Saturday, April 15, 2017

Guest Post by R. Andrew Myers: Book Review: Godly Conversation

by R. Andrew Myers

Distinct from the ordinary or regular elements of worship prescribed by Scripture -- such as prayer, reading/hearing/preaching the Word, singing of Psalms, and the administration of/participation in the sacraments -- there are other spiritual ordinances, duties or disciplines which the Bible commands, both public and private means of grace, sometimes with overlap, such as extraordinary vows, meditation, fasting and godly conference.

The last three are among the most neglected and misunderstood aspects of Puritan piety. Meditation is a preparative to prayer and the best way to retain what is read or heard in the Word. Matthew Henry said: "Meditation is the best preparative for prayer, so prayer is the best issue of meditation. Meditation and prayer should go together, Ps. 19:14." Religious fasting is an extraordinary act of worship, and a discipline that helps to draw body and soul nearer to God; in the words of William Secker: "By fasting, the body learns to obey the soul; by praying the soul learns to command the body." These disciplines are largely unknown among professing Christians today, or poorly understood and infrequently practiced. The last, godly conference -- defined by J.I. Packer in the foreword simply as "edifying conversation, that is, about spiritual things" -- is also little known and poorly practiced by Christians today, even among those who follow the Puritan tradition. Therefore, it is with great pleasure that I would introduce readers to Godly Conversation: Rediscovering the Puritan Practice of Conference by Joanne J. Jung (Reformation Heritage Books, 2011).

In our harried, individualistic, fragmented society, as Dr. Jung notes (pp. 157-159), too many Christians today walk on their pilgrim way isolated from other believers and consequently, in large measure, deprived from the benefits of mutual edification. Just as in our culture few neighbors actually seem to really know one another well, and are involved in one another's lives, so likewise in the church, believers often assemble to worship God together on the Lord's Day and yet fail to share the joys and burdens of life with one another during the rest of the week. The evangelical importance attached to an individual's conversion and salvation seems overemphasized to the point of neglecting the corporate aspect of the Christian life. The need for small group Bible study and activities is known and efforts are made to fill this void in the Christian experience, but perhaps poorly employed. The fact that the Puritans recognized this need and practiced this discipline so diligently is largely unknown, not only within the church at large, but also among modern Puritan scholarship, making Dr. Jung's study a valuable contribution to what she refers to as "piety's forgotten discipline."

Dr. Jung, who has written about this topic elsewhere as well, begins with an overview of Puritanism and Puritan piety, drawing on modern scholarship, notably that of Dr. Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, to emphasize the point that Puritan piety, though it speaks first to the communion between the believing soul and his God, was also corporate. Biblical piety, is not confined to the individual but permeates all of our relationships in the spheres of family, church and society. As much as the even the unbelieving world understands and appreciates man's need for companionship in life, Puritans also recognized that Christian fellowship is even sweeter, and indeed needful. The communion of saints is a doctrine taught by the Westminster Assembly, and in an age of "lone wolf" Christianity, where relationships between believers are often limited and superficial, or even purely virtual (online only), it is no wonder that this chapter of the Westminster Confession receives comparatively little attention from even those who follow the Puritan tradition. But as Dr. Jung quotes (pp. xiv, 12-13) from a New England Puritan, Jonathan Mitchel in his "Letter to a Friend," appended to A Discourse of the Glory (1677), pp. 15-16:
If you have a friend with whom you might now and then spend a little time, in conferring together, in opening your hearts, and presenting your unutterable groanings before God, it would be of excellent use. Such an one would greatly strengthen, bestead, and further you in your way to heaven. Spend now and then [as occasions will permit] an hour [or so] with such a friend more then ordinary [sometimes a piece of a day, sometimes a whole day of extraordinary fast, in striving and wrestling with God for everlasting mercy]. And be much in quickning conference, giving and taking mutual encouragements and directions in the matters of Heaven! Oh! the life of God that falls into the hearts of the Godly, in and by gracious Heavenly conference. Be open hearted one to another, and stand one for another against the Devil and all his Angels. Make it thus your business in these and such like ways, to provide for Eternity while it is called today.

After an overview of Puritan piety, including a discussion of the place of conference as it served to mutually edify the saints, Dr. Jung traces the history and origin of conference as practiced by Puritans from the European continent and the British isles beginning with the exercise of prophesyings. Grounded in the words of the Apostle Paul from 1 Cor. 14.29-31 and 1 Thess. 5.20, prophesying -- that is, a method of training ministers by regularly gathering them together to expound the Word of God in each other's hearing -- began in Zurich as early as the 1520s, where "two or three" "nongraduate clergy" would exegete the Scriptures in the original languages, after which sermons were given on those texts for the attending laity. And in Geneva weekly meetings took place outside of stated worship wherein the pastor would discuss doctrine with all church members where the laity were free to speak openly and ask questions. Thus were the seeds planted that were to cross-pollinate across the North Sea by way of the Marian exiles and ultimately flower in England following the Elizabethan settlement. Dr. Jung (p. 125) categorizes this type of ministerial conference as either professional (clergy expounding Scripture to their peers) or pastoral (Scriptural exposition with lay-auditors present, often involving a question-and-answer format).

But in addition minister-to-minister consultations and exhortations, and to speaking with one's own minister, it is private conference (layman-to-layman, within families or without) that particularly augments the spiritual benefits of public preaching for most Christians. "Private conference would contribute much to our profiting by public preaching" (Matthew Henry on Matt. 13.24-43). "Besides the secret worship performed by particular persons, and the public services of the whole congregation, there may be occasion sometimes for two or three to come together, either for mutual assistance in conference or joint assistance in prayer, not in contempt of public worship, but in concurrence with it; there Christ will be present" (Henry on Matt. 18.15-20). This is a duty and a help for families on the Lord's Day following the public sermons ("and the publick worship being finished, after prayer, [the head of household] should take an account what [the family] have heard; and thereafter, to spend the rest of the time which they may spare in catechising, and in spiritual conferences upon the word of God" -- Scottish Directory for Family Worship, 1647). And it extends to women as well as to men (and children), as Dr. Jung notes, pp. 146-153. All saints are to admonish, exhort and provoke one another to love and good works, Mal. 3.16; Col. 3.16; 1 Thess. 5.11, 14; Heb. 10.24 (see Robert Shaw's remarks on the Westminster Confession of Faith 26.1-2). 

This is a well-researched study of a spiritual discipline important to Puritans, which surveys the writings of such men as Joseph and Richard Alleine, Isaac Ambrose, William Ames, Richard Baxter, Lewis Bayly, John Beadle, Richard Bernard, Nicholas Bownd, John Bunyan, John Downame, Richard Greenham, Arthur Hildersham, Thomas Hooker, Cotton Mather, John Owen, William Perkins, John Preston, Richard Rogers, Timothy Rogers, Thomas Shepard, Richard Sibbes, Henry Smith, Thomas Watson, and many other sixteenth and seventeenth century divines, as well as modern secondary literature concerning Puritan piety. 

There is counsel from Baxter (pp. viii-ix) as to how such spiritual conference should be conducted: 

Let the matter be usually, 1. Things of weight, and not small matters. 2. Things of certainty, and not uncertain things. Particularly the fittest subjects for your ordinary discourse are there: 1. God himself, with his attributes, relations, and works. 2. The great mystery of man's redemption by Christ; his person, office, sufferings, doctrine, example, and work; his resurrection, ascension, glory, intercession, and all the privileges of his saints. 3. The covenant of grace... 4. The workings of the Spirit of Christ upon the soul... 5. The ways and wiles of Satan, and all our spiritual enemies... 6. The corruption and deceitfulness of the heart; the nature and workings, effects and signs of ignorance, unbelief, hypocrisy, pride, sensuality, worldliness, impiety, injustice, intemperance, uncharitableness, and every other sin; with all the helps against them all. 7. The many duties to God and man which we have to perform, both internal and external... 8. The vanity of the world, and deceitfulness of all earthly things. 9. The powerful reasons used by Christ to draw us to holiness... 10. Of the sufferings which we must expect and be prepared for. 11. Of death...and how to make ready for so great a change. 12. Of the day of judgment... 13. Of the joys of heaven... 14. Of the miseries of the damned... 15. Of the state of the church on earth, and what we ought to do in our places for its welfare. Is there not matter enough in all these great and weighty points, for...conference?

As to its importance to believers in centuries past as well as today, consider the words of Richard Sibbes from his expository sermons on the Song of Solomon, quoted by Dr. Jung (p. 97): "Next to heaven itself, our meeting together here, is a kinde of Paradise, the greatest pleasure of the world is, to meet with those here, whom we shall ever live with in Heaven." 

What was true for Christian in Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress" is true for all believers. As Dr. Jung notes, "In John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, private conference is what makes Christian's journey practicable. Time and again, as destruction is imminent, the advice and comfort of a fellow pilgrim enabled him to press on" (p. 12). Happy is the man who has a fellow pilgrim there to help him up when he falls with a word of encouragement and comfort (Ecc. 4.9-12). 

In the spirit of Dr. Jung's book and in the words of J.C. Ryle, "Let us resolve to talk more to believers about the Bible when we meet them. Alas, the conversation of Christians, when they do meet, is often sadly unprofitable! How many frivolous, and trifling, and uncharitable things are said! Let us bring out the Bible more, and it will help to drive the devil away, and keep our hearts in tune. Oh, that we may all strive so to walk together in this evil world; that Jesus may often draw near, and go with us, as He went with the two disciples journeying to Emmaus!" 


Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” 

R. Andrew Myers is married to Jessica, and is the father of five precious children. He lives in Elkton, Virginia, and has studied at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He edited The Matthew Poole Project (2006-2012); published an essay on "The Puritan Legacy Considered" (2009, MPP); served as a transcriber and research assistance for the Westminster Assembly Project (2009); contributes to the website Reformed Books Online; blogs at Virginia is for Huguenots, a site focused on church history and devotional matters from a Puritan, Covenanter and Huguenot perspective; and is an avid reader and student of church history.  

No comments:

Post a Comment