Sunday, May 31, 2015

Why the Trinity?

You could be forgiven for thinking that the doctrine of the Trinity is essentially a grand bit of metaphysics - beautiful, but somewhat abstract and esoteric.

It isn't.

The doctrine of the Trinity is quite simply the only way to make sense of the story, and that in two different ways.  

On the one hand, the doctrine is the only way to make sense of the Biblical story, the gospel story.  When Jesus talks to his Father, and promises his followers that he will send the Spirit from the Father, and when he says that seeing him is seeing the Father, or that the presence of the Spirit is his own presence...  How can we make sense of that without the Trinity?

On the other hand, the doctrine is the only way to make sense of my personal story as a Christian, my everyday story.  When I pray, I speak to the Father in Jesus' name - and at the same time, I am aware that I would not, left to myself, pray at all; it is only the presence of Another within me that motivates and empowers me...  How can I make sense of myself without the Trinity?

The doctrine of the Trinity is just the only way of describing the actor(s) in this drama which makes sense of what they actually do.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Living Philosophically

I recently read A Brief History of Thought by Luc Ferry, and I would recommend that anyone interested in philosophy, or indeed Western culture more broadly, take a look.  The book is subtitled A philosophical guide to living - and that is what it aims to be.  By taking us on a walk-through of the history of philosophy, Prof Ferry tries to show how philosophy ought to have an impact on our daily lives.

You can cut this book two ways - diachronic and synchronic, if you like.  Structurally, it is a history, and takes us from ancient philosophy (especially the Stoics) through Christendom to the Enlightenment, then beyond into post-modernism and then the contemporary philosophical scene.  The book is driven forward by the repeated question of why people abandoned the thought of one epoch in favour of the next.  But then within each chapter the period in question is dealt with in terms of three areas of thought: theory (what is the universe like?), ethics (what ought we to do?), and soteriology (what is it all about and how we will cope with our own role and finitude?)  It is this last question which places Ferry firmly within the Continental tradition, and which makes him interesting.  He is not content that philosophy analyse the human condition; he wants it to provide hope and meaning.  For that reason, he quite sensibly places philosophy on the same plane as religion.  They are meant to do the same thing.

As a Christian reader, I'm fascinated and frustrated by Ferry's interaction with Christian thought.  He understands aspects of the gospel very clearly, but misses other things.  I suspect that the problem comes from treating the gospel as if it were a philosophy rather than a history.  What he does understand is that in contrast to philosophy Christianity is about humility: the humility of God who becomes incarnate, and the humility of the believer who finds truth, ethics, and salvation in accepting the word of another rather than thinking himself out of the problem.  In the end, Ferry thinks Christianity is too good to be true, offering as it does real life after death; for him, there is no such salvation, and philosophy should occupy itself with questions of how to face the inevitability and finality of death.

In other words, philosophy seeks to find salvation from the fear of death; Christianity offers salvation from death itself.  Ferry would of course prefer the latter - but the former is all he thinks we can realistically expect, and in the end the prescription to overcome the fear of death is disappointing: just a radical emphasis on the present, with the prospect of death spurring us on to do now what we will not be able to do later.

By emphasising the element of philosophy which contemporary thought (at least in the Anglo-Saxon world) most neglects - soteriology and the question of human meaning - Ferry inadvertently highlights that philosophy is unable to answer the ultimate questions.  By taking us through the history of philosophy, he shows that fashions of thought have changed over time - philosophy is a ship at sea, blown this way and that by various winds of doctrine.  The story is fascinating, but the conclusion is strangely hollow.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Dead in his death

I think we don't talk about the death of Jesus enough, or at the very least we don't talk about it in certain ways.  We talk about Jesus dying in our place, we talk about Jesus bearing God's wrath - okay, we could and probably should talk about these things more, but they are there.  What we don't talk about nearly enough is the fact that when Jesus died, we also died.

The New Testament is really, really clear on this.  Because one has died for all, all have died.  Objectively, it is true that the end of sinful humanity under God's judgement has taken place in Christ's death.  Subjectively, it comes to be true that the end of my personal sinful humanity has taken place in him at baptism.  Or didn't you know that when you were baptized it was into his death?

It is not only that Jesus died so that I wouldn't have to; it is also Jesus died and I died with him.

This is one half of the basis for the NT appeal to live a holy life as a new creation.  How can you do otherwise?  The old self is dead; the old way of doing things is dead.  (The other half is resurrection, and the vivifying power of the Spirit to enable a new way of doing things).

One important implication is that my sin is always in the past.  Sin is never the future.  Even the sin which I will commit tomorrow is decisively in the past, because it belongs to the old self which is dead.  It cannot therefore define me.

This is no fiction.  Sanctification is not by imagining that the sinful self were dead and seeking to live out our imagination.  It is real, real in Christ Jesus.  Faith means letting that reality as it is in Christ be my subjective reality today by the Spirit.

Thursday, May 21, 2015


A thing I've noticed recently: if you say to an evangelical Christian "we should really be ministering the word to one another", they will probably reply "yeah, we should challenge one another".  If you say to them "I loved the preaching of the word this morning", they will most likely answer "yeah, it was really challenging".  Which is interesting, because I take it that the word of God is the good news about Jesus, and I'm not sure being 'challenged' is usually good news.  It is not that the gospel never confronts and judges my behaviour and beliefs - far from it!  It is just that this doesn't seem to be the emphasis...

I don't particularly want to discourage Christians from 'challenging' one another, in sermons and in passing conversation.  We are to rebuke and exhort one another, for sure, and there isn't enough of it going on.  But at the end of the day, the challenge is just diagnosis, and a diagnosis is certainly not good news.  If you're going to diagnose me, at least offer me medicine as well.

To me this seems to go along with a version of sanctification which I think is a bit like picking at scabs.  (Yes, I am using a horrible image to disparage a position I disagree with.  But I've been up front about it, so that's okay.  Isn't it?)  What I mean is that there is a school of thought which locates pastoral care - whether the formal care of elders or the informal care of members for one another - in digging at sins, poking at them, going over them again and again...  Constantly bringing to light new idols, always challenging...  And sometimes I just want to say "if you keep picking at it, it'll never get better"...

Here is a question: how can we help one another to have joy?  By challenging one another?  Well, yes, sometimes - the wounds of a friend are faithful, and sometimes reservoirs of joy are just the other side of this wilderness into which a friend is leading us with their rebuke...  But maybe sometimes we should stop weeping over our sins - because the joy of the Lord is our strength..?

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

What Church is

The church is the provisional representation of redeemed humanity.

Provisional because there are many currently on the outside who will be on the inside (and some on the inside who will be on the outside!)  It is not good to speculate on the final make up of redeemed humanity.  Provisional also because those on the inside are still sinners; they await the redemption of their bodies and their final revelation as God's children.

But still a representation.  The church stands for the whole, acknowledging the work of Christ on its behalf - and on behalf of others.  In the church it is known that Jesus Christ takes away sin - and not only the sin of the church but the whole world.  The church knows that the day is coming when every knee will bow to Christ, and in its worship it anticipates and prefigures that day.

All of which has practical implications.

Because it is a representation of redeemed humanity, the church will be a disciplined community, seeking to live in holiness; because it is a provisional representation, the church will fall short and will need to show mercy to its members.

Because it is a representation of redeemed humanity, the church will have defined 'borders', acknowledging the unity of the one people of God; because it is a provisional representation, those borders will always be porous and open to all.

Because it is a representation of redeemed humanity, the church will clearly proclaim Christ, and the truth as it is in him; because it is a provisional representation, it will be always learning and forever repenting of its past misrepresentations of its Lord.

The church is a sign in the midst of the world that, in Christ, God has completely changed the situation of all human beings.  The local church, by its very existence, is a sign that this is true of these particular human beings in this particular place.  The task of the church is to seek more and more to conform its community life to the purpose of being this sign.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Disappointing Church

"Every time I move to a new community, I find a church close by and join it - committing myself to work and worship with that company of God's people.  I've never been anything other than disappointed: every one turns out to be biblical, through and through: murmurers, complainers, the faithless, the inconstant, those plagued with doubt and riddled with sin, boring moralizers, glamorous secularizers."

Thus Eugene Peterson, in Leap Over a Wall, p 101.  He adds in an endnote:

"I was pastor to one of these companies for thirty years, and thought I could organize something more along the lines of Eden, or better yet New Jerusalem.  But sinners kept breaking and entering and insisting on baptism, defeating all my utopian fantasies."

Well, I'm off to keep company with the other losers for a couple of hours.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Christianity is a Humanism

When Christ ascended into heaven, taking his seat at the right hand of the Father on high, he put into effect the eternal decree of God.  Jesus Christ was always the person by whom and for whom all things existed.  Now that is revealed in his exaltation.

Seeing Christ on his throne, every philosophical and programmatic humanism appears as nothing more than a lame parody.  Every attempt to make humanity the measure of all things, to begin with human experience, to place humanity at the centre of the epistemic or ontological universe looks foolish.  In truth, humanism as conceived by humanity is doomed to failure, because there is no vacancy for humanity to fill.  The centre and pinnacle of the universe is already occupied - by humanity!  Not humanity in the abstract, to be sure, but this particular human being, Jesus of Nazareth.  Nevertheless, humanity.

The implications are far-reaching and profound.  One that I would stress, because it seems to me it is often missed, is that humanity matters, and all things truly human matter.  A question which I have is this: in the midst of a culture given over to materialism and scientism, might it not be the task of Christians to pick up the genuine concerns of humanism?  In the light of the exaltation of humanity in Christ, can we ever take humanity too seriously?

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Dear Mr Cameron

Let me start by offering my congratulations.  I was rooting for you, I voted for your candidate (even in Oxford East, that little bastion of red in the midst of deep blue rural England), and I'm pleasantly surprised by the result.  I think that given the available options, and the current circumstances, you and your party were the least bad option.  And if that sounds a bit like damning with faint praise, Mr Cameron, well, so be it.

Here's the thing.  Most of the people I know and respect - not all, but most - think that voting Conservative makes you some sort of amoral monster.  I'm not exaggerating, or at least not much.  And can I be honest, you haven't helped us.  You ran a campaign based on fear; you won an election at least partly by making us afraid of one another.  I know the other guys were doing just the same thing, and I know it's easier to sell your opponents' nightmare than your own dream; but I'm sure some of the bitterness I'm seeing springs from that campaign.

Listen, Mr Cameron (I know you prefer 'Dave', but I can't quite bring myself to first-name a sitting Prime Minister): I really believe that a smaller state and a bigger civil society can be the best way forward for society; I think you believe it too, but you didn't exactly sell it, that's all.

But actually that's not the main thing.  It's not nice to be considered an amoral monster, but I can hold my own and I'm prepared to make a positive case even if you're not.  The main thing is that I need you to prove them wrong, and that's going to need a change in approach from you.  I believe you when you say that you want to protect the most vulnerable, but people I know are not seeing that desire translate into action.  They don't believe you, because your record and rhetoric don't line up.  Mr Cameron, in your second term, will you ensure that necessary cuts don't punish those who are already suffering?  Will you take a personal interest across government in protecting those who cannot protect themselves?

Like you, I think it is important that we don't take the approach of many on the left, which seems to be to classify large numbers of people as 'poor' and assume they will always be dependent on the state; but on the other hand, there are people who will always be dependent, because they are chronically ill, or disabled.  For them, especially, you need to do better than you have so far.  Compassionate conservatism - that's what I want to see.

Mr Cameron, there's a lot more I could say, but frankly if you take this one thing on board I will be happy.  As a Christian, I am commanded to respect you and to pray for you as a leader.  I'll be doing those things going forward, and God bless you as you make difficult decisions.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

RE-POST: The Least Bad

Here is what I wrote on the eve of the last General Election.  I find that my thinking is much the same this time around...

Tomorrow, I will be voting for what I consider to be the least bad of the options put in front of me. None of the options is hugely inspiring, and none is particularly friendly to the Christian gospel. But then, I don't expect them to be. After all, the decisive encounter between Christianity and the state can be summed up in the phrase 'crucified under Pontius Pilate'. That phrase colours my whole idea of what the state is, and it doesn't lead me to expect much.

Can I suggest there are two main things we should be looking at?

Firstly, and most importantly, I can look for the people I think will most promote the common good. By the common good I mean not the interests of any particular section of society, but the good of all. Of course, we will have different conceptions of what the common good actually is; all I can really say to that is: be suspicious of your own ideas. It is very easy to con ourselves into thinking that 'what would be best for me' is the same as the common good. Moreover, the common good can be considered from lots of different angles - financial welfare, liberty, community coherence. Resist reductionism - the common good cannot be only a matter of economics, or only a matter of freedom. Who offers the least bad option, in terms of balancing the desirables?

Secondly, and particularly as a Christian, all I ask from the state is that they leave me free to live, preach, and worship (1 Tim 2:1-4). Who offers the least bad option on this front?

At the end of the day, I am waiting for perfect government, and I belong to a city where that government is vested in the hands of the Perfect King. That doesn't make tomorrow unimportant; but it does put it in perspective.

"But while they live in Greek and barbarian cities, as each one's lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. (Christians) live in their own countries, but only as non-residents; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners." - Diognetus, 2nd century AD