Friday, February 27, 2009

Preaching this Coming Lord's Day

God willing, this coming Lord's Day I shall be preaching at New Life Bible Presbyterian Church, Queen's Park, London. Services are at 11.00 AM and 4.00 PM. The church is a welcoming multinational congregation, and there is a fellowship meal between the services, to which all are welcome. Past experience warns that it will probably rain on the 1st of March, since it has rained on every other occasion that I have preached at New Life.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

'I Climb the Rainbow Through the Rain'. George Matheson -XXII

George Matheson's writings, especially his various volumes of meditations, gave many the impression that the blind minister was something of a recluse. In fact nothing could be further from the truth. He was a standing rebuke to the idea that it is really possible to be 'too heavenly minded to be any earthly use'. He was a man who brought the same devotion that filled those little books into daily life as a pastor, moving among men and women in the slums, sharing their joys and sorrows. It is therefore quite remarkable that his literary output during the years at St. Bernard's was not diminished from what it had been during the Innellan years. Part of the reason for that was that he reduced the range of what he wrote. His contributions to magazines in the St. Bernard's years were more Biblically-based. He remained, at least in the early years of his time in Edinburgh, a theistic evolutionist, working out ways in which a Christian could also go part of the way with Darwin. A book entitled The Psalmist and the Scientist was the tangible result of this. Another significant book was Landmarks of New Testament Morality, in this volume Matheson attempted to set out the morality of the New Testament, dealing with such subjects as 'Motives of Christian Morality' and 'The Christian View of Sin'. In 1890 he published a volume of poetry, Sacred Songs, and about the same time he published what some thought of as his greatest book, The Spiritual Development of St. Paul. The Apostle to the Gentiles has had a great fascination to many of the greatest Christian teachers, from Augustine to Luther to Bunyan to Alexander Whyte - and to George Matheson. The two men had much in common, like Paul, Matheson had a 'thorn in the flesh', and if the speculations of some scholars are correct, in the same part of the flash as well, namely the eyes. They were both men who had been gifted with a great deal of natural ability, and had been brought to consecrate that ability to the service of Christ. Neither man allowed the 'thorn in the flesh' to make him ineffective. In his book Matheson took the opinion that Paul's 'Thorn in the flesh' was a complaint of the eyes. Paul, then, became to him an example of a man who had overcome the very infirmity that he struggled with himself. The fact that Paul 'besought the Lord thrice' to remove the thorn in the flesh seems to have touched something in Matheson. He had himself asked for God to cure his blindness, and the answer had been 'no'. As for the 'Development' of Paul, Matheson did not mean that in an evolutionary way. Quite the reverse, in fact he emphasised what Paul himself does, that the origin of Paul's religious life was from above, not below, and it was supernatural, not natural - the reverse of the position held by naturalistic evolution. It had been by the grace of God that Paul had 'developed', not because of something in Paul. Matheson saw Paul as being made 'perfect through suffering'. Here is the great paradox of Christianity, 'When I am weak, then I am strong':

Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free.
Force me to render up my sword, and I shall conqueror be.
I sink in life’s alarms when by myself I stand;
Imprison me within Thine arms, and strong shall be my hand.

My heart is weak and poor until it master find;
It has no spring of action sure, it varies with the wind.
It cannot freely move till Thou has wrought its chain;
Enslave it with Thy matchless love, and deathless it shall reign.

My power is faint and low till I have learned to serve;
It lacks the needed fire to glow, it lacks the breeze to nerve.
It cannot drive the world until itself be driven;
Its flag can only be unfurled when Thou shalt breathe from heaven.

My will is not my own till Thou hast made it Thine;
If it would reach a monarch’s throne, it must its crown resign.
It only stands unbent amid the clashing strife,
When on Thy bosom it has leant, and found in Thee its life.

God willing, we shall continue with Matheson next time.


Friday, February 20, 2009

Preaching this Coming Lord's Day

God willing, this coming Lord's day I shall be preaching at Tabor Baptist Church, Llantrisant. While the morning service will be in the chapel itself, the evening service will be held in Caerlan Hall (below) in Llantrisant, since, for ease of access. The morning service is at 11.00, and the evening service is at 6.00.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

'I Climb the Rainbow Through the Rain'. George Matheson -XXI

Every church is different, and a wise minister takes time to understand the church before changing anything. As should be expected with a large 19th century city Church, St. Bernard's had a multitude of organisations associated with it. A single week looked like this:
Sunday: Morning and afternoon services, Children's Church, Sunday Schools, Young Men's Fellowship, and Bible classes.
Monday: Evening Work party, Boys' craft class, Girls' club, and Literary Society.
Tuesday: Mothers' Meeting and sewing class.
Wednesday: Boys' Brigade, morning work party, and Bible class.

Thursday: Choir practice.

Saturday: Savings Bank, Boys' Brigade reading club.

The sort of minister who would really have been best suited, humanly speaking, to St. Bernard's, would have been a business manager - but thankfully the church did not look for a minister, but for a pastor, a man who cared for souls, not just for agencies. Yet Matheson did not leave the various agencies to the elders and deacons. He taught a Bible class and gave addresses to the various agencies, preparing carefully for each engagement. The Bible class was one of the agencies with which Matheson was most concerned. He taught two classes, one of young women and one of young men. Bible classes allow for a more in-depth discussion of theology and the Bible than is possible from the pulpit, and the Scottish tradition of Bible classes is perhaps one that modern Evangelical Churches can and ought to learn from. Here things such as apologetics can be discussed, and books of the Bible treated in a depth that would be inappropriate from the pulpit. In his time at St. Bernard's Matheson worked through the books of Genesis and Acts in the classes. He combined criticism and exposition, giving sidelights from secular history and archaeology where appropriate. The passage was applied and opened. Surely some sort of Bible class would be a helpful agency in our Churches today.
God willing, next time we shall continue with Matheson's time at St. Bernard's.


Friday, February 13, 2009

'I Climb the Rainbow Through the Rain'. George Matheson -XX

George Matheson's Edinburgh ministry extended beyond those living and studying in the city. The capital of Scotland attracted many overseas visitors, and in particular American tourists made a point of visiting St. Bernard's. The old parish Church looked as quaint within as it did without, with high box pews and a high gallery running about the sides of the church, and the high pulpit was small and topped with a large sounding-board. One American, Rev. Charles Pankhurst, wrote of the pews,
"There must be some unusual attraction to bring people to such seats as these. We should never come but once, unless the pulpit had so much of intellectual and spiritual vitality as to make us forget where we were."

Yet these uncomfortable pews were crowded every Sunday! American visitors were amazed at the ability of the minister to 'read' the Bible from memory, but mot of all, it was his ability as a preacher, his ability to apprehend the life of the people. Pankhurst wrote: "Though his visual sight is entirely eclipsed he does 'see God', and he does see into the hearts of his hearers." What was the 'secret' of this? Simply put, blindness had made Matheson a man of prayer. His long struggles with pain and suffering had drawn him closer to God, and in his darkness he held communion with God. He held the most precious part of his work on the Lord's Day was to lead the congregation in prayer. "Prayer never causes me an effort," he said once. "When I pray I know I am addressing the Deity, but, when I preach, the devil may be among the congregation."

Yet his preaching was also precious to his hearers, as they heard Christ set forth. The power of his vivid imagination brought the Biblical narratives to life, and had the congregation hanging on his every word.

But he was a pastor, not just a preacher. Many would have forgiven the blind minister had he left the work of pastoral visitation to his elders, but no, Matheson, the great writer, the Royal preacher, the poet, insisted on visiting his own congregation - all 1500 members of the church, and many congregants who were not members. In addition to systematic pastoral visitation, he visited the sick, always with a word for Christ. And in addition to this, with the help of his secretary, he kept up with the literature of the day, while writing books and magazine articles! The congregation truly appreciated this pastoral care, all the more so as their pastor's own infirmities might have been used as a reason to excuse him from such work. The parish, in Stockbridge, had areas of deep deprivation, but Matheson gladly visited the poor and needy. This was a work few men in full health would have performed, and by his hard toil in this work, the blind minise on the hearts of his people. In six months he visited the whole membership, and confirmed that he was to be pastor, not just a preacher.

God willing, next time we shall continue with Matheson's adjustments to the pastorate at St. Bernard's.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

'I Climb the Rainbow Through the Rain'. George Matheson -XIX

George Matheson had at first found it difficult to obtain a pastorate in the Church of Scotland because of his blindness. Now, after almost twenty years of ministry at Innellan, that prejudice was counter-acted by his undoubted greatness in the ministry, of which his being asked to preach before the Queen was just a sign. The people at Innellan were not insensible of this fact, and there were fears that their minister, even though he seemed quite happy among them, would leave them, being called away to another church.
So it was to prove. In 1886 a call came for him to St. Bernard's Church in Edinburgh. Not that the parish chose him, but that the Presbytery, into whose hands the responsibility of calling a minister had fallen when the congregation failed to call one within the six months required by the law of the Church, put his name forward. Dr. Currie, a member of the Presbytery, had heard Matheson preach, and felt that the minister of Innellan would be a greater force if he was translated to the capital.
Matheson's name was brought before the St. Bernard's congregation, and the result was a unanimous call. It was almost unheard-of for a minister to refuse such a call, and despite the ties that bound him to his seaside parish, Matheson accepted. It was a difficult decision, but the Chuch had spoken, and Matheson determined to obey. On the13th of April Matheson and his sister were summonned to the Churh at Innellan and presented with parting-gifts. He made his way to Edinburgh, and on 12th May 1886 he was inducted to the charge of St. Bernard's Edinburgh. He was to remain at St. Bernard's for thirteen years, pastor of one of the largest congregations in the city of Edinburgh, the capital of the Kingdom of Scotland.
The new pastor of St. Bernard's was at the height of his powers, physically well, his mental powers at their peak. He had mastered as much ancient and modern thought as he could, and he had met the challenges to Faith and come out still believing. The church was full to overflowing under his ministry, and full of people of all sorts, from university professors to labourers. Students faced by the intellectual challenges of the latter part of the Victorian age came to him to hear that faith and intellect were not opposed, men who had even ceased to believe in God came to him, and through his ministry they were brought to worship that God in whom they had lost faith. The frankness and flashes of humour in his preaching were entirely his, and attracted men for whom frankness was the greatest of virtues. Paradoxically, his ability to paint word-pictures was another of his great skills, although he was blind, he could describe things seen with such vividness as to almost bring them before the eyes of his congregation. His prayers were even more impressive, not artificial, but full of the reality of a Christian life, and a knowledge of God.
And, God willing, next time we shall continue with the Edinburgh Ministry.


Monday, February 09, 2009

'I Climb the Rainbow Through the Rain'. George Matheson -XVIII

In October 1885, George Matheson received one of the highest honours that a Church of Scotland minister could receive, he was invite to peak at Crathie Kirk (pictured) before Queen Victoria. Crathie is the parish Church for Balmoral, the Highland estate of the monarch of Scotland. It was a favourite residence of Queen Victoria, as it was connected with her beloved Prince Albert. Queen Victoria invited the more noted Church of Scotland clergy to take services at Crathie during her residence there. Victoria took her Christianity seriously, especially after the death of her husband. She had been given copies of Matheson's books of meditations by the Bishop of Ripon, and it was reading these that led to her invitation of the author to preach at her parish Church.

Matheson preached from James 5.2 on 'The Patience of Job'. The theme was Job's patient endurance of repeated and overwhelming calamities and submission to God through faith. He pointed out that Job never asked 'why?', even though his friends came forth with all manner of false explanations. They tried to trace the ways of God's providence, and they blundered terribly. Not so Job, he waited for God. And in all this Job pointed forward to the object of faith, Jesus of Nazareth, who suffered more than Job, and who is our hope and our redeemer. Here was comfort for suffering Christians. Queen Victoria greatly appreciated it and requested that the sermon be printed. The sermon was distributed among the Royal family, and Matheson had the chance to speak to many members of the Royal family. The blind preacher whose sisters had learned Greek and Latin to help him to learn had become one of the most important men in his denomination - and he remained incredibly humble.

His time at Innellan was coming to an end. In 1886 he was called to the pastorate of St. Bernard's Church, Edinburgh. God willing, next time we shall deal with the call to Edinburgh.


Friday, February 06, 2009

'I Climb the Rainbow Through the Rain'. George Matheson -XVII

One of the two important anniversaries this year is that of Charles Darwin, born in 1809. Darwin's book The Origin of Species, although it can be argued that anyone who had written such a book at the time Darwin did would have had the same effect (and someone else almost pipped Darwin to the post), was incredibly influential in Victorian Britain, initial rejection turning quickly to acceptance in practically every circle. It met a society where 'development' was one of the primary categories of thought, and Matheson was a part of that society. In an incredibly short period of time Britain had gone from an agrarian to an industrial society, and so the idea of Development was seen as a law of society.

Today Darwinists like Richard Dawkins argue that religion is merely a product of evolution as if this were some new and shocking theory. In fact it has been around almost since Darwin, and George Matheson had to grapple with it. Evolution, in its Darwinian form, is naturalistic and atheistic. Charles Hodge of Princeton Theological Seminary answered the question 'What is Darwinism?' with "it is atheism." The evolutionary hypothesis was modified by others so as to allow for God, and even the Christian God, but still the aspect of darwin that most often met the Victorian was Atheistic, a theory that left man the prisoner of inviolable and purely naturalistic laws. Matheson was not one to ignore important questions, and as he read Darwin and Herbert Spencer a terrible thought came into his mind: What if religion was merely the result of some natural instinct, and all religion just an empty dream?

There have been many and varied responses to the Darwinian theory of evolution in the Church over the years. Some have re-shaped the whole of Chritian theology according to the teaching of Darwin, others have rejected it outright. I myself belong to the latter school. As some Victorians correctly observed, evolution acn only work with what is there. The science of genetics teaches us that acquired characteristics, however advantageous, cannot be passed on, and that natural selection, therefore, cannot produce any new forms, but in fact eliminates some of the old forms! This Darwin did not know, and nor did Matheson.

In the five years that followed his Baird Lecture, Matheson made a study of the theory of evolution, especially in its bearings on religion. In 1883 he published an article in the Scottish Review entitled 'Angnoticism'. This, of course, is that form of atheism that argues that, while we cannot say that God does not exist, we also cannot say that He does. The notorious 'atheist bus' advert displays a strong form of agnosticism, while we cannot certainly know that no God exists, we have no good reason to say that one does. The term was coined by certain Darwinists who, in their zeal for naturalism, rejected all supernaturalism. Matheson profoundly disagreed with them. Evolution, he argued, even if it can be shown to be true (let us recall that this was the era of the 'concessive apologetic' as championed by Alexander Balmain Bruce), does not explain Jesus of Nazareth. Here is a man who cannot be explained by mental or physical evolution. Without using the word, he argues that naturalism is a presupposition, not a result of scientific enquiry. Matheson was not completely orthodox. Like most Victorians, he granted too much to the supposed results of impartial science, but he found at this point in his life that evolution could not explain, much less explain away, Jesus of Nazareth.
This would be a question that would engage Matheson for many more years, and the result would be startling.
God willing, next time we shall deal with Matheson's final period at Innellan.


Thursday, February 05, 2009

Where I am Right Now

As of the 1st of this month, I am a pastoral trainee at Tabor Baptist Church, Llantrisant, South Wales. This was Tabor on Tuesday morning. It was also a really silly idea to walk up there, as the pavements were very icy, and the going tough.


Wednesday, February 04, 2009

'I Climb the Rainbow Through the Rain'. George Matheson -XVI

George Matheson said that his hymn 'O Love that Wilt not let me Go' would never have become as popular as it did without the tune 'St. Margaret' that was written for it by Dr, Pearce. But there is more to it than that. The hymn speaks to all of us as Christians. We all suffer, we all have our disappointments, and indeed we all find that we are in the rain and have only the promise of God that 'Morn willl tearless be'. Many a suffering Christian has been comforted, as we have by some of the Psalms, that we are not alone in how we feel in trouble. In life and in death 'O Love that Wilt not Let me Go' has been a minister of God. We who have doubted as Matheson, who have suffered in body, mind and soul, have found in Gorge Matheson a fellow-sufferer, and he has made us rejoice in the God who painted the rainbow as a pledge of His faithfulness. Great hymns belong to the whole Church, and this hymn has been prized the world over. It is not a silly, sentimental ditty, but a hymn of faith in suffering.

George Mathson had been relatively happy at Innellan for fifteen years. The same suffering that gave rise to the hymn made him a sympathetic pastor who was always helpful to his suffering people, and who shared in sorrow and in joy with them. Christ, we read in Hebrews, was 'made perfect though suffering' in His place as our High Priest and the 'Captain of our salvation'. He is the perfect pastor, and if He had to suffer to fit Him for the work, how much more will His servants? This is a huge challenge to us - or it ought to be. After fifteen years there, in the summer of 1883, George Matheson was summoned to his Parish Church to receive a gift of love from his congregation. Under him ministry the church had gone from being a chapel of ease to a Parish Church, and the people had been helped and comforted. A special serice was held in which the congregation expressed their love for their minister, and their gratefulness for all that they had received from his hands. Those who labour in the Word and in doctrine are worthy of honour for the work' sake. Most will never be known as Matheson was, but all should be the subject of heart-felt thanks to God.
Next time, God willing, we shall see Matheson wrestling with the challenge of Scientific Naturalism.


Tuesday, February 03, 2009

'I Climb the Rainbow Through the Rain'. George Matheson -XV

It may come as a surprise to those familiar with 'O Love the Wilt Not Let me Go' that George Matheson never took himself seriously as a hymn-writer. At least one of his hymns, namely this most famous, appears in the majority of modern hymnals, and his hymn 'Make me a Captive, Lord' has also found wide acceptance. But Matheson wrote more than these two hymns that have found their place in the worship of the Church. He wrote (or rather dictated, being blind) poetry as a sort of intellectual diversion. A volume of his poems, Sacred Songs, was published in 1904, and quickly ran to a third edition. Of course they are of uneven quality, even the best hymn-writers are not always at their best, and Matheson is not one of that first rank, although his two great hymns are. The over 170 pages of Sacred Songs contain poems on subjects from 'Life in Death' to 'The Nativity'. What is striking, but not really surprising, about the book is how many of the poems in it are suited to the more melancholy moods of the Christian. The impression that the book leaves is that we are reading the thoughts of a man who knew what it was to suffer physically, mentally and spiritually. Few of them are actually suited to public worship, as Matheson did not write them with it in mind, but they are all from the heart.
There is a spot beside the sea
Where I often long to go,
For there my God first met with me
When the sands of life were low.
I have had since more joy than pain,
And I've basked in fortune's smile;
But I never ceased to love the rain
That fell in Patmos' Isle.

It was indeed a tearful time
For my sun had set too soon;
The winter fell upon my prime
And the snows were thick in June;
And I thought my Father's face to be
Remote by many a mile,
In a place where there was no more sea
Unlike to Patmos Isle.

But in the deepest winter night
In the darkest nightly hour,
There came a gleam of golden light
Unknown to the summer flower.
The paths of God that brighter days
Had not stayed to reconcile
Were blended fast in rainbow blaze
Above lone Patmos isle.

I saw the clouds that earth reveals
Made chariots of the King;
The vials of wrath and judgement seals
Were the shadows of love's wing;
And when I knew by clouds he came,
I was glad to rest awhile
In the dark wherein was wrapt the flame
Of glorious Patmos isle.

And now the very dust of life
To my soul becomes most dear,
For by the path of human strife
Is His way emerging clear;
And when I see His track effaced,
Still my heart shall not resile,
Since the milestones of His march are traced
Through struggling Patmos Isle.

The use of the Apostle's imagery is not of course strictly in accordance with the Revelation, but that is not the point. The point is that God works through our sufferings and our trials. It is the individual and the experimental that predominates in Matheson's poetry. The image of the rainbow is one that recurs often, as in his most famous hymn, and as in the above 'Patmos', which was selected at random. It is the symbol of God's promise to him, and it is also a symbol of diversity in unity, as a description of God and His ways.

God willing, we shall continue our look at Dr. Matheson's poetry next time.


Monday, February 02, 2009

'The Divine Spiration of Scripture' - Review. Conclusion

We have seen in this review that, while McGowan does have some useful things to say in this book, his central proposal, that we should discard the category of Inerrancy, is seriously flawed. His definition of a 'Biblical Doctrine' appears to be (at least as regards the doctrine of inerrancy), something that is expressly stated in the Bible, not a teaching that is derived by 'good and necessary consequence' from the full scope of Scriptural teaching.

Rather than explicitly answering the question as to whether or not the Bible is inerrant, McGowan hides behind a verbal smokescreen of apparent agnosticism. But in fact he has taken a position. While he says things like this:
"If God can effectively communicate and act savingly through the imperfect human beings who are called to preach his gospel, why is it necessary to argue that the authors of Scripture were supernaturally kept from even the slightest discrepancy? In other words we must not tell God what the Bible ought to be like, based on our views of what God could and could not do." (p. 118-9)
obscuring the issue by referring to preaching as if it were in the same category as the Spiration of the Bible (something that only really makes sense from James Orr's inherited perspective of an inspiration of persons rather than writings), in fact his position is that the originals of the Scriptures are NOT inerrant.
"My argument is that Scripture, having been divinely spirated, is as God intended it to be. Having freely chosen to use human beings, God knew what he was doing. He did not give us an inerrant autographical text, because he did not intend to do so. He gave us a text that reflects the humanity of its authors but that, at the same time, clearly evidences its origin in the divine speaking. Through the instrumentality of the Holy Spirit, God is perfectly able to use these Scriptures to accomplish his purposes." (p. 124).
Now, if it is presumptuous and rationalistic for the inerrantists to say that God must have produced an inerrant text, is it not presumptuous for McGowan to say that God has not produced one? He cannot have it both ways, either he must be consistently agnostic about the question of inerrancy, or he must abandon the charge of presumption.

By linking Inerrantists to the King James Only and Textus Receptus Only groups, McGowan seems to be trying to bring them into disrepute. This accusation will not work, however, because, as we have seen, these groups locate 'inerrancy' somewhere other than in the autographa. The King James Only group locate it in a 17th century English translation, while the TR-Only group locates it officially in a textual tradition, but in fact in the results of Reformation-era textual criticism. It is simply dishonest to put them in the same category as those who hold to the inerrancy of the original manuscripts because those manuscripts are Divinely Spirated (to use McGowan's language). Indeed, to the King James Only advocate, it is the Authorised Version that was Divinely Spirated!

We saw that McGowan's use of James Orr as an example is seriously flawed, because Orr's conclusion that we cannot a priori affirm the inerrancy of the Bible is based on an unbiblical understanding of Inspiration. To put it plainly, because Orr held to inspiration of persons, not of words, he held to a theory of differing 'levels' of inspiration, depending on the type of book. Therefore, for example, Hosea would be more Inspired than Chronicles. Thus it would have been possible, under this theory, for the author of Chronicles to make a mistake in chronology. Thus, if this view of inspiration is false, it follows that the conclusions are false too. As I like to say, accept the premises, and the conclusions follow. The problem is that the premise is false!

McGowan's language concerning Systematic Theology is harsh and unnecessarily derogatory, as if he would accuse those who tried to 'do' systematic theology of rationalism simply because they try to systematise the teaching of the Bible. His attack on those who hold that the Bible conveys propositional truth sounds to this reviewer as if it springs from a form of 'soft' Postmodernism. It is certainly contrary to centuries of teaching in the Church. Can we all have been wrong until the 20th century, when some smart Evangelical theologians came along to set us right?

The inerrancy claim is founded on the witness of Scripture to the unchanging character of God 'who cannot lie'. Thus, if God speaks, He speaks truth, not error. To say that the use of human writers necessarily introduces error is to limit God by something outside of Himself. This may be consistent (if wrong) for an Arminian, but not for a professed Calvinist like McGowan. If God is not limited in carrying out His will in Salvation, why must He be limited in His Spiration by imperfect man?

But it is here that McGowan's proposal shows its most worrying feature, for McGowan appears to favour the idea that it is God's will that determines His character, so that God's truthfulness is the result of His willing to be truthful, not a result of His being unable to lie. Such a theology belongs rather to Charles Finney and his Ilk than it does to the Bible, and they are quite welcome to a God who cannot be trusted.

In conclusion, then, this book cannot be seen as anything other than a sign of the increasing tendency among modern Evangelicals to compromise the teachings of the Bible in the interests of a sort of Postmodernism.