If you go to Southern Seminary (like I do), you are required to take a class in evangelism, and it’s usually one of the larger classes since it’s mandatory for almost any tract. If you take Dr. Beougher, he requires you to read a book called A Pastors Sketches. It’s an old book written by a Presbyterian minister named Spencer who was known as the “Bunyan of Brooklyn.” It’s basically his journalism about evangelistic encounters he has with people around Brooklyn and beyond. The first “sketch” of an encounter was actually quite fascinating and helpful. But as the book drags on, it becomes onerous to the critical reader in a variety of ways. I will be exploring several dangers of this book that may be influencing and effecting seminary students at Southern in the next few posts.
Spencer, Ichabod. A Pastor’s Sketches. Vestavia Hills, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2001. Reprint 2002. 285. $12.95.
Danger 1: Calvinism is Not the Gospel
Spencer believes that part of saving faith and understanding is to understand “the entire depravity of the heart” (127, emphasis mine). Reading between the lines that he is a Calvinist, believing the doctrines of grace, I assume he means by this that a person cannot be saved without an understanding of the doctrine of total depravity: “If he does not see that [the entire depravity of the heart], it is probable that he does not see his heart. And hence his repentance, his faith in Christ, and his reliance upon the Holy Spirit, will probably, all of them, be only deceptions” (127, emphasis mine). This perspective would explain why he is so intent on giving long indictment speeches to unbelievers (see “Election,” 230-255).
He seems to further imply that one must not only believe the doctrine of total depravity for there to be certainty of his true conversion, but also the other four doctrines of grace: “My observation continues to confirm me more and more in the opinion that to experience religion is to experience the truth of the great doctrines of divine grace” (127, emphasis mine). Because the following statement is made in the same context, it gives the impression that he considers these doctrines of grace, not as optional doctrinal positions, but as essential to Christianity: “And. . .I believed, and had always acted on the principle, that true experimental religion will always lead its subjects to a knowledge of the great essential doctrines of the Christian system—indeed, that to experience religion is just to experience these doctrines” (126). This principle is also evident when upon testing some young men who had supposedly been saved through a “camp meeting,” he questioned the validity of their experience because they did not have all the right answers to his questions (129).
I can’t help but think Spencer’s approach in this respect is legalistic and dangerous. Calvinism is not the gospel. While I myself believe that the doctrines of Calvinism are biblical, I do not believe any one of them is necessary to believe as a prerequisite to true conversion. If this were true, only Calvinists would be saved. (I’ve blogged about this before) Also, Spencer’s glib outlook on so called “revival” seems to result from this false notion. He says, “A true history of spurious revivals would be one of the most melancholy books ever written” (130). He appears at one point to attempt making a distinction between a person having a technical understanding of such doctrines (which he names as human sinfulness, divine sovereignty, atonement, justification by faith, regeneration by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the constant need of divine aid) and a persons being “substantially right” in their minds “on such doctrines” (130). However, it is not clear what the practical difference would be to him, especially since he was not satisfied with the answers given to him by the two young men in the chapter entitled “Excitement” (128-130). Also, Spencer almost seems jealous when members of his attend “revival” meetings or go to another church to be taught. In the section of his book entitled “Proselytying,” he immediately assumes that someone is “soliciting” them away from his preaching (182). He judges the situation too quickly, assuming that if these revival attenders are not immediately converted to Christ once they have changed churches that it is “manifest” that whoever they have gone to hear is simply “tickling their vanity and pride” with their attention (183). He seems pessimistic of all other churches but his own.