Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The night is far gone

A few decades after the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome telling them that their salvation was nearer now than it had been when they first believed.  There is a set day of redemption, and with each passing day it gets closer.  Only the Father knows when that day will be, but the Spirit functions as an alarm clock, waking up God's people before the dawn.  With the Word of God ringing in our ears, we know what time it is.

The night, you see, is old.  It has been night for so long, but now - in this time between the times, this epoch that commences with an empty tomb within which the women seek him in vain and hastens toward the day when every eye shall see him - now the day is at hand.  The Morning Star is in the sky, and dawn is just over the horizon.  And it is closer, now: closer than when Paul wrote.  Soon it will be day.

So wake up.  Live like a daytime person.  Shake off sleep, stop living like the night is endless.  Don't indulge in behaviour that makes sense only in the darkness, but prepare yourself.

It will be soon, even if that means another thousand years of waiting.  The night is far gone, even if it stretches for millennia to come. The day is at hand.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Classical Theism

This is a tentative post - and if it doesn't read like it, that's just because I like to make strong arguments!  It's tentative because this is a set of some of my problems with classical theism, a position held by almost everyone in the history of Christian theology prior to the twentieth century.  So I'm up against the consensus, and that is not a safe place to be.  So I invite contradiction and argument.  I would be happy to return to the fold if anyone could show me biblically why it is right to be there.  In the meantime, this is, I guess, where I stand.

1.  Classical theism starts with the distinction between Creator and creature.  God is fundamentally 'other'; he is 'unlike' us at an ontological level.  There will be no disagreement from me regarding this distinction.  My only question is whether it is the right place to start.  I think it serves very well as a conclusion, but rather less well as a presupposition (this will be a recurrent theme).  When Scripture talks about God's 'otherness', it is not advancing a metaphysical position, but saying something about God's character.  Isaiah 55:8-9 is a great example: God is not like us - but what does that mean?  In context, it means that God forgives his people's sin!  He is unlike us, because he forgives.  In fact, the way in which God is most unlike us, according to the NT, is that whereas we grasp, from our lowly position, at power and prestige, he lays aside his glory to come near.  When we stand before the Son of God in his triumphant humiliation on the cross, then we can surely say that God is utterly unlike us.  Never would this have entered into our minds.  Here - and I would suggest only here - do we see that there is a distinction in being between Creator and creature that we could never bridge.

2.  Classical theism in its evangelical mode, ironically, doesn't make enough of the Creator-creature distinction.  When it comes to thinking of God, evangelicals who are committed to classical theism want to make sure that we are disciplined in continually observing the distinction between Creator and creature.  "...[W]e can think about God in an appropriately different manner only with considerable self-conscious effort", suggests Peter Sanlon in Simply God: Recovering the Classical Trinity.  This is a theme which recurs throughout that book.  It will be hard work to think of God as uniquely other.  It stands behind the whole understanding in classical theism of analogical language: when we attribute qualities like 'love' to God, we do so analogically, purifying them of the imperfections which naturally attach to human love.  But is this work really sufficient to get us over the infinite divide?  Despite the talk about the importance of revelation in evangelical versions of classical theology, I am reminded of Pseudo-Dionysius or Bonaventure, who both envisage an ascent to knowledge of God by way of denial and purification of concepts.  That is not a compliment: apart from the fact that this idea of an intellectual/spiritual ascent sits very uncomfortably with the gospel of grace, the God these two figures arrive at is essentially defined in the end as a nothingness.

3.  Classical theism assumes too much knowledge.  When, for example, we are instructed to purify our concepts of whatever smacks of imperfection, or when we are told that God could not have certain attributes in certain ways because this would imply imperfection, where is the idea of 'perfection' coming from?  How can you or I know what perfection looks like?  One hears a lot from classical theists about how we fail to attain to the lofty classical vision because we intuitively think God must change, or must be passible, or whatever, if he is to be love. But to my mind, the classical God looks just how I would intuitively imagine God to be, if it weren't for his revelation in Christ: big, aloof, utterly beyond.  What is counter-intuitive is the God of weakness, God in the manger, God on the cross.  Classical theism seems to know what God must look like before it sees what God does look like.

4.  Classical theism seems to hide God behind his revelation.  Here I want to tread especially carefully.  I am aware that classical theists would see what I am about to say as a distortion of their thinking.  I am aware that classical theists do not hold, and indeed explicitly disavow, the conclusions which I think follow logically from their starting point, so let me be very clear: I do not think that classical theists believe that God's characteristics and attributes as described in Scripture float above, and are ultimately not connected to, the real, simple God sitting underneath them.  It is just that I am not sure they can really avoid such a picture in practice.  The doctrine of analogy is an attempt to get around this problem, by saying that the attributes of God are analagous in some way to those attributes as we know them in humanity.  So, that God loves means that there is something in God which is analagous to human love.  Great, but what does that mean?  Given that the classical concept of God requires us to drop almost everything that usually makes up the concept of love - and requires us to somewhat explain away those aspects of the biblical story which look most like love to us - what are we really able to say about God?  It seems to me that the language of the attributes becomes a smoke-screen, behind which there sits a God who bears no relation to the concepts used to describe him.  I think it would be reasonable to extend this critique even to the Persons of the Trinity.  Again, I don't think classical theists think this, but I think their starting position makes them incapable of effectively overcoming the gap (created by them!) between God's revelation and God as he is.

There is other stuff - for example, I think classical theism only makes sense on an Aristotelian metaphysic, which makes it a philosophical cul-de-sac of the sort which Christian doctrine must avoid - but those are my main problems.

What would be the alternative?  Is our thought about God to be less disciplined than the admittedly rigorous system of classical theism demands?  Is God in fact more like us than we thought?  Where should we start?

Our thought about God must indeed be disciplined: strictly disciplined.  The discipline is: look only where God has revealed himself.  Learn God only from the place where God is seen.  "A Christian ought not to seek or find God otherwise than in the Virgin's lap and on the cross", said Luther.  It is in the face of Christ that we see God.  It is in the history of Christ's birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension that we are to see who God is and what God is like.  Here God has come down to us.  We are far safer taking our language for God from his coming down, than from any attempt spiritually or intellectually to climb up to him.  I would encourage my friends who are committed to the classical vision to consider carefully what it means when Paul discourages the Roman Christians from seeking to ascend or descend to bring Christ down or up, rather than focusing on the word of faith which is near to us.  I want to encourage them to take seriously Christ's rebuke to Philip: has he been with us so long, and yet we don't know him?  Don't we know that we are to see the Father in him, and him only?

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Advent theology

Recent conversations I've been having with people around the merits (or demerits) of classical theism have driven home to me again that theology, like everything the church is called to do, is an advent discipline, which is to say, it's grounded, provisional, and eschatological.

Theology is grounded because it is based in the original advent of Christ.  We in the church have seen something of God, and therefore we must speak.  Because it matters that we speak faithfully - that what we say conforms to what God has revealed - we have theology, a discipline which aims to critique our talk about God so as to achieve that faithfulness.  What that means is that theology is far from being an anything-goes affair.  The real God has really revealed himself, and it matters that when we speak of him our speech reflects his revelation.

Theology is provisional because we live between the times.  We look back to Christ and rejoice in what he has done, but we acknowledge that we still await our redemption.  That means that we have to recognise two things.  One is our own continuing sinfulness and weakness.  Everything that we say is open to critique, and nothing that we say will perfectly express God's being and action.  The other is the movement of history.  Things that were said in the church yesterday cannot just be repeated today as if they definitely still made sense.  Human speech which was faithful to God's revelation yesterday may be unfaithful if simply repeated verbatim today.  It is not as if God has changed!  But in this between-the-times world, nothing stands still for long.  Words change their meaning, cultural resonances shift, philosophies rise and fall.  We must speak today, knowing that the church of tomorrow must speak again and afresh.

Theology is eschatological because we look forward to seeing Christ.  On that day, theology will become defunct, as we will know even as we are known.  Or, to put it another way, the human discipline of theology will give way to the divine theology, which will once and for all correct our faulty notions and purify and complete our stumbling efforts to speak.  Faithful theology looks forward to its own dismissal, its service done and no longer required.  The goal, after all, never was theology as a discipline, but knowledge of God as a relational reality.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Karl Barth on Divine Simplicity

Karl Barth addresses divine simplicity as part of his teaching on the unity of God (CD II/1, 442ff.).  God is one.  That implies, on the one hand, his uniqueness; on the other, his simplicity.  But what does 'simplicity' mean for Barth - and what does it not mean?

That God is simple "signifies that in all that He is and does, He is wholly and undividedly Himself." (445)  God is not composite.  He is not composite in the three Persons of his existence, nor is he composite in his distinguishable attributes (or as Barth prefers to call them, his perfections).  God is never distant from himself, never in conflict with himself.  He is always all of himself in all his fullness.

The divine simplicity also implies divine lordship.  "Nothing can affect Him, or be far from Him, or contradict or withstand Him, because in Himself there is no separation, distance, contradiction or opposition." (445)  Being completely and unconditionally the Lord of himself, God is the Lord in all other relationships and situations.

So far, so classical.  Where does Barth differ from the tradition, if indeed he does?

In his brief sketch of the historical origins of the doctrine, Barth points out that the early church clarified its doctrine of divine simplicity as it grappled with the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation.  His complaint is that already in Augustine, and throughout the periods of Catholic and then Protestant Orthodoxy, the doctrine comes to be developed in "a purely logical and metaphysical" way (446), no longer anchored in the gospel.  This is problematic, because a purely logical and metaphysical doctrine of simplicity both points away from the Holy Trinity toward a generic theism, and "leads to an underlying nominalism or semi-nominalism in the doctrine of the attributes" (447) - that is to say, the wealth of perfections in God cannot be taken with full seriousness, even where the attempt is made to do this.

The issue here is whether the concept of simplicity is still flowing from revelation, or whether it has become detached and absolutised.  Whilst it is true and necessary to say that God is simple, "the assertion of the simplicity of God is not reversible in the sense that it could equally well be said that the simple is God." (449)  The mere idea of simplicity will not serve us well here.  "In Scripture, the utterly simple is 'simply' God Himself in the actuality, the superior might, the constancy, the obviousness, or even more simply, the factuality, in which He is present as God and deals as God with the creature, with man." (457)

Barth's critique is that the idea of simplicity has replaced the actually simple God.  Who and what, then, is God?  For Barth, the important thing is to resist every instinctive feeling for what God ought to be like, or what simplicity must imply, and to follow Scripture.  That leads him to ground his doctrine of simplicity in the fact that the prophets and apostles all heard this one God and found themselves called to obedience.  And in each case, it was the same God.  In all his words and works, he is found to be himself.  He is trustworthy.  "And He is not merely casually or accidentally trustworthy, so that He could also be untrustworthy.  On the contrary, He is trustworthy in His essence, in the inmost core of His being.  And this is His simplicity." (459)  Barth goes on to equate God's simplicity with his faithfulness.  When we say God is simple, we say that in all his multiple words and works he is the same God, wholly himself and the whole of himself in every act.  It is God's 'simple' faithfulness that warrants and draws forth our 'simple' faith. (460)

The key thing, for Barth, is that we get things in the right order: that we hear God's self-witness in Scripture and acknowledge that in every way he is always himself, and therefore that he is simple.  God himself will determine what his simplicity means, what it means for him to be wholly himself and the whole of himself in all his ways and works.  We don't get to decide on the basis of an analysis of the concept of simplicity what God can or can't do.  We can't use simplicity to go behind God's revelation.

Friday, December 08, 2017

The Creator/creature distinction

We would not know that God stood infinitely above us unless God in Christ had decisively bridged that infinite gap.  It is not natural or obvious to think that God is profoundly other; in fact, most of the deities of the ancient world look like big human beings, and nowadays we worship normal-sized human beings, which is to say, ourselves.  It is only by making infinite descent that God reveals himself to us as the one who dwells in unapproachable distance.  It is only by taking on our nature in Christ that God shows his nature to be qualitatively different from ours.

The ironic result is that it is only from a position where God has enabled us to speak of him in very human terms that we see that our human thinking and speaking is entirely inadequate to grasp him.  We don't first know God as infinitely different (how could we?  what concepts would we deploy?) and then breathe a sigh of relief that he accommodates himself to us.  We see God in Christ in the manger and on the cross, and then we understand that this God whom we see here in the flesh is beyond us, utterly beyond us.

The only reason we know that there is a stark distinction between the Creator and the creature is that Jesus Christ has in his own person united the two.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Don't mine the Bible

When I was a younger man, and learning how to read and teach the Bible, there were always particular warning signs posted around those sections which were classified as 'narrative'.  One had to be particularly careful when reading narrative, and especially when drawing doctrinal affirmations or practical applications from it.  Narrative was slippery, capable of multiple readings, uncomfortably open.  The common wisdom seemed to be: 'never make a doctrinal or practical point from narrative which is not found explicitly taught elsewhere in Scripture'.

"Like gold from a mine, so the truth of faith has to be extracted from Scripture by the exertion of all available mental powers."  Thus Herman Bavinck, with an image also utilised by Hodge and Warfield.  It is interesting to pick at some of the assumptions behind this metaphor.  One obvious one is that the purpose of Holy Scripture is to teach doctrine; the gold which Bavinck envisages being extracted from the mine of Scripture is a set of true propositions about God and man.  Then there is the idea that these truths have to be excavated.  The stuff of value is hidden in there.  The thing with a mine is that most of the stuff that comes up from it is just rock.

Now, I don't want to push these theologians on a particular metaphor; I do understand that one cannot in one image say everything that one would like to say on a particular subject.  But I do think that this notion of what the Bible is and how it works leads fairly directly to that practical approach to Bible reading which makes the story of Scripture very definitely secondary to the more straightforward 'teaching' sections of, for example, the Pauline epistles.  I think it's no coincidence that the NT epistles are privileged in many evangelical churches.  I think people who think that this is what the Bible is will obviously relegate the narrative sections - and let's be clear, that's most of the Bible - to the status of 'illustrative material', adding some colour to the real business of the doctrinal matter.

The way we typically use Scripture in our lives and in our churches backs this up.  Normally we have a fairly small chunk of Bible in front of us for our morning devotions, or read to us for exposition in the sermon.  And because this is our shot of Bible for the day or the week, we want fairly immediate pay-off: a take-away that we can meditate on or take action on during the long hours and days of secularity.  We want to know what the point is.  Now, when we read doctrinal or ethical statements from the NT, that seems straightforward.  But when we read narrative, we naturally start to try to boil it down: what am I mean to think, believe, do?  In other words, what propositional truth or practical instruction is hiding in this story?  What is the gold, and how do I mine it?

This has an effect on our theologising as well.  We construct a view of God based on the propositional statements we see made in parts of Scripture, and then explain the narrative (dare I say it, often explain it away) in light of these.

But what if the story is the point?

A simple reflection on the gospel should tell us that this is absolutely correct.  The gospel is a narrative.  And yet - wouldn't some evangelicals be fairly happy if the Gospels went missing from their Bibles, so long as they could still construct a doctrine of the atonement from Paul?

So, here's the plan: let's just read the story, in bigger chunks, with less attention to immediate application and more determination to just accept that this is the story.  And let's shape our thinking about God around the fact that he is the God who made this story.  When we make our systematic theologies - and please don't hear me as saying anything negative about this process! - let's make sure that our ideas and our vocabularies are shaped by Holy Scripture as the witness to what God has done - that is to say, by the story.

I suppose if I were to offer a different metaphor, I'd say: let's be in the Bible like we might be in a river, being carried in a particular direction, 'at the mercy' of the current.

It's more exciting than digging.

Friday, November 24, 2017

How to ignore the Bible

1.  Consider that there are people out there who interpret this passage differently; some of those people probably have advanced degrees, and may even have written books.  Bearing this in mind will have numerous beneficial effects.  Primarily, of course, you will be able to ignore what the Scripture says.  But you can do it without being forced to arrive at any particular conclusion - you can't be pinned down, and others will find it very hard to dispute your position.  Note that this doesn't involve nearly so much work as you might imagine.  There is no need to actually engage with any scholarship, or check whether the alternative interpretations being offered are more plausible.  Just knowing that there are people out there who read things differently enables you to effortlessly render the passage of Scripture in front of you innocuous.

2.  Consider that there is a background, a Sitz im Leben if you will, to every part of the Bible.  It is a truism accepted by all that Scripture was not written from, or addressed to, a vacuum.  But you can use this simple fact in two ingenious way to get around any part of Holy Writ which doesn't suit you or the current zeitgeist.  Firstly, you can note that we don't the details of the situations of the Biblical authors or the original recipients.  Surely this lacking information is essential to reading the Bible properly?  Without it, the meaning of the passage in question remains indeterminate, and once again, without having to advance any sort of argument or do any intellectual work, you have successfully neutered Scripture.  However, if you want to be a bit more creative, you can pursue a second route: that of constructing a more-or-less plausible background for the passage at hand, and then insisting that Scripture can only be read with your (admittedly imaginary) backdrop if it is to make sense.  With a little work, this sketchy background can make the Bible mean exactly the opposite of what it appears to mean at first reading.  In fact, the creative student of Holy Scripture can make it mean literally anything at all by this method.

3.  Consider that the Bible is a human as well as a divine book.  Again, this is accepted by all, at least in theory.  The personalities of the human authors, along with their assumptions about society, their limited horizons, and their basic ignorance, were not completely overwritten in the process by which God brought about the witness of Holy Scripture.  It is child's play to assign any objectionable aspects of the passage at hand to the limitations of the human author, leaving only the parts which are more acceptable to be ascribed to divine inspiration.

4.  Consider that there is a trajectory to the teaching of the Bible.  Making use of the theologically unobjectionable idea of progressive revelation, it is easy to argue that later parts of the Bible show a deeper understanding of God and his purposes than earlier parts.  All that is then necessary is to extend this upward line beyond the close of the Canon.  Surely one must conclude that even the Apostles, with the benefit of twenty centuries reflection, would in fact have written what you would prefer them to have written, rather than the words they actually wrote.

By these four methods, it should be perfectly possible to avoid ever being challenged by Holy Scripture.  So, rest easy in your presuppositions, mes amis, and go with the flow.  Properly interpreted away, even the difficult parts of the Bible can become proofs that you and people like you were absolutely right all along.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

When it is awful

When everything is awful and life is too much to bear, we need the beginning, the middle, and the end of the Bible story.

We need the beginning because we need to know that it wasn't meant to be this way.  We need to know that God did not intend for us a world of suffering and tears and chaos.  In fact, Genesis 1 and 2 can be read as stories of the systematic binding of chaos and the perfect provision of spreading goodness respectively.  We need to know that God isn't cruel, that he didn't set us up for a fall.  The beginning of the story is all goodness, and we need that if we are going to remember in the darkness that God is good.

We need the middle of the story because we need to know that we are not left alone.  We see in the incarnation of the Son of God that the Creator has not abandoned his creation.  Far from it, as far from it as can be: he has entered his creation, become a creature, the Author inside the story.  And paradoxically we see how deeply committed to the non-abandonment of creation God is at the point where the Son of God casts his eyes towards heaven on the cross and finds himself... abandoned.  God is with us, and he is with us right at that point of God-forsaken agony.  The middle of the story is God-with-us on the cross, and we need that if we're to remember that his care is not removed from us in our own suffering.

We need the end of the story because we need to know that it will not always be like this.  It is small comfort to have a God who would have loved to help, and would even travel into the depths to be with us, but could not ultimately change anything.  The resurrection of Jesus Christ points forward to a future in which God himself will make every wrong right, will wipe away every tear from the eyes of his suffering people, and will make of our sad ruin a glorious future.  That is the ultimate hope, and it bleeds through into the little hopes for today, yes, even the very little ones.  The end of the story is a new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness dwells, and we need that if we are going to persevere in the darkness.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Going all Benedict?

I've recently caught up with the rest of the Christian world by reading Rod Dreher's book The Benedict Option.  For those who have not managed it yet, it's an attempt (in an American context, and that's important) to re-think how Christians engage in society, culture, and politics.  The thesis is built on a negative, but I would say accurate, premise: that we lost.  In the US context, Dreher particularly means that Christians lost the culture war; you can expand it to the UK context by noting that we lost without fighting.  However it happened, Christians have lost most of their influence over culture and politics, and now find themselves a minority in a society in which they might formerly have felt at home.

Dreher is not painting the past as some golden age.  He knows there were challenges 'back then' as well.  But we don't have to live then, we have to live now.  What should we do?  His answer is: take the Benedict Option.  Which means what, exactly?

Well, this depends on a perhaps more controversial development of the negative premise.  For Dreher, the culture of the West is so tied up with the Christian religion that the loss of the latter necessarily means the loss of the former; hence we are entering a new Dark Age, a period of history in many ways parallel to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.  (I hear echoes of Bonhoeffer here, particularly in his Ethics.)  I say this is controversial, because I think certainly in my context there is a lot of wariness about tying Christianity and (Western) culture together in this way. But I find it persuasive, at least from a historical point of view.  Western culture means that particular form of the interaction between the Classical past and the Christian message which took root in the West - and that is what is being lost.

The parallel between the new Dark Age and the old one invites the more positive parallel which Dreher wants to develop: orthodox Christians need to follow the example of Benedict, in developing means of resisting the disintegration of faith and culture.  But what does that look like?  For Benedict it meant the monastery, but Dreher knows that isn't realistic for most of us.  So what then?

Essentially, it seems to me, what Dreher is advocating is just being the church - and he acknowledges that in one sense this is really not rocket science - but being the church more seriously and more intensively than we have become used to.  Creating real, close communities that foster the handing on of the Christian tradition.  Being prepared to opt out of society where it is impossible for us to participate without compromise.  Taking more care in the education of our children (which for him means withdrawing them from public, and most private, schools).  Being much more prepared to be weird.

This is not, by the way, isolationism.  What Dreher calls 'Benedict Option communities' - and he envisages them taking many different forms - will remain fundamentally open and engaged.  But they will do it on terms set by the gospel, and they will do it from a place grounded in a distinctively Christian culture.  Fundamentally, BO communities are seeking to maintain Western culture so that when the experiments in atheistic culture, with its cheery or depressive nihilism, come crashing down, there is something for people to come back to.

I find the vision of this book inspiring, even where the detail doesn't really transfer well into my context.  Christian communities developing ways of maintaining 'thick' Christian culture amidst a disintegrating world.  But are we ready for it?  Dreher recounts how his own Orthodox Church used to insist that anyone who wanted to take the Eucharist on the Sunday must attend Vespers on Saturday night - it's an example of shaping life around church, not just squeezing church in at the margins.  Would we be up for that?  Are we ready to live as if the gospel of Christ really were the most important thing?

Friday, November 03, 2017

The land and the amen

As various people remember the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, which pledged the British Government to work towards the establishment of what would become the modern state of Israel, perhaps it's time to reflect again on what God's promises to ancient Israel mean today.  For some, like His Grace, Balfour represented God keeping his promise, that Israel would possess the land in perpetuity - and therefore the modern state of Israel and the whole Zionist enterprise is the fulfilment of God's word.  I can't agree.  I think this is a theological disaster (and note, this is a theological and not directly a political post; obviously one can't wholly unpick them, but this particular post is really about whether Zionism can be given a Christian theological justification), and I think I see how it happens.

Let's clear the decks a bit.  Did the God of all the earth particularly elect Israel, and particularly promise them the possession of a strip of land in the eastern Mediterranean in perpetuity?  Yes, yes he did.  You can read it right there in the Old Testament.  You can read the original promise to Abraham, you can read the reiterated promise to Moses, you can read the promise of a remnant and a restoration which the prophets bring even after Israel's exile from the land.  Now, if you pride yourself on reading the Bible literally, you will take those promises to mean just what they say at face value.  From there, you will have to assume that they remain unfulfilled, and you may conclude that they are in process of being fulfilled at the present time.  It makes sense.

But that sort of literal reading is not a Christian way to read the Bible.

The apostle Paul tells us that every promise of God receives its 'yes' in Christ.  This is the consistent perspective of the New Testament: that the story of Israel is recapitulated in Christ, and that the promises made to Israel are fulfilled in Christ.  Consider, for example, the promise that a descendant of David will reign forever over the Kingdom of Israel.  For the apostles, that promise finds it divine 'yes', its 'amen, amen', in the exaltation of the Lord Jesus to the throne of the universe.  To say that they are still looking forward to an earthly Kingdom is to deny that the Kingdom already belongs to Christ, and that is unthinkable to the NT authors.

A Christian reading of the Old Testament does not view it as a series of relatively disconnected promises, related to one another only in so far as they fit into some mysterious and as yet unfulfilled plan of God's will.  Rather, a Christian reading of the Old Testament sees the whole as moving towards one point, namely Christ.  In him, the promises find their fulfilment.  He is the Amen of God to all the promises of the OT, the meaning hidden in every part of the OT story.  So when the apostles look forward, they don't look forward to more redemptive history.  They look forward to the uncovering and revealing of the fulfilment that has already taken place in Jesus - in other words, they look for him to come again in glory.

The promise of the land is not in any sense independent of Christ - none of the promises of God are.  In fact, the promise of the land is fulfilled.  The Lord Jesus has, through his resurrection and exaltation, taken possession of all the earth.  He is in his person the recapitulation of the history of Israel in Canaan, just as he is the recapitulation of the history of Adam in Eden.  That this is not yet seen does not make it any less true.

There are not multiple storylines in Scripture.  There are not multiple words of God.  There is one Word, Jesus Christ.  He is the Amen to all God's promises, and the eternal possessor of the land.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Reformation 500

It is 500 years to the day since the Augustinian Friar Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, in an attempt to start a debate about the sale of indulgences which led to the revolution in the Church which we call the Protestant Reformation.

I have been remembering the Reformation by pondering the logic of the first few verses of Galatians 3:
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
The background to this passage is that the Galatian churches planted by Paul have been visited by other teachers, who have sought to persuade these Gentile believers that they must keep the Law of the Old Testament.  Of course we don't have their side of the argument, only Paul's, but my guess is that the Law was being offered as the path to growth in godliness - faith in Jesus is a great start, and gets you in to God's family; but to stay in, to grow, to make it to completeness, to enjoy perfect righteousness, pursue the Law.  We can see what Paul's response is by working backwards through these verses.

The central question is this: having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?  Given that the beginning of your Christian life was all from God, all his doing, are you now going to push on to complete godliness by means of human effort?  The Galatian believers would doubtless have wanted to answer in the negative; so would the mediaeval Catholic Church.  No, in keeping the Law the Galatians saw themselves as continuing in dependence on God's grace.  So, to, did the Church of Luther's day.  In fact, what would continued dependence on God look like, if not regular penance, indulgences, the sacramental economy?  No, Paul, we're not seeking to be perfected by the flesh.

But Paul wants to know: how did you receive the Spirit?  Was it by works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?  This sharpens the question.  What does it look like to depend on grace?  What did it look like, Galatians, when you first became Christians?  Did it look like the Law?  No, it did not.  It was faith in what you heard that first brought the Spirit to you.  God's grace came to you as you believed.  Now, do you suppose that God works inconsistently with himself?  Did he first bring you in through faith, so that he could keep you in through the works of the Law - or indeed, the works of the Church's penitential system?  Paul's point here is that God is certainly not inconsistent: as your Christian life began through hearing with faith, so it must continue.

So we might ask: well, what is it that we must hear with faith?  Paul is not here extolling the virtue of faith in general, and neither was Luther, despite what some secular observers of the Reformation might think.  It is faith in something particular.  It was before your eyes, says Paul to the Galatians, that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.  It was in Christ crucified that the Galatians had trusted; this was the message which they had heard with faith.  The content of that message matters.  By trusting in Christ crucified, the Galatian Christians identified with him in his death, and confessed that it was their death too: the death of their old selves, the judgement on sin which they deserved now executed in the Messiah.  And as they heard this message with faith, so the Spirit was given, and they lived - the new life of Christ living in them.  (For all which, see Galatians 2:20).

How did you get in?  By hearing the message of Christ crucified and believing it.  How will you stay in?  By hearing the message of Christ crucified and believing it.  How will you grow?  By hearing the message of Christ crucified and believing it.  What will keep you to the end?  Hearing the message of Christ crucified and believing it.

This is what the Reformation was all about.  Not really faith in and of itself, but the Word - the Message, the Good News: that God in Christ was reconciling sinners to himself, that in Christ the old has gone and the new has come, that my sinful self was nailed to his cross so that I can live in new life.  Lots of people have lots to say about the Reformation on this anniversary, good and bad.  Much can indeed be said.  At its heart, this movement was about the message of Christ crucified, and that is worth celebrating.

Monday, October 23, 2017


The equation spontaneity=authenticity goes mostly unquestioned in our culture.  When the politician switches off the teleprompter and speaks to us 'from the heart', we feel like we've seen them as they really are.  It's the same in church.  We have a sense that prepared words, or actual written liturgy, easily imply hypocrisy, or at least are not the best way of expressing authenticity.

The gospel ought to raise at least a question mark here.  If the real me is not the person I experience myself to be day by day, but the person I am in Christ, then what is most true about me is not what springs spontaneously from my own heart but what is said about me in the gospel.  I do not know myself, not even from my own lived experience of myself, unless I know myself by faith.

One implication for the gathered worship of the church is that it should be a time when, through liturgical structure and content, I am able to authentically express myself - which is to say, I should be able to say and sing, in the company of the community, words which could never spring from my own heart, but which express who I really am.

Might the way of authenticity involve turning off my own inner chatter and owning the voice I am given in Christ instead?

Friday, October 20, 2017

The only finished human

I don't know if this is a cross-cultural constant - my hunch would be probably not - but here in the West it seems to be universally assumed that life takes the form of a story of some kind.  I think it's almost impossible for us to avoid narrative as a way of understanding the (often apparently random) events which fill the span our existence.  We tell the story of our lives to ourselves and to others because that is how we integrate our experiences and experience our selves in the world.

That latter would imply that our tendency toward life-narrative is deeply connected to issues of identity.  This surely is the case.  In telling our life story, we also present ourselves.  The story of the things that have happened to me, and how I have reacted to things or brought things about - that is at one level surely about synthesising myself as a character in a story.  One interesting thing about that is the interplay of given and created in my self-understanding.  To a certain extent I can tell the story my way, and thus create my own character; but at some level there are events and reactions over which I have no apparent control, and my character is given to me.  (And of course this is not just retrospective: I can make decisions which affect the future course of the story, and in that way I have input into who I will be; and yet, not all my decisions will work out as planned, and to a certain extent I will always find myself in a future story not of my making).  I am both who I make myself, and a constant surprise to myself.  I make myself and discover myself.

The thing is, the story is not yet finished.  It's not even as if we've written the first part in stone, and we're writing on into the future.  As anyone who has tried to write a story (or even read one) knows, sometimes things happen in the later narrative which require the complete re-evaluation of earlier events.  We might need to re-write the early story in light of what is coming.  And that means that we can only have a provisional knowledge of who we are: we can only say that this is who I seem to be to me at the moment.  (And I'm not even touching here on the fact that other people looking in might tell our stories, and portray our characters, very differently - and is it really all that clear that we should privilege our own narrative voice, even if practically it is inevitable that we will do so?)

So here's a thought: Jesus Christ is the only finished human.  The story of his life is complete, from birth to death.  That could be said of countless people, of course.  But the difference is that in raising Jesus - from the dead, and then up to his own right hand - God has pronounced the authoritative verdict on Jesus' life.  God has endorsed a particular telling of Jesus' story - and God's endorsement implies truth.  Jesus now lives forever as the person he was.  His complete story means a complete character: we know who he is.  He will always be that person.

This has two implications for the way I think about my personal future.  At the one level, I can say: I don't know who I will be for eternity, because in the here and now my story and character are not fixed.  One day, I will know who I am, but not yet.  But at another level, if I am thinking in faith - which is just to say, if I am not ignoring Jesus Christ - I know that the me I will discover in that eternal future will be the me eternally determined already by him.

Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Those who wait

My friend Tanya Marlow has written a book about waiting.  Waiting, which we're so bad at.  Waiting, which is just a part of life.  Waiting, which is essential to our faith.  Honestly, it's not the sort of book I normally read (it's all creative and stuff, and I usually take my theology straight up and a little more staid) - but I think you might benefit from reading it.  Yes, you.  Because you're waiting too, aren't you, for something?

The majority of the book is given over to re-tellings of the stories of four Biblical characters - Sarah, Isaiah, John the Baptist, and Mary.  The stories are narrated in the first person, and each split into five short chapters.  There is some great writing here, and a sense of immediacy which really pulls you into the world of the Bible.  Importantly, on only a few occasions (e.g. the first chapter of the Mary narrative) does the imaginative detail end up carrying the main point of the chapter - always a risk with these sorts of reconstructions!  The story-telling here is genuinely inviting us to look again at the Bible, without on the whole obscuring the Biblical narrative behind its own story-telling.  

And this may not be that exciting to many readers, but I was really pleased to have an appendix in which Tanya explains some of the interpretive choices she has made, and some of the ways in which she has avoided making interpretive choices (e.g. what exactly happened to Sarah in Egypt?)  Having that working on display is both a fascinating insight into the creative process, and a great reminder that Tanya is a responsible exegete and insightful theologian as well as a story-teller.

So, waiting.  How useful it is to be reminded that waiting for God to act has been a central experience of the fathers and mothers of our faith throughout the centuries!  Through the lenses of these stories we see different aspects of what waiting means: disappointment, delay, doubt, disgrace.  No doubt different stories will resonate with different people; perhaps listening to and engaging with the stories that resonate less immediately with us will help us to understand better the struggles of others.  But Tanya is not just reflecting on how hard it is to wait.  We are also reminded through these stories that we are waiting for someone - for God - to act: and we are reminded that he does indeed act, even when we don't see it.  It is worth it.

The book is rounded off by a fifth section, which moves away from story-telling to apply some of the insights we've hopefully picked up along the way into our own personal stories.  This section is brief but astute; I could have had more of it.  Then there is a second appendix with questions for group Bible study, which highlights that this book could be used in lots of different ways.  It would work really well as an advent course for homegroups, for example.

So, no, I wouldn't normally read this sort of book, but I'm glad I read this one.  The theme is important, and Tanya is just the person to tackle it.  And despite my general preference for a weighty theological tome, I wonder on reflection whether this isn't just the way to write about waiting - because after all, the wait isn't just a doctrine, but a lived experience of groaning and hoping.

As Tanya helps us to pray:

Lord Jesus,
Who waited for centuries in the light of heaven
Nine months in the warm darkness of a womb
And three days in a tomb

Be with us in the waiting, we pray.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Two books on truth

I had cause recently to do a bit of reading around the concept of truth, and two books in particular caught my eye.  This is not a review or even a detailed overview of either, but just some reflections on the different trajectories truth is taking at the moment in our culture.

Matthew D'Ancona is a political journalist, and his book Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back deals primarily with the apparent departure of truth from the public sphere in the UK and USA.  Most of his examples of post-truth are derived from the Donald or the Brexit Referendum.  The diagnosis of where we've got to, and the widespread loss of trust that follows a culture of pervasive lying, is good.  I think he doesn't go deep enough, philosophically, but maybe it's not that sort of book.  In particular, I think it would be worth spending more time pondering whether the practitioners of post-truth would see themselves as lying.  I think the situation is more like something 'beyond truth and falsehood' - the opposites of truth-telling and lying have both become outmoded as concepts, and instead we're left with politicians and other public figures telling stories for power.

The solution D'Ancona proposes is less good.  There is an alarming section where he seems very excited about the future potential to have AI weeding out 'fake news' from the internet.  Then there is a desperately naive attempt to return to modernity - he actually invokes the values of the Enlightenment a number of times.  We must demand that we be told the truth.  We must insist on facts.  But all this is to write as if the 19th and 20th centuries had never happened - as if Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud had never put pen to paper.  The insistence that there is a value-free, interpretation-free, straightforward truth to be had is really not going to get us out of this mess.  He seems to recognise this, because he also talks about the need for those who support Enlightenment values to work hard at telling a better story, constructing a more convincing narrative.  I'm afraid that within the framework of the book, this just comes across as a call for propaganda.  The 'new modernism' which D'Ancona appears to be advocating comes across as alarmingly totalitarian, for someone must surely be appointed to decide which truth is the real truth (at least until we can train the robots to do it for us!) and which narratives should be ruled out of court.

John Caputo's book Truth: The Search for Wisdom in the Postmodern Age is more philosophical, which is what you would expect from a professional philosopher.  It also takes a much longer historical view, dividing the story of Western culture into three periods - Ancient, Modern (Enlightenment), and Postmodern.  That perspective enables Caputo to see that something significant was lost at the Enlightenment.  For the Ancients, truth was something to be loved, something to be pursued, something that had a claim on us.  Truth was related to goodness and beauty and the good life.  The Moderns, on the other hand, separated truth out, made it just bare facts.  In Kant, truth is no longer something to be loved; 'truth' is just the label we give to whatever propositions and experiences come out when we make the right and appropriate use of our faculties.  Caputo uses religion as a test-case for how this view of truth works, and that enables him to show how much is lost.  For the Moderns, religion (along with most anything that gives life value) is excluded from the realm of truth, and therefore from having any real content at all.  Postmodernism is a response to this, an attempt to recover that sense of truth as something to be loved and lived.  But this not a return to the Ancient world; there is no going back.  Rather, this is living into an always-open future.  Caputo uses Derrida (whether accurately or not I couldn't say; Derrida is an unexplored land for me) to argue for a vision of truth that is closely related to whatever is open to the future.  That is true which will carry us into the future, which is open.  That is false which closes off the future.

So Caputo's response to the crisis of truth is to push deeper into Postmodernism.  From a Christian perspective, it's hard not to see this as some sort of eschatological project, but with an indefinitely delayed eschaton: the truth is always over the next hill.  Anyone who claims to have the truth is inherently proved wrong, because truth is always in the future.  There is, then, a criterion for deciding what is true and what is false - but it doesn't seem to have much to do with reality per se.

I think these are basically the two secular responses to the truth crisis: back to modernity or forward into deeper postmodernity.  The latter is more exciting and, to me at least, appealing.  But will it help us, really?  Won't we just end up with a series of competing eschatological visions, with their attendant narratives about the present?  When it hits the street, won't this just boil down to 'I have my truth and you have yours'?

Of course, I think the answer lies in the fact that the One who is the truth has been here amongst us - that one life amongst the many human lives of history is the truth to which every other life, every fact, every aspect of reality, is related.  But that is another story.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Feet of clay

In the last few weeks there has been a lot in the air about Karl Barth and his relationship to his 'secretary' Charlotte von Kirchsbaum.  It has long been known that this relationship created difficulty in Barth's marriage, and that Barth's decision to have von Kirchsbaum move into the family home was a source of great pain to his wife.  Of course there were rumours that this was a sexual affair.  Recently various private letters have been translated into English and published, which have effectively confirmed that this was indeed an illicit affair - whether sexual or not (I'm still not sure it's clear) - and represented a significant failure on Barth's side to keep his marriage vows.  To put it more bluntly, Barth's family life was characterised by his own sin, of which he never (it seems) repented.

I wasn't personally particularly rocked by these revelations; I think I'd always assumed that the rumours were true, so I've factored this in to my thinking about Barth already!  Others were really shaken.  The thing with Barth, for those of us who love his theology, is that he often feels like more than just a writer.  We feel like we've thought alongside him, grown up through his help.  It's tough to realise that this man who has meant so much to us was compromised so completely.

So what do you do when you are let down in this way?

1.  First, you check your heart.  Have I, in fact, made an idol of this person, of their teaching or their life?  Have they perhaps been exalted to a place that ought to be occupied only by the Lord Jesus?  It won't always be easy to tell - to be genuinely grieved and shaken by the defection of a mentor or the sin of a teacher is to a certain extent appropriate, and if that person has been particularly helpful to you the grief can be strong.  I've appreciated Bobby Grow's series of reflections on this in relation to Barth (first article linked, but read on through the next few posts on his blog to see the progression).  Working it through is fine, and indeed essential, but at the end of the day you weren't meant to be putting that much faith in this other human being; they were only the ones who pointed you to The Other Human Being.  Get your heart right.

2.  Second, you check their doctrine.  If a teacher has fallen into gross sin, that does not necessarily imply anything about their teaching - but on the other hand, it might.  Was there always some idea, some misconception or untruth, lurking in this teacher's theology which proved to be the doorway, or the justification, for wickedness?  With regard to Barth, I'm not convinced there was.  The one spot where I want to do some more thinking is around whether Barth took seriously enough not only God's wrath - this he treated very seriously! - but the possibility of this wrath being visited on actual unrepentant sinners.  Is it possible that Barth's wide hope for salvation was connected to his own moral failure?  There's no real way to know, but it bears some scrutiny.

3.  Third, you acknowledge that every human teacher is a two-way signpost.  A Christian teacher, if they understand what they are about at all, seeks to be a signpost to Christ - a finger pointing in his direction.  But all Christian teachers are also sinful human beings, and so there will always be something in their teaching or life which points the other way.  Where sin is exposed, and it becomes apparent in exactly what ways a particular person has pointed away from Jesus, we can use even those failures as warning signs.  For me, Barth is both the person who has taught me more about Jesus than any other uninspired author, and the person who has shown me that everything can so easily be undermined by sin.  That latter can be as useful to me as the former if I take notice of it.

4.  Fourth, you say 'there but for the grace of God...' - and you pray.  "Watch your life and doctrine closely", says the apostle.  When we see a hero fail, whether in an area of life or doctrine, there is a temptation to become bitter - see how I have been failed!  But we know - surely we know - that there is nothing in us that makes us better.  This doesn't mean that we have to brush over the hero's failure; we ought to take it seriously.  We ought to condemn it strongly.  It is no false moralism to condemn what God condemns.  But at the same time, we need to acknowledge that unless God keeps us, we too will fail and fall.  And then we need to ask him to keep us.  Keep us from sin that will undermine our teaching.  Keep us from error that will point others away from Christ.  Keep us, keep us, keep us.

I will keep reading Karl Barth and benefiting from his insight.  I am determined also to benefit from his failure, as odd as that sounds.  I will be redoubling the watch on my life and doctrine, and I would encourage you to do the same.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

The pure original

Last week, the theologian Peter Enns tweeted this:
 Now, I have a lot of issues with Enns.  He is pretty much the embodiment of the slippery slope argument which prevents many evangelicals from engaging creatively with the doctrine of Scripture, and that's a shame.  In many ways this particular tweet captures the nature of most of my concerns with him: at one level, he is so obviously right, but where is he going with it?

In what sense is this tweet obviously true?  Well, it is true that the history of Christianity (I feel unqualified to speak to Judaism) is a history of theological adjustment.  Doctrine develops, course corrections are made, different emphases are brought to the forefront at different times.  And I think it is also (more or less) true that Christianity would cease to exist if this process ceased.  I don't mean that Christianity as a world religion would roll up and disappear - and I suspect Enns doesn't mean that either.  I mean that Christianity would cease to be a vital force.  At the very least, different cultures and philosophies mean that the core gospel message has to be expressed and re-expressed.  Theological concepts which were an adequate sign-post to the gospel at one time may communicate falsehood after a couple of centuries.  So, yes, theological adjustment is vital to the existence of Christianity.

It's the last bit, though, that is troubling.  Again, to some extent it's true.  There is no point in history where the theological consensus of the church could be held up as the perfection of theology - no, not even the immediate post-apostolic period.  After all, you'd rather have an explicit Nicene doctrine of the Trinity, wouldn't you?  I would.

But the direction of travel causes me anxiety.  The last clause - the absence of a pure original - makes me ask: what, then, controls the 'adjustments' that must be made to theology over time?  What should drive and motivate those adjustments?  How will we know if the right adjustments are being made?

There is a danger here that we fall into a fully post-modern theology.  Post-modernism makes truth an eschatological thing, but with an indefinitely postponed eschaton.  Truth is always in the future.  At best we are always inclining toward truth, but we never reach it.  In a sense, truth could be defined as that which has a future, which remains open to the future.  Now, I accept that there is an eschatological element to truth.  I accept that theology is always, or ought always to be, theologia viatorum, theology on the way.  We never have the finished product.


The last word, the eschatological Word, has actually been spoken.  There is a pure original.  His name is Jesus Christ, and we know him through his commissioned witnesses, the prophets and apostles.  This does not preclude the constant adjustment; in fact, it necessitates it.  The final Word having been spoken, we have to continually ask whether we have heard it, and whether what we are saying conforms to it.  Yes, there is an openness to the future here: to future correction, to the ultimate future of the eschaton.  But that ultimate future is none other than Jesus Christ - the one who will be is the one who was (and who is).  Adjustment to our theology must therefore come from him.  Maybe that's what Enns meant.  But I fear not.

Friday, September 29, 2017

War in heaven

The Biblical record suggests that Satan has three broad powers: the power to tempt (of course archetypically in Genesis 3); the power to trouble and oppress (as we see in the gospel accounts of demonic oppression - the explicit link to Satan is made in Luke 10); and finally the power to accuse.

From Scripture it seems clear that, as terrible as Satan's power to tempt and trouble certainly is, it is his power to accuse which is most terrible.  Zechariah 3 contains a powerful vision of Joshua the High Priest standing before the LORD's angel and being subjected to the accusatory force of Satan.  The terrifying thing about the vision is that Joshua is dressed in filthy rags.  That is to say, Joshua - the High Priest, the one who is to represent Israel before the thrice-holy God, the holy pinnacle of the people - is besmeared with sin and guilt, presumably both his own and the representative guilt of the nation.  Satan accuses him before God, and look: his guilt is apparent.  He is literally wearing his guilt.  The accusation surely must stick.

The terrifying thing about Satan's power to accuse is that it is really just a species of telling the truth.

In the vision, God and his angel (!) intervene: not to deny the truth of Satan's accusation, but to take away Joshua's guilt.  That's the only way he can be a "brand plucked from the fire".  He needs, and gets, new clothes: righteousness, salvation.

The logic of how that happens - and how it can be right - is not explored in Zechariah, except to demonstrate that God is free to be merciful.  In Revelation 12 I think we do see some of the logic, albeit wrapped in apocalyptic.  Here we see war in heaven: Michael and his angels versus "that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan" with his angels.  Michael is triumphant, the devil is cast down.  There is no room in heaven any longer for Satan.

Lest we be tempted to see this as a representation of a primeval fall of the devil, the context is clearly the birth of Israel's Child, the one who is born to rule all the nations, who is caught up to God and his throne.  Here in a couple of verses we have the whole career of Christ, and it is the completion of his great work which leads to the successful assault of Michael and his cohorts on the forces of Satan.

When Jesus went up to his throne, having conquered sin and death, Michael arose (see Daniel 12!) and made war on Satan, casting him down.  Satan can't appear in heaven anymore.

In Revelation, the saints who see this sight rejoice over Satan, and in particular they name him "the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them day and night before our God".  But he no longer has access to our God.  His power to accuse is taken away.

Satan's power to accuse me always rested on my objective guilt.  But my guilt is taken away by the Lord Jesus.  So what accusation can he bring?  The military victory of Michael rests on the sacrificial victory of the Lord Jesus Christ.  And it is a complete victory.

Satan can still tempt and trouble, and he will do so.  But his power to accuse is taken away.  He can act against us on earth, but Michael and all the hosts of heaven stand armed with the proclamation of Christ's victory to prevent him from ever acting against us in heaven.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Daniel 10-12

This past Sunday we finished up a series on the book of Daniel at CCC, with a foolish but (I like to think) valiant attempt to cover the last three chapters in half an hour.  I've really enjoyed the series, both preaching it and hearing it preached.  When we started, I assumed that the really useful stuff would be the reflections on living as an exile from the early chapters - and that we would only persevere into the weird apocalyptic stuff in the second half of the book in order to avoid the charge of cowardice.

In fact, although the early chapters were indeed helpful for thinking through living for Christ in a world that doesn't know him, it has been the later chapters that have had the most impact on me.  We live in turbulent times, and the book of Daniel reflects and speaks into turbulent times.  Here are the three points I made from chapters 10-12:

In chapter 10, we see that there is more going on than we see.  Daniel prays, and an angelic messenger is dispatched.  But the messenger is held up, detained in conflict with another spiritual being, who seems to represent the interests of the Persian empire.  The message does not get through until archangelic reinforcement arrives in the person of Michael.  What are we, readers in the twenty-first century West, meant to make of all this?  Let's face it, if we stripped the chapter of all the features which make it unacceptable to a modern mindset, there wouldn't be much left.  Instead I think we need to recognise that there just is a whole world of spiritual being about which we know very little, but with which we are able to interact (e.g. in prayer).  There are angels out there, folks.

As an aside, one almost instinctive reaction to this which I have is to feel hard done by that I have never seen any angels.  But that is daft.  We Christians have been given knowledge of things which the men of the OT (like Daniel) longed to see, and which even the very angels themselves long to understand as we do.

In chapter 11, we see that most of what we do see is not (ultimately) important.  The chapter rehearses the long, back-and-forth conflict between the Hellenistic dynasties of the Ptolemies and the Seleucids.  Assuming, as I think I do, that this is seen in prospect rather than retrospect, two things are proved.  Firstly, from the fact that the angel can tell Daniel exactly what will happen, we see that God is genuinely sovereign over the affairs of nations - nothing surprises him.  But secondly, from the way that the report is given, it is clear that the affairs of nations are really of significance only as the backdrop against which God's people can be faithful or not.  The tale as told signifies nothing, despite all its sound and fury - and comes to nothing in the end.  We need to worry less about the news and think more about what it means to know God.

In chapter 12, we see that there is real hope for those who persevere.  The corporate hope presented in the chapter is that Michael the archangel will lead the forces of heaven to a triumph which will vindicate Israel; and the individual hope is that even if you die before that happens, you will be raised from the dust.  Revelation 12 tells us that this victory of Michael's has occurred - and it is because of the work of Christ.  Humanity is in principle (and in first-fruits-actuality) raised from the dead, because Jesus is raised.  The hope is real.  We can persevere.

One thing I take away from all this is that we can relax.  We don't have to change the course of the world.  We just have to know God, be faithful in our little bit of allotted time, and look with calm faith to see the things unseen.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Irreversible and Victorious

The eschatological climax of God's historical self-communication, in which this self-communication becomes manifest as irreversible and victorious, is called Jesus Christ. Karl Rahner
The Israelite of the Old Testament lives with a certain fear that perhaps the favour of God will be withdrawn.  You can see it in the people removing their ornaments and mourning at the prospect of Canaan without Yahweh.  You can see it in David, pleading that God's Holy Spirit not be taken from him.  You can see it in the final words of Lamentations.

In each case, the fear relates to human sin.  The dreadful thought is two-fold: firstly, that the patience of God might be exhausted, and that this last sin might be the one which causes him to finally turn away in disgust; secondly, that the evil of humanity - my evil - might prove to be invincible, and that even if God continues to be patient, all his patience might be in vain, because I will not be changed.

Might God walk back on his covenant promise?  Surely he would be justified.

Might my sin be such that his grace will find no foothold in me?  Surely that fits with what I know of myself.

But in Jesus Christ, God shows himself absolutely committed to communicating himself to us in grace and mercy, and absolutely powerful to overcome our opposition to that grace and mercy.  God has taken humanity to himself in his Son, uniting himself to us forever.  Moreover, the Son has endured everything that this 'uniting' means for him: the death of the cross.  And he has been raised, living again.

In the being of Jesus Christ, as it was lived out in Palestine two thousand years ago, we see God walking a path which is irreversible, committed to the point of death and beyond.  Just as nobody can reverse the resurrection and the cross, so nobody can undo God's great love.

And we see God walking a path which is victorious.  Just as nobody could keep Christ in the grave when his Father called him out, so nobody can prevent God's work in the lives even of dead-in-sin human beings.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Exiles and the Kingdom

I think the New Testament is pretty clear that Christians should expect their experience of life in this world to be an experience of exile.  1 Peter is obviously the book that explicitly uses this imagery, but actually the whole of the NT is full of the discomfort, the being-out-of-place, that comes from being part of the new creation in Christ and yet living day by day in the old creation.  Some of the more radical explorations of that motif are in Paul: think of the way that the old extends even to my own body (and mind?) in the conflict of Romans 7.  I am in exile not only in the world, but in a sense in my own skin.  Stranger in a strange land.

Given the prevalence of this motif, I don't see why Christians would be surprised to find themselves a minority, their views ignored, their beliefs ridiculed.  We should be okay with that.

But there is another line in the NT, which represents one of the essential insights of Old Testament monotheism.  Along this line, the NT insists that the whole earth is the Lord's, with everything in it.  That is why you can eat meat sacrificed to idols - the meat is God's, the idols are nothing (even if they are demons!)  From this perspective, it is the Christian who belongs - this is our Father's world, and moreover it is the world which, whether it knows it or not, is decisively claimed for redemption through the death and resurrection of Christ.  In a sense this is the deeper line, which cuts across the experience of exile: we are at home, deeply at home, in the world.  It is just that the world itself does not know that it has been brought home in Christ to its creator.

Given this, I don't see how we could refuse to hope for genuine improvement in the world.  I don't see how the church can acquiesce in the world's refusal to know itself and be itself in Christ.  We should be constantly calling the world - institutions and societies as well as individuals - to repentance and faith.

I suppose the key thing is that we speak from the perspective of confidence.  Those who fear that the exile is the more fundamental reality will speak in a shrill manner, out of anxiety and not out of the deep calm of prophetic vision.  It is only when we know that the world is Christ's that we can calmly and clearly - without being shocked by rejection, but never giving up hope that we might be heard - tell the world what it is in Christ, and what it ought therefore to be in experience.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Under authority

This morning the news has broken that Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Roman Catholic, holds ethical positions consistent with Catholicism.  Alongside the almost comical shock that being a Catholic should involve Catholicism, there have been a couple of interesting reactions, for example this:
I don't think I'd considered that particular line before, but it is surely true that consistency here is critical.  Attempts to make compassionate exceptions to the right to life actually end up making our ethics awful woman bashing.

One thing I dread whenever Roman Catholic ethical positions come into public discussion is the widespread perception that Protestants are just a bit more easy-going on these sorts of things.  This was the heart of my GCSE Religious Education, as far as I recall (and I freely admit that I may not recall ever so accurately, so don't think too poorly of my teachers): here is a tricky ethical problem, Roman Catholics take this hard line, other Christians just do what they feel like.  There are perhaps two misconceptions about Protestantism that are put about in this context:

1.  Protestants, because they are not so much bound by tradition, are more likely to be progressive than Roman Catholics.  This is not true.  Protestants are no more free than Roman Catholics to take their lead on ethical issues from the trends of wider society.  They are under the authority of Christ, expressed concretely in Holy Scripture.  Where Protestants dissent from Roman Catholic teaching on ethics, it is because they do not think Scripture supports the Roman position.  It is not because they are free.

2.  Protestants, because they are all about individual conscience, are not bound to their church's ethical positions in the way that Roman Catholics are.  This is not true.  It is true that the Reformation made much of conscience, but the intention was not to overthrow the authority of the church.  It was to relativise it.  The church has the authority to take doctrinal and ethical positions.  The point of the Reformation was simply that these positions are open to challenge from Holy Scripture, because the church is not God.  The idea is not that every individualist church member can just believe and do whatever they feel is right.  The church is a disciplined community.

Of course I know that the reason people have these misconceptions about Protestants is partly because many people calling themselves Protestants really do think and behave like this.  All I can say is that this is bad Protestantism, Protestantism gone to seed.  Real Protestants are people bound under authority, no less than Roman Catholics - just not quite the same source of authority.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Division, faith, ethics

One of the more unfortunate responses to the Nashville Statement (of which, to be clear, I am not a fan, despite being broadly in agreement with its ethical positions) is to complain that this statement is divisive.  You can find the complaint here, for example, on a blog which I have on other ocassions found useful and encouraging.  It's unfortunate because of two things: firstly, it complains that the statement does exactly what it aims to do; and secondly, it implicitly claims that division is always bad.  The second claim is obviously the important one, and it doesn't work.  The NT is full of commands to divide from people - off the top of my head, one might consider 1 Corinthians 5, or 2 Thessalonians 3:6.  These two references are particularly pertinent, as they don't command division from people who take erroneous doctrinal stances, but from people who persist in ethically forbidden behaviour.

That helps with countering a particular form of the 'division is bad' argument, which makes it an issue of whether we believe in justification by faith.  In the same post I linked earlier, you will find essentially this argument: if you divide from anyone over anything other than faith in Christ, you are saying that justification requires faith in Christ and this other thing, in this case a particular take on sexual ethics.  And therefore you are denying the heart of the gospel.

It's worth picking over the logic.  The idea is that if I divide from someone else who professes faith in Christ, then I am claiming that this person is not a Christian, and therefore I am saying, or at least implying, that I think they're not justified.  Therefore I am making justification depend on faith in Christ and right doctrine or behaviour, and this will not do.

Let me counter some of that.  Firstly, it is worth noting that the NT is clear that certain kinds of behaviour rule out inheriting the Kingdom of God, regardless of the faith you profess - see Galatians 5:19-21 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.  Without getting into the detail of how that works, it seems clear that if your understanding of justification sola fide makes these verses untenable, your understanding is wrong.  Secondly, division from another person who professes faith in Christ ought not to be understood as a final judgement on them as to their justification - by what power or right could we possible pass such a judgement?  It is more like a warning shot.  It says 'friend, we consider your doctrine or behaviour to be such that we cannot regard you as a true Christian; and therefore we call you to consider whether you are in the right with God, and to repent'.  That is a severe thing to say, but it could be a mercy if it brings repentance!

Thirdly, in the final analysis, this is just a rehash of the Counter-Reformation calumnies against justification by faith alone, but given a perversely positive spin.  The Counter-Ref claimed that Protestants taught that so long as you believed in Jesus you could behave as you liked - there was no motive for ethical living, because your faith would guarantee you salvation regardless of what you did.  Of course, the Roman apologists of this era were appalled at such a suggestion.  Now, though, it is expressed as if this were a positive thing: we can all just disagree about sexual ethics, because it doesn't really matter what you do, so long as you believe in Christ!  But this is a desperate caricature of the beautiful doctrine of justification by faith alone.  If you think that justification by faith alone means 'trust in Christ and it doesn't matter how you live', then you have missed the point.  The person who is justified by faith in Christ is given a heart to obey Christ.  The person who does not obey Christ does not love Christ, does not trust Christ.  This is all in the New Testament, front and centre.  You can deny the gospel by your behaviour, as well as by your doctrine.

I hope the Nashville Statement disappears soon.  I don't think it's fit for purpose.  It lacks theological rigour and gospel tone.  But there is a serious need for division in the church.  If we take the NT warnings about ethics and the Kingdom seriously - read again some of the verses I've linked above! - the least loving thing we can do is to try to fudge the issue.  Eternal life is at stake. We must be clear.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Prolegomena to any future statements

It may have escaped your attention that a group of evangelical Christians has published a statement on the subject of sexual ethics.  Now, a number of the signatories are people I deeply respect, and the actual ethical positions taken are ones with which I am in broad (but not total) agreement.  So I'm not knocking the statement, per se.  But here's how I wish it had started, and how I wish any future statements on ethical issues from evangelical Christians might begin.  And if it sounds a bit antiquated, a bit theological, not directly relevant to the ethical questions asked: well, so much the better.  I've just written the intro and the first article.


That the Church in the West is faced with a particular crisis today is undeniable.  The outer nature of this crisis is the unique result of the Church's ongoing encounter with post-Christian society, with the inevitable shattering of the consensus worldview and ethics of Christendom.  It is essential that the Church pay attention to the unique features of this situation, for she is called to speak a word in season, to address men and women as they are and where they are.  The Church can hardly take too seriously the unique situation in which she finds herself.

However, the inner nature of the crisis is the one pressing question which is put to the Church in every age, not by the surrounding world, but by the Church's Lord.  This is the question of whether she will hear, believe, and obey the Word of God.  That there are particular pressures today inclining her to be deaf to this Word; that there are unique circumstances today making it difficult for her to seriously believe what she hears; that the path of obedience is today strewn with obstacles which she has not previously faced - all these things are undeniably true, but must not be allowed to conceal the most important question.  Will the Church today hear, believe, and obey the Word of God?

Article 1

We believe that the Church of Jesus Christ lives by faith in the Word of God, which Word is Jesus Christ himself as he is held out to us in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.

a.  We believe that the Word of God in Holy Scripture calls us to confident faith in the accomplished work of God in Jesus Christ.  We tremble before the revelation of God's holy love at the cross of Christ, love which embraces all of sinful humanity and yet purges from sin.  We rejoice in the promise of eternal life given to us in the empty tomb of Jesus Christ, receiving this promise by faith as our only hope in life and death.  We gladly receive by faith the perfect righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ, daring to call on the holy God as our Father because of the completed work of his only-begotten Son.

b.  We believe that the Word of God in Holy Scripture calls us to faithful obedience to the Lord of the Church, Jesus Christ, who rules by his word and Spirit.  We acknowledge that the love of God in Christ does not leave us unchanged, but calls us into the perfect freedom of his service.  We acknowledge Holy Scripture as the sceptre of Christ the King, by which he commands his people and orders his Church.  We prayerfully depend on the presence of the Holy Spirit of Christ in the Church and in the hearts of his people, looking to him to give the will and power to follow where Christ our Lord leads.

c.  We confess with sorrow that we, the Church of Jesus Christ, have not lived by faith in the Word of God, but have sought to establish our own righteousness.  We confess with sorrow that we, the Church of Jesus Christ, have not obeyed the commands of Christ.  We confess with sorrow that we, the Church of Jesus Christ, have failed to present the promise of eternal life to the world.  We confess with sorrow that we, the Church of Jesus Christ, have failed to show the goodness of Christ in his commandments.  For all our wilful failings and accidental sins, we pray: Lord, have mercy.  Christ, have mercy.

d.  We deny that the Church of Christ can live otherwise than by the Word of God.  We deny that the Church of Christ must heed other voices than the voice of Christ as it is heard in Holy Scripture.  We deny that the Church of Christ must change its faith or its obedience in response to any other voice, whether from within or without.  We deny that the Church of Christ must recognise changes in wider culture as the voice of her Lord.  We deny that the Church of Christ can separate faith in the promise of the Word from faithful obedience to the command of the Word.  We deny that the lamentable failings of the Church invalidate the message of the Lord,who is merciful beyond our ability to comprehend.

e.  We call all those who put their faith in Christ to join with us in seeking his will, by prayerful attention and holy submission to Holy Scripture.  We ask the watching world to believe that we, the Church of Jesus Christ, must believe and act in obedience to our Lord.  We pledge ourselves to reform our faith, our teaching, our community life, and our actions in conformity with the Word of God as we hear it in Holy Scripture, and we ask anyone who sees error in our life or faith to bring witness against us from Holy Scripture.