Lee Gatiss on learning from Christians of the past

leegatissAn interview with Lee Gatiss: Part 2

Lee, you’re a prolific writer and also an editor of works by some great Christians of the past. Why is it important to keep producing these materials?

Yes, it’s been a privilege to republish works by people such as JC Ryle and George Whitefield, and to produce books about Reformed theology and puritanism, as well as Anglicanism. My recent book Cornerstones of Salvation (Evangelical Press), for example, looked at some key foundations and debates on the doctrine of salvation, and people like Archbishop Grindal and John Wesley, because I realised I had so much to learn from people of the past about God and about engaging in church life and leadership.

I also loved putting together a more devotional resource recently—90 Days in Genesis, Exodus, Psalms, and Galatians with Calvin, Luther, Bullinger, and Cranmer (Good Book Company)—because those great ones of the past were so clearly Bible men through and through, with keen insight into the word of God and the human heart.

You’ve also done a PhD on John Owen. Can you share with us, firstly, who he is and what he did? And secondly, why we should know about him?

John Owen (1616-1683) was a great Puritan minister and theologian during a tumultuous period of English history. An ordained Anglican who became Oliver Cromwell’s chaplain and Vice Chancellor of Oxford University, and then an ejected nonconformist, his works in 24 sturdy volumes contain so much rich, biblical theology and reflection. I worked especially on his 2 million-word commentary on Hebrews, which is an extremely erudite exposition of the biblical text, so it was good for my soul as well as stretching for my mind.

You’re a big believer in the historic formularies of the Anglican Church such as the Prayer Book and Thirty-Nine Articles. How are they still relevant? And how do you think they can be used in a modern church setting (even in a low church setting)?

Steve, you’ll remember well when we went to visit the handwritten manuscript of the Thirty-nine Articles in Cambridge together. There they were, safely behind glass, and the librarian wasn’t amused when I suggested we might add our signatures to those of various 16th century worthies at the end of the original copy.

Some people think the Articles should remain under lock and key, as historical artifacts. But the Church of England’s Canon A2 states that the Thirty-Nine Articles are ‘agreeable to the Word of God and may be assented unto with a good conscience by all members of the Church of England’. We are a confessional and assenting church. Indeed, Canon A5 goes on to say that the doctrine of the Church of England, grounded in the Holy Scriptures, ‘is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion’, along with the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal. So they are a statement of official, authorised Anglican doctrine—our ‘theological identity card’ as Jim Packer puts it. They can be of great use in contemporary debates and are an underemployed resource in many Anglican discussions, as I have tried to show in a series of books we have produced at Church Society (and a forthcoming commentary by 40 different Anglicans, including several Australians, called Foundations of Faith: Reflections on the 39 Articles).

Nothing happens without energetic individuals; but nothing lasts without solid institutions. Institutions are an essential mechanism for harnessing and empowering people who want to make a lasting change without being shackled to and weakened by the eccentricities of changeable leadership. Yet institutions need solid foundations. They may need some modern translation, and to be fed to people in small doses these days, but the Anglican formularies are excellent tried and tested foundations on which to build.