Thursday, February 11, 2016

Sort of news

This won't be news to all of you, but by way of an explanation for the slow rate of blogging (which is likely to persist for the next couple of months), I have tidings of life, and broadly the tidings are that there is change afoot.
Cowley Church Community
Most of you will know that I have been serving as a lay elder in Magdalen Road Church for some time.  What you may or may not know is that for the last few years MRC has been working on establishing a church plant in the Cowley area of Oxford.  That plant is Cowley Church Community, and since the beginning of January I and the family have been members - and I have been serving as one of two part-time pastors.  At the moment I'm doing that alongside my full-time job at the University, but that job will be coming to an end at the end of March.  CCC currently meets every other week on a Sunday, and in two mid-week groups.  We're not yet independent of MRC, but we're working up to it, and part of that plan is that we'll be meeting every Sunday from Easter - hence my stepping away from the day job.  I'm looking forward to being able to preach more regularly, and to having the time to put into getting to know people within the little church better - as well as getting to know the Cowley area and its residents better than I currently do.  Although we live very near to Cowley, in some ways it is a very different part of Oxford, and there is definitely going to be some adjusting to do.

Alongside helping to lead CCC, I am back at school!  Specifically, I have begun studying for an MA in Contemporary Church Leadership at WEST (or at least, it was called WEST when I enrolled; now it's part of the Union School of Theology - and what's more, the course I am doing has been dropped from the offerings of the new School, so if you thought you might also like to do that sort of course I'm afraid you're too late).  The hope is that the combination of study and practical ministry will mean theory informing practice and practice being subjected to critical reflection - and therefore hopefully growth.

This feels like a huge, and yet decidedly daunting, opportunity.  If you're the praying sort, we'd very much appreciate your prayers.  We will be sending out proper 'prayer letters' shortly, so if you'd like one and you haven't already asked for one, do get in touch.  In the meantime, the blog will be updated as and when there is time and energy...

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Preaching God's commands

A checklist for preachers, based on part of Psalm 19.

In preaching the commands and requirements of God, am I:

  • presenting the commands without apology or embarrassment, as the expression of absolute perfection in moral conduct and good living?
  • wearying my hearers with a burdensome command, or refreshing them with a commandment which is good news?
  • delivering the commands in a way which shows their logic, so that they shape the hearers into people who can make wise decisions in other ethical areas?
  • showing how right living is a cause for rejoicing?
  • opening people's eyes through the commands to see the big reality that lies behind them, rather than presenting isolated and abstract demands?
  • provoking a hunger for God's good commands and a savour for obedience?
  • warning the listeners of the consequences of disobedience, and holding out the prospect of eternal reward for obedience?

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Incomprehensible

Just a last quick Christmas thought before the decorations come down tonight.

I don't think we understand the incarnation.  To put it more strongly, I don't think we can understand the incarnation.  Think about what we say: we say that God became a man, took on flesh, clothed himself in our nature.  I think it's quite possible to understand some or all of these words and concepts - but is it really possible to grasp what they actually indicate?  Can we really have any understanding of what it means to say that God becomes a human being?

It's interesting to read the history of christological controversy in the early church as an attempt to understand this - and it is interesting that orthodoxy, as far as I can tell, always comes down on the incomprehensible side.  The heretics are trying, as a rule, to simplify things, or at least to bring them within the realm of things we might be able to grasp.  What is Arianism, after all, but an attempt to make the incarnation a bit less incomprehensible?  Arius does it by making the incarnate actually something less than God, and in so doing seems to avoid the apparent category mistake of the orthodox, who insist that it is actually God, the invisible God, who appears in the human nature of Christ.

Or the various disputes about the natures and will of Christ.  The monophysites want to make Christ a mix of divine and human (actually, whether they wanted to do this is debatable; certainly their theological descendants would repudiate this project.  But that is the tendency which the orthodox thought they saw in monophysite thought).  Although that is still pretty hard to understand, it does at least mitigate the harshness of saying that Christ is at once infinite and finite, invisible and visible, God and man.  A blend is easier to comprehend, but it is heretical.  On a less ontological and more psychological point, the monothelite want to give Christ but one will, the divine will standing in for the human.  Simpler, sort of makes sense.  But the orthodox insist that Christ has two wills, divine and human - even though this makes it more or less impossible for us to imagine or comprehend his inner life.

The point is that we don't understand, and that has to be okay.  If we understood, it wouldn't be God-in-the-flesh.  Our concepts can do nothing more than point us to the reality, which is Christ; that's why in Christian theology the story is prior to the concepts, which can only serve it.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Reading dead theologians

I believe in the communion of saints, and one of the big things that means for me is reading.  Via my bookcases, I can enjoy the theological insights and Christian experiences of believers who have gone before me.  The brains of people from every continent and every century of the church are available to me.  (My own bookcases may not actually sport books from every century; I am still collecting!)  But reading dead theologians can be tricky.  Here are a few tips:

1.  If approaching a new dead theologian - that is to say, one you've not read before - try to find out whether they've written something devotional, or at least practical, and read that first.  It's helpful to have a feel for what makes someone tick in terms of their own spirituality before hitting the doctrine.

2.  Do remember that dead theologians are often working in very different intellectual and cultural contexts.  This has lots of effects that need to be borne in mind.  At the nuts and bolts level, there may be technical vocabulary that translates awkwardly (or, if they were writing in English, there may be vocabulary which wasn't technical then but is now, or which was technical but which the writer could assume an understanding of which is no longer current...)  But above and beyond that, there is the philosophical outlook employed, or assumed, or perhaps even being opposed.

3.  As a corollary, don't be too quick to assume you know what the dead theologian means.  Sometimes the words and concepts seem familiar, but the different philosophical climate changes the meaning completely.  Sometimes we import too much from our end of the conversation and assume that the dead theologian must be addressing an issue which we face - an issue which may never have even occurred to them.  Best to read slowly and without jumping to conclusions.

4.  Don't assume that because the dead theologian was right to say such-and-such then, that we ought to say the same now.  There may be specific reasons why they expressed themselves in that particular way, and it may have been not only necessary but also best to say exactly that in exactly that way.  But perhaps outside of that particular controversy,or when working within a completely different philosophical paradigm, or in a different ecclesiastical context, it would be better to say it differently, or leave it un-said.

5.  Vice versa, don't assume that just because you wouldn't say such-and-such now, that the dead theologian was wrong to say it then.  Don't judge those of past ages by our present orthodoxies, or at least don't be too quick to do so.

6.  Don't assume the dead theologian got the question right (or that the question as posed is still relevant).  Sometimes theologians end up with particular answers because they asked particular questions (or particular questions were put to them) - and those may not be the best questions.  They could have been imported from a non-theological framework, or they could have been raised due to a misunderstanding.  The answers may be very fine, but we should not therefore assume they are theological truth unless we have also examined the questions.

And the two big ones...

7.  Don't treat the dead theologian as if they are dead.  In Christ, all these people live, and as living people they still speak through their works.  That means we have to pay attention, as in a conversation, not just use their relics as a springboard for our own thinking.

8.  Do remember that the dead theologian, if he or she was really a theologian, was looking to Christ.  The best thing we can do with their works - the thing they would want us to do with them - is to use them as windows through which we can glimpse him.  And that is the value of reading them.  Because they are far removed from us, their perspective is different, and they will see Christ in ways in which we would never see him left to ourselves.

And it is worth remembering that one day we, with them, will see him - and then all our theological differences will be as nothing.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Marking time

As another new year begins, and an old one is laid to rest, I'm thankful for the way the gospel affects my perception of time.  It strikes me as one of the most fundamentally human things to do, this marking the passage of time, but as a purely human activity it tends towards morbidity or naivety.  Each time the new year rolls around, it's a reminder that we have a finite number of these - and we don't know what the number will be.  On the other hand, each new year provides us with another opportunity to con ourselves into believing that this year the world will be different, and we will be different - this will be the year!

But the gospel changes both.  On the one hand, the gospel gives me reason to believe that this whole process of drawing a line under the old year is not completely arbitrary.  Again, it's a fundamentally human thing to do, this dividing time into sections.  Sometimes those sections are dictated by the physical or cultural world around us - the round of seasons, the national holidays.  Sometimes they are decided in retrospect, in the way we tell our life stories, when a particular period seems to us to have a particular significance.  But in one sense it is all arbitrary; time flows on irrespective of how we mentally chop it up.  Nothing perceptibly changes when the clock strikes midnight.  Except that the gospel gives me a framework that makes this division sensible rather than just necessary.  The gospel story tells me that in Jesus time has fundamentally changed; the old has gone and the new has come.  The great turning has already happened in Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.  And so there is something very sensible about drawing a line under 2015.  It has slipped into the past, and because of the death of Jesus can be sensibly considered to be really past - closed, tied off, complete.

On the other hand, looking forward, I don't need naive optimism.  I know that this year will hold many hard things.  I know that I will not be the person I ought to be or want to be in the next twelve months.  I know this.  But I also know that this coming year is not totally formless.  It isn't a blank slate.  The resurrection of Jesus tells me that this coming year is already full - full of him who fills everything in every way.  Neither events on the world stage nor surprises in my personal life will happen without him.  And there is therefore room for realistic hope.  Everything has turned in Christ from old to new, and therefore everything will turn from old to new.

And every new year is a year closer to the time when he will be all in all.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Heidelberg Christmas


Q. What does it mean that he “was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary”?

A. That the eternal Son of God,
who is and remains
true and eternal God,

took to himself,
through the working of the Holy Spirit,
from the flesh and blood of the virgin Mary,
a truly human nature

so that he might also become David’s true descendant,
like his brothers and sisters in every way
except for sin.

Q. How does the holy conception and birth of Christ benefit you?

A. He is our mediator
and, in God’s sight,
he covers with his innocence and perfect holiness
my sinfulness in which I was conceived.

(Heidelberg Catechism questions 35 and 36)

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Incarnational science

Karl Barth spends a few pages at the very beginning of his Church Dogmatics insisting that theology has a right to consider itself to be a science.  Of course he does not mean an experimental science, which is more or less the only definition of science that we have in English.  Nor does he intend that theology should be forced to conform to the norms and methodologies of a general 'science', whatever those might look like.  Theology must do its own thing, but it is (or can be) none the less scientific.

I would suggest that there is one key reason why we should consider theology a science, and that is that it has a definite object.  Theology is not speculative - or at least, in so far as it is speculative, it is bad theology.  Theology is the investigation of a particular object, namely God.  As a discipline, it is bound to this object.  It examines and describes, but it does not invent.

Now God is never merely the object of our investigations; God is never merely an object at all.  Like any other person, God is also subject.  Indeed, as divine Person, God is always subject, and always sovereign subject, in all of his interactions with anything outside himself.  But he gives himself as an object.  He allows himself to be investigated.  He makes himself available as the source and object of theological science.  He does not give himself away - he is very capable, for example, of recalling the errant theologian back to his truth.  He remains the sovereign subject.  But he is also there, there for us to see and investigate and learn.

To put it in theological terms, God in the incarnation has come to us.  Because he was here, as a human being amongst human beings, there is a definite historical referent behind our theological talk.  We cannot just say anything about God, as if he were a mysterious noumena, without shape or form or limit.  God gives himself as object in this particular person at this particular time.  Therefore, he can be known; therefore, there is theology.  Because of Jesus, theology is a science.

The theological method will be decided by its object.  Because its object is God as he gives himself to us in Jesus, its method must be the study and exposition of the witness to Jesus contained in Holy Scripture.  Because its object is the God who establishes the church as his community of witness, its method must be community based.  Because its object is the the God who is also always subject, its method must be driven by prayer and worship.

But it is not speculative or open-ended.

Because of Christmas, theology has definite content, just as the manger of Bethlehem had definite content.