Friday, January 30, 2009


A couple of weeks back, I preached at Pollard Evangelical Church, Kettering. My digital camera came along too, and these are the results:
Firstly, Kettering Parish Church. It is dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul. The chancel is in the Early Decorated Gothic of about 1300, while the rest of the building is in the Perpendicular style. I confess that I prefer the Perpendicular myself. The spire is not Medieval, it was put up in 1887 to replace a slightly shorter spire. The whole building was restored in the 19th century. It is occupied by a congregation of decidedly High Church principles. This is probably the only building in Kettering today that Dr. Gill would recognise from his childhood here. Of course, being a Baptist, he never went inside this building. Indeed, it was his schoolmaster's insistence that young John should come to the Parish Church that led his parents to take him out of school. Gill did not suffer from that! But of course, he was an uncommon genius.

Next up is the Marketplace. It was deserted at the time I took this photograph - it was early on a Lord's Day morning! On the left is the old Corn Exchange, now apparently a covered market, but also once a cinema. It's possible that Andrew Fuller may have seen this building, but I don't know the date. Ahead is the Royal Hotel, so named because Queen Victoria and Prince Albert stayed there in 1844. John Gill and Andrew Fuller would have known it as the White Hart Inn. The facade is of course from the latter part of the nineteenth century. Beyond the Royal Hotel can be glimpsed the round tower of an Art Deco cinema, now a bingo hall.

It is impossible for a Reformed Baptist to take a camera to Kettering and not photograph the handsome Italianate facade of Fuller Baptist Church. Of course, Andrew Fuller did not preach in this building, but in its predecessor, known as the Little Meeting. You can see that only the front of the building is faced in ashlar, the rest of it being a yellowy-grey brick that would have been bright yellow originally, and looks much better when it has had a slight coating of grime. I didn't go in, as I was on my way to Pollard Evangelical Church at the time, and Fuller was about to have its service.

And there's more to come!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Keeping our eyes firmly on the wrong place

In Saturday's Times there was an article by Rev. Nick Jowett of St. Andrew's Psalter Lane Anglican-Methodist Church, Sheffield, entitled We Must Keep Our Eye of the Pearl of Great Price(P.73). The subject, however, was not keeping our eyes on Jesus, but on the Ecumenical Movement.

This movement, which was set to create a single united denomination in the United Kingdom, has stalled, Jowett says candidly,
"The ecumenical movement is kept going mostly by people over 60 driven by nostalgia for the great days of the mid-20th century"
He deplores this, and perhaps he IS one of these people he speaks of. "The pearl is nothing less than ecumenical - that is, worldwide - unity." he tells us. But how is that 'unity' to be achieved? Well, Rev. Canon Jowett is also a theological liberal, "I am not the first person to think that, in spite of 2000 years, the Churches may only just be beginning to grow out of their dogmatic, aggressive adolescence," he says. Now I was brought up in the Church of England, on the Book of Common Prayer (affectionately known as the BCP), and in one of its prayers, the BCP leads the worshippers in praying that god may inspire the Universal Church with "The spirit of truth, unity and concord". Now THIS ecumenical spirit is what is worth having, for unity without truth and concord is no real unity at all. What the mixed denominations, including the great Ecumenical experiment, the URC, represent is really union without unity. I can speak from experience of two churches, of the same denomination, in the same town, that would have nothing to do with each other. One was extremely liberal, the other more traditional. So they sat in the same denomination, but would not acknowledge each other in fact.

On the other hand, if we have truth, then we are all in agreement together as to what the Bible teaches. Not in every little detail, but in the broad detail, as summed up in the Reformed confessions, for example (the consensus of the Westminster, Savoy and Second London Confessions, for example). Unless truth is the basis for union, error will be, and Christ is The Truth.

With agreement in the truth comes real unity, where believers are one as Christ is one with the Father, of one heart and one soul. Then comes Concord, agreement, not just intellectually, but an agreement that is full of love. The only true unity is this one of Truth and Concord. But how is it to be brought? The old BCP writers show their Christian spirit here, for it is only by The Spirit. Only the Holy Spirit can unite the Church, not councils and synods. Now what does the Holy Spirit do? He points us to Christ, not to Himself, He glorifies Christ. And it is Christ, not some organic denominational unity that is the Pearl of Great Price. The Ecumenical movement has failed because it has traded truth for unity, and unity in error is a price that the Churches of Christ cannot pay.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

'Practical' Preaching and a Lutheran Word

Let me begin this post by saying that i have nothing against practical preaching in its proper sense. My problem is with practical preaching falsely so-called. There is a style of preaching today that masquerades under the name of 'practical preaching' that consists in giving 'rules for living' and 'Biblical principles' to the exclusion of the good news of Christ crucified for sinners. This style of preaching produces series' on financial management and marriage guidance. Again, such topics have their place from the pulpit if the minister, practicing Lectio Continua (Latin for preaching through books of the Bible, a theological phrase that can be quite useful against the Lectio Divina crowd) comes across a passage that addresses them. He can thus set the passage in context, and the teaching on marriage (for example) in its Biblical context. But that is not what is happening. Instead extended topical sermon series' are being preached where little reference is made to the Bible's overarching themes, and the passages, often no more than a verse or two, are not set in their proper context. Why is this? I would argue it is because ministers have lost confidence in the Word of God, and the power of the Spirit in the Word, so instead they are preaching these 'practical' sermons because there is a suspicion that the simple Word is not enough.

My father bought me a copy of the Lutheran C.F.W. Walther 's The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel (St. Loius, Concordia, 1986, reprint of 1897 edition by W.H.T. Dau) for Christmas, and this classic work on the heart of Christian preaching (still in print) has some pungent words to say about this 'practical preaching' in days gone by.

"About one hundred twenty years ago Rationalism had become dominant in the so-called Protestant Church of Germany. It was at the time of the deepest ignominy and humiliation that the nation had ever passed through when defection from the Gospel had become complete. The shallowest minds, the most brainless men, without any considerable learning, were regarded as great lights and far ahead of their age. For theologians to achieve some renown, all that was necessary was sufficient boldness, or rather audacity, to declare the mysterious doctrines of Christianity errors of former dark ages, which had been without enlightenment, and to treat the doctrine of God, virtue, and immortality as the real kernel of the Christian religion. During this awful time matters finally came to such a pass that rationalistic preachers, to counteract the idea that they were superfluous in this world and to prove their usefulness, would treat from their pulpits subjects like these: Intelligent Agriculture; Profitableness of Potato-raising; Treeplanting a Necessity; Importance of Genuine Sanitation; etc. Rationalistic books of sermons in which subjects of this description are treated with grand pathos will show you that I am not slandering the rationalists of that age.
Some rationalists were ashamed of these typical products of the school of Rationalism. In 1772 a book was published which bore the title Of the Usefulness of the Ministry, Written for the Consolation of My Colleagues. The author was Joachim Spalding, a writer of some renown in his day. In his book he states that subjects like those that I mentioned are indeed not proper subjects for pulpit efforts. He submits his own opinion, to this effect: If sermons are to be useful, the preacher must never speak of the doctrines of faith first because they only serve to confuse people’s minds, but he must present exclusively practical ethical lessons. It is not surprising, then, that in those days many souls whose hearts were agitated by the question, What must I do to be saved? quit our devastated Church and either sought refuge with the sect of the Moravians or even turned to the spurious Church of Rome." Pp. 258-9

Is this not a picture of so much of the Evangelical pulpit today? If I had the means, I would make every minister read Walther. I am a Baptist, and a Calvinist, so I find some of what he has to say about Calvinism irritating because based on a false representation of it, but this book is worth its weight in gold. An electronic version may be found here.

Illustration: C.F.W. Walther

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Honorary Degrees and their merits.

Although the question of honourary degrees is not one that I am ever likely to have to deal with personally, it is one that has led to a great deal of disagreement. Should one use such a degree? How should they be viewed? Reading one of my Christmas presents, the Life of Philip Schaff, the Church historian, I came across an amusing story on honourary degrees:

"The degree of Doctor of Laws [LL.D.] was conferred upon [Dr. Schaff} at amherst college. The following conversation indicates no lack of appreciation of the honor. 'I attended the commencement exercises at Yales and the alumni dinner (June 29, 1876). General Sherman and Yung Wing were made LL.D.s. I told General Sherman that this meant the inauguration of the millennial reign of peace. I was also informed that I had been made LL.D., to-day, by Amherst College. I asked Dr. Woolsey, who sat beside me, what a man who knows nothing about laws was to do under such circumstances? He smiled and said I should not take it hard. He had been made LL.D. by Dartmouth and D.D. by Harvard University, and took them both complacently. Dartmouth knew nothing about law and Harvard nothing about theology." David Schaff: The Life of Philip Schaff (New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1897) Pp.295-6

Monday, January 12, 2009

'Jesus the Jew' on Channel 4

Last night at 7.00 Channel 4 television aired the first in their series 'Christianity: A History'. Entitled 'Jesus the Jew', it was presented by the novelist Howard Jacobson, who describes himself as a "devout Jew". While it was an interesting film, it was deeply flawed. First of all, it displayed one of the biggest weaknesses of modern documentary television in that it was written as a 'personal journey' by a personality, rather than being presented by an expert in the subject. As a result this idiosyncratic film told us more about Jacobson than it did about the subject. Facts that are common knowledge were presented as startling, while archaeology that confirmed the Biblical accounts was presented as amazing because it disproved certain unsubstantiated theories of the 'History-of-religions' school who hypothesised that a large Gentile presence in Galilee led Jesus to combine elements of Greek philosophy with Judaism to create Christianity.

In fact the scholarship of this programme was definitely on the cutting edge of the 19th century. Central to the story was the 'Jesus und Paulus' theory. As the Times reviewer, Paul Hoggart, put it:
"The Apostle Paul was the main culprit, he argues, in stripping Jewish traditions out of Jesus' teaching and laying the foundations for generations of virulent anti-semitism." (The Knowledge, Saturday 10th January, P. 41
The trouble is, in Jacobson's film Paul is not discussed in context. We hear nothing about Paul the Jew, the Rabbi from Tarsus who always made the synagogue his first port of call when he came to a town where there was one, who always went to the Jews first. Jacobson's film also skims over the question of Paul's conversion. Here was a man who was the bitter enemy of Christianity, yet became one of its leaders How? Paul was not a man believing what he wanted to believe, but rather what he did not want to believe! There was no discussion of the conversion of Paul, but it was skimmed over lightly. And in the end that was the problem with this film. Jacobson edited the evidence to fit the story that he wanted to tell. You know that a film's going to be bad when James Tabor appears on screen, with the title of his work of sensational pseudo-scholarship The Jesus Dynasty on screen. And then when he announced that Christians would find the fact that Jesus and his followers were not baptised as Christians would be shocking, you switch off and stop listening when Tabor comes on screen. Remember Tabor's part in the 'Jesus tomb' business a couple of years back? Exactly.

But the single fact that was most skimmed over was the resurrection. Now Christianity is quite inexplicable without the resurrection. A Jesus who taught for three years, then died and remained in the tomb could not have founded Christianity. Nor could his followers have done so. The empty tomb is the fact that lies at the centre of the Christian truth claim. If Christ is not raised, then we are of all men most to be pitied, because we are still in our sins. Yet Jacobson ignored all this. There was no attempt to explain why, if Christ did not rise from the dead, the disciples, portrayed as broken men after Jesus' arrest, were suddenly bold as lions just a month or so afterwards. Every one of the New Testament writers assumes the resurrection. If you are going to say that Christ did not rise from the dead, you must explain Christianity without that fact. It has never been done successfully.

Of course, one expects a film about Christianity by a devout Jew to be in the nature of a Jewish apologetic, and that is what this programme really was. The level of scholarship was slight, and I cannot see how this can be seen as a serious contribution to scholarship. Anti-semitism is a wicked thing, and the abuse of Jewish documents like the New Testament to support it is absurd as well as wicked. Marcion, who edited the New Testament to remove as much 'Jewishness' as possible was at least more consistent than those who try to use the Jewish Gospel of John to give some shadow of credence to their hatred of Jews. A dislike of the unlike is sadly part of our fallen humanity.

One final thought. This film certainly demonstrates that it is more and more the case in this country that for the media the Roman Catholic Church is Christianity. It certainly felt like all the 'Christian' scholars interviewed were from the Church of Rome.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Museum of Me

Reading the July number of Current Archaeology Magazine, I came across a piece on 'The Museum of Me'. The editor noted:
"One of the many reasons why the study of the past is essential to society's wellbeing is that it teaches humility and an awareness of one's own insignificance. That being a far too difficult and moralistic message for this egotistical age, the organisers of this years' Museums and Galleries Month have decided to ditch fuddy-duddy archaeological musums and encourage us all to set up our own virtual museum - the Museum of Me!
According to the publicity 'the Museum of Me will provide a snapshot of Britain today'; that being the case, why even bother with the outmoded concept of a 'museum' at all?"

How many modern Evangelicals would visit a museum of the Church? Very few, I suspect. One of my favourite places in England is Wesley's Chapel on the City Road. Not only is this historic building kept beautifully clean, but its basement houses a Museum of Methodism, and next door John Wesley's House is preserved as a museum. Across the road is Bunhill Fields burial ground, where John Bunyan, John Owen, John Gill, Thomas Goodwin, Joseph Hart and many other great Christians of the past lie 'in sure and certain hope of the resurrection'. Close by is the site of Whitefield's Tabernacle, where the great evangelist preached to thousands.

The Church is not a museum, it is a living thing. But too often today the evangelical Church has amnesia. I am not pleading for chapels to be preserved in such a way as to keep us from making buildings more user-friendly, for example taking some pews out and installing a ramp for those in wheelchairs. But too often what we do today is not that, it is that we try to re-invent the idea of Church. Theology, hymnody, ecclesiology, all of these are areas where the Evangelical Church has a rich heritage. But we are apparently determined to ignore it all for that ephemeral thing that is the present.

What would that 'Museum of Christianity' be like? Well, it OUGHT to be housed in an impressive Grecian building, in landscaped grounds. Galleries would range from the early Church, with precious manuscripts, through the period of the Church Fathers, with mosaics and liturgical objects, through the Middle Ages, the Reformation, Lutheran and Reformed, the post-Reformation period, the Puritans, the Eighteenhth century, and so on to the present. Bibles in every language, from every age, from illuminated folios to pocket editions; psalters and hymn-books, a library to awe the most devoted bibliophile; pulpits, personal objects of great leaders.

But what would the modern evangelical think of it? Well, the Emergent would take some parts and destroy the rest, a bit from here and a bit from there, no real respect for tradition. A non-denominational Evangelical would deplore the early galleries as too Roman Catholic by far, he would get rid of the Lutheran wing, seriously truncate the Reformed wing, and find no place for the Puritan wing at all. The Victorian Galleries would be there, but reduced in size, and the displays would betray an ignorance of the context of the objects. Then we would find Billy Graham came next, and then Rick Warren.

The Museum of Me. A terrible thought, and a window into the self-centered mind of modern-day man. Better to have a museum that expands my knowledge. Let the Museum of Me be demolished, so that I can see better the Museum of God.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Is This the Most 'Welcoming' Church in Britain?

A church's sign often tells you a lot about the church that meets in that building, whether it is conservative, trendy, liberal or just very strange. Liberal church signs are often extremely interesting. After all, if you don't believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, then what are you going to say? Well, one congregation in the very liberal United Reformed Church denomination wants you to know that they'll welcome you no matter what:

Yes, you read that sign correctly. This is not the product of the 'Church Sign Generator', it is a genuine photograph taken in the streets of a British city. Cardiff, to be exact. The congregation is the City United Reformed Church.

Of course you may find things less than welcoming if you come inside as a Bible-believing confessional Christian, but there you go, we all draw the line somewhere.