Review – Living by Revealed Truth

9781781911228Living by Revealed Truth

The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles Haddon Spurgeon,

Tom Nettles, Christian Focus, hbk, 683 pp., £20.

It is always a disappointment to look forward to reading a book, and then find that it does not live up to expectations. C H Spurgeon was uniquely talented as a pastor, preacher and Christian writer, and indeed must be one of the most interesting and colourful characters in the whole history of the Christian Church. A study of his life and pastoral theology sounds like gripping reading, and potentially most valuable to present-day ministers in practical terms.

This is especially true given the lack of great works on Spurgeon thus far. After a rush of sentimental and rather uncritical studies published immediately after his death in 1892, of which the most important was the two-volume Autobiography which was compiled from a variety of fragments of Spurgeon’s writing concerning his own life, there was little written on Spurgeon from an evangelical perspective until the second half of the twentieth century. This produced two short but valuable biographies, by Iain H Murray and Arnold Dallimore respectively. But a really good full-length life of Spurgeon was still wanting – and sadly it is still.

Tom Nettles has given us a massive tome of 700 pages (and these are extra wide and printed in double columns), beautifully produced in hardcover by Christian Focus. The large volume is accompanied by literally pages of endorsements by well-known pastors and authors, but truthfully one has to wonder just how many of them had got beyond the first chapter.

A cardinal rule of historical writing is good use of selection. Any human life produces a vast quantity of information of all kinds, and the more famous a man is in his own lifetime, the more there is that will survive. A biographical writer must pick and choose skillfully what to include and what to exclude to write a really good narrative, that holds the attention of the reader throughout, that tells him what he needs and wants to know rather than useless detail: that identifies and addresses the key themes of the individual’s life.

This book fails because of its total lack of selection, which means that all narrative flow and human interest is lost in the pointless inclusion of vast quantities of tedious detail. A good biography can be long and yet riveting (think Marsden on Edwards, or Dallimore on Whitefield); but Nettles is long, boring and increasingly pointless. Whatever key themes Nettles intended to communicate are lost like needles amid the vast haystack of this work. The title would seem to indicate a concentration on the authoritative revelation of God in Scripture, which would indeed be a great theme, and very relevant to the ministry and contentions of Spurgeon. But if this was Nettles’ intention in commencing the work, he has failed through the inclusion of far too much extraneous detail.

For example, the chapter on Spurgeon’s ill health in this volume is just a chronological citation, with big chunks of quotation, from every single reference to his own ill health that the author could track down in Spurgeon’s voluminous writings. What possible purpose could there be in writing such a chapter? More to our purpose, what point could there be in reading it? One would need saintly patience to wade through the pages and pages of close printed text to try to discern whatever lesson on dealing with illness Nettles is presumably trying to communicate – and really why should the reader do the author’s job for him?

The book claims to be a ‘Life and Pastoral Theology’, yet if it fails in its first objective, it is equally unsuccessful in pursuing the second. Theology requires razor sharp analysis, and precise examination of the use of terms. Nettles divides up Spurgeon’s theological outlook into a variety of broad categories, and with the patient, unimaginative dedication of a search engine, works through Spurgeon’s writing organizing vast screeds of citations. But the result is an inch deep. We are told that Spurgeon preached the covenant, for example, and thought it very important; cue lots and lots of examples. But what was his formulation of the covenant? Was it a two or three covenant structure? What was his view of the exact relationship of Old to New Testament preaching of the covenant? If you want answers, you had better try to work them out for yourself. In terms of the pastoral work, huge chunks of Lectures to my Students are regurgitated but we can and should read these for ourselves. Of rigorous critical scrutiny, there is very little. Bluntly, as theology, this book is far more a work of compilation than analysis.

Furthermore, with so much quotation, Nettles’ writing is painfully exposed next to Spurgeon’s. Whereas the great preacher was a master of English prose, and writes in striking, thoughtful, stylish epigrams, Nettles’ sentences are turgid and pedestrian.

Crucially, the book adopts an uncritical stance regarding Spurgeon, treating his writing at every point as the last word on the subject, rather than engaging seriously with his arguments, and identifying where he makes a strong case, and where he gets things wrong. The failure to do this is just hagiography, which is profoundly unhelpful in the whole area of Christian biography. We should save our reverence for Christ alone, as the Perfect Man, and recognize that human subjects are not just fallible, but do definitely fail at times and in places. This allows a much healthier attitude to past worthies: to engage with them seriously but critically, and thus to learn from them both positively and negatively. Spurgeon had serious weaknesses; even apart from the obvious theological differences, I found other vital points of disagreement: for example, his view of the duties of Government with regard to the Christian religion is shockingly secular (p. 519).

There are strengths to this book. Its sheer scale means that if one wants to find out what Spurgeon thought on a specific issue, such as novels (p.413) or the use of alcohol (p.431), this is easily found using the excellent indices. One or two chapters are good: the first on his early life and conversion has much material of interest, and does include some analysis, as in the eight general points of observation regarding his spiritual life (p.51) – if only Nettles had given us more of this instead of his endless quotations. Equally, a much later chapter on ‘Theology and Controversy’ dredges up some interesting and forgotten battles from Spurgeon’s younger days. But truthfully, few readers will keep going long enough to get this far.

This book has value as a work of reference for those interested in Spurgeon, but as for the definitive modern biography of the Prince of Preachers – we are still waiting.

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