Monday, May 29, 2006


One of the deep joys of the Christian life is that the Lord Christ uses his people to shape his people. “Iron sharpens iron,” as it says in Proverbs.

As I look back on the last thirty years of my own Christian walk, among the brothers who have shaped my life one of the first that comes to mind is Jacques Alexanian, now residing with his wife Loretta in Gatineau, Quebec. Jacques served for a good number of years as the President of SEMBEQ. His influence on me has been enormous. In many ways, he has been a father in the Lord Jesus. In particular, he taught me about the nature of true Christian leadership, its vital importance for the Church, and the joy of serving Christ humbly.

I am also deeply thankful for the hospitality he and Loretta showed me year after year when I came up to Montreal to teach at SEMBEQ. Those days are over now, but not forgotten and times of fellowship with Jacques and Loretta are woven into the fabric of my Christian life. May the Lord continue to make both of them a blessing to his people and an ornament of grace.

Saturday, May 27, 2006


Charles Haddon Spurgeon was born into a godly home in the heart of rural Essex on June 19, 1834. Spurgeon’s forebears originally came from the Netherlands, which they had left in the 1500s due to religious persecution. Both Spurgeon’s father, John Spurgeon, and his grandfather, James Spurgeon, were Congregationalist preachers, and it was during an extended stay over a number of years in the home of his grandfather that Spurgeon discovered a library of Puritan folios.

Despite Spurgeon’s tender years and the fact that as a young child he found it very difficult to lift these large and weighty Puritan volumes, he would later write that as a boy he was never happier than when in the company of these Puritan authors. In time Spurgeon would be rightly convinced that commitment to the Calvinism and the spirituality of the Puritans was vital for the orthodoxy and well-being of Baptist churches.

However, despite such godly surroundings it was not until January, 1850, that Spurgeon was soundly converted. Four months later, Spurgeon, with the agreement of his Congregationalist parents, was baptized in the River Lark not far from Isleham in Cambridgeshire. After his baptism Spurgeon found an unquenchable desire to serve Christ. He began to speak in more public settings, and his compelling preaching soon led to an invitation to pastor the Baptist church in Waterbeach, a small hamlet a few miles northeast of Cambridge.  Spurgeon laboured here from the autumn of 1851 to April, 1854.  In those two and a half years the membership of the small Baptist chapel more than doubled, going from 40 to 100.

Hearing of his scintillating preaching, the deacons of Park Street Chapel, an historic London Baptist congregation, invited him to preach on December 11, 1853. The congregation who heard Spurgeon that Sunday were thrilled with his preaching and the deacons quickly arranged for Spurgeon to return three Sundays in January, 1854. He was subsequently invited to supply the pulpit for several months, and in April of that year, at the age of nineteen, he accepted a call to be the pastor of the church.

The church was built to seat 1,200, but it soon proved far too small for the crowds that sought to sit under Spurgeon’s preaching. In 1855 the chapel was consequently expanded to seat 1,500. A year later, however, this renovated chapel had also been outgrown, and the decision was made to build what would become known as the Metropolitan Tabernacle. Completed in 1861, the Tabernacle could seat 5,000 and accommodate another 1,000 standing. For the rest of Spurgeon’s pastorate the Tabernacle saw an average of 5,000 at each Sunday morning and evening service.  And while Spurgeon and his fellow elders were careful not to make a huge membership their goal—indeed Spurgeon had a healthy distrust of all such statistics—14,691 were added to the church during Spurgeon’s time there, of which roughly 10,800 were by conversion and baptism.

Spurgeon’s success as a preacher certainly owed little to his physical appearance, for he was of average height, fairly stout as he grew older, and had two unduly prominent front teeth.  In the words of a certain Monckton Milnes: “When he went into the pulpit, he might be taken for a hairdresser’s assistant; when he left it he was an inspired apostle.” Augustine Birrell records that when he went to hear Spurgeon preach the only seat he could find was in the topmost gallery, between a woman eating an orange and a man sucking peppermints.  Finding this combination of odours unendurable, he was about to leave, when, he said, “I heard a voice and forgot all else.” In the words of recent biographer Mike Nicholls, Spurgeon possessed one of the great speaking voices of his age, musical and combining compass, flexibility and power.”

Spurgeon, though, looked to quite a different source for the blessings which attended his ministry. In a speech which he gave at a celebration held in honour of his fiftieth birthday in 1884, the Baptist preacher forthrightly declared that the blessing which he had enjoyed in his pastorate “must be entirely attributed to the grace of God, and to the working of God’s Holy Spirit…Let that stand as a matter, not only taken for granted, but as a fact distinctly recognized.”

Spurgeon died in 1892 at Menton, a resort on the French Riviera not far from the Italian border, where he had annually taken vacations since the mid-1870s. Spurgeon had come there as an ill man with his wife in October of that year in the hope that a change of scenery and weather would facilitate a recovery of health.  It was not to be. The Prince of Preachers died in the last hour on the final day of January, 1892.

And although Spurgeon’s voice was stilled in 1892, through the ongoing publication of his sermons the Holy Spirit continues to honour Spurgeon’s ministry and to draw sinners through them to know and to worship the Triune God. Little wonder that the twentieth-century Lutheran preacher and theologian Helmut Thielicke once suggested with regard to Spurgeon’s sermons: “Sell all you have…and go buy Spurgeon.”


A news item today reported that the Canadian book chain Indigo has pulled Harpers magazine since the most recent issue of this magazine “contains reprints of 12 cartoons that sparked outrage in the Muslim world earlier this year” (“Indigo pulls Harper’s magazine”).

Interesting, eh? The blockbuster The Da Vinci Code also contains outrageous material: blasphemous ideas about the blessed Lord Jesus. But there is not a thought about pulling that or the other trashy pulp that makes similarly ludicrous claims. The difference? How sincere Muslims and sincere Christians react to blasphemy. The first are ready to slay the infidel that mock the Prophet. The latter are set to pray for those that ridicule them.  


It was our delight as a seminary community at Toronto Baptist Seminary to have Dr. Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary as our guest speaker last night at the Principal’s Banquet in Toronto and then this morning for three lectures on Trinitarianism, creedal confessionalism and Reformed piety at the 3rd annual Jonathan Edwards Centre for Reformed Spirituality lectures.

Carl Trueman’s talks this morning were really superb. They combined an historical depth with a passion for edifying the Church. They were a good balance of scholarship and piety. He pled for a greater Trinitarianism in all of our thinking and piety. One lecture I found particularly helpful as he showed how the covenant of peace arose from Calvinists thinking about how salvation was related to the Trinity in eternity past. But they were all very good stuff.

Here is a very brief report of yesterday evening’s talk by Kirk Wellum: Unashamed of the Gospel. And here, on Ian Clary’s blog, is a report of the lectures this morning: Spirituality Conference with Carl Trueman.    

Friday, May 26, 2006


Among the shining names from the history of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ is that of Samuel Pearce (1766-1799), who was the pastor of Cannon Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, for the ten years before his death. He was an engaging preacher who had a profound impact on many who heard him.

Here is a portion of one of his sermons, The Duty of Churches to regard Ministers as the Gift of Christ, in which he is speaking on Ephesians 4:11-12 at an ordination, that of W. Belsher of Worcester. It is a text that is very relevant for today when pastors can be lightly esteemed. Pearce first emphasizes that pastors are a gift from Christ and why God has given them to the Church.

“None of God’s gifts are bestowed without design—the falling shower, and the clear shining of the sun after rain, the wintry frosts and the summer heats, have their respective uses; nor can you suppose that the great Head of the Church hath called our brother by his grace, put him into the ministry, and given him to you as a pastor, without having in view some important end. It will now be your wisdom, as it is your duty, to consider seriously what that end is, and to be practically concerned to have it answered.

“Plainly is this design unfolded in the words following the text, “for the perfection of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” [Ephesians 4:12,] that is, not for your increase in numbers only, but also for your improvement in wisdom and goodness. Now your duties, my brethren, are consequent on your pastors: if he be a teacher, you must be learners; if he have a building to erect, you must be fellow labourers; and, unless you be wanting in the duties of your stations, you may be assured that the divine blessing will not be withheld.”

He then rightly points out the first and greatest need of pastors is that their people pray for them. This point is very much in line with the great sense of dependence on the Spirit that marked out Pearce and his friends, men like Andrew Fuller and William Carey:

“If you would have the design of the pastoral relation answered, you must be much in prayer for your minister: His work is great, and the necessary qualifications for the discharge of it, are neither unimportant nor few. It requires much wisdom to understand the Scriptures; much fortitude to oppose the errors, the indifference, and the impurities of the times; much zeal to labour extensively and habitually for Christ and souls; much prudence to advise and act in difficult cases, and much personal religion to impart a savor of Christ to all his conversation, his discourses, and his prayers.

“Here then is scope for your petitions; the furniture of a Christian minister must come from above, and from thence it must be sought. “Brethren, pray for us,” said the apostle of the Gentiles. Brethren, pray for us, we also say: Men of like passions with yourselves—exposed to temptation from numerous quarters—as prone naturally to depart from God as you—liable to stupidity, carnality, and vanity—O, if you have any desire to see us holy, spiritual, active, honourable—pray for us.”
Pearce then outlines the key challenges before the preacher of the Word and reiterates the need for the sovereign power of God to accompany the pastor’s labours and as a means to this the faithful praying of God’s people:

“You are not unacquainted, brethren, with the difficulties which lie in the way of our success. …Not merely to inform the judgments—to excite the passions—to conquer the prejudices of education, and to reform the manners of men, are before us—a more arduous talk presents itself. My brethren, our point is not gained without a change of heart! A renovation of the whole soul! A conversion from the power of Satan unto God! But who is sufficient for these things? Can human energy effect them? Nay, my brethren, we are compelled to own that “we are not sufficient of ourselves to do any thing as of ourselves—all our sufficiency is of God.” Were all the moral virtues, and supernatual endowments, which have ever adorned the saint, or distinguished the apostle, concentrated in one Christian pastor, neither will believers be improved, nor sinners converted, without the presence, the power, and the grace of Christ!  In vain we enter the pulpit—in vain we persuade, we exhort, we beseech, we reprove, we warn, or we invite—the word will never come with a saving power, unless it “come in the Holy Ghost.”  …Our only encouragement to labour, and our only hope of success, arise from the promise of God, and as a mean of enjoying it, the prayers of our people. My dear brethren, you had better dispose of your pastor to some other church, unless you have a heart to pray for him.”

Words for our day indeed.

NOTE: Andrew Fuller would later draw up the life of his friend Pearce. One of the reasons he wrote his life was to illustrate the piety that accompanied genuine Calvinism, as opposed to what Fuller regarded as the “false Calvinism” of certain Antinomians of his day. These Antinomians tended to reject inviting sinners to Christ—or offering Christ indiscriminately to all and sundry. It is noteworthy that Pearce, near the end of the last section of this sermon cited above, describes the work of preaching thus: “we persuade, we exhort, we beseech, we reprove, we warn, or we invite.” This is a fabulous window into his thought about the content of faithful, biblical preaching. Note especially the presence of the phrase “we invite.” Biblical preaching invites sinners to come to the Saviour.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


Lord Acton (1834-1902)—Sir John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton—was one of the great historians of the nineteenth century. He was the holder of the Regius Chair of Modern History at the University of Oxford. Amazingly, he was appointed to the Chair in 1895 without a single book to his name, but he had written some of the most remarkable scholarly articles of the day.

Among his principles was an insistence on the primacy of primary sources, which usually means archival sources, for sound historical scholarship. As he said:

“To renounce the pains and penalties of exhaustive research is to remain a victim to ill informed and designing writers, and to authorities that have worked for ages to build up the vast tradition of conventional mendacity. …By going from book to manuscript and from library to archive, we exchange doubt for certainty…”

Would that many wannabe historians and other historical pontificators would learn this vital principle! Even theologians would do well to heed this advice. All of those vacuous generalizations about church history and our culture with nary a shred of evidence! The ultimate result is vapidity. How easy it is to pontificate—but we want proof of assertions.


I am just back home from the national conference of FIRE: Fellowship of Independent Reformed Evangelicals, which was held this year in Hudsonville, Michigan, near Grand Rapids. What a delight to be there for the day and a half I was there. The host church, Grace Community Church, Hudsonville, did a superb job of hosting the event. Thank you, Pastor Krogh, and you, the brothers and sisters of this church!

The conference concluded this evening, but I had to leave after breakfast and missed hearing Jason Deutsch and Jim Newheiser. It was a joy to hear, though, Erroll Hulse on Monday evening and Jim Grier last night. Last night was especially precious as Dr Grier expounded Isaiah 6. An anointed word!

It was also a delight to make the re-acquaintance of some dear friends and meet new ones. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the sweet communion of his people! May the Lord bless this fellowship of churches richly—what a joy to be a part of it.

Monday, May 15, 2006


I was at a Central Baptist Seminary faculty retreat in the Muskokas in May of 1984—Dr George Bell had become the President of the school that year and one of my best friends, Mr. Keith Edwards, had come on board to help me as my assistant registrar (what a joy to be working with him again!)—when I heard news of the death of Dr. Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984). He died on May 15, 1984.

Schaeffer, along with C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), were my two earliest Christian mentors as authors. Schaeffer helped me realize that honest questions deserved honest answers. He showed me that being an intellectual was a definite Christian calling and indirectly helped confirm my calling as an historian, though the latter took years to work out. And he gave me a distinct preference for presuppositional apologetics, the only reasonable approach to apologetics for a Calvinist. I still have great admiration for his work, though I recognize that some of his discussion of philosophers like Kant and Kierkegaard was not terribly deep.


This past weekend I was in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, at Bible Baptist Church, where Larry Bird is the pastor. I spoke at the church three times and at the annual convention of the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches (FEBC) in Canada, Manitoba Region, on Saturday twice. The convention was also held at Bible Baptist Church. What a delight to be with these brothers and sisters. The fellowship and hospitality was tremendous. There are eight or so churches in the Region—the smallest of the FEBC regions. Again, it was a privilege to be with these Baptist brothers and sisters and meet a number who knew men that I knew.

It is amazing to think that I have lived in this country for forty years and when it comes to going west I had never been outside of Ontario. The farthest west I had ever been was Blind River, Ontario! I have been much farther west in the US but not in my home country. So it was a privilege to fly into Winnipeg, where a brother, Ed Price, picked me up and drove me to Portage. Pastor Bird loves the doctrines of grace and it was a privilege to meet him again and minister to his people.

Sunday, May 14, 2006


One of the greatest privileges of my life has been teaching at SEMBEQ, the French Evangelical Baptist Seminary in Montreal. The students that I have taught have taught me as much as I have them. And it is through my times at this school that I have made some deep and lasting friendships for which I will thank God for eternity.

I thank God for so many of the brothers who are labouring in Baptist works in Quebec.


A good blog by Scot McKnight on how to make notes in one’s books: On Marking Books.

Thursday, May 11, 2006


I have been away at our annual faculty retreat for a few days. This weekend I am scheduled to speak on Baptist spirituality. I hope to do so, DV, through the medium of Baptist history. These words of Eberhard Bethge, friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, are an important reminder of why I am taking this approach:

“Commemoration renders life human; forgetfulness makes it inhuman. …even when remembrance carries grief and shame, it fills the future with perspectives. And the denial of the past furthers the affairs of death, precisely because it focuses exclusively on the present.” [Friendship and Resistance. Essays on Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Geneva: WCC Publications/Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1995), 105].


There are certain areas of the thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) with which I strongly disagree. But he is among my favourite authors of the twentieth century. I shall never forget the summer meditatively reading his Life Together at the beach of Port Elgin, Ontario, on the shores of Lake Huron, where I was vacationing with my wife Alison and her family. It has shaped my thinking on many aspects of the Christian life, especially those that deal with the nature of Christian community.

Bonhoeffer wrote this work out of his experience of leading the Confessing Church’s seminary at Zingst by the Baltic Sea. This seminary was later relocated in 1935 to Finkenwalde, Pomerania. Finding myself now as the principal of a seminary, the book takes on added significance.

As I have noted, it is a excellent guide to the nature of Christian community. For Bonhoeffer, the students under his care had to be men who knew how to play formative roles in the Christian communities to which they were called. We live in different times with different challenges, but we have the same need: how to teach potential pastors to take seriously the call to be pastors and not only preachers. The Word is central. Of this there is no doubt. But its centrality is not only to be found in the context of weekly worship, but in the lived-out experience of the Church. It is only in such that genuine Christian community can be formed—and transformed.

Saturday, May 06, 2006


In addition to saying goodbye to a number of graduates last night at the graduation ceremonies of Toronto Baptist Seminary, we also gave thanks for the ministry of Clint Humfrey  and his wife Christel (see her blog Coluratura Christian—check it out, she has been blogging on Christian marriage recently) amongst us. It has been a privilege to have them with us these past three years, Clint teaching first- and second-year Greek and Christel helping him and singing at various functions. She sang last night—it was excellent.

Clint and Christel hope to move to Aberdeen, Scotland, where Clint will pursue doctoral studies in New Testament. May the Triune Lord go before you, brother and sister, and make his face to shine upon you and give you his peace.


The Together for the Gospel conference, which I attended two weeks ago, has stirrred in me thoughts about the necessity of expressions of pan-Reformed unity.

During the time of the Reformation, there was a deep sense among those whom God was using to recover biblical Christianity of a unity in Christ. Scholars today call this International Calvinism.

Again, during the period of awakening in the world of transatlantic Evangelicalism of the eighteenth-century there was also a sense of unity that transcended ecclesiatsical polity lines. Witness the interfacing of Moravian and Anglican, Presbyterian and Baptist.

We need such expressions today. The Together for the Gospel conference was one fabulous expression of this. We desperately need something like this in Canada, where those who are Reformed and who love the gospel of free grace have a place where they can encourage one another and be encouraged. A place where we can build lines of fellowship and communication. I have no interest in producing some sort of institutional merger. Rather, what we need is an expression of the organic union that already exists by virtue of our common faith and heritage from the Reformation.

May God give us vision and boldness in this day of harvest!


Last night was the graduation ceremony of Toronto Baptist Seminary & Bible College, where I serve the Lord. Nine men graduated, with degrees and diplomas ranging from the one-year certificate in biblical studies to the M.Div. It was a great time of celebrating the goodness and grace of God in the lives of these men.

Our guest speaker was Dr. Joel Beeke, President of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, where he also teaches Systematic Theology. Entitling his address “Cherish the Church,” he spoke on that much debated verse from Matthew 16, verse 18, specifically the words “I will build my church.” It was a great sermon to the graduates, and to all present, on the necessity of loving the Church.

Dr. Beeke developed what he saw as the biblical mean between the extremes of Roman Catholic clericalism and institutionalism, on the one hand, and the rampant individualism of modern Evangelicalism, on the other. He cited John Calvin to the effect that we ought to cherish the Church above all other interests apart from God and referred to Calvin’s own use of that statement from Augustine (who derived it from Cyprian) that no one can have God as Father who does not have the Church as his or her Mother.

He stressed that we are to love the Church because she is precious to Christ—he gave his life for her. We are to cherish the Church because she is built on the Rock Christ. He interpreted the phrase “on this rock” as a reference to the confession that Peter made and thus ultimately a reference to the Lord Jesus as the Rock on which the Church is built. Finally, he focused our thoughts on the fact that the Lord Jesus is building His Church and he will not fail to make her perfect. Citing John Flavel—“Bury not the Church before she is dead”—he gave us, as he closed, an eschatological vision of the Church in glory, perfectly arrayed for the Bridegroom Christ. Praise the Lord for his goodness.

Since my coming to Toronto Baptist Seminary in 2003, we have been involved in a time of rebuilding and re-rooting the Seminary firmly on the Rock, that is the Lord Jesus, and on the gospel once for all delivered to the saints. And this was a great word of encouragement.

Dr. Beeke is due to speak at Jarvis Street Baptist Church this Sunday morning (11am) and then this Sunday evening at Trinity Baptist Church - Burlington, Ontario, Canada (6:30pm)    

Wednesday, May 03, 2006


We know more about Basil of Caesarea (c.330-379) than any other Christian of the Ancient Church apart from Augustine of Hippo. Central to our knowledge of his life is a marvellous collection of some 350 letters.

Basil was born around 330 in the Roman province of Cappadocia (now central Turkey). His family were fairly well-to-do, his father, also called Basil, being a teacher of rhetoric (i.e. the art of public speaking), and his mother, Emmelia, coming from landed aristocracy. The family’s Christianity can be traced back to Basil’s paternal grandmother, Macrina, who was converted under the preaching of Gregory Thaumaturgus, one of the students of the Alexandrian exegete Origen (died c.254). The family thus had a predilection for Origenist spirituality and thought.

Of Basil’s eight siblings we know the names of five: Macrina (c.327-c.379), Naucratius, Peter, later the bishop of Sebaste in Armenia, and Gregory of Nyssa (died c.395), one of the leading theologians of the fourth century.

Friendship with Gregory of Nazianzus

Basil went to school in Caesarea, as well as in Constantinople, and then, in 350 or so, he went to study in Athens, where he became a close friend of Gregory of Nazianzus (c.329-c.389), who, along with Basil, and his brother Gregory of Nyssa, are sometimes called the Cappadocian Fathers. Nazianzus later recalled his friendship with Basil during this time together as students:

“In studies, in lodgings, in discussions I had him as companion. …We had all things in common,… But above all it was God, of course, and a mutual desire for higher things, that drew us to each other. As a result we reached such a pitch of confidence that we revealed the depths of our hearts, becoming ever more united in our yearning.” [De vita sua 225ff., trans. Denise Molaise Meehan, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus: Three Poems (The Fathers of the Church, vol. 75; Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1987), 83-84].

Given this estimation of friendship, it is no surprise that Gregory could also state: “If anyone were to ask me, ‘What is the best thing in life?’, I would answer, ‘Friends’.” [Carolinne White, Christian Friendship in the Fourth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 70].

Conversion and a monastic calling

In 356 Basil returned to Caesarea, hoping to open a school of rhetoric. His older sister Macrina, however, challenged him to give his life unreservedly to Christ. So it was in that same year that Basil was converted. In his own words:

“I wasted nearly all of my youth in the vain labour which occupied me in the acquisition of the teachings of that wisdom which God has made foolish. Then at last, as if roused from a deep sleep, I looked at the wonderful light of the truth of the gospel, and I perceived the worthlessness of the wisdom of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to destruction. After I had mourned deeply for my miserable life I prayed that guidance be given to me for my introduction to the precepts of piety.” (Letter 223.2).

Basil’s conversion to Christ was also a conversion to a monastic lifestyle. Basil never had the impression that the monastic lifestyle was for every believer. Yet, he did believe that in fourth-century Graeco-Roman society—where, since the toleration of Christianity by Constantine, many were now flocking into the church for base motives—monasticism was a needed force for church renewal.

In time, during the 360s, Basil became a leading figure in the establishment of monastic communities, which he sought to model after the experience of the Jerusalem church as it is depicted in the early chapters of Acts.

Labours as a bishop

After founding a number of monasteries, he was ordained an elder in the church at Caesarea, Cappadocia, in the mid-360s. He became bishop of Caesarea in 370. As a bishop Basil was an ardent activist for personal and ecclesial holiness:

  • He was fearless in denouncing evil wherever he found it within the Church. For instance, he fought simony.

  • He was also fearless in denouncing evil in society as a whole. For example, he was not afraid to excommunicate those involved in the prostitution trade in Cappadocia.

  • He established hospitals—the first hospitals in the ancient world apart from those attached to the Roman army

Inheriting the mantle of Athanasius

But Basil was not only a Christian activist. He was also a clear-headed theologian. Basil inherited the mantle of Athanasius (died 373), the great defender of Trinitarian Christianity. Arianism, which Athanasius had combatted, was still widespread in the eastern Mediterranean. There is little doubt that Basil played a key role in the victory of orthodox Trinitarianism over Arianism, which denied the deity of both the Son and the Holy Spirit, in this region of the Roman Empire. For instance, in one of his earliest books, written around 363 or 364, Basil attacked the views of Arian theologian by the name of Eunomius (c.335-393/395), and defended the full deity of the Son and the Spirit.

His great Trinitarian achievement, though, lay in the realm of pneumatology. While there are a number of books on the person and work of Christ in the early centuries of the Church, it was not until Basil wrote his On the Holy Spirit in 375 that there was a book specifically devoted to the person of the Spirit of God.

The break with Eustathius of Sebaste

In the early 370s, though, Basil found himself locked in combat with professing Christians, who, though they confessed the full deity of Christ, denied that the Spirit was fully God. Leading these “fighters against the Spirit” (Pneumatomachi), as they came to be called, was one of his former friends, indeed the man who had been his mentor when he first became a Christian in 356, Eustathius of Sebaste (c.300-377).

Eustathius’ interest in the Spirit seems to have been focused on the Spirit’s work, not his person. For him, the Holy Spirit was primarily a divine gift within the Spirit-filled person, One who produced holiness. When, on one occasion at a synod in 364, he was pressed to say what he thought of the Spirit’s nature, he replied: “I neither chose to name the Holy Spirit God nor dare to call him a creature”!

For a number of years, Basil sought to win Eustathius over to the orthodox position. Finally, in the summer of 373 he met with him for an important two-day colloquy. After much discussion and prayer, Eustathius agreed to sign a statement of faith in which it was stated that:

“[We] must anathematize all who call the Holy Spirit a creature, and …all who do not confess that he is holy by nature, as the Father is holy by nature and the Son is holy by nature, and refuse him his place in the blessed divine nature. …We have been taught that the Spirit of truth proceeds from the Father, and we confess him to be of God without creation” (Basil, Letter 125).

A second meeting was arranged for the autumn of 373, at which Eustathius would sign this declaration in the presence of a number of Christian leaders. But on the way home from his meeting with Basil, Eustathius was convinced by some of his friends that Basil was theologically in error. For the next two years Eustathius crisscrossed what is now modern Turkey denouncing Basil, and claiming that he was the heretic, one who believed that there were absolutely no distinctions between the persons of the Godhead.

Basil was so stunned by what had transpired that he kept his peace for close to two years. Finally, he simply felt that he had to speak. His words were those of the one most important books of the entire patristic period, On the Holy Spirit.

On the Holy Spirit (375)

After showing why Christians believe in the deity of Christ (chapters 1-8), Basil devotes the heart of the treatise to demonstrating from Scripture why the Spirit is to be recognized as God (chapters 10-27). The Spirit gives insight into divine mysteries, since he plumbs the depths of God (1 Corinthians 2:10), something only that One who is fully divine could do. He enables men and women to confess the true identity of Christ and worship him (1 Corinthians 12:3). He gives spiritual gifts “as he wills” (1 Corinthians 12:11), an indication of his sovereign lordship over the church. He is omnipresent (Psalm 139:7), an attribute possessed only by God. He is implicitly called “God” by Peter (Acts 5:3-4).

In the words of chapter 9, which introduces Basil’s study of the Spirit’s person and work in Scripture, Basil states by way of anticipation what he will seek to show:

“He perfects all other beings, but he himself lacks nothing… He does not grow or increase, but is immediate fulness, firmly established in himself, and omnipresent… From him comes foreknowledge of the future, understanding of mysteries, comprehension of hidden realities, distribution of spiritual gifts, the heavenly citizenship,…everlasting joy, abiding in God… Such then, to mention only a few of many, are the conceptions about the Spirit which we have been taught by the oracles of the Spirit themselves [i.e. the Scriptures] to hold about his greatness, his dignity and his activities.”

Basil died in 379, worn out by hard work and illness, the latter probably associated with the liver.

Basil and the Creed

Two years later, the Council of Constantinople (381) incorporated Basil’s defence of the Spirit’s essential deity into the credal statement known as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed or what is simply called the Nicene Creed. The article on the Spirit, deeply indebted to Basil’s On the Holy Spirit, was probably written by Basil’s younger brother Gregory of Nyssa.

This article is a landmark statement in the history of the church and runs thus: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who is worshipped and glorified together with the Father and the Son, who spoke through the prophets.” Thus did Basil’s faithful witness to the Spirit bear fruit that has stood the test of time, for it is solidly biblical.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006


As we have noted (IRENAEUS OF LYONS ON THE BEATIFIC VISION, PART I), the Son’s revealing of the Father to men and women has been a continual one, yet it has not always been in the same fullness throughout history. There have been differing degrees of the vision of and knowledge of God in history (Against heresies 4.20.5).  

For Irenaeus, this vision and knowledge is a gradual one, thus implying a progressive revelation of God in history. This progressive revelation of God (through various economies) occurred because of humanity’s imperfection and men and women thus needed to be accustomed (assuescere) to bear the vision of God  (Against heresies 4.14.2). See also Irenaeus’ use of assuescere with regard to man’s learning to receive the Spirit of God: Against heresies 3.20.2, 16.5; 4.5.4, 12.4, 14.2, 21.3.

History is therefore conceived by Irenaeus to be a process; a process by which imperfect man ascends (an ascent made possible by God) to a more perfect vision of God. Even Adam, who was created in the image and likeness of God was a child spiritually who needed to grow. Irenaeus found this view of Adam as being a child in the thought of Theophilus of Antioch.  See To Autolycus 2.25; cf. Against heresies 3.22.4; 4.38.1.

Even if there had not been a Fall there would have been spiritual growth. Adam was given as much of the Spirit as he could bear. Adam therefore received a fragile incorruptibility (Against heresies 4.40.3; 5.16.2). In Irenaeus’ thinking, his loss of it was more through carelessness than malice. Yet, Irenaeus still sees it as sin and the essential cause of sin in the world.  

However, the Fall does not alter God’s essential plan, that is, the raising of man to perfection and a perfect vision of God.  True perfection, the destination of humanity, is nothing less than the vision of God, the crown of spiritual growth (Against heresies 4.11.1). Man, as a being of temporality, must learn to travel gradually towards God, who is not subject to time.

Old Testament history thus became, for Irenaeus, God’s work of “adjusting the human race, in manifold ways, to harmony with salvation” (Against heresies 4.14.2, 21.3, 38.1, 3, 39.2). Heresy was, therefore, for Irenaeus, an ignoring of God’s dispensations through history; that is, rejecting the historical provisions God has made for humanity’s salvation, perfection and ultimate destiny. See Against heresies 3.12.2, 16.8; 4.27.2, 29.1, 2, 35.2; 5.19.2.

Three further remarks of clarification are needed with regard to Irenaeus’ belief in the spiritual education of humanity.  First, the ascending path of humanity to God in history is quite distinct from any Gnostic belief in the ascent of man to God.  For Irenaeus it is the Holy Spirit which confers on man the possibility of progress.

Second, Irenaeus is not urging a cheap belief in progress qua progress. Progress is always connected to sonship and communion with God.  

Third, history is intimately connected to eschatology. History does not continue ad infinitum. History has an end; but until the eschatological consummation humanity is constantly “on the way.”

Monday, May 01, 2006


This past week I drove down with five friends to Louisville, Kentucky, for the Together for the Gospel Conference, at which Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, Al Mohler, R.C. Sproul, John Piper, C.J. Mahaney and John MacArthur—a who’s who of the conservative Reformed world—spoke. It was an awesome conference in so many ways—those who put together the conference served the 3,000 men who came with humility and joy, the messages delivered were all uniformly excellent and edifying, the worship solid and the fellowship tremendous.

One message in my mind stood out, though, and that was John Piper’s word on Thursday night. It was one of those occasions when the Spirit of God powerfully moved throughout the congregation. There was a palpable sense of awe at the weightiness of God’s holy presence as God’s Word was pressed home with deep conviction.

I have heard Dr Piper speak on four other occasions—at Heritage Seminary in Cambridge in the mid 1990s and then at ETS in 2003 on Jonathan Edwards. The Lord has made him a remarkable preacher: serious and weighty, filled with joy and delight in the Triune God, deeply versed in the things of God and the words of Scripture. I looked forward to hearing him and God did not disappoint.

In his message, he mentioned his conviction that Martyn Lloyd-Jones was the outstanding preacher of the twentieth century. I would venture to say that history may well view Piper as one of the outstanding preachers of the twenty-first century.


When the Baptist theologian Andrew Fuller (1754-1815) and his friends recaptured the biblical perspective on the responsibility of both preacher and hearer of the gospel to understand the call to believe in Christ to be a duty of the sinner there also emerged a fresh perspective on the nature of the church. The older Baptist thinking about the church—the church is a place where the Word of God is purely preached, the ordinances rightly carried out and discipline exercised—was, of course, not rejected or abandoned. Listen, for example to Fuller in a tract that he wrote on the meaning of baptism. This ordinance, he maintained, is not designed

“merely to separate between believers and unbelievers individually considered; its design is also to draw a line of distinction between the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of Satan. Whatever may be said of baptism as it is now generally understood and practised, and of the personal religion of those who practise it, it was originally appointed to be the boundary of visible Christianity. This is a principle which, if properly acted upon, would go far to prevent the confounding of the church and the world… Had the Christian church in all ages admitted none to baptism…but those who professed to repent and believe the gospel, it is scarcely conceivable that any others would have been admitted to the Lord’s supper; and if so, a stream of corruption which has actually deluged it with antichristianism would have been diverted at the spring-head.” [The Practical Uses of Christian Baptism (Works, III, 342)].

Here, Fuller clearly affirms as his own the heritage that had been passed down to him from his 17th century forebears. The church is a body of people who have personally repented and exercised faith in Christ, and borne witness to this inner transformation by baptism. But Fuller is also concerned to emphasize something else about the church.

When Fuller spoke of the local church his emphasis often fell on the church’s responsibility to evangelize and indeed participate in taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. As he wrote in 1806:

“The primitive churches were not mere assemblies of men who agreed to meet together once or twice a week, and to subscribe for the support of an accomplished man who should on those occasions deliver lectures on religion. They were men gathered out of the world by the preaching of the cross, and formed into society for the promotion of Christ’s kingdom in their own souls and in the world around them. It was not the concern of the ministers or elders only; the body of the people were interested in all that was done, and, according to their several abilities and stations, took part in it. Neither were they assemblies of heady, high-minded, contentious people, meeting together to argue on points of doctrine or discipline, and converting the worship of God into scenes of strife. They spoke the truth; but it was in love: they observed discipline; but, like an army of chosen men, it was that they might attack the kingdom of Satan to greater advantage. Happy were it for our churches if we could come to a closer imitation of this model!” [The Pastor’s Address to his Christian Hearers, Entreating their Assistance in Promoting the Interest of Christ (Works, III, 346)].

Fuller certainly had no wish to abandon either the stress on doctrinal preaching for the edification of God’s people or that on proper discipline, but he had rightly noted that the pursuit of these concerns to the exclusion of evangelism had produced in all too many 18th century Baptist churches contention, bitter strife and endless disputes. These inward-looking concerns had to be balanced with an outward focus on the extension of Christ’s kingdom. Moreover, evangelism was not simply to be regarded as the work of only “the ministers or elders.” The entire body of God’s people were to be involved.

Retaining the basic structure of 17th century Baptist thinking about the church, Fuller has thus added one critical ingredient drawn from the experience of the Evangelical revival: the vital need for local Baptist churches to be centres of vigorous evangelism. This missionary conception of the church is well summed up in another text, which, like the one cited above, compares the church of Christ to an army. “The true churches of Jesus Christ,” he wrote five years before his death, “travail in birth for the salvation of men. They are the armies of the Lamb, the grand object of whose existence is to extend the Redeemer’s kingdom.” [The Promise of the Spirit, the Grand Encouragement in Promoting the Gospel (Works, III, 359)].