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.