Friday, October 16, 2020

On the use of the Creed

 Steve Kneale has published a piece entitled Five reasons reciting creeds is unhelpful - a title which surely warrants a rebuttal!  For the record, my own church background is in 1689 Baptistry, but I now pastor a small church which takes the Nicene Creed as its basis of faith, and I am a strong advocate for the use of the Creed in public worship (and I like the Apostles' Creed as well, just not quite as much).  So, here's why I think each of Steve's reasons is wrong, and sometimes dangerously so.

1. Sola Scriptura.  For Steve, it seems, the use of creeds undermines the unique authority of Scripture in the church.  "We want people to have confidence in the Word of God" - yes, absolutely!  So, why not just always go to the source?  Why not just read the Bible instead of the Creed?  Well, firstly it's not an either/or.  Read both in your services!  Recite the Creed and recite the Psalms.  Yes, a thousand times yes, to more Bible.  But why then the Creed?  Because when Steve goes on to say that "when people state what they believe, I would prefer they pointed directly to the Bible and affirmed it, rather than a statement drawn up after it" this is exactly the argument an Arian would have made in the fourth century.  It is possible to mis-read the Bible - Jesus highlights the possibility - and in so doing miss or distort the life-giving message.  Biblicism will not help us here; the heretics themselves claim the Scriptures to be on their side.  The Creed functions as a distilled statement of the essential truth, and therefore as a guide to Scripture reading.  Putting it into our worship, reciting it together, helps to ensure that we are all on the same page on such essentials as the deity of Christ.  It is not vital that we recite it, but it is helpful.

2. The creeds require explanation.  No doubt.  I preached a series on the Nicene Creed not too long ago to provide some of that explanation for our crew.  But everything, including Holy Scripture, needs explaining.  Often the hymns we sing need explaining.  Explanation is no bad thing.  But also, the creeds do some explaining of their own.  The Nicene Creed explains what we mean when we talk about the deity of Christ.  It explains, in fact, what the Scriptures mean when they talk about Jesus as the Son of God.  In explaining the Creed, I've found myself simply preaching the gospel.  And that can't be so bad.

3. Use of the creeds in worship confuses the church about authority.  Steve asks 'is the creed authoritative?' - if it is, doesn't that undermine the authority of Scripture?  If it isn't, why are we using it in worship?  Again, there is a really unhelpful biblicism here.  The Bible is, and must be seen to be, the ultimate authority in all matters of doctrine; but it is not the only authority.  We don't come to the Bible as if nobody had ever read it before.  Yes, ultimately we believe and use the Creed because we are convinced it has behind it the authority of Scripture; but we also acknowledge that others have gone ahead of us, that we are part of the catholic church which spans the centuries, within which there are subordinate authorities like creeds.  They are not ultimate, but they are not lightly put aside if we want to be sure that we stand in some continuity of faith with our spiritual forebears.  In our teenage culture, which thinks it needs to reinvent everything all the time, it is good to recognise the (subordinate) authority of our fathers and mothers in faith.

4. Alien to outsiders.  Reciting creeds feels weird to visitors.  This is weak.  Almost everything we do in worship feels weird to outsiders.  So what?  As to encouraging people to chunter along to words they don't and can't mean - presumably Steve still has songs in church, and presumably they are full of lyrics a non-Christian can't really sing?

5. Creeds are alien to the Baptist tradition.  Steve finds the recitations of creeds to be Anglican, and he suspects that behind that lurks Catholicism.  In fact, the Nicene Creed is regularly recited in worship in Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, and Presbyterian churches.  It is catholic, in the good old sense of basically and universally Christian - both as a statement of doctrine and as a building block of liturgy.  There is something peculiar about British non-conformity here, by the way.  I was once chatting with an American Presbyterian minister who asked whether British evangelicals would find it weird that his congregation crossed themselves during the Gloria Patri.  I had to say yes - they would find the manual action weird, and they would find the Gloria Patri weird!  The fear of 'catholicism' - perhaps caused by the proximity to Anglo-Catholicism in particular - has distorted the view of what is just 'normal church' for many British evangelicals.  If the creeds are alien to the Baptist tradition, the Baptist tradition is (at that point) alien to the universal belief and practice of the church.

So, to summarise my argument: biblicism is bad, weird is okay, Baptists should get with the programme.

Friday, October 02, 2020

Divine mandates and the present crisis

In the tragically unfinished Ethics manuscript entitled The Concrete Commandment and the Divine Mandates, Dietrich Bonhoeffer begins to investigate what a well-ordered human society might look like.  The first thing he wants to be clear on is that in a well-ordered society we are always faced with the one concrete commandment of God "as it is revealed in Jesus Christ".  There can be no neutrality on this point; Christ Jesus rules in every sphere of life.  (Bonhoeffer pushes back here against the Lutheran understanding of the two kingdoms; indeed, he does not consider this to be authentically Lutheran teaching at all).  But the one commandment encounters us in particular circumstances, particular spheres.  Bonhoeffer talks about the four divine mandates of church, marriage and family, culture (or sometimes 'work'), and government.

In each of these four mandates we come up against the concrete commandment of God; each is ordered from above, from heaven, and is not merely an outgrowth or development of human history.  The four mandates are envisaged as co-existing: "None of these mandates exists self-sufficiently, nor can any one of them claim to replace all the others."  They are with-one-another, for-one-another, and over-against-one-another; that is to say, they are limited by one another even as they exist to support one another.  The obvious target here for Bonhoeffer is the encroaching Nazi totalitarianism, which wants to subordinate all spheres of life to the state.  In fact, each of the divine mandates finds itself limited in two key ways in a well-ordered society: from above, because it is constrained to serve God's commandment and not its own ends, and from all sides, because it cannot arbitrarily encroach on the territory of the other mandates.

This is Bonhoeffer's version of a theory which has been commonplace in Christian thinking about politics and society.  Whether it is the high mediæval assertion of the church's liberties against the crown (think Beckett), or the Lutheran two kingdoms doctrine, or the Barmen Declaration railing against totalitarianism in the 1930s, the goal is the same: to understand, on the basis of God's creation and Christ's universal Lordship, what it means for human institutions to exercise legitimate authority within their particular spheres.

This is a peculiarly Christian approach.  Because God sits above every sphere, and because each of the mandates finds it authorisation in him and his providential arrangement, it is not possible for any to usurp the place of the others.  Family is not dependent on the state for its authorisation; the church is not dependent on the culture for its authorisation; etc. etc.  Each mandate operates with divine authorisation within its own sphere.  The mandates are oriented towards each other - they are not hermetically sealed against each other - but they cannot arbitrarily claim an authority to interfere in other spheres.  If the church is to interfere in the state, it must not be to usurp the state, but to establish the state in its independence within its own sphere.  If the state wishes to be involved in regulating family life, that can only be for the sake of the independence of family life from the state.

To my mind, this is what has been missing from a lot of Christian debate about the response to Covid from Her Majesty's Government.  Many of the responses I've seen have relied on a biblicist citing of Romans 13 to suggest that we must always submit to the Government's whims.  Most have jumped straight to the practical question 'when should we disobey?'  But the background questions which urgently need working through are: is the state currently operating within its legitimate sphere, or has it usurped the place of other mandates; and, where the state has impinged on other mandates, has it done so with the legitimate aim of strengthening those mandates in their independence?  These are the questions which are raised by the historic Christian tradition of political and social thought.  I'd like to see some more work done on them.  We ought not to take it for granted that the state has the authority which it claims for itself, nor should we short-circuit the theo-political thinking that needs to happen here by a quick appeal to a Pauline proof-text.

The church is uniquely well placed to offer constructive critique here.  This sense of a divine division of powers has largely faded in our society; we are ripe for totalitarianism, even if it does turn out to be democratic totalitarianism.  The church, though, is still able to see Christ on his throne above it all, limiting but also authorising the various human institutions in their particular spheres.  The church can and should speak out - not only when her own sphere is threatened, but also to speak up for the rights of family, and of culture, and, yes, even of the state where those rights are threatened.  Because we see each sphere as established by God, we cannot be content to see them dissolved into one another.

The present crisis is the time to think this through, to work out what we are called to say and do.  Crisis is always the time when institutions threaten to overflow their banks.  Legitimate crisis response easily becomes illegitimate accumulation of powers.  We should not take it for granted that when the crisis passes things will return to 'normal'; it is far more likely, I think, that the crisis reveals what has been really going on for years.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

The dangers of under- and over-analysing

One of the things which has been thrust upon pastors in particular by the arrival of Covid-19 has been an increased urgency in trying to read our situation.  What is going on in our culture?  How are people thinking?  Granted that the Word we need to speak never changes, how do we speak that Word into this particular 'here and now'?  It has always been part of the job to try to answer these questions, but the present moment has made it more pressing; no longer are we asking about long-term trends, but instead we are asking what is happening now, right now in these tumultuous weeks and months.

I think there are two dangers we need to avoid as we go about this task.

On the one hand, there is a danger of under-analysis.  At its worst, this is naivety - taking everything at face value and declining to look below the surface at all.  If the Government says it is doing something, that must be what it's doing.  But it needn't be that extreme.  Sometimes it is just viewing the particulars without any context.  Pursuing a cure and/or vaccine for the virus must be good.  Sure.  But if we don't look at the context, we'll miss bigger points about our society's approach to health, and the conceptualisation of death which is common amongst those around us.  Why do they talk like this?  What is revealed by the particular response to this threat to our health about our underlying habits of thought?  I think if we don't do this work we'll end up like the bull, chasing the red cloth around without ever coming within touching distance of the real target.

The danger of over-analysis, on the other hand, is at its most extreme the conspiracy theory.  Nothing is taken at face value; everything conceals a hidden pattern, which only those with the key can see.  (Paradoxically, this is often accompanied by scorn for all those who have not been enlightened and cannot see what is 'really going on').  But it needn't go that far.  Some of us naturally see patterns, naturally integrate things into a bigger whole - and there is a danger in so doing that we impose a conceptual scheme rather than perceiving the facts.  In particular, we can end up telling people that they really believe one thing even though they say they believe something else.

All of us would like to think we hit the happy medium here.  My guess is that all of us are wrong, and we all naturally lean to one side or the other.  (I am an instinctive over-analyser, for what it's worth).  I think the task at the moment is made more difficult by a cloud which hangs over the whole situation, something which I tend to analyse (!) as a spiritual attack.  But the task is vital if we're to speak the gospel into the here and now - which is to say, to the real people in the world around us.  Perhaps knowing our natural tendency might help us to correct it.  Certainly listening carefully to others will help.  Above all, prayer and being soaked in Scripture must be the key.

Monday, September 28, 2020

A letter I signed

 Last week I was asked to sign a letter to the Prime Minister and First Ministers of the devolved administrations offering a Christian reflection on the current governmental response to Covid-19.  I was glad to sign.  You can read the full text of the letter here.  Since the letter itself, and the media reporting of it over the weekend, has aroused a little controversy, I wanted to offer my own thoughts - an apologia pro signatura mea if you like.

What does the letter say?

To me, there seem to be two points to the letter.  One is the negative consequences of lockdown and other restrictions which we have seen on families, on lonely people, and on society more generally.  These are concerns which I think are broadly shared within and beyond the Christian church, and they are concerns which ministers of the gospel ought to voice.  The logic in the letter - that Christ came to give fulness of life, and therefore we cannot settle for a course which preserves bare existence at the expense of the very things that give life value and enjoyment - seems sound.  It is biblical and gospel-grounded, but has the potential also to appeal to those who do not accept the presupposition.  If you don't believe that Christ came to give life in its fulness, you may still think that bare existence is not much worth preserving.  As I say, many people are making this point, but we Christians ought also to make it, and louder; we ought to take a stand for the common societal good.

The second point is narrower, and stresses the crucial importance for our society of Christian worship.  This, of course, is unlikely to appeal beyond the church, but it bears saying anyway.  Life cannot be lived to the full without the gathered worship of the Triune God.  The corporate worship of God's people is what everything exists for.  This should be uncontroversial in the church, and if the world at large can't understand it, so be it.  We ought not to yield to a perspective that is not rooted in Holy Scripture.

So what does it mean?

The Sunday Times reported the letter under the headline Churches vow to stay open this time.  This is a silly headline.  I certainly didn't make any sort of vow when signing, nor am I committed to the idea that as a church we would not comply with any further restrictions.  As a point of fact, I don't have the power or authority to make that decision!  Logistically, CCC meets in a community centre, and if they close then de facto so do we, at least as far as public worship goes.  More importantly, within our church that sort of decision would not be mine alone to make; the elders would have to agree, and in fact it would be such a momentous step that I think we would need a congregational vote.  How I would advise the congregation to vote in that case I don't yet know; it would depend on the circumstances.

As I read the letter, what the signatories are asking is that we not be put in the position of having to make such a decision.  We do not want to have to ask our churches to choose between obedience to God and obedience to the secular authority.  This is not a threat of disobedience - it is a request that we not be moved in a direction where disobedience might be necessary.  Personally, I would have worded it somewhat more strongly.  I think the government is operating outside its legitimate sphere of operations in restricting individuals, families, and churches as it has done for so long - on which more later in the week.  But that is not what is at issue here.  The letter is simply an appeal that the harms done by lockdown be recognised, and that the importance of Christian worship be recognised in any future decision making.  I guess we will have a more ready audience for the former point, but the latter could not go unmade if we are to be faithful to the gospel.

I imagine that amongst signatories to the letter there is a broad spectrum of approach.  I know that some - as reported over the weekend - are already ignoring guidelines related to singing, for example.  I am not doing that, nor will I be in the near future.  Others are content that current restrictions are sensible and legitimate, but don't want to see anything further.  I personally can't see that they are either sensible or legitimate.  There is a range of opinion - I know from speaking to a few people - but we should be able to agree on the two key points: lockdown has been harmful in many ways (and this is not to prejudge whether it has also been essential); and Christian worship is essential.

Where do we go from here?

It seems clear to me that we need some more robust theological work on the place of the state.  A fair amount of the commentary seems to be biblicist in its quick jump to Romans 13 as if that settled all issues.  We have a couple of millennia of thought on this topic which we ought to be bringing to bear.  We also perhaps need a clearer view of the value of corporate worship; many people seem to think we're not missing much by streaming or being on Zoom.  I think Zoom church is church on life support.  Now is the time to do this theological work - the best theology always emerges under the pressure of events.

We need to continue to speak into issues that go beyond the immediate rights and concerns of the church.  If I'd been writing the letter, I might have put more stress on the first point, or at least developed it more.  We don't just speak out when they come for us - we should have learnt this at least from the Confessing Church.  But - and again we should have learnt this from the Barmen Declaration - we must speak on our own ground, on gospel ground.  We don't disconnect the societal needs from the gospel need.

Perhaps above all, we need to avoid making our opinions on Covid or on Her Majesty's Government a mark of righteousness.  Personally, I haven't been singing in church and have worn a mask as required - but I am not thereby justified.  On the other hand, I have signed this letter, and have written somewhat critically of the restriction regime - but I am not thereby justified.  We can and should disagree well on these things, both within our churches and between them.  A stress on the centrality of the gospel, a willingness to go slower (and faster) than we are personally comfortable with in order to show love to others, and a willingness to hear other sides empathetically and sympathetically ought to mark our approach.  We should do everything we can to avoid distancing ourselves from brothers and sisters who hold the gospel, even whilst clearly expressing our disagreements as necessary.

I was glad to sign the letter.  I was encouraged to see so many others sign it.  I hope that many who didn't feel able to sign it still feel able to speak into the legitimate concerns expressed.  I hope this represents the beginning of a new boldness and engagement for the church in the UK.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Fog of War

Chatting through the general situation yesterday, the image of fog pressed itself powerfully on my mind.  It does seem as if everyone, from government downwards, is blundering about in a thick murk.  Objectives are unclear.  The very situation is unclear.  What is really happening?  What are we trying to do?

The Government prolongs a state in which normal human activity is criminalised.  There is growing evidence that this is doing great harm to society and to the health of individuals, and yet we press on with it.  Does anyone know why?  The stated reasons for introducing restrictions way back were to do with 'flattening the curve', ensuring the health service is not overwhelmed.  Those reasons seem to have gone by the wayside.  What are our objectives now?  It's all been swallowed up by fog.  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that HMG is lost in the cloud.

Of more desperate concern, for me at least, is that our Christian witness seems to have got lost in the fog.  We - who believe in a hope that goes beyond this life, who trust in a sovereign God - surely we ought to have something powerful to say in this situation?  But we proceed with such uncertainty.  I don't hear people speaking with assurance and authority on behalf of Christ.  it's like we're just not quite sure where we are or where we need to go.

I'm not talking about other people.  It's in my mind, the fog.  I wander through my days in a state of distraction, wondering what is really going on and where we really are.  I get stuff done, I talk to people, I write sermons.  But am I saying the right things?  What's the word for the moment?

I'm sure there are lots of potential causes for this feeling of being lost in a fog.  I am sure that at least one of them is spiritual.  We are in a spiritual battle, and I am quite sure that keeping us muddled is one of Satan's key ploys.  It's relatively easy right now.  We lack the key thing which allows us to see clearly: gathered worship.  When we come together as God's people, one of the things that happens is that we together lift up our hearts to the throne of heaven, where Christ is seated.  From that vantage point we see what is really going on.  The fog disperses as we sing the truth, as we pray the truth.  Taking the Holy Supper together orients us on the most important reality: that Christ has died and risen, that sin and death are vanquished.  We orient ourselves, locate ourselves in God's great plan of salvation.

In the absence of gathered worship - or even in the practice of gathered worship that is weakened and attenuated by restrictions and regulations - we are lost.

Send your light and your truth; let them lead me.
Let them bring me to your holy mountain,
to your dwelling place.
Then I will come to the altar of God,
to God, my greatest joy.
I will praise you with the lyre,
God, my God.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Liberty as a human good

I know lots of people are vexed over current restrictions on our lives.  For myself, the frustrations fall into a number of categories: that the rules seem arbitrary; that there seems very little evidence base for many of them; that they show a basic misunderstanding of most of the elements of life they are intended to regulate; that they change in unpredictable fashion for no very obvious reason; that they are inconsistent; that they have been imposed without due scrutiny in Parliament...

I could go on, but I guess that makes it clear where I stand.

I know that we will all have different perspectives on this, and many people will feel that the rules are basically justified even if the detail isn't great; others will feel there should be no rules at all, or perhaps just voluntary guidelines.  I get it.  I have to keep reminding myself that although I try to be informed I am really no expert.  Probably neither are most of you.  So my opinion is just that, and there is no reason it should carry a huge amount of weight, and I won't offer any further comment on it.

Where I do want to comment is at the intersection of church and society, and therefore of theology and politics.  Like many people, pastors have been scrambling to understand the new regulations (and given the constantly moving target, this is an ongoing task).  We've been asking each other questions about how the 'rule of six' affects people arriving at worship services; we've been looking for loopholes that would enable our homegroups to meet for fellowship.  On the whole, what we've found is that the regs make it extremely difficult for us to do anything approaching 'normal church'.

So here's the thing: what is a homegroup?  Well, it's an attempt to create community, to share life, in the particular context of the church.  But community and life-sharing are not activities unique to the church.  In fact, in its community and fellowship the church, in so far as it understands itself, will be aware that it is just being human.  Christ is the Creator, and the Lord of the Church.  In the church, he brings his human creation back to itself, back to normality.  So the church's activities are, in the specific context of the community of faith, just being human.  Which means that we need to realise that if we're being restricted from running our homegroups - and assuming we're not being particularly targeted, which we're not - then something fundamentally human is being restricted.  I think our response then needs to be not looking for loopholes to try to maintain our particular activities, but speaking up for the common human need for community and togetherness.  We need to think more broadly than 'government is getting in the way of our programmes and structures' to see that government is getting in the way of being human.  The liberty to come together as people is a human good.

None of this is to prejudge the question of whether and to what extent government is currently justified in restricting that liberty.  People will have different views on that.  I get it.  I just think we need to consider those views in the broader context.

Theologically, I've seen a lot of people rolling out Romans 13 to argue that we must submit to the state - until or unless the state particularly targets Christians to prevent their witness (in which case, Acts 4:19 kicks in).  I think that represents a truncated view of the biblical stance on the state - it is, perhaps, biblicism, in the sense that it does not take into account the whole of God's revelation in Holy Scripture or the way in which the church has wrestled with the question of the state over the centuries.  In this context, I want to point out that it tends to limit the church's interventions on questions of liberty to those which directly affect us and our activities.  What about a wider, creational concern for humankind?  Does Romans 13 mean we can never protest an unjust decree?  Our theological forebears thought it just to part a king from his head over the question of liberty - and whilst I'm not sure they were right, I don't think we can just quote Romans 13 to say they were wrong.

Again, I want to stress that I'm not saying you ought to come down on one side or the other in terms of the particular justice of the current regulations.  I guess my view is clear, but I know my limitations and I don't expect everyone to agree with me.  All I'm really asking is that we have the conversation in an expanded context.

Thursday, September 17, 2020


I've written before about my concerns with the preoccupation with leadership in the evangelical constituency of which I am a small part.  I'm seeing a lot floating around on the subject again, much of it a healthy response to the presence of abusive leadership within the churches.  That's good, in so far as it goes, but I do wonder whether the problem runs deeper.  I wonder why we're so obsessed with the idea of leadership in the first place.

I think there is a language problem here, which probably has a conceptual problem behind it.  If I turn to older authors, I find much about ministry, but very little about leadership.  Pastors and elders do not seem to be conceived of as leaders, or at least that is not the main way in which they are conceived.  That broadly reflects the balance of biblical language, where leadership occurs rarely in relation to the church (Hebrews 13 is the main collection of 'leader' words; there is also 'rule' in 1 Timothy 5:17).  We ought perhaps to be asking why we talk so much about leadership when neither Scripture nor Tradition make this a major theme.

Where does it come from, this emphasis on leadership?  My guess is that much of my constituency is based in University towns, and many of the pastors I know cut their teeth in student ministry.  In Christian Union circles, the question of who will lead is often acute; I know that as a UCCF Staff Worker I was often preoccupied with questions of who would lead the committee next year.  'Raising up leaders' in these contexts becomes very important.  I wonder whether 'leadership' models make more sense in parachurch organisations than they do in the church as the household of God; I wonder what that says about parachurch.  Similarly, in large churches with rapid turnover of people (i.e., student churches), the need to find and equip people to lead in the various established programmes of the church makes 'raising up leaders' a constant task.  And of course when you're working with students you are often (but not always) working with people who will, humanly speaking, be leaders in their various spheres.  Why not also in church?

There is a need to invest in next generation of ministers and servants of the church - no doubt.  But I wonder whether the constant talk of leadership, and leadership training, doesn't distort our view of ministry and of church.  Of ministry, of course, because we start to view pastors and elders through a conceptual lens which is not the one primarily employed by the inspired authors; of church, because so much of our energy is directed towards a minority of people.  After all, most people in our churches will never be 'leaders'.  If 'raising up leaders' is a preoccupation, then will we bother with those people?  What does it say to the 'average footsoldier' in the church if our primary goal seems to be raising and equipping leaders?  What does it communicate about their value, the worth of their service?

Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems to me that our efforts to root out 'bad leaders' will always be hampered by the fact that the very notion of leadership as we have employed it is bad from the start, and the ecclesiology - and indeed theology proper - that stands in need of such a notion of leadership is seriously wonky.