The Westminster Conference 2014
A personal perspective on the 2014 Westminster Conference by Pastor Geoff Thomas.
We were up at 4.30 a.m. and walked through the quiet dark streets to the railway station to catch the 5.15 train to London (changing at Birmingham). We got into Euston at 10.15; Iola was whisked away by daughter Eleri Brady and I got the tube, two stops to Oxford Circus to arrive in time for the first session of this year’s Westminster Conference, sitting between two of my sons-in-law. This Banner of Truth website plugged it, and so how was it?
It was held in the Salvation Army’s spacious hall in Regent Street, the best venue since the original meetings in the Lloyd-Jones hall at Westminster Chapel (though we did miss the Tottenham Court Road Chapel venue solely because of being reminded that we had to leave the room by 7 p.m. to allow the George Whitefield Kick-Boxing Club to have their weekly encounters there. That was always good for a chuckle). One steps outside the Salvation Army rooms into Christmas bustle. In the USA people walking on the sidewalk tend to walk on the right. Here there is chaos. Pedestrians, twelve abreast, come striding towards you from both directions as you casually move out of the doorway, and so you move, side-stepping like a Welsh outside half. What fun. Selfridges store has magnificent window displays; this year their theme was Paddington Bear. London was full of his statutes in different colours surrounded by photographers and smiles.
The theme of the Westminster Conference this year was ‘Authentic Calvinism’ and about 130 people, overwhelmingly male, had booked in. Stephen Clark of Bridgend began the conference by speaking on the error of dualism – the dichotomy between the God of salvation and the God of creation. One danger with dualism is that its opponents can absolutise its error. This, for them, is the prime danger facing the church, to be resisted at the cost of everything else. So Dooyeweerd was asked what exists of a person after his death and he is alleged to have replied, ‘Nothing at all.’
Adrian Brake, the pastor of the Bryngolwg Free Mission between Ynysybwl and Mountain Ash, spoke on Thomas Charles of Bala. We were informed by him that there were grumblings among the Calvinistic Methodists when Charles produced his magisterial Bible Dictionary because this encouraged the cooling of the ardour that they had known as a fledgling movement and that now these Methodists were magnifying learning and study. I chaired this session and Adrian suggested that the discussion might centre on this issue. So I broke with tradition and raised ‘The Question’ à la the Highland Communion Season, and I addressed ‘The Men’ gathered there with this subject. There is always the danger of fascination with church history and biblical and systematic theology dulling the fervour of the pastor, especially those training for the ministry, so that we do not get vital sermons preached with the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven, but glorified Bible studies. How do we resist that tendency? How do we encourage mind-stretching study of the Bible and Christian theology without losing our enthusiasm in proclaiming the Bible? That was the question, and so I turned to ‘The Men’ – scattered through the audience – preachers, lecturers, college principals, authors, and I called on them by name one by one to help us by giving an answer to the question. The men groaned quietly and rolled their eyes as I called out their names one by one, but all without exception rallied and proceeded to give the most helpful answers, all dozen of them, and then it was opened to anyone else who wanted to raise a question or make an observation.
The final session on the third day was Andrew Davies speaking on the international phenomenon of Calvinistic Methodism. Andrew is one of those men who for me symbolizes Calvinistic Methodism. I thank God that I met them in my early twenties. They had more influence over me than Westminster Seminary. Andrew and I met 56 years ago when he already knew that he (like his brother Wynford) was going to follow his father I. B. Davies into the Calvinistic Methodist ministry (in the 1920s they changed their name officially to the ‘Presbyterian Church of Wales’). Andrew’s wife Pam, then his girl-friend, began university with me in Cardiff and we took the same course together for three years. Every Saturday she went home to attend the Saturday night prayer meeting at the Neath Mission, once the church that had been pastored by Frank Joshua (Seth’s brother). Several hundred people met Saturday nights for over an hour of fervent prayer. Then on Sunday I. B. preached to over 1200 people, with many conversions, like the Tonna front row, the two props and the hooker. What tough men. They were conspicuous with their presence at the Aberystwyth Conference each year. The Neath Mission was one of the largest congregations in the United Kingdom, and certainly in Wales. Andrew played rugby for Neath Grammar School for Boys on Saturday mornings (he had to do this, his brother was scrum half for Wales during the Victory Internationals in 1945 and ’46 until Haydn Tanner brilliantly emerged to take that spot). Then on Saturday evenings Andrew was at the prayer meeting. No dualism there, no nature-grace dichotomy. That was Calvinistic Methodism and for me quite irresistibly authentic Christianity. The further I have moved from it the less effective my ministry has been.
The second day began with a paper from Mark Jones, the pastor of Faith PCA, Vancouver. He is known for his love of the Puritans and has shared in the authorship of Puritan Theology with Joel Beeke. He has also written a searching book on Antinomianism (that is, that the believer is not under the law’s obligations but under grace), and that was his theme, ‘Law and Grace.’ With a scrap of paper he talked to us with much enlightenment and learned judgments on the history of antinomianism. It sparkled. He seemed, I say without patronizing him, a ‘very nice bloke.’ I vow to get the book and the published Conference papers to read Mark Jones’ summary of a fascinating historical and current issue. A number of notable American authors and preachers, male and female, were mentioned, and eyebrows were raised at some of their wilder statements. I wondered if I myself was in danger of magnifying grace at the expense of God’s commandments, e.g. in the statement, ‘No matter how you as a Christian live God cannot love you any more or any less.’ Yes . . . but isn’t there the matters of grieving the Spirit, and our loss of usefulness in the kingdom? How do people view God loving them?
The penultimate paper was on that fascinating character Richard Baxter. It was given well and as modestly as ever by the principal of London Theological Seminary, Dr. Robert Strivens. Baxter was as self-taught as Bunyan. He had that extraordinary ministry at Kidderminster of fourteen years which began when he was 26. He impacted the whole town, and yet at the end of those labours, being prevented from preaching there by a new law, he hardly ever preached again over the next 31 years, and nowhere consistently, being harassed by the law enforcement men and actually spending two periods in prison of a couple of weeks and a couple of years. What a mysterious providence, that God should allow one of the greatest preachers since apostolic times – a greater preacher than Bunyan it seems – to be silenced, to spend the remainder of his life in writing his 135 books and gaining the title of ‘Scribbling Dick.’ His view of justification was the main theme of the discussion with its comparison to Tom Wright and Norman Shepherd and that reinterpretation of the Apostle Paul, Baxter having taught that God’s justification of believers extended beyond initial pardon to continued and final acceptance of them in virtue of their obedience to his new law. Baxter had developed this scheme to counter antinomianism. His peers called it neo-nomianism, a version of justification by works, and they critiqued it as obscuring Christ’s solidarity with believers and the true significance of his righteousness imputed to them.
The happy conference ended with a paper given by the fourth Welsh speaker, Andrew Young, the minister of Naunton Lane Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Cheltenham. His subject was ‘John Knox, an International Christian’ given suitably on this 500th anniversary of his birth. Knox was a founding father of English Puritanism who left a legacy of Reformed theology for the Kirk. This is now being made accessible in a new Banner of Truth edition of his complete Works,1 the first for centuries; I long to get them. If only we had CDs of his preaching, which, we are told, was like thunder and the blast of trumpets. He had some singular aims and strove for them throughout his life – a purified church, dependent on Scripture and eschewing idolatry, a prophetic witness to the governing authorities, and a godly and disciplined society. A great vision. His grave is marked only with a plain brown tile in the car park behind St. Giles, rather like the memorials of the spots which the dust of Calvin and Pink occupy today – for Pink in the Stornoway cemetery, a mere red brick, placed there by the cemetery manager in the face of many requests for that information. Andrew spoke as vigorously on Knox as Adrian had spoken on Thomas Charles. They give us good hope for fervent preaching to continue in the next generation.
6 Volume Set
A personal perspective on the 2014 Westminster Conference by Pastor Geoff Thomas. We were up at 4.30 a.m. and walked through the quiet dark streets to the railway station to catch the 5.15 train to London (changing at Birmingham). We got into Euston at 10.15; Iola was whisked away by daughter Eleri Brady and I […]
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