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.