Monday 29 April 2013

Did the Puritans produce Systematic Theologies?

This was the question that a young theology student asked me recently. It set me thinking and the answer is a resounding yes. The British puritans became renowned across Europe for their development, par excellence, of experimental and devotional theology. Much of their works were intensely practical on a personal level as they struggled also to reform the Church of England and Wales especially, and to continue the work of reform in Ireland and Scotland. However, in answer to the specific question that this blog is directed, there are two works for which I would give an answer.

Thomas Watson [produced an outstanding systematic theology which today is published by the Banner of Truth under three separate titles. These are Thomas Watson's "Body of Divinity", "The Ten Commandments" and "The Lord's Prayer". These form a trilogy of expositions of the Westminster Shorter Catechism but it is a Systematic theology as well. They were borne from his catechetical classes for adults in his Sabbath Sunday School at Crosby Hall near Bishopsgate Street, London, I believe, while Stephen Charnock was joint pastor. While they form an exposition of the Westminster Catechism they also systematise Christian doctrine, obviously along the same lines as the Westminster Standards. Watson wrote that "to preach and not to catechise is to build without foundation" (p 5 "Body of Divinity") and by this he meant to adults and to children, not just to children as often happens today.

The Westminster Standards comprise the Confession of Faith with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms and these form a systematic theology also. The three documents are complimentary while adopting a similar structure founded broadly upon the Apostles' Creed the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer, though they deal with a range of other subjects as well. So in conclusion, for Christians committed to sound doctrtinal orthodoxy, I recommend the purchase, reading and study of the Westminster Standards, and the three books by Thomas Watson.

The teaching of Thomas Watson is summarised in my view by the words of Solomon in Ecclesiastes 12:9-10: Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.

Monday 22 April 2013

Puritan Reading Minus Ecclesiology = Selective Puritanism

The puritan movement had and still has the doctrine of the church at its very core. Sometimes over the years, I have encountered a certain interest in the puritans, and puritan writings but somehow it seemed disconnected from their passion for the doctrine of the church. The purity of the church's doctrine, and purity of worship is a biblical mandate. It is refreshing in the new book by Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones "A Puritan Theology" (Reformation Heritage Books, 2012) that as they systematise puritan thought, that include a whole sub-section to ecclesiology. The puritans then and the heirs of the puritans today rightly contend for a biblical church government, a regulative principle for worship and the use of sound reformed confessions to clarify what a church believes.

This is why the heading of this blog post is: Doctrine minus Ecclesiology = Selective Puritanism. I have met some people over the years who love reading the puritans but who are completely unaware that the doctrine of the church was the lifeblood of the puritan movement. It is entirely possible to read the puritans in devotional fashion, which is undoubtedly beneficial, but to miss one of their main priorities: Ecclesiology. This is no surprise though because the British puritan movement was essentially an exegetical movement and considering all the books of the Bible were written for the people of God, then the church has to be important. This is what Christ promised to build: 'And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” ' Matthew 16:17-19.

The church has to be organised, ordered, gathered and built up. The church is not a loose collection of stones. Some people mis-interpret Matthew 18:19 and seem to think that a casual meeting with other fellow believers represents the church but this is not the teaching of Holy Scripture. The church is to be governed by elders, appointed to worship on the Lord's Day, and committed to preaching and the hearing of sound doctrine. Listen also to Paul's introduction to three epistles to grasp the biblical emphasis on Christians being part of a local church.

"To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 1:7)".

"To the church of God that is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia (2 Cor. 1:1)".

"To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons (Phil. 1:1)".

For those reading this blog, but are not regularly worshipping in a church which preaches sound doctrine, then I urge you to become rooted in a church. Listen to the writer of Hebrews: "And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Heb. 10:24-25)".

Wednesday 10 April 2013

Purity + Simplicity = Puritanism

The New Testament pattern of worship was marked by simplicity, purity and reverence. This is the whole theme of the Book of Hebrews. It seems that church history, in my opinion, records constant attempts by man to move away from this apostolic pattern, followed by the work of the Holy Spirit to recover this worship pattern of simplicity—purity—reverence. This was what the puritans strove for, it was a biblical pattern and yet fallen man always finds simplicity hard to live with. Why? It is the result of sin.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians in his Second letter: "But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ" 2 Cor. 11:3, ESV. The NKJV translation illuminates this passage further: "But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ". Paul's concern was that the church may be deceived and led astray, as Eve was, from God's principle for sincerity, purity and simplicity. We are not to be unaware of Satan's schemes therefore as Paul also warned the Corinthians in his second letter to them, 2:11 "so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs".

The Fall of man precipitated by the serpent undermining the authority of God's command, followed by a direct contradiction of God's threat upon disobedience, as recorded in Genesis Chapter 3. The serpent said to Eve:

“Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” 3:1.

“You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 3:4-5.

Satan undermined the authority of God's command, the threat of disobedience, he inserted doubt and unbelief, and yet there were no arguments, it was subtle. His tactics were subtle, they were deceptive, they were cunning. Listen to how Eve responded in Genesis 3:6 "So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate".

A visual appeal to the forbidden fruit is an important aspect of the Fall for us to bear in mind: "The woman saw that the tree was good ... it was a delight to the eyes". Mankind ever since the Fall has easily been misled to a visual religion and this has also affected Christianity. The Puritans recovered a biblical vision of simplicity in public worship, public worship without gimmicks, without our visual senses being pandered to, a worship focussed on the invisible God. This is a vision to be contended for in every generation.

The Westminster Confession of Faith summarises these elements of worship which are: "The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith and reverence, singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ, are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God" 21:5.

Monday 1 April 2013

The Puritan Passion for Preaching

The British puritans were passionate about preaching. Why was this? It was because they believed that preaching is the primary instrument through which the church is fed, that public worship remains God-centred, and that the gospel is propagated in the world. "The Westminster Directory of Public Worship" contains a valuable section called "Of the Preaching of the Word". Its opening statement says: "Preaching of the word, being the power of God unto salvation, and one of the greatest and most excellent works belonging to the ministry of the gospel ... ". What a magnificent summary of preaching!

There are many helpful pointers for the man who is set apart for preaching in this chapter of the "Directory". There are seven points which are brought out for a man to perform his whole ministry:

1. Painfully, not doing the work of the Lord negligently.
2. Plainly, that the meanest [or simplest] may understand.
3. Faithfully, looking to the honour of Christ ... keeping nothing back.
4. Wisely, framing all his doctrines, exhortations, exhortations, and especially his reproofs, in such a manner as may be most likely to prevail.
5. Gravely, as is fitting for the word of God.
6. With loving affection.
7. As taught of God, and persuaded in his own heart.

Did you notice two things especially? The performance of ministry is primarily and especially the ministry of the preaching of the word, therefore our greatest efforts in our use of personal time and preparation should be directed in this area. Secondly, in point 5, preaching must be conducted gravely. Hebrews 12:28 teaches: "Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe". This idea really goes against the "mood of the age" and there can be a danger that preaching in our day can seek acceptability by being like the world around us.

So much conversation today can focus on communication skills, being relevant, with lots of "ice breakers" and 'humour". This idea would be abhorrent to the apostles and the puritans. Colossians 4:6 teaches all Christians "Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person". How much more should the language of the preacher, in the pulpit, be filled with reverence, gravitas and sober speech.