Thursday, November 28, 2019

The Person of the Spirit

When I was a younger man, I moved in church circles where it was not uncommon to hear that the Holy Spirit really doesn't want any of our attention.  The Spirit, we were told, is a like a spotlight, shining on Jesus - that is where all our attention is meant to be.  The Spirit is self-effacing.  The Spirit wants nothing more than for us to stop thinking about the Spirit altogether and focus on the Lord Jesus.

There is some truth in these sayings, and the emphasis on Christ was helpful.  But hasn't something gone wrong?

For starters, it seems clear that these sentiments are pretty near the boundaries, if not actually outside the boundaries, of creedal orthodoxy.  "We believe in the Holy Spirit... who with the Father and Son is worshipped and glorified..."  I think perhaps the argument would be that the best way we worship and glorify the Spirit is by honouring the Son to whom he bears witness; again, that can't be completely wrong.  But the Creed expects us to worship and glorify the Spirit alongside the Father and the Son.  Is that really happening when the Spirit is minimised in this way?

There is a danger that the language used of the Holy Spirit - especially that spotlight image, which you'll find in a number of books - denies either or both of the deity and the personality of the Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is God, as the Father and the Son are God; therefore, the Spirit is worthy of worship and glory.  The Holy Spirit is personal, as the Father and the Son are personal; therefore, he cannot rightly be viewed merely instrumentally, as a means to an end.  We are, as John Owen points out, to have communion with the Spirit, just as we are with the Father and the Son.

My observation is that this view of the Spirit tends to go along with a general de-emphasising of everything that is considered subjective, in favour of the objective truth.  Again, there is some good in this.  Keeping the truth as it is in Jesus central is, well, central to the Christian life.  But when we make the objective everything, when we emphasise to the neglect of everything else what God has done in Christ there and then, there is a real danger that the truth of the gospel never makes it to the here and now.  It is noteworthy that the culture of those 'Spirit as a spotlight' churches tends to be quite emotionally repressed, tends to downplay the significance of the sacraments, and tends to be pretty wordy and ideas focussed.  This seems to me to flow logically from removing the subjective from the realm of God's activity.  If we think that the Spirit, no less than the Father and the Son, is to be worshipped and glorified, won't that lead to more careful cultivation of the heart, the inward life - the realm of the Spirit's work?  Won't we think more highly of the sacraments and the experiential aspects of worship and church life if we believe that the Spirit is at work there - and that he deserves to be worshipped and glorified by our participation in that work?

I guess what I'm saying is: if we don't worship and glorify the Holy Spirit, we will probably abandon the realm of the 'subjective' to the purely human, and will therefore suspect it.  We will be suspicious of emotion, suspicious of experience, suspicious of everything which is not the objective truth.  But in the Spirit God has claimed all that, claimed it for subjection to the Lordship of Christ and activated it in his service.  So yes, emotion bound firmly to the truth; yes, the sacraments only with the Word; yes, experience interpreted by the Scriptures.  But still, in all these things, the work of the Spirit seen and honoured.

Friday, November 08, 2019

Whole humanity

I've recently finished reading Rowan Williams' book Christ the Heart of Creation, which was stimulating and also one of the most complex pieces of work I've come across.  This post is not about the book - I'm not confident I understood it well enough - but is about the thought processes it kicked off for me.  I found it particularly helpful to reflect on the fact that we should be thinking of the Creator-creation, infinite-finite dualities on the basis of the Incarnation, and not coming up with an abstract model into which the Incarnation of the Lord then has to be made to fit.  Any consideration of the question which doesn't begin with Jesus will, I think, always fail to do justice to him.  Space cannot be made for him in a system which is not wholly derived from him.  To be honest, from my very limited understanding I'm not sure this book passes the test.  Although it aims to build on Christ, the analogia entis takes over, and the Incarnation seems to become just a specific example of the non-competitive co-existence of infinite and finite.  I'm not sure what the personal union means in this model.

If that didn't make any sense to you, don't worry about it.  I'm not sure it made much to me.

The significant question that I came away asking was this: what is the pastoral/discipleship significance of the fact that in the Incarnation the Word of God took on a whole human nature?  The Word did not replace a part of the humanity, creating a divine-human hybrid; nor did the Word over-ride the humanity of Christ.  In Jesus we have a real and entire human being, living out in time the eternal life of the Word of God.  What does it mean for us that he was a whole human being?

Of course, there is the central issue of salvation: that which Christ has not assumed, he has not healed.  In other words, it is important to us that Christ is a whole human being, because we are whole human beings wholly in need of salvation.  By taking on human nature whole and entire, Christ has redeemed whole human beings, leaving no part of them to the dominion of sin.

Then there is the fact that in taking on a whole human nature, Christ affirms the goodness of human life as created.  It is not as if there is a 'wicked bit' of human nature which needs to be cut away.  This is in fact too small a view of sin: the human as we know him or her is wholly ruined; they do not just need a few parts changing.  It is also too low a view of God's creation: he made humanity good, and though each human being we meet is now a glorious ruin they are nonetheless glorious.

This has an effect on how we think about life.  Think about the caricature of the monk, shutting off various aspects of human life - sexuality, appetite - as the source of temptation.  Or think about the more legalistic aspects of fairly recent evangelical culture, which in their desire for holiness - or perhaps more, their fear of sin - tried to shut out aspects of human existence.  Or think about the new convert who can't see the value in anything which isn't directly 'spiritual'.  That Christ took on a whole human nature is a warning and a rebuke to all these tendencies.

The Gospels seem particularly unembarrassed by Jesus living a normal human life.  It is noteworthy that the Gospel with the most obviously high Christology - that of John - also contains some of the most obviously 'human' in the life of Jesus.  It is not wrong to be human.  It is not wrong to engage in, and enjoy, culture and work and food and family and conversation and...  well, life.  God did not need feel the need to over-ride or over-write the human in Christ; nor does he in you and me.  Live richly and well, and be glad.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Identity in Christ

What does it mean when Christians are encouraged to find their identity in Christ?  At least, I think, the following:

Because Jesus is in heaven, and we are united to Jesus by faith and the Holy Spirit, we too can be described as being in some sense seated in the heavenly places in Christ.  What does that mean?  I think primarily it means access to God, permanent access (hence 'seated').  Here is the Christians direct answer to a sense of self which is blighted by guilt, or by that sense of exclusion which so many of us feel.  We have access to God.  We are welcome in heaven.  No guilt shuts me out, no awkwardness raises a barrier.  When questions of identity are raised within us, we look - not inward, to find some solid identity there - but upward, to Christ.

Because Jesus is currently not with us, our identity is in a sense unknown.  Our life is hidden with Christ in GodWhat will be has not yet appeared.  For the Christian in the here and now, that means an often painful reserve in speaking or thinking of our identity.  We literally don't know what a Christian is.  Our identity is in the future, at least in so far as our experience of it goes.  Can I suggest that although this is painful there is nonetheless some relief that goes along with it?  Everyone is a mystery to themselves at some level, and I suspect often a painful mystery; to understand that there is no need to wrestle with this incessantly, to find peace in knowing that we will know ourselves when Christ appears, can be a release.

Because Jesus is crucified and risen, our identity is a constant movement from death toward life.  This is where all the NT instructions about putting the old nature to death come in, and it is the key to Paul's paradoxical sense that although physically he is moving constantly from life to death, spiritually he moves constantly from death to life, from the cross toward the resurrection.  I think this might be the most practical aspect of finding our identity with Christ, and the most terrifying.  It means a venture.  It means concretely saying 'I will put to death my own desires, trusting that God will turn that apparent death to life'.  It means living day to day in a way which only makes sense if the resurrection is real; living as if the gospel is the pattern for human living as well as the best news we ever heard.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Fierce love

Ezekiel 20 is one of the fiercest expressions of the love of God in the whole canon of Holy Scripture.  The majority of the chapter is given over to a narration of Israel's history, from the devastating perspective of the people's constant rebellion.  The Lord visited them in the land of Egypt, but they rebelled and would not listen (vv 1-8a); the Lord brought them out from there and taught them his good and life-giving laws, but they rejected his rules (vv 8b-13a); the Lord preserved them in the wilderness, but they turned after their idols (vv 13b-26); even after the Lord brought them into the land of promise, they filled the land with their idolatrous shrines (vv 27-31).  He has been good to them; they have been wantonly rebellious.

At each step along the way, the threat of destruction has loomed.  "Then I said I would pour out my wrath on them..."  But at each stage the Lord restrained his anger.  Why?  Because there was still something good about Israel?  Not at all!  There is no record of anything good here in Israel.  But God is good, and is determined in his love to have this people for his own.
“What is in your mind shall never happen—the thought, ‘Let us be like the nations, like the tribes of the countries, and worship wood and stone.’"
Israel wants to be free of God, despite all his blessings.  They want to be just like everyone else.  But God will not allow this.  Oh, he might let them chase after their idols for a time.  But in the end he will bring them into judgement (v 35), and bring them into the bond of the covenant (v 37).  It will happen.  He will be God to this people, and they will be his people.  Oh, their lives would be so much easier if he would just let them go.  But his commitment to them, his love for them, will not be denied.  It is a love that is not based in anything lovely in them - indeed, they have done everything to make themselves unlovely to him.  This is a love which depends wholly on the lover and not all on the beloved.  ("And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I deal with you for my name's sake, not according to your evil deeds..." v 44).  And therefore it is a love which endures.

It is also a love which burns (v 38, vv 45-49).  It is not weak.  It is not a devotion on the Lord's part which means that Israel can get away with anything, as if his love made him indulgent.  No, it is a fierce and determined love, the very fire of the Lord.

It is deeply comforting and frankly rather frightening.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Being godly

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe.  He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.  Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.
Thus Moses in Deuteronomy 10:17-19.

To be God of gods and Lord of lords - to be great, mighty, and awesome - what does this look like?  According to Deuteronomy, it looks like administering justice without partiality and caring for the weak.  I think this is because if God truly is this great, he doesn't need anything from anyone.  He needn't try to keep the powerful onside by protecting their interests.  He has no need to receive anything from anyone.  He is a giver, because in himself he is full.

So to be godly - to be a follower of this God - what does it look like?

According to this passage, to be godly means to be like God.  Not in being great, mighty, and awesome; no, not that.  But by loving the sojourner, and by implication by being impartial, and just.  Being like God.  But how can we do this when we are not great - when we have to protect ourselves?  How can we do it when we are not full - and therefore have needs which we want others to fulfil?

I think that's where faith comes in.  We have to trust that God with all his awesomeness and fullness is for us, on our side.  Only if we are sure that we have all this fullness at our back will we be able to risk everything on a life which doesn't advantage us, indeed makes us desperately vulnerable.  To live for others, rather than ourselves - and not even the nice, worthy others.  That faith comes from reflection on the fact that God has in the past looked after you - remember that you were sojourners in Egypt.  Remember that God filled you when you were empty, and therefore remember that although you are still empty you are nevertheless able to pour yourself out.

Remember, in particular, that the great, mighty, and awesome God submitted to the cross for you.

Friday, October 18, 2019

On the pastoral use of baptism

Steve Kneale asks some interesting questions of baptists who admit into church membership those who were baptised as infants.  Steve's concern is that churches are admitting people into membership whom they don't regard as validly baptised.  I think that is an important concern!  It's clear to me that baptism in the NT is the gateway to church membership; or to put it another way, the NT doesn't countenance people belonging to a local church (through membership) without first or also entering The Church (through baptism).

I've tried to unfold a doctrine of baptism here over the years.  It's developed with time - the most recent brief effort at pointing in the direction which I think Scripture points is here.  Short version: I think that it is mistaken to characterise baptism as (part of) the answer to the question 'what should I do now I've become a Christian?'; it should instead be seen as (part of) the answer to the question 'how do I become a Christian?'  I think that getting this right allows those of us who don't see any justification in Scripture for infant baptism to nevertheless regard it as the same thing as adult baptism, just administered at an improper time.  In answer to Steve's questions about who gets to come into membership, then, I would say that anyone who has received (Christian, Trinitarian) baptism at any stage can be admitted.  I would add that I would not rebaptise anyone who was baptised as an infant.

In some of the responses to Steve's post on the Twitter, I've been struck by the reliance on conscience as the main criterion of receiving someone.  A number of people have effectively said 'if the person genuinely believes their infant baptism to be valid, then we'll take them; although we might try to persuade them first that they're wrong and they need to be baptised as a believer'.  The problem with that, I think, is that it makes baptism something very subjective.  Is this person baptised?  Well, it rather depends on what they believe about their baptism.  Do they feel baptised?  Are they content in their own conscience that they are baptised?  That becomes the decisive question.  The absurdity of this is that you could have two people who were put through the same rite - they both received Trinitarian baptism as infants - and in the eyes of the church one of them is baptised and one is not, based purely on whether they think they are baptised.

To my mind this is to exalt the subjective above the objective, and in so doing to undermine the pastoral use of baptism in the NT.  For Paul, it seems to me, the objectivity of baptism is part of its appeal.  When he appeals to believers to live out their baptismal identity, as he does for example in Romans 6, the appeal is to something that has happened to them.  Don't you know that your baptism meant dying with Christ?  Don't you know that?  It is the very objectivity, the fact that however they may feel or whatever they may think, the Christians exist as those who are baptised, that forms the grounds of the appeal for them to bring their subjectivity into line with this objectivity - to live out this given identity.  Paul cannot make this appeal to a bunch of people who are unsure whether they are baptised or not.  He is calling them to build their identity on the event of their baptism; not to decide whether their baptism was real based on their sense of identity.

This has a corporate aspect, of course.  You were baptised into one body.  Baptism is not just a matter of the individual and their conscience; it is the objective bond uniting Christians and holding them together.  Again, Paul cannot make the appeal to unity on the grounds of baptism which he does make in 1 Corinthians if there are those within the Corinthian church who are not regarded as baptised by others in the church.

Both infant baptism and the subjectivist fudge seem to me to empty baptism of the use to which the NT puts it.  Paul's 'don't you know..?' appeals to people who have been objectively baptised.  But it appeals to them on the basis that they understood what they were doing when they were baptised.  Infant baptism ought not to happen, and so all of our responses to it are working out how to deal with a sub-optimal situation.  My answer is that at (almost) all costs the objectivity of baptism should be maintained.  I think that means recognising infant baptism as valid but improper baptism.  If you can't get there (and I'd love to have a proper debate about this with someone at some point), well, at least don't fudge it.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Dominion

Everybody seems to be reading Dominion, the latest offering from popular historian Tom Holland.  Everybody has the right idea; this is an excellent book.  If you're not already familiar with Holland, he is a) not Spiderman and b) a writer of gripping narrative history.  If you want to get a feel for the collapse of the Roman Republic, a sense of what it was like to live through, you can't do much better than his Rubicon.  If you want to become acquainted with the Caesars and their world, and if you can stand to wade through the inevitable smut which goes with that acquaintance, then Dynasty is fantastic.  And In the Shadow of the Sword tackles the origins of Islam in a way which is both fascinating and - in the way it challenges orthodoxy - brave.  He has also written other things; I have not yet read them.  So many books, so little time.



Dominion is something a bit different.  It is, if you like, a narrative history of the whole of Western culture, in particular of Western Christendom.  How on earth would you write something like that - and keep it to a size which the average mortal would be willing to read?  Holland does it through snippets, visiting a particular incident and exploring its significance before jumping sometimes hundreds of years to the next episode, all grouped together into three broad eras: antiquity, Christendom, modernitas.  The impression is like a vast picture which has been sketched out, with only some details here and there painted on in full colour.  But those individual episodes are enough to give the shape of what is going on more generally on this vast canvas.  To mix metaphors, through these little tasters one gets the genuine flavour of the different moments, and anyway there would be far too much to digest if you ate everything on the table.

The overall picture, beginning in pre-Christian antiquity, is of a world turned upside down.  In a classical world in which power was everything, the news of the crucified God explodes like a bomb.  Values are decisively changed.  The weak are valued; status hierarchies are upended.  And in the ebb and flow of the centuries Holland shows how this revolutionary message lay behind so many of the cultural movements of the West: from the Christianisation of the Empire, right through to the building of new empires.  The revolution often ossifies - the Papacy under Gregory VII sets out to reform the world in the image of the Gospel, but the same institutions, now settled down and entrenched in power, in the next few centuries become the targets of reformers with the same aim.  The revolution creates tensions - it is Christianity which makes European powers feel superior and therefore entitled to enslave others, but it is Christianity which gives Europeans an uneasy conscience about this state of affairs and ultimately leads to abolition.  The revolution can be and has been misunderstood, misappropriated, misdirected.  But it has kept coming back.

Holland's main thesis is this: that we are so steeped in Christian values that we have forgotten they are not universal.  The modern humanist who asserts the worth and dignity of each individual thinks they are stating something self-evident - so did the French revolutionaries.  But in fact these claims have their roots in Christian teaching.  Even such anti-Christian movements as revolutionary Marxism make no sense apart from the revolution of the cross; why care for the poor and downtrodden at all?  The modern 'woke' scene springs from very Christian apprehensions.  The #MeToo movement only makes sense to us because of hundreds of years of sexual ethics which are rooted in the Christian message.

I find all this very persuasive.  One senses behind the narrative the influence of Charles Taylor - but to be honest, this is much more fun to read than Taylor's magnum opus.

Some quibbles - in a book of such vast scope, some detail necessarily gets left behind.  The treatment of the apostle Paul, and the tension between the law written on the heart and Torah, does not, to my mind, get to grips with the complexity of the issue - in particular, why does the apostle continually cite Torah if he is primarily (only?) interested in an internal law written by the Spirit?  I think that's important, because by the time we get to The Beatles we really do need to understand that 'all you need is love' means something very different on their lips than it does coming from, say, St Augustine - and the difference lies in the objective content which the law of love possesses for the apostolic writers and their descendants.  I'm not saying Holland doesn't see this difference - clearly he does - but that the particular contours need to be brought our more clearly.  But then, this is not a work of philosophy or theology, but history, and as such it really works.

Just a thought about what Christians should and shouldn't do with this book.  Firstly, what not to do: don't make out of the narrative a theology of glory.  'Aha!  Everything good in Western culture comes from Christianity!  Behold, the clear and straightforward link between Christian belief and goodness!'  That wouldn't do justice to the nuanced picture that Holland paints, in which Christian belief has often led to oppression and war; nor would it suit the gospel itself, which as Holland shows is about the triumph of weakness, a victory through obscurity and suffering, not through just being the best.  Then again, we also need to avoid overstating the conclusion.  Holland does argue that many contemporary movements only make sense because of our Christian past; it would be incorrect to infer that they are therefore Christian.  We cannot, in a straightforward way, claim #MeToo or Extinction Rebellion or whatever as Christian movements.

The use we should make of this work is much more limited.  It is helpful to be able to show that the values which many of us take for granted are not, in fact, universally obvious.  The world order which has been shaped by the influence of the West bears the hallmarks of the Christian past.  As Holland argues, even the universal claims of these value systems derive from the universal claims of the gospel.  Perhaps, then, those of us who are Christian apologists might be able to use this work to show that in fact the influence of Christian belief on the world has not been as negative as many of our contemporaries assume - precisely because many of the good things about Western culture which they and we take for granted actually stem from Christianity.

"All are heirs to the same revolution: a revolution which has, at its molten heart, the image of a god dead on a cross."

Friday, October 04, 2019

Creation and eschaton

Here is a tension at the heart of the Christian message: God is both the Creator of all that is, and therefore the one who establishes the natural order of things; and the Redeemer, who intervenes decisively in history to bring about the greatest revolution in the order of things that there has ever been or will be.  In terms of theology, it's the tension between the doctrine of creation and eschatology, the doctrine of the end.  In terms of the canon of Scripture, it's the tension between the book of Proverbs, with its stack of 'sanctified common sense' (and yes, I know that's not really what Proverbs is, but as a whole it nonetheless represents the 'order' end of the tension) and Galatians, with its power to burst through every established order with the revolutionary news of the gospel.

It is of course vital to maintain both sides of the tension.  God is the Creator; what is created is good.  Life, society, culture: although all bearing the marks of the fall, all stem ultimately from God and in some way bear witness to his goodness.  The stance of the Christian towards all this stuff can never be purely rejection.  On the other hand, the eschaton has come.  The old age is passing away.  If anyone is in Christ - new creation!  Dead to the world, alive to God in Christ.

A tension to be maintained, but not a symmetry.  The new really does overcome the old.  The good gives way to the better.  The end to which Christians look forward is not just a restoration of creation, not merely creation regained.  It is a wholly new thing, this resurrection life, even though the old life is its good seed.

So we must maintain the goodness of the divinely-established order of things, whilst looking ahead to and living in anticipation of the wholly new.  Practically, that means, for example, that the natural family is upheld as good, but is relativised in importance by the emergence of the family of faith.  (As a polemical aside, this is one point where I think those who hold to infant baptism have gone wrong; too much emphasis on the created natural family order, and not enough recognition that the family of God is defined by faith and not descent.  It is no coincidence that many of the Reformed theologians who advocate infant baptism also tend towards a heavy emphasis on the creational end of the tension).  Similarly, respect for political authorities or systems despite living with, and within, the revolution which will ultimately bring them all to an end when they are brought to kiss the Son; obedience for the Lord's sake, but not because they have any ultimate authority in themselves.  The ability to use and enjoy aspects of culture, whilst recognising that in the end all this will pass through the flames before coming to new life in the heavenly Jerusalem.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The Lord is One

Deuteronomy 6 contains one of the foundational statements of Jewish, and thereafter Christian, theology:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might."
The first part - verse 4 - is the Shema, the central confession of the faithful Jew.  God is One.  I think that means two things. 

Firstly, God is unique.  This does not necessarily mean that Deuteronomy is teaching a rigorous monotheism here; in fact, the book seems to maintain the reality in some sense of other gods and spiritual powers.  Even when Moses affirms that "the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other" the context implies a comparison with other 'gods'.  The uniqueness of Yahweh, the God of Israel, is not simply a matter of alone-ness.  Rather it is that none of the other 'gods' or powers or whatever you want to call them are this God, the Creator of all and the Redeemer of his people.  He is unique.  What other 'god' has ever tried to save a people out from the midst of another nation?  What other 'god' has ever spoken to his people and entered into saving relationship with them?  As we move towards the New Testament, we have to add: what other 'god' has humbled himself to human flesh and Calvary's cross to redeem a people for himself?

Martin Luther in his Large Catechism asks: "what does it mean to have god?  Or what is God?"  His answer is: "a god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress".  In other words, what you trust is your god.  I think this helpfully illuminates the meaning of Deuteronomy.  The Lord is God, the one and only; he is the one from whom we are to expect all to good, and in whom we are to take refuge in all distress.  He and he only, because he is the only real Saviour.

But second, God is united.  God is always himself.  He is not in any sense divided.  In this he stands in contrast with the ancient deities, who might appear differently in different sacred sites.  He also stands in sharp contrast with us.  We often find that we are divided against ourselves, hardly knowing what it is that we want or who it is that we really are.  Not so God.  He is always God.  That means that he is always dependable, always the same.  The Lord is One, and therefore he can be our God.

It's worth noting in passing that, theologically speaking, the fact that God is One is also the foundation of the church's doctrine of the Trinity.  Because God is One, we can take Jesus absolutely seriously when he says that to see him is to see the Father.  Wherever the Son is, there is the Father and the Spirit.  Therefore, in Jesus, we have a true revelation of God, God without remainder.

Between verse 4 - the theological affirmation - and verse 5 - the instruction to Israel - there is an implied 'therefore'.  Because God is One, you shall love him with all your heart, soul, and strength.  The logic is simple: because he is the only god, in the sense discussed above - the only source of good and only refuge of our souls - he is to receive absolute loyalty, love, devotion.  That could be terrifyingly totalitarian, and indeed it would be if any human being were to make such a claim on our loyalty.  But to love God wholeheartedly does not eclipse the love of other things.  Rather, it orders the love of created things, such that in loving God wholeheartedly we find ourselves loving other people and indeed all God's creation appropriately - and we find that our love for those created things flow back into love of the Creator.  Because God is really God, the source and fountain of all good, he is not a black hole sucking in all our devotion and love, but the one in whom we really learn what it is to love in the first place.

And then again, because God is united, wholehearted love of him is the only way to bring our fragmented and sin-shattered lives together.  "Unite my heart to fear your name", prays the Psalmist.  Take, O God, this bundle of contradictions that I call myself, and, by orienting it around your great self, bring it to order and sense.  God alone is great enough to be the sun at the centre of the solar system of your life.  This is why in Jesus we see the only real example this fallen world has ever known of true humanity - life properly oriented, lived out of a centre in God which makes the disparate whole and the complex simple.

Friday, September 13, 2019

More limits

As a brief post-script to yesterday's post, it is particularly encouraging in these troubled times to recall that God has also set limits for nations and temporal powers.  Both in time and in space, the nations are bounded. It seems to me that there are direct parallels to the way the sea is described in the Old Testament. The nations are always potentially chaotic, potentially anti-God and anti-creation. But they are restrained. And of course the nations are also a part of creation, potentially good and a blessing to those who live in them, and so within their constraints they are given time and space to flourish.

It is worth remembering with gratitude that the supreme limit against which the nations bump up is the enthronement of the Lord Jesus as the King of the universe. They cannot undo this, nor can any political arrangement (or lack of arrangement) threaten it. Therefore God's people are secure, no matter what.

I think it's a bit of a mug's game to try to discern exactly what is going on out there from the point of view of providence. But the certainty that providence rules, and that God has already allotted the times and spaces of the nations, is encouraging to me - precisely because he is the good God, who is for us in Jesus.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Limits

Been thinking a bit about limits and limitations this week.  The first 'limits' in the Biblical story are found right back in Genesis 1, when God separates light from dark, the earth from the heavens, the land from the sea.  The anti-creation forces of darkness and chaos are driven back to within specific limits, in order to create space for life.  And according to the unfolding story, God maintains these limits - consider specifically the boundaries of the sea in Jeremiah 5:22.  The limits which make life possible were established by him in his Wisdom and are preserved by him so that life itself may be preserved.  (Consider the story of Noah's flood as an example of what happens when God in his wrath declines to preserve these borders!)

The counterpart to the limits of Genesis 1 are found in the story of the Garden.  There is, of course, the boundary to the Garden itself, but actually this is not the real limit in the story; there seems to be some expectation that the Man will increase the size of the Garden, cultivating the earth and making it all a place fit for human life.  The real limit is found in the centre of the garden, where the two trees stand: And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

This is the first personal, ethical limitation that we find in Scripture.  The limits of Genesis 1 were established by fiat; this limit is delivered by command and requires obedience.  Here the Lord deals with his animate, rational creature, rather than the impersonal darkness and sea.  But the purpose of the limitation is the same - life.  God limits the darkness and the sea because he wills the life and flourishing of humanity.  The world without form and void is not habitable.  It is death.  In the same way, 'life' outside the commandment of God is not life, but death.  This continues to be underlined throughout Scripture.  Wherever humanity is confronted by God's command, the options are life and good or death and evil.  There is only life in his will.  The limit is good.

To rail against our limitations seems to be the most human thing in the world - and perhaps it is.  Human, all too human.  But if God is for us - if he is on our side - then the limits he has imposed are good for us.  He has given me these gifts and skills and not those.  That limits me.  He has given me this level of energy and not that.  I am limited.  I cannot, contrary to the mush which passes for a contemporary worldview, be whoever and whatever I want to be.  I must accept these limits as the good provision of God.  They provide the borders, the negatives, within which God wills to give positive shape to me.  I can only exist as the person I am here.

And similarly, the commands of God which limit me, which tell me what I may and may not do - these are good.  They set out the boundaries of human flourishing.  It is not possible to transgress them with impunity - not in the end, and if it seems like you're getting away with it, it just isn't the end yet.  Actually, just as I can only really be me within the physical/psychological/cultural/etc. limits that God has set for me, so I can only really be me within the limits of God's commandments.  God's commandments, which seem so narrow from the outside, turn out from the inside to establish a broad space within which I can live.

The most challenging limitation of all is of course death, when God returns me to dust.  I think about that a lot, and this week I marked another birthday, which makes me think about it more.  But to accept this limitation too as in some way good - not perhaps good in the sense of the first design of creation, but good for me as a sinner, as one who is fallen, just as I believe it was mercy which set up the flashing sword at the gate of Eden - that is a challenge.  But one to be embraced in Christ Jesus; as the limit which also carries the promise of a glorious resurrection, the boundary which makes life - real life - possible.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Locating the doctrine of Scripture

A lot of evangelical and Reformed confessions of faith place the article on the doctrine of Scripture near the start of their documents.  For example, the doctrinal basis of the FIEC puts it second, after the doctrine of God; the Westminster Confession puts it first.  Presumably the idea here is to be up front about your authority for what is going to follow (although if that is the case, the Westminster arrangement is more logical), and perhaps there is an implicit recognition that the confession can be revised in the light of Scripture - something which is made explicit in, for example, the Scots Confession of 1560 when the authors ask "that if any man will note in this our Confession any article or sentence repugning to God’s holy word, that it would please him of his gentleness, and for Christian charity’s sake, to admonish us of the same in writ; and We of our honour and fidelity do promise unto him satisfaction from the mouth of God (that is, from his holy Scriptures), or else reformation of that which he shall prove to be amiss."  (But note where the full article on Holy Scripture is placed in this confession: right down at 19, after the doctrine of the church!)

A couple of conversations recently have got me thinking again about what difference this makes, and where it would be best to place the article on Scripture.

I do think that the place this article holds in your confession is likely to both reflect and shape your doctrine more generally.  Clearly this could be the case if the article were relegated to an unimportant position; that may well mean that the recognition of the authority of Holy Scripture within the church is on the wane.  But I think putting it first (or worse, second) also has effects.

If you put the doctrine of Scripture first, I think there is a danger of an almost Quran-like doctrine: this book was revealed from heaven, and in it we see a timeless revelation of God.  This tends to be wedded, in contemporary evangelicalism, with the desire to answer one of the big questions of modern thought: where can we find a foundation for thought?  Scripture here is asserted as the foundation, behind which nothing can be found.  I worry about this on two counts.  Firstly, I don't think it does justice to what Scripture says about itself, or its function as a witness to Christ and not merely a compendium of true facts about God and the world.  Second, I think marrying your doctrine of Scripture to this sort of modernist foundationalism produces a brittle faith, which doesn't stand up well to questioning.  And third, I think it risks leaving us philosophically adrift, expressing our doctrine in a philosophical mode which has been largely left behind by the world at large (and not without reason).

If you put the doctrine of Scripture second, after the doctrine of God, I think the big danger is that Scripture becomes the functional mediator between God and man - something which Scripture itself does not claim to be.  The effect is to minimise the ongoing work of Christ and the Spirit.

I think you need to put the doctrine of Scripture after the article on the incarnation: to make clear that in fact the reason we believe in the authority of Scripture is not primarily because it is a book from heaven but because the living Word of God has stepped down into our history in the person of Jesus Christ.  Scripture derives its authority from the historicity of the gospel, and not vice versa.  This is true even though, from our perspective, we may only come to know the historicity of the gospel from Holy Scripture.  We believe that God speaks to us because he has spoken to us in his Son.  It is Jesus, not Scripture, which is the fundamental communication of God to man.

Then again, it's probably best to delay further, and place the doctrine of Scripture after the article on the Holy Spirit.  That way we make it clear that the Scriptural witness to Christ is itself breathed out by God, that its authority is his authority.  A strong filioque (that is to say, an understanding of the relationship between Word and Spirit which binds them closely together) will underline the fact that through Scripture God speaks by his Spirit, and the word he speaks is the Word he spoke, namely Christ Jesus.

Anyway, just a thought for anyone writing future confessions of faith.  If only there were such people out there.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Reasonable, because real

On Sunday I preached from the opening part of Acts 17, and amongst other things noted that Luke reports that the apostle Paul "reasoned", "explained", and "proved" the content of the Christian message in the synagogue.  A noble response to the message, according to Luke, was not so much to just take Paul's word for it, but to "examine the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so".  Because he was in the synagogue, Paul was able to make use of the Scriptures as an acknowledged authority, in a way that we mostly won't be able to do in our context, but the broader point I was making was this: the gospel is the sort of thing that can be discussed, argued over, reasoned.

To put it another way, the gospel is reasonable, because it is real.  Contemporary Western culture wants to put a hard border around a world of 'facts' which can be debated, and to put religious claims outside that border, in the world of 'opinions' and 'beliefs'.  Some people think they're doing religion a favour here - putting it outside the grubby world of argument and within a transcendent realm where you can hold your beliefs in a mystical way without being bothered.  Others think, more accurately, that they're defending the secular order against dangerous religion - it neuters religious opinion by making it the sort of thing which one can't really discuss.  Either way, the point is that religion may be a nice interpretive story that people tell themselves to find meaning in the world, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with truth (not, at least, the everyday sort of truth which concerns the way things are), and therefore can't be argued over, except in ways unrelated to truth: we can argue, for example, about whether religion is helpful or harmful, but not about whether it is real.

The whole Bible stands against this point of view.  Everything in the Christian faith stands or falls with the reality of Christ's resurrection, in history, at a particular place, in reality.  If Christ didn't rise, Christians are pitiable fools.  The book of Acts stresses again and again that the message proclaimed by the apostles has to do with public, accessible events: these things were not done in a corner.

If this is true, it is possible to argue, to reasonably engage in a demonstration of the truth of Christianity.  (I don't mean here the sort of Enlightenment reasoning, as if a person sat down with nothing but their intellect and the world around them ought to be able to arrive at Christian conclusions; I mean that given God's revelation in Christ in history, it is in principle possible to discuss the reality or otherwise of the Christian faith).

I argued on Sunday that there is one thing in particular that it is incumbent on Christians to know about: why do they believe that Jesus rose from the dead?  There are some good resources out there on this question.  N.T. Wright's big book on The Resurrection of the Son of God is the very best, in my opinion, setting the question in its historical context and showing that there really is no other plausible explanation.  Some of the arguments are summarised in the first part of his more popular level Surprised by Hope, which might be more manageable.  It doesn't seem to have got the attention it deserves, but Daniel Clark's little book Dead or Alive? is a helpful introductory presentation of the evidence for the resurrection set in the context of a gospel presentation, and would be a good one to have on hand to give away.  And of course there is still the classic Who Moved the Stone.

On the broader question of the rationality of faith, a good introductory run through many of the questions that people ask about Christianity can be found in But is it Real? and Why Trust the Bible? by Amy Orr-Ewing.  I continue to find the argument of C.S. Lewis in Miracles to be deeply convincing, though I'm aware it has its detractors.  The Reason for God by Tim Keller is excellent.  I would warn against many more philosophical works, for example those by William Lane Craig, not because there is nothing useful in them but because in my view they ultimately depend too little on God's revelation in Christ.

Have others found particular books (or other media; I'm aware that I don't really engage much with audio or video presentations, just because I like books better...) helpful in thinking through the rationality of faith?

Monday, August 05, 2019

On running the church, then and now

One of the interesting things about reading John Owen on the question of church is picking up some of the similarities and differences between his situation and ours.  When it comes to the role of elders, Owen has three main things to argue: firstly, that churches should have elders(!); second, that elders should not be put over people without their consent; and third, that elders have real authority to rule and manage the church.  I think it would be fair to say that his stress falls on the first two points, without neglecting the third.

The backdrop, presumably, to this arrangement is a prevalent clericalism and authoritarianism in religious matters.  The semi-reformed state of the Church of England before the Civil War - and in many ways the worse situation after the Restoration - meant that the most familiar form of running the church would have been episcopalianism.  The break with the Roman understanding of the clergy/laity divide had not been made with anything like the decisiveness or clarity required.  So one of Owen's main targets is the parish church, to which a person is legally assumed to belong purely by virtue of their habitation within the boundaries of the parish.  This brings a person of necessity under the rule of a pastor (vicar, priest, whatever) who derives his authority from a bishop - and moreover it does so without the person's consent.

Owen regards this as a form of spiritual tyranny.  Both the singular nature of the pastor - Owen devotes a great deal of space to the importance of having 'ruling elders' alongside him - and the lack of consent make the arrangement entirely illegitimate.

On the other hand, against those on the radical wing - remember that Owen had significant and very negative encounters with Quakers during his time as VC at Oxford - Owen has to assert that elders really do rule (1 Tim 5:17) and have a responsibility for managing the church (1 Tim 3:4-5).  They do this as ministers and not as absolute rulers - they can appeal to people's consciences, but they have no coercive power - and nothing they do is legitimate if it isn't ultimately designed to display Christ's authority and not their own.  Owen maintains that there is no ultimate authority in the church save that of Christ, and elders can only act under him.  Their authority is not inherent in them, but is simply the ministerial exercise of Christ's authority.  (Neither is their authority delegated to them by the congregation; rather, the church, in endorsing elders, recognises Christ's gifting of them and his appointment of them to office).  The limits of their authority are made most obvious for Owen by the fact that anyone can freely withdraw from a local congregation if they judge the elders not to be ruling in Christ's name for the good of his people.  Still, the (delegated, limited) authority of the eldership is maintained.  It is established as a sign of the authority of Christ himself.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.  The clericalism of the past is largely dissipated, and the parish structure has long been bereft of legal force and is now in complete breakdown - the most lively Anglican churches are functionally 'gathered churches' rather than parish churches.  The radicals of Owen's day have largely wandered over the centuries further and further away from orthodoxy, and their heirs barely claim to be Christian anymore.  But the threats to a biblical form of church government haven't gone away: on the one hand, an authoritarianism (usually, let's face it, promoted - perhaps unconsciously - by ministers, but more often that not with the connivance and cooperation of congregations) which exalts the 'man of God' over the congregation, neutering whatever 'lay elders' there may be and leaving all the reins in one pair of hands; on the other hand, a democratisation, which (often by an appeal to the Holy Spirit - cf. the old Quakers) denies the form and order of the church as it is prescribed in Scripture in favour of a kind of free-for-all.

I suspect that in today's climate Owen would have found that he had to lay more stress on his third argument.  So used have we become to democratic mechanisms - and so thoroughly has democracy come to be equated with goodness in our culture - that it is hard to argue for the authority of elders without sounding like you're arguing for authoritarianism.  It's a fine line to tread.

So, in answer to the question 'who runs the local church?' I think I'd want to say something like this:

The Lord Jesus governs his church, being enthroned in heaven and present by the Holy Spirit, and he has established within his church elders, who are to govern as his ministers, with the consent and counsel of the whole congregation.

Plural eldership.  Congregational consent - and counsel, active involvement (Owen doesn't have much to say about this; he is also a product of his time, and has not totally shaken off clericalism).  All in recognition of the fact that Christ rules, in the present, by his Spirit, and that this is the form which he has directed for the government of his people.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Loving the church

If we love Christ, we must love the church.  But how?

The main way in which we are called to love the church is in love towards the members of the particular congregation to which we belong.  (This is obviously to take for granted the very first act of love towards the church, which is to join yourself to a particular congregation!)  That means practical care, and spiritual care - not one without the other!  And spiritual care includes the duty to pray for one another, to encourage one another, and, yes, to rebuke one another where necessary.  All of this is part of love.  We are called to love each member of the church, not because they are lovely, but for the sake of the Lord Jesus, to whom they are united just as we are by faith and the Holy Spirit.  That includes the awkward ones, the ones who wind you up something chronic, and the ones from whom you can expect little return.  That is the calling.

Although this is the front line of love, the place where our love for the church is most tested, I want to suggest that it is not the whole of the duty.  We are to love the members of the church, but the church is more than a group of individuals.  The church is a body, the body of Christ; and that body is manifest both in individual congregations and in the whole of the church throughout space and time.

To love the church as body is to love the church in the things that it does corporately - to love worship, to love the preaching of the word, to love the sacraments, yes, even to love business meetings.  And in the same way that loving an individual does not mean popping into their life when you feel like it, to love the body of the church means to be committed to coming together, not to give up meeting together.  And in the same way that loving an individual does not mean just loving the things about them that you find lovely, to love the body of the church means to participate in those activities that you personally find less attractive, to sing the songs you don't like, to turn up to the prayer meetings that you really struggle with.

And to love the body as it is catholic, that is to say, as it extends throughout time and space, is to love the church in all its messy history and all its messy present.  Not, of course, to love every detail of that history, or that present; there is much sin there.  But to love the church, despite its brokenness and, often, wickedness; to see the church, despite those things, as it is loved by the Lord Jesus.  In practice, to lift our eyes beyond the confines of our own congregation and denomination, and to love the church as it exists in traditions which seem alien to us; to lift our eyes beyond the boundaries of our own culture, and to love the church as it exists in languages and forms which are foreign to us; to lift our eyes beyond our time, and to love the church as it stands in history as the monument to God's faithfulness and constant grace.  To learn from ancient and alien forms, to sing the old hymns and the new songs and the songs from far away.  To consciously stand in union and communion with those who have gone before on the road and those who walk the same road in very different places.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

He has spoken

I'm re-reading a bit of John Owen at the moment (On the true nature of a gospel church - volume XVI of his Works, for those following along at home).  Owen is very definitely of his era: a scholastic theologian, meaning that he pushes for precision in every point and is very careful in his analysis; in particular, he milks the Scriptures for every drop of truth he can see in them, and works hard to bring those truths into relation with one another.  It sometimes makes for tedious reading (okay, okay, John - you've made your point), but I basically like it.  There is something in the scholastic instinct which to my mind honours God, by seeking the coherence of his words and works.  "Fear of scholasticism is the mark of a false prophet", as Barth remarks in CD I/1.

Behind Owen's rigour there lies the conviction that God has spoken, and still speaks through the Scriptures; and therefore whatever question is raised in the church it is to the Scriptures that we ought to turn.

I think we've lost that conviction a little bit, or perhaps a lot depending on what circles you move in.  My guess is that it happened like this, although I freely admit I've made no effort to check whether history maps on to this analysis.

In the olden days (that is to say, the 16th and 17th centuries), the three convictions that (1) God has something to say on all points of Christian doctrine, that (2) it is in principle possible with the aid of the Spirit to hear what he says from Scripture, and that (3) it is our absolute duty to listen to, trust, and obey God in every detail of what he says led to the long confessional documents that characterise that era.  These confessions reflect a belief that God has something clear and certain to say about, for example, the extent of the atonement, the precise mode of church government, the proper administration of baptism (to whom, when and how), even the role of the civil magistrate and the limits of state power.  They are, as I mentioned long documents.

The failure to come to a consensus on many of these points in Protestantism, with the multiplication of church associations and the writing of ever more lengthy doctrinal statements, undermined over time the central convictions.  Of course no Protestant - no Christian! - could easily sell out point 3: we certainly have to hear and obey God in everything he says.  But convictions 1 and 2 begin to waver, or at least to function less vitally in the church: perhaps God has not spoken to every detail, perhaps it is not possible for us to reliably read off every detail of what he has said from Scripture.  Of course some theological positions were never committed to these assumptions - to be an episcopalian, for example, you have to assume that the church is given wide latitude to form its own church government, and that means assuming that God has not given direction on the matter (or at least, that he has not done so in Scripture).

Modern evangelicalism is characterised by, amongst other things, its desire to bring Christians who are committed to the Bible together.  This is often achieved by drawing a dividing line through theological issues, splitting them into primary and secondary.  The aim of this division was not, originally, to undermine the claim that God speaks into all sorts of doctrinal questions; the aim was to clarify which doctrines came so close to the heart of the gospel message that to distort or abandon them was to ruin the church's faith and witness.  Those doctrines are classified as primary.  Others, judged less close to the heart of the matter, were judged secondary.  We can talk and argue about them, but we shouldn't divide over them, at least not completely.  (Everyone accepts that practically it is difficult to run a church without agreeing on, for example, who are the proper subjects of baptism; but congregations which disagree on this could still co-operate in mission organisations and local outreach, for example).

This is helpful and commendable; nobody wants to go back to the divisiveness of early modern confessionalism, I hope.  But I suspect that over time it has undermined further our already wobbly convictions.  If we're working with these people, worshipping with these people, it becomes harder to think that their disagreement with us over 'secondary' issues is a matter of them not hearing properly what God says on the topics in question.  It is easier to say that God has not spoken, or at least that he does not speak clearly, on these subjects.  That gives us latitude to fudge them without any sense of disobedience on our part, or any apprehension that our good co-evangelical friends are disobedient.  But this naturally leads to the idea that these 'secondary issues' don't really matter: if they did, God would speak clearly on them.  So rather than work hard (and scholastically) to hear God, we shrug and let everyone go his own way on these things.

The fundamental problem here is that we have stopped listening to God.  That means, in practice, that we are doing what lies in us to prevent the Lord Jesus from governing his church.  (Thankfully, what lies in us is really not very much).  Out of fear of awkward chats, and a disinclination to work hard, think carefully, and be precise, we have done our best to shut out the voice of God.

But he has spoken, and because he has spoken he is speaking; and no topic is beyond the scope of his sovereign speech.  Might it not be better to try to hear and obey him?  If it leads to us having to acknowledge frankly that we think others, whilst we see them as in many ways faithful brothers and sisters, have failed to hear and obey - would that be the end of the world?  And might it not even be helpful if it exposes us to the same sort of critique from them?  Might we not together expect to hear God speak more clearly as we mutually rebuke and exhort each other?

I hope for a future with more scholasticism in this sense, more rigour, more fiery theological debate between people who acknowledge one another to belong to Christ's faithful.  I hope for a future in which God's word rules God's people.  I hope for a future in which the Lion's roar is heard clearly again.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Good without God

The Guardian offers a (fairly bland) editorial on what it will mean to be a society in which people increasingly don't believe in God.  They don't really offer an answer, content instead to raise the question: "if organised mainstream Christianity is on the way out, what will replace it?"

I want to make two observations on the editorial, and point out one major error which runs through a lot of humanist and soft-atheist argument.

The first observation is that the Guardian, and others of this ilk, are noticing something which believers have actually been well aware of for a couple of generations at least: namely, that Christian observance and belief is dropping off, in fact has dropped off a cliff.  The editorial observes that "more than half of all British people now say that they have no religion; about two-fifths are Christians of one sort or another; 9% are Muslims."  The phrase which I have italicised is frankly very generous, and can only be reached through allowing a person's religious outlook to be defined entirely by their own self-identification.  Actually, those of us who believe and practice orthodox Christianity have known for some time that the real figure is much lower.  Some have estimated more like 3%.  This may be news to the Guardian, but it has been our reality for ages.

The second observation is that 'organised mainstream Christianity' may well be dying out, if by that is meant the liberal, compromised religion of cultural Christianity and traditional observance.  Far from that being of concern to orthodox Christians, the collapse of this horrible perversion of Christ's religion is in many ways welcome.  Yes, the disappearance of basic knowledge makes mission harder work, and the loss of moral consensus and community cohesion is painful, but on the other hand, it clarifies things.  Where the gospel is still preached, according to the Scriptures, it still works to bring new life and to gather God's people in; God isn't dependent on the structures of cultural Christianity to do his work.

The massive falsehood in the editorial is tucked away in the middle.  We are told that "theology and morality are only tenuously related."  This is so because "habits of kindness, decency and tolerance come from practice rather than belief."  This is demonstrable nonsense.  It depends on the naive Enlightenment view that morality is self-evident, that people simply using their reason unaided will be able to discern in the world a 'right' way to act, and will then be able to follow it.  It assumes a universal moral code, which people can just pick up by thinking right.  The editors of the Guardian should know better; they should have read their Nietzsche more attentively.

In fact, ethical systems and beliefs are particular, not universal, and are grounded in particular beliefs about reality.  You can mask this with bland talk about kindness, decency, and tolerance; but it gets much more difficult when you get into specifics.  We are morally obliged to care particularly for the weak and the helpless.  I guess the average Guardian reader agrees.  But is this a universal moral intuition?  It is not!  It is the ethical corollary of the theological belief in the dignity and sanctity of human life, derived from its Creator.  This belief burst onto the scene historically with Christian revelation and has not been arrived at in any other way.  If it seemed to the Founding Fathers of the American republic that these truths were "self-evident", they only showed thereby that they were steeped in Christian doctrine - without even realising the extent to which their moral intuition was determined by this framework.  More honest and percipient philosophers today - such as Luc Ferry - admit that they do in fact want to continue to hold ethical positions which are specifically derived from Christian belief without the accompanying beliefs themselves, and moreover admit that this is as yet something for which they have failed to derive a convincing reason.

The flipside of this falsehood at the heart of the Guardian's editorial is the assumption that religion basically only exists to make us good.  Can we not, in fact, be good without God?  How can people not see that this question cannot be answered without resolving the question 'what does it mean to be good?'  And one cannot begin to answer this question without dealing with the question of what reality is like.  If there is no God, then it may be possible to be good without God; although I am not convinced that a sound and compelling account can be given of what 'goodness' means in that worldview.  On some versions of theism, and most versions of deism, it may also be possible to be good without God.

But if the Christian revelation is actually true - that is to say, if God the Son really walked among us, died on a Roman cross, and rose to eat breakfast with his disciples - then goodness is inherently wrapped up in relationship with God.  In that case, one cannot be good without God, because being good is not merely about ethical behaviours ("habits of kindness, decency and tolerance") but about bowing before the Creator, accepting his Lordship - and most of all accepting his grace.  Because of course the point of the Christian religion is not to provide you with an ethical system to help you to be good, but to provide you with a Saviour to bring you to God.

Thursday, July 04, 2019

Why I am a Christian

There are lots of ways you could tell this story, of course, with the emphasis falling in different places.  There are plenty of circumstantial factors that would have to be borne in mind - pre-eminent among them the fact that I was born into and raised within a family where the Christian faith was sincerely believed and seriously practised - and I'm sure many people would want to reduce the whole answer to the sum of circumstances like that.  For myself, I could also give an 'upper storey' account of why I am a Christian, pointing to the agency of the Holy Spirit enabling my agency in belief - an account which would, of course, only be plausible for those who were also operating with a commitment to Christian faith.

But this is the account of the middle storey, the account of what reasons I could give for being a Christian.  If somebody were to ask me why I believed, and of course people do ask just that, this is the answer I would give.

Incidentally, for me faith is not a thing that comes easily.  I know that for some people it does, and over time my attitude toward that has changed.  For a long time I tended to think that those who seemed to have an implicit trust in God were just being naive.  I was a bit patronising about it, to be honest: they don't seem to have wrestled with the hard questions at all, how can that be genuine faith?  (The implication being that my own belief was somehow more valid for being more complicated).  Well, I repent.  Simple, straightforward faith is a great and glorious gift of God, and not to be despised.  Perhaps rather to be envied.  But that's not where I am or have ever been.  I walk somewhere on the border of Christianity and atheism, and I'm thankful that I've typically kept to the faith-full side of the border.  But why?

There are three reasons, basically.  The first and most foundational is that I am convinced that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead.  At first this simply meant that I found the testimony to this event convincing: I read the accounts and I thought the witnesses seemed sincere, in a position to know the truth (or otherwise) of what they were saying, and ready to venture a great deal on this testimony (their lives, in fact).  I was struck by the lack of art or manufacture about the various strands of testimony to the resurrection.  Even the inconsistencies struck me as evidence of truthfulness; nobody inventing a story would do it that way.  When I have doubts about aspects of Christian faith, I circle back around to the resurrection: I don't see how it can be explained away, and everything else rests on it.

Of huge help to me in thinking about the resurrection more thoroughly was Tom Wright's book The Resurrection of the Son of God.  Wright sets the testimony to the resurrection within its context, showing that this wasn't something anyone - Jewish or pagan - was expecting, and yet that it did in the end  fit within the Jewish story, as the fulfillment of the ancient hopes and promises.  It's a really big book, but if you're serious about thinking through whether this really happened - and what it would mean if it did - this is the place to go.

The second reason is basically this from C.S. Lewis:  “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.” In other words, putting the resurrection of Jesus in its place at the centre of my view of the world causes everything else to make sense. In particular, I know of no other worldview, religion, or philosophy which enables and encourages me to be a human person, and to take my humanity and personhood seriously, in its glory and its limitations. The world is a confusing and often dark place, and human thinking about the world is a muddle. Contemporary culture seems to be elevating that muddle to a position of unassailable orthodoxy. But I keep wondering - can you live as if this were true? Can you really live as if you were a meaningless blip in a meaningless universe? With Jesus, I find that the world, and my life, and indeed the very darkness and muddle, receive a powerful explanation. It's like the sun rose, or someone turned the lights on.

The third reason is that this morning, like almost every morning, I spent some time speaking with God and listening to him speak to me. Which is to say, I am a Christian because I know (relationally) the God who made the universe.

I'd be interested to hear why you are, or are not, a Christian. Let me know.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

The visible church

The distinction between the visible church and the invisible church plays various different roles in different theologies and ecclesiologies.  Basically the idea is that the church as we see it in the world and in history, the empirical church, is not wholly identical with the church as it exists in the sight and plan of God, the spiritual church.  This distinction may serve to justify the relative impurity of present churches - it sometimes functions, for example, as an argument for mixed congregations in which it is known that many are not living as disciples despite their attachment to 'the church'.  It can also function as an apologetic for the ruined and divided state of the church catholic - the visible church is by schisms rent asunder, but the invisible church is nonetheless one and whole in Christ - which can unfortunately make efforts towards visible unity seem a waste of time.

At one level I think the distinction is certainly necessary.  The New Testament seems to call for it, whenever it acknowledges that there will be eschatological surprises over who ultimately is found to belong to the church.  And it seems inevitable conceptually - I am reminded of Screwtape's advice that the newly converted patient should be put off church by keeping his mind on the deeply unsatisfying reality of his neighbours assembled in church rather than on "the Church as we (demons) see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners."

But does this idea also have dangerous implications?

In The Trinitarian Faith Torrance suggests a particular genealogy for the distinction between the visible and the invisible church.  For some of the early Fathers of the church - he particularly mentions Origen and Clement of Alexandria - there was a similar distinction between the physical/sensible gospel and the spiritual/eternal gospel.  Influenced by Platonic dualism - with its rift between the visible/invisible, temporal/eternal, physical/spiritual, and its clear preference for the latter in each of these dualities - there was a tendency to see the incarnation, in all its visible/temporal/physical nature, as pointing towards a better invisible/eternal/spiritual gospel, of which it was a passing sign.  The danger here for Christology is hopefully obvious, but what if - as Torrance suggests - this is also the source of the idea of a visible and invisible church?  What would be the consequences?

Torrance suggests that this distinction "opened the door for the identification of the real Church with a spiritualised timeless and spaceless magnitude, and for the ongoing life and mission of the empirical Church to be regarded as subject to the laws that control human society in this world." (276)  In other words, the visible church - being no longer regarded as itself the Body of Christ, but only at best as a rough approximation of or signpost to his spiritual Body - is run as if it were just another human society.  The reality that the church - meaning the local congregation here and now - exists because its members have been baptised by one Spirit into the one Body of Christ, through whom they have access together to the Father: all that is lost, or is in danger of being lost.  In practice, the presence and reality of the Spirit with(in) the people of God here and now is downplayed or neglected; human efforts to maintain and organise the church are substituted for a dependence on God's Spirit.

I don't know my Patristics well enough to know if Torrance's account is correct; I find it plausible from the little that I do know.  I wonder what it would look like in our churches to resist this dualism.  A higher doctrine of the church?  Actually, I would guess, an understanding of the church that sees it not as an add-on to the gospel but as an intrinsic part of the gospel.  And then a lived reality of church which leans much more heavily on the presence and work of the Holy Spirit uniting us to Christ in the here and now.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The gentle God

One of the things about God that I wrestle with is his determination to make me into a human being, a person.  It often seems like this great project of his leads down long, winding roads which surely don't get to the point, or at least don't get there very quickly, and involve me in lots of heartache along the way.  I wish he would short-circuit the process.

Why, for example, does God not just kill off sin in us the moment we first turn to him?  Why does he not make vocation blindingly clear to us the moment we first ask?  Why does he let us, individually and collectively as families and churches, muddle through decision making processes and get it wrong more often than not, when he could just signpost the way clearly - with a voice from heaven perhaps?

I think at least part of the reason is that God will have his human creations as humans, as real relational counterparts to himself.  This does not imply, as more liberal theology has always thought, that God gives human beings radical autonomy, that they stand outside his sovereignty, that they are able to ultimately defy his will.  No, God is God.  But he is God with us in a particular way.

T.F. Torrance commented on the Patristic understanding of the Holy Spirit thus: "If it is only the almighty who can be infinitely gentle, the Holy Spirit may well be characterised as the gentleness of God the Father Almighty."  The way God governs his human creation is through the gentleness of the Holy Spirit.

When we think of the Spirit we usually reach for the dramatic things: Philip whisked away to Azotus, missionary endeavours directed by audible voices from God or prophetic words, healings, tongues of fire.  That the Spirit did and does these things is undeniable, to those who take the Scriptures seriously.  It is not for nothing that he is associated with fire.

But he is also dove.  He is also breath.  He is gentleness.

The Spirit of the Creator God is not in the business of continually over-riding the will and the thought and the judgement of the creatures he made.  He gave us those things!  And he wills that we should use them, that we should be trained in life and godliness, not just magically transformed into the final product.  He wants us to be people.

When faced with a difficult decision, I want God to take it out of my hands.  Lord, just make it clear to me.  Show me your will in a way that I can't dispute or question.  Instead he usually leaves me to pray and think and chat it through with others - and then make a call.  He wants me to be a human being.  Part of that is using my created faculties.  Part of it is also trusting him in a bigger, deeper way: not trusting him to signpost everything in my life, but trusting him to hold me whether I get it right or wrong, trusting him to gently weave even my nonsense into his greater story.  To trust, I suppose, not just the fire of the Spirit's immediate and obvious leading and equipping, but also the Spirit brooding over the waters, the gentle breath of the Spirit in the everyday and the normal.

I feel the burden of responsibility that comes with being human.  I would often prefer it if God would just over-ride my humanity.  But instead he gently takes our very human processes and practices and faculties and softly but surely brings us into his way, through our mistakes and failings as often as not.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Our Triune God saves

I've been thinking a little bit this week, having preached from Romans 5:1-5 on Trinity Sunday, about the way that the Christian revelation of God as Trinity-in-Unity affects our understanding of salvation.  A couple of things to note from the passage:

Firstly, it is God who saves, from first to last.  We have peace with God through Christ, whom Paul has already described as having been put forward by God as a sacrifice of propitiation.  The Father initiates, the Son carries through the plan of faithful obedience and sacrifice.  And the Holy Spirit is described as given to us, pouring out God's love into our hearts.  So from the initial and eternal plan, through its accomplishment in incarnation and atonement, right down to the subjective application of that plan into the hearts and lives of individuals - this is all God.  Our God saves, from first to last.

Second, though, it seems to me that understanding Trinity makes this salvation relational, and preserves the reality of humanity in the whole carrying through of the process.  If God were not Triune, if he were the monad God of monotheism, then it would be a supremely grotesque thing to say 'God saves, from first to last', because it would imply a puppet show.  Here is God, pulling the strings of salvation, and his human marionettes dance out their involuntary lives of praise.  But God is Triune - he is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  He is not only the Father - God above us, transcending us, sovereign from his throne in heaven; he is also the Son - God with us, our brother, taking on and sharing our nature, sovereign in our place, even the place of the cross; and then again, he is God the Holy Spirit - God within us and behind us, the God in whom we all live and move and have our being, sovereign in and through our real human lives, actions, and freedoms.  He is God who saves, in every way, from first to last; but he is the Triune God who saves, and that makes a great difference.

It also means that when we say 'God saves' what we primarily mean is 'God welcomes us, even us sinners, into the eternal relationship and love which he is in himself, the love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father within the unity of the Holy Spirit'.  And that is really something.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

The Spirit and the spirits

You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.

1 Corinthians 12:2-3

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.  By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.


The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit who delights to exalt Jesus.  His mission in this last age is to bear witness to Christ, to open eyes to the reality of who Jesus was and is - and in this way to bring people to faith and into unity with Christ (and to reveal the reality of sin and judgement in those who will not believe).  Always his focus is Christ Jesus.

Sometimes people ask me 'how do we balance Jesus and the Spirit?' - meaning, how do we take seriously the objective revelation of God in Christ as Scripture bears witness to him, and also take seriously the mysterious subjective revelation of God in the Spirit?  The answer is that we don't.  Taking the Holy Spirit seriously means setting our spiritual eyes, our hearts, our minds on Christ Jesus.  Any spirit which distracts from Jesus, any spirit which does not exalt him, and spirit which does not confess his incarnation - his death, resurrection, and ascension - as the central reality of human history and each individual human life: that is not the Holy Spirit, but is the spirit of antichrist.

This can be subtle.  There is teaching which makes much of Jesus, but not quite enough.  There is teaching which makes Jesus the noblest of human beings (but not God, at least not in the fullest sense) - this is implicit in a lot of liberal teaching (and there is a lot of it masquerading as evangelicalism at the moment, but that's another matter); and there is teaching that makes Jesus divine in some sense (but not a real human being) - although this side of the equation is perhaps less popular in the current cultural moment.

But the Holy Spirit says 'Jesus is Lord' (that is, the LORD), and the Holy Spirit says 'Jesus came in the flesh' (that is, in genuine humanity, in which he suffered, died, and rose).

Test the spirits, and listen to the Spirit.

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Knowledge in the Spirit

"In Jesus Christ God has embodied in our human existence the mutual knowledge which the Father and the Son have of one another and in the Holy Spirit he gives us communion in the mutual relation of the Father and the Son and thus makes us share in the knowledge which the Father and the Son have of one another."

Thus T.F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith, 55.

That's a pretty dense sentence, and in urgent need of some punctuation, but there are two truths here that Torrance is getting at which are of vital importance for us.

Firstly, in the incarnation of the Son, God has given us a point of access, a way in which we can truly know him.  In the context of his discussion, Torrance is making the point (drawn from Irenaeus and particularly Athanasius) that God can only be known from himself.  An attempted knowledge of God that began from created things would not get far; it could only really be speculative.  But there is a problem: we can't know God in himself.  Because he is beyond creation, beyond our way of being, he is also beyond our knowing.  God overcomes this problem (for we surely can't overcome it) by making himself present in Christ.  Now we have, within the human world of space and time, a genuine way in - not to an abstract knowledge of God as Creator, but to the relational knowledge which Father and Son have of one another in the eternal Godhead.  Jesus relates to his Father as he always has done eternally, but now he does so as a man, and in so doing establishes the 'objective' knowledge of God for us all.

Secondly, the out-poured Holy Spirit unites believers to Christ, such that they share in that relationship between the Father and the Son.  They know themselves to be alongside Christ as brothers, adopted as the children of the Father.  Being involved in this relationship, believers necessarily have knowledge of God.  But note again: this is knowledge of God which is also knowledge from and through God.  The Spirit, if you like, establishes the 'subjective' knowledge of God for us who believe, by involving us in the relationship between the Father and the Son.

The central thing, I think, which is implied by the incarnation on the one hand and Pentecost on the other, is that there is no second hand knowledge of God.  To know God is to be involved in God's own self-knowledge.  This is very clear biblically in 1 Corinthians 2:6-16.  Only the Spirit knows the deep things of God, and he knows them in the way that a human's spirit knows the deep things of that human person.  And yet, we have the mind of Christ; we are made, by the Spirit, to participate genuinely in this self-knowing of God.

What we celebrate at Pentecost is not just power, not just mission, not just the church, but God catching us up into genuine relational knowledge of himself, into the very relationship and knowledge of the Father and the Son in the eternal Godhead.

Good news.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

The work done by a doctrine of creation

It can be easy for the doctrine of creation to function merely as a backdrop - establishing a baseline, as it were, to make it easier to see the effects of the fall.  Yes, God made the world, and yes, it was good; but that's all in the past, and this side of Genesis 3 what matters is just pulling souls out of the wreckage before the whole thing goes up in smoke.

But a robust doctrine of creation - of the view that God made all this stuff and that it is therefore good, because it bears the mark of its Creator and serves his purposes - is so much more important than that.

Doctrinally, you can't make sense of Jesus without a sound doctrine of creation.  The idea that God the Son took on flesh makes no sense except in a scenario where God the Maker is still concerned for the stuff he has made.  The emphasis on stuff that pervades the gospel accounts - the physical healings, the miracles of food and wine, baptism and Supper - is inexplicable without a God who has not turned his back on his creation, or had second thoughts about the sheer physicality of the thing.  And then the resurrection - why all the insistence that it was with a real body that Jesus appeared after his crucifixion?  Why the eating of fish, the barbecue on the beach?  This is all such earthly stuff for the risen Son of God to be involved with, don't you think?  I wonder if a lot of the aversion which some people have to the idea of incarnation and resurrection actually comes from a sense that it just isn't spiritual enough for their idea of god.

The Christian hope also depends on our doctrine of creation.  Jesus rose in a physical body, and will return to raise our bodies and to renew the whole physical creation.  It is a new heavens and a new earth we're looking forward to, not an ethereal floaty existence as disembodied spirits.  Because God loves this creation he has made, he will redeem it.  All creation groans together in anticipation of that glory; it's a shame if Christians aren't excited at the prospect.

Ethically, there are a whole range of issues which Christians will tend to neglect without a firm doctrine of creation.  Environmental stuff, of course, but it goes a lot further than that.  I'm sure some of the debate a couple of decades ago about the right balance between evangelism and social action sprang in some measure from a deficient doctrine of creation: a sense amongst some that what matters is souls, not bodies or social systems or politics.  But if God is the Creator, all those things matter.

Most recently I've been thinking about how lack of a decent doctrine of creation makes our witness and evangelism harder.  It's easy for Christians to become interested only in 'Christian stuff', to the neglect of the world around.  Whether it's the person who can talk intensely about Christ and the need to be saved but has nothing to say about sport or art, or the person who sees value in reading theological tomes but has never enjoyed a good novel - it all serves to make Christianity seem anti-creation, anti-stuff.  Our lives are impoverished if we go even a little way down this road, and then who will want to join us in our impoverishment?

So anyway, God looked at everything he had made and saw that it was very good.