholars. I strongly recommend it.
Several years ago I had the privilege of preaching in Denmark at the Reformation-Resurrection Conference. The invitation came out of the blue, hanging upon the absence of another brother whose health prevented him from serving. I went a little tentatively, not knowing what I would find, not least because Denmark is hardly known as an epicentre of biblical faith and life.
You can imagine my delight when I discovered a conference organised by a small but vigorous Reformed Baptist church, gathering together saints of like mind – many of them in far-from-ideal spiritual circumstances themselves – for a week of concentrated scriptural Bible teaching and warm fellowship among believers of the same spirit. People had gathered not only from Denmark but also from Norway, Sweden, Germany and even further afield to worship God together and enjoy a time of spiritual refreshment. Unfortunately, when they all arrived they discovered that the man they had hoped to hear was absent, and yours truly was the sorry substitute. Nevertheless, the Lord undertook for us, and it was his truth that went forth to the glory of his name.
All of which to say that the brothers in Denmark have been kind enough to invite me back again this summer when, God willing, my topic will be The Christian Family: God’s Grace in the Heart and in the Home. The conference is due to be held in mid-July at a school in Mariager, between Aarhus and Aalborg in the north of Denmark. They have asked me to draw this to the attention of interested friends, who can find out more at the conference website (Danish/English). Perhaps I will see you there?
[The introductory paragraph was originally posted in an unfinished form. Mea culpa. I have not changed the sentiment and substance, but have adapted and I hope improved the tone and the direction. I do not have the original piece, but what follows is close to the original intention. Other clarifications are here.]
At this time of year, we may see provided a variety of what I shall call scripted prayers. Some of them are entirely personal productions and some are woven together from other sources. Some are occasional pieces and some are habitual constructions. Such offerings and collections may have some value, when used and not abused. I stand pretty much with Bunyan on the matter of formally scripted and read prayers. I consider them close to an abomination. I appreciate the personal reading of thoughtful and careful prayers that were offered extemporaneously and recorded as they came (such as Spurgeon’s pulpit prayers [e.g. Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk / Westminster] or those which conclude many of Calvin’s sermons [e.g. Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk / Westminster]). I value prayers that were written as part of a longer project and were not intended to be recited as some kind of intercessory ritual, but into the spirit of which we might enter as a means of priming the pump of the soul (e.g. The Valley of Vision [Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk / Westminster]). But such reading does not and cannot replace our own praying. The idea of taking those words, reciting the script, and calling it heart prayer is not something I can countenance. I do not doubt the sincerity of some who pursue such a course, but the thing is so dangerous in its practice (inviting us to a mere performance) and deadly in its tendency (replacing the form for the substance) that I would advise anyone to steer well clear (and I am fully aware that more extemporaneous prayer can fall into the same traps, but I do not think it has the same measure of inherent weakness at this point). Do not misunderstand me, it is a rare privilege to listen – either really or at a distance – to a true man of God pleading with his heavenly Father, and there is much to learn from so doing. But the mere recitation or repetition of such words – even if they are our own – is not, in itself, prayer. Carefully used, such examples can be, in measure, spiritual springboards. Carelessly abused, they become spiritual shackles and militate against a true spirit of prayer.
So, by all means use some of these examples, but do not abuse them. Employ them, if need be, to prime the pump. And then, pray! The new year provides one of those natural turning points that gives us an opportunity to pause and reflect. The instinct to pray is entirely right and proper, but we must ourselves bow the knee and engage the heart, however carefully we ponder and prepare beforehand. With that in mind, let me suggest that we should pray in four directions.
Pray back. As you ponder where you have come from, remember who has brought you to where you are. Every child of God, whatever the gloom that seems presently to surround us, has the gospel light shining in our soul. Whatever your heavenly Father has seen fit to give you, it is as your Father in heaven that he gave it. Wherever the good Shepherd has led you, it is as the Shepherd that he led you there and through there. If you are Christ’s, and Christ is yours, then all things are yours. Every step of the past year, let alone every day of every year of your life, have been governed by divine love and gracious compassion. All has been intended to bring you to God and keep you with God, and to develop likeness to Christ in you, in accordance with God’s design. So look back, and lift up your Ebenezer, for till now, the Lord has helped us (1Sam 7:12).
Pray around. Remember your present circumstances and blessings, frailties and responsibilities. On the one hand, the Christian is the most privileged and the richest person on earth:
“All things are ours;” the gift of God,
And purchas’d with our Saviour’s blood;
While the good Spirit shows us how
To use and to improve them too.
Like the Kingswood colliers of whom Wesley wrote, on all the kings of earth, with pity we look down, and claim – in virtue of our birth – a never-fading crown. We are heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ, and for that we should sing with joy and gladness. We stand in grace, and yet the world moves on around us. Week by week I prepare a sheet for the church where I serve, each one numbered as the year turns. It is often very unsettling to see the speed at which the weeks pass by, those days swifter than a weaver’s shuttle. It is not morbid or maudlin to consider that we do not know how many more of those days we shall be granted, to remember that you may not see another new year, that you are a creature of the dust, and to assess how we shall live in the days allotted to us. So we look around, and pray, asking the Lord to “teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Ps 90:12). It is what we need for every moment as we wrestle with the demands of this day, and then the next, each day having enough trouble of its own, and supplies of grace to meet every trouble that comes.
Pray forwards. There are before each one of God’s children countless opportunities and responsibilities, many of which we have not yet seen. They may come with minutes or it may take months. For the days to come we need wisdom, and it is wisdom which the Lord himself has undertaken to provide, and commanded us to seek: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (Jas 1:5). This, and every other good thing, is promised to those who ask, seek and knock. It is the Father’s delight to provide those needful things for kingdom life that his beloved children request. We never need to be ashamed of our asking, if we are asking in accordance with his will and our character as trusting children. We do not need to twist his arm, bargain with him, or fear a harsh response. He is ready to provide every needful blessing, through his Spirit, that we need to secure his certain glory and enjoy his promised good.
And so, pray upwards. Every prayer must be directed to heaven. The greatest abominations in prayer are those self-referential or performed prayers that have more regard for the approval of men than concern to be heard by God. Far too many prayers are like damp fireworks; they may splutter a little with a few sparks, but they barely get off the ground. True prayer is, in essence, an expression of dependence upon God. If we do not pray, it is a practical atheism. But the saints pray to the Lord for what we can only receive from the Lord. We look to him, and – anxious for nothing – in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, we let our requests be made known to God. Thus the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and minds through Christ Jesus (Phil 3.6-7). May the new year, in its beginning, continuing and ending, prove that so.
One of the joys, if we choose to call it that, of the turn of the year is the “books wot I red” lists that emanate from bloggers left, right and centre. Some of them are simply crass arrogance – the “I read bigger, better, harder, higher, or simply more books than you” approach, a bit like those posts that slide out before the holidays suggesting the thirty tomes that the great and the good will be knocking back in their five days by the seaside. Some of the lists are genuine attempts to encourage and direct others in their reading or the well-meaning surveys of those who read more rapidly, more widely or in a more disciplined way than the rest of us. Some are combined with, or set alongside, the ten or twenty or fifty books that every Christian should read. So, for example, “The twenty books published this year that I read that every other Christian should read.”
But when you flick through a few of these, a pattern begins to emerge. Whether or not it’s your year-end or all-time lists, most of the books are often fairly predictable. What’s particularly disappointing is when the all-time lists include a significant majority of predictable authors from the same circles writing over the last ten years or so. I have seen a couple recently in which, having read the first five, I could have finished off the list for the chap in question, it being so clear the trajectory he was on.
I suspect that we are all prone to this (notice, I did not yet say guilty) to some degree. Most of us, either of necessity or habit or developed preference, have a measure of limit or focus to our reading at any particular time. If I am preparing a series of sermons, researching a particular person or period, or just enjoying something more than usual, my patterns of reading will reflect an element of concentration. Beyond that, we doubtless gravitate toward what we enjoy and profit from – reliable authors, favoured schools of thought, sweet places and stirring periods. That is fair enough, and understandable over time.
However, despite the Pavlovian salivation that occurs whenever anyone mentions the sainted Lewis, well-known for his critique of chronological snobbery in our reading, few seem to be taking him too seriously (whether or not they are confessed Lewis-slobberers). Indeed, the problem spreads beyond the temporal into the topical and the authorial and the geographical.
Too many of those lists show a narrowness and a shallowness that goes beyond the myopic and borders on the deliberately blind. Few contain anything more than a passing nod to anything too far outside the comfort zone. How will we ever test and assess and grow if we refuse to read anything that does not merely buttress or endorse our own preferred authors, preconceived notions, precious systems and protected memes? Some of these lists read like little more than exercises in how to pronounce ‘shibboleth’ properly.
I am not saying that we should indulge an appetite for pap or an itch for poison. Less mature readers usually need safer boundaries than more mature readers. But even the less mature could and should read beyond the hackneyed round of a few religious gurus. All should read those books which – without ever going outside the bounds of substantial orthodoxy – push us to think in ways we never otherwise would. Those starting out need to get into a groove, not drop into a pit. For most of us, it does us good to be stretched, challenged, engaged, taken out of our depth. If we are well-grounded in the faith, such a process can helpfully stir us, exercise us and ultimately strengthen us.
Take a few minor examples: you are a dyed-in-the-wool right wing reactionary of the sort who believes that the injunction to be subject to the governing authorities is somehow suspended in some way when speaking of and dealing with the Blairs and the Obamas of this world. Read a little Christopher Wright, and the first time you come up against his (let the reader understand) sentimental promotion of a left wing agenda of social (read socialist!) justice in the name of the Lord and Anglicanism you shy like a startled mustang. Fine, but once you calm down, you need to ask yourself where his notions and convictions come from, and go back to your Bible, and sieve his conclusions through the grid of Scripture, and assess and learn and argue. At worst, you have tested your own convictions against the convictions of another, and decided that – though you may have a little extra nuance – you see no particular need to shift your most fundamental anchor points. You might even wonder if you have been reading the Bible with one eye closed, and become determined to be more honest with Scripture and with yourself, even if you still can’t see what Mr Wright sees. Or, you are a high Presbyterian who believes that Baptists cannot be considered covenantal theologians, let alone in any way Reformed, and so you insist on referring to them as Anabaptists and dreaming of the day when a properly established Christian state is once again free to persecute such. It might not hurt you to read through some of the material recovering, interacting with and rehearsing some of the seventeenth century material and its underlying convictions, so that in the future your invective is marginally less marred by ignorance. Or, you are a persuaded cessationist, steadfast in your proper conviction that the apostolic gifts ceased with the office of the apostles while still delighting in and relying upon the continued operations of the Holy Spirit. Fair enough, but what about reading your differing brothers at their most intelligent and reasonable, so that you can at least understand why they believe what they say, can see the differences between what is claimed to be the case and what usually happens when someone lays claim to such gifts, and can more thoughtfully and graciously expose the exegetical flaws and practical dangers of their position?
Whatever our particular anchor points, it often does no harm to consider why someone would drop their anchor some little distance from our own. If nothing else, it might get your blood flowing. Who knows, you might even learn something? Better still, we should be deliberately searching out those who have gone before us with reputations for genuine godliness and sacrificial service who shake us out of our crassly comfortable little ruts and make us wonder whether or not we have ever grasped the greatness and the glory of the Lord.
So, let us get outside our own century and our own circle. Let us have lists with a little of a patristic flavour, with a few of the best medievals, a dose of the Reformers, a shot of the Puritans and their successors, a fillip of the eighteenth century men, a snack on the best that the nineteenth has to offer, and a smattering of the twentieth, as well as the low-lying fruit of the twenty-first. Let the breeze of the centuries waft over your souls. Roam the world where the truth has taken root – let the theologians of Europe and Africa and Asia and Australia, and perhaps even America, expand your sense as they wrestle with and apply theology in a context utterly unlike your own. Are you more of a historian? Read some biblical theology! Systematics your thing? How about some missiology? Linguistics float your boat? Dive into a few more biographies. Love your new Calvinists? Read some old ones – get into the Puritans! More of a Genevan? Have a dig around in the Calvinistic Methodists. Stuck in the sentiment of the Victorians? Take a bracing dose of a scholarly Scot. Mired in the multiplied divisions of the Puritans? Shake yourself loose with a canter through the church fathers. Plodding through the Princetonians? Dive into the Particular Baptists. Drowning in the Particular Baptists? Get stuck into the English or Continental Reformers.
As you think about your reading for the coming year, might I suggest that you take up something, early on, that is very much not what you would incline toward. Sprinkle a little seasoning into your reading, slide something spicy into your bland book pile, and add a little zest to your nightstand. Range righteously but rigorously through time and space and opinion. And perhaps, next year, you will produce some truly refreshing ‘best of’ lists that – in addition to blessing your own soul – will introduce the rest of us to a wider and more spiritually stimulating world.