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?