Communion with Christ and His People: The Spirituality of C.H. Spurgeon

Article by   May 2013
mordencommunion93.jpgPeter J. Morden, Communion with Christ and his people: The Spirituality of C. H. Spurgeon, Centre for Baptist History and Heritage Studies (Regent's Park College, Oxford), 2010, 318pp., paperback, £25

Peter Morden, tutor in Church History and Spirituality at Spurgeon's College, has given us a treatment of Spurgeon that picks up the theme of communion with Christ and his people as a central and constraining element of Spurgeon's faith and life. It is a treatment that, in this reviewer's estimation, is equally stimulating, instructive and frustrating.

Morden does an outstanding job of weaving together biographical and theological detail in sections dealing with Puritan piety, conversion, baptism, Scripture, prayer, the Lord's supper, Christian endeavour, holiness and suffering. Clearly a master of the raw data, he draws on a great swathe of material from various sources, much of it original, to sketch out and fill in the various elements of Spurgeon's life and his relationship with Christ and the saints. Along the way, there are many fascinating nuggets to be assimilated. For example, there is a helpful discussion of Spurgeon's well-known conversion story, in which we are pointed to the likely identity of the preacher, and in which our author is not afraid to point out where Spurgeon might have recast his own conversion story (although the suggestion is less that this was the rosy glow of hindsight and more that it was a semi-deliberate retelling which threw most emphasis on the aspects which Spurgeon wished most to highlight). 

Equally useful is the consideration of Spurgeon's relationships with and reliance upon other people in various aspects of his work. Furthermore, Morden's comparison of Spurgeon's treatment of baptism and the Lord's supper brings out some different emphases that need to be carefully weighed. For example, Morden makes plain that Spurgeon's notion of baptism is one that thoroughly eschews even a hint of sacramentalism, though he does so in playful language that makes one wonder whether he or others might actually wish to find it otherwise. Baptism for Spurgeon was a believer's response to the Lord's command, a testimony to the heart-circumcision which Spurgeon was persuaded was the new covenant equivalent of flesh circumcision; baptism itself communicated nothing to his formal standing with God, although the act of obedience did help to ensure that no distance existed between the Master and the servant. 

With regard to the Lord's supper, while rejecting any notion of sacerdotalism, Morden opines that Spurgeon's emphasis on the supper as a means of grace led to an increasingly 'sacramental' approach, emphasising the drawing near of Christ and the blessing of the participants, and suggesting "that Spurgeon's evangelical stress on the supreme importance of personal conversion militated against a theology of baptism as a means of grace. Because the Lord's Supper was not linked with conversion in the same way that baptism was, it was easier for Spurgeon to maintain that God was present and active through the Supper" (182). I wonder, though, if Morden plays down the one and plays up the other, pushing to exploit a tension that I am not persuaded exists along quite the plane or in quite the degree that Morden suggests. These and many other issues like are dealt with in a way that is genuinely illuminating and often provocative; there are many particular points at which one would wish to push back, often heartily.

At the same time, from the very beginning it is evident that, in terms of understanding history, it is the Bebbingtonian quadrilateral of evangelicalism (biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism) which dominates. Everything here is organised in terms of and referred back to this structure. Also given their full weight - indeed, I would suggest, somewhat over-emphasised - are the Enlightenment and Romantic influences which Morden believes he can discern. A tentative diagnosis of Spurgeon's mental state is offered which does not particularly further our understanding of the man. Too often aspects of thought and feeling that might be fitted into a more comprehensive scheme are dropped into some of these seemingly neat but often dissatisfying pigeonholes.

What is missing - apart from any serious consideration of the Downgrade Controversy, bar a few dismissive and disappointing comments about the lonely but heroic Spurgeon of (Baptist) hagiography - is any full consideration of Spurgeon's desire to follow Christ as he speaks in the Scripture as a governing principle of the man's faith and life. While Morden is quick to trace Spurgeon's attitudes and actions back to Bebbington's notions of an evangelical heritage, or to Enlightenment and Romantic notions, none of these attitudes and actions are considered as the product - however much influenced by the man's place in space and time - of his commitment to the Word of God as a rule of doctrine and practice. Scripture is made an element to be considered rather than the touchstone of the man's spirituality. The Puritanism which is acknowledged as a significant pressure in Spurgeon's development is seen in purely historical terms and not given its theological weight in considering this matter. Cultural forces rather than Scriptural truths are seen as having the predominant influence.

In addition, the whole work is written in a tone of academic reserve, as if with a perpetually raised eyebrow suggestive of mild scepticism. This may be reflective of the fact that Morden's convictions at certain points are not entirely in sympathy with those of his subject. If I am honest, some of my frustrations are doubtless those of a man who would wish to see his own convictions reflected more accurately, but I also think that this is because Spurgeon's convictions find an echo in my own in ways not addressed here. There are points at which Morden is silent, vaguely dismissive, or damns with faint praise. Some of those are the very points at which I would wish to sound a hearty "Amen!" to Spurgeon, and where I think Spurgeon himself would wish to have his own emphasis made clear, even if the recorder then plainly disagreed with him. 

This is not, then, merely a matter of personal appetite: there are attitudes and actions which have been glossed over which ought to have been given a more prominent role. I suspect that Morden's convictions have bled through in his emphasis - or lack of it - on certain issues. At the same time, there is a perhaps deliberate distance maintained between the author and his subject that might be interpreted as scholarly aloofness, if not personal disinterest or disagreement. Avoiding hagiography, here we veer at times toward assessment without feeling, or reportage without engagement. This is reflected in the style, which is very much of the academy: lots of signposts to where we will go and surveys of where we have been. Colour must at times be supplied by one's own sense of Spurgeon's personality as it bleeds out of his own writing.

Morden's often excellent work must be considered in any further Spurgeon studies, and sheds genuine light at many key points. His marshalling of the data and thoroughness of the treatment cannot for one moment be denied, and are to be applauded. However, those who are either less shackled by the conventions of this way of doing history, or, perhaps, share more of Spurgeon's convictions more openly, may conclude with me that something is missing, and that Spurgeon's constraining intention to be governed by Christ speaking in his Word by his Spirit is bypassed when it might have provided a far more complete and satisfying key to the life of this servant of God.

Interested parties must order this volume through the Regent's Park College website.

Jeremy Walker is the pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church in Crawley, West Sussex.

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