The importance of praying the psalms part 3
Continuing today, we’ve a five post series on the importance of praying the psalms as Christian literature. The psalms are difficult, so the default evangelical position seems to be skim and pick.
So what we usually do is to skim over the bits that don’t fit with our experience, and focus in on the bits that do. “Ah,” I say, “There’s a verse I can identify with; I’ll put that on my calendar.” But even as I do that, there’s a little voice telling me it won’t do; for either I pray the Psalms or I don’t. If I pick and choose, I am just using the Psalms for ideas that chime with my pre-existing ideas about how to pray; and that approach lacks integrity.
Tomorrow, a better way…
The importance of praying the psalms part 2
Continuing today, we’ve a five post series on the importance of praying the psalms as Christian literature. We need to be honest that the psalms are not straightforward to understand.
I take it the Psalms are in scripture in order that we should learn to pray them – and pray them all. That, at least, has been the mainstream Christian understanding since the very earliest centuries. But when we try to pray them, we hit all sorts of problems. We read protestations of innocence we know we cannot make without pharisaical hypocrisy; we hear descriptions of appalling suffering that are way beyond what we experience; we see descriptions of hostility too intense even for metaphorical believability about those who don’t like us; and, perhaps most difficult, we can’t see how we are supposed to pray for God to punish our enemies without lapsing into vengeful thoughts.
Is there an answer?
The importance of praying the psalms part 1
Starting today, we’ve a five post series on the importance of praying the psalms as Christian literature.
In May 1943, from his prison cell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “I read the Psalms every day, as I have done for years; I know them and love them more than any other book.” I have been gripped for a few years now by the vision of getting the Psalms back into Christian use in evangelical circles. It seems to me that they will help us learn to pray; and they will reshape our disordered affections in God’s ways, avoiding both an arid intellectualism (when we are so frightened of charismatic error that we fight shy of the language of affections and emotions) and an uncontrolled emotionalism (in which emotions run riot in disordered subjectivism).
But, as we shall see, tomorrow, things are not quite that straightforward.
Puritan preaching: not the model?
I have just read Peter Adam's perceptive, scholarly, and pastorally sensitive Latimer Trust booklet "Gospel Trials in 1662: To Stay or To Go?". It is a really helpful piece of church history, looking at the Puritans who stayed and the Puritans who left the Church of England in the troubled years after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. It has evident relevance for those struggling with whether or not to remain in the Church of England or the Church of Scotland today.
But I was particularly interested in the section where Peter analyses some of the weaknesses within the Puritan movement (in the context of course of tremendous admiration for such very great men). In particular, he shows how their preaching developed some of the characteristics of Medieval Scholasticism, a detailed, highly intellectual, and overly "precise" analytical treatment of very short texts, in such a way that the Bible itself was swamped by the systematic doctrinal overlay and multiple applications. Peter comments that, "It was a pity that the Puritans largely adopted this style of preaching, because John Calvin had created a new style of expository preaching that was simpler, more accessible, less detailed, more straight-forward, easier to follow, and shorter!" (pp17,18). He notes that, "(t)he preaching that eventually shook the nation was that of the Evangelical Revival, which began in the 1730s. A good example of that style was George Whitefield, whose preaching was Biblical, passionate, direct, plain, easy to follow, and powerful" (pp19,20).
The preaching that we encourage at Proclamation Trust, and the preaching we train men for at PT Cornhill, is deliberately not "scholastic"; and yet there is sometimes a danger that we are too complicated, too intellectual, and too detailed. I found it a helpful caution.
Oh, and I loved Peter's comment about one Puritan, that while he was pastorally motivated in choosing to preach from the book of Job, "he was perhaps pastorally unwise to continue his series on the book of Job for 29 years." With dry understatement like that, I think Peter could be an honorary Englishman.
What the miracles don’t prove…
I’ve noticed that preachers often follow a miracle passage by saying, “…and this shows that Jesus is God”. My problem is this: I may be perverse, but it seems to me that it doesn’t do anything of the sort. Elijah, Elisha, Peter, Paul, and others did miracles, and we don’t conclude that they too are gods.
Surely it would be truer to say that “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power” and this is why he did miracles (Acts 10:38). Each miracle is a signpost, a pointer to something not only of Jesus’ identity, but also his work. And they are different. When Jesus heals a leper, the ‘shape’ of the miracle shows us something of his work of undoing the infectious and isolating power of sin. When Jesus feeds a large crowd, we learn that he is the one who feeds and sustains the people of God through the ‘wilderness’. When he raises the dead, it is a pointer to what he does spiritually and will one day do physically, in the resurrection. And so on. Each one shows that Jesus is God’s Spirit-anointed instrument to do some part of God’s rescue work.
Oh, true, together with his claims, his purity, his teaching, and above all his resurrection, we may see that they were pointers to his deity. But let’s not overload individual miracles with a burden they cannot bear.
EMA featured books #3
Look out at the EMA for one of the best books of 2013: Serving without sinking by John Hindley. Quite simply, this book did me good. It is fresh, warm, honest and richly filled with grace, informed by a gritty realism, shot through with pastoral perspectives. There is something in it for every Christian.
Robin Weekes finishes his time on the teaching staff of PT Cornhill last Friday. At Easter 2010 Robin had to leave his church leadership role in Delhi at very short notice for health reasons. This was a hard time for him and his wife Ursula, being unexpectedly torn away from their church family, and a testing time for the South Delhi congregation of Delhi Bible Fellowship, which Robin led.
After the family returned to the UK, Robin agreed to my request to come and teach at Cornhill for two or three years, or until a suitable position came up in church leadership in the UK. So Robin joined the PT Cornhill team in September 2010. After two and a half years with PT, Robin has been appointed as senior minister of Emmanuel Church in Wimbledon, where he starts on Easter Sunday, just three years after leaving Delhi Bible Fellowship.
All of us at Proclamation Trust are grateful to God for all that Robin has contributed to the ministry during his time with us. He has brought a high quality to his teaching that has strengthened the team, a pastoral sensitivity to his small group leading that has been warmly appreciated by the students, and a warm mentoring engagement with the students whom he has tutored. The rest of us at PT have learned much from Robin’s godliness and gained much from the exercise of his gifts. Robin has consistently stressed to us all the importance of godliness in bible teachers and preachers, and the significance of preaching, not only to the mind, but to the heart and the affections.
These emphases have increasingly become part of the Cornhill ethos and I hope will remain so after Robin leaves. Personally, I owe Robin a great debt of gratitude. For just over a year he and I were the only teaching members of staff; and then he was Acting Director of Cornhill during my sabbatical. In all this, Robin carried significant extra burdens with cheerfulness and zest. We wish him and Ursula well as they begin at Emmanuel and thank God for these past two and a half years of fellowship in the gospel of the Lord Jesus.
Hearing her voice?
Adrian posted about the short and carefully reasoned booklet by Sydney evangelical John Dickson, in which John argues that, within the context of a complementarian understanding of gender and leadership, women ought to be allowed to give sermons. John argues that when Paul forbids a woman to “teach” in 1 Timothy 2, the activity he is prohibiting is the authoritative passing on of the apostolic traditions about Jesus, in the age before the canon of the New Testament was completed, and the New Testament was available as a written authority for churches. It is not the same as the preaching of sermons in our churches today.
John is a brother in Christ, a friend to many of us, and has been a blessing to many more through his writing and preaching ministry. He is also a careful and meticulous scholar. So when I downloaded this booklet, I hope I did so prepared to have my mind changed by the arguments in it. Lionel Windsor has given a response and John Dickson has responded to this.
I am not persuaded by John’s arguments, and I want here to offer two very brief comments. These are not based on a thorough and detailed study of the arguments. Nonetheless, I hope they may contribute to the discussions.
- My first observation is that it seems to me that, if Paul forbids women to do just this very specific, and time-limited activity, we need to come up with some theologically persuasive understanding of his reason. Why are women forbidden from this particular activity, but not from the other speaking ministries then or now? John says that, ‘When Paul refers to teaching in the technical and authoritative sense, he means not Bible exposition but preserving and repeating the apostolic deposit. While Paul was happy for women to engage in a range of public speaking activities, in 1 Timothy 2:12 he makes clear that “teaching” is a role only for certain handpicked men.’ In an endnote, John agrees that Paul’s reason for this is rooted in ‘the principle of male responsibility established at creation’. I may have missed something in John’s argument (and I hope he will forgive me if I have), but I don’t think he has given us a persuasive understanding of why Paul’s prohibition should be restricted to just this activity. The usual complementarian understanding, that Paul’s creation principle is one of male teaching responsibility and leadership in the churches of every age, seems to me to make more sense of this.
- My second point concerns John’s precision in distinguishing “teaching” (in this limited sense) from the other New Testament speaking ministries. John refers to ‘numerous public speaking ministries mentioned in the New Testament – teaching, exhorting, evangelizing, prophesying, reading, and so on’. He goes on to say that ‘Paul restricts just one of them to qualified males’. My question is whether the speaking ministries are really so clearly distinguishable. I agree with John that when Paul allows women to prophesy (1 Corinthians 11), he must be referring either to a different activity, or at least to a different context, from the teaching activity of 1 Timothy 2. Even if we do not know exactly what prophesying meant in first-century Corinth, 1 Corinthians 11 does suggest that there are circumstances in which it is a good thing for women to speak to men and women in the church ‘for their strengthening, encouraging, and comfort’ (1 Corinthians 14:3). I agree with John that it would be good if this happened more than it does in some of our churches. But I doubt that each of the different speaking words refers to a precisely-definable activity, as if a speaker could say, “Now I am teaching. In the next sentence I shall be exhorting. In five minutes time I shall be evangelizing.” (I hope I am not being too mischievous in parodying it like this.) If most of the speaking words refer to different aspects of essentially the same activity, then the semantic arguments would seem to carry a lot less weight.
I remain persuaded that what we try to do in our sermons is essentially the exercise of pastoral teaching authority in our churches, and that it is consonant with Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 2 that this responsibility be entrusted to male pastor-teachers in our churches.
Diagnostic questions for pastors
As part of his third day preach on 1 Peter at the EMA, Paul Tripp asked these searching questions.
- Have you lost sight of the fact that you deeply need all that you preach?
- Have you become less than open to the essential sanctifying ministry of the body of Christ?
- Have you come to expect of others the perfection you think you’ve achieved?
- Do you assess that you are qualified to have more control over your ministry than any pastor should ever have?
- Have you lost your sense of need for daily meditative communion with Christ?
- Are there places where you have come to take credit for successes that only grace can produce?
- Do you feel entitled to what you could never earn or could ever achieve on your own?
- Are you now less than watchful and protective when it comes to temptation and sin, than you should be?
- Do you tend to load more on your ministry shoulders than you can responsibly handle?
The horse and its rider