Thursday, January 28, 2016

Book Note: Poh Boon Sing's "A Garden Enclosed"

Note:  The first book I finished reading this year was Pastor Poh Boon Sing's "A Garden Enclosed" (Good News Enterprise, 2013). I have completed a draft of an extended review of the book that I hope to refine and share somewhere in the future.  This is an important work on Baptist ecclesiology that has not gotten the attention it deserves (whether one agrees with Poh's thesis or not).  Below are the opening couple of sections in the draft of my review:

Boon Sing Poh, A Garden Enclosed:  A historical study and evaluation of the form of church government practiced by the Particular Baptists in the 17th and 18th centuries (Good News Enterprise, 2013):  330 pp.


Poh Boon Sing is a Reformed Baptist Pastor in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia who has studied and written extensively in the area of ecclesiology.  A Garden Enclosed (hereafter AGE) is a work of historical theology tracing the form of church government practiced by the early Particular Baptists, the doctrinal forerunners to today’s Reformed Baptists.  The title is taken from Song of Solomon 4:12, 16.  This work served as Poh’s 2012 PhD thesis in Church History from North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa.

Background to the work

In many ways, this work is a continuation and expansion of Poh’s previous studies in ecclesiology and his dialogue with other pastors and scholars on this topic.  Poh’s important 1995 book The Keys of the Kingdom presented his Reformed Baptistic “Independency” view of church government, inspired by the ecclesiology of the influential Puritan John Owen. Among other things, Poh argued in that work for a distinction within the one office of elder between the teaching elder and the ruling elder, for a distinct and singular leading role for the minister or pastor (teaching elder) among the elders, and for elder rule with congregational consent (as opposed to democratic congregationalism) in the church.

Poh’s views in Keys of the Kingdom met with approval in some corners.  The book is used, for example, in theological education courses by London’s Metropolitan Tabernacle (Spurgeon’s former church, where Peter Masters is now pastor) and distributed through their bookshop.  It also met with critique and criticism from some corners.  Sam Waldron and others argued against Poh’s distinction in the office of elder in the booklet In Defense of Parity (1997).  Poh, in turn, responded to Waldron, et al in his booklet Against Parity (2006).  James Renihan challenged Poh’s assertion that this view of church government had been widespread among the early Particular Baptists in England (see Edification and Beauty, pp. 63-87).  Thus, AGE might be considered a continuation and expansion of the issues addressed in The Keys of the Kingdom, with particular attention to Particular Baptist history and a defense of his views, especially against the historical objections raised by Renihan.

Overview of content

AGE has a helpful abstract and preface which introduce the work.  This is followed by seven chapters:  (1) Introduction; (2) Autonomy; (3) The Headship of Christ; (4) Rule by Elders; (5) The Byways; (6) The Communion of Churches; and (7) Conclusion (including a discussion of unsettled issues and recommendations for moving forward).
Poh’s central thesis is that the likely majority practice of the earliest Particular Baptists (c. 1650-1750), under the influence of John Owen and others, was that of the “Independency” view of church government, including the existence and recognition of both teaching and ruling elders, a leading role for a singular pastor among the other elders, and elder rule with congregational consent.  Such a view is not contradicted by the Second London Baptist Confession (1689) but underlies it.  Later Particular Baptists, however, beginning especially with Benjamin Keach in the late seventeenth century, through to John Gill in the eighteenth century, altered this form of church government, in favor of the single pastor/multiple deacons model of democratic congregationalism.  Poh furthermore urges that the early Independent model of Particular Baptist ecclesiology be reclaimed in the modern context.  He also appeals to contemporary Reformed Baptists to reclaim the practice of “communion” among like-minded churches.

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