Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Vital, Essential Truth

This morning, in preparation for a day of writing, I reread the journal I kept during a trip to Iraq in 2003.  It was quite the adventure--in every conceivable sense of that word.

I was struck by my last entry in the journal, written as our team was safely headed home:

"According to Hebrews, faith is assurance and conviction. But faithfulness is endurance and enlightenment with an empathy for all those who are exposed.  Thus, the Christian life affords tremendous personal and individual benefits, but cannot be lived out on a merely personal or individual level.  I pray I never forget this vital, essential truth."

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Authentic Record

"There is no subject on which people are readier to form rash opinions than religion.  The Bible is the best corrective to these.  A man should sit down to it with the determination of taking his lesson just as he finds it--of founding his creed upon the sole principle of 'Thus Saieth the Lord,' and deriving his every idea and his every impression of truth from the authentic record of God's will." Thomas Chalmers

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Divorcing God: Secularism and the Republic

In 1965, Billy Graham was working on his book "World Aflame." He had just finished a chapter vividly describing the sinful conditions in America, and gave it to his wife to read. Ruth was sobered by the writing and returned the document to the study where he was writing and laid it on his desk, saying, "Billy, if God doesn't come soon and bring judgment upon the United States, He's going to have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah!" 

The story of that encounter was later recalled as an illustration in a sermon by Dr. James Kennedy, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  The message entitled "Prayer and the World Crisis," was delivered in 1976 at the National Prayer Congress in Dallas, Texas.

Lots of water has passed under the bridge since then--and yet the statement is truer than ever as this video clip so powerfully reminds us.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Parish Lententide Series

During the Christmas holidays in 1841, Thomas Chalmers, then perhaps the most prominent man in all of Scotland, paid a visit to the tiny Borders town of Skirling in Peebleshire. During his stay, he consented to stop by the local village school and give a lecture on Mathematics.

The great man was always inclined to leave a moral philosophy lesson for his students, even when he was teaching natural philosophy. And so it was that at the conclusion of his talk, he drew a large circle on the slate board and declaimed:

"The wider a man's knowledge becomes, the deeper should be his humility; for the more he knows the more he sees of what remains unknown. The wider the diameter of light, the larger the circumference of darkness. And so, with every footstep of growing knowledge there ought to be a growing humility--that is the best guarantee both for a sound philosophy and a sound faith."

The importance of this vital lesson was not soon lost on his awestruck students. Nor has it been lost on me. The phrase, "A Wider Diameter of Light," and all it seems to say about Chalmers, about his vision of the Christian life, and about his ongoing legacy has become emblematic to me of the vibrant Christian life. Not surprisingly then, it is the working title of the big biography of Chalmers that I am working on (well, working off and on). And, it is the title I have given to a series of stories I will be telling all through this upcoming Lententide season on Wednesday evenings at Parish Pres.

Won't you join us as we explore "A Wider Diameter of Light"? Dinner starts at 6 PM. A vespers of story and song begins at 6:30. Then, choir and prayer begin at 7 PM. RSVP with the church office.

Oh, and just a side note about the image: It was painted by John Henry Lorimer (1856-1936) was a renowned Scots portrait painter. Born in Edinburgh and trained at the Royal Scottish Academy. He was a student of George Paul Chalmers, grand-nephew of the great Thomas Chalmers. Perhaps his best known work (and my own personal favorite) is “The Ordination of Elders in a Scottish Kirk,” which hangs in the National Gallery of Scotland.  I think it really captures the very heart of "parish life" and the Chalmers ideal.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Drake's Prayer

Sir Francis Drake was a daring Elizabethan sailor, explorer, and warrior. On his greatest adventure, he departed Portsmouth in 1577 aboard his ship, the Golden Hind.  His aim was to raid the stockpiles of Hapsburg Spanish gold on the west coast of South America. At the conclusion of his raids, he ventured far to the north, claiming Coastal California and Oregon for England--what he had dubbed, "New Albion." He eventually returned home after circumnavigating the globe with booty worth more than a half million pounds sterling (a vast fortune in that day).

This is the prayer he wrote as he set out from Portsmouth:

"Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
with the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wilder seas
Where storms will show Your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.

We ask you to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push back the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.

This we ask in the name of our Captain,
Who is Jesus Christ. Amen."

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Prayer for the New Year: "Valley of Vision"

O Lord, length of days does not profit me
Except the days are passed in Thy presence,
In thy service, to Thy glory.

Give me a grace that precedes, follows, guides,
sustains, sanctifies, aids every hour
that I may not be a moment apart from Thee,
but may rely on Thy Spirit
to supply every thought,
speak in every word,
direct every step,
prosper every work,
build up every mote of faith,
and give me a desire
to show forth Thy praise;
testify Thy love
Advance Thy kingdom.

I launch my bark on the unknown waters of this year,
with Thee, O Father, as my harbour,
Thee, O Son, as my helm,
Thee, O Holy Spirit, filling my sails.

Guide me to heaven with my loins girt,
my lamp burning,
my ear open to Thy call,
my heart full of love,
my soul free.

Give me Thy grace to sanctify me,
Thy comforts to cheer,
Thy wisdom to teach,
Thy right hand to guide,
Thy counsel to instruct,
Thy law to judge,
Thy presence to stabilize.

May Thy fear be my awe,
Thy triumphs my joy. Amen.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Monday, October 14, 2013

In the Way of Grace

"We have to make the Bible our Vade Mecum, our book of reference, our book of trust.  Let us be convinced more and more of the prodigious fertility of the Bible.  How much lies hidden and unobserved, even after many perusals; and surely if it be true that a man may read it an hundred times and find something on his next reading which he missed on all his former ones, oftener recourse to this means of grace bids fair for multiplying our blessings.  Therefore, let us be quick to be in the way of grace." Thomas Chalmers

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Creed or Chaos

During the Second World War, the English woman of letters, Dorothy Sayers, gave a stunning address on the importance of doctrine.  Published after the war as Creed or Chaos, the central argument of the book remains remarkably prescient:

"Something is happening to us today, which has not happened for a very long time. We are waging a war of religion. Not a civil war between adherents of the same religion, but a life-and-death struggle between Christian and pagan. The Christians are, it must be confessed, not very good Christians, and the pagans do not officially proclaim themselves worshippers of Mahound or even of Odin, but the stark fact remains that Christendom and heathendom now stand face to face as they have not done in Europe since the days of Charlemagne. 

The people who say that this is a war of economics or of power-politics, are only dabbling about on the surface of things. Even those who say it is a war to preserve freedom and justice and faith have gone only half-way to the truth. The real question is what economics and politics are to be used for; whether freedom and justice and faith have any right to be considered at all; at bottom it is a violent and irreconcilable quarrel about the nature of God and the nature of man and the ultimate nature of the universe; it is a war of dogma. 

The word dogma is unpopular, and that is why I have used it. It is our own distrust of dogma that is handicapping us in the struggle. The immense spiritual strength of our opponents lies precisely in the fact that they have fervently embraced, and hold with fanatical fervor, dogma which is none the less dogma for being called "ideology." We on our side have been trying for several centuries to uphold a particular standard of ethical values which derives from Christian dogma, while gradually dispensing with the very dogma which is the sole rational foundation for those values. 

The thing I want to say is this: it is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of Christian morality, unless they are prepared to take their stand upon the fundamentals of Christian theology. It is a lie to say that dogma does not matter; it matters enormously. 

It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe. It is hopeless to offer Christianity as a vaguely idealistic aspiration of a simple and consoling kind; it is, on the contrary, a hard, tough, exacting and complex doctrine, steeped in a drastic and uncompromising realism. 

This is the Church's opportunity, if she chooses to take it. So far as the people's readiness to listen goes, she has not been in so strong a position for at least two centuries. The rival philosophies of humanism, enlightened self-interest, and mechanical progress have broken down badly; the antagonism of science has proved to be far more apparent than real, and the happy-go-lucky doctrine of "laissez-faire" is completely discredited. But no good whatever will be done by a retreat into personal piety or by mere exhortation to a "recall to prayer." The thing that is in danger is the whole structure of society, and it is necessary to persuade thinking men and women of the vital and intimate connection between the structure of society and the theological doctrines of Christianity. 

The task is not made easier by the obstinate refusal of a great body of nominal Christians, both lay and clerical, to face the theological question. "No creed but Christ" has been a popular slogan for so long that we are apt to accept it, without inquiring whether religion without theology has any meaning. And however unpopular I may make myself I shall and will affirm that the reason why the Churches are discredited today is not that they are too bigoted about theology, but that they have run away from theology. 

If we really want a Christian society we must teach Christianity, and it is absolutely impossible to teach Christianity without teaching Christian dogma."


Even as Christ has wrought
Wine from water,
So has the Spirit wrought
Sweetness from gall,
Life from death,
Even in the first breath
Of repentance.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Robert Farrar Capon (1925-2013)

Robert Farrar Capon, a writer, thinker, pastor, and cook of extraordinary depth and insight, has gone home to be with the Lord.

He said and did and wrote much, for which we can all be thankful. Perhaps the following (one of my favorite passages from his revelatory book, The Supper of the Lamb) will suffice to explain why:

To raise a glass, however, is to raise a question. One honest look at any real thing—one minute’s contemplation of any process on earth—leads straight into the conundrum of the relationship of God to the world. The solution is hardly ob­vious. For something that could not be at all without God, creation seems to do rather well without Him. Only miracles are simple; nature is a mystery. Autumn by autumn, He makes wine upon a thousand hills, but He does it without tipping His hand. Glucose, fructose, and Saccharomyces el­lipsoideus apparently manage very nicely on their own. So much so, that the resolving of the conflict between the sacred and the secular (or, better said, the repairing of the damage done by divorcing them) has been billed as the major problem of modern theology. Permit me, therefore, glass in hand and cooking Sherry within easy reach, the world’s most interrupted discourse on the subject. In vino veritas.

Take the largest part of that truth first. God makes wine. For all its difficulties, there is no way around the doctrine of creation. But notice the tense: He makes; not made. He did not create once upon a time, only to find himself saddled now with the unavoidable and embarrassing result of that first rash decision. That is only to welsh on the idea of an unnecessary world, to make creation a self-perpetuating pool game which is contingent only at the start—which needs only the first push on the cue ball to keep it going forever. It will not do: The world is more unnecessary than that. It is unnecessary now; it cries in this moment for a cause to hold it in being. It was St. Thomas, I think, who pointed out long ago that if God wanted to get rid of the universe, He would not have to do anything; He would have to stop doing something. Wine is—the fruit of the vine stands in act, outside of nothing—because it is His very present pleasure to have it so. The creative act is contemporary, intimate, and immediate to each part, parcel and period of the world.

Do you see what that means? In a general way we con­cede that God made the world out of joy: He didn’t need it; He just thought it was a good thing. But if you confine His activity in creation to the beginning only, you lose most of the joy in the subsequent shuffle of history. Sure, it was good back then, you say, but since then, we’ve been eating leftovers. How much better a world it becomes when you see Him creating at all times and at every time; when you see that the preserving of the old in being is just as much creation as the bringing of the new out of nothing. Each thing, at every moment, becomes the delight of His hand, the apple of His eye. The bloom of yeast lies upon the grapeskins year after year because He likes it; C6H12O6=2C2H5OH+2CO2 is a de­pendable process because, every September, He says, That was nice; do it again.

Let us pause and drink to that.

Glorious Grace

"Grace is the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world. It is a floating, cosmic bash shouting its way through the streets of the universe, flinging the sweetness of its cassations to every window, pounding at every door in a hilarity beyond all liking and happening, until the prodigals come out at last and dance, and the elder brothers finally take their fingers out of their ears." Robert Farrar Capon (1925-2013)

Monday, August 12, 2013

Rock of Ages

Augustus Montague Toplady, clergyman and writer, was born in 1740, at Farnham, about 20 miles southwest of Windsor, England. He studied at the prestigious Westminster School for a short time, but was sent to Ireland in 1755, the same year as his conversion—he had been greatly influenced by the teachings of John Wesley. 

Toplady received his degrees of Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts from Trinity College. During his studies, he gradually came to reject the Arminianism of the Wesleyan Methodists in favor of the doctrines of Sovereign Grace of the Puritan Calvinists. Ordained deacon in 1762, he was licensed to the Anglican curacy of Blagdon the same year. He was ordained a priest in 1764, and from then until 1766 he served as curate at Farleigh, Hungerford. For the next two years he held the benefice of Harpford with Venn-Ottery, and for two years after that, of Broad Hembury. During 1775 he took a leave of absence to minister to the French Calvinist Reformed Church in Orange Street, London. 

His first published work was a work of verse, Poems on Sacred Subjects. But he was best known for his polemical and dogmatic works—including The Church of England Vindicated from the Charge of Arminianism which was published in 1769 and The Historic Proof of the Doctrinal Calvinism of the Church of England which was published five years later in 1774. Those works proved vital in the ongoing theological struggles within the English church and helped to ensure orthodoxy for at least another generation. 

Toplady was only thirty-eight when he died, but his short life-span was enough to produce one of the most beloved of all hymns, Rock of Ages

Rock of Ages cleft for me, 
Let me hide myself in Thee; 
Let the water and the blood 
From Thy driven side which flowed 
Be of sin the double cure; 
Cleanse me from its guilt and power. 

The hymn was first published on this day in the Gospel Magazine, London, 1776. Today, only a very few non-specialists read the theological works which established Toplady as one of the most significant men of his day, but nearly all Christians sing his hymn—even the Arminians it was written to confound.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

A Different Tigger Altogether

“Well, I’ve got an idea,” said Rabbit.  “And, here it is.”
“We take Tigger for a long explore.  Somewhere where he has never been.  And then, we lose him there.  And, the next morning we find him again.  And mark my words, he’ll be a different Tigger altogether.”
“Why?” asked Pooh.
“Because, he’ll be a humble Tigger.  Because, he’ll be a sad Tigger.  A melancholy Tigger.  A small and sorry Tigger.  An oh-Rabbit-I’m-so-glad to-see-you Tigger.  That’s why.” A.A. Milne 

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Soli Vade Mecum Vitae

"I conceive every duty of a Christian to be comprehended in a single word: translation--a translation of the Scriptures into his tongue, and a translation of its truths into his own heart and conduct. The Bible must be our soli vade mecum vitae, our sole book of reference for life, our only book of trust." Thomas Chalmers 

Friday, May 31, 2013

A Lesson in Skirling

During the Christmas holidays in 1841, Thomas Chalmers, then perhaps the most prominent man in all of Scotland, paid a visit to the tiny Borders town of Skirling in Peebleshire.  During his stay, he consented to stop by the local village school and give a lecture on Mathematics.  

The great man was always inclined to leave a moral philosophy lesson for his students, even when he was teaching natural philosophy.  And so it was that at the conclusion of his talk, he drew a large circle on the slate board and declaimed:

"The wider a man's knowledge becomes, the deeper should be his humility; for the more he knows the more he sees of what remains unknown. The wider the diameter of light, the larger the circumference of darkness. And so, with every footstep of growing knowledge there ought to be a growing humility--that is the best guarantee both for a sound philosophy and a sound faith."

The importance of this vital lesson was not soon lost on his awestruck students.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Theological Lint-Pickers

The more things change, the more they stay the same. 

In 1813, Thomas Chalmers wrote in “The Christian Instructor” bemoaning the compulsion to internecine warfare amongst the Reformed, Paleo-Conservative, Theological Lint-Pickers, and Nomenclature-Saber-Rattlers in the Scottish Church.

He described the tendency as “that mingled sentiment of fear and aversion with which they listen, even to opinions that are evangelical and substantially their own, when they came to them couched in a phraseology different from what their ears have been accustomed to.”

Their selective but ardent litmus tests for acceptance, he argued, goes well beyond creedal faithfulness. “They must have something even more than the bare and essential attributes of orthodoxy.”  Indeed, “Even orthodoxy is not welcome unless she presents herself in that dress in which she is familiar to them; and if the slightest innovation in the form of that vehicle which brings her to their doors, she is refused admittance, or at best treated as a very suspicious visitor.”

Chalmers concluded that this parsimonious fractiousness is largely due to “a want of those two very things which they often insist upon, and with justice, as the leading attributes of a true and decided Christian: there is a want of faith and a want of spirituality.”

Alas, two hundred years later, it seems little has changed.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Glory of the Ascension

"Hail the day that sees Him rise,
Ravished from our wistful eyes!
Christ, awhile to mortals given,
Re-ascends His native heaven.
There the glorious triumph waits,
Lift your heads, eternal gates!
Wide unfold the radiant scene,
Take the King of glory in!" Charles Wesley

"By the Ascension all the parts of life are brought together in the oneness of their common destination. By the Ascension Christ in His Humanity is brought close to every one of us, and the words “in Christ,” the very charter of our faith, gain a present power. By the Ascension we are encouraged to work beneath the surface of things to that which makes all things capable of consecration. Then it is that the last element in our confession as to Christ’s work speaks to our hearts. He is not only present with us as Ascended: He is active for us. We believe that He sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; He the fount of Living Water, now ever lives to refresh us unto eternal life." Brooke Foss Westcott

"See, the Conqueror mounts in triumph,
See the King in royal state,
Riding on the clouds His chariot
To His heavenly palace-gate;
Hark, the choirs of angel voices
Joyful halleluiahs sing,
And the portals high are lifted,
To receive their heavenly King." William Wordsworth

Monday, February 25, 2013

Our Cottage in the Wood

"For our titanic purposes of faith and revolution, what we need is not the old acceptance of the world as a compromise, but some way in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it. We do not want joy and anger to neutralize each other and produce a surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and fiercer discontent. We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage in the wood, to which we can return at evening." G.K. Chesterton

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Acts of the Apostles

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Litanies for Childermas

Deuteronomy 30:19; Proverbs 24:10-11; John 10:10; John 3:16
Pastor: Heaven and earth bear witness: the Lord has set before us life and death.
All: He has set before us blessing and cursing.
Pastor: Therefore, let us choose life that we and our covenant children after us may live.
Reader 1: If we faint in the day of adversity, our strength is small.  Deliver those who are drawn toward death, hold back those stumbling to the slaughter. 
Reader 2: If we say, "Surely we did not know this," does not He who weighs the heart and keeps our souls know it?
Pastor: Therefore, let us choose life.
Reader 3: The thief does not come except to kill, and to steal, and to destroy, but, Jesus has come that we may have life, and that we may have it more abundantly.
All: For God so loved the world, that He sent His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
Pastor: Therefore, let us choose life.

Psalm 139: 7-8, 13-18
Pastor: Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
All: For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Pastor: Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.
All: My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Pastor: Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them.
All: How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand.

Romans 3:13-18; Jeremiah 8:3; Proverbs 8:36; Psalm 145: 8
Pastor: Lord, we come confessing.  We confess that our throats are open graves.  Whether we realize it or not, we have chosen the way of death.
All: There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together we have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one.
Pastor: All those who hate God, love death.
All: Our feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in our paths, and the path of peace have they not known.  There is no fear of God before our eyes.
Pastor: But, the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Deo Gracias!

Adam lay i-bowndyn,
bowndyn in a bond,
Fowre thows and wynter
thowt he not to long.

And al was for an appil,
an appil that he tok.
As clerkes fyndyn wretyn
in here book.

Ne hadde the appil take ben,
the appil taken ben,
Ne hadde never our lady
a ben hevene quen.

Blyssid be the tyme
that appil take was!
Therefore we mown syngyn
Deo gracias!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Saviour of the Nations, Come

Ambrose (340-397) was the great bishop of Milan who was instrumental in the conversion of St. Augustine. In fact, there is evidence in one of Augustine's writings that substantiates Ambrose's authorship of a wonderful Advent hymn, Veni, Redemptor Gentium--indeed, he is credited with writing a goodly number of hymns and is sometimes referred to as the Father of Hymnody. This particular hymn has been traditionally sung during the vespers service of the Nativity on Christmas Eve. The great German Reformer, Martin Luther (1483-1546) was instrumental in popularizing the hymn in Wittenburg through his 1524 translation from the Latin. The following version is an 1860 translation from Luther's German text by William Reynolds. Several other versions of this hymn exist, including a fine translation by John Mason Neale, Come, Thou Redeemer of the Earth.

Saviour of the nations, come,
Virgin's Son, make here thy home!
Marvel now, O heaven and earth,
That the Lord chose such a birth.

Not of flesh and blood the Son,
Offspring of the Holy One;
Born of Mary ever blest
God in flesh is manifest.

Wondrous birth! O wondrous Child
Of the virgin undefiled!
Though by all the world disowned,
Still to be in heaven enthroned.

From the Father forth he came
And returneth to the same,
Captive leading death and hell,
High the song of triumph swell!

Thou, the Father's only Son,
Hast o'er sin the victory won.
Boundless shall thy kingdom be;
When shall we its glories see?

Praise to God the Father sing,
Praise to God the Son, our King,
Praise to God the Spirit be
Ever and eternally.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Church Circus

"A time will come when instead of shepherds feeding the sheep, the church will have clowns entertaining the goats." Charles Haddon Spurgeon

Thursday, December 13, 2012

History Repeats: The Tron Church Debacle

"The Free Kirk, the Wee Kirk,
The Kirk without the Steeple."
"The Auld Kirk, the Cauld Kirk,
The Kirk without the People."
(A popular Scots rhyme at the time of 1843 Disruption)

Monday, December 10, 2012

Snopsing Chalmers on the "Gap Theory"

It is often asserted that the Scottish reformer, educator, and pastor, Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847), was one of the originators of the so-called "Genesis Gap Theory" as a part of his effort to harmonize the ideas of evolution and creation. Scan the internet and you'll see this claim repeated again and again. Even many of the most reputable Intelligent Design or Creation Science sites perpetuate this peculiar notion.

It has no real substance however. Indeed, it is an "urban myth."

The actual origin of the "ruin-reconstruction" view of Creation comes from the writings of late 19th century writers like Hugh Miller, G.H. Pember, and I.T. Taylor. It was then popularized by early 20th century dispensationalists such as A.C. Dixon, A.J. Gordon, and H.A. Ironside. And it was particularly propounded in the best-selling study Bibles of Finis Dake and C.I. Scolfield. The theory asserts that some indeterminate amount of time elapsed between the first two verses of the Genesis narrative--this "gap" could then account for millions of years of geologic time or the fall of Satan or any number of other perceived textual difficulties.

There is no record of Chalmers endorsing this view--or anything like it. The notion that somehow he did comes from a single statement in a single lecture out of the more than fifty volumes of his writings.

This is what Chalmers actually said: “The detailed history of creation in the first chapter of Genesis begins at the middle of the second verse.”

Clearly, Chalmers posited no gap, no ruin and reconstruction, and no attempt to reconcile evolution and creation here. At most, he made a simple exegetical observation that Genesis 1:1 declares God's ex nihilo creation; Genesis 1:2a introduces the Spirit's moving amidst the material void; And Genesis 1:2b begins to unfold the details of that glorious moving and its resultant redolence.

Regardless, debates about the age of the earth and possible conflict with the historicity of the Bible would actually not come into common discourse until well after the death of Chalmers. Indeed, he made his isolated comment in 1816--long before Darwin ignited the controversy with the publication of "Origin of Species" in 1859.

Thomas Chalmers most assuredly wrestled with ways to find a common ground for scientists and theologians--his Astronomical Discourses (1817) were particularly effective examples of his apologetic methodology. But never would he compromise the integrity of Biblical truth for the sake of supposed scientific accommodation.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Reading Chalmers

 I am often asked by friends and students how to begin a serious study of the life and work of Thomas Chalmers.  This is at least partly because I can hardly ever give a lecture, preach a sermon, write an essay, or post a blog without mentioning him.  But even more, it is because reading Chalmers can proved to be an arduous and elusive pursuit.

Don’t be fooled by the fact that at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Chalmers was heralded as the greatest preacher in the English-speaking world: he is very difficult to read.  His vocabulary is vast and unfamiliar, his Scots syntax is peculiar to those of us accustomed to the less circuitous English spoken south of the Tweed, and his pre-Victorian, Regency era rhetorical formalism is quite alien to modern readers and speakers of the King’s Tongue.  Plowing through his dense style is more than a little difficult—but it is also very much worth the effort.

It is worth the effort, that is, if you can find his works to plow through.  And that is no easy matter either.  Virtually all of his books have long been out of print.  Reprints are not only few and far between, they tend to be scanned from antiquarian library copies rather than newly, clearly typeset.  You can find quite an array of titles in the Google Books and Guttenberg Project digital collections—but, they lack the context that good introductory essays, explanatory footnotes and historical references, and deep indexing might provide. 

I have long thought that something like what James Bratt has undertaken to rehabilitate the life and work of Abraham Kuyper (especially his Centennial Reader and forthcoming magisterial biography), needs to be done for the life and work of Chalmers.  But until someone is able to take up that substantial mantle, we will have to content ourselves with a handful of scattered resources.

The first book that I always send readers to is the short profile by John Roxborough and Stuart Piggen entitled, The St. Andrew Seven  (Banner of Truth).  Though not entirely about Chalmers (most of the text is devoted to six of his students and the way he influenced the trajectory of their lives and ministries) it is nevertheless the best single, accessible work available in a modern edition.

The doctoral thesis of John Roxborogh is likewise very helpful.  Thomas Chalmers: Enthusiast For Mission (Rutherford House and Paternoster Press) is a concise examination of the parish vision and missional structure Chalmers helped to institutionalize in the Free Kirk.

In terms of biography, the most helpful work currently in print is a single chapter in Iain Murray’s A Scottish Christian Heritage (Banner of Truth).  As he always seems to be able to do, Murray captures the heart and soul of both the Gospel message and the human, historical means by which that message is proclaimed in this poor fallen world.

Another helpful doctoral dissertation recently published, but alas now out of print, is Stephen Brown’s Thomas Chalmers and the Godly Commonwealth (Oxford).  Serving as a critical biography, the work affords useful balance to the historical and theological reader.

Of the nearly one hundred works actually written by Chalmers, only the two volumes of his Sabbath Scripture Readings (Solid Ground) and his Letters (Banner of Truth) remain in print.  The Readings are delightful Lectio Divina meditations on individual chapters of Scripture written for his personal devotions during the last few years of his life.  They provide us with a remarkable glimpse into both his heart and his ministry, his piety and his hermeneutic.  The Letters portray the great man at work, at home, on the stump, in the midst of controversy, in the classroom, and amongst his brethren in a way that only a collection of personal correspondence possibly could.

Of his sermons, only The Expulsive Power of a New Affection is widely available.  It is genius and certainly warrants the attentions of serious students of the Gospel.  But a host of his other works are as valuable.  A new, annotated edition of his most accessible works should be a high priority for an enterprising publisher—as would a new comprehensive biography and in-depth studies of his parish vision, missional strategies, and church planting endeavors. 

Chalmers once asserted, “No matter how large, your vision is too small.”  My own vision for recovering the work of Chalmers from undue obscurity is large, but I am quite certain that in this too, he is right: it remains too small. 

Postscript: I have been “working” on several volumes for the past several years.  At least a couple of them will see the light of day very soon: a new annotated edition of the Keystone Memory System devised by Chalmers will be released as an e-book within the month; a very abbreviated, annotated collection of his sermons will be ready as a digital download shortly after the first of the year; a collection of my talks on Chalmers and his reforming vision should be ready by Spring; and both my big biography and my analysis of the parish system he recovered are on the drawing boards.  I even have titles for both: A Wider Diameter of Light for the former; Parish Life for the latter.