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Shepherds after my own heart — essays in honour of Robert W. Oliver

By Robert Strivens
November 2016 | Review by Matthew Cox
  • Publisher: EP Books
  • ISBN: 978-1-78397-149-7
  • Pages: 278
  • Price: 10.99
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Book Review

This festschrift is a tribute to the long and fruitful ministry of Robert Oliver, retired pastor at Bradford-on-Avon. The editors explain how friends and fellow ministers have addressed topics which are dear to Dr Oliver. The result is a smorgasbord for anybody who shares those interests.

A contribution from Dr Oliver’s son, Paul, gives a flavour of the man to whom the book is dedicated. His life is a window into the recent history of evangelicalism in Britain, including the influence of Dr Lloyd-Jones and rediscovery of Reformation Christianity.

The man himself comes across as caring, gentle and humble. The editors anticipate that he will feel only embarrassment at the publication of this volume. Its 11 chapters form concentric circles, moving from subjects which will appeal to a wider readership to those of a more specialised interest.

Theology: Joel Beeke offers a two-sided hope to Christians anxious about their perseverance in the faith. Firstly, the work of God’s Spirit is presented, for which he alone deserves the glory. The second ground for hope is the Word of God, exhorting believers to make use of the means which God has graciously provided.

The ministry: Guy Davies presents a systematic theology of preaching, addressing the much debated relationship between Word and Spirit. Jeremy Walker turns to the character of the preacher, urging readers to ‘remember those who rule over you’, for their teaching, faith and conduct. He points out that Dr Oliver is a man worthy of this remembrance.

Another such man is Geoff Thomas, whose reflections on his own 50-year ministry are valuable and instructive and should be circulated widely. He is candid about difficulties and regrets, but also finds grounds for thanksgiving in our day. He concludes with a reminder that God has his remnant: ‘We are still here. We have not been extinguished. God has kept us, and will do so’.

Church history: Philip Eveson’s assessment of the 1823 Calvinistic Methodist Confession of Faith shows how it drew on previous confessions, but was conceived and drafted in its specific historical situation, reflecting the doctrinal controversies of its day.

Robert Strivens highlights Philip Doddridge’s ‘scheme for the revival of religion’, much overlooked amid the extraordinary scenes surrounding his itinerant Methodist contemporaries. Doddridge asserted that God’s normal channel of blessing is through the ordinary means of grace in the context of a local church. He promoted ‘everyday’ methods like the Lord’s Supper, pastoral visitation, family worship and cooperation with other churches.

It may surprise some to learn that a weeknight cell group isn’t a recent innovation! What an encouragement this is for those labouring on in their churches, not knowing excitement or euphoria, but remaining faithful to the New Testament’s pattern.

S. Blair Waddell looks at another side of George Whitefield, assessing the criticisms of Whitefield’s assistant Cornelius Winter. Alongside much praise, Winter expressed concerns about Whitefield’s neglect of sermon preparation, his irritability and impatience when contradicted, and his readiness to thrust young men into the pulpit without adequate training. Strivens presents these claims as a reminder that the Lord can greatly use imperfect men despite their weaknesses.

Baptist thought: here we reach the centre of the circle. Dinu Moga paints a heart-warming picture of the Baptist movement in Romania, which has come through the dark days of Communism to a resurgence of literature, conferences and education — a resurgence to which Dr Oliver has contributed.

Michael Haykin and Tom Nettles address the issues raised by the duty-faith controversy in two different contexts: firstly, Andrew Fuller’s debates with Arminians and hypercalvinists; secondly, Jonathan Edwards’ influence on Baptists in Britain and America.

Edwards’ distinction between natural and moral inability helped many to strike a biblical balance between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. For those who grapple with these questions, this material will prove engaging and stimulating.

This book will be valuable to those with an interest in church history, and especially to Reformed Baptists who value their historical roots. As such, it probably has a limited market. But, for those who desire to dig deeper into these subjects, Shepherds after my own heart is a must-read.

Matthew Cox

Chorlton, Manchester

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