Sunday, December 27, 2015

Christmas past


So that was it, then. Another Christmas over and done with. As ever the build up was a whirl of services, shopping, gift wrapping and card writing in preparation for the Big Day. We had encouraging numbers at our Carol Service on the Sunday before Christmas and the Christmas Morning Service was also well attended. 

For pressies I mostly had clothes and books. My ageing Mod midlife crisis thing continues with the gift of a Ben Sherman polka dot button down shirt. I'm looking forward to getting stuck onto Ralph Cunnington's Preaching with Spiritual Power. I may not agree with everything he has to say, but it's good to have one's views challenged. Flicking through I note that he references an article on this blog, so it can't be all bad.  

We look forward to catching up with family in London and Wales later this week. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Something extra for Christmas

Once in our world, a stable had something in it 
that was bigger than our whole world.
C. S. Lewis. 

We won't get hung up on whether our Lord was born in a stable as opposed to a lower room in the house where animals were often brought in for the night because the 'inn', meaning guest room was occupied. What I'm interested in here is Lewis's theological insight that Jesus was at one and the same time inside the 'stable' and bigger than the whole world in which the stable was set. He is emphasising that Jesus became what we was not [Man] without ceasing to be what he was [God]. He is Immanuel; God with us as one of us. 

This is sometimes referred to as Calvin's extra. Although it can easily be shown that in teaching this the Reformer did not in fact add anything extra to the church's understanding of the person of Christ. His thinking was in line with historic orthodoxy. In his chapter devoted to 'The Extra' in John Calvin's Ideas, (Oxford, 2004) Paul Helm cites E. David Willis's view that the extra Calvinisticum could well be called the extra Catholicum

Why is this important other than to historical theologians? Because in seeking to understand and proclaim the incarnation of Christ we need to ensure that we give due weight to the Son's divine and human natures. If in becoming man he became less than God, Jesus was not the full and final revelation of God and his sacrificial death is divested of its infinite sin-atoning value. John 1:18 and 1:29 make little sense if when the 'Word became flesh' (John 1:14) he ceased to be the Word. Calvin expressed it like this:
Another absurdity which they obtrude upon us, viz., that if the Word of God became incarnate, it must have been enclosed in the narrow tenement of an earthly body, is sheer petulance. For although the boundless essence of the Word was united with human nature into one person, we have no idea of any enclosing. The Son of God descended miraculously from heaven, yet without abandoning heaven; was pleased to be conceived miraculously in the Virgin’s womb, to live on the earth, and hang upon the cross, and yet always filled the world as from the beginning. Calvin, J. (1997). Institutes of the Christian Religion II:xiii.4. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
This bears a striking similarity to a statement by Augustine in his Letter to Volusian:
And we think that something is impossible to believe is told us about the omnipotence of God, when we are told that the Word of God, by whom all things were made, took flesh from a virgin and appeared to mortal senses without destroying His immortality, or infringing His eternity, or diminishing His power, or neglecting the government of the world, or leaving the bosom of the Father, where He is intimately with Him and in Him. (Cited in John Calvin's Ideas, Helm, p. 59)
Source critics argue that Calvin was familiar with Augustine's letter and his words in the Institutes quoted above bear the imprint of the Church Father's influence. But what of the fact that Scripture speaks of the Son being given [as a man] John 3:16, or that the Son was born of a woman Galatians 4:4.? Does that not suggest that the Son became man and nothing else at the incarnation? No. Calvin drew upon the notion of the 'communion of attributes' to help explain why the Bible designates human properties to the divine Son. This lays down that aspects of one or the other nature (divine or human) may be predicated to the whole person of Christ. In so doing both the unity of Christ's person and the integrity of his divine and human natures are preserved. 

According to the witness of Scripture Son was not only 'born of woman', he also 'gave himself for us' at Calvary, Galatians 2:20. How could the eternal Son begin to be, and the immortal One die? In his divine nature he could not do either of those things. But in the incarnate Christ we have the person of the Son with divine and human natures. The Son was born and died for us in his humanity. But we do not hold that the human nature of the Son gave itself for us, but that the Son died in our place in his human nature. That which may only be predicated of Christ's human nature is attributed to his person as the Son because what he did through his human nature was a personal act on our behalf. Calvin's careful use of the 'communion of attributes' doctrine is in line with Chaldeconian 'one person/two natures' Christology and helps us understand the way in which the New Testament describes the work of the incarnate Son of God. 

May I conclude with a plea for extra worship? Loose theological talk continues to find its way into our hymns that sing to Jesus, 'You laid aside your majesty', or 'you left your throne and kingly crown'. The idea here is of divestment of glory and abandonment of sovereignty. But that is not what happened at the incarnation. John tells us 'the Word was made flesh and we beheld his glory'. The government of the world was not neglected when the Son was born of a virgin in Bethlehem. Jesus continued to 'uphold all things by the word of his power' (Hebrews 1:13) even as he was cradled in Mary's arms. The Son's aseity (that he exists in and from himself and all things that exist are from him and depend upon him) was not compromised when he became a weak and vulnerable baby in need of his mother's milk. The language of some of our hymns (and sermons?) goes beyond what might be said under the heading of the 'communion of attributes'. For while the Son was born and died, we are not told in the New Testament that he laid aside any aspect of his divine being, or that he stepped down from the throne of the universe when he became man. 

The finite cannot enclose the infinite, even in the incarnate Christ. Lewis understood this, 'Once in our world, a stable had something in it that was bigger than our whole world.' 

O come, let us adore him, 
Christ, the Lord.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Why should any Church of England Bishops sit in the House of Lords?

Image result for westminster abbey parliament

A recently produced report, LIVING WITH DIFFERENCE community, diversity and the common good argued, "The pluralist character of modern society should be reflected in national forums such as the House of Lords,so that they include a wider range of worldviews and religious traditions, and of Christian denominations other than the Church of England". The thrust of the report is that Britain is no longer a 'Christian country' and that should be reflected in the worlds of politics, society and education. I would venture to suggest that the report does not go far enough when it comes to Church of England Bishops taking ex-officio seats in the House of Lords. The fact that they do is a reminder that the Church of England is the Established Church of this part of the United Kingdom. That is why the position of the Archbishop of Canterbury is not quite the same as pastor of an independent evangelical Church. He is appointed to office by the Prime Minister of this country, under the authority of Her Majesty the Queen, who is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. The integral link between Church and State in our constitution explains why Anglican Bishops sit in the House of Lords where they have the authority to scrutinise and amend Government legislation.

In effect the Church of England is the religious arm of the State. This is a throwback to the Reformation under Henry VIII. The king divided from the Rome because the Pope would not sanction his divorce from Catherine of Aragorn. He quickly installed himself as Supreme Governor of the English Church, which remained largely Catholic in its structure and teaching under his reign. Archbishop Cranmer slowly nudged the Church of England in the direction of Protestantism, with huge strides being made under Edward VI. Then came the backlash Catholic under Queen Mary, followed by the the stabilising reign of Elizabeth I. And so the Church has remained unchanged, the established Protestant Church of England (apart from the experiment with Presbyterianism during the Commonwealth period). In some ways, Anglicanism is a strange beast, with its Roman Catholic-style Episcopal government and Protestant 39 Articles. The Church finds itself stuck in an historic compromise between Rome and Geneva, with its leaders appointed by a democratically elected Prime Minister.

We could go back even further and discuss the alliance of Church and State under Constantine and the development of Christendom, but let's not go there. The question is, 'Should the Church of England remain Established?' I would argue that it should not, because the idea of an established Church is alien to the New Testament. Under the old covenant there was no distinction between the religious and civil aspects of Israel's life. The nation was a theocracy - God's chosen nation, living under the terms of his covenant. But all that changed under the new covenant. Now the people of God are gathered from all nations. The Church may be a theocracy under the lordship of Christ, but she is distinct from the State.

Church and State are two very different institutions. The State has been ordained by God to restrain evil and preserve peace and order in society (Romans 13:1-7). But the Church has been called to carry out her Great Commission to preach the gospel and make disciples for Christ from all peoples. The State may use force to subdue law breakers and protect its citizens. The Church's only weapon is the sword of the Spirit, the word of God. State establishment obscures the Church's unique gospel-centred mission. That is why there is no sense in the New Testament that the Church should aspire to establishment by the State. Obviously, that kind of thing would have been impossible anyway under Nero. But the apostles don't so much as hint that establishment would be in any way desirable. All they asked was that the State tolerate the existence and activities of the Church (see Paul in Acts). The apostles would certainly have been outraged at the thought that the State should appoint Church leaders. However, the Church/State distinction found so clearly in the New Testament was gradually eroded away from Constantine onwards.

Even the Reformers were willing to use the powers of the State to further their cause. They are called Magisterial Reformers because they expected the Magistrate to help reform both church and society. In 16th century England, some Protestant got so fed up with the slow pace of Reform in the Church of England, that they took the radical step of separating from the established Church. In the words of a title of one of their books, they believed in Reformation without Tarrying for Any. These Separatists, men like Henry Barrowe, John Greenwood and John Penry argued that the Church should not have to wait for permission from the State to implement reform. This was seen as so subversive of the unity of the country that some Separatists were actually put to death. But it slowly began to dawn on more and more Protestants that Church and State should be separated. The Independent Puritans tended to this view, while Presbyterians held that the godly Magistrate had a duty to assist with Church reformation. The 1689 Baptist Confession amends the Westminster Confession's section on the Civil Magistrate(here), to limit the State's role in Church affairs (here).

Some would no doubt like to see the Church of England disestablished for reasons of secular pluralism. The report cited at the top of this post does not call for full-blown disestablishment, but for a limit to be placed on the number of Church of England Bishops in the Lords, while room is made for representatives of other faiths. Pluralism is the order of the day where an attempt is made to reduce all faiths to an irreducible minimum that amounts to little more than, 'Let's all be nice to each other'. While I'm all in favour of peaceful co-existence between people of all faiths and none, that cannot be at the expense of the doctrinal disctinctives of the Christian faith.

The report also veers towards a secularising agenda that would push faith-based values and views to the margins of public life. While I would welcome the separation of Church and State, that does not mean the public square should be seen as a God-free zone. Jesus Christ is Lord of all. He is head of the church and King of the world. All created reality is subject to his rule, including human society and culture. Christians should act as salt and light to influence the direction of their country. Having Church of England Bishops sit in the Lords is not the way to do it. But individual believers can exercise influence by serving as politicians, writing to their MPs on matters of concern, getting involved in their local communities and so on. By all those means and more we can 'seek the peace of the city' and ensure that Christian values are brought to bear upon the public square.

In 1914, the Church of England was disestablished in Wales, largely due to pressure from the Nonconformist Churches. Isn't it about time that England got up to speed?

*This is an update of a post that was published a while back. 

Thursday, December 03, 2015

“I wish it could be Christmas everyday” Really?

Image result for i wish it could be christmas everyday
Yes, it’s that time of year again. There are pressies to buy, cards to write and decorations to retrieve from the loft. Then there’s the tree; do you go for a real one, or the thing you bought from Woolies years ago? Better not forget to order a turkey for the Big Day. Wonder what’s going to be on telly? A Doctor Who special, I guess and other seasonal treats. And then there’s the music. Stuff about sleigh bells, snow and Santa. “‘Tis the season to be jolly”, and we invest a huge amount of time, energy and dosh into making sure that Christmas is the happiest time of all.

“I wish it could be Christmas everyday” hollers the old Wizard hit. But who apart from wide-eyed little kids really thinks that? Once a year is quite enough, thanks. Anything else would drive us crackers. Yes, it’s fun while it lasts. Family gatherings, giving and receiving gifts, and a slap up Christmas dinner with all the trimmings. What’s not to like? But doing it all again everyday? “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow...” in July? Maybe not.

In any case, even with all we throw at it, the joys of Christmas fizzle out all too soon. Perhaps that’s because we’ve forgotten the “reason for the season”. We all know that Jesus wasn’t in fact born on 25th December, but that’s the date on which we traditionally celebrate his coming into the world. His birth was announced by the angel of the Lord to some unsuspecting shepherds. They were rather startled at the sight of the angelic being, but he reassured them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ, the Lord.”

The birth of Jesus was an occasion of great joy because he had come as the Saviour. There is a direct line between Christmas and Easter. The Son of God came into the world as a human being in order to die on the cross for our sins and rise again so that we may be put right with God. The gifts we give and receive at Christmas time are a pale reflection of the greatest Gift God has given to the world, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” For those who receive God’s gift of Jesus, the joy of Christmas is not just for everyday, but for eternity. Really.  

See here for info on Providence and Ebenezer Christmas services.  

* For Trinity and News & Views parish magazines 

Thursday, November 26, 2015

John Owen Centre Doctrine Study Day on 'Sinai: What was the Law For?'


Well, that was good. Yesterday I attended a John Owen Centre Study Day led by Garry Williams on 'Sinai: What was the Law For?' This was the 5th of these events hosted by our Bradford on Avon Ministers' Fraternal. 

The study days take the form of a seminar where Garry leads the group in discussing a paper he has prepared on the subject in hand. The papers contain a distillation of his study, setting out the diverse views of various writers before drawing some conclusions.  

We gave attention to the character of the Sinai covenant. Was it a covenant of works, a covenant of grace administered as a covenant of works, or a covenant of grace with a special focus on law? That led to a lively discussion, especially when it came to the views of Meredith Kline. We also considered what is the 'problem' with the law? Your view on this second issue will probably be determined by your attitude to the Sinai covenant. 

It was a real 'iron sharpening iron' occasion where group members endeavored to assess the various theological viewpoints in the light of Scripture. It really made me think and just occasionally blurt out what I was thinking. With so many Bible literate colleagues around, woe betide anyone who (like me) tried quoting Scripture from memory and got it a bit wrong.

It wasn't all about high level theological discussion, though. Thought was given to how what we had learned might impact on our preaching and so be of benefit to the people Of God.

I look forward to giving Garry's paper a good read through, as we had to skip some bits on the day due to time constraints. 

I'm not going to try and summarise the paper, or the discussion it stimulated here, as this Study Day is still on the road and I don't want to 'steal Garry's thunder'. Far better to attend one near you. See the John Owen Centre website for details of other Study Days around the country, or contact them about hosting one at your Fraternal. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Building Better Boards: An Opportunity for Education

Published by Wild Search

This report seeks to assess the state of school governance today and makes proposals that are intended to enable governors to respond to the challenges presented by a rapidly changing educational landscape. Governance used to be the Cinderella of schooling, receiving little attention from government ministers and policy wonks. That has now changed. The much discussed Trojan Horse affair has shown up the damage than can be done when governance goes awry. The move towards academisation, and with it the diminishing power of Local Education Authorities has placed an increasing burden on governors to monitor the performance of their school or group of schools in the case of Multi Academy Trusts. The preface by Lord Nash highlights the excellent work of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Education Governance and Leadership. He recognises the importance of governance as an agent for  change in a school-led system. It is instructive that head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw chose to devote the second of his monthly 'commentaries' to the subject of governance for 21st century schools

By 'school-led system' Nash means schools working together under the auspices of an Academy Chain or Multi-Academy Trust. The jury is out on whether academies perform better than maintained schools, especially when it comes to raising standards for disadvantaged students. But with David Cameron wanting all schools to have the 'opportunity' to become an academy by the end of the current parliament, it looks as though the drive towards academisation remains a key plank in the government's education policy.

But if governors are going to help fill the vacuum left by the decline of LEAs they are going to have to sharpen up their act. The report emphasises the need for governors to be appointed on the basis of their skills and for existing governors to engage in high quality training and professional development. The authors are rather sniffy about Parent Governors. They would like to see a shift from the stakeholder model towards skills-based governance, as if it's a case of either the one or the other. I disagree. It is rather patronising to suggest that Parent Governors don't necessarily have the skills needed to govern. At our school Parent Governors are a highly skilled bunch, but they are also passionate about seeing the school attended by their children continuing to make rapid progress. A concern about Parent Governors only being interested in the welfare and progress of their own darling children can be resolved by effective induction and training so that they understand the strategic nature of the role. The answer to the tendency for governor meetings to be sidetracked by parents raising issues to do with their children is good chairing, not getting rid of Parent Governors altogether.

The core functions of governance are: 1. Setting the Vision, Ethos and Strategy of the school. 2. Holding the Headteacher to account for the educational progress of the school. 3. Ensuring value for money. In all those areas parents have a role to play, as well as school leaders, staff,  members of the local community and governors appointed simply on account of their skills. In any case, when Parent Governor vacancies become available it is good practice for the role advertisement to include a description of the desired set of skills that a parent might bring to the table to complement the existing team. Do we really want a situation where Governing Boards are almost exclusively comprised of accountants, lawyers and high-powered business men and women? With all due respect to the good people of those professions, that would represent a considerable narrowing of the range of interests and backgrounds represented at board level. But whatever the composition of our boards we need to ensure that governors are trained and empowered to contribute to the strategic leadership of their schools and to hold senior leaders to account. In her recent address to the NGA conference Emma Knights issued a rallying call to governors that we would do well to heed. 

Attention is given to the challenges of governance in  Multi-Academy Trusts, especially in the light of the Education and Adoption Bill 2015-16. The bill will legislate to make it harder for maintained schools judged 'Inadequate' or 'coasting' by Ofsted to resist being forced to join an Academy Chain or MAT. However, recent Ofsted reports arising from the inspection of Chains and MATs suggest a mixed picture when it comes to these 'school-led systems' being able to turn around failing schools. Often the problem with poorly performing schools is not their maintained status, but ineffective leadership and weak governance. Forcing a struggling school to join a group that may share those characteristics isn't going to help anyone (see here and here). Far better for a successful local school to offer school-to-school support at leadership and governance level to an underperforming neighbour. But where is the funding to facilitate that kind of thing? If MATs are the way to go, let them at least be area-wide set-ups that are the product of a shared vision, ethos and strategy, not 'marriages of convenience' with several schools in one part of the country and a few dotted elsewhere, having little in common save a bit of branding. 

The aspect of this report that garnered media interest was the proposal that governors, notably Chairs should be remunerated for their work. Sir Michael Wilshaw concurs with this view in his 'commentary' . However, while reasonable expenses should be paid so that no one is left out of pocket for their efforts, I'm not sure that I would want governors to be paid. That does not make us dilettante amateurs, but 'unpaid professionals', who seek to serve as governors in local schools for the common good of the communities in which we live. Even when it comes to Chairs, it is difficult to see how either they would be offered little more than an insulting pittance for their work, or be paid so much as to change the nature of the role in a detrimental way. Chairs might be reluctant to do anything that might deprive them of 'a nice little earner' and fail to upset apple carts that sometimes need upsetting. Effective chairing might be better secured by in-post chairs taking advantage of high quality training such as the Chairs of Governors' Leadership Development Programme. Thoughtful succession planning is also vital for ensuring continuity of good leadership at the helm of the GB.  

One area that did not receive sufficient reflection here was the professionalisation of clerking. If more is going to be expected of governors and they are to remain unpaid for their services, then governing boards are going to need the support of highly effective clerks. The role of the clerk is to offer the board procedural and legal advice and guidance, organise and prepare for meetings, take minutes and so on. Too often clerks are regarded as semi-professionals who routinely work well over their contracted hours. They are not always subject to regular performance management to help ensure their continued professional development. This needs to change. Effective clerking is essential for efficient, sharply focused and properly functioning school governance.  

I don't want to sound too negative about this report, though. That fact that governance is being given attention in a document like this is welcome in itself. There are some good things here, such as arguing the case for governors to engage in rigorous self-evaluation. The emphasis on skills and training is welcome. The pieces on The Importance of Communications and Promoting the Role of Governors are helpful enough. The findings of Building Better Boards should stimulate discussion among governors as to how we may best respond to the challenges that we face in the current educational climate. Boards would do well to review their practices in the light of the report's recommendations. While not all of the proposals found here may command agreement, they at least deserve serious thought and consideration. 

I am grateful to the publisher for supplying a free review copy. 

Monday, November 02, 2015

November: A Month to Remember


The recent film Inside Out is all about how memory helps to shape our identity. It focuses on Riley, an 11-year old girl and her struggle to adjust to life when her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. Her feelings are controlled by five characters representing her emotions; Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear and Anger. As we've come to expect of Pixar. the film is a visually stunning spectacle, especially as we join Joy and Sadness on a trip around Riley's brain as they seek to recover her personality-forming core memories. I won't spoil the plot for you by summarising it here. If you left it too late to catch the film in the cinema, get the DVD or something. You’ll enjoy it. Watching it put me in mind of Augustine’s classic treatment of the theme of memory in his Confessions. But that’s probably just me.

The month of November evokes memories. There’s Bonfire Night, which recalls Guy Fawkes’ foiled attempt to blow up parliament. The old ditty calls us to ‘Remember, remember the 5th of November/Gunpowder, treason and plot.’ And then there’s Remembrance Sunday on 8th November and Remembrance Day on the 11th, commemorating the end of the First World War. On those days the whole nation pauses to remember those who gave their lives for this country. Their sacrifice should not be forgotten.

Some of our memories are sad and others happy. In the film Inside Out, Joy keeps trying to cheer Riley up, as she's feeling out of sorts in her new environment. At all costs she wants to stop Sadness touching the girl's core memories. But it is only when Riley is allowed to feel sad that she realises how much she is loved and pulls back from doing something stupid. We wouldn't choose sad times in our lives. But they are often occasions when family and friends have rallied round and surprised us with the warmth of their love and care.

Memory is an important aspect of the Christian faith. Jesus knew that he was about to lay down his life  so that those who believe in him may be forgiven and be put right with God. He told his followers to eat a simple meal of bread and wine in remembrance of him. The bread was a symbol of his body and the wine of his blood. Nigh on 2,000 years later Christians continue to remember Jesus in that way. The Lord wanted his people never to forget how much he loved them. He said, ‘Greater love has no one than this, than this: to lay down his life for his friends.’ That’s something worth remembering all year round.

* For News & Views & Trinity parish magazines. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Jonathan Edwards for the Church edited by William M. Schweitzer

Jonathan Edwards for the Church: The ministry and the means of Grace,
Edited by: William M. Schweitzer, EP Books, 2015, 309pp. 

Jonathan Edwards has long been recognised as a towering intellectual genius. His works have attracted attention in the worlds of philosophy and academic theology. But Edwards was above all else a pastor and preacher of the gospel. Most of his time and energies were devoted to church-based ministry. This multi-author book endeavours to redress the balance by focusing on what Edwards had to say on the ministry and the means of grace,

Lessons are drawn from the preacher’s life and teaching and attempts are made to apply what may be learned to our situation today. The book will be of special interest to pastors, who will find Edwards’ vision of pastoral ministry both an inspiration and a challenge. Edwards was a pastor-theologian, a diligent student of the Word who devoted himself to the exploration and defence of the great doctrines of the Bible. But his sermons were not intended to be lectures that simply informed the minds of his hearers, but messages that reached their hearts and transformed their lives as the truth of the gospel was proclaimed and understood.

Edwards experienced several seasons of revival under his ministry in Northampton. His knowledge of the Word and the human heart helped him to discern what was genuinely of the Spirit and what was merely of the flesh during those revival periods. His balanced approach exemplified in his key work, The Religious Affections, helped him guard his people from unbelieving scepticism and hot-headed fanaticism.

Chapters are devoted to various aspects of Edwards’ ministry and thought including the means of grace, persevering in faithful ministry, the power of the word and Christ as the scope of Scripture. The essay on Edwards’ vision of God’s excellences is outstanding. Some of the chapters could have done with a little more editorial attention. The preacher’s dismissal from his Northampton pastorate is discussed at length in chapter 4, but chapter 5 begins by going over the same ground.

Occasionally one can hear the sound of axes grinding. It is claimed that unlike some contemporary Evangelicals, Edwards had little time for contextualising his message to address his cultural situation. (Are you listening, Tim Keller?) But he was a keen student of Enlightenment thought and adapted his language accordingly. Describing conversion as giving a ‘sense of new things’ is a case in point. That said, his ministry could have done with a little more contextualisation when it came to preaching to Native American Indians in Stockbridge, where he made no attempt to learn their language, preferring to use a translator. 

An appendix includes a sermon on revival by William Macleod. It is stirring enough, but the preacher has a dig at Christians for using the internet and Facebook. I'm not sure that Edwards would have agreed with his strictures. He was no techno-Luddite and it may even be claimed that the preacher was far sighted enough to predict the internet. He prognosticated, "There will be so many contrivances and inventions to facilitate and expedite their necessary secular business that they shall have more time for more noble exercise, and that they will have better contrivances for assisting one another through the whole earth by more expedite, easy, and safe communication between distant regions than now." (See here). Admittedly, the preacher didn't anticipate people informing the world that they had just made a cup of tea via Facebook, but I think we have reasons to believe that he would have blogged and perhaps even tweeted. Edwards' Miscellanies would make for perfectly formed blog posts. 

Criticisms aside, the writers have done a good job in setting forth Edwards’ vision of a Spirit empowered, Christ centred, and God glorifying ministry. A vision that needs to be recovered in our churches today.

* An edited version of this review will appear in Evangelical Times

Friday, October 02, 2015

On finishing reading 'Reformed Dogmatics' by Herman Bavinck


Working my way through Bavinck's mighty four volume Reformed Dogmatics (Volumes 1-4, Baker Academic) has been my big long term reading project. The other day I finished the final volume. Looking back through the blog I notice that the set was delivered in May 2008 (see here). Didn't realise that it's taken me over seven years to get through the whole thing. Although I must admit that my progress has been rather fitful, with months sometimes passing between reads. That said, Bavinck's work needs to be absorbed rather than skimmed if you're going to get the best out of it.

Reformed Dogmatics is easily the best systematic theology I've yet encountered. It puts Berkhof and Reymond in the shade and is far better than Hodge. Right across the whole gamut of systematics  RD is marked by fresh and insightful exegesis, sensitivity to the flow of biblical revelation, awareness of the doctrinal heritage of the church, and deep theological reflection. The work is an organic whole; a mighty exposition of the being, persons, will  and acts of the triune God. 

In an era of the theology tweet and bite sized books for busy pastors, Bavinck offers something substantial, profound and satisfying. His approach is thoroughly presuppositional. Bavinck begins with God and ends with him. He is presented as the Alpha and Omega of theology, it's self-revealing source and ultimate goal. Here is a work of theology as faith seeking understanding that is designed to shape our minds in the light of God's Word, move our hearts to worship in response to God's Ways, and stir our wills to be about God's Work. If pastors aspire to be pastor-theologians for the sake of the people of God, they would do well to study Reformed Dogmatics. Let the man himself define what he means by dogmatic theology:  
Dogmatics is the system of the knowledge of God as he has revealed himself in Christ; it is the system of the Christian religion. And the essence of the Christian religion consists in the reality that the creation of the Father, ruined by sin, is restored in the death of the Son of God and re-created by the grace of the Holy Spirit into a kingdom of God. Dogmatics shows us how God, who is all-sufficient in himself, nevertheless glorifies himself in his creation, which, even when torn apart by sin, is gathered up again in Christ. (Eph 1:10). It describes for us God, always God from beginning to end - God in his being, God in his creation, God against sin, God in Christ, God breaking down all resistance through the Holy Spirit and guiding the whole of creation back to the objective he decreed for it: the glory of his name. Dogmatics, therefore, is not a dull science. It is a theodicy, a doxology of all God's virtues and perfections, a hymn of adoration and thanksgiving, a "glory to God in the highest" (Luke 2:14). (RD Volume 1, p. 112)
From Volume 1-4 Bavinck unfolds the great drama of creation, ruin, redemption and renewal. He constantly returns to the thought that God in his grace has not abandoned the world that he made in rescuing it from sin. Rather, by grace he redeems, restores, and perfects it. The climax of his eschatological vision is not the believer dying and going to heaven, but the new creation.
The state of glory will be no mere restoration of the state of nature, but a re-formation that, thanks to the power of Christ, transforms all matter into form, all potency into actuality, and presents the entire creation before the face of God, brilliant in unfading splendor and blossoming in a springtime of eternal youth. (RD Volume 4, p. 720).   
See here for blog posts on various aspects of RD.  My next 'big read' will be The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way, by Michael Horton, Zondervan. Our people bought me this to mark my 10th anniversary in the pastorate in 2013, but I've been keeping it until I'd finished reading Bavinck. It's always good to have a 'biggie' on the go. In my formative years as a preacher I read Preaching and Preachers,  by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. I was struck by his counsel,  
Time must be found for reading, and we turn now to the more intellectual type of reading. The first is theology. There is no greater mistake than to think that you finish with theology when you leave a seminary. The preacher should continue to read theology as long as he is alive. The more he reads the better and there are many authors and systems to be studied. I have known men in the ministry, and men in various other walks of life who stop reading when they finish their training. They think they have acquired all they need; they have their lecture notes, and nothing further is necessary. The result is that they vegetate and become quite useless. Keep on reading; and read the big works. (Preaching and Preachers by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Hodder and Stoughton, 1985, p. 177).
You can't get much bigger or grander in scope and scale than Herman Bavinck's great magnum opus. Delve into his Reformed Dogmatics. Don't just take my word for it. It's Doctor's orders and will do you good. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Center Church by Timothy Keller

Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in your City,
by Timothy Keller, Zondervan, Kindle Edition

You've got your fundies on the one hand; right on many things, but also a bit repulsive. Not being very into engaging the culture and that. And then you've got your liberals on the other; wrong on most things, but also quite nice. They don't so much want to engage the culture, as have it tell the church what to believe about stuff. Someone's got to. Between these two extremes is Keller's 'Church of the Third Way', or 'Center Church' as he persists in calling it. Look, I know it's 'Centre', not 'Center', but I'm contextualising my spelling as it's an American book I'm reviewing and spelling isn't their strong point across The Pond. OK?

Anyhow, a 'Center Church' is thoroughly evangelical when it comes to believing and proclaiming the gospel, but is also culturally engaged and socially active. The 'Center Church' vision is especially apt for big cities like New York, where Keller ministers, but other global cities such as London, Paris, or Mexico City would fit the bill. I serve town and village churches. There isn't much resemblance between New York and Westbury. or West Lavngton and Manhattan. We don't have sky scrapers, yellow taxis, or Woody Allen, and they don't have a massive White Horse carved into a hillside. As far as I know, anyway. Despite these drawbacks, there is enough in Keller's work to provide food for thought for those who, like me, are involved in small town-based ministries.

The book begins with a clear, compelling and unambiguous statement of the Gospel that the church has been called to perform and proclaim. Only the gospel can tear down our idols and reconnect us with the one true and living God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Keller is careful to distance himself from those who are so concerned to promote social activism that they neglect or even reject evangelism and disciple making. Above all else church exists to fulfill the Great Commission. That is done as the 'scattered church' goes out into the world, bearing witness to the gospel in everyday life. But Keller also emphasises the importance of gospel preaching in the context of the 'gathered church'. Old Testament revelation held out the expectation that the nations would come to know the Lord as Israel declared his praises. In the New Testament we have indications that non-believers were present in church meetings and that the Word had a saving impact on their lives, 1 Corinthians 14:24-25.

Keller has a lot to say on engaging the culture. While the gospel doesn't change, that essential message needs to be communicated in culturally appropriate ways. We see glimpses of that in the New Testament. Paul's approach in Acts 13 was quite different to the way he went about things in Acts 17. In the USA and UK the culture is increasingly 'post-Christian' and the church cannot simply assume that non-believers are familiar with the basic elements of the Christian faith. 'Defeater beliefs' that stand in the way of faith need to be challenged in a winsome and persuasive way. Do we preachers work hard enough at relating the eternal Word to the concerns and issues of our own day and age? As we marshal arguments for the gospel in our preaching will will not only speak to any non-Christians in our congregations, we will also help our people to be more effective in giving a reason for their hope in personal witness.

We preachers are often quite negative when it comes to speaking about the culture. It's all, 'things are getting worse and worse. Have nothing to do with it'. I've even heard preachers say with some pride, 'We don't compromise by trying to be contemporary.' But that's just silly. Being a bit quaint and old fashioned is not a litmus test of faithfulness to the gospel.  Keller's approach is helpful here. Rather than blanket negativity, he suggests that in any culture there are aspects that the gospel confirms, completes and contradicts.

The gospel confirms the unique value of each individual human being. Our culture by and large (under the influence of Christian teaching no doubt) agrees with that. Hence legislation that outlaws discrimination on the grounds of gender, race or disability. In our culture people are questing for meaning and purpose in life. Some do so through pleasure seeking, others by steadfastly pursuing their careers. But it's only the gospel that can provide complete fulfillment and satisfaction by reconciling us to God. Sadly there are things in our culture that the gospel contradicts. Abortion, for example. And when that is the case, the task of the church is to announce God's shuddering, "No!" and call for repentance.

But by God's 'common grace' the culture isn't all bad and Christians are called to engage with it through artistic pursuits, in the workplace, and by getting involved in their local communities. If all preachers ever do is denounce the culture, that will lead to Christians disengaging from life in the world, rather than seeking to be salt and light in it. The church should help believers understand what it means to put their faith into practice in the whole of their lives. Preachers should apply what the Bible says not only to the life of the gathered church, but every area of life. It's only right that churches and individual Christians should seek to build bridges to their local communities by running parent and toddler groups, contributing to food banks, supporting the sick and troubled, getting involved as school governors, and so on. It's not a matter of either evangelism, or seeking the well-being of the community, but gospel faith working by love.

I reflect on what Keller has to say on the interplay between faith and culture as it touches on the 'Two Kingdoms' view in another post.

The writer has some helpful things to say on every member ministry and what that looks like in practice for both the 'gathered church ' and 'scattered church', or 'organisational church' and 'organic church', as he puts it. His preferred method of reaching cities for Christ is church planting. I'm fully behind church planting ventures. As a fellowship we support the Grace Baptist Partnership. But such strategy isn't necessarily viable for small town churches, let alone village works. In those cases it's more a matter of revitalising existing local churches and reconnecting them with their local communities.

Keller's constant attempt to grab the middle ground can grate a little, You can grow tired of, 'On the one hand this extreme, and on the other that, but the Centre Church will position itself slap bang in the middle'. Some of the stuff he has to say is more relevant to a big city church with an arty, white collar membership. That isn't my lot. But there is thought provoking stuff here that caused me to reflect on my own practice and that of the churches I serve. Two big questions: How effective are we engaging the culture with the gospel in ways that confirm, complete and contradict it as appropriate? And how can we ensure that the 'organisational church' with its leadership structures, meetings and activities is equipping the 'organic church' to serve and bear witness to Jesus in today's world?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision by Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan

The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision 
by Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, Baker Academic, 2015, 221pp.

Theology is sometimes viewed as a somewhat abstruse body of knowledge, beloved of academic pointy-heads, but of little use to believers in their everyday lives. Or worse. In an episode of the classic BBC sitcom Yes Prime Minister, head of the Civil Service, Sir Humphrey advised the PM on his duties with regard to appointing a Church of England Bishop. He explained that the church was run by theologians and that 'theology's a device for helping agnostics stay within the church'. [See from 9  mins in on this episode]. That was back in the days of the Liberal ascendancy when Runcie was Archbishop of Canterbury, so perhaps the remarks had some justification. But they represent a sorry slur on theology and theologians. At its best theology is not about obfuscating unbelief, but faith seeking understanding of what is in Christ. And understanding what is in Christ and living in the light of that reality is of the essence of the Christian life.

Hence this book, co-authored by Vanhoozer and Strachan. It has long been an ambition in the former's body of work 'to make the pastoral lamb lie down with the theological lion.' (The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, WJK, 2005, xii). The central thesis of this book is that the pastor is a public intellectual; a theologian for the sake of the people of God. That point isn't widely understood, even among Evangelical churches. All too often the church has borrowed its understanding of leadership from the world. The pastor is seen as a CEO, counselor, or kindly social worker. We need to return to the biblical model of Minister as pastor-teacher, whose main role is to communicate what is in Christ to the people of God.   

This vision is rooted in the Scriptures. Strachan devotes a fascinating chapter to the differing ways in which prophets, priests and kings functioned as theologians to the Old Testament people of God. He argues that pastors now function as prophets ministering truth, priests ministering grace, and kings ministering wisdom. Of course, Christ is the great Prophet, Priest and King. In a very real sense all God's people share in these three offices under the new covenant. But Strachan sets out the lines of continuity between the key Old Testament offices and pastoral ministry as described in the New Testament. Indeed, his case may have been strengthened had he made mention of the way in which the Old Testament kings were called 'shepherds' and that pastors have been appointed to 'rule' in the church as part of the eldership team (1 Timothy 5:17, Hebrews 13:17). Strachan also traces the historical development of the pastoral office over the course of church history. 

Next Vanhoozer gets us 'In the Evangelical Mood: The Purpose of the Pastor-Theologian', giving attention to the indicatives and imperatives of the gospel that the pastor is to inhabit and minister. According to the philosopher Heidegger, human life is afflicted with a nagging sense of anxiety concerning our finite condition. The human being is a being-towards-death. But the good news of Jesus Christ transforms believers into beings-towards-resurrection.They have been delivered from the fear of death and look forward in hope to a new creation that has already begun to dawn in Christ, and through Christ, in them. The focus is not so much on ousia (being in general), as parousia (being in the light of Christ's coming). Pastors are called to minister this reality by setting out the grand indicative concerning what God has done in Christ for his people. They help the people of God to grasp what is in Christ and what they are in him by ministering the word, thus nurturing believers in biblical literacy. Being equipped with 'canon sense' will also help Christians to understand, critique and relate the gospel to the culture in meaningful ways. But the pastor's task is not limited to declaring the good news of Jesus in the indicative mood. They must also set out the imperatives that flow from participating in what is in Christ; getting wisdom, walking in love and imitating Jesus. Thus, pastors help the people of God to play their roles in the great drama of God's redeeming grace.

The practical skills that pastors need to accomplish their work are the focus of attention in the next chapter, 'Artisans in the House of God: The Practices of the Pastor-Theologian'. They include building the church as a disciple-maker, proclaiming what is in Christ as an evangelist, teaching what is in Christ as a catechist, celebrating what is in Christ as a liturgist, and demonstrating what is in Christ as an apologist. These differing facets of the pastoral ministry are explored with a good mix of sound biblical insight and shrewd practical application. The use made of Ezra-Nehemiah in the section on building the church made for interesting reading, as I've not long completed a series of sermons on those Bible books. Vanhoozer concludes with Fifty-Five Summary Theses on the Pastor as Public Theologian

Interspersed between the major chapters of this book you'll find twelve 'Pastoral Perspectives', short pieces written by pastors that aim to show what it means to be a 'pastor-theologian' in the context of everyday church life. One of them is by yours truly on The Drama of Preaching. I can't really vouch for that bit, but I'd recommend that all aspiring and serving pastors give this book a thoughtful and prayerful read. If the pastor as public theologian is a lost vision, this well written and passionately argued book certainly makes a grand attempt at reclaiming it. Anything that helps pastors to minister what is in Christ more effectively must be good for us, the people whom we have been called to serve, and the world that so desperately needs to hear the life-transforming message of the gospel.