Thursday, October 25, 2007

The cross from two angles

The Bible gives us two perspectives on the crucifixion of Christ, and the two perspectives teach us two very different lessons.

From one perspective, the cross of Christ represents a divine transaction. The Son of God, in full agreement with his Father and out of love for his people, goes to the cross willingly, bearing human sin on his shoulders. He endures the just consequences of that sin, is punished in the place of those who will trust in him. He willingly surrenders his life, tasting death for others so that those others might live.

From this angle, I learn this: Christ bore the cross for me, so that I need never bear it. My sin is paid for, and there can be no wrath for me.

From another perspective, the cross of Christ represents a human injustice. The innocent Christ is flogged and tortured, accused falsely and strung up by sinful people. He suffers because of the envy and fear of the priestly caste, the pride of the civic leaders, and the cowardice of the Roman governor. He is hated because of what he represents: the righteousness of God in a world full of unrighteousness. And he is killed, ultimately, because people living in the darkness hate the light.

From this angle, I learn this: Christ bore the cross for me, so that I might understand that I also have to bear it. In this world, the Christian will look foolish and weak. The Christian will represent something that the world finds repellent. If we try to get away from that, we refuse to take up the cross, and thus we refuse to follow Christ.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Just for fun

Barth on congregationalism:

Against the papal form, and also against the episcopal and presbyterian synodal forms of constitution, there is this basic objection, that they not only do not serve the readiness, openness and freedom of the congregation for the Word of God and therefore for the reformation of the church; they actually hinder it. They all rest on the remarkable contradiction that they entrust too little to men - namely to the men gathered as Christians to be the living congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ - yet, on the other hand, they entrust too much to men - namely, to those particular office bearers and representatives chosen and ordained by men, entrusted to be representatives within and without the congregation. In one place these forms cannot be too careful to guard against human arbitrariness, in order in the other place to carelessly give it a free hand. Where the former care and the latter carelessness are in effect, there can be no room for the renewal of the church... Why may not the constitution of the church be at last based on the knowledge that the church is wholly from God and must await everything from him? These other polities are all open to the charge that they smell a bit of unbelief.

God Here and Now, page 102

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Relatio-confessional unity

Just a brief post before I dump several thousand words about baptism on you...

I've been pondering some exciting things that have happening in my neck of the woods, mainly an increased and increasing sense of unity amongst various different churches and organisations involved in student ministry. My pondering has led me to realise something. I have always believed that unity should be (indeed, can only be, if it is to be Christian unity) confessional. I still believe that, and I still think that in an ideal world Christians who unite together should publish a common confession.

But I've realised that isn't nearly enough.

Really a brief reflection on salvation history should have taught me this: God never works in abstract truth. He works in people, and to be a person is to be a person-in-relationship. (The incarnation is the most obvious example: God did not send a Qu'ran-like text; he sent the Truth-as-a-man). And so Christian unity is not just about gathering around a set of abstract truths. It is about seeing those truths lived in relationships with one another as we set about our common goal of knowing the Truth and making the Truth known, because knowing the Truth is knowing the Lord Jesus and making the Truth known is making the Lord Jesus known.

Note to self: anything - anything - that abstracts from real, living persons in real life situations is at best a distraction, and at worst an idol.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Circumcision, Baptism and the Church

The debate over the proper recipients of baptism is not a new one. It arises in the Fathers (most whose opinions are recorded seem to permit, or to actually be in favour of, infant baptism; Tertullian is a notable exception), and arose again at the Reformation, since which time it has never been put to rest. I don’t intend to try to solve that controversy! But I do need to clarify my own thinking, and to ensure as far as I can that it is in line with God’s revelation in Scripture. To that end, I’ve started writing something explaining (largely to myself) my own thoughts on baptism. I am a credobaptist, but because most paedobaptists take their argument from the Old Testament rite of circumcision, I begin by discussing my understanding of this rite. I hope to then move on to discuss baptism in the New Testament, and then finally to explore the subject of the membership of the church. I would welcome any comments, either about things that are unclear or things that you think are wrong! So without further ado, here are my thoughts on circumcision. I'm aware that they're really much too long for a blog post, but I can't shorten them and I don't want to serialise them...


Circumcision in the Old Testament

Circumcision is introduced in Genesis 17 as “a sign of the covenant” between the LORD and Abraham. It’s significance is not particularly explained, except to say that it implies the perpetuity of the covenant – for all of Abraham’s male descendants are to be circumcised on the eighth day on pain of being considered covenant breakers. It is noteworthy that the sign is also to be applied to all Abraham’s slaves, whether born in his household or purchased. It is also noteworthy that by the end of the chapter, despite the fact that the LORD has said that his covenant will be with Isaac and not with Ishmael, Ishmael has been circumcised. So the sign is applied to all those closely associated with Abraham, whether they are of the covenant line or not. This is significant.

There are further references to circumcision through the Pentateuch. The inhabitants of Shechem are circumcised in Genesis 34, although it did them very little good and given the circumstances nothing of doctrinal import can be derived from the story. Moses’ son is circumcised in a curious incident when the LORD threatens to kill him in Exodus 4, presumably because Moses is in breach of the Abrahamic covenant. Circumcision is preserved in the Mosaic dispensation and its performance is codified in Leviticus 12, although again the significance is not explained. I suggest that it is not until Deuteronomy that the meaning of circumcision becomes clearer.

What, then, does circumcision symbolise? Two key passages are Deuteronomy 10:16 and 30:6. In 10:16, Moses urges the people to circumcise their hearts, and stop being stubborn. In context, he is urging them to love the LORD and obey him in response to his electing love of Israel. To circumcise their hearts implies setting their hearts wholly on the LORD. In 30:6, the symbolism is the same but the agency is ascribed to the LORD – he will circumcise your hearts. It is certainly not coincidental that this is described as occurring after the people have gone into exile for their disobedience and covenant breaking. For this symbolism to have worked, the Israelites must have understood circumcision of the flesh to imply that their bodies belonged to God. So circumcision of the flesh signified belonging to God; but circumcision of the heart was necessary in order to actually love God.

The circumcised people of Israel show this necessity clearly through their history from Moses to the exile. It does not take much reading between the lines to realise that most Israelites throughout this period were probably not even monotheists, let alone committed followers of the LORD. We are not therefore surprised to find the LORD speaking through Jeremiah – “I will punish all those who are circumcised merely in the flesh… all the house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart” (9:25-26). We should perhaps be more surprised than we are to hear the same prophet delivering a gracious promise of a future “new covenant”, a covenant “not like the covenant I made with their fathers” (31:32). This covenant is described as the writing of the law on their hearts (31:33), and it is said to differ from the old covenant because “they shall all know (the LORD)” (31:34). These differences are without a doubt significant, and I will suggest that they are important to our discussion of circumcision.

To summarise, my reading of the Old Testament gives me a picture of circumcision as a rite to be administered to all males attached in any way to the descendants of Abraham, including through economic slavery; a rite symbolising belonging to the LORD; a rite insufficient in and of itself to bring about a relationship to God; and a rite that is used in Deuteronomy and the prophets as a promise pointing forward to the new covenant of circumcision in the heart and not the flesh.

Circumcision in the New Testament

Circumcision is an issue in the New Testament in two ways. Firstly, there is the controversy over Gentile Christians – must they be circumcised? It is not difficult to piece together the case made by the group that has come to be known as “the circumcision party” (and other less complementary names given them by Paul). On the grounds that the covenant with Abraham is promised for perpetuity, and that conversion to Christianity is also joining Israel, it is argued that Gentile believers must receive the covenant sign of circumcision. Interestingly, it is very clear that these teachers have assimilated the covenant of circumcision to the Mosaic covenant, and intend by the circumcision of the Gentiles that they take up the whole burden of the law.

Paul’s controversy with the circumcision party is heated, and his arguments against them are many. I am intrigued, though, by some of the things that he does not question. Firstly, he does not question the circumcision party’s assumption that to be circumcised it to take on the obligation of the Mosaic law: “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law” (Gal 5:3). In fact, in spite of the fact that circumcision is clearly given to Abraham, Paul is at pains to drive a wedge between the Abrahamic covenant and the Mosaic. This is clear in Galatians 3, where Paul stresses the distance in time between the giving of the promise and the giving of the law (Gal 3:17), and in Romans 4. In Galatians, circumcision is very clearly aligned with the legal, Mosaic covenant and not with the Abrahamic covenant of promise/faith, hence Paul’s strong appeal to the Galatian Christians not accept it. In Romans, the argument is more nuanced, referencing as it does the circumcision of Abraham. For our purposes at current it is sufficient to note that Paul’s use of Abraham’s circumcision in Romans 4 is designed to show the priority of the covenant of promise/faith over the covenant of circumcision, something that he still connects to the law (Romans 3:27-31, 4:13-14 [in context these verses link the previous thoughts about circumcision with a more general denunciation of law as a means of justification]). In summary: circumcision in Paul’s thought, as in his opponents’, is linked to the law of Moses, and implies an obligation to keep the whole law. As such, it is opposed to the “law of faith” and “covenant of promise”.

Secondly, Paul does not argue with the circumcision party over whether Gentile Christians really have to become part of Israel. In fact, he is clear that they do (see Romans 11:17ff). However, he radically redefines Israel to make circumcision irrelevant to membership of that people. “If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring…” (Gal 3:29). Abraham is the father of the circumcised who walk by faith, and the uncircumcised who share in the same faith (Rom 4:11-12). Indeed, if it were not so “faith is null and the promise is void” (4:14). In fact, Paul draws on the “remnant” theme of the prophets to argue that it was ever thus: Israel has always been defined not by circumcision but by faith. “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘through Isaac shall your offspring be named’” (Rom 9:6-7 – remember that Ishmael was also circumcised but was not the recipient of the covenant as Isaac was). So Paul is clear: membership of Israel was always defined by faith, and not by circumcision. Therefore, engrafting into Israel is dependent on faith alone.

It is worth noting that Paul does also share the circumcision party’s assumption that the covenant with Abraham is an enduring one – but he disconnects circumcision from that covenant. The covenant that endures is based on God’s promise met by faith; the legal covenant (to which he always attaches the sign of circumcision) is temporary. Paul would doubtless agree with the author to the Hebrews that the covenant of circumcision is now obsolete and ready to vanish away (Heb 8:13).

This discussion would not be complete without observing that, despite his blistering rhetoric in Galatians, Paul sometimes expresses (and demonstrates) indifference towards the issue of circumcision. In 1 Corinthians 7, he claims that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but keeping the commandments of God” (1 Cor 7:19). Colossians 3:11 states clearly that the circumcised and uncircumcised are now one, with no distinction between them. In Acts 16:3, Paul himself – having just won the right of Gentile Christians not to be circumcised – circumcises Timothy, apparently in order to ease their ministry to Jews, Timothy being only half Jewish. It appears that for Paul, circumcision as a cultural practice is a matter of indifference, and he will even go so far as to pragmatically circumcise Timothy to aid the spread of the gospel. It is only when circumcision is being put forward as a necessity for salvation or sanctification that he perceives a denial of the gospel of grace.

So much for the circumcision controversy. Circumcision also plays a role in the New Testament in a quite different way, connected to the promise of “heart-circumcision” in Deuteronomy. The New Testament presses this image: “For no-one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not the letter” (Rom 2:28-29). The echoes of Deuteronomy 30:6 are clear, and so is the implication. Paul is claiming that the promise of Deuteronomy has been fulfilled in the Christian church. The outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost means that circumcision of the heart is now a reality for Christian believers. This is surely connected to the promise of the new covenant: the law is not now a “letter”, but is written on the heart. So, irrespective of physical circumcision, Christians – that is, true Israelites, whether Jewish or Gentile – are circumcised in their hearts.

Colossians 2:11-12 is important in this connection. Paul describes the Christians as those who have been “circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you also were raised with him through faith…”. It is clear that circumcision of the heart is again in view here, and the image is given more form by the addition of the phrase “putting off the body of the flesh”. The image recalls the removal of the foreskin, but goes very much further: the whole body of flesh (that is, sinful human nature, as usually in Paul) is removed. This is done “by the circumcision of Christ”, which either points to the agent behind this circumcision (i.e. “the circumcision performed by Christ”) or to the cross as the point when Christ gave up his flesh for the salvation of Christians. Either way, it is clear that the Christians to whom Paul writes have been circumcised in their hearts, and that this is achieved at the cross and applied as they identify with the death of Christ in faith through baptism. We will return to this passage in the discussion of baptism later.

Philippians 3:3 adds to our understanding of circumcision in the New Testament, by asserting very clearly that it is followers of Jesus, those who have the Spirit, who are the “real circumcision”. This statement is made as part of the “circumcision controversy”, against those who want Gentile Christians to be circumcised, but it is noteworthy that Paul does not argue that circumcision is unnecessary for any other reason than that the Christians are already circumcised. Clearly, then, he opposes the Old Testament rite of circumcision of the flesh to the New Testament blessing of circumcision of the heart. Where the latter is, the former is unnecessary, and dangerous if taken as essential for salvation.

Theological Conclusions

Since the Bible does not anywhere unfold a systematic “doctrine of circumcision”, we are left to draw what conclusions we can from the evidence we have examined. I wish to set out a number of theses which I think explain the Biblical evidence, and provide a backdrop for the debate over the recipients of baptism.

  1. Circumcision in the Old Testament is a forward-looking rite. No-one of a reformed persuasion is likely to debate this. However, I believe that its significance is more than is usually allowed. The people of Israel in the Old Testament were not a regenerate people, by and large. Therefore circumcision was not a rite indicating something that had happened to them, but a rite pointing forward to something that the LORD would do in them – namely, the circumcision of their hearts. Circumcision should have pointed the Israelite towards the promise of God’s saving activity amongst them; from our vantage point, we can see that it should have pointed them to the cross of Christ and to Pentecost.

  2. Circumcision in the Old Testament is connected to, but separable from, the covenant of promise/faith. We have seen that Paul consistently separates God’s promise to Abraham, received by faith, from circumcision, which he regards as something added later. This does not make circumcision unimportant. Rather, coupled to point (1) it constitutes Abraham’s descendants as a forward looking people, thus reinforcing the promise.

  3. Circumcision is a legal rite. Paul testifies that anyone who accepts circumcision as a means of justification or sanctification is thereby obliged to keep the whole law of Moses. This in no way contradicts (1) and (2), but rather points to the fact that the Israelites, in their state of “heart uncircumcision” were entrusted to the law as a guardian until the promise came (see Galatians 3:19-29).

  4. Circumcision is an obsolete rite. This can be observed on several levels. Firstly, that to which it pointed forward has come, namely the incarnation and the outpouring of the Spirit. Secondly, the law, to which it was annexed from Sinai onwards, has passed away. Thirdly, the racial marker is no longer necessary because there is no longer Jew or Gentile in the church, but all Christians are descendants of Abraham by faith.

  5. The New Testament counterpart of circumcision is “heart circumcision”. It is this to which the rite of circumcision always looked forward. This heart circumcision takes place when the outpoured Spirit writes the law on the heart of a believer; this in turn occurs when a person turns to put their trust in the death and resurrection of Christ.

  6. To jump the gun somewhat, whereas in the Old Testament most Israelites were circumcised in flesh but not in heart, in the New Testament all “Israel” – that is, the whole church – is circumcised in heart. This is implied in Jeremiah’s contrast between the old and new covenants, and by Paul’s manner of addressing his churches. However, this belongs properly to part three of this project, and will be discussed more fully there.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Jesus Way

So, I've just started reading The Jesus Way by Eugene Peterson. So far, it's great! If you've never read Peterson before, you should get stuck in to his Spiritual Theology series - starting with Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, followed by Eat This Book and then continued in The Jesus Way. They are eye-opening and heart-warming, and also challenging - I feel as if my heart is being probed for false motives and sub-Christian beliefs. Incidentally, if you dislike The Message as much as I do, please don't let that keep you from reading these books!

Anyway, the thesis of this current instalment is simple: if we're going to do Jesus' work, we need to do it in Jesus' way. We can't just adopt whatever methods seem to work. Not just the ends, but also the means are important to God.

And so I came across this passage yesterday:
More often than not I find my Christian brothers and sisters uncritcially embracing the ways and means practiced by the high-profile men and women who lead large corporations, congregations, nations and causes, people who show us how to make money, win wars, manage people, sell products, manipulate emotions... But these ways and means more often than not violate the ways of Jesus. Christians today are conspicuous for going along with whatever the culture decides is charismatic, successful, influential - whatever gets things done, whatever can gather a crowd of followers - hardly noticing that these ways and means are at odds with the clearly marked way that Jesus walked and called us to follow. Doesn't anybody notice that the ways and means taken up, often enthusiastically, are blasphemously at odds with the way Jesus leads his followers? Why doesn't anyone notice?

(The emphasis is mine, but that's how it sounds in my head...)

It's Freshers' week in two of the Universities I work with. My prayer and desire for the Christian students at both is that they would do the job Jesus has given us to do in the way that Jesus would have us do it, in the power that only Jesus gives.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Monday, September 10, 2007

Getting older

I got older today. Obviously, that happens more or less every day, but today was my birthday and so I noticed it more than usual.

I find myself thinking a little about death today. That may seem slightly odd coming from someone who just turned 26, but hey - if not now, then when? Whenever I am scheduled to die, I am a year closer to it now than I was at my last birthday. And given that I don't know the date, it seems sensible to give it some thought while I have the chance.

Understand, I'm not being morbid. I'm not hugely upset by the idea of my own death. I genuinely expect it to lead into new life. (I am quite scared of illness, I confess. But I am trying to teach myself to view that too with more hope). If I died tomorrow, it would be okay for me. It would be grim, no doubt, for many people who were left. I hope that you would all be nice to those people and support them in whatever way you could. But for me it would be okay.

At church on Sunday morning we heard a great sermon on the end of 1 Thessalonians. The Christians in Thessalonica are worried about Christians who have died. They want to know what's happened to them, and whether they've lost out through their death. Paul reassures them. Don't grieve as others do, he says. Grieve, certainly, but not in the same way everyone else does. Why not? Because you have hope. And it's not a vague hope either, something that may or may not happen. It's not mere speculation. It's certain, because it's grounded in a historical fact. Jesus died and rose, and therefore all those who die belonging to him by faith will be raised to be with him. And then at the end of time, this awaits us all:
For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.
And that's why I'm really okay with being closer to 30 than 20 today.

Friday, August 31, 2007

The problem of (my) evil

On a rather different note, I wanted to share something from the Puritan Thomas Watson:

Repentance is necessary for God's own people, who have a real work of grace and are Israelites indeed. They must offer up a daily sacrifice of tears. The Antinomians hold that when any come to be believers, they have a writ of ease, and there remains nothing for them now to do but to rejoice. Yes, they have something else to do, and that is to repent. Repentance is a continuous act. The issue of godly sorrow must not be quite stopped till death.

The pursuit of joy is not accidental to the Christian life; rather it is the very heart and soul of being a Christian. But let's not forget that as we run after joy, we often stumble and fall. Ultimately, our joy and our rest are waiting for us, secured by Christ. But to get there we have to walk the road of repentance. Continual sin calls for continual repentance, continual rebellion calls for continual sorrow. Not sorrow without hope - but sorrow that, having such a sure and certain hope, I still betray over and over again my Lord and Master.

I am reminded, as I often am, of the hymn by A.M. Toplady:

A debtor to mercy alone, of covenant mercy I sing;
Nor fear, with Thy righteousness on, my person and off’ring to bring.
The terrors of law and of God with me can have nothing to do;
My Savior’s obedience and blood hide all my transgressions from view.

The work which His goodness began, the arm of His strength will complete;
His promise is Yea and Amen, and never was forfeited yet.
Things future, nor things that are now, nor all things below or above,
Can make Him His purpose forgo, or sever my soul from His love.

My name from the palms of His hands eternity will not erase;
Impressed on His heart it remains, in marks of indelible grace.
Yes, I to the end shall endure, as sure as the earnest is giv’n;
More happy, but not more secure, the glorified spirits in Heav’n.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Problem of (No) Evil... again

I wasn't planning a sequel to this post, but there has been a bit of comment on the original (on Facebook, alas. So sorry if you're reading this on the 'blog. And if you're reading this on Facebook, why not cross-post your comment to the 'blog?). I wanted to clarfiy a few things and state the argument in a slightly more robust way - which inevitably means that this post will be more argumentative and contain less of my feelings on the subject. Let me begin by clearing up what I am not trying to do.

Firstly, I am not trying to prove the existence of God. If I wanted to do that I would take another tack completely. As it happens I do not want to do that, for reasons which I won't explain right now. To be clear: the fact that I do not think morality makes sense without God does not provide any sort of argument for the existence of God. It merely means that as far as I can see one must not pretend that morality exists as most people normally think of it if one is an atheist.

Secondly, I am not trying to show that theists are, as a matter of fact, more ethical in their lives than atheists. I am not even saying that Christians are more ethical than people who are not Christians. But I am arguing that theists have a basis for a moral system that is lacked by atheists. (Of course for some (or all) theists it must be the basis for a wrong moral system, since their systems differ. But that is strictly irrelevant to the point I am making).

Thirdly, I am not trying to say that for the theist issues of ethics and morality are straightforward. I acknowledge that for everyone, from whatever starting point they come, ethical issues are tricky. I would even go so far as to say that often there is no absolutely right answer. However, I am trying to say that an atheist has no right to even engage in the conversation about what is right and wrong. (Understand what I am saying here. An atheist may and must, de facto, as a member of any society engage in such conversations. I am glad that they do - consistent atheism would be a terrible thing! - but I do not think that de jure they can engage in such conversations, for reasons which will become clear).

So what I am trying to do? I am trying to flag up the following three problems for the atheist moralist - problems which I think are impossible to resolve within atheist presuppositions. (Some of this will be retreading my earlier post, but in a more philosophically acceptable way). Here they are:

Firstly, the problem of objectivity. This problem is most easily demonstrated by contrasting different cultures across the world and through time. For example, in ancient Rome the right thing to do with a sickly baby was to leave it by the backdoor until it died; in modern Europe, that is murder, and actually one of the most morally repugnant things we can imagine. So, is it right, or is it wrong? Within what framework would the atheist judge this question?

The issue can be thrown into sharper relief by imagining that we live in the third century. The rapid Christianisation of the Roman world means that for many exposing babies is now immoral. But there are still many pagans who regard it as the right thing to do. These two groups co-exist. Which is right? Should the state punish those who continue to expose their children? If so, why? At what point should it start to do so? When the Christians become the majority, perhaps?

In order to make morality objective, there must be some sort of objective value to which we could appeal. The atheist might appeal to the good of society - but they would then have to define what that 'good' is. They would also have to provide a framework for arbitration between two disagreeing societies. They might perhaps appeal to the need to preserve the species. That is well and good, but why is it a good thing to preserve the species? I do not think they can answer.

The result must be that 'right' and 'wrong' come to mean only what the majority consider to be right and wrong. Atheists must not be permitted to fudge the issue by appealing to what the 'discerning' think, for what is there for the discerning to discern? Why should any one person's opinion count for more than any other person's? If there are no objective values, what makes Socrates wiser than the fool?

Secondly, the problem of obligation. I challenge the atheist to give me any reason to be ethical when it doesn't suit me. Even if we could show that some things really are right and others are wrong (and I do not think the atheist can do so), why should I do what is right? Why, for example, should I not fiddle my insurance claim if I can get away with it? What is there that obliges me to do what is right?

Understand that the idea of obligation is central to ethics. 'What is right' means the same as 'what I ought to do'. But there is no 'ought' in an atheist world. To whom do I have an obligation? If you say, to society, I ask why? If you say, to my friends and family, again, why? On what grounds do you postulate any sort of obligation to be moral?

Thirdly, the problem of naivety. I suppose this is the least philosophical point, but it is the most practical. Continually, appeal is made to the good nature of human beings. To quote from one of the comments on my original post "there is a common part of our nature that has a basic social consideration and respect for the interest and well being of others". I suggest that this simply is not true. There is a certain, middle-class, well-taught morality that causes many to consider others beyond themselves. But it is frankly plain to see that this is not part of human nature, but a learned behaviour (and one that is without reason on atheist presuppositions).

Consider one of the examples I cited in my original post: the bunch of youths who wilfully damaged another man's property, and then kicked him to death when he came out of his house to protest. Were they not human? Did they lack this "common part of our nature"? Things like this happen all the time, and the atheist, who does not believe in metaphysical evil, cannot explain them or suggest any solution that does not itself smack of tragic naivety.

Nietzsche is a man for whom I have a lot of respect, despite hating almost everything that he said. He had the courage of his convictions. He knew that in the absence of God, anything goes - and therefore the strong will, if sensible, impose their will on the weak. The weak, in turn, will take advantage of any opportunity they can to advance themselves at the expense of others.

After all, why not?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Problem of (No) Evil

We all know that one of the strongest objections to any sort of theistic belief is the so-called "problem of evil". The gist is that if there is a good and omnipotent God, he would surely desire to end all evil, and would have the power to do so. Since evil exists, God is either not good, or not omnipotent, or not existent.

So much for that, and I don't intend to delve into the many defeaters that can be offered to this objection. The problem of evil is a serious one - the only serious argument against theism, I would suggest. But what about the problem of no evil? That is a serious problem for atheism, and one which I think destroys any form of "positive" or "optimistic" atheist philosophy.

Let me explain what I mean.

Over these last few weeks dreadful things have happened. I am thinking of several horrific murders, particularly the shooting of a young boy and the beating to death of a man who tried to defend his property from a gang of youths. Other horrible things have occurred, no doubt. Those are just the ones that made the news, and made an impression on me. Within my Christian frame of reference, I see these things as evil. The perpetrators of these acts have done something that is truly wrong, contrary to the will of the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. They therefore deserve punishment from society, and unless they are repentant they will also receive punishment from God.

But what about those who have no room for God in their worldview? Judging by the media reaction to these killings, they still want some sort of justice, and demand punishment for the guilty and restitution for what has been done. But on what grounds? Why do atheists think that these things are wrong? Why shouldn't the strong beat up on the weak, if they want to?

Let me put the problem in the clearest possible way: If there is no God, there is no right and no wrong. Of course, you are free to construct your own value system and arrange it however you like, but I do not see why you should be able to impose it on anyone else. If you do, it is merely an arbitrary imposition - indeed, it is violence. You can sustain it for as long as you are the stronger party. As soon as someone else is stronger than you, their "values" will become the "right" ones. If, in my value system, it is okay to kill a young boy, then who are you to tell me otherwise?

Thus Nietzsche, the prophet of our age:

When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality right out from under one's feet. This morality is by no means self-evident... Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together.By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole. Nothing necessary remains in one's hands.

His conclusion is simple and accurate:

There are no moral facts.

I grieve for this sorry culture, where nothing is right or wrong. I grieve for those lost on a sea of moral uncertainty. But we have spent centuries - ever since the "enlightenment" - making this bed, and now I guess we have to sleep in it.

Friday, August 24, 2007


Christian bloggers everywhere are piling in to a big discussion about baptism at the moment. (See Adrian Warnock's blog if you need to catch up on this!) How could I not join in?

Obviously, baptism, and particularly the question of whom to baptise, has been debated for ages. Those who know me will know that I am somewhat in favour of believers' baptism, and somewhat opposed to infant baptism. Those who know me well will know that this is putting it mildly. But the debate at the moment revolves around something different: should those who believe in baptism for believers only join in communion with those who were baptised as infants? Should a credobaptist church require credobaptism as a condition of membership?

I actually think that this apparently minor issue could help us to get to the heart of the larger issue (paedo or credo), because it has to do with what baptism is.

I think most credobaptists see baptism as a believer's response to a salvation already received by faith. It is therefore a work, and belongs in the traditional ordo salutis within the realm of sanctification. Hence for Grudem, the effects of baptism are "the blessing of God's favour that comes with all obedience, as well as the joy that comes through public profession of one's faith, and the reassurance of having a clear physical picture of dying and rising with Christ and of washing away sins". What does baptism do? More or less the same as any obedience to Christ, with a little extra symbolism thrown in.

I'm not sure that measures up to the New Testament. Here are a few things I'd want considered:

How do you become a disciple? "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19).

What do unconverted sinners need to do when convicted of their sin? "Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 2:38)

How are people forgiven of sin? "Repent and be baptised...for the forgiveness of your sins" (Acts 2:38)

How do we participate in Christ's death and come to benefit from it? "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death..." (Romans 8:3-4)

How are we saved? "Baptism... now saves you" (1 Peter 3:21)

Obviously, look up the references and check I'm not ripping them mercilessly out of context!

So, what is baptism? If baptism does all the things above, how are we to hold that we are saved by faith alone?

The answer, I think, is simply this: baptism is a promise, given by God, and therefore we are saved by exercising faith in that promise. Baptism is the offer of forgiveness. So we cannot ask "should baptism come before or after believing?" Baptism is believing! Or at least, baptism is the offering of a promise, effective if met bu faith in the person being baptised. That is why I am a credobaptist, incidentally. I don't believe that baptism is the first step of obedience after faith; I believe that baptism is, or should be, the first step of faith.

So what about communion with people who were baptised as infants? What about rebaptising them? Well, if they are believing the promise of baptism, then I would receive them as baptised. I would not rebaptise them - indeed, the very idea of rebaptising makes me feel a little ill. If, on the other hand, they found that they could not trust the promise of their baptism because of doubts about its validity, I might counsel them to receive a (first) baptism they could believe in - and to regard the former ceremony as empty and no baptism at all.

Baptism is the appointed means of entering the church by faith. Baptism saves us through our faith in Christ. It is not empty symbolism or magic ritual. It is the church's gift, the gift she received from the Lord and offers to all who will take it in faith.

I believe in it.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Remembering the story

I've had a pleasant summer reading Gordon McConville's excellent commentary on Deuteronomy. I've almost finished, and I'd recommend it to anyone. Chapter 26 of Deuteronomy particularly caught my eye. It describes, amongst other things, the ceremony of firstfruits, in which the Israelite was to bring the first produce of their annual harvest and present it to the Lord. The symbolism is clear: God gave you this land, and therefore its produce is his continuing gift to you - you acknowledge this by giving some of it back. But what interested me was this passage:

And you shall make response before the LORD your God, 'A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O LORD, have given me.' And you shall set it down before the LORD your God and worship before the LORD your God.

This is clearly a creed, but unlike our creeds (which belong within the discipline of systematic theology) this is essentially narrative. It is a remembering of the story of the nation. In reciting it, the individual identifies with the people of Israel as a whole, stretching back through history. "We" were rescued at the exodus. The Lord brought "us" into the land. So this little narrative creed makes the saving events of the past a present reality for the current generation of Israel.

I wonder whether the ascendancy of Biblical theology, coupled with the prevailing ignorance of the overarching Biblical narrative amongst both Christians and others, means that the time is ripe for the writing of a narrative creed to be recited in our churches?

Saturday, August 18, 2007


I've elected to present this post in the time-honoured form of a Socratic dialogue. Readers familiar with this format will be aware that it involves a discussion, usually imaginary, between two (or more) people. Socrates acts as a gadfly, asking annoying questions in order to force his interlocutor to carefully examine his opinions and root out any false ones. The only rule is that Socrates always wins. Those who have sampled Socrates at his "forged-by-Plato" best will recognise the swift caving-in and general kow-towing of the interlocutor as a necessary ingredient of a successful dialogue.

Without further ado...

Socrates: I should very much like to hear something about your doctrine of the word of God - it's a subject that has always interested me, but about which I know very little. (For it is the way of Socrates to feign ignorance).
Jim the Conservative Evangelical (for it is he): Well, Socrates, I'm very glad you asked, for this is a subject on which I know a great deal. What do you want to know?
Socrates: Well, I have heard the word of God described as "infallible" - would that be a view to which you would subscribe? And what exactly would you mean by it?
Jim the CE: I would indeed take that view, Socrates, though I might prefer in general discourse to use the word "inerrant" so as not to be thought unduly liberal. This reservation notwithstanding, it seems clear to me that such verses of Scripture as Isaiah 55:9-11 show that God's word is infallible, by which I mean simply that by it God always achieves what he intends.
Socrates: Wonderful - that was precisely the passage of Scripture I had in mind. But tell me, do you think that we can tell the intent of God's word from the content of it?
Jim the CE: Despite my vast knowledge of this subject, I am not sure I understand you Socrates. Perhaps you could speak more clearly.
Socrates: Of course. Entirely my fault, I'm sure. What I meant was this: if we read God's word, does God intend to achieve by it what he declares in it? So, for example, if God says "repent", does he mean to achieve repentance, or does he mean to achieve something else?
Jim the CE: Well, God being no deceiver (as both Descartes and the Scriptures inform us), surely if God's word says "repent" then God intends to achieve repentance by it.
Socrates (with a wry grin): Very interesting. I wonder, Jim, have you ever engaged in evangelism?
Jim the CE: Why, of course. I am a Conservative Evangelical, you know. I have memorised all of the best gospel outlines, including Two Ways to Live, One Way to Live, No Other Way to Live and Living - Why Not? Often I have deployed these tools in the context of friendly discussion with my friends, and have found them useful both with and without napkin-based illustrations.
Socrates: Would you say then, that you have delivered the word of God to your friends?
Jim the CE: Yes.
Socrates: And the content of that word has been to call them to repent and trust in Christ?
Jim the CE: Yes.
Socrates: And have any of them failed to do so?
Jim the CE: Er... well...
Socrates: I'll take that as a yes. And yet haven't you delivered the infallible word of God calling them to repent and believe?
Jim the CE: Um... perhaps I didn't do it right, Socrates.
Socrates: Your learning of gospel outlines is exemplary, and so I'm sure we cannot put it down to that. Perhaps the word of God is not infallible all the time?
Jim the CE: I do remember hearing something about the Holy Spirit being needed to persuade people of the truth of the word... But still, I am quite sure that the word of God is infallible.
Socrates: Then it seems that we have only one possible conclusion before us - that what you have been telling your friends is not the word of God.
Jim the CE: Ah, but some have responded in repentance and faith, which I am sure could only be the result of the infallible word of God coming to them.
Socrates: Well, could it be the case that sometimes the same message is the word of God, and sometimes it is the word of men? It seems odd, I know - it was your mention of the Holy Spirit that got me thinking along these lines.
Jim the CE: I'm not sure I follow you Socrates. (For it is essential to the Socratic dialogue that the interlocutor be a little slow-witted).
Socrates: Well, I suggest that the Holy Spirit plays a role analagous to human breath. When I speak to you, my words are carried by my breath - that's what makes them my words. You could repeat them, and in a sense they would still be my words, but not carried by my breath. Perhaps God's word functions in a similar way. If he speaks them, carried by his breath (namely, the Holy Spirit), then they are directly his words, and as such infallible. But if you merely report them, then although they are in a sense still God's words, they are not "first-hand" as it were, and perhaps lack infallibility.
Jim the CE: 'Pon my word, Socrates, I think you've nailed it. Who would have thought that the Holy Spirit did so much! He's even more important than a napkin.
Socrates: Hmm.

Okay, it's partly a wind-up, and I'm not sure how much I want to identify with Socrates here. But I would appreciate any comments!

Sunday, August 12, 2007


Just a random selection of things I have been thinking during the last month of blog-silence...

1. According to 1 John 1, the only way that sin can ultimately hurt me is if I allow it to force me "into the dark", rather than me forcing the sin "into the light". Which is to say, sin confessed and brought out into the open before God is sin forgiven. Therefore, there is no need to hide my sin, but only to present it with repentance and accept God's grace.
2. According to Thessalonians 1, the life of the church comes from God's word, received with power, the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. Therefore no clever strategy will help us - only the gospel coming in the power of the Spirit. I preached something to this effect today.
3. I really love Great Britain. Boo to everyone who would like to arbitrarily override hundreds of years of shared history and partition this wonderful nation.
4. If I weren't theologically opposed to the idea of monkery, and if I didn't have a beautiful and wonderful wife, I would become a monk. This random thought arises from having a great deal of time to read over the last month or so, something I've hugely appreciated.
5. Buying a flat is hard work. Or at least, it is long work. I am bored of it already.
6. I really don't approve of Anglicanism. Expect a more constructive series of thoughts on this in the near future.

That is all.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

"Reformational" vs. "Just Reformed"

Because this is an issue close to my heart, and something I think a lot of churches in the UK need to think about, I wanted to link to a couple of posts from the JollyBlogger. Have a read!

Reformational vs. "just reformed"
Herman Bavinck and Tim Keller on the Need for a Missional Church

Monday, July 09, 2007

"Speech Acts to Scripture Acts"... the title of an essay I've just finished reading in Vanhoozer's rather excellent First Theology. I have to say, speech act theory is all new to me, so I may have misunderstood it. But if I haven't, I think it could well be the way forward when it comes to our understanding of Scripture. This gets a bit technical - I apologise.

Essentially, Vanhoozer points out (drawing heavily on philosophical work by J.L. Austin and others) that generally when we speak we do not intend merely to communicate information. Sometimes communicating information barely features amongst our intentions in speaking. For example, if I said to you "get out of my house!", I am not intending to communicate information primarily (although I may communicate that I am bored of your company and also rather rude). Primarily, I intend to achieve the result of you leaving my house! Recognising this, speech act theory contends that there are three elements to communication (the examples are all taken from the book):

  1. the locution - which does not communicate anything of the speakers intention in speaking, and is independent of the content of what is spoken. An example might be, "he said some words", or, more specifically "he said 'Jesus is Lord'".

  2. the illocution - is what someone does in speaking. This is dependent on the content, and also the context, of their speaking. So, if the locution is "he said 'Jesus is Lord'", the illocution might be "he confessed that Jesus is Lord", or perhaps "he told his neighbour that Jesus is Lord". These tell us why the speaker spoke, and what he intended to be understood by his speaking.

  3. the perlocution - is the effect (or sometimes the byproduct) of speaking. So, if the locution is "he said 'Jesus is Lord'", and the illocution is "he testified that Jesus is Lord", the perlocution might be "he made me feel unspiritual by comparison". (This would, hopefully, be an unintended perlocution!)

What is the point of all this, and how does it relate to Scripture?

I won't go into Vanhoozer's whole argument for the transferrence of speech act theory to the written word - suffice to say I find it persuasive and recommend you read it. The point, though, is this: we do not understand Scripture, or any other text, unless we recognise the illocutionary acts in them. Indeed, the art of interpretation is precisely the art of working from the locutionary act (the text as we have it written) to the illocutionary act (the intention of the author in the text). Vanhoozer is of course claiming what many postmodern theorists would deny - that there is a link between the two, and that we can therefore meaningfully speak of authorial intent. That he does so is based on his view that language is designed, and designed for communication. He makes the point repeatedly through the book that our doctrines of God, revelation and Scripture are inevitably intertwined, and therefore form one subject rather than three - namely, "first theology". This is one point in his discussion where this is very clear.

The most important thing for me, though, is the recognition that speech acts/scripture acts aren't always all about conveying information.

Think about the traditional evangelical doctrine of Scripture, with its emphasis on inerrancy and truth. "The Bible is true". It strikes me that this way of formulating the doctrine, for all its many strengths, gives the impression that we are dealing with a textbook rather than an inspired record of God's dealings with his covenant people. In what sense can a narrative be "inerrant"? In what sense could Psalm 150 be "inerrant"?

Don't misunderstand me. I am not claiming that there are errors in Scripture. I'm simply wondering whether our emphasis on truth hasn't led us to reduce the majestic landscape of the Bible - with its stories, songs and prayers - to a flat plain of accurate propositions. I wonder whether speech act theory shows us a way out of this, by pointing out that we do not understand the text unless we understand what the author is trying to achieve through it - what the illocutionary act is. And this illocutionary act will not normally be "make so-and-so understand that this doctrine is true", although it may sometimes be that.

I have more to say on this, but it can wait for another day. If you're still reading at this point, you should probably read Vanhoozer instead of me, since he understands what he's writing about!

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Truth and love

As part of my ongoing obsession with the doctrine of revelation in general, and of Scripture in particular, I have just started reading Kevin J. Vanhoozer's First Theology. So far, an excellent read.

In the first chapter, Vanhoozer reminds us of C.S. Lewis' toolshed illustration. For those not familiar with it, it involves imagining that one is in a darkened toolshed. Through a crack in the door, a beam of light enters the shed. If one looks at the beam of light, one sees illuminated dust particles moving about. In itself, that is something rather beautiful. But if one looks along the beam of light, one no longer sees the beam itself, but sees the outside world, and the sun which is the source of the light in the first place.

The anaolgy is hopefully obvious. If I spend all my time looking at Scripture, at theology, at doctrine, then I may well see beauty in the system, or the narrative, or the philosophy. But will it be qualitatively different from the beauty I see in Kant's philosophy, or Tolstoy's narrative? I think not. What is more, it will be the kind of thing that I can grasp and master and pin down - the kind of thing, in other words, that will puff me up (1 Cor 8:1).

What is required is that I look along Scripture, doctrine and theology, that I look to the One to whom these things point - the One who is the very source of these things. That means turning my knowledge into worship. It means realising that there is Someone there whom I cannot fully comprehend, cannot pin down, cannot master - but rather must be mastered by. This knowledge works by love, and does not puff up, for it realises that chiefly I do not know God but he knows me (1 Cor 8:3). Vanhoozer gives an eloquent riff on 1 Corinthians 13:

After all, Christian truth is in the service of Christian love. If I speak with the tongues of Reformers and of professional theologians, and I have not personal faith in Christ, my theology is nothng but the noisy beating of a snare drum. And if I have analytic powers and the gift of creating coherent conceptual systems of theology, so as to remove liberal objections, and have not personal hope in God, I am nothing. And if I give myself to resolving the debate between infra and supralapsarianism, and to defending inerrancy, and to learning the Westminster Catechism, yea, even the larger one, so as to recite it backwards and forwards, and have not love, I have gained nothing.

Monday, June 25, 2007

On being catholic

The word "catholic" has fallen into sad disrepute amongst evangelicals, who are generally only aware of its use by the Roman Catholic Church. It is generally thought to be the opposite of Protestant, and the older and more accurate meaning - "universal" had been all but lost. This is unfortunate. As a Protestant, and indeed and evangelical, I am concerned that I also be a catholic: and I am concerned that you join me in this concern. Let me tell you why.

1. To be catholic is to be concerned for the whole church

It is all too easy for us to be bothered only about things that happen in our denomination, or amongst the sorts of Christians we like to identify with. Generally speaking, even the most broad-minded evangelicals only extend their interests to other evangelicals. But to be catholic is to be concerned for all those who name the name of Christ - even where one considers them to be in grave theological error. I think we need to spend more time praying for those believers who fall outside our immediate circles.

2. To be catholic is to acknowledge a debt to history

We evangelicals have a bothersome tendency to think that we invented the gospel - or at least that nobody throughout church history understood it quite so well as we do. So we tend to just read books by our contemporaries who say the same things we would say in exactly the same way we would say them. (The more thoughtful evangelicals would date the invention of the gospel to the 16th century, of course, but this is only a little better). To be catholic is to acknowledge the long line of believers through the millennia who have faithfully witnessed to Christ - and not just to acknowledge them, but to read them! The bookshelf is probably the most practical way that the communion of saints manifests itself.

3. To be catholic is to learn from the whole church

Because everything that is really Christian belongs to the church, we can be free to take truth from whatever source it comes - always being discerning and testing by Scripture, of course. So if the Pope has something good to say - and he often does - I can claim that. All truth is Christ's truth, and Christ is given as head to the church which is his body. I often find that the things that challenge me, make me think and grow my understanding of the gospel come from outside my own tradition.

4. To be catholic is to speak to the whole church

Obviously I can't actually address the whole of Christendom. But all too often as evangelicals, our thinking and speaking becomes an intra-evangelical discussion with no intention to engage with and confront others. Worse, it can become an intra-Anglican discussion, or an intra-baptist discussion. And so we become concerned only to confess the faith of our party, only to reform our party, only to grow our party. But to be catholic means to confess one's faith to the whole church, calling the whole church to examine it and, if it is the faith of Scripture, to get in line with it. As a "credo baptist" (horrible phrase, but don't have a better) I declare to the whole church that I am convinced Scripture teaches this: and if I am so convinced, I cannot be satisfied to allow any part of the church to ignore it.

I think the world could do with seeing some more catholic protestant orthodox evangelicals...

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Anathema sit?

Adrian Warnock comments here on further developments in the "penal substitution debate". (If you're not familiar with the debate, I posted something about it here).

The question Adrian addresses now is simply this: isn't there a point where we have to recognise that there are people preaching a gospel which differs so substantially from the one that we have discerned in Scripture that we pronounce it to be "another gospel" - i.e. a message quite distinct from what we recognise as the gospel? And if we do so, is it not inevitable that we consider those preaching it to fall under the apostolic curse of Galatians 1:8?

Many people are up in arms about the very idea of Christians pronouncing curses. But the apostle Paul does it. He does it because the truth of the gospel is threatened. He does it because he believes that truth matters. He does it because he is confident that he has heard from God, and therefore confident that those who contradict him have not heard from God.

Now, if there are people out there who don't believe in penal substitution - who don't believe that Christ bore the penalty for human sin on the cross - then they presumably look at Adrian, and me, and many others as preaching a gospel which is different from theirs. If they believe that they have heard the gospel they preach from God in the pages of Scripture, then they must have the courage of their convictions to place us under the apostolic anathema. Then we would know exactly where we stood. We would have two gospels, both claiming to derive from Scripture, and we would be driven back to exegesis and theology to resolve the issue.

But if the other side will not utter the anathema, how can we believe that they seriously believe that they have heard their gospel from God in Scripture?

The anathema is simply this: a serious assertion that we have heard God's Word in Scripture and must obey it, and therefore necessarily we must issue a call to the rest of the church to hear and obey. Far from being arrogant, this is humble obedience and submission to the voice of God. If our opponents are sure that they hear God's Word, let them tell us so. But we must announce the message we have heard, and therefore we must place those with whom we disagree under the apostolic curse.

It is serious. One party is misrepresenting God. One party is preaching their own words as God's Word. One party therefore stands under the anathema. Let us carefully listen to the voice of God in Scripture, and then let us seriously and solemnly (and not without much sadness) take sides.

To do otherwise is to despise the truth.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Thoughts on Isaiah 53

Yesterday we studied Isaiah 53 with Oxford students, and I was confirmed in my belief that this really is the pinnacle of the Old Testament. A few things really struck me.

The first one was that you couldn't make this stuff up. It's just obscure enough that nobody could have looked at this chapter and made up a messiah-myth to match it; but it's clear enough that we can look back from our side of the cross and resurrection and see that it is a beautiful description of Jesus. Brilliant.

The second one was that none of the students we were with could grasp how you could read this chapter and not conclude that Christ bears the punishment due to human sin - that the wrath of God falls on him because he bears our iniquities. Honestly, I could understand how baffled they were - it seems pretty clear to me too, and absolutely glorious. In the apostle Paul's words, God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

But the third thing was the thing I wanted to dwell on. Verses 2 and 3 paint a frankly pitiful picture of Christ in his incarnation:

For he grew up before him like a young plant
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Christ came without anything impressive - no great fanfare, no entourage, no obvious glory. In fact, not only was he without the obvious glory of deity, he hardly had the appearance of a man according to the end of chapter 52. There was nothing there to make human beings, who look on the outward appearance, think that this was the Son of God stepped into the world. Christ came not just with humility but with humiliation, because that was the way of the cross, the way in which redemption would be won.

And it makes me wonder. If this is God's modus operandi, why do I see so many Christians who think that if only the church looked more clever/friendly/cool/powerful/miraculous/rational/impressive then surely the world would fall to its knees in worship? Isn't that just the opposite? I wonder why we think this way.

Is it because we have absorbed some of the world's thinking about what works? Perhaps we don't believe that the way of the cross - the way of humiliation - will actually win the world. Perhaps we have bought into the lie of marketing. We have to sell our product, and to do so we have to latch on to those aspects of it that will appeal to our target market. But it is not our product. The gospel is God's "product", and he decides how and when it will be successful. If he decrees the way of the cross, we have to follow it.

I suspect, though, that our motivation is more self-interested than that. The way of the cross - the way of humiliation - is not comfortable for us. If we don't have the cleverest arguments, if we're not the coolest, if our church looks powerless... Well, all that reflects badly on us, and we'd hate to have people think that we were stupid, uncool, unimpressive. And so I hang on to my respectability rather than follow Jesus.

I wonder whether blessing is often withheld from us because we think we know what is best for the gospel and the church, and we follow our way instead of the way of the cross, sticking up for ourselves rather than being humiliated, proclaiming our own rationality rather than accepting the foolishness of the message preached. I wonder what God might do through us if we - if I - would only accept the way of the cross.

The old hymn says: It is the way the Master trod: should not the servant tread it still?

Monday, May 28, 2007

FAQ 3: Would a God of love send people to hell?

This is without a doubt one of the questions I am asked most. It is asked with varying degrees of seriousness by Christians and those who would not call themselves Christians alike. It is asked as a "defeater" - an intellectual objection to Christianity. It is asked as a personal struggle. And it is asked by people who are simply confused about who God is, what love is, what people are like, and what hell is.

And at one level, the answer is extraordinarily simple: yes.

Yes, because he says he will. Yes, because the God of love is also the God of justice and will see justice done. Yes, because we live in a moral universe with a moral Sovereign who will call people to account.

At this level, I think there is something in all of us that feels that this is right. Everyone I know has some sense of justice, and feels outraged when people "get away with" injustice. Most people like to think that somehow people's wrong-doing will catch up with them, in this world or the next. Hell is the final guarantee that this will be so.

But there is another level at which the answer to this question is harder - very much harder. When we think of hell, we naturally think of people who have done what we class as "terrible things" - the Hitlers and Stalins of this world. But the Bible tells us that we should think more broadly; that hell is the default destination of all of us. If we are logical, we may be able to see this - that if wrong-doing is always punished, and if no-one ultimately gets away with it, then our moral and social failings (however small they may be) cannot just be brushed under the carpet. But logic isn't the level at which we operate here. We are emotional creatures, and the thought of hell - of God's final justice - is horrible to us. It should be.

So I can argue fairly easily that hell is real - that one of the two possible outcomes for every human life is punishment by God. But I have to do it with tears in my eyes.

With tears in my eyes, I have to tell you that God is real, and therefore he cannot be imagined by you to have only those characteristics that you like. He is as he has revealed himself to be. And he has revealed himself to be just - absolutely just. He is the God who will not let any wrong go unpunished.

With tears in my eyes, I have to tell you that God's love does not over-rule his justice; that we cannot take some general idea of love from the world around us and assume that God's love is just like that. God's love is revealed at the cross - and the cross is the display of God's justice as well.

With tears in my eyes, I have to tell you that people are not as you imagine them to be. We are all of us more wicked than we can imagine. Even the nicest of us is inherently rebellious and radically self-centred.

And with tears in my eyes, I have to tell you that God's judgement will fall on everyone who doesn't accept the sacrifice of Jesus in their place, without exception. And this will be hell.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

FAQ 2: Why trust the Bible?

The question of authority is a massive one, for those who are Christians and for those who aren't. Where is truth to be found? Whom should I trust? What is 'pure' information, and what is spin?

The question is particularly acute when it comes to the Christian claim to know about God. It is not that claiming to know about God per se is particularly problematic as a concept: many people of many different religions and philosophies make the claim. The problem is that the Christian stubbornly refuses to base their knowledge of God on anything other than a very old book. Indeed, they base their claim to know that God exists on this self-same book. Most problematic, they base their claim to that God can be known through this book on this book. (Still following?) The more philosophically inclined will notice at once that this is a circular argument, so called because it goes in circles:

"why should I believe in God?"
"the Bible says so."
"why should I believe what the Bible says?"
"because the Bible come from God."
"why should I believe in God?"
...and so on and so on, ad infinitum, or at the very least ad boredom.

The thing is, this is the right thing for the Christian to say. As soon as they give any other reason for believing the Bible than "the Bible comes from God", they launch themselves on to a sea of uncertainty and relativity.

What answers, after all, might they give?

Perhaps that the Bible changes lives? But demonstrably so do many books for which much less exalted claims are made.

Perhaps that the Bible is very old? Indeed. But so is Homer, and no-one shapes their lives by him. (I hope).

Perhaps that archaeological evidence backs up the Bible? Maybe it does, but it has to be said that there is no archaelogical evidence for anything directly supernatural, and so this line of argument would most naturally lead us to say there is some truth in the Bible but probably not much.

No, the Christian trusts the Bible because it comes from God, and they know it comes from God because it tells them so.

So I can give lots of reasons why I think you should look at the Bible - some external (like archaeology) and some internal (like the fact that it simply makes sense). But if you look at it seriously, read it carefully, and find that it is not from God, there is nothing I can do except tell you to read it again. If that seems like a dead end, I propose that there is no other way to go.

Like my previous question, this one also comes down to the concept of revelation. If God has revealed himself in history - in the real world of time and space - and if he still reveals himself through the record contained in the Bible, then and only then we might know something about God. If not, then nothing we can do can get us that knowledge - all we will have is guesswork.

Of course, for the Christian this foundational point is not in fact circular. It is circular in terms of its human logic, but it is also the point at which God actually speaks, breaking in to the circle from outside with his powerful word, which grips us and compels us to hear him. And thence comes certainty, and from nowhere else.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

FAQ 1: Don't all religions lead to God?

This is a question I've been asked a great many times. Normally, it has to be said, the person asking is not actually a religious person. I suppose this is because people who are actually followers of a religious tradition are more aware of the divergences in theology and practice between the various faiths than those who have no particular interest. Since the questioner is normally not a religious person, I tend to interpret the question as something more like this:

"Suppose, as seems highly unlikely to me, there were a god, whatever that might mean, would not any religion, and hopefully also any vaguely spiritual world-view, be equally valid as a means of reaching aforementioned probably-non-existent deity?"

The assumptions built in to the question bring it crashing down. Firstly, the assumption that we can even speak intelligibly of "god" seems highly questionable. After all, many people doubt the existence of "god" or plain disbelieve it. There are many explanations (psychological, anthropological, historical, sociological... to name just a few) for the idea of "god" that do not involve there being any actual content to the idea. "God" could be a word that refers to nothing. Not only can we not assume that "god" exists, we cannot even assume that the word "god" means anything at all. The question itself is meaningless.

Unless, of course, God has in some way revealed himself.

The second problematic assumption is that there is some way of reaching "god". Of course, the questioner is seeking to establish that there are many - perhaps infinite - ways of "reaching god". But they're assuming I'll agree with them that there is at least one way. In fact, this seems an unwarranted assumption. How could I know that if there were a "god" he/she/it would be at all interested in humanity? How could I know that he/she/it was in any way accessible by me? I could not possibly say.

Unless, of course, God has in some way revealed himself.

The third massive assumption is that "reaching god" would involve religion, or at least its fuzzier cousin "spirituality" in some way. Well, as far as I can tell, religion is a system of structures, rituals and beliefs that people can and have manufactured for themselves. There is a striking similarity between all religions at the level of ethics and practical living, and I think a basic agreement about aims: religion is about reaching out into the beyond and hoping that whatever is there will be pleased with our efforts. But how would I know whether all of this effort was successful? I couldn't.

Unless, of course, God has in some way revealed himself.

The point is that the questioner has assumed substantial agreement with me on three fronts: that there is a god, that he/she/it can be reached, and that religion is involved.

I repudiate all three points.

If God has revealed himself by stepping into the world in the person of Jesus, I don't agree that there is "a god". There is God (upper-case "G"): the real, personal, living God who is there. You see, if God has not revealed himself then of course we can grope in the dark and come up with arbitrarily defined ideas of "god", and each in their own way may be profound, moving, inspirational. But none of them is real. But if God has entered our world (or rather, his world) in the person of Jesus Christ, then God is. Not the "god" we all assumed was out there, but God - the real God, who cuts across all our assumptions by his sheer reality.

And if God has revealed himself in Jesus, then one of the clearest things he has revealed is that there is no way to him. Because the God who is revealed in Jesus reveals himself as the One who dies to make such a way. He reveals himself as the One who sees us as guilty, and cut off from him, and doomed to die - and then steps in to take all those things into himself so that we can be made right, reconciled, and given life. But this way cuts across all our assumptions about the way to God. It is not a way that is naturally open to us. It is a way given to us by God himself, and so it is a real way.

And if God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, by condescending and entering into our world, then he has revealed that all our reaching out and reaching up, all our striving to find God - that is to say, all our religion and spirituality - is useless. God steps down because we cannot climb up. And this too cuts across all our assumptions. Religion cannot get us to God.

But Jesus Christ can.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Frequently Asked Questions

I read a lot of books. It's one of the things I really enjoy doing. And the way I think about the world is changed by those books. I don't agree with everything I read, of course, but I do try to hold my mind open to the challenge that each new idea and new perspective brings. Otherwise, what would be the point of reading? Anyway, the point is that my opinions and thoughts change, fairly regularly. I like to think it's development.

On the other hand, I get asked a lot of questions. Partly this is because I work with Christian students, who have enquiring minds. This also puts me into contact with students who wouldn't call themselves Christians, who also have enquiring minds. So I get friendly questions, and not-so-friendly questions, and I try to answer them.

But it occurs to me that I haven't really "updated" my answers to some of the questions I am asked most often for a while. So I haven't been joining up my own thinking and reading with the answers I've been giving to other people. So I thought I'd take a little time to get straight what I think on a few common questions and issues, and I thought it would be fun to do it here. So that's what any readers can expect over the next couple of weeks.

Just so it doesn't catch you by surprise.

Sunday, May 06, 2007


Some days reading the news makes me very cross indeed. Today was one of those days.

Fresh from reading about the mighty Saints push for promotion, I stumbled on this. Apparently, children no longer need space to play in at school. In fact, play is merely a distraction from learning.
The head of the newest and most expensive school in Peterborough told BBC News:

"This is a massive investment of public money and I think what the public want is maximum learning. They recognise that youngsters can play in their own time, play in their local communities. What I want from my teachers is maximum teaching and I want maximum learning from the youngsters."

What on earth is wrong with these people? Seriously!

"Maximum teaching." "Maximum learning."

The logic seems to be that we invested money in these kids, and we'd better get a quantifiable outcome from each and every one. What about learning to be people? What about learning that life isn't just about hitting the next target?

But of course for our current government, that is what life is all about. I think I will have to forebear any sort of procreation until the Tories are safely back in control.

Incidentally, I think this links to my previous post. Wouldn't you agree?

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Laugh more, cry more

I've been pondering recently how very detached it is easy to become. I mean, one can very easily find oneself in a place where the most terrible of tragedies elicits not a single tear, and the most stunning beauty barely prompts a gasp. Laughter is hardly ever more than a cynical chuckle. More often than not, a shrug is all the expression of emotion we can manage.

This strikes me as sad. Also, ungodly.

If there is ultimate meaning in the world - and, for reasons I may go into in a later post, I think that there can only be ultimate meaning if there is God (not "a god", but God) - then everything has meaning and significance. Tragedy is real tragedy; joy is real joy. And to treat them otherwise is to deny God.

God says "Yes" to creation; he says "Yes" to life. That's one of the main points of the Genesis story. Creation in all its fullness, which I take to include the various expressions of human existence present in potential at the beginning, is approved by God. That means it is to be enjoyed, loved, experienced deeply and emotionally. Thus Karl Barth:

"Thus the call that we should seek joy is not merely a concession or permission but a command which cannot be lightly regarded by one who has appreciated the divine justification of creation. We need not be ashamed before the holiness of God if we can still laugh and must laugh again, but only if we allow laughter to wither away, and above all if we have relapsed into a sadly ironic smile". Church Dogmatics, III/1, p. 371

Isn't that sadly ironic smile the precise posture of our culture? Of course, it can hardly be otherwise in a world stripped of God and therefore of meaning. In such a world, we can't be sure that life is good - or even that good could be defined in a meaningful way. But for the Christian - for the one who believes that life and creation are good on the basis not of a deduction from the (admittedly confusing) evidence of life itself as it appears to be, but on the basis of God's word which says "Yes" to creation - there must be laughter, and there must be joy. A holy naivety is called for here. We take God's "Yes" to creation at face value and believe it, whether the world currently looks good or bad to us, and we seek joy.

Christian, play silly games! Run around on the grass! Above all, laugh!

There is, of course, a flip-side to this. God has not only said "Yes" to creation. He has also said "No". God judges what is evil in life and creation, and in so doing reveals that evil is also real, and not merely an impression of our minds. Evil is real, and so tragedy is real. It is not a meaningless event in a meaningless world. It stands under judgement, but that doesn't make it any less real. And so we must experience this, too, in a deep, emotional - above all, real - way. Barth again:

"How can a man stand before his Creator without realising that he is lost and must perish? ... Hence the man who must and will weep has no need to be ashamed when faced with the Creator's goodness. The only man who has cause for shame is he who motivated by false pride refuses to weep, or perhaps for simple lack of insight has lost the capacity to do so. The very last thing that ought to happen is the attempt to elude the misery of life" CD III/1, p 373

Taking God's "No" as seriously as we take his "Yes", we are required to mourn and weep. So much in our world is wrong. So much is painful. So much is evil. In a world where there is ultimate meaning - in a world where there is God - we must take these things seriously, and respond appropriately in grief - and also anger.

Christian, weep as you watch the news! Grieve as you see the brokeness of the world! Above all, cry out against it to the God who has said "No" to evil and will not let it have the final word.

"...the divine revelation manifests both the sorrow and joy of life, and therefore not only permits but commands us to laugh and weep, to be glad and sorrowful, precluding only the attitude of indifference, the judgement of the sceptic..." CD III/1, p 375

I am convicted that I need to out-feel those around me who do not know God, because unlike them I have reason to believe that my feelings are a response to real joys and real tragedies. I need to be involved intellectually and emotionally in all the real good and all the real evil of the world and of the lives of those around me.

I need to laugh more. I need to cry more.

Friday, April 20, 2007

When truth demands division

Have a peek at Adrian Warnock's blog if you're not aware that Word Alive, the popular student week of Spring Harvest, is no more. Essentially, the relationship between UCCF and Keswick on the one hand, and Spring Harvest on the other, has come to something of a messy end. So here we go. Disunity amongst Christians. Harsh words spoken. Bad feeling.

What a disaster.

Except that this was division caused by two issues. The first issue was the truth of penal substitution. UCCF and Keswick insisted that people who are known to disbelieve in this doctrine not appear at Word Alive. Why? Because this is the gospel. This is the heart of our salvation in Christ. When we start to talk about the Lord Jesus bearing our sins in his own body on the tree, becoming a curse for us - then we are well within the realm of essential truths, truths not to be compromised on. A line has to be drawn somewhere, and if I'm any judge of things this is the place to draw it. Did Christ bear the penalty for sin? That question is crucial. To preserve the clarity of this central gospel truth, division is justified.

But there is a second issue which is more frustrating. There will always be error, and people who hold the truth according to the Scriptures will always have to battle it, and when necessary separate from those who hold it. But what about the apparently large number of people who don't disagree with penal subsitution - but just don't see why it matters enough to divide over? What's going on there? This kind of doctrinal indifferentism is a real tragedy, on so many levels. It shows a lack of a deep understanding of the cross, because if the truth of it were understood in head and heart surely there would be more zeal for that truth on display? It hinders unity amongst Christians who hold the Scriptural view, because often the "indifferentists" will prefer to maintain unity with those who are in error than with those who hold the truth, even though their minimalist theological convictions are more in line with the latter. And most fundamentally, it dishonours Jesus by holding that it doesn't matter exactly what he did on the cross.

So, Word Alive is dead - but New Word Alive is... um... alive. And so there could be good that comes out of this: a great conference where the truth of the gospel is spoken unashamedly, without confusion. This could be a rallying point for all those who love the central truths of the gospel. Whether it will turn out that way or not will depend in large part on whether Biblical Christians can shake off the disease of indifferentism.


Check out the wonderful linkage available via the blue fish project.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

John Owen is my homeboy

And I quote:

Reason alone - especially as it is corrupted and depraved - can discern no glory in the representation of God by Christ; yea, all that is spoken thereof, or declared in the gospel, is foolishness unto it. Hence many live in a profession of the faith of the letter of the gospel, yet - having no light, guide nor conduct, but that of reason - they do not, they cannot, really behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ; nor hath the revelation of it any efficacy unto their souls. The manifestation of him in the light of nature, by the works of creation and providence, is suited unto their reason, and doth affect it; for that which is made of Christ, they say of it, as the Israelites did of Manna, that came down from heaven, "What is it?", we know not the meaning of it. For it is made unto faith alone, and all men have not faith.

Saturday, April 07, 2007


In the new creation, Oxford will always win the boat race.


No, seriously.

Holy Saturday

I think Holy Saturday is the strangest day of the year. I also think it is the day most representative of the whole of the year.

Yes, I do have a slightly odd brain.

Let me explain. Holy Saturday is strange because it is neither here nor there. Liturgically, it is stuck somewhere between "Christ has died" and "Christ has risen". It's this curious waiting time between the cross and the resurrection. What does it mean? Is the world fixed? It doesn't look like it. Did the Messiah win? It doesn't look like it...

But then, Holy Saturday is also the day that most resembles my daily experience of life. Somewhere inbetween. Not anymore in the darkness of the past; not yet in the glorious brightness of the future. The whole of life is lived knowing that something decisive happened in the past, and something decisive will happen in the future. But I live in the meantime. And if I'm honest, I still look around at the world, and indeed at myself, and sometimes ask: is it fixed? Did he win? Because honestly, it doesn't look like it.

Holy Saturday is the day of holy angst.
For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened--not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 2 Cor 5:4
For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. Rom 8:22,23

Friday, April 06, 2007

Good Friday

The most important thing that has ever happened in (or out of) the history of the world is remembered today. I've been pondering something that was said at the time.

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

The speaker was of course Jesus. He was already crucified; it would not be long before he died. His suffering - physical, mental, emotional, spiritual - was more than I can describe. But this is the heart of it. Forsaken by God.

How forsaken? Bear in mind, this will only make sense if you acknowledge and confess with the church that this man is also the eternal Son of God, the second Person of the Divine Trinity - a person who has always enjoyed perfect relationship with God the Father. But then also bear in mind that acknowledging and confessing this makes it impossible that he should be so forsaken. God forsaken by God?

Pondering this cry from the cross, I find myself staring into a deep abyss of profound agony and profound love. God the Holy Trinity - the one whom the church delights to call indivisible - is, in some sense at least, divided. As Christ takes on his shoulders the sins of the world (my sins!), he stands before the Father as the guilty one. He, the guilty one! And God is too pure to even look upon evil... What agony.

But what incredible love. God the Holy Trinity sees the world of humanity cut off from himself - cut off from the relationship we were made for, by our own will and act. Does he reject us? No. He takes it into himself. Jesus Christ will be the cut-off one. The alienation and mess of our rampant atheism and godlessness will be taken into the nature of God himself. What was an external relationship of judgement is taken in and made an internal one.

My Lord, what love is this?