Silent Witnesses and John Owen

Paul Levy
Over the summer I read 'Silent Witnesses - Lessons on theology, life, and the church from Christians in the past' by Garry Williams. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and have found myself following up many of the issues Garry raises. Particularly helpful were the chapters on Calvin, Luther and John Owen. The book is an ideal gift and, for ministers, full of insights and illustrations. It's a Banner clothbound so it makes you feel better regardless of the content.
Lots of you in the US will not know of Garry but I expect someone will come in and make a big money move for him from your side of the Atlantic. I have confidence he will resist the lure of Egypt. We need him in the UK. Garry is the Director of the John Owen Centre which is worthy of our prayers and support. I've asked him some questions on the book and the Centre.

Silent Witnesses is a collection of historical pieces on some well known and not so well known characters, how did you decide who's in and who's out?

It was a mix of accident and design. The accident was simply that these were some of the figures from the past that I have spent time with over the years and about whom I have spoken at different conferences and churches. The design was in narrowing down the possibilities and working out how to tie them all together. As I worked on the text the structure of the book emerged from the material and the chapters coalesced into groups. So it ended up being designed to cover doctrinal issues, the challenges of Christian living, and issues particularly relevant to pastors and elders, all framed within some discussion of the place of Christian history.

How can churches encourage their congregation in the study of church history?

Telling a congregation some of the inspiring stories of the past can serve as a gentle introduction to the more complex events and doctrines. Telling the story of Athanasius, for example, is a great way to introduce issues of Christology. Doctrine feels (wrongly) inhuman and cold to some people, so framing it in the context of a man's struggles is a more engaging approach. Reading biographies is then a good next step to encourage. 


What 5 books would you advise every Christian to read on church history?

There would be lots of good possibilities, so here is an arbitrary list of suggestions: a biography of a Christian leader (e.g. James Kittleson on Luther), a few short classic primary texts (e.g. Athanaius's On the Incarnation, Luther's Freedom of a Christian, Calvin's Reply to Sadoleto), and an overview of the whole of church history (e.g. Nick Needham's series 2000 Years of Christ's Power). I don't mean to be facetious but the Bible should be at the top of any list. I say that because we need to realize that the Bible addresses church history. It teaches us what to expect; not in the specific terms of the detailed predictions of geo-politics that some find in biblical prophecies, but in general terms of the battle between Christ and Satan.

You work for the John Owen Centre which for many people will be unknown, what does it do and what's its aim?

The John Owen Centre is part of the work of London Theological Seminary in the UK. It provides theological refreshment for pastors, encouraging them to keep learning and growing theologically in the midst of their ministry. The temptations to pragmatism are powerful in the life of the church and we hope to be a voice for a thoroughly theological approach to ministry. We are often reminded that all true theology must ultimately bear on the life of the church, but we need also to remember that the life of the church is all truly theological. So the aim of the Centre is to provide opportunities for ongoing theological study for pastors alongside their ministry after their initial training. We do this by offering a ThM in historical theology (from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, but taught in London), by teaching study days around the UK, and by helping pastors from the UK and overseas with their study leave projects. This last part of the work has grown and we have had men staying for intensive periods of study from countries as diverse as Cuba, Burma, India, and Nigeria.


How can people support the John Owen Centre?

We are always looking to expand our base of prayer and financial support. It would be wonderful if some of your readers would pray for the growth of theologically thoughtful ministry in the UK. We'd love to be besieged by pastors hungry to keep thinking theologically and to be able to help them. There are many who do see the need, but it can feel like rowing against the tide. We have to make the case for theological study, but that has its own challenges and even temptations. It can be hard to do a good job of promoting theological education without becoming a self-obsessed institution driven by its own promotion - we want to make the case for our work without succumbing to institutional vanity and slick self-promotion. On the financial side it is hard to raise funds for theological education, perhaps especially for the kind of further education that we offer. The men who are most eager to do more study often come from poor countries overseas and we would love to be able not only to cover our own costs but also to extend bursaries to them. We would be thrilled to find more support to sustain and even to grow the work.

You spent 10 years at Oak Hill and are adjunct at Westminster, how do you see theological education in the UK developing?

It is changing rapidly and I have some anxiety about the changes. The trend is very much toward church-based courses that are taken part-time alongside ministry experience. I think that the proper attraction of such courses is that they ensure that theological study is firmly rooted in the life of the church. This is as it should be. I am an enthusiast for such courses provided they don't replace seminary training. Time on a local course would make an excellent prelude to seminary and this would be a really good ministry for such courses to develop. The problem is that many men think that a course is enough, while the courses struggle to offer the kind of specialist theological training that a seminary can. Fifty years ago we lived in an age where there was hardly any British evangelical scholarship. Reading descriptions of theological training in the mid-twentieth century in the biographies of men like John Stott brings home just how weak the evangelical theological world was. There were hardly any evangelical commentaries being written. I wonder if there is a danger that we might return to such a condition if the seminaries are weakened by the rise of courses that do not teach biblical languages. The best courses do encourage men to go to seminary but the problem is that the men themselves are often reluctant and feel that they have done enough study already. Going to seminary is costly and it can be too easy to find a reason not to go.


What writing projects are you working on currently?

I have two essays in the new Crossway book on definite atonement (From Heaven He Came and Sought Her), and have nearly finished a book of applied theological meditations on the love of God. After that I hope to return to some more academic writing on the atonement which is my long-term project. I might return to the topic of my DPhil (Grotius on the atonement) or some material I have been developing on examples of penal substitutionary atonement in the church fathers.