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