What is the role of theology in our pragmatic age? That was the theme of this year’s conference run by the John Owen Centre at London Theological Seminary. 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) addressed Old and New Testament respectively. Colin took the account of Isaac in Genesis 26 to show both principle and pragmatism in the patriarch’s life and how each worked out for him. Alistair 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 (e.g. 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 in mixed denominations, urging us to stand firm in our principles and yet to show love to brothers and sisters who may reach a different conclusion as to how they should act. Ian’s overriding concern was the visible unity of the church as prayed for by the Lord Jesus in John 17.
Garry Williams 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, whether we are mowing the lawn or singing praise to the Lord with the gathered church. Vital distinctions need to be made as to the manner in which God is present in different situations, particularly with regard to his differing activities in different contexts. Our attitudes and behaviour in corporate worship must consequently reflect what, according to Scripture, God is doing in those meetings. They will be characterised, then, by awe and by joy, by a careful attendance to the preaching and prayer and by a recognition of the reality of the Lord’s presence among his people as we partake of the communion elements by faith. This was a significant paper making an important argument on a very practical subject.
Bill James followed with an exposition of the ordinary means of grace - ministry of the Word, prayer, sacraments - as the means by which God generally blesses his people. This should affect our levels of expectation when we gather to use these means: 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 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 that he has laid out in his Word - primarily by the patient sowing of that Word.
It was an excellent conference, marked by excellent papers, warmth of fellowship and good discussion. Next year, the conference will resume its examination of key Old Testament characters. Keep an eye on the website for more information: http://www.johnowencentre.org