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Banner of Truth Ministers’ Conference, Leicester, 2009

Category Articles
Date May 12, 2009

Blog notes on the Banner of Truth UK Ministers’ Conference, Leicester, 27-30 April 2009.


Lindsay Brown

Our first speaker was Lindsay Brown. Lindsay was the travelling secretary for UCCF when I began as a student in Aberystwyth. He has gone on to work with IFES in various capacities. He spoke on the phrase ‘so great salvation’ from Hebrews 2:1-3. It was a great opening message, full of anecdotes. Well, it was like going back 25 years for me. In no time he was referencing Marx, Freud and particularly an Ingmar Bergman film.

Seeking to encourage us, he spoke of the temptation to lose our sense of wonder at the gospel. In order to counter this, he drew our attention first to various sources – the hymns (eg. Wesley ‘O for a thousand tongues’), church architecture, the history of science (see Richard Hookyas and Kepler’s idea of thinking God’s thoughts after him), Michelangelo’s diaries, Rembrandt’s putting himself at the foot of the cross in his paintings, Handel’s sense of the majesty of God, etc.

The modern world is taken up with other things but we ought to be taken up with the wonder of the gospel. Three reasons it is a great message:
1. The Author. It is the message of the Creator, the God of the universe. He illustrated his point by referring to the importance of an author as seen in the pre-publication sales of J K Rowling and the recent discovery of a Caravaggio among the Queen’s collections.

2. What it saves from. The gospel provides eternal salvation. He illustrated this from the power of antibiotics, a story from Africa of a woman who had left her husband for another but went back to him and so found freedom, another from a Dutch pastor used in revival in Irian Jaya even though he had once been in the Hitler Youth and done terrible things.

3. What it saved us for. Illustrated from the fictional story of Ben Hur, including the doctrine of adoption. He quoted hearing humanist Marghanita Laski saying on the BBC World Service that she knew no-one who could forgive her. He also spoke of hope and added a whole load of quotations from Sartre, etc.

Sinclair Ferguson

After an excellent supper, Sinclair Ferguson gave his first address on ‘Union with Christ’. The text was Colossians 3:1-17. Dr Ferguson explained that the idea for this theme grew out of a recognition that this was a great (though not the central) theme in Calvin’s writings. However, it is above all a key to living the Christian life in many places in Paul. See Romans 5, Philippians 2, etc, etc. The other apostles also make use of this great theme that Christ himself taught them (see eg. John 15). It is summed up in Paul’s expression that Christians believe into Christ.

He noted that this is a key part of Paul’s answer then to the Colossian heresy, whatever it was. Paul answers the talk of fullness of the heretics by pointing to the fullness that is in Christ. It is in this letter that he speaks most often of this subject of union.

1. A brief visit to the architect’s office – the basic pattern, the structure of Paul’s thinking, his theology of the gospel.

(1) The grammar
The order of the gospel is that faith is founded on grace. The divine indicative is the basis for all the divine imperatives. The imperatives are safe and secure only when founded on union with Christ. Otherwise we preach mere morality. Every imperative must be grounded in the indicative of union.

(2) The chronology
Everything about the present is guaranteed by the past as is everything for the future. No appearance in glory until the elect are all gathered in.

(3) The geography
Here we are on earth but our lives are hidden in Christ, in heaven. We are aliens here. This is not our home. He illustrated this amusingly, by his devotion to Scotland, though living in America.

(4) The rhythm
There is putting off and putting on. Mortifying sin is only part of sanctification.We need to see these patterns then. We need to understand these things fully. Preachers should understand the anatomy of salvation very clearly (as one would expect a good doctor to know human anatomy). This knowledge should inform our pastoral theology.

2. A brief visit to the building site – what does it mean practically to be united to Christ?

(1) Person
We live in two dimensions and so trials and tribulations are to be expected. Paul explains in Chapter 1 that they are united to Christ and explains who he is. It is too much to take in. Paul wants them nevertheless to see what a glorious one they are united to, the one who saved them and will bring them to glory. What a totally stunning thing.

(2) Manner
He goes on to speak of the manner in which we are united to Christ. He speaks of how we are not only in Christ but we are also in him. He introduces it with great acclaim. By faith we embrace Christ but he also dwells by his Spirit in us. That is why Jesus had to go away. It seems to us that we would be better off with Christ but he says it is better to have the Spirit.

(3) Extent
Everything that Christ ever did or will do was done for his people. He quoted from a book written by a man who lost his son and says there that the experience now defines him. So the believer is one who above everything is united to Christ. We only get glimpses of it here but it will be fully revealed one day. I am someone without whom the King of heaven will not go to glory. What a glorious thing that is. I never knew you loved me so much! We are dead men brought to life. We have been crucified with him and we rise with him. This is why we must set our hearts on things above. Jack Nicklaus would go to his first coach and take the first lesson again each year. Without the fundamentals we will get nowhere.

It was a delight and a blessing to hear this excellent treatment, so warm and so theological.


In recent years it has been the practice to have a short item before the main morning one. This time Jonathan Watson spoke briefly on the 1859 revival in Ulster. He focussed on the way various aspects of life were affected by the revival, quoting from original sources. He highlighted the dearth of drunkenness and of sectarianism, the refining and elevating of the people in home and family. There were also many social improvements – people learned to read, profanity became rare, the criminal courts had little to do, drunkenness and violence receded, prostitution became very rare and many were converted.

He urged us therefore to pray. Who knows what God may do? He mentioned in closing the coming reprinting of John Weir’s history of the revival1.

Derek Thomas

Our main morning message was by Welshman Professor Derek Thomas, on Calvin’s sermons on Jeremiah. He began by explaining how Calvin preached a large number of sermons week by week. From September 1549 the sermons were recorded in some 44 volumes that in the 19th Century were distributed across Europe for the cost of the paper. Some 2,300 appear to have been written down and about 1500 are extant. The opera contain 872 and a supplement of 618 also exists. Calvin only published some 4 sermons himself but was willing at times to see his sermons published. Not all versions were official. Calvin was not entirely happy with this process, fearing he could be quoted, the sermons being given without the usual care bestowed on other works. It was all done too hastily, he felt. Examples of sermon sets appearing include those on Job.

Only 27 sermons on Jeremiah exist today (2 are on Lamentations). The sermons were preached from October 1548 – September 1550 and so there must have been around 300 altogether. These few are in the supplement to the opera and are in French. Calvin deals with about 5 or 6 verses each time in the lectio continua style.

There was also a five volume commentary on Jeremiah (published posthumously just after 1564). This grew out of his lectures. Students would make notes and compare them. Calvin was much less reluctant about these as although they were still very much unprepared they were given in an academic context.

Two main points were made from the sermons.

1. They give us an insight into what preaching is

Derek pointed for example to the way Calvin speaks against the lack of attention to preaching that was a problem in Geneva. He also speaks against false teaching and stresses the need of preachers to warn people.

2. They give us an insight into what preaching does

Here we chiefly just give the headings:
1. For Calvin preaching is always in the context of tribulation.
The sermons show a great deal of sensitivity to a suffering congregation and often speak of the troubles of life. We should not be surprised at such things.

2. For Calvin one of the main themes in the prophets is idolatry.
Calvin often speaks against idolatry in its various manifestations. He is preaching to hearts idolatrous by nature. People often misconstrue – that is why Calvin strove for simplicity.

3. Calvin employs a redemptive-historical approach.
Calvin saw prophecy as having relevance to the contemporary situation, predictive of Christ’s coming and referring to the whole history of mankind until the end. His hermeneutic is amazing. He saw a line of continuity in the days of the prophets and of the apostles. He was very much aware of the pattern of dark days followed by restoration. His emphasis is on reformation rather than revival, reformation of worship in particular – this relates back to his opposition to idolatry.

4. Calvin employs a gospel hermeneutic.
His ability to find Christ in a passage is not wooden (indeed shortly after his death he was taken to task by a Lutheran writer who did not think he found Christ enough).

5. Calvin uses a homilectically experiential approach.
He anticipates the Westminster Directory in his awareness of different kinds of hearer.

This was a fine message on unknown material well suited to its audience.

Garry Williams

Garry Williams, the new director of the John Owen Centre, was the second speaker of the first morning. He began by describing Calvin as the colossus that we think of him as, but then pointed out that the main characteristic of Calvin’s life was suffering. Taking us to the Book of Job and the references to a protecting hedge and then a restricting hedge he said that this was Calvin’s life too. Using many well chosen quotations Garry spoke of Calvin and

1. His troubles

(1) Death pressed in on every side.

(2) Being a refugee twice over at least.

(3) The work of preaching and the pastorate.
He was phenomenally busy. Even when he had assistants they proved unsatisfactory.

(4) The political situation and the conflicts it brought.
He was opposed by old Geneva libertines and refugees and asylum seekers. Geneva had a reputation for being a magnet to all sorts of evil people. There were many to contend with, who brought in all sorts of heresies. Meanwhile the old guard strongly opposed him. He tried his best to resign but was not able to. He often wished he were elsewhere. Things came to a head over the issue of who could be excommunicated. It was many years before such things were resolved.

(5) Personal sufferings.
There was the adultery of his brother and the death of his wife as well as 3 or 4 children. At Idelette’s death in 1549, Calvin wrote, ‘Truly mine is no common grief. I have been bereaved of the best friend of my life.’ He was often ill too and went through much suffering.

2. How he coped

Garry went on to consider how a man facing such constant afflictions was able to survive. In short, Calvin was a Calvinist! There is a common view that suffering leads to unbelief. Calvin is a great example of that not happening. His key beliefs include the following:

(1) Calvin expected suffering.
This is an implication of union with Christ.

(2) Calvin is encouraged by God’s providence.
In a letter, he wrote:

Seeing that a Pilot steers the ship in which we sail, who will never allow us to perish even in the midst of shipwrecks, there is no reason why our minds should be overwhelmed with fear and overcome with weariness.

Garry took opportunity here to oppose the arguments of open theism. Calvin very often conjoins Lord and Father, emphasising that God is both sovereign and loving. Eg:

Yet, when that light of divine providence has once shone upon a godly man, he is then relieved and set free not only from the extreme anxiety and fear that were pressing him before, but from every care. For as he justly dreads fortune, so he fearlessly dares commit himself to God. His solace, I say, is to know that his Heavenly Father so holds all things in his power, so rules by his authority and will, so governs by his wisdom, that nothing can befall except he determine it. Moreover, it comforts him to know that he has been received into God’s safekeeping and entrusted to the care of his angels, and that neither water, nor fire, nor iron can harm him, except in so far as it pleases God as governor to give them occasion.

Again, it was a blessing to be reminded of such things.

After lunch I did something I hadn’t done for a while and played football (or tried to). About 18 of us gathered to play a good natured game. After a cuppa and a shower I headed to the prayer and share. Right at the beginning there was a terrific hail storm so loud on the copper roof that we could not hear the speakers at the front. Thunder followed. We eventually got under way. Iain Murray chaired and first the following people spoke:

  1. A Reformed Baptist from Slovakia introduced by Brian Freer
  2. John Nicholls on the work of LCM
  3. George Curry on the work of the Christian Institute
  4. Gurnam Singh who is based here in multi-cultural Leicester and is co-pastor with Paul Bassett. (Gurnam, a former Sikh, lived with me many years ago as a single man).
  5. Iain Murray himself mentioned the deaths in the last 12 months of Leslie Rawlinson, Alistair Johnston and Sir Marcus Loane.

Next we had three older men speak to the current situation:

  1. Peter Beale. He highlighted the present lack of pastors, how few people read seriously, the lack of studiousness among ministers and the emphasis on holiness of the past.
  2. Alun McNabb. He spoke of the number of small struggling churches there are and the joy of preaching. We must not be too distracted by the empty seats but encourage people.
  3. Stuart Olyott. Greatest encouragement – young people. Hundreds and hundreds. Discouragement – old Lutheran idea very much alive – that salvation is mediate (by the Word) but it is immediate (by the Holy Spirit). This wrong mentality is ruining things all around. Lydia’s heart was opened directly by God.

Iain Murray also spoke about some of the books available at the Conference.

The final segment was taken up with a discussion of preaching. We began with a call from South African Martin Holdt to enthusiasm, hard work and saturation in Scripture. He was followed by Simo Ralevic from Serbia who also spoke of the need to work hard and to be filled with the Spirit. He also spoke of the literature ministry in Serbia.

Sinclair Ferguson [2]

Tuesday night we heard the second of Sinclair Ferguson’s addresses on union with Christ. He began by saying that we are not united to a mystical Christ but to the incarnate Christ. This is the only place we will find blessing.

He went on to speak of how the union is worked out in communion with Christ. We are united to him not only in his exaltation but also in his humiliation – especially in his death as well as his resurrection.

1. Outward

There is a two-fold mortification and vivification. The death and resurrection of Christ are to be seen inwardly in the believer. As well as this internal mortification and vivification there is an outward partaking too. Our growth and usefulness are not only connected to the internal mortification and vivification but also to the outward. Perhaps the pattern of building churches with the ground plan in the shape of a cross reflects the suffering that the people of God must expect.

Paul writes to the Colossians as those who are suffering outwardly and so he speaks (Col. 2) of his own filling up of the suffering of Christ – not in order to atone but as part of his own sanctification and the fruitfulness of the glory of the name of Christ. He often sees his imprisonments and other sufferings as part of his fruit bearing in Christ. It is important to understand this. These troubles are not just to be got through but they are the ongoing pattern for believers, cf. 2 Corinthians 1 and 13. He is not saying here that we are weak but Christ is strong, but that we are weak in him. Real apostleship is death in us that life may be seen in others. We are, as it were, miniature servants of the Lord. His pattern will be ours.

When we preach, the people are to learn not only from what we say but from our lives. That is why Paul is not only willing to suffer but glories in it. This is the normal mode into which ministers are to be squeezed.

By way of parentheses Dr Ferguson suggested that Stephen and Saul were in the same synagogue and that the reason Paul struggled with coveting was because in Stephen he had met his match. That is why Stephen had to die. Our lives often make their impact in just five minutes – Anna is an example.

2. Internal

In Colossians 3 he comes to the internal mortification and vivification. No doubt we could preach on the detail. Let’s concentrate on the how to. It would be easy to say read John Owen. However, that is to forget the Apostle Paul.

How important to recognise the spheres in which sin operates.

A dentist spoke of treating each tooth as an individual. We must do something similar with sin. Paul divides up between sins that are private and hidden, those that are public and those that even destroy the church.

We need to see sin for what it is. We need to say it and slay it. It can make a difference. We need to see sin as God sees it. These are things against which God’s wrath is coming – what caused the cross.

‘All Englishmen look the same’ a man once said. We see what unites quicker than we see what divides.

The positive side involves:

  1. Letting the Word of Christ dwell in you richly.
  2. Giving ourselves to worshipping Christ so idolatry is destroyed.
  3. Let thankfulness dominate.
  4. Delight in Christ in everything.


Our brief preliminary session on Wednesday was an exhortation from Alun McNabb to give ourselves to preaching for Holy Ghost conversion – the most glorious thing in the world. He drew attention to the story of John Ashworth, an 18th Century preacher who knew great blessing in evangelising the poor in lodging houses in the north of England. He started a chapel called The Chapel for the Destitute. If the angels rejoice over conversions then so should we. Too often we miss opportunities to preach the gospel. Like Paul we should see such preaching as the crown of our ministries. We should pray for impossible cases. Do read the chapter ‘On Conversion as Our Aim’ in Spurgeon’s lectures.2

Derek Thomas [2]

The first main session of Wednesday was Derek Thomas on Calvin’s preaching on the Pastoral Epistles. He told us that Calvin preached just over a hundred sermons on the pastoral epistles (55 on 1 Timothy, 31 on 2 Timothy and 17 on Titus). He preached these mainly in 1554 and 1555. These were Sunday sermons. In the week he was on Job and Deuteronomy. A commentary on the pastorals had appeared six years before. Two lone sermons appeared two years after. In 1579 an English version of the sermons was published. There is a collection of about 20 sermons in modern English (Forbes SDG) and another slightly different one by EP.

In a serendipitous look, Dr Thomas went on to point up these five things

1. Calvin took an organic view of Scripture
It is human and divine. There is asymmetry, however – the divine being predominate. He was aware of the charge of bibliolatry but denied it. He also taught the infallibility of Scripture and its self-authenticating character. He encourages us to develop a taste for Scripture. He masterfully teaches the profitability of reading Scripture.

He has a very high view of Scripture and so of preaching. He sticks very closely to the text and scarcely uses an illustration or topical reference.

2. The way that Calvin preached the gospel
Calvin complains in one place that people want music rather than preaching. We need to hear the gospel every day, however. We need to see that salvation is in Jesus Christ. He sees the OT and NT gospel as one. He preaches the gospel not only to sinners but saints too. When he talks about justification he often goes beyond what we think of as such. We need to continually hear the gospel. It occurs again and again in these writings.

3. Some issues peculiar to Calvinism
He talks about the apparent double will in God in one place. He rebukes believers for their lack of evangelism. He raises the subject of why some are converted and others not. He particularly denies universalism and understands the all of ‘God wants all men ….’ as meaning all kinds and conditions of men. God’s desire does not imply ability in all. We must distinguish God’s desire and will. God accommodates our understanding in speaking of this. He is very positive about election, of course, and sees it as there for the comfort of believers.

4. His emphasis on the majesty of God
He speaks of the unique unborrowed immortality of God. He talks of the incomprehensibility of God and the depths in him. Such considerations leave us in awe, our mouths closed. We know God only because he reveals himself. ‘He is not a draught half drawn’.

5. His recognition that the Christian life is a fight
Good Christians are good soldiers. Calvin leads the charge that is followed by Bunyan and other Puritans later, who saw the Christian life in these terms. Calvin speaks often of union with Christ and sees it in terms of fighting the good fight he fought.

This was again a very competent and interesting look at Calvin the preacher.

Lindsay Brown [2]

Our second morning paper on Wednesday was by Lindsay Brown on Calvin and Mission. He began by noting available articles on the subject. These have come chiefly since the 1970s. Lindsay referred to Ralph Watson’s thesis that there have been great periods of mission – Carey, Hudson Taylor, Post-WW2, taking opportunity to refer to the great growth going on today in some places.Watson (Stephen Neil is the same) says nothing about Calvin and mission. Others too say that Calvin said little or nothing about mission. In all the Calvin celebrations going on there seems to be little reference to evangelism and mission.

However, Calvin certainly does have a coherent theology of mission and was involved in mission. It is true he was very busy with challenges from without and within and perhaps there was a lack of organisation in the early Reformed churches.

It is said that apart from the abortive mission to Rio, Calvin showed no interest outside Europe but the rest of the world was very much unknown and exploration was chiefly in the hand of Romanists.

1. A coherent theology of mission
His coherent theology centred on the sovereignty and providence of God. He was not embarrassed at all at the free offer of the gospel. He often wrote about the need to reach all sorts of people, without exception. He was convinced of God’s desire for the salvation of all sorts and urged going out.

Some misunderstand his exposition of the great commission, where he seeks to deny the continuing apostolic authority of Rome, not denying the importance of the church taking the gospel to all places.

Convinced of the sovereignty of God in election Calvin still taught that God uses the means of preaching.

2. Ways and means of putting this into practice

  1. Preaching
  2. Prayer
  3. Emphasis on the Word
  4. Emphasis on a gentle manner
  5. Training
  6. Use of literature
  7. Concern to reach out to magistrates and rulers
  8. Public debate with his opponents

The Reformation has been described as a great missionary movement, which it was. Geneva was very much a centre for missions. In a six year period some 2000 went out altogether, chiefly to France. It has been described as one of the greatest home missions ever. Calvin also had an impact on the Netherlands, the UK (Knox, etc), Hungary, etc.

Calvin was passionate about mission – so should we be. He wanted the gospel to go to all.

Garry Williams [2]

On Wednesday evening Garry Williams gave a second paper on Calvin. Geoff Thomas chaired saying that today was the fortieth anniversary of the death of one of his heroes, John Thomas of Port Talbot.

In the paper Garry Williams focused on two works by Calvin – his Reply to Sadoleto3 and his Antidote to Trent. He sought to show that Calvin in both works proved to be a courageous advocate and a careful analyst. We too need to do both.

Courageous advocate
Calvin (like Sadoleto) saw the doctrine of justification by faith as a heaven and hell matter. Because he saw this was such a central matter, he was able to be courageous. Though courageous Calvin is never harsh. Even heaven and hell matters demand gentleness from ministers.

Careful analyst
Calvin saw that although justification is quite straightforward yet it is made complex by man’s sinful denials. He seeks to make the truth plain and clear. Garry gave us three statements and asked whether they were distinctly and exclusively Protestant:

The first statement is found in Sadoleto (at this point Garry used a projected slide containing the quotation – a Banner first). The second statement also does not say enough. By the time of Turretin a Jesuit called Vazquez was even saying that there was imputation but again redefining it. Turretin defined it as mediate satisfaction and exposed its weakness. This is mere evasive talk.

This sort of evasion will not do on the day of judgement. That is why we must engage in careful analysis.

Courageous advocacy without careful analysis will lead to misdiagnosis and butchery of the sheep.


Derek Thomas [3]

Derek Thomas’s final paper was different to the others in that it was dealing not with Calvin’s preaching but with his theology, Calvin as theologian. Again we sometimes had that rather staccato style that Dr Thomas uses but he seemed a little more at home with this topic.

Calvin was referred to as ‘The theologian’ by Melanchthon (Gregory Nazianzen’s title) and much later ‘The theologian of the Holy Spirit’ by B B Warfield. His chief work, of course, is the Institutes.

After giving us a brief history of the publication of the work by this man who lacked a seminary education, and alluding to some of its strengths, Dr Thomas went on to point out that it is:

  1. Knowledge and the knowledge of the God is more than propositions. It must lead to piety. The Institutes is a sum of piety.
  2. The knowledge of God is twofold – Creator and Redeemer.
  3. There is a fundamental difference between God as he is in himself and as he revealed himself to men. He famously speaks of God’s accommodation – his lisping, prattling to us as to babies.
  4. God’s work is revealed to us not just in creation but also in Christ’s redemption. Calvin made a particular contribution in speaking, as he does, of Christ’s threefold office. He also spoke to the subject of the Trinity and what the ancient creeds really meant. There is a suspicion of ontological subordinationism in the Fathers, and Calvin undergirds and strengthens our understanding by making clear the full and absolute Godhead of Christ.
  5. This knowledge of God can only be received through the work of the Holy Spirit. Without the inward witness of the Spirit the work of Christ can do us no good.
  6. This knowledge of God is mediated through the Scriptures. Scripture is self-authenticating. It is the God-breathed Word. Perhaps more clearly than any before him he established a right hermeneutic.
  7. This knowledge of God involves union with Christ. This is fundamentally important and denies the idea of legal fiction and of necessary antinomianism.
  8. Election. Calvin famously moved what he had to say on election from Book 1 to Book 3 (this matches the way Romans 9 is where it is). It is when we understand what God has done that we see election (pastorally). Calvin was a pastor first.
  9. The sacraments. Again a unique understanding.

Sadly, I had to leave before the final session at Banner, when Mark G. Johnston preached. I understand he was looking at trembling at God’s Word. I heard it was fine. I also missed the question session, but apart from those two appreciated very much the conference.


    • The Ulster Awakening

      The Ulster Awakening

      An Account of the 1859 Revival in Ireland

      by John Weir

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      Blog notes on the Banner of Truth UK Ministers’ Conference, Leicester, 27-30 April 2009. Monday Lindsay Brown Our first speaker was Lindsay Brown. Lindsay was the travelling secretary for UCCF when I began as a student in Aberystwyth. He has gone on to work with IFES in various capacities. He spoke on the phrase ‘so […]

    • Lectures to My Students by Charles Spurgeon
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      Blog notes on the Banner of Truth UK Ministers’ Conference, Leicester, 27-30 April 2009. Monday Lindsay Brown Our first speaker was Lindsay Brown. Lindsay was the travelling secretary for UCCF when I began as a student in Aberystwyth. He has gone on to work with IFES in various capacities. He spoke on the phrase ‘so […]

    • image of Calvin's Tracts and Letters
      price Original price was: $170.00.Current price is: $153.00.
      Avg. Rating


      Blog notes on the Banner of Truth UK Ministers’ Conference, Leicester, 27-30 April 2009. Monday Lindsay Brown Our first speaker was Lindsay Brown. Lindsay was the travelling secretary for UCCF when I began as a student in Aberystwyth. He has gone on to work with IFES in various capacities. He spoke on the phrase ‘so […]

Gary Brady is Pastor of Childs Hill Baptist Church, London. The above appeared in several posts during the Conference on his Heavenly Worldliness blog. Notes added.

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