Monday, March 31, 2008

The Preacher's Risk

Words prepared in study silence
with books read and texts divided.
Will they burn on lips with a holy flame
of consuming fire,
Or will all be dust and ashes?

The preacher rises to his pulpit,
the stained wood
enlcoses him like a coffin.
Will he die once more,
Or will the quickening Spirit give life?

The Wind blows where it wishes
and cannot be controlled
by man's art or sweat.
Will the free Spirit come and
release me from my chains or not?
That's the preacher's risk.

Friday, March 28, 2008

2008 UK Banner of Truth Ministers' Conference

On Monday I'll be off to the Banner Ministers' Conference. I'm very much looking forward to the ministry and fellowship. It's not just the formal events on the programme that make these conferences so profitable. A number of other factors also make the annual pilgrimage to Leicester worthwhile. It may not be exactly true in this case that it is better to travel than to arrive. But the theological conversations and banter on journey make for an enjoyable ride. Too enjoyable maybe, as last year we kept getting lost. Then there is the free time on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons, when I might attempt to play tabletennis (badly) or football (v. badly). One of the highlights of the Banner "fringe" is a secretive gathering of the Taffia. A number of Welsh ministers cram into a little student flat (with a few trusted English interlopers) to eat various assortments of Pringles and reminisce about "the Doctor" in the presence of a specially invited VIP guest.
But as the churches I serve kindly pay for me to attend Banner I ought to say that it's not all fun and games (honest!). There is the teaching as well, with some excellent speakers this year including Joel Beeke, Stuart Olyott and Gwynn Williams. I'll hopefully post a report when I get back home. Any fellow bloggers hoping to be there?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

My Top Ten Radiohead Songs

I got into Radiohead by downloading their "pay what you like" album, In Rainbows. I enjoyed that offering so much that I invested in most of their back catalogue. Here's a list of my favorite songs at the moment:

1. Paranoid Android (OK Computer)
2. Fake Plastic Trees (The Bends)
3. Idioteque (Kid A)
4. Pyramid Song (Amnesiac)
5. Reckoner (In Rainbows)
6. Street Spirit (The Bends)
7. Nude (In Rainbows)
8. No Surprises (OK Computer)
9. How To Disappear Completely (Kid A)
10. Lucky (OK Computer)

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

'Engaging with Barth' by David Gibson and Daniel Strange (eds.)

Engaging with Barth: Contemporary Evangelical Critiques,
Edited by David Gibson and Daniel Strange, IVP Apollos, 2008, 403pp.
Karl Barth (1886-1968) is often hailed as the greatest theologian of the twentieth century. There has been a resurgence of interest in his work in recent years. Fresh attention is being given to key aspects of his theological legacy. Witness the work of Barth-influenced scholars such as the Torrance brothers, George Hunsinger, Bruce McCormac and John Webster. Not to mention the numerous Barthian theology blogs like Ben Myers' Faith & Theology.
Barth represents something of an enigma for those in the classic Reformed tradition. He famously turned his back on the Liberal theology of his student years and found a resource for theological renewal in the God-centred teaching of the Reformers. But Barth did not simply become a Calvinist in the sense that he embraced Reformed Confessional theology. At certain important points, he consciously differed from the tradition. Early Reformed reaction to Barth was decidedly negative, with Cornelius Van Til classifying him as a 'new modernist'. This led to Barth and some of his followers tending to dismiss evangelical critiques as prejudiced and uninformed. So, this being the 40th anniversary of his death, the time has come for Reformed theologians to reassess the legacy of Karl Barth in a critical, yet fair and constrictive way. The editors, David Gibson and Daniel Strange have assembled a stellar cast of top Reformed theologians to undertake this important task. A glance at the contributors on the front cover of the book will bear this out (see the Engaging with Barth website for more details).
An attempt to analyse the contents of each chapter would make this an unduly long review. What I intend to do is say a word or two about the general thrust of the book and then focus on a few matters of particular interest. The editors say that their aim in this work is to "model courteous and critical engagement with Barth" (p. 19) and each contribution ably matches that criterion. The writers, all steeped in the classic Reformed tradition, are familiar with the primary Barth material and the growing body of secondary literature. Barth fans will not find their hero mindlessly torn to shreds in a fit of heresy hunting zeal. But that is not to say that the various authors give him an easy ride. Barth is pressed hard on some of his most cherished themes.
Take the subject of Christology. Barth was a self-consciously Christ-centred theologian. The Reformed tradition, with its emphasis on solo Christo might be expected to welcome this. But Barth pushed Christocentrism too far. In the opening chapter on Karl Barth's Christocentric Method, Henri Blocher discusses the effects of Barth's Christological concentration. The theologian was so fixated with Jesus Christ that he tended to dislike talk of of the pre-incarnate Logos (Logos asarkos), which he regarded as a rather "abstract" concept. God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ and only in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the first man, not simply in terms of preeminence over all other men as God incarnate, but also chronologically. Contrary to the Biblical narrative, Barth asserts that Jesus was man before Adam. Adam's humanity was modelled on that of Christ, who is the Only Real Man. All humanity belongs to Jesus Christ. He is the subject of God's decision to be God for us. For Barth, election is not about God choosing some human beings for salvation, while others are appointed to judgement. Christ is both elect and reprobate on behalf of all human beings.
Where Scripture seems to speak of individual men being either elect or reprobate, Barth exegetes those texts Christologically. David Gibson's chapter on Barth's treatment of Romans 9-11 shows that the theologian's approach has a distorting effect on the plain teaching of Scripture. Oliver Crisp helpfully contrasts Barth's teaching on reprobation and hell with that of Jonathan Edwards. Edwards' account is not without its problems, but Crisp complains that Barth's proposal lacks consistency and coherence. If Jesus Christ stands as elect and reprobate on behalf of all humanity, then surely all human beings will be saved. But Barth denies that this is necessarily the case, suggesting at one point that it is possible for us to reject our election (see p. 308). The standard Reformed teaching exemplified by Edwards gives a better reading of God's "No" to lost human beings.
When it comes to Barth's Christology, it is difficult to resist the conclusion of Garry Williams in his chapter on the atonement that, "Barth's Christ is at decisive moments an abstracted and enforced principle rather than the Christ of the Scriptures." (p. 272). Donald Macleod also makes an important point regarding Barth's Christological concentration. The theologian held that Christ alone is the Word of God, while Scripture is the human witness to that Word. Now, Scripture may become the Word of God in an event of divine self-revelation, but the Bible is not revelatory in itself (see also Mark Thomson's chapter on Barth's doctrine of Scripture). According to Barth, Scripture may err theologically as well as on matters of history and cosmology. In that case, it may bear false witness to Christ. But Macleod points out that, "there can be no other Christ behind and above the Scriptures, no word behind the written word, casting the church into doubt, enveloping her in a cloud of uncertainty and raising the possibility that the Christ of Scripture is not the real Christ or the final Christ." (p. 342).
Barth is widely credited with drawing attention to the doctrine of the Trinity after years of neglect by Liberal theologians. Michael Ovey discusses Barth's contribution to this field as does Sebastian Rehmnman in his chapter considering Barth on logic and theology. Barth did not like to use the the word "person" in relation to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He preferred to think in terms of "modes of being". For him, the Son and Spirit are "repetitions" of the Father. In Barth's construction, God can seem like a unipersonal being, leaving little room for "I-Thou" relationships within the godhead. This flies in the face of the Bible's testimony to the "I-Thou" relationship between the Father and the Son in the economy of redemption. It also suggests that God's love is reflexive rather than a self-giving love expressed between the persons of the Trinity. In some accounts of Barth's doctrine of the Trinity, God's lordship over his own being extends to his choosing to become the triune God for the sake of our salvation. If this is the case, then the "primal" God who lay behind the choice to become trinitarian is hidden from view. We cannot know him. This proposal undermines Barth's claim that his Christological doctrine of election eliminates the hiddenness of God. Besides, as Paul Helm points out, the idea that God might have chosen not to be trinitarian "is like supposing that I could have chosen to have the mind of a bat." (p. 284).
I've only just dipped my toe into the wide, deep and turbulent sea of Barth's theology. Others are being tempted to take the plunge, urged on by the theologian's many admirers. The ocean shores can certainly seem alluring and there is much to admire in Barth's work. But this book will help evangelicals to navigate these theological waters with a clear idea of the dangers that lie beneath the surface. Michael Horton fittingly concludes the book with some discerning reflections on the legacy of Karl Barth for evangelical theology. I welcome this serious and timely attempt at engagement with Barth. He makes an interesting conversation partner for contemporary Calvinists. Those who tend to be Barthian in their theology should give careful consideration to the critical appraisal that is offered in these pages. For me, reading this book has reaffirmed the biblical cogency and coherence of historic Reformed faith.
See here for my interview with co-editor David Gibson.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Mark 15: Passion with a Purpose (Part 2)

[See here for Part 1]
4. Jesus is mocked by his enemies

In films like The Passion of Christ, the sheer physical brutality of crucifixion is brought to the fore. Mark, however, places that in the background. However, Mark is very restrained when it comes to the gore factor. He simply says "and they crucified him" (15:24).Mark draws our attention not to the wounds of Jesus but to the words of his enemies. He goes into great detail to record the taunts and verbal abuse that Jesus suffered (15:29-32, 35). Why does he do this? Because this too is a sign that Jesus is dying under God's judgement. Consider Deut 28:37. Also, Psalm 89:38-42 (in context this is about God's king from David's line):
"You have cast off and rejected;
you are full of wrath against your anointed.
You have renounced the covenant with your servant;
you have defiled his crown in the dust.
You have breached all his walls;
you have laid his strongholds in ruins.
All who pass by plunder him;
he has become the scorn of his neighbours.
You have exalted the right hand of his foes;
you have made all his enemies rejoice."
In Psalm 89 being scorned by his enemies was a sign that God's king was under God's judgement for his sins. And here in Mark 15, King Jesus is scorned by his enemies. The King of the Jews is bearing God's judgement as a substitute for sinners.
5. Jesus is enveloped in darkness

While on the cross, Jesus was plunged into darkness for three hours, Mark 15:33. This recalls the plague of darkness that fell upon Egypt prior to the Exodus. This too was what God threatened Israel with in Deut. 28:29 "and you shall grope at noonday, as the blind grope in darkness." Amos also warned of this sign of judgement (Amos 8:9):
"And on that day," declares the Lord GOD,
"I will make the sun go down at noon
and darken the earth in broad daylight."
Jesus himself speaks of hell as “outer darkness”, a place devoid of the light of God’s presence. As Christ hung on the cross, the very elements spoke of the reality of God's judgement.

6. Jesus is forsaken by God

Now we come to the words that Jesus speaks in Mark 15:34:
And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
This is a great mystery. The beloved Son abandoned by his Father. What is going on here? We have to remember that Jesus was the Son of God in the flesh. He was true God and true man. In his human consciousness he had always been aware of the fact that he was the Son of God (Luke 2). This was reinforced by the Father’s words at his baptism and transfiguration. Jesus delighted in the Father’s presence and approval – (John 8:29). But at the cross the Son was made sin. In his humanity, he bore the weight of our transgressions. When he most needed a word of reassurance from the Father, all he could sense was God’s holy displeasure against sin. Poignantly, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” [Emphasis added]. He felt forsaken by God because he was forsaken by God. “He gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:32). The Father abandoned his Son to the horrors of the outer darkness. The Son was bereft of all comfort. He was no longer cheered by a sense of the Father’s loving approval. The Father treated him not as Son but as sin. He poured out upon Jesus all the wrath and judgement that is due to us as sinners. The ever blessed Son of God was made a curse for us, "suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man". (John Calvin)
This does not mean that there was a rupture in the Trinity. If the Father gave the Son to the horrors of the cross, then it is also true to say that the Son loved us and gave himself for us. He offered himself to God by the eternal Spirit. Rabbi Duncan said, “Dying on the cross forsaken by his Father…it was damnation and damnation taken lovingly.” It is perhaps unhelpful to speak as do some theologians of God being forsaken by God at Calvary. It is more true to say that the Father forsook his Son as the Son in his humanity died for our sin. We must never forget that the Father loved the Son even as he forsook him. Perhaps he never loved him more, (John 10:17), but still he left his Son derelict and abandoned for us. That is the wonder of penal substitution. Mark 15 tells us that Jesus' passion was for us.
7. Jesus’ identity as the Son of God is disclosed as he bears our sin

We have the remarkable words of the centurion, "Truly this man was the Son of God" (15:39). This is what we are told about the identity of Jesus from the outset of this Gospel - Mark 1:1. It is the fact that in his Son, God has taken our sins upon himself that gives Jesus' sufferings their infinite atoning value. In my place condemned HE stood. Hallelujah, what a Saviour!
Part 1 was published yesterday. These articles originated in some notes for a pre-Easter Bible study inspired by this post by Martin Downes.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Mark 15: Passion with a Purpose (Part 1)

We perhaps tend to think that we should look to the Gospels for an historical description of the cross and to the Epistles to give us the meaning of Christ’s atonement. But we need to remember that the theology of the Epistles is rooted in the historical event of Christ’s death and that the Gospels give us history with a theological message. Mark’s passion narrative contains several indicators that Jesus died under God’s judgement for our sin. Here is passion with a purpose.
The idea that Christ died under the wrath of God is not limited to a few texts in the New Testament that use the term “propitiation”. That Christ died in our place, bearing the penalty of our sin, is at the heart of all that the New Testament has to say about the cross.
The doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement was once regarded as a hallmark of authentic evangelical theology. These days, penal substitution is up for debate in evangelical circles. If you are interested in following the controversy, I suggest that you get hold of Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the glory of penal substitution, by Steve Jeffrey, Mike Ovey and Andrew Sach, IVP, 2007 (see my review here). But I don’t want to engage in that controversy directly in this post. I simply want to reflect on what Mark 15 has to say about the Son of God as sin-bearer.
The factual details of the crucifixion of Jesus speak to us about the nature of his death. They are much more than a bare description of the events, merely "bare" facts that are open to different interpretations. Once we look below the surface, and in terms of the Old Testament background, we will see that the details of the narrative in Mark 15 testify that Jesus is dying under the wrath of God, and that he is doing so as a substitute for sinners. Many of the signs of God’s judgment displayed here may be traced back to the terrifying covenant curses. These curses were directed at those who transgressed God’s covenant commands (Deut 27:26, 28:15). As we reflect on Mark’s passion narrative with this in mind, we will see that the Evangelist is telling us that Jesus was treated as covenant breaking sinners deserve to be treated. Mark gives us six signs that Jesus died under God's judgement.
1. Jesus is handed over to the Gentiles
Six times in Mark 15 we are told that Jesus is the King of the Jews (2, 9, 12, 18, 26, and King of Israel in 32). This King of the Jews has been handed over to the Gentiles. At one level this is the fulfillment of what Jesus said would happen. Consider his words in Mark 10:33-34:
"See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise."
At another level being delivered over to the Gentiles is a traumatic sign of being under God's judgement. It is one of the covenant curses in Leviticus 27 & Deuteronomy 28, (Deut 28:47-50). This is expressed poetically in Psalm 106:40-41,

"Then the anger of the LORD was kindled against his people, and he abhorred his heritage;he gave them into the hand of the nations, so that those who hated them ruled over them."

The same idea is expressed by Ezra as he acknowledges the guilt of the people of God that led to the exile (the ultimate OT expression of judgement). Ezra 9:7b reads:

"And for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as it is today."

In the OT being handed over to the nations was a sign of God's anger. This is happening to Jesus in Mark 15.
2. Jesus is silent before his accusers
We know that the charges brought against Jesus by the Jewish leaders were both unjust and incoherent (Mark 14:55-61). Before Pilate, as again Jesus is falsely accused, he remains silent. Why does Jesus not speak up in his own defence? Why does he not silence the lies of his enemies? Pilate is amazed at this (Mark 15:3-4). The Roman Governor knew full well that Jesus was innocent of the charges brought against him, (15:9 & 10, 14). But the sinless Jesus refused to plead his innocence. His silence is spoken of in the words of Isaiah 53:7:
"He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth;like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth."
The silence of Jesus before his accusers is a sign that he is the suffering servant who will bear the penal consequences of the sins of others by substitutionary atonement (Isa. 53:4-6, 10). Mark also highlights the fact that Jesus identified himself with guilty sinners in 15:27 & 28. His was a guilty silence. But it is our guilt not his that he bore.
3. Jesus is hung on a tree
The very instrument of execution, the cross, spoke of the nature of Christ's death. In the words of Deuteronomy 21:22-23:

"If a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God."

Jesus was not personally guilty of any crime that could issue in his death. His death was therefore substitutionary. For clearly in being hung on a tree, he was "cursed by God" for us. This is reinforced by the crown of thorns that Jesus was forced to wear by the Roman soldiers (Mark 15:17). Thorns are associated with God's curse upon creation after the fall (Gen. 3:17-19). Paul draws our attention to the fact that Jesus was made a curse for us in Gal. 3:10-13 cf. 1 Peter 2:24.
I hope to publish Part 2 tomorrow. These articles originated in some notes for a pre-Easter Bible study inspired by this post by Martin Downes.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Grand Slam for Wales!

Wales 29 - 12 France
A dream conclusion to Wales' six nations campaign. A tough first half, but the boys came through to beat the French in convincing style.

Yessss! See here for BBC match reports and highlights.

Shane Williams scores his record winning 41st try for Wales

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill

UK Members of Parliament will soon be debating the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. The Bill as it stands will allow therapeutic cloning and the creation of human/animal hybrid embryos. On the positive side, M.P.'s will have the opportunity to amend the Bill to reduce the abortion limit from 24 weeks to 22 or even 20 weeks. While I would like to see abortion outlawed in all but the most exceptional cases, this would be a welcome step in the right direction. British bloggers should urgently consider writing to their M.P.'s to express concern about the Bill. This is what I wrote to my own Member of Parliament:
Dear Dr. Murrison M.P.,
I understand that David Cameron recently urged the Prime Minister to allow Labour M.P.'s to have a free vote on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. The Bill raises series ethical issues and M.P.'s should be allowed to vote according to conscience rather than along Party lines. I hope that your leader will continue to press Gordon Brown on this matter.

Some aspects of the Bill are deeply disturbing. Science should not be allowed to operate on the basis of what is possible in the laboratory without regard for ethical principles. The unique dignity of human life should not be undermined by allowing the production of human/animal embryos for the extraction of stem cells. This is especially the case now that scientists are discovering the potential of adult stem cells, culled from human skin. Money should be invested in developing the benefits of this kind of research rather than in ethically questionable work on embryonic hybrids. Then we have the proposals in the Bill regarding therapeutic cloning and in some instances, reproductive cloning. These, once again represent a serious attack on the value of human life.

The Bill will also give an opportunity for M.P.'s to table an amendment reducing the abortion limit from 24 weeks. In specialised neonatal units, up to 82% of babies born prematurely at 24 weeks now survive. Added to this is the new appreciation of foetal sensitivity to pain.

Please will you consider voting against the proposals on embryo research mentioned above and for an amendment that would lead to the reduction in the abortion limit.

It is often said that religious convictions should play no part in shaping the laws that govern our country. If that view had prevailed in the 18th Century, Wilberforce would never have been able to abolish slavery (I'm enjoying William Hague's book, by the way). But the Christian faith, with its insistence that human beings are made in the image of God, provides a bulwark against a wholly pragmatic and utilitarian view of what it means to be human. It seems to me that lack of belief in God is soon followed by lack of belief in man.

The Christian Institute has a helpful Index of resources on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill:

Yours sincerely,

Guy Davies
Act now:
Click here to sign the Alive and Kicking Abortion Petition.
Click here to find your M.P.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Bavinck's 'Reformed Dogmatics' - the complete set

I've heard so many good things about the new English translation of Herman Bavinck's four volume Reformed Dogmatics. The final volume is due to be published in May, so I thought I'd better hurry up and wait for what's worth waiting for and place an order for the complete set.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

An interview with Brian Edwards

GD: Hello, Brian Edwards and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.
BE: I am a Devonian by birth, though I spent most of my childhood and teenage years in Kent. After studying in London, Barbara and I were married and I was assistant to Derek Prime in south-east London for two years and teaching at the same time. From there I came to Hook Evangelical Church in south-west London. Having told the Lord I would go anywhere except London, forty-five years later I am still here.

GD: Where did you train for the ministry and what did you find most helpful in your studies?
BE: I spent four years at the (then) London Bible College and took the London Bachelor of Divinity degree as an external student. Actually the best part of my time in London was being introduced to the ministry of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel; I was one of his ‘Friday-nighters’ when he was working his way through Roman 7 and 8. It was all very new to me and certainly mind-shaping.

GD: How did you sustain so many years of fruitful ministry in one church?
BE: By a strongly supportive wife, a wonderfully supportive church fellowship and a never failingly supportive Saviour.

GD: What is the relationship between preaching and the power of the Holy Spirit?
BE: Preaching without the Spirit is a dead letter. I fear that too much of my preaching is the latter. Even enticing words of wisdom and superb rhetoric are poor relations to the demonstration of the Spirit and power.

GD: What kind of ministries are you involved in now that you have retired from full-time pastoral work?
BE: I am preaching every Sunday unless I choose not to, and as many midweek meetings as I consider it wise with my other commitments. Apart from my own writing, I edit the Day One Travel Guide series and there are always a number of these working their way through our schedule.

GD: Some men find it hard to adjust to life beyond full-time pastoral ministry. Any suggestions on how preachers can enjoy a happy and fruitful retirement?
BE: If they stay in the church where they ministered, as I have, the number one rule is not to interfere; there’s nothing worse than the previous pastor poking his nose in. Then, keep preaching for as long as you are able and as long as the invitations come; when you are past your sell-by date, the churches will kindly stop inviting you.

GD: Do you believe in revival? If so what is it?
BE: It is better described than defined, but it is a sovereign work of God pouring out his Holy Spirit upon the churches bringing an awesome sense of the presence of God, a deep conviction of the holiness of God and the sinfulness of sin, and a passion to reach the lost with the gospel.

GD: Can we do anything to help promote a revival?
BE: First, by understanding what revival is NOT as well as what it is. Biblical revival is not running a mission or holding a ‘revival meeting’. Our preparation is to know what it IS by reading the stories of revivals in the past and then to set ourselves to pray earnestly for it.

GD: Your latest book is on the canon of the New Testament. Why do we need to give attention to that subject at this particular time?
BE: Why 27? answers the question: How can we be sure that we have the right 27 books in the New Testament? The importance of this question at the present time is that trivial novels like ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and thoughtless polemics like ‘The God Delusion’ — and they are only examples of many — have given people the confidence to dismiss the Bible as rubbish; sadly it is a dismissal based upon ignorance rather than knowledge. The subject of what books should be in the Bible needed to be dealt with in an accessible way for the church member, and that is what I have tried to do.

GD: You have also written biographies of William Tyndale and John Newton. What are the great lessons that we can learn from these two men?
BE: Far too many to abbreviate adequately here. However, Tyndale was a brilliant scholar of single minded passion to give England the Bible in our own language – at a time when this was illegal. Newton illustrates the grace of God par excellence, a beautiful marriage, and caring pastor and a preacher of sound common sense.

GD: You once made a distinction between "essential truth" that is essential for salvation, "significant truth" covering matters like church government and baptism and "phantom truth". How would you define "phantom truth"?
BE: Those many things that are so very important to me and for which I can so easily make a big issue, but in reality they are simply part of my culture, tradition or personal preference and have little or nothing to do with the Bible. Evangelical churches normally argue and divide over phantom truths (which are not really truths at all) and rarely over vital or even significant truths. In other words, we make a big issue about issues in reverse order to their true significance.

GD: I would have to agree with you there. We often seem unable to cope with differences over secondary matters in a mature and gracious way. Now, is it possible to be faithful to the gospel and truly contemporary?
BE: I don’t like to say ‘that depends on what you mean’, but it does depend on what you mean by ‘truly contemporary’. If you mean, in touch with where people are, using the language they use, and understanding the real world that we live in, then the answer is certainly yes. It is folly and not wisdom to worship, preach and behave as if we were still in the nineteenth century — or earlier. All that is old was not spiritual and all that is new is not worldly.

GD: You have a website. What kind of thing might readers find there? Ever thought of starting a blog?
BE: I haven’t time for a blog — I leave that to people like you, and my two sons! On my website, visitors will simply learn about my ministry and my books.

GD: It seems to me that evangelical publishers are falling over themselves to publish too many books (your own titles excepted!). For example, Banner of Truth, Evangelical Press, IVP and Day One all have at least two commentary series on the go. Some books I have read were poorly edited, suggesting that they had been rushed to press far too quickly. Isn't it about time that publishers slowed down a little?
BE: There is no excuse for poorly edited books and sloppy proof-reading. You can read old books of 500 pages with close type and barely find a single error, and that with old fashioned compositing. Today with our spell checks and ease of production we sometimes make any number of howlers. One problem is that the computer age demands that books are prepared more quickly and that is where errors come in. Are there too many books? Yes, I think there are. I believe publishers should be perhaps even more selective than they are. However, I’m glad I don’t have to make the decisions as to which books….

GD: That said, what is the most helpful work of theology that you have read in the last twelve months? It is a must read because?
BE: The Bible, because that is where the best, and most straightforward theology is found! Apart from that, I haven’t read a helpful book of theology in the past twelve months, not because there isn’t one, but because I have not read it. My reading is more historical than theological at present. G W Bernard’s The King’s Reformation is a must for anyone who wants a new take on Henry VIII and his role in the Reformation — which won’t be too many of your blog readers I guess.

GD: You never know. What is the biggest problem facing evangelicalism and how should we respond?
BE: The downgrading of our Christian values and the upgrading of a wholly secular society. In response, the church must be what she is supposed to be: salt, light and the aroma of Christ and resist the easy temptation to absorb the mindset of the world into the life of the church.

GD: What are your top three songs or pieces of music?
BE: I don’t have a favourite musical taste — it all depends on my mood and the occasion; my taste is very eclectic. But when I am driving (a lot) I listen to talking books rather than music and that way I catch up on my reading.
GD: Thanks very much for taking part in this interview, Brian.
Note: Details of Brian Edwards' books can be found here.

Monday, March 10, 2008

EMW Aberystwyth Conference 2008

For more details visit the Evangelical Movement of Wales' website. See here for my review of Art Azurdia's excellent Spirit Empowered Preaching. Should be a good Conference. Book early to avoid disappointment.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Wales Win Triple Crown

Ireland 12 - 16 Wales

A difficult game against Ireland. But we did it! The question now is whether Wales can clinch the Grand Slam by beating France next Saturday. See here for match reports and highlights from the BBC. Cymru am byth!

Shane Williams' try

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

'Dogmatics in Outline' by Karl Barth

Dogmatics in Outline by Karl Barth, SCM Press, 2007 edition, 146pp.

I don't suppose that I'll ever get round to reading Barth's mighty Church Dogmatics. Life's too short and I haven't even got started on Bavinck's much more profitable Reformed Dogmatics yet. But I thought that I would give Barth's Dogmatics in Outline a read. This little book is not a precis of his larger opus. It is an independent study of the Apostle's Creed, based on a series of lectures in post WWII Germany. The setting gives added power to these extemporary talks as Barth eloquently exposes the evils of National Socialism and anti-Semitism.
There is much helpful and stimulating material in these lectures. Dogmatics is defined as "the science in which the Church in accordance with the state of its knowledge at different times, takes account of the content of its proclamation critically, that is, by the standard of Holy Scripture and under the guidance of its Confession." (p. 1). Barth is familiar with the Reformed tradition and often draws upon the insights of Luther, Calvin and documents such as the Heidelberg Catechism.
Throughout the book, Barth argues that only God can reveal God to us. The Creator is not known to man via a natural theology that is accessible to all human beings. "What the meaning of God the Creator is and what is involved in the work of creation, is in itself not less hidden from us than everything else that is found in the Confession." God's self-revelation as Creator is received by faith. That faith is itself the God-given freedom to take God at his word. Barth's emphasis here resonates with the presuppositional apologetics of Bavinck, Van Til (an arch critic of KB), and John Frame.
The God who reveals himself to us is the triune God of the gospel, "By being the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost in his work in Jesus Christ, God is in the highest." (p. 31). Barth prefers to speak of "three ways of being" in God rather than three persons as he judges that our modern understanding of personhood is different to that of the early Church. But as John Murray has shown, there is no reason for us to abandon the term 'person' in the sense of distinct centre of self-consciousness when applied to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (The Collected Writings of John Murray, 4: Studies in Theology, 1982, Banner of Truth Trust, p. 277ff.). With this qualification in place, it is gratifying to note that Barth's lectures are insistent that the Christian God is none other than One who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God does not appear in trinitarian mode for the sake of redemption. He is Trinity all the way down,
"But when the Christian Church speaks of the triune God, it means that God is not just in one way, but that he is the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Three times the One and the Same, threefold, but above all triune, he, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, in himself and in the highest and in his revelation." (p. 34).
My first encounter with Barth was through the writings of Francis Schaeffer. Schaeffer was suspicious of Barth's commitment to the historical basis of the Christian faith. The later work of the theologian may modify what he says here, but at least in this book, Barth is found confessing the historicity of the virgin birth (chapter 14) and resurrection of Christ (chapter 18). He clearly and vigorously affirms the full deity and humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ. Touching on a area of controversy among contemporary evangelicals, I was interested to see Barth teaching a penal substitutionary view of the atonement. He spells out most helpfully that in Jesus Christ, God took upon himself the penalty for our sin,
"But now the Confession tells us that the execution of this verdict is carried out by God in this way, that He, God Himself, in Jesus Christ His Son, at once true God and true man, takes the place of condemned man. God's judgement is executed, God's law takes its course, but in such a way that what man had to suffer is suffered by this One, who as God's Son stands for all others. Such is the lordship of Jesus Christ, who stands before God, taking upon himself what belongs to us. In Him God makes Himself liable, at the point at which we are accursed, guilty and lost. He it is in His Son, who in the person of this crucified man bears on Golgotha all that ought to be laid on us." (p. 109-110).
But there are problems here. It is a matter of dispute among the experts whether Barth was a universalist. Some of his thinking in this book certainly tends toward universalism. According to him, in Jesus Christ we see God's decision concerning his purpose for every man (p. 80). When it comes to the day of judgement, humanity will meet Jesus as the judge who himself was judged for the sin of all men. The only difference between the world and the church is that the church knows this and the world does not (p. 123). Barth denies that his account leads to Apokatastasis or universal restoration (p. 127), but it is all rather ambiguous.
This little book may not give Barth's definitive view of dogmatic theology. For him, theology was very much a work in progress. Karl Barth was most unlike Calvin, who expanded the Institutes, but hardly changed his mind on any substantial point. Andrew McGowan warns, "It is notoriously easy to read one section of Barth and to assume that one understands his view on a particular subject only to turn to another section of the Church Dogmatics and to find the subject examined from a different perspective that sheds new light on the whole matter." But for those like me who simply want to sample Barth's theology, Dogmatics in Outline may be a good place to start. There is much here that is recognisably Reformed. But there are also some indications of Barth's attempt to challenge, subvert and rework historic evangelical orthodoxy. Reformed Evangelicals certainly need to get to grips with the theologian. His views are once more helping to set the theological agenda. No doubt there are things that we can learn from him. But a new "Barthianism" is not the way forward. See here for an interview with David Gibson, co-editor of the newly published Engaging with Barth: Contemporary evangelical critiques. I recently received my review copy of this book and very good it is so far. [Update - see my review of this most helpful book here].

Monday, March 03, 2008

John Newton the proto-blogger

On Controversy
On Saturday evening, a gathering of local believers met in a West Lavington Village Hall, Wiltshire to see Brian Edwards give a PowerPoint presentation on the life of John Newton. Very good it was too. Brian is the author of an excellent Newton biography, Through Many Dangers (Evangelical Press), so he certainly knew his stuff. Mention was made of Newton's prolific letter writing, which Edwards described as "the blogging of the day". In the discussion time, Brian raised the question as to what John Newton would say to us if he were today. I'm not sure about that, but I think he would have a blog called Amazing Grace.
Newton's letters are full of wise pastoral counsel that bloggers would certainly do well to heed. We sometimes get involved in controversy for the sake of the truth, but we can do more harm than good if we defend the gospel in a wrong spirit. Odium theoblogicum should be avoided at all costs. Here is some excellent advice from old Newton,
"The Scriptural maxim, that "the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God", is verified by daily observation. In our zeal is embittered by expressions of anger, invective or scorn, we may think we are doing service to the cause of truth, when in reality we shall only bring it into discredit. The weapons of our warfare, and which alone are powerful to break down the strongholds of error, are not carnal but spiritual; arguments fairly drawn from Scripture and experience, and enforced by such a mild address as may persuade our readers, that, whether we can convince them or not, we wish well to their souls, and contend only for the truth's sake; if we can satisfy them that we act on these motives, our point is half gained; they will be disposed to consider calmly what we offer; and if they should still dissent from our opinions, they will be constrained to approve our intentions." (Letter XVII Controversy from The Letters of John Newton, Banner of Truth Trust, 1965 repr.).