Friday, December 21, 2018

This particular God

Approaching Christmas, I'm pondering again what it means that God is revealed and known through the child in the manger.  I come back again and again to the particularity of it all.  The Christian claim is exactly this: that at a particular place and time, in principle a place which could be mapped and which stands in proximity to all sorts of other places which do not have this significance, and in principle a time which could be indicated on a clock and placed on a timeline with other moments, God the Creator was personally united to his creation in the person of Jesus Christ.

If the significance of that seems obscure, let me try to unpack it a bit.

When we say 'God' as Christians, we are not talking about a universal truth but a particular one.  That is to say, the meaning of 'God' is defined from this particular moment - with the human life which it began.  There is no generic god behind this event, no universal god, not even a god who - as one of the things which he decided to do - became incarnate at this moment.  No, God means this particular God.  No other.

That means that our knowledge of God must begin here, at the manger.  It's a scandal, because it means that knowledge of God is not generally open to everyone everywhere.  Knowledge of God is found in the face of Jesus Christ, as he lies in the crib and hangs on the cross.  There is no other way in.  Knowledge of God means knowledge of this particular history.  No other.

The implication is that God is a factor in our world.  The true God is not some sort of spiritual substrate, not a universal presence per se.  The God who exists is God-with-us, God in the particular history of Jesus Christ and therefore God in the particular history of my life and yours.  Living in the presence of God means living this particular life.  No other.,

But then there is also the fact that this particularity excludes other particularities.  A generic or universal god might be compatible with everything and anything, but this particular God excludes.  He is born in Bethlehem, and not elsewhere; the King of the Jews and not a generic monarch.  That means he excludes Augustus, and Herod.  His particular 'yes' is also a particular 'no'.  It means that justification before God means unity with this particular Saviour.  No other.

Monday, December 17, 2018

He must maintain and defend it

We tell our Lord God plainly, that if he will have his church, he must maintain and defend it; for we can neither uphold nor protect it...
Thus Luther, Tabletalk, 368.

It is a common theme of my musings on Sunday nights and Monday mornings that if God wants to have a church, he is going to have to step in and work.  Whether the Sunday service has gone well or poorly - and I am often a bad judge of that - there is still the realisation that nothing we have done is sufficient.  Nothing we have done can bring it about that spiritually dead people will come to life; nothing we have done will lead by necessary consequence to the strengthening of faith; nothing we have done is adequate to defend those who know the Lord from the attacks of world, flesh, and devil.

Indeed, the church is a very fragile thing.

One of the most helpful applications which I take from the Advent season is simply this: not only does the world need Christ to come to redeem his creation on the last day, but the church needs Christ to come to save his people every single day.  Because God wanted to save his world, he sent forth from the heavens his eternal Word, to become a baby, frail and human.  If God wants to keep his church, he must send forth from the heavens his eternal Word, again and again and again, by his Spirit.  If God wants to grow his church, he must open up the heavens and show forth Christ.

It is a humble but impertinent prayer:

Lord God, you have shown us that we can do nothing without you, either to maintain your honour, display your glory, preserve your church, or advance your kingdom.  In truth, we are nothing unless you send your Word in the power of your Spirit.  And so, we turn to you.  If you desire to have a church, if you desire to draw a people to yourself, if you desire to be glorified in all the earth - you must do it.  Will you do it, please?  Amen.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Advent makes Christmas

This comes with the usual qualifiers: you don't have to celebrate Christmas, and you don't have to observe Advent.  For various reasons, I think both are useful things to do.  But I'm happy that I can observe the season to the Lord, and you can abstain from observing to the Lord, and all will be well.  What I'm really talking about here is the concepts, or the realities, represented by Christmas and Advent - though I confess I don't know of any better way to keep them in the mind than the liturgical observances.  Anyway...

The Christmas story is constantly exposed to two great dangers.  On the one hand, there is the danger that it might be reduced to mere myth.  For those of us raised in Western culture, even in its post-Christian guise, the story is extremely familiar, and we were mostly exposed to it as children.  Thanks to the phenomenon of the nativity play, or the school carol service, the Christmas story has taken on a childish feel; all little donkey and no crying he makes.  Throw in some fantastical elements - angelic choirs, virgin birth - and you've got a myth.  A story of enduring significance, of deep meaning, perhaps even in a sense of great truth - but ultimately not challenging.  Not challenging because myths arise out of human experience, and can at the end of the day very easily be cashed out as something very human.  The Christmas myth tells us that, in a way, God dwells with all of us; the Christmas myth expresses the hope of universal brotherhood and peace on earth.  Annually we tell ourselves the story to remind ourselves of these deep realities.  We can live with the myth, even be enriched by it.

On the other hand, there is the danger that the Christmas story might become for us mere history.  This is more of a danger for those of us who take the biblical accounts seriously, who claim in some sense to 'believe' the Christmas story.  In a culture which largely reads the Christmas story through the lens of myth, we feel the need to stand up and say 'no, this really happened'.  There was an actual baby, real shepherds, wise men (not kings, it doesn't say they were kings!) with tangible gifts.  At the end of the day, I think this approach also strips the Christmas story of its challenge.  The birth of Jesus becomes simply one thing - albeit a fairly remarkable thing - alongside all the other things whic have happened.  We mark it every year by asserting its historicity, quibbling over any legendary elements that might have crept in over the long years of re-telling, establishing the core of 'what really happened'.  But it's still just a thing that happened, in the past.  Past occurrences don't confront or challenge me.  Of course events in history may have shaped the present world, but they are themselves trapped, back there and then.  We can live in the knowledge of this history, perhaps informed and enlightened by it.

The emphasis of the Advent season is not, despite popular perception, on counting down to Christmas.  It's actually about waiting for something more significant than an annual celebration: it's about waiting for Jesus.  Advent reminds us that he is coming, and that the one who is coming is the one who previously came.  It puts us in an eschatological frame of mind.  That is to say, we're thinking about ultimate things, the end, the final judgement, the redemption and restoration of creation.  And it turns out that is the best frame of mind to approach Christmas, because according to the New Testament the incarnation of the Word of God is not merely myth - a universal truth of humanity - or merely history - an important event in the series of world events; rather, the Christmas story is the story of the end of the ages.  It is a genuinely new thing, the first really new thing there has been since the creation of the world, not contingent on anything that has gone before, not arising out of the human condition or out of human history.  It is eschatology through and through.

And that is challenging, because it means that Christmas calls us, as we consider the baby who came, to also look to the horizon and see the King who is coming.  It tells us that the world is changed, whether we can see it or not, and that we are called to live in the tension of the salvation that is fully accomplished but not universally seen, the now and the not yet.  It confronts us with the fact that the child in the manger is our contemporary, that he is now on the throne of the universe.  He is not merely a factor in our being as human, or a factor in our history as a race, but he is the factor in our present being, the One who determines who we are and what our world is about.  He is the Lord.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Barth on infant baptism

Karl Barth makes clear that the main problem with the Reformed case for infant baptism is that it fails to distinguish sufficiently between the people of Israel and the Church of Christ, and it does so because it fails to see that in Christ the history of Israel is fulfilled.  This fulfilment, far from kicking off a new era much like the old, but with the role of Israel now played by the Church, brings in the end of the ages.  It is an eschatological reality, not a merely historical one, which forms the foundation of the church.  And seeing this gives Barth the opportunity to make the following sarcastic comments about infant baptism, which I share for your delectation.  His conclusion is that many of the problems in the church in the West can be traced to the fact that so few can remember their baptism and therefore really see their identity as grounded in Christ himself in his death and resurrection.  I tend to agree.
Instead, [the Church] began to act as if it were a natural community continuing from generation to generation and bound by ties of kith and kin.  It identified itself (on the plea of what was later euphemistically described as "Christianisation") with a whole succession of genuinely natural communities, and finally with the whole of the West, which came to be thought of as the "Christian West".  The freedom of the Holy Spirit, the freedom of the divine election and calling, the freedom in which Christ awakens faith in Himself and in which the Christian Church alone can be constituted, was no longer respected...  It was thought to be known in advance who would become Christians, members of the Church and members of the body of Christ, i.e., all children who find themselves within the sphere of the Church and are born of ostensibly "Christian" parents.  Were not the male children of the Israelites circumcised on the eighth day and thus separated as participants in the covenant?  And are the children of Christians to be deprived of a privilege enjoyed in Israel?  So the argument ran, forgetting the tiny detail that now that the covenant has been fulfilled by Jesus Christ, it is no longer possible to foresee and arrange and anticipate the divine separation of participants.  With the generous inclusion of girls, all children born in a Christian environment were regarded as potential Christians, as though the Church were a natural and historical entity like Israel.  And since they could not be asked about their desire for baptism and required to make a profession of faith, they were baptised without making this question and therefore baptism a matter of personal responsibility commensurate with the freedom of the Holy Spirit.  They were made Christians by millions in their sleep and over their heads as it were...
CD III/2, 586

Thursday, November 15, 2018

FIEC Leaders' Conference 2018: A reflection

The FIEC Leaders' Conference is always good value.  For those of us in small churches, it's great to be part of a fellowship of churches that extends across the country and includes local churches of all sorts of shapes and sizes.  To actually meet with people from some of those churches is an encouragement.  I suspect that larger churches also benefit from being made aware of the need in other places.  Just as an expression of real fellowship in the gospel, and a chance to be with brothers and sisters from different places, the conference is invaluable.  I enjoyed that aspect of it this year.

And that's before you throw in the actual programme.

This year Don Carson preached two extraordinary sermons from Isaiah.  Extraordinary in length and content!  I thought the first one, from Isaiah 6, was never going to end - and I didn't hugely mind.  Having said that, the content was hard, or at least heavy.  It may be that, like Isaiah, we are called to preach in a context where people are blinded and deafened.  It may be that we will have to keep going without seeing much in the way of fruit.  The Holy Seed of Isaiah 6 didn't bear fruit for 700 years...  Am I up for it?  Will the vision of the glory of God in Christ (which Isaiah saw) sustain a lifelong ministry whatever the apparent results?

On the other hand, The Don took us to Isaiah 40 to remind us that it might happen.  We can't assume nothing will happen.  Is God still on the throne?  Yes, yes he is.  And the happenings of the world are insignificant in comparison to his great and good plans.

David Robertson led a couple of great seminars on evangelism in the local church.  The second seminar, thinking about evangelism and engagement in the public sphere, was particularly helpful.  I was reminded of The Pastor as Public Theologian by Vanhoozer and Strachan.  I suspect this is a much neglected aspect of the role of the Pastor, and one which I personally need to think about how to engage with.  David suggested that the devil has over-reached in our culture!  By going after gender, Satan has overplayed his hand, and thrown everything into a confusion which may well be ripe for the gospel.  Looking around at the curious alliances which the whole transgender thing has pulled together, I think there may well be something in that.  I think Bonhoeffer's Ethics speaks into this situation.

Of the other plenary sessions, the standout for me was Johnny Prime on Acts 4 and the importance of "together prayer".  Our churches are, I think, losing sight of the importance of corporate prayer.  Prayer meetings are poorly attended.  We can get more people to a business meeting than a prayer meeting!  CCC people, if you're reading this, expect me to be on your back about this in the next few weeks.  Johnny reminded us of Spurgeon's opinion that "we shall never see much change for the better in our churches in general until the prayer meeting occupies a higher place in the esteem of Christians."  Together prayer matters; it might, in the final analysis, be almost the only thing that matters.

The only thing that niggled for me in the conference was the music - which isn't a reflection on the people leading it, whose voluntary service we have to appreciate.  It's just that there isn't a common evangelical songbook nowadays, or an agreed style.  I didn't know about a third of the songs, and some that I did know had had their lyrics chopped about by someone more interested in accessibility than poetry or theological integrity.  And the theme of some of these new songs just seems to be 'our God is bigger than your god'; triumphalism run riot.  I wonder whether it might be possible in future to have different styles of 'sung worship' in different meetings to better reflect the breadth of the Fellowship?  As it was, I felt alienated at those points which ought to have represented the high point of unity in praising the Lord - and I doubt I am the most conservative leader within the FIEC.

But that's a quibble, really, and a tricky (impossible?) thing to settle to everyone's satisfaction.  On the whole, I return from Torquay encouraged, challenged, ready to go again.  The overall message was that there is a lot to do, an awful lot, and we need to crack on; but we also need to ensure that we are cracking on in deep dependence on the Lord.  If that message gets through to the churches represented at the conference, and if the Lord Jesus applies it powerfully to our hearts, the ripples that go out could be significant for the FIEC, for wider evangelicalism, and for our culture.  We'll see.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Knowing Jesus

I am often troubled by a great many things.  The state of the world worries me.  The rapid return of Western culture to paganism dismays me.  The state of the church makes me want to pull my hair out (except I'm also troubled by my own advancing baldness).  I am troubled by my own short temper.  I am worried about my children's future.  I am vexed by a minor conflict I'm having with Oxford City Council.  I am concerned about getting a sermon ready for Sunday.  I am weary because I've not slept all that well (for various reasons).  I am concerned for the welfare of my family.  I am annoyed that the Wifi in Starbucks took a long time to connect this morning.

And so it goes on and on, big things and little things.  Things that really matter, and things that really, really don't.  Things that seem to have a spiritual aspect, and things that are just utterly material.  Some things, frankly, that I've blown out of all proportion.  Other things that I'm pretty sure are more serious than everyone else seems to think.  On and on and on.

But God has said this to me this morning, through his servant Paul: "Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord."

Now, in context, that is the Apostle Paul saying that he has happily given up every claim to righteousness which he might have had on any grounds whatsoever, because it is better to know Christ Jesus.  But what particularly struck me this morning is just the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.

Surpassing worth.

When all the complexity is stripped away - and one day it will be, and today it could be - what will matter is knowing Jesus.  And it's better.  If all my anxieties and concerns could be swept away at once, the relief wouldn't compare to the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus.  Better to know Jesus in the middle of the mess than to have "everything sorted" without him.  Better to have Christ my Lord than everything and anything else in the world.

Surpassing worth.

When I'm making everything complicated, or I'm going under the next wave of circumstance, will you please remind me of how joyfully simple it is?  Will you please remind me of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord?

Thursday, October 11, 2018

On favouring the poor

Did you know that the Bible repeatedly forbids favouring the poor?

Well, all right, just twice that I can see.  In Exodus 23 God's people are forbidden to "be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit"; and in Leviticus 19 Israel's judges are warned against being "partial to the poor".  Of course, in the very near context of both these sayings there are prohibitions against favouring the rich, being intimated by the powerful, or taking a bribe.  Perhaps the overall attitude is best summed up in Deuteronomy 1:17:  "You shall not be partial in judgement.  You shall hear the small and the great alike."

The majority concern in Holy Scripture, which recurs in the NT at places like James 2, is the temptation to show partiality towards the rich and powerful.  The reasoning behind this is obvious: these are the people who might be able to reward you for your unwarranted favour, or indeed to harm you if you don't show them favour.  Human nature being what it is, the temptation to pre-judge in favour of the great is always strong.

But the other stream is also there, founded in the reality that our God is a god of truth, judging impartially.  Because this is his character, his people are to show the same equal regard for the privileged and the destitute, the powerful and the weak.

I mention this because I'm a little concerned that some Christians, passionate for justice, are accepting the world's (or at least, the Western-liberal-leftish) definition of what justice is; in particular, the idea that justice means favouring the weak, or pre-judging in favour of the powerless.  That isn't what justice is.  Where there are systemic prejudices preventing particular groups from justice, that is something we have to speak against and strenuously combat.  But the answer isn't to invest those disempowered groups with an automatic (and therefore necessarily imaginary) righteousness.

Now all this is about a judicial context in Israel.  But God is still the same now, and his character is still the same, and he rules his Church.  That means that in local church life and in Christian interaction with society there should be a concern for impartiality, and therefore a rejection of intersectionality, at least as it is applied today as a practical programme (as a framework for analysis, it remains a helpful tool imo).

Or, in other words, when we say 'justice', let's make sure our idea of what that means and our picture of what it looks like derive from Scripture and not any other piece of philosophical or political discourse.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

The old and the new and the church

We must first remember the general truth that when the New Testament speaks of Jesus Christ and His community it really speaks of the goal (and therefore of the origin and beginning) of all earthly things.  Jesus Christ and His community is not an additional promise given to men.  The existence and history of Israel with Yahweh was a promise.  The reality of Jesus Christ and His community does not continue this history.  It is not a further stage in actualisation of the divine will and plan and election which are the purpose of creation.  It concludes the process.  It is the complete fulfilment of the promise.  It is the goal and end of all the ways of God.  It is the eschatological reality.
Thus Karl Barth (in CD III/2, 301).  This passage takes place in a section examining the nature of humanity, and particularly the mystery of marriage, the meaning of which is revealed only through Christ.  (As an aside, it's hard, knowing what we know, to read Barth's profound and deeply moving treatment of marriage as a sign of the gospel.)  But I didn't particularly want to write about that; just to draw out one phrase.

The reality of Jesus Christ and His community does not continue this history.

This got me thinking about one of the things I struggle with in some Reformed thinking, which is the massive emphasis on continuity between the OT and the NT.  To me, it misses something which Barth grasps here.  The history of Israel is a prophetic history, a history which is fulfilled in Christ.  (Barth discusses the significance of the ongoing existence of historical Israel outside the church elsewhere).  But the church is not just another form of Israel, looking back just as Israel looked forward.  The church is an eschatological reality - indeed, "it is the eschatological reality".

This matters.  The change wrought by the presence of Christ is nothing short of the fulfilment of all God's purposes for the world.  All that remains is for the world to come to see this, and to enter in to the enjoyment of it (or not).  The discontinuity between Israel and the church is nothing less than the discontinuity between the old creation and the new.  The church is not just a community of people living in faith and hope and expectation, though of course it is that too; the church as its existence is founded in the reality of Jesus Christ is the new world.  Everything is accomplished, because Christ is not a prophet but the fulfilment of all prophecy - "someone in whom everything is not fulfilled would not be Jesus Christ".

I'd want to qualify that the church is only this eschatological reality indirectly, in its grounding in Christ and not in its own internal being.  That means the reality can be seen only by faith.  And yet the life of the church - and the church only has life in so far as its life is given by the Spirit through its union with Christ - is to stand for, to symbolise, to make visible to those given eyes to see, the eschatological reality that the old world has passed and away, and behold, everything is made new.

History doesn't just trot on.  The Incarnation wasn't a blip in an otherwise unaffected history.  The death of Christ was the end of the world.  The resurrection of Christ was the new creation.

Nothing's the same any more.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Lost time, lost space

The first creation account (Genesis 1:1-2:3) is obviously structured around the seven-day week, and that gives it the theme of time.  The goal of creation in this account is the seventh day, the day of rest.  God rests from his completed task of creation; humanity, by implication, rests with him.  The seventh day is sanctified: the Sabbath.

The second creation account (Genesis 2:4-25) is geographically structured, and consequently we can reasonably say that the theme of the account is space.  The goal of creation in this account is the garden-sanctuary of Eden, the place where humanity is to dwell in God's presence.  The Lord walks in the garden which Adam keeps and guards.

Time and space - and concretely that means this particular day or hour and this particular location - are seen in these two accounts as gifts of grace.  And by 'grace' here we mean grace in all its fullness: which is to say, time and place are given so that in them relationship with God can be given.

And yet for us time and space are experienced as frustrations and limitations.  Time slips away too quickly, and we feel that something of ourselves slip away with it.  "The past tempts us, the present confuses us, and the future frightens us.  And our lives slip away, moment by moment, lost in that vast, terrible in-between."  Or then again, time drags, and we wonder how it can be so vast and empty.  Meanwhile, we find ourselves in one place wishing we were in another, staring at our screens as if they could transport us to the places they show.  People we love are scattered around the world.  We all have cars, which means we can go places, but instead of liberation that creates a new network of responsibilities: we really must visit so and so and get to such and such a place this year.  We find ourselves bewildered and rootless.  We want to belong to a place, but we don't want to be tied down.

In Deuteronomy, Moses describes the curses that will come upon the people of Israel if they are faithless and betray God's covenant.  It is striking to me that those curses include these verses:
“And the Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your fathers have known.  And among these nations you shall find no respite, and there shall be no resting-place for the sole of your foot, but the Lord will give you there a trembling heart and failing eyes and a languishing soul.  Your life shall hang in doubt before you. Night and day you shall be in dread and have no assurance of your life.  In the morning you shall say, ‘If only it were evening!’ and at evening you shall say, ‘If only it were morning!’ because of the dread that your heart shall feel, and the sights that your eyes shall see.
Space as a curse - the land of other nations, with not so much as a place to put down your foot.  Time as a curse - longing for night during the day, and for morning in the night.  What Moses is describing here is just life, fallen life.  Life outside Eden.

Until the redemption of creation, this is going to be our experience.  But I have been thinking about what we might do, as Christian communities, to find time and space as a source of blessing again.  Sabbath, of course, whatever that might look like for us.  (Can I suggest that it needs to be communal if it's to be anything - which is naturally difficult in a world which never stops.  We will need strong church cultures of rest here).  And perhaps a commitment to be present, to be here.  Did it ever occur to you that the biggest encouragement you can be to Christian brothers and sisters on a Sunday is just turning up to church?  Being there matters.

One day our time will be caught up into God's time, and our space will be sanctified again by God's direct presence.  Until then, we can enjoy God's good provision best by living as witnesses to the fact that in Christ this is already so.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Thoughts on Holy Communion for evangelicals

1.  There is a real danger that in our strong desire to put some distance between us and Rome we devalue the sacraments in general and the Eucharist in particular.  In particular, to avoid a mechanical approach to grace we can end up denying that the Supper is a means of grace at all.  This is not the position of our Protestant forebears, nor is it sustainable from Scripture.

2.  Whilst we're pretty hot on the Supper as a memorial ("Do this in remembrance of me"), I think we are less good on the Supper as a participation together in Christ.  Maybe it's because at this point we hit something we can't quite explain: how is this bread and wine a sharing in Christ's body and blood?  My guess is a) we probably don't need to explain it so much as experience it and b) there are some useful parallels in 1 Corinthians 10 that will help us to think it through, especially the parallel with "Israel according to the flesh" which participates in the altar by eating the sacrifices.  I've written about this before.  I take it that this means primarily that by eating from the sacrifice together the Israelites were enjoying the benefit of the sacrifice - namely, fellowship with God.  As we together feed on Christ by faith as he is represented in the bread and wine, we enjoy together the fruit of his sacrifice: relationship with God and with each other.

3.  The words "each other" are pretty important.  Paul's warning that a person ought to examine themselves before taking the Supper have often been, for me, the occasion for uncomfortable introspection.  Is my heart right?  Am I eating and drinking worthily?  But now it seems to me that the context is against this interpretation.  The problem in Corinth is that the rich are eating a leisurely and satisfying meal while the poor arrive late and go without.  For Paul, this is a blaspheming of the Supper; in fact, it is not the Lord's Supper at all.  It can't be, because it doesn't fit.  How can we selfishly celebrate a meal which commemorates the Lord's great self-sacrifice?  It empties the meal of its meaning by contradicting it.  But note that the point is not: examine yourself to see whether you are internally ready to partake.  The point is: check yourself to see whether you are recognising the body, the community for which Christ died, and celebrating appropriately.

4.  In terms of practice, I suspect the standard evangelical approach to Communion is a bit too 'head down, keep quiet, me and Jesus'.  How do we reflect the communal nature of this meal?  How does our practice reflect the fact that because we partake of one loaf we are one body?  Last week at CCC we took Communion together seated around a table, facing each other, with a time of open prayer for people in the church, our mission partners, and the church universal.  It was good.

5.  I have questions about the intersection of objective and subjective in Holy Communion.  I wonder whether we often lay a great deal too much stress on how Communion makes us feel.  It seems to me that Paul sees the sacrament as something much more objective - a proclamation of Christ's death.  There is, of course, subjectivity; each individual eats!  But I don't see too much emphasis on how the Supper makes us feel in the NT.

6.  On the subject of proclamation, Paul does seem to think that the Supper is a sermon in itself.  I don't think it needs to be surrounded by lots of words, just enough to make it clear what we're remembering and celebrating.

7.  I wonder if our emphasis on memorial sometimes misses out the formative aspect of Communion.  Back to ancient Israel: the remembering and the celebrating together was what continually re-formed the people as the people of Yahweh, the people of the Exodus and the Covenant.  I think as we gather around the Communion table we are re-formed as the people of the cross and the resurrection.

8.  If the Supper is (one of) the means by which God communicates his grace, the way in which we enjoy fellowship in the fruits of Christ's sacrifice, and the way in which we are re-formed as the people of God, I can't see why we wouldn't celebrate it as often as possible.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

10 thoughts on baptism for baptists

1.  In the NT, baptism is not (part of) the answer to the question 'what should I do now that I have become a Christian?'  Rather, it is (part of) the answer to the question 'how do I become a Christian?'  See, for a paradigm, Acts 2 and the response to Peter's Pentecost sermon.  That means, amongst other things, that if we deny or delay baptism in a particular case because we are waiting to see more evidence of Christian living, we are very much expecting the cart to move without the horse.  It ain't right.

2.  When we use language like 'just symbolic', as if that could be opposed to something more 'real' and 'substantial', we fail to understand that all of human life is lived by means of symbols.  This is especially true of the Christian life, the substance and reality of which are not to be found in the individual believer, in the church, or indeed anywhere in all this earthly world, but are rather seated at the right hand of God in the heavenly places - which is to say, the reality and substance is Christ himself.

3.  We can't rebaptise people.  It's not on.  If you are really convinced that the baptism of an infant is not valid (on which, see below), we need to say that the person has not been baptised, and therefore this is their first, one and only, baptism.  "We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins."

4.  When we frame baptism as the first step of obedience after conversion, rather than as a part of conversion, we are in danger of tying ourselves in knots over the validity of baptism in any particular case.  Suppose someone is baptised at 14 on profession of faith.  At 17, they have what they interpret as a conversion experience and request baptism, because their first baptism did not follow faith and was therefore not valid.  Should we baptise them (again)?  At 20, at University, they realise that they've only now really owned the faith for themselves rather than living in the shadow of their parents' faith.  Should their University church now baptise them (again)?  What if they backslide in the years following Uni, and return to the church sensing that this is their real conversion - another baptism?  I hope the answer in every case would be no!  But can our theology of baptism support this answer?

5.  If we distinguish between the validity of a sacrament and its ideal form, we can make some sense of this.  Ideally, baptism takes place at the point of repentance and faith; this is the pattern of Acts, and makes most sense of the incorporation-into-Christ-in-his-death imagery of baptism.  But where it happens years before or years after repentance/faith, it can still be a valid ordinance.  I'm not sure there is much more required for the validity of the sacrament than baptism into the Triune name, with the intention of teaching the baptised person to obey all that Christ commanded (Matt 28).  For this reason, I think we ought to accept infant baptism as valid albeit irregular baptism.

6.  A less individualistic view of baptism would help us.  Too often we make baptism a Pelagian ordinance: the reason we don't baptise babies is because everything is suspended on the choice of the individual!  There is some truth to this - we, I think rightly, ordinarily expect the baptised to understand what they are doing to some extent, and to desire baptism.  But this doesn't mean it is just down to the individual to decide whether they should be baptised, or down to the individual to decide whether their baptism was valid.  The church has a commission to baptise, and it is down to the church to decide if someone is ready for baptism, and to acknowledge the baptism of individuals.

7.  I think one of the reasons the apostle Paul regularly points people back to their baptism as constituting their identity is because baptism is an objective, tangible thing.  We are in danger of undermining this when we make baptism all about the individual's state of heart and mind.  Baptism is about Christ.  Therefore, the person baptised can look back at their baptism and see Christ at work.  Of course their faith is necessary, but this is exactly how they exercise faith in the present: to remember that they are baptised.  I think people baptised as infants can still be encouraged to exercise this sort of faith.

8.  Because baptism isn't primarily about the individual but about Christ, we shouldn't require people to deliver a testimony at their baptism.  Their entry to the water is testimony enough.

9.  Because baptism is into Christ, and therefore into his body, everyone who is baptised should be enrolled as a church member as a direct result.

10.  Nobody should be taking Holy Communion if they haven't been baptised.  Get born, then eat food.  This is the consensus of the Church from earliest times: "But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptised into the name of the Lord."  If you think someone is ready to take Communion, they are ready to be baptised.  Do that first.

Monday, September 03, 2018

The Significance of Sacraments

I've been doing lots of reading in preparation for preaching a series at CCC on the subject of sacraments.  You can get the first sermon of three here, which is sort of introductory; the other two will deal with Baptism and Holy Communion in more detail.

I've had quite a few thoughts, but one that I keep coming back to is that I suspect we often ask the wrong questions about sacraments.  A key question we tend to ask is 'how does it work?' - how does baptism work?  How does the Supper work?  That tends to reduce the sacraments to mechanisms.  Or, perhaps to avoid the sacrament-as-mechanism, we insist that the sacrament doesn't work - it doesn't do anything, it is merely an illustration of the gospel.  It doesn't add anything to the sermon except a bit of a visual reminder for those of you who appreciate that sort of thing.

I wonder if a better question might be 'what does it mean?'  What does it mean for the whole of creation that the Son of God entered into the cosmos and took on flesh?  What does it mean for this bread and wine that the minister will speak over it the words which the Son of God himself spoke, in space and time, over similar bread and wine?  What does it mean that we together will eat that bread and drink that wine?  What does it mean for our ordinary meals that they occur in proximity to this holy meal?  What does it mean for the ordinary stuff of our existence that this particular stuff has been set apart by God's promise and command to be more than 'just stuff'?  Can anything be 'just stuff' anymore?

For me, at least, that has been a much more fruitful line of enquiry, and in particular has led to wonder and worship at the sacraments and by implication the presence and power of Christ in creation.  And that seems like a good thing.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

The word is a mirror

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.  For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror.  For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
I have wondered in the past how this passage (James 1:22-25) is meant to work.  Maybe I'm just slow.  Being accustomed philosophically to think of being and doing as two separate things, and being accustomed theologically to think of Law and Gospel as rather distinct, I found James' illustration baffling.  How is hearing the word, which in this context seems to be primarily about hearing God's commandments, like looking in a mirror?  Why is the person who doesn't do what he hears like someone who forgets the look of his own face?  What is going on here?

So, I think I've been baffled by this because I've been reading James as if he weren't a Christian, which is a ludicrous thing to do.  James is a Christian, and that means a particular way of reading the commands of God.  Here's how I think it works.

When we read God's commandments, we are not just looking at an abstract list of required or forbidden behaviours.  We are looking at a description of Christ, and what it means and looks like to live in Christ.  The perfect law of God, the law of liberty, shows us what it is like to be free, what it is like to live to God.  In other words, it shows us Christ, and it shows us our true selves as we are elected in Christ to live in him.  When we hear the word, we see ourselves as we are in Christ.  So if we fail to be doers of the word - if we neglect to let what we hear become active in our lives - we are like those who have been shown their true identity and yet forget it instantly.

Imagine there is only one true mirror in the world.  Oh, there are mirrors everywhere in this imaginary world, but all except this one true mirror are like fun house mirrors.  Every other mirror distorts, and only the one will show you what you really look like.  If you look in a bent mirror and conclude that you are absurdly thin, you might increase your diet; or of course if you look in a mirror that makes you look very fat, you might cut down on the old doughnuts.  But if neither of those mirrors is telling you the truth, your behaviour will be inappropriate (and harmful!)  Only the true mirror will help, and it will be important to remember what you saw there when you are confronted by the warped mirrors that fill the world.

Only the word of God - and let's be explicit, that means Jesus Christ, in whom God's Law and Gospel find their perfect unity - will tell you what you are really like.  Every other 'mirror', whether it be the mirror of other people's opinions, or of the prevailing philosophy and anthropology, or your own self-assessment, or even the record of your life to date - all of these are wildly inaccurate.  You are not, really, the person you seem to be to others or to yourself.  In the final analysis - and let's be explicit again, that means Jesus Christ, as the final measure of every man - you are who God calls you to be in Christ.  Trust this mirror, says James, and behave appropriately.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Welcoming and Warning

There is something fascinating going on in Matthew 18:5-6.  Matthew brings together two sayings which are separated in Mark (by three verses) and Luke (by eight chapters!) to make a really interesting juxtaposition:
Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.
What has been particularly stimulating my thinking this morning is the tying together of two themes: welcome and hospitality on the one hand, and leading another into sin on the other.  I feel like one of these gets a lot of airplay in contemporary debate.  The idea of being inclusive and welcoming is very important - and rightly so.  Here it is, from the mouth of the Lord: to welcome someone in Christ's name is to welcome Christ himself (and Mark adds: also to receive the one who sent him, i.e., the Father).  Christian hospitality is crucial, and it is only right that it be talked about a lot.  We could do with moving on to actually practice it, to be honest.  It's worth noting that the discussion here is about welcoming believers - i.e., about practical Christian unity - rather than hospitality towards those outside the community (which the NT addresses elsewhere).  Still, here is an agenda which we ought to get behind - and none the less because in a more general, fuzzy sense it is a popular agenda in the world at large.

Logically, we might think that the 'but' in Matthew 18:6 should be followed by an opposite, something like: whoever turns someone away turns me away.  Instead it is followed by the warning that if anyone causes a believer to sin (literally, to stumble), it would be better for them to drown.  The link, presumably, is partly caused by the ongoing image of the believer as child (reinforced in the narrative by the actual presence of a child).  But that surely isn't all.  Matthew presents this as one complete thought: you should welcome believers in Jesus' name, but you shouldn't cause them to sin.  It is not hard to imagine the multiplicity of ways in which one might cause a believer to sin: by giving a poor example; by failing to encourage and support; by failing to welcome and include, I guess, such that they are cut off from church life; and also by teaching falsely about right and wrong.

I wonder whether there is something here that needs teasing out for the sake of our current discourse.  One of the dynamics in the church at the moment is that there are those pushing for a change in the church's ethical teaching so as to be more inclusive.  I feel like that is taking the theme of Matthew 18:5 and ignoring the 'but'.  The NT has a particular horror of those who will teach the church to believe falsely and behave wrongly.  Matthew is perhaps particularly strong on the latter - consider Matthew 5:17-20.  If we take seriously the call of the NT to radical welcome and inclusion in the name of Jesus, we must also take seriously the call to ethical purity for the sake of Jesus.

Matthew 18:6 is not gentle language.  It is, nevertheless, gracious language.  It is unlikely that anyone who is on the end of an appeal to stop leading others into sin will feel that it is gracious - especially not if language about millstones is involved - but if the Lord Jesus is right (if!) then it is gracious to abruptly correct someone, to point out that they are endangering the souls of themselves and their hearers.  Arguably, it is part of receiving an erring brother or sister in Christ's name to rebuke them strongly, to warn them that they are in danger of forfeiting that name - and all the more so if they have taken on the role of a teacher.

It is not a contradiction of Matthew 18:5 to also read Matthew 18:6.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Though the earth gives way

I preached Psalm 46 at CCC this past Sunday.  It opens with this great picture of the security of God's people:
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble at its swelling.
Even if everything falls apart - and it is the very destruction of creation that is envisaged here, the undoing of God's good ordering of things through the division of the seas and creation of dry land - even if it all collapses, we will not fear.  Why not?  Because God is our hiding place.  God is our firm foundation.  He is a very present help in trouble.

As an aside, what a great phrase that is!  We can talk about the omnipresence of God if we want to, and certainly the Bible does sometimes talk that way, but the perspective of this Psalm on the question of God's presence is: are you in trouble?  Then God will be there to help you.  This is not a piece of philosophy; it is gospel gospel gospel, all the way down.

One of the things that the rest of the Psalm makes clear is that this uncreation is directly related to human action, human war and destruction.  It is not about 'natural disasters' so much as it is about the ruining of everything through the chaos of a humanity which has 'liberated' itself from God's wise and righteous ways.

And the response to this chaos of humanity is two-fold.  In the present, the Psalmist says, God's people remain secure no matter what.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.
Notice the water!  Outside, the foaming of the terrible seas and the tidal waves which sink the mountains; inside, the quiet river bubbling gently over its stony bed and refreshing the people of God.  "Whoever believes in me," Jesus said, "out of his heart will flow rivers of living water."  The Holy Spirit with God's people is their refreshment and their security.

And then in the future, God will put an end to the destructive ways of humanity.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the chariots with fire.
When God calls the nations to be still, and know that he is God, it is because he has ended their chaos once and for all.  The security of God's people in the present is like an outpost of the future, a glimpse into the final security of all creation when God has made it impossible for the earth to fall into the sea or for human beings to rise up against him and one another.

So here's the thing: there are a variety of things that make us feel like the earth is falling into the sea.  The political turmoil in the UK makes me feel that way.  I imagine I will also feel that way (and I realise with rather less justification) when England crash out of the World Cup.  (I am just putting this here as a hypothetical example, I know it's not really going to happen.  It's coming home, right?)

The point is that pretty much all our hopes, whether they are in people, institutions, or processes, are insecure.  Our only solid hope is that in all the trouble that comes our way, and through all the turmoil that shakes the earth, God is our very present help through his Son the Lord Jesus Christ, who supplies to us the glorious sustenance and refreshment of his Holy Spirit.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Dropping Grudem

For pretty much as long as I've been a Christian, Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology has been the standard textbook of conservative evangelical theology.  I have often noted that sadly many people have not taken seriously Grudem's warnings that his book is intended to be introductory (I mean, it's subtitled An introduction to Biblical doctrine, which should be a clue) and have treated it as the final word.  I'm thankful that a wise pastor encouraged me early in my Christian life not to let my theology rest with Grudem but to press on to deeper things.  (That is not to say Grudem wasn't helpful to me - I'm grateful to those who gave me a copy.  It helped me especially to begin to think through positions on baptism, spiritual gifts, Scripture...  But I didn't end up resting with him.)

Anyway, this week Grudem has declared that the building of a border wall in the US is morally good, on the authority of the Bible.  Read the article.

My conclusion from this is that we ought to stop using Grudem's Systematic Theology, or at least demote it from its current position as go-to.

In case you're wondering, this is nothing to do with the politics of the article.  I'm not one of those people who thinks we should boycott people's works because they don't agree with us politically.  I don't even have a very strong opinion about the wall, to be honest.

My concern is for exegesis and theology.

Grudem's argument for the morality of the wall boils down to: the Bible often speaks positively about walls, so building walls is good.  This is of course backed up by a plethora of quotes from Scripture.  But that is all there is to it.

I really don't think this is how the Bible works.  For starters, Scripture does not intend to answer this question, and therefore to read it as if it contained a straightforward answer to a question which it doesn't raise is pretty rash.  It's a flat reading of Scripture, which doesn't seem to recognise that Old Testament references to the walls of Jerusalem can't be crated up, transported over the centuries into a wholly different culture, and then unpacked and used just as they are.

I also don't think it's how theology works.  If we wanted to apply Scripture to this question, we'd have to do more than pile up references to walls from the Bible.  Scripture bears witness to Christ.  That is what it is for: to show us the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.  And then of course that witness has implications for all sorts of areas of life and ethics.  But we would need to do the work.  In what way do those references to walls bear witness to Christ?  They do!  Surely the security of Jerusalem throughout the Old Testament, and the walls which are described as encircling the New Jerusalem in Revelation, are images of the eternal security which the people of God have in Christ.  Well then, we have a fair bit of work to do if we're going to work out what the ethical implications might be for nations in the modern world.

And here's the thing: when you go from this article and look back into Grudem's Systematic Theology, something which I've had cause to do recently, you realise that this is the method throughout.  We need a better textbook.

Thursday, June 28, 2018


I have just finished reading Undivided by Vicky Beeching, her memoir of struggling with the tension between her evangelical faith and her secret attraction to women, and finally her coming out as a lesbian and the ruptures it caused between her and the church tradition she loves.  It is a powerful book, and a book that will be widely read.  It deserves to be widely read, perhaps especially by conservative evangelicals.  It ought to ring alarm bells for us on so many levels.  This is not really a review so much as a series of thoughts and reflections, relatively unprocessed (I have literally just put the book down, having read it in a few hours - it's a page-turner).  My thoughts roughly group themselves under three headings: how should we read this book?  what do we need to change as a result of reading it?  what is the implicit theology at work within this book (and therefore presumably within Vicky Beeching's life)?  Then I just have a concluding reflection.

Firstly, how to engage with this book?  I've read reviews suggesting that it is a mistake to treat it as a polemic or apologetic, a mistake to expect theology, because this is a memoir, a personal reflection.  This is, I humbly submit, to completely misunderstand this cultural moment.  Everything is now autobiography: philosophy, politics, theology.  Everything is personal.  The way in which polemic, apologetic, and yes, even theology, are now conducted with most success is precisely through the medium of self-reflection and self-presentation.  Vicky Beeching has written a powerful apologetic for a revisionist position on Christian sexual ethics.  And there is a theology contained and taught therein.  The problem is, we're not yet used to engaging critically with this sort of writing: we've been educated to think that somebody's experience is not open to debate.  Of course there is some truth in that: if this is the way it seemed to you, then this is the way it seemed to you, and I have no right or reason to question that.  But it is easy to smuggle in the assumption that if this is the way it seemed then this is the way it was.  In that way, a memoir gets behind our defences and makes us agree without ever having to argue.  So, engage critically.  And yet...  It is still a memoir.  This is a real person's life, and empathy is called for.  Critical thought, compassionate heart.  Engage both to the maximum setting.

Second, what does the church need to learn from this memoir?  Oh, so many things.  There are parts of this book that grieve me deeply.  The subculture of shame which Glynn Harrison talks about in his excellent book A Better Story is evident throughout: the church culture in which Vicky Beeching grew up was apparently one in which sex was shameful, and homosexual feelings were particularly shameful.  (See chapter 29 especially for the appalling ways in which this affects people of all sexual orientations, and page 13 for a desperately sad recollection of Beeching's own first sense of shame).  If only the gospel has been applied at this point!  If only it had been possible to be open about what was going on, without the sense of shame!  But that clearly wasn't possible.  Would it be better today, in our churches - in my church?

The book also presents a church culture in which asking hard questions was discouraged.  One of the most telling passages in the book for me came early on, when Beeching describes her childhood struggle with various stories from the Old Testament.  It seems like this was the beginning of a period of repressing the tough questions, and therefore of maintaining a distorted picture of God (because how can you not have a distorted picture of God if you repress aspects of himself which he has revealed?).  Churches need to get much better at seeing doubts and questions, not as threats to faith, but as opportunities to deepen faith through tough engagement with God's word.

There is so much other stuff.  Dealing with hypocrisy - openly and clearly - and applying discipline (56 - there is a lot to be disturbed about in Beeching's description of her time at Wycliffe Hall).  Not relying on big conferences and events, but rather on the regular ministry of word and sacrament (see chapter 5).  Getting rid of a bad theology of easy change.  Thinking carefully about mental health issues (163).  Banishing a triumphalist theology.  All of this and more.  I would like every church leader to read this book and think about our weaknesses as they are exposed in this memoir.  We can and must do better.

Third, what about that implicit theology and apologetic?  Well, this is a conversion story.  It turns on a  reading of Acts 10: Peter is taught that God has called Gentiles clean, and this is then applied to gay people. (See pages 168-172).  That doesn't work as a reading or application of the story, to be honest.  The Lord is not berating Peter for being a religious bigot who needs to liberalise here; he is announcing to Peter a new stage in salvation history.  But that doesn't matter, because Beeching felt God himself make the application to her (171).  "God had spoken" (172).  This sort of subjectivism is not uncommon, of course, in evangelical circles - maybe I should have included it as one of the things the church needs to learn to lose.  For Beeching, this is the scales-falling-from-eyes moment; from here on, she is an undivided person.

So what is the theology here?  I've already noted the way in which Beeching struggled as a child with passages in the OT that showed God's judgement (15-17).  It seems more accurate to say she didn't struggle with them: "My simple childhood faith was rooted in God's love and kindness, so I tried to focus on the stories that emphasized those qualities." (17)  Fair enough, you might think, for a child, but when this reminiscence is picked up later, after the coming out story, it's clear that they never have been processed (see page 224 - note that the sort of vitriol Beeching recounts here is indefensible in terms of the passages of Scripture cited).  The practical theology operative here involved denying aspects of the biblical witness to God in order to remake him in more amenable image.  A God totally without wrath - certainly not the God of the Bible.

Along with this, the assumption that what God really wants for us is that we should just be ourselves.  That we are all accepted just the way we are.  I suppose that follows.

A lot of the theological approach involves downplaying the idea of doctrine or of the faith as a deposit of revelation to be received.  Kallistos Ware appears as a catalyst to Beeching's developing feeling that the life of faith is not about knowing, but about pressing further into mystery (96).  This sort of mysticism allows for a sense that we're all on a journey, and that greater knowledge of God lies in the future, not in any past revelation.

That is significant for the apologetic, which has three main prongs.  The first is that the church has historically supported ethically bad things, and has only been dragged out of its moral morass by a few principled crusaders. (This is, I think, the thrust of chapters 9 through 11).  Beeching presents this as a pattern: the church always wrong, with the exception of a few progressives.  It is, of course, the standard story of liberal society (based on and derived from the liberal Christianity of the 19th century).  It won't stand up to historical scrutiny, but it doesn't need to: just the impression that those who remain orthodox on sexuality are on the wrong side of history is enough.

The second prong is to make people aware that there are scholars who read the Bible differently.  I've written about this (in a slightly sarcastic tone...) before.  If it can be shown that someone somewhere, ideally an 'expert', holds a different interpretation, that is enough to throw off the shackles of orthodoxy (see, for example, 86-7).  It is worth noting again that one need not actually decide that the alternative interpretation is the most natural one; that it exists is enough.  In the memoir, it is striking that it is not finally reading liberal approaches to the Bible's teaching on sexuality that brings the breakthrough, but a highly subjective sense of God speaking through Acts 10 whilst sitting in the Brompton Oratory.  The different interpretations just serve to prise one's fingers slightly from orthodoxy.

The third prong is the apologetic of harm.  So much of the book is devoted to showing that the church's teaching on sexuality harms people.  This is powerful, because doing no harm is basically the only value left in our society.  If something makes people unhappy, causes them hurt - then it is morally bad.  I'd want to say three things to that: firstly, that it isn't true - there are other values which also have to be considered; second, that the church clearly has harmed people (not least Vicky Beeching), and we need to both grieve for that and seek to be better; and third. that I do not believe it is orthodox teaching on sexuality which has done the harm but certain caricatures of it coupled to a shame culture.

This has become very long, so briefly a concluding thought.  The saddest thing for me throughout this memoir is that I'm not convinced Vicky Beeching has ever really understood, or at least appropriated, God's grace.  She characterises herself as a perfectionist, desperately aware of her flaws (50), and gives the impression that she's always felt anxious about letting people, and God, down.  She admits having an obsessive need to be theologically right about everything (94).  When she finally sat down in the Brompton Oratory and felt God change her perspective through her reading of Acts 10, "It was hard... to accept a new perspective.  I was offended at the idea of losing the badge of righteousness I had earned by holding to traditional Christian views."  (171)

The impression here is of someone sadly trapped in legalism.  And with that in mind, I can't read this as a story of liberation.  How I would have loved it to have been the story of how that need to establish one's own righteousness was vanquished through the acceptance of God's righteousness freely bestowed!  But there isn't that: just the realisation that she's been righteous all along, because righteousness means self-acceptance.  Maybe I'm wrong.  But that's how it reads to me.

Look, you should read it.  It's important.  I think the conclusions to which Vicky Beeching has been driven are incorrect.  I think there are better ways of reading the Bible, and better ways for all of us to face up to our sexuality in the light of the gospel.  But here is the challenge of a revisionist reading wearing a real human face, the face of someone you instinctively want to like.  Read it, because other people will.  Read it, because painful as it is, it will do you good to think and pray this stuff through properly.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Samson is a bad man

One thing has particularly struck me reading through the story of Samson recently in Judges 13-16: Samson is awful.  He is a horrible, horrible human being in almost every way.  He treats women like chattels.  He disrespects his parents.  He is unfaithful to God's covenant with Israel (as demonstrated by his marriage choices).  He is extraordinarily gifted by God, but shows no gratitude whatsoever.  He makes no effort to maintain the ritual purity expected of a normal Israelite, let alone a set-apart Nazirite.  He is short-tempered and proud.  He brutally murders people because he is angry and he needs thirty garments because of a stupid bet.  He is vengeful.  He lacks faith, and repeats the grumbling of his forebears when he finds himself in the wilderness without water.  He frequents prostitutes.  He is careless and self-confident to the point of extreme arrogance.

Samson is a bad man.

But - such a promising beginning!  A veritable annunciation in Judges 13, and "the young man grew and Yahweh blessed him.  And the Spirit of Yahweh began to stir him..."  Chosen from the womb by God to be the leader of his people.  Did God choose poorly?

The story actually gets more disturbing in some ways.  This morning the lectionary took us through the tawdry story of Samson's wedding.  His parents tried to persuade him to marry an Israelite, but Samson was having none of it: he would marry a Philistine, apparently just because he thought she was hot - he doesn't have a conversation with her until later.  Samson is marrying into the people who are currently oppressing Israel; not a great look for a deliverer, and on the pattern of the book of Judges that is what we are expecting him to be.  The marriage, of course, goes wrong, and Samson goes off in a rage and murders people and loses his wife (which will have further repercussions, by which I mean more murders, tomorrow).

But none of that is the disturbing bit.  There are two verses in this chapter which are genuinely alarming.  Verse 4:"His father and mother did not know that it was from Yahweh, for he was seeking an opportunity against the Philistines."  And verse 19: "And the Spirit of Yahweh rushed upon him, and he went down to Ashkelon and struck down thirty men..."

Samson is awful, but it is God who is looking for an opportunity to strike the Philistines - Samson's desire for an unwise and probably illegitimate marriage is "from Yahweh"!  What do we do with that?  Is God as awful as Samson?  If Samson is a bad man, is God a bad God?

Here is where we have to take a careful and nuanced view of God's sovereignty.  There is no doubt that the author of Judges wants us to know that Samson is a bad dude.  It is part of the downward spiral in post-conquest Israelite society that the deliverers who are raised up get progressively less heroic and godly (compare the way the Gideon and Jepthah stories are told, for example, and note the parallels around the treatment of Ephraim, seeking of rulership, etc. etc.)  So the perspective of the text is that Samson is not a role-model.  But the perspective of the text is also that Yahweh God is holy and righteous.  It is certainly not the intention of the author to endorse Samson, but neither is it his intention to implicate God in Samson's awfulness.

So how do we read it?  Samson acted sinfully, but God acted righteously through sinful Samson.  Samson murdered Philistines in petty rage, but God righteously judged the Philistines through petty Samson.  Note that God does not, according to the text, just opportunistically use Samson's crimes for good ends.  In fact, that Samson is chosen from the womb and gets such a big annunciation story serves to underline that God has actively ordained that this wicked man will play a role in his righteous schemes - and yet without himself being tainted in any way by Samson's evil.  Our view of God needs to be enlarged - he is above and beyond, operating on a different plane from us.  But our view of God also needs to be disciplined by revelation - this God is not afraid to mix it up on our plane.

In the end it is impossible for us to disentangle the evil that people intend and the good that God purposes.  We can only pray and work against the former and trust for the latter.  God will sort it all out in the end.

Friday, June 08, 2018

He will come to judge the world

My guess is that nothing serves as a better barometer of the spiritual climate than the sorts of thoughts we entertain about God's judgement.  I've been struck particularly over the last week or so by the way in which many people, even Christians who are committed to their Bibles, are uncomfortable with the thought of God as judge.  In particular, we struggle to square our commitment to the idea that God is love - and the NT certainly does say that, in so many words, and means it too - and the idea that God will come with fire and a winnowing fork.

And yet the Psalms paint a different picture.
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it!
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the Lord, for he comes,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness,
and the peoples in his faithfulness.
A joy that fills all creation, and all because God is coming to judge!  And sometimes this is directly linked to God's love.

So what makes the difference in perspective?  My guess is a couple of things.

Most fundamental, I suppose, we - or at least many of us - have become far too accustomed to living in the world, such that we no longer notice its corruption, the evil all around us.  We're okay with the world carrying on as it is, pretty much indefinitely.  Or we've bought into the secular idea that things aren't that bad, and it just needs a little human effort to bring in the future utopian bliss.  This is probably only something that happens when Christians are comfortable, both in terms of an absence of persecution and a good provision of worldly goods.  My guess is that the best way to counteract this is to think about others a bit more.  For myself, remembering that in our peaceful and prosperous society the unborn can be freely disposed of brings it home that this world needs judgement.

I think as well that the standard image we're given of God's judgement in much contemporary teaching, in which we believers stand on the right side of judgement and everyone else goes down, makes us quite uncomfortable.  As well it should.  If we know anything at all, we know we're at least as bad as those around us.  It smacks a bit of that most contemporary sin, privilege, to claim that we'll make it through the judgement and everyone else won't.

There is a strand to the biblical picture of God's judgement which looks like this: God rescuing his people by judging the world.  But there is something more fundamental, I think.  When God comes to judge the world, he comes to make things right.  That is why all creation rejoices.  Can we just think a little more about the sin of abortion?  Who is promoting abortion rights in our society?  It's not the baddies.  It's the decent, progressive, nice people.  The people with whom we could stand shoulder to shoulder to protest the abuse of the poor, or the dehumanising of immigrants.  And yet these same people believe strongly in their right to expose infants (for that is what it is).  What do we do with that?  Who can unravel these strands or right and wrong, see to the heart of it, make sure everyone gets justice?  Only God, surely.

That's why creation rejoices at the coming judgement of God.  His judgement is the final dividing of light from dark, order from chaos, good from evil.  In the Genesis story, a provisional and primary division is made as the good creation is brought out from the darkened chaos.  In Revelation, that division is extended to the moral and personal realm and made final.  And this is good!  Just as the morning stars sang together at the first dawn, so all the trees and mountains and rivers will rejoice at that final definitive dawn.

And what a depth it adds to this picture when we understand that this judgement has been entrusted to our Lord Jesus!  But that is a whole different post.

Monday, June 04, 2018

On returning from a camping holiday

I love to camp.  I confess, I don't quite trust people who don't enjoy life under canvas.  Sorry if that's you.  I'm sure you have many other admirable qualities.

Two reflections on camping.  The first one is that camping really brings it home to you that creation is there.  I mean, I know we live in God's creation all the time; I'm aware that the city as well as the countryside belongs to God.  But there is something about sitting out in the countryside for a week that highlights the solidity, the given-ness, the sheer there-ness, of creation.  When I'm in the city, the built environment, I easily forget that the world is not something of our construction.  It doesn't belong to us, and we don't control it.  Even in the neatly and nicely tamed countryside of south Devon, how could anybody forget that we human beings didn't and couldn't shape the hills, didn't and couldn't bring forth the trees, didn't and couldn't set the rocky cliffs above the surging sea?  Waking up at night, one need only pop one's head outside to see stars - innumerable stars, more stars than you would imagine possible from within the artificially lit city.

Here's the paradox: what is a streetlamp compared to the countless stars of God?  And yet a streetlamp will cut off the view of the stars completely.  The city shrinks the world, makes it manageable.  I am not confronted by the heights and depths of God's wonderful creation, but only by the altogether manageable mediocrities of human construction.  It is good to be reminded that creation is there, because it reminds me that God is there.  Just as creation is only really hidden behind the pavements and houses, so God is only hidden behind the frenetic human activity of life.  Behind it all, he is there.

Second reflection: tent living is precarious.  It feels precarious, when the wind is up, but it's more than that.  Out there is the vast given-ness of God's world, and here I am, in a scrap of canvas, clinging to the earth of the creator's moulding.  The city, with all its concrete and control, makes me feel secure, in a way.  But I am not secure.  Maybe I did say in my prosperity "I shall never be moved" - but it was only God's favour that made it so.  One is reminded of that, in a tent.  Weather-dependent, in a way which you're not in the city, the conclusion that we are dependent, contingent - that is, or should be, impossible to avoid.  How fragile we are, and how fragile is everything that we construct and value.  All living really is tent living, although we cover it from ourselves with bricks and mortar.

And a reflection on coming home: one of the worst consequences of sin is that we are constantly seeking to be what we are not, to deny creational realities.  I think Adam before the fall could have built without ever forgetting that the work of his hands was really the work of God's hands.  I think he would have known and understood his contingency and fragility without being threatened by it - for what is contingency other than to be in the hands of the loving Father God?

But we are a fallen people, and always we are seeking to build our way out of creation, out of the need to acknowledge God, out of the fear of contingency.  Whether it is literal bricks and mortar, or the ideological bricks and mortar of godless philosophy, that is what we do.

I think a camping holiday might do us all good.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Preaching checklists

The other day I was re-reading Peter Adam's book Hearing God's Words, and came across this which struck me as an insightful critique of much of evangelicalism:
Their question is often 'What is the irreducible minimum of the gospel the unbeliever needs to hear?' rather than 'What is the fullness of the Gospel God has revealed?'
Yes, we do that: we try very hard to boil the good news down into one, easily deliverable slurp of salvation, and in the process we lose so much of the richness.

With that in the back of my mind, I've been thinking about some of the criticism I've heard of the sermon at the Royal Wedding on Saturday.  Quite a lot of it was along the lines of 'he left a load of stuff out!'  Which is true.  The Bishop said very few of the things which might have been said.  He left a lot out.  Specifically, some evangelicals were unhappy that he left out substitutionary atonement, the wrath of God, and the call to repentance and faith.  (Some of those, of course, he would have been unlikely to include, given his doctrinal background.  See below.)

I feel like there is a connection between the two things.  I think many of us evangelicals work so hard at coming up with 'our irreducible minimum of the gospel' that what we end up with is a checklist of things that must be said.  And then sermon critique is easy: he mentioned 6 out of the 10 things on the checklist, so this was 60% of a good sermon.

If the gospel is richer than that - if there's more going on here than our depressingly thin gospel outline - then of course any sermon will leave a whole lot out!  That should be okay.  Our checklist approach to preaching and gospel presentation so easily leaves us just listening out for the shibboleths, just repeating the same words over and over.  We should be able to recognise that the riches of the gospel mean that it is possible to dwell on one particular aspect of divine truth in a sermon or address.  In fact, if we understand even a tiny bit of those riches, we will see that it is inevitable that we should leave stuff out - there is more than we could possibly include!

If you wanted to critique the sermon on Saturday, what you should have spotted was that all of the truth spoken - about the love of God, about our being created in his image for love, about the redemptive quality of a life lived in love - was cast within the framework of an old-school liberal theology, in which the emphasis falls squarely on human ability to build the kingdom of heaven in the here and now through divinely guided and inspired effort.  And I did hear some of that critique too, and it was valid and important.  But that these things were said about the love of God, on live television, to so many people: if you can't find a little bit of joy in that, I would be concerned.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Ascended for us

At Christmas, Christ took on our nature.  He stooped from his eternal throne and became one of us.  But not just one amongst others; a second Adam, a whole new humanity.  A new beginning, but all from Adam's seed.  God himself in the womb of Mary.

Throughout his life, Christ lived as the perfect human being.  He did in our nature what we would not do, living in faithfulness to his Father.  He did not do in our nature what we always do; he was without sin.  God the Son walked the real life of a man in a fallen world.

On Good Friday, Christ bore our nature to death.  Not just natural death (does the Bible know anything that could be called natural death?) but judicial death, death under God's wrath.  We could not endure it, but he endured it.  In God the Son, our sinful nature is crucified and ended.

On Easter Sunday, Christ raised up our nature from the grave.  Humanity, on which the death sentence had been pronounced and executed on Friday, is raised on Sunday morning to new life.  Having died to sin once for all, Christ was raised to live henceforth to God.  And in him, our nature was raised from the grave.

On Ascension Day, Christ carried our nature into the very heavens.  The eternal glory which he reclaimed is now the glory of a human being, of humanity.  The fellowship with the Father to which he was restored is now the fellowship of man with God.  There is a man at the centre of God's own throne, and in him we all are exalted to the heavens.

Friday, May 04, 2018

The church's greatest need

I stumbled across a website the other day which proclaimed that the greatest need of the church today is a recovery of the historic creeds and confessions - I imagine meaning here primarily the Westminster Confession (it being a Presbyterian source).

Can I just go on record as saying that this is incorrect?

I am a great fan of creeds and confessions.  I have pushed to see the catholic creeds especially reintroduced into church life.  I think that there is much that the present day church can learn from the sixteenth and seventeenth century confessions of faith.  I am excited by a growing emphasis in certain streams at least of evangelicalism on historical theology.  So this is not the cry of a 'no-creed-but-the-bible' sort of person.

But really, greatest need?

The greatest need of the church today, just like the greatest need of the church yesterday, is to hear the living voice of God.  That is to say, what the church really needs is for Christ to be preached from the Scriptures in the power of the Spirit, such that in God's grace the church finds herself addressed, unmistakably, in the here and now, by the eternal God.  The greatest need of the church is to hear the voice of her Lord.

When we read creeds and confessions, we are encountering the church's record of what she thinks she has heard God saying to her.  That is valuable.  It is valuable because the church is made up of sinners, and one thing that sinners consistently do is exalt other voices - and not least the voice of their own hearts! - into the place of God's voice.  Listening carefully to the report of yesterday's church about she heard from God can help today's church to be discerning about whether the voice she is hearing today is really that of the Lord.  It is valuable also because every age tends to absolutise the questions and the concepts and the forms of thinking of that age - and it is a good reminder that God is beyond these things, for has he not spoken to the church of yesterday, with other questions and concepts and forms?

But listening to the report of yesterday's church is not listening to the living voice of God.  And in fact, where it is substituted for that - where study of the Confession takes the place of study of the Scriptures - there we are in danger of elevating the voice of the church to the place of the divine voice.

What the eternal God says is always the same, because his Word is Christ Jesus.  The creeds and confessions help us to evaluate whether we are truly hearing that same Word.  But they can't take the place of that Word.  Because what the eternal God says is also always absolutely new, the Word we can never take for granted, or imagine we have heard sufficiently, or be content to hear second-hand  We need Christ, Christ preached and Christ present.

That is the greatest need of the church.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Thoughts about life

For reasons which will be obvious to anyone who follows the news, I've been thinking a lot recently about what it means to be 'pro-life' - and also what it doesn't mean.  What is a distinctly Christian approach to the ethical issues surrounding the beginning and end of human life?  Here are some thoughts, not all well developed at this stage.

1.  The theological foundations of a Christian pro-life stance are creation and Christology.  The doctrine of creation teaches us that each human being is made by God, in his image, and belongs to him.  Life - including my own life! - does not ultimately 'belong' to any of us, but to God.  That is why a human being cannot arbitrarily take another human being's life - consider Genesis 9:6.  Christology comes in because it is, if you like, the highest compliment that could be paid to human nature that God the Son took it on himself and became incarnate.  If we doubt the value of human life, the doctrine of the incarnation should be a sufficient rebuttal of those doubts.  We could also add that, de jure, each human life belongs once again to God, this time not only by right of creation but by right of redemption.

2.  The ethical implications of these foundations are sometimes very clear, and sometimes not so much.  I think that anyone who celebrates the Annunciation - I don't mean necessarily by keeping the feast, but by being gladdened by the angelic news of the incarnation - ought to recognise that Christ in his incarnation sanctifies human life from conception.  We ought to be pro-life in the narrower sense of 'against the deliberate ending of life in the womb'.  But we need to recognise that issues around end-of-life care just are more difficult.  There can be a moral difference, for example, between deliberately ending a life and withdrawing treatment - although both will end in death, and are undertaken in that knowledge.  We ought not to act or talk as if this stuff were simple and straightforward.

3.  To be pro-life is not the same as being anti-death.  One aspect of recognising the sanctity of life is recognising that the mystery of its end does not lie entirely within our power.  Thanks to medical advances, we can often delay death - but whether we ought to do so in every case is surely very doubtful.  Especially for the Christian, who believes in and looks for the resurrection of the dead, being pro-life ought not to mean 'prolonging life wherever possible regardless of other considerations'.

4.  It seems to me that many people - especially, I have to say, Americans - muddy the waters by confusing more than one issue.  For example, in some of the tragic issues involving children which have come up in the UK, American commentators have been quick to equate being pro-life with believing in absolute parental autonomy.  Some talk as if parents own their children's lives, something which I can't accept on theological principle (see 1, above), and some import the distinctly American (but not Christian) idea that the community and the state ought to have no input into tough decisions involving children.  This is an unhelpful blurring of issues, and particularly when it is being shouted across the Atlantic sounds a lot like real-life tragedies here are being used as ammunition for ongoing culture wars there.  (And as an aside, if the sanctity of life means anything, it means that issues of life must not be used in this way).

5.  A distinctive of Christian engagement with this issue ought to be a certain amount of calm.  Don't get me wrong: there should be anger when the sanctity of life is not respected, and there should be grief over individual tragedies and systemic horrors.  But there needs to be somewhere behind that the faith in God who raises the dead and gives each one his or her due, so that we can engage without bitterness and frenzy.

6.  Life is a gift.  It is all too easy to present life as a burden - and then say that you have to carry it anyway, because hey, we're pro-life.  Life is a gift.  There should be joy in being pro-life, joy in honouring the greatest thing the Creator has made, joy in the fact that Christ came that we might have life, and life to the full.  The Christian pro-life position is full of gratitude, seeing goodness where nobody else can see it, the joy of glimpsing the imago dei even in the briefest flickers of human existence and the hardest moments of human being.  Tone matters, because it betrays what is really going on in our hearts.