Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Donne, The Reformed Soul by John Stubbs

Donne, The Reformed Soul by John Stubbs, Viking, 2006
I've long been interested in the poetry and prose writings of Donne. His "metaphysical" poetry gives expression to a profoundly trinitarian spirituality. His insights penetrate the depths of the believer's experience of the "three person'd God". But, who was the man behind the literature?
The poet was a born outsider, the child of a Catholic family at the time of the Elizabethan Protestant ascendancy. His illustrious ancestor was none other than Thomas Moore, who was executed for his faith under Henry VIII. As a young trainee lawyer at Lincoln's Inn, Donne was something of a womanising libertine. His early poems mocked the hypocrisy of genteel society and celebrated his amorous conquests. Something of an adventurer, he enlisted in the Earl of Essex's Spanish invasion force. Donne was involved in the dashing and audacious raid on Cadiz. But gradually, Donne became more serious about life. The imprisonment and death of his brother Henry for his role in a Catholic conspiracy made Donne distrustful of religious fanaticism. This was one factor that led him to convert to mainstream Protestantism. He no longer wanted to be an outsider. What Donne wanted was acceptance and career advancement.
Donne was appointed as clerk to the powerful Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Seal. But he lost his job and with it his carefully cultivated place in society, when he secretly married his beloved Anne More. Her hot tempered father, Sir George was outraged when he found out about the match. Strings were pulled and Donne was sacked. He was an outsider once again, a social and moral outsider who had to find work wherever he could, living in squalid accommodation with his wife and growing family.
During this time, Donne developed something of an interest in theology and his poetry took on a more spiritual flavour. His religious prose writings impressed King James, who had Donne appointed Doctor of Divinity and made him a royal chaplain. When the idea of him becoming a clergyman had first been mooted, Donne baulked at the suggestion. He thought that the "irregularities" of his private life and his old erotically charged poetry made made a career in the Ministry unthinkable. But he reconciled himself to ordination and threw himself into the task of being a Protestant Minister. He was a dedicated student of Scripture and theology. His sermons were crafted with great care and attention to detail. It was through his work in the Church that Donne was brought in from the cold. He was appointed Reader of Divinity at Lincoln's Inn, his old law chambers and was made Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral. Donne was often had the high honour of preaching before the King. Career-wise things had worked out well for him. But tragedy struck when his wife, whom he had so impulsively married for love, died at the age of thirty-three.
Theologically, it seems that Donne was something of a middle of the road Protestant. He disliked the Roman Catholic extremism that led to his brother's untimely death. The preacher did not seem to have much time for the growing Puritan movement either. At one point, he worked closely with William Laud, Bishop of London and arch persecutor of the Puritans. Donne, the "reformed soul" is not one of the heroic figures of church history, who stood valiantly for his principles come what may. He was willing to make adjustments to fit in with the Establishment. The preacher was most alarmed when one of his sermons did not meet with the approval of King Charles I. He made a grovelling apology to the King for any offence caused. I can't imagine his Puritan contemporary John Preston doing anything like that. This is not to say that Donne was altogether lacking in courage. He was braved the disapproval of his Catholic family when he embraced Protestantism. It took some spirit and determination to follow the dictates of his heart and marry Ann. Becoming a clergyman was no easy decision for him. He knowingly alienated one of his key patrons when he was ordained a Minister. Donne's poetry also evinces an intellectual courage, as he examines the intricacies of his own "labyrinthine soul". But the poet could sometimes be a little too eager to please his betters. The younger Donne used to ridicule such obsequiousness in his satirical poems.
John Stubbs has given us a vivid and compelling portrait of the life and times of John Donne. He ably charts his transformation from young, lascivious, Catholic outsider to respectable Protestant clergyman. Stubbs has a feel for Donne's poetry and gives helpful analysis of his key philosophical ideas. All who appreciate Donne's writings will enjoy this well-written biography. But I could have done with a little more information on Donne's theological position. A couple of things come to mind: Why did he so reluctantly accept the traditional Calvinistic teaching on predestination? Did he have a clear understanding of justification by faith alone? We are not told. But we do know that Donne faced death, the "last enemy" with quiet confidence. Days before his departure from this life, the sickly Donne preached a dramatic sermon entitled Death's Duel. His final message concludes,
"There we leave you in that blessed dependency, to hang upon him that hangs upon the cross, there bathe in his tears, there suck at his wounds, and lie down in peace in his grave, till he vouchsafe you a resurrection, and an ascension into that kingdom which He hath prepared for you with the inestimable price of his incorruptible blood. Amen."
Donne had a fine sense of the interconnectedness of human life and held that the death of one man diminishes the whole of humanity,
"No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." (MEDITATION XVII, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions).
His Holy Sonnets reveal the source of Donne's hope in the face of death,
Holy Sonnet I
Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste,
I run to death, and death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday;
I dare not move my dim eyes any way,
Despair behind, and death before doth cast
Such terror, and my feeble flesh doth waste
By sin in it, which it t'wards hell doth weigh;
Only thou art above, and when towards thee
By thy leave I can look, I rise again;
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,
That not one hour my self I can sustain;
Thy Grace may wing me to prevent his art,
And thou like Adamant draw mine iron heart.
In Holy Sonnet X, Donne even taunts death,
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Wilberforce Meeting Report

William Wilberforce: “The Abiding Eloquence of a Christian Life”
Last Monday we held the third annual Protestant Truth Society meeting at Penknap Providence Church. This year is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. To mark the occasion, the event was devoted to the life of William Wilberforce. Our speaker was Simon Chase, a trained historian and an elder at Gillingham Baptist Church, Dorset. He gave us a clear, moving and instructive account of Wilberforce’s life.

The talk began with a sketch of the period into which Wilberforce was born in 1759. The industrial revolution was launched 1760 with the building of the first iron bridge. Adam Smith argued for a capitalist economy in his The Wealth of Nations. John Payne argued for a new political culture in The Rights of Man. Alongside industrialisation and the world of new ideas, this was also a time of social disintegration, captured vividly by the artist Hogarth. The gin craze was at its height. Immorality, drunkenness, poverty and squalor were widespread.

Wilberforce was the son of a wealthy Hull merchant. As a child, he spent some time living with his caring uncle and aunt, who introduced Wilber to evangelical Christianity. But when his parents became aware of his interest in “Methodist enthusiasm”, they brought him back home and immersed him in the glitzy world of high society. William’s early religious impressions soon evaporated. At university, Wilberforce wasted much of his time playing around and gambling, only obtaining his degree by the skin of his teeth. With his ready wit, easy charm and beautiful singing voice Wilber was a popular, but directionless young man.

All this changed when William invited an old friend, Isaac Milner to join him on tour of Europe. Milner was a convinced evangelical. The two men often talked of religious matters and Wilberforce became increasingly serious about spiritual things. He read Philip Dodderidge’s The Rise and Progress of Religion, and the Lord used his to effect “a great change” in the young man’s life. He was converted to evangelical Christianity.

Career-wise, Wilberforce had decided to enter politics with his old friend from Cambridge, William Pitt. But his conversion made him consider abandoning politics to enter the Christian ministry. The preacher John Newton, whom Wilber had known from childhood, urged him to continue in politics where he could use his influence for the good of society.

Wilberforce now understood what he was to do with his life, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation Manners (or Morals)”. He realised that politics is the “art of the possible”. Change cannot simply be foisted on people. Wilberforce set about gathering support for his two great aims both in parliament and in the nation at large. He worked closely with a range of interested parties, including his close friend William Pitt, who became Prime Minister of Great Britain.

After many reversals and set backs, the slave trade was abolished in 1807 with Parliament voting 283 to 16 in favour of Wilberforce’s Bill. In 1833, shortly before his death, slavery was totally abolished in the British Empire.
But Wilberforce was involved in much more than the abolition of slavery. He was an author. His A Practical View of Christianity exposed the nominal religion of the upper classes and set forth the evangelical faith in a provocative and engaging manner. He was an active philanthropist, involved in many good causes including the improvement of working conditions in the factories, the RSPCA. He advocated the work of overseas mission. In a three hour speech to Parliament, he argued against the East India Company’s ban on evangelistic work in India. The change of legislation forged a new relationship between Britain and the colonies. No longer was the emphasis only on trade, the empire was given a moral and spiritual aspect.

Wilberforce was a devoted family man. He married Barbara Spooner at the age of thirty seven. Together they had six children. His income of £8,000 a year made him a quite a rich man. By way of comparison, the income of Jayne Austen’s exceptionally wealthy Mr. Darcey £10,000. But Wilber ended his life in relative poverty and with no home of his own. He had to sell his property to pay off the debts incurred by one of his feckless children.

Here was a man who served in public life to the good of the people. His efforts alleviated the misery of countless thousands of slaves. He made goodness fashionable in the UK, and helped to reform society for the better. As a reflection of the nation’s esteem, Wilberforce was buried in Westminster Abbey. The plaque on his monument says it all,

In an age and country fertile in great and good men,
He was among the foremost of those who fixed the character of our times
because to high and various talents, to warm benevolence, and to universal candour.
He added the abiding eloquence of the Christian life.
Eminent as he was in every department of public labour
And a leader in every work of charity.

Whether to relive the temporal or the spiritual wants of his fellow men
His name will ever be specially identified with those exertions
Which, by the blessing of God, removed from England
The guilt of the African slave trade,
and prepared the way for the Abolition of Slavery
in every colony of the Empire.

The meeting ended with a time of discussion where points were raised on what we can learn from Wilberforce’s campaigns today and the difficulties of being a Christian in politics.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

John Calvin on the preaching of the Word

"And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted not as the word of men, but as it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers." (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
The Reformation made preaching of the Word of God the central event in the life and worship of the church. This is a healthy, biblical emphasis. Here is Calvin on why God has chosen to make the preaching of mere men the primary means of announcing the gospel of salvation,
"Therefore, to teach us that the treasure offered to us in earthen vessels is of inestimable value (2 Cor. 4:7), God himself appears and, as the author of this ordinance, requires his presence to be recognised in his own institution. Accordingly, after forbidding his people to give heed to familiar spirits, wizards, and other superstitions (Lev. 19:30, 31), he adds, that he will give what ought to be sufficient for all—namely, that he will never leave them without prophets. For, as he did not commit his ancient people to angels, but raised up teachers on the earth to perform a truly angelical office, so he is pleased to instruct us in the present day by human means. But as anciently he did not confine himself to the law merely, but added priests as interpreters, from whose lips the people might inquire after his true meaning, so in the present day he would not only have us to be attentive to reading, but has appointed masters to give us their assistance. In this there is a twofold advantage. For, on the one hand, he by an admirable test proves our obedience when we listen to his ministers just as we would to himself; while, on the other hand, he consults our weakness in being pleased to address us after the manner of men by means of interpreters, that he may thus allure us to himself, instead of driving us away by his thunder. How well this familiar mode of teaching is suited to us all the godly are aware, from the dread with which the divine majesty justly inspires them.
Those who think that the authority of the doctrine is impaired by the insignificance of the men who are called to teach, betray their ingratitude; for among the many noble endowments with which God has adorned the human race, one of the most remarkable is, that he deigns to consecrate the mouths and tongues of men to his service, making his own voice to be heard in them. Wherefore, let us not on our part decline obediently to embrace the doctrine of salvation, delivered by his command and mouth; because, although the power of God is not confined to external means, he has, however, confined us to his ordinary method of teaching, which method, when fanatics refuse to observe, they entangle themselves in many fatal snares." (Institutes IV:I:5).

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Short break

From last year's trip to Devon's Paignton Zoo
This has been a rather busy week so far, with meetings of one kind and another on every evening. We're off to Devon tomorrow. I have to take a Protestant Truth Society meeting in Galmpton on Thursday night. We'll be staying in the area until Saturday with some old friends of ours.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Was Christ the eternal Son of God?

This question is not intended to query Christ's essential deity. All orthodox theologians confess the Christ pre-existed as the eternal Word who was God. But was he eternally the Son of God? We might also include the trinitarian dimensions of our subject. Does the divine name disclosed by Jesus; Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19), depict God as he is in himself (in se), or simply as he appeared to be for the sake of the economy of redemption (quoad nos)? The New Testament's teaching on Jesus' sonship takes place within the context of the economy of salvation. Scripture does not give us a direct disclosure of the nature of the imminent Trinity. It is as God with us that Jesus is revealed as the Son of the Father. That much is true. But while the imminent Trinity must not be entirely reduced to the economic Trinity, God as he is for us must be a true revelation of God as he is in himself. If God for us is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, it is because he is, ever was, and ever will be Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If this is not the case, we have to ask what, if any correspondence is there between the economic and imminent Trinity?
If we rule out the biblical material that has a bearing on Jesus' eternal sonship because of commitment to preserving the (valid!) distinction between God quoad nos and God in se, then where is our evangelical commitment to sola Scriptura? Surely biblical revelation should weigh more heavily with us than abstract theological reasoning.
What then of the Scriptures? I think that there is a strong biblical case for Jesus eternal sonship.
1) The self-consciousness of Christ
In John's Gospel, the enfleshed Word seemed to be conscious that his Father/Son relationship within the godhead was not simply the product of his incarnate life. Jesus' own sense of his Father/Son relationship with God seems to be elemental to his identity and self-consciousness (John 5:19-29). It is out of love for the Father that Jesus went to the cross (14:31). He referred to himself in relation to the Father in the most deeply personal and intimate way as "Your Son" (John 17:1). He was conscious of his pre-existent glory with God the Father (17:5). The Son hoped to return to the Father, not lay aside a way of relating to God that he assumed only for the purpose of salvation (13:1). Jesus is Son of the Father from eternity to eternity. I think that it would be difficult to argue from the data in John's Gospel that Jesus' sonship was not eternal. What right to we have to bypass the testimony of Jesus' self-consciousness and suggest that in the undisclosed depths of God, he was not in reality the beloved Son of the Father?
2) The mission of the Son
John 3:16 famously teaches that, "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son...". Paul, using similar language tells us that, "In the fullness of time, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law" (Galatians 4:4). In both texts, it is as the Son that Jesus is sent into the world on a mission of redemption. He did not assume sonship at the incarnation, it was as Son that he was incarnated.
3) The triune name of God
God's key Old Testament name was YHWH - the self existent "I AM", the God of covenant faithfulness (Exodus 3:14, 6:2). This name was revealed in the context of the Old Testament economy of redemption, but who can doubt that YHWH is the revelation of who God is in himself. The New Testament revelation of God's name was announced by the risen Jesus. He commanded that disciples be baptised "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19). This disclosure of God's name is no less a true revelation of God as he is in himself. He is eternally and unchangeably Father, Son and Holy Spirit, just as he is eternally and unchangeably YHWH. If the imminent Trinity is not in fact Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then we must conclude that the economic Trinity is not a fully reliable revelation of God as he is in se.
4) The testimony of Reformed theology
Reformed orthodoxy has almost uniformly insisted that Jesus was the eternal Son of God. Donald Macleod reflects,
"The economic trinity reveals a God if the deepest affection, eternally loving his Son and yet sacrificing his Son for the salvation of a world he made through his Son and which he loves in his Son. The imminent trinity, by contrast, remains undisclosed: a remote reality consisting of God, his Word and his Breath. Without eternal sonship we are left with a redemption which is not a revelation. We have lost the core of the doctrine of the Trinity, namely, that the one Lordship is disclosed as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." (The Person of Christ, IVP, p. 130-131).
John Murray points out the consequences of denying the eternal sonship of Christ,
"If we should deny that the Lord Jesus Christ was eternally the Son of God, then we should have to deny that the Father was eternally Father. For if the first person is eternal Father, it is necessary that there must be a Son of whom he is the eternal Father. And this means that the second person must be eternally Son of the first person. Again, it is in this way that the distinction between the Father and the Son is maintained. It is also very important that, if we deny that the Son was eternally the Son, then we do grave prejudice to the greatness of God's love in sending Christ into the world. The Scripture magnifies the love of God by showing us that it was none other than his own well-beloved and only-begotten Son that the Father sent. He must then have been sent as the Son and not simply to be the Son. It is the greatness of such a gift that advertises the greatness of the Father's love." (Collected Writings Volume 1, Banner of Truth, p. 31-32).
Robert Reymond concludes his consideration of this subject with these words,
"We systematcians should give careful thought to this issue, but I would argue here that we should not discard cavalierly the eternal sonship of the Son in favour of simply affirming the eternal existence of the Logos. For with the rejection of the Son's eternal sonship also goes the Father's eternal fatherhood with tragic results. With what are we then left in regard to distinguishing the properties in the persons of the Godhead that will undergird classical trinitarianism? (Always Reforming, Apollos, p. 103-104.)
Confessing Christ as God's eternal Son in no way makes him subordinate to the Father in the imminent Trinity. As Calvin taught, in regard to his deity, the Son is autotheos, God in his own right, while he is the person of the Son in relation to the Father. We should continue to hold that Jesus was and is the eternal Son of the Father in truth and love.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Wilberforce Meeting

William Wilberforce; "The Abiding Eloquence of a Christian Life"
Local readers may be interested to know that we'll be holding a Wilberforce meeting on Monday 22nd October, 7.30pm. The speaker will be Simon Chase, historian and elder at Gillingham Baptist Church, Dorset. The venue is Penknap Providence Chapel, Westbury Wiltshire. This is a Protestant Truth Society event. See the church website for directions and my contact details.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Free of Charge by Miroslav Volf

Free of Charge: Giving and forgiving in a culture stripped of grace,
by Miroslav Volf, 2005, Zondervan
According to Volf, we live in a culture where giving is often regarded as loosing and forgiving is for wimps. How are we to give and forgive well in such a society? The writer draws upon the resources of Scripture and theology, and also reflects on his own personal experiences and family background. In addition, he makes reference to stories, fables and a wealth of literature to invite us to live a life of giving and forgiving. This book is not a detached theological treatise, but a profoundly personal testament to the transforming power of the giving and forgiving God. Volf writes thoughtfully and with great care, anticipating objections that people may have to his arguments. This makes reading Free of Charge an interactive experience as the writer enters into conversation with his readers and talks them through what it means to give and forgive in a Christian way.
In considering "God the Giver", Volf seeks to remove misunderstandings regarding God's generous giving. He is not "God the Negotiator", with whom we can make bargains or "God the Santa Claus" who gives without making demands. He is God the Creator to whom we owe our lives and all that we may possess and God the Redeemer, who has acted to save us from sin. God gives freely and graciously to those who deserve nothing. God's gifts are to be received by faith and with gratitude. When we give to others, we pass on what God has first given to us. We become channels of the giving God. His blessings flow through us to others. We must not give to manipulate others or for self-aggrandisement, but to imitate the generosity of God, who has taught us in Christ that "it is more blessed to give than to receive." Union with Christ empowers us to be giving people. The Spirit of God unblocks the selfishness, pride and sloth that prevent us from being instruments of God's generosity. When we give to others, we help to create giving communities where gifts are reciprocated and both givers and receivers are valued and loved. Volf sees this as a pale reflection of the infinitely loving giving and receiving that characterises God's intertrinitarian life. Throughout the book, the writer delves into the rich theology of Martin Luther. But this sometimes takes him in unwelcome directions. To me, talk of Christians acting as "little Christs" to their neighbours, while understandable in a way, blurs the distinction between Christ as the unique God-man and believers who are united to Christ and indwelt by him. The suggestion that we, in a certain regard become Christ's equals (p. 82) made me even more concerned about this aspect of Volf's Lutheran thought. Notwithstanding these misgivings, Volf presents a thought-provoking account of Christian giving that is rooted in deep theological reflection wedded to wise practical application.
Next, we come to the matter of forgiving. If it is difficult for us as sinners to give well, then it is perhaps even more difficult for us to forgive well. Volf tells the moving story of how his Christian parents forgave a careless nanny and irresponsible soldier for the death of their oldest son, Daniel. Forgiveness did not come easy for these grieving parents, but they forgave because, "The Word of God tells us to forgive as God in Christ has forgiven us, and so we decided to forgive." (p. 122). The Christian attitude to forgiveness is modelled on the forgiving God. He is not a doting grandparent who simply overlooks our faults. Sin is an offence to God's infinite majesty, which provokes his just wrath. But he is not an implacable judge, bent on the destruction of an evil world. He forgives sinners. God pardons us because he has taken the burden of our sin upon himself in the sacrificial death of his incarnate Son. Volf is admirably clear that the cross was an act of penal substitution, motivated by God's love for sinners, that satisfied his just demands. We must forgive others because God has provided the basis for forgiveness in the cross. The writer argues that by virtue of the believer's union with Christ, when we forgive others, Christ forgives them through us. We must forgive unconditionally. This does not mean that we pretend that we were not sinned against. Forgiveness includes the accusation of wrongdoing that makes the offending person face up to their guilt. However, we should not make repentance into a condition of forgiveness. Repentance enables the wrongdoer to acknowledge their guilt, repudiate their sin and receive forgiveness, but we should forgive others even when they refuse to repent and be forgiven. Volf argues that God's forgiveness is indiscriminate because Christ died for all people. All therefore may be forgiven. But without faith and repentance forgiveness is not received, it is, "stuck in the middle between the God who forgives and humans who don't receive". (p. 182-183).
Volf's account of Christian forgiveness gave me a deeper understanding of what it means to forgive others as God in Christ has forgiven me (Ephesians 4:32). But there are problems with some his proposals. Volf argues that because Christ has borne the punishment of all sin on the cross, punishment of criminal offenders is inappropriate. Criminals may be disciplined and restrained for the protection of society, but not punished. (p. 170-171). I agree that Christians must forgive and relinquish retribution on a personal level. We must "turn the other cheek." But the state is permitted to justly punish those who break the law. Paul forbade personal retaliation (Romans 12:17-21). But immediately after that passage, the apostle taught that the magistrate, "is God's minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil." (Romans 13:4). We forgive those who sin against us, yet the state may legitimately punish those who break the law.
On the basis of his teaching on the universal extent of the atonement, Volf seems to suggest that all will ultimately be forgiven. "On that day, God will condemn all sins and yet forgive them." (p. 220). Is the writer subtly advocating that all will be saved whether or not they received God's forgiveness by faith and repentance in this life? From what he has said elsewhere, apparently not. Volf also says that when non-Christians forgive, they do so because Christ is at work in them incognito. Christ is no doubt active in the lives of those who are united to him by faith, enabling them to forgive others. But would it not be better to think in terms of the Reformed concept of common grace, rather than a secretive work of Christ to account for the capacity of non-believers to forgive? However, the fact that non-Christians sometimes forgive those who have wronged them badly is a challenge to those of us who claim to follow the forgiving God. Do we genuinely embody the gospel of forgiveness we profess to believe?
Even with the reservations just mentioned, I found Free of Charge challenging and helpful in many ways. I was forced to reflect on the extent to which I am a giving and forgiving person. This is a book that will lead thoughtful readers to much heart searching and prayerful meditation. The work concludes with an imaginary conversation between Volf and a sceptic. The writer endeavours to draw his interlocutor into the beautiful and gracious life of Christian giving and forgiving. This was Rowan Williams' Lent Book for 2006 and carries a foreword by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Radiohead: In Rainbows

I've never really been into Radiohead. It's not that I actively disliked their music, they just seemed to have passed me by. I don't know why. But when I saw that they were operating an innovative "pay-what-you-like" policy for downloading their new album, I thought that this might be a good time to give them a hearing. For the record, I found that you have to play at least £1.00, and I was charged a 0.45p "handling fee". I suppose £1.45 isn't too much to pay for a top band's latest offering.
My impressions? I didn't know what to expect from Radiohead apart from the fact that they have a reputation for being a bit experimental and left-field. At first play I didn't quite know what to make of it and I was glad that I'd paid so little for the album. The techno-ambient sound and drum machine driven beat featured on many of the tracks, together with Thom Yorke's high-pitched, whiny vocals left me feeling a little bewildered. On second listen, I found myself being drawn in to the richly textured songs. I liked the gentle guitar parts and the satisfyingly heavy bass that comes to the fore in songs like 15 Step and Nude. The distorted, rocked-up style of Bodystachers appealed to my indy sensibility. I enjoyed the quirkiness of Weird Fishes-Arpeggi. But I only really began to appreciate In Rainbows when driving to Devon last Friday evening. The subtle atmospherics of the songs made them an ideal soundtrack for night-time driving. To my surprise I found that I like Radiohead, even at their most adventurous. One thing I still don't get is the overuse of drum machines on several tracks. This makes for a rather monotonous rhythm that lacks the variation and humanity of "proper drumming". But with ten brilliantly unusual songs for £1.45, I can't really complain too much. The album closes with the entrancingly haunting beauty of Videotape.
Maybe Radiohead's "pay-what-you-like" policy is really a cunning ploy to get penny-pinching Johnny-come-latelys like me to invest in their back catalogue? If so, it worked. OK Computer is on its way. In Rainbows is a sonically engaging, high-tech "sprat to catch a mackerel".

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Why the Reformation Matters (3)

Why the Reformation still matters
John Calvin
1. Evangelical identity crisis

We are living at a time when everything is in the melting pot. Evangelicalism is becoming increasingly fragmented and confused. We need to remember that our movement originated with the clear teaching of the Reformation,

Chris Sinkinson says,

"If we take the Reformation as our starting point then evangelicalism is born out of a theological rediscovery. Of course there is a breadth to the Reformation but the breadth is held together by a shift in the location of authority from church councils and traditions to the Bible. Ultimately, to be evangelical is to be biblical in our approach to the knowledge of God and life.

As a movement stemming from the Reformation, evangelicalism is essentially creedal. Not only that, there are clear doctrinal commitments that make up the creed." (Table Talk Issue 14 Summer 2005, published by Affinity).

The doctrinal foundation of the evangelical movement is found in the great biblical creeds and confessions of the Reformation and Puritan periods: The Thirty Nine Articles of the Church of England, The Westminster Confession of Faith, The Savoy Declaration and the 1689 Baptist Confession. These confessions may differ on matters such as church government and baptism, but they all give expression to the great Scriptural doctrines that were rediscovered at the Reformation.

Evangelical doctrine, rooted in these Confessions, is not ill-defined and endlessly flexible. Spurgeon said of the 1689 Baptist Confession. “This ancient document is a most excellent epitome of the things most surely believed among us”. May we continue to hold fast our profession.

2. Contemporary challenges

We may think that the issues that divided Protestants and Catholics in the 16th Century are old news. But this is not the case. Francis Beckwith was President of the Evangelical Theological Society until he resigned from his position on 5th May this year (see here). The reason for his resignation is that on April 29th he was received back into the Roman Catholic Church He gave two main reasons for his conversion: First, he became convinced that the Roman view of justification by faith is more faithful to the teaching of Scripture and the early church than the Protestant view. Second, he wished to identify himself with the church's creeds that Protestants and Catholics alike hold in common as expressions of orthodox Christainity.

In America, the Evangelicals and Catholics Together movement is endeavouring to find a basis for common mission between Rome and evangelicals (see here). How should we respond to these developments? The Ecumenical Movement aims to reunite Christendom under the banner of the Roman Catholic Church (see here). This is the express purpose of Churches Together in the UK. How should we as evangelicals, or gospel people respond to the ecumenical issue? We need to know where we stand biblically and theologically to appreciate what is at stake in these developments. With roots in the deeply biblical teaching rediscovered at Reformation, evangelicalism will be equipped to face the challenges of our fast-changing, contemporary world.

3. The role of the Protestant Truth Society
The PTS was founded by John Kensit 1889 to counter the Romanising tendencies of the Oxford Movement in the Church of England. In 1898 the first Wickliffe Preachers were sent out to warn of the dangers of Catholicism and preach the simple Gospel of the grace of God.
Our aims today can be summed up in three “E’s”

We wish to:

* Educate the churches by reminding the people of God of their rich history.

* Equip the churches to face the challenge of Roman Catholicism and other teachings that threaten the essentials of the gospel.

* Encourage the churches to hold fast the old paths of Scriptural truth, that we may faithfully bear witness to the everlasting gospel in the contemporary world.

This post is based on a talk given at a men's breakfast. See "The Reformation" label below for the rest of the series.

Why the Reformation Matters (2)

Why the Reformation really matters
Luther at the Diet of Worms, "Here I stand!"
1) The authority of Scripture Matters

In 1521, at the Diet or Worms, Luther faced immense pressure to back down and stop his outspoken criticism of the Roman Catholic Church. He refused saying,

"Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of popes or councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is bound by the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right not safe. God help me. Amen. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise!"

This matters. We stand apart from Rome because we believe that the Bible alone is our authority. We cannot go down the road of theological liberalism because be believe that the Bible must stand in judgement over contemporary thinking and not the other way round. The Bible is clear. By the help of the Holy Spirit we can understand its essential message of saving truth. We insist on the right of every believer to read and interpret Scripture. But this must not collapse into postmodern subjectivity where every view is as good as another. The Bible must be handled responsibly and faithfully. We stand by the ancient creeds and confessions as embodiments of the message of the Bible rightly interpreted. In our postmodern world, authority is viewed with suspicion as a manipulative exercise in power and control. But we must place ourselves under the authority of the Word of God. We can do no other. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work”. (2 Tim 3:16.)

2) The Centrality of Christ Matters

The Reformation placed Christ centre-stage, which is where he belongs in the drama of redemption – not waiting in the wings for the church to get out of the way, but at the centre of all we do and say. We must proclaim him, his Person, his atoning death and bodily resurrection, his ascension and reign as King of kings and Lord of lords. It is in him that sinners are justified, sanctified and glorified.

One sure-fire characteristic of evangelicalism was that Christ’s died as our substitute, bearing the penalty of our sin. The Father so loved the world that he sent his Son to save lost human beings. Christ lovingly died in the place of his people as their substitute. By his death, he paid the penalty for sin and turned God’s wrath away from sinners.

In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:10)

This was at the heart of the apostles preaching,

For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3 & 4)

We preach Christ alone! Not Christ of Rome who needs his mother to help him save, or the emptied out Christ of Liberalism, shorn of his divine glory, or the trendy postmodern Jesus of the Emerging Church, but the gritty, controversial Jesus of the Bible who says, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”. (John 14:6.)

3) Being Right with God Matters

Our world is very different from the 16th Century. But some issues refuse to go away. One of these is how can a sinner be right with a holy God. What brought the Reformation to birth was Luther’s rediscovery of justification by faith alone.

Martin Luther tried as hard as he could to save himself as a devout monk. But he despaired of finding salvation by works. He came to understand that justification – a right standing before God was obtainable by faith alone.

"Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the righteousness of God and the statement ‘the just shall live by faith’ (Romans 1:17). Then I grasped that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which though grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on new meaning, and whereas before ‘the righteousness of God’ had filled me with hate, not it became inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven."

We must hold to this against Rome, which brings works into justification. According to Roman Catholic teaching, we are justified by God’s grace at baptism. But we must supplement our justification by works. If we add our works to justification, then we can never be sure that we have done enough to make ourselves acceptable to God. Justification by faith alone has long been one of the defining doctrines of biblical Protestantism. This is the basis of our assurance,

Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. (Romans 8:33 & 34).

We must also aware of the so-called New Perspective on Paul. This view, associated with N.T. Wright among others sees justification not so much as a declaration that we are righteous in Christ, but that faith is a badge that shows that we are members of the church. The NPP is very useful to the ecumenical agenda because it undercuts the old divisions between Rome and Protestantism. All sides confess Jesus as the risen Lord, all therefore have the “badge” of faith and are consequently members of the people of God. But NPP is a distortion of the Scriptural teaching. It leaves unresolved the age old question, “How can I be right with God?” This is Paul’s answer: “yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified”. (Galatians 2:16.) Here is the Protestant and I would argue biblical definition of justification, set forth in the Westminster Shorter Catechism,

Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone. (Q. 97)

4) The Doctrine of the Church Matters

The Reformation was not simply all about lonely individuals “taking their stand”. The Reformers were passionately interested in church life. They reformed structure and worship of the churches in accordance with Biblical teaching. A true church was defined by gospel doctrine, the right administration of the sacraments and loving discipline of the membership. The biblical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers was rediscovered. Church members were to be born again people, visible saints, who exercised their gifts for the good of the body of Christ. The Reformation gave emphasis to the preaching of the Word as the means by which sinners are saved and the people of God built up as a kingdom of priests.

5) The Glory of God Matters

“What is the chief and of man?” asks the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The answer is, of course, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever.” So speaks the authentic voice of Biblical Protestantism. We are to live with an eye to the glory of God. He has saved us not for our sake, but for his. God has chosen us to be his people, sent his Son to die for us, adopted us unto his family and given us eternal life. Why? “to the praise of his glory.” (Ephesians 1:14).

We glorify God when we are God-centred rather than “me and my needs centred”. Calvin’s greatest work is his Institutes of the Christian Religion. In the Institutes, he argues that the first principle of the Christian life is self-denial,

Let this, then, be the first step, to abandon ourselves and devote the whole energy of our minds to the service of God. (III: VII: 1)

We are no to seek our own, but the Lord’s will, and act with a view to promote his glory. (III: VII: 2)
What could be more healthy for the church than this deeply biblical, God-centred theology? Do you still doubt that the Reformation matters?

This post is based on an address given to a men's breakfast. Click on "The Reformation" label below for the rest of the series.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Why the Reformation Matters (1)

On Saturday morning, I spoke for the Protestant Truth Society on Why the Reformation Matters at a men's breakfast at Whiddon Valley Evangelical Church, Barnstaple, Devon. The meeting was attended by men from the host church and other fellowships in the area. We were served a full English breakfast complete with sausage, fried egg, bacon, fried bread and hash browns washed down by a nice, strong cup of tea. After this excellent breakfast, the time came for me to speak. I had wondered how it might go, as I'd not spoken at such an event before. But the men listened well and my talk was followed by a lively and informed time of discussion. Sarah and the children had travelled down to Devon with me on Friday evening. We spent the night at the Manse, enjoying the hospitality of the Pastor and his wife, David and Ruth Kay. After the meeting, we went into Barnstaple town centre for a bit of shopping and then watched the film Ratatouille, which is about a rat, who became a top chef in a French restaurant. The kids liked it anyway. Here's the first installment of my talk:
Why does the Reformation Matter?
The trouble with history is that it’s all in the past. Who cares about stuff that happened around 500 years ago? What’s it got to do with living the Christian life today? Well for Christians, history does matter because our God is at work in the historical process. The Bible is not a book of wishy-washy spirituality; it is the record of God’s acts in history. Think about it. In history, God called Abraham and made a covenant with him. He delivered his people from Egypt and gave them the Promised Land. In the fullness of time, God sent forth his Son, Jesus. The coming, death and resurrection of Christ are great events in history, as is the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church at Pentecost. In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke gives us the history of the early Christian missionary expansion from Jerusalem to Rome. So, history matters, right?

God did not stop working in history at the end of the apostolic era. In Church history, with its triumphs and failures, we can see the hand of God at work. One of the key events in Church history is the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century. Biblical truths that had long been forgotten or distorted were suddenly rediscovered. Corrupt practices in Church life were challenged and reformed. This was a time of Christian heroism and gospel boldness when men and women lived and died for the truth as it is in Jesus.

But today, the Reformation is often regarded as a shameful tragedy that needlessly rent asunder the Church. Nick Needham comments,

"…although the necessity for the Reformation may have been a tragic necessity, the Reformation itself I don’t see as a tragedy (parting company, here, with the increasing tendency among Evangelicals today), but as a movement that was essentially wholesome and good." (2000 Years of Christ’s Power: Part 3: Renaissance and Reformation, Grace Publications, 2004 ,p. 12).

Do the debates and discussions of 500 years ago really matter to 21st Century Christians? Yes they do. The Reformation was not about secondary issues – it was a fight for the recovery of the biblical gospel. We forget this at our peril. The Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin may not be able to help us send an e-mail or a text message. Do not look to their works for help setting up your DVD player. But if you want to be reminded of truth that matters, go back to the Reformation.
Click on "The Reformation" label below for the rest of the series.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Volf on why the cross was not "cosmic child abuse"

Steve Chalke infamously wrote that the penal substitutionary view of the atonement is tantamount to,

‘child abuse – a vengeful Father punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed.’ (The Lost Message of Jesus, 2003, Zondervan, p. 182).
I don't know if Miroslav Volf had Chalke's words in mind, but in his book Free of Charge, he gives this response to such sentiments,
"God loves us and wants to spare us the burden of our sin, but Christ suffers because of it!? Is this fair? By "putting forward" the Son, as the apostle Paul wrote [Romans 3:25], isn't the Father abusing the Son? Doesn't substitution constitute another wrongdoing, this time against the innocent Christ? How can one wrongdoing heal another? Doesn't Christ's death on our behalf compound sins rather than take them away?
The Father would be abusing the Son and committing divine wrongdoing - rather than taking away human wrongdoing in Christ were a third party, beyond God who was wronged and humanity who wronged God. But he isn't He stands firmly on the divine side of the forgiving God, not between the forgiving God and forgiven humanity. "In Christ," wrote the apostle Paul, "God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses unto them" (2 Corinthians 5:19). Not: Christ was reconciling an angry God to a sinful world. Not: Christ was reconciling a sinful world to a loving God. Rather: God in Christ was "reconciling the world to himself".
What happened then when God "made him [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21)? The answer is simple: God placed human sin upon God! One God placed human sin upon another God? No, there are not two Gods. The God who is One beyond numbering and yet mysteriously Three reconciled us by shouldering our sin in the person of Christ who is one of the Three. That's the mystery of human redemption made possible by the mystery of God's Trinity: The One who was offended bears the burden of the offense."
From Free of Charge: giving and forgiving in a culture stripped of grace, Miroslav Volf, 2005, Zondervan, p. 144-145. I hope to post a review of this helpful and challenging book sometime next week.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Herman Bavinck online resource

'Religion, the fear of God, must therefore be the element which inspires and animates all theological investigation. That must be the pulsebeat of the science. A theologian is a person who makes bold to speak about God because he speaks out of God and through God. To profess theology is to do a holy work. It is a priestly ministration in the temple of the Lord. It is itself a service of worship, a consecration of mind and heart in honour of his name.' (From Bavinck's Inaugural Address as Professor of Systematic Theology in the Free University of Amsterdam).
I have heard so many good things about Bavinck's multi-volume Reformed Dogmatics, which is now being made available in English translation. I will have to invest in the set sometime soon. See here for an excellent website devoted to the Dutch theologian and here for an interview with Dr. Ron Gleason, the site's author.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Ten things on limited atonement

John Owen, author of The Death of Death in the Death of Christ
In a recent post, Defining Heresy, Chris Tilling reflected on David Bentley Hart's statement on 'the heresy of "limited atonement", which has so dreadfully disfigured certain streams of traditional Reformed thought' (The Doors of the Sea). Is limited atonement really a heresy? Here are some points to consider:
1. Universalists believe that Christ died for all and therefore all will be saved. I cannot argue the point now, but in my view this stance fails to take into account what the Bible says about the reality of hell for those who die in their sin (see here). Most other theological positions teach a form of limited atonement. For some, the cross is limited in its effectiveness because Christ died for all, but not all are saved. For others the cross is limited in its scope because Christ died only for the the elect, whose salvation he secured.
2. The biblical basis for limited atonement is found in texts that specify that Christ died for his people in particular. For example, in John 10, Jesus says "the good shepherd gives his life for the sheep" (vs. 11). The "sheep" are defined as those whom the Father gave to the good shepherd (vs. 29). These "sheep" will most certainly be saved, "I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish" (vs. 28). Christ makes a clear distinction between his "sheep" for whom he died and who will never perish and those who were not his "sheep", "But you do not believe because you are not my sheep" (vs. 26). Christ's "sheep" hear the voice of the good shepherd and follow him (vs. 27). Similarly, Paul wrote that "Christ loved the church and gave himself for her that he might sanctify and cleanse her by the washing of water by the word." (Ephesians 5:25 & 26). It is specifically for the church that Christ gave himself. His self-giving at the cross secures her sanctification and cleansing.
3. Denial of limited atonement undermines the link between Christ's substitutionary death and the salvation of the people of God. If Christ died for some who are not saved, then his death failed in its purpose. This is inconceivable. In him we have redemption through his blood (Ephesians 1:7). Those whom Christ has redeemed are saved by grace through faith (2:8) and therefore know forgiveness of sins according to the riches of God's grace (1:7). Limited atonement is better described as definite atonement because the cross actually and definitely achieved salvation for the people of God. Jesus died in the place of those whom the Father gave him in eternity. He bore their sins and took the punishment they deserved in his substitutionary death. Christ's cross did not make salvation a possibility for any who wished to be saved. He saved us by his blood. According to Jim Packer, "It is Calvinism that understands the Scriptures in their natural, one would have thought, inescapable meaning; Calvinism that keeps to what they actually say; Calvinism that insists on taking seriously the biblical assertions that God saves, and that he saves those whom he has chosen to save, and that he saves them by grace without works, so that no man may boast, and that Christ is given to them as a perfect Saviour, and that their whole salvation flows to them from the cross; and that the work of redeeming them was finished on the cross." (From an introductory essay to The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, John Owen, Banner of Truth Trust, 1983. p. 9)
4. The believer's union with Christ demands a definite atonement. God's elect people were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4). Christ came into this fallen world as man to save those who were united to him in God's electing grace. When he died, he died for us and by our union with him, we died with him to sin and condemnation. This becomes an existential reality when we are united to him by the Spirit. We are baptised into Christ's death. The old man (in Adam) is crucified and we are raised to new life in Christ. (Romans 6:1ff). Those who have been united to Christ must, "reckon yourselves dead indeed unto sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (vs. 11). Christ's cross achieved his people's death to sin so that all for whom he died will be united to him in his death and resurrection. In Romans 6, definite atonement is the dynamic of the Christian life of holiness. This focus on union with Christ ensures that the effectiveness of the cross does not rest upon man's response to the gospel. Yes, we must believe to be saved. But even the faith that receives salvation is given to us by God's Christ-mediated grace.
5. The commercial theory of the atonement - that Christ's suffering was proportionate to the number of people whom he redeemed is not the mainstream Reformed doctrine. To make this clear, the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists added an explanatory statement to their 1823 Confession of Faith, "we think it necessary to call attention to the truth concerning the infinite sufficiency of the atonement... as it its it forth in the writings of Thomas Charles of Bala, 'None will perish because of insufficiency in the atonement, but all because they will not come to Christ to be saved; and these men will have not excuse for their neglect of Christ.'" (Article 18: Redemption, 2004 reprint, Heath Christian Trust).
6. Holding to definite atonement should not hinder the free offer of the gospel. Christ is to be preached as an all sufficient Saviour who saves all who trust in him. All sinners may be assured that by his blood, Christ is able to cleanse the foulest sinner and put them right with God. John Owen writes, "There is enough in the remedy it [the cross] brings to light to heal all their diseases, to deliver them from all their evils. If there were a thousand worlds, the gospel of Christ might, upon this ground, be preached to them all, if so be they will derive virtue from him by touching him by faith; the only way to draw refreshment from this fountain of salvation." (The Death of Death op. cit. p. 185). God loves all people. Through the preaching of the gospel, God graciously offers Christ to all who will come to him for forgiveness and new life.
7. Biblical texts that teach Christ died for the "world" or for "all" do not contradict definite redemption. By the word "world", the Bible often draws attention not to human demography, but the sinfulness of mankind. Christ died for a sinful world. B. B. Warfield comments on the meaning "world" in John 3:16, "It is not here a term of extension so much as a term of intensity. Its primary connotation is ethical, and the point of its employment is not to suggest that the world is so big that it takes a great deal of love to embrace it all, but that the world is so bad that it takes a great kind of love to love it at all, and much more to love it as God has loved it when he gave his Son for it." (The Saviour of the World, Banner of Truth Trust, 1991, p. 120-121). John also wrote of Christ, "he himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world." (1 John 2:2). John draws attention to the ethical meaning of world in 2:15-17 of this letter. But in the text quoted, the apostle wanted to show that Christ did not die for a privileged minority among the people of God, but for a whole world of lost sinners. This does not necessarily mean that he died for all human beings inclusively. But that Christ was the propitiation for the whole world extensively - for all peoples in this fallen world. Those who hold to limited atonement should glory in such statements rather than be embarrassed by them. This is our message, "And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as Saviour of the world." (1 John 4:14).
8. Limited atonement does not necessarily mean that only a very limited number of people will be saved in comparison with those who will be lost. According to W. G. T. Shedd, "But when Christ shall have "seen of the travail of his soul" and been "satisfied" with what he has seen; when the whole course of the gospel shall be complete, and shall be surveyed from beginning to end; it will be found that God's elect, or church, is "a great multitude which no man can number, out of all nations, and kindreds, and peoples, and tongues," and that their voice is as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, "Hallelujah, for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth," Rev. 7:9, 19:6." (Dogmatic Theology, Volume II, , p. 712).
9. Definite atonement provides a sure ground for the assurance of faith. There can be no doubt that those for whom Christ died will perish. His death has saved us. We can never be lost. An indefinite atonement cannot give believers this assurance, as not all for whom Christ died will be saved. God's elect can never be condemned because the Saviour has died in our place, "Who shall bring a charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is risen, who is even at the right hand of God for us, who also makes intercession for us." (Romans 8:33-34).
10. If you have tended just to dismiss "limited atonement" as a Calvinistic aberration, or even a "heresy" and I have not convinced you otherwise, why not read a couple of classic books on the subject? The most in-depth work is John Owen's The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, already referred to in the post. See also Redemption Accomplished and Applied, by John Murray, 1979, Banner of Truth Trust.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Pelagius is the worst heretic

Poll result in full:
Pelagius 30%
The Pope 28%
Arius 14%
Marcion 14%
Schleiermacher 11%
Cerinthius 2%
See below for B.B. Warfield's summary of the Pelagian controversy
At this point we have touched the central and formative principle of Pelagianism. It lies in the assumption of the plenary ability of man; his ability to do all that righteousness can demand — to work out not only his own salvation, but also his own perfection. This is the core of the whole theory; and all the other postulates not only depend upon it, but arise out of it. Both chronologically and logically this is the root of the system.
The theology which Augustine opposed, in his anti-Pelagian writings, to the errors of Pelagianism, is, shortly, the theology of grace. Its roots were planted deeply in his own experience, and in the teachings of Scripture, especially of that apostle whom he delights to call 'the great preacher of grace,' and to follow whom, in his measure, was his greatest desire. The grace of God in Jesus Christ, conveyed to us by the Holy Spirit and evidenced by the love that He sheds abroad in our hearts, is the centre around which this whole side of His system revolves, and the germ out of which it grows. He was the more able to make it thus central because of the harmony of this view of salvation with the general principle of his whole theology, which was theocentric and revolved around his conception of God as the immanent and vital spirit in whom all things live and move and have their being. In like manner, God is the absolute good, and all good is either Himself or from Him; and only as God makes us good, are we able to do anything good.
See here for Warfield's articles on Augustine and Pelagius.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Free speech!

This morning I went to Bridport, Dorset to help friends from Chardsmead Baptist Church with their open air witness. The church has permission from the local authorities to preach in the town square. This is a public forum for everybody from street preachers to country and western buskers. One slightly irate man interrupted my friend as he was preaching to complain about our activities. We explained that we were in the square to share the Christian message and that we had permission to do so. But that didn't satisfy him. When we brought up our right to free speech, he objected that he had the right to drink his coffee in peace and quiet without having to listen to us preaching. A nearby policeman noticed our little disagreemen. He came over tried to defuse the situation. The friendly PC stressed that we were in a designated pubic forum and that we had the right to make our views known. After some discussion, we were able to get on with our witness. My friend resumed his preaching and then I proclaimed the good news of Jesus to all who would listen.
We need to declare the gospel beyond the four walls of our church buildings. Jesus was an open air preacher, as was Paul. It is no good having George Whitefield as our hero, yet never preaching to people in the public square. But open air preaching isn't necessarily going to be welcomed by everybody. Our protester said that he knew a Christian who objected to our witness! But for as long as we have free speech in this country, we must preach the good news of salvation in high streets and town centres.
In our rights oriented society, what comes first, the right to free speech, or the right to drink coffee in silence? Thankfully, in this case, the consumer was not allowed to triumph over the street preachers!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Churchless Christians

In my time I've come across a number of Christians who don't attend or belong to a local church. They are not ill. They don't live on a remote island in the middle of the North Sea. They simply don't go to church. Often they will say that they used to belong to a church, or even a series of churches, but could not find a fellowship that would do what they felt was right. These aren't 'nominal Christians' who just can't be bothered to go to church. The people in question are often deeply religious and have a zeal for the truth as they understand it. They don't belong to a church on principle.

Some 'Churchless Christians' are bitterly critical and uncharitable about believers who are involved in church life. What these friends need to realise is no local church is perfect. The church is a gathering of saved sinners. To opt out of church life because you can't find a fellowship that meets your exacting standards is not an option. I am talking about involvement in gospel churches here, not congregations that don't hold to the truth. It is right to have high standards. But any distinctively Christian standard must be motivated and controlled by a love that covers a multitude of sins. "Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins." (1 Peter 4:8). How can we claim to love God whom we have not seen if we do not love his people?
"If someone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also." (1 John 4:21 & 21).
I get a bit concerned when I hear someone say that they don't attend church because they have never been able to find a fellowship that will change to suit them. This not a gospel-driven attitude. We are not meant to try to get our own way and leave the church when we don't. Consider what Scripture says:
"Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others." (Philippians 2:1-4).
"Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you." (Ephesians 4:31 & 32).
I recently spoke to a 'Churchless Christian' who claimed to be Reformed and Puritan in his theology. He didn't seem to grasp that the Reformation was not about lonely individualism. It was an attempt to reform the church. Puritanism likewise was dedicated to purifying the life of the church. John Calvin had some very harsh things to say about those who cut themselves off from church life,
"when the preaching of the gospel is reverently heard, and the sacraments are not neglected, there for the time the face of the Church appears without deception or ambiguity and no man may with impunity spurn her authority, or reject her admonitions, or resist her counsels, or make sport of her censures, far less revolt from her, and violate her unity. For such is the value which the Lord sets on the communion of his Church, that all who contumaciously alienate themselves from any Christian society, in which the true ministry of his word and sacraments is maintained, he regards as deserters of religion... Wherefore there is the more necessity to beware of a dissent so iniquitous; for seeing by it we aim as far as in us lies at the destruction of God’s truth, we deserve to be crushed by the full thunder of his anger. No crime can be imagined more atrocious than that of sacrilegiously and perfidiously violating the sacred marriage which the only begotten Son of God has condescended to contract with us." Institutes IV:I:10)
The Westminster Directory of Public Worship states,
"When the congregation is to meet for public worship, the people (having prepared theirn hearts thereunto) ought to all come, and join therein; not absenting themselves from public ordinances through negligence, or upon pretence of private meetings."
There is nothing Reformed or Puritan about being a 'Churchless Christian'. A believer who does not belong to a congregation of the saints is an anomaly. Sheep belong in a flock. A concerned minister once told R. B. Jones, principal of Porth Bible School, about a somewhat fractious church in South Wales. The fellowship had suffered division after division and one man had left the church and was meeting on his own. R.B. quipped, "The Lord help him if he has a split!"
Let us go back to first principles and consider why Christians need church:
1. Means of grace
The means of grace are deployed in the context of the church. The Word is preached and read, corporate prayer is offered to God, hymns and psalms are sung in praise of the Lord's name. Baptism and the Lord's Supper are administered. God has ordained all these things to enable his people to grow in grace. Can we really do without them?
2. A community of love
The New Testament is constantly exhorting believers to love one another. This is not always easy, but it is the most basic principle of the Christian life. We develop and grow in maturity as we learn to live with other believers with their foibles and problems and they learn to live with us. This sometimes brings us heartache and pain. But we have no choice but to love God's people. We cannot do this at a distance. Love demands involvement and real fellowship. Some 'Churchless Christians' that I have met have been immature, impatient and argumentative. They cannot cope with others disagreeing with their dictates. Opting out of church life may be the easy option for them, but they are not facing up to their deep rooted spiritual problems.
3. The body of Christ
The church is the body of Christ. In this body there is unity as well as diversity. There are diversities of gifts and backgrounds. Also there will be differing levels of spiritual maturity and understanding. We must not try to obliterate the rich diversity of the church by insisting on drab uniformity. Learning to cope with and even appreciate the diversity of church life is an essential aspect of Christian discipleship. If a person professes to belong to Christ as the head, they should also want to belong to a local church, which is an expression of Christ's body. Our fellowship within the body of Christ is meant to be an anticipation of glory. If we can't get on with Christians in the here and now, do we really want to be with them in heaven?
Now, some Christians may stop going to church because they have been deeply hurt by an uncaring fellowship. The way to find healing and restoration is not to isolate yourself, but to get involved in a church where you will find pastoral care and loving acceptance from the people of God. If you are a 'Churchless Christian' on principle, I urge you to consider your ways. Staying at home and surfing the net is no substitute for belonging to a church. You won't find it easy to fit into a fellowship after years of isolation, but this is what you must attempt to do.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

John Calvin on the resurrection of the body (5)

The nature of the resurrection body

1. The God who raises the dead
For Calvin, there are two basic grounds for believing in the resurrection of the body: the historical resurrection of Christ and the power of God. (Institutes III:XXV:3). In Part 3, we looked at Calvin's teaching on Christ as the model and dynamic of the resurrection. See Part 4 for Calvin on the historicity of the empty tomb. Now we turn to what Calvin had to say on resurrection and the power of God and the nature of the resurrection body.
"We have said that in proving the resurrection our thoughts must be directed to the immense power of God." (III:XXV:4, and so for all quotes in this section). Interestingly, the first instance that Calvin gives of God's power to raise the dead is attributed to the Lord Jesus Christ. He quotes Paul's words about Jesus that he, "shall change our vile body that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working of that mighty power whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself" (Philippians 3:21).
The resurrection of the body is not something that happens within the normal natural order. It is "an inestimable miracle, which by its magnitude absorbs our senses." There are analogies of the resurrection in nature. Paul makes the comparison with a "dead" seed that when sown in the ground produces a living crop (1 Corinthians 15:36). If we were attentive enough to see them, the wonders of the created order make belief in the resurrection of the body seem less unlikely. But they are not sufficient in themselves to convince us that our dead bodies will rise again, "let us remember that none is truly persuaded of the future resurrection save he who, carried away with admiration, gives God the glory."
Calvin cites several Old Testament texts that demonstrate the conviction that God raises the dead: "Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body they shall arise. Awake and sing, ye who dwell in the dust" (Isaiah 26:19). In God's hands are "the issues from death" (Psalm 73:20). The famous text in Job 19:25-27 is quoted as an example of the afflicted man's trust in the resurrection power of God. Calvin alludes to Ezekiel 37, which promises national restoration for the Jews using the metaphor of resurrection. He comments, "Though under that figure [of the enfleshment of the dry bones] he encourages the people to hope for return, yet the ground of hope is taken from the resurrection, as it is the special type of all deliverances which believers experience in the world."
In the New Testament, the Reformer refers us to the words of Jesus who said, "marvel not at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the grave shall hear his voice and shall come forth" (John 5:28 & 29). We are encouraged amid all our conflicts and trials to "exult after" the example of Paul's resurrection hope that Jesus shall "come to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired in all them that believe" (2 Thessalonians 1:10).
So, although belief in the resurrection is not inherently unlikely given the wonders of creation, this hope is based on the power of God revealed in the Gospel. Natural theology has its limits.
2. This mortal shall put on immortality
Calvin addresses "the monstrous error of those who imagine that the soul, instead of resuming the body with which it is now clothed, will obtain a new and different body." (III:XXV:7, and so for all quotes in this section unless otherwise stated). He especially had the Manichees in his sights. They held that it is impossible that impure flesh should rise again. Calvin objected that the soul is also tainted by impurity, but this does not exclude it from the hope of heavenly life. The Manichees were dualists. They held to the "delirious dream" that the flesh is naturally impure, having been created by the devil. Calvin however saw that God created human beings with bodies as well as souls (see Part 2). For all his belief in the total depravity of fallen humanity, the reformer taught that human beings are redeemable,
"I only maintain, that nothing in us at present, which is unworthy of heaven, is any obstacle to the resurrection".
This is how Calvin responds to the idea that the resurrection body will be different from the present body:
First, Calvin argues that salvation includes the body. That is why believers are exhorted to purify themselves from "all filthiness of the flesh and spirit" (2 Corinthians 7:1). According to Paul, the life of Jesus is manifest in our body. The body as well as the soul is subject to the sanctifying work of God (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Calvin comments,
"He says 'body' as well as 'spirit and soul', and no wonder; for it were most absurd that bodies which God has dedicated to himself as temples should fall into corruption without hope of resurrection. What? are they not also the members of Christ?"
These apostolic injunctions to a holy life in the body stand against Manichean flesh/spirit dualism. The body as well as the soul of the believer is united to Christ. The complete human being is saved by grace.
Second, the idea that we are given new bodies at the resurrection is contradicted by Scripture. Calvin appeals to Paul's teaching that "This corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality" (1 Corinthians 15:53). This suggests that our present bodies will put on incorruption and immortality. Calvin asks, "If God formed new bodies, where would be this change of quality?" In addition, according to the Scriptures, we have sinned in the body and we must give an account of ourselves to God in the body. This would be a fiction if new bodies were given at the resurrection.
Third, if entirely new bodies were given, this would undermine the believer's conformity to Christ's own resurrection. For Calvin with his strong grasp of the central importance of union with Christ, this is inconceivable,
"if we are to receive new bodies, where will the conformity to the Head and the members? Christ rose again. Was it by forming a new body? Nay, he had foretold, "Destroy this body and in three days I will raise it up" (John 2:19) The mortal body which he had formerly carried he again received; for it would not have availed us much if a new body had been substituted, and that which had been offered in expiatory sacrifice been destroyed. We must, therefore, attend to that connection which the Apostle celebrates, that we rise because Christ rose (1 Corinthians 15:12); nothing being less probable than that the flesh in which we bear about the dying of Christ, shall have no share in the resurrection of Christ".
Fourth, believers suffer for Christ in the body. It is unthinkable that their bodies which are united to Christ should miss out on the glories of everlasting life, "As it is true, 'That we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God,' (Acts 14:22); so it were unreasonable that this entrance should be denied to the bodies which God exercises under the banner of the cross and adorns with the palm of victory." (III:XXV:8 and for quote below).
Finally, Calvin returns to the power of God. We should not baulk at the hope of the resurrection of the dead because all things are possible with the Lord,
"The corruptible body, therefore, in order that we may be raised, will not perish or vanish away, but, divested of corruption, will be clothed with incorruption. Since God has all the elements at his disposal, no difficulty can prevent him from commanding the earth, the fire, and the water, to give up what they seem to have destroyed".
3. The redemption of the body
Calvin has made some helpful points here. God does not abandon what he has made. He saves us from sin without destroying what we are. Our bodies are not inherently evil. God is able to rescue the body as well as the soul from sin and its devastating effects. Our lowly, fallen, mortal bodies will be raised up and transformed into the image of Christ's glorious resurrection body. In the light of this resurrection hope, we are to devote the whole of our being to holiness in the Lord. Unlike Manichean dualism, the Bible's resurrection hope is fundamentally life affirming. We do not long to be rid of the flesh, but to have our bodies renewed perfected in Christ-like splendour.
In the next post in this series, I hope to look at Calvin on the intermediate state.