Archive for February, 2009

The Ancient Church Fathers: senior partners in a conversation

February 27th, 2009 Posted in Ancient Church: 4th & 5th Centuries, Baptist Life & Thought

I vividly remember a conversation in the early 1990s I had with a person transitioning from Fundamentalism to something further to the left theologically. It was, for me, a defining moment. The topic of the Nicene Creed had been raised and this individual stated that such a document was of no authority in his life since it was written by men and had no divine input.

Such a statement then and now strikes me as both arrogant and false. It fails to understand the profound biblical import of the document concerned. Also at one fell swoop, the entire cast of characters in the history of the Church is disposed of and all that matters is the individual’s own mind and his or her Bible. Of course, I know where this person was coming from: nuda Scriptura, which is essentially an exaltation of autonomy at the expense of all tradition that ultimately leads to a radical individualism well-nigh indistinguishable from a Paine or Emerson—well, the individual would have given this caveat, a commitment to biblical authority. Essentially, though, his view was crafted in the same crucible that saw the rise of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons and the entire nineteenth-century reaction against a learned ministry.

The inimitable Victorian Baptist Charles H. Spurgeon, though, well answered this errant position: “It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.” [Commenting and Commentaries (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1876), 1].

And, if I were to have that discussion today, I would ask the person to ponder these wise words of J.I. Packer: “Tradition–is the fruit of the Spirit’s teaching activity from the ages as God’s people have sought understanding of Scripture. It is not infallible, but neither is it negligible, and we impoverish ourselves if we disregard it. I am bold to say that evangelicals, even those of Anabaptist polity, should be turned by their own belief in the Spirit as the Church’s teacher into men of tradition, and that if we all dialogued with Christian tradition more we should all end up wiser than we are. [“Upholding the Unity of Scripture Today”, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 25 (1982), 414].

How then to read the Ancient Church Fathers in whose era the Nicene Creed was framed? As Evangelicals who adhere to the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura (something quite different from nuda Scriptura), we cannot read them as authorities alongside Holy Scripture. But we cannot utterly discard them either. Rather, just as the Bible admonishes us to honour the aged among us, so we need to consider the Fathers as senior conversation partners in our theological task—as Packer says, “not infallible, but neither…negligible, and we impoverish ourselves if we disregard” them.

Grace Irwin and Margaret Clarkson

February 26th, 2009 Posted in 20th Century, 21st Century, Eminent Christians

I just read in the Vic Report (Winter 2009), 18 that Grace Irwin (1907-2008) has gone to be with the Lord. She died September 16, 2008.

After graduating from Victoria College in 1929, she served for 38 years as “a charismatic teacher of classics at Toronto’s Humberside Collegiate Institute.” In addition to her teaching, she was also an amateur actress into her nineties and an authoress, penning excellent lives of John Newton and Lord Shaftesbury. I distinctly remember reading her fascinating autobiography a few years ago when my family and I vacationed at Port Elgin on Lake Huron.

She also pastored Emmanuel Evangelical Church in Toronto for many years, after retiring from teaching. The church had been founded by H.H. Kent, a student of T.T. Shields (did all the men in those days have the same letters for their Christian names?)–and while I would disagree with her taking on such a role–she leaves behind a tremendous legacy in the city of Toronto.

Her memorial service was taken in part by one of her nephews, the well-known Christian publisher John Irwin, who referred to an occasion when Grace addressed an audience in the University of Toronto’s magnificent Convocation Hall.

“Grace stood at the podium and announced that Erasmus had written long ago what she wished to say to those who now packed Convocation Hall. For several minutes she read, or rather recited from memory, with great expression, Erasmus’s Latin preface to the New Testament.”


For a great picture of Grace Irwin, see

Also recently deceased is the great hymnwriter, Margaret Clarkson (d. March 17, 2008), aged 93. I still remember hearing her lecture on hymnody at Central Baptist Seminary, where I taught first, in the 1980s.

William Gurnall

February 26th, 2009 Posted in 17th Century, Puritans

If anyone has any leads as to where to find substantial biographical information about the Puritan William Gurnall (beyond the standard biographical dictionaries), would you be so kind as to e-mail me at ? Many thanks in advance for any information.

A study guide for C.J. Mahaney’s book on humility

February 23rd, 2009 Posted in Uncategorized

Some friends of my wife and I have started a reading circle in which we intend to read together, over the course of four-month blocks, a book for edification and fellowship. We have begun with C.J. Mahaney’s Humility: True Greatness.

I hope to put under the Books & Papers link the study guide we are creating for this book. The first set of questions will be there shortly. I do this in the hope that these questions will encourage others to study about, and long for, this vital virtue.

UPDATE:  The study guide for chapters 1-2 of Humility:  True Greatness has been posted online on the Books & Papers page, under Study Guides.  SW

Dr. Haykin Interviewed on ‘Renewing Your Mind’

February 13th, 2009 Posted in Uncategorized

On today’s Renewing Your Mind program, Dr. Michael A.G. Haykin was interviewed by John Duncan about his newest book, The Christian Lover, published by Reformation Trust.  Listen here (after today you may have to look in the “Audio Archives” for the February 13th program).

Posted by Steve Weaver, Research and Administrative Assistant to the Director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies, Dr. Michael A.G. Haykin.

Remembering Abraham Lincoln and the Second Inaugural Address

February 12th, 2009 Posted in 19th Century

Today is the birthday of two key figures: Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865). What follows are some reflections on Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. I have enormous respect for Lincoln and in what follows I reflect on one of his most profound statements, his reflection on the American Civil War. It is a reflection that reveals Lincoln at his very best. For a reflection on Darwin, see Dr. Albert Mohler’s blog for today, “Charles Darwin and the Modern Mind.”

The American Civil War (1861-1865) was the most violent experience in American history. At least 620,000 soldiers were killed in the war—2% of the American population in 1860. If the same percentage of Americans were killed in a war today, the number of American war dead would exceed five million. Moreover, an unknown number of civilians, virtually all of them in the South, died from causes such as disease, hunger or exposure brought about by the war. As a result, more Americans died in the Civil War than in all of America’s other wars combined.

One of the most remarkable statements of what God was doing in the Civil War comes from the pen of Abraham Lincoln, who does not appear to have been a Christian. It was Saturday, March 4, 1865, the day of Lincoln’s second inauguration. Preceding that day there had been weeks of wet weather that had caused Pennsylvania Avenue to become an ocean of mud. So it was that thousands of spectators stood in thick mud at the Capitol grounds to hear the President. In little more than a month, he would be assassinated.

By the date of Lincoln’s second inauguration, the tide of war had turned in favour of the Union, and the end was in sight. “The tone of the address, however, is subdued rather than triumphant, and it rises to a rare pitch of eloquence, marked by a singular combination of tenderness and determination” [“American Historical Documents, 1000–1904. The Harvard Classics. 1909–14. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address” (]. It is a theologically intense speech that has been widely acknowledged as one of the most remarkable documents in American history.

A journalist by the name of Noah Brooks, an eyewitness to the speech, said that as Lincoln advanced from his seat, “a roar of applause shook the air, and, again and again repeated, finally died away on the outer fringe of the throng, like a sweeping wave upon the shore. Just at that moment the sun, which had been obscured all day, burst forth in its unclouded meridian splendor, and flooded the spectacle with glory and with light.” Brooks said Lincoln later told him, ‘Did you notice that sunburst? It made my heart jump.” According to Brooks, the audience received the speech in “profound silence,” although some passages provoked cheers and applause.

In this address Lincoln gives one of profoundest theological interpretations of the Civil War:

“One eighth of the whole population were…slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Notice Lincoln’s conviction about the inscrutability of God’s will, a humble agnosticism about the purposes of God. Lincoln declares this in the form of a thesis: “The Almighty has His own purposes.” He then quotes Matthew 18:7 to suggest the moral character of life under God: “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” Then he looks squarely into the abyss that almost none of his contemporaries could bear to contemplate: “If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences…” The abyss is the suggestion that responsibility for the war might be shared.

One sees clearly Lincoln’s anti-slavery position, but his final paragraph is astounding. How different from both the Northern and Southern theologians who were quite certain God was on their respective sides!

As Mark Noll, to whom the above commentary is deeply indebted [ “ ‘Both…Pray to the Same God’: The Singularity of Lincoln’s Faith in the Era of the Civil War”, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, 18, no.1 (1997).] has rightly said: “The theological puzzle of the Civil War thus reveals a theological tragedy, both for those who retained profundity at the expense of Christianity and those who retained Christianity at the expense of profundity.”

Pondering Emerson’s individualism

February 11th, 2009 Posted in Uncategorized

“Insist on yourself; never imitate.” So Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) in 1841. Before now I had read only a sermon of Emerson. But today I bought Barack Obama, The Inaugural Address (Penguin, 2009), a kind of keepsake edition. And combined with it were three addresses by Abraham Lincoln—his two inaugural addresses and The Gettysburg Address—and also Emerson’s Self-Reliance, which has the above quoted statement.

It is so Western, so quintessentially Enlightenment. And in one key sense, so fundamentally non-Christian. It militates against mentoring and advocates individualism to the highest degree. Yet, for me, Christianity increasingly is learning a path from others who have gone before. Hebrews 11 is so central to my vision of what it means to be a Christian. Of course, there is a place for doing what God has called you specifically to do—but Emerson’s thought is a plea for dismantling all the authorities and carving out your own philosophical vision.

To me, the whole project is horrifying and I understand why Emerson’s contemporary John Henry Newman (1801-1890) reacted so strongly against it and ended up embracing the authority of Rome. While I do not think that is the answer, his rejection of such rank exaltation of the individual is instinctually correct.

Listen to Dr. Haykin on

February 10th, 2009 Posted in Uncategorized

In addition to the audio available on this page, you may also listen to messages/lectures given by Dr. Haykin in a variety of contexts at  There are over 100 lectures available for free download on that site (registration required).

Posted by Steve Weaver, Research and Administrative Assistant to the Director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies, Dr. Michael A.G. Haykin.

“Stupid security and dissipation”

February 9th, 2009 Posted in Uncategorized

One of my monthly delights is to receive the monthly newsletter of The John Newton Project ( edited by Marylynn Rouse. In the latest she has this quote, it could be describing our day to a tee:

John Newton in a letter to William Wilberforce on March 19, 1795 noted: “My heart is pained by the prevalence of sin and misery, and the evidences of God’s displeasure, against a nation that has long enjoyed and long abused, more light, liberty and prosperity, than was ever vouchsafed to any people upon the face of the earth. And even now that his hand is so awfully lifted up, they will not see. Stupid security, and dissipation prevail everywhere.”

120 years ago, roughly 75% of people in Ontario sat under an evangelical ministry. What is it today? 7%? Are we not in the same situation of the inhabitants of 18th century England?

French Canadian Calvin 500 Conference

February 2nd, 2009 Posted in Uncategorized

Dr. Haykin is scheduled to speak at a conference in Quebec on October 23-24, 2009.  For more information see here.

Posted by Steve Weaver, Research and Administrative Assistant to the Director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies, Dr. Michael A.G. Haykin.