23 November 2013

Our Over-Realised Eschatology

graveyard3Why don't so many Christians functionally believe in resurrection? I say functionally, because if you ask these same people if they believe in resurrection, they would answer 'yes, of course'. But the language they use about death and salvation betrays the fact that the doctrine plays no real part in their conception of salvation.

What language do I mean? When Christians talk about death as 'going to heaven to be with Jesus for ever', this is a functional absence of a doctrine of resurrection. When Christians say of a saint who has died that 'they are now in glory (or crowned with glory)', this also betrays the same functional absence. When a deceased Christian is described as 'enjoying the blessings of eternity in heaven', I see the same problem. There are so many Christian clichés about death that reflect an un-Christian conception of salvation. They are spoken in our churches and sung in our hymns and songs.

The apostle Paul, for one, wouldn't recognise these clichés. Note his words....

But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you…. the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodyRom 8:11,22-23

Glory is not received when we die, but when we are raised. Resurrection life, not heaven, is our great hope. It's the same with salvation. So much of our talk is about the salvation of the soul, or of our ‘completed sanctification’ upon death. Our salvation (our full adoption) is not completed when we die, but when we are raised. Salvation is not simply of the soul (however you want to understand that), but of the body. Christian salvation is salvation of the whole person. It's not just Paul who would argue with these common clichés. The author to the Hebrews is clear that those who died before the appearance of Jesus the Messiah did not receive what was promised.

And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect. Hebrews 11:39-40

No-one who dies will be ‘made perfect’, i.e. receive salvation, before anyone else. Because being ‘made perfect’ happens at the resurrection. The apostle Peter gives the same outlook…

Therefore, prepare your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ….  1 Peter 1:13

When the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory…. 1 Peter 5:4

Focussing on death and ‘heaven’ is the wrong focus. The apostolic focus is on the return of Jesus and the grace to be brought to us in our salvation in resurrection. The Westminster Confession of Faith describes the incomplete salvation that is in heaven:

The souls of the righteous…[are] waiting for the full redemption of their bodies…. WCF Chapter 32

If Paul himself had written the WCF (now there’s a thought!!), I think he would have written ‘waiting for full redemption, the redemption of their bodies’, which would be much better. According to the WCF, the souls of the righteous are waiting for something. Their salvation is not complete.

Biblical scholars interpreting the Corinthian letters sometimes propose that the reason why some of the people in the church at Corinth denied the resurrection was that they held an 'over-realised' eschatology. That is to say, they thought that the benefits of 'resurrection' were enjoyed in this present life, not in the next life. For them, there was no 'next life'. We read about two guys who held a similar view in 2 Tim 2.17-18. Now, I don't happen to believe that was among the main problems at Corinth. However, it is a problem in the Church today. So many Christians have an over-realised eschatology. Not over-realised in this life, but in 'heaven', by which people expect the full glory of salvation to be realised at death in a bodiless existence of the soul in a spiritual realm. I'm not certain that there will be such an experience, but if there is, it's definitely not Glory, and it's definitely not Salvation. ‘Heaven’ is not ‘the next life’. Because it is not ‘life’; it is existing in a state of ‘death’. That’s not salvation – at least it’s not Christian salvation. It’s salvation if you are a follower of some of the Eastern religions, or if you are a Gnostic (a heresy the Church has struggled to shake off), but it's not Christian. And yet, functionally, it's what so many Christians believe.

Whatever happened to the doctrine of resurrection? If Christ has been raised, why do some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?

13 November 2013

Who Was Baptised by the Apostles?

peter2I’m posting on baptism. A theological account of baptism is one thing, but what about the evidence of the New Testament? A covenantal theology of baptism is all very well, but what about the practice of the apostles? Who actually was baptised in the Early Church, according to the documents of the New Testament?

The baptism of the apostles and hence of the Church (the baptism of John the Baptiser is something different, see Acts 19:1) begins in Acts 2. At the very birth of the Church (the New Covenant moment described in my previous post) 3,000 people believe and are baptised. The word Luke uses is psuchai (persons or better, lives), not andres (men) which he uses elsewhere, such as in the Feeding of the 5,000 (Luke 9.14). The usual way to denote a crowd was by the number of men. Luke chooses psuche for a reason – it wasn’t just men who were baptised. Of course, that in itself would have been something new. Up till then, only men received the covenant sign through circumcision. Women were also baptised, and if women, then I think children too, given the way that the Jews understood covenant membership according to God’s promises. After all, Peter tells the Jewish crowd, ‘The promise is to you and to your children’ (an affirmation of something they were already familiar with). If the apostles had intended to bar children from receiving the sign of the covenant, they would have had to make it explicit!

But, let’s get to the nitty-gritty…

In Acts 8:12, when Philip is in Samaria, both Samaritan men and women are baptised. No children or families are explicitly mentioned. In Acts 8:36-38, Philip baptises a eunuch at the roadside. He’s a eunuch, so no children there. In Acts 9:18, Paul is baptised. Paul isn’t married (1Cor 7:8), so no children there either. In Acts 10, Peter is at Caesarea with Cornelius: a God-fearer. He’s a centurion who had adopted the Jewish faith, but had not become a Jew. At a family occasion several people are baptised, presumably from the family. In Philippi, the first European covert, Lydia, believes. No-one else is mentioned as believing. But she is baptised with all her family (16:15). The first readers of Acts might wonder, does the same covenant arrangement apply to Gentiles? Luke makes his answer explicit in this case. The word for family is literally ‘house’ (οἶκος) and, yes, it may include any servants, but first and fundamentally refers to the family (this is true throughout the Greek OT and the NT). If there is any doubt, the Philippian Jailor, also a Gentile, is also baptised with all his family (16:33-34; it’s interesting that ‘he rejoiced with all his family that he had believed in God’). Crispus, a Jew and the synagogue ruler in Corinth, he’s also baptised with all his family (18:8, 1Cor 1:14). In Corinth, Paul baptised the family of Stephanus (1Cor 1:16) and perhaps also the family of Gaius (1:14). There is also the account of the twelve men baptised by Paul in Ephesus (Acts 19:5).

So out of these 11 instances of baptism(s), 2 instances involve people who didn’t have children. Out of the remaining 9 instances:

  • 5 explicitly mention the baptism of the family.
  • 4 relate to Jews, Samaritans, or God-fearers (2 explicitly mention the baptism of the family, 1 is a crowd of psuchai, 1 mentions men and women).
  • 5 instances relate to Gentiles (3 explicitly mention the baptism of the family, 1 could involve family, 1 is a group of men).

So, the important points are that, in a Jewish religious society where covenant membership in the People of God included children, there is no indication in the practice of the apostles that children are now excluded. In fact, Peter explicitly states the opposite, and Luke goes out of his way to mention that even for Gentiles, the families of those who believe are baptised. The practice of the apostles is in harmony with the covenantal theological account in my previous post.

But, in the words of Paul, ‘someone might say’ what about all the instances where baptism of children isn’t mentioned? And, why don’t we read of any infant baptisms where a child has been born into the church? On the first, you can’t make an argument for the whole based on the absence of a feature in some stories. That’s just bad method. On the second, show me all of the accounts in the OT of babies being circumcised on being born during the hundreds of years of the history of Israel. You’ve got Isaac (Gen 21:4). That’s it. But you’re not going to argue from that for doubts over whether any Israelite babies were circumcised in the OT! Some things are such a part of the life of the People of God that they are taken for granted. They don’t need constant mention. And that’s why you don’t find written in the NT that Antonia, the wife of Metellus the Stonemason (hitherto unknown members of the church in Ephesus!) gave birth to their daughter Chloe, who was baptised by the elder of the church, Matthias.

10 November 2013

Remembrance Day

warTonight, I am thinking about two texts. The first is Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘Recessional’, which, as the minister of our congregation pointed out today, is generally assumed to be about something that it isn’t about. Its refrain is ‘Lest we forget’. Lest we forget what?

God of our fathers, known of old—
Lord of our far-flung battle line—
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies—
The Captains and the Kings depart—
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far-called our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe—
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard—
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding calls not Thee to guard.
For frantic boast and foolish word,
Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!
Amen.

Lest we forget humility and contrition before the Lord who gives all nations and empires their dominion and holds them to account. Kipling fears for the British – that trust in God for security is being overwhelmed by trust in armed forces; that humility and contrition are being replaced by proud boasting. The knowledge of the fleeting nature of power, the sense of accountability to the Lord – these are being lost.

The second text is a bit older and also frequently misunderstood. It gives a much-needed perspective as we remember those who have lost their lives or a part of their souls in the (sometimes necessary) horror of war.

Come, behold the works of the Lord,
Who has wrought desolations in the earth.
He makes wars to cease to the end of the earth;

He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two; He burns the chariots with fire.
"Cease striving and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth"
The Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our stronghold.

The psalm (Ps 46) reminds us of the evil of war – and God’s intention to remove it from the earth through the reign of the Prince of Peace. He smashes the tanks, breaks the assault rifles in two and burns the strike aircraft with fire. The call to ‘Be still (or cease striving) and know that I am God’ is not a call to anxious Christians struggling with the busy-ness of middle class, professional lives. It is God’s Calling of the Nations to Account. ‘Be Still! Cease War! Know that I am God.’ It is God’s call to those drunk with power: Do Not Forget!

8 November 2013

Presbyterian Baptism

olivetreeI’m posting on baptism. In seven years of blogging, I’ve not done it much, if at all, before. One of the reasons I’m doing it now is that some Presbyterians seem to struggle with an explanation for why they baptise infants.

Theologically, Presbyterians baptise children because we understand that the Promises made to Abraham have not been altered, have not been changed, but have been ratified, secured, made certain in Jesus Christ. There is only one People of God. From the beginning with Abram, God has promised his people that he will be a God to them and to their children. He has promised a relationship with His People which is different to that with other people. All of Abraham’s descendants were born into covenant with God and the males were marked with the sign: circumcision. That doesn’t mean they were all people who had faith – and that is fundamental to understanding covenant in scripture. It draws a wider circle than ‘those with saving faith’, or ‘the elect’, or ‘the regenerate’. There were two ways into the People of God in the Old Testament: be born a Jew, or become a Jew through professing Yahweh as God and being circumcised.

When Jesus Christ comes, there is not a new beginning, as if God starts a new People of God. The Old and New Testaments witness to the fact that the coming of the Messiah beings a New Covenant which reconfigures the Existing People of God around Jesus as the Divine Messiah and which replaces the Law of Moses (which only led God’s people until the Messiah, Gal 3:23-24, 4:3). It does not replace the covenant with Abraham. It is a renewal amongst the People of God, the tribes of Israel and Judah. It’s what the prophets write about (e.g. Jer 31:31-32), it’s what Jesus speaks about, it’s what happens at Pentecost, and it’s how the apostles understand what has happened with the coming of the Christ.

Romans 11 stands as the clearest example of this. There is only one olive tree. Its roots are in the Promises to Abraham (11:16). When Jesus the Messiah comes, bringing the New Covenant renewal, the tree is shaken and pruned (11:17). Only those who acknowledge Jesus as Messiah can remain in covenant with God (11:23). Some branches are cut off. But, subsequent to this New Covenant moment, Gentiles can be grafted into that tree, whose roots are in the Promises to Abraham (11:17, 24). They do not join a different tree. It’s the same tree, the same covenant. The Promises to Abram still constitute it and they are ratified in Jesus (Gal 3:14). The promises are still to Abraham’s children (Acts 2.39), but now anyone who professes the faith of Abraham, now faith in Jesus the Messiah, is counted amongst the People of God (Rom 4:16; Gal 3:7-9, 29). Therefore, the Church is the same (albeit reconfigured) Covenant People of God that was constituted when Yahweh appeared to Abram. Richard Hays puts this very well:

It is no accident that Paul never uses expressions such as "new Israel" or "spiritual Israel". There always has been and always will be only one Israel. Into that one Israel Gentile Christians such as the Corinthians have now been absorbed. Echoes of Scripture, 96-7

In the New Covenant, baptism becomes the sign of entry into the People of God. We are either baptised because our parents already belong to the People of God, or we come into the People of God from outside through professing our faith in Jesus. When we baptise a child, it is a sign that the child stands in a relationship to God that is different to the child of someone who is not a Christian. The child is not regenerate, nor necessarily elect (the words that are used to describe someone’s standing to God with respect to their final salvation), but they are members of the covenant community, the Church, the Israel of God (Gal 6:16).

The Church cannot simply be thought of as being comprised of  ‘those with saving faith’, or ‘the elect’, or ‘the regenerate’. It draws a wider circle. That’s how Covenant works. The Church is a visible body – like the Jewish nation. People enter it through professing faith in Jesus. And their children enter too, because the Promise is also to them. Children born to the Professing are born into it. Some of those who profess may fall away. Some of the children may not profess faith, they may not respond to the Promises of the covenant. Those who do profess but are unfaithful in profession are disciplined and perhaps eventually put outside the Church.  But within the Church we will find the professing and their children, and within that circle there is a slightly smaller one, ‘those with saving faith’, ‘the elect’, ‘the regenerate’.  No-one can discern where this smaller circle is drawn – and it’s no-one’s business to try to (here’s the root of so many problems in Highland Calvinism). But, the wider circle of the covenant is an objective reality. That these two circles exist, that the objective nature of the Church is different to membership of the elect, ought not to bother us. After all, how else do we explain texts like John 15, 1 Corinthians 7 and Hebrews 4? And, after all, it’s how Calvin understood things.

So, why are some Presbyterians wavering? When I hear Presbyterians explaining baptism as basically the Baptist view, with the baptism of infants then a sort of tacked-on addition to that view, I wonder how it got to this. I come across Presbyterians saying things like: the baptism is a sign of the faith that we hope the child will have. Or, the baptism is a sign of what Jesus Christ has done for that child. Even the explanation that the baptism is the sign of the faith of the parents of that child is not wholly adequate. In my humble opinion it is because these Presbyterians are buying into an Evangelical view whereby infant baptism is seen as an anomalous addition to a concept of baptism (the Baptist one) that is basically agreed on by all (E/e)vangelicals.

In fact, evangelical Presbyterians and Evangelicals (I would judge these different categories) do not share the same view of baptism. They have fundamentally different views on the theological basis for baptism. And, they have fundamentally different views on what the Church is. Presbyterians that turn towards other traditions for resources and for theological education have got to recognise this. If you’re listening to Driscoll or Piper, for example, they do not hold the same Reformed theology as Presbyterians do.

The whole issue is of fundamental importance. It’s not about defending some romantic notion of a Scottish or Reformed tradition. It’s about understanding God, the Church of Jesus Christ and our mission in the world.