Friday, December 19, 2014

The Christmas Spirit

And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God."

Christmas is about the Incarnation of the Son of God, the breaking in to human history of Immanuel - God with us as one of us.  Christmas is the basis of all our knowledge of God.  I think that without it I would be an atheist, or at least agnostic.  If God had not shown himself to us, in real space and time and history, I'm not sure I would have spotted the signs of his presence throughout creation.

But Christmas is also about the Holy Spirit, and his own pre-eminent work.  Throughout Scripture, the Holy Spirit is portrayed as that person of the Godhead who is working within the creation, sustaining it and renewing it.  And here he is sanctifying one part of genuine created reality for the greatest purpose of all: the coming in of God himself, not only to be near humanity but to be a human being.  As Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit, so he will be empowered throughout his life by the Spirit, and will eventually offer himself through the same Spirit to the Father, suffering and dying, before being raised again by the power of that same Holy Spirit.

There is a sort of vague 'spirit of Christmas' which is abroad, a generic festivity and merriment.  But the true Spirit of Christmas is very specific, very personal.  He is the Spirit of Jesus, the man who is God.  And that should mean more merriment, deeper festivity, real celebration.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The last victorious act

Reading John Owen's meditations On the Glory of Christ is one of the greatest pleasures that I have enjoyed so far in life - no exaggeration.  As I've been revisiting it recently, one of the things that has struck me is that the preface is largely about death.  The author was himself not long for this world: "My principal work having been now for a long season to die daily, as living in a continual expectation of my dissolution..."

What will enable us to face death?  How can we die well?  How "may we be able to encounter death cheerfully, constantly, and victoriously"?

Owen proposes three things.  Firstly, we must be prepared to surrender our spirits to God, after the example of Christ - something which is very difficult for us, both on account of our sinfulness and on account of the natural constitution of a human being as body and soul conjoined.  Secondly, we must be prepared to let go of the flesh and everything that goes with it, good and bad.  Thirdly, we must be happy to resign ourselves to God's management of time, and not to resent his timing.  How are these things, which are admittedly desperately difficult, to be achieved?

For Owen, these "cannot be attained unto, without a prospect of that glory that shall give us a new state far more excellent than what we here leave or depart from.  This we cannot have, whatever we pretend, unless we have some present views of the glory of Christ."  We cannot expect to enjoy Christ hereafter unless we have enjoyed him in this life.  And we cannot have any expectation of dying well unless we have that future glory to look forward to.

Since unless the Lord comes (Maranatha!) I will certainly die, there is nothing better for me to do with my time now than to meditate on the glory of Christ, to acquire a taste for his goodness, to learn to value him above everything else.  In so far as I do this, I will be prepared to surrender to death.

"This is the last victorious act of faith, wherein its conquest over its last enemy death itself doth consist" - namely, to be so delighted by the prospect of seeing Christ in his glory that I can be comforted in death and happily surrender my spirit into his hands.

God help us so to do.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Always learning

I think theological progress (and regress) happens broadly like this.  There is a new and powerful insight into some theological locus, or into the whole scheme of Christian doctrine.  'New and powerful' does not always mean true and helpful, so there will be and should be a debate about whether this insight is in fact an improvement on what has gone before.  Depending on how this debate goes, this new insight may become the new orthodoxy, generally accepted as the best way, or at least a good way, of expressing Christian doctrine in the here and now.  Over time, though, this new orthodoxy becomes brittle.  It is perhaps explained and explained until the kernel of the original insight is lost behind scholastic definitions, or it is defended and defended until the keep of the original insight is almost invisible behind the curtain walls of apologetics.  At that point people start to question, start to look for new insight...  And the cycle begins again.

I see this as a virtuous cycle, if - and only if - at the stage of looking for new insight the church looks to, and determines to be reformed by, the word of God in Holy Scripture.  If it does so, and if individuals within the church who are asking questions are looking to Scripture for answers, there can really be nothing to fear.  The old orthodoxies may have become clouded by time; they may simply have been valid and necessary expressions of the gospel in their context which no longer communicate as they used to.  In that case, the central concerns of the old orthodoxies themselves demand that the schemes and ideas be revisited and questioned.

So, always learning.  The church should not be afraid of doubters and questioners. They have the potential to help us to understand and express the gospel better than we would otherwise.

But there is a worry.  Today we seem to have broken the cycle, or rather we have got stuck in one part of it.  We are questioners and doubters.  The old orthodoxies do not speak to us or to the world around us as they once did.  We long for authenticity, something which does not just repeat the words our forefathers used, but speaks in our voice, addresses our concerns.

So far so good.  But are we going back to Scripture for answers?

I think for many of us the questioning and doubting has come to have value in itself.  We have become convinced that authenticity requires us to be always questioning, always holding opinions lightly, always doubting.  To poke holes in the old orthodoxies has become commendable for its own sake, and those who do it best are applauded.

Always learning, but never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.

This is a problem of reaction.  The old orthodoxies have become oppressive to us.  For many people, their doubting and questioning is a response to a Christian upbringing which squashed questions, denied doubts, simply asserted the old truths in the old ways.  In the name of authenticity, we cast them off.  This could have been a glorious moment, if only we had gone back to the Word.  If authenticity had been the first word in a conversation which had Jesus Christ as its final word, this could have been a reformation.  But instead authenticity became the first and last word.  Authenticity is certainly a human virtue, but to exalt a human virtue into the place of the word of God is idolatrous.  No surprise that we are left applauding those who, by teaching anti-gospel ethics in the name of authenticity, have subjected themselves to the Scriptural malediction that it would have been better to be weighed down and thrown overboard.

Thursday, December 11, 2014


Hardly an original thought, but it struck me again reading Isaiah 46 the other day - God carries us, and we do not carry God.

Everyone has a functional deity, even the most ardent atheist.  Everyone has something, or someone, for which they live.  Everyone has that place to which they go for security, meaning, identity.  Even if the nature of that god is pretty hazy, it is always there.

The claim made by Yahweh, the God of Israel, is not that he is the only god per se, but that he is the only living god, the only god who acts and intervenes, the only creator and sovereign.  Therefore all other gods are mere idols, things of human invention and bereft of life and power.

In Isaiah 46, the case is proved by carrying.  Here are the idols of Babylon:
Bel bows down; Nebo stoops;
their idols are on beasts and livestock;
these things you carry are borne
as burdens on weary beasts.

Idols are carried along, because they can't carry or save themselves. Babylon, says the prophet, will fall, and when it does people will scramble to save their gods, the gods who could not save them or themselves...  It is a pathetic picture, but of course it makes sense.  These gods cannot save human beings; they are themselves the products of human beings.

Yahweh. on the other hand:
“Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel,who have been borne by me from before your birth, carried from the womb;even to your old age I am he, and to grey hairs I will carry you.I have made, and I will bear;
I will carry and will save."
God created Israel, and he will carry Israel.  He will save.

It seems a key diagnostic question: in my relationship with my god, who does the heavy lifting?

Perhaps this is easier to get wrong than we think.  In our lives, do we expect to find God carrying us, or do we expect to have to carry him?  In our Bible reading, do we mainly look to be 'challenged', rather than comforted or encouraged?  (An aside to preachers: it is a cheap win for us, 'challenging' people.  People naturally feel both guilty and like they need to fix it; are we encouraging them in that?  When did we last preach purely to comfort people?  When did we last end a sermon by proclaiming peace rather than activity?)  In all our living and doing, are we prepared to lean on him, the God who carries us?

Wednesday, December 03, 2014


One of the most useful things, for me, in following the liturgical year, is that emotionally I'm not able to be everywhere at once.  The year helps me to order things, and brings an emotional focus to the different seasons.  So what am I meant to be feeling in Advent?

I've been thinking about waiting in the Psalms.  Waiting implies a situation which is not yet what you believe it ought to be.  For the Psalmists that is generally opposition to themselves and to God, but what has struck me as I have been reading over the Psalms which deal explicitly with waiting for God is that the feel of them can be very different.  Take Psalm 33, for example.  This is a Psalm of joyous worship - "shout for joy in YHWH you righteous!" - and absolute confidence - "he is our help and shield".  But there is still waiting.  "Our soul waits for YHWH".  Confidence here leads to waiting.  Because God is good, and sovereign, and cares for us, we will wait for him.  This is expectant, eager waiting.

Psalm 62 has a slightly different feel.  Without a doubt, the Psalmist is struggling in some way; it seems from opposition around him - "how long will all of you attack a man?"  But there is still a certain serenity about it.  "For God alone my soul waits in silence".  It seems to me that this is patient, enduring waiting.

Psalm 69 is different again.  Here the Psalmist's situation seems more desperate - "the waters have come up to my neck" - and his cry more anguished - "save me, O God!"  If he waits for God, it is not so much eagerly or patiently, but because he is forced to.  "My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God".  This looks like urgent, anxious waiting.

In Psalm 39, it feels as if the Psalmist has almost given up.  He waits for God only because nobody else can help him, since his problem is fundamentally his own sin and guilt.  "And now, O Lord, for what do I wait?  My hope is in you.  Deliver me from all my transgressions."  This feels to me like resigned, enforced waiting.

Then there are Psalms 74 and 79, with their impassioned "how long, O YHWH/God?"  The concern here is wider; it is not so much to do with the Psalmist's personal situation as it is with the state of the world, and particularly the way in which God is dishonoured - "is the enemy to revile your name forever?"  This is impatient, zealous waiting.

Waiting for God does not have one particular emotional or situational profile.  I am working on what that means for me personally, but I am encouraged that God meets us where we are - whether that is quietly confident in him, hugely saddened by the brokenness and rebellion of the world, or frustrated and impatient with his apparent inaction.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Choice, death, and begging the question

In the University of Oxford, there should have been a debate this week, hosted by a University pro-life society, about the cultural impact of abortion.  It didn't happen, largely due to protests by other societies. You can read about it here and here. There are lots of issues around this, including of course the right to freedom of speech that one ought to expect the University to uphold.  There is also the issue of poor argumentation.

Consider some of the comments from groups opposed to the debate.  Here is the Women's Campaign: 
It is absurd to think we should be listening to two cisgender men debate about what people with uteruses should be doing with their bodies... The event description seems to suggest that increased access to abortion contributes to a ‘culture’ of ‘[treating] human life carelessly’. Framing the debate in these pro-life terms denies people autonomy over the choices they make regarding their own bodies,
Now, apart from the ridiculous nu-speak (cisgender?), and the bizarre idea that only people who have direct experience of an issue are able to have an opinion on it, the problem with this statement is that it assumes exactly what ought to be debated.  Is the question of abortion simply one of one's own body?  Is this about a man with a uterus-free body telling a woman with a uterus-equipped body what she ought to be doing with her body?  Of course, the reason any of us are pro-life in this context is because we are convinced that there is a third party present - a baby, a life, a real human being.  Speaking up on behalf of a third party who is powerless and voiceless is, I would suggest, always legitimate, no matter how much it impinges on someone else's autonomy.

Six years ago, I wrote something about clarifying the terms of the abortion debate.  At that time, I had the feeling that many people did not understand that this was primarily a debate about facts, not values.  I argued then that nobody thinks killing is okay; it is just that we disagree over whether abortion is killing, and that is a matter of fact to be debated.  I still think clarifying this would be really helpful.

However, I no longer feel so optimistic that sorting this out would move the debate forward very much.  It seems clear to me now that there is a value debate going on.  It is not a debate about life, primarily, but about choice.  The comments from feminist groups about this proposed debate make it very clear that autonomy is the ultimate value for them.  We must be able to choose; each individual must be able to choose.  Let me be honest: I am no longer sure that if these people were convinced that the human foetus were a real, living person waiting to be born, they would want to ban abortion.  In other words, I very much fear that choice has become so important that people would consciously kill and sanction killing in order to maintain their own autonomy.

There is, I think, a profound link between choice and death, in a way that there is not between choice and life.  None of us chose to live.  In Christian thinking, life is a gift.  Life is grace.  It is given to us.  To go on living is also not a choice (contra existentialism).  I cannot choose to keep living.  Of course, I can and do make myriad small choices which contribute to the upkeep of my life.  But none of them is a choice to live, and neither is the sum of them.  In the same way, I make choices that contribute to the continued living of others, most obviously my children.  But I don't choose for them to go on living (neither did I really choose for them to live in the first place; life simply isn't within my power or gift).

But I can choose to die, and I can choose to kill.  Whereas going on living shows my dependence, and contributing to the ongoing life of others shows our interrelatedness, choosing to die or to kill is all about autonomy.  A choice with complete finality, for me or for someone else; a real choice, a choice which shows that I am me and I can enforce my will.

And that is the culture of death that springs from radical individualism, and is masked by positive sounding words like 'choice'.  God have mercy on us.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

True and True-er

Consider with me, for a moment, the Magnificat - Mary's song of praise to the God who lifts up the humble and puts down the proud and mighty.  The song is prompted by Mary's realisation, in conversation with her cousin, that God is really doing this.  The Messiah is coming, and she, Mary, will be his mother.

Here are two things you could say about the theme of the song in the context of the gospel:
1.  God always works by turning things around - putting down the mighty and lifting up the humble - and he shows that supremely in Jesus;
2.  In sending Jesus, God works to put down the mighty and lift up the humble - and as we see that in Jesus, we see that it is also how God has always worked.

I would suggest that statement 1 is true.  It moves from a consideration of God's general providence to a consideration of the incarnation, and sees the latter as the high point of all God's dealings with his creation.  He has always worked like this, and here - in Jesus - we see the mountain peak of his working, standing out above all his other providences and provisions.

But statement 2 is true-er.  It moves from God's action in Jesus, and sees it not just as the pinnacle but as the source  of all God's dealings in providence.  The incarnation is not only the mountain peak, but it is also the fountain-head.  It is true that we see, in the light of the gospel, that God's general providence also has this character of reversing the apparent status of human beings; but now we see that providence as the outworking of an inner logic, and that inner logic is the gospel itself.

I suppose I would see the relationship between statement 1 and statement 2 as the relationship between a true statement on the one hand and the statement of the truth on the other.

One reason why this is important is that it helps us to read providence correctly.  Because, let's face it, we often see the proud and the mighty remaining pretty lifted up all around us, and the humble being ground into the dirt.  We could not actually write the Magnificat off the back of providence alone.  But if the gospel is true, then all of those occasions when we do see something that looks like this become little reminders of the great reversal that lies at the heart of the meaning of creation - the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.