Sunday, December 07, 2008
Anyway, the hobby-horse for today is "Christian" Zionism (scare quotes inserted for reasons which will become clear very quickly). I noted as I was perusing this month's edition of Evangelicals Now an article explaining why Christians should support the state of Israel. I didn't have time to read it in huge detail as I had no intention of paying for it, but I think I picked up the gist.
It awoke my rage.
I want to tell you a few things that I think about "Christian" Zionism. I am not at this stage trying to be balanced; if I were, I would tell you that I support the right of the state of Israel to exist and to defend itself, and I deplore almost all of what goes on in the name of the Palestinian cause. But I am not trying to be balanced, I'm trying to make a rage-fuelled point. So here goes.
Point the first: Christian Zionism is a theological aberration. The EN article makes the mistake of all CZs, in that it absolutely fails to read the OT Christologically. It does not consider the Biblical prophecies regarding Israel to be fulfilled in Christ, and therefore the cross and resurrection of Christ come across as a stepping-stone along the path rather than the absolute climax of the covenant (to steal a phrase). This failure is serious. It fails to give Jesus the glory he deserves, because it does not see the OT as being all about him. (I understand the potential refutation, namely that good CZs see the future of Israel as being about Jesus' reign. Nevertheless, it is not the historical Jesus, the revealed Son of God, about whom they are talking. I can go into this in more detail if it would help anyone). It also fails to give the Church its proper vocation by reserving it for the nation of Israel. To cap it all, it denies the Christian hope by continuing to apply OT prophecy to a strip of land on the eastern Med rather than to God's new creation. Error, error, fatal error.
Point the second: Christian Zionism is a political nightmare. CZ drives much more of the world's foreign policy than it should. CZ means that a country can carry on an illegal occupation without anyone who has any influence objecting. CZ means that a huge refugee crisis can rumble on for decades without much being done about it. CZ means that a country can attack its neighbours and know that there will be no comeback. Nightmare.
Point the third: Christian Zionism is a public relations disaster. Christians, those who should be siding for the weak against the strong, instead stand up for a nation which has the backing of the major world powers. They do not speak up for the oppressed. They do not campaign for justice. They argue for the right of one people to occupy a land by divine right even though that land was already full of people. Why should people not look at us and conclude that we have abandoned Jesus' message? That is what I would think if I saw this nonsense from the outside.
The point is that CZ is not in line with the gospel. It is not in line with it theologically: it does not honour Christ. It is not in line with it politically: it does not advance God's Kingdom rule. It is not in line with it in terms of witness: it does not paint an attractive picture of Christ to the world. It is not Christian, but only "Christian" at best. Could we put it to bed now please?
Tuesday, December 02, 2008
The substance belongs to Christ. What a great motto for Advent! I thought I would spend some time in the run up to Christmas this year reflecting on what it would have been like to live under the old covenant, looking forward to Messiah. I hadn't really got going with that before my reading this morning gave me the verses above. And they encapsulate exactly what I wanted to be thinking about.
The old covenant was all in shadow. The food laws were just a shadow of the radical holiness of Christ, who was separate from sinners. The festivals were just a shadow of the joy of the salvation won in Christ - his joy first, and then by faith also ours. The Sabbath was merely a shadow of Christ's rest, seated at the right hand of God, and our rest in him. All shadows. The history of Israel was lived out in shadow, and was therefore a dark history - a groping in the dark, a stumbling in the dark. Even the glories were shadows. The history of Israel would be of no consequence except as a tragic tale apart from the fact that the shadow under which that history took place was the shadow of Christ.
An image impresses itself upon the mind; I'm not sure how right or helpful it is but I can't shake it. Look at history from the end point - imagine yourself standing at the end of the timeline, the point where history as we know it gives way to new history and new creation. Eschatological glory shines back from the point where you are standing, along the timeline, back through the centuries. And at the meeting of two ages, it illumines the face of a towering figure: Jesus of Nazareth, our Emmanuel. His face is lit with the light of the glory of God, and anyone in the centuries after him who glanced back would see him - dazzling, radiant. But behind he casts a shadow, and under that shadow Israel lived out its whole life, always looking forward, always hoping against hope, apparently suffering more than all the nations, but trusting that the future was glorious despite the present shadow.
"You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live... You shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen".
"God...has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ"
Monday, November 24, 2008
The first dead-end is pragmatism. Pragmatism says "we should do X, because X will work". It crops up all over evangelicalism, often in the form of imitation - it worked over there/for them/in the 16th century, therefore it will work here and now. Who you imitate will depend on what evangelical tribe you belong to, but it doesn't really matter whether you're copying Calvin or the church up the road. When pragmatism isn't imitation, it is usually sparked off by one person's "big idea". That person is usually an activist - pragmatism appeals to activists. But the key thing is that for the pragmatist, the right thing to do is what works.
Problem: as you are not God, you do not know the end from the beginning. You don't know what will work. You cannot ascertain what the results will be. So how can you decide what to do?
The second dead-end is mysticism. Mysticism says "we should do X, because God told me so", or perhaps "I feel led to do X, therefore I should do it". Mysticism is rampant amongst evangelicals of all flavours. Sometimes it is just a cover for something else - there may be pragmatism lurking under there - but often it is a genuine feeling that the Spirit is pressing us in a particular direction. And I don't what to knock that entirely; I know that sometimes God guides in this way. But there is a...
Problem: mysticism is entirely subjective, and therefore inherently individualistic. If you feel led to do something, how can I critique your "leading"? What if I think you're wrong, on other grounds? Can we even have a conversation about the decision any more?
The third dead-end is biblicism. Biblicism says "we should do X, because it says so in Leviticus 18:4". (Don't look it up, I have no idea what it says). Biblicism is popular in evangelical circles because it seems to show right regard for the Bible, and because it acknowledges what we all know to be true: that Scripture should guide us. But often a veneer of biblicism is added to pragmatism or mysticism - we decide what will work, or feel a sense of leading, and then find a Bible verse that matches up. Even when this isn't the case, biblicism tends to basically mean taking one verse or passage out of context and basing my decision on it.
Problem: the Bible is not like a horoscope, where I can dip in and out for personal guidance. It doesn't function that way because it isn't meant to, and when it is used that way it is being used illegitimately. You can sanction almost anything with a bit of biblicism.
The only genuine help with decision making is theology. Theology looks at the whole scope of the Bible's witness to Christ, and tries to ascertain the character and shape of what God has done and is doing in the world. The good theologian will seek to meditate on the whole plan of redemption as it unfolds in Scripture. The good theologian will look to understand the Bible as a whole, with all its apparent difficulties and paradoxes, and that will mean understanding it as a unitary (though diverse) witness to Christ.
Then, and only then, the theologian looks to the situation in which he finds himself, and asks "what decision fits with the programme outlined in Scripture? What decision rings true with the overall direction of the drama of Scripture? What decision tends to make true, out there in the world, what is true in the pages of the Bible?"
We should do X, because the gospel applied to this situation means X.
Of course, that is much harder work. We will need to be continually steeping ourselves in Holy Scripture, because we surely won't have time to do all the work just before we make a huge decision. And we will need to be in conversation with others who can pick up our blind-spots and show us things about Christ we would have missed.
But this is ultimately the only God-honouring way to make a decision.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
That is probably a good thing.
Anyway, here is a summary of Karl Barth's entire theological enterprise in one sentence, taken from Church Dogmatics II.1:
The Christian doctrine of God has to face and answer questions put to it by the God who confronts man and not by the man who confronts God.Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Wednesday, November 05, 2008
I've been more than a little surprised to see the level of rejoicing over this that I've seen amongst my friends on the Book of Faces. Given that many of my friends are Christians, I'm genuinely baffled by their delight. I wonder whether they are unaware of what goes on in the world? Perhaps they think that making abortion easier is a good thing?
Surely if the man were right about everything else (and I rather think he isn't) then the single issue of abortion should at least temper the joy amongst Christians? Are people not thinking?
Is my frustration showing through here?
Saturday, November 01, 2008
Here is an Anabaptist manifesto, if you like, for society and the church's role within it. I am convinced. How about you?
Friday, October 31, 2008
The question on my mind is: what is the best way to honour our Reformers?
For some, the answer will be that we must return to their teaching, reorganise our churches along their principles, reaffirm their confessions. Well, I'm somewhat in favour of some of those things. We could honour the Reformers by preserving their Reformation.
But I think they might prefer us to continue that Reformation. Not to hallow it, not to see it as completed, but to push forward the work of Reform. The Church is to be always reforming. That surely doesn't mean always returning to the Reformers; it means always returning to the Scriptures. And there are a number of areas in which I think the Magisterial Reformation of the sixteenth century was really only a half-Reformation. We need to carry on reforming in those areas. There are other areas on which the Reformers never passed comment, because the issues never arose in their day. We need to begin the process of reform in those areas.
To that end, if I were to nail any Theses to any doors today (don't worry, I won't), they would probably cover the following:
- The Church is the assembled people of God, bound together by their profession of faith in Christ. She owes her alleigance to Christ alone, and cannot ever be a state church or a church allied to any particular interest. But she does owe all her alleigance to Christ, and so she must as far as she is able ensure that she has a believing membership.
- The separation of Church and state is vital to the health of both. The duty of the Church is not to reform society but be in herself a Reformed society, to witness to the gospel of Christ and its power to change lives.
- Infant baptism, as it tends towards lending people false security and is incompatible with a sound doctrine of the Sacraments (which requires those who receive them to exercise faith), should be discontinued as a practice.
- The Scriptures must be recognised as the instrument by which the Church is governed by her Lord, Christ Jesus. Any form of Church government that does not place authority solely in the Scriptures is to be repudiated - this would include episcopacy and any but the most mild form of presbyterianism.
- The gifts of the Spirit initially bestowed on the Church are still available to her today, but must be exercised in line with Scriptural teaching and in such a way that the normative word of God in Scripture remains central to the life of the Church.
There would certainly be more, but that's enough controversy for one day, don't you think?
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
"The Israeli shelling of civilians in Beit Hanoun, while asleep in their homes, and targeting those fleeing, is a war crime, and it's perpetrators must be brought before international justice" - thus the Palestinian ambassador to the UN.
Time for some soul-searching amongst international leaders, and also amongst Christians of a Zionist dispostion: Why won't anything happen about this? Why won't anyone be held accountable? Could any other nation get away with it?
Monday, September 22, 2008
When we affirm, with the Scripture, that God is love, I take it we are in fact saying two things: one thing about God - Father, Son, Holy Spirit - in terms of God's own internal life and existence; and one thing about God - Father, Son, Holy Spirit - in terms of God's relationship to that which is outside himself, namely the creation in all its varied orders.
In the first sense, 'God is love' affirms the eternal relation of love between the 'persons' of the Godhead within the unity of the One God. The Father loves the Son; the Son loves the Father; the Father and the Son love the Spirit - and all these relations are reciprocal. (Though not, I take it, symmetrical - the Father loves the Son as Son, the Son loves the Father as Father etc. This is important, because the Son's love for the Father includes the desire to obey, which the Father's love for the Son does not include). We might call this God's love by nature. Because God is three-in-one-in-love, there never was a time when there was not love at the heart of who God is. This is a powerful apologetic against Islam, incidentally - can a monad, such as the Islamic conception of God, in fact be described as loving? Certainly not by nature, unless we are also willing to ascribe a loneliness and incompleteness to the monad, which is filled only by the creation. However, when we say that the Trinity is love by nature, we imply no lack, because of the plurality of persons and therefore the reality of eternal loving relations. Note that this love is 'natural' in at least two senses. It is natural that this love be given because it belongs to the character of each person to love; and it is natural that this love be given because each person is worthy of love.
In the second sense, 'God is love' means that God loves his creation. At the most basic level, God creates, and no rationale can be given for this except his love. He sustains and provides for all he has made, which is to be attributed to his love. And of course, supremely God the Son enters his creation in the person of Jesus Christ, redeeming it by his wrath-bearing death and life-giving resurrection. In fact, tracing the relations of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit with creation through the Scriptures reveals that each person is intimately involved in the existence, sustenance and redemption of the created order, and all because of love. This love, however, is not natural in the sense that the intraTrinitarian love is. If it were, God would have had to create, and then would have to redeem his fallen creation. But the Scriptures marvel at his grace in doing both of these things in a way which certainly rules out any notion of necessity. God creates freely, sustains freely, redeems freely. He loves his creation because he wills to do so. It exists because he wills to love it, and is redeemed because he wills to continue to love it.
God's relation to his creation is thus a willed extension of what is natural in himself. But is it right that God will this extension? Is it not idolatry for God to love something other than himself? How can the self-sufficient, glorious God love creation?
The key is the incarnation. The Father loves the Son, by nature; but he wills to love the Son as incarnate. When the Scripture describes Jesus Christ (the man) as the logic that underlies creation (consider John 1 as a whole and Colossians 1:15ff for starters), the authors are asserting that everything that is ontologically 'outside of' God exists for the purpose of Christ's kingdom. It exists that the man Jesus Christ might rule. It exists that the man Jesus Christ might be. And the man Jesus Christ is loved because the Father wills to love his Son in flesh, just as he naturally loves him in the eternal unity of the Godhead. Space and time exist for the incarnation of the Son of God. History exists for the rule of the Lord Jesus Christ. God's willed love for his creation is his love for his Son as incarnate, and therefore is not idolatrous but is a true reflection ad extra of the internal love of the Godhead.
In short: Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in (and before!) the beginning, is now and ever shall be. Amen!
Saturday, September 20, 2008
Where is the church?
I think Jesus' prayer in John 17 goes a long way to answering all these questions. The prayer is a natural place to look when we're thinking about the church. Here, the church's Lord prays for the future of his called and assembled people. And, I dare say not coincidentally, the three marks of the church in NC are found right here.
In NC, we confess the church to be 'holy'. In John 17:17, Jesus prays for his disciples: "sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth". Set them apart, make them holy. Verse 14 contributes the fact that in giving the disciples God's word, Jesus has transferred them out of the sphere of "the world" (though not out of the world itself) and that they are no longer "of the world". This is the very definition of holiness in Scripture: to be separated from the world and to God. And notice, the instrument by which this is done is God's word.
In NC, we acknowledge the church to be 'catholic'. In John 17:21, Jesus prays for all his disciples throughout all the ages, "that they may all be one". The unity he asks for is comparable to the unity between the Father and the Son - so, pretty close! The ground of their unity with each other is to be their unity with God and his Christ - "all mine are yours, and yours are mine" (v. 10), "just as you Father are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us" (v. 21) - and this again occurs through the instrumentality of the word (v.8, v.20).
In NC, we confess our faith in a church that is 'apostolic'. In John 17:20, Jesus prays for "those who will believe in me through their word" - i.e. the message carried by the apostles. Previously, he has prayed for the original disciples as those who are sent out into the world just as he was sent (v. 18). I take it that they are being sent to take the word of God, just as Jesus was. The church is to be founded on their word.
A couple of notes on this. Firstly, the church is holy, catholic and apostolic wherever it is ruled and governed by the word of God, and where it recognises in this word of God its very life and only source of being. Wherever we see a congregation that lives by the word of God, there we see the one holy, catholic and apostolic church confessed in the Nicene Creed. In concreto, this will mean that wherever we see a group of people bound together by the fact that they are also bound to the Holy Scriptures, we see the church. Those who are bound to the apostolic message in Scripture are also separated from the world and united to one another, because it is the word of God that gives them life. There are no other criteria for a true church.
Secondly, this is an article of faith. We believe that this church exists amid the dissension and rivalries that exist in the churches. We believe it because the Father always hears the Son, and the Son prayed for this.
Monday, September 15, 2008
A question of fact is a question about what is (or is not). An example of a question of fact would be 'there is such a thing as ice-cream'. This particular fact is trivial, and easy to prove, but not all questions of fact have those characteristics. The statement 'there is such a person as God' is certainly not trivial, and is not readily proved to most people's satisfaction, but it is still a question about what is - a question of fact.
A question of value is a question about what something is worth. An example might be 'ice-cream is tasty'. Again, this value statement is trivial. But the statement 'God deserves to be worshipped' is not, and neither is the statement 'murdering human beings is wrong'. These are significant statements, but they are not statements about what is. They are to do with value.
It would be easy to suppose that this distinction is identical to the distinction between what is objective and what is subjective: facts are things that are absolutely true (or false), whilst values are essentially opinion. This may well be true on a naturalistic worldview; it is not true on a Christian worldview, where God gives values which are, from a human standpoint at least, objective and universal. In a naturalistic worldview, you can be wrong about facts, but not really about values; the same does not ring true for the Christian (although obviously some value judgements really are just subjective, like my ice-cream example). This is interesting, because it means that interpreting value statements will ultimately boil down to a fact question: does God exist? But all this by the by...
Getting the fact and value distinction wrong has tainted the abortion debate in the US, I think, and I want us to get it clear on this side of the pond. In this debate, you have two sides: the 'pro-life' people, who think abortion is wrong, and the 'pro-choice' people, who think people should be able to choose. Just so you know, I'm firmly with the pro-lifers. Pro-life people often think that pro-choice people are making a value judgement: perhaps 'a woman's right to choose is more important than an infant's life', or more starkly 'it is not wrong to murder a baby'. Of course nothing could be further from the truth, and we need to drop that sort of rhetoric. The disagreement is one of fact, not value. Nobody thinks it's okay to kill a baby. Some people think that the foetus is not a baby - and that is a question of fact, not value. So the argument needs to proceed on factual questions: is this a baby, or not? Is this human or not?
This is important because often we agree on the value judgement: a human being must not be killed simply because that being's existence is inconvenient or even tragic for another human being. Let us take that as settled. (Though I cannot see why a naturalist should think so, I am grateful for the common grace that gives most people this intuition). Now we can have a sensible discussion about what a human being is, apart from emotive value-language. This won't make the discussion easy - after all, many religious pro-lifers will take their position from revelation to some extent. But I think it is a discussion that can be had.
I also appeal to pro-choice people to understand what is going on here. We disagree with you about facts. That means that we can't adopt a "live and let live" approach (to coin a phrase in a horribly ironic manner) to this issue. We really think that people are being killed, legally, at the point of their greatest defencelessness. If you thought that was the case, wouldn't you do anything in your power to stop it?
Tuesday, September 09, 2008
But the best part for me was that Forum '08 made me feel like I could say 'we' about evangelicals.
You see, so much in the evangelical sub-culture bugs me. Often shallow and simplistic grasp of doctrine. Often catch-phrases rather than a grasp of the truth. Often pragmatism rather than worship. Often sectarianism rather than catholicity. Often, frankly, banality. So I end up saying 'the problem with evangelicals is that they...'
But Forum makes me realise: for as long as there are labels, this is the label I want to be under and these are the people I want to stand with and for. They are my people, because they love Christ and want to serve him.
Forum didn't magic away all of the issues for me, but it helped me to remember that, whatever the faults, this is where the gospel is shining brightest in the UK today. So, we evangelicals may have all manner of issues, but we can still stand together for the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
On the other hand, we have inherited from the period directly after the Reformation the praise-worthy desire to defend the gospel from attack and misunderstanding. It is to this desire that we owe our great confessions, documents designed to set out the truth in summary form. These documents to a certain extent codify what is to be believed if one is to be considered faithful to the gospel.
It is not hard to see how these two desires could come into conflict. What happens when you become convinced that the 'traditional' way of expressing things is not entirely in line with Scripture? The great confessional statements very easily become badges of identity and litmus tests of 'soundness' - to the point where simply using different words (even if in material agreement) can place someone beyond the pale.
How do we make semper reformanda a reality in the realm of doctrine without cutting loose and letting anyone say what they want? How do we maintain confessional standards without shutting ourselves off from the word of God?
Friday, August 22, 2008
Step 1: Action
God does something. He performs an action. That action may be speaking, or it may be raising Christ from the dead. Often, as God performs an action he speaks to interpret the action. Other times he simply expects the action to be interpreted in the light of his previous actions. Sometimes the action may simply be to 'nudge' the imagination of a human being. God takes the initiative. (Barth would say that this one step is 'revelation' proper; I can see why, but I'd prefer to think of revelation as encompassing all three steps).
Step 2: Inscripturation
A human being records God's action, and often also records the reactions of themselves and others. Sometimes in the act of recording they add interpretation - as, for example, when the Chronicler notes that Jerusalem was captured and destroyed because of the people's unfaithfulness. Note that God is no less involved in this step than he was in the former. He takes the initiative to get things recorded, and he ensures that what is recorded is a true witness to what has occurred.
Step 3: Illumination
As the text of Scripture is read, or preached, or listened to, the Holy Spirit makes it real to the recipient. In and of itself, the Scripture was and is always a true witness to God's action - always God's word - but now by virtue of the Spirit's activity it becomes to this one person the very Word of God, powerful to shake them out of the lethargy of sin, powerful to shine a light that pierces the darkness of sin. The action of God in the past becomes present ('it was before your very eyes that Christ Jesus was portrayed as crucified') and God, who made himself known to others in the past, now makes himself known in the present through their witness. And he does so in freedom, which is simply to say that he bestows this insight where and when he wills, for his own good purposes.
Is that right?
Thursday, August 21, 2008
I have often wondered how it was that Abraham arrived at the conclusion that this command really came from God. The text of Genesis doesn't hint at any particular evidence being given - no physcial manifestations of God's glory or the like. Even if such evidences had been made available, I think responsible theologians would have told Abraham that this voice could not be God. Certainly, if someone came to me and said that God was telling them to offer their child as a human sacrifice, I would say that whatever, or whoever, was responsible for the suggestion it certainly wasn't God.
But Genesis records no hesitation on the part of Abraham; no wrestling with the issue; no attempts to reason it out. Abraham rose early the next morning and got on his donkey, heading for the site of the sacrifice, with Isaac in tow carrying the wood.
Abraham is commended throughout Scripture for his faith. Is this an example of commendable faith - obedience to God's command even when it flies in the face of ethics, rationality and basic common sense - even when it appears to contradict earlier promises made by God?
Clearly there is something in the word of God here that overcomes all Abraham's natural reluctance to engage in infanticide. God's word, with no other supporting evidence whatsoever, is sufficient to put Abraham on his donkey.
So why, when it comes to the word of Christ - the gospel - are we so anxious to surround it with rational proofs? Why are we so keen to iron out all the difficulties? Why are we so eager to turn it into something a little less radical and a little more palatable?
Does God's Word create faith, or doesn't it?
Friday, August 15, 2008
But doesn't the current crisis in Georgia indicate how impossible it is for us to run an ethical foreign policy? If a country that didn't have an enormous army and a substantial nuclear arsenal were invading and bullying its neighbours in the way that Russia has been over the last week or so, there is no doubt in my mind that even with our overstretched military and shortfall in resources we would have gone to war. I feel quite strongly that we ought to have done.
But we can't, because we can't fight Russia.
Foreign policy highlights the enormous gaps that exist between ideals and reality in our fallen world. There are two main gaps. I guess the ideal, for pretty much anyone, would be pacifism. It would be lovely if there could just be peace. But we have to accept that in a fallen world, there will be wars (and, indeed, rumours of wars), and to refuse to stand against aggressors is, I think, culpable. So, there's the gap: in principle, everyone is against war, but in practice sometimes we have to fight. Just war theory comes from this recognition, and becomes in fact a new 'principle'. Our high-level principle is still true, but it is unworkable in a fallen world. So, the new principle is that we engage in defensive and just wars.
And then there is a second gap between this new, just war principle and the practice on the ground. This obviously occurs when we engage in unjust wars, but it can also occur when we refrain from engaging in just wars due to lack of ability or will.
Of course, we can't surmount the first 'gap' - all we can do is say 'come, Lord Jesus!' - but can we with any more hope try to overcome the second gap, and run a really ethical foreign policy? I doubt it.
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
I have to say, though, that things got better from there. The four Christian 'mentors' did seem to be genuine Christians. The Vicar was a little liberal for my taste; the Priest was a little Roman Catholic for me; and the two evangelicals were a bit fundamentalist - but I am hard to please. On the whole, their message seemed good: the guy leading the team acknowledged that what was needed was 'real Christianity', and a relationship with Jesus. Encouraging. It was clearly stated that the message of Christianity was primarily that Jesus came to save us from sin. Great.
The mentors then spent the programme highlighting people's sins, without at any point directing them to Christ. They set up rules and regimes to deal with those sins, without ever explaining the gospel.
In fairness, I have no idea how well this programme was edited - perhaps there was much more useful stuff being said which ended up being cut. But on the whole, my impression was that the Christianity on offer was a lifestyle, and frankly not a wholly attractive lifestyle. The impression was that Christianity was a long set of 'thou shalt nots'. Shame. Hopefully they'll get onto Jesus next week.
But even if they do, there is a more fundamental problem. Christianity was not designed to fix social problems, family problems or personal problems, although it may help to do all of those things. It was designed to fix our relationship with God. The programme operated within a human-centred framework, where God could be wheeled in to help us out, rather than a God-centred framework, where our lives and very existence revolve around the God who made us. Consequently, the idea of sin presented revolved around particular human acts rather than the general rebellion against God that sits in every human heart.
If only they had started with Christ. If only they had defined sin more carefully.
Still, interested to see where the experiment goes in future weeks...
Friday, August 08, 2008
Which theologian are you?
created with QuizFarm.com
|You scored as Karl Barth |
The daddy of 20th Century theology. You perceive liberal theology to be a disaster and so you insist that the revelation of Christ, not human experience, should be the starting point for all theology.
Tuesday, August 05, 2008
When this happens in the Church, she looks towards the promise of Christ and the Word of God, and finds that the promise still holds true and the Word is still living and active. Against every indication, and beyond even her hope, the Church lives as the body of Christ. She preaches with authority as the herald of Christ. She comforts the broken with the comfort of Christ.
But she does not thereby derive an energy of her own, or an authority of her own, or a comfort of her own. At the centre of the Church, when she is really the Church, there is a deliberate vacuum. The ministries of the Church - the preaching of the Word, the administration of the Sacraments, the community life of her members - are all designed to point to this vacuum and to excite faith that the vacuum will be filled by the work of Christ himself.
Being the Church is not a status we can obtain, because it is never a static thing. Even our being the Church doesn't depend on us but on the work of the Lord in our midst, in the space at the centre of our being which is His. It is when she is empty and nothing that she is full and something, and not otherwise.
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you.
Monday, August 04, 2008
I think it might be useful for me to walk you through some of the things that happen in the Church, from a human and from a divine perspective.
Take preaching, for example. What does the Church do? She opens the Scriptures, and reads, and hears; then she expounds, and hears. This is all very human. There is no remarkable power in it. It can be done with more or less technical accuracy; it can be done with appropriate passion and zeal, or sluggishly. It can be interesting or boring. It may change people's opinions, but then anyone with a touch of rhetoric can do that. It is frail.
But, and here's the thing, when the Church engages in preaching she does so with faith. The preacher has faith that Christ will speak; the listeners have faith that they will encounter the living Word of God and be changed. But the Church does not, and cannot, make this happen. It is not the Church's work to do so.
Or consider the Lord's Supper. The Church offers us a very small piece of bread - not enough to nourish us - and gives us a mouthful of wine - not enough to refresh. There is an air of hushed reverence, but then any ritual will evoke as much. The Communion table is fairly unimpressive in almost every way.
But the Church believes - trusts - that she feeds on the body and blood of the crucified Christ, partaking in his death, nourishing the inner man, giving food to sustain eternal life. Nevertheless, the Church does not, and cannot, make this happen. That is not the Church's work.
As a final example, though I could multiply them, take evangelism. The Church proclaims in the world the message of Christ. It is a weak and foolish message as far as the world is concerned. It may be proclaimed with more or less conviction, more or less accuracy when compared to the Scriptural benchmark. It may receive a friendly or an unfriendly reception. Most likely, it will be politely ignored.
But the Church goes about its evangelistic work with faith that this message brings new life. She trusts that this very message is the seed imperishable, able to convert the heart and change sinners to saints. But the Church does not, and cannot, make this happen. It simply isn't her role.
These examples show that the work of the Church and the work of Christ are not identical. When we realise this, we, who constitute the Church, must humble ourselves. We are not able to do anything. We do not have anything. We cannot produce any reason why the world should listen to us or even tolerate us. The Church is an empty vessel.
But Christ is powerful! And his power is not confined to or controlled by the Church. It will be present in the Church when he wills it to be - and we trust that he has promised to make it present. But we understand that we don't own it. Christ has not invested his authority in the Church; he exercises his authority from heaven in and over the Church, and indeed beyond her bounds.
If we forget this - if we start to think that the Church has an exalted status, or some vested power - then we will cease to be the Church. Let me give you some examples of what will happen.
Our teaching and preaching programme will change. Instead of being open to the Word of God in Scripture, we will teach our confessions and our established doctrines. Instead of understanding these things as provisional responses to God's word, we will start to see them as enshrined and sacrosanct depositories of timeless truths. Eventually, the 'Church' will just be having a conversation with itself - the preacher speaking for the 'Church', about the 'Church' and to the 'Church'. God's Word will not be heard.
Our engagement with the world will change. Rather than pointing away from ourselves and toward the one who saves, we will start to think that the main thing is to get people involved in the community life, or the worship, or the fellowship of the Church. The pressure will be on to sacrifice parts of the gospel message that are unappealing, or at least to downplay them. Even if we keep the gospel, we will attempt to show how strong and wise it is, how great an explanation of life it offers. We will invite people to see the wonder of our message and philosophy rather than the wonder of the saving Christ. The 'Church' has become a club.
Worst of all, we may become spiritually arrogant. Isn't this what happened to the Pharisees? They stopped magnifying God who had chosen Israel, and started to magnify Israel as the chosen of God. God forbid that the Church should follow them!
We are empty, nothing, feeble, weak. We are nothing and have nothing. But we know that Christ was on the cross, was in the tomb, and is in heaven. And so we point people to that reality.
And that is why I said "the Church is a community gathered around a signpost which points to redemption."
Tomorrow: why the Church is absolutely full of all she needs... Mmm... Dialectic...
Friday, August 01, 2008
On the Roman view, Christ is practically identified with the Church. This shows clearly in the Roman doctrine of revelation. God reveals himself, for the Roman Catholic, in Scripture and the Church's tradition. These apparent two sources are in fact not equal, for only the Church has the ability to correctly interpret Scripture. The result is that in fact God's revelation is identified with the Church's teaching. In the doctrine of salvation we see the same pattern. A person is saved by believing the Church and submitting to the sacraments of the Church. The Church is the source of salvation through which all God's grace is mediated. Where is Christ? He is in the Church. This shows most obviously in Roman sacramental theology regarding the Mass: the priest is literally able to make Christ physically present in a way which cannot happen outside the Church. There is more or less no distinction between the work of Christ and the work of the Church.
What about the liberal view? Well, revelation for the liberal protestant tends to mean simply a spiritualised reading of the general history of the world. 'Human development' and 'cultural advances' were the main source of 'revelation' for the liberals of the 19th century, and it is still the case that liberals look primarily to humanity for revelation. Liberals do not major on the doctrine of salvation, but if they have anything to say it tends towards universalism and the general salvation of all through their own effort or moral rectitude or spirituality. Where is Christ? In the world, in a sense - he is ubiquitous, because he is mythical. That is not to say Christ is not real, but he is real in the sense of a general truth rather than a particular person. There is no distinction between the work of Christ and the playing out of world history.
The Reformed view places revelation firmly in the person of Christ, as witnessed by the prophets and apostles in Scripture. In contrast to the Roman view, this Scripture is not under the control of the Church, but stands over against the Church. And as opposed to the liberals, this Christ is not merely the product of human culture but is the intervention of God in history, indeed the incarnate God himself. In terms of salvation, the Reformed view is that Christ alone saves, through faith in him. The Church does not mediate grace as the Roman view would have it. Grace comes 'direct', from the Lord. The Reformed view introduces a distinction between the work of Christ and the work of the Church: it must, because it recognises that the Church can go wrong and need to be called back to the Word of God. Where is Christ on this view? He is in Heaven. But he is witnessed to by his word in Scripture.
Obviously, I think the Reformed view, as I have called it, is correct. What does that make the Church? Well, if I had to define it in a sentence I would say this:
The Church is a community gathered around a signpost which points to redemption.
What I am trying to do is empty out the Church of any virtue of its own, and also of any claim to possess any virtue of Christ's. Christ is with, and in, the Church, by his word and Spirit, but we must not identify Christ and the Church, or the work of Christ and the Church. Christ does not belong to the Church in the same way that the Church belongs to Christ.
Reading back through this, it's a little less clear than I'd like. I'll follow up with further clarification, but in the meantime please do jump in and offer any thoughts you may have.
Thursday, July 31, 2008
Amongst those Christians who talk about such things, there are three basic views of what happens at the end of the world, which are roughly as follows:
Premillennialism - the idea is that Jesus returns to the earth, where he reigns over an earthly kingdom for 1000 years. A good time will be had by all, but at the end of this period there will be a rebellion, leading to the final victory over evil and the judgement.
Postmillennialism - on this view, the spread of the gospel enjoys such success that the world gets gradually 'better'. Christian influence grows and grows, as does the church itself. After 1000 years (or thereabouts) of this blessing, Christ returns and initiates the events leading to the final judgement.
Amillennialism - essentially, a denial of the two previous positions. No future 1000 year period of any significance, and only one really significant event: the return of Christ, which will be accompanied by final judgement, and then the inauguration of the new creation.
That is a gross over-simplification; for more detail, consult Grudem's Systematic Theology, and particularly his rather helpful diagrams.
All three of these views are very much within the bounds of orthodoxy. (There is a subset of premill views associated with dispensationalism which I think push the envelope. Their view of the covenant seems heterodox to me. But let us leave them to one side). Varieties of each sort of view have been maintained by eminent theologians through the centuries. Nobody needs to go excommunicating anybody over disagreements of this sort. It's not the end of the world if we disagree about the end of the world.
Nevertheless, I think that one of these systems has serious problems theologically, which I mention because I detect that it is on the rise in certain circles. Yes, I speak of postmillennialism, the view that the world is getting, or at least will get, better through the influence of the Christian Church.
This view has much to recommend it. Postmills are optimistic about the gospel - they really believe in its power to transform. They are also committed to making the world a better place, something which is certainly commendable in a Christian but absent in many (or at least playing second fiddle to evangelistic concerns). Postmills have also often thought deeply about important issues, like the role of the state, or the extent to which one can insist on Christian morality being given legal sanction - issues which many of us push to the sidelines. They are committed to the gospel and committed to the world, and thus far huzzah for them.
My issue is at exactly the point where postmills part the ways with their pre- and amill brethren. Postmills divide two things which the other views hold together, namely the presence of Christ and the blessing of the world. The world is blessed, on the postmill scheme, and becomes decisively improved, in the absence of the Lord Jesus Christ. And that is theologically unacceptable.
To anticipate two potential rejoinders...
Of course Christ is not utterly absent for any Christian - he is present by his Spirit. Might it not be the case that Christ brings about the subjugation of the nations by the power of his Spirit at work in the Church? Well, it might be, and I could be wrong. But note how exalted a status this gives the Church. And note how easy it is on this scheme to identify the work of Christ with the work of the Church. I would contend that this assigns too large a part in the redemption of the world to human beings, and exalts the Church as the vehicle of Christ's redemptive activity in a way that reminds me of Roman sacramentalism.
And of course, the world does not consistently and continuously get worse. There are ups and downs. The church does, and should, have an influence for good. But that influence waxes and wanes in so far as powerful people listen to the church. Because the church merely witnesses to a salvation to be bestowed at Christ's return. In no other way does she mediate that salvation. She goes from being the martyr Church to being the Church of Constantine happily enough, but she must always be prepared to go back again. Because without Christ, no ground on this fallen world can be taken and held. The battle rages, but it won't be won until Jesus comes back.
Oh, and I think premill is wrong too, I'm just less uptight about that one right now ;o)
Friday, July 04, 2008
P.S. These links won't work anymore as Peter's blog isn't archived...
Wednesday, July 02, 2008
It's easy for a Christian Union to view the local churches as an ATM to which they can periodically receive prayer and finance from. Local churches love to offer both of these, but it's really only appropriate if the individual members of the Christian Union are well rooted in the church. Church isn't 'them and they' who can help us, but 'us and we' which we love to be a part of.
I'd go as far as to say that if a leader in a Christian Union is not doing the above they need to repent of that and sort it out immediately. And if they're not prepared to do that they should resign. Likewise, when choosing new CU leaders it would be appropriate for current leaders to make commitment to a local church a non-negotiable qualification.
Read the rest, because it explains exactly how churches and CUs ought to work together.
Monday, June 30, 2008
The first one is that I need comforting in the trouble of life. I need to be reassured of the gospel. I need to have my broken heart bound up. I guess this is what we normally think of when we think of pastoring.
But I also need to be led. I need to pushed on and led on to greener pastures. I need to be made to go deeper in my understanding of Scripture and my love of Christ. I need to be challenged to grow.
Let's call the former reactive pastoring and the latter directive pastoring.
Would it be fair to say that some churches are very good at reactive pastoring but not so good at directive? They look after the weak, but never encourage them to become stronger. They take care of people, but never prod them into doing things they don't want to do. The result is self-indulgent Christians.
On the other hand, might it be legitimate to point out that some churches are good at being directive but very bad at reactive care? They know where people should be, and will do anything to get them there. They helpfully push the strong, but sometimes don't notice when the weak fall by the wayside. The result is often dishonesty, as people don't feel free to admit their failings and weaknesses.
Not so Jesus. He knows when we need leading on to greener pastures, and he knows when we need carrying through the valley of the shadow of death. Isn't it great that Christ, that great Shepherd of the sheep, knows just how to look after us?
Sunday, June 15, 2008
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
I was pondering yesterday how temptation seems to be strongest when you are on your own. Introspection, self-absorption, lust, laziness, pride... All seem to hit me, at least, when I'm by myself.
Then I had a sudden flash: what does that tell me about my sinfulness?
It tells me that the source, fountainhead and spring of all that is wrong and corrupt in my life is not out there but in here. I am the sinner. The blame cannot be shifted in any way, not even to the devil or all his angels. Sin comes out of my heart, because that is where it begins. I could explain all of the things that led up to my sin, all of the contributory circumstances, but would still at the end of the day have to say 'I sinned'. Nobody made me. None of the circumstances caused it. It was all me.
Who will deliver me from this body of death?
Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Wednesday, June 04, 2008
Person A: I'm not worried about future finances; God has promised to provide.
Person B: Yes, but we do need to be prudent and wise in our saving and make sure we provide for our families!
A: Jesus says I should lose my life for his sake.
B: Yes, but of course you ought not to do anything rash or foolhardy!
A: Human reason is utterly corrupted by the fall.
B: Yes, but of course humans are still in the image of God so we can still address them as rational people.
'Yes, but' theology evacuates the promises, threats and descriptions given by God of any force, and it does so in the name of thoroughness, systematization, and consistency. In reply, I say... No. When the Word of God is heard, it comes with force that crashes through every system. It may involve us in what seems to be a contradiction. It may cause us to pursue a course of action that looks like fanaticism. But it (he!) will not be tamed.
Monday, May 26, 2008
Boldness in theology means that I must report to the church and the world whatever I find in the Scriptures, without fear of censure or disbelief or mockery. I cannot seek to preserve my own reputation, not even my reputation for orthodoxy. I cannot keep quiet where Christ bids me speak. I cannot hide what he bids me show. I am not at liberty to exercise my own judgement on such things, neither am I free to follow the judgement of others. I am bound to the Word of God.
Thursday, May 22, 2008
The problem is, the theology of glory makes sense to us. The other problem is that is has no place for Christ and him crucified.
Satan is the ultimate theologian of glory. He is continually tempting us to take this view of things, just as he tempted Christ. I am beginning to learn to read the account of Christ's temptation as an antidote to this type of thinking.
Whenever I start to think the Christian life should be easier than this - where are all the blessings?, it's as if I hear Satan say command these stones to become bread.
Whenever I start to think if only the church looked more impressive, or the CU could put on more spectacular events, it's as if I hear the voice of Satan: throw yourself down from the temple - surely an angelic rescue will impress the watching crowds!
And whenever I feel dismayed at the lack of influence the church has in society and think where is the rule of Christ in all this?, I hear the tempter whisper All these I will give you, if you bow down and worship me.
But Christ is not a theologian of glory. He will take the shameful, sorrowful path to Calvary instead. Will I take up my cross and follow?
Friday, May 09, 2008
Pride denies that I am a sinner. Because it is unpleasant for me to think of myself badly, because to acknowledge my sin would put a dent in my pride and self-confidence, instead I say that I am 'not so bad'. Of course I am not perfect - nobody is - but I am at least as good as the next guy, and frankly better than most. If I have done things wrong, they are not very wrong; more youthful misdemeanours than sins. I am basically okay. In fact, I'm pretty proud of my moral standing.
If by God's grace I do become convinced of my sin, pride has a fallback position prepared...
Pride says I will get better. There is nothing that human beings under conviction of sin like more than an attempt at self-improvement. DIY salvation suits us down to the ground. I can do this. I can be better in the future; perhaps I can even atone for the wrongs of the past. Okay, I sinned, but it won't happen again. All I need to do is to pull myself together.
If by God's grace I realise that this is a fiction, pride resorts to its final stronghold...
Pride says I will not accept help. Maybe I can't get better. Maybe I am doomed to be a sinner. Maybe I am damned. Well then, I will be damned. I would rather pay for my sins myself than let anyone pay for me. It will be heroic: I will go down fighting. I will fight God with my very last breath even though I know I will lose, because frankly it is better to die standing than to live on my knees.
Oh Lord, humble my heart and by your grace grant that I might accept what you offer!
Thursday, May 01, 2008
That is the glorious gospel truth that Christ is my substitute.
Sometimes I look down from the cross, and realise that Jesus' suffering there includes me. I died with him. I am there. My old, sinful self died as he died. My old identity as a sinner died as he died. My old way of living and looking at the world died completely as he died. Which is equally amazing, because it means that I can be a new person now - I can change.
This is the glorious gospel truth that Christ is my representative.
Monday, April 28, 2008
One of the most frustrating aspects of much evangelical engagement with Barth is the tendency to pick up on one point of his theology at which he disagrees, or is perceived to disagree, with reformed orthodoxy, and to critique him for his failure to be a conservative evangelical. This type of criticism, to my mind, fails to ask the important questions – such as ‘why does he disagree with conservative evangelicalism?’ and ‘might he be right?’ – and fails to notice that such disagreements on detailed points have their foundations in disagreements on much larger questions – such as ‘what is theology?’ and ‘how ought we to engage the Scriptures?’
This book is not without essays that fall into these traps – in particular, I found Sebastien Rehnman’s essay on Barth and logic to be frustrating – but thankfully the volume as a whole was much less frustrating than I had envisaged. Whilst some of the essays necessarily focus on narrow aspects of Barth’s theology, they generally try hard to put those aspects in the context of his wider construction and to show how questions about specific issues relate to much broader questions of methodology and indeed the very subject of theology itself. The essays with the broadest scope were, to my mind, the best. Henri Blocher on Barth’s Christological method – touching as it does on the very heart of Barth’s doctrine – excellently captures the ‘feel’ of the Church Dogmatics, which is saturated with Christ, but also raises (tentatively, and all the better for that) some issues and tendencies in Barth’s ‘Christological concentration’ which may be unhelpful, particularly the apparent collapse of time into eternity, and the incarnation into the immanent Trinity. A.T.B. McGowan’s critique of Barth’s view of the covenant shows the fair-mindedness of the volume as a whole – he sides with Barth over against reformed orthodoxy on the issue of the inter-Trinitarian covenant, whilst highlighting serious problems with Barth’s own doctrine (not least, once again, the vexed issue of the relationship of time and eternity). Garry Williams' essay on the atonement was also an excellent analysis of the issues involved in reading Barth on this central theme. It will come as no surprise that one of the main issues raised is the displacement of history in favour of eternity in Barth’s thought! Nevertheless, there is much that Williams seeks to affirm and encourages us to learn from in Barth, not least his emphasis on the objectivity of Christ’s cross-work.
There will be points during this volume where Barth fans will find themselves annoyed. I would suggest that Donald Macleod’s essay on Barth as ecclesial theologian misses the point of Barth’s doctrine of Scripture, and also seems to display the beginnings of confessionalism gone to seed – where the Westminster Confession is essentially seen as the finished product and not theologia viatorum. But on the whole the contributors seem to have wrestled with, and even appreciated, Barth as a positive contribution to theological discourse. At points (I won’t tell you which points!) I found myself siding with Barth against the essayist, but I did not often feel that he was being misrepresented. The concluding essay by Michael Horton on Barth’s legacy for evangelical theologians sums up the approach of the volume: “Confessional reformed Christians can learn a lot from Barth and his heirs. However, I remain convinced that where these roads diverge, the latter represents a declension rather than a renewal of the great Reformation legacy”. You may or may not agree, but this is the level at which evangelicals should be engaging with Barth.
Friday, April 04, 2008
In essence, I think the evidence of the New Testament stands against any separation between faith, repentance and baptism. I propose the following:
- Baptism symbolises the death and resurrection of Christ. The water of baptism symbolises the death/judgement endured by Christ at the cross.
- By submitting to baptism, the believer identifies with that death and resurrection. They voluntarily submit to ‘death/judgement’, going down into the water. This involves the admission that they are sinful and that their sinful self deserves death. However, they come out of the water, just as Christ was raised from death. This involves the recognition that Christ has removed the ‘sting’ of death by enduring death/judgement on our behalf.
- These two ‘acts’ in the ritual of baptism are therefore equivalent to repentance and faith. The believer goes down, symbolising their recognition of sin, their recognition that they deserve death/judgement and their desire to see the sinful self killed – this is repentance. They come up, symbolising new life and the fact that death/judgement does not in fact fall on them but on Christ – this is faith.
- The New Testament authors therefore appear to answer the question “how do I become a Christian?” by saying “repentance and faith, normally expressed in baptism”. I say ‘normally’ because it is clear that baptism is not strictly essential to salvation where repentance and faith are nevertheless present – witness the dying thief.
- The New Testament therefore has no concept of an unbaptized Christian. Baptism is normally the beginning of the Christian life. However, the existence of baptized non-Christians is recognised, in the character of Simon Magus. This illustrates that baptism does not make a Christian if it is not an expression of repentance and faith.
- Baptism makes disciples of Jesus Christ in the most radical way. A disciple is simply a follower; baptism encourages us to think of ourselves as ‘following’ Christ even into the grave, and out the other side as new people. Having followed him thus far in baptism, we are encouraged to follow him in day to day living.
- Baptism does not accomplish an objective thing, but makes a prior objective accomplishment real in the life of the believer. Objectively, my salvation was won at the cross – I died in Christ at that point. Subjectively, I only appropriate that fact by faith/baptism.
- Notwithstanding the above, the close link between water baptism and Spirit baptism means that the Spirit accompanies our faith in Christ’s act done externally to us and begins to make it real internally, by performing that heart circumcision and writing the law on our hearts. We become righteous in Christ at once; we become righteous in our experience gradually through the Spirit’s work.
- It is not appropriate to baptise people who cannot express repentance and faith in their baptism. This rules out children. For them, baptism could only be a washing of dirt from the body, not an appeal to God for a clean conscience.
- It is appropriate to baptise any who wish to follow Christ. We should not be so concerned to avoid baptizing unbelievers that we turn people away if they are seeking baptism. If baptism is the normal expression of repentance and faith, it must be open to all who request it. Further, there must be no long delay between someone expressing a desire to follow Christ and baptism. Baptism is the normal beginning of the Christian life.
- Baptism is not primarily an opportunity to witness to others. Rather, it is an interaction between the person submitting to baptism and God, with the church acting as the minister of God’s grace. Therefore, nothing should be asked of the baptized but repentance and faith – they should not be required to give a long testimony etc. Indeed, the tradition of testimony-giving in Baptist churches largely assumes that conversion will always be an experience prior to baptism – this cannot be sustained from the New Testament.
- Children who grow up in Christian homes should not be encouraged to look for a particular moment of conversion. Rather, they should be periodically challenged as to whether they wish to follow Christ. If the answer is positive, and they are of an age to understand and trust in the symbolism of baptism, then they should be baptized.
- Baptism by immersion is the most appropriate symbolism for Christ’s death and resurrection; however, baptism by pouring can also stand for the judgement of God poured out on Christ, and baptism by sprinkling also conveys the idea of the application of Christ’s death to the believer. The mode of baptism is hardly important.
- A person baptized as an infant should not be forced to be rebaptized – indeed, the concept of rebaptism is theologically problematic, implying two deaths of Christ. If a person is capable of seeing their infant baptism as an identification with the death and resurrection of Christ and the beginning of life as a Christian, their baptism should be allowed to stand. However, if a person ‘baptized’ as a child considered their baptism to be invalid, they should be baptised – for the first time.
Thursday, April 03, 2008
The New Testament epistles are the most obvious source for our understanding of baptism. Unlike Acts, they do not in most cases merely report what is happening in the churches, but give guidance for what ought to happen. However, the references to baptism are frustratingly brief and undeveloped, probably because the subject was basic to the Apostles’ message and therefore covered in full during the period of initial evangelism (cf. Heb 6:1-2). This fact suggests a disparity between Apostolic and contemporary practice which is itself illuminating, but it also leaves us having to piece together the significance of baptism from the few brief reminders that are included in the Apostles’ letters to their churches. This we will now proceed to do in canonical order.
The first reference to baptism occurs in Romans 6:3-7, in the context of Paul’s dispute with his hypothetical interlocutor who claims that the Christian can continue to sin. Paul asserts that the Christian cannot continue to live in sin because they have died to sin. The text bears quoting in full:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin”.
Paul argues that it is impossible for Christians to continue sinning freely because of something objective that has happened to them – they have died. He refers, of course, to their sinful self, the old man. This death occurred by a participation in the death of Christ. The apostle goes on to command the believers to “consider themselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:10), which is essentially a call to them to exercise faith in the death and resurrection of Christ on their behalf. The phrase “in Christ Jesus” added to the end of this verse is not merely a stylistic flourish. The old self is very much alive in the experience of the Roman Christians (and, I would suggest from Romans 7, the experience of the apostle himself). In one sense, they did not die, and have not been raised. But Christ did die, and has been raised, and they are to consider themselves dead and raised “in him”. Faith thus unites them to Christ and claims his work as its own.
For Paul, however, this faith is expressed in baptism. He does not simply point the Roman Christians to their faith as evidence that they have died and risen with Christ. Neither does he point them only to the historical fact of Christ’s death and resurrection. Rather, he points them back to their baptism. Baptism, for Paul, is the participation in Christ’s death and resurrection. Of course, objectively it is true that my sinful self died when Christ died – Paul makes that clear with his language of crucifixion, something not symbolised well by baptism! But in the experience of the Christian, this became true of them when they underwent baptism. In that ritual, the Christian is united with Christ in a death like his, the old self dies, and the Christian is set free from sin. In a sense, baptism is the bringing together of two points in history: the point at which Christ died and rose in AD33, and the point at which I find myself enslaved to sin and needing to die and rise in my experience. Baptism applies the former to the latter.
It is necessary at this point to make clear that Paul is not advocating ritualism. What counts for him is faith in Christ expressed in baptism, not baptism by itself. Indeed, in Galatians, where there is danger of overemphasis on ritual, Paul barely mentions baptism (it is mentioned only in 3:27, and there connected very strongly with faith) and ascribes its function, of uniting a person to Christ in his death, to faith pure and simple (e.g Gal 2:20). This is significant, and will be discussed in more detail in the conclusions to this section.
References to baptism in 1 Corinthians are brief, and largely relate to particular problems in Corinth. In 1:10-17, Paul argues against factionalism in Corinth. Here we see the disciple-making aspect of baptism clearly displayed, as Paul is at pains to show that he was not in the business of making disciples for himself while he was with them. No one was baptized into his name (1:15), neither were they baptized into any name but Christ, which makes their division inappropriate in the extreme – it implies division in Christ (1:13)! If 1 Corinthians 12:13 is a reference to water baptism, then it carries the same message – because there is one baptism, the Corinthians are baptised into one body, and therefore must serve one another. In the context, though, this may well be a reference to baptism in the Spirit. (Bearing in mind, nevertheless, the close relationship between Spirit and water baptism noted above). The only other reference to baptism in 1 Corinthians is at 15:29, a reference I do not pretend to understand! The unifying power of baptism is stressed again in Ephesians 4:5.
Colossians 2:12 has already been discussed for its reference to circumcision. However, it requires a brief further analysis for its teaching on baptism, which will be found to be quite in accordance with our interpretation of Romans 6. Paul describes the Colossians as having 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…”. In the light of Romans 6, we can say with more certainty that the circumcision of Christ described here is the putting away of the old self, the death of the sinful self, accomplished by Christ’s death on the cross. This occurred in baptism, because this was the point at which the Christian associated themselves with Christ in his death and resurrection and expressed their faith in him.
Titus 3:5 may, I think, have reference to baptism, described there as “the washing of regeneration”. If this is a baptismal reference, it has significance for our understanding of conversion. However, the reference is uncertain – it may be using washing as a metaphor for what occurs in the believer at the point of regeneration.
1 Peter 3:20-21 provides another interesting insight into the apostles’ teaching on baptism. Peter discusses the flood, and particularly the ark, “in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”. The analogy drawn appears to work like this: the waters of the flood represent God’s judgement on the world, as do the waters of baptism; the ark was the only means of salvation through the waters of God’s judgement, and Christ’s resurrection is the only means of salvation through God’s judgement. In both cases, the waters mean death as God’s judgement on sin. Baptism, then, is the willing submission to ‘death’, trusting in Christ to take the believer through that ‘death’. This he can and will do because in fact he has already suffered the death and been raised. Note that Peter rules out any idea that the sacrament will work independent of the disposition of the person being baptized – without faith it is simply “a removal of dirt from the body”. Only when the resurrection of Christ is clearly in view and being trusted by the person submitting to baptism will it become an appeal to God for a good conscience on the basis of Christ’s work. Note also, however, that where this faith is present Peter is not timid to say that baptism “now saves you”.
Wednesday, April 02, 2008
Before we examine the introduction of Christian baptism at the end of Matthew’s gospel, it is worth flagging up to metaphorical references to baptism in Mark and Luke. In Mark 10:38 and 39, Jesus addresses the glory-seeking of James and John by asking them whether they can drink the cup that he drinks and be baptized with the baptism with which he is baptized. In typical headstrong fashion, they assert their willingness and ability, and Jesus affirms that they will indeed drink this cup and endure this baptism. He clearly refers to his own suffering and death. Luke 12:50 also records Jesus using the image in this way. The link between Jesus’ death and baptism is thus established early on, and the fact that baptism is linked to “the cup” of God’s wrath is also significant for our understanding of the rite. Both will be alluded to in other New Testament teaching.
The introduction of Christian baptism proper occurs in the Great Commission, recorded in Matthew 28:16-20. The resurrected Jesus gives the disciples the following instructions: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in (or into) the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age”. Several things about baptism can be observed from this passage. First of all, Christian baptism is the way in which disciples are made. I take it that the logical structure of the commission is as follows:
Go and make disciples by
Baptising in the Triune name
And teaching them to obey all that I have commanded.
At least one significant element is therefore carried over from the baptism of John: baptism is a rite that makes disciples. Just as John gained disciples by baptising them, so Jesus will have disciples by baptising them.
Secondly, Christian baptism is in (or into) the Triune name. As many commentators have noted, this is one name – the name of God. But this one name is borne by the three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Given the explicit nature of the instruction, we should not allow subsequent references to being baptised in Jesus’ name alone to imply that baptism was not into the Triune name. (Consider again the baptism of John’s disciples at Ephesus in Acts 19 – an incident provoked by the fact that they are unaware of the Holy Spirit and therefore have not been baptised into the Triune name). Rather, we should assume that baptism into Jesus is shorthand for baptism into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The shorthand is used because the rite of baptism makes a person a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Thirdly, Christian baptism is to be accompanied by the teaching of Christian doctrine and ethics, such that the person being baptised is a disciple in truth – a follower of Jesus. Baptism without teaching will not make disciples. Neither will baptism and teaching without obedience.
This ministry of baptism and teaching is carried on by the Apostles from the day of Pentecost onwards, as is recorded in the book of Acts. There is no need to look at every mention of baptism in this book, since many are routine and are mentioned only in passing. Five instances will be considered separately, although not all to the same level of detail: the baptisms at Pentecost in Acts 2; the baptism of the Samaritans by Philip in Acts 8; the baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch, also in Acts 8; the baptism of the household of Cornelius in Acts 10; and Paul’s testimony to the Jews in Jerusalem recorded in Acts 22. Finally, common features of the other references to baptism (16:15; 16:33; 18:8) will be briefly considered. My focus will be on what is said about baptism, although the circumstances must also be taken into account.
Baptism is presented on the day of Pentecost as the Apostles’ response to people who are “cut to the heart” by the gospel message, acknowledge their guilt and cry out “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). Peter’s answer gives two requirements and two promises. On the one hand they are called to repent, and to be baptized into the name of Jesus. On the other, they are promised the forgiveness of sins and the reception of the Holy Spirit. It is interesting that Peter makes no mention of faith here; I will later suggest that if we are to make this fit with other New Testament teaching on the way that forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit are to be received, we must assume that in Peter’s mind baptism and faith are at least very closely tied together, such that the former can serve as shorthand for the latter. At this stage, though, it is worth noting primarily the way in which forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit are associated with baptism, themes which will recur.
Acts 2:39 is variously interpreted, and is worth examining in some detail. It reads: “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself”. In the context, the promise is certainly that of the outpouring of the Spirit made through the prophet Joel. This promise was made to the nation of Israel, the people of the forward-looking covenant, and Peter clearly sees Pentecost as the fulfilment of that promise. Therefore, with the assembled representatives of Israel in front of him, he urges them to claim the promise that God made to their nation long ago. He extends the promise in two ways, and restricts it in one. It is extended to the people of Israel in all generations (“for your children”) and in all places (“for all who are far off”), but it is limited to “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself”. This is, of course, consistent with Joel’s prophecy, which in Peter’s quotation concludes “and it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved”; the only difference is that Joel looks at it from the point of view of human responsibility and Peter that of divine sovereignty. Either way, it is assumed that those who are called by God, and who therefore call upon him, will not constitute the whole people of Israel. This will be useful for our analysis of the relationship between the old and new covenant.
Finally, we gather two further facts about baptism from the Pentecost narrative. Firstly, baptism is administered only to those “who received [Peter’s] word” (Acts 2:41). This counts against a mechanistic understanding of baptism, and serves to bind baptism and faith (which is of course receiving the word) more closely together in this narrative. Secondly, those who are baptised are added to the community of believers, becoming subject to its discipline and joining in its life (Acts 2:41ff).
The references to the baptism of Samaritans in Acts 8 are interesting for two reasons. Firstly, the separation of water baptism from the reception of the Holy Spirit is unexpected, given how closely the two are bound together in the Pentecost narrative. I take it that this is connected to the fact that this is the first advance of the gospel beyond orthodox Judaism, and that the presence of the Apostles is required in order to make it clear that the Samaritan conversions are ‘legitimate’. As an aside, within the context of the whole New Testament we can hardly understand the passage as saying that the Holy Spirit was uninvolved until Peter and John arrived, for the Samaritans had “believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God” (Acts 8:12), something only possible through the Holy Spirit’s intervention. However, the giving of the Spirit in an obvious way is restrained until the Apostles arrive so that they can vouch for the genuineness of the Samaritan’s faith.
The second interesting feature of this narrative is the presence of Simon Magus. Simon is baptized, and is described as having believed (8:13). However, he later offers money in exchange for apostolic power, and is told by Peter that his “heart is not right before God” (8:21). The straightforward interpretation is that Simon’s faith is counterfeit, for he is described as being “in the bond of iniquity” (8:23). This is the first clear instance of someone being baptized upon confession of faith, but then showing later that this confession was not genuine, saving faith. Again, this counts against mechanistic understandings of baptism, for baptism without genuine faith proves to be useless to Simon.
The baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch in the latter part of Acts 8 adds little to our understanding of baptism. It is chiefly important because of the speed with which it is carried out. The eunuch has the Scriptures explained to him, and upon understanding them immediately requests baptism (Acts 8:36). This shows that baptism was an integral part of the message presented by Philip (for otherwise the eunuch could scarcely have known to request it), and seems to indicate that baptism has been presented as the means of becoming a Christian. Philip’s willingness to grant this request backs up this interpretation.
The end of Acts 10 presents a situation that is in many ways similar to the Samaritan mission in chapter 8. The gospel is once again crossing a significant boundary, and once again the presence of an Apostle is required to legitimate the mission. However, the situation is also exactly reversed in one significant way. Whereas the Samaritans believed, were baptized and then received the Holy Spirit, the household of Cornelius believe, receive the Holy Spirit and are therefore baptized. Perhaps this reflects the fact that the mission to Gentiles is going to be ‘harder to swallow’ for the Jewish majority in the church than that to the Samaritans. However, all the familiar ingredients are present: faith in the message preached, baptism into the name of Jesus and the reception of the Holy Spirit. It is significant that in Peter’s report of this incident he recalls the Lord’s words: “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit”. It was this thought that provoked Peter to administer water baptism. This shows both how closely bound together water baptism and baptism with the Spirit are in Acts, and also that in Peter’s understanding the one does not replace the other – those who have received the Spirit are also to submit to baptism.
The final particularly significant mention of baptism in Acts occurs at 22:16. I draw attention to this because here Paul links three elements that we have seen to be common to baptism in Acts, namely: water baptism; the forgiveness of sins, here connected to the symbolic function of baptism as washing; and calling on Jesus’ name. The washing will be picked up later in our analysis of the symbolism of baptism.
The other references to baptism in Acts are brief, and add little to our understanding. They have become significant, however, because of the weight that has often been put on the fact that entire households are baptized together. This will be examined more closely in my theological conclusions at the end of this section. For now, suffice it to say that in at least one of these occasions it is specifically recorded that the word was preached to all in the house (Acts 16:32) and that the whole household rejoiced (16:34), which makes it highly likely to my mind that all those baptized also received the word with faith. If we allow the more detailed accounts of baptism to control our interpretation of these brief accounts (and I think we should), Acts presents an overall picture of several elements bound together, although in varying orders. They are:
- Repentance (always in conjunction with baptism)
- Faith (likewise)
- Baptism itself
- Reception of the Holy Spirit (sometimes before, sometimes after baptism, but always closely connected)
- Forgiveness of sins (promised as a result of baptism/faith/repentance)
The evidence of Acts seems to count against any separation of baptism from faith and repentance, as I will argue in more detail later.