Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Christmas!

Rembrandt's portrait of Simeon embracing the infant Jesus
“Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace,
According to Your word;
For my eyes have seen Your salvation
Which You have prepared before the face of all peoples,
A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles,
And the glory of Your people Israel.”
(Luke 2:29-32)
Here's wishing Exiled Preacher readers a very happy and blessed Christmas!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Monkey Returns

Lots of readers, well one or two of them have been pestering me for an update on what's been happening to David Sky, my runaway pet monkey. "Enough of the theology" they say, "where's the monkey?" So here is an exclusive Exiled Preacher 'Christmas Special' featuring the errant primate. It has been some time since the mischievous monkey left home to join the Taffia (the much feared Welsh Mafia for the uninitiated). Strangely, I haven't missed the cheeky monkey one bit, but we decided to meet up for old time's sake. I asked the monkey about his new life in the mob. Here's a transcript of our conversation:
EP: Is life in the Taffia what you expected? Does the seedy glamour and violence suit you?
DS: Well, it isn't quite like that.
EP: But I thought that's why you left the confines of my 'boring study'.
DS: It was, but Dai Corleone, the great Taffia Godfather has enough henchmen. He needs me for a more specialised and dangerous task.
EP: Which is?
DS: Actually it involves concocting a unique solution to the Don's exacting standards using a highly hazardous liquid.
EP: You mean he's got you making the tea, white with two sugars using very dangerous hubbly bubbly boiling water?
DS: You're so wrong.... he doesn't even take sugar. Doh!
EP: So, you are a tea boy then?
DS: That's what you might call it. But things are going to be different from now on.
EP: Wants you to make coffee now as well does he?
DS: No. I'm going to be a star.
EP: As in a Christmas tree decoration type star? You'd be good at that.
DS: No, no, no. I mean a showbiz star. My name in lights. Fame and fortune.
EP: Are you deluded?
DS: No, straight up. The Don was so pleased with my beverage making skills that he said, "Is there anything I can do for you, Mr. Sky?" I said, "Yes, I'd like to be a proper mobster, roughing people up and that." He said, "Look, that 'ain't gonna happen. Is there anything else?"
EP: What did you say?
DS: I told him that I wanted to be a showbiz star in an all-singing, all-dancing musical.
EP: What, you?
DS: Yes what's wrong with that?
EP: Well, you cant sing and you can't dance for starters.
DS: That doesn't matter. The Don can fix it. He'll make them an offer they can't refuse.
EP: Will he now?
DS: Too right. Look, I've been thinking. I saw something on the telly about the new big musical, Monkey: Journey into the West, written by that bloke from Blurred - Damon Allbran or something. They've only gone and cast a human being dressed up as a monkey in the starring role. I could bring some needed authenticity to the part.
EP: Like because you're a knitted monkey with real synthetic stuffing?
DS: At least I am a monkey.
EP: I'll give you that. But did you know that the whole thing is sung in Mandarin?
DS: What's the problem? I can sing while eating a little Orange.
EP: No, I mean Mandarin Chinese.
DS: Oh, but it wasn't in Chinese when Monkey was on TV in the 80's.
EP: That's because they dubbed it in English. Remember how the actor's lips would move like crazy, but only a few English words would come out? They didn't sync it properly.
DS: I thought that's just how they spoke on the show. I've been practicing doing that lots of lip, few words thing in front of the mirror. I'm really good at it now.
EP: I'm sure you are, but it won't do, will it?
DS: You think they might notice if I didn't sing in Chinese then?
EP: Afraid so. Not even the terrible Taffia can fix this one for you.
DS: But I could have been great, a legend of the stage.
EP: Well you'll just have to settle for being a tea boy for Mr. Corleone. Unless, that is you'd like to come home...
DS: I don't know about that. Let me think. Oh, alright. Life away from the 'boring study' wasn't all that it was cracked up to be anyway. It'll be nice to be back for Christmas.
EP: Promise you'll behave this time, no monkey business?
DS: You know me, Exiled. I'll be good, honest!

And so ends this heartwarming Christmas tale of peace and reconciliation. But will David Sky, that naughtiest of monkeys be able to keep his promise of good behaviour? We'll just have to see won't we?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Gifts

At Christmas time we traditionally give and receive gifts. I suppose this echoes the gifts that the wise men brought to the infant Jesus. Perhaps it is an even more faint echo of God's gift of eternal life through his incarnate Son. Christmas is a reminder of the importance of giving for the Christian faith. But we have to learn to give well. It is possible to give for the wrong reasons. We can give coercively such as when we say to our children, "You'll have to be good if you want that special present for Christmas." We may give in order to proudly parade our generosity to others, or to make people feel beholden to us in some way. That is bad giving. Being a Christian means learning to imitate the giving God (Ephesians 5:1). He is not a contractual giver who only gives in order to clinch a deal - "I'll do this for you if you'll do that for me." Such a construction undermines the true grace of giving. But neither is he a Father Christmas-style giver, one who gives freely, yet who demands nothing from us by way of response. God gives to do us good, not to spoil us like an indulgent parent. He gives lovingly out of the overflow out of the infinite giving and receiving of his own divine life as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
God's giving is costly, disproportionate and extravagant, "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life." (John 3:16). It cost the Father to give his Son to be despised and rejected by men and ultimately made sin for us on the cross. All he demands from us by way of response is faith - and that itself is a gift that he bestows as part and parcel of our salvation (Ephesians 2:8). Is this not totally disproportionate? God gives us his one and only beloved Son. In return, we give him our trust and he lavishes upon us the extravagant blessing of everlasting life. What can we say but, "Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!" (2 Corinthians 9:15).
Clearly we cannot match the infinite and unrestrained generosity of the giving God. But Jesus said, "Freely you have received, freely give" (Matthew 10:8). Reflecting on the truth of 2 Corinthians 8:9, Miroslav Volf writes,
"If the presence of the gift-giving Christ makes us rich, rest will replace weariness, and peace will banish unending restlessness. Like the apostle Paul, we will then know the secret of being content whatever the circumstance, "of being well-fed and of going hungry, or having plenty and of being in need" (Philippians 4:12). And like the Apostle, we will then give, even if we must work hard to do so and sacrifice what's rightfully ours (see 1 Corinthians 9:1-24)." (Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, Zondervan, 2005, p. 109 - see my review of this most challenging and thought provoking book here).
For Christians, giving is for life, not just for Christmas. But Christmas is a good time to give. In the spirit of 2 Corinthians 8 & 9, why not consider giving to the Barnabas Fund Christmas Appeal for poor and persecuted Christians in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, India - here.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Christmas theology according to the Westminster and Baptist 1689 Confessions

I know that the Puritans who drew up the Westminster Confession and the Second London Baptist Confession weren't too keen on the idea of Christmas. But here are some thoughts on what those confessions (both Chapter VIII:2 - here) had to say on the incarnation of the Son of God. Where the LBC differs from the WCF, I have highlighted slight differences in wording in blue and more significant differences in red. In both the Confessions the relevant Chapter is headed, "of Christ the Mediator". The interest is not in exploring Christology for its own sake, but on setting out what the Son of God is for us.
The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646)
The Son of God, the second Person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance, and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon him man's nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof; yet without sin: being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.
The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689)
The Son of God, the second person in the Holy Trinity, being very and eternal God, the brightness of the Father's glory, of one substance and equal with him who made the world, who upholdeth and governeth all things he hath made, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon him man's nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin; being conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, the Holy Spirit coming down upon her: and the power of the Most High overshadowing her; and so was made of a woman of the tribe of Judah, of the seed of Abraham and David according to the Scriptures; so that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion; which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only mediator between God and man.
The Savoy Declaration of Faith, the Independent's revision of the WCF makes no alterations to this section at all (see here). But the Baptists were clearly not content to leave the Presbyterian confession untouched. The Baptist version of VIII:2 is longer with 157 words to the WCF's 110. They add "Holy" to Trinity and were clearly unhappy with a reference to the "Holy Ghost", which they render "Holy Spirit". The first main addition, "the brightness of the Father's glory", is clearly an allusion to Hebrews 1:3. The statement that Jesus is equal with "him who made the world, who upholdeth and governeth all things he hath made" brings God's works of creation and providence into the frame. Where the WCF concentrates on the being of God, the LBC also emphasises his mighty acts.
The LBC omits the words "of her substance" from the clause "conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary of her substance" (WCF). This is a pity as it destroys the parallelism of the opening proposition, "The Son of God, the second Person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance, and equal with the Father" (WCF). Also, the statement that Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary of her substance bears witness to two important truths: 1) Mary was not a 'surrogate mother' who simply bore in her womb the humanity of Jesus which was created ex nihilo by the Holy Spirit. She was his true genetic mother. Hopefully without trespassing on the mystery of the Virgin Birth we can say in the light of modern genetics that Mary contributed the unfertilized egg, replete with her DNA. It was from that egg that the Holy Spirit created the human nature of the Son of God. The Spirit contributed the remainder of Jesus’ genetic code including his Y chromosome that made him male. Jesus really was the Son of Mary - of her substance. 2) That Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the substance of his mother means that he is genuinely one of us. At the incarnation, the Son of God identified himself fully with the humanity he came to save. As the children were partakers of flesh and blood, he himself shared in the same, coming in the likeness of sinful flesh (Hebrews 2:14, Romans 8:3). Undoubtedly there is also something new here. Jesus was sinless, being conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin. He was not 'shapen in iniquity and born in sin' as a son of Adam. He is the head of God's new humanity. As the risen Lord he is the last Adam, who gives resurrection life to those who were dead in trespasses and sins. Of course the LBC insists that Jesus was "made of a woman" and so none of this is denied. But perhaps the phrase of her substance makes the reality of our Lord's enfleshment and identification with humanity a little more clear. The Person of Christ is of one substance with God and of one substance with us, fully God and fully Man. The Baptist confession also alludes to Luke 1:35 in its description of the virginal conception of Christ, saying, "the Holy Spirit coming down upon her: and the power of the Most High overshadowing her." The LBC sets his incarnation in salvation-historical context by saying that Jesus "was made of a woman of the tribe of Judah, of the seed of Abraham and David according to the Scriptures"
Both confessions conclude with language that very much resembles the Definition of Chalcedon (here). It is worthwhile noting that the Puritans were not radical revisionists, who wanted to jettison the traditions of the Church in order to start again from scratch, aided by the Bible alone. For all their emphasis on sola Scriptura, they valued the theological heritage of the Church and were wiling to work within the parameters of earlier creedal theology. Where they had new light from Scripture, they revised - the WCF was a revision of the Anglican 39 Articles, and the LBC revises the WCF on baptism and other issues. But the Puritans were Catholic and Orthodox Christians, not sectarian hotheads. They believed in the historical dimension of the communion of the saints. Apart from details of punctuation, the WCF and LBC are in complete agreement in the final statement,
"So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man."
Here we have the two natures, one person Christology that is characteristic of Chalcedonian orthodoxy. Also included are several safeguards against misunderstanding. The incarnation does not involve the conversion of the divine nature into another substance. The Son did not become man in the sense that he ceased to be God. After his enfleshment he was fully God and fully Man. Jesus' incarnate humanity is not a composition of the divine and human. For example, the Logos did not take the place of Jesus' human soul. If the Son did not assume a true humanity, with a real body and rational soul, then he cannot save us. Neither is there a confusion of natures in the person of Christ. For example, the humanity of the Son did not take on the attribute of omnipresence (even at his glorification - contrary to the Luther!). We are not to think that the whole person of Christ died on the cross. The Son died in his humanity. There was no confusion of natures at Calvary.
So, the WCF and LBC give us some clear headed Christmas theology. It seems that the Baptists preferred to express their teaching in the language of Scripture whenever possible, although they were not totally adverse to extra-biblical language such as "substance", "nature" and the Chalcedonian negations at the end of the statement. The reluctance of the Baptists to follow the Presbyterians and Independents in saying that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the substance of the Virgin Mary is regrettable. But the Baptist revision adds welcome reference to God's works of creation and providence, and roots the incarnation of the Son of God in the flow of redemption history.
Sometimes we Evangelicals are guilty of speaking quite inadvisedly about what happened at the first Christmas. In the Christmas edition of a respected Evangelical newspaper I read these words, "It was a great and mighty miracle for God (who made us in his own image and likeness) to add our nature to his divine nature in one new person - the God-man." What's the problem with that statement? Well, if we are thinking in terms of the Church's historic confession, the union of the divine and human natures in Christ did not constitute a new person. What happened was that the Person of the Son took a human nature. Both the WCF and LBC make it clear that the second Person in the Trinity was the subject of the incarnation. The words "person", "nature" etc have been carefully defined over centuries and we need to use them with great care. Study of the great Puritan confessions of faith will help to save us from such blunders.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

2009 reading list


Here's a list of books that I'd like to read during 2009. Some are already on my "to read shelf", others are but a distant dream. I'm not sure if I'll get through them all, but if you don't have goals...
Reformed Dogmatics Volumes 1-4, by Herman Bavinck, Baker Academic, published from 2003-2008. I'll have to get through Vol. 1 by the middle of January in preparation for an address to a Minister's Fraternal on "Challenging Biblical Inerrancy - a response to the proposals of A. T. B. McGowan in The Divine Spiration of Scripture: Challenging evangelical perspectives". (See review series here). I've already made a start on the first volume. Interesting stuff so far. Will I have read the whole set by the end of 2009, who knows?
Christ and Culture Revisited, by D. A. Carson, IVP/Apollos, 2008. Carson's response to Richard Niebuhr's analysis of Christian approaches to cultural life.
Troubled Journey: A Missionary Childhood in war-torn China, by Faith Cook, Banner of Truth Trust, 2004.
The Momentous Event, by W. J. Grier, Banner of Truth Trust, 2006 reprint. Classic statement of amillenialist eschatology. Much needed to counteract the spread of premillenialist distortion of Scripture.
The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth, by David Bentley Hart, Eerdmans, 2003. According to Robert Letham in Through Western Eyes (reviewed here), Eastern Orthodoxy has yet to feel the impact of the Enlightenment. Well, in this book Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian grapples with postmodernism. He argues against the postmodern view that truth claims are inherently violent and manipulative. The Christian message is one of beauty and peace in the Lord Jesus Christ. (Already started).
Reforming or Conforming: Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church, edited by Gary L. W. Johnson & Ronald N. Gleason, Crossway 2008. With contributions from the likes of Paul Wells, Paul Helm and the great Martin Downes, should be good.
Catch the Vision: Roots of the Reformed recovery, by John J. Murray, Evangelical Press, 2007. The inside story of the recovery of Reformed doctrine in the 20th century.
Let The Nations Be Glad: The supremacy of God in missions, by John Piper, IVP, 2008 reprint. The first of three books on mission.
Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods, by Eckhard J. Schnabel, IVP/Apollos, 2008. A mighty 500 pager for review in the Protestant Truth magazine - deadline the middle of January. Yikes!
The Humanness of John Calvin, Richard Stauffer's study of The Reformer as a Husband, Father, Pastor and Friend, Solid Ground Christian Books, 2008 reprint. With 2009 being something of a Calvinfest, should be good to reflect on the humanness of the reformer.
The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers and Emergents in the Post-modern World, by David F. Wells, IVP, 2008. Wells is one of my favourite contemporary theologians and this book should be of help in my work for the Protestant Truth Society.
The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's grand narrative, Christopher J. H. Wright, IVP, 2006. A biblical theology of mission.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

And they shall bring the glory and the honour of the nations

In my review of Paul Hem's Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed (here), I touched on the writer's speculation that the products of God's common grace such a music and literature might be carried forward into the new creation. I suggested that there might be something in that suggestion, making reference to Revelation 21:24-26. Cornelis Venema has some interesting things to say about those verses in his excellent work on eschatology, The Promise of the Future, Banner of Truth Trust, 2000, p. 480-482. He writes,
"Every legitimate and excellent fruit of human culture will be carried into and contribute to the splendour of life in the new creation. Rather than the new creation being a radically new beginning, in which the excellent and noble fruits of humankind's fulfilment of the cultural mandate are wholly discarded - the new creation will benefit from, and be immensely enriched by, its receiving of these fruits. Far from being an empty and desolate place, the new creation will be enriched with the sanctified fruits of human culture. Nothing of the diversity of the nations and peoples, their cultural products, languages, arts, sciences, literature and technology - so far as these are good and excellent - will be lost upon life in the new creation. Life in the new creation will not be starting over, but a perfected continuation of the new humanity's stewardship of all life in the service of God.
Though some have argued that this reading of John's vision is speculative and unwarranted, the language of Revelation 21:24 can scarcely be read otherwise. The alternative - denying that life in the new creation will be enriched by the presence of these fruits of human culture - seems unlikely and problematic. Life in the crew creation will not be a repristination of all things - a going back to the way things were at the beginning. Rather, life in the new creation will be a restoration of all things - involving the removal of every sinful impurity and the retaining of all that is holy and good. Were the new creation to exclude the diversity of the nations and the glory of the kings of the earth, it would be impoverished rather than progressive. To express the point in the form of a question: is it likely that the music of Bach and Mozart, the painting of Rembrandt, the writing of Shakespeare, the discoveries of science, etc., will be altogether lost upon life in the new creation?"
It seems to me that Venema's position is exegetically warranted. He is also making a highly valuable theological point. The new creation will not be a rejection and annulment of the old but the renewal of all things by the transforming power of the risen Christ (Philippians 3:20-21). This is profoundly life affirming and is a firm denial of all Platonic views of the glory that see heaven in almost wholly spiritual terms. The future will be no less physical than the present. Our Lord's glorified humanity is the guarantee of that. Knowing all this, we understand that life in this present world is not a waste of time and energy. The best of what we achieve for the glory of God will remain. Our labours are not in vain in the Lord - 1 Corinthians 15:58.
What aspects of human culture would you like to see carried forward into the new creation? Venema mentions examples of classical music. But will we get to hear not only Chopin, but also Coldplay, not only Rachmaninoff, but also Radiohead? I suppose we'll have to wait and see.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed by Paul Helm

Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed, by Paul Helm, T&T Clark, 2008, 175pp.
Are you perplexed by Calvin, dear reader? Do you find yourself wondering what all the fuss is about, yet you can't be bothered to read the mighty Institutes? Wasn't he just a one-note theologian who just kept harping on about predestination? If I am describing you here, then you need this book. Paul Helm, one of our foremost interpreters of Calvin has provided us with an accessible introduction to the theology of the great Protestant Reformer.
Beginning with 'Orientation', Helm gives us a brief sketch of Calvin's life and work. He insists that the Reformer must be understood in his own historical context. We should not anachronistically read developments in later Calvinistic theology back into the mind of Calvin. Neither should me make him a participant in controversies that only erupted after his death. His position on 'limited atonement' is a case in point. Also, we should not commit the error of thinking that Calvin was a 'pure biblical theologian', who rejected all that scholastic theology had to offer. While he usually avoided the speculative excesses of scholasticism, Calvin wasn't above using the insights of Aquinas and others when it suited his purpose.
In his exposition of of some of the main themes in Calvin's theology, Helm follows the contours of the Reformer's magmum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. He begins by reflecting on Calvin's great statement in the Institutes that '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.' For Calvin the whole point in doing theology (although he did not like that term) was to gain wisdom that we might live for the glory of God. God has revealed himself to us in creation. Each human being has a sense that God exists, the sensus divinitas. In our sin we distort and suppress the witness of the sensus, but a sense of God cannot be totally eradicated from the human heart. We know enough to be held accountable for our unbelief and idolatry. If we are to be saved from sin, we need God to reveal himself to us as our redeemer. He has done this in Holy Scripture, where God accommodates himself to our capacities that we might know him as our Saviour in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit authenticates the Scriptures to the believer so that the Bible is received as the very Word of God.
God has revealed himself to us in Scripture as One God in three persons; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Helm gives consideration to Calvin's teaching on God in Trinity. The Reformer would have preferred a minimalist doctrine of the Trinity, saying, 'I wish, indeed that such names [theological terms like person, substance, etc] were buried, provided all would concur in the belief that the Father, Son, and Spirit, are one God, and yet that the Son is not the Father, nor the Spirit the Son, but each has his peculiar subsistence.' But in order to clarify and safeguard the truth in the face of heresy, Calvin was willing to employ the traditional formula that in the one divine essence there are three persons. Contrary to more speculative teaching on the begotteness of the Son, the Reformer stressed that the Son did not receive his deity from the Father. He is autotheos, God in his own right alongside the Father and the Spirit. In the Godhead there is an order of persons; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but no gradation of deity.
Next Helm moves with Calvin to focus attention on the Son. His conception of the person of Christ was in full accord with Chalcedonian orthodoxy. He stressed that when the Son became man, he did not stop being God. In his humanity, the Son was finite, subject to the restrictions of time and place. While in his deity the Son was infinite, eternal and omnipresent, upholding all things by the word of his power. The communion of attributes in the Son did not entail the transfer of divine properties to the humanity of Jesus. When Scripture speaks of the 'Lord of glory' being crucified (1 Corinthians 2:8), or the church being purchased by God's blood (Acts 20:28), we are not to understand that divine nature suffered death, but that Jesus, a divine Person suffered in his humanity.
Calvin considered the work of Christ in terms of his biblically assigned offices of prophet, priest and king. Helm follows that pattern, drawing attention first of all to Christ's priestly, sacrificial death. Did Calvin follow Anselm in teaching that the atonement was necessary to satisfy God's offended honour? Or was his thinking more in line with Augustine, who argued that the cross was the best way of salvation, although God might have delivered us from sin apart from Calvary? The Reformer seems to oscillate between these two views. In some places he stresses the necessity of the atonement, in others he suggests that God saved us through the death of his Son to reveal the depth of his grace and love. Helm understands Calvin to be saying that God could have saved us apart from the cross had he so wished, but in order to provide the fullness of salvation that we now experience in Christ, Jesus had to die. He argues that such a construction provides a helpful response to the Socinians, who, after Calvin's day, sneered at the idea that Christ had to die for God to forgive. But I'm not so sure. I prefer John Murray's proposal, which he called with his customary precision, the 'consequent absolute necessity' of the atonement. (See Chapter 1 of Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Banner of Truth Trust, The Necessity of the Atonement). Murray seeks to demonstrate from Scripture that consequent to God's gracious and loving decision to save sinners from wrath and judgement, it was necessary for Christ to die to secure our salvation. This view takes account both of God's amazing love in providing a Redeemer and his absolute justice in punishing sin in the death of Christ.
One of Calvin's key theological achievements was recognising the importance of the New Testament's teaching on union with Christ. He dismissed the medieval teaching on the value of human merit in salvation, insisting that God owes sinners nothing. Salvation comes through God graciously uniting us to Christ by his Spirit. In Christ believers receive the 'double benefit' of justification and sanctification. Justification and sanctification are conceptually distinct. Justification is God's declaration that a sinner is righteous in his sight, on the basis of Christ's finished work, received by faith alone. Works don't come into it. Sanctification an act of spiritual transformation, which leads to a holy life. By virtue of the believer's union with Christ, we are both justified and sanctified. It is impossible to have the one aspect of salvation apart from another. This pulls the rug from under the Roman Catholic charge that the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone was antinomian.
But not all are brought to saving faith in Christ. Why is it that some believe and others do not? This brings Helm to discuss Calvin's doctrine of predestination. Some think that predestination was the governing axiom of Calvin's theology, but this is not the case. His doctrine was based on his understanding of Scripture, especially Romans 8 and Ephesians 1. God has chosen to save some sinful human beings, simply on the basis of his free grace and love. He has chosen not to save others. They will suffer his just wrath for their sin. How can we know if we are among the elect? We cannot peer into God's hidden decree of salvation. Calvin advises us to look to Christ, whom he describes as 'the mirror of our election'. If we are united to him by faith, then we can be assured that we were chosen in him before the foundation of the world. Calvin's Christ-centered doctrine of election helps to save the Christian from despairing of ever knowing if his name is written in the Book of Life.
Calvin has a reputation (perhaps not altogether undeserved) of being a little tetchy and austere. Helm helps to redress the balance with his exploration of the Reformers view of the Christian life. Calvin believed that God, in his creation and providence has showered mankind with many gifts. We are to receive these gifts with joy as tokens of God's goodness. Calvin was not ascetic. He ridiculed those who had scruples over eating good food and wearing comfortable and attractive clothing. He emphasised that all Christians are called to serve the Lord, whatever their line of work. But while this life is not to be despised, we are driven by the sufferings of this world to long for the joys of everlasting glory in our heavenly home.
John Calvin was profoundly interested in church life. He worked tirelessly to reform the church in Geneva, seeking to establish the work on a more biblical pattern. He was realistic enough not to expect perfection in the visible church, which he distinguished from the invisible church, comprising of all God's elect. But is Helm right to speculate that Calvin left open the possibility that there might be 'anonymous Christians', those who have made no profession of faith, but are still to be regarded as 'Christian' in some way? It is difficult to know what Calvin might have thought about this. But judging from the way he railed against the Nicodemites of his day, who wanted to keep their Christian identity hidden, I think the possibility of Calvin countenancing Karl Rahner-style 'anonymous Christians' has been prised open by Helm rather than left open by the Reformer. It is one thing to say that a person may be elect without being a member of the visible church. No argument there. For a variety of reasons, such anomalies do occur. It is another thing to say that a person may be a Christian without hearing and accepting the gospel of Christ. Is Helm falling into the trap against which he warned against earlier in the book, of making Calvin a conversation partner in modern debates over 'anonymous Christians', about which he knew nothing?
Under the heading of the Church, Helm also gives attention to Calvin's thinking on Baptism and the Lord's Supper. The Reformer disliked Luther's teaching on the latter sacrament. Luther argued that in being glorified, the humanity of Christ took on the property of omnipresence. Because of that his flesh can be with and under the bread and wine at the Supper. For Calvin, this view displayed a terrible misunderstanding of the communion of attributes in the Person of Christ, and compromised the reality of our Lord's continued incarnate life. But he also disagreed with Zwingli's doctrine, which made the Lord's Supper little more than a trip down memory lane. Calvin proposed that Christ is present at the Table by his Spirit. The Spirit compresses the distance between the believer and the flesh of the ascended Christ as we feed upon him by faith at the Lord's Supper.
What of the relation between Church and Society? Calvin believed that it was the duty of the civil magistrate to uphold both tables of the law. It was this idea got Calvin into trouble in the Servetus case. Servetus was an anti-trinitarian heretic, who was arrested on visiting Geneva. He was sentenced to be burnt at the stake by the Genevan authorities. Calvin asked that he should executed more humanely. But he still consented to the judicial killing of Servetus for the 'crime' of heresy. Helm certainly does not exonerate Calvin for his role in this affair. Calvin was a man of his time. But his knowledge of the gospel of Jesus should have taught him better. This sorry episode reminds us that even our great heroes have their blind spots. The powers of the state should not be used to suppress heresy. The church's weapon against false teaching is the sword of the Spirit. We must be willing to suffer and die for the truth, but never kill for it.
On a lighter note, Helm wonders if Calvin expected that cultural products, resulting from common grace might carry through into the new creation. Will we hear the strains of Bach, Brahms and even Pink Floyd in the world to come? Coldplay and Radiohead maybe, but surely not Pink Floyd. Pretentiously long and complex prog-rock guitar solos in the glory? Please no! Unless that is, Carl Trueman and his ilk are going to be allowed a sound-proofed space of their own in some remote corner of the new earth. In fairness, Helm wonders if his suggestion might be too fanciful to be authentically Calvinian. But there may be something in what he says. Consider Revelation 21:24-26 and see Cornelis P. Venema's comments in The Promise of the Future, Banner of Truth Trust, 2000, p. 480-482.
In the final chapter, Helm discusses 'Calvin and Calvinism', tracing some of the continuities and discontinuities between Calvin and the movement he spawned. The radical discontinuity theories of R. T. Kendall and the likes are rejected. But it is interesting to note that staples of later Reformed orthodoxy such as the 'covenant of redemption' and the 'federal headship' of Adam are not to be found in Calvin himself.
Paul Helm has provided us with a first class introduction to Calvin's thought in all its grandeur and breadth. There is certainly more to Calvin than predestination. He gives us invaluable insight into the nature of biblical revelation, the Trinity, and Christ in his offices of Prophet, Priest and King. His teaching on salvation through union with Christ, and the gift of 'double grace' in him, is especially helpful. What he has to say on living the Christian life is full of practical wisdom. This guide will help the perplexed. I hope that it will also stimulate the reader to get better acquainted with the theological legacy of John Calvin, great Genevan Reformer.
*Thanks to Paul Helm for the free copy!

Monday, December 01, 2008

Prospekt's March by Coldplay

On their celebrated B-side track, "Gravity", Chris Martin lamented that 'gravity pushes on everyone'. But now it seems that Coldplay are trying to break free from that fundamental force of nature. The Proskekt's March EP, which carries 5 new tracks and 3 fresh versions of songs from Viva La Vida, begins with a sense of airy weightlessness. The opening track "Life In Technicolour ii", climaxes with Martin singing, 'Gravity release me/ don't ever let me down/and my feet won't touch the ground'. Nice to have some words to Viva La Vida's opener, which was originally an instrumental piece with the singer contributing some "oooohhs" at the end. The constraints of gravity are well and truly broken by the final track on the EP, which is entitled appropriately enough, "Now My Feet Won't Touch The Ground".
But what of the rest of the songs on this free floating CD? The remix of "Lost" contains a rather incongruous rap by Jay-Z. What was the point in that? "Lovers In Japan" doesn't sound too different from the version on Viva La Vida. But the new songs make the EP a worthwhile investment. "Postcards From Far Away" is an entrancing, yet all too brief 47 second fragment of piano sonata. "Glass of Water" and "Rainy Day" are worth a listen. But for me the best track is "Prospekt's March/Poppyfields", a song about a soldier dying on the battlefield. Is this the same man who was torn between devotion and duty in "Violet Hill" on Viva La Vida, saying to his sweetheart, "if you love me, won't you let me go"? If it is, then the track is made all the more poignant as now we hear him sing, 'I don't want to die'. I wonder if she did let him know that she loved him?
The themes of love, death and loss that ran through Coldplay's latest album also flow through the new EP. Where can we find hope in this 'violent world', where the stern gravity of human waywardness seems to keep on pulling us down? I'm looking forward to the time when my feet won't touch the ground, when Jesus Christ comes to raise the dead from their graves, 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Wales beat the Aussies 21 - 18

Wales finally managed to beat one of the big southern hemisphere sides in a thrilling game. See BBC Sport for the lowdown.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Paul Helm on the impassibility of God

We had Paul Helm, who blogs at Helm's Deep come to speak to our Ministers' Fraternal which meets at the Old Baptist Chapel, Bradford on Avon yesterday. He was invited to address the subject, "Does God suffer?"
'Without body, parts or passions' - The Impassibility of God
"But to God nothing of this sort occurs; for He is neither deceived, nor does He deceitfully promise anything, nor, as James says, is there with Him any “shadow of turning.” (James 1:7.) We now understand to what this dissimilitude between God and men refers, namely, that we should not travesty God according to our own notions, but, in our consideration of His nature, should remember that he is liable to no changes, since He is far above all heavens." (John Calvin commenting on Numbers 23:19 - see here).
1. Approaching Divine Impassibility
We need to be careful to define terms. We are talking about impassibility - that God is without passions, just as he is without a body. This is not about impassability, which means that a road has become impassable due to an avalanche or some other obstruction. God is not a blockage. Impassibility does not mean impassivity - that God is Stoically disengaged or not concerned about the world. God is not psychotic.

When we talk of divine impassibility, we are using negative language. We are saying what God is not. Theologians often have to resort to negative language when describing the being of God. He is impassible, infinite, incomprehensible, immutable and so on. This reminds us that God's being is a great mystery. From our stance as finite human beings it is easier for us to say what he is not than what he is. We should exercise reserve and modesty before the great mystery of God's being. He is above and beyond us in every way.

God's impassibility is a quality of his aseity or divine fullness. Unlike us, God is not dependent upon anything outside himself for emotional fulfilment or satisfaction. I've been dipping into David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite. He discusses the divine impassibility or apatheia against the background of the intertrinitarian fellowship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the Godhead.

"I can at least offer a definition of divine apatheia as trinitarian love: God's impassibility is the utter fullness of an infinite dynamism, the absolutely complete and replete generation of the Son and procession of the Spirit from the Father, the infinite "drama" of God's joyous act of self-outpouring - which is his being as God. Within the plenitude of this motion, no contrary motion can fabricate an interval of negation, because it is the infinite possibility of every creaturely motion or act; no pathos is possible for God because pathos is, by definition, a finite instance of change visited upon a passive subject, actualising some potential, whereas God's love is pure positivity and pure activity." (The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth, David Bentley Hart, Eerdmans, 2003, p. 167).

Impassibility then, is not a defect in God. He is not emotionally stunted or remote. Rather he is perfectly fulfilled and satisfied in the perichoretic fellowship of the Trinity. It is out of this self-sufficient aseity that God relates to us as his creatures. He is not dependent upon us for love or emotional completion, but he generously condescends to bring us into the rich blessing of loving fellowship with himself. That is why he made us in his image. That is why he acted in Christ to reconcile us to himself after the fall.
Impassibility reminds us of the Creator/creature distinction. "God is not a man that he should repent" (1 Samuel 15:29). He is not like us, a creature of the moment with moods and fleeting passions. He is the transcendent Creator and we are his finite creatures.
2. Immutability - the unalterability of God
Helm drew attention to some of the many Bible texts that show that God does not change, Hebrews 6:17-18, James 1:17, Malachi 3:6, Numbers 23:19, Exodus 3:14-16. If God is immutable, then he is impassible, since passibility implies change. God's emotions are steady and constant. He does not waver in his love for his people or in his determination to punish the wicked for their sins. The divine immutability does not imply a denial of God's ability to relate to the world. He is not immobile. God, though immutable, created and sustains creatures who change, and engages with them. Precisely because God does not change and is not subject to fluctuating passions, his engagedness with the world is constant. His mercies are new every morning. His lovingkindness is over all his works. Great is his faithfulness.
3. The Nature of Divine Impassibility
Passions are not necessarily negative or turbulent like bad moods or loosing one's temper. When we are overcome with such passions we may say and do things that we later regret. But it is possible to speak more positively of passion. A judge may have a passion for justice, which makes him all the more careful and scrupulous when trying a case. A scientist's passion for physics will drive him to make new discoveries and add to the sum of human knowledge. When we say that God is impassible, we are not suggesting that he is unfeeling or uncaring. He looks on a suffering world with pity and has mercy on sin-broken humanity. But God is not the subject of fitful moods. He is not spasmodic, irritable or liable to irrational outbursts of temper. But we can perhaps speak of God being impassioned, like the judge or scientist in the examples just given. In his single-minded, impassioned justice, God will hold the world to account and right all wrongs. In his impassioned love, he reaches out to the lost and secures their salvation through the death of his Son.
4. Objections
Scripture sometimes seems to speak of God as if he were passible. His anger flares up and then subsides. He is described as "repenting". But Scripture is God's accommodated self-revelation. Here he reveals what he is to us, rather than what he is in himself. The Bible uses anthropomorphic language of God, speaking his his hands, eyes and back parts. As God is a pure spirit, and is without parts, he has none of those things. But anthropomorphisms communicate the truth in a very vivid way. In a similar way, we have "anthopopathisms", where God's emotions are depicted in terms of human feelings. He does not really repent. But such language is used to help us understand how the eternal God relates to his time-bound creatures. In his wrath, God threatens us with judgement, we repent, his anger turns away and we are forgiven. The Book of Jonah is a case in point. But that sinners are brought to repentance unto salvation is God's gracious, eternal and unalterable purpose.
It is in the incarnation of Jesus and his suffering on the cross that we see God's impassioned love revealed in the assumed human nature of the Son. What the Christ felt in his human nature was the expression of his divine person. His tears at Lazarus' grave and his anger at the money changers in the temple expressed God's compassion for the lost and his anger against sin. The heart of the impassioned and impassible God is refracted in the humanity of Jesus Christ. The incarnation of the impassible One shows us that divine impassibility does not mean that God is emotionless or disengaged. Out of love for his people, the Son of God suffered and died for us in his human nature. In him we have a sympathetic high priest, who feels as we feel (apart from sinful passions!) -Hebrews 4:14-15.
Theology is not meant to explain the mystery of God's being like a detective may solve a crime. In the words of Augustine, the best we can do is erect a hedge around the mystery to protect us from misunderstanding the God whose ways are past finding out. The church's teaching on divine impassibility, when properly understood, is part of that protective hedge and we tear it down at our peril.
5. Uses
God is entirely faithful and reliable. We can trust his promises, certain in the knowledge that he will not renege on them in a fit of passion.
Impassibility reminds us of the divine transcendence and incomprehensibility. We can know him truly but never fully comprehend his being.
Without the safeguard of impassibility, we may be in danger of creating a passible God in our own image. He is not a man that he should repent! "I am the Lord, I do not change: Therefore you are not condemned, O sons of Jacob." (Malachi 3:6).
A time of discussion followed where many interesting points were raised. Can we divide up the life of Christ as we find it in the Gospels into the divine bits and human bits? No - that's Nestorianism. What do we make of the fact that the Son did not know the time of his second coming? I suggested (following John Murray) that in the Person of Christ we have one self-consciousness, but two levels of consciousness, divine and human. But Paul Helm thought that such a construction was attempting to explain away the mystery. I'm not so sure. I think it helps to preserve the fact that in Christ we have a divine person with a human nature. We touched on Donald Macleod's views on impassibility, which Helm finds unobjectionable. But he was unhappy with Jurgren Moltmann's emphasis on the suffering of God [the Father] at Calvary. Open theism, handling "God repented" passages in the Bible and some other issues were thrown into the pot to make for a very stimulating session.
What Helm had to say certainly clarified my thinking on a difficult and often controversial aspect of the doctrine of God. I especially liked his emphasis on impassibility as a consequence of divine aseity and his proposal on God being impassible and yet impassioned. (See also his B. B. Warfield On Divine Passion, Westminster Theological Journal 69 (2007): 95-104). Thanks also to Paul for giving me a free copy of the newly published Reforming or Conforming: Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church, Crossway, 2008. He contributes a chapter, No Easy Task: John Franke and the Character of Theology.

Monday, November 24, 2008

John Calvin on the resurrection of the body (7)

The Resurrection of the Wicked & Concluding Reflections
This series on John Calvin and the resurrection of the body has been on hold since about this time last year, so I thought that it was about time to wrap things up. (All quotes from The Institutes of the Christian Religion Book III:XXV - see here).

The Resurrection of the wicked

Following the emphasis of Scripture itself, Calvin gives greatest attention to the resurrection of the believer. But he does not neglect to say something on the resurrection of the wicked. He addresses the question, "How can the resurrection, which is a special benefit of Christ, be common to the ungodly, who are lying under the curse of God?" (III:XXV:9). In Adam all died. Does the promise of resurrection mean that all will be indiscriminately raised to life? Calvin regards such a universalistic option as "incongruous". He draws attention to the witness of Scripture on this matter. Christ will divide the sheep from the goats, Matthew 25:32. God in his common grace showers his blessings upon the righteous and wicked alike in this life. But this does not mean that they will share the same eternal destiny. The Reformer alludes to Paul's reaching in Romans 1:18-21, to argue that the wicked will be rendered all the more inexcusable and receive greater damnation for stubbornly refusing to acknowledge God's goodness.

Calvin dismisses annihilationism - the idea that the wicked will snuffed out of existence at death. He anticipates the argument of Jonathan Edwards, that sin against the infinite majesty of God deserves and infinite and unending punishment,

"It ought not to seem in any respect more absurd that there is to be an adventitious resurrection of the ungodly which will drag them against their will before the tribunal of Christ, whom they now refuse to receive as their master and teacher. To be consumed by death would be a light punishment were they not, in order to the punishment of their rebellion, to be sisted before the Judge whom they have provoked to a vengeance without measure and without end." (III:XXV:9).

In the light of prominent Evangelicals such as John Stott and Philip Edgecumbe Huges flirting with annihilationism in the latter part of the 20th century, Calvin's words should be carefully weighed. The wicked sin in the body and they will suffer eternal, conscious punishment in their resurrected bodies. The Reformer dwells on the nature of that punishment,

"Moreover, as language cannot describe the severity of the divine vengeance on the reprobate, their pains and torments are figured to us by corporeal things, such as darkness, wailing and gnashing of teeth, inextinguishable fire, the ever-gnawing worm (Matthew 8:12, 22:13; Mark 9:43, Isaiah 66:24)." (III:XXV:12).

Is there a more than a figurative dimension to the "corporeal" or bodily aspect of the Bible's teaching? The wicked will be raised up bodily to suffer eternal punishment. This is too awful to contemplate. But it is part of the witness of Scripture which cannot be rejected simply because it we find it emotionally disturbing. We should be disturbed! Consideration of these things should make us ponder the terrible consequences of being alienated from God, both for ourselves and for others. Calvin conjures a terrible picture of the whole creation acting as an instrument of judgement upon the ungodly, "Next, all the creatures are the instruments of his judgment, so that those to whom the Lord will thus publicly manifest his anger will feel that heaven, and earth, and sea, all beings, animate and inanimate, are, as it were, inflamed with dire indignation against them, and armed for their destruction." (III:XXV:12). This is no mere linguistic extravagance, but a true prelude to the day of judgement. Calvin concludes with a thundering exhortation,

"Hence unhappy consciences find no rest, but are vexed and driven about by a dire whirlwind, feeling as if torn by an angry God, pierced through with deadly darts, terrified by his thunderbolts and crushed by the weight of his hand; so that it were easier to plunge into abysses and whirlpools than endure these terrors for a moment. How fearful, then, must it be to be thus beset throughout eternity! On this subject there is a memorable passage in the ninetieth Psalm: Although God by a mere look scatters all mortals, and brings them to nought, yet as his worshippers are more timid in this world, he urges them the more, that he may stimulate then, while burdened with the cross to press onward until he himself shall be all in all." (III:XXV:12).

Calvin certainly does not shy away from setting before us the biblical teaching on the resurrection of the wicked in all its sombre reality. But he does not make this the main point of his consideration of the resurrection of the body, "But although we are to hold, as already observed and as is contained in the celebrated confession of Paul to Felix, “That there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust,” (Acts 24:15); yet Scripture more frequently sets forth the resurrection as intended, along with celestial glory, for the children of God only: because, properly speaking, Christ comes not for the destruction, but for the salvation of the world: and, therefore, in the [Apostle's] Creed the life of blessedness only is mentioned." (III:XXV:9).

Concluding reflections

Over the course of this series we have considered the various features of Calvin's highly compressed and yet comprehensive teaching on the resurrection of the body as set out in the Institutes. There can be no doubt that the Reformer grasped the importance of the resurrection hope for the Christian faith. The believer's resurrection is rooted in his union with Christ. He provides the model and dynamic of his people's resurrection glory. We shall be raised like Christ by Christ. Reformed systematic theology has not always given the attention it should to the resurrection of Christ. In terms of the loci of systematics, it is usually the case that Christ's atonement is discussed, followed by consideration of the application of redemption. It is as if we could be saved by a dead Jesus. Richard Gaffin has done sterling work to redress the balance in a more biblical direction, especially in his Resurrection and Redemption, P&R, 1987, where he says, "Justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification all have a common redemptive-historical, resurrection-qualified origin and complexion. Further, as with Christ, so with believers, these are not distinct acts but different facets of a single act, in the case of the latter, the act of being raised with Christ, that is, being united to Christ as resurrected." (p. 136).

We have a lot to learn then, from Calvin's rich and helpful teaching on this subject. But beyond giving us some valuable theological insights, John Calvin directs us to the believer's ultimate hope - that we shall share in the glory of the risen Lord,

"Peter declares that the purpose for which believers are called is, that they may be “partakers of the divine nature,” (2 Peter 1:4). How so? Because “he shall come to be glorified in his saints and to be admired in all them that believe,” (2 Thessalonians 1:10). If our Lord will share his glory, power, and righteousness, with the elect, nay, will give himself to be enjoyed by them; and what is better still, will, in a manner, become one with them, let us remember that every kind of happiness is herein included. But when we have made great progress in thus meditating, let us understand that if the conceptions of our minds be contrasted with the sublimity of the mystery, we are still halting at the very entrance." (III:XXV:10).

Friday, November 21, 2008

As Lloyd-Jones once said...

In my review of Iain Murray's Lloyd-Jones Messenger of Grace, I deplored the tendency of some to quote "the Doctor" in such a way that all discussion is brought to a halt, as if his opinion is our final authority. Having said that, Murray includes many thought-provoking nuggets of wisdom in the chapter, Some Convictions of Lloyd-Jones in Minature. Here are a few of my favourites:
"Some tend to think that Christianity is a matter of being nice. But niceness is purely biological. One dog can be nicer than another."

"We have come to realise that a man can be educated and cultured and still be a beast!"

"Putting all the ecclesiastical corpses into one graveyard will not bring about a resurrection!"

"A man who does not realise that he himself is his own biggest problem is a mere tyro!"

"The men who have accomplished most in this world have always been theologically minded."

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Lloyd-Jones Messenger of Grace by Iain H. Murray

Lloyd-Jones Messenger of Grace, by Iain H. Murray,
Banner of Truth Trust, 2008, 274pp.
I was converted some years after the death of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, so I never heard the great man preach. But his published sermons and life story have had a profound impact on my life and ministry. As a relatively new believer, I devoured his sermons on Romans and Ephesians. "The Doctor's" emphasis on Reformed doctrine and experiential piety transformed my understanding of the Christian life. Not having met him personally, I had to make do with reading Iain Murray's biography of Lloyd-Jones to give me a glimpse of the man behind the sermons. His D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The First Forty Years 1899-1939, Banner of Truth Trust, 1982 and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith 1939-1981, Banner of Truth Trust, 1990 are indispensable for those who wish to understand the impact of Lloyd-Jones on the history of 20th century Evangelicalism. But after over 1,200 pages of biography, what more could Murray have to say on his old friend, colleague and mentor? Well, this new book is not a rehash of the earlier biographical volumes. What we have here is a fresh analysis of aspects of Lloyd-Jones' life and teaching that speak powerfully to our situation today.
The Lloyd-Jones Legacies sets the scene for the rest of the book. Murray draws attention to some of the key emphases of the preacher's ministry, such as the need for God-centeredness, church-based evangelism and revival. Lloyd-Jones often spoke of the need for preachers to be empowered by the Holy Spirit and a helpful chapter is devoted to that important theme. We have seen a recovery of expository preaching in the last few decades, and fresh attention is being given to preachers developing their homiletical skills. But we need to be reminded that true preaching is not in word only, but in power, in the Holy Spirit, and in much assurance. We need to pray for the Spirit's empowering presence so that the Christ-centred Word is proclaimed with life-transforming effectiveness.
People tend to think that Lloyd-Jones was preeminently a Bible teacher, who gave lengthy series of sermons on Romans and Ephesians. But as Murray points out, that is only half of the picture. Most Sunday evenings, Lloyd-Jones would preach evangelistically. He would often base his sermons on the Old Testament, showing how that portion of God's Word spoke to contemporary sinners in their need of a Saviour. This bucked a something of trend in many mid twentieth century churches, where the message of the Old Testament was neglected. How many of those who follow Lloyd-Jones in preaching series of expository sermons also maintain his commitment to preaching evangelistically? The chapter on The Evangelistic Use of the Old Testament is a real challenge to us.
Lloyd-Jones' sermons rarely had an obvious structure in that he did not announce his headings as he worked his way through the message saying, "Firstly...secondly...thirdly....finally." But that does not mean that the preacher failed to give attention to sermon structure. He put a lot of work into developing clear and logical sermons. He would begin with a basic skeleton, which was then fleshed out and developed. But just as skeletons give shape to a body, while remaining unseen, Lloyd-Jones did not like to give too much prominence to the structure itself. In Skeletons in the Cupboard, Murray does not "dish the dirt" on his old friend. Rather he discusses the preacher's method of sermon preparation, giving various examples of his "skeletons". Preachers would do well to learn from Lloyd-Jones' practice. All good sermons begin with a well thought out structure.
The proceedings of the Westminster Fellowship, a Ministers' Fraternal, chaired by Lloyd-Jones were never recorded. But Iain Murray provides us with his notes on an address given by "The Doctor" after a period of illness had kept him from the pulpit. This makes interesting reading, as Lloyd-Jones reflects on some of the preaching he heard while he was unwell. What he looked for in preaching was a sense of God, which found was often absent. He complained that even some "Reformed" preaching could be dull and predictable. Earlier in his ministry, Lloyd-Jones reacted against the use of illustrations and anecdotes in sermons, as they had been used excessively and therefore detracted from the message. But now he saw that he had gone too far and urged preachers to make their sermons attractive, using anecdotes and illustrations to help their people to grasp the truth. He ruefully commented, 'I am not sure my progeny have been a credit to me, or whether they reflect a defect in me.' His Preaching and Preachers, which warns against he misuse of illustrative material, should be supplemented by a book like Stuart Olyott's Preaching Pure and Simple, where a slightly more positive approach may be found.
In a fascinating chapter, Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones Compared, Murray compares and contrasts the two pulpit giants of the nineteenth and twentieth century. One was English, the other Welsh. Unlike Spurgeon, with his multiple ministries and good causes, Lloyd-Jones was no organiser. But both men stood steadfastly for the truth of the gospel. Spurgeon sought to preserve the truth, which was being abandoned by many, while Lloyd-Jones worked for a recovery of the truth after years of neglect. It is encouraging to note that the Lord was able to use these two very different men to advance the cause of Christ.
Iain Murray's admiration for Lloyd-Jones is evident on every page of this book. But this does not make him at all myopic. He can be critical when he thinks that the preacher was mistaken. There has been a lot of controversy over Lloyd-Jones views on the baptism with the Holy Spirit, especially as expressed in the book, Joy Unspeakable. Some claim that he gave impetus to the Charismatic movement and others accuse him of departing from the Reformed understanding of the work of the Spirit. Murray makes it clear that the sermons printed in Joy Unspeakable were originally preached in the mid 1960's, before the Charismatic movement really took off. Lloyd-Jones was concerned that the Reformed movement was becoming overly cerebral, with so much of a focus on doctrine, that the experiential aspect of the Christian life was being ignored. He was also alarmed by the publication of John Stott's Baptism and Fullness, where Stott argued that the baptism with the Spirit is non-experiential. Lloyd-Jones' concerns might well have been justified. But Murray points out some flaws and inconsistencies in the preacher's handling of the biblical material. He also questions his teaching on assurance, suggesting that it was different to what we find in earlier Reformed writers like John Flavel and Jonathan Edwards. This may be true, but I think his emphasis on the direct witness of the Spirit in assurance is biblically grounded in Romans 8:16. Lloyd-Jones' views are remarkably similar to the mature teaching of the Puritan Thomas Goodwin. In fact studying Goodwin on assurance some years after reading Lloyd-Jones on the subject, such was the close resemblance of their teaching, I found myself thinking, "Ah, this is the source of his doctrine." (See here). Murray tries his best to be fair to Lloyd-Jones, while at the same time highlighting problem areas in his teaching on the work of the Spirit. Those who have swallowed "the Doctor's" position hook, line and sinker will need to think carefully about what Murray has to say.
A further area of controversy was Lloyd-Jones' call for Evangelical unity in 1966. Some blame him for needlessly dividing Evangelicalism over the issue of involvement in the theologically mixed Denominations, while others have profound regrets that his proposals were not followed more widely. In 'The Lost Leader' or 'A Prophetic Voice'?, Murray endeavors to set the record straight, giving an accurate account of what happened in 1966 and the subsequent fall out. Lloyd-Jones argued that Evangelicals needed to come together in response to the threat of the ecumenical movement. He was not proposing the construction of a new Evangelical denomination. But he reasoned that Evangelicals could not simply be content to be a wing of a comprehensive ecumenical grouping, which would ultimately include the Roman Catholic Church. That some Anglican Evangelicals were tending to think in such terms became clear at the Keele Conference in 1967. Murray agrees with Lloyd-Jones' basic thesis, but he suggests that "the Doctor" was wrong to charge Evangelicals who refused to leave their denominations with schism. But I think there may be something in the charge. If Evangelicals put fellowship with non-Evangelicals in their denominations before church-based fellowship with other Evangelicals, then they are guilty of schism.
We are still living with the effects of what happened in 1966, and the issue of separation from mixed denominations is still a live one. But we have to take account of a new breed of Evangelical Anglican. It seems to me that the men associated with Reform and the Proclamation Trust do not accept the comprehensivist agenda of John Stott and Jim Packer. They wish to remain with the Church of England, while holding tenaciously to the Evangelical faith and working to reform their denomination. As Murray makes clear, Lloyd-Jones did not insist on immediate secession from the denominations, neither did he break off contact with Evangelical Anglicans, especially those who were determined to fight their corner for the biblical gospel. But relations between Lloyd-Jones and Evangelical Anglicans were inevitably strained. Murray explains the reasons behind the preacher's decision to end the Puritan Conference, associated as it was with Jim Packer.
Lloyd-Jones was right to spot the Rome-ward trajectory of the ecumenical movement. His concerns over how this would affect Evangelicals were justified when Packer sided with Anglo-Catholics in the publication Growing into Union (1970), and then later became involved in Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Murray's review of Is The Reformation Over?, charting the development of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, (included in this book) further proves the point. The stance taken by Packer and others in identifying themselves with men whose teaching undermined the gospel, has damaged their fellowship with other Evangelicals. Is this not precisely what Lloyd-Jones meant by schism in his 1966 address?
Lloyd-Jones was above all else a preacher, although he was careful to say that he did not live to preach. The remainder of the book is taken up with some choice quotations from his sermons, reflection on his preaching and an analysis of his messages on Ephesians. Those who have already read Murray's biography of Lloyd-Jones will find much new and valuable material in this book. It is a reminder of the abiding value of the life and teaching of "the Doctor". If you have yet to read the biography, then this will serve as an excellent introduction to Lloyd-Jones, that will leave you wanting to know more about the man and his message.
Many have reason to be thankful to God for the life and work of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, me included. But as Murray makes clear, we should not uncritically accept all that he said and did. "Call no man teacher", said our Saviour. Discussions in minister's fraternals should not be brought to a shuddering halt when someone pipes up, "the Doctor said...". We face fresh challenges in the 21st century and we cannot keep harping back to what Lloyd-Jones might have thought about this or that. He was a faithful messenger of grace in his generation. Let us learn from him and above all else seek the blessing of God upon those who preach the Word today, that they may do so with biblical integrity, contemporary relevance and Holy Spirit power.
Oh, and the book includes a CD of Lloyd-Jones preaching on John 8:21-24, which I haven't listened to yet as there is a danger that Welsh preachers end up sounding like "the Doctor" if they listen to him too much. "Is there, my friend? No! No!"

Friday, November 14, 2008

Herman Bavinck on Christian Dogmatics

I've recently started reading Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics Volume One. It really is a remarkable piece of work. The first volume is given over to prologema. Bavinck wrestles with the problem of doing authentically Christian dogmatics in a post-Enlightenment world. Contrary to Schleiermacher, he argues that that dogmatics cannot simply be the product of the religious consciousness of the believer. Dogmatic theology must be based on God's self-revelation in Scripture. He distinguishes his "synthetic-genetic" approach, which takes into account both word and fact in revelation, from Charles Hodge's "inductive method". Hodge tended to view the task of theology in terms of collecting and arranging the facts of Scripture rather like an empirical scientist. Anyway, here is Herman Bavinck's working definition of Christian Dogmatics:
"Dogmatics is the system of the knowledge of God as he has revealed himself in Christ; it is the system of the Christian religion. And the essence of the Christian religion consists in the reality that the creation of the Father, ruined by sin, is restored in the death of the Son of God and re-created by the grace of the Holy Spirit into a kingdom of God. Dogmatics shows us how God, who is all-sufficient in himself, nevertheless glorifies himself in his creation, which, even when torn apart by sin, is gathered up again in Christ. (Eph 1:10). It describes for us God, always God from beginning to end - God in his being, God in his creation, God against sin, God in Christ, God breaking down all resistance through the Holy Spirit and guiding the whole of creation back to the objective he decreed for it: the glory of his name. Dogmatics, therefore, is not a dull science. It is a theodicy, a doxology of all God's virtues and perfections, a hymn of adoration and thanksgiving, a "glory to God in the highest" (Luke 2:14)."

See here for order info.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Forgotten Christ edited by Stephen Clark

The Forgotten Christ: Exploring the majesty and mystery of God incarnate,
Edited by Stephen Clark, IVP/Apollos, 2007, 256pp.
This book began life as a series of papers delivered at the 2007 Affinity Theological Study Conference. The authors were tasked with exploring different aspects of the majesty and mystery of Jesus Christ. It is often assumed that a large chasm lies between the historical Jesus presented on the pages of the New Testament and the Church's confession that he is the Son of God incarnate. Old style liberal theology tended in that direction. Modern day conspiracy theorists such as Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code have also helped to perpetrate that myth. It is appropriate then, that the first chapter in the book is entitled "Affirming Chalcedon". Andrew McGowan relates the history of the Council of Chalcedon, setting out the key issues at stake. The Council sought settle controversies over how Jesus could be both God and Man. While the Definition Chalcedon is not the last word on Christology, it set out certain biblical parameters on understanding the Person of Christ that have stood the Church in good stead.
There are a number of outstanding essays in this book. One of them is "The inner or psychological life of Christ" by Philip Eveson, Principal Emeritus of the London Theological Seminary. With great reverence and theological insight, Eveson probes the inner life of our Lord, charting his intellectual emotional and spiritual development. Issues such as the relationship between Jesus' divine personhood and human nature and his consciousness of his divine identity are handled with care, warmth and precision. In the closing section, we are invited to "consider Jesus", our fully divine, fully human Saviour. He is our sympathetic high priest, perfect example and exalted Lord.
Paul Wells gives consideration to "The cry of dereliction: the beloved Son cursed and condemned". The cry is set in its proper biblical context and is discussed with theological sensitivity. On the cross, Jesus endured the horrors of hell as he was made sin for us, and forsaken by God. Wells quotes Rabbi Duncan, 'Dying on the cross, forsaken by his Father...it was damnation - and damnation taken lovingly.' But as the writer points out, the cry of dereliction did not denote a rupture in in the the relationship between the Father and the Son in the Trinity. Indeed the unity of the Father and the Son is what enabled God to both inflict and endure suffering at Calvary. Wells argues that the penal substitutionary model of the atonement gives us the most adequate interpretation of Jesus' fourth utterance on the cross. The chapter concludes with some helpful pastoral reflections on the cry of dereliction.
The ascension of Christ is not always given the attention it deserves. It is good, then to see that this book includes an essay on the subject. Matthew Sleeman considers, "The ascension and heavenly ministry of Christ". He reflects on the theology of the ascension and sketches out the New Testament's teaching on the matter. The ascended Christ is hidden in heaven, but accessible from earth. The Spirit compresses and preserves the distance between believers and the heavenly Christ, enabling us to have fellowship with our Saviour. As our exalted, yet sympathetic high priest, Jesus ever lives to make intercession for his people. Entailed in the ascension is the fact that Jesus Christ is Lord. This provides the basis for public theology and Christian engagement with society. Jesus' glorified humanity reveals life as we are coming to know it. When Jesus returns, he will inaugurate the new creation. Then we shall be made like him. Jesus will be hidden and distant no longer. We shall be for ever with the Lord.
It would be invidious to single out a particular chapter for special praise. But sometimes being invidious is not neccesarily a bad thing. Richard B. Gaffin's contribution "The last Adam, the life-giving Spirit" is simply excellent. Unlike some systematic theologians, Gaffin does not do theology by making a doctrinal statement backed up by a string up proof texts. His theology is based on painstaking exegesis of Scripture. He brings his finely honed exegetical skills and rich theological insight to the task of exploring Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 15:22, 45-49. Gaffin ably teases out the broken symmetry of the Christ/Adam parallel in the text. He argues that protology anticipates eschatology. The natural or psychological body of the first Adam held out the hope of a spiritual body. Adam did not attain to this spiritual body because of the fall. But the potential that was frustated in Adam is fulfilled in the risen Christ. He is the life-giving Spirit. As the last Adam, Jesus is the head of God's new humanity. It is in him that creation will be renewed, and through him that believers will receive their spiritual bodies. This insightful chapter is not for the faint hearted, but it will repay careful thought and reflection.
The book concludes with Greg Beale's consideration of, "Worthy is the Lamb: the divine identity of Jesus Christ in the book of Revelation". He was charged with exploring Revelation's unique contribution to Christology and its significance for us today. But rather than paint with the broad brush the conference organizers placed in his hands, Beale opts to give detailed attention to a single text - Revelation 3:14. While a more general study might have been helpful, this narrower focus pays dividends. Comparing his text with Revelation 1:5, Beale argues that the risen Christ is the beginning of the new creation. When set against the Old Testament background (especially Isaiah 43 & 65), Revelation 3:14 clearly includes Jesus in the divine identity. Beale shows the rhetorical purpose behind describing Christ in such terms in the letter to Laodicea. The church had failed to be a faithful witness against the cultural idols of the day. The church is therefore summoned to repent and bear witness to the risen Christ as the world's true Lord.
As it says on the back cover, "It is essential that the church is able to proclaim the authentic Christ to a needy world". This book will enable us to proclaim Jesus Christ, the incarnate God with a deeper and more adoring sense of his wonderful majesty and mystery. In a culture that has lost sense of his unique splendor and a church that is a little embarrassed by his exclusive claims, few things could be more important than that.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Spirit and the Word in preaching

This article was originally published in the July edition of Evangelical Times.
In the last few decades there has been a welcome recovery of expository preaching in the UK. In both the Free Churches and the Church of England, men are being trained to teach the Bible. It is right that preachers should give attention to accurate exegesis, biblical doctrine, sermon structure, the use of illustrations and telling application. But the role of the Holy Spirit in the proclamation of the gospel is sometimes neglected. This can turn preaching into little more than a well-delivered exposition rather than an event in which the God of gospel grace is encountered in his Word.
I once went to hear an address on ‘The power of God’s Word’. The speaker said many helpful things about God’s Word, both written and preached, encouraging us to have confidence in the power of Scripture. But he neglected to say anything about the role of the Spirit in preaching and I raised this in the question session. He replied that in preaching we must rely upon the God who upholds all things, but still had nothing specific to say about the Holy Spirit. Sadly, in some circles, any talk of seeking the Spirit’s empowering is dismissed as worryingly Charismatic. These friends suggest that the Spirit is so wedded to the Word that the Word invariably comes with power.1 But is this necessarily so?

The Word has power

The Second Helvetic Confession admirably sums up the Reformed view of preaching thus: ‘The preaching of the word of God is the word of God’ (chapter 1). We cannot emphasise enough the authority of God’s written Word. The business of preaching is to proclaim no other Word than the biblical gospel. But we live in a visual society where words are often discounted — which creates a problem for preachers, for words are our stock in trade! But words are never ‘just words’. They always do something — they are ‘speech acts’. In the Bible we have God’s Word in words. Scripture is composed of basic units of speech — words and sentences. Now, words are very powerful things. When a Minister says to a couple, ‘I now declare you husband and wife’ it is then that they are married. In everyday life, we accomplish things by speaking words — whether we ask someone to pass the salt cellar or book a holiday.
In Scripture we have God’s ‘speech acts’. By words he makes promises, utters warnings, and enters into a covenant relationship with his people. Scripture is not simply a record of God’s words — it is the communicative action of the triune God. But it is one thing for God to do things with his words, like make promises. But what guarantees that God’s words will produce results? He may make a promise, but we still have to trust in that promise!

The Spirit enables our response

It is here that the work of the Holy Spirit comes into its own. He enables people to respond appropriately to God’s communicative action in Scripture.2 That is why the Bible emphasises the importance of the work of the Spirit in relation to preaching. Paul testifies: ‘our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance ...’ (1 Thessalonians 1:5; cf. 1 Corinthians 2:1-5).
Yes, Paul’s message came in word. But it was the Spirit who enabled the apostle to preach with power and full conviction. That was the reason why many in Thessalonica turned from their idols to the living and true God (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10). Certainly, ‘The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God’ — but our preaching will only be received as such by the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. ‘For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe’ (1 Thessalonians 2:13).

The Spirit’s presence in preaching

On the Day of Pentecost, the risen Christ poured out his Spirit upon the church. God’s people were filled with the Holy Spirit to enable them to bear witness to the gospel (Acts 1:8; 2:1-4). Empowered by the Spirit, Peter preached and 3,000 people were converted, baptised and added to the church. Pentecost inaugurated a new era of the Spirit. As such it was an unrepeatable event. But there was still need of further fillings to empower gospel preaching (see Acts 4:8, 31). Art Azurdia comments:
'While it must be affirmed that all Christians are indwelt by the Spirit permanently, and all believers will experience the effects of the Spirit’s presence in their lives ... there is another work of the Spirit directly related to the proclamation of the word of God, a unique filling of the Spirit which amounts to an access of power. This is a spontaneous work of God attending the declaration of his word which is given sovereignly and selectively’.3
The Holy Spirit gives preachers clarity of thought, boldness of speech and heaven-sent authority. The Jewish Sanhedrin witnessed ‘the boldness of Peter and John’ (Acts 4:13). The Jerusalem church prayed, ‘Now, Lord ... grant to your servants that with all boldness they may preach your word’ (Acts 4:29). Their prayers were answered — ‘they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness’ (Acts 4:31). Paul asked for prayer that, ‘I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel’ (Ephesians 6:19).

The effectiveness of preaching

The Holy Spirit not only emboldens preachers, he gives preaching its saving effectiveness. The Spirit convicts the world of sin (John 16:8). He brings the sinner to new birth as the gospel is proclaimed (John 3:8; 1 Peter 1:23-25). Christians too need to sit under Spirit empowered preaching. God transforms us by his Word. The Spirit enables believers to trust God’s promises and obey his commands. Above all else, God himself is revealed when Jesus Christ is preached in the power of the Spirit. Howell Harris said of the Christ-exalting, Spirit-empowered preaching of Daniel Rowland: ‘a spiritual eye must see and acknowledge that God is there’.4
Our spiritual forebears recognised this. John Calvin said that preaching is ‘dead and powerless if the Lord does not make it efficacious by his Spirit’.5 William Perkins, the early English Puritan, taught:
‘The demonstration of the Spirit is, when as the minister of the word doth in time of preaching so behave himself that all, even ignorant persons and unbelievers, may judge that it is not so much he that speaketh, as the Spirit of God in him and by him ... This makes the ministry lively and powerful’.6
To summarise, the relationship between Word and Spirit in preaching may be described thus —
The Spirit’s empowering presence enables preachers to proclaim the Lord Jesus with boldness, liberty and life-transforming effectiveness. His presence makes preaching an event where the God of the gospel is encountered in all the fullness of his grace and power.

Seeking the Spirit’s empowering

Some dismiss the need to pray for the Spirit’s power because they say that Spirit invariably works with the Word. But Charles Hodge reminds us that we must actively seek the blessing of the sovereign Holy Spirit:
‘It is important that we should remember, that, in living under the dispensation of the Spirit, we are absolutely dependent on a divine Person, who gives or withholds his influence as he will; that he can be grieved and offended; that he must be acknowledged, feared, and obeyed; that his presence and gifts must be humbly and earnestly sought, and assiduously cherished, and that to him all right thoughts and right purposes, all grace and goodness, all strength and comfort, and all success in winning souls to Christ, are to be ascribed’.7
We must follow the pattern of the early church and pray that preachers will be endued with Holy Spirit boldness and power. That is the great need of the hour. Jesus taught that Christians should pray expectantly to the Father for the gift of the Holy Spirit — ‘If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’ (Luke 11:13). Let us urgently ask the Father for a fresh outpouring of the Spirit upon those who preach the gospel of Jesus Christ today.

References

1. See Moore Theology, by Philip Eveson, Foundations (Affinity, Autumn 2006).
2. See The Drama of Doctrine by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (WJK, 2005) on the value of speech-act theory for theological reflection.
3. Spirit Empowered Preaching by Arturo Azurdia III (Mentor, 2007) p.105.
4. Daniel Rowland by Eifion Evans (Banner of Truth Trust, 1985) p.5.
5. From Pentecost Today, by Iain Murray (Banner of Truth Trust, 1998) p.81
6. Ibid, p.82.
7. Systematic Theology Vol. III, by Charles Hodge, p.476.