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


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.