Thursday, June 26, 2008

Conventicle Q&A with Dr Stephen Yuille

Dr Stephen Yuille is the preaching elder at Braidwood Bible Chapel in Peterborough, Ontario. He is also a part-time Professor of Biblical Studies with Toronto Baptist Seminary. His doctoral work on George Swinnock was undertaken at the London School of Theology.

George Swinnock is a lesser-known Puritan. For the benefit of our readers, could you give us a very brief introduction to his life and explain how his writings compare to better known Puritans like Sibbes or Owen?

Unfortunately, very little is known of Swinnock. He was born in 1627 at Maidstone, Kent. He was raised in his uncle’s house. This might mean he was an orphan – we don’t know for certain. He graduated B.A. from Emmanuel College (Cambridge) in 1647 and Balliol College (Oxford) in 1650. He then became pastor at St. Mary’s chapel in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire. After eleven years, he moved to St. Nicholas’ chapel in Great Kimble, Buckinghamshire.

He had a family. We know this, because he makes several references in his writings to his wife and children. Of course, he was ejected for nonconformity in 1662. He survived for ten years by ministering in the home of Richard Hampden. Richard Hampden’s father, John, was famous for his participation in the parliamentary forces.

As a matter of fact, there’s still a memorial placard in his honour, located in the churchyard of St. Nicholas’ in Great Kimble. With the easing of political restrictions in 1672, Swinnock returned to Maidstone to become pastor. He died a year later at the age of forty-six. There are a few other details, but that is basically all we know about him.

As for his writings, I think they can be described in four words. (1) Theological. Swinnock is firmly rooted in Reformed theology, as particularly expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith. (2) Pastoral. Swinnock is a pastor-theologian. He’s rarely polemical. He’s chiefly concerned with the situational application of theology. This is evident in the fact that the vast majority of his writings are simply his published sermons. (3) Experimental. By this, I mean that Swinnock targets the heart. He most certainly doesn’t bypass the mind, but his primary goal is to stir the affections – the root of all action. (4) Colourful. Swinnock’s writings are packed with vivid illustrations, many of them taken from the realm of nature.

How did you come across Swinnock’s writings and what were the key factors that led you into doctoral research on him?

My wife’s parents live in a town in southern Ontario, where there’s a small Christian bookstore, connected with Reformation Heritage Books. Whenever we visit, I like to slip away to peruse the bookshelves for gems. On one occasion, I discovered Swinnock’s five volume set. As I was standing there, I read a sizeable portion of The Fading of the Flesh. I was hooked!

At the time, I was in the process of applying for admittance into the doctoral program at London School of Theology. For some months, I had been trying to define my area of research. I had set two criteria. First, I wanted to study an English Puritan, who was relatively unknown. No offense to all you Owen and Baxter scholars out there, but there are so many others! Second, I wanted to focus on the fear of God in Puritan theology and spirituality. Swinnock was a perfect fit.

Your doctoral work is now published under the title, Puritan Spirituality: the Fear of God in the Affective Theology of George Swinnock (Paternoster, 2007). Could you share with us the thrust of the book?

The preface provides a fairly concise summary of the book. It reads as follows:

“This book is about George Swinnock, a seventeenth-century English Puritan. It begins by defining his Puritanism as a spiritual movement to which political, ecclesiastical, and theological concerns were related in terms of cause and consequence. This is followed by an assessment of those influences that contributed in some way to the development of his spirituality.

Chapters three and four explore the foundation of Swinnock’s spirituality. At its root is a teleological understanding of the image of God in humanity that is based upon faculty-humour psychology. This means Swinnock views sanctification as the proper ordering of the soul’s faculties after the image of God. In other words, the head and heart perceive God to be the greatest good, resulting in renewed affections.

Chapters five to eight consider the expression of Swinnock’s spirituality. As a result of the proper ordering of the soul’s faculties, the individual delights in God’s law. Furthermore, the rational appetite exercises control over the sensitive appetite. According to Swinnock, this self-control (or moderation) is evident in every area of life – all actions, vocations, relations, and conditions.

To facilitate this mastery of the rational over the sensitive, he devotes himself to spiritual duties such as reading and praying. He views these as conduit-pipes whereby the Holy Spirit imparts grace to the soul. Among spiritual duties, meditation occupies the place of distinction for Swinnock by virtue of the fact that the mind is the leading faculty of the soul. It is, therefore, the principal means by which the Holy Spirit excites the affections.

This entire paradigm is included in Swinnock’s concept of the fear of God; hence, the title for this book: Puritan Spirituality: The Fear of God in the Affective Theology of George Swinnock. Throughout, Swinnock’s convictions are placed in a historical context, stretching back through Calvin to Augustine. In addition, they are expounded in the context of his contemporaries in order to confirm his place within the Puritan tradition.”

Earlier this month you published another book on Swinnock, entitled Trading and Thriving in Godliness: the Piety of George Swinnock (Reformation Heritage Books, 2008). “Thriving in godliness” is rather straightforward in meaning, but how should we understand “trading in godliness”?

I have Jay Collier at Reformation Heritage Books to thank for the title. He came across the phrase, “trading and thriving in godliness,” in Swinnock’s The Christian Man’s Calling. In this treatise, Swinnock takes 1 Timothy 4:7 as his text – “But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.”

He proceeds to explain godliness and what it means to “discipline” oneself for the purpose of godliness. He mentions that the term discipline signifies “strip thyself naked,” noting, “It is a metaphor from runners or wrestlers, who being to contend for the prize, and resolved to put forth all their strength and power, lay aside their clothes which may hinder them, and then bestir themselves to purpose.”

By comparison, Christians “contend for a prize,” in that they pursue godliness. This means that they strive after it. In the midst of this discussion, Swinnock uses the term “trading,” which implies vocation. In other words, the pursuit of godliness should be the Christian’s chief calling.

Could you tell us about the aim(s) and content of your second book?

My first book is my PhD thesis. It’s an academic work. It isn’t beyond the grasp of the average reader, but it does require some familiarity with the subject matter. Thus, I felt the need to publish something that would appeal to an even broader readership – something with a more pastoral tone. And I wanted to provide a book that would lead people to read Swinnock for themselves. I think I’ve done that with Trading and Thriving in Godliness.

In your opinion, what relevance do Swinnock and his writings have for the individual believer and the church today?

I hope I’m not guilty here of over-simplification, but I believe the answer is fourfold.

First, Swinnock is God-oriented. To a great extent, modern-day evangelicalism isn’t. I believe we can say to evangelicalism what Luther said to Erasmus centuries ago: “Your God is too small!” Swinnock believes in an incomparably glorious God. He writes, “But now between God and us there is an infinite distance, and therefore there ought to be, if it were possible, infinite reverence; he is so vastly above and beyond all others in excellency, that he alone deserves the name of excellency, therefore his name is holy and reverend (Ps. 111:9) and he is to be greatly feared. The greatest excellency calleth for the greatest reverence.”

Second, Swinnock is Scripture-oriented. He has a very high view of Scripture’s authority and sufficiency. He believes the Bible is a “special treasure,” which God has deposited “into the hands of the children of men.” Therefore, it merits unrivalled devotion. This is extremely relevant in the midst of the church’s growing biblical illiteracy.

Third, Swinnock is Gospel-oriented. He affirms the radical depravity of man – sin has “debauched the mind,” “perverted the will,” and “enthralled the affections.” In a word, “sin has chained the whole man.” For this reason, he’s a firm believer in the need for God’s sovereign grace in the gospel. This is something we need today. We need a renewed appreciation of Romans 1:16 – “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”

Fourth, Swinnock is Reform-oriented. He believes that the transforming work of God’s Spirit touches all of life – individuals, marriages, families, towns, and nations. In a day and age in which the gospel has been personalized and privatized to such an extent that it no longer has relevance beyond the parameters of “what it does for me,” Swinnock’s all-encompassing view of the reforming power of the gospel is very much needed.

These things give Swinnock’s writings an enduring quality. Why read a Puritan like Swinnock? What could a Puritan possibly teach us? I like the response, provided by Dr. J. I. Packer: “The answer, in one word, is maturity. Maturity is a compound of wisdom, goodwill, resilience, and creativity. The Puritans exemplified maturity; we don’t. We are spiritual dwarfs. The Puritans, by contrast, as a body were giants. They were great souls serving a great God.”

To put it another way, the Puritans (like Swinnock) were strongest where we are weakest. That’s why his writings are relevant today.

Thank you Dr Yuille for taking the time to do this interview! More significantly, thank you for calling attention to the challenge of godliness that Swinnock's writings present to Christians today.

More information on Dr Yuille's books can be found at Amazon UK and Reformation Heritage Books.


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