Friday, October 16, 2020

Who’s in charge of this Covid-stricken world?

I don’t know about you, but I’m becoming weary of doom-laden Covid Press Conferences. The other week the Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance and the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty teamed up for a rather sombre double act. With the use of various slides they set out the prospect of a second spike in Coronavirus infections over the autumn/winter period. The following day a newspaper cartoon pictured the event. Vallance is shown saying, “If we look at the next slide...”. A frightening image is summoned of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse wreaking havoc.

The picture is borrowed from the Bible’s Book of Revelation. In Chapter 6 four horses and their riders are described. The white horse and its rider are a symbol of military conquest. The red horse and its rider signify war. The black horse and its rider are a picture of famine. Finally, a pale horse and its rider are seen, ‘And its rider’s name was Death and Hades followed him’. You can, perhaps, see where the cartoonist was coming from.

The hoofbeats of these Four Horsemen can be heard thundering throughout human history. They certainly seem to be on the move at the moment. Yet they are not pictured in the Bible to drive us to despair. Our political leaders may be struggling to get to grips with the pandemic, but that does not mean the world is running out of control. In Revelation chapters 4 & 5 the apostle John is given a vision of God’s throne room in heaven. He sees God place the responsibility for fulfilling his purposes into the hands of a Lamb who was slain and is now alive. This ‘Lamb’ is an image of Jesus.

The most basic confession of the Christian faith is, ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’. The throne room of the universe is not empty. He who shared our weakness in becoming man and dying for our sins has been exalted to God’s right hand in glory. The forces of death and destruction will not be allowed to prevail. There will be a new heavens and a new earth where ‘death shall be no more’. The believer is able to look to the future with hope because the Lamb is in the midst of the throne.  

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

The Mystery of Christ: His Covenant & His Kingdom by Samuel Renihan (review part 2)

Founders Press, 2019, 217pp

See here for part 1 of this review series. 

The Kingdom of Christ

The Covenants of Redemption and Grace 

Christ came proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and was himself the King who inaugurated God's saving reign. As with the earlier biblical kingdoms, covenants form the legal basis upon which God deals with man in the kingdom of God. Renihan gives attention to the Covenant of Redemption and the Covenant of Grace. The idea of the Covenant of Redemption is largely deduced from Isaiah's Servant Songs, where the Father and the Son make commitments to each other concerning the redemption of human beings from sin. The Holy Spirit is said to be 'everywhere present' in this covenant (p. 154), but he doesn't seem to be doing very much. This is a common feature in many accounts of the Covenant of Redemption, which tend to be bininatrian, rather than trinitarian in focus. The Spirit's role in this pre-temporal 'covenant' needs to be developed more fully. Partly for that reason Robert Letham prefers to speak of the eternal Trinitarian counsel, rather than a Covenant of Redemption, Systematic Theology, p. 431-438).  

According to Renihan the blessings of the Covenant of Redemption are bestowed upon sinners through the New Covenant of Grace. While the Covenant of Grace was disclosed in promissory form the Old Covenant, it was not promulgated, or legally enacted until Christ completed his mediatorial work, Hebrews 8:6, 9:11-15, 24-26. The types and shadows of the old then gave way to the substance of the new. The blessings of the New Covenant were detailed in Jeremiah 31:31-34 (see also Hebrews 8:8-13). These numerous blessings flow from union with Jesus Christ, the federal head of the covenant. They include justification, regeneration and sanctification, adoption and preservation, and resurrection and glorification. 

Unlike the Old Covenant, which Israel broke through her disobedience, the New Covenant cannot be broken because it is based on the obedience of Jesus Christ on behalf of his people. Even our saving response to Christ's work is bestowed by grace. Under the Old Covenant there were many physical descendants from Abraham who did not follow his faith and obedience. They were Israel according to the flesh, but not according to the promise (Romans 9). The New Covenant abolishes any such distinction. Membership is not based on physical descent, but God's electing grace brought to realisation through saving faith in Christ, 2 Timothy 1:9, Ephesians 2:8-9). Covenant blessings are bestowed not on the basis of  our obedience, but due to the oaths the Father solemnly swore to his Son (Hebrews 6:13-20). 'We rest and rejoice in his faithfulness.' (p, 175).

The New Covenant and the Kingdom of God 

In the Covenant of Redemption the Father covenanted a Kingdom to his Son on completion of his redeeming work. Under the New Covenant of Grace that Kingdom is in turn covenanted to Christ's people. This is made explicit in Luke 22:29, which the author translates as, "And I covenant unto you, as my Father covenanted unto me, a kingdom." (p. 176, original emphasis). The Lord's Supper anticipates the consummated kingdom of God, where all of the Lord's people will gather in the new creation under God's gracious reign for all eternity. 

The people of the Covenant of Grace are those who were given to the Son by the Father in eternity according to his electing love. For them the Son shed his blood. His redeeming work is applied to them by the Holy Spirit. They constitute a new humanity in Christ, their federal head, the last Adam. The New Covenant completely reverses the corruption and condemnation of the broken Covenant of Works. Indeed, we are given more in Christ than we lost in Adam. In Christ we look forward to 'an eternal life of glory and perfect communion with God.' (p. 178). 

Israel and the Church 

Where does all this leave Israel, the Old Covenant people of God? They clearly had the unique privilege of belonging to the 'covenants of promise', according to which Christ would be born of the seed of Abraham and David. The great tragedy for Israel was that when Jesus came, only a remnant received him as their Messiah and in him the rich blessings of the New Covenant. Paul seems to hold out the hope that ethnic Israel will be recovered for the gospel once the 'fulness of the Gentiles has come in' (Romans 11:25). God is able to graft his people back into the covenant community when they turn to Christ in saving faith (Romans 11:23). 

The apostle reasons that if Israel's 'failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more their will their full inclusion mean!' (Romans 11:12). Renihan understands the promise, 'all Israel will be saved' (Romans 11:26) to mean that the 'fulness of Jews and Gentiles' will be saved (p. 191). But by 'Israel' Paul consistently means ethnic Israel in Romans 9-11, 'my kinsmen according to the flesh' (Romans 9:3). There is good reason to think that Paul holds out the hope that there will be a great turning to the Lord among ethnic Israel before the Christ returns. 

The Law and Grace 

Speaking of Israel, as pointed out in part 1 the author regards the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants as covenants of works, (p. 98). The blessings of life in the land of Canaan were certainly dependent upon Israel's obedience. But Renihan distinguishes these covenants from the Covenant of Works in Adam. For Adam and us in him there was no way back to God after being expelled from Eden apart from God's promise of a deliverer, Genesis 3:15. Under the Old Covenant, however, the sacrificial system provided a means of atonement for sin if the people of returned to the Lord in genuine repentance and looked in faith for the coming Messiah. 

Contrary to what the writer says here, under the Mosaic Covenant the Lord did not simply require a civic obedience that 'an unbeliever could render' (p. 111). Israel was called to 'love the Lord your God with all your heart' (Deuteronomy 6:4), yet it was only as the Lord circumcised their hearts that Israel could obey that command (Deuteronomy 30:6 cf. Romans 2:28-29). When Israel rejected the way of faith in the promise and spurned their covenant obligations, the law became a code than condemned rather than a guide for life. 

All biblical covenants are 'based on grace, yet regulated by law.' (Robert Letham, see part 1). Yet, as Renihan argues in line with the Particular Baptist tradition, the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants were not in themselves administrations of the Covenant of Grace. They had different mediators in Abraham and David, and different members; physical descendants of Abraham, only a remnant of whom trusted and obeyed. The blessings of the Old Covenant were earthly and temporal, concerning life in the Promised Land. Christ mediates a better covenant enacted on better promises (Hebrews 8:6, 9:15).

Christ is the 'Lord our righteousness' (Jeremiah 23:6). He fulfilled the legal obligations of the Covenant of Works on behalf of his people. The types and shadows of the Old Covenant have also been realised in Christ, yet the moral law continues to apply to the Christian. But for them it is not merely an external code written on tablets of stone. The law is written on their hearts by the Spirit and is fulfilled by love (2 Corinthians 3:3, Romans 13:10). 

The Consummated Kingdom 

In Christ the mystery of God's eternal purpose is revealed on the stage of history to the praise of his glorious grace. Those who are united to Christ by faith belong to his kingdom which finds visible expression in the church. Only those who show evidence of regeneration and profess faith in Christ may take their place as members of the church of Jesus Christ. Church membership should therefore be guarded through godly church discipline. Traitors to the covenant who turn from faith in Christ show that they never truly belonged to him and have no place in the church that bears his name. The sacraments of the kingdom are 'visible words', tangible expressions of the gospel. As such baptism and the Lord's Supper are only for those who have been savingly united to Christ by the Spirit. 

These signs are a foretaste of the heavenly realities of the consummated kingdom, in which the blessings of the New Covenant will be enjoyed when the King returns as judge of all humanity. Those who have rejected King Jesus will be raised to everlasting punishment. The people he came to save will be raised to life everlasting, a spotless bride for whom the bridegroom gave himself in love. They shall live in his presence in the new creation, where they shall gaze upon the glory of the Lamb and worship him for ever. 

Constructive appraisal 

In The Mystery of Christ: His Covenant and His Kingdom, Samuel Renihan has admirably traced the grand plot line of the Bible in covenantal/kingdom terms. He has done justice both to the continuity and discontinuity of old and new covenants, as the mystery of Christ is progressively revealed. While the  writer draws on the riches of the Particular Baptist theological tradition, this is a fresh study in its own right and yields many valuable insights. That the Davidic kings were in effect the federal heads of the Mosaic covenant is one. The author admirably highlights the eschatological dimensions of Christ's covenant and kingdom. 

His characterisation of the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants as 'covenants of works' is not quite so convincing. Renihan certainly does not take the Meredith Kline view that Sinai was a republication of the Adamic covenant of works based on strict merit (p. 111). But in some sense he holds that the Old Covenant operated as a covenant works, as least as far as appropriating the blessings of life in the Promised Land were concerned. 

If, however, threats of chastening judgement and promises of reward for obedient faithfulness constitute a covenant of works, then the New Covenant could arguably be construed as such. That's why God's judgements upon Israel are taken as a warning to the church (1 Corinthians 10). That's why Christians can appropriate Old Testament promises of reward, but stripped of their shadowy form and seen in the light of eternity (Matthew 25:14-30, Ephesians 6:2-3). Note the many threats and promises in the Letters to the Churches in Revelation 2-3. To be clear, under both Old and New covenants, rewards were dispensed graciously by the Lord, rather than earned or merited. 

If the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants were not covenants of works and neither can they be identified with the Covenant of Grace, what are they? Renihan is nearer the mark when he says, 'There is no covenant prior to Christ that reveals His covenant as directly as the Abrahamic Covenant does. The unilateral free gift of the earthly typical promises most clearly demonstrates the unilateral and free gift of the heavenly antitypical promises to the elect.' (p. 100). Further, he writes that 'the covenant of circumcision [made with Abraham] was a covenant of guardianship. It is a covenant that constitutes Abraham's descendants the womb of the Messiah.' (p. 101). 

The giving of the law at Sinai did not compromise the gracious character of the Abrahamic covenant, as Paul makes clear in Galatians 3:15-29. The law functioned as a guardian until Christ came. It 'increased the trespass' (Romans 5:20) by exposing the sinfulness of sin that those who were under the law might seek the righteousness of God by faith in Christ (Romans 10:3-4). 

The Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants were not recognisably covenants of works. They were 'covenants of promise'. Through their shadowy types and figures they spoke of the promised Messiah who would be born of Abraham's line. 'They are Israelites, to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants... and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever.' (Romans 9:4-5). 

This criticism should not detract from the work as a whole. For too long Paedobaptists have cornered the market in covenant theology, while Reformed or Grace Baptists have lagged behind. Renihan's title is an important contribution to covenant theology from a Baptist standpoint.  That said, readers will not find heated polemic here. The author makes his case in a gracious and winsome way, insightfully handling the text of Scripture and ensuring that doctrine leads to doxology before the glorious mystery of Christ. 

I am most grateful to Founders Press for sending me a complimentary review copy of this book. I would urge them to make it available more widely, as importing the title from the USA is prohibitively expensive for readers in the United Kingdom.  

Thursday, October 01, 2020

Harvest Thanksgiving

 

Imagine living in a country where you venture to the local supermarket, only to find the shelves empty of products you wanted to buy. No carrots, or fresh meat, no bread or milk, no hand sanitiser or soap, and above all, no toilet paper. Well, you don’t need too vivid an imagination to envisage what that might be like. Just the ability to remember how things were in the UK back in March and April of this year.

The shortages weren’t the result of disastrous crop failures, or the collapse of supply chains. It was panic buying. Some people shoved more fresh produce into their shopping trolleys than they could possibly eat, with the result that mounds of fruit and vegetables were binned. What a waste. You will probably remember the video posted online by a tearful nurse asking people to ‘just stop’ their panicked purchasing. After a busy hospital shift she was unable to get hold of the basic goods she needed for her family.

 Things are better now, thankfully, but what happened back in the spring gave us a glimpse into what life is like in some countries when famine or disaster strikes. It was a reminder not to take a plentiful supply of everyday produce for granted. Harvest Time give us an opportunity to pause and give thanks to God, the ‘giver of every good and perfect gift’.

He not only gives us food and drink, but satisfies the deepest needs of our souls. Jesus warns us of the danger of seeking satisfaction merely on a material level, “Do not labour for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.” Our hearts will only be satisfied in knowing God through Jesus. That is why he came into the world to die for our sins and be raised to life. As he said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”

Harvest Services Sunday 4 October

Providence Baptist Church 10.30am 

Ebenezer Baptist Church 4.30pm 

Livestreamed Evening Service, 6.00pm 

See our Providence & Ebenezer website for info on attending our Harvest Services.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Tenet film review

What seems like ages ago in the future we went to see Tenet the first Saturday in September.  Time flies when you're having fun. 

There's this thing, right, that weaponises time so that bullets reverse fire and bombs unexplode. Cars go backwards too. Mostly stuff goes forwards, though, but sometimes in the past the future happens at the same time. And if you're from the future you'll need to wear an oxygen mask now. 

Got to be careful not to bump into your past self when you drop in from the future, as you may end up having a scrap with him [you]. And be sure not to kill your grandparents, as then you may not get born in the future to kill them and that will change the past. They do things differently there.

Confused?

There was an explainer in The Times the other Saturday. Explained that the science behind the film wasn't too facty. With my grade 5 CSE Physics, I think I got that.

Kenneth Branagh is a Russian baddie, Andrei Sator. Bit of a megalomaniac. Dying. No going gentle into that good night for him. Going to take the world with him by nuking the time travelling widget. This is a cause of some domestic tensions with his wife, Kat, a willowy blonde played by Elizabeth Debicki. Basically reprising her role in Night Watchman. Sator probably should have discussed it with her first. Would have been OK, then. 

Anyway, good job The Protagonist (John David Washington) is on hand to save the day and set things up for a sequel. Spoiler, the world doesn't really end, yet. 

If you find criss-crossing, time-shifting narrative arcs confusing, this one's going to do your head in. Like Inception, but not as much as Little Women

Now for the hidden theological message bit. The future invades the present, now and not yet. 

All clear now? 

Sunday, September 27, 2020

An interview with Professor Stuart Burgess: 'Science & Faith: Harmony or Conflict'

Earlier this evening I interviewed Stuart Burgess, professor of Engineering Design at Bristol University. Among other things we discussed whether the Christian faith is compatible with science and whether it is possible for human beings to have personal knowledge of their Creator. I enjoyed our consersation. Hopefully you will too. 

 

Thursday, September 24, 2020

'Faith and Science: Harmony or Conflict?' An interview with Stuart Burgess

On Sunday 27 September at 6.00pm I will be interviewing Professor Stuart Burgess on 'Faith and Science: Harmony or Conflict?'. The interview will be livestreamed here on our Church Facebook page.

Stuart Burgess is a professor of Engineering Design at Bristol University. He has worked for the European Space Agency on spacecraft design and also worked for the British Olympic Cycling Team, designing the chain transmission for the Rio and Tokyo Olympics. He has published over 170 scientific papers on the science of design in engineering and nature and received several national awards including the 2019 IMechE Clayton Prize for the biggest contribution to mechanical engineering science in the UK.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Objection to Westbury Incinerator Plans

I emailed this letter to Wiltshire Council. The deadline for responses is 22 September. Send yours to: Developmentmanagement@wiltshire.gov.uk or see here for the Wiltshire Council planning application page. 

Dear Sir/Madam,

Westbury Incinerator planning number 20/06775/WCM

We are writing to object to the planned Westbury Incinerator at Northacre Industrial Estate.

Many people living in the town already suffer with chronic health problems. Cancer and lung condition deaths are higher here than across Wiltshire. 

Poor air quality has been exacerbated by HGVs being diverted from Bath onto the A350 through Westbury. The Incinerator would mean an additional 20,000 truck journeys a year around the town. 

Smoke billowing from the Incinerator chimney would make the situation even worse, further damaging the health of Westbury residents.

The children and young people of the town deserve better than to have their lives blighted by growing up in the shadow of this environmentally disastrous development. 

We would urge that Wiltshire Council oppose the Incinerator plans submitted by Northacre Renewable Energy Ltd.

Yours sincerely....

See the Westbury Gasification Action Group for more information. 

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

The Mystery of Christ: His Covenant & His Kingdom by Samuel Renihan (review part 1)

Founders Press, 2019, 217pp

In his earlier title, From Shadow to Substance: The Federal Theology of the English Particular Baptists (1642-1704), Samuel Renihan set out to demonstrate that the federal theology of the seventeenth English Particular Baptists was a legitimate strain within Reformed covenant theology. A work of historical theology, in it the author compared and contrasted the views of Nehemiah Coxe and others with mainline Orthodox Reformed thought. The Mystery of Christ: His Kingdom & His Covenant is a fresh and original study in its own right. The focus here is on how the twin themes of covenant and kingdom disclose the 'mystery of Christ' as they unfold in biblical revelation. 

Methodology 

Renihan begins by clearing the ground, dealing with matters of methodology and defining key terms. He makes an important distinction between our obligation to God by virtue of creation and covenant-based relationships. As God's creature, human beings are subject to 'natural law'. Keeping the law in this sense would not merit a reward, for God is due our entire obedience. In a covenant relationship, however, God may be pleased of his own free goodness to reward obedience with the promise of life. Covenants often involve 'positive laws' that go beyond the universal moral standards of natural law. The command that Adam should not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is an example of positive law, as is the command that the descendants of Abraham should be circumcised.  As positive laws are contingent on specific covenant relationships. They cannot of necessity be carried forward into different covenant relationships. The types and shadows of the old covenant no longer apply in new covenant era, as in Christ we have the substance. 

Another important distinction is between the law and the gospel. In a stark sense law and gospel are polar opposites. The former demands perfect obedience to God's commands, the latter offers Christ's perfect imputed righteousness to the believing sinner. But in terms of the historic biblical covenants, law and gospel are both present. While the old covenant is often described as 'the law', it also held out the promise of life in Christ. While the new covenant underscores that salvation is by faith alone, the law is written on the hearts of believers and its righteous requirements are fulfilled in those who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. As Robert Letham points out, all the biblical covenants are based on grace, yet regulated by law. (Systematic Theology, Robert Letham, Crossway, 2019, p. 364-365). 

The old covenant bore witness to Christ though it's types and shadows, but the full revelation of Messiah and his work was not yet made known. That is why Paul refers to the 'mystery of Christ' (Ephesians 3:4, Colossians 4:3). Biblical revelation is progressive. Covenant theology should be sensitive to history and mystery and not try to flatten the upward curve of God's self-disclosure in Christ. 

Renihan sees an intimate connection between the themes of covenant and kingdom. A covenant is a guaranteed commitment between two parties. Promises are attached to the fulfilment of covenant obligations. Sanctions or threats give the covenant arrangement legal sanction. In terms of the biblical covenants God makes promises blessing to those who are faithful to his covenant and threatens judgement upon those who break its terms. Remarkably, the Lord took the sanctions upon himself when formalising his covenant with Abraham, Genesis 15:9-10, 17-20. 

Three Kingdoms 

God contracts his covenants with federal heads, or representative figures. That was certainly the case with the covenants associated with Adam, Noah, David and Christ. Blessings or sanctions flow from the federal heads to those who belong to them. "Covenants function as the legal basis upon which God interacts with man in a given kingdom." (p. 54). This applies to the three kingdoms God established, each governed by their own specific covenants. The Lord governs the Kingdom of Creation by means of the Covenant of Works and the Noahic Covenant. The Kingdom of Israel is constituted by the Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic Covenants. Finally the Kingdom of Christ is the realisation of the Covenant of Redemption and Covenant of Grace. 

The Kingdom of Creation 
Although the word 'covenant' may not be used of God's relationship with humanity in Adam (although see Hosea 6:7), all the essential elements of a biblical covenant are present. By virtue of his creation, Adam was obligated to obey God, both in terms of 'natural law' and also his God-given task of exercising dominion over the creation. But beyond this, Adam was the recipient of covenantal promises and sanctions. He was promised access to the tree of life and the reward of entering God's rest once his work of subduing creation had been completed. He was threatened with the sanction of death and expulsion from the garden sanctuary of Eden if he disobeyed God by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 

Adam did not deserve the blessings of life and rest. In his goodness God condescended to bestow these rewards upon him on the condition of obedience, This was a covenant of works. That Adam was the federal head of the covenant of works is evident from that fact the all humanity fell with him into sin and death in the Genesis account. This is spelt out in Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22. The covenant of works has now been abrogated. There is no way back to Eden, no second chance to keep its command to refrain from eating of the forbidden tree. Humanity remains under the curse of this broken covenant. Sin reigns in death over all people in Adam. The moral law continues to demand obedience to God, but sinners cannot live up to its requirements and so attract God's condemnation and wrath for their transgressions. 

The promise of salvation through a deliverer immediately after the fall was the first revelation of the covenant of grace, Genesis 3:15. It was only by means of this covenant that the protology of the covenant of works would be brought to its eschatological fulfilment in Christ. As Isaac Watts sang, 'In him the tribes of Adam boast/more blessings than their father lost." 

Under the Noahic covenant, after the judgement of the flood the Lord promised to preserve the 'common kingdom' of sin-ruined creation until Christ came to make all things new. "The mystery of Christ will unfold in this theatre of preservation." (p. 82).

The Kingdom of Israel 
In common with the Particular Baptist tradition Renihan links the Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic covenants as variegated expressions of the old covenant. These covenants flowed from God's grace towards Israel, but they are not in themselves administrations of the covenant of grace. They were intended to serve as 'covenants of promise' through which Messiah would be born into the world and bring blessing to Israel and all peoples. While the promise of Messiah though the seed of Abraham entailed a further revelation of the covenant of grace, life in the Promised Land was conditional upon Israel fulfilling her covenant obligations. In that sense the old covenant was a covenant of works, but that does not mean it was a republication of the Adamic covenant. 

The laws associated with the Mosaic covenant elaborated upon the covenant obligations that the Lord imposed upon Abraham, Genesis 17:1, 9-11. But the people of Israel were not saved by keeping those laws. Rather, like Abraham, salvation was for those who believed the promise of blessing through Messiah, Genesis 15:6 cf. Romans 4. Not all of Abraham's descendants believed the promise that was revealed to them through the types and shadows of the old covenant, Romans 9. The law had no power to compel obedience. Israel was often wayward and rebellious. Their covenant breaking led to Israel being expelled from the Promised Land. 

The kings in the line of David acted as federal heads of the whole nation. The kingdom of Israel rose or fell according to the faithfulness of their earthly rulers, 2 Samuel 7, Psalm 89. The people of Israel were in a highly privileged position. From the descendants of Abraham and David would come the longed for Christ. But Israel broke the terms of the old covenant. Her kingdom lay in ruins. A new covenant and kingdom was therefore needed, Jeremiah 31:31-34. 

I think I'll leave it there for now. In part 2 of the review we will look at what Renihan has to say on the Kingdom of Christ and move from an attempt to summarise his thesis to constructive appraisal. One critical point that I would make is that The Mystery of Christ isn't available in the UK, or can only be ordered if you are willing to pay a handsome price for p&p. Mine is a review copy courtesy  of Founders Press. I hope they soon are able to sort out a UK distribution deal. 

Sunday, September 06, 2020

Life: It's a risky business

 ᐈ Lighting stock pics, Royalty Free lightning bolt pictures | download on  Depositphotos®
For months the government’s message to its citizens was, ‘Stay At Home, Save Lives, Protect the NHS’. Now that lockdown measures are easing ministers would like us to venture out a bit more. Workers should leave the comforts of home and get back to the office, otherwise sandwich shops will go bust. Then there was the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ initiative, counterbalanced by a campaign to encourage people to take more exercise. Air corridors were opened to favourite holiday spots, only for them to close again, forcing Brits returning from Spain and France to quarantine for two weeks.

After months of being told what to do during lockdown we are now being asked to weigh up the risks for ourselves and get on with life as best we can. Of course, it would be wrong to be foolhardy. Social distancing and good hand hygiene should be maintained, but living life to the full involves taking risks. Sadly, we know that not everyone who gets married ‘lives happily ever after’, yet many of us nevertheless risked all for love, pledging to stick by our wife or husband, ‘for better for worse, for richer, for poorer’. And we’re glad we did.

A playing it safe, risk-free life would be rather dull. One thing that enables us to take risks is hope. Holiday makers hoped their trip to the south of France would be worth the inconvenience of possibly having to quarantine. The Christian faith is big on risk-defying hope in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The first Christian missionaries to the New Hebrides were killed and eaten by cannibals only minutes after they reached land. That was in 1839. Almost ten years later John G. Paton and his wife set sail for the same islands with the intention of sharing the good news of Jesus with the inhabitants.

A friend tried to warn Paton against such a risky undertaking, “You will be eaten by cannibals!” The missionary would not be put off, replying, Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honouring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by cannibals or by worms.”

Paton wasn’t eaten by cannibals. His mission was a success and he lived to a good old age. The preacher’s unwavering hope in Jesus enabled him to take a huge risk that paid off. We may not be called to such a dangerous mission, but with hope in our hearts we can defy fear and face the risky business that is life in a world stricken by coronavirus.

*For News & Views, West Lavington parish magazine 

Thursday, September 03, 2020

How to pray with help from Martin Luther

I started reading this during our summer hols and am still working my way through. The author, Harold Senkbeil is a Lutheran pastor and that Reformation tradition enriches the classic model of pastoral care he commends in these pages. Although some aspects of Lutheran pastoral practice freak me out a bit.

In chapter 4 the writer has section on 'How to Pray'. He uses Martin Luther's model of prayer as a means of equipping pastors to help their people in the practice of prayerful meditation on God's word. 

Luther would use a "prayer wreath" approach to praying through a biblical text. I'd not come across this before and found it helpful. The "wreath" has four basic strands, (1) precept; (2) thanksgiving; (3) confession; (4) supplication. See p. 106-107 (Kindle edition). 

Senkbeil uses the opening petition of the Lord's prayer as a worked example, "Hallowed be thy name.". I summarise in my own words: 

1, Father you teach me that your name is holy. Your name is to be revered above all things. In the waters of baptism I was baptised into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and now I belong to you. 

2. I thank you Father that you have set me apart as holy to yourself by the blood of your Son and presence of your Spirit. I gladly offer my life to you as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to you, which is my reasonable service. 

3. I confess that by life and lip I have profaned your holy name. Forgive my sin for Jesus' sake.

4. Help me, Father to be holy as you are holy in thought, word and deed, that my life may reflect your character to the glory of your name.

The same basic approach can be applied to most any portion of the word of God. With a sprinkling of homiletical pixie dust the four strands can be relabelled: (1) precept; (2) praise; (3) penitence; (4) prayer. 

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Awaiting Moderation

How to Add a Widget to Blogger in 10 Steps
When I first started blogging people used to comment on my posts on a pretty regular basis. Occasionally you might get a good discussion going and a longish thread of comments would ensue. I was only thinking recently that those days seem to have gone. 

Now comment on or discussion of blog content tends to take place on Facebook or Twitter, rather than in the comments field of a post. 

Comments on my blog have to be moderated by me before publication. That helps to avoid posts being cluttered up with stupid, irrelevant and spammy comments, which I would then have to delete.

But it's been ages since I checked to see whether any comments were awaiting moderation. When I did think to check the other day there were quite a few for me to look at. There were a several in Arabic. Seemed to my untrained eye like exactly the same comment on several different posts. Exotic spam, probably.

Then there were the typo/error alert comments. A number of those, oddly enough. John Blanchard's Gathered Gold had become Gathered God. Not a Freudian slip, I hope. Embarrassingly, in one post I missed the 'l' from public. I do read through the stuff I write here before posting, honest. This blog has always been plagued by typos. And readers have always enjoyed pointing them out. Glad to be of service. Pedants.

Much to my surprise Robert Letham left a few comments. Evidently he had been reading my Plague Journals, which featured updates on my progress in reading his Systematic Theology. As well as 'I read from page ? to page ?? in the last week' kind of thing, I would also do a bit of a running review. You will find his comments at the foot of Plague Journal: Weeks 11-13.

I've now finished Letham's ST, and very good it is too. A review has been submitted to the Banner of Truth Magazine. You'll have to wait until its published there until I post my impressions on the blog. All I'll say for now is that it was one of the best STs I've read. Although, as a Reformed Baptist I didn't always agree with his stance on covenant theology, baptism and the church.

Sorry if I've neglected you if you've been kind enough to comment. The typos/errors highlighted have now been duly corrected.

Maybe the golden age of blog comments isn't quite over yet. I just need to remember to check to see if there's anything awaiting moderation more frequently. 

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Quarantine Journal


In my justly unfamous Plague Journals I reflected in harrowing detail on the stresses and strains of my transformation from old school preacher to 21st century Cyber Pastor. I can now Zoom with the best of them, although linking the platform with Facebook Live is still a bit hit and miss. And when I say 'with the best of them', that was a idle boast, really. I mean, some flashy churches do stuff like getting their worship band to play and sing together, despite being in different homes. We just stream Aber hymns. 

Ebenezer Baptist Church started gathered worship services at the beginning of August. It was good to be able to preach to a living, breathing congregation, rather than a pixelated version. The Chapel has no internet connection, but I managed to stream the service to FB Live using my mobile phone for the benefit of those unable to attend. At Providence Baptist Church we await the completion of major building works before we can meet at the Chapel. Hopefully it won't be too long before we can gather.

Like many other churches, even when both of ours are able to meet for worship, that will only be for one service a week, with other things continuing online so long as the government's Covid Secure guidance applies in its current form. 

We had a nice holiday in Biarritz in the Basque region of France from 4-18 August. I visited the city when Interrailing  as a student back in 1989. I remember hoping that if a girl I had my eye on and me got together, I'd like to take her to Biarritz one day. It seemed such a lovely, romantic place. Reader, I married her and 29 years since Sarah and I got hitched I finally whisked her off to the South of France. 

We booked the holiday back in January, way before the coronavirus outbreak came to dominate everything. For months it looks as though we wouldn't be able to go. Then the government opened an 'air corridor' to France and we were off.  Covid cases were low in the Basque region, but we kept an eye on UK news, as it became apparent that infections were on the up in France as a whole. Soon enough the 'air corridor' was slammed shut again on Saturday 15 August. But we didn't join the stampede to beat the deadline and avoid having to self-isolate for 14 days, 

While on holiday we enjoyed spending time on the beaches of Biarritz, exploring the town and eating out at local restaurants, We often went for evening walks to watch the sun go down and saw some amazing sunsets. When on holiday Sarah likes soaking up the rays, while I huddle under a parasol reading books, popping out several times during the day for a swim in the sea. I read Rorke's Drift: A New Perspective, by Neil Thornton and Interpreting Eden, by Vern Poythress. I almost finished The Mystery of Christ: His Covenant & His Kingdom, by Samuel Renihan and made a good start on The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor's Heart by Harold Senbbeil. 

The second of the four titles was for review in the Banner Magazine and I've been asked to delay posting a my impressions on the blog until its published there. I'm currently working on a review of the third book, which I've now finished. Still reading the last one. I liked the first two or three chapters very much. The author's gentle pastoral heart shines through every page. But his Lutheranism seems to get more pronounced as the book proceeds. Talk of crucifixes and the like doesn't sit well with me as a Grace Baptist Pastor, but there are good things here too, with a strong emphasis on Word and Spirit in ministry. 

When on holiday we found an English speaking CofE congregation in Biarritz. They had a Lutheran pastor take the service on the first Sunday we were there, but had no preacher for the second Sunday. They knew I was a minister because we made contact with a member of the group before we set off for France. I ended up preaching the second Sunday, on Matthew 15:21-28, which was one of the Lectionary readings of the day. I wondered how I might go down with the people, as they weren't used to your typical Reformed Baptist preaching, but I felt helped and they've invited me to preach there again sometime. 'Guy Davies Global Ministries' really is becoming a thing at last.

Anyway, having returned to the UK after the quarantining deadline, we've been under virtual 'house arrest' for the best part of a fortnight. I don't know why the government can't regionalise 'air corridors' so only people staying in parts of countries with high infection rates are affected, or why they can't sort out airport testing, so only people who test positive need to isolate? Unlike for some, my work wasn't affected too badly, as most of our services are still online. 

In any case I didn't start back to work until last Monday, although there were still some bits and pieces that needed doing before then. We've had to do our big weekly shop over the internet and rely on our daughter to get us the other things we needed from the shops. Apart from work, we've done some decorating at home. I've managed to get a good bit of reading done and caught up with church members via phone and Zoom meetings. 

We got up to speed with the BBC's A Suitable Boy (1 episode still to watch) and used our freebie week's subscription to Now TV to see the powerful and thought-proving drama, Chernobyl. What a harrowing expose of the corrupt old Soviet Union. The whole system was based on illusion and lies, but the truth about the nuclear disaster  as told by Valery Legasov and others at great cost helped to bring the system crashing to the ground. 

I usually don't bother to shave when on holiday and have continued unshaven while quarantining. Here I am wearing at hat that was a birthday gift from our son. We'll be able to venture out again on Tuesday. The beard may have to go by then, but we'll see. 

Monday, August 24, 2020

Can Science Explain Everything? by John C. Lennox

The Good Book Company, 2019, 127pp

I forgot to review this book when I read it sometime last year. Not sure why it slipped through the net. I think I quoted from it in a sermon shortly after reading it and a member of the congregation expressed an interest, so I lent it to them. When they returned the book the moment had passed and I simply popped it on a  bookshelf, unreviewed. 


I bought the title having watched a discussion between John Lennox and Peter Atkins chaired by Justin Brierley on Premier Radio. Here it is. Lennox came to my attention more recently when I noted that he's one of the speakers on Sing! Global, hosted by the Gettys. On seeing a promo clip I was pretty sure I'd read one of Lennox's books and tried searching my blog for the review to see what I thought about it. Nothing. The one that got away.

So, here's a review of a book I only vaguely remember reading and haven't gone to the trouble of re-reading, just a brief skim through. In my sermon I believe I quoted the bit where Lennox recalls a conversation he had with a senior academic when he was a student. The professor told him that if he wanted to get on in the scientific world he would have to abandon his Christian faith. Lennox responded that atheism had nothing better to offer than his faith, so he would maintain his beliefs. 

Some people like to suggest that scientists observe the world with chilly detachment. From their Olympian heights they hand down definitive explanations of how the universe originated and operates. The explanations proceed on the basis of physical laws of cause and effect. Everything can be accounted for on that level. Even if some stuff can't be scientifically explained at the moment, one day it will. God doesn't get a look in. The Bible, a book of primitive mythology has nothing to say to the world of science, which is based on observation and reason, not faith.

And what about Galileo? He turns up in chapter 1, Can you be a scientist and believe in God? Hint, yes. Science certainly offers explanations of how the material universe works that are cogent on one level, but meaning and purpose in the universe isn't exhausted once the equations have been reeled out. Lennox uses the illustration of a boiling kettle. At a scientific level the water is boiling because the electrical element in the kettle has heated the H20 to 100°c. That's good as far as it goes, but it would also be perfectly correct to say that the kettle is boiling because I fancy a cup of tea. To say that only scientific explanations count is reductionist 'nothing buttery'. (Not to be confused with Utterly Buttery). 

The Bible may not deal in scientific theories, but its message reveals the purpose of life; that human beings were made to know, love and glorify their Creator. By way of contrast, Richard Dawkins views the world as devoid of ultimate purpose, seeing only "blind, pitiless indifference". If that's all atheists have to offer, no wonder Lennox couldn't be persuaded to abandon his faith in God. 

Science has done a wonderful job in discovering the presence of natural laws such as gravitational force, but it cannot explain why those laws exist or how it is that we are able to understand their workings. Lennox exposes the logical flaw in Stephen Hawkin's argument that, "Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing." (p. 37). So, because there is something (gravity), the universe must have created itself from nothing? OK. And anyway, laws do not create, they simply describe how created stuff operates.

Self-creation is self-contradictory. But if God made everything, who made God? Lennox addresses that one too. God is by definition outside of the world of material causation. He is an infinite and eternal being, without beginning or end. Science depends on the universe working in orderly and predictable ways and assumes that human beings are able to decipher the laws of nature, That makes perfect sense if God created the world in his wisdom and to display his goodness. That we are able to make sense of things also makes sense if we were created in the image of God. Which is why the scientific method arose in a context where the Christian faith was the prevailing worldview. The scientific method in itself gives no rationale for the scientific method. 

Yes, but what about the scientific claim that the universe is 13.8 billion years old, rather than a mere thousands of years old as the Book of Genesis seems to claim. Lennox distances himself from 6 x 24 hour creationists, saying that their view is a 'particular interpretation' of Genesis 1, one that he doesn't hold to himself. He advances a 'gap theory' position, which isn't especially convincing either. I'll return to the length of the creation days in my forthcoming review of Interpreting Eden, by Vern Poythress. 

Anyway, the Christian belief isn't ultimately a worldview that is worth holding to because of its explanatory power. The faith is founded upon the historic claim that in Jesus God became man to die for our sins on the cross and that he rose bodily from the grave. As the author shows in chapter 8, if that claim isn't true, Christianity can be disproved and dismissed as false. But it is true and the New Testament provides compelling evidence for us to believe that Jesus lives. 

Here's where it gets personal. We must believe in order to understand. By faith in Jesus we are reconciled to God, experience the forgiveness of sin and know the hope of everlasting life. Science can't explain everything. The ultimate purpose of life is disclosed in Christ, though whom and for whom God created all things. 

People who have fallen for the oft-repeated claim that 'science has disproved God' would do well to give this book a read. Christians studying the natural sciences in an atheistic environment will find reassurance here that their their faith is not incompatible with science. In writing Can Science Explain Everything? John Lennox has provided a handy apologetic tool that will enable believers to give a reason for their hope in a sceptical age.

There. done it. 

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Rorke's Drift: A New Perspective, by Neil Thornton

Fonthill Media, 2016, Kindle edition

Earth! render back from out thy breast

A remnant of our Spartan dead!

Of the three hundred grant but three,

To make a new Thermopylae!

Lord Byron 

Corporal Francis Atwood of the Army Service Corps was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his exploits at the defence of Rorke's Drift. As the Commanding Officer pinned the medal to his chest, he alluded to Leonidas and his band of three hundred Spartan warriors who held the pass at Thermopylae in the face of a 'great barbarian host'. He hoped that as poets had sung of Thermopylae some 2,000 years after the battle, so the 'small but intrepid band of men who fought and died, but held their ground against a savage foe' at the 'glorious defence of Rorke's Drift', would be similarly acclaimed down the ages. 

Zulu

Partly due to the 1964 film, Zulu, the events of 22-23 January 1879 are unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon. My first encounter with this 'new Thermopylae' was by means of that film. There were two cinemas in Newport, South Wales where I grew up, the Odeon and the ABC. For some reason the ABC decided to screen Zulu, which was originally released two years before I was born. I was still a kid when my parents took me to see it in all its big screen glory. In the interval I went to buy an ice cream. The film restarted before I returned to my parents. I was confronted by a the image of a massive Zulu brandishing an assegai at me. I ran back to my mum and dad as quickly as my legs would carry me. Since that startling first encounter I have probably watched Zulu more times than any other film.

I've also done a bit of casual reading about the defence of Rorke's Drift and watched the occasional documentary, so I was aware that while the film was based on an historical event, some dramatic licence was used in retelling the story. The regiment wasn't called the South Wales Borderers at the time, but the 2nd Warwickshire Regiment of Foot. The stirring 'Men of Harlech' sing off between the British soldiers and the Zulus before the final wave of attack was more Hollywood than history. 


There we are. The main aim of this book isn't simply to debunk Zulu, however, but to provider an accurate historical account of the defence of Rorke's Drift. The author, Neil Thornton alludes to Martin Luther's emphasis on sola scriptura, which took him back to the sources of the Christian faith in the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament. In Thornton's case, he determined to review the primary sources, rather than simply repeat the received wisdom found in secondary literature. His account offers fresh insight into the evacuation of the sick from the hospital at the height of the battle

 Rorke's Drift must fall?

The heroic defence of the mission station has been celebrated as one of the most illustrious episodes in British military history. The reason for British intervention in what became South Africa isn't quite so illustrious. A great game was being played by the great European powers to carve up Africa. The author neither condemns or condones British imperial adventurism. The geopolitical context of the iSandlwana massacre and defence of Rorke's Drift is sketched out simply to provide the backdrop to the military campaigns. The men who fought at Rorke's Drift admired the noble bravery of their opponents, but racist overtones are undeniable in the contemporary accounts, which speak of the British soldiers shooting  down countless assegai-wielding N******. Woke hadn't been invented back then. History is a messy business that was forged by less than perfect human beings, often acting from mixed motives, with ordinary squaddies caught up in the thick of it. Whatever we might think of British Imperialism, there are certainly things to admire about the defence of Rorke's Drift.  

 Courage

Around 150 British and other soldiers stationed at the Rorke's Drift faced Zulu forces estimated at 3,000 warriors. Some of the men of 2nd Warwickshire Regiment stationed at the mission station under the command of Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead wished they could have joined their comrades as they invaded Zulu territory in a quest to engage with the enemy. When news filtered through that a column of over 1,300 British soldiers had been cut down at  iSandlwana on 22 January, the reports were greeted with horror and disbelief. Zulu warriors who similarly had been denied their shot at glory on that field of battle were now making their way towards Rorke's Drift for what looked like a straightforward victory. 'You will all be murdered and cut to pieces!' cried a mounted messenger from the scene of slaughter. 

Bromhead's orders were to stand firm. Lieutenant John Chard of the Royal Engineers was supervising the building of ponts across a nearby river. As the superior officer he assumed overall command of the defence of Rorke's Drift. With the benefit of advice from Acting Commissary James Dalton Chard began to organise the defences, setting up a wall of mealie bags and stationing men to defend the hospital. 

Thornton describes the ensuing action in gripping detail from the first shots fired at the enemy by Private Hitch. The vastly outnumbered men of the 2nd Warwickshire kept the Zulu forces at bay by bullet and bayonet. While all showed great courage, some went well beyond the call of duty. Private Hook did sterling work in defending the hospital and helping evacuate the sick. Bromhead, Chard and Dalton fought alongside their soldiers, often in the most dangerous and exposed positions. Men fought on although injured and terribly weary. Defeat seemed inevitable, but the soldiers were determined to stand together and not lose their lives cheaply. 

In Zulu, the Swedish clergyman Otto Witt is portrayed as a drunk and a coward. In real life, Witt fled the scene before battle commenced to look after his family at nearby Msinga. The mission station chaplain, Reverend George Smith remained at Rorke's Drift, however. He did his bit too, making sure the men were supplied with cartridges, which earned him the nickname 'Ammunition Smith'. The chaplain moved among the soldiers offering words of rebuke and encouragement, 'Don't swear men, don't swear, but shoot them boys, shoot them!'. 

The Victoria Crosses and Distinguished Conduct Medals detailed in chapter 7 were well deserved, 

Leadership

Bromhead, Chard and Dalton showed themselves hugely capable and courageous leaders at the defence of Rorke's Drift. They thought and acted quickly to shore up the mission station's defences. At Chard's instructions a final redoubt was constructed out of mealie bags and biscuit boxes. Blind spots were covered. Bromhead led small detachments of men to reinforce the line where the battle was at it fiercest. There was no petty rivalry between the two Lieutenants. After the siege was lifted, Bromhead visited his wounded men and ensured they received the best possible treatment. After the action some higher up officers held a low opinion of Bromhead and Chard. Despite their outstanding leadership at the defence of Rorke's Drift, they were deemed to be rather ordinary men. Thrusting, ambitious types unfairly looked down on them. True leadership isn't flashy. Competence, courage and the ability to inspire confidence when it counts are the thing. 

Tragedy

Chapter 7 not only details the VCs and DCMs awarded to the men who fought at Rorke's Drift, it also shows what became of the heroes of that battle in later life. While some lived to reach a good old age, others died before their time. Some of disease, others in destitution, One man took his own life, the balance of his mind disturbed. It struck me as particularly tragic that men who had fought so hard to live should then die in such miserable ways, Ecclesiastes 9:11. 

Thornton provides a well-researched and compelling account of the action. The book loses a bit if steam after chapter 6, Salvation, where the mission station is relieved and the siege lifted. Unlike King Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans, the majority of the defenders of Rorke's Drift thankfully lived to tell the tale. There is a fair bit if repetition in chapter 7, Gallantry Recipients, which stricter editing could have avoided. Chapter 8 and a number of appendices detail the thinking behind the author's proposed two stage evacuation of the hospital. 


Highly recommended for anyone who wants to get at the truth behind Zulu. If only Richard Burton was around to narrate a version of the book for Audible. 

Monday, July 20, 2020

Glory Unmasked

File:Wear Face Coverings Icon.svg - Wikimedia Commons
The time was that if you wore a mask into a shop you were probably going to rob it. I mean, why else would you want to try and hide your identity? Although, Zorro and the Lone Ranger were goodies and they wore masks, as did Batman. But on the whole those who wore masks in public were a suspect bunch. If you saw someone looking a bit shifty on the streets after dark with a stripy top, wearing a mask and with a bag slung over their shoulder, you’d probably call the cops.

However, from 24 July we’re all meant to wear face coverings when visiting the shops and other venues. Indeed, mask wearing has become a hallmark of responsible citizenship. Like many other people, it’s not something I’m especially keen on, but I’ll go along with it. We’ve all got to do our bit to halt the spread of Covid-19. Donning a face covering does make me feel a bit awkward, though and that’s not just because they make my glasses steam up.

Human beings are social beings and to live in a community with other people you need to be able to communicate. Yes, we communicate primarily with words, but body language and facial gestures are also important. That’s why electronic communications often involve misunderstandings. You can’t see the twinkle in someone’s eye when they type a gently ironic remark, so you’re offended at their cold sarcasm. You point this out, only for them to explain that’s not how they meant it at all.

Similarly with face coverings. We can’t always tell what’s going on behind the mask, a welcoming smile, or a tetchy grimace. Something essential to proper communication and interaction has been lost. The longing for community and communication is hard-wired into the human psyche. Christians believe that is because we were made in the image of God. The God of the Christian faith is not a solitary loner. In the one God are three persons; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who have ever existed in loving fellowship. Made in the image of God, we are social beings. We find the deepest fulfilment in our relationships with others, whether family or friends.

For reasons of public health we’ll wear our face coverings as the government requires, but they do act as a communication barrier. The sooner we no longer need the things the better. Sin acts as a barrier between us and God. It prevents us from seeing his glory and enjoying fellowship with him. That’s why Jesus came to die for our sins that we may be reconciled to God. As we turn to Christ the barrier is removed and we glimpse the glory of God reflected in Jesus’ face, But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Race, Identity and Grace

England Rugby fans may be banned from singing Swing Low Sweet Chariot. It has slavery connotations, apparently. Which it does. But not in a Edward Colston kind of way. According to anti-racism campaigner, Trevor Phillips, the song was composed by a freed slave just after the American civil war. The ‘Sweet Chariot’ was the Underground Railway, a network of secret routes that helped runaway slaves escape to freedom. Swing Low was a favourite of Louis Armstrong and Martin Luther King. As well as celebrating the Underground Railway, the song was probably an allusion to a dramatic episode in the Bible, when chariots of fire appeared and the prophet Elijah was swept up to heaven in a whirlwind.  

You’d have thought the English rugby authorities would be pleased that fans had adopted an anti-slavery anthem as their song, but no. Writing in The Times (19 June), Phillips argued that an obsession with symbols has overtaken a desire to change the world. Toppling statues and banning songs won’t deal with the issue of racial equality. But such gestures may help us to feel better about ourselves.

Is it just attention deflecting 'whataboutery' to ask why aren't people taking to the streets to protest against modern slavery, rather than vandalising public iconography? The killing of George Floyd was an outrage, but in recent weeks scores of Christian villagers were slaughtered at the hands of Boko Haram in North East Nigeria. See this Open Doors report. You won't hear a lot about that in the media. Christians don't tend to rank very highly when it comes to oppressed victimhood status. 

Welcome to the increasingly febrile world of identity politics. Martin Luther King famously dreamed of a day when people would be judged not on the colour of their skin, but the content of their character. With identity politics, race itself is politicised. The effect is to further divide, rather than bring healing and reconciliation. The hip hop artist Kayne West was denounced as ‘not black’ because of his support for the Republican Party. Closer to home Labour MPs wrote to Home Secretary Priti Patel, questioning her authority to speak out on racism, here. The Black Lives Matter movement has Marxist sympathies. 

Why am I wading in on the subject of an England rugby song? You wouldn’t catch me singing it, anyway. I’m Welsh and can happily sing, Bread of Heaven, knowing that it’s author, William Williams Pantycelyn (1717-1791) wasn’t tainted by slavery in any way. Williams was caught up in the Evangelical Revival that swept across the United Kingdom in the Eighteenth Century. He was a physician turned preacher and a prolific hymn writer. Many of the leading campaigners against the slave trade were Evangelicals such as John Newton and William Wilberforce. 

Their argument against the vile trade was based on the Bible. The Bible teaches that all human beings are made in the image of God, whatever the colour of the skin. There is only one race, the human race. Scripture teaches that we should love our neighbour as ourselves. Jesus was crucified, enduring the death of a common slave to save the world from sin. In the church, a person’s primary identity is in Christ, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

In the light of those beliefs slavery had to go. The icon of the anti-slavery movement was a black man in chains with the caption, "Am I not a man and a brother?" In the light of those same beliefs discrimination on the basis of skin colour has to go. But virtue signalling identity politics isn't the answer. Identity politics tends to be quick to denounce and tear down, but knows little of grace or forgiveness. The Christian faith offers hope to a broken and divided world. The preacher John Newton was once a captain of a slave ship. Later in life he bitterly regretted his involvement in the trade and worked with Wilberforce to campaign against it. Today’s ‘cancel culture’ would show him no mercy, but in advanced old age Newton could say this, 'Although my memory's fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Saviour.'