Monday, January 31, 2011

Augustine on time

Trying to take seriously Paul's injunction to "redeem the time" (Ephesians 5:15-16), it's my practice to leave a book in the car that I can take with me to read when waiting at the doctors/dentists or whenever I have to hang around for a bit. I suppose I could get stuck into a well thumbed issue of Hello Magazine, or read a leaflet on the health benefits of tea or study some information the best way to floss your teeth, but I don't think that reading the standard waiting room fodder would be the best way to redeem time. Anyway, not to further waste your time by rambling on about personal trivia I'll get down to the matter in hand.

But wait a minute, I haven't yet told you what I'm currently using as my "waiting room book". It's The Confessions of Augustine. What better use of otherwise wasted time than to read this classic work of Christian autobiography/theology? Last Thursday I had to take a family member to see the physiotherapist. While they were being pulled around and prodded, I sat in the waiting room with Augustine. I was able to get going on Book XI, where the theologian discusses time.

The remarkable thing with his deliberations as to the nature of time is that Augustine is reflecting on the subject in conversation with God. The Confessions are his confession to God, a spiritual autobiography in the form of a prayer, and his thoughts on time are no exception. He meditations are punctuated by prayer, "O Lord my God, hear my prayer and let thy mercy attend my longing.", "Let me hear and understand how in the beginning thou madest heaven and earth.", "I am seeking the truth, O Father; I am not affirming it. O my God, direct and rule me." Reasoning corum deo, or before the face of God, Augustine was not afraid to confess his ignorance. Indeed, he has great difficulty in understanding what time is,
What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks me, I do not know. Yet I say with confidence that I know that if nothing passed away, there would be no past time; and if nothing were still coming, there would be no future time; and if there were nothing at all, there would be no present time. (Chapter XV:17)
He ponders the question that is till raised today, "What was God doing before the creation of the world?"
How, then, shall I respond to him who asks, “What was God doing before he made heaven and earth?” I do not answer, as a certain one is reported to have done facetiously (shrugging off the force of the question). “He was preparing hell,” he said, “for those who pry too deep.” It is one thing to see the answer; it is another to laugh at the questioner--and for myself I do not answer these things thus. More willingly would I have answered, “I do not know what I do not know,” than cause one who asked a deep question to be ridiculed--and by such tactics gain praise for a worthless answer.
Rather, I say that thou, our God, art the Creator of every creature. And if in the term “heaven and earth” every creature is included, I make bold to say further: “Before God made heaven and earth, he did not make anything at all. For if he did, what did he make unless it were a creature?” I do indeed wish that I knew all that I desire to know to my profit as surely as I know that no creature was made before any creature was made. (Chapter XII:14)
In other words God did not create the world in time in the sense that silent eons went by before he made the world. Rather, the creation of the universe involved the creation of time itself.
Since, therefore, thou art the Creator of all times, if there was any time before thou madest heaven and earth, why is it said that thou wast abstaining from working? For thou madest that very time itself, and periods could not pass by before thou madest the whole temporal procession. But if there was no time before heaven and earth, how, then, can it be asked, “What wast thou doing then?” For there was no “then” when there was no time. (Chapter XIII:15).
Augustine's thought that the creation of matter also involved the creation of time anticipates modern scientific theories. Einstein's theory of relativity links space and time together to form a unified spacetime. Accordingly, time itself began with the 'big bang'. As Paul Davies acknowledges,
Augustine was already there in the fifth century. His considered answer to what God was doing before creating the universe was that 'the world was made with time and not in time'. Augustine's God was a being who transcends time, a being located outside time altogether, and responsible for creating time and space as well as matter. Thus Augustine skilfully avoided the problem of why the creation happened at that moment rather than some other, earlier, moment. There were no earlier moments... If the universe originated 'in time', then it cannot have been caused by any physical process that has finite probability, because if it did the the event would already have happened, an infinite time ago. On the other had, if the universe was made 'with time' then this problem goes away. (The Goldilocks Enigma, Paul Davies, Penguin, p. 80-81)
God is an eternal being. From everlasting to everlasting he is God (Psalm 90:2). Time involves an extension of moments, but God is not subject to the passing of time. He simply is. We should not envisage him waiting for ages before implementing his plan to create the universe. Such a time-based category does not apply to a God whose being and knowledge are infinite and eternal. Herman Bavinck comments,
Consequently-strictly speaking-one cannot speak of foreknowledge in the case of God: with him there are no "distinctions of time". He calls the things that are not as if they were and sees what is not as if it already existed. [Citing Augustine] "For what is foreknowledge if not knowledge of future events? But can anything be future to God who surpasses all times? For if God's knowledge includes the very things themselves, they are not future to him, but present; and for this reason we should no longer speak of God's foreknowledge but simply of God's knowledge." [Citing Gregory the Great] "Whatever is past and future to us is immediately present in his sight." (Reformed Dogmatics Volume Two: God and Creation, Herman Bavinck, Baker Academic, p.196-197).
So, to ask "What was God doing before the creation?" is nonsensical. There was no before before the creation, only God in the infinite fullness of his communicative being as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He is the eternal One and the everlasting Three. He made us and not we ourselves. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1) involved the creation of time as well as space and matter. Our God has placed us in this world of time, Psalm 39:4-5. In Christ God himself entered spacetime when the Son of God became man to redeem us from sin and death (Galatians 4:4-5). He calls us to redeem the time, to use every precious moment of our lives for the glory of his eternal name.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Blogging in the name of the Lord: Mostyn Roberts



GD: Hello Mostyn Roberts and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.

MR: Born 1956 of Welsh parents (my father a Presbyterian minister) in Ealing, London. One younger sister. Moved back to Wales when aged three. School at Newtown, mid Wales. Read law at Pembroke College, Cambridge where I came to know the Lord. Practised law in Croydon, Kent and Northamptonshire. Came to Calvinist convictions largely through the influence of the work of Francis Schaeffer, reading the Institutes when I was 25 and friends who gave me Puritan paperbacks and Lloyd Jones books. Trained for the ministry 1988-93. Pastored churches in Stockton on Tees and Welwyn where I have been since late 1998. Married Hilary in 2002 and have two boys.

GD: Your blog is called “Harp from the Willows”. What made you start blogging?

MR: In a conversation about something with Hilary in December 2009 the subject came up and she said ’You ought to start a blog’. Not accustomed to obeying my wife so readily, surprisingly I did just that. Her faith in some of what I have to say is touching, but her assessment of my technical skills is more realistic: she bought me Blogging for Dummies that Christmas.

GD: Why, “Harp from the Willows”, what’s that about?

MR: ‘Welwyn’ is an olde English word for ‘willows’. I am Welsh, whose national instrument is the harp. I live in Welwyn. Hence…

Biblically, of course, to take your harp from the willows is a metaphor for a renewed faith in God, reversing the ‘hanging up our harps’ of Psalm 137:2.

GD: What are the strengths and weaknesses of blogging as a medium for theological reflection?

MR: 1. Strengths: (i) The freedom to say what you want (within reason) whenever you want to, to whoever may be listening / reading. (ii) A channel for ‘offcut’ thoughts that may otherwise not see the light of day. (iii) The sheer scope of the audience. Mine is probably minute compared with yours, Gary Brady’s or those I once heard called uberbloggers. I am very much an unterblogger and probably have as many visitors in a year as you would in a week. But it is still exciting (if puzzling) to think that I have a committed readership in Latvia. And why, one week last autumn, did I get 19 visits in a few days from Chile? Did the miners look in? The value (which I admit I have sometimes doubted) was brought home to me once last summer. I had done a short piece on the obedience of Christ. A Catholic called ‘Nick’ commented, basically disagreeing with my stance and attacking too the whole doctrine of penal substitution. He referred me to a 12 page article on his blog. I wrote twenty points in disagreement. He replied in twenty points. I replied. He hasn’t come back to me. But it made me think hard. That interaction alone (almost) made last year’s blogging worthwhile.

2. Weaknesses: (i) superficiality of thought (though this is not necessary) and (ii) cyberstorms flare up and subside without satisfactory resolution. But is that not true of most academic debate?

GD: Why did you become a pastor?

MR: As a solicitor I felt that law was not to be my life. My heart was in the study of the Bible and theology, in teaching the Bible, investing in people’s spiritual lives and building the church. For seven years I went though a process of weighing this up, in conversation with trusted counsellors. In the end the way seemed clear, and opened up. I have never seriously doubted that it was right even when I have felt utterly despondent.

GD: Where did you train for the pastoral ministry and what did you find most helpful about your training?

MR: At Spurgeon’s College, south London. I was in a Baptist Union church and this was the most evangelical of the Baptist colleges. The most useful things were the study in Greek of the New Testament; the Old Testament course with Martin Selman; and the experience, as one committed to Reformed theology, of being in a theological minority.

GD: What is the best piece of advice that anyone had given you on preaching?

MR: I am not sure if it was ever given to me as specific advice but a conviction that directs me is ‘Trust the Word’. Given that the work of the Holy Spirit is essential to its efficacy, nonetheless an implicit confidence in the power of the Word seems to me to be foundational to preaching. It delivers one from the itch to be ‘original’ and ‘entertaining’ and all manner of other human distractions, without denying the need for careful preparation and presentation.

GD: Do you ever feel like giving up on pastoral ministry, if so what makes you carry on?

MR: I have often felt pastoral ministry to be extremely painful, not least when I was voted out of a large Baptist Union church in the North East. But I have rarely thought for very long, if at all, that I wanted to be out of the ministry. I really could not envisage wanting to do anything else. What has carried me through difficult times more than anything else has been the conviction of God’s sovereignty. I derive enormous strength and joy from knowing the Lamb is on the throne; ‘… the clouds you so much dread are big with mercy…’.

GD: You teach systematic theology at the London Theological Seminary. What is the relationship between systematics and preaching?

MR: First, preaching is the logical conclusion to systematics (ST). B.B. Warfield says: 'The systematic theologian is pre-eminently a preacher of the gospel and the end of his work is obviously not merely the logical arrangement of the truths which come under his hand, but the moving of men, through their power, to love God with all their hearts and their neighbour as themselves...' For this, he needs to 'be having a full, rich, deep religious experience of the great doctrines with which he deals; he needs to be living close to God'. This sums up my conviction.

Second, ST is necessary for preaching. Don Carson describes biblical theology as a ‘bridging’ discipline, ST as a ‘culminating’ discipline. The gospel itself is a system. Look at Paul’s letter to the Romans. ST is rather denigrated today from various directions: (i) Much is said about ‘narrative’ theology and preaching. Narrative is important, and the gospel is rooted in historical facts. The object of saving faith, however, is not historical facts in themselves, but the divine meaning and saving import of those facts (not just ‘Christ died’ but ‘Christ died for our sins’). Otherwise we are telling a story without a moral, a ‘joke’ without a punchline (if I may be allowed an inappropriate metaphor). ST gives the ‘point’ of the narrative. (ii) There is suspicion of metanarrative. Yet any worldview, even the postmodern sceptical one, has some form of metanarrative. ST insists that the Bible is a unity, and reflects the mind and purposes of God for his creation. This may be unfashionable but it is reasonable, and essential to understanding and preaching Scripture. (iii) There is also a false antithesis between ‘doctrine’ and ‘story’ or ‘life’. ST consists of a lot of propositions and propositions are suspect today. Warfield however quotes HCG Moule to good effect: '[All saving truth a believer enjoys is doctrine]; it is made to live in the heart by the Holy Ghost given to him. But it is itself creed, not life. It is revealed information'. That Christ condescends to faith by way of propositions is a wonder of grace, but it is true. Let us seek more of the Holy Spirit to make truth live, not relinquish the importance of propositional truth.

GD: I’m thinking about training for the pastoral-preaching ministry. Why should I choose LTS?

MR: I am delighted to hear of your intention Guy; we look forward to seeing you. [Very funny. Not sure they'd let me in again. GD]. LTS is not the place to come if you want a theology degree (which, let’s face it, is not difficult to come by these days), or want to study theology as an intellectual exercise or even just to make yourself more useful as a Christian worker, though that is a worthy goal. For the man convinced that the Lord is calling to him to some form of ministry of the word, however, LTS offers excellent, vocationally appropriate training. The academic level is high, higher I would say than I received at Spurgeon’s for which I was awarded a degree; but more specifically it is taught by men in, or with long experience of, pastoral ministry. It is theology tailored to practice, which is true theology.

GD: If you had to recommend only one work of systematic theology what would it be?

MR: I would still recommend Berkhof if you want only one. It is comprehensive and is above all else easy to use. He is succinct and you can find what you want quickly, whereas in more modern systematics, even when they have benefits over Berkhof in other ways (which many do), you can wade through pages to find your subject.

GD: Some great systematic theologians never wrote a complete systematic theology (e.g. B. B. Warfield, John Murray). Is there an aching space on your library shelves that you wish could be filled by “Systematic Theology by....”?

MR: I have often thought that Sinclair Ferguson would have benefited us greatly with a systematic theology. After all, he does great stuff for children.

GD: Maybe he'll do a Systematic Theology for kids? What do you make of Kevin Vanhoozer’s proposals on reconfiguring theology in terms of theodramatics?

MR: You have asked me this before and I have made little progress in the opinions I expressed in March! (1) I do not see the need for his ‘reconfiguration’, which seems to proceed on the unverified assumption that doctrine as we traditionally know it is ipso facto abstract and dry and not relevant to people. When I read our great creeds and confessions and the history out of which they came and what they have meant to generations of Christians, often in great afflictions, I cannot swallow that. (2) It all seems terribly complex and no improvement at all in terms of accessibility for people. Am I really helped by seeing God as a script-writer, a theologian as a dramaturge (which I have never heard of in any capacity before anyway) or the Holy Spirit as ‘Director’? Is it not bordering on the irreverent, except as a passing metaphor? (3) Try as one may, to see the redemptive work of God as ‘drama’ would I fear suffer the same fate as such theological words as ‘myth’. Theologians may try to persuade people it does not mean ‘fiction’ but people will think differently.

So – not convinced, not impressed. Some day I may read him!

GD: That might help. I understand that Vanhoozer is currently on a book aimed specifically at pastors along the lines of "Faith speaking understanding: doing church in the theater of the world". Now, if time travel were possible, which figure from post-biblical church history would you most like to meet and what would you say to him/her?

MR: Oliver Cromwell. I would ask him –‘Do you think it possible that you might have been mistaken?’ (I don’t think he was on the big issues, but I would still love to ask him!)

GD: Name your top three songs or pieces of music.

MR: Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto; Gounod’s ‘Judex’ from ‘Mors et Vita’; most things by Paul Simon.

GD: What is the most helpful work of theology that you have read in the last twelve months? It is a must read because...

MR: Though I greatly enjoyed and would heartily recommend the Christian Focus edition of The Marrow of Modern Divinity, I think it is pipped to this post by Hugh Martin’s The Atonement. Elegantly written, this work exalts the atoning work of Christ primarily by putting it firmly in the context of his priesthood, and so demonstrates like no other comparable work the inseparability and mutual dependence of his atoning work and his heavenly intercession. Essential reading for any minister and theologian, heart warming and elevating.

GD: What is the biggest problem facing Evangelicalism today and how should we respond?

MR: “Dear Sir, I am, yours faithfully…”

But if you want a longer answer:

In general? The biggest problem of the people of God is always within themselves, not from outside. Idolatry, immorality and injustice begin within. So I would have to say generally that lack of faith in some form will always be our greatest problem. How is that remedied? Faith comes by hearing. We need more Spirit-accompanied preaching and humbler listening to God’s word.

More specifically: I would like us to have a discussion about this statement of Calvin near the beginning of The Necessity of Reforming the Church: ‘If it be inquired, then, by what things chiefly the Christian religion has a standing existence amongst us, and maintains its truth, it will be found that the following two not only occupy the principal place, but comprehend under them all other parts, and consequently the whole substance of Christianity, viz., a knowledge, first of the mode in which God is truly worshipped; and secondly of the source from which salvation is to be obtained’. I think it would do us good to ponder the importance of our public worship in light of the tendency today to say ‘ as long as our doctrine is OK’ all else is (almost) a matter of indifference.

GD: Which other blogs do you enjoy reading and why?

MR: Yours (no flattery intended) for stimulation; Gary Brady for the range of information, even when (I am sure he will not mind my saying) it’s useless; Paul Helm when I am feeling energetic; Al Mohler for good Reformed journalism; Iain D Campbell for edification; I keep meaning to visit Colin Adams’ blog; Jeremy Walker and Martin Downes can be very helpful.

GD: Well, thanks for dropping by for this chat, Mostyn. See you at the Affinity Theological Studies Conference next week. Reading the papers, looks like it's going to be a good un.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

John Owen on the authority of the pope


Yesterday I gave a paper on Puritan Attitudes Towards Rome Reloaded to the Bradford on Avon Ministers' Fraternal. Here's an excerpt:

One of Cane’s main arguments in the Fiat Lux was that before England departed from Rome during the reign of Henry VIII, the nation was at peace with itself. Since relinquishing the authority of the pope, however, the country had been beset by terrible divisions between the various Protestant sects. There was nothing for it but to return to Rome, only then all would be well again, ‘we have no remedy for our evils, no means of ending our differences, but by a return unto the rule of the Roman see.’

The legitimacy of the pope’s authority was one of the key points at issue between John Owen and his Roman opponent, John Vincent Cane. He deployed five main lines of argument against the Roman Catholic claim that the pope has universal authority over the Church.

1. Exegetical

The key biblical text that Rome cites to prove its claims concerning the pope is Matthew 16:18 & 19. They reason that as the pope is Peter’s successor as Bishop of Rome, that the keys of the kingdom of heaven now belong to him. Owen however disputes this, devoting virtually a whole chapter of A Vindication to demonstrating that there is not a shred of evidence in the New Testament that the apostle Peter was ever the Bishop of Rome. He applies the words of Jesus, “Upon this rock I will build my church” not to the pope, but to the whole Catholic Church, which is comprised of individual believers who confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

2. Historical

If the Bishop of Rome was indeed granted universal authority over the Church, then we might expect to find evidence of this in early church history. Cane tries to argue that this is the case, claiming that it was the pope who summoned the council of Nicaea in order to defend the deity of Christ. Owen won’t let him get away with that one. With his expert knowledge of the creedal heritage of the church, he easily sets the record straight. The Bishop of Rome did not preside at Nicaea. Neither was he given a place of special prominence at the Council of Chalcedon. Indeed, in some of the first six ecumenical councils, much to his chagrin, the power of the Bishop of Rome was expressly limited. So much for the ‘universally acknowledged’ authority of the papacy!

3. Christological

Cane argued that since his ascension Christ can no longer be the visible head of the church. According to the Franciscan, Christ was only the head of the church in his human nature. The church apparently needs a visible, human head and that role is now fulfilled by the pope. However, as Owen points out, in suggesting this, Cane was departing from the Catholic faith by driving a wedge between the divine person of the Son and his humanity.

As we have just seen, Cane wanted his readers to believe that the pope was the great champion of Christological orthodoxy at Nicaea and Chalcedon. But now he makes him the living embodiment of the Nestorian heresy condemned at the latter Council. Owen insists that Jesus Christ is the ‘supreme and only head of the church catholic’. He exercises his rule over the church through his appointed bishops or elders. But no bishop, not even the Bishop of Rome may claim to be the head of the church In replacing Christ with the Bishop of Rome as head of the visible church, Rome was as good as admitting that the pope was the Antichrist.

4. National

Owen’s opponent endeavoured to win the people of these islands back to the Roman Catholic fold by saying that the pope, ‘is a good man, one that seeks nothing but our good, that never did us harm, but has the care and inspection of us committed unto him by Christ.’ Owen begs to differ, urging that a return to Rome would be nothing less than disastrous for the people of England,

let him tell us how he will assure us that if this good pope get us into his power again, he will not burn us, as he did our forefathers, unless we submit our consciences to him in all things; that he will not find out ways to draw the treasure out of the nation, nor absolve subjects from their allegiance, nor excommunicate or attempt the deposition of our kings, or the giving away of kingdoms, as he had done in former days.
In The Church of Rome No Safe Guide, the divine likewise warned his fellow countrymen to beware of the ‘insupportable yoke’ of the pope, with his claim to a divine right of universal rule over kings and sovereign princes. For Owen, the pope was the enemy of the peace, liberty and prosperity of the nation.

5. Prophetic

Writing in 1682, near the end of his days, Owen bemoaned the fact that many were endeavouring to minimise the differences between Papists and Protestants. The older view that the pope was the Antichrist was falling out of favour. However, listing the ‘idolatries, persecutions, murders and Luciferian pride’ of the pope and his church, Owen continued to identify the Bishop of Rome as the Antichrist prophesied in the Scriptures. There could be no alliance the man of sin.

On this point, we might do well to reflect on the words of Richard Baxter, "That if the pope be not [the Antichrist], he had ill luck to be so like him."

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Christ in the heart

Love
in all your
string-theoried
dimensions,
Come
take your place
in my heart.
Make it new.

Wisdom
in all your
treasure-rich
understanding,
Come
take your place
in my mind.
Make it true.

Christ
in whom dwells
love and wisdom
infinitely,
Come
take your place
in my soul.
Make me whole.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Some thoughts on the right of private interpretation of Scripture


The right of every Christian believer to read and interpret the Bible is one of the distinguishing features of Reformed Protestantism. Famously, when Martin Luther was charged with heresy at the Diet of Worms this was his defence,
Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.
This attitude gave birth to what Alister McGrath calls "Christianity's dangerous idea"  - the right of private interpretation of Scripture (see here). Armed with this "right" Protestants subjected Roman Catholic traditions to the scrutiny of Scripture and attempted to reform the Church in line with the teaching of the Bible. The right of private interpretation is closely allied with two other defining characteristics of Protestantism; the priesthood of all believers and the clarity of Scripture. All true Christians may read and understand Holy Scripture because each believer has a personal knowledge of God, Jeremiah 31:34, John 6:45, 1 John 2:20. This saving knowledge of God in Christ is disclosed in the Scriptures, 2 Timothy 3:15. The basic message of the Bible clear so that every believer may read God's written Word with understanding. These principles gave impetus to the Protestant drive to give the Bible back to the people of God by translating Holy Scripture into the vernacular.

However, the Protestant "right of private interpretation" was never meant to be taken as mandating what is today called a "reader response" approach to Bible reading, where what matters most is not so much the contextual meaning of the biblical text as what the reader makes of the text for himself. Protestants were not proto-postmodernists. Standing above the right of private interpretation is the church's responsibility to listen attentively to what the Holy Spirit is saying in the Scriptures. That is why the Reformers, most notably John Calvin went to such lengths to help Protestants to read their Bibles with accuracy and care. Hence Calvin's devotion to expository preaching, his publication of voluminous Bible commentaries and his writing of the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Note what he says in the preface to the Institutes,
For if I mistake not, I have given a summary of religion in all its parts, and have digested it into such an order as may make it not difficult for any one, who is rightly acquainted with it, to ascertain both what he ought principally to look for in Scripture, and also to what head he ought to refer whatever is contained in it. Having thus, as it were, paved the way, I shall not feel it necessary, in any Commentaries on Scripture which I may afterwards publish, to enter into long discussions of doctrines or dilate on common places, and will, therefore, always compress them. In this way the pious reader will be saved much trouble and weariness, provided he comes furnished with a knowledge of the present work as an essential prerequisite.
Calvin's approach to biblical interpretation also inspired the Geneva Bible, where marginal notes helped the reader to understand the plain meaning of the text of Scripture. The ESV Study Bible attempts to do the same for contemporary believers.

The right of every Christian to read and interpret the Bible is not to be exercised in isolation from the church. The priesthood of all believers and the clarity of Scripture must not be taken to mean that the believer has no need of teaching on the meaning of the Bible and how its teaching applies. That is why the Lord calls some men to the pastoral-preaching ministry, Ephesians 4:11-12. The "right of private interpretation" does not amount to the attitude of some in the Plymouth Brethren, summed up in the (hopefully) apocryphal saying, "We all knows nothing and we all teaches each other." Well instructed Christians will be able to read their Bibles with greater understanding. Part of the purpose of preaching is to give the people of God "canon sense", that is a grasp of the Bible's redemptive-historical plot line and a good grounding in biblical doctrine.

Now, for all their emphasis on the clarity of Scripture, the Reformers and their successors did not mean to say that the whole of Scripture is equally clear and plain. Take this representative statement,
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (Westminster Confession of Faith I:VII).
Note that "those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation" are so clearly revealed that the learned and unlearned may attain a sufficient understanding of them. Those words distinguish Protestantism from the Roman Catholic Church, where it is held that the faithful can only understand the Bible's essential message with the help of the Magisterium, Rome's officially sanctioned interpretation of Scripture.  However, the Westminster divines were not trying to suggest that the church has no need of biblical scholarship that endeavours to interpret those parts of Scripture where the meaning is less plain and clear. For example, a new Christian reading Daniel 11 for the first time may not be able to make head nor tale of the details of the passage, but with the aid of a good commentary (e.g. E. J. Young - Banner of Truth, or Stuart Olyott - Evangelical Press), he will hopefully have some idea as to who the kings of the north and south were and that the nasty Antiochus Epiphanes is being described in Daniel 11:21-35.

As if anticipating postmodern hermeneutics, the WCF stated that by the use of ordinary means the the unlearned as well as the learned may attain a sufficient understanding of Scripture. We cannot rid ourselves of our situatedness when we read the Bible. We all bring a certain amount of baggage to the text. But that does not mean that biblical interpretation is doomed to reader response subjectivity.  No interpretation of Scripture will ever exhaust the meaning of the text. But it is possible for the believer to achieve a grasp of the Bible's teaching that is sufficient to equip him to live the Christian life for the glory of God, 2 Timothy 3:16-17.

Like the Bereans commended by Luke in Acts 17:10-11, each believer has the right to scrutinise the teaching of the church in the light of Scripture. But this is not a licence for theological anarchy, where anything goes. If the authority of Scripture was the formal principle of the Reformation, then the gospel of grace was the material principle. Readings of Scripture that compromise the gospel are to be rejected. This involves false notions concerning God as Trinity and the Person of Christ and also erroneous views that distort or deny the biblical teaching on salvation by grace alone.  The Reformers drew up confessions of faith in part to exclude wrong-headed interpretations of the Bible. Also, when it came confessions of faith, the early Protestants had no desire to ignore the creeds of the early church, which they accepted as accurate expressions of biblical teaching. The Reformers were Reformed Catholics, holding to the historic faith of the Church that had been corrupted by the Romanism of their day. In other words, a robust commitment to sola Scriptura, which the "right of private interpretation" entails does not amount to a solo Scriptura approach that neglects the theological heritage of the Church.

The right of every believer to read and interpret the Bible brings with it the demand that Protestants be a "people of the Book". The "right" is to be exercised  by believers reading their Bibles thoughtfully and prayerfully with the help of the Holy Spirit in order to put its teaching into practice. Holy Scripture was given to enable the people of God to faithfully perform their roles in the drama of redemption in accordance with the biblical script.  According to John Webster, "Faithful reading of Holy Scripture in the economy of grace is an episode in the history of sin and its overcoming." (Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, Cambridge University Press, p. 87). Or if you prefer the words of the psalmist, "Your word have I hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against you." (Psalm 119:11 cf. Joshua 1:8-9). If we loudly protest the "right of private interpretation" and yet fail to order our lives by Holy Scripture, then we protest in vain.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Affinity Theological Studies Conferene


Last I heard there are still places available for the Affinity Theological Studies Conference (2-4 February).

"The Truth Will Set You Free: The Doctrine and Function of Scripture in the 21st Century."

I've not been to this one before, but I've booked to go this year. Papers are circulated to attendees beforehand for study in preparation for discussion sessions. At the conference speakers introduce their papers,  highlighting the main issues. After each presentation there are small group discussions. This is the low down:

Is the Princeton View of Scripture an Enlightenment Innovation?
Carl R. Trueman
Professor of Historical Theology Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia

Lost in the Old Testament? Literary Genres and Evangelical Hermeneutics
Peter Naylor
Minister, Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Cardiff

Right doctrine, wrong texts. Can we follow the apostles’ doctrine but not their hermeneutic?
Greg Beale
Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia

Every heretic has his text: the use and abuse of the Bible in the church
Stephen Clark
Minister, Free School Court Evangelical Church, Bridgend

The Sufficiency of Scripture for Public Theology
Daniel Strange
Lecturer in Culture, Religion and Public Theology at Oak Hill College, London

Preaching the Word in the Power of the Spirit: biblical, historical and practical reflections
Hywel R. Jones
Professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Seminary California

Friday, January 14, 2011

David Sky: a short story


The Exiled Preacher's pet monkey, David Sky had found romance in the isles of the local Co-Op store. He lost his heart to Bathsheba Earth, a beautiful (at least to him) girl monkey. It seemed too good to be true, but thankfully, life is sometimes like that.

David was on the run from Taffia Don, Dai Corleone. But his thoughts were now so full of love and happiness that the obsessive terror that had once dominated his life, the fear of being caught by the Don's  henchmen had all but evaporated. He began to get careless. Sky stopped glancing behind him to see if he was being followed. He would boldly stride around street corners where once he had paused to see if anyone might be lurking in darkened shop doorways, waiting to nab him and drag him back to Corleone's lair.

But something happened to reawaken his old neuroses. He had arranged to meet Bathsheba at the Co-Op's fruit aisle, near the bananas one Wednesday afternoon at 4.30pm sharp. Eager to see his true love, he left home a little earlier than was necessary. But there was Bathsheba, waiting for him. As he got closer, David could see that she was speaking to someone on her mobile. She was so absorbed in the conversation that she didn't notice David approaching. On hearing his cheery voice greeting her, Bathsheba suddenly broke off the call, trying her best not to seem flustered. When he asked who she was speaking to, the girl monkey sounded evasive. She even seemed a little cross at his intrusiveness, an emotion he had not seen in her before.

David Sky wondered what it all could mean. Was she two-timing him perhaps? Or worse, could it really be that their assignations were part of an elaborate honey trap devised by Dai Corlene to ensnare him? These thoughts troubled the poor monkey's mind. He needed no Iago to stoke the towering flames of jealousy. But his jealous rage was as nothing when compared with the rampant paranoia that now engulfed his soul. Every customer he laid eyes on in the Co-Op, however innocent looking, was viewed a suspected Taffia Goodfella, ready and waiting to pounce.

Heartbroken and  terrified, David Sky turned from Bathsheba Earth and hurriedly made his way home. Perfect fear had cast out love. The monkey was last seen leaving the brightly lit shop and heading out into the gathering gloom of a damp winter's afternoon. Whether he will make it to the sanctuary of the Exiled Preacher's study has yet to be seen. There seems little hope of a happy ending to this story. But hope, no matter how slender and fragile, is better than the empty despair of having no hope at all.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The lust for instant relevance

Does a book, or a sermon always have to be instantly relevant to the needs of the reader/hearer? Listening to some people you would think that the answer is a no-brainer, "Of course, stupid!" When it comes to preachers, some seem only or mainly read books that will be of direct and obvious relevance to their ministry such as Bible commentaries, works on How to... preach, counsel the afflicted etc, or historical/biographical material from which we can pinch sermon illustrations. I think I can hear the booming voice of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones denouncing ministerial professionalism, "Should preachers only read "how to" books, my friend? No! No! That is sheer professionalism and harlotry. What an abomination!" He urged preachers to “Keep on reading [theology]; and read the big works.”

This is something that has been bothering me for a little while, but two things have concentrated my mind on the matter. One is Mostyn Roberts excellent post on Westminster Conference - what's the point? and also some comments on my review series on Kevin Vanhoozer's Remythologizing Theology. In both cases the issue is one of instant relevance. The idea that pastors should attend a conference devoted to historical studies or read a work of theology simply to sharpen one's thinking and and deepen one's understanding of the truth doesn't seem to compute with some people, which I think is a crying shame.

Pastors should endeavour to become pastor-theologians simply because God wants his servants to know him better and love him with all of their minds. In addition, reading widely and thoughtfully in the fields of theology, biblical studies and general stuff will have the effect of giving a preacher's ministry added depth and breadth. A work of theology that may not seem to have immediate relevance for one's ministry may help to throw light on an aspect of truth with which the preacher is wrestling in sermon preparation. When poring over a biblical text something you read a while ago may come to mind as you find yourself thinking, "I remember that Augustine/Calvin/Jonathan Edwards/Bavinck or even Vanhoozer had something to say about this." Of course, truths expressed in the language of academic theology will have to be translated into the plain speech of the pulpit, but the message preached to the Lord's people will have been enriched by your theological reading.

People today like to be spoon fed, hence the lust for instant relevance. "Yeah, but what does all that have to do with me, now, this very minute?" But, come to think of it, not even the Bible can always be read with a view to immediate usefulness. Why bother with those chapters in Exodus that describe the construction of the tabernacle or the chapters in 1 Kings about the building of Solomon's temple, or Ezekiel's vision of the temple? What's the use? All that stuff is so Old Testament. We don't have tents and temples now. But hang on a minute. You can't properly appreciate what John says, "Word became flesh and tabernacled among us" (John 1:14) or what Jesus says about the temple in John 2:19-22 without some knowledge of the Old Testament background. The same goes for Paul's teaching  in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, 2 Corinthians 6:16-18 and Ephesians 2:18-22, Peter's in 1 Peter 2:4-10 and John's in Revelation 21:1-4, 22-27. The Exodus/Kings/Ezekiel material needs to be read in the light of the New Testament's teaching on Jesus as the new temple and that founded upon him the church is the dwelling place of God in the Spirit. In other words, we need some grasp of the redemptive-historical flow of biblical revelation in order to understand what Ezekiel has to say to the New Testament believer. The Bible doesn't offer instant relevance that requires little thought as to the meaning of the ancient text of Scripture and how it applies to us today. But reading the Bible prayerfully and meditatively is indispensable for equipping believers to faithfully play their roles in great drama of redemption.

Similarly, preaching that seeks to explains and apply biblical truth may not always have immediate and direct relevance for each and every member of the congregation. For example, if the text under consideration is Colossians 3:18-21, then not all will be married or have children or be children. Some may one day get married and start a family, so the teaching may be of benefit to them in the future. But others may never marry, or be widowed and childless. However, all the people of God need to hear what the whole word of God has to say. Those not directly addressed by the text in question should not complain, "There was no point in me listening to that sermon. What did it have to do with me?" The widowed/lifelong single may be called upon to counsel and advise a young married couple who are having relationship difficulties, or draw their attention to the biblical teaching on bringing up children. In other words, the sermon will have helped the widowed/lifelong single Christian to minister to others. That's what it has to do with them.

The lust for instant relevance is a form of me-centred spriritual short-termism from which we should repent. Oh and if the cap fits...

Monday, January 10, 2011

Remythologizing Theology by Kevin Vanhoozer (Review Part 6)

 Concluding thoughts

Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion and Authorship
ISBN 9780521470124 (hardback), price £75, $130.99.
by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Cambridge University Press, 2010, 539pp
(Review series Part 6)

In this post I offer some concluding thoughts on Kevin Vanhoozer's  Remythologizing Theology

Far a start, it is interesting to see Vanhoozer's proposals on theological method as set out in The Drama of Doctrine, (WJK, 2005), put to work in  the present volume. This is a work of "first theology" i.e. the doctrine of God. By "remythologizing theology", the author seeks to configure the doctrine in terms of the communicative action of the triune God. His being is in his communicative act. It is as Author of the world rather than First Cause that God relates to his creation, especially his human image bearers. This seen above all in the mythos or dramatic plot of the drama of redemption, where we see the truine God acting to communicate salvation to lost human beings.

Vanhoozer wishes to distinguish his vision of God from classical "perfect being" theology that, at least according to him, is not sufficiently  attuned to the biblical theodrama. More seriously, he also criticizes modern "kenotic-perichoretic" theology for failing to take seriously what the Bible says concerning the Creator/creature distinction in its attempt at giving a more personalist and reciprocal account of God's relationship to the world. The God of remythologized theology is the sovereign-transcendent Creator and Redeemer, the one God who has revealed himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Only this communicating God can save us.

Vanhoozer offers an Augustinian or Calvinistic depiction of salvation, with a strong accent on the sovereign and effective grace of God. But he rightly  emphasises that God does not ride roughshod over the human personality when he saves us from sin. The Father draws people to himself by the Spirit's effective ministry of the Word of Christ, by which the sinner is set free to respond to the gospel in repentance and faith.

Vanhoozer's stated aim in The Drama of Doctrine  was to "make the pastoral lamb lie down with the theological lion" (p. xii). He emphasised that the purpose of doctrine is to enable the people of God to faithfully play their roles in the drama of redemption. However, Vanhoozer's sometimes wordy style is calculated to make many a "pastoral lamb" run a country mile. Calling your book Remythologizing Theology and using terms like "kenotic-perichoretic panentheism" is hardly calculated to appeal to many pastors, whose main concerns are to getting two sermons prepared for Sunday and finding enough time to visit the all the elderly and afflicted members of one's congregation. I know of a fellow-pastor who is no slouch when it comes to keeping up with his theological reading who has yet to finish anything that Vanhoozer has written. I wonder how many working ministers will actually pick up and read this book, which seems to have been written more theological students and professional theologians in mind? That is a shame because there are a lot things about this present work that will prove to be of great help to ministers. The section on The triune God and the people of God: a fellowship of suffering? in chapter 9 is excellent in demonstrating that you don't have to go down the road of open theism to have a pastorally sensitive theology of suffering. Indeed, Vanhoozer shows that open theism, with its talk of divine suffering offers cold comfort to a world broken by sin. What we need is not so much sympathy as salvation.

It is said that even Homer nods, meaning that the great epic poet sometimes made mistakes. The same goes for Vanhoozer the theodramatist. On page 417 he makes a Nestorian slip in describing Jesus as a "human person", only to return the Chalcedonian fold on page 425, making it clear that Jesus' personhood is "a function of the inter-Trinitarian relations". He quite correctly goes on to say that Christ's temporal experiences are not to be attributed to "an abstract human nature, nor to the divine nature, but rather to the divine person (viz. the Son) in his human mode of existence." He calls this the "third, remythologizing, way for which I am groping", as if something new were being proposed, but what he is saying here is in effect classic Chalcedonian Christology. Also, Vanhoozer seems to contradict himself when on page 433 he writes, "The reason why Jesus cannot be tempted (or God changed) is because Jesus is the truth". In the previous pages, the theologian rightly defended the impeccability of Christ, arguing that as a divine person with a human nature, our Lord could not sin. However, as Vanhoozer pointed out, this does not mean that Jesus could not be tempted (see Hebrews 2:18, 4:15), "The temptation was no sham, for it was precisely because Jesus resisted temptation that he could 'feel' its full force." (p. 432). I assume that the statement quoted on page 432 represents the theologian's view on this matter and that what he said on the next page was a mistake. At least, I find it difficult, if not impossible to reconcile the two statements.

Vanhoozer's basic standpoint is that of historic Reformed theology, but with special attention to the divine communicative action. In a way that is typical of the theologian's work, he has attempted to re-orientate theology towards the theodrama of biblical revelation. As such, Remythologizing Theology makes a fresh, compelling and valuable contribution to the doctrine of God. The critical interaction with open panentheism  is welcome at a time when some Evangelicals (especially "post-Evangelicals" and Emergent types) seem to find such a view of God attractive. The book deserves to be read not only by theological students and theologians, but also by pastors who aspire to being pastor-theologians in order to be of better service to the people of God. But I suspect that given the price tag, many will have to wait until the work is published in paperback.

*Thanks to Cambridge University Press for the complimentary review copy of this book.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Remythologizing Theology by Kevin Vanhoozer (Review Part 5)

Impassible passion?

Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion and Authorship
by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Cambridge University Press, 2010, 539pp
(Review series Part 5)

It's been a while since the last part of this review series, so it is about time that I got going again on this one. In this penultimate post on Vanhoozer's book we'll be looking at his proposals on the impassibility of God.

That God is vulnerable to suffering is axiomatic for what Vanhoozer calls "kenotic-perichoretic relational theology" (see Part 2). According to Jurgen Moltmann,
[God] suffers from the love which is the superabundance of and overflowing of his being. In so far he is 'pathetic'. (Quoted on p. 391).
Vanhoozer cites a claim that divine passibility has become the "new orthodoxy". (p. 392). He gives a number of reasons as to why this situation might have come about including: A democratising concern to emphasise human freedom over divine sovereignty. The problem of evil, 'How', ask the likes of Moltmann, 'can we believe in an impassible deity in the light of the Holocaust?'. A renewed focus on the centrality of of Jesus' passion that makes the cross definitive for our understanding of the very being of God. A reciprocal account of God's love for the world in terms that entails divine vulnerability to the rejection of his love and divine distress over the suffering of those whom he loves.

However, while noting these concerns, Vanhoozer endeavours to make a case for the impassibility of God. God is impassible because he is without passions. That is, he is devoid of irrational forces of feeling. He doesn't get irritable or lose his temper in a fit of pique. But does that mean that God is without emotions? Not according to Vanhoozer, if emotions are defined as "covenantal concern-based construals". In other words, God's emotions are geared towards his covenant people. In his compassion he acts to save them from sin and suffering. He is jealous of his people's undivided love and loyalty. These theodramatically expressed divine emotions are constant and true. They are not subject to change, (Malachi 3:6). Hence, God's emotions are impassible - without passion. But the impassible God feels. Loving his people with an everlasting love, he acted to redeem them from sin in Christ.  

So, we come to the cross, where the Son of God suffered for our sins. What does Calvary have to say to the question of divine impassibility? According to Cyril, "The Word suffered impassibly". In saying so he affirmed the impassibility of the divine Word and also took into account that the Word made flesh suffered for us in his humanity. This is where the communicatio idiomatum or 'communion of attributes' in the incarnate Son comes into play. We do not say that the Son in his divine nature was impassible, while his human nature suffered on the cross. Rather, that the impassible Son suffered for us in his human nature. In biblical terms it was the Son of God in his humanity who loved us and gave himself for us (Galatians 2:20). However, the Son did not suffer on the cross simply to show empathy with a world racked by pain and tragedy. The cross was not so much an act of divine identity with a suffering world, as the Son of God suffering in dying in the place of a guilty world. His cry on the cross was not, "Now I know how you feel!", but, "It is finished!".

Vanhoozer suggests that modern attempts at rendering God passible might make him seem more appealing to our "touchy-feely" postmodern world, but they fail to capture the grandeur of God's free and loving self-determination to be the the "Lord (and servant) of covenant grace". God's love for his people is  not a vulnerable love that by its very nature entails suffering pain and rejection, but  a "lordly love" that effects salvation through the substitutionary suffering of Christ and transforming power of the Spirit . As such, Calvary is the definitive revelation of God's love for sinners. In Christ God is not a "fellow-sufferer who understands" (Whitehead), but "a sovereign sufferer who withstands" (Vanhoozer). That is the impassible compassion of our God.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a former Catholic by Chris Castaldo

Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a former Catholic,
 by Chris Castaldo, Zondervan, 2009, 236pp

Here Chris Castaldo tells the story of how he left the Roman Catholic Church on becoming an Evangelical Christian. Sometimes converts to Evangelicalism from Rome have a touch of "hot-prot" zealotry about them. They are more than eager to denounce the errors of the church to which they once belonged. Not so Castaldo. Yes, he is clear on the gospel-defining issues that distinguish Roman Catholicism from authentic biblical Christianity, but he is not out to trounce Rome in a fit of conversionist passion. Rather, his aim is to help Evangelicals to gain a better understanding of Roman Catholicism so that we may be more gracious  and effective witnesses to Roman  Catholic friends and family members.

The writer gives five reasons why he converted from Rome to Evangelicalism, a full time faith, a personal relationship with Jesus, direct access to God, Christ-centred devotion and motivation by grace instead of guilt. Along the way he gives a portrait of Martin Luther's Evangelical faith and depicts the Catholic faith of Ignatius of Loyola and Gasparo Contarini.

Castaldo does not reject wholesale the Western Catholic tradition. He warns against a nuda Scripture approach which has little time for the theological heritage of the Church. The Reformed doctrine of sola Scriptura confesses the supreme authority of the Bible, but the Reformers valued the teachings of the Church Fathers and accepted the ancient creedal formulae as important expressions of biblical truth.

A chapter is devoted to how Catholics view Evangelicals, which makes interesting reading. The writer also offers an analysis of different types of Catholic; traditional, evangelical and cultural and suggests how Evangelicals might best relate to people who belong to these sub-groups with grace and truth.

Castaldo gives a taxonomy of  Evangelical attitudes towards Rome, from the actively anti-Roman Catholic to the ecumenical. He aligns himself with the "positive identity" group, which, so he says is open about Evangelical distinctives while avoiding open criticism of the Roman Catholic Church. Such Evangelicals might act as co-belligerents with Roman Catholics on pro-life issues, but they hesitate to co-operate in evangelism and mission because they reject the institution and authority of the Roman Church and certain central doctrines. I don't see how criticism of Roman teachings can be avoided if we are to speak the truth in love, but Castaldo is right to warn against an overly belligerent "pit bull" approach when witnessing to Roman Catholic people.

The book is well written in an easy, anecdotal style, the writer often drawing on his own experience in talking to Roman Catholics about the gospel. He gives lots of practical advice on pitfalls to avoid when speaking to Roman Catholic friends and family members. On occasion Castaldo's irenic concern to be "nice" to Roman Catholics means that he pulls his punches and in places he could have been a little more robust in warning of the dangers of Rome. (See his qualified commendation of C. S. Lewis' words of congratulation to a convert to Rome on p. 180).

The final chapter, Glorify God and Enjoy Him Forever, is a moving and insightful meditation on the transfiguration of Jesus. One day we will see the glorified face of Jesus. Castaldo asks, "Can those who watch our lives, Roman Catholic or otherwise, observe in us the substance of this belief?" (p. 197).

 A useful appendix on How the Roman Catholic Church Became What it is: Trent to Vatican II concludes the book.