25 June 2012

Did Isaiah See Jesus? John 12 and Isaiah 6

isaiah2[A slightly revised version of this post can be found here]

Over 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. The assumption that the words ‘saw his glory’ refer to the temple vision has no basis. In addition, there is no textual connection: Isaiah never says that he saw the glory of the Lord in the temple. The account of the temple vision in Isaiah 6 only contains one reference to glory, on the lips of the angelic beings who speak of the glory of God which fills the whole earth.

20 June 2012

The Church’s Obsession with Sex

handsA few days ago on the BBCs Today programme, Ben Summerskill (Chief Executive, Stonewall) again accused the church of an obsession with sex – and of being happy to turn a blind eye to poverty or to disease. This has become a mantra for those arguing in favour of a departure from traditional (biblical) sexual morality.

Now, it is true that the affluent, modern church in the west has, generally speaking, been woefully inadequate in addressing issues of poverty, social justice, disease, environmental issues etc. Mea culpa. The church ought to be obsessed with Jesus Christ and with his Kingdom – and these issues are part of this.

However, that does not endorse Mr Summerskill’s point. The church is right to be obsessed with sex, because personal, sexual relationships are at the heart of the fabric of society. Any objective assessment of the post-50s sexual revolution must acknowledge that in its wake have come vastly increased levels of family breakdown, social breakdown, sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy. The departure of British society from traditional (biblical) morality has not been a successful experiment.

That’s not to say that the church always gets it right on sex. The church’s traditional attitude to women needed reformation – and continues to do so, far too many chauvinist remarks are still heard in church, often as an attempt at humour. That’s unacceptable. And, the church’s generally negative attitude to heterosexual sex still needs reformation. The essential place of sex in a marriage as a God-given gift, and the fulfilling joy that comes from it – these aren’t the themes the church has been known for. These problems arise in the church because the church takes on the attitudes of The World.

But to come to the practice of homosexual sex and so-called gay marriage. Society in general may accept these, but the Church must be obsessed with what is a departure not simply from its own practices, but from the design of the Creator for stable and fulfilling expressions of human society. It’s not just the Scriptures that tell us that human society is designed with lifelong male-female relationship at its heart. Nature itself shows us – teleology is fundamental in this debate. Experience through long years of history shows us. And the statistics bear it all out in front of our eyes in Britain today.

1 June 2012

Time to Believe in the Church

moundDuring his Moderator’s address to the General Assembly last week, the Rev Dr Iain D Campbell said this:

“How reluctantly we part with what we have for the good of others. How eager we are to hold on to every last penny.

“How jealous we are to guard our congregational nest eggs, and slow to pour our resources into the common purse of a Church that needs us all to play our part.”

The Free Church, in these times of austerity, is having to cut its suit according to its cloth – like everyone else. However, the fact that a proportion of congregational contributions has been changed in recent years from an automatic levy to a voluntary donation means that more money is being held and perhaps spent at a local, rather than national, level.

The local church is, quite rightly, a focus for renewal of mission in the denomination. But what about the denomination itself? A national vision, a public vision, a strategic vision for mission, both national and international – these can all only be realised in the Church as a denomination (and, through the denomination, in the wider catholic Church). If local congregations choose to only send the bare minimum to Edinburgh, then I’m afraid that there is a collapse in vision of the kind that attends small expressions of church. Thomas Chalmers and the fathers wouldn’t recognise that.

In the early Church, the more wealthy gave to the less wealthy (both in material and human resources). The apostles co-ordinated responses to both theological and practical challenges. The generosity of the Churches was commended by Paul:

And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches.
Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.
For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own,
they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. (2 Cor 8:1-4)

The Free Church is reforming. As it does so it must keep its anchor in our confession as a Reformed Church. In challenging times, Free Church people  must hold their belief in the Church.