Practicing Affirmation

Practicing Affirmation: God-centred praise of those who are not God
Sam Crabtree
Crossway, 2011

practicing affirmation

I decided to check this book out after reading David Murray’s commendation of it in his The Happy Christian. He writes ‘I’m amazed that this book has not had much wider acclaim’. Having read it, I can understand both Murray’s enthusiasm but also why the book has failed to have the impact it could have.
A toxic build-up of negativity and widespread lack of praise for others are certainly issues needing addressed. As John Piper notes in the foreward: ‘When our mouths are empty of praise for others, it is probably because our hearts are full of love for self’. As C. S. Lewis once observed, cranks, misfits and malcontents praise least.

Any call for us to affirm others more will lead to objections – doesn’t that lead to pride? How can we affirm non-Christians? Crabtree is aware these will come and helpfully reminds us where the focus should be. ‘God-centred affirmations’, he says ‘point to the echoes, shadows and reality of a righteousness not intrinsic to the person being affirmed’. Yet the constant defensiveness rather spoils the book, and Crabtree includes a chapter which deals with all kinds of whacky objections, such as ‘Should I affirm Satan?’. If the defensiveness had been left to the first chapter it would have made for a more profitable book for those who are already on board with his premise. Furthermore, in attempting to see God’s grace in those who aren’t Christians, he also seems to grant atheists a neutrality when it comes to God, telling them: ‘I’m inclined to think that you are interested in following the evidence wherever it goes, embracing reality, whatever it may be.’ It’s also doubtful whether Ananias can be claimed as an example of giving someone (in this case, Paul) the benefit of the doubt, rather than simply obeying God.

Yet those who persevere will find useful encouragements and practical examples when it comes to a subject which isn’t just an optional extra for Christians – after all, our prayers can be hindered for a lack of it (1 Peter 3:7). Crabtree also helpfully discusses how we should receive affirmation. To follow Corrie ten Boom’s example – take the bunch of roses, savour their scent for a moment and then hand them up to the rightful recipient. Chapter 7 contains helpful practical suggestions for identifying and commending Christlike qualities in someone. These aren’t restricted to the obvious and include things like diligence, initiative and dependability. As these qualities were fleshed out, people who quietly exemplify them (probably receiving little if any affirmation) sprang to mind.

And yet, even allowing that the book is written by an American, there are copious amounts of cheese that need to be spooned out in order to enjoy the meal. It’s there throughout the book, but some of the worst examples are in his list of 100 practical suggestions for those struggling with affirmation, including literally applauding someone and singing ‘Happy Birthday dependable Debbie’.
The book was also a struggle to read due to a poorly formatted kindle edition. Full stops and commas often don’t have spaces after them, and there are line breaks in the middle of paragraphs where the print book goes onto a new page. And whatever format you read it in, there are a number of typos eg ‘is they believe’ (p. 21) and one of America’s best known film-directors is referred to as George ‘Lukas’.
Despite its flaws however, there remains much in this book to affirm.

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.

Calvin, Weekly Communion, and the Scottish Reformed Tradition

Are those who advocate weekly communion simply following the desire of John Calvin? Was communion in Scotland only celebrated less frequently due to a lack of ministers? Many would answer ‘yes’ to both those questions – but despite what we’re often told, the facts don’t seem to back that up. Adam Kuehner of Southfield RPCNA (Michigan) has written a booklet (30 pages) on the issue which is today available to download as a free PDF. In it, Kuehner shows that for both Calvin and the Scottish Reformers (and those who followed), proper fencing of the table was more important than the frequency of the celebration. In fact, delaying the Easter communion in order to properly fence the table was what got Calvin and Farel banished from Geneva. While exiled in Strasbourg, Calvin pastored a local congregation and opted for monthly communion, even though the city council allowed Bucer to serve it weekly.

All that being said, none of this provides historical precedent for only having communion a few times a year. Kuehner (whose congregation celebrates communion 6 times a year) points out:

It should be noted that Scottish communion frequency is too often viewed in a simplistic manner. Some rural Scottish congregations celebrated the Lord’s Supper only once or twice per year, while others kept a quarterly schedule. Nevertheless, the common practice of parishioners communing in adjacent parishes meant that many were able to commune more frequently than four times per year. This fact is often overlooked.

Not seeing the Wode for the trees: Duguid responds to Denlinger

Duguid book

In December my response to Aaron Denlinger’s rehashing of long-disproved arguments against exlusive psalmody on Reformation 21 received a link from everyone’s favourite London Welshman. Ref 21 however declined the opportunity of posting the response of a leading Wode Psalter scholar to Denlinger’s claim that the uninspired songs the psalter includes were sung in public worship.

Dr Timothy Duguid, author of Metrical Psalmody in Print and Practice: English ‘Singing Psalms’ and Scottish ‘Psalm Buiks’, c. 1547-1640, has therefore made his response available online. He concludes:

‘Denlinger admits, “I’ve never been hugely impressed by the biblical and/or theological arguments for exclusive psalmody…” That is where the discussion should have ended, but he instead insists on finding rest and comfort in a suspect historical precedent. Neither Calvin nor the early Reformed Scottish Kirk promoted the singing of any non-Scriptural texts in their respective liturgies. Therefore, Denlinger is errant in his concluding remarks: “I’m comforted, then, to think that as I worship this Sunday and join my fellow Reformed believers in singing uninspired hymns, I’ll do so in the company of those Scottish Christians who peopled the Reformed Kirk in its earliest decades.” There is no spiritual comfort to be had in any extra-Biblical historical precedent, let alone one that never existed.’

Read the whole thing

Why we Pray (book review)

Why we Pray
William Philip
Crossway, 2015 (IVP in the UK with a bit of a naff cover!)

why we pray

If Vaughan Roberts has taken Graeme Goldsworthy’s insights into the Bible’s structure and simplified them for a wider audience, William Philip has here done the same with (the first half of) Goldsworthy’s book Prayer and the knowledge of God.

The Tron’s minister writes as a pastor and aims to give the reader a book which is both encouraging and realistic. In reaction to more disheartening books on prayer he comments ‘I find I’m doing very well indeed if I can manage to pry myself out of bed at all before breakfast, never mind have hours of prayer’. And so the four chapters of this short book are simply reasons why we pray, because a better understanding of what we’re doing when we pray will help us pray more.

He begins with a chapter entitled ‘We pray because God is a speaking God’, and this was the one I found most helpful. You can’t speak to someone without creating a relationship and so by speaking to us God initiates the restoration of a relationship that has broken down. We are relational beings because we were made in the image of God. So the reason that solitary confinement is a punishment is because it strikes at a key part of who we are. We were made for a relationship with God – so not to talk to him is to try to deny part of who we were created to be. The Lord’s comment to Ananias about the newly converted Paul, ‘behold he is praying’, is remarkable because despite having prayed every day of his life, Paul had never truly prayed before.

philip_why_we_pray IVP

Chapter 2, ‘We pray because we’re sons of God’, is especially heart-warming. Jesus was the only true human being who ever lived, and therefore the only true pray-er – so we can only hope to pray because of and through him. To think our sin means we can’t pray is to insult Christ by saying he hasn’t done enough. Because we are God’s children, we don’t have to lobby for an audience with him the way those outside the President’s family have to lobby to be able to speak to him. Thinking we’ll be heard because of the length of our prayers is paganism not piety.

The penultimate chapter is an attempt to both answer the question, ‘If God is sovereign, why pray?’ and use the answer to encourage us to pray more. The tone here was a bit more defensive, but it’s worth it for the illustration he uses to show that just because our will isn’t totally free, it doesn’t mean we’re not responsible. A drunk driver doesn’t have free will. He’s not free to drive with all his faculties – but he does nevertheless bear full responsibility for his actions.

The final chapter, ‘We pray because we have the Spirit of God’ is a helpful corrective to many current misunderstandings of prayer. Yes we are given wonderful, unqualified promises about asking God things in Jesus’ name, but we misunderstand them if we forget that ‘the gospel is all about God’s aligning us with his sovereign purposes, not our aligning God with our selfish purposes through prayer’. Turning ‘praying in the Spirit’ into something mystical would be ‘nonsense’ in the eyes of the Apostle Paul; it simply means praying in line with God’s revealed will in the Scriptures. (Which by the way means we should be praying a lot more about the things he specifically tells us are his will – eg that we be holy, joyful and thankful). Furthermore, we’re to pray acknowledging that certain things might not be God’s will. To ignore this or attempt to ‘claim faith’ is self-deception and even idolatry. ‘It is Jesus himself who says that often the more fervent the prayer, the more pagan it is’.

No book on prayer can be the silver bullet we long for at times, but for a short, encouraging read, this is well worth picking up.

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.

Irish same-sex marriage referendum: Donegal ministers respond

Ahead of the Irish referendum on same-sex marriage on 22 May, a group of 16 ministers and workers from Christian churches in Donegal have issued a statement which concludes: ‘this is not simply a referendum about marriage. This is a vote for or against God and his ways, and it will have consequences for generations to come.’

Last week, Rev. Mark Loughridge was interviewed on Highland Radio and outlined how the statement came about:

The referendum proposes to add to the Constitution a declaration that “marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex”.

The statement in full:

“As a group of leaders and church workers from a variety of Christian churches in Donegal we recognize that the upcoming referendum on same-sex marriage is a major issue of discussion in our county. We believe that we have a moral and biblical duty to uphold God’s standards and God’s definitions, and as leaders in our churches to lead by example in calling others to do likewise.

As such we wish to affirm that, according to the teaching of Jesus Christ, marriage is the permanent and life–long union, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others.

We celebrate marriage as set out in the Bible; therefore we are opposed to any redefinition of marriage or dilution of its terms.

We believe that God has already defined marriage. He has done so because he knows what is best for individuals, for communities, for society and for nations. To alter what He has defined cannot be good for society.

We believe too that the opening preamble of the Constitution commits us as a nation to legislation which is in accordance with God’s word. To redefine marriage is not simply to redefine marriage but to break with our constitution and to redefine Ireland.

We stand on the brink—this is not simply a referendum about marriage. This is a vote for or against God and his ways, and it will have consequences for generations to come.

‘Jesus said, “Haven’t you read that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”’ Matthew 19:4,5″

Rev. Mark Loughridge – Milford Reformed Presbyterian Church
Rev. Jonny McCollum – New Life Fellowship, Letterkenny
Rev. Christopher Pierce – Rector, Parish of Clondehorkey with Cashel & Mevagh
Pastor Emmanuel Bruce – Kingdom Praise Fellowship, Letterkenny
Mr. David Harding
Pastor Tom Stewart – Donegal Living Hope Church, Donegal Town
Rev. Tommy Bruce – Letterkenny & Trentagh Presbyterian Churches
Rev. Stephen Wright – Convoy Covenanter Church
Ven. David Huss – Rector of Donegal Group of Parishes (Church of Ireland)
Rev. Nigel Craig – Ray & Newtowncunningham Presbyterian Churches
Pastor Stephen Wilson – Letterkenny Baptist Church
Rev. Stephen Richmond – Donegal Town & Stranorlar Presbyterian Churches
Rev. Mervyn Carter – Raphoe Congregational Church
Mr Eugene Peters
Rev. Stewart Glendinning – Carndonagh, Malin, Moville & Greenbank Presbyterian Churches
Rev. Knox Jones – Fahan Presbyterian Church

Luther on the Christian life (book review)

Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom
Carl Trueman
Crossway, 2015

Carl Trueman, the author of the latest in Crossway’s Theologians on the Christian Life series has, as he notes in the conclusion, spent his entire professional life reading and teaching Luther. Yet he has done so from a Reformed, rather than a Lutheran position, and in this book clearly relishes the challenge he has set himself to write with fairness and enthusiasm about someone with whom he disagrees.
Unlike Dane Ortlund’s very different book in the series on Edwards, Trueman sets Luther firmly in his historical context – showing what he took from it, as well as what he reacted against. One of the strengths of the book is that Trueman resists the pressure to try and turn Luther into a 21st century evangelical, and is at pains to show that on certain doctrines, especially the Lord’s Supper, Luther would struggle to recognise modern evangelicals as even Christian.
For preachers, the treatment in chapter 3 on Luther’s theology of the Word preached is a breath of fresh air. Trueman notes Luther’s ‘lasting hatred of anyone who talked about the Spirit rather than the Word’. For Luther, ‘the absence of God’s Word is the absence of God’ – and it’s no coincidence that in the Garden of Eden Satan attacked God’s word, because to do so is to strike at the character and power of God. Luther’s emphasis on the power of the preached Word wasn’t just because he lived in a largely illiterate culture, but because the Word mediated via another from outside ‘confronts me in a way that my own Bible reading can never do’.
The treatment of Luther on law and gospel is also very helpful. One interesting titbit hidden away in a footnote on Luther’s interpretation of the Bible is that although Luther is known as taking a more Christ-centred approach to the psalms than Calvin (and most moderns), he actually claimed to be breaking with all previous commentators by not seeing the psalms as first and foremost prayers offered by Christ.
Although the book would stand up as a rigorously academic treatment, its not just for theologians but for the ordinary person (Luther, by the way, saw the sacred secular divide as ‘pure invention’ – yet at the same time his teaching on the priesthood of believers didn’t mean ministers were now unnecessary). There is much that’s helpful when it comes to suffering. In one memorable illustration, Luther describes Christians complaining about minor suffering as ‘like a king who becomes frantic because he loses one pfennig [one-hundredth of a German mark]. Though he owns half the world, with countless money and possessions, he plays the martyr, throws a tantrum, curses, denounces God, and fulminates against Him’. In fact, the purpose of suffering is to drive anger, impatience and unrest out of someone until he reaches ‘such a pitch of peace…that he is no longer upset whether things go well or ill with him, whether he lives or dies, whether he is honoured or dishonoured’.
There is much here for doubting believers as well. The devil’s favourite tactic, according to Luther, is to make them doubt God’s favour. In complete contrast to the common idea that the Lord’s Supper is only for those who have it all together, for Luther communion is of little or no benefit to those who come without anxiety, timid hearts or terrified consciences.
One particular highlight is the section on the family, where Trueman shows how Luther’s theology affected his relationships with his wife and children. The evidence surely justifies Trueman’s conclusion that from such a study Luther emerges ‘as no less a great figure than his public ministry showed him to be, but as far more human’.
It is perhaps above all the humanity of Luther that comes across in this book. His was no ivory tower theology that didn’t touch down on real life – whether his own or his barber for whom he wrote a treatise on prayer. Nor was Luther a theologian who took himself too seriously. In a modern setting where people are all too quick to be ‘hurt’ or offended, ‘Luther’s robust mockery of pretension and pomposity is a remarkable theological contribution in and of itself’. Even if he sometimes had to be reproved by his wife.
Throughout the book Trueman criticises modern evangelicals for quoting the early Luther but ignoring the changes his theology underwent during his last 25 years. However although he seems in one place to have his sights firmly set on a Tullian Tchividjian’s book by the same name, his statement that ‘Jesus plus nothing was proving to be problematic’ is perhaps not the most helpful.
Those who have read or listened to Trueman on Luther before will find here much that is familiar, but this is still a great study on a magisterial figure who has much to teach us today.

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.