On the Difference between the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

The difference between seventeenth-century Puritan theology and that in the eighteenth century is well summed up by the following remark made by the Calvinistic Baptist David Kinghorn to his son, the famous Joseph Kinghorn: “I think if [Stephen] Charnock were abridged by a skilful hand, it would be a valuable work.”[1]

The seventeenth-century passion for big systematic tomes was simply not shared by the eighteenth-century men, even when the two different generations shared a similar commitment to Reformed orthodoxy.

[1] Letter to Joseph Kinghorn, December 18, 1790 [in Martin Hood Wilkin, Joseph Kinghorn, of Norwich: A Memoir [1855 ed.; repr. in The Life and Works of Joseph Kinghorn (Springfield, Missouri: Particular Baptist Press, 1995), I, 182].

Nine Top Biographies

A friend asked me about a list of top ten biographies that I would recommend. I came up with the following nine--I have always preferred odd numbers to even. It is quickly done and does not have the academic bibliographical stuff, but I trust the books I am referring to are clear. These are ones that have had a profound impact on my life. There are others I know that should be here but that would lengthen it maybe to the top seventeen! These are in no particular order.

1. Iain Murray, DM Lloyd-Jones (2 vols.)

2. Faith Cook, Grimshaw of Haworth

3. Courtney Anderson, To the Golden Shore (Adoniram Judson)

4. Timothy George, Faithful Witness (W Carey)

5. Andrew Fuller, Memoirs of Samuel Pearce

6. A Dallimore, George Whitefield (2 vols.)

7. Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo

8. George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards

9. Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards

The Past & Understanding Islam

Understanding Islam is imperative. Such knowledge is vital for stability in the Middle East and, with the spread of jihadist terrorism, it is now essential for the larger sphere of global peace. More importantly, such knowledge is vital for the great task that the Church has in our generation, namely, the planting of gospel churches among Muslim peoples. And as with other spheres of human insight and understanding, such knowledge must come from first-hand contact. Far too much so-called knowledge in the West about the Muslim world is sketchy at best and utterly untrustworthy at worst. Western Evangelical Christianity, confident that it is not influenced by the secular press, has become an unwitting perpetrator of far too many myths about the Muslims. Westerners, even Evangelicals, tend to adore the present and future, and look with disdain on the past. But such an attitude is fatal in any work seeking to be fruitful among Muslims, where the contours of the past are constantly being recalled. And so to understand Islam we must remember the past, and especially our past encounters with Islam.

Clement of Alexandria and the Term “Father”

The use of the term “father” for Christian mentors is quite ancient. Here is a quote from Clement of Alexandria that indicates this: “Words are the progeny of the soul. Hence we call those that instructed us fathers” (Stromateis 1.1.2-2.1).

Of course, Paul uses it thus in 1 Thessalonians 2:11. Our Lord emphasizes, though, that the term cannot be used in such a way that it compromises the fact that God the Father alone is our true Father. Any other father in Christ is relative compared to Him (Matthew 23:9).

The Puritans & Their Immersion in the Word

In a piece in The New York Times Magazine this past summer, Noah Feldman reflects on his upbringing in Orthodox Judaism. There were quite a number of things I found fascinating, but none more than this remark about his immersion in the Hebrew Bible: “Line by line we burrowed into the old texts in their original Hebrew and Aramaic. The poetry of the Prophets sang in our ears. After years of this, I found I could recite the better part of the Hebrew Bible from memory. Among other things, this meant that when I encountered the writings of the Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, I felt immediate kinship. They read those same texts again and again—often in Hebrew—searching for their own errand into the American wilderness.” [“Orthodox Paradox”, The New York Times Magazine (July 22, 2007), 43].

This is extraordinary not only for the remarks about the memorization of the Old Testament, but also for the kinship felt by Noah, an orthodox Jew, for the Puritans. It is good testimony to the latter’s immersion in the Word of God

The Spirit of Holiness

One does not have to read far in Romans—the most systematic of all of Paul’s letters—to encounter a reference to the Spirit’s sanctifying work. In Romans 1:4 Paul describes the Spirit with a phrase that is unique in the New Testament—he is the “Spirit of holiness.”[1] What exactly does the Apostle mean by describing the Spirit thus? Why does he not use the more common term “Holy Spirit”? For some writers the terms “Holy Spirit” and “Spirit of holiness” are simply synonymous and they would understand the term “Spirit of holiness” to mean something like “the Spirit whose character is holiness.” There is another way, though, to understand this phrase and that is to see it as a description of the Spirit’s work: he is the giver of holiness, the One who supplies holiness to all who call upon the name of Jesus.[2] Given the Old Testament form of the phrase “Spirit of holiness,” the latter interpretation is probably the better of the two. It highlights the fact that central among the activities of the Spirit is the sanctification of the people of God. In fact, for Paul as for the other New Testament authors, the Holy Spirit is indispensable for living a life that pleases God.[3] Another key text with regard to the Spirit’s sanctifying work is found in Romans 15:8-21. Here, the Apostle begins by indicating that one of the ultimate goals of Christ’s ministry was that Gentiles might come to glorify the God of Israel for being a God of mercy. The citation of four Old Testament texts, drawn from various parts of the Old Testament canon, supports this affirmation (Romans 15:8-12). Christ’s intentions with regard to the Gentiles is of central concern to the Apostle for he has been called by God to preach Christ among the Gentiles where the name of Jesus has never been heard (Romans 15:20), or, as he puts it, “to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God” (Romans 15:16). Using imagery drawn from the Temple worship of Israel to describe his ministry, Paul argues that Gentiles—who were formerly ritually impure and thus utterly unacceptable to God—have now become acceptable to God. In the immediate context of these verses, what has made them acceptable is their embrace of the gospel, which, in turn, was made possible by the Holy Spirit’s power (Romans 15:19). In Paul’s words, they have been “sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:16), that is, set apart to serve God and to fulfill his purposes, which, because of God’s holy character, inevitably involves leading lives of godliness.[4] It is on the basis of this sanctifying work of the Spirit that Paul, later in this chapter and in the one that follows, can call believers “saints” (Romans 15:25-26, 31; 16:1, 15).

Earlier in this letter, the sanctifying work of the Spirit had also been highlighted in Romans 8:1-4. Christ came into the world so that those who believe in him would be able to truly obey the essence of the Law (Romans 8:4). Central to Christ’s death is the liberation of men and women from the death-dealing bondage of sin. This obedience and freedom is made a reality in believers by the Spirit, who is none other than the “Spirit of life,” that is the Spirit of the living God, the source of all that is good. Thus, the liberating work of the Spirit is rooted in the saving work of Christ (Romans 8:2).[5]

Again in this chapter, Paul emphasizes that the Spirit’s indwelling presence in the life of the believer provides him or her with rich resources to fight sin: Romans 8:12-14. Although the believer has been radically delivered from sin’s tyranny, this does not mean—as so much of the teaching of the New Testament makes clear—that he or she now experientially enjoys perfect holiness. There is an ongoing battle with sin and thus the necessity of heeding the Apostle’s admonition to mortify sin (Romans 8:13).

This work of mortification—the “gradual annihilation of all the remainders of this cursed life of sin,” as the Puritan author John Owen (1616-1683) aptly puts it[6]—involves the believer’s complete involvement, though ultimately it is the Spirit’s work. Owen well sums up the Apostle’s thought in this regard when he states in his classic exposition of Romans 8:13, The Mortification of Sin in Believers (1656), that the Spirit

"doth not so work our mortification in us as not to keep it still an act of our obedience. The Holy Ghost works in us and upon us, as we are fit to be wrought in and upon; that is, so as to preserve our own liberty and free obedience. He works upon our understandings, wills, consciences, and affections, agreeably to their own natures; he works in us and with us, not against us or without us; so that his assistance is an encouragement as to the facilitating of the work, and no occasion of neglect as to the work itself.”[7]

In other words, this is a variation on one of the central ethical principles of the New Testament: be what you are. Because you are saints lead holy lives; live in holy conformity with the Spirit who indwells you. Since he is holy, be holy. Paul puts it this way at the close of another well-known passage that deals with the sanctifying work of the Spirit: “if we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25, ESV).

[1] As James D.G. Dunn notes, the term “Spirit of holiness” would almost certainly be understood by Paul and the first Christians as denoting the Holy Spirit” [Romans 1-8 (Word Biblical Commentary, vol.38A; Dallas: Word, 1988), 14-15. See also Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 43.

[2] C.E.B. Cranfield, Romans: A Shorter Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1985), 7; Gordon D. Fee, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 483.

[3] See Smith, “Pauline Studies: Pauline Pneumatology.”

[4] See the similar idea in 1 Corinthians 6:11. See also the comments of James D.G. Dunn, Romans 9-16 (Word Biblical Commentary, vol.38B; Dallas: Word, 1988), 860-861; Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, 626-627; David Peterson, Possessed by God. A New Testament Theology of Sanctification and Holiness (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1995), 58-59; Schreiner, Romans, 766-767.

[5] Cranfield, Romans, 174; Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, 519-538.

[6] A Discourse Concerning the Holy Spirit [The Works of John Owen (1850-1853 ed., 16 volumes; repr. London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965-1968), III, 545].

[7] Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers (Works, VI, 20). See also the comments of J. I. Packer, “ ‘Keswick’ and the Reformed Doctrine of Sanctification”, The Evangelical Quarterly, 27 (1955), 156.

Humility: One Avenue

In Romans 12:3 the Apostle defines one aspect of humility: knowing one’s gifts and limitations and acting accordingly. The constant temptation for God’s children is the one that came to Adam and Eve in the garden: we can be as God and know, and by implication do, all things. But we cannot be as God—we all have limitations, we all have a place to fill that no other can fill. One great task for all of us that call on the Lord Jesus is to determine where he would have us serve and do that to the best of our ability. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? If it were that simple, much of the turmoil in church life and in seminaries and parachurch organizations would be solved instantly, for in all these places we have people doing things they were not called to do. What they and we need to do is to take sober stock of our calling and our gifting and find where we should be. Such sober stock-taking involves looking at our gifts, passions, training, family context, and listening to what others say.

Oh to grow in humility!

Pursuing the Study of History with Chastity?

Here is a fascinating quote from the Puritan historian Patrick Collinson: “History fails to impress or inspire me. I refer you to a quotation from Lord Acton, used as a motto prefacing The Elizabethan Puritan Movement: ‘I think our studies ought to be all but purposeless. They want to be pursued with chastity, like mathematics.’ ”

It is taken from an interview on The Conventicle website. Fascinating that there were no comments on the interview or this particular statement. It surely cuts against the grain of much of my own thinking about history! To be sure, there must be a deadly seriousness with regard to accuracy--but to admit no inspiration from the past or purpose in studying it strikes me as ultimately self-defeating as an historian.