Monday, October 31, 2011

So, the church is for what, exactly?


What's happening? Serious minded media types are giving attention to the true mission of the church. Usually it's like 'the church is so out of date' or 'the church is pointless' or 'the church is evil', but suddenly the church has an important task. It is actually for something. Nice, eh? Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger said so, here and Hugo Rifkind of The Times said so here (sadly you'll need to be a Times subscriber to follow the last link). Apparently, the mission of the church is to stick up for 'pious idealistic impracticalities'. At least according to Rifkind, a self-confessed 'contented agnostic'. 

You see, the argument runs,  if Jesus was around today (let's forget for a moment that according to the witness of Scripture he rose from the dead and therefore is still 'around today'), he would be on the side of the anti-capitalist protesters camped outside St. Paul's. That's what the church is for. I mean, didn't Jesus overthrow the tables of the money changers in the temple? They were the unacceptable face of first century capitalism and he sure showed them what for. And didn't Jesus say stuff like, "you cannot serve God and mammon"? So, What Would Jesus Do? He'd protest against the City fat cats with their obscene bonuses. He'd pitch his tent outside of St. Paul's with the rest of them - and probably spend the night there too.

I defend the right right to protest, but  since when did that include the right to set up camp in public places? Is camping now a radical antiestablishment act? That's news to me, and I was a boy Scout. Now, let's be honest and admit that the church authorities at St. Paul's haven't exactly covered themselves in glory in their response to the militants from Millets. It was silly to shut the doors of the cathedral for the first time since the Blitz for 'health and safety' reasons. Were they afraid that a worshipper, or worse, a paying tourist might trip over a guy rope or something? What would the real St Paul have thought of that? Health and safety. Have the assembled clergy never read 2 Corinthians 11, where Paul lists the dangers he faced in his apostolic ministry? He was flogged, mobbed, shipwrecked and stoned. Stumbling over a tent isn't included in his inventory of sufferings. Hardly being fed to the lions is it? The trouble is that if the ecclesiastics get tough and call in the cops to forcibly remove the tented agitants, that doesn't seem like a Christian thing to do. Whatever happened to "love thy neighbour" etc?

But in reality this whole debacle is a distraction from the main task of the church. As I noted earlier, Jesus' cleansing of the temple is often cited in favour of the anti-capitalist demonstrators. That is misguided. When Jesus drove the money changers from the temple courts, it wasn't because he was a kindly proto-Keynsian rather than a hard nosed lassiez faire capitalist. His motivation was rather different. The money changers were doing an OK thing in the wrong place. You see, they had set up their Bureau de Changes in the Court of the Gentiles. An area of the temple that was meant for non-Jews to come and worship the God of Israel had been turned into a busy shopping mall. That is what outraged Jesus. Look at Mark 11:15-19, especially Mark  11:17, where Jesus quotes a combination Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11.

The temple was meant to act as a magnet for the nations, to draw all people to call upon the name of Yahweh. Note Solomon's prayer at the dedication of the original temple, 1 Kings 8:41-43. The prophets looked forward to the day when the  nations would stream to Jerusalem to seek the Lord, Zechariah 8:20-23. What Jesus encountered in the temple was a travesty of this hope. Indeed in his judgement the temple and its ministry has become so irredeemably corrupt that it would be swept into oblivion, Mark 13:1-2. That's what happened in 70AD when it was destroyed by the Romans.

The new temple is the people of God, united to Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit, Ephesians 2:19-22, 1 Peter 2:4-5, 9-10. The task of the church is to proclaim the good news of salvation to the nations, Luke 24:46-49. The worldwide church of God  is not a commercial venture. It's calling is to be a house of prayer for all peoples. Admittedly St Paul's with its £14.50 entrance fee and gift shop probably isn't the best example of this. But still, the main mission of the church is not to act as a cheerleader for a band of well meaning protesters with their ill-defined anti-capitalist agenda. The church is not a political or economic pressure group. Its God-given purpose is to make disciples of Jesus, Matthew 28:18-20. 

Am I saying that the church doesn't give a fig about social justice? Hardly. There is something deeply wrong with our economic system when hedge funds are allowed to asset strip old folks' homes. Amos had a thing or two to say about the rich plundering the poor, (Amos 2:6-8), not to mention James, (James 5:1-6). Christians like William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury worked tirelessly on behalf of the poor and the oppressed. They were not concerned with 'pious idealistic impracticalities', but made a real difference to the lives of ill used and vulnerable people. Christians are doing the same today.

The key task of the church is to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to all people and demonstrate the reality of Christian love by offering practical help to those in need. That's what the church is for. I'm afraid that championing the cause of anti-capitalist campers has very little to do with it. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

It's the economy, stupid!


OK then, I thought I’d have a stab at addressing the world economic crisis. I mean, unless the news is punctuated by reports of the Defence Secretary’s resignation, or the clearance of an illegal traveller camp, or the capture/killing of Gaddafi, the current economic situation is the big story. In the words of Bill Clinton’s 1992 election campaign strategist, “It’s the economy, stupid!”

Will Greece default on its debts? Will the Eurozone survive in its present form? Will the Government’s deficit reduction programme do the job? To be honest, I don’t actually know the answer to any of those questions. You see, I’m not an economist. If you are after my opinion on whether the Bank of England’s latest round of quantitative easing (thanks, spell checker) will prove effective, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I really haven’t a clue.

So, you might ask, “What’s the point in him rather grandly proposing to address the world economic crisis on Exiled Preacher.” Good question.

Not so long ago politicians were promising an “end of boom and bust”. They held before our wondering eyes the prospect of endless economic growth and prosperity. Some wise old souls doubted whether this could really be true, but most believed that “things can only get better” (remember that one?). Then came the crash. Banks needed bailing out. Unemployment figures soared. Government cuts. Eurozone crisis. You get the picture.

Now, you’d be hard pressed to find something resembling a complete economic theory in the Bible. That’s not what the Good Book’s for. But for those who heed its message, the Bible has some pretty shrewd things to say about money. For example, “Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle.” (Proverbs 23:5 NIV). Paul warns the wealthy against trusting in “uncertain riches” (1 Timothy 6:17). Our current economic woes are testimony enough to the truth of these words.

What’s to be done? Jesus counsels us, “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:20). Set your hearts on the true and lasting riches that come through knowing Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.

* Adapted from an article for November's News & Views, West Lavington Parish Magazine. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

Juxtaposition: Herman Bavinck on God's fatherly providence and Thomas Hardy's blighted star

The lives of Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) and Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) intersected the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Both men were affected in different ways by the upheavals in thought and life that characterised that turbulent period in world history. As their respective portraits show, the Dutch Reformed theologian and the English novelist and poet shared a common a penchant for extravagant facial hair. But Bavinck and Hardy had very different outlooks upon life. In this post I want to try and bring Hardy's bleak determinism into dialogue with Bavinck's account of the fatherly providence of God. 

Reading Bavinck on providence in Reformed Dogmatics Volume 2: God and Creation (Baker Academic, 2006) put me in mind of Thomas Hardy. The theologian makes a pointed distinction between fate and God's providential rule of the universe. In her excellent biography, Thomas Hardy: Time-Torn Man (Penguin, 2007), Claire Tomlain devotes a chapter to Hardy's fatalistic outlook as it found expression in his novels. The chapter is entitled The Blighted Star, after Tess' complaint in Tess of the D'Urbevilles that this planet is a "blighted star" due to the frustrations and hardships of life. 

As a young man Thomas Hardy came under the influence of Henry Moule, the evangelical vicar of Fordington. When revival broke out under Moule's ministry in 1855, Hardy seems to have been affected. While training as an architect he began to study the New Testament in the original Greek and was a regular church goer. But this early piety was not to last. By 1866 he no longer accepted many of the key teachings of the Church. Reading the liberal theology of Essays and Reviews and the writings of the agnostic Thomas Huxley helped to unsettle his beliefs. On attempting to make a living as a writer, he became acquainted with Leslie Stephen and his atheistic fellow-travellers. 

Tomlain cites the perceptive comment of Irving Howe on the impact that his loss of faith had on Hardy's outlook, 
Because Hardy remained enough of a Christian to believe that purpose courses through the universe but not enough of a Christian to believe that purpose is benevolent or the attribute of a particular Being, he had to make his plots convey the oppressiveness of fatality without positing an agency determining the course of fate... The result was that he often seems to be coercing his plots...and sometimes...he seems to be potting against his own characters. 
This can be seen, for example in The Mayor of Casterbridge, where the impersonal forces of fate seem to conspire to bring down Michael Henchard. The erstwhile mayor dies a lonely and hopeless death. He gives up on life because of the odds fixed against him by 'that ingenious machinery contrived by the gods for reducing human possibilities of happiness to a minimum.' The final words of the novel, found on the lips of Henchard's supposed daughter, Elizabeth-Jane are devoid of hope as she reflects that, 'happiness is the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.' On reviewing Jude the Obscure, one of Hardy's most bitterly anti-Christian novels, Edmund Gosse wondered, 'What has Providence done to Mr. Hardy that he should rise up in the arable land of Wessex and shake his fist at his Creator?'

Mention of Providence brings me to Herman Bavinck's treatment of the doctrine in Reformed Dogmatics. His single chapter consideration of the subject comprises the fourth and final part of RD Vol. 2, appropriately entitled God's Fatherly Care. The theologian begins by marshalling a vast array of biblical materials. He concludes that providence is God's kingly work of upholding and governing the world that he has made in accordance with his eternal plan and purpose. "His absolute power and perfect love, accordingly, are the true object of faith in providence reflected in Holy Scripture." (p. 593). Bavinck distinguishes the divine foreordination of all things from fate. Pantheism, which fails to differentiate between the transcendent Creator and the creation, inevitably collapses into fatalism,
On its premise there is no existence other than the existence of nature; no higher power than that which operates in the world in accordance with ironclad law; no other and better life than that for which the materials are present in this visible creation. For a time people may flatter themselves with the idealistic hope that the world will perfect itself by an imminent series of developments, but soon this optimism turns into pessimism, this idealism into materialism. (p. 599).
As Howe pointed out, Hardy's fatalism was a twisted and ruined vestige of his earlier Christian belief in divine providence. He felt that life must have a purpose, even if that purpose is a pantheistic impersonal force that is out to get us. But as Bavinck makes clear, citing Augustine, God's providential ordering of the world is not "a blind coercive power, outside of and in opposition to our will, for 'the fact is that our choices fall within the order of the causes, which is known for certain to God and is contained in his foreknowledge.'" (p. 600). Christian theology recognises a concurrence between the providence of God and the free actions of his human creatures. "Neither are the secondary causes merely instruments, organs, inanimate automata, but they are genuine causes with a nature, vitality, spontaneity, manner of working,  and law of their own." (p. 614). We are not, like Hardy's characters, the unwilling victims of a malign deterministic force. We are the free subjects of God's providential rule. As the Westminster Confession of Faith states,
God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. (III:I) 
'New Atheist' Richard Dawkins goes further than Hardy, with the latter's belief that 'purpose courses through the universe'. Consistent with his unbelief, Dawkins denies that there can be any purpose in life. Without God there can be none. 
Such a universe would be neither good or bad in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, or any justice. The universe that we observe has precicely the properties that we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, but blind, pitiless indifference." Daily Telegraph, 10 May 1995. 
The biblical teaching on providence set out so helpfully by Bavinck preserves us from the hopeless pessimism of unbelief. "In all circumstances of life, it gives us good confidence in our faithful God and Father that he will provide whatever we need for body and soul and that he will turn to our good whatever adversity he sends us in this sad world, since he is able to do this as almighty God and desires to do this as a faithful Father." (p. 619). 

Thursday, October 06, 2011

John Calvin on the difference between what a text says and what may be said about a text


In preparing to preach on Genesis 22, where Abraham was commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac on  Mount Moriah, I consulted numerous commentaries on Genesis. But I also had a glance at John Calvin's commentary on Hebrews 11:17-19. Commenting on Hebrews 11:19, Calvin mentions the opinions of  other interpreters of the text,

However, I do not dislike what some say, who think that our flesh, which is subject to death, is set forth in the ram which was substituted for Isaac. I also allow that to be true which some have taught, that this sacrifice was a representation of Christ.
But, he goes on to say that his concern as a commentator is not to say what might be said about the text, but to explain what the text itself says,
I have now to state what the Apostle meant, not what may in truth be said; and the real meaning here, as I think, is, that Abraham did not receive his Son otherwise than if he had been restored from death to new life.
Should we not also make a similar distinction in our preaching between the strict grammatico-historical meaning of a text and the broad redemptive-historical significance of the passage under consideration? Not that we focus on the one at the expense of the other, but that we be careful not to dump the whole weight of developed biblical revelation on a earlier text of Scripture. Doing so would be to ignore the progressive character of Holy Scripture.

Take Genesis 22 as a case in point. The burden of the passage is not primarily about Jesus' substitutionary atoning death. Rather, it concerns the Lord testing Abraham's faith, Genesis 22:1, the Lord's provision of a ram in place of Isaac Genesis 22:12-14, and the Lord's renewal of the covenant promises, Genesis 22:15-18. In essence, that is what the text says.

But there is more that might be properly said about the text than that. Isaac was Abraham's "seed" in whom the nations would be blessed, (Genesis 21:12, 17:19). The "seed" promise was originally intimated in Genesis 3:15. The "seed" of the woman would defeat the "seed" of the serpent. That saving "seed" will come from Abraham's line, Genesis 22:18. The promise is further narrowed down to one of king David's descendents, 2 Samuel 7:12-13. Jesus is identified with the line of Abraham and David in Matthew 1:1-17. Paul describes Jesus as the "seed of Abraham" in Galatians 3:16 and the "seed of David" in Romans 1:2-4 and 2 Timothy 2:8.

Abraham was called to sacrifice his "seed", although he believed that God would raise him from the dead, Genesis 22:5 cf. Hebrews 11:17-19. However, the Lord provided a ram in place of Isaac, his only son. In the case of Christ, God did not spare him, but delivered him up for us all and then raised him from the dead (Romans 8:32-34). Paul's language in Romans 8:32 (cf. Genesis 22:16), plus the reference to God's provision makes it clear that the apostle is alluding to Abraham and Isaac. See also the way in which Peter weaves together an intertexual web around the death and resurrection of Christ and his identity as the "seed of Abraham", Acts 3:13-15, 25-26. (Note a similar pattern of thought in Acts 13:16-30).

Genesis 22 in its pure grammatico-historical meaning does not say that Jesus Christ is the "seed" who died and rose again to remove God's curse from a fallen world and bring blessing to the nations (Galatians 3:13-14). But the text should not be read in isolation. Earlier revelation needs to be taken into account (i.e. Genesis 3:15) and the contribution of Genesis 22 to redemptive-historical themes unfolded progressively in Scripture needs to be traced out (i.e. Galatians 3:16, 29). We must neither deposit on Genesis 22 the full weight of  the New Testament's revelation of Jesus, neither should we be blind to the witness of that text to Christ.

As Augustine pointed out with regard to the relationship between the Testaments, "The New is in the Old concealed and the Old is in the New revealed." After all, as Jesus said, Abraham saw his day and rejoiced, John 8:56. We must preach what the the Old Testament says, explaining the grammatico-historical of texts and declare what might be properly said concerning the text's testimony to Jesus. In other words we must follow the the exegetical model laid down for us by Christ and the apostles, Luke 24:44, Acts 17:2-3.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011