Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Amateur historians everywhere, take heart

"An honest professional job of any kind deserves equal respect; an honest amateur job merits a different and less searching appraisal. We hear to-day a good deal about the absurdities of minute research, especially in Ph.D. theses. An eminent scientist has condemned those who crawl upon the frontiers of knowledge with a magnifying glass. [Whoever that scientist was, you have to admit, he knew something about Ph.D. research. - HCR]. But what is wrong with taking a magnifying glass to the frontiers of knowledge? Surely that is precisely where it is needed. Perhaps one may want some man at times to stand up, gaze around, and look beyond; but unless they have taken an active part in the painful mapping of the advancing frontier, the visionaries are nothing but a menace. I have no patience ... with the common attitude of contempt for the young student who labours on what may seem a narrow or petty subject and attempts to master the techniques of study which it can teach, though I would agree that the mature scholar who still seems to be at that stage of interest raises one's doubts and hackles. Except for examiners, who are paid for it, no one needs to read Ph.D. dissertations, but those who flatter themselves that they can make a valid distinction between what is important and what merely superfluous in such enterprises, elevate personal taste to the level of a critical standard. Judging thus, they have no answer to those who sniff at their own splendid and ranging edifices because they think them unsound or (this can happen) tedious. Research work of this journeyman kind deserves to be judged by the only tests it seeks to satisfy: is it honest and exhaustive, has it asked questions that are right and adequate in the context of the problem, has it found reasonable answers, does it prove the author to have learned his trade? And much the same point applies beyond the stage of the Ph.D. dissertation. Good and bad work can be done at all stages of historical enterprise; and the standard of quality to apply must be defined as intellectual honesty and intellectual penetration within the compass of the problem investigated."

- G. R. Elton, The Practice of History (1967), p. 34-35

Creeds & Confessions

The good folks at reformation21 have just posted two excellent articles on creeds and confessions by two of my favorite church historians, Carl Trueman and Chad Van Dixhoorn.

In A Good Creed Seldom Goes Unpunished, Trueman compares the pros and cons of creeds and confessions by contrasting two oppossing viewpoints in the evangelical world: those who narrowly confess 'no creed but the bible' and those who essentially equate creeds/confessions with the bible. He then supplies his rationale for a via media.

In short, I regard creeds as important because they are documents approved by the church, or at least by particular churches, and thus have more status than the writings of any individual Christian; they generally represent in intention a desire to reflect consensus among Christians; their negative, boundary-setting thrust means that they leave room for discussion, disagreement and thoughtful theologizing, albeit within churchly limits; and they essentially focus on the real core doctrines. In sum, I might say that they give those of us who adhere to them a place to stand both doctrinally and historically, and thus to lay our views open for appropriate public scrutiny and challenge.

Van Dixhoorn provides a birds-eye view of of the Westminster Confession in his article, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Today. He argues that confessions are written for both the church and the world. For churches, they provide a summary of its core beliefs. For the world, "These doctrinal statements announce that this is a church that has beliefs and is willing to list the most important ones for all to see." He then concludes with these remarks about the WCF,
And so it is that chapter by chapter, the Westminster Confession of Faith traces with bold strokes the great history of our redemption. The sad realities of the fall, God’s gracious covenants with man, the stunning announcement of salvation, and our sure hope of eternal life – all these are sketched out here in bold, but considered strokes. Who can read this text and not be warned that those who ignore the Holy Scripture are doomed to stumble through the world in darkness? And who can read this Confession and not see that those who embrace the true God, believe what he promises, and walk by his precepts, will never be without a guide or a light for this life? It is because of the clarity of this gospel message in all of its parts that the Westminster Confession of Faith finds itself in the first rank of great Christian creeds. Perhaps it is the wisest of creeds in its teaching and the finest in its doctrinal expression. Certainly it is a reliable guide to the Scriptures, which are the only guide to God. It is my hope that all who follow its directions will find their way to the Father’s home, through the grace and mercy of the Son and by the power of his Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A Puritan Prayer in Congregational Worship

I’ve just come across Bob Kauflin’s hymn, O Great God, from Sovereign Grace Ministries. It is based on a prayer from The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotion.

It made me turn from research to prayer and worship. I think it has all the marks of an excellent congregational hymn. There is good theology in it, the music expresses the sense of the lyrics well and is appropriately composed for congregational use. Its striking quality is not the depth of theological expression as one may find in say Charitie Bancroft’s Before the Throne of God Above, but rather the honesty and inevitable posture of humility that one is led into in its use. The first verse goes:

O great God of highest heaven
Occupy my lowly heart
Own it all and reign supreme
Conquer every rebel power
Let no vice or sin remain
That resists Your holy war
You have loved and purchased me
Make me Yours forevermore

Click here to listen to how it’s sung and here for the other verses. What do you think?

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Monday, February 26, 2007

On Austerity: Some "Very Serious" Thoughts

To my knowledge, I have never been accused of being an overly serious person. That has always been fine with me. But when I started to spend a lot of time reading books by puritans and about puritans, a little comparison was unavoidable. When any of us rip our eyes from the television long enough to cast them in an historical direction, these men stand as early-rising, prayer-closet-sitting, eloquent pillars of passion and proclamation. Owen, Perkins, Flavel, Goodwin, Rutherford, Sibbes, Edwards – the names alone conjure images of exalted collars and chiseled faces. Their lives, often riddled with acute suffering, only add weight to our reading of their meticulous theology. These were not hollow men. Very little shadow fell between theoretical and applied piety.

Enter, Tim Bridges. I laugh at The Simpsons and have been known to spend more than a fleeting moment contemplating the sheer joy of cookies. Is my study of these men destined be an endless parade of examples by whom I am utterly put to shame? When unguarded after a few hours of reading, I grit my teeth and decide to memorize Jonathan Edwards’ Resolutions so that I can refer to them the next time I am called on to pray at a gathering: “Oh, Lord, thank you that I am resolved to…” I revolutionize my ‘visitation schedule’ so I can read Richard Baxter with a sense of proud camaraderie. I write a short story so Bunyan will be no stumbling block for me. I learn to articulate the ‘L’ in TULIP so I can look Owen in the eye without blinking. Above all, I learn to behave in such a way that people count me among the austere. Ah, a puritan at last.

There is a danger of falling so in love with the behaviors of Puritans, that we fail to see the God by whom the puritans were enraptured. Put a slightly different way, there is a difference between someone who is austere because they take God seriously and someone who is austere because they take themselves too seriously. For one, austerity is a byproduct of a far grander pursuit. For the other, austerity is sadly an end in itself. Often these two people use the same language, read the same books, and listen to the same sermons. Their view of God could not be more different, however.

I certainly profit from the example of the puritans. I value the model of discipline they provide for us. On the other hand, I have found that the more I focus on their ‘disciplines’ the smaller God seems to me. When wrongly approached, the disciplines have also been a source of pride for me. After all, it is possible to tell no one of my fasting and praying and still report it to myself hourly. Conversely, the more I think on the grandeur and glory of the puritan’s God, the more their disciplines become welcome friends that allow me to better know Him. When I read a truly astounding puritan example, I now try (and often fail) to ask, “What about God made him that way?” What attribute of God inspired Baxter to so feverishly attend to his pastoral duties? Who was God to John Owen? Who is the Christ who so enthralled Samuel Rutherford that he could write, “In a word, I am a fool, and He is God. I will hold my peace hereafter”[1] and “Welcome the cross if Christ be with it.”[2] What in God’s character produced the puritan character? If I search the Scriptures to answer these questions I can be a joyful imitator of God, not just a serious impersonator of men.

[1] Rutherford’s Letters. Lxix.
[2] Ibid., Viii.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Sovereign Grace Ministries' Valley of Vision CD

Read more here. Buy a copy here.

Not familiar with the Valley of Vision, that excellent compendium of Puritan prayers? Go here.


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