Wednesday, October 14, 2015

John Flavel redivivus

John Flavel (1627-1691)

Gary Brady

Gary Brady is a present-day John Flavel.  Like Flavel the Puritan, a minister in Dartmouth, Gary has been the pastor of an urban church for many years, and as Flavel became used to the ups and downs of such a life so no doubt has Gary. He has been pastor of Childs Hill Baptist Church in north west London since 1983. And like Flavel he is a considerable author, with five books already, and now a sixth, Candle in the Wind – Understanding Conscience in the Light of God’s Word. (EP Books, 2014, 242 pages). This post is by way of a modest celebration of it, and of Gary’s gifts as an author on this great but neglected topic.

Conscience is a permanent resident in every person, a personal moral and spiritual reflex of that very person that it is the conscience of. You have your conscience and I have mine, and mine does not throw a light on you, nor yours a light on me. Properly understood, it is the voice of God, which can be fine-tuned - sometimes too finely - or almost drowned out. It can excuse or accuse. It can thunder or whisper.  Whisperings can become full-throated. But it can be almost subverted by the culture, by upbringing, by friends or by the boss, by what we read and by the media.

A strong conscience, how about that? This is a conscience informed by the word of God. God is Lord of the conscience. Gary thinks that Christians with such a weapon, who know what they believe and what and what not to do,  should be careful of not bullying the weaker brethren.  That is, those sincere believers whose conscience is ill-informed  in some way. But a sound conscience is nevertheless a great good. There is a greater thing that parading your conscience, however, and making a thing of it, and that is love or concern for the weaker brethren. ‘…If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge…but have not love, I am nothing’. This is the best section of the book, thoughtful and wise.

Here are some questions which I don’t think Gary touched on, though he touched on most things, I reckon, The question of whether the operation of conscience leads or follows what we do. Conscience seems to behave in either of these two ways. When you consider doing something, the conscience kicks in,   telling you that this is the right thing to do it, and so you do it, or at least try to do i.. At other times it is like a rear-view mirror, telling you that what you did was or wasn’t OK. Is this before – or after – behaviour significant? Or does it simply show dull or quick wittedness, as the case may be? The Christian’s conscience, like other things, is imperfectly regenerated, subject to ignorance, bias and weakness. The Christian is a ‘wretched man’ who has a conscience, he or she does not yet possess a perfectly judging and operating moral sense.

Most of Gary’s concerns are with the conscience as it operates within the sphere of the church. Here very definitely God is ‘Lord of the Conscience’, as Perkins and Ames and the Westminster Confession had it. But what about Gary’s hearers when they are at work or at leisure? If things are operating as they should then one cannot expect the same standards at meetings at work to the meetings at church. Ought conscience to operate differently in different circumstances? Is this dangerous, like having double standards? In one place Paul writes ‘I wrote to you in my letter [which unfortunately we do not possess] not to associate with sexually immoral people – not at all meaning the sexually Immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, nor idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.’ As Augustine might have put it, church and world are two ‘cities’. Ought a Christian to have two sets of standards, two consciences, one for each city?  Don’t we in practice have two standards? When in Rome, do as the Romans do? Is this the place for some casuistry?

As a Baptist, Gary has an interest in liberty of conscience. He notes its development in England in the seventeenth-century. Particular Baptists have a confessional position advocating such liberty from the beginning, though in a restricted form. (Of course as he notes, any freedom of expression must have restrictions.)  In this Independents and Baptists were distinct from the Presbyterians and Anglicans, who edged their way to social liberty as it became clear to the powers that be that good Christian people could differ from each other on various matters which did not imperil the integrity of the state. (Socinians and Roman Catholics were another question!) Gary is quite keen on Roger Williams. Gary is uncertain about whether liberty of conscience is the teaching of the New Testament. But surely it can be considered as an application of the principle of 'Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to  them, for this is the law and the prophets'. Indeed it might be argued that freedom of conscience is like sanitation and public hygiene, an obvious good. But, alas, a good that it is hard for societies who enjoy it to retain, as we are currently seeing.

What Gary mainly does in his book – tho’ he does not say that he is doing it - is to treat the Christian life from the vantage point of the conscience. In conviction of sin, the voice of conscience is the voice of God. In penitence and faith, the troubled conscience, troubled by sins, can through exercising the faith which justifies, come to enjoy a good conscience, not a witness to failure but to Christ’s victory. But even then it can lapse through carelessness into an ill-formed conscience, a seared conscience, unfeeling. Watchfulness is needed. A Flavelian theme.

Gary takes us through all this in a clear, unassuming style. He has a light touch, chatty and unpretentious. Bags of quotations, and much good sense.  His favourite writers on the theme seem to be Mark Twain (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), and John Bunyan in his Holy War. Thanks, Gary, for a wholesome, entertaining and insightful read.  May you continue preaching and pen-wielding for many years to come!

Gary’s other books are - Heavenly Wisdom, The 1662 Great Ejection, What Jesus is Doing Now, The Song of Songs and Being Born Again