Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Through Western Eyes by Robert Letham

Through Western Eyes, Eastern Orthodoxy: A Reformed Perspective,
by Robert Letham, Mentor/Christian Focus, 2007, 320pp
Eastern Orthodoxy looks a somewhat strange version of the Christianity faith when viewed through the eyes of Reformed Evangelicals. I mean, all those hairy priests wafting plumes incense all over the place in buildings resplendent with dazzling icons. What's all that about? Robert Letham helps to shock us out of our prejudice by first of all narrating the rich history of Eastern Orthodoxy. Many of the great heroes of orthodox Trinitarian Christianity were from the East. Athanasius was a redoubtable defender of the deity of Christ in the face of the Arian heresy. He also emphasised that Christ became Man in order that human beings might participate in the divine nature, making deification a key aspect of Orthodox soteriology. The Cappadocians, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory Nazianzen helped to give welcome clarity to the church's doctrine of the Trinity. The teaching of the somewhat cantankerous Cyril of Alexandria on the relationship between the divine and human natures in the Person of Christ was highly influential at the Council of Chalcedon. Easter Orthodoxy is profoundly conscious of this valuable theological heritage. In so much as Orthodoxy has a doctrinal basis, it is the creedal statements produced by the seven ecumenical councils. The great Reformed confessions such as the Westminster Confession of faith (and its variants, the Savoy Declaration and the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession) draw on the language of the the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. In keeping with historic orthodoxy, the Reformed gladly confess that the Son is of the same nature (homoousion) with the Father and that the Trinity is a union of three persons (hypostasis) in the one being (ousia) of God. We have cause to be profoundly grateful to the Fathers of the Eastern Church.
It was news to me that Cyril Lucaris, who was to become Patriarch of Constantinople embraced Calvinism while serving in Poland during the Reformation. He published a Calvinistic confession of faith in 1629. Sadly, Lucaris was murdered by Turkish emissaries and his body dumped in the Bosporus. But as Letham points out, while there has never been a Calvinistic pope, Orthodoxy can boast at least one Reformed patriarch.
So much for the history. In the next part of the book, Letham turns his gaze upon Eastern theology. Immediately one is struck with the otherness of Orthodoxy as the writer introduces us to a typical Eastern church service replete with icons, arcane priestly ceremonies, and prayers to the dead. The use of icons in worship was once the cause of serious controversy in the Orthodox Church with the iconoclasts insisting that the use of images is idolatrous and contrary to the second commandment. The iconodules, led by John of Damascus responded that icons are not there to be worshipped. They simply act as a window into the unseen spiritual world and so are aids to salvation. Icons of Christ are permitted because in his humanity he is the image of the invisible God. The iconodules won the day and their position was ratified at Nicaea II, the only ecumenical council not usually accepted by Protestants. The argument that visible representations of Christ are permitted because he took a true human nature is suspect. We cannot divorce his humanity from the divine Person of the Son. That way lies Nestorianism. When it comes to prayers to the dead, Letham rightly says that there is nothing wrong in asking other believers to intercede with God on our behalf. The problem is asking dead Christians to do so. There is no biblical evidence that the dead in Christ are able to respond to our requests for prayer, so there is no point in trying to enlist their help.
For the Orthodox, Scripture is part of the living tradition of the Church along with the declarations of the ecumenical councils and later Church teachings. This robs Scripture of its critical authority over the traditions of the Church. Tradition is valuable, but even the most ancient traditions of the Church are subject to the scrutiny of the Bible. That said, Orthodoxy is right to stress that Scripture was given to the Church and that the Church and Scripture are mutually dependent. Orthodox worship is full of Bible readings, with huge chunks of Scripture being read to the congregation. This is a challenge to some of our Reformed churches, where the Minister will simply read the few verses that will form the basis for his sermon rather than whole chapters from the Word of God.
Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodoxy does not have a hierarchical structure of authority. It is a family of self-governing churches. The Eastern Church resists the claims to papal primacy (based supposedly on Matthew 16:18), holding that the church is led collectively by the bishops. Like Rome, the Orthodox teach that there are seven sacraments rather than simply baptism and the Lord's Supper as found in Scripture. But the Eastern Church is is not as dogmatic as Rome about the number seven. Baptism and the Lord's Supper are esteemed as pre-eminent among the mysteries. Baptism brings the candidate into union with Christ and actually confers forgiveness of sin. At the Lord's Supper, the consecrated bead and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ, but Orthodoxy makes no attempt to explain the mystery, unlike the Roman dogma of transubstantiation. In the East, the Eucharist is seen as a propitiatory sacrifice on behalf of the living and the dead. The Reformed (at least Reformed Baptists!) teach that baptism is a symbol of grace already received by faith. The Lord's Supper is no trip down memory lane, it is an act of communion with the risen Christ who is present at the Table by the Spirit as the faithful eat bread and drink wine together. But there is no change in the substance of the elements and the Lord's Supper is not to be understood in sacrificial terms. There is little room for preaching in Orthodox services, with greatest attention being given to highly visible icons and ceremonies. The Reformers recovered the New Testament's emphasis on the preaching and hearing of the Word of God. We encounter the living God as he addresses us through the Christ-centred Word, preached in the power of the Spirit. We cannot see God, but we can hear him.
Letham devotes a chapter to the divergent understandings of the Trinity in the Western and Eastern traditions of the Church. The West, following Augustine has tended to approach the Trinity starting with the one divine essence. This can lead to difficulties in appreciating how the three relate to the one. Augustine famously spoke of the Trinity in terms of the Father as lover, the Son as loved and the Holy Spirit as the union of love between the Father and Son. Needless to say this perspective leaves in doubt the full deity and personality of the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity has often been neglected in Western theology, piety and worship. In the East however, the Trinity is central to the Church's theology, worship and life, with due emphasis being given to the three Persons. But the Eastern doctrine of God is complicated by a distinction between the divine essence, which is unknowable, and the divine energies through which he reveals himself to us. This view, first formulated by Gregory Palamas, leaves us in doubt as to what God is really like. A basic principle of Christian theology is that God's self-revelation is a true depiction of his inner life. The imminent Trinity is revealed in the acts of the economic Trinity. The differences between Eastern and Western Trinitarian theology come to the fore in the filioque controversy. The West added to the Niceno-Contantinopolitan creed the phrase, the Holy Spirit 'proceeds from the Father and the Son'. Letham discusses at length the arguments for and against filioque. He attempts to resolve the age-old differences over the doctrine of the Trinity in East and West by asserting with Gregory of Nazianzen that the one and the three are equally ultimate in God.
But what of the Eastern view of salvation? The East tends not to take the plight of man in sin quite so seriously as the Western Augustinian tradition. The Reformed argue biblically (Ephesians 2:1-4) that since the fall, man is dead in trespasses and sin and therefore is unable to move towards God. In the East it is held that man is able to respond to God's offer of grace. Salvation is viewed synergistically rather than monergistically. However, many Eastern Orthodox theologians have taught a doctrine of justification by faith alone that is comparable to the classic Reformed position. But where the West tends to view salvation forensically, the East focuses on deification, that the Son of God became man to enable us to partake in the divine nature. As Letham points out, the forensic and participative aspects of salvation are both rooted in the believer's union with Christ. Orthodoxy dislikes the Reformed doctrine of predestination, which it confuses with arbitrary fatalism. Protestant converts to Eastern Orthodoxy are required to renounce a version of predestination that bears no resemblance to the historic Calvinistic teaching. The Reformed doctrine of predestination asserts both the absolute sovereignty of God and the responsibility of human beings.
In a helpful chapter, Areas of Agreement, Misunderstanding and Disagreement, Letham pulls the threads of this study together. He welcomes positive aspects of Eastern theology such as the centrality of the doctrine of the Trinity, strong emphasis on union with Christ, and the unity of theology and piety. But he does not ignore areas of substantive disagreement like the tendency in the East to downplay the preaching of the Word of God, the veneration of Mary and the saints, and a synergistic understanding of salvation. If dialogue between the East and Reformed Christians is to make progress, we need to remove misunderstandings and yet be clear where real differences remain. At the very least Letham has enabled Reformed believers to have a more unblinkered and sympathetic understanding of Eastern Orthodoxy. The theologian has no time for the kind of ecumenism that simply papers over the cracks, yet he longs for the visible unity of the church of in answer to Jesus' prayer in John 17.
One big issue that Letham avoids facing is that Orthodoxy, which heroically resisted atheistic Communism in the 20th century, is often intolerant of other manifestations of the Christian faith, especially Evangelicalism. Evangelicals in Russia and some former Soviet countries are feeling the pinch at the moment. It is another sad case in church history of the persecuted turning persecutor once the pressure is off (witness also the Puritans, who fled from persecution in England only to persecute Quakers in the New World). Eastern Orthodoxy needs to address this matter urgently.
Through Western Eyes can be viewed as a companion piece to Letham's The Holy Trinity In Scripture, History, Theology and Worship, P&R, 2004. Those who are tantalised by his proposal on resolving the filioque controversy are referred to this volume (which you can see reviewed here). But this is a work of ecumenical theology in its own right that helps us look at Eastern Orthodoxy from a Reformed Perspective with appreciation, integrity and honesty.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The end of the world?

An edited version of my Morning Thought, for BBC Radio Wiltshire
Talking about the end of the world used to be the preserve of cranks and eccentrics. You would sometimes see them in town centres wearing sandwich boards that proclaimed, “THE END IS NIGH”. But now it seems that almost everybody is at it. News reports tell us that global warming will mean the end of life as we know it.

Muse tapped into this sense of unease in their song, “Apocalypse please”, singing,

It’s time we saw a miracle
Come on, it’s time for something biblical
To pull us through
And this is the end of the world.

The other week our children came home from school asking, “Is the world going to end today, dad?” It was the day when the Large Hadron Collider at Cern was switched on. Apparently, the collider was going to re-create conditions moments after the Big Bang. There was a danger, it was reported, that the experiment could have created a super massive black hole which would have swallowed up the whole universe. Well, that didn’t quite happen like that did it? Responsible scientists said that the end of the world scenario was highly unlikely anyway. But just in case you are still worried, you can sleep easy in the knowledge that the £5bn machine has developed a fault and won’t be operative again until Spring 2009. Perhaps the end isn’t quite so nigh?

But I don’t believe that the world will end because of a scientific experiment or anything like that. God made this world and he upholds it by his power. The destiny of the universe is in his hands. The Christian faith is all about having a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. But there is more to it than that. In Jesus, God has acted to rescue the world from evil and suffering. What we look forward to is not in fact the end of the world, but the renewal of creation when Jesus returns. Of that new creation it is written,

“And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4).

If you share that hope, then don’t worry. It’s not the end of the world!

You can listen to recordings of this week's breakfast show here. I'm on about 40 minutes into the programme.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Greatest Love of All


An edited version of my Morning Thought, for BBC Radio Wiltshire

Whitney Houston’s song The Greatest Love of All proclaims,

Learning to love yourself
It is the greatest love of all

Is that right? I don’t think so. True love is about reaching out to others rather than self-fulfilment. We all know what love is, but it is difficult to define it in words. The family paper we had when I was a lad carried the “Love is” cartoon strip. Some of them were quite good, with things like, “Love is… wanting to give her the moon and the stars.” And “Love is… a feeling to treasure.” Well, that’s all very nice and romantic, but there’s more to love than that. On yesterday’s show Graham was talking about acts of kindness. He spoke to a “secret millionaire” who had helped people in need. That kind of generosity which seeks the good of other people is getting close to what love is all about.

According to the Christian faith, love is the chief virtue. The apostle Paul spoke of “faith hope and love, these three, but the greatest of these is love”. (1 Corinthians 13:13). Without love faith, charitable giving and even martyrdom are totally without profit. John wrote in one of his letters, “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4:8). Did you catch that? “God is love.” The one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit exists in an eternal union of love. He loves us too. Do you doubt that? Then consider this display of God’s love,

God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8).

Now, is easy to love our friends who are kind and generous to us. It is not so easy to love our enemies. But God loves his enemies, “sinners” like you and me who have turned their backs upon him. To receive God’s offer of new life in Christ is to immerse your soul in love.

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4:10).

Now that’s the greatest love of all.

You can listen to recordings of this week's Graham Seaman breakfast show here. I'm on about 45 minutes into the programme.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Credit Crunch

An edited version of my Morning Thought, for BBC Radio Wiltshire
Many of us are feeling the pinch from the "credit crunch". Politicians are trying to get to grips with a new world of collapsing banks and high oil prices. The US treasury is putting together a 700 billion dollar package to buy up the “toxic assets” of American banks. Getting out of the red is always a costly business. But that’s a whole lot of money to pay off bad debt.

The idea of debt features in the Lord’s Prayer, which famously begins,

“Our Father which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name”

As a child, I had to recite the Lord’s Prayer every day in school. It didn’t mean a lot to me then. Perhaps familiarity had bred contempt? But it really is a wonderful model of true prayer. In it, Jesus instructed his followers to ask God for many things like, “Give us this day our daily bread.” He also said that we should pray,

“And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.”

Now, Jesus wasn’t talking about finance here. He was suggesting that we are morally and spiritually indebted to God and we need him to write off the debt. What’s all that about? Well, God made us for himself, and he calls us to live for his glory. If we live as if he did not exist, and disregard his pattern for our lives, then we are getting ourselves into a spiritual credit crisis. We are “in the red” as far as our relationship with God is concerned. But Jesus tells us to pray that the debt will be cancelled. Can God just do that? He can, but there is a price to pay. As I said, it will cost a staggering 700 billion dollars to wipe out the bad debts of US banks. But the price of our forgiveness is much higher. God bore the cost of our “toxic assets” in his own Son, Jesus Christ. The Christian can sing,

On the cross he sealed my pardon,
paid the debt and made me free.

That’s gospel economics.

Mumbling thoughtlessly through the Lord’s Prayer never did anybody any good. But if you would know the God whose grace is free of charge, then try praying,

“And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.”
You can listen to recordings of this week's Graham Seaman breakfast show here. I'm on about 45 minutes into the programme.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Creation the Bible and Science Conference: Day Two

Speakers from left: Robert Letham, Paul Helm, Philip Eveson,
Jason Ramplet, Stephen Lloyd & Stuart Burgess. (John Currid absent).
The New Testament and Creation
Dr. Stephen Lloyd
The quietly spoken, yet persuasive Dr. Lloyd began his paper by comparing the story of the Bible, namely creation, fall, redemption and restoration with the story of Darwinism, which is the evolution of life from amoeba to man. Lloyd, who holds a PhD in materials science, wished to address the issue of whether these two grand metanarratives are compatible. He suggested that controversy over the interpretation of Genesis 1 is really a distraction. What matters is the whole Bible's doctrine of creation. The acceptance of Darwinian evolution has huge implications for Christian theology.

1. Agony and death in the story-line of the Bible.

Romans 8:18-22 tells us that the non-human creation was subjected to futility and entropy as a result of the fall of man. With the fall of man, disease, corruption and death entered the world. In the Bible, death is not a biological necessity, it is the punishment for sin. Some who wish to reconcile the Christian faith with Darwinism argue the fall did not bring physical death, as death is a natural part of biological life. For them, man may have died spiritually when he sinned, but this had no effect upon the physical world beyond man's "bad stewardship". Since fall man has failed to properly fulfil the "cultural mandate". But many important Scriptures stand against the "bad stewardship" reading. Romans 5:12 & 14 and 1 Corinthians 15:21 tell us that physical death came into the world because of sin. Jesus' death was physical as well as spiritual. Arguing from solution to plight, we can see that Christ's death dealt with both the spiritual and physical aspects of death. Death is "the last enemy" (1 Corinthians 15:26), which will be destroyed when Jesus returns. The Bible's story becomes incoherent if death is simply "natural", as Darwinian evolution demands.

Lloyd did not develop the point, but he said that animal suffering and death were also due to the fall, rather than being natural phenomenon. God declared the pre-fall creation "very good". In the evolutionary story, things like death, disease, and earthquakes are just the way things are. But it is hard to see how God could regard such a disordered world as "good". In reality, such things are part and parcel of his curse upon a fallen world. Salvation has to do with the restoration of the physical as well as the spiritual realm. Christ healed the sick as an anticipation of the renewal of creation. On the cross he wore a crown of thorns, signifying that in him, God's curse upon creation will be removed. Christ's resurrection - a physical event was the first installment of the renewal of creation, Romans 8:23, Revelation 21:4.

The Bible's story of creation, fall, redemption and restoration cannot be reconciled with Darwinism.


2. The flood

The flood of Genesis 6 to 9 was an act of judgement that "de-created" the world because of man's sin. The subsidence of the flood waters was an act of re-creation that points forward to the new creation, 2 Peter 3:3-10. Darwinism cannot accommodate a global flood. But a global flood is a major element in the Bible's story. Noah was a kind of new Adam, Genesis 9:1. The global claims of the gospel arise from God's global promise after the flood, Genesis 8:22. After the flood, life was more suited for sinful man with human age span drastically limited. The flood inaugurated an era of grace, 2 Peter 3:9. Prior to the flood, there were only eight righteous persons on earth - Noah and his family. After the flood multitudes of people have been saved.

3. Adam and the Bible's story

Key biblical passages insist that Adam was an historical figure and that he was the head of the human race - Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:22. According to the Bible, Adam was specially created in the image of God, Genesis 1:26. Darwinism contradicts this by insisting that human life evolved around 100,000 years ago from pre-human hominids. But if a some point, human beings evolved from Neanderthals then Adam cannot have been the biological ancestor of all mankind. He was just one of the lucky ones who evolved from a pre-human to human state. How, then can Adam have been the representative head of all human beings, so that his sin meant sin and death for humanity? Darwinism makes a mockery of the Bible's account of the federal relationship between Adam and the human race.

Lloyd showed convincingly that the acceptance of Darwinian evolution is a huge theological liability for those who wish to hold to the integrity of the Bible's story.

Design Arguments - Stepping Stones or Stumbling Blocks?
Prof. Paul Helm

In a well-argued, robust and sometimes humorous address, Paul Helm distinguished between a theology of nature, that takes into account the witness of Scripture and natural theology that seeks to argue from nature up to God. He criticised William Paley's design arguments for failing to take into account things like disease and suffering in nature. God does reveal himself in creation, Romans 1:20, Acts 14:15-18, 17:22-31. But we have to be careful in using intelligent design arguments to refute the theory of evolution by natural selection. Helm's emphasis on the "weirdness" of creation ex nihilo gave pause for thought. Creation as described in Genesis 1 is a singularity. God is now resting from his unique work of creation. In his providential dealings with the world, he respects the integrity of secondary causes. Genesis 1 is an historical account of origins. But we cannot reconstruct what happened back then from scientific principles. Creation ex nihilo is the ultimate singularity where the laws of science as we currently understand them break down.

In summing up, Helm argued that we need to be flexible and gracious in our apologetic approach, as we seek to win a hearing for the gospel. In his address, the Prof offered some important correctives to some evangelical approaches to apologetics. His proposals are well worth pondering. You can read this excellent paper on his blog, here.

Authority: the Bible and Science
Dr. Jason Ramplet

As Ramplet, Research Associate at The Faraday Institute pointed out, in life we are constantly pondering the demands of different authorities. Authorities from the rules of the road to cultural conventions call for our obedience. Both the Bible and science have some authority. God the creator us also the one who made the world for us to investigate and subdue. His truth is one.

1. The authority of the Bible

Some would seek to use science to undermine the authority of the Bible. Others compartmentalise Scripture and science saying, "Science tells us how the heavens go, the Bible tells us how to go to heaven." But Genesis 1 has something to say on how the heavens go, as God made the stars. It was God's authoritative speech acts that called the world into being and that summoned Adam from the dirt.

2. The authority of science

The Bible is authoritative but its scope is not exhaustive. We cannot look to Scripture to tell us how to make a cake or manufacture a clock. Extrabiblical knowledge is important. The cultural mandate of Genesis 1 demands that we "subdue the earth" and that involves some scientific activity. The authority of science arises from four principles:

1) The repeatability of experiments.

2) Experimental data is superior to theoretical speculation.
Theories must answer to the world. Darwin was an experimental scientists before he was a theoriser. Multiverse theory is sheer speculation.

3) Science is a corporate endeavour.
Research is a social activity. Scientific communities peer review new proposals. At this point Ramplet suggested, "the devil is a blogger". I 'm not sure what exactly he meant by that. Does he have any peer-reviewed experimental data to prove his case, I wonder?

4) Nature is set against us.
It is by the sweat of our brow that nature reveals its secrets. We also have to take into consideration the epistemological effects of the fall. Unbelieving scientists have to assume God even to deny him.

3. The supreme authority

Under this heading, Ramplet argued that we must try to keep the scientific consensus on Darwinian evolution in tension with the biblical doctrine of creation. Both science and theology have their own integrity. We know nothing as God knows it. We are his vice-regents with finite secondary knowledge. We must accent the value of science and theology.

This last point was most controversial when it came to discussion. Some scientists in the congregation cast doubt on the so-called "Darwinian consensus", suggesting that it was a forced consensus that subjected dissenters to bullying and intimidation. [See here for Paul Helm's thoughts on Micheal Reiss' dismissal from the Royal Society for suggesting that creationism be taught in science lessons]. Others expressed concern that Ramplet had overly compartmentalised the Bible and science. One pastor asked how the speaker would advise a teenage girl who said that the teaching on evolution in school was different from what she had been taught about creation in church. Ramplet seemed to argued that biblical creation and Darwinian evolution were both valid and should be held in tension. I think that in accepting theistic evolution, Ramplet has allowed the authority of science to trump the authority of Scripture. He has failed to take on board the incompatibility of macroevolutionary theory with the Bible's basic story line, as demonstrated so ably by Stephen Lloyd. It was good to have an opportunity to discuss Ramplet's proposals. But his equivocation on this vital point made for a less than rousing end to an otherwise exceptionally helpful conference.

The conference was held under the auspices of the John Owen Centre. CD's of each address and a nifty MP3 CD containing all the addresses can be ordered here.

Losing it


An edited version of my Morning Thought, for BBC Radio Wiltshire

One of the topics for discussion on the show this week is, "losing it". We tend to think that anger as a bad thing. It is associated with outbursts of uncontrollable rage, when we “see red” and really let rip. But anger is not necessarily a bad emotion. Sometimes it is the only right response to evil and injustice. A few years ago, we visited the Imperial War Museum in London. The museum had a holocaust exhibition. Faced with the horror of what happened in the 1940’s, I not only felt sorrow for the victims of Hitler’s “Final Solution”, but also anger at the mindless slaughter of millions of human beings.

You may be shocked to hear me say this, but the Gospels record that Jesus was sometimes provoked to anger. He was angry with the religious establishment’s cold hearted indifference to human suffering. He was so angry at the commercialisation of God’s house, that he turned the money changers out of the temple. Now, Jesus never “lost his rag” out of personal pique. Unlike some of us he wasn’t grumpy or irritable. But Jesus cared too much about human beings to shrug his shoulders and walk away when he saw the vulnerable exploited or oppressed. Anger, then can be a fitting response to wickedness and injustice. Anger in that sense is compassion with teeth.

But, we cannot ignore the dark side of anger. One of the Bible’s many wise proverbs says,

A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control.
(Proverbs 29:11).

We can allow anger and resentment to burn in our hearts. That is what wreaks lives and ruins relationships. There is a far better way, the costly way of forgiveness. This is not easy. But it is not easy for God to offer forgiveness to people who have turned their backs upon him. He offers us forgiveness because Jesus willingly died on the cross for the wrong things we have done. The forgiving God calls those who trust in him to be forgiving people,

Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Eph 4:31& 32).

It is far better to forgive than to rage.
You can listen to recordings of this week's Graham Seaman breakfast show here. I'm on about 45 minutes into the programme.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Monday Morning Blues

An edited version of my Morning Thought, for BBC Radio Wiltshire

The silence of your slumbering bedroom is rudely interrupted by your alarm clock. Still dazed by sleep, you opt for the snooze button so you can grab ten more minutes in bed. Before you know it, your trusty clock is at it again. It is Monday morning, work beckons and you find yourself thinking “Why bother?”

Now, some people have very interesting and fulfilling jobs like brain surgeon, radio presenter, or preacher! But many of us have more humdrum work in offices, factories and shops. Some try to find a way off the treadmill with dreams of fame and fortune. They buy lottery tickets, promising themselves that if they win, the first thing they’ll do is jack in their job. My daughter tells me that I should try and get on X-Factor. Suffice to say that I have a brilliant face for radio and you don’t even want to hear me sing! Many who audition for that show tell us that there must be something more to life than what they are doing at present. They want an exciting new career as a pop star.

I’m reminded of some words from a song by The Smiths,

If you must go to work tomorrow,
Then if I were you I wouldn’t bother.
For there are brighter sides to life
And I should know because I’ve seen them,
But not very often.

I can understand how people can reflect on life and think, “Is this all there is, slaving away to earn a crust?” But there can be more to life than this. God made us for himself, that we might live for his glory. Living for the glory of God gives life meaning and purpose. The humblest task then becomes an act of worship and praise. The Christian faith gives us the ultimate answer to Monday morning blues. “Why bother?” Listen to this,

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. (Colossians 3:23 & 24).

With Jesus, what we do in work echoes in eternity.
You can listen to recordings of this week's Graham Seaman breakfast show here. I'm on about 45 minutes into the programme.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Cool new Bible reference widget

Astute readers may have noticed that Bible references in my posts now have a pop-up thing that gives the text. You can have one too. The widget is easy to install and use. Find out more here. I haven't had time to do the last report on the Creation the Bible and Science Conference. That will have to wait until next week. Blogger has been a bit weird of late, failing to autosave and stuff. One recent post keeps reverting to an earlier edit every time I try and make corrections. Anyone else having blogger grief?

The Lloyd-Jones Memorial Lecture by Philip Eveson

The Gospel and Creation - the Significance of a Theology of Creation for Preaching
On the Monday Evening of the Creation the Bible and Science Conference, Philip Eveson, Principal Emeritus of the London Theological Seminary gave a this year's Lloyd-Jones Memorial Lecture. He began by saying that "the Doctor" would have approved of the subject in hand. In his sermons on Romans 8 and Ephesians 1, Lloyd-Jones emphasised that salvation is about far more than dying and going to heaven. God is going to renew the whole cosmos. The preacher urged Evangelicals to recapture the sheer grandeur of biblical eschatology.
In the report that follows, I have drawn on my hastily scribbled notes. But this blogged-up sketch cannot really convey the power of this gripping tour de force. Lloyd-Jones said that preaching is "theology on fire". Well, there was certainly fire in this address on creation and the gospel. By the end I just felt amazed and awed by the stunning glory of our triune Creator and Redeemer God.
The Gospel is for created beings. The Bible's redemption hope includes creation. We need to foster an appropriate attitude to God's world.
I. What a theology of creation will include
There is a danger of controversy over Darwinian evolution overshadowing the Bible's positive teaching on creation. The biblical creation account is not there to be argued over. Its purpose is to call us to worship the Creator, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1). When God gave Job a guided tour of creation, he was humbled to the dust before the majesty of his Maker. It is by faith we understand that God created all things. Scripture must inform our doctrine of creation. A biblical theology of creation will include these twelve points:
1. God is an uncreated Creator
No one made the eternal God. He simply exists - Psalm 90:2.
2. The Creator created creation
Contatry to the Gnostics, he did not use intermediaries or demigods. "God created the heavens and the earth".
3. The Creator made one creation
Multiverse theory is nothing but postmodern speculative nonsense.
4. The uncreated God created all things from nothing.
He used no pre-existing material in the original creation. Creation is not an emanation from God's being. Having been made ex nihilo, the creation is dependent upon God, yet distinct from him. This rules out pantheism and the Gaia hypothesis of extreme environmentalism.
5. The Creator created time
"In the beginning God created...". Creation was made with time. God worked in time to form the earth in six days.
6. Creation is good
Matter is not evil. God declared the completed creation "very good" (Genesis 1:31). The Bible warns against false asceticism 1 Timothy 4:1-5. God has richly given us all things to enjoy. We should give thanks to the Lord for the provision of our bodily needs.
7. The Creator God rules over the whole creation
The Lord reigns over all. "Everything under heaven is Mine." Says the Lord to Job (Job 41:11). Nothing is off limits for him.
8. Creation is the work of the Triune God
The Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck is especially strong on this in his Reformed Dogmatics. Creation is the work of the one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, John 1:1-3, 1 Corinthians 8:6. Creation does not reveal the Trinity of the godhead, but creation presupposes the action of the Triune God. The unity in diversity of the Trinity is displayed in creation. Islam with its monadic conception of God cannot cope with the sheer diversity of life. Postmodernism tends to fragmentation at the expense of unity. But the God who is one in three has made a Universe that is teeming with diversity. God did not need the creation to complete himself, for he is eternally complete in the rich communion of the persons of the Trinity. Creation exists not necessarily, but according to God's sovereign will, Revelation 4:11. It displays his glory, Psalm 19:1, Romans 11:36. Creation is the free expression of the Triune God who is love.
9. The Creator God is relational
We are made in God's image (Genesis 1:26) for fellowship with God and with each other.
10. The Creator and the creation is all that exists
There are no intermediaries between God and his world.
11. Creation must be distinguished from providence
God rested on the 7th day from the work of creation (Genesis 2:2-3). Providence is God's work of upholding, directing and renewing creation. Providence is Trinitarian. The Father upholds all things by his Son through the power of the Spirit. A biblical doctrine of providence rules out a "God of the gaps". There are no gaps where God is not at work in sustaining and guiding the Universe. The distant god of Deism is not the God revealed in Scripture. He is active in the historical process, directing all things in accordance with his will.
12. There is a need for a new creation
The final glorified state will include a renewed creation. The world was subjected to God's curse because of sin, Genesis 3:17-19. Creation has been subjected to vanity, Ecclesiastes 1:2, Romans 8:18-23. With the resurrection of the believing dead, creation will be liberated from bondage to decay. The new creation will not replace the old world. Jesus, the last Adam who will bring the creation to its intended goal in God's purposes.
II. The message of the Gospel and the redeeming work of Christ
The God of creation is also the God of redemption. We find this emphasis in Exodus and Isaiah. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16). The scope of this salvation includes the whole of creation. Through redemption in Christ, the creation finds its eschatological goal, which was frustrated by the fall of man into sin.
The Christian hope is not just spiritual. Creation looks for its exodus - its liberation from bondage to decay - Romans 8:21.
III. Creation and Christ
1. Creation through Christ
He was an active agent in God's creative work, Hebrews 1:2, Colossians 1:16.
2. Christ and providence
He upholds the universe and brings it to its grand conclusion, Hebrews 1:3, Colossians 1:17. Jesus is the Alpha and Omega of creation.
3. The incarnation of Christ
Jesus, the image of the invisible God was made in the image of God when he became man. In Jesus the Creator became a creature. He is the last Adam, the head of God's new humanity. The first Adam brought sin and death into the world. Christ came to atone for sin and destroy death's power (1 Timothy 3:16, Hebrews 2:14 & 15). Jesus was fully man, sharing our humanity. He came to re-establish man's dominion over the world - Hebrews 2:5-9 cf. Psalm 8.
4. The resurrection of Christ
The resurrection of Jesus - 1 Timothy 3:16 - affirms that matter matters. Jesus rose bodily from the grave. The last Adam is a life giving Spirit, the man from heaven (1 Corinthians 15: 45, 49). We shall bear the image of the risen Jesus, 1 John 3:2.
5. Christ and re-creation.
He is the beginning of the creation of God, Revelation 3:14. In Colossians 1, Paul teaches that Christ will reconcile to God the world that was made through him. When Christ returns, the dead will be raised and the whole creation will be renewed, Philippians 3:21. This will not mean the destruction of the world, but its glorious liberation by the power of Christ. Then we shall have spiritual bodies, bodies renewed and transformed by the Spirit and fitted for life in the new heavens and the new earth (2 Peter 3:13).
IV. The significance of a theology of creation for preaching
We need to have a positive doctrine of creation that will challenge the rampant atheism of our time. Paul preached creation in his proclamation of the Gospel in Lystra (Acts 14) and Athens (Acts 17). We must preach creation, incarnation, resurrection and re-creation in Christ. Let us hold before the people the stunning grandeur of our triune Creator God. The heavens declare his glory. Science helps us to further appreciate the wonder of creation. But the aim of the Bible's creation account is to awaken us to God's existence rather than provide scientific information. The witness of creation prepares people to hear the gospel of salvation. But there is more to creation than a pre-evangelistic aid. Believers should delight in God's world. Solomon studied plant and animal life. "The works of the Lord are great, studied by all who have pleasure in them." (Psalm 111:2). We have been called to serve the Lord in our bodies, Romans 12:1. We will be rewarded for the works done in the body, Revelation 14:13. Reflecting on the power of our Creator can be a great encouragement to us, Isaiah 40:27-31. This is our Father's world. But the effects of the fall upon creation make us a little ambivalent about this life. We must set our minds on things above, not on things the earth, Colossians 3:1-2. Our citizenship is in heaven, Philippians 3:20-21. While in this world, we groan, longing for the new creation, Romans 8:22, 26. The church's message is the unique declaration of the redemption of creation in Christ. Sinners must flee from the wrath to come and embrace God's offer of salvation. Our creation theology will teach us to:
1. Adore our Maker
2. Appreciate the kindness of God, Psalm 145:9.
3. Administer creation's resources wisely, caring for the environment.
4. Ache for the renewal of creation.
5. Anticipate the glory to come.
6. Act by spreading the message of creation and the gospel.
The conference was held under the auspices of the John Owen Centre. CD's of each address and a nifty MP3 CD containing all the addresses can be ordered here. If you don't order anything else, get the recording of this lecture.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Creation the Bible and Science Conference: Day One

Interpreting Genesis 1 & 2
Dr. John Currid

The conference kicked off appropriately enough with a consideration of Genesis 1 & 2. In his opening remarks, John Currid, Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Virginia made mention of alarm in the UK media concerning "noisy American creationists". Currid is certainly a creationist, but is not of the strident, shouty variety that seem to do so much damage to the cause. Currid pointed out that the Reformers rejected the allegorising tendencies of the medieval church in favour of sober biblical interpretation. The main point of Reformed interpretation of Scripture is to discover the authorial meaning of the text rather than read hidden meanings into Scripture. Essential to responsible exegesis is the identification of the literary genre of a particular biblical text. This is especially important when approaching Genesis 1 & 2. It is often said that the opening chapters of Genesis are "poetry". But Currid sees no evidence of this in the text. The two key features of Hebrew poetry are absent namely: Line parallelisms e.g. Psalm 19:1 and figures of speech e.g. Psalm 42:1. Moreover a device invariably present in Hebrew narrative prose writing - "vav consecutive plus imperfect" is used again and again in Genesis 1 & 2. Passages of the Old Testament that make reference to these chapters seem to accept them as historical narrative rather than poetry, e.g. Exodus 20:8-11 and Psalm 104. Currid rejected the "framework hypothesis", which tries to accommodate Genesis 1 & 2 with theistic accounts of evolution. This view, associated with Meredith Kline amongst others tries to read our chapters as poetry. But what we have in fact is a highly structured, exalted prose narrative that is suited to the unique event of God's original creation.
In expounding the text itself, Currid drew attention to God's activity in the six creation days. The earth was originally "without form and empty" (Genesis 1:2). In days 1-3, God ordered the earth by three acts of division. In days 4-6, he filled the creation with stars, marine creatures, birds and animal life. Then, after the creation of man, God rested from his creative activity (Genesis 2:1-3). This pattern of ordering and filling followed by rest is replicated by human beings as God's unique image bearers, Genesis 1:26-28. Man orders creation by subduing the earth (Genesis 1:28) and naming the animals (Genesis 2:19-20). He is called to fill the earth (Genesis 1:28 again). God's rest is the pattern from human rest, (Exodus 20:8-11). This rest day on the completion of creation anticipates the eschatological rest that the creation will receive in Christ.
This well-argued and cogent exegetical paper laid the ground for what was to come in the conference. In the discussion that followed, questions of genre, historicity and the length of the creation days amongst other issues were aired.
Genesis 1 & 2 - History of Interpretation
Dr. Robert Letham
It fell to Bob Letham of WEST to summarise the church's pre-Copernican understanding of Genesis 1 & 2. The church rejected Maronite and Gnostic accounts of creation, which tended to view matter as evil. Early theologians rightly insisted that God created the world ex nihilo. Irenaeus suggested that God used his two "hands", the Son and the Spirit when he created all things. This did not imply subordination of the Son and Spirit to the Father as both were regarded as one with God in the work of creation. Irenaeus understood creation Christologically. Christ is the image of God in whose image we are made. Redemption is an act of recapitulation with the second Adam undoing the work of the fist Adam. Origen could make little sense of Genesis 1 & 2 when understood literally. He was opposed to the idea of six 24 hour creation days. His platonic leanings and allegorical bent drove him to try and find secret meanings behind the "flesh" of the biblical text. Basil the Great understood the creation account more literally. He saw God acting purposefully in creating the world from nothing, which he then ordered in the creation days. Augustine taught instantaneous creation. God made the world and time. He taught that the creation days were stages in our knowledge of creation. The One Day was replicated in the other days, with number six representing perfection. Augustine's view seemed to hold sway from his own day right up to the Reformation. Robert Gristeste [not sure of spelling!] taught that the firmament of Genesis 1:7 was some kind of crystallised water, in accordance with the best science of his day. (A warning for us not to follow current scientific trends too slavishly). Aquinas saw a three-fold division of God's creative work in Genesis 1 & 2, creation and division on Days 1-3 and adornment in Days 4-6. With the Reformation, we see a greater concentration on the actual text of Scripture, with a more literal reading of the creation account. Luther held that the world was 6,000 years old. He rejected allegorical interpretations. While Calvin noted that divine revelation is accommodated to our capacity, he taught that God created the world in six 24 hour days, rejecting the view of Augustine. Letham insisted our understanding of the creation days should not be given confessional status. The Westminster Standards take little interest in the matter. The plethora of views on Genesis 1 & 2 should make us cautious in our pronouncements. Copernican science forced Bible scholars to read Scripture differently. We should be open to similar correction. The question of Job 38, "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?", should give us pause for thought.
In the discussion afterwards the matter of doctrinal progress was raised. That was a good point. Letham should have given more emphasis to the positive gains made by the Reformers and the fact that the Reformation gave rise to modern science. We should recognise that the Reformers had a better and more accurate understanding of Genesis (see Currid's paper) than Augustine and the medievals. We must be open to revising our understanding of Scripture as we understand the world better. But the theory of evolution plays havoc with the Bible's basic plot line. Doctrines are often clarified in response to heresy and error. Witness the clarification of Christology at Chalcedon. Perhaps the modern creation/evolution debates will have the same effect upon the doctrine of creation? The fact of interpretive diversity in church history does not mean that it is impossible for us to come to a more accurate understanding of Genesis 1 & 2. To suggest that it is is a councel of despair. It seems to me that the best reading of the opening chapters in the Bible is that of the Reformers, which sees God literally creating, forming and filling the world in six days.
Genesis 1 & 2 - A Scientist's Perspective
Prof. Stuart Burgess
The first too papers had been a little demanding, what with all that exegesis and historical theology. It was perhaps a bit ironic that the most accessible and engaging paper of the day was given by a scientist. Burgess, Professor of Design and Nature in Bristol University argued from Romans 1:20 that God reveals his attributes in the creation of time, space and matter. We can see his power in creating and forming the world by divine fiat. He made the stars with his fingers. God's wisdom is revealed in the skilful work of creation. In Proverbs 8, wisdom, is like a master craftsman working at God's side as he made the world. God's goodness is shown in giving us a day of rest, in creating a world full of beauty, with food that is good to the taste. Psalm 104 celebrates the abundant goodness of God in creation. Burgess appealed to evidence of design in nature, referring to the clockwork motion of the stars and the way that fruit provides us with perfectly packaged fast food. The first law of thermodynamics tells us that nothing can come of nothing, which raises the question of a supernatural creator.
In addressing the age of the Adam, Stuart appealed to the the biblical genealogies and historical evidence to suggest that man has only been around for 6,000 years or so. It is a remarkable fact that as far as we can tell, human technology and culture only began to develop 6,000 years ago. If evolutionary time scales are accepted, it is unbelievable that human life should have existed for so long before the wheel was invented or agriculture developed. On the age of the earth itself, he argued for six 24 hour creation days, suggesting that starlight was supernaturally sped up on day 4, thus enabling light from far distant stars to reach our planet. With his background in engineering, Stuart could understand why God did not create the sun and moon to throw light upon the earth until day 4. An architect would build a stately home and only then design and install lights to illuminate the building. Interestingly Hebrews 3:4 compares God to a builder.
The "young earth" position requires that by day 6, the earth looked artificially mature, with fully grown trees and an adult Adam. But there is no deception here. It was God's purpose to create a planet capable of sustaining and enhancing human life and that is what we have. Engineers have found a way of artificially ageing car engines so they no longer have to be "run in". There is no element of deception in placing a mature looking engine in a brand new car. Stuart closed his paper with some thoughts on extraterrestial life, the existence of which (apart from angels!), he holds to be incompatible with Scripture. A lively discussion followed this presentation. It became clear that professional scientists are under considerable pressure not to question the hegemony of Darwinian evolution. This was confirmed on Tuesday with the announcement that Michael Reiss was forced to resign from his role in the Royal Society after calling for creationism to be taught in science lessons (see story in The Times).
So ends my report of the three main addresses from day one. Reports to follow on Monday evening's Lloyd-Jones Memorial Lecture by Philip Eveson and the three papers delivered on day two. The conference was held under the auspices of the John Owen Centre. CD's of each address and a nifty MP3 CD containing all the addresses can be ordered here.

Friday, September 12, 2008

John Owen; Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man by Carl R. Trueman

John Owen; Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man by Carl R. Trueman,
The Great Theologians Series, Ashgate, 2007, 132.
There has been a resurgence of interest in the Puritans over the last fifty years or so, encouraged by the ministry of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and fuelled by the reprinting of Puritan works by the Banner of Truth trust and other publishers. At their best, Puritan writers give us great theological wisdom wedded to a concern for practical and experiential godliness. One of my first major investments in Christian literature was the Banner's 16 volume Works of John Owen. I have read large chunks of Owen, but by no means have I finished working my way through the set. Owen's On Communion with God in Volume 2 of the Works showed me more of what it means to have fellowship with the one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit than anything else I have read. If those green and white volumes are simply gathering dust on your shelves, remember that books are not status symbols. They are for reading. Why not start with On Communion with God?
As Trueman notes, however, post-Reformation orthodoxy is often dismissed on account of its supposed "scholasticism". Writers like R. T. Kendall have tried to drive a wedge between John Calvin and the Calvinists who followed in his wake. But scholars such as Richard Muller and Paul Helm have shown that Calvin was happy to build on the best aspects of Medieval scholastic theology. Later Reformed Orthodoxy simply followed in his steps. One of Trueman's aims in this book is to show that theologians like Owen made critical use of sophisticated scholastic methodology in order to respond to the fresh challenges posed to the Reformed faith by the twin threats of Arminianism and Socinianism. He also repeatedly nails the myth that post-Reformation theology adopted a wooden proof-texting approach to Scripture. John Owen was a careful exegete of the biblical text. His exegesis was often characterised contextual sensitivity, a nuanced understanding of the original languages and deep theological insight.
Owen was one of the greatest, if not the greatest Puritan theologian. Indeed Trueman insists that such was the breadth of Owen's theological vision that it is too constricting simply to view him as a Puritan. His concerns transcended the typical Puritan desire to see a remodelled Church of England. For Trueman, "Puritan" is at the same time too fuzzy a category, as it embraces semi-Arians like the poet John Milton. I think this is a little unfair on the Puritan movement. Milton's views on the Trinity were an aberration fas far as mainstream Puritan thinking was concerned. Owen was certainly happy to identify himself with the Puritan cause, especially as a leader of the Independents. His The True Nature of a Gospel Church in Volume 16 of the Works is the classic statement of Congregationalist Church polity. His piety is unmistakably Puritan with a strong emphasis on the ongoing struggle with sin in the life of the believer. But Trueman is right to place the theologian in the broader context of European Reformed Orthodoxy. In a helpful introductory chapter he identifies Owen as a "Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man".
Owen was a true man of the Renaissance. In his studies at Oxford University he was schooled in the rigorous methods of medieval scholasticism. His thorough study of the biblical languages was the product of the ad fontes agenda of the Renaissance was well as the Reformed desire for a direct encounter with the words of Scripture. Owen's library catalogue gives evidence of his broad interests. His theological section boasted works from patristic, medieval, Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed and heretical writers. He also studied both ancient and contemporary philosophy and linguistics. He even had books on magic and warm beer. Owen hardly conforms to the culturally disengaged Puritan stereotype. This is something of a challenge to many Reformed ministers today. Our library shelves may be heaving under the ever growing weight of books published by the Banner of Truth Trust, Evangelical Press and IVP. But are we reading "outside the box", giving attention to the wider theological scene and getting to grips with contemporary cultural trends? I sometimes get the impression we are a little afraid that heresy can be caught by reading the "wrong" books. But if we fail to grapple with what is going on outside the Reformed camp, how can we meaningfully respond to the challenges of today's world? We have a lot to learn from Owen, who put his wide reading to work in the service of Reformed Orthodoxy.
In the remainder of the book, Trueman devotes attention to three important features of Owen's theology, with chapters on "The Knowledge of the Trinitarian God", "Divine Covenants and Catholic Christology" and "The Article on which the Church Stands or Falls" - on justification by faith. Owen made an important contribution to the elaboration and defence of these doctrines from a distinctly Reformed standpoint.
As a Puritan, John Owen was one of history's "loosers." His work has probably not received the attention it deserves in scholarly circles. However, to neglect Owen is to needlessly impoverish our understanding of Reformed Catholic theology. We need his rich trinitarian focus. His discussion of divine sovereignty and contingency is of help to us in formulating a response to Open Theism. Owen's remarkable insight into the relationship between Jesus and the Spirit will repay careful study. Reformed Evangelicalism would do well to reconsider Owen's carefully constructed biblical case for imputed righteousness at a time when some are questioning the validity of that important aspect of justification by faith.
This book is not to be compared with John Owen on the Christian Life by Sinclair B. Ferguson, Banner of Truth Trust, 1987. Ferguson's larger work includes a broader sweep of Owen's theology, and as the title suggests, is more practical in tone. Trueman writes with the slightly different aim of helping us to read Owen with greater historical sensitivity. Some of the theologian's writing have recently been made available in paperback with modernised English and contemporary cover designs. This development is no doubt most welcome, but we need to remember that Owen wrote from a particular historical situation. Thankfully Lessing's "ugly ditch" is in no way so deep and broad as to prevent meaningful engagement with the great theologians of the past. We still have much to learn from Owen today. Carl Trueman was served us well in placing John Owen, the Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man in his proper historical context. Above all, this book enhances our appreciation of Owen's valuable contribution to Reformed theology and so enlarges our vision of the triune God of the Gospel.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Word and Spirit in three Confessions

I recently came across a reference to the well known words of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), Chapter 1:10, which reads,
"The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture."
I especially liked the emphasis here that our supreme judge in all controversies is "the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture" at the end of the paragraph. Compare this with the same section of the Savoy Declaration of Faith (1658),
"The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other, but the holy Scripture delivered by the Spirit; into which Scripture so delivered, our faith is finally resolved."
And finally the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession,
"The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Scripture delivered by the Spirit, into which Scripture so delivered, our faith is finally resolved."
Note that the LBC follows the SDF in making the "holy Scripture delivered by the Spirit" the supreme judge. Attention is drawn to the Spirit's work in the original delivery of Scripture rather than on the "Spirit speaking in the Scripture". I certainly subscribe to the fact that Scripture is given to us by the activity of the Holy Spirit, "All Scripture is God-breathed" (2 Timothy 3:16) . But the Spirit's role is not simply limited to the production of God's written Word. The WCF has captured the dynamic way in which the Holy Spirit continues to speak in and through Scripture. He, as our supreme authority summons us to submit our all thinking to the revelation of God. Through the Bible he calls us to fresh faith and obedience. As Kevin Vanhoozer writes,
"Inspiration means not only that the words (locutions) are God's but that the word-acts (illocutions) are ultimately God's. To say that the Bible is inspired is therefore to acknowledge its divine authorship, the communicative agency of the triune God. When the Spirit speaks in Scripture today he is not speaking another word but ministering the written words. "[The Spirit] will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears" (John 16:13). The Spirit is not active in producing new illocutions but rather in ministering the illocutions that are already in the text, making the efficacious." (The Drama of Doctrine, WJK, 2005. p. 67).
Let us then give careful heed to what the Spirit is speaking in Scripture to us today. "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches." (Revelation 2:7 etc).

Monday, September 08, 2008

Creation the Bible and Science Conference

Next Monday I'll be heading off to London for a two day conference at the John Owen Centre. Here's the programme:
Monday 15th September
Interpreting Genesis 1 & 2 - Dr. John Currid
Genesis 1 & 2 - the History of Interpretation - Dr. Robert Letham
Genesis 1 & 2 - a Scientist’s Perspective - Prof. Stuart Burgess
The Martyn Lloyd-Jones Memorial Lecture: The Gospel and Creation - the significance of a theology of creation for preaching - Rev. Philip Eveson. This lecture will be held in Kensit Evangelical Church and is open to everyone.

Tuesday 16th September
The New Testament and Creation - Dr. Stephen Lloyd
Design Arguments - stepping stones or stumbling blocks? - Prof. Paul Helm
Authority: the Bible and science - Dr. Jason Rampelt

Looks interesting eh? You can find more info here.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Being Born Again by Gary Brady

What the Bible teaches about Being Born Again,
by Gary Brady, Evangelical Press, 2008, 175pp.
Jesus famously said to Nicodemus, “You must be born again.” (John 3:7). But what does it mean to be born again? This is an important question because we will never know the blessings of God’s kingdom unless we are born anew. In this book, my good friend and fellow blogger Gary Brady (of Heavenly Worldliness) sets forth the Bible’s teaching on this vital subject with clarity and care. He defines regeneration biblically and theologically as God’s sovereign and gracious work of bringing a sinner to new life in Christ by the power of the Spirit.
Why is the new birth so necessary? Gary ably demonstrates that we need to be born again because by nature we are dead in trespasses and sins. I'm not sure what he means at one point by, "Our very creatureliness makes new birth necessary." (p. 76). As he shows elsewhere in the book the problem is not that we are creatures, but fallen creatures. God's character demands that the sinner be regenerated if we are to share in the future glory of his people. Regeneration is a monergistic act of God. That is, we make no contribution whatsoever to our new birth. God changes us from within, enlightening the darkened mind, softening the hardened heart and liberating the enslaved will. We cannot therefore decide to be born again. We are not even born again by faith. We believe only because God first implanted spiritual life in our souls. Conversion or repentance and faith is the conscious effect of the hidden work of regeneration.
But there is much confusion these days over what it means to be born again. A helpful chapter is devoted to ‘What is it not?’ It is not reincarnation, or a fresh commitment to God on our part. Regeneration is not a consequence of baptism. More positively, the writer draws on material from both Testaments to set forth the rich mosaic of the Bible’s teaching on the new birth. Detailed attention is rightly paid to John 3, but not at the expense of other key texts. Brady’s handling of Scripture is deft and insightful. But I found myself disagreeing with him at one or two points. Brady equates the new birth with Spirit baptism (p. 72-73). This might be a legitimate understanding of Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:13, where he says that all believers were "baptised by one Spirit into one body", although the accent here is on union with Christ rather than regeneration per se. But is Luke thinking of regeneration when he speaks of Spirit baptism in Luke 3:16, Acts 1:5-8, 2:1-4, 10:44ff, 11:15-18? I think not. By any reckoning, the disciples were regenerate prior to Pentecost, yet they were baptised with the Spirit on that day. It seems to me that Spirit baptism in Luke's usage refers to the filling of the Spirit that is promised to all believers rather than regeneration.
Gary reflects on the causes of new birth. The fundamental cause is God acting by the power of his Spirit rather than the efforts of man. The qualifying cause is the atoning death of Christ. We live because he died for our sins. This is certainly the case, but perhaps a little more attention could have been devoted to the the relationship between Christ's resurrection and our regeneration especially given the fact that 1 Peter 1:3 is quoted at the head of Chapter 7. The instrumental cause of being born again is the Word of God. This is clearly taught in James 1:18 and 1 Peter 1:23. Although regeneration is wholly God's work, he does not ordinarily bring sinners to new life apart from the proclamation of the Gospel. Lydia is a case in point. The Lord opened her heart so that she gave heed to the message spoken by Paul (Acts 16:14).
The theological issue of where regeneration fits in the scheme of salvation or ordo salutis is discussed. It is stressed the new birth is the fruit of God’s sovereign election that leads to a godly life. It is legitimate to reflect on the relationship between the differing links in the "golden chain" of salvation, such as regeneration and justification, regeneration and adoption, and regeneration and sanctification. While this might be helpful in some ways, we need to bear in mind that the unifying factor in all aspects of salvation, regeneration included, is union with Christ. Welcome attention is given to the cosmic and eschatological dimensions of being born again. Brady insists that God’s ultimate purpose is not simply to regenerate individual sinners, but the whole of the universe when Christ returns (Matthew 19:28).

Issues surrounding the new birth such as when it happens and how we can tell if we are born again are faced with pastoral sensitivity and wisdom. The reader is urged to soberly examine his life in the light of Scripture, especially the "tests of life" in 1 John. A concluding chapter issues a final plea to those who are not born again to seek the new birth. I agree that the non-Christian seriously needs to be born again. Regeneration is not a spiritual luxury. As Jesus said, "You must be born again". But it seems to me that the New Testament encourages the unbeliever to repent and believe the Gospel, rather than pray for the new birth. After all we will only know that we are born again when we believe that Jesus is the Christ (1 John 5:1).
Gary is a great communicator. He writes with winsome clarity and illustrates his material well. He is careful to carry his readers with him, offering a brief summary statement at the end of each chapter before tackling a new aspect of the subject. The text is packed with great quotes from theological writers old and new. There are some real gems here like this one from Stephen Charnock, "Repentance is a change of the mind and regeneration is the change of the man." (p. 136). Being persnickety by predilection and scholarly by pretension, I was a little irked that the citations lack footnotes, making the references hard to follow up. But many people find footnotes off-putting, so I suppose scholarly apparatus had to be jettisoned for the sake of accessibility. Fair enough. Such quibbles aside, this is an excellent treatment of what it means to be born again. Highly recommended for evangelistic use and for helping believers gain a better understanding of the new birth.
* An edited version of this review will appear in a forthcoming issue of Protestant Truth.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Aber 08 Report - Evening Meetings

See here for report on Art Azurdia III's main addresses.
The Conference proper, which gathers in the Aberystwyth University Great Hall, begins with Monday evening's meeting. But many people like to arrive on the Saturday, so special services are held on the Lord's Day. The congregation from Alfred Place Baptist Church, where Geoff Thomas is the preacher relocates to the larger Bethel Chapel to accommodate conference-goers. Services are also held at Zion Chapel on the opposite side of the road. Its is great to see hundreds of Christians queuing up to attend these services. We worshipped at Zion where Paul Levy preached on 2 Corinthians 5 in the morning and Robert Thomas spoke on 1 Peter 2:28-25 in the evening.
John Treharne preached on Monday evening. He spoke on David's kindness to Mephibosheth in 2 Samuel 9, using the passage to illustrate God's grace to sin-broken sinners. At some points, the message strayed beyond typology into allegory. But the gospel was presented with winsome clarity. Stuart Olyott gave the first of his two evening messages on Tuesday, preaching on Psalm 14, "God and the Dawkins Generation". He seems to break all the homiletical rules with his lists of points and sub-points. But this was a powerful message, delivered with the preacher's customary clarity of thought and directness. Stuart exposed the emptiness of atheism and unfolded the characteristics of the true believer. He concluded with a rousing call for Christians to "come out of their holes" and to bear witness to the Lord. I liked his uncompromising presuppositional approach to atheism (following Romans 1) that relied on God's self-revelation in Scripture rather than design arguments. Rico Tice is known to many through his involvement with Christianity Explored. We have used the CE course with Rico's DVD presentations. But I had never heard him speak in the flesh until Wednesday evening's meeting. I think that he must be the first Evangelical Anglican to speak at Aber since Jim Packer in the 70's. Rico gave a challenging and lively message on Mark 9:30, emphasing the call to sacrificial Christian service. Wyn Hughes, minister of Heath Evangelical Church, Cardiff preached on Luke 12:13-21. He took a while to get into his stride and his delivery was occasionally a little Lloyd-Jonesian with some choice "No no's!" But the unconverted were plainly warned not to be like the "rich fool" in Jesus' parable. Stuart Olyott concluded wrapped things up with an exposition of John 15:1-8, entitled "A Christian's got to do what a Christian's got to do" - that is abide in Christ that we may bear fruit to the glory of God. The evening meetings have sometimes been a "problem area" in the conference, with some preachers seeming (understandably) overawed by the occasion and others not knowing quite when to stop. But this year, we were blessed with good, punchy, gospel-centred ministry. If you are thinking of ordering CD's or DVD's I'd especially recommend Stuart Olyott's addresses.
This year was my swansong as chief steward. Somewhat embarrassingly, Sarah and I were invited onto the platform during the Friday morning meeting to mark our "retirement", which made us feel a bit ancient. Dave Norbury of EMW kindly thanked us for our efforts. Sarah was presented with a basked of flowers and I received some books. Earlier in the week, someone asked if I was still acting as chief steward. They thought that I didn't seem to be doing much. I don't know whether that was a testimony to my delegatory management style or an indication of my indolence. But if any stewards are reading this, thanks for all your hard work!
CD's and DVD's can be ordered from the EMW office. Dates for Aber 2009: 10-14 August, main speaker Joel Beeke.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Aber 08 Report - Main Addresses by Art Azurdia III


For nigh on twenty years we have made the annual pilgrimage to the Welsh seaside town of Aberystwyth for the Evangelical Movement of Wales' English Conference. This year the main speaker was Art Azurdia III. With his quickfire preaching style, coupled with rapid hand movements, he was bound to make something of an impression. But what endeared him to the congregations that packed the University Great Hall was his evident passion for vibrant, gospel-centred Christian living. His theme for his four conference addresses, delivered each morning from Tuesday to Friday was "A clarion call to a Worldly Christianity". The textual basis for his messages was John 17:17-19 and Hebrews 4:14-16. In the first address, Art asked the question, "Why has God left Christians on earth rather than taking them straight to heaven?" He suggested that believers face two dangers when it comes to relating to the world. We may so disengage from the world that we become "culturally anorexic" or we may gorge ourselves on the pleasures of the world and become "culturally obese". Neither alternative is the biblical. God has sent us to bear witness to him in the world and that means we have to engage with the world without becoming like the world (John 17:18). His catchphrase was "You cannot be authentically Christian without being meaningfully worldly." The preacher told us that he was alarmed to see believers retreating into a cultural ghetto where contact with non-believers is minimised. He revealed that he and his wife had taken their children out of a Christian School and placed them in the State sector in order to make contact with the non-Christian world. Their decision brought with it fresh challenges, but also new opportunities for the family to bear witness to Christ in the community. Art modestly suggested that his American background did not qualify him to speak to the UK situation with any authority, but his emphasis in this first address on meaningfully worldliness hit the nail right on the head. He avoided the temptation to reduce worldliness to a set of arbitrary evangelical taboos. He emphasised that God made the body as well as the soul and that the Christian hope is that of bodily resurrection in the new creation. Worldly Christianity does not mean asceticsm. Believers are free to enjoy the riches of God world, sport, literature, music etc.

In the second address, Art Azurida addressed the matter of sanctification. We can be authentically Christian and meaningfully worldly only because God sanctifies in answer to Jesus' prayer. There is too much talk about mission that is not grounded in the gospel. But we cannot be truly missional without being theological. Sanctification is God's work of setting believers apart for himself via the truth as it is in Jesus. We need this sanctifying work is we are to face up to the problems of false teaching and poor conduct in the the church and the opposition of the world. Emphasis was laid on the importance of the instrument of sanctification - "the truth". In conclusion Art pointed out that we have so many different Bible versions and editions today: KJV, NKJV, NIV, ESV, MacArthur Study Bibles, Reformation Study Bibles, black leather, brown leather etc. But is the Christ-centred Word really having a sanctifying effect upon our lives?

On Thursday morning, the speaker drew attention to the sacrificial work of Christ. The sacrifice of Jesus was voluntary. He "sanctified himself" - set himself apart for the work of the cross (John 17:19). Jesus' life was not taken. He gave himself for us. The sacrifice of Jesus was specific, "for their sakes I sanctify myself (John 17:19 cf. 14, 15, 16, 18). Christ died specifically for the church, his people. In doing so he has redeemed a vast multitude out of every tribe, tongue and nation. The sacrifice of Jesus was purposeful. On the cross, Jesus cried out "It is finished!" (John 19:30). Redemption has been accomplished. In this powerful address, Art placarded the cross in all its effective glory. In closing, he told us that not to engage in mission is to negate the purpose of the cross. The atonement itself a call to meaningfully worldliness.

In his final message the preacher based his sermon on Hebrews 4:14-16. We are utterly dependent on need Jesus, our great high priest as we seek to bear witness to the gospel in the world. Art had four things to say about the text, 1. Jesus has accomplished what all other priests could only prefigure. He has sat down at the right hand of God, having completed the work of redemption. 2. Jesus possesses a stature that qualifies him as the ultimate priest. He is the Son of God who took human nature. That is why he is the uniquely qualified at act as mediator between God and man. 3. Jesus endured the full force of temptation's power. He was "tempted on all points as we are, yet without sin". We all too quickly give in to temptation, but Jesus endured the worst that the devil could throw at him. He had to fight to maintain his sinlessness. Jesus is therefore able to help us in the battle against temptation as we seek to be in the world but not of it. 4. Jesus supports his people with everything necessary to persevere in the world. With him there is mercy and grace to help in time of need. Our great high priest will enable us to be authentically Christian and meaningfully worldly.

All four addresses were delivered with power and punch. The preacher's prayers evidenced his dependence upon the empowering presence Holy Spirit. May this clarion call to a worldly Christianity continue to ring in our ears! CD's and DVD's of these addresses are avaliable from the EMW office.

See here for report of evening meetings.