Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Harriet Miers and a Christian in the UK

Started writing about how another post in the Christian blogosphere on Harriet Miers, the Supreme Court nominee in the States, was boring me. But before I had finished it I convinced myself that it shouldn't, and doesn't!

Jonathan Edwards in his Scottish(!) context

It’s always nice for me to discover how ideas were not worked out in a vacuum; even if everyone else either already knows they were not, or does not not care whether they were or not. In that light...I am reading The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots' Invention of the Modern World by Arthur Herman. At the moment I am reading about some of the pioneers, including a Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746).

Everyone’s ultimate goal in life, Hutcheson decided, is happiness. 'He is in a sure state of happiness who has a sure prospect that in all parts of his existence he shall have all things he desires.' Vulgar people assume, mistakenly, that this means gratification of physical desires: food, drink, sex. But for Hutcheson the highest form of happiness was making others happy. (p.74)

Sound familiar? Sounded to me like Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) – except ‘making other people happy’ replaces 'God'. I suppose that's the enlightenment for you - people-centred and optimistic about human nature. It is interesting to me how Jonathan Edwards (the philosopher as well as theologian) came along and used these same ideas, and adapted them to his more Calvinistic and God-centred theology. These sort of observations, fascinate me.

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Allure of Australian Biblical Theology

Like the duckbilled platypus, contemporary Biblical Theology is an Australian animal the existence of which many have doubted and even mocked. Is it a hybrid? A joke? An aberration? An impossibility?

So begins a review of Interpreting God's Plan: Biblical Theology and the Pastor, ed. by RJ Gibson, in the open-evangelical (see here for term) Anglican journal Anvil (Vol 16, No.2, 1999, p. 139). Unlike the duckbilled platypus Biblical Theology is not a peculiarly Australian animal (despite what the reviewer says), but there is something special about the Australian variety. The reviewer continues:

[for Gibson et al] unless we understand the promise properly, our grasp of the gospel will be attenuated and sentimental, and probably lack an adequate eschatology. In other words, most of what passes for preaching is judged shallow and unchristian.

Although they are too polite to say so, the Australians are making an important and formidable intellectual assult on normal Anglo Saxon Evangelical theology, and the find us seriously lacking as exegetes, systematicians and pastors - in fact, since their hermeneutical key is the gospel itself, they find us lacking as self-professing evangelicals. Their case is, to my mind, unanswerable, and for all the rough edges and unanswered question which work in progress produces, this is material which must be taken on board. These are not naive fundamentalists by serious-minded theologians of considerable calibre, and their relative obscurity is a result of distance, not inability.

Probably nobody reading here has ever read the Anvil journal (my explanation is that my Dad used to subscribe), but this is a review that stands out from the rest of their reviews like a beacon. You just do not get such enthusiastic reviews of conservative books in it. Reading Tom Wright's Paul: Fresh Perspectives over the last couple of days, my mind has gone back to the effect that the other grand-narrative-theology I have been exposed to had on me at university. I give thanks to God for it. It opened up the bible for me, and although I am not a died in the wool Goldsworthyite, I would not be without it.

Elsewhere I recently discovered the blog of Brian Hedges (who I know of through his many Amazon reviews), who has just discovered Goldsworthy and crowned him his 'author of the year'. He is now posting a review of his Gospel and Kingdom in parts (so far 1, 2, and 3).

So on the testimony of two or three witnesses trust me that there is something especially alluring about Australian Biblical Theology.

To find out more try as a beginning:

PS of course there is an American variety as well but I think it's less alluring (why is another question), and the best bits of the British version are Australian anyway.

book cover

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The power of biblical literature: Daniel 1

I've finished Ezekiel in my daily reading now and began Daniel today, which begins:

1:1 In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. 2 And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God. And he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his god. 3 Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, 4 youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king's palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. 5 The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king. 6 Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah. 7 And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego.

8 But Daniel....

Sometimes you remember why the bible is not writen like a textbook. In the first 8 verses of Daniel the (seeming) humiliation and powerlessness of the people and their God comes across so strongly, even though there is the hint of what is later developed in v.2 ('the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand'). But in vv1-7 humiliation is piled upon humiliation:

  • Jerusalam is beseiged.
  • The vessels of God are taken and placed into a the conquering god's treasury. Seemingly Yahweh like his people has been subjugated by Babylon and it's god.
  • The best pickings of Israel's people are taken as plunder.
  • This cream of Israel, relys on food handouts, unable to provide for himself. There was not even granted the responsibility to manage - the handouts were 'daily'.
  • They are then renamed, clearly demonstrating their ownership.
  • Consider as well the meaning of their new names:
    • Daniel -> Belteshazzer = 'protect his life' or maybe derived from the Babylonian deity Bel (4:8).
    • Azariah -> Abednego = 'servant of Nabu' (Nebuchadnezzar’s personal god).
    • Mishael ('Who is what God is') -> Meshach = 'Who is that which Aku [Summerian lunar deity] is'.
    • Hananiah -> Shadrach = 'command of Aku'.

That 'but' in v.8 seemed so powerful to me today. What I had read was not the whole picture, and was not permenant, God was still king. But God's ways are strange to the world and in the midst of this giant game of real-world Risk, the story chosen to tell following this humiliation is of a insignificant man trying to be faithful to his God in the middle of it all.

I love how God chooses to comunicate, I love the truth he communicates, and I love to think about I fit into what he has communicated - but not enough.

PS. that was my hundredth post!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005


Sorry for the lack of blogging recently, I have been revising for a big Open University exam (which went ok, but not that good). I've had a proper day off today - the first in a while - and because I like reading I planned to catch up on some. But I could not face any thinking because my mind is frazeled, and reading and blogging both require thought, so I think that I will not be doing much of both for a while, even though I have lots of time.

I'm sure you will not feel the loss, but actually I came up with some really good blogging subjects when I should have been revising. I'll have to try and remember them for later.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Election implies...

Happily, I have been reading a few bits and posts about involving the doctrine of election recently, including Dave Bish's comment that 'Election implies evangelism'. There are two ways I could think of what that could mean. One very important and encouraging one, that we were discussing in our cell meeting (on evangelism) last night, is that because it is God who changes hearts not us, anyone can have their eyes opened by God's grace (this was the meaning Dave Bish had at the top of his mind).

The other meaning I can think of is that we are elected for reasons, including being co-workers in the out-pouring of God's grace on others. This has been at the top of my mind since I read Newbigin on it a few days ago.

Probably no-one reads beyond this point in a blog post, but I think it is worth commiting the seeming blunder of quoting at incredible length what Newbigin has to say. It needs some sifting, but this has been a great source of challenge and thought for me over the last few days. That's why I thought it worth the effort to copy out every word of the following:


In the light of this crucial passage [Rom 9-11] we can expose the false ideas which have gathered around the doctrine of election and which have made it unacceptable to many Christians as well as to others. In the first place, and most obviously, there is the idea that election is election to privileged status before God. This false belief is something against which the prophets of Israel had constantly to contend. It is indeed true that in many moving passages of the Old Testament we are told of Gods undying love for Israel, of his commitment to its cause. Yet this love and commitment are to Israel as the instrument of God's purpose of love for all the nations, and when Israel interprets God’s love as a license to do as it pleases chastisement follows. In a classic passage Amos says in the name of God, "You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your sins" (Amos 3:2). As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that to be God’s chosen people means not privilege but suffering, reproach, humiliation. Israel is called to embody in her own life God's agony over his disobedient world. And in the New Testament this comes to its final manifestation in that God's chosen one is called to suffer the ultimate agony of a death which carries God's curse, on behalf of all peoples. We know that this disastrous misunderstanding of what God's election means has persisted right through the history of the Church and to the present day, so that Christians believe that as Christians they have a claim on God's love which others do not have. The trenchant words of Paul have been quietly ignored in the history of the Church: "There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him" (Rom. 10:12). But that recognition, so far from eliminating the doctrine of election, becomes for Paul the very basis for that doctrine, for how shall they call on him of whom they have not heard, and how shall they hear without a preacher, and how can they preach unless they are sent? It is the universality of God’s saving love which is the ground of his choosing and calling a community to be the messengers of his truth and bearers of his love for all peoples. Once again we have to remember that neither truth nor love can be communicated except as they are embodied in a community which reasons and loves.


Tuesday, October 11, 2005


Far to busy too post anything proper at the moment. But I thought I would share probably the most bizarre thing I have ever encountered in a good while reading Christian blogs:

The Tentpeg song

I really don't know what to make of it at all.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Taking up the cross which should be mine but is Jesus'

Been thinking about living a life of taking up the cross.

I think perhaps when more left-leaning (best term I could think of – liberal wasn’t quite right) folks talk about a cruciform life they often put themselves in Jesus’ shoes. This is not wrong in and of itself, as we are called to imitate him; and more live a life 'in Christ', which means death then life (in many dimensions). However, we must also realise that we are not Jesus, because although he suffered the results of Adam's curse, he did not need to, but we should have done. Our suffering must not be self-righteous; it must not be a so-called martyr complex (not least because there is joy set before us). It is only a taster of our just-deserts. His condemnation by the human authorities was the injustice of history, the suffering we take up is not unjust, we should accept it humbly. True the bible can see the horribly wrong nature of our suffering, but the reasons for that only flow out of God’s grace. Our suffering is wrong, because we are made in the image of God, and our suffering at the hands of the devil or humanity is a rebellion against our creator. Secondly, and similarly, our suffering is wrong because by God's grace we are 'in Christ' we are his brothers and his ambassadors. Because we are 'in Christ' our suffering can be considered wrong, and so we have hope because 'in Christ' we like him will be vindicated at our resurrection.

Lord, give me humility.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Legalism by Design or Default?

Thinking and reading on the NPP again, I came across a interesting article by Tim Gallant on the Judaizers of Galatia. What opened up bright new shining streets for me though, with a little thought about tying in salvation-history as well, was just one phrase: That for the Judaizers 'Judaism becomes a merit religion, not by design but by default'. On a first re-reading of Galatians this afternoon, that could well explain both the clear focus on the Jew-Gentile relationship and the less prominent passages clearly combating legalism.

Re-reading an article by Bruce Longenecker (in this book) I found the same idea...

I think I read too fast, and with too little thought, because this happens to me time and again! Piper would be ashamed of me.

[update: and now I learn Richard Baxter would be as well:

"It is not the reading of many books which is necessary to make one wise, but the well reading of a few, could they be sure to have the best."]

...Still learning...

Old and New Perspectives...Oil and Water?

Bruce Longenecker reviewing Moo's commentary on Romans in 1998, says some interesting things regarding the New Perspective:

The remainder of this review will give consideration to one final matter: Moo's rhetoric against the 'new perspective on Paul'. From the first page of the 'Author's Preface' (p. viii), Moo advertises his concern to critique this perspective throughout the commentary proper, while espousing a more traditional view. This reviewer had the sense that, while the 'new perspective' receives some criticism, it has nonetheless helped to refine Moo's discussion considerably. The ethnic and covenantal dimension of the law is often discussed in a way that would please most advocates of the 'new perspective'. This is especially clear in Moo's work on Romans 2, for instance, where Paul is repeatedly shown to be countering covenantal nomism directly (e.g., pp. 126-27, I3I~33, 148, 155, 157-59, 166-67, 171. 181, 215); as Moo highlights, the law 'functioned, more than anything else, to give Israel its particular identity as a "people apart" (p. 145; cf. pp. 146, 166, 398). Dynamics of this sort are far more evident in Moo's commentary than in, say, C. E. B. Cranfield's commentary of 1975, evidencing that the more recent discussion has contributed significantly to the perception of issues, even among those who are unsympathetic to the 'new perspective'. While Moo polemizes against the 'new approach to first-century Judaism' that is largely indebted to the work of E. P. Sanders, finding it to be 'ultimately inadequate' (p. 208), he nonetheless seems unaware of the extent to which he himself has benefited from that approach.


In the light of this, I look forward to the day when commentaries on Romans move beyond the polemical 'either-or' that currently plagues the issue of 'Paul and the law'. The 'new perspective' has proved especially helpful in highlighting the social dimension of the matter, but may not have given enough attention to Paul's description of the desperate condition of humanity which frequently underlies his critique of Jewish covenantalism. On the other hand, while traditional views have made much of this 'anthropological' component of Paul's critique, they have not always been attuned to the significant 'social' dynamics that Paul seeks to address. Moo's commentary often attempts to do justice to both aspects, and on this he is to be applauded. But his polemic against the 'new perspective' reinforces a sense that the two perspectives are like oil and water. That is unnecessary and unhelpful, as even his own commentary shows. (Perhaps his attack on the 'new perspective' arises from an assumption that the traditional view has a more practical and pastoral cash value for contemporary Christians, serving to keep Christians dependent upon Christ alone; see, for instance, Moo's comments on the bottom of p. 216.) How might this unnecessary trap be avoided in the future? Perhaps the first thing to abandon is the perception of the new and traditional perspectives as two monolithic and mutually exclusive entities. In fact, there are many variations of position within both perspectives, with advocates of one perspective often articulating matters in a way that also includes elements of the other perspective. My hope is that the 'either-or' rhetoric of commentaries such as Moo's will come to be seen as the product of a particular era in scholarship, an era that quickly gave way to a more productive scholarly environment. Rather than going another round allowing the same dichotomizing agenda to determine the presentation of issues, perhaps we might hope for the appearance of commentaries that break out of the rhetorical constraints which mark out the current discussion. Whatever its other strengths might be, on this score Moo's commentary fails to set a constructive agenda for the future, being instead a product of its time.

(my italics, Longenecker, Bruce W. Review of The Epistle to the Romans, by Douglas J. Moo, Journal of Theological Studies 1998 49: 766-772)

It's not online I'm afraid, unless you have a subscription, which the Open University gives me despite the fact I don't study Theology...I love the OU.

Meanwhile, Ligion Duncan has a useful summary of Sinclair Ferguson's recent critical lecture on the NPP, which, while it made some good points, does nothing to overcome the 'either-or' impasse.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Newbigin and Universalism

Having just posted on how I was really enjoying reading Newbigin, but that he wasn't saying anything that I hadn't already absorbed from his previous writings, his next chapter on Election, has me really struggling in deep water. He writes on how Election should not be a doctrine which creates self-satisfied people, but that God elects some in order to bring salvation to all (drawing upon Romans 11). In the last page of the chapter, he then brings up the question that everyone must be asking: Does his doctrine of election lead to Universalism - is every individual saved?

He is clear that he realises that some people will be not be saved, but he doesn't want to say who. He does not even want to say what sort of people! However, he notes with approval that Paul worried about his salvation, and thinks Christians should do likewise. He likes the fact that in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25), both the saved and lost are suprised by their fate (in his view). He also likes the fact that when Jesus is asked whether there will be few or many who are saved, Jesus' doesn't answer but encourages the questioner himself to seek the narrow way (Luke 13:23ff).

I am very confused about what to think. He seems to be saying a lot of true things, but I don't think he can be right. Skiping forward, I discover that this does not affect his zeal for mission, as he thinks that mission is human-centered when concerned with saving souls, when it should be concerned with giving glory to God, which comforts me a little.

Because he wrote so much, he repeated much of what he said so you can read him on Universalism from page 9-11 here, thanks to, or read his answers to some related questions (2 and 4) here. If anyone has any insights please tell me, I think I will have to ring my uni friend who introduced me to Newbigin, and see what he has to say.

On top of the Universalism point he said a couple of other things in what I read last night which made me sit up and think...Just when I was getting comfortable with him!

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The story of the Blind Men, the Elephant, and the King

I bet you've been told the Indian fable of the blind men and the elephant in one form or another. A King asks some blind men who have been directed to an elephant:

"'Tell me, blind people, what is an elephant like?'

"Those blind people who had been shown the head of the elephant replied, 'An elephant, your majesty, is just like a water jar.'

Those blind people who had been shown the ear of the elephant replied. "An elephant, your majesty, is just like a winnowing basket.'

Those blind people who had been shown the tusk of the elephant replied, 'An elephant, your majesty, is just like a plowshare.'


Those blind people who had been shown the tuft at the end of the tail replied, 'An elephant, your majesty, is just like a broom.'

"Saying 'An elephant is like this, an elephant is not like that! An elephant is not like this, an elephant is like that!' they fought each other with their fists. And the king was delighted (with the spectacle).

"Even so, bhikkhus, are those wanderers of various sects blind, unseeing... saying, "Dhamma is like this!... Dhamma is like that!'"

It is a story often used by those in favour of either agnostism or syncratism in talking about the plurality of religions. The elephant represents god, the blind men, adherents of various religions; but who is the story-teller? Lesslie Newbigin, long-time missionary to India, understands:

The story is constantly told in order to neutralize the affirmation of the great religions, to suggest that they learn humility and recognize that none of them can have more that one aspect of the truth. But, of course, the real point of the story is exactly the opposite. If the king were also blind there would be no story. The story is told by the king, and it is the immensely arrogant claim of one who sees the full truth which all the world's religions are only groping after.

(The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 9, London:SPCK)

I thought I would give you the smallest of Newbigin tasters, in the light of my previous post. One might also ask, what if the elephant could speak?

Newbigin book cover

Two things I am enjoying at the moment

  1. Mark Horne's sermon on the Christian's armour (Eph 6). Amazing exposition focusing on how Paul is calling on us to put on God's own armour (see Isaiah 59:17) and carry out God's purpose of bringing salvation by so doing. It's a absolute must listen!
  2. I am also reading some Lesslie Newbigin again, this time The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Although I haven't finished it yet, I am already ready to say that it is the best book I have read this year. (Not the most personally important, as I have already absorbed much have what he has to say, but the one I would most happily recommend as worth every minute for everyone who reads it.) It is so in touch with what is going on in society, despite writen by an eighty-year-old 15 years back, and so rightly shows how Christian's should interact with it. It's not too academic but it is deep, and faithful. I have wanted to post quotes from almost every other page, but have resisted because if I post one I will have to post the rest.
Newbigin book cover

Hebrews 2: Jesus the forerunner

Just starting to read Hebrews one-to-one with someone and spent much of last night thinking through chapter 2, specifically:

It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified:

"What are mere mortals that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them?
You made them a little lower than the angels;
    you crowned them with glory and honour
    and put everything under their feet."

In putting everything under them [or him], God left nothing that is not subject to them[or him]. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them [or him]. But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

(Hebrews 2:5-9 TNIV)

I started with my ESV which translates as 'him'/'his' (as does the NIV) instead of 'them'/'their' (as TNIV/NRSV) the words in doubt, and I gave myself a right headache trying to understand how the passage made sense. Under the ESV/NIV the quotation is understood to be talking about Jesus, even though it was originally about humanity (no problem their though), and the Hebrews problem was that Jesus did not seem to be ruling the world, with glory and honour. He didn't seem to be ruling because his followers were being persecuted, not vindicated - this was no abstract theological problem for them. How does the author answer this concern of theirs? He says 'But...see Jesus...crowned with glory and honour' - You don't see Jesus crowned with glory and honour...but look he is! It makes no sense!

So although I know no Greek, I have to go with the TNIV/NRSV because they make sense of the argument...the encouragement to these suffering Christians. It really blowed me over last night as I understood it for the first time. The Hebrews problem was that they did not see humanity crowned with glory and honour. They were still subjected to the fear of death (v.15), despite being the new humanity restored to the image of God! The author's encouragement to them is to look at Jesus who came alongside suffering humanity (a point that the author drums home again and again this chapter) but is now no longer in that lowly state but is crowned with glory and honour. In fact, chapter 2 insists, this suffering was necessary for him to be crowned with glory and honour.

This is an encouragement to the Hebrews because they can 'share in Christ' (2:14)! Jesus went as a 'forerunner' (6:20) and we can follow him. But like him we need to suffer first.

This is great, especially for my new Christian friend who is just beginning to realise that the Christian life is not all sweetness and light. Although I dread trying to communicate how humanity's place is as ruler over creation, and how that is good for everyone. Creation may in some ways now make life hard for us in consequence of God's curse, but it does long for humanity to be restored to its right place, in a right spirit. There are few things I fear communicating to 21st century people more than this idea, yet it is so central to the bible, and to the gospel, it cannot be avoided.

PS I realise that I have not covered all that is going on in this passage, and that very little of it is ground-breaking. But I wanted to record the happy time I had last night with God and the author of Hebrews, and my fears over passing it on.