Thursday, December 26, 2013

Not alone

Frasier is probably my favourite sitcom of all time, and Niles is probably the character who most entertains me. One of my favourite bits of dialogue comes from Niles shortly after his separation from the always-absent-yet-hilariously-present Maris. Daphne asks if he gets lonely. "Oh", he replies with an air of nonchalance, "only sometimes when I'm by myself." And then he adds, with something a bit more like despair, "And other times when I'm with other people". Deep loneliness seems to me to be an inherent part of the human condition, here to the east of Eden. To be lonely by oneself, to be unhappy with one's own company; to be lonely with others, to wonder privately whether any of them really 'get' you.

If God had not come to us, as one of us (really one of us!) and yet not one of us, how lonely we would be! None of us is able, really and truly, to affirm the existence of another. Without the Good God drawing alongside, what would we be, ultimately, but little monads, trying to act as if the other were enough for me, as if my reflection in that person were sufficient.

Emmanuel. With us, really with us.

Not alone, never alone again.

Friday, December 13, 2013

What, then, shall we do?

Yesterday I was pondering the miserable state of the church in the west, and concluding that we are also at a low point in western culture generally, and I was thinking: what would our ecclesiastical forebears have done in this situation?  How would our forefathers have responded to the lack of evangelistic fruit which we have become used to?  What would they have done about the prevalence of sin in our lives and churches?  How would they have coped with the rapid move of general culture away from Christianity?

The lectionary directed me to Psalm 60, which is one of those Psalms we do nothing with.  If the heading is to be believed, it is a Psalm of David, written at a time of relative national faithfulness in Israel. Nevertheless, the theme is abandonment by God.  Verse 10 particularly struck me:

Have you not rejected us, O God?
You do not go forth, O God, with our armies.

Faced with national defeat, the people of God do not look to new strategies.  Neither do they settle down and accept the calamity as inevitable.  They look to God.  Specifically, the Psalm addresses the problem of his absence.

The logic of the Psalm works like this:
Major premise: we are losing this war.
(Assumed) minor premise: God does not lose.
Conclusion: God is not with us.

This logic leads to renewed prayer to God for his help and salvation.  This would only make sense as an 'application' if the Psalmist knew full well that God's abandonment of his people was not total, and the rest of the Psalm shows that clearly.  God has set up a banner and a refuge for those who fear him, even in the midst of apparent abandonment of his people.  Because of this, the response to God's rejection is not despair, but a renewed seeking of his face.  Only he can save.

Might we not conclude from our own situation that God is not going forth, as it were, with our armies?  I think our forebears would have concluded that God is not with us.  They would have held solemn days of humiliation and fasting.  They would have examined themselves to see what sin was holding back God's blessing (NB. examined themselves, not the surrounding culture).  They would have earnestly prayed for God's return to them in power.

What about us?

With God we shall do valiantly.  But do we even want to?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Karl Barth, d. 10th December 1968

I've never made any secret of the fact that Karl Barth is my theological hero.  It's not just the pipe that I find pleasing (although that is obviously a factor).  I love the way that Barth burst into the context of a liberalism which had more or less collapsed God into humanity, and declared the reality of the God who is other, the God who encounters humanity and each human.  Whereas late 19th and early 20th century theological liberalism had made man - his faith and his religious consciousness - the measure of all things, Barth witnessed to the priority of God over man, and the freedom of God over against man.  Moreover, he was clear throughout that this God who encounters and acts towards us is not an abstract deity, but the God who has revealed himself fully in Jesus Christ.

I did not come to Barth from the context of theological liberalism.  My own background looked to the period of Reformed Orthodoxy for its moorings, and found its theology in the Reformers as read through the lens of the English Puritans.  Within that context, what I have loved about Barth is his insistence that God acts.  There is a danger in Reformed Orthodoxy that an emphasis on the immutability of God renders the deity essentially static.  Whilst of course the pietist edge to that tradition kept the danger at bay in terms of practical religion, it seems to me that it still lurked in the formal theology of the movement.

For Barth, God is not so much the One who is there as the One who comes.  God comes to us in Christ, moves toward us in his Spirit, encounters us in the Scriptural witness.  Barth's God is on the prowl, and this to me fits the Biblical witness in a way that I had not seen in the writings of my own tradition.  And that has an impact on how I think the church should 'be' in this dark world - the people of God who wait for him to come, and the people of God who go in imitation of him.  The church has to live, because God lives.  In Christ, he lives toward us and for us.

Barth's last written words were these: "God is not a God of the dead, but of the living.  In him they all live..."

Amen and amen.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

To my soul, during Advent

Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

Since you want to be amongst those who are saved, consider how you can stir yourself up to eagerly await the return of Christ.  You know very well how hard it will be.  You know all of the distractions - sinful things and things which are in themselves good - which you habitually use to keep your mind in the present and on the earth, away from endings and ultimate things.  But for this season, please, spend some time thinking about reality.

Meditate on the terrible things that happen in the world.  Consider that evil people prosper, and those who want to do good are often powerless.  Think about the fact that wickedness is part of the warp and woof of human society, built in to the very structures designed to restrain it.  Do not excuse these things, or resign yourself to them, but consider evil to be evil in truth.  Remember that only the coming of Christ will do away with wickedness, and only the coming of Christ will bring down those who do rather well for themselves out of their evil.  And pray, 'Come, Lord Jesus' - without vindictiveness towards those you see as evil, for who knows what side of the divide they will stand on in the end; but with compassion towards those who are broken by the sinfulness of humanity.

Consider the groaning of creation.  Think about each 'natural' disaster, and remember that it isn't natural.  Each terrible headline speaks of the bondage of creation, of the hideous ripples spreading out through all of created reality from the first sin of humanity.  Remember that only Jesus will bring creation to its longed for rest, and pray 'Come, Lord Jesus' - with hope for a renewed and perfect world.

Spend some time reflecting on your own sinfulness.  Think how many times you have failed your own standards, and then remember that your standards are far too low.  Think about how often you have had to cry to God from the depths of sin for mercy.  Consider the ongoing corruption in your heart, that taints even the good things you try to do.  Think about how hard it is to pray, how difficult to praise, how painful to serve.  Remember that only Jesus can deliver you from that wretched man, yourself, and pray 'Come, Lord Jesus' - in expectation of your own perfection.

Think about the face of Christ.  You have not seen it yet, but you know that one day, when he appears, your transformation will be complete as you see him as he is.  And pray, 'Come, Lord Jesus' - knowing that that will be heaven.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

You don't know

On Sunday morning, the sermon was preached from Ephesians 5 and 6.  It's a challenging passage, about the way to live in family and working relationships.  It calls us to live in the light of the gospel, to live in a way which is transformed by the reality of Christ's death and resurrection.

As is often the case with these sorts of passages, there was a big part of me that wanted to respond: you don't know!  You don't know what it's like for me, Paul!  You have no idea!  This would be said in much the same tone of voice as is used in this video, which if you have kids is hilarious.  If you don't have kids, you don't know.

But the point is, Paul doesn't need to know my exact situation.  He doesn't need to have gone through the exact situations I am facing (which, incidentally, are not particularly hard anyway).  He is not offering that sort of 'been there, done that' advice, as helpful as that can sometimes be.  He is applying the gospel, which is true here and now for me as it was there and then for him.

Enough excuses.  Jesus died and rose.  Live like it.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Pro patria

Today is Armistice Day, the day when we remember the sacrifice of those who fought for our country, and in many cases gave up their lives.  If we are at all sensible, it is also the day when we give thanks for the relative peace in which we now live.  If we are at all compassionate, it is also the day when we particularly remember the many millions caught up in armed conflict right now around the world.  Armistice Day, for me, is all those things.

I am glad we have this day.  It is, for me, much more comfortable than Remembrance Sunday.  I worry that in the context of church, the remembrance of our own dead can so easily become the worship of nation.  I worry that putting our act of national remembrance in such close close proximity to the Lord's commanded act of remembrance cheapens the latter and distorts the former.  Coupled to this, I'm aware of the custom -painfully incongruous to me - in some parts of the church of displaying a national flag in the church building itself.  The church, as somebody else has said, is an embassy of another kingdom, and it is inappropriate that she bear the flag of any earthly kingdom at all.  All of this has got me thinking a bit about patriotism, and how I ought to relate to my nation as a Christian.

I love my country - genuinely love it.  It's one of the things that puts me on the political right, to be honest.  I feel that many on the left love ideas and ideals, but don't love the real things.  I think it's why some of the people I know who are that way inclined politically love other cultures more than their own - because those things are idealised, still not close enough to show the nasty bits and the grubby corners.  Still lovable in the abstract.  But I love my country, not in the 'my country right or wrong' sort of way, but in the only way in which it is appropriate to love anything other than God: in full recognition that there are failings and shortcomings and ugly bits, even if sometimes my love stops me from seeing them.

I guess my love for my country is on the move.  I am becoming more self-critical about it.  I love western culture - I love the literature, the philosophical tradition, the architecture.  This is where I grew up, where I am at home.  But I am more aware of the danger of idolising it.  I guess that is why Remembrance Sunday has become an issue for me in the last few years.

One line of thought that I have been pondering today is this: what if I, as a Christian, were in the armed forces, and were required to fight.  What if I were required to kill other people who could well be brothers and sisters of mine?  This is all very hypothetical, but it instantly raises for me the question of whether I see in another person who is unlike me in almost every way - yet knows and loves the Lord Jesus - someone to whom I am as closely related as a brother or sister as I could possibly be.  I wonder whether my loyalty is to Christ's Kingdom, or the kingdom of the world.  Armistice Day forces the thought down these extreme lines, but I could equally well ask whether I am not guilty of casually idolising my culture and nation in much less obvious ways every day.  One could reasonably ask whether I even do this in my approach to church - do I prefer a comfy monocultural church to Christ's multi-faceted congregation?

My mind rushes to the end - the glory and honour of the nations being brought into the new Jerusalem.  And I guess the best way I can love my earthly nation is to love God's Heavenly Kingdom more, to be committed to his international people, to witness to his gospel which holds out the hope that this love of mine will not ultimately be futile but will be redeemed.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Me and the Holy Spirit

On Sunday I preached a very poor sermon on Acts 2:37-41.  I really shouldn't bother listening to it if I were you; you have better things to do with half an hour.  To explain why it was so poor, let me give you a bit of background info about how I write sermons.  On the whole, I don't spend a whole lot of time sitting down studying.  I read the passage towards the beginning of the week, maybe take in a couple of light commentaries, and then put it to the back of my brain to turn over and over during the week.  If something tricky comes up, I'll go find a more technical commentary; if something interesting pops into my brain I make a mental note.  Sometimes whole paragraphs of a sermon are written and committed to memory whilst I am walking up the hill to work.  On the whole, I find that I spot structures to passages, and craft structures of sermons, pretty early on in the week; the flesh to go on the bones might not come until Saturday.  Or, let's face it, Sunday.

Anyway, the structure for this passage seemed clear.  Peter mentions two conditions: repentance and baptism.  Then he mentions two blessings: forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  In between stands the name of the Jesus Christ, through whom all these things are possible as in repentance and baptism we identify with him.  Simples.  Conditions, blessings, Jesus.

But when I came to put on the flesh, I got stuck.  I can talk about repentance, goodness knows I can talk about baptism, I can and will wax lyrical about the forgiveness of sins.  But I don't really know what to say about the gift of the Holy Spirit,  Oh, don't get me wrong: I have a fine pneumatology.  My doctrine is straight.  I could lecture on the subject of the Holy Spirit.

But from the pulpit - as God's word to his people about his Spirit - I don't know what to say.

And that one failing became a black hole which dragged the whole sermon down into it, in my mind at least.  Because it seemed to me that the central question had become 'where is the answer to this promise?  Where is the gift of the Holy Spirit?'  Shouldn't we be able to see that more - if God were here, amongst us?  Shouldn't I have something to say about this?

So this is where I got to: I am not satisfied, not satisfied at all, with my current experience of God.  I was saying to a friend on Monday that my dissatisfaction is almost at a level where I feel it might overcome my laziness and fear.  Laziness because I know that, although I cannot work my way into a deeper experience of God or strive my way into his favour, I will need to seek him with my whole heart, and that sounds like hard work.  Fear because as long as I can blame my lack of zeal, God himself is not put to the test, but if I really seek him and he is not there...

I guess I'm praying, in so far as I can be bothered and in so far as I dare, for more dissatisfaction that can be satisfied with this gift of the Holy Spirit.

And in the meantime, I will try to write a better sermon for next Sunday.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Just a little Protestantism

Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics is helpfully read as an attempt to outline Evangelical (meaning, Reformation) theology in contrast with Roman Catholicism on the right and Liberalism (what Barth calls Neo-Protestantism or Modernism) on the left.  Barth sees Rome and Schleiermacher as being, despite their many differences, very similar at the end of the day - or at least similarly opposed to the fundamental basis of Evangelical doctrine.  That fundamental basis is a free Bible, a Bible which shows itself to be the Word of God, which does not have to be defended or to have its authority discovered in another place.  For Rome, the authority of the Bible derives (in practice, if not in theory) from the church, which claims the exclusive right through its teaching office to offer interpretation of Scripture; for the Neo-Protestant, such authority as the Bible is thought to have is tied to the religious self-consciousness of the reader.  In neither case is Scripture regarded as free, self-authenticating, and able to stand over against the reader as the Word of God.  (It is, of course, all these things despite the way in which it is regarded, and God is able to make it evidently all of these things even within Romanism and Modernism.  But it is not so regarded).

In contrast, Evangelical theology points to the Bible as its very basis, on which everything else if founded.  "That is to say, we have not in any sense or in any way to answer for it that the Bible is really God's Word...   We can say no more than this, that the Bible can answer for itself in this matter".

But the key thing for me is that, in contrast to the pre-suppositionalist apologetics of today, Barth does not see this position as a strong one.  It is desperately weak, and throws one open to all sorts of accusations.  Is it not utterly arbitrary?  If it is not, that does not depend on us but on God. Where does our assurance come from?  We cannot say, but then we do not want to build on our assurance but only on the thing itself.

Is it perhaps a special spiritual experience that has led us to this?  Is this "a secret appeal to a special grace"?

Not at all - "this opposition [to Rome and Schleiermacher] seeks to be nothing of all that, nothing special, no prophecy or apostolate, just a very earthy, harmless, ambivalent matter, devoid of all mystical splendour or mystery, just a little Protestantism, a sign to which we can give no signifying power, which may in fact be opposed or totally overlooked or misunderstood, and about whose unimportance among all the other signs in which the world and the church are so rich we have no illusions."

And the irony is that we are talking about the very power of God for salvation!  But that power, that Word, is not under our control, cannot be advanced by us, can only be pointed to as the sign which God is able to turn into that which it signifies, the word which he is able to make into the Word.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Must preach

Krish Kandiah wrote a couple of posts on preaching last week, which are well worth reading - it's debate prep, so he gives both points of view: is preaching dead or alive? It has got me thinking about preaching, so here are a few of my somewhat disjointed and unpolished ponderings.

1.  Preaching is liturgical before it is educational.  If you take a glance at Krish's piece against preaching, many of the reasons have to do with educational theory.  Now, I don't have much time for that sort of thing anyway, but I especially don't want to see it applied to preaching.  The primary point of preaching is not the education of the church, not the impartation of knowledge.  The main thing is to lift the eyes of the congregation to Christ.  It is about speaking, and hearing, the Word of God - which means more than explaining the Bible.  It means speaking as if pronouncing the very oracles of God.  This is part of worship, and only secondarily is it a matter of catechesis (something which the church needs to do elsewhere).

2.  The gospel is news.  News is announced, not discussed.  One of the most frustrating things about the contemporary presentation of television or internet news is the apparent feeling that it would be a good idea to democratise the news by inviting comment from the ignorant public.  This is not the way news works.  News is not a conversation, it is an announcement.  Preaching is the only form that matches up with the content in this sense.

3.  The gospel is a monologue.  It is not that we are not invited in or involved - we certainly are.  But only really as hearers, as recipients.  In so far as we are doers, it is because we are hearers.  This is what grace means - God does it all.  Not only does he achieve salvation by himself without us, he announces salvation without us.  Preaching in the church is a sign of that - we listen to the preacher, who trusts that God takes up his preaching and makes it a genuine announcement of the gospel.

4.  Preaching is the centre of the church's life.  What else could it be?  The gospel announced calls the church together, and drives the church out to announce the gospel.

5.  God accompanies the faithful preaching of the gospel, and makes it powerful.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

No straight lines

Human experience and thought as such, if they were to follow their own bias, would proceed in a straight line from despair to even deeper despair, from solemnity to even greater solemnity (there is also a negative theologia gloriae), or from triumph to even higher triumph, from joy to even greater joy.  To faith, however, this straight line movement is forbidden by the Word of God, which calls us from despair to triumph, from solemnity to joy, but also from triumph to despair and from joy to solemnity.  This is theologia crucis.
 Thus Karl Barth, in CD I/1, p 191.

The experience of the Word of God is an experience of always being called out of one place into another.  The Word of God meets us in our despair and calls us to a place of security and safety as it extends to us the righteousness of Christ.  The Word of God meets us in our security and calls us to a place of renunciation and repentance as it highlights our continuing sinfulness.  Always it is a call, which means that it is always an encounter, a fresh encounter.  This is personal interaction, not an escalator to holiness (or indeed to deeper and deeper self-renunciation).

God's Word "never leaves us alone whether in our humility or our pride".  God's Word goes with us, but not as our possession; not as the confirmation of our present humiliation or triumph.  How then would it be personal encounter?  Would it not be far more likely that this word which confirms me in my current state is just a self-reflection?  As the Word of God calls me out of humiliation into triumph, and out of triumph into humiliation, I hear the true speech of God, which is Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.

And faith is comforted despair.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Death, thou shalt die

The combination of two readings at Evening Prayer on Wednesday has been running around my brain the last couple of days.  In 1 Kings 17, the prophet Elijah raises from death the son of a widow who has been sheltering him during the divinely-imposed famine in Israel; in Acts 20, the apostle Paul brings back from death a young man who has fallen from a window after falling asleep during a lengthy apostolic homily.

Back from death.

I don't want to be morbid about it, but there's really no getting around the fact that death is the only absolutely terrible thing, the only thing that is, in an absolutely unqualified sense, disaster.  Anything else, even the worst thing, leaves us with some hope, or perhaps the possibility of learning, or perhaps the door to repentance.  Death ends it all.  Let's not kid ourselves or give false comfort by saying that death is not the end.  It is the end.  The annihilation of everything I have been, could have been, wanted to be.  And it is an intruder.  I was not made for this.  In so far as life is God's gift, it is grace, benefit, goodness - yes, even in all its struggles and hardships.  Death is the taking away of that gift.  Nowhere else do we see so clearly, if we have the eyes for it, that we stand under God's judgement.

All our days pass away under your wrath.

To be called back from death is nothing less than new creation.  Undoing the destruction, preserving the personality, remaking the life that has passed into shadow.

How can it be?

Jesus died, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.

Do you believe this, O my fearful soul?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Tempus Fugit

Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and for ever.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning.

Thoughts on my thirty-second birthday:

Our God is always the same, and always new; always both the Ancient of Days and the Bright Morning Star.  Always the One Who Was - never different from his own past.  Always the One Who Is - absolutely himself in the here and now.  Always the One Who Will Be - the promise that tomorrow and in every tomorrow he will be there, newly himself, newly the Same.

I am chained to time, but God is Free.  Time is his servant.  The God of the Bible - the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ - is not timeless.  But he is the Master of time.  He directs it.  I cannot be everything I am in a moment - so much of me is lost in the past, or unknown in the future.  But God is himself, at all times and in all places.  He bears within himself his own past and future, perfectly.  He is the Same.  The newness that meets us each morning in new mercy is the real newness of God, of the God who is always old in his newness and new from ancient days.  Eternal.

Our hope - the hope of the Christian - is not to be rid of time, but to have all our time and our times gathered up and united in his eternity.  To experience Sabbath - sanctified time, the time which is bound to the Lord of Time, the goal and end of all our time and times.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Nothing is wasted

I believe that nothing is wasted.

I believe that there is not a moment in my life that will not ultimately be gathered up by my good Lord Jesus and made part of a whole.  I believe that every minute of every day - the good times, the bad times, and the thoroughly mundane times - will be collected up by him.  Like a mosaic, he will arrange the broken fragments of life, light and dark, large piece and small, and one day I will stand before him and see myself as he sees me.  And in that day I will know - what it was all about.  I will be able to look at that mosaic and say 'so that is who I am!  I never knew myself before'.  And the glory of it will be that in every detail of that mosaic I will see not only myself but him.

I believe that there is not a single life that is wasted, but all of us are contributing something unique to the wider tapestry of God's story.  I believe that everyone - yes, even the wicked - is contributing to that great artwork which we call history, and which God calls redemption.  Each of us, whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, will show the glory of Christ.

I believe it.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


One of the things that I found stimulating and challenging in reading Metaxas' Bonhoeffer was the sense of clear direction.  In Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we are presented with a man who knew what he ought to be doing, and as a rule did exactly that.  It may just be a trick of the biographer - after all, in writing a story, even a life story, one inevitably seeks out a thread that runs through, something that ties everything together - but it seems to me that there is enough in the original sources to justify the perception that Bonhoeffer's life was directed.  I can think of very few Christians of my acquaintance who show that with any clarity, and I can't help but wonder why it is that most of us (including myself) seem to be flummoxed by the question of what we ought to do with our lives.

Is it, perhaps, that we are not listening?  Bonhoeffer had deep pietistic tendencies, and was devoted to daily meditation on Scripture and prayer.  He took Scripture seriously as the address of God to him in the here and now, and not just a collection of past revelations.  Might there be a lack in our devotional practices?

Is it, perhaps, that we are not thinking?  Bonhoeffer analysed his own situation in the light of the gospel, and was very much aware of the needs of the hour.  Despite his pietistic leanings, he certainly did not retreat into individualistic piety, but sought the good of the society in which he lived.  He had an uncommon intellectual ability, of course, and an insight to which few could aspire.  But still, I wonder if we might not be thinking clearly.

Is it, perhaps, that we are unbelieving?  In the final analysis, Bonhoeffer did what he believed to be right.  He pursued his calling.  Only knowing that God directs ours steps (and trusting that he forgives our missteps) can make anyone free to do this.  From what I know of my own heart, I fear that sometimes we do not know what we ought to do simply because we do not trust God with our lives.

If anyone has any answers, I'd love to hear them.  How can we serve the purposes of God in our generation?

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Ethics and Aesthetics, Addendum

A few things off the back of yesterday's post.

First, here is a useful discussion (which I found after I had posted) applying this sort of concept to a concrete example.  I haven't looked into the background of it all, but the key thing for me is the awkward way in which aesthetic repugnance and moral repugnance can be confused, and the importance of clarity.

Secondly, it occurs to me that I should have said that we will rarely (never?) encounter pure ugliness in the ethical realm.  This is not because there is some inherent good in everyone which shines through even the darkest deeds; rather, it is because evil cannot overcome God's grace in creation and redemption.  Even where I have to make a negative ethical judgement on the basis of God's command, and train my aesthetic sense to a corresponding distaste, there will be something good, something praiseworthy, something beautiful.  Even when it is only the fact that God can and will weave even the most evil things into his overall story.

Thirdly, it would be useful to clarify that a disciplined aesthetic can be a great servant of ethical judgement.  It is easier to say 'no' to a wrong which I also see as ugly.  It is easier to detect evil when not only my ethical judgement but also my taste is attuned to good.

Fourthly, and more practically, I probably need to watch less TV, or perhaps just consume less popular culture in general.  It is hard to discipline myself to feel rightly in the realm of sexual ethics, for example, when I have just spent half an hour chuckling at the sexual antics of some character in a sitcom.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Ethics and Aesthetics

It seems pretty clear that ethics and aesthetics are linked.  Our views of what is good and what is beautiful are necessarily intertwined (just as they are both deeply connected to our views of what is true).  Just a couple of thoughts on regulating the connection:

1.  We must not let aesthetics lead ethics.  Of course, it is still fairly trendy in some circles to say that ethical judgements boil down in the end to just 'I like/don't like this'.  This cannot be true of Christian ethics.  When we say that something is morally wrong, we mean that it is objectively disordered, or - to get right to the heart of the issue - that it is disobedient to God's command.  Since this is a huge thing to say, we need to pretty careful about saying it.  In particular, I worry that sometimes our ethical judgements are too close to being judgements about taste.  'I am personally and culturally disposed to find this behaviour repulsive' is not the same as 'this is disobedient to God's command', and we need to be careful to ensure that we are not confusing the two.

2.  We must train aesthetics to follow ethics.  If truth, goodness, and beauty are genuinely connected - if they are all facets of God's one reality - then what is true and good is also beautiful, and I need to train myself to see it that way.  On the flipside, if sin is really sin as the Bible describes it, then it is also ugly, and I need to train myself to view it as such.  What I notice in myself is that I easily see the sins to which others are prone as ugly, whilst the transgressions which I tend toward are, in my mind, sometimes even beautiful.  Since I am not capable, ultimately, of disconnecting what God has connected - ethics and aesthetics - this inevitably means that I see the sins of others as ethically worse than my own, which is clearly not a helpful or a true viewpoint.  I need to train myself to loath my own sin, not only as wrong but also as ugly.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Revelation and Ethics

Barth is famous, or infamous, for holding what is sometimes called a 'dynamic' doctrine of revelation.  That is to say, rather than locating revelation in one place, and consequently identifying it with the text of Scripture, Barth sees revelation as an event.  To be sure, Scripture is the authoritative medium through which revelation occurs, but for Barth revelation is not something that can be pinned down to the pages of the Bible.  Revelation is always personal disclosure, one person revealing themselves to another.  Consequently, it is always something that happens; an event, not an object.

As an aside, there is a whole ontology at work here; it is not just an oddity of Barth's doctrine of Scripture.  Being and doing are closely related in Barth's thinking, correctly in my view.

I do understand why this makes some people uncomfortable.  It boils down to the question which I have been asked more than once, with varying degrees of suspicion: is the Bible the word of God or not?  The only answer I can give is a very definite yes, qualified at once by a clear no.  Is this the place where I must seek God?  Is this the place in which he has promised to reveal himself?  Yes, it is.  But I cannot possess revelation; I can only await it, and - in faith - expect it.  There is a serious insecurity here, met only by the security of God's promise.

When it comes to ethics, the problem seems more acute.  Here, too, everything is dynamic.  Ethics is not a matter of possessing God's commands and working out what to do with them.  God's command is always a personal command to me in the here and now.  It is not for me to apply; it is for me to obey.

This summer I read Metaxas' excellent biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which really ought to be required reading alongside his theology. Bonhoeffer's own Ethics makes so much more sense when read within the context of his life.  For him, ethics was absolutely that: hearing God's word and living in response.  Hearing and obeying.  Within his own Lutheran context, he was accused of legalism, but it was his ethics which led him into conspiracy to kill Hitler.  The word of God, he was convinced, demanded it.

And here is a huge risk.  Only a firm belief in justification by faith will prevent me from being paralysed in the face of God's command.  What if I have misheard, or misapplied?  Well, God is good, and will make good even out of my mistakes.  The important thing is to listen and do, and trust his promise to guide.

Monday, July 22, 2013


There have been various royal happenings this week, in Belgium and here.  These have been accompanied by the usual smattering of republican nay-sayers.  I saw a banner being waved by a Belgian fellow proclaiming that kings and princes belonged in fairy-tales.

And that is the point.  The protestor presumably thought he was expressing a republican sentiment, but I would say to him:

I don't want to live in your flat world, where 'everyone is special' (which means nobody is) and everything should be rational and sensible.  I don't want a political system that requires no imagination and leaves no mystery.  I don't want your revolution.

Some of the best and truest stories I know are fairy-tales.

God save the Queen.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Hermeneutics in Romans 10:5-10

Have a read.

The funny thing about this passage is that Paul pits two quotations from the OT against one another.  It's not made clear in the ESV, for some reason, but in verse 5 he quotes Leviticus 18:5.  The Leviticus verse is clearly attributed to Moses, and is used by Paul to represent the sort of thing legalistic righteousness might say - basically, do and live (with the unspoken flip-side, fail and die).  In verses 6 through 8, we have a mixed quotation from Deuteronomy - mostly from 30:11-14, with an introduction taken from Deut 9:4, and of course interspersed with Paul's commentary.  The Deuteronomy quotation is not attributed, but is used by Paul to represent the righteousness that is by faith - basically, trust and live.

What is odd about this?

Firstly, Paul knows full well that the Deuteronomy quotation is from Moses; it forms part of the finale of his long farewell sermon on the plains of Moab.  If he is really pitting Leviticus against Deuteronomy, this is a weird intra-Mosaic fight which would seem to be difficult within Paul's apparent doctrine of Scripture.  (He has, of course, no recourse to the easy tools of modern critical scholarship; one suspects he would not have used them if he did).

Secondly, in context - and we should never assume that we can ignore the context of Paul's quotations and allusions - both passages say much the same thing.  The whole point of the Deuteronomy passage is that Israel can and should keep the law - it is not a difficult of a distant thing.  And given that the verses cited by Paul are immediately followed by 'see, I have set before you life and good, death and evil', it would be hard to insert the thinnest of knife blades between this and the Leviticus quote.  On the other hand, the Leviticus passage itself, in the context of the book and of the whole Pentateuch, is hardly so legalistic as all that.  The law is given only to a people who have already been rescued from Egypt, something which is surely significant, and as Leviticus is continually reminding its readers, Israel is to be holy because YHWH their God - the God who has graciously made himself theirs - is holy.

So what is Paul doing here?

My suggestion would be that he is not pitting two Scriptures against one another, but two hermeneutics.  It is possible to read the OT and arrive at a legalistic conclusion.  It is possible to conclude that God requires you to establish your own righteousness, and that he has provided the law as a means to do it.  You can read it like that, and it will be broadly coherent.  Paul argues in 9:32 and 10:3 that this is exactly what Israel has done in his day.  This is their hermeneutic.

But it is equally possible to read the OT as teaching righteousness by faith.  The Deuteronomy quotation represents that option.  By interspersing the quotation with explicitly Christian emphases not present in the original text, Paul makes it clear why we should choose this hermeneutic over the other.  The facts of Christ's death and resurrection in our place as the culmination of the story of the OT decide once and for all what it was that Israel's story was all about, and it certainly wasn't about establishing our own legal righteousness.  We know the Old Testament was always about justification by faith because of Christ.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

I (think I) believe in the Holy Spirit

I've been tying my reading into the calendar recently - I spent some time in Church Dogmatics IV/1 over Easter, especially looking at the section on the resurrection (which, incidentally, shows that Barth moves a long way from the existentialism of the commentary on Romans, and is not all the theologian that his opponents and many of his 'friends' consider him to be - but that is by the by); since Pentecost I have been re-reading Simon Ponsonby's book on the Holy Spirit, God Inside Out.  It is a good read, from a Biblical charismatic perspective, and I've enjoyed it as much this second time through as I did the first time.

But, if I'm honest, the closest I can come to a ringing confession of the faith of Pentecost which is expressed in Simon's book is something along the lines of 'I'm pretty sure about the Holy Spirit.  Most of the time, anyway'. Not a faith to move mountains.

Here's the thing.  When it comes to what God has done, then and there, I find my brain quite useful.  The more I look into it, the more I think it is as certain as anything in history ever can be that Jesus rose from the dead.  Okay, it takes faith to get from that to saying 'and it was for me', but still there is investigation I can do.  On top of that, I can view the problem from philosophical and theological points of view, and I can say: of course, the cross and resurrection of Jesus.  That is what we need.  It makes sense.  Even when it doesn't make sense, I can understand that the theology of the cross cuts across my understanding - crucifies it, as it were - to get me to the truth.  I get it, or it gets me, even when I don't really get it.  I have no problem, either, with saying that some things - the most important things - are taken on faith, and are not seen.  People who live under the sign of the cross must expect to live by faith and not sight; sight is for the resurrection, sight is for the time when we know as we are known.

But the thing with the Holy Spirit is that the Bible leads me to believe that I should be able to see him at work.  Ever noticed that in Acts the proof that people are converted is that they obviously receive the Spirit?  Think about Peter with Cornelius.  It is the visible reception of the Spirit that persuades him that these people have come to believe in Christ.  It would be very different in the churches I frequent.  We infer the Spirit - someone appears to believe, so they must have received the Spirit.  Peter's reasoning is the other way round - someone received the Spirit, they must believe.  Maybe this was a special case.  Maybe.

What evidence is there in conservative evangelical circles that the Spirit is at work?  Is it just that I find it hard to see it, and easy to explain it away?

How does the faith/sight dichotomy feed into this?

I'm not sure.  But in the meantime, I do believe in the Holy Spirit.  I'd just like to see him out and about more, that's all.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

A holy sadness

Perhaps it is just the Lenten trek through Jeremiah, or perhaps it is something that has been growing over time.  Whatever the cause, I am developing a new appreciation for sadness.  There is something deeply real about sadness.  It is not grief, per se - it is not dragged out of you by a particular catastrophe.  It is the background awareness that much is not right (even if all is well in one's immediate surroundings), and that many are suffering (even if one's own life throws up only the most trivial inconveniences).  At its most basic level, sadness is a reaction - an appropriate reaction, although not the only reaction necessary - to a fallen world.

A man of sorrows.

There is a lot of sadness in the gospel.  It is not all joy and laughter, even if it is ultimately that.  "Then again Iluvatar arose, and the Ainur perceived that his countenance was stern; and he lifted up his right hand, and behold! a third theme grew amid the confusion, and it was unlike the others.  For it seemed at first soft and sweet, a mere rippling of gentle sounds in delicate melodies; but it could not be quenched, and it took to itself power and profundity,  [It became] deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came."  (Seriously, read the Silmarillion).

Surely he has carried our sorrows.

Thinking a lot at the moment about what it means to stand with the world of sadness, but still within the light of the gospel.  Not to feel the sadness - to pretend that the sadness is completely undone - is, I think, to betray the world.  It is not to walk the way of the cross.  To indulge the sadness, on the other hand, is to be unbelieving.  Is everything sad going to come untrue? asks Sam Gamgee.  No, and yes.  Untrue, but not unreal.  Frodo has to go to the havens; the saved world is not for him to enjoy.  Sadness, but not all tears are evil.  Sadness does not have the last word, but it has the penultimate word.

To be sad, to be low, not for oneself but for the world.  Vicarious sadness.  Feeling the sadness that we all ought to feel.  And knowing that it is through sorrow that God brings joy.

Monday, February 11, 2013


I'm currently reading and loving Bonhoeffer's Ethics  Some obvious references to National Socialism aside, it seems to me that it could have been written in the 21st century.  Certainly, I keep coming across passages that strike me as astonishingly relevant.

One of the things I am loving about Bonhoeffer's approach is that he refuses to moralise about the world without bringing the church into the closest solidarity with the world.  It is not an ethics that points to the flaws that stand outside the people of God; at least, not without recognising that the church bears responsibility for those very flaws.  Hence there is a long passage of confession of sin, from the church's perspective.  The paragraph on sexual ethics particularly struck me:

"The church confesses that it has not found any guiding or helpful word to say in the midst of the dissolution of all order in the relationships of the sexes to each other.  It has found no strong or authentic message to set against the disdain for chastity and the proclamation of sexual licentiousness.  Beyond the occasional expression of moral indignation it has had nothing to say.  The church has become guilty, therefore, of the loss of purity and wholesomeness among youth,  It has not known how to proclaim strongly that our bodies are members of the body of Christ."

Tell me that couldn't have been written yesterday.  How have we still not found any guiding or helpful word - any strong or authentic message - to speak into the mess that is 21st century sexual ethics (or lack thereof) in the West?  What are we to do about it?

One thing we must not do (or perhaps, one thing that we must stop doing) is become fanatics,

"Fanatics believe that they can face the power of evil with the purity of their will and their principles.  But the essence of fanaticism is that it loses sight of the whole evil, and like a bull that charges the red cape instead of the man holding it, fanatics finally tire and suffer defeat" (my emphasis).

Every time we chase down the particular red cape issues of sexual ethics - most recently, for example, gay marriage - we risk missing the whole evil: we miss noticing that our culture stands estranged from God and fallen away from Christ.  Nothing, to my mind, captures the efforts of evangelical Christians to engage with ethical issues in wider society quite so well as the image of the bull charging here and there, always targeting the cape and never the man who stands behind it.  Always hitting the issues, and never The Issue.

It seems to me that the road to real ethical engagement with society is a road that must begin with our own confession of guilt, and not only ours but that of our society - because their guilt belongs to us as those who did not speak a strong message, the message of Christ.  This is a burden, but not an unbearable one, because guilt confessed is judged and borne away in Christ - and in Christ there is new life to be had and shared and proclaimed.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Congregationalism, and reading the Bible

I think congregationalism is the Scripturally mandated form of church order.  To clarify, by congregationalism I mean that way of ordering a church whereby ultimate decision making is vested in the local congregation, guided and led by its elders and served by its deacons.  There are two types of argument I would advance in favour of this position, and since they are the two types of argument which I think are important in any theological discussion, I wanted to outline how they work.  I'm only hinting here at the structure of the particular arguments themselves; mainly I'm trying to show how theological argument needs to work.

The first sort of argument is called 'the Bible says...'  This sort of argument is not difficult to understand.  In the case of congregationalism, it would consist of pointing out a few key passages which describe church order in the first congregations.  We could point out that Scripture describes and prescribes the appointment of elders and deacons, and mentions no other church officers.  We could also point out that in several instances Scripture points towards the whole congregation being involved in decision making - for example, church discipline in Matthew 18:17.  I would also want to go to Acts 20, and see how Paul, foreseeing his absence, commits the churches to the word of God and not to any other officer or group of officers standing above the local congregation.  In short, the Bible says that churches are run congregationally.

For many Christians, I guess that's the end of the conversation.  But I do not think that any solid case can be built this way.  It is one thing to be able to quote the text of Scripture, and quite another to be able to show how it applies today.  There is a need to show why the Bible says what it does, and for that we have to go behind the apostolic teaching to see how it relates to the central concerns of the gospel.  I am assuming here that the Biblical authors are theologians, and I am assuming a particular understanding of how they thought and wrote.  I do not think we are to imagine all of the Bible being direct oracles, written down.  I don't think Paul got his teaching about eldership directly from heaven.  I think it is a reflection on the gospel - on the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.  So what the Bible says hangs together.  It is all related to the gospel, and understanding how it is related will help us to understand how it applies now.  The connection is not always spelled out, or sometimes even hinted at.  But we can try to think from the starting point - Christ - to the end point - this specific teaching - and work out what goes in between.

As an aside, this is why it is very hard to work out how to apply passages of the NT which seem to have no connection to the gospel, or a connection which is now obscure.  I am thinking of women covering their heads, for example.

When it comes to congregationalism, I think there is a Christological and a Pneumatological point to make.  The Christological point is that Christ runs his church.  Jesus the King governs his church.  This has implications for how we understand church order.  For starters, we can't make it up - it is not up to us to derive structures which Christ has not mandated.  Moreover, we must have structures that reflect the fact that Christ is actively involved in the church, and leave us open to his guiding.  I think congregationalism makes sense in this context.  The Pneumatological point is that every Christian has the Spirit.  The officers of the church do not have a monopoly on wisdom, or on hearing from God.  Congregationalism seeks to reflect this.

It is the combination of the two arguments that wins me over.  The Bible says it, and I can see that what the Bible says makes sense in the light of the gospel.  The application in this case is straightforward; since nothing important has changed in the circumstances surrounding the question, the Biblical guidance and instruction stands as it is.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Located Church

" will be a community that does not live for itself but is deeply involved in the concerns of its neighbourhood.  It will be the church for the specific place where it lives, not the church for those who wish to be members of it - or rather, it will be for them insofar as they are willing to be for the wider community.  It is, I think, very significant that in the consistent usage of the New Testament, the word ekklesia is qualified in only two ways; it is "the Church of God" or "of Christ", and it is the church of a place.  A Christian congregation is defined by this twofold relation: it is God's embassy in a specific place.  Either of these vital relationships may be neglected  The congregation may be so identified with the place that it ceases to be the vehicle of God's judgement and mercy for that place and becomes simply the focus of the self-image of the people of that place  Or it may be so concerned about the relation of its members to God that it turns its back on the neighbourhood and is perceived as irrelevant to its concerns."

Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society

If the former neglect is the danger faced by Anglican congregations in particular (although not by any means exclusively), the latter is the great danger for free churches.  We tend to be drawn from wider areas, made up of people who have opted out of the parish system for theological or personal reasons.  The temptation is to say that it doesn't matter - geographical location is less important to people nowadays   That is certainly true, but the question is whether it is a trend we should be fighting.  I suspect that Newbigin is right.  Without a geographical focus, our churches become private members clubs, which attract people like us.  Our evangelism begins to be directed only to our friends and colleagues, and large numbers of people whose lives do not throw themselves in the way of a Christian are overlooked.

I don't know how much longer the Church of England as we know it will be with us.  I do know that in many parishes the gospel is not preached.  We in non-conformity will need to be more than just the alternative.  We will need to be churches for places.

Monday, January 14, 2013

How Jesus Runs the Church

I recently read this book, which is an interesting manifesto for Presbyterian church government.  I was hooked by the title, and the way in which the title is presented.  The cover is set out as if it was meant to say 'How to Run the Church', but has been scribbled on to give the actual title.  In that respect, it's a great rebuke to the way many people Christians think about the communities to which they belong.  The church is not a human creation, and it is not up to us to decide how it should be organised or run.  This is something I've felt pretty strongly about for some time, so I was excited to get a look at this, even if it was going to be arguing for a form of ecclesiastical polity which I knew in advance I was not likely to find convincing.

Alas, I find myself disappointed.  On the one hand, my disappointment derives simply from the fact that this is a book very much in the Reformed tradition.  Don't get me wrong, I love that tradition.  But far too often during this book there were points when I wanted argument based on Scripture, and instead I got the Westminster Confession or the Book of Church Order of the PCA.  I understand that this was not intended to be a polemical book, but a manual of instruction for Presbyterians.  Still, the approach concerns me.  It seems to be standard amongst the Properly Reformed to produce works which pay lip-service to the idea that the Westminster Standards, being human productions, are of course not infallible as are the Scriptures; and yet there is rarely any indication given that this is taken seriously in practice.  In fact, the various documents stemming from Westminster are cited with absolute authority, as if somewhen in the 17th Century the Bible was clearly and perfectly understood and its teaching distilled once and for all into perfect form.  Disturbing.

The bigger problem(!), however, is that the book does not describe how Jesus runs the church.  A more accurate title would be 'How Jesus provides a constitution that will allow the church to run itself'.  It seems to me that Christ plays the role of an ecclesiastical Lycurgus here; he gives laws, creates offices, provides structures - and that is all.  The actual running of the church is completely handed over to 'church courts', which frankly sound terrifying.  (As an aside, I am sure it is not coincidence that the 17th Century in England was all about constitutions.  The church here sounds a lot more like a Commonwealth [the author uses this word, in fact] than, say, a family).

I wonder whether we can actually see a set of connected problems in the Reformed theology of this era.  I think I see parallels between the ecclesiology and the doctrine of Scripture - a thing is set in stone, and then left to work itself out...

I realise this is all getting rather grumpy over something most Christians don't care about - namely, church government.  But it is because church government is something that Jesus does that this really matters.  Maybe more on this shortly.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Last day of Christmas

A passage from Church Dogmatics has been stimulating me greatly over the last couple of weeks. For those interested in such things, it comes from IV/2, p42.  Here are some highlights.

"God did this [assumed human being] without ceasing to be God.  He differentiates himself from all false Gods (among whom the god of Islam is especially characteristic in this respect) by the fact that he is not a prisoner of his own exalted status, but can also be lowly - not in the surrender but the affirmation of his divine majesty."

In other words, God does not do something un-Godlike when he assumes human nature and unites it to his own in Jesus Christ.  He is not giving himself away in giving himself to us.  He remains God.

"He exists even in himself as God, not only in the majesty of the Father, but also and in the same reality and Godhead as the Son begotten of the Father and following Him and ordered in accordance with Him.  In itself and as such, then, humility is not alien to the nature of the true God..."

Because God is, in himself, the Son who obeys as well as the Father who commands, humility and service are not strange things to him, taken on only in the incarnation.  Humility as well as majesty is proper to God.

"We can only say that in its great inconceivability - always new and surprising when we try to conceive it - this reason [that is, God's mercy] is holy and righteous because it corresponds to the humility of the Eternal Son as it takes place in the supreme reality of the intra-trinitarian life of God himself..."

So without taking the wonder out of the incarnation, we can say that it is grounded in God's being, not as something he must do of necessity, but as something which corresponds to his eternal character.

Why does this matter?

Firstly, it matters because the incarnation is revelatory.  In Christ, we see God.  That could not be the case if the incarnation - the humility of Christ - were basically alien to God as he really is.  We would look at Christ and see something other than God, something that God has made himself - mercifully, to be sure, but not revelatory.

Secondly, it helps us to know what it means to be godlike.  Imitating our God will mean humble service.