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Fearless for Truth: A Personal Portrait of the Life of George Beasley-Murray

By Brian Haymes.

Paul Beasley-Murray

(Paternoster Press, Carlisle 2002; 244pp; £15.99; ISBN 1 84227 134 2)

There are obvious difficulties for a son when it comes to writing about his father. These difficulties, such as those of objectivity, are compounded when the son’s relationship to the father is transparently close, full of deep affection and patent admiration. The only hope is that the author is seriously aware of such traps and tries to avoid them. In my judgement, Paul has done just this in writing about his father and by so doing has given us a useful and inspiring book.

For Baptists, George Beasley-Murray was truly significant. He was a local minister, College Principal, Seminary Professor, prolific scholarly writer, passionate preacher and undoubtedly one of the leading evangelical figures of his day. Many Baptists will be glad to have this book. For those of other Christian traditions there is much here that is worth serious attention. Let me try to say why this book is worth purchasing and reading by any minister.

First, this is an inspiring story of a good man living for Christ. The book tells the story of George’s life, of the call and dedication to God’s will. Living this out was no easy matter and there were challenges and obstacles to be overcome. But running through the pages is a story of a consecrated life that is simply inspiring. I wish we might have had more on the patterns and sources of George’s spirituality, but I suspect these were properly secret, even to the family. The passion and dedication were real, awesome at times and behind the public ministry there must have much time waiting and listening in the ‘secret place’.

Second, a description is given of a coherent ministry, holding together scholarship and evangelistic passion. What seems to fall apart in others is presented as one integrated life. We are given glimpses into the life of a minister who knows what really matters in ministry, who can sort out the essential from the merely clamorous or glamorous. Perhaps what is also of note is that the pastorates in which George served saw the essentials of his ministry with him. He did not seem to have to justify his time in the study with the Bible and his books. The congregations knew that what was required of a minister. Their expectations were shaped by the practice of his convictions. He was clear what ministry was about and to read this book is to face a form of ministry that is not always recognized today, but of which we are in serious need. The essentials of scholarly work in the service of the gospel, of pastoral ministry to build up the church, and of evangelism by all means, but especially preaching, are at the heart of this life. The coherence is illustrated in the fact that he translated Bultmann’s commentary on the Fourth Gospel. He was not uncritical of Bultmann’s methods or conclusions. However, the search for truth and the recognition of Bultmann’s own passion to live and proclaim the gospel of the living Lord, with its urgent call to decision, meant that George was able to be open to seek the truth whatever it might be.

Third, although George was not a controversialist by nature, he faced a number of important theological controversies in his life. Paul’s book deals with these in detail and in so doing brings to light some factors which will probably be new for many of his readers. Two of these controversies, on the face of it, were internal to the Baptists, but they were and are about issues still with every community of Christians today. A comment about each.

In the first controversy, George played a crucial role in helping Baptists to recognize the gospel call to unity in Christ. He encouraged them to play their part in what has come to be called the ecumenical movement. Predictably he did this by pointing Baptists to the doctrine of the Church in Scripture. He did the same thing in ecumenical conversations. He was an unashamed evangelical and wanted the Church to listen carefully, above all, to the Bible. His great book on Baptism in the New Testament remains a singularly important contribution to the whole Church. There were those in the denomination who did not care for where his scholarship took him, nor for his ecumenical courage, and he had to bear with criticism which was not always just and fair. His theological justification for ecumenical commitment remains worthy of the most careful attention.

Then, at a time when George was Chairman of the Baptist Union Council, a theological controversy arose around questions of Christology. He came to play a significant part in the debate. The letters Paul quotes, both by his father and to his father, give important insights into what was going on both theologically and politically. What is striking is the integrity George brought to the controversy. He was of no doubt that crucial matters were at stake. But, unlike others, he refused to personalize these and refused the point-scoring and wound-giving attacks of others. He believed that serious debate about the content of the faith ought to be a feature of the Church of Jesus Christ, but he had no time for the party spirit to which such debate could give rise.

A third area of controversy relates to his own studies in eschatology and, in particular, his work on Mark chapter 13. He came to conclusions which troubled other evangelicals, but he persisted with his convictions because those were what he found in the Bible text. He was ready to change his mind, and did so if convinced, but he must have known heavy pressure when it came to the politics of evangelical identity.

Paul gives careful attention to these controversies and it strikes me that the book would usefully serve as a good discussion study for ministers, for such issues are still with us. Of course, there is always another point of view. Paul shares many of his father’s presuppositions about the nature, sources and norms of truth. Others of us have questions to ask and I suspect George would wish for nothing more than that they be asked in the fellowship of those eager to know, live in and proclaim the truth of God. He himself is a fine model for a conversation partner on such matters. He would not turn aside from the theological probing invited by the record in this book.

A fourth reason to commend this book is the way that Paul hints at the influences on his father’s life and work. Such a story invites us to reflect on what it is that shapes our understanding and practice of ministry. Here the truth applies, that the unexamined life is hardly worth living. What influences and drives us in our ministry? And what kind of influence are we having?

Fifth, and finally in this list, the story Paul tells is one of dedicated lives willing to make sacrifices for Christ’s sake. ‘Lives’ is in the plural because George’s wife Ruth is never far from these pages. She and George put up with conditions and made sacrifices that many a modern minister would not make, nor should be ever asked by other Christians to make. The picture of consecrated lives, clear in purpose, possessed of a deep mutual love for each other and for God is one of the pictures that remain with the reviewer and for which he is thankful.

I have one other comment on the book, provoked both by reading and a memory. Paul has set his father in the general context of the history of George’s times, but there is little detail here and only a slight sense of the contextual nature of the gospel’s proclamation. I once saw George in a moment of deep self-reflection. He was lecturing at a ministers’ conference and paused for a moment to reflect quietly on the fact that, during his ministry, atomic and nuclear weapons had been developed, weapons which shaped international relations and human fears. But, he said, he had never tackled such issues in his preaching and wondered if this were not a serious omission. The memory hangs there for me, raising questions about how the Church speaks the prophetic word.

For historical, denominational and theological reasons, this book is important. Even if you did not know the subject or the detailed times though which he lived, there is much in this volume of value for the local pastor. It is not the last word on George Beasley-Murray’s life, but it is a crucial first word. The son has served and honoured the father well, a father for whose life and work many of us will continue to give thanks to God.

The Revd Dr Brian Haymes is Minister of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church. He was formerly Principal of Bristol Baptist College.

Exploring the New Cosmology:

Genesis 28.10-end

and Philemon 1-16

Simon Tatton-Brown

(What follows is the text of a sermon preached by the author last year. In the light of the concern expressed by some Christians about Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy, we thought readers might value the perspective of an experienced working pastor on these issues.)

Sunday 27th January 2002 - 6.30 pm - St Andrew’s, Chippenham, Wiltshire

Feeling curious, Will took out the knife and cut a small window in front of where he was sitting. Through it he saw nothing but blue air, but below, far below was a landscape of trees and fields: his own world, without a doubt...

Will held out the knife again and felt for those tiny halts and hesitations. There were far more of them than he’d thought. And as he felt them without the need to cut through at once, he found that they each had a different quality: this one was hard and definite, that one cloudy; a third was slippery, a fourth brittle and frail... but among them all there were some he felt more easily than other, and, already knowing the answer, he cut one through to be sure: his own world again.

The extract comes from The Amber Spyglass, the children’s book which won the Whitbread Prize last week. The image of Will, cutting through the membranes separating different worlds and universes is not unlike that of Jacob dreaming about the angels, using their ladder to pass between the world of earth and mortals and that of heaven above.

The cosmology of The Amber Spyglass is not pure fantasy, however. Philip Pullman is giving expression to a hypothesis being put forward by many physicists today. Professor Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, is intrigued by them. He writes:

It [may be] that our Big Bang may not have been the only one. Separate universes may have cooled down differently, ending up governed by different laws and defined by different numbers. This ... is a natural deduction from some (albeit speculative) theories, and opens up a new vision of our universe as just one ‘atom’ selected from an infinite multiverse.

This is a very different cosmology from that of Genesis. Gone is Providence, and all sense of purpose and direction. Gone is belief in there being just one creation, the work of one Creator. Gone is moral value - at least, insofar as we apply it to matter, or law. You won’t hear these philosophers looking down on the universe, and saying “Behold, it was very good.” It just is. And the laws by which it is governed are the laws of mathematics, and the measured sciences. Love may be present, but only as an abstract. Truth (or rather truths) are contingent on measurement. Good is a matter of opinion - or circumstance.

This world-view has been creeping up on us for over two hundred and fifty years, and it doesn’t fit with the classic cosmologies that have previously underpinned Christianity. Jacob’s dream uses the concepts of the ancient Babylonian astronomers - the same concepts that lie behind the descriptions of creation in Genesis 1 and 2. In Honest to God, Bishop John Robinson famously described the ancient cosmology as a three-decker universe: the platform of earth (one on which we stand); the waters beneath it; and above the earth the firmament, a great dome, or vault, above which are the heavens. In his dream, Jacob imagined the angels making a physical journey between heaven and earth, on a ladder.

While the new cosmology has been creeping up on us for over two hundred and fifty years, it has only properly entered the popular imagination in the last generation. Part of the reason is because the theories were only firmed up in recent years, with the resolution of the debate between the Big Bang and the Steady State theories of creation, and the work of physicists and astronomers. Another reason is the ease with which the new cosmology is described on television, and the growth in the market of good popular science.

Much of the art - music, painting - of the twentieth century reflects our changing cosmology. It’s no accident that the children of those who heard Nietzsche preach that God is dead have followed an abstract and then minimalist path (although of course there are exceptions, often religious ones - compare Chagall with, say, Mondrian, or John Piper with Warhol). The Amber Spyglass gives expression to a militant atheism. A reviewer has written:

The thrust of the trilogy that is completed by The Amber Spyglass is to re-run the Fall, but this time sexuality and knowledge are good, and authority is bad. The priests and the church are the embodiment of evil. The aim of the child protagonists is hardly unambitious - it is to destroy the dream of the kingdom of heaven, and instead to put one’s faith in building the republic of heaven in one’s own lifetime.

I suspect that one of the problems we are having in commending our gospel is that it is built on the old cosmology. I suspect that most people, certainly those under forty, have little time for the old cosmology. Indeed, within the Christian tradition, it is only those whom we liberals at St Andrew’s deride as fundamentalist who make any attempt to defend the old cosmology. We don’t believe it either. It no longer fits with the facts. But we oldies had our faith formed by teachers who either ignored or didn’t know much about the new cosmologies. Our hopes and beliefs still fly with the momentum they were given when we were children.

Young people - those under forty and less - whose beliefs are being formed in our modern secular environment (children reading The Amber Spyglass) are writing off the whole of the Christian story together with its ancient cosmology. In doing so, I believe that they are mistaken. Mistaken, because Christianity is very much about (and I quote again that reviewer) “putting one’s faith in building the republic of heaven in one’s own lifetime” - only our traditions have conditioned us to refer to as it the kingdom of heaven. According to Jesus of Nazareth we are to pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It is a travesty of the teaching of Jesus to suggest that it’s all pie in the sky when you die.

I think this can be well illustrated by our second lesson, from Philemon. It is anything but other-worldly. Let me recap on the story. Onesimus, a slave in the household of Philemon, has, for some reason we don’t know, run away, and come to Paul - who is in prison. It’s an embarrassing situation. Onesimus has broken the law. Unless his owner Philemon releases him, he is liable to arrest and punishment. At the same time, Paul does not believe in slavery. “In Christ there is neither slave nor free,” he had written some twenty years earlier to the Galatians.

Paul, perhaps to the great disappointment of Onesimus, sends the slave back. He doesn’t fob Onesimus off with rewards in heaven as a consolation for sufferings now. Nor does he threaten Philemon with judgement from on high if he disobeys Paul’s wishes. It’s going to be another eighteen hundred years or so before the church understands that slavery is wrong, and Paul may well be moderating his own earlier position in the light of what was politically possible. What he does achieve, however, is a transformation in the fortunes of Onesimus. We can be pretty sure that Onesimus did return. That Philemon treated him more as a beloved brother than a slave (otherwise Philemon might well have torn up the letter). This was an example of Paul, Philemon and Onesimus getting a bit closer to heaven in their lifetime. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

One of the intriguing (and impressive) features of The Amber Spyglass is the degree to which Philip Pullman employs religious imagery and symbolism in his novel. Even the atheist reviewer I quoted spoke about heaven, even though the author places it in a republic! There is no other language in which we can express the concepts religion tries to convey, just as some two thousand five hundred years ago, when the ancient story of Jacob and his dream was finally written down, there was no other language in which his vision could be expressed, save that of the ancient cosmology.

When it comes to the Christian story, Marshall McLuhan is wrong. It is not true that the medium is the message. Just as the parable of the Good Samaritan does not depend on a factual account of a robbery in the Wadi Kifr west of Jericho for its truth, neither do the stories we tell under the name of gospel - good news. We can still hear what our forebears were saying, though we might speak a different language today. The reality behind it is just the same. It may be that the challenge of evangelism is to teach the next generation how to read this ancient, but by no means irrelevant, tongue.

The Christian religion might also be compared to Will’s knife. Christian tradition often likens the church, and church buildings, to Jacob’s ladder, opening a window into heaven. Only the modern Christian knife is a knife which cuts away the membranes dividing not different universes from each other in a mythical multiverse, but all those errors, sins and injustices that separate one human being from another in this. And the window that is opened, and the universe it reveals beyond? Isn’t it called love?

The Revd Simon Tatton-Brown is Vicar of St Andrew’s Parish Church, Chippenham, Wiltshire. He also chairs the Diocesan Liturgical Committee in the Diocese of Bristol.

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You are reading Fearless for Truth: A Personal Portrait of the Life of George Beasley-Murray by Brian Haymes, part of Issue 27 of Ministry Today, published in February 2003.

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