Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Never too early...

Timothy loves theological books too!!

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A note from Iain Murray on recommended reading

Ever been highly recommended a book and been rather disappointed on reading it yourself? Perhaps Iain Murray's advice may be helpful. Dr. Murray suggests that if you are recommended a book but don't get on with it, put it aside for five years. We're at different stages of learning and only God knows what book we need at this moment in time. We may appreciate it at a later stage.

Source: from 9marks interview with Mark Dever, I can't remember if it was this one or this one. Listen to both!!

Monday, June 12, 2006

A new name?

I'm trying to come up with a new name for my blog. I know I may have a few readers out there, so... any suggestions?

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Current Crisis of Knowledge in Western Academia

The following quote presents something of the contemporary challenge facing Christians in the academic world. Its depiction of the current “intellectual and cultural contest” in academic resonates with my own relatively recent experience (2003-4) of studying an M.A. in cultural and historical geography at the University of Nottingham. In particular, I found describing it in terms of scientific naturalism and postmodern anti-realism to be more helpful than the usual modernism-postmodernism dichotomy.

There is a great intellectual and cultural contest going on today, what some might call a crisis of knowledge. Scientific naturalism – which for so many generations has ruled the academy and which proclaims the certainty and bias-free nature of scientific study and its promise to order and liberate all of life – is under severe attack. Most prominent of the assailants are the postmodern anti-realists, who claim that there is no fundamental structure to be found in the universe itself. Rather, humans create all of the categories; they construe knowledge. In either case, both parties seek a way of living without reference to a divine Creator and Lawgiver – the naturalists by saying that nature is self-creating and self-regulating, and the anti-realists by saying that humanly created order is the only order there is.

According to Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, both parties misplace the role of
humanity. Scientific naturalism reduces human beings to the status of complicated machines, with no real creativity. The postmodern anti-realists, by contrast, substitute human beings for God by making human consciousness the source of all reality. Christian scholars may be tempted to cheer for one side or the other – for the naturalists for defending the existence of a real world that exists outside of ourselves, or for the anti-realists, who point out the failures of science to bring a consensus about how to order our lives. Christian thought, however, points to a third way. With the naturalists, it points to a real world that exists independently of our ordering of it. With the anti-realists, it has long insisted that there are no such things as purely objective facts and theories. But against both, Christian thought insists that our world only makes sense when we acknowledge the Almighty, the God of the Bible.
From Carpenter, Joel “The Mission of Christian Scholarship in the New Millennium” in Henry, Douglas & Agee, Bob (2003) Faithful Learning and the Christian Scholarly Vocation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), pp.62-74; quote from pp.64-65

Friday, June 09, 2006

Embrace hardship

Two helpful quotes on the place of weakness and hardship in the Christian life:

I’ve learned to embrace the suffering, the criticism, the failure and the pain as probably the most productive work of God in my life… What I can’t do is refine myself, I can’t break myself, I can’t crush my own pride, I can’t bring failure into my life… In a sense, the best things that have ever happened to me are the mutinies that have occurred in my church, the disappointments, the misrepresentations.
(John MacArthur, in an interview with Mark Dever here)

Do not fear weakness, illness, or a sense of being overwhelmed. The truth of the matter is that such experiences are often the occasions when God most greatly displays his power. As long as people are impressed by your powerful personality and impressive gifts, there is very little room for you to impress them with a crucified Saviour. ‘I came to you,’ Paul confesses, ‘in weakness and fear, and with much trembling’ (1 Cor 2:3) – so much so that he needed special encouragement from God Himself (Acts 18:9-10). But Paul knew that God’s strength is mostly greatly displayed in connection with our weakness (2 Cor 12.1-10). Although he suffered fears, illness, weakness and a tremendous sense of being overwhelmed by the enormity of the task, he did not fear the fear; his weakness was not compounded by focusing on his weakness. Far from it! He could write, ‘That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong’ (2 Cor 12.10). That is the testimony of a man who has learned to minister under the cross.

(Carson, D.A. on 1 Corinthians 2:3, in (1993) The Cross and Christian Ministry (Grand Rapids: Baker), p.39)

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


I have been reminded recently of the awful extent of pride in my heart; how easily I gravitate towards thinking of myself more highly than I ought (Rom 12.3). And in this regard, I was deeply struck by the following thoughts:

When Solomon utters his prayer of dedication of the temple (2 Chronicles 6.12-42), there is a notable absence of pride. How easy it might have been to take pride in the construction of such a magnificent building; how easy to glory in what he and the people had done for their God, what a wonderful example of devotion to the Lord! But Solomon’s prayer does not glory in their work, but recognises their utter sinfulness before the God of heaven and their need for His forgiveness.

Carson writes:
The principal burden of what Solomon asks may be summarized quite simply. In the future, when either individual Israelites sin or the entire nation sinks into one sin or another, if they then turn away from their sin and pray toward the temple, Solomon asks that God himself will hear from heaven, and forgive their sin (6:21-39). There are [several] remarkable elements to these petitions.

First, there is an astonishingly realistic assessment of the propensity of the people to sin…

Second, however central the temple is to be as a focus for the prayers of the people (not least when they sin), God will hear their prayers not from the temple but from heaven, his dwelling-place…

Third, insofar as the temple is critical, it is seen as the center of religion and worship that deals with the forgiveness of sin and thus restores sinners to God. The heart of the temple is not the choirs and the ceremonies, but the forgiveness of sin. In this day of ill-defined spirituality, it is vital that we remember this point.

How easy it is to take pride in one’s abilities, one’s achievements, one’s knowledge. Yet at the heart of true religion – of Christianity – is the stark reality of our shameful naked sinfulness before a holy God, and our sheer need of his pardon. That third point made by Carson above is thus translated into the centrality of the cross of Jesus Christ in our Christian lives. All my human pride, my pretensions, my thinking highly of myself, is stripped bare and shown to be utter filth by the cross.

[1] Carson, D.A. (1998) For the Love of God (Volume One) (Leicester: IVP), meditation for December 6th

Monday, June 05, 2006

Was Evangelicalism created by the Enlightenment?

In his 2002 article of this name[1], Garry Williams offers a critique of historian David Bebbington’s thesis that evangelicalism is essentially a product of the Enlightenment. As I have read little of Bebbington’s work, I am not in a position to evaluate the debate, or indeed to present the counter-arguments from Bebbington’s side. I will therefore limit myself to summarising Williams’ argument and (in a second piece) offering a few meagre comments.

Bebbington’s definition of evangelicalism, as a historical movement, focuses on four key characteristics, a “quadrilateral of priorities”:

  • “conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed;
  • activism, the expression of the gospel in effort;
  • biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be called
  • crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross”[2]

Bebbington’s thesis is that evangelicalism thus defined was born in the early 18th century and was chiefly distinguished from what went before by the second characteristic, activism. The earlier Reformers and Puritans also placed great emphasis on conversion, the Bible and the Cross but lacked that activism that has been a hallmark of evangelicalism. That is, evangelicalism is a continuation of the Reformation and the Puritan movement, with a new intensification of activity in missions, evangelism and social action.

What caused this change is, according to Bebbington, a change in the theology of assurance which in turn was created by the absorption of certain aspects of Enlightenment philosophy into the thinking of the likes of John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards. According to Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, certainty could be obtained empirically, through the senses. This was, according to Bebbington, translated into Evangelicalism by the positing of a special ‘spiritual sense’ by which one could gain certain, early knowledge – assurance – of one’s salvation. While previous generations had expended much energy on ascertaining whether one was truly saved or not, now the question of the evangelical’s assurance could be quickly settled, and he was thus freed from self-examination to spend himself in godly activity.

This is the heart of Bebbington’s thesis and Williams critiques it in two ways. Firstly, he questions whether there was a new doctrine of assurance by examining the thought of Edwards, Wesley and John Newton; secondly, he briefly questions whether there was indeed a new activism.

In response, Williams argues:

(1) John Wesley does argue that the Holy Spirit gives an immediate sense of assurance upon conversion. However, post-conversion, Wesley urges the believer to examine himself for evidence of the Spirit’s work in his life to provide a second witness in addition to the immediate sense.[3]

(2) Wesley speaks of a ‘spiritual sense’ in language somewhat similar to that used by Enlightenment philosophers to speak of the physical senses. However,
a. The spiritual sense is only similar to the physical senses in the degree of certainty given by it
b. The spiritual sense is fundamentally different because the certainty obtained through the spiritual sense is given by the Spirit of God, not obtained through human reflection as with the physical senses.
c. Wesley draws his idea of a spiritual sense from pre-Enlightenment sources, while using language amenable to the times. “A shared vocabulary is not sufficient to demonstrate an intellectual origin.”[4]

(3) When Jonathan Edwards speaks of a spiritual sense, an immediate sense of assurance,
a. he is speaking about being certain of the objective truth of the gospel, not the certainty that the individual is saved.
b. although the language Edwards employs sounds Lockean, his conception of spiritual sense was not borrowed from Locke but was firmly rooted in the Augustinian-Reformed theological heritage. Many of the Puritans (Williams cites John Owen, Thomas Goodwin and John Flavel) spoke of spiritual sense in ways similar to Edwards. Williams suggests that Edwards “was engaged in an apologetic project in which he used the language and concepts of his opponents to his own theological ends.”[5]

(4) As regards assurance of salvation, Edwards in fact consistently and strongly rejected any kind of assurance based on a special, immediate ‘spiritual sense’ (contra Wesley).

(5) For Edwards, the route to assurance lies through the evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in the believer’s life. He therefore called for the same rigorous self-examination as the Puritans.
a. Furthermore, “where we would expect from Bebbington to find the earlier, possibly more confident theology fuelling evangelical activism, we find that Edwards’s activism [namely his mission work among the Indians in Stockbridge] followed his attack on the idea of a direct witness.”[6]

(6) John Newton also does not fit Bebbington’s description, as he held, for example, that assurance was rare and difficult to obtain.

(7) Finally, leaving aside assurance, Williams disputes Bebbington’s claim that Evangelicalism was characterised by a new activism. “The dating of Evangelicalism to the 1730s will only work if we say that preaching, pastoring, evangelism and social concern do not count as examples of Evangelical activism”[7], for all those activities were practised by both the Reformers and the Puritans. Only in the case of foreign missions could such a case possibly be made, but then ‘activism’ would have by far too narrow a definition.

On the basis of these arguments, Williams disputes Bebbington’s dating of the origins of evangelicalism and seeks to reopen for consideration “the case for the Reformation and Puritanism being authentically Evangelical movements.”[8]

Williams concludes by suggesting that one implication of renewing the stress on the continuity of Evangelicalism with the Reformation and the Puritans rather than its (supposed) newness is to do with the doctrine of election. On the view that evangelicalism originated in the early 18th century, both Edwards and Wesley are seen as foundational figures, and hence the divide between Arminian and Reformed theology is present from the beginning. On the other hand, tracing evangelicalism’s roots back through the Puritans to the Reformers is to show that the Reformed doctrine of election is original, and the Arminian version an aberration. “With such an historical perspective, Reformed theology becomes the authentic Evangelical mainstream of three centuries, and the historical case for the foundational status of Arminianism is undermined.”[9]

This is post is quite long enough, so my own comments will wait until the next post.

[1] Williams, Garry (2002) "Was Evangelicalism Created by the Enlightenment?", Tyndale Bulletin 53, 2, 283-312
[2] Bebbington, David (1992) Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (Grand Rapids: Baker), 2-3, quoted in Carson, D.A. (1996) The Gagging of God (Leicester: Apollos), 449
[3] “This is not to deny that assurance was more widely experienced among Wesleyans, but it is to counter Bebbington’s argument that the Methodists were freed for activism by leaving the self-examination of the Puritans behind them.” Williams p.291
[4] Williams p.293
[5] Williams p.298
[6] Williams p.306, emphasis added
[7] Williams p.311
[8] Williams p.311
[9] Williams p.312