Wednesday, February 14, 2018

We've got a bigger problem

One of the useful aspects of contemporary liberal-left discourse is its emphasis on systemic wrong.  That is to say, ethics is not just a matter of considering my individual choices, or indeed the choices of other individuals; it must also involve recognising where the system is skewed in favour of particular classes of person or against those of another.  Inevitably that means asking questions about how, historically, we wound up with these particular systems: for whose benefit were they constructed, consciously or unconsciously?

This is helpful because it pushes the analysis of what is wrong in our world to a deeper level.  It's not just that certain free individuals choose immorally.  Rather, for many of us, it is that we are cheerfully complicit in wider immoralities.  The evil doesn't just arise from a few bad apples.  There is something wrong with the barrel.

As an aside, I think it's a shame that this point often comes so wrapped up in the language of identity politics and with so much ideological baggage that it is often unheard.  In Christian circles, particularly, I wonder if we could work on unpackaging this discourse, critiquing it from the perspective of the gospel, and re-expressing whatever is valid in terms of explicitly Christian theological discourse.  Liberal-lefty Christian friends, if your fellow believers are distressing you with their failure to get on board with the social causes which seem obviously right to you, consider whether there might be some value in doing this personally.

Here's the thing, though: the analysis still doesn't go deep enough.  Is the problem really the structures?  Is the issue really our history?  Isn't there a danger that this analysis leads us into a sort of hand-wringing guilt over our complicity, but actually at the deepest level leaves us remarkably comfortable - because after all, my inherited guilt isn't really mine.  I can still think of myself as a pretty decent person, especially if I'm fully engaged in all the Right Causes.

So, push it a bit deeper.  Yes, there are a few bad apples, in the form of obviously evil people.  But there lies behind and underneath that a whole network of systemic wickedness.  And under that - what?

It's just us, isn't it?  At the deepest level, we are guilty - not just in the sense of complicity in unjust systems, but in the sense of being part of a guilty humanity, given to evil, corrupt from top to bottom.  At the deepest level, we are Adam, and therefore we will die.  The biggest problem with our world is you and me.

Hence Lent.

But wait.  Did I say the deepest level?  Not quite.  Someone has managed to get deeper, the only human being who is really part of the solution and therefore not part of the problem.  At the deepest level, we are loved, forgiven, righteous in Christ Jesus.  It's really only when we know that - when we know ourselves as justly put to death in Christ and yet graciously raised to new life in him - that we can really do the Lent thing: really face up to the big problem.

Monday, February 12, 2018

1 Corinthians 14:34-35

At Cowley Church Community, we've just finished a little series in 1 Corinthians 12-14.  I wrapped up yesterday with 14:26-40, which is mostly about orderly worship.  But there are a couple of verses there (34-35), really quite detached from the main flow of the argument, which express the fairly controversial (!) suggestion that women should remain silent in church.  As if in mockery of my previous post, I found it impossible to preach these verses with precision.  So, here is an attempt to write up what I should have said yesterday, with apologies to the congregation which had to put up with my verbal faffing around the point.

Firstly, it's worth saying that part of the difficulty comes from the almost unique textual problems around these verses.  Many commentators have concluded that they aren't original, and there are strong arguments for their rejection: in one manuscript family they appear after our verse 40, which is hard to explain if they're original; read at face value, they flatly contradict what Paul has already said in chapter 11; and the subject matter interrupts Paul's discussion of prophecy and tongues, to which he returns in v36.  I feel that on balance these arguments are not conclusive.  Although the idea that these verses were added later would make sense of the way they move about in the manuscripts, it doesn't explain their universal presence (i.e., although some manuscripts have the verses after v40, no manuscripts omit the verses altogether).  I find Daniel Wallace's suggestion that Paul may have added the verses in the margin of the manuscript himself to be very interesting.  It would explain the manuscript evidence, and it makes sense of the topic: it's related to orderly worship, but not directly related to the aspect of orderly worship that Paul is mainly talking about here.

However - as a preacher, I dislike standing up to expound a text which I feel so unsure about.  I like to be able to say 'this is the word of the Lord' when Scripture is read, and I dislike having to say 'I think this is probably the word of the Lord'.  For your reassurance, I can't think of any other passage that would cause the same difficulty.  For now, let's assume Paul wrote these verses and that we have to deal with them as Scripture.  What do we do with them?

I suggested on Sunday that there are two approaches to these verses which in the end are just too simplistic.  On the one hand, we can just write them off as hopelessly outdated, a product of an earlier sexist age which we have now transcended.  Then we can just ignore them.  The problem is, it's not just these verses.  I know there are people, including some outstanding theologians, who disagree, but speaking for myself I cannot see any way to make the Bible's presentation of gender anything other than sexist in the eyes of our culture.  We'd have to be prepared to edit Scripture from front to back to get a version of gender that was acceptable - and the way things are going, we might have to re-edit every couple of years to keep up with the changing zeitgeist.  Nor would this be tinkering around the edges.  Obviously in some places (e.g. Ephesians 5), but implicitly throughout, gender is tied to the creation design of God for humanity and ultimately to the gospel.  We need to be careful that our reaction to the apparently unacceptable sayings of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 isn't to throw off the whole of God's revelation.

On the other hand, we could just insist that women be silent in church.  That is to say, we could take the command at face value and enforce it.  This is also easy, in its way.  Of course it will make us unpopular in the surrounding culture, but there is a certain ease to being an odd sect: strong identity markers, confident in the knowledge that we know what is right and everyone else is on the outside.  This would be, in its own way, easy, but I think it would be wrong.  We need to think about what the apostle Paul is doing when he writes his letters.  He isn't handing down isolated and arbitrary commands, but is thinking through the implications of the gospel for his readers.  He is doing theology.  So if Paul wrote this, it is reasonable to ask why, and to seek out his logic.  The difficulty here is that the logic is not obvious.  Nor is it obvious how we can reconcile it with chapter 11.

So what is to be done?

I think we have to take a step back and recognise a number of things. 

We have to recognise that we want these verses to go away, and that there are several different reasons for that.  We want them to go away because they are embarrassing in the face of our culture.  We want them to go away because we fear (rightly) that they can be used in oppressive ways, and indeed we suspect they may have been written to be used in those ways!  We want them to go away because they seem to contradict other passages of Scripture.  We want them to go away because, in our experience, there are women who appear to be gifted to speak in church.  Recognising that we have many motives, some noble and some not so much, to get rid of these verses, we should probably be cautious about actually doing so.  If they cause us difficulty, we should probably wrestle with that rather than just dispose of the difficulty.

We have to recognise that whilst we may not be able to easily make sense of these verses, they are not the only verses on the subject.  There is a whole Biblical exploration of the concept of gender, starting in Genesis 1 and proceeding to the marriage supper of the Lamb.  I am convinced that the overall picture is of difference and complementarity between men and women, and I am convinced that the various restrictions on the roles of women in the churches in the writings of Paul are part of that picture.  Recognising that doesn't make it straightforward to work out what our practice ought to be, but it does give the appropriate context for thinking these things through.

For what it's worth, I'm a sort of 'soft complementarian'.  That is to say, I think Scripture does teach that men and women are different and that this should be reflected in family life and church family life - but I don't think Scripture provides hard and fast rules for how those differences should show up.  I think in the Bible itself the expression of complementarity changes over time.  I think it's a mistake to try to draw up lists of essentially 'male' and 'female' attributes or roles; rather, I think complementarity is a dynamic thing, expressed differently in different cultures.  Having said that, I think the suppression or denial of these differences and their expression is part and parcel of a culture in flight from reality and subject to serious decline.  All in all, I'm happy with the line we've adopted at CCC: elders are all male, because of their role in the church family, but under that headship we want to encourage women to be involved in all aspects of ministry.

Finally, we have to recognise that unless we go for one of the easy answers, we are going to have to do a lot of bearing with one another in love.  On Sunday I used the language of 'fudge' - that was a mistake.  We're not fudging anything.  We're seeking to be faithful to God's word as we understand it, and we need to recognise that in this area as in many others that is not as straightforward as 'read and obey'.  In our seeking to be faithful, we need to recognise that we could be wrong in some of our applications of God's truth - or indeed, that there might be multiple ways of being faithful in a given context.  We should, of course, try to show each other from Scripture where we think we're going wrong - but primarily we should be loving one another.  I think the recognition that it is complicated helps here!  We can give one another more leeway where interpretation and application are difficult.

Where does that leave us on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35?  Let's be frank: we're not going to silence women in the church, and for some that will look like disobedience.  If they're right, God have mercy on us.  I don't think they are right.  But I hope we will receive verses like this - even if we can't see how they should be applied to us directly - as brakes to prevent us from easily accepting our own culture's view of things.  Because they are hard, and at first glance offensive, they make us stop and think about the broader Biblical picture, and about our own practice.  And in that way they serve us, they open us up with their sharp jagged edges to the full spectrum of Scriptural critique and teaching.  In that sense, I hope we can get something from them.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Preaching with precision

One for the preachers today.  A thing I've noticed as I've been preaching more regularly is that it's easy to get a bit sloppy in certain areas, and one of those areas is precision.  "Broad brushstrokes" preaching becomes more common, every sermon prefaced with 'we won't be going into all the details today...'  Giving the gist of it rather than getting to the heart of it.

I think maybe it happens in a couple of different ways.

You're reading the text.  You read it a few different times, and although you think you've got the broad outline, there are some prickly bits that don't seem to fit.  You turn to a couple of commentaries; they are less helpful than you might like.  You read the text again.  But time is ticking, and at some point you're going to have to stand up and say something.  So you take heart in the fact that you understand the main point, and you go into the pulpit to preach that main point, brushing the tricky parts of the text under the carpet.

But can you really be confident you've understood the main point if the point you've grasped doesn't make sense of the details of the text?

You're reading the text.  At first reading, the point the inspired author is trying to make seems blindingly obvious.  You follow the argument, understand the imagery.  The text makes sense.  But as you think about standing up to preach, you can't immediately see any connection between this text and the people you need to address.  The problems of first century Galatia are not their problems; the sins of 7th century (BC!) Judah seem irrelevant to them.  But then something strikes you: this in the test is a little bit like that in the world of today.  Here is the hook.  Paul's words, or the prophecy of Isaiah, can be applied to the present day through this channel.

But are they really the same thing?  Are you confident that you're hitting the targets that the text was intended to hit?

You're reading the text.  The more you read it, the more it reminds you of something you read in your devotions this morning.  They're not about exactly the same thing, but there are definite links.  In fact, that text really spoke to you this morning, in ways that this text which you have to exegete probably wouldn't have done by itself.  Thankfully, with the devotional text in your mind, the preaching text seems to make much more sense.  Perhaps that's the way into the sermon - to illuminate the one text by the other.

But which text are you really preaching, now?  Are you sure the point of the original text hasn't been lost?

I don't think there's any easy answer to these problems, but I note that they mostly relate to the need for more time.  More time in the text to be preached, listening to the distinctive witness to Christ which it brings; more time wrestling in thought and prayer over and for the congregation, trying to understand the deep roots of their situations.  More time doing the stuff that isn't immediately productive - and that's the challenge.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Schleiermacher and preaching

But what of the ministry of the Word?  Here we come to the heart of Schleiermacher’s theology of preaching.  Preachers, like Christ, exercise an efficacious influence on their hearers.  Their speech arises, as did the Redeemer’s, from the disparity in the strength of God-consciousness in themselves and others.  They are active in communicating, and others are receptive in being influenced by, their self-presentation.  While preachers truly speak of themselves – their own inner experience – they do no preach themselves or attribute the gifts that they communicate to themselves.  Rather, their communication is the transparent medium through which their hearers encounter the living Christ…  Christ, through his servants, communicates himself – the Word made flesh – through the efficacious influence of their self-presentation.
This is how Dawn DeVries characterises the theology of preaching held by the great 19th century liberal theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, in a fascinating study of Jesus Christ in the Preaching of Calvin and Schleiermacher.

It is terrifying.

Why, according to Schleiermacher, does the preacher preach?  Because the preacher has a stronger consciousness of God than the other members of the congregation.  This is what qualifies, and presumably motivates, the Christian preacher - the awareness that his own God-consciousness (note that this has a technical meaning for Schleiermacher, but basically is the awareness of dependence) outstrips that of his congregants, and that he is therefore able to help them my mediating God-consciousness to them.  Note that the preacher and the congregants all stand on a continuum with Christ here!  The preacher with his greater God-consciousness is just a bit closer to Christ as the ideal of total God-consciousness than are the congregants.

What, according to Schleiermacher, does the preacher preach?  His own inner experience.  This doesn't mean he shouldn't preach from the Bible; in fact Schleiermacher thought he certainly should.  But he must not preach anything from Scripture that does not resonate with his own God-consciousness.  It is not the Christ recorded in the Bible who really matters; it is the Christ present in the preacher's own heart (and therefore potentially in his hearers' hearts) that is important.  What this means in practice is that really the Bible illustrates Christian faith, rather than the latter resting on and deriving from Scripture.

This is terrifying to me as a preacher because it is both so possible and (therefore) so impossible.

It is, of course, possible that I have a deeper knowledge and experience of God than the people to whom I'm preaching.  It is possible that in my experience and understanding of faith there is something worth saying, something that will impart something of Christ.  It is possible that I might stand in such a position vis-a-vis the congregation that I can preach.

But then again - on any given Sunday, can I be sure that I stand in this position?  Am I definitely further up the continuum than all these people?  Aren't there weeks when I'm just empty?  Aren't there times when I have nothing useful to drawn on in my own experience of faith?

Far better to realise that the job of the preacher is quite impossible and therefore possible.

I don't stand in any different position than the congregation in front of me.  There is no continuum; there is just Jesus on the one side and all the rest of us on the other.  Whether I have greater spiritual experience or not is irrelevant, because what I am called to bring forth is not my own faith but Christ himself, with all his benefits offered in the gospel.  I am to deliver to the people the Word of God, which is to say the Lord Jesus.  And I cannot do it.  The congregation stands in front of me in need of Christ, and I am just the same.  I have nothing to offer.  It is impossible to preach.

And because it is impossible, I must rely on God, and in so doing I find that it is perfectly possible - in faith.  Christ must communicate Christ, and my preaching can only be the vehicle of this if and as he so wills.  But because he has promised, I can confidently attempt the impossible...

A final alarming thought: how often do we veer towards Schleiermacher, when we say things like 'the preacher can only truly proclaim what he has experienced?'  I mean, I get what this is trying to do, but it is so crucial that our confidence not lie in ourselves as preachers but in the Word who wills to be preached...

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Heteronomy's back

Four steps in the history of ethics in Western culture:

1.  God gives the moral law, which you should obey because it comes from God.  Being moral means being subject to another, namely God.

2.  The moral law is objective, and should not be accepted on authority.  Rather, universal reason will bring us to the same moral conclusions, to which we must freely bind ourselves if we are to be moral.  Being moral means being subject to yourself as rational being.

3.  The moral law is subjective, and can only be found within yourself.  There is no universal reason, and what is morally right for you may not be morally right for me.  Being moral means being subject to your own sense of morality and purpose.

4. The moral law is inter-subjective, and can only be discovered through social interaction.  There is no universal sense for what is right and wrong, but your action should be governed by whether it is likely to offend anyone else.  Being moral means being subject to literally everyone you come across.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Reflections on Desiring the Kingdom

Given that James K.A. Smith's book Desiring the Kingdom was released in 2009 - and given that it has since received two sequels, which I've not read - it hardly seems needed or appropriate for me to offer any sort of Jonny-come-lately review.  So this isn't that.  It's just some reflections on the book and the way it's disappointed me.  Because I really thought I'd like it, and I really didn't.

The book is subtitled Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation.  I think it has two main points, with one larger analysis sitting behind them.  The first main point is that many of the cultural activities in which we are encouraged to engage day by day are in fact deeply liturgical.  Smith gives an amusing look at a shopping centre (a 'mall', if you will) through the eyes of a Martian anthropologist (19f).  The conclusion is that the shopping centre is set up as a place of worship, designed to appeal to the deep desires of our hearts.  Smith considers the advertisers, who rather than trying to sell a particular product are trying to sell a whole life style (102ff.), indeed a life.  And the point is that these 'liturgies' of commerce are formative.  They subtly cause us to adopt particular patterns of thought and behaviour when it comes to satisfying those desires - and these go unnoticed, because they don't appeal to our conscious, critical minds.  We are gradually programmed to imagine that consumption is the way to satisfy our deepest desires.

The second main point is that Christian liturgy is also in the business of cultural formation.  The Martian anthropologist goes to church (155ff.) and sees people being inculturated into a different way of seeing the world - a different social imaginary.  More on this in a moment, but just note that the really useful thing about this analysis is that by telling us that things we typically think of as cultural are actually liturgical, Smith causes us to look differently and more critically at those activities; and the same is true in reverse - we look more carefully at the Christian liturgy when we are thinking of the church as a place of cultural formation.

The larger analysis sitting behind the two main points is a whole way of looking at humanity, an alternative anthropology.  Smith contends that by adopting whole-sale the 'worldview' way of interacting with the world, we in the church have also swallowed an unbiblical anthropology, thinking of people primarily in terms of their ideas or beliefs.  Smith contends that it would be better to think of "the human person as lover" (39), as "homo liturgicus".  Desire is primary.  It is not that there is no place for worldview talk, or discussion of ideas and beliefs; it is just that so much of what we think and do, and who we are, is shaped by non-cognitive forces.  Habits, enshrined in and enforced by liturgies and rituals, are key.  Physicality matters; in fact, repeated physical actions and reactions have a profound effect on how we approach or imagine (Smith uses 'intend', borrowing helpfully from 20th century continental philosophy) the world.

So, what's not to like?  Emphasis on the embodied nature of human existence?  Good!  Critique of the formative aspects of cultural engagement which often slip under our radars?  Good!  Encouragement to think of the ways in which the church's liturgy helps to counter-form us in a different culture?  Great!

But two particular points in the analysis jarred with me.  Here is the first: Smith suggests that sacraments (which, of course, sit well with his thesis) "are particular intensifications of a general sacramental presence of God in and with his creation" (141).  This cannot be right (and I am inclined to think that his reference to "the doctrine police" worrying about it [147] is a snide way of trying to head off the criticism).  Think about what it would mean for the Incarnation - was it just a particular intensification of a general presence of God in humanity?  Absolutely not!  The Incarnation represents the contradiction of all the possibilities inherent in human nature.  The entry of Christ is a new thing.  The gospel is News with a capital N.

And here's the second: Smith asserts the "priority of liturgy to doctrine" (138).  Doctrines, he thinks, emerge from reflection on the practice of liturgy, not vice versa.  "Christians worship[ped] before they got around to abstract theologizing or formulating a Christian worldview" (139).  Note the poisonous use of 'abstract' here!  What about concrete theologizing?  Did Christians start to worship Christ, for example, and then on reflecting on the practice decide that he must be in some way divine?  Absolutely not!  Again, what is lacking here is the news, the gospel.  It is not just that Christians found themselves adopting certain liturgical practices and worked backwards to what God must be like.  They received news of what God was like and what he has done, and that news evoked their liturgical response.

So here's the thing: I think for Smith the God-stuff, the Christian-stuff, is just there, and all we need to do is inhabit it.  We just need to be formed by the liturgy into this always-present awareness of God and his works and ways.  What I want to know is: where is revelation here?  Where is the good news as news?  Christian worship will always revolve around the cognitive and not merely the affective, because it is through our brains that we receive and process news.  And isn't that a more biblical way of thinking about (trans)formation?  Don't the apostles encourage us to think that the shaping of our moral character will come through the renewal of our minds?  Don't they proclaim our new identity in Christ as something that must first be thought and then enacted?

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Owen on Spiritual gifts

Prepping for a sermon series in 1 Corinthians 12-14, I've been re-reading John Owen on the gifts of the Spirit (end of volume 4 of his Works, if you're interested).  There's lots of good stuff in there, but there are some big negatives which are interesting in and of themselves.  It can be instructive to see, at a few centuries' remove, the errors made by theologians, and to think how these ideas might have had an impact on the course of church history!

Here are the two biggest problems with Owen's account of spiritual gifts:

1.  He ties gifting almost exclusively to the ordained ministry.  Although there are occasional hints that the Spirit gives gifts to the average layman, Owen has almost no interest in those gifts.  He sees Spiritual gifting and ecclesiastical office as almost completely correlated.  This has some definite positive effects: he is pretty damning when it comes to the appointment of persons not clearly gifted for Christian ministry to ecclesiastical office.  Without the gifting of the Spirit, nobody can be legitimately appointed to a church office, no matter what human calling they receive, and the human attempt to construct a ministry independent of the Spirit's equipping represents a revolt against the authority of Christ.  But negatively, where is the body?  Where is every-member ministry?

I think we can trace this problem to Owen's historical situation.  The Magisterial Reformation never did quite escape the clericalism of the mediæval period.  Moreover, Owen was concerned, in the face of various groups of 'enthusiasts', for the maintenance of order in the church - a concern which he read from 1 Corinthians.  But for the 17th century Englishman, order meant constitutional order, and that meant officers.  One wonders how the over-reliance on church officers which this view implies has affected church life in the English speaking world for the last 300 years.

2.  He doesn't think the church is on mission.  That might be stating it too baldly, but one of Owen's arguments for the cessation of the 'extraordinary' gifts (prophecy, healings, miracles, tongues etc.) and some of the 'extraordinary' offices (prophets and evangelists) is that they were necessary during the initial period of mission, when the gospel was new to the world and much opposed.  When the churches are planted, there is no more need for such things.  The regular work of the ministry is upbuilding within the church, not mission.  The churches, being established, have in the Word written and preached by Spirit-empowered ministers everything that they need to maintain (and if lost, recover) their identity and life in Christ.  There is no need for miracles anymore.

Owen had other reasons for cessationism, but this one at least will hardly stand up to scrutiny.  The church, in so far as it is true to its given identity according to the witness of the NT, is always being sent.  One could say it is always being established.  The gospel is always new to the world, even if the world has been hearing it for centuries.  Even if the whole population of the world were nominally Christian, the church would still be sent by her Lord - would still be on mission.  I wonder how the loss of this perspective contributed to the inner weakness of the churches and their vulnerability to a rising secularism.