Friday, December 08, 2017

The Creator/creature distinction

We would not know that God stood infinitely above us unless God in Christ had decisively bridged that infinite gap.  It is not natural or obvious to think that God is profoundly other; in fact, most of the deities of the ancient world look like big human beings, and nowadays we worship normal-sized human beings, which is to say, ourselves.  It is only by making infinite descent that God reveals himself to us as the one who dwells in unapproachable distance.  It is only by taking on our nature in Christ that God shows his nature to be qualitatively different from ours.

The ironic result is that it is only from a position where God has enabled us to speak of him in very human terms that we see that our human thinking and speaking is entirely inadequate to grasp him.  We don't first know God as infinitely different (how could we?  what concepts would we deploy?) and then breathe a sigh of relief that he accommodates himself to us.  We see God in Christ in the manger and on the cross, and then we understand that this God whom we see here in the flesh is beyond us, utterly beyond us.

The only reason we know that there is a stark distinction between the Creator and the creature is that Jesus Christ has in his own person united the two.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Don't mine the Bible

When I was a younger man, and learning how to read and teach the Bible, there were always particular warning signs posted around those sections which were classified as 'narrative'.  One had to be particularly careful when reading narrative, and especially when drawing doctrinal affirmations or practical applications from it.  Narrative was slippery, capable of multiple readings, uncomfortably open.  The common wisdom seemed to be: 'never make a doctrinal or practical point from narrative which is not found explicitly taught elsewhere in Scripture'.

"Like gold from a mine, so the truth of faith has to be extracted from Scripture by the exertion of all available mental powers."  Thus Herman Bavinck, with an image also utilised by Hodge and Warfield.  It is interesting to pick at some of the assumptions behind this metaphor.  One obvious one is that the purpose of Holy Scripture is to teach doctrine; the gold which Bavinck envisages being extracted from the mine of Scripture is a set of true propositions about God and man.  Then there is the idea that these truths have to be excavated.  The stuff of value is hidden in there.  The thing with a mine is that most of the stuff that comes up from it is just rock.

Now, I don't want to push these theologians on a particular metaphor; I do understand that one cannot in one image say everything that one would like to say on a particular subject.  But I do think that this notion of what the Bible is and how it works leads fairly directly to that practical approach to Bible reading which makes the story of Scripture very definitely secondary to the more straightforward 'teaching' sections of, for example, the Pauline epistles.  I think it's no coincidence that the NT epistles are privileged in many evangelical churches.  I think people who think that this is what the Bible is will obviously relegate the narrative sections - and let's be clear, that's most of the Bible - to the status of 'illustrative material', adding some colour to the real business of the doctrinal matter.

The way we typically use Scripture in our lives and in our churches backs this up.  Normally we have a fairly small chunk of Bible in front of us for our morning devotions, or read to us for exposition in the sermon.  And because this is our shot of Bible for the day or the week, we want fairly immediate pay-off: a take-away that we can meditate on or take action on during the long hours and days of secularity.  We want to know what the point is.  Now, when we read doctrinal or ethical statements from the NT, that seems straightforward.  But when we read narrative, we naturally start to try to boil it down: what am I mean to think, believe, do?  In other words, what propositional truth or practical instruction is hiding in this story?  What is the gold, and how do I mine it?

This has an effect on our theologising as well.  We construct a view of God based on the propositional statements we see made in parts of Scripture, and then explain the narrative (dare I say it, often explain it away) in light of these.

But what if the story is the point?

A simple reflection on the gospel should tell us that this is absolutely correct.  The gospel is a narrative.  And yet - wouldn't some evangelicals be fairly happy if the Gospels went missing from their Bibles, so long as they could still construct a doctrine of the atonement from Paul?

So, here's the plan: let's just read the story, in bigger chunks, with less attention to immediate application and more determination to just accept that this is the story.  And let's shape our thinking about God around the fact that he is the God who made this story.  When we make our systematic theologies - and please don't hear me as saying anything negative about this process! - let's make sure that our ideas and our vocabularies are shaped by Holy Scripture as the witness to what God has done - that is to say, by the story.

I suppose if I were to offer a different metaphor, I'd say: let's be in the Bible like we might be in a river, being carried in a particular direction, 'at the mercy' of the current.

It's more exciting than digging.

Friday, November 24, 2017

How to ignore the Bible

1.  Consider that there are people out there who interpret this passage differently; some of those people probably have advanced degrees, and may even have written books.  Bearing this in mind will have numerous beneficial effects.  Primarily, of course, you will be able to ignore what the Scripture says.  But you can do it without being forced to arrive at any particular conclusion - you can't be pinned down, and others will find it very hard to dispute your position.  Note that this doesn't involve nearly so much work as you might imagine.  There is no need to actually engage with any scholarship, or check whether the alternative interpretations being offered are more plausible.  Just knowing that there are people out there who read things differently enables you to effortlessly render the passage of Scripture in front of you innocuous.

2.  Consider that there is a background, a Sitz im Leben if you will, to every part of the Bible.  It is a truism accepted by all that Scripture was not written from, or addressed to, a vacuum.  But you can use this simple fact in two ingenious way to get around any part of Holy Writ which doesn't suit you or the current zeitgeist.  Firstly, you can note that we don't the details of the situations of the Biblical authors or the original recipients.  Surely this lacking information is essential to reading the Bible properly?  Without it, the meaning of the passage in question remains indeterminate, and once again, without having to advance any sort of argument or do any intellectual work, you have successfully neutered Scripture.  However, if you want to be a bit more creative, you can pursue a second route: that of constructing a more-or-less plausible background for the passage at hand, and then insisting that Scripture can only be read with your (admittedly imaginary) backdrop if it is to make sense.  With a little work, this sketchy background can make the Bible mean exactly the opposite of what it appears to mean at first reading.  In fact, the creative student of Holy Scripture can make it mean literally anything at all by this method.

3.  Consider that the Bible is a human as well as a divine book.  Again, this is accepted by all, at least in theory.  The personalities of the human authors, along with their assumptions about society, their limited horizons, and their basic ignorance, were not completely overwritten in the process by which God brought about the witness of Holy Scripture.  It is child's play to assign any objectionable aspects of the passage at hand to the limitations of the human author, leaving only the parts which are more acceptable to be ascribed to divine inspiration.

4.  Consider that there is a trajectory to the teaching of the Bible.  Making use of the theologically unobjectionable idea of progressive revelation, it is easy to argue that later parts of the Bible show a deeper understanding of God and his purposes than earlier parts.  All that is then necessary is to extend this upward line beyond the close of the Canon.  Surely one must conclude that even the Apostles, with the benefit of twenty centuries reflection, would in fact have written what you would prefer them to have written, rather than the words they actually wrote.

By these four methods, it should be perfectly possible to avoid ever being challenged by Holy Scripture.  So, rest easy in your presuppositions, mes amis, and go with the flow.  Properly interpreted away, even the difficult parts of the Bible can become proofs that you and people like you were absolutely right all along.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

When it is awful

When everything is awful and life is too much to bear, we need the beginning, the middle, and the end of the Bible story.

We need the beginning because we need to know that it wasn't meant to be this way.  We need to know that God did not intend for us a world of suffering and tears and chaos.  In fact, Genesis 1 and 2 can be read as stories of the systematic binding of chaos and the perfect provision of spreading goodness respectively.  We need to know that God isn't cruel, that he didn't set us up for a fall.  The beginning of the story is all goodness, and we need that if we are going to remember in the darkness that God is good.

We need the middle of the story because we need to know that we are not left alone.  We see in the incarnation of the Son of God that the Creator has not abandoned his creation.  Far from it, as far from it as can be: he has entered his creation, become a creature, the Author inside the story.  And paradoxically we see how deeply committed to the non-abandonment of creation God is at the point where the Son of God casts his eyes towards heaven on the cross and finds himself... abandoned.  God is with us, and he is with us right at that point of God-forsaken agony.  The middle of the story is God-with-us on the cross, and we need that if we're to remember that his care is not removed from us in our own suffering.

We need the end of the story because we need to know that it will not always be like this.  It is small comfort to have a God who would have loved to help, and would even travel into the depths to be with us, but could not ultimately change anything.  The resurrection of Jesus Christ points forward to a future in which God himself will make every wrong right, will wipe away every tear from the eyes of his suffering people, and will make of our sad ruin a glorious future.  That is the ultimate hope, and it bleeds through into the little hopes for today, yes, even the very little ones.  The end of the story is a new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness dwells, and we need that if we are going to persevere in the darkness.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Going all Benedict?

I've recently caught up with the rest of the Christian world by reading Rod Dreher's book The Benedict Option.  For those who have not managed it yet, it's an attempt (in an American context, and that's important) to re-think how Christians engage in society, culture, and politics.  The thesis is built on a negative, but I would say accurate, premise: that we lost.  In the US context, Dreher particularly means that Christians lost the culture war; you can expand it to the UK context by noting that we lost without fighting.  However it happened, Christians have lost most of their influence over culture and politics, and now find themselves a minority in a society in which they might formerly have felt at home.

Dreher is not painting the past as some golden age.  He knows there were challenges 'back then' as well.  But we don't have to live then, we have to live now.  What should we do?  His answer is: take the Benedict Option.  Which means what, exactly?

Well, this depends on a perhaps more controversial development of the negative premise.  For Dreher, the culture of the West is so tied up with the Christian religion that the loss of the latter necessarily means the loss of the former; hence we are entering a new Dark Age, a period of history in many ways parallel to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.  (I hear echoes of Bonhoeffer here, particularly in his Ethics.)  I say this is controversial, because I think certainly in my context there is a lot of wariness about tying Christianity and (Western) culture together in this way. But I find it persuasive, at least from a historical point of view.  Western culture means that particular form of the interaction between the Classical past and the Christian message which took root in the West - and that is what is being lost.

The parallel between the new Dark Age and the old one invites the more positive parallel which Dreher wants to develop: orthodox Christians need to follow the example of Benedict, in developing means of resisting the disintegration of faith and culture.  But what does that look like?  For Benedict it meant the monastery, but Dreher knows that isn't realistic for most of us.  So what then?

Essentially, it seems to me, what Dreher is advocating is just being the church - and he acknowledges that in one sense this is really not rocket science - but being the church more seriously and more intensively than we have become used to.  Creating real, close communities that foster the handing on of the Christian tradition.  Being prepared to opt out of society where it is impossible for us to participate without compromise.  Taking more care in the education of our children (which for him means withdrawing them from public, and most private, schools).  Being much more prepared to be weird.

This is not, by the way, isolationism.  What Dreher calls 'Benedict Option communities' - and he envisages them taking many different forms - will remain fundamentally open and engaged.  But they will do it on terms set by the gospel, and they will do it from a place grounded in a distinctively Christian culture.  Fundamentally, BO communities are seeking to maintain Western culture so that when the experiments in atheistic culture, with its cheery or depressive nihilism, come crashing down, there is something for people to come back to.

I find the vision of this book inspiring, even where the detail doesn't really transfer well into my context.  Christian communities developing ways of maintaining 'thick' Christian culture amidst a disintegrating world.  But are we ready for it?  Dreher recounts how his own Orthodox Church used to insist that anyone who wanted to take the Eucharist on the Sunday must attend Vespers on Saturday night - it's an example of shaping life around church, not just squeezing church in at the margins.  Would we be up for that?  Are we ready to live as if the gospel of Christ really were the most important thing?

Friday, November 03, 2017

The land and the amen

As various people remember the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, which pledged the British Government to work towards the establishment of what would become the modern state of Israel, perhaps it's time to reflect again on what God's promises to ancient Israel mean today.  For some, like His Grace, Balfour represented God keeping his promise, that Israel would possess the land in perpetuity - and therefore the modern state of Israel and the whole Zionist enterprise is the fulfilment of God's word.  I can't agree.  I think this is a theological disaster (and note, this is a theological and not directly a political post; obviously one can't wholly unpick them, but this particular post is really about whether Zionism can be given a Christian theological justification), and I think I see how it happens.

Let's clear the decks a bit.  Did the God of all the earth particularly elect Israel, and particularly promise them the possession of a strip of land in the eastern Mediterranean in perpetuity?  Yes, yes he did.  You can read it right there in the Old Testament.  You can read the original promise to Abraham, you can read the reiterated promise to Moses, you can read the promise of a remnant and a restoration which the prophets bring even after Israel's exile from the land.  Now, if you pride yourself on reading the Bible literally, you will take those promises to mean just what they say at face value.  From there, you will have to assume that they remain unfulfilled, and you may conclude that they are in process of being fulfilled at the present time.  It makes sense.

But that sort of literal reading is not a Christian way to read the Bible.

The apostle Paul tells us that every promise of God receives its 'yes' in Christ.  This is the consistent perspective of the New Testament: that the story of Israel is recapitulated in Christ, and that the promises made to Israel are fulfilled in Christ.  Consider, for example, the promise that a descendant of David will reign forever over the Kingdom of Israel.  For the apostles, that promise finds it divine 'yes', its 'amen, amen', in the exaltation of the Lord Jesus to the throne of the universe.  To say that they are still looking forward to an earthly Kingdom is to deny that the Kingdom already belongs to Christ, and that is unthinkable to the NT authors.

A Christian reading of the Old Testament does not view it as a series of relatively disconnected promises, related to one another only in so far as they fit into some mysterious and as yet unfulfilled plan of God's will.  Rather, a Christian reading of the Old Testament sees the whole as moving towards one point, namely Christ.  In him, the promises find their fulfilment.  He is the Amen of God to all the promises of the OT, the meaning hidden in every part of the OT story.  So when the apostles look forward, they don't look forward to more redemptive history.  They look forward to the uncovering and revealing of the fulfilment that has already taken place in Jesus - in other words, they look for him to come again in glory.

The promise of the land is not in any sense independent of Christ - none of the promises of God are.  In fact, the promise of the land is fulfilled.  The Lord Jesus has, through his resurrection and exaltation, taken possession of all the earth.  He is in his person the recapitulation of the history of Israel in Canaan, just as he is the recapitulation of the history of Adam in Eden.  That this is not yet seen does not make it any less true.

There are not multiple storylines in Scripture.  There are not multiple words of God.  There is one Word, Jesus Christ.  He is the Amen to all God's promises, and the eternal possessor of the land.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Reformation 500

It is 500 years to the day since the Augustinian Friar Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, in an attempt to start a debate about the sale of indulgences which led to the revolution in the Church which we call the Protestant Reformation.


I have been remembering the Reformation by pondering the logic of the first few verses of Galatians 3:
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
The background to this passage is that the Galatian churches planted by Paul have been visited by other teachers, who have sought to persuade these Gentile believers that they must keep the Law of the Old Testament.  Of course we don't have their side of the argument, only Paul's, but my guess is that the Law was being offered as the path to growth in godliness - faith in Jesus is a great start, and gets you in to God's family; but to stay in, to grow, to make it to completeness, to enjoy perfect righteousness, pursue the Law.  We can see what Paul's response is by working backwards through these verses.

The central question is this: having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?  Given that the beginning of your Christian life was all from God, all his doing, are you now going to push on to complete godliness by means of human effort?  The Galatian believers would doubtless have wanted to answer in the negative; so would the mediaeval Catholic Church.  No, in keeping the Law the Galatians saw themselves as continuing in dependence on God's grace.  So, to, did the Church of Luther's day.  In fact, what would continued dependence on God look like, if not regular penance, indulgences, the sacramental economy?  No, Paul, we're not seeking to be perfected by the flesh.

But Paul wants to know: how did you receive the Spirit?  Was it by works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?  This sharpens the question.  What does it look like to depend on grace?  What did it look like, Galatians, when you first became Christians?  Did it look like the Law?  No, it did not.  It was faith in what you heard that first brought the Spirit to you.  God's grace came to you as you believed.  Now, do you suppose that God works inconsistently with himself?  Did he first bring you in through faith, so that he could keep you in through the works of the Law - or indeed, the works of the Church's penitential system?  Paul's point here is that God is certainly not inconsistent: as your Christian life began through hearing with faith, so it must continue.

So we might ask: well, what is it that we must hear with faith?  Paul is not here extolling the virtue of faith in general, and neither was Luther, despite what some secular observers of the Reformation might think.  It is faith in something particular.  It was before your eyes, says Paul to the Galatians, that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.  It was in Christ crucified that the Galatians had trusted; this was the message which they had heard with faith.  The content of that message matters.  By trusting in Christ crucified, the Galatian Christians identified with him in his death, and confessed that it was their death too: the death of their old selves, the judgement on sin which they deserved now executed in the Messiah.  And as they heard this message with faith, so the Spirit was given, and they lived - the new life of Christ living in them.  (For all which, see Galatians 2:20).

How did you get in?  By hearing the message of Christ crucified and believing it.  How will you stay in?  By hearing the message of Christ crucified and believing it.  How will you grow?  By hearing the message of Christ crucified and believing it.  What will keep you to the end?  Hearing the message of Christ crucified and believing it.

This is what the Reformation was all about.  Not really faith in and of itself, but the Word - the Message, the Good News: that God in Christ was reconciling sinners to himself, that in Christ the old has gone and the new has come, that my sinful self was nailed to his cross so that I can live in new life.  Lots of people have lots to say about the Reformation on this anniversary, good and bad.  Much can indeed be said.  At its heart, this movement was about the message of Christ crucified, and that is worth celebrating.