Archive for November, 2011

John Murray, John Calvin and the Will of God

November 25, 2011

Here is an interesting and thought provoking section from John Murray on Calvin on the Sovereignty of God:

Collected Writings of John Murray: 4.…

There is a twofold aspect to the will of God.  And there is the disparity between the decretive and preceptive will, between the determinations of his secret counsel that certain events will come to pass and the prescriptions of his revealed will to us that we do not bring these events to pass.  It cannot be gainsaid that God decretively wills what he preceptively forbids and decrectively forbids what he preceptively commands.  It is precisely in this consideration that the doctrine of God’s sovereignty is focused most acutely with demands for our faith and reverence.  If I am not mistaken it is at this point that the sovereignty of God makes the human mind reel as it does nowhere else in connection with this topic.  It should be so.  It is the sanctified understanding that reels.  And it is not the mark of intelligence to allege or claim a ready resolution of the apparent contradiction with which it confronts us.  How can God say: This comes to pass by my infallible foreordination and providence, and also say to us: This thou shalt not bring to pass?


Calvin was well aware of this question and he did not tone down the mystery with which it confronts us.  He is constantly refuting, by appeal to Scripture, the objections which unbelief registers against this doctrine.  Much of the argumentation in the last three chapters of Book I of the Institutes is concerned with it.  It is of interest that the last work in which Calvin was engaged before his work was arrested by the hand of death was his exposition of the prophet Ezekiel … At Ezekiel 18:23, in dealing with the discrepancy between God’s will to the salvation of all and the election of God by which he predestinates only a fixed number to salvation, he says, “If anyone again objects, This is making God act with duplicity, the answer is ready, that God always wishes the same thing, though by different ways and in a manner inscrutable to us.  Although, therefore, God’s will is simple, yet great variety is involved in it, as far as our senses are concerned.  Besides it is not surprising that our eyes should be blinded by the intense light, so that we can not  certainly judge how God wishes all to be saved, any yet has devoted all the reprobate to eternal destruction, and wishes them to perish.  While we look now through a glass darkly, we should be content with the measure or our own intelligence.”[1]

[1] Comm. ad Ezekiel 18:23; E.T. by Thomas Myers.  It is more probable that the Latin verb velle, translated on three occasions above by the English term ‘wishes’, should rather be rendered ‘wills’.
The present writer [Murray] is not persuaded that we may speak of God’s will as ‘simple’, after the pattern of Calvin’s statement.  There is the undeniable fact that, in regard to sin, God decretively wills what he preceptively does not will.  There is the contradiction.  We must maintain that it is perfectly consistent with God’s perfection that this contradiction should obtain.  But it does not appear to be any resolution to say that God’s will is ‘simple’, even in the sense of the Latin term simplex.

Thomas Chalmers – Part 3

November 22, 2011

Chalmers Conversion

As Chalmers went about his leisurely ways he stumbled into the valley of the shadow of death. His brother and sister died of tuberculosis in 1806 and 1808 respectively. As the “clergyman” in the family he had to pastor them in their dying days. His brother asked Chalmers to do something that was distasteful to him, read aloud puritan sermons to him! His sister asked him to do something even more uncomfortable, namely sing the psalms to her! Over this period he sang through the Psalter 5 times to her.

Chalmers then became ill himself in 1809. While he recovered, he faced more crises, for example, another sister died. Through this time God was working in Chalmers, and in 1810 as Chalmers was reading William Wilberforce’s Practical View of the Prevailing Religious Systems of Professed Christians a revolution came about in his spiritual life. Chalmers was a converted man. He later wrote: “as I got on in reading it, [I] felt myself on the eve of a great revelation in all my opinions about Christianity … I am now most thoroughly of the opinion, and it is an opinion founded on experience, that on the system of “Do this and live” – no peace and even no true and worthy obedience, can ever be obtained. It is “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” When this belief enters the heart, joy and confidence enter along with it.”

Challenge: I love stories like this. Perhaps somewhere around Cambridge there is someone labouring in a parish, confused in unbelief, whom God will use, like Chalmers, to awaken a nation. May it be our prayer.

Chalmers Renewed Pastorate in Kilmany

A passion was ignited in Chalmers heart for the Bible. Before his conversion, one of the members of his congregation said to him: “I find you aye busy, sir, with one thing or another; but come when I may, I never find you at your studies for the Sabbath.” “Oh!” said Chalmers, “an hour or two on the Saturday evening is quite enough for that.” But regarding the converted Chalmers the same man said, “I never come in now, sir, but I find you at your Bible!” To which Chalmers responded: “All too little, John, all too little”.

Challenge: Perhaps we lack Chalmers success because we lack his acquaintance with the word of God?

This love of the bible became evident as Chalmers threw himself wholeheartedly into the work of the emerging bible society movement. Remember the Bible Society began in 1804 in London, and the Scottish Bible Society was founded in Edinburgh in 1809. Embracing the new, the innovative, never troubled Chalmers.

As well as the work for Bible Societies, and related to it, was Chalmers passionate attachment to mission and the emerging missionary societies. In 1813 he published a sermon “The two great instruments appointed for the propagation of the Gospel.” This was a powerful sermon on the text “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word.” Here is his conclusion: “Those to whom Christ is precious will long that others should taste of that preciousness. Those who … [rejoice in] the sufficiency of the atonement will long that the knowledge of a remedy so effectual should be carried around the globe … In a word those who love the honour of the Saviour, will long that his kingdom be extended till all the nations of the earth be brought under his one grand and universal monarchy – till the powers of darkness shall be extinguished – till the mighty Spirit which Christ purchased by His obedience shall subdue every heart, shall root out the existence of sin, [and] shall restore the degeneracy of our fallen nature…” As a result of this he became a director of the London Missionary Society.

Another example of Chalmers willingness to embrace change was that he was willing to adapt the form [not content!] of his language to his hearers, stating that, “I feel that I do not come close enough to the heart and experience of my hearers, and begin to think that the phraseology of the old writers must be given up for one more accommodated to the present age.” It was said that [Blakie] “not a vestige did he borrow of traditional forms, hardly any of the traditional phraseology.”

In his famous sermon on “the common people heard him gladly.” Chalmers said that “We hear of the orator of fashion, the orator of the learned, the orator of the mob. A minister of Jesus Christ should be none of these; and if an orator at all, it should be his distinction that he is an orator of the [whole] species.” That was his goal, to speak to all in his age, what ever their station in life.

Chalmers by all accounts became an extraordinary preacher. This he achieved while breaking all the conventional rules of pulpit eloquence of his day. First, he read his sermon from a manuscript rather than preaching extemporaneously. Second, he suffered from “the obstacles of a provincial education, an ungraceful person, and an unharmonious voice.” But despite this(!) he had a power that captivated. Hear the classic description of his preaching: “His voice is neither strong nor melodious, his gestures neither easy nor graceful; but on the contrary exceptionally rude and awkward; his pronunciation not only broadly national, but broadly provincial, distorting every word he utters into some barbarous novelty … He commences in a low drawling key, which has not even the merit of being solemn, and advances from sentence to sentence, and from paragraph to paragraph, while you seek in vain to catch a single echo that gives promise of what is to come … But then, with what tenfold richness does this preliminary curtain make the glories of his eloquence to shine forth … I have never heard either in England or Scotland, or in any other country, any preacher whose eloquence is capable of producing an effect so strong and irresistible.”

Two key things about Chalmers preaching from his writings:

– “By far the most effective ingredient of good preaching is the personal piety of the preacher himself.” This is the “spiritual conviction” that was identified as the key to his preaching.

– “The great aim of our ministry is to win souls.”

Blakie: “his whole discourse was … a boiling, foaming current, a mingled stream of exposition illustration and application, directed to the one great object of moving his audience to action. His soul was so penetrated with his subject, his whole nature was so roused and electrified by it, that others could not but be roused and electrified too.”

Good Resources

November 19, 2011

Some worthwhile reads:

Calvin on the Lord’s Supper

Ralph Cunnington, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper: A Blot upon His Labors as a Public Instructor?

A defense of Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.  Worth a thoughtful read, whether or not you agree with his conclusions.  This is a preview article from the Fall 2011 Westminster Theological Journal, which seems to be prospering under the editorship of Randall J. Pederson.

Mid America Journal of Theology

Some more editions of the Mid-America Journal are now online (2007-2009).  This is a good journal.  Some highlights:

D. Patrick Ramsey: Meet Me in the Middle: Herman Witsius and the English Dissenters

Richard A. Muller: Toward the Pactum Salutis: Locating the Origins of a Concept

Aaron C. Denlinger, translated and introduction: Robert Rollock’s Catechism on God’s Covenants

Post Reformation Digital Library

An excellent catalog of writings of great reformed theologians (and others!) that are freely available on the internet.  Want to know where you can read the Select works of Robert Rollock online, or The Works of John Knox (6 vols.) then this is your place:

Post-Reformation Digital Library

Thomas Chalmers – 2

November 17, 2011

Chalmers the Moralist

Chalmers was born in 1790, as we all know(!), in Anstruther in Fife. He grew up in a godly home as the 6th of 14 children. His parents were sincere Christians. At the age of 15 he went to St Andrews to study and there fell into the deadly trap of “Moderatism.” It is important to remember that there have been few if any “golden ages” in church history. We might think of the late 18th and early 19th centuries as prime candidates for such. The age before Darwin, the age before higher criticism, the age before atheism was the “default” position. But no. Unbelief manifests itself in many ways, religious as well as irreligious. For instance, it is hard to imagine a more religious people that the Pharisees, and yet it is also difficult to imagine a group of people so dead in unbelief. And so it was in the Scottish Church. Vital religion had largely died. There was the form of godliness but the power had long gone. To be “evangelical,” to be “serious” about religion was no less despised in those days than our own, particularly among ministers. The great, and none too tactful, Highland minister Lachlan MacKenzie of Lochcarron (1754-1819) said “If people go to perdition in these days it is not for want of ministers. The clergy are likely to become soon as plentiful as the locusts in Egypt, and which of them is the greatest plague of the two, time and the experience of the church will discover.”

So when Chalmers arrived in St Andrews, destined by his father for the gospel ministry, he encountered the chilling and deadly atmosphere of Moderatism. Chalmers said there that he “inhaled not only a distaste only, but a positive contempt for all that is peculiarly gospel.” When Chalmers finished his studies he eventually was called to the be pastor in Kilmany. At this stage he is unconverted with, as he said, a “contempt” for what he later embraced as the gospel. He rejected the substitutionary atonement of Christ, “The tenets … that the Author of Nature required the death of Jesus for the reparation of violated justice are rejected by all free and rational enquirers.” He rejected justification by faith alone, “Let us tremble to think that anything but virtue can recommend us to the Almighty.” And this he did as one who subscribed to the Westminster Confession.

Chalmers also had a very low view of the ministry, holding an assistantship in Mathematics at the University of St Andrews and offering lectures on science as well. Part of his natural drive and self-confidence can be seen in that he lost his position at the University through criticising his senior college in Mathematics. In a statement which he was later to bitterly regret he reflected his low view of the ministry by stating that: “The author of this pamphlet can assert from what to him is the highest of all authority – the authority of his own experience – that, after the satisfactory discharge of his parish duties, a minister may enjoy five days in the week of uninterrupted leisure for the prosecution of any science in which his taste may dispose him to engage.” Some years later when this statement was thrown back in his face a converted Chalmers said, “Alas! So I thought in my ignorance and pride. I have now no reserve in saying that the sentiment was wrong, and that, in the utterance of it, I penned what was most outrageously wrong. Strangely blinded that I was! What, sir, is the object of mathematical science? Magnitude and the proportions of magnitude. But then, sir, I had forgotten two magnitudes – I thought not of the littleness of time – I recklessly thought not of the greatness of eternity.”

Thomas Chalmers (Part 1)

November 12, 2011

Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847)

“Thomas Chalmers as all the world knows, was born in the Fifeshire town of Anstruther in the year 1780” If that was true in 1908 when William Beveridge published his “Makers of the Scottish Church” what a change the past 100 years have seen. In his own timeframe Thomas Carlyle called him “The chief Scotsman of his age,” he even came to the notice of Karl Marx who labelled him the “arch parson.” When he died it was said that though it “was the dust of a Presbyterian minister which the coffin contained; and yet they were burying him amid the tears of a nation, and with more than kingly honours.” But today, a forgotten and largely neglected figure. And that is nothing short of tragedy.

And in many ways it is hard to explain. Some people are forgotten because they don’t publish much. Not true of Chalmers. His collected writing published in his lifetime run to 25 volumes and there were 10 additional volumes of his works published posthumously – including his Institutes of Theology. Some might be forgotten because they don’t found anything that endures. But to take two institutions that Chalmers founded, the Free Church of Scotland and New College Edinburgh, both exist today. Nor was his influence confined to Scotland. William Wilberforce heard him preach and said that “all the world was wild about Dr. Chalmers.” In America the Princeton men read and appreciated Chalmers. Samuel Miller said that from Chalmers writings he received “impressions of his moral and heavenly grandeur.”

Perhaps there are two reasons. First, was that he addressed the practical problems as well as the spiritual and so wrote a number of works which are heavily dated. Even I struggle to get overly excited by works like “On Political Economy in connection with the Moral State and Moral Prospects of Society” with chapters like “On the Increase and Limit of Food”. Nor is a work like “On Cuvier’s Theory of the Earth” going to grab my attention. And because he wrote on social, and other themes secondary literature on Chalmers has often focused on these areas … perhaps creating the impression of a man who spoke to his time but does not have much to say to ours. Second, perhaps some who we might expect to warm to Chalmers are put off because of his view of the relation between science and Scripture. Chalmers for example accepted, and it is fair to say enthusiastically accepted, the views emerging in his day over the old age of the earth. Now, later I am going to be critical of Chalmers on this topic. But we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, and ignore Chalmers because of this. I remember a few years ago I was talking to someone at a church. He asked who I was reading. I said Thomas Chalmers. He looked and said “he was a raving liberal.” While we have to wrestle critically with Chalmers here, to call him a liberal is a tragedy.

Now, it is going to be hard to look at Chalmers in a brief evening discussion. His life moves from being a minister in a rural church, to leading large city congregations, to being a professor of moral philosophy, to being a professor of theology. He leads over 1/3 of the Church of Scotland out of the denomination to form the Free Church of Scotland and launches a massive church building programme and sets in place the structures to support the church. All the while he maintains  his interests mission, science, economics, education and poverty relief.  To cover even half of this adequately is not remotely possible.

What we will try and do is look briefly at his life and draw lessons from it as we go through.