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Early Stuart Polemical Hermeneutics

This is a clear and cogent examination of the Romans commentary by Andrew Willet (1561/2–1621), a zealous anti-Catholic whose most influential work was a thorough rebuttal of Roman Catholic theology, titled the Synopsis Papismi. Darren M. Pollock does an excellent job of demonstrating that Willet’s turn to biblical commentary later in his career was by no means a rejection of his earlier polemical agenda, but rather a transference of that confessional battle to a more focused arena. He unpicks Willet’s expert engagement in textual issues, his application of grammatical and rhetorical analysis, the way he associates Roman Catholic interpretations with older heresies, and his polemical use of the early church fathers in a comprehensive look at how this leading Protestant refuted errant interpretations of a key biblical text for the Reformation project.

The fact that Willet’s interpretation of Romans has a polemical edge and is polemically framed is presented as a potentially positive thing by Pollock. It is certainly true that having contemporary concerns or coming to a text with questions outside of its own frame of reference does not invalidate legitimate observations or implications that may be drawn from the text in the process. Just because Willet wanted to demonstrate the perfidiousness of Rome and the errors of her commentators at every turn does not mean he was wrong or that the text does not warrant this. However, there should also be a place for pointing out how this polemical hermeneutical approach can miss the original intent of the biblical text and sometimes wrestle it away from what the author intended; too often historical exegesis has been dismissed because of this without time being given to showing how and why it happens or considering whether it actually has.

I was surprised not to see a reference to the 2013 work of Christopher Cleveland on Thomism (Thomism in John Owen, Ashgate) in this period (especially on page 280), but this is a small omission. Pollock is right that “the field of seventeenth-century scriptural exegesis remains ripe for exploration” (293) and he has given us a good example of how this may profitably be done.

This review was first published in Reading Religion in November 2018, here.

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Hitting the Holy Road

Coulton Hitting

A review of Stuart Coulton’s, Hitting the Holy Road: A Guided Tour of Christian History from the Early Church to the Reformation.

This great survey of Church history has a new and interesting twist compared to others in that genre, such as those reviewed recently in my “The Lessons of History” review article in Churchman 125.3 (2011). This book focuses on place as a way in to the history. Each chapter begins in the present day with a short eyewitness guide to a place of importance in the story to be told, such as the catacombs in Rome, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Iona, Cluny, Assisi, and Wittenberg. The reader can imagine the author there amongst the ‘gruff’ attendants and ‘dodgy tour guides’, as he then moves on to recount the history of the place and its context.

At times it feels as if this approach may work better on a TV screen than on paper, but often there are some good lessons to be drawn from the approach, as when he contrasts the Christian art in the Roman catacombs with the dominance of images of Mary in Rome today. There are helpful timelines in each chapter, and side-bars on some fascinating tangential issues. There is also much Aussie humour as we hit the holy road: recounting the last words of Julian the Apostate, Coulton writes, “Julian died fighting the Persians in 363… [According to Theodoret] he died… saying, ‘Thou hast won, O Galilean!’ In reality he probably said, ‘Aarrgh!’”

There are several black and white photos in the book, but many of them are too dark and dingy to be of much use in illustrating the story, and I am not sure why we are treated to a picture of the fourth hole of the Iona golf course (Aussie humour again?). There is a missionary emphasis in several places, and each chapter ends with some useful reflections on the history and its lessons for us in today’s church. These are stimulating, though perhaps not always as critical as they might be (he is too positive about Francis of Assisi for example), and I also wondered if we might have had more on ordinary church life rather than just monasteries, universities, and palaces.  Yet there is little reason to dissent from the learned commentator who writes on the back cover that this travel guide history is “challenging and stimulating… enjoyable and immensely rewarding.” It is a shame it does not cover the last four hundred years, but perhaps that leaves room for a sequel?

This review was first published in Churchman 127/3 (2013).

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Infant Baptism

Today I’ve been invited to speak to trainee Anglican ministers at Oak Hill Theological College in London on the subject of infant baptism. Last term, I spoke at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford and Ridley Hall in Cambridge, on the same topic (and the term before that I was speaking on this at Το Ελληνικό Βιβλικό Κολέγιο in Athens). Obviously I’m being wheeled in as “the baptism guy” for evangelical Anglican ordinands (and some Greek Presbyterians) at the moment! I consider that a huge privilege.

I thought I would just briefly assemble some resources here for those who want to think a bit further about those things.

First: The Anglican Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism

This is a little booklet consisting of classic papers by John Stott and Alec Motyer on the subject of baptism, including infant baptism and the Anglican prayer book doctrine. I edited those together and wrote a preface. This is a great place to start any investigation into the Anglican evangelical understanding of baptism, with expert help from two of the great, unimpeachably evangelical, Anglican biblical commentators.

Second: From Life’s First Cry: John Owen on Infant Baptism and Infant Salvation

This was my St. Antholin Lecture from 2008, and it examines the doctrine of infant baptism as expounded by the famous Reformed theologian and puritan, John Owen (1616-1683). It unpacks his dense argumentation, with application for today, and looks not just at infant baptism but also a little at infant salvation. It ends with a suggested liturgical introduction to an infant baptism (something I’ve been asked for on a number of occasions). This has subsequently been re-printed with slight expansion as a chapter in my book Preachers, Pastors, and Ambassadors. The bones of the argument are also contained in a shorter form in The Ashgate Research Companion to John Owen’s Theology (though without so much contemporary application). The audio recording of my original 66 minute lecture (including questions) can also be heard at the internet journal for integrated theology: Theologian.

Third: The Anglican Doctrine of Baptism

This is an article I wrote for the journal Foundations in 2012 which examines the theology of baptism found in the foundational documents of the Church of England. It expounds the Latin and English texts of the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, to see what they teach on the subject, noting especially the Protestant and Reformed (but non-Zwinglian) nature of the Anglican doctrine as well as some of its biblical and patristic foundations. A previously unnoticed example of the Articles’ dependence on Calvin’s Institutes is brought out with regard to infant baptism. Through a study of the liturgical expression of this theology in the various editions of the Book of Common Prayer it also highlights the importance of some historic moments of particular controversy, especially regarding the efficacy of baptism. With application throughout for confessional Anglicans today, it also concludes with a brief look at contemporary controversies surrounding the covenantal nature of baptism, and the current downplaying of baptism within Anglican Evangelicalism.

I don’t think infant baptism is a first order doctrine which should prevent those who believe in it from working with those who don’t. Some of my best friends (as they say) are Baptists, and I’ve learned a huge amount from them. But I do think Anglicans (and Presbyterians) should be clear on what their confessional documents say, and not be afraid to hold, practise, and defend those views. I agree with the great bishop J.C. Ryle, who said, “The subject of infant baptism is undoubtedly a delicate and difficult one … But this must not make members of the Church of England shrink from holding decided opinions on the subject. That church has declared plainly in its Articles that ‘the baptism of young children is in any wise to be retained, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ.’ To this opinion we need not be afraid to adhere.”

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Justification by Faith — Lecture by Bishop Nazir-Ali


On Tuesday 16th April at 5pm at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali will be delivering the inaugural “Peter Toon Lecture.” It will be entitled “Justification by Faith: Orienting the Church’s teaching and practice to Christ.”

Prior to the lecture there will be a service of Evening Prayer according to the Book of Common Prayer at 4pm, in the chapel at Wycliffe Hall.

This new annual lecture on Reformed Evangelical Anglicanism is in honour of Peter Toon, an Anglican scholar (author of many books on John Owen, puritanism, theology, spirituality, Anglicanism), and for many years the President of the Prayer Book Society of the USA.

There is no need to book — All welcome.

For more details, do email me.

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All for Jesus

All for Jesus:

A Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Covenant Theological Seminary

Robert A. Peterson (ed.)

Mentor/Christian Focus, 2006    £19.99hb    416pp

Covenant Theological Seminary in St Louis, Missouri is the national seminary for the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), and one of the larger seminaries in the USA, with a reputation for Reformed and Evangelical theology and some very good free resources online in their ‘Worldwide Classroom’. This celebration of a recent milestone in their history is something of a mixed bag, as such compilations often are, but is noteworthy for some unique and insightful chapters. It is split into five sections, looking at Christ-centred stories, gospel, disciplines, mission, and sermons, followed by two brief appendices. Those interested in the history and struggles of this well-known institution will find the chapter by David Calhoun, famous for his excellent two-volume history of Princeton Seminary, an enlightening read. Founders of the seminary were veterans of the ‘fundamentalist-modernist controversy’ in the early part of the Twentieth century along with men such as J. Gresham Machen, and they stood for fundamentals such as penal substitution and inerrancy. Their commitment to the original languages of Scripture can be seen in the early curriculum: the first catalogue listed courses not just in advanced Hebrew grammar but also in Syriac, Arabic, and Babylonian! How they have continued to hold to Reformed distinctives in a changing church and world is an encouraging story. Bryan Chapell and Robert Peterson have good chapters on grace, Mark Dalbey has a stimulating discussion of the Regulative Principle in relation to churches in Ghana, Michael Williams has a solid exploration of systematic theology as a biblical discipline, and Philip Douglas looks at ‘Grace-Centred Church Planting’. This is a worthy tribute to a faithful establishment.

This review first appeared in Churchman 126.2 (2012).

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What will your passions be as Director of Church Society?

 What will your passions be as the new Director of Church Society?

Part 5 of an interview of Lee Gatiss by James Crabtree.

Well, I officially start as full time Director in just a few weeks. But we’ve already started on some significant new ideas.

Our digital strategy, for example, has seen Church Society take up a platform on Facebook and Twitter for the first time, which has strengthened and expanded our connections to a new generation, for whom groups and societies don’t exist unless they are enmeshed in the world of social media. The Together4ward campaign has also begun, in an attempt to change the tone of debate over women bishops, and to lobby for “proper provision.”

Our website is packed full of great stuff, but could perhaps do with a facelift in the coming year, and maybe we can make our resources more accessible to the Kindle-iPad generation.

I don’t know how long I will be privileged to serve as Director, but when I leave that role I want to make sure I leave the Society in a strong position in every way, particularly in terms of the size and profile of our membership and the quality of contributions being made at every level of our work. (It’s a great encouragement to me that the newly elected Council contains people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s!)

I am passionate about expanding our publishing work and both resourcing and enthusing people through excellent literature, and new things are already in process here. Most of all though, I am looking forward to meeting people on the ground in our Anglican evangelical churches and finding out how we as a Society can better serve them in the years ahead.

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What can Church Society offer?

What can Church Society offer?

Part 5 of an interview of Lee Gatiss by James Crabtree.

Well, James, as you know, Church Society  has a very long history of standing up for the truth when it counts.

Yes, we lobby against the destructive tides of revisionist liberalism in church and state. Yes, we oppose gospel-obscuring ceremonialism and defective views of salvation by Christ alone. But in our extensive publishing work and our intimate connections to local churches through the patronage responsibilities we hold, we can have a deep and profoundly positive long-term effect on the nation too.

I’m sometimes asked, “Why should I join Church Society? What’s in it for me?” Well, in one sense there is nothing in it for you! Being a member of Church Society is not about buying benefits and privileges for ourselves. It’s about the glory of God and the good of England, and we club together as partners in that work because we see the need to do it in fellowship with others. It’s about serving, not being served, as the Master himself put it.

I know we’re not the only game in town, but because the Society has a history and a depth to it, there are quite a number of ways to serve, whether that’s by writing in Churchman or Cross+Way or for EvNews, serving on Councils and committees, by giving of time, talents, and treasure, or by using our prayer diary to pray.

I’m sure there are advantages to having a full time Director (and over the last 60+ years there have been a number of excellent men at the helm). But Church Society is not a one man band; never has been, never will be. So ask not what Church Society can do for you (though there are many ways it can help and resource Christians and churches); ask, rather, what you can do for England and the Church of England by stepping off the sidelines and getting involved.

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