28 September 2013

God Loves the World

johnJohn 3:16, one of the most-neglected parts of the Bible (although just last weekend I heard an excellent sermon on it). At least, the first part of it is. This part of the verse is so often skipped over en route to the ‘gospel in miniature’ (Luther) in the second part.

For God so loved the world…

God loved the world, the kosmos. God didn’t merely love the people of the world, as if kosmos here just means all people, whoever they are. God loved the kosmos. In John’s Gospel, the term kosmos is used with a degree of ambiguity (sometimes the weight of the term is on the world of human beings, sometimes it carries a negative connotation reflecting the fallenness of the world), but here in 3:16 it has to mean ‘world’ in the sense of 1:10: the kosmos was made through him. This is where this Gospel itself begins, with the theology of creation:

In the beginning was the logos…through him all things were made.

It ought not to surprise us that God loved, and still loves, the kosmos. Sometimes Christians struggle to explain God’s motivation for acting in salvation for a lost world: ‘why would God love such a sinful world? why would God go to such lengths for rebellious, sinful people?’ It must be just down to God’s gracious character… Yes, of course it’s in God’s character to love (‘God is love’ is one of the most profound statements in the Bible), but John’s Gospel points us to a more immediate answer, one rooted in the creation theology of the Old Testament. A proper appreciation of human sinfulness and the fallenness of the world must be balanced by a proper creation theology. The Bible as a whole begins with the same two words (in the Greek) as John’s Gospel…

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Here is the foundational truth, expounded in Psalm 24: ‘The earth belongs to Yahweh’. After the creative activity of God, in Gen 2:1 the whole kosmos is finished. God saw all that he had made, and behold it was very good. The goodness of the kosmos is not extinguished by the Fall. God’s delight in, and love for, the kosmos does not cease at the Fall. God’s love for the kosmos persists, burning just as brightly. God loves the kosmos: its complex matter, its beauty, its long-fashioned geology, its intricate climate; its flora, from giant sequoias to the purple heather; its creatures – birds, mammals, fish, insects; and humans themselves, created to rule – their God-like qualities seen in creativity expressed in the arts and in design, and in their relationships. God loves the world, despite its fallenness. And God’s love for his creation is fundamental to his action in salvation. John’s Gospel begins with these fundamental truths: all things were made through the logos, and God so loved the kosmos which was made through the logos, that the logos himself became flesh, became a human being and came into the kosmos. Not in order to condemn the kosmos, but so that the kosmos might be saved through him.

27 September 2013

The A9, the Church and Transport Policy

a9Over the past few weeks, I’ve been intrigued to follow one Free Church Presbytery’s foray into the world of transport policy. The Presbytery of Inverness, Lochaber and Ross (PILR) has been calling upon the Scottish Government to bring forward its plans to dual the A9 between Perth and Inverness. Of course, as a former Consultant in transport policy and engineering, I’ve been extremely interested in this excursion into an arena where the church has usually found little to interest it.

The members of the PILR  are motivated in their call for accelerating the dualling project by road safety concerns. Of course, road safety should matter to all of us. In 2012, 170 lives were lost in Scotland through road traffic accidents and the A9 between Perth and Inverness has one of the highest fatality rates (6 fatalities per year, on average, between 2007-2011). Each road death brings the suffering of bereavement, often of people who had much more of their lives to live. Many of these deaths, however, are not accidents at all, but are caused by careless or reckless driving. The A9 is a busy road, especially in summer when volumes are 40% higher than in winter.  It is the A470 of Scotland – poor alignment in places, with limited visibility, and above-average percentages of HGVs and caravans. In winter, weather conditions compound the problems. These features, coupled with the long journey lengths of many users, contribute to driver frustration. The consequent poor decision–making of some of these drivers is what kills and injures people every year. Others are killed and injured for other reasons – it’s what happens when thousands of people travel in cars on the same piece of road.

So, it fascinates me that the church, which is rightly focussed (or ought to be) on the reality of human sinfulness and on the injustice perpetrated by some people against others – it fascinates me that the PILR are solely aiming their barrels at the Scottish Government. The reason people die on the A9 is to a large part due to selfish and reckless people who cause misery and suffering to others who are their victims. The PILR ought to be calling for greater responsibility on the part of drivers and more effective law-enforcement (for example, effective patrolling or peak-period speed limit camera enforcement), not solely requesting (somewhat forcefully) the Government to bring forward their dualling programme. Given the fact that in the Highlands and Islands there is a genuine cultural problem with respect to road safety (driver attitudes, especially towards vulnerable road users), if the church is concerned about road safety there are more issues to address than simply A9 dualling.

There are good reasons for dualling the A9, and the Scottish Government has already developed ambitious plans. However, road safety cannot alone make the case for it, and dualling alone will not prevent deaths (6 fatalities during 2007-2011 occurred on dualled sections of the A9). The most likely case is an economic one, focussed on the future development of Inverness. But even then, a biblical theology of creation ought to give us pause for thought. If decades of road building have taught us anything, it is that suppressed vehicle demand brings more drivers onto the road when road capacity is increased. To put it succinctly, if you completely dual the A9, more people will make longer trips in their cars, and more people will make trips by car rather than by rail or by bus. From an environmental perspective, none of this is good news. The church ought to be just as concerned with the sustainable use of the earth’s resources as it is with road safety. And, given that the A9 traverses some of the most spectacular scenery in Western Europe, the dualling of the A9 will have a detrimental effect on the visual environment. Historically, the church has neglected the environment and issues of sustainability. The church ought to be concerned about these things too.

Christianity has something to say about everything – this is God’s world. So, let the church speak out on transport policy. But let that speaking be considered, balanced, and theological.

[Anyone interested in this issue can read the Accident Analysis 2013 on the A9Road.info site]

24 September 2013

Addressing Pietism and ‘The Thing’

calvinA busy few weeks attending the British New Testament Conference and researching at Tyndale House has kept me away from World Without End. But, my mind has been turning over the things that I’ve posted on previously: the influence of pietistic dualism (the strict separation of natural and supernatural) in the Church. Whilst away I had a stimulating conversation about the influence of Pietism in Welsh evangelicalism. Just yesterday, I read an interview with the first Jesuit head of the Catholic Church – a Pope who celebrates the particular mysticism of the Society of Jesus. Closer to home, there is the mystical dualism of the traditional local Catholicism and the evident strong strain of pietistic mysticism (with its attendant dualism) in Scottish Presbyterianism, especially in the Highlands and Islands. In a previous post, I noted Bavinck’s view that this kind of pietism was incapable of the Reformation of the church. The Reformation project at its very heart sought to fundamentally connect the natural and supernatural.

Conventionally, the Reformation of the sixteenth century is seen exclusively as a reformation of the church. In fact, however, it was much more than that; it was a radically new way of conceiving Christianity itself. Rome's world-and-life view was dualistic; her disjunction between the natural and supernatural was a quantitative one. By returning to the New Testament, the Reformers replaced this with a truly theistic worldview that made the distinction a qualitative one. Bavinck, The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church, 235.

The Reformers’ healthy, biblical view of Christianity (a ‘Worldly Christianity’) was rooted in the place they afforded to the doctrine of creation. It was good ol’ Jean Calvin who took this furthest…

In the powerful mind of the French Reformer, re-creation is not a system that supplements Creation, as in Catholicism, not a religious reformation that leaves Creation intact, as in Luther, much less a radically new creation as in Anabaptism, but a joyful tiding of the renewal of all creatures. Here the Gospel comes fully into its own, comes to true catholicity. There is nothing that cannot or ought not to be evangelized. Not only the church but also home, school, society, and state are placed under the dominion of the principle of Christianity. 238

But, this great principle of the Reformation – of the goodness of creation, of God’s purpose to affirm and renew all things in Christ – did not take root. By the time of the Westminster Confession, this aspect of Reformation thought is waning. In Bavinck’s words, ‘the Reformation retreated into itself’. The dualistic outlook remained.

I’ve become convinced that it is Pietism that is at the root of some of the common problems found in traditional Highland Presbyterianism. Congregations which have retreated from the world, which are unable to either mobilise or contextualise their mission, which show little concern for social justice, and which have a negative view of language and culture – these congregations can be identified, but why are they like this? They have ‘the thing’, that intangible, nebulous affliction discerned through its symptoms. To my mind, ‘the thing’ is rooted in Pietism and must be addressed by a truly Reformed, Worldly Christianity. Mere ‘Evangelicalism’ cannot be the answer, because Pietism is alive and well in that school of thought as well. If we want a focus for the on-going task of Reformation in Scotland, then the all-embracing, most-wholeheartedly biblical, creation-affirming principles of Calvin’s Reformed thought are what we must grasp and apply.