An Interview with Garry Williams, Director of the John Owen Centre
GD: Hello Garry Williams and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.
GW: I became a Christian aged 17 through studying RS A Level, which I took by ‘chance’ as my third subject, on a whim really. But we studied John’s Gospel verse by verse and the Reformation, so I came to a clear understanding of the Gospel through the course, and was then challenged at a more personal level in confirmation classes run by one of the teachers. So from the start of my Christian life my walk with the Lord has gone hand in hand with theological study. I was a teacher briefly myself, then did four years of theological research, taught at Oak Hill College for ten years, and have just started as Director of the John Owen Centre at London Theological Seminary. I’m married to Fiona and we have four children.
GD: What exactly is the John Owen Centre and how does it relate to the London Theological Seminary?
GW: The JOC is an activity of LTS which the Board set up ten years ago. Where LTS provides an initial two year course for pastors and preachers, the JOC is briefed to provide ongoing study opportunities for ministers in the midst of their ministry. So far it has done this through a Westminster Seminary ThM programme in historical and systematic theology, through its bi-annual conferences, and in study groups.
GD: What is your vision for the John Owen Centre as its newly appointed Director?
GW: Obviously to continue the excellent work that has been done so far. This will mean encouraging more ministers to take the ThM programme and maintaining the present Hebrew and reading groups and conference plans. But I also think that we need to extend the range of our activities to make them accessible for more ministers. Our strap-line is likely to be (it isn’t finalized yet!) ‘Theological refreshment for pastors’. This sums up the aim: to refresh pastors in their ministries by deep engagement with the teaching of Scripture, and thus to enrich their ministries among the Lord’s people for his glory. The ThM programme does this really well, but not every minister has the time, money, or qualifications to take it. So I aim to develop other more easily-accessed activities alongside it. Specifically, I plan to run a lot of study days. These will be one-off days of serious theological teaching on a subject, the kind of material that a seminary would offer in a third or fourth year, but without the protracted commitment. I plan to keep the groups small and to repeat the days a number of times and in different places. Also we are going to offer formal study breaks for ministers who have time set aside for study and I will be providing mentoring for their studies. Anyone interested in finding out about what we are offering can sign up for news by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
GD: How may pastors benefit from studying for an ThM in historical theology?
GW: Really the ThM is a formalized opportunity to read the giants! The formalized aspect of it means that the reading is done carefully and in the light of the latest research, and it provides an obvious structure and discipline for the study which can help to make sure that it happens. Someone on the ThM is going to spend a long time reading some of the giants of Puritan and Reformed theology. How could that not benefit a pastor? And they will be doing it with some of the world’s experts on the subjects, namely the lecturers from Westminster Seminary. These are men who are academically rigorous but whose priority is the ministry of the Gospel.
GD: What does contemporary evangelicalism have to learn from Puritans like John Owen?
GW: A great deal indeed. I think that as a ‘movement’ (for want of a better word) we are very seriously disconnected from the riches of our past, and this means that we are often stumbling around trying to work out things that were worked out long ago under the Lord’s providence. The Puritans plumbed so many of the depths of God’s word that we have not. It is as if someone has already built a computer and we don’t know it, so we are fumbling around trying to figure out how to make the first microchip. Our acquaintance with the Puritans is also often very selective, focusing on their spirituality, which is obviously a really good thing to learn from, but then forgetting some of the more sophisticated theology that lay behind it.
GD: Who has had the biggest influence on your theological development?
GW: Different people in different ways. There were key moments when I have come to particular convictions under the influence of particular teachers or friends. I abandoned Arminianism as a sixth-former when Richard Fletcher-Cooke, one of my RS masters, handed me a list of passages that showed me that the Bible teaches predestination. I became a five point Calvinist as a student after ten minutes of having my Amyraldianism elegantly dismantled by David Field, later to be a colleague at Oak Hill. In terms of methods, Oliver O’Donovan my DPhil supervisor had a massive impact on me. He rarely showed much interest in me reading secondary literature and encouraged a philosophy of ‘few books, but good’. This left me firmly convinced that the classics are classics for a reason and that we almost always gain more from first-hand engagement with them than we do from those who write about them.
In terms of figures from history, I think the first answer must be Calvin. As a student I was fed largely (thought not exclusively) on a diet of liberal theology and was taught nearly no systematics. But in the middle of it I spent days in the library reading the Institutes and found there a luminous arrangement of the Bible’s teaching. And of course preaching at church had a formative effect on me, especially the ministry of St Ebbe’s in Oxford. There weren’t always people involved: I discovered Reformed Scholasticism by accident by finding a volume of Turretin’s Institutes in a bookshop in Woking (I bought it for the cover and the weight not knowing at the time what it was). My main influences now would be Edwards for the importance of the heart and the affections, Turretin and Owen for the role of reason under Scripture, and men like Thomas Blake and Witsius for the covenant as the key to the Bible.
GD: You have written on the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. Why do you think that this teaching is so important?
GW: For so many reasons. Key of course is that the Bible teaches it and so we must too if we are to honour the Lord Jesus and rightly proclaim his saving work. Spiritually, clarity on the atonement grounds our assurance of the Lord’s forgiveness and favour – without it we are left with the burden of sin, which we know is intolerable. Theologically, it goes with the doctrine of God’s justice – if we redefine the atonement we are usually redefining the nature of God.
GD: Why do you think that the doctrine has become so unpopular in some supposedly evangelical circles?
GW: What we see often with a denial of penal substitution is a wholesale rewriting of a series of the more (humanly speaking) uncomfortable doctrines. Penal substitution is a glorious description of the love and mercy of God, but it also entails a belief in the retributive wrath of God, and that is always hard for people to accept. This is where the link to the doctrine of God is so important: the pressure often arises to redefine the atonement because a different god is wanted. This is obviously not the case for every critic of the doctrine, but many critics themselves rightly make the connection to the doctrine of God.
GD: Do you hope to publish a book length treatment of penal substitutionary atonement?
GW: Indeed, I hope not posthumously. I hope that it will be a biblical, historical, systematic work framed within a classic Reformed covenant theology.
GD: This year marks the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth. If you had to specify the three key insights of Calvin’s theology what would they be?
GW: Our utter dependence on God.
God’s sovereign fatherly goodness to his people.
The significance of our union with the Lord Jesus Christ.
GD: In the light of your experiences teaching at Oak Hill College, what do Evangelical Anglicans and Evangelical Non-conformists have to learn from each other?
GW: What an interesting question!
I think that evangelical Anglicans have been very strong in two areas: evangelism and training of different kinds. Of course many Non-conformists have been too – your question invites me to generalize. On evangelism: I mean by this that the Anglicans have sought to provide accessible contexts in which non-Christians can hear the Gospel, and they have preached it to them boldly. This explains a lot of the remarkable growth of Reformed Anglicanism over the last thirty years. Anglican evangelistic outreach welcomes people in an environment that is up-to-date and friendly. Unless the Lord intervenes in an extraordinary way, we need to get to the point of having sustained contact with people to tell them the Gospel, and we are in danger of just looking as if we come from another world. It is the Gospel which must offend. A concern for how we present ourselves does not mean that we have ceased to look to God to work and to trust in him: divine sovereignty can never excuse an indifference to the means that we use. Nor do I mean that issues of style are free from theological considerations, which they are not. But much of the style that we cling to is not theologically grounded. I am focusing here of course on reaching the younger generations, but if we do not do so then our churches will soon close. Many Anglican churches have been very effective in reaching out to the sports club, the local university, the workplace, the young mums. On training: the Anglicans have been deliberate and proactive about passing on the Gospel to a new generation of ministers, about identifying them, training them informally and formally, and deploying them. I do think that in some cases this has resulted in men being encouraged into ministry who should not have been, but on the other hand the shortage of non-conformist pastors is not found among Anglican churches – some evangelical Anglican students now struggle to find churches because there are so many of them for comparatively few churches.
The Anglicans on the other hand have clearly sometimes, perhaps often, displaced their emphasis on evangelism so that it fulfils a function that was not intended for it by becoming the primary factor in governing what the church does on the Lord’s Day. Or, in some cases, not even on the Lord’s Day at all because if Wednesday church will be easier for people to attend so they can play sport on a Sunday, then it can just be moved to fit around the sport. Clearly evangelism must be a factor in ordering church services, but not the primary factor. This is pragmatism carried too far, and it can happen because there is a vacuum for the pragmatism to fill created by a low understanding of the church and sacraments, and by a view of preaching that reduces it to being a talk or just ‘someone explaining the Bible’, rather than an encounter with the living God on his resurrection day. I say a ‘low’ view of the church. It is often said that evangelical Anglicans don’t have an ecclesiology, but this is surely wrong. It is just that it is a very low ecclesiology, by which I don’t mean the kind of low ecclesiology that one should have (one opposed to an Anglo-Catholic highness), but simply a low view of what the church is in its gatherings.
This is where I think the Anglicans can learn from the strengths of the Non-conformists. Nonconformity seems to me to be more clear on the dignity and weight of the church, and on the fact that preaching is very different from lecturing and just explaining a passage. There is often much more of a sense of occasion about a Non-conformist service, as if something very serious is about to happen. There is a right kind of reverence: not cold stuffiness, but warm seriousness. And there is more affection, in the formal theological sense of the term. There is more of the heart, with preaching aimed at evoking the affections as well as stimulating the mind. This strength goes with I think a generally deeper acquaintance with the heritage of Reformed theology and practice among Non-conformists that fosters such a view of the church and of the affections. Nonconformity is much more self-consciously Reformed in its heritage than Anglicanism. Indeed, some evangelical Anglicanism is self-consciously not Reformed in some quite strong ways. To some evangelical Anglicans elements of the Reformed tradition, elements that are taught in Scripture, come as a real surprise, and are sometimes greeted with intense scepticism, even determined opposition (for example the Lord’s Day, the role of the law in the Christian life, effectual atonement, Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper, covenant theology). Put simply, the strength of Nonconformity is simply that it is often more Reformed (by which I mean of course more biblical). This grounds its higher ecclesiology (again, in the right sense of ‘higher’).
Somewhere between these two there must be a healthy combination. I would love to see a combination of Anglican evangelism and training with Non-conformist seriousness about the church and the heart, and an embrace of full-orbed historic Reformed theology.
As I said, these are all generalizations contradicted by endless exceptions, and having pontificated I must now go and remove the very large log from my own eye!
GD: If time travel were possible, which figure from post-biblical church history would you most like to meet, and what would you say to them?
GW: Probably Jonathan Edwards because I find him fascinating as a man and I think I would gain a lot from meeting him and observing him that goes beyond what we find in his books. I think I’d have very little to say: I’d keep my mouth shut and listen and soak it all up!
GD: Care to name your top three songs or pieces of music?
GW: They change, but I love Shostakovich’s 24 preludes and fugues for the piano and Bach’s sonatas and partitas for the solo violin, and I am enjoying getting to know Bob Dylan.
GD: What is the most helpful work of theology that you have read in the last twelve months? It is a must read because…
GW: Samuel Petto’s seventeenth-century work on the Mosaic covenant (The Great Mystery of the Covenant of Grace – The Difference between the Old and New Covenant Stated and Explained) has been a real thrill. Petto argues a very nuanced case for the Sinai covenant being in some carefully defined ways a republication of the covenant of works, the covenant that God made with Adam. This issue has a big impact on how we fit the story of the Bible together, on the relation between Adam, Israel, and Christ, and it involves close exegesis of passages such as Galatians 3. Petto has some very important things to say on it. I plan to make good use of him in a JOC Study Day on the subject!
GD: What is the biggest problem facing evangelicalism today and how should we respond?
GW: I wouldn’t want to generalize: different problems are more acute for different parts of what is a quite fragmented and often diverse movement, even if we confine our view to the conservative end of the spectrum within just one country. I do think that our culture is going to become much more hostile to the Lord Jesus Christ quickly, as we see when the Bible becomes guilty of a hate crime. So I think that we will need to be much more on the front-foot in terms of apologetics and evangelism, taking the battle to an increasingly aggressive pagan world much as the early Christians did. We have more in common with the early church than we do with the Reformers in terms of our wider context in Britain today, and we need to learn from the way that they preached the Gospel so boldly among their neighbours and devastatingly exposed the vacuity of incoherent and unfounded pagan worldviews.
GD: Well, thanks for dropping by for this conversation Garry. May the Lord richly bless you in your new sphere of service at the JOC.
Guy Davies is Joint-Pastor of Penknap Providence Church and Ebenezer Baptist Church in Wiltshire. This interview first appeared on his Exiled Preacher blog on 21 July 2009, and is used with kind permission.
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