Thirty Years On

It is now more than 30 years since I completed (September 1972) what on the assumption that its reasoning and contentions were correct was perhaps the most important theological work written in the twentieth century. Yet in the event, not entirely unexpected, it failed to find a publisher. Before going further, let me set part of the scene and go back to February 1957.

I was in the library, housed in the Trent Building of Nottingham University, wrestling with Romans 9. I eventually concluded that, contrary to the Wesleyan teaching with which I had been brought up, the Bible really did teach election and predestination. Helped perhaps by a certain predilection for Whitefield and a dislike of the somewhat autocratic character of Wesley, I resolved on the spot to commit myself to searching for Christian truth and prayed to God to give me light even if it hurt.

It was on 23 February 1957, my twenty-third birthday, that I attended by invitation my first Christian Union meeting. I was very impressed. Leslie Land of Melbourne Hall, Leicester, spoke on John 15, verse 5 of which I had learned for recitation as a four- or five-year-old at a Sunday School anniversary. The president of the Methodist Society to which I belonged was there too. He told me that he would not be joining because he did not accept the CU’s view of Scripture. I replied that it was precisely on that account that I intended committing myself. And I did so without regret.

Later that year, after spending the summer at Strasbourg University, I hung on the lips of speakers, one of whom was J.I.Packer, expounding Romans 3-8. I was powerfully affected.

It was not until 1958, when Packer’s “’Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God” was published, that I began to feel greater confidence regarding the inspiration and authority of Scripture. I simply devoured that brilliantly written work supplementing it later with John Wenham’s “Our Lord’s View of the Old Testament”. It was these two publications that influenced me more than any others during my university career. Somewhat later, in order to gain knowledge and understanding of the OT, I consulted Colin Brown, who further down the track was to become Professor of Systematic Theology at Fuller in California, about a more modern translation of the Bible than the KJV. (In my experience, the latter has proved something of a disincentive to serious study and a hindrance to understanding.) He recommended the RSV which, despite its deficiencies in some respects, proved a real blessing over the years.

During the late 50s the Banner of Truth Trust was making its impact on the evangelical students. I already had a deep interest in the Reformation and its controversy with medieval Catholicism, but the Banner helped me to acquire a greater knowledge and appreciation of our Protestant theological heritage and history. I also soon became aware that Packer was a committed Calvinist. His introductory essay to Owen’s ‘The Death of Death’ made a powerful impression on me and this resulted in my committing myself to serious study of Reformed theology in particular. In fact, to the neglect of my degree subjects, I began to give myself unstintingly to reading. Not really knowing what I wanted to do, after graduation I decided to stay on an extra year at Nottingham to gain a Certificate of Education. I found the course less than satisfactory and spent nearly all my time then as later reading Luther, Calvin, the Hodges, Warfield, Machen, Berkhof, Murray and many others as their books came to hand. I was somewhat less enamoured with Lloyd-Jones than some of my contemporaries, but I read him extensively especially when his sermons on Romans and Ephesians became available.

Once I was qualified I went off to fulfil a three-year teaching contract in New Zealand. There having left Methodism for Presbyterianism, I felt called to the ministry and prepared myself for it in keen anticipation. While I had one or two reservations arising out of personal circumstances and aspects of belief, I did not veer from my intention until I received a letter out of the blue from a minister of whom I knew but had never met advising me not to go to Dunedin but rather to Scotland. To cut a rather involved story short, I left New Zealand with some regret but failed to arrive at New College, Edinburgh. Thwarted and unhappy I had no option but to return to teaching for a while.

I continued my commitment to reading and lay preaching. However, in less than a couple of years I managed to get a job organising adult education with the Cambridgeshire Education Authority near Peterborough. This proved much more to my liking. In addition, it gave me both more freedom and less pressure to pursue my own studies. In 1969 I had three articles published in “Christianity Today” and began to think I could make a useful contribution as a writer. But there was an unforeseen problem on the horizon. I had gradually become rather disillusioned with certain evangelical trends. For a start I had an increasingly uneasy feeling that despite frequent mention of a new reformation, there was a hardening of commitment to the old one. This was epitomised in Dr. Packer who seemed to me to be over-committed to traditional Reformed theology and too little concerned with gaining new light from Scripture. I also discovered that old creeds and confessions had ousted the Bible as the primary court of appeal. To question or disagree with the former was tantamount to disagreeing with Scripture! Furthermore, I had an essay on the unpardonable sin returned to me pronto with the curt comment that it was unacceptable since I had used the RSV! Clearly I had sinned against the light myself. For all that, my disquiet with my failure to understand traditional covenant theology, which was supposed to undergird infant baptism, increased.

Finally, in late 1969 a friend well versed in Reformed theology somewhat inadvertently confirmed my view that the covenant of grace or unity of the covenant theology propounded by John Murray converted law into grace, a Pelagian idea if ever there was one. Clearly something was wrong, so I set about trying to discover what constituted biblical covenant theology. In the event it did not take me long. At the beginning of 1970 I began to write in earnest, primarily with the intention of clarifying my own thinking.

By September 1972 I had completed a rather long and rambling book which I eventually entitled “A Challenge to the Church”. The problem was to know what to do with it. The only theologian whose address I knew was Dr. A.S.Wood, the Principal of Cliff College, Near Sheffield, a Methodist but one trained at New College, Edinburgh. I wrote to him and amazingly he agreed to read my work. He was not all that long in recording his reactions. While apparently very impressed with my thinking he was less so with aspects of my presentation. He warned of difficulties with publishers, suggested shortening the work by at least a third and writing a smaller non-technical book as a kind of trailer. I undertook and completed the latter in August 1973. But publishers and editors were still not interested some hinting darkly that I had veered from the faith or, at least, from ‘evangelical orthodoxy’. Later I wrote a number of essays but still editors would not come to the party. After all, they had already got the truth, hadn’t they? Of course, Reformed theology was very much in the ascendant by this stage as was an air of optimism and triumphalism. For many Dr. D.M. Lloyd-Jones was an infallible oracle and his sermons were pouring from the press. Though I read him regularly, I tended to see him in less glamorous terms. I could understand the 18-year-old J.I.Packer being swept away by his oratory as avowed in the blurb for the volume on Romans 5, but for me, approaching 40, he was rather a traditionalist, a man among boys who tragically to this day have failed to grow up even here in Australia. His preaching in his own words was meant to be ‘logic on fire’ (or was it ‘theology on fire’?), yet it seemed to me often to defy logic not least in the volume just mentioned. But the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England were now the touchstone of truth. With the twentieth century ruled by the seventeenth it was little wonder that an Oxbridge man had written somewhere (The Church of England Newspaper?) in 1972 that Oxford (epitomised by Packer) and Cambridge (by John Stott) had failed us: the plain truth was that despite much edifying work on their part they were locked in the past and apparently incapable of cutting new stone from the quarry of Scripture. A favourite text was “Ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is ….” (Jer. 6:16); it should have been “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isa. 43:18f. ESV). One thing was clear, at least to me, we were ill-equipped indeed to meet the challenges of the future. And so it has turned out thirty years on.

Despite the pervasive influence of Reformed theology, modern evangelicalism is as doctrinally divided as ever. Since the beginning of the new millennium some appalling articles have appeared in various magazines. Restorationism, characteristic of the OT, aided and abetted by New Age thinking, seems to have become the order of the day despite the massive and explicit evidence against it. Traditional dogma masquerades as biblical doctrine. Apart from the fact that light from the Bible is filtered through the prism of Puritanism, there is no open forum with the result that baneful dogmas like original sin, as full of holes as Haggai’s bag (1:6), are allowed to go unchallenged. If justification by faith is, thankfully, widely held, it is not taken to its logical conclusion. Despite some sterling work on the part of some commentators, a crude fundamentalism exercises a powerful influence. What is the problem? Surely evangelical failure to recognise that the Augustinian worldview is not only false but absurd. It posits original perfection at the beginning instead of at the end and thus puts the cart before the horse, the donkey before the carrot. While we should all to be grateful for the triumph of grace in his thinking, we ought also to recognise Augustine’s pathetic failure in other areas. His belief in original righteousness and Fall there from, original sin and universal curse, to go no further, has led to an appalling perversion of Scripture, and its ramifications distort the entire biblical picture. The arguments against all four ideas are overwhelming as I sought to show in part thirty years ago but have done so in more detail since then. But so long as they remain ignored, we shall be forced to persist in a futile attempt to fit clear biblical teaching into a false framework. The inevitable result of this is distortion and disharmony.

At this juncture, I would make three points: first, nothing I have read since 1972 has given me reason to think that my ‘challenge’ was misguided or mistaken except in certain details. Second, no editor or reader who has been acquainted with my work has been prepared to take me on. (One or two American editors have expressed support but have been hamstrung by “publishers’ rules”). Third, in the mid-nineties I was greatly encouraged by my reading of W.L.Lane’s commentary on Hebrews (Word, 1991). Much of what he said seemed to endorse the essence of my own thinking which had stemmed in the main from Romans, the most misunderstood letter in the NT. Towards the end of 2000, however, David De Silva’s commentary on Hebrews, “Perseverance in Gratitude”, proved remarkably supportive especially with regard to its worldview. Though it may simply reflect the limitations of my reading, the strange thing is that I have failed to come across a review of it, and I am prompted to wonder why.

In these days of Islamic and Hindu resurgence and Western disillusionment and disbelief in the reIevance of so-called “Christianity”, I am convinced that it is vital for us to present the full-orbed truth as it is in Jesus. Failure to do this can only earn us the wrath and judgement of God himself (cf. Gal. 1:6-9). It did so in ancient times when the Babylonians destroyed the temple and took over the Promised Land, it could well do so again in our own day. We reject prophets on pain of death. “… the Church cannot do without thinkers – or prophets …. She destroys herself in doing so”, wrote Harry Blamires (The Christian Mind, p.50, London, 1963). “What is needed desperately today is prophetic insight. Scholars can interpret the past; it takes prophets to interpret the present. Learning will enable a man to pass judgment on our yesterdays, but it requires a gift of clear seeing to pass sentence on our own day. One hundred years from now historians will know what was taking place religiously in this year of our Lord; but that will be too late for us. We should know right now” (A.W.Tozer, Of God and Men, pp.22f. Harrisburg, Penn. 1960). As George Orwell observed in the original preface to “Animal Farm”, “Anyone who challenges prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness.” And so during the last 30 years I, who to my knowledge am alone in offering the Church a new and more biblical theology, have met with constant rejection by editors and publishers. Furthermore, I have not received a single request to present my views for analysis and critical appraisal. (Not surprising really, since the Bereans of Acts 17 appear to have been banished from the planet.) So far as evangelicals are concerned the problem is that they have gone back to Egypt. They have returned to Augustine, to the Reformers and to the Puritans not to learn from their mistakes but to uncritically embrace them. The plain truth is, however, that apart from the fact that the latter’s understanding of Scripture was clearly imperfect (i.e. inadequate, incomplete and even distorted in places), they are incapable of meeting the needs of the twenty-first century.

What is required today is a new openness to truth. How else are we as Christians to challenge the world? It is tragic that words addressed by Dr. Packer in 1958 to liberals to consider the possibility that they were mistaken should now have to be addressed to those who supported him in his evangelicalism (see “’Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God”, pp. 144f.). We do well to remind ourselves that in the NT, along with the liberal Sadducees, there were the conservative Pharisees who were most vehemently denounced by Jesus. At a later date, if there was a Luther and a Calvin there were also reactionaries like Erasmus and Sir Thomas More. History may not repeat itself, but it is certainly recapitulated! We have been warned. And while many modern evangelicals bemoan the sad state of both church and state, they fail to recognise that they themselves are a fundamental part of the problem. They have a log in their own eye which must be removed before they can see clearly to extricate the speck in the eye of others. The perennial message of Scripture is, repent or pay the penalty.