Westminster wrap-up

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This year's Westminster Conference finished yesterday with a further three papers. The first was, for me, perhaps the highlight of the conference. David Gregson from Reeth gave a paper (the Reeth lecture?) on Blaise Pascal. We considered his life and his scientific exploits as a man of indisputable genius. The most fascinating aspect was his 'twofold conversion' through exposure to the Augustinian theology of grace by means of the Jansenist movement, a stream within the Roman Catholic church which emphasized man's depravity and God's saving grace. There was first an intellectual embrace of the position, followed by what has become known as Pascal's 'night of fire,' an overwhelming conversion experience. Thereafter, Pascal's developed a new sense of the limits and purposes of human reason, emphasizing far more the heart (as the centre of the being) and the shortcomings of a merely intellectual approach. Quoting liberally from the Pensées (Thoughts), we were guided through some of the tensions and wonders of Pascal's thought, including the famous wager and his stout allegiance to 17th century Roman Catholicism. A reasonable discussion developed around the relative roles and relationships of faith and reason, as well as what one must know and believe in order to be saved. David's passion for his subject and depth of understanding were evident, and I should think a good number went away determined to read Pascal for themselves.

Then Roger Welch attempted an overview of Christianity's engagement with Islam (taking both terms in the broadest sense) from the emergence of Islam up to the present day. This was one of those papers where you could see the speaker necessarily dropping material as he went, so the printed paper will contain a lot more narrative. Roger did a great job of packing his material in to the allotted time, and the discussion which followed focused on how we need to think and speak in order to be effective witnesses to Muslims in our own environment, as well as in other places, as well as tensions to do with perspectives on God as Father and Son, and related translation issues. The matter of works and grace came through prominently as the discussion continued under Stephen Clarke's able chairmanship.

Finally, Peter Law wrapped us up with a thoughtful, sensitive and balanced biographical study of Henry Martyn. As ever, there is a healthy rebuke when we consider the commitment of such men to God and to their work for God: we understand why Charles Simeon would point guests to Martyn's portrait in his study, and say, "There! See that blessed man! No one looks at me as he does. He never takes his eyes off me and seems always to be saying, 'Be serious, be earnest; don't trifle, don't trifle'." Then, smiling at and bowing to his protégé's picture, Simeon would add, "And I won't trifle, I won't trifle." At the same time, this was a measured perspective, letting us see the sometimes uncomfortable realities of Martyn's work and exposing some of the pride and fastidiousness which sometimes threatened to send him into easier and more comfortable paths.

Next year's conference is due to take place on 3rd and 4th December 2013, and includes papers on clarity and confusion in C. S. Lewis (who is generally thought to need no introduction but actually needs precisely the kind of introduction this paper aims to give); whether or not we have the right Gospels (in the light of recent assertions and confusions on the issue); Henry Havelock (the Christian general who relieved Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny, but - just as importantly - an example of how to live as a follower of Christ in the public sphere and in a difficult vocation); lessons from the past for our present evangelistic preaching (because it's not something that many preachers do well); Isaac Ambrose (that Christ-drenched Puritan); and, issues arising from the ministry of Edward Irving (a forerunner of the Charismatic confusion that still remains today).

Past papers - and there are some stonkers - are available through the Westminster Conference website, where information on next year's conference will be available shortly, and where booking information can be found in due course.


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