Friday, July 29, 2016

Baptism, baptism, baptism

It would do us good to think a bit more about the meaning of our baptism.  If you have been baptised, what does that mean?  Not 'what does it mean to you' in a subjective or psychological way, but what does it mean?  Perhaps a bit of imagination might help.  Scripture is fairly insistent that when you were baptised, it was 'into Christ'.  The idea is of unity with him, a unity which is both symbolised and realised (through faith) in baptism.

On that basis, let's imagine ourselves back to the Jordan, as Jesus himself submits to baptism.  We are united to him, so let us imagine ourselves in his place.  He goes down into the water, just as we did in our own baptism, and then as he comes up two things happen.  There is a visible descent of the Spirit from heaven, and there is the voice of the Father which declares Jesus to be the beloved Son of God.  This is what happened to Jesus, and I don't think it's a stretch to say that as we are united to Jesus this is also what happened to us.  My baptism means the receipt of the promised Spirit, and the assurance of adoption by God the Father as a son.

But of course, Jesus' baptism was the beginning of the way to the cross, and contained virtually and symbolically his death and resurrection.  As he went down into the waters, so he went down into the grave.  As he was lifted up out of the waters, so he was raised again from death.  And again, we are united with him in this death and resurrection.  But isn't it striking that according to Scripture there was a sense in which Christ did not receive the Spirit until after his resurrection?  Isn't it intriguing that it is primarily in his resurrection that he is declared to be the Son of God?  Because, of course, the cross was his real baptism.

My baptism, his baptism, his Baptism.  Sonship and the Spirit.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

With us and for us

Today I am pondering the deep significance of the fact that everything Jesus did for us he did as one of us.

I think it would be fair to say that the emphasis of much contemporary evangelical theology and preaching falls on what Christ has done and accomplished.  In essence, that means the cross and resurrection (with a wee bit of teaching and miracle working in the background).  If anything about the person (as opposed to the work) of Christ is stressed, it is his deity - this is God intervening in our history for our good.  This is not in itself a bad thing.  It can't hurt us to talk more and think more about what Jesus has done for us, and without a doubt the Scriptures support the idea that the death and resurrection of Christ on our behalf are the central and most significant things that he has done.  And the emphasis on the deity of Christ makes a certain amount of sense in a culture which takes humanity for granted but denies divinity - not to mention that of course none of the achievements of Christ can have ultimate significance unless they are genuinely the acts of God.

Still, I do think it's important to take on board that in Jesus the eternal Son and Word of God came as one of us.

Of course no orthodox theologian or preacher would deny this.  But some of the staggering implications are not always brought out as clearly as they might be.  If the Son of God has united himself to our nature, then what he does in his death and resurrection is really for us.  It is genuinely humanity that dies on the cross - his death is our death, in so far as we are sinners and rebels against God.  It is genuinely humanity that rises on the third day - his resurrection is our resurrection, in so far as we hope in him.  Because the Son of God came as one of us, uniting us to himself, what he has done genuinely affects us.  The atonement doesn't happen somewhere apart from us - it is not something God accomplishes remotely from us, and then perhaps 'offers' to us.  It is something done in humanity, even as it is something that could only be done by God.

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Reader Response: Ethics (11)

The eleventh Ethics manuscript (and fear not, we are near the end!) is entitled On the Possibility of the Church's Message to the World.  As with the previous manuscript, it is brief, and almost certainly is not in the form which Bonhoeffer would have envisaged for publication (it consist of brief, numbered points, each of which could perhaps do with expansion), but it concisely expresses an answer to a hugely important question: can the church address the problems of the world, and if so, what should it say?

"We ask: is it really the task of the church today to offer the world solutions for its problems?  Are there even Christian solutions to worldly problems?" (353).  Bonhoeffer points out that "Jesus is hardly ever involved in solving worldly problems; whenever he is requested to do so, he is strangely evasive (Matt 22:15; Luke 12:13)...  He stands beyond the human problematic" (354).  Indeed, it may be that not all worldly problems can be solved.  "Perhaps to God the unsolved condition of these problems may be more important than their solution, namely, as a pointer to the human fall and God's redemption" (354-5).  Everything here depends on recognising that starting with human problems is unbiblical.  "The way of Jesus Christ, and thus the way of all Christian thought, is not the way from the world to God, but from God to the world" (356).  Solving worldly problems "cannot be the essential task of the church" (356).

What, then, can the church say in response to the world's acknowledged problems?  "The message of the church to the world can be none other than the word of God to the world.  This word is: Jesus Christ, and salvation in this name" (356).  The church "has no relationship to the world other than through Jesus Christ" (356), and therefore must only approach the problems of the world with the message of this name.  This message will be a call to repentance; it will put the church in a position of responsibility for the world; it will consist of both law and gospel ("There is no proclamation of the law without the gospel, and no proclamation of the gospel without the law" [357]).  It is not as is the law applied to the church and the gospel to the world, or vice versa: both law and gospel speak to both church and world, because both law and gospel speak Jesus Christ.  There is no double standard, as if the church were expected to live out the gospel, whilst the world was only expected to uphold the law.  "Rather, there is only the one word of God, demanding faith and obedience, which is valid for all people" (359).

The task of the church in response to the problems of the world is to proclaim Christ.  But alongside this, the church must recognise that there are certain (penultimate) conditions which are an obstruction and an offence to faith, Where the church encounters economic or social conditions which constitute such an offence, it must pronounce against them for the sake of Jesus Christ and faith in his name.  "The church has a twofold approach here: on the one hand, it must declare as reprehensible, on the authority of the word of God, such economic attitudes or systems which clearly hinder faith in Christ...  On the other hand, it will not be able to make its positive contribution to a new order on the authority of the word of God, but merely on the authority of responsible counsel..." (361). The church does not have, and ought not to pretend to have, exhaustive solutions to worldly problems, but she is equipped on the one hand with the ability to discern what is contrary to faith in Christ and to pronounce judgement on it in the name of God, and on the other hand to offer constructive advice on what might constitute a way forward.  This is an asymmetrical task simply because the church recognises that she does not have all the answers, nor is it her role to have them or to offer them.

I think this framework would be very usefully adopted by the church of the present day.  I see on the one hand Christians who feel that their faith has nothing to say to the big problems of the world, and withdraw into a pietistic disengagement - or at least, engage only with the world in order to rescue individual souls; and on the other hand, Christians who are confident that their faith entails a whole political and social programme which all Christians should be able to recognise and get on board with.  Bonhoeffer helps us, I think, to see beyond this, and could help the church to speak with a more united voice.  For example, all those of us who follow Christ can recognise the injustice and sin of pursuing an economic policy which hurts the most vulnerable, and we could unite to protest this with the authority of God, without needing to agree on what the actual solution was.

Might we speak a better word to the world by recognising our limitations and the limitation of our God-given task?  And we could surely all benefit from the reminder that what we need to speak ultimately is not public policy but Jesus Christ!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Teenage Culture

One of the things you notice when you spend a little while in the early chapters of Proverbs is how much the wisdom literature emphasises listening and learning.  Here is the opening part of Proverbs 2:

My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding...
What we're dealing with here is tradition - the handing one of wisdom from one generation to the next.   And in fact, tradition is a clear theme throughout Scripture.  Consider the emphasis in Deuteronomy on the transmission of Israel's story and law, for example, or the apostle Paul handing on the gospel to younger co-workers (and expecting them in turn to do the same).  In the post-apostolic period, this theme of tradition is continued and developed, as the churches seek to ensure that what is being passed on is what they received from the apostles.

Now, there can be no doubt that the idea of tradition can go to seed.  In general terms, it can lead to some sort of gerontocracy, or a setup where there can be no questioning whatsoever of 'received wisdom'.  In the church, Roman Catholicism in many ways represents the notion of tradition gone to seed.  But tradition is nonetheless a basically sound, Biblical concept.  It is based on the idea that something has been received which must be passed on, and the clearest example is of course the witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.  These events took place once, in a particular place, in the midst of particular people - and without tradition, they would remain absolutely closed to the whole of the rest of humanity.  What the apostles received, they had to pass on.

By contrast, our culture is youth culture.  We must be continually reinventing the wheel.  We know that nothing that has gone before is of any value, except perhaps as a dark backdrop to illustrate our own dazzling brilliance.  It's like the whole culture is one big teenager, who knows for sure that his parents know nothing at all, who knows that they don't understand what it's like to be the astonishing, unique individual that I am, who is sure that a bright future lies just over the horizon if we can only wrest control away from the deadening hand of the past generation.  In this sort of culture, tradition represents the great evil - the extension of the past into the future, the refusal to give us the blank canvas which our genius surely deserves.

Can I suggest that the church needs to work harder at being counter-culture in this regard?

Monday, July 18, 2016

Reader Response: Ethics (10)

The tenth manuscript of Bonhoeffer's Ethics is short, and in that sense feels like a fragment - but on the other hand, it seems to me that it expresses a complete thought, and does so coherently and persuasively.  The title is Church and World I (presumably Bonhoeffer envisaged writing a Church and World II), and the theme is initially based on Bonhoeffer's observation that in the circumstances of the Nazi Reich many people were looking to the church to preserve culture and civilisation.  "Reason, culture, humanity, tolerance, autonomy - all these concepts, which until recently had served as battle cries against the church, against Christianity, even against Jesus Christ, now surprisingly found themselves in very close proximity to the Christian domain" (340).

For Bonhoeffer there is a clear logic to this: all these concepts really belong to Christianity.  "In the hour of danger, the children of the church who had become independent and run away now returned to their mother" (341).  The origin of all these good things is Jesus Christ, and although they have changed through their long estrangement from the church, they still essentially belong to her and return to her in crisis.

There follows a reflection on what this means for the relationship between the church and the world.  Bonhoeffer considers the two apparently conflicting statements of Jesus that 'whoever is not against us is for us' (which seems to set the boundaries of the church very broadly) and 'whoever is not for us is against us' (which seems to set it more narrowly).  Bonhoeffer sees the apparent conflict resolved in the experience of the German churches under Nazism.  On the one hand, the churches became a refuge for all those who resisted, Christian or not; on the other hand, the churches necessarily had to become narrower, focusing more keenly on the gospel, forced to make their confession of Christ more exclusive.  "Thus [the church] gained, precisely through this concentration on what is essential, an inner freedom and openness that protected it from all anxious efforts to erect boundaries" (343).

There is a fascinating historical reflection on the church's relationship with 'good' and 'wicked' people in the second half of this section.  From the Reformation, the church has inherited a definite emphasis on the gospel for the wicked, and the justification of the sinner - and it is essential that this be understood.  But the danger of turning this into a condemnation of goodness is always there.  In particular, we must beware of making it seem as if the tax collectors and sinners were in some sense better than the good people, adopting a position of despising 'bourgeois morality'.  I sense that danger in some of the churches I know.  But since I've written about this section before, I won't dig any further now!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Being orthodox

Loosely based on the first chapter of T.F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith.

Because God makes himself known in Christ, to whom the Holy Scriptures bear authoritative witness, there are definite boundaries to our knowledge of God - if we stray beyond the witness of Scripture and the person and work of Jesus Christ (which I have deliberately made co-extensive in the diagram), we do not truly see God; we are heretics.  But if we are orthodox - looking to the Scriptures to see Jesus, expecting that in him we will see God revealed - then we gaze into the infinite depths of the being of God.  We can know him truly, but in knowing him truly we see that we can never know him exhaustively.  There will always be more to know, and yet we don't look to one side or the other to find it: the 'more' is in the depths, not to the sides, and we must continue to focus our gaze on Jesus Christ through the Scriptures.

Orthodoxy is closed to anything that departs from the Biblical Christ, but infinitely open to the God revealed in Jesus as we see him in the Bible.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Reader Response: Ethics (9)

The ninth manuscript gathered in the Works edition of Bonhoeffer's Ethics is entitled God's Love and the Disintegration of the World.  It might clarify the meaning to write 'dis-integration', with the hyphen.  The point is that the world and the people in the world exist in a state of disunity; neither as individual persons nor as societies are we 'integrated'. 

In a sense, the existence of ethics as a discipline reflects this dis-integration.  Ethics is about knowing good and evil, distinguishing between them, and plotting a course accordingly.  But of course in the Biblical narrative, the knowledge of good and evil is a result of the fall.  "For Christian ethics, the mere possibility of knowing about good and evil is a falling away from the origin" (300).  In an unfallen state, human beings "know everything only in God, and God in all things" (300) - that is to say, they know everything in an integrated way, as it is given to be known in and through God.  But in claiming or trying to know good and evil, "human beings understand themselves not within the reality of being defined by the origin, but from their own possibilities, namely, to be either good or evil" (300).  They seek to live as if it were up to them to decide what their own lives could and should be, and then they work at living up to the ideals they discover or construct.  This is inevitably to live "in opposition to God" (300), and therefore Christian ethics "can be considered an ethic only as the critique of all ethics" (300), as an attack on the presupposition that it is the task of human beings to discern what is good and evil and to make the choice between them.

Bonhoeffer gives a helpful and important theological exposition of some of the consequences of this dis-integration.  Because we no longer know ourselves and others in an integrated way in God, we experience shame as something that tinges our whole existence, especially with other people (303-6); because we no longer live with the simple knowledge of God's perfect will, we experience conscience as the sign of our internal dis-union, as we stand as judges on our own lives and behaviour, judging and justifying ourselves, standing in the place of God (307-9).

The Pharisees - both the historical Pharisees and those who are like them - give the clearest, because the best and most noble, example of what it means to know good and evil.  "Pharisees are those human beings, admirable to the highest degree, who subject their entire lives to the knowledge of good and evil and who judge themselves as sternly as their neighbors - and all to the glory of God, whom they humbly thank for this knowledge" (310).  The conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees is the conflict between those who live in disunity, who live in the knowledge of good and evil, and therefore must judge - themselves and others - and Jesus, who lives an integrated life and knows only the will of God.  In Jesus, we who are reconciled to God - and so brought back into unity with ourselves and others - are called to live from his will and not our own decision.  We recognise ourselves as those who are elect in Christ, and therefore fundamentally as chosen, not as choosers.  If we are elect in Christ, we are elect to do God's will.

An interesting theme: in the fallen state, our thinking and doing become reflexive.  Even in doing good, we are continually referred back to our own internal sense of what is good and evil, and thus pushed back against our own disunity.  It is impossible for us not to be self-judging - that is what we are at our best, in the dis-integrated state in which we live!  But reconciled to God in Christ, and thus to ourselves and others, our actions lose that reflexive nature.  What is good is for God to decide.  The judgement on our own actions is not only not necessary, but is forbidden; God will judge.  We are thus freed for genuine action in the world, action that is not just a curiously externalised sort of introspection.

This does not mean that we need not think - we do still need to discern what God's will is, and there is a legitimate self-examination under the gospel.  But this discernment and judgement takes place within the knowledge of Christ - within the event of reconciliation to God.  Fundamentally, we know the shape of God's will - by loving us, he has shown us how to love.  God's love in Christ overcomes our disunion, and sets us on the course of reconciling love ourselves.  "It is as whole human beings, as thinking and acting human beings, that we are loved by God in Christ, that we are reconciled with God.  And as whole human beings, thinking and acting, we love God and our brothers and sisters" (337-8).

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Where is wisdom?

I was attempting to preach from Proverbs 1 on Sunday, and have been particularly struck over the last few days by the speech of Wisdom in the latter part of the chapter.  Broadly speaking, I think these early chapter of Proverbs present us with three groups of people: the wise, who have knowledge and understanding (and also the awareness to know that they still need to learn more!); the simple (or the naive, or the young), who are not yet wise but are also not yet hardened in a life of folly- they are teachable, and have the potential to become wise; and the fools, who have decisively rejected wisdom and are living in their own way as they please.  The key difference between the groups - the thing which divides them - is the fear of the Lord.  To reverence and stand in awe of God and his word is the gateway to wisdom, a gateway through which the wise have already passed, before which the simple stand in indecision, and away from which the fools have contemptuously turned.

Wisdom's call is to both the simple and the foolish: those who have not yet begun to follow her, and those who have decisively turned away.  Both are called to turn and (re)consider the value of a wise life.  But Wisdom also holds out a stern warning for those who do not turn: there will come a time when they will seek wisdom and will not be able to find her.
Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer;
they will seek me diligently but will not find me.
When disaster comes, foolish and simple alike will be asking 'where is wisdom?' - and the answer will be that she is laughing, mocking.  They would not have Wisdom on her terms, and now that they have finally come to see their need of her - too late! - they will not have her on any terms.
Because they hated knowledge
and did not choose the fear of the Lord,
would have none of my counsel
and despised all my reproof,
therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way,
and have their fill of their own devices.
The application to our national life and contemporary culture does not seem too difficult!