Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Daniel 10-12

This past Sunday we finished up a series on the book of Daniel at CCC, with a foolish but (I like to think) valiant attempt to cover the last three chapters in half an hour.  I've really enjoyed the series, both preaching it and hearing it preached.  When we started, I assumed that the really useful stuff would be the reflections on living as an exile from the early chapters - and that we would only persevere into the weird apocalyptic stuff in the second half of the book in order to avoid the charge of cowardice.

In fact, although the early chapters were indeed helpful for thinking through living for Christ in a world that doesn't know him, it has been the later chapters that have had the most impact on me.  We live in turbulent times, and the book of Daniel reflects and speaks into turbulent times.  Here are the three points I made from chapters 10-12:

In chapter 10, we see that there is more going on than we see.  Daniel prays, and an angelic messenger is dispatched.  But the messenger is held up, detained in conflict with another spiritual being, who seems to represent the interests of the Persian empire.  The message does not get through until archangelic reinforcement arrives in the person of Michael.  What are we, readers in the twenty-first century West, meant to make of all this?  Let's face it, if we stripped the chapter of all the features which make it unacceptable to a modern mindset, there wouldn't be much left.  Instead I think we need to recognise that there just is a whole world of spiritual being about which we know very little, but with which we are able to interact (e.g. in prayer).  There are angels out there, folks.

As an aside, one almost instinctive reaction to this which I have is to feel hard done by that I have never seen any angels.  But that is daft.  We Christians have been given knowledge of things which the men of the OT (like Daniel) longed to see, and which even the very angels themselves long to understand as we do.

In chapter 11, we see that most of what we do see is not (ultimately) important.  The chapter rehearses the long, back-and-forth conflict between the Hellenistic dynasties of the Ptolemies and the Seleucids.  Assuming, as I think I do, that this is seen in prospect rather than retrospect, two things are proved.  Firstly, from the fact that the angel can tell Daniel exactly what will happen, we see that God is genuinely sovereign over the affairs of nations - nothing surprises him.  But secondly, from the way that the report is given, it is clear that the affairs of nations are really of significance only as the backdrop against which God's people can be faithful or not.  The tale as told signifies nothing, despite all its sound and fury - and comes to nothing in the end.  We need to worry less about the news and think more about what it means to know God.

In chapter 12, we see that there is real hope for those who persevere.  The corporate hope presented in the chapter is that Michael the archangel will lead the forces of heaven to a triumph which will vindicate Israel; and the individual hope is that even if you die before that happens, you will be raised from the dust.  Revelation 12 tells us that this victory of Michael's has occurred - and it is because of the work of Christ.  Humanity is in principle (and in first-fruits-actuality) raised from the dead, because Jesus is raised.  The hope is real.  We can persevere.

One thing I take away from all this is that we can relax.  We don't have to change the course of the world.  We just have to know God, be faithful in our little bit of allotted time, and look with calm faith to see the things unseen.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Irreversible and Victorious

The eschatological climax of God's historical self-communication, in which this self-communication becomes manifest as irreversible and victorious, is called Jesus Christ. Karl Rahner
The Israelite of the Old Testament lives with a certain fear that perhaps the favour of God will be withdrawn.  You can see it in the people removing their ornaments and mourning at the prospect of Canaan without Yahweh.  You can see it in David, pleading that God's Holy Spirit not be taken from him.  You can see it in the final words of Lamentations.

In each case, the fear relates to human sin.  The dreadful thought is two-fold: firstly, that the patience of God might be exhausted, and that this last sin might be the one which causes him to finally turn away in disgust; secondly, that the evil of humanity - my evil - might prove to be invincible, and that even if God continues to be patient, all his patience might be in vain, because I will not be changed.

Might God walk back on his covenant promise?  Surely he would be justified.

Might my sin be such that his grace will find no foothold in me?  Surely that fits with what I know of myself.

But in Jesus Christ, God shows himself absolutely committed to communicating himself to us in grace and mercy, and absolutely powerful to overcome our opposition to that grace and mercy.  God has taken humanity to himself in his Son, uniting himself to us forever.  Moreover, the Son has endured everything that this 'uniting' means for him: the death of the cross.  And he has been raised, living again.

In the being of Jesus Christ, as it was lived out in Palestine two thousand years ago, we see God walking a path which is irreversible, committed to the point of death and beyond.  Just as nobody can reverse the resurrection and the cross, so nobody can undo God's great love.

And we see God walking a path which is victorious.  Just as nobody could keep Christ in the grave when his Father called him out, so nobody can prevent God's work in the lives even of dead-in-sin human beings.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Exiles and the Kingdom

I think the New Testament is pretty clear that Christians should expect their experience of life in this world to be an experience of exile.  1 Peter is obviously the book that explicitly uses this imagery, but actually the whole of the NT is full of the discomfort, the being-out-of-place, that comes from being part of the new creation in Christ and yet living day by day in the old creation.  Some of the more radical explorations of that motif are in Paul: think of the way that the old extends even to my own body (and mind?) in the conflict of Romans 7.  I am in exile not only in the world, but in a sense in my own skin.  Stranger in a strange land.

Given the prevalence of this motif, I don't see why Christians would be surprised to find themselves a minority, their views ignored, their beliefs ridiculed.  We should be okay with that.

But there is another line in the NT, which represents one of the essential insights of Old Testament monotheism.  Along this line, the NT insists that the whole earth is the Lord's, with everything in it.  That is why you can eat meat sacrificed to idols - the meat is God's, the idols are nothing (even if they are demons!)  From this perspective, it is the Christian who belongs - this is our Father's world, and moreover it is the world which, whether it knows it or not, is decisively claimed for redemption through the death and resurrection of Christ.  In a sense this is the deeper line, which cuts across the experience of exile: we are at home, deeply at home, in the world.  It is just that the world itself does not know that it has been brought home in Christ to its creator.

Given this, I don't see how we could refuse to hope for genuine improvement in the world.  I don't see how the church can acquiesce in the world's refusal to know itself and be itself in Christ.  We should be constantly calling the world - institutions and societies as well as individuals - to repentance and faith.

I suppose the key thing is that we speak from the perspective of confidence.  Those who fear that the exile is the more fundamental reality will speak in a shrill manner, out of anxiety and not out of the deep calm of prophetic vision.  It is only when we know that the world is Christ's that we can calmly and clearly - without being shocked by rejection, but never giving up hope that we might be heard - tell the world what it is in Christ, and what it ought therefore to be in experience.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Under authority

This morning the news has broken that Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Roman Catholic, holds ethical positions consistent with Catholicism.  Alongside the almost comical shock that being a Catholic should involve Catholicism, there have been a couple of interesting reactions, for example this:
I don't think I'd considered that particular line before, but it is surely true that consistency here is critical.  Attempts to make compassionate exceptions to the right to life actually end up making our ethics awful woman bashing.

One thing I dread whenever Roman Catholic ethical positions come into public discussion is the widespread perception that Protestants are just a bit more easy-going on these sorts of things.  This was the heart of my GCSE Religious Education, as far as I recall (and I freely admit that I may not recall ever so accurately, so don't think too poorly of my teachers): here is a tricky ethical problem, Roman Catholics take this hard line, other Christians just do what they feel like.  There are perhaps two misconceptions about Protestantism that are put about in this context:

1.  Protestants, because they are not so much bound by tradition, are more likely to be progressive than Roman Catholics.  This is not true.  Protestants are no more free than Roman Catholics to take their lead on ethical issues from the trends of wider society.  They are under the authority of Christ, expressed concretely in Holy Scripture.  Where Protestants dissent from Roman Catholic teaching on ethics, it is because they do not think Scripture supports the Roman position.  It is not because they are free.

2.  Protestants, because they are all about individual conscience, are not bound to their church's ethical positions in the way that Roman Catholics are.  This is not true.  It is true that the Reformation made much of conscience, but the intention was not to overthrow the authority of the church.  It was to relativise it.  The church has the authority to take doctrinal and ethical positions.  The point of the Reformation was simply that these positions are open to challenge from Holy Scripture, because the church is not God.  The idea is not that every individualist church member can just believe and do whatever they feel is right.  The church is a disciplined community.

Of course I know that the reason people have these misconceptions about Protestants is partly because many people calling themselves Protestants really do think and behave like this.  All I can say is that this is bad Protestantism, Protestantism gone to seed.  Real Protestants are people bound under authority, no less than Roman Catholics - just not quite the same source of authority.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Division, faith, ethics

One of the more unfortunate responses to the Nashville Statement (of which, to be clear, I am not a fan, despite being broadly in agreement with its ethical positions) is to complain that this statement is divisive.  You can find the complaint here, for example, on a blog which I have on other ocassions found useful and encouraging.  It's unfortunate because of two things: firstly, it complains that the statement does exactly what it aims to do; and secondly, it implicitly claims that division is always bad.  The second claim is obviously the important one, and it doesn't work.  The NT is full of commands to divide from people - off the top of my head, one might consider 1 Corinthians 5, or 2 Thessalonians 3:6.  These two references are particularly pertinent, as they don't command division from people who take erroneous doctrinal stances, but from people who persist in ethically forbidden behaviour.

That helps with countering a particular form of the 'division is bad' argument, which makes it an issue of whether we believe in justification by faith.  In the same post I linked earlier, you will find essentially this argument: if you divide from anyone over anything other than faith in Christ, you are saying that justification requires faith in Christ and this other thing, in this case a particular take on sexual ethics.  And therefore you are denying the heart of the gospel.

It's worth picking over the logic.  The idea is that if I divide from someone else who professes faith in Christ, then I am claiming that this person is not a Christian, and therefore I am saying, or at least implying, that I think they're not justified.  Therefore I am making justification depend on faith in Christ and right doctrine or behaviour, and this will not do.

Let me counter some of that.  Firstly, it is worth noting that the NT is clear that certain kinds of behaviour rule out inheriting the Kingdom of God, regardless of the faith you profess - see Galatians 5:19-21 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.  Without getting into the detail of how that works, it seems clear that if your understanding of justification sola fide makes these verses untenable, your understanding is wrong.  Secondly, division from another person who professes faith in Christ ought not to be understood as a final judgement on them as to their justification - by what power or right could we possible pass such a judgement?  It is more like a warning shot.  It says 'friend, we consider your doctrine or behaviour to be such that we cannot regard you as a true Christian; and therefore we call you to consider whether you are in the right with God, and to repent'.  That is a severe thing to say, but it could be a mercy if it brings repentance!

Thirdly, in the final analysis, this is just a rehash of the Counter-Reformation calumnies against justification by faith alone, but given a perversely positive spin.  The Counter-Ref claimed that Protestants taught that so long as you believed in Jesus you could behave as you liked - there was no motive for ethical living, because your faith would guarantee you salvation regardless of what you did.  Of course, the Roman apologists of this era were appalled at such a suggestion.  Now, though, it is expressed as if this were a positive thing: we can all just disagree about sexual ethics, because it doesn't really matter what you do, so long as you believe in Christ!  But this is a desperate caricature of the beautiful doctrine of justification by faith alone.  If you think that justification by faith alone means 'trust in Christ and it doesn't matter how you live', then you have missed the point.  The person who is justified by faith in Christ is given a heart to obey Christ.  The person who does not obey Christ does not love Christ, does not trust Christ.  This is all in the New Testament, front and centre.  You can deny the gospel by your behaviour, as well as by your doctrine.

I hope the Nashville Statement disappears soon.  I don't think it's fit for purpose.  It lacks theological rigour and gospel tone.  But there is a serious need for division in the church.  If we take the NT warnings about ethics and the Kingdom seriously - read again some of the verses I've linked above! - the least loving thing we can do is to try to fudge the issue.  Eternal life is at stake. We must be clear.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Prolegomena to any future statements

It may have escaped your attention that a group of evangelical Christians has published a statement on the subject of sexual ethics.  Now, a number of the signatories are people I deeply respect, and the actual ethical positions taken are ones with which I am in broad (but not total) agreement.  So I'm not knocking the statement, per se.  But here's how I wish it had started, and how I wish any future statements on ethical issues from evangelical Christians might begin.  And if it sounds a bit antiquated, a bit theological, not directly relevant to the ethical questions asked: well, so much the better.  I've just written the intro and the first article.


Preamble

That the Church in the West is faced with a particular crisis today is undeniable.  The outer nature of this crisis is the unique result of the Church's ongoing encounter with post-Christian society, with the inevitable shattering of the consensus worldview and ethics of Christendom.  It is essential that the Church pay attention to the unique features of this situation, for she is called to speak a word in season, to address men and women as they are and where they are.  The Church can hardly take too seriously the unique situation in which she finds herself.

However, the inner nature of the crisis is the one pressing question which is put to the Church in every age, not by the surrounding world, but by the Church's Lord.  This is the question of whether she will hear, believe, and obey the Word of God.  That there are particular pressures today inclining her to be deaf to this Word; that there are unique circumstances today making it difficult for her to seriously believe what she hears; that the path of obedience is today strewn with obstacles which she has not previously faced - all these things are undeniably true, but must not be allowed to conceal the most important question.  Will the Church today hear, believe, and obey the Word of God?

Article 1

We believe that the Church of Jesus Christ lives by faith in the Word of God, which Word is Jesus Christ himself as he is held out to us in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.

a.  We believe that the Word of God in Holy Scripture calls us to confident faith in the accomplished work of God in Jesus Christ.  We tremble before the revelation of God's holy love at the cross of Christ, love which embraces all of sinful humanity and yet purges from sin.  We rejoice in the promise of eternal life given to us in the empty tomb of Jesus Christ, receiving this promise by faith as our only hope in life and death.  We gladly receive by faith the perfect righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ, daring to call on the holy God as our Father because of the completed work of his only-begotten Son.

b.  We believe that the Word of God in Holy Scripture calls us to faithful obedience to the Lord of the Church, Jesus Christ, who rules by his word and Spirit.  We acknowledge that the love of God in Christ does not leave us unchanged, but calls us into the perfect freedom of his service.  We acknowledge Holy Scripture as the sceptre of Christ the King, by which he commands his people and orders his Church.  We prayerfully depend on the presence of the Holy Spirit of Christ in the Church and in the hearts of his people, looking to him to give the will and power to follow where Christ our Lord leads.

c.  We confess with sorrow that we, the Church of Jesus Christ, have not lived by faith in the Word of God, but have sought to establish our own righteousness.  We confess with sorrow that we, the Church of Jesus Christ, have not obeyed the commands of Christ.  We confess with sorrow that we, the Church of Jesus Christ, have failed to present the promise of eternal life to the world.  We confess with sorrow that we, the Church of Jesus Christ, have failed to show the goodness of Christ in his commandments.  For all our wilful failings and accidental sins, we pray: Lord, have mercy.  Christ, have mercy.

d.  We deny that the Church of Christ can live otherwise than by the Word of God.  We deny that the Church of Christ must heed other voices than the voice of Christ as it is heard in Holy Scripture.  We deny that the Church of Christ must change its faith or its obedience in response to any other voice, whether from within or without.  We deny that the Church of Christ must recognise changes in wider culture as the voice of her Lord.  We deny that the Church of Christ can separate faith in the promise of the Word from faithful obedience to the command of the Word.  We deny that the lamentable failings of the Church invalidate the message of the Lord,who is merciful beyond our ability to comprehend.

e.  We call all those who put their faith in Christ to join with us in seeking his will, by prayerful attention and holy submission to Holy Scripture.  We ask the watching world to believe that we, the Church of Jesus Christ, must believe and act in obedience to our Lord.  We pledge ourselves to reform our faith, our teaching, our community life, and our actions in conformity with the Word of God as we hear it in Holy Scripture, and we ask anyone who sees error in our life or faith to bring witness against us from Holy Scripture.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Nihilisms

Every ideology with a nothing at the heart of it tries very hard to make everything else a nothing as well.  That is to say, nihilism annihilates.

Are we not surrounded on every side by nihilisms?

I am no expert on radical Islam, so you must take this not as a philosophical or theological analysis but merely a personal reflection; this is how it looks and feels to me.  I look at the giant monad at the heart of Islamist thinking and can't help thinking it's a nothing.  The radicalised monad sucks the value from all things, including life.  In theory this is because only the monad has value, or at least value-in-itself.  But is the gravity of the Islamist god actually the attraction of a black hole?  A nothing collapsing in on itself for all eternity, and all reality helpless before it...

Ostensibly opposed to this black hole, the re-emergence of neo-pagan blood and soil racism.  And we might play spot the difference.  In this quasi-Nietzschean cult of power combined with the whinging sense of perpetual victimhood of the spoilt child, what is there but emptiness?  The superman who is less than human, not even average.  Just a nothing.  Protect the white race, they say, protect our culture.  And yet there is no such thing, and in the sense they mean it there never was.  Burn your torches and march, burn your torches and pretend that you are light and fire.  There is a nothing in your heart, and you annihilate that which you claim to love but do not.

And meanwhile most of us here in the twilit West sit politely and drink coffee and worship the nothing.  Oh, we do.  We believe in nothing but personal autonomy, and to preserve our personal autonomy we have fed into the flames of nothing every sort of value and truth.  But in the end what will we have left to feed to this burning nothing?  Haven't we already begun to offer it the last of our fuel: our very capacity to choose?  To keep the world neutral, to maintain a space where we can be who we want to be, we have made a vacuum.  And now the nothing will take even our ability to be ourselves; we will destroy ourselves willingly, for fear that any sort of self might impinge on others.  The nothing collapses into itself, and we, who have become nothing, collapse with it.