Tuesday, August 26, 2008


We Protestants have inherited from the Reformation the very praise-worthy desire to be continually about the work of reforming our churches to bring them into line with the Scriptures. That covers all sorts of areas of church life - liturgical, ethical, governmental. It also covers, I take it, theology. We want to be continually examining our doctrine in the light of Scripture, and we certainly intend to be prepared to change our doctrine to conform it more closely to the word of God.

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

The revelatory waltz

The three steps whereby God becomes known to us...

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

Killing Isaac and Trusting Christ

Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.

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

Foreign policy

Not a topic I dabble in frequently, it being a royal prerogative and also something I know relatively little about...

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

"Make Me a Christian"

On Sunday I watched 'Make Me a Christian' on Channel 4. I fully expected it to be dreadful, and the opening few minutes were not promising. The narrator introduced us to Britain's broken society, highlighting the fact that the Christian values on which Britain was built have been largely forgotten. Thus far, accurate analysis: decline in values leads to decline in society. But then the premise of the series was introduced: an experiment to see whether re-introducing Christian values could re-vitalise British society. At this point, I was sure the series would be terrible, because 'Christian values' cannot be disassociated from a Christian worldview, Christian religion, Christian relationships - in short, from a living faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. How were the programme's producers planning to introduce Christian values without these things?

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...

O Happy Day!

So, now I can get free refills of coffee at Starbucks.

You have no idea how much money this is going to save me.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Who Am I?

So off I went and copied Dan and found out which theologian I was. Top result seems right, but 40% Finney?!? Where did I go wrong?

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.

Karl Barth




John Calvin


Martin Luther


Charles Finney


Jürgen Moltmann


Jonathan Edwards


Paul Tillich


Friedrich Schleiermacher




Stop reading this blog...

...and make your way right now to Daniel Newman's post on penal substitution and then on to Glen Scrivener's post on responding to sin.

The gospel is true and beautiful.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Church is Full

Shorter than yesterday, because only one simple point: when the church realises she is empty and acts as if she is empty, when she acknowledges that she is nothing and has nothing and takes that knowledge seriously; when she is forced by her own nothingness to turn away from herself and toward Christ - then, and then only, is she the Church.

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

The Church is Empty

In the last couple of posts, I have been trying to argue, in a somewhat ham-fisted manner, that it is important that we view the work of Christ and the work of the Church as separable, and that we do not consider the relationship between Christ's work and the Church's work in terms of identity. Legitimate questions have been raised by others, and I confess I'm only thinking these things through for the first time right now. My theological opinions are being shaped before your very eyes - bear that in mind when you're commenting!

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

Jesus, the Church and the world

My previous post was ostensibly about the end of the world; in fact, it was about the way that Christ relates to his Church and his world. I want to outline three models of the relationship between Christ, the Church and the world, which I will characterise as the Roman, the Liberal and the Reformed. In using those labels, I don't mean that the positions I describe are consistently or exclusively held by people who would own those labels. The labels and the analysis generally are based on (my possibly very limited understanding of) Barth, but I find them to hold true. Let me know what you think.

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.