Monday, October 16, 2017

Those who wait

My friend Tanya Marlow has written a book about waiting.  Waiting, which we're so bad at.  Waiting, which is just a part of life.  Waiting, which is essential to our faith.  Honestly, it's not the sort of book I normally read (it's all creative and stuff, and I usually take my theology straight up and a little more staid) - but I think you might benefit from reading it.  Yes, you.  Because you're waiting too, aren't you, for something?




The majority of the book is given over to re-tellings of the stories of four Biblical characters - Sarah, Isaiah, John the Baptist, and Mary.  The stories are narrated in the first person, and each split into five short chapters.  There is some great writing here, and a sense of immediacy which really pulls you into the world of the Bible.  Importantly, on only a few occasions (e.g. the first chapter of the Mary narrative) does the imaginative detail end up carrying the main point of the chapter - always a risk with these sorts of reconstructions!  The story-telling here is genuinely inviting us to look again at the Bible, without on the whole obscuring the Biblical narrative behind its own story-telling.  

And this may not be that exciting to many readers, but I was really pleased to have an appendix in which Tanya explains some of the interpretive choices she has made, and some of the ways in which she has avoided making interpretive choices (e.g. what exactly happened to Sarah in Egypt?)  Having that working on display is both a fascinating insight into the creative process, and a great reminder that Tanya is a responsible exegete and insightful theologian as well as a story-teller.

So, waiting.  How useful it is to be reminded that waiting for God to act has been a central experience of the fathers and mothers of our faith throughout the centuries!  Through the lenses of these stories we see different aspects of what waiting means: disappointment, delay, doubt, disgrace.  No doubt different stories will resonate with different people; perhaps listening to and engaging with the stories that resonate less immediately with us will help us to understand better the struggles of others.  But Tanya is not just reflecting on how hard it is to wait.  We are also reminded through these stories that we are waiting for someone - for God - to act: and we are reminded that he does indeed act, even when we don't see it.  It is worth it.

The book is rounded off by a fifth section, which moves away from story-telling to apply some of the insights we've hopefully picked up along the way into our own personal stories.  This section is brief but astute; I could have had more of it.  Then there is a second appendix with questions for group Bible study, which highlights that this book could be used in lots of different ways.  It would work really well as an advent course for homegroups, for example.

So, no, I wouldn't normally read this sort of book, but I'm glad I read this one.  The theme is important, and Tanya is just the person to tackle it.  And despite my general preference for a weighty theological tome, I wonder on reflection whether this isn't just the way to write about waiting - because after all, the wait isn't just a doctrine, but a lived experience of groaning and hoping.

As Tanya helps us to pray:


Lord Jesus,
Who waited for centuries in the light of heaven
Nine months in the warm darkness of a womb
And three days in a tomb

Be with us in the waiting, we pray.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Two books on truth

I had cause recently to do a bit of reading around the concept of truth, and two books in particular caught my eye.  This is not a review or even a detailed overview of either, but just some reflections on the different trajectories truth is taking at the moment in our culture.

Matthew D'Ancona is a political journalist, and his book Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back deals primarily with the apparent departure of truth from the public sphere in the UK and USA.  Most of his examples of post-truth are derived from the Donald or the Brexit Referendum.  The diagnosis of where we've got to, and the widespread loss of trust that follows a culture of pervasive lying, is good.  I think he doesn't go deep enough, philosophically, but maybe it's not that sort of book.  In particular, I think it would be worth spending more time pondering whether the practitioners of post-truth would see themselves as lying.  I think the situation is more like something 'beyond truth and falsehood' - the opposites of truth-telling and lying have both become outmoded as concepts, and instead we're left with politicians and other public figures telling stories for power.

The solution D'Ancona proposes is less good.  There is an alarming section where he seems very excited about the future potential to have AI weeding out 'fake news' from the internet.  Then there is a desperately naive attempt to return to modernity - he actually invokes the values of the Enlightenment a number of times.  We must demand that we be told the truth.  We must insist on facts.  But all this is to write as if the 19th and 20th centuries had never happened - as if Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud had never put pen to paper.  The insistence that there is a value-free, interpretation-free, straightforward truth to be had is really not going to get us out of this mess.  He seems to recognise this, because he also talks about the need for those who support Enlightenment values to work hard at telling a better story, constructing a more convincing narrative.  I'm afraid that within the framework of the book, this just comes across as a call for propaganda.  The 'new modernism' which D'Ancona appears to be advocating comes across as alarmingly totalitarian, for someone must surely be appointed to decide which truth is the real truth (at least until we can train the robots to do it for us!) and which narratives should be ruled out of court.

John Caputo's book Truth: The Search for Wisdom in the Postmodern Age is more philosophical, which is what you would expect from a professional philosopher.  It also takes a much longer historical view, dividing the story of Western culture into three periods - Ancient, Modern (Enlightenment), and Postmodern.  That perspective enables Caputo to see that something significant was lost at the Enlightenment.  For the Ancients, truth was something to be loved, something to be pursued, something that had a claim on us.  Truth was related to goodness and beauty and the good life.  The Moderns, on the other hand, separated truth out, made it just bare facts.  In Kant, truth is no longer something to be loved; 'truth' is just the label we give to whatever propositions and experiences come out when we make the right and appropriate use of our faculties.  Caputo uses religion as a test-case for how this view of truth works, and that enables him to show how much is lost.  For the Moderns, religion (along with most anything that gives life value) is excluded from the realm of truth, and therefore from having any real content at all.  Postmodernism is a response to this, an attempt to recover that sense of truth as something to be loved and lived.  But this not a return to the Ancient world; there is no going back.  Rather, this is living into an always-open future.  Caputo uses Derrida (whether accurately or not I couldn't say; Derrida is an unexplored land for me) to argue for a vision of truth that is closely related to whatever is open to the future.  That is true which will carry us into the future, which is open.  That is false which closes off the future.

So Caputo's response to the crisis of truth is to push deeper into Postmodernism.  From a Christian perspective, it's hard not to see this as some sort of eschatological project, but with an indefinitely delayed eschaton: the truth is always over the next hill.  Anyone who claims to have the truth is inherently proved wrong, because truth is always in the future.  There is, then, a criterion for deciding what is true and what is false - but it doesn't seem to have much to do with reality per se.

I think these are basically the two secular responses to the truth crisis: back to modernity or forward into deeper postmodernity.  The latter is more exciting and, to me at least, appealing.  But will it help us, really?  Won't we just end up with a series of competing eschatological visions, with their attendant narratives about the present?  When it hits the street, won't this just boil down to 'I have my truth and you have yours'?

Of course, I think the answer lies in the fact that the One who is the truth has been here amongst us - that one life amongst the many human lives of history is the truth to which every other life, every fact, every aspect of reality, is related.  But that is another story.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Feet of clay

In the last few weeks there has been a lot in the air about Karl Barth and his relationship to his 'secretary' Charlotte von Kirchsbaum.  It has long been known that this relationship created difficulty in Barth's marriage, and that Barth's decision to have von Kirchsbaum move into the family home was a source of great pain to his wife.  Of course there were rumours that this was a sexual affair.  Recently various private letters have been translated into English and published, which have effectively confirmed that this was indeed an illicit affair - whether sexual or not (I'm still not sure it's clear) - and represented a significant failure on Barth's side to keep his marriage vows.  To put it more bluntly, Barth's family life was characterised by his own sin, of which he never (it seems) repented.

I wasn't personally particularly rocked by these revelations; I think I'd always assumed that the rumours were true, so I've factored this in to my thinking about Barth already!  Others were really shaken.  The thing with Barth, for those of us who love his theology, is that he often feels like more than just a writer.  We feel like we've thought alongside him, grown up through his help.  It's tough to realise that this man who has meant so much to us was compromised so completely.

So what do you do when you are let down in this way?

1.  First, you check your heart.  Have I, in fact, made an idol of this person, of their teaching or their life?  Have they perhaps been exalted to a place that ought to be occupied only by the Lord Jesus?  It won't always be easy to tell - to be genuinely grieved and shaken by the defection of a mentor or the sin of a teacher is to a certain extent appropriate, and if that person has been particularly helpful to you the grief can be strong.  I've appreciated Bobby Grow's series of reflections on this in relation to Barth (first article linked, but read on through the next few posts on his blog to see the progression).  Working it through is fine, and indeed essential, but at the end of the day you weren't meant to be putting that much faith in this other human being; they were only the ones who pointed you to The Other Human Being.  Get your heart right.

2.  Second, you check their doctrine.  If a teacher has fallen into gross sin, that does not necessarily imply anything about their teaching - but on the other hand, it might.  Was there always some idea, some misconception or untruth, lurking in this teacher's theology which proved to be the doorway, or the justification, for wickedness?  With regard to Barth, I'm not convinced there was.  The one spot where I want to do some more thinking is around whether Barth took seriously enough not only God's wrath - this he treated very seriously! - but the possibility of this wrath being visited on actual unrepentant sinners.  Is it possible that Barth's wide hope for salvation was connected to his own moral failure?  There's no real way to know, but it bears some scrutiny.

3.  Third, you acknowledge that every human teacher is a two-way signpost.  A Christian teacher, if they understand what they are about at all, seeks to be a signpost to Christ - a finger pointing in his direction.  But all Christian teachers are also sinful human beings, and so there will always be something in their teaching or life which points the other way.  Where sin is exposed, and it becomes apparent in exactly what ways a particular person has pointed away from Jesus, we can use even those failures as warning signs.  For me, Barth is both the person who has taught me more about Jesus than any other uninspired author, and the person who has shown me that everything can so easily be undermined by sin.  That latter can be as useful to me as the former if I take notice of it.

4.  Fourth, you say 'there but for the grace of God...' - and you pray.  "Watch your life and doctrine closely", says the apostle.  When we see a hero fail, whether in an area of life or doctrine, there is a temptation to become bitter - see how I have been failed!  But we know - surely we know - that there is nothing in us that makes us better.  This doesn't mean that we have to brush over the hero's failure; we ought to take it seriously.  We ought to condemn it strongly.  It is no false moralism to condemn what God condemns.  But at the same time, we need to acknowledge that unless God keeps us, we too will fail and fall.  And then we need to ask him to keep us.  Keep us from sin that will undermine our teaching.  Keep us from error that will point others away from Christ.  Keep us, keep us, keep us.

I will keep reading Karl Barth and benefiting from his insight.  I am determined also to benefit from his failure, as odd as that sounds.  I will be redoubling the watch on my life and doctrine, and I would encourage you to do the same.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

The pure original

Last week, the theologian Peter Enns tweeted this:
 Now, I have a lot of issues with Enns.  He is pretty much the embodiment of the slippery slope argument which prevents many evangelicals from engaging creatively with the doctrine of Scripture, and that's a shame.  In many ways this particular tweet captures the nature of most of my concerns with him: at one level, he is so obviously right, but where is he going with it?

In what sense is this tweet obviously true?  Well, it is true that the history of Christianity (I feel unqualified to speak to Judaism) is a history of theological adjustment.  Doctrine develops, course corrections are made, different emphases are brought to the forefront at different times.  And I think it is also (more or less) true that Christianity would cease to exist if this process ceased.  I don't mean that Christianity as a world religion would roll up and disappear - and I suspect Enns doesn't mean that either.  I mean that Christianity would cease to be a vital force.  At the very least, different cultures and philosophies mean that the core gospel message has to be expressed and re-expressed.  Theological concepts which were an adequate sign-post to the gospel at one time may communicate falsehood after a couple of centuries.  So, yes, theological adjustment is vital to the existence of Christianity.

It's the last bit, though, that is troubling.  Again, to some extent it's true.  There is no point in history where the theological consensus of the church could be held up as the perfection of theology - no, not even the immediate post-apostolic period.  After all, you'd rather have an explicit Nicene doctrine of the Trinity, wouldn't you?  I would.

But the direction of travel causes me anxiety.  The last clause - the absence of a pure original - makes me ask: what, then, controls the 'adjustments' that must be made to theology over time?  What should drive and motivate those adjustments?  How will we know if the right adjustments are being made?

There is a danger here that we fall into a fully post-modern theology.  Post-modernism makes truth an eschatological thing, but with an indefinitely postponed eschaton.  Truth is always in the future.  At best we are always inclining toward truth, but we never reach it.  In a sense, truth could be defined as that which has a future, which remains open to the future.  Now, I accept that there is an eschatological element to truth.  I accept that theology is always, or ought always to be, theologia viatorum, theology on the way.  We never have the finished product.

But...

The last word, the eschatological Word, has actually been spoken.  There is a pure original.  His name is Jesus Christ, and we know him through his commissioned witnesses, the prophets and apostles.  This does not preclude the constant adjustment; in fact, it necessitates it.  The final Word having been spoken, we have to continually ask whether we have heard it, and whether what we are saying conforms to it.  Yes, there is an openness to the future here: to future correction, to the ultimate future of the eschaton.  But that ultimate future is none other than Jesus Christ - the one who will be is the one who was (and who is).  Adjustment to our theology must therefore come from him.  Maybe that's what Enns meant.  But I fear not.

Friday, September 29, 2017

War in heaven

The Biblical record suggests that Satan has three broad powers: the power to tempt (of course archetypically in Genesis 3); the power to trouble and oppress (as we see in the gospel accounts of demonic oppression - the explicit link to Satan is made in Luke 10); and finally the power to accuse.

From Scripture it seems clear that, as terrible as Satan's power to tempt and trouble certainly is, it is his power to accuse which is most terrible.  Zechariah 3 contains a powerful vision of Joshua the High Priest standing before the LORD's angel and being subjected to the accusatory force of Satan.  The terrifying thing about the vision is that Joshua is dressed in filthy rags.  That is to say, Joshua - the High Priest, the one who is to represent Israel before the thrice-holy God, the holy pinnacle of the people - is besmeared with sin and guilt, presumably both his own and the representative guilt of the nation.  Satan accuses him before God, and look: his guilt is apparent.  He is literally wearing his guilt.  The accusation surely must stick.

The terrifying thing about Satan's power to accuse is that it is really just a species of telling the truth.

In the vision, God and his angel (!) intervene: not to deny the truth of Satan's accusation, but to take away Joshua's guilt.  That's the only way he can be a "brand plucked from the fire".  He needs, and gets, new clothes: righteousness, salvation.

The logic of how that happens - and how it can be right - is not explored in Zechariah, except to demonstrate that God is free to be merciful.  In Revelation 12 I think we do see some of the logic, albeit wrapped in apocalyptic.  Here we see war in heaven: Michael and his angels versus "that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan" with his angels.  Michael is triumphant, the devil is cast down.  There is no room in heaven any longer for Satan.



Lest we be tempted to see this as a representation of a primeval fall of the devil, the context is clearly the birth of Israel's Child, the one who is born to rule all the nations, who is caught up to God and his throne.  Here in a couple of verses we have the whole career of Christ, and it is the completion of his great work which leads to the successful assault of Michael and his cohorts on the forces of Satan.

When Jesus went up to his throne, having conquered sin and death, Michael arose (see Daniel 12!) and made war on Satan, casting him down.  Satan can't appear in heaven anymore.

In Revelation, the saints who see this sight rejoice over Satan, and in particular they name him "the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them day and night before our God".  But he no longer has access to our God.  His power to accuse is taken away.

Satan's power to accuse me always rested on my objective guilt.  But my guilt is taken away by the Lord Jesus.  So what accusation can he bring?  The military victory of Michael rests on the sacrificial victory of the Lord Jesus Christ.  And it is a complete victory.

Satan can still tempt and trouble, and he will do so.  But his power to accuse is taken away.  He can act against us on earth, but Michael and all the hosts of heaven stand armed with the proclamation of Christ's victory to prevent him from ever acting against us in heaven.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Daniel 10-12

This past Sunday we finished up a series on the book of Daniel at CCC, with a foolish but (I like to think) valiant attempt to cover the last three chapters in half an hour.  I've really enjoyed the series, both preaching it and hearing it preached.  When we started, I assumed that the really useful stuff would be the reflections on living as an exile from the early chapters - and that we would only persevere into the weird apocalyptic stuff in the second half of the book in order to avoid the charge of cowardice.

In fact, although the early chapters were indeed helpful for thinking through living for Christ in a world that doesn't know him, it has been the later chapters that have had the most impact on me.  We live in turbulent times, and the book of Daniel reflects and speaks into turbulent times.  Here are the three points I made from chapters 10-12:

In chapter 10, we see that there is more going on than we see.  Daniel prays, and an angelic messenger is dispatched.  But the messenger is held up, detained in conflict with another spiritual being, who seems to represent the interests of the Persian empire.  The message does not get through until archangelic reinforcement arrives in the person of Michael.  What are we, readers in the twenty-first century West, meant to make of all this?  Let's face it, if we stripped the chapter of all the features which make it unacceptable to a modern mindset, there wouldn't be much left.  Instead I think we need to recognise that there just is a whole world of spiritual being about which we know very little, but with which we are able to interact (e.g. in prayer).  There are angels out there, folks.

As an aside, one almost instinctive reaction to this which I have is to feel hard done by that I have never seen any angels.  But that is daft.  We Christians have been given knowledge of things which the men of the OT (like Daniel) longed to see, and which even the very angels themselves long to understand as we do.

In chapter 11, we see that most of what we do see is not (ultimately) important.  The chapter rehearses the long, back-and-forth conflict between the Hellenistic dynasties of the Ptolemies and the Seleucids.  Assuming, as I think I do, that this is seen in prospect rather than retrospect, two things are proved.  Firstly, from the fact that the angel can tell Daniel exactly what will happen, we see that God is genuinely sovereign over the affairs of nations - nothing surprises him.  But secondly, from the way that the report is given, it is clear that the affairs of nations are really of significance only as the backdrop against which God's people can be faithful or not.  The tale as told signifies nothing, despite all its sound and fury - and comes to nothing in the end.  We need to worry less about the news and think more about what it means to know God.

In chapter 12, we see that there is real hope for those who persevere.  The corporate hope presented in the chapter is that Michael the archangel will lead the forces of heaven to a triumph which will vindicate Israel; and the individual hope is that even if you die before that happens, you will be raised from the dust.  Revelation 12 tells us that this victory of Michael's has occurred - and it is because of the work of Christ.  Humanity is in principle (and in first-fruits-actuality) raised from the dead, because Jesus is raised.  The hope is real.  We can persevere.

One thing I take away from all this is that we can relax.  We don't have to change the course of the world.  We just have to know God, be faithful in our little bit of allotted time, and look with calm faith to see the things unseen.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Irreversible and Victorious

The eschatological climax of God's historical self-communication, in which this self-communication becomes manifest as irreversible and victorious, is called Jesus Christ. Karl Rahner
The Israelite of the Old Testament lives with a certain fear that perhaps the favour of God will be withdrawn.  You can see it in the people removing their ornaments and mourning at the prospect of Canaan without Yahweh.  You can see it in David, pleading that God's Holy Spirit not be taken from him.  You can see it in the final words of Lamentations.

In each case, the fear relates to human sin.  The dreadful thought is two-fold: firstly, that the patience of God might be exhausted, and that this last sin might be the one which causes him to finally turn away in disgust; secondly, that the evil of humanity - my evil - might prove to be invincible, and that even if God continues to be patient, all his patience might be in vain, because I will not be changed.

Might God walk back on his covenant promise?  Surely he would be justified.

Might my sin be such that his grace will find no foothold in me?  Surely that fits with what I know of myself.

But in Jesus Christ, God shows himself absolutely committed to communicating himself to us in grace and mercy, and absolutely powerful to overcome our opposition to that grace and mercy.  God has taken humanity to himself in his Son, uniting himself to us forever.  Moreover, the Son has endured everything that this 'uniting' means for him: the death of the cross.  And he has been raised, living again.

In the being of Jesus Christ, as it was lived out in Palestine two thousand years ago, we see God walking a path which is irreversible, committed to the point of death and beyond.  Just as nobody can reverse the resurrection and the cross, so nobody can undo God's great love.

And we see God walking a path which is victorious.  Just as nobody could keep Christ in the grave when his Father called him out, so nobody can prevent God's work in the lives even of dead-in-sin human beings.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Exiles and the Kingdom

I think the New Testament is pretty clear that Christians should expect their experience of life in this world to be an experience of exile.  1 Peter is obviously the book that explicitly uses this imagery, but actually the whole of the NT is full of the discomfort, the being-out-of-place, that comes from being part of the new creation in Christ and yet living day by day in the old creation.  Some of the more radical explorations of that motif are in Paul: think of the way that the old extends even to my own body (and mind?) in the conflict of Romans 7.  I am in exile not only in the world, but in a sense in my own skin.  Stranger in a strange land.

Given the prevalence of this motif, I don't see why Christians would be surprised to find themselves a minority, their views ignored, their beliefs ridiculed.  We should be okay with that.

But there is another line in the NT, which represents one of the essential insights of Old Testament monotheism.  Along this line, the NT insists that the whole earth is the Lord's, with everything in it.  That is why you can eat meat sacrificed to idols - the meat is God's, the idols are nothing (even if they are demons!)  From this perspective, it is the Christian who belongs - this is our Father's world, and moreover it is the world which, whether it knows it or not, is decisively claimed for redemption through the death and resurrection of Christ.  In a sense this is the deeper line, which cuts across the experience of exile: we are at home, deeply at home, in the world.  It is just that the world itself does not know that it has been brought home in Christ to its creator.

Given this, I don't see how we could refuse to hope for genuine improvement in the world.  I don't see how the church can acquiesce in the world's refusal to know itself and be itself in Christ.  We should be constantly calling the world - institutions and societies as well as individuals - to repentance and faith.

I suppose the key thing is that we speak from the perspective of confidence.  Those who fear that the exile is the more fundamental reality will speak in a shrill manner, out of anxiety and not out of the deep calm of prophetic vision.  It is only when we know that the world is Christ's that we can calmly and clearly - without being shocked by rejection, but never giving up hope that we might be heard - tell the world what it is in Christ, and what it ought therefore to be in experience.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Under authority

This morning the news has broken that Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Roman Catholic, holds ethical positions consistent with Catholicism.  Alongside the almost comical shock that being a Catholic should involve Catholicism, there have been a couple of interesting reactions, for example this:
I don't think I'd considered that particular line before, but it is surely true that consistency here is critical.  Attempts to make compassionate exceptions to the right to life actually end up making our ethics awful woman bashing.

One thing I dread whenever Roman Catholic ethical positions come into public discussion is the widespread perception that Protestants are just a bit more easy-going on these sorts of things.  This was the heart of my GCSE Religious Education, as far as I recall (and I freely admit that I may not recall ever so accurately, so don't think too poorly of my teachers): here is a tricky ethical problem, Roman Catholics take this hard line, other Christians just do what they feel like.  There are perhaps two misconceptions about Protestantism that are put about in this context:

1.  Protestants, because they are not so much bound by tradition, are more likely to be progressive than Roman Catholics.  This is not true.  Protestants are no more free than Roman Catholics to take their lead on ethical issues from the trends of wider society.  They are under the authority of Christ, expressed concretely in Holy Scripture.  Where Protestants dissent from Roman Catholic teaching on ethics, it is because they do not think Scripture supports the Roman position.  It is not because they are free.

2.  Protestants, because they are all about individual conscience, are not bound to their church's ethical positions in the way that Roman Catholics are.  This is not true.  It is true that the Reformation made much of conscience, but the intention was not to overthrow the authority of the church.  It was to relativise it.  The church has the authority to take doctrinal and ethical positions.  The point of the Reformation was simply that these positions are open to challenge from Holy Scripture, because the church is not God.  The idea is not that every individualist church member can just believe and do whatever they feel is right.  The church is a disciplined community.

Of course I know that the reason people have these misconceptions about Protestants is partly because many people calling themselves Protestants really do think and behave like this.  All I can say is that this is bad Protestantism, Protestantism gone to seed.  Real Protestants are people bound under authority, no less than Roman Catholics - just not quite the same source of authority.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Division, faith, ethics

One of the more unfortunate responses to the Nashville Statement (of which, to be clear, I am not a fan, despite being broadly in agreement with its ethical positions) is to complain that this statement is divisive.  You can find the complaint here, for example, on a blog which I have on other ocassions found useful and encouraging.  It's unfortunate because of two things: firstly, it complains that the statement does exactly what it aims to do; and secondly, it implicitly claims that division is always bad.  The second claim is obviously the important one, and it doesn't work.  The NT is full of commands to divide from people - off the top of my head, one might consider 1 Corinthians 5, or 2 Thessalonians 3:6.  These two references are particularly pertinent, as they don't command division from people who take erroneous doctrinal stances, but from people who persist in ethically forbidden behaviour.

That helps with countering a particular form of the 'division is bad' argument, which makes it an issue of whether we believe in justification by faith.  In the same post I linked earlier, you will find essentially this argument: if you divide from anyone over anything other than faith in Christ, you are saying that justification requires faith in Christ and this other thing, in this case a particular take on sexual ethics.  And therefore you are denying the heart of the gospel.

It's worth picking over the logic.  The idea is that if I divide from someone else who professes faith in Christ, then I am claiming that this person is not a Christian, and therefore I am saying, or at least implying, that I think they're not justified.  Therefore I am making justification depend on faith in Christ and right doctrine or behaviour, and this will not do.

Let me counter some of that.  Firstly, it is worth noting that the NT is clear that certain kinds of behaviour rule out inheriting the Kingdom of God, regardless of the faith you profess - see Galatians 5:19-21 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.  Without getting into the detail of how that works, it seems clear that if your understanding of justification sola fide makes these verses untenable, your understanding is wrong.  Secondly, division from another person who professes faith in Christ ought not to be understood as a final judgement on them as to their justification - by what power or right could we possible pass such a judgement?  It is more like a warning shot.  It says 'friend, we consider your doctrine or behaviour to be such that we cannot regard you as a true Christian; and therefore we call you to consider whether you are in the right with God, and to repent'.  That is a severe thing to say, but it could be a mercy if it brings repentance!

Thirdly, in the final analysis, this is just a rehash of the Counter-Reformation calumnies against justification by faith alone, but given a perversely positive spin.  The Counter-Ref claimed that Protestants taught that so long as you believed in Jesus you could behave as you liked - there was no motive for ethical living, because your faith would guarantee you salvation regardless of what you did.  Of course, the Roman apologists of this era were appalled at such a suggestion.  Now, though, it is expressed as if this were a positive thing: we can all just disagree about sexual ethics, because it doesn't really matter what you do, so long as you believe in Christ!  But this is a desperate caricature of the beautiful doctrine of justification by faith alone.  If you think that justification by faith alone means 'trust in Christ and it doesn't matter how you live', then you have missed the point.  The person who is justified by faith in Christ is given a heart to obey Christ.  The person who does not obey Christ does not love Christ, does not trust Christ.  This is all in the New Testament, front and centre.  You can deny the gospel by your behaviour, as well as by your doctrine.

I hope the Nashville Statement disappears soon.  I don't think it's fit for purpose.  It lacks theological rigour and gospel tone.  But there is a serious need for division in the church.  If we take the NT warnings about ethics and the Kingdom seriously - read again some of the verses I've linked above! - the least loving thing we can do is to try to fudge the issue.  Eternal life is at stake. We must be clear.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Prolegomena to any future statements

It may have escaped your attention that a group of evangelical Christians has published a statement on the subject of sexual ethics.  Now, a number of the signatories are people I deeply respect, and the actual ethical positions taken are ones with which I am in broad (but not total) agreement.  So I'm not knocking the statement, per se.  But here's how I wish it had started, and how I wish any future statements on ethical issues from evangelical Christians might begin.  And if it sounds a bit antiquated, a bit theological, not directly relevant to the ethical questions asked: well, so much the better.  I've just written the intro and the first article.


Preamble

That the Church in the West is faced with a particular crisis today is undeniable.  The outer nature of this crisis is the unique result of the Church's ongoing encounter with post-Christian society, with the inevitable shattering of the consensus worldview and ethics of Christendom.  It is essential that the Church pay attention to the unique features of this situation, for she is called to speak a word in season, to address men and women as they are and where they are.  The Church can hardly take too seriously the unique situation in which she finds herself.

However, the inner nature of the crisis is the one pressing question which is put to the Church in every age, not by the surrounding world, but by the Church's Lord.  This is the question of whether she will hear, believe, and obey the Word of God.  That there are particular pressures today inclining her to be deaf to this Word; that there are unique circumstances today making it difficult for her to seriously believe what she hears; that the path of obedience is today strewn with obstacles which she has not previously faced - all these things are undeniably true, but must not be allowed to conceal the most important question.  Will the Church today hear, believe, and obey the Word of God?

Article 1

We believe that the Church of Jesus Christ lives by faith in the Word of God, which Word is Jesus Christ himself as he is held out to us in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.

a.  We believe that the Word of God in Holy Scripture calls us to confident faith in the accomplished work of God in Jesus Christ.  We tremble before the revelation of God's holy love at the cross of Christ, love which embraces all of sinful humanity and yet purges from sin.  We rejoice in the promise of eternal life given to us in the empty tomb of Jesus Christ, receiving this promise by faith as our only hope in life and death.  We gladly receive by faith the perfect righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ, daring to call on the holy God as our Father because of the completed work of his only-begotten Son.

b.  We believe that the Word of God in Holy Scripture calls us to faithful obedience to the Lord of the Church, Jesus Christ, who rules by his word and Spirit.  We acknowledge that the love of God in Christ does not leave us unchanged, but calls us into the perfect freedom of his service.  We acknowledge Holy Scripture as the sceptre of Christ the King, by which he commands his people and orders his Church.  We prayerfully depend on the presence of the Holy Spirit of Christ in the Church and in the hearts of his people, looking to him to give the will and power to follow where Christ our Lord leads.

c.  We confess with sorrow that we, the Church of Jesus Christ, have not lived by faith in the Word of God, but have sought to establish our own righteousness.  We confess with sorrow that we, the Church of Jesus Christ, have not obeyed the commands of Christ.  We confess with sorrow that we, the Church of Jesus Christ, have failed to present the promise of eternal life to the world.  We confess with sorrow that we, the Church of Jesus Christ, have failed to show the goodness of Christ in his commandments.  For all our wilful failings and accidental sins, we pray: Lord, have mercy.  Christ, have mercy.

d.  We deny that the Church of Christ can live otherwise than by the Word of God.  We deny that the Church of Christ must heed other voices than the voice of Christ as it is heard in Holy Scripture.  We deny that the Church of Christ must change its faith or its obedience in response to any other voice, whether from within or without.  We deny that the Church of Christ must recognise changes in wider culture as the voice of her Lord.  We deny that the Church of Christ can separate faith in the promise of the Word from faithful obedience to the command of the Word.  We deny that the lamentable failings of the Church invalidate the message of the Lord,who is merciful beyond our ability to comprehend.

e.  We call all those who put their faith in Christ to join with us in seeking his will, by prayerful attention and holy submission to Holy Scripture.  We ask the watching world to believe that we, the Church of Jesus Christ, must believe and act in obedience to our Lord.  We pledge ourselves to reform our faith, our teaching, our community life, and our actions in conformity with the Word of God as we hear it in Holy Scripture, and we ask anyone who sees error in our life or faith to bring witness against us from Holy Scripture.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Nihilisms

Every ideology with a nothing at the heart of it tries very hard to make everything else a nothing as well.  That is to say, nihilism annihilates.

Are we not surrounded on every side by nihilisms?

I am no expert on radical Islam, so you must take this not as a philosophical or theological analysis but merely a personal reflection; this is how it looks and feels to me.  I look at the giant monad at the heart of Islamist thinking and can't help thinking it's a nothing.  The radicalised monad sucks the value from all things, including life.  In theory this is because only the monad has value, or at least value-in-itself.  But is the gravity of the Islamist god actually the attraction of a black hole?  A nothing collapsing in on itself for all eternity, and all reality helpless before it...

Ostensibly opposed to this black hole, the re-emergence of neo-pagan blood and soil racism.  And we might play spot the difference.  In this quasi-Nietzschean cult of power combined with the whinging sense of perpetual victimhood of the spoilt child, what is there but emptiness?  The superman who is less than human, not even average.  Just a nothing.  Protect the white race, they say, protect our culture.  And yet there is no such thing, and in the sense they mean it there never was.  Burn your torches and march, burn your torches and pretend that you are light and fire.  There is a nothing in your heart, and you annihilate that which you claim to love but do not.

And meanwhile most of us here in the twilit West sit politely and drink coffee and worship the nothing.  Oh, we do.  We believe in nothing but personal autonomy, and to preserve our personal autonomy we have fed into the flames of nothing every sort of value and truth.  But in the end what will we have left to feed to this burning nothing?  Haven't we already begun to offer it the last of our fuel: our very capacity to choose?  To keep the world neutral, to maintain a space where we can be who we want to be, we have made a vacuum.  And now the nothing will take even our ability to be ourselves; we will destroy ourselves willingly, for fear that any sort of self might impinge on others.  The nothing collapses into itself, and we, who have become nothing, collapse with it.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

God's Long Word

God's Word took 33 years to say.  His Word was Jesus.

You can't translate God's Word, not really.  It takes a hundred, a thousand, human words to create an approximation of this one Divine Word.  Innumerable words have been spoken and written about God, and all the ones that were worth saying or writing are just partial allusions to the One Word.

There are perhaps three phrases that help us most in hearing the Word that God has spoken.  The first one, which brings us initially to the beginning of God's speaking and yet also stretches us to the end of it, is 'God with us'.  God is with us, because he has come as one of us, sharing in our nature, born of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit.  Once we hear 'God with us' spoken in the manger at Bethlehem, we are amazed to realise that 'God with us' is still being said at the cross of Calvary.  Not only God with us in our createdness, in our nature, but God with us in the pit of our un-nature, our condemnation.  God with us.

The cross brings out the second phrase which the Word of God requires from us: 'God against us'.  In the death of Christ, we see God implacably opposed to our godlessness and evil, our futility.  Opposed to the point of death.  He is against us as we are, against us in all that we have made ourselves.  He will not let the 'me' I have built up survive, but will put it ('me'!) to death at the cross.  And from the perspective of the cross we can see that throughout the long saying of God's Word it has always been 'God against us'.  The birth from the Virgin is the contradiction of every human possibility, and looking forward so too is the emergence from the tomb.  God against us.

But there is that emergence from the tomb, and at that point perhaps more than any other we hear the third phrase: 'God for us'.  Here is the triumph over death and emptiness, here is sin vanquished, here is evil exterminated.  Here is life, life for us, even those whom God has set aside at the cross in the burning fire of his wrath.  And of course we see now that God was always for us: for us Christ became man, for us he went to the cross.  God for us.

The life of the man Jesus Christ is God's first and final Word on all human history and each individual human life.  Infinite human words would not exhaust what could be said about this One Word, and yet what matters most is not those words but that the One Word has been spoken, that Christ has become the decisive factor in my life and (whether you know it or not) yours.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Worship, and life

This summer I’ve read a couple of books on the subject of worship – Worshipping with Calvin by Terry L. Johnson, and The God We Worship by Nicholas Wolterstorff.  They are very different books, with rather different agendas, although both are coming from a broadly Reformed theological point of view.  The subtitles give a clue!  Johnson’s book is subtitled Recovering the Historic Ministry and Worship of Reformed Protestantism, and it is exactly what the First Crusade would be if the First Crusade had been a book about worship rather than a military campaign in the Levant; Wolterstorff, on the other hand, offers An exploration of liturgical theology, and is much more tentative in tone and expansive in message.  Johnson wants us to change our worship, back to an earlier and in his view more biblical model; Wolterstorff just wants us to reflect a bit more on what it is we’re doing in worship and what it implicitly says about our view of God.

Both books were interesting in their different ways, and I will probably have more to say about each of them over the next few weeks.  One thing they have very much in common, which is interesting for me as someone who has inhabited a particular brand of evangelicalism for some years, is the rejection of the idea that all of life is worship.  Here is Wolterstorff:
It is sometimes said that the Christian life as a whole is, or should be, worship.  In this chapter I have assumed that this is not true.  The Christian life as a whole is, or should be, an acknowledgement of who God is and of what God has done, is doing, and will do – an acknowledgement of God’s surpassing excellence.  I have argued that worship has an orientation that sets it off from our work in the world, namely a Godward orientation.  Of course it is open to a writer to declare that he will use the word “worship” to cover everything [in the Christian life].  But that leaves us needing some other word to pick out what I have called worship…  And it has been my experience that those who declare that all of life is worship almost always downplay the importance of what I am calling worship…  (p39-40)
I agree with Wolterstorff – it is an unhelpful thing to label everything as worship.  It removes a level of meaning from the word, and leaves us with only clumsy formulations to explain what it is we do on a Sunday (‘corporate worship’, ‘sung worship’).  In my experience, he is right that those who talk a lot about all of life being worship implicitly denigrate this corporate worship – or at least, I don’t see much joyful expression of adoration in those churches, compared to those which talk about the purpose of a Sunday gathering in terms of offering worship to God.

I’d want to ask another question as well: does declaring that all of life is worship (and therefore at least implicitly that there is nothing very special about the gathering of God’s people to worship) actually lead to a more worship-ful approach to life?  Or might it be that the recognition of worship as a particular, distinctive activity leads to a life that is more full of worship Monday through Saturday?  This is analogous to discussions of the Sabbath, something which I note with some discomfort as a non-Sabbatarian.  But it is at least a question to be asked: has our declaration that we now have rest in Jesus every day and therefore don’t need to observe the Sabbath actually made our lives more restful, or less?  I have a feeling I know the answer, and I’m not sure I will like it.


One thing I take away from these very different books is the need for more God-oriented, adoration-filled gatherings of God’s people to offer worship – in all the forms which that takes, including praise, thanksgiving, confession, intercession, listening.  To come into God’s presence and worship.  How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!

Monday, July 31, 2017

He will be King

Preparing for yesterday's sermon at CCC on Daniel 2, I was struck by how important it is that we talk in the future tense, especially when we're talking about God's reign over the earth.

In chapter 1 of Daniel, the author has established that God is certainly still King, despite the catastrophic events of the exile.  It was Yahweh who gave Jehoiakim into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, and it was also Yahweh who enabled Daniel and his friends to flourish without touching the king's food, and Yahweh who gave these young men wisdom and skill.  The God of Israel is King in Babylon, King in spite of Nebuchadnezzar in all his pomp and strength, and perhaps most strikingly King in spite of his people's sin and fall.

So we can and should say: our God reigns!  He is King, in the midst of the muddle and mess and confusion of history.  He is King over the nations.  Remove the surface froth, the churning of human endeavour and wickedness, and underneath is the deep, clear water of God's sovereignty.  This is a comfort, and can surely be applied not only to the affairs of nations but also to the turmoil of our personal lives.  In spite of it all, God reigns.

But Daniel 2 says something a bit different.  In Nebuchadnezzar's dream, we certainly see the froth and the churn: one kingdom follows another, splendour comes and goes, strength and unity are mingled with weakness and division.  Nothing human lasts, and what, in the end does it all mean?  And of course the fact that God can reveal to Nebuchadnezzar, through his dream and through Daniel's interpretation, that this is the future state of his kingdom shows once again that God reigns.  But there is more.

In the dream, a rock - something fairly unspectacular to look at, compared to the glories of the statue representing the human kingdoms of the earth - appears.  It was not cut out by human hands; in other words, the origins of this rock are divine.  And it is flung at the statue, utterly destroying it, pulverising it.  The rock itself becomes a mountain, growing until it fills the whole earth.  Because God will be King.  He is not merely King-in-the-background, the undercover Sovereign, in control despite it all.  He is the King-who-is-coming, the King who will reign over all the earth, the King who will be acknowledged by every tongue and every heart.

So we must say: our God will reign!  Though the visible beginning of his Kingdom is just a little rock - the stone rejected by men, but in the sight of God chosen and precious - it will fill the earth.  And this matters.  We are not saying to the world, or to our own troubled hearts, merely that God is in control of all the mess and evil that we see (and commit!); we are also saying that he will end it, and will himself be all in all through his Christ whom he has installed on his holy hill.  It is not just that God's sovereignty limits evil; God in his coming sovereignty will overcome evil.

He will be King.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

No competition

Here is a question Barth faces in his discussion of preaching (and by the way, there is likely to be quite a bit of stuff forthcoming on Barth and preaching; dissertation reading, innit): when preaching in the Church becomes the Word of God (let's just assume for now that this is a sensible description of what happens), does it cease to be human activity?

Barth is clear that when the preacher stands up to speak, all he has is human words to say, in a very human way.  He aims, if he is a faithful preacher, at proclaiming the Word of God, but he can't do it.  He does his human thing, says his human words, and it is up to God whether this discourse actually is the Word of God, God himself addressing the Church.  But if it is, what then happens to the human element?  Is it displaced?  Or is hollowed out, leaving just a thin veneer of humanity around a basically divine event?  (Is it, then, transubstantiated?)

Nope.

"God and the human element are not two co-existing and co-operating factors.  The human element is what God created.  Only in the state of disobedience is it a factor standing over against God.  In the state of obedience it is service of God.  Between God and true service of God there can be no rivalry...  Where God is truly served, there - with no removal of the human element, with the full and essential presence and operation of the human element in all its humanity - the willing and doing of God is not just present as a first or second co-operating factor; it is present as the first and decisive thing as befits God the Creator and Lord."

(That's CD I/1, 94 for those reading along in their own Dogmatics at home.  You know who you are.)

Here is a thought which extends beyond preaching, and now seems so blindingly obvious, and yet I've never thought it before.  The question of the interaction of divine sovereignty and human freedom is only a question because of sin.  Take sin out of the equation, and there just isn't a problem.  So if we're wrestling with the dynamics of sovereignty and freedom, what we are really wrestling with is the most mysterious factor of human existence as we know it: sin.  In fact, sin might be considered to be the very act of raising the question: can my freedom, given me by God for use in his service, which service is perfect joy and freedom and leads to life - can that freedom be used contrary to God's will?  And so sin is exposed as a rebellious nonsense.

But between true service of God and God's own sovereign rule, there is no competition.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Doctor Who Cares?

Here is a rare foray into the world of popular culture, which given both my ignorance in the sphere and the fact that I can't imagine anyone cares what I think about it, I felt initially reluctant to offer.  But then I remembered this is a blog, and I regularly write about that things that I don't suppose anyone other than myself is interested in anyway.  So here, I wanted to offer some grumpy-old-man thoughts on Doctor Who.

This isn't about the new Doctor, or at least it's only indirectly about her.  Despite having watched Doctor Who since it's first reinvention, I found myself profoundly uninterested in who might be taking over the helm of the TARDIS, and I think the reason is that the last season of the show has persuaded me that I just don't want to watch any more.

Of course this last season hasn't been all bad.  Capaldi is a compelling actor, and a joy to watch; I guess he is the main reason I've stuck with it.  There have been some individually quite enjoyable episodes.  But the overwhelming feel has been a season-long preach, a constant crossing of the line between politically aware television and outright propaganda.

Doctor Who has two things going for it when it comes to producing propaganda.  Firstly, there is the character of the Doctor himself: vastly superior to humanity in practically every way, and in fact to all intents and purposes omniscient from the human perspective.  A god, one might say, but a god who spends his time pronouncing sarcastic moral judgement on the human race (whilst, it must be said, maintaining a certain fondness for and preventing our extinction multiple times).  The point is that when the Doctor pronounces the backwardness of human society and extols the virtues of liberal-left politics - which he does, a lot, in none-too-subtle ways - he must be right.

The second thing the show has going for it as a piece of propaganda is time travel.  This works whether the Doctor takes his companions forward or backward in time.  If he goes forward, he can show us that the logical end point of capitalism is to make people pay for the air they breathe, and that provides a great opportunity for a sermon about the evils of the economic system.  Of course, we know that the writers are just inventing the future - they don't actually have access to a TARDIS - but still, the idea sticks in the imagination, and capitalism is discredited by this apparently logical extrapolation.  If the Doctor goes back in time, on the other hand, we get to see that 19th century London was just as ethnically diverse as a modern cosmopolitan city, or that ancient Romans had sexual mores very similar to those of the early 21st century liberal left.  That is, of course, a falsification of history, which perhaps could be excused on the grounds of dramatic license, if it didn't once again feel so preachy.  We are being given the impression that those who don't toe the liberal line in the 21st century are just out of step, not only with our own time but with time as a whole.

Maybe I'm taking this all too seriously; it is, after all, just a light entertainment programme.  But perhaps that's the third thing that makes it the perfect vehicle for propaganda.  If the programme started with a notice along the lines of 'there now follows a party political broadcast on behalf of the 21st century liberal consensus', I guess we'd be a) a bit less likely to watch, and b) a bit more critically alert.  But you have to suspend so much disbelief to get into the TARDIS in the first place that you're probably not thinking about the view of the world that is being presented.  Perhaps the only thing that lets the show down as propaganda is that the writers are not able to be subtle enough about their biases to keep my critical faculties asleep until the end of the episode each week.

So, I don't think I care about the new Doctor.  It's a woman; jolly good.  Slightly put off by all the comments along the lines of 'it's about time', but perhaps only because in the light of the whole of the last season it all just feels like more of the same in-your-face gender politics masquerading as fun.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The disaster of untheology

I offer without particular comment this, from Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p 77.  Paragraph breaks added and punctuation slightly altered for ease of reading.  Not difficult to apply to the present life of the Church despite the passage of 85 years...

How disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if, on whatever pretext, it can dream of being able to undertake and achieve anything serious in what are undoubtedly important fields of liturgical reform or social work or Christian education or the ordering of its relation to state and society or ecumenical understanding, without at the same time doing what is necessary and possible with reference to the obvious centre of its life, as though it were self-evident, as though we could confidently count on it, that evangelium pure docetur et recte administrantur sacramenta!  [the gospel is purely preached and the sacraments rightly administered - the reference is to the Augsburg Confession.]  As though we could confidently leave this to God and in the meantime busy ourselves with the periphery of the Church circle, which has perhaps been rotating for long enough around a false centre!  As though we could put ourselves in God's hands without a care in the world for what happens at this decisive point!

Again, how disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if it can imagine that theology is the business of a few theoreticians who are specially appointed for the purpose, to whom the rest, as hearty practical men, may sometimes listen with half an ear, though for their own part they boast of living "quite untheologically" for the demands of the day ("love").  As though these practical men were not continually preaching and speaking and writing, and were not genuinely questioned as to the rightness of their activity in this regard!  As though there were anything more practical than giving this question its head, which means doing the work of theology and dogmatics!

Again, how disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if it can imagine that theological reflection is a matter for quiet situations and periods that suit and invite contemplation, a kind of peace-time luxury for which we are not only permitted but even commanded to find no time should things become really serious and exciting!  As though there could be any more serious task for a Church under assault from without than that of consolidating itself within, which means doing theological work!  As though the venture of proclamation did not mean that the Church permanently finds itself in an emergency!  As though theology could be done properly without reference to this constant emergency!

Let there be no mistake.  Because of these distorted ideas about theology, and dogmatics in particular, there arises and persists in the life of the Church a lasting and growing deficit for which we cannot expect those particularly active in this function to supply the needed balance.  The whole Church must want a serious theology if it is to have a serious theology.


Monday, July 10, 2017

Why do we gather? (1)

I think there are three live understandings (in my context, at least) of what it is that Christians are doing when they gather on Sundays.  In this and the following two posts, I will no doubt caricature them, but perhaps it might still be helpful as a way of thinking through how we engage with Sunday services.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, when Christians gather together as church on a Sunday, they are doing salvation.  "For it is in the liturgy, especially in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, that 'the work of our redemption is accomplished..." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1068 [citing here Sacrosanctum Concilium]).  The explicit connection to the Mass will render this view unacceptable to most evangelicals, and rightly so.  "In Christian tradition (liturgy) means the participation of the People of God in the work of God" (Cat. Cath., 1069).  In so far as this definition of liturgy is accepted, the word itself had better be rejected.  There can be no sense of the church participating in the salvific work of God in the way here anticipated.

That being said, evangelicals would be unwise to completely shut the door on the idea that we gather together to 'do' salvation.  The biblical link between baptism and salvation, which clearly ties a human-liturgical action into the economy of salvation means that the door has to remain open.  Similarly, reflection on the fact that preaching is also an essentially liturgical action leans in this direction.  The word of God preached is the seed of the faith that saves.  So, just replacing the Mass with the sermon?  Not quite.  The sermon (like baptism, actually) represents the witness in the church to the accomplished work of Christ.  It is not a participation in his work.  That God, by the Spirit, lifts up this human work to make it the means of applying that completed work to the individuals gathered is a very different thing from the Roman Mass.  This is the difference: we are recipients, not actors.

Nevertheless, it would be helpful for us evangelicals to take seriously the fact that when we gather on a Sunday this is the place of salvation.  This is where the Word of God is, in Scripture read, the gospel preached, the sacraments administered.  If church has become a bit of a chore; if we find ourselves wondering if it was worth getting up for this Sunday; if we think that perhaps we'd get on with the Christian faith better by ourselves: perhaps we need to remember that Sundays are for salvation.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Sinners in the hands of an angry God

The late-Puritan Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon with this title in July 1741.  It is a warning shot of a sermon, expounding on the reality of hell in order to wake people up to their plight as guilty sinners.  It is uncomfortable reading; I can only imagine it was uncomfortable to preach, and to hear.  Frankly, it should be uncomfortable: the thought of unrepentant sinners coming before a holy God is terrifying.  Granted that Edwards plays heavily on the Biblical imagery of hell, and granted that this is just imagery - still, the horrific imagery is if anything inadequate for the awful reality.

But here's the thing: there is another way the Bible describes what it looks like for sinners to fall into the hands of an angry God, and it looks frighteningly familiar.

In Romans 1, the Apostle Paul describes the downward ethical and social spiral of a culture which has rejected knowledge of God.  It is an interaction of human and divine: human beings deny God, exchange his glory for the worship of created things, deliberately swap out his truth for falsehood; and God gives human beings over to increasingly depraved behaviour, to the point where they no longer even theoretically approve the good, but give praise and acclamation to those who pursue evil.

Yesterday, the British Medical Association voted overwhelmingly to campaign for the legalisation of in utero murder, on the grounds that we should trust women to choose 'what is best for themselves and their families'.  Foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  All around us, society celebrates what God condemns.  The calendar of Pride events has become our society's new liturgical year.  Those of us who are not directly involved in gay culture are nevertheless called upon to give approval to those who are.  Meanwhile, our politics degenerates into a popularity contest and what passes for public ethics spins out of any sort of control.

According to Romans 1:18, the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against such wickedness.  Reading that in connection with verses 16 and 17, I take it that Paul is saying that the gospel - the good news about Jesus - is the message which unmasks what might be called social progress or social degeneration (depending on your political and cultural leanings) as something much more terrible: the anger of God being actually even now poured out on sinful human beings.

We don't need to pore over the imagery of flames and gnashing of teeth to see sinners in the hands of an angry God; we just need to read a newspaper with eyes opened by the gospel to see what is really happening.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Blessed Assurance

As faith is the first vital act that every true Christian puts forth, and the life which he lives is by the faith of the Son of God, so it is his next and great concern to know that he doth believe, and that believing he hath eternal life...
Thus Isaac Chauncey in his preface to John Owen's posthumously published work on the Evidences of the Faith of God's Elect.  Chauncey here envisages a two-step process, if you like.  Firstly there is faith, and by this he means not just intellectual assent to Christian doctrine but a living faith, a trust in Christ, such that the believer's life is now lived in Christ as Christ lives in him.  This first step is the thing which resolves all the biggest questions: by this faith, the believer is united to Christ, and with Christ destined for eternal life and glory.  But there is a second step here.  The believer, having believed, now seeks to know that he has believed.  This is a second-order concern, dependent on the reality of the first step, and with lesser consequences.  Faith leads to life; knowledge of one's own faith leads to assurance, comfort, and the blessings in this life that accompany confidence in one's relationship with God.

But is this right?  Is there a second-order move, after believing, whereby one must examine one's own faith in order to ascertain whether it is possible to discern in it the marks of genuine trust (and therefore, somewhere in the background, the evidences of election)?  Is that how faith works?

One study which might be attempted would be a biblical one.  It would be helpful to have a full contextual exegesis of 1 Corinthians 13:5, for example.  But it is also not unreasonable to ask some theological and pastoral questions of this viewpoint.  For example, theologically, faith is rightly understood as the believer looking away from himself, to place his trust in another, namely Christ.  Righteousness is sought in Christ.  Life is sought in Christ.  This by itself ought to raise a question mark against the idea that having looked away from himself for everything that pertains to life and godliness, the believer is called to a reflexive self-examination to ensure that his faith is genuinely faith.  How is one to avoid making faith a kind of work, on this model?

Pastorally, does this view recognise how impossible it is for the Christian to really know themselves - their true life and identity being, after all, hidden with Christ in God?  Not to mention the mere psychological difficulty of analysing any of one's own subjective actions.  Of course there is value in such analysis, but ought we to resolve the believer's assurance of salvation to such a thing?

A larger question is: does this approach inevitably follow from the classical Calvinist doctrine of election?  Is it inevitable that people will want to answer the question 'well, am I elect or not?' - and if so, how would they go about answering except by examining their own faith?  Of course, the pastoral advice which the good Calvinist would give would be to look to Jesus, but it is not clear on Calvinist doctrine that this actually answers the question.

Personally, I think Chauncey's approach (and, of course, Owen's, since he reflects the theme of the treatise here) is deeply flawed, turning faith into non-faith.  Faith is always and necessarily other-regarding; it always looks away from itself to Christ.  If the believer puts his own faith under the microscope, he will always find it wanting.  (There is a question in my mind over whether the psychological phenomenon of faith - which is all I have access to - is identical with what the NT is talking about, but that's for another day).  If the believer lives by faith in the Son of God, then let them also be assured by faith in the Son of God, and not by second-order reflection on their own state of mind or feeling.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Persuasion, ideology, politics

One thing I noticed about the most recent election campaign was the real lack of effort to persuade.  My social media feeds were full of people posting political things, but I only remember seeing one serious attempt to persuade people to vote one way or another (and even that was framed in terms of 'if you know anyone who is thinking of voting Tory...' - i.e., it wasn't trying to persuade directly, but on the assumption that all our friends think the same as us was advising on how we might evangelise the heathen).  Why don't we try to persuade each other?

My guess is that there are a number of factors.

One is the resurrection, on the left at least, of ideology.  Ideology, which we might perhaps define as a coherent and programmatic set of ideas which are considered to mutually imply or reinforce one another, makes persuasion more difficult, because you have to buy the whole package.  Now, some of us have considered, for example, socialism, and found that it's not a package we want to purchase.  You could still persuade me, though, if you wanted, of various individual policies.  But there is a sense of this being not worth the while.

Part of that sense is driven, I think, by the winner-takes-all setup of British politics.  If you can't persuade me to come over completely to 'your side', there's not much point in trying to persuade me of particular positions.  At the end of the day, one side or the other will be in power.  Note that this is true even after a very mixed election result like last week's.  The Labour party is not talking about how their ideas need to be taken into account, but about how hard they will make it for the Tories to govern.  Similarly, the chastened Conservatives are not chastened enough to consider a cross-party response to anything.

I wonder also if we've stopped trying to persuade because of a combination of statistics and a sense that people will almost always vote their own, predetermined, interests.  One of the most disturbing things about the last election campaign was the division exposed, and I think exacerbated, between young and old.  The implication was that we all know young people vote left, and old people right, and they do so because the right promotes the interests of the elderly and the left the interests of the young.  The determinism implied in this is fueled by stats: we know that the majority of younger people do vote left.  But the assumption that, for example, your dad is bound to vote Tory because he's drawing a pension, and that he does so without a thought for you and your situation is really quite offensive.  This promotes the worst kind of tribalism.  (Speaking from a Christian point of view, I would also want to point out the many, many passages of Scripture which encourage us to respect our elders as those likely to have more wisdom than us!)

Another thought is that we are all thoroughly caught up in post-truth.  No point trying to persuade people who live in different worlds and have different truths.  This is not limited to just the extremists, nor is it a phenomenon of the left or right exclusively (it is interesting to compare, for example, Corbyn's comments on the 'mainstream media' with those of the Donald.  My guess is that if you anonymised the comments people wouldn't be able to tell the difference).  But here's the thing: we're post-truth, but we aren't prepared to go full relativist.  So we're led into this place where we have to assume conspiracy: we know the truth, and all those who disagree are blinded.  It would take something with the force of a religious conversion to open their eyes, and so we don't bother trying to engage and persuade.

There is, of course, a big chunk of reality in the post-truth analysis.  We do all live in different worlds.  We see things hugely differently.  So my last thought is this: we don't want to try to persuade in the political realm because it is really, really difficult.  It is difficult because we can't assume the same priorities, or the same goals - it isn't as if we just disagree on the best way to get up the mountain.  We disagree about what the mountain is, or whether there is a mountain at all.  Attempts to persuade would take us pretty quickly into hard conversations - do we agree on any aspects of human flourishing?  Do we even agree about what a human being is?  And here we're in trouble, because I'm not sure we do.  So persuasion would have to go behind politics to huge issues of anthropology, ethics, and ontology.  Who, frankly, can be bothered?

I am not convinced the future is bright for our political discourse.  I don't think we can assume that democracy can work in such a fragmented society.  I wonder what happens next.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Give us thyself, that we may see...

Give us thyself that we may see
The Father and the Son by thee.
So John Dryden interprets part of the great 9th century hymn to the Holy Spirit, Veni Creator Spiritus - accurately capturing at least part of the concern of the original.  We seek the Spirit, so that by the Spirit we might know the Father and the Son (and, in the slightly more Trinitarian formula of the original Latin composition, might know the Spirit himself also).



The doctrine of the Holy Spirit plays a vital role in the doctrine of revelation.  Put it in the context of the whole Trinity.  The Father is the unseen, and the Son is the visible image of the invisible God.  The ancient argument for the deity of Christ revolved around this: if the Son is not God, then God is not revealed.  Nothing less than God could truly reveal God to us.  But granted the deity of the Son: how does it come about that a human being, who is not God, can have God revealed to them?  If it is true that only God can reveal God, is it not also true that only God can see God?  In other words, even granted the true revelation of God in the person of Christ, we human beings have absolutely no inherent capacity to receive this revelation.

Without God (the Spirit) working in us, we cannot see God (the Son) revealing to us the being and person of God (the Father).  And so we pray, Come, Creator Spirit!

Friday, May 26, 2017

"Nothing to do with Islam"

It is a sad fact of contemporary life that 'response to atrocity' is becoming one of the major genres of public discourse.  In the aftermath of Paris, I wrote something critiquing some of our standard responses, and it feels like that could be meaningfully trotted out again.  I just wanted to pick up on one particular response, which I've heard a fair bit of in the last couple of days (from, for example, Andy Burnham, who to be fair has done a generally fantastic job and would surely have hoped not to be tested so severely at such an early juncture): "this has nothing to do with Islam".

Why do we react like this?

Firstly, I think we have a deep-seated habit of regarding religion as something like a hobby, and people just don't do this sort of thing for a hobby.  In the West, broadly speaking, religion is not thought to be about reality; we are agreed that reality is the empirical stuff around us, accessible to scientific explanation.  That is the realm of facts.  In the realm of belief, one can hold more or less whatever one likes, so long as one does not make the mistake of thinking that one's beliefs have anything to do with facts.  With this sort of mindset, it becomes simply inconceivable that anyone would kill or die for belief.  We can't imagine it.  I've seen more than one commenter remark that one would have to be mentally ill to be a suicide bomber - so impossible is it for us to imagine that anyone might take the promise of Paradise seriously.

Secondly, there are (to a certain extent good) social and political reasons to want to cut the conceptual link between Islam and terrorism.  It seems pretty clear that one of the aims of the Islamic State is to stir up strife between Muslim and non-Muslim communities in Western nations.  The presumably hoped for result is that Muslims in the West will end up feeling (more) isolated and alienated, and will find the position of IS more plausible as a result - "they said we couldn't live together in peace, and look, they were right".  We know that there are non-Muslims in our society who already regard Muslims with suspicion, and would not take much persuasion to believe that every Muslim was a potential fifth columnist in some global apocalyptic war.  We would prefer to avoid that.

Thirdly, most of us are aware that the overwhelming majority of Muslims don't want this, don't want to be associated with it, and don't recognise it as a part of their religion.  We want to embrace that perspective, of course, and so we universalise it.

Fourthly, in certain quarters there is a belief, connected to my first point, that a deeper explanation must be found for terrorism, and that the reason is Western oppression.  That is a plausible perspective, because goodness knows there is plenty of guilt in history.  It is made even more plausible when read through a broadly Marxist lens, which denigrates ideas as mere ephemera, masks for social and economic reality.

Can I suggest a couple of reasons why this response won't do?

Firstly, it is the worst kind of patronising.  There is no need for us to take what terrorists say about their motivation entirely at face value - such would be highly naive - but I also cannot see the justification for so completely ignoring the reasons which they themselves give for their actions.  They think they are serving God, they really do.  Unless we take this seriously, we are claiming to know them and their motives better than they know themselves, which is quite a claim.  We are claiming that although they appear to think differently from us and value different things, in fact they must be the same as us underneath - they must really, at some level, know (just as we do) that religion is not about reality.  Or perhaps they don't know, because we are more enlightened than them?  However we frame it, we're making the claim that what terrorists do and say must be parsed through our worldview before we will take it seriously, which is a sort of epistemological imperialism.

Secondly, it's historical nonsense.  I do not really see how anyone can argue that religiously-motivated violence has not been present as a strand in Islamic thought and action from the beginning.  Islamic State could make a claim, I think not entirely incredible, to represent that strand.  Of course, they wouldn't accept that this was only a strand; for them, it's the whole deal, and if you're not on board with it you're not a proper Muslim at all.  In that, they're clearly in error: there is broad tradition of peaceful Islam, which can make at least as credible a claim to stem from the earliest stages of Islam.  But that broad tradition does not mean that there isn't sufficient material in the foundational documents of Islam to justify religiously-motivated violence.  (Can I recommend on this Tom Holland's excellent recent documentary Isis: The Origins of Violence?)  Given the history, I don't see how we in the West can legitimately set ourselves up as the judges of what is and isn't genuine Islam.

Thirdly, and this is the point at which I feel most uncomfortable and least certain, it does seem to me that there are ideological/philosophical/theological reasons to think that Islam and terrorism are linked.  To me, as someone who tries to be informed about Islam but inevitably has a limited understanding and perspective, there seems to be some fit between the radical monotheism and the call to unconditional submission in Islam and religious violence.  Again, I'm not saying that Islam necessarily leads in this direction; just that, to me, it makes sense that it might.  I'd like to do some more reading on this, and if anyone could recommend anything I'd appreciate it, because I think this is really important.  You see, religious violence comes from lots of places.  There is no denying that Christians have endorsed religiously-motivated violence in the past, and in many places in the world still do; but I think there is sufficient material in Christianity's founding documents and in the broad theological tradition to critique this pretty thoroughly.  I'm not sure there is in Islam.

None of this is to say that there is not a complex web of issues leading to terrorist attacks.  The failure to plan for the aftermath of the Iraq war, the failure to act on Syria - these foreign policy failures have surely made the Islamic State's reading of Islam more plausible, for example.  And of course the individuals involved will be motivated by many different things.  But to claim that religiously-motivated violence has nothing to do with religion is a foolish thing to do, which will inevitably misdirect our practical responses to terrorism.