Monday, November 28, 2005

Jesus standing with us on the banks of the Jordan

Try and imagine the scene. A weird looking guy is hanging about the wilderness to the East of Israel calling on people to 'prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight'; that is to prepare for the Lord leading his people back from the oppression of exile to the promised land (in the verse's Isaianic context). Of course to do this they will have to go through the river Jordon, a bit like Joshua did, to symbolise that entering of the land, and also their cleansing from the sins that previously lead to the exile. However there is no point coming to visit this man and symbolically participate in this entering into blessing unless you are going to repent and produce work in keeping with repentance. Despite this high cost, and the weirdness of it all this strange leader seems to be attracting quite a following. They do not appear to be a very impressive grouping though.

The entrance of Jesus into this situation, not to sit on the sidelines but to participate, is very hard for a Christian to comprehend. While the rite clearly holds out considerable hope it is also intrinsically a self-condemnation, and a recognition that you and your people are not in the place of promise but still in the place of punishment. John the Baptist has the same dilemma as the Christian, that this is not the actions of a sinless Son of God, but of someone who did not think of himself more highly than anyone else. Jesus' answer (that it is 'to fulfil all righteousness') quite cryptic, and for me has only added to the problems I have had with this passage. However, it convinces John the Baptist!

Light was finally shone on this passage for me a few months ago when I read this passage thinking about how it must have seemed to the people attending (not just John and Jesus), and with a mind infected with a lot of stuff from Tom Wright. 'Righteousness' Wright and others (e.g Hagner on this passage) argue can have the meaning of 'God's plan for redemption'. What sparked off in my head that this may be the case here was the word 'fulfil' which usually in Matthew (which I was reading) used for the fulfilment of scriptures. Whether or not you accept this definition, it seems to me that the glorious truth is that this is a story of Jesus beginning his ministry by identifying with a motley crew of repentant sinners with a hope. Jesus condemns himself like the crowd and goes beneath the water (understood, later at least, as symbolising death, Rom 6:3). However when he comes out of the water he is, like the people around him hoped they were, seen by God as clean and pleasing. He is called by God 'Son' a title previously (slightly ill-fittingly) held by Israel (Exodus 4:22f) and Israel's representative king (Psalm 2). Except, unlike how his previous name-sakes were so often found, he is found pleasing in the eyes of God. This is not some temporary thing either, as immediately he is then tempted in the desert just like Israel, but unlike Israel in the passages he quotes at the devil he is perfect obedience.

We repentant sinners participate in baptism with the baptism of death he suffers, but because we are participating in the symbol of his death and not just our own we are also raised with him to new life, and seen by God as pleasing. Something we could never have achieved without the supremly humble Son of God par excellence.

This truth put me on such a high a few months back. A problem-scripture became for me the most brilliant picture of the Gospel. I am only sorry I took so long to share it (I was really busy at the time). Please worship God with me for the way his Son chose to begin his ministry.

PS I could never have applied it so well without the insights of Charles Moule.

PPS although this great event's interpretation does not hang on whether or not baptism was seen by Jesus himself as a symbol of death I think Mark 10:38-39 suggests he did. James the son of Zebedee being the first martyr if I remember correctly.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Time management with God

I wonder what some of my readers would think if I said that today I attended an Anglican church service with a woman curate preaching on ‘Balancing Act: Time Management’. I can assure you I felt much the same way especially when one of the two sermon texts was Ecclesiastes 3 (‘a time to be born, a time to die…’), a text that, as the preacher pointed out, had ‘launched a thousand tea towels’! In fact it was really good, partly because it largely ignored the title except for the word ‘time’. Obviously it was not perfect, and I added in bits, and made connections, in my head as we went along which were clear improvements ;) – who said sermons were not interactive. Anyway for my own benefit I’ll try my weak best to summarise what she said.

  • Ecclesiastes has a negative understanding of how significant the things we do really are. This may be contrasted with Proverbs.
  • Verses 1-8 must be understood in the light of what follows (vs. 9-13) and especially v.11 (‘He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.’)
  • Braking v. 11 up: time can be beautiful; but still we are designed to long for more; that more is in God, yet God is hard to reach and comprehend.
  • While we may toil under the sun, God did not stay distant but came close in Christ’s incarnation.
  • Looking at Rev 22 we see that time is a part of God’s plan for eternity – time is not inherently tyrannical.
  • We are caught in-between times trying to live in the eternity, which has already begun in our lives, while also being under the sun as Ecclesiastes describes.

It gets harder to remember the exact order of things now, but she continued along something like.

  • In the light of the above it may seem that it doesn’t matter what we do with our time. Paul however opposes such a view and encourages us to make the most of every opportunity, and to be alert to Christ’s coming.
  • If you want some time management advice try the Internet or go on a course.
  • Make sure you spend time with God.

This may be the first time I wish I had taken notes to a sermon. Partly I suppose because she didn’t stick to a text.

How on earth does 'the commandment' produce and 'opportunity' for Sin?

The identity of the man described in Romans 7:7-25 has been the subject of considerable discussion in scholarly circles. I tend to agree with the growing majority that it does not refer to Paul post-conversion, but must refer to either him or Israel without Christ. However this observation has never made it easy for me to really understand how on earth, 'the commandment [not to covet], produced in me all kinds of covetousness' (v.8). It on the face of it makes no sense and obviously Paul is well aware of that and explains how this counter-intuitive sequence of events occurs because of Sin (n.b. capital 'S'). However, I have never been able to get behind this explanation to understand more clearly what is going on [this has often made me wonder whether I am just a little dim]. This is also why I’ve never really been able to understand when Tom Wright commenting on this passage says things like:

Torah could not of itself condemn sin in the flesh in such a way that it (sin) was fully dealt with. It could only heap up sin in the one place.

I have serious problems comprehending how sin can be heaped up. This is probably why I have had problems when Alistair Roberts adds that

it is important that we notice that this aspect of Christ’s death focuses on His dying for the sins of the covenant people of Israel. Christ dies for the nation first and foremost (e.g. John 11:50; Galatians 3:10-14; Hebrews 9:15). He dies by extension for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2).

As you can see it is not as if this is an unimportant problem concerning just this one passage either, it affects how you do biblical theology, and how you understand Christ’s death too. In the light of this two different people have been very helpful in helping me to get it together a bit more.

Alistair Roberts (again) recently wrote that:

The Ten Commandments were primarily intended to teach people how to live in God’s presence. Unfortunately, Sin starts to grow in power as it comes into the presence of God. Outside of the presence of God Sin is like a slumbering dragon. When God comes close Sin awakes and starts to rebel. Those who are brought into the presence of God will find that their struggle with Sin becomes more and more intense. This is one of the ways in which God’s Law increases the power of Sin.

This passage only jumped out at me because I had recently read Lesslie Newbigin saying:

As the coming of Jesus precipitated a crisis for Israel, so the coming of the Church will precipitate a crisis for the world. The coming of light into darkness must necessarily have this effect. In the darkness things can be hidden; when the light comes people have to choose. If Jesus was rejected, so will his mesengers. Not only so, there will be false Christs. The coming into the world of the promise of total salvation, of a radically new age, precipitates at the same time the appearing of those who offer salvation on other terms.

(The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 122, London: SPCK)

At risk of moving on to the personal without enough emphasis being paid to the corporate, you can easily understand how Romans 7 has so often been related to the Christian’s experience in the history of interpretation. We still face the battle against the old self rebelling against the presence of God as Israel did corporately and individualy. However I doubt Paul would describe the battle for the Christian as Sin vs. ‘the commandment’. Now it is the battle between Sin and the heavenly (and future) reality in Christ mediated by the Spirit. This time the result will be very different BUT ONLY BECAUSE the previous battle was fought in Israel and, after the rout, defeated by Israel’s champion: the king of the Jews.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Think about and then cultivate thankfulness

Still busy, so if you are visiting go and read this post by Bob Kauflin:

Our culture puts a high value on being "real" as we come before God. Genuine. Vulnerable. Authentic. The Psalmists don’t hesitate to tell God when life is a mess and they’re struggling. (Check out Psalm 13, 42, and 88). But in a society where self-expression is often hailed as the ultimate virtue, I’m not sure that "being real" before God is my problem. Being thankful is.... [Read more]

Very true, and inspiring. But if our culture finds being honest to God easy more than most (and I think we do), it is strange that it doesn't seep through into our worship songs (at least the popular ones).

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Examining yourself to proclaiming the Lord's death

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. (1 Cor 11:27f)

Douglas Wilson takes no prisoners debunking the far too often misunderstood meaning of this passage.

I love the Lord's Supper. To be able to be like the disciples Wilson describes, but examine yourself and see it, and then proclaim that the Lord's death has shed the blood you drink so you will not be punished (v.32)!

But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. (1 Cor 11:31)

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

'Jesus Christ is in the OT in the sense ‘New Israel’ is in the OT'

I enjoyed this quote from Brevard Childs, although there is nothing especially original about it. Please feel to skip what is just another of my quote-posts.

The Christian Church retained the Old Testament not for antiquarian reasons, but because it spoke of Jesus Christ. The Old Testament is not just an historical preparation for his coming, but it is a manifestation of him. Yet every time the attempt has been made to determine more precisely the presence of Jesus Christ within the Old Testament, Jesus emerges as a very shadowy figure and the Old Testament loses its real content. This uncertainty appears not only in the Biblical theologies, but reflects itself even more acutely in the pulpits of the Christian Church. In our opinion, at least the direction for a solution is to be found in the understanding of 'New Israel' as the Old Testament’s witness to reality. Jesus Christ is in the Old Testament in the sense ‘New Israel’ is in the Old Testament. Whenever Israel responded in faith, the new existence, which is Jesus Christ, was taking tangible shape. For this reason the New Testament identifies appearances of the new life in Israel’s history with Jesus Christ. Abraham saw Christ’s day (John 8.56); Moses suffered for Christ’s sake (Heb. 11.26); Isaiah saw his glory and spoke of him (John 12.41).

(pp. 105-6, Myth and Reality in the Old Testament, 1962, London: SCM)

All I would add is that the 'Old Israel' can point to the 'New Israel' and so to Christ too.

Oh to have time to post

I've not been posting much recently. I really would like to but never seem to have the energy at the same time as I have the time (I have both but they never coincide). I'd like to post on Jesus' baptism (because it is one of the most amazing things, and it is only relatively recently that I have understood what an amazing demonstration of God's love, and our hope it is). I'd also like to post on UCCF, the Anglican Communion, and church unity (all at once, prompted by an Anglican friend and the UCCF annual report). I hope to get round to posting on the suffering of the NT church and how that effects our application of the NT (because I find it hard). I’d love to post on how I have learnt from experience that the New Perspective, properly utilised, has plenty of cash-value for application to 21st century Christian lives. I’ll properly never get round to any of them, but there it stands as a record.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Our personal God...a unquestioned foundation?

Thanks largely to a friend I have been thinking in a serious way about apologetics for the first time in a while (I will get back to you Chris). Now having a very Newbigin-influenced, semi-presuppositional approach to apologetics I was interested to read a post by Peter Leithart on a lecture by John Franke (who has been the focus of a bit of a blogosphere hullabaloo recently). Here is Leithart on Franke's lecture:

He cited Nancy Murphy's definition of foundationalism as 1) the assertion that systems include indubitable, unquestioned beliefs that are not subjected to critical scrutiny and 2) the claim that all reasoning moves in one direction, from the indubitable beliefs outward.

Intriguingly, the respondent raised the question of whether God is "foundation" or "rock" for believers, and if that is so, should the foundation be questioned. In response, Franke clarified that he believes in ontological foundations, but disputes "classical" foundationalism. But he also noted that in Scripture believers do question God (think Jeremiah, even Abraham before Sodom). On this view, even God is not an "unquestioned" foundation.

I do not have much to say - this is way out of my league - but it seems to me (and I do say 'seems' because I do not know what Franke has to say that well) that Franke appears to have confused our personal God with a bare worldview/paradigm. This may sound like a airy fairy attempt at dodging the issue (like 'the bible is not propositional it's a story(!)') but I really do think it is key. You can question a person, without doubting their existence. Admittedly the bible character's questioning implied they had doubts, but their doubts were about whether God really could be trusted not his existence. Incidentally it should not be forgotten that doubt is not the same as unbelief.

Some of the people I got some of my thinking from:
  • Lesslie Newbigin; try his essay 'Certain Faith: What Kind of Certainty?'
  • CS Lewis; despite being anything but a fideist, believed that once you believed faith is much more a personal relationship, and faith should persist in the face of evidence if previous dealings with that person warranted trust. His essay 'Obstinacy in Belief' is brilliant if you can get hold of it.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Notes to self: Exodus 1-6

Things in Exodus 1-6 to think about more, and to look up in the library.

  1. Exodus 7:3 and other verses referring to the 'signs and wonders' Moses will perform to convince the people of Israel and Pharaoh. Interesting that the NT should use just the same phrase to describe the evidences of the Apostles (e.g. Heb 2:4). Also related is it of any significance that a quick computer search of the phrase 'signs and wonders' in the NT produces 11 entries all of which refer to the miracles of the Apostles (or false prophets) with the one possible exception of John 4:48?

  2. When Moses is sent back to Egypt after earlier escaping with his life, there is real tension as you think he is going just to be executed as soon as he gets there. He sets off for Egypt on a donkey with his wife and children. Is it possible that Jesus was thinking of this passage, as well as Zechariah, when he chose to enter Jerusalem, to be executed, on a donkey (4:20)?

  3. What on earth is going on in Exodus 4:24 and following? Why is God seeking to kill the man he has just sent, and why does Zipporah’s action solve the problem?

    At a lodging place on the way the LORD met him and sought to put him to death. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin and touched Moses' feet with it and said, "Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!" So he let him alone. It was then that she said, "A bridegroom of blood," because of the circumcision. The LORD said to Aaron, "Go into the wilderness to meet Moses." So he went and met him at the mountain of God and kissed him.

  4. What does Moses mean when he says to Yahweh that 'How then shall Pharaoh listen to me, for I am of uncircumcised lips?' (6:12 and 6:30)? It only appears in these two verses in the whole bible according to my computer!

Jeff Meyers on translating 'YHWH'

A few months ago I posted on why we should use the divine name Yahweh/YHWH instead of 'the LORD'. Jeff Meyers clearly thought of it before me, and has a lot more good reasons than me why he and his church use the name of the Hebrew God when reading the OT.

On not assuming the role of the benefactor in life

Reading a bit of Luke today in preparation for an upcoming cell meeting I came across the parable of the Good Samaritan. I have never have totally understood the dialogue between Jesus and the Lawyer, but one thing at least explains the reason why Jesus answers the Lawyer's question with the parable. The lawyer asks the question with a desire to understand who (and who not) he has a duty to love, Jesus answers it with a parable which ends with basically the same question but this time from the perspective of the helpless not the benefactor.

Reading it today I thought back to a Sydney Anglican article on one of their recent synods (although that is not to imply they are the equivalent of the lawyer, it is just they illustrate how one could become like him):

It was a real shock. Synod is very professional/middle class, old and very white. I live a sheltered life and it is not often I come across this type of crowd. Not at work, church, or on the train. [...]

But it was the whiteness of the crowd that got to me. It felt like I wasn't in Sydney. Many of my fellow pewsitters were not there.

From some well-meant-but-revealing speeches it was clear that the "house" considers itself as made up of the "well educated". "The poor" were outsiders. [my italics]

I also thought of Mark Horne’s so called 'big lie' which I feel the point of more and more:

Every time we Christians talk about our need to reach contemporary culture we are telling a lie to ourselves and others--a lie that worsens the problem we're trying to address.

We are contemporary culture just like everyone else who is now alive. We don't have to reach anywhere. We're already here.

Speech about reaching contemporary culture reveals our ongoing effort to keep the gospel away from most of who we are.

Despite what we say, we all too often we think of ourselves as the benefactor of either God or other people. For all its faults I am deeply grateful for Marcus Honeysett's book which has powerfully reminded me that first and foremost we should be joyful, and thankful, for what God has done for us in Christ. And behind much religious sin is a attitude of considering yourself the benefactor and not the recipient of grace.

God is good, and I rejoice in what he has done.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Finding joy

Thinking about it, all my posts recently have been a bit serious/depressing/confessional. Perhaps it's time I finaly got round to reading Dave Bish's book of the year and find joy ;)

Funnily enough I am being serious (and I supose confessional as well)!

book cover

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The incarnational nature of scripture

Sadly I am becoming a blogger who does little other than quote people at the moment. If I had a little more time and energy I would not be, but here is another quote-based post.

Rick Phillips is complaining about the recent concern of some to propagate a 'incarnational' doctrine of scripture. This approach (recently, and slightly controversially, espoused by Peter Enns book) is concerned to emphasize that Scripture is both fully of God and fully human.

I think I will record my various thoughts on what he wrote...

It is true that God's Word is both divine and human, but that does not make "incarnational" an accurate description. The message is a divine message, not a divine/human message. Its origin and content derive not from man but from God (2 Pet. 1:20-21).

It seems to me Phillips is setting up an antithesis 'incarnationalists' would not accept. Being a good Calvinist I believe everything that has its 'origin and content' in humanity has its ultimate origin in God's will. Really the question is whether it it's content is after God's heart, and so whether it contains freedom or slavery; truth or lie. The humans writing scripture like any preacher today believe they are speaking in accord with the longings of God's heart, they claim that both the origin and authority for their content is God (agreeing with Phillips) but that does not mean that they would deny the 'origin and content' did not belong to them too. So when Phillips argues that: 'Warfield labors to point out that "what the prophets affirm is that their messages do not come out of their own hearts and do not represent the workings of their own spirits" (p. 93).' he is manifestly wrong. If the biblical writings did 'not represent the workings of their [writer's] spirits' they would never have bothered to put pen to paper.

Phillips then, after affirming the divine accommodation of scripture (which in fact is very similar to the 'incarnationalists' approach), says some interesting things.

But it is noteworthy, I think, that current Reformed scholarship's emphasis on the humanity of Scripture (following mainstream academia) is exactly opposite of the Bible's strong emphasis on the divinity of Scripture over against its humanity ("Thus saith the Lord," etc.). In doing so, we also de-emphasize those perspectives on the Bible that most reflect its divine nature, such as its unity, its authority, its clarity, and its power. Instead, we emphasize (and glorify) human factors, most especially the priest-academics upon whose critical-scholarly techniques we will increasingly have to rely as the Bible is more and more seen as a book of man.

I feel the sting of this comment. I want to both defend the Reformed scholarship I often follow, and follow Phillips criticism of it, and of myself with it. In its defense I would say that Reformed Scholarship is right to emphasize the humanity of scripture in the light of views such as Phillips (which as Enns points out often do as much harm as good) for reasons I have hinted at. On the other hand I feel the force of his appeal to scripture. But after a little thought I think that the reason for this can be found in the differing contexts of the two. The 'incarnationalists' emphasis on the human is right in the context of unhelpful views like Phillips, the biblical writers however were I suspect reacting against the opposite view. Perhaps the differing approaches are due to different understandings of the threat to the truth, scripture with a much more outward-looking concern, than the largely in-house argument of the 'incarnationalists'. I think of the all too few occasions I stand to defend the truth of God's word to the world, compared to the many times I think over the pros and cons of various doctrines in my own home.

I do not think it a sin to look to God's appointed teachers in the church for understanding I cannot receive alone on a desert island with my bible. However, I do confess that I too often emphasize the human part of the bible because of my fleshly desire to avoid a confrontation with God. But bizarrely this is also avoidance of the human authors own challenge!

I have disproved myself there! And when I think about it I can emphasize the divine aspect in my thought and still avoid the confrontation. I am confusing myself so I will stop.

For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.

And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. (1 Thes 2:11-13)

I cannot separate the divine and human origin of scripture in my head, but sadly I can hold it at arms length however I imagine it so that it cannot work in me, as it did in the Thessalonians.

...Please pray for me. This is after all the root of all Christian life.

PS sorry for the confusingly written post, I hope you got the gist of it. I would rewrite if I had the energy, but I do not. I am glad I thought about the issues though

The two-directional church

A similar point to that articulated by Peter Leithart in the last post is made by Oliver O'Donovan:

We tore ourselves away from them and, putting to sea, made a straight run (Acts 21:1)

Oliver O'Donovan

A nice dramatic translation there, from The Revised English Bible, capturing the intensity of Paul's farewell to the elders of the church at Ephesus: "We tore ourselves away." And there is more "tearing away" to come. St. Paul's company puts in at Tyre; the disciples there urge him to give up his journey; but a week later they have to escort him to the beach, kneel down and pray with him, and bid goodbye. In Ptolemais there is just a single day spent with the brotherhood. In Caesarea "all the local people", we are told, "beg and implore" the apostle to stay put. Once again he will not be persuaded, but hits the road, escorted on his way again by local Christians. As we follow Paul on these last steps of his journey round the Eastern Mediterranean, we find at each place the same striking tension: the local community wants to keep him with them, he presses on determinedly to Jerusalem.

What is it that draws Paul forward towards the conflict that faces him? What is it that makes the churches want to hold him back? [...]

[...] From the beginning the church is universal and local, catholic and particular, spread throughout the world and gathered, one and many.

And as we read on in the Acts of the Apostles we find this is reflected in a twofold service that supports the church. There is the service of the word, on the one hand; and there is the service of "tables", on the other. A useful word, "tables". In the ancient world you served food on them and you used them to count money on. All material and pastoral administration is summed up in the service of tables. Out of this twofold service tradition developed the ministries we now know of bishops, priests and deacons. The essential point, however, is that the service God gives the church is always two-directional: turned inward, and turned outward. There is the intensive care of the gathering community; there is the extensive outreach of missionary communication; the inward horizon of charity, which links us in neighbourhood and mutual service, and the outward horizon of proclamation, which reaches to the ends of the earth.

This two-directional call of the church, is something I have only recently come to really understand. It is powerfully challenging.

Interestingly I have only just read Leithart express a related truth in his brilliant essay on the Kingdom of God:

I have argued in previous writings on the kingdom of God that the "universal" and "particular" aspects of the kingdom are "perspectivally related". That is, each requires and assumes the other. The universal leads to the particular because Christ rules over all things for the Church (Eph. 1:22). The particular leads to the universal because the Church over which Christ rules exists for the sake of the world.

No wonder David Field can, in a review of A Royal Priesthood, suggest that 'Peter J. Leithart, has written a small, eminently readable and accessible book [Against Christianity] which captures the key themes of O'Donovan and presents them pithily and amusingly.'

...Against Christianity has just been promoted to the top of my to-buy list.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

The purpose of Christian community

My cell is thinking about what it exists for at the moment. It's trying to regain some vision. I am desperate that we do not fall into the trap Peter Leithart describes, although I suspect I am the worse offender.

From the paean to nineteenth century New England community offered by conservative David Wells to the social Trinitarianism of the trendy postmodern theologian Stanley Grentz, evangelicals across the theological spectrum are singing the praises of community. I have great sympathy for this recent interest in (obsession with?) community. At the same time, I fear that much of it is driven by a thinly veiled nostalgic romanticism. In the face of rampant secularization and brutalization of public life, a retreat into the safe bounds of old-fashioned "community" is attractive. We can hole up in our little ghettos and wait for the storm to pass. We can nurture community life on a small scale, and leave the world to do what it likes, which is mainly to go to hell.

This is a snare, and a foolish, dangerous one. It is foolish because it perpetuates the modern heresy that confines the church to a private sphere. When we act as if Christian community is a "safe haven" in a heartless world, we are making common cause with the secularists, who are only too delighted to let us indulge our infantile communal fantasies in private, so long as we leave the public world to the (inevitably secular) grownups.

More importantly, treating community as a private retreat is a snare because it is a betrayal of the church's nature.

As an aside, I think Lesslie Newbigin would passionately agree with it all.

...When will I listen?

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Critiquing some Evangelical's critique of postmodernism

I do not really know much about postmodernism beyond what I have read in a couple of books and met on the street. It is a hot issue though for Evangelicals with a concern for mission today. When Evangelicals critique postmodernism it is often painted as denying the possiblity of knowing anything, or that there is such a thing as 'truth'. I do not really know if this is accurate or not but I have been interested to read two independent reviews of Evangelical critics of postmodernism.

First I read Joel Garver on the Don 'jack of all trades' Carson's weighty book on the subject.

In The Gagging of God Carson does a decent job of explaining "the modern," but when he turns to the postmodern, his exposition seems to forget that it is the modern against which the postmodernists are reacting. Thus, when a philosopher rejects the notion of "objective truth," Carson reads this as if it were a denial of any truth whatsoever, rather than a denial of a theory of truth that presupposes a radical subject-object dichotomy, a representationalist theory of mind, and the need for apodictic certainty in order to know anything at all.

Carson goes on to suggest that deconstructionists insist upon either absolute knowledge or complete relativism. But this is not what the deconstructionists claim. Rather, this looks to me much more like Carson's own modernist prejudices showing through, presupposing this either/or.

Elsewhere Steve Bush finds fault with Paul Helm's review of The Character of Theology by John Franke, which is quite postmodern I think.

A prominent theme in The Character of Theology is the need for the theologian to perform the theological task in full cognizance of his or her personal and social context. Helm mentions Franke’s opening discussion of this theme and then states, "Then follows what is by now an all-too-familiar apologia for the need for us to be postmodernists in theology, jettisoning claims to knowledge in the process."

This is erroneous. Franke never suggests that we jettison claims to knowledge. Rather, he rejects a particular conception of knowledge, Cartesian foundationalism, in order to attend to contextual specificity: "To be human is to be situated in the context of particular cultures and communities such that our respective communities and traditions, be they religious or secular, play an indispensable role in shaping our conceptions of rationality as well as the beliefs we deem most basic and central to them" (182). These considerations are not unique to Franke, but are well established in the philosophical literature. Franke asks theologians to take their situatedness seriously in their pursuit of theological knowledge. He does not remotely suggest that this situatedness precludes knowledge, and Helm gives us no reason whatsoever to think that Franke’s position collapses into such scepticism.

I do not know what to make of these comments yet, but will keep them in mind and try to avoid any rash comments on the subject myself.

----------------- Update: 8 Nov -----------------

Mark Horne, Kyle Newcomer, and Kyle's commenters have more to say on reviews of Franke's book... Illuminating stuff.

----------------- Update: 15 Nov -----------------

Paul Helm has responded to Steve Bush, and Steve Bush has in turn responded yet again. This post is also worth reading. It all makes for interesting reading.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

The only way to unite God's people

Only just starting to get into Peter Leithart. An great example of his insightful short posts is his recent one on the attempts of various Israelite Kings to unite the nation following the division after Solomon. Many of these are by force, but every one ultimately fails. In conclusion Leithart states:

The only effective union for Israel and Judah was their union in exile. They are tied back together in a single nation only by being united in the grave (1 Kings 13).

You can just taste the NT fulfillment!

A lot of his posts are (like this one) on Kings, and I am left looking forward to his forthcoming commentary in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible on the book.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Newbigin quized

WALKER: If we're going to define Christianity by its centre, in what ways can you say that Jesus Christ is still 'good news for modern man'?

NEWBIGIN: Because death is conquerable; because the crucified is risen; because not just anyone rose from the dead, but this one who went down to the very depths of the human situation; because he is raised. I see Christianity as a kind of fall-out from an original explosion of joy. But of course you don't just communicate it simply by arguments. It's an existential reality present in a believing, worshipping community, and the only ultimate hermeneutic for the gospel is a believing community.

WALKER: What are your hopes for the future as far as the Church is concerned? What do you look for generally and hope for as the way forward?

NEWBIGIN: You may think that I'm evading your question, but I do believe fundamentally that the horizon for the Christian is not some prospect, some bit of futurology – either for his own personal life or for the life of his society. The horizon for the Christian is 'He shall come again' and 'We look for the coming of the Lord.' It can be tomorrow or any time, but that's the horizon. That horizon is for me fundamental, and that's what makes it possible to be hopeful and therefore to find life meaningful.

Brilliant! - especially the second answer. Read the rest here.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Instantaneous communication 30AD

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness...

In 1 Timothy 3:16 [Paul] quotes from a fascinating little hymn which helps us here. Jesus, says the hymn, 'was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory' (RSV).

This is a summary of Jesus' career. But the ascension comes last, following the universal proclamation of the gospel and a universal response. Historically, the conversion of the world takes place in the interval between the ascension of Christ and his return in glory (and that is how Paul views it in 1 Cor. 15:22-28). But theologically, Christ returned to glory bringing with him a redeemed world, a Victor with the spoils of war in his train - and this is the thought in 1 Timothy 3:16 (as also in Eph. 2:6 and 4:8-10).

(p. 123, Israel in the plan of God: Light on today's debate, 1989, Leicester: IVP)

Steve Motyer again with some interesting and Christ-honouring stuff.

Carl Trueman on Psalms

Off the top of my head, in frustration that Reformation 21 doesn't do comments.

Carl Trueman over at the Reformation 21 blog is arguing for the superiority of Psalms over hymns and other songs. My first response is surprise that there are evangelicals that even do that anymore. My second was that he makes some sound points and I am liable to agree. However there is a big 'but', and that is because of the fact that on the face of it there is nothing of Christ in these songs of Israel. I do know that there is really plenty in every one, but I wonder how useful it would be for the most of a congregation without a preceding course in how to do Biblical Theology like the apostles!

Ooo and another 'but' would be that we should be encouraging people to exercise their God given creative gifts to his glory here and now. And a third 'but' would be that I think that the church should not shy away from contextualization of the gospel, even in its singing (although I do not think that happens consciously at the moment anyway).

Not repeating Israel's mistake

Steve Motyer commenting on Romans 9:19:24 writes:

Can Paul reconcile his viewpoint with the teaching of the Old Testament? his 'objectors' answered with an emphatic 'No!' But he was no mean Bible student; and in the next section he seeks to show that the present situation accords with the way god has always dealt with his people. He rejects his opponents' essentially sentimental interpretation of the Old Testament and the covenant with Israel, which regarded God as a constitutional monarch, simply signing all the bills sent to him and unquestioningly underwriting Israel's existence. No, insists Paul, he is an executive monarch, managing his people as he wills within the framework of his promises even if this means making decisions hard for his subjects to understand.

(my italics, p. 65f, Israel in the plan of God: Light on today's debate, 1989, Leicester: IVP [criminally out of print])

Later in the letter Paul writes:

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, "Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in." That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God's kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. (Rom 11:17-22)

I don't know about you but as a gentile Christian I can easily see myself (and the gentile church) falling exactly like Israel did (Try replacing OT with NT, and Israel for church, in the first quote).

However I want to acknowledge my executive monarch, not a rubber stamping projection of my own desires.

From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen (11:36)

Newly discovered blogs!

Very excited!

Just found out that Tim Chester has a blog. For those of you who do not know who he is there is a list of what his writing includes here (including an online version of his thought-provoking article Christ's little flock) and his cv here. I am a great fan of his books which display a wonderful balance between thought-out theology and concern with the church and the world. He is involved in a wonderful group of churches in Sheffield called Crowded House which also has another blogger called Andy Stovell.

Looks like I have some happy reading to come when I have the time. Sadly though discovering new blogs means others need to be taken off my bloglines feed as I cannot give the ones I read at the moment the attention they deserve.

Also newly discovered is one by David Field (lecturing at OakHill Theological College) although it seems to contain even more eclectic types of post than mine (perhaps too much so).

Food, Unity, and the weaker brother

James’ judgment following the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 on whether the Gentiles should be circumcised runs as follows:

Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues."

What has struck me today is how the requirements James details focus around food, and that that may be due to the central role of the ‘love-feast’ Eucharistic meal among the early Christians. If you imagine the local church sitting down for their meal together, it would be important for Jew-Gentile relations that everyone could eat the food provided. Food sacrificed to idols or un-kosher food would offend most Jews creating disunity at the one time that unity should be most present. I am not sure but even the concern about fornication could be seen as linked to the eating of these shared meals from what I know about what happened in Greek symposia.

I think perhaps we can see why this issue was so important by looking at the letters of Paul.

In the Corinthian church food sacrificed to idols was quite an issue, and although the Jew-Gentile divide does not seem to be to the fore here I think it is helpful for understanding Paul’s approach to the matter. Eating food sacrificed to idols is perfectly acceptable to Paul as idols are only ‘so-called gods’, but he appreciates those who are unable to see this. Paul encourages the Corinthians to exercise their liberty with kindness towards those for whom feeling pressured to eat ‘defiled’ food (e.g. at a Eucharistic meal) would ‘wound their conscience’.

A similar situation is pictured in Romans, although here the issue is entwined with Jew-Gentile unity in Christ. In Romans 14 applies the same principles he described in 1 Corinthians, that as Christians we are free to eat whatever food we like (on the face of it against the Jerusalem Council letter) but with respect toward those ‘weak in faith’ who feel only able to eat vegetables (perhaps because the meat on offer had blood). This would again be a issue most keenly felt at a church ‘love feast’, we have a really strong vegan in our cell and whenever food is mentioned or eaten it becomes a real issue.

I think these passages can through a lot of light on the Antioch incident described in Galatians. Whether or not the letter was written before or after the council the same issues seem to be important. Again the issue is food, although the implications include the larger who’s-in-and-who’s-out Jew-Gentile discussion. Peter initially was happily eating with the Gentiles, and the presumption must be that he was eating the same food, indeed as Paul points out he was living like a Gentile (2:14). Peter was in Paul‘s view ‘self-condemned’ because he had already accepted that the Gentiles were included in God’s people and that the ‘uncleaness’ of food is not an issue because of his roof-top vision. However when decisive men came from James and were unable to eat the Gentile food with Gentiles, Peter showed where his preferences lay, causing the Gentile Christians confusion, and a feeling of inadequacy as their leaders deserted their ‘love-feasts’. This may have only been because of food but the connotations were obvious to all, and Peter and Barnabas could not claim to be ‘weak in faith’ as they were leaders who had already made the jump to considering food an non-issue. No doubt from Peter’s side it was not a big deal, but the implications about Jesus’ sacrifice and what that meant to church unity (who needs the legs of the body heh?) was decisive to the youngish church of Antioch.

Interesting but less important possible corollaries:

1. Maybe the certain men from James were not the problem, they just had weak faith. The problem was how the church leaders, specifically Peter and Barnabas, reacted to the this new pastoral issue. Instead of dealing with the issue as Paul does in 1 Corinthians and Romans, Peter and co. show their deep seated lack of faith in the cross (so deep that they are not even aware of it, something we all share).

2. If, as seems most likely, the Antioch incident was pre-Jerusalem Council it may explain the focus on the kosher food.

3. The most obvious contemporary application to me is the existence of a number of different services in churches (or even different churches full stop) catering to different tastes, which often contain a underlying sense of superiority of one group over the other. I’ll have to spend some time thinking of more applications.

NB I haven’t done any fresh reading of the secondary literature on these passages, as I do not have the time and just wanted to get down what I was thinking. Worryingly I cannot remember anything I have read on the passages off the top of my head. However, I had a quick look at what Jimmy Dunn has to say on the Antioch incident and he would disagree with me that the Antioch church had gone so far down the line that they were all eating un-kosher food before the men from James came. Rather the issue was much more about the ritual purity of the people at the table rather than the food on it. I would argue that years of hosting Paul would have had their effect on the church, and I think (unlike many scholars who think things can only change incrementally) we should assume that Peter followed the radical consequences of his vision through in his life.