Interview with British Theologian Rev. Dr. Derek Tidball

tidball_derek_dianneOn the 21st June 2015 Rev. Dr. Derek Tidball was the guest preacher at church, and you can listen to his sermon here.  Derek is a British theologian, sociologist of religion, former Principal of London School of Theology, retired Baptist minister and author of numerous books, the most recent one of which I have read is ‘Preacher, keep yourself from idols’, a very helpful reminder of the priorities for the minister/preacher!

After the service I had the privilege of sitting down with him in my study and asking him a few questions:

I’d like to ask a question later (if we have time) about the Robin Parry debate you’ve had regarding the doctrine of Universalism, in the context of things I’ve heard scholars like Parry and Anthony Thiselton and David Bentley Hart, not to mention Moltmann, Barth and Forsyth among others, say and write, and how we can respond to the debate rather than close it down.  That’s a big question for later I hope.

But first, how has Evangelicalism changed over the past 10, 20, 30 years?

“Well the essential change is a global change.   The centre of Evangelicalism has moved from Britain and America to Africa and Asia and Latin America.  And as the missionary enterprise has largely been successful, you’ve got rapid church growth overseas, greater confidence in the Gospel and belief in Scripture overseas than here, so while we’re declining and struggling, actually, globally, evangelicals have become a key religious player.  In the UK because we have been struggling with secularism and to some extent the US as well, but it’s more advanced in Europe, we have perhaps compromised at times too much.  But Evangelicalism is always a living tradition though some people see it very much as a “fixed thing”, but the truth is if you go back through history, trace people’s testimony’s for example, in Wesley’s day or Whitfield’s day, or Spurgeon’s day or Moody’s day, different testimonies are being given, so it’s always a living tradition.  The challenge as always, is when do hold and stay firm, as say this is essential unchangeable characteristic of faith, and when is this something we can express differently.  And some of our disputes and battles have been around some of those issues, and over the interpretation of the Cross a few years back for instance, that was an area where many of us felt we had to hold; ‘women in ministry’?  here many of us felt we could read Scripture quite faithfully, authentically but differently than we have traditionally. The sexuality debate is the one that we’re in the thick of at the moment.”

Have you got a word about the whole ‘New-Atheism’ thing, and how that debate seems to be using such polemic, almost ridiculous language?

“Yes, and it’s very curious isn’t it, because if God doesn’t exist why are they protesting about Him so much?  Why are they trying to hit a target that in their view doesn’t exist.  Strangely enough, in one sense I’m not too worried about ‘New-Atheism’.  It is so over blown and over stated, that many people who might want to adopt an atheist position, actually are as embarrassed about some of its spokespersons as we Christians are.  There are some very good advocates for a more Christian apologetic on the other side, people like John Lennox, Ravi Zacharias and so on.  The challenges, I think, are very much more subtle and hidden, so yes, the New-Atheists might give people some confirmation about their position but only after they’ve decided God is irrelevant.  The greater battle is in Britain where for most people, church and God just isn’t a serious proposition.”

So it is as though the Church is in the wilderness?

“Yes, for sure.  That could well be for us at this stage a very good analogy.”

So you’ve kind of answered some of the greatest challenges the Western Church faces….

“Well in a sentence it’s confidence in the Gospel.  A confidence we have lost.  I’ve recently spoken on the theme ‘When did we stop preaching the Gospel and start preaching mission?’  because actually we spend all our time talking about strategy rather than talking about the Gospel, and I think we should talk less about means and methods and our resources and our approach and our marketing, and just get on and talk more about Jesus.”

I totally agree with that.  I’ve been thinking about the ‘mission language’ we use and it seems to be the thing we say to convince ourselves we’re doing it.  I’m considering writing on ‘Putting the Missional Cart before the Discipleship Horse’…

“Yes absolutely, or even the ‘Gospel Horse’.  Why not just get on and talk about it, and we may not find it is quite as alien as we think it is.

John Stott.  I never met him (heard him teach at Coventry Cathedral once), but that man was like a one man warrior for Evangelicalism.  Can you tell us something about him?

John_stott“Yes.  Huge statesman.  One of four very formative people for me, and it was my privilege to know him.  John, bless him, had a group called ‘Christian Debate’ that used to meet every six months or so, and debate a book, and when I moved back to London Bible College in 1991, they decided they would debate my book on ‘Who are the Evangelicals?’, which was absolutely fine, it was like a Cambridge Seminar….”

So there you are just innocently writing a book…

“Yes that’s right.  It wasn’t just John, it was half his peer group, and my peer group who were up and coming Evangelical leaders.  But I must have done alright because they invited me to join the group as a personal member.

But let me tell you two stories, the first of which sums John up beautifully.  I first met him at a London Underground station in 1974.  I was a young pastor, and was going to the Lausanne Convention which was a very formative experience.  John had written the Lausanne Covenant, and there was a study day being put on by the people at the Evangelical Alliance, and I was invited to expound one of the clauses of the covenant and John was doing another.  I hadn’t met him til then, but I identified him on the underground station before travelling to the EA together.  I introduced myself and as we were speaking, an old tramp standing about 10-12 feet from us, pulled out a stub of a pencil, dropped it, and it rolled down the platform.  John simply picked it up and gave it back to him, in a way that gave the tramp huge dignity, spoke to him about life in London, and before long was speaking to him about the Lord.  That was just an awesome experience.  Here was this world-wide statesman, he’d just written the Lausanne Covenant, and was actually engaged in [this humble act] giving this tramp dignity, a man made in the image of God, and engaged in personal evangelism, which spoke volumes to me.  We went off and we did the day, I said in my clause that this was based on three fundamental doctrines, etc, and as we were coming away, John  told me he’s written a commentary on the covenant, and I too say it is based on three doctrines….and we agree on two of them!

But he was always a great encouragement.  The other story that made it into his biography, was one that I picked up – the Chairman of the Billy Graham Association, John Courts, now passed on, he was on a cruise with former Acrchbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie.  And Robert didn’t know of the connection between John Courts and John Stott, but they got talking about John Stott, and Robert Runcie said, “Utter tragedy, utter tragedy!  John Stott was taught by some of the best liberal theological minds in Cambridge, and he never believed a word of what they were teaching!”  So what Runcie and other liberal leaders in the Church thought was a tragedy, many of us thought was fantastic.”

So Stott was trained in a liberal environment?

“That’s right.  He was at Ridley College for his Anglican training, the theological training would have been across the border in Cambridge.  It’s one of the differences between theological education in the UK and the US.  Most of our theological training has been done in a University context, so evangelicals have been used to rubbing shoulders with people with broader views, whereas the States, which is so much larger, they tend to live within their own ghettos, and so can’t sometimes relate as easily, so [everything] becomes a polemic [much more easily].”

I’d like to nail the Robin Parry debate in the context of John Stott, because his position as an evangelical, did cause something of a rupture (in a 1988 book ‘Essentials: A Liberal–Evangelical Dialogue with David Edwards’).  That wasn’t to do with the things you’ve just mentioned about the ‘liberal’ training.  So in the context of someone of his stature and scholarly ability, coming to a conclusion that is way outside of his tradition, obviously as a man of integrity, how do you relate the integrity, the scholarship, the man himself, what he stood for, saying what he said?

“One of the problems is that people react to slogans, or what they think people have said, rather than what they’ve actually said, and John Stott actually never came out as committed to Conditional Immortality.  In the book where the issue comes up, he says, and he never changed his position on this, that he was agnostic about whether hell was the tradition eternal suffering and punishment, as we’ve been brought up to believe, or whether it’s Conditional Immortality.  And in typical fashion, he raises the question by very careful biblical exegesis, and think if we are evangelicals with a commitment to take seriously what Scripture says, then we have to look always afresh at the biblical text, rather than an inherited interpretation.  So in fact, there’s huge debates going on at the tomwrightmoment because of the writings of Bishop Tom Wright, over justification and Reformation and so on, I’m not persuaded always by what Tom is writing, but I do think the opposition to him sometimes is unreasonable in that evangelicals are saying, ‘This is what Scripture says,’ well, actually, this is what the Reformation interpretation of Scripture is saying, and what Tom is trying to say is ‘What did Scripture say, rather than what interpretations have we laid on subsequently’.  So I think there is always a challenge to us, I don’t think it is going to ever fundamentally change the Gospel, but on a number of finer points, like conditional immortality, there may well be some debates on whether we fully understood Romans, because we’ve made it all about individual salvation rather than something grander.  So I’m not threatened by that but the test is always Scripture….”

And we want to always go back to the Word…

“Yes we do….and so conditional immortality may have not been the traditional view, but there’s always been a stream of it, not least by some evangelicals in the earlier 20th century who were often too timid to publish their views, but John Wenham and John Stott not so….

Well, Robin Parry wrote under a pseudonym for a few years…

“Yes, for a few years, that was in terms of universalism, and the same would be true – I don’t agree with universalism, I think that interpretation is incorrect.  The offer of salvation is universal, and salvation in terms of the cosmos is going to be universal, I don’t think that means every individual is going to be saved, and I think Robin is wrong on that, but I would accept that there has been a minor stream that have argued that down the centuries, so it’s not a new argument, and because we can tend to narrow things so carefully it’s useful to have people like Robin…”evanuni

I read that, going back to Thiselton, he talks about ‘hermeneutical foreclosure’ and he suggests that there are three traditions in Scripture, some are stronger than others, and we’re in a tradition that emphasises one, and the problem comes when we hermeneutically foreclose the other debates because we’re not going back to Scripture, which is exactly what you’ve just advocated.  But it’s an interesting thing to see that the tensions are there in Scripture…

“There are tensions in Scripture.  John Stott’s great hero, was the Cambridge evangelical of the previous century….his name escapes me now……darn it….who always argued, you don’t impose a system on Scripture, you actually want to see what Scripture says, and he was arguing against a very reformed framework being imposed on Scripture.  But Scripture might teach two apparent extremes, free will and divine sovereignty, and you don’t cancel one out by the other, or even take the middle path, but the truth lies in both extremes.”

One last question on preaching.  I know you’re a preacher, and it’s something that’s been a lifeline to me being a minister who preaches most weeks and has given me life in my preparation and delivery and something that people have responded to.  But ‘preaching’ is under attack, expository preaching maybe particularly so, there are trends and moves to undermine preaching as we understand it: how do we defend the priority of preaching?

“Well, the first thing is I’m never intimidated by the attack, because as you read back through history, it’s always been under attack, for the same sort of reasons.  There’s an OHP slide that I used to use, so you can tell how old it is, which is a photo of page on a book on preaching by Clive Fant(?), where he lists off from the 1800’s articles where he says preaching is dead, dull preaching doesn’t hack it…Spurgeon faced it, Forsyth railed against [dead and dull preaching] and so on…so in one sense, I think as it is, it ever has been, I don’t think this is new.  Pragmatically I find it fascinating, in that no one has to come and listen to preaching, but you go to Keswick and thousands will give up days and weeks to get good teaching, so preaching being under attack is not the whole story, although there are issues.  What is different on this occasion….well, no, it’s just part of the journey isn’t it…..what’s different is that we’re no longer living in a book culture in the way we did.  In Spurgeon’s day individual reading and literacy was on the increase, people were only just beginning to read books for themselves, so there’s always this transition going on, but undoubtedly the internet and social media and so on will make things different.  But I do believe in Scripture as inspired; I believe it’s a human book but it’s a different book from any other book, it’s a book that contains the life of God unlike any other book, I don’t believe that its words or its arrangement is by accident, so I rejoice and have committed myself to preaching expository rather than plucking a text from here and a text from there, because I think the Holy Spirit inspired this letter to be written in this way, and so often you can only get the message because this passage is, well in Mark’s Gospel as we were reading this morning, is sandwiched between two other passages that bring out the full force of the passage, and you miss all that if you just pick out a thing here or a thing there.  So I think the challenge is partly, the way we do it, and I guess we need not to assume that people understand the text as much, and try to relate it or be more popular, whereas once it might have been legitimate to assume you could say ‘take your Bibles and turn to chapter and verse’ and people would have known how to…so biblical literacy has nose-dived in recent times….yes it has, but I’m still convinced when the Scriptures are opened to people, they do get an appetite for it, it is necessary to do it in a way that is manageable, we don’t put a full roast dinner down in front of someone who’s been starving for ages because they couldn’t digest it, the same is true with preaching.  We build their appetite, and I’m sure we can do it.”

With thanks to Derek for his time and his years of ministry and influence in the world for Christ.

20150321_155339I thought my shot on the London Underground in March 2015 was apt given the John Stott story!

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