Culture Shift by Al Mohler

January 21, 2008

 

Rarely do I pick up a non-fiction book and cannot put it down. Yet, when I picked up Al Mohler’s new book, Culture Shift, I could not put it down until I was done reading it. Granted, the book is really a brief introduction to Christianity’s influence on practical cultural issues (only 160 pages) but it was not the low amount of pages that made it a must-read, it was rather the content that was life changing for me.

Mohler, one of the greatest minds in the Evangelical church today, is President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY. And while this may be his first book, it is hardly his first foray into writing. Amongst a plethora of articles and chapters for books, Mohler has an almost daily blog that deals with many cultural issues and how Christians are to respond. In fact, many of these chapters in his book, Culture Shift, were originally written for his blog. But, even if you have read these before, you must read them again.

We as Christians, Mohler notes, often take two approaches to our involvement with culture. Some take the extreme of non-involvment. For instance, hard lined Classical Dispensationalists may argue that we as Christians have no real responsibility to transform culture at all apart from the proclamation of the Gospel. Whereas, on the other side liberal theology becomes so involved with transforming culture that they neglect the actual mission of the church; evangelism.

So, the first thing that Mohler does in his book is articulate issues of culture, engagement, and the Christian’s responsibility to culture. The first five chapters then seek to introduce these issues, and defend a Christian’s engagement and involvement in culture and to denounce the concept of a purely secular culture. Mohler then begins to engage various issues with logical clarity, an unparalleled knowledge of society’s best writers, and an unfailing adherence to the Scriptures.

Mohler discusses areas of offence, the role of the Supreme Court on religion, terrorism, public schools, the God gene, parenting, dishonesty, abortion, natural disasters and God’s sovereighty, nuclear war, and racism. In each chapter Mohler surveys the writings of some of America’s greatest writers, praising them where they are correct, criticizing them where they are wrong. He clearly interacts with the issues and then responds with Scripture where it applies. While these are not in-depth critiques of cultural issues, they are tantalizing surveys of the issues. I found myself many times thinking I needed to read the book Mohler was talking about in a particular chapter.

You may not agree with Mohler on every issue. For instance, on the use of torture especially in terrorism cases I am not sure I agree with a blanket ban on the use of torture as in the McCain amendment. But I am willing to be persuaded by further study. On the other hand, I think Mohler is right on with the issues of our coddling of our children, the maintaining of both God’s sovereignty and His benevolence when we talk about national disasters, and the renewed effort we need to make in the pro-life movement.

Overall, I found Mohler’s book challenging and enlightening. It really challenged my thinking as to my involvement in culture and my role as a member of the body of Christ in transforming culture for Christ. Every Christian should read Mohler’s book. They should devour it in one sitting and then sit down and chew over every issue. This book will challenge you and spur you on to further study of the issues. Overall, it will challenge you to truly live as a light for Christ in a dark world. Mohler has hit a home run with this book and I hope he continues writing more on this subject as it is desperately needed in the church today. Cannot be more highly recommended.


On Associations

January 19, 2008
My former church history professor, Dr. Gerald Priest, wrote a rather interesting article on the issue of authority amongst Baptist associationalism particularly on the Philadelphia Baptist Association which celebrated its 300th anniversary last year as the oldest Baptist association in America. The article is called “The Philadelphia Baptist Association and the Question of Authority” and it can be found in a wonderful but under appreciated journal called Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal (Volume 12 – Fall 2007) which of course is published by my alma mater!

Priest surveys the origin of the PBA and looks at the theology and polity of this association. In the end he notes some strengths and weaknesses when it comes to associationalism particularly for Baptists who hold to autonomy. I will quote it in length but I call you to read the article on your own!

“One may learn from the history of the PBA that confessions of faith are only as reliable as those who are supposed to uphold them–the local churches. And perhaps in this lesson we may observe at once a strength and a weakness of associationalism. As we have repeatedly noted, in such an arrangement, local churches must inevitably surrender a measure of autonomy to an advisory council who sets the denominational agenda. Advice often has the effect of law. Paternity succeeds fraternity. With the PBA and the other associations it spawned in colonial America, such a consensual arrangement worked to the mutual benefit of the churches doctrinally and practically. That is, it worked because faithful godly leaders relied on a good confession of faith. But when decisions are made by a council on behalf of a local church, it compromises o some degree the capability and responsibility of the local assembly to exercise a prerogative assigned to it by the New Testament. It is true that the local church may be compensated by such a loss with the gain of the many benefits an association provides. But is the price too costly? It can be if the leadership proves untrustworthy. And one may argue that this can be a problem in the local church just as it could be in the association. But history has proven beyond doubt that effective leaders of great institutions can sway public opinion, in this case, an entire denomination. What the early leaders of the PBA decided was remarkably beneficial to the Regular Baptists of early America. Such was the case because the leaders could be trusted as righteous advisers. When personal ambition or political maneuvering or, even worse, doctrinal compromise begins to govern their decisions and taint their advice member churches will become spiritually weak and lose the candlestick of a once vibrant testimony. In short, Baptist associations can be wonderfully productive if submissive to the Word of God and servants of the churches; they can be terribly destructive of churches if allowed by them to denigrate into ‘Synagogues of Satan'” (p. 80).

For more on Associationalism see the posts by my good friend Dr. Nathan Finn (Instructor in Church History at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) over here at his blog.

John Gill on Prayer

January 17, 2008

It is good for the saints to draw near to God; it is not only good because it is their duty, but because it yields their souls a spiritual pleasure; and it is also of great profit and advantage to them: It is often an ordinance of God, and which he owns for the quickening the graces of his spirit, for the restraining and subduing the corruptions of our hearts, and for the bringing of our souls into nearer communion and fellowship with himself. Satan has often felt the force and power of this piece of our spiritual armour; and it is, indeed, the last which the believer is directed to make use of. Praying souls are profitable in families, neighbourhoods, churches, and common-wealths, when prayerless ones are in a great measure useless. The believer has the utmost encouragement to this work he can desire; he may come to God, not as on a seat of justice, but as on a throne of grace. Christ is the Mediator between God and him, his way of access to God, and his Advocate with the Father; the Spirit is his Guide, Director, and Assister; he has many exceeding great and precious promises to plead with God; nor need he doubt of a kind reception, a gracious audience, and a proper answer, though never so mean and unworthy in himself; since the Lord will regard the prayer of the destitute, and not despise his prayer.

— John Gill (1697-1771) from “A Discourse on Prayer”


John Gill (1697-1771), Defender of the Trinity in the English Enlightenment

January 15, 2008

Here’s some information extracted from my PhD research proposal. This will help for you to see where I hope to go with my dissertation.

Overall Aim

The overall aim of this dissertation is to examine the theological structure and exegetical details of the response of John Gill, the leading British Particular Baptist theologian of his era, to the challenge of the English Enlightenment, especially as it relates to the doctrine of the Trinity. From the perspective of Reformed orthodoxy, the English Enlightenment gave rise to a number of heterodox perspectives on the Trinity. Gill sought to provide a robust defence of a traditional orthodox teaching in the face of these heterodoxies, specifically in The Doctrine of the Trinity Stated and Vindicated which was published in two editions (1731 and 1752).

Specific Objectives

In order to accomplish the aim of this dissertation a number of objectives will need to be met.

First, a chapter surveying and evaluating the secondary literature on Gill will be necessary to put the work of this dissertation into context. A biographical chapter on John Gill will follow so as to introduce the reader to him and his life and contributions to theology. Third, an historical survey of heterodox views of the Trinity during the English Enlightenment will be outlined so as to provide the context in which Gill wrote his defence of orthodox teaching. Fourth, a detailed study of the theological structure of Gill’s work, The Doctrine of the Trinity Stated and Vindicated (1731/1752) will be developed to specifically see how Gill responded to the Enlightenment arguments concerning the Trinity. Fifth, there will be a chapter which will show how Gill developed his arguments in defence of the Trinity through solid biblical exegesis and through his understanding of the early church fathers on this issue. Finally, a concluding chapter will show how Gill’s Trinitarianism was maintained throughout his career as a Reformed theologian.

Explanation of Need for Dissertation

The orthodox teaching of the Trinity remained unchallenged from the time of the Ancient church until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with the rise of the English Enlightenment. Through the Socinian and Arian denials of the Trinity, this anti-trinitarian thinking began to pervade conservative Christianity. It became necessary for religious leaders to confront this teaching. The stalwart Particular Baptist theologian John Gill rose to the challenge to defend Trinitarianism. It was through Gill that Particular Baptist were spared this departure into anti-trinitarianism.

Even though Gill is known as one of the greatest theologians of the Baptist tradition, very little has been actually written on him or his thought. And what has been done on Gill has focused on his understanding of salvation, especially in the debate as to whether Gill was a hyper-Calvinist or not (see the issue below in my brief biography of Gill). Gill’s thought goes far beyond soteriology and issues of Calvinism. This self-taught theologian truly was a giant amongst men when it came to the exegesis and exposition of Scripture and his understanding of theology. Therefore, it is necessary to study Gill more in depth and less on the area of soteriology. Gill’s work on the Trinity is masterfully developed especially as it interacts with Enlightenment denials of the Trinity. It is a model of biblical and historical exegesis and needs to be studied further.

With the current historical fascination with the Enlightenment and Enlightenment thinking it behooves the historian to understand better the Enlightenment and specifically their argumentation against various areas of orthodox Christian theology. Their argumentation in denial of the Trinity is of extreme importance, and therefore, needs to be studied, and the argumentation of those against the Enlightenment thinkers needs to be explored. This is where this study comes in. It is important to put this debate over the Trinity into historical context and understand a key thinker like Gill who was responding to this debate. Since so little is actually written on Gill, this dissertation will fill a much needed gap in Gill studies and hopefully Enlightenment thought studies as well.

Historical and Scholarly Context of Dissertation

Gertrude Himmelfarb has shown that there was not some monolithic movement called the Enlightenment, but that different countries had their own Enlightenments. France had quite a different Enlightenment than England for instance.[1] England’s Enlightenment was more moderate than France’s. Yet, it had its own particular challenges. While France moved toward atheism, England moved into areas of Arianism. This “Age of Reason” denied much of the supernatural from the Scriptures and believed that their embracing of logic and reason could eliminate that which was based upon “faith” which included much of what was distinctive to orthodox theology like the doctrine of the Trinity. And while Trinitarians were more learned than their anti-trinitarian enemies, the anti-trinitarians were better writers and thus lead to the continued denial of much of what was distinctively orthodox Christianity.[2]

In fact, both Socinianism and Arianism in England in the late 17th and 18th century began to dismiss the doctrine of the Trinity as an invention of the early church and an unnecessary adoption of Greek logical thinking to theology. Samuel Clarke in particular of the Arian controversy wrote his Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity (1712) which had Arian tendencies. This particular controversy came to a head in the Salter’s Hall Synod (1719).[3] Here Presbyterians, Independents, Particular and General Baptist met to discuss whether ministers could be asked to subscribe to a Trinitarian creed. The Presbyterians and General Baptists voting no, moved into areas of Unitarianism and other heretical doctrines. The Independents and Particular Baptists though voted yes and remained faithful to orthodox Trinitarian doctrine.Yet, these Trinitarian controversies created confusion amongst many individuals. Isaac Watts (1674–1748), the hymn-writer, for instance near the end of his life, re-wrote a number of his works and never did seem to have a clear understanding of orthodox Trinitarianism.[5] Robert Robinson (1735–1790), the Baptist pastor and hymn-writer, seemed to deny Trinitarian theology near the end of his life as well.[6] The issue of the Trinity is incredibly important even today as many continue to deny this core theological doctrine.

While there is continued interest in the doctrine of the Trinity, there has been a failure to really understand the English Enlightenment denial of the Trinity and the continued orthodox affirmation and defence of the Trinity during this time. For instance, in his recent detailed work on the Trinity, Robert Letham argues that conservative Reformed theologians have contributed little to the doctrine of the Trinity since the time of John Calvin (1509–1564) until the twentieth century.[7] Yet, the defence of the Trinity in the seventeenth and eighteenth century is a crucial part of the story of the church’s teaching on this crucial doctrine.

John Gill (1697–1771) amongst the Particular Baptists vigorous defence of the Trinity as it had been held since the early church is important in the discussion of the Trinity in the eighteenth century. Muller writes, “Among the British writers of the late orthodox era, the Particular Baptist John Gill stands out as a defender of the doctrine of the Trinity as ‘a doctrine of pure revelation’ to the setting aside of all but biblical argumentation and patristic usage.”[8] With the rise of interest in Enlightenment studies and Enlightenment thinking on religious issues and doctrine, it is important to look at the orthodox response to English Enlightenment thinking, especially on an issue as important as the Trinity. Gill is such a person that must be studied. Not only did he study the Scriptures and the early church in his defence of the Trinity, he lived out his ministry with a complete commitment to the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. His biographer John Rippon (1751–1836) and the pastor who followed him at his Carter Lane Church wrote of him regarding the influence his thinking on the Trinity had on his ministry. He writes,

The Doctor not only watched over his people, “with great affection, fidelity, and love;” but he also watched his pulpit also. He would not, if he knew it, admit any one to preach for him, who was either cold-hearted to the doctrine of the Trinity; or who denied the divine filiation of the Son of God; or who objected to conclude his prayers with the usual doxology to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as three equal Persons in the one Jehovah. Sabellians, Arians, and Socinians, he considered as real enemies of the cross of Christ. They dared not ask him to preach, nor could he in conscience, permit them to officiate for him. He conceived that, by this uniformity of conduct, he adorned the pastoral office.[9]


[1] Getrude Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments (Essex, England: Vintage Books, 2005).
[2]See Philip Dixon, ‘Nice and Hot Disputes’: The Doctrine of the Trinity in the Seventeenth Century (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2003), p. 215.
[3] For more on this see Roger Thomas, “The Non-Subscription Controversy amongst Dissenters in 1719: the Salter’s Hall Debate,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 4 (1953): 162–186.
[4]See Arthur Paul Davis, Isaac Watts: His Life and Works (Published PhD Dissertation, Columbia University, 1943), pp. 109–126.
[5]See Two Original Letters by the Late Mr. Robert Robinson (London: J. Marsom, 1802). For the whole story of Robinson’s life see Graham W. Hughes, With Freedom Fired: The Story of Robert Robinson, Cambridge Nonconformist (London: Carey Kingsgate Press, 1955).
[6] Robert Letham, The Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004), pp. ix–x.
[7] Richard A. Muller, The Triunity of God in his Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003), IV, 140. Despite the lack of scholarly study in the Baptist stream of historical theology, Gill can rightly be included in the stream of other Post-Reformation Reformed theologians and thus is important to be studied in and of himself (see Richard A. Muller, “John Gill and the Reformed Tradition: A Study in the Reception of Protestant Orthodoxy in the Eighteenth Century,” in Michael A. G. Haykin, ed., The Life and Thought of John Gill (1697–1771): A Tercentennial Appreciation (Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2007): 51–68. See especially pp. 55–56.
[8] John Rippon, A Brief Memoir of the Life and Writings (Reprint ed., Harrisonburg, VA: Gano Books, 1992), 127–128. Emphasis in original.

Brief Biography of John Gill (1697-1771)

January 15, 2008

The following is the brief biography I wrote for the up-coming 3 volume Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization from Blackwell Publishers this year. Since I’m working more specifically on Gill I thought I should briefly introduce him!

John Gill was born in Kettering, Northamptonshire on November 23, 1697 to Edward and Elizabeth Gill. His parents were God-fearing individuals of the Calvinistic Baptist tradition. His father served as a deacon in the Baptist work in Kettering. Gill grew up in a good Christian home. His early years were spent studying in the local grammar school where he excelled in languages. Unfortunately, he was no longer able to attend by the age of 11 since it was required that students attend morning prayer at the parish church. His parents being dissenters would not allow this. This was the end of Gill’s formal education but he spent his time wisely teaching himself and not only excelled in Greek and Latin but was quite adept at Hebrew by the age of nineteen.

He was converted to Christ at the age of twelve but was not baptized until he was nineteen on November 1, 1716. He was married to Elizabeth Negus (d. 1764) in 1718 and they had three children that lived beyond infancy: Elizabeth, John, and Mary. The church at Kettering recognized his gifts as a preacher and in 1719 became pastor of the famous Horselydown congregation in London. Benjamin Keach had previously served as pastor in this church and eventually C. H. Spurgeon would become pastor of this church.

Gill would become a prolific author and influential theologian of the Particular Baptist cause. His writings include The Doctrine of the Trinity Stated and Vindicated (1731), The Cause of God and Truth (1735–1738) which was a return to Daniel Whitby’s Discourse on the Five Points which was a refutation of Calvinism. His magnum opus was his three volume An Exposition of the New Testament (1746–1748) and his six volume Exposition of the Old Testament (1748–1763). He also wrote A Dissertation on the Antiquity of the Hebrew Language (1767), A Body of Doctrinal Divinity (1767) and A Body of Practical Divinity (1770). He received an honourary Doctor of Divinity degree from the University of Aberdeen in 1748. He would become one of the most influential Baptist theologians ever.

The major controversy that has erupted over the influence of Gill has been over the issue of Hyper-Calvinism (the belief that unsaved man is not obligated to respond in faith in Christ and therefore preachers should not offer the Gospel to those who are the non-elect). Some have attributed to Gill to be the first systematizer of a Baptist Hyper-Calvinist theology. Others have argued that Gill was in fact not a Hyper-Calvinist. Regardless, it was during Gill’s time period when the Particular Baptist Churches began their decline into Hyper-Calvinism. Gill did believe in eternal justification (that the elect were justified in eternity past) and did not seem to appeal to all in the same way that further generations of Evangelical Calvinists did, but it seems difficult to say that Gill was undeniably in fact a Hyper-Calvinist. Instead, most likely, Hyper-Calvinists used Gill’s theology and went past him to solidify their own theology.

Gill is the first major writing Baptist theologian and his works retain its influence even to this day.


Baptists in the Stream of Reformation Thought

January 15, 2008

Just yesterday I posted about my concerns over the state of the future of Baptist Historical scholarship. Well, I have taken to study John Gill of late. Gill (1697-1771) has become my new best friend. I will be submitting my research proposal in the near future to Leiden University with the title “John Gill (1697-1771), Defender of the Trinity in the English Enlightenment.” I know this takes me in a different direction than my previously planned Andrew Fuller studies, but things do change. A new school, a new supervisor, and therefore in some ways, a new dissertation topic. It still fits my criteria: 18th century Particular Baptists; an important Baptist; a big theological issue. You cannot get much bigger than Gill and the Trinity debates in the 18th century.

But on to the point. In doing some reading by Richard Muller, I find it interesting that many of our future historical scholars do not feel the need to study our Baptist fathers. They are often more concerned about studying someone that will be respected by non-Baptist scholars. Well, here’s Muller, one of the finest Reformed and Post-Reformed historical theologians out there placing Gill in the same stream as other Post-Reformation theologians. GASP! Gill? A Baptist? Does that mean we can legitimately study Gill and other Baptists in and of themselves? Can it be a contribution? Listen to what Muller had to say about Gill:

“This brief survey of Gill’s sources indicates that, after the Bible, the main positive points of reference for Gill’s theology were the great Reformed and Puritan writers of the seventeenth century. The point is important for several reasons. In the first place, it locates Gill in relation to the Reformed dogmatic tradition, specifically, the tradition of Puritanism and its continental analogue, post-Reformation Reformed orthodoxy. Second, without in any way diminishing Gill’s commitment to the distinctive teachings of the Baptist churches, it identifies the larger number of his theological antecedents as thinkers not belonging to the Baptist tradition: Gill was not, in other words, an insular thinker, but he was clearly selective. Third, the point establishes Gill as a highly independent thinker in a relative sense: he was able to exert a degree of independence over against even his most trusted sources in order to position himself within the Particular Baptist tradition and in the context of the problems and debates confronting theology in the mid-eighteenth century. Fourth, Gill ws able, given the kind of sources with which he was acquainted, to produce a theology that was at once fundamentally Baptist and largely Reformed, and that because of its stance on a solid traditionary ground, was also able to maintain its distance from and dissonance with many of the currents of eighteenth-century theology” (Richard A. Muller, “John Gill and the Reformed Tradition: A Study in the Reception of Protestant Orthodoxy in the Eighteenth Century,” in Michael A. G. Haykin, ed., The Life and Thought of John Gill (1697-1771): A Tercentennial Appreciation [Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1997], pp. 55-56).

My point? Particular Baptists are worthy to be studied in and of themselves. They are (like Gill for example) part of the stream of Reformed and Post-Reformation orthodox thought. In fact, someone like Gill, made many contributions to theology that need to be studied out. You do not have to feel like you need to study someone out of the Baptist stream of history to prove yourself to scholarship. Here is Muller showing us that someone like Gill can stand alone and be studied on his own merit because Particular Baptists, just like Presbyterians and Independents made valuable contributions to theology, polity, spirituality, and many other areas and therefore are worthy to be studied alongside our other Reformed friends!


The Future of Baptist Historical Scholarship

January 14, 2008

I am concerned for the future of Baptist historical scholarship sometimes. I have spoke with Baptist friends with a great love of the Baptist faith (most specifically the Particular Baptist stream) who feel that they need to do work in the area of other individuals outside the Baptist stream to prove themselves in scholarship to those outside of the Baptist stream. If we do work in Puritans, Presbyterians, Independents, etc., then we can prove ourselves to the scholarly world. They know that those kinds of dissertations and such will also prove themselves to Baptist scholarship, so they say it is okay. I am not thinking of anyone in particular here as I have heard this kind of thinking from a number of individuals.

In my opinion then the Baptist cause suffers. I spoke with someone from a Baptist publishing company just last week about the possibility of reprinting some early Baptist works, but there is just not the money nor seemingly, the interest out there. But no offense to my good friends at the Banner, but they do not seem to have to worry about reprinting all of their good Presbyterian friends! What about the Baptists? Why do they have to take second chair to everyone else?

Where are all the Baptist scholars out there? Where are the Michael Haykin’s? Where are the Tom Nettles? I know I am no Baptist history expert. But I do have a love for Baptist history and want to see the stream of our Baptist forefathers explored further and taught and loved and written about. I want to see more people writing about Baptist history and our Baptist forefathers.

My call to you is, if you are considering historical research and study and are a Baptist, do not just decide to study Edwards or Owen or anyone else like that. Study Gill, Keach, Fuller, Spurgeon, etc. We have a great history in our Baptist circles. Let’s see the future of Baptist historical scholarship grow and develop! Let’s see old books republished and new books written! Let’s study these men and women’s lives. Let’s love where we have come from!