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Learning in Christ's School (Puritan Paperbacks) Paperback – August 31, 2000
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About the Author
Ralph Venning was born in Devon around the year 1621 to Francis and Joanne Venning, and spent his childhood and early adult life in the vicinity of Tavistock, where his father was a yeoman farmer. There Venning encountered the Puritan preacher, George Hughes, under whose diligent pastoral ministry he was converted, along with two other young men who also went on to become gospel ministers. Venning later acknowledged the debt he owed to Hughes, whose devotion of time and energy both to Venning's conversion and early discipleship, led to him describing Hughes in affectionate terms as his spiritual 'father'.
His academic and, perhaps, ministerial potential having been recognised, Venning left Devon for Cambridge. He was admitted to Emmanuel College as a 'sizar' in April 1643 a category of student which would have required him to carry out menial jobs around the college in part payment of his fees. Despite these additional duties he also served as chaplain in the Tower of London, and found the time to write and publish two books Venning completed his BA and MA degrees before entering into the preaching ministry.
In addition to his ministry among the Reformed churches during the heady days of the 1650s, Venning also preached on occasions at Paul's Cross, an open air pulpit adjacent to St Paul's Cathedral, and described by historian Patrick Collinson as the seventeenth century equivalent of national broadcasting. Those who listened would have included the Aldermen and Mayor of London, as well as a broad spectrum of both Londoners and visitors to the capital. This was a platform to present to the widest possible audience sermons on matters of national importance. The Trust's Puritan Paperback The Way to True Happiness is a record of one such sermon.
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This intriguing labor of love is more thematic than expository. Each chosen passage is dissected, though. It would be unPuritan to do any less.
First, it should be noted that even Jesus Christ went up through the grades, though without sin. Venning proves this on page 239. Second, when Venning speaks of weak grace and/or strong grace, he is referring to levels of maturity, or of one grade against another (p. 34.) These two points together beg the question as to whether Jesus ever was weak in grace—as a child, for instance. If Venning covers this, I have neglected to note it. I will proffer that Jesus being, at some point in his life, in a lesser grade, and yet strong rather than weak in grace—is an idea that might be termed an ‘orthodox paradox,’ like the one on page 263. Third, there are those who rise no higher than the babe stage in this life, having been appointed to go no farther (p. 30.) So each saint will, before he dies, rise to the level he has been appointed to (p. 36.) This last assertion seems to agree with the doctrines of predestination and perseverance, which is enough for me to grant that Venning has correctly reasoned. But he does not prove this point by an appeal to those two doctrines; he proves it by Scriptures that are particular to the assertion that he lays down (p. 31.)
Here is the gist of what Venning reveals about saints in the babe grade. Babes usually address God as God, the Creator. They know God only little, have little understanding, see in a confused way, and hear God just as little Samuel did. They have the essential graces of repentance, faith, and love, but not to a high degree. Generally, their doctrines are repentance and faith, forgiveness, communion, baptism, resurrection, eternal life, and judgment. Of things like the priesthood of Christ and imputed righteousness, the babes have unclear notions. They are just above the degree of carnal. They are as carnal. The Corinthians and the Hebrews were like this. They are just barely separated from the works of the flesh that they partook in before conversion, and mortify the underlying lusts barely. They are more conscious of sin in the fruit than in the root, understand what sinful lives are more than what sinful hearts are, and therefore often blame the devil for their own faults and corrupt nature. They mourn for sin as against their own peace, more than as an affront to God. They labor for quantity more than quality. They are poor in attainments, rich in desires. They have more zeal than knowledge, tending to be like Peter when he drew the sword. They are anxious about small matters, like what they are allowed to eat. They are more nice than wise. They live more by sense than by faith. They boast often. They worry about who among the babes will be the greatest. They cannot bear reproof. They are not strong enough to put all the armor on. They are picky about what good preacher should feed them. “They can hardly resist fighting and crying out, Who is on our side? Who?” (p. 141) They go back and forth from the extremes of defect and excess—from deifying a preacher to defying him. Strong meat makes them sick. They cannot understand abstract teaching, but must be taught by stories and pictures. They can discern more between good and evil than between good and better. The babes that want the ceremonial types are the babiest of all, like the Galatians not past the spoon. These are Jewish Christians more than Christian Jews. Having said all of that, babes fall, but do not fall away. Saints in this grade may beg many arguments to God for a promotion. In the meantime, they may be consoled by the fact that though a “sun indeed shines brilliantly…the stars twinkle” (p. 171.)
Now the little children. These know God as Father, and thereby experience more of his love and joy. They are marked by special manifestations of love, just as John was Jesus’ favorite. Demonstrations and assurances like these may be in preparation for doing and suffering great things for God. Little children are “of another world while living in this one” (p. 204.) They are very teachable. They desire to be commanded, not just loved, and feel wronged if not put to difficult services. They are angrier for their falls than their Father is. In times of darkness, they do not hear so much that they must be children of wrath, but perhaps just children under wrath. (What Venning says pertaining to this grade will provoke a defensive attitude in those who are overly suspicious of spiritual experiences. That some Christians might get more blessed episodes of the Spirit than some others get, is intolerable to a certain species of saint. But whether we term this closer communion as ‘the witness of the Spirit’ (p. 196) or something else, indeed there are various kinds and degrees of Holy Ghost experiences. Who can honestly deny this? The Bible variously reveals it.)
And the young men. These come under exceptional temptations, encountering giants. They are “tempted to call their sonship into question” (p. 218.) Feeling deserted by God at such times, they are tempted of the devil to worship him instead. These young men take for their spoil “Satan’s broken weapons and defeated arguments” (p. 257.) These they distribute to their brethren as gifts. In addition to the witness of the Spirit that the children enjoy, the young men experience a further witnessing influence to confirm the former, which we may call ‘an assured assurance’ (p. 258.)
Not much more is told of the fathers than that they possess great experience and wisdom. Since Ralph Venning was called to deliver the whole counsel of God, he could have, and maybe should have, spoken more about this grade than he did. He spends only one page on it. But we have to be humbled by his bashfulness to “let days speak and multitude of years teach this wisdom” (p. 268.)
Learning in Christ’s School will help those who will acknowledge their inferior rank. Are there any spiritual fathers around? Probably not. Almost every Christian is in the baby grade nowadays.