The Erosion of Calvinist Orthodoxy

ErosionA review of The Erosion of Calvinist Orthodoxy: Drifting from the Truth in Confessional Scottish Churches

Ian Hamilton’s sobering study of denominational drift is an enlightening read. He shows with painful clarity that revisions of confessions, and alterations to the terms of subscription to them, have been disastrous for essential Christian truth in various denominations.

He charts the progress of Scottish Presbyterian churches in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Chapter 3 on the atonement controversies is fascinating, though some will find the debates over Amyraldianism or hypothetical universalism to be somewhat hair-splitting, and it has been shown elsewhere that even some of those who wrote the Westminster Confession itself held to a form of hypothetical universalism.

Chapter 5 is alarming, as Hamilton shows how a man who was teaching much more clearly against the theology of the confession was nonetheless tolerated as a minister. “Ambiguity,” he writes, “not definition, was the rule of the day.”

The details of Scottish ecclesiastical schisms will not delight everyone, but this is a very useful case study of the downgrading of creedal and confessional orthodoxy which Anglicans would do well to note. As I tried to make clear in Christianity and the Tolerance of Liberalism: J Gresham Machen and the Presbyterian Controversy of 1922-1937, there are some big lessons for Anglicans to learn from Presbyterian history.

This review was first published in Churchman 128/2 (2014).

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews: Theology & Church History

Calvin on Acts 1-7

Calvin Acts 1-7A review of Calvin’s sermons on Acts 1-7

Calvin on Acts 1-7 has 44 sermons, originally begun in 1549, not long after Calvin’s wife had died and he was again charged by the city council to preach twice on Sundays. It was in 1549 that a professional scribe began to take down his sermons in shorthand as they were delivered, in fact, so these are some of the earliest Calvin sermons that we have.

Some of Calvin’s sermons on Acts 1-2 have sadly been lost, but what we have here reflect a period of his ministry where there was a great deal of struggle for the establishment of the Reformation in Geneva. They are in many ways programmatic, with a focus on the power of the word and Spirit together to change hearts and minds, an emphasis on preaching, and the establishment of a godly community of believers. The preacher, he says,

“must reprove us daily for our sins. Otherwise, we would have a gospel made to our order. It would not be the one God has given us. That fact greatly annoys us, whatever the situation. Some are vexed and others gnash their teeth, but we must nonetheless uphold the teaching of God in the midst of his church. If we think we are doing them a favour by being lenient, we shall be contributing to their ruin.”

Hard preaching to hear. But how relevant, in any age. As well as this sort of thing, there are also those classic sixteenth century rhetorical touches which remind us that we live in a different age, such as Calvin’s pithy parallel between the Pope and the Prophet Mohammed, whom he described as “the two horns of the devil set on killing the poor world and imprisoning it.”

All the same, “When God comes to judge the world, the Turks, Gentiles, papists, and other unbelievers will be treated much more gently than we, unless we take better advantage than we usually do of the kindness and benefits God provides for us daily.”

This review was first published in Churchman 128/2 (2014).

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews: New Testament, Reviews: Theology & Church History

Calvin on Genesis 11-20

Calvin Genesis 11-20A review of Calvin’s sermons on Genesis 11-20

For those who like to take their Calvin “neat” and relatively unfiltered, the Banner of Truth have been busy reproducing some of his sermons, on Acts 1-7. These are beautifully produced, as usual, and translated by Rob Roy McGregor from the original 16th century French recently published in the Supplementa Calviniana series.

Genesis 11-20 is covered in 48 sermons from the first half of 1560, of about 15-20 pages each. That gives a sense of how quickly Calvin moved through the book, a few verses per sermon, taking his time to unpack the details and apply them to his congregation.

The reader should be warned that this is not a cold exercise for the historically curious, because Calvin truly preaches the Bible, rather than just reading out his exegetical notes (which counts for expository preaching in some circles). By 1560, Calvin had completed the final edition of his much revised Institutes, opened the Academy, and enjoyed a period of relatively uncontested authority in the city, but he had burst a blood vessel in his lungs so preaching was never easy. In written form the sermons are easy to read, with plenty to stimulate the mind and strengthen the soul.

The editor has added the occasional note to help us with Calvin’s biblical or classical allusions, and to point out some interesting features of the preaching, such as where Calvin attacks those who completely christologize the Old Testament and inadequately account for its historical features. Some will not like the way he expounds circumcision and baptism, or other aspects of the Abrahamic covenant narratives, but there is a huge amount of edifying and suggestive material here.

This review was first published in Churchman 128/2 (2014).

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews: Old Testament, Reviews: Theology & Church History

Sujin Pak on the Judaizing Calvin

Judaizing CalvinA brief review of The Judaizing Calvin: Sixteenth-Century Debates over the Messianic Psalms

G. Sujin Pak’s excellent study is well worth a small investment of time and money for those who are interested in the Old Testament-New Testament debates, Christian use of the Psalms, or Calvin himself.

There was clearly a diversity within early Protestant approaches to exegesis, not least on the issue of Christ and the Hebrew Bible, and she brings this out in a most illuminating and thought-provoking way.

Lutheran and Calvinist interpreters had different ideas on how to go about locating the Psalms in terms of biblical theology, and identifying their literal and historical sense, while remaining equally keen to distinguish their hermeneutics from both Roman Catholic and Jewish interpretations. Those interested in the interpretation of the Psalms particularly addressed here (Psalms 2, 8, 16, 22, 45, 72, 110, and 118) or who have an interest in modern debates over Christological readings of the Old Testament will be fascinated by this rich and sophisticated study.

This review first appeared in Churchman 128/2 (2014).

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews: Old Testament, Reviews: Theology & Church History

Cockerill on Hebrews

CockerillA review of Gareth Lee Cockerill’s The Epistle to the Hebrews

Cockerill’s commentary in the NICNT series is not quite so convincing as Peter O’Brien’s Pillar commentary, overall, despite its huge heft at nearly 750 pages. A less Reformed theological approach is evident throughout, though the author (a Wesleyan Arminian) is conversant with and thoroughly immersed in the latest contemporary research on the book.

He dismisses the evidence for Lucan authorship given by David Allen as less than impressive, and seems to edge towards Apollos as the most likely, though ultimately unconfirmable, candidate. For him the author is above all a pastor, and this is the angle he develops throughout his exposition; an angle, of course, which can be beneficial to the modern preacher looking for homiletical tips.

He has his eye not just on the big picture though, but also on the details. He persuasively argues against the confusion / assimilation of two different compound verbs in Hebrews 2:16 by several recent translations. This is just one of a number of detailed and penetrating investigations in the footnotes which make this commentary a mine of useful insight not easily found elsewhere. I think he misses the Targummic background to Hebrews 4:12 and therefore dismisses a common Patristic view of “the Word of God” in that verse as a reference to Christ, but this is regularly passed over too quickly by modern commentators.

I would always go to O’Brien first before Cockerill, though both have their advantages. Attridge might still be the best first port of call for some, however, and Calvin’s commentary on Hebrews should never be neglected by the preacher.

This review first appeared in Churchman 128/2 (2014).

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews: New Testament

Peter O’Brien on Hebrews

PTOB HebrewsA review of Peter O’Brien’s commentary on Hebrews

This is a reliable and weighty guide for any serious student or patient preacher of Hebrews. Fans of Peter O’Brien’s Ephesians commentary, will not be disappointed by the characteristic attention to detail and theologically sensitive scholarship on display again here.

He confesses his inability to solve the authorship question, after canvassing Paul, Barnabus, and Apollos as possible candidates (though not Luke, as some have argued for recently, or the wackier suggestions of Mary or Priscilla). I would have liked more consideration of Paul here, since all the reasons given against him are well considered in earlier tomes, such as the gigantic commentary by John Owen (lamentably un-cited throughout, as is sadly normal nowadays despite its usefulness).

Nevertheless, the more important issues of actual exegesis and interpretation are carefully and often brilliantly handled. Sometimes deeper consideration of the peculiarly Jewish background of the epistle might have been useful (e.g. on the plural “ages” in Hebrews 1:2 or the phrase “word of God” in Hebrews 4:12), though O’Brien often points out the use of rabbinic interpretative methods in Hebrews’ rhetorical approach to paraenesis and helps us grasp the significance of what Hebrews is doing.

The exploration of controversial passages such as Hebrews 6:4-8 is careful, and edifying even if one disagrees with some of the details, and he does not press things too far in e.g. Hebrews 2:9. More could be desired on passages where Protestants and Roman Catholics have clashed in the past (such as on merit in Hebrews 6:10 or marriage in Hebrews 13:4), though he is admirably clear on “we have an altar” in Hebrews 13:10.

This review first appeared in Churchman 128/2 (2014).

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews: New Testament

David Peterson on Acts

DP on ActsA review of David Peterson’s commentary on Acts

The monumental new commentary on Acts, in the Pillar series, lands on the desk with a satisfying thud. David Peterson, former Principal of Oak Hill gives us nearly 800 pages, so this is not a “quick reference guide” for the preacher, by any means. It does, however, repay patient reading, and is insightful, balanced, careful, and scholarly without neglecting the purpose of a commentary like this which is to unpack the meaning of Scripture for the sake of proclamation.

The first 100 pages is a masterclass in introductory matters, with an excellent section of the theological themes of Acts. There is solid interaction with the Greek text (transliterated) throughout, and proper attention to secondary literature — but without simply being a summary of what other people have said, which is such an annoyance with many big commentaries today.

Peterson is considerably influenced by Tannehill’s groundbreaking work on literary approaches to Acts, and he sees “the progress of the word” as being a key structural marker throughout, as well as considering Luke-Acts as “one project with a common aim.” He keeps his eye on the big picture when looking at specific sections of the book, e.g. interpreting Acts 5 in the context of the programmatic Acts 2:42-47.

There are powerful asides for the pastors Peterson has himself trained, in his exposition of Acts 20. Theologically, he is well-aware of the uses to which various texts in Acts have been put. For example, he argues on the household baptisms that, “it would be remarkable if no babies were included” in any of them, though judiciously stops short of saying that they “prove” infant baptism. He also concludes with Barrett that Acts 13:48 is both an unqualified statement of absolute predestination and also affirms that those who do not believe are “appointed to death”, the negative being implied by the positive.

So, a reliable and weighty guide for any serious student or patient preacher of this book.

This review was first published in Churchman 128/2 (2014).

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews: New Testament