Monday, December 27, 2010

The Eclipse of the Pulpit

The classic Nonconformist conception of the ministry has been to view it first and foremost as a preaching office. In distinction from the Laudian conception of the minister as a priest, the Independents, Presbyterians and Baptists regarded the minister's role as primarily prophetic, not in the sense of receiving new revelation from God, but in the sense of declaring the Word of God to the people. The minister was regarded as God's herald, declaring the Word of the Lord. Hence the form of the traditional English Nonconformist service, dominated by a sermon that typically takes up half the time of the service, more or less. It was a man's power in the pulpit, his ability to faithfully handle the Word of God, that determined his popularity, and the presses were occupied printing volumes of sermons. Thus Spurgeon was "The Prince of Preachers", and Joseph Parker was called "The Immortal Thor of Pulpitdom." The central feature in any Nonconformist chapel was a pulpit, whether a simple wooden box, or the vast marble construction of Parker's City Temple. The pulpit might be any sort of shape, but it was central, and it dominated. From that throne, the Word of God went forth. Typically the Communion Table was central too, below the pulpit, but it was the sermon, not the Sacrament, that was the centre of the service. Indeed, some of our Nonconformist brethren erred in practically neglecting the Sacrament. Of their emphasis on preaching we might say, "This ought ye to have done and not left the other undone."

One result of this emphasis on preaching was that the English Nonconformists had some of the most knowledgable congregations in the world, where cooks and cleaning-ladies could hold conversation on theology. It drove a publishing industry that ensured that millions of copies of sermons were sold at a penny a time in bookstalls and news-stands.

But the pulpit has been eclipsed. The illustration is of a battered and vandalised pulpit salvaged from a derelict chapel, but it illustrates a sad fact that in Nonconformity today the preaching of the Word is devalued. When a preacher takes his cues from the latest blockbuster movie, or 'felt needs', he is not preaching the Word of God. When the emphasis is placed on spectacle, theatre and dance, music and supposed manifestations of the Spirit, again, the Word is neglected. And ironically, whereas in non-evangelical Nonconformity what happened was that the Lord's Table replaced the pulpit as the architectural centre of the Church, the tendency among modern evangelicals is to move both out of the way and replace them with a stage, a performance space!

The imperative given to Timothy was "Preach the Word," and it is still the imperative for the minister today. Word and Sacrament ministry is what we need, not attempts to draw people in with spectacle. The crisis in Nonconformity is one of confidence in the Word of God, leading to a loss of the note of authority in preaching. Restore the pulpit, and let it enthrone, not the pastor, but the Word of God which endures for ever.

Monday, December 20, 2010

'Mere Signs'?

Our Lutheran brethren often complain that we Calvinists view the Sacraments as "mere signs". Now, I grant that there are Calvinists who are actually Zwinglians in their view of the sacraments, and see them as only memorials. But this is not the Calvinistic doctrine. The Westminster Confession describes the sacraments as "Holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace," and adds that "there is in every sacrament a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified."

This is the way it is with signs. The illustration is a road sign warning drivers that there may be children playing in the area. As it is, on a pole beside the road, the sign is not a 'mere sign', but conveys information about a possible danger. Take the sign, old and attractive as it is, and put it in a transport museum, and you do have a mere sign - it has been taken out of its proper context and no longer signifies anything. Take an example where the sign and the thing signified are always together, the speed limit. If a man is driving along a road and sees a round sign with a red border and the number 30 in the middle, he may say "it is just a sign", but if he drives fastyer that 30mph, he has broken the law, and if there's a speed camera in the area, he is going to find out that was no mere sign! So a sign, if it is actually in use, is never a mere sign, but a sign of a present reality.
So it is with the sacraments. In the Lord's Supper God is speaking to us, and conveying Christ's blessings to believing hearts. Therefore we sing with Mr. Spurgeon, "Amidst us our Beloved stands." The elements are not memorials of an absent Christ, but signs of a present Christ, known by faith. In baptism, God speaks to the one baptised assuring that person of his interest in Christ - again, to faith. Faith receives the blessings of the sacraments, and unbelief does not.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Words Mean Things

One of my pet peeves is that sometimes even Reformed Christians can be careless in their use of words. I am told that I was a late developer in learning to read - but I hope I have made up for it since (my personal library contains over 3000 volumes, and that's just serious books). Part of learning to read any language is acquring vocabulary, but then vocabulary has to be used correctly - it is a common type of joke to present a person using real words, but in the wrong way. This is trickier than it first seems, because words may have a technical meaning that is not immediately apparent to the reader encountering them for the first time. The English word 'Expire' is derived from a Latin word meaning simply to breathe out, but in fact it has the restricted English meaning of to breathe one's last, and therefore to die!

When it comes to technical vocabulary, things get even worse. Sometimes this is because the vocabulary is inconsistently used, with some making it more technical than others. In other cases it is because vocabulary is archaic, and words change their meaning. This is often encountered when people read the King James Bible as if its word meanings were basically the same as those of today - which of course they are not.

Theology has its own technical language, and that includes the names of heresies. Clearly it is of the utmost importance that we do not fling accusations of heresy around with gay abandon and nary a thought for the consequences. A particular peeve of mine is the use of the word 'Gnostic' as an insult. Calvinists are told "Oh, you're gnostics." This post was sparked off by a chap on Facebook describing the Puritans as "Gnostic." But what is a Gnostic?

Gnosticism refers to a specific group of heretics in the early Christian centuries. Like 'Anabaptist', it was a title applied to these groups from outside, and so it is of necessity a little broad. Nevertheless we can define the Gnostic heresy.

Gnostics were dualists, holding matter and spirit to be opposed one to another. Matter is evil, spirit is good, and salvation is understood as being set free from the realm of matter. This salvation was attainable through the understanding of secret knowledge (Gnosis in Greek). This, in a nutshell, is the Gnostic heresy. No-one who does not hold these ideas should be described as a Gnostic, just as no-one who does not hold Jesus Christ to be a created being can be called an Arian. Words mean things, and should not be thrown about lightly.

It is also inclumbent upon us monergists to use language appropriately. Pelagianism teaches that all men are not dead in sin, that we are all born as Adam, morally at least, and that man can save himself. If a man teaches that the grace of God is necessary for salvation, he's not a Pelagian. Now, if he teaches that the grace of God is necessary but not sufficient for salvation, he may be a Semi-Pelagian, but that's a different kettle of fish.

Words mean things, and we must be careful how we use them - 'heretic' is another good example. Especially these words, negative labels, must not be used lightly and without thought. Heresy is a serious business, and the accusation must not be made without due care and attention. Words mean things, remember that!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Do Not Be Overcome by Evil...

This morning I was shocked to read on the front of the local paper about an arson attack on the City Central Mosque in Hanley, Stoke on Trent. Now, I am a Confessional Reformed minister. I had a long talk on Wednesday with a local Muslim who was determined to convert me to Islam, and I am quite convinced forst of all that he was wrong, and secondly that Islam is a false religion, and Muhammed a false prophet. I am not a liberal or an inclusivist. But of course, I unequivocally condemn this act of vandalism, and I am very glad that the mosque was not badly damaged. Paul says in Romans 12:21, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." That is to say, when Christians are attacked and persecuted, we are not to take up arms against our persecutors, but to do good to them, to pray for those who persecute us, and do good to those who do us harm. This is a command to us. What Muslims need is the Gospel, not to be forced out of our cities. Of course, I have no delusions that the youths responsible for this outrage thought they were doing it in the name of Christianity. No, they were of the same ilk as those who have vandalised and violated the little Presbyterian Chapel at Saltney Ferry, near Chester, and those who scrawled graffiti on our chapel wall. They were yobs, nothing more.

But they point us to an important fact, that violence is never finally the answer. "All who take up the sword will die by the sword," Jesus said. This is true, violence begets violence. War, I would add, as the ultimate expression of violence, is always an evil. It is just that sometimes it is the lesser of two evils, as it was with Hitler in 1939. As Christians, we are forbidden to fight. As citizens of earthly kingdoms we may, but always remembering that war can never bring in the kingdom of God.

I unequivocally condemn the attack on the City Central Mosque. All Christians should join with me in doing so as well.