What has Hilary of Poitiers got to do with PT? Quite a lot as it turns out.
‘We look to Thee to give us the fellowship of that Spirit who guided the prophets and apostles, that we may take their words in the sense in which they spoke and assign its right shade of meaning to every utterance.’
That is from Hilary of Poitiers’ De Trinitate (c. AD 350). I came across it this week, quoted by Douglas Kelly, learned Patristic scholar and Professor at RTS in Charlotte, in vol.1 of his Systematic Theology. It comes early on in Kelly’s book (p.50 – this is a book where p.50 really is early on). It’s in the middle of a beautiful section of ten pages or so on ‘Faith and Prayer’, setting out the centrality of prayer for all knowledge of God from a sample of godly men in Scripture and Christian history.
- It did my soul some good, and perhaps a this list of the different things it made me think of may do you some good too:
- I came across this in a learned book of systematic theology, and the focus on prayer was a surprise. Why was I reading this book? So I would have opportunities to drop some of its learning into future conversations and teaching and thereby feel good? Or was I at some level reading with a desire to be drawn to praise God more deeply?
- What PT aims to focus on is an ancient and thoroughly orthodox thing. Here’s part of our aim, Hilary-style: to assign the right shade of meaning to every utterance of Scripture, and to do so by taking the words in the sense in which they were first spoken.
- Wherever that task becomes merely the accumulation of techniques, and is not prayer-full from start to finish, it has become a horrible aberration.
- Expository preaching is a thoroughly Holy Spirit-dependent task. He spoke through those who wrote the Bible, and we as preachers need him now. Every expository preacher is doing no more (and no less!) than putting his energies in line with the consistency of the Holy Spirit’s past and present actions.
- We ought not to be shy of telling people that that’s why we’re doing what doing. We ought not to be thought of as those who speak much less about the Spirit in relation to our preaching than others do; differently maybe, but certainly not less.
Rejoicing in a birthday
We don't normally post on a Saturday, but today is our dear friend and colleague Christopher Ash's birthday. I'm not sure he will thank for me saying it, but it is a significant one. Those of us who work with him and for him value greatly his friendship, wisdom, insight, honesty and humility. We're especially fond of what one listener recently called "his understated passion." In typical humility Christopher described this as "he means I don't get excited about anything" whilst we all recognize and commend exactly what was being described. We delight to see God's grace working out through someone whom God has made such a useful servant of the church through his writing and speaking. So, happy birthday, dear friend and brother. We thank God for you.
A kids resource to get excited about
It's not often I whoop and holler at a kid's resource, but What's in the Bible with Buck Denver is brilliant. It's produced by the team behind Veggie Tales, but the leader, Phil Vischer has had something of a revelation and realised that the awful Veggies were in fact just insipid legalism in disguise. This is altogether different. Our nine year old was capitivated and, in fact, the whole family sat down to watch. We've made it through the opening three videos already. Along the way, Isabel has sat attentively through descriptions of canon, what the Septuagint is, what covenant is, biblical theology (often using all those words). I love it. I really do. I wasn't a fan of threefold division of the law, but, let's face it, I'm going to have that disagreement with most of my Presbyterian brethren, let alone a kid's show.
But otherwise, I want Sunday School Lady (one of the characters who explains hard things) to be my Sunday School Lady. And I want Pirate Pete who does the church history slot (yes, it includes church history) to be on my school agenda. Here's the measure of how good I think this is – we're just planning a Church History school for 2015 and I think I may use some of the Pirate Pete clips to introduce some of the harder subjects. It did all leave me grieving for poor Sunday School teaching (which abounds). But also rejoicing that it doesn't have to be this way. Try it and see. You may be surprised. In true US style there's an online curriculum and resources.
And please don't tell anyone I got so excited about some puppets and a kids resource. I have my credibility you know.
You lift me up (when you lost weight anyway)
My second book reading week book was You lift me up by Al Martin. This is a relatively short and concise book (happened) from retired pastor Albert Martin. It's in the mould of Dangerous Calling by Tripp, but – being written by someone of an earlier generation – there is less chat and fluff; it gets to the point more directly. I rather like that. I confess I sometimes weary of books with too much padding, hypothetical couples at the start of every chapter and so on. There is none of that with Al Martin. Straight to the point, and how!
This is not a book for the faint-hearted. A wise pastor told me once that it was always easier to knock down a congregation than build them up, and this book contains a lot of knocking down. It's not a comfortable read. Speaking personally, they were knock downs that I probably needed, but I am all too aware that it is relatively easy to make sin-aware Christians feel rather broken. Here is a typical example:
Furthermore, we must not kid ourselves that we are maintaining the habit and spirit of secret prayer without keeping some account of ourselves. You might be shocked if, after reading these pages, you said to yourself, 'I purpose to spend half an hour in prayer for the needs of my own soul. I am going to try to give myself to earnest prayer that God would search me and try me to the end that Christ will become more precious to me, that sin will become more odious, and that my pursuit of universal holiness will be intensified.' You may find that the spiritual muscles essential for an half-hour of concentrated prayer have so atrophied that you find yourself prayed out after 17 minutes! It may shock you to recognize this very tangible evidence of incipient backsliding. God can use the clock to bring you into touch with spiritual reality!
There's quite a lot of this kind of thing in the book which will make the ostensive soul rather downcast. That's a pity because his spiritual warnings are – for the most part – bang on the money. I guess what I am saying is that you need to have a certain disposition to be able to read this book and make the most out of it. If you are particularly sensitive and an easily damaged flower, this book may be too much for you at the moment. Wait until God has stiffened you up a bit before attempting!
However, many of the pastors I know are too tough, and this is just the book for them with apposite warnings about devotional life, drawing distinctions between work and home, acting well as father and husband.
And being overweight. Yes, there is a lot for Mr Chubby Preacher. Two chapters in fact (compared to one on prayerlessness!). I can't help thinking that his well placed concern for physical well being is overly concentrated on this one aspect (with just a line on smoking and a short paragraph on cholesterol). It does seem rather out of place – worth discussing, of course, but the volume of words attached to this one subject rather diminishes some of the other equally (more?) important things he has to say.
Here are some other highlights:
- I like the way Martin addresses the temptation to confuse giftedness with godliness. This is a message for many of us: "How much backsliding and even ultimate apostasy begins in the ministry when we start trading off a good conscience before God for apparent giftedness and usefulness in the service of God?"
- In promoting general reading as part of the minister's discipline: "My brother preacher, your sanctified, elastic and fully active mind is the grand workshop for your sermonizing. If it becomes overstretched and dull through mental burnout, if it becomes void of fresh raw materials through limited acquisitions, or worn out because it is given no rest or refreshment, then your people will suffer."
- A particular focus on physical rest: "Beware of seeking to serve God in the office and functions of the ministry as though you were a disembodied spirit, rather than a creature of flesh and blood."
- The recognition that preaching is a physical not just a spiritual discipline:"The old masters understood that preaching was not just a mental exercise united to one's organs of speech. Rather, they understood that preaching worthy of its name engaged the whole of the preacher's redeemed humanity, and the entirety of that humanity brought to its most intense and vigorous mental exercise – mentally, emotionally, physically,
This is a good book for preachers if you're not (1) of too sensitive a disposition and (2) you work out some of the solutions for yourself. In other words, it will do a wonderful job of showing you your faults, but you may need to turn elsewhere to be fully encouraged in the sanctifying work of Christ to help you change.
True friendship: the challenge for a pastor
I started my reading week with a book "you can read in an hour": True Friendship by Vaughan Roberts. I don't think that's actually true, by the way. If you are going to read this book and digest it you certainly need more than an hour. But that comment is a reflection on its length. This is a short book which gives is two obvious advantages:
- first, you can give it to someone who is not particularly used to reading, and they should manage it fine. It's not a threatening book.
- second, neither it is expensive. Tenofthose, the publisher will sell it to you for £4.99 but if you were to buy, say, 100, for your congregation (not a bad idea, as I will explain below), then the price drops to £1.49.
I have, at this point, to declare an interest. Vaughan is my boss and (according to the book) President of the Proclamation Trust. But I am trying to write this review not as Senior Vice President, Ministry (well, if we are going to adopt US style titles, we ought to go all the way!), but as a Christian and a pastor.
So, what did I think of it? The book takes the proverbs on friendship and weaves them into six short chapters on the nature of true friendship. Some chapters, as you would imagine, are stronger than others (and typically the stronger ones are where there are more proverbs to refer to). But none of them is weak, and all have a really important point to make. The book was born out of Vaughan's recent sabbatical when, as he admits in the book, he felt the paucity of friendships in his own life and determined under God to change that situation.
I think this honest approach is the book's strength. You feel all the time that you are walking with Vaughan through the realities of friendship in a complex life and the very things you struggle with, he struggles with too. I think that is remarkably positive for a book. I never felt Vaughan talking down to me even though some of the correction was rather painful at times as I reflected on my own friendships.
No. This is a useful book for Christians. And, I would suggest for pastors: both as those who want to encourage friendships amongst our people AND those who need such friendships ourselves. It is perhaps on this last point that I would encourage you, Mr Preacher, to take and read. It may take you a little longer than an hour and it may – at times – be extremely uncomfortable. But you will find, like me, a growing thankfulness for the friends we have and a desire to make more of those friendships. Indeed, I found Vaughan's testimony to be my own by the end:
As I have reflected on these themes, I have been struck frequently by a profound sense of failure, because I have not been the kind of friend the Bible commends. They have also stirred within me a deep longing: I long to be such a friend and to have such friends.(p79)
Two minor criticisms:
- I would have liked more to be made of the proverbs. On one or two occasions, I felt they were dealt with rather abruptly. For example, illustrating one point first positively and then negatively, Vaughan uses a Scandinavian proverb to make one and a Bible proverb to make the other. I thought, at a very few points, the Bible proverbs deserved a little more weight.
- Second, its strength (the shortness) is also its weakness. Vaughan admits that the best book on Christian friendship is by Hugh Black. You can get a print on demand paperback version for £7 on amazon here. But it was written in 1897 and so, with the best will in the world, will not be able to steer people through the nature of friendship in the Facebook world in which we live. I long for a longer volume….although I know I may be longing a long time!!
These are very minor criticisms of a book which I will be buying for others. I have already asked our Elders at church to consider making this a New Year buy for church members. You may want to do the same.
Augustine at the EMA
Well not Augustine himself obviously. But Garry Williams speaking about Augustine, for many the stand out highlight of this year's EMA. It's good to have this quality of academic in the UK and not lost overseas. This is worth an hour of your time. I've got a reading week this week and I'm using the time to catch up on some books I've been meaning to read (more of that later in the week) and this particular EMA session, which I thought at the time deserved a re-listen to take in some of the content. So here it is.
Autumn Joint Ministers audio
All the audio is up from our latest autumn ministers conference. I particularly recommend Wallace's second session on maintaining momentum and Vaughan's opening and closing expositions on Luke 10.
A book for your heart and your shelf
I guess our part of the evangelical world is divided in many ways, but one at least is along the fault-line of definite atonement (limited atonement to you and me, but this is an altogether better title). And here I have to lay my cards on the table. A book about definite atonement is preaching to the choir as far as I'm concerned. But, as I discovered reading Lee's little book (here), even then there is much in this glorious doctrine to stir and delight in. So, I've been looking forward to the mama of all definite atonement books for some time: From heaven he came and sought her.
There's a website and some videos for each chapter. It's too early to say whether both those who agree with the doctrine and those who don't will find it equally useful – but I'm praying that would be the case. Just for the record, I also read books I don't agree with (and sometimes change my mind). I think that's an important Christian discipline. I learnt more about paedo baptism by reading The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism than I ever did by listening to less than irenical debates (even though that book didn't change my mind).
So, I'm hoping that this book on definite atonement will be a useful resource for those who already agree and for those who don't (as well as, of course, those who are undecided). I particularly like the look of the various approaches. The size of the book is due, in no small measure, to the attempt to tackle the subject from a number of angles – all of which interest me. But some may interest you more than others. You may have specific questions about pastoral approaches – and the way the book is organised is going to be a help.
I've got other big books on my shelf that I dip into from time to time and find enormously edifying. I think, hope and pray this is going to be another.
BTW, I particularly like Piper waxing lyrical about the book. He seems to be about to burst into tears at any moment, like a new dad!!
Creating false tensions
One of the things I hear younger Christian ministers do is to think carefully about setting priorities. That can be a really good thing (and I've met other ministers who need to do this more). The priority list goes something like this: God, wife, family, church.
In theory, fine.
But life is more complicated than this, and in fact, this over-simplification of the Christian ministry can create tensions that should not exist. The reality is that there are times in ministry where this kind of priority listing is wrong. Take a stupid example: if I go and see a grieving mother I am not going to cut off the pastoral visitation so I can go and pick up my daughter from school. That may have been higher up my list, but right at the moment, the list is wrong. It is, in fact, reversed and I will find other arrangements for my daughter. Mrs Jones comes – right now – before my family.
More than this – we are setting up a false antithesis by placing God in the list as though serving and nurturing wife, family and church are not also about giving ourselves to Christ.
Please hear me right. I am not advocating abrogation of family responsibilities or nurturing a good and godly marriage. Please God, no. But expressing priorities in the way some people do and then rigidly sticking to them helps no one. Most people in the real world understand this. Why shouldn't ministers?
What are you paid to do?
We had an open session last week at our minister's conference talking about prayer – the practicalities of prayer meetings and personal prayer. There was one very helpful comment arising out Acts 6:
'Brother, you are paid to preach and paid to pray.'
Both convicting and insightful. I guess most of us believe the first and ignore the second.