Living By Revealed Truth
May 14, 2014
Tom Nettles, Living By Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Christian Focus, 2013, 700pp, £29.99/$38.00
It would be going over the top to declare an interest, but perhaps an admission of sorts would be in order: I yield the palm to none in my admiration for that man of royal character, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. I hope it is a thoughtful, discerning, discriminating admiration, but it is admiration nonetheless. I therefore come to a book like Tom Nettle's Living By Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles Haddon Spurgeon (Christian Focus, 2013) with a certain eager anticipation and a measure of trepidation. Will this be some adoring hagiography in which our hero is allowed no flaws? Will it be some revisionist screed in which a man of God's flaws are gleefully exposed? Will the biographer try to squeeze his subject into some preordained mould out of which he will never be allowed to break? Perhaps, more personally, will I recognise in these pages the man that I have come to know and esteem over the course of the years?
The first strength of this biography is that Nettles approaches his subject in the right way and with the right spirit. I do not object to a biographer who wrestles with his subject: such an attitude quickly becomes apparent, and allows us to read and assess accordingly. For the same reasons, I quickly weary of those distant studies in which, with a cultivated academic detachment and the cheap veneer of alleged objectivity, there is little warmth or connection. Nettles approaches Spurgeon as I would have hoped: with genuine affection, deep appreciation and sincere sympathy, but not slavish adoration. Nettles has no interest in a hatchet job, neither is he a giddy fanboy. He is mature and honest, coming to a man he has studied for decades and for whom he has developed a profound and proper respect. That he admires Spurgeon deeply and wants himself and his readers to watch and learn from the great man is in no doubt, and it gives a rich glow to the study. At the same time, he retains that degree of distance that allows him to analyse thoughtfully and judge carefully, giving a measured assessment of the character and conduct of his subject.
The second major strength is that Nettles allows Spurgeon to speak for himself. Every page is littered with Spurgeon's own words, culled from sermons and books and articles. There is a real wealth of primary source material here, and it demonstrates constantly that we are getting an authentic voice. Of course, there is judicious selection, but one quickly begins to hear a consistent tone and a unified message which allows one to discern Spurgeon as he was, and not how we might wish him to be. This gives us a window into the intensity and vitality, the full-orbed humanity, of the great preacher. You cannot overlook the insight of his thinking, the sharpness of his wit, the absoluteness of his convictions, the depths of his sorrows, the heat of his desires, and the wholeness of his consecration. As the title of the book makes clear, the volume is outstanding in identifying, appreciating, and connecting Spurgeon's governing principle and constraining intention to be governed by Christ speaking in his Word by his Spirit. Here the biographer's thorough sympathy with his subject is a real asset.
A third real benefit of this study is its arrangement. Over eighteen chapters we are given the opportunity to consider Spurgeon from many angles. The opening chapters are, necessarily, a fairly straightforward chronological tracing of the early years, bringing us in fairly short scope from Spurgeon's birth in Kelvedon through his conversion and rapid development as man and minister to his bursting on to the London scene as the pastor of the Metropolitan Tabernacle. Here, Nettles profitably changes tack, and begins to look at Spurgeon's life and labours more thematically.
So we have a chapter on "Preaching the Whole Counsel," in which the preparation and delivery of genuine gospel addresses is thoroughly considered. The material on Spurgeon's "Theological Method and Content" is a magnificent sweep through the preacher's convictions on various topics, most more central, others more peripheral. It gives a real and balanced insight into Spurgeon's evangelical catholicity and robust biblicism. There is a short but sweet chapter on "the Lord Jesus Christ on his cross of redemption" as "the center, circumference, and summation of the preaching ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon" (p. 227). Those who regard Spurgeon as merely some genial pulpiteer, a high-powered orator with his feet far from the ground, need to read the outstanding chapter on "The Challenge of Church Life and the Governance of Worship," in which we get a fascinating glimpse into the ecclesiology and doxology that undergirded Spurgeon's gospel labours, not least his concern for real and evident conversion.
Chapters telling us that "The Gospel is Evangelism" and surveying the "Use of Evangelists" are illuminating, containing both instruction and warning - the former is simply magnificent, and almost stands alone as a treatment of gospel ministry. Spurgeon's golden heart shines out as we consider "The Theological Foundations for a Benevolent Ministry," which necessarily and helpfully grounds what is often so casually referred to as 'mercy ministry' in the realities of God's kingdom purposes. We are obliged to marvel at the range of Spurgeon's labours. Two chapters on literature follow, helpfully highlighting some principles about why books are written, what they should contain, and how they ought to be read. There follow three chapters entitled "Theology and Controversy," "Destroy or Be Destroyed" and "The Downgrade Controversy." It is grand to see Spurgeon's stand against theological liberalism portrayed with unembarrassed vigour, rather than hedging and fudging, and Nettles nudges toward a recommendation of a more fully confessional stance as a defence against and antidote to the watering down of faith and life.
A chapter on "Spurgeon and Baptists in America" is natural, considering the author's geographical and theological provenance (the cynic would suggest it won't hurt sales, either!) but the substance does not add a huge amount to the book. One comes away with the notion that Nettles is persuaded that all right-thinking Southern Baptists should be standing substantially with Spurgeon, just as their forebears did! He may be right, but the chapter does not carry the full weight of this. The last two chapters are moving, providing a real window into the extent and suffering of Spurgeon in "Sickness, Suffering, Depression" and portraying with helpful clarity his "Conduct in the Face of Death."
With such a survey, from so many angles, we obtain a very full and fair view of the man, his genius and his character, his convictions and his actions, not to mention his idiosyncrasies and eccentricities. It is refreshing to have a biographer acknowledge and trace developments in Spurgeon's thinking and practice, to show him as a real theologian (the consideration of Spurgeon as covenant theologian is excellent) rather than a shallow thunderer, to consider the tensions involved in what often seems to be self-promotion in the cause of Christ, to see issues of religious liberty and robust nonconformity spelled out, to assess what may seem to be more mystical statements and to trace out his unshakeable scriptural anchors.
In all this, Nettles demonstrates clearly and coherently that Spurgeon cannot be quite so easily claimed by much modern evangelicalism as some within it might wish. While a pick'n'mix approach to Spurgeon's principles and practices allows almost anyone to lay claim to some kind of inheritance, taken as a complete package the man resists most attempts to tie him down for our own. Here he stands too clearly seen and too sharply defined to allow us a vague hat-tip. As Spurgeon did in life, so he does off the page: he compels decision.
So, is there anything to note more negatively? Yes, a few caveats are worth identifying. While hearing the voice of this ten-talent man is always stirring, sometimes there is so much Spurgeon woven in that some passages and sections lose momentum. It would have been good at points to take a longer step back and offer a more comprehensive view. I was occasionally left looking for more developed analysis and assessment, seeking more comment and discussion. It would have been good to hear the authorial voice and to see the editorial overview given greater scope, although it would have added to what is already a lengthy book. However, some of the conclusions, often at the end of the chapters, can seem a little rushed and bitty. One feels that Nettles might have had more to offer, and I would not have been averse to chewing it over.
Perhaps the most evident concern lies with the unfortunate number of errors sown through the book. Physically, the volume is very well put together: a well-bound tome of nearly 700 double-columned pages of clear print on fine paper. For a book of this magnitude to roll off the presses without a single mistake to mar it might be asking too much. However, there are two or three more substantial historical errors that creep in (place names misspelled, places confused, and individuals misrepresented). Furthermore, it is hard for the reader with an eye and ear for such things to overlook more general problems such as a widespread inconsistency between British and American English. Surely it would have been possible to eradicate this? In this regard, I would not blame an American for writing American English, but for a quintessentially British and genuinely Victorian character such as Spurgeon, we might perhaps have avoided such anachronistic Americanisms as Charles and Susanna enjoying their Monday night dates. In addition, there are points at which one gets a sense of geographical displacement (not helped by the misspelling of a couple of place names). While it is not always possible, there should be a real sense of place in a biography of this magnitude, and it is occasionally lacking. Given what is doubtless a transatlantic - even global - interest, I would have thought such jarring difficulties might have been avoided.
Stylistically, Nettles has an easy and attractive voice that lifts accessibly and engagingly from the page. However, as he weaves together scraps of various materials and dimensions garnered over a lifetime, the seams between the patches sometimes pull. There are shifts of tense within occasional paragraphs that obscure the meaning. There are points at which the author's precise intention is not clear, either through words misspelled or misused or instances in which sentences seem to lose their thread and tail off into nothingness. Alongside of those, I am afraid that I recorded definite or possible editing errors and oversights running into triple figures - to my mind, too high an average for such a book as this.
In reviewing, integrity obliges me to mention those shortcomings, most of which might be easily corrected in another edition or printing. However, I hope that my noticing them does not in any way overshadow what is a quite magnificent achievement.
There are many biographies of Spurgeon that are available, and they take a variety of approaches. What has been lacking is a modern treatment of his life that balances a sympathetic approach with a penetrating and comprehensive understanding, a biography that digs deep into the primary sources and allows Spurgeon to be himself. There will doubtless be those who accuse Nettles of being another one-eyed artist, producing a portrait in which the subject is essentially seen as commending the painter for the job that he is doing. I do not think that is fair. I do not know Mr Nettles, but I do think that he substantially gives us Spurgeon as he was. If not quite warts and all, it is an honest and homely portrayal, one that recognises greatness and acknowledges its Giver, and seeks to illuminate and learn from it.
The sheer size of this volume means that it cannot quite claim to be a starting point for the budding Spurgeonista. However, for those who are growing to appreciate the man and want to get a real handle on him, who are eager for and able to digest a thorough review of his life, who appreciate him already and are always ready to learn more, or who simply want to cover all the ground, this will be the place to go. Next to Spurgeon's own voluminous writings, I imagine and hope that this will stand for some time to come as the definitive full-length portrait of this servant of Christ, a man who lived - as all should - by revealed truth.
Jeremy Walker is the pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church in Crawley, West Sussex.