What is the role of theology in our pragmatic age? This was the theme of this year’s conference run by the John Owen Centre at London Theological Seminary, Kensit.
Six speakers tackled the subject ably, from a variety of viewpoints, over two days. Beginning with the biblical data, Colin Burcombe (Northern Ireland) and Alistair Wilson (Highland Theological College) spoke from the Old and New Testament, respectively.
Mr Burcombe spoke on Isaac in Genesis 26 to show how both principle and pragmatism worked out in the patriarch’s life. Mr Wilson focused on 1 Corinthians 9 and the apostle’s statement that he ‘became all things to all people’. He showed how Paul addressed different facets of the gospel message with different audiences (Acts 13, 17) and how his language and approach differed in each case.
Ian Hamilton ended the first day with a thought-provoking account of the dilemmas facing Christians, urging us to stand firm in our principles, and yet show love to brothers and sisters who reach different conclusions as to how they should act. The overriding concern is the visible unity of the church, as prayed for by the Lord Jesus in John 17.
Garry Williams (pictured) opened the second day with a scintillating exposition of the theology of the presence of God, as applied to corporate worship, particularly preaching, the Lord’s Supper and prayer.
He argued carefully and convincingly that it is far too reductionist simply to say that God is present everywhere in the same way. Vital distinctions need to be made as to the manner in which God is present in different situations.
Our attitudes and behaviour in corporate worship must be characterised by awe and joy, by a careful attention to the preaching and prayer, and by a recognition of the reality of the Lord’s presence among his people.
Bill James followed with an exposition of the ordinary ‘means of grace’ — the ministry of the Word, prayer and sacraments — as the means by which God generally blesses his people.
This should affect our levels of expectation when we gather to worship him. Are we expecting the Lord to speak to us in the preaching of his Word? Do we expect the work of the gospel to be progressed by means of our prayer? Do we expect to meet and be spiritually fed by Christ in the Lord’s Supper?
The final paper was given by Gerard Hemmings, who preached powerfully from the parable of the sower to encourage us not to be over-concerned by numbers or immediate visible success, but to seek to advance Christ’s kingdom in the manner he has laid out in his Word — primarily, by the patient sowing of that Word.
It was a fantastic conference, marked by excellent papers, warm fellowship and good discussion. Next year, the conference will resume its examination of key Old Testament characters.