Archive for October, 2007

Weekly Update 26 – Calvin, The Free Offer and The Free Church of Scotland

October 26, 2007

This is a bit of a short post as I’m spending most of my time working towards writing up some of my thesis.  I should hopefully be able to offer a few “weightier” posts in the coming weeks.  I’d ideally like to post something soon covering Durham on Justification (which is partially related to the free offer), and also another post on the Covenants.

This post focuses on Calvin and one of the few truly good theologians of the 20th century R.A. Finlayson.  For those who may not have heard of him, Finlayson was Professor of Systematic Theology at the Free Church of Scotland College from 1946-66.  According to the Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology he was “a founding member of the Scottish Tyndale Fellowship, which later became the Scottish Evangelical Theological Society… He was also active in the beginnings of the Inter-Varsity Fellowship… He was much in demand as a preacher and conference speaker, with a wit as sharp as his pen.” p321.  It is one of his conference addresses I want to quote from now.  It is ‘Calvin’s Doctrine of God,’ Able Ministers of the New Testament, Papers read at the Puritan and Reformed Studies Conference, 1964, p3-18 Rept. Tentmaker.

His paper helpfully covers many aspects of Calvin’s theology but I want to focus in on the part where he discusses Calvin and the free offer of the gospel.  In reading this, remember that Finlayson’s audience were not academics but Pastors.  Here it is:

There is the further difficulty of reconciling the expressions of God’s desire for men with God’s absolute decree concerning man. It would seem clear that God wills with genuine desire what he does not will by executive purpose. This has led theologians to make use of the two terms, the decretive will and the perceptive will of God, or His secret and revealed will. For example it is revealed that God would have all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, while he has not decreed universal salvation. Commenting on 2 Peter iii. 9, Calvin says: ‘But it may be asked, If God wishes none to perish, why is it that so many perish? To this my answer is, that no mention is here made of the hidden purpose of God according to which the reprobate are doomed to their own ruin, but only of his will as made known to us in the gospel. For God there stretches out His hand, without a difference, to all, but lays hold only of those, to lead them to Himself, whom he has thus chosen before the foundation of the world’.

Thus it cannot be said that God merely desires the ultimate salvation of all men without also desiring their repentance and faith and sanctification: for as Calvin says that would be ‘to renounce the difference between good and evil’. The position could thus be more clearly put as meaning that God desires all men to be righteous in character and life and to use the means he has appointed to that end. It is in harmony with the revealed will of God that without the use of means appointed by Him the end shall not be attained. As a holy God, the Creator commands all his moral creatures to be holy, and He cannot be conceived as in any way obstructing their pursuit of holiness by His decree.

Now I just want to make two points here.

First Finlayson is accurately representing Calvin.  Calvin has no hesitation in using “desire” (or similar terms) in reference to the salvation of all men – or that “all men be righteous” and “use the means he has appointed to that end”.  He does this frequently.  I’ve already covered Calvin on 2 Peter 3:9 so there is no need to repeat the arguments here.  I mention Finlayson’s take on Calvin because it comforts me that much more theologically able people than me have read the same source material I have and come to the same conclusion!

Second Finlayson is accurately representing his own tradition in allowing that God desires the salvation of all men, or that “all men be righteous”.  In his views here Finlayson is merely stating the standard doctrine of the Free Church of Scotland from its inception.  This type of language could have come straight from many of the “founding fathers” e.g. Thomas Chalmers.  Incidentally, Finlayson comes from the same Scottish Presbyterian tradition as John Murray of Free Offer of the Gospel fame.

Like I said, next week should be more “weighty”.

Weekly Update 25 – Durham on the ‘besetting sins’ of Pastors

October 20, 2007

Back to Durham – but not on the free offer.  This week I am taking a look at a very searching section of Durham’s Commentary on Revelation (Reprint. Willow Street: Old Paths Publications, 2000).  In this section Durham is answering the question What may make a Minister so ready to please himself in the having of Gifts, and a name before others, when yet he may be so faulty before God?  What he has to say is very challenging so read on with caution!

Of all men in the world, Ministers are most obnoxious to this temptation of vanity, and seeking approbation from others; because, most of their appearances are in public before others, and that in the exercise of some Gift of the mind… Now, when this meeteth with applause, it holdeth out a people’s estimation of such a person’s worth, which has a great subtlety in pleasing and tickling of him, and so is ready to incline him to rest satisfied therein.

Durham is here exposing what is one of the great dangers of the ministry – pride and vanity.  The subject of pride is a difficult one to address – if only those who are without sin on this subject were to mention pride then it would never be spoken on!  But I think what Durham says here is to the point and needs to be emphasised today.  It is all too easy if people look to you for advice, guidance and for feeding from the word of God to become proud.  So Durham’s warning has timeless application to the ministry.

I also think what Durham is saying has particular relevance in our age which is obsessed with “celebrity” – even in the Church.  If you are a “successful” figure and your ministry brings you attention then along comes the conference circuit, books, articles, book endorsements, etc.  To keep humble in such circumstances requires great grace.  As an aside, this “celebrity” culture in Reformed churches is not at all helpful.  I remember a night back home in Inverness.  One of the churches there had a “Reformed/Evangelical celebrity” speaking.  Another meeting was taking place at the same time to hear from a missionary about to set off for dangerous and lonely work in a Muslim country.  Which meeting had 20 in attendance and which had hundreds?  What does that say about the priorities of Christians today? (I was a student in Edinburgh at the time and so was at neither.)

Now to caveat all this slightly I should point out that some of the most humble Christians I know are ministers!

Many Ministers are not travailing in birth to beget souls, and to have success as to the Salvation of many, as well as outward fruits; but are at best studying to exonerate themselves as having been diligent in their duty.

It is so easy to slip into mere duty.  But to “travail in birth” over the salvation of souls – that is the difficult thing.

Oftentimes Ministers take more pains in external duties of their Ministry that are obvious to the view of others, than they do in the inward secret duties of Christianity upon their own hearts, such as self-examination, the making of their own calling and election sure, the keeping of themselves in the love of God, the exercising of faith, Repentance etc.

It is a great danger to put most effort into those duties that are open for all to see.  It is easy to appear externally well while neglecting the internal duties which cultivate true godliness.

Hence we see, That as often the most tender Christian is under the cross, so it is the most lively Minister who laboureth most under the sense of his own insufficiency and shortcomings in Gifts… who meeteth with most disrespect, and many disappointments amongst the people and such like; these are often blessed of God to keep such a person lively… O but Ministers that have a name, and some seeming countenance in the exercise of their Gifts, great applause and acceptation amongst the people, had need to be humble and watchful, lest they be liable to this charge, Thou hast a name that thou livest, but art dead!

There is a famous story around Spurgeon (I think) who had one member of his congregation who constantly criticised him.  Spurgeon thanked God for this member as they helped to keep him humble!  Durham makes a similar point here.  Are you suffering from criticism in your ministry?  Then maybe God is using that criticism as a means of grace to maintain humility.

Now just to try and get the balance right, Durham is not criticising successful (or fruitful) ministers – that is ministers whose labours are blessed by God to see many sinners saved.  Nor does Durham want ministers to be indifferent to this “success”, if I may call it that – they are to seek and labour that their ministries may be blessed.  But what is utterly abhorant to Durham is that any “success” or “gifts” should breed pride.  And in any case the gifts that ministers (or any Christians) have should not be a source of pride, for “it is not Gifts that commendeth a Minister to Christ, but faithfulness in improving the measure which he hath…” p249.

Weekly Update 24 – Wodrow’s Analecta

October 15, 2007

Yes I know I’m late, but I’ve been busy!  Speaking at the Young People’s meeting on Thursday night and the Youth Fellowship yesterday meant something had to give!  Now on to the post.

Robert Wodrow’s Analecta (Analecta: or, Materials for a history of remarkable providences; mostly relating to Scotch ministers and Christians. Glasgow: Maitland Club, 1842-1843, 4 Vols) is a great source for students of Scottish Church history.  It is full of interesting anecdotes and provides many helpful insights into the leading figures of Scottish theology during the “Second Reformation”.  I’ve been working through these volumes and thought it would be good to post some of Wodrow’s material that relates to Durham.

Miss [Mistris] Fullartoun, a cousin of Mr [James] Durham’s and Mr George Sample’s sister, tells me that her brother, Mr Sample, was educate by Mr Durham. That Mr Durham, on his death-bed, was under some darkness, as to his interest in Christ, and said to Mr Carstairs, “Brother, for all that I have preached and written, there is but one Scripture I can remember or dare grip to; tell me if I dare lay the weight of my salvation upon it? ‘Whosoever cometh to me, I will in no ways cast out.'” Mr Carstairs said, ” Sir, you may depend on it, though you had a thousand salvations to hazard!”
Vol 1, p136
[This is also related on p215 but the text is ‘Come unto me all ye that are weary’]

This is a fairly well-known tale regarding Durham’s death.  It has been used by some critics of 17th C Scottish theology to illustrate how much the “Calvinism” of people like Durham destroyed the possibility of assurance.  The critique runs along the lines of “See these people whose whole theology is dominated by election and limited atonement – even their leading representatives died without assurance.”  A couple of points need to be made.  First, if one of the leading representatives lacked assurance in their death it would not be just to extrapolate from that one instance to say 17th C Scottish theology as a whole led to a lack of assurance.  Second, it appears incorrect to me to say that Durham died without assurance.  It is evident that he lacked some comfort as he approached death.  But if Scottish theology really destroyed assurance then Carstairs would not have been able to give the comfort he did, would he?  So based on Carstairs’ response I think it is fair to say Durham died with assurance.

Mr DAVID DICKSON… and Mr James Durham drew up The Sum of Saving Knowledge, in some afternoons when they went out to the Craigs of Glasgow to take the air, because they thought the Catechism too large and dark; (and, if I be not forgot, my informer, Mr P. S. [Patrick Simson,] was their amanuensis,) and the application was the substance of some sermons Mr Dickson preached at Inneraray, written out at the desire of my Lady Argyle.
Vol 1, p166

Wodrow clearly ascribes the writing of the famous Sum of Saving Knowledge to David Dickson and James Durham.  Although he notes that the base of the Sum came from Dickson’s sermons I don’t think we should minimise the input of Durham into the Sum.  Its teaching is fully and continually reflected in his sermons.  What is interesting here is Wodrow’s comment that Durham and Dickson thought the Catechism [The Larger Catechism] “too large and dark”.  Is this true?  Possibly.  Now Durham refers extensively to the Shorter Catechism as “our excellent catechism” in his sermons, so he obviously held the Westminster Catechisms in high regard.  But, and I am speculating here, there may be reason to think that Durham and Dickson might have regarded the Catechism as capable of greater precision on one point that was dear to them – the covenant of redemption.  The Westminster Standards do not differentiate clearly between any covenant of redemption and a covenant of grace.  But Durham and Dickson did, and they felt it was important to do so.  Further, they make this distinction in the Sum of Saving Knowledge.  So there may indeed be this one respect in which they felt the SoSK was clear and the Catechism was “dark”.

[David Dickson said] marks should be given sparingly and sickerly, and so given as to lead in to Imputed Righteousness ; because, said he, marks are ready, either to lead in to a Covenant of Works, or if not sound, to discourage. He excelled in conference.

I know this isn’t about Durham but it is an important point which serves to correct much that is said about “Second Reformation” Scottish theology.  17th C Scottish theology is alleged to place such weight on the internal marks of grace (love to the brethren, hatred of sin, etc) as to lead unintentionally to the neglect of the imputed righteousness of Christ.  Here we have Dickson, a leading Scottish theologian warning against that very alleged error.  It fairly undermines the critical historiography!

He [Durham] said to my father, if he were to live ten years longer then he had done, he would choose to have nine years to study for preaching the tenth.
Vol 1, p168

This is Durham’s view of the importance of study and learning for preaching.  It reveals a very high view of the importance of doctrinal precision in preaching.

Mr James Stirling tells me, he hears that Mr Durham kept two days a week for fasting and prayer, for discovering of the Lord’s mind when he was writing on the Revelation; and it was thought that, with his close study and thought, cast him into that decay, whereof he dyed. He was a man that was very much in meditation.
Vol 1, p321

Durham clearly recognised that more than a good intellect is necessary to interpret Scripture correctly.  True spiritual understanding which is only given by the Lord is the great necessity.  But that does not mean we neglect God’s appointed means of hard study either.  And neither did Durham – indeed if the anecdote above is accurate he took it to excess.

Mr Patrick Simson told me, that Mr Durham used to say that division was by far worse then either of the sides; and applied this to the Protesters and Resolutioners.
Vol 1, p324

Durham was a man who understood the seriousness of breaching the visible unity of the Lord’s church.

It was Mr Dickson that brought him to Glasgow, and promoted his call. It was observed by the Ministers at that time, that Mr Dixon was for the moving the affections, and Mr Durham for close-dealing with the conscience.
Vol 2, p116

This is an accurate description of one of the strengths of Durham’s preaching.

Mr Durham was a person of the outmost composure and gravity, and it was much made him smile. In some gentleman’s house, Mr William Guthrie and he were together at dinner; and Mr Guthrie was exceeding merry, and made Mr Durham smile, yea, laugh out, with his pleasant facetious conversation. It was the ordinary of the family to pray after dinner; and immediately after their mirth, it’s put upon Mr Guthrie to pray ; and, as he was wont, he fell immediately to the greatest measure of seriousness and fervency, to the astonishment and moving of all present. When they rose from prayer, Mr Durham came to him, and embraced him, and said, ” O ! Will, you are a happy man! If I had been so daft as you have been, I could not have been serious, nor in any frame for forty-eight hours !”
Vol 2, p140

As well as providing an interesting insight into Durham’s character, this episode also illustrates just how different in personality Christians can be.  Durham and Guthrie are both fine representatives of Scottish theology in the mid-17th century – and yet their natures are so different.  But grace unites them.

Weekly Update 23 – Light from an unexpected source!

October 6, 2007

M. Charles Bell’s book Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance (Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1985) is one book I have been working through recently.  It is ambitious in scope, in that it aims to give a tour of Scottish theology from John Knox to John MacLeod Campbell (against the background of Calvin) focusing on the issue of assurance and related topics.  A lot of neglected theologians are covered in the book and Durham gets a significant place in the book which is good in that it gives me plenty to work on in my thesis!

Nevertheless, this is not a book that is recommended bedside (or any other kind of) reading.  The author, in my opinion, misreads Calvin and then attempts to set him against 17th C Scottish theology. Incidentally, I think he has also misread Scottish theology to an extent (or at least cast it in as bad a light as possible).  17th C Scottish theology in this book is judged as being simply very bad theology.  The book then is, in my view, historically and theologically suspect.  Having said that the book is not all bad and if you have the ability to sift the (small amount of) wheat from the (large heaps of) chaff there are a number of interesting points made.  One of the best is in Bell’s discussion of Ebenezer Erskine on the gospel offer.  Here are a couple of good quotes.

[Ebenezer Erskine] teaches that only the elect shall savingly close with Christ in the covenant since ‘all saving influences’ of God’s Spirit are peculiar to the elect. (Works, Vol 1, p4,48)… such teaching is, for many, an obstacle to their coming to Christ… [Erskine’s] usual response is to assert that we have nothing to do with election since this is hidden in God’s secret will. (3:100,125,278,431). We should interest ourselves in God’s will as revealed in his promises… The promises, then, are a door by which faith may enter into the new covenant (3:261), and by them ‘the reprobate have as good a revealed warrant for believing as the elect have’ (1:387). In reference to God and his promises, Erskine states that we should view the Scripture’s promises as a genuine revelation of God’s thoughts and feelings towards us, ‘for unbelief is ready to suggest that he says one thing and thinks another’ (2:146). With this statement, Erskine brings us to the heart of the matter, and that is the issue of one’s doctrine of God.

Here Bell notes that Erskine believes and teaches election (for Bell that is a bad thing).  This raises questions in the minds of the hearers of the gospel – am I elect?  How does Erskine respond?  The same way Durham does, by directing us away from the hidden things to the revealed things.  And when we turn to the revealed things we see all, elect and reprobate, have the same warrant to come to Christ.  Interestingly, Erskine, just as Durham does, moves beyond this to assert the sincerity of God in the gospel offer.  Bell’s comment regarding those who have an issue with a genuine gospel offer is to the point, “the issue is one’s doctrine of God”.  If we are unable to maintain the sincerity or well meant nature of the free offer of the gospel then something has gone wrong with our doctrine of God.  Interestingly, D.B. Williams PhD thesis, Herman Hoeksema’s theological method (University of Wales, Lampeter, 2000) notes that Hoeksema’s views on “common grace and the well meant offer could not have been other than they were” given his theological method.  Therefore those who seek to evaluate Hoeksema on the free offer and common grace directly “have entered the Hoeksema edifice at the back door”.  It is his theological method that really drives his particular views.  So to get a handle on denials of the free offer we need to step back from the direct issues and consider theological method and the doctrine of God as well.  That is an important point.  (I haven’t read Williams’ thesis yet – the point I quoted here was from his abstract).

Erskine… urges us to realise that God’s heart as revealed in Jesus Christ is full of grace and love for lost sinners. He pleads that we ‘not think that a God of truth dissembles with you, when he makes offer of his unspeakable gift, or that he offers you a thing he has no mind to give.’ (1:220).

Now Ebenezer Erskine was a thoroughly orthodox Scottish ‘Calvinist’ – he clearly espouses a definite atonement.  Yet he also clearly maintains that the free offer is well meant.  God does not “dissemble” with us in the free offer.  That is, he does not give a false or misleading appearance; he does not put on an appearance of sincerity or merely feign an offer of salvation.  The free offer is genuine, well meant and is not an offer of a thing “he has no mind to give”.

John J. Murray, coming at this from an orthodox angle as opposed to Bell’s unorthodoxy, makes a similar point commenting on Thomas Boston (a close friend of Erskine):  “Boston shows us how to hold the doctrines of election and particular redemption together with the preaching of the full and free offer of Christ to all men.  Holding the most exalted Reformed orthodoxy we can invite sinners to the Lord Jesus… The love that flows from the heart of God to sinners as we see in the parable of the prodigal son is free and unconditional.  Are we guilty of hedging about the love of God so as to protect it? … it is … revealed as a love that desires the salvation of all men.  The offer of Christ and his benefits is a bona fide offer.  We as ambassadors for Christ beseech sinners in God’s stead.” (‘The Marrow Controversy – Thomas Boston and the Free Offer’, Preaching and Revival, The Westminster Conference, 1984).

Marrow theology is reformed theology at its best (and despite some different nuances, e.g. on the covenant of redemption, it is essentially the same theology as Durham).  Read Thomas Boston, Ralph Erskine and Ebenezer Erskine – they will do your soul good!