Tuesday, December 07, 2021

The truth as it is in Jesus

The Lord Jesus says that he is the truth.

It is normally sensible when someone says 'I know the truth' to ask 'the truth about what?'  What aspect of truth have you stumbled across?  What particular truth is it that we're discussing?

We could, I suppose, ask this question of Jesus.  He is making a rather different claim: not merely to know the truth, but to be the truth.  But we could ask: what truth exactly are you?  What subject are we discussing? What particular truth is it that you are claiming to embody?

We could even probably start to sketch an answer to this question.  It is the truth about God.  In claiming to be the truth, Jesus is making a claim to reveal God.  Yes.  But when he makes this claim, it is linked to his claim to be 'the way' and 'the life'.  It is linked to the idea of 'coming to the Father'.  A way joins two points; a life stretches from one time to another.  So when the Lord says he is the truth, we should think in terms of two things.  He is not just embodying the truth about God.  He is embodying the truth about the relationship of God to creation and specifically to humanity.  The Lord Jesus speaks in two ways throughout his ministry.  In one way, he calls people to himself, as if he is their destination; in another way, he points people beyond himself to the Father, as the place where they will find their rest.  He does this because he is the truth of God's relationship with humanity, and vice versa.  He does not teach this truth or show this truth.  He is this truth.  His life is this truth as he obeys the Father, trusts him, and prayerfully depends on him.  This lived life, this life in communion with God, is the truth.

At this point we ought to realise that we've burst through the limits of our question.  What particular truth?  In trying to answer we realise that we've stumbled onto something more: the universal truth.  It is true of creation, because it is true in Jesus, that it exists in relationship to God.  It is true of humanity, because it is true in Jesus, that it exists in dependence on God.

Every particular truth is, in an obvious or concealed way, a species of this truth.

There is no escaping this reality, even in the human absolute of contradiction.  It is possible to live in ignorance of this truth.  It is possible to live against this truth (to one's own destruction).  But the truth cannot be evaded.

Tuesday, November 02, 2021

Catholicism and Sectarianism

In the Creed, we confess our faith in "one holy catholic and apostolic church".  This phrase is a stumbling block for some, because when they hear the word 'catholic' they immediately think Roman Catholic, and of course they don't believe in the Roman Catholic Church in that sense.  For that reason, the word 'catholic' is sometimes dropped and replaced with 'universal'.  I have no particular problem with that switch, although I would on the whole prefer to retain the word 'catholic' and explain its meaning.  It is true that in the Roman Church, the word 'catholic' is thought to refer to the universal validity of that church which is in communion with the Pope, with its clerical hierarchy and congregations.  To be outside the Roman communion is to be (to some extent; the line has become a little more fuzzy for post-Vatican 2 Roman Catholicism) outside the catholic church.  But I don't think we must, or should, accept the Roman construal of catholicism.  Let me try to offer an alternative.

To believe in the catholic church is to believe that Christ has but one people, one body.  This is the church.  It is one across the centuries, and it is one throughout the world.  It's unity is not direct, but indirect; by which I mean, the members are not joined directly to one another, but are all joined in the one Holy Spirit to Christ.  The catholicism of the church, therefore, does not rest on any human organisational scheme, whether that of Rome or anything else; it rests in a common faith in the Lord Jesus.  This commonality may well be only imperfectly expressed, or even sometimes completely hidden, in this world, but since it is grounded in Christ it cannot be ultimately broken and will be ultimately revealed.

That's how I understand catholicism.  But to get at what it means in practice, it is perhaps more useful to ask what a catholic spirit looks like, and to illustrate that by contrasting it with its opposite, sectarianism.  In essence, the catholic spirit draws the boundaries of the church as broadly as possible, where the sectarian spirit tends toward narrowness.  There are lots of ways in which this plays out.

The catholic sees an essential unity between the church of the past and the church of the present, and looks on the theological and creedal decisions of the past as having (relative) authority within the church.  The sectarian, by contrast, is free to reject the past, and tends to be disparaging of the church in past ages.

The catholic sees their own church as part of a greater whole, and is therefore free to draw upon liturgical and theological resources from around the world, throughout time, and across a broad ecclesial spectrum.  The sectarian tends to make use only of resources from their own particular tradition, or in more extreme cases only things tailor-made for their own congregation and situation.

Again, the catholic sees their own church as part of a greater whole, and therefore wants to bring the particular insights and strengths of their tradition to the rest of the church in service.  The sectarian is happy just doing their own thing.

The catholic can't be content with the divided nature of the church, but seeks a clearer expression of the essential unity of the church.  This will involve entering into controversy - the catholic is not content to see parts of the church affected by theological error.  The sectarian, on the other hand, either adopts a 'live and let live' attitude to churches of different traditions (i.e., indifference), or writes off any church which significantly disagrees with his own position as outside the church altogether.

Examples could be multiplied, but you get the idea.

Be more catholic.


Thursday, October 28, 2021

Be courageous

Jesus said to his disciples, shortly before he was betrayed: "You will have suffering in this world.  Be courageous!  I have overcome the world." (John 16:33)

It is striking what he does not say.  It is not: "I have overcome the world, so you won't suffer."  In the context of John's Gospel, that could never be right.  Christ overcomes the world by his own suffering; his glory is revealed at the cross.  How, then, could there be no suffering in the world for Christ's followers?

The point is how we respond to the suffering that must be encountered in the world.  That suffering, I think, includes the temptation which the world throws at the follower of Jesus, and of course the dislocation that comes from not belonging any longer to the world.  The natural human reaction to being in a minority, to not belonging, is fear; that fear may be expressed as a defensive retreat from the world, or as an offensive assault on the world.  Fear can motivate both the closed Christian community that harks back to a (mythical) vanished golden age, and the zealot moral crusader (or even evangelist).  The world as enemy, to be fled from or perhaps attacked.

The world, then, as decidedly not overcome.

Christ has overcome the world.  "The world" in John's Gospel is not so much the created reality in which we live, but the social reality of humanity organised without reference to, or in rebellion against, God and his purposes.  It is the world of Psalm 2, and the desperate (and vain) attempt to throw off God's rule and the rule of his Christ.  It is the world we live in.  Sometimes the world disguises its godlessness (and can indeed put on a good show of religion); sometimes the world displays its true colours.  But always it is the world.

Christ has overcome the world.  This does not mean that the world is done away with.  Of course the world as sinful dominion is ended.  But far from being destroyed, the kingdom of this world becomes the kingdom of God and his Christ.  In his cross and resurrection, the Lord Jesus overcomes the world by establishing the world; he upturns the apparent reality of human existence in order to found human existence again on the basis of his righteousness.  He takes his throne.  The world, then, despite appearances is overcome, to its own great blessing.  The defeat of the world is the world's great victory.

When Christ calls us to courage in the face of suffering in this world, it is simply a call to faith.  This is the victory which has conquered the world: our faith.  Not that faith in and of itself has any power, but faith it is which sees the world as it really is, as overcome.  Faith sees the victory of Jesus, his glory in his suffering on the cross.  Faith sees the world as changed, even though the world itself does not know that it is changed.  Faith therefore enters in to the victory of the Lord.

Fear of the world runs through so much our Christian living.  The simple fear of what folks will think.  Fear for our children - to what depths of godlessness will they be exposed?  Fear of being tainted, fear of being tempted.  Fear, fear, fear.

Be courageous!  He has overcome the world.

Friday, October 01, 2021

Philosophy and Gospel

"Is the philosophical statement 'man is the measure of all things' nearer or further from the metaphysical implications of the gospel than 'human beings are dependent on something greater than themselves'?"

It's an interesting question, the answer to which sheds light on different Christian approaches to philosophy and specifically metaphysics.  It seems to me that for many who are involved in theological retrieval - that is to say, the project to recover for the church the classical theology of history - there is a conviction that ancient philosophy (broadly Platonist or Aristotelian) provides the underpinnings of much Christian theology, such that theological retrieval cannot really go ahead without philosophical retrieval.  There is a sense in which this is obviously true.  If we are reciting the Nicene Creed, we are dealing in categories which derive ultimately from the metaphysical world of late antiquity - we cannot say 'of one being' without to a certain extent entering that world.  Moreover, an implication of this is that it will indeed be crucial for Christian teachers to have a grasp of those classical philosophical terms.  How else could we be sure that when we recite the Creed we mean the same thing as the Fathers who framed it?

However, many push further than this.  It is not merely that a working knowledge of ancient philosophy is vital for a deep understanding of classical theology.  For many, the loss of ancient philosophy as a functional view of the world leads inevitably to a distortion of the gospel.  Modern philosophy, on this reading, is the enemy.  This, it seems to me, is related to a strand of Christian thinking on philosophy which dates back to at least the second century, and sees Greek philosophy as in some sense a preparation for the gospel.  I think we ought to resist that idea.  It introduces a second revelation, to be co-ordinated with Scriptural revelation.  Frankly, I think in some cases the metaphysics of the ancient world is brought to sit in judgement over Scripture - the Biblical storyline bent and twisted to fit within philosophical categories.  But even absent this particular error, I think it's theologically wrong-headed to suggest that classical culture was a 'preparation' in this way.  It cuts across our theology of grace,  I've pondered this a little before.

So, my suggestion - and the thought which led to me being asked the question with which we started - is that the right motive for seeking to understand the philosophical and metaphysical underpinnings of classical theology is so that we can learn to express the same gospel in a very different philosophical climate.  This is not a proposal for metaphysical indifferentism, the idea that Christians should just shrug when it comes to issues of ultimate reality.  The gospel does have metaphysical implications.  My thought, rather, is that we ought to see how our theological forebears allowed the gospel to shape their use of the prevalent philosophical categories; I think we will find that they are basically subversive in their approach.  Take the Nicene Creed again, or perhaps the Chalcedonian definition.  The way in which philosophical concepts - like 'being', 'substance', 'person', 'nature' - are used in these contexts draws on classical philosophy for vocabulary and for conceptual matter, but the final formulation is hardly something which the classical metaphysicians would have endorsed.  Classical metaphysics has been subverted to express the truth of Christian revelation.  And if that was possible then, why not now?

Back to the original question: which is nearest to the metaphysical implications of the gospel, the statement that 'man is the measure of all things', or the statement that 'human beings are dependent on something greater than themselves'?  My answer would be: they're both close, and they're both infinitely far away.  Take the second statement, which my interlocutor of course wants me to endorse as rather closer to gospel thinking.  Unless we are saying clearly and unequivocally that 'something greater' here means 'the Triune God', I don't see how this statement is at all friendly to the gospel.  The Unmoved Mover of Aristotle is an idea utterly hostile to the Christian revelation.  The notion of 'something greater' is not in and of itself at all well placed to service the gospel, or to provide a metaphysical grounding for the Christian doctrine of God.  But on the other hand, we can certainly subvert this notion to express Christian doctrine.  If the prevailing philosophical and cultural climate were theistic in the sense of this statement, it would certainly be worth proclaiming to them that this 'something greater' which they honour despite not knowing what it is has a name, and a face, and he can be known in Jesus Christ.  But once you've filled out the statement with the Triune God is simply doesn't mean the same thing anymore - for the 'something greater' on which human beings depend is found to be the humble baby in the manger and the crucified Saviour.

But still, 'something greater' is better than man as the measure of all things, right?  I don't really see how.  Of course the metaphysics which Protagoras is proposing in this statement is hostile to the idea that there is any unchanging God above humanity.  Protagoras wants all value to flow from humanity.  But in a culture - such as ours! - which is saturated with this sort of unanchored humanism, why not subvert the statement?  For sure, man is the measure of all things, so long as we're talking about the right Man.  And of course, as soon as we've realised that Man is really Jesus Christ, the statement no longer means what it did, and becomes a vehicle for the gospel.

In both cases, there are likely misunderstandings that will emerge, and will have to be worked through.  Hangovers from the philosophical background will distort out theology and need to be carefully worked through.  I would humbly suggest that hangovers from the world of classical philosophical have in fact distorted classical theology, and seeking to express the gospel in different philosophical concepts might help to knock off some of the sharp edges that remain.  We will never get there; our theology will always be an approximation, theologia viatorum.  That's okay.  Better that than to be stuck in a philosophical and theological dead end because we've committed ourselves to metaphysical constructs which are not themselves part of the gospel.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Generation to Generation

Every time I celebrate a birthday these days - and I've just passed a significant milestone ten days ago - I find myself understanding, and appreciating, more and more the biblical talk of 'generations'.  Scripture consistently unfolds this starkly realistic view of human beings as temporary, and expresses this through the rise and fall, the coming and going, of generations.  As one generation fades, another emerges.  As one wave recedes, another takes its place.  It captures the transience of life, for me, better than our individualistic culture is capable of doing.  It is not merely that individuals live and die, but that whole generations come and go, only to be replaced by their children, who will in turn be replaced by their children's children.

One of the things my children have had to do in primary school is draw a family tree; I remember doing the same thing when I was young.  When you're a child, the interesting thing about a family tree is that you can go back as far as you like, or at least as far as you can dig up the information, but you can't go forward.  At the bottom of the family tree, there is you.  At some level it's probably impossible not to think of yourself as the end result, as if everything were leading up to your life.  But I am no longer a child, and the family tree has a layer below me, and in time may well have more layers.  I am not the end result, just a link in the chain.  And one day, if the Lord delays his coming, and if my kids have children (and so on), I'll be one of those names on the family tree, with very little information known; just that, for this child, I was one of the people who led up to them as the new 'end result'.

The Bible authors don't seem to find this coming and going of generations altogether morbid, and the reason surely is that they have identified the great point of continuity.  "Lord," Moses prays, "you have been our refuge in every generation."  Even when one generation has been swept away by violence and judgement, it is still true that "you, Lord, are enthroned forever; your throne endures from generation to generation."  Generations come and go, but God endures.  But this is not merely a point of constancy, but a point of faithfulness.  It is not just that, as time passes, God happens still to be God.  It is that he is God for the next generation, just as he was God for the past generations.  It is his love that endures forever.

The passing of time, for many of us I guess, increases our awareness that there is relatively soon going to be time when we are no longer there.

I sit beside the fire and think
of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring
that I shall ever see.

For those with children, the main concern this raises is: will they be okay?  We've nurtured them, tried to care for them, tried to shield them from the worst of this world.  But one day we won't be here.  Our generation passes...  And as I think about that, I think I understand (psychologically, perhaps, rather than theologically) those who baptise their babies.  Wouldn't it be great if we could reify that faithfulness of God from generation to generation, to make sure it applied in this case?  Wouldn't it be great to pin God down?

But the future is unknown to any but God, and we can't pin him down.  All we can do is trust that he has already pinned himself to his promises.  He will be God in the future, the faithful God.  When the family tree moves on, if it does, and I am left somewhere near the top of the page and remote from the living generation, he will be God, from the top to the bottom.  There is a job for me to do - to proclaim his power to a coming generation, to make his faithfulness known.  So that rather than me trying to pin God down, the next generation might be encouraged to pin their hopes and dreams to the faithfulness of God.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Navigating the culture war... Again

You can find my previous thoughts on navigating the culture war here. I've also written some other bits and bobs on the subject if you look.

This morning I've been pondering that one of the most useful courses we can take in the ongoing culture war is to ignore it. I don't think this is a good idea all the time. I think it is, as a rule, a good idea to have some understanding of what is going on in the wider culture, and I think it is often necessary to pick sides. After all, not fighting a war is a good way to lose one.

On that subject, I think the current attempts to say that there really isn't a culture war - that it's all being made up to manufacture outrage or whatever - are deluded at best, disingenuous at worst. It reminds me of Russian tactics in Crimea. Keep denying that an invasion is happening until such time as it is a done deal, because that makes it a good deal harder for anyone to fight back.

Sometimes, however, it is important to just ignore the culture war. It frees you up to do the right thing. To give an example, sadly not hypothetical, wearing culture war lenses can make it difficult to do something as straightforwardly good as deploring racism, out of fear that the other side is weaponising the issue. When everything is read as a move in the culture war, one has to weigh up more than just the rightness or wrongness of an individual action or reaction; one has to think about what might be conceded to the opposition, how one's action or inaction will affect the strategic state of affairs.

So sometimes you just have to forget the culture war. For Christians in particular, our calling is not to be strategic in our thinking but obedient. With our minds held captive by Christ, we enjoy perfect freedom to act (and to refrain from acting) on the left and on the right. 

Friday, July 09, 2021

The present presence of the risen Lord

The Lord Jesus is alive - risen, ascended, enthroned.  As the Living One, he is present in and to his church by the Holy Spirit.  He himself, as the One who is in heaven, is present with us on earth.  This is something which hopefully all Christians would acknowledge, but what do we do with it?  Is the presence of the Lord Jesus of functional importance to us?

One of the themes running through John Webster's collection of essays Word and Church is the constant danger of ignoring or minimising this presence.  As Webster points out, there are plenty of things - theological things! - that threaten to squeeze out the place of the risen Christ.  The church, for example, can easily expand to take his place, and the doctrine of the church can come to supplant the doctrine of the risen Lord Jesus.  When this happens - and we should probably not move too quickly to glance over at Rome here, since it surely happens closer to home than that - the church's sacramental and liturgical life continues, and it continues to talk about the risen Christ, but it becomes increasingly hard to see what difference it would make if Jesus were absent.  Perhaps he just set up the church and then left it to run - a kind of gospel deism.

I suspect that sometimes in evangelical circles the doctrine of Scripture can pose a threat in this way.  It is good that we have a high view of the Bible and its authority, but there is always a danger that the authority of the Bible is cut loose from the authority of the Lord.  In analogy to the danger with the church, might we come to act as if Christ had provided Holy Scripture as a deposit of sacred truth and then basically left us to it?  What difference would it make to our preaching and teaching if he were absent?

We are used to looking back, to see Jesus in his crucifixion and resurrection; we are used to looking forward, straining to see Jesus in his glorious return.  Are we used to looking up, to see Jesus in heaven - and not only to see him there, but to be lifted up in our hearts to be with him there now, because he is with us?

Because the only substitute for the presence of the Lord Jesus which is held out in the New Testament is the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Think about the discourse in the latter chapters of John.  Jesus is going away, but he will send another Counsellor.  And yet it turns out this is no substitution at all - for where the Spirit is, there is Christ himself!  It is his spiritual presence that we're talking about, or his presence by the Spirit.

It all raises questions particularly for our corporate worship (and I think the NT gives us reasons to talk specifically about Christ's presence in the gathered worship of his people).  When the Scriptures are opened and the word is preached, do we have a sense that Christ is presently speaking to us - is it first hand or second (or third) hand?  Is it the viva vox dei that we're hearing as we hear the voice of the reader and the voice of the preacher?  When we gather at the Table, is it the Lord's Supper that we're attending - is he the host?  Is he present, as the one who was crucified and is now risen, to feed us with his own body and blood?  Or is this just a memorial of a thing that happened long ago and far away?

The Lord is here!