Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Sinners in the hands of an angry God

The late-Puritan Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon with this title in July 1741.  It is a warning shot of a sermon, expounding on the reality of hell in order to wake people up to their plight as guilty sinners.  It is uncomfortable reading; I can only imagine it was uncomfortable to preach, and to hear.  Frankly, it should be uncomfortable: the thought of unrepentant sinners coming before a holy God is terrifying.  Granted that Edwards plays heavily on the Biblical imagery of hell, and granted that this is just imagery - still, the horrific imagery is if anything inadequate for the awful reality.

But here's the thing: there is another way the Bible describes what it looks like for sinners to fall into the hands of an angry God, and it looks frighteningly familiar.

In Romans 1, the Apostle Paul describes the downward ethical and social spiral of a culture which has rejected knowledge of God.  It is an interaction of human and divine: human beings deny God, exchange his glory for the worship of created things, deliberately swap out his truth for falsehood; and God gives human beings over to increasingly depraved behaviour, to the point where they no longer even theoretically approve the good, but give praise and acclamation to those who pursue evil.

Yesterday, the British Medical Association voted overwhelmingly to campaign for the legalisation of in utero murder, on the grounds that we should trust women to choose 'what is best for themselves and their families'.  Foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  All around us, society celebrates what God condemns.  The calendar of Pride events has become our society's new liturgical year.  Those of us who are not directly involved in gay culture are nevertheless called upon to give approval to those who are.  Meanwhile, our politics degenerates into a popularity contest and what passes for public ethics spins out of any sort of control.

According to Romans 1:18, the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against such wickedness.  Reading that in connection with verses 16 and 17, I take it that Paul is saying that the gospel - the good news about Jesus - is the message which unmasks what might be called social progress or social degeneration (depending on your political and cultural leanings) as something much more terrible: the anger of God being actually even now poured out on sinful human beings.

We don't need to pore over the imagery of flames and gnashing of teeth to see sinners in the hands of an angry God; we just need to read a newspaper with eyes opened by the gospel to see what is really happening.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Blessed Assurance

As faith is the first vital act that every true Christian puts forth, and the life which he lives is by the faith of the Son of God, so it is his next and great concern to know that he doth believe, and that believing he hath eternal life...
Thus Isaac Chauncey in his preface to John Owen's posthumously published work on the Evidences of the Faith of God's Elect.  Chauncey here envisages a two-step process, if you like.  Firstly there is faith, and by this he means not just intellectual assent to Christian doctrine but a living faith, a trust in Christ, such that the believer's life is now lived in Christ as Christ lives in him.  This first step is the thing which resolves all the biggest questions: by this faith, the believer is united to Christ, and with Christ destined for eternal life and glory.  But there is a second step here.  The believer, having believed, now seeks to know that he has believed.  This is a second-order concern, dependent on the reality of the first step, and with lesser consequences.  Faith leads to life; knowledge of one's own faith leads to assurance, comfort, and the blessings in this life that accompany confidence in one's relationship with God.

But is this right?  Is there a second-order move, after believing, whereby one must examine one's own faith in order to ascertain whether it is possible to discern in it the marks of genuine trust (and therefore, somewhere in the background, the evidences of election)?  Is that how faith works?

One study which might be attempted would be a biblical one.  It would be helpful to have a full contextual exegesis of 1 Corinthians 13:5, for example.  But it is also not unreasonable to ask some theological and pastoral questions of this viewpoint.  For example, theologically, faith is rightly understood as the believer looking away from himself, to place his trust in another, namely Christ.  Righteousness is sought in Christ.  Life is sought in Christ.  This by itself ought to raise a question mark against the idea that having looked away from himself for everything that pertains to life and godliness, the believer is called to a reflexive self-examination to ensure that his faith is genuinely faith.  How is one to avoid making faith a kind of work, on this model?

Pastorally, does this view recognise how impossible it is for the Christian to really know themselves - their true life and identity being, after all, hidden with Christ in God?  Not to mention the mere psychological difficulty of analysing any of one's own subjective actions.  Of course there is value in such analysis, but ought we to resolve the believer's assurance of salvation to such a thing?

A larger question is: does this approach inevitably follow from the classical Calvinist doctrine of election?  Is it inevitable that people will want to answer the question 'well, am I elect or not?' - and if so, how would they go about answering except by examining their own faith?  Of course, the pastoral advice which the good Calvinist would give would be to look to Jesus, but it is not clear on Calvinist doctrine that this actually answers the question.

Personally, I think Chauncey's approach (and, of course, Owen's, since he reflects the theme of the treatise here) is deeply flawed, turning faith into non-faith.  Faith is always and necessarily other-regarding; it always looks away from itself to Christ.  If the believer puts his own faith under the microscope, he will always find it wanting.  (There is a question in my mind over whether the psychological phenomenon of faith - which is all I have access to - is identical with what the NT is talking about, but that's for another day).  If the believer lives by faith in the Son of God, then let them also be assured by faith in the Son of God, and not by second-order reflection on their own state of mind or feeling.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Persuasion, ideology, politics

One thing I noticed about the most recent election campaign was the real lack of effort to persuade.  My social media feeds were full of people posting political things, but I only remember seeing one serious attempt to persuade people to vote one way or another (and even that was framed in terms of 'if you know anyone who is thinking of voting Tory...' - i.e., it wasn't trying to persuade directly, but on the assumption that all our friends think the same as us was advising on how we might evangelise the heathen).  Why don't we try to persuade each other?

My guess is that there are a number of factors.

One is the resurrection, on the left at least, of ideology.  Ideology, which we might perhaps define as a coherent and programmatic set of ideas which are considered to mutually imply or reinforce one another, makes persuasion more difficult, because you have to buy the whole package.  Now, some of us have considered, for example, socialism, and found that it's not a package we want to purchase.  You could still persuade me, though, if you wanted, of various individual policies.  But there is a sense of this being not worth the while.

Part of that sense is driven, I think, by the winner-takes-all setup of British politics.  If you can't persuade me to come over completely to 'your side', there's not much point in trying to persuade me of particular positions.  At the end of the day, one side or the other will be in power.  Note that this is true even after a very mixed election result like last week's.  The Labour party is not talking about how their ideas need to be taken into account, but about how hard they will make it for the Tories to govern.  Similarly, the chastened Conservatives are not chastened enough to consider a cross-party response to anything.

I wonder also if we've stopped trying to persuade because of a combination of statistics and a sense that people will almost always vote their own, predetermined, interests.  One of the most disturbing things about the last election campaign was the division exposed, and I think exacerbated, between young and old.  The implication was that we all know young people vote left, and old people right, and they do so because the right promotes the interests of the elderly and the left the interests of the young.  The determinism implied in this is fueled by stats: we know that the majority of younger people do vote left.  But the assumption that, for example, your dad is bound to vote Tory because he's drawing a pension, and that he does so without a thought for you and your situation is really quite offensive.  This promotes the worst kind of tribalism.  (Speaking from a Christian point of view, I would also want to point out the many, many passages of Scripture which encourage us to respect our elders as those likely to have more wisdom than us!)

Another thought is that we are all thoroughly caught up in post-truth.  No point trying to persuade people who live in different worlds and have different truths.  This is not limited to just the extremists, nor is it a phenomenon of the left or right exclusively (it is interesting to compare, for example, Corbyn's comments on the 'mainstream media' with those of the Donald.  My guess is that if you anonymised the comments people wouldn't be able to tell the difference).  But here's the thing: we're post-truth, but we aren't prepared to go full relativist.  So we're led into this place where we have to assume conspiracy: we know the truth, and all those who disagree are blinded.  It would take something with the force of a religious conversion to open their eyes, and so we don't bother trying to engage and persuade.

There is, of course, a big chunk of reality in the post-truth analysis.  We do all live in different worlds.  We see things hugely differently.  So my last thought is this: we don't want to try to persuade in the political realm because it is really, really difficult.  It is difficult because we can't assume the same priorities, or the same goals - it isn't as if we just disagree on the best way to get up the mountain.  We disagree about what the mountain is, or whether there is a mountain at all.  Attempts to persuade would take us pretty quickly into hard conversations - do we agree on any aspects of human flourishing?  Do we even agree about what a human being is?  And here we're in trouble, because I'm not sure we do.  So persuasion would have to go behind politics to huge issues of anthropology, ethics, and ontology.  Who, frankly, can be bothered?

I am not convinced the future is bright for our political discourse.  I don't think we can assume that democracy can work in such a fragmented society.  I wonder what happens next.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Give us thyself, that we may see...

Give us thyself that we may see
The Father and the Son by thee.
So John Dryden interprets part of the great 9th century hymn to the Holy Spirit, Veni Creator Spiritus - accurately capturing at least part of the concern of the original.  We seek the Spirit, so that by the Spirit we might know the Father and the Son (and, in the slightly more Trinitarian formula of the original Latin composition, might know the Spirit himself also).



The doctrine of the Holy Spirit plays a vital role in the doctrine of revelation.  Put it in the context of the whole Trinity.  The Father is the unseen, and the Son is the visible image of the invisible God.  The ancient argument for the deity of Christ revolved around this: if the Son is not God, then God is not revealed.  Nothing less than God could truly reveal God to us.  But granted the deity of the Son: how does it come about that a human being, who is not God, can have God revealed to them?  If it is true that only God can reveal God, is it not also true that only God can see God?  In other words, even granted the true revelation of God in the person of Christ, we human beings have absolutely no inherent capacity to receive this revelation.

Without God (the Spirit) working in us, we cannot see God (the Son) revealing to us the being and person of God (the Father).  And so we pray, Come, Creator Spirit!

Friday, May 26, 2017

"Nothing to do with Islam"

It is a sad fact of contemporary life that 'response to atrocity' is becoming one of the major genres of public discourse.  In the aftermath of Paris, I wrote something critiquing some of our standard responses, and it feels like that could be meaningfully trotted out again.  I just wanted to pick up on one particular response, which I've heard a fair bit of in the last couple of days (from, for example, Andy Burnham, who to be fair has done a generally fantastic job and would surely have hoped not to be tested so severely at such an early juncture): "this has nothing to do with Islam".

Why do we react like this?

Firstly, I think we have a deep-seated habit of regarding religion as something like a hobby, and people just don't do this sort of thing for a hobby.  In the West, broadly speaking, religion is not thought to be about reality; we are agreed that reality is the empirical stuff around us, accessible to scientific explanation.  That is the realm of facts.  In the realm of belief, one can hold more or less whatever one likes, so long as one does not make the mistake of thinking that one's beliefs have anything to do with facts.  With this sort of mindset, it becomes simply inconceivable that anyone would kill or die for belief.  We can't imagine it.  I've seen more than one commenter remark that one would have to be mentally ill to be a suicide bomber - so impossible is it for us to imagine that anyone might take the promise of Paradise seriously.

Secondly, there are (to a certain extent good) social and political reasons to want to cut the conceptual link between Islam and terrorism.  It seems pretty clear that one of the aims of the Islamic State is to stir up strife between Muslim and non-Muslim communities in Western nations.  The presumably hoped for result is that Muslims in the West will end up feeling (more) isolated and alienated, and will find the position of IS more plausible as a result - "they said we couldn't live together in peace, and look, they were right".  We know that there are non-Muslims in our society who already regard Muslims with suspicion, and would not take much persuasion to believe that every Muslim was a potential fifth columnist in some global apocalyptic war.  We would prefer to avoid that.

Thirdly, most of us are aware that the overwhelming majority of Muslims don't want this, don't want to be associated with it, and don't recognise it as a part of their religion.  We want to embrace that perspective, of course, and so we universalise it.

Fourthly, in certain quarters there is a belief, connected to my first point, that a deeper explanation must be found for terrorism, and that the reason is Western oppression.  That is a plausible perspective, because goodness knows there is plenty of guilt in history.  It is made even more plausible when read through a broadly Marxist lens, which denigrates ideas as mere ephemera, masks for social and economic reality.

Can I suggest a couple of reasons why this response won't do?

Firstly, it is the worst kind of patronising.  There is no need for us to take what terrorists say about their motivation entirely at face value - such would be highly naive - but I also cannot see the justification for so completely ignoring the reasons which they themselves give for their actions.  They think they are serving God, they really do.  Unless we take this seriously, we are claiming to know them and their motives better than they know themselves, which is quite a claim.  We are claiming that although they appear to think differently from us and value different things, in fact they must be the same as us underneath - they must really, at some level, know (just as we do) that religion is not about reality.  Or perhaps they don't know, because we are more enlightened than them?  However we frame it, we're making the claim that what terrorists do and say must be parsed through our worldview before we will take it seriously, which is a sort of epistemological imperialism.

Secondly, it's historical nonsense.  I do not really see how anyone can argue that religiously-motivated violence has not been present as a strand in Islamic thought and action from the beginning.  Islamic State could make a claim, I think not entirely incredible, to represent that strand.  Of course, they wouldn't accept that this was only a strand; for them, it's the whole deal, and if you're not on board with it you're not a proper Muslim at all.  In that, they're clearly in error: there is broad tradition of peaceful Islam, which can make at least as credible a claim to stem from the earliest stages of Islam.  But that broad tradition does not mean that there isn't sufficient material in the foundational documents of Islam to justify religiously-motivated violence.  (Can I recommend on this Tom Holland's excellent recent documentary Isis: The Origins of Violence?)  Given the history, I don't see how we in the West can legitimately set ourselves up as the judges of what is and isn't genuine Islam.

Thirdly, and this is the point at which I feel most uncomfortable and least certain, it does seem to me that there are ideological/philosophical/theological reasons to think that Islam and terrorism are linked.  To me, as someone who tries to be informed about Islam but inevitably has a limited understanding and perspective, there seems to be some fit between the radical monotheism and the call to unconditional submission in Islam and religious violence.  Again, I'm not saying that Islam necessarily leads in this direction; just that, to me, it makes sense that it might.  I'd like to do some more reading on this, and if anyone could recommend anything I'd appreciate it, because I think this is really important.  You see, religious violence comes from lots of places.  There is no denying that Christians have endorsed religiously-motivated violence in the past, and in many places in the world still do; but I think there is sufficient material in Christianity's founding documents and in the broad theological tradition to critique this pretty thoroughly.  I'm not sure there is in Islam.

None of this is to say that there is not a complex web of issues leading to terrorist attacks.  The failure to plan for the aftermath of the Iraq war, the failure to act on Syria - these foreign policy failures have surely made the Islamic State's reading of Islam more plausible, for example.  And of course the individuals involved will be motivated by many different things.  But to claim that religiously-motivated violence has nothing to do with religion is a foolish thing to do, which will inevitably misdirect our practical responses to terrorism.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Gone up

I used to think the ascension was mainly about answering the question: so, where did Jesus go, then? It's an apologetic, an explanation for Jesus' absence.

That's certainly not how the book of Acts sees it.  In Acts 1, the story of Jesus' ascension is followed directly by the appointment of Matthias to fill the vacancy on the apostolate left by Judas' betrayal.  Matthias is called to be a witness to the resurrection, but in order to bear that witness he must have been with Jesus throughout his ministry, from the baptism of John right through to the ascension.  That is the content of the apostles' witness, according to Peter's speech in Acts 1: the life and work of Jesus, from his baptism through to his ascension.

I guess you could argue that the rest of the NT drags in a few outliers: the infancy narratives especially in Matthew and Luke's gospels.  In fact, those things present an intriguing parallel.  The appearance of angels precedes the impossible coming of God-with-us, his advent declared in advance; the appearance of angels follows the impossible going of the Son, declaring his return to heaven.  Everything between these two points is the content of the apostolic witness.

The claim being made here is that we can put a thick line around the earthly line of Jesus and say: this is it.  This is the thing to which the prophets looked forward, and this is the thing to which the apostles looked back.  Here is the real thing. Everything within this border: that is God's revelation, God's history within our history.

If Jesus had not gone up, there would have been no completed work.  God would have become a permanent part of human history.  God would be a factor in our existence.  But would he then be the transformation of our history and our existence?  Would there be something to which a band of apostles could bear witness as the turning point of human existence?  The New Testament says no.  The New Testament says that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit followed on Jesus' ascension, because Jesus' ascension no less than his virgin birth is the marker of where revelation is to be found, and the marker of his completed work.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

REPOST: Imprecatory

Psalm 139 is regularly read in church services.  It's a beautiful celebration of humanity as created and sustained by God.  It's a wonderful reassurance that God's great design stands behind each human being, and that his awesome presence accompanies each human life.  Where we are perhaps ready to see the flaws in each other and in ourselves, the Psalm encourages us to view each person as "fearfully and wonderfully made".  Where I tend to feel alone, the Psalm lifts my eyes to see that wherever I am and whatever my circumstances, God's "right hand shall hold me".  No wonder the Psalm gets so much airtime.

But then you hit verse 19.  Oh, that you would slay the wicked, O God!

The reading often skips this bit out.  How can this verse sit alongside the beautiful sentiments of the rest of the Psalm?  How can we affirm on the one hand that God knows each human life intimately, but on the other hand pray that God would smite the wicked?

But there is no conflict here.  It is precisely because of the value of life that the Psalmist cries out against the wicked.  The wicked are "men of blood", those who stand against God's good intention, those who oppose life.  And they are strong, and they are bold, and mere human beings cannot stop them.

Therefore, oh, that you would slay the wicked, O God!

Now, with New Testament lenses on, we can see that this prayer is ultimately answered, not in the death of any number of wicked people, but in the death of wickedness itself  at the cross of Christ.  And yet...  May we not still hand over the wicked, whose power is beyond us, to God - the just judge?  Should we not ask the Judge to enforce justice?  I think perhaps we should.

Love of life - the life created by God - must mean enmity to everything that stands for death, and in that battle our weapon is prayer.

Originally posted in November 2015