Who’s in control?
We're preaching through Ecclesiastes in the autumn, and this quote from Iain Provan in the NIV Application Commentary is helpful. He is describing how many commentators struggle to understand the book and therefore end up re-interpreting what the text actually says:
A possible response to our problematic book might be to find ways of reinterpreting what it has to say – perhaps by resorting to the kind of allegorical, spiritualising approach to biblical interpretation that was so popular amongst ancient and medieval Christian commentators. As the long history of biblical interpretation has itself shown, however, this approach makes it simply to easy to force the text to say what one wishes it to say and thus simply to subvert its authority in a different way. Such an interpretative method may increase the reader's comfort level, but it can do great violence to the text.
When, for example, Jerome interprets Ecclesiastes as a treatise aiming 'to show the utter vanity of every sublunary enjoyment, and hence the necessity of betaking oneself to an ascetic life devoted entirely to the service of God' it seems obvious to us (although presumably not to Jerome) that the text is not in control of Jerome, but Jerome of the text. His method of reading enabled him too easily to shape the text in his own image and disabled him from hearing anything in it that might challenge his own assumptions and beliefs.
What are you working on at the moment. And who's in control?
I'd love to welcome you to the autumn ministers conference held at Hothorpe Hall from 11-14 November 2013. The autumn stretch, as you will know, is a long old one and by the middle of November, a chance to catch your breath is very welcome. That, in part, is what we plan and pray for at this autumn ministers conference. Yes, it has all the ingredients that are essential to a PT conference, but there's planned breathing space too. Do come and join us. If you've not been before. here is what you can expect:
- preaching for preachers. Our speakers are briefed to preach to the hearts and minds of preachers with appropriate application and some help for preachers in their preaching
- plenary sessions addressing particular ministry and life issues, again focused on the life of the preacher
- preaching workshops with both specific and general groups (e.g, Christmas preaching or last sermons). We want to recognise that the task of preaching is one we all need to work hard at.
- opportunities to pray and talk through particular ministry issues
- good food and relaxing surroundings at Hothorpe Hall
I wasn't able to go last year because of a family illness…. and I really missed it! This year it's in the diary and I hope to see you there.
But here's another idea. Many of us live near other evangelical ministers who could do with our friendship and encouragement. Why not make the time investment to invite a local colleague along? Perhaps he's never been to something like this? It would be a great way to build and cement gospel partnerships to come with someone… Some have used the conference in the past in that way. Why not you?
The importance of praying the psalms part 5
Finishing today, the last in a five post series on the importance of praying the psalms as Christian literature. Today, a worked example from Psalm 63.
In Psalm 63 we read of David’s deep desire for God (v1), David’s passionate delight in God (vv2-4), David’s enduring joy in God that continues through the darkest night (vv5-8) and David’s confidence that his enemies will be destroyed (vv9,10). If I try to make that my prayer (to draw the line of application direct from David to me), I end up saying things like, “David desired God, and I ought to try to desire God more than I do; David delighted deeply in God, and I really ought to desire God
more than I do; David had joy in God even in the dark nights, and it would be good if I could learn to do the same…” and so on. Which leaves me deeply discouraged, for it is exhortation with no gospel, and I can’t do it.
But the Psalm makes perfect sense when I read it of Jesus’ desire for the Father, Jesus’ delight in the Father, Jesus’ joy in the Father even in the darkness of a sinful world, and Jesus’ confidence in final vindication. It is his song before it can become mine, and it can be mine only in him. And then it is gospel. I thank God that there is one who desired God, delighted in God, rejoiced in God, was confident in God’s vindication.
Verse 11 is the key. For in verse 11 we meet three responses. First, “the king rejoices in God”; this is the song of the king. Second, “all who swear by God will glory in him”; this is where we come in, the king’s people sharing his desire, his delight, his joy, and his confidence, by his Spirit. And third, “the mouths of liars will be silenced”, those who will not be part of the king’s people.
As I look for opportunities to preach more and more Psalms, I am finding again and again that praying them as the people of God in union with Christ transforms them from a crushing exhortation (try to pray like the psalmist) into a liberating gospel (thank God for the one who prays like this, and who is our Representative Head).
The importance of praying the psalms part 4
Continuing today, we’ve a five post series on the importance of praying the psalms as Christian literature. To avoid the ‘skim and pick’ strategy, we need a better approach. I believe it’s to see the psalms as the songs of Jesus.
Here’s the big idea I’ve found helpful: think what it would have meant for Jesus of Nazareth to pray a Psalm in his earthly life, in synagogue Sabbath by Sabbath. Very many of the Psalms come into sharp focus when we think of Jesus praying them. It’s not a case of ‘one size fits all’; some Psalms are about the Messiah rather than by the Messiah; others are corporate, as the people of the Messiah sing together; in yet others we hear the voice of the Messiah speaking to us. But many of the Psalms – and especially Psalms ‘of David’ – make the deepest, sharpest, and fullest sense when we think of the Messiah praying them to his heavenly Father. David is a prophet (Acts 2:30) and so he spoke and prayed by the Spirit of Christ (1 Peter 1:10-12); what he prayed expressed his own experience, and yet pointed beyond this; it was the echo of a prayer yet to be prayed, by one who would pray it in its fullness.
Augustine has this lovely idea that Jesus is the cantor, or choir-leader, leading the people of Christ in the singing of a Psalm. The Psalms are his songs before they become our songs, and they become our songs only as we are men and women in union with Christ. We sing them in him, led by him our Representative Head.
There’s lots of theology surrounding this, and plenty of evidence, especially from the ways in which the New Testament writers appropriate the Psalms in Christ. I’ll illustrate this tomorrow in a psalm I’ve recently preached: Psalm 63.
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.
Revised EMA trailer
Is the Bible sufficient?
That's a rather pejorative question! Of course, we believe it is. But if the question is phrased slightly differently, we may find some diverging opinions. Is the Bible self-sufficient for its own understanding? In other words, do we need to go outside the Bible to understand the Bible correctly. We had an interesting time with John Dickson at one of our recent ministers conferences where we explored just this theme (the videos are shown below). More recently, it was the subject of a useful blog post from over the pond. I don't normally link to other posts, trying to avoid the constant merry-go-round where millions of bloggers all reference the same 10 blog posts. Nevertheless, this one from the Gospel Coalition is worth some time and thought. it specifically addresses whether outside information is needed in order to be able to understand the Bible correctly.
Connected to that is a second issue. Is the Bible sufficient for all of life? For what it's worth, the reason this second point is so controversial is, in part at least, due to a redefining of what we mean by sufficiency. We used to mean what the Westminster Shorter Catechism means: "The Scriptures principally teach, what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man." In other words, the Scriptures are sufficient for a particular purpose. That has become, in certain circles, unhelpfully broadened so that Scripture becomes a straightjacket on matters of which it simply does not speak.