Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Expecting and remembering

How do the Old and New Testaments fit together? I would venture to suggest something like this. The OT is fundamentally and centrally characterised by expectation. It looks forward, in various ways and from different perspectives, to the decisive action of God in history which will redeem Israel. Psalm 130 captures the beating heart of the OT. Of course, this sense of expectation has its basis in remembrance. God has acted in the past, but the history of Israel is a demonstration that this past action was not decisive: it did not free Israel from sin or danger. It could only be a sign of the full and final action of God to come. The OT is basically forward looking.

By contrast, the NT is essentially about remembering. It is oriented backward, and is characterised by memory and testimony. The heart of the apostles' ministry is to pass on what they have heard and seen. The opening of 1 John is typical. Of course, the NT also looks forward to a glorious climax. But there is a sense in which the climax has already come. Nothing new is looked for or expected from God. The decisive action has been taken, and the expectation that there is is just for its completion. The NT is basically about remembering.

What conclusions can be drawn from this?

1. The Scriptures are a unity. This is not obvious, certainly not as obvious as many of us who have grown up with the Bible often assume. The unity comes from outside the text. The OT and NT are united in so far as the decisive action of God expected in the former is the same as that remembered in the latter. In other words, the Scriptures find their unity in Christ.

2. The unity of Scripture is not found in the similarity or (more strongly) the identity of the old and new covenants, but in their symmetrical relation to Jesus Christ. He is the main thing.

3. The Scriptures live by their relationship to Christ. He is the Living Word, who has life in himself, and the Bible lives from him. I would venture to suggest that the Bible only becomes life-giving when this relation is seen.

In short, to be a person of the Bible is to look beyond (better, through, or perhaps along) the Bible to the One expected and remembered there.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Word in the word in the word

It is a good thing for Christians to spend much time in Scripture, through sermons and their own reading. There is huge value in getting Biblical truth into our heads, and our heads into Biblical truth. It changes the way we look at the world, helps us to get God's perspective on things. But it can be an entirely unprofitable enterprise when it comes to eternal life. After all, the Jews of Jesus' day spent their time in Bible study, but it didn't help them much. "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life" (John 5:39-40). If we want eternal life, we need to read the Scriptures through the lens of the gospel of Christ. We need to catch the word within the word.

But even that can be unprofitable. Anyone who has spent much time around Christians will know that knowledge of the gospel message very easily turns into argument about the gospel message. What exactly is its extent? How do the details work? What is the centre, if there is one?

I would suggest that, just as Scripture only profits us if we read it for the sake of the gospel, the gospel only profits us if we love it for the sake of the Person, Jesus Christ, who stands at the heart of it. If we love the doctrines of the gospel for their own sake - because of their ideological value, say, or their philosophical beauty - we are in danger of missing Christ. We need to look for, and desire, the Word within the word within the word.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


I've been thinking for the last couple of weeks that cynicism is probably the signature sin of my generation. As I've turned that thought over and over, it occurs to me that I may only think this because cynicism is the signature sin of my heart. But I suspect I'm not alone. Cynicism is that diseased attitude of the heart which stops me from being serious about anything, creating distance between me and the world - perhaps for my own defence, perhaps out of a sense of arrogant detachment, perhaps a little of both. Let me run through some of the symptoms, and a course of treatment that I've been trialling on myself.

1. Cynicism sneers at whatever appears genuinely noble or heroic. It belittles what is great and dismisses what is beautiful. This may present itself as a sarcastic remark, a flippant joke, a quick change of conversation, or just a sardonic smile. This may start as an occasional reaction, or perhaps something to fit in to the mood of the conversation, but if continued there is a risk that we lose the ability to even perceive or appreciate the good.

2. Cynicism shrugs in a resigned, or even dismissive, way at whatever seems evil, or just terrible. Disaster zone reports are met with a yawn, holocaust movies provoke off-colour jokes. Victims of crime 'probably had it coming'. This may start as a coping mechanism, but if pursued has a numbing effect on the heart which prevents us from seeing evil as evil, and kills off the ability to empathise with another's pain.

3. Cynicism believes that anything that looks good is too good to be true. There's no such thing as a free lunch. They must want something from me in return. What am I missing here? Pretty soon, no gift can be appreciated as anything more than a transaction which I must repay to keep face.

4. Cynicism doesn't believe in change. I can't change, you can't change. We'll just have to live with ourselves and the world as it is.

5. Cynicism won't argue. If what you say sounds smart, you're a smart-alec. If it sounds dumb, I'm smarter than you, so why should I listen? Sarcasm rather than truth-seeking characterises the cynic's conversation.

6. Cynicism can't dream. The imaginative faculties have been stifled. If I can't see it with my own eyes, I won't believe it. Even then, I might not.

7. Cynicism doesn't pray. Whether because of fatalism or atheism, the cynic is unable to envisage a world in which any higher power could change circumstances. If the cynic does pray, accidentally, in a moment of weakness, they are quickly able to explain away any apparent answer.

1. Cut yourself off from sources of scorn. For me, that's meant stopping watching various TV programmes, especially current affairs quiz shows. No more Mock the Week, possibly no more Have I Got News For You. It is impossible to sit in the seat of scoffers and not become a scoffer.

2. Re-stock the imagination with beautiful images. I've been re-reading the Chronicles of Narnia, and reminding myself of what a child-like enthusiasm for the world looks like. This morning, at the end of The Last Battle, I cried with joy as Aslan led his people out of the Shadowlands, and higher up and further in to the Real World. Of course, it helps that this is true - by which I mean Christian - imagery, but there is truth all over the place, not just in the Christian imagination.

3. Pray anyway. Enjoy doing it, even if you can't quite believe right now that it is achieving anything. Who said achieving stuff was so important anyway?

4. Cry in films. This has always been an easy one for me. Feel it. Don't protect yourself. I recommend Up as a recent film which caused me to cry like a girl (no offence, girls).

5. Spend some time day-dreaming. Wonder about what the future might hold. Don't spend all day on it, but take some time. And throw in some outrageous dreams. Why not? Anything could happen.

I wrote something similar before. You can find it here.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Sterile Ideas

I have been forced over the last week or so to become very familiar with the documentary hypothesis. For those who are blessed with ignorance of this matter, and who can't be bothered to look at the Wikipedia article (you should, it has a diagram which illustrates the idiocy of the idea right there), the documentary hypothesis (henceforth DH) is a theory that says it is possible to trace within the Pentateuch (i.e. Genesis through Deuteronomy) four distinct literary sources which have been patched together by redactors to form a whole. The four sources are labelled J (the Yahwist), E (the Elohist), P (the Priestly source), and D (the Deuteronomist). Many theorists hold that it is also possible to discern some elements added by redactors; some think it is possible to discern distinct layers within the sources, such that you end up with E1, E2 etc.

As far as I can see, and I may be wrong, this idea is utterly sterile.

By this I mean, the DH doesn't lead to anything. It bears no fruit. If you begin to think seriously about it, it will not lead you to think seriously about other things. Books on the DH all seem to start and finish with the DH. Those who take the DH seriously make claims like 'it is no longer possible to read the Pentateuch as a unity' - something which is manifestly untrue, since these books have been and still are the subjects of expository preaching and teaching all over the world. The DH doesn't help you to understand, but in fact makes the Pentateuch impossible to comprehend at all.

It got me thinking: what makes an idea sterile? How can we spot the ideas which are likely to become hopelessly self-referential and curved in on themselves, like the DH? Ideally, how do we spot them before we invest too much time and effort in them? I had a few thoughts.

1. Is it possible for this idea to be firmly established? The DH cannot be firmly established, dealing as it does with subjectivities and the attempt to get behind the text into unseen precursors. The result is that arguments go back and forth over its validity, or the precise form it ought to take, without any real conclusions being possible. It can be talked about forever, and we will never be able to view it as settled and move on. So it is sterile. What other ideas might be like that?

2. How many layers of hypothesis are there between the acknowledged facts and the conclusion? The DH has all the features of a cloud-castle. Layer after layer of supposition, sprinkled with interim conclusions that make good sense if and only if you accept the previous hypothesis. This gives lots to talk about that isn't really the substance, and keeps the idea in the conversation without it really having anything to say. Sterility. How much theological and philosophical construction works in the same way?

3. Can the idea be rephrased or summarised in a way which would be useful to the average chap on the street (or in this case, the average church-goer)? This isn't totally foolproof, but I think it is a warning sign to us if our ideas are useless for living. It's a potential sign that they are sterile ideas. I'm guessing quite a lot of thought falls under this heading.

Any other ideas?