Our Faith

Excited that this new resource is now available from Reformation Scotland Trust.

Our Faith is a study guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith.

All believers seek to interpret the Bible. But too often our personal understanding can be fuzzy and patchy. We don’t see how truths relate to each other and we struggle to articulate them. The Westminster Confession of Faith has helped many generations across the world to have a clear and orderly understanding of biblical truth. It helps us to share our faith together and respond with appropriate worship. Our Faith enables everyone to do this by removing difficulties and providing helpful explanations.

And if you like that, you might also like Bible Truth Explored, a resource on the Shorter Catechism.

Generations of believers, with their children, have not only read the Shorter Catechism but memorised it. By learning it off by heart, we fix its important truths in our mind so that we can use it again and again and so that it shapes our thinking and our behaviour.

Glory in the Shorter Catechism

This is Robert Reymond’s analysis of the answer to, ‘What is God?’

The Shorter Catechism begins by employing the phrase ‘a spirit’ to describe God – he is ‘a spirit.’ This phrase is then qualified by three adjectives – ‘infinite, eternal, and unchangeable.’ A prepositional phrase introduced by ‘in’ then modifies the three adjectives; its seven nouns are in turn each qualified by the three adjectives. What this representation intends to show is this: that God is a personal (see the ‘his’) noncorporeal Being who is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being; infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his wisdom; infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his power; infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his holiness; infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his justice; infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his goodness; and infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his truth. This may be depicted as:

Three observations are necessary: First, it is important to note that it is not the first noun per se that distinguishes God absolutely from the creature; angels too are noncorporeal personal beings (Heb 1:14). Nor is it the last seven nouns that distinguish God from the angels or from the human creature; again, they have, or can have, these same characteristics to a certain degree. It is the three adjectives ‘infinite, eternal, and unchangeable’ that distinguish God in the absolute sense from the angels and from the human creature who bears his image; only God possesses these several characteristics in the infinite, eternal, and unchangeable sense.

Second, it is important to underscore the truth that when we speak of God’s ‘infinite, eternal, unchangeable’ being, etc., we are speaking of those attributes that comprise what the Scriptures intend when thy speak of God’s glory. That is to say, God’s glory is the sum total of all his attributes as well as any one of his attributes. For the creature to deny him any one of his attributes is to attack the very glory of God and to deny him that without which he would no longer be God. Or to ascribe to him any attribute which he himself does not expressly claim to have, which ascription can only cancel out some attribute which he does claim to have, is again to represent him as something less than he is and thus is to attack his glory. For this reason it is imperative to listen carefully to God’s description of himself in Scripture.

Third, it should be continually borne in mind that what we affirm here about God we are affirming not only about God the Father but also and equally about God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Shorter Catechism definition of God should be viewed as a description of the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and not just a description of God the Father.

How shall they hear?

McGraw HowShallTheyHear

Here is a book on preaching which non-preachers are invited to read. Ryan McGraw’s recent book, How Shall They Hear? is subtitled, ‘Why non-preachers need to know what preaching is.’

This is an important topic, and yet I’ve come away faintly dissatisfied.

Overview of the book

The explanation of preaching itself is not unsatisfying. McGraw opens by showing from 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2 what the task of preaching is: “Preaching is a public, authoritative proclamation of the gospel, through ordained ambassadors of Christ…” (p3). Then using Romans 10:14-17 he shows why preaching is necessary: “preaching is the ordinary means by which we must learn Christ and hear his voice” (p13). From 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 he shows that preachers must preach Christ crucified, in the power of the Spirit. Then from Colossians 1:28-29 he shows that preaching is hard work, because its aim is nothing lower than the salvation (justification and sanctification) of the hearers (p31). And from John 16:8-11, 14-15 he shows that the preacher’s aims in preaching must reflect what Christ has sent the Spirit to do through preaching – bringing people to Christ by convicting them (of sin, righteousness, and judgment) in relation to Christ (p42).

These five points take up the first five chapters, and so far these basic principles are clearly and persuasively laid out. This is a straightforward, comprehensive view of preaching and the preacher’s task and the preacher’s hope of success. If more preachers were more familiar with these principles and more consistently putting them into practice, without doubt we would all be happier and spiritually healthier hearers.

There is also certainly great value for hearers in having this clear a statement of what preaching is meant to be like, and what it’s meant to achieve. As McGraw says, although preaching is the primary means of grace, hearers often sit under preaching every week with only very little understanding of why it is the primary means of grace and what we can expect from it (p ix). But when this is left unspoken, and as it becomes forgotten, preachers lose heart (and confidence and authority) and hearers come and go mystified and unimpressed (and wither and weaken in their spiritual liveliness).

But for the next several chapters, the book seems to lose its focus slightly. Not so much its focus on preaching, but on what preaching means for the non-preacher. Chapters 6 to 12 are on topics like ‘proper methods for preaching Christ’ and ‘what should sermon application look like.’ It’s good material, there is plenty to think about, but it is geared for the preacher, with the applications for non-preachers having the distinct flavour of the afterthought.

It is only in the final two chapters that the non-preacher comes back into the picture again. In Chapter 13 McGraw argues that all Christians have a role in participating in sermons. He advises non-preachers to pray for preachers as they study and prepare. ‘Do we pray that the Spirit would increase love for Christ in our ministers so that they would preach him devotionally? … Do we pray that Christ would give them the ability to apply their sermons wisely…?’ (p104). He also reminds us to take diligent heed during the service to what we hear and how we hear. After the sermon is over, we can discuss it in conversation, ‘ready to highlight what is good in the sermon and to overlook any faults in the preacher’ (p105), and put it into practice in our lives. Overall, he comments that ‘the purposes of preaching should set the tone for our prayers for the preached Word,’ and for our aim in listening to sermons (p107). This is all good advice, because often you get out of a sermon (by way of spiritual profit) only as much as you put in (by way of self-preparation and believing expectation during and after).

Finally, in Chapter 14, McGraw tackles the question, ‘What if I sit under preaching that does not match the biblical model?’ This is perhaps the trickiest question in the book. The advice in response is necessarily given in broad outlines. If the preaching denies or neglects cardinal doctrines, it is time to find a new church (p110). But when preaching is doctrinally adequate but feels like watching a train wreck (p110) then hearers should have a charitable attitude which looks for what is good in the sermon, and they should be patient with the preacher, ‘looking to the Lord to develop them as preachers’ (p112). In general, we should pray always (p113): ‘first pray for the preacher, then talk to him about his preaching if necessary, and then talk to the elders of the church’ (p113).

The stated aim of this book is to be helpful to all believers, preachers or not. “It is only indirectly a homiletical manual for pastors; directly, it is a guide to believers” (p xi). In my view this should have been phrased the other way round. It is more directly addressed to preachers, and although it does perhaps have listeners more prominently in view than other homiletical manuals do, it is not geared towards them (us) directly. The book is not necessarily unsatisfying for its content but because it does not match its own sales pitch.


My disappointment with this book arises from the fact that for some time now I have been on the lookout for a book that would be helpful for non-preachers. In denominations which have a high regard for the Word and its truths and the preaching of it, there is a noticeable famine of the Word. For every person who says they love their pastor’s preaching and continually get spiritual benefit from it, there is at least one other person who loves their pastor and wouldn’t countenance leaving their church, but whose soul is not being fed by the preaching they hear.

I used to assume that if you didn’t get benefit from a sermon preached by a faithful minister, the problem was on your side. This is more or less the implication arising from McGraw’s book and others like it. Ministers quite rightly don’t want to blame the Holy Spirit for lack of appreciation of and/or fruit from their ministry, but this means that the next obvious place to put the blame is on the hearers. And there are after all plenty reasons why the problem could genuinely be on the hearer’s side. No doubt if we aren’t acting on the advice McGraw gives in Chapter 13 on praying and preparing to hear and receive the preached word, some portion of the blame does belong to us as poor hearers. We’re not spiritually hungry enough, we’re not expectant enough, we’re too distracted by other problems (in everyday life, or our wriggly children in the pew), we’re too critical of the preacher, we’re too easily tricked by the devil’s temptations.

But there are also poor sermons, and poor preachers. There are worship services where, however well prepared and expectantly you come, the likelihood of spiritual nourishment is small because the content of the sermon is the equivalent of spiritual cardboard rather than the feast of fat things the hearer longs for. You wonder whether these preachers themselves get anything out of their sermons – whether they would really be satisfied if they were in the pew listening to someone else saying these same things from the pulpit.

When a hearer is disappointed over a period of time by the sermons of their faithful pastor, what can they do?

McGraw is offering basically the same advice as Christopher Ash gives in his booklet, ‘Listen Up! A practical guide to listening to sermons’ – pray, be patient, be charitable. Of course this advice is sound. It is however very difficult to put into practice, especially when someone’s problem with the preaching they hear has been ongoing for a long time. Little recognition is given to how demoralising and spiritually debilitating it is to sit under inadequate preaching long term.

Simply because preaching is the primary means of grace, it’s those who sit under disappointing preaching who are least well placed to pray and be patient and charitable. Easy enough for writers of homiletics manuals, who presumably preach fairly decent sermons to fairly appreciative congregations, to urge those less favoured to sit tight and exercise more of the graces of patience and charity. Much harder when the feeding you should be getting from the preaching is starvation rations and you’re resorting to dietary supplements in the form of your own reading and your own listening (with all the associated limitations and risks) in order to sustain spiritual life in your soul.

Hard too when you love your pastor and it feels like a betrayal to acknowledge that his sermons are not bringing any benefit. Or it’s a series of supply preachers because you don’t have a pastor, and none of them could preach their way out of a paper bag, but you feel guilty even thinking that because all of them are lovely Christians and gracious saints and they pray so beautifully. Or the sermons are always preached from such lovely texts, so surely it must be your fault for not getting something out of it.

What can you do? How can you keep turning up? What coping strategies are there? How can you turn a poor sermon to some benefit?

I suppose we could pray again. It’s the Lord’s day, it’s the Lord’s truth, it’s the Lord’s ambassador – it makes sense to ask for the Lord’s blessing.

And there are tough-love truths we could try to take in – the possibility that some people may be benefiting from the preaching even if we’re personally not, and the fact that there is more to being a believer and a member of the congregation/church than consciously benefiting from all of the services all of the time.

Sometimes it might help during a sermon to think your own thoughts on the text and whatever aspects of its meaning and implications the sermon would ideally be bringing out (although when does this become a disrespectful refusal to engage with the sermon the Lord has arguably given this preacher to preach to this congregation including you at this time?).

Or there are sanity-check measures we could take, like educating ourselves on what it is and isn’t realistic to expect from preaching, so that we can evaluate sermons on objective criteria rather than simply failing to profit from personal failings or prejudice, or continually doubting our own judgment. (For this, I would recommend How Sermons Work by David Murray, as exceptionally helpful – it equips you with concepts and a vocabulary to understand what’s going on in a sermon, so that when things go wrong, you can at least identify it to yourself.)

At institution level, those who are responsible for arranging supply preachers should perhaps do a more careful cost-benefit analysis of having poor preaching supply versus no preaching supply, in the light of what kind of preaching the congregation appreciates and needs more than simply who might be available to fill gaps in the rota. Churches perhaps need to be more rigorous in assessing who they accept as preachers, not just in terms of the clearness of the call they feel but also in terms of whether they have any gifts for preaching. Perhaps a case could be made of reviving the old practice of ministers meeting to preach to other ministers specifically for the purpose of getting brotherly feedback on their preaching.

But these are only partial answers (and at institution level virtually impossible for the average hearer to do anything at all to implement). Why does the Lord provide preaching as the main means of growth for his people and then let the preaching be dull, ineffective and wearisome even when you really want to benefit from it? To me this is still a conundrum, and I’m still waiting to find someone to explain.

Review: Beyond Authority and Submission

Miller Beyond AuthorityRachel Green Miller has written an exceptionally helpful book: Beyond Authority and Submission: Women and men in marriage, church, and society (P&R, 2019).

In it, she articulates a balanced and scriptural view of the nature and roles of men and women, identifying the good bits of feminism and rejecting the bad bits of ‘complementarianism’ to express a sane and satisfying position on what is often an unpleasantly contentious set of topics.

1. The focus on authority/submission is too narrow

For one thing, Miller zones in on a most troubling aspect of how male-female relationships are treated in contemporary conservative discussions – namely the reductionistic insistence on authority (men’s, obviously) and submission (women’s, obviously).

Complementarianism, for anyone who hasn’t come across it, is a response from within conservative Christian circles to various (sometimes unbiblical) cultural shifts blamed on feminism. (Although it presents itself as simply biblical, transcending history and culture, it is a response from within basically North American conservative Christian circles.)

It is perhaps because complementarianism was birthed as a response, or reaction, to perceived threats to men’s roles in marriage and church office bearing that it often fails to get beyond some version of ‘he says jump, she says how high (and that’s the biblical way)’ – varying only in the degree to which the accompanying rhetoric modulates its harshness towards women and its glorification of testosterone.

But rather than rejecting, or seeking to remove, authority and submission from the discussion altogether, one of Miller’s important contributions is to recognise and emphasise three further biblical principles for how men and women should interact – unity, interdependence, and service.

  • Unity. Men and women are united in that we were all originally created in the image of God, and we are all fallen in Adam. In Christ, men and women are also equally re-made in the image of God, and joint-heirs of eternal life. (p37-39)
  • Interdependence. Men and women need each other. That is how we were originally created, that is how things work post-fall, and that is how all the members of Christ’s body are meant to function. (p39-41)
  • Service. Men and women have the same chief end, to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever. We are equally obliged to love our neighbour as ourselves, and to use our gifts for each other’s benefit more than for our own. (p42-43)

Miller states in the Introduction that husbands should lead their wives and wives should submit to their husbands (p16). This understanding comes from Ephesians 5:22-33. She is evidently and explicitly neither a feminist nor an egalitarian (egalitarians, for the uninitiated, are complementarians’ next-biggest bogeypersons after actual feminists). Rather, as Miller says repeatedly, it is the ‘hyper focus’ on authority/submission that is problematic for our understanding of sex and gender.

When you reduce human relationships to this one principle, it can only be unhealthy. But by presenting these three additional biblical principles of unity, interdependence, and service, Miller identifies the context in which authority/submission can be safely affirmed. It is safe, in the sense of not demeaning to women and not an ego trip for men, to affirm authority/submission when authority/submission is just one component of a well-rounded view of how we should relate to one another.

(This is also incidentally helpful for providing a framework that you can use when evaluating whatever latest teaching or resources you may encounter on marriage, or ‘a woman’s place’ – if it falls into the trap of reducing marriage (or whatever relationship it may be) to authority/submission to the neglect of these other principles, equipped with Miller’s three topics you can identify that reductionistic approach and specify the areas where it is defective.)

2. The theological problems of complementarianism

Secondly, Miller lays bare the theological problems of complementarianism, or at least of the brand of complementarianism that maintains this excessive, reductionist focus on authority/submission.

Problem 1: Extra-scriptural requirements for how men should behave and how women should behave.

Complementarianism is at heart an American cultural response to an American manifestation of a cultural problem. And so it not only presents a one-size-fits-all approach to being a ‘good Christian man’ or a ‘good Christian woman,’ but that one size is American-shaped.

The straitjacket itself cannot but stunt and entangle. If you like sports, science, maths, and holding opinions, you must be… not such a good example of a woman. If you like baking, art, and nurturing, you must be… not such a good example of a man. But these markers of ‘good’ masculinity and femininity are cultural, not scriptural.

Miller walks us through a series of examples from the Bible of women who did allegedly masculine things – Deborah, Miriam, Abigail, Jochebed, Zipporah, Esther, Ruth, Rachel, Lydia, Dorcas, Priscilla, the Shunammite woman, Shiphrah and Puah, Rahab, Mephibosheth’s nurse, Jehosheba, Jael, Manoah’s wife, Lois and Eunice, Anna. (Chapter 8) ‘The Bible gives us positive examples of women who led, initiated, provided, protected, demonstrated strength, and had theological discernment. Making decisions, earning money, running businesses, being physically strong, and being interested in theology don’t make women less feminine.’ (p136)

And of course, if you want good biblical examples of meekness, gentleness, or tender-heartedness, the best are men – Moses, David, or Paul for starters (Miller gives more examples and discussion in Chapter 9). Her point is, ‘What we need to be careful about is conforming to narrow or wooden definitions of masculinity and femininity … the Bible gives us a much broader picture of what it means to be masculine and feminine than many conservative Christians do. Jacob and Esau were extreme opposites, but both were masculine. Deborah and Esther were very different, but both were feminine.’ (p148)

This point needs emphasising because what Scripture holds out as non-gender-specific graces are, after all, graces – supernatural gifts of the Spirit, as distinct from natural temperaments. Being culturally conditioned or personally temperamentally inclined to be ‘meek,’ or ‘bold,’ for example, is not the same thing as having the grace of meekness or the grace of boldness. These are the fruit of the Spirit, not the culturally defined ‘right’ way of expressing masculinity or femininity.

Miller also mentions in passing that there is often variation from culture to culture in what is deemed appropriate behaviour for women and men. She doesn’t particularly expand on this point, but it is instructive. In Scotland, for example, we have a tradition in conservative Christian circles of ‘the godly old woman in the north.’ This is a woman who could cut and thrust in doctrinal discussions with women and men, she didn’t spare to dish out rebukes to wrong-doers in the community, and she was renowned for witty one-liners putting down the pretentious and the sanctimonious. She does not fit the complementarian ideal of what a biblical woman should be, but that really only proves that complementarianism is a localised phenomenon that simply cannot accommodate cultural manifestations of Christianity other than its own.

Problem 2: Making gender a ‘gospel issue’

There is also the astonishing presumption of elevating complementarianism – this ideology, these pieces of advice about how to be a suitably submissive wife and an adequately authoritarian husband – to a ‘gospel issue’. As Miller summarises it, ‘We’re told that these beliefs about gender and gender roles are inseparable from the gospel. “The two are one.”’ (p165, quoting Strachan and Peacock, 2016) It is hardly believable, but she has to spell this out: ‘Complementarianism is not the actual gospel. We’re not saved by faith in or faithfulness to a particular understanding of gender, men, and women.’ (p165)

Gospel issues, you’d imagine, might be things like justification by faith, the extent of the atonement, or perhaps the doctrine of the trinity, the divinity of Christ, or his mediatorial work. Things which, if you get them wrong, would either prevent you being saved at all, or else deprive you of much spiritual comfort and maturity. Gender roles really do not belong in this category.

Yet many proponents of complementarianism rely on a wrong understanding of the trinity in order to bolster their teachings on authority/submission. They claim that the Son has eternally been submissive to the Father, and that there is a hierarchy in the Godhead in which the Father has the supreme authority. This teaching is false. It goes right to the heart of our most basic understanding of who God is. It contradicts the fact that the three persons in the Godhead are ‘the same in substance, equal in power and glory’ (Shorter Catechism Q6). Miller (who deserves credit anyway for her previous work resisting this false teaching) here succinctly summarises the false teaching, its bad consequences, and the orthodox position (p114-117).

Additionally, some proponents of complementarianism distort and undermine Christ’s threefold mediatorial roles of prophet, priest, and king. They teach that a husband has the authority to act as prophet, priest, and king for his wife, somehow assisting Christ in sanctifying her (p156-197). Again I find it hard to understand how these teachings could ever find a foothold in even vaguely Reformed circles. When you think of the work that is actually involved for our Redeemer in his prophetic, priestly, and kingly offices (Shorter Catechism Q23-26), it is practically blasphemy to attribute that work, or any participation in it, to any human. Either it trivialises and secularises the work of Christ in accomplishing our redemption, or it puffs up (men’s side of) earthly, everyday human interactions beyond all proportion and propriety. The disparagement of Christ’s offices, in either case, can only result in loss of spiritual comforts and entanglement in spiritual bondage. Whereas the Reformation repudiated the role of priests, defined ecclesiastically, complementarians seem happy to reintroduce it, along with a couple of additional roles, defined on the basis of gender. But no man is competent to take on the role of applying redemption to any other person, and no woman has the right to look to a man instead of Christ, or between her and Christ, for the benefits of redemption. Gender is irrelevant to soteriology.

So there is a double problem associated with calling gender a gospel issue. On the one hand, it distracts from the actual gospel, the good news of salvation for sinners on the basis of what Christ has done, to focus on something of vastly less significance. On the other hand, it distorts the actual gospel, chipping away at its foundations by teaching a wrong understanding of who God is and a wrong understanding of Christ’s mediatorial functions. Miller is right to say, ‘Equating gender roles with the gospel, equating marriage with the gospel, and putting men in the role of Christ as priest and mediator for their wives and families creates a type of works righteousness: “Do this and live.” … When marriage is emphasised as living out a picture of the gospel and as the highest calling for women, along with bearing children, it tends towards making marriage and family into idols. This is especially harmful for singles and widows and for those who don’t fit the neat box of a nuclear family unit.’ (p165)

There is more, but I’ll be briefer.

Problem 3: Mere authority isn’t loveable

God’s grace makes God’s law loveable and a pleasure for God’s people to submit to. This is basically the whole point of the gospel, of finally finding the law in the hand of Christ instead of in the hand of Moses. But men have nothing comparable to grace to offer to make their rule with rod of iron something for women to joyously embrace. They are only fallen sinners like the rest of us. In fact, reducing our relationships to questions of authority (whether that is everyday relationships in society, ecclesiastical relationships in church, or what should be the loving relationship of marriage) only breeds antagonism and resentment. (p203) Pitting men and women against each other, in an endless battle for who gets to be in charge, is foreign to the spirit of the gospel. And the suspicion and hostility it fosters between one and another is increasingly pernicious the more close and loving the relationship is meant to be.

Problem 4: Presenting complementarianism as a sure way of getting your behaviour right

If only wives were more submissive! If only husbands would man up and be proper leaders! Sign up to complementarianism and save Western civilisation and your marriage!

But Miller is right to flag that abusers can take cover under complementarian teaching. (p237) Complementarians say things like, ‘Of course a wife shouldn’t be downtrodden by her husband!’ as if it’s the last thing that’s ever going to happen. Yet this is such naivety. Partly for the obvious reason that if you grant all this power to a sinner, it is inevitable that some will misuse it.

But partly also, and of more concern to the Reformed, it is so quaintly blind to the realities of our original and actual sinfulness and the human impossibility of sanctification. No ideology is capable of dealing with the corruption of our hearts, the transgressions of our lives, or the problems in relationships between sinful individuals. Complementarianism, for all its deployment of Scripture texts and its overlap with Christian concepts, is only another ideology. At its best, it offers some good advice which might help some people in some contexts. But it is not a means of grace, or something we can pin our hopes of temporal or spiritual salvation on, or something that can really enable or motivate us to be better people or have better relationships.

3. Moving on from complementarianism

Hopefully, in a decade or so people will only be talking about complementarianism the way we talk about woodchip wallpaper now – it played such a huge part in so many people’s lives, yet the question now on everyone’s lips is, ‘What on earth were we thinking?’

Miller is right to want to move the discussion beyond authority and submission. She has proposed those three further principles – unity, interdependence, and service – and fleshed them out across several chapters. This is a major piece of progress which deserves to be built on by others going forward.

Miller concludes with an invitation to “evaluate our beliefs and attitudes about women and men and test everything against Scripture.” (p258) Perhaps the most important of her diagnostic questions is, ‘Do your relationships with others tend toward co-labouring or toward antagonism?’ The tendency within complementarianism is towards antagonism, stoking conflicts and mistrust between men and women.

By contrast the co-labouring Miller recommends is Scriptural. It is solidly grounded in familiar truths: (1) men and women have the same chief end (WSC 1) and both bear the image of God (WSC 10), (2) we have all sinned in and fallen with Adam (WSC 16), (3) the same way of salvation is open to both men and women (WSC 20-37), and (4) the faith and obedience required of a saved sinner is almost entirely non-gender-specific (WSC 39-107).

Going back to Scripture and back to Scriptural expressions of orthodoxy and orthopraxy will grant us a perspective and an approach which restores friendship and mutual helpfulness to broken and inadequate relationships, and will adorn the gospel much more successfully.

now available in the UK

HughMartin-selected-cover2-416x622I’m delighted to say that the collection of Hugh Martin’s writings edited by Matthew and myself is now available in the UK.

It’s worth reading (we only wrote the preface) – Hugh Martin was a genius, and the pieces in this volume are superb. He excels at diving deep, and then deeper, into the truth of a passage of Scripture and pressing home inescapably how much comfort the believer can have from this or that truth, showing from all sorts of angles how much glory it gives to our triumphant, victorious Saviour.

God is a Spirit

20170504_082315Our almost-two year old suddenly started saying the word “God”. All his words started off as sequences of a consonant followed by a vowel, before he started adding word-final consonants. It was a proud day when I ceased to be “ma” and became “mum”. But it didn’t seem right for him to wander around seeming to casually break the Third Commandment. So I racked my brains for a sensible thing to give him to say about God.

Naturally the first thing that came to mind was the wording of the Shorter Catechism. “What is God?” asks one of the early questions, with the reply, “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable…”

So I told the boy, “God is a Spirit” and he now knows to say “God Spirit” [gɔd bi:t]. The answer continues, “infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth,” but I thought we could leave that bit until he’s slightly older.

But then I had a qualm about the usefulness of what I’d just done. Does this statement only refer to his immateriality? Is that the most useful concept to offer a child as a starting point for thinking about God? Maybe it was really both too basic and too complex? Don’t you just skip over these first few words to get to the meat of the definition in the bit he’s too young to start on yet?

Around the same time I started catching up with some new books that had recently arrived in the house. Among them was the five-volume set of Reformed Dogmatics by Geerhardus Vos, now translated from Dutch into English for the first time. These volumes consist of lectures Vos gave in systematic theology, structured in a question and answer format.

There on page 14 of the first volume was a section headed, “What does Scripture mean when it calls God Spirit?”

The Hebrew and Greek words that mean ‘spirit’ are both ‘wind’. From this starting point we discover the following:

  • Wind is that power among material powers that seems to be the most immaterial and invisible. We feel it but we do not see it. When God is called Spirit, it therefore means his immateriality.
  • Wind or breath is the mark of life and thus stands for life or in place of enlivening power. Thus it is the case that God’s spirituality also means his living activity. As Spirit God is distinguished from man, indeed all that is created, that is flesh, that is powerless and inert in itself. Spirit is thus what lives and moves of itself.
  • Wind as the spirit of life or the breath of life belongs with something else enlivened or activated by it. God can also in this sense be called Spirit insofar as he is the enlivener and source of life for the creature. That is so both in a natural sense as well as in a spiritual sense. That agrees with the fact that man can be called flesh in a twofold sense, both insofar as he naturally has no power of life in himself and insofar as he is spiritually dead and cut off from God. …
  • The spirituality of God implies that He is a rational being, with understanding, will, and power.

What else does God’s spirituality involve?

That God’s being also exists as personal. However, we should consider that God’s being may not be called personal in the abstract but only in his threefold existence as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In God personality is not one but three. There are not four but only three persons in the Godhead.

This was immensely reassuring to read. The statement, “God is a Spirit” encapsulates not only the idea that God is immaterial but also that he has life of himself, is the source of life for the creature, is rational, and exists as three persons. The statement is meaty in its own right, and the rest of the Shorter Catechism’s answer only builds on it. Clearly, a 22-month old isn’t going to grasp much of what even this basic statement references, but it provides him with a vocabulary now which he will be able to fill with increasing meaning over time.

I’ve since read further into volume 1 and dipped in and out of the other four volumes of Reformed Dogmatics, and I’m happy to report that there is much more to Geerhardus Vos than a pageful of unwitting encouragement in navigating the parenthood jungle.

In fact I was pleasantly surprised at how fresh Vos’s treatment of familiar doctrines was. He is also admirably clear (something I wouldn’t have expected from my previous few attempts to tackle his other writings) and concise. The question and answer format works as well as can be expected – there are the odd questions of the type “What belongs to the first category?” and “Where have we now arrived in our treatment?” which make sense only in their contexts – but largely the questions are used adeptly as tools for developing arguments and announcing new topics (e.g., “How does the work of the Holy Spirit relate to that of the Son?” “In what differing respects does the Holy Spirit carry out his distinguishing work?” “Which attributes are particularly ascribed to God the Holy Spirit as a result of this distinguishing work?” and, “What is the relationship of God’s decree to his reason and his will?”)

It might not be best to recommend these volumes to an absolute beginner as a very first introduction to systematic theology, but for anyone who has a basic familiarity with the doctrines of the Catechism or Confession, say from regular church attendance, these would be an excellent, non-threatening way to start sharpening up their theological understanding. The individual volumes are not hefty tomes, only a couple of hundred pages each. They are the only multi-volume systematic theology I know of that someone could sit down and read from cover to cover in the space of a couple of weeks, as a pleasurable experience. But each would work as a stand-alone book on the topic it covers. (Volume 1 is Theology Proper, covering the doctrine of God, God’s decrees, and creation and providence. Volume 2, Anthropology, covers human nature, sin, and the covenant of grace. Volume 3, Christology, is about Christ. Volume 4, Soteriology, covers the order of salvation, regeneration and effectual calling, conversion, faith, justification and sanctification. Volume 5, Ecclesiology, The Means of Grace, Eschatology, covers the doctrine of the church, the Word and sacraments, and the doctrine of the last things.) So pick your topic and dive in.

evaluating the new calvinism

Jeremy Walker’s recent book on the ‘New Calvinism’ is a useful and, as far as I can tell, accurate overview of this movement. By sometimes seeming to bend over backwards to be even handed, The New Calvinism Considered gives as warm an appreciation as could be hoped for, while delivering some pungent criticisms where deserved.

The so called New Calvinism is a conglomeration of big personalities with huge followings of mainly college age young people, mainly in the US, enjoying a sort of rediscovery of broadly Reformed theology in a contemporary (technological and cultural) setting.

Walker’s short book devotes a chapter to identifying characteristics that can be commended. These include the sincere intention to glorify God, joyful enthusiasm about grace, concern to reach the lost, commitment to ‘biblical manhood and womanhood,’ willingness to use cutting edge technology to consume and disseminate theological material, and valuing expository preaching. Walker makes these six commendations warmly and frankly, although not always unqualifiedly.

There follows a chapter of concerns. These include a tendency to pragmatism and commercialism, an unbalanced view of culture, a troubling approach to holiness, a potentially dangerous ecumenism, a tension with regard to spiritual gifts, and a degree of triumphalism. Walker raises these six concerns as gently as can be imagined.

So what characterises Walker’s treatment throughout is its evident striving for scrupulous fairness. There is a sense that his criticisms are offered with the greatest reluctance, and that a more positive verdict would have been much more to his liking. His is a painstakingly diplomatic assessment, where the objections are wrung out of him – not, you understand, that he regrets taking a stand for more biblical doctrines and practices, but more that he earnestly wants to avoid either indulging or licensing a censorious spirit from outwith the New Calvinist movement, and is most anxious not to stumble anyone within the movement who could be persuaded to settle down into a more firmly scriptural pattern. So far as I can see, Walker succeeds admirably both in avoiding swingeing accusations that can be called misleading, and in presenting a critique that gives any readers from within the movement maximum opportunity to reflect dispassionately rather than with instant defensiveness.

There are indeed places where you might sometimes be tempted to wonder at how damming the evidence brought out about elements of the New Calvinism is, and how surprisingly lenient the eventual conclusion. But on the one hand, there is an important question of balance – of giving as much credit as can be due to people being well meaning (in wanting to honour God) and successful (in communicating their enthusiasm for grace and the gospel). On the other hand, there is the question of their trajectory and direction of travel. People who have come from a background of doctrinal vagueness or evangelical legalism or plain irreligion can be forgiven a lot more by way of faults and shortcomings as they (hopefully) progress towards clearer and clearer views of the truth than can people whose starting point is a heritage of full orbed Calvinism and associated practice which they only seem inclined to jettison.* It will be interesting to see, in time, how the trajectory of this movement develops, and how much more closely it will converge on more scriptural belief and behaviour.

One perhaps surprising feature of The New Calvinism Considered is how non-theological it is. Calvinism, you might think, is primarily a theological system, a comprehensive body of doctrine. Of course, flowing from that doctrine is a particular kind of practice, more or less consistent with the doctrine professed. But what seems to most adequately describe the New Calvinism is apparently more sociological (even tribal) than theological. The main points of reference are names and figureheads rather than creeds, doctrines, or theological positions, especially if the charismatic gifts are treated as not worth taking a view on, while complementarianism (also wishfully known as ‘biblical manhood and womanhood’) is fundamentally non-negotiable.

In fact, one of the most striking points about the New Calvinism is how barely Calvinistic it is. Walker comments on how some of the leading lights can openly profess themselves ‘four point Calvinists’ without seeming either to raise any controversy or to show any inclination to relinquish the name of Calvin, even though rejecting any of the five points by definition puts you outside the theological circle labelled Calvinism. As Walker neatly puts it, ‘while there is a very real sense in which Calvinism is more than just the five points, it is not so easy to argue that it is less than those points’ (somewhere early in chapter 2 – what’s the convention for referencing kindle texts?).**

And if Calvinism proper is defined by doctrine, there is also something more indefinable that seems to have characterised those Calvinists and Calvinistic churches who flourished prior to the advent of the New Calvinist movement. That has to do with atmospheres and attitudes, priorities and perspectives – whether someone’s orientation is predominantly heavenly or predominantly earthly. Walker discusses how the valid desire among New Calvinists to be ‘relevant and accessible’ can drift into an unhealthy striving to be constantly cutting edge. ‘Not so long ago you had to reference The Matrix (although frankly that is already a little old school) and then it was The Lord of the Rings (and that will be out of date before long, but at least we have The Hobbit to keep us going for a while) … You get a mass of cultural buzzwords, riding the wave of the latest big film series or the book that everyone is or should be talking about.’ In short, this movement, however sympathetically it’s described, leaves you with the uncomfortable feeling that it’s really actually pretty worldly – not simply that it seeks to engage with contemporary culture in innovative ways, but that it actually cares about being cool.

This is markedly different from the (five points plus) Calvinists of the past, not to mention the apostles and prophets, whose focus was always more on eternal realities than on the ephemeral trivialities that absorb people before they know the Lord. It’s not that pastors can never relax with a book or film, or that believers should never have anything to say about things of interest in the world, but more that urgency for perishing souls, your own included, generally has a tendency to make the hip and trendy fade into insignificance, just because of its fatal tendency to distract fallen minds away from the pressing claims of divine authority, blunt the edge of scripture warnings, and take the shine off the glory of gospel blessings. If you’re not in the affluent West (even, if you’re not in the US), or if you’re elderly, ill, bereaved, overworked, needy, or otherwise not very cool, most of what’s cutting edge becomes transparently superficial, unsatisfying, and ultimately irrelevant. This was understood by old time Calvinists like the McCheynes, Bonars, Milnes and Guthries of the nineteenth century – educated and sophisticated as they were, they weren’t so bothered about engaging with culture and keeping their finger on the pulse of fashionable Edinburgh compared to engaging in prayer and immersing themselves in the truth (and to call them the young, restless and reformed of their day, as I read somewhere recently, is manifestly silly, and not only because they were, actually, reformed).

Walker concludes that those outside the movement should neither embrace nor reject the New Calvinism wholesale. His hope is clearly that at least some of the people within it will soon be looking for something with more depth and more closely conformed to scriptural doctrine and practice. This is something to look forward to and pray for. At the same time, ‘old’ style Calvinism could do worse than praying for a clearer grasp of the truths most surely believed and a more consistent way of living them out in the believer’s daily walk. Everyone building on the foundation should build with care, because eventually their work will be tried and tested to see what sort it is, whether gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or stubble.


Jeremy Walker, The New Calvinism Considered, Evangelical Press, 2013. Amazon.


*Compare, for instance, the thousands singing two thirds traditional hymns with a piano only sometimes, as reported in the Banner of Truth of the 2014 T4G conference, with a congregation of Highlanders, twenty on a good day, who just decided one day that purity of worship had a whole new meaning, even though they were totally brought up to know better.

** Similarly there seems little to no uneasiness about the concept of ‘Christian hedonism,’ John Piper’s revision of man’s chief end in the Shorter Catechism (‘to glorify God by enjoying him for ever,’ instead of ‘to glorify God and enjoy him for ever’). Jerrold Lewis’s discussion of several years back remains the go to critique of Christian hedonism: ‘Within the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition there is a clear understanding that the chief object of the Christian experience is holiness not happiness. Happiness is the unavoidable consequence of the long and often painful process of sanctification. Even then, the pleasures that are unveiled in Christ are not of this world.


Ceremony of Innocence

Ceremony of InnocenceIf you only read one novel this summer, let Ceremony of Innocence be it. Dorothy Cummings McLean has been entertaining hundreds of readers for years on various incarnations of her blog, and finally a publishing house has done the wider world a favour by making one of her full scale novels available in book form.

Although the most obvious peg to hang Ceremony of Innocence on is the style of Graham Greene, this is a fresh and original work in its own right. Whatever debts may be owed to Greene, in McLean, the atmosphere is less seedy, the drama more wholesome, the moral dilemmas sharper – and all leavened with flashes of comedy that are entirely McLean’s own.

Without giving away the plot – watch out, by the way, for clever flashbacks, as the Canadian/Scottish journalist narrator Catriona McClelland covers terrorist bombings across Germany, attends wild parties, splits up with her boyfriend, and comes under suspicion of involvement in the death of a student activist – let me tell you what else is striking about this book.

For one thing, the writing is so evocative. The naivety of young Western liberals in their sympathy for Islamic extremism is captured perfectly. Students too – their chat, their parties, their noughties wide-eyed cynicism. Catriona – cynical and hard-bitten, but vulnerable. Throughout, the dialogue is brilliant (including, I must say, the German/English and German/English/Scottish code-switching).

Then, the strong female characters – the one key protagonist who is beautiful, intelligent, and nevertheless very much in the background is not one of the women, but Dennis, Catriona’s unlikely boyfriend. It’s Catriona who is the complex character who does lots of things – has run-ins with neo-Nazis, wins popular and critical acclaim for her work, gets mired in intrigue, survives explosions – she’s likeable but with complicated edges, she’s deeply compromised but in nevertheless a very identifiable way. And the other characters driving the plot forward are Suzy, and Anna-Maria and Silke, even the GP and Aisha. Dennis, meanwhile, just provides home comforts and is the object of competition among other eligible women, in a delightful inversion of conventional characterisation.

And of course, the wrestling with big scary moral issues. War guilt – the bombing of Coventry, the bombing of Dresden. How violence breeds violence, the far right responding to home grown terrorism responding to interventionist foreign policy. Catriona living with Dennis and so also with prickles of conscience and social and ecclesiastical disapproval. And, throughout, how to deal with treachery – when Suzy brazenly betrayed Catriona in pursuing Dennis, when Catriona self-servingly hid information from Dennis, and, darkest of all, when somebody seems to have done something to lead to Suzy ending up dead. Complicity, betrayal, cowardice, selfishness… people doing things you know are wrong, but which seem in their complex circumstances to be almost unavoidable – but they know they’re wrong too, so guilt and unease abound.

Although some of these themes will be very familiar from Graham Greene, what McLean has done is to take the best of Greene, dust it down and give it some of her unique sparkle. There is nothing cosy or fluffy about Ceremony of Innocence, but the writing is stellar, and it will make you think.

(Ceremony of Innocence by Dororthy Cummings McLean – available from Amazon in hardback or kindle)


Unsearchable Riches

Unsearchable Riches - selected sermons of Rev Donald MacLeanUnsearchable Riches,’ an edited collection of sermons preached by Rev Donald MacLean, is now available to order from here:

– in your choice of ebook, paperback, or hardback.

The sermons included here range from the very good to the excellent – just the right mix of doctrine and experience, and simultaneously plain-speaking and profound.

(Disclosure of interest – I was involved in a bit of the transcription. But everyone should still rush off and order a copy straight away. And tell everyone at church who doesn’t read blogs!)