Friday, April 21, 2017

1966 and all that: an evangelical journey by Basil Howlett

EP Books, 2016, 128pp 

I was a student at the London Theological Seminary (now London Seminary) from 1988-90. During the summer of 1989 I did a summer pastorate alongside Basil Howlett when he was pastor of Copse Road Evangelical Church, Clevedon. I was only there for a month or so, but during that time I learned some valuable lessons from him concerning the work of the ministry. 

The seminary was founded in 1977 by Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones who was concerned that evangelicals were having to train for pastoral work in colleges dominated by theological liberalism. Rather than being fired up to preach the word, they were struggling to maintain their faith in Christ and love for him in the face of sustained attack from teachers who had little time for the biblical gospel. 

In October 1966 at the Second National Assembly of the Evangelical Alliance, Lloyd-Jones had issued a call for evangelicals in the mixed denominations to come together and form a loose alliance of gospel churches. Why should they remain any longer in denominations where the gospel was being denied?

Some have tried to suggest that the preacher's call was something of a damp squib. But in fact it was a turning point for evangelical witness in the United Kingdom. Basil Howlett for one was becoming increasingly unhappy with his situation as a Baptist Union pastor. His training for the ministry was undertaken by men who denied and indeed derided essential gospel truths. A number of Basil's fellow BU ministers were evangelicals, but others were out and out liberals. Church members were not as clear as they should have been on basic Christian beliefs and principles of godly living. Partly as a result of Lloyd-Jones' call, Howlett and the church he served took the costly step of leaving the BU. Many other evangelical ministers and churches in Baptist Union, Congregational, Presbyterian and Anglican denominations did the same, 

Evangelicals today have become used to belonging to church groupings like the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, In these groupings we stand unitedly for the gospel and there is no argument over essential truths. Time is not wasted on trying to advance the interests of a evangelical 'wing' of a denomination. Men can train for pastoral ministry in evangelical seminaries and colleges. These gains are at least in part a consequence of  '1966 and all that'.   

Basil's story is a reminder of the price that was paid by his generation of preachers as they endeavoured to ensure that churches were gospel-centered, and that the church groupings to which they belonged were united in biblical faith, not just denominational allegiance. It was prophesied that those, who, like Basil left their denominations were heading for the wilderness. But as his account shows, the Lord blessed their faithful stand and much fruitfulness followed. 

The basic principles for which Lloyd-Jones argued back in 1966 still hold good today. We need to be clear on the gospel, what it means to be a Christian and what is a church. The gospel must be allowed to define the limit and extent of fellowship between churches. Where false teaching is rife in a denomination, separation is called for. Secession should not involve sectarian isolation, however, for the gospel of grace unites us together in faith, love and mission. "Come out of it! But also come together" urged Lloyd-Jones. 

I for one found this a very moving and challenging read. Evangelicals in the 'mixed denominations' today would do well to review the lessons set out here. Is "in it to win it" a realistic, let alone biblically faithful strategy? Those of us who have "come out of it" need to devote ourselves afresh to the pursuit of deeper evangelical unity that respects differences on secondary matters, even as we "strive together for the faith of the gospel". (Philippians 1:27). The need of our nation is greater than ever for a bold and united witness to the message of salvation in Jesus Christ. To that end, let us be prepared to stand alone together. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way edited by Katharine Birbalsingh

John Catt Education Ltd, 2016, 309pp

This was a, 'what's all the fuss about?' read. And there's sure been a lot of fuss about this book. Cheerleaders gonna cheer and haters gonna hate. Not being especially biased either way, I wanted to give the book a decent hearing. You'll have to judge for yourselves whether or not this is in fact a fair minded review. Also, the 'hymn' bit in the title appealed to me. Most of the books I read are in the fields of theology and biblical studies, or have something to do with me being a Baptist Minister. Knowing a good hymn when I see it is part of the job. I'm also chair of governors of a LA maintained secondary school, hence my interest in the world of education. 

First up, the things that got my goat. Michella exceptionalism. You know, the 'we're the only school that does this, that and the other' bit. Even as you're thinking, 'Eh? We also do this, that and the other in our school.' Things like every day is an open day, the promotion of an ethos of hard work and kindness among students, and so on. No doubt, like all schools, Michella has its distinguishing features, but sometimes it felt a bit like me as a Baptist preacher leaning over my pulpit one Sunday morning and grandly telling my flock, 'Look, we're the only true Baptist Church in Britain, holding to the doctrine of the Trinity, baptising believers, and such.' I can imagine our longsuffering people responding, 'No we're not, silly, how about all the other ones?' Well, yes. Michaela's exceptionalist tone is alienating, where instead the school could have positioned itself as a unifying force for the new educational traditionalists on the block. Whether they find themselves in free schools, academies, MATs, or bog standard LA comps. 

Plus, a bit premature, isn't it? I mean, writing a book on how amazing your secondary school is, when you've only got a Key Stage 3. All progress measures must be based on internal assessment. No GCSE or A Level results to benchmark how you are doing against the national picture. How's your Attainment 8/Progress 8 figures/Post 16 performance measures? That's the proof of the pudding. I hope that Michaela lives up to its promise and results are up there with the top 10% of schools year in year out, but that remains to be seen. Not having a Key stage 4 also means you haven't got Year 10 & 11s coming into that 'difficult age'. That's where things can start to get complicated. More to behaviour management then than getting kids to pick up a grape without throwing a strop. May have been better to have waited until there was some hard evidence to back up the claims made here. 

Then there's the martyr complex, 'everybody hates us' thing. Look, it's not just new-fangled free schools that get dissed. Try turning around a forever RI comp and you'll have grief. Shed loads, occasionally. So what? It's all about ensuring the best outcomes for students. Worth taking a bit of negative publicity for that, isn't it? You could call it the 'Luke effect', "Woe to you when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets". (Luke 6:26).

Multi-author works can often appear fragmented and lacking in coherence, which is fine if the book is a collection of essays exploring variations on a theme. Not so fine if the work is billed as an exposition and defence of a 'way'. I wasn't expecting expecting the conceptual clarity of the Definition of Chalcedon, but the title seemed to promise an orderly and systematic presentation of the Michaela 'creed' and doesn't quite deliver on that front. The book could have done with an introductory chapter that set out the 'Michaela Way' as an integrated educational vision. The following chapters could then have shown how aspects of the 'way' worked out in practice when it came to curriculum design, pedagogy, pupil discipline, and so on. As it was, I left the book a little puzzled as to where the 'Michaela Way' came from as an educational philosophy, its underlying presuppositions, and so on. That lacuna made the work seem more like a high grade how-to book than an attempt at offering a compelling and coherent educational vision. 

Despite these misgivings, I must admit that I found myself joining in with the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers at many points. Even without the benefit of a 'vision thing' chapter, it is clear that the driving theme of the Michaela 'battle hymn' is that progressive education is bunk. Absolutely no truck is given to child centred learning, relativistic approaches to pupil behaviour, or pedagogy that places the acquiring of nebulous skills above that of solid knowledge.

I must 'fess up' at this point and admit that most of what I know about pedagogy has been gleaned from bits and pieces I've come across on Twitter. But from what I've seen, an increasing body of research evidence seems to show that teacher led instruction is a more effective way of conveying knowledge and enabling mastery than pupil discovery-based models. (See here and here, for Nick Gibb on this). The chapters by Joe Kirby on Knowledge, Memory and Testing and Olivia Dyer on Drill and Didactic Teaching Work Best demonstrate how Michaela has drawn upon some of the latest research in developing its curriculum and in-house teaching style.

It is arrant nonsense to say the advent of the internet means children no longer need to be taught stuff because now they can look it up on Wikipedia. Students of all backgrounds benefit hugely by being taught the best of what has been thought, said and done by teachers who are experts in their fields. Knowledge mastered and remembered is power. Aside from cultural empowerment, we also need to factor in the additional weight given to terminal exams in the new style GCSEs. A facility for Googling is of no help in the exam hall.

I also appreciated Michaela's hard-edged approach to inclusion, where all students are expected to make excellent progress, whatever the disadvantages of their background or SEN issues. To suggest otherwise is to succumb to soft bigotry of low expectations. As is making allowances for bad behaviour on the part of some pupils. At Michaela all are required to work hard, be kind and cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Similarly, when as chair of governors I speak at parents' evenings I make it clear that we expect our students to be considerate, conscientious, and courteous - all of them, at all times. Rigorous and consistently applied systems need to be in place to ensure good behaviour is appropriately rewarded and bad sanctioned.

Now for the theology bit. Aside from the 'hymn' reference in the title, the book is peppered with biblical allusions. Joe Kirby draws on 'the Matthew effect', citing Matthew 25:29. In the blurb on the back cover Michael Gove writes, ''This book is their testament and my gospel." But the 'Michaela Way' is not and does not purport to offer a Christian vision of education. Many aspects are certainly in harmony with the Christian faith such as the rejection of Rouseeau's Romantic view of children, the recognition of teachers as authority figures, and an emphasis on personal responsibility and discipline. Education at Michaela is seen as the pursuit of truth through acquiring knowledge and an exercise in character formation.

Can't argue with any of that. But a distinctively Christian vision of education would flow from the realisation that, "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom". We come into our own as homo sapiens (wise people) by understanding ourselves and the world around us in relation to God. As the Reformer John Calvin put it, "Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves." (Institutes of the Christian Religion 1:1:1). It is for Christian parents with the support of the church to provide their children with a God-centred vision of education. That holds true whether they homeschool, or send their children to schools in the private or state sectors. 

In Michaela's 'us against the world' dictum I discerned a faint echo of the words of Athanasius, champion of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity in the fourth century AD. With the support of Roman emperor the heresy of Arianism had gained acceptance in the church. Athanasius was having none of it. People tried to browbeat him into submission saying, "Do you not realise the whole world is against you?" To which the church father is reputed to have replied, "Then Athanasius is against the world." His doggedness won the day and the church was restored to its confession of one God in three persons. A similar determined resilience will be required on the part of those who set themselves against the world of progressive ideas and practices that for far too long have held back educational outcomes in England. 

That said, the trad/prog divide shouldn't be absolutised. Traditionalism at its worst is incapable of embracing necessary reform. Progressivism at its worst refuses to learn from the wisdom of the past and is therefore doomed to keep on finding new ways of repeating old mistakes. An element of creative tension is needed between preserving the best of the past and rising to the challenges of the future. We should not romanticise the 'good old days'. I well remember being bored out of my tiny mind by lessons that comprised of little more than 'dictation', punctuated only by a pause by the teacher to chuck a board rubber at daydreaming pupil. Double physics with Mr. Whatshisname, complete with bow tie, winklepicker boots and a mission to put generations of children off the wonders of science for life. Who'd want to go back to that? 

Readers won't find everything in these pages to their tastes. The Michaela approach to pupil discipline can seem a tad harsh. I think performance related pay has its place in improving the quality of teaching and raising standards. Group work isn't all bad when carried out in lessons that are predominantly teacher led. If it is, how come many Russell Group Universities use it in their science and engineering courses? The quality of the chapters is uneven. Some writers are quite didactic in style, referencing scholarly studies. Others are more 'chatty' and anecdotal. The work is characterised by a defensive stance, adopted to fend off anticipated brickbats. Reflective self-criticism can be lacking. On occasion the pride contributors have in their school seems a little self-congratulatory. Such quibbles aside, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers is a thought proving read that deserves serious attention from anyone who has an interest in the future of education.

As I say, I'm a governor, so I will conclude with some thoughts on how fellow govs might find this work useful. Not that we should attempt to turn our schools into mini (or maxi) Michaelas, but there's no harm in reflecting on what might be be learned from this trailblazing school. Some questions for govs to ponder as they seek to sharpen up the strategic leadership and accountability they give their schools:
  • Does your vision for the school include a commitment to academic excellence and pupil character development?  
  • Is the curriculum sufficiently broad, enriching and rigorous, both in its vocational and academic elements? Or are some subjects taught simply to boost the school's standing in the Performance Tables, although they are of little benefit to students? (Like the discredited ECDL). 
  • Does the in-house style of teaching help ensure the mastery and memorisation of knowledge by students, with the result that rapid and sustained progress is made by all? Is this evidenced in internal data reports and exam results, for all types of pupil? 
  • Are systems of pupil behaviour and discipline implemented with rigour and consistency, leading to children being considerate, conscientious, and courteous at all times? Can this be seen when governors visit the school? What do student panels say? What do parent surveys say? What is attendance compared with the national average? What about exclusions? 
  • Are school leaders burdening teaching staff with excessive workload due to systems of data collection and work scrutiny? What do staff surveys say?
  • To what extent is CPD aimed at deepening teachers' subject knowledge, as well as enhancing their skills? Do governors receive reports on the CPD programme and its impact? What do staff surveys tell you about the quality and effectiveness of CPD for all teaching staff from NQT to UPS?
  • Is inclusion hard-edged, with the same high expectations concerning behaviour and academic progress for all pupils? How are governors monitoring this? Are all students making at least the expected progress, given their starting points?
Enough. We've had Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and now Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers. Apart from a brief foreword by the Michaela Governing Body, governance barely gets a look in here. Shame, that. Maybe the time has come for Battle Hymn of the Tiger Governors? Set to the wonderfully strident tune Rachie by Caradog Roberts. 'All together now...'

* I am grateful to the publishers for sending me this complimentary review copy. 

Friday, April 14, 2017

Easter: bad news/good news?

People sometimes give us a choice over whether we want to receive bad news or good news first. Bad news to get it out of the way, followed by good news to cheer me up a bit is my preferred order.
 
At first glance the Christian message of Easter seems like bad news. Jesus, a man renowned for loving words and deeds was condemned as a criminal and crucified. Jesus’ followers thought that was the end of him. Disillusioned, it seemed to them that the kingdom of grace and justice he proclaimed was just another false dawn.
 
What they failed to see was that the death of Jesus was no accident.  It was God’s appointed way of bringing in his kingdom. Jesus had said as much, telling his followers that he had come to ‘give his life a ransom for many’. In other words, Jesus paid the price of sin by dying for us on the cross. Now we can be forgiven and put right with God through faith in Jesus.
 
And his death wasn’t the end. Jesus rose from the grave on the first Easter Sunday morning and appeared to his followers, showing them that he was alive from the dead. It was the last thing they expected. They could barely believe it, but it was true. The same Jesus who was crucified, was alive. 
 
First the bad news: the world crucified the King of Love. Then the good news: the King of Love was crucified for world and rose again from the dead. That is the glorious message of Easter. 

*For News & Views & Holy Trinity Parish Magazine 

Monday, April 03, 2017

Revival the New Testament Expectation by Jonathan F. Bayes


We devoted last Wednesday's Bradford on Avon Ministers' Fraternal to reviewing and discussing this title. Robert Oliver gave a review paper and then we weighed up the strengths and weaknesses of the book together. Here are my impressions for what they are worth. 

I should have liked this one. After all, I'm from 'Wales, Land of Revivals'™. And there are many good things about Bayes' treatment of the theme. He helpfully shows how the New Testament draws on Old Testament prophecy to raise our expectations concerning the reign of Jesus and the advance of the kingdom of God in the power of the Spirit. The writer relates genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1:1-17 to what the psalms have to say about 'Great David's greater Son' in Psalms 72 & 89 and the salvation of the nations in him. 

Good stuff. But as the book progresses you begin to think to yourself, 'Is this a New Testament theology of revival, or an attempt to argue for postmillennialism?' You perhaps wouldn't think it from reading Bayes, but you can have one without the other. Amillennialists may even believe in revival. Premillennialists can speak for themselves.The author gives the game away in the chapter on Revelation, where he 'outs' his postmillennial predilections. Never would have guessed,

It's a pretty extreme version of postmillenniallism at that. You know those great texts that you always thought were about the world acknowledging Jesus as Lord when he returns in glory, like Philippians 2:9-11? Well, that's really for the millennium. And those passages you always thought were about the consummation redemption at the end of the age such as Ephesians 1:10 and Colossians 1:19-20? You guessed it, they are about the millennium too. So much is reserved for the millennium that it is even hinted that Revelation 21-22 is about that supposed golden age, rather than the final state of glory. Talk about over-realised eschatology with postmillennial nobs on. Please

Bayes admits that we can expect opposition and setbacks when it comes to the advance of the kingdom in this age, but he is so full of heady optimism that he gets carried away with giddy talk of unimpeded gospel progress. The New Testament never says that. We could call the planting of the church in Thessalonica a revival situation, 1 Thessalonians 1:5-6, but there were very real hindrances to the work, 1 Thessalonians 2:18. When Paul used triumphalistic language, it was always chastened by the reality of suffering and hardship for the gospel's sake, Romans 8:37-39, 2 Corinthians 2:14-16 cf. 1:8-11. 

Rather than envisaging the whole history of the church as being one of constant revival as the norm, Paul warned Timothy that in the last days (the whole New Testament period), perilous times would come (2 Timothy 3:1-9). In those times many would turn away from the truth and it would be hard going for faithful preachers of the gospel. Such tensions are pretty much overlooked in Bayes' treatment. 

Paul regarded the Old Testament prophecies concerning the salvation of Gentile peoples in Christ as fulfilled under his own ministry, Romans 15:7-21. So much so that he regarded his work in the Roman Empire as complete and planned to head for Spain by way of Rome, Romans 15:22-24. Old Testament prophecies such as Psalm 72 would be better understood as speaking about the global mission of the church from the Pentecost to the Parousia, rather than pointing to what may happen in the millennium. That mission is sometimes carried forward as a result of intense revival blessing, sometimes not. Think of William Carey plodding away in India. 

More fruitful materials for developing a New Testament theology of revival might be found in giving attention to the relationship between word and Spirit in preaching and the apostles' prayers for greater boldness and fruitfulness in their gospel proclamation, 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, 1 Thessalonians 1:5, Ephesians 6:19-20. Bayes' handling of the Acts material is more sure footed, especially Acts 4:23-31. When it comes to prayer for a revival of believers' love for Christ and a deepening of their experience of his love for them, we could do little better than look to Ephesians 3:14-21. Oddly, the writer makes no mention of this passage. Something of an omission given his definition of revival as, "a mighty outpouring of the Holy Spirit leading to the rekindling of love for Christ on the part of his people, and an explosion of gospel effectiveness with a visible impact on the nation and the world."

Bayes' attempt at discovering a theology of revival in the Gospels, would have been strengthened had he not jumped straight from the death of Jesus to the Great Commission. Was not the resurrection of Christ from the dead the ultimate reviving work of the Spirit? The Israel of God personified dead and buried. Written off by the world and mourned as a lost cause by his people. But up from the grave he arose. Israel's return from exile, depicted as the resurrection of a great army, (Ezekiel 37) was a prophetic anticipation of the literal re-vival of Jesus. The God who who raised up our Lord Jesus is able to breathe new life into dying churches. 

I accept the writer's argument that the New Testament rather than our current experience of gospel work in the UK should be allowed to set our expectations of what God can do. When it comes to revival, I agree wholeheartedly with Jonathan Edwards who said, 
It may here be observed, that from the fall of man to our day, the work of redemption in its effect has mainly been carried on by remarkable communications of the Spirit of God.Though there be a more constant influence of God’s Spirit always in some degree attending his ordinances, yet the way in which the greatest things have been done towards carrying on this work, always have been by remarkable effusions, at special seasons of mercy.
Yes, we should long and pray for a 'remarkable communication of the Spirit of God' in our day. How we need that if we are to re-evangelise our land. But loose talk of a postmillennial paradise doesn't reflect the tension we find in the New Testament between gospel advance and opposition that the church can expect to face in the world until Jesus returns in glory. 

Monday, March 27, 2017

In Christ Alone: Perspectives on Union with Christ edited by Stephen Clark & Matthew Evans

Affinity/Mentor, 2016, 283pp 

This volume gathers together the papers presented at the 2015 Affinity Theological Studies Conference. I was present for that event and very much appreciated reading the various papers and discussing the issues raised by them with fellow conference members. 

The doctrine of union with Christ has rightly received renewed attention in Evangelical circles in recent decades. Few themes are so central to our understanding and appreciation of the work of Jesus on our behalf and how we come to benefit from what he has done for us. 

The chapters explore union with Christ from a variety of perspectives, biblical, historical and theological. Welcome attention is given to the writings of John and Paul, where union with Christ is explored most fully in the New Testament. The Reformer John Calvin and the Puritan John Owen placed union with Christ at the core of their presentation of salvation accomplished and applied. Much may be learned from their insights as teased out by Robert Letham and John Fesko. Papers are also devoted to the relationship between union with Christ and justification and sanctification respectively. 

In a final chapter Stephen Clark endeavors sum things up the heading, 'Union with Christ': Towards a Biblical and Systematic Theological Framework for Practical Living. This essay was not one of the papers written for the 2015 conference. Clark seeks to make good some aspects of the doctrine not covered by the six papers, reflecting on union with Christ in the Old Testament and the Synoptic Gospels. Especially helpful is his discussion of the union and the ordo salutis. Christ was united to his people in eternity, before the foundation of the world. Historically speaking they were crucified and raised with him. But they were only united to Christ existentially when drawn to him by faith that they might enjoy the benefits of his saving work on their behalf. (See Ephesians 1:4, Romans 6:4, 16:7).

A certain order applies even when it comes to the existential aspect of union with Christ. Logically, the sinner needs to be made spiritually alive in order to believe and so be justified by faith. Yet regeneration is not the grounds of justification. Rather God justifies the ungodly simply on the basis of Christ's obedience, blood and resurrection. Those who have been united to Christ for justification have also been united to him for progressive sanctification, having died with Christ to the old life of sin and been raised with him to a new life of holiness. 

The Christian life is not about trying to conform to a bunch of arbitrary rules laid down by the church designed to suck as much pleasure out of life as possible. It's about living out of the fullness of our union with Christ as justified sinners whom God is conforming to the image of his Son by the power of the Spirit. It is in Christ we live, suffer and die. And it is in Christ we shall be raised to everlasting glory. 

Some of Clark's lengthy footnotes are worth reading, especially the ones on time and eternity, and the interpretation of the Song of Solomon. 

I'm glad that these essays are now available to a wider audience. The authors' attention to the biblical texts offer surprising (if not always convincing) exegetical insights. At least I wasn't convinced by Cornelis Benema on John 14:1-6. Robert Letham provocatively advocates Calvin's view of the Lord's Supper in relation to union with Christ. The chapter on John Owen reminds us that unlike Lutheranism, Reformed theology is not overly based on the teaching of a single Reformer. And a good thing too. 

Theology students, pastors and serious Christian readers will find much to help them here as we seek to understand that which is beyond full human comprehension; the believer's mystical union with Christ. This work serves as a good companion piece to the 2007 Affinity Theological Study Conference papers on the person of Christ, published under the title, The Forgotten Christ: exploring the mystery and majesty of God incarnate

Friday, March 24, 2017

Biblical Authority After Babel by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (review part 2)

Brazos Press, 2016, 269pp 

As promised, we continue with this review series by considering what Vanhoozer has to say on the relationship between sola fide and biblical authority. At the Diet of Worms Martin Luther is famously reputed to have said, 
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen
One man with his 'conscience captive to the Word of God' in defiance of the authority of the pope and centuries of Roman Catholic tradition. Who on earth did Luther think he was? His monumental arrogance spawned a terrible horde of lonely individuals who insisted that their conscientious reading of the Bible was the only authority that mattered. A recipe for theological confusion and ecclesiastical division.  As Vanhoozer puts it, "Wittenberg, we have a problem." 

But it was never the intention of Luther to assert the authority of the individual believer over and against the church. Rather, he wished to place the church back under the critical authority of Holy Scripture. Vanhoozer's purpose in this work is to bring out the correlation of the Reformation battle cry, 'Scripture alone', and the other 'alones'; 'grace alone', 'faith alone' and so on. 

Flowing from his 'mere Protestant' account of solo gratia, Vanhoozer locates the principle of authority over the church not in the believer with Bible in hand, but in the Triune Lord of the gospel. God alone has rightful power over his people. And it is only in subjection to his authority that true freedom and human flourishing are found. 

Adam sought to usurp divine authority, thinking that it was only by defying God that he could be like God. How wrong he was, Genesis 3:7. Divine authority is restored by Jesus Christ who functions as prophet, priest and king in relation to God's people. The Father has bestowed all authority upon the risen and exalted Jesus that he might act as "head over all things for the church" (Matthew 28:18, Ephesians 1:20-21). The Lord Jesus granted the apostles delegated authority over the church. They were to teach whatever he had commanded them, Matthew 28:18-20, John 16:13. As Vanhoozer summarises,
The apostles are authorized interpreters of Jesus' person and work, inscribers of the meaning of the Christ event whose written discourse is part and parcel of the triune economy of communicative action. (p. 91) 
Protestantism is not the reassertion of Adamic epistemic autonomy, "I will decide for myself what to believe". Authentic Protestantism is the product of trust in the self-authenticating witness of Scripture as it discloses what Jonathan Edwards called "the great things of the gospel". This saving trust is the result of the internal testimony of the Spirit who works by and with the Word to give the gospel its faith-compelling power. As Luther put it, the church is a "creature of the Word" because by the Spirit "the Holy Scriptures..are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 3:15). 

Faith alone in Christ alone according to the witness of Scripture alone draws a person into the church over which Jesus rules by his Word. The church is an interpretive community that exists not to make of Scripture what it will, but to be shaped by the Bible according to God's will. Her calling is to attend to what the Holy Spirit is saying in the Scriptures concerning what is in Christ for his people. If God is our Father, the church is our mother whose role is to nurture the faithful to maturity in Christ. 

The Bible alone as God-breathed Scripture commands magisterial authority over the church, but the church as a holy nation and royal priesthood has ministerial authority to teach the Word. This involves thinking God's thoughts after him and talking God's talk after him. 'Faith alone' is not 'me and my Bible alone'. Rather it involves the community of those who have been justified by faith alone being summoned by the Spirit to "respond to the voice of the Triune God speaking in the Scriptures to present Christ." (p. 104). 

It takes the whole of the people of God even to begin to grasp the meaning of the whole Word of God as it speaks to us of what is in Christ, Ephesians 3:18-19. The church as an interpretive community does well to read Holy Scripture in the context of the catholic church, with an awareness of the way in which the Spirit has led the people of God in their journey of faith seeking understanding over the centuries.

The problem the Reformers had with the Roman Catholic Church was that she made herself the 'norming norm', usurping the authority of Jesus, and fatally compromising her place in the catholic church. Adding to what is in Christ as he comes to us clothed in Scripture leaves us with a Saviour who is less than a sufficient prophet, priest and king to his redeemed people. 

Placing biblical interpretation in the context of sola fide orientates the church towards the gospel promised by the prophets and announced by the apostles. It helps preserve the church from slavery to 'the assured results of modern scholarship', where human intellectual ability is asserted over and above the Word. It also acts as a safeguard against postmodern skepticism that despairs of finding any true meaning in the Bible. Rather than falling prey to these twin  idols, 'the tower' and 'the maze', the church is summoned to trust in the God who is there and is not silent. We recall the words of Paul, "faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." (Romans 10:17). As a royal priesthood and holy nation the people of God are called to attend to the Word with the expectant prayer, "Speak Lord, for your servants hear". To which our God responds, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear him!" 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Biblical Authority After Babel by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (review part 1)

Brazos Press, 2016, 269pp 

With 2017 marking the 500th anniversary of beginning the Protestant Reformation now is a good time to reflect on that disruptive event in church history. Many view the Reformation as nothing less than a tragedy that rent Christendom asunder, leading to the fragmentation of the church into thousand denominational pieces. That is certainly the view of Rome-friendly commentators. Even among Protestants, the Reformation is often viewed as a decidedly mixed blessing. Alister McGrath charged the Reformation with unleashing Christianity's Dangerous Idea; the right of all believers to read the Bible for themselves and decide on its meaning. Gone was the magisterial authority of the Pope of Rome to declare what Scripture teaches. Now any believer's reading was as good as another's. Cue interpretive anarchy, doctrinal confusion and ecclesiastical division. That's the 'Babel', bit in Vanhoozer's title.

The Reformation's insistence on sola Scriptura meant that all controls on how the Bible was to be read had been thrown to the wind. From those days there was no kingly magisterium in Israel; everyone saw in Scripture what was right in his own eyes. What Vanhoozer attempts to do in this work is to show that sola Scriptura - Scripture Alone was never meant to be taken alone, but understood in the light of its companion Reformation solas. Namely, sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus and soli Deo gloria. When taken together the solas place the Bible and the individual believer in the context of God's gracious action in Christ by which he draws his people into the church through faith the the gospel message revealed in Holy Scripture. 

As the subtitle suggests the author is intent on Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity.  He points out that "retrieval is not replication but a creative looking back for the sake of a faithful moving forward." (p. 37). Exploring what the Reformers meant by the solas in the context of their controversy with Rome provides the contemporary evangelical world with a valuable resource 'that encourages the church to hold fast to the gospel and to one another.' (p. 33)  By 'mere Protestant Christianity' Vanhoozer is not positing a lowest common denominator approach to evangelical belief and churchmanship. Rather, mere Protestant Christianity retrieves the solas as guidelines for faithful biblical interpretation. It also seeks to recover the royal priesthood of all believers, recognising the church as the community that is being led by the Spirit to understand and embody what is in Christ as disclosed in Holy Scripture. 

In giving careful attention to the solas, Vanhoozer is able to address some of the charges that are regularly leveled against Protestant Christianity besides interpretive individualism and ecclesiological fragmentation, were they not heinous enough theological crimes. One is that Protestantism begat secularism. Roman Catholic writer Charles Taylor alleges as much in his A Secular Age. Protest scholar Alister McGrath more or less says, 'It's a fair cop, gov' in Christianity's Dangerous Idea. Vanhoozer contests the charge that in ridding nature of its sacramental quality Protestantism was responsible for disenchanting the world, paving the way for a secular outlook. The writer responds that an important strand of Roman Catholic teaching postulated a realm of 'pure nature' that could exist autonomously and apart from the grace of God. How disenchanting is that? Another suggested that nature participates in grace and mediates grace, most especially through the sacraments. Yet if grace is pretty much intrinsic to nature, then grace has been disenchanted, the Creator/creature distinction is fatally compromised and the singularity of Jesus Christ as the Word made flesh is undermined. Once more, the secularising trajectories are obvious. 

In retrieving sola gratia, Vanhoozer develops an ontology of Triune grace that avoids fusing grace and nature. God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit was fully actualised in the free and loving communion of his own three-personed being. He had no need to create the universe in order to complete himself in any way. Creation was an act of free communication on the part of the Triune God. He did not owe the world its existence. Bringing the universe into being was an act of sheer grace on God's part, defined as, "the gift of God's beneficent presence and activity - that is, the communication of God's own light, life and love to those who have no right to them nor a claim on God...Put simply, grace is the Triune God - God sharing his Fatherly love for creation in the Son and through the Spirit". (p. 53). Nature has no autonomous existence apart from grace. Grace cannot be collapsed into nature. It is not a 'thing', but God's free and loving attitude towards that which is not God. 

Just how amazing is the grace of God is brought into sharper relief when we reflect on his grace towards fallen humanity. What sinners deserve from God is his wrath and judgement. Grace as the word is most often used in the New Testament is God's undeserved giving of himself to rebel sinners. "It is indeed wonderful to participate in being (creative grace), but it is something even more marvelous when fallen creatures participate in Christ (redemptive grace)." (p. 54). The goal of God's gracious purpose is to "unite all things in Christ" (Ephesians 1:10). To that end the Trinity acted to redeem lost human beings and restore them to communion with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Scripture reveals the economy of God's saving work in the unfolding covenant of grace. While the external actions of the Trinity are undivided, each person of the Trinity had a special role to play in the great drama of redemption. The Father sent the Son, the Son is sent into the world as man to redeem us by his blood, the Holy Spirit is given to communicate the salvation accomplished by the Son to God's new humanity. 

Sola Scriptura must be seen in the context of the drama of redemption. It is not to be understood as the right of every Christian to say what they like about the Bible. Rather, it is that God uses his written Word to communicate salvation to his people, enlightening their minds by his Spirit so that they are made wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Grace does not simply perfect the believer's natural ability to read and understand the message of the Bible. It restores the sin-darkened mind by giving light and reorients the sin-twisted heart towards Christ. This is not so much the 'right of private interpretation', as the grace of right interpretation that enables the believing reader to perceive the light of the Living Word shining through the written Word. 

This light that proceeds from the Father through the Son and by the Spirit enables the believer to read God's 'Two Books' of Nature and Scripture with delight and relish. 'Mere Protestantism' offers no 'disenchanted' nature, devoid of the divine presence, but a God-entranced vision of all things. The Christian sees the universe as the gracious work of God, in which the heavens declare his glory and the earth is filled with his goodness. As the hymn writer put it, "Something lives in every hue/Christless eyes have never seen". Moreover, bringing sola gratia to bear upon sola Scriptura, Vanhoozer is able to say,
The Spirit illumines the faithful, opening eyes and ears to see and hear the light of the world, the Word of God dazzling in the canonical fabric of the text: God's unmerited favor towards us shining in the face of the biblical Jesus. (p. 69). 
If the formal principle of Reformation theology was sola Scriptura, the material principle was the gospel of salvation through faith alone. And it is to sola fide that Vanhoozer next turns his attention. But you'll have to wait until part 2 of this review series for that, and maybe a bit more besides. 

Monday, March 06, 2017

Affinity Theological Study Conference 2017

The 'Magnificent Seven' speakers'  panel
The theme of this year's conference was, 'The Christian Church: Its Mission in a Post-Christian Culture'. Timely, what with the church in the UK struggling to adjust its mission to a more secular climate. 

As is the practice with these events, the papers were circulated beforehand for delegates to study. Here are the titles/authors: 

1: ‘Light to the Nations and Aliens and Strangers: an Overview of the People of God in the Old Testament’ – David Green
2: ‘Light to the Nations and Aliens and Strangers: an Overview of the People of God in the New Testament’ – Chris Bennett
3: ‘When Society is Collapsing: Augustine and The City of God’ – Paul Helm
4: ‘The Church Militant and Martyred: The Reformation till Today’ – Lee Gatiss
5: ‘On Understanding our Times’ – John Stevens
6: ‘On Serving God in our Generation’ – David McKay

A session was devoted to discussing each paper in turn after a word of introduction by their authors. We then divided into small groups to chew the fat, before coming together to feed back to the whole conference. A speaker was delegated to each discussion group, meaning we all got to 'grill' one, which was nice. (Maybe not so much for the authors).

There were some points of disagreement. In his paper Chris Bennett argued for the Chris Wright view that the mission of the church should reflect the mission of God to restore and renew the whole universe. He questioned the distinction that is sometimes made between what may be done under the auspices of the organised church and what is a matter for individual believers. The distinction has its uses, however. Churches may organise things like Parent and Toddler Groups to foster links with the local community as well as run directly evangelistic activities, but it is down to individual believers to get involved in local politics, or help with urban redevelopment projects. They do so as members of the organic church and with the prayerful support of their local fellowship, but such activities are not in themselves an expression of the mission of the organised church. That's what I reckon, anyway.

Another thing was the extent to which we should make use of the diminishing heritage of Christendom. Most agreed that we should use our Christian heritage as a point of contact with the unbelieving world. But our primary purpose is not to preserve this at all costs. Contrary to Anglican friends (and some inconsistent Nonconformists) I don't believe we should retain Bishops as ex-officio members of the House of Lords, or the Monarch as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Let Church and State be separate, each with its own sphere and mission. That does not entail a faith-free public square, but in Augustinian terms, the City of God should not be confused with the City of this world. 

The papers and discussion that arose from them were certainly thought provoking. A good mix of theological reflection and cultural analysis that helped us to apply biblical truth and lessons from church history to contemporary concerns. It is only as we do that will we be able to equip the church for its God-given mission in a secular world. The papers will eventually be published in book form, so I'm not going to provide a summary here. The 2015 set are available under the title, In Christ Alone: Perspectives on Union with Christ, and very good they were too.

One of the joys of a conference like this is the times of informal chat and discussion that spill over into coffee breaks and meal times. That's where you get into the practical nitty gritty of how to work out all this stuff in the context of church life. You may also find yourself engaging in discussion of whether holding that ensoulment is not from conception implies an Appolinarian moment in Christ's incarnate life. Or watching some of the most ineptly played games of Pool you're ever likely to witness. 

Despite me not being quite so active on the blogging front these days, some of the delegates were familiar with this here blog. More familiar than me it seems, as I had no recollection whatever of posting this in response to Ruth Palgrave's criticism of Affinity a few years ago. Must be getting old. 

The next Affinity Theological Study Conference will be in 2019, on the theme, 'Worship'. 

Monday, February 27, 2017

Like?

Some communities try to cut themselves off from the modern world. They prefer horse drawn carriages to cars, candles to light bulbs and opt for good old buttons in place of newfangled zips. Fair enough. Takes all sorts.

The modern world can be a bewildering place. But we can't choose our times and it's no good trying to turn the clock back. One feature of contemporary life is social media. Twitter, Facebook and other platforms have transformed the way people interact. It's now possible to keep up with the detailed goings on in people's lives who we rarely, if ever, see in the flesh.

At its best social media is an enjoyable and convenient way to maintain contact with friends and family. Much easier to upload a photo with a caption as a status update than going to the trouble of enclosing a holiday snap with a letter and putting it in the post.

But social media also has its dark side. It feeds our desire for the approval of others. Who doesn't like ‘likes’ when they’ve posted a witty remark, or whatever? It can cheapen the idea of friendship. How many of our Facebook ‘friends’ could we really count on in difficult times? Social media depersonalises communication. That can lead to users being more thoughtless and cruel in what they say to others than they would be when speaking face to face. Abusive trolling, and all that. People’s lives have been made a misery by what’s been posted on Facebook or Twitter. Especially younger people. 

It’s enough to make you sympathetic towards those who wish to drop out of our high tech society. But issue isn't with modern communication methods. It’s the human heart that’s at fault. The way we use social media is the problem, not the platform. What’s the answer? Yes, those who run Facebook and Twitter can do more to clamp down on abusive users. But above all we need a change of heart. What Jesus offers is not a new set of rules, but a fresh start in life. What's not to like?

* For White Horse News

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Hacksaw Ridge

"I can't hear you" prays Desmond Doss. The last time Andrew Garfield played a character struggling with God's silence, the heavens remained silent. But now God's voice is heard. "What do you want me to do?" persisted Doss. The heavens answered in the form of a wounded soldier crying for help. Strengthened by a sense of divine calling the army medic braved Japanese bullets and bayonets to rescue his injured comrades. In all Doss was said to have rescued 75 soldiers from Hacksaw Ridge. 

They thought he was a coward. But our medic hero didn't refuse to bear arms because he was a scaredy cat. He was a pacifist who wanted to do his bit for the war effort by saving rather than taking lives. Cue attempts by his fellow infantrymen to bully him into leaving the army. It didn't work. 

Eventually a military tribunal granted Doss his wish to enter the heat of battle unarmed. And off to war he went. 

Doss's company was charged with taking Hacksaw Ridge as part of the Battle of Okinawa. The ridge was heavily defended by well dug in Japanese soldiers. The battle scenes are a graphically depicted riot of fire, blood and guts. Like the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, only worse. 

The film muddies the reasons for Dross's pacifism. On the one hand it's related to his Seventh Day Adventist faith. On the other, a flashback sees Doss threaten his drunken father with a gun. Horrified by what he had done, Desmond swears never to touch a weapon again. Maybe regret over his actions led him to commit more deeply to his faith? I dunno. 

What's clear is that Doss took the biblical command 'you shall not kill' as an absolute prohibition of the taking of human life. While his pacifist exegesis might be questioned, his sincerely and courage could not. He was willing to brave the scorn and derision of his comrades and enemy fire to remain true to his beliefs. In the end Doss won the respect of his company and was awarded the Medal of Honour for his sacrificial bravery. 

In a Baptist Church of which I was once a member were two elderly men who served in WWII. One was a Desert Rat who fought with Monty to defeat Rommel at the Battle of El Alamein. The other, like Doss, was a 'conscientious collaborator' who served as a medic, risking his life and limb to save others. Brave men both. The film is a tribute to those who helped the war effort with bandages rather than bullets. 

It is noteworthy that Doss treated injured Japanese soldiers as well as Americans. He was a patriot, not an enemy-demonising nationalist. If that aspect of the film has resonance for the United States today, then well and good. 

Exhausted and alone, after rescuing each injured comrade Doss prayed, "Just one more". The secret of his resilience was revealed in the opening scenes of the film as Doss is heard reading the words of Isaiah 40:28-31. "Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength". 

In a nod to Band of Brothers, the closing credit sequence features contributions from the men behind the characters portrayed on screen. The real life Desmond Doss recalls the prayer just quoted, "Just one more" - 75 'one mores'.