Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Venice: Pure City by Peter Ackroyd

Vintage, 2010, 498pp

Venice. I confess that I've spent longer getting acquainted with the city through Ackroyd's book than in the actual place. Strange that it was on the sun scorched beaches of the Algarve that I got to know more about Venice than when we visited the place.

We were only there for a few days as May ebbed away and June began to flow. One half of a Rome/Venice  split break to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary.

Sarah and I left having been entranced by the Serene City,  determined to drop by again sometime.

Revisiting Venice with Ackroyd as a guide has added retrospective depth and interest to our fleeting stay. 

If depth is the right word for a city intent on sliding down the surface of things.

Ackroyd peers through the mists of time to trace the myth-shrouded origins of Venice. Founded by people seeking refuge from Barbarian hordes, the city rose from the sea on the back of countless wooden piles, driven into the ocean bed.

Numerous islets were melded into one island city. Ancient rivers and streams became the arterial canals that made Venice throb with life.

The very existence of the city is an act of defiance against the forces of nature. The sea ever threatening to return it to the marshy bog from whence it came. The siren's call alerts Venetians to the danger of flood. In 1966, the year of my birth, a great tidal deluge saw the  waters rise by almost 2 metres, inundating many properties. Cue renewed fear and  foreboding over the city's future.

A sense of being under threat from the elements helped to unite the populace from the beginning, making the people willing subjects of an intrusive political system, headed by the doge. Only as a united body could they hold out against the sea. Against all comers.

Venice exists distinct from and above the sea. It must. Yet it could not exist apart from the sea. Its buildings are clad in limestone and marble, products both of the force of the sea. Venice is famous for its glassware, especially the island of Murano. Ackroyd describes glass as 'material sea'. The light captured on canvas by the great painters of Venice shimmers and glitters like light dancing on the waves of the sea.

From the start Venice was a trading city. Sea trade. Goods were shipped from East to West and back, laden with all manner of goods, exotic and ordinary. Vast fortunes were made. Venice became a hive of industry, building ships at unprecedented speed in the Arsenal.

The juxtaposition of East and West can be seen to best effect in Saint Mark's Basilica. A Roman Catholic Church replete with golden icons and Orthodox domes. The four horses that adorn the top of the entrance way were plundered from Constantinople at the time of the Fourth Crusade. 

Sliding down the surface of things. Venice was synonymous for its processions, carnivals and masked balls. Cassanova and all that. The politics of the city in its Republican heyday was as theactrical as any play or opera. Venice was a place to see and be seen. Today it's in danger of existing only to be gazed at and serve as a splendid backdrop for tourists' selfies.

Its empire was not the expression of some noble idea of bringing enlightened civilisation to other poor, benighted lands.Trade was key. Careful diplomacy and when necessary a striking show of arms were deployed to that end.

The chapters vividly describing Venice's voracious appetite for trade put me on mind of Revelation 17-18. There John the Divine ransacks the old prophets' denunciation of Babylon, Tyre and Sidon to depict Rome and through Rome, the world. Her rapacious trade, bloodthirsty violence and seductive harlotry made the city ripe for a fall. Venice too is here. She used to sell to the world, now she merely sells herself. The artists of Venice loved colour. Titian-like, John shows us 'a woman clothed in purple and scarlet, the great harlot who is seated on many waters.' Do the campanile bells ring at that description, I wonder?

Venice is the very epitome of a city. 'Pure City' as Ackroyd calls it. Cities are the pinnacle of human achievement. They show what is possible under what Calvinist theologians have called you 'common grace'. Venice had its finely tuned political system, innovative industries, magnificent architecture, high arts, and enriching trade. To this day it really is a dazzling place. But you can't help notice that there is something slightly impure about it. Murky, even. The city's focus is on itself, lost Narcissus-like in its own watery reflection. Appearence is all. This is what the Bible calls the 'world', which is strangely attractive and yet repellent. Ackroyd can't quite hide his moral distaste for a city he evidently loves so much.

In one of his letters, John warns his readers not to love the world, 'the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions'. 1 John 2:15-17. He could have been describing Venice. The same words could be used to describe all cities, towns and villages,  for they are each the sum of their fallen human parts. Few cities match Venice for stately grandeur, yet it floats precariously on a grimy bog.

You can get lost in Venice. Spirituality and literally. We did in the latter sense; trapsing around seemingly endless streets in search of Saint Mark's Square, but never seeming to get anywhere. It was comforting to read that  Ackroyd has had the same experience. Only on water is it possible to find your way around. Via speedy vaporetta.

Better still by taking a gondola ride. At night. The darkness punctuated by points of gentle light. The gondolier's friendly patter, 'This is the Bridge of Sighs...here is Marco Polo's house..I love my Venice.' The sound of water under the boat. The splashing of oar in canal. Then silence. At that moment Venice becomes the Serene City once more. You couldn't think of anything more romantic

But the moment of peace is only temporary. There is money to be made. We had to engage in negotiations before our ride. Not on the price. There is no negotiating on price. I didn't have enough Euros left. That wasn't a problem said our gondolier. He knew of a charge-free cash point on route and could pause to let me get some money out. He knew aright, and so we had our ride. Maybe he'd been 'had' by British tourists doing a runner before. I had no intention of doing so once we had finished the tour, but our perfectly affable gondolier seemed worried that we might. 'You pay me!' he anxiously cried out after us. There speaks Venice.

On my study wall hangs a fine print of Titian's portrait of John Calvin as an older man. At lest he looks old as depicted. Lined face, graying beard, thoughtful, melancholy eyes. Although I discovered after buying the picture that the image may not be that of the Genevan Reformer after all. Just some random old bloke. The words 'Giovanni Calvino' were added later, apparently. In Venice not even Calvin is all that he seems.

The city was happy to tolerate Protestants. Trade links were forged with Holland, Germany and England. Cromwell's ambassador hoped that Venice would come to embrace the Reformation. But it was not to be.

If Venice may be likened to a prostitute, somewhat incongruously the city was wholly devoted to worshipping the Virgin Mary. Images of her are everywhere; churches, bridges, public spaces, private homes. Although tetchily independent of the Pope in Rome, Venice was thoroughly Roman Catholic in its Marian piety. Ackroyd quotes the impressions of seventeenth century evangelical visitor to Venice, William Bedell, who complained of the 'multitude of idolatrous statues, pictures, reliques, in every corner'. Idols. What the Old Testament prophets denounced as 'whoring after other gods'.  Machiavelli commented that Italians were 'irreligious and corrupt', to which Ackroyd adds the rejoinder that Venetians were 'religious and yet corrupt'.

For all that, what is to compare with the city which sits in decaying splendor on many waters? Its maze-like streets,  weave through the city like corridors through time. Every building seems pregnant with history; from the old houses that flank the Grand Canal to the magnificent doge's palace. Saint Mark's piazza at night. Disclosing its beauty twice, once to the direct gaze of its visitors and again as reflected in the waters that gather darkly on its flagstones. While the music plays. If the stones of Venice echo the words, 'pay me' they also resound to the sound of of Vivaldi.

But this town is becoming like a ghost town. Tourists staying on the island way outnumber residents, many of whom have drifted  to the mainland. The population has dropped from 174,000 in 1951 to 55,000 today. If the trend continues there will be hardly any local people left on the island. Venice will cease to be a living city.  Little more than a glorified museum. Existing simply to be looked at. Sad, but maybe there's something quite fitting in that. Recent news reports speak of residents fighting back, however, putting up signs saying, "Tourists go away!" Understandable, no doubt. But like that's going to happen. Venetians of all people should know better than to try and hold back the tide.

Ackroyd is a fine guide to the city. He seems to have captured the very essence of the place. Even at its most solid in brick, glass and stone, Venice sits uneasy, foreboding; for its essence is that of the sea. Restless, fickle, devouring.

The author struggles to see any purpose in it all beyond the primal instinct to survive. He discerns no guiding hand of Providence determining the rise and fall of nations, only a bewildering coming together of innumerable causes. As Calvin would have told him, the Lord works through secondary causes to advance his will. But his ways are often a mystery to us and  admit no trite interpretation. The psalmist testified, 'Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen.' (Psalm 77:19).

Of one thing we can be sure. Contrary to its sometime vaunted claim, crumbling Venice is not the New Jerusalem. According to the Book of Revelation, that Pure City will not ascend from the sea, but descend from heaven, adorned as a bride for her husband. Then the sea will be no more. (Revelation 21:1-4). We read that the glory and honour of the nations will be brought to the City of God. (Revelation 21:26). Does that mean there is some hope yet for sea-lapped Venice?

The blurb on the back cover of Ackroyd's book suggests that reading it is a holiday in itself. Reading it while on holiday perhaps made it doubly so. But it's one thing to study Venice and quite another to see her. Before the sea is no more and the cites of this world sink to dust and dregs, we would like one day to return and gaze upon the folorn beauty of Venice.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Armação de Pêra

Right, then. Sarah and I are off to Armação de Pêra on the Algarve for a bit. Looking forward to chilling, swimming, exploring and reading, etc. Only means of communication: speaking loudly and gesticulating wildly at the natives. Usually works. I'll hit 50 while we're away. Had better check holiday insurance to make sure we're covered for a midlife crisis. Grateful that Sarah's shingles cleared up in time for us to go. 

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Growing Smaller Churches talks now online


The three addresses from this helpful Grace Baptist Partnership conference are now available to stream or download from our church website:

Nigel Hoad - ‘Evangelism in a smaller church
Barry King  - Leadership in a smaller church
Jim Sayers - ‘Mission and the smaller church

It was an encouraging time. Not only in terms of the talks, but also in having an opportunity to engage with others who are serving in smaller church situations. So, if you couldn't join us on the day, or fancy a recap you're welcome to have a listen: Growing Smaller Churches conference

Monday, August 08, 2016

How (Not) to Be Secular by James K. A. Smith

How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor,
by James K. A. Smith, Eerdmans, 2014, 148pp

It's commonplace to say that we live in a secular age. At least, 'we' in the West do. But what do we mean by 'secular' and how may Christians bear witness to their faith in the current existential environment? Well, Charles Taylor has written an influential book on just those things, A Secular Age. But it's a thumping big tome, weighing in at nigh on 800 pages. Can't be doing with that? Me neither. Slackers aren't we? Never mind, James K. A. Smith has done the job for us and produced a kind of 'bluffer's guide' to Taylor's work. It's more than that, but essentially he offers a neat summary of A Secular Age, with some insights of his own and a little critical engagement thrown in. Handy, eh?

Christians need to get to grips with all this secular stuff, as secularism is rapidly becoming the normative worldview in Western culture. As a result lack of belief in God is the natural default position for many/most. In the past it was the other way around and atheists rather than believers were the odd-bods. But that ain't the case just now. A recent survey showed that for the first time the number of people in the UK with 'no religion' (48%) has outstripped the number who regard themselves as Christians (44%) (see here). 

Now, according to Taylor's taxonomy 'secular' has three main meanings: Secular1 - as in this temporal, earthly realm in which some people pursue 'secular' vocations such as butcher, baker, candlestick maker, as opposed to religious ones like monk, priest, bishop. A bit medieval, that, I know. Secular2 which involved the disenchantment of the world in the face of Enlightenment-inspired empirical science and technological advancement. Out with faith, in with reason and all that. Religious belief pushed to the sidelines of life. Then there's Secular3, which is kind of where we are now. This is the world of exclusive humanism in which anything beyond the imminent frame is eclipsed. Human flourishing is sought at the this worldly level alone. In that context belief in God simply doesn't make sense. That kind of religious hokum is so last millennium. 

But that's not the end of the story. The secular self, safely buffered from transcendence within the imminent frame, finds itself strangely haunted by a sense that there must be something more to life than this. The writer Julian Barnes confessed, "I don't believe in God, but I miss Him." Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson sighed, "All my life I have sought something I cannot name." (I supplied that quote, not Smith - got it from Twitter). We also find that sort of sentiment in some of the more thoughtful examples of modern pop music,

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me

But I don't, I don't know what that will be
I'll get back to you someday soon you will see

What's my name, what's my station, oh, just tell me what I should do
(Helplessness Blues - Fleet Foxes)

Such 'cross-pressures' reveal a longing for transcendence on the part of the Secular3 soul. This can't be satisfied by what Taylor calls 'subtraction stories' that offer a reductionist account of our lived experience. Whether of the type offered by 'new atheists' like Richard Dawkins, or religious Fundamentalists. Neither is it simply a matter of marshaling the intellectual arguments of Christian apologetics. What we have to do is tell a story that makes sense of our cross-pressured existence. At least more sense than other 'takes' on reality, including the Secular3 one. 

Smith also references Radiohead somewhere, but I can't track it down just now. Decent taste in music, that man. I was interested to see this New York Times piece on Searching for Transcendence with Radiohead. More cross-pressures.  

Taylor's emphasis on speaking to the secular person's felt 'sense' of things as opposed to trying to reason them back to belief makes him something of a self-confessed Romantic; pitting sensibility against rationality. I'm all for a bit of Brahms and Bruckner, but Romanticism has its limits, as did the cold-eyed rationalism of the Enlightenment against which it reacted. As a Christianised apologetic strategy it has its flaws. Taylor's approach could easily be open to the postmodern riposte, 'I'm glad that you feel that way about God and the Christian faith, but that's not how it feels to me'. Reasoned argument on the cogency of Christian truth claims has its place in our witness, as well as an appeal to more experiential factors. 

At least judging from Smith's summary, Taylor is better at helping his readers get a feel for what it's like to live with the Secular3 sensibility than he is at showing the way out of it. Taylor is a Roman Catholic. His touchstone is Francis of Assisi rather than the biblical gospel. Smith explains his outlook,  "Tell me what you think of Saint Francis, Taylor suggests, and I'll tell you what your 'unthought' is." An 'unthought' is a "pretheoretical perspective that comes with a certain sensibility and outlook". (See p. 81). 

But, if anything, the 'unthought' perspective of cross-pressured Secular3 unbelief is best accounted for by Reformed presuppositional apologetics. Arguing along the lines of Romans 1, this approach holds that human beings cannot entirely eschew an inbuilt sense of God. We may try and retreat into an exclusively imminent zone, but cannot entirely suppress the knowledge of God. Barnes, Thompson, and Fleet Foxes testify to that. As old Augustine put it, 'You have made us for yourself and we can find no rest until we find our rest in you.' The Secular3 'take' on reality is consciously deficient because it cannot account for the fact that God has "placed eternity in their hearts" (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Not that belief in God removes all tensions, questions and challenges. Just like that. It was Ecclesiastes I cited. 

Yet Taylor sees the Reformation as part of the problem, rather than a gospel-retrieving movement that offers a solution. Started with Luther & Calvin denouncing the superstitions of popery; idolatry, invocation of the saints and what have you, and ended up with a disenchanted world that paved the way for the God-free zone of hardline secularism. I really don't know about that. At its best the Reformed theological vision smashed the secular/sacred divide and suffused the whole of life with divine glory. Pastors and ploughboys, ministers and mums were all servants of God. Sweeping a floor was as God honouring  an activity as preaching a sermon when carried out by a believer in the name of Jesus. The superstitions of the Old Religion's 'enchanted' life had to make way for a holistically sanctified one.

It seems that for Taylor the Reformed tradition lacks the deep spiritual sensibility needed to speak to our secular age. He sees it largely a shimmeringly cool system of theology. A world of excarnate ideas, loftily floating above the messiness of flesh and blood reality. But that is a 'subtraction story' if there ever was one. We also need to factor in Reformation spirituality, which is all about encountering the God of the Gospel as he draws near to us in our brokenness by his Word and through his Spirit. That takes place not in individualistic isolation, but in and through the life and worship of the church, spilling over into the whole of existence. The tendency towards excarnation might be better seen in the world-denying, flesh-mortifying  asceticism of Roman monasticism than the Reformation's call to whole life discipleship. 

In terms of Christian witness, the Reformation beckons the church back to the gospel of grace as disclosed in Holy Scripture. The Bible's Big Story of God/Creation/Fall/Redemption/Renewal makes sense of the glory and grime of reality. It explains our longing for transcendence and the failure to find it. Christians can testify to Secular3 men and women that inhabiting this Story offers a better 'take' on lived reality than attempting to withdraw into a wholly imminent realm, only to find that space too is haunted by a sense of God.

The gospel speaks to the ache and aspiration of the human heart more satisfyingly than any 'cross-pressured' secular perspective. We cannot escape from the transcendent, or find transcendent meaning within the imminent frame. Not even in a Radiohead concert. But in the person of Christ we encounter God in the flesh, the perfect union of transcendence and imminence. Through his redeeming work sin-broken people, dwelling in the imminent realm of time and space, can be reconciled to a transcendent and gloriously holy God. In other words, that 'something'  for which Hunter S. Thompson sought, but could not name is in fact someone; Jesus.

To sum up, this book is certainly worth a read. It will help Christians to understand the Secular3 mentality and encourage thought on how to engage secular-minded people with the gospel. But it's a bit like seeing a Doctor who correctly diagnoses your ailment, only to prescribe the wrong medicine. Ain't going to make you any better. In his conclusion Smith shows that the success of Taylor's project can be measured in so far as secular types come to see that all along they've been 'waiting for Saint Francis' (p. 139). What? Like that's going to help. 'Waiting for God in Christ' is the thing. It's the gospel that shows us how (not) to be secular. 

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

This was my 'holiday read' when Sarah and I went to Rome and Venice during the May-June half term break, but it's only now I've had the chance to jot down a few thoughts. 

If Robinson's earlier Gilead novels cover more or less the same timescale, Lila is a kind of prequel. Readers of Gilead and Home may have wondered just how elderly pastor John Ames came to marry the much younger Lila and have a child with her. Damaged and uncultivated, she doesn't exactly conform to the expected pattern of a small town pastor's wife.

Well, this is her story. It's a harrowing story at that. but one that is also touched by grace. Lila is pretty much a novelistic attempt at exploring Ezekiel 16. The chapter with its theme of the Lord's care for an abandoned child is a motif to which Robinson returns again and again as Lila puzzles over the meaning of this disconcerting passage. She was the neglected child, but in good old Ames she found the love that slowly healed her broken soul. Ezekiel's flashes of lightning and peals of thunder reverberate around the book. 

Typical of Robinson the pace is slow and meditative. Gradually the narrative unfolds that throws Lila and the Reverend together. Meanwhile the fragile, yet life-hardened young woman reflects on her troubled past. If you're after a pacey Grisham-style page-turner, then you'd better stick with Grisham. Robinson offers something more captivating and enlightening as Lila and Ames tentatively learn to love and trust each other. 

The novelist offers an insight into the human condition; broken to the point of despair by pain and sorrow, but capable by the grace of God of finding love and restored hope in place of bitterness. Her unflinching vision is more Book of Job than 'Smile, Jesus loves you'. 

Robinson is a self-confessed admirer of John Calvin. John Ames and his dear friend and fellow-minister Robert Boughton are often found discussing the finer points of the Reformer's theology. But for Robinson it's Calvin as reinterpreted by Karl Barth. Ames falters when Lila presses him on whether unrepentant sinners will be condemned to judgement. Lila's view of heaven towards the end of the book seems to edge in the direction of apokatastasis, going beyond what Calvin (and the Bible for that matter) would sanction. 

I wonder whether this will be the last we see of Robinson's Gilead? She can't seem to drag herself away from the place and its world of characters who, although flawed, damaged, and questioning, are not beyond the touch of grace. Just like us. 

Inspired by our previous holiday destinations I plan to pack Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar, by Tom Holland and Venice: Pure City, by Peter Ackroyd when (God willing) we head for the Algarve later this week. Also Iain Murray's latest biography, J. C. Ryle: Dare to Stand Alone. 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

On Reading John Owen

I guess I must have been in my early 20's when I bought the sixteen volume set of the Works of John Owen published by the Banner of Truth Trust. There they sit in all their splendour on the top shelf of a book case in my study. White and green with Banner's little 'George Whitefield' logo neatly printed at the bottom of each volume. Together they take up over two 2' worth of shelf space. 

Full of the flush of youthful enthusiasm I started with volumes 1 & 2. Some of his best stuff there, On the Person of Christ, Meditations and Discourses on the Person of Christ, On Communion with God, etc. These treatises are rich in theological depth and spiritual insight. Owen invites his readers to revel in the riches of Christ and draw them into fuller communion with the triune God. He shows himself to be biblically literate, steeped in the theological heritage of the church, and have the stamp of a man who knew what it was to draw near to God in Christ by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Great stuff. If you are in possession of  Owen's Works and are wondering where to begin, well, you can do little better than to begin at the beginning.

Then, if memory serves, I think I read some of his great works on the Christian life contained in Volumes 6 & 7, On the Mortification of Sin, On Temptation and On Spiritual Mindedness. Here we see Owen as a physician of souls, accurately diagnosing the sin-caused maladies of the life of faith and prescribing their cure in the gospel, "Set faith at work on Christ for the killing of thy sin. His blood is the great sovereign remedy for sin-sick souls. Live in this, and thou wilt die a conqueror; yea, thou wilt, through the good providence of God, live to see thy lust dead at thy feet." Owen is both deeply searching in exposing the 'exceeding sinfulness of sin' and deeply encouraging in directing his readers to Christ as the all-sufficient Saviour and Sanctifier of sinners. 

His Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Volume 10), introduced so helpfully by J. I. Packer in Banner's stand-alone edition helped convince me not only of the biblical validity of definite atonement, but also to see its glory. Here was no limiting of the atonement, but a wondrous expansion of its sufficiency and effectiveness for the redemption of a vast multitude of elect sinners. 

I must have got through that lot in the course of a few years, or so.

Then other authors grabbed my attention and I quite neglected Owen. The white and green tomes began to gather dust. Thick dust. Years when by before I picked a volume off the shelf. Then I was asked to give a paper on Puritan Attitudes Towards Rome at the 2010 Westminster Conference. Rather than trying to draw upon a wide range of Puritan attitudes towards Roman Catholicism, I thought it would be better to 'go deep' and explore the views of one representative figure against the background of their times and see what could be learned from them for our situation today. That was John Owen, necessitating that I study Volume 14, the divine's major anti-Catholic writings. 

Owen's stance was not that of a bitter, sectarian hot-head. He carefully scrutinised Roman doctrine in the light of Scripture. But also he endeavoured to out-Catholic the Roman Catholics by appealing to the church fathers in order to show that  distinctive Roman doctrines such as the universal authority of the pope were not in fact Catholic teachings, that is doctrines that Christians everywhere and at all times had believed. He argued that the Roman Catholic Church was divisive and schismatic in its attempt to foist its distinctive dogmas on all Christian churches. Contemporary Evangelicals have a lot to learn from Owen's exposure of the key differences between the evangelical faith of Scripture and the distinctive tenets of the Roman  Catholic Church.  

And now it's a matter of getting stuck into Volumes 13-16 for the Evangelical Library's Reading John Owen conference to mark the 400th anniversary of his birth in 1616. I won't steal my own thunder by saying too much about the contents, but I offer some thoughts on reading John Owen for those who might like to try, but feel intimidated by the sheer weight of material, or others who have made a stab at reading him, but have given up too quickly.

Knowing where to start: Volumes 1 & 2 and then 6 & 7. 

Keeping on: Owen was one of the great scholars of his day. His English prose is heavily Latinised in form and structure. Sentences can sometimes go on for line upon line. By the time you've reached the end, you may not be able to remember how he began. Get used to it. You can't skim though Owen like you would your daily paper, an 'easy reading' Christian book, or a blog. Reading Owen demands the cultivation of good intellectual habits. Concentrate. Think. Absorb. Persevere. 

Another virtue worth cultivating is patience. Owen can sometimes be very prolix, taking pages and pages to say something that could have been put more succinctly. He seemed to want to explore an issue from all angles before leaving it alone. But just when you find yourself thinking, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah. Just get on with it, man', he comes up with a dazzling spiritual insight that will blow you away. Owen will make you do some heavy digging before you strike gold. But it's 22 carat gold, not easily obtainable 'fools gold' that he has in store for you. 

One thing that will strike you on reading Owen is his intellectual honesty. He was always willing to follow the biblical evidence wherever it led, even if that meant changing his mind. As he did when shifting from Presbyterian to Independent views on reading John Cotton's The Keys of the Kingdom. A critic, Daniel Cawdrey charged him with inconsistency because his Presbyterian convictions as set out in an earlier work The Duty of  Pastors and People Distinguished had been modified in favour of Independency in the divine's later writings. Owen made no attempt at hiding his change of mind, or pretending consistency where there was none. With guileless honesty he admitted that he had only read Cotton with a view to 'confuting' his work, a classic statement of Independent polity. Owen confessed, "In the pursuit and management of this work, quite beside and contrary to my expectation...I was prevailed upon to receive that and those principles which I had set myself in an opposition unto. And, indeed this way of impartial examining all things by the word...is a course that I would admonish all to beware of who would avoid the danger of being made Independents." (Vol. 13, p. 223-224). A perhaps unexpected element that stands out in that quote is the old Puritan's penchant for dry wit. OK. He won't have you rolling around hysterically on your study floor, but he can raise a knowing smile. Occasionally. 

Above all, Owen is worth reading because while he ranges far and wide in his thinking, he always brings us back to the central truths of the gospel. That can be seen most clearly on Volumes 1 & 2, 6 & 7. But in his argument with Rome, it is the gospel that is at stake, His doctrine of the church is not some dry disquisition on the finer points of church order, but is framed in terms of a Discourse concerning Evangelical Love, Peace, and Unity (Vol. 15) and The True Nature of a Gospel Church (Vol. 16). Whether his subject is doctrinal, devotional, controversial, or practical, you can be sure that Owen will relate the matter in hand to what God has done by his Son and through his Spirit to secure the salvation and future glory of his people. 

Thomas Watson's style is more racy and engaging. Bunyan is more imaginative and direct. But with Owen what you get is Paul-like profundity. Reading him will make you cry out together with the apostle, 'O the depth!' (Romans 11:33). That's why you should get about reading John Owen. 

Friday, July 22, 2016

Blogging: An Apology


Yes, it's been a while, but there we are. Things aren't what they used to be between us back in the early days and we've kind of drifted apart, I suppose. Life and stuff, you know. It's just like...

Look at the dwindling number of posts over the years. 

It's not as if I've neglected you altogether. There's been the occasional post. Recycled articles, holiday snaps, wedding anniversary stuff, event publicity. But that's not real blogging. We both know that. 

I dunno. Been kind of busy, I guess. Rome and Venice with the Mrs, church work, governor responsibilities, dizzying round of concerts and things; Coldplay, From The Jam, The Tempest. Meetings. There's always the meetings. 

And I've got a volume and a half of John Owen to get through, absorb and turn into a paper by September. Read and speak on Vols 13-16 of Owen. Saying 'yes' seemed like a good idea at the time. Here's the low-down: on Reading John Owen

It just isn't happening for me right now. Bloggers' block. Like writers' block, but for wannabes.

'Are  you the Exiled Preacher' they ask. Maybe once I was. Who knows?

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Growing Smaller Churches

We're looking forward to hosting a Grace Baptist Partnership 'Growing Smaller Churches' Regional Day Conference on Thursday 14 July at Providence Baptist Chapel.

Programme for the day:

11.00-11.50  Introduction
                   Nigel Hoad - ‘Evangelism in a smaller church’
11.50-12.10  Break
12.10-1.00    Barry King  - ‘Leadership in a smaller church’
1.00-2.00      Lunch
2.00-2.50     Jim Sayers - ‘Mission and the smaller church’
2.50-3.10     Break
3.10-4.00     Q&A and Close

See here for more info and to book a place. 

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

25th Wedding Anniversary

It was on a sunny July day just like today that Sarah and I were married at Kensit Evangelical Church, Finchley. We met when I was a student at the London Theological Seminary. Sarah's from London and I'm from Wales. We've lived all of our married lives in the south west of England, Dorset and then Wiltshire. We've been blessed with two wonderful children, Jonathan and Rebecca, who are now university students. 

We're grateful to the Lord for all his goodness to us over the past 25 years.

Our people from Providence and Ebenezer churches kindly laid on a celebration lunch for us on Sunday, complete with speeches, cakes, gifts, and even a poem, which was very good of them. 

"Many waters cannot quench love,
    neither can floods drown it."
(Song of Solomon 8:7)