Archive for July, 2011

Is the study of Andrew Fuller and Fullerism worthwhile?

July 23rd, 2011 Posted in 18th Century, Andrew Fuller, Baptist Life & Thought

Why devote a significant amount of one’s academic career to focus on a figure, namely, Andrew Fuller, who is nowhere near as well known as say, Athanasius, Anselm, Calvin, Owen of Edwards? Is it worth doing? A comment by the great historical theologian Geoffrey Bromiley has never left me in the many years since I read it: As a Christian academic, pour your energy into what is worthwhile. Is the study of Fuller and Fullerism worthwhile? The unequivocal answer is yes!

Fuller exemplifies for me the best in Baptist thought and piety. He was rigorous in defence of the Christian faith and an unashamed Baptist (he did, after all, argue for a closed communion over against his close friends William Carey and William Ward). He knew that piety was the vital fire to ignite the coals of doctrine. His love for his family and friends was remarkable: Carey’s three words when he heard of his death sum it all up, “I loved him,” he said. He was catholic and reformed in the best sense of those terms, and could well be described as a reformed catholic theologian, as Owen and Benjamin Keach have recently been so described. He was the main disseminator of Edwardsean theology in the UK in the nineteenth century, and true to his mentor, Edwards, passionately missional. Little wonder, Spurgeon rightly commented to his son that Fuller was the greatest theologian the Baptists had in the nineteenth century.

Did he get everything right? No. But that does not diminish from his greatness. Spending time elucidating his thought is time indeed well spent.

Baptist origins: my main point

July 21st, 2011 Posted in Uncategorized

In discussing Baptist origins in a recent post, brother Vaidas responded thus:

“Professor, we discussed your reflections on Baptist origins with NOBTS Baptist Heritage professor. My professor made a good point and mentioned that you overlooked the idea that Baptists were aware of their Anabaptist cousins. Knowledge of existence and beliefs of Anabaptists influenced Separatists as they became Baptists. Also could it be that you understate the importance of General Baptists. It looks like that General Baptists did precede the Particular Baptists.”

True, there was an awareness on the part of the early Baptists about their Anabaptist cousins: so what? My point was that the 17th century Baptists were not extensively reading their writings. They were not meditating on those writings. Nor was the ethos and ambience and culture of the early Baptists an Anabaptist one, it was a Puritan one. That was my basic point. The entire web of Baptist culture was primarily woven from Puritan strands. If there were some Anabaptist strands they were small and negligible. This has got nothing to do with whether the Anabaptists had it right or wrong, or whether their experience is a usable past. And it has little to do with contemporary Baptist politics, where some want to revise the past so they can feel comfortable with it. I am trying to see through those early Baptist eyes and feel through their skin.

General Baptists important? Sure, they preceded the Particulars. That is well known and a given, but again so what? If importance is solely linked to chronology, sure they were important, but I am thinking of influence through Rezeptionsgeschichte. If it is a matter of Rezeptionsgeschichte, then the seventeenth-century General Baptists are of next to no significance in understanding the transatlantic Baptist community in the long eighteenth century (1680s–1830s). The vast majority of them were sucked into Unitarian bogs in the early eighteenth century, never to be seen again. There was a revived rivulet led by Dan Taylor—but in the overall schema, they are not important until the nineteenth century when we have some interesting Baptist explanations about their history à la Landmarkism emerge, and we have some nostalgic Victorian Baptists looking for Baptist roots, somewhat akin to the larger Victorian culture awash with nostalgia for medievalia.

Once again: my main point is this: what was the main river that shaped Baptist culture? I am arguing it was Puritan. It amazes me that much of the hard work of explaining who Baptists are still remains: and Rezeptionsgeschichte is vital in this work.

What is intangible

July 21st, 2011 Posted in Uncategorized

When human beings—whatever their spiritual or ideological orientation—work together, there is brought into being an ambience, an ethos, a culture. This is a given, for this is how human beings have been made. Humans are culture-fashioners. And there is a feel to their being-together that in some ways is an intangible, something almost indefinable. But it is known and felt as soon as one spends time in the presence of this group of people or at their meetings. This is as true for office staffs as political caucuses and as real for astronomy faculties, law firms and churches. And sometimes the ambience is at odds with the public face of the group. One thing is affirmed publicly, but the reality of what is experienced is different.

As I reflect on my experience of Christian groups, some seemed outwardly more narrow than others in their confession, yet what warmth of love within. Others projected themselves as open and progressive, yet the internal dynamics were really quite nasty. Others affirmed a commitment to God’s sovereignty, yet were paralyzed by fear.

Not surprisingly, the love and nastiness and fear were never dwelt upon publicly: but any time spent in the group soon revealed the reality. O may our gatherings and groups be marked in truth by the ambience and the culture of the Spirit!

Patristics and Catholics: a response to Michael Coren

July 18th, 2011 Posted in Uncategorized

Ian Clary, my former assistant at Toronto Baptist Seminary, offers a critique of Michael Coren’s recent book Why Catholics Are Right (McClelland & Stewart, 2011) that gives a proper reading to patristic sources:

Baptist origins: questions, yet two realities

July 18th, 2011 Posted in Uncategorized

A portion of K. Scott Culpepper’s new book, Francis Johnson and the English Separatist Influence (Mercer University Press, 2011) got me thinking about Baptist origins again and the debate that is still raging about this area of Baptist history. Were the earliest Baptists in organic continuity with the New Testament, or were they indebted to the Anabaptists as well as the Puritan/Separatists have been the ruling questions in much of this discussion. It has never been solely a matter of historical research, as the resignation of Southern President W.H. Whitsitt in the early part of the last century reveals.

But politics aside, surely the two realities are these:

1) When all is said and done, whatever connection the earliest Baptists had with the Anabaptists, it was minimal. If Anabaptist writings were being read, they were definitely not being read heavily (indubitable proof of this is the paucity of quotes from their works in the seventeenth-century Baptists). What was being read by the earliest Baptists were the books of their Puritan contemporaries. This is a given. This means that the overwhelming major influence on early Baptist thought and piety and praxis was Puritan thought and spirituality.

2) The General Baptists were a minor force in seventeenth-century Baptist life and future influence was provided mostly by the Particular Baptists. Like it or not, this is also a given. If I want to know then something about classical Baptist witness, I need to read the Particulars and become conversant with their thought.

Neither of these affirmations means that the Baptist study of Anabaptist thought is misguided or a waste of time: the retrieval of Anabaptist convictions for contemporary witness may very well be helpful. But it is vital to know that Anabaptist influence cannot be retrieved from the English and Welsh Baptists of the seventeenth century.

A humorous tale of Dutch and Scots English

July 9th, 2011 Posted in Uncategorized

During the early summer of 1834, a Scottish Congregationalist minister made a visit to the European Continent for purposes of health as well with a view of learning something about the state of religion in Germany and the German universities in particular. Part of his time abroad he shared with an American missionary, especially some time spent in Holland. One Lord’s Day evening, they, with a party of other visitors, found themselves in Rotterdam, and decided to go to the Church of St. Lawrence, which the English minister noted at the time was “the largest in Rotterdam.” They had guides, but this minister and his American friend got separated from the larger party, and, he wrote later, “in a very short time, amid the multiplicity of canals, we lost our way, and had nothing for it but to enquire—no easy task to persons who could not speak a word of the [Dutch] language.” Adding to the problem was that there was hardly anybody on the streets, and the minister observed, “by this time Divine service had begun, and the Dutch are too orderly a people to be found in the streets at such a time”!

The minister then continued his account, and a delightful one it is too:

“At length, however, we espied two men, apparently sailors, advancing towards us, and to them we applied for assistance in French, as that which was most likely to be a lingua communis between us. A few words in Dutch intimated to us that we were not understood. English was then tried, and then German, but both in vain; nothing would do but Dutch, and of Dutch we knew nothing. The case was really one of extremity, and demanded desperate expedients. On recollecting, therefore, that there was still one language more of which I was master, and having some dim impression that I had somewhere read or heard of its affinity to the Dutch, I determined to make a trial of it, and accordingly with all due gravity and brevity I enquired, “Whaar is the Kirk of o’ Saunt Laurance ?” The experiment was successful; the men understood the question, and one of them proceeded to conduct us; while my companions, who had never heard good broad Scotch before, seemed to regard my sudden acquisition of what they though Dutch, as little less than a miracle.”

“Notes of a Tour on the Continent during the Earlier Part of the Summer of 1834. By a Dissenting Minister”, The Congregational Magazine, n.s. 11 (1835), 16–18.

Reading Oliver Cromwell: a beginner’s list

July 6th, 2011 Posted in Uncategorized

This past week, a close friend asked me, “What is the first thing I should read on Oliver Cromwell?”

Well, without being vain, I recommended my “To honour God”: The spirituality of Oliver Cromwell (Dundas, Ontario: Joshua Press, 1999), for the simple fact that reading an account of Cromwell’s piety enables you to get to the heart of the real man. This is what he was about. Or you could read H. F. Lovell Cocks, The Religious Life of Oliver Cromwell (London: Independent Press Ltd., 1960), which will give you the same perspective.

As for bios on Cromwell, my pastor, Bill Payne, who was a Cromwell aficionado, thought the best was John Buchan, Oliver Cromwell (London: Hodder and Stoughton, Ltd., 1934). Buchan served as the Governor-General of Canada and was an amazingly prolific author, best known today for his “thrillers.” There is the more recent bio by Antonia Fraser, Cromwell. Our Chief of Men (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973). It is amazing that, though, she is a Catholic writer, she is very fair to Cromwell. When my wife was in labour having our first child, Victoria, I took Fraser to the hospital to read while being with my wife! Not sure how much I read, but Fraser is a good read. But big.

More recently, there is Martyn Bennett, Oliver Cromwell (Routledge Historical Biographies; London/New York: Routledge, 2006), an excellent re-appraisal that is long overdue.

Finally, there is a fascinating book: Jonathan Fitzgibbons, Cromwell’s Head (Kew, Richmond, Surrey: The National Archives, 2008), an absolutely gripping read regarding the “reception history” of Cromwell’s reputation in England after his death via the story of his head, literally! You gotta read it.

The confession of an impatient historian

July 5th, 2011 Posted in Uncategorized

“Make haste slowly” is a proverbial remark that was apparently often found on the mouth of Augustus Caesar, the man responsible for ordering the census that led to the birth of the Lord Jesus at Bethlehem. “Make haste slowly”: I, for one, have spent a lifetime learning the lessons of this proverb. Of course, it is writ large in the history of the people of God. It is there for all to see, but…I am an impatient man.

Why the four hundred years or more between the prophet Malachi and the birth of Jesus?

Why the long stretch of the Middle Ages? Whether from 500–1500, the old way of counting it, or the newer preferred calculation of 750 or so to 1330 or so (from the deaths of the Venerable Bede and John of Damascus, the close of the era of the Ancient Church to the birth of John Wycliffe, the Morningstar of the Reformation). While this period is not as grim and glum as found in the reading of the older Protestant divines, still it is a far cry from the glories of the Ancient Church or the Reformation! Why so long?

Why did the British Anglicans experience revival in the 1730s and 1740s, but it took the English Calvinistic Baptists another fifty years to find renewal—when, if God had not intervened, they would have become little better than a dunghill in society (Andrew Fuller’s perceptive comment—don’t take offence, he had been raised on a farm!)?

Oh, I can give historical reasons for these delays, especially regarding the last example which I have spent years delightfully contemplating. But why did God not speed up the process?

As an historian, I should have seen his way in the past and learnt wisdom for my own life. But, no, I was impatient. I hated living in that place of being “between the times.”

But when he acts, it is glorious: the Church’s worship and preaching blazes with brightness like the sun; the eyes of God’s people sparkle and their mouths are filled with praise and they glory in the Triune God and him alone; and the Word of God rings forth and shakes the foundations of sin and establishes righteousness; and sinners are awakened and humbled and brought to bow the knee to Christ; and societal wrongs are righted; and there is a delight in what is true and good and beautiful abroad in the land; and we know experimentally (a great old word not exactly translatable as “experiential”) the truth of those line of Watts: “The hill of Zion yields a thousand sacred sweets/before we reach the heavenly fields, or walk the golden streets.”

So: all in God’s good timing—I can but hope and pray that this is that time for Ontario Baptists–and indeed for all Baptists in the western world!

“Young ministers need a guide”

July 5th, 2011 Posted in Uncategorized

John Angell James (1785–1859) was one of the great Congregationalist preachers of the nineteenth century. His ministry at Carrs Lane Independent Chapel in Birmingham began just after the death of my hero Samuel Pearce (1766–99), whom he seems to have always referred to as the “seraphic Pearce,” a term he probably picked up from John Ryland, Jr. He is little remembered now, though some of his works have been reprinted by the Banner of Truth and Quinta Press in recent years.

In doing work on Samuel Pearce, I found myself re-reading some of James’ Autobiography. One paragraph that I came across is quite striking and quite true:

“I cannot say that I was a very diligent student on my entrance upon the ministry. I was not, it is true, a loiterer or saunterer, but my reading was desultory, for want of a wise and settled plan. I am persuaded that young ministers need a guide through the first two or three years of their ministry, as much as they do at college; and it should be an object with their tutors before they finish their curriculum to give them some directions as to the manner of carrying on their mental improvement when they have entered upon their pastoral occupation.”

(The Autobiography of John Angell James [London: Hamilton, Adams & Co./Birmingham: Hudson & Son, 1864, 151).

Birmingham during the early ministry of James was quite a different place than it is now—and yet, this remark, how timeless.

Studying Ephesians, the quintessence of Paul

July 4th, 2011 Posted in Uncategorized

Back in the late 1990s, when I would be asked about the best commentary on Ephesians, I would have said Peter T. O’ Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians (Eerdmans/Apollos, 1999). It is part of a tremendous series of commentaries, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, edited by Don Carson. I would also have said that D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ monumental eight-volume series of sermons on this letter, published by Baker, should not be overlooked in any serious study of these letters.

I had also used with profit Markus Barth’ massive two-volume commentary on Ephesians—Ephesians (Doubleday, 1974)—which is great for much of the letter’s detail and background. But at times, Barth’s theology is driving his interpretation, and these two volumes need to be used with some caution.

Today, though the field has mushroomed: among the best commentaries now I would name Frank Thielman, Ephesians (Baker, 2010)—a very impressive piece of work—and Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians, also by Baker, 2002.

The “quintessence of Paulinism” is the way that F.F. Bruce once termed this marvelous letter—and these commentaries will take the serious student into this great letter’s depths.

I am thinking about these matters because this coming Wednesday evening (July 6) at Westminster Chapel in downtown Toronto ( we start what we hope will be the annual Westminster Summer Fellowship with the study of Ephesians. Come and join us, every Wednesday now through till August 17 as we look at this great book. The time of fellowship begins at 7:30pm. This Wed evening will be an overview of Ephesians by myself. Then, in coming weeks, speakers in coming weeks will be:

July 13, Joe Boot on Eph 1
July 20, Dan MacDonald on Eph 2
July 27, John Mahaffey on Eph 3
August 3, Glendon Thompson on Eph 4
August 10, Paul Martin on Eph 10
August 17, Victor Shepherd on Eph 17.

It promises to be a great summer of fellowship around the Word.