Now this is a story all about how
My life got flipped, turned upside down…

There are many things that influence the way we understand and present ourselves. The Beatles listened to Bob Dylan, Martin Luther-King read Gandhi, I watched The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Aside from providing a white English boy with an introduction to tie-dye t-shirts and family friendly rap, every episode opened with Will’s backstory in song form. That was a good decision from the erstwhile Prince – as Baptist theologian Steve Holmes notes, all writers inevitably come from a particular perspective and we do well to understand that perspective before we hear their arguments.[1] Before going on to the weightier matters of book reviews, reflections and polemics, therefore, I thought it best to explain where I’m coming from.

I grew up in Southern England (for any US readers, you go south of Blue Mel Gibson, south of American Robin Hood, and stop before you get to France). My parents are both non-conformists and children of the Charismatic Renewal. We spent our time in various churches, both Baptist and Free-Evangelical, although it felt like we didn’t really settle anywhere. I was also involved in some groups for young-people centred around a small conference that had been set up by a friend of Denis Clark, a leader in the charismatic movement of the 1970s and 80s. We took a strong Biblicist position, regarding anything that smacked of ‘tradition’ as probably ‘dead religion’ (including much of the Anglican church), we held firmly to Baptism with the Spirit as separate from conversion, and we believed in everyone encountering God through the Scriptures. People involved in the movement were loving and kind to the individuals they met. Nevertheless, my view of other Christians was different when we referred to groups: Calvinists were wrong on predestination (and to be tolerated but not listened to); other charismatics were often whacky (and to be avoided); Catholics may later become Christians but when that happened would certainly convert from Catholicism. I had never heard of the Orthodox.

I’m conscious that I’m making it sound pretty negative. Actually, as with many of these stories, the groups that I was involved with were very, very good at the basics: we read the Bible. A lot. We learned to pray, we learned to study, we learned to meditate. I owe my relationship with God, my love for Scripture and prayer, and my desire for others to grow in their own devotions to my parents and those who taught me during that period.

We just didn’t have a lot of time for the ancient churches or church history.

It isn’t an exaggeration to say that I was aware of church history insofar as it meant the Reformation (sorry Catholic friends – some linguistic labels never shift) and subsequent evangelicalism. That story was easy: Catholics (boo) told people to earn their salvation. Luther (yay) discovered that all you needed was to believe in Jesus. Protestant churches were born (yay) and, at their best, they ignored all the old traditions and just read the Bible. Some, unfortunately, couldn’t shake the Catholic bug completely and so kept with christening and occasional smells and bells (murmuring of disbelief at how hard it is to be fully set free).

I softened as I got older, of course. I was confident, however (i) that theological training was unnecessary and unhelpful when you could read the Bible and had a Strong’s concordance; and (ii) that I knew what the true church was and true worship looked like and didn’t need to be told anything else.

After a 6 year spell as a barrister, I hung up my wig (it’s still in my closet – if you live near Hersham you can come and try it on…) and pursued a call to ministry. I happened to be in a Baptist church and so (somewhat reluctantly) I went to Spurgeon’s.

Here my views and habits were to be challenged in an unexpected way. Tune in to our next episode to find out more… [Da dup, ba da da daaa dap]

NB I updated this post at 2300.

[1] Stephen R. Holmes, Baptist Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2012), p.1.