The conference had started on the Friday afternoon with a session for church leaders, followed by an open session in the evening when Oliver Allmand-Smith from Ramsbottom was speaking on The Puritan Family – A Treasure Untold. Using the example of Samuel Sewell (1652-1730) who lived in New England and was out-lived by only 3 of his 14 children, Oliver asked why he, and others of that period, were fundamentally happy in their family lives when, by our standards, their lives were so terrible? He gave us three reasons: they shared the worthy goal of the pursuit of God’s glory; they exulted love as the fundamental means; and they established an honourable structure. He pointed out that the reformers had rescued the family from the distortions of the medieval church; today the family is under attack from different directions and it seemed to me that there was apologetic value in the material presented here.
Saturday morning was opened by Stephen Rees on Guarding the Deposit – Confessions then and now. Throughout the centuries Christians have produced creeds, confessions and catechisms, our own church refers to the 1689 London Baptist Confession – the Baptist version of Westminster. However, confessions have not always been highly regarded amongst those calling themselves ‘evangelical’; Stephen quoted Campbell-Morgan who said we should not bind ourselves to creeds drawn up by men. A contrasting view came from his contemporary Benjamin Warfield, that creeds and confessions are a rich source, second only to scripture. Having been brought up and spent many years in environments where the ‘creeds of men’ were positively despised, I think I would now find myself in the Warfield camp. Creeds can of course be misused, if people are lead to think all they need to do is ’believe the creed’, and can be a source of hypocrisy – a liberal Anglican recently told me blandly that they recited the creed as part of the liturgy, but of course he did not believe it all and neither did anybody else in his church! Stephen pointed out that the creeds and confessions were not produced by academic theologians, but gatherings of representatives from churches, the New Testament encourages such gatherings and promises that the Holy Spirit will be present. Confessions should be used by ministers for preaching; for preparing people coming into church membership; for teaching the young, many catechisms having been prepared for this purpose; and for our own spiritual nourishment. He concluded with examples of how biblical teaching had been condensed by the confessions into succinct and memorable phrases.
Stephen was followed by Walter Johnston from Chorlton who, under the title By the Grace of God – Five gospel pearls, spoke of his own personal encounter with one particular confession, the Articles of the Synod of Dort (1618-19). This Synod was a gathering primarily of the Dutch church, but with representatives from other countries in Europe attending, called to consider, amongst other things, the teaching of Jakob Arminius (1560-1609) which was causing considerable problems in the Dutch church. The resulting articles are what are more commonly known as the “Five Points of Calvinism” (we leave aside the question of the appropriateness of this title and the long standing scholarly debate as to whether Calvin himself would have endorsed them all) which in English have the appropriate acronym of TULIP – Total depravity; Unconditional election; Limited atonement; Irresistible grace; and Perseverance of the saints. Although a Christian well versed in scripture, when Walter encountered these for the first time he found them difficult to accept. But he eventually came to realise these are biblical principles which follow from one another. During the afternoon question session, somebody raised the question of the danger in seeming to suggest we need the Bible and Calvin. Well, no, but this is a case of where the deliberations of Christians from the past can help us in understanding, Thinking about this afterwards I was reminded of the story in Acts 8 of Philip coming alongside the Ethiopian sitting in his chariot reading Isaiah, “Understandest thou what thou readest ?” asks Philip (if I may use the AV), “How can I” answers the Ethiopian “except some man should guide me?”.
Tim Mills of Bradford was in the unfortunate position of having to speak directly after lunch on Our fathers worshipped…shall we refrain? In the past people have seen that, although our whole lives should in a sense be worship, this is to be distinguished from the special, public, meetings of the church for worship, when we “Enter into his gates…” (Ps.100:4). But today some people (particularly Anglican evangelicals I believe) are saying there is really only one type of worship, that is “whole life” worship, worship “within the gates” being for Old Testament times only. Tim showed that the Old Testament has the concept of “whole life” worship, while conversely the New Testament has the concept of worship “within the gates”. This is not of course worship centred on the Temple, but Christ is present, leading the praise to His Father, when his people gather. To say there is only “whole life” worship makes Matthew 18:20, for example, meaningless. Unfortunately, he ran out of time to deal with the last two of his promised five points, but in a rapid historical tour gave examples from the second century and from John Calvin who accepted that there was special worship “inside the gates”. In the question session which followed the query was raised as to which meetings of the church do we regard as “inside the gates”? only Sunday meetings? or should it include the mid-week prayer meeting?
To conclude John Hall from Westerleigh, Bristol, preached a challenging sermon from Philippians 1:21 “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.” Have we been conquered by the love of Christ? Paul had been and this is what he could say chained in a Roman jail after a life of suffering for the gospel, for Christ. Before Christ called him he had been trusting in his religious heritage; our heritage is a hindrance if it keeps us from Him.