Thursday, October 4, 2007

Thinking About Dever, Sibbes and Healthy Churches

I just finished Mark Dever's first book entitled Richard Sibbes: Puritanism and Calvinism in Late Elizabethan and Early Stuart England (Mercer UP: 2000). I'm a slow reader and had a number of other books and projects to handle so it took me a while to finally finish this. It isn't an easy read, but it was well worth it. Dever proves himself to be a very careful scholar. His meticulously detailed account of the various aspects of Sibbes's life, works, theology and practice will be an invaluable help to all future students of Sibbes.

This work is a history, not only of the life of Richard Sibbes, but also of the late Elizabethan and early Stuart eras. As a work of history I was interested to see if I could determine any of Dever's perspective and prejudices. I came to this book with a sincere interest in learning about Richard Sibbes, but reading this volume served as my first introduction to the writings of Mark Dever.
Mark Dever is the senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC and the Executive Director of 9Marks Ministries. He has made his mark upon contemporary evangelicalism and a good bit of fundamentalism (at least what some are calling "the emerging middle"of fundamentalism) with his books Nine Marks of a Healthy Church [WTS] and The Deliberate Church [WTS]. I've not read either of these books yet, but have skimmed through some of the Nine Marks literature, and an abridged edition of Nine Marks of a Healthy Church.
Knowing the little that I did about Dever as I took up reading Richard Sibbes, I found a few interesting connections between Sibbes's philosophy of ministry and what I had heard about and read of Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. Now that I've finished this book, I'm skimming back through it trying to put things together in my mind as I prepare to write my book review. Here are some of things I've found:
  1. Sibbes was a conformist
    1. "Sibbes was a hesitater, and a questioner, but not a dissenter." (p. 47)
    2. "To suggest that Sibbes was a nonconformist, not to mention a crypto-separatist, is unwarranted by the alleged Cambridge deprivations; it is also unwarranted by his associations." (p. 70)
    3. "...Sibbes's associations do not suggest religious radicalism." (p. 70)
    4. "...Sibbes was apparently a conformist, as were his closest friends." (p. 70)
    5. "If any time after 1616 could have driven him to open conformity, and even separation, it would have been the last two years of his life, yet even they did not." (p. 93)
    6. "Yet Sibbes remained a reforming conformist to the end...." (p. 94)
    7. "To discover what Sibbes thought to be the essence of the church theologically--godly preaching, right administration of the sacraments, some discipline--is to discover what Sibbes thought to be essential to the church practically (and by implication, those things, too, that were non-essential). Divisions caused in the church for reasons other than these essential matters Sibbes relegated to divisions for merely 'private aims.' Even if the divider was right on the particular, he was wrong to cause division about anything that was not 'necessary.' ... Furthermore, the cause of much unnecessary division, Sibbes said, was a lack of faith in God's future provision based on his promises, a childish kind of peevishness that, 'when they have not what they would have, like children, they throw all away.' Such childishness, combined with ignorance of true Christian liberty led to unnecessary scruples. ... Therefore, 'in some cases of more consequence than the open discovery of some things we take to be true; show of difference is never good but when it is necessary.'" (pp. 204-206)
    8. "To Sibbes, any conscientiousness that led to separation was over-scrupulousness and the consciences of such were to be educated." (p. 209)
  2. Sibbes was a pacific moderate
    1. Pacific is not a word that I use or have heard very often, so I took note of it and found that Dever carries this description of Sibbes, along with that of moderate, throughout the book. Since pacific was not logged in the subject index I've taken pains to run down every mention of this modifier (pp. 6, 72, 82, 88, 109, 216) [unpacific, 109].
    2. "By the end of his life, he recognized more clearly than ever that 'all Christians in this life have both a different light and a different sight.'" (p. 86)
    3. "Sibbes did, of course, favor moderation: 'Where most holiness is, there is most moderation, where it may be without prejudice of piety to God and the good of others.'" (p. 87)
    4. "...moderation was important in Sibbes's response to those who would separate from the Church of England." (p. 88)
  3. Sibbes was concerned about identifying the marks of a true church
    1. "Sibbes's proof of the Church of England as a true church of Christ is that it has all the necessary marks of a true Church--'sound preaching of the Gospell, right dispensation of the Sacraments, Prayer religiously performed, evill persons justly punisht (though not in that measure that some criminals and malefactors deserve)'--and the production of 'many spirituall children to the Lord.'" (pp. 89-90; cf. 88, 204-205)
  4. Of these marks of a true church Sibbes identifies the most important as that of Gospel preaching
    1. "'preaching is that whereby God dispenseth salvation and grace ordinarily...'." (pp. 80-81)
    2. "Thus Sibbes, through his preaching especially, and through other careful measures, sought to advance the concerns of the godly." (p. 82)
    3. "Godly preaching, as the means of the Spirit's activity, rather than historical organizational continuity was the heart of Sibbes's vision of the church." (pp. 92-93)
    4. "Sibbes taught that the primary means Christ used to prepare his elect's hearts for salvation was 'by the ministry of the gospel.'" (p. 129)
    5. "Preaching was the 'chariot that carries Christ up and down the world. Christ does not profit but as he is preached.' Thus 'it is a gift of all gifts, the ordinance of preaching. God esteems it so, Christ esteems it so, and so should we esteem it.'" (p. 129)
    6. "Preaching was preeminently the means to grow such loving affections, especially affectionate preaching. According to Sibbes, this was the preaching in which 'Christ [was] truly laid open to the hearts of people...the knowledge and preaching of Christ in his state and offices.' 'Indeed, "preaching" is the ordinance of God, sanctified for the begetting of faith, for the opening of the understanding, for the drawing of the will and affections to Christ.... Therefore, as we esteem faith and all the good we have by it, let us be stirred up highly to prize and esteem of this ordinance of God." (pp. 155-156)
As I've considered these points, I've wondered, not only, how Dever's presuppositions have influenced his analysis, but also, how Sibbes philosophy of ministry has influenced Dever. I'm not finished with my analysis, but for the time being I will offer you an artistic impression of the influence of these two men upon each other...

You may also be interested in this:
This morning Adrian Warnock posted notes from a talk given by Dever at the recent Theology for All

Adrian is also offering a recorded interview with Dever here.
Conference in London. In this lecture Dever argues that preaching must hold the preeminent position in our worship services.