28 February 2017

The Power of the Created World

Last Sunday evening I was preaching the third of three sermons on Genesis 3 – the last few verses of that chapter. It’s the part of the Story of Adam & Eve where they’re driven from the Garden of Eden, that place of fruitfulness and beauty in the presence of God. The Garden is the place where they function as God’s Image, human beings of god-like character able to relate fully and joyfully to one another and to all the riches of the created world. But they’re driven out, because this isn’t enough for them. In a way, they want to be gods. It’s a deeply poignant story which speaks about loss to all of us, that speaks about the realities of human nature.

I often reflect on the incredible power of the created world to stir deep longings in our souls. A few Saturdays ago, George Monbiot wrote eloquently about it:

I believe we possess a ghost psyche: a set of capacities that helped secure our survival in more dangerous times, but that now are vestigial. I picture this as a seam of intense emotion, buried so deeply in our minds that we can seldom find it. I believe this because, on rare occasions – in all cases when immersed in the living world – I have been confronted with a set of feelings that are so rich, raw and thrilling, so different from anything else I know, but at the same time so strangely familiar, that I have had no way of reconciling them with the rest of my emotional life. I believe that on these occasions I have inadvertently triggered a kind of genetic memory, an ancient adaptation to the circumstances that once shaped our lives.

You’ve probably experienced it yourself. I’ve experienced it encountering a deer in the woods (like Monbiot) in the early morning light; or travelling in a small boat surrounded by leaping dolphins; or crouched on a high mountain ridge watching an eagle ride the updrafts. I’ve experienced it in the solitude of a remote glen, or of a mountain summit, but mostly it’s been in encounters with other creatures.

Does Christianity offer an account of this? An account of these rich and raw emotions, which are strangely familiar? Something more substantial than a ghost psyche? Or perhaps a Christian understanding of this ghost psyche…? I believe it does. The lost Garden represents a lost reality to humans – something yearned for and understood in our deep (sub)consciousness as being lost.

The opening lines of the ancient Jewish and Christian scriptures tell us that we are created for relationship, not only with our creator, not only with one another, but with the natural world. We are created to live alongside, and to relate to, all of God’s creatures. The first man is Adam (the Hebrew for ‘soil’ is adamah), and he’s formed from the earth. This simple truth sets a trajectory for all of the scriptures – that human beings are inextricably bound up with the earth, with the natural world. This is our home, it’s where we belong. That fact that many Christians will baulk at that statement (thinking thoughts such as ‘where’s that Bible verse that says that heaven is our home?’ Let me save you some time – it’s not there), only shows how far we have travelled from this anchor of truth.

The sense of primal joy (and sometimes primal fear) – that deep, seemingly genetic memory – recalls something fundamental to our being human. And yet it is, in some deep sense, lost. We’re unable to grasp the wholeness we are created for, to hold in our minds the value and beauty of the natural world. And we’re unable to live lives which ‘fit’ into this beautiful world, that ‘fit’ in love, joy and peace alongside these amazing creatures. We are created to Image God – to represent him – in his world. Yet, we can’t.

That’s why, for so many people, these joyful and ecstatic encounters with nature are often accompanied with a sense of the transcendent. A sense of reaching for something, or someone, that’s out of reach. People of all kinds of belief (and none) often describe to me the spiritual feelings they get whilst in the outdoors. There’s not only a sense of a lost Garden, but of a lost God, our Creator, who we are also created to know. The hopeful message of Christianity is that there is a way back.

Thinking these thoughts brought to mind again a beautiful little film based on the writings of John Muir, the Scottish naturalist and environmentalist. Take a look, and hear words which resonate so much more deeply when heard as a Christian:

‘A lifetime is so little a time, that we die before we get ready to live. But here in the wilderness, surrounded by beauty beyond thought, the landscape carried me back into the midst of a life infinitely remote.'

3 October 2016

What is the Gospel?

gospellukeLast week and the week before I was lecturing to the first year class of the Practical Theology course at ETS. My lectures were part of a module on the Great Commission, using a sentence from the Lausanne Covenant for its structure: ‘World evangelisation requires the Whole Church to take the Whole Gospel to the Whole World.’ The Lausanne Covenant is worth a read, if you’ve not come across it, as is the Manila Manifesto. Anyhow, my lectures were on ‘The Whole Gospel.’

What is the Gospel? The Gospel is the Good News (that’s what Gospel means)of Jesus Christ – his life, death and resurrection. The Gospel is also the Gospel of the Kingdom – a summary that wraps up into the Gospel a load of context from the Old Testament. It’s the Gospel of Resurrection and New Creation too. The Gospel is multi-facetted and rich. We have a tendency to package it, to pare it down. Tom Wright recalls John Stott speaking at a NEAC meeting:

I remember a long time ago now in the 1970s when we had one of those NEAC conferences, and John Stott gave the summary speech and he said, "People are always saying: what is the irreducible minimum gospel?" And I remember him saying "I don't want an irreducible minimum gospel, I want the whole gospel."

As Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen write, in their excellent The Drama of Scripture,

We cannot grasp the meaning of the story of Jesus until we begin to see that it is in fact the climactic episode of the great story of the Bible, the chronicle of God’s work in human history. 135

So, there’s a lot to say about the Gospel, a lot to explain, a lot that’s rooted in the backstory of God’s dealings with Israel – the covenants, the promises of the Kingdom. But Gospel summaries have their place. Paul summarises the Gospel in several places in his writings. One, in First Corinthians, goes like this:

Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached… By this gospel you are saved… For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that the Messiah died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve... Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

Here, Paul summarises the events of the Good News of the coming of Jesus. But the hooks to the wider story are there: what does the title Messiah mean? What is the story the Old Testament scriptures relay? And, as Margaret Mitchell has pointed out, Paul wraps up his own encounter with the risen Jesus in this Gospel narrative.

If we are going to speak about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we need to know it. We need to know how to speak about it; how to summarise it as any particular situation demands; what language to use. Often these summaries just provide the ‘hooks’ for later, extended conversations about what Almighty God is doing through and as Jesus Christ. The more we understand the Gospel, the more effective our speaking of it will be (and not only so, but also our living out of the Gospel, and the formation of our lives and characters by the Gospel). And right there is the task of Christian discipleship and growth – to know the Gospel. Not some irreducible minimum, but the rich, full-orbed Gospel of the King and the Kingdom.

In the last lecture, we thought a little about how we might summarise the Gospel and I encouraged the class to give it a go. I’d encourage you to give it a go too. Here’s my quick effort in three short paragraphs.

The Gospel is the good news that God is keeping promises he made long ago. Promises to deal with all of the pain, evil and injustice in his world. Promises to save a broken and sinful humanity from itself, and promises to save a groaning planet from a broken and sinful humanity.

The Gospel is the good news that the human Jesus is God, come into his world to make these promises come true. He died on a cross to put people right, so that they could be forgiven for their sins. He rose from the dead, breaking death’s power, and is alive. So, he can give people a new start, a new kind of life in a new kind of community; and one day, in spite of death, to give them another life – an unending life – in a world put right and set free.

The Gospel is the good news that if you change your path, put your trust in Jesus, and follow his path, this can all be yours – as a gift; no payback required.

5 September 2016

Baptism and Newness of Life

baptismOver the summer I was preaching on Isaiah 63-65. One of the themes I drew out was the importance of our response to God’s grace in his covenant promises. God has called his people to be his servants, to be a light to the nations – and yet here in these chapters we are brought face to face with the moral and religious failure of God’s people in Isaiah’s time and their failure to repent. In applying this, I spoke on the importance of our response to our baptism, the event which marks our receiving of the promises of God in Jesus Christ. I referred to Romans 6:4, where Paul writes:

We were buried therefore with him into death by baptism, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

Paul is saying that baptism marks an identification (‘with him’). The identification is with Jesus Christ – as the one who has died. Our baptism is not the place or time where we are buried with him, it’s the means by which we are identified with his burial in history (as Moo points out: Romans, 361, 364-5). And, since we are identified with him in his death, we are also to identify with him in his risen life. Baptism marks our identification with Jesus Christ, an identification to which we need to respond. Theologically, I would argue that this identification is a covenant identification – it is based on God’s promises, not our faith.

The point I made about baptism during the Isaiah series was this:

Baptism is a symbol of cleansing, of holiness. It is a symbol of dying to one way of life and entering into a new way of life in a new community. As we are made members of the vine through baptism, there must always be a response to baptism - the response of faith. We are too accustomed to thinking of baptism as something that points backwards - that it shows something that has happened in the past - our coming to faith. Baptism does point back to something – to the promises of God fulfilled in Jesus Christ, but also points forward, calling us to faith and to faithful living each and every day.

In Romans 6:4, baptism demands a response: that we walk in newness of life. For Paul, this newness of life springs from faith (Rom 1:17; Gal 3:11). And so, baptism demands the response of faith – it is a call to faith, to a life of faith. Too many of us think too little of our baptism. We ought to reflect upon our status as baptised people. Our baptism (whether we remember it or not, we remember the fact of our being baptised) calls us to holy living. This is reflected in our membership questions here at Kilmallie & Ardnamurchan, one of which goes like this:

Remembering your baptism, do you humbly promise to do your best to live as a holy disciple of Jesus Christ, relying on God’s grace through the Holy Spirit?

The response to baptism also ought to have a clear goal. Our faith ought to have a strong future component (we don’t often think about this, despite Hebrews 11). This is clear in Romans 6:5:

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.

Here’s the connection to Isaiah 65, which describes prophetically this resurrection life. The clearer we are about this goal, the clearer we will be about what our response looks like in this life. After I preached on this, I remembered a blog post from a couple of years ago, which can be found here. It makes the same point in a slightly different way and brings out the connections between the experiences of the OT people of God, our response to baptism, and the future hope to which we’re called – this time from 1 Corinthians 10.

14 June 2016

Subordinationism, the Incarnation of the Servant, and Love

So, there’s a web-skirmish (I think someone called it) about Subordinationism. Subordinationism is the idea that within the eternal trinity of God, the second person of the trinity (the Logos, Word or Son) is eternally subordinate to the first person (the Father). Plenty of good stuff has been written in response to the subordinationist position put forward by Wayne Grudem and others, including this excellent article by Professor Donald Macleod. I just want to make a couple of points on the importance of the incarnation when it comes to understanding Jesus’s sonship. And then one more on the question of why it was that the Son became Mediator.

The incarnation of the Son is critical in this debate. The NT title ‘Son of God’ has a strong Messianic background – it’s a title designating Jesus as God’s chosen King. The background is found in OT texts like 2 Sam 7:14, Psalm 2:7 and Psalm 89:26-27. The NT data point us first to the incarnational Sonship of Jesus as the Messiah, the incarnate Servant of the Lord. It’s therefore helpful to think of two aspects of Sonship: divine and eternal sonship, and incarnational or Messianic sonship. And, of course, these are intricately linked. The Messianic relationship of Jesus to the Father as Son of God is rightly used to inform the eternal relationship of the divine second person to the divine first person within the Trinity. The pre-existence of the Logos invites this; the Logos becomes flesh and Jesus speaks of God as Father, and himself as Son. Jesus speaks of the glory he had with the Father before the world began (John 17:5). Perhaps one of the NT data for this movement from incarnate sonship to eternal sonship is in Romans 1:3-4, where Paul seems to write of the Son having an identity wider than simply his human descent, and where ‘son’ seems to indicate more than simply the Messianic Son of God:
Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God…concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom 1:3-4 ESV)
Why is this important to the subordination argument? Because we need to recognise that we learn about the nature of the relationship between Father and Son through the incarnation. The Logos becomes human as the Servant of the Lord, the human Messiah.

So, in the first place, the submission of the Son to the Father in our NT texts (e.g. John 8:28; 14:28; 1 Cor 15:28) is the submission of the Son as Messiah. It is the submission of fulfilling the covenants with Abraham and David as the Servant of the Lord, and of serving the Covenant of Grace as Mediator and Redeemer, not an eternal or ontological submission of the kind proposed by the Subordinationists.

In the second place, I want to consider the nature of submission as an aspect of love. When Jesus speaks about love, it is mutual submission, mutual service (e.g. Mark 10:43-45; John 15:12). When Paul writes about the nature of love, he casts it in the same way (Eph 5:21). This is not subordination, which is a one-way submission. If God is love (1 John 4:16), if the mysterious total unity of the trinity of three persons is, at least in part, understood in terms of a powerful mutual love, then the submission and service of the Son within history is, to my mind, reciprocated in the service of the Father to the Son. This seems to me to be a logical outcome of a co-equal trinity. And the same holds true for the Holy Spirit. In the work of redemption, there is a mutual enacting of love in service between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Each play a role as divine persons who are also one God, in order to fulfil the purpose of the one God. The Son’s service is unique, since he is the divine person who becomes human. Yet, the Father serves the Son in directing and empowering his work, whether in his life, death or resurrection. Since the Father does not become incarnate, this work is less visible, less-obvious in history.

Lastly, if the eternal Son is not subordinate to the Father, why was it that the Son became Mediator, and became incarnate? A list of reasons is given here by Dr Mark Jones. I just want to add to the list (and put at the top of the list) another reason conspicuous by its absence. It’s this: the Son becoming Mediator cannot be understood aside from his role in Creation. The prophetic and priestly mediatorial role of the Son is rooted in this (now it may be that you want to subsume the work of creation under the ‘mediatorial role’, but as a biblical theologian that would seem odd to me). In the relationship of God with the created cosmos, each person of the Trinity has a particular role in acting as the One Creator. Perhaps this is clearest in the prologue to the Gospel of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made… (John 1:1-3 ESV)
Paul also sets out the same truth in Colossians 1:16. The eternal Son is the one through whom and for whom all things were made. The Father does not charge the Son to create – there is no subordinationism here. In the words of Bavinck, ‘while the creation is a work of the whole Trinity…it also stands in a peculiar relation to the Son’ (RD 2:423). It is the Logos that becomes flesh, not because he is eternally subordinate to the Father, but because he has a special relationship with creation. The ‘world’ (in Greek, kosmos) language of John 1 is picked up again in John 3. The world, made through the Son, is to be saved through the Son:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17 ESV)
Plenty of web-skirmishes come and go, but the reason I bit on this particular one is because it involves something I’ve thought about for a long time, and have been speaking on in the last couple of weeks. The particular advocates of Subordinationism who are in the spotlight at the moment (Grudem and Ware, mostly) use Subordinationism within the trinity of God to argue that the subordination of women to men is essential to a true understanding of human relationships. As I mentioned, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be created male and female as the Image of God for a good long while, and I just don’t see what Grudem argues for in the biblical texts. And, I don’t see any ground for it in a supposed eternal subordination of the Son to the Father.

5 May 2016

Why Christians Should Vote, and How

election2016Today, Thursday 5 May, is the day of the Scottish Parliament election. In the last election, national turnout was 50% – hardly a ringing endorsement of our democratic process! Anyone with the right to vote should vote. And especially Christians.

Most of us are probably familiar with some of the arguments as to why we should vote in elections. Voting gives the people a voice, and it places power in the hands of the people, not in the hands of elites. Perhaps we’re a little less clear on these today because the voices of large media organisations, lobbying groups and parties often drown out the voice of the people, and because wealthy and privileged elites, despite our democratic process, still hold a lot of power.

But, we have to remember that in many countries around the world the people have no power at all, are ruled by dictators, and have, will, and do risk their lives for a chance of democracy. Even in Britain, it’s less than 90 years since women achieved equality in democracy. Many women campaigned and suffered to eventually gain an equal franchise in 1928. We shouldn’t take our democratic process for granted. Democracy (especially Western democracy in the 21st Century) is flawed, but we have to remember Churchill’s words:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.  Sir Winston Churchill (1874 - 1965), Hansard, November 11, 1947

But why should Christians vote? Surely our business is the kingdom of God, not any earthly kingdom? I’m afraid that some radicals have argued this view. It doesn’t stand up to scrutiny – not biblically, not theologically. My view is that Christians, more than any other kind of person, ought to engage with the democratic process through voting. Here’s why…

  • Let’s start with Jesus. Jesus said, when asked about paying taxes, ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s’ (Matthew 22:21). That’s not exactly a radical cry for dissociation from the state.
  • The Apostle Paul writes that we ought to be subject to governing authorities, and pay taxes (Romans 13:1-7). He tends to couple this attitude with showing love and courtesy to everyone, whoever they are (Titus 3:2). He writes that we ought to pray for rulers, and all in authority (1 Timothy 2:1-2), so that we can live quiet and dignified lives.
  • The Apostle Peter echoes Paul’s words (1 Peter 2:13-17). Christians in the Roman empire ought to submit to the emperor, or his governors. When we remember this is during the period before the Roman empire accepted Christianity, these words take on a radical (and contemporary) nature. Peter puts it well: ‘Live as free people, but don’t use your freedom as a cover for evil, but for serving God. Respect all people, love the Christian family, fear God, honour the emperor.’
  • Back in the Old Testament, when God’s people were in exile in pagan Babylon, God’s word came through the prophet Jeremiah (29:7): ‘Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’ If we, as God’s people in our generation are going to take God’s call seriously, we cannot disengage from our democratic process.

In the Reformed tradition in which the Free Church stands, it’s been understood that God’s Common Grace to all people means that we share common interests and common goals. The State and the Church are two bodies seeking the common good in different ways in God’s world. That’s why in the confessional document of the Free Church we read a call for Christians to get involved in the political system:

It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate, when called thereunto: in the managing whereof, as they ought especially to maintain piety, justice, and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth (WCF 23.2).

If it’s lawful, then it’s good. We’re not all called to be politicians, but we must at the very least, engage in the democratic process with our vote. And the fact that we’re generally voting for people with little or no Christian conviction doesn’t exempt us from our responsibility:

It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates, to honour their persons, to pay them tribute or other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience' sake. Infidelity, or difference in religion, does not make void the magistrates' just and legal authority, nor free the people from their due obedience to them (WCF 23.4).

So how should Christians vote today? Here’s my recommendation:

  • First, we should vote with an eye to how the candidates and parties stand with respect to the Church. That’s important. Do they see a place for the church in our society? Do they listen to the views of the church? Are their policies going to make life difficult for Christians, or make it less likely that others get to encounter Jesus in the Gospel? These are all important, and we have to take an interest and make a judgement.
  • Second, we should vote with an eye to the prosperity of our communities. Christians ought to believe in the local church, and ought to believe in seeking the good of their local communities. Which candidate will be best able to represent the local community? Which party’s policies will be best for my community?
  • Third, I’m struck by how the apostles link in our relationship to the state with the idea of respecting all people, and seeking their good. We’re not just voting for our own interests. We have to take seriously the call of God to care about the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed. How will my vote work for those who have no voice, who live in social and economic deprivation? I’m afraid that too many Christians buy into the mantra that it’s solely my family, my pocket, my wallet that’s important.
  • Fourth, we should vote with a more biblical idea of human prosperity. The idea behind Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign phrase, ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ is rampant. There’s more to life in our communities than money. We need to think about the environment, the family, the culture. We need to reject the narrative (which is so depressingly prevalent in the Brexit debate) that votes will follow the money. Let’s not be gerrymandered.

That’s a lot to think about, but that’s why Christians should be engaged as they’re able; should talk about and discuss politics; and should engage with their local MSP. And all prayerfully, and in the attitude of seeking the Kingdom of God. Different Christians are going to take different views – and that’s fine. The church should reflect the political differences that are out there in our communities. Christians of all political hues should be involved and engaged.

If we’re going to make a difference, we as individuals and churches need to be engaged. Let’s vote today.

20 April 2016

Forgetting Our Shared Life…

gannetOn Sunday night in Kilmallie Free Church we were looking at Day 5 of the Drama of Creation as presented in Genesis 1. On Day 5, God pronounces a blessing of grace on birds and aquatic life, before human beings have entered the stage. The Creator relates to all his creatures. The flourishing and prosperity of all creatures is the Creator’s purpose. Anyway, I promised a quotation from Dave Bookless, author of Planetwise

If we forget we're made in God's image, we become only one creature among millions, nothing more than a highly evolved ape with no greater rights than any other species… The opposite danger from forgetting we are made in God's image is to forget that we're made from the dust of the earth. This is a much greater danger for Christians. Environmentalists have often blamed Christianity for our current ecological crises, using Genesis 1:26-28 to argue that Christians believe humans can exploit and destroy as they wish to…

If you speak to people in the green movement today, many will have accepted this view and consequently blame Christianity for the world's mess. They have a point. It is not hard to find quotations from preachers saying that the world is there for us to use and enjoy as we like. Too often churches have remained silent when the forces of destruction have been at work. Too often Christians have been so other-worldly as to be of no earthly use. (p.33-34).

We share the gift of life with all God’s creatures. God relates to them, and he has delegated the task of care – to ensure their flourishing and prosperity – to us, created as we are as God’s Image. That’s why as Christians we ought to care about habitat loss, about pollution, about animal welfare. And we ought to care enough to act.

9 March 2016

Did Isaiah See Jesus? John 12 and Isaiah 6

isaiah2Over the past few weeks I’ve heard a number of times the view that when Isaiah saw the vision in the temple (recorded in Isaiah 6), it was Jesus he saw. This idea is based on John 12:41. Now, there’s no nice way to say this: statements like that are theologically illiterate. They make me worry about what people are being taught in church.  Jesus was born in Bethlehem, of a virgin named Mary – that is surely basic to the Christian creed. Before that Jesus didn’t exist.  The logos did the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God – but Jesus didn’t. In the words of the Confession:
The Son of God, the second person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon Him man's nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin; being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God, and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man. (WCF 8:2)
It is the incarnation of the logos, the addition to the nature of the logos of a human nature (a human body and soul) that brings Jesus the person into being. The logos has an eternal divine nature, and so has always existed. But the logos is not Jesus. The name Jesus (or Yeshua, as Jesus’ family and friends would have called him – Joshua to you and me) was given to him at his birth. Jesus is a human being. Jesus did not exist before his birth. Isaiah did not see Jesus in the temple.

Only marginally better, but in my opinion usually misunderstood, is the term ‘the pre-incarnate Christ’. Some may argue that what Isaiah saw in his vision was the pre-incarnate Christ. But again, Christ – or Messiah – is a title bestowed upon a human being. It is not a title of the logos, it is a title of Jesus. Jesus is the Messiah. The logos is not the Messiah. The terms ‘pre-incarnate Jesus’, or ‘pre-incarnate Messiah’ might be used to mean the logos, but are somewhat misleading, if not given careful definition. There can be no simple identification of the logos as the pre-incarnate Jesus, or the pre-incarnate Messiah. There was a pre-incarnate logos – and that expresses the most important point, and therefore is the term which ought to be used. A whole mythology has grown up about where Jesus (or Christ) can be found in the OT – standing on the banks of the Jordan with Joshua, wrestling with Jacob, sitting in Abraham’s tent. Even if we allow that the logos is meant, it is far from clear that the logos could be manifest in isolation from the Trinity (apart from in the person of Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God).

Why does all this matter? Some would say that it is needless theological precision. I beg to differ. Too many Christians believe that Jesus has always existed. That, in a nutshell, is a denial of the incarnation. If Jesus is actually a spiritual being who slotted into a human ‘shell’, then he is not actually human (it’s the old Apollinarian heresy). To cut to the chase, you can see the theological fallout from this mistake in the effective silence about resurrection, and about the worth of embodied human existence, and in the almost ubiquitous impression that Christians give that we are solely looking forward to a spiritual existence in heaven. If a pre-existent Jesus wrapped himself in a human ‘shell’, then logically Jesus can be raised without that ‘shell’ and still be Jesus. Which perhaps explains why many Christians haven’t really taken on board that the resurrected Jesus has a human bones-and-flesh body now. The incarnation is the affirmation of human existence – God’s statement of intent to redeem it, body and soul. John wrote: the logos became flesh; not Jesus became flesh.

Anyway, back to John 12. The only option that is available is that Isaiah saw the logos in the temple, but that’s not what John 12:41 says.  The claim that John 12:41 says that Isaiah saw Jesus in the temple is just not true. The Gospel quotes first from Isaiah 53, a passage about the Servant of the Lord. Then from Isaiah 6, the vision in the temple. Both quotations are used to show that the unbelief of the people in Isaiah’s day is fulfilled in their rejection of Jesus the Messiah. These ‘things’ Isaiah said (that’s Isaiah 53 as well as Isaiah 6) because he ‘saw his glory and spoke of him’. That just means that Isaiah foresaw the glory of the Messiah’s day (in the Servant Songs and in Isaiah 7, 8, 9, which follow closely on the temple vision) and that his words are fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah’s life. So, the assumption that the words ‘saw his glory’ refer to the temple vision has very little basis! In addition, there is only a tenuous textual connection: although the Septuagint of Isaiah 6:1 refers to the glory of the Lord in the temple, John’s citation from Isaiah 6 is closer to the Hebrew text, which does not mention God’s glory in 6:1. In the Hebrew text of the temple vision in Isaiah 6, the only reference to glory, on the lips of the angelic beings who speak of the glory of God which fills the whole earth.

[Note: this post was originally posted in June 2012, and slightly modified in March 2016 to acknowledge the LXX reference to glory in Isaiah 6:1].

13 January 2016

Ugly Theology

facepalmThere’s good theology and bad theology. And then there’s ugly theology – it’s not just bad, it’s bad in a nasty way (a face-palm seems appropriate). Within the Reformed tradition, there’s nothing quite as ugly as Hyper-Calvinism (well, perhaps one or two other candidates). What is it? The New Dictionary of Theology passes on two definitions, which are a bit further down, but here’s my take…

Hyper-Calvinism takes the theological emphasis of John Calvin (and other Reformers) on God’s sovereignty and presses it so hard that it eclipses some very important scriptural truths, namely:

  • Human beings have agency (they make choices) and responsibility (their choices have consequences) in God’s cosmos. Hyper-Calvinism effectively denies this. It’s fatalistic.
  • The Scriptures teach us to look at God’s works and life in general from a human perspective (our true and proper perspective as finite creatures receiving grace from an infinite God, who reveals himself to us). Hyper-Calvinism trades solely in looking from God’s secret perspective. Very infrequently, the scriptures give us a glimpse of things from that perspective, but it’s rare.
  • God’s secret will is…well, secret. Hyper-Calvinism says it is our business to discern God’s secret will, as if it was revealed.

What’s particularly ugly is wrapped up in those last two points. Hyper-Calvinists forget their place as human beings in God’s cosmos, and the humility that goes hand in hand with that. They begin to believe that they can see wholly from God’s perspective. So, Hyper-Calvinism represents an immense pride (not just theologically, but often personally). Pastorally, where Hyper-Calvinism is at work in a person, or a community, immense damage is being done. Discouragement, despair, legalism, fatalism, repetitive and excused sin – all these are present. Friction, schism… I could go on. It all gets particularly ugly…

Here’s how it quite often comes out; the mantras of the Hyper-Calvinist:

  • “If you’re chosen, you’ll be saved. If not, you won’t. There’s nothing you can do to change it. So, there’s no point seeking God.”
  • “Don’t pray, God can’t hear you. Don’t worship, God’ll get cross. And definitely don’t take communion. Unless you’re chosen. Then it’s OK. But you probably will never know if you’re chosen.”
  • “There’s no point telling people about Jesus. If God has chosen them, they’ll be saved, and God doesn’t need any help from you.”
  • “You need to ask yourself: are you chosen? Are you born again? Only when you know for certain that you are/have, you’ll be safe.”
  • “If you disagree with my way of looking at things, you’re probably not chosen. So, I should have nothing to do with you.”

All of these are ugly distortions of the Bible. And, you’re thinking: surely nobody says that! Thankfully, Hyper-Calvinists are few and far between. But, where they’re present they can be hugely destructive. Hyper-Calvinism is bred in the incubators of dualistic Pietism, which is why it’s so important to emphasise the goodness of creation, the glory of humanity as the Image of God, and the reality of human choice – as well as the Goodness, Sovereignty and Glory of the Creator: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Just like the Holy Scriptures do.

Anyway, here are the New Dictionary of Theology definitions of Hyper-Calvinism:

It is a system of theology framed to exalt the honour and glory of God and does so by acutely minimizing the moral and spiritual responsibility of sinners. It puts excessive emphasis on acts belonging to God’s immanent being —the immanent acts of God—eternal justification, eternal adoption and the eternal covenant of grace. It makes no meaningful distinction between the secret and revealed will of God, thereby deducing the duty of sinners from the secret decrees of God. It emphasizes irresistible grace to such an extent that there appears to be no real need to evangelize; furthermore, Christ may be offered only to the elect (from P. Toon, The Emergence of Hyper-Calvinism in English Nonconformity, 1689–1765, London, 1967).

Ferguson, S. B., & Packer, J. I. (2000). In New dictionary of theology (electronic ed., p. 324). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

It is that school of supralapsarian ‘five-point’ Calvinism which so stresses the sovereignty of God by over-emphasizing the secret over the revealed will of God and eternity over time, that it minimizes the responsibility of sinners, notably with respect to the denial of the use of the word ‘offer’ in relation to the preaching of the gospel; thus it undermines the universal duty of sinners to believe savingly in the Lord Jesus with the assurance that Christ actually died for them; and it encourages introspection in the search to know whether or not one is elect (from the unpublished PhD thesis of C. D. Daniel, Hyper-Calvinism and John Gill, University of Edinburgh, 1983).

Ferguson, S. B., & Packer, J. I. (2000). In New dictionary of theology (electronic ed., p. 324). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

25 December 2015

Joy to the World

‘“Joy to the world!” Anyone for whom this sound is foreign, or who hears in it nothing but weak enthusiasm, has not yet really heard the gospel. For the sake of humankind, Jesus Christ became a human being in a stable in Bethlehem: Rejoice, O Christendom! For s
inners, Jesus Christ became a companion of tax collectors and prostitutes: Rejoice, O Christendom! For the condemned, Jesus Christ was condemned to the cross on Golgotha: Rejoice, O Christendom! For all of us, Jesus Christ was resurrected to life: Rejoice, O Christendom!…
All over the world today people are asking: Where is the path to joy? The church of Christ answers loudly: Jesus is our joy! Joy to the world!’
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger, 67

17 December 2015

Building on Discipleship Explored

imageOn Tuesday night at Kilmallie we had our final session on Discipleship Explored. It was Church Night Together, so we all looked back over the 8 sessions and thought about what discipleship is, and how we can build on the DE course. Here’s the promised memory-jogger…!

For each of the eight sessions, we picked out a verse (or two!). One of the ways we can build on Discipleship Explored is to learn these verses. They’re all below… Another is that we can read through Philippians – we’ll find that some of the things we’ve talked about will come back to us.

We also thought about what it means to ‘be with’ Jesus – the first disciples were people who were accompanying Jesus. People noticed that these folk had been with Jesus. We included actions to help us remember (it takes a while for Christmas Unwrapped to wear off!). Where do we meet Jesus? Where are we ‘with him’?

  • In here (holds up Bible!): we need to read in the Gospels regularly – although we meet Jesus throughout scripture, here we meet Jesus in a particular and immediate way.
  • In prayer (clasp hands!): as we pray, we need to imagine who we are speaking to and through. Jesus is a human being – and our imaginings in prayer ought to reflect this.
  • In here (motion over the gathered folk!): we meet Jesus wherever two or three are gathered. This is what it means to be the Body of Christ. We ought not to neglect meeting.
  • Over there (points to communion table!): at the Lord’s Supper we receive Christ in a special way. We ought to meet with the expectation of his presence in word, sacrament, prayer and our gathering.

So, that’s the recap on being with Jesus. Anyhow, here are the verses… Let’s build on Discipleship Explored.

image1: CONFIDENT IN CHRIST

‘And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.’ Philippians 1:6

 

2: LIVING IN CHRIST

‘For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.’ Philippians 1:21

 

3: STANDING TOGETHER IN CHRIST

‘Do not look out for your own personal interests, but for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves, which was also in Christ Jesus.’ Philippians 2:4-5

 

4: TRANSFORMED BY CHRIST

image‘Just as you have always obeyed, work our your salvation with fear and trembling.’ Philippians 2:12

 

5: RIGHTEOUS IN CHRIST

‘I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…. Having a righteousness which comes through faith in Christ...’ Philippians 3:8-9

 

6: KNOWING CHRIST

‘…that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.’ Philippians 3:10-11

 

7: REJOICING IN CHRIST

‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.’ Philippians 4:4

‘do not be anxious for anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’ Philippians 4:6-7

 

8: CONTENT IN CHRIST

‘I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.’ Philippians 4:11

 

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