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?