Friday, December 24, 2010

Born of the Virgin Mary

A few brief reflections on the theological significance of the virgin birth...

1. The virgin birth indicates a really new thing. The thing in question is of course the incarnation. There is a decisive break here with everything that has gone before, and the virgin birth is a signpost to point us to that. It is a biological break in the chain of human existence which points to a spiritual (and therefore fleshly - the two are not as opposite as we think) breaking in to human existence. Christmas is about newness.

2. The virgin birth indicates the incapacity of humanity. Our salvation is not a latent possibility within humanity as such. It is not as if we were just waiting for the right one of us to come along. Just as Mary cannot, as a virgin, conceive, so we as a race cannot bring forth our own salvation. Christmas is about our hopelessness.

3. The virgin birth is God's contradiction of our impossibility. Simple fact is, the Saviour was one of us; Mary did conceive. Not because she was given any special ability, or was in some way prepared for this, but because her impossibility was overcome by God's great possibility. Christmas is about God's 'yes', which triumphs even in the face of all our 'no's.
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Thursday, December 16, 2010

God rest ye merry, gentlemen

The Incarnation demands great seriousness of us. Of course it does. If God is there, and much more so if God was here, then everything matters. If we don’t feel that deeply, I wonder if we have understood what it means that God was one of us.

But there is a flipside, which I suspect gets underplayed because it appears to stand in conflict with that seriousness and to undermine all serious efforts to live the Christian life. That flipside is that the Incarnation really does demand great levity of us. Let me explain what I mean.

If Christmas is true, which is to say if God really became one of us, walked with us, talked with us, died for us, rose for us (for all of this is encompassed in Christmas, at least in nuce) – if this is true, then it means that God himself has taken up our cause as lost and fallen creatures. His own arm has wrought salvation for him. He has acted on our behalf, and that action is decisive. In Christ, God is good to us; in Christ, we are the recipients of mercy. It is done.

So, all those burdens and anxieties that we carry around are, strictly speaking, no longer ours to carry. How can we have any ultimate concerns if God is for us in this way, if he has taken up our cause in this way? Our apparently legitimate concerns and our obviously unfaithful fears are equally taken out of our hands. He bears them. He is for us.

The Christian is a serious person. He knows that his actions and decisions have significance, that they take place in a world that is full of meaning. But there is also a lightness to the Christian, because he knows that his actions and decisions do not have ultimate significance. He knows that although he must walk, he is ultimately carried. And so his seriousness, which may express itself in serious sorrow and serious joy – and certainly serious resolution and action – as the occasion demands, will sometimes give way to laughter that can’t be controlled and a smile that goes beyond the circumstances.

Let nothing you dismay.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Waiting for Jesus

So much of the story of the Bible is about waiting for Jesus, in different ways and with different intensity.

Think about Abraham's wait for a son who would be heir to the promise; the prolongation of that wait, to the point where natural generation was more or less impossible, surely points to the long wait for The Son who was to come.  Consider Israel's wait in Egypt, praying for deliverance, and the raising up of a deliverer who is both within and without Israel; surely a type of Christ.  To be honest, think of the whole history of Israel, the whole story of the Old Testament, which is so powerfully summarised at the end of Psalm 130:  I wait for the Lord.  And of course, when Jesus comes, we see that the history of Israel had its meaning in that waiting, and that in so far as it was characterised by that waiting it was also the history of the world.

It is interesting that the New Testament also has a lot of waiting for Jesus.  It becomes the central prayer of the church - Maranatha, come Lord Jesus.  But even before that, there is the waiting for Pentecost, when Jesus comes to his people in his Spirit.  Always waiting for Jesus.

A couple of things about that:

1.  How is waiting for Jesus different from waiting for Godot?  In other words, doesn't the constant waiting tempt us to think that perhaps we are waiting in vain, for someone who isn't coming?  Well, of course we are tempted to think just like that.  But the key difference is that we know for whom we are waiting, and we have not offered him "a vague supplication" with no certain expectation of fulfilment.  The Crucified One is the Coming One, and vice versa, and we look to him for the restoration of all things because he himself is the restoration of all things, as demonstrated in his resurrection.

2.  What do we do in the meantime?  Obviously, we wait, and watch, and pray.  We long for his appearing.  But we also announce the Coming to anyone who will listen, because we know that it is not only us waiting.  The whole creation waits.  I take it that this includes all human beings, in so far as they are created, which is to say in so far as they are not utterly given over to the nothingness that is sin.  (And of course they are not utterly given over, for it is not given to them to destroy themselves).  Like Israel, we wait with knowledge in a world of ignorance; like Israel, we wait representatively for all the world.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Even if one rose from the dead

Here is an odd question for you: what would count as evidence that you were in the presence of God incarnate? What facts or occurrences would qualify as good rational grounds to conclude that this human being was also, in reality, God the Lord, creator of all things visible and invisible?

What things spring to mind?

Virgin birth - assuming that could be verified beyond a doubt, which I suppose it could nowadays?  Miracles - assuming that they were well-attested and we were sure there was no trickery involved?  Inspired teaching - assuming that it really did go beyond anything that anyone else had said?  Resurrection from the dead - assuming that this, too, could be verified absolutely, including a careful check that real death had occurred?

Or perhaps a cumulative case built up out of all the above?

Now, I have no interest in shaking anyone's faith.  But I do want to point out that, as far as I can tell, it would not be legitimate to draw the conclusion that I was in the presence of God incarnate from any of those things, or indeed all of them put together.  They are all remarkable, but frankly remarkable things do happen in the world.  Taken together, they certainly seem to point to the action of some higher power, but we know that there are many powers at work in the universe.

We are faced here with an epistemological problem.  What criteria could one apply to ascertain whether something absolutely unique had occurred?  And here we do mean 'absolutely unique'.  If God enters into his creation as a man, that is an event without parallel or analogue.  It is not just one of those remarkable things that happens from time to time, and that is why none of the remarkable things mentioned can be sufficient evidence of it.  Our categories of knowledge break down when we cannot compare an event with something similar, or at least something with which it stands in basic continuity.  But there is no immediate continuity between the incarnation of God and any other event in all creation, because there is no immediate continuity between God and his creation.  They are not in the same class of being.

Of course, it is necessary to our faith that all these things have actually happened and been true.  They are necessary, but not sufficient, reasons to trust that Jesus Christ is my Lord and Saviour, as he is to the whole world.  But I think there is something significant in the fact that the most dazzlingly revelatory events - the Transfiguration, say, or indeed the resurrection itself - have deliberately very limited audiences.  And even those audiences contain doubters and deniers - think of the guards at the tomb, or the 'but some doubted' of Matthew 28.

So, what are we to say to this?

Firstly, I think there is something we can say about continuity.  The incarnation does stand in continuity with the history of Israel, or to be more precise (but less temporally straightforward) the history of Israel stands in continuity with the incarnation.  In the light of Israel's history, we can understand Jesus as the mighty God come to save his people.

But secondly, we must recognise that even this connection can only be seen if we are given eyes.  We can rehearse the evidences, the signposts that something extraordinary is happening in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.  We can highlight the sense that he makes of Israel's history, and vice versa.  But ultimately, unless it is shown us - shown to each of us personally - we cannot see it.

Veni Creator Spiritus!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Leap of faith?

The concept of the leap of faith is pretty central to the view of religion which most people hold in western culture today.  It can be given a positive or a negative spin.  Negatively, the leap of faith is portrayed as ignoring the facts, running contrary to the evidence, 'committing intellectual suicide', throwing oneself into the darkness even though the light of knowledge is shining all around.  On this view, a leap of faith means plunging into absurd mysticism, usually because one is unwilling to deal with the cold, hard facts of life.  Positively, the leap of faith is portrayed as reaching out for something 'beyond', something that transcends the mundane, something that provides meaning and purpose in a universe otherwise devoid of both.  Although the leap does take us beyond knowledge, per se, it is somehow a virtue to trust in something - almost anything - that will give our lives a bit of content - and who knows, maybe that something is really out there.

Christians tend to divide into those who hate the idea of a leap of faith and see no place for it in Christianity, and those who embrace it.  Broadly speaking, the former believe that Christianity is based on evidence and rationality, can be demonstrated, and does not involve any leaping because it is all within the bounds of what is ordinarily referred to as knowledge.  They tend to be keen on the discipline of apologetics, and to have some regard for natural theology.  The latter, on the other hand, do not believe that the arguments and evidences will get you all the way.  They may vary as to how far they will get you - perhaps very close - but at the end of the day, you will have to make a leap.  You will reach the end of your intellectual resources, and the arguments and evidences will take you to a point from which you just have to jump.  If God is there, presumably he'll catch you.

I would suggest, of course, that neither of these positions is quite right, mainly because they both have something desperately wrong in common.  Both believe that human beings can work it out, sort it out, and live it out, without assistance.  Either we have to think it through, or we have to jump.  Either way, the decisive action is ours, and comes on our side.

What if revelation were needed - personal revelation, God stooping down to meet me?  What if instead of the leap of faith we were presented with the 'leap of grace'?  What if it was all, in the end, about receiving?

"If we know ourselves, as the Christian does, we cannot think that we are capable of this leap.  And the whole idea of a leap that we have made or are making is best abandoned.  No one makes the leap.  As Christians, we are all borne on eagles' wings."

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Future Prospects and Present Purity

I don't know of anywhere in Scripture that expresses the Christian hope more beautifully than 1 John 3:2 - "Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is".  This is the Christian's personal eschatology.  A few comments on it...

1.  It is hope, because although it is already ours ("we are God's children now") we do not yet see it ("...has not yet appeared").  We live for the future, because our present status is something that we will only enjoy and experience in the future.

2.  The Christian hope is entirely wrapped up in Christ.  To see Christ is at the heart of it.  That is why "the sky, not the grave, is our goal".

3.  To see Christ truly is a transformative experience.  We see this to some extent in the present life ("we all with unveiled faces...") but ultimately, when we see him - when faith becomes sight - then we will be like him.

It's worth noting the next verse.  "And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure".  If we expect this transformation in the future, if we hope to see him and be like him then, we should seek to be like him now.  To me, this makes good sense.  It is where we are going that decides the direction we strike out in.  If this is where I'm going - toward purity, toward Christ - then it makes sense to make today a step in the right direction.

Who I will be defines who I am, much more than who I was ever could.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Reasons to teach eschatology

'Eschatology' is just everything to do with the end - whether it's personal eschatology (what happens to me in the end?) or cosmic eschatology (where is the universe headed?) - and I think we downplay it more than we should.  Here are a few reasons why I think it is important that eschatology play more of a role in our teaching.

1.  If we don't teach people eschatology, someone else will.  I suspect that one of the reasons we don't talk about the end very much is because we don't want to be one of those loons who is always banging on about the end of the world.  However, to counteract an overemphasis by largely neglecting the subject is unlikely to work! I've met several people who have been won over to dispensationalist views just because nobody else ever gave them a framework within which they could think these issues through, or a way of interpreting Revelation that seemed to take the book seriously.  If we don't want people to pick up bad eschatology, we need to teach them good stuff.

2.  If we don't teach eschatology, people will be disappointed with the Christian life.  One corollary of our neglect of eschatology is that Christians don't understand hope, and don't understand that the best bits of the Christian life - sinlessness, seeing Jesus, freedom from suffering - are all in the future.  That means that we expect more out of this life than we are really promised, and that leads to disappointment.  Proper eschatology keeps us oriented to the future, with a hope and expectation that will not be disappointed.

3.  If we don't teach eschatology, people don't understand how to relate to the world.  What is a Christian approach to ecology?  How should I think about culture?  How much emphasis should we place on poverty relief and development (and which of those should be prioritised)?  All of these questions need a healthy eschatology to get a good answer.

I'm sure there are more...

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Genesis in competition

There has been a bit of a storm in a teacup in the last few days over Stephen Hawking’s claims that the creation of the Universe was, or at least very well could have been, godless.  Various people have sprung to God’s defence in various ways, which is jolly decent of them.  I’ve been pondering one very common line of defence, and thinking through the way the Biblical creation narratives work.  Here’s where I’m at so far.

A lot of people, including the ABC for example, have argued that even if Hawking could demonstrate a complete physical explanation for the beginning of everything (I confess I don’t understand whether he has done so, and if not what his prospects are for the future) this would have no impact on religious beliefs about the beginning of the Universe.  These are two totally different sorts of stories, and both could be true at once.  This line of argument is manifestly seeking to avoid the accusation that theologians maintain a ‘god of the gaps’, deploying the Almighty only when there is no less plenipotentiary explanation to hand.  That we avoid such a concept of God is, of course, vitally important, especially if we wish to maintain a specifically Christian theism.  That just isn’t the way God reveals himself and his relation to creation.

So on that score, all well and good.

It does concern me, though, that it could appear (and may well be) that Christian apologists are seeking to assert a complete compatibility between whatever creation stories are floating around in our society and the Biblical accounts.  This will not do.

At this point, one small piece of autobiography and one blunt assertion.  The autobiographical point is that my background here is in young earth creationism, a position from which I’ve retreated, not, I hope, in the face of the rampant hordes of secular humanism, but through reflection on the Biblical texts themselves.  Nevertheless, I maintain some respect for the YEC position, for reasons which will become clear.  The blunt assertion is this: Hawking’s account of origins, like every account, is a story.  There are no uninterpreted facts; every narrative of the beginning is a drama.  That this drama deals primarily with material drawn from contemporary scientific method is irrelevant; that method itself is embedded in a wider worldview shaped by narrative.

A question: why were the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 written?  On the most conservative assumptions of Mosaic authorship and an early date for the Exodus (assumptions I think possible and probable respectively), there were creation stories that looked a lot like Genesis floating around, and indeed dominating in sophisticated Ancient Near Eastern society, many centuries before Moses set pen to papyrus.  We can read them in texts like Enuma Elish and Atrahasis.  Comparison indicates that the author of Genesis is using some of the common building blocks of these accounts – for of course he lives in a broadly similar milieu – but is shaping these building blocks into a completely different building.  In so doing, we must assume he is making a theological point.  He is deliberately putting his creation stories into competition with the existing narratives.  He accepts some common presuppositions – the solid firmament in the sky, for example, or the chaotic and threatening nature of sea – but delivers a completely different message.

It is worth noting also that both Genesis and the standard ANE accounts of origins are in some sense scientific; they work back from what they observe in the world as it exists now, and draw conclusions.  I do not at all want to deny that the Genesis accounts differ in that they preserve a witness to God’s revelation which is not present in Enuma Elish and the like.  But with this firmly acknowledged, I think there is a necessity to recognise the human mode of composition also.  These are designed to be accounts operating at the same level – as complete religious/scientific/metaphysical/social explanations of the origin of the world.  (In this the ancient world had an advantage over us – it did not divide knowledge into distinct and often hermetically sealed spheres as we do.  I suggest that we might learn something here).

As Christians today, we need to take note of the way Genesis works.  It does compete; it does not just set itself up as a deeper explanation.  This, I think, is the insight that young earth creationism brings to the table, and we need to work harder at taking it seriously.  On the other hand, the Genesis accounts are not completely rejectionist; they are happy to accept aspects of the creation stories prevalent in their culture – even aspects (like the raqia) which we can’t accept any longer (which incidentally is perhaps a warning to us that in our appropriation of contemporary concepts we should hold them lightly and provisionally).  That is the insight which shines through theistic evolution, and deserves to be taken equally seriously.  Understanding Genesis as it was plots the course for our understanding of the origins question in the here and now.

Friday, August 27, 2010

From emphatic to reductionist

Justin Taylor quotes Fred Sanders on evangelicalism:

We have a lot to say about God’s revelation, but we emphasize the business end of it, where God’s voice is heard normatively: the Bible.
We know that everything Jesus did has power for salvation in it, but we emphasize the one event that is literally crucial: the cross.
We know that God is at work on his people through the full journey of their lives, from the earliest glimmers of awareness to the ups and downs of the spiritual life, but we emphasize the hinge of all spiritual experience: conversion.
We know there are countless benefits that flow from being joined to Christ, but we emphasize the big one: heaven
The whole post is great, and captures what is for me one of the biggest problems with evangelicalism today.  Go read it, please.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

God revealing and revealed

I've been brushing up on my Patristics over the last couple of weeks, with the help of John Behr's books on the formation of Christian Theology.  It's been really useful stuff.  One of the things that has been driven home to me is that the foundational question of Christian Theology is 'does Jesus Christ reveal God?'  Of course, it's possible that I'm reading things through this lens because I think that this is the central question to be asked and answered today; still, Behr does indicate that this is at the heart of discussions in the first four centuries of the Church as well.  Indeed, he structures his discussion of the Fathers' doctrine around the gospel question 'who do you say I am?' - with each theologian giving subtly different answers.

An interesting contrast drawn by Behr is between Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons.  Both are generally considered to be orthodox, which makes the comparison all the more interesting - we are not dealing with wild heresies, but with a discussion within the Great Church.  Behr argues that for Justin, who never quite escapes his Platonist past, it is a presuppositional truth that God is utterly transcendent, and therefore not capable of being seen.  He understands Christ as a second God, a visible God.  He is not at this point heading into ditheism; he believes in, although he doesn't particularly develop, the oneness of the Father and the Son.  But he does apply titles to Christ which would later drop out of use - he calls him an apostle and an angel.  It wouldn't be too hard to show Scriptural support for both titles, but in Justin's theology they show the place of the Son: he bridges the gap between the Father and the creation, as a messenger.  This enables Justin to see significant continuity between the Son and creation, and to claim all truth - even when uttered by pagan philosophers - as the Word of God.  "[F]or Justin, the revelation of God in the Incarnate Word is the last, even if the most important, in a series of discrete revelations" (Behr).  Moreover, for Justin the Word reveals the Word - God the Father, in his incomprehensible transcendence, remains essentially unknown.

For Irenaeus, on the other hand, there is no division between the Father and the Son; although distinct, they are absolutely united.  The Son reveals the Father - "the Father is the invisible of the Son, the Son is the visible of the Father" (Against Heresies).  The Son is not conceived of as a bridge (which in the end leads nowhere), but as the manifestation of the Father himself.  The continuity between the Son and creation which creeps in to Justin is absent; God is revealed only in Christ, the incarnate Word, and not elsewhere.  Where for Justin, the Son/Word as intermediary between God and creation can be seen throughout creation and only supremely in Christ, for Irenaeus the Son is seen in Christ alone.  The incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ are the revelation of God.  Prior revelation, to the patriarchs and through the Scriptures, is to be understood as related prophetically to the incarnate Word.  There is no room here for any logos asarkos.

It is interesting that the debates about Christology that developed long after Justin and Irenaeus were safely home would revolve initially around whether Christ really is God and therefore able to reveal God, and then around whether this happens in real humanity.  It is all about whether God can be known, and how he can be known.  The answer the orthodox arrived at in the fourth century is that God can be known, but only in his Son, who as true God truly reveals God, and further that the Son can only be seen as incarnate, crucified, and risen, as a true human being.  That, for me, is the crux of all Christian theology: is God seen in Christ, and him crucified?  Is he seen there truly?  Is he seen there alone?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Faith School Menace?

This was the title of a documentary which I watched last night on the subject of faith schools, presented by Professor Richard Dawkins.  Now, I am not hugely excited about faith schools, but I am interested in Prof. Dawkins.  I find him to be representative of a widespread cultural trend which disturbs me, for reasons which will become clear.  For that reason, and not because I particularly feel the need to defend faith schools, I wanted to pass some comment on the documentary.

Firstly, a few relatively trivial things that I think Prof. Dawkins got wrong.  In talking about the rise of faith schools, he seemed to neglect the fact that historically most schools have had some basis in or affiliation to religious teaching, thus making it appear as if a new wave of fundamentalism were sweeping the nation.  I'm really not sure that's true.  Moreover, I think Prof. Dawkins has seriously overestimated how much the average CofE school is actually affected by its links to the Church.  I doubt there is much indoctrination going on in most of these schools.  (Let's face it, you'd struggle to get yourself indoctrinated in the average Anglican Church, let alone the schools).  Neither is there selection along religious lines to the extent that seemed to be implied by the programme.  And in taking us to Belfast as an example of the divisiveness of faith schools, Prof. Dawkins rather failed to take into account the sheer complexity of the situation in Northern Ireland, which has at least as much to do with a legacy of colonialism as it does with religion.

That last point was unfortunate, because for me this was where the argument of the documentary had the potential to be most powerful and most interesting.  It does seem to me that educating children in groups defined by religion is likely to be bad for social cohesion.  By playing the NI card, Prof. Dawkins actually put a red herring into play - it is unlikely that SS Mary and John School just down the road from me is going to turn into a hotbed of sectarian violence.  But there is a possibility (not with SSMJ, which as far as I can see has a pretty open admissions policy) that schools which select children according to religion will end up shutting those children off from other views of the world.  This would be a bad thing.  Of course, a faith-based school could still teach about other worldviews, but if there are no families represented who hold those worldviews they will always seem 'other' and alien.  At this point I think there is a real discussion to be had.  A balance has to be struck between the right of parents to bring up their children (which includes the right to decide how they are educated), and the need of society for people who understand a range of worldviews.  It is a problem which stems from the fact that we in the West no longer agree about what the world is like and what life is about - not just in details, but in fundamentals.  It will be difficult, I think, to reconcile the wishes of parents and the needs of society.  I wish Prof. Dawkins had spent longer discussing this point.

The reason he did not do so became clear toward the end of the programme: Prof. Dawkins thinks there is no great difficulty.  In fact, the situation is simple.  Take the faith out of education, and the problem evaporates.

Let me just pick up a few issues that I have with this position.  The first is that the position adopted by Prof. Dawkins assumes that there is some value-neutral and worldview-neutral way of educating children.  I don't see how this could be done, neither do I think it would be desirable if it could be done.  To educate children to adopt a stand-offish approach to every possible view of the world is to educate them to be isolated and probably unpleasant individualists.  Moreover, the position collapses in on itself at the point where the question is asked: would a value-free education be a good thing?

That exposes the bigger issue, which is that Prof. Dawkins seems to believe that his own worldview is not culturally conditioned, has no fundamental presuppositions, and consists purely of uninterpreted facts.  Just writing the sentence should make it clear that this cannot be so.  I would love it if Prof. Dawkins could see that his own view of the world is one amongst many, and that it is not so self-evidently superior to all the others as he thinks it is.  Of course, he thinks his worldview is right - true in the most absolute sense.  We all do, otherwise we wouldn't hold the views that we do.  But part of being one amongst many human beings in many cultures is to accept that others strongly disagree.

The deepest problem, I think, emerged when Prof. Dawkins began to talk about the advice he had given to his young daughter.  I've heard him mention this before, and it is obviously important to him.  He essentially urges her to ask questions about the world, not to take anyone's word for it, and to keep an open mind.  I applaud all of these things.  But he frames this discussion in terms of four sources of knowledge: evidence, tradition, authority, and revelation.  Apart from completely misunderstanding what is meant by 'revelation' (he takes it to mean a subjective feeling), Prof. Dawkins gets into serious trouble when he argues that you should only ever believe something on the basis of evidence.  At one level, this is the simple paradox: what evidence is there that believing things only on evidence will get me to the truth?  At another level, there is the assumption that the natural sciences are essentially the only source of knowledge, another unprovable assertion.  This gets you into all sorts of difficulty.  For example, I must believe many things on authority; I don't have time to test all my beliefs!  The point is, is this a trustworthy authority or not?  There was an interesting point in the documentary when Prof. Dawkins decried the fact that faith was being allowed to over-ride the "facts of science and history".  To put science to one side for the moment, one wonders what facts of history are being spoken of.  Most of what we know about history derives from other people's accounts of it.  I'm not sure how, on Prof. Dawkins' advice, we could claim to know any facts about history at all.

Perhaps the biggest thing I would love Prof. Dawkins and those who agree with him to understand is that Christians (I cannot speak for other religions, and anyway I am not interested in a defence of religion in the abstract, except in the sense that everyone ought to be free to believe and practice as they see fit) really think that they are talking precisely about the facts of history when they talk about their faith.  Our faith in Jesus isn't a vague metaphysical thing; it is founded in what we think happened in history, a history to which we have access only through written accounts (which is simply to say, a history like any other).  Let's argue about history, by all means.  Let's talk as two people with different worldviews, different interpretations of the available evidence - I would even go so far as to say different faiths.  And by all means let's have the discussion about faith schools - we might be surprised about how much we agree on the subject.  But let's have no more about this supposedly neutral worldview based purely on facts; there is no such thing, and therefore no such thing can be taught.

Edit:  Chris has a useful take on the documentary from a slightly different perspective which you should read.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Questions (and answers?)

I've been mulling over the relationship between the Church and the world when it comes to questions and answers.  I think I see two models which dominate our thinking.

In the first model, the world is thought of as having questions, whilst the Church has answers.  The job of the Church, then, is to supply the answers to the questions the world is asking.  This assumes a few things.  Firstly, it assumes that the world is asking questions, and indeed not just any questions but the right questions.  Secondly, it assumes that the Church is in a position of superiority vis a vis the world, as the possessor of answers.  Thirdly, it assumes that the world, when seeking answers to its questions, is likely to come to the Church, or at least that the world will be willing to listen to the answers the Church provides.  I think this model may have been useful, at some point in the past, when the big questions being asked in the world were in fact largely shaped by the Church, and therefore the Church genuinely was seen as the place to go for answers.  I'm not at all sure it is very useful today.

In the second model, the world is thought of as having answers, while the Church has questions.  The job of the Church on this model is to question the assumptions of the world, and attempt to make the world think more deeply about the genuineness of its answers.  This model is probably more useful to us today, and underlies a lot of our apologetic strategy.  Note, however, that this still puts the Church into a position of definite superiority; our questions come from a place of security and power.

I've been wondering what an ecclesiology that is deeply shaped by the cross looks like.  I wonder whether in this instance it means not taking a position of authority.  I've been wondering whether the role of the Church in the world might be to ask questions of God and of itself, and to be asked questions by God, so that the Church is able to stand in solidarity with a confused world and encourage the world to ask the questions it hardly dares to ask for fear of a lack of answers.

I wonder whether we in the Church could be a community of comforted questioners, and the comforted questioned.  Might we not be able to say to the world: we too have questions and doubts, we too would like to ask God a thing or two, we too are confused and baffled by existence and terrified by non-existence, but we are comforted in the face of our questions and our fears by Jesus Christ, who asks the question with us - "my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  And then we might be able to say to the world: like you, we find our very existence thrown in doubt, we are forced to question whether anything means anything, and indeed we find ourselves standing under the great question of whether our being can possibly be justified, but we are comforted in these questions by Jesus Christ, who asks us a bigger question which leads us to hope - "who do you say I am?"

Anyway, I was just wondering what that might be like.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Unbelief in Eden

We see two-stage unbelief in Eden.

First, Adam and Eve do not believe that God intends to be good to them, and therefore they suspect that his commands are actually restrictive rather than liberating.  The result of this first stage of unbelief is disobedience, and it is inexcusable.  They should have known from the fact of their creation that God is good, always good.

Second, Adam and Eve do not believe that God will sustain them and all his creation in the face of their sin, and therefore they doubt whether he will show them mercy.  The result of this second stage of unbelief is hiding from God, and this too is inexcusable.  They should have known from the fact of their creation that God is committed to upholding his creatures in the face of the chaos and darkness that threatens them.

I sometimes wonder whether we could truly talk of fallen human beings if there were not this second stage; might they not have been just stumbling human beings, recovered by grace?

Corresponding to this, 1 John 2 counters both stages of unbelief in the Christian:
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.
 Believe that God is good and don't sin; if you sin, believe that God is good and don't hide!

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Simul iustus et peccator (2)

Oh dear, this is getting more obscure in my mind instead of clearer.  Nevertheless, I heroically press on with what is likely to be a series of questions rather than answers...

To push the dialectic theme a bit further, and perhaps to locate it at a deeper and more important place:  What is the relationship between the righteousness of Christ and the righteous acts of the Christian?

Again, one could envisage a straightforward relationship, perhaps even a relationship of identity.  I don't think Scripture allows us to tread that path.  Christ's righteousness is once-for-all, and is now in heaven.  He doesn't require our participation (in this sense) to complete who he is and what he has done.  Jesus' righteousness and the Christian's righteous deeds cannot be identified in a straightforward manner at all.

I think I prefer to say - because I think this is what comes across in the Pauline writings especially - that the righteous deeds of the Christian are an answer (temporal, partial, inadequate, but nevertheless real) to the righteousness of Christ which is extended to the believer.  Christ's righteousness (which is also my righteousness by faith) is one thing; my righteous acts are another thing, which relate to the former as a witness.  To put it another way, an absolute monarch could make an absolute proclamation; if his subjects say 'yes' to it, it adds nothing to the proclamation, but merely shows their approval, their belief in the rightness of the proclamation.  Does that make sense?

So I think there is a heavenly/earthly dialectic going on here.  My righteousness is Christ, who is in heaven; my reply to that righteousness is righteous deeds.

But has anything really changed in me?

The answer is yes, but I won't write about it until Monday at least.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Simul iustus et peccator (1)

The relationship between righteousness and sinfulness in the Christian life has always been a big theological issue.  More than that, it is a big existential issue for any Christian with any self-awareness at all.  Particularly, it is an issue where our self-awareness and our gospel-awareness apparently come into conflict, or at least into such sharp tension that resolution seems beyond us.  To state the problem simply, the gospel tells me I am righteous, but I find myself to be sinful.  What am I to do with these apparently irreconcilable insights?  I want to explore that in a few posts (I've not yet decided how many).  For those with a smattering of Latin, or some knowledge of classic Protestant Orthodoxy, my answer will already be apparent, although I may want to develop it in a way that differs somewhat from the Orthodox statement.

Let me put down some foundations.  It seems to me that there are two basic ways of approaching this problem, two ways of relating the Christian's righteousness and his or her sinfulness.

On the one hand, there are constructions in which these two things are placed on one plane.  At its most crude, this is expressed as a sort of sliding scale.  You experience a mix of righteousness and sinfulness because you are a mix of righteousness and sinfulness.  You are partly righteous, partly sinful.  Righteousness and sinfulness are, on this model, considered to be basically the same sort of thing, albeit the same sort of thing in an opposite configuration.  Now, I would guess this view is hardly ever expressed in such a crude way as this, but I think we can detect it lying behind the traditional Roman Catholic approach, for example.  On this view, baptism is the beginning of righteousness, the first infusion of righteousness into me as a subject.  Throughout my Christian life, I should expect that my righteousness increases (with the concurrent decrease in my sinfulness) as I make use of the means of grace, especially of course the sacraments.  Of course, should I neglect the means of grace, or entertain temptation in some way, I can expect the scale to slide the other way.  This view has the benefit of being straightforward, making sense of our experience, and being practical, giving us instructions in dealing with our relative sinfulness.

Before any Roman Catholics jump on me for presenting their theology in such a crude, and frankly shabby, fashion - I know it isn't quite like that.  But that is the tendency I see at the heart of it.  Am I wrong?

The other basic approach is to say that there is some sort of dialectical approach to righteousness/sinfulness, something which places them on different planes, or at least which makes their relationship much more complex than a sliding scale.  On this side we have to place all Protestant answers, which have typically stated that the Christian is in some way both righteous and sinful at one and the same time (simul iustus et peccator) without implying that righteousness and sinfulness can be considered as present in different relative measures in the Christian.  The classic Reformed position, which sees the Christian as totally righteous with the imputed righteousness of Christ, and yet in themselves sinful, is a good example of this.

The two approaches - the straightforward and the dialectical - can be related in one system, and indeed probably must be.  So, for example, the Reformed see a sliding scale in the Christian's worked out or experienced righteousness/sinfulness, whilst holding an ultimately dialectical view; the Roman Catholic sees the righteousness of Christ lying behind the sacraments in a way which cannot be made to slot into the straightforward view.  Nevertheless, the two positions are basically different in their approach.

There is of course the Wesleyan view, which to my mind is just confused as to which position it holds.  Probably it ultimately comes down on the dialectical side.  As a historical note, you could argue that Lutheranism is characterised by a more pure dialectical approach, whereas the Reformed tend towards a mixed view.  More on that later, perhaps.

Now, it is my position that we must adopt the dialectical view: the Christian is both righteous and sinful, at one and the same time, but not in such a way that we can relate righteousness and sinfulness on a simple sliding scale.  Righteousness is not the opposite of sinfulness in the Christian life, or at least not in the way that this sliding scale involves.

Well, that was all pretty obscure wasn't it?  Might make more sense tomorrow, but I confess I'm thinking this stuff through as I type!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Not speech, but flesh

A brief word for evangelicalism, which is so very over-wordy in all its doings:

"Why is the Lord's Supper not celebrated every Sunday in every church (at the very least in the presence of the whole congregation)) - even if this is at the expense of the length of our sermons and our excessive organ music? It would be legitimate liberation for the preacher and the audience...!  And occasionally baptism could form the beginning of the whole service (also without an unnecessary flood of words).  Would this not make us a comprehensive "church of the Word" - the Word which did not become speech, but flesh?"

Karl Barth

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Serpent's Academy

Have you ever noticed how Genesis 3 reports the founding of the two oldest faculties of the University?  

The first is theology.  The serpent asks the question: "did God actually say..?"  And, I imagine without substantial reflection and without consideration of the consequences, Eve joins in a conversation about God - the first such conversation.  It does not end well.  There is an inherent risk in the pursuit of theology, and a monumental danger.  Talking about God in the absence of God, which is the nature of the conversation in the garden and is the nature of most academic theology today, leads with tragic inevitability to the assertion of my own opinions about God and his nature (I have in mind here the subtle failure of Eve to accurately quote God), which are no match for the enemy's counter-opinions (the serpent's assertion that God is a liar).  My opinions about God may be good, in so far as they go, but unless they are based squarely on God's word - and may I suggest, not God's word as a remembered entity now absent (for the danger of misquoting is too great), but God's word as a present experience - they leave my understanding of God vulnerable to heretical distortion.

The second is ethics.  The serpent suggests that eating from the tree will make human beings "like God, knowing good and evil".  As has often been remarked, this does not mean that Adam and Eve are imagined as having no knowledge of the meaning of these terms; if that were so, the temptation could hardly be appealing.  Rather, the temptation is that they could become like God in being able to discern what is good and what is evil.  And of course, being able to discern this very quickly becomes being able to decide what is good and what is evil.  Here is the launch of ethics as the pursuit of autonomous human beings.  Rather than accepting God's word on the subject - "he has told you, O man, what is good" - human beings seek to work ethics out (and later, to impose their preferences under the cloak of ethics) in God's absence.

What a dangerous place to be the university is!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Not God

Here are some things which evangelical Christians might be tempted to mention in the same breath as God, implying that they are to be loved and/or worshipped in the way that God is to be loved and worshipped:

  • The Bible - it is the word of God, and is to be loved as such, but it is not God.  It witnesses to God and his salvation, it does not substitute for it.
  • The Church - it is the family of God, and is to be loved as such, but it is not God.  It, too, witnesses to God and his salvation; it must never be ranked too highly.
  • The natural world - it is the creation of God, and is to be loved as such, but it is not God.  Day and night it witnesses to God and his salvation.
The thick dividing line must be drawn between, on the one hand, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, One God now and forever, and on the other hand, everything else.  The line is so easy to blur, in little and apparently insignificant ways, but we must not permit it to happen, even at the risk of being seen to have 'a low doctrine of Scripture' or 'too little love for the local church' or 'a gnostic attitude toward creation'.  God is God, and nothing else is.

I've been reading about the Barmen declaration; could you tell?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Veiled in Flesh

The curtain in the tabernacle, and later the temple, seems to serve one important purpose according to the Scriptural testimony: it keeps sinful people away from God.  That was both a burden and a blessing.  A burden, because it cut human beings off from the fellowship with God for which they were designed; a blessing, because in fact in their sinful state human beings could not stand that fellowship.  No one can see God and live.

I have been wondering whether there is something else going on here, as well as the obvious.  The question 'where is God?' sounds, to us, hopelessly naive, but it was a question to which the OT Israelite would be able to give three answers.  Firstly, God is in heaven, whence he does whatever pleases him.  Secondly, God is throughout the world, directing and sustaining all creation.  Thirdly, God is in the Most Holy Place, in the tabernacle/temple.  These are all true, and some of the tensions between them are captured in Solomon's prayer of dedication at his great temple, recorded in 2 Chronicles 6.  What strikes me, though, is that it is surely the third answer which gives the Israelite the greatest comfort, and upon which his faith rests.  The fact that the OT often reports the perversion of this faith, portraying Israel as presuming upon God's favour because of his presence in the temple (see Jeremiah 7:4), merely reflects and underlines the fact that for Israel the presence of God in the temple is the foundation of their confidence.

Why is that?  Why is the Lord's presence in the Most Holy Place more significant for Israel than his presence in the highest heaven?

I would suggest that it is only by taking up residence behind the curtain that God can be Israel's God, or rather that they can know him as Israel's God.  The God of the heavens, and the God of the cosmos, are frankly not entities which can be known.  Where is God?  If not behind the curtain, if merely everywhere, what answer can we usefully give to the question?  And doesn't the God who is not behind the curtain - not in a particular place - all to easily become the God who has no particular characteristics, and finally not a particular God at all but a vague and unknowable force?  Whether we then go for pantheism, or prefer polytheism as a way of filling the gap between this unknown God and us, we certainly lose the real God, the personal God who is with us and for us.

Ironically, it seems that God has to curtain off a small section of the cosmos he has made in order to show himself as the Lord of the whole cosmos; ironically, in order to reveal himself as the God he really is, Yahweh must conceal himself behind a piece of cloth.

Consider, then, Hebrews 10:19-20: "...we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh..."

Granted, the author of Hebrews has in mind primarily the curtain as the separation between holy God and sinful man - the more obviously Biblical application of the temple idea.  But he does make the point that the tabernacle curtain was a sign of Jesus' human body - more than that, of his flesh, his whole human space-time existence.  The particular God - the God who actually exists and is for us - takes flesh and hides himself in it so as to be revealed.  God cannot be known in the abstract.  He can only be known if we can give a satisfactory answer to the question 'where is God?'; and the answer we give is that God is in Christ.

In Hebrews, of course, the curtain is opened up.  That, too, has happened.  Christ's body, torn open on the cross, reveals God as he truly is - the crucified One, God in the depths, God suffering in my place.  Is that, I wonder, why the veil of the temple was torn in two just as he died?

Irony: man in his sin hides from God, and is thus revealed to be the sinner he is; God in his righteousness hides himself from man, and is thus revealed to be the righteous God he truly is.

Implication: where do I look for God?  Is it in his hidden-ness, or do I always clamour for the glory of the general God, the no-god?

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Old self/New self

I've been mulling over the relation between the gospel and holiness.  On Sunday I preached an inadequate sermon on the Holy Spirit in Galatians, the main point of which was that Paul really seems to expect that we will be made holy in our actions by the Spirit (not our own efforts), and that we receive the Spirit as we hear the message of Christ crucified and respond in faith.  Therefore, the key to practical, lived-out holiness is focussing on and believing the gospel.

I think there is something similar going on in Ephesians 4:20-24.  Paul has just told them to change their behaviour - "you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do".  Then he refers them back to their experience of hearing the gospel - "assuming that you heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self... and to put on the new self..."

Three things that I see going on here:
1.  They heard about Jesus - that is to say, they heard the message about what happened to Jesus in his death and resurrection.  They heard that Jesus truly died, and rose again.
2.  They were taught in Jesus - which I take to mean that they were taught about what it means to be in Jesus, to be joined to him in his death and resurrection.  In him, they also died and rose.
3.  They put off the old self and put on the new - which simply means bringing their behaviour into conformity with what is true about them because of their unity with Jesus in his death and resurrection.

The key, again, is the mind - thinking and believing the gospel.  But this is not just CBT.  It is not just thinking ourselves into holiness.  The foundation of it all is the little phrase "as the truth is in Jesus".  This is not sanctification by wishful thinking; it is sanctification by the fact that my old self is really dead, and I have a newly created identity.  I am a new man (note that old self/new self is old man/new man in Greek - this is literally the abolition of the person I was and the institution of a whole new person).  This has happened to me, because of what has happened to Jesus.

The struggle of sanctification is the struggle to see myself "in Jesus", and therefore as dead and raised again.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Cuts and Motives

So, here comes the budget.  And here come the cuts.  It's going to hurt.

But permit me, for a moment, to delve into something which I think is important: the motives for these cuts in public spending.  A lot of people I know have already started banging the 'evil old Tories' drum - you know the one: the Tories love the rich, the Tories hate the poor, the Tories want to protect the privileged whilst grinding the worker into the dust.  That sort of thing.  I find it painful to listen to, and I want my friends to understand this. I believe in these cuts.  That doesn't mean I think they're going to be great.  Some of them I think are a good idea, like tightening up the welfare system and making sure it pays more to work than it does to claim.  Others I think are an unfortunate necessity in the economic climate, like not building a visitors' centre at Stonehenge, or cutting arts funding.  And I understand that for many people - including people I know and love - these cuts will mean personal hardships and even tragedies.  I get that.  But I think it is necessary for us as a nation to spend less - much less.  There it is.

Now, I wonder whether my friends think I hate the poor?  Maybe they do.  If that were so, that would make me a rubbish Christian, and, let's face it, a pretty awful human being.  But I promise you it isn't the case: I genuinely believe that this is better for all of us in the long run.  Of course, you may think I'm wrong.  But do you also think I'm evil?

I hope not many of my friends think that I am evil.  In which case, I want to ask them to hold off on assuming that Dave, George and co are necessarily evil.  If, just for a moment, we assumed that the people we disagreed with might have good motives, wouldn't that lead to a more constructive debate about the way forward?

To put it another way, it would be very easy for me to write off all my leftish friends as people who hate success, are driven by envy, and desperately want to take away economic freedom.  That would, of course, be facile and frankly idiotic analysis.  I don't think that.  I think my leftish friends are wrong; but I think their motives are good.  It would be nice if the compliment were extended in the opposite direction.

End of rant.  As you were.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Nineteenth Century

I am just approaching the end of a term spent studying Protestant theology in Europe and America in the 19th Century.  It has been fascinating, but only in the way that a documentary about the Titanic or a train-wreck might be fascinating.  The 19th Century sees the complete marginalisation of orthodoxy within Protestant theology, and a move toward man as the measure of all things which is utterly destructive.  By the time we get to the First World War, we are faced with the terrible sight of German theologians enthusiastically supporting the Kaiser's war, and theologians across Europe not only failing to protest the war but actually talking it up as a war for Christianity and civilisation, as if these two were the same, as if they were both in desperate danger, and as if leaving the youth of the continent dying in the mud would save them.  And that was not a blip; it was the logical end point of the mainstream of theology over the previous century.

What went wrong?

Well, firstly, in the 18th century, theologians argued that Christianity was reasonable, and therefore ought to be believed.  That doesn't sound like the precursor to a disaster; the whole exercise was in fact considered as necessary to stave off disaster and to equip Christianity to survive the Enlightenment.  But at some point there was a switch.  Instead of arguing that the whole of Christianity was reasonable and therefore to be believed, suddenly theologians were arguing that only what was reasonable was to be believed, and therefore Christianity must be subjected to a critique that removes everything reason cannot accept.  This was, in many ways, just a frank acceptance that the 18th century apologetic project had failed.  This failure was not immediately obvious.  But as 'what can be rationally believed' gradually shifted, the ground upon which the 18th century theologians had taken their stand was eroded and eventually destroyed.  A bare kernel of 'Christianity' was left.

Secondly, theology failed to assert the transcendence and immanence of God.  Kant stressed the transcendence; Hegel in protest stressed the immanence.  The former made God inaccessible, and was not hugely attractive to theologians (although philosophers liked it); the latter seemed much more likely to provide theology with what it felt it needed - a plausible philosophical basis.  But for Hegel God was locked inside the system of the world, and especially human culture.  The logical development of his thought was the 'History of Religions school', which sought to trace the development of religion in history in order to see the revelation of God.  Protestant Christianity was seen as the highest point (absolute religion for the likes of Schleiermacher and Harnack; the best so far for Troeltsch).  In this movement, revelation came to be identified with cultural development.  It comes as no surprise that a theologian like Harnack, who wrote that Protestantism was the genius of the German national spirit, would ultimately fail to criticise the War.  (In fact, he signed a manifesto in support of it).

What do we have to learn?

Firstly, to be suspicious of our felt need to make Christianity rationally acceptable to those around us.  We could succeed in this apologetic task and still be putting down a time bomb in the church which will be devastating in a hundred years.  In particular, we need to remember that there is not some timeless standard of rationality to which we can appeal; what seems reasonable to someone today may not seem so reasonable in a few decades.  So we mustn't rely too much on the rationality of those around us.

Secondly, we need to be on our guard against moving with the times.  Revelation always stands over against culture and critiques it from its own place.  Whenever anyone discards a piece of Scriptural teaching on the grounds that it is old fashioned (and this happens often, under different guises), we need to ask whether the surrounding culture has been allowed to smother the voice of the apostles and prophets.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

The sacrifice of God

Once one sacrificed human beings to one's god, perhaps precisely those whom one loved most; the sacrifices of the firstborn in all primitive religions belong here...

Then, during the moral epoch of mankind, one sacrificed to one's god one's own strongest instincts, one's "nature": this festive joy lights up the cruel eyes of the ascetic, the "anti-natural" enthusiast.

Finally - what remained to be sacrificed? At long last, did one not have to sacrifice for once whatever is comforting, holy, healing; all hope, all faith in hidden harmony, in future blisses and justices? Didn't one have to sacrifice God himself and, from cruelty against oneself, worship the stone, stupidity, gravity, fate, the nothing? To sacrifice God for the nothing - this paradoxical mystery of the final cruelty was reserved for the generation that is now coming up: all of us already know something of this-

Thus Nietzsche, in Beyond Good and Evil, section 55.

I wonder to what extent this clarifies the death of God. It is not, in fact, a mere murder, but a cultic murder. God has not been merely killed, but sacrificed, in a final self-consuming act of religion. Again, it is to Nietzsche's credit that he recognises that this is a sacrifice. Of course, he thinks it will set humanity free in some sense, but it is nevertheless a suffering, a cruelty inflicted upon oneself which in some way forms the logical highpoint of asceticism (which Nietzsche considers to be the heart of religion).

The sacrifice of God plays out in different ways in the Christian tradition. The most basic statement that can be made about it is that God sacrifices himself - again, this is an event in the history of God, not merely a human event. Therefore the BCP can say of Christ's death that he "made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world". Perhaps the question to ask Nietzsche here is whether his own concept of the sacrifice of God is not merely an insufficient echo of the gospel.

More directly relevant, though, to Nietzsche's theme is the requirement that the gospel puts on Christians to be continually sacrificing God.

Now, before you think I've gone all Roman, I should say that I have in mind a mental process, and that strictly speaking I do not have in mind God. What I mean is this: the revelation of God in the gospel - in the face of Jesus Christ - teaches us that all of our ideas of God are wrong. Jesus Christ continually crashes through every symbol, doctrine, thought, image, or idea of God that I am able to devise. So I find myself in this position: I must have these symbols, doctrines, and ideas - without them I cannot think of God at all; but I am continually reminded that my symbols, doctrines, and ideas are inadequate - in fact, they are not truly representative of God.

So I am always sacrificing my image of God, always laying it on the altar - no matter how comforting or inspiring an image it is to me. I sacrifice it, to receive afresh the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ. And as soon as that knowledge has passed into memory and symbol, I am called to sacrifice it.

Is there, then, nothing steady - nothing lasting - in the knowledge of God? Yes - but the steady, lasting thing is Jesus Christ himself, from whose grace my inadequate (and in itself idolatrous) knowledge of God can live.

Friday, June 04, 2010

The death of God

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. "Whither is God?" he cried; "I will tell you. We have killed him - you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

Thus Friedrich Nietzsche, in The Gay Science. The whole passage is very powerful and well worth reading. There are a whole load of things I'd like to say about this. I'd like to draw attention to the fact that Nietzsche, unlike many of the contemporary atheists I come across, understands just what the death of God entails, in terms of the loss of all values. I'd like to explore the history of the death of God as a concept, and ask some questions about whether Nietzsche is the inevitable result of trends in western philosophy and theology. I'd love to explore the extent to which the madman represents Nietzsche himself in this parable.

But for this post, I want to settle on one thing: the death of God is an event. It is a happening.

It seems to me that Nietzsche is not so much an atheist as a deicide. I don't mean that Nietzsche believed in an existent, metaphysical entity called God, an entity which humanity has now killed. I don't think he had much interest in metaphysical entities of any sort. But the vivid imagery of the death - indeed, the murder - of God is not the language of the man who has just realised that there never was any sort of deity after all and therefore we can all enjoy our lives. Something has changed. There used to be God - this earth used to be chained to its sun, there used to be warmth and light, there used to be meaning. Now it has all gone. And we have done it. What is left is the nihilism from which Nietzsche hopes to provide some escape (but only for some?) through his philosophy.

Now consider this stanza from a hymn of Faber's:
O come and mourn with me a while,
and tarry here the cross beside.
O come together, let us mourn,
Jesus our Lord is crucified.

The subject is, of course, the death - of God? I think we could be so bold as to say so. Because in Christianity, also, the death of God is an event, a happening.

There is debate about whether we can really speak in this way - is not the death of Christ really the death of his human nature, and not at all the death of God? I think there is good reason to reject this approach, although I recognise it has been the majority position in the church. Perhaps I'll write something about this at some point.

I suppose the main difference between Nietzsche and Faber is the little phrase "a while" in the hymn. For Nietzsche's madman, God is dead and remains dead; for Faber, there is just a little while to mourn the death of God. How is that?

For Nietzsche, the death of God is an event in human history, for which human beings must take responsibility, the aftermath of which it is up to human beings to sort out. For the Christian, the death of God is an event in divine history, for which God takes responsibility (though indeed, it is true that we have done it), the aftermath of which God has sorted out by raising Christ from the dead. The madman is driven frantic by the responsibility. We have killed God; now what must we do? Must we not become gods ourselves to be worthy of the deed? The Christian agrees: we have killed God. We will mourn for a while. But ultimately we know that God himself has taken responsibility for our - murder? deicide? - and has completely undone what we have tried to do.

O love of God! O sin of man!
In this dread act your strength is tried,
and victory remains with love
for thou, our Lord, art crucified.

Monday, May 24, 2010


I struggle with hope. On a good day, I can manage something approximating to faith, even if it does more often than not sound more like 'if you say so' than 'may it be to me according to your word'; on a very good day, there is even something a little bit like love, although not in anything approaching 1 Corinthians 13 categories. But hope I find tricky. Frightening, actually.


Well, yes, because so often what you hope for doesn't happen. I don't have anything in particular in mind - in fact, if I'm honest, I have to say that many of the things (and most of the important things) that I have hoped for have come to pass. But there is a sort of generalised, low-level anxiety that hope just raises expectations which could be dashed; that it isn't quite clear what it would be safe to hope for on a daily basis.

I am aware that this is a very grave failing, and probably falls under the heading of cowardice. I would like to say I hope to get over it, but, well, you know.

But this morning I was reading my Church Dogmatics, as you do in the morning, and I came across Barth's discussion of hope, in his survey of the doctrine of reconciliation. He points out that for the Christian the big hope is to be with God, serving God, as a willing and righteous partner - he actually makes the interesting point that what we hope for is exactly what Pelagians and semi-Pelagians have always said we already have, namely the ability, given by grace, to really co-operate with God. That is the hope. And of course the big point is that this hope is already fulfilled in Christ. He, as a man, occupies that position now, and therefore guarantees that I will also occupy it. Hurrah!

But that wasn't the bit that really struck me. He goes on to say: "But in the one hope there will always be inseparably the great hope and the small hope. All through temporal life there will be the expectation of eternal life. But there will also be its expectation in this temporal life. There will be confidence in the One who comes as the end and new beginning of all things. There will also be confidence in His appearing within the ordinary course of things as they still move toward that end and new beginning..." Of course! Because all hope is wrapped up in, and joined to, that great big hope. Jesus is coming back one day, and therefore I expect to see him tomorrow - maybe not yet in the flesh, but at work in my life and my world. I have hope. And only for that reason: "the small hopes are only for the sake of the great hope from which they derive", but conversely "where there is the great hope, necessarily there are hopes for the immediate future".

Of course, these small hopes may not come true "in their detailed content", but "it is certainly in these many little hopes that the Christian lives from day to day if he really lives in the great hope. And perhaps he is most clearly distinguished from the non-Christian by the fact that, directed to the great hope, and without any illusions, he does not fail and is never weary to live daily in these little hopes".

Thanks, Karl. That transforms how I look at my future - the uncertainty surrounding employment in a couple of months time, the anxiety over future ministry, the various petty issues that will fog my vision tomorrow, and the day after that, and so on until I see Him face to face. Small hopes, relative hopes, not so certain hopes; but all witnessing and pointing to and grounded in a great, certain, coming hope.


You can find all this in Church Dogmatics IV.1, around about page 120.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Glory of Love

Glen has a tendency to write the sort of thing I wish I'd written. Here is the sixth part of a series of posts - you should read all six. Right now.

Seriously, what are you still doing here?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Of first importance

It is a commonplace of Evangelical theology to divide doctrines into primary and secondary - the primary being those which constitute the heart of the gospel message, and the secondary being the other stuff. It's a sensible, Biblically-sanctioned division, and it makes things possible in practice that couldn't happen otherwise. Bish has been writing a bit about dealing with secondary issues in CU, specifically baptism in the Spirit and women's ministry. Some of the responses - not so much on the blog, but on Facebook - have been pretty angry, especially about the latter post. It interests me, not only because of my history working with Christian Unions, but also because I think that it is, ironically, the way in which we treat these contested points which reveals our most basic theological commitments. Let me just share a few thoughts, some of which I've already mentioned on Bish's blog, and others which are new.

1. This isn't just an issue for CUs. It's an issue for churches. Of course, churches are practically limited in how broad they can be (they have to have a particular baptismal practice, for example, and you either have women preaching or you don't), but still, if you never have to work out how to get on with someone in your church when you disagree over doctrine it is probably because your church is too narrow.

2. The church is constituted by an act of divine sovereignty, by which the Father unites his Son to us, through the incarnation, and us to his Son through the work of the Spirit. Because it is an act of divine sovereignty, it is a given, not something to be achieved. When I come face to face with someone who disagrees with me within the church, I need to remember this fact. The church is not a club - not a free organisation of human beings, which I can be part of or not, and which I can casually exclude other people from. It is a creation of God.

3. The way we deal with secondary issues should reflect the fact that these secondary matters are really further definitions of primary issues. This throws up difficulties - for example, the Presbyterian and I both say that people are saved by grace through faith (primary truth!), but I can't see how his secondary idea of infant baptism can fail to contradict this, and he can't see how my idea of adult baptism can possibly be in line with it. Our ideas about baptism are a further definition of what we mean when we say 'saved by grace through faith'. So, the way I approach this difference cannot be to just live and let live - we have to both seek to give an account of our faith, explaining why our view on the secondary flows from the gospel. And as we do that, we have to keep reminding ourselves - keep believing - that the person we're talking does believe that same gospel, even if we cannot see it at the moment.

4. Jesus still rules his church. A discussion of secondary issues is not a comparison of opinions. It is a question of whether we will submit to the sovereignty of Christ over the church. Concretely, that means whether we will submit to Scripture, through which Christ rules. Therefore, the form of our disagreement must be exegesis and nothing else. As soon as something else comes into view - 'that opinion is old fashioned', 'that won't help our witness' - we are in the realm of our own thoughts and in rebellion against Christ. We start with Scripture, and end with Scripture. Only in so far as we are bound to the words of Scripture are we bound to the Word of God.

5. Where exegesis is the form of the disagreement, and where both sides are seeking to bind themselves to Scripture, we hope for resolution of the disagreement and we do not give up listening to Scripture together. In the meantime, we proceed by faith and work out how in practice we can have visible communion that expresses the invisible communion that we do have by faith. (It's at this point that Bish's posts come into play).

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Vague constitutional ramblings

Well, wasn't that all very exciting? I generally enjoyed the election, was quite pleased with the result, and am currently enjoying the fallout. All the talk is of electoral reform. Intriguing. I just had a few random thoughts that I wanted to share.

1. I'm not sure people understand British democracy. People are upset that they aren't getting the government they voted for - well, I have news for you: the British people don't vote for a government. You voted for your local representative. You may or may not have got the person you wanted, but you will have got the representative that most people in your area wanted. That is as far as your democratic rights go in this country. We choose representatives, and we trust them to have some influence on how the government is formed.

2. I'm sure the TV debates helped with this misconception. It felt like we were voting for Gordon, Dave or Nick - after all, they were the people we saw debating.

3. I am certain that pure PR would be a disaster. It's interesting to look at post-war Germany, and the power the FDP had. With only slight changes in the relative left-right balance, the FDP could decide who got to govern. I'd hate to have a system where the Lib Dems always got to choose the government.

4. I think we need to keep the link between MPs and their local constituencies. Moreover, I certainly want to vote for a person, not just a party.

5. If the British people want to elect their government (I would advise them against it), perhaps we could separate this government election from the election of MPs? That way, the governmental election could use some form of PR without messing with the current representative system. This would be something like a Presidential system, and would therefore completely mess up the constitution - it would probably move us in a republican direction.

On second thoughts, forget I mentioned it. It sounds dreadful.

In the meantime, it's all very interesting indeed.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The least bad

Tomorrow, I will be voting for what I consider to be the least bad of the options put in front of me. None of the options is hugely inspiring, and none is particularly friendly to the Christian gospel. But then, I don't expect them to be. After all, the decisive encounter between Christianity and the state can be summed up in the phrase 'crucified under Pontius Pilate'. That phrase colours my whole idea of what the state is, and it doesn't lead me to expect much.

Can I suggest there are two main things we should be looking at?

Firstly, and most importantly, I can look for the people I think will most promote the common good. By the common good I mean not the interests of any particular section of society, but the good of all. Of course, we will have different conceptions of what the common good actually is; all I can really say to that is: be suspicious of your own ideas. It is very easy to con ourselves into thinking that 'what would be best for me' is the same as the common good. Moreover, the common good can be considered from lots of different angles - financial welfare, liberty, community coherence. Resist reductionism - the common good cannot be only a matter of economics, or only a matter of freedom. Who offers the least bad option, in terms of balancing the desirables?

Secondly, and particularly as a Christian, all I ask from the state is that they leave me free to live, preach, and worship (1 Tim 2:1-4). Who offers the least bad option on this front?

At the end of the day, I am waiting for perfect government, and I belong to a city where that government is vested in the hands of the Perfect King. That doesn't make tomorrow unimportant; but it does put it in perspective.

"But while they live in Greek and barbarian cities, as each one's lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. (Christians) live in their own countries, but only as non-residents; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners." - Diognetus, 2nd century AD

Monday, May 03, 2010

Step of faith

People often assume that religion is all about a step of faith - you know the sort of thing, shutting your eyes and putting your foot firmly forward in the hope that there is something there. Christians often protest that their religion involves nothing of the sort - it is all jolly rational and makes perfect sense.

May I suggest that Christianity involves a huge step of faith, but not one that is located where most people intend it to be?

It is not at the beginning ("there might be a God, let's act as if there were and see what happens"), but at the heart, because there is one statement in the Christian faith which I suggest simply cannot be reasoned or argued. It must be taken on faith. And it stands at the very heart of things. That statement is:

"God is as he has revealed himself to be"

But then, we take something very similar on faith in every sincere relationship we have, don't we?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Election Debate, Round One

So, yesterday the three chaps who want to be Prime Minister went head to head on TV. I confess, I have had some misgivings about this debate. I wondered in advance whether it would be a good format for discussion of policy and argument over important issues; I feared that it would instead just reinforce that central weakness of democratic politics, namely that people just vote for whoever seems the nicest man. After the debate, I feel those fears were justified. I would struggle to pick winners and losers. Unlike the debate between the potential chancellors, which I thought showed all three men in a good light, last night's little show didn't improve my opinion of anyone's policies. It made me think I'd rather go to the pub with Nick Clegg, but I'm not sure that means I want him running the country.

The big frustration for me was that there was not enough argument. The debate proceeded by claim and counter-claim. Cameron says money can be saved by cutting waste; Brown says it can't; Clegg waffles on about nothing in particular. I really wanted someone to stand up and say 'we have a vision for Britain, and this is why it is better than the vision our opponents are advancing'. I thought Cameron might do that. The Conservative manifesto finally got me excited that we might have a real contest about what society ought to be like. But it didn't materialise on the night. Instead we got bickering over detail.

An example: Trident. Clegg says scrap it, saying money which could be better spent; Brown and Cameron say keep it in case we need to nuke North Korea. Neither is a good argument. Behind the two approaches, one feels there must be more fundamental differences, relating to how the party leaders see the role of Britain in the world. What sort of country do we want to be? Do we want to keep playing with the big boys in terms of geopolitics, or do we want to retire to a lower league? I don't want to imply a value judgement in using that terminology. It may well be that the time has come to step back. (Actually, I personally don't think so). But nobody made a case, one way or the other. Nobody at this debate was giving me a metanarrative: a story of Britain's 21st century that I can believe in and get on board with.

Similarly on economic questions. I wanted Cameron to make the case for small government, but instead he just tried to reassure people that the Tories wouldn't make too many cuts. Clegg talked a lot about cuts, but for him it was clearly just an unfortunate necessity. Brown, of course, just wants to go on spending money. I was particularly disappointed in the way Cameron and Brown talked about spending issues. They were discussing fundamentally different views of how society works, and what government should and shouldn't do. But that never came across.

Still, if I had to pick winners:
1. Cameron. Mainly just for having the best closing speech. Of course, it helped that I mostly agreed with what he said. But disappointed that he didn't really argue for his course of action. Weaknesses on inheritance tax showed up the fact that the Tories still don't quite get the public mood on this.
2. Clegg. Had nothing to say, but said it pleasantly enough. I think I detect him positioning the Lib Dems for a Tory coalition.
3. Brown. I thought he behaved poorly throughout, defensive in tone and posture, frequently talking over the others and the (fairly ineffectual) moderator. Had no answer to any problem except to throw more money at it.

I really hope the next two debates have more substance to them. And I rather hope that next time round there won't be debates, but I expect that's too much to ask.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Leading worship

So I've been leading more church services recently, and it's got me thinking about what church services are for. In most free churches, the person who preaches doesn't lead the service, so the first 30 minutes or so are in the hands of the service leader. It becomes quite easy to think of this time as the 'warm up' - the job being to get everyone in the mood for hearing a sermon. To a certain extent I think there is truth in that: the hearing of the Word is central to what we come together to do. But I've also been pondering what we should be aiming to do with that first half an hour, and I've come up with three big picture aims:

1. To show the church their location in time, between the two comings of Christ. I find it useful to structure the service around this, moving from remembering to expecting. It doesn't have to be done explicitly or in a big way. I will always choose at least one hymn that is explicitly about the cross and resurrection. Often, to introduce a note of expectation, I will just end the time of intercession by praying for Christ's return. The key thing is that we all be focussed on the Lord Jesus, and I think in a curious way on his absence - he was here, and we look back to it, and he will be here again, and we look forward to it. (Of course, he is here too. But in a different way).

2. To show the church their identity as the overlap of the ages. One of the things that any worship service needs to be helping people to do is process the week they've just had, and one of the things which will certainly have characterised that week for everyone will be sin. We've all sinned. How do we understand that, and how do we deal with it in the context of worship? I think the answer is again to locate the church: to show them that they do not belong to the old creation, despite their sin. But this needs to be balanced by an understanding that we are not yet in the new creation - we still await the redemption of our bodies. To process the week, and yet avoid despair, we need to see that we are both new in Christ and old in ourselves. We are the overlap of the ages. The most obvious way to do this is through a corporate prayer expressing sin, but I think we need to be careful how we frame it. Very often - and I think this is true of the Anglican form - a prayer of confession leaves us feeling that we belong to the old age but would really like to belong to the new. There is not enough emphasis on our changed status in Christ. If we can get that right, the prayer of confession can be an enormously helpful part of our liturgy.

3. To show the church their relationships with Christ their Head, and with the world. We need to be reminded constantly that we are in Christ. We need to be reminded that because we are in Christ we are loved by God. We also need to remember that we stand in the world. This is part of preparing the church for the week they are about to have. We will come into contact with a lot of people, many of whom do not know Christ. How should we live? How should we relate? We remind ourselves, then, that we are intimately tied to the Lord Jesus, and are therefore to be those who do his work through the week. The worship service needs to orient us in two ways - towards Christ, from whom we expect to receive throughout the week, and towards the world, toward which we must be prepared to give throughout the week. Leading intercessory prayer is clearly a big part of this, because it means explicitly invoking Christ's aid for the week ahead. There are songs which can also help to make this point.

All a bit theoretical, and not very coherently expressed, but I'm trying to make sure I'm not just filling time, or warming up for the preacher, or doing what I know people will enjoy...

Any thoughts?