Reviewed by Stephen Weaver
Few besides Tom Nettles could have written this book. Only one who has imbibed so deeply from Spurgeon and the Puritan heritage he inherited would share the theological depth needed to understand Spurgeon and his theology. While many other biographies of Spurgeon exist, the real strength of this study is that it is an intellectual – or better – a theological biography that details the influences upon Spurgeon as a thinker and theologian and his subsequent living out of his theological convictions in the context of pastoral ministry. This was a significant lacuna in Spurgeon studies, which Nettles, with his over forty years of experience studying Baptist history, was uniquely capable to fill.
Nettles approaches Spurgeon’s life and theology as best seen as a commitment to live by “revealed truth.” In his final sermon at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Spurgeon remarked, “I would have every Christian wish to know all that he can know of revealed truth.” In Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Nettles develops the desire expressed by Spurgeon for God’s people to know God’s revealed truth as the primary way in which to understand Spurgeon’s life.
Nettles’ theological interpretation of Spurgeon is grounded in a belief that the child is the father of the man. Spurgeon was shaped as a child by upbringing in the homes of his father and grandfather who were each nonconformist ministers of the gospel. His early exposure to the theology of the Puritans not only shaped him as a child, but became the theological foundation of the man. His belief that the Puritans were the chief interpreters of Scripture did not ever wane throughout his life.
The young Spurgeon’s commitment to live by revealed truth was seen early on in his commitment to being immersed as a believer when he was converted at the age of 16. The significance of this decision was that it caused Spurgeon to part company with the paedo-baptist beliefs of his beloved parents and grandparents, as well as the majority of his Puritan heroes. The only reason for his resolve to be immersed was his commitment to the authority of Scripture, i.e., “revealed truth.” This same commitment was demonstrated throughout his ministry. Nettles masterfully weaves together the various emphases of Spurgeon’s ministry and underscores how each endeavor was undergirded with a commitment to divine revelation.
The order of Living by Revealed Truth is roughly chronological with a sketch of Spurgeon’s early days and beginning of pastoral ministry in the beginning chapters and his final days and death in the final chapter. However, most of the volume’s eighteen chapters are thematic and therefore explore themes that were dominant throughout his ministry. Chapter themes include Spurgeon’s approach to preaching, theological method and content, focus on the cross of Christ in his preaching, ecclesiological matters, methods of evangelism, use of evangelists, theological foundation for benevolent ministries, views on literature, approach to controversy, relationship with Baptists in America, involvement in the Downgrade controversy, response to sickness/suffering/depression, and conduct in the face of death. Each chapter highlights the role which Spurgeon’s commitment to sound theology played in his approach to the various aspects of his life and ministry.
The uniqueness of Nettles’ approach to Spurgeon does not lie in his discovery of any heretofore unknown archival manuscripts. While Nettles is clearly aware and conversant with the wide array of secondary literature available on Spurgeon, Nettles relies predominately on the published primary sources. The primary sources used by Nettles are the voluminous sermons of Spurgeon and especially The Sword & the Trowel, a monthly magazine that Spurgeon began to publish in 1865 and for which he served as editor until his death. Nettles brilliantly mines from these sermons and magazine articles evidence of his theological convictions and his responses to various societal happenings. For example, he expertly draws details about the social conditions of the city of London and surrounding area through the reports given in The Sword & the Trowel of the ministries of the men educated at Spurgeon’s college (112ff). Perhaps, most helpful though, is the information gleaned from the many book reviews which Spurgeon published each month in his magazine. These reviews give real insight into the way in which Spurgeon thought about a variety of issues and how he responded to contemporaries, various forms of literature (his comments on poetry are hilarious, even though likely offensive to poets), and modern theological developments such as the rise of higher criticism. These insights gained from Nettles’ survey of these materials are invaluable for the shaping of a full-orbed understanding of how Spurgeon consistently sought to live by revealed truth. The uniqueness of Nettles’ approach is that he has mined the published primary sources to produce a virtual systematic theology of Spurgeon’s thought – an Encyclopedia Spurgeonica, if you will.
Listening to Spurgeon
Another much appreciated aspect of Nettles’ approach is that he takes Spurgeon’s own testimony and self-understanding seriously. Instead of sitting in the analyst’s seat, Nettles allows Spurgeon to speak for himself, to define himself, and to explain himself. One simple example demonstrates Nettles’ approach. Although a previous biographer, Lewis Drummond, had questioned Spurgeon’s own recollection of the date of his conversion, Nettles takes Spurgeon’s own word as definitive (see p.37). This is illustrative of Nettles approach. Although he is aware and footnotes other interpretations of Spurgeon, Nettles attempts to present his subject on his own terms and in his own terms. While there is definitely a place for critical biographies that analyze the social and historical contexts, scrutinize their subjects’ stated motivations, and dig deeper into archival materials, it is refreshing to read a biography that allows the reader to know and hear the subject in his own voice. Nettles allows Spurgeon to be Spurgeon and for that the reader can be grateful.
This is not an introductory work to Spurgeon. It is not for the faint of heart or for the casual reader. Living by Revealed Truth is a massive, double-columned, nearly 700 large page book that delves deeply into the thought of a man who may have more words in print in English than any other man. If you want to know Spurgeon as a pastor-theologian by hearing him in his own voice while being led by an expert guide, then this is the book for you.
Dr. Stephen Weaver is Pastor at Farmdale Baptist Church, Frankfort, KY.
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Living By Revealed Truth