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The Forgotten Spurgeon: The Controversy of 1864

June 27, 2017 2 comments

From the recent donation of free Christian books, I have been reading Iain Murray’s classic The Forgotten Spurgeon, a second-edition paperback (reprint from 1994).  As I have learned from reading it, it is not so much a biography of Spurgeon as a look at Spurgeon’s preaching ministry, centered around three major controversies he was involved in: his early years, then “the controversy of 1864,” followed by the later down-grade controversy.  At the time of Murray’s book (second edition 1973), Spurgeon certainly was more “forgotten,” especially the Spurgeon revealed in his sermons, and the 40+ years since then have benefited from the republication of Spurgeon’s writings – plus now especially our Internet age access to the complete collection of his sermons, all available free in PDF format at Spurgeon Gems.

From my continued sequential reading through Spurgeon’s sermons over the last 8 years (now reading the 1867 volume), much of what Murray brings up is already familiar territory, and much of the work consists of direct quotations from Spurgeon’s many sermons.  What I especially appreciate is Murray’s own commentary, providing more of the historical context of what was going on in England, and London specifically, during these years—beyond what Spurgeon directly mentioned in his sermons;  I have now reached the part dealing with the second controversy.  Less than two years ago, I read the actual sermons noted here:  #573, “Baptismal Regeneration” from June of 1864, #577, “Let Us Go Forth” later that month; and #591, “Thus Says the Lord—Or, the Book of Common Prayer Weighed in the Balance of the Sanctuary” from September of that year.  Much of the controversy is explained in the sermons themselves – the inward creeping of Roman Catholicism and formalism, and the teaching of baptismal regeneration of infants, in the Anglican “Book of Common Prayer;” sections of it directly quoted by Spurgeon.  The notes at the end of these sermons, listing the sermon numbers and dates as being a part of a series, brought to my attention that these sermons were considered of special importance at the time.  The references to the Book of Common Prayer, I connected in my own understanding, to my previous reading from Puritan writers, recalling especially the story of John Bunyan and some of his objections to the “Book of Common Prayer.”  In reading again about it now, it also relates to my recent reading about the Scottish Covenanters of the 17th century (Sketches of the Covenanters, by J.C. McFeeters).

Iain Murray here contributes more of the historical background, which is quite interesting as a follow-up to the story of the Puritans and the Reformation in England.  The strife of the 17th century, between the Anglicans and the non-conformists, had been eradicated by the close of the 18th century.  A new controversy arose, beginning in 1833 (the year before Spurgeon was born) with the publication of tracts, ‘Tracts for the Times’, from Oxford; the initial excitement over the tracts died down by 1841.  The Tractarian view advocated apostolic succession from the times of the apostles, and appealed to the content in the Anglican Book of Prayer for its Anglo-Catholicism.  The weakness in the 19th century came from Evangelical Protestants who used the Book of Common Prayer understood in a non-Romanist way, and who even tried to argue for consistency between the two 16th century documents: The Anglican 39 Articles and the Book of Common Prayer.  As Murray notes:

Significantly, the debate over Tractarianism demonstrated that the wheel had come almost full circle since Puritan times.  In the 17th century the prelates and authorities in the Church had complained that the Puritan scruples over full conformity to the Book of Common Prayer were groundless, seeing there was nothing in the Book which supported the errors of Rome.  To this the Puritans replied by pointing out the very things which – for an altogether different purpose — the Tractarians pointed out in the mid-nineteenth century.  The Puritans claimed that the Prayer Book revealed the insufficiently Reformed character of the Church of England; it allowed nests of Popery to remain, and to these, they prophesied, ‘the rooks’ would one day return.  But the strange thing was that it was now evangelicals who asserted that there were no ‘nests’ in the Prayer Book, whereas dignitaries and bishops began to talk about the ‘Catholic’ character of the Book.  Either the Puritans or the 19th century evangelical churchmen were wrong.

Murray also here contributes quotes from Spurgeon’s contemporaries, including J.C. Ryle, and indicates his own disagreement with Spurgeon here (regarding the position of infant baptism) while noting the distinction between his own (covenantal) view of infant baptism and certain ideas of baptismal regeneration that are indeed found in the Prayer Book:  evidence indicates that “a number of those associated with the formulation of the 1552 Prayer Book did believe  that an efficacy accompanied infant baptism at the time of its administration and it is very hard to deny that this belief is taught in the Catechism.”  Murray further adds that the “warrant for the administration of baptism to children is not qualified in the Prayer Book in terms of the covenant promises of God to believing parents.”

The reading here is interesting, both in terms of Spurgeon’s part and the overall situation, this part of church history that he was a part of. After this section in “The Forgotten Spurgeon” comes the “Down-Grade Controversy,” which I have only read a little about.  I look forward to reading this as well, in reference to Spurgeon’s later years (sermons I will eventually get to in the Spurgeon sermon volumes).

Reformation History Reading: D’Aubigne’s Classic, Volume 1

June 19, 2017 Leave a comment

For the 2017 Challies Reading Challenge, and especially appropriate for this the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, I have read the first volume (out of five) of J.H. Merle D’Aubigne’s “History of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century.”  Available free in the public domain, Librivox recording has recently completed a full audio recording of the first volume; the complete work is also available in PDF format, 1137 pages plus footnotes.

The reading is straightforward and clear, and a good selection for audio listening.  Though of great length and detail, the material is interesting as it tells the story of the early years of the 16th century, especially with reference to Martin Luther and his life, but also including the major players in Luther’s life.  Chapters introduce and provide details concerning Melancthon and Erasmus, as well as lesser known figures such as Reuchlin, Spalatin, and Staupitz.  (Here the PDF version is helpful, for spelling so many German names.)  D’Aubigne’s narrative combines his own commentary on the important events, along with many personal letters of Luther and his friends, and interesting anecdotes, to provide a detailed picture of what was going on in early 16th century Germany.  The focus is mainly on Luther, but we also see the many influences on his life, the friends placed in his life at various points, and the rising support from the leaders, students and the common people of Germany.  The section on Tetzel, the itinerant indulgences merchant, provides rich details and humorous accounts, such as “the trick of a nobleman,” who obtained an indulgence for a future crime to be committed:

A Saxon nobleman, who had heard Tetzel at Leipsic, was much displeased by his falsehoods. Approaching the monk, he asked him if he had the power of pardoning sins that men have an intention of committing. “Most assuredly,” replied Tetzel, “I have received full powers from his holiness for that purpose.” — “Well, then,” answered the knight, “I am desirous of taking a slight revenge on one of my enemies, without endangering his life. I will give you ten crowns if you will give me a letter of indulgence that shall fully justify me.” Tetzel made some objections; they came however to an arrangement by the aid of thirty crowns. The monk quitted Leipsic shortly after. The nobleman and his attendants lay in wait for him in a wood between Juterbock and Treblin; they fell upon him, gave him a slight beating, and took away the well-stored indulgence-chest the inquisitor was carrying with him. Tetzel made a violent outcry, and carried his complaint before the courts. But the nobleman showed the letter which Tetzel had signed himself, and which exempted him beforehand from every penalty. Duke George, whom this action had at first exceedingly exasperated, no sooner read the document than he ordered the accused to be acquitted.

Volume 1 book 4 deals with the events shortly after October 31, 1517, through the friendly session at Heidelberg in the spring of 1518 and the beginning persecution in Augsburg that fall.  This section shows Luther’s desire to remain loyal to Roman Catholicism and the Pope –even writing a respectful letter to the Pope, thinking that the Pope would agree with him—yet, in the face of unexpected opposition, his courage and boldness.  The Roman Catholic leaders expected a simple case of a humble Augustine friar who would quickly recant, and soon became impatient, seeing an unexpected quality in Luther.

A sample from Luther’s letters, shortly after the theses were nailed to the church door in Wittenberg:

They require moderation in me, and they trample it under foot in the judgment they pass on me!……We can always see the mote in our brother’s eye, and we overlook the beam in our own……Truth will not gain more by my moderation, than it will lose by my rashness. I desire to know what errors you and your theologians have found in my theses? Who does not know that a man rarely puts forth any new idea without having some appearance of pride, and without being accused of exciting quarrels? If humility herself should undertake something new, her opponents would accuse her of pride! Why were Christ and all the martyrs put to death? Because they seemed to be proud contemners of the wisdom of the time, and because they advanced novelties, without having first humbly taken counsel of the oracles of the ancient opinions.” –late 1517. From Volume 1 Book 3 Chapter 6.

Volume 1 is a great beginning to this History of the Reformation.  Since Librivox has now completed volume 1, I hope that they will soon add volume 2 and beyond.  Either way, I plan to read Volume 2 by next year, possibly in next year’s reading challenge.

The Reformed Confessions and Evangelical Anti-Creedalism

March 15, 2017 4 comments

From my recent studies and conversations with others, I continue to notice and appreciate the amazing detail and depth in the Reformed confessions; these great statements of faith  encompass everything related to each doctrine, even our proper attitude towards the doctrines.  The anti-confession (really, a lazy and anti-intellectual) idea that people who know their confessions inside and out may just have a lot of head knowledge, and that we shouldn’t be so concerned about systematic theology – because it’s more important to have Christ in our hearts, and communion with Him – is misguided on several points.

First, we all have a creed.  The question is not whether to have a creed — but the content of that creed.  The earliest belief statements arose in response to heretics who said they believed the Bible, but who clearly did not have in mind the same definitions of basic orthodoxy.  The many statements of faith that have come down through church history contain excellent summaries of the Christian faith.  As S. Lewis Johnson well observed:

Now remember, everybody has a creed, and in fact the person who holds up the Bible and says, “I have no creed, I simply have the Bible,” well, that’s his creed; that’s precisely his creed. We all have a creed, but the Christian church has been characterized by some outstanding creeds. The Augsburg Confession of the Lutheran church is an outstanding Christian statement. The Westminster Confession of the Presbyterian churches is an outstanding statement. Other statements come to mind immediately such as the thirty-nine articles of the Anglican church, also an outstanding statement. The Heidelberg Catechism of the Reform churches is an outstanding statement. These are great Christian creeds, you should study them. You should know them. They are not creeds that were constructed by half a dozen fellows who met over the weekend in order to give us a statement, but most of those creeds were the product of the study, debate, discussion of outstanding leaders of the Christian church over, sometimes, lengthy periods of time. As you well know, some of those creeds are the product of years of study and labor by men who were very competent in the word of God.

Also, in response to the anti-intellectual idea that belittles serious study of God’s word, because it might lead to puffed-up head knowledge:  as Dan Phillips expressed (in his book on the Proverbs), our nature is such that anything can make us proud; he observed that he could just as easily become proud of nothing, of not knowing, as with having knowing.  As has also been observed by many: just because a particular doctrine (any doctrine, and including the study of systematic theology) has been abused or misused by others, is NOT an excuse for YOU to not study God’s word for yourself.  This view is actually a form of post-modernism/ deconstruction – here, as Dan Phillips describes it:

In God’s eyes, there simply is no greater arrogance than rejecting Yahweh’s viewpoint in favor of my own. It is grimly fascinating that some Christians abhor the believer who dares to think that he or she knows something from the Word. To such folks, claiming certainty on any given issue is the height of arrogance. They are certain that certainty is certainly bad. By contrast, it is the height of arrogance to have a word from God and refuse to trust it by incorporating it into our way of thinking and living.

Thirdly, I would suggest that it is the non-confessional Christian – rather than the one who understands and has studied the confession statements – who is more likely to have his or her doctrinal perspective out of balance.  I’ll expand on this in the next post, but to state it briefly here:  the confessions themselves include statements about how we are to view certain doctrines.  Reference the LBCF chapter 3 paragraph 7, for instance, as an answer to the all-too-common “cage stage Calvinism” among today’s non-confessional “Sovereign Grace” Calvinists.  A full reading and study of the LBCF (or any similar confessions) will address all the doctrines, not just one’s own “pet doctrine” to the neglect of other doctrines.  God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, and the distinction between justification and sanctification, are a few examples of this – where non-confessional Calvinists tend to go astray, emphasizing one doctrine and neglecting or simply not understanding the other.

More next time, with a look at specific doctrines and how they are explained in the 1689 Confession.

Carl Trueman on John Owen

November 30, 2015 2 comments

Following the topic of church history and the Puritans, and having enjoyed Carl Trueman’s Reformation History lectures, I have now listened (available on sermon audio here to a 5-part series (with two additional messages after these five) from Trueman, on John Owen.

Much of the content is actually about the Puritans generally, with some overlap of the Reformation series as to the overall historical setting, along with descriptions of Owen’s theology in particular. Of note, Reformed theology in Owen’s day was more complex, more developed than in the 16th century, in part due to the heresy confronted in the 17th century: Socinianism. Owen’s view of the atonement comes out in a more detailed response to Socinianism. While John Calvin, Samuel Rutherford and Twisse (the chairman of the Westminster Assembly) saw the atonement as not necessary–God COULD have provided redemption in another way, but He chose to do it that way—for Owen the atonement had to be done in that way, the blood sacrifice of the God-man, as necessary due to the character of God.

Among other interesting points: the Puritans, as authors of the Westminster Confession, did not hold to the idea of “proof-text scriptures.” The Westminster Confession document originally did not have scripture verses associated with the confession statements. They added these only at the request of Parliament. Still, their thinking was more the idea of, look at the scripture reference, and then refer to the 100+ commentaries that had ever been written on that text. As J.I. Packer also noted (in this series), here also from Trueman, the Puritan era was one of strong expository preaching, of very strong exposition of biblical texts.

The idea of the Covenant of Redemption (the agreement in eternity past, between the Father and the Son) first showed up, in Puritan writing, in 1638. Yet a criticism of that covenantal structure has been that the idea is “not very Trinitarian.” Here John Owen contributed and expanded the Trinitarian view of the Covenant of Redemption: the Spirit’s role also in this covenant. Trueman recommends reading this work, Owen’s Of Communion with God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, even before reading Owen’s other works such as “the Death of Death in the Death of Christ” or “Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers.”

Also generally recommended, especially for laypeople, are the Banner of Truth reprints, abridgements of John Owen’s works.  For people with more limited time (non-pastors, those busy working other jobs in the world), Trueman notes that the abridgements will at least give you Owen’s conclusions (without reading the many hundreds of pages of reasoning to how he got to those conclusions). As a beginner-level, Trueman suggests J.I. Packer’s “Knowing God,” which includes Packer’s quotes from Owen.

As with previous material from Trueman, this “John Owen conference” series provides good and helpful material, a good introduction to the overall Puritan authors and particularly the key features of John Owen and his writings.

Church History (iTunes U): Medieval Scholasticism

August 25, 2015 2 comments

Nearing the end of the RTS Church History series, the last several lectures provide interesting information about the middle and late medieval period, specifically related to Anselm, Aquinas, and the scholastic era. In this section comes consideration of the Christian faith and rationalism, an idea which began with Anselm (late 11th century). Another good basic point — which makes sense considering the variations within Protestant theology and even within overall “Covenant Theology” — is that Medieval Catholicism was not monolithic, with everyone believing and emphasizing the same doctrinal and philosophical ideas. General groups of this time included the mystics and scholastics, represented to varying degrees by several scholars including names I knew at least a little about – Anselm, and Bernard of Clairvaux – along with a few other lesser-known names.

The lectures on the scholastic period note three philosophical approaches to “universals” – ideas about reality and truth and what they are based in — developed especially in the late-Medieval era. As also described in this Wikipedia article, the three views of various Medieval scholastics:

  • Platonic realism: This world is a shadow of reality; universal ideas exist outside of this world, what is actually real; everything in our world is a “shadow” of what exists beyond our world.  (The rationalism /realism of Anselm.)
  • Nominalism takes the opposite view, of skepticism, that there are no “universals” but only what actually exists.  Names associated with this view include William of Ockham and Peter Abelard.
  • Conceptualism / Moderate or Aristotelian realism: a middle-ground position that recognizes universals, but grounds the existence of the universal in the object itself.

The lecture considers as an example the existence of two white stones, and what each of these views would say about it: 1) whiteness is a universal that exists outside of this world and seen in the two stones (platonic realism); 2) no significance whatsoever to the fact that the stones exist and are white (nominalism); and 3) there is such a thing as whiteness but that truth exists in the reality of the stones themselves, not outside. Also briefly noted, over time the nominalist view came to dominate medieval philosophy; and Martin Luther in his early education was taught the nominalist view (which he later rejected). Though all of this is rather abstract, going beyond the explicit teaching of scripture, Anderson observed that these views have implications for our theology, such that he more liberal view of nominalism was thought to be incompatible with the doctrine of the trinity, whereas the two conservative views (platonic realism and moderate realism) do not conflict with Trinitarian understanding.

The first view (Platonic realism) I recognize as basically a teaching of C.S. Lewis, as brought out in the two “Shadowlands” movies about his life, as well as in a scene from the “Chronicles of Narnia” series’ The Silver Chair. The Narnia setting involved characters who lived underground and had never seen the world above, and Lewis’ character Puddleglum philosophizing to the evil witch (who is trying to convince Puddleglum and two human children that her world is all that ever exists) about the reality of the sun, of which the underground world’s lamp is a “shadow” and “like” the sun. Interestingly enough, though the lecturer never mentioned C.S. Lewis in reference to this idea, he did mention the philosophical idea of a creature that only lived underground and had never seen anything of this world.  An overall observation at this point is that C.S. Lewis (who was not at all evangelical, with questionable theology at many points) was quite familiar with medieval theology and philosophy, to the point of including the pre-Anselm popular medieval “ransom” atonement theory (Christ’s death as a payment to Satan) in the plot of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” as well as referencing medieval scholastic philosophy about universals.

This church history series ends with a look at Aquinas for a conclusion to pre-Reformation church history. Again, I appreciate these seminary class series offered through iTunes U, as informative lessons that explore more in-depth the different topics such as church history and worldviews.

iTunes University: Early Church History, The Greek and Western Leaders

June 16, 2015 5 comments

I continue to appreciate the iTunes U seminary lecture series, for greater depth of material than what is offered even from the best online sermon series. RTS’ (Reformed Theological Seminary) course on “The Church and The World” was quite helpful; now I am listening to an early church history series: Christian History I (RSS Feed Here) the legacy version from 1994, which has somewhat different topics than the more recent one). After this one I may listen to at least some of the more recent course, as it covers other topics.

The legacy course features the theology of the early church leaders, with some interesting observations about the different groups and their understanding of theology and influences.  One point is clear: the church in the 2nd and 3rd centuries was still in its infancy, and its theology was expressed in simple terms and often with erroneous ideas.  Soteriology was often expressed in terms of reward for good deeds, and Christ was seen as subordinate to the Father (and not in the Reformed sense of “economic subordination” but ontological, the essence, nature, and attributes of God).

Here it is observed that the Greek apologists (Justin Martyr plus a few others) relied heavily on the gospel accounts, but nothing of the apostle Paul’s letters, which they may not have had access to.   Another factor was their background as Greek philosophers, pagan Greeks who only converted to Christianity as adults, and who highly valued Greek philosophy as what helped to bring people to Christianity.  They all had interest in knowledge, the “gnosis,” and at least some of the Greeks were influenced by gnostic and platonic ideas.  Origen is the well-known Greek theologian who took such ideas even further, with focus on the “deeper meaning” and “deeper knowledge” beyond the plain truth of a text, and non-orthodox, gnostic-influenced ideas concerning the atonement, as well as his universalist view–unbelievers go through a time period of purifying fire with some pain, and yet all people end up saved.

Another group more familiar to our evangelical way of thinking: the Western theologians.  “Western Christianity” and Medieval thought–interest in the truth itself and our relationship with God, rather than the Greek interest in knowledge and “deeper meaning”–began with Tertullian, in the late 2nd and early 3rd century: not in full form, but at least some features.  I first learned of Tertullian several years ago, in reference to the interesting martyr story of Perpetua and her friends in Carthage, Africa in 202 A.D.  Tertullian also is frequently mentioned in reference to the Montanist error, which he apparently embraced at least at some point in his life.  This series provides more details about Tertullian, who was the first of the early church fathers to write in Latin (rather than exclusively in Greek).  Tertullian was very anti-gnostic, and a strong personality, a type of Martin Luther in his day, described as a rebel: one who rebelled against his pagan parents, and later rebelled against moral laxity in the church, taking a hard line against those who “lapsed” in times of persecution.  Having been greatly immoral in his pre-Christian life, Tertullian (who became a Christian sometime between ages 30 and 40) as a believer held to a life of high moral standards, similar to the Puritans.  Tertullian advanced the early church understanding of the Trinity, as the first one to use the Latin term for the word Trinity.  He came closer (than previous early church leaders) to the full idea of the Trinity, yet still did not quite arrive at the now orthodox view, instead holding to some notion of Christ being subordinate to the Father, that somehow both were God and yet Christ not at the same level as the Father.

Upcoming lectures in this series look further at the Western theologians: more regarding Tertullian, as well as Irenaeus and Cyprian, with later lectures about various theological controversies, plus Augustine and Anselm.  I look forward to the upcoming lessons in this interesting series.

 

 

Refuting Errors About the Incarnation

June 3, 2015 1 comment

Continuing in the 1689 Exposition series, a few messages on the incarnation address an error that I first heard about two years ago (as put forth by a local Sunday School teacher):  the idea that for Christ to be sinless, He could not have had any of Mary’s DNA; he was human but with no physical, genetic relation to Mary. As noted in this series (see these messages: “The Incarnation”  and “The Virgin Conception”), this view is called ‘seminal headship’, the idea that sin is transmitted through physical substance, and idea in contrast to ‘federal headship,’ in which the sin nature is a legal condition placed upon every person descended from Adam.

Even when I first heard this idea (though not knowing the specific background or terminology), I realized how wrong this is, for several reasons, rooted in the important fact that Jesus was fully God AND fully Man.  This is one of the basic doctrines of Christianity, the hypostatic union, addressed by the early church in response to so many heresies regarding Christ’s nature: errors that said He was only a man, or only God.  But it’s part of basic understanding of true science, how God has propagated the human race, that we all have DNA, the genes passed down from parent to child.  No one could really be human if he did not have the DNA of any human parents. Furthermore, if Jesus did not inherit any human genes from his human mother, He would not be descended from the line of David and would not even be a Jew – another serious theological error. Plus, if He was not really descended from Mary, without Mary’s genes, then He was not the seed of the woman prophesied in Genesis 3:15.  The Messiah was to come from the woman (Mary; Genesis 3:15), from the Jews and the line of Judah (Genesis 49:10), and descended from David, per the terms of the Davidic covenant.  As to Jesus’ physical appearance:  we know that the Jews slandered Jesus for his “illegitimate” birth and the question of who was His father (reference John 8:41).  But they never brought forth the charge that He was not really Mary’s son and did not belong to Mary’s family – which certainly would have been the case if He had not inherited any of Mary’s DNA and had no physical resemblance to Mary or His human brothers and sisters.

The series from Arden Hodgins notes that a few theologians have held to seminal headship, including William G.T. Shedd, Lorraine Boettner, plus Amish and Mennonites. Amish and Mennonite groups hold to an idea of “heavenly flesh.”

An excellent point to counter this idea: sin is not contained in physical substance such as the human seed. That is a gnostic idea, that something physical is bad or sinful. Also, our righteous nature — regeneration and indwelling of the Holy Spirit — does not come to us through any physical means; the new nature does not come to us through the genes.  So why should people think that the sin nature is transmitted through physical means? “Federal headship” makes sense concerning both our sinful nature inherited from the first Adam (a legal state put upon us), and our new righteous nature given to believers in the Last Adam.