What do I know now that I didn’t know forty years ago? Some personal reflections.
I am now sixty – what do I know now that I didn’t know when I was twenty?
At twenty I had already completed my first degree at the University of Glasgow (M.A.) I had the privilege of starting university at a very early age; not unusual in these days. At 17 I moved from the rather restrictive regime of school to the liberating experience of university.
I don’t think I have ever been more happy than these first three years at university. I enjoyed the discipline of academic study and found that my chosen majors, (moral philosophy and religious studies), introduced me to a world of ideas that were mind expanding. I practically lived in the university with 11 and 12 hour days, mostly spent in the library.
I made new friends and the fact that my then girlfriend, (40 years my wife this year), also joined me at Glasgow University in my second year meant that we were together most of the day. It wasn’t all hard work - each day was punctuated by breaks for cheap meals, table tennis and table football, and deep theological discussions and debates.
But more important that intellectual growth was spiritual growth. I discovered an evangelical heritage that was new to me. Often this was serendipitous – I loved to physically prowl the stacks and examine the dusty tomes that appeared not to have been opened in years. In this way I discovered the Nichols Series of Puritan Reprints, the works of Calvin and the writings of orthodox Scottish divines. None were relevant to my course of study as such, but all were influential on my spiritual formation.
I was also privileged to attend the Christian Union regularly and hear some of the outstanding Scottish preachers of the day. This was at a time when CU consisted of a short time of worship followed by an extended time of in depth exposition rather than an extended time of worship followed by a short address. There was no internet in these days; the only way to hear these great preachers was in the flesh and CU gave a unique opportunity to do so.
I also owe a great debt of gratitude to the Free Presbyterian Church, not necessarily a body that you would expect to have an influence outwith their own small communion. In two ways the FPs benefited me. They had a small book shop on my route to the university and I often broke my journey to browse their shelves. Here I discovered works by Cornelius Van Til , Gordon H Clark, - yes, they stocked both but probably kept them apart on the shelves – and John Murray. These were completely new to me.
But I only discovered the FP book shop through the faithful witness of a number of students who had a weekly book table in our refectory. There they sold the Banner of Truth paperbacks that were being reprinted in cheap editions. On many an occasion I choose to spend my money on the books rather than the meals that the refectory offered. I don’t even remember the names of the young men who ran this book stall but I am eternally grateful that they chose to do so.
I also had the immense privilege of a solid evangelical expository ministry in my own church. As a child I was taught the Bible in Sunday School and as a teenager there was a weekly bible based talk thoroughly grounded on Scripture. My minister was not a big name; he was a quiet man who seemed almost out of place in a working class congregation. But week by week he faithfully and in depth proclaimed the Bible and I was shown the deep riches of biblical faith.
So, to return to my opening question, what do I know now that I didn’t know then. At the risk of being misunderstood I want to say, “Not a lot.”
Yes, I have a wider knowledge of the Bible and theological disciplines, (and life), but essentially my theological views were formed by the time I was twenty. I have nurtured these core beliefs; I have not changed them. It is owing to the influences experienced in my teens that I am the man I am today.
Foundations are important, and I would encourage men in their late teens and early twenties to lay down solid foundations. Be greedy for opportunities for spiritual growth. Grasp the opportunity to hear the best preachers, but do not neglect the local church ministry of men who are not big names. Read, and not just the latest blockbusters from Reformed megastars. Read the classics of Reformed theology, especially works of experiential Calvinism. Mark Twain is quoted as having said "A “Classic” is a book which people praise and don't read." Don’t let the Reformed classics gather dust on your shelves. Better to read a few good books well than a multitude of mediocre books.
Don't waste the early years of adulthood; build a solid foundation.