posted by Phil Johnson
The PyroManiacs devote space at the beginning of each week to highlights from The Spurgeon Archive. This week, instead of simply quoting an excerpt from Spurgeon himself, we're recounting an instructive episode in his life.
oseph Parker is probably best-remembered today for Parker's People's Bible, a 25-volume collection of his expositions. Starting in 1869, Parker pastored in London for 33 years, and his preaching drew crowds that regularly numbered in the thousands. In his day, Parker was practically as famous as Spurgeon and would have been deemed by most of their contemporaries as more cutting-edge, more influential, and certainly more sophisticated than Spurgeon. Naturally, Parker appealed to a younger generation.
Parker was a progressive. Doctrinally, he was orthodox enough, but he assiduously avoided doctrinal controversy in an era when many evangelical essentials were being discarded and attacked. Without overtly denying any vital point of doctrine, he managed to tiptoe around certain doctrines deemed controversial or outmoded by many modern intellectuals.
Parker had also hosted Henry Ward Beecher as a guest preacher in the pulpit of City Temple. Beecher was hands-down America's most famous preacher of that era, but he had disgraced himself and scandalized all of Christendom by carrying on an adulterous affair with the wife of a friend. Spurgeon was outraged that Parker would welcome such a man into his pulpit.
Most of all, Parker strove to be stylish. He openly attended the theatre in an era when London theatre was considered shockingly bawdy by most evangelicals. Those and other aspects of Parker's lifestyle and public behavior struck Spurgeon as worldly and unbecoming for a minister.
Spurgeon said nothing publicly that was expressly critical of Parker, but in 1887, when Parker invited Spurgeon to participate in "a public conference between ministers of all denominationsgathered from all parts of the country," Spurgeon sent a private note quietly declining. He reluctantly told Parker (in essence) that he generally agreed with his doctrine but couldn't affirm his lifestyle.
"I feel I have no right whatever to question you about your course of procedure," Spurgeon wrote. "You are a distinguished man with a line of your own, but your conduct puzzles me. I can only understand a consistent course of action, either for the faith or against it, and yours does not seem to exhibit that quality. I am sorry that frankness requires me to say this, and having said it, I desire to say no more."
Parker insisted that Spurgeon needed to say more: "If thou hast aught against thy brother, go and tell him his fault between thee and thy brother [cf. Matthew 18:15]. But as your health is uncertain, I will so far modify the terms as to go to you at your house at any mutually convenient time. This strikes me as the Christian waythe Lord's own waywhy should we invent another?"
Spurgeon was clearly put off by Parker's insistence on coming to see him. As far as Spurgeon was concerned, his differences with Parker were not merely personal conflicts but vast differences in ministry philosophyincluding a fundamental difference of opinion about how to weigh vital doctrine and balance it with a good public testimony. Spurgeon wasn't looking for an argument or a conflict with Parker; he was just trying (politely but honestly) to decline an invitation to participate in a meeting that would have forced him to make a public show of approval toward men whom he conscientiously felt he could not affirm.
Spurgeon replied with a terse but private letter:
DEAR DR. PARKER,
If I had aught against you I would see you gladly; but I have no personal offense, nor shadow of it. Your course to me has been one of uniform kindness, for which I am most grateful.
The question is very different. You ask me to cooperate with you in a conference for the vindication of the old evangelical faith. I do not see my way to do this. First, I do not believe in the conference; and second, I do not see how I could act with you in it, because I do not think your past course of action entitles you to be considered a champion of the faith.
There is nothing in this which amounts to having aught against you. You have, no doubt, weighed your actions and are of age. These are not private but public matters, and I do not intend to go into them either in my house or yours.
The evangelical faith in which you and Mr. Beecher agree is not the faith which I hold; add the view of religion which takes you to the theater is so far off from mine that I cannot commune with you therein.
I do not feel that these are matters in which I have the slightest right to call you to account. You wrote to me, and I tried to let the matter go by. You write me again and compel me to be more explicit, altogether against my will. I do not now write for any eye but your own, and I most of all desire that you will now let the matter drop. To go further will only make you angry and it will not alter me. I do not think the cooperation sought would be a wise one, and I had rather decline it without further questioning.
To make this public would serve no useful end. I have told you of the matter alone, and now I must decline any further correspondence.
Yours with every good wish,
C. H. SPURGEON.
Parker's only private reply was a postcard: "Best thanks, and best regards. J. P."
Parker had more that that to say to Spurgeon, but he chose to say it two years later in a way calculated to embarrass Spurgeon. On April 25, 1890, The British Weekly published "An Open LetterParker to Spurgeon":
MY DEAR SPURGEON,
I know I may speak frankly, because I am speaking to a man whose heart is big and warm, a heart that has an immense advantage over his head. When people ask me what I think of Spurgeon, I always ask, which Spurgeonthe head or the heartthe Spurgeon of the tabernacle or the Spurgeon of the orphanage.
I will speak frankly as to a brother beloved. Let me advise you to widen the circle of which you are the center. You are surrounded by offerers of incense. They flatter your weakness, they laugh at your jokes, they feed you with compliments. My dear Spurgeon, you are too big a man for this. Take in more fresh air. Open your windows, even when the wind is in the east. Scatter your ecclesiastical harem. I do not say destroy your circle: I simply say enlarge it. As with your circle, so with your reading.
Other men will write you in a vein of condolent flattery, and will hold up their riddled gingham to save you from the refreshing shower, but you know as well as I do that their good offices are meant for themselves and not for you.
Good-bye, you sturdy, honest old soul. You have been wondrously useful, and wondrously honored. I would double all your honors if I could. Am I become your enemy because I tell you the truth? In your inmost soul you know I am not your enemy, but your friend.
Spurgeon made no public reply. When he learned friends were planning to reply on his behalf, he stayed their hand. By then, Spurgeon was already embroiled in the Downgrade Controversy. If Parker was so committed to evangelical essentials, he ought to have lent his public support and encouragement to Spurgeon. Instead, he chose the very moment when Spurgeon was under siege from enemies of the gospel, and he jumped on the dogpile.
Parker would have insistedand did insistthat his doctrinal sympathies lay with Spurgeon. His actions belied that claim.
Spurgeon was nearing the end of his life and ministry. The dominant opinions among British evangelicals had already turned against Spurgeon. He was already perceived as a theological dinosaur, because of his unbending commitment to the old doctrines.
By contrast, most Christians considered Parker the epitome of forward-thinking evangelicalism. He was trendy, he shaved the corners off unpleasant truths, he bent the message as much as possible to contextualize his preaching and placate the spirit of the age.
But more than a hundred years later, Spurgeon still speaks to our generation. By contrast, Parker's sermons, so stylish in their time, sound terribly quaint today. What seemed so advanced and trendy in Victorian times is so outdated nowadays that almost no one reads Parker anymore.
And here's the greatest irony of all: when Spurgeon died, Parker wrote a tribute to him that was published in The Times of London. What do you suppose Parker regarded as Spurgeon's most outstanding feature? It was Spurgeon's unbending commitment, throughout his entire ministry, to the same doctrines he had preached at the start. Parker wrote:
The only pulpit name of the nineteenth century that will be remembered is no longer the name of a living man. His simplicity, his constancy, his stand-stillness, won for him, through many difficulties, a unique and invincible position in Christian England. Mr. Spurgeon had but one sermon, and it was ever new. Other young preachers are naturally great in the treatment of Biblical narrative and anecdotes. They can handle drama better than doctrine. Mr. Spurgeon boldly went at once to the deepest and greatest themes. At nineteen he preached to countless thousands from such texts: "Accepted in the beloved"; "No man cometh unto me except the Father draw him"; "And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace." Some men have never ventured to take those texts even after a lifetime of service. Mr. Spurgeon took them at once, as the very seven notes that made all God's music, and he did so by Divine right and impulse. As he began, so he continued: he never changed; he never went in quest of the fourth dimension or of the eighth note; his first and his last were one.
That great voice has ceased. It was the mightiest voice I ever heard: a voice that could give orders in a tempest, and find its way across a torrent as through a silent aisle. Very gentle, too, it could be, sweet and tender and full of healing pity.
"Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 15:58).