Thursday, December 24, 2015

Heidelberg Christmas

Q. What does it mean that he “was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary”?

A. That the eternal Son of God,
who is and remains
true and eternal God,

took to himself,
through the working of the Holy Spirit,
from the flesh and blood of the virgin Mary,
a truly human nature

so that he might also become David’s true descendant,
like his brothers and sisters in every way
except for sin.

Q. How does the holy conception and birth of Christ benefit you?

A. He is our mediator
and, in God’s sight,
he covers with his innocence and perfect holiness
my sinfulness in which I was conceived.

(Heidelberg Catechism questions 35 and 36)

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Incarnational science

Karl Barth spends a few pages at the very beginning of his Church Dogmatics insisting that theology has a right to consider itself to be a science.  Of course he does not mean an experimental science, which is more or less the only definition of science that we have in English.  Nor does he intend that theology should be forced to conform to the norms and methodologies of a general 'science', whatever those might look like.  Theology must do its own thing, but it is (or can be) none the less scientific.

I would suggest that there is one key reason why we should consider theology a science, and that is that it has a definite object.  Theology is not speculative - or at least, in so far as it is speculative, it is bad theology.  Theology is the investigation of a particular object, namely God.  As a discipline, it is bound to this object.  It examines and describes, but it does not invent.

Now God is never merely the object of our investigations; God is never merely an object at all.  Like any other person, God is also subject.  Indeed, as divine Person, God is always subject, and always sovereign subject, in all of his interactions with anything outside himself.  But he gives himself as an object.  He allows himself to be investigated.  He makes himself available as the source and object of theological science.  He does not give himself away - he is very capable, for example, of recalling the errant theologian back to his truth.  He remains the sovereign subject.  But he is also there, there for us to see and investigate and learn.

To put it in theological terms, God in the incarnation has come to us.  Because he was here, as a human being amongst human beings, there is a definite historical referent behind our theological talk.  We cannot just say anything about God, as if he were a mysterious noumena, without shape or form or limit.  God gives himself as object in this particular person at this particular time.  Therefore, he can be known; therefore, there is theology.  Because of Jesus, theology is a science.

The theological method will be decided by its object.  Because its object is God as he gives himself to us in Jesus, its method must be the study and exposition of the witness to Jesus contained in Holy Scripture.  Because its object is the God who establishes the church as his community of witness, its method must be community based.  Because its object is the the God who is also always subject, its method must be driven by prayer and worship.

But it is not speculative or open-ended.

Because of Christmas, theology has definite content, just as the manger of Bethlehem had definite content.

Sunday, December 20, 2015


"I will create new heavens and a new earth", God says.  But how will he do it?  What will it look like?  And is that even good news?  After all, we're pretty attached to the old earth.  We're made out of it.  Will there be space for us in this new heavens and new earth?  Will everything that we love be swept away to make room for it?

How does God make everything new?

For starters, he doesn't wipe out the old.  Quite the contrary.  He comes to visit it, pitches his tent here, takes on flesh, takes to himself that very old dirt and calls it his own in a new way.  In the womb of the virgin, a new life begins, which is in some senses just the same old life.  Still dust, still fragile, still surrounded by sin and destined for suffering.

But new.  This new life is God's life, God's life united to ours.  This is where the new heavens and the new earth appear: in the womb of Mary, in the manger of Bethlehem.  Behold!  God is doing a new thing!  Here it is.  Here he is.  Tiny now, but here is all of heaven and earth.  Here, everything old is made new.

And he who was seated on the throne said "Behold, I am making all things new".

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Prisoner of Hope

Perpetua was woken, as usual, by the warmth of the sunlight slipping in between the bars on her solitary high window.  She rose immediately, and began to pace the perimeter of the round cell.  This was the best part of the day, and there was no knowing when it would end.  In earlier times, in the first weeks and months - years? - after she had arrived here, morning had been the time for prayer.  She still prayed, but now she paced as well.  Important to exercise.

It was only minutes before the heavy oak door opened.  As usual, there were two figures waiting in the doorway.  As usual, they were masked.  Perpetua remembered when they had not worn masks; she remembered human faces.  Now just blank masks, which made her wonder, in her few idle moments, how the people under them could see.  But she did not ask about the masks.  Any questions along those lines brought punishment.  Instead she rose and, as usual, followed the figures out of the cell, under the stone lintel which was carved on the inside with a single word: hope.  This, after all, was the doorway out of prison.

One of the two figures walked ahead of her, whilst the other took the usual place behind.  Perpetua knew the route and walked it without thinking.  She briefly wondered whether the figure ahead of her was not that of a woman, but about that too it was forbidden to ask or speculate, and she quickly killed the thought process.  Better not to think what she could not say.  She shuffled slowly - why did they always walk so slowly now? - down the dark corridor, noticing again the broken statues which stood along the edges in the deeper shadows.  They had no heads.  Perpetua knew what was coming.

The darkness of the corridor opened up into the light of the arena, and the silence was replaced by the murmur of thousands of human voices.  The first time she had been brought here, they had roared with anger.  Now the volume barely rose as she entered and followed her guide to the centre of the arena.  Why did they keep coming here to see her?  From the noise they seemed uninterested.  She wished she could see their faces.

Perpetua's two escorts retreated, leaving her standing alone in the middle of the sand-covered floor of the vast arena.  She turned to face the far side, where there was another opening to another corridor.  She knew what to expect now.  After a few minutes the first one appeared.  She did not know how they moved or by what mechanism they were made to speak.  They appeared to be half-carved statues, but she knew that they were really ancient figures.  When first she came here they had been complete, and colourful - some beautiful, some gaudy, images of animals and people and things.  Now they looked weathered and indistinct, as if they had been exposed to the elements for centuries.  How long had it been?  How could they have changed so fast?

The voices had changed too, but not the demand.  The first time - the first hundred times - she had been here, the statues had spoken with varied voices, one seductive, one commanding, one pleading, but all with the same demand: 'worship me!'  Back then, she had proudly defied them.  Now she did not respond at all as the first mis-shapen thing ground its way towards her and uttered its demand, in a broken, hissing voice that seemed as weathered as the statue itself.  After a few seconds, as usual, the thing moved away from her to the edge of the arena.  Perpetua waited.  There would be another, and another.  Hundreds of broken statues, all with the same demand.  She would not listen.

Soon the edge of the open arena was lined with objects, all hissing together: worship us!  Perpetua waited for it to end.  It always ended.  But today seemed longer than usual, and the voices seemed to be rising higher.  She knew that nothing was served by speaking, and she tried to remain silent, but the hissing, creaking voices...  Why wouldn't they stop?  A cry burst from her.

'How can I worship you when I don't know what you are?  Do you even know what you are?  Are you anything at all?'

There was silence in the arena.  Absolute silence.

And then the two masked figures were there, one on either side of her.  They took an arm each, not too gently, and dragged her away, back to the door from which she had entered the arena.  The spectators made no sound; the broken statues were still. It was over for today.

As they reached the door to the cell, Perpetua glanced upward, as she always did.  Here on the outside, the lintel was also carved with one word: surely.

'Even so' she muttered as she passed underneath, and the heavy door swung shut behind her.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Over-selling church

One of the things that bothers me about Bonhoeffer's Sanctorum Communio is his thesis that when we are talking about the church we are talking about 'Christ existing as community'.  This leads him to say things like 'Christ... is present only in the church'.  This makes me pretty uncomfortable.

I suspect, although it would take a good deal more reading to prove it, that this a peculiarly Lutheran formulation.  Bonhoeffer does not mean that wherever a group of people gather together and decide to call themselves a church, there we have Christ.  At the heart of his conception is Word and sacrament.  Like a good Lutheran, for Bonhoeffer wherever the Word is preached and Holy Communion is administered, there is Christ - and therefore the community gathered around these things not only gathers around Christ, but actually is Christ: Christ existing as church-community.

I think this goes wrong theologically at two points.  Firstly, in terms of Christology, I think it is important to stress that although Christ is certainly present to and in his church in a way which he is not elsewhere, he is nevertheless a distinct person from his church.  Christ is one; the church is another.  No amount of emphasis on the spiritual union of Christ and the church (which I think is best described by reference to the Spirit, as below) overcomes this absolute distinction.  Moreover, despite this special presence in and to the church, Christ is in fact ascended - his body is in heaven - and exists there and not here,  I think it is hugely important that we say that the incarnation is one thing, and the presence of Christ with the church is another; the latter is not an extension of the former, because the incarnation doesn't need extending - Christ is still incarnate in glory.

Secondly, in terms of Pneumatology, I think the view which I am (perhaps mistakenly) attributing to Bonhoeffer does not take seriously enough the role of the Holy Spirit in making the Word and sacrament efficacious.  If Christ is present in and to his church, it is primarily by his Spirit, who ministers the Word and sacrament to us.  Christ is not bound to the ministry of his human servants in the church, but comes by the Spirit.  Whilst we look to the Word and to the sacrament as means by which Christ has promised to come, we must acknowledge that everything depends on the Spirit - and I would argue that also means we must recognise the possibility that the Spirit will move outside the church.

There is a practical problem here, as well.  It seems to me that Bonhoeffer's view is just one way of over-selling the church - making it more than it really is.  I think this view more or less divinises the church,  I sometimes think we do this in lots of different ways - make the community more important than it is.  Perhaps it's the pendulum thing again - in seeking to avoid the individualism of our culture, we've swung too far the other way.  This can be quite subtle.  It could be something as simple as language - for example, using the language of 'incarnation' to describe the church, giving the impression (even if this is not intended) that we think of Pentecost as sort of like a multi-site Christmas.  Or it might just be when we hold up the church community as evidence for the truth of the gospel - God must be at work, look at how much we love one another! - as if the real work weren't done and finished 2000 years ago.  Or just talking as if the very community life of the church was in itself transformative for the world - as if just getting people to taste church community would turn them into Christians.

I'd hate to be mis-read here.  Church is vital.  To become a Christian is to be united to Christ by his Spirit and therefore to be united to his community.  Local congregations of Christian believers are the primary means by which Christ nurtures his people and reaches the world.

But each congregation is human - all too human.  Just a bunch of people, having perhaps more in common than we would like to admit with any group of hobbyists or social club.  I worry that we set people up for disappointment by our overly effusive praise of church.  I worry that their disappointment will spill over into disappointment with God.  If we gather expectantly around the Word, well then we have something to show to the world - but it isn't us in any way.  It's Christ.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015


Suppose there is, ultimately, nobody coming to save us.  Suppose there is, at the end of the day, no absolute hope.  Suppose that when it comes down to it, all will end in oblivion.  Well, then, what need for renunciation and restraint in the present?  If that is the case: eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!

You can do what you want, have what you want, be what you want.  No holding back.  The only price is giving up any shred of meaning, any shred of hope, any last vestige of significance.

It makes sense, and of course if you are convinced that this is how reality is, this is how you'll live - one way or another.  It may not look like unbridled excess; that might not be what you want.  But it will mean self-indulgence, even perhaps the self-indulgence of frugality, even perhaps the self-indulgence of generosity and genuine love.  Nothing means anything, and there is no hope: so why not just live for yourself and the things that you choose to value in the fleeting moment which you have - as you make your way all too quickly from darkness into darkness.

It makes sense.

I just don't understand why so many people seem so cheerful about it.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Waiting, hoping, and just saying no

Advent is obviously about waiting.  In so far as it is about waiting, it is also about hoping.  Christian waiting is not a vague sense that something might happen and we'd better stick around for it.  It is the knowledge that the Son of God who came once to bear the sins of many will return to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.  That is a certain hope, and it is that hope which informs the character of our waiting.  It is not quite the anticipation of a child waiting for Christmas - there is more solemnity to it than that, because we know the gravity of the event for which we wait.  Neither is it the frustrated waiting of the man waiting for the bus - we know that Christ is not being held up anywhere, or delayed by anything beyond his will and control.  And again, it is not the bored waiting of the woman who just wants this meeting to end - because the person for whom we wait demands that as we wait we also work, joyfully in his service.

It is a waiting coloured by hope, a waiting which takes on the character of the event for which it waits, a waiting which builds in us the character of the one for whom we wait.  It is solemn and joyful and resting and confident and active.

And it teaches us to say no.

It is not popular nowadays to point out that Christianity involves a lot of renouncing, a lot of self-limiting, a lot of saying 'no'.  Some of that is saying no to things which are bad and destructive, but an awful lot of it is also saying no to things which, in themselves, are good and legitimate enjoyments, but which are not right for us now.  It is sacrificing present enjoyment for the future hope.  Whether it is the 'no' to food of the Christian committed to fasting, or the 'no' to sex of the Christian committed to celibacy, or the millions of other little 'noes' that build up, this is a life of renunciation.  It is a life of denial.  And that is okay.  Because of the hope.  All of this saying 'no' is, in one sense, just waiting - deferring enjoyment and pleasure until he comes.

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015


To be a Christian is to be in favour of peace.  We follow a Lord who is called the Prince of Peace.  We look forward to the day when swords will be exchanged for ploughshares, and every implement of war will be destroyed  The logic of the gospel demands this stance.  Christ himself is our peace, having reconciled us to God and therefore to one another.  God brings peace, not by making war on his enemies, but by giving himself in the person of his Son to die for his enemies.  Blessed are the peacemakers - they shall be called sons of God.

There is a strong tradition of Christian pacifism which follows this line in the gospel narrative and concludes that principled non-violence is a necessary part of Christian discipleship.  I have a lot of respect for this tradition.  I think it stands on an important truth: that violence is not the ultimate solution to anything.  Moreover, it highlights a vital and thrilling part of the Christian hope: that there will, one day, be peace.

Personally, I am not a pacifist, but belong to what has historically been the majority Christian position: the just war tradition, which maintains that under certain circumstances, and with certain objectives, military action can be right and justified.  I am not a pacifist for Biblical, theological, and ethical reasons.

Biblically, I think you can't argue that war is and always has been wrong in every circumstance without cutting out big chunks of the Old Testament.  And I don't think you can argue that war is wrong in every circumstance in the Christian era without denigrating the Old Testament.  I also want to take seriously the fact that the state has a legitimate right to the sword.

Theologically, I think the pacifist position represents an overly realised eschatology.  That is to say, I think it doesn't take seriously enough the fact that the world is still dominated by the present evil age.  Moreover, I think there is a naivety here about human sin.  The pacifist tends to assume that we should be able to find a peaceful solution to every problem.  Of course we should try, but in a world of sinful people there will be conflict.

Ethically, I fear that pacifism often involves leaving the innocent to suffer whilst we stand aloof.  I think if often means preserving our own righteousness whilst hoping other people will do our dirty work.  I am not prepared in any way to concede that pacifism holds the ethical high ground.

So I am a macro-pacifist.  I believe in peace.  I do not believe that any problems can be ultimately solved through violence.  And yet I do believe that in certain circumstances war is necessary in the context of seeking peace.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Being really awful

One of the things that I find most important about Christianity is that it allows me to admit that I am a really poor excuse for a human being.  Before you leap to my defence (which was your instinct, right?) I should say that you, too, are an awful, awful person.  I'm not exaggerating.  I'm sure that you, like me, have regularly had that experience of knowing exactly the morally right thing to do, and yet doing something else altogether - sometimes without even really knowing why.  Most of the time we brush that off - just a one off, a thing that happened.  But it happens quite often, doesn't it?  And what sort of a person are you - what sort of a person am I - if I deliberately avoid the good?  Those choices don't speak well of our inner being.

It's not just ethics either.  Like me, you have all sorts of opportunities to do good, exciting, fun, significant things with your life.  Like me, I bet you don't do most of them.  Maybe out of laziness, maybe out of fear, maybe just distracted by all the nonsense with which we've filled our lives.  We've got life - actual, real life - and what's more, uniquely, we know we've got it.  What sort of people are we to waste that?

And then there's just that nagging feeling that everything isn't right between you and the universe.  I'm slightly on a limb here, because we don't talk about this stuff as much, but I'm betting that you, like me, know what it means to feel not-at-home even when you are home.  I'm guessing you know what it means to have that discomfort verging on anxiety for no apparent reason.  It's like we don't really know how to be ourselves, when it comes down to it.

We're just really awful human beings.

Now, I think I know how the secular non-Christian ought to answer this.  He or she ought to point out that we are, after all, just very advanced animals, with only a lot of luck and a little bit of achievement separating us from the rest of the beasts.  Nothing means anything, we don't mean anything.  We are, at the end of the day, only pretending to be people anyway.  The only flaw we have - if we have one - is that we perversely hold ourselves to standards of ethical behaviour and existential peace which we don't extend to badgers and wolves.

Most people don't go down this logical but chilling route.  Most people instead choose to stand their ground and assert that in actual fact they are quite good (and if they're feeling generous, they might throw in that hey, you're not so bad either, and don't be so hard on yourself...)

This is frankly ludicrous.

What a relief to admit what would surely be patently obvious to any unbiased witness, if we could only find such a one: that we are utterly bankrupt, failures in almost every respect, turning even our triumphs into burdens we cannot bear.  We are real people gone really wrong, out of step with ourselves and with all of reality.  We are colossally guilty, guilty of the greatest crimes, all of us together and without exception.

What a relief to get it out in the open.

And then -

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Anyone want to throw me out an amen?

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Calendar

I've been using the church calendar as the main guide for my devotions for four years now, so I guess I have to admit it's no longer an experiment and is now just my usual practice.  So as this is the last Sunday of the year, here are some notes.  You'll notice that I've become quite enthusiastic.

Firstly a qualification: I'm following the Anglican lectionary, and therefore get caught up in all kinds of feasts and festivals which I could happily do without.  If I were to commend the calendar to evangelicals outside the Anglican tradition (and I would), I'd want to strip it down a bit.  Get rid of all the saints, minimise the number of feasts that don't relate directly to the life of Christ.  I think the following seasons, fasts, and feasts ought to be sufficient:

Holy Week
All Saints

I'm keeping Trinity and All Saints (the only ones not directly relating to the gospel story) because I think they potentially keep important truths in view which would otherwise be lost.

So why would I commend this scheme?

Primarily because it keeps the gospel on our minds.  We're always re-treading the story of Christ, remembering him, living our lives in the context of his work.  (Think about it - the calendar provides the context for life; a secular calendar puts life in a secular context, and a Jesus-shaped calendar in the context of the gospel).  Christians are people with new lives, and I think it helps to mark time in a new way.

Secondarily because it provides teaching opportunities.  Can I be honest and say that I don't think I've ever heard a sermon explicitly dealing with the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, or the Ascension of Christ, or the Trinity?  Of course those things have come up, but the exegetical and sequential preaching of contemporary evangelicalism (whilst having much to commend it) means we're much less likely to get this sort of doctrinal preaching.  I'm sure that leaves dangerous holes in people's knowledge and faith.

As an aside, there is still a whole lot of Ordinary Time in the calendar which can be given over to this sort of preaching - at least half the year.  And obviously the seasonal preaching could, and should, still be expository and possibly sequential as well.

Thirdly, and this one contains a bit of a grumble, I do feel that evangelicalism can become dangerously self-obsessed.  The most important things easily become the big events in our congregational life rather than the events of the gospel, and the notices take on more significance than the worship.  Might not the church calendar give us an opportunity to take our eyes off our programmes and focus them on Jesus?

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Paris, and Nonsense

When terrible things happen, we all tend to react in a knee-jerk way.  Often our reactions are not sensible.  In fact, they are nonsense.  Here are just a few nonsense reactions to the Islamist attacks on Paris.

There is a sort of right-wing response which says 'the values of our society - which are also universally valid values - are under attack, and we must fight to defend them'.  This is nonsense because western culture has been running hell for leather in the direction of moral relativism for decades.  You can't have your cake and eat it.  You can't on the one hand destroy all moral absolutes, and then on the other hand claim that your 'values' are universal.  What are these universal values?  If they are really so universal, why must we fight to show other people how jolly right they are?  Who are we planning to fight, anyway?

There is a sort of left-wing response which says 'this is not an ideological or religious attack - this has nothing to do with Islam - it's just a bunch of nutters'.  This is nonsense, and patronising nonsense to boot, because it claims the right to ignore the stated motivations of the attackers.  As uncomfortable as it is for people in the liberal west to face up to this, the murderous followers of ISIS have a good claim to represent a coherent interpretation of Islam.  It is of course not the only interpretation, but none the less there can be no doubt: this attack was driven by religion.  We only want to deny it because we can't believe anyone would take their metaphysical beliefs so seriously.

There is a (more) right-wing response which says 'Muslims are out to get us'.  This is nonsense because it ignores the fact that the overwhelming majority of Muslims do not in any way subscribe to the interpretation of Islam which drives these attacks.  The majority of Muslims, like the majority of people, want to live in peace and are happy to let everyone else live in peace.  Only a fool would imagine that he can paint realistic pictures with a foot-wide brush.  Those broad brush strokes only make for nonsense.

There are mirror responses on the left and the right about victimhood.  On the right people tend to say 'we - the west - are innocent victims defending ourselves against terror'.  This is nonsense in a very particular way.  The people killed in Paris were indeed innocent victims of terror.  But we as a society are absolutely caught up in a web of international relations which victimizes others across the world, politically, culturally, and economically.  Our hands are not clean.  On the left people tend to say 'they - the Islamists - are victims driven to these acts by our oppression'.  This is nonsense because once again it ignores the attackers stated motivations, and because it implies some sort of moral justification which just isn't there.

All of this nonsense has seeds of truth in it, but I do think we should work harder to get those seeds to grow...

Saturday, November 14, 2015


Psalm 139 is regularly read in church services.  It's a beautiful celebration of humanity as created and sustained by God.  It's a wonderful reassurance that God's great design stands behind each human being, and that his awesome presence accompanies each human life.  Where we are perhaps ready to see the flaws in each other and in ourselves, the Psalm encourages us to view each person as "fearfully and wonderfully made".  Where I tend to feel alone, the Psalm lifts my eyes to see that wherever I am and whatever my circumstances, God's "right hand shall hold me".  No wonder the Psalm gets so much airtime.

But then you hit verse 19.  Oh, that you would slay the wicked, O God!

The reading often skips this bit out.  How can this verse sit alongside the beautiful sentiments of the rest of the Psalm?  How can we affirm on the one hand that God knows each human life intimately, but on the other hand pray that God would smite the wicked?

But there is no conflict here.  It is precisely because of the value of life that the Psalmist cries out against the wicked.  The wicked are "men of blood", those who stand against God's good intention, those who oppose life.  And they are strong, and they are bold, and mere human beings cannot stop them.

Therefore, oh, that you would slay the wicked, O God!

Now, with New Testament lenses on, we can see that this prayer is ultimately answered, not in the death of any number of wicked people, but in the death of wickedness itself  at the cross of Christ.  And yet...  May we not still hand over the wicked, whose power is beyond us, to God - the just judge?  Should we not ask the Judge to enforce justice?  I think perhaps we should.

Love of life - the life created by God - must mean enmity to everything that stands for death, and in that battle our weapon is prayer.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Common prayer

I am currently reading Bonhoeffer's Sanctorum Communio, and finding it both quite hard going (it is, after all, a proper academic thesis, and a German one to boot - though I am reading in English!) and also very stimulating.  It is a study of the church, and whilst there is a lot in it that I disagree with - including some of the more fundamental ideas, I think - there is also much that has made me think.  Here is an example of something that has got me thinking (from p 188f):

"For the church it is... critically important to assign corporate prayer the central place it deserves.  Leading a single life, the church must also have and practice one common prayer."

Common prayer is critically important because prayer in the church is "individuals organizing themselves to realize the divine will for others, to serve the realization of God's rule in the church community".  Corporate prayer is "a God given means for realizing God's purpose".  As such - and here Bonhoeffer quotes Luther - "the Christian church on earth has no greater power or work against everything that may oppose it than such common prayer.  Prayer is 'unconquerable'".

I confess that the main reason this struck me is because I am very aware that common prayer is not so regarded in the churches with which I am most familiar.  Of course, in Anglican circles this idea and practice of the church praying together - having a common prayer life - is very strong, being represented by the shared liturgy.  It was strong, too, in a different way, in the churches in which I grew up, where it took the form of the mid-week prayer meeting, and of the long extempore pastoral prayer in the Sunday service.  Neither model is free from danger - of formalism, or performance, or whatever - but that life of common prayer was there.

In the sorts of church with which I am most familiar, the main locus for prayer has moved away from Sunday services and whole-church meetings, and into small pastoral groups and special interest groups.  There is some virtue in prayer in these settings - honesty and intimacy is encouraged, for example - but I think something is also lost.  My observation is that when the small group prays, it tends to bring the prayer requests of individuals, but not of the church.  The prayer life of the church, in this model, is in danger of becoming just the aggregated prayer lives of its members; that is to say, there is no real common prayer.  Might this be why we see little evidence of the church "leading a single life"?

A couple of thoughts on how to move forward:

1.  We need to get over the idea that I can only be included in something if I am doing it.  I think one of the things I struggled with in the model of extempore prayer practised in my childhood churches was that I didn't identify with the person praying.  It didn't feel, to me, like corporate prayer, but like listening in to someone else's individual prayer.  I tend now to think that this was largely my problem. Being an individualist at heart, and essentially valuing what I did for myself over what others did for me, it was always going to be hard to get on board with this.  We need to teach about corporate prayer, and then make sure we're modelling it.

2.  We need to learn how to lead in prayer.  It's not the same as praying privately.  Those of us who lead church services need to make sure that they are services of prayer as well as worship and preaching.  We need to bathe in the Psalms more, and we need to appreciate the historic liturgies of the church more.  We need to be willing to pray big prayers - the prayers of the church, not just our individual prayers.  I wonder how much of that is about confidence?  In which case, we need to reflect more on the intercession of Christ.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Too Gritty

Back in the day, I was a Relay worker, which means I worked for a year as a volunteer alongside the Christian Union in Cambridge.  It was, in retrospect, a great time, although I made a mess of it in many ways.  But at the time it felt hard.  Really hard.  At the end of the year, we had a session where everyone stood up (there were about sixty of us, I think) and in turn gave a report on how the year had been.  Turns out lots of people had had a hard year.  There were tears.  Yours truly cried like a baby.  I remember about half way through the session one of the leaders saying something like 'if you've had a good year, you are allowed to say so!'

I've been wondering about the way we talk about the Christian life.  My guess is that we're at one end of a pendulum swing.  Used to be that you couldn't really express doubts, or talk about how hard you were finding the life of faith.  Everyone in church was meant to smile.  No doubt that was pretty unhealthy.  Nowadays, it's the opposite.  You read Christian blogs or just listen to sermons, and you'll hear a lot of 'wrestling', a lot of agonising, a lot of honesty about how hard things are.  But I wonder if maybe we've gone a bit far (as the pendulum has a tendency to do).  I wonder if it's become as hard to have simply joy in Christ as it used to be to express doubts and struggles.

If you've had a good week, you are allowed to say so!

The concern is that this new culture is just as damaging as the old one, in a subtly different way.  Doubts and struggles which are not expressed grow and grow.  In that old culture, no doubt repressed difficulties thrived underground and eventually destroyed many Christians.  But joy and delight that is not expressed actually shrinks and withers.  In the new culture, I worry that our lack of expression of joy will eventually make it impossible for us even to experience joy.

Can I recommend one small and seemingly insignificant step that has been making a big difference to me?  I've been changing my music choices and putting on some of the Christian music I used to listen to back when I was a student.  You know the stuff.  It's cheerful, it's bouncy, it's full of Jesus.  The temptation now is to write it off as hopelessly naive, and certainly it doesn't give the whole picture.  But it might help to nudge the pendulum back towards the centre a little.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

How imagery doesn't work

Jesus Christ is the Head of his Body. His Body is the Church.

That pair of images is used to bring out a number of truths in the New Testament.  For example, the truth that Christ directs his church as the head directs the body, and the truth that Christ is intimately connected to his church.  Or within the church itself, the truth that each person is intimately related to each other person as different parts of the same body, and the truth that each has a particular role within the organic whole. The images work because they appeal to something which we understand and of which have experience.  The images speak to us far more deeply and clearly than bare language (in so far as there is such a thing) ever could.

But the danger is that we let the image control the idea. We might conclude, for example, that because a head is as dependent on a body as a body is on a head, that Christ and his church stand in a reciprocal relationship of dependency. That won't do. Or we might construe the link between Christ and the church organically, as somehow natural, because this suits the image. We might then imagine that the church is in some way a continuation of the incarnation - after all, a head is only present with (and perhaps through) a body, so maybe Christ is present only in and through the church.

The image is illuminating in its original connection, in its right place in the argument. It is not therefore legitimate to develop it any which way, or to deploy it in wholly different contexts and arguments. Then it may well be only deceptive.

The image lives from the reality, and not vice versa.

Friday, October 23, 2015

One-way traffic

So, reality is Jesus-shaped.  I want to say that in as unqualified a manner as possible, without any hedging or quibbling.  I take it to be a foundational truth - perhaps the foundational truth - that everything is about, and revolves around, Jesus Christ.

But now let me qualify our experience of that.

My qualification comes in the form of traffic direction.  When we are talking about Jesus and reality, our thinking needs to follow the one-way system.  We move from Jesus of Nazareth - his life, death, resurrection, and ascension - to reality.  Jesus and his story is the first stop, and from that we can make interpretive moves in the direction of the world.  We cannot move the other direction.  We cannot start with reality and make interpretive moves in the direction of Jesus.

The point is interpretive control.  We may, and must, interpret our experience of reality in the light of Christ, and as we do so we will not be surprised to find his story reflected there.  We may not, and must not, interpret Christ in the light of our experience of reality.

The reason is the cross.  The story tells us that Jesus the Christ died in the place of a sinful world; and that in his death, the world itself died.  As a Christian, the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.  That means that I can no longer interpret my own experience of the world in a straight-forward way.  The story tells me that I, the interpreter, have died.  It tells me that the world, the interpreted, has died.  Moreover, it tells me that I do not know what the world will finally be, or what I myself will finally be.  All my experience is provisional, even my self-experience.

The story tells me that I don't have access to the world as it ought to be, or as it was made to be.  Nor do I have access to myself as I ought to be and will be.  My whole experience of the world stands under the sign of the cross - my experience, with the world itself, is judged and condemned, in order to be raised at the last day.  Then I will know what it was all about.  Now I can only know Jesus, and the world in him and through his death and resurrection.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Jesus and reality

Reality is Jesus-shaped.

That really struck me a couple of weeks ago as I was preparing to talk about Christian views of sexuality.  (You can find the audio here should you so desire).  Reality is Jesus shaped.  By that I mean that the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth both undergird reality, and that the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth shape reality.  Here is part of Colossians 1:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.  And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  And he is the head of the body, the church.  He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent.  For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven,making peace by the blood of his cross.
Note, first of all, the subject of this paragraph.  It is Jesus Christ.  Specifically, it is the man Jesus Christ.  There is no room in this paragraph for a fleshless Logos.  He is the one who shed his blood on the cross, the one who was firstborn from the dead, and - most decisively - the one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.  We are talking here about Jesus of Nazareth.

But then note that it is through and for him that all things exist.  He is before all things.  He holds everything together.  Paul is not expounding some sort of odd theory about the eternal pre-existence of Jesus' human nature (although some others have done just that).  He is saying that the eternal Son of God created the universe as the one who would enter that universe and as the one for whose incarnation that universe exists.  The universe is about Jesus; it is about the coming into the world of the incarnate Son of God.

Which means that the central story of the universe - the beating heart of reality - is the good news of Jesus' death and resurrection.  That event is what reality is all about.  And that event shapes reality.

The more I think about it, the more I think it's vitally important for our churches to get this right.  If we forget that reality is about Jesus, our religion may become disconnected from life.  We will just be a club, holding our distinctive beliefs - perhaps very sincerely - and carrying out our worship - possibly with great devotion - but without any of it really touching real life.  We will lose contact with the world, and be unable to communicate our message (I say this as if it were hypothetical; of course, sadly it is not).  We will not know how to speak as Christians into the different situations of the world, because we do not understand that those situations are already part of a reality that is driven by the gospel.  Our theology will stop being about articulating the gospel in the language and culture of today, and become merely a repeating of the Bible.  And our lives will become barren because only 'spiritual' things will be valued.

The end result of a massive disconnect like this can only be that we will abandon the faith (because reality is so much more... real - and Jesus doesn't seem to have anything to do with it), or we will abandon the world (because Jesus is so much more important, and he doesn't seem to have anything to do with reality).  We will become atheists or pietists.

And neither will do.  Because it is all about him.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Giving Yourself

The good news is that God gives himself to us.  He gives himself in the sacrifice of his Son; he gives himself in the outpouring of the Spirit.  He gives himself as price, ransoming the lost, and he gives himself as presence, drawing near to the ransomed.  It is God himself who is given, and no lesser gift.  But...  God does not give himself away.  There is no risk of him losing himself in all this giving.  He is not conditioned by his giving; rather, the recipient of the gift is conditioned by his receiving of the gift.  Even as he goes to the cross, God gives himself, does not give himself away.  He remains the giver, not the one from whom anything is taken.

In Trinitarian terms, perhaps we might say that God the Father is supremely the guarantee that God does not lose control over his giving.  He gives himself in his Son and his Spirit, but he, in his own Person, remains always the giver even in his given-ness.

It is different for us.  We can hardly give ourselves without giving ourselves away.  To give ourselves is to lose ourselves; ultimately, the martyr loses himself - gives himself away.  But it is so in every little act of love.  We give ourselves, and in giving we lose ourselves.  We give ourselves away.  We are conditioned by our giving.  We diminish.

That is why the only key to radical self-giving is the remembrance that we are in the hand of the God who holds onto us even as we give ourselves away, and regathers all of the pieces of us that we have - at his command! - freely distributed and scattered throughout our lives in acts of self-giving love (and indeed without his command, in sinful acts of illegitimate attachment).  Without the promise that he, the giver who is not given away, holds onto us, how can we dare to give ourselves away?

Without the resurrection, how could we dare to let go of ourselves?

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Electing love

"As this freely electing love the love of God for us is unconditional, strong and victorious.

It is a burning fire which cannot be quenched.

It is wholly trustworthy.

It is a rock to which we can cling without fear of its crumbling.

It is a refuge to which we can flee without doubting whether it will stand.

It is nourishment which is always prepared for those who hunger and thirst for love, and never withheld from them.

We have only to see that we are not worthy of it, that we have forfeited it, that we cannot secure it of and for ourselves, that we can only receive and accept it.  We can only long and trust that God is the freely electing God for us, and that we ourselves are freely elected by Him.  We then participate already in the unconditional nature and strength and victory of the love of God, in its sovereignty which consists in the fact that God is absolutely free to love man first irrespective of what he deserves or does not deserve.

We then find that we are loved by Him, and therefore genuinely, basically and effectively."

CD IV/2, p 767 (with my formatting)

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Angels in the architecture

Thank you, Father, that because of the victorious sacrifice of Jesus the angels are victorious in heaven and Satan is driven out.

Thank you, Father, that because of the victorious sacrifice of Jesus repentance is granted to sinners and we may rejoice with the rejoicing angels.

Thank you, Father, that because of the victorious sacrifice of Jesus we, like and with the innumerable angels, look forward to seeing you forever.

Thank you, Father, that because of the victorious sacrifice of Jesus all things are being brought together under him, and we and all the holy angels will be united in one family to the praise of your glorious grace.

Thank you, Father, that because of the victorious sacrifice of Jesus we can expect to be sinless like the angels, rejoicing forever with them.

Thank you, Father, that because of the victorious sacrifice of Jesus the angelic ministers of your grace are present with us to rescue even now.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Some good

I think it was Bonhoeffer who first sparked off the thought in me.  In Ethics (p339ff.) he discusses the appeal of the gospel to good people.  In tidier, more together, more legalistic times, he suggests, it is the publicans and sinners who find themselves in the vicinity of the church; but when things fall apart it is good people who find themselves there. "In times that are out of joint, when lawlessness and wickedness arrogantly triumph, the gospel will instead demonstrate itself in the few remaining figures who are just, truthful, and humane".  I wonder if we might be approaching just such a time.  As the tide of the new barbarism rises, might it be time for the church to acknowledge and reach out to all those of good spirit, who will perhaps find themselves surprisingly close to her despite their basic antipathy to her message?

Of course Bonhoeffer is not questioning, and I am not questioning, that the ultimate word about each of us in all our relative good and evil is that we are sinners who are redeemed only by the death of Christ.  But there are nevertheless many penultimate words which are spoken in our lives, words which are good or bad, and despite our common misery there are nevertheless shades of light and darkness.  The question for Bonhoeffer, and I think for us, is just how we apply the gospel to those who are, relatively, good, in the midst of a culture that has lost all its ethical bearings.

I do wonder whether, for starters, we might need to think about how we talk about sin.  Our talk about sin is so very often ethical in a way that is unhelpful.  Because people in the world tend to think of sin as 'doing bad things', we only add to confusion when we use ethical standards to talk about sin.  Moreover, we blur all those relative differences.  In our rush to say that all are sinners in need of salvation (which we must say and cannot say too often), we are heard to say that everyone is ethically just as bad as their neighbour.  Since this is manifestly not true, the point misses its target and nobody is convicted.  Moreover, in setting ourselves in this way against both the good and the bad, we come across as indifferent to whether people are 'just, truthful, humane' or not.  Sometimes I worry whether that is because we are in fact indifferent...

Let us rather say that all the goodness in the world and in individuals is orphaned goodness.  It springs from Christ, as all good things do, but it is disconnected from him, and therefore powerless both to stand against evil in the world in any ultimate way, or even to defend itself from the corruption which threatens it.  Goodness without Christ is powerless to prevent itself from becoming self-righteousness; purity without Christ is powerless to prevent itself becoming pride...

The wise gospel preacher will not hesitate to say that it is sin - the ontological and relational alienation from God caused by our species-wide and yet all too individual rebellion against him - which has left this ethical goodness orphaned and pathetic in a world of evil (the world out there and indeed the world 'in here').  The invitation, then, to the good person is to see the good in the world, and in themselves, in the light of the cross: only at the cross could this good be secured and won; only at the foot of the cross can it begin to make sense in a world gone wrong.  Repentance, then, is not from the good, but towards the very source of the good - and therefore away from dead self, which even when it brings forth good is in the very midst of evil.

After all, there are many who say "who will show us some good?"

Thursday, September 03, 2015


The thing I struggle with - the thing that today is hard to take - is that life just goes on.  Last night I mowed the lawn, and watched the Bake Off, and children died crossing the sea.  Today I will sit in the office, and sort out my spreadsheets, and children will die.  Isn't it obscene that we all just carry on?  Isn't it appalling that we get on with our lives?

I mean, what is that about?

Of course it has to be that way.  Of course it does.  The show must go on.  But maybe, just maybe, every now and again, the show can just stop.  Stop and acknowledge that everything is really, seriously messed up.

There are practical things we can do - and goodness knows I need to do more.  I genuinely worry that one day I will hear a voice say 'son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while this little boy washed up dead on the beach'.  Yes, there is stuff I need to do.

But what I really want to do is just make everyone stop.  Because the juxtaposition of ordinary life and horrific suffering is more than I can bear.  Please, can't we just stop?  Can't we all see the obscenity of it all?

So here is one thing I will do.  On this coming Monday, I will fast and mourn and pray - because we should, shouldn't we?  Of course, life will go on, but I will do something to mark what is happening, and I will repent of my part in it, and pray for change.  I will fast, because enjoying good things right now seems obscene to me.  Ordinarily that's something I would do in private, but maybe - perhaps - you feel the need to stop as well, and you'd like to join me.

Now, as a final thought, imagine this post liberally scattered with expletives.  That's how I wrote it, and how I read it back to myself now in my head.  But I deleted them all so as not to offend sensitive readers.  And isn't that just obscene as well?

Wednesday, September 02, 2015


Blogger tells me this is my 400th shiny ginger thought. It's nice that they keep track of these things. I'm moderately surprised that I've kept at it, especially during the years when I barely mentioned a couple of posts a month (I'm looking at you, 2013). But here we are: 101 months after we started. 400 posts. Reading back, I'm pleased to see that there's not ever so much I would un-write, given the chance, although there is plenty that I would write in a different way if I were doing it now. Glancing over the reading stats, I'm always surprised to find that posts which I think are both well written and profound, tackling important issues, often attract much less attention than things I rushed off one morning with very little reflection at all. Perhaps I just don't know what is really important. Perhaps I just haven't communicated it very well.

Anyway, by way of a review, here is a sort of summary of some of the big themes of the last 400 posts.

1. Karl Barth. I was just getting going with Barth, really, back in the day, but he made his first appearance on the blog in April 2007. Over the last 8 years he has gradually edged out John Owen as my go-to theologian - not that I don't still love a bit of Owen. It is just that Barth seems to speak into today with much more power. I explained the main reason I love him back in 2013 - "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..."

2.  Politics.  I've written more about politics than I originally envisaged.  One of the interesting things for me, reading back, is that I've definitely shifted - fairly recently - from a thorough-going conservatism to something more of a middling liberalism.  I am still basically an old-school Tory in my heart, but increasingly I feel that conservatism really requires a society with a shared value system and a common story, and we don't have either; moreover, the clumsy attempts to create and enforce a shared value system have terrified me.  For the society we are, rather than the society I would love us to be, I think liberalism is probably the only way we can avoid imploding.

3.  Anthropology and ethics.  Perhaps slightly less dominant themes, but still taking up more space than I would have predicted back in 2007.  Back then I imagined I was more 'into' theology proper.  Now I tend to think that the point at which Christian doctrine is most challenged - and most ill-equipped and poorly-prepared to meet the challenge - is at the point of discussing what a human being is and what they ought to do.  Sexuality is of course one big arena, but it's actually much wider than that.  I wonder if one of the big themes of gospel proclamation in the near future will need to be that the gospel, and only the gospel, makes us really and truly human - and therefore safeguards all our genuine human concerns.

4.  Church and worship.  I guess largely driven by my move away from parachurch being my primary sphere of ministry as I finished working with UCCF in 2009, and then by involvement as an elder in the church, I've been thinking a lot about what church is and how it ought to do the things it ought to do.  This is ongoing work in a big way, and I'm aware that less of it has gone into practice than I would like.

And there have been lots more.  I was trying to pick some favourite posts, but struggled.  The most read and most commented on post remains my review of a friend's book on Zionism - boy, that was a fun couple of days!  That's a post I would have written differently today - I think I would have been stronger and yet softer, if possible.

So anyway, 400.  At this rate it will be 2023 before we get 400 more...

Friday, August 21, 2015

Jesus, justifier and sanctifier

In Church Dogmatics IV/2 p499f. Barth deals with the relationship between justification (God's declaration that those who trust in Christ are righteous) and sanctification (God's separation of those who trust in Christ to be holy and live out holiness).  It's one of the most practically important issues in theology, and one where I think we have a lot to learn.

Barth takes us back to Chalcedon, and the relationship between the two natures - divine and human - of Christ.  The two natures are undivided but also unconfused.  That is to say, they cannot be separated, but neither can they be merged.  Christ's divinity is never without his humanity, and vice versa - but his divinity is not his humanity, and his humanity is not his divinity.  For Barth this has direct bearing on the question of justification and sanctification, because the architecture of his doctrine of reconciliation works like this: Christ as the God who humbles himself is the justifier; Christ as the man who is exalted is the sanctifier.  In his one action - which takes in his whole life, death, resurrection, and ascension - Jesus the God-man is Christ the justifier-sanctifier.

The dangers of confusing justification and sanctification exist on both sides.  If justification is merged into sanctification, as Barth suggests occurs in much Roman Catholic teaching, then faith in Christ will disappear into the works of the Christian, and Christian confidence in the gift of righteousness given in Christ will be lost.  If sanctification is merged into justification, the necessity of good works may be lost in a one-sided emphasis on the judicial verdict of God.

On the other hand, the danger of separating justification and sanctification looms on both sides.  To think of justification without sanctification is to imagine that God's declaration of righteousness does not actually lead to holiness; it thus imagines a strange asymmetry in God's work.  A God on the one hand concerned with righteousness to the point of giving his Son is on the other hand unconcerned with human behaviour.  But to think of sanctification without justification is to think an impossibility, since sanctification means walking in confident obedience before God, and this simply cannot be without a firm assurance springing from the verdict of righteousness pronounced in Jesus.  How, after all, could I be joyfully obedient when even my obedience is so obviously inadequate?

I think probably the great danger in the sorts of churches I know is that justification and sanctification are both preached, but they are preached in isolation.  My observation is that the gospel is often taken to mean justification, whilst sanctification is perhaps thought of as a more or less distant consequence of the gospel.  In practice, that means that when we preach obedience it often seems disconnected from the gospel.  It is not then surprising that some in our churches treat any preaching of the need for action as legalism and anti-gospel, because of course even the right preaching of the right actions is indeed anti-gospel in so far as it proceeds from an autonomous principle of obedience rather than the gospel.

The answer, I think, is to see with Barth that justification and sanctification are one in Christ, both achieved by him in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.  This means talking about Jesus as much when we are discussing the need for, and motivation and power for, human obedience as we do when we are discussing the gift of righteousness.

Monday, August 17, 2015

He is (fiercely) good

The kids are staying with Gran and Grandad for a couple of days.  Yesterday as we prayed we entrusted them to God - not that one expects anything terrible to happen at Gran and Grandad's house!  But just because we are not often apart from them, and when we are it is a reminder that we need to pray for them.

Entrust them to God.  Put them in his hands.  Trust that his love for them is greater than ours.

What is really hard about that is knowing that entrusting them to God, who is utterly trustworthy, will not necessarily mean that they will avoid some of the things we would like them to avoid, or have all the things we might like them to have.  It does not necessarily mean they won't be taken from us before we're ready (will we ever be?), or that they won't be led through hard and bitter times.  It does not mean that they will have straightforward careers, or romances, or financial security.

It just means that we trust that God is good and will do them good.

When I struggle with this, it is because God's goodness is so much stronger, and his love so much more penetrating, than mine.  He will do good, even if it hurts.  He will love, even if that love looks like breaking us.  I realise that at some level I don't want that for my children.  I realise I don't want it for myself.  I am comfortable with a nice, middle-class, not-too-extreme goodness.  I like it when people seek my good, so long as they are not intrusive about it.  I enjoy sensible, middle-class love, which doesn't impose itself or go beyond the boundaries I set for it.

In short, I like others to be good and loving to me so long as that leaves me pretty much as it found me and doesn't threaten my sense of comfort and self-satisfaction too much.

The goodness of God is so much fiercer than I can handle!  The love of God is so much deeper than I can fathom!  He wants to - is determined to - do me good, as defined by his all-knowing wisdom.  He wants to - and in Christ has given everything to - show me love, the kind of love that completely reshapes the loved in the beautiful image of the lover.  He wants to make me holy and righteous and good and bring me into his presence forever; I want him to make me comfortable and happy and good-ish and make me secure in myself for now.  I want his goodness and love to scale themselves down to my terms.

Instead, I am given Jesus.  And he is good.  And I can entrust myself and my children to him.  Because he is love.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Waking up

David is quite excited about waking up:
I lay down and slept;
I woke again, for the Lord sustained me.
On a couple of occasions he welcomes in the dawn with praise.  What is so exciting about a new day?  I don't think David even had access to coffee.  What did the morning have to offer him?

I suppose the key thing is that David has been asleep.  Being asleep is the state of least control.  Awake, David may be King and have followers at his beck and call.  Asleep, he is absolutely vulnerable.  Sleep is like a temporary death.  So waking up is like... a resurrection?

The morning brings fresh mercies.  The death of sleep has wiped out the sin of yesterday - but to rise from that sleep takes a new act of mercy.  Putting yesterday to death doesn't necessarily lead to tomorrow.  Fresh mercy, new life.

But fresh mercies are crowded out pretty quickly by fresh struggles, fresh disappointments, fresh sins, fresh troubles.  Fresh, but old.  They seem new, but they belong to yesterday's yesterdays.  Not yet new, not totally.  Morning becomes afternoon, and we long for sleep - to put the day with all its mess to bed.  To die, to sleep.

And yet every moment could be a morning, rich with new mercy, springing unexpected from the grave of just now, the grave dug by Christ with his own cruciform shovel.

That is why it says:

“Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

Monday, August 10, 2015


Sometimes sin is described in Scripture as a rebellion, a terrible insurrection, a rising up against God.  But sometimes it is not that.  Sometimes "sin is merely banal and ugly and loathsome", having nothing of that human (and damnable) pride and self-confidence, but only the failure to act, only the resolute determination to be nothing and do nothing.  "The sinner is not merely Prometheus or Lucifer.  He is also - and for the sake of clarity and to match the grossness of the matter, we will use rather popular expressions - a lazy-bones, a sluggard, a good-for-nothing, a slow-coach and a loafer" (CD IV/2).

Because the Gospel not only liberates us from our action - our desperate attempts to make something of ourselves - by telling us that all is done in Christ, it also liberates us from our inaction - our no less desperate attempts to evade responsibility and action - by telling us that we can proceed on the secure basis of the righteousness of Christ.  The good news of Jesus is that in him we are really new people, who do not need to work to make ourselves something, but are already made something and therefore can (and must) work.  Our sinful self with its sinful actions is put to death, but we are not left as a vacuum.  Rather, we are created in Christ Jesus for good works.

So, no more inaction through despair - our work is not good enough, but it is ordained and blessed.  And no more inaction through laziness - our work is necessary because it is ordained and blessed.

When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and live!

Friday, August 07, 2015

Fruitful tension

The last four verses of Psalm 51 introduce a striking - less charitably, odd - tension into the composition. Here they are, split into two pairs of verses:
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. 
Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
build up the walls of Jerusalem;
then will you delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.
The first pair broadly represents the interests of the rest of the psalm, but the concluding pair introduces a whole different, and at first glance contradictory, concerns.  To list a few, the psalm has been very individual and personal, but the end introduces corporate and national themes; the psalm is a plea for mercy, but the end introduces the idea that God might be pleased with Zion; and most strikingly - because of the verbal contradiction - the psalm has been concerned with inward attitudes, but the end introduces ceremonial actions.

What do with this?

Of course the standard critical response will be that the last two verses are a later addition, perhaps from someone concerned by the apparent slight on the temple system in the previous end of the psalm.  Well, that's as may be - it's a plausible hypothesis.  The frustration, though, is that by not dealing with the psalm as we have it - and in the only form which we know for sure it has ever had - we can miss out on really helpful theological reflection.  After all, might it not be useful to ponder the relationship between the individual's piety and the good of the covenant community?  Might not a meditation on the relationship between our plea for forgiveness and God's good pleasure be a fruitful one?  And we surely would benefit from thinking carefully about the contrast between sacrifices in which God does not delight and those in which he delights indeed.

I would suggest that the points of tension in this psalm are actually the points where we can learn most about God and ourselves.  I wonder if that might be the case elsewhere?

Thursday, August 06, 2015


Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration.  I have to confess, the transfiguration story sounds a lot like myth to me.  I struggle to read it - as the authors of the gospels obviously intended it to be read - as the report of a real event in the earthly history of the man Jesus of Nazareth.  How could I not struggle?  I am a product of post-Enlightenment western culture.  I have been trained to see material reality as absolutely opaque.  If there is a spiritual reality, it is totally masked by the empirical world, which is the only reality to which I have any access.  The transfiguration story, which records the obvious incursion of the spiritual into the physical world, dramatically contradicts this.

Some thoughts:

Clearly, the NT does not regard material (or physical) reality as opaque.  If it were opaque, how could it be the material part of the good creation of the one Creator God - the maker of all things in heaven and earth, visible and invisible?  If my eyes have been trained to look at physical reality and then stop, I need to re-train them.  The Enlightenment attempted to put up walls between physical and spiritual, in order in the end to put the latter utterly beyond reach (hence Deism).  This separation is absolutely not the Biblical view.

On the other hand, I am not sure the NT regards material reality as transparent.  If it were transparent, how could it be real as physical matter?  It is interesting to hear from people at work in other cultures which do not share my cultural biases.  Often the spiritual realm is an everyday reality for people - in good and bad ways.  But I wonder whether there isn't a danger in this direction of collapsing the physical into the spiritual, such that the physical world is not allowed to have its own reality.  Moreover, it seems to me that the Biblical viewpoint is much more restrained in talking about the spiritual realm and its appearances and influences within the physical world.

I've been pondering another image: perhaps we should see material reality as translucent.  In other words, having its own shape and colour, but being open to the spiritual realm shining through - or casting a shadow.  Imagine a stained glass window, the appearance of which is transformed when the sun shines through it - or when someone walks past outside and temporarily blocks the light,  What if I could re-train my vision to look at physical reality as a medium which could at any time be illuminated by the glory of God - or shadowed by the demonic?  I wonder if that might help me to appreciate both physical and spiritual more - and I wonder if the transfiguration might be an interpretive key.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Life and death

"Choosing the time you die is a human right."

That is according to the partner of a healthy 75 year old who recently decided to end her own life rather than face the "indignity" of ageing.  The story is, from my perspective, desperately sad - but it makes complete sense.  If life is my possession, then I can give it up when I choose.  If I have a right to life based on nothing more than my own individuality, then I surely have a right to die.

This morning, as most mornings, I said Morning Prayer, and as usual prayed: "as we rejoice in the gift of this new day..."  Today is a gift.  My life today is a gift.  But that can only be true and meaningful if there is a Giver, and if he is good.  Even a good day is only a gift if it is generously given by Someone.  And a bad day - the sorts of days which presumably Gill Pharaoh was imagining when she chose to die rather than to live through them - could only be a gift if it came from a Giver who was able to take our suffering and do something positive with it.  And of course one day we will die, and that day of my death could only be a gift - a day I could rejoice in receiving - if it came from the hand of a Giver who was able to redeem even death.

In other words, if and only if the gospel is true - if Jesus died and rose - then life is a gift, every day is a gift, and nobody has a right to choose to die (though they certainly do, following Jesus, have the 'right' to give up life for another or for Christ - but that is a different thing).

It strikes me also that the gospel has something to say about the supposed indignity of old age.  Wherein is the indignity felt to lie?  Ms Pharaoh said "I simply do not want to follow this natural deterioration through to the last stage when I may be requiring a lot of help."  Is there any inherent indignity in requiring a lot of help?  I think I know what she meant; it is not a nice thought that one day I might be reliant on others for basic functions like toileting and eating.  But the gospel does tell me that my dignity as a human being, far from being contradicted by my need for 'a lot of help', derives from being helped.  I am a person Jesus died to help.  I am utterly, utterly dependent on him for everything - and existing in that relationship of dependence is what being really human means.

All in all, I am struck by the contrast between a culture where life is a random eruption from a sphere of death, and can collapse into that sphere again at a whim, and the gospel, where life is a gift to be treasured because it can be fulfilled in Christ.  And I am reminded that my only comfort, in life and death, is that I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Counting on it

Real faith is more than just knowing or even believing that something is true.  After all, even the demons are perfect monotheists.  Real faith means counting on it.  It means that this faith becomes a real factor in life, decisions, actions.  Faith - trust - is not something that can be put on one side of life in general, so that it occupies a more or less watertight compartment.  In so far as it is real, faith becomes a factor in life and shapes everything around it.

Isn't this what Abraham found as he climbed the bitter slope of Moriah?

-Hey, Abraham, do you believe that God can raise the dead?

What would he have said as he bound his son - his only son, whom he loved - to the altar they had built together?

-Believe it?  I'm counting on it!

That is why faith will always have more than a hint of desperation about it.  Faith actively eschews - despairs of - other more obvious, more ethical, more strategic, more sensible ways of getting things done.  It walks away from them, because faith is counting on something else - the power and promise of God.

That is why faith is not just believing, for example, that God answers prayer.  Faith is counting on God's promise to answer, and that means venturing something.  Putting it all in his hands.  Faith is putting yourself in a position from which if God proves false to his promises, or lacks power, or will not move...  then you will fall.  It is the precipice, and yet at the same time it is the road.  Immense daring, and yet also just ordinary life.  Dangerous, but absolutely safe.

Perhaps one of the greatest ironies of the life of faith is that so much of it simply involves counting on God to be faithful to me even when I don't count on him.  That looks like the prayer of repentance, the perseverance in getting up and rededicating ourselves to his service every day even though we failed yesterday and will fail again today.  Neither so terrible nor so rewarding as Moriah - but I guess Abraham had plenty of those days too.

Faith always shows itself in works - works that make no sense without faith - just because that is what trust means.  It means acting as if the Other Person is trustworthy.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The church in the storm

The church is called to be distinctive and open in its relationship with the wider world. Distinctive because it is a community of people who ultimately no longer belong to the world (meaning not at all the physical and spiritual creation, but the world-system as it stands with its philosophies and institutions) but to Christ. Open because it is a community of people who cannot help but stand in solidarity with the world, because they are sinful people caught up in the same rebellion against God which characterises the world, and because in Christ their mission is to present to that same world the message of reconciliation.

As the culture of the world around us shifts from indifference to the church to outright hostility, maintaining both of these characteristics is going to become more difficult. There is a storm coming.

There are those churches who represent the 'old' conservative evangelicalism. They are reformed in doctrine, conservative in style. They speak a different language. They tend to be creationist, and to a greater or lesser extent rejectionist when it comes to contemporary culture. They see themselves as a persecuted minority, though this doesn’t necessarily bother them. They expect nothing from the world and ask for no favours. They are on the outside and that's probably okay with them.

These churches will survive the coming storm. Their challenge is to remain (or for some of them, to become) open to the world. The temptation to huddle together and entrench is always there.

The 'new' evangelicalism has made much more of an effort to stay in touch with the world. It generally thinks positively of culture. Churches in this stream show an interest in apologetics, and run film and book clubs. They seek to eliminate any non-essential barriers to participation in church life. They try not to be unnecessarily weird. They engage with politics. They appeal to the world not to shut them out of public life.

Life in the storm will be hard for these churches. I fear many will go under. Their right desire to be open to the world will leave them shipping water. They will lose their distinctiveness. If any are to survive, they will have to be prepared to be on the outside; if they are to thrive, they will have to go there with a willingness to keep on engaging and keep on taking hits.

It is time for judgement to begin with God's own household.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Towards a Christian Liberalism

Taking up my own challenge, I've been thinking a bit about how one might construct a theological basis for political liberalism.  Obviously this won't be of much interest to those who see no need for such a basis.  And I should say that I am not quite sure I would claim this as my own view.  It is just some thoughts in process.

1.  The departure point for all Christian thinking about politics is 'Jesus is Lord'.  This is both a factual statement - he simply does rule over all things, whether anyone acknowledges it or not - and a polemical statement - he, and only he, truly rules.

2.  As both a factual and a polemical statement, 'Jesus is Lord' is a positive statement with a negative implication.  The positive statement is to do with Christ: he really reigns and rules.  The negative statement is to do with everyone and everything else: they do not reign and rule (in the same sense).  So 'Jesus is Lord' is both a description, advanced in the face of opposition, of Christ's sovereignty, and a delimitation of the spheres of all other powers.

3.  If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.  Caesar can be and must be honoured and obeyed, but this is for the Lord's sake, not Caesar's.  We should be clear here that 'Caesar' for us today includes both demos and despotes, the people and the politicians.  Caesar does not have ultimate sovereignty.  The 'will of the people' (whatever that means) cannot convey or carry such sovereignty.

4.  In particular, Caesar is not Lord over the minds and consciences of people.  Since Jesus is Lord over all, and over each individual, nobody else is Lord.  This does not mean overthrowing all order - Caesar is still to be obeyed in his sphere, family order is still to be followed, in the workplace there will always be hierarchy - but these things are dramatically relativised.  As soon as they step over into areas of conscience, they transgress.

5.  Since Jesus really rules, any attempt by human beings to put his rule into practice through the political sphere is tantamount to blasphemy.  It must include somewhere within it the idea that he does not currently rule, that he is not sovereign, and that he needs us to establish his rule for him.  But he does really rule; it is unnecessary and even sinful to try to bring in his rule through political power.

6.  Since the Jesus who is Lord is the Creator, there is a common good which can be served by politicians.  Even amongst people with wildly differing views of what 'the good' is, there will be sufficient common humanity (which exists after the image of Christ...) for leaders to be able to identify and strive towards some goals which are genuinely for the good of all, and for which good arguments can be made.  So within the limited sphere allowed to human leadership, there is positive good to be done.

7.  Since the Jesus who is Lord is a Servant, Christian leaders should seek to serve - and in particular to serve those who oppose them.  Therefore Christians should be at the forefront of developments for the good and freedom of those with whom they disagree.

Possibly more to come...

Monday, July 20, 2015

Liberalism is about disagreeing

Poor old Tim Farron.  A couple of days into his new job, and already he is under attack for holding orthodox Christian beliefs.  Specifically, he is accused of holding illiberal views on homosexuality, something which is deemed ironic for a leader of the Liberal Democrats.

But this is what liberalism is all about.  Tim Farron has his Christian faith, and appears in general to accept the ethical conclusions that flow from that.  It is fair enough to ask whether you want someone with those convictions representing you, but before anyone leaps to conclusions it is worth asking 'what does Tim Farron do next?'  Does he try to legislate his convictions?  Does he advocate that anyone who disagrees with him should be pilloried and driven from public life?

No, he doesn't.  Because he is a liberal, and liberalism is about what happens when you disagree.  It is about working out what the common good looks like when we don't have a common worldview.  As such, it seems to me that it will be an increasingly important part of our political landscape going forward.  And Tim Farron, as someone who holds a minority worldview, could be well placed to revive liberalism's fortunes after the crash at the end of the coalition.

As an aside, I think personally this is very difficult.  I flinch when I read Farron quoted as saying 'this is my private faith' - really?  It is your private faith that Jesus is Lord of all the universe and all people in it?  But then, I don't know how exactly I would tackle this.  I'd like to see the interface between Christianity and liberalism worked through a bit more, but then that was hardly likely in the Guardian...

Those who are accusing Tim Farron of illiberalism should show where in his behaviour he has been illiberal; instead they have simply decided that anyone who doesn't agree with the majority opinion on sexuality or faith is inherently anti-liberal.  So there's the real irony: there is nothing more illiberal than insisting that a particular set of views, particularly minority views, is beyond the pale in public life, and yet this is being done in the name of liberalism.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Am I a Christian?

I've been trying to think of a single passage in the NT which addresses people who are troubled by this question.  I haven't come up with any yet.  Anyone else got any?  If not, how did it become a live question for many people in our churches?  As a rule of thumb, I think that if our teaching and preaching and theologising is causing people to ask things which the teaching and preaching and theologising of the prophets and apostles did not cause them to ask, we should take stock and ask whether we're getting it wrong.

This question has been sparked by a series of articles about children (sort of starting here) which has made me think about my own children.  They haven't yet asked me is they are Christians, and I kind of hope they never will.  It's a question which inevitably takes our eyes off Jesus and sends us into spirals of introspection.  (Do I have faith?  Is my faith genuine?  Am I growing or backsliding?)

I guess if they ever ask I will counter with 'did Jesus die and rise for sinners like you?' and leave it at that.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


One of the things I return to again and again in the Christian life is the relationship between the objective and the subjective.  It crops up in lots of places.  For example, how does one think about a sin committed, and the feeling of guilt that follows?  Should I say 'well, objectively, the sin is forgiven, so move on'?  Or should I say 'subjectively, this guilt is appropriate and should be felt'?  When spiritually depressed, should I say 'objectively, God is no further from you than he ever has been', or should it be 'subjectively, God has withdrawn himself and you need to work through that'?  This same sort of question will arise when we ask about how to read providence, or how we would answer someone who asked if they were a Christian.  In theological history, both routes have been taken, and various balancing acts have been attempted between them.

Perhaps a key touchstone here, and a good way to start thinking clearly on the subject, is with those church ceremonies commonly called sacraments - baptism and the supper.  Take baptism, for starters.  An emphasis on the objective in baptism will tend to lead to infant baptism - because baptism is not about the subjective state of the recipient so much as the objective promise of God.  In baptist circles, meanwhile, there is a tendency to make baptism about my subjective decision to follow Jesus - and in some baptist circles this emphasis has gone so far as to suggest that rebaptism is appropriate if a baptised person later decides that at the time of their first baptism they did not really believe.  Similarly, in the supper, we take bread and wine - the objectivist emphasises the real presence of the Lord, and the fact that all those who partake feed on him; the subjectivist has no interest in the emblems themselves except in so far as they awaken faith in the risen Christ.

I've been thinking about this again, and here's where I am currently.  I think the pastoral approach which downplays the subjective in favour of the objective can be dangerous, because it makes a person's Christianity distant from their own experience.  It does not take seriously what is happening now, or how the Christian feels or thinks today, and consequently can drive a wedge between the objective truth of the gospel and the subjective lived experience of the Christian - and that actually means driving a wedge between the Christian and Christ.  On the other hand, so emphasising the subjective that the objective recedes into the background is also dangerous.  It leaves the Christian lost on a sea of their own subjective impressions and emotions.  And so in that way it breaks the cord which tethers them to Christ.

So here is a bit of 'third-way-ism', starting with the sacraments.  In baptism, there is nothing but ordinary water, and a bit of getting wet.  In the supper, there is just ordinary bread and wine, and some eating and drinking.  These are just normal, everyday things.  But in the context of the worship of the church, they are lifted up into contact with the objective truth of the gospel, and so our subjective experience of them is changed.  It is not that they become anything different (objectively), but neither is it that our (subjective) experience of the action is the all-important thing.  Rather, it is that these emblems, in this context, are lifted to become more than just emblems, and therefore our subjective experience is lifted to become participant in the objective story of Christ.

Back to the Christian's sin and feeling of guilt.  This is, at one level, just a normal human response to something we've done.  But it is possible to view this subjective experience in the light of the objective truth, and to see our working through of guilt and repentance in this instance as a participation in the bigger story.  My daily repentance is lifted into contact with Christ's death and resurrection, and therefore becomes a part of the story of the reconciliation to God which he has accomplished.

The point is that instead of separating the objective and subjective (which effectively separates the Christian and Christ), or of over-emphasising the one or the other, I want to see and understand my experience, and the experience of others, as occurring in the context of the big story - which is to say, in the presence of the crucified and risen Christ.