You can learn from anyone. (Yes, even them.)

James Morrison, Crosslands tutor and PhD student

Things are normally more complicated than we like to think.

I don’t think this really struck me until Brexit. Whether it was the economic prosperity touted by the Remain Campaign or the border controls marketed by Vote Leave, both sides framed the issues around the referendum as fairly straightforward. Yet, before the dust had settled on the ballot boxes, people started to realise that the UK’s relationship with the EU was far more complex than they had previously thought.

Charnock at Cambridge

The deceptive complexity of life is not a modern phenomenon. It’s something that I’ve been noticing as I have been studying the religious history of the 17th century too.

One of the first things I have been working on in my PhD is a biography of Stephen Charnock (1628-1680). Not only will this be useful for the work I plan to do on him further down the line, it’s also serving as a gentle introduction to doctoral research. As I have looked into the various phases of Charnock’s life, there is a clear structure for me to follow and some obvious places for me to go looking.

One such place is Cambridge University. At the tender age of 14, Charnock enrolled as a student at Emmanuel College. Known as the ‘Puritan College’, Emmanuel was famous for its reputation as a hot-bed of religious nonconformity. This reputation was probably started by the story of a conversation between Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Mildmay, who founded the college in 1588. Accused by Elizabeth with having ‘erected a puritan foundation at Cambridge’, Mildmay is supposed to have replied that he had ‘set an acorn which, when it becomes an oak, God alone knows what will be the fruit thereof.’

Whether or not the story is true, Emmanuel was near the heights of its influence as a breeding ground for Puritanism when Charnock arrived there in 1642. A significant number of the students going through the college were going on to hold important positions in the rest of society, many of whom were known for their zealous faith and their desire to worship outside of the Church of England.

Bitterer than Brexit

But it’s at this point that we must remember what I mentioned earlier. Things are normally more complicated than we like to think. As a result, we should be slow in assuming that the voices that Charnock heard during his time at Emmanuel all sang from the same hymn sheet. Because the reality was far different.

Charnock’s main tutor in Cambridge was a man called William Sancroft (1617-1693) and, perhaps rather surprisingly, it turns out that Sancroft was no Puritan. In fact, far from it, Sancroft was fiercely loyal to both King Charles I and the Church of England. He loved using the official prayer book and hated the plans that Parliament was making with the Presbyterians in Scotland to defeat the king and impose the Scottish system of church government in England. Describing his sadness at how the leading Anglican clergy were being treated, he wrote that they had ‘sufferd ever since buffe and steele hath swaggerd abroad in the world with soe much authority’.

Today, it is hard for us to appreciate how controversial these issues were. But, if you thought the UK leaving the EU was divisive, it didn’t come close to the religious and political turmoil of the 1640s. After all, that decade didn’t close with a few fireworks on one side and some despondent groans on the other. It ended with the King being convicted of treason and executed before a watching crowd outside Banqueting House in London. Whatever else it has come to, Brexit hasn’t resulted in that.

Adolescent awakening

The heady religious atmosphere around Emmanuel College must have kept spiritual things on Charnock’s agenda whilst he was a teenager. Indeed, it was whilst at Cambridge that Charnock experienced his conversion. Preaching at Charnock’s funeral in 1680, his friend John Johnson described how Charnock had been without any living faith when he arrived at university. Instead, ‘he had been [in] darkness, and then (he said) full of doubtings, fears, and grievously pestred with temptations.’

But Charnock was then led to search and pray. The results were remarkable,

God vouchsafed to dart such raies into his heart, as gave the light of the knowledg of the glory of God in the face of the person of Jesus Christ. So was he made light in the Lord, and believing on Christ, and God in him, filled with inward peace and comfort.

Notwithstanding the variety of voices that Charnock heard during his time at Cambridge, university had been a fruitful time for him spiritually. The wishes of Mildmay from all those years before had been fulfilled in the young man: the oak had dropped another acorn and it was fast growing into a sapling.

Culture wars

As I’ve been thinking about Charnock’s time at Cambridge, I’ve been wondering whether it provides a valuable lesson for us today? Many people have observed how our cultural climate seems to have become increasingly tribal in recent years. Whether it’s Brexit, climate change or transgenderism, more and more people seem to be defining themselves by their stance on contentious issues. This can make discussion more difficult. Disagreement is no longer isolated to a particular issue, but is quickly interpreted as an attack on someone’s very identity.

The church hasn’t been immune to this. Whether around seemingly more theological issues like the Trinity or more practical ones like whether churches should have kept meeting during Covid, the controversies that have arisen among Christians in recent years have sometimes felt like they have been more about preserving party lines than speaking the truth in love. Bible scholars have demanded the resignation of scholars at other colleges. Church members have left congregations. Pastors have pooh-poohed all of other pastors’ writing.

It’s not that these issues aren’t important. In fact, when it comes to something like the Trinity, the stakes couldn’t be higher for how we understand who Jesus is and what he’s done. The problem comes when we come to an issue with a tribal mentality. Because, when we tie our identity to a position on a particular issue, it makes it a lot harder for us to listen to those we disagree with, even when they are speaking about another topic altogether. And the reason that we don’t want to do that is because things are normally more complicated than we think.

What we need

We need all the help we can get as we think through the issues we face today. For Christians, that help comes chiefly from Scripture. The one who ultimately wrote the Bible is also the one who made the world and everything in it.

But this doesn’t mean that we can’t get help from other places too. In fact, having Scripture as our ultimate authority frees us to learn from anyone who can help us understand it and apply it to life. This may include people who do not follow Christ but, in God’s common grace, have helpful things to say. But it certainly includes Christians who, on some issues, we might strongly disagree with.

Doing Jesus’ work

Central to Jesus’ teaching was the topsy-turvy reality that whoever sees themselves as least among his followers is the greatest. One time when Jesus was teaching this to his disciples, it prompted one of them to recall a rather embarrassing incident that had happened some time before.

“Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.”

It was all very well for Jesus to talk about the least of his followers being the greatest, but surely certain distinctions still needed to be made?

But this is not how their teacher replied.

“Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:49-50)

Jesus knew that this man wasn’t a threat. He’d been doing Jesus’ work. And what makes this particularly poignant is the fact that, in the passage immediately before, the disciples had difficulty driving out a demon themselves. As Christians, we’re never more tempted to fall into tribalism than when we look at the ministry of others and see that it’s more fruitful than our own.

Surprising helpers

Charnock got this. Not only did he learn from a variety of voices during his time at university, he kept on benefiting from his engagement with different Christians throughout his life. The writings that we have from Charnock today are almost all based on sermons he preached at the church that he helped pastor in the City of London near the end of his life. And, in his preaching, not only did Charnock cite people from within his own camp, but he also drew on those from right across the spectrum of Christian theology. Independents, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Arminians, Socinians, Platonists, Catholics – they all got a mention in Charnock’s work. Sure, Charnock didn’t always quote these people approvingly, but a lot of the time he did. And, where he did disagree, it was with a politeness that feels unusual today.

Charnock knew that the issues facing Christians in his generation, like every generation, were more complicated than people often liked to think. And so Charnock was convinced that he needed to draw on the best of the Christian tradition to help the people in his church to face them.

James is a Tutor for Crosslands and also one of its Research Fellows. This article is taken from a regular newsletter James is writing on his PhD journey. For more articles and audio, you can subscribe here.