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.

Monday, August 21, 2017


Every ideology with a nothing at the heart of it tries very hard to make everything else a nothing as well.  That is to say, nihilism annihilates.

Are we not surrounded on every side by nihilisms?

I am no expert on radical Islam, so you must take this not as a philosophical or theological analysis but merely a personal reflection; this is how it looks and feels to me.  I look at the giant monad at the heart of Islamist thinking and can't help thinking it's a nothing.  The radicalised monad sucks the value from all things, including life.  In theory this is because only the monad has value, or at least value-in-itself.  But is the gravity of the Islamist god actually the attraction of a black hole?  A nothing collapsing in on itself for all eternity, and all reality helpless before it...

Ostensibly opposed to this black hole, the re-emergence of neo-pagan blood and soil racism.  And we might play spot the difference.  In this quasi-Nietzschean cult of power combined with the whinging sense of perpetual victimhood of the spoilt child, what is there but emptiness?  The superman who is less than human, not even average.  Just a nothing.  Protect the white race, they say, protect our culture.  And yet there is no such thing, and in the sense they mean it there never was.  Burn your torches and march, burn your torches and pretend that you are light and fire.  There is a nothing in your heart, and you annihilate that which you claim to love but do not.

And meanwhile most of us here in the twilit West sit politely and drink coffee and worship the nothing.  Oh, we do.  We believe in nothing but personal autonomy, and to preserve our personal autonomy we have fed into the flames of nothing every sort of value and truth.  But in the end what will we have left to feed to this burning nothing?  Haven't we already begun to offer it the last of our fuel: our very capacity to choose?  To keep the world neutral, to maintain a space where we can be who we want to be, we have made a vacuum.  And now the nothing will take even our ability to be ourselves; we will destroy ourselves willingly, for fear that any sort of self might impinge on others.  The nothing collapses into itself, and we, who have become nothing, collapse with it.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

God's Long Word

God's Word took 33 years to say.  His Word was Jesus.

You can't translate God's Word, not really.  It takes a hundred, a thousand, human words to create an approximation of this one Divine Word.  Innumerable words have been spoken and written about God, and all the ones that were worth saying or writing are just partial allusions to the One Word.

There are perhaps three phrases that help us most in hearing the Word that God has spoken.  The first one, which brings us initially to the beginning of God's speaking and yet also stretches us to the end of it, is 'God with us'.  God is with us, because he has come as one of us, sharing in our nature, born of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit.  Once we hear 'God with us' spoken in the manger at Bethlehem, we are amazed to realise that 'God with us' is still being said at the cross of Calvary.  Not only God with us in our createdness, in our nature, but God with us in the pit of our un-nature, our condemnation.  God with us.

The cross brings out the second phrase which the Word of God requires from us: 'God against us'.  In the death of Christ, we see God implacably opposed to our godlessness and evil, our futility.  Opposed to the point of death.  He is against us as we are, against us in all that we have made ourselves.  He will not let the 'me' I have built up survive, but will put it ('me'!) to death at the cross.  And from the perspective of the cross we can see that throughout the long saying of God's Word it has always been 'God against us'.  The birth from the Virgin is the contradiction of every human possibility, and looking forward so too is the emergence from the tomb.  God against us.

But there is that emergence from the tomb, and at that point perhaps more than any other we hear the third phrase: 'God for us'.  Here is the triumph over death and emptiness, here is sin vanquished, here is evil exterminated.  Here is life, life for us, even those whom God has set aside at the cross in the burning fire of his wrath.  And of course we see now that God was always for us: for us Christ became man, for us he went to the cross.  God for us.

The life of the man Jesus Christ is God's first and final Word on all human history and each individual human life.  Infinite human words would not exhaust what could be said about this One Word, and yet what matters most is not those words but that the One Word has been spoken, that Christ has become the decisive factor in my life and (whether you know it or not) yours.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Worship, and life

This summer I’ve read a couple of books on the subject of worship – Worshipping with Calvin by Terry L. Johnson, and The God We Worship by Nicholas Wolterstorff.  They are very different books, with rather different agendas, although both are coming from a broadly Reformed theological point of view.  The subtitles give a clue!  Johnson’s book is subtitled Recovering the Historic Ministry and Worship of Reformed Protestantism, and it is exactly what the First Crusade would be if the First Crusade had been a book about worship rather than a military campaign in the Levant; Wolterstorff, on the other hand, offers An exploration of liturgical theology, and is much more tentative in tone and expansive in message.  Johnson wants us to change our worship, back to an earlier and in his view more biblical model; Wolterstorff just wants us to reflect a bit more on what it is we’re doing in worship and what it implicitly says about our view of God.

Both books were interesting in their different ways, and I will probably have more to say about each of them over the next few weeks.  One thing they have very much in common, which is interesting for me as someone who has inhabited a particular brand of evangelicalism for some years, is the rejection of the idea that all of life is worship.  Here is Wolterstorff:
It is sometimes said that the Christian life as a whole is, or should be, worship.  In this chapter I have assumed that this is not true.  The Christian life as a whole is, or should be, an acknowledgement of who God is and of what God has done, is doing, and will do – an acknowledgement of God’s surpassing excellence.  I have argued that worship has an orientation that sets it off from our work in the world, namely a Godward orientation.  Of course it is open to a writer to declare that he will use the word “worship” to cover everything [in the Christian life].  But that leaves us needing some other word to pick out what I have called worship…  And it has been my experience that those who declare that all of life is worship almost always downplay the importance of what I am calling worship…  (p39-40)
I agree with Wolterstorff – it is an unhelpful thing to label everything as worship.  It removes a level of meaning from the word, and leaves us with only clumsy formulations to explain what it is we do on a Sunday (‘corporate worship’, ‘sung worship’).  In my experience, he is right that those who talk a lot about all of life being worship implicitly denigrate this corporate worship – or at least, I don’t see much joyful expression of adoration in those churches, compared to those which talk about the purpose of a Sunday gathering in terms of offering worship to God.

I’d want to ask another question as well: does declaring that all of life is worship (and therefore at least implicitly that there is nothing very special about the gathering of God’s people to worship) actually lead to a more worship-ful approach to life?  Or might it be that the recognition of worship as a particular, distinctive activity leads to a life that is more full of worship Monday through Saturday?  This is analogous to discussions of the Sabbath, something which I note with some discomfort as a non-Sabbatarian.  But it is at least a question to be asked: has our declaration that we now have rest in Jesus every day and therefore don’t need to observe the Sabbath actually made our lives more restful, or less?  I have a feeling I know the answer, and I’m not sure I will like it.

One thing I take away from these very different books is the need for more God-oriented, adoration-filled gatherings of God’s people to offer worship – in all the forms which that takes, including praise, thanksgiving, confession, intercession, listening.  To come into God’s presence and worship.  How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!