Tuesday, May 23, 2017

REPOST: Imprecatory

Psalm 139 is regularly read in church services.  It's a beautiful celebration of humanity as created and sustained by God.  It's a wonderful reassurance that God's great design stands behind each human being, and that his awesome presence accompanies each human life.  Where we are perhaps ready to see the flaws in each other and in ourselves, the Psalm encourages us to view each person as "fearfully and wonderfully made".  Where I tend to feel alone, the Psalm lifts my eyes to see that wherever I am and whatever my circumstances, God's "right hand shall hold me".  No wonder the Psalm gets so much airtime.

But then you hit verse 19.  Oh, that you would slay the wicked, O God!

The reading often skips this bit out.  How can this verse sit alongside the beautiful sentiments of the rest of the Psalm?  How can we affirm on the one hand that God knows each human life intimately, but on the other hand pray that God would smite the wicked?

But there is no conflict here.  It is precisely because of the value of life that the Psalmist cries out against the wicked.  The wicked are "men of blood", those who stand against God's good intention, those who oppose life.  And they are strong, and they are bold, and mere human beings cannot stop them.

Therefore, oh, that you would slay the wicked, O God!

Now, with New Testament lenses on, we can see that this prayer is ultimately answered, not in the death of any number of wicked people, but in the death of wickedness itself  at the cross of Christ.  And yet...  May we not still hand over the wicked, whose power is beyond us, to God - the just judge?  Should we not ask the Judge to enforce justice?  I think perhaps we should.

Love of life - the life created by God - must mean enmity to everything that stands for death, and in that battle our weapon is prayer.

Originally posted in November 2015

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Vote and pray

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.
Thus the apostle.

In directing the believers to pray for those in authority, Paul makes clear that the sphere of political leadership is not one of divine disinterest.  The fact that Jesus' kingdom is not of this world does not mean that the kingdoms of this world are beneath his notice.  Admittedly, Paul's expectations and goals when it comes to praying for kings and all in high positions seem to be very limited, but there is engagement.

Our situation is rather different from Paul's.  Unlike him, we are periodically asked to help decide who exactly will be "in high positions", through the mechanism of electing our representatives.  We approach that as believers who know the King, but nevertheless are called to take an interest in who will exercise temporal authority over us.  Unlike Paul, we are called not only to pray but to act, to take a degree of responsibility (albeit a small and limited one) for the powers that be.  The emperor did not ask for Paul's input in how he ran his empire, but we are asked for input, and it is important that our input be decisively shaped by the recognition that Jesus has died and risen, and is now ascended and enthroned.  We vote, just as we live, as witnesses to that decisive fact.  Our priorities ought to be different as a result.  Can I suggest a few particular areas to think through?

In 2015, 191,014 human beings were legally killed in England and Wales.  They were, of course, killed in the womb, but killed they nonetheless were.  If you're a taxpayer, you helped to pay for it.  We are called to bear witness to the fact that in Christ no human life is superfluous, hopeless, or without value.  If one of the candidates for your parliamentary seat is consistently pro-life, and shows some willingness to act on their convictions, can I suggest that this might trump a whole load of other considerations?  I know that lots of Christians in the UK have been dismayed at the 'single-issue' voting across the pond, and I'm not saying that you should ignore everything else.  But if you did have to pick a single issue, saving the lives of unborn children wouldn't be a bad one.

In a similar, but less extreme, vein, there are numerous people in the UK who, through ill health or disability, are unable to support themselves.  On this issue, we look for representatives who first of all have compassion - who actually show some signs of caring - and then secondly who have a plan.  I don't think we need to be or ought to be particularly attached to any one plan, but we want representatives who will prioritise taking action in this area.  We live as those who believe in the God of compassion when we vote with compassion - and note that the God of compassion did not sit in heaven feeling sorry for us in our brokenness, but acted to help!

A third area would be around freedom of expression, and especially freedom of religion.  This has two aspects to it: domestic and international.  Internationally, we want representatives who will support the spread of religious liberty around the world.  Domestically, we want representatives who will protect the right of people of all faiths and none to act according to conscience and to speak according to their conviction.  We should stand for religious liberty for all, not just ourselves or those like us.  This is, I will confess, partly out of a self-interested application of what might be termed the Niemöller principle - if we don't speak out when they come for the Muslims, who will speak out when they come for us?  But there is also something more principled about it.  We believe in the Christ who rules by his sovereign word, and wherever that word is given liberty he will extend his reign - we are not, or ought not to be, afraid of other ideas or beliefs.

And then there is a whole load of other stuff.  It's legitimate to think about economics, although we ought to resist the appeals to our own economic self-interest as much as we are able.  We can take a step back and ask what sort of system seems likely to work best, whether that's in economics or governance.  It's reasonable to think about security and international relations.  On most of these things. Christians will be able to reasonably and faithfully disagree, because they're inevitably based on uncertain assessments of the world and our place in it.  But that doesn't mean they don't matter, or that our choices ought not to be shaped by the reality of the gospel.

When we're done thinking all this through, I think we'll wind up back with Paul.  How huge these issues are!  How complex is the world in which we live!  What confusion there is around even the apparently simplest things!  How entrenched are some of the atrocities of our society!  How desperate is the situation of the voiceless!  And how pathetically small is our influence, our ability to shape things.

And so, pray for kings and all who are in high positions.  One way we can witness is to keep calm and know that Christ is on the throne.  It is, despite appearances, in his hands - all of it.  So vote and pray.  And pray and pray and pray.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Faith in what?

When we (Protestants) say that people are 'justified by faith', what do we mean?  Are we declared righteous on the basis of a general credulity?  Is it faith, per se, that justifies, or is there a particular character to justifying faith?

John Owen, a man not much given to brevity, defines the object of justifying faith as "the Lord Jesus Christ himself, as the ordinance of God, in his work of mediation for the recovery and salvation of lost sinners, and as unto that end proposed in the promise of the gospel".  And he goes on to helpfully unpack that in four dimensions, which we might summarise thus:

1.  "The Lord Jesus Christ himself" - that is to say, the faith which justifies is personal faith, trust in Christ himself.  It is not mere assent to facts.  We all know what it means to trust a person; that is what faith is, and the trusted person is the Lord Jesus Christ.

2.  "as the ordinance of God" - in other words, faith in Christ views him not as a general person, but as the person given by God the Father to bring about our salvation.  So justifying faith is not only grounded in the person of Christ as the Son; it also looks to the Father as the one who sends him.  Knowing that Christ is the one sent by God for the purpose of recovering and saving lost sinners, those who are justified put their trust in him.

3.  "for the recovery and salvation of lost sinners" - the effect of Christ's work is salvation, and so justifying faith has an eye on that as its end goal.  (Owen fudges a little here, to my mind, arguing that although justifying faith ought to lead one to believe that one's own sins are forgiven, that does not belong to its essential nature - I struggle with that; how can one trust Christ for salvation and not trust that one is actually saved?)  Still, justifying faith is not directly faith that one is justified - this could well be mere presumption.  It is faith in Christ as the one sent to effect justification.

4.  "as unto that end proposed in the promise" - faith which justifies is faith which looks at God's promises extended to us in the gospel and leans on Christ in the promises.  All the promises of the gospel - every good thing which God offers to believers - is found in Christ and based in his work as mediator.  Therefore, faith which regards the promises is faith which can be traced to Christ himself.

Justifying faith is trust in Jesus as the one sent by the Father for our good; trust in Jesus as the one who came for our salvation; trust in Jesus as the one in whom all God's promises are yes and amen.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Teaching falsehood and being a false teacher

Back in the day, when I was working with Christian students, I was once asked to give a little talk about some aspect of eschatology.  I duly delivered, and only discovered afterwards that by a misfortune of timing a local church student worker had also spoken to the issue at hand during the week, and moreover had expressed opinions rather contrary to my own.  The students were a little flummoxed.  Being good conservative evangelicals, they were committed to the notion of truth, and they were aware that the differences they were hearing were not the sort of thing that could be explained as different perspectives or any such thing.  But unfortunately they were not equipped with a category for 'Christian teachers having differing interpretations' - if we were teaching differently, one of us must be a false teacher.  To avoid this conclusion, they opted to assume that they had simply misunderstood the talk in their local church.  They were not inclined to consider either of us a false teacher, and so they had to assume that we had not, in fact, disagreed - despite the evidence of their ears.

This story goes a long way to explaining some of my ambivalence about the term 'false teacher'.

What is clear, to me at least, is that on this occasion at least one of us was teaching falsehood.  I am, of course, inclined to think it was the other fellow.  Our views on the question under discussion were irreconcilable, at least in substance (although doubtless there were elements of truth present in both positions).  If what we were talking about was a real thing, then there is no doubt that one of us was substantially wrong (and of course, both of us may well have been entirely wrong; what is certain is that we were not both right).  But it seems to me that when Christians use the category of 'false teacher' they must mean more than this - more than a different opinion or apprehension on one matter of eschatology.  Since every Christian teacher has, at least from time to time, taught falsehood - by error of positive teaching, by omission, by neglecting or just failing to communicate clearly - the sort of broad category being deployed by these students would leave none of us standing.

So I'm keen to have a category for teaching falsehood without being a false teacher.

But there is no doubt that the NT does present us with people who have gone beyond this - people who are, deliberately or naively, leading the people of God astray through their teaching in a way which directs them away from the true God and away from right living.  And I've been thinking recently that we need to have the courage to recover this category and treat those who fall into it in an appropriate way.  This isn't an alternative to having a certain tolerance for error; it goes alongside it.  In fact, the parameters of orthodoxy are such that there is a wide field over which we can range without stepping beyond the bounds, and certainly within that field we can be and often will be 'wrong' - but without being destructively wrong.

I think it is that destructiveness that characterises the true false teacher.

Of course all error is to some extent destructive.  Truth builds up, falsehood pulls down.  But there are two particular types of error which are flagged up in the NT as destructive: error that leads people to such a false understanding of the deity that the God they worship is no longer recognisable as the Holy Trinity; and error that leads people into such egregious moral behaviour that their lives no longer bear the stamp of that holiness without which no one will see God.  These errors destroy people.

Because they destroy people, the appropriate response of the church, and especially of the pastors of the church, is an almost absolute 'no'.  The determined false teacher must of necessity be excluded from the church, treated as a pagan.  There is mercy - there is always mercy! - but in this case it needs to be mixed with fear, fear lest the destructive tendency of false teaching be let loose amongst God's people.

Looking at the confusion in the church on a hundred issues - from things as central to the understanding of God as the divinity of Christ, and things as essential to the moral life as the nature of marriage and sexuality - it seems to me that some lines need to be drawn.  Because I am a product of my time, and because I have the sort of brain and temperament that always wants to nuance everything and see the shades of grey, drawing lines makes me deeply uncomfortable.  But the alternative is worse, much worse: the destruction of faith and morals, with consequences which are potentially eternal.

Friday, April 28, 2017

We're not ready

I was recently reading the little treatise On the Lapsed by Cyprian of Carthage, and was struck by how relevant it is for the church in the West at the moment.  For those unfamiliar, Cyprian was bishop of Carthage for about ten years before his martyrdom in 258.  He was bishop through the Decian persecution, which kicked off with the Emperor Decius requiring every inhabitant of the Roman Empire to offer a sacrifice for the safety of the Empire in front of a magistrate; those who sacrificed received a certificate to that effect, whilst anyone refusing was harshly punished.  Whether the edict was particularly directed at Christians or not, it obviously had a great effect on the church.  By all accounts, the persecution was particularly harsh in Carthage (which had a larger than average Christian population), and many Christians made the required sacrifices.

Two things in particular struck me about Cyprian's treatment of those who have 'lapsed' - who have sacrificed to the pagan gods in order to save their skins and their social standing.

Firstly, he argues that the persecution was not the cause, but merely the occasion, for apostasy.  He looks back to the church before the persecution, and argues that it had become undisciplined.
Among the priests there was no devotedness of religion; among the ministers there was no sound faith: in their works there was no mercy; in their manners there was no discipline.  In men, their beards were defaced; in women, their complexion was dyed: the eyes were falsified from what God's hand had made them; their hair was stained with a falsehood. Crafty frauds were used to deceive the hearts of the simple, subtle meanings for circumventing the brethren. They united in the bond of marriage with unbelievers; they prostituted the members of Christ to the Gentiles. They would swear not only rashly, but even more, would swear falsely; would despise those set over them with haughty swelling, would speak evil of one another with envenomed tongue, would quarrel with one another with obstinate hatred.
The church which was not disciplined and committed to purity of life before the persecution could hardly be expected to stand up when tested.

Secondly, because that is how he sees the problem, Cyprian is not willing to lightly readmit those who have lapsed to fellowship.  The logic is obvious.  The roots of their apostasy did not lie in the persecution but in the failure to take the gospel and its call to purity seriously; the persecution merely revealed the problem which was already there.  So how could the problem be remedy through a relaxation of discipline?  A failure to be serious about the gospel cannot be addressed by not being serious about the gospel.

One reason I've been thinking about this stuff has been the Tim Farron debacle.  I wouldn't want to draw too many parallels between the hounding of the leader of the LibDems and the Decian persecution, but there are a few.  For example, all that is required to escape is to make a token gesture towards the prevalent ideology of the day; nobody requires that you take it too seriously.  Just say it isn't a sin, pay lip-service, and we can all move on.  But the main thought is: if this is a sign of things to come - and it is entirely conceivable to me that at some point it will become difficult for anyone who won't subscribe the new paganism, even if they're not the leader of the LibDems - well, are we ready?  Do we know what we believe and why we believe it?  Are our church communities disciplined?  Do we take the gospel seriously?

I confess, I worry a bit.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Again with 'the people'

Just a quick grumble about the way the concept of 'the people', which is a pet peeve of mine (cf. this), is already being used in this General Election campaign.  I will try to be kind while I criticise.

The trigger for this particular grumble was Jeremy Corbyn's launch speech for Labour's campaign.  There is lots that concerns me in this speech (when you read things like "the media and the establishment" being grouped together as the powerful enemy who "do not want us to win", you're sailing dangerously close to Trump territory).  But the main complaint from me is the narrative of "the establishment versus the people".  My question, as usual, is 'who are these people?' - and I suppose who are the establishment?

If we have to consider an election as an 'us vs. them' thing, which I don't accept by the way, it would be helpful to be more specific about who 'we' are.  I mean, who are the people?  Am I one of the people, or am I disqualified because of my political preferences?  I sure don't feel like I'm the establishment...  Or are 'the people' in this speech just those with left-leaning politics?  Is it, perhaps, that I do belong to 'the people', but don't understand that my interests are not served by a Conservative government?  Perhaps I don't know what I really 'will', and need to be re-educated.  Perhaps 48% of the general public are not "the people", or perhaps they are the people deluded, who if only they understood would be enthusiastic socialists.  That sort of idea has been advanced before.

Now, lest this be seen as partisan, I am well aware that the other side do the same thing.  I expect a lot of talk about 'hard-working families' in the next few weeks, with its implicit setting up of slackers and others as 'the other'.  I resent the idea that my left-leaning friends are against hard-work and family as much as I resent the idea that my right-leaning friends are part of, or at least supportive of, a secretive powerful cabal, a "cosy club" running the country for their own benefit.

Better rhetoric, please, everybody.  A recognition that we can have different visions for society that aren't necessarily driven by self-interest.  An understanding that we might all want the best for everyone, even though we disagree about what the best is or how to get it.  Less 'us vs. them', more clarity on the concrete differences in policy and objectives, so that we can all choose representatives who reflect our understanding of the best society, in an informed way.


Sunday, April 16, 2017

Christ, the Firstfruits

In 1 Corinthians 15 the Apostle Paul engages a fairly fundamental problem in the church in Corinth: some of the Christians are saying that there is no resurrection of the dead.  It appears they are not questioning the resurrection of Christ, because Paul's counter-argument is to point out that if there is no resurrection of the dead then Christ himself is not raised.  And if Christ is not raised, the apostolic preaching is a lie, and the faith of the Corinthian Christians is a sham.

For Paul's argument to work, the Corinthian Christians have to accept the resurrection of Jesus.  So what are they denying?  Presumably they are denying what might be called the general resurrection.  Although Christ was raised, they do not expect themselves to be raised, at least not bodily.  Bodily resurrection would have been distasteful to Hellenistic culture anyway.  So Paul's argument is: if no general resurrection - if no last day on which all are raised, to life or judgement - then no particular resurrection of Christ; but Christ is raised, therefore we look to the resurrection of all.

Apologetically, Paul makes it clear that everything hinges on the fact that Christ is raised from the dead, and the evidence for this is the testimony of the many who saw him alive (including 500 at once, most of whom are still alive when Paul is writing, and can therefore be consulted; also, of course, including Paul himself).

What particularly strikes me today about this passage is what Paul assumes the resurrection of Christ to be.  What does he think has happened?

Paul believed in and looked for the resurrection of the dead before he ever met Jesus.  Like Martha, he expected the resurrection of the just at the last day.  This was part of his Jewish heritage, part of the Scriptural testimony which he had absorbed from youth.  Paul didn't need the resurrection of Jesus to persuade him of the general resurrection.

But also like Martha, Paul has been brought face-to-face with the fact that Jesus is the resurrection.  The last day - the resurrection of the just - has in some sense already come.  Christ is the first of all those who will rise.  That is why Paul says that if there is no (general) resurrection then Christ himself has not been raised.  The resurrection of Jesus is the general resurrection.  In him, the future hope of a faithful Jew like Paul has been brought into the present.  The age to come, quite simply, has come.

That is not to say that the age to come is not still in the future.  Christ is the firstfruits, and the guarantee that the rest will follow.  But something truly dramatic has happened in the resurrection of Christ.  In our individualistic way, we tend to think of the resurrection of Jesus as one thing, and my resurrection to come as another.  But for Paul, the future resurrection of all is so closely linked to the resurrection of Christ that one without the other is unthinkable.  They are in principle the same event, the general resurrection so wrapped up in the person of Christ that they can't be separated.

It's a new day.  He is risen, we will rise.

Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!
Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like him, like him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The unique sorrow

When Israel lamented the destruction of Jerusalem, that terrible event was portrayed as incomparable.  "Look, and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow..."  "What can I say for you, to what compare you, O daughter of Zion?  What can I liken to you, that I may comfort you..?"

Is this just grief-stricken hyperbole?  From what I know of the ancient world, the fate of Jerusalem was far from unique; from what I read in the news, much the same is happening around the world today.  It could, of course, be hyperbole.  The authors of Holy Scripture were men fully caught up in the national life of Israel and Judah, and felt keenly the national grief at the loss of Zion.  It would be no surprise if they gave vent to that grief in their writings.  But I think there is more behind it.  The suffering of Jerusalem is unique because two unique circumstances stand behind it.

The first is that the sin of Jerusalem is unique.  Jeremiah writes:
For cross to the coasts of Cyprus and see, or send to Kedar and examine with care;
see if there has been such a thing.
Has a nation changed its gods,
even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory
for that which does not profit.
 No other nation has so rejected its gods - and those gods were just their own inventions, which could easily be changed at will!  But Israel has uniquely turned away from God, the Living God.  The sin is unique.

And the second circumstance stands behind that one.  Israel was a people uniquely privileged with knowledge of God, uniquely party to a gracious covenant with him.  "Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and still live?"  "He has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know his rules."  Israel's unique relationship with God means that their rejection of God is a unique sin, and their suffering is the unique punishment of God on that unique sin.  No matter the historical resemblances to other situations, the internal logic is utterly different.

When one man died on a cross, his historical circumstances were far from unique; indeed, two other crucifixions occurred on either side.  But this man was unique, because he uniquely bore the guilt of all human sin.  And he was unique because he only stood in total unity with God, as God the Son incarnate.

Is there any sorrow like his sorrow?

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Preaching the Passion

Some pointers on preaching the passion narrative, mainly for my own benefit as I prepare for Friday...

1.  Tell the story.  Ideally read a decent chunk of the Biblical narrative, but then in the sermon make sure that what comes across is that something happened.  We can hardly dwell too long on the fact that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was a real thing that took place in real space and time.  All the theological and soteriological significance of this event depends on the fact that it was an event.

2.  Don't forget the resurrection.  None of the really important things about the cross can be seen except from the viewpoint of the resurrection.  Okay, that is an overstatement - some people did see (thief on the cross, centurion by the cross), and other people ought to have seen (because of the Old Testament - cf. Road to Emmaus) - but in general it is a mistake to preach the cross as if we didn't know the rest of the story.  The resurrection reveals that the one hanging on the cross is the King, reigning even in his death; the resurrection reveals that this sacrifice is acceptable to God; the resurrection reveals that God has vindicated himself in his justice and grace at the cross.  Even the identity of the sufferer is not truly revealed without the resurrection.  So, preach Friday with one eye on Sunday; or perhaps better, preach Friday as if it were already Sunday morning.

3.  Avoid painting Jesus as a victim.  The Jesus of the gospels is a sufferer, and indeed an innocent sufferer.  But he isn't a victim.  Reading the gospel narratives, at what point is Jesus not in control?  Even when bound and flogged, isn't he the King?  Doesn't the ironic crown of thorns actually mock the mockers?  There are all sorts of reasons, some of them apparently good, to present Jesus as a victim; there are lots of victims in the world, and we want to bring home that God is with them in their suffering.  But there is no way we can make the gospel narratives portray a victim.  He is a co-sufferer, but he is this as the Lord.

4.  Don't give the impression that God was at the end of his resources.  The cross of Christ was not a fall-back position, or a last ditch attempt to redeem a terrible situation.  God didn't give himself away at the cross; he didn't empty the tank to save us.  The cross was always the plan.  If there are aspects of the gospel story which do seem to point in this direction (e.g. the parable of the tenants, with its sequence of servants ending finally in the sending of the son), read in the context of the whole gospel we have to say that the giving of the Son represents not an exhaustion of God's grace - not the final last effort of God - but the fullness and wealth of God's grace.  It as at the point of his death, when he gives himself for us, that God shows the inexhaustible riches of his love for fallen humanity.  He's rich, not broke.

5.  Don't put the ball in our court.  We can easily give the impression that the cross of Christ only has significance if we respond to it - as if God in Christ has done everything that he can, and now it's up to us to react appropriately.  Of course we should preach with an appeal; of course we want people to respond to the cross of Christ.  But the point is that when we preach Christ crucified we preach the sovereign Lord.  In him, sinful humanity is put to death; in him, God's judgement is taken from us, falling instead on the willing Judge.  This is true in him.  Our appeal is not: please complete in your own heart Christ's unfinished work!  Our appeal is: accept the truth about yourself as it is in Christ Jesus!  The cross of Christ does make an appeal, but it does so in the form of a claim: you are no longer free to wander on your own way; Christ's death is for you, in your place, and therefore it is death pronounced on your sinful existence.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Serpents and Doves

Just poking my head up from the midst of essay writing to offer some thoughts on two recent news stories. The two stories vary wildly in importance and tone, and this will feel like a strange post for that reason. But life is strange, sometimes.

The first story is that some of the money from the so-called 'tampon tax' has gone to a pro-life organisation.  You can see the liberal outrage here, and in various other articles scattered across the upright and progressive press.

I didn't hear nearly as much comment on this story from Christians as I would have liked.  Some, but not enough, and not sufficiently robust given that lives are at stake.

The second story is that apparently Cadbury and the National Trust have left out the word 'Easter' from some of their seasonal events and products.  (Although as this non-story unfolded over the course of the day, it became clear that they really hadn't).

I heard about this story from the Archbishop of York, and it made the national news as 'Church complains about...'

What in the world is wrong with us?  It's so awful at two levels.  The one level is the principle.  We seem to care more about the loss of our brand, about an affront to our symbols, than we do about the lives of the unborn.  We want to protect our privileged status more than we want to protect innocent life.  Is that really who we are?  But the second level is strategy.  Maybe there were plenty of Christians talking about Life, but they didn't make the news.  But the egg thing made the news.  The PM had to comment.  Because of course the media will seek out religious opinion on what they deem to be religious issues, and of course they will spin anything we say as 'Christians outraged by fact that society no longer accords them special privileges'.  That really shouldn't be a surprise.

Come on people.  Wise as serpents, innocent as doves.  Not the other way around.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Be holy

At CCC we reached the end of a little series in Leviticus yesterday with a preach through chapter 19 - one of those chapters which is usefully titled in the NIV "various laws".  To be fair to the editors of the NIV, various laws is what it is: no particular unifying theme, no obvious structure, except that the whole of the chapter stands under the heading in verse 2: "You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy."

This is, if you like, the second movement in Leviticus.  The first movement is all to do with priests and sacrifices.  God is holy - implacably opposed to sin and corruption, irreversibly committed to himself and his goodness.  The people of Israel are unholy.  So that the holy God and the unholy people can live together, particular individuals are claimed by God and made holy, and the tabernacle with its sacrificial apparatus is made holy, so that holy offerings can be made and sin atoned for.  Day after day, and especially year after year on the annual Day of Atonement, the unholiness of the people is dealt with, so that they can keep company with the holy God.

The second movement picks up the holiness language and runs in a seemingly completely different direction with it.  The question is no longer 'how can the unholy people live with a holy God?' - and it's hugely important to notice that shift.  We're now talking about a different question, something along the lines of 'what will this people be like if they are living with a holy God?'  The direction of travel changes.  Before, we were standing with the unholy people, looking in to the centre of the camp where the tabernacle stands, and asking how we could get there; how can the unholy approach the holy?  Now we stand in the tabernacle, and look out at the unholy people, and ask how they (we!) will have to change, since we are keeping company with this holy God.  Before the issue was the corruption of the people, which constantly threatened their relationship with God, and which was dealt with by sacrifice.  Now, the issue is the holiness of God, which not only threatens but overcomes the sinfulness of the people, claiming them in their whole lives for God.  The 'various laws' of Leviticus 19 represent the holiness of the LORD flowing out of the tabernacle and into the worship, relationships, society, work, and world of Israel.

Like Israel, we Christians are constant sinners; unholy to the core.  Whenever we remember that, we are driven back to the heart of our faith: God the Son, Jesus Christ, offering himself as the one sacrifice, made once and for all, to take away our sin.  But also like Israel, we are claimed by God, claimed for holiness - claimed with greater effect, if you like, than Israel ever was, through the out-poured Holy Spirit.  In all of life, we belong to him, stand on his side.  These two things are always true of us: totally sinful (but forgiven!), totally holy (but failing!).

When we gather around word and sacrament, like Israel camped around the tabernacle, we look to the God who, in the gospel, has answered the problem of our sin by atonement, and has given his Holy Spirit so that we might ourselves be holy.  We enjoy holy time, reminded of forgiveness and sanctification, living those things in our worship.  And then the gathering disperses, and we go out to live out the 'various laws', the concrete requirements of God (no doubt somewhat different for us than they were for Levitical Israel) which shape our daily lives in accordance with the gospel we heard on Sunday.  This is a requirement: be holy!  It is also a gift.  This is what it looks like to be privileged to keep company with the holy God.  He works holiness in us.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Where is God?

When terrible things happen, people ask 'where is God?' - and I find it helpful to take the question extremely literally.  What does the witness of Holy Scripture tell us about the whereabouts of God during a tragedy?

1.  God is in heaven.

When we say that God is in heaven, we affirm that he is absolute king of his creation.  Heaven is the place of sovereignty.  "Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him."  That can be hard to hear in the midst of tragedy, but the alternative is worse: our god is powerless, there was nothing he could do.  When we say God is in heaven, we say that nothing - not even this terrible thing - happened outside of his control.  Nothing shakes his rule.  Now, we can and should qualify this by saying that God rules in various ways, and his will is not fate: he does not bring evil in the same way that he brings good, or will tragedy in the same way that he wills salvation.  But he is in control.  He is in heaven.

2.  God is right here.

God is never a victim, but neither is he a stranger to suffering.  The Son of God became incarnate in order to suffer, and specifically in order to suffer with us and for us.  When events are more than we can understand or bear, we can be sure that the God who in Christ suffered for us on the cross is with us in our sufferings here and now - and not only ours, but the sufferings of the world.  He doesn't miss a single tear or a single injustice.  He is right here.

3.  God is coming.

Crucially, God is on his way.  The witness of Scripture is not to a static God, who remains in heaven, but to a God who comes, who approaches, who draws near to save.  When tragedy comes, we can remember that God is coming to judge the world.  As far as the biblical authors are concerned, that is very good news.  Judgement means the rectifying of everything that is wrong, the final end of suffering and injustice, the wiping away of every tear.  It means salvation, for all those who will lift their heads and look for salvation.  When terrible things happen, we can be sure that it will not always be this way.  He is coming.

Saturday, March 25, 2017


On the feast of the annunciation, I've been reflecting on the incarnation of the Son of God.  In their defence of the genuine divinity and humanity of Christ, the orthodox church fathers used the term Theotokos to describe the virgin Mary - best translated 'God-bearer' (rather than 'Mother of God', which just has uncomfortable resonances with the Father).  Mary is God-bearer because the child in her womb, whilst genuinely and fully human, was also genuinely and fully God.  The eternal Son of God was personally united to the human nature of Jesus Christ, even in the womb; Mary wasn't the bearer of the human being who would be God incarnate, but actually bore in her womb God-in-the-flesh.

Two reflections:

1.  The grace of God is displayed, in that God the Son is willing to take to himself human nature in its most powerless, vulnerable, and dependent state.  To put it bluntly, the eternal Son was a human foetus.  Here is already a prefiguration of his condescension at the cross, when he was given into the hands of sinners, defenceless, and finally entombed.

2.  This is basically where a Christian pro-life commitment flows from.  The incarnate Son did not unite to himself a part of the virgin's body; he united to himself a fully human nature.  The person in the womb was God in the flesh.  That means both that we know when human life 'begins' and has significance, and it means that God cares about this stage of human life, sanctifying it by his presence.  Obviously, this isn't an argument for being pro-life (the argument I would deploy with people who don't accept my theological positions would be simply 'are you sure?  are you sure this isn't a human being?  don't you think you ought to be 100% sure before this becomes okay?') - but it is the underlying rationale for valuing human life in the womb.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Holy love and holy fire

Whilst preparing to preach Leviticus 10 at CCC this past Sunday, I found Karl Barth's comments on the holiness of God particularly helpful.  Barth deals with God's attributes - or as he calls them, God's "perfections" - in the latter part of CD II/1.  He divides them into two sections - the perfections of the divine loving and the perfections of the divine freedom, in line with his basic thesis of the first part of II/1 - that God is the one who loves in freedom.  Within each section, pairs of perfections are offered - holiness is paired with grace.  But Barth is clear that these are not the sorts of things that could be played off each other.  He really believes in the doctrine of divine simplicity; in the end, all the myriad perfections of God are really one.  They are who God is.

So anyway, holiness.

God's love is holy, meaning that "it is characterised by the fact that God, as He seeks and creates fellowship, is always the Lord."  God does not give himself away in his love, he does not make himself subject to the people with whom he seeks and creates fellowship.  He is always God in this relationship.  And what that means is that "He condemns, excludes and annihilates all contradiction and resistance to" his love.  In his genuine love, he is genuinely Lord.  The logic of pairing grace and holiness, then, is that they both "point to the transcendence of God over all that is not Himself."  In both grace and holiness, God is the Lord.

And grace and holiness must be mentioned side by side.  It seems like they are contradictory: "To say grace is to say the forgiveness of sins; to say holiness, judgment upon sins."  But in fact they go together.  "That God is gracious does not mean that He surrenders Himself to the one to whom He is gracious.  He neither compromises with his resistance, nor ignores it, still less calls it good."  In fact, it is only as he draws near in grace that God's holiness is shown and made known.  Holiness in the abstract, which is not the holiness of God's opposition to sin in the very act of his gracious drawing near, is not the holiness the Bible describes.  "Therefore, the one to whom He is gracious comes to experience God's opposition to him."  When God creates fellowship with sinful human beings, they necessarily come to experience his opposition to them as sinners, even as (and only as) they come to see his grace in forgiving sin and creating that fellowship.

A brief aside on what this means for our understanding of Law and Gospel - "In Scripture we do not find the Law alongside the Gospel, but in the Gospel, and therefore the holiness of God is not side by side with but in His grace, and His wrath is not separate from but in His love."

"The holiness of God consists in the unity of His judgment with His grace.  God is holy because His grace judges and His judgment is gracious."  Barth adds, not without reason, "In this sense Jesus Christ Himself is the Holy One of God."  Where do we really see God's holiness?  Isn't it at the cross of Christ, where God judges sin and sinful humanity, and in judging overcomes sinful humanity and makes it fit for fellowship with him?

In Leviticus 10, God's desire to have fellowship with his people is threatened by the carelessness of his priests, who imagine that they can approach God casually, perhaps thinking that the newly en-tabernacled God is tamed and at their beck-and-call.  If this line of thought were followed through, fellowship between God and Israel would be impossible.  God will and must be himself; he will and must be Lord in the fellowship which he creates with Israel.  Therefore, Nadab and Abihu must die.  But this is not opposite to grace.  It is grace.  It is God in his grace creating, maintaining, and defending his fellowship with sinful Israel.

And of course it points forward.  If sinful humanity is to have fellowship with God, the fire of God's holiness must burn away our sinfulness; the fire of his love must oppose and overcome everything in us which is unlovely.  And where did the fire of God's love and holiness burn the brightest, consuming the one acceptable sacrifice?

Friday, March 17, 2017

Which people? Whose will?

52% of the British people voted for Brexit, therefore the will of the British people is Brexit, therefore Brexit must happen.

62% of people in Scotland voted against Brexit, therefore the will of the Scottish people is to remain in the EU, therefore Scotland must not be dragged out of the EU against its will.

Isn't that a bit odd?  The unequivocal will of the British people is Brexit, but the unequivocal will of the people of Scotland, who are a subset of the British people, is no Brexit.  And all this despite the fact that a large minority of the people of Scotland - who, as you'll remember, will not to leave the EU - expressed a desire to leave the EU, and despite the fact that an even larger minority of the British people - who, you'll recall, absolutely will Brexit - voted to remain within the EU.

It would appear that the 48% of British people who voted remain have made no contribution to the will of the British people.  Presumably they all now realise that their individual will has been subsumed, not to say over-ridden, by the will of the people.

Although, if you are in Scotland and you voted to leave, you are presumably fairly conflicted.  When you consider yourself as a person in the UK, you find that your individual will is in line with the collective will; but when you consider yourself as a Scot, you find that your individual will must be sacrificed to the will of the people of Scotland.

And of course the question has now been raised of what happens politically when the will of the people of Scotland, which of course has now over-ridden the wills of all Scottish Brexiteers, comes into conflict with the will of the people of the UK, which has of course subsumed the wills of all British people, and in the case of British people who voted to remain in the EU has over-written them with its larger collective will to leave.  Although, that presumably implies that the collective will of the people of Scotland has also been similarly over-written, except that apparently it hasn't.

All of which is just to say: individual people have a will; collectives do not have a will.  It's a nonsene (as demonstrated above) to try to pretend that we can speak of the will of the British people, as the PM is inclined to do, and it is only slightly less of a nonsense to try to pretend that we can speak of the will of Scotland, as the FM regularly does.

Essentially, we are going to need a better way of making decisions than just counting heads.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Cast me not away from your presence

We've just started preaching through Leviticus at CCC for Lent - last week: many sacrifices, much blood.  Some of the keenest vegetarians in the church were absent, I assume not deliberately.

I take it that the whole of Leviticus is the answer to Exodus 33:1-3.  The setting is the foot of Sinai, after the incident with the golden calf.  Having relented from his initial threat to destroy Israel, God responds to the intercession of Moses by declaring that he will send the people up to Canaan - but he himself will not go with them.  They are just too sinful.  If God were in their midst, he would destroy them.  For Israel, this is a disastrous word, and Moses gets back on his knees: if your presence won't come, don't send us at all!  Better to be without the promised land than to be without God's presence.

So Leviticus is the answer: the formation of a strict world of symbol and sacrifice which is designed to keep Israel God-centred and holy.  The sacrificial system, in particular, is geared towards ensuring that Israel's sin is acknowledged and then (symbolically) dealt with, so that God can be with them without breaking out against them in judgement.

But I guess it's not hard to see how this could be misunderstood.  As soon as the focus stops being on God and his presence, the sacrificial system - with the rest of the Levitical code - could become just a treadmill of self-righteousness.  It becomes about dealing with my guilty conscience, or demonstrating that I am in the right.  Look at all the sacrifices I made!

Reading Jeremiah 7 this morning, I'm struck by another way it could and did go wrong.  When the people forget that God's presence is problematic for them - or rather, when they forget that their sin is problematic in the presence of God! - they assume that the temple-presence of God is just automatic.  They can sin and sin, and it will still be okay because God's temple is right there.  He will surely rescue them, even if they basically ignore him and his word.

Either way, God's presence is not prized.  In the one case, God's presence becomes a theoretical side-issue in a quest for personal righteousness and security; in the other, God's presence becomes a tool to secure a safe and happy life.  In both cases, you imagine people would jump at the chance of going to the promised land without God!

Friday, March 10, 2017

Taking ourselves seriously

I don't manage to read as much philosophy as I would like.  Yesterday I perused a few pages of Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception, a book I've been reading on and off for a couple of years, and enjoyed it immensely.  It's mostly the continental philosophers I like to read nowadays, and I think that is because continental philosophy hugs the borders of religion pretty closely.  Increasingly I'm struck by the fact that I don't think there can be serious thought which does not interact with questions of ultimate meaning, and that means interacting with God, either as a presence or an absence.

I guess what I mean is this: a lot of what passes for thinking in our contemporary culture is pre-committed to the idea that our thinking just doesn't really matter, because nothing at all matters.  We, as thinking subjects, are not to be taken seriously.  Questions that ought to be big are made small because they are placed within the framework of meaninglessness.  Take the ethical question, for example.  I think we instinctively assume that the question 'What ought we to do?' is a Big Question, perhaps the biggest.  But when it is re-framed within contemporary naturalism, it becomes a small question, which can be answered by reference to nothing greater than my own preferences and a few societal norms.  It becomes almost a triviality.

Now, that isn't to suggest that there can't be any profound thinking that is atheistic.  Consider the way that the ethical question is framed by the existentialists, who accept naturalism but still take human beings as persons with absolute seriousness.  'What ought we to do?' is a Big Question in this framework, and that is why it is laden with so much anguish.  It is, if you like, a Big Question in a small universe, just as on the existentialist view human beings are Significant in a universe of insignificance.  Hence all the angst and stuff.  Now, that is profound thinking, which wrestles seriously with what it might mean to be an actual human being in a universe defined by the absence of God.  Go read some Sartre, or Camus.  Then go read A.C. Grayling, and see what is lost.

From a Christian point of view, I think one of the reasons the Christian message doesn't resonate with many of our contemporaries is that people don't think they are really human.  They don't take themselves seriously as ethical and purposeful beings, because any ethics or purpose they might talk about are squeezed into the framework of naturalism.  The questions only sound big; they are actually insignificant.  Without big questions, the big answers of the Christian story just don't find anything to latch on to.  Perhaps we need to take a big step back, and instead of providing answers we need to point out that if God has been here, in our reality as one of us, then we are actual, real human beings - and that means our big questions are really Big Questions.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017


Whatever you think about the observance of Lent, it is helpful to have some occasion to remember that the good news of Jesus Christ leaves us standing contradicted.  I don't mean that we stand conflicted - though of course we do, each human being divided in innumerable ways against himself, and Christians experiencing the conflict between the old man and the new.  What I mean is that God contradicts us.  The good news of Jesus is also the news that God has spoken against our being and action, revealing it to be utter sin.  And because it is God who speaks, his powerful contradiction actually takes away and lays aside that sinful person, creating in its place the new person who stands in faith in Christ.

To approach it from a slightly different angle, sometimes we can lose the fact that salvation, when it occurs, is totally against the run of play.  It does not follow from anything that has gone before - no human thing, anyway.  None of the events of history led up to or caused Jesus Christ.  When light shines in the darkness, it has not in some way sprung from the darkness itself; someone has intervened.  Perhaps most clearly and decisively, in the death of Christ we see the putting to death of all human possibility.  It is clear that the cross is the end of the story.  That the resurrection follows - that death is contradicted and life brought in in its place - that is miracle.  It is the same in any individual experience.  There may be all sorts of things which in my human experience preceded my coming to faith in Christ, but you could hardly say that they caused it.  When it comes, it is always contradiction - gracious contradiction, but contradiction nonetheless - which sets aside even the apparently positive aspects of my fallen and broken self.

Of course, if you go deeper you'll find that the current was always flowing in this direction.  God does not contradict himself.  From eternity, this has been the destination - the resurrection of Christ, the life of humanity in him, my life (and yours?) caught up with him.  But we need to remember that everything we ever brought to the equation stood opposed to this direction of travel.  We, in so far as we could, contradicted God, and took up the cause of the Serpent ("you will not surely die").  And let's face it, we contradict him still.  A moments reflection shows that my life as a Christian is full of contradictions of the gospel.  My confessed beliefs and my behaviour, and the gap between them - the conflict I mentioned at the beginning - manifest something of that attempted contradiction.  I must be an acrobat, to talk like this and live like that.  Humanly speaking, everything points away from God, away from salvation, away from life.

So I will be remembering, during this Lenten season, that I stand contradicted.  And that is good news.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Forgiveness of sins

It's amazing the capacity we have to forget stuff, including for Christians the absolutely central stuff of our faith.  I don't mean that things are completely expunged from the memory.  I just mean those times when for a long stretch the stuff that we know lies dormant and dusty in the mind.  It is a curse, this forgetfulness, requiring us to constantly discipline our memories.  But in a weird way, out of the curse of forgetfulness comes the blessing of remembering.  Because the truth has lain there hidden by all the day to day junk and precious treasure of life, when we see it again it is almost like the first time - but better than the first time, because it comes with that joyful sense of recollection: 'I remember this!'

Take, for example, the forgiveness of sins.

I bet you have from time to time been functionally forgetful of the fact that God in Christ forgives sins.  In my experience this sometimes happens when I go for a period without being conscious of any great transgression.  Without really thinking about it, the forgiveness of sins gets shoved into the mental attic, to be retrieved when needed.

And then, one morning, maybe I'm reading the Bible, or maybe I'm praying, or maybe I'm just reflecting on the past week, and suddenly, BAM!  The forgiveness of sins.  God my Father, in and through the Lord Jesus Christ, shows his great love to me by wiping out the record of my wrong, by looking at me as someone who is eternally separated from my own sin and therefore eternally welcomed by him as a son along with his Son, and a co-heir with him of the eternal kingdom.

He forgives our sins!

And suddenly I'm conscious that sin is the one word which accurately describes so much of my life and my character.  The forbidden and unwise done, the commanded and beneficial undone, self put before others, even the occasional appearance of selflessness shot through with concern for image.

And just like the first time, I am amazed that all of this is forgiven.  But unlike the first time, I remember that this is how God my Father has treated me again and again, bringing me to this point of turning my back on the me that he has also turned his back on, and embracing the me he calls me and allows me to be.  Sin really forgiven.

I'm almost glad I forgot it, for the sheer joy of remembering.  O felix culpa..?  But mostly just thank you.  Thank you, my great and good God, for remembering and reminding me.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Why argue about sex?

This is a post for people who don't understand why Christians are always arguing about sexuality.  To be honest, we're not always arguing about it - I devote a fairly small amount of my time to arguing in general, only a small chunk of that to arguing with other Christians, and a relatively ickle proportion of that arguing about sexuality - but it does get reported a lot, and not just in the fake news.  I want to explain to people who don't know Christianity from the inside why it is that we Christians are having an argument over something that most people think is a matter entirely for individual consciences, where it isn't so blindingly obvious that anyone ought to see it.  I'm not going to particularly argue for a position.  This is just an introduction to why we feel the need to take up a position in the first place.  It may be patronising, in which case my apologies.  It's just some stuff that to me seems to get missed in the translation of inter-Christian arguments into the secular press.

So here goes.

First thing to note is that Christians believe that everything has meaning.  This is based on the notion that ultimate reality is personal (God), and that every part of contingent reality (i.e. everything else) stands in some sort of relationship to that ultimate reality, and that relationship defines what this particular part of contingent reality is all about.  This is very different from a view of reality as ultimately meaningless.  Meaningless is what everything ultimately is if, at bottom, there is no personality.  There are two ways of thinking about an ultimately meaningless reality - the optimistic way and the pessimistic way.  If you take the optimistic route, you will think that the ultimately meaningless reality is like a blank canvas, onto which we can project whatever meanings we like; we are meaning makers.  If you go down the pessimistic road, well, meaningless is meaningless.  Perhaps the best we can do is live with some sort of authenticity, but even that is, at the end of the day, without meaning.  We are lost, accidentally endowed with a desire for meaning and incapable of genuinely finding or making anyway.

If everything is ultimately meaningless, whether you are optimistic or pessimistic about our ability to make some sort of meaning within that, it is obviously a waste of time to argue about what things mean.  Either it's like arguing about which flavour of ice cream is best - it's clearly a personal choice - or it's like arguing about whether cheese is snurg - it's total nonsense.  But if reality is at bottom personal, and if contingent reality therefore has meaning, it may be possible to find meaning in each part of contingent reality - by which I don't mean some variation on the optimistic view above, where I project meaning into something, but something more like digging for gold: there might actually be meaning in there, and I might find it.  And in that case we can have a genuine conversation about what it is that we've found: we could argue about what something means, and it wouldn't be obviously nonsense.

Second thing is that Christians believe in revelation.  In the Christian context, that means one particular thing (and lots of other things which depend in one way or another on that one thing).  It means that we believe that the ultimate reality - the personality at the bottom of it all, by relationship to whom the meaning of everything else is defined - this ultimate reality has appeared within contingent reality.  This has a pretty substantial effect on the quest for meaning.  If it's true that the meaning of contingent reality comes from its relationship to ultimate reality - well, that might mean that everything has meaning, but it wouldn't necessarily mean that we could discover what that meaning was.  In fact, it seems unlikely that we would discover it.  The sort of ultimate reality we're talking about it transcendent, which is to say that although it undergirds all of contingent reality, it does not appear in the way that contingent reality does.  If you catalogued everything in the universe, ultimate reality wouldn't appear in the catalogue, because it is what stands behind and beneath everything else.

But the claim is that ultimate reality has appeared in the midst of contingent reality, and in fact has appeared as contingent reality in some sense.  Of course, what Christians are referring to is the incarnation, the idea that the God who stands behind everything became a human being - became the Jewish carpenter and itinerant preacher Jesus of Nazareth - and lived and died in our world, in our history, at a point on a normal map that I could point to right now.  If that is true - and that of course is a huge if  - then the story of Jesus of Nazareth is the centre point around which everything else revolves.  If everything in contingent reality derives its meaning from its relationship to ultimate reality, and if ultimate reality is revealed in the life story of Jesus of Nazareth, then the meaning of everything in contingent reality can be seen in its relation to this life story.  That is a great big claim, but for the Christian it means that the question of what everything means is not a vague philosophical one, but a concrete and yet very personal question about what this particular chunk of contingent reality has to do with Jesus.  That is something about which we could argue, you see, because there is an answer, and the answer is not in principle hidden away.

Thirdly and finally, what does this have to do with sexuality?  Well, in the general sense, obviously human sexuality is an aspect of contingent reality, and so we can ask what it means, and we can try to work out the connection between it and the life of Jesus, just as we can for every single 'thing' in the universe.  But there is something more specific than that.  We've already said that the Christian thinks that reality is ultimately personal, and indeed relational.  That makes human beings uniquely important - apart from angels and demons (which are a complex part of the Christian view of the world) we are as far as we know the only contingent personalities in existence.  And it makes the relational aspect of human beings particularly significant.  We could view the fact that ultimate reality became human in Jesus as the confirmation of this particular importance and significance.  But sexuality lies very near to the heart of who we are as relational persons.  Which should lead us to expect that when we are talking about sexuality, we are talking about something that is absolutely charged with meaning.

That is what we are arguing about, and that is why the arguments are heated.  For Christians, sexuality has meaning, and its meaning stands in close relation to ultimate meaning.  The Bible - which for Christians is the first and authoritative record of God's communication to the word, and therefore the means of his communication to the word in the present - suggests that human marriage, particularly in its sexual component, is a picture of the ultimate story of reality; the story of God's coming into the world in Jesus to unite humanity to himself in loving relationship.  So the nature of our understanding of sexuality is closely related to our understanding of God.  There is meaning, really important meaning, in there.  So we discuss it.

There's rather more to say than that, and of course I take a definite view of where the discussions (or perhaps better, arguments) ought to end up.  But I hope that helps to explain why we're having the discussion in the first place.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Epistemic attitudes

We recognise that our ability to know is entirely gift, and therefore approach the task of knowledge with gratitude.  That we have faculties directed toward knowing; that there is a world out there which can be known; that there is sufficient correspondence between these two such that we can fairly reliably know things - this is all God's grace in creation.  That this situation is maintained minute to minute is God's sustaining grace.  And given our finitude and capacity for error, any one particular instance of knowing is God's providential grace.  Knowing should be accompanied by deep gratitude.

We recognise that our ability to know is limited by both our finitude and our sin, and therefore approach the task of knowledge with humility.  Perhaps we put this epistemic virtue into effect most clearly when someone disagrees with us.  What we thought we knew is called in question by another knower, and we recognise that we could indeed be wrong.  This attitude flows ultimately from the existence of God, the great Knower, who alone sees things as they truly are.  In his presence, our knowing must be accompanied with humility.

We recognise that to know is a joyful task given by God, and therefore approach the task of knowledge with seriousness.  If God has given us a world to know and the faculties to know it, we must not approach knowledge flippantly or lightly.  It is good to know, and we take our good gifts for granted and act presumptuously if we do not put significant effort into knowing.  This will include working hard to correct our mistakes, to hear the perspectives of others, etc.  Recognising that we are called by God to know, our knowing must be accompanied by seriousness.

We recognise that our knowledge is always constrained by our position in time, and therefore approach the task of knowing with openness to change.  Our knowing is eschatologically oriented.  That is to say, only God knows what things will be, and that means that only God really knows what things are now.  Our knowledge must always be open-ended; we can't ever think we have said the final word on any subject.  The final word always belongs to God himself.  Awaiting that word, our knowing will always be accompanied by a sense of openness.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

This will not stand

It matters how we engage with current affairs.  I'll be honest and say that I'm finding it all rather tricky right now.  I sort of miss the days when all we had to deal with was the news, rather than the constant online cocktail of news, informed opinion, less informed opinion, and social media displays of anger and hate on all sides.  I'm going to need to restrict my diet of internet, because honestly it's making me sick to my soul.

But the thing which distresses me most is that I see very little difference between the responses of Christians and others.  It's all anger and despair.  Now, Holy Scripture gives us some precedent for expressing anger and despair about the situation of the world.  I note, though, that the anger and despair in Scripture is mostly directed toward God himself.  Perhaps counter-intuitively, I think God would rather have us hurl abuse and accusations at him than at the people with whom we disagree.

What I miss at the moment is evidence that we're paying attention to another stream of the Biblical witness which is an essential complement to the anger and despair: a calm, straightforward trust in the sovereignty of God and the truth of the gospel.

Of course we need both the sovereignty of God and the truth of the gospel.  A sovereign God who is not the God and Father of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ is of small comfort to us - he could have any plans, any goals, and who knows how many of us he'd throw under the bus to achieve them.  But if the God of the gospel, the God of Calvary and the empty tomb - if that God is sovereign, there must be some comfort.  He has told us what he is up to, and it is salvation and hope and life.  He threw himself under the bus, as it were, to secure it.  He isn't backing down now.

There is something absolutely right about the instinct to protest manifest evils - to cry out 'this will not stand!'  But it matters whether that proceeds from the starting point of a certain knowledge that, no, it will not stand - because the only place that evil ultimately has left is captive in the train of the glorified Christ.  To put it another way, is your protest a witness to the gospel?  And would this be clear to anyone glancing through your Facebook feed?

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

After the Shared Conversations

It may not have escaped your notice that the Church of England has been holding what it has called Shared Conversations about human sexuality, and particularly same-sex marriage, over the last couple of years.  Of course, it may have escaped your notice, and that's fine too.  The report of the bishops commissioned to close the process has now been published, and it essentially represents two things: a maintenance of the doctrinal status quo, alongside an attempt to create a more open and welcoming atmosphere for people who identify as gay or lesbian.

Commendable goals, in my view.

And yet I have a big problem with this report, and it goes beyond the immediate issue and to the heart (I think) of Anglican polity.  There is a lot of talk in the report about disagreeing well, and about seeking to maintain unity, and it all sounds jolly noble (and no doubt actually is noble, at least in intention).  But there is not a lot of 'thus says the Lord'.  And that really matters.  Because if we cannot preface what we have to say on this issue - and so many others - with a Dominus dixit, do we have any right to call people to listen?  In short, what authority do the bishops of the Church of England, or indeed anybody else, have to regulate people's sexual conduct?

For as long as the impression given is simply that it's best for the unity of the church if we don't accept gay marriage, or that there just isn't the appetite for change at the moment, or any number of more or less sincere and more or less pertinent and powerful reasons to maintain the status quo, Christians in favour of gay marriage will be appalled, because it is appalling to lay burdens and laws that come so close to the heart of people's own existence and identity for any of those reasons.  It is only if we can say with authority that this is God's law - flowing from his gospel - that we can make any such pronouncement.  Because it's only the law that comes from the gospel that brings freedom.

So, anyway, I guess I'm not an Anglican.  But we probably all knew that already.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Demons and Disease

Some notes I pulled together whilst preparing to preach Luke 8:26-56 at CCC yesterday. The bottom line I arrived at was that, in our theological circles, an undisciplined supernaturalism is probably not the main problem; an incipient rationalism is more threatening. We (I!) need to ask for and expect more from God.

The whole Bible gives us a picture of (usually) unseen spiritual powers at work throughout the world, some representing God and working to advance his will, others opposing God. The ‘good’ spirits are generally referred to as angels, and the ‘evil’ spirits are demons. A development through the Bible is that Satan or the Devil is increasingly regarded as the ‘leader’ of the demons. Sometimes pagan gods are called demons in the Old Testament, and the New Testament picks this up in its assumption that demons stand behind the idols of the ancient world.

In the twenty-first century West, there is a tendency not to talk about angels or demons very much, even within the church. That is mainly because our culture is materialistic and naturalistic – that is, what we can see is all there is, and what happens can be fully explained by natural causes. In Christian circles, of course, there is at least a theoretical knowledge that this isn’t so – God is a spiritual being who interacts with the world! But we have absorbed enough from our culture to feel uncomfortable with the idea of angels and demons active around us. It all sounds a bit fairy-tale, and we worry that we won’t be taken seriously.

There’s another reason to feel awkward about talking about demons especially. Increasingly we are becoming aware that in different cultures – and in segments of our own – people who are accused of being demon possessed are abused and mistreated. There have been several horrific stories involving children. Certainly we don’t want to be implicated in things like that. 

A few things to say about the Bible’s teaching on demons:

1. Demons are real and powerful. You can’t read the Bible and avoid the reality of evil spiritual forces.

2. Demons are fallen creatures. The spiritual forces of evil – and even Satan himself – are God’s creatures, albeit fallen and horribly twisted. We must say that they were created good, because God does not create anything evil. We can also say that because they are creatures they are not in any sense equal with God.

3. Demons are against humanity. When we see demonic activity in the Bible, it is always geared towards enslaving and dehumanising God’s human creations. The Bible says nothing about human beings colluding with demons; when Jesus casts out demons from people, the people themselves are always seen as victims.

4. Demons are powerless before Jesus. In the storyline of the Bible, by far the most demonic activity is clustered around Jesus. It makes sense that the evil spirits would want to oppose Jesus. But in story after story, Jesus drives out demons with just a word. They can’t stand up to him. Nor can they stand up to his disciples, when they are acting in dependence and faith.

Practically, there are a few helpful things we can say:

1. When we see evil in the world, we should acknowledge that there is a spiritual dimension to that evil. We don’t need to leap too quickly to demons (human beings have a spiritual dimension, and are quite capable of doing plenty of their own evil), but nor do we need to rule them out. They are part of reality.

2. We don’t need to become too interested in demons, either to fear them or to hunt them down. We are not encouraged to engage with demons, but to preach the good news of Jesus – and it is that good news which defeats the demons anyway.

3. If we do suspect we have encountered demonic activity, the thing to do is trust and pray. Jesus is victorious.

The reasons we avoid talking about angels and demons are broadly the same as the reasons we don’t talk much about miraculous healing: we have taken in a big dose of materialism and naturalism from the surrounding culture, and we have seen Christian talk about miraculous healing being horribly abused (for example, by faith healers who make a great deal of money out of sick people, or in churches where people’s expectations of healing have been cruelly raised only to be dashed). But the New Testament is full of healings. What do we do with that?

A few thoughts:

1. Even in the NT, not everyone is healed. In a sense, that’s obvious: Jesus was only in one place, and for every person in Galilee who got healed, there were thousands in the world who stayed sick or died. But even around Jesus, not everyone was healed. And even the Apostle Paul was not healed of bodily ailments.

2. Although sometimes in the NT healing is a response to faith, sometimes there is no mention at all of faith, and the initiative seems to come completely from Jesus or the apostles. It is true that Jesus could not do many miracles where he met with determined unbelief, but it is also true that genuine faith does not always receive healing in the Bible.

3. The best way to see the healings in the Bible – and sometimes this is made explicit – is that they are signs. When Jesus heals someone from physical illness, it is a sign of the resurrection. Even when people like Lazarus were raised from the dead, they would die again; but their raising was a sign of the raising up at the last day which Jesus would bring about through the power of his own resurrection.

4. Because the message of the resurrection is true, and because the Lord Jesus still graciously gives us signs of that truth in the present age, we should not hesitate to pray for healing, with faith that God is able to do this, and the knowledge that it is ‘the sort of thing’ that God does.

5. When people are healed miraculously, we should praise God – this is all his grace – and we should receive the mercy of healing as a sign of God’s greater mercy in offering eternal life through his Son. When people are not healed miraculously, we should still look to the greater mercy: God offers eternal life with him, next to which physical healing is a small thing.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The new modernism

It has been interesting to see the backlash against the Trump administrations presentation of 'alternative facts'.  Given the obviously propagandistic use of such 'facts', it is not at all surprising that people have been unhappy.  But the reaction has gone beyond this, to an outright repudiation of the postmodern project, and an assertion of some pretty old school values: truth is truth, and is clearly perceived.  Or as someone else has put it:
For those of us - say, orthodox Christians - who have been upholding the objectivity of truth for a long time, this is fairly ironic.  But it's not something I think we ought to be particularly cheering for.  Instead, I think this may be the time to spring to the defence of the genuine and valuable insights of postmodern epistemology.

For starters, we need to recognise that the current trend in liberal thinkers particularly is not in any sense a move in the direction of a Christian epistemology.  Rather, the move is back to an Enlightenment view of truth, which could basically be summarised like this: truth is available to anyone who makes right use of their reason and who is educated in the basic uninterpreted facts of the world.  This is the very foundation of the Enlightenment project: that we have access to the truth, and that the access which everyone has is basically the same.  This is the liberation which the Enlightenment declares from all mere authority: we don't need anyone to tell us the truth, because we can work it out for ourselves.  This is a million miles away from a Christian epistemology which recognises the fallen state of humanity, and the inherent limitations of the creature, and which looks to divine revelation for the ultimate truth.  Let's not get too excited about the apparent resurrection of objective truth: it's actually just Zombie Kant, staggering from his grave to once again trouble the world.

Then again, it is useful to realise that postmodern thinkers helpfully underlined the fact that we human beings have no access to uninterpreted facts.  Every 'fact' is part of a story, and carries different force if transplanted into a different story.  Seeing the world (as even Kant saw, if he didn't quite follow through on the insight) is an active thing, not a mere passive receptivity.  We Christians ought to hold on to this as both an essential part of epistemic humility, and as an apologetic.  Just because liberal thinkers seem to be suddenly convinced (in theory; in practice they have been convinced of this for many years) that their view of the world is the view of the world, self-evident to anyone who just thinks straight, we must point out that no view of the world except God's own view is straightforwardly true in that way.

The question to be asking of the new modernists is: what possible justification do you have for thinking that your view of the world is the right one?  What reason do you have to believe that you have access to objective, uninterpreted truth?  In other words: justify your belief.  And I will wager whatever you choose that this cannot be done without a leap of blind faith.  And perhaps a follow up question, which has a more positive spin: like you, I want to contest the anti-truth stance of the Trumps of this world.  May I not humbly suggest that this is the cause of God, and must be fought under his banner or not at all?

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Imagining the world

In those simple times there was a great wonder and mystery in life.  Man walked in fear and solemnity, with Heaven very close above his head, and Hell beneath his very feet.  God's visible hand was everywhere, in the rainbow and the comet, in the thunder and the wind.  The Devil, too, raged openly upon the earth; he skulked behind the hedgerows in the gloaming; he laughed loudly in the night-time; he clawed the dying sinner, pounced on the unbaptised babe, and twisted the limbs of the epileptic.  A foul fiend slunk ever by a man's side and whispered villanies in his ear, while above him there hovered an angel of grace who pointed to the steep and narrow track.  How could one doubt these things, when Pope and priest and scholar and king were all united in believing them, with no single voice of question in the whole world?

Every book read, every picture seen, every tale heard from nurse or mother, all taught the same lesson.  And as a man travelled through the world his faith would grow the firmer, for go where he would there were the endless shrines of the saints, each with its holy relic in the centre, and around it the tradition of incessant miracles, with stacks of deserted crutches and silver votive hearts to prove them.  At every turn he was made to feel how thin was the veil, and how easily rent, which screened him from the awful denizens of the unseen world.

Thus Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in his mediaeval novel Sir Nigel (which, incidentally, with its sequel The White Company, is the best stuff Conan Doyle ever wrote).

This passage has been in my mind over the weekend, having spent last week studying under Ted Turnau and thinking about (amongst other things) the way in which we all use imagination to construct our worlds.  Conan Doyle's portrait of the middle ages may not be entirely accurate - it's a novel, after all - but within the world of the novel it is because Nigel Loring sees the world in this way that he acts as he does.  It is why he travels to France, and it is why he stops on the way to pray at the shrine of St Catherine.  He lives in a world that is shot through with the supernatural.

There is, of course, something slightly patronising about Conan Doyle's description.  Those were 'simple times', people were naive, there was an unquestioning acceptance of the worldview presented by religious and secular authorities.  But he does get something right.  This is the way the world is for Nigel Loring and his contemporaries.  We tend to think that there is a world of brute fact, over which people (if they are foolish or religious or both) place an imaginative layer of interpretation.  We also like to think that we here in the West in the 21st century have dispensed with such things and 'see the world as it really is'.  But nobody just sees the world: we see the world as this particular world, shaped by our culture, our personalities, our beliefs.  And that is the way the world is for us.  Note how Conan Doyle points out that experience within the world reinforces this seeing of the world - if, of course, your way of viewing the world is backed up by the cultural atmosphere and authorities and architecture.

This is not to imply some sort of worldview relativism - there are more and less true ways of seeing the world.  It is simply to point out that 'seeing the world' is an active thing as much as a passive thing.  When we 'see' the world, we do not merely receive perceptions, but we shape those perceptions together into an imaginative landscape which we call reality..

For Christians in the post-Christian West, one big question surely has to be: how can we 'see the world' Christianly, when the consensus of the culture is against us?  How can we train our imaginations to see the world as Jesus sees it?

Friday, January 06, 2017

Problems with Van Til

I'm having to read a bit of Van Til, the Dutch-American Reformed apologist, and although I don't have the time (or, frankly, inclination) to enter into a proper detailed analysis of what I'm reading, here are a few thoughts which may or may not be of interest to someone.  Some of this would certainly apply to some other apologists I've read.

1.  Too much system, not enough story.  For Van Til, the history of Christ is part of the Christian theistic system.  I wonder whether the strong Calvinist emphasis on the priority of eternity over time (and note that in some form or other I would certainly want to endorse that priority!) means that there just isn't really space for narrative here?  All of history is implicitly just the outplaying of the pre-established system...  Anyway, the upshot is that we end up arguing over systems, and not reporting news.

2.  Too many straight lines, not enough cross.  I think that Van Til thinks that that if we just start in the right place, we can proceed by an orderly rational process to correct conclusions.  I'm not sure what the epistemological significance of the cross is for him.  If the height of God's self-revelation is the death of his Son, can we reliably draw any straight lines in our thinking?  The cross doesn't just contradict the world's wisdom. leaving thinking that is committed to the 'Christian theistic system' untouched and able to go on its merry way; it is a call for the constant crucifixion of all our systems.

3.  Too much fight, not enough victory.  I think related to the system/story thing.  Van Til talks a lot about the encounter between the Christian and non-Christian worldviews as a struggle of life and death, as a war without compromise.  I suppose if you have two static systems of thought, that might be so.  But we don't have a system of thought, we have a story, and the story is of God's victory over everything that opposes him.  It's as that story makes itself true in the experience of an individual that people will turn.

4.  Too much presupposing, not enough surprise.  Connected to the straight lines thing, I don't quite see how you can read the Bible and not see that God's salvation plan is a surprise!  It doesn't need people to first accept any set of presuppositions; the resurrection of Jesus bursts onto the scene and carries with it the power to communicate despite people's different intellectual starting points.

5.  Too much submission, not enough salvation.  I believe in the Lordship of Christ, but Van Til stresses submission to his Lordship as the first implicit step in thinking in any way that might qualify as rational.  To be honest, at points he sounds more Islamic than Christian - all about submission rather than salvation, Lordship rather than love.

I suppose I was never going to enjoy reading someone who once published a book called Christianity and Barthianism.  But at least now I've clarified for myself why I think he's so jolly awful.