Monday, 30 June 2014

Worship-like Concert

I have, sadly, sometimes been at worship that seemed more like a concert, where entertainment dominated over edification.  It is a pleasant change to be at a concert that seemed more like worship.

School finished on Wednesday at 1:30; at 5:30 my wife and I were sitting in St Salvador's Chapel, St Andrews, for a graduation concert.  Members of the public mingled with graduates and their families for this end of session celebration.

As I looked at the concert programme I realised that apart from two traditional Scottish airs that would close the concert the rest of the programme was sacred music. Not only sacred music, but Scriptural words set to music. I commented to my wife that this could almost be a Free Church service, with psalms and biblically based hymns !

Henry Purcell
“I was glad” – Psalm 122
“Rejoice in the Lord always” – Philippians 4:4-7
"I will give thanks unto the Lord" - Psalm 111

William Boyce, “Jubilate in C” – Psalm 100

Handel “Fague in B-flat”, instrumental

William Jackson, “Hear Me O God” - various psalms:

“I have taken the liberty of collecting sentiments scattered through various psalms, in and about the sixty ninth psalm. I have brought such thoughts together as might naturally occur to a mind oppressed with affliction, and at last deriving hope from a remembrance of former mercies:

“Hear me, O God, in the multitude of thy mercy; they that are my enemies are mighty! Hide not thy face from thy servant, o haste thee and hear me.

Deliver me out of the hand of the ungodly, out of the hand of the unrighteous and cruel man. Cast me not away in the time of my age, forsake me not when my strength faileth.  Thou hast been my succour, O leave me not, forsake me not, O God of my salvation!
In thee, O Lord, I put my trust, have mercy upon me; so will I thank thee with my whole heart, and praise thy name for evermore!”

I suppose that there were those in the audience who were only there because of the occasion and who appreciated neither the words nor the music.  Others may have been aesthetically moved by the beautiful music, but were untouched by the words.  What a blessing to be there as a Christian, to revel in the music that is an exhibition of God’s common grace to composers of fine music and singers of talent, and to have the added benefit of appreciating the words that were set to this music.  I uttered a silent prayer that some might have the double blessing from this fine musical performance.

William Cunningham

First week of holiday and down to some serious reading – my wife hardly believes that I find this relaxing but it is so good to have time to indulge exploring theological literature of a bygone age.  Also, the marvel of the Kindle means I can take it with me anywhere, relaxing at the caravan park, on the beach, in the bath, or sitting contentedly while my wife does some serious clothes shopping – no longer the impatient and frustrated husband but the new “Take as long as you need, dear” model husband.

I have started with some theological biography.  William Cunningham will be known to the initiated as one of the Free Church of Scotland “fathers”

To quote Theopedia:

“William Cunningham (1805-1861) was an eminent Scottish theologian in the Reformed tradition and one of the founders of the Free Church of Scotland. Cunningham is remembered primarily as a defender of Calvinism and the doctrine of the Trinity. He is one of the great resources on the history of the Reformation. Selected Titles include: Historical Theology; The Principal Doctrinal Discussions in the Christian Church Since the Apostolic Age; and The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation.”

I had known Cunningham the theologian through his Historical Theology and also The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation. Now I had the opportunity to get to know Cunningham the man, the Christian, and the pastor.

Start with the fine introduction to his sermons, written by John Bonar, ( ). 

We see that despite his massive learning Cunningham was a cross centred preacher whose sermons were filled with evangelistic zeal.  He preached simply, so that the ordinary hearers could benefit. 

He was an expository preacher, “Conversant with the Word as a student, and knowing the power of it himself, he resolved, at the outset of his course, to bring the mind of his people as much as possible into contact with the mind of God, by continuous exposition of the whole Bible.”

Cunningham entered his theological training as an unregenerate Moderate, who contemptuously dismissed the “ravings” of evangelicals such as Chalmers.  But God was to change him:

During his undergraduate period, influences to which he hitherto had been a stranger came to bear upon him, and, ere his literary curriculum was quite finished, Light, which no darkness can withstand, was shed into his soul, and in Christ he became a new creation. The Divine finger had touched his soul, and, after a calm, but searching inquiry into the wants he felt, as also into the way by which the Scriptures showed these wants could alone be met, he reached a wide place of freedom, by casting himself, with the meekness of a little child, on the propitiation of Jesus Christ.”

Cunningham was not only a Confessional theologian, he was a Confessional preacher:

“In the Standards of his Church he recognised the exact sense and full amount of Scripture, and by the Confession and Catechisms he persistently held, lie had studied them, and so he understood them ; he understood them, and therefore he believed them ; but believing them, in not one article did he attempt either to evacuate or evade them. With him credendada were credita ; and earnestly did he maintain, that as the Bible is the meaning of God, so the Confession is the meaning of the Bible.”

He was a practical preacher, setting forth the duties and responsibilities of Christian living based on Calvinistic doctrine:

“One great objection to the Calvinistic scheme Dr. Cunningham advocated, is, that it gives such prominence to Grace as to weaken the basis of morals and endanger the claims of holiness. But, on the other hand, his conviction was, that all authoritative motive was bound up in the Gospel, and that Grace was the surest bulwark of Law — the only fountain of Duty. He early saw that Calvinism was resented as much as dogma which demanded implicit submission, as doctrine which set forth mysterious truth ; but his watchword was, ' no dogma, no duty,' ' no doctrine, no obedience'; and he was the most practical of preachers, because of all preachers he was the most evangelical. Holding that the greatest amount of ethical power is concentrated in the truth of the Gospel, he would on no occasion deliver a practical Discourse, without exhibiting the doctrine on which it rested ; and neither did he at any time deliver a doctrinal Sermon, without pointing out how it should determine and govern practice.”

Enough, I hope, to whet the appetite and to lead you on to the fuller “Life of William Cunningham” by Robert Rainy, ( )

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Normative vs. Regulative.

The confessional standards of Presbyterianism commit us to the Regulative Principle of Worship – only that which is commanded is permitted in worship.  This contrasts with the Normative Principle of Worship found in Anglicanism and Lutheranism, that anything not explicitly forbidden is thereby permitted in worship.

In this last week I have been reading the excellent short study by D G Hart, “With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship”.

One passage that struck me was his discussion of the suggestion that in addition to the Godward aspect of worship, good worship also contains a horizontal or manward direction :

“Good worship, some maintain, should contain both of these features, blending the vertical Godward elements with the horizontal “edifying” elements.

But the principal of covenantal or dialogical worship, following biblical patterns of worship, challenges this distinction by insisting that all worship is vertical.  It is a holy transaction or conversation between God and his people.  It is not a conversation among god’s people. When we greet our neighbours in the next pew or when we listen to testimonies, we are not worshipping God.  As edifying as these activities may be, and as encouraging as they are in the appropriate setting, corporate worship is a time when the dialog goes back and forth between God and his people. It is a time – and one of the rare times during our busy weeks – when we need to hear that God is faithful and continues to be our God, and when we reaffirm our vows to be his faithful people.”  (Page 96)

Do we still accept the Regulative Principle?  It is easy to think that our adjustments to worship enhance it and our experience. Hart notes that these additions to worship may be, indeed often are, edifying and encouraging in a different context.  For example, welcoming visitors before worship or speaking to them after worship should be encouraged as a Christian responsibility.  However, to break the flow of worship in order to chat to a neighbour is inappropriate.  Similarly church notices are important, but they can be given before worship begins rather than during worship as a sort of advertising break.

Sometimes the time before worship begins can be a bit of a rabble. This is before the call to worship, so technically the day to day gossip is not violating worship but it does hinder preparation for worship.

“It is very important that we take time to prepare our hearts to worship God before we set foot in the sanctuary on Sunday morning. God made this clear amid the awesome circumstances of the giving of the law in Exodus 19. God called the people to prepare to come into His presence, or near His presence, but not actually onto the mountain where He would speak to Moses. “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their clothes. And let them be ready for the third day. For on the third day the LORD will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people’” (Ex. 19:10–11). God wanted the people of Israel, before they came near to Him, to get ready to come near to Him, to prepare themselves for an encounter with Him.

Our church service begins at 10:30 a.m. At 10:20, we turn the lights down and begin the prelude. This is the signal for our people to begin preparing for worship. By contrast, God gave Israel two days to prepare.”  ( R C Sproul, Five Things Every Christian Needs to Grow)

So do greet visitors warmly before the service and continue the conversations after worship, but like a football player warming up for a game, take the last five minutes before worship to calm your soul and consider the awesome and glorious privilege of entering into God’s presence.  Prepare your heart for the blessing of worship.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Continuing Sad Decline into Apostasy in Mainline Presbyterianism.

Continuing Sad Decline into Apostasy in Mainline Presbyterianism.

News today, 20th July: DETROIT (AP) - The top legislative body of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted by large margins Thursday to recognize same-sex marriage as Christian in the church constitution, adding language that marriage can be the union of "two people," not just "a man and a woman."
The PCUSA Assembly also voted to allow ministers to conduct same sex marriage in church, in States where this is now legal. During this long (over 10 year) campaign the PCUSA has lost about 37% of its membership, and some 428 congregations have left for more biblical Presbyterian denominations.
“What one generation tolerates, the next generation will embrace.”  (Wesley)
Will our friends in the Church of Scotland who continue to believe either that the denomination can be persuaded to return to a biblical stance or that it would be wrong to leave at this time genuinely think that the current situation in the National Church will not deteriorate further?
The sad fact is that, not only will there be further inroads from the Liberal Agenda, but that the evangelicals themselves will be influenced and move to an accommodation that actually embraces the error in question.  This in fact is what happened on the issue of Woman’s Ordination.  First there was, on the part of evangelicals, opposition, then there was tolerance and accommodation, and finally the whole-hearted embrace of this practice.  If history repeats itself, how long before the first CofS “evangelical” changes his or her mind and “discovers” that Scripture actually does embrace homosexual marriage and actively practicing homosexuals in office?
Meanwhile the gap at an ecclesiastical level becomes even wider. 
Some CofS evangelicals think that they can embrace an apostate denomination but still be accepted at the corporate level by more consistent biblical denominations and churches.  Actions do have consequences – the decision to remain “united” to a mainline apostate body is equally a decision to “disunite” or dissociate from biblical fellowship with evangelical bodies.  They should not be surprised then when eventually those who hold to the supreme authority of Scripture and the necessity of discipline within the corporate body of Christ feel that those who compromise with error cannot themselves be embraced but must be kept at arm’s length for their disorderly and divisive conduct.
To quote the doctrinal basis of one trans-denominational evangelical partnership: “The unity of the body of Christ is expressed within and between local churches by mutual love, care and encouragement.  True fellowship between churches exists only where they are faithful to the gospel.”
The future for mainline evangelicals looks like a double isolation.  Isolated within the mainline church where they are no longer welcome but seen as exhibiting “antiquated gangsterism” and are dismissed as “grumbling grunters” who stand in the way of progress, (to quote recent Moderatorial attacks); but also isolated from other evangelical and Reformed fellowships who can no longer turn a blind eye to their compromise. Not a happy position to be in – but not an inescapable position because there is a way out through separation from the apostasy of the liberal mainline denomination. Sadly intransigence will see many choose to remain united to the body of death rather than experience the liberation of being part of a truly biblical denomination or fellowship of churches.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Virgin Birth

Preaching through the Shorter Catechism we returned for the second part of our mediation on Q22.  We use “Learning the Christian Faith: The Shorter Catechism for Today”, by Roland Ward,  which includes brief commentary, an appendix on church government, and a useful overview of church history.

Q: How did Christ, being the Son of God, become man?
A: Christ, the Son of God, became man, by taking to himself a true body, and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and born of her, yet without sin.

It did strike me that often we confine our preaching on the Virgin Birth to the period around Christmas – a once a year passing reference to the mystery of Christ’s conception.  Given that in the Scottish Reformed tradition some churches choose not to celebrate Christmas or the Advent season, sermons on the means of Christ’s incarnation may be very few and far between.  In addition to this the neglect, indeed antipathy, in some evangelical Presbyterian circles to the use of the Belief, (the Scottish term for the Apostles Creed, as used by the Scottish Reformers and the Church of Scotland from 1564), also means that the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ “was conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary” is rarely rehearsed in congregational worship.

We do not restrict our preaching of the cross to Easter. Why should we restrict the preaching of the Virgin Birth to Christmas?  This fundamental non-negotiable truth of Christology has immense practical as well as doctrinal significance, therefore it should be proclaimed regularly. The fact that a 2004 Sunday Times survey showed that 37% of Scottish ministers reject the Virgin Birth – and the figure would probably be greater now – means that this is a truth that is either neglected, denied or re-interpreted by a significant number in the mainline liberal church.  (The survey was only of Church of Scotland ministers.)

We can only counteract such neglect and false teaching by frequent reference to the mystery of Christ’s incarnation in our worship, (using the Creed), in our preaching, and in our catechetical instruction.  The Virgin Birth is too good to keep only for Christmas!

Monday, 16 June 2014

Antinomian Novel

Current discussion within Reformed circles on antinomianism turns my thoughts to that groundbreaking classic of Scottish literature, “The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner” or to give it its full title “The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner: Written by Himself: With a Detail of Curious Traditionary Facts and Other Evidence by the Editor”.

This work by James Hogg was published anonymously in 1824.  It was truly radical, introducing a double narrative written firstly by Robert Cowlan, the Justified Sinner of the title, and then from another  perspective by the Editor.  The first narrative gives an insight into the troubled mind of Robert Cowlan; the other is a supposedly objective narrative of the external facts of the case – the murder by Robert of his brother George.

It pioneered the genre of the psychological thriller, so ably built upon by R L Stevenson in “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”. However, the story can only truly be followed by someone who has at least a passing awareness of Presbyterian theology and that aberration of true Calvinism that exhibited itself in extreme antinomianism hiding under a cloak of religion.  Robert was “elect”, therefore he could not sin.  His sins, however cruel and monstrous, were covered by Christ’s sacrifice.

Without doubt many of the proponents of antinomianism were themselves godly individuals.  But some who followed their teaching moved in the direction of “free from the Law, oh glorious position; I can sin as I please and still get remission.”  They moved in the direction of a life that was not so much liberated as libertine.

James Hogg was known as the Ettrick Shepherd.  Of course the title is given to him for the very mundane reason that he was from Ettrick, in the Scottish Borders, and he started life as a shepherd before rising to the literary height that made him, in his time, a better known name than our national poet Robert Burns.

Those who know the history of the church in Scotland know that there was another “Ettrick Shepherd” – the incomparable Thomas Boston who edited “The Marrow of Modern Divinity” that sought to chart a clear path between legalism and antinomianism.  I wonder if Hogg ever read Boston?  Certainly they share this in common – both are buried in the Ettrick kirk yard.