18 April 2014

The Expendable Backdrop

A must-read quote from George B. Caird...

"Too often evangelical Christianity has treated the souls of men as brands plucked from the burning and the world in general as a grim vale of soul-making. It has been content to see the splendour of the created universe ... as nothing more than the expendable backdrop for the drama of redemption. One of the reasons why men of our generation have turned against conventional Christianity is that they think it involves writing off the solid joys of this present life for the doubtful acquisition of some less substantial treasure ... the whole point of the resurrection of the body is that the life of the world to come is to be lived on a renewed earth ... Everything of real worth in the old heaven and earth ... will find a place in the eternal order" G.B.Caird

"The Christological Basis of Christian Hope", in Caird et al., The Christian Hope (London: SPCK, 1970), 22-24.

Scottish Independence, Social Justice and the Church

saltireA few weeks ago I posted some thoughts on the implications for Scottish independence of an SNP administration that seems to be committed to the modern conceit of ‘secularism’. For Scottish Christians who believe that the spiritual life of the nation is just as important as its cultural or economic life, the prospect of severing ties with neighbouring countries which are far less ‘post-Christian’ than Scotland must be a real issue. This issue remains important in the independence debate.  However, it’s by no means the only important issue.

Many Scots see the great advantage of independence as being the possibility of a more just society (although conceptions of this will differ). With more unveiling of the corruption and excess at the Westminster Parliament, of the excesses of the banking system, and of the increasing division between rich and poor in UK society (mostly driven by the south of England), the prospect is appealing. There is a definite opportunity to craft something different in Scotland. Will Hutton is correct when he suspects ‘some of the energy behind Scottish nationalism is the desire to build a country where toxic wealth inequalities are less indulged than in England.’ But what kind of changes can be made? Is it back to the unsustainable tax, borrow and spend of the bankrupting Labour administration of the late 90s and 00s? That period was dominated by Blair’s New Labour being infamously ‘intensely relaxed’ about rich plutocrats. Banking is almost as important to Scotland as it is to London. It won’t be easy for an independent Scotland to seek another way, to seek a sustainable economic model that delivers a more just society.

It’s ironic that those who want greater social justice in Scotland see North Sea oil as the safety net for economic development. Fossil fuels are perhaps the most obvious totem of an economic system (and a society) that is simply unsustainable. Since the 80s (and perhaps before), Britons have come to expect the increasing wealth and increasing growth of  a libertarian, globalised capitalism. Why do the electorate vote the way they do? Clinton’s 1992 campaign got it right: ‘The economy, stupid.’ It’s symptomatic of this way of thinking that the Independence debate has been dominated by questions of ‘will I be better off?’ It’s not a great start. Independence must be driven fundamentally by beliefs about national identity and a desire to shape one’s own destiny as a nation. If you believe in that, you have to be ready for the pain as well as the gain (for there will be both – spiritually and economically).

If independence allows the possibility of a more just society to develop, Christians should take this seriously and consider how the Church’s calling to speak up for the poor, the oppressed, and for sustainable and just economic policies relates to this. The independence debate is about so much more than the ‘spiritual’ aspects of life. I want to avoid the ‘spiritual/worldly’ dichotomy that is doing so much damage in the church, but so many Christians think like this – a dualism between ‘spiritual’ things that matter, and ‘worldly’ things that don’t. For the Reformed Christian, everything matters; everything is spiritual. Therefore, the Church needs to be at the forefront of Scottish national life. It is so important for Christians to be engaged with understandings of nationhood, history and economics. If the Church simply argues about the Establishment principle, or the ‘secular dangers’ of independence, she is not being true to her calling to work in partnership with the State and to speak God’s truth into every area of life in God’s world. Independence offers great possibilities for the Church as well as challenges. So does remaining in the Union. Whether in or out, the Scottish Church needs galvanising to act like a truly Reformed Church, speaking truth to power as well as the populace. I’m beginning to think that Scottish Independence may offer a pathway to two things: an honest assessment of the failings of the church in Scotland in this area, and an new impetus to engage in the discourse of national life.

17 April 2014

More Gates of Hades

styxFurther to my previous post on interpreting Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:18b, I’ve come across a Greek inscription which seems to add support my view. Jesus’ words to Peter express the hope of resurrection, that death cannot stand in the way of Jesus’ building of his church:

And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it. Matthew 16:18

The ‘gates of Hades’ is a mythic image of a barrier between the underworld and the land of the living. The Gates of Hades prevent the dead from returning. The image represents the irreversible power of death. However, Jesus’ words express his confidence that death will not prevent God’s purpose for a redeemed people (the ekklesia of Jesus), living in a redeemed world from being accomplished.

The Greek inscription that adds weight to my interpretation appears to be anti-Christian polemic from the early years of the Church (Lattimore, Themes in Greek and Latin Epitaphs, 75). It expresses the common ancient view that death is the end – there can be no return to the realm of the living – and paints the Christian hope of resurrection as a fantasy.

This, friends, is it. For what more could come afterward. Not even this remains. For it is the stone and stele that tell you all this, not I. The gates are here, and the trodden ways to Hades by which none can come back to the light. But all pitiful wretches (long) for resurrection.

The important point is that, again, gates are portrayed as preventing a return to life for the dead. Perhaps just as important is that here in this inscription, the imagery is linked specifically with the hope of resurrection. It’s the same imagery that is found in Homer and in the Sibylline Oracles. This is the imagery that Jesus employs: the power of death over the bodies of the deceased will be broken. The grave will not overpower the Church.

A few important points can be briefly made:

  • Matthew has Jesus speaking of Hades, not hell. It’s most likely (despite the word play on Πέτρος/πέτρα) that Jesus speaks in Aramaic here, so the Greek word Hades (ᾅδης) is a translation of Aramaic. Hades therefore represents the Hebrew view of Sheol as the grave, the destination of the dead. Jesus is not referring to a place of eternal punishment here. Translations of Hades as hell often lead to confusion.
  • This emphasis on the necessity of the defeat of death through resurrection reminds us that the Church, the ekklesia of Jesus, is not merely something for this life, an organisational necessity whilst we wait for salvation. The ekklesia is the People of God, an entity destined for a new earth.
  • The ekklesia of Jesus is not merely a spiritual reality, but a physical reality (this dichotomy is not very helpful, but it’s how most Christians tend to think). The human being as human being (body and soul) is the object of God’s redemption.
  • The ekklesia of Jesus is finally an eschatological reality. God’s people are not destined for a ‘spiritual’ existence in heaven, but a salvation that involves the redemption of the human body. Membership of the ekklesia is mediated through the sensory experience of the human body. Death interrupts this. Only at resurrection do we take our place finally and fully in the ekklesia of Jesus.
  • All this has implications for ecclesiology and offers a cogent challenge to the Protestant concept of the invisible church (and the related idea of a spiritual, as opposed to visible, unity). Can there be such a thing?

15 April 2014

Westminster: Subscription in America

warfieldIn a previous post I pointed to John Murray’s views on subscription to the Westminster Confession. Murray, who taught at Princeton and then at Westminster Theological Seminary, argues against an overly-strict subscription to the confession. The idea of ‘system subscription’ to the Confession has been the historical view of the Presbyterian Churches in America. In a very interesting quote, B B Warfield, writing just three years before the Church of Scotland’s Declaratory Act, compares the situations on either side of the Atlantic vis a vis the Confession:
We observe, then, . . . [t]hat so long as we remain a Calvinistic Church, the American Church, with its free and yet safe formula of acceptance of the Confession, is without the impulse which drives on some other churches to seek to better their relation to the Standards. We have always accepted the Confession only for ‘‘the system of doctrine’’ contained in it, and hence since 1729 have possessed what the great Scotch churches are now seeking after.     Presbyterian Review 10, no. 40 (1889): 656-57.
In another previous post, I also related the warning of Dr William Barker, given whilst he was a member of faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary, against strict subscription as a de facto elevation of the Standards to the same level of authority as scripture. Peter Enns (an elder in the PCA and a former professor at WTS) can write about his oath of subscription to the Confession whilst at Westminster in the following terms:
I believe that this oath—whether at WTS or the PCA—does not mean that someone living today is bound to every word and expression found in the Westminster Standards, but to the “system” of faith that the Standards articulate. In other words, my oath is a system subscription oath, not a strict subscription oath. I have never confessed in any other way, and this is the manner of confessional commitment that was modeled and taught to me by my professors during my MDiv years at WTS (1985-89), not only by Harvie Conn in Eternal Word, Changing Worlds, but the rest of my professors (Ray Dillard, Bruce Waltke, Tremper Longman III, Al Groves, Moises Silva, Manuel Ortiz, Sam Logan, Tim Keller, Will Barker, Clair Davis, Sinclair Ferguson), three of whom are still on the faculty today (Dan McCartney, Dick Gaffin, Vern Poythress). System subscription is, in my view, the dominant WTS perspective on the matter and needs no significant clarification or defense. It is stricter views that are not only out of line with the particular iteration of Reformed thought at WTS, but run the risk of calling into question the authority of Scripture.
A couple of things can be noted. First, that the ‘system subscription’ paradigm was the accepted understanding in the vibrant Reformed environment of WTS. Second, Enns is also on the money to identify the risk to scriptural authority of ‘strict subscription’.