Friday, December 21, 2012

O Dayspring

O Dayspring, splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Enlightenment is a funny concept.  The images it conjures up for me are radically contradictory.  On the one hand, the eastern sage - the cliche of films without number - who is possessed of a supernatural calm and a deep spiritual awareness of his one-ness with the Universe; on the other hand, Immanuel Kant - the spokesman par excellence for the European cultural movement known self-consciously as 'the Enlightenment' - daring to know, having the courage to think for himself, mastering the universe through understanding.

These two figures have two things in common.  One is that they are driven by autonomy.  The spiritual figure, for all his sense of one-ness with all that is, seeks and finds that one-ness within himself.  It is not so much that he is part of a larger whole, as that he is the whole, and vice versa.  The more rationalist figure, committed to the throwing off of authority, deems his own mind to be the source and criterion of truth.  Both figures claim to have light, but neither can really claim to be enlightened; on neither of them does light fall from without.

The other similarity is that neither of them perceives the world to be a place of darkness.  It is not that they are oblivious to the presence of evil or suffering, but fundamentally evil and suffering are treated as soluble problems, issues waiting to disappear.  Perhaps they will be shown to be imaginary, or perhaps they will be shown to be really good once we see or feel the big picture.  Or perhaps we will just see them as problems to which we can set our intellects; hurdles to be overcome.  Fundamentally, the world is a place of light, and that of course stems from the fact that fundamentally both figures see themselves as having light within themselves.

How different the perspective of Scripture - the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; a light has dawned.  Indeed, we must not seek to walk by lights we have kindled ourselves.  Christ alone enlightens, as a light entering a dark place,

Thursday, December 20, 2012

O Key of David

O Key of David, and sceptre of the house of Israel,
who opens and no one can shut, shuts and no one can open:
Come and bring the prisoners from the prison house,
who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

That Jesus opens is wonderful news; that he shuts seems to me right now to be even better news.  Open a door, let the prisoners out - but where will they do, and what will they do?  What if the prisoners are sinners?  What if they - we - are so accustomed to darkness that they would wander back into the prison without a second thought?  A life set free in this way is a shapeless, under-determined, and ultimately desperately dangerous life.

But Jesus also shuts, and no one can open.  He bars the way back into darkness.  Try as we might, we can't go back to where we were or who we were before.  God has come into our world, and that can't be undone.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

O Root of Jesse

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign to the people,
before whom kings shall shut their mouths
and whom the nations shall seek:
Come and deliver us and do not delay.

Isaiah sees a Davidic King, a monarch for Israel and the earth.  Elsewhere this figure is the Branch; why, here, the Root?  Isaiah lives amidst the collapse of Davidic hopes - the dynasty corrupted, its territory diminished.  Not long until the end of it all.  Is it, perhaps, that he looks behind the Davidic dynasty - not so much to a son of that line, but to the very source of the significance of that line?  At the least, we can say that the Root of Jesse is the only Person who can make sense of the OT picture of kingship.

Universal and absolute monarchy - a nightmare, unless it is this King.  He is the one who carries all our hopes, who reigns and rules for goodness, in goodness.  A signal.  Lifted up, for all to see.  We will come to him, and he will come to us.  And of his government and peace, there will be no end.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

O Adonai

O Adonai, and leader of the house of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

"Jesus", says the book of Jude, "saved a people from Egypt".  I once had to write an essay on the tedious question of how the Exodus and Sinai traditions became associated in the Pentateuch - the assumption behind which was, of course, that they were not originally connected.  (And the assumption behind that was that neither of them happened anyway)  I wanted to write that sentence from Jude as my answer.  In the end, I wrote something longer, but hopefully it was to the same effect.

The connecting theme in the story of the Bible is God Incarnate - Jesus Christ.  I am not one of those who thinks that people in OT Israel knew everything that we do about Jesus.  I can't see that from Scripture at all.  But what I can see is that without Jesus there is a deep ambiguity to the OT story.  The OT is full of God's transcendence and presence; it is full of God near and distant.  It only makes sense if it ends in Jesus, and if it ends in Jesus it also contains Jesus throughout.  Every time we encounter God in the OT, we are encountering the Triune God, and the only way we can understand the interaction of this holy God with the world is in the light of Jesus.  When God interacts with human beings in the OT, we are right to see Jesus foreshadowed - and because he is God the Word, not only foreshadowed but personally present in the foreshadowing.

Monday, December 17, 2012

O Wisdom

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
and reaching mightily from one end of the earth to the other,
ordering all things well:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

Early Christians, just like Christians today, were accused of being irrational, illogical. We have a tendency to respond to this accusation by seeking common ground with the accuser.  We look for some reason why they should, on their own worldview, see us as rational people holding logical beliefs.  The response of early Christian thinkers was generally different.  They argued that Christianity was logical because it was Logical.  It makes more sense in Greek.  Jesus is the Word - the Logos - who stands behind all creation; he is the reason that makes anything else reasonable.  How could Christianity be illogical when it was all about the Logos?

The big difference, perhaps, is that they really believed (in a way which we struggle to do) that the whole of reality was about Jesus.  We need to get our heads around that.  Jesus.  The Logic of the universe is the God-man Jesus of Nazareth.  It makes sense only in him.

One implication of that is that to learn the way of prudence is to learn Jesus.  He is the Way.  Learning to see every situation in the light of Jesus - more than that, learning to see him in every situation - is what it means to be wise, and logical, and rational.

This is a reflection on the first of the Advent antiphons - there might be more if I can keep up!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Defending the Indefensible

I've had two conversations recently which have steered me into dangerous territory.  In the first one, I think I was being checked out as a representative of Magdalen Road Church.  What sort of people were we?  In particular, since we seemed like lovely people (that wasn't said, but surely it goes without saying), we surely weren't like those 'hellfire and damnation' Christians that you might find across the southern states of the US?

In the second conversation, I was being asked why - why on earth? - a Christian Union would restrict itself to having male speakers.  Surely this is hugely sexist and unethical?  Shouldn't religious people be showing the way forward, rather than perpetuating bigotry?

There are several things about these sorts of conversations which could become awkward.  For one thing, nobody much likes talking about hell; and in the current climate, nobody much likes talking about women and the church either.  Both are difficult.  Moreover, neither topic easily leads you into the main thing which, as a Christian, you want to talk about: the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

What was difficult about both conversations for me, though, was that I sympathise with the questioner.  I know exactly what is meant by a hellfire and damnation Christian, and I surely do want none of it.  I can also guess why a CU might bar women from speaking, and I think it's defective theology.  I'd love to be able to distance myself from both groups.  The person I'm speaking to wants me to do that too.  In both cases, they are predisposed not to think me an idiot, or (I hope) a bigot.  They are willing me to say that, no, I am not like these people, and in fact my brand of Christianity is much better than theirs.  Which, let's face it, I am at least partly inclined to believe that it is.

But instead I have to stand up for these folks - more than that, I have to show the closest solidarity.  Because they are trying to follow Jesus, trying to understand the Bible and apply it to their lives and their world.  If they've got some things wrong, goodness knows so have I.  I have to reply knowing and feeling in my heart that I am talking about brothers and sisters of mine.  I stand with them.  I don't have to say they're right about everything, but I need to be careful.  The desire to look good has to be suspected whenever it pops up.  I do want people to think well of me.  But if I sell my (to my mind erring) brothers down the river in order to get that, what happens next?  Sell my Lord as well?  It's not so different.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Advent texts: Mumford and Sons

Well I came home like a stone
And I fell heavy into your arms
These days of dust, which we've known
Will blow away with this new sun

But I'll kneel down, w
ait for now
And I'll kneel down know my ground

And I will wait, I will wait for you

So break my step, a
nd relent
Well you forgave and I won't forget
Know what we've seen and him with less
Now in some way shake the excess

And I will wait, I will wait for you

Now I'll be bold as well as strong
And use my head alongside my heart
So tame my flesh, and fix my eyes
A tethered mind freed from the lies

And I'll kneel down, w
ait for now
I'll kneel down know my ground

Raise my hands paint my spirit gold
And bow my head, keep my heart slow

Cause I will wait, I will wait for you

Monday, December 03, 2012

Goblins and Gospel

J.R.R. Tolkien is one of my favourite theologians.  I wouldn't imagine that he would appear in many people's lists of favourite theolgians (I assume that other people keep such lists).  For starters, his stories have 'gods' in them, and don't mention Christianity at all.  In fact, this was a conscious choice for Tolkien.  "Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error)", he once wrote, "but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary 'real' world."  In fact, he felt that for myth to contain or reference Christianity explicitly was "fatal" for the story.  In the form of myth, art could never capture Christian themes if it set out to reference explicitly the Christian story.  That makes Tolkien a subtle theologian, but I love him for three main themes which he teaches me to feel, rather perhaps than to think, through his stories.

Firstly, Tolkien teaches me to feel the doctrine of creation.  The creation myth from the Silmarillion is, to my mind, absolutely beautiful and to a very great degree truth-full.  (I would say absolutely truth-full, but Tolkien's Roman Catholicism does peek through a bit in the role he assigns to his 'subordinate gods', the Valar - God is never quite so close to his creation as you feel he is in Scripture).  I can't really describe it, except to say that portraying creation not as one act, but as the whole of history, and not as a fiat but as a composition, touches my heart with the wonder of God's creative act more than any other text I've come across.  Tolkien really loved stuff - the stuff God has made (he had a much more ambiguous relationship with the sub-creativity of humanity).  He makes me want to love stuff too, for the sake of its Creator.

Secondly, Tolkien helps me to feel the doctrine of the Fall.  The Silmarillion is full of futility, and that same futility haunts the Lord of the Rings.  We need heroes, but whenever we have had them they have been broken.  Feanor is the greatest of the Noldor, but he dooms his people to exile and his family to destruction. Turin is noble, but ultimately is doomed by his own evil.  Numenor is great, but is pulled down by its own pride, as will be in time its daughter realms in Arnor and Gonder.  (As an aside, Tolkien's portrait of evil is profound - it is about wanting mastery, and in pursuit of mastery actually making yourself a vulnerable slave.  Sauron seeks mastery through the ring; but by investing his energy in it, he makes himself vulnerable in ways he would never have been otherwise).  An intervention is needed - at the end of the Silmarillion this is the Valar riding to war; in the Lord of the Rings, it doesn't really come, except in the sense of my third point below.  In both cases, Tolkien understands that brokeness is brokeness, and evil is evil - even when both are redeemed for good.  In the creation myth again, the theme of Melkor - the embodiment of evil - is woven into Iluvatar's (God's) overall purpose, but it is still ruinous.  And Iluvatar's counter-theme is "deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came".  That seems to me to be the way the gospel deals with evil.

Thirdly, Tolkien gives me a picture of providence.  Throughout the Lord of the Rings, the 'goodies' are preserved and at crucial moments very definitely helped by an outside force (think Frodo in the tunnel, chanting the name of Elbereth).  The theme is shown profoundly in the two characters of Frodo and Gollum. Frodo wishes the ring had never come to him - "Why was I chosen?"  Gandalf can only reply that he "may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess".  In fact, "Bilbo was meant to find the ring, and not by its maker.  In which case you also were meant to have it,  And that may be an encouraging thought."  Frodo represents providence working itself out in the light.  Gollum represents providence working itself out in shadow.  He has just as much of a role to play as Frodo.  Without him, the ring would not be destroyed.  But he is the unwilling tool of providence.  He is in some ways the Judas Iscariot of the book.  And all of this relates back to the music at the beginning of the Silmarillion - which encompasses all themes, even those which rebel against the Chief Composer.

Okay, I admit it, I am a Tolkien fanboy.  Now to get back to my 17th or 18th read through the Lord of the Rings (I lost count somewhere along the line)...

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Advent texts: The Silmarillion

"Now Fingolfin, King of the North, and High King of the Noldor, seeing that his people were become numerous and strong, and that the Men allied to them were many and valiant, pondered once more an assault upon Angband; for he knew that they lived in danger while the circle of the siege was incomplete, and Morgoth was free to labour in his deep mines, devising what evils none could foretell ere he should reveal them.  This counsel was wise according to the measure of his knowledge; for the Noldor did not yet comprehend the fullness of the power of Morgoth, nor understand that their unaided war upon him was without final hope, whether they hastened or delayed."
Of the Ruin of Beleriand and the Fall of Fingolfin

"In those days Maedhros son of Feanor lifted up his heart, perceiving that Morgoth was not unassailable...  Then in the plains of Anfauglith, on the fourth day of the war, there began Nirnaeth Arnoediad, Unnumbered Tears, for no song or tale can contain all its grief... The field was lost; but still Hurin and Huor and the remnant of the house of Haldor stood firm with Turgon of Gondolin, and the hosts of Morgoth could not yet win the pass of Sirion.  Then Hurin spoke to Turgon, saying 'Go now, Lord, while time is!  For in you lives the last hope of the Eldar...'  Last of all Hurin stood alone.  Then he cast aside his shield, and wielded an axe two-handed; and it is sung that the axe smoked in the black blood of the troll-guard of Gothmog until it withered, and each time that he slew Hurin cried 'Aure entuluva!  Day shall come again!'  Seventy times he uttered that cry; but they took him at last alive by the command of Morgoth..."
Of the Fifth Battle: Nirnaeth Arnoediad

"But at the last the might of Valinor came up out of the West, and the challenge of the trumpets of Eonwe filled the sky, and Beleriand was ablaze with the glory of their arms, for the host of the Valar were arrayed in forms young and fair and terrible, and the mountains rang beneath their feet...  Then an end was made of the power of Angband in the North, and the evil realm was brought to naught..."
Of the Voyage of Earendil and the War of Wrath

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Belated inflammatory thoughts on women bishops

So, I'm pretty late with this, but here are a few thoughts, kicking up the barely settled dust.  Obviously, I'm looking in from the outside on this whole debate, and much like Carl Trueman would be fairly indifferent if the CofE decided "to make Justin Bieber Archbishop of Canterbury... or to bless the matrimonial union of divorced goldfish".  I wouldn't put either course of action beyond them.  Anyway, my thoughts...

1.  I don't think there ought to be any bishops, of any gender whatsoever, unless we are talking about the sort of bishops they have in the Bible, i.e. elders in a local church.  The reasons for this are manifold, and I've touched on them at many times and in various ways.  The current Anglican crisis puts me in mind of a couple of others.  One is that the episcopal tradition really demands a Pope.  It makes no sense to have an episcopate which can be held to ransom by the laity, and it makes no sense to pretend that there is some process of development in the church's doctrine unless you have a Pope, or at least an authoritative magisterium.  Get a Pope, or get rid of the bishops.  Another reason is that this crisis highlights how complicated it becomes when a congregation is subjected to the authority of someone other than Christ, over whose appointment they have no say.  It is bizarre.

2.  I don't understand how my 'egalitarian' friends arrive at their conclusions from Scripture.  (Scare quotes to highlight that, of course, the 'complementarians' think that they are also egalitarian; they just think it means something different).  It seems to me that Scripture does contain an anthropology, which we ignore at our peril since it flows from the gospel, and that anthropology does describe men and women as different, and does envisage them having different roles.  I am not keen on most stuff that comes out of the complementarian stable, because to my mind it moves much too fast from this basis to prescribing exactly what those roles ought to be in contemporary society.  I'd like a bit more reflection, and an acknowledgement that although there is continuity there is also change in the way masculinity and femininity is expressed within the Bible, as one might expect within a library of books written over thousands of years.  Nevertheless, I do think the complementarians are basically right, and I can't help feeling that the 'egalitarians' - many of whom are people I respect deeply - have got off on the wrong foot (see 3 below).

3.  I have seen a lot of argument from culture, progress, and relevance in this debate.  Even where it was not on the surface, I can't help suspecting that for a lot of egalitarians (okay, I'll drop the scare quotes now, if you insist) there is significant 'bleed through' from contemporary western culture into their biblical interpretation and theology.  Sorry to say it, folks, but that's how it seems to me.  Now, I am going to say something huge, and I want to qualify it before I say it: I know that many egalitarians are genuinely convinced that they are serving Scripture, and submitting to Christ in their interpretation.  I genuinely respect that, even if I can't see it myself.  But for those who were talking about relevance and progress (and especially a rather crass parliamentarian, who came up with the insight that "If the Church of England wants to be a national church, then it has to reflect the values of the nation") - you seriously scare me.  A church that reflects the culture - a church that must reflect national values in order to be a national church - is exactly the sort of church which caused one of my great theological heroes to have to remind a whole continent that "Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death."

4.  Conservative Evangelical Anglicans fight the oddest battles.  The fact that, from their perspective, most of the bishops are heretics doesn't seem to bother them, but they can't tolerate the thought of having women.  Similarly for the Anglo-Catholics - once you're in communion with people who have women priests, it seems to me that the game is up (from your bizarre sacramentalist point of view, anyway).  There are alternative options open to both sorts of people - Independency and Rome - which are viable and would surely be more agreeable.  It is particularly frustrating that once again Evangelical Anglicans give the world the impression that all Evos are basically anti-woman and anti-gay, because those are the only issues they seem to be prepared to fight on.

5.  It makes me sad that good, godly people love the CofE.  I've heard two main reasons for loving it expressed.  Amongst more conservative evangelicals, the main reason seems to be a highly fictionalised account of the history of the CofE, which gives the impression that it has always historically been a thoroughly evangelical institution which has just recently been hijacked by liberals and Anglo-catholics.  To this I can only say that it is, indeed, fiction.  The other reason given is the apparently great virtue in being associated with liberals and Anglo-catholics, I suppose as a model of ecumenism.  I feel that I can hear the Apostle muttering darkly about his desire for heretics to emasculate themselves, and I wonder how he would fit into this view of things.  Don't get me wrong, there is stuff to love there.  (See my last post for an example).  But honestly, most of it could be salvaged without accepting the half-reformed, never-really-evangelical, semi-biblical fudge that Anglicanism involves you in.  Come out, come out!  I trust that once disestablishment occurs, many will see no reason to compromise further, and will leave.  It is fine out here, I promise you.  You'll like it.

6.  Yes, I know, I've been harsh.  But this is important stuff.  It affects the witness of all of us.  Why not think about it?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Of liturgy and lectionary

This week is the last before advent.  This means that I have a decision to make: will I be buying a copy of the lectionary for the next year, which begins this coming Sunday?

This year has been something of an experiment.  Since the end of last November I have been using Morning Prayer, and most days Evening Prayer, as my main devotional time, praying through the liturgy from Common Worship and following the readings from the lectionary.  Recently I have been reflecting on the good and bad points, the helpful and the less helpful, that have come out of the experiment.  Here are a few of them.

Good points:
1.  Lots of Bible.  I have never read so much in the Psalms as I have done over the last year, and I am sure that has been good for my view of God and my praying in general.  Also, having an OT and an NT reading every day has meant a good balance.  In the past, when I have sometimes read devotionally through a single book of Scripture quite slowly and in some detail, I have noticed the danger of getting a one-sided view of things (and, the summer I read through Jeremiah, sometimes a fairly miserable view), which this helpfully avoids.

2  Puts the Bible in the context of the gospel.  Because the seasons of the liturgical year are based on and shaped by the events of the gospel (although I will qualify this a little below), Scripture reading is placed in the context of the life and work of Christ.  This discourages a moralistic reading, or a quick jump to 'application', and encourages the reading of Scripture as fundamentally witness to him.

3  Good for mornings.  I am not really a morning person, and getting going can be difficult.  Launching straight into prayer is hard.  But when you're weary - and as any parent will tell you, that basically means 'when you're awake' - it is helpful to have some structure that is well thought through and well written to get you started.  By the time I get to the allotted part of the service for personal prayer, I am usually more awake and more 'in the mood' than when I started.

4.  Good for catholicity.  I have enjoyed the fact that evening though I have been using the liturgy solo - which is of course not its design - I have felt connected to something bigger, being aware that there are many people focussing on just these readings and praying just these prayers today.

And some bad things:
1.  Danger of ritualism.  I definitely feel the temptation to rely on the forms to get me into the presence of God.  There is a danger that, rather than being an introduction and warm-up for personal prayer, the set prayers become the be-all and end-all of my praying.

2.  Annoyance of the semi-reformation.  Anglicanism is characterised by nothing more, in my mind, than it's half-reformed nature, and that shows in some of the festivals that one is encouraged to keep.  Since the lectionary readings go with the festivals, it's been hard to dodge all of them (although I have ignored the various saints days).  I have no strong objection to commemorating the apostles, but some of the festivals are just a bit odd - what in the world is Holy Cross Day?  The calendar could do with some reforming.

3.  Holes in the lectionary.  I suppose because it is designed for public reading, the lectionary skips over some of the hard bits of Scripture.  That's a shame, but it has been easy enough for me to just fill in the gaps.  I do wonder - and I'm sure someone must know - whether I would ever get through the whole of Scripture following this arrangement, and if so how long it would take.

All in all, I lean towards continuing, or perhaps adapting slightly more to 'Protestantise' the praying.  Any thoughts?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Christ-less Grace

I've been mulling over Romans 2 and 3 today, after a Peter Comont preach at MRC last night.  The main drift of the chapters is pretty clear.  Having dished out some fairly heavy condemnation of humanity - and I think in particular Gentile society - in Romans 1, Paul goes on to hit the moralist in chapter 2.  The temptation for the moralist - and he slides over the course of the verses to be talking particularly about the Jewish moralist - is to assume that they are better.  This is the sort of person who can nod along with Paul's condemnation, confident that it does not apply to them.  Paul's reply to the moralist is that they do just the same things.  Not, perhaps, the identical crimes, but the same sorts of things, and moreover they do them without any sense of needing God's mercy.  They sin with a high hand, and can expect judgement, with as little mercy as they are prepared to show to others.

The second part of chapter 2 has always seemed to me in the past to be Paul simply labouring his point, and in particular hammering it home to his former co-religionists.  There is a bit of that.  But what has struck me this time around is that Paul's imagined opponent relies on two main things - having the law, and having circumcision.  Paul's point is that neither of these things are sufficient for justification.  But I wonder whether I have always misunderstood his opponent's position.  Having the law and being circumcised - that is to say, being a Jew.  And that is grace.  The person who relies on having the law and on being circumcised does not rely on themselves (this is particularly clear with regard to the latter) so much as on God's gift.

And so I think the beginning of Romans 3 is a dialogue that goes something like this:

"What is the use then, Paul, of being a Jew?  What good is circumcision?"
(Note that Paul could say 'nothing', and indeed when the question is directly 'what good is it for justification?', he will indeed say 'nothing at all'.  But at this point that is not what he says).
"It is an enormous privilege in every way!  For starters, you have the Scriptures entrusted to you".
(This doesn't really get unpacked; I think Paul imagines himself being interrupted).
"Of course, but that is hardly the point of our discussion.  You seem to be saying, Paul, that the unfaithfulness of some - perhaps even a majority - in Israel has completely undone the faithfulness of God; you seem to be saying that God's covenant faithfulness to Israel was always dependent on Israel's goodness".
(If Paul were saying this, he would of course be flying in the face of the prophets, and of Moses.  The OT is full of the glorious truth that unfaithful Israel is chosen and upheld despite their unfaithfulness by God's faithfulness to them.  But notice the plea that is being made here; it is an appeal to grace).
"Certainly not!  God is faithful even if no-one else is.  But his faithfulness may mean judgement as well as mercy".
(The latter is implied by the OT quotation.  For more of God's ongoing faithfulness to Israel, we could jump to Romans 9-11).
The dialogue goes on, with Paul's opponent getting rather desperate and hard up for good arguments, as is often the fate of imaginary interlocutors.

To see that Paul is countering an appeal to grace (and there can be no doubt that he agrees with his opponent that law and circumcision, as the marks of Israel's election, represent grace) makes me think that the main point of these chapters, building up to the righteousness apart from the law which has now been revealed, are not so much about works versus grace, or works versus faith.  They are about anything at all versus Christ.  Even God's past grace, if it distracts from or detracts from Christ, is an unrighteousness, a filthy rag.

Faith alone is only true and important if it is faith in Christ alone.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Baptism, Independency, and the Church

The interweb is riven with controversy once again.  On the one hand, Paul Levy at Ref 21, asks why the FIEC is almost entirely made up of baptists; on the other hand, John Stevens, the venerable Chief of the FIEC, challenges those who are committed paedobaptists and independents to get involved.  Of course, there are no paedobaptists who are committed to independency as far as I know, so perhaps that deals with the issue.  Levy has replied to John Stevens, quoting Ben Williamson, with whom I am acquainted of old.  Ben argues that Baptists ought to be Independents, and paedobaptists ought to be Presbyterians.  I think he is absolutely right on that, but I think the reasons he gives are wrong, and dismiss rather too easily the Baptist position.  Since it is clearly intolerable that anyone should be wrong on the internet and not be contradicted, let me add some thoughts.

Ben thinks that Presbys put more emphasis on the corporate aspect of church, while Baptists emphasise the individual and his faith.  There is something in that, if we're just looking at what actually happens.  But if we dig and try to do some actual theology from the Baptist side, I think we ought to find something like this: Baptists ought absolutely to emphasise the corporate nature of the church, but they ought to downplay the institutional structures of the church.  For both Baptists and Presbyterians, the church exists because of calling.  But this calling is understood very differently.  The Presby, interpreting the NT in the light of the OT (a perverse procedure in my not-so-humble opinion), sees the calling of the church as being much like the calling of Israel.  So, in history a group of people is called, and their calling endures through time and is passed on generationally.  Baptism is rightly administered to children in recognition of this, and the church itself must have an enduring institutional structure to enable it to endure.  It must exist above and beyond the individual congregation, and must have priority over the individual.

I submit the Baptist ought to argue that the calling of Israel is in fact a parable of the real calling of (Christ, and in him) the church.  Therefore, the former is to be interpreted by the latter and not vice versa.  The Baptist ought to maintain a much more dynamic understanding of calling.  Church means gathering.  It means the calling of people together, but in a very real sense this calling is never 'done'.  Every Sunday is a fresh calling together of God's people.  The calling of Christ - indeed, Christ's activity and rule in his church in general - is regarded as that much more immediate.  So, yes, the calling of the individual has priority, but only because the calling of the individual is always into the body, and it is the calling of individuals that constitutes the church.  This view of Christ's dynamic involvement with the church ought to lead to flexibility about institutions and even about individual congregations.  It will also involve a recognition that church exists only as people are actually called by Christ into fellowship with him and one another in actual church life; therefore, to Independency.  The Baptist understands Catholicity to mean that Christ is calling different people into different fellowships, and trusts that we are nonetheless called to and by the same Christ.

So Baptism/Independency is not more focussed on the individual than the community; it simply understand the community and its existence differently.  This does have an impact on how we see children of believers - I think there is a category for those associated with the community but not yet called into it, a la 1 Cor 7, but this comes a long way short of the OT-ised view of the church held in confessional Presbyterianism.  For which I am glad.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Being Church

When it comes to church, there is often a very understandable desire to try to get underneath the programmes and activities to discover what the church really is in itself.  If we stripped out all of the busy-ness, what would be the essence that remained?  I suspect that very often this sort of thinking comes from people who are weary of the constant round of rotas and commitments that is generally implied by membership of an active evangelical church.  In so far as it offers a corrective to our tendency to make church all about bustling around - to Martha rather than to Mary - this desire is very helpful.  Nevertheless, it contains within it a potentially serious error about what church is.

Technically speaking, this is a conversation about ontology - what 'being' is, and what it means to exist.  In classical thinking, ontology was often conceived of in static terms; behind the activity, and perhaps even behind the particular properties, of a thing or person was the essence, the thing or person itself.  Those who take the position outlined above are, probably unwittingly, subscribing to this view.

The desire to just 'be church', without all the activity, is entirely understandable.  But it is neither practical nor helpful.  Churches do not 'exist', in the sense of having an essence which can be defined apart from their activities.

More broadly, neither does anything else.  Continental philosophy after Heidegger has helpfully pointed out that the classical tradition is wrong, at least in so far as it has regard to persons.  Persons do not simply exist; they exist themselves in particular ways, in choices and actions, and cannot be abstracted from these choices and actions.

The church cannot simply 'be'- a local church cannot simply 'be' - because the church is not at all a natural association of people.  It is born of two (divine) actions, and continues to exist in two (human) activities.  God calls the church together, and God sends the church out; the church comes together, and the church goes out.  A church at rest is not a church.  It has ceased to hear the call of God, and has lost the sense that it comes together at his command; it has ceased to obey the sending of God, and has lost the sense that it must go.  Whatever we might call the group of people who continue to assemble, it is not a church.  It is an arbitrary assembly, born of human will, and not obedience.  The church is defined by action.  "Verbs are the circulatory system of the church" (Eugene Peterson)

Whenever a church gathers, if it is a true church gathered in obedience, it is at the centre of a two-stroke movement.  People have been called together; when the meeting is over, they will be sent out.  The call to worship and the dismissal that bookend the church gathering are echoes of the essential movements of the church.  The gathering to worship is the centre, the taking of breath between the coming and the going which must always characterise church.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


At Magdalen Road Church we have just begun a series looking at the book of 1 Peter.  The relevance of the book for contemporary life is already obvious.  One of the things that I've been reflecting on since Sunday morning is the use of the word 'exiles' to describe the (almost certainly Gentile) Christians of first-century Asia Minor.  The word is poignant, and resonates through Scripture.

But it is hard to pin down.

I distinctly recall, as a student, trying to work out what it meant that Christians are 'exiles' in the world.  I had, and to a certain extent certainly still have, an unduly literalistic mind.  I wanted to fit the idea of exile into my biblical and systematic theology.  I wanted to understand exactly what part of the OT was being recalled here, and exactly how it could be that the exile has lasted beyond its apparent end (with Cyrus) and what must be its actual end (with Jesus).  It mattered to me, partly because I wanted to live in line with Scripture, but largely because I wanted to get everything neat and tidy.  And 'exile' vexed me as a concept, because it didn't seem easy to fit with the broad Scriptural narrative, or with other NT descriptions of the Christian life.  Exile was a result of sin, but sin is dealt with now, so how are we exiles?

Now I tend to think that the effort to pin things down in this way is hugely misguided.  There is a place for precision in theology and in Scripture reading - it is important! - but it must not be allowed to crush the actual way in which Scripture communicates.  When the apostle Peter calls his readers 'exiles', it is, I think, not so much a label describing them as an image that will resonate with them.  It recalls Psalm 137, and the terrible sense of homelessness, of a hostile surrounding, of the cry for justice and salvation.  It recalls Jeremiah's letter to the exiles, instructing them in how they should live in this hostile environment, blessing those around them, working for the common good, and waiting for the Lord.  It recalls Daniel's prayer of repentance and faith, seeking God's fulfilment of his promises to Israel.  And there are lots more.

The point is not that Christians are in exactly the same situation as the Jewish exiles.  It seems to me that the language is used rather to capture the mood; to convey what it feels like to be a Christian in this last time.  This exile of ours is not like the OT exile; they looked back to Jerusalem and wept for their sins, we look forward to Jerusalem and rejoice in our salvation.  But still, there is that waiting, that sense of being in a hostile world, that alienation - and exile captures it perfectly.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Great Commissions (2 of 2)

The second way to understand the two Commissions is the standard in Reformed circles, as far as I can tell.  The view is that the first (Genesis) Commission still stands, and is still basically definitive for our understanding of God’s intentions for humankind, even fallen humankind.  Human beings are still commanded to fill the earth and subdue it, with every advance in culture, science, and technology which this implies.  Christians are to be particularly involved with and interested in these things, since they receive them not only as the apparently obvious ingredients of a satisfying human life but also as the command of God.  This is not at all to deny that the fall has marred every aspect of what human beings do in response to this Commission.  It is, however, to say that the command still stands nonetheless, and that it ought to be obeyed, despite the fact that it can never be obeyed perfectly.  Something of value will be kept in all human striving that corresponds to this Commission.  The concept of common grace generally comes into play here.

The second Commission is understood against this background.  Given the broken nature of creation following the fall, the first Commission cannot be fulfilled, in the sense of fully and perfectly executed, but human beings alone.  God must step in to make it possible again, and he does so in Christ.  Christ’s work is about the redemption of all creation, and its restoration to its original potential.  Therefore, Christians are bound not only to engage in first Commission work, but also to join in the second Commission task of preaching Christ, through whom alone the first Commission can be fulfilled (eschatologically, for the most part).  As an aside, a good introduction to this view is the little book Creation Regained by Albert Wolters.

This view also has much to recommend it.  Not least, Christians who hold it are likely to live more interesting lives than those who hold the first view, and this may well have the effect of making their evangelism more effective; their engagement with the ordinary work of humanity has the potential to commend the gospel.  Independently of this, they are surely correct to see more in Genesis 1 and 2 than a wistful memory of a long-dead world.  With this perspective, advocates of the second view are equipped to avoid the secular/sacred divide that more or less inevitably follows from the first view.  Still, I’m not sure this view has it completely right.  I worry that it has the potential to make the gospel of Christ merely a means to an end, and the lordship of Christ a secondary rather than a primary concern.  This is a danger, not an actuality - I don’t think people actually go this far, or at least not explicitly.  But I think it is a valid concern; the gospel is not an afterthought.  Add to that, I’m not sure the framework of creation restored can contain the eschatology of the Bible - the end promised to us seems, to me, to be much more than the beginning.  

The third view, which is mine and therefore saved to the last so that it seems more impressive, rests on the insight that chronology is not always the key.  The second Commission, on this view, is really the first, and the first is the second.  To clarify, we’ll call them G-Commission (for Genesis) and M-Commission (for Matthew).  Rather than seeing G-Commission as basic, and M-Commission as a necessary addition in the face of sin, the third view sees M-Commission as basic.  The spread of the kingdom of Christ, through the evangelization of the nations, is - and always has been - the central purpose of everything that exists, including human beings and everything that they can do or produce in conformity to the G-Commission.  This is not to devalue the G-Commission; rather, it is to provide it with a secure place.  Although advocates of the second view see value in both Commissions, I do not know how they can hold them together.  It seems to me that either one or the other will necessarily be without foundation and arbitrary.  It is all very well to say that the G-Commission is still in force, but I wonder what that can even really mean after the fall.  And I wonder what relation it can really have to the M-Commission.  By contrast, this third view holds the two together because it sees the fulfillment of the G-Commission occurring as, and only as, human creativity is brought under the lordship of Christ.  This does not mean that cultural artifacts and the like which are created without reference to Christ lose all their value; it simply means that Jesus is Lord over them whether their creators like it or not, and so they can brought in some way - whether by appreciation or critique - within the orbit of the church as the community which knows and bows to his Lordship in the here and now.  (This involves a rethinking of common grace; it is not a kind of basic grace which is independent of the gospel grace of Christ - rather it is the overflow of the gospel, or perhaps just the gospel as it applies to those who do not know it or acknowledge it).

I think this is a better way of understanding the relationship between the G-Commission and the M-Commission.  It keeps the main thing - the Lordship of Christ and its recognition amongst the nations - as very definitely the main thing, and it securely grounds everything else by relating it to this great divine project.  It fits better with the shape of the doctrine of creation, as I understand it.  Most importantly, I think it lets us live as Christians - set free from every concern which is not Christ, whilst recognising that Christ means more than we might initially think.

(It occurs to me, at the conclusion, that this whole post is probably just a way of saying that I am a supralapsarian; if that doesn’t mean anything to you, lucky you).

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Great Commissions (1 of 2)

Reading chronologically is not always the best help when it comes to Biblical interpretation.  Thanks to a stimulating Awayday with Magdalen Road Church, where Julian Hardyman helped us to think through what it really means to live for Jesus every day, I've been mulling over the relationship between Matthew 28 and Genesis 1-2, and in particular what Julian called the Two Great Commissions.  It seems to me that there are at least three ways of seeing the relationship between these two Commissions, and that the one we pick will have a huge effect on what we think it means to live as a Christian.

Firstly, the two Commissions - what are they?  The first, chronologically speaking, is the instruction and permission found in the two creation accounts in Genesis.  This could be called the creational mandate, or the cultural mandate.  Humanity is to expand and advance, both numerically and in terms of control over creation.  They are to steward the resources of creation, making responsible use of everything that God has given them.  This will involve creativity, craftsmanship, thought.  Humanity is commanded and permitted to thrive, and to enjoy the fruits of their gentle work within the world that God has made.  The second Commission, and the one which is more commonly referred to by that name, is the sending out of the Apostles, and through them the Apostolic Church, to bear witness to Christ, making disciples who are baptised and taught to follow everything that Jesus has said.  This Commission, unlike the other, is delivered to a limited group of people, although the intended beneficiaries are not limited.  In a way, it too involves expansion and advancement in numbers and in ways of being community together for the world.

The first way of understanding the relationship between these two Commissions is to say that the latter nullifies the former.  Genesis 1 and 2 stand as testimony to God's original intention for humanity, but after Genesis 3 there is nothing left of that intention.  The fall raises an impenetrable barrier between that world and our world (a cherub with a flaming sword, perhaps?) which makes it useless for us to even think about the mandate of Genesis 1 and 2 except in the context of reflection on what we have lost, and therefore how much we need Christ.  Those who hold this viewpoint tend to think that evangelism is the only worthwhile thing to be doing - everything else being simply the necessary prerequisites for evangelism.  If you have ever heard someone use an argument like ‘what does it matter what great works of art we create when there are people going to hell all around us’, they probably hold this view of the relationship between Genesis 1-2 and Matthew 28.  (The wonky eschatology follows on logically).

I think this viewpoint has a lot to recommend it (it used to be mine).  It takes the fall seriously, it takes seriously the fact that we cannot even imagine a world in which work was always blessed and human effort was not constantly subject to futility.  It also takes seriously the urgent need for the gospel to go out.  However, I am convinced that this is not the biblical view.  For starters, in both Old and New Testaments, numerous activities are endorsed and commanded which bear no relation to evangelism, the extension of the church, or the plucking of brands from the fire.  Moreover, this view of the relation between Genesis 1-2 and Matthew 28 (or, indeed, the rest of the Bible) implies that God has abandoned his creation to destruction, choosing to save a few souls from the wreck.  That just doesn’t fit with the declared intentions of God for his creation in Scripture.  Genesis 1-2 still matters for more than just a reminder of what we have lost.

The other two perspectives to follow shortly...

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Bad Catechism

The 1689 Baptist Catechism asks, very sensibly if somewhat archaically, "What things are chiefly contained in the Holy Scriptures?"  It answers "The Holy Scriptures chiefly contain what man ought to believe about God, and what duty God requireth of man".

Bad Catechism.

Firstly, bad because this puts all the emphasis on what human beings are to do with Scripture, which becomes essentially a pot out of which we can draw goodies, rather than the locus of God's powerful communication.  We will not be surprised if the rest of the catechism relies heavily on proof-texting, and indeed it does.

Secondly, bad because it makes God inactive and man active.  Man has duties; God is merely assigned facts which ought to be believed about him.  One would expect from this answer that there would follow a series of questions about God in the abstract.  Lo and behold, we move on to "What is God?" (answered with a fairly standard list of attributes which an enlightened pagan could happily endorse), "Are there more Gods than one?" (er, no), and then via the Trinity to the decrees of God.  This is a very static, abstract picture of God.

Thirdly, bad because in this context belief sounds like just another one of those duties which God requireth.

I'm trying to come up with a better answer.  Something like...

The Holy Scriptures chiefly contain God's witness to his powerful revelation in Jesus Christ, his saving action in human history, and his purposes for each human being, all which we are called to embrace by faith and in joy.

Got a better one?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Weight of Glory

A friend recently posted a link to the little essay by C.S. Lewis entitled The Weight of Glory.  I’ve read it before, of course, but as I read through it again sitting in the corner of a café on holiday, I could barely hold back the tears.  Since weeping in public is not the done thing, I did of course restrain myself.  This is the paragraph that really got me:
In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we  betray  ourselves  like  lovers  at  the mention of a name.
This is my experience; this is absolutely my experience.  Right down to the attempt to fend off my heart pain by labelling it and mocking it, this is what I do.  I am a nostalgic, but I know others who are trying to escape their pain in other ways – always dreaming of another place and another time, a place and time which is more real to us than the world around us, but which we have never seen or touched.  We know that we belong there and then, and yet we are here and now.  So deep is the anguish that we cannot even speak it.

And I know that there are many, many ways of explaining this feeling away, and Lewis names just a few of them.  But are we sure – really sure – that we are not explaining away a moment in which we knew truth, and knew it to be good and beautiful, and felt that it was beyond us?

Might not this experience mean something?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Mind the Gaps

One of the things I would want to challenge in the average evangelical doctrine of revelation is its simplicity. I am using the word here in its technical sense, as something which does not have parts, is not capable of further analysis, stands as a monad.  I think that is the way the doctrine of revelation works in most evangelicalism.  There are no gaps in it.

To put that more concretely, what I mean is that when evangelicals talk about revelation they tend to move straight to Scripture, and thence directly to doctrine, with the assumption that they have not in any way changed the subject in so doing.  The position is that revelation is to do with the Bible - God is revealed in Scripture - and the Bible is essentially a system of doctrine, or at least a mine of potential doctrine that is just waiting for the exegete (and theologian, although the latter is looked on a little suspiciously on the whole) to dig up and arrange in orderly fashion.  Revelation, Scripture, doctrine - basically the same thing.  The only potential gap relates to human error; I may have misread Scripture and extracted the wrong doctrine from it. Nevertheless, fundamentally, revelation is simple.

I'm sketching a caricature here, but not one, I think, which is too far from life.  Caricature can be helpful; one may be quite unaware of one's larger than average nose until the caricaturist exaggerates it.  The exaggeration does not make the subsequent realisation that the nose is, indeed, rather on the large side any less true.

My quibbles with this sort of understanding of Scripture are manifold, but my two big theological objections are these:

1.  This makes revelation textual, which is not easily assimilated to the picture of revelation which is actually given in the text of Scripture.  It removes the backward question, the question of reference, from theological consideration.  We must ask 'do historical events stand behind this testimony?' - if we do not, we are essentially saying that it is indifferent whether the events recorded in Scripture actually happened.  (We can, after all, construct our systems of doctrine regardless of the answer to the question).  If Christianity is about anything - if the Bible is about anything - it is about stuff that actually happened.  There is, therefore, a gap between revelation in history and its record in Scripture.  This should not be considered a threatening gap.  If the witnesses are trustworthy - if their testimony is indeed authorised and guaranteed by God - then the gap is simply a recognition that there is an event and testimony to an event, and these things are two, not one, though they stand in the closest possible relation.  We must not be trapped inside the Bible, but must allow the Bible to point beyond itself to the reality behind the text.

2.  The doctrine I have described makes God's revelation of himself unproblematic.  That is to say, it assumes that it is an easy thing for human beings to know God - just read the book, pick out the doctrines!  But that, again, flies in the face of the Scriptural witness, which again and again insists that it is a hard thing for humans to know God - hard in particular for the omnipotent Deity!

Why are the gaps - the recognition that revelation, Scripture, and doctrine are far from identical - so threatening?  Perhaps because we cannot conceive of a way in which non-identity and identity can be affirmed at once; which is not surprising, since with man this is impossible - but with God...

Monday, July 16, 2012

Revelation and Resurrection

My thoughts once again circle around to the doctrine of revelation.  I am pretty convinced that we (by which I mean, Christians in the evangelical tradition) do not have a handle on it.  I think the reason we don't have a handle on it is that we don't see it as problematic.  God reveals himself - something about Jesus, more about the Bible, bish bash bosh, job done.  Let's call it a doctrine.  Obviously, there are lots more thoughtful treatments of the subject than that, but I haven't come across many which try to get to grips with what is, for me, the central question of our time: 'how could God reveal himself to us?'

A few things about the question:

1.  Methodologically, we need to be committed to a certain weak circularity here.  That is to say, we must decline to look at answers which are not themselves based on revelation.  Rather than imagining channels through which God might be revealed, and then investigating them for revelatory content (which is the procedure of, say, Schleiermacher and the whole liberal school of the 19th century), we need to face up to the fact that we could only find out how God could reveal himself by examining how God did reveal himself. Start with the gospel, and then move to theology and philosophy.

2.  The question is made problematic by the recognition in Kant and post-Kantian epistemology that human beings are not merely receptive in their perception of the world.  Each of us, and all of us collectively in the various groups and societies in which we find ourselves, shape the 'world' that we perceive.  We bring as much as we receive.  I think this is undeniably true, but I think the implications are widely ignored (in analytic philosophy, and in English-speaking theology).  Those implications are manifold, but one huge one is the raising of another question - how could God give himself to be known by us in a way which does not also constitute giving himself away?  How could God reveal himself without becoming another object, becoming just another building block in my construction of my 'world'?  (The wider philosophical question is what forces me, at least, to walk somewhere between a naive realism and a full-blown phenomenology).

3.  The answer, I think, lies in the analogy between incarnation and inscripturation.  God did give himself to us in such a way that he became subject to our deepest distortion of reality.  In the person of Christ, God gave himself, and to all appearances gave himself away.  That is to say, at the cross, the God-man can scarcely be seen as divine at all.  God's revelation, at its highest point, has been incorporated into anti-God constructions of the 'world' - materially, by the crucifixion.  The resurrection, however, shows that this apparent giving away of God is nothing other than the material condition of his final triumph over all such false constructions of the world.  God rescues his revelation, and in so doing shows that it was always his intention to let it walk the way of humiliation.  Is the same true in revelation generally?  In committing the witness to Christ to writing - to Scripture - God gives himself away again.  Here we have a book, another object over which I am a subject, material which I can interpret any which I please, and which I must inevitably interpret according to my situation, background etc. etc.  Is God's revelation lost?  Only if he doesn't come back to it; only if there aren't little epistemic resurrections of the text which triumph over our individual constructions.  God fights back against all our misreading.

4.  Pneumatology must be the end point, as the starting point.  Incarnate of the Holy Ghost - driven along by the Holy Spirit - reminded of all these things.  These phrases are linked historically and theologically.

Still thinking...

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Thomas the Apostle

When considering Thomas the Apostle, lots of people fixate on the post-resurrection Thomas, who doubts that Jesus is alive and is only persuaded by seeing the risen Christ.  This is not, perhaps, Thomas' finest moment.  Still, it resonates with our sceptical and empiricist age, which tends to cast Thomas as the hero of the scene.  To do this, of course, one has to to ignore the implicit rebuke in Jesus' words regarding those who have not seen.  In fact, Thomas should have believed on the basis of testimony, and so should we, but "God, for the firmer foundation of our faith, allowed... Thomas to doubt the resurrection".

Anyway, that isn't the snap-shot of Thomas that I love.  I love his minor appearance in John 11.  The story is simple.  Lazarus has died, and Jesus is determined to go to Bethany; we do not yet know that he is going to restore Lazarus to life, although it is clear that Jesus knows.  The problem for the disciples is that Bethany lies in territory extremely hostile to Jesus.  The last time they were in the region, Jesus was almost stoned.  Nevertheless, Jesus is determined to go, and Thomas pipes up: "Let us also go, that we may die with him".

Doesn't sound like a statement of great faith, and I don't think it is meant to.  Unpicking the logic of it a little, it doesn't even make much sense.  Thomas is presumably following Jesus because he believes him to be the Messiah; if he is not the Messiah, Jesus no longer has any claim on Thomas.  But if he is stoned by the Jews, it will be shown clearly that Jesus is not the Messiah (for Thomas, like all the disciples, is unaware that the Messiah must die).  If Jesus dies, there is no reason to die with him, from Thomas' point of view.  His claims will have been shown to be false, and following him will have been revealed as a huge mistake - a colossal mistake if indeed it ends in being stoned at his side!

So Thomas in this instance isn't driven primarily by truth.  If he were, he would say "Let us also go, because he is after all the Messiah, and no harm can come to him".  Right at this moment, Thomas is more like the contemporary Christian who says "If it all turns out to be false, I will still cling to him".  At this point, I think Thomas is driven not by truth, but by love for Jesus' character.

My reflection on this is that truth alone is not always enough to keep me following Jesus.  In the classical triad, the other two - goodness and beauty - are just as important.  I wonder if the need to fight for truth in our culture - for the very concept of truth as well as the particular truths of Christianity (or perhaps that should be the other way round) - has led us to neglect the other two aspects.  Of course we need truth.  Ultimately, the person who wants to cling to Jesus even if his claims are proven to be false is a fool.  But perhaps from time to time a little foolishness is permissible.  Perhaps sometimes we can't see the truth, or at least it doesn't seem as certain as it once did.  What do we do in those times?  Follow Jesus because he is good.  Follow him because he is beautiful.  And hope and pray that we will see clearly again that he is the truth.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Government, Freedom, Democracy

This is a brief thought relating to the current proposals for House of Lords reform which have been brought forward by HM Government.  The plan, basically, is to move from a mostly appointed upper house to a mostly elected upper house.  I won't comment on the way the appointments system has been blatantly abused by successive governments, except to say that, well, it has been blatantly abused.  What I do want to do is offer some pondering on the point of democracy.

It seems to me that the proposed reforms are predicated on the assumption that 'democratic'='good'.  I would want to unpick that assumption a little bit, and ask 'if democratic=good, then what is it good for?'  In other words, why is democracy good, and is it good in all circumstances?

I suppose the answer will depend on what you think government is for.  I basically want two things from a governmental system.  I want it to preserve, and ideally further, liberty, and I want it to offer responsible and accountable government.  It is worth mentioning straight up that these two goals are not necessarily 100% compatible, and there may well be some tension between them.  It is also worth putting in some definitions.  By 'liberty' I mean the absence of restraint on personal belief and behaviour.  Obviously at some point liberty has to be curtailed in order to preserve liberty; i.e. my freedom has to stop at the point at which it critically endangers another's freedom.  By 'responsible and accountable', I mean being forced to behave in a way which, if brought into the light, will stand up to scrutiny.  The virtue of responsible and accountable government is simply that it impedes the tendency of government to become its own special interest group, governing only for its own good rather than the common good.

I would argue that democracy is good if, and in so far as, it fosters these two priorities in government.  I would further argue that in fact the relationship between democracy, liberty, and accountability is actually quite ambiguous.  On the one hand, it can be assumed that democracy presents a very direct form of accountability; the government is literally scrutinised by the electorate, who have the ability to throw them out if they don't like what they see.  Government is responsible to the electorate.  However, we need to recognise that in practice governments need only to please a larger number than they displease.  That is to say, democracy does not prevent governments from acting in the interests of a small group rather than in the common interest of all; it simply means that the small group must be large enough to outnumber all the other groups.  And in fact this is likely to mean that democratically elected governments are more likely to act in the interests only of a particular group, because this is the best way to ensure the loyalty of that group.  The other guys probably wouldn't have voted for you whatever you did, so why care about their interests?

On the liberty front, the impact of democracy is even more problematic.  If we had a populace who, as a whole, valued liberty very highly, then presumably democracy would mean that governments which threatened liberty would be swiftly removed.  But in fact we have a society that is fragmented into different sections, each of which would be happy to see the liberty of others impinged upon in order to further their own sectional interests.  It is therefore not necessarily in the interests of those in government to preserve liberty for all.  In fact, democracy allows government to hide behind the rhetoric of the 'vox populi' to argue that because 51% want it, the people as a whole want it.  This kind of argument makes slaves of the 49%, but who cares?  So long as you please the majority, you can tyrannise the rest.

Now, I'm not dead against democracy.  I think we'd be better off under an enlightened despotism, but I don't think despotism tends to be enlightened, and you always have the problem of who will take over.  We need to have elected representatives who will hold government to account.  But I think there are good reasons not to have a wholly democratic system.  Within limits, democracy can foster liberty and accountability.  What it cannot provide is the necessary technical know-how to govern well.  To that end, an appointed revising chamber seems to me to be a great idea, so long as appointments are controlled and principled.  Democracy also cannot provide a symbol of permanence and allegiance, which to my mind is the role in the British system of the Monarchy.  Moreover, democracy is unable to provide governments who will be thinking about the long term, common good of society rather than the short term need to appeal to just enough people to get re-elected.

There being three kinds of government among men, absolute monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, and all these having their particular conveniences and inconveniences, the experience and wisdom of your ancestors hath so moulded this out of a mixture of these as to give this kingdom (as far as human prudence can provide) the conveniences of all three, without the inconveniences of any one, as long as the balance hangs even between the three estates, and they run jointly on in their proper channel (begetting verdure and fertility in the meadows on both sides) and the overflowing of either on either side raise no deluge or inundation.  The ill of absolute monarchy is tyranny, the ill of aristocracy is faction and division, the ills of democracy are tumults, violence and licentiousness. The good of monarchy is the uniting a nation under one head to resist invasion from abroad and insurrection at home ; the good of aristocracy is the conjunction of counsel in the ablest persons of a state for the public benefit ; the good of democracy is liberty, and the courage and industry which liberty begets.

Monday, June 04, 2012

God is One

A belated thought for Trinity Sunday...

In recent weeks, one question that has been revolving around my mind has been this: can we, in our own voices as 21st century Christians, recite the Nicene Creed?  As a Christian with some concern for both catholicity and orthodoxy, that the question should occur at all is worrying.  I've been led to it by arguably the most important clause, which declares that the Lord Jesus Christ is "of one substance with the Father" - that is to say, homoousios.  The significance of this word for the debates over Trinitarian theology in the fourth century, and therefore for all subsequent Christian thinking, can hardly be overstated.  This was, ultimately, the dividing line between the Nicene party, which was eventually triumphant as the standard of Christian orthodoxy, and the Arian heresy and all those who would compromise with it.  It really matters.  It answers the question 'is Jesus really God?' with an emphatic yes.

So why might we not be able to say it with our own voices?

The problem is that the Nicene definition operates within a particular metaphysical view of the world which is alien to us.  The idea of 'substance', which lies at the heart of the debate, is just not one that exists in contemporary ontology.  The language of three 'persons' 'subsisting' within one 'substance' is alien to us.  I'm not at all suggesting that we should ditch the creed; we can understand it, if we do the work, and we can understand what was meant by it and why it mattered and therefore continues to matter.  We can (and should) say it in their voices, or perhaps in the voice of the church universal, but I don't think we can say it in our voices.  I don't think that indicates a fundamental problem; the metaphysics in which the Trinitarian dogma was expressed was never drawn from the gospel.  It was the scaffolding, and if that scaffolding no longer works for us, we can move on, albeit maintaining the appropriate respect for the language in which the essential truth has been communicated and safeguarded in the past.

The question, really, is 'how do express this truth in a post-metaphysical age?'  How do we say it in our voices?

I do think it's something we need to think about.  The threat of a bald monotheism is always lurking, where Father, Son and Holy Spirit disappear into the mush of an undifferentiated godhead.  And then the gospel becomes impossible; the story makes no sense without these characters.  However, the bigger issue on my mind at the moment is how we avoid tritheism.  I've heard a number of people teaching on the subject of the Trinity in a way which, to my mind, does not adequately guard against this danger - perhaps because more effort is going into watching the other door to ensure monotheism doesn't sneak in.  Still, it is not sufficient to say that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one because of their relationships; social Trinitarianism is built on an overly-literalistic (and anachronistic) interpretation of the word 'person'.  Three persons in relationship is true but insufficient as an expression of the unity of God.  Also, any system which can allow God to be described as a 'committee' - I have heard this taught - is wide open to tritheism, if it is not already in the middle of it.

So my question is, if 'substance' doesn't work for us, how do we say 'God is One' in a way which will shut out tritheism fully and finally whilst allowing the telling of the gospel story with all its inter-Trinitarian interactions?

Friday, May 25, 2012

Thoughts approaching Pentecost

1.  The prayer for the Spirit, whether addressed directly to him ("Come, Holy Spirit") or to the Father and Son ("Send your Spirit"), is the third of three 'prayers of locomotion' which the Christian prays.  The first is "your Kingdom come"; the second is "come, Lord Jesus".  The second is a prayer for the ultimate fulfilment of the first.  God's Kingdom rule comes when God's King comes, and so ultimately we look to the coming of Christ and the end of this age for the answer to our prayers.  When we pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit, we are looking for the provisional, penultimate entry of the Kingdom into the circumstances of this age, of our daily lives and the situations we know.  Pentecost itself points beyond itself, to the time of the restoration of all things.  Bearing this in mind will help us to remember that even on the 'Spirit's day' Jesus is the final word.

2.  It may be (in a dry and dusty part of the brain) that the language of "coming" has to be understood metaphorically - after all, the Spirit is everywhere and in everything.  Even if this is so, we must acknowledge that the metaphor is absolutely appropriate.  The idea of coming establishes two poles - there, where the Spirit is and is at work, and here, where his presence and work are needed.  (The Lord's Prayer is explicit on this - "...on earth as it is in heaven").  It is the 'movement' from there to here for which we pray.

3.  We can be hopeful in praying for this movement, for at least two reasons.  Firstly, Christ has promised to send the Spirit from the Father.  Secondly, the fact that we are praying shows that even here, whilst it is definitely not there, the Spirit is still (and already) present.  We pray only at his prompting.

4.  Although the dove has understandably been adopted as the symbol of the Spirit, the more prevalent Scriptural images are fire and a mighty wind.  Perhaps the dove is better suited to the brand of mysticism we prefer, or perhaps we just like the peaceful imagery more.  Perhaps fire threatens us - does a fiery pneumatology imply a fiery ecclesia?  Or at least a community where more sin is burnt away than we are happy with?  And a rushing wind sounds perhaps a little more out of control than we would like?

5.  Speaking of mysticism, let's have none of it.  Let's remember that the Spirit is not formless, in the sense of a spiritual force that twists and bends this way and that.  As the Spirit of the Father and Son, he takes what is theirs and gives it to us.  Every time we see something desirable in Christ, every time something of the gospel rings true, every time we take a stand for God's sake against some sin - internal or external - there is the work of the Spirit.  Mysticism is the attempt to have a direct experience of God which bypasses the human and historical Christ; the Spirit of Christ is not to be thought of as in any way facilitating such a foolish enterprise.

6.  We are in need - oh, how we are in need!  We are and have nothing unless the Spirit comes to us.

Saturday, April 07, 2012


So, this is it.

I am not sure, now, exactly what we were expecting.  Some sort of new beginning, I suppose.  It always felt like a new beginning, to me at least, whenever he spoke.  There was something fresh about it, as if I was listening to a voice that wasn't touched or tinged by all the dirt of centuries of human language.  But then again, sometimes I thought it was an old voice - sometimes, perhaps, it felt more like days of old than a new beginning.  Like Elijah, or one of them; those men who spoke so fearlessly to kings and thundered the word of God to Israel.  Except when they came for Elijah, he burned them with fire from heaven.  I cannot hear from anyone that our Teacher put up any fight, or spoke to the governor with any words of power.  It would have been different in the olden days.  They had fire back then.

We had fire, for a little while.  We were hot with it.  But now he is cold in the grave, and we have gone cold with him.

I don't suppose there is any point in hanging around.  Somehow we all gathered together, afterwards, but it was more out of fear than anything else.  Not sure what we would have done if they had come for us.  Probably nothing.  The fire has gone out of us.  We huddled together as if we could maybe - just maybe - feel the last warmth of the dying embers.  But now I think even that has gone.  There will be no farewells, I think.  We are embarrassed in each other's company.  In truth, I do not know these people.  They are not the same people we walked in with, just a week ago.  I dare not look them in the eye; thankfully, they avoid my gaze as carefully as I avoid theirs.

No, we will just slip away, as I suppose every one else will in time, when the truth sinks in, and they see that it is ended once for all.  The world didn't change as we thought it might, and now it's time for us to get back to the world.  Let the dreams die.  At least there will be no packing; he called us to follow him with nothing, and now nothing is all we have with us.  For today, the empty Sabbath, the restless rest.  Tomorrow we will slip away.

It's a long walk back to Emmaus.

Monday, April 02, 2012

(Super)historical Jesus

One of the great things about the annual remembrance of the Passion is that it forces us to recall that Christianity is about events.  That is to say, what we remember is an occurrence, a thing that happened.  The Gospel is not a message based on someone's enlightened thoughts about God; it is not even a message sent straight from heaven.  It is a message about things that took place, in real space and real time.  The Paschal celebration helps us to remember that.  There is time before it, leading up to it, and there is time afterwards, leading away.  We celebrate in a particular place, with particular people - a space that is next to other particular places, inhabited by other particular people.

This is a long-winded way of saying that Christianity is historical.  When Jesus died and rose, he did so in reality, in a moment contiguous with other moments and forming part of a series that includes this moment now, in a space located within that same space in which we live.  The Gospel is a report of that occurrence, coupled to an explanation of its significance.  It is about history.  That is why the only worthwhile apologetic for the Christian is a historical one.  Did this happen, or did it not?  It is this sort of apologetic which is used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, and before Agrippa.  This stuff happened.  (If it did not, then Christians are pitiful, pathetic creatures).

Having said that, how do we avoid Lessing's ditch?  Lessing's problem was that as a good child of the Enlightenment he felt a universal could not be proved by a particular; specifically, reports of particular miracles, which reach me by perfectly ordinary and non-miraculous testimony, cannot establish the truth of the Gospel.  If all that matters is history, how can I get over the intervening centuries and believe in a report of a thing the like of which I have never witnessed?  If the Gospel is a report of a historical occurrence, why should I believe it when it resembles nothing else in history?

I think part of the answer is to recognise that when the apostolic testimony asserts that these things happened, it does not mean to maintain that they happened in just the same way as all other things.  Perhaps a useful way to put it would be this: the events reported in the Gospel happened within history, but they are not themselves historical events; that is to say, they are not events which stand in an ordinary relation to the other things happening around them.  They are not explicable by reference to their setting, or to the other events occurring at the time.  In fact, whilst at one level the resurrection of Jesus is something that happens in history, at another level it is a thing that happens to history.  This one point in space and time brackets and encompasses all the other points, including this one now.  If there is an epistemological ditch, there is no ontological one.  A historical apologetic can get us to the point of saying: there is a hole here - a thing that does not fit into history.  We cannot explain what came before and after in terms of the ordinary historical sequence.  And at that point, a lot will depend on whether we are willing to consider that history is neither so impregnable nor so linear as we thought.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Building Blocks (2)

To pick up where we left off...

4.  Prayer.  I struggle with corporate prayer, to be honest.  I find it hard to feel involved if someone is leading prayer from the front; I find it hard to feel like I'm really praying if I am leading prayer from the front; I find it hard not to slip into a fairly mindless ritualism with liturgical prayers.  Still, I think the gospel demands it, as our common response, our speaking to God in reply to his speaking to us.  I am not sure how it can be well done.  One thing I think we should steer clear of over-using is the 'time of private reflection'.  We can pray by ourselves at home; in the church, let's pray together.  I think I favour a mix of brief, front-led prayers, with occasional liturgical prayers.  Either way, I'd like them to be well written, and not extempore.  (I do not always keep this rule myself, and I always regret it when I don't).

5.  Confession of faith.  Our culture, both inside and outside of the church, is riddled with subjectivism and relativism.  In that context, perhaps more than ever before, we need to be responding to the gospel by declaring our faith together.  It doesn't matter so much how it is done, but I would favour having two 'creeds' - one would be the Apostles' Creed or the Nicene Creed, which would help to remind the church of its catholicity, and the other would be a local creed, which would express the truth as it particularly needs to be said in the context within which that church finds itself.  We could alternate between them.

6.  Some expression of community.  It matters that our Sunday worship be primarily on the vertical dimension; that we lift up our hearts, and that we expect God's blessing to come down.  It is right that we go to church to meet with God.  But we do it with other people, and they are the people into whose fellowship we have been called when we were called into fellowship with Christ.  There is a danger here that this becomes tokenism, and an excuse for not being community in the rest of the week - just offering a sign of the peace on a Sunday.  Still, some sign of fellowship, something which deliberately orients us for some part of our time together towards each other must be a useful primer for the rest of life.  It may just be that we incorporate the coffee time into the service, rather than just leaving it as the no-man's land between 'Amen' and first gear (not my phrase, but I like it).  Perhaps we eat together on a Sunday more regularly.  Perhaps we restart the tradition of the Agape feast, and incorporate the Lord's Supper into a fellowship meal.  Something like that.

7.  The Lord's Supper.  We take bread and wine together.  I'd have this every week; it should be at least a couple of times a month.  At the level of straightforward obedience, it's a Dominical command.  It is also the most profound way we can reflect on the gospel together, and the most profound way we can feed on the gospel, taking it into ourselves in a way that will shape us for the rest of life.  In the churches I'm most familiar with, the Supper often feels like something tacked on rather than central, like we're doing it because we know we're meant to, but we're not sure why.  I'd like to see it more central.  I'd also like to have less words around the Supper.  We talk a lot in evangelicalism, and it would be nice if there was this one things that we could do simply.  I don't see that much more beyond the words of institution (with a very light fencing of the table) needs to be said.

I'm out of things.  Anyone got any more?