Tag Archives: book review

Review: Refuting Compromise

by Jonathan Sarfarti (Master Books, 2004)


Review by Rowland S. Ward written 2005

This book was given to me to review by one who said it was a bit out of his field. Its subtitle is self-explanatory – “A Biblical and Scientific Refutation of ‘Progressive Creationism’ (Billions of Years), as popularised by Astronomer Hugh Ross.”

I would also plead incapacity to assess many of the arguments drawn from scientific disciplines. Indeed, I question if much of the material is appropriate or necessary for the popular defence of the Biblical doctrine of creation. Obviously Dr Sarfarti of Answers in Genesis thinks otherwise.

Recently, a 16 year old known to me had to give a talk at Boys’ Brigade on why the earth was young. Not being as dogmatically difficult as I am he duly went to the AiG website as recommended by his BB leader. But he found the arguments far too technical. In the end he fell back to the general position that the world did not come from nothing, nor did it create itself, but it was made by God (Hebrew 11:3). Exactly when it was made is not told us in the Bible and is not all that important except that man is quite recent, was made in God’s image, but rebelled against him bringing death into the human family (Romans 5:12).

This however would not satisfy either side in the debate covered by this book. Ross is happy to confidently allow the large time scale commonly recognised (15 billion years for the universe and 4.5 billion for the earth), and to interpret the creation days accordingly. He believes God has progressively populated the earth, with man a recent arrival perhaps 60,000 years ago.

Sarfarti insists the universe was created in six consecutive, normal-length days about 6000 years ago, and that human sin brought a curse on creation so that animal death as well as human death is due to Adam’s sin. And of course he insists on a global flood about 2500 BC which destroyed all vertebrate animals and people not on Noah’s boat.

This is a large book (400 pages) and marshals some material via charts in a helpful way. In my view Sarfarti demonstrates sufficiently the problems with Ross’ approach in its bearing on Scripture. However, the weaknesses with Sarfarti’s approach in its bearing both on science and Scripture are not conveyed in this book, because that is not the book’s aim, while the author is so single eyed that opposing arguments and their supporters are frequently dismissed by demeaning references to compromise.

Dr Douglas Kelly of North Carolina writes the foreword in the gracious way of the Southern Presbyterian gentleman that he is, and assures us that Dr Sarfarti does not want to question the sincerity, character or faith of Christians who differ from him. In my view Sarfati fails conspicuously in this area. Indeed, even your reviewer rates a guernsey (p.77) because, says Sarfarti, though (unlike Ross) I get the Hebrew pattern of Genesis 1 right, I have “a long history of vexatious opposition to the view that Genesis is straightforward history.” Vexatious means either frivolous or malicious. Whatever you pick, it’s not very nice (nor accurate!).

This is a book for the true believer. Although he may not understand all the arguments, he will be reassured that any other view is a matter of compromise. The unfortunate tendency will be that faithful ministries that do not toe the line will be viewed with suspicion. A furtherance of the confrontational and separatist outlook we are accustomed to associate with the fringes of the American Bible-belt seems inevitable in the nearer term.

Review: Fractured Families: The Story of a Melbourne Church Cult


Fractured Families:  The story of a Melbourne Church Cult

by Morag Zwartz $19.95  ISBN 09587955 1 7
Distributed by Openbook Publishers, Adelaide


From The Presbyterian Banner,  March 2005
Rowland S. Ward

Back in June 1991 I reviewed David Millikan’s book Imperfect Company, which primarily referred to the perfectionist cult founded about 1940 by Lindsay Grant in Sydney.

The current work by Morag Zwartz, a competent writer, gives attention to the somewhat similar group associated with Lindsay’s older brother, Ronald, who was based in the large Camberwell Presbyterian Church in Melbourne and who died in 1996. Eighteen years ago I obliquely referred to them in this magazine (2/1987) under the code term ‘doctrineless pietism’. The members are generally well-connected establishment families moving in important business and social circles.

While the Presbyterian Church of Victoria has since sought to deal with this influential group, and published its assessment entitled Fractured Fellowship in 1999, Zwartz’s book is independent of the church, and critical of it, and is based on extensive interviews with about 100 people who had experience of the group, as well as audio and written records. The Camberwell and Clayton churches are centres of the group. Although the Rev. Philip Mercer of Camberwell, an able man, is confessedly not a member, he is more or less an apologist for the group, and suggests around half his 350 strong congregation are members.

The issue is ultimately a theological one, and the strength of the book is its thorough theological assessment. It is worth the price for this alone. There are abiding lessons for all conservative evangelicals, particularly is these days of hazy subjectivism. Indeed the influence of Roy Hessions’ The Calvary Road (p.77) struck me, since this was also influential in Tasmania 50 years ago in some of the aberrations prior to the renewal of Reformed teaching there about 1960. Zwartz summarises: ‘Fellowship teaching is a strange mix of Wesleyan holiness, Keswick experientialism, Andrew Murray intensity, and Derek Prince Pentecostal style authoritarianism’ (p.97), although Allan Harman is quoted as stating quite correctly, ‘There is no formalised or written doctrinal statement – it’s very difficult to pin them down. But they claim to adhere to the Westminster Confession.’ (p.185).

The bad theology produces bad practices such as – intrusive and heavy shepherding (including shunning of dissidents), secrecy creating/reflecting a church within a church approach, and undue emphasis on wifely submission. Many families have been affected and the PCV continues to provide counselling for some of these. The author is critical of the church leadership, and perhaps this has contributed to the College Bookstore declining to stock the title.

The book has its weaknesses. The author deliberately did not seek comment from group members. However, I don’t think this failure would have made a significant difference to the author’s conclusions from her interviews and other sources. Indeed, the testimony of such large numbers to their horrific experiences should impel the church to more effective action. It’s not a debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

There are some errors of fact – for example, Geoff Drummond is not Session Clerk at Clayton (p.129), nor does a majority of the Clayton Session belong to the group.

Some extra information might have been useful. Thus, it could have been mentioned that group monthly meetings apparently ceased at the end of 1996. This, of course, does not mean the group itself does not exist.

Some of the nine respondents in Part IV may be a bit selective in their recollections, or they have been reported in a manner that could give an imbalanced impression. For example, to refer to the group wanting to ‘dump’ a fellow Trinity elder over ‘a misdemeanour’ (p.164) might appear a little differently when it is realised the man in question was also a minister, virtual assistant to the then inducted minister, and had confessed to a longstanding adulterous relationship.

Still, none of these blemishes affect the substance and should not be allowed to detract from it. Brian Bayston’s comments on page 186 are very much to the point, and of weight not only because he is the Law Agent of the church but was formerly a member of the Camberwell Session.

My experience of the Group has been through involvement in St Andrew’s School 20 years ago and in PLC of more recent times. It was interesting. Latterly I had some pastoral interest in one young couple impacted by the group. I was glad to see them make their peace with the PCV. Still, having talked about it to people on different sides, I am not persuaded that all is now rosy. There may have been a drawing-back from the theological extremes of the late 1990s under Rev. Graeme Nicholls, but the cult-like mentality still exists and membership may even be increasing. No church should be content with this kind of teaching/emphasis so destructive of the lives of those enmeshed.
This book is therefore important.

Our brothers need prayer for conviction about the issues and courage to face them. A fully pure church is not to be aimed at, but office-bearers contradicting the law of love should not be allowed to hide behind legalistic procedures. Those in the group, particularly its leaders, also need to turn right round in repentance. That will mean seeking to rectify the consequences of many broken relationships, walking in future in love and humility according to the grace of God.

A complaint against actions very like that of the “Exclusive Brethren” to the Presbytery of Melbourne East by a young man Kingsley Davidson gave rise to the suspension and excommunication of the 15 ruling elders of the Camberwell Church. See http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2006/s1587231.htm

From The Presbyterian Banner, April 2006
In the last issue a brief notice appeared about the action taken against the Session of Trinity Presbyterian Church at Camberwell by the Presbyterian Church of Victoria Presbytery of Melbourne East on 23/2/2006, an action which made headlines throughout Australia. Since writing that report the appeal of the Rev Phil Mercer against the action has been noted in the pages of Australian Presbyterian, March issue, p. 23. Mr Mercer believes the action to be unprescribed and contrary to the laws of the church. He is of the view ‘that procedural fairness and substantial justice have been denied the elders who were dismissed in absentia, without a charge being brought against them, and having been denied all opportunity to appear before Presbytery in order to defend their innocence.’

Three other persons, including Rev Graham Nicholson of Hawthorn – no slouch on procedure – also appealed, but all appeals were declared frivolous, thus they did not stop implementation. Yet surely it is contrary to Scripture and natural justice to condemn a person without giving him the opportunity to state his side of the story, whilst in removing an entire Session not only from office but from church membership, a radical step has been taken indeed. It removes the men from the jurisdiction of the Church, when another procedure might have wrought the repentance the Presbytery should desire.
There have always been lapses from sound judgment by Presbyterian courts. We’re imperfect humans. However, this case seems rather different. Our Presbyterian polity (system of government) is not our invention to enable us to achieve our will. Rather, it s God’s provision to ensure that the grace of God is maximised in the edification of his people. This is often lost sight of, especially if people are not familiar with Presbyterian principles or lack leadership in this area.

As we have seen in the PCEA too, it is very difficult to acknowledge one has acted wrongly. It’s not just Asians who don’t like to lose face! In the present instance I suppose the Presbytery was so fed up with the Fellowship that they wanted rid of them. I’m not a Fellowship fan either, but one must still seek to edify and restore. One thing can lead to another. Following its decision the Presbytery made all the Presbytery members assessors to Camberwell Session, an act which, perhaps unintentionally, eliminated Presbytery as a court of appeal for Camberwell. One supposes ultimately the General Assembly of Australia will have the matter before it in 2007. One hopes some lessons will be learned before then that will preserve the concern for careful deliberation and fairness in Presbyterianism whichm with due respect to our brothers in Melbourne East Presbytery, at least appears to have been lost.

Postscript: A special GAA in 2007 upheld appeal against the Victorian Assembly and established a procedure to deal with the issues. The Victorian Assembly was not happy to agree with the solution proposed. On 30/9/2008 the finding of the Commission of the GAA was reported in The Age.  The  six teachings the Commission rejected are accepting “feelings” as revelation from God equal to the Bible, that contact with non-Fellowship members leads to defilement, that the Fellowship claims higher loyalty than members’ families, that Christians can be controlled by “generational curses” or evil spirits, and that God’s forgiveness depends on confessing to other people or on personal holiness. It is not entirely clear what the decision means, as it seems to have some ambiguity. I assume the Victorian Assembly will endorse this finding, which is to be read in every PCA congregation by 31/10/2008. Action against the elders of Camberwell will depend on provable evidence that such views are held. One doubts that much has been achieved.

Review: A Study Commentary on Daniel by Allan M. Harman

Review: A Study Commentary on Daniel

by Allan M. Harman (Evangelical Press, 2007) hbk., 333pp.

Allan Harman has written another OT commentary that displays the typical marks of his work in sensitivity to the text, honesty and sobriety in exegesis, and clarity of expression. Additionally, as befits the EP Study Commentary series, there are points of practical application at the end of each section. The Commentary reads well, the print is clear, and its perusal will profit the average busy pastor and stimulate the more advanced student.

While I regard Harman’s work on Deuteronomy and Isaiah as very helpful, I am less confident about the interpretation offered at key points in this volume.

Dr Harman is not afraid to offer explanations that challenge traditional understandings. The four fold vision in Chapter 2 is not regarded by Harman as indicating successive world empires (New Babylonian, Medo-Persion, Greek and Roman & its successors) because the image is destroyed at one time, not successively, so the last three kingdoms must really be contemporaneous he says (p.69). Nor, says Harman, should the kingdoms be identified with specific empires except for the first head of gold. Similarly, in Chapter 7 Harman does not see the four beasts as successive kingdoms parallel to those in Chapter 2, since the fourth beast is destroyed first (7:11). Unless the verbs in 7:12 are taken as pluperfects (so eg. Calvin & NIV), verse 12 seems to indicate the continued existence of the first three beasts.

Against these positions, the traditional approach argued for successive empires, and that the spirit of the four kingdoms was the same: what was true of the first passed into the second and so on. Further, the setting up of the kingdom of God occurred in the time of the fourth world empire, and so decisively dealt with the kingdom of man wherever found. This fact is well represented by the stone which struck the foot of the image (chapter 2) or by the overthrow of the fourth beast (chapter 7).

Harman does not discuss the possible relationship the little horn of the fourth beast in Chapter 7 with the little horn that arises in the time the third beast (chapter 8), identified in the text as the Greek kingdom (8:21), except to say that they are not the same. Harman agrees with most commentators that the developments in the Greek kingdom with the persecution Antiochus launched against the Jews about 170 BC are in view. It would have been helpful to discuss the way in which the little horn in chapter 8 is in certain ways typical of the persecution the people of God experience in the period begun by the resurrection of Christ. This could have strengthened his comments on chapter 9.

Daniel’s 70 weeks

In regard to the important but difficult chapter 9, Harman helpfully outlines five views of the seventy weeks prophecy (pp. 225-232) including the sabbatic approach advanced by Meredith Kline which, in my view, is much to be preferred. Affirming a symbolical rather than literal meaning to the 70 sevens, Harman decides for an eschatological view with 9:24 referring to the ultimate kingdom of God and the consecration of a new sanctuary, and 9:26-27 referring to Antichrist not to Jesus Christ.

He notes a Christological interpretation seems to be excluded by the way the Massoretes punctuate the Hebrew text of 7:25 to have ‘the anointed prince’ coming at the close of the first seven and thus before the 62 sevens during which the city of Jerusalem is rebuilt. He points out that a Christological interpretation is not found in early Christian writers, and notes that Daniel does not speak elsewhere of a suffering Messiah. In Harman’s view the first seven sevens cover the period from Jeremiah’s ‘word’ in Jeremiah 29:10 about 594 BC to Cyrus’ decree in 538 BC (remember Cyrus is described as God’s Anointed in Isaiah 45:1); and the Anointed One who is cut off at the end of the next 62 weeks refers to Antichrist.

Massoretic punctuation is late, inevitably interpretive and is not an insuperable problem. Given the difficulty of the passage the punctuation cannot be decisive. Early non-Christological interpretations of Daniel 9:25-26 by the Church Fathers are also not decisive given that the NT does not give us specific exegesis of all OT passages referring to Christ. To refer the two references in the passage to an Anointed One to two different figures – Cyrus who prefigures the true Messiah in allowing the people to return and build the city and the temple, and Antichrist who is the reverse, seems difficult to sustain. The reference to Jeremiah 29:10 is important, but while Jeremiah refers to the plans of God and the promise yet to be fulfilled (‘my good word to restore’) Daniel refers to the commencement of an action (‘from the going forth of a word to restore’).

I respect the honest intent of the commentator. His book certainly has value. But it does not contain sufficient supporting argumentation to justify the more noval positions referred to. Those wanting a straightforward commentary on Daniel along more traditional lines will find Sinclair Ferguson’s work in the Mastering the Old Testament series (Word 1988) more helpful. [I also regret that Harman’s busy schedule has not allowed him time to interact with a draft of this review provided three months before it was published here.]


5 July 2008.

Review: The Divine Spiration of Scripture by A.T.B.McGowan

BOOK REVIEW: The Divine Spiration of Scripture

[in the USA, The Divine Authenticity of Scripture]

by A.T.B.McGowan

(Apollos, 2007 £14.99 ; IVP, 2008 US$22


Rowland S. Ward

The blurb to the soon to be released USA printing of this book by the Principal of Highland Theological College [HTC] in Dingwall, Scotland, reads in part:

Evangelicals have taken extraordinary care in formulating and articulating a high view of Scripture. And yet the doctrine is not without its inadequacies and its internal critics–both past and present.

Reviewing the evangelical discussion and formulations over the past century and more, particularly in the Reformed tradition in North America, Andrew McGowan is not content with the present state of the question. The way forward is to reach back within the European evangelical tradition, particularly to the work of the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck. The prescription is to anchor the doctrine of Scripture in the work of the Spirit, the divine spiration of Scripture. And the contested idea of inerrancy should be replaced with an informed concept of the infallibility or authenticity of Scripture.

McGowan was a guest preacher at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Australia in September 2007, but more recently (May 2008) an invitation to lecture on covenant theology at the Presbyterian College in Melbourne has been withdrawn because of the controversy over his book on Scripture.

Reviews have varied. Dr Gregory Goswell of the Presbyterian Theological College in Melbourne gave a very positive review entitled ‘Challenging but Helpful’ in New Life (Melbourne), issue of 21 February 2008. [New Life is edited by Rev Bob Thomas, a recent Moderator-General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia.] Dr Goswell, who teaches Old Testament, trained at Moore Theological College and is a widely read scholar and a former missionary in Jordan. Dr Chris Sinkinson in Evangelicals Now! (UK) for June 2008 has the opposite opinion: his review is entitled ‘Dangerous and Mistaken’.

McGowan is a Church of Scotland minister and in 2006 the Kirk recognised HTC, of which McGowan was a principal founder in 1994, as a suitable training place for its ministers. It might be thought that McGowan’s views are influenced by a desire to please that body, but I doubt this. If it pleased the liberal element in the Kirk it certainly would not please the supporters of HTC, although he probably wants to bring in the more theologically conservative folk who are not strict inerrantists. I think McGowan is the kind of fellow impatient with mere mouthing of the formulas of the past. He wants to see truth stated freshly and relevantly, and bring people together where possible. Who can disagree? The danger is that we can confuse and drift from the right path, even as we seek to strike out a helpful way forward. I think this has happened in the book subject of this review.

McGowan wants some reconstruction of the doctrine of Scripture. (1) He is not happy beginning with the doctrine of Scripture in our theology, but considers we should start with the God who gave us Scripture. (2) He considers ‘inspiration’ is not so helpful in modern usage and ‘divine spiration’ would be more suitable, with ‘recognition’ replacing ‘illumination’ and ‘comprehension’ replacing ‘perspicuity’. (3) He further wants to replace ‘inerrancy’ by ‘infallibility’ as a middle position between, in his view, wrongly polarised errant and inerrant views, and argues that more attention needs to be given to the human voices in Scripture. (4) He wants recognition of a proper evangelical tradition in the church. (5) He wants Scripture’s use in the church to be pastorally appropriate.

(1) McGowan’s argument is that while establishing Scripture as true goes before the doctrine of God drawn from it in point of logic, yet the order is wrong theologically. Scripture cannot rightly be understood as the revelation of God apart from the work of God’s Spirit. The big danger of Scripture first is that people think they can understand Scripture without God’s aid, which encourages rational proofs and evidentialist apologetics which, while not without some value, are not as suitable as Van Til’s presuppositionalism, in McGowan’s view. I think McGowan reminds us of a danger. Nevertheless, in some respects the force of the argument is blunted when we realise that the Westminster Confession’s first chapter, which is on Scripture, emphasises the very point McGowan makes in its 5th, 6th and 10th paragraphs.

(2) On vocabulary there is not much to object to if we consider what McGowan means by the suggested terms, except for the choice of infallibility over inerrancy. But I do wonder if the discussion on vocabulary achieves much. It is true theopneustos ‘inspiration’ (KJV) would be better rendered ‘God-breathed’ (NIV), which is what the title words ‘Divine spiration’ are meant to represent. The title change for the US edition suggests they are not marketable words for our cousins. To jettison traditional terms might not only cause more confusion and less precision, but contribute to the breaking up of the evangelical tradition McGowan wants to develop (cf. pp. 175ff).

(3) McGowan spends pages 51-122 successively looking at the liberal and fundamentalist developments which, in his view, gave rise to the inerrancy position. In considering the impact of the enlightenment and the rise of liberalism he looks at the reaction to liberalism of neo-orthodoxy (Barth) and conservative evangelicalism (Machen, Van Til). After a brief word on Warfield’s affirmation of inerrancy, McGowan moves to the American movement described as ‘fundamentalist’ from 1920, but which itself had a more rigid position of Scripture than in the books called The Fundamentals published 1910-15 which gave the movement its name.

Faced with inerrant autographs no longer in our hands and variant readings in the surviving manuscripts, some indeed took the line that the Greek text behind the KJV or even the KJV itself should be regarded as the inerrant text and rejected all textual criticism, while others (happily) did not. The neo-evangelicals of the 1950s and later (eg. Carl Henry, Billy Graham) retained inerrancy but affirmed reverent scholarship and social involvement, neither of which were typical of separatist fundamentalism. In reaction to the new evangelicals, writers like Jack Rogers and Donald McKim argued against inerrancy, opposing the Princeton men like the Hodges and Warfield, and claiming the Westminster Confession supported their functional view of the Bible’s inspiration (ie it was inerrant in the matters of salvation but not necessarily on other matters). McGowan reviews the debate that arose, and rightly rejects the historical reconstruction advanced by Rogers and McKim… yet one is left with the lingering fear that the result of McGowan’s reformulation leads in a very similar direction. At any rate he seems to regard ‘minor textual difficulties’ (p. 125) as inevitable given human authorship. He does not identify any ‘errors’ in Scripture, but he doesn’t seem concerned if others find such. This position is quite different from those who recognise variant readings have occurred subsequent to the giving of the autographs, but accept this as a reality of God’s providence.

In his fifth chapter (pp. 123-164) McGowan argues his case for abandoning the term ‘inerrancy’ in favour of ‘infallibility’. Here he pits James Orr and particularly Herman Bavinck against the Princeton tradition of the Hodges and Warfield. I found this an annoying chapter since, while there were some differences of approach as between my favourite systematic theologian, Herman Bavinck, and my favourite Princeton professor, B.B.Warfield, those differences should not be exaggerated. Bavinck does not use the term inerrant and he does criticise the Baconian method of Charles Hodge and others at Princeton, but in point of practical conclusion there is very little difference between them.

Orr does speak of the ‘possibility of minor errors’ (Revelation and Inspiration [1910] 215, speaks of strict inerrancy as on the face of it ‘a suicidal position’ (ibid, 197ff) and does not think inspiration required ‘mistakes’ in genealogies and such like to be corrected (Problem of the Old Testament [1906] 49-50,487). However, importantly, Bavinck does not allow for the possibility of error in the autographs. Just like Warfield he affirms Scripture is ‘totally human in all its parts but also divine in all its parts’ so as to be ‘without defect or stain’ (Reformed Dogmatics I 435). Thus Warfield writes (Selected Shorter Writings II 547): ‘the whole Bible is recognised as human, the free product of human effort, in every part and word. And at the same time the whole Bible is recognised as divine, the Word of God, his utterances, of which he is in the truest sense the author.’

McGowan concedes the closeness of Warfield and Bavinck both specifically (eg. pp. 135, 211-212), and also in the way he does not formally recognise the similarity of some of his quotations of Bavinck with statements of Warfield. In addition, the notion that the inerrancy view of Scripture was developed by Charles Hodge (p. 163) is unsupportable by historic evidence, and is contradicted by the approving citation of Mark Noll on page 85 to the effect that the entire truthfulness of Scripture is the common doctrine of most Christians in most churches in all ages. The inerrancy position gets represented by some straw men along the way.

Perhaps McGowan’s main issue is that those holding inerrancy usually affirm that in giving us his word God could not give it with errors since to do so would be inconsistent with his holy and sovereign will. McGowan says we should not impose a concept on Scripture or God a priori, but let Scripture itself inform us. But nowhere does he offer any exegetical material on passages, such as Jesus’ saying, ‘the Scripture cannot be broken’. It is not surprising that there is no Scripture index! Warfield himself points to the importance of starting with what the Scriptures teach about themselves and looking at the facts within Scripture in that light, rather than generating a theory of Scripture from our assessments of various facts in Scripture (Works I 214ff). Some things in Scripture may appear contradictory and if we start from them we may formulate a defective view of Scripture, and twist the obvious claims of Scripture as to its own character. Indeed, if Scripture is the word of God through men of his choosing, how can it partake of that which is contrary to God’s nature? It may fall out in God’s providence that textual variants arise or infelicitous translations are made, but can that which is God-breathed, the autographs, contain that which is not true?

Perhaps a further clue to the rather confusing discussion in McGowan’s book is his statement, ‘Inerrancy requires one to demonstrate the scientific accuracy of the autographs’ (p. 84). McGowan dislikes the rather arid debates on inerrancy and attempts at harmonisation which arise from people who forget Scripture is given for a particular purpose. One recalls Augustine’s comment in AD 404: “Nowhere in the gospel do we read that the Lord said: ‘I will send you the Paraclete who will teach you about the course of the sun and the moon.’ For he wanted to make Christians, not mathematicians” (Debate with Felix the Manichee, 1, 10). Certainly, some, even in the Reformed community, are too given to attempting scientific proofs or harmonisations of Scripture due to an excessive literalism that does not give sufficient emphasis to the meaning and intent of Scripture. But a good theologian should aim at clarity and accuracy in his critique.

Taking the most generous approach, one feels that McGowans’ work is well intentioned but likely to add to confusion in this area. Too often we can read Scripture through an interpretative grid owed to polarised positions brought about by past debates. I think some clarifying discussion is desirable, but this pleasantly written work could have been digested into a journal article highlighting with much greater precision the points of alleged difference, and suggestions for the way forward. Unhappily the volume falls short of its intended purpose.

It will bring, if it has not already, a sharp reaction among American conservatives, given McGowan’s standing in conservative evangelical and Reformed churches there hitherto. In Australia also there is already some controversy. I do not consider his views outside the obligations of a minister in the Presbyterian Church of Australia [PCA] in terms of the Basis of Union of 1901, and in that respect a censure of a PCA minister holding such views does not seem appropriate. There are a few of such views in Victoria but a greater proportion in the more diverse New South Wales. The potential for some bitter in-fighting is there, especially given existing strrains between Victoria and New South Wales.

From the more important aspect of the building up of the kingdom of God, one would not like to see McGowan’s views spread. I believe McGowan is a good man. It is not so much McGowan that concerns one, but what others will do with his views. They seem likely to feed into the general lowering of right and clear views of Scripture characteristic of many evangelicals in the present day.

Postscript: Since writing the above I have received my copy of God’s Word in Servant-Form by Richard B. Gaffin Jr (Reformed Academic Press, 2008) which ably discusses Abraham Kuyper’s and Herman Bavinck’s doctrine of Scripture finding it in substantial agreement, certainly on the point of its freedom from error, with the views of the old Princeton school. The volume is a lightly revised version of articles in the Westminster Theological Journal 1982 and 1983. McGowan is aware of these articles and cites Gaffin approvingly on page 138, but confusingly says on the same page that “Following James Orr they rejected the inerrentist position and held to an infallibilist postion”. This is not Gaffin’s conclusion nor does it agree with the facts of history.

Further note (31/7/08): McGowan’s position on Scripture seems very like that of James Orr (1844-1913). Orr was a United Presbyterian minister and then Professor at the UP College (1891-1900) and the United Free Church College (1900-13). He helped draft the UP Declaratory Act of 1879 which weakened adherence to the old Calvinism (and which in modified form is part of the 1901 constitution of the Presbyterian Church of Australia), although his own works generally upheld conservative positions. His best book, The Christian View of God and the World3 [1897] was reprinted by Kregal of recent years. All his work is characterised by wide reading, and clarity of analysis.

Review: Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns


Inspiration & Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament

by Peter Enns

(Grand Rapids: Baker 2005) pbk. 197pp $19.95 ISBN 0801027306


Reviewed by Rowland S. Ward in The Presbyterian Banner, May 2006


This book is by the Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Hermeneutics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. [Enns has left the Seminary as of mid 2008.] He was also editor of the Westminster Theological Journal 2000-05. My initial knowledge of it came through a somewhat abrasively hostile review in New Horizons (the Orthodox Presbyterian Church magazine) last year, which I am surprised was published in that form. At the other extreme a positive, certainly non-critical, review appears in Evangelicals Now! (UK) May 2006, while Bruce K. Waltke of Regent College and Reformed Theological Seminary gives one of the blurbs on the back cover. I confess my own reading of the first few chapters was a positive experience, but as I went further on I revised my opinion somewhat. Let me explain.

In five chapters Enns outlines his vision for a more adequate appraisal of the OT. Chapter 1 (pages 13-22) suggests that adequate attention has not been given to the human character of Scripture whereas we should, says the writer, use the model of the incarnation to stress that Scripture is truly human and truly divine. B.B. Warfield’s excellent 1894 essay on the Divine and human in the Bible is cited. The difficulty perhaps is that your initial comfort with this idea is dispelled somewhat because Enns, unlike Warfield, does not adequately develop the aspect of Scripture as truly Divine as well as truly human, and to that extent his incarnational model breaks down. In Enns’ hands the emphasis on the humanity of Scripture seems imbalanced.

His Chapter 2 (pages 23-70) sets out the challenge to the nature of Scripture from its setting in the ancient near east. For example, the OT text has similarities to Akkadian and Babylonian creation and flood accounts, similar customs in the tablets discovered during the 20th century at Nuzi, similar laws in the Code of Hammurabi, who predates Moses, and it seems to borrow wholesale from the Egyptian book Instruction of Amenemope in Proverbs 22:17-24:22, and so on. Enns does not want to conclude that the Bible is just a bunch of stories derived from ancient cultures, or that its similarities to these other books reduces its inspiration or that the Bible is dependent upon these other accounts. However, he does say there is a ‘conceptual similarity’, that as the OT was given in the ancient world’s cultures, all of which had myths of origins, it is understandable that the OT would have its own myth, defined as ancient, premodern, pre-scientific ways of addressing questions of ultimate origins and meaning in the form of stories (p.50). It is surely right of Enns to insist God speaks to man in his real-life situation. It is surely right to insist that Genesis does not address modern questions of a scientific nature. (No one will accuse me of rejecting that proposition!) Of course he is also right to insist history is always interpreted history, always selecting and presenting with a purpose in mind. Yet one cannot help feel that Enns leaves us in some ill-defined area where we can concede lack of fundamental historicity, and indeed where we have such a bias in the history that our conclusions can only be provisional.

Chapter 3 (The Old Testament and Theological Diversity pp. 71-112) accentuates one’s unease for to me Enns is magnifying difficulties to prove diversity. For example, Proverbs 26:4 & 5, cited on p. 74, are not diverse but two parts of one whole, just as is the case with Galatians 6:2 & 5. The diversity in the theology of Chronicles compared to Samuel-Kings is not a contradiction but arises from selection and emphasis for the changed context after the exile. Enns admits this, but somehow you think that he’s wanting to lead you further, since an anchor point for the divinity of Scripture is not as clearly made as for its humanity. The diversity in the two forms of the Ten Commandments, particularly the motivation for keeping the 4th commandment, is well known and its implication, that the heart of the commandment may be expressed in a different context in a slightly different but complementary way, should be fully acknowledged, but hardly impacts on traditional Reformed hermeneutics.

Chapter 4 (pp. 113-165) looks at the use of the Old Testament by the NT writers, and here one really sees orange lights turning to red. Having preached through pretty much the whole of Scripture at least once, I’ve tried to face NT use of the OT honestly. My view, which Enns rejects, is that even in those cases where you might at first think something odd is happening (‘rabbinic exegesis’ is the in-phrase), one usually finds on further reflection that the NT has rightly perceived the true intention of the OT passage in the overall context of Scripture. Enns boldly asserts that ‘the New Testament authors were not engaging the Old Testament in an effort to remain consistent with the original context and intention of the Old Testament author’ (p.115). Somewhat confusingly he adds that they were explaining what the text meant, that is, they were explaining what the text means in the light of Christ’s coming. Reading on, we find that Enns argues the ‘odd’ interpretations reflect the traditional way the text was interpreted in the apostles’ day and to which they were heir. An analogy might be the way some Christians think of Rahab’s scarlet cord as a type of Christ (cf. p. 161). Clearly that is far fetched, not grounded in the passage at all, but it is ‘a layer of meaning’ that many have found edifying. In the same way, suggests Enns, the apostles employed an interpretative method which was relevant to their hearers, even though it violated the canons of grammatical/historical exegesis as we understand them. I found this section loose and somewhat confusing, even self-contradictory at times. There are good things mixed with less than satisfying argumentation.

The short closing chapter offers no further help. One agrees far too many evangelicals read the OT with a poor paradigm in mind. It is too easily read through the interpretative grid provided by polarised evangelical–liberal positions. It is easy not to face real difficulties honestly. But after making every allowance I can only say that Enns’ book should be considered with considerable caution. It is attractively written and there are useful bibliographies. As it is, it doesn’t really quite match the standard of careful Reformed scholarship that we would expect from Westminster Theological Seminary. One can only hope and pray that the issues raised by this book will be dealt with on their merits. Perhaps its author can free it from imbalances and ambiguities in a further edition.

Note: Enn’s connection with WTS ended mid 2008.

Review: The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant

REVIEW: Lewis Bevans Schenck, The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant

(Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing 2003). lge. pbk., xx + 188 pp.


Reviewed by Rev Dr Rowland S. Ward, minister of Knox Presbyterian Church, Melbourne, Australia.
This review appeared in the Confessional Presbyterian, Vol 2 (2006) pp 181-184


The republication of this historical study of the significance of infant baptism in the Presbyterian Church should be welcomed by conservative Presbyterians even if they find cause to disagree with some of the author’s arguments, and are less than satisfied by aspects of his historical reconstruction and arrangement. The modern introduction by Frank A. James III enhances the volume, and there is a useful bibliography and an index.

Dr Lewis Bevans Schenck (1898-1985) was a North Carolina man descended from German stock and brought up in an Episcopal home. He joined the Presbyterian Church as a young man, trained for the ministry at Union Seminary, Virginia, was ordained in 1924 and served in West Virginia as an assistant pastor. Realising his call to teach rather than pastor, he earned a ThM from Princeton in 1926, and taught at Davidson College, North Carolina 1927-66. The book now reviewed was first published in 1940 as a revised form of his 1938 Yale doctoral dissertation.

Schenck held that the place of children in the Presbyterian Church had become confused through the impact of revivalism so that the key role of the nurture of the church and family was neglected because of the excessive emphasis on a conscious conversion experience. I would imagine that Dr Schenck may have been influenced by neo-orthodoxy in his overall teaching career, but his book draws almost exclusively on orthodox Presbyterian theologians to illustrate its thesis, and should be judged on its merits.

The first chapter (pp. 3-52) is foundational, for it seeks to answer the question, ‘What is the historic doctrine of the Presbyterian Church concerning children in the covenant?’ Schenck shows that Calvin taught that (1) the Abrahamic promise – ‘I will be God to you and to your seed after you’ – was a spiritual covenant including the promise of eternal life; (2) baptism for both adults and children had the significance of a seal of purification and forgiveness of sins as well as a seal of ‘regeneration’, by which term Calvin meant not only the inception of new life but its outworking in sanctification throughout life; (3) children are not baptised to make them children of the covenant but because they are already in covenant according to God’s promise; (4) as Jesus embraced the little children brought to him, we would need a good reason to refuse to admit children of believers to baptism, since baptism is a symbol of our communion and association with Christ; (5) admission to church membership is always on the basis of a credible profession of faith on the part of older persons but their children also have the right of church membership by virtue of God’s promise; both classes are presumptively Christians in the judgment of charity, and should be treated accordingly so as to grow and develop in Christian character; (6) baptism is not a mere empty sign, nor does it automatically convey grace; rather, it confirms and seals what is already true in the promise of God; (7) it is certain some infants are saved and therefore such infants must have been regenerated, and our inability to observe or understand this is no argument against it; indeed, the promise of God assures us that covenant children dying in infancy are saved; (8) against those who say only those able to profess repentance and faith should be admitted to the church, the response must be that only those who are presumptively Christ‘s children should be admitted, and this includes the children of believers, since the promise of God is a true pledge of adoption to them; further, the entirety of what is represented in baptism need not be present at the time the sign is administered to children, anymore than was the case with circumcision.

Schenck then more briefly reviews the teaching of Zwingli, Bullinger, Knox and the European Reformed Confessions, concluding with the Westminster Standards, and finds them in agreement with Calvin. One could note the Westminster Directory: ‘That the promise is made to believers and their seed; and that the seed and posterity of the faithful, born within the Church, have, by their birth, interest in the covenant.’ Again, ‘…they are Christians, and federally holy before baptism, and therefore are they baptised.’

In this lengthy first chapter there are a few matters one would express differently. For example, Schenck’s comments on Cocceius (pp. 33-34) are really out of sequence. Also, in the way common in earlier scholarship, they overstate the role of the German/Dutch theologian in formulating traditional covenant theology. Such was quite mature before Cocceius wrote his first work in 1648, and Schenck unconsciously concedes this in his references to the Puritans on page 43. In reviewing the Westminster Directory for Public Worship no notice is taken of the possible significance of the omission of specified questions for parents presenting their children for baptism from the final text. But these points do not affect Schenck’s basic outline, which, to my mind, fairly represents the historic Reformed doctrine. However, in view of the points developed in Schenck’s next chapter some elaboration of the early Reformed position would have been appropriate.

In his second chapter (pp. 53-79), Schenck considers the development of revivalism. His essential argument is that modifications of the traditional doctrine encouraged formalism and in reaction produced a stress on conscious crisis conversion as the only true evidence of salvation, an experience also demanded of children.

Strikingly enough, Schenck begins with Samuel Rutherford (1600-61) who advocated baptism of the children of all who would seriously attend on the preaching of the word irrespective of whether they professed saving faith. One has some question as to the appropriateness of the citation of Rutherford in this connection. (1) As one of the Scottish Commissioners at the Westminster Assembly, it should hardly be supposed without adducing argument that Rutherford varied from the Westminster Standards with whose formulation he had had so much to do. (2) Schenck does not seem to have read Rutherford except through his secondary source, John Macpherson’s fine work, The Doctrine of the Church in Scottish Theology (Edinburgh, 1903), Schenck even overlooks Macpherson’s references (p. 86) to many other writers, whom Boston sought to confute, who held similar views to Rutherford, nor does he consider that assertion of a principle, as in Calvin and the Confessions, need not exclude some modifications found needful in the complexity of practical application. For example, in 1570, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland decided that children of excommunicated persons might be baptised if presented by a faithful member of the church. As for other writers, William Bucan (d. 1605) of Lausanne argued for the baptism of the infants of the faithful and those born of baptised parents, even those who are unfaithful, since the sins of the fathers should not be visited upon the children and their seed is contained in the covenant promise. He adds, ‘Neither is the piety of the next parents to be considered so much as the piety of the church in which they are born, and which is, as it were, their mother; as likewise their ancestors who lived godly.’ He cites Romans 11:16, ‘if the root be holy,’ that is, the first parents, ‘so are the branches,’ and supports the baptism of the children of the excommunicated and also of the children of Papists, noting that the children of unbelieving Jews were still circumcised. So Rutherford was not quite the innovator Schenck suggests.

When we further consider the careful discrimination of the old Reformed in their insistence that the distinction between the visible and invisible church must be consistently maintained, and thus only visible profession is essential for the one and invisible grace for the other, we can understand better where Rutherford and others are coming from. However, this is not to deny that there was formalism in the church of the early 18th century, but the reason I think is more related to the greater laxity in practical oversight when compared to Rutherford’s day, although this is not to say that Rutherford’s view, shared by people like Richard Baxter, is beyond criticism. Macpherson suggests (p. 90) that Rutherford’s concern was for the salvation of sinners, that many were called to the privilege of hearing, and should be encouraged so that they might become of the elect. On the other hand, in the early 18th century Thomas Boston opposed Rutherford’s position, without naming him, out of the same concern for the salvation of sinners. He saw in the formalism and false peace of his day a hindrance to salvation. It’s probably fair to say that Rutherford at least tested the boundaries of Westminster doctrine in some respects, whereas Boston made some excellent points but ran the risk of advocating a visible profession that required a man to be a believer rather than a credible professor. Schenck seems to think Boston was a reversion to the original doctrine (p. 54), and that people like Bowles and Baxter agreed with him. Here he misreads Macpherson who says the very opposite (p. 86). In the sense that looking for marks of grace to qualify for church membership was characteristic of revivalism, we might look more to Boston for a precursor.

Schenck is on somewhat better ground in his references to the Half-Way Covenant in New England, although even here he does not trace the relevant matter of the interest in felt experience to its New England origins. The story is well known. In 1662 some Massachusetts Puritans agreed to a half-way membership status for those who had been baptised as infants but were not able to testify to a conversion experience. Such could still have their children baptised if they acknowledged God’s claims on their lives and accepted the church’s discipline despite their unwillingness to profess faith in Christ. A further step was taken in 1707 by Solomon Stoddart. He treated the Lord’s Supper as a converting ordinance and allowed the unconverted to partake. Much coldness and formality became characteristic of the churches of New England leading to eventual reaction.

My take on revivalism is to indeed recognise the impact of formalism, which was widespread, to note that the earnestness of the mid 17th century was missing in the early 18th century, and that to some degree the wrong use of the visible/invisible church distinction was to blame. But the inevitable reaction did not revert to the Westminster and early Calvinist doctrine, but to an emphasis on religious experience. Why so? In part it can be seen as a pendulum swing, somewhat like the rise of Pentecostalism in the face of 20th century liberalism. But it also can be seen as taking up the separatist idea of the church as comprised of a regenerate membership. The early Puritans had not required such a test of conversion. Edmund S. Morgan argues that this practice originated in Massachusetts, spread to Plymouth, New Haven and Connecticut and back to England. This is surely relevant in assessing the historical development, but Schenck does not refer to it.

In the 1730s and 1740s the first Great Awakening found fertile soil in the formal worship in many churches and among the many unchurched on the frontier. The emphasis on experience, and the revivalistic emphasis fostered at the Tennant’s Log College, impacted on Presbyterians. The reaction to formalism produced a stress on conscious, crisis conversion as the only true evidence of salvation, an experience also demanded of children. Thus the only way to God was popularly seen as involving terror and misery arising from conviction of sin preparatory to the experience of God’s love and peace. The 1741-58 Old Side/New Side division of Presbyterians resulted. After reunion there was a period of indifference until the Great Revival of 1800, which saw a renewed and rather lasting emphasis on revivalism. Schenck (p.78) quotes Dr Samuel Miller writing in 1832: ‘I confess I deeply regret that the use of camp meetings should be resumed in our body. To say nothing of the irregularities and abuses…they have always appeared to me adapted to make religion more an affair of display, of impulse, of noise, and of animal sympathy, than of the understanding, the conscience, and the heart….’

Schenck begins his 3rd chapter – The Threat of Revivalism – (pp. 80-103) by writing: ‘The disproportionate reliance upon revivals as the only hope of the church and the proclamation of the Gospel from the pulpit as almost the only means of conversion, amounted to a practical subversion of Presbyterian doctrine, an overshadowing of God’s covenant promise.’ He traces the neglect of infant baptism in Presbyterian churches in the 19th century, citing Charles Hodge’s survey (p. 84). This showed that in 1807 there was one child baptised for every 5 members but a steady decline had reduced the ratio to one for every 20 members in 1855. He cites the pleas of leaders such as Ashbel Green, Samuel Miller and J.W.Alexander, who sought proper care for baptised members, rather than that they be left without care as if they were not members of the church and had no obligations by virtue of God’s covenant.

Confusion in American Presbyterian thought is illustrated by a number of examples. Some took up essentially the notion involved in the half-way covenant. They distinguished two aspects to the covenant, one merely outward, ecclesiastical and legal, and the other spiritual, in a rather dualistic fashion so that the external covenant was not seen as ‘interpenetrated by the internal covenant’, to quote Louis Berkhof. Schenck asserts (p.86) that Dr Stuart Robinson even took the position that the Abrahamic covenant was actually not the covenant of grace at all, and T.E.Peck likewise. Thornwell and Dabney taught that baptism made a child a child of the covenant, meaning an ecclesiastical covenant by which the child had the right to instruction. Until they showed a new heart they were to be treated as unregenerate baptised children. The seal of God’s covenant was only a symbol until they had faith.

The differences came to a head in the debate on revision of the Book of Discipline at the General Assembly of 1859. Some, such as Charles Hodge, wished to retain the wording that said all baptised persons ‘are members of the church, are subject to government and discipline’ and when adult ‘are bound to perform all the duties of church members.’ Others, such as Thornwell, wanted to state that all baptised persons are under the church’s ‘government and training’ and to add that only those, however, who have made a profession of faith in Christ are proper subjects of judicial prosecution.’ With the Civil War, the church was divided. In 1863 the Northern Church adopted without dissent the disputed part as it was in the original book, while in 1879 the Southern Church adopted without controversy Thornwell’s draft. Thus a change had occurred from the historic Reformed doctrine, a change that in many respects adopted Baptist ground so far as the baptism of infants was concerned. Interestingly, in 1934 the Northern Church made a modification in line with the South without exciting any controversy, but Schenck does not mention this.

The Defence of the Doctrine forms the subject of chapter 4 (pp. 104-147). This chapter does not seem entirely aptly named as the first part is spent to show that the rise of the New England Divinity (which divided the church 1838-1869) impacted on the doctrine of redemption and regeneration, and therefore on the doctrine of baptism, because of its different doctrine of original sin. But as it proceeds we do come to read a positive exposition of the Reformed doctrine of infant baptism as held by the Old School. Schenck writes, ‘The theological system of Princeton Seminary was essentially that of John Calvin, received through the medium of Francisco Turretin and the Westminster Standards’ (p.132). He concludes that, over against the crisis conversion idea of revivalism, which tended to regard infants as unconverted pagans, Christian nurture was ‘the appointed, the natural, the normal, and the ordinary means by which the children of believers were made truly the children of God’ not, of course apart from ‘the regenerative act and effectual cooperation of the Holy Spirit’ (p.145).

A short chapter, The Resultant Confusion, completes Schenck’s book (pp.148-158), although it does not take the history beyond the 19th century. This would have been the ideal point at which to summarise his conclusions and lay out a charter for reform. As this is not done effectively, the ending is a bit limp. Having said this, don’t think this book is not of real worth. It deals with an issue of perennial importance and its concern to recover the emphasis on the promise of God sealed in baptism, and the corresponding obligations of the baptised, are issues of great practical significance.

Given the controversy over Abraham Kuyper’s presumptive regeneration position, one might well be rather discriminating in one’s language when speaking of the basis of Christian baptism. It seems better to emphasise the promise of God in his covenant as the warrant to baptise rather than presumed regeneration. Of course in the West today we do not face the high infant mortality of an earlier age. But an earlier age did place their confidence in family and Christian nurture in dependence on God’s Spirit, not in spurts of evangelical fads and fashions or spasmodic revival efforts. The promise of God gave incentive, and encouragement. In our individualistic age we need to recover the older Reformed doctrine. If Schenck’s work helps to stimulate a fresh treatment of the theme, brought up to date and dealing with some more recent aberrations, or if it otherwise stimulates a return to a more Biblical position, it will be well worthwhile.

Book Review: Politics, Religion and the British Revolutions – The Mind of Samuel Rutherford

POLITICS, RELIGION AND THE BRITISH REVOLUTIONS – The Mind of Samuel Rutherford by John Coffey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), xii + 304pp., £40.
also now in paperback.

This review originally appeared in the Reformed Theological Review, April 1998.


Samuel Rutherford (1600-61) was a complex character known chiefly to later generations through his much-admired Letters still in print in several languages. These evince a piety that has enriched the devotional life of evangelicals ever since. Yet this Scottish Presbyterian minister and commissioner to the Westminster Assembly was also a writer of polemical treatises which seem worlds apart from the Letters. To dip into the 618 pages of his book about the sectaries, A Survey of Spiritual Antichrist (1648), is to appear to enter another world. And if one thinks that his most famous book Lex, Rex lays the basis for individual civil rights and modern democracy, his A Free Disputation against Pretended Liberty of Conscience (1649) looks in another direction.

Rutherford has been misunderstood because he lived at the end of the era of respublica christiania which the modern period was soon to supplant. Later ages took over what they liked in his work and created something of a caricature of the real Rutherford. It is the great service of Dr Coffey’s book that he puts Rutherford in his historical setting and lucidly discusses the main themes of the man and his work. The page header gives the title ‘Politics, theology and the British revolutions’. The cover title is apt enough but the page header reminds us that we will find theology in these pages, and the discussion is excellent.

After a useful introduction Coffey provides a 31 page biography of Rutherford. In this he does not dismiss or extenuate Rutherford’s pre-nuptial fornication with Euphame Hamilton in 1625. Indeed, he sees Rutherford’s recognition of the power of and struggle with sin as shaping his own high Calvinist theology. He next treats of Rutherford as a scholar, showing the influence of Aristotelian scholasticism, humanism and Ramism. Ramism was not particularly influential on Rutherford but Coffey is right to emphasise that scholasticism and humanism, which were major features, are not to be polarised but could and did happily co-exist. In discussing Rutherford’s approach to Scripture he rejects as ‘hardly credible’ the claim of J.B.Rogers and D.K.McKim that Rutherford was a kind of Barthian before Barth (p. 78).

Next we have a chapter on Rutherford as a Puritan pastor which helpfully illustrates his deep spirituality, especially as seen in his use of richly metaphorical language and his effective relationship with Christian women, numbers of whom were his correspondents. This chapter easily shows that Rutherford is not the austere cleric some might suppose.

Chapter 5 considers his eight theological works amounting to 4,000 printed pages. Apart from The Trial and Triumph of Faith, few have had more than one edition although some were translated into Dutch. Coffey again interacts very expertly with current discussions concerning the relationship between Calvin’s Christocentric theology and the alleged preoccupation with predestination among the later Reformed theologians. Coffey agrees with Richard Muller that the differences have been greatly exaggerated. Certainly Rutherford was a supralapsarian, but so was Beza, as Calvin was aware. The question of covenant theology and definite atonement is then taken up and the allegation of discontinuity with Calvin alleged by such as R.T.Kendall, J.B.Torrance and Charles Bell is considered and rejected. ‘Like the Reformer, Rutherford was concerned to do justice to both God’s grace and God’s law, to divine sovereignty and human responsibility.’ (p.138)

Rutherford was agnostic about monarchy as the best form of government. His book on political theory was published in 1644. Lex, Rex or The Law and the Prince has a complex structure and blends secular and religious arguments so that Coffey can say that ‘although written by a Calvinist, it was in some ways a deeply Thomistic book.’ (p.152) The discussion of about 40 pages provides a very helpful overview of the content of the book in the context of the times. It brings out the tension between Rutherford as a natural-law constitutionalist in favour of popular sovereignty and resistance to tyrants, and Rutherford as the proponent of a godly nation in covenant with God. This tension leads readily into a consideration of Rutherford as the ecclesiastical statesman, concerned for a pure church – pure in the sense of doctrinal and ecclesiastical order so that he defends a strict view of the regulative principle, and yet rejecting schism and accepting all the community as members by baptism through his distinction between the outer and inner covenant. Yet with the division between Resolutioners and Protesters, after 1650 Rutherford was in the minority Protester group and in effect in revolt against the system of government he advocated.

In the final chapter before the Conclusion, Coffey writes of Rutherford as ‘The national prophet’. Rutherford had an optimistic vision which was qualified by realism concerning human sin. For one who believed in the possibility of reading the mind of God through providence, Rutherford was deeply affected by the rejection of his vision after 1650. As he was dying in 1661, Parliament was sweeping away the acts of the Covenanters. He expressed regret at aspects of the policy of his party and thought that the nation had been divided when ‘We might have driven gently, as our Master Christ, who loves not to overdrive but carries the Lambs in his Bosom.’ It was a valid point although if it had been applied we cannot be certain what the outcome would have been.

Dr Coffey has given us an honest, sympathetic and lucid account of one of the leading figures of the Civil War period. He handles the issues expertly so that it is an intellectual treat to read, and provides a detailed Rutherford Bibliography. Only a few small errors have been noted: The reference to Origen (p.85) should be to the 3rd century not the 4th; Rutherford wrote of the covenant of redemption before David Dickson’s Therapeutica Sacra was published not afterwards (pp.137-8); the acceptance of the Westminster Form of Church Government was in terms which (a) did not prejudice further consideration of the one point on which the Scots had not secured agreement and (b) maintained the Second Book of Discipline (p.211).

Book Review: Noah’s Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries about the Event which Changed History…

by William Ryan and Walter Pitman (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1998) 298pp US$25

[See note added 6 Sept 2010 at end.]

The Melbourne Age on 29/10/1999 carried a story about the views put forward by Willian Ryan and Walter Pitman, geologists from Columbia University one of whom gave a public lecture at Melbourne University on his theory. Essentially the two geologists have established that the Black Sea was once a fresh-water lake with a water level 100 metres below the Bosporus. However, in 5600 BC rising sea levels as a consequence of glacial meltwater overflowed from the Mediterranean at a rate 200 times that of Niagara Falls today. At 15cm a day it flooded an area equal to England and Wales in a few years causing the population to flee to other areas. This is supposed to be the genesis of the story of Noah’s Flood.

While it seems that the geological event described did take place, there are a number of assumptions which make identification with Noah’s Flood doubtful or impossible in the form suggested. After all, one must account for the global memory of a great flood, as well as integrate the theory with other scientific disciplines, and the Biblical data. Here the new theory falls down.

To account for the tradition, common to many peoples, of a massive flood, Ryan and Morris claim that the Neolithic farmers who had lived in Europe, Asia and North Africa at an earlier time had migrated to the Black Sea region as a result of serious drought elsewhere. The inundation of the Black Sea then dispersed them and they carried with them the memory of ‘the event which changed history’. This is a scenario which does not mesh with what we think we know of the Neolithic period from archaeology and other disciplines. Again, the Biblical picture is of a sudden flood associated with rain, but Ryan and Pitman regard this as mere embellishment of the original history.

To those who regard Noah’s Flood as geographically universal, the new theory offers no solution. Indeed, even to allow the possibility of a date for the Flood of 5600 BC would be regarded by many as 2500 years earlier than justified by the Bible. On the other hand, those representing the 19th century Protestant orthodoxy of say the Free Church of Scotland tradition, as I do, reject ‘flood geology’ and are comfortable with a Flood that is universal in a sense or senses other than the geographical. But this view still accepts the suddenness of the Flood and the involvement of rain.

Two concluding points: (1) The tendency to regard the Biblical and Mesopotamian Flood accounts as much the same is to be resisted. There are parallels but also very significant differences. In the Epic of Gilgamesh the gods bring the flood because the noise of the humans disturbs them, but one of the gods (Enki) disagrees and tips off Ut-Napishtim so that he built a cube shaped boat with seven levels five times greater in capacity than Noah’s ark, and in which he was saved. The gods found the flood was greater than they intended and they ‘cowered like dogs’ in its presence. Afterwards they squabbled about the action of Enki.

(2) There are objections to the geographically universal model of the flood which may be drawn from Scripture as well as other data. Thus, Scripture shows not the slightest interest in explaining how all the creatures were contained in the ark, but obviously there were no more than could go on board through one door at a week’s notice and be cared for and fed by eight people. Further, there is currently no satisfactory physical evidence of a flood disrupting all civilisation in the ancient near east since 9000 BC, and few would want to place the Flood earlier than that.

However, the last word has not been spoken on the subject of the Flood in its physical aspects. Christians need to be careful not to read our more comprehensive knowledge of the entire globe into a narrative related to the region where Noah and his contempories lived. They also need to avoid anxiety to explain or, indeed, explain away, Biblical history through reconstructions from the past which can only be provisional at best.
Note added 6 Sept 2010:

Oceanus for 1 September 2009 reports concerning Ryan & Pitman’s book:

Now, a new study in the January 2009 issue of Quaternary Science Reviews suggests that if the flood occurred at all, it was much smaller–hardly of biblical proportions. Liviu Giosan of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and Florin Filip and Stefan Constantinescu of the University of Bucharest found evidence that Black Lake/Sea water levels rose only 5 to 10 meters around 9,400 years ago, not 50 to 60 meters as Ryan and his colleagues proposed. The flood would have drowned only about 2,000 square kilometers of land (about half of Rhode Island), rather than 70,000 square kilometers (more than the entire state of West Virginia).

Book Review: Nostradamus in the 21st Century

by Peter Lemesurier (London: Piatkus Books 2000) pbk. 325pp)
ISBN: 0749921633


From The Presbyterian Banner, September 2002

Peter Lemesurier appears to be one of the more sane followers of Michel de Nostredame (1503-66), if that is not a contradiction in terms. Nostradame, later known as Nostradamus, was a contemporary of his fellow Frenchman John Calvin (1509-65), but was a far different character. Nostradamus was of Jewish extraction but a practising Roman Catholic. He achieved considerable fame as a physician of the plague, although his medical qualifications are uncertain, and he did not claim great success himself. He was also famed somewhat as an ‘astrologer’, but preferred, rather wisely one would think, to call himself an ‘astrophile’, or ‘star-lover’. On his semi-retirement in around 1550 he turned to writing, particularly in the area of astrology and prophecy. This brought him into great public prominence, and he became particularly influential at the French court where he was a favourite of Catherine de Medici. Twice married, he had two children by his first wife (all three died) and six by his second. He was careful not to fall out with the Roman Church.

His prophetic writings included annual books of predictions for the following year. The success rate of the 6,338 or so predictions thus made has been calculated by Bernard Chevignard at only 5.73%. He also produced more general and usually undated prophecies of the future history of the world. These include 1,000 4-line verse prophecies called quatrains. There are many obscure expressions in them, but these are the writings that attract most interest today. The success rate cannot be determined because the commentators vary so widely on their interpretation. Lemesurier suggests only a dozen or so are agreed on by all (p. 32f). His published horoscopes show, according to Pierre Brund’Amour, that he was ‘astonishingly incompetent’ as an astrologer. Roger Prevost [Nostra-damus, le mythe et la realite, Laffont, 1999] suggests that many of Nostradamus’ prophecies were based on past events drawn often virtually word for word from ancient histories and medieval chronicles. The idea seems to have been belief in cycles in history so, given the same celestial conditions, the potential for the same terrestrial occurrence existed.

According to Lemesurier, in a website on the subject <http://nosrepos.tripod.com/faq.html> :
‘The most up-to-date research into Nostradamus’ prophecies generally is contained in Bernard Chevignard’s Présages de Nostradamus (Editions du Seuil, 1999). The latest and most reliable work on his astrology is contained in the late Pierre Brind’Amour’s Nostradamus Astrophile (Lincksieck/Univ. of Ottawa Presses, 1993), and possibly the most reliable analysis of the first-edition verses (1.1 to IV.53) in the same author’s Nostradamus: Les Premières Centuries (Droz, 1996) – but both, like Chevignard’s work, are of course also in French. Even James Randi’s characteristically sceptical The Mask of Nostradamus (Prometheus, 1993) contains – for all its many errors of detail – far more up to date, correct information on the seer than most of the popular books in English put together!’

One of the most interesting aspects of Lemesurier’s book is the way in which he understands free will and prophecy. ‘If we respond to those warnings appropriately, the prophecies – this time around at least – will fail. And so Nostradamus will be proved wrong – which, of course, is the fate of all good prophets’ (p.8).

From a Biblical perspective there is a certain truth in this. God may announce judgement yet relent if there is changed behaviour, as with Jonah and the Ninevites. In such cases there is an implied condition. But Lemesurier’s view seemingly does not allow God to control his creation, nor allow the credibility of the prophet to be demonstrated by predictions that are absolute. It’s a neat way of making prophecy meaningless, as if 5.73% accuracy makes you a better prophet than one who is 100% right! Of course, it also assumes one knows the meaning of the prophecy so as to act to counter it.

In the Bible the true prophet’s predictions never fail, except insofar as any implied conditions are fulfilled. If they do fail then it is a sure sign God is not speaking by him (Deut 18:21-22). Further, even if the prediction comes true but the prophet leads away from the truth of God, he is not a true prophet, but one God is using to test his people (Deut 13:5).

Nostradamus is an interesting character. Yet isn’t it amazing that the Hebrew prophets’ predictions do not gain the interest and attention that Nostradamus receives, a man who failed both Biblical tests? That’s man, however. If he will not subject himself to the word of God, he’s open to believe anything.

Book Review: The Bible, Protestantism and the rise of natural science by Peter Harrison

 By Peter Harrison (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), xii + 313pp., A$105

This review by Rowland S. Ward appeared in the Reformed Theological Review, December 1999.


Peter Harrison is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Bond University, Qld. He has authored a volume that is well-written and rsearched and which is very valuable in understanding the origins of the natural sciences.

A common view since the 1930s has been that the Puritans were the key to the rise of the sciences since so many of them were involved in the founding of the Royal Society. They were also over-represented in the sciences compared to their proportion in the total population. However key elements of the scientific approach lie before the Puritan influence (Galileo, Descartes), and so a modified view has been proposed which claims that the spirit of enquiry promoted by Protestantism generally, and the breaking of clerical censorship, is a better way of explaining the rise of the natural sciences. However, Harrison suggests a more refined thesis. To him the key is the approach to the interpretation of texts fostered by the early reformers and their successors, and he makes a convincing case.

Biblical texts had early been subjected to non-literal exegesis in the interest of giving difficult parts moral or figurative value. In the same way, nature was seen as intended to illustrate moral and spiritual matters, and was not viewed in its own terms. It was a vast lexicon of meanings. With the return to a literal reading of Scripture, that is, to the meaning the author intended to convey by his words, we not only had a reformation in the church, we also had nature now viewed in terms of its usefulness at a practical rather than a symbolic level.

Dr Harrison provides a quite fascinating survey of early approaches to biblical hermeneutics and the understanding of nature. He does not overlook the emphasis, not only in Calvin, on ‘accommodation’ to the capacity of the unlearned in the narratives of Scripture so that simplified, observational ways of speaking are found in Scripture rather than strictly scientific statements.

It will not have escaped the attentive reader that this thesis is saying that the recovery of the literal meaning (as defined above) was the key to unlocking the world of nature, yet today it is the literalists who are considered the great opponents of scientific enquiry. Of course, modern literalists, operating in a developed scientific age, are not really in the same category as those who took a literal meaning of Scripture when the natural sciences were in their infancy.

Harrison provides copious interesting, instructive and sometimes amusing references from the 17th century which illustrate the struggles of early scientists who assumed the scientific nature of certain parts of Scripture. Approaches to the creation, fall and Flood narratives receive attention. Harrison concludes by noting the way in which the scientific impulse was increasingly secularised from the beginning of the 18th century leaving Christians with only a body of doctrines with which to concern themselves. The Western quest for redemption was now focused on a secular salvation. So there is a very relevant message here. This is an excellent book although unhappily expensive. It would be very valuable to any tertiary student of the humanities and the sciences.

Note: A paperback edition is now in print.