Thursday, November 07, 2019

The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity by Douglas Murray, Review Part 1

Audible edition

In his previous title, The StrangeDeath of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, the author linked the immigration crisis with the decline of Christianity in Western Europe. The continent was Christian enough to be fueled by a guilt-driven sense of responsibility towards the afflicted, yet not quite Christian enough to believe in the possibility of forgiveness for past wrongs. The large scale rejection of Christianity in Western Europe led to a loss of cultural identity, which made it difficult to integrate the mass of people who flooded into the continent in the first two decades of the new millennium. In his latest work, Murray returns to the theme of the loss of faith in the West. 
...we have been living through a period of more than a quarter of a century in which all our grand narratives have collapsed. One by one the narratives we had were refuted, became unpopular to defend or impossible to sustain. The explanations for our existence that used to be provided by religion went first, falling away from the nineteenth century onwards. Then over the last century the secular hopes held out by all political ideologies began to follow in religion’s wake.
The resulting vacuum is being filled by the new religion of identity politics. If faith-based narratives aimed at unifying humanity as 'one people under God', identity politics works by entrenching fragmentation by creating hierarchies of oppressed victims. Social justice will only be achieved when the privileged majority owns up to its undeserved perks and stops kicking the downtrodden. 'Intersectionality' provides the heuristics for victim ranking. If you're a gay black woman with genderfluid tendencies, you've more or less come up trumps. If your're a straight white bloke with no intention of ever becoming a woman, forget it. 

Not one to shy away from controversy Murray bravely takes on the four most sensitive hot button issues as far as woke social justice campaigners are concerned: Gay, Women, Race, and Trans. The four main chapters are interspersed with interludes on The Marxist Foundations, The Impact of Tech, and On Forgiveness. Murray's approach is fair minded, well informed and questioning of received orthodoxies. Received all of 5 minutes ago that is, but to reject the new bien pensant creed is to find oneself on the 'wrong side of history'. And who wants to be consigned forever to the 1980s? 

I downloaded the audiobook edition as an Audibe introductory free offer. Accessing the book in that format has the advantage of listening to Douglas Murray read it to you, which he does very well. Hearing Jordan Peterson read his 12 Rules for Life in his slightly whiny American drawl wasn't anywhere near as engaging. Murray's tones are more varied, with shades of gentle irony, knowing mockery and on occasion poignant sadness. The writer doesn't use bad language himself, but cites examples people using swear words in anger, so be warned. The downside for writing up a review of an audiobook is that you can't go back to the text to check things. Plus, the notes I made while listening were a bit patchy. We (me and the Mrs) listened to the second half of the Trans chapter and the Conclusion on Saturday. At the time I was driving back from Devon trough heavy rain, which didn't exactly lend itself to note taking. Anyway, with the aid of a Kindle sample and a bit of Googling, here are some thoughts on The Madness of Crowds

Gay

In 2013 David Cameron's Conservative-led Government passed the Same Sex Marriage Act, enabling gay couples to get married just like their heterosexual peers. As a backbench Conservative MP Nicky Morgan voted against the legislation. A couple of years later as Education Secretary she issued a warning that opposition to 'gay marriage' could denote extremist tendencies. The quest for the respectability of marriage for same sex couples was a triumph of 'gay' over 'queer'. Gays craved acceptance, while queers wanted to subvert society with the aim of smashing heteronormativity. 

Gay adoption of heterosexual institutions was subversive enough. Marriage was traditionally defined as a lifelong, exclusive relationship between a man and a woman. A non-consummated heterosexual marriage is null and void, adultery is grounds for divorce. These strictures do not apply in the case of same sex marriage. Murray mentions without naming a well known gay couple whose marriage is of the decidedly open sort. Apparently, such an arrangement is not altogether exceptional. Criticism of same sex marriage, however, or even of gay couples having children is pretty much beyond the pale nowadays. When Tom Daley and his husband Dustin Lance Black announced they were having a baby, someone dared to ask how that was possible, given the stubborn necessities of reproduction. Was it right that the mother of their child was being written out of the story? Cue outrage and allegations of 'homophobia'. For saying it takes a man and a woman to make a baby. 

A big question when it comes to 'gay' is whether same sex attraction is a biologically-based hardware issue, or a matter of software, rooted in background factors. Possibly even a choice. If hardware, people can't help it, if software, maybe they can. Agitation for gay rights was very much based on the hardware model, although there is little evidence for a biological 'cause' of homosexuality. Indeed, as Murray points out, sexual desire is not always stable and unchanging. There are cases of happily married heterosexuals falling for someone of the same sex. That is often taken as someone discovering their previously suppressed 'true gay self'. The same does not necessarily apply when a gay person suddenly finds themselves attracted to someone of the opposite sex. Douglas Murray is a gay man. He can hardly be charged with 'homophobia' in raising such questions. 

The writer gives attention to the difference between heterosexual and homosexual approaches to sex. Murray draws on a spat over sex between the Greek gods Zeus and his wife, Hera. Zeus alleged that women enjoy sex more than men. Hera was having none of it. The argument was settled by Teiresias, who had lived both as a man and a woman. Something to do with interrupting snakes in the act of mating, apparently. Teiresias confirmed that sex was more pleasurable for women. 

Yet as men and women are sexually differentiated, but uniquely compatible, men cannot know what sex is like for women or visa versa. The same is not true when it comes to homosexual sex. Murray cites the work of Daniel Mendelsohn, The Elusive Embrace: Desire and the Riddle of Identity. According to Mendelsohn in straight sex the woman is the man's destination, while in gay encounters, the man "falls through their partner back into themselves again and again". The one flesh union of man and woman in marriage is an expression of self-giving love, rather than a means of self-gratification. Which is why heterosexual marriage is a picture of the union between Christ and his bride, the church, Ephesians 5:22-33. 

The Gay Rights movement has largely achieved its aims. Murray welcomes the fact that society is now much more tolerant of gays and lesbians. But tolerance is a two way street. Advocates for what used to be an oppressed minority have now become a force that demands unquestioning submission. Parents must accept the exposure of their children to LGBT relationships education without demur. Woe betide a business that fails to hoist the rainbow flag during Pride Week. The newly opened branch of American fast food chain Chick-Fil-A was told that its lease would not be renewed in a Reading shopping centre. Why? Because Chick-Fil-A had donated money in the US to Christian organisations opposed to gay marriage. Protesters demanded that the popular restaurant be closed and the owners of the Oracle Shopping Centre caved. (See Murray on this in The Spectator). The once persecuted have now become persecuting 'social justice warriors'. As Murray points out, however, homosexuality "is an unstable component on which to base an individual identity and a hideously unstable way to try and base any form of group identity." The splintering of Stonewall over the the trans issue, leading to the emergence of the rival LBG Alliance is testimony enough to that. More on trans later. 

Women

The whole battle of the sexes thing was given fresh impetus by the #MeToo campaign. It started with female actors alleging powerful male film directors had made unwanted sexual advances towards them. It spread from there to the whole of the Western world, affecting all areas of life, especially the workplace. It seems a bit rich that such a campaign originated in Hollywood. The film world has long made its bucks by objectifying women and female actors have often become stars by being so objectified. 

Murray exposes the contradictions inherent in the #MeToo reconfiguration of male/female relationships. It seems that women can be as sexually provocative as they like, shaking their booty and exhorting men to, 'Look at her butt' (N. Minaj). But if men respond to the come on, they are in danger of being exposed as pervy sexual predators. Women have become highly sexualised, yet untouchable. No wonder men are confused as to what the opposite sex wants. Just recently in the UK a rather gauche young man was convicted of sexual assault for touching a woman's arm (here). 

In the early 20th century first wave feminists demanded votes for women. In the 1960s second wavers agitated for equal pay and an end to discrimination against women. Both 'waves' achieved their ends. A third wave crashed against the shore in 1990s in which feminists embraced intersectionality. 'Smash the women oppressing Partiarchy' was the cry. Women were located higher up on the scale of righteous victimhood, depending on whether they also belonged to an ethnic minority, or were gay. The fourth wave is described by Murray is 'feminism with apps'. The slightest and most inadvertent semblance of sexism is guaranteed to provoke an enraged social media 'pile on'. Witness what happened to the Nobel prize winning scientist Tim Hunt when he made a lame joke about women getting all weepy in the labs. 

Just at the moment when women in the West have more or less achieved their equality goals, the rhetoric of male oppression and female victimhood is being ramped up beyond reason. Some feminists seem to think its OK to express their hatred of the male of the species, denouncing 'toxic masculinity'. 'Kill all men' and 'Men are trash', they cry. Meanwhile if the Patriarchy is conspiring to skew society in favour of men, its not doing a very good job of it. Men are more likely than women to commit suicide. They do most of the dirty and dangerous jobs in society. Homelessness among men is a far bigger problem than it is with women.

Murray highlights some of the contradictions in feminist ideology. When women in the workplace are asked to name what they find most objectionable about men they list things like confidence and the willingness to make their voices be heard in high powered meetings. When women are asked which qualities they aspire to embrace for themselves, they list the very same things. Bad in men, good in women, obviously. Feminism is driven by the idea that men and women are equal and alike, yet women are somehow better. Green Party MP Caroline Lucas recently suggested that as men were making such a hash of Brexit, that an all women cabinet should be set up to sort things out. Only to come a cropper when all the women she suggested were discovered to be white. 

Sex is the ultimate hardware issue, as men and women have obvious biological differences. Indeed first and second wave feminism was about ensuring that women weren't discriminated against on grounds of their biology.  Indeed it is not right that women should be refused jobs just because they might become pregnant and then want to devote time to caring for their children. In trans ideology, however, sex is not fixed. People can be 'genderfluid', or even identify with a gender that differs from their sex at birth. Biological hardware can be altered to enable men to become women, or the other way around. Men who identify as women 'are women' and are therefore entitled to access women only spaces such as toilets and changing rooms. 'Trans women' with all the advantages of male strength can play women's sports, even contact sports like rugby. To object when biological males begin to dominate female sports is 'transphobic'. A triumph of subjective 'software' over objective 'hardware'. And so intersectionality is in danger of undoing the achievements of earlier feminist movements. Draft guidance from the EHRC on the Equality Act and Schools advised that trans girls (i.e. boys who identify as girls) should be allowed to use girls' changing rooms. Girls who object will have to be found somewhere else to get changed. 

The Christian faith offers a different account of the relationship between men and women. The Bible teaches that God created human beings in his image as male and female, Genesis 1:27. Men and women are different by design, and yet are equal in status. The differences between men and women are rooted in biology, not culturally conditioned 'gender roles'. One of the things that made Christianity attractive to women in the ancient world was that the church held marriage in honour and denounced the sexual exploitation of women. Single women were also accorded a valued role in the life of the church. The biblical emphasis is on male/female compatibility, rather than competition. The shrill self-righteousness that insists women are better than men is chastened by the understanding that 'all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God'. (Romans 3:23). The male tendency to dominate and control women is counteracted by the model of Christ who loved his bride, the church  and gave himself for her (Ephesians 5:25). In Christ men and women, different as they are, can become one, 'there is neither... male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus'. (Galatians 3:28). 

Anyway, that's enough for now. We'll take a look at what Murray has to say on Race & Trans, and reflect on the message of the book as a whole in Part 2. 

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

A Bridge Too Far?


I vividly remember being taken to see A Bridge Too Far. We saw it in the old Royal Playhouse cinema in Tenby when on holiday back in 1977. The film boasted a stellar cast including Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins and Lawrence Olivier among the Brits and Gene Hackman, Ryan O’Neal and Robert Redford among the Yanks. The action was grippingly realistic, showing the heroism and tragedy of war. The plot told the story of Operation Market Garden, which took place 75 years ago from 17-25 September 1944.  It was hoped that by capturing key bridges over the River Rhine in Dutch occupied territory, that the Allies would then be able to press on into Germany. The war would be over by Christmas. The operation, brainchild of Field Marshall Montgomery, was an epic failure. The Allies met stiffer resistance than expected from occupying German troops. The attempt to seize the bridge at Arnhem by British Paratroopers indeed proved to be a ‘bridge too far’. The film has since come to be regarded as a classic British Word War Two movie and has been shown countess times on TV. War historians continue to discuss why Montgomery’s ambitious strategy failed. There’s a local connection here too. Gliders used in Operation Market Garden took off from Wiltshire airfields. We hope to hear more about that at our Remembrance Evening on 7 November, 7.30pm at Providence Baptist Chapel (scroll down the News & Events page). 

A costly epic failure. Perhaps some people view Jesus and his mission in those terms. He began his public ministry proclaiming the coming of a new kingdom. In this kingdom sinners were embraced and the self-righteous excluded, the humble would be lifted up and the proud brought low. Expectations were raised that God was going to do something big. Crowds flocked to hear Jesus’ teaching and witness the miracles he performed. Yet we know how it ended. Jesus’ enemies plotted to have him put to death. His closest followers forsook him. He was crucified at the orders of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. Before they crucified him Roman soldiers mocked Jesus, draping him in purple robe and thrusting a crown of thorns upon his head. Then they crucified him. Crucifixion was a shameful death, reserved only for common criminals and slaves. Above his head as Jesus hung on the cross was written the inscription, ‘This is the King of the Jews’.  The kingdom of God? Another one of history’s costly epic failures.

Or was it? Jesus specifically commanded his disciples not to take up arms to stop him being arrested and executed. He went to the cross willingly, knowing that it was God’s plan that he should suffer and die. Jesus came to lay down his life for the sins of the world. Only because he died for us could sinners be welcomed into God’s kingdom and the humble be raised up. That was the central message of the first Christian preachers. They didn’t try to downplay the fact that Jesus had been crucified, they positively gloried in it. What seemed to have gone so wrong was in fact God’s way of putting us right with him. The cross wasn’t a ‘bridge too far’. Rather, by his death Jesus bridged the gap between sin-broken humanity and a perfectly righteous and holy God. By faith in Christ countless millions of people all around the world have experienced forgiveness and peace with God. The message of Jesus continues to ring out, "The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!"

* For Trinity and News & Views parish magazines 

Monday, October 21, 2019

From Shadow to Substance: the old covenant and the covenant of grace

In a previous post I discussed whether the old covenant was a covenant of works. See here for my review of Shadow and Substance by Samuel D. Renihan.

Speaking of the Abrahamic covenant Particular Baptist pioneer, Nehemiah Coxe wrote that it was, 'a Covenant of Grace and Mercy...yet not that Covenant of Grace' by which Abraham's spiritual seed were saved.' (From Shadow to Substance, p. 257-258, n 122). He applied the same logic to the Sinai covenant. Coxe wanted to distinguish between the Abrahamic covenant as a manifestation of God's grace to the patriarch and his descendants and the covenant of grace proper.

The early Particular Baptists did not agree with the Presbyterian's Westminster Confession and the Independent's Savoy Declaration that the covenant of grace was 'variously administered' during the Old Testament era. The Second London Baptist Confession puts things rather differently, "This covenant [of grace] is revealed in the gospel; first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman, and afterwards by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament" (VII.3). 

Promised and promulgated 

Coxe and others were reluctant to identify the old covenant and the covenant of grace. The Abrahamic covenant operated on the basis of natural descent. The covenant was made with the Patriarch and his children who were marked with the seal of circumcision. It was to Abraham and his 'seed', the people of Israel that the Lord promised to give the land of Canaan. From Abraham's 'seed' the Messiah would one day come in whom all nations would be blessed. 

Particular Baptists granted that the covenant of grace was revealed in the types and shadows of Old Testament period, but it was not properly realised until the coming of Christ. It is for that reason that Paul refers to 'the covenants' God made with Israel (Romans 9:14) as 'covenants of promise' (Ephesians 2:12). The apostle recognised a diversity of covenants; Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic. The various covenants were united by holding forth the promise of something better in Christ. Those who trusted in the promise were saved on the basis of what Christ would do for them, Romans 3:25-26, Hebrews 9:15. 

A distinction, then, must be maintained between covenant of grace promised and promulgated (legally enacted). The gospel was preached beforehand to Abraham and his children by revelation of the promise of the covenant of grace. See Galatians 3:8, Genesis 3:15, 12:3, 22:18, 2 Samuel 7:12-16. Christ is 'seed' of woman, (Galatians 4:4), the 'seed' of Abraham, (Galatians 3:16), and the 'seed' of David, (2 Timothy 2:8). Promise is different to fulfillment. The covenant grace was only promulgated on death of Testator, Hebrews 9:15-17.  

Sorting the seeds 

But not all of Abraham's offspring were 'children of promise' who laid hold of the promise of grace in the coming Deliverer (Romans 9:8). Paul sorts Abraham's seed, saying, 'not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel' (Romans 9:6). As John the Baptist warned, natural descent from Abraham counted for nothing. What mattered was repentance from sin and faith in 'he who is coming', the Messiah (Matthew 3:9, 11).  According to Paul there was only a godly remnant within Israel 'chosen by grace'. The rest were hardened in their sin and stood condemned for their unbelief and disobedience. That is why Israel was exiled from the Promised Land and why few in Israel believed in the Messiah when he came, (Romans 9:27-29, 11:5, 7). Abraham's spiritual children among his descendants embraced the long-awaited Redeemer and took their place among the new covenant people of God. See Simeon (Luke 2:22-35) and Anna (Luke 2:36-38). The prospect of the covenant of grace held out during the Old Testament period means that believers today are rightly called to emulate the faith of the 'children of promise', Romans 4, Hebrews 11. Salvation has only ever been by faith in Christ. 

The Orthodox Reformed taught that the covenant of grace was between God and the elect in Christ. Clearly, not all of Abraham's descents were elect. That is why old covenant cannot be identified with the covenant of grace. Under the old covenant true knowledge of the Lord was sometimes rare. The prophets lamented, 'there is no knowledge of God in the land.' (Hosea 4:1). Only a minority in Israel seem to have experienced heart circumcision that led to godly obedience. Witness the period of the Judges, the widespread apostasy in the northern kingdom, followed by Judah. What was the exception under the old covenant is the rule in the new, Jeremiah 31:33-34. That is because the new covenant is the historical realisation of the covenant of grace between God and the elect in Christ. When Jesus the 'seed of promise' came the principle of Belonging to the covenant community by natural descent was phased out along with circumcision as the covenant sign. Only those who trust in Christ belong to the new covenant, with believers' baptism now the sign of belonging, Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 2:38-39, Galatians 3:27-29. 

Israel's chequered history should not be a cause of smugness for the new covenant people of God. Her apostasy is a warning to us to stand by faith and continue in the way of obedience, Romans 11:19-22, 1 Corinthians 10:6-13, Hebrews 10:26-31.  

Weak and unprofitable  

Further, the old covenant cannot rightly be described as an 'administration of the covenant of grace' because it could not in itself save from sin. In that respect it was 'weak and unprofitable', (Hebrews 7:18). Its animal sacrifices were incapable of truly atoning for Israel's transgressions, Hebrews 10:4. The law was 'weakened through the flesh' having no means of providing forgiveness or ensuring obedience, (Romans 8:3). Israel broke the Mosaic covenant through her unfaithfulness, Jeremiah 31:31-32. A new covenant was needed under which sins could be forgiven and hearts transformed, Jeremiah 31:33-34. It was only by seeing the types and shadows of the old covenant as pointers to Christ that the children of Israel could hope to find salvation. 

A covenant of grace, not that covenant of grace 

Yet it is important to underline that the old covenant was not a post-fall republication of the covenant of works. Were that the case, how could a works-based covenant foreshadow a grace-based one? God was gracious towards Israel under the old covenant, 'slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love' (Exodus 34:6-7). The Lord's merciful dealings with Israel served as a trailer for the abounding grace of the new covenant. Israel's undeserved election has its counterpart in the election of individuals in the covenant of grace, Deuteronomy 7:6-8, Ephesians 1:4-5. Israel's redemption previewed Christ's redeeming work, Exodus 6:6, Colossians 1:13-14.  Israel's calling as a 'kingdom of priests' was a harbinger of the role of the new covenant people of God, Exodus 19:6, 1 Peter 2:9. Israel's mission was handed on to the church in expanded form, Zechariah 8:20-23, Luke 24:44-49. Israel's inheritance in Canaan served as a pointer to 'a better country, a heavenly one' Deuteronomy 15:4, Hebrews 11:16. Israel's prophets, priests and kings were types of Christ, the great prophet, priest and king. God was certainly good to Israel under the old covenant, Psalm 73:1. But the covenant of grace held out the prospect of yet greater blessings to come, the 'full discovery thereof [being] completed in the New Testament', (Second London Baptist Confession, VII.3 - here).

Covenants of promise 

So, if the old covenant was not a covenant of works, or the covenant of grace, what was it? The old covenant was an expression of God's goodness to Israel and through Israel to the world. But the old was not the same essential covenant as the new, differently administrated. Identifying the old covenant with the covenant of grace flattens off the 'step up' from the old dispensation to the new. The blessings of the old covenant were 'carnal', having to do with covenant membership by natural descent and life in the Promised Land during this present age. The blessings of the new covenant are spiritual and received by faith, Ephesians 1:3, 2:8. The inheritance of the new covenant people of God is the new creation in the age to come, 1 Peter 1:4, 2 Peter 3:13. 

The covenants of the Old Testament era were 'covenants of promise', carrying the pledge of salvation in Christ, but they did not in themselves posses saving grace. The relationship between the old and new covenants is that of shadow and substance, type and antitype, temporary and eternal, provisional and ultimate, the Spirit not yet given and the Spirit poured out on all flesh. The godly remnant in Israel has become the church, in which all are 'called to be saints' (Romans 1:7). The old covenant had its glory, right enough, but the glory of the new covenant is greater (2 Corinthians 3:7-11). Now the promise of the covenant of grace has been fulfilled. The Servant of the Lord has come of whom the Lord said, 'I will give you as a covenant for the people' (Isaiah 42:6). The covenant has been  ratified in Christ's blood and its blessings flow forth in abundance, (1 Corinthians 11:23-25).  'But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.' (Hebrews 8:6). And so we sing, 

Blessings on blessings through ages unending,
Covenant fullness in glorious flood;
Ours is a hope which no mortal can measure,
Brought in by Jesus and sealed in His blood.

Jessie F Webb, 1866-1964

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

From Shadow to Substance: the old covenant and the covenant of works

In his From Shadow to Substance: The Federal Theology of the English Particular Baptists (1642-1704), I believe Samuel D. Renihan has proven his case in terms of historical theology. The Particular Baptists aligned themselves with an important line of thought within Reformed covenant theology. They agreed with the likes of John Cameron and John Owen that the old covenant was not an administration of the covenant of grace (contra the Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter VII - here). Rather, it was a covenant of works, subservient to the covenant of grace.

They also distinguished between the covenant of grace promised in the old covenant era and promulgated under the new. While the covenant of grace was certainly revealed in the types and shadows of the Old Testament period, only the new covenant could be fully identified the covenant of grace. This was the position advocated by key Particular Baptist thinkers such as Nehemiah Coxe and Benjamin Keach. As I indicated in the review, Renihan's thesis raises a bigger biblical and theological  question, which is whether the old covenant is rightly described as a covenant of works? That's the issue I want to try and address in this post.

The covenant of works and Israel 

There is very little difference between Westminster, Savoy and London on the covenant of works that obtained between God and humanity in Adam (see VII.1 here). All agree that Adam owed God a debt of obedience and that he would only attain the 'reward of life' by 'some voluntary condescension on God's part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.' 

In other words, God did not owe Adam life on the basis of his works, but he covenanted to reward obedience with life. If we may speak of merit on this connection, it is not strict merit where the reward is proportionate to the obedience rendered. Rather what we see here is covenant merit, where the reward offered is an expression of God's abundant goodness towards humanity in Adam. Nevertheless this was a covenant of works, in which the reward of life would be granted only on the condition of perfect obedience. 

The Particular Baptists regarded the Abrahamic as well as Sinai covenants as covenants of works. Circumcision imposed covenant obligations upon the people of Israel. The blessings of life in the Promised Land would only be enjoyed if Israel obeyed the law. Yet there were tensions in Nehemiah Coxe's view. He saw grace as well as the works principle in operation in relation to Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. Coxe held that the old covenant, "had ultimately respect to spiritual Blessings...in a Subserviency to the Covenant of Grace...yet it was not immediately and directly, a Covenant of spiritual Blessings." In a footnote Renihan notes Coxe's concession  that, "it was gracious of God to grant the covenant of circumcision with Abraham. But it was not a covenant of saving grace. He said, 'this was a Covenant of Grace and Mercy, having its Original in the meer Goodness, and undeserved Favour of God...yet it was not that Covenant of Grace, which God made with Abraham for all his spiritual Seed.'" (p. 257-258, n 122).

And so to our question. Given that the old covenant had its basis in the grace and mercy of God, in what sense can it be be described as a post-fall republication of the covenant of works, subservient though it was to the covenant of grace? Ironically, these days Presbyterians as well as Particular Baptists are found arguing that the Mosaic covenant was in some sense a covenant of works (see here).

The covenant of works and the law

I think the first thing to say here is that the covenant of works is still in operation. It is on the basis the covenant of works that Adam was constituted the federal head of humanity. That is why Adam's 'original sin' is counted as ours in him, Romans 5:21-21. The covenant of works continues to hold out the promise that if we obey God's commands we will be granted 'the reward of life'.

Further, I take it for granted that the Ten Commandments embody what God has always required of human beings. The spiritual and moral principles of the law applied prior to them being formally issued at Sinai. Adam's 'original sin' was an act of transgression involving violation of each of the Ten Commandments (see here).

The essential principle of the covenant of works applies even in a post-fall world. Perfect obedience to the law will be rewarded by the gift of eternal life, Romans 2:6-7. The trouble is that since the fall no one has been capable of perfect obedience. The law therefore brings death and condemnation, rather than life to sinners, Romans 3:19-20. That is why sinners need 'the righteousness of God...apart from the law' that he provides in Christ, Romans 3:21-26, Galatians 2:15-16.

Were the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants established as means by which Abraham's descendants could achieve the reward of life by their obedience to the law? I think the answer to that has to be, No. As Coxe recognised it was solely by the Lord's mercy and grace that he promised to be the God of Abraham and his descendants, granting them the sign of circumcision, and promising them the blessings of life in the land of Canaan. According to the Particular Baptists,  if the old covenant operated as a covenant of works, it did so in a way that was subservient to the covenant of grace. The law served to highlight the need for people to turn from their sin-tainted works to the promised Christ for salvation. The promised Christ being revealed in the types and shadows of the old covenant.

Certainly, being in a covenant relationship with God entailed certain obligations for Abraham and his descendants, Gen 17:1-2, 9-14. These obligations were further elaborated upon under the Sinai covenant in terms of the law,  both the Ten Commandments, Exodus 20:1-17 and the Book of the Covenant, Exodus 20:18-24:18. But this does not necessarily mean that the old covenant was a republication of the covenant of works. The law was given as a rule of life for God's chosen people whom he had redeemed from Egypt and to whom he had promised the blessings of life in the Promised Land.

A way back to God 

Even where blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience were stipulated under the old covenant, there was a way back to God from the dark paths of sin (Leviticus 26, especially Leviticus 26:40-45, Deuteronomy 28, Deuteronomy 30:1-10, 1 Kings 8:46-53). What God commanded, a circumcised heart that obeyed his law (Deuteronomy 10:12-16), he also promised to give (Deuteronomy 30:6). The sacrificial system made provision for atonement and the forgiveness of sin, Leviticus 16. Israel was not to trust in her own obedience, but look to the Lord for salvation, Psalm 98:1-3, Isaiah 45:22. Israel was in a very different position to Adam. There was no way back for him under the covenant of works, only exclusion and death. The announcement of covenant of grace in Genesis 3:15  was his only hope.

In his Covenant Theology: A Reformed Baptistic Perspective on God's Covenants, Greg Nichols accepts the Westminster idea that the old covenant was an administration of the covenant of grace. In that respect he departs from the Particular Baptist tradition, but I believe he was none the less right to say,
Thus the Mosaic covenant did not promote legalism. It did not teach sinners get right with God by the works of the law. It was not a republication of the pre-fall covenant of works. It called Israel as a society to gospel obedience. God built the Mosaic covenant on the foundation of the need for regeneration and justification by faith. (Covenant Theology, p. 232). 
The purpose of the law under the old covenant was not contrary to the promise of salvation by faith. As Paul reasons in Galatians 3:15-29, the law was given to show the seriousness of sin and to act as a guardian for Israel 'until Christ came that we might be justified by faith'. When, however, Israel rejected the grace that was promised under the old covenant and either sought to establish her own righteousness by the works of the law, or broke the covenant by flagrant disobedience, she found that the covenant of works was still very much in operation. Hence the threat,  "the soul who sins will die" (Ezekiel 18:4 compare Genesis 3:17).

Grace alone 

Paul's Judaising opponents rejected salvation by grace alone and taught salvation by grace plus works. For them, being circumcised meant taking on board the full obligations of the law, apart from which none could be saved, Acts 15:1-2, Galatians 5:3. But to seek justification by the law was to be cut off from Christ and fall from grace (Galatians 5:4). The law then becomes a code that condemns, for the covenant of works requires a perfect obedience that no sinful human being can render.

The polemical context of Paul's writing helps to explain his seemingly negative view of the old covenant as a law-based dispensation, Romans 10:1-5, 2 Corinthians 3:4-6, Galatians 3:10-12. In its original context Leviticus 18:5 did not intend to teach life as a reward for works. It was addressed to Israel as the people whom the Lord had chosen and redeemed, to whom he had given the law as a rule of life, Psalm 19:7, 119:93. The 'letter kills' only those who spurn the promise of salvation by grace alone and self-righteously trust in their own obedience, or who rebelliously fail to obey God's commands.

Love and the law

The new covenant as well as the old includes commandments and obligations, Matthew 5:17-48. John 14:15, 21, 15:12, Romans 13:8-10. The new covenant even has its blessings and woes, Matthew 5:1-2-11, 23:1-36. These things do not make the new covenant any the less a covenant of grace that is based on faith in Christ's finished work. Saving faith is an active faith that issues in obedience. That holds true under old and new covenants.

Besides, if the old covenant was a republication of the covenant of works, in what way could it foreshadow the new covenant, which is the historical manifestation of the covenant of grace? A covenant that says, 'obey and live' cannot meaningfully serve as a type of one that says, 'believe and live'.

If not republications of the covenant of works, were the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants in fact different administrations of the covenant of grace per Westminster and Savoy? I'm not so sure. That, however, is for another post. 

Friday, October 04, 2019

"Cheer up, it could be worse" John Flavel style

I've been reading John Flavel's The Mystery of Providence off and on for some months. I can't recall how the  book came into my possession, but my copy is a 1976 Banner of Truth reprint, cover price 60p. I also have the six volume set of Flavel's Works, bought when I was a student at London Seminary, 1988-90. The Mystery of Providence is probably the West Country Puritan's best known book and is found in Volume 4 of the Works. But that's a hefty tome. The paperback is a more handy version for reading to redeem time when waiting for a hospital appointment, or something. 

What made me switch from sporadic to sustained reading was making my way though Some Pastors and Teachers by Sinclair B. Ferguson. Chapter 17 is on John Flavel and The Mystery of Providence. I'm sure I'll benefit from what the writer has to say, but thought that I should go Flavel ad fontes before looking at Ferguson's treatment. So I've put Some Pastors and Teachers on hold until I've finished Flavel. 

I'm now on Chapter 9, How to Meditate on the Providence of God, which is very thought provoking and practical. You can't help admire the Puritan Pastor's deep knowledge of Scripture, sound theological understanding and facility for telling application. Compared with the often heavy going John Owen, with whom I'm more familiar, Flavel is a lively and gripping writer. In one passage he seeks to shock his readers out of self pity when groaning under "sad and afflictive providences". It's his version of, 'cheer up, might be worse'. 
His sovereignty is gloriously displayed in His eternal decrees and temporal providences. He might have put you into what rank of creatures he pleased. He might have made you the most despicable creatures, worms, or toads: or, if men, the most vile, abject and miserable among men; and when you had run through all the miseries of this life, have damned you to eternity, made you miserable for ever, and all this without any wrong to you. And shall this not quieten us under the common afflictions of this life? (p. 130).
Or, as someone once said, "Anything above ground is a mercy of God". Yes, cheer up, it could be considerably worse. At least you're not a despicable toad. Hopefully not, anyway. 

Monday, September 30, 2019

From Shadow to Substance by Samuel D. Renihan

From Shadow to Substance: The Federal Theology of the English Particular Baptists (1642-1407)
Samuel D. Renihan, Regent's Park College, 2018. 389pp

Holiday reading #3

In the seventeenth century English Particular Baptists (believers in the Calvinistic doctrine of particular redemption or definite atonement) faced the charge that in rejecting infant baptism for baptism on profession of faith, they had jettisoned a key tenet of Reformed covenant theology. They were no more 'Reformed' than their European Anabaptist cousins.

The Particular Baptists protested that they were Reformed, not a bunch of dodgy continental radicals. They were in full agreement with the defining Reformed dogma there are only two types of covenant. The covenant of works that God made with all humanity in Adam and the covenant of grace that God made with the the elect in Christ. In the covenant of works eternal life is granted on the basis of obedience to God's law. In the covenant of grace eternal life is granted on the basis of Christ's saving work, and is received by faith. Salvation is either on the basis of works or grace. There can be no middle ground. So far, so Reformed.

The point at issue between Particular Baptists and Reformed Paedobaptists was the relationship between the old covenant and the covenant of grace. Was the old covenant an administration of the covenant of grace, or was it in some way a republication of the covenant of works? Renihan sets his study in historical context by tracing the development of Reformed covenant theology from John Calvin and other formative writers to the mature thought of the Orthodox Reformed divines of the  early 17th century. A consensus view emerged as represented by the Westminster Confession of Faith that the covenant of grace was variously administered during the Old Testament period and that the Mosaic covenant was just such an administration. But the consensus was not universal.

Renihan's thesis is that the position advocated by Particular Baptist writers was in keeping with  a major strand of thought located within the diverse field of Reformed covenant theology. They were not the only ones who held that the Mosaic covenant was not in fact an administration of the covenant of grace. John Cameron (c.1579-1625) taught that the covenant of grace was promised, but not promulgated in earlier biblical covenants. The Sinai covenant promised life in earthly Canaan, and was subservient to the covenant of grace, which was only promulgated in the new covenant.

As such, Cameron reasoned, Sinai was neither a full-blown covenant of works, or the covenant of grace, but something in the middle, which served as a means to an end. The end being the covenant of grace that promised life to all who believe in Christ. The old covenant was a type of the greater blessings what are offered under the new covenant. Israel enjoyed the earthly benefits of the Mosaic covenant, but by faith looked beyond the types and shadows of that dispensation to Christ and his redeeming work. 

A similar line was taken by the Puritan divine John Owen (1616-1683). In his massive commentary on Hebrews he argued that the old covenant was a covenant of works in subservience to the covenant of  grace. He included the Abrahamic as well as Mosaic covenants within this purview. The old covenant had to do with carnal realities such as Abraham's family line. The covenant was with Abraham and his 'seed', sealed by circumcision. God promised that Abraham's 'seed' would possess Canaan. The covenant community was bound to obey God as a condition of remaining in the land. The Mosaic covenant further clarified Israel's covenant obligations in the shape of the law. Again, for Owen the old covenant foreshadowed the new covenant in Christ. But when the new covenant was established, the carnal ordinances of the old were abolished.

Owen posited that under the old covenant it was necessary to sort Abraham's seed into two lots, carnal and spiritual. First, Abraham's natural descendants, from whom Christ  would one day come, but not all of whom were elect. Second, those, who, like Abraham believed the promise of salvation in Christ, and were among the elect. With the advent of the new covenant, the carnal aspect is done away with, said Owen, for Christ, the 'seed of Abraham' had arrived. That is why circumcision is not the sign of belonging to the new covenant community, but baptism. Only those who believe in Christ now belong to the covenant people of God.  Owen was a Paedobaptist, but his construal of the relationship between the old and new covenants played into the hands of Particular Baptist writers. 

Nehemiah Coxe (1650-1689) was especially taken with Owen's treatment of the covenants. When it came to the Mosaic covenant, Coxe simply referred his readers to Owen. His innovation was to take Owen's arguments and apply them in a more consistent way to the Abrahamic covenant. Paedobaptists insisted that the Abrahamic and Moasic covenants were administrations of the covenant of grace. Just as under the old covenant, the promises were made to Abraham and his seed, so now under the new covenant, the same principle applied. Therefore the children of believers should be baptised, as baptism is the new covenant counterpart of circumcision.

But, Coxe pointed out, if Owen was right, that does not follow. The Abrahamic and Mosaic dispensations were covenants of works that foreshadowed the covenant of grace, but they were not to be identified with it. The new covenant was a testament, and the testament only came into effect on the death of the testator, Jesus (Hebrews 9:15-17). Moreover, carnal aspects of the old covenant such as  membership of the covenant community by ancestral secession from the Patriarchs and an earthly promised land had been phased out now that a new and better covenant was in operation. Belonging to the new covenant people of God was not defined by birth, but belief in Christ, followed by baptism.

Paedobaptists countered, what about Acts 2:38-39, where Peter says that the promised the gift of the Spirit, "is for you, your children, and for all who are far off"? Coxe and others replied that not even Paedobaptists taught indiscriminate baptism of "all who were far off". The plain teaching of the New Testament was that baptism followed repentance and faith. That is what happened on the Day of Pentecost, Acts 2:41-42. Baptism was not therefore to be extended to the infant children of believers.

The theological deductions of the Paedobaptists from the Abrahamic covenant did not hold water (if you'll forgive the pun). Following the regulative principle, Particular Baptists held that worship ordinances such as Baptism and the Lord Supper had to be derived from definite  biblical commands, not supposed deductions from Scripture. Besides, if a 'deduction' contradicted an express command, the deduction was bound to be wrong. Particular Baptists certainly believed in making deductions from Scripture, but theological reasoning had to be subservient to the express teaching of God's Word. Particular Baptists were consistent in their application of the Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura to the matter of baptism, its mode and subjects. 

Deprived of 'signs and seals of the covenant' Paedobaptists alleged that children of Baptist parents were little better off than children of the ungodly. 'Not so' said the Particular Baptists . There is no evidence that children of believers baptised in infancy partake of the blessings of covenant of grace unless or until they come to faith in Christ. The same is true of children from Baptist families. Yet children from Christian homes have the great privilege of being exposed to the means of grace in their families and through their involvement in the life of the church. When the children of Baptist parents profess faith in Christ for themselves, they are duly baptised in line with the New Testament pattern.

Particular Baptists Churches published the First London Baptist Confession of Faith in 1644. A Second London Baptist Confession was agreed in 1672, but was published more widely in 1689. The second confession largely follows the wording of the Presbyterian Westminster Confession (1647) as revised in the Savoy Declaration (1658) of the Independents. (See Tabular Comparison of the three documents). The Baptists wished to be identified with mainstream Puritan Orthodoxy, while maintaining their distinctives on covenant theology, the church and Baptism.

John Owen was a key figure in drawing up the Savoy Declaration. The Particular Baptists agreed with his position on the covenants and also that the church should be a gathering of 'visible saints'. The inconsistency between the Independents' doctrine of the church and their Paedobaptism would later lead to the 'Halfway Covenant' controversy. This was over the status of unconverted children of believers in the Congregational Churches of the New World. Should they be admitted to the Lord's Supper, for example? No less than Johnathan Edwards would come a cropper on that one.

Interestingly, the original Particular Baptists emerged from Independency, taking Congregational principles one step further to embrace believers' baptism. Despite often being painted with the same brush, Particular Baptists had little in common theologically with their European Anabaptist counterparts. They were resolutely Reformed in soteriology rather than Arminian. Treading the same path, I was converted in a Congregational Church and was a Paedobaptist before embracing Reformed Baptist convictions. 

Anyway, besides Nehemiah Coxe, Renihan also gives detailed attention to the views of other Particular Baptists such as pioneers Andrew Ritor and John Spilsbury, and later writers, Philip Cary and Benjamin Keach, teasing out some of the nuances of their positions on the covenants and baptism.

The Particular Baptist divines of the Puritan period were fine theologians who demonstrated a clear grasp of the issues at stake as they engaged in polemics with Paedobaptists and sought to develop their own constructive theological proposals. Contemporary Reformed Baptists would do well to learn from the insights of their illustrious forebears.

As the debate on baptism rumbles on in our own day it can sometimes seem like our Presbyterian friends have the weight of theological argument on their side, while Baptists hurl back a few well-chosen proof texts. Renihan has demonstrated that the Particular Baptist position has a good pedigree within the Reformed family. Indeed, it could be advanced that the Baptist stance represents Reformed covenant theology in its purest and most consistent form.

Renihan's mastery of the primary sources is admirable as he takes in the sweep of Reformed thought from Calvin and Bullinger through to Coxe and Keach. Historical theology at its best retrieves the riches of past theological reflection to help the church understand the teaching of Holy Scripture more deeply and accurately in the present. Renihan's title is a great example of historical theology at its best. But there are still unanswered biblical and theological questions. Cameron, Owen and the Particular Baptists regarded the Sinai covenant as a covenant of works that was subservient to the covenant of grace. I agree that the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants were not administrations of the covenant of grace, but does that mean the the old covenant was in fact a post-fall covenant of works? I'm not so sure. One for a future blog post, perhaps?

Be that as it may, Samuel D. Renihan's highly informative and engaging work throws important light on one of the biggest questions in Christian theology. Namely, how are we to construe the relationship between the old and new covenants? As Paul taught, the old covenant had 'a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ' (Colossians 2:17). The Particular Baptist tradition enables us to see with clear vision that in Christ we have the substance of a better covenant, established on better promises. 

Friday, September 27, 2019

Thank God for Harvest!

A big local event is the Frome Cheese and Agricultural Show. We went along the other Saturday. Yes, I know it’s a Somerset thing, but there were no doubt quite a few people from our part of Wiltshire there too. We enjoyed the showcase events including show jumping, falconry, stunt shows and racing pigs. What’s not to like? We also were impressed by the prize livestock on display; cows, goats, sheep and chickens. The main attraction is, of course, the cheese. There were countless varieties on offer, with plentiful free samples to tickle the taste buds. We even bought some.

Living in our part of the world we never too far away from fields and meadows boasting crops and livestock. Attending an agricultural show is a reminder of all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes.  We may sometimes take for granted that the food we buy in shops is there for us to eat because of the hard work of the farming community. Good on them.

The agricultural year follows the annual round of the seasons. In the Bible God promised, “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” The Lord has kept his word. Each year the earth produces enough food for people all around the world. If some are left hungry that is often because of man’s cruelty and folly. Countries like ours have more than enough to go around. In fact, our challenge is to cut down on food waste. But even in a wealthy land like the UK some people are dependent on food banks.  That is an indictment on our society, but it is also an opportunity for us to share what we have with others.

The friends at Crosspoint, Westbury tell me that they often receive especially generous donations of food at Harvest Time. Many churches hold Harvest Festivals and take in donations of produce and tinned goods that are then deposited at the local food bank for those who need it. That is only fitting. The food we eat is a gift to us from our faithful Creator. As Paul testified in the Bible, God  “did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” Should we not, then thank God for harvest and seek to ensure that no one in our community has to go without?

A centrepiece at Harvest Festivals is often the Wheat Sheaf Loaf. The loaf reminds us that God gives us each day our daily bread, and much more besides. But there is something even more important than food. Jesus urges us, “Do not labour for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.” He spoke of himself saying,  “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live for ever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Jesus came to die for our sins and rise again that through faith in him we might have eternal life and find true satisfaction, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”

Harvest Services

Providence Baptist Church, Dilton Marsh, Westbury 
Sunday 6 October All Age Harvest ‘Explore Service’, 10.30am, Evening Harvest Service, 6.00pm
Join us in thanking God for Harvest. 
Display of produce. 
Food donations will be divided between the Westbury Food Bank 
and Leonora Pilgrim Home for the elderly Christians, Chippenham

Ebenezer Baptist Church, West Lavington 
Sunday 6 October Harvest Service, 4.30pm
Join us in thanking God for Harvest. 
Display of produce. 
Food donations will be divided between the Devizes Food Bank 
and Leonora Pilgrim Home for the elderly Christians, Chippenham

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The Great Awokening: schools and gender identity ideology

The Saturday edition of The Times highlighted an interesting juxtaposition. The News section ran a story on how children are being pulled out of Birmingham schools in protest against LGBT education (here). Apparently, since the row erupted, some 400 children have been withdrawn from schools in Birmingham, which is 15% up on last year. Parkfield School, which has attracted protests due to its use of the controversial No Outsiders programme has lost almost 50 pupils to other schools. Meanwhile, officials fret that homeschooling may lead to a higher risk of extremism in the Muslim community.

The Comment segment of the paper carried a column by Janice Turner, Cult of gender identity ideology is harming children. The columnist is a longstanding and courageous opponent of gender identity ideology because of its harmful effects on children, girls in particular. For her troubles she has been attacked on social media as a TERF, which being interpreted means, 'Trans Exclusionary Reactionary Feminist'. Turner details some of the materials that are being pushed at primary school aged children. BBC Teach informs baffled 7-11 year-olds, "We know we have male and female, but there are over 100 if not more gender identities now.” Turner claims that, "The government’s own No Outsiders programme simply teaches primary kids that some families have gay parents, and boys can like mermaids just like girls." But there's a bit more to it than that. See this analysis by Transgender Trend

The writer also highlights some freshly minted draft guidance from the EHRC. The very body meant to be monitoring application of the 2010 Equality Act advises that trans girls (i.e. boys who identify as girls) should be allowed to use girls' changing rooms. Girls who object will have to be found somewhere else to get changed. This guidance is plain contrary to the 2010 Equality Act that safeguards private spaces for women and girls on the basis of sex, not gender identity. 

If LGBT education was simply about destigmatising children with two mums or dads, few might object. Children can't choose what kind of families they are raised in. But the unstated object of what often passes for LGBT education is to smash 'heteronormativity' (see here). You know, that oppressive ideology that teaches it takes a man and woman to make a baby, and that children are on the whole best brought up by their biological parents. All the better if those parents are in a stable, loving relationship. Like, married. Of course, the pernicious ideology of 'heteromativity' is ripe for smashing. Never mind Global Warming, future generations of the human race depend on it.

Encouraging children to question their 'gender identity' has led to a surge of referrals to the Gender Identity Dysphoria Service. In 2009/10 there were 77 referrals, by 2018/19 the figure had risen to 2590. In 90% of cases, gender dysphoria is resolved when children pass through puberty. Of the 10% who are prescribed puberty blockers, 90% then progress to cross-hormone treatment and beyond that to gender reassignment surgery.

Trans advocacy groups such as Mermaids actively push gender stereotypes. They suggest that tomboyish girls who shun glittery dressing up clothes for stamping around in muddy puddles might consider that they could in fact be boys trapped in the 'wrong body'. Similarly, boys who don't much like your typical boyish pursuits are made to wonder whether they might 'really' be girls. Next step puberty blockers. You know where that leads. Radical surgery and lifelong medication. Things that people would usually want to avoid for themselves and certainly their children.

The Birmingham school protesters have overwhelmingly been from the Muslim community. This is an interesting feature of the story. A key motivation for globalist advocates of mass immigration was that exotic incomers would shake things up in stale old, pale old Blighty. According to the liberal establishment the working and lower middle classes were way too socially conservative in outlook. Mixing them up with people from other cultures would broaden their horizons and make the great unwashed a bit more cosmopolitan.

What the dim-witted liberals failed to notice was that they had encouraged people who were way more socially conservative than the natives to move here. Loads of them. Rather than the incomers making locals go liberal, they brought with them positively unenlightened views of women and gay people. Honour killings and FGM are now a thing in 21st century Britain. Not to mention gangs of Asian men preying on vulnerable white teenage girls.

In The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, Douglas Murray points out some startling figures from recent surveys. 52% of British Muslims thought homosexuality should be made illegal. Whereas only outside of London only 16% of the country believed homosexuality to be 'morally wrong', the figure rose to 29% in the capital. Why? Murray explains, "the ethnic diversity of the capital meant it had imported a disproportionate number of people whose attitudes the rest of the country would now regard as morally backward." (p. 53-54, 2018 paperback edition).

The great irony is that in pushing an ultra-liberal LGBT agenda in schools, the Government is facing a backlash from an unlikely alliance of social conservatives, concerned parents and radical feminists. It takes spectacular genius to have united Muslims, The Christian Institute, Mumsnet, and Germaine Greer. Why, the issue of gender identity is even threatening to cause a schism in Stonewall. In a letter to the Sunday Times, gay rights pioneers and feminists wrote concerning Stonewall's stance on trans issues,
We believe it has made mistakes in its approach that undermine women’s sex-based rights and protections. The most worrying aspect of this is that all primary-school children are now challenged to review their “gender identity” and decide that they may be the opposite sex if they do not embrace outdated gender stereotypes... 
If Stonewall remains intransigent, there must surely now be an opening for a new organisation committed both to freedom of speech and to fact instead of fantasy.
In his latest book The Madness of Crowds, serialised in the Daily Mail, Douglas Murray discusses the trans issue. Apparently, schools are now teaching that boys can have periods. Questioning of the use of puberty blockers is labelled 'transphobic'. Yes, it really is that mad. Murray also weighed into the singer Sam Smith's announcement that being 'gender-fluid', he wished to be referred to as 'they', or 'them', rather than 'he, or 'him' (see here). The writer pointedly refuses to mangle the English language to suit the pop star's self-identity. 

Christians will want to treat people struggling with gender dysphoria with compassion and respect. But that does not mean going along with an approach that seeks to transform someone's body to conform with their disturbed state of mind. Given the stubborn realities of genetics and reproductive anatomy, a person cannot truly change sex. Some who have tried now live to regret it. Neither should anatomical males be allowed access to female only spaces on the basis of their 'gender identity'. Society at large should not be forced into affirming someone's chosen 'gender identity' and then have to address them by whatever pronouns they wish. Truth matters and compelled speech is not compatible with free speech. The Asher's 'Gay Cake' cake ruling demonstrated that. Male/female sex differences are a given that should be affirmed and celebrated, not denied. Without them there would be no human race at all. Heteronormativiy is the norm for a reason.

In his book Dominion, Tom Holland shows that as far as secularism is concerned, imitation is the deepest form of flattery. Christians enjoyed spiritual enlightenment in the form of the 18th century Evangelical Revival. Its preachers proclaimed, 'old things have passed away, behold all things have become new'. Rationalists had their very own Enlightenment that aimed at overturning the old order, ushering in a new age of science and reason. Now the Great Awakening has become  a Great Awokening. The gods of 'woke' identitarian religion are fierce and unforgiving. Those who refuse to bow down to the idol of gender ideology are threatened with a good roasting on social media, or face demands that they be sacked from their jobs. 

May our response be that of Daniel's three friends in the Bible, who refused to worship Nebuchadnezzar's image of gold on pain of being thrown into a burning fiery furnace, "our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Daniel 3:17-18).

What are concerned parents to do about LGBT Relationships Education in schools? Noisy protests at the gates doesn't seem to be the most constructive way of doing things. But parents should take an interest in how their children's school plans to approach the trans aspect of Relationships Education. Some will do the bare minimum necessary to ensure compliance with statutory guidelines. Others will push the boat out to be 'inclusive'. Children will be informed that girls can identify as boys and visa versa. or go for one of over 100 gender identity options. A sure way to unsettle and confuse young minds.  

Gen up. The Christian Institute has some good materials to look at. Be prepared to have an informed and respectful conversation with Headteachers. Write to your MP, or the Secretary of State for Education. After all, Protocol 1, Article 2 of the ECHR insists, "The State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions." Transgender Trend has a useful guide that can be used by governors and teachers to highlight concerns over some of the materials that are being used in schools. Together we can make a difference. It's time the Great Awokening was put back to bed. 

Friday, September 20, 2019

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Faber & Faber, 2015, 362pp

"I will remember their sins no more"
(Jeremiah 31:34)

Holiday reading #2

As a boy I was fascinated by the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. I re-read a version of story time and time again. The Buried Giant is set in the time that followed the great king's death. Arthur's nephew, the brave knight, Sir Gwain is still on the scene. The formerly warring tribes of Britons and Saxons are at peace. 

The story focuses on elderly Britons,  Axl and Beatrice. The tenderly devoted husband and wife set out from their village on a quest to find their missing son.

In an unexpected genre twist for the novelist, Kazuo Ishiguro fuses [post] Arthurian legend and Lord of the Ringsy tales of ogres and dragons. It's an atmospheric blend, "Icy fogs hung over rivers and marshes, serving all too well the ogres that were then still  native to this land."

As well as icy fogs, a mist hangs over the land and people's memories are fading. The murky past is only recalled in brief snatches. Christians as they are, Axl and Beatrice worry that perhaps even God has forgotten.

They hook up with Wistan, a Saxon warrior and Edwin, the boy he rescued from ogres. The couple believe their son is now living in a Saxon village. The party stops at a monastery for the night, where all kinds of weird stuff happens. And a big fight.  

While in the monastery Wistan protests he is offended at the Christian God of mercy. He much prefers the pagan alternatives who deal in justice. You get what you deserve. The idea of grace is indeed offensive. Why should people get what they don't deserve?

That is why some voices within the church have tried to tone down the scandal of grace by teaching that good works contribute to salvation. In The Buried Giant  the monks expose themselves to horrific suffering in an attempt to atone for the sins of the land. 

Anyway, all is not as it seems. Wistan's mission to slay the dragon is at cross purposes with that of good old Sir Gwain. The fog of forgetfulness that hung over the land was there to blot out the remembrance of Arthur's atrocities against the Saxons.

The dragon's breath was the source of the the mist. In slaying the beast Wistan hopes to awaken a "buried giant" of revenge that will lead to renewed conflict between Britons and Saxons. Only then will justice be served. 

But what effect will the receding mist and with it the recovered memory of past misdeeds have upon Axl and Beatrice's relationship? Their dearest wish was to be ferried to the island of the dead together, but for that to happen the ferryman must test the reality of their love. 

We probably can all identify with the cry of the psalmist David to the Lord, 'Remember not the sins of my youth' (Psalm 25:7). More recent sins too. But what hope is there that our sins will be forgotten? Jeremiah prophesied that God would make a new covenant, under which the Lord promised, 'I will remember their sins no more'. (Jeremiah 31:34).

Not because a mist of forgetfulness had ascended to the high heavens, but because God descended in Jesus to die for our sins on the cross. By faith in him our sins are forgiven and forgotten. That's grace for you.

When it comes to Axl and Beatrice, as the book ends...

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Tom Holland on 'Dominion' at Bristol Festival of Ideas

A few years ago when our children (now twenty somethings) were still children, we holidayed in Carmarthen. We saw Toy Story 3 in the cinema, so it must have been summer 2010. I'd finished my 'holiday reads' and was on the look out for another book. On the shelves of history section at Waterstones I spied a bright orange volume with gold lettering, Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland. I'd never heard of him, but there was something about the subject  that grabbed me. The schoolboy Classical Studies O Level student was evidently the father of the man who bought and then devoured, Rubicon. And after that, Persian Fire, Millennium and Dynasty, all by Holland. 

I enjoyed the author's sweeping, cinematic style and eye for telling (usually gory) detail. I sometimes wondered what it might be like if he turned his hand to Christian history; the origins of the faith and its impact on the world. So it was that yesterday evening the wife and I found ourselves in a Bristol branch of Waterstones to hear Tom Holland give an interview on his new publication, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. And the thing that according to Holland shaped the Western Mind was the Christian faith.

I say 'interview, ' it was more like a highly animated freestyle talk, with the flow interrupted and then redirected in its course by an occasional question. Holland explained how he came to write  Dominion and expanded on some of the key ideas in the book.

As a boy Holland was fascinated by the ancient Greeks and Romans. In their overweening power and brutality the Caesars seemed more like terrifying dinosaurs than men. But as he wrote Rubicon he found himself strangely repelled by their enormities. Julius Caesar slaughtered a million Gauls and enslaved a million more to get a name for himself and was duly acclaimed as a hero of Rome. We think, 'Not so nice.'

But why? It dawned on Holland that he viewed ancient Rome through Christian spectacles, or at lest through lenses that had been ground by two millennia of Christian history. The Christian faith inverted the values of antiquity. Suffering not slaughtering was heroic, weakness was strength, shame was glory. For at the heart of the Christian message was the belief that the Son of God took the form of a slave and was crucified for the sins of the world. The cross, which had been a brutal symbol of Roman power was transformed into a symbol of redemptive love. Christians proclaimed that this Jesus, risen and ascended, not Caesar was was world's true Lord. Their message brought down the lofty from their thrones and exalted the lowly.

The foremost exponent of the Christian faith was the apostle Paul. He grasped the universal implications of faith in Jesus. Through him the God of Israel would become the God of all peoples and all peoples would become one in Christ, Galatians 3:28. Holland thinks that Paul is a little ambiguous on how Jesus should be understood in relation to the God of Israel. I'd say that inserting him into the Jewish Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4), as he does in 1 Corinthians 8:6 makes it pretty clear that for the apostle Jesus should be included in the divine identity. (See God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament, by Richard Bauckham). 

The teaching of Paul's New Testament letters sent seismic shocks rippling around the world and down the centuries to this present day. Paul explained that the old covenant in which the Ten Commandments were engraved on tablets of stone had gone. Jesus had ushered in a new covenant in which the law was written on the hearts of believers by the Spirit. Even non-Christians had the 'works of the law' written on their hearts, giving them a sense of right and wrong. Paul helped develop the idea of the conscience as an inbuilt moral arbiter. Unlike in Islam you didn't need a direct divine command for every rule and regulation in society. Man-made rules based on 'the light of nature' would do. This helped to pave the way for Western secular states, subject to the rule of human law. 

As we were in Bristol it seemed fitting that slavery got a mention. Slavery was regarded as a normal part of life in ancient times. It was rife in Greece and Rome. Vikings used Bristol to transport the English slaves they had captured. The city made its wealth as port for the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Nowadays slavery is regarded as an abominable infringement of human freedom and dignity. Such is the taint of association with the slave trade that there are calls for Bristol's Colston Hall to be renamed. How do we account for this change in attitude towards slavery? 

The Church Father Gregory of Nyssa preached against slavery in the strongest terms.  But it wasn't until the 18th century that Christians more widely began to grasp that slavery was an intolerable evil that had to be stamped out. Are not all men made in the image of God? Did not Christ die the death of a common slave to redeem us from slavery to sin? Quakers and Evangelicals threw themselves into the campaign for the abolition of slavery, championed by William Wilberforce. 

Protestant England persuaded Catholic France to follow suit, arguing not so much from biblical principles as did the Evangelicals, but appealing to the Roman idea of 'human rights'. This universalising tendency was extended further as British imperialists sought to pressurise Islamic countries to abolish slavery, this time appealing (with little basis) to Muslim texts. And so the idea of culture-transcending universal human rights, so beloved of liberals and neo-conservatives alike was born. 

Drawing upon the Reformation teaching on the witness of the Spirit to the truth of the Bible, Evangelicals would speak of the enlightenment of the Spirit that gave them fresh insight into Scripture. This enlightenment had a transforming effect on their personal lives and led to attempts at reforming society, the abolition of slavery being one example. A line can be traced from Medieval reform movements, to the Reformation, to the Evangelical Revival. But these were movements to reshape the church and the world in line with the Christian faith. 

In the 18th century others proclaimed a new age of Enlightenment, not because they understood the Bible in a new way, but because they rejected it in favour of science and reason. The object of their reforming zeal was an overmighty church that had to be cut down to size so that people could be set free from oppression. As Holland pointed out, the irony was that Enlightenment rationalists had bought into the Christian idea of pulling the lofty from their thrones and exalting the lowly. They took that a little too literally in Revolutionary France. Similarly, today's woke lefties with their hierarchy of oppressed victims are, consciously or not, drawing upon a faith that has Jesus 'crucified in weakness' at its heart.

I mentioned seeing Toy Story 3.  Apart from the Christian faith would we even have the Toy Story series, shot through as the films are with key values such as love and self-sacrifice? The Romans would have had Woody and Buzz slaughter all the 'enemy' toys, and then  each other as the vied for supremacy.

In the interview Holland made many more fascinating links between Christianity and the contemporary world, taking in figures as diverse as John Lennon, Nelson Mandela, and Richard Dawkins. But I'll leave it there, otherwise this report will end up as a book review before I've even read the book. I duly purchased a signed copy after the talk, so watch this space.   

One last thing. On a personal note, Tom Holland confessed to having a rather fluctuating Christian faith, with perhaps one breakthrough moment. When making a film on Islamic State he was close to an area where the Islamists had crucified people, much as did the Romans. The cross was an instrument of terror, the threat of which cowed people into submission. Under IS the cross had none of its Christian connotations as a symbol of self-giving love and forgiveness. That seemed to speak to Holland in a deep way, but I sensed he's maybe not quite there yet in terms of personal faith in Christ.

I was reminded of the time recounted in the Acts of the Apostles when the King Agrippa had Paul address his assembled court with Roman governor Porcius Festus in attendance. Paul, bound in chains, gave a well-argued defense his faith and conduct. Agrippa responded (in the Authorised Version at least), "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian." I think I can hear Paul's response echoing down the centuries and addressing Tom Holland, "I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost and altogether such as I am, except these bonds." (Acts 26:28-29).