Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Very Disappointing

What is? This is. Now, I am just a pastor in a small Church in a small city in the Midlands. They call it 'The Church next to Tesco', and Tesco is due to move this year. But then, perhaps I'm representing all small-church pastors, especially those with a small mosque round the corner, where the second largest religious group (though by quite some way) is Islam (3.2% at the last census).

As Islam becomes more visible in the UK, and minarets start to join the spires and church towers in our cities, pastors and other Christians look around for books and resources to help us to understand this newcomer religion (the oldest mosque in Britain is only about 100 years old) in our land. The tragic thing is that some people will do what I did a few years ago, and buy Unveiling Islam by the Caner brothers on the basis that these two men are former devout Muslims. The trouble is, they're not! Ergun has pretended to speak Arabic, but has in fact been speaking gibberish. They pretended to be experts in Islam, in fact they are not. The use of references to 'Hadith such-and-such' should prove that - as I now know, there are no fewer than 6 authoritative Hadith collections, all different!

The facts are known now. But Ergun Caner is, according to this article, quite unrepentant. To be honest, it saddens me. First of all, and most importantly, because Dr. Caner shows his own condition to be bad. He has not repented of bearing false witness, and therefore shows that he is in a morally precarious position. He needs our prayers. Secondly, it saddens me because it affects our witness to Muslims. They already believe a lot of nonsense about us (my fellow ministers and I in this city have to reply to the assertion that we are paid by the government!), the last thing we need is Ergun Caner making things up about them!

This man is not an expert on Islam, he pretends to be. Avoid him, and tell your Muslim neighbours that he does not speak for you - he certainly does not speak for me!
[Additional note: I am reading right now the Autobiography of R.F. Horton, a noted Congregational pastor in London about 100 years ago. In it he refers to a difficult period he had when a cousin of his decided to become a Roman Catholic, and repeats, a statement this young man made when confronted with an example of deceit by a man who was in the process of becoming an RC. The cousin said, "But you may deceive in the interest of Religion." Now, I hope that today no Roman Catholics would agree with that statement. "Love hopeth all things". In 1917 Horton could count on all Protestants to agree with him. But by approving Ergun Caner, many Evangelicals have practically affirmed the sentiment of Horton's cousin. This is why I have been one with Dr. White from the beginning on this controversy, unless I condemn unequivocally the lies of Dr, Caner, I cannot hold up my head as an Evangelical. Those men like Norman Geisler who continue to give Caner a platform and credibility are bringing disgrace upon Evangelicalism. Had I been a Roman Catholic in the room with Horton and his cousin, I would have hung my head in shame at the statement. Now I say this - you may not deceive in the interest of religion. And if any man does so, let him beware of falling into the condemnation of the father of lies.]
Illustration: The former Bedford Chapel in Shelton, now a mosque

Saturday, September 25, 2010

On Reading Good Books

One does not have to read a lot of books on any subject, if one reads good books on the subject. It was the wisest of men who said, "Of the making of many books there is no end" (Eccles 12.12). It is simply impossible to read every book published on many subjects! So the answer is to read good books. To give an example. In her latest brick, Gail Riplinger has a (thoroughly unnecessary) section on the Knights Templar. When I criticised it, Riplinger's defender accused me of having made a special study of the Templar. The accusation is false - I had merely given a lecture on the Da Vinci Code, and read two books on the Knights Templar to do so, both popular books, not academic volumes. In contrast Riplinger's section on the Templar quotes more than a dozen works - all of them completely worthless! Why? Because they are books of fables and myths! (The reader is directed to Riplinger, Hazardous Materials [A.V. Publications, 2009] Pp. 843-851). They include the books underlying the Da Vinci Code, works by men described by leading British academic historian Prof. John Charmley as "Fabulists" (to come clean, he's my Dad, and it was a private conversation. The full quotation was "They're not historians, they're fabulists"). Therefore before reading a book one has to consider several points. First of all, origin. Who wrote it, and what else have they written? What qualifications do they have for writing it? If there is a brief description of the author on or in the book, what does it say? Then look at the bibliography, if there is one. Who are they citing? A large number of self-references and references to self-published works ought to set the alarm-bells ringing. Some authors are always worth reading, such as D.A. Carson and John Calvin.

Time is limited, so ask the question, is this the sort of book I'm looking for? If it's for leisure reading, the style is most important. Some academic writers have a terrible written style and should be avoided as leisure reading. So don't get Martin Gilbert's volumes on Churchill, get a smaller biography. Reading for serious information, make sure that the author has actually researched the book, and always be aware that where a passing reference is made to a person or event in a book not specifically dealing with that person or event, the author may well be in error. For example, John Pollock's description of Spurgeon in Moody Without Sankey is utterly inaccurate, but then it's not a biography of Spurgeon!

Particularly in terms of history and biography, there are volumes that are basically 'fluff', popular-level book relying on other popular level books. Avoid them like the plague they are. They will not help you at all. On the other hand, some classics ought to be read by everyone. In theology, where there is an early Cunningham Lectures volume on a work, it is usually worth reading ('Early' referring roughly to the preiod before 1900). This series produced Buchanan's standard work on Justification, Smeaton's on the Holy Spirit, and A.B. Bruce on The Humiliation of Christ. If you read the best, you will not have to worry so much about the rest.

Read more than one era. Old books are always worthwhile if they are good. But also modern writers are building on what has gone before. In terms of history it is most important to remember that historical research is always going on. Older books may be based on mistakes committed in the past that have now been corrected. And remember, a popular-level writer may well simply be repeating the mistakes of others!

And read well-written books. Reading good English will help you to write good English. Conversely, reading bad English will have a detrimental effect on your English style!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Book Review: Catholicism: East of Eden

Catholicism: East of Eden – Richard Bennett. Pp. 336. £ 8.50. Paperback. ISBN 9781848710832
Banner of Truth

This is one of those books that I always want to be more positive about than I find I can be. One has a great deal of sympathy for Richard Bennett. He was brought up a devout Roman Catholic, and decided to dedicate himself to missionary work. He was priest in the West Indies, and clearly a very devout, though mistaken man. He is a very intelligent man, and his decision to dedicate himself to missionary work was at the expense of a university career.

As a former Roman Catholic priest, Richard Bennett has first-hand experience of the Church of Rome, and learned Roman Catholic theology from Roman Catholics. He is therefore qualified to present an insider’s view of Rome. This is the great strength of the book. Bennett is able to see through the smoke-screen Rome has erected, and through the confusion of ecumenical statements that are all give on the Protestant side and all take on the Roman side. The book is strongest as a personal testimony with theological reflection. Richard Bennett’s expertise and personal experience are obvious in his treatment of Roman Catholic theology and practice.

There is a very perceptive section on ecumenicism, pointing out that in fact what we have in the Ecumenical movement is a unity that is based almost ccompletely on the use of equivocal language. The chapter 'The Mystic Plague' is quite helpful too, and related. Mystical experience, divorced from doctrine, is a fruitful basis for the union of people belonging to groups with fundamental disagreements.

The section on marriage deals with matters that I for one was unaware of until quite recently, when another Christian remarked that a member of his family was kept from becoming a Roman catholic when he was told that, because his marriage was not a Roman Catholic one, it was no marriage at all, and his children were all illegitimate. Today Rome rarely speaks like that - but it lost at least one person many decades ago! If there is one criticism it is that perhaps Bennett tries to pack everything into a relatively short book. I personally prefer those works that seek to point out the most important differences between Rome and the Reformation churches - but that is just a minor criticism.

On the other hand, this book has a very serious weakness. In writing about the history of the papacy it is obvious that Bennett is far outside of his area of expertise, and he relies almost entirely on 19th century popular works that have since been superseded. The trouble is particularly with his treatment of certain medieval groups which 19th century Protestant groups assumed were evangelical, but which more recent discoveries have shown were not. This mars what is otherwise a good book. I was surprised that the only 20th century work he cites from is from a Seventh-Day Adventist.

Why is this a problem? It is a problem because all of these works treat the Albigensians and Paulicians as orthodox theologically. Yet today, with access to more information about these groups than 19th century Protestant historians had, no serious historian takes such a view. N.R. Needham's 2000 Years of Christ's Power is by no means an academic work, and he distinguishes between the orthodox Waldesians (whom he describes as "Protestants before the Reformation") and the heretical, dualistic Albigensians and Paulicians (Vol. 2, Pp. 114-7,309-313). Given that some of the works cited by Bennett are somewhat obscure, it will not do to say on this point "he is merely a popularizer". No, he has made the mistake of relying on outdated scholarship. We have to be very careful here. Our Protestant forefathers in their conflict with Rome often made the mistake of assuming that those who opposed Rome in the Middle Ages were of necessity in more or less full agreement with them. While there were such groups - like the Waldensians, the Petrobrussians and the Hussites, there were also groups that were not at all orthodox. Readers are directed to Harold O.J. Brown's magisterial work Heresies (Hendrickson, 2003) and chapter 14. For an in-depth study of dualist religions, see Yuri Stoyanov, The Other God (Yale, 2000). An older but still authoritative study is Sir Steven Runciman, The Medieval Manichee (Cambridge, 1947). It is telling that most of the works cited by Bennett are not actually studies of the Albigensians, but either Wylie's History of Protestantism, or studies of the Waldensians. This is undoubtedly the reason why they have merely repeated others' mistakes. However, given that Brown and Needham are on the market, there is really no reason for any modern writer to make such errors. Wylie in particular focuses on the Reformation era, not the Middle Ages.

It seems to me that Bennett is attracted to the idea of an alternative 'Apostolic Succession' of churches reaching back to before the rise of the Papacy and preserving the true doctrine. While understanding the appeal of such ideas to a former Roman Catholic, I have to dissent from it. For one thing, the Reformation came from inside the Medieval Catholic Church, not outside.

Having said this, it must not be forgotten that there is much in this book that the reader will appreciate, all relating to Bennett's area of expertise - modern Roman Catholicism. In my opinion it would be much improved if the ‘historical’ sections which deal with pre-Reformation times were either removed or revised in the light of research carried out in the 20th century. Read it carefully, and pay particular attention to the statements about modern Rome. The Reformation was necessary because of false teaching, and that teaching has not been reformed in Rome.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

International Buy a Qur'an Day!

Dr. James White has suggested that instead of a 'Burn a Qur'an Day' on 11th September we ought to have a 'Buy a Qur'an Day' instead, Christians should be buying copies of the Qur'an, reading them and finding out what it actually says. We have to make sure that we don't behave like ignorant Fundamentalists who have no understanding at all.
Now, it just so happens that I had already decided to do so. That and three of the authoritative Hadith collections, namely Sahih al-Bukhari, Sahih Muslim and Sunan Ibn-i-Majah. The volumes arrived at my door today in two huge boxes, which rather amazed me. Then I found that Sahih Muslim and Sunan Ibn-i-Majah were both in small boxes inside the huge boxes. Despite the blurb on the internet, Sahih Muslim is in four volumes, not three! But Al-Bukhari, in nine volumes, came wrapped in the most amazing sackcloth and cardboard box, which was in turn wrapped in brown heavy-duty tape! The Islamic Book Service is certainly determined to make sure no harm comes to Al-Bukhari! But I persevered, and as the second picture shows, the books are now out of their boxes, and on my shelf, ready for serious study.
So go on, if you really want to engage with the Muslims, buy a Qur'an, read it, compare it with the Bible - and be amazed!
Now, if only those JWs would come back for a chat!
Update: They did! I pointed to John 1, Colossians 1 and 2, and then... well, then they had to go, leaving a JW Bible sudy book, and Proverbs 8. I in turn pointed out that Wisdom in Proverbs 8 is female!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Found at Mow Cop

Last week was the Book Festival at Mow Cop Methodist Chapel, held in support of the Primitive Methodist Museum at Englesea Brook. I went up and down the Cop more than once. These books illustrated here are the cream of the crop. Clockwise from top left we have:
1. C.T. Bateman: John Clifford. 1904. This biography of the General Baptist leader was written during his lifetime. Clifford was Spurgeon's more politically-involved counterpart. Clifford heard Spurgeon first in the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Wellingborough - where I have preached.

2. Joseph Ritson: The Romance of Nonconformity. 1910. This book, 100 years old this year, was the sequel to Ritson's Romance of Primitive Methodism, and gives an outline of the history of British Nonconformity. Ritson was a Primitive Methodist writer.

3. A.C. Pratt: Black Country Methodism. 1891. A rare volume that gives a sketch of the rise of Methodism in the Black Country. For non-British readers I should explain that this is the area around Wolverhampton, and was called the Black Country because it was a centre of coal-mining. The book also has a good ornamental binding.

4. George Sudlow: Sammy Brindley and His Friends. 1905. Sammy Brindley was known as the 'Staffordshire Billy Bray'. He lived at Audley, near Newcastle-Under-Lyme. This delightful little book includes a great deal of dialogue in North Staffordshire dialect, as well as the history of local Methodism.

5. Frederick Overend: History of the Ebenezer Baptist Church Bacup. 1912. The bicentenary history of a Lancashire Baptist Church. Sadly there will be no tercentenary, Ebenezer Bacup closed in 1962 and the buildings were pulled down. Overend traces the history of the church back to its origins in the 17th century.

6. Edward Carey Pike: English Nonconformity. 1896. This volume was published by the Bible Christian Methodists, and embodies a series of lectures tracing the history of Nonconformity to the 19th century. The final lecture deals with the controversy with the Oxford Movement. The lectures were originally given to a ministers' fraternal.