Friday, August 26, 2016


I've been thinking about the difference between accountability and confession.  Accountability is so hot right now in evangelical circles.  We are encouraged to have accountability partners, to hold one another accountable, to install internet monitoring software so that we can be accountable.  There's something good in all that; it brings the battle for holiness into the community, or perhaps brings a community dimension to the battle.  But I do wonder if we wouldn't benefit from restoring the older category of confession as a better way to do this.

I am open to the possibility that this is just a function of my hard heart, but for me accountability inevitably has a whiff of legalism about it.  The idea is that there is a standard, and I am going to be questioned on whether I have attained it or not.  I am being held accountable for whether I have or have not done something.  That is not unreasonable, but I'm afraid that the sort of behaviour it promotes in me (and I cannot speak for anyone else) is outward conformity and avoidance.  Inwardly, what it promotes is guilt, because I know that really I am far more sinful than any 'accountability partners' will ever know.

Confession, on the other hand, begins with the premise that I have failed.  It doesn't flex the high standard that accountability seeks to enforce, but it does assume that I have not kept that standard.  And then it invites me to relate my particular sins to another human being.  An insight from Derek Tidball:
The personal verbal confession of sin assists a person to accept his moral guilt and view it in the same light as God does.  It is to easy to fool oneself and only pretend confession is accomplished simply by mulling it over in the mind.
I think that's right!  My supposed confession of sin to God easily becomes actually a monologue - me, by myself, pondering my failings.  In that monologue, I do not feel the force of guilt (because I am not forced to bring my sin into the light of another person's presence), nor do I ever really deal with sin (because it is just an object of thought, not a concrete thing).  Confession to another human being aids confession to God.

But the big thing that is present in the idea of confession but absent, or at least marginalised, in that of accountability is absolution.  When I confess specific sin to another Christian, it is there job to present the gospel!  As I confess to them, they stand proxy for God - they are his ministers and priests - receiving my confession and pronouncing, in God's name and through the gospel, forgiveness of sin.  And so the matter is dealt with.

What this means (in very black and white and somewhat caricatured terms) is that accountability tends toward a programmatic approach to holiness - it is about how can I do and be better - whereas confession is about a relational approach - it is about how my sinful self can genuinely enjoy the experience of forgiveness and deep fellowship with God.

Of course, there is significant overlap between accountability and confession, and I wouldn't suggest ditching the former!  I will still keep my accountability software running.  But perhaps a different approach - perhaps the recognition that even my accountability is a sort of general confession of sin and inability, rather than just a sensible precaution - perhaps that might help to keep the gospel central and our relationship with God at the fore.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Determined simpletons

A couple of very different pieces of reading this morning have chimed with a theme that has been emerging from our studies in Proverbs at CCC.  One was a Guardian article by Rafael Behr, which I think shows some excellent insight into the way politics works.  The thing that particularly struck me, though, was this quote (emphasis added):
Anyone who has tried to extract political opinions from strangers - a niche pursuit of canvassing activists and vox-popping journalists - knows that the obligation to take a definite view is often felt as a burden.
 And then I was reading Derek Tidball's book on pastoral theology, Skillful Shepherds, and came across this (again, with my emphasis):
There probably never was a time when there was only ever one version of reality passed down from generation to generation.  But the degree and commitment to choice has never been so mind-boggling.  It has left many punch-drunk to the extent that they never choose at all.
In the Biblical book of Proverbs there are three broad groups of people: the wise, who although they already have understanding know full well that they still have much to learn, and so pay attention to the teachings of Solomon; the foolish, who have decided against wisdom and have embarked on their own false and immoral path (for in Proverbs wisdom and morality belong together), who will not listen and are therefore impossible (or near impossible) to correct; and the simple, or the naive, or the gullible.  This latter group also includes the young.  They are those who have not yet chosen.  They are not set on a course of wisdom or folly; they are teachable.  But they remain as yet simple.

It strikes me that our culture is on the whole committed to being uncommitted.  We avoid anything that might irrevocably commit us to one path or another.  We regard it as a virtue not to have strong opinions or a decided lifestyle.  We are simple.

And the warning of Proverbs is that one cannot remain in this group forever.  In fact, to stay simple is just to become foolish by default - to become hardened in a position of opposition to the wisdom which begins with the fear of the Lord.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016


Tim preached us an excellent and powerful sermon from Proverbs 5 this past Sunday at Cowley Church Community.  Applying the chapter broadly, he addressed the 'pornification' of contemporary culture - something which I see the BBC is just waking up to.  It's important stuff, and it's important that we face up to it as churches and families.

This morning I started work on Proverbs 6, and of course that chapter too ends in a discussion of the dangers of adultery.  And it's there again in chapter 7.  Why this heavy emphasis?

I think the answer has something to do with the way wisdom is presented in Proverbs, and something to do with the whole Bible story.  In terms of the portrayal of wisdom in Proverbs, the fact that she is personified in chapter 8 giving a directly contrary appeal to the loose woman of chapter 7 is indicative.  The adulteress represents folly, the life lived without wisdom and without reference to the God of wisdom.  But why?  Well, wisdom is often represented in the early chapters of Proverbs as faithfulness to the received teaching.  I give you good teaching, says the father - don't forsake it!  Don't forget it!  Wisdom is being faithful to the wise teaching handed down, and not flirting with new ideas.  (This is not reactionary; it is about the father handing down the covenant testimonies of God, not just the received wisdom of the ages).  Adultery is the sexual counterpart of folly, forsaking what is good and what is yours for something else that is both forbidden and harmful.

And in the big story of the Bible, isn't that what's always going on?  Adam is unfaithful to God; humanity forgets God; Israel deserts God.  Adultery, adultery, adultery.  Hence the appeal of the apostle Paul - I betrothed you to Christ, to be spotless for him!  Don't desert him!

In a culture where adultery, and sexual immorality more widely, are rampant, we need to realise that behind the scenes this is not because of sexual liberation of any kind.  It is because we have betrayed our God, and been unfaithful to him.  Unfaithfulness breeds unfaithfulness.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Reader Response: Ethics (13)

The final manuscript in Bonhoeffer's Ethics is entitled The Concrete Commandment and the Divine Mandates.  It is unfinished - to be honest, it feels barely started at the point where it breaks off.  The initial presupposition springs from all that has gone before.  "The commandment of God revealed in Jesus Christ embraces in its unity all of human life" (388).  Bonhoeffer sees four divine mandates grounded in this one commandment: family, culture, church, state.  All four are legitimate because they have their source in the revelation of God in Christ.  Through the divine commandment, revealed in Christ through Scripture, we see "the conferring of divine authority on an earthly institution" (389).

There are two major implications, as far as I can see, from this arrangement and understanding.  One is that the four mandates exist in relationship.  They are to be with-one-another, for-one-another, and over-against-one-another (hyphenated, because these are all single words in German; see 393).  To enlarge on this, we might say that as divine mandates each has its own sphere, within which God's commandment gives a certain autonomy from but also a certain relationship to the other spheres.  The family, for example, exists independently of state, culture, and church - by virtue of the divine commandment which creates it.  However, family also exists for state, culture, and church, in creative tension but also mutual reinforcement.  It cannot claim precedence over the other mandates, and it must resist any attempt by state, culture, or church to claim precedence in or over its own sphere, but it does not exist in splendid isolation.  Mutatis mutandis, the same could be said for any of the mandates.  Their unity is grounded only in Christ, and the divine command in him.

The second implication is that in each sphere there really is divine authorisation, and therefore an above and below.  "God's commandment therefore always seeks to encounter human beings within an earthly relationship of authority, within an order that is clearly determined by above and below" (391).  Because of this divine authorisation, those 'below' are genuinely subjected to those 'above', whether that is parents in the sphere of family, or governing authorities in the sphere of the state, or ministers in the church.  But because it is divine authorisation, those who are 'above' must be aware of their own responsibility to God.

This is only partially developed in the manuscript in the sphere of the church, and that development is fascinating in and of itself (but not to be explored here, alas).  But this seems to me to be a potentially fruitful framework for understanding the concrete duties of the Christian man and woman in relation to the divine commandment and authorisation given and received in the gospel.

Now, what shall I read next?

Friday, August 12, 2016

Wisdom that sees beyond death

Another thought from Proverbs.  This is a book which often seems to draw an unrealistically direct line from godliness to happiness, from wisdom to prosperity.  One of the most beautiful, but also one of the most outrageous, of the statements that I've been pondering recently is in 4:18:
But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day.
 It's a beautiful image - the road of wisdom leads from brightness to brightness, life to life.  And the contrast with the road of folly and wickedness in the following verse is very striking.  Whilst the wicked stumble around in darkness that is so deep that they don't know what they're tripping over, the righteous advance smoothly from one glory to another.

But is that even remotely true?

Arguably, in the wider canon Ecclesiastes and Job raise questions about the link between wisdom and prosperity that is expressed in Proverbs.  But actually, even within Proverbs itself there is often the assumption that it would be worth giving up all of that prosperity in order to gain wisdom - and the wicked are almost habitually equated with the wealthy.  So obviously even here the link is not that clear cut.  But what do we do with the places where the link is made?

I think this is another reason why we can't see Proverbs, or the wisdom tradition in Israel generally, as just expressing 'common sense', or being based on some notion of 'general revelation'.  In fact, without the context of the covenant with Israel, and ultimately without the context of the resurrection of Christ and the promised resurrection of believers, these statements in Proverbs are not just questionable, but are actually cruel lies.  Only if there is resurrection is it true that wisdom leads to light, and therefore only in this context would it make sense to give up prosperity to gain wisdom.

Genuine wisdom has to look beyond death.  But that is somewhere human reason can never go - which is why the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord, and why we must not trust our own understanding.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Reader Response: Ethics (12)

The twelfth (and second to last) manuscript in Bonhoeffer's Ethics is entitled The "Ethical" and the "Christian" as a Topic, which is perhaps not the most catchy title ever conceived.  It attempts to approach the question of "whether and to what extent the 'ethical' and the 'Christian' can be treated as a topic at all" (363), which seems a somewhat belated concern - one wonders whether, had he lived, Bonhoeffer might have placed this section rather nearer to the beginning.  Then again, its content builds on much that has gone before, so perhaps not.

There is a lot in this brief chapter, including some fascinating and controversial material about the need for an 'above' and a 'below' in society if there is to be ordered ethical discourse.  But the heart of the chapter, it seems to me, is the contrast between ethics and God's commandment.  One reason that ethics often seems a dubious subject, according to Bonhoeffer, is that "the ethical phenomenon is a boundary event both in its content and as an experience" (366).  That is to say, ethics does not deal with the ordinary and the everyday, but only with the limits of human behaviour.  It is therefore always an interruption to human life, confronting it with a limit that ought not to be transgressed.  Because this is so, ethics cannot become an everyday phenomenon - it just isn't the case that people live in a constant stream of ethical dilemmas, always standing at the crossroads of good and evil.  If ethics does seek to become more than a boundary discipline, it degenerates into tedious moralism.

By contrast, "the commandment of God is the total and concrete claim of human beings by the merciful and holy God in Jesus Christ" (378).  "It does not merely guard, like the ethical, the boundaries of life that must not be crossed, but it is at the same time the center and fullness of life" (381).  "The commandment of God is permission to live before God as a human being" (382).  God's command, which always comes to a particular person in a particular time and place who stands in particular relations of responsibility and obligation, is always permission as well as limitation.

As a striking example of what he means, Bonhoeffer refers to marriage.  "Only when the commandment not only threatens me as a transgressor of the boundaries but also convinces me and wins me over by its actual content does it free me from the anxiety and uncertainty when making a decision.  When I love my wife and affirm marriage as instituted by God, then my marriage acquires an inner freedom and a confidence of how to live that no longer suspiciously observes every step I make nor calls my every action into question.  The divine prohibition of adultery is then no longer the focal point of all I think and do in my marriage - as if the meaning and purpose of marriage consisted in avoiding adultery!" (382).

Love for God's commandment sets us free to actually live with confidence; ethics only erects nervous boundaries at the edges of life.  The latter may be necessary, especially in disordered times, but the former is comprehensive.  We live, not by a code of ethics, but by God's commandment spoken to us - to me, to you - in Jesus Christ today.