Thursday, December 24, 2009


It means God cares about the world he made.

It means God isn't distant, but is so close as to be one of us.

It means a perfect human being is directing the universe.

It means that atheism may be an honest and respectable intellectual position, but also one that happens to be untrue.

It means that everything I see is significant because God himself entered his created universe.

It means that humanity will always live.

It means that I can live!

It means God united to us forever.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Mediaeval and Modern

Barth rounds off his treatment of the Reformed confessions with an account of the Synod of Dort. Whereas the earliest Reformed confessions were primarily directed against Roman Catholicism, and then Lutheranism, Dort deals with a new opponent: Modernism. The Remonstrance, brought by the Arminian party, was based soundly on modern principles, modern views of humanity, modern approaches to the Bible. At Dort, we see the Reformed churches locking horns with what would become modernist, or liberal, Protestantism.

But Barth sees nothing new here. In fact, he sees this modernist Christianity as having just the same foundations as mediaeval Christianity: faith in reason, a high view of the human being, the freedom of the will. In short, both begin with the autonomous human being, and end up with a co-operative view of salvation which can be labelled semi-Pelagian. On both fronts, against mediaevalism and modernism, the Reformed stress the sovereignty and majesty of God, who in Christ is the sole agent in redemption. God, and only God, saves.

In short, Dort was fighting the battle that has always been fought when God's Word comes up against intelligent, refined human philosophers and theologians.

In the conclusion to his lecture series, Barth asks: how do things stand with us? His answer, in 1923, was not encouraging: "If we look at our theology, then what we see first of all is a pile of ruins". Certainly, that was true then, as liberal modernist Protestantism carried all before it. We have done some rebuilding since, but I wonder whether I am alone in thinking that sometimes the rebuilding looks like a museum rather than a house to be lived in. We can say the words of the old confessions, and mean them, but do we grasp (have we been grasped by!) the beating heart of their theology? Do we have the courage to be exposed to revelation, to hear the gospel again, and to wrestle with the issues our fathers wrestled with in the language and concepts and context of the 21st century?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Visible and Invisible

Barth's longer section on the substance of the Reformed confessions is interesting in lots of different ways. The way he paints the historical picture is intriguing. He sees a rapid decline from the objectivity of the older confessions into a more subjective stance in the later - roughly, a movement away from talk about what God does, to talk about how I am saved. The Westminster Confession comes in for a lot of flack here! I don't know to what extent Barth is correct, but certainly I have observed in the English Puritans a certain subjectivism and emphasis on my assurance of salvation which does not seem to be so much of a problem in Calvin.

But that's not the main point.

Barth argues that what really ties the Reformed confessions together and makes them distinctively Reformed is that they hold together faith and obedience. Because the emphasis is on God, not human experience, the Reformed are able to see more clearly than, for example, Luther that faith and obedience flow from the same source - the Holy Spirit - and therefore they are able to stress both together in a way that Luther could not. This also allows them more substantial and enlightening engagement with the law than was possible on Lutheran soil. Barth uses the analogy of the incarnation. We hold that Christ has a human nature and a divine nature, and we do not confuse the two but neither do we divide them. In the same way, the Reformed confessions see God's action on the human being as bringing about faith and obedience - and they do not confuse these (faith justifies, obedience does not), nor do they divide them (faith without obedience is no true faith at all, because it cannot come from God - the author of obedience).

In other words, the Reformed hold the invisible (faith/justification) and the visible (obedience/sanctification) together because of their doctrine of the Holy Spirit. He is the personal source of both.

This overflows into ecclesiology - the invisible Church and the visible churches are held together, but never confused. Church discipline ensures that the visible church is conformed to some extent to the invisible Church, but there is never any attempt at complete purity because that is a trait of the invisible Church.

This tension is hard to hold, but I believe it must be held. The Christian life is a life of obedience and war against sin, not just peaceful basking in justification. The Christian church is a community of obedience and peace, not a live-and-let-live society of ease. The Holy Spirit, who creates justifying faith and therefore the invisible Church, also creates sanctifying holiness, and therefore the visible church.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Reformed vs. Rome

Barth moves on to discuss the substance of the Reformed confessions. What holds them together? What makes them distinctively Reformed?

One thing which the confessions have in common, although it is particularly pronounced in the earlier confessions for obvious historical reasons, is opposition to Roman Catholicism. "In the bitterness and disgust with which they speak of the pope and the mass, there is scarcely any notable difference between the Swiss and the German, the Eastern and the Western confessions". Barth argues that this opposition to Romanism is more deliberate, and more central, to the Reformed confessions than to the Lutheran, although all Protestant confessions carry the awareness that Rome is the undoubted enemy.

Barth sees two subtly different positions at work here. The Lutherans are cross with Rome because Rome robs Christians of assurance and despoils Christendom (thus dishonouring God); the Reformed are cross with Rome because Rome dishonours God (by robbing Christians of assurance etc). The Lutheran confessions stress salvation by faith in Christ; the Reformed confessions stress salvation by Christ through faith. The Lutheran position is pastoral first; the Reformed position is theological first.

Now, I don't know how accurate a portrait that is of Lutheranism, but I think it captures Reformed concerns perfectly. The point is that, contra Rome, the Reformed maintain that God does everything. Hence the typical (almost stereotypical) Reformed concern for the sovereignty of God, expressed in the doctrine of predestination.

Here is theology I can get behind!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Principle of Scripture and its Grounds

The second part of Barth's lecture series on the Reformed confessions looks particularly at the Scripture Principle. The principle is expressed by Barth thus: "The church recognises the rule of its proclamation solely in the Word of God and finds the Word of God solely in Holy Scripture". In other words, this is what has been called the 'formal principle' of the Reformation - Sola Scriptura, the Bible alone.

Barth again develops a contrast with Lutheranism. In many ways the Lutheran Church is the church of the 'material principle' of the Reformation - justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. This is the organising 'idea' of Lutheran theology, and it is noticeable that this has an effect on the way the Lutherans approach the Bible. Consider Luther's attitude to James, for example: it doesn't teach justification by faith alone, therefore it is secondary, unexciting. This also allows for the privileged position accorded in Lutheranism to the Augustana and to the work of Luther generally.

The Reformed churches, on the other hand, took up the 'formal principle' as their particular emphasis. That ruled out the possibility that they should become 'Calvinist churches' or 'Zwinglian churches' in the same sense as the Lutheran Church. Scripture alone also ensured that the Reformed confessions took on a very different role to the Augustana. The Reformed churches could only see their confessions as pointing to Scripture. They were not the light, but they pointed to the light (Barth develops the analogy with John the Baptist, an important one for his theology generally). In essence, Reformed Christianity is simply this attitude to Sola Scriptura.

He goes on to trace the idea of the grounds of this principle. In Calvin, the grounds of the Scripture Principle is simply the Spirit speaking in Holy Scripture. The Bible is God's Word because God address me in it. The Spirit in me and the Spirit in the Word are one. The early Reformed confessions generally take this line. Even at this early stage - and even in Calvin - it is acceptable to append arguments from the style or circumstances of Scripture, but they are understood as just that: appendices. The main point is Inspiration, and the witness of the Holy Spirit.

The sad history of the Reformed churches is a move away from this basis in two directions. Firstly, there is a tendency to make the arguments which had been appended to the Scripture Principle the real basis for taking Scripture as God's Word. A loss of confidence in the basis of the Principle in the doctrine (and experience!) of the Holy Spirit led to more emphasis on the arguments, and eventually to the arguments taking over. Scripture is made subject to the judgement and reason of human beings.

Secondly, there is a tendency to make the Bible just one thing amongst many others. Obviously, this goes hand in hand with the first. There is a movement away from seeing God revealed only in the Bible, to seeing the Bible as merely the pinnacle of God's revelation in creation and the human spirit.

In both cases, the door is opened to Protestant liberalism and modernism. That door is shut again only when we say that the Word of God in Scripture is self-authenticating. God witnesses to God. The Word of God is not chained, but speaks clearly and powerfully by the Holy Spirit.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Theology of the Reformed Confessions

I've just started reading Barth's treatment of the Reformed confessions, delivered as lectures in 1923. The first section deals with "the significance of the confession in the Reformed Church", and is extremely interesting to me, and I hope to other people.

Barth tells the story of the Reformed confessions by contrasting their reception with the place of the Augsburg Confession (the 'Augustana') in Lutheranism. The Augsburg Confession was very quickly considered to be on a level with the ecumenical creeds of the Church. The Lutheran Church was still very much wedded to the old Imperial ideal - one Empire, one Church - and so the Confession could hardly be received as anything else. Moreover, the Confession had been presented to the Emperor - albeit only as a protest, since it was not received. It was therefore a public and ecumenical confession, in the eyes of Lutheran theologians at least. It was only a small step from there to the Book of Concord, which upholds the Augustana, along with various other Lutheran products, as the standard of faith never to be shaken. As Barth points out, this leads to the exaltation of the Confession to the level of Scripture - the Formula of Concord makes regular reference to "the Word of God and the Augsburg Confession" as things which are hardly separable. Luther is seen as essentially a new apostle; the Confession is the product of the Holy Spirit.

This should never happen in a Reformed Church. The Reformed churches were happy for there to be numerous confessions, not fixing on one form of words, because they saw that the confessions were the products of particular churches. They confessed the faith which churches had received from the Scriptures. As such they were always in principle open to correction. Thus Zwingli: "where I have not now correctly understood the said Scripture, I am ready to be corrected and instructed from the aforesaid Scripture". Confessions in the Reformed tradition were understood to be provisional, even when loyalty to them was demanded of the church's teachers in the strongest terms.

It seems to me that (if Barth's view of Lutheranism is correct), the Lutheran Church views authority as coming from Scripture, via the Confession, to the Church. The Confession stands above the Church, as a kind of subordinate Scripture. Barth's picture of the Reformed view has authority come directly from Scripture to the Church, which produces the confession as a result of what it has heard and understood from Scripture. Because it is what the church has heard, the confession cannot then be set aside lightly, but it can be modified and even replaced in time.

Barth concludes that we don't have new Reformed confessions of the standard and profundity of the older confessions simply because we do not have Christians and theologians who are being reformed by the Scriptures. Reformed confessions come from Reformed Christians, and Reformed Christians are brought to birth by Holy Scripture.

"The current situation [now as in 1923!] does make it especially advisable that the Reformed church should set its only hope (truly its only hope) on the prayer 'Come, Creator Spirit!'"

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

A Hermeneutic of Trust

Just some thoughts, not yet processed into proper prose.

1. A hermeneutic of trust approaches a text with the intention of taking it at face value, assuming that a text is a means of communication between (at least) two people.

2. A hermeneutic of trust takes seriously the nature of the text in question, looking carefully for indications of genre and statements of purpose (implicit or explicit). It seeks to read and interpret a text within the established 'rules' of genre.

3. A hermeneutic of trust is justified de facto by the need human beings have to rely on the testimony of others for both everyday and scientific knowledge; it is justified de jure by the revealed fact that ultimate reality is personal, making personal testimony of ultimate significance.

4. A hermeneutic of trust rejects individualistic approaches to epistemology. Knowledge is a collective enterprise, and testimony is central to that enterprise.

5. A hermeneutic of trust takes the character of the author seriously, at two levels. Firstly, it privileges the author in interpreting the text, seeking to discern the author's intention. Secondly, it asks concerning the moral character of the author, in so far as this has a bearing on the trustworthiness of the text.

6. A hermeneutic of trust steers a middle course between naivety and cynicism, following Ricoeur's principle: "first, trust the word of others, then doubt if there are good reasons for doing so".

Sunday, December 06, 2009


There aren't many books out there on the subject of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Not books that you could carry in your rucksack without injuring yourself, anyway. And the books there are tend to be focussed mainly on the evidence for the resurrection rather than the meaning of the resurrection. Of course there is huge value in the former. But isn't the resurrection of Jesus meant to be more than just a handy tool for Christian apologetics? Shouldn't it have an impact on our lives?

Sam Allberry's new book (so new it's not yet available, although you can pre-order it with Amazon) addresses the issue of the meaning of the resurrection, and for my money it does the business. Lifted is only four chapters long, but in those chapters I found again and again that I was getting more excited about the resurrection. The book made me believe in Christ's resurrection more - not because it produced new evidence, but because it explained what it meant to believe that Jesus not only died but also rose.

Sometimes it's simple stuff that hits you hardest. Like this from Sam's first chapter: "the resurrection is the consequence and demonstration of our salvation because death is the consequence and demonstration of our sin." Of course! But as Sam goes on, you'll find yourself struck by how obvious it is that sin leads to death, and how ridiculous you are every time you follow sin instead of the risen Lord. And how much assurance I can derive from the fact that Jesus is raised: "The cross is not a starter pack. It is not God stumping up even most of what we need so that we can fish around in our pockets and make up the rest. By dying and rising for us Jesus has closed the deal. God has signed for it, and his signature is the resurrection." The chapter on transformation takes this and runs with it - I can live differently, because Jesus is raised!

I also found the section on mission particularly useful. Mission is not just an addendum to the story of Jesus. It is the natural outworking of the fact that, by his resurrection, Jesus is exalted as King and Lord of the universe. Everything and everyone must bow to him. Mission is the royal summons of the exalted Christ to his creation. Powerful motivation for us as we seek to speak the gospel.

Any criticisms? Not really. I could have happily read another few chapters, so perhaps my critique would be that it's too short! But if that gets more people reading, so much the better. This is a witty and engaging, yet also hard-hitting, book. I am challenged to believe in and live out the resurrection of Jesus Christ in my own life, and I am thrilled that one day I will see the Lord in my renewed body, in his renewed creation, all because he died and rose.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Love and Security

If it is true that perfect love drives out fear (and the Scripture cannot be broken!) then I am sure it is also the case that lingering fear drives out love.

This is a fairly obvious reflection on 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. So much unloving behaviour flows from my felt need to protect myself and my own reputation. I need to look out for number one - how can I possibly have time for being loving? Even resentment or irritability can be traced back to fear about my own identity or the way others perceive me. By reckoning up the wrongs others have done me and meditating on them - which is resentment - I am really just reinforcing my sense of having been in the right myself. By reacting instantly with anger to the slightest crossing of my own will - which is irritability - I reinforce my sense of being at the centre of the universe.

I would need to be so secure, so totally certain that I didn't need to look out for myself, to love in the way the Scripture demands. I would need to really believe that my identity is secure in Christ. I would need to be sure that God sees me truly and loves me unconditionally.

It reminds me a bit of Luther. Luther argued that mediaeval Catholicism had got people so busy chasing after their own justification that they were not able to love others. The money that should have gone to the poor went on indulgences; time that should have been devoted to service of others was wasted in pilgrimages. The Church had people so busy chasing righteousness that they didn't have time to be righteous! If justification were given by grace, on the other hand, and received only by faith - why, then people could be free to live a life of love.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

How happy should I be?

We've been pondering love at church recently, working through 1 Corinthians 13. I've been challenged, rebuked and a little encouraged. It's been good.

Thinking through love, I think it's significant that the Bible doesn't exactly give us a definition of what love is. I suspect love is just too multifaceted a thing to be neatly defined. Instead, it offers us a model of love: the love of God for humanity, shown in Christ. What God does in Jesus - that's love.

It seems to me that one facet of love that we can see in Christ could be summarised like this: love is opening yourself up to the other, to the extent that your happiness depends on their good. In other words, love means I can't be happy unless the other person is prospering. Love is not the opposite of self-interest, but is extending self-interest to embrace and include other people. I want to be happy - that's natural; I can't be happy unless others are doing well - that's love.

Manifestly, people are not doing well in our world. So, how happy should I be?

Jesus was a man of sorrows, acquainted with suffering. Wasn't that because he loved the world, and pegged his own happiness to the good of the world? Through free love, God freely admitted his creation into his concern, and freely determined not to be happy without his creation.

My question is: was Jesus a man of sorrows so that I don't have to be, or was he a man of sorrows to show me what I ought to be?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sermon on the Mount: Impossible Ethics?

"You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt 5:48).

That is what you might call a tall order in the realm of ethics. In fact, the more you look at it the more the whole Sermon on the Mount smacks of (hopeless) idealism. Can anyone really do all this stuff? Is it even reasonable to ask?

The history of the interpretation of the Sermon is intriguing. There is a long tradition of avoiding its demands, toning them down to make them possible, or perhaps less universally binding than they appear to be at first glance. Especially in the established churches - from Constantine onwards - it has been usual to argue that the Sermon provides ethics for Christians in their private lives, but not in the public sphere, for example. Or it has been argued, in Lutheran fashion, that the Sermon represents Law (not Gospel), and is therefore only really designed to show us how far short we fall. It has tended to be radical movements - not all of them at all orthodox - which have taken the demands of the Sermon at face value. Sometimes this has led to thorough-going legalism, of which Tolstoy is a prime example, but not always. Sometimes it has led to radical Christian living.

It is worth observing two things about the structure of the Sermon. Firstly, it has at its centre the Lord's Prayer. Everything else seems to have been deliberately arranged around this prayer. I think Matthew intends us to see the sort of life Jesus describes in the Sermon as achievable, but only as the answer to the prayer: "your will be done on earth". The life of prayer comes before the life of radical obedience, and the latter is impossible without the former. Challenging. Moreover, the prayer assumes a relationship - God is "our Father" - into which we can only enter through Christ. Union with him, and relationship with the Father through him, is the sine qua non of the life of obedience.

Secondly, there are two passages in the Sermon, at roughly equal distance from the centre, which confirm this approach. In 5:13-16, Jesus describes the disciples as the salt of the earth, a city on a hill, a lighted lamp. Because they are all these things, they are to let their light shine before others, so that they may see their good works and glorify God. But it is clear that the good works emanate from a previous change in their existence, just as the light comes from the lamp having been lit by someone. Similarly, but from the opposite perspective, in 7:15-20 false prophets are to be recognised by their works - "a healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit". But the fruit does not make the tree healthy or diseased. That comes first.

So the Sermon demands radical obedience on the basis of a radical change that has happened to Christians and a radical prayer which invites God's action in their lives. If it looks impossible to me, am I perhaps thinking only in my own strength? Have I ceased to pray?

Monday, November 09, 2009

Sermon on the Mount: Jesus and Law

Does Jesus abolish the Law? It would seem so: in some of the antitheses, those parts of the Sermon which are structured along the lines of "you have heard... but I say...", Jesus appears to contradict the OT - on oaths (5:33-37), for example, or on retaliation (5:38-42). What is more, the very form of this section seems to set Jesus' authority over against the Law. The Law said that, but now I say this. Even where Jesus is clearly teaching an intensification of the Law, it would be easy to see the way in which he does this - by his own personal authority - as undermining the Law. Is Jesus, perhaps, the New Moses, come to give a New Law in place of the old?

Does Jesus require his followers to keep the Law? It would seem so: 5:19 states that "anyone who relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven". Jesus appears to uphold the authority of the Law, and is clear that nothing can be taken away from it. In many of the antitheses he appears to be arguing against a false or shallow interpretation of the Law rather than the letter of the Law itself. Is Jesus, perhaps, a Jewish Reformer, come to restore the proper reading and practice of the Law by destroying false interpretations?

The answer must be that neither of the above is quite right. We need to read the Sermon as part of the Matthew's gospel, and the big point of Matthew's gospel is that Jesus fulfills the OT. He fulfills it in all sorts of ways: the gospel contains allusions to Moses (40 days and nights of fasting, 4:1), Elijah (multiplying food, 14:13f), the Exodus (2:15 amongst many others), Sinai (17:1-13, which also has echoes of Daniel's Son of Man), David (21:1f) and many others. Not all the allusions are precise, and they are not usually meant to be read in simplistic terms, like "Jesus is the new Moses/David/Israel" etc. Rather, by scattering a wide variety of allusions to Israel's history throughout his gospel Matthew makes the big picture claim that Jesus is the climax of the history of Israel, and the beginning of a new Israel - an Israel which begins with the salvation of the remnant of old Israel - gathered around himself.

And here in the Sermon we find Jesus saying "do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them" (5:17). The Law is, as far as Matthew is concerned (and Matthew could surely only have got this idea from Jesus), on a par with the Prophets. Both are fulfilled in him. He is the climax of everything they were about, the one who brings them to their intended end - in the teleological sense. Does the law pass away? No more than the prophets pass away! But both have reached that point in their existence where they can be, if you like, tied off. This is the conclusion. Henceforth, it is not the Law that defines our ethics, any more than it is the Prophets who define our expectation. It is Christ, and the Law and the Prophets as they reach their climax in him.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Sermon on the Mount: Who Listens?

Been reading a lot in and about the Sermon on the Mount this week, for essay purposes. Thought I'd share a few thoughts in this direction...

Who is the Sermon on the Mount preached to? What is the intended audience?

Matthew 5:1 indicates that the disciples are the main audience. Jesus takes his seat on the mountain, waits for his disciples to join him, and then opens his mouth to teach them. That means the demands Jesus makes are for his followers. This is kingdom ethics, gospel ethics - not a general ethic for the world at large. That makes sense - as far as Matthew is concerned, the teaching in the Sermon is part and parcel of the preaching of the gospel. (Note the parallelism of teaching and proclaiming in 4:23). So we shouldn't expect this ethical discourse to be immediately applicable to everyone.

On the other hand, 7:28 indicates that the crowds heard Jesus' teaching, and reacted with astonishment. Doubtless this is deliberate on the part of Jesus - he is very capable of taking the disciples aside for private teaching when he wants to. Again, the preaching of this way of life is part of the preaching of the gospel. It is meant to be attractive (or repellent!) to the curious spectator. Like the gospel generally, it either draws people in or drives them away. This also has the effect of making it possible for people to measure the disciples' conduct against Jesus' ideal. No doubt this too is deliberate and planned. My lifestyle is meant to preach.

Probably the last group I'd want to mention weren't part of Jesus' audience originally, but they could be part of Matthew's (and therefore of Jesus' secondarily). I mean the hypocrites the Sermon makes regular mention of. They probably weren't on the mountain to hear their condemnation. But now as we read the Sermon we are invited to ensure that we are not in this latter group.

Where am I today? Following, spectating, play-acting?

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The gospel: a good idea?

Really interesting discussion going on over at Glen's blog. You should go read the original post, and the comments thread. Raises hard questions, like:

1. Is the gospel a worldview? I would argue that the gospel is the story of Jesus' life, death and resurrection - in other words, that the reason we call first four books of the NT 'gospels' is that this is what they are! In that sense, the gospel is not a worldview. I think that's important - a worldview is made up of lots of other things beside story (see The New Testament and the People of God, at length!), but it is the story of Jesus that constitutes the proclamation of good news. Only in a story - rather than a general discussion of what the world is like - can we hear about something that has been accomplished for us, by someone else.

2. Is the gospel logical? Can it be presented logically? I suppose I'd want to recast this question. A worldview can be logical or not, can be presented logically or not - a story is judged on different criteria, primarily (if it purports to be a story about history) the criterion of reference: did this actually happen? Still, the gospel story presupposes and entails a worldview, so can we talk about that being logical? I think the gospel-worldview is logical if and only if the gospel story is true. Therefore, I think we must take people to the story of Jesus rather than to the worldview if we are to make a convincing argument.

3. Can we do natural theology? Is there such a thing as general revelation? Nein. 'Nuff said.

4. Does this entail a 'super-spiritual' way of looking at the gospel? Does it mean the gospel is something totally different from every other message in the world? No, and yes. Not 'super-spiritual', but certainly God entering his creation is a unique event which cannot be compared to or ranked alongside anything else! So can we compare the gospel-worldview to another worldview? In one sense, yes: we can see what each has to say on different topics. But in another sense, no: we cannot, by comparison, work out which is more likely to be true. The truth of the gospel-worldview is dependent on the truth of the gospel story. And that cannot be received or believed without God opening blind eyes by the Spirit.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Materialism and Education

Lord Mandelson annoyed me this morning. I know, I know, if he bugs me that much I should just stop returning his calls, but what can I say? He is a Peer of the Realm at the end of the day, and the attention is flattering.

Or it's possible I just read this story on the BBC. I forget.

Anyway, the gist of it is that HM Government believe that University education should be tailored more towards the needs of the economy. "University research", says the BBC article, "needed to be concentrated on providing economic benefits". Not only so, but Universities themselves should run in a more business-like fashion. Thus Mandy on students: "They are paying customers, they need to be given much fuller information about what they can expect to get back from their courses". Of course, this is quite consistent with other gov't policies, like the EMA, on which you should not get me started or I will not stop until I am literally foaming at the mouth and casting around for the nearest MP of ministerial rank into whom I can sink my rabies-infected fangs. Ahem. The point is, as far as our gov't is concerned, education is all about the bottom line. Because they expect everyone else to think so too, they have to pay people to go to school.

It is all very depressing if, like me, you are someone who believes that education is not ultimately about fuelling the capitalist machine. I really do think learning is its own benefit, and that the main role of education is as a vehicle of culture. But I guess culture doesn't pay.

I suspect this highlights a particular weakness of the Left. Although Marx is now very firmly in the background for most European socialist types, and certainly way way back for "New" Labour, his philosophy still stands at the foundation of all their thought. That means materialism. It means a commitment to reading everything in terms of material wealth. It's a very monotone way of viewing the world.

And it means, ironically, that the Left is more committed to preparing young people to be a cog in the machine than the Right ever has been.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Protecting Ourselves

Just off the back of yesterday's thought...

Churches put together creeds and confessions of faith to protect themselves. It's right that they should do that, absolutely right. These summaries of the truth, often forged in the struggle against serious error, can help to keep us thinking and believing right.

But I wonder if they don't sometimes end up protecting us against... God?

When my favourite confession, or favourite formulation of a particular doctrine, is questioned on Biblical grounds, how do I react? Am I open to hearing God's voice in Scripture, or has my doctrinal construct shut up my ears?

I guess sometimes we need to take some risks - let our guard down and try to hear afresh what God is saying, rather than the (important!) second-hand version that we have in our confessions. If God really speaks, is this a risk at all?

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Reformation Day '09

When we're remembering the Reformation, it's right that we remember and celebrate Holy Scripture. The Bible was in the driving seat of the Reformation. Because of the Bible, the Church lived again. Because of the Bible, there is hope that the Church can still be given new strength.

When the Church stands under Scripture, she finds herself opened up. She has had many conversations and debates going on within her walls. Theologians have talked, churchmen have talked, poets have talked. The members of the Church have spoken to and with one another, and that is how it should be. But when the Bible is opened, the Church is also opened. She is no longer talking to herself. There is a voice from outside.

The Prophets and Apostles, commissioned by Christ to be his witnesses, still speak and still witness. Their voices are heard in the Scriptures. Their voices cut through out intra mural chatter. Because they were the first - because they touched and saw and heard and spoke with - they demand a hearing. We must listen. Their voices confront us and shake us, and break through our cultural barriers and our churchly comfort. Strange voices that we have not known give us, unexpected and all of a sudden, reality.

And in and through and above their voices, the Voice. To be open to Scripture is to be open to the Lord. He speaks to his Church. Are we still listening?

Thursday, October 22, 2009


When I were a lad, I spent my time in churches which were very keen on being Reformed. Discussions could be had about who was 'really' Reformed and who was just faking. I enjoyed it at the time. More recently, I've had conversations with people about what it might mean to be a 'Reformed charismatic' - something that never came up in my youth, as we all knew that 'Reformed' and 'charismatic' were mutually exclusive terms. I wonder whether it might be useful to run down the different ways the word 'Reformed' is used, to aid us in our scintillating chats about who is in and who is out?

'Reformed' could be used in a purely historical sense. In the 16th Century, the Protestant Reformation led to the emergence of three great Protestant churches: the Lutherans, the Anglicans, and the Reformed. (On another reading of history, there were maybe just two big strands, with Anglicanism being a subset of Reformed. I think this is less useful, descriptively and analytically, just because of the huge differences between Anglicanism and other 'Reformed' churches). Obviously, there are now churches which would claim descent from the Reformed wing of the Reformation. It is a fact that many of them, particularly on the Continent - although one could also think of the URC, now tend towards a theology which is either a significant modification or a near-total repudiation of the theology of the 16th Century Reformed. Still, they have an obvious claim to the title. Perhaps we should speak of church today which have 'Reformed heritage', thus acknowledging the link without making any theological claims.

'Reformed' could also be used in a theological sense, in at least two ways. We could identify a 'thick' Reformed theology and a 'thin' one. On the thick understanding of 'Reformed', we would be talking essentially about the Christian Institutes of John Calvin. Reformed theology is covenantal and paedobaptist, characterised by a particular view of the relation between Word and Spirit, cessationist with regard to miraculous gifts, presbyterian in church polity, placing a strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God in revelation and salvation. I think you could make a good argument for this being the most comprehensive definition of 'Reformed', and the most useful, for reasons to be explained. We could perhaps talk about churches which espouse this theology today as having 'Reformed doctrine'.

The 'thin' understanding of what it means to be theologically Reformed tends to take a subset of the beliefs above, which are taken to be the 'heart' of the whole system, and makes these beliefs the meaning of 'Reformed'. This tends, in practice, to mean being Calvinists in terms of how people are saved, espousing a high view of the sovereignty of God. There are many churches that would take this line, and we could perhaps talk about them having 'Reformed soteriology'.

So, who is Reformed?

On the first understanding, the URC is and newfrontiers isn't. The URC stands in a direct line of succession from historically Reformed churches, whereas newfrontiers does not.

On the second understanding, the URC is not, nor is newfrontiers, nor is any baptist church. In the UK, you could go to the Free Church of Scotland, or perhaps the EPCEW. You'd struggle to find any other churches that are doctrinally Reformed in this maximal sense.

On the third understanding, newfrontiers is Reformed, as are all FIEC congregations I've ever been to, as are many evangelical Anglican churches.

My own judgement would be that we should use 'Reformed' in the second sense, primarily. I think it is useful to give a word the maximum definition it will take, for purposes of clarity and analysis. I also think it is clear that the historically Reformed would want us to think of theology and not merely heritage as the defining mark of their movement.

So I think only presbyterians are Reformed. We could perhaps use qualifying language to show the relationship that other churches stand in to this tradition - whether historic or theological. Personally, I am an anabaptist, holding (lightly modified, but still very clearly) Reformed soteriology and a (more heavily modified) Reformed understanding of Word and Spirit. Perhaps I could say I am an anabaptist with a theological debt to Reformed theology. But I'm not 'properly' Reformed, and I'm okay with that.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Done, not doing

I feel the need to clarify a previous post, not least because it has obviously not communicated what I hoped it would to some who have read it. I am not sure whether that is because of my lack of communicative skill or because I'm saying something that is novel. Either would cause me some concern. Still, I think the point I'm making is Biblical and important, so I'll restate it.

It is a commonplace in evangelical apologetics to point out that where other religions give an imperative - DO! - the gospel gives an indicative - DONE! This way of stating things is no worse for being a commonplace. It is perhaps the easiest and best way of expressing that idea that lies at the heart of Christianity: that because Jesus has achieved my righteousness and my acceptance with God, there is nothing I need to do to work towards righteousness and acceptance. Indeed, any work I attempted in this direction would be sin, because it would be a failure to trust in Jesus' finished work. In so far as this is applied to justification, I hope that all evangelicals would agree.

Now I am saying nothing more than that this way of thinking be applied to all areas of life.

Let's stick with righteousness. I am perfectly righteous in Christ - this is achieved and accomplished apart from me. Does that mean I do nothing about my righteousness day by day? Absolutely not. I must strive for holiness. But why so I strive? Not because each battle won is a step towards perfect righteousness. Not because I am not righteous unless I am making progress. My righteousness is perfect and secure, because it is Christ's. My battle to live out holiness in every day life is about giving a lived out 'amen' to the gospel. It is about saying 'yes' today to what God willed from eternity and Christ won at Calvary. I have called that 'witness'. It does not achieve my righteousness, but it witnesses in the here and now to the righteousness that is mine in Christ.

I think the same logic applies to feeding the hungry, or alleviating poverty. It was the old liberal myth that our actions, inspired by Christ and following his example, could bring in the kingdom of God. As an evangelical, which is simply to say as someone who is bound to Scripture, I have to say 'no', in two senses. No, because the kingdom of God has come already in Christ; and no, because the kingdom of God will come when Christ returns. The kingdom is established now, ever since Easter morning. But it is veiled and not seen. Like my righteousness, it is achieved in Christ that a kingdom is established where there will be no more crying or suffering or death. Now it is not seen, but it is real for all that.

To live as if this were not so could take two forms. It could take the form of thinking that poverty and hunger are just there, and we need do nothing about them. In other words, resignation - ah well, that's just the way it is. But that is not the way it is. Jesus has abolished these things; he has brought in new creation! On the other hand, it could take the form of working hard to abolish poverty and hunger, as if we had to do everything. In other words, humanism - we can and must fix this. But we cannot and need not fix this. Jesus has done it; he has brought in new creation!

The response of faith is to say: I will live today as an 'amen' to Jesus' victory. I will live today as a resounding 'yes' to the presence of the kingdom and the accomplishment of new creation. God from eternity has willed the removal of poverty and hunger; Christ on the cross has achieved it. I will live as a witness to that reality. I will not set out in unbelief to fix the problem myself, but I will set out in faith to show through my actions and lifestyle that everything has already changed in Jesus. I will witness to the invisible Kingdom.

The question for me is: to what extent do I show that faith?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


I've been randomly turning some thoughts about Mary over in my head - I don't mean the Biblical Mary, but the Mary of Roman Catholic tradition. I think the view we take of Mary relates very closely to our view of Jesus, the Church and humanity. Indeed, with the Roman view of these three things, it is hard to see how they could fail to exalt Mary and enthrone her as queen of heaven. The flipside is that if Protestants find themselves moving in a Mariolatrous direction, we need to re-examine our more fundamental beliefs.

In RC thinking, there are two movements in the gospel. There is the movement of God downward in Jesus Christ - the incarnation and the cross - and there is the movement of humanity upward. These are two separate things, although the former is to be considered prior. (Whether its priority can be maintained in practice must be doubted). In terms of salvation, this is Roman thought precisely - God makes a move, we make a move. Grace, then free will. In the thinking about Mary, this shows very clearly. God makes a move towards the incarnation; Mary agrees with this move, and thus makes its completion possible. Human co-operation is vital in the Roman system, and the Roman Mary shows it.

Of course, if you believe this there must be some sort of merit that accrues to the human who co-operates. In RC thinking, this merit is found within the church as the institution which co-operates with God. The church is to be thought of as God's kingdom on earth - literally. Here is humanity exalted. No surprise, then, that Mary - the symbol of the church - is enthroned in heaven.

The problem at the most fundamental level seems to be that God simply does too little in the RC system. God comes down in Jesus, but he does not in himself raise humanity up. That corresponding movement must be represented by another figure, Mary, who stands for the institution of the church. In that case, isn't the church simply humanity raising itself - albeit in response to God's summons and in some way through his enabling?

We must instead see the cross and the resurrection together. In Jesus, God is humbled and humanity is raised. He does it all. If we hold to that, Mary can have her proper place of honour - as one who said 'yes' to God. And isn't that a better understanding of the church overall?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Life as Witness

This started off as a thought about political engagement. Specifically, I was concerned about motivation for Christians to be involved in politics. I can't embrace the generally left-wing view that we can actually fix society. I think that's just naive. More seriously, I think it tends to put human beings in the place of God, who promises that he will fix things, at the return of Jesus Christ. But if I can't fix it, why get involved at all? Why make any effort to improve things, if ultimate success is not, humanly speaking, possible?

Turning this over in my mind, I've realised that the problem extends beyond politics and into every area of life. Why get involved in culture, if culture will always ultimately be corrupt and belong to the passing form of this world? Why be involved in poverty relief or development, given that we will always have the poor with us? Perhaps most fundamentally, why seek personal holiness, when I will always be fallen and never achieve perfection this side of my resurrection?

A few answers spring to mind. Perhaps we could say that there is value in the effort itself, regardless of the result. That may be, but I struggle to see wherein the value lies, and that in itself makes this no good as a motivating force. We could perhaps argue that small successes count for something, but I am not sure that this is obviously the case. It is certainly true to argue that culture and the like are carried, somehow, through the end and into the new creation, but the process is obscure in its details, and I don't feel all that motivated by it.

I've arrived at the conclusion that the motive is witness. I don't seek to change society because I think it can be ultimately fixed, but as a witness to the fact that in principle it has already been ultimately fixed in the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. I don't seek to exercise my creativity because I believe I can make a perfect culture, but as a bearing witness to the perfect culture that already exists in principle through the death and resurrection of Christ. And I don't seek personal holiness because I can create it through my own efforts, but as my witness to the fact that complete righteousness is already mine in the risen Lord Jesus.

All my life is just saying 'yes', in every sphere in which I have influence, to what He has done in every sphere of existence.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Ten Commandments, One Lord Jesus

The Ten Commandments have traditionally, and with good reason, been divided into two groups. The first four have to do with the relationship between Israel and God - no polytheism, no idolatry, no blasphemy, keep Sabbath. The other six relate more to society, or to human relationships, and represent the working out in daily life of that relationship to God - honour parents, don't murder, no adultery, don't steal, don't lie, don't covet.

Jesus summarises the two groups as two great commandments: love God with all that you are and have, and love your neighbour just the way you love yourself. So ten become two. Or perhaps better, the two second-order commandments that stand behind the ten third-order commandments are now revealed.

Second-order? Yes - because in the person of Jesus, those two are one. Think about the incarnation. Jesus is God. I therefore owe him all of the obedience that is demanded by the first 'table' of the commandments, and by the first of the great commandments. He is the God beside whom there can be no others, before whom there must be no idols, against whom there must be no blasphemy, and in whom there must be sabbath rest. But Jesus is also man. I therefore owe him all the obedience of the second table - he is alongside me as the neighbour I must not wrong.

Incidentally, this is confirmed by NT ethics. This especially springs to mind, from Galatians 6:10: "So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith." Why is there a distinction here, between 'everyone' and 'the household of faith'? Is Paul limiting the people I should do good to? Clearly not. But he is highlighting that here, in the household of faith, Christ as neighbour is most clearly seen, because Christ is in my neighbour and vice versa. Therefore, my ethical response of neighbour-love within the church is especially appopriate.

So the first-order commandment, which stands behind the two-fold great commandments and the decalogue, is Jesus. All the commandments are meant to lead me to him. I am meant to be bound to him in love and trust, and in being bound, to be free - here I can be the one I was made to be.

Does this help with our view of the Mosaic law in Romans 9-10? Israel chased the law, and the righteousness it promised, but did not see Christ as the fulfilment of the law and its ultimate end. They were left, then, without faith, pursuing the outward form of the law without Christ, who is the beating heart of the law and of all believing ethics.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The problem of front gardens

As I was walking through East Oxford today, I was feeling a little sad about how nice the streets could be and how nasty they actually are. "Something should be done", thought I, "but what?"

We could change all the 'street furniture', as it seems to be called. Smarten up the lamposts. Sort out the signs. But, to be honest, they're not really the problem. And how exciting can a one way sign be, anyway?

The problem is that many - okay, let's be honest, the overwhelming majority - of houses have really shabby frontages with poorly kept gardens. I'm not saying that to criticise the owners. I dare say if I owned a house it would have a shabby frontage with a poorly kept garden.

The point is that this is why the state will never be able to fix local communities. We're not dealing with a public space - the public space is utilitarian but basically fine. The problem is with the collection of private spaces. Only the owners can decide to make them look pleasant, and only they can put in the effort to make it so.

I think the problem of front gardens sets limits to the influence of the state in all sorts of areas of life. I guess that's why I'm a Tory.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Thought Experiment

Imagine you woke up one morning, started to go about your normal day, and then nobody reacted to you in any way. I don't mean they ignored you - that's a reaction - but there was just no reaction. As if they couldn't see or hear you.

What would you do?

I'd push someone over just to prove that I existed.

In your face, Descartes!

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Lamentations: Two Moments

The Old Testament's great lament for Jerusalem, traditionally ascribed to the prophet Jeremiah, does not make easy reading. It describes some of the effects of ancient siege warfare in graphic detail, which is unpleasant to say the least. More than that, it is full of deep grief. Jerusalem is fallen; Judah is taken captive. The prophet grieves for his people. At a deeper level, the terrible question is raised: is that it for God's covenant? If so, the grief is not only for Judah, but for all creation.

There is a moment, however, in the centre of the book, where the darkness lifts. It is a fleeting glimpse of light, but stands out all the more for that: "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness".

Because of God's character, there is hope. Specifically, because God's mercies are new every morning, yesterday does not determine today, and today does not irrevocably set the course of tomorrow. Jerusalem's fall, and Judah's sin which prompted it, does not rule out future intervention by the God of grace. It does not rule out new mercy, and a morning of light.

And yet the book ends in another moment, the darkest moment in the whole Old Testament: "Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old - unless you have utterly rejected us, and you remain exceedingly angry with us".

The prophet ponders the darkest possibility. What if there is no new mercy? What if God has utterly rejected his people - as indeed their conduct fully deserves?

The two moments are related. Because God's mercy is new every morning, it cannot be presumed upon, but must be actively sought out, trusted, and received with each new day. The lament shows that the author, at least, has learnt the hard lesson of the fall of Jerusalem: past mercy does not provide present security. (Think of the cry of those who were confident that Jerusalem would never fall: "The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!" They knew that in the past God had chosen this place, and they assumed that this past mercy guaranteed their security and blessedness in the here and now, no matter their behaviour or their present attitude to God).

How often do I fail to seek new mercy each day?

Monday, August 31, 2009

Jesus and Fellowship

'Fellowship' is an interesting word. Other than its formal and titular use in academic circles, I guess it only really gets used in the church. Even there, I suspect it's misused more often than not. It is a relational word, but more than relational, because when we think of relationships we tend to mean two individuals voluntarily joined in a tenuous way. (Think about how you would represent a relationship in a diagram - perhaps two circles, joined by a line? The circles (people) are still very separate, still distinguishable, whilst the line (the relationship) is thin and joins them only at one particular point). Fellowship is something more than that: it is identifying with the other person, taking their part. It is a connection that recognises fundamental same-ness.

With whom does Jesus have fellowship during his time on earth?

Your first thought might be the disciples. But think about the way he relates to them, or rather the way they relate to him. It's all a little strained, isn't it? They do not understand him, do not 'get' his mission, do not grasp his identity. Read through the gospel accounts of Jesus' life - even when he is surrounded by a crowd, you can't shift the impression that Jesus is alone. He stands apart, even from those whom he has called to be closest to him. He is with us, but not really one of us. In fact, it is only when Jesus is alone that we see him in fellowship - with God his Father, in prayer. One of the most intimate moments is in fact the agony of Gethsemane. The Father is with him; the disciples are sleeping.

Fast-forward to Calvary. Consider Jesus on the cross. With whom does he have fellowship now? I think it is clear that just at this point Jesus has fellowship with the criminals. He is with them, and they are with him. Through them, he claims fellowship with sinful humanity generally. He is with us, as one of us, in our condition. It is not coincidence that just at this point he can no longer claim fellowship with the Father - "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

The resurrection proves that that loss of fellowship was temporary. He was vindicated by the Spirit, received back into full enjoyment of the fellowship of the Trinity. Did that mean, then, that his fellowship with us, wretched sinners that we are, would be broken? Would there be a parallel movement to the change we saw at the cross?

No. He was delivered up for our sins, but raised for our justification. His fellowship - solidarity, kinship - with us is just as solid as when he died our death on the cross; but now with him we enjoy fellowship with the Father. In him, we are accepted.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Unhappy Arguments

I've often heard used, and I'm afraid to say have sometimes used myself, arguments for Christianity which I now tend to regard as weak. Actually, weak is perhaps not the right word. They are strong arguments, but they are not fit for the purpose to which they are generally put. I have in mind arguments of this sort:

"Without Christianity, there is no purpose to anything"
"Unless there is a God, there can be no real ethics"
"All people need hope, and the only real hope comes through Jesus"

All three statements, and many others that could be made like them are, I think, true. I would still be happy to make them and to stand by them. The problem is where they fit into our argument. Let's take the statement about ethics. It is often used as if it could be formulated thus:

Major premise: only the existence of God could create objective ethics.
Minor premise: there is such a thing as objective ethics.
Conclusion: therefore, God exists.

Well, that won't do. Anyone can happily deny the minor premise. And they regularly do. Sure, you can push people into admitting that they do think that one thing or another is 'just wrong', but that is just their feeling or preference as far as they are concerned.

What about hope? I've often heard something a bit like:

Major premise: only Christianity offers ultimate hope for individuals and the cosmos.
Minor premise: we all need hope.
Conclusion: therefore, Christianity is true.

But that is not even a valid syllogism! It is a valid question whether our need for hope, especially in the face of death, is not in fact a product of our Christian heritage. Even if hope is a universal human desire - and I don't see how you could prove it - that doesn't show that it is a valid desire. I hope for many things that don't come to pass.

Arguments like these have their place. What they demonstrate, if presented properly, is that 'it would be nice if Christianity were true'. That sounds like a pretty weak conclusion, but actually I think it is one of the things that my contemporaries need to hear. Christianity is attractive; faith in Jesus makes sense of the world. These arguments are important because many people have already decided that Christianity is intellectually, ethically and aesthetically barren. We need to show them that it is not so. We also need to point out, by use of these sorts of arguments, that they ought not to be content to swallow the nonChristian worldview without careful thought - after all, it deprives you of hope, ethics etc. Maybe those things are illusory, in which case we'll have to do without, but you ought to at least check. In this way, positively and negatively,we win a hearing for the gospel.

That would be the first step. But that is as far as any of these arguments can take you. Even here, your argument needs to be qualified: if Christianity is true, there is also the reckoning with the wrath of God against sin, which is frankly unattractive. That tells me that even here these arguments cannot be allowed to control.

Everything hinges on this: is it true? By which we mean: did the man Jesus die and rise?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

God is love

Contra the mushy, somewhat insubstantial ideas of what this means that are floating around today, thus Karl Barth:

"...the love of God is, in fact, the communion of the Father with the Son, and therefore with the elected man Jesus and therefore with his people, and not in any sense a general divine love for man."

(CD II/2, p297)

Monday, August 17, 2009

The gospel versus -phobia

A brief break from chatter about revelation. This is a thought process, not a finished thought, hence the jumbled and possibly incomprehensible state of this post.

I'm thinking in particular of phenomena like xenophobia (racism) and homophobia. These seem to involve an unpleasant mix of fear and hatred, apparently without rational motivation. My guess is that these spring from the recognition that the other person is different from me, combined with the recognition (perhaps suppressed) that they are not all that different. I suspect it is hard to have this strength of feeling unless some proximity is felt - if the other were completely different, there would be a lot less threat implied by their existence. So this is all just one example of the complex relationship with "the other". The other is like me and yet unlike; unlike and yet disturbingly like.

The gospel seems to me to speak into this situation by affirming and bringing into the light the "likeness". By introducing us to "The Other" - God in Christ - the gospel makes it clear that the most fundamental thing about each of us is that we stand before someone utterly unlike us, our Creator. In that situation, we are all the same. Our differences do not register when measured against this absolute scale.

But this would not be sufficient by itself, I suspect, to overcome our fear of one another. Something more is needed, and that something more is the fact that God has become one of us - has entered into the sphere of particularity and difference. Jesus had a particular ethnicity, sexuality, gender. He was like and yet unlike. And yet his universal appeal, and universal love, serve in this sphere also to relativise our differences.

So the point is: there is no difference. All stand the same before God, in the sphere of absolute and relative "difference".

Connected thought: some will object to me lumping racism and homophobia together. I don't do that in the way that the secularist does; indeed, I reject the connection in the way that the secularist sees it. For me, homosexuality remains an ethical issue, because it is an ethical issue in the Scriptures. But even here, the difference is relativised. How can the Christian be homophobic when "such were some of you"? How can there be fear and hatred here when there is no difference except what God has made by graciously removing you from that sphere to this?

Another connected thought: the only absolute difference is one found outside the relationship between me and the other human beings. It is found in God, in Christ. Therefore it is not my business to prosecute this difference, but to entrust the management of it to him and in the meantime to love.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Revelation in 1 Samuel 3

The story of Samuel's call is intriguing from the point of view of the doctrine of revelation. We are told that "the young man Samuel was ministering to the Lord" at the beginning of the story - taking part in temple services (what was the temple at Shiloh? Just the tabernacle, or something more? Would be interested if anyone has any knowledge here, although it's strictly beside the point of this post). We are also told that "Samuel did not yet know the Lord", despite his presence in the temple. In this regard, Samuel's autobiography mirrors that of Israel as a whole: "the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision".

Into this situation comes the voice of God. The Lord personally calls Samuel by name, and effectively commissions him as a prophet by giving him a message to deliver to Eli. (The role of Eli in this process is somewhat ambivalent, in keeping with the presentation of his character throughout the book). There is no doubt in anyone's mind that this is God speaking: "the Lord was with him, and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel... knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the Lord".

What interests me most in this chapter is the end result: "the Lord appeared again at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord". Note that no phsyical apparition is in view here - the call narrative rules that out. By speaking to Samuel, God appears to him. By giving him his word, God reveals himself. Now Samuel knows the Lord.

Of course, Samuel had a great deal of information about the Lord at the beginning of this chapter. He had access to reports of God's past revelation of himself to Israel, he had knowledge of God's prescribed worship (probably - although he is reported to be sleeping where the Ark is kept!), and he doubtless had instruction from God's priest. But until the Lord spoke to him personally, God was not revealed to him. Facts and reports did not constitute personal revelation.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

'General' revelation? Suppressing the truth in Romans 1

Romans 1:18-32 is also often interpreted as affirming a broad view of revelation. Verses 19 and 20 certainly seem to point in this direction: "For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made."

I feel much more tentative in advancing a contradiction of this interpretation than I did regarding Acts 17, and I would be very interested in comments.

Firstly, there is revelation going on in this passage - "the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven". However, if we ask to whom this revelation is made, the answer seems to be that it is made to Christians. If we read verses 17 and 18 together, we get: "For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith... For the wrath of God is revealed..." In other words, from the standpoint of faith in the gospel it is possible to see the wrath of God revealed in the way pagan history has played out. The pagans themselves, of course, do not see this.

Secondly, this passage is a description of pagan history. In chapter 2, Paul will go on to discuss Gentile responsibility to God, and then move to the question of whether the Jews escape condemnation through having the law. So it seems most sensible to read this second half of Romans 1 as Paul's review of how the Gentiles got into this mess in the first place. I think this view helps to explain the phrase "ever since the creation of the world", and also helps to explain Paul's description of decline from a high level of knowledge. Obviously, at the beginning there was recollection of God's personal revelation - his close personal fellowship - with Adam and Eve. But this has been gradually squandered. Knowledge had been exchanged for ignorance. (Doubtless this does also describe the general trend in societies which neglect God, but I think Paul is here describing history, not sociology).

Thirdly, this perspective on pagan history can only be delivered from the point of view of Biblical faith. I am uncomfortable in the extreme with the use of this passage to say "everyone does actually know that God exists, even if they won't admit it - they're just suppressing the truth". Paul's description of history points to the conclusion that people actually do not know that God exists, because since the creation of the world there has been systematic suppression of this truth. Only from the point of view of God's self-revelation can it be seen that this truth has been suppressed.

What then of the fact that "what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them"? And more acutely, what about the fact that this has been plain "ever since the creation of the world" - i.e. not just in the beginning, but ever since?

I think Paul is saying: the information is all still there - but without God's special self-disclosure this will inevitably lead to ignorance, due to human sin. Again, I question whether this should be called 'revelation'. A process which cannot lead to anyone knowing God, but will through sin always lead to idolatry does not seem to me to deserve the label. At the very least, we must say that Romans 1 does not teach that people actually know about God - precisely the opposite!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

'General' revelation? Paul before the Areopagus

One passage often thought to teach a broader concept of revelation than the one I've been hinting at here is Acts 17:16-34. Paul is granted a hearing before the Areopagus in Athens, and he proceeds to preach the gospel. He begins with the Athenian altar "to the Unknown God", proceeds to explain the folly of idolatry in typical OT and Jewish terms (but terms with which his sophisticated pagan audience would have had some sympathy), explains God's dealings with the nations in the past, and concludes by calling all to repent since God has now raised Jesus from the dead. (As an aside, this seems to be an extended and sophisticated version of Paul's address to the people of Derbe in Acts 14).

Two aspects of Paul's sermon might seem to imply a broad concept of revelation. The first is his use of the Athenian's 'unknown god'. Of course, in and of itself this is nothing more than an incidental point of Athenian culture, which was crowded (physically and metaphysically) with gods. However, Paul states his intention in his sermon thus: "what therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you". Is Paul here identifying the God of the OT, and the Father of Jesus Christ, with the Athenian idol? Is he saying that the worship the Athenians have directed to this unknown God has in fact been directed to the Creator God?

In my opinion, the answer to both questions must be 'no'. I'll come to the reasoning behind this shortly. But first, notice that the whole point here is that the Athenians do not know God. The altar to the unknown god represented, for them, the simple enough pagan fear that they might have overlooked a deity. For Paul, I would suggest, it represents more profoundly the emptiness that lies at the heart of all pagan religion. The fact that the altar is there testifies to a space - a void - that exists within this religious system. That void must necessarily exist in any religion of untrue gods, for religion is directed toward a deity (or deities), and unless the direction is toward the true and living God all the worship, prayer and devotion simply disappears into nothingness.

The second point which might seem to indicate a broad concept of revelation is Paul's outline of history: "he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined alotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way towards him and find him". Paul might well be taken to mean here that the general cultural history of the world is in itself a vehicle of revelation. History has been ordered such that there is potential for people to find God in it.

But note what the outcome has been: nobody has found God. "Yet he is actually not far from each one of us". All the reaching out and grasping that humanity has done, all the history of religion and philosophy, has only produced the altar to the unknown god. All the worship has only produced temples made with hands, containing gods which cannot move or act or speak. Human culture, religion and philosophy has by-passed the God who not far from each one of us, seeking a different god, a 'better' god, a god more to our taste. The conclusion of this history is that the true God breaks in in Jesus Christ and calls for repentance. Note that it is precisely this seeking after god which the nations are called to repent of, in the light of the fact that God has decisively sought after them.

Is the Unknown God to be identified with YHWH, with the Father of Jesus Christ? Absolutely not. Paul speaks consistently from the standpoint of revelation here - i.e. from the standpoint of faith in Jesus Christ and the Scriptures which testify to him. His critique of idolatry is derived thence, as is his interpretation of history. From that standpoint, Paul sees the void represented by the unknown god as the evidence of the absence of revelation, and he proceeds to proclaim Christ.

P.S. Any attempt to see broader revelation here actually leads to a very muddled concept of revelation - it is revelation that does not reveal, revelation that leads to unknowing. The sign of the unknown god bars the way to any such doctrine.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Revelation and the Trinity

In Jesus Christ, we see God revealed. That is the presupposition, or rather the foundational occurrence, of all true theology. But this raises two further questions:

1. Who or what is it that Christ reveals? To say 'God' in the abstract is highly problematic. If Christ reveals 'God' in the abstract, can we still make room for an assertion of the deity of Christ? That is to say, can Christ reveal 'God' and be 'God'? The concept of Christ as "God revealed" pushes us to a definite, and not abstract, notion of God standing behind Christ. In the gospel accounts, and most especially in John, Jesus expresses this in terms of his relationship with the Father - the two are one; anyone who has seen Christ has seen the Father. Jesus the Son reveals the Father.

2. How is it that I see God revealed in Christ? This question is raised most acutely when we consider that there are many others who have access to the same information and have the same, or even superior, faculties who do not see this. From the point of view of faith in Christ, with the shadow-revelation of depravity that comes with that, we have to see the only the divine could have overcome our blindness. Again, John's gospel is very helpful in setting out the relationship of Christ to the Spirit, whom he sends to lead his disciples into truth. Jesus the Son is revealed by the Spirit.

The answers to these two questions lead to a further affirmation: these three - the Father, Son and Spirit - are really and truly One. If the Son truly reveals the Father to the extent that anyone who sees him sees also the Father, then Father and Son are One; and what is more, they are One God - how could the saying be true otherwise? And if the Spirit truly makes the Son known to us as God - if he truly takes from what is Christ's and gives it to us, and if Father and Son truly come to dwell in us through his indwelling - then the Spirit, too, is One God with the Father and the Son.

The doctrine of the Trinity can be extrapolated from the presupposition that Jesus Christ reveals God; the assertion that Jesus Christ reveals God can only be true in the context of that doctrine.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Revelation and History

Another question which needs to be tackled in constructing a doctrine of revelation is the relationship between God's revelation and history. Here are a few thoughts I've had so far...

1. We must affirm that revelation occurs within history. That is essentially to say that the historical man Jesus Christ is the revelation of God, and therefore (note the logical order, which differs from the temporal) the OT history is the revelation of God. Secondarily, this means that the Scriptural accounts which purport to be historical refer to actual events - they are not myth, or edifying stories designed to convey religious truth. They record events which occurred in the usual way, in connection with other events, through the agency of people (including God) in the space-time universe in which we live.

2. We must deny that history is revelation. Although all the events of history are connected to the events of God's revelation, they are not all revelation themselves. We cannot therefore seek revelation in the history of religions, for example, or - as the older liberals sought to do - in the history of culture more generally. At the micro level, we cannot seek revelation in our own personal history either. This is, I think, what lies behind Barth's much maligned distinction between 'history' and 'sacred history'. The latter occurs within the former, and could be described as its inner logic and justification - but the two are not identical.

3. We need to think carefully about exegesis of Scripture. We can helpfully use information from general history to illuminate our understanding of the Bible, but I think we should be wary of allowing general history to become controlling. The Reformation assertion that Scripture interprets Scripture is to be maintained, albeit in a nuanced way.

4. We must avoid allowing history to judge revelation. Basically, I mean that the events of revelation, which take place within history, cannot be considered purely from a historical point of view. The rules of general history do not take account of the fact that God acts, and perhaps they ought not to. But given revelation, we have to acknowledge that here, in this series of events and supremely in this person, God has acted, and his actions cannot be explained within a general historical framework.

5. We should take care about using arguments from general history in apologetics. I say we should take care; I think we should use historical arguments. But perhaps the only way a historical argument will work is to point out that there is something here that cannot be explained within the framework of general history. In other words, we cannot act as if general history could provide or justify revelation. But we might be able to argue that general history reveals at its centre a hole - and into that hole we can present the gospel, the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

Is there anything I haven't thought of?

Friday, August 07, 2009

The order of things

The order in which things are said matters as much as the particular things that are said. For example, imagine you were trying to work out your doctrine of revelation. (I don't need to imagine it, that's exactly what I'm doing, but you can just imagine, that'll be fine). Where would you start?

You could start with the actuality of revelation - i.e. the point that revelation has in fact occurred. Within that, you could make your initialy point one about the objective actuality of revelation, in which case you'd be beginning with Jesus Christ as the incarnate Word, and the revelation of God in history. Or you could start with the subjective actuality of revelation, in which case you'd be talking about the preaching of the gospel and the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit. Both would make sensible starting points in some ways, the former because it lays the foundation for Christian doctrine, i.e. it is the most fundamental point; the latter because it is existentially and experientially the first point. There is also perhaps a third position relating to the actuality of revelation - you could start 'in the middle' as it were, with the doctrine of Scripture. That would make some sense as well - after all, that's how we know about Christ in the first place.

Alternatively, you could start with the possibility of revelation. In other words, you could begin by answering the question "how is it possible that God can be revealed to us?" That would cover the same ground, but from a slightly different angle. You could still start with the objective, i.e. Christ, or the subjective, i.e. illumination, or the mediating position, i.e. Scripture. But you'd be starting, not by describing revelation, but by analysing the conditions necessary for revelation to occur. Again, all would make sense. After all, ought we not to discuss how revelation can be, before we discuss what it is?

A third big set of starting points would be the necessity of revelation. This would mean starting with the question "why is revelation necessary?" You could talk about anthropological problems - the finitude of man in comparison with God, the sinfulness of man in the face of God. Or you could talk about theological problems - the wrath of God, the need for God to condescend in order to reveal himself. All would make sensible starting points in some ways, not least because it is not clear why we should worry about the doctrine of revelation until we've clarified these things.

All these things need to be said, but what you say first will set the tone for the presentation of the doctrine, and will affect the way you treat other issues later on.

I know where I'd start. How about you?

Comments policy

I've never had to do this before, and I'm gutted to have to do it now, but here it is. Some new rules:

1. Comments which I judge to be irrelevant to the post to which they are attached will be deleted. No exceptions.

2. Comments which I judge to impolite or offensive may be deleted without warning. That's my call.

3. Comments complaining about these rules will be deleted. No exceptions. My blog, my rules.

4. Commenters whom I judge to be persistently breaking these rules henceforth will be barred permanently.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Run away!

So, you know sometimes you have complete train-wreck days? I'm guessing (hoping?) that everyone does and it isn't just me. And I'm guessing that if you're a Christian then more often than not your train-wreck days involve your own sin.

So I was having a train-wreck day, and as sometimes happens I turned on my soul with a grumpy interrogative: "can you not even be in this situation for a few hours without doing that?" (My query was more specific, but we can talk in generalisations here). But I was quite surprised on this occassion that my soul answered back: "no".

I was all, like, "what?", and my soul was all, like, "no, I cannot be in this situation and not sin". And I was, like, "no way", and my soul went, like, "talk properly you cretin". I would have argued the point, but arguing with one's own animating spirit is possibly unwise.

Anyway, the point of the exchange was that I realised I couldn't be in certain circumstances without often falling into sin. It struck me with huge clarity that I should not be surprised that this is so, given what I believe about myself. And it came through very clearly that the answer was simple: avoid the situation. Just get out of there.

It was so painfully simple that I had to stop and think about why this hadn't occurred to me before. I realise now that I'd been quite afraid of legalism. I thought that if I avoided the situation, rather than facing up to my temptation, I would only be dealing with the presenting issue and not with the problem in my heart. I would be using rules to curb my behaviour rather than using the gospel to change me at the deepest level. This would be bad.

I think what I've realised is that actually rules can work two ways. Yes, maybe I could be legalistic, creating an external righteousness when I was still not loving Jesus inside. But maybe if I loved Jesus more I would make rules to avoid the situations where I was most likely to betray him. The rule could flow from the relationship, rather than the (legalistic) model of the relationship flowing from the rule.

Deeper analysis: was I really afraid of legalism? Or was I just proud - "I can handle this; this time it will be okay"? Or lazy - just unwilling to get off my backside and leave the danger zone?

The simple things that get twisted up in that desperately sick heart of mine!

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Whereof we need not speak

Thesis: the basic formal principle of Christian theology and Christian preaching is necessity, or if you like obligation.

I want to explore this in a couple of directions, theological and Biblical.

1. The most basic activity of the church is listening or hearing. The church, and the individual Christian as a member of the church, hears God's Word and is gripped by it, energised by it, given new life by it - not just once, but again and again and again. The church always continues to be hearing. But because the church hears, the church must also speak. It is the nature of the Word that the church hears that it becomes at once the Word that the church must speak and witness to and announce to the world. This is true both because the content of that Word includes a specific commission to speak, and because the Word comes with transformative power that naturally leads to speaking. Hearing necessitates speaking. But if hearing necessitates speaking, it also controls speaking: only what is heard is spoken. When speaking goes beyond hearing, we are outside the range of Christian activity.

2. The book of the prophet Jeremiah most clearly illustrates the point, in the contrast between the false prophets and the true prophet. The Lord's main complaint against the false prophets is not that they are lying - although that comes up! - but that they are speaking without commission: "I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them" (14:14). "For who among them has stood in the council of the Lord, to see and to hear his word..? I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied" (23:18-22). By contrast, Jeremiah cannot help but speak (20:9). He has heard God's Word, and he must proclaim it. He is compelled to do so. His commission as a prophet obliges him to speak.

3. The NT is clear that this is what it means to be apostolic: "we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:20); "For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!" (1 Cor 9:16).

This shuts the door to speculation in theology - if we are not forced by the Word of God (which concretely means by the content of Holy Scripture) to speak on a subject, we would do better to remain silent. It also shuts the door to a 'quiet faith' - if we are truly hearing God's Word, we must speak.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner's Guide

So, my friend Ben wrote a book. As a result of writing this book, and of the other work he does, my friend Ben was denounced as an antisemite and a holocaust denier. To reassure you, he is certainly neither of those things. But he has written a controversial book.

I finished reading this a couple of days ago, but I need to put some thinking time in before I reviewed it. I can see why people are angry about it. I can see why it has attracted a lot of negative press. But I think you should read it. I really do.

Ben takes us through three broad sections. The first relates the history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. It tells the story of the rise of Israel, and the subsequent displacement of the Palestinian people. It is a powerful story, powerfully told, using quotations from early Israeli leaders and interviews with Palestinians affected. What comes across most clearly is the awareness that the Zionist project would require the eviction of the Palestinian people if it was to succeed - and great lengths were gone to in order to ensure that it did succeed. At the end of the section, I was angry. Very angry.

The second section has to do with the current apparatus of Israeli apartheid. Ben talks us through the situation on the ground for Arabs within Israel and those in the OPT, again drawing on a wide range of sources. It is painful reading. When I got to the end of this section, I felt more or less despair. How could anything change such a system?

And so the third section, which outlined action that I could take, was great. Ben refuses to allow us to walk away because the situation is too complex, or the solutions too distant. We must do something; I must do something. Ask me in a few months what I've done - I know that I am too prone to laziness, and am likely to let this challenge pass me by.

After the final section is an excellent FAQ, which helped to answer some questions I had about the topic, and should probably be made available online if at all possible. It would by itself lend a lot of clarity to discussions of the issue.

Ben has been criticised for writing a one-sided story. It does come across as one-sided. But then, it seems pretty clear that the reality of the situation is also one-sided. The book does acknowledge Palestinian violence, and perhaps is not as clear in denouncing it as some would like. But the picture here is of an occupied people fighting against their occupiers - is that really so clear cut, so obviously morally wrong? I suspect that only those who have never experienced the situation could say so.

Ben has also been criticised for quoting innacurately. I don't know whether that's true or not; Ben has defended himself here. But it doesn't ultimately matter all that much.

Because the reason people are so angry at this book is because it makes the one critique of Israeli policy that is worth making, and that goes to the heart of the issue. Israel defines itself as a Jewish state. In other words, it defines itself in ethno-religious terms. Only Jews can be Israeli nationals; all Jews are welcome in Israel. Imagine if someone suggested that Britain should define itself in terms of a particular ethnic identity! Oh, wait, that would be the BNP - and we don't like them, right?

Ultimately, Ben argues that Israel/Palestine must be a place where Jews and Palestinians are equal under the law, and a state which exists for the good of all its citizens. This is much more radical than the two-state solution, much more difficult to move towards than even that mirage. But anything else enshrines racism as a successful nation building strategy.

The world really doesn't want to go there.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Jesus and Gender

or "Being a Pretty Princess"

It is a documented fact that evangelical Christianity struggles to attract blokes, and does much better with women. Various theories have been advanced as to why this might be. Probably the most popular one is that we're just not doing church right - our songs are overly sentimental, our preaching isn't action-packed enough, our vision of Jesus isn't macho enough. Church doesn't feel very blokey.

Some of those things might be valid concerns, to a certain extent. But I've been wondering whether the Christian message is stucturally anti-male, and I suspect it is - and I suspect that isn't a problem.

Psalm 45 is my jumping-off point here. The Psalm celebrates a royal wedding. It celebrates the greatness of the King, and the beauty of the Princess he is about to marry. If read Christologically (and it must be, both as a general hermeneutical principle and because of the juxtaposition of verses 6 and 7), this is a celebration of Christ's love for the church. And it's magnificent - he the Royal Lover, she the Beautiful Princess wooed away from her people.

A combination of this Psalm and John Owen's insistence that marriage is the primary image for understanding our relationship with Christ leads me into Ephesians 5:22-33. In this passage, two things become clear. One is that the roles of husband and wife in marriage are not symmetrical or reversible; the other is that in the relationship of Christ and the church, he is husband and we are bride.

So the gospel assigns the church a feminine part. It would be interesting to explore exactly what that means, but for now suffice to say this is going to be a problem for people who want a more macho, man-friendly church.

Is this a problem for the gospel? I guess not. Maybe Christianity is more attractive to women - well, so be it. You don't have to follow the modern feminist critique all the way (and I wouldn't recommend following it very far), but it is clear that women have been kept at the margins in most societies most of the time. And doesn't the gospel speak mainly to the sidelines? For me as a man, the question is: can you accept that you are beautiful to your divine Lover and Husband, and not need to be the man in this relationship? Because ultimately, The Man is the man.

Interesting to compare the reactions of the church and the Bible. The church says "we need to man up, we need to appeal to men"; the Scripture says "if it helps, He does think you're a very pretty Princess".