Why evangelicals may have got quiet times completely wrong
It's the standard evangelical application; worthy if a little predictable – read your Bible more; pray more. But what if we've got those two essential ingredients of our quiet times wrong? Tipped off by my pastor I've been thinking about the puritan view of personal devotions and, interestingly, they had three elements, not two. This is best explained by Richard Baxter in the Saints Everlasting Rest. He said that we have to have three ingredients:
- consideration – what we would call reading/understanding the text
- soliloquy – more of this in a moment
The soliloquy is the "talking to yourself" part and the Puritans saw this as a key component of quiet times. The Bible exhorts us to meditate on God's word again and again and the Hebrew word means to chew over – to digest, if you like. How much of this do we actually do? How much of a discipline is it? No wonder our quiet times are sometimes turgid and difficult. We're quite possibly missing a piece of the puzzle.
Interestingly, last week I was reading Eric Mataxas' bio of Bonhoeffer and noticed that when he set up his Confessing Church college he got his students to find a quiet place each day for one whole hour and chew over a small part of Scripture; to talk to themselves about it; to work it through in their minds over and over again; to let it sink into every fibre of their being. These students, coming from largely mechanical-Christianity backgrounds, hated it! But we, we believers should love it.
And we need it. There is something profoundly wrong with a quiet time that reads/understands and prays without the soliloguy. We need to take the word of God into us and let it transform us. As Baxter puts it, we all need to find our Isaac place (somewhere away from the bustle of the day) and, basically, chew on God's word, preaching to ourselves.
A not-so-quiet time…
Calvin on John’s gospel
Had the privilege of sitting in on some Cornhill teaching last week as they embarked on a mammoth series in John's gospel. Christopher kicked off with this helpful Calvin quote.
A gospel is 'the glad and delightful message of the grace exhibited to us in Christ, in order to instruct us, by despising the world and it's fading riches and pleasures, to desire with our whole heart, and to embrace when offered to us, this invaluable blessing.' In the gospels, the evangelists do not just record the facts, 'but also explain for what purpose he was born, and died, and rose again, and what benefit we derive from those events.' John 'dwells more largely (than the Synoptics) on the doctrine by which the office of Christ, together with the power of his death and resurrection, is unfolded' or 'the power and benefit of the coming of Christ'. The Synoptics 'exhibit his body' but John 'exhibits his soul.' So, this gospel 'is a key to open the door for understanding the rest.'
Spent a day at a theological college this week and met up with some past Cornhill students. Delightful. One told me that, when it came to preaching, it was noticeable (even after three years) those who had done our Cornhill course and those who hadn't. We're convinced it still has an important part to play as an adjunct to a theological degree or further training – they complement one another nicely. The Cornhill course is able to do what college courses cannot do – that is focus entirely on public teaching and preaching ministry. It is its strength and the reason people still come. It's almost time to start thinking about applying for 2012/13.
- Perhaps you are thinking about ministry and the Cornhill course (alongside a church placement) would be a great way to develop nascent gifts?
- Perhaps you are already in ministry and the Cornhill course will help sharpen your preaching and teaching?
- Perhaps you are approaching a change in life (children left home, redundancy etc) which frees you up to serve in the church and you would really like to develop your teaching ministry?
New is not always better, just different (for 2 Corinthians, at least)
I'm not talking about the covenant of course!! I'm thinking about commentaries on 2 Corinthians. (What? You didn't spot that?) One of my favourite commentary sets is Eerdmans New International Old and New Testament commentary. I find that they have just the right mix of language, technical and application which enables me to study a book well.
The series used to be called The New London Commentary and volumes are gradually being replaced. That means that the original volumes are disappearing and in some cases that is a great shame. Take 2 Corinthians. The NICNT volume by Paul Barnett is majestic, thorough and well written and researched. I warmly commend it. It was punlished in 1997. But it replaces a volume written by Anglican scholar and later professor at Westminster Theological Seminary Philip Edgcumbe Hughes. A replacement was probably necessary to update the scholarly side of the book. However, Hughes' volume will be missed. It is in many respects superb. I might write to Eerdmans and ask them for the copyright! I don't want either/or but both/and. In the meantime, if you see a second hand copy of Hughes around, grab it while you can.
BTW, Hughes also wrote one of the original Pillar commentaries on Revelation. I see that the Donster will be rewriting that (I eagerly anticipate….). I can't comment on the Revelaton volume as I haven't seen it, but I guess it's worth hunting down too.
Why good arguments often fail
Review of Why Good Arguments Often Fail by James Sire (IVP). This is one of those increasing rarities, an IVP US book that makes it onto the IVP UK catagloue. We're richer for it though. It was published in 2006 and I remember reading it a few years ago and thinking, hmm, that should help my preaching. So this last week, I determined to read it again. It's both an incredibly strong book and an inherently weak one – both at the same time.
It's strength comes from the very careful analysis of argument (much of which can be applied to preaching) with the specific view of informing evangelism (in the author's case campus evangelism). But it also has an inherent weakness, namely, it's just not quite spiritual enough….. Let me explain before I return to its strengths.
There is, of course, a reaons why good arguments fail. Funnily enough, I'm preaching on it this Sunday:
the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Cor 4.4)
Therefore, the answer to failing arguments is primarily spiritual and the remedy must be spiritual too – to preach God's word in the power of the Spirit, soaked with prayer. I am sure Sire would not disagree with this, but he says very little about it in the book. However, it is also true that in that same passage, the Apostle says:
on the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God (2 Cor 4.2)
Perhaps I'm being pedantic? After all, what follows in Sire's book is superb. But I would not want anybody to read it (least of all impressionale young campus evangelists) and just think that we've got to make a good argument. However, proclamation is surely not less than that, and this is why the book is ultimately helpful.
The book starts with a chapter borrowed from another, namely Love is a fallacy from The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis by Max Shulman (1951 – collection of short stories which later became a TV series). You can read the chapter here (quicker) or even watch it on youtube (keep going to the end for the punchline….).
The first half of the book is then dedicated to explaining the various logical fallacies people use and then showing how they can be avoided. I think this is a rich vein for preachers (and I even wonder whether the short story should be required reading on Cornhill!). For example, we have:
- unqualified generalisations: "statements that contain a grain of truth but are so unqualified that they almost succeed in being false" – e.g. "Christians know the truth about God."
- hasty generalisations: statements that contain truth but extrapolate too far. "Church is a wonderful place." Listeners are going to see through that!
- false cause: arguments that simply claim too much. "Everything that is great about the UK comes from our Christian heritage" – just not true, but I've heard preachers use similar arguments.
- contrary hypotheses: arguments that are not internally consistent. We once tried to hire a church for a conference but were told by the vicar that we could not as "they were an inclusive church" – think about it!
- hypotheses contrary to fact: something that expresses what we wished were true, but may well not be. "If only you would read the gospels you would see clearly that Jesus is the Son of God."
- false analogy: drawing distinctions between wrong things. Perhaps this is where many of our illustrations suffer?
- poisoning the well: perjorative statements up front that simply turn some people off. "the new atheists don't understand anything about Christianity" Really?
- non sequitur: an argument where the conclusion doesn't really follow the points made.
All of these are very cleverely illustrated in the Love is a fallacy short story…..
I find this sort of challenge really helpful. My preaching has got to stack up. And it's easy when you're in monologue to abuse the audience and not argue carefully. Of course, the type of preaching we espouse guards against this – mostly because we're using the logic and argument of the text to make our case (although that presupposes we've done the careful work to understand the logic of the text).
The remainder of the book deals with other reasons why arguments fail: attitude, misreading the audience, gaps in worldviews between us (important one that), moral blindness – and ends with a worked example through Paul's Athens address, plus loads of recommendations for resources.
I don't think this book will transform your preaching, but I do think it will help it.
Now, I'm off to see Christopher to tell him about Love is a fallacy….
New online journal
There's a new online journal out called Credo. OK, so it is written by baptists (hoorah!) but it looks very serious and thoughtful and I've enjoyed the one or two articles I've read so far. Contributors include Bruce Ware, John Frame (so not all baptists…), Timothy George and Tim Challies. Free, and worth a few moments of your time – especially this launch issue on the doctrine of Scripture.
A one page article interested me (and made me smile). It was a series of short one line interviews asking a variety of men how difficult it is to interpret Old Testament Scripture. I love Walt Kaiser's entry "2 (on a scale of 1-10) relatively easy"!!
New strategies for reading the Bible
The front page headline in this month's Christianity Today caught my eye
Why leading evangelical scholars are arguing for a new way to interpret Scripture
Got me worried! Novelty is not necessarily wrong, but we are right to be wary of new things. It turns out that this "new" way to read Scripture "turns out to be not so new and will deepen our life in Christ." So, not so new. And, without wanting to go all "I told you so" what we've been advocating for years. It's a long article and addresses some particular American problems with reading the Scriptures, but they are problems that appear to be more and more prevalent over here. So, here is the breakout box on 1 Samuel 17. It's worth repeating in full and if you can get access to CT, then go read the article.
Consider the well-known story in 1 Samuel 17 in which David faces and defeats Goliath. Let me give two possible approaches to preaching or teaching this text. Neither sees it as simply an account of a border skirmish in ancient history. Both approaches understand the Bible as authoritative.
In the first approach, the character of Goliath becomes a metaphor for the challenges faced in daily life. Hearers are encouraged to identify the “Goliaths” in their own life – low self-esteem, financial challenges, or a family problem. David becomes a model of the underdog who dares to step up to his own inner “giants” and “challenges.” The Bible is the answer book, showing us the way to face challenges in our personal life: visualize a positive outcome like David (17:36), act with confidence in the face of a challenge (17:37) and take risks (17:48-9). In this way, the Bible helps us solve our problems. Who is the hero of this rendering of the story? David – more specifically, his courageous human will. David’s faith in God may be noted, but it is David’s faith that is highlights. The living God is not a major character in this reading of the text.
In contrast, a theological interpretation of Scripture tries to understand the text as part of a God-centered drama. In this approach, God’s saving action is at the center of the narrative. While the mighty Goliath can taunt the people of Israel, David confesses, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine” (17:37). Rather than seeing David as the self-actualized hero, the emphasis here is on the saving action of the almighty God, whom David actively trusts. For as the text repeatedly notes, it was not a “sword” of David that brings deliverance from the philistines, for “the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand” (17:47; cf. 17:37; 17:50). Although David appears to be ill-prepared to encounter Goliath, David acts with covenantal trust in God that “The Lord…will save me from the hand of this Philistine” (17:37).
Thus, we are invited to actively trust in this same God – the God of Israel who finally reveals the nature of his victory over his enemies in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Indeed, the 1 Samuel narrative shows how God’s surprising way of working contrasts with worldly appearances of power. Paul reflects on this mystery as it culminates in Christ crucified: “God chose what is weak in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor, 1:27b-30). As disciples of Jesus, we are called through the David and Goliath narrative to renew our trust in God’s deliverance, acting in confidence as we love God and neighbour and witness to God’s power in Christ crucified. Our confidence is in the Lord (not our faith or our commitment), for it is the Lord who uses even those who appear weak and lowly to accomplish his purposes.
What language shall I borrow?
I recently had the privilege of attending the West London Ministry Meeting at Duke Street Church in Richmond. Mike Reeves of UCCF was speaking to us about Richard Sibbes’ book originally titled Bowels Opened but soon to be re-published by the Banner of Truth with a title more appropriate for the 21st Century, namely The Love of Christ.
It was a glorious afternoon as Reeves opened up Sibbes’ book which is an exposition of The Song of Songs. Sibbes sees The Song of Songs as “nothing else but a plain demonstration and setting forth of the love of Christ to his church, and of love of the church to Christ.” One of the many things that struck me was how both Solomon and Sibbes are fetching for the highest language to describe the excellencies of Him who is “distinguished among ten thousand” (Song of Songs 5:12), our magnificent Lord Jesus. It reminded me of that line in the hymn ‘O sacred head once wounded’ which says, ‘What language shall I borrow to praise you, dearest Friend?’ What a great question! We live in a time when everything is ‘great’ and ‘wonderful’ and ‘brilliant’. And yet if we use superlatives to describe the mundane, how do we describe the One who is altogether lovely? So here’s something I am trying to do: reserve my superlatives for the Saviour. That is to keep the utmost language for my utmost Treasure. And to borrow whatever language I can to praise Him who is. The Puritans were good at doing that. So I am looking forward to reading Sibbes’, The Love of Christ.
Mike Reeves is one of the speakers at next year’s EMA. Book online here.
A difficult baptism text – but let’s be true to it
In their preaching groups, our second year Cornhillers are working through Colossians – a tough book for them, a real stretch. Last week we got to Colossians 2 and that particularly vexing baptism verse:
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Col 2.11-12).
As I was studying, getting ready for my preaching group, it dawned on me that both credo-baptists (of which I am one) and paedo-baptists misuse these two verses.
- Credo-baptists misuse it by building a theology of baptism that says our baptism reflects events past which happened at conversion, namely that we have died with Christ and also have been raised with him. I confess to using it that way myself. But it's not precisely what the text says, is it? The text says that the dying and being raised happened with baptism, not that baptism is somehow a picture of what happened in the past.
- Paedo-baptists do not get off the hook either. This text is also used to make a link between the Old Covenant circumcision and New Covenant baptism. But that is also not what the text says. In fact, it makes no reference to Old Covenant circumcision at all. Rather it is referring to the circumcision of the heart (granted that is an OT phrase, see Deut 10.16) which is not a covenant sign but a conversion entry point.
We both need to be more humble before the text. Moo, BTW, has a helpful comment on this in his Pillar commentary:
The New Testament connects our coming to Christ (being converted and initiated into the new covenant community) to faith, to repentance, to the gift of the Spirit, and to water baptism, in various combinations. Any of these, in a kind of metonymy, could be used to connote the whole experience—implying, of course, in each instance, the presence of all the others. Water baptism, then, as a critical New Testament rite intimately connected to our conversion experience, could be used as shorthand for the whole experience. (p203)
Reading week: a thoroughly good idea
John Stott used to have this reading plan: one hour a day, one three hour period a week, one day a month and one week a year. I'm not sure I can keep up with that much structured reading (though I do read a lot). However, once a year I try to follow the "one week a year" pattern. Last week was my week and it was….mostly….reading. It didn't quite work out (a preaching group, a ministers gathering and an evening lecture interrupted the flow), but it was pretty good.
We think this is such a good idea that we give the Cornhill students a reading week too. This year, if you're interested, they will be reading either Pilgrim's Progress or Idols by Julian Hardyman (first years) or What is the mission of the church? by DeYoung and Gilbert (second years).
I tried to choose a balance of books, alongside spending some time in 2 Corinthians and Colossians for my Bible study. Here were my choices. I'll blog on some of them over the next few days, if you're interested:
- For personal encouragement I read Steve Wilmshurt's Mark in the Welwyn Commentary series. Truth is, I was given this to review, but it turned out to be a very warm pastoral and spiritually helpful book for my own walk with Christ. And good to get back into Mark's gospel again.
- For intellectual stretch (not too hard with me) I read James Sire's Why Good Arguments Often Fail. I've read this before, but wanted to come back to it again as I know it had some helpful things about preaching.
- For role related challenge, I picked up Leaders Who Last by Dave Kraft. More of this shortly,
- For preaching (that is after all my job, to help others preach) I read a manuscript of Teaching 1 Timothy by Angus Macleay, one of our 2012 books.
- And for an historical slant, I read the new biography of Bonhoeffer by Eric Mataxas. Again, watch out for a post.
As I said, more on some of these shortly. But let me commend a reading week. It's something well worth pursuing. Oh, and I also read some kids books with the….kids. Nice.