Friday, September 28, 2007

David Sky goes to school

It was 8.20 once crisp, bright September morning. The awesome silence of Exiled Preacher's study was suddenly broken by a gentle knocking at the door. "What now?" I said in a kind and gentle way. "It's me, daddy.", said my darling daughter. "OK, come in.", sighed EP, not grumpy at all. "Daaaad" she began, "my teacher said that we could bring a cuddly toy to school today, and I was wondering if I could take David Sky." EP almost choked on a gulp of extra strong morning tea and said, "But David Sky is not your normal cuddly toy. He's very naughty and might get into trouble. Are you sure that you can handle him? I'm not convinced that this is such a good idea. Take Pooh Bear or something." Rebecca was not to be put off. She did that head to one side and pleading eyes thing. "Pleeeease dad", she implored. "Mmmmm, I dunno", said EP trying not to buckle under the pressure. "Pleeeeeeease", she persisted. "Oh, alright then," I replied against my better judgement, "but you'd better mind that he behaves himself." So, off went Rebecca with David Sky poking out of her school bag.
A little later, the teacher, a bubbly Miss Roundsworthy asked the children for the names of their cudddly toys. She came to EP's daughter, "What's the monkey's name?" Before she knew what was happening, Mr Sky piped up, "I'm not a monkey, I'm a theologian!" The teacher was a little taken aback at this. She had never seen a talking theological monkey before. "You can talk!" she exclaimed. "Wow, so can you!", replied David Sky, "A talking teacher, well I never!" Now the teacher went into bossy mode, "No need to be like that, you naughty monkey. Sit down and be quiet!"
After that minor altercation, everything seemed to be going smoothly until a spiteful little girl cried out, "Miss, the monkey just bit me!" The teacher rushed to the scene. "Did you bite her?" demanded Mrs Roundsworthy. Mr Sky responded with dignified defiance, "No! I'm a theologian and we don't bite. I'm not a wild animal you know!" But the girl was believed over the theological monkey despite Rebbecca pleading, "He doesn't usually bite. We'll he did go for my dad's throat once, but that was quite out of character."
David Sky was marched off to the headmaster's office. Mr Bimblewit sat him on the naughty chair and then proceeded to ring me. He told me off for allowing my daughter to take a dangerous and very naughty monkey to school. The irate headmaster demanded that I come and remove the "vermin" from the premises forthwith. I had never been so embassased in my life. Although there was that time when....
I bundled DS into the car and drove him home. I told him off in my crossest voice and he just looked at me insolently and said, "What's the problem, stroppy head?" Oh dear. What I am going to do with the baddest theological monkey on the planet?
Click on the David Sky link below for more monkey antics.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Bob Letham on The Trinity & Ministry

Yesterday we had Bob Letham address our Minister's Fraternal on The Trinity and the Work of the Ministry. Bob now teaches systematic theology at WEST. He has many years of experience in the Ministry and has written an excellent book on the Trinity (see my review here). He was able to bring a healthy combination of theological acumen and practical insight to his subject. Here's an outline of what he had to say:
1. What is the doctrine of the Trinity?
The doctrine of the Trinity is latent in the Old Testament, implicit in the New Testament (attention was drawn to triadic patterns in Romans 8 and Ephesians) and was formulated by the early church. In response to questions raised by Arius, the early church set forth its understanding of the Trinity and Nicaea (325 AD) and Constantinople (381 AD).
God is one indivisible being with three eternal, distinct persons. Both the one and the three are equally ultimate. Each person occupies the same infinite divine space. The Son is begotten of the Father, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son. The external acts of the Trinity are undivided, but in any divine act one person may be the primary actor. For example the Father sent the Son into the world, who became incarnate by the Holy Spirit. Only the Son is incarnate, but the Father and Spirit were active in his enfleshment. In the Son, God now has a body. The Son's humanity is forever united to his divine person.
2. How significant is the doctrine of the Trinity?
The doctrine Trinity is essential to the identity of the Christian God. Our God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Trinity therefore is a central doctrine, although its importance has not always been recognised in Western Christianity.
We considered the impact of Trinity upon three crucial areas of the church's life and mission:
1) Evangelism
The Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world. We are brought into saving union with Christ by the Spirit.
2) Initiation
We join the church on being baptised into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19).
3) The Christian life
The Trinity is the circumambient atmosphere of the Christian life. We have access to the Father by the Son through the Spirit, (Eph 2:18). We are called to worship God in Spirit and in Truth (John 4:24). The church worships the trinitarian God and no other. God's new covenant name is Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19)
3. How can we make the Trinity a meaningful reality in our congregations?
Gregory of Nazianzen spoke of "my Trinity", the Trinity was an experiential reality to him. Is this the case in most evangelical churches?
We can help promote trinitarian awareness among our people in several ways:
1) The Ministry of the Word
We must teach the Trinity by calling attention to the doctrine as it arises in biblical texts like Rom 8:10 & 11 and Eph 2:18-22. We do not need to mention the word "Trinity" in every sermon. But the doctrine should inform and enrich our preaching.
2) Sacraments
a. Baptism
We baptise into the triune name. In baptismal services, we can explain what this means.
b. The Lord's Supper
This is not a "trip down memory lane". As we eat the bread and drink the wine, we "spiritually" feed upon Christ. By "spiritually" we mean that we feed on Christ by the Holy Spirit. The Lord's Supper is an enactment of our union with Christ. United to him we are brought into communion with the Father.
3) Prayer
Special attention was drawn to the Minister leading in public prayer. By our prayers in worship services, we can give our people an example of trinitarian praying. Letham suggested using some written prayers alongside extemporary praying and argued that we should think about and plan our expemporary public prayers.
4) Hymnody
We should choose at least some hymns that are explicitly trinitarian. We must be careful to ensure that hymns express the doctrine accurately.
5) The Structure of Worship
Reformed worship is dialogical or conversational - a living interaction between God and his people. The God who is already present in the congregation calls us to worship him. He speaks to us by the reading and preaching of the Word. We respond with prayer, praise and the singing of hymns. The benediction at the conclusion of the service is not a "pious wish", but an announcement that "the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit" will be with the people of God as they depart.
Letham suggested that much of our worship is "Pelagian" - too focused upon the human side of worship. He expressed reservations about praying for God to be present in a meeting. God is always present with his people.
The address was followed by times of discussion before, during and after lunch. We pressed Letham on praying for a felt sense of the presence of God. While he is always present in the congregation, he communicates himself to us more fully at some times than at others. We agreed that we should not let our feelings alone be the guide on this matter. Sometimes we may feel that we have preached poorly with little of God's "felt" presence on our ministries. But the people of God are helped. We discussed the eternal generation of the Son. Letham defended the translation "only begotten" over "one and only". Calvin's teaching in the autotheos of the Son was considered. He distanced himself from a speculative, scholastic account of the Son's eternal generation. We cannot fully understand what the Son's begotenness means, apart from the fact that concerning his person he is of the Father and is to be distinguished from the Spirit who proceeds from the Father through the Son. Letham commented on Robert Reymond's construal of Calvin's teaching in the first edition of his New Systematic Theology. In Letham's view, Reymond overemphasised the extent to which Calvin's revised the Nicene formula.
In all this was a very helpful Fraternal meeting. At their best, Fraternals stimulate theological reflection in relation to the work of the Ministry. They should include times of discussion and give an opportunity for pastors to meet, eat and chat in a friendly context. A Fraternal should be just that, a band of brothers, a gathering of men who are passionate about the triune God of the Gospel and who want to serve him yet more faithfully and effectively. Yeterday's meeting amply fulfilled those criteria.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

On chairing the church member's meeting

In the Congregationalist and Baptist tradition, church officers meet with members several times a year to discuss the life of the church. In this members only meeting, new ventures are proposed, fellowship matters are discussed in confidentiality, the church accounts are made available and building repairs considered. When appropriate, applications for church membership are approved and new church officers elected. The seminary I attended gave very little attention to the matter of chairing this meeting, a task which usually falls to the pastor. If I remember rightly, we did have one talk on the subject, given by an experienced minister, but I was ill at the time and so missed his wise counsel. Our people probably regret my illness on that occasion! But for anyone who finds themselves having to chair a member's meeting, here's a little bit of advice:
1. Discuss the agenda for the member's meeting at a church officer's meeting a week or so before the event. Your bright ideas may not really be so bright. It is best to talk over your proposals with the officers rather than suffering the embarrassment of having them pulled apart by the members. Also your officers may well have valuable suggestions concerning additional matters for the agenda that you will not have thought about. If you have to put a controversial issue before the members, it is good to thrash it out with your officers first, so you know that they are behind you when it comes to the crunch. Agreeing the agenda with church officers will help ensure that you to lead the church with confidence. Make the officer's meeting a time of fellowship. Start with a Bible reading and pray through the agenda.
2. Make it a rule that if member's want to raise a matter at the church meeting, that they must first put it in writing for the church officers to discuss. Member's meetings should not be like Prime Minister's Questions in the UK, where the Leader of the Opposition tries his best to score points against the PM. Controversial or sensitive issues deserve careful thought and discussion. (See point 1).
3. Don't think of the member's meeting as a "Business Meeting" that is concerned primarily with finance and building repairs. Make it a real time of fellowship. Start with prayer, Bible reading and a hymn before you get to the agenda. After the formalities of "Apologies" and "Approval of Previous Minutes" Set out the agenda in a way that reflects gospel priorities:
Ask the people to pray about what has been proposed and considered as you work your way through the main sections on the agenda. End the meeting with a hymn of praise to God.
4. Emphasise the confidentiality of the meeting. Sometimes highly sensitive matters have to be discussed. It will lead to a breakdown of trust if members gossip about such things to others.
5. Many items on the agenda may be put to the members simply for their feedback and reflection. But big issues should be formally proposed, seconded and then put to the vote. As chairman, the pastor will usually have the casting vote. If you have to use that, you've got problems!
6. Always be patient with your people, even when they disagree with what you say. Allow everyone to voice their opinion. It is better that members say what they think in the meeting rather than grumble about things later.
7. Try not to allow discussions to get sidetracked and never waffle. Meetings should not go on for hours and hours. Keep things as brief and to the point as possible.
8. Be flexible enough to have your proposals modified by church members. They may have fresh ideas that the church officers did not take into account. Never belittle anyone for for coming up with a rather silly suggestion.
9. Little things like colour schemes for building redecoration can become big issues if members aren't consulted. Trying to get a committee to agree on a colour for the Sunday School room isn't aways easy, but it's better than the grief you may get for not consulting.
10. When it comes to matters of principle, be guided by the Scriptures. Also bear in mind the church's constitution and confession of faith. The task of the church is to perform the Bible faithfully, not modify or disobey its teaching. The members' meeting gathers under the authority of our Lord Jesus. He, not the pastor, or the most vociferous member is head of the church. When the members follow God's Word we may say of our agreed programme, "It seemed good to us and to the Holy Spirit".

Monday, September 24, 2007

God Crucified, by Richard Bauckham

God Crucified: Monotheism & Christology in the New Testament,1998, Eerdmans, 79pp, by Richard Bauckham
In this gem of a book, Bauckham sketches out his proposal that New Testament Christology is best understood using the Hebrew concept of the divine identity rather than Greek notions of person, essence and nature. It is sometimes assumed that the sub-apostolic church developed a higher Christology than we find in the New Testament, because it is only from from Nicaea onwards that Christ was confessed as fully God - a divine person who was homoousion with the Father. Bauckham questions this assumption saying,
"I shall be arguing what will seem to anyone familiar with the study of New Testament Christology a surprising thesis: that the highest possible Christology, the inclusion of Jesus in the unique divine identity, was central to the faith of the early church even before any of the New testament writings were written, since it occurs in all of them." (p. 27).
The writer shows that when we set the New Testament's witness to Christ against background of Hebrew theological understanding, he was incorporated in the divine identify from the very beginning .
In the opening chapter, Understanding Early Jewish Monotheism, Bauckham lays the groundwork for the book's central argument. He notes that for Jewish monotheists, God had two defining attributes that set him apart from the false gods of the nations. Israel's God, YHWH was the creator and sovereign ruler of the universe. These characteristics separated God even from "intermediary figures" like angels or the great patriarchs. Unlike some, Bauckham does not see these "intermediary figures" as precedents for including Jesus in the divine identity. However, he notes that in both the Old Testament and Second Temple literature, God's Word and Wisdom are personified as part of the unique divine identity. These distinctions within the one God in Jewish theology made it possible for the church to include Jesus within the identity of YHWH without compromising strict, monotheistic beliefs.
In the next chapter, Christological Monotheism in the New Testament, Bauckham demonstrates how the early church included Jesus in YHWH's divine identity. First, by virtue of his exaltation, Jesus shares in God's sovereign rule. The New Testament writers creatively used Old Testament texts such as Psalm 110:1 to assert Jesus' sovereignty over all things. The exalted Jesus is even given 'the name above every name', (Philippians 2:9), which Bauckham argues is the very Tetragrammaton - YHWH. As the exalted Lord, Jesus is worthy of the worship and praise that belongs to God alone. Second, Jesus was included in the divine identity because he is described as the pre-existent creator. The writer draws particular attention to 1 Corinthians 8:4-6 at this point. In this text, Paul reworks the Jewish Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4), to include Jesus in the identity of the one creator God. This "Christology of divine identity" takes us beyond the traditional distinctions between functional and ontic Christology. It is misleading to suggest that Christ could have shared in the "functions" of God's lordship and creative activity without being "ontically" divine. Creation and sovereignty are part of God's defining identity - he is Creator and Lord. Jesus is therefore "intrinsic to the unique identity of God." (p. 41).
Finally we come to God Crucified: The Divine Identity Revealed in Jesus. In this chapter, Bauckham attempts to demonstrate that it was not only as the pre-existent Creator, and exalted Lord that Jesus shared in the identity of God. Christ crucified also reveals who God is. The writer reflects on the New Testament's use of Isaiah 40-55 in relation to Jesus. Bauckham calls these chapters "Deutero-Isaiah" while recognising that early Christians would not have seen the middle section of Isaiah in that way. (I don't much care for the critical theories that question the unity of Isaiah, but I don't want to get into all that now). Bauckham is on surer ground when it comes to New Testament exegesis. His insight into the different nuances of Pauline and Johannine teaching is outstanding. He devotes special attention to the way in which Philippians 2:6-11, Revelation and John's Gospel draw upon themes and ideas in Isaiah 40-55. With great theological sensitivity, Bauckham teases out the Christological significance of the New Testament's use of these texts. Here, the God of Israel is revealed in the degradation and death of the Suffering Servant. In Jesus, God is identified as the crucified one.
There is both continuity and novelty in the New Testament's account of Israel's God,
"The radical novelty in Philippians 2 lies in the way in which God in Jesus Christ dwells in the depths, not only with but as the lowest of the low. God's characteristic exaltation of the lowest becomes a pattern in which he participates himself." (p. 74).
Bauckham reflects on the trinitarian aspects of his Christology of divine identity. The God of Israel is no unipersonal being. The divine identity is revealed in the intra-divine relationships between Father, Son and Spirit.
"The transition from the God of the patriarchs to YHWH the God of Israel is a kind of precedent for the transition from the latter to the God of Jesus Christ. Once again a new name identifies a newly disclosed identity, although this clearly only occurs in one New Testament text: Matthew 28:19."
"As the God who includes the humiliated and the exalted Jesus in his identity he is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, that is the Father of Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Spirit of the Father given to the Son" (p. 76).
Where does all this this leave classic Nicean/Chaledonican orthodoxy? According to Bauckham, the Fathers did not so much develop New Testament Christology, but transpose it into the concepts of Greek philosophical categories of essence and nature. The purpose of homoousion was to safeguard Jesus' place within the divine identity. I think that the Nicean/Chaledonican tradition comes into its own is in providing precise answers to question such as, "What is the relationship between the three and the one within the divine identity?" and "What is the relationship between the divine and human in the incarnate Son of God?" The writer argues that the tradition was less successful when it comes to engaging with the New Testament's revelation of God's identity in the sufferings of Christ. It is not until Luther's theologia crucis that the church really began to seriously reflect on God crucified.
Bauckham acknowledges that he has but sketched an outline of his "Christology of divine identity" in this little book. But his constructive proposal has helped to throw fresh light on the New Testament's understanding on Jesus. His findings deserve to be taken into account by others working in the fields of Christology and the doctrine of the trinity. But more than that, Bauckham enables us to see anew that the glory is God is displayed most fully in the self-giving of the Son at Calvary.
In his highest work, redemption,
See His glory in a blaze;
Nor can angels ever mention
Aught that more of God displays.
(O What matchless condescension by William Gadsby)

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Kevin Vanhoozer Interview

GD: Hello Kevin Vanhoozer and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Could you tell us a little about yourself?
KV: Thanks for bringing me into the Exile. I'm a middle-aged student of theology in the Reformed tradition who teaches evangelicals (at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) and writes for catholic Christians. I'm married to Sylvie, who is French, and I have two daughters, Mary and Emma, who are both in college. I've spent most of my adult life trying to answer the question, 'What does it mean to be biblical?' and half my adult life in Europe and the UK.
GD: What do you enjoy most about being a systematic theologian?
KV: I enjoy seeing connections between things - not only between doctrines but between things in everyday life. I'm interested in the history of ideas and how these ideas take on flesh and influence culture, and the church. Being a systematic theologian allows me to indulge all my interests - in literature, film, art, music - by relating them all to God. Most of all, I appreciate the privilege and responsibility of seeking to understand God for the sake of my own well-being and that of the church.
GD: A lot of your work e.g. Is there a meaning in this text? and to some extent The Drama of Doctrine has been about biblical hermeneutics in the postmodern world. Why do feel particularly drawn to this aspect of the theological task?
KV: I'm not interested in either hermeneutics or theological method for their own sakes. I don't want to turn method in theology into a theology of method! On the contrary, from the very beginning my interest has been in thinking about God and the world biblically. I quickly learned, however, that it is not enough simply to use the Bible or claim to be biblical. Everybody uses the Bible, even the heretics. So, because I believe that the ultimate authority for theology is the triune God speaking in the Scriptures, I have had to spend more time than I perhaps would have liked trying to clear my throat (to use Jeffrey Stout's metaphor for method).
I had to engage with postmodernity simply because it is part of the intellectual context in which the church, at least in the West, lives and moves. Also, when I was teaching at the University of Edinburgh, my students forced me to give a reason for the hermeneutical hope - that I could ascertain the meaning of the biblical text - that was within me. The suspicion that meaning and truth are simply ideological tools was too serious to ignore.
GD: One of your burdens in The Drama of Doctrine (DofD) is to bridge the gap between theology and the practice of the church. Why do you think that reconfiguring theology in terms of dramatics is the way to make doctrine more practical?
KV: Theology is faith seeking understanding, but understanding is more than theoretical. If we really grasp who and where we are as disciples, we should know how to live out our faith. All too often, however, the church professes its faith but is unsure how to practice it. Even some of my seminary students come to theology classes somewhat reluctantly, assuming that doctrine is neither practical nor relevant to their future ministry.
To define doctrine as direction for fitting participation in the drama of redemption - in what God is doing in Christ through the Spirit to form the church and renew creation - is to ensure that the understanding that faith seeks will not stop short of practice. My goal as a theologian is to move beyond the acquisition of knowledge to its application in real life: in a word, I want to get wisdom.
GD: Is it right to make the metaphor of drama the driving force of Christian theology? One criticism of the DofD was that space was sometimes devoted to drama theory at the expense of biblical exegesis and exposition. How would you respond to these points?
KV: The driving force of Christian theology is the God of the gospel. The subject matter of theology is intrinsically dramatic: God in his missionary movements (viz., Son and Spirit). It's a matter of God saying and God doing the good for the world in Jesus Christ. Christianity is neither a system of ideas nor of morality but a way, a way of life. Life is something to be done, and so is drama. I had not intended to plumb the model of drama so deeply, but I did so because the more I did so the more the approach yielded understanding. My research affected me on a personal level: I came to see myself as an actor with a script, called to act (or improvise) in a new situation. Everyday life became infused with urgency as I tried to speak and act in ways that fit the holy script and glorified God in new contexts.
I don't myself think that the drama theory got in the way so much as open up new vistas. Part One, where I set forth the drama of redemption, is replete with biblical theology. Also, my colleague Bob Yarbrough compiled a Scripture index for Drama of Doctrine during his sabbatical, and I was pleased to see that there were ten pages of entries!
GD: You often make use of "speech act theory" in your books. I think that this can be a helpful way of focusing attention of God's communicative action in Scripture. But is there not a danger of relying too heavily on philosophical language theories in theological work? Today's fashionable "speech act theory" may become tomorrow's despised "common sense philosophy".
KV: I agree. I'm not a speech act theorist tout court. But I do think that the insight into illocutions - that we do things in saying things - marks an important and permanent gain in our knowledge of language. For what it's worth, William Alston agrees with me! Of course, it also needs to be said that all biblical exegetes and theologians have a theory of language, whether they acknowledge it or not...
GD: Is there room for inerrancy in your theodramatic account of the Bible as the God-given script that the church is to understand and perform?
KV: Yes. I hold Scripture to be the word of God written. I believe that God speaks by means of the human discourse of Scripture and that the Holy Spirit so guided the authors that what they say/do with their words corresponds to the divine intent. God is the divine playwright who communicates his ideas through the voices of the various human authors. It's true that the term 'inerrancy' does not appear in Drama of Doctrine, but it doesn't follow that the idea is absent. To think that it does is to commit the word-concept fallacy.
One reason I didn't employ the word is that there is confusion about what inerrancy means. It doesn't mean that we should interpret the Bible literalistically, turning a deaf ear to its figures of speech and literary genres. What it does mean is that when we rightly interpret the Bible, taking due consideration of what authors are doing with their words in their speech and literary genres, we can be assured that its truth claims are indeed true. And by 'true' I mean that its claims are reliable because they correspond to God, his creation, and to what God has done, is doing, and will do to renew his creation through Christ.
GD: Thanks for that. Some people have wondered about your position on inerrancy simply because you did not use the word. In the DofD and in your essay in Always Reforming, you are quite critical of the theological method of older Reformed dogmaticians like Charles Hodge. Why do you think that their methodology was so flawed?
KV: I don't want to exaggerate the problem. I grew up, intellectually speaking, reading Hodge and Warfield and it was they who first awakened in me an excitement about systematic theology. Moreover, I think they said what needed to be said in their own intellectual context. Faced with the alternatives, Hodge was right to emphasize theology as an inductive science, that is, a principled study of the biblical text, rather than a mystical or speculative endeavor.
If I am critical, it is only because I think we can (and must) do better today, not least because others have raised objections that Hodge and Warfield are not here to answer. I see my own work as continuing in their basic trajectory, giving authority to what Scripture says, while at the same time responding to criticisms of their views of science, method, and knowledge.
Paul Helm has led me to wonder, however, if the terms in which I have described Hodge's method (e.g., 'empiricist') are entirely appropriate. They probably aren't (I have never pretended to be an expert on Hodge or to give the last word). Nevertheless, I continue to believe that systematic theology can do better than what Hodge suggests (the inductive method) at least with regard to its biblical interpretation. The model of inductive science suggests to some (even if this was not Hodge's intent) that the task of theology is primarily theoretical: that of systematizing truths. Make no mistake, this is an important task (which is why I insisted that my Research Professorship be identified as 'Systematic Theology'), but so are the pastoral and sapiential tasks, and these requires imagination as well as induction.
GD: I'm sure that Paul Helm (who sometimes drops in here) will be gratified to see your remarks on Hodge's 'empiricism'. On reading the DofD, and your criticisms of Hodge elsewhere, I have sometimes wondered what a Vanhoozer-authored systematic theology might look like. Would you follow the traditional schema and work through the great biblical doctrines from God to Eschatology in terms of theodramatics, or do you propose an entirely different way of doing things?
KV: Not too much has been written about the history of systematic theology as a literary genre. Systematic theology is, of course, more than a form of writing, but it is also not less! I'm still thinking the matter through. The key is to write in such a way as to make possible an illuminating and edifying reading of Scripture and thus a deepened Christian understanding. There are a number of models out there - everything from Aquinas' Summa and Calvin's Institutes and from Hodge's Systematic to Barth's Dogmatics. My inclination is to emulate several models of 'best practice'. But I can't here reveal my secret formula!
GD: That's a bit tantalising! Are you planning at some point to write a full-length systematic theology?
KV: Yes, God willing. Everything else is but a tilling of the ground...
GD: Could you tell us your top three pieces of music?
KV: No, but here are three from my top 100: Allegri, Misere (sung by theTallis Scholars); Bach, St. John Passion (John Eliot Gardiner, conducting); Brahms, Second Piano Concerto.
GD: What is the most valuable work of theology that you have read in the last year? It is a must read because?
KV: I have to mention two, not least because they¹re doing something similar. Paul Molnar's Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity (2002) and Matthew Levering's Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology (2004) are both concerned with affirming the reality of God's action in the world (the economic Trinity) while not dragging God down to the world's level. Each in his own way, the one in dialogue with Barth and the other with Aquinas, emphasizes the importance of not letting the immanent Trinity collapse into the economic. That way Feuerbach lies...
GD: In the DofD, you suggested that the theologian is a "dramaturge", whose task is to enable the pastor -director to understand the biblical script. But not all pastors make time read great works of theology. They are too busy preparing sermons, visiting their people, organising the church's evangelistic programme and so on. Why should pastors make the effort to become pastor-theologians?
KV: Both parts of the Great Commission, evangelism and making disciples, require theology. Theology is a form of the ministry of the Word; specifically, theology is a the ministry of Christian understanding. We need theology in our evangelism because theology is about preserving the integrity of the word, the message of the gospel an evangelist proclaims. We need theology in our disciple making because theology is about reminding us who we are and what we are to say and do as followers of Jesus Christ in this or that situation.
The world is filled with therapists and managers. What the church needs now is people who can (1) articulate from the Bible the truth about God, the world, and ourselves in terms that are faithful to the Bible and intelligible in the contemporary context (2) exhort their congregations to say and do things that corresponds to the truth of Jesus Christ as attested in the Bible.
GD: Are you in the process of writing a book at the moment? Care to give us a sneak preview?
KV: Yes, I'm working on a book for the Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine series. It's entitled Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship. It sets forth the contours of a dialogical theism that develops the doctrine of God largely out of the biblical depictions of God speaking. It then brings this communicative focus to bear on the twin vexed issues of divine action and divine suffering. The result: an 'upgrade' of classical theism that makes interpersonal dialogue rather than impersonal causality the keystone of the God-world relation, some notes towards a theo-dramatic metaphysics, and a new vision for how divine sovereignty engages human freedom in commanding and compassionate (i.e., communicative) fashion.
GD: That sounds very interesting. Best wishes with your work. Thanks very much for spending a little time here in Exile. It's been great talking to you!

Hold fast your Confession

The Westminster Assembly
You may have noticed that my sidebar contains a section entitled, I Believe. Under that heading I have included links to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, the 1689 Baptist Confession and the FIEC Basis of Faith. Why do I express what I believe in terms of these creeds and confessions of faith? Why not just put "The Bible" under I Believe? Of course, my faith rests primarily in the Bible as God's Christ-revealing Word, but creeds and confessions are of immense value both to the church and the individual believer.
Creeds are a bulwark against theological short-termism and individualism. We are not the first generation of Christians to read the Bible. When we read Scripture, we are faced with some pretty big issues. None more so that the question of Jesus' identity. Donald Macleod writes, "Arius posed a question (indeed a series of questions) to which every subsequent generation of Christians must reply: what is the relation between God the Son and God the Father? Is he different in essence (heteroousios) or is he one and the same in essence (homoousios)? Is he begotten, or is he made? Is he a creature, or is he the Creator? Did he have a beginning, or is he eternal? These questions form part of the context of Christian theology not only in the fourth century, but in all ages afterwards... The historic answer to Arius was given in the Nicene Creed and this, too, remains an enduring part of our theological context." (Jesus is Lord: Christology Yesterday and Today, Mentor, 2000, p. 99-100). "What think ye of Christ?" We cannot avoid giving an answer to that pressing question. We cannot afford to get it wrong. Shall we rely upon our individual judgement alone, or shall we allow what we say to be informed by the historic confession of the Church? Yes, we must be attentive to what the Spirit says to us by the Word. But we should recognise that he has been leading the Church into all truth for thousands of years. To disown the historic testimony of the Church is to slight the work of the Spirit.
Both the 1689 Baptist Confession and the FIEC Basis of Faith build on the insights of Nicaea and Chalcedon in stating their view of the Person of Christ. This is a reminder that Baptists and Independent Evangelicals are part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. We confess the faith once delivered to the saints. Let us hold to our Baptist distinctives and an Independent view of Church government. But let us also remember that we are part of the historic body of Christ. Kevin Vanhoozer puts all this into typically theodramatic terms. The task of the the church today is to perform the biblical script faithfully and authentically. We can do that all the better when we learn from the great performances of the past, "The purpose of creedal theology, then, is to direct the local church into the way of the Scriptures and to relate the local church to these previous performances." The ancient creeds such as Nicaea and Chalcedon are examples of "Masterpiece Theatre". They remind us that each local church is part of the catholic church. We can learn from centuries of theological wisdom how we may best understand and perform the Bible. Denominational Confessions such as the 1689 Baptist Confession are like "Regional Theatre". These documents were attempts to remain faithful to the creedal inheritance while innovating to respond to specific issues of the day. Lastly we have the "Local Theatre" of the individual congregation. The local church must seek to perform her role as a concrete and contextualised part of the catholic church. (See The Drama of Doctrine, WJK, 2005, p. 445ff). To give a faithful performance of the drama of redemption, each local church must be a creedal, confessing church.
No creed or confession is authoritative for its own sake. The purpose of these documents is to set forth the Church's understanding of Scripture. Confessions may need to be revised and updated in the light of fresh biblical discovery. The Independents were right to revise the Westminster Confession of Faith in their Savoy Declaration and the Baptists were right to amend both Westminster and Savoy when they published their own confession in 1689. Creeds need to be supplemented in response to new areas of controversy. The Church's understanding of Christ at Nicaea had to be further defined by Chalcedon when the issue was not Christ's divine identity but the relationship between his divine and human natures. Perhaps one of the most urgent task facing us today is updating the great 17th century Puritan confessions in a way that is faithful to our heritage and relevant to today's concerns.
In the 18th century, Independents like Isaac Watts and Philip Doddridge were reluctant to subscribe to creeds and confessions of faith. They reserved the right to affirm their own personal statement of beliefs. About this time, Arianism was beginning to take hold of the Congregational movement to which they belonged. The lack of confessional clarity on the part of leaders like Watts and Doddridge enabled Arianism to prosper almost unchecked with predictably disastrous results. The Calvinistic Baptist churches also neglected their Confession in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This led to ministers adopting idiosyncratic views on the Person of Christ, antinomianism and hyper-Calvinism. We neglect the great confessions of faith at our peril. What time has been wasted by those who blindly fall into old errors, ignorant of the safeguards of confessonal theology!
Evangelicalism today is increasingly individualistic, with little interest in history. But evangelicalism is part of the historic Christian church. We will be able to fulfill our calling to perform the gospel in the 21st century all the more effectively with the help of the theological wisdom of the past. Yes, we face new issues that that 17th century Baptists, let alone the early church fathers could not even have imagined. But standing on the shoulders of these giants will give us a good vantage point from which to view the challenges of our own day. Hold fast your confession!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce by John Piper

Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce by John Piper, IVP, 2007, 76pp.
William Wilberforce is chiefly remembered for his role in the abolition of the slave trade 200 years ago. But his dogged anti-slavery campaign was far from being his only interest. At one time in his life, he was active in 69 different initiatives as diverse as the British and Foreign Bible Society and the RSPCA. He was a big name politician. Wilberforce may have refused to serve as a cabinet minister. But he was a friend and confidant to British Prime Ministers. In this delightful little book, John Piper seeks to explore what made this great man tick.

Biographical details are sketched in, but what drives the book is Piper’s desire to find the key to Wilberforce’s life as a Christian. He finds two main principles. First, Wilberforce’s insistence that Christian living cannot be separated from “the gigantic truths of the gospel”. His A Practical View of Christianity was written to shock the chattering classes out of their nominal Christianity. He knew that lives could only be changed if people wholeheartedly believed in the gospel of justifying grace. A holy life is the inevitable effect on saving faith in Christ. As Don Carson recently put it, Wilberforce was "radical from the centre". His reforming activities were rooted in the gospel of God's grace. The "Social Gospel" movement of the early 20th century turned its back upon the doctrines of historic Christianity and focused almost entirely on changing society. The movement was a spectacular failure. People had little interest in a Christianity devoid of saving power. Instead, they looked to socialism to cure the ills of society. Wilberforce however, whose reforms did change the world was a distinctly evangelical reformer.
Second, Piper shows that Wilberforce’s life was characterised by “childlike joy”. The reformer knew periods of discouragement and spiritual difficulty, but all who knew him testified to his sunny, joyful disposition. The cynical might raise a weary eyebrow at Piper's attempt to turn Wilber into a proto-Christian Hedonist. But if ever there was a happy believer it was William Wilberforce. The joy of the Lord was his strength and his joyful Christian life made him a winsome and lovable witness to Christ.
You will have to look elsewhere for a full biography of Wilberforce. This book is largely draws on two sources, John Pollock’s Wilberforce and Wilberforce’s own A Practical View of Christianity. A helpful Foreword is written by Jonathan Aitken, who warmly recommends this study. All Christians will be helped and challenged by this little volume. Are we vibrant, joyful witnesses to Christ? The book could also be given to non-Christians who were captivated by the film Amazing Grace and want to know more about what made William Wilberforce the man that he was.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

John Calvin's Ideas by Paul Helm

John Calvin's Ideas by Paul Helm, Oxford, 2006 paperback
This book is an attempt to set important aspects of Calvin's teaching against the background of the reformer's interaction with medieval scholastic theology. It is often assumed that Calvin was a pure biblical theologian who rejected the overly speculative and philosophical scholastic tradition. Helm argues that Calvin's relationship with the tradition was a little more nuanced. He often appropriated scholastic methods, concepts and distinctions in formulating some of his key theological ideas. Later Reformed theology is sometimes accused of compromising on Calvin's anti-medieval stance by reverting to scholastic ways of thinking. But as Helm shows, Calvin gave his successors something of a precedent for plundering the best of the scholastic tradition in the service of Reformation theology. This does not mean that Calvin was uncritical of the wilder, speculative excesses of scholasticism. But he was not one to throw out the scholastic baby with the bathwater.
One of the valuable gains of setting Calvin in his historical context is that we are made more sensitive of the distance that separates the reformer from the preoccupations of our own time. He is often made a conversation partner in contemporary theological discussion without the realisation that Calvin's concerns are sometimes quite different from our own. It is anachronistic to make use of Calvin's ideas as if he were addressing our present post-Enlightenment world. The "Reformed Epistemology" movement associated with Alvin Plantinga is possibly guilty of this. Calvin's teaching on the sensus divinum (our innate sense of God) is used by Plantinga as the basis for "warranted belief" in God as a fundamental presupposition. But Calvin's concerns were not primarily epistemological - what we may warrantably believe, but soteriological, how sinners may have a saving knowledge of God. Throughout the book, Helm interacts not only with the primary Calvin literature, but with other interpreters of the Reformer such as Plantinga, Alister McGrath, and David Steinmetz.
Fundamental to Calvin's theology is the distinction between God as he is in himself (in se) and God as he is revealed to us (quoad nos). Such is God's stunning majesty, we cannot know his divine essence. But God is revealed to us truly and faithfully in his acts and in his Word. Calvin was against speculation about the divine essence because only God can know God as he is in himself. It is for us to be content with his gracious self-revelation. The distinction between God in se and God quoad nos is not original to Calvin. It is also found in the writings of Thomas Aquinas and other scholastics. Helm often draws attention to Calvin's use of Aquinas' theological concepts. The Reformer made use of his insights when he regarded them as helpful in understanding Scripture. At other times Calvin was critical of Aquinas' somewhat speculative theologising.
A chapter is devoted to Calvin's doctrine of the Trinity. Helm discusses Calvin's rejection of the traditional teaching on the eternal generation of the Son. Calvin taught that as God, the Son is autotheos. He did not derive his deity from the Father because deity is by definition underivable. But concerning his person, the Son is of the Father. Father is not, contra Augustine the fountainhead of the deity. Father, Son and Spirit are all autotheos. Helm wonders if the begotteness of the Son's person is any less problematic that the begottenness of his deity. But the genius of Calvin's formulation is that he strips begotteness of all causal connotations. The Son is the person of the Son in relation to the Father. While Calvin asserted that the Son (and the Spirit) are homoousion with the Father, he still wished to maintain an order of Persons within the one God. It was appropriate to who God is in himself that the Father sent the Son into the world and that the Father and Son sent the Spirit. Next, Helm turns his attention to The Extra - Calvin's teaching that when the Son became man he did not cease to be God. Helm clarifies exactly what Calvin meant by this in relation to Chalcedonian orthodoxy and then proceeds to examine the Reformer's teaching on the communication of attributes within the person of the incarnate Son.
It is sometimes suggested that predestination was the axiom from which Calvin drew his theological system. Precisely to avoid such misunderstanding, Helm does not give a chapter to this theme. This is a bit of a shame, but in Providence and Evil, we are given an account of Calvin's understanding of the will of God in relation to sin and suffering. For God, providence is not "risky" because everything that happens is in accordance with his sovereign, yet secret will. In his providential dealings with creation, God respects the reality of secondary causes and is not the author of sin. We cannot fully understand why God allowed sin and suffering, for we cannot know as God knows. The "free will defence" is not an adequate response to the problem of evil because God could have endued Adam with the ability to resist temptation. The subjects of human personality and free will are considered in the following two chapters.
If the first six chapters have to do with Calvin's metaphysics, the next three deal with his epistemology. Divine accommodation, natural theology and revelation are all discussed. As we cannot know God in se, he must accommodate himself to our capacities. This especially involves God's relationship to time. God may threaten to bring death and destruction to sinners and then appear to change his mind when human beings turn from their sin. Calvin's concept of divine accommodation comes into its own as an attempt to account for this apparent change of mind on God's part. When it comes to natural theology, Calvin argued that all human beings have an innate sense of God. This sense may be corrupted by sin so that human beings worship idols instead of the true God. But the sensus divinitas, backed up by the testimony of creation speaks to all men of God's existence, goodness and power. In the chapter on revelation, Helm notes that Calvin was willing to appeal to "external proofs" that the Bible is the Word of God such as the fulfillment of prophecy and the testimony of the church. But the believer comes to accept the Bible as God's self-revelation, not primarily because of these external proofs, but on the basis of the witness of the Spirit. We are given Holy Spirit certainty that the Bible is God's Word.
The next three chapters focus on Calvin's ethical theology. In a fascinating chapter on Angels, we are led through a discussion of whether God, in his hidden, absolute righteousness would be justified in condemning unfallen angels. Helm draws on Calvin's sermons on Job as well as the Institutes to show that although we cannot understand God's righteousness in se, we can can trust him not to act arbitrarily. As the author shows in The Power Dialectic, for Calvin, God's will must never be reduced to absolute power as if might were right. God's will is conditioned by his righteous character. Calvin was no "divine command theorist" who believed that something was right just because God commanded it at the time, although God could impose a contradictory command at a later date. God's commandments are an expression of his infinitely righteous being. In Equity, Natural Law, and Common Grace, Helm considers the relationship between Calvin's teaching on equity - our natural sense of right and wrong and the law. There has been a tendency among some Reformed scholars to pit the scholastic teaching on natural law against Calvin's concept of common grace. However, Helm shows that Calvin had a lot in common with Aquinas on the subject of natural law, although the Reformer was less optimistic than the Schoolman about fallen man's ability to follow the dictates of equity. Both natural law and common grace have a place in Calvin's theology.
In the final chapter on Faith, Atonement, and Time, attention is given to Calvin's attempt to resolve the apparent contradiction between what the Bible says about God's love for his elect, the atonement and the wrath of God. Why does the Bible say that God is angry with elect sinners until they believe in Christ? If God has atoned for the sins of his people in Christ, why does he threaten them with wrath and judgement? For Calvin this is resolved by appealing to the notion of divine accommodation. God appears to be angry with his eternally loved people to awaken them to embrace salvation in Christ. But would it not be better to say that God can be angry with those whom he loves and that his anger is only turned away when sinners trust in the propitiatory work of Christ? Next, Helm discusses Calvin's teaching that faith is the condition for salvation in relation to Barth's view that conditionality compromises grace. For Barth, faith is simply the recognition that the sinner is saved in Christ. Faith itself does not save. But in Calvin, faith (itself a gift of God) is the instrumental cause of a salvation that rests on the finished work of Christ.
If, like me you are not used to philosophical reasoning, then it may take a chapter or so before you get "up to speed" with this book. But it is well worth persevering because Helm throws some important light on the teaching of Calvin, which, in turn enables the reader to have a deeper grasp of Scriptural theology. Calvin was a master theologian and Helm is an attentive interpreter of his work. Some of the big themes in theology are tackled in this book - the doctrine of God, the Trinity, the Person of Christ, Providence, the doctrine of man and so on. Throughout, Helm appeals directly to Calvin's teaching and the text of Scripture. Calvin's complex relationship with scholasticism is handled well. As Helm shows, the Reformer could sometimes speculate. He wondered whether Christ might have become incarnate even if man did not fall into sin. His doctrine of the soul drew to some extent on Greek philosophy. Later Reformed theology followed Calvin in making selective use of the best insights of scholastic teaching. I suppose that if anything I have tended to see Calvin as a "pure biblical theologian" who was preceded and followed by speculative scholastics. Reading this book has helped to correct this and hopefully enabled me to read Calvin with greater historical sensitivity. For a work of philosophical theology, the text is packed with homely illustrations of blind ferrets and highly desirable cream cakes. At one point Helm tells us that he was wearing trousers when writing this book and that in his opinion he is a good looking, jolly good fellow!
John Calvin's Ideas is a must for serious Calvin scholars. Pastors will also find much that is helpful and enlightening here. Often we need to face theological issues like, how will we handle Scriptures that teach that God "repents" from punishing sinners when they repent? Is God inconsistent? Does he really change his mind? Calvin via Helm will help us to find our bearings on such matters. It is good for us to read works such as this that stretch our minds and stir our souls. On finishing this book I was left with a renewed appreciation of Calvin's theological genius. But more than that, I was moved to worship Calvin's great God, whose glory is beyond comprehension and whose love for us in Christ passes knowledge. This infinite God, whose essence is concealed has condescended to reveal himself to sinners such as us,
"For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to 'lisp' in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness." (Inst I:13:1, cited on p. 20).

Best historic Reformed theologian?

Who is your favourite historic Reformed theologian? Cast your vote in the poll on the right-hand sidebar and leave a comment to explain your choice.

Monday, September 17, 2007


Yesterday was a pretty packed Sunday. In the morning service I preached on John 10:11-21, where Jesus said, "I am the good shepherd". As the good shepherd Jesus: 1) Guards his sheep (vs. 11-13), 2) Knows his sheep (vs. 14 & 15), 3) Gathers his sheep (vs. 16) & 4) Laid down his life for his sheep (vs. 17 & 18).
We moved our usual 6pm meeting to 3pm for a service of baptism. I had the happy privilege of baptising the teenage daughter of members of our congregation. In addition to our own people, the event was attended by her relatives and friends from other churches in the area. I anticipated that there would be some non-Christian people in the congregation, so I preached evangelistically on Ephesians 2:8-10. I explained that as baptists, we only baptise people who profess to have experienced salvation. The text gives the meaning of Christian salvation: 1) Christians are saved by grace alone, 2) Christians are saved through faith alone & 3) Christians are God's new creations. Our young friend gave a bright testimony to her faith in Christ and then I baptised her in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. These services were at Peknap Providence Church.
As we had no evening service, my wife and I were able to visit a recently bereaved lady. What a day of contrasts, from rejoicing with those who rejoiced at the baptismal service to sharing in the deepest sorrow at the passing of a loved one. The one question that I constantly ask myself as as pastor is, "Who is sufficient for these things?"

Poll Result

Voting has now concluded for the Best Contemporary Reformed Systematic Theologian Poll. I am pleased to announce the worthy joint-winners:
Sinclair Ferguson 30%

Kevin Vanhoozer 30%

I have enjoyed Ferguson's work, especially his The Holy Spirit, 1996, IVP and John Owen on the Christian Life, 1987, Banner of Truth Trust. Ferguson is also a gifted preacher whose ministry I have found to be immensely enriching and challenging. Kevin Vanhoozer's The Drama of Doctrine, WJK, 2005 makes him one of the most stimulating and original of Reformed systematic theologians. Look out for my next Poll on the best historic Reformed theologians.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Sing to the Lord a new song

Stuart Townend
One of the regrettable features of the evangelical reformed scene in the UK is the outbreak of "hymn book wars". Some friends have real problems in singing certain contemporary hymns. This is not because they are against new compositions altogether. Not many would object to singing a hymn by Vernon Higham or Timothy Dudley-Smith! The issue is, should we sing hymns that have been written by "charismatics" like Graham Kendrick or Stuart Townend? I don't suppose that this post will bring hostilities to an end, but here are my reflections on why Reformed believers should not balk at singing hymns by charismatic authors.
C. H. Spurgeon laid down a good principle in the Preface to Our Own Hymnbook,
"Whatever may be thought of our taste we have used it without prejudice; and a good hymn has not been rejected because of the character of its author, or the heresies of the church in whose hymnal it first occurred; so long as the language and the spirit commended the hymn to our heart we included it, and believe that we have enriched our collection thereby."
On that basis, evangelical Calvinists have happily sung Wesley's hymns despite his Arminian theology. Nonconformists have sung hymns composed by Anglicans whose liturgical approach to worship has been very different to their own. Isaac Watts, the "father of modern English hymnody" had decidedly unusual views of the trinity and the Person of Christ, but as his speculations do not find their way into his hymns, we sing them gladly. The same goes for Richard Baxter's hymns, although his teaching on justification and the atonement deviated from the teaching of Reformed faith. If we can sing the hymns of these older writers despite their sometimes serious theological abberations, what's the problem with singing hymns by "charismatics" like Kendrick and Townend?
Some say that as Watts, Wesley and Baxter are dead, their unhelpful teaching can have little impact on contemporary worshippers. But are we no longer troubled by Arminianism? Richard Baxter's "neonomianism" bears more than a passing resemblance to Norman Shepherd's controversial views on justification. Baxter may no longer be with us, but his teachings are still very much a live issue. I once spoke to a man who held to the view that it is alright to sing hymns by an author who was dodgy but dead. I asked if he would sing a Townend hymn the day after the hymn writer passed into eternity. He said "no", because his influence would still remain for some time after his death. When I asked how long he would have to be dead before his hymns became acceptable, the friend replied that he did not know. So much for the death of a hymn writer atoning for his errors!
We Calvinists often complain that the "Charismatic Movement" is light on doctrine. But many of Kendrick and Townend's hymns are rich in biblical theology. They focus clearly on the Person of Christ, his propitiatory death and bodily resurrection. I was gratified to see Stuart Townend's name among the ranks of solidly evangelical luminaries who commend Pierced for Our Transgressions, (Jeffry. Ovey & Sach, IVP, 2007). He wrote, "there is a need for the vital doctrine of penal substitution to be clearly, comprehensively and compellingly explained." Many of Kendrick and Townend's compositions are gospel hymns. Take a look at In Christ alone (647, Christian Hymns 2004 edition. See here). It strikes me a little churlish to write off the "Charismatic Movement" as theologically vacuous and then refuse to sing their hymns even when they are filled with deep, orthodox Christology. Should we not be encouraging them for moving in this direction? Of course, people are free to say that they do not like the style of some of these new hymns and that they prefer the older compositions. But if that is the case, let them admit that this is an argument over taste and not principle.
Lest anyone misunderstand what I am saying, I do not go in for charismatic style "worship bands", or "happy clappy" services. I am a firm believer in using hymn books rather than OHP's because when hands are clasping hymn books, arms are less likely to be held aloft and waved around by "ecstatic" worshippers. But I like the statement of Paul to the Corinthians, "all things are yours: whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or things present or things to come - all are yours. And you are Christ's and Christ is God's." (1 Corinthians 3:22 & 32). I am not happy with much of what goes on under the "charismatic" umbrella. But I recognise that there are genuine godly believers in that movement, men and women who love the gospel. Some are even Calvinistic in their theology. If that is the case, the Spirit is at work in their hearts and lives. He has given these friends the gifts and graces that have produced some wonderful new hymns. If "all things are mine" as a member of the body of Christ, then these hymns are mine to sing just as much as those of Isaac Watts and Vernon Higham.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

"The whole earth one community in Christ"

In his Miscellany 262, Jonathan Edwards predicted that in the future there will be,

"better contrivances for assisting one another through the whole earth by more expedite, easy, and safe communication between distant regions than now. The invention of the mariner’s compass is a thing discovered by God to the world to that end. And how exceedingly has that one thing enlarged and facilitated communication. And who can doubt but that yet God will make it more perfect, so that there need not be such a tedious voyage in order to hear from the other hemisphere? And so the country about the poles need no longer be hid to us, but the whole earth may be as one community, one body in Christ".
This has not quite come to pass yet, but the word wide web is a wonderful example of of an "expedite, easy and safe communication between distant regions". Even on my little, blog I have frequent visitors from all round the world. Last week I received an e-mail from a pastor in the Philippines. Like me, he serves two churches. He had read an article of mine on justification by faith in the Protestant Truth magazine. Questions about the role of Christ's active obedience in justification had recently been raised in his churches. The pastor asked me to elaborate a little on what I had said in the article and to respond to some of his people's concerns. We exchanged several e-mails and I suggested that he try and get hold of John Murray's Redemption Accomplished and Applied. The thought crossed my mind that a well known Reformed publisher has a Book Fund. They send out parcels of free books to pastors whose libraries could do with a boost. I e-mailed the publisher who said that they would be willing to help my friend. A package, including Murray's Redemption has been made up and is on its way to him right now. The pastor e-mailed me this morning to say that he was looking forward to receiving the books. He asked for prayer for a conference that he will be organising in his area on the subject of the imputation of Christ's righteousness. Isn't that amazing? I the providence of God, the Internet has enabled a Wiltshire pastor and a UK-based publisher to have meaningful fellowship with a preacher from the Philippines.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Life of John Murray

The Life of John Murray by Iain H. Murray, Banner of Truth Trust, 2007, 220 pp.
John Murray was born and raised in a croft in the Highalnds of Scotland. He became one of the foremost Reformed theologians of the 20th century. Murray studied and then taught at the Princeton Seminary in the USA just at the time that Princeton was drifting from its old Calvinistic theology. He left his teaching duties at Princeton to teach systematic theology at the newly founded Westminster Theological Seminary, where he served with distinction from 1930-1966. Murray worked alongside the likes of Gresham Machen, Cornelius Van Til and E. J. Young to make Westminster a centre of Reformed orthodoxy and scholarly excellence.

Murray was no ivory tower theologian. He was involved in the life of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in America. He liked nothing better than to preach the Word to the people of God. The theologian had a real pastoral heart and many found him to be a wise and discriminating counsellor. He sought to encourage the Church to be active in evangelism and mission. At one point in the book, we are given Murray’s “Rules for the Open Air Meeting”. His gifts as a theologian and discerning Christian leader were deployed with great effect when he acted as Moderator of the Presbytery’s General Assembly. While Murray was no friend of liberal theology, he was also wary of Fundamentalism, which he saw as anti-intellectual and legalistic. Murray was champion of of distinctly Reformed confessional orthodoxy. He helped to guide the fledgling Reformed movement in the UK, acting as an advisor to the Banner of Truth Trust and speaking regularly at the Trust’s Minister’s Conference.

From Murray’s portrait, that adorns the front cover of his Collected Writings, it might be thought that he was a rather stern and forbidding figure. But he embodied the best of Scottish Highland piety, with a commitment to serious godliness wedded to heartfelt experimental Calvinism. Murray was as strict Sabbatarian. He loved to spend the Lord’s Day in uninterrupted worship, prayer and meditation. He once refused to enter into a conversation with Machen about soccer on the Lord's day, "I do not speak of such things on the Sabbath!" Ironically he was barred from entering the Scottish Free Presbyterian ministry because he sided with a minister who would not discipline a women for catching a bus to church on Sundays. (How sad is that?) Iain Murray brings the theologian’s humanity to the fore with examples of his humour and kindly generosity. The biographer also charts the course of Murray’s blossoming friendship with Valerie, whom he was to marry when in his early 60’s. The couple were blessed with two children.

In terms of his life’s work, John Murray was above all a theologian. Although reference is made to some of his key writings, this biography makes little attempt to assess the enduring value of Murray’s theological legacy. He did not write a complete systematic theology. But he made important contributions to the field of systematics. Murray’s theological method was exemplary. He believed that systematic theology should primarily arise from exegesis of the biblical text. He also argued that the discipline should be informed by the riches of past theological discovery and be able to face the challenges of the contemporary world. Murray published important work on ethics and the doctrines of justification by faith and sanctification. He was one of the top Calvin scholars of his day. His greatest scholarly achievement was probably his outstanding commentary on the Epistle to the Romans.

This edition of John Murray’s Life has a new appendix which contains some previously unpublished correspondence, but no index. I hope that the publication of this biography will lead to a fresh appreciation of Murray’s work, much of which is published in his four volume Collected Writings (Banner of Truth Trust).
See here for my discussion of Murray's approach to systematic theology.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Faithful and contemporary

(See Kelly's comments below for the people behind this picture)

On Saturday, our children went to a Youth Conference. On the way to pick them up, Sarah and I visited Dyrham Park, a National Trust stately home. A contingent of the Sealed Knot Society, a Civil War reenactment group were performing in the grounds. All were dressed in 17th century garb. They marched back and forth, fired their muskets and wielded their pikes. It was a very enjoyable demonstration. But I wonder if our churches sometimes give the impression that we are the religious arm of the Sealed Knot Society. We put on a good display and speak in impeccable olde English, but are we little better than historical curiosities?

The task of the church is to perform the drama of God's redeeming grace before the contemporary world. In order to do this we must be faithful to the drama's biblical script and speak appropriately to the present day setting. The church cannot afford to alter the drama of redemption to suit the tastes of the moment. Then we would be heralding another gospel that is not another. But we must avoid giving the impression that the Christian faith belongs in some kind of cultural or historical backwater. The gospel is transcultural. Its message speaks to people of every age. Protestants of all people should realise this. Our forefathers translated the Scriptures into the language of the people so that their contemporaries could access the riches of God's Word for themselves. Tyndale's translation was faithful to the text of Scripture and up-to-date in its style. It is important to use version of the Bible that is as accurate as possible in modern English. People today often dismiss the Christian faith as out of date. They do not believe that the gospel has anything meaningful to say in the 21st century. Using a 17th century Bible translation may only serve to reinforce that impression.

A similar point could be made with regard to the use of modern hymns in worship services. The Church is an historic institution in a fast-changing age. Singing the great old hymns of Watts and Wesley reminds of our continuity with the past. But we should not shy away from singing modern compositions as a recognition of what the Lord is doing in the church today.

Matters get worse when praying in olde English, using the Authorised Version of the Bible and not singing contemporary hymns almost become a test of fellowship. Stuart Olyott, a well known preacher in the UK recently revealed that a church invited him to preach on the condition that he prayed in "thees" and "thous". When he refused to do so, the invitation was withdrawn. I was once quizzed about which Bible translation I use before being asked to preach to a certain church. I said that I usually use the New King James version, but would happily read and quote from the AV if that is what they preferred. However, that was not good enough as the church only accepts the ministry of "AV only men". Now, many who on principle use only the AV are not this narrow minded. But it is nothing short of tragic that we are dividing over such issues.

Belief in “Scripture alone” should liberate us from the dead weight of traditionalism. We must continue to reform our practices in the light of Scripture. Tradition can be helpful. But we must not become so “traditional” that we lose touch with the modern or postmodern world. We have been called to the kingdom for such a time as this! We do not belong to the 16th or 17th Centuries, we serve the Lord Christ in the 21st Century. We should not be so enamoured by the Reformers and Puritans that we begin to speak like them. They spoke in the language of their day – and so must we! To be fair I must also say that many who read from the AV in church preach in clear, contemporary English. Lloyd-Jones used the AV in his day, but listen to what he said,

"There is a grave and real danger for many of us to become traditionalists and legalists. There are some people who seem to take delight in using archaic phrases; and if you do not use them they doubt whether you are really preaching the Gospel at all. I have observed that certain young men who have developed a new interest, for instance, in the Puritans, start speaking and writing as if they lived in the seventeenth century. This is quite ludicrous. Let me sum it up in modern terms by asserting that it is always our business to be contemporary; our object is to deal with the living people in front of us who are listening to us".

Friday, September 07, 2007

Exiled Blogcaster

Blogger has recently added a video clip tool. I thought that I would have a go at blogcasting and here's my first attempt. I'm not entirely sure about it, but here it is anyway. David Sky the "theological monkey" has a bit part. The video quality isn't that great as it was recorded on my mobile phone, but it is mercifully short at just over 3 minutes.


Wednesday, September 05, 2007

"Aren't you that Preacher in Exile?"

While we were at the Aberystwyth Conference, it began to dawn on me that behind the statistics on my sitemeter are living, breathing people who actually read the stuff I post here. On a number of occasions (well, at lest twice), I was asked, "Aren't you that Preacher in Exile?", or "You're the one with the blog thing, right?". Somewhat disconcertingly one of the speakers from last year's conference told me that he had read my review of Aber 2006. I could not remember what on earth I had written about his ministry. He seemed happy to chat anyway, so I couldn't have been too critical. One friend even asked after David Sky. He wondered if DS was at conference with us. But David still hasn't fully recovered from his dramatic accident, so we left him home alone. Sadly, he was still here when we got back.
It was also nice to bump into a couple of fellow bloggers, Gary Brady and Martin Downes. Good to know that they do exist outside of cyberspace. So, what edifying lessons do I derive from my recognition as the "Exiled Preacher"?
1. Don't write anything about anybody that would cause you grief and embarrassment if you were to meet them in the flesh.
2. Don't write anything about me that would cause you lots of grief and embarrassment if you were to meet me in the flesh.
3. Don't let your pet monkey start a blog.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Ten reasons to read Calvin's Institutes

1. It is a key Reformation text. If you would know what the Reformation was all about, read the Institutes.
2. The Institutes are readily available in a older and quite cheap English translation (here) and a more modern edition (here). You can even access them online (here). Why not give 10 minutes every day to reading Calvin's great work? Keep at it and you will be sure to make good progress.
3. The Institutes were written as theology for the people of God. You don't need to be a pastor or theologian to read this work. Calvin's intention was to give the Reformed churches a clear and deep understanding of biblical doctrine.
4. The practical sections of the Institutes are very helpful. Calvin's teaching on self-denial and prayer are outstanding. This is a work of theology that will change your life.
5. While Calvin builds on the insights of scholastic teaching, his approach to theology is refreshingly biblical. The work is full of Scripture references and considered exegesis.
6. In the Institutes, the doctrine of the Trinity is the doctrine of God. The Reformer insisted that the Son of God does not derive his divine essence from the Father. He is autotheos - God in his own right. For Calvin the language of begetting with regard to the Son is to be understood in relational rather than causal terms. Calvin's whole system of theology is thoroughly trinitarian. The Father reveals himself in the Son whom we know through the Spirit's witness to the Word of God.
7. The God-centeredness of the Institutes is a welcome corrective to "me and my needs" centred evangelicalism.
8. Unlike some works of Reformed theology, Calvin gives due attention to both the cross and the resurrection of Christ.
9. For Calvin union with Christ is the key to understanding the Christian life. Those who are united to him are both justified and sanctified. The Reformer taught that God declares the believing sinner righteous in Christ apart from works. But those who are united to Christ are also sanctified and called to do good works. Calvin thus avoids both legalism and antinomianism.
10. Read the Institutes for knowledge of God and yourself.

Monday, September 03, 2007

John Calvin on the resurrection of the body (4)

The historical evidence for Jesus' resurrection
This series began before the summer holidays. I hope to complete it over the next few weeks. In many modern treatments of the resurrection of Christ, the historicity of the resurrection event is what dominates the writer's concerns. This is understandable in the light of modern day sceptical thought and the impact of Liberal theology. (See The Meaning of Jesus by N.T. Wright & Marcus Borg, 1999, SPCK, Part IV, for a dialogue between liberal and conservative scholarship on the historicity of Jesus' bodily resurrection). Calvin however, was pre-modern and his priorities were not necessarily the same as ours. His main aim was to unpack the meaning and significance of the resurrection of Christ, not to defend its historical basis. But this does not mean that the Reformer was uninterested in historical issues. He was aware of "scoffers" who derided the Bible's resurrection accounts. Calvin wanted to show that Scripture acts as a strong and coherent witness to the resurrection. His primary goal seems to have been confirming the faith of believers rather than refuting the sceptics as an end in itself. (All quotes are from Institutes III:XXV:3).
"But least any question should be raised as to the resurrection of Christ on which ours is founded, we see how often and in what various ways he has borne testimony to it. Scoffing men will deride the narrative which is given by the Evangelist as a childish fable. For what importance will they attach to a message which timid women bring, and the disciples, almost dead with fear, afterwards confirm?"
Calvin explores several lines of evidence:
1. The testimony of Christ's followers
Why, asks Calvin, did not the risen Jesus appear publicly in the temple, or show himself to Pilate? The Lord seems to have used weak and infirm people as witnesses to the resurrection. But Calvin can see the "admirable providence of God" in all this. The women hurried to the tomb on Easter Sunday morning only to see that it was empty and to hear the angels tell them that Jesus had arisen from the dead. The apostles were not gullible fools who immediately believed the women's testimony. They took a lot of convincing that Jesus was alive. "How can we question the veracity of those who regarded what the women told them as a fable, until they saw the reality?"
2. The testimony of Pilate and the guards
The Governor may not have seen the risen Jesus, but he was given sufficient evidence that Jesus was alive. He posted a guard at Jesus' tomb, but his body went missing. The guards were bribed to spread a report that Jesus' disciples had stolen his body. But this is hardly credible. Are we to suppose that the disciples had the weapons, training and courage to mount an attack upon the guards and steal the body of Jesus? If this is what happened, why did not the soldiers call for help from the citizens of Jerusalem and apprehend the body-snatching disciples? Pilate knew what had really happened. In his desperate attempt at a cover-up, he unwittingly "put his signet to the resurrection of Christ, and the guards who were placed at the sepulchre by their silence and falsehood also became heralds of his resurrection." Even those who had no vested interest in proclaiming Jesus' resurrection bear witness to the fact.
3. The testimony of angels
This line of evidence will not convince the hardened sceptic, but Calvin was writing to confirm the faith of Christians who believed in the existence of angelic beings. Referring to the men in shining garments at Jesus empty tomb, Calvin writes, "Their celestial splendour plainly shows that they were not men but angels." The angels said to the women, "He is not here, but is risen." (Luke 24:6). Heaven-sent supernatural beings bore witness to Jesus' resurrection.
4. The resurrection appearances
Calvin writes, "Afterwards if any doubt still remained, Christ himself removed it." The apostles saw him frequently. They handled him and touched him. Their initial unbelief (eg. Thomas?) "is of no little avail in confirming our faith". In addition to appearing to them, the risen Christ spoke to the apostles concerning the mysteries of the kingdom of God and ascended to heaven before their eyes. But the apostles were not the only ones to whom Jesus appeared. Calvin appeals to Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 15:6 that the risen Jesus was seen by more than five hundred brethren at once. This is an impressive array of witnesses to the event of Jesus' bodily resurrection.
5. The sending of the Holy Spirit
By this Jesus gave "a proof not only of life but also the promise of supreme power, as he foretold, 'It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you' (John 16:7). The fulfillment of this promise on the day of Pentecost serves as evidence that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead (cf Acts 2:32 & 33).
6. Appearances to Paul and Stephen
Even after his ascension, Jesus appeared to these two men. "Paul was not thrown down on the way by the power of a dead man, but felt that he whom he was opposing was possessed of sovereign authority. To Stephen he appeared for another purpose - viz. that he might overcome the fear of death by the certainty of life".
All these lines of evidence taken together are sufficient to convince people that Jesus rose from the dead. "To refuse assent to these numerous authentic proofs is not diffidence, but depraved and therefore infatuated obstinacy." The problem with rejection of the bodily resurrection of Jesus is not the lack of reliable evidence, but sinful unbelief.
While Calvin believed that people are convinced of the truth of Scripture (including the claims that Christ rose from the dead) primarily by the witness of the Spirit. This does not mean that he was unwilling to appeal to historical evidence to defend the reality of Jesus' bodily resurrection. This combination of the Spirit's witness to Scripture and appeal to historical proofs can be found in the Bible itself. In Luke's account, the disciples see the empty tomb and hear the women's eyewitness testimony to Jesus resurrection appearance. But what convinced them that Jesus rose from the dead was his own appearance to them personally. Luke notes that Jesus ate before them, demonstrating that he was no "ghost", but a real, embodied man. In addition to this, the Lord "opened their understanding that they might comprehend the Scriptures" (Luke 24:45). It was only then that the disciples grasped the real significance of the resurrection event. Here is the combination of historical evidence, Scriptural testimony and the witness of the Spirit. Evidentialists who simply rest their case on the historical evidence need to take into account the necessity of the Spirit's witness to convince sinners that Jesus truly rose from the dead. Presuppositionalists should not baulk at presenting the historical evidence that Scripture gives for Jesus' resurrection. Of course, Calvin was not writing to address these concerns, but his method of reasoning has something to say to both evidentialist and presuppositionalist schools of thought. In his article on Presuppositional apologetics in New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics, (IVP, 2006) John Frame argues that even presuppositionalists have to answer objections. Simply calling for faith in the resurrection of Jesus "because the Bible says so", without presenting the historical evidences for the resurrection is an inadequate apologetic strategy.