Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christian country?

Apparently, Dave says we're a Christian country here in the UK, and shouldn't be ashamed to say so.  I struggle to know quite what to make of that; in fact, I find myself somewhat torn between Nietzsche and the Church of England - which is such an odd thing to say that I guess it needs some explaining.

On the C of E side, I can see the benefit to society of being grounded in an ethical framework, and I can see that the only viable framework within our culture is, for historical reasons, the Christian one.  I know people who are personally atheists, but made sure to send their children to a CofE school, because they perceived the importance of the broad Christian tradition in shaping British culture and values.  I think this is broadly what Dave is saying: that Britain has been historically shaped by Christianity, and that we're fools to completely turn our backs on this heritage.  Sure, I think.

On the Nietzsche side, I think there is something fundamentally ridiculous about trying to maintain some sort of 'Christian ethos' in the absence of faith in the Christian message and a life of discipleship.  Thus the crazed prophet himself:  "They are rid of God, and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality.  That is an English consistency... Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together.  By breaking one main concept of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole..."  Real Christian ethics is not a generic morality, but a life shaped by the gospel and the command of God.  How can it be applied in a sphere where the gospel is not trusted and the command is not heard?

There must be a better way to shape the values of public life within a broadly pluralistic society, other than building them out of the corpse of Christendom.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Revelation and Advent

Some thoughts on the topic of revelation, disconnected because they are still forming in my brain:

1.  In the NT, revelation is substantially an eschatological concept.  In the Pastorals, the appearing of Jesus is a technical term for his return (1 Tim 6:14, 2 Tim 4:8, Titus 2:13 etc.); this echoes other Pauline (2 Thess 1:17) and Petrine (1 Pet 4:13) passages about Christ being revealed at the end.  Fundamentally, revelation is a thing belonging to the new age which is not yet consummated.  Therefore, the revelation of God is an especially appropriate subject for meditation in advent, and looking forward to seeing God is at the heart of advent devotion.  1 Peter 1:8 captures the theme - we have not seen him, but we love him, and therefore we wait to see him.

2.  Revelation is an eschatological concept even when applied to the ministry of Jesus.  The end of John's gospel captures this, when it talks about Jesus resurrection appearances (e.g. John 21:1).  However, the concept is present earlier in the gospel narratives, especially at the transfiguration, which is a preview of the resurrection appearances.  When we talk about Jesus revealing God, are we talking about the eschatological light - the glory of the God-man in the coming age - breaking into this age?  Even those who saw Jesus did not necessarily encounter this sort of revelation, but many who did not physically see him have encountered it.

3.  Revelation, then, is not a static thing.  It is not something which is always there, but it is something which breaks through.  It is the new story which starts in the middle of the old story.

4.  Because revelation is the story of Jesus, it is right that our advent meditations look backward as well as forward.  The light has begun to shine, the story has begun to be told.  It makes sense that advent terminates in Christmas, every year asking the question: will we see him this year?  But also knowing that whether we do or not, we can see him in the apostolic testimony to his life, death, and resurrection.

5.  Jesus is uniquely revelatory, because he is the new story and the light in himself.  For something to break through - for a light to shine in darkness - it has to come from without.  God stepping in to creation would be - is - a new story in the midst of the old and a bright light in the darkness.  This is about incarnation.  It will not do to begin our understanding of revelation anywhere else.  If there is light anywhere else, it is because it comes from this source; if the old story starts to show some hope and some glory, it has been invested with it by the new.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Economical with the truth

I am not an economist, or the son of an economist, but I have spotted a few aggravating untruths which are being either assumed or actively preached in much of the current debate over the British economy.  Rather than allow my annoyance to build up to levels where I am in danger of bursting every time I watch the news, I thought I'd vent here.  Thanks for listening.

1.  In the normal course of things, we can expect to get continually richer.  This has left- and right-wing versions, although increasingly they sound pretty similar.  The gist of both is that if only the other guys hadn't done something wrong - fiddled with the market, or failed to fiddle with the market - then the good ship capitalism would be sailing along quite happily providing more and more wealth to more and more people.  This is twaddle.  There is no guarantee that we will get richer - no "British promise".

2.  There has been a catastrophic failure in the system, but we can fix it.  The system hasn't failed.  What we are going through is a painful market adjustment, which is what the market is meant to do.  If something is over-valued, even if that thing is the whole of the British economy, then eventually the bubble will burst.  This is the system working.  Maybe we don't like the system - you're welcome to propose a better one - but let's not pretend that this is some sort of aberration.  It is business as normal.

3.  We are poor.  No, we're not.  In the grand scheme of things, I imagine everyone reading this is stupendously rich by global standards.

4.  People in the public sector are paid less than people in the private sector.  There is no evidence that this is true.

5.  You have to allow people to be paid stupid sums of money or they will take their business overseas.  There is no evidence that this is true.

6.  The rich don't pay enough tax.  Actually, the top 1% of earners pay a whopping 27% of all income tax.

7.  We can have it all.  No, we can't.  If we live longer, we have to pay more.  If we want more money, we have to work harder.

8.  Wealth will make us happy.  And that's the big one.  The whole debate is predicated on the idea that becoming more wealthy is the goal.  Theologically, this is the idolisation of money, but even putting this to one side it's pretty stupid, and yet utterly pervasive.  Money won't make you happy and it won't fix our social ills.

Here endeth the rant.  That feels much better.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Jesus in the OT

Let's take it as axiomatic that the OT, as Christian Scripture, is about Jesus.  Of course there will be those who dispute this, but let's assume it for the time being.  The question then becomes: how do I see Jesus in the OT?  I think you have two basic approaches, which I will call the one-step and two-step interpretations.  The one-step interpretation goes straight to Jesus; the two step-interpretation stops off somewhere else along the way.  The one-step approach sees Jesus as the immediate meaning of the OT; the two-step approach sees Jesus as the ultimate meaning of the OT.

To illustrate, imagine you have just read Psalm 1.  You ask yourself: who is this blessed man?  The one-step interpreter says - this is Jesus.  This description could never match anyone but Jesus.  And then they will usually draw a link straight in to Psalm 2 and make the anointed man in that Psalm equal the blessed man in the other, and both of them identified as Jesus.  The two-step interpreter is more likely to read Psalm 1 as a wisdom Psalm - a text which establishes the categories of blessedness and wickedness, into which all people could broadly be allocated.  And then they would make the second step, pointing out that Jesus is of course the ultimate fulfilment of what it means to be the blessed man, and that this Psalm which deals in general categories only finds its grounding in human reality through Christ.

Or another example - suppose you are reading the Song of Songs (it's Solomon's, you know).  The one-step interpreter says that this whole Song is about the relationship between Christ and his church, and sets out to show how the details match up with that relationship.  The two-step interpreter says that the Song is an (often highly erotic) love song, telling the story of the relationship between a man and a woman.  And then they would make the second step, showing that marriage itself is a picture of Christ and the church, and therefore seeing Christ in the Song.

I've been back and forth on this, but I'm now pretty firmly in the two-step camp.  Here are some reasons why:

1.  One-step interpretation leaves us open to the charge that we are just making stuff up.  If we end up saying stuff which anyone with a basic grasp of comprehension would be able to expose as 'reading in', I think we're in trouble.  So, when Moses struck the rock he was really striking Jesus was he?  Then why is there no indication of that in the text?  Why do we have to explain (away) so much of the Song in order to make it about Christ, or resort to arbitrary allegorising?

2.  One-step interpretation undermines the uniquely revelatory character of the incarnation.  When Christ came into the world, so did light - see John 1.  The implication of this, and numerous other parts of the Old and New Testaments, is that the OT is full of shadows, which the one-step interpreter wants to disperse prematurely.

3.  One-step interpretation seems to want to make the Scripture about Christ by denying that the Universe is about Christ.  This is a bit obscure, but it's clear to me from the treatment of the Song.  Is marriage - all human marriage - ultimately about Christ and the church?  The Apostle says it is.  Well then, what is the difficulty with saying that the Song is about human marriage?  It shouldn't undermine the Christological and gospel importance of the Song in any way, unless you have a sneaking doubt that marriage really is about Christ, and feel that there is some need to short circuit this.

There's more, but I wondered if anyone had any thoughts on those?

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Scriptures which speak

It occurs to me that if the first part of Psalm 19 is about the speech of creation, the second part is about the speech of Scripture.  This may seem more obvious (although it is less clear in the Psalm!) - but how often do we treat Scripture as if it were just an artefact upon which we can work our wonders of interpretation and exegesis?  What difference would it make if we expected Scripture to be the locus of personal communication from God?

Again, the issue comes down to what we might call the epistemic stance which we take toward the world.  Are we expecting to come face to face today with a world which is at the deepest level personal and therefore communicative?  Or are we expecting to be the only subjects in a world of objects?  Theologically, this latter seems to be an expression of a sinful mindset.  If the world is empty of meaning until I arrive at it - if Scripture is just a text until I interpret it - then I am king in my own universe.  And I can express that even as I come to read the Bible.

The universe presented to us in the gospel is charged with personality; the Scripture given to us is filled with living communication.  Are you listening?

Monday, November 07, 2011

The stars that speak

The heavens declare the glory of God, 
   and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. 
Day to day pours out speech, 
   and night to night reveals knowledge. 
There is no speech, nor are there words, 
   whose voice is not heard. 
Their voice goes out through all the earth, 
   and their words to the end of the world.

Thus Psalm 19.

I think there are two basic models for understanding this sort of text.  On the one hand, there is the model which sees creation as a brute fact - something that is just there - from which it can be inferred that there is a God, and that he is glorious.  This approach leads to cosmological and teleological arguments.  On the other hand, there is the model which sees creation as communicative, as something that speaks and sings the glory of God.  This approach leads to less arguments, and more mysticism.

It seems to me that Psalm 19 very definitely presents the latter approach to creation.  The creation is not dumb, but speaks.

Our post-Enlightenment worldview does not prepare us well for this.  We are expecting to be subjects approaching a world make up of objects.  We are the active ones, and everything else is meant to be more or less passive.  But this subject-object epistemology breaks down when faced with the communicative power of creation.  Creation speaks - not of its own resources, but God speaks through it.  We live in an inter-subjective universe; we are always in the presence of the word of another Person.

In practice, that means less arguments from creation and more marvelling at creation.  It means that the feeling of wonder at the night sky matters, perhaps more than all the evidence of God that can be culled from philosophy.  There is no getting away from the voice of God.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011


I find atheism pretty tempting at times.

This isn't because it is particularly attractive to me, or because I find atheism a particularly cogent intellectual position.  I just find it inexplicably tempting.  It's encouraging to me that Luther had similar temptations.  Anyway, this is a reflection based on the time I've spent on the border between atheism and Christianity.

The main thing that baffles me about most avowed atheists these days is how easy they seem to find it.  Unlike the earlier atheists - Nietzsche, the existentialists - there doesn't seem to be any struggle involved in their atheism.  It makes me wonder if they get it.  What could be more terrifying that being alone in a meaningless universe?  How can anyone live with the burden of being their own god - deciding for themselves what is right and what is wrong, forced to invest that meaningless universe with meaning conjured up from your own mind?  Shouldn't there at least be a struggle?

Having said that, sometimes I look back into Christian territory, and wonder at the ease with which some people put their faith in God.  Maybe it is a gift, but it eludes and confuses me.  I see so much that seems to speak against God's existence, so much that raises doubts.  Even the clearest revelation of God in history involves a cross; every light seems to be shrouded in darkness.  Shouldn't faith also be a struggle?  And what would it mean to live in a world in which I am not of ultimate significance - where I don't get to decide what life is all about?  Isn't it terrifying to be in a universe that belongs to God, where everything is weighed down with value?

To despoil a phrase of the Duke of Wellington's, there can be nothing half so terrifying as a God who exists, unless it be a God who does not.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Jesus and the Bible

"So much as we know of Christ, his sufferings, and his glory, so much do we understand of the Scripture, and no more."

Thus John Owen, in his meditations on the glory of Christ (Works I, p 343).

What would this mean for our reading of the Bible, if we took it seriously?  What about our preaching?  Our systematic theology?

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Empty Chair

Tomorrow in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, the philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig will give a lecture critiquing Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion.  Apparently there will be an empty chair present.  This symbolises the fact that Prof Dawkins was invited to turn this lecture into a debate, and declined.  Foes of Dawkins have made much of this, including an amusing but somewhat triumphalistic bus campaign.

I have some thoughts, naturally.

Firstly, if I were Dawkins I would certainly have turned down this invitation.  If Dawkins debated Craig, he would lose, badly.  It may well be humiliating.  And it would mean nothing at all, in terms of the substantive issues.  Craig is a very good debater; he thinks on his feet, exudes confidence, and runs rings around most other people.  But that doesn't make him right.  The debate format would hardly be likely to be helpful, if by helpful we mean allowing people to investigate the question of whether God does or does not exist.  It would be a tribal exercise.  And on that note, it is worth mentioning that even if Dawkins stood his ground it would just mean that both tribes had something to celebrate - I doubt anyone would change their minds.  I remember reading a couple of different write-ups of a debate between Prof Dawkins and John Lennox, and surprisingly enough the atheist thought Dawkins won and the Christian thought Lennox humiliated him.  Pointless exercise.

Secondly, any debate about the existence of God is likely to be useless at a deeper level.  These sorts of debates are almost inevitably about theism, a concept in which the Bible has no interest.  They also tend to revolve around philosophical arguments, whereas the Scriptural evidence for God's existence is historical rather than philosophical and testimonial rather than argumentative.  I don't think there are any good philosophical arguments for God, but even if there were, what use would it be to demonstrate theism in this way - in a way which is so different to the method which God uses to demonstrate himself?

Thirdly - and this is my real point - the motivation behind this event is shown by the reaction of those on the Christian side.  This could be characterised as triumphalism, smugness, and crowing.  It depresses me.  People seem to have remembered that atheism is a travesty, and forgotten that it is a tragedy.  They seem to have remembered that God triumphs, and forgotten that he does it through the cross.  They seem to have remembered that God's people get glory, and forgotten that they get it by being faithful unto death.  Where is the humility?  Where is the pain over the atheists' ultimate fate?

Anyway, since I've now sounded off in a self-righteous manner, I'm off.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Israel and Israel (and Israel)

Recently I have been led to think a bit more deeply about Israel.  As most of you will know, I have in the past (and, let's face it, the present) got pretty grumpy about Zionism.  That is not likely to change.  But as we recited on Sunday evening one of the Psalms, and sang about Zion, it got me thinking - partly about what the muslim in the room made of it all(!), but partly also about what I think about Israel.  My conclusion is that I do not have thoughts about Israel, per se, but about Israels, plural.

The basis for this way of thinking can be found in the OT, but is summarised neatly by Paul in Romans 9: "not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel".  This is simply a reflection on the writings of the prophets.  There has always been a distinction within Israel, between those who bear that name simply because of their natural descent, and those who belong through their faith.  The latter are generally presented in the OT as a minority, and in the later OT as a remnant - the left-overs of Israel.  What is clear throughout the OT is that, although this distinction can be drawn, Israel also in some sense stands together.  The faithful remnant is not exempt from the suffering of the nation more broadly; and in fact the nation as a whole is preserved for the sake of the remnant.

It is never going to be PC to trace out Paul's development of this thought, but let's not allow that to concern us. For Paul, the coming of the Messiah has brought this division into the open.  There is now, just as there has always been, "a remnant, chosen by grace" (Rom 11:5).  Paul sees himself as evidence of this remnant, which is defined by faith in Christ.  There is not, for Paul, any idea of a faithful Israel without faith in Jesus.  He is the dividing line.  What is more, that dividing line is now extended from within the nation of Israel out into the world.  Gentiles who believe are incorporated into faithful Israel; those who do not believe are shown to be on the outside.  (This does not class them with unbelieving Israel, which remains a special case - see below).

This is not, then, 'replacement' theology - it is not a Jewish nation being replaced by a Gentile church.  I doubt anyone has ever really believed or taught this.  For Paul, and the NT generally, the church stands in continuity with faithful Israel - direct continuity in the case of Jewish Christians, indirect (and therefore all the more incredible and providing all the more evidence of grace) in the case of Gentile Christians.

What about the rest of Israel?  Well, God's calling and election are irrevocable; their faithlessness cannot overturn God's faithfulness.  Therefore, Paul envisages a future in which the nation of Israel will be shown mercy, and will come to faith.  We still await that future.  In the meantime, we are faced with Israel and Israel; we, the church, cannot be ashamed to call ourselves Israel - it would be a denial of Christ if we were.  But we also cannot be ashamed of the other Israel, the people of Israel, with whom we are inextricably linked.

And then there is the state of Israel.  How does that legal entity fit in?  I can't say 'nowhere', because doubtless in his providence God has a plan for that state.  It will serve his purposes for his people - those who are gathered into the church and those who are currently outside it.  Nevertheless, the state of Israel is not Israel in either of the Biblical senses, and to apply the promises of God to this state is to sell out Christian birthright.  From where I stand, the main position which Christians should take vis a vis the state of Israel is constructive criticism - sometimes even outright opposition, based on the flouting of international law which has characterised Israeli policy for decades.  This does not affect, and should not be affected by, our identity  as Israel (the church), or our identity with Israel (the people).

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Truth versus reality

I've been thinking recently about church life, and about my own life, and having - once again - that sense that something important is missing in both.  It's a recurrent feeling, and one that I find personally encouraging; past experience tells me that often this sense of something missing precedes a period of spiritual growth.  I suppose it is like the abnormal hunger that goes hand-in-hand with a growth spurt.

But what are we missing, I wonder?  What is it that keeps us from being what we should be?

Increasingly I've become convinced that the problem is the gap between truth and reality.  On the one hand, we line up all the things which we know to be true - all the great truths of the gospel.  And I think we genuinely believe them, at some level.  We genuinely seek to let them shape our lives.  But we don't seem to see them worked out in our day to day lives.  What we know to be true, and what we see to be real, don't seem to match up.

So we know that the gospel frees from sin and gives us power against temptation - but we still sin, and we still see sins in the Christian community which are appalling.  We know that the gospel brings unity - but we look around at an increasingly fractured church scene and wonder what's going on.  We know that the gospel brings new identity - but we still wonder who we really are.  We know that the gospel brings peace - but we still itch with restlessness.  Perhaps above all, and most troubling, we know that the gospel saves - but we don't see many baptisms these days.

What is to be done?

The thing is, we can't bring the reality.  We can re-examine our truth, make sure it is true truth, make sure we have really understood it.  But only God brings the reality.

What does it look like for us to wait patiently for the Lord?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Last weekend I turned 30.  For reasons which I can't quite put my finger on, that feels like a significant age.  Perhaps it is just because my biological age is starting to catch up with my internal age - as one friend put it, I've always been old, but at least now I (am beginning to) have an excuse.  Whatever the reason, it feels like completing three decades of life is a good time to stop and reflect a little, and also to look back and express some gratitude; a good time to raise an Ebenezer.  So, for the record, here are some things for which I am thankful.

I am thankful that I grew up in a family where love and forgiveness were on display.  Sometimes it might be tempting to think that it would be nice if less forgiveness were called for; but I would rather have imperfection and forgiveness.  Human love and human forgiveness are a pale reflection of God's love and forgiveness, but a reflection nevertheless, and should be valued and loved for that.  Most of all, I am thankful that I grew up in a family where the gospel of Jesus was not just true but real - not just professed, but lived.  I learnt priorities there, and they have stood me in good stead.

I am thankful that God allowed me to wander from him for some years as a younger teenager.  That might seem strange, but at some point I needed to see what life on the run from him was like.  I wouldn't go back to it now.

I am enormously thankful that at the end of that period, in my later teens, God called me to himself.  I am astonished at his persistence with me.  I remember the breaking point, where I was had to surrender to him, and then the realisation that this brokenness was healing.

I am thankful that as a teenager I met the girl I would marry; I am grateful that she worked out that we should be married, because I knew it almost straight away.

I am thankful for my time at University, for the education I got there, for the friends I made, and also for the opportunities I had to get involved in ministry.

I am thankful for a hard year as a Relay worker, and for the tears that God pressed out of me in ministry.  I am grateful for the mistakes that I made there, which taught me so much for the future.  I am grateful for surviving and growing, and I am grateful for the friends who helped me.

I am thankful for my time working with Christian Unions in Oxford and High Wycombe.  What a joy to be involved in the lives of God's people at such a critical time, and what a privilege to be with them doing his work.  Sometimes I bump into people I know from the CUs I worked with, and it is always fantastic to see them going on.

I am thankful for the four Relay workers I supervised during those years.  I feel something akin to parental pride - illegitimate, considering how small a part in played in their lives, but there nevertheless - when I think of all of them and the things they are doing and will go on to do.

I am thankful for God's provision since I left UCCF.  We have never known in advance that we would have enough, but we have always been covered.  God is dependable.  We have had the money we needed, and now I have the job we need to enable us to stay in Oxford and serve the Lord Jesus here.

I am thankful for seven years of blessed marriage, and the arrival of Rufus six months ago.  God has entrusted precious things to me; I pray he makes me faithful in caring for them.

I am thankful that the future is in God's hands, and that he will walk with me into it, standing always between me and danger, and leading me into my eternal home.

Here I raise my Ebenezer; here by thy great help I've come.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Barth on Baptism

To completely change the subject (although I may come back to the Law/Gospel stuff in a bit), a couple of weeks ago I finished reading Church Dogmatics IV/4.  For those keeping score, that leaves me with just one volume I haven't read at least once (III/4), but I'm taking a little break from Barth and heading back into Owen for a while before I tackle that one.


IV/4 isn't really IV/4.  That is to say, it's not the next bit of CD after IV/3.  Rather, it is the bit which Barth had written before he realised that he was never going to finish.  He consequently prepared this bit for publication separately, and it stands alone pretty well.  It contains Barth's doctrine of baptism, and it is (to my mind) intriguing and controversial.

The book is split into two uneven parts.  The first, shorter, part deals with baptism in the Spirit.  This is the answer to the question 'how does the objective truth of reconciliation to God in Christ become subjectively real for me?' - a hugely important question at all times, and especially I would suggest in our time.  Barth's answer is typically Reformed, with all the stress being on God's initiative.  One emphasis which perhaps does not come across so much in other Reformed writers is the freedom of the human being who is baptised with the Spirit - not freedom to accept or reject this baptism, but freedom as a result of this baptism.  By the power of the Spirit, a person is set free to walk in the way of faith in Christ.  That means they are not free to do anything else, because for Barth freedom is not libertarian freedom; it is freedom to serve and trust God.

In the longer second part Barth deals with water baptism.  He builds on the understanding of freedom in the first part to argue that baptism in water is the first free act of the newly freed man.  It is requested from the Christian community, which administers it because it is called to do so by Christ.  In so doing, the community recognises the baptised as a fellow Christian, and the baptised acknowledges the community.  They commit to standing in solidarity of witness.

What is perhaps most controversial about Barth's account is his insistence that nothing sacramental occurs in water baptism.  In the face of almost all church teaching through the ages, Barth argues against the idea that there are two subjects in baptism - the community which baptises, and God who acts sacramentally through the community's action.  Baptism in water is, for Barth, a wholly human action, a response to the freeing presence and action of God the Holy Spirit.  Partly this is driven by Barth's theological concerns - for the freedom of God, who is not bound to the community's actions, and for the freedom of the Christian, who is set on the path of obedience by the Spirit - but it is also backed by a lot of exegetical work.  Barth asks the question: 'where in Scripture is baptism described in a way which implies a sacramental understanding?' - and finds no evidence to support this understanding.  (To be more precise, he finds passages that could be construed in a sacramental way, but others which point decisively against it).  I was also intrigued - and this is a challenge to my own previous thought - that Barth traces Christian baptism primarily back to Christ's baptism in the Jordan, making this the interpretive key for the whole doctrine.

Barth's doctrine, which deserves to be much more fully expounded than the hints I have given here, leads him to reject infant baptism, with a series of entertaining and incisive arguments which I recommend any of my paedobaptist brethren to take a look at - although doubtless they will not be persuasive if you don't buy into his whole picture.  Predictably, I rather enjoyed this section.

So, here's my question - where does the idea of a sacrament come from, Biblically speaking?  I am on the verge of saying, with Barth, that the only sacrament - understood as a divine action accompanying/underlying a human action - is Jesus Christ himself.  Would I be catastrophically wrong to say so?

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Jesus the Judge

One profitable way to read John's gospel is as a lawsuit.  In sending his Son, God prosecutes the world, beginning with his own people.  The unfolding story of the gospel is the story of a sharp division, which is brought to light by (caused by?) the presence of God's Christ.  This could be unpacked at length, but for now I just want to point you to John 3:16-21.

A few things:
v16.  Jesus was sent to save the world, at great cost to himself.  Of course, John 3:16 is the most famous verse in the Bible, and the basic concept is very familiar.  But it is useful, devotionally and theologically, to be reminded of it.  The reason Jesus came into the world was to save the world.
v17.  This is explicitly contrasted with condemnation, for which Jesus did not come into the world.  The condemnation of the world was no part of the goal of Jesus' sending, which was aimed wholly at the salvation of the world through him.
v18.  Nevertheless, the result of Jesus' coming is a division.  Those who trust in him are not condemned; those who do not are shown to be "condemned already".  Is this the bringing to light of a pre-existing condemnation?  Not quite, because the reason for the condemnation is explicitly that they have not trusted Jesus.  He is the dividing line.
v19-20.  The rejection of Jesus is in line with people's prior behaviour - having always loved the darkness, they hate the manifestation of pure light which draws near in Christ.  Desiring to continue in evil deeds, they retreat from the light.
v21.  Those who do not retreat, but who come into the light, show in so doing that they are drawn by God, and that their good deeds are to be attributed only to his working.

So, Jesus' coming is all gospel, and Jesus' presence is all light - no alien God, no hidden God, in this passage. Jesus Christ is pure saving revelation of the one good God.  He divides the world, not by turning towards one part in love and another in rejection, or by showing one part his gospel face and another part his law face.  He divides the world by being the gospel - by loving with an everlasting love, and going to Calvary.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Reflections on Riots

Just a few thoughts, from a Christian perspective, as I try to process what's going on.

1.  I need to beware my instinct to look for some fundamental difference between me and the people who are out on the streets.  I would love nothing more than to be able to say 'I am not like them', and of course there are significant differences - but if there are any ultimate differences they are based on Christ and not my own natural character.  Suppose the looting and rioting to be driven by the basest motives - anger, greed, envy: are those things absent from my heart?

2.  Seeing God's providential hand behind all the events, one has to ask 'what is being said to us?'  Surely a wake-up call to a society which has assumed that it is affluent and secure, and can get by well enough without God and without any value system.

3.  We must say at one and the same time 'the sin of individuals has caused this' and 'the sin of society has caused this'.  Therefore, we must insist on the one hand that individuals be punished, and that society examine itself to see what systemic failings have contributed to these actions.  Ed Miliband seems to me to have been clearest about this on the political side.

4.  We must preach gospel-with-law, not just law.  Only Jesus provides the meaningful narrative within which these people (and all people) must live their lives, and he offers transformation and a call to a better life.  This is true of everyone regardless of background - nobody's background means they don't need it, nobody's background means they're too far gone for it.

5.  Might it not be the case that creating a society with a massive sense of entitlement, and then creating a situation in which certain groups of people have very little, would inevitably lead to conflict?  We need to address not just the deprivation, but also the expectation that the world revolves around you and you have a right to do and have whatever you want.

More thought needed.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The problem of Galatians

Galatians is not the place to go to if you want to get a full-orbed understanding of Paul's view of the Law of Moses.  It is, I think, an angular book, with lots of sharp edges.  Any attempt to fit it into a systematic framework seems to fail - I have taught through it five or six times now, and every time I think I have it sorted I notice another corner poking out through a tear in my systematic theology.  Over time, I've decided I'm okay with it.  The purpose of Galatians is not, I think, to teach systematically about the relationship between Law and Gospel, but to burst through all our thinking and disrupt it - just as the Gospel itself bursts through all our human activity and disrupts it.

I think Galatians is primarily about cutting through one particular understanding of the relationship between human and divine activity.  The link that the Apostle wants to sever is the one leading from human action to righteousness in the sight of God - where that righteousness is understood to include not only legal justification, but also the right relationship with God and with his covenant community that such justification entails.  In Paul's world, the most obvious and most aggressively supported form of this link from human action to righteousness is the Law of Moses.  The Gentile Galatians are being urged to accept it.  Paul, I think, advances two arguments to explain why Gentile Christians should not adopt the Law of Moses:

1.  An argument about the function the Law always served.  The issue in Galatia seems to be that the Christians are being tempted to believe that they must pursue the Law of Moses in order to be righteous.  This expresses itself in table fellowship - incidentally showing how corporate and communal the concept of righteousness in the NT, against our individualistic understanding.  Elsewhere, Paul makes it clear that observance or non-observance of the Law of Moses is irrelevant - he is indifferent as to whether you observe or not.  Only you must not make the Law a matter of righteousness, because to do so is to confuse the Law with the Gospel.  Righteousness comes by faith in Christ - Christ as promised, for those who lived before his advent; Christ as present for those of us who live after his incarnation.  The Law never was meant to bring this righteousness.

2.  An eschatological argument.  To adopt the Law now is particularly perverse, because the Law of Moses had a time-limited role.  It was about keeping Israel looking forward to the Messiah, to bind them closely to the promise.  Paul's argument here is complex, and there are parts which I think no-one understands, but the basic point is simple - the role of the Law was to keep the heir looking forward to the inheritance, which is now given in Christ.  The Law is therefore passe.  It will not do, incidentally, to try to find some part of the Law which is not subject to this argument - either by dividing it into ceremonial, civil, and moral or by any other means.  The Law is in the past; Christ is the present and the future.

All well and good, and this seems to suit the Lutheran positioning of the Law very well - the Law comes first and prepares the way for the Gospel.  Except for two things.  The first is Paul's insistence that the Gospel came first in time.  This is clearly very significant for Paul's argument, because it shows that the Gospel was always the point of the Law - the former did not replace the latter, because it came before it and always underpinned it.  (One is reminded of John the Baptist - he is before me (in rank) because he was before me (in time) - Paul's argument is formally similar).

The other thing is that when it comes to positive instruction about the shape of the Christian life, Paul is happy to quote the Law of Moses.  Is he saying that Christians are, in fact, bound to keep the law of Moses?  Absolutely not.   But he is pointing to the fact that the Christian life is not one of shapeless freedom.  It is one of fulfilling the Law of Christ.

I submit, then - with the reservations that must follow from my first paragraph - that Galatians breaks the link that moves from human activity (according to the Law) to righteousness in order to forge a link that moves from righteousness to human activity (according to the Law, although not that of Moses).  And this, I contend, is the pattern of all Scripture.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Under the law of Christ

When Paul describes his evangelistic strategy in 1 Corinthians 9, one of the things he is keen to point out is his flexibility with regard to the Jewish Law.  He is content to keep it, if doing so will win a wider audience for the gospel; and he is content to ignore it, if that is the best way to get a hearing for the good news.  However, he is very clear that he is essentially free from the Law of Moses - "To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews.  To those under the Law I became as one under the Law (though not being myself under the Law) that I might win those under the Law".  I take it that the second sentence is just an amplification and explanation of the first - to win Jews, who are or at least regard themselves as being under the Law, Paul, who is not under that Law, acts as if he were under it.

This is remarkable enough in itself, given the faultless legal obedience of which the apostle feels able to speak elsewhere.  It shows how completely Paul's outlook has changed with his conversion.

But to understand the direction in which it has changed, we need to read on.  "To those outside the Law, I became as one outside the Law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ)..."  Paul has not become lawless in his conversion.  Rather, he has moved from the domain of the Law of Moses into the domain of the Law of Christ.  The latter is, of course, different in many ways - it is not codified but based on the gospel, it is not a burden but based on the completed work of Christ - but still, it absolutely claims Paul.  In fact, his very chameleon like quality as an evangelist is an outworking of that Law of Christ - he must serve as Christ served, and he must take the gospel out to all because that is simply the logic of the good news.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Law in Deuteronomy

Not long after I was baptised, my Pastor at the time advised me to get stuck in to the book of Deuteronomy, on the grounds that this book is the key to the OT.  Great advice.  Since then I've spent a lot of time in this foundational charter of the life of Israel.  This covenant document explains the history of Israel and underpins the prophetic critiques and warnings of Israel's national life.  So what does Deuteronomy have to say about the Law?

1.  The relationship between Yahweh and Israel is not fundamentally based on Law.  The historical preamble to the covenant (chapters 1 to 3) makes it clear that if this were the case Israel would be doomed - it is a sorry history of rebellion, focussed on the idolatry committed at the very foot of Horeb.  That Israel's entry into covenant with Yahweh is in fact based on a unilateral elective action of God is made clear in, for example, Deut 7:6-11 and Deut 9:4-12.  This is good news for Israel, because it extends hope for restoration after the prophesied exile which will follow their neglect of the Law - Deut 30:1-10.

2.  The Law which is given to Israel is good for them.  In Deut 8:1-10, for example, a description of the blessing which Yahweh has showered on Israel in the wilderness, and which he will multiply to them in the land, is intermingled with the a description of the Law.  The Law will be the foundation of Israel's reputation for greatness and wisdom amongst the nations - Deut 4:6-8.  Moreover, the keeping of the Law is repeatedly associated with rejoicing, for example the giving of the tithe.

3.  Israel can keep the Law.  When Moses says 'What does Yahweh require of you..?' and proceeds to list a series of things including keeping all the statutes and commandments of the Law (Deut 10:12-13), it is clear from the context that we are meant to think that this is only the minimum which ought to follow from the goodness of God which has been recounted in previous chapters.  By the time we get to chapter 30, Moses is able to say "this commandment is not too hard for you".  Nothing too difficult has been asked of Israel.  They can keep this Law, and moreover it makes no sense for them not to do so - it flows logically from the grace they have been shown in the past, and carries with it promises of future blessing.

4.  Israel will not keep the Law.  Moses' last recorded words are a blessing on the tribes of Israel; but before this he has seen into their future, and given them a song which predicts their future apostasy.  Indeed, Moses knows that after his death Israel "will do what is evil in the sight of Yahweh" (Deut 31:24-29).  Why?  Not because the Law is too hard for them, but because their hearts are not right - they have not yet been given a heart to obey (Deut 29:4).  This is a promise for the future (Deut 30:6), after the exile.  A time is envisaged when Israel will be changed and will keep the Law.

As well as helping us to understand the OT, isn't this important for our understanding of the NT?

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Gospel, Law and the structure of Biblical narrative

I think we sometimes (often?) get the relationship between the Biblical narrative and our systematic theology quite badly wrong.  I suspect that our forebears were even worse at it than us.  We often assume that systematic theology must embody 'timeless truth'; narrative by definition is not timeless.  We also often assume that systematic theology takes priority over Biblical narrative; that means that we read the latter through the former more often than not.  I think something like this is going on when people say that the Law takes priority over the Gospel - whether they mean that temporally, logically, or evangelistically.

I would argue that close attention to the Biblical storyline indicates that Gospel always comes first.

Let's take as our main exhibit the foundational narrative of the OT, the Exodus from Egypt and the journey to Canaan.  It seems pretty clear from the narrative that there is no Law involved in the initial Exodus.  The people cry to Yahweh, who hears and rescues.  There is no record that they have to do anything to secure their rescue.  As they head out of Egypt (and my mind goes to the rather dramatic scene in The Ten Commandments) all they can do is rejoice that God has delivered them.  However, it is equally clear that their rescue was not without a purpose.  Israel was being delivered from slavery in Egypt in order to serve Yahweh (thus Exodus 3:12, 7:16 etc).  So Sinai is the logical destination, the place to go after the Exodus.  Once you get there, of course you get the Law - Israel was not being set free in order to wander aimlessly, but in order to receive a new and infinitely better Master.

The point is, structure-wise, it is Gospel, then Law.

That basic structure is repeated throughout Scripture.  I think the first example is creation itself, which is certainly presented as a Gospel, and certainly has a Law which follows it.  And I am sure it is significant that when you step out of the realm of narrative, into, for example, the Pauline epistles, you so regularly have a structure of Gospel first, followed by instruction.  (I will argue at some point that Biblically this instruction is Law - but not in this post).  Not only is this clear structurally, but it makes sense of the relationship between Gospel and Law which is described in the OT - but more on this at a later date.

If at this point you're thinking either 'I'm not sure you can make this sort of doctrinal point from the shape of narrative' or 'but in the grand scheme of things, doesn't the Law of Moses come before the Gospel of Christ in the Bible?' - let me just point you to Paul's argument in Romans 4:9-12 and Galatians 3:15-18.  Paul makes a great deal of the order of events, and argues explicitly that the Gospel was preached to Abraham centuries before the Law of Moses was promulgated.

The storyline of the Bible is Gospel first, then Law.  What impact should that have on our doctrine?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Gospel and Law

In response to a few comments on an earlier post, I've been seeking to clarify my own thinking on the subject of the relationship between the law and the gospel - a subject which has seen much ink spilt over the years, and which sits on one of the major faultlines of historic Protestantism (the divide between Lutherans and the Reformed).  As I've thought about it, I've found that I have surprisingly strong opinions on the subject, which I think can be summarised under four headings:

1.  Gospel always comes logically before Law.
2.  The essence of Law is God's claim of a human being for his service.
3.  The NT uses 'Law' equivocally, that is, to describe different though related things.
4.  Law understood properly is Gospel.

I intend to write a little about each of those things over the next few days (or weeks, depending on how busy I am).  Let me just say something here about why it matters.

Our view of the relation between Gospel and Law affects our view of Christian obedience.  What does it mean to live the Christian life?  This is true not only in the small points (how does the detail of the Law of Moses apply to us today?) but in the big points (what does obedience look like?  To what extent are God's demands codified and objective - and to what extent individual and subjective?  What is to be my motivation?).

Our view of the relation between Gospel and Law affects our view of evangelism.  Does the Law, by laying out God's standard and highlighting our imperfection, prepare the way for the Gospel?  Should we therefore preach Law in our evangelism?  When we offer the Gospel, how freely can we offer it?  Does it entail the Law following on, and must we tell people so in advance?

Our view of the relation between Gospel and Law affects our reading of the OT.  What is the OT about?  Is it primarily a record of a legal covenant, pointing forward to the Gospel?  Or is there more to it?  How should we expound and apply it, in detail and in the big picture?  To what extent does the OT/NT distinction mirror the Law/Gospel distinction?

Finally, and to my mind most importantly, our view of the relation between Gospel and Law affects the way in which we understand the heart of theology.  There is a central question: has God revealed himself in one way, or two ways?  If the latter, which is the real God?  If the former, how are we to understand the distinctions within that one revelation?  What, ultimately, is the relation of the concepts 'Gospel' and 'Law' to the person Jesus Christ?

Meandering thoughts on all the above to follow shortly...

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Not left as orphans

Sometimes my mind wanders, and I start to wonder exactly what it must have been like on the Saturday after Jesus was crucified.  Some pretty weird stuff had accompanied his death.  I imagine many people in the vicinity of Jerusalem were a bit shaken up.  But for Jesus' disciples, there must have been devastating sadness: their Master has been taken away (as had been predicted of him, if only they could have seen it).  No wonder that when Jesus appeared on the Sunday they disbelieved for joy.  But again, this is only what he had told them.  His resurrection showed that he had gone victoriously through death and had returned to proclaim his triumph - first of all to the disciples, but through them to the whole world.

Jesus came back to us.

I also sometimes wonder what it must have been like after Jesus ascended into heaven.  I wonder whether some of the disciples weren't tempted to question whether perhaps everything would just go back to being the way it was.  Perhaps the death and resurrection of Jesus were important events, but not world changing events.  Maybe they had some sort of deep significance, but they were ultimately one off things that could not be expected to have an effect on the whole of their own lives, let alone the lives of people who were geographically and historically distant.  Then Pentecost came.  The Spirit was poured out.  The resurrection of Jesus was not a distant event; it was here, now, changing everything.  We are still essentially in that situation - in need of the Spirit to come to us, to make it all not only true but real.  And as we wait, he comes, and we rise up.

Jesus comes back to us.

And of course, the story is running on towards it conclusion.  There is a slow train coming, up and round the bend.  Even as the Holy Spirit makes Jesus present to us now, we feel all the more acutely his absence.  As we gather in his name to worship, we see more clearly all the opposing names that are still raised against him.  As we rejoice in what he has done to liberate us, we experience more deeply the grief of the ongoing slavery in the world.  As we are thankful for our salvation, we acknowledge again and again our ongoing sin.  But we know that it will come to an end.

Jesus will come back to us.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011


Just a few snippets from other people's thoughts that I think you ought to see...

Chris has some intriguing analysis of humanism here.  He and I are looking at things from very different perspectives in lots of ways, but I think this is spot on.  In particular, "there are fantastically hard - but interesting - dialogues that need to be pursued - our relationship to a web of deterministic natural causes, our relationship to the drives of our own bodies, and our relationship to the ecosystem around us, to name but three. Yet, these dialogues occur, or can only be driven forward through tension. Humanism, I would argue, whether it turns us into little gods or capacious animals, erases this tension. It pretends the questions have been answered."  Have a read.

Krish Kandiah reviews Wayne Grudem's book Politics According to the Bible.  With a title like that it was always going to be controversial.  I think Krish goes to the heart of the issue, which is Grudem's hermeneutic. Proof-texting and a naive understanding of the perspicuity of Scripture can get you into all sorts of trouble.  Perhaps we only see how much trouble when we move into an immediately and obviously controversial area like politics, where our cultural bias starts to really show through.  Krish concludes on one section of the book "there is very little theology here, just a prooftext and some statistics."  I wonder how often that could be said of evangelical theological writing.

Oh, and British Universities are a breeding ground for extremism.  So watch out.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Personal Identity

I would guess that there has never been a culture which struggled so much with the question of personal identity as ours does.  We have invented a whole new period of life - adolescence - devoted to working out who we are.  We are constantly being encouraged to be true to ourselves, without a strong sense of who/what we ourselves are, beyond our instincts and most basic desires.  Our society is so unstructured that many of us spend most of our lives trying to work out what we should be doing, and then usually end up doing something different. My suspicion is that this is just as true in the church as it is outside it.

My guess is that this is at least partly a hangover from substance dualism.  In substance dualism, a human being is divisible into body and soul, with the latter usually being regarded as the real 'you' and the former being basically a vehicle to which you are in some way attached.  (The Biblical view of soul/body is rather different, as is now generally acknowledged.  However, dualism ruled in Christian thought for most of Christian history.  Unfortunate.)  One of the many problems raised by substance dualism is that it locates my real identity in something which is basically amorphous and pretty hard to pin down.  Where and what is my soul?  How can I know myself if I am basically a substance to which neither I nor anyone else has real access?  This problem develops through Hume (there is no soul; what I call myself is just a stream of perceptions which are in some sense tied together) and Kant (we are to understand the 'I' as a transcendental, and therefore inaccessible, object of pure reason, the postulation of which allows us to tie our experiences together) into the present uncertainty.  We are left grasping for the 'real' us.

Two theological reflections:

Firstly, I don't know myself inside out, and searching within me for my identity is always going to be problematic.  I find myself in my relationships with others, who often see things in me that I don't see.  Ultimately, I find myself in knowing God, who knows me perfectly and sees everything there is to see in me.  When he reveals himself in Christ, and through the death and resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit reveals me in Christ, I should be content that this is who I really am.  Relax: you're identity is not yours to find or make.  Yes, it is to some extent hidden, but it is hidden with Christ, and that is a good and safe thing.

Secondly, you and I have not finished living yet.  Who we really are is pretty hard to discern amongst the diverse strands, the various stops and starts, the failed projects and the projected dreams, that make up our lives.  It is really only after death that my identity can be written, and even then only from a limited perspective.  But God knows every day of my life before a single one takes place.  He knows who I will be.  Relax:  this stuff is in safe hands.  Stop fretting about what you should be doing, and do what you find in front of you to do, to God's glory.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Which God?

Suppose Anselm's ontological argument worked.  Suppose it could be demonstrated, using nothing but commonly available logic, that there must exist a being greater than which nothing could be thought - and that we agreed that this is the being which all call 'God'.  Suppose - and a valid ontological argument would yield this result - the existence of such a being were shown to be necessary.

Is this the God of the Bible?

We could ask, is the being described to be identified with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?  Is the being described that same being which is revealed by Jesus Christ?

Let me sharpen it up a little.  Suppose we accept that the God we know from Scripture - the God we see revealed in Jesus Christ, and who makes himself known to us in the testimony of the prophets and apostles - could be described as the most perfect being imaginable.  Would the converse be true?  Could the most perfect being imaginable be described as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?

I believe the answer is firmly 'no'.  In fact, the two 'Gods' being spoken of here have nothing in common.  The God of the ontological argument is perfect - but what does this mean in the abstract?  Would it include dying in agony on a cross under the curse of God?  Could it mean that?  When we start from Christ, and then say that God is perfect, that word has content - and the content is Jesus.  (Which is just to say, that word is the Word).  But if we start from the 'God' of the ontological argument, we start from an empty being - an abstraction, a general and not a particular god - not God.

We are not, then, dealing with another source of knowledge of God which could be coordinated with Jesus Christ; we are dealing with an idol.  And the same could be said of any purported knowledge of God apart from Christ.  (This could even be said of knowledge derived from Scripture!  John 5:39, in context).

Might not this flight into the abstract and general god be the last defence of humanity against the actual God - the God who interferes with my life and my rule over my own world?  Might not theism be the last line of defence against Christ?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Knowing God?

I feel like the question of how we come to know God occupies a lot of my time.  It's a funny question.  For me, it doesn't spring from any anxiety about my own knowledge of God.  Perhaps there is some angst over the fact that other people don't see what I think I see.  Mainly, though, the question is not an existential but a theological one for me.  Given that we know God, how are we to understand that knowing?  Given that it is the case, how can it be the case?  The question is important because at all stages of the theological development of the church the different answers that have been given have represented fundamentally different views of what it means to be a Christian, and by implication what it means to be a human being.  More importantly, different views of how we come to know God lead to different views of the God we come to know.

Consider the first few centuries of the church.  The initial strong consensus that one comes to know God through Jesus Christ - the visible Son of the invisible Father, the precise image of God in the flesh - is challenged by a culturally much stronger and more acceptable form of mystery religion.  Yes, Jesus, but also some sort of mystery - a kind of top-up knowledge.  To really know God, you need Jesus+spiritual experience, or Jesus+secret knowledge.  And of course, because knowing God is caught up with salvation, it turns out that your ascent to salvation is also through secret knowledge.  And given this secret knowledge, one is able to 'see' that of course Jesus was not God in the flesh, but something else, something more refined and more worthy of the dignity of the deity revealed in the mystery.

Or consider the reformation period.  Here there is a more promising starting point, for all are agreed that one comes to know God through Jesus.  The question at issue between Protestant and Catholic is actually 'which Jesus?'  Is it the historical, once-for-all Jesus, to whom the Scriptures bear witness with a finality that cannot be gainsaid?  Or is it the Jesus who is present in the church, to the extent that the church's tradition and teaching reveal him?  That cannot be unrelated to the main difference between the two sides when it comes to salvation: is it by the once-for-all achievement of Christ on the cross, or is it by the repeated sacrifice of Christ on the altar?

Or think about the 'enlightenment'.  The early church period is in some ways reversed.  The prevalent view is that common sense and experience can lead all people to know God.  Jesus helps to clarify that knowledge, and sharpen it, and give shape to the relationship with God that all people everywhere have by virtue of creation.  This view was opposed by versions of the Protestant and Catholic dogmas of the reformation era, both to some extent hardened and weakened, but both demanding (rightly) that Jesus comes in some sense first - although this was sadly muddied on the Catholic side by a strong commitment to the Aristotelian thought of Aquinas.

What is the point?

The point is simply this: whenever you see something co-ordinated with Jesus Christ as a source of knowledge about God, you know you are in trouble.  Doesn't matter whether it's spiritual experience, natural theology, church tradition or anything else.  It's trouble.

On which, more shortly...

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Lead me all the journey through

"Holy Scripture may be compared to the fiery cloud and pillar which in every age precedes the community and all its members as an invariably authentic direction to the knowledge of its Lord, to the gift which he gives and the accompanying task which he sets.  It can and should be confessed always and everywhere and by all.  It raises the claim to be heard, to be heard obediently and to be recognised as authoritative always and everywhere and by all.  The biblical word is thus the concrete vinculum pacis of the church in every age and place.  The community is always and everywhere summoned to regard its claim, to gather around its message, to pursue its investigation, exposition and application.  We never do injury to a Christian or the community, nor are we in danger of leading a Christian astray, nor is it arbitrary but always and everywhere salutary and good, if we set ourselves and the community on the way which leads backwards or rather forwards to Holy Scripture.  For since in Holy Scripture true words are always to be heard, this way is always the way backwards or rather forwards to Jesus Christ, to the one Word, to the reconciliation accomplished in him, to the one covenant between him and man, to the salvation effected and to be found in this covenant.  However well or badly it may be followed, this way is always the good way, and to tread it is always and in all places commanded of the community and individual Christians, and is full of promise for them."

-CD IV/3, p130

Saturday, May 14, 2011


My reading in the Church Dogmatics has recently brought me to the end of volume III/3, meaning I have now read nine out of thirteen volumes (yes, I have skipped ahead).  Towards the end of this volume, Barth conducts an intriguing discussion of angels and demons, a topic I've read very little about, and even less that came from the pen of one of the 'big hitters' in the theological world.  So I was very interested to hear what he had to say.

Turned out I didn't like it much.

But one of the things that struck me, and pleased me, was Barth's matter of fact insistence on the reality of angels (and, in a sense, demons) and their work in the created world.  He notes that angels often accompany and witness to God's revelation - the absence of angels during most of the incarnation being an obvious and important counter-point, showing that something unique is happening here, where God reveals himself and witnesses to himself, making the angelic witness doubly superfluous.  But, as Barth points out, in some senses the angelic witness is always utterly superfluous.  When we read in the Bible that an angel did something, we surely must understand the Scripture as saying that God did something through an angel - and if this is correct, is it not the case that God could have worked without an angel to the same effect?

So, why angels?  Barth argues that their presence reminds us that God is not imminently within us, or easily within our grasp, but actually transcends our being and our understanding.  Angels, coming from heaven, remind us that God always comes to us from elsewhere.  Angels, turning up out of the blue, remind us that God does not come at our will but at his.  Perhaps most importantly, angels keep us from an almost deist conception of God that binds him to the normal course of events, preventing him from surprising us with his presence and his grace.

I read somewhere that Francis Schaeffer used to open university missions by talking about angels.  I don't know if that's true.  If it is, I imagine his aim was to show what a very different, and in many ways very surprising, world we live in if Christianity is true.

I certainly wouldn't want to be without the ministry of angels.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

No to AV

I've been meaning to write about this for a little while, but it seemed too trivial to occupy blog space in the run up to Easter.  But now the referendum draweth nigh, and we must all make a decision.

I will vote no.

I realise that this will come as no surprise to anyone.  As a Conservative, it was always likely that I'd be saying no.  And if I'm honest with myself, I recognise that one factor in the decision making process for me has been that deep instinct to resist change which lies in the heart of every Tory.  I hope, however, that this has not been the only or indeed the most weighty factor.  I hope I am not deciding on purely party lines - although I do recognise that the Tories arguably have the most to lose under AV.  I hope, as well, that I am not making my decision on the basis of so much of the campaigning from both sides, which has been thoroughly negative throughout.  Frankly, the No campaign has sickened me, and the Yes campaign has also left me faintly nauseous.

To be clear: I am not voting no because I think AV would benefit the BNP - it wouldn't; I am not voting no because I think AV would be too complicated to understand - it isn't (although it is more complicated if one wants to vote tactically, but one ought not to do so in my opinion); I am not voting no to spite Nick Clegg - I rather like him; I am not voting no because AV would cost too much - if it were really better, it would be worth spending the money.

I should also point out that I am a Tory in a seat where a Tory hasn't stood a chance of winning for 20 years - one of the 'safe seats' which the Yes campaign have been talking about.  It is frustrating for me.  But I just want to point out that it is absolutely not true that my vote 'doesn't count' because of this circumstance; it counts just as much as anyone else's.  It's just that not enough people agree with me to make a difference in the outcome.  If I was really that bothered, I should get out there and try to persuade them, not complain about the voting system.

And that brings us to the heart of it for me.  It's about what sort of politics you want.  The Yes people have been saying that AV would force MPs to work harder, to appeal to a broader range of people.  Doubtless that is to a certain extent true.  Except that it strikes me that very often the best way to appeal to a broad range of people is to be vague, bland, unexceptional.  I think AV favours that sort of MP.  It encourages non-ideological politics.  Now, you may think that is a good thing.  There would be more consensus.  But I think that politics is about having a vision of a better society and persuading people to get on board with it.  Political differences are not, after all, purely a product of circumstance - it is not that those less well off must support Labour, whilst the wealthy support the Tories, and the wealthy with a bad conscience support the Lib Dems.  These differences are about ideas - huge, significant ideas, about humanity and society and morality.  And ideas need arguments.  They need arguments to showcase their grandeur.

I think AV would stifle that.  To pick up second preference votes - and in many seats, that is what will matter - you're best off being the guy the others don't object to all that much.  I think it's a shoddy way to choose MPs.

But I invite you to show me why I'm wrong...

Saturday, April 23, 2011


Elie Wiesel, from 'Night':

The SS seemed more preoccupied, more worried, than usual.  To hang a child in front of thousands of onlookers was not a small matter...

The three condemned prisoners together stepped onto the chairs.  In unison, the nooses were placed around their necks.

"Long live liberty!" shouted the two men.

But the boy was silent.

"Where is merciful God, where is He?" someone behind me was asking.

At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over.

Total silence in the camp.  On the horizon, the sun was setting.

"Caps off!" screamed the Lageralteste.  His voice quivered.  As for the rest of us, we were weeping.

"Cover your heads!"

Then came the march past the victims.  The two men were no longer alive.  Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish.  But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing...

And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes.  And we were forced to look at him at close range.  He was still alive when I passed him.  His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.

Behind me, I heard the same man asking: "For God's sake, where is God?"

And from within me, I heard a voice answer:

"Where is He?  This is where - hanging here from this gallows..."

Francois Mauriac, from his preface to 'Night':

And I, who believe that God is love, what answer was there to give my young interlocutor whose dark eyes still held the reflection of the angelic sadness that had appeared one day on the face of a hanged child?  What did I say to him?  Did I speak to him of that other Jew, this crucified brother who perhaps resembled him and whose cross conquered the world?  Did I explain to him that what had been a stumbling block for his faith had become a cornerstone for mine?  And that the connection between the cross and human suffering remains, in my view, the key to the unfathomable mystery in which the faith of his childhood was lost?  And yet, Zion has risen up again out of the crematoria and the slaughterhouses.  The Jewish nation has been resurrected from among its thousands of dead.  It is they who have given it new life.  We do not know the worth of one single drop of blood, one single tear.  All is grace.  If the Almighty is the Almighty, the last word for each of us belongs to Him.  That is what I should have said to the Jewish child.  But all I could do was embrace him and weep.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Using Easter well

I wasn't brought up in a tradition where Easter was a big deal.  On the whole, we maintained our non-conformity by ignoring the liturgical calendar.  Christmas was a purely secular event; Easter was about chocolate.  The rationale was two-fold: firstly, that we should be remembering the great events behind Christmas and Easter all the time; secondly, that Scripture didn't mandate or command the observance of these or any other festivals.

In more recent years, I've observed Christmas and Easter more closely.  In essence, I moved away from the version of the regulative principle that said you couldn't do things that weren't directly commanded in Scripture, although I still think nobody can criticise people who choose not to observe the festivals, since there is no Biblical authority behind them.  Moreover, I came to think that it was just impossible for human beings to remember everything all the time.  Without a focus to our remembering, our remembering melts away.  It's why we have communion, why we come together to worship: to provide a focus to our remembering of Jesus.  Christmas, and especially Easter, helps me with that.

But I did make the mistake, as I moved to this position, of treating Easter as if it were mythical.  Consider Tammuz, if you will.  Tammuz is an annual dying and rising god.  He comes and goes.  In some ways he quite clearly stands for the coming and going of the seasons.  His dying and rising were observed annually, with funerals and celebrations.  These rituals did not commemorate anything; there was nothing to commemorate, since Tammuz was never thought of as a historical person per se.  He was rather a personification of a timeless reality.

To treat Easter as a myth is to see the passage from Good Friday to Easter Sunday as a sort of re-enactment.  In my case, it meant trying to find the right emotional response for each day: remorse passing into grief passing into joy.  I suppose acting as if my participation made it real.

Easter is history.  It happened once and for all.  So, this weekend I will be remembering and celebrating, not re-enacting.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

House of Mourning

Last night, I think we walked home past a house where someone had died.  I don't know that for sure, but the circumstantial evidence was strong: police car, ambulance, paramedics bike.  The biggest indicator, a wail of grief.  Inbetween sobs, somebody was crying out 'please, please!'  I don't know with whom they were pleading: the paramedic, the departed, the universe, God?  It was indescribably painful to hear, and although we only heard it in passing it left me really quite shaken.

Made me think about death.

I think everyone is either terrified by death, or doesn't understand death.  To have such a final limit - and a limit which nobody knows when they will cross - is surely the most horrific thing.  No matter how much people try to persuade themselves that death is just a part of natural existence, I cannot believe anyone is really as resigned to death as that position would lead us to expect.  To pass from life - which means to pass from everything, including yourself - is the most appalling prospect.  I will be honest: I dread it.  In fact, I think dread could be defined as the subjective reaction to the objective prospect of death.

In the face of that, Christianity is about dying well.  Oh, I know, it's about living well, enjoying the here and now, delighting in God's good creation, loving people around us, investing in the world.  Of course it is.  But all that stuff is just the stuff that is threatened by death.

If my faith in Christ doesn't help me to die, what use is it?  If I cannot die in peace, how can I live in peace?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

On political disagreement

Big protest in London today against spending cuts.  Fair enough, I guess, although I have to say I don't believe this is really a legitimate form of political expression when you live in a democracy.  We had an election: if the left had managed to persuade enough people that they were right (so to speak), they'd still be in power.  After all, I didn't march on the capital in 1997 when the Labour government which would spend the next decade ruining the public finances got into power.  Maybe I should have done.

But this is not what I wanted to write about.

I wanted to write about disagreement.  In politics, as in almost no other sphere that I know of (theology, actually, would be one), disagreement almost always turns bitter.  The number of times in the last few months that I have heard friends of mine describe the current UK government's position as 'evil' has taken me a little by surprise, particularly as it is difficult not to imply that I am also regarded as a morally bankrupt person.  And, in the interest of even-handedness, I must admit that the first para of this post reflects more than a little bitterness on my part too.

It is not all that surprising.  I think I can see two reasons for the bitterness.  One is that these disagreements are about things that are real; they have an actual effect on our lives.  Moreover, some of the things that politicians do are quite difficult to undo.  We see the world changing around is in response to political decisions, and that sparks fear, amongst other things.  This is no abstract debate.  The other reason is that these disagreements, when analysed, turn out to represent two very different visions of what society ought to be like.  More than that, debates about what society ought to be like tend to be based on different understandings of human beings.  These disagreements, which seem to be over fiscal policy (for example), often turn out to be disagreements over what it means to be human - what it means to be me or you.  There is nothing more likely to provoke bitterness than a question which touches on my own sense of identity.

I don't know that I have an answer to this, except to ask that we all try to think a bit more.  In particular:

1.  If you think that your opponent's position is nonsensical, consider that you probably haven't understood it. Very few people hold ultimately nonsensical positions.  Certainly it would be better to give them the benefit of the doubt.  Maybe you should take some more time to think about it.

2.  If you think that your opponent's position is evil, consider that you may well be wrong.  In particular, try to work out what is integral to their position and what is a side-effect.  Ascertain what the goals are - is there nothing noble whatsoever?  Finally, bear in mind that you are probably good friends with people who disagree with you - do their lives generally give you the impression that they are likely to be wholly evil in the political arena?

3.  If you find particular representatives of a given position intolerable, consider that they are only human.  They probably don't represent what is best about your opponents.  Also, consider that they are human at the end of the day - with all the inherent nobility and tragedy that this name implies.

4.  Don't expect to win all the time.

5.  Try to see the roots of your opponent's position.  Where are they coming from?  Try to get inside the view of the world and humanity which would lead them to think as they do; consider whether there are incidental factors of your own upbringing and/or position in society which unduly influence your own perception.

6.  Consider whether there is any common ground at all - it may provide a base from which to establish wider agreement.  At the very least, it may serve as a reminder that we are all, at the end of the day, limited in our perceptions and understandings, and on the whole are only trying to do our best to work it out.

Now I must try to practice what I preach, and if I fail (as I already have a couple of times today), call me on it!

Monday, March 07, 2011

Who are you?

If you start your investigation of human nature with Jesus - if Christology is at the centre of your anthropology - the possibility is raised that you do not know yourself.  You may have to be told who you are.  It may be that none of us knows inherently, or is able to deduce from our own behaviour or that of others, what it means to be human.  That raises all kinds of issues.

One issue that has been floating around recently, mainly because of the case of Mr and Mrs Johns, is the attitude of Christians to homosexuality.  Now, up front, I want to acknowledge that this is a hugely complex and, for many, painful issue.  I also want to acknowledge that Christians don't all agree on this topic.  But I have to say that as I read Scripture, and as I try to think theologically about what the gospel implies for humanity, I arrive at the conclusion that an active homosexual lifestyle is not compatible with the Christian message.  I don't want to overplay that, and I also don't want to make out that this is a big part of my belief - it is not.  (In fact, although from the news you would get the impression that evangelical Christians basically talk about this all the time, and also that they are raging homophobes, my experience has been that the topic comes up rarely, and when it does is tackled with pastoral sensitivity.  I know that hasn't been everyone's experience.)  Still, however peripheral this belief is - however much I may consider it to be basically an implication of an implication of the gospel, something which stands at considerable remove from the heart of the faith - nevertheless I am obliged to hold it.

And here's the point.  This position comes in for criticism so often in the news, and raises such outrage amongst our contemporaries, because it challenges our notion of what it means to be human.  Christians are saying something which is, despite all my disclaimers above, huge in what it means for human nature.  Everybody knows that Christians want to tell people how humanity ought to be - it is part of the Christian message to say that we are not what we should be, and that we must be changed.  This is, naturally, offensive to people.  But I think we are actually saying something more offensive than that - we are saying that you are not who you think you are.  Imagine if a Christian said this: 'if this lifestyle is incompatible with the gospel, it is not human'.  Offensive!  But that is implicitly what we are saying.

Of course, we are saying it to everyone, not just those who practice a certain lifestyle, and not just those outside the church.  Still, sexuality is a point at which it is particularly painful, because it is so close to the heart of an individual's identity.  The Christian message threatens to take their identity away, by telling them they are not really who they think they are at all.  What insecurity this threatens!  And what offence!

The flip-side is that if the gospel is true, then I am told who I really am, and can relax.  I have no need to forge my own identity, assert my own individuality, or even wrestle with my own inner contradictions to quite the same extent.  Who I am is decided elsewhere, and I am in a sense graciously given to myself to enjoy.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Being Human (3)

One of the key points about Barth's Christological anthropology, as I understand it, is that the Christ who stands at the centre of it is the real Jesus of Nazareth, as witnessed in the Scriptures.  Anthropology is not shaped around a centre defined by a logical or aesthetically appealing idea, whether that of the ideal human or that of incarnation.  It is based around a person, and when we say a person we mean an event - a history, a happening. General anthropology is the periphery to which the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ form the centre.

One of the huge implications of this is that it is impossible that human beings should fail to be human.

Everything we know about the world and the people who inhabit it militates against this conclusion.  In fact, we have already seen that the phenomena of human life exhibited all around us speak just as strongly of inhumanity as humanity.  If we constructed our anthropology on the basis of experience, we would probably say that people could choose: they could affirm or deny their own humanity.  In one sense we would be right. We can affirm or deny our humanity.  I can choose to live as someone who stands before God and my fellow man, or I can try not to.  I can seek to escape God, either by atheism or religion, and my fellow man, either by solitude or shallow relationships.  It is the great tragedy of sin, from the human point of view, that it tends towards the dehumanising of human beings.  It attempts to mask what and who we are.

But the event of Jesus Christ is and means 'God with us'.  And it means 'he will save his people from their sins'.  The presence of Jesus Christ - and especially the resurrection - means that humanity is not abandoned, just as Jesus is not abandoned to corruption.  God affirms his creation, and upholds it against its own wilful fall and senseless drive to be nothing.

There is no single human being who can erase what Jesus Christ has done.  There is therefore no single human being who can be really without God, or really without the fellow man, because Jesus Christ is both.  All my attempted inhumanity cannot unmake me.  The mask of evil which I choose to wear - and in so far as it lies with me, I will this mask to be my reality - is in fact not chosen for me, because Jesus Christ is with me as a human being and as my God, and I am upheld.

But how much worse this makes it!  Every sin is against my own humanity, against the grace of God, against Jesus Christ.  And every sin is an impossible attempt to be nothing when God has made me something.  My sin may take me to the fire of hell, but it will not make me less than a person who stands before and with God and my fellow man.  And that is a terrifying thought.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Being Human (2)

So, what does Christocentric anthropology look like?

First of all, it begins with Jesus, and asks the question: what does it mean to be Jesus?  Because if Jesus is 'the Man', the only real human being, humanity cannot be discovered apart from him.  Of course, there are many ways we could look at Jesus, and many perspectives from which we could view him.  When it comes to anthropology, we must consider Jesus the Man (albeit the Man who is God).  There are two essential things to consider about this Man - two relationships.  On the vertical axis, Jesus is man for God.  This captures a number of different things.  Jesus, considered as a human being, is God's creature; his human nature has no existence except that which is granted to it in the incarnation through its union with the Logos.  The sense in which Jesus is man for God goes beyond this, however, to embrace his responsibility.  Everything that is not God exists for God in some way, but Jesus exists for God as an active, responsible being.  He exists to willingly fulfil the will of God.  Meanwhile, on the horizontal axis, Jesus is man for man.  At the surface level, this expresses the fact that Jesus comes to do humanity good.  At a deeper level, the man Jesus would not exist except as he comes to do man good.  Being 'for man' is not something that is incidental to Jesus; it defines his being as the incarnate Son of God.  And then again, Jesus is 'for man' because in his life, death, and resurrection he takes the place and takes up the cause of the human race and each member of it.

To be Jesus is to be man for God, and man for man.

But secondly Christocentric anthropology recognises that Christology and anthropology are different things.  We cannot read a general doctrine of humanity from the being of Jesus.  He is the God-man, unique and above us in every way.  Barth doesn't put it like this, but I suppose you could say we should not be Christomonist when thinking about humanity, but genuinely Christocentric.  Jesus is the centre point of humanity, and general humanity stands around him; Christology is the centre and anthropology is the periphery.  Nevertheless, we can move from the centre to the periphery.  Humanity cannot be Jesus, but it must correspond to Jesus.

Jesus is man for God - uniquely so, through the incarnation.  But corresponding to this is the determination of man generally as one who belongs to God and responds to God.  This vertical relationship exists, whether the individual human being acknowledges it or seeks to efface it.  The relationship holds because, in the faith of human unfaithfulness, and indeed the impossible yet frequently made decision for inhumanity on the part of individual human beings, God is faithful.  Human beings cannot unmake themselves, or make themselves something other than what they are.

Jesus is man for man - uniquely so, through his representative and substitutionary role.  But corresponding to this is the determination of man generally as one who stands with other men.  No definition of humanity which makes the individual prior can possibly be correct.  To be man, says Barth, is to be fellow-man, to stand in an I-Thou relationship with other human beings.  Again, this must be so.  We do stand in relationship to others, whether we like it or not.  We cannot, and should not, stand in their place as Jesus does, but we should stand alongside.  We exist to help one another.  This being as fellow-man is shown most clearly in the existence of humanity as male and female, man and woman.  "It is not good for the man to be alone".

These conclusions - that man is for God, and with other men - could be reached in other ways.  But only from Jesus can they be shown to be certain and absolutely determinative for human existence.