Finding Clarity in Confusion: Understanding Lloyd-Jones’s 1966 Address

The following was published at Credo Magazine which is a excellent theological resource for scholar, pastors, and lay readers! I highly encourage you to visit their sight.

Confusion hung over the crowd of the Second National Assembly of Evangelicals like a cloud of secondhand smoke. Moments earlier, the famed pastor D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones had appealed for the creation of a new evangelical association. He believed an evangelical exodus from mainline denominations would facilitate “a mighty revival and re-awakening.” As he brought his appeal to an end, everyone seemed to know what was expected of him or her. The evangelical leader John Stott shared this impression believing his audience would “go home and write their letter of resignation that very night.” Fearing that this assembly which had been formed to further ecumenicism was about to condemn ecumenicism, Stott broke professional protocol and proclaimed, “I believe history is against what Dr. Lloyd-Jones has said…Scripture is against him, the remnant was within the church not outside of it. I hope no one will act precipitately.”

The battle had been engaged. Yet few in attendance could clearly articulate why these two leaders of British evangelicalism had exchanged blows. Both seemingly advocated for the gospel, the supremacy of the Scriptures and unity. Yet they had both just thrown verbal punches at one another. The crowd was confused. Historians and theologians are still confused about what happened. The debate over whether or not Lloyd-Jones was a unifier or schismatic still smolders in more than one evangelical fire pit and will not be put out anytime soon.

Much of the confusion over what had transpired on October 18, 1966 centered upon the content of Lloyd-Jones’s now famous speech “Evangelical Unity: An Appeal.” Stott and the evangelical press of the day believed that the Doctor’s speech “should be interpreted as calling for evangelicals to leave mixed denominations.” They believed Lloyd-Jones was schismatic, working against the unifying influences that had risen to prominence in British evangelicalism during the 1960s.

By contrast, the supporters of the Doctor believed Lloyd-Jones had offered a positive appeal that had little to do with the creation of a new denomination. His grandson and historian, Christopher Catherwood, concluded, “The doctor was arguing for unity, not for division or schism.” The debate over whether or not Lloyd-Jones was a unifier or schismatic still smolders in more than one evangelical fire pit and will not be put out anytime soon.

Though many scholars huddle about the fires that seek to illuminate the Doctor’s intentions, little effort has been devoted to understanding why Lloyd-Jones’s speech proved confusing. Though scholars have credited Stott, the evangelical press, and Lloyd-Jones with igniting the fire of controversy, they have not examined why Lloyd-Jones’s 1966 address was so ready for the kindling.

Why the Confusion?

Lloyd-Jones’s address lacked clarity in part because it lacked Scripture. Though Lloyd-Jones believed evangelicalism had reached a “most critical moment” in 1966, he approached this monumental times with a closed Bible. He referenced the Word of God only twice during his speech, mentioning Acts 2:42 and the “First Epistle to the Corinthians.” He spent more time discussing the Reformation than exegeting the Word of God. Consequently, J.I. Packer would conclude the Doctor had contended for a kind of Puritanism. Other listeners believed the Doctor had been consumed with denominational concerns. Catherwood wrote his grandfather had placed “his emphasis on structure rather than doctrine.” The Doctor had been misunderstood because he stood upon logic and church history instead of the Scriptures. Because of this mistake, he suffered the loss of both friends and influence.

The Lessons of Failure

Pastors, theologians, and lay leaders should take note of Lloyd-Jones’s failure. The man who had devoted his life to glorifying God through sermons designed “to make doctrine real to the heart and therefore permanently life-changing” had stepped out from underneath the shadow of the Scriptures. Without the Word of God, the Doctor’s logic and knowledge of church history proved to be as vibrant as a water-soaked piece of charcoal. He read his Bible regularly. He knew it and loved it. At the very end, when he couldn’t speak, he would point to verses out of it.

If Christians wonder into ecclesial, social, or political spheres without the Scriptures, they too risk being misunderstood by their listeners. Such presentations may win some adherents in the moment, but they will not advance the gospel, strengthen the Church, or edify local congregations. Lloyd-Jones correctly noted, “You cannot build up a church on apologetics, still less on polemics. The preacher is called primarily to preach the positive Truth.” The Christian’s ability to influence others rests upon his or her ability to exegete and teach the gospel. The Christian has no other power. The people of God must ground their arguments in the Word if they hope to influence hearts.

Lloyd-Jones: A Man of the Scriptures

In many respects, Lloyd-Jones would recover from the wounds of the 1966 controversy because he never wandered far from the Scriptures. Over the course of his life, he lived by the maxim, “Any doctrine that we claim to believe from the Bible must always clearly be found in the Bible.” Three years after the controversy of 1966, the Welsh pastor delivered perhaps his most famous lectures in Philadelphia. These addresses would later be edited and published under the title, Preaching and Preachers. His influence did not stop with this volume. Crossway and Banner of Truth continue to release new editions of his sermons and lectures which cover everything from Romans to the Psalms to the theology of parenting. He was a profoundly biblical man. As his daughter Elizabeth Catherwood noted, “He read his Bible regularly. He knew it and loved it. At the very end, when he couldn’t speak, he would point to verses out of it.” The Doctor remains a fixture upon the evangelical mantel because he loved the Word.

Lloyd-Jones, the Scriptures and 1966

Even his 1966 address had been sparked by his earlier exegetical work. Many of the arguments the Doctor put forward in 1966 had appeared in a booklet he wrote in 1962. In those pages, Lloyd-Jones built his understanding of ecumenicism upon his exegesis of John 17 and Ephesians 4. The booklet restated the conclusions of numerous exegetical sermons he had preached at Westminster Chapel in the 1940s and 1950s. Though Lloyd-Jones shared only his logical conclusions in 1966, they were conclusions that had been extracted from the Scriptures. He had not abandoned his principles. Rather, he had forgotten to fully share them. This oversight doomed the Doctor’s address.

The Scriptures clarify and empower our thoughts; our thoughts do not clarify and empower the Scriptures. Regardless of the Christian’s training, intellect, and persuasiveness, nothing can compensate for the absence of the plain and powerful words of the Scriptures. As Lloyd-Jones said in 1969, “What matters is not the man or his ideas: it should always be this Word, for it alone is the sources of the preacher’s authority.” May God keep us grounded in this Word.

Did the Reformation Destroy the ‘Church?’

Catholics, academics, and some protestants view the Reformation launched by Martin Luther on October 31, 1517 as being a less than helpful historical development. Prior to the posting of the 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Chapel, seemingly one unified Christian church existed. Our Christian friends in the East who assemble under the banner of the Greek Orthodox Church take issue with this Western view of church history. Almost five hundred years before the Reformation, they broke with the Bishop of Rome on July 16, 1054. But the great schism did not destroy the unity of the Western Churches. Luther and the second generation of Reformers deserve the credit or the blame for that development. Baptists have a president, Methodists have bishops, and Presbyterians have presbyters in part because Luther walked off the field and refused to play with the historic and unifying expression of Christendom, the Roman Catholic Church.

Did Luther and Sola Scriptures Destroy the Church?

But is this truly what happened? Did Luther’s quest for a purer church destroy “The Church,” dividing that which God has always intended to be unified?

Those who view the Reformation to be primarily schismatic in nature, point to the most famous line of the Reformation. At the Diet of Worms in 1521, the representative of Pope Leo X demanded that Luther recant of his errors and his teaching. His errors included such things as Thesis 36 which stated, “Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.” Luther asked for an adjournment of the meeting to form his response. When he returned to the hall the following day, he replied:

I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”

Here I Stand

Protestants champion Luther’s statement because it encapsulates the idea of Sola Scriptura, Scripture alone. Instead of looking to Rome for truth, protestants can scan the Bible and discern God’s truth through plain reason. Luther had shifted the authority of the church from the Pope’s throne to the pew. Protestants rejoiced.

Christendom quaked. The democratization of the church’s authority threatened to destroy all authoritative claims. Any man or woman with access to the Bible could reason himself or herself to a variety of doctrines that may have no relation to the doctrines proposed by other Christians. Essentially Luther and the Reformers who followed the pugnacious monk had turned theology into a subjective experience that seemingly undermined the idea of truth, leaving no place for cultural much less spiritual unity. Interpretive anarchy reigned.

What Did Luther Really Do?

Though Luther and those in the Reformed camp turned the world upside down, they were not seeking to create a new church, modeling a theological paradigm of unending evolution and progress. The Reformers were inherently theological conservationists who wished to lead the Church back to the historic, apostolic faith. Luther had said his 95 Theses aligned, “with what is in the Holy Scriptures…and then what is in…the writings of the church fathers.”

Luther had not advocated for theological anarchy. He and those who followed him believed that the Holy Spirit that had inspired the New Testament text, converted the lost and sustained the church as the caretaker and protector of the evangelical witness. Christians were free to interpret the text according to their own conscience as long as that conscience aligned with the Scriptures and the testimony of the historic church that affirmed the apostolic witness. Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer correctly noted that for the Reformers, “Tradition was not the Word of God; it is the testimony to that Word.” Luther took issue with the Pope not because the Vatican championed tradition. He took issue with Rome because it advocated for theological positions that ran counter to the Scriptures and the testimony of the historic apostolic faith. Vanhoozer helpfully describes what Luther did, writing,

Protestantism is not the virus that divides and attacks the body; it is the antibodies that set to work attacking the body’s infection (e.g. late medieval Roman Catholicism).

Luther had not protested the authoritative nature of apostolic tradition as taught in the Scriptures. He protested against the commands of the Pope because the Pontiff, “distorts the Holy Scriptures.” He was not an theological anarchist. He was theological purest, Sola Scriptura.

Why Is the Church Fractured?

The church lacks unity not because the reformers protested the authority of Rome but because men and women of every age refuse to acknowledge the Scriptures and the apostolic tradition of the Church as Rome has done. The ancient church father Irenaeus whom Luther knew well described schismatics as follows:

When we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they [the schismatics] object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth.

The unity of the church fractures when men and women walk away from the apostolic witness of the Scriptures preferring new sources of authority ranging from prophetic dreams, to religious traditions, to personal feelings. Regardless of their claims, the new traditions always produce schism.

Luther did not infect the church with schism. He reintroduced the church to the cure for division, the gospel once delivered for all and attested to be all true believers. May we be wise stewards of the cure.

Why The Church Will Always Be the Same: A Coronavirus’s History Lesson

merry go round

The coronavirus has spun the world around like the vindictive kid standing next to an old merry-go-round. As humanity has hung on for dear life, some church leaders have declared that the violent spins will fundamentally alter the when and how people assemble. To survive, pastors and their congregations must learn to navigate the spinning wobbles of the coronavirus world through appeals to leadership coaches, political theories, sociologists, psychologists, and biologists.

Though the rotations of the 2020 merry-go-round have given the riders the impression that the they are moving across the playground, the foundation of the church has not moved and will not move. It remains forever anchored to the unchanging God of the universe. The mission of the local church which is comprised of redeemed men and women who have convenented together to live out the gospel in community is and forever will be to glorify God. The church will always assemble to worship the one true God. The historical record proves the fixed nature of the church, revealing that plagues, masks, and social distancing have not fundamentally changed the church.

A Brief History of Churches and Plagues

The coronavirus is not the first virus that has spun around the people of God with all the care of a ten-year-old bully. Church has withstood past challenges which threatened to ‘radically’ alter the bride of Christ. In 165 A.D. and again in 260 A.D plagues ravaged the world of the early church fathers, killing as much as 30% of the Roman world’s population according to historian Rodney Stark. The Bishop Dionysius was able to successfully pastor his generation through terror that “prevails over all hope.” When the plagues subsided, the church remained. Dionysius believed the plague of 260 A.D. had been a positive “instrument for our training and probation.”

In addition to medical issues, the church has wrestled through the secondary challenges and moral dilemmas that the coronavirus has brought to the church’s attention. During the plague of 1527, Martin Luther harshly condemned Germans who knowingly exposed their neighbors to the plague as “prank like putting lice into fur garments or flies into someone’s living room.” During the Cholera Outbreak of 1866, Spurgeon had to remind Christians that science did not threaten their faith. He said,

I am thankful that there are many men of intelligence and scientific information who can speak well upon… the laws of cleanliness and health. So far from being angry with those who instruct the people in useful secular knowledge, he ought rather to be thankful for them…The gospel has no quarrel with ventilation, and the doctrines of grace have no dispute with chloride of lime.

The particularly challenging topic of whether or not to meet during times of biological peril has also been address by the church of old.

Spurgeon kept holding services because his church’s neighborhood was not quarantined during the second cholera outbreak.

Similarly, Luther encouraged his followers to attend church so that they could “learn through God’s word how to live and how to die.” But, he also thought Christians had the freedom to leave cities struggling with the plague and believed the sick should avoid large gatherings. He wrote.

It is even more shameful for a person to pay no heed to his own body and to fail to protect it against the plague the best his is able, and then to infect and poison others who might have remained alive if he had taken care of his body as he should have. He is thus responsible before God for his neighbor’s death.

Richard Baxter who lived through the great London plague of 1665, leaned toward the side of caution. He encouraged the church to suspend operations when facing medical and civil crisisses not tied to gospel proclamation. He wrote,

If the magistrate for a greater good, (as the common safety,) forbid church-assemblies in a time of pestilence, assault of enemies, or fire, or the like necessity, it is a duty to obey him….[we] omit some assemblies for a time, that we may thereby have opportunity.

Ashbel Green concurred, encouraging the churches of Philadelphia to suspend their meetings during the plague of 1798 which claimed 3,400 lives. He refused to meet with his congregation from a “conviction to duty.” He believed that the “long and tedious” interval between services would help would perfect the church while she waited for divine deliverance.

Lastly, Francis Grimke who pastored in Washington D.C. during the Spanish Flu of 1918 supported the temporary closure of churches, theatres, and schools though other evangelicals grumbled. He wrote,

If as a matter of fact, it was dangerous to meet in theatres and in the schools, it certainly was no less dangerous to meet in churches…it was wise to take the precaution and not needlessly run in danger and expect God to protect us.

By God’s grace, the church of the past has successfully weathered spins on the pandemic merry-go-round, arriving in the form we recognize today.

Though some church leaders clamor about declaring the challenges of the coronavirus to be earth shattering, the history of the church proves the opposite to be true. As Ecclesiastics 1:10-11 notes,

Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.

If anything, the writings of Grimke, Spurgeon, and Green have revealed that plagues never substantial changed the nature of the church. Once the coronavirus merry-go-round stops spinning, history indicates most Christians and people will forget that the church was ever spun about. This is the greatest challenge the church faces today.

The Greatest Threat to The Church

The greatest threat of a pandemic resides not in is ability to change the church but in humanity’s ability to forget it ever occurred, missing the divine lessons which God promotes through trials.

In 1918, Grimke hoped the Spanish flu would, “beat a little sense into the white man’s head” because no one could deny that “White and black alike are dealt with indiscriminately: the one is smitten as readily as the other.” The need for the civil rights movement and the social unrest of 2020 have revealed that this lesson has not been taken to heart. Similarly, Spurgeon had wished that the plague of 1866 would usher in a revival, calling the people of London to forsake drunkenness, fornication, their lack of church attendance and their fascination with Catholicism. But the plague of 1866 like the plague of 1854 produced little change. Spurgeon later lamented,

Alas! for your piety! It was as the morning cloud, and as the early dew it passed away…We prayed; we sent for the minister; we devoted ourselves to God; we vowed, if he would spare us, we would live better. Here thou art, my hearer, just what thou wast before thy sickness.

Ashebel Green concurred, noting that populations often forget the lessons learned during plagues, returning to their earlier sins. He lamented:

We have actually grown worse, and not better, by all the chastisements we have been made to endure feel for this past five years.

Spurgeon feared that the church’s inability to heed God’s displeasure would result in the people of God being “ravaged by a pestilence worse than the plague: I mean the pestilence of deadly soul-destroying error.” Sadly, his warning has proved prophetic.

The merry-go-round will not change the church but it may afflict the church with gospel amnesia which will blunt the spread of the kingdom of God. Instead of strategizing about how to prepare for future changes that will prove insignificant in a few months time, believers should plead with God to bless the trials of today with gospel fruitfulness. Green reminds us:

Our past experiences has surely been enough to convince us, that no providence, however afflictive, awful or awakening in themselves, will make us any better, but rather much worse unless God accompany by the influences of his grace.

May God be with us all!