Friday, December 22, 2006

Happy Christmas!

A foggy Westbury High Street

Here's wishing my readers a very happy Christmas. May you be filled with the joy of the Saviour and experience the blessing of time spent relaxing with family and friends.

It is often said that the virgin birth of Christ has little theological significance. See here for my post on this subject from Christmas 2005, in which I question that assumption.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Partakers of the divine nature (part 3)

In the previous two posts (click on the label below), I sought to probe the Biblical teaching on this subject. Now, in this final post, I propose to look at the theology of partaking of the divine nature.
Athanasius (295?-373), well known for his defence of the full deity of Christ, was much taken with the idea of Christians partaking of the divine nature. For him, it is only possible for human beings to be deified if Jesus was fully God and fully Man,
"For therefore did he assume the body originate and human, that having renewed it as its framer, he might deify it in himself, and thus might introduce us all into the kingdom of heaven after his likeness. For man had not been deified if joined to a creature, or unless the Son were very God; nor had man been brought into the Father's presence, unless he had been his natural and true Word who has put on the body." (Against the Arians 2.70)
Athanasius taught that the incarnation of Christ involved a great exchange, boldly saying, "He was made man that we might become God" (On the Incarnation 54). He did not mean than Christ ceased to be God when he became Man or that we will be absorbed into the being of God. He was trying to express the wonder of the deification of the saints, based on 2 Peter 1:4.
This emphasis on deification became central to the understanding of salvation in the East. Gregory of Palamas (1296-1359) distinguished between the unknowable divine essence and God's uncreated energies, through which he interacts with creation. He speculated that to be deified is to participate in the energies of God But this removes deification from its New Testament Christological basis. We are made partakers of the divine nature by being transformed into the image of Christ through the Spirit.
While the East focuses on salvation through deification, Reformed theology has tended to concentrate more upon the removal of the guilt and penalty of sin through justification. But there is really no need to choose between partaking of the divine nature and justification. They are both important aspects of the New Testament's theology of salvation. Athanasius' statement, "He was made man that we might be made God", is not (as he realised) the whole story. The Son was made man, coming in the likeness of sinful flesh, that God might condemn sin in his flesh (Romans 8:3). The forensic aspect of redemption is essential for our deification. Its is justified sinners, who are no longer under the condemnation of the law (Romans 8:1), who are glorified together with Christ (Romans 8:17).
This is not to say that deification has been neglected altogether in Western Reformed theology. Robert Letham discusses this in p. 471-474 of his book, The Holy Trinity. (See my review here).
Calvin returns to 2 Peter 1:4 several times in the Institutes. We have already noted his rich exposition of the key text in the first post.
"Peter declares that the purpose for which believers are called is, that they may be “partakers of the divine nature,” (2 Pet. 1:4). How so? Because “he shall come to be glorified in his saints and to be admired in all them that believe,” (2 Thess. 1:10). If our Lord will share his glory, power, and righteousness, with the elect, nay, will give himself to be enjoyed by them; and what is better still, will, in a manner, become one with them, let us remember that every kind of happiness is herein included. But when we have made great progress in thus meditating, let us understand that if the conceptions of our minds be contrasted with the sublimity of the mystery, we are still halting at the very entrance". (The Institutes of the Christian Religion Book III:XXV:10)
We must never forget, with all out theologizing, that to partake of the divine nature is to be filled with love, for God is love. Peter himself insists on this, "For this very reason, giving all diligence add to your" (2 Peter 1:7). To put on the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 13:14) is to be clothed with love, which is the bond of perfection (Colossians 3:14).
I conclude with a quote from Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, discussing the deification of man in Christ in the teaching of Athanasius,
"When Athanasius said that the Word of God became incarnate in order that we might be deified he was speaking of the redemptive purpose of the Son's coming, which was not only to set us free from the guilt and power of sin and to reconcile us to the Father but also to exalt us in himself to the glorious perfection of God's everlasting kingdom and to that imperishable life that swallows up our mortality; he was speaking of our transposition from this present frail and fleeting existence to that full and unclouded existence which is bestowed upon us by God; he was speaking, in short, of the attainment of that resplendent destiny of harmony with our Creator that was from the beginning intended for us. To enter into the "inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for us" is to "become partakers of the divine nature" (1 Pet. 1:4, 2 Pet. 1:4). It is not the obliteration of the ontological distinction between Creator and creature but the establishment at last of intimate and uninterrupted communion between them". (The True Image, Eedrmans, 1989, p. 286. )
Charles Wesley, then was right to sing that:
He deigns in flesh to appear,
Widest extremes to join;
To bring our vileness near,
And make us all divine:
And we the life of God shall know,
For God is manifest below.
PS. Courtesy of "revdrron" see here for a wonderful Spurgeon quote on this subject.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Paul Helm's unexpected Christmas visitor

See here for Paul Helm's festive story of an surprise visitor.
The guest looks like a tramp with skin like old bark. Who could it be?

Is God really a delusion? by Alister McGrath

Alister McGrath

Listen to Alister McGrath's response to Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion

Richard Dawkins

Monday, December 18, 2006

Glory to God in the highest!

"Glory to God in the highest..." (Luke 2:14) A Christmas Sermon Outline
We live in a society that lives to consume. We buy therefore we are. This is never more evident that at "Christmas Time". The shops do a large percentage of their annual business during the festive season. Everything possible is done to encourage the consumer to buy, buy, buy.
A consumerist society is a selfish one. Life is centred around the wants and desires of the customer. Woe betide the lowly shop assistant who has to tell the almighty consumer, "Sorry, you can't have what you want, we're out of stock."
When people from such a society begin to see that there must be more to life than this, they get into "spirituality". But they do so as consumers who want their needs satisfied rather than as pentient worshippers who want to meet with God on his terms.
The acid test of true religion is this: Does it make the angels sing "Glory to God in the highest!" This cuts through the self-centeredness of the contemporary spiritual quest. True faith is all about the glory of God.
I. Glory to God in the highest because Christ the Lord is born
Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12.)
i. Glory to God for good news
In a word full of trouble and grief, here is a message to gladden our hearts
ii. Glory to God for Christ is born
God has kept his promises and fulfilled the ancient prophecies. At last, the long-awaited Messiah has been born in the City of David.
iii. Glory to God for the Lord is born
What a statement, kurios, the LORD God has been born! What a marvel of grace and love. The angels cry our "Glory to God in the highest" because God the Lord came to the lowest as Man. Here in the birth of this baby, more of the glory of God is revealed than ever before. The Trinity, only hinted at in the OT is now clearly revealed as the Father sent his Son to be born of a virgin by the Holy Spirit.
II. Glory to God in the highest because the Saviour has come
For there is born to you...a Saviour
i. We need to be saved
The angel proclaimed the good news of salvation to shepherds. These were the vagabonds of the ancient world. They had very bad reputation. They needed a Saviour. So do we, for "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" and the "wages of sin is death". We cannot come to God as consumers with something to offer him. He does not meet us on out terms, but on his, through the Saviour. This is not about our quest for self-fulfilment, but about God's desire to glorify his love by saving us.
ii. We need a perfect Saviour
A sinner cannot save sinners. Our Saviour has to be one of us - human and other than us - holy. The baby Jesus was the Holy One (1:35). As he grew up, he committed no sin. Even Pilate had to admit "I have found no fault in this man".
iii. We need a Saviour who has died in our place
Jesus did that when he was nailed to the cross to atone for sin and bring us forgiveness. Because he has died, like the dying thief, we can be with him in paradise if we trust in him.
iv. We need a Saviour who has conquered death
Luke 23 is not final chapter of the Gospel - Luke 24 is. As the angels said to the women who visited Jesus' empty tomb, "He is not here but is risen!" (24:6).
Thine be the glory risen conquering Son,
endless is the victory Thou o'er death hast won.
The babe of Bethlehem was born to deal with sin and death once and for all. Glory to God alone for sending Christ the Lord to save us.
III. Glory to God in the highest because he is worth it!
The good news of Jesus calls us to God-centeredness. What grabbed the angel's attention and made a multitude of heavenly beings sing was the incarnation of God. "Christmas" is all about what God has done. In our pampered, consumerist society we are told by advertisers, to buy their products "Because you're worth it!". The Christ-event draws our gaze to the glory of God. We have forgotten that our chief end is not to shop till we drop, but to Glorify God and enjoy him for ever. He is worth it!
Have you see a glimpse of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ? Have you come to him as a sinner needing to be put right with God? If so you will sing with the angels, "Glory to God in the highest!"
Christian, reflecting on the birth of Jesus should shock you out of a self-centred, consumerist mentality. Are you in the Christian life for what you can get out of it, or is your chief delight in living for the glory of God? Do you come to Church to see what you can get out of the service, or to magnify your God and Saviour?
Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us,
But to your name give glory.
(Psalm 115:1)
Preached to Penknap Providence Church on Sunday 10th December

Friday, December 15, 2006

Thought for the Day

I've recently added a "Thought for the Day" spot to my sidebar (just beneath "About Me").
I'll try to post a fresh quote every day if I can.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Partakers of the divine nature (part 2)

Peter's distinctive teaching that believers partake of the divine nature is closely related to what he says about their ultimate glorification. (See part 1). While other New Testament writers do not speak of the divinisation of believers, they do teach that Christians will share in the glory of God, which ammounts to the same thing. Jesus prayed,
And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one (John 17:22).
Paul taught,
and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together. (Rom 8:17)
We suffer with Christ and will be glorified together with him, because we are united to him. We are in Christ (8:1) and he is in us (8:10). In terms of 2 Peter 1:3 & 4, it is through Jesus' divine power that we are made partakers of the divine nature. This makes divinisation a Christological category.
God's ultimate purpose is that we will be conformed to the image of his Son,
For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. (Rom 8:29)
Human beings were created in the image of God. That image was tarnished by sin. In Christ, the divine image is renewed and perfected,
Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of him who created him(Col 3: 9 & 10).
The divinisation or glorification of believers is tightly linked to their resurrection from the dead. Christ's resurrected humanity has not been absorbed into his deity. He remains fully God and fully man. His humanity has been lovingly renewed by the Spirit, and is resplendent with the glory of God. The Father has poured all his creative genius into beautifying the once crucified body of his Son. We shall fully partake of the divine nature when we are made like him in resurrection life. The glory of God that shines in the face of Jesus Christ will then be reflected in our faces too.
For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself. (Philippians 3:20 & 21).
And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man. (1 Corinthians 15:49.)
We will not only be made like Christ, we will participate in his lordship. Jesus made this remarkable promise to the church at Laodicea,
To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with me on my throne as I also overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. (Revelation 3:21).
Paul also says.
If we endure, we shall also reign with him. (2 Timothy 1:12).
The first Adam was made lord over the old creation Genesis 1:26-28 His lordship was radically undermined by the fall Genesis 3:17-19. In Christ, human lordship over creation is restored - Hebrews 2:6-9. Partaking of the divine nature is fulfilled when believers enjoy an abundant entrance into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:11). Made like our glorious Lord, we will reign with him in the new heavens and the new earth.
In Part 3, I will conclude this series by looking at some theological reflection on partaking of the divine nature.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The impassioned God of B. B. Warfield

B. B. Warfield

Over at Helm's Deep, Paul Helm discusses Warfield on divine passion. The great Princetonian is often dismissed as a ploddingly conservative and unoriginal theologian. But Helm draws on his insights into the emotional life of Christ to propose a new way of understanding the impassibility of God. See here for this stimulating article.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Partakers of the divine nature (part 1)

During our Sunday evening Service, we sang this hymn by Charles Wesley:

1. Let earth and heaven combine,
Angels and men agree,
To praise in songs divine
The incarnate Deity,
Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made Man.
2. He laid His glory by,
He wrapped Him in our clay;
Unmarked by human eye,
The latent Godhead lay;
Infant of days He here became,
And bore the mild Immanuel’s Name.
3. Unsearchable the love
That has the Saviour brought;
The grace is far above
Of men or angels’ thought:
Suffice for us that God, we know,
Our God, is manifest below.
4. He deigns in flesh to appear,
Widest extremes to join;
To bring our vileness near,
And make us all divine:
And we the life of God shall know,
For God is manifest below.
5. Made perfect first in love,
And sanctified by grace,
We shall from earth remove,
And see His glorious face:
His love shall then be fully showed,
And man shall all be lost in God.
After the meeting, a member of the congregation asked me what Wesley meant in the 4th verse by And make us all divine? "We'll", I said, "that is probably an allusion to 2 Peter 1: 3 & 4." Which says:
3. as His divine [theias] power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, 4. by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine [theias] nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.
Thankfully, I was able to give a few words of explanation and the member was satisfied that she had not been singing heresy. But, what did Peter (yes I believe that Peter did write 2 Peter!) mean by "you may be partakers of the divine nature"?
On the face of it, the words suggest that we will somehow be absorbed into the deity. But such an idea is more akin to mystical paganism than the New Testament. The word "divine" or theias is only found here in 2 Peter and Acts 17:29. In vs. 3 it is associated with the divine power of Jesus our Lord. So, how do we become "partakers of the divine nature"?
1) We are made partakers of the divine nature through the promises of God. Jesus has given his people all things that pertain to life and godliness. He has called us by glory and virtue. In him the "exceeding great and precious promises" are given. Paul teaches that all the promises of God are yes and amen in Jesus (2 Cor 1:20). Peter probably has the promise of Jesus' return uppermost in his mind (see 3:1-4, 9-13). The Lord has promised to return to this world to defeat evil and renew creation. "According to his promise we look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (vs. 13). Through this same promise, believers are made partakers of the divine nature in anticipation of the glory that is to come.
2) We partake of the divine nature having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. Partaking of the divine nature is not to be conceived of as a mystical absorption into the deity. It has a strong soteriological and ethical dimension. Believers have escaped from worldly corruption. This escape is related to the the fact that we have been called by the glory and virtue of Jesus (vs. 3). In 1 Peter, the apostle writes of the people of God as those who have been "called out of darkness into his marvelous light" (2:9). This "call" is not a mere invitation to be saved. It is a mighty, effective summons to salvation from sin. The ethical implications of partaking of the divine nature are spelt out in vs. 5-11. Note "for this very reason..." vs. 5.
But still we are left with the question, "What does it mean to partake of the divine nature?" The text suggests that this is a redemptive rather than ontological category. We partake of the divine nature through the Word of God as we are delivered from the corruptions of a fallen world. There is no sense in which Peter is teaching that the ontological distinction between God and the creature has been abolished in the gospel. But to partake of the divine nature is to be made God-like, to be renewed in his image and to be drawn into the closest possible union and fellowship with him. No higher possible privilege can be imagined.
Peter may have a unique way of expressing this thought. But he says something quite similar, using different language in 1 Pet 5:1 & 10,
The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed:
But may the God of all grace, who called unto His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you.
To partake of the glory that shall be revealed when the Chief Shepherd appears (vs. 4) and to be called to God's eternal glory is the eschatological dimension of partaking of the divine nature. Our destiny is to share in the glory of Christ. United to him by the Spirit, we shall be enjoy communion with God in the splendour of the new heavens and the new earth. Truly, Jesus became man to "bring our vileness near and makes us all divine."
I conclude with the comments of John Calvin,
For we must consider from whence it is that God raises us up to such a height of honor. We know how abject is the condition of our nature; that God, then, should make himself ours, so that all his things should in a manner become our things, the greatness of his grace cannot be sufficiently conceived by our minds. Therefore this consideration alone ought to be abundantly sufficient to make us to renounce the world and to carry us aloft to heaven. Let us then mark, that the end of the gospel is, to render us eventually conformable to God, and, if we may so speak, to deify us. (See here.)
In Part 2, I hope to examine the wider New Testament teaching on this theme. In Part 3, I will reflect on the theology of partaking of the divine nature.

Friday, December 08, 2006

2006 Westminster Conference Reports

Friend's Meeting House, Euston, London, Conference Venue

Gary "Bloggy Man" Brady has posted reports on the 2006 Westminster Conference. This year, papers were delivered on William Tyndale, The Puritan Doctrine of Just War, The Puritan Doctrine of the Atonement, The Azusa Street Revival, Thomas Cranmer and John Owen on the Trinity. See here for Gary's reflections.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

David Wells on Christian hope in a postmodern world

Christian hope is not about wishing that all things will get better, that somehow emptiness will go away, meaning will return, and life will be stripped of its uncertainties, its psychological aches and anxieties. Nor does it have anything to do with techniques for improving fallen human life, be they therapeutic or even religious. Hope, instead, has to do, biblically speaking, with the knowledge that "the age to come" is already penetrating "this age", that the sin, death, and meaninglessness of the one is being transformed by the righteousness, life and meaning of the other, that what has emptied out life, what has scarred and blackened it, is being replaced by what is rejuvenating and transforming it. More than that, hope is hope because it knows it has become part of a realm, a kingdom, which endures, where evil is doomed and will be banished, that it has left behind the ship of "this age" which is sinking. And if this realm did not exist, Christians would be "of all men most to be pitied" (I Cor 15:19), because their hope would be groundless and they would have lived out an illusion (cf. Ps 73:4-14).
From Above All Earthly Powers: Christ in a Postmodern World,
(Eerdmans/IVP, 2005, p. 206)

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

John Calvin on Christian Liberty

For some, this may sound like an unlikely topic. John Calvin on Christian liberty? Might as well consider Oliver Cromwell on the divine right of kings! What's that old disciplinarian, got to say about the subject of Christian freedom? Quite a lot actually. He devotes a chapter to this theme in his Institutes of the Christian Religion - Book III:XIX. Indeed, he says, "if the subject be not understood, neither Christ, not the truth of the Gospel, nor the inward peace of the soul is properly known." (Sect. 1.)

The basis of Christian freedom is justification by faith. The believer is free from the accusations of the law of God, having been justified by grace through faith in Christ. The Epistle to the Galatians is the great charter of Christian liberty. Paul teaches that believers have been freed from the ceremonies of the law such as circumcision. We have also been liberated from the curse of the law in Christ who was made a curse for us. The law reveals the way in which Christians should live, but it cannot condemn us:
For when the conscience feels anxious as to how it may have the favour of God...if brought to his judgement seat... the requirements of the law are not to be brought forward, but Christ, who surpasses all the perfection of the law, is alone to be held forth for righteousness. (Sect. 3.)
We are not free to sin because we have been called by the grace of God to righteousness and holiness. But we do have freedom when it comes to adiaphora or things indifferent. This is a very important point, "The knowledge of this liberty is very necessary to us; where it is wanting our consciences will have no rest, there will be no end of superstition." (Sect. 7). Believers are fee to eat, drink and wear what they please. These things were written against the background where Roman Catholic traditions like eating fish not meat on Fridays were observed by many people. Such matters are adiaphora - the Christian is free to do as he likes with regard to such issues. We are not bound by the traditions of men. Calvin also deals with the tendency toward asceticism in those who have not grasped the principle of Christian liberty,
If he hesitates as to a more genial wine, he will scarce drink the worst with a good conscience; at last he will dare not to touch water if more than usually sweet and pure. In fine, he will come to this, that he will deem it criminal to trample on a straw lying in his way. (Sect. 7.)
Liberty is to be used responsibly. We are not to abuse our freedom by offending the conscience of the weaker brother. On the other hand, we must not to yield to Pharisaical types who would seek to rob us of our true freedom in Christ.
Christian liberty is one of the precious fruits of the gospel. But this important principle has often been forgotten in the history of the Church. Who said that believers should abstain from meat on Fridays or than Ministers should not marry? We are called to freedom in such cases.
The Evangelical Church is not without fault in this matter. Christian holiness has sometimes been reduced to a list prohibitions. These often concern things that are adiaphora at best. "Thou shalt not drink alcohol!" "Thou shalt not go to the Cinema!" "Thou shalt not listen to rock or pop music!" Oh really? Why then does Psalm 104 tell us that God has given us wine to "gladden the heart"? (vs 15). Are Christians really forbidden to watch all films? Why can't a believer enjoy Coldplay just as much as Chopin or listen to Snow Patrol rather than Shostakovitch?
A believer will be discriminating about what he watches and listens to. But the blanket prohibition of all alcohol, movie-going and pop music is a violation of Christian liberty. Fundamentalism has often been guilty of a legalistic approach to holiness. This can make the Christian life seem joyless and unattractive. Evangelicals need to embrace the principles of gospel liberty set out so clearly by John Calvin.

Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage. (Galatians 5:1)

Introducing the Bloggy Man

See here for Gary Brady's cartoon creation over at Heavenly Worldliness.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Barnabas Fund: Iraq Fear & Hope Christmas Appeal

The Barnabas Fund exists to give practical help and encouragement to persecuted Christians. Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, their International Director is an expert on Islamic / Christian relations. See here for an article on the Islamization of Europe and here for the Islamic Doctrine of Sacred Space as it affects the UK. See here for reports of the severe persecution that Christians are facing in Iraq and for details of the Fund's Christmas Appeal.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

The resurrection of Jesus in Reformed Dogmatics

John Calvin devoted two sections of The Institutes of the Christian Religion to the resurrection of Jesus - Book II:XVI:13 & 14. A whole chapter is given to the resurrection of the body, Book III:XXV. But many standard Reformed Systematic Theologies pay little attention to the meaning and significance of Jesus' resurrection from the dead. I've done a bit of statistical analysis:
Louis Berkhof gives 32 pages to discussing the atonement, but only 3 to the resurrection of Christ. (Systematic Theology, Banner of Truth Trust, p. 367-399 - atonement, p. 346-349 - resurrection). Robert Reymond (A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, Nelson, 1998) is a little more generous with 11 pages on the resurrection of the Son of God (p. 565-575). But Reymond is more concerned to defend the historicity of the resurrection event than to unpack its theological significance in these pages. By way of contrast, 79 pages are devoted specifically to Christ's cross work (623-702). To be fair to Reymond, we also should take into consideration that he engages in some in-depth exegesis of key resurrection texts - Romans 1:1&4 and 1 Timothy 3:16 under the heading of God as Trinity.
In terms of subject order, most Reformed Dogmatics move from a consideration of the atonement straight into a discussion of the application of the work of redemption. It is almost as if the resurrection of Christ has little theological value in its own right, or that redemption could be applied apart from Christ having been raised from the dead. Berkhof would deny this saying,
What is more important, the resurrection enters as a constitutive element into the very essence of the work of redemption, and therefore the gospel. It is one of the great foundation stones of the Church of God. The atoning work of Christ, if it was to be effective at all, had to terminate not in death, but in life. (p. 349.)
But the theologian does not develop his point any further.
This is not to say that Reformed Theology has altogether failed to give serious attention to the resurrection of Christ. Geerhardus Vos, the father of Reformed Biblical Theology, broke new ground in his The Pauline Eschatology (1930 available in P&R 1986 reprint). Vos' s key thesis is that eschatology is not just about the last things. The whole of Paul's theology is eschatologically orientated. Much of the book is devoted to unpacking the theological significance of Christ's resurrection, including ground-breaking exegesis of Romans 1:3&4. Of the book's 374 pages, 89 are directly related to discussion the resurrection of Christ.
Herman Ridderbos too gives full weight to the importance of Christ's resurrection saying, "Paul mentions the resurrection as the great central redemptive fact". He reflects further,
Christ's death, as that is developed by by apostle in a great variety of ways, is never for an instant detached from this eschatological gospel of the resurrection. (Paul - An Outline of his Theology, Eerdmans, 1997 reprint, p. 55)
Richard Gaffin acknowledges that he stands on the shoulders of Vos and Ridderbos, the twin giants of Reformed resurrection dogmatics in his study Resurrection and Redemption (P&R, 1987 second edition). Gaffin writes in his conclusion,
We have found that the resurrection is Christ is the pivotal factor in the whole of the apostle's soteriological teaching. Not only is the resurrection (as it is constitutive of the ascension and heavenly session) the climax of the redemptive history of Christ; it is also that from which the individual believer's experience of redemption derives in its specific and distinguishing character and in all aspects of its inexhaustible fullness. (p. 135.)
The centrality of the cross is not displaced by this renewed appreciation of the importance of Jesus' resurrection. Both the death and resurrection of Christ take centre stage in the drama of redemption. Reformed Dogmatics needs to take this into account. The resurrection of Jesus is full of rich theological significance. The event contributes to our understanding of Christ as the Son of God, the Last Adam and the Lord of the universe. Believers are united to Christ in his death and resurrection. His resurrection as well as the cross is the basis of our justification and sanctification. Our future resurrection hope and the renewal of the cosmos are grounded in the fact that "the Lord is risen indeed!" Reformed Dogmatics should not continue to move from discussion of the cross directly to consideration of the application of redemption. I propose that a better and more Biblical ordering of subjects would be: The Cross of Jesus / The Resurrection of Jesus / The Application of Redemption. The resurrection of Christ is a key act in the theo-drama. It is not a minor scene that deserves but scant attention.
See the resurrection label below for other posts on this subject

Monday, November 27, 2006

The resurrection of the wicked

Human beings sin against God while “in the body”. As a result, we must give an account to him for “the things done in the body…whether good or bad.” (2 Corinthians 5:10.) On this basis the Bible teaches that the wicked will be raised from the dead to face the eternal concequences of their actions. The first indication that the wicked are to be raised from the dead is Daniel 12:2, “And many of those who sleep I the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Jesus confirmed this. All who are in the graves will hear his voice, “those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of condemnation.” (John 5:29.) According to Luke, Paul also believed “that there will be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and the unjust.” (Acts 24:15.) The apostle does not explicitly teach this in his epistles. But the focus of his letters is on the resurrection of believers, rather than the general resurrection.
John describes the judgement day, “The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works”. (Revelation 20:13.) Those not found written in the book of life were “cast into the lake of fire.” (20:15.)
The fate of the resurrected wicked will be to suffer eternally in the lake of fire for the sins they committed in the body against the holy God who made them. The Bible does not teach that the souls of the wicked will be annihilated at death. They will be resurrected to face their eternal conscious punishment. (See here for Jonathan Edwards on eternal punishment).
For they themselves declare concerning us what manner of entry we had to you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.(1 Thessalonians 1:9 & 10)

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Intermediate State

The great focus of the believer’s personal eschatology is to be raised from the dead (see here & and here). But what happens in the mean time, between the point of a Christian’s death and the day of resurrection? “Going to heaven when we die” may be the focus of much popular Evangelical hope for the future. But there is surprisingly little material in the New Testament that addresses this subject directly.
Paul touches on what we might call the “intermediate state” in 2 Corinthians 5:1-8. In this passage, Paul contrasts the believer’s present “earthly house” that may be “destroyed” with “a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens”. It is likely that Paul is using the metaphor of housing to denote the difference between the believer’s present bodily state and the future resurrection body. Paul’s hope was “not to be found naked” or to be divested of the body, but “further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life.” In the present bodily state, believers “groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation from heaven.” Given the preference, Paul would much rather bypass death and pass immediately into the immortal, resurrected state. But what if he were to die before the day of resurrection? In that case, Paul says, “We are confident yes well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.” The apostle is sure that death death will usher him into the immediate presence of Christ.
Because the New Testament often speaks of the death of believers as “sleep” (John 11:11-14, Acts 7:60, 1 Thessalonians 4:15) some have posited that the soul enters an unconscious state at death. But to enter an unconscious state would presumably mean that we would no longer be conscious of Christ. In that case, death would not be “a consummation devoutly to be wished”. For Paul to be without the conscious presence of Christ would not be “far better”, than life in this world. But to be consciously “with Christ” in heaven certainly would be,
For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain....For I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ which is far better. (Philippians 1:21 & 23.)
Elsewhere in the New Testament, the dead in Christ are described as “the spirits of just men made perfect” (Hebrews 12:22-24). They pray and worship God (Revelation 6:9-11 & 15:1-5). The intermediate state is characterised by active, joyful worship in the presence of Christ, as the saints await the day of resurrection glory. “Sleep” an appropriate word to describe the believer’s death, because on the day of resurrection we will awake from the grave and be glorified.
The Westminster Larger Catechism summarises the relationship between the intermediate state and the final resurrection hope in a most helpful way:
Question 86: What is the communion in glory with Christ, which the members of the invisible church enjoy immediately after death ?
Answer: The communion in glory with Christ, which the members of the invisible church enjoy immediately after death, is, in that their souls are then made perfect in holiness, and received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies, which even in death continue united to Christ, and rest in their graves as in their beds, till at the last day they be again united to their souls. Whereas the souls of the wicked are at their death cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, and their bodies kept in their graves, as in their prisons, till the resurrection and judgment of the great day.

Friday, November 24, 2006

The dead in Christ shall rise

Christ is both the model and dynamic of the believers resurrection hope. Believers will be raised from the dead by Christ and be made like him. The believer’s lowly body, corrupted by sin and broken by the fall will be conformed to Christ’s glorious resurrection body,

The Saviour the Lord Jesus Christ…will transform our lowly body that it might be conformed to his glorious body (Philippians 3:20 & 21).

In addressing the Corinthian’s question “How are the dead raised up?” (1 Corinthians 15:35), Paul says that the body we now possess now is like a “seed” that is “sown in corruption, dishonour and weakness” (15:42 & 43). Christ is able to give us a body that is suitable for the glory of the age to come. Our bodies will be raised “in incorruption, glory and power (15:42 & 43). The antithesis is perfect; our humanity, broken by the ravages of sin and death will be made perfectly and gloriously whole in Christ.

The resurrection of the believer will not simply be a return to bodily life after death. As with the resurrection of Christ, resurrection means transformation. Those who hope in Christ will be made like the Lord from heaven, “As we have born the image of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man”. (15:49 cf. 1 John 3:1-3.)

The trigger-point of the day of resurrection will be the return of Christ in power and glory. The Church at Thessalonica was concerned that those who had died before Christ retuned would somehow miss out on resurrection glory. Paul wrote these words to reassure them: (1 Thessalonians 4:14-17.)

When the day of the Lord comes, the dead in Christ will rise from the grave first. Then believers who are alive on that day will be caught up with the resurrected saints to be forever with the Lord in the environs of the new creation.

Paul concludes his defence of the Christian hope of resurrection with an eloquent description on the day of the Lord: (1 Corinthians 15:51-54.)

Not all believers will “sleep” or experience death before the coming of Christ. But all will be changed when he comes. Then death will be defeated as believers exchange corruption and mortality for incorruption and immortality. Death will be completely destroyed, “swallowed up in victory”.

It is worth noting that it is only in connection with the final resurrected state that the Bible uses the term “immortality” of human beings. The idea of an inherently “immortal soul” belongs more to Plato than the Bible,
immortality of the soul…is often used in an unbiblical way to minimise the reality of death and to render almost superfluous any further hope of the resurrection of the body. (The Promise of the Future, Cornelius Venema, Baner of Truth Trust, 2000, p. 39-40.)
It is “our Saviour Jesus Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10). The final “immortal” state for believers is to be made like Christ in resurrection glory, not to “go to heaven when they die”. But this begs the question, "What happens to believers after death and before the resurrection?" I will attempt to provide an answer in a future post.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Holy Trinity by Robert Letham

The Holy Trinity In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship
by Robert Letham, P&R, 2004, 551pp.

The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the high mysteries of the Christian faith. The Christian God is love because he is one God in three Persons. Nothing could be more important than that we have a clear understanding of the Trinity. If we are in error on this point, we do not know God as he really is. The first centuries of Church history are testimony to the fact that this subject is beset with dangers and pitfalls. The Church struggled to find the right language to express the Biblical revelation of the oneness and threeness of God. The result of the struggle is the creedal legacy of the Church. The relationship between the One and the Three in God was clearly defined to enable the faithful to think clearly about, worship and serve their triune Lord. Dangerous and erroneous speculations such as Arianism and Sabellianism were excluded as sub-Christian.

Letham admits that “When it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity, evangelicals have underachieved.” The doctrine of the Trinity is often neglected in evangelical church life. The writer sets out to redress this lacuna. First he examines the Biblical foundations of the Trinity. He gives a helpful and thorough exposition of the Old Testament background to the doctrine. Then he focuses on the New Testament’s portrayal of the relationship between Jesus and the Father. Having established that the New Testament teaches that Jesus is to be worshipped as God alongside the Father, Letham gives attention to the Holy Spirit and triadic patterns. The Spirit is often placed besides the Father and the Son in New Testament formulae, indicating that he is included in the unity in diversity of the Godhead. He concludes,

“The problem of the trinity was being raised and answered in the New Testament. It arose because of Christian experience, worship and thought. It was based upon the life and ministry of Jesus, and his reception of the Holy Spirit, and then upon his resurrection and subsequent impartation of the Spirit to his church.” (p. 71).

Next, Letham traces the historical development of the doctrine of the Trinity. He begins with Irenaeus and Tertullian and then discusses the Arian controversy. The result of that controversy was the Nicaean Creed, which, using the language of Athanasius confessed that God is one being (ousia) and three persons (hypostasis). Athanasius had found language to express accurately the oneness and threeness of God. Christ was confessed as homoousios - of the same essence as the Father

With great historical and theological acumen, Letham discusses the contribution of the Cappadocians, Augustine and John Calvin to the doctrine of the Trinity. One of his favourite theologians is Gregory of Nazianzen, one of whose orations on the Trinity is quoted or alluded to several times in the book. The writer is critical of Western triniratianism from Augustine onwards for so emphasising the oneness of God that the three Persons become problematic. He appreciates the Eastern focus on the three Persons dwelling perichoretically in the one God. But he suggests that the Eastern attempt to distinguish between the energies and essence of God undermines the reliability of divine self-revelation. Letham attempts to mediate in the dispute between East and West over the filioque controversy. His proposal is that the Spirit proceeds from the Father in the Son. Whether this formula will settle nearly a thousand years of theological argument only time will tell.

Calvin’s doctrine of the Trinity has been the subject of renewed attention in recent years. Writers such as Robert Reymond in his New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith have claimed that the Reformer seriously modified the Nicaean Christology. Letham disputes such claims, arguing that Calvin's differences were not with the fathers, but with speculative Scholastic formulations of the Trinity. Calvin insisted that the Son is autotheos – God in himself, and denounced the idea of the eternal generation of the Son as “an absurd fiction” (Institutes I:XIII:29). This is an advance on some Trinitarian formulations that describe the Father communicating the divine essence to the Son. But, Letham argues, rather than being the revolutionary that some say he was, Calvin simply preserved and developed traditional teaching on the Trinity. The Reformer certainly corrected the subordinationism that has characterised some Western thinking. He also re-emphasised the central importance of the Trinity. Calvin did not approach the doctrine indirectly after having discussed the being and attributes of the one God. For him, the doctrine of the Trinity is the doctrine of God.

Letham devotes several fascinating chapters to charting the course of modern discussion of the Trinity. He gives attention to the contributions of Barth, Rahner, Moltman, Pannernberg in the West and Bulgakov, Losky and Staniloae in the East. Letham deals with each writer’s views fairly, analysing the strengths and weaknesses of their approach. An appreciative, but not uncritical chapter is also devoted to T. F. Torrance’s trinitarianism.

The final part of the book concerns critical issues such as the Trinity and the Incarnation, Worship and Prayer, Creation and Mission and the Trinity and Persons. Letham avoids modalism by arguing that only the Son could have become Man. He movingly reminds us that the heart of God is truly revealed in the humiliation and exaltation of the incarnate Son. Our God is one who stoops to serve and die. When thinking of the Trinity, we should not focus on the oneness of God at the expense of the Persons - modalism, or the Persons at the expense of the oneness – tritheism. Both the one divine essence and the three Persons are equally ultimate.

"No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the Splendour of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Them than I am carried back to the One." (Gregory of Nazianzus, here)

Under the heading of mission, Letham discusses the two great challenges to Christianity in the West: Postmodernism with its fragmentary emphasis on diversity without unity and Islam, exemplifying unity without diversity. Only a robustly Trinitarian faith is able to face these challenges to the gospel.

The whole book is shot through with worship, devotion and practical application. Letham has certainly not underachieved. He has helped to think clearly about our Triune God. He calls us to make the Trinity central to mission, worship and prayer. This book is an important contribition to trinitarian theology from an Evangelical and Reformed perspective.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
now and ever, unto the ages of ages, Amen.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Evangelistic Booklets

The Protestant Truth Society has recently published a couple of evangelistic booklets:
Who is Jesus? and Christianity - Think About It!
They are 12 pages long in a handy A6 size. Scripture quotations are either AV or NKJV.
Cost: 10p each or £10 per hundred. Contact the PTS office to obtain free samples or place an order here.
The Christianity - Think About It! booklet is aimed specifically at the UK scene.
Who is Jesus? may be of more general use.
Both were originally written for distribution by the Churches I serve.
Here is an extract from Who is Jesus?
I suppose that most people would agree that Jesus Christ is the most famous and influential person in history. He lived on our planet for only 33 years, yet countless millions of people have been and are fascinated by him. The faith he founded - Christianity - has spread throughout the earth and is still changing people’s lives today.
But who is this man, who was born about 2000 years ago? He has been the subject of whole libraries full of books, yet his mysterious glory defies human analysis. Artists have been moved to honour him, but his greatness cannot be captured on canvas. Composers have written some of their greatest masterpieces in homage to Jesus but his majesty demands music the like of which we can never imagine. Poets have ransacked the whole range of human language yet their words have failed to fully express the elusive splendour of Jesus of Nazareth.
So, who is this Jesus? What can we know of a man who lived so long ago? Records of Jesus and his early followers exist in ancient Jewish and Roman texts. But the fullest and most accurate depiction of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus is found in the Bible.

Heaven is not the end of the world

According to his promise we look for a new heavens and a new earth
in which righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:13)

See here for Byron's excellent series on resurrection and the new creation at

Monday, November 20, 2006

Some interesting stuff

A couple of people I know have recently set up blogs, Gary Brady here and Gary Benfold here.

At Faith and Theology, Ben Myres highlights The question of pacifism here.

Chris Tilling is busy posting on Richard Bauckham’s forthcoming Jesus and the Eyewitnesses here . Not all of Bauckman's arguments may convince. But he makes a compelling case that the Gospel records were based on reliable eyewitness testimony. Chris responds to some criticism of his posts here.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Review Part 6: The Drama of Doctrine

Some concluding reflections

Vanhoozer has given us a fresh way of looking at theology. His theo-dramatic approach reminds us that the purpose doctrine is to enable the church to perform the Scriptures. The work is both up to date and faithful to the Biblical principles of Reformed Theology. Vanhoozer enables us to grapple with the complexities of the postmodern situation with sensitivity and integrity. Here is a fine example of a multidisciplinary approach to theology as the writer draws on Biblical, Systematic and Historical Theology, literary theory and dramatics. He gives welcome emphasis to the church as a company of players directed by her pastors to play her part in the unfolding theo-drama.
On the negative side, although Scripture is quoted throughout book, there is little sustained exegesis of texts. For example, while reading Part 4, I expected that Vanhoozer would explain what it means for us to play our roles "in Christ" Biblically. My mind raced ahead to Romans 6 and I hoped for some sustained reflection on the passage. He did get there, but not to linger long.
The work sets out an new approach to doctrine rather than being a systematic theology in its own right. You will not find much on justification, the final resurrected state etc. Vanhoozer has criticised the cognitive-propositional theological method of Charles Hodge. He clearly regards such an approach as inadequate. But I am left thinking, what would a full-length canonical linguistic systematic theology look like? Perhaps now that the writer has has given us his theo-dramatic proposal we can eagerly await such a work from his pen.
For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle [Greek, theatron] to the world, to angels, and to men. (1 Corinthians 4:9)
Click on the Drama of Doctrine label below for more review posts.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Foundations Autumn 2006

The latest edition of Foundations carries a number of excellent articles.
Evangelicals and Public Theology by Daniel Strange helps us to avoid being seen as grumpy old men when we enter the public policy arena. He urges all Christians to "put their vocation and calling totally and utterly under the Lordship of Christ".
Moore Theology by Philip Eveson helpfully discusses some of the theological trends emanating from Moore Theological College, Sydney. In a friendly, constructive way he discusses the "Moore view" on the call to the ministry, worship and the law. Eveson writes warmly of Moore's evangelical credentials and stand for the authority of Scripture. But he suggests that Moore downplays Systematic Theology and has little room for the direct work of the Spirit in the life of the believer. These tendencies serve to undermine a theology of revival. In addition, little emphasis is given to the anointing of the Spirit in preaching. "For our gospel came to you not on word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance." (1 Thessalonians 1:5 emphasis added). This is a timely article in view of Moore's influence upon the UK's Proclamation Trust. (See my post on the Trust's Evangelical Ministry Assembly here).
What did Christ accomplish on the Cross? Mostyn Roberts gives a well considered theological exposition of the cross. Roberts discusses the controversy over penal substitution. He recognises that the New Testament gives a multifaceted presentation of the cross, but argues that 'penal substitution is the gospel'.
Review Article: Kevin Vanhoozer and the Drama of Doctrine. Bill Nikides reviews Vanhoozer's Is There Meaning in This Text?, First Theology: God, Scripture and Hermenutics and of course The Drama of Doctrine. Nikides is impressed, saying, "Vanhoozer is the theologian's is not every day that I am able to find a place of worship in such a wilderness of words." The "wilderness of words" is a reference to some aspects of contemporary scholarship, not the book under review!
New Testament Survey (2004-2006). Alistair I. Wilson reviews recent contributions to New Testament scholarship. Many valuable works by the likes of I. H. Marshall, D. A. Carson, D. J. Moo, M. J. Harris, N. T. Wright and others are mentioned.
Foundations is published by Affinity £4.00 post free within the UK, £5.00 & postage overseas.

Review Part 5: The Drama of Doctrine

Now we come to the final section of Vanhoozer's book. Having set the scene with discussion of the drama, the script and the dramaturge, he turns in Part 4 to The Performance. "Biblical script without ecclesial performance is empty; ecclesial performance without biblical script is blind. Doctrine serves the church by unfolding the canonical logic of the theo-drama and by offering dramaturgical direction as to how Christians today may participate in and continue the evangelical action in a new situation". (p. 362).
With this in mind, the writer shows us the way in which doctrine prepares believers to play their roles "in Christ". Talk of role playing should not be construed as pretending. That would be hypocrisy. Doctrine enables Christians to be what they truly are as disciples of Christ. This is not about believers learning their lines by rote and acting in a mechanical way. Doctrine helps us to improvise - to act fittingly and wisely in any given situation.
Vanhoozer draws upon Constantin Stanislavski's system of method acting at this point. Stanislavski wanted actors to move beyond representing the external life of the character that they were playing. He insisted that they must pour themselves into the part in order to truly inhabit the character. Vanhoozer sees a parallel between Stanislavski's advice to actors, "yourself in the part and...the part in you" and the role and identity of a Christian disciple, "You in Christ...Christ in you." (p. 372). Christians have been called to act as saints. This involves spiritual formation and character transformation by the work of the Holy Spirit. When this happens, believers are enabled to be what they are in Christ.
Christians play out their roles not as isolated individuals, but as part of the church - the company of the gospel. The church is a community of "costumed interpreters", clothed with the righteousness of Christ. As such, the church is a theatre of martyrdom, a people who bear witness to and live out the cross of Christ. The cross is "the climax to a covenantal drama in which penal substitution and relational restoration are equally important and equally ultimate." (p. 387). One might better say that the penal substitutionary death of Christ is the means by which relational restoration is made possible.
Vanhoozer rightly insists that we must move from a right understanding to a fitting performance of Christ's death. Did not Jesus challenge his disciples to take up their cross and follow him? (Matthew 16:24.)
The church participates in and performs the doctrine of the atonement when it indicates what God was doing for the world in Christ and thus what we must now be doing if the world is what the gospel declares it to be...The church's theology is prophetic when doctrine directs the church in ways that attest being-toward-the cross and being-toward-resurrection (p. 433).
Given Vanhoozer's sensitivity to the postmodern context, he is admirably clear on the controversial matters of heresy and excommunication. Heresy is a distortion of the drama of redemption - "a different gospel than is not another" (Galatians 1:6). He defines heresy thus:
A heresy is thus a fateful error that compromises integrity of the theo-drama, either by misidentifying the divine dramatis personae, misunderstanding the action, or giving directions that lead away from one's fitting participation in the continuing action. (p. 424).
A heretic has removed himself from participation in the theo-dramatic action. Such a person must be excluded from the life of the church. Excommunication has a dual purpose: 1) To preserve the integrity of church's witness to the gospel. 2) To bring the offender to repentance so that he may be restored to the fellowship of the family of God.
If a theologian is the dramaturge, helping the pastor/director to understand the script that the company of the gospel is to perform. What of the pastor himself? He "helps the congregation become better actors by helping them learn the script and understand how it should be performed in the present cultural scene". (p. 449). The great creeds and confessions of the church are of great help to the pastor/director. The ancient creeds such as Nicea and Chalceldon are examples of "Masterpiece Theatre". They remind us that the local church is part of the catholic church. We can learn from centuries of debate how we may best understand and perform the Bible. Denominational Confessions such as the Westminster or 1689 Baptist Confession are compared to "Regional Theatre". These documents were attempts to remain faithful to the creedal inheritance while innovating to respond to specific issues of the day. The variety of regional theatres represent a rich ecclesial unity in diversity. Finally, we have the "Local Theatre" of the individual congregation. The local church must seeks perform her role as a concrete and contextualised part of the catholic church. Local churches are led not by management schemes, but by preaching pastors who help the people to understand and perform God's word in their given situation.
Thus, the theo-drama is enacted on a local level by vibrant, well taught congregations of visible saints who bear witness in word and deed to what God has done in Christ for the salvation of the world.
Click on the Drama of Doctrine label below for more review posts.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Philip Eveson's The Great Exchange Online

In an earlier post, I referred readers to The Great Exchange by P. H. Eveson. The writer is Principal of the London Theological Seminary. The first time I heard of the 'New Perspective on Paul' was in his lectures on Galatians during my time at the Seminary (1988-90). His assessment of the NPP, is now available online here.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Ten historical Christians I would like to meet

Here's a list of ten people from the annals of post New Testament Church history that I would like to meet (given a breakdown in the space-time continuum). I only have 5 minutes to speak to each one. My opening gambit would be...

1. Athanasius - "Why is a truly Trinitarian Church always against the world?"

2. Augustine of Hippo - "If you had to make a choice between your doctrine of the church and your doctrine of grace - what would it be?

3. Martin Luther - "Did you really say 'Here I stand I can do no other?' at the Diet of Worms?"

4. John Calvin - "Do you agree with the teaching of this document, [The Canons of Dort] especially the 3rd point?"

5. William Tyndale - "Thanks for giving the Bible to the English speaking people."

6. John Owen - "You helped me to see something more of the glory of Christ."

7. Jonathan Edwards - "How would you describe the relationship between Word and Spirit in preaching?"

8. Daniel Rowland - "How may a minister maintain a burning zeal for the glory of the Lord?"

9. George Whitefield - "What is preaching?"

10. William Wilberforce - "Do you know that they have made a film of your life?"

Who would you like to meet and what would you say?

Of course, one of the great things about the Christian hope is that we will get to meet our heroes in the faith in glory!

Monday, November 13, 2006

Drunkards for sale

Surprising at it may seem, the 1824 Holyhead Association of the Calvinistic Methodists was disturbed by bouts of drunkenness. John Elias (1774-1841), the great Welsh preacher of his day took it upon himself to to urge the people to behave soberly and decently. He began with general words of exhortation and then he started to preach....

John Elias preaching

'I feel within myself this minute,' he cried, 'to offer them [the drunkards] for sale, by auction, to whomsoever will take them, that they might not disturb us any more,' Then at the top of his voice, with his arm outstretched, as if he held them in the palm of his hand, he shouted, 'Who will take them? Who will take them? Churchmen will you take them?' 'We? We in our baptism have professed to renounce the devil and all his works. No; we cannot take them.' Then, after a moments silence, 'Independents, will you take them?' 'What? We? We, ages ago left the Church of England because of her corruption. No; we cannot take them.' Another inerval of silence. 'Baptists, will you take them?' 'We? Certainly not! We dip all our people in water as a sign that we take those who have been cleansed. No; we will not have them.' Silence again. 'Wesleyans, will you take them?' 'What? we? Good works is a matter of life for with us. We do not want them.'

Then he stretched forth his arm once again, as if holding the poor drunkards in his hand; and once again at the top of his voice he shouted. 'Who will take them? Who will take them?' Then suddenly, his whole nature became agitated, His eyes flashed as he turned his head aside, and in a low tone which could be heard by all, he said, 'Methinks I can hear the devil at my elbow saying, "Knock them down to me! I will take them."'

Then, after thirty seconds of dead silence, he cried, 'I was going to say, Satan, that you could have them, but' - looking upwards, he said in a loud, clear, yet gentle voice, 'I can hear Jesus saying, "I will take them! I will take them! Unclean to be washed; drunkards to be sobered; in all their filth and degradation, I will take them, and cleanse them in mine own blood."' The effect of this can be better imagined than described. The ministers, preachers and elders were stunned; and the huge congregation was stirred with a spirit of tumultuous joy and exultation.

From John Elias: Life and Letters by Edward Morgan, Banner of Truth Trust 1973, p 143-144.

Elias saw clearly that it is not moralising, but the gospel that changes lives: 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. Perhaps the old preacher knew a thing or two about the drama of doctrine too!

Friday, November 10, 2006

Critical Success for my New Perspective Poem

My poem (see next but one post below) has attracted a lot of discussion involving a surprising array of great theologians and Biblical scholars. See the comments to this post: here. The consensus seems to be that my effort is much better than Chris Tillings. How cool is that?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Review Part 4: The Drama of Doctrine

The next main section of The Drama of Doctrine, Part 3 is The Dramaturge. Here Vanhoozer discusses the task of the theologian in helping the church to play her role in the theo-drama. The theologian is to the church what a dramaturge is to a play. A dramaturge helps the director of a play to understand the text that is to be performed. He will try to ensure that the director enables the cast to play their roles in a way that is faithful to the play-script. In terms of the theo-drama, the theologian will assist the pastor-director to understand Scripture accurately. The pastor can then direct Christians to perform faithfully their Biblically scripted roles.
The dramaturge-theologian is concerned about scientia - the accurate exegesis of Scripture and sapientia - the faithful performance of Scripture. A faithful performance of Scripture involves the transposition of the Biblical message into the contemporary world. It is here that Vanhoozer's distinction (borrowed from Ricoeur) between idem and ipse identity comes into its own. Idem denotes something that remains the same, while ipse suggests "personal identity [that] allows for development" (p. 127). We must not try to re-stage the theo-drama as an exact copy of the New Testament church - idem identity. Our task is to perform the Scriptures in our own cultural linguistic setting - ipse identity. "Canonical linguistic theology aims at the contemporary realisation or performance of the same Christ-shaped wisdom that is the focus of the Scriptures." (p. 240.)
The Canonical linguistic approach to the scientia of theology is postpropositionalist, postconservative and postfoundationalist. Theology should not be reduced to "dedramatised propositions" (p. 269). Such a method is reductionistic, failing to recognise that God has spoken in various ways by the prophets (Hebrews 1:1). "God communicates to his people, both directly and indirectly, in and through Scripture, but it need not follow from this that communication consists of revealed propositions only." (p. 278). Postconservative theology takes into account the rich unity in diversity of God's communicative action in Scripture. This in no way implies that Biblical propositions are redundant. But propositions should not be privileged over other forms of communication in Scripture. "A 'biblical' theology, therefore, involves more than summarising the propositional content of the Scriptures. It involves acquiring cognitive skills and sensibilities, and hence the ability to see, feel, and taste the world as disclosed in the diverse biblical texts." (p. 285.)
According to Vanhoozer, the problem with foundationalism is that propositions are isolated from Scripture as the basis upon which elaborate theological systems are built. This abstracts theology from its Scriptural form. Systematic Theology must draw upon the rich variety of Biblical revelation.
Against both the foundationalist tendency to objectivise truth and the postmodern tendency toward epistemological scepticism, Vanhoozer proposes a theo-dramatic approach to knowledge. This is grounded in the four-fold pattern of Biblical revelation: Creation: Right Cognitive Functioning. We have a God-given cognitive powers that enable us have a reliable understanding of truth. Fall: Distorted Cognitive Functioning. Sin has distorted our cognitive powers of reason, memory and imagination. Our understanding is, therefore rendered fallible. Redemption: Restored Cognitive Functioning. By grace, our minds are renewed so that we cultivate intellectual virtues. "In the final analysis, knowledge in theo-dramatic perspective has less to do with becoming a scholar and more to do with becoming a saint." (p. 304.) Consummation: Perfiected Cognitive Functioning. Finally, we shall know God as we are known, face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12.) Our knowledge may not be perfect now, but through the Scriptures and by the work of the Spirit we are given an adequate understanding of the truth as it is in Jesus.
Theology must move from the scientia of an accurate understanding of Scripture into the sapiential task of preparing the Church to live wisely for the glory of God. The theologian's aim should be to help the Church to perform the Scriptures fittingly. This involves being faithful to the transcultural truth of the gospel and the contemporary setting. The Church needs the right theo-dramatic perspective to enable her "to make wise judgements about what is truly good and fittings in a given situation, given what God has done in Jesus Christ." (p. 335.) The Early Church exercised right theological judgement when the Council of Nicea used the improvisatory language of Jesus as homoousios with the Father in order to safegaurd his full deity. We too must learn to improvise if we are to bring the message of Scripture alive in our generation. Sapiential theology is sensitive to the present day setting, but it is also prophetic, confronting contemporary culture with Word of God. As a prophetic community, the Church will bear witness to the resurrection of Christ and live in the light of God's coming kingdom.
In this section, Vanhoozer offers us a vision of theology that is Biblical , practical and able to meet the challenges of the postmodern world. We need dramaturge-theologians who will enable the Church to both understand and live the Scriptures.
Click on the Drama of Doctrine label below for more review posts.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

A New Perspective Poem

In response to Chris Tilling's Paul, Judaism and Methodology (a poem), here's my attempt at a poetic evaluation of the New Perspective on Paul.
N. T. Wright’s the doyen of New Perspective Theology.
He says, “It’s all about the exile, don’t you see.”
Paul wasn’t bothered by the introspective conscience of the West,
Palestinian Judaism liked grace best.

The Reformers thought that Judaism was into merit,
But they were as wrong as a blind ferret.
Best to follow Saunders E.P.
He’s the man to set your mind free.

But is faith really just a boundary mark?
Those NPP boys are in the wrong ball park.
Cos none can be saved by the works of the law.
By grace through faith, that’s what Paul saw.

If we get in by grace and stay in by law,
That still leaves us feeling sore.
We can’t stay in by what we do.
We need a covenant that’s, like totally new.

Don’t be taken in, don’t be a fool!
Maybe NPP isn’t so cool.
Wright’s a scholar, bishop and very nice man,
But he’s quite wrong on justification.

Maybe NPP is just a fad,
Like the kipper tie worn by your dad.
So think about it, proceed with caution,
And read The Great Exchange by P. H. Eveson.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Faith & Terror

This evening's Fireworks Display; Westbury, Wiltshire

Remember, remember
The fifth of November
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot.
Yes, it's that time again when communities in the UK gather around bonfires and ooh and aah at the sights and sounds of fireworks displays. But behind the annual ritual of "Guy Fawkes Night" lies a foiled act of faith-motivated terror. Roman Catholic conspirators plotted to blow up Parliament: the King, the Lords, MP's and all. Their hope was that this would destabilise Protestant Britain and lead to the return of Catholic power in the country. It is a little ironic that the Pope's recent comments on the unreasonableness of violence in the name of religion were themselves the cause of faith-inspired violence.

The toxic alliance of faith and terrorism on 5th November 1605 has a strangely contemporary ring to it in the wake of 9/11 and 7/7. Now might be a good time to reflect on the link between religion and violence. One thing that puts many off religion is that people have often gone to war in the name of their faith. I write not as a defender of faith in general, but as a Christian. Honesty compels me to admit that Christians have sometimes used violence and conflict to further their ends. This is most regrettable. The New Testament clearly forbids Christians to use force to defend or spread the faith. When on trial before Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea, Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews, but now my kingdom is not from here." (John 18:36.) Jesus' kingdom was to be established by his death on the cross for sinners, not by his followers fighting to defend him.

Because Jesus' kingdom is not of this world, it cannot be extended by the weapons of this world like bombs and bullets. The State may use force to protect its citizens. But the Church must use the spiritual weaponry of prayer, preaching and practical Christian love to further the cause of Christ. People can only enter the unworldly kingdom of Jesus by unworldly means. As Jesus once said, "unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3).
A recent episode of the BBC TV drama Spooks depicted "born again Christians" murdering Islamic terror suspects. But contemporary Bible-believing Christians in the UK have not and I hope never will resort to voilence to defend or propagate the gospel of peace.