Book Review: Edification and Beauty by Dr. James Renihan

This week I finished a book that I truly enjoyed written by Dr. James Renihan entitled Edification and Beauty: The Practical Ecclesiology of the English Particular Baptists, 1675-1705, and this book is also a part of the Studies in Baptist History and Thought series.  I had an opportunity to meet Dr. Renihan and a small portion of his family in December, and so I was excited and interested to read this book (which also happens to be his dissertation, but it’s still very readable).

In a nutshell, this book is a history book, but a very intriguing history book about Particular Baptist history in England through the late 17th and into the very early 18th centuries. It is divided into six chapters (with plenty of subtitles….which I love) all expounding on the formation of the Particular Baptist churches (including the adoption of the 2nd London Baptist Confession of 1689), church government, the officers of the church, the practice of the regulative principle of worship, and the formation, necessity, and activities of church associations.

Now, I say this book is more intriguing than you would expect because Dr. Renihan spent countless hours examining old church records, minutes from church meetings, and lots of other primary sources that we wouldn’t even think exist today. Some specific topics that I found particularly interesting were

  • the demographic breakdowns of various congregations
  • how churches formed (especially in less populated areas)
  • the question and outworking of who holds the authority and exercises the power within the church
  • the role of “gifted brethren”
  • the outworking of “the communion of saints” among the churches
  • and all of the actual examples of how these Christians handled problems within their churches.

And after reading, you can’t help but be left with the deep impression that these Baptists were extremely serious about what they believed and equally as diligent to practice their faith very carefully. Faithful precision was of the utmost importance.

In terms of reviewing this book, if I had to capture my thoughts with a verse from Scripture, I would use Ecclesiastes 1:9-11, which says:

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
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.

 

And this passage comes to my mind because I think that books like this can help us. It’s important to remember the past, and it’s even more important to learn from the past, especially Church history. And I know that there is a plethora of books out about the Reformation and the history of various Protestant denominations, but as Reformed Baptists, we should make sure that we’re learning our own history too so that we can continue to grow in wisdom, understanding, and Christian maturity as knowledgeable Reformed Baptists.

Now I confess that this is my first time reading anything about Baptist history, but I enjoyed it and want to read more. It reminded me of my own upbringing in a Baptist church, and although my church wasn’t Reformed, they practiced many things that I read about in Dr. Renihan’s book (i.e. the yearly review of church history and being active members in the local Baptist Church association). In particular, I remember when I came to faith as a child (around age 6), and most members (including my pastor) did not believe that children could truly come to saving faith in Christ. But my mother made me get up near the end of the service and go to my pastor to tell him that I believed the gospel. My pastor stopped before he gave the benediction to actually question me on the gospel and what I believed in front of the congregation. He was surprised and satisfied with my responses, and then he told the congregation that unless there was an objection from anyone, he was putting me forward to be a candidate for baptism. Thankfully, there were no objections, but they made me take foundation classes for a while before my baptism. And when I participated in the Lord’s Supper the Sunday of my baptism, I had to stand beside the table to receive “the right hand of fellowship” from every member of the church. Later, when church meetings were convened, I stupidly thought that I could run around and play with all my friends outside, but my mother made sure that I knew that as a member, it was expected that I would be in the church meeting and paying attention, although everyone else my age was outside playing. In fact, as the youngest believer in my church, everyone had a hand in “rearing” me and making sure that I was not thinking and behaving like the other children (my actual peers) in the church because I had made a confession of faith, and my whole life was changed and dedicated in service to the Lord and my church.

My church took membership very seriously, and even from childhood, they made sure that I was involved (i.e. serving as an usher, cleaning before and after services, serving in the choir, teaching Sunday School, helping with Vacation Bible School, helping with fellowship meals, and much more) and they made sure that I knew that I had to be involved because I was an actual member of the church. I believe this is one of the lasting impressions I have from this book: the need and duty of every member of the church to be actively dedicated and involved in the edification and sustainment of the church. And I am grateful that this tradition and practice was passed down in such a way that I was able to see it modeled faithfully in my church as a child.

Shortly after starting this book, I figured that it was a good idea to read The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment so that I would learn to be content and patient with the providence of God in my life currently, and that was a good decision. But I can honestly say that this book does not exalt Particular Baptists or their practical ecclesiology over and above other denominations in any way. It just gives you a brief window into Particular Baptist church life in the late 1600s, nothing more and nothing less. The picture that you see looks amazing and promising at times, and at other times, it’s difficult and disheartening because even with all of the hard work put into it, things don’t always end the way we want them to. Nevertheless, it is the Lord who is building His Church, and this book shows you His faithfulness in that work among the Particular Baptists. I heartily recommend this one!

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