Tuesday, September 23, 2008


"The West is penitent, the penance is being paid by the Palestinians" - so saith Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

"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


So, Bish directs us to the fact that Theology Network has been awarded "Best Creative Christian Website or Blog" in the Christian Blog and Web Awards 2008. Upon investigating the awards, I note that the 2nd best church website goes to Magdalen Road Church, Oxford. So hurrah for both my families, they rock. And kudos to Andy Moore, who made the church website good.

Love by nature, love by will

This post is a possibly obscure but hopefully not unduly speculative reflection on the relationship between the immanent and economic Trinity. If that doesn't interest you, you probably shouldn't read it...

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

Holy, Catholic, Apostolic

In the Niceno-Constantinoplitan Creed (henceforth, the Nicene Creed, or NC, because Niceno-Constantinopolitan is ridiculously long and nobody says that anyway), we confess our faith in 'one holy, catholic and apostolic church'. This phrase constitutes a problem in our day, when the church is splintered and divided, and where there are competing interpretations as to what it means to be holy, catholic and apostolic. In particular, does holiness necessarily involve some particular experience of the Holy Spirit? Does catholicity necessarily involve communion with the bishop of Rome? Does apostolicity (is that a word?) require the presence of living apostles?

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

Fact and Value

I suspect that there's very little in ethical debate that is more important than sorting out where we are making decisions about matters of fact and where we are making decisions about matters of value. Not making this distinction, and not carefully analysing whether our disagreements fall into one category or the other, leads to us talking past one another, thinking ill of one another and also just being muddle-headed.

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

Forum '08

Apologies for the lengthy absence. It was caused mainly by the week of mud and Bible which we have been taught to call Forum 2008. Forum, for those of you who don't know, is the annual UCCF conference for CU leaders. Highlights from this year, along with links to other people's reflections, can be found over with Bish, who liveblogged from the conference whenever the wifi was working. For me, Forum is always a high-point, and this year was no exception. The main speakers (Cunningham, Piper, Daniels) were excellent, the atmosphere was (despite the mud) electric and the worship was a fantastic blend of old hymns and newer songs brilliantly led.

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.