Thursday, May 14, 2009
I felt a bit guilty recently, since I realised that I have on several occasions criticised the book 'Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, A history from the 1730s to the 1980s', by D. W. Bebbington. I have done that without reading it...
I have in the past mentioned that I feel his definition of evangelicalism to be inadequate and misleading. Without going into it in too much detail, I am of the opinion that it is too sociological a definition. There are varied consequences of this, some of which permit his history to proceed; others give room for a form of evangelicalism I, for one, am not fully comfortable with.
Anyway, I felt a twinge of guilt at criticising a book I have never read (I know I know - I am sorry!). As an act of penitence I bought a lovely secondhand hardback copy yesterday from my Cambridge bookdealer.
Having read the work, I still disagree with his definition, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that after the opening chapter, the definition seems to fade from the book, and one gets a fascinating romp through evangelical history.
I learned a lot, especially from the sections on the late 1700s. The 1980s were, I think, rather thinly covered. Little real appreciation for the significance of Stott, Lloyd-Jones and Lucas was demonstrated. All were mentioned too cursorily; perhaps that was due to the proximity of time when Bebbington was writing.
Anyway, the point which intrigued me was Bebbington's highlighting of the doctrine of Assurance:
'The three symptoms of discontinuity in the Anglo-Saxon tradition of conservative Protestantism should not be seen in isolation from each other. They are bound together by an underlying factor, a shift in the received doctrine of assurance with all that it entailed.' p.42.
Now I find this very interesting.... For it is a doctrinal analysis of aspects of evangelicalism. This I would commend as a worthwhile exploration. However it is not the sort of analysis that sits well with his sociological definition of evangelicalism. In other words, I think that the crux of Bebbington's argument is a doctrinal critique. However that for which he is best known, and what he states upfront as his terms of debate, is sociological.
Assurance is indeed very important. We need to try and avoid several errors:
1. We should avoid suggesting that it is normal or good to lack assurnace.
2. We ought to resist basing assurance upon merely rational deductions.
3. We must discern the different situations people seeking assurnace are coming from - ie the uninformed new believer is in a different place to the long term believer who is sinning with a high hand.
As we go about all this, we should long for a doctrinal articulation, in the context of pastoral ministration, which gives due weight to the unchanging Word and ever living Spirit. It should go without saying, that a merely sociological understanding of assurance never gave anybody a peaceful night's sleep!
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Here is a sermon I preached recently on Mark 5 - the raising of Jairus' daughter and the healing of a woman.
Stepping out of the Crowd - Personal Faith
I enjoyed the study for, and delivery of this sermon. One of the main reasons for this was that I allowed myself to explore and develop the themes that I found interesting in the passage. In doing so, I was following advice I have heard from a well known preacher- 'Preach what you find interesting and the listener will probably find it interesting too.'
Recently, I defended that approach in a public class, and was rebuked with the reproach that, 'Such an attitude leads to cults.' I reflected on that comment for a month or two, and while it contains a grain of truth, I surmise that it is erroneous. The advice is sound, because it is not intended to be advice which is followed in isolation from all the other principles of Bible handling and exposition. On the contrary, the advice is a necessary acceptance of two truisms:
1. The alternative, to preach that which the preacher is not interested in nor drawn to, involves an inner disjunction that leads to hypocrisy (in extreme cases) or, more usually, a performance in which the preacher's heart is not in it.
2. It is constitutive of good preaching that the preacher make personal selection of focus, emphases and direction. This is simply an acceptance of the fact that God chooses to use human preachers and does not simply email his interpretation to congregations.
In the end, all preachers preach what they have found interesting. Following the advice to do so is simply a healthy recognition of what we must do. It is only when we realise what we are doing, that we can learn to do it better.
So - I hope the interpretation of the passage is sound, and I also am unashamed to say that it focuses on issues in Mark's Gospel that I have found interesting and which grip me. Other preachers may not focus on the crowd theme, neither might they take so much time to explore the significance of the Mosaic Cleanliness Laws. That is fine - we are all different and come at the passage with our own lived experiences.
I guess that has implications for the issue of people copying other people's sermon material... But I will leave you to ponder that for yourself!
Stepping out of the Crowd - Personal Faith
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
While giving a day of teaching on the Gospel and Law, last week, I enjoyed the question times.
One issue that was raised is, 'What did an Old Testament saint who goes to heaven believe?'
For what it is worth, I think that a fruitful approach to this often asked question, is to make some effort to distinguish the covenants.
As Paul tells us in Galatians, the covenant to Abraham is the gospel. John Calvin, following Augustine, points out that this proclamation of the gospel is in temporal shadows. It is, however, the very gospel by which all believers are saved.
My suggestion is that an Old Testament believer offered his or her sacrifices at the temple, in obedience to the Mosaic Covenant. However, they did not expect these to cleanse them from sin - they obeyed the Law as best they could and cast their hopes upon God's commitment to fulfill the Abrahamic Covenant. Such faith would be the faith of Abraham, as commended in Rom. 4.
The undergirding importance of the Abrahamic Covenant helps us understand how men such as David could see beyond and through the Mosaic sacrifices, in his rejection of physical sacrifices (Ps. 51).
This interpretation is commended by the fact that the OT Prophets appealed to the Abrahamic Covenant as their hope of salvation beyond the Mosaic Curse of Exile; Micah 7:20.
In this way, the unity of the OT and NT is maintained with due deference to the shape and development of the narrative. The belief of OT saints is recognisable as both genuine faith, and a form of such faith appropriate to their stage of salvation history.