Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Being wise

Christians often pray that God would give them wisdom, and it's right that we should do so.  Most often we pray that God would make us wise in a particular decision.  Again, perfectly correct.  It's just an acknowledgement that God is involved in, and indeed sovereign over, the decision-making process, and that the outcome is in his hands.

Still, I do sometimes feel like we're not really asking for wisdom, but just for the answer.  Do we want God to make us wise, or just to have him point us in the right direction for this particular decision?  Sometimes wisdom is not much more to Christians than sanctified common sense, sanctified clear-headedness, or even just sanctified 'getting it right'.  To put it another way, wisdom is all about the process and the decision; it has no content of its own, it is just the way to get to the right outcome.

In Scripture, wisdom has content.  In the Old Testament, wisdom begins with the fear of YHWH (Ps 111:10, Prov 1:7), and works itself out in devotion to his law (Deut 4:6).  That is why wisdom is a tree of life, and why such exorbitant promises are attached to the pursuit of wisdom.  To be wise in the OT is not really to have a canny sense of what to do in a given situation, or to leap to the right conclusion.  To be wise is to know God, to fear God, to study God's ways.  Wisdom has a shape.  It is about following God, perceiving his work and way and conforming our lives to his revelation.  Wisdom is often linked to creation (e.g. Ps 104:24), because the Scriptural authors saw in God's creation his way of working, and sought to follow it.

In the New Testament, the content of wisdom is filled out with a personal name: Jesus.  It is Jesus who is the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:30), and in him that all the treasures of divine wisdom are to be found (Col 2:3).  Wisdom is knowing God through Jesus.  In Jesus Christ, we see how it is that God works, and so in continuity with the OT, we are encouraged to get on board with God's actions, methods, activities.  Wisdom is something that we can learn from Jesus.

The hard part is that this wisdom is particularly the wisdom of Christ crucified.  God works through the cross of Christ, through the crucified Jesus.  That is why in 1 Corinthians 1 and 2 Paul is insistent that wisdom will not look wise.  Wisdom will look foolish, because it hinges on crucifixion.  Paul rejects the wisdom of the world, which moves easily from here to there, from where we are to where we want to be, in favour of the wisdom of God, which he reads in the cross of Christ.  Far from being sanctified common sense, this is senseless and foolish from a human perspective, but it is nevertheless divine wisdom.  It is the way God has gone, which means it is the way things work, which means it is the way we ought to walk.

In practice, I think this means that when we pray for wisdom we should first of all seek the answers to our prayers at the cross of Jesus.  In making this decision, which outcome looks cross-shaped - which outcome looks like dying to live?  Which outcome looks like the humanly-foolish, divinely-wise action of the cross?  I think that will often mean running precisely contrary to common sense.  In life, if something is going well, we continue it; the cross may mean giving that thing up to death for eternal gain.  In church, we often assume that growth or success should be continued - if we're growing, let's plan for growth!  But where is the cross?  How do our decisions reflect the Calvary road?

Wisdom is cross shaped, which means it often will cut across what seems good to us.  It often will look foolish.  But Jesus Christ, and him crucified, has become to us wisdom from God.  We should follow him.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

How to do liberal theology

I recently read Walter Brueggemann's book Sabbath as Resistance, which is really helpful in many ways and has challenged me to re-think my own position on Sabbath keeping.  However, at heart this book is a work of liberal theology, and I've found it interesting to think through what that means and how it shows itself.

To start with, for those brought up in a conservative evangelical tradition, it may be surprising that liberal theology is very interested in the Bible.  This book is all about engagement with Scripture.  Liberal theology at its best - and much of it is really rather good - is a genuine attempt to be Christian, and that translates into a real desire to hear the voice of Scripture and take it seriously.  If we imagine that liberal theology is not very seriously oriented toward the Bible, we will get it wrong.  If you want to do liberal theology, Scripture is the best place to start.

Moreover, liberal theology can lead to real and valuable insight into the Biblical text.  Sometimes those of us coming from a more conservative position can fail to really grapple with the text as it confronts us.  Sometimes we think we already know what the Bible is about, and that prevents us from asking the important questions.  Other times we look carefully to the text, but do not understand our contemporary world, so that we fail to arrive at an authentic interpretation and application of Scripture for today.  Liberal theology, which often comes from a place less bound by traditional interpretation, less tied to systematic theology, and more grounded in contemporary thought, can often be helpful.

But there is a problem.  Take an example from Brueggemann as illustrative.  In a generally helpful chapter which describes Sabbath as resistance to anxiety, we come across this summary of the activity of Pharaoh:

"...Pharaoh, even though he was absolute in authority and he occupied the pinnacle of power, was an endlessly anxious presence..."

"..Pharaoh, who controlled the Nile, nevertheless had nightmares of anxiety, as he dreamed of famine and as he imagined that the creation would not provide sufficient food (Gen. 41:15-32)."

"...that nightmare of scarcity, which contradicted the wealth and power of read Pharaoh, led to rapacious state policies of monopoly that caused the crown to usurp the money, cattle, the land, and finally the bodies of vulnerable peasasnts..."

See what's happened there?  If you're at all familiar with the book of Genesis, you will remember that Pharaoh is sent dreams from God warning him of famine to come.  The divine origin of these warnings is stressed in the narrative - read through Genesis 41:25-36, and count the mentions of God.  "God has revealed...  God has shown...  the thing is fixed by God and God will shortly bring it about".  Of course, all this is said by Joseph, but the text gives every reason to see this as also the narrator's point of view.  Pharaoh's anxiety in this instance is caused by God, and moreover is well justified!

What about the rapacious state policies?  The reader will recall that it was Joseph, not Pharaoh, who reduced the people of Egypt to serfdom.  But in the text, the stress is not on this but on the fact that the people were saved alive.  The alternative to serfdom was starvation.  Now, if any character in Genesis is portrayed by the narrator as a hero, it is Joseph.  To read this episode as Brueggemann does is to go completely against the grain of the Scriptural text.

And fundamentally, that is how to do liberal theology.  Use the Scriptural narrative and instruction as material, engage with it very seriously and creatively, but do not feel constrained to follow where Scripture points.  Do not feel obliged to let Scripture set the agenda.  In short, make the Bible your servant and not your master.  Then you're well on your way.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Lent 3

Leviticus 16 - the Day of Atonement.  Two goats, one for the LORD, and one for Azazel.  One to be killed as a sin offering, the other to be taken away into the wilderness and released.

Mark 1:9-13 - Jesus is baptized and then tempted.  In the river, he goes symbolically down into death, and the Spirit drives him out into the wilderness.

I take it that the dead goat points to the need for the sinner to die.  In his baptism, Jesus signals that he himself will fulfil this sign.  He identifies with sinners, and will die for sinners.  Unlike the goat, his encounter with death will end with his triumph in the resurrection, symbolised his emergence from the water of baptism.

The live goat seems to symbolise primarily the removal of the sin of Israel.  Their sin is taken away into the wilderness - to Azazel,  A demon?  So tradition has interpreted the passage.  Certainly the wilderness was considered the haunt of demons in some sense.  Jesus is driven into the wilderness, as the goat was driven away from Israel.  Unlike the goat, he takes on and defeats the devil in his own domain.  He not only bears away the sin of his people, but he responds to temptation to win with perfect righteousness.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Lent 2

But the self-humiliation of God in his Son is genuine and actual, and therefore there is no reservation in respect of his solidarity with us.  He did become... the brother of man, threatened with man, harassed and assaulted with him, and with him in the stream which hurries downwards to the abyss, hastening with him to death, to the cessation of being and nothingness.  With him he cries - knowing far better than any other how much reason there is to cry: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Mk. 15:34).  Deus pro nobis means simply that God has not abandoned the world and man in the unlimited need of his situation, but that he willed to bear this need as his own, that he took it upon himself, and that he cries with man in this need.

CD IV/1, p. 215

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Lent 1

The problem with spiritual disciplines is that the rest of life does not stop to give you time and space for them.  There are still people to see, tasks to perform, ordinary life to live.  And there are still annoyances and irritants and distractions galore.


So, what to do with all the stuff that just keeps getting in the way?  Say I wanted to spend the day meditating on my sinfulness - how am I to do that when my kids are noisy and excited and I have jobs at church, and tomorrow's working day is already starting to invade my mind?

Have you thought about meditating on that last paragraph?  Seems like there's plenty of sinfulness there to be going on with - selfishness, for starters, and an unwillingness to serve.

Oh, come on, you know I didn't mean that.  I wanted to spend the day thinking about My Need For A Saviour, and maybe The State Of Fallen Man.  That sort of sinfulness.  Not just the petty everyday stuff.

So you wanted to meditate vaguely on big ideas rather than think through your actual sins?


Seems like you might be wasting your Lent.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Three-fold sin

Karl Barth describes sin in three ways, each in relation to an aspect of the work of Christ:

1.  Where Christ humbled himself, each and every other human being exalts himself.  This is all the more striking when we bear in mind the inherent glory of Christ as the Image and Son of God, and on the other hand the dust from which humanity is shaped.  Despite this, Christ humbled himself to death - even death on a cross, in striking contrast to the status-seeking and self-promotion of humanity.  Sin in its first form is pride.

2.  Where Christ obeyed God and lived a life of active fellowship with him, each and every other human being avoids God's call and resists his fellowship.  Jesus always did the will of his Father, even when that will led him to Calvary.  We, on the other hand, do not respond to God's call.  We do not take up the responsibility of living toward God, but instead fall for the lure of irresponsibility and inaction.  Sin in its second form is sloth.

3. Where Christ bore true witness to God, each and every other human being distorts or ignores the knowledge of God.  Jesus was the light of the world, but we prefer to live in darkness.  We manufacture idols, literal or metaphorical, and create gods in our own image.  In doing so, we lose touch with ultimate truth, and consequently with all truth.  Sin in its third form is falsehood.

Obviously this is not the only way to think about sin, but I find it helpful especially for the way it places our sin in the context of Christ's righteousness.  Here, face to face with the only example of human righteousness there has ever been, we are surely forced to acknowledge that we not only fall short but set off in entirely the wrong direction.

Kyrie eleison.  Christe eleison.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


In the past, it would be fair to say that I've not always had positive things to say about Lent.  I'd stand by that, perhaps especially this one. But I have also shifted quite significantly in recent times.  As I get more into the rhythm of the church year (and I see that I started to follow it back in 2011), I find that there really is virtue in alternation of fast and feast.  Today I've been pondering how together they help us to live into our Christian identity.

The Christian is simul iustus et peccator - at once righteous (in Christ) and a sinner (in themselves).  To forget one or the other is to wander dangerously from the gospel.  The fasts of Lent and Advent help us to remember that we are sinners in need, with no inherent goodness before God.  They help us to remember that we still need to put to death the sinful deeds of the earthly nature and to discipline our bodies.  Now, this can go horribly wrong.  We can attempt to change our behaviour by our own willpower; we can perceive any effort toward change as earning God's favour; we can imagine that discipline is a good in and of itself.  But those errors will creep in whenever we try to pursue godliness.  They don't detract from the need to remember our sinfulness by nature, and to put to death the sinfulness that still remains.

But to be at once righteous and a sinner is not an equilibrium.  It is not as if I am equally well defined by both words - 'righteous' and 'sinner'.  My identity in Christ is by far the more fundamental.  If I am joined to him by faith, I am righteous.  Everything is done for me by him.  So, the fasts do not just peter out; they lead to feasts.  Because my meditation on my sinfulness and need is meant to drive me to Christ, and to celebrate his work.  In Advent I consider the need that I have, and that the world has, for a Saviour - and then I celebrate his coming.  In Lent I consider the need I have for a remedy for sin, for redemption, for a new start - and then I celebrate Jesus' death in my place and his resurrection.  The church calendar keeps me on the move.  It reminds me that the painfully present sin is actually, fundamentally past.  It is possible to feast, because knowing my need and emptiness I can turn to Jesus and be filled.

A fast is a witness that what I need is not fundamentally food, but Christ.

A feast is a witness that in Christ I have what I fundamentally need.