Friday, September 21, 2018

Thoughts on Holy Communion for evangelicals

1.  There is a real danger that in our strong desire to put some distance between us and Rome we devalue the sacraments in general and the Eucharist in particular.  In particular, to avoid a mechanical approach to grace we can end up denying that the Supper is a means of grace at all.  This is not the position of our Protestant forebears, nor is it sustainable from Scripture.

2.  Whilst we're pretty hot on the Supper as a memorial ("Do this in remembrance of me"), I think we are less good on the Supper as a participation together in Christ.  Maybe it's because at this point we hit something we can't quite explain: how is this bread and wine a sharing in Christ's body and blood?  My guess is a) we probably don't need to explain it so much as experience it and b) there are some useful parallels in 1 Corinthians 10 that will help us to think it through, especially the parallel with "Israel according to the flesh" which participates in the altar by eating the sacrifices.  I've written about this before.  I take it that this means primarily that by eating from the sacrifice together the Israelites were enjoying the benefit of the sacrifice - namely, fellowship with God.  As we together feed on Christ by faith as he is represented in the bread and wine, we enjoy together the fruit of his sacrifice: relationship with God and with each other.

3.  The words "each other" are pretty important.  Paul's warning that a person ought to examine themselves before taking the Supper have often been, for me, the occasion for uncomfortable introspection.  Is my heart right?  Am I eating and drinking worthily?  But now it seems to me that the context is against this interpretation.  The problem in Corinth is that the rich are eating a leisurely and satisfying meal while the poor arrive late and go without.  For Paul, this is a blaspheming of the Supper; in fact, it is not the Lord's Supper at all.  It can't be, because it doesn't fit.  How can we selfishly celebrate a meal which commemorates the Lord's great self-sacrifice?  It empties the meal of its meaning by contradicting it.  But note that the point is not: examine yourself to see whether you are internally ready to partake.  The point is: check yourself to see whether you are recognising the body, the community for which Christ died, and celebrating appropriately.

4.  In terms of practice, I suspect the standard evangelical approach to Communion is a bit too 'head down, keep quiet, me and Jesus'.  How do we reflect the communal nature of this meal?  How does our practice reflect the fact that because we partake of one loaf we are one body?  Last week at CCC we took Communion together seated around a table, facing each other, with a time of open prayer for people in the church, our mission partners, and the church universal.  It was good.

5.  I have questions about the intersection of objective and subjective in Holy Communion.  I wonder whether we often lay a great deal too much stress on how Communion makes us feel.  It seems to me that Paul sees the sacrament as something much more objective - a proclamation of Christ's death.  There is, of course, subjectivity; each individual eats!  But I don't see too much emphasis on how the Supper makes us feel in the NT.

6.  On the subject of proclamation, Paul does seem to think that the Supper is a sermon in itself.  I don't think it needs to be surrounded by lots of words, just enough to make it clear what we're remembering and celebrating.

7.  I wonder if our emphasis on memorial sometimes misses out the formative aspect of Communion.  Back to ancient Israel: the remembering and the celebrating together was what continually re-formed the people as the people of Yahweh, the people of the Exodus and the Covenant.  I think as we gather around the Communion table we are re-formed as the people of the cross and the resurrection.

8.  If the Supper is (one of) the means by which God communicates his grace, the way in which we enjoy fellowship in the fruits of Christ's sacrifice, and the way in which we are re-formed as the people of God, I can't see why we wouldn't celebrate it as often as possible.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

10 thoughts on baptism for baptists

1.  In the NT, baptism is not (part of) the answer to the question 'what should I do now that I have become a Christian?'  Rather, it is (part of) the answer to the question 'how do I become a Christian?'  See, for a paradigm, Acts 2 and the response to Peter's Pentecost sermon.  That means, amongst other things, that if we deny or delay baptism in a particular case because we are waiting to see more evidence of Christian living, we are very much expecting the cart to move without the horse.  It ain't right.

2.  When we use language like 'just symbolic', as if that could be opposed to something more 'real' and 'substantial', we fail to understand that all of human life is lived by means of symbols.  This is especially true of the Christian life, the substance and reality of which are not to be found in the individual believer, in the church, or indeed anywhere in all this earthly world, but are rather seated at the right hand of God in the heavenly places - which is to say, the reality and substance is Christ himself.

3.  We can't rebaptise people.  It's not on.  If you are really convinced that the baptism of an infant is not valid (on which, see below), we need to say that the person has not been baptised, and therefore this is their first, one and only, baptism.  "We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins."

4.  When we frame baptism as the first step of obedience after conversion, rather than as a part of conversion, we are in danger of tying ourselves in knots over the validity of baptism in any particular case.  Suppose someone is baptised at 14 on profession of faith.  At 17, they have what they interpret as a conversion experience and request baptism, because their first baptism did not follow faith and was therefore not valid.  Should we baptise them (again)?  At 20, at University, they realise that they've only now really owned the faith for themselves rather than living in the shadow of their parents' faith.  Should their University church now baptise them (again)?  What if they backslide in the years following Uni, and return to the church sensing that this is their real conversion - another baptism?  I hope the answer in every case would be no!  But can our theology of baptism support this answer?

5.  If we distinguish between the validity of a sacrament and its ideal form, we can make some sense of this.  Ideally, baptism takes place at the point of repentance and faith; this is the pattern of Acts, and makes most sense of the incorporation-into-Christ-in-his-death imagery of baptism.  But where it happens years before or years after repentance/faith, it can still be a valid ordinance.  I'm not sure there is much more required for the validity of the sacrament than baptism into the Triune name, with the intention of teaching the baptised person to obey all that Christ commanded (Matt 28).  For this reason, I think we ought to accept infant baptism as valid albeit irregular baptism.

6.  A less individualistic view of baptism would help us.  Too often we make baptism a Pelagian ordinance: the reason we don't baptise babies is because everything is suspended on the choice of the individual!  There is some truth to this - we, I think rightly, ordinarily expect the baptised to understand what they are doing to some extent, and to desire baptism.  But this doesn't mean it is just down to the individual to decide whether they should be baptised, or down to the individual to decide whether their baptism was valid.  The church has a commission to baptise, and it is down to the church to decide if someone is ready for baptism, and to acknowledge the baptism of individuals.

7.  I think one of the reasons the apostle Paul regularly points people back to their baptism as constituting their identity is because baptism is an objective, tangible thing.  We are in danger of undermining this when we make baptism all about the individual's state of heart and mind.  Baptism is about Christ.  Therefore, the person baptised can look back at their baptism and see Christ at work.  Of course their faith is necessary, but this is exactly how they exercise faith in the present: to remember that they are baptised.  I think people baptised as infants can still be encouraged to exercise this sort of faith.

8.  Because baptism isn't primarily about the individual but about Christ, we shouldn't require people to deliver a testimony at their baptism.  Their entry to the water is testimony enough.

9.  Because baptism is into Christ, and therefore into his body, everyone who is baptised should be enrolled as a church member as a direct result.

10.  Nobody should be taking Holy Communion if they haven't been baptised.  Get born, then eat food.  This is the consensus of the Church from earliest times: "But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptised into the name of the Lord."  If you think someone is ready to take Communion, they are ready to be baptised.  Do that first.

Monday, September 03, 2018

The Significance of Sacraments

I've been doing lots of reading in preparation for preaching a series at CCC on the subject of sacraments.  You can get the first sermon of three here, which is sort of introductory; the other two will deal with Baptism and Holy Communion in more detail.

I've had quite a few thoughts, but one that I keep coming back to is that I suspect we often ask the wrong questions about sacraments.  A key question we tend to ask is 'how does it work?' - how does baptism work?  How does the Supper work?  That tends to reduce the sacraments to mechanisms.  Or, perhaps to avoid the sacrament-as-mechanism, we insist that the sacrament doesn't work - it doesn't do anything, it is merely an illustration of the gospel.  It doesn't add anything to the sermon except a bit of a visual reminder for those of you who appreciate that sort of thing.

I wonder if a better question might be 'what does it mean?'  What does it mean for the whole of creation that the Son of God entered into the cosmos and took on flesh?  What does it mean for this bread and wine that the minister will speak over it the words which the Son of God himself spoke, in space and time, over similar bread and wine?  What does it mean that we together will eat that bread and drink that wine?  What does it mean for our ordinary meals that they occur in proximity to this holy meal?  What does it mean for the ordinary stuff of our existence that this particular stuff has been set apart by God's promise and command to be more than 'just stuff'?  Can anything be 'just stuff' anymore?

For me, at least, that has been a much more fruitful line of enquiry, and in particular has led to wonder and worship at the sacraments and by implication the presence and power of Christ in creation.  And that seems like a good thing.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

The word is a mirror

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.  For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror.  For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
I have wondered in the past how this passage (James 1:22-25) is meant to work.  Maybe I'm just slow.  Being accustomed philosophically to think of being and doing as two separate things, and being accustomed theologically to think of Law and Gospel as rather distinct, I found James' illustration baffling.  How is hearing the word, which in this context seems to be primarily about hearing God's commandments, like looking in a mirror?  Why is the person who doesn't do what he hears like someone who forgets the look of his own face?  What is going on here?

So, I think I've been baffled by this because I've been reading James as if he weren't a Christian, which is a ludicrous thing to do.  James is a Christian, and that means a particular way of reading the commands of God.  Here's how I think it works.

When we read God's commandments, we are not just looking at an abstract list of required or forbidden behaviours.  We are looking at a description of Christ, and what it means and looks like to live in Christ.  The perfect law of God, the law of liberty, shows us what it is like to be free, what it is like to live to God.  In other words, it shows us Christ, and it shows us our true selves as we are elected in Christ to live in him.  When we hear the word, we see ourselves as we are in Christ.  So if we fail to be doers of the word - if we neglect to let what we hear become active in our lives - we are like those who have been shown their true identity and yet forget it instantly.

Imagine there is only one true mirror in the world.  Oh, there are mirrors everywhere in this imaginary world, but all except this one true mirror are like fun house mirrors.  Every other mirror distorts, and only the one will show you what you really look like.  If you look in a bent mirror and conclude that you are absurdly thin, you might increase your diet; or of course if you look in a mirror that makes you look very fat, you might cut down on the old doughnuts.  But if neither of those mirrors is telling you the truth, your behaviour will be inappropriate (and harmful!)  Only the true mirror will help, and it will be important to remember what you saw there when you are confronted by the warped mirrors that fill the world.

Only the word of God - and let's be explicit, that means Jesus Christ, in whom God's Law and Gospel find their perfect unity - will tell you what you are really like.  Every other 'mirror', whether it be the mirror of other people's opinions, or of the prevailing philosophy and anthropology, or your own self-assessment, or even the record of your life to date - all of these are wildly inaccurate.  You are not, really, the person you seem to be to others or to yourself.  In the final analysis - and let's be explicit again, that means Jesus Christ, as the final measure of every man - you are who God calls you to be in Christ.  Trust this mirror, says James, and behave appropriately.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Welcoming and Warning

There is something fascinating going on in Matthew 18:5-6.  Matthew brings together two sayings which are separated in Mark (by three verses) and Luke (by eight chapters!) to make a really interesting juxtaposition:
Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.
What has been particularly stimulating my thinking this morning is the tying together of two themes: welcome and hospitality on the one hand, and leading another into sin on the other.  I feel like one of these gets a lot of airplay in contemporary debate.  The idea of being inclusive and welcoming is very important - and rightly so.  Here it is, from the mouth of the Lord: to welcome someone in Christ's name is to welcome Christ himself (and Mark adds: also to receive the one who sent him, i.e., the Father).  Christian hospitality is crucial, and it is only right that it be talked about a lot.  We could do with moving on to actually practice it, to be honest.  It's worth noting that the discussion here is about welcoming believers - i.e., about practical Christian unity - rather than hospitality towards those outside the community (which the NT addresses elsewhere).  Still, here is an agenda which we ought to get behind - and none the less because in a more general, fuzzy sense it is a popular agenda in the world at large.

Logically, we might think that the 'but' in Matthew 18:6 should be followed by an opposite, something like: whoever turns someone away turns me away.  Instead it is followed by the warning that if anyone causes a believer to sin (literally, to stumble), it would be better for them to drown.  The link, presumably, is partly caused by the ongoing image of the believer as child (reinforced in the narrative by the actual presence of a child).  But that surely isn't all.  Matthew presents this as one complete thought: you should welcome believers in Jesus' name, but you shouldn't cause them to sin.  It is not hard to imagine the multiplicity of ways in which one might cause a believer to sin: by giving a poor example; by failing to encourage and support; by failing to welcome and include, I guess, such that they are cut off from church life; and also by teaching falsely about right and wrong.

I wonder whether there is something here that needs teasing out for the sake of our current discourse.  One of the dynamics in the church at the moment is that there are those pushing for a change in the church's ethical teaching so as to be more inclusive.  I feel like that is taking the theme of Matthew 18:5 and ignoring the 'but'.  The NT has a particular horror of those who will teach the church to believe falsely and behave wrongly.  Matthew is perhaps particularly strong on the latter - consider Matthew 5:17-20.  If we take seriously the call of the NT to radical welcome and inclusion in the name of Jesus, we must also take seriously the call to ethical purity for the sake of Jesus.

Matthew 18:6 is not gentle language.  It is, nevertheless, gracious language.  It is unlikely that anyone who is on the end of an appeal to stop leading others into sin will feel that it is gracious - especially not if language about millstones is involved - but if the Lord Jesus is right (if!) then it is gracious to abruptly correct someone, to point out that they are endangering the souls of themselves and their hearers.  Arguably, it is part of receiving an erring brother or sister in Christ's name to rebuke them strongly, to warn them that they are in danger of forfeiting that name - and all the more so if they have taken on the role of a teacher.

It is not a contradiction of Matthew 18:5 to also read Matthew 18:6.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Though the earth gives way

I preached Psalm 46 at CCC this past Sunday.  It opens with this great picture of the security of God's people:
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble at its swelling.
Even if everything falls apart - and it is the very destruction of creation that is envisaged here, the undoing of God's good ordering of things through the division of the seas and creation of dry land - even if it all collapses, we will not fear.  Why not?  Because God is our hiding place.  God is our firm foundation.  He is a very present help in trouble.

As an aside, what a great phrase that is!  We can talk about the omnipresence of God if we want to, and certainly the Bible does sometimes talk that way, but the perspective of this Psalm on the question of God's presence is: are you in trouble?  Then God will be there to help you.  This is not a piece of philosophy; it is gospel gospel gospel, all the way down.

One of the things that the rest of the Psalm makes clear is that this uncreation is directly related to human action, human war and destruction.  It is not about 'natural disasters' so much as it is about the ruining of everything through the chaos of a humanity which has 'liberated' itself from God's wise and righteous ways.

And the response to this chaos of humanity is two-fold.  In the present, the Psalmist says, God's people remain secure no matter what.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.
Notice the water!  Outside, the foaming of the terrible seas and the tidal waves which sink the mountains; inside, the quiet river bubbling gently over its stony bed and refreshing the people of God.  "Whoever believes in me," Jesus said, "out of his heart will flow rivers of living water."  The Holy Spirit with God's people is their refreshment and their security.

And then in the future, God will put an end to the destructive ways of humanity.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the chariots with fire.
When God calls the nations to be still, and know that he is God, it is because he has ended their chaos once and for all.  The security of God's people in the present is like an outpost of the future, a glimpse into the final security of all creation when God has made it impossible for the earth to fall into the sea or for human beings to rise up against him and one another.

So here's the thing: there are a variety of things that make us feel like the earth is falling into the sea.  The political turmoil in the UK makes me feel that way.  I imagine I will also feel that way (and I realise with rather less justification) when England crash out of the World Cup.  (I am just putting this here as a hypothetical example, I know it's not really going to happen.  It's coming home, right?)

The point is that pretty much all our hopes, whether they are in people, institutions, or processes, are insecure.  Our only solid hope is that in all the trouble that comes our way, and through all the turmoil that shakes the earth, God is our very present help through his Son the Lord Jesus Christ, who supplies to us the glorious sustenance and refreshment of his Holy Spirit.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Dropping Grudem

For pretty much as long as I've been a Christian, Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology has been the standard textbook of conservative evangelical theology.  I have often noted that sadly many people have not taken seriously Grudem's warnings that his book is intended to be introductory (I mean, it's subtitled An introduction to Biblical doctrine, which should be a clue) and have treated it as the final word.  I'm thankful that a wise pastor encouraged me early in my Christian life not to let my theology rest with Grudem but to press on to deeper things.  (That is not to say Grudem wasn't helpful to me - I'm grateful to those who gave me a copy.  It helped me especially to begin to think through positions on baptism, spiritual gifts, Scripture...  But I didn't end up resting with him.)

Anyway, this week Grudem has declared that the building of a border wall in the US is morally good, on the authority of the Bible.  Read the article.

My conclusion from this is that we ought to stop using Grudem's Systematic Theology, or at least demote it from its current position as go-to.

In case you're wondering, this is nothing to do with the politics of the article.  I'm not one of those people who thinks we should boycott people's works because they don't agree with us politically.  I don't even have a very strong opinion about the wall, to be honest.

My concern is for exegesis and theology.

Grudem's argument for the morality of the wall boils down to: the Bible often speaks positively about walls, so building walls is good.  This is of course backed up by a plethora of quotes from Scripture.  But that is all there is to it.

I really don't think this is how the Bible works.  For starters, Scripture does not intend to answer this question, and therefore to read it as if it contained a straightforward answer to a question which it doesn't raise is pretty rash.  It's a flat reading of Scripture, which doesn't seem to recognise that Old Testament references to the walls of Jerusalem can't be crated up, transported over the centuries into a wholly different culture, and then unpacked and used just as they are.

I also don't think it's how theology works.  If we wanted to apply Scripture to this question, we'd have to do more than pile up references to walls from the Bible.  Scripture bears witness to Christ.  That is what it is for: to show us the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.  And then of course that witness has implications for all sorts of areas of life and ethics.  But we would need to do the work.  In what way do those references to walls bear witness to Christ?  They do!  Surely the security of Jerusalem throughout the Old Testament, and the walls which are described as encircling the New Jerusalem in Revelation, are images of the eternal security which the people of God have in Christ.  Well then, we have a fair bit of work to do if we're going to work out what the ethical implications might be for nations in the modern world.

And here's the thing: when you go from this article and look back into Grudem's Systematic Theology, something which I've had cause to do recently, you realise that this is the method throughout.  We need a better textbook.