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?