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.