Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Spider-Man Theology

Last night we watched a DVD of Spider-Man 3 and I was struck by the film's exploration of some key theological themes. One was the destructive reality of sin in our lives. Peter Parker aka Spider-Man is shown to be so obsessed with his own fame and success that he is incapable of sympathising with his troubled sweetheart, Mary Jane. For Parker, it is all "me, me, me". He wants to propose to MJ and shares his plans with aunt May. She kindly offers him her own engagement ring, but warns him that a husband has to put his wife before himself. Parker realises that he cannot do this. Ultimately his insensitivity coupled with flirtation with other girls alienates MJ and their relationship founders.

Early in the film we see a black substance, which turns out to be an alien symbiote attach itself to Peter's scooter. The symbiote creates a new supercharged spidey-suit that gives Spider-Man extra powers. But it also makes Peter more aggressive and vengeful. It is explained that the symbiote amplifies the characteristics of its host. Parker is aware of the destructiveness of this amplified self-expression, but he enjoys the power boost he gets from wearing the black suit. The question is raised, "How long can any man fight the darkness... before he finds it in himself?" This is a reminder that the human heart is a heart of darkness. It is from within that that all manner of wickedness flows (Jeremiah 17:9, Mark 7:21-23). Parker vengefully hunts down Flint Marko, the "Sandman" who killed his uncle and tries to wipe him out. Then he gets into a fight with his best friend, Harry, tossing a grenade at him for good measure. When a work-rival Eddie Brock steals his job, Parker spitefully exposes his photographic fraud just to get his own back. Peter has forgotten the last words of his uncle that "with great power comes great responsibility."

Eventually Parker frees himself of the symbiote, which then attaches itself to Brock. He then takes the form of Venom, a kind of evil Spider-Man. Together with the Sandman, Brock takes MJ hostage to get at Spider-Man. Peter Parker asks Harry to help him defeat his foes and save MJ. Initially he refuses, but when his butler reveals that Spider-Man did not kill his father, he zooms to Spider-Man's assistance. Together they defeat Venom and the Sandman, but at a cost. Harry is fatally wounded saving his old friend Peter Parker. Harry and Peter are reconciled before Harry dies. There are echoes here of Jesus' words, "Greater love has no-one than this than to lay down one's life for his friends." (John 15:13). The Sandman reappears in the human form of Flint Marko and explains to Peter that he only stole money to help his sick daughter and that he did not mean to kill Parker's uncle. The cycle of violence and revenge is ended in a cathartic moment as Parker says, "I forgive you." Marko breaks down into dust and is blown away. MJ and Peter begin to mend their relationship in the wake of Harry's funeral.

The sinfulness of human nature, the futility of revenge, the grace of forgiveness and the reconciling power of self-sacrifice are all given powerful expression in this film. Towards the end of the movie, a repentant Peter Parker reflects, "Whatever battles rages inside us, we always have a choice… it’s the choices that make us who we are, and we can always choose to do right." God will certainly hold us accountable for our choices. But the Calvinist in me balks at the suggestion that, "we can always choose to do right". The human predicament is worse than Spider-Man suggests. As Jesus says, "whoever commits sin is a slave of sin" (John 8:34). By nature we "love darkness rather than light because our deeds are evil" (John 3:19). Our hope is not in unaided freedom of choice, because the very choices we make are skewed by slavery to sin. We need One who can liberate us from our thralldom to the dark power of sin. Who can do this? Such a liberation is beyond the power of the greatest Superhero. But Jesus said, "if the Son makes you free you shall be free indeed." (John 8:36). The Lord Jesus laid down his life to 'break the power of cancelled sin and set the prisoner free'. In him we can walk in light and liberty. Even for the believer there is still a struggle against sin as "the flesh lusts against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh, so you do not do the things that you wish." (Galatians 5:17). But we know that "sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace." (Romans 6:14).

We saw Spider-Man 3 in the cinema when it first came out. But it is only on watching the DVD last night that the "theology" of the film really hit home. It goes to show that even a big Hollywood blockbuster can thrown some light on the human condition, even if that light needs to be further illuminated by the gospel of Christ.

Monday, July 28, 2008

God's Word In Servant Form by Richard B. Gaffin Jr.

God's Word In Servant-Form:
Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck on the Doctrine of Scripture
by Richard B. Gaffin Jr., Reformed Academic Press, 2008, 107pp.
In his The Divine Spiration of Scripture [reviewed here], A.T.B. McGowan's proposes that evangelicals should abandon the doctrine of biblical inerrancy in favour of a reconfigured notion of the infallibility of Scripture. He puts the emphasis on God speaking infallibly through Scripture rather than on the inerrant properties of the biblical text. In doing so, McGowan claims that he is following the precedent of Dutch Reformed theologians Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck. According to him, Kuyper and Bavinck eschewed biblical inerrancy as advocated by Princeton divines B. B. Warfield and A. A. Hodge and instead opted for a 'high' view of Scripture as God's infallible Word that did not entail a commitment to an errorless Bible. Gaffin is not responding directly to McGowan's thesis in this little volume. His interlocutors are Jack Rogers and Donald McKim, who argued that biblical inerrancy is a regrettable a deviation from the mainstream Christian view of the Bible. They too sought to drive a wedge between the Dutch theologians and Princeton.

Gaffin pays careful attention to the works of Kuyper and Bavinck and demonstrates convincingly that they held that the Bible is both infallible and without error. Considering that McGowan goes out of his way to identify with the views of these men, it is passing strange that he explicitly rejects one of their controlling perspectives on the Bible. He critiques the incarnational model of Scripture (p. 119-121), which is based on the analogy between the divine/human union in the Person of Christ and the Bible as God's Word through human beings. He suggests that Bavinck shares his misgivings. But this is not necessarily the case. As Gaffin shows, both Kuyper and Bavinck model biblical inspiration on the incarnation of the the divine Logos. Kuyper wrote,

"As the Logos has not appeared in the form of glory but in the form of a servant, joining Himself to the reality of our nature as this had come to be through the results of sin, so also for the revelation of His Logos, God the Lord accepts our consciousness, our human life as it is... As a product of writing, the Holy Scripture, too, bears on its forehead the mark of the form of a servant." (p. 7 & 8).

As Christ's human nature, even in servant form was without sin, so argued Kuyper, Scripture as God's Word through human beings is without error. Now the Dutch theologian did not believe that the Bible is scientifically accurate. He acknowledged that the Scripture is often 'impressionistic' rather than pedantically precise. But he said that the 'graphic inspiration' of Scripture aims at "the removal of every error which threatened to creep into any writing through inadvertence and malicious intent". (p. 29 & 30).

Similarly Bavinck's doctrine of Scripture draws heavily on the enfleshment of the divine Word,

"And in order to reach that goal [that God will be all in all] the word of revelation passes over into Scripture. Thus, Scripture, too, is means and instrument, not a goal. It flows out of the incarnation of God in Christ; it is in a certain sense the continuation of the incarnation, the way along which Christ dwells in his church... Scripture is the servant-from of revelation." (p. 56).

Bavinck did not use the language of biblical inerrancy and he was careful to stress the humanness of Scripture. But he held that the Bible both in form and content is the very Word of God. Rather than distancing himself from the inerrantist doctrine of Hodge and Warfield, Bavinck commends them as men who held to the historic Christian teaching on the inspiration and authority of Scripture (p. 69).

Richard Gaffin's work seriously calls into question important aspects of the Rogers and McKim thesis. By implication he has also shattered the central plank in the argument advanced by A. T. B. McGowan in The Divine Spiration of Scripture, that like him Kuyper and Bavinck rejected biblical inerrancy in favour of a looser category of infallibility. But readers will find much more here than polemics. In setting forth the mature teachings of Kuyper and Bavinck, Gaffin has opened up a rich vein of constructive theological reflection on the nature of Scripture as God's theanthropic Word in servant-form.

Order info:

After trying unsuccessfully to get hold of this book in the UK, I ordered my copy from Solid Ground Christian Books in the USA. To save p&p, group with another slim volume like The Humanness of John Calvin, by Richard Stauffer, Solid Ground Christian Books, 2008. Together they cost $24.75 or approx £12.40 inc. p&p. Solid Ground also do a very good deal on the complete set of Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics - I obtained my set from them.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Divine Spiration of Scripture by A. T. B. McGowan (Book Review: Part 3)

Infallibility, confession, preaching, conclusion
So, if McGowan is unhappy with the concept of biblical inerrancy [see Part 2], what does he propose in its place? He devotes a chapter to Infallibility: An Evangelical Alternative. He argues that it is possible to maintain a high view of Scripture without opting for either inerrancy or errancy. He seeks to prove his case by reference to three Reformed theologians, James Orr, Herman Bavinck and C. K. Berkhouer. The Scottish theologian James Orr was a contributor to the Fundamentals series. But rather strangely, he did not believe in biblical inerrancy and advocated the view that there are degrees of inspiration in Scripture. Orr also suggested that God did not keep the human authors of Scripture from including the defects of their sources in the biblical writings. While McGowan rejects Orr's position on degrees of inspiration, he applauds his general approach. Next, the author turns his attention to Bavinck. He has many helpful things to say about the theologian's doctrine of Scripture. Bavinck stressed the importance of the human authors of the Bible and rejected a mechanical dictation theory of inspiration. He placed Scripture in the context of God's self-revelation and gave due weight to the testimony of the Spirit. So far so good. But McGowan also tries to demonstrate that Bavinck rejected inerrancy in favour of infallibility. It is difficult for me to offer a thorough assesment of this thesis. I haven't yet read all that Bavinck has to say on the the doctrine of Scripture, as I've only just taken delivery of the full set of his Reformed Dogmatics. But I did take the trouble to check the context of one of McGowan's Bavinck quotes,
"Aspects of Scripture that the inerrantists 'explain away' pose no problem for Bavinck. He goes so far as to say that 'the guidance of the Holy Spirit promised to the church does not exclude the possibility of human error.' Such a claim could never be made by an inerrantist." (p. 158).
The Bavinck citation is from page 32 of Reformed Dogmatics Volume 1, Baker Academic, 2003. In context, the theologian is not talking about Scripture at all. He is discussing church dogma. The full quote reads thus,
"In Catholic theology there is thus room left for the question of how far the truth of God has found fully adequate expression in the church's dogma. On the basis of Protestant assumptions, however, this is much more the case, for here the guidance of the Holy Spirit does not exclude the possibility of human error."
As a convinced 'inerrantist' I have no problems whatsoever with that statement. I can't think of any responsible advocate of biblical inerrancy who believes the Holy Spirit guarantees that church dogma is inerrant. McGowan's use of this quote to bolster his position on biblical inerrancy (or the lack of it) is seriously misleading. Bavinck's doctrine of Scripture is rich, nuanced and would repay careful study. But as far as I'm concerned, McGowan in no way succeeds in pitting the Dutch theologian against Warfield on inerrancy. Later in the chapter McGowan reflects on Bavinck's approach, "He was a model of careful and thorough scholarship, showing a determination to understand the views of other theologians properly." (p. 164). Would that McGowan had followed Bavinck's model more carefully himself!
McGowan concludes his foray into historical theology by saying that Berkhouwer's doctrine of Scripture, which is often regarded as Barth-influenced, is actually close to that of Bavinck. He argues that although Berkhouer rejected inerrancy, it is possible to come to a "generous assessment of his position" (p. 162) when put in the context of Dutch Reformed theology.
McGowan's proposals on infallibility underline the value of the human side of Scripture. We must not belittle that fact the Scripture is God's Word to human beings through human beings. The theologian rightly stresses the importance of the witness of the Spirit in relation to Scripture. It is also good to be reminded that God is able to use his Word as it is now to fulfill his purposes, even though the autographa are no longer extant. But in denying that Scripture as originally given was verbally inerrant, McGowan has severed the link between the all knowing God who cannot lie, and his self-revelation in Scripture. If Scripture fails to fully reflect the identity of its divine author, how can we stake our eternal destinies on its promises? (See Is Inerrancy Unbiblical, Rationalistic and Presumptuous? by Martin Downes).
Before the book concludes, McGowan has some helpful things to say regarding Scripture and confessions of faith and Scripture and preaching. He suggests that evangelicals need to work on a constructive account of the relationship between Scripture and church tradition. He rejects both the Roman Catholic view that tradition stands alongside Scripture and the Orthodox position that subsumes the Bible in it's traditions. He also discounts two extreme Protestant views on the value of confessions of faith. One more or less ignores confessional statements in the name of 'freedom of conscience' in order to justify heretical teachings. The other makes confessional subscription so 'tight' that reformation of church confessions in the light of Scripture becomes impossible. McGowan argues that confessions must be valued as faithful expressions of biblical doctrine. But they should be subjected to constant scrutiny, and where necessary revised as the Spirit gives new insight into the meaning of Scripture. Confessions should also be regularly updated to reflect contemporary concerns. The great seventeenth century documents such as the Westminster Confession of Faith do not address issues like theological liberalism or religious pluralism. McGowan notes that the Theological Commission of the World Reformed Fellowship is currently engaged writing a new statement of faith for the twenty first century. A penultimate chapter, Preaching Scripture commends John Calvin's practice of the systematic exposition of the Word of God. McGowan writes, "The [Minister's] task is to expound Scripture and this should have a central place in worship. It should also be accompanied by much prayer, in recognition of our dependence upon the work of the Holy Spirit," (p. 206). Well, I can say 'amen' to that at least.
There is much that is valuable and thought provoking in The Divine Spiration of Scripture. When speaking about biblical inerrancy we do need to guard against minimising the humanness of Scripture. We also need to stress that God has not simply given us an inerrant Book and left us to get on with the business of interpreting it as we see fit. We must give careful heed to what God is saying through the Scriptures by his Spirit. But we can take all that on board without abandoning the idea that the Bible is without error. However, the standard formula that Scripture is inerrant as originally given in the autographa needs to be qualified a little. As McGowan points out, the original autographa of Deuteronomy presumably did not include Chapter 34. The autographa of Jermemiah was destroyed by king Jehoiakim, and had to be rewritten 'with many similar words added'. Perhaps it would be better to say that the autographa as found in their final canonical form were without error. That would take into account editorial additions such as Deuteronomy 34 and Jeremiah's rewrite. Evangelical perspectives on Scripture certainly need to be challenged, but McGowan's rejection of inerrancy is a step too far. In reading the book, I sometimes got the impression that he was overly keen to avoid some of the standard Barthian critiques of the evangelical doctrine of Scripture. He certainly seems of offer a very sympathetic reading of the views of Barth and Berkhouwer. One slighty strange feature of this work is McGowan's attempt to turn the inerrancy debate into the theological equivalent of golf's Ryder Cup with plucky European infallibists battling it out against uppity American inerrantists. But this doesn't really work. McGown has failed to show that Bavinck had probelms with inerrancy and I know of plenty European theologians who affirm that the Bible is God's inerrant Word .
In his conclusion McGowan summarises the main themes of his book and tries to anticipate the critique of his proposals on inerrancy. He reveals that on reading the book in manuscript form, a friend warned him of the danger of being 'on thin ice' (p. 210). This is true and we would be unwise to follow McGowan onto the 'thin ice' where he denies that the Bible is God's inerrant Word. The inerrancy of Scripture should be one of the fundamental presuppositions of an authentically Reformed theology. God is there. He has spoken. His word is truth from beginning to end. It is this Word that truly, faithfully and without error bears witness to Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the Word. I conclude this review series with the words of Reformed theologian Donald Macleod,
"I believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. Why? Not because I am unaware of current trends in Biblical studies or even because I can vindicate the Bible against all the objections adduced by historians, scientists and literary critics. My belief in inerrancy arises from loyalty to Christ. He said, 'The Scripture cannot be broken'. This position - the fundamentalist position, if you wish - is not bibliolatry. It is Christiolatry. It is an act of devotion to the One we regard as a teacher sent by God". (From Glory to Golgotha, Christian Focus, 2002, p. 153). [Part 1, Part 2]

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Divine Spiration of Scripture by A. T. B. McGowan (Book Review Part 2)

Is the Bible inerrant?
Now we come to McGowan's controversial proposal that evangelicals abandon biblical 'inerrancy' in favour of 'infallibility'. Before he tackles the subject head on, McGowan sketches the historical context in which evangelicals first used the language of biblical inerrancy. On a chapter on The Enlightenment and Liberal Theology, he shows that liberalism capitulated to the anti-supernatural mindset of the Enlightenment. This had an impact on how theologians viewed the Bible. Schleiermacher, the father of liberal theology taught rather than being God's authoritative self-revelation, the Bible is an expression of man's consciousness of the divine. Soon the Bible was subjected to radical criticism. It's portrayal of Jesus as the miracle working Son of God who died for sinners and rose from the dead was questioned. How could men and women in the age of the light bulb accept that Jesus walked on water? The Bible's cosmology, history, theology and ethics were all subjected to critical appraisal in the light of 'modern knowledge' and 'the assured results of scholarship'. McGowan details two differing responses to the challenge of liberalism. First the neo-orthodoxy. Karl Barth became disillusioned with liberal theology. Over and against liberalism which tended to collapse God's existence into human consciousness of the divine, Barth emphasized the "Godness of God". God is wholly other and we can only know him because he has revealed himself to us in Jesus the living Word. For Barth, Scripture is a witness to the Word of God, but it is not to be completely identified with the Word of God. The Bible only becomes God's Word in an event of divine self-disclosure. Next McGowan charts the conservative evangelical response to liberal theology. Biblical scholar J. Gresham Machen insisted that liberalism is a different religion to genuine Christianity. He stressed the authority of Scripture and defended the Bible's account of of salvation from sin by the Lord Jesus Christ. Cornelius Van Til challenged philosophical assumptions of liberalism. He argued that epistemology must begin with God's self-revelation in Scripture, rather than man's autonomous reason.
It is important for McGowan's case that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy was developed in the heat of the battle for the Bible between liberal and evangelical theologians. This is brought into sharp focus in the next chapter on Fundamentalism and Inerrancy. It fell to Princeton Theologians B. B. Warfield and A. A. Hodge to give classic expression to the the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. In an article entitled 'Inspiration' in the Presbyterian Review (1881), they argued that due to the superintendence of God, the original manuscripts of the biblical books, or the autographa were without error. As far as the two theologians were concerned, they were not being innovatory here. They were simply setting forth the historic Christian view of Scripture in the face of the challenge from liberal theology. The word 'inerrancy' was not used in the article, but the key idea that the Bible is errorless was clearly explained and defended. Warfield went on to write several major essays on the doctrine of Scripture.
McGowan goes on to tell the story of fundamentalism. A series of volumes entitled The Fundamentals were published from 1910 to 1915. Each book sought to defend a key Christian doctrine that was under attack from liberal theology. But what began with a series of books soon became a distinct fundamentalist movement. Fundamentalists were extremely hostile to liberalism. They held tenaciously to the inerrancy of Scripture, but they tended to verge on the dictation theory of biblical inspiration. They were often quite anti-intellectual and held scholarship in suspicion. Many tried to avoid issues of textual criticism by holding that the Textus Receputs upon which the King James Version of the Bible is based is without error. Some even believed that the 1611 KJV translation is the inerrant Word of God. Warfield and others in the Reformed tradition may have disagreed with the way in which fundamentalists gave expression to their doctrine of Scripture. But there was basic agreement that inerrancy reflects the Bible's own self-witness and that this has been the default position of the historic Christian church.
This was called into question by Rogers and McKim. They argued that the 'Central Christian Tradition' including the early Church Fathers and Reformers such as Luther and Calvin did not advocate the inerrancy of Scripture. Warfield and others were led to develop this new approach because of their adherence to Scottish Common Sense Philosophy. It has pointed out that liberals too held to Common Sense Philosophy, so that in itself does not prove anything. The Princeton theologians set forth the doctrine of Scripture with fresh precision, making it clear that the Bible is God's inerrant Word. It often happens that false teaching causes the church to state its doctrine with greater clarity and force. McGowan notes that the proposals of Rogers and McKim have been discussed and found wanting by a number of serious scholars. He does not endorse their point of view. But neither is he happy with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.
So, what is McGowan's problem with inerrancy? He takes issue with the assumption that because God is both truthful and omniscient that the Bible must therefore be without error. It is this assumption that made inerrantists insist that the original autographa were inerrant. Copyists mistakes and errors may be found in the Bibles we have today. But the pristine Word of God was given in the autographa. McGowan says that God could have given us inerrant Scriptures. But he opted not to because the Bible is God's Word communicated to us through human writers with all the limitations that entails. This is deeply troubling. The link between the veracity of God and the truthfulness of his Word is present in the Bible's self-witness. The Lord is "the God of truth" (Psalm 31:5). He "cannot lie" (Titus 1:2). God's self-revelation in Scripture bears the hallmarks of his truthfulness. It is described as "the word of truth" (Psalm 119:43). Jesus prayed, "Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth." (John 17:17). Kevin Vanhoozer, who can hardly be described as a tub thumping fundamentalist writes,
"The basis for the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is located both in the nature of God and in the Bible's teaching about itself. First, if God is perfect – all knowing, all wise, all-good – it follows that God speaks the truth. God does not tell lies; God is not ignorant. God's Word is thus free from all error arising either from conscious deceit or unconscious ignorance. Such is the unanimous confession of the Psalmist, the prophets, the Lord Jesus and the apostles. Second, the Bible presents itself as the Word of God written. Thus, in addition to its humanity (which is never denied), the Bible also enjoys the privileges and prerogatives of its status as God's Word. God's Word is thus wholly reliable, a trustworthy guide to reality, a light unto our path."
Several times McGowan suggests that inerrancy tends towards a dictation theory of biblical inspiration which undermines the human side of Scripture. But while this may be the case in some fundamentalist writings, Reformed theologians such as Warfield have been careful to give due weight to the fact that God communicated his Word through human beings. Holy Scripture bears the unmistakable stamp of the personalities of its human authors. But what Moses, Jeremiah, Luke and Paul etc. wrote was kept from error by the guiding presence of the Holy Spirit.
Furthermore, McGowan argues that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy was rationalistic attempt on behalf of Hodge, Warfield and others to respond to the challenges of liberal theology by showing that the Bible is scientifically accurate. It is certainly true that Hodge saw theology as a scientific exercise where the theologian's task was to categorise and arrange the raw data of biblical revelation into a coherent theological system. This is no doubt an unhelpful model for doing theology that owes too much to Enlightenment thinking. But responsible advocates of inerrancy have never suggested that the Bible must be accurate to the standards of modern scientific precision in order to be regarded as free from error. The Bible is not a scientific text book and does not purport to be. It uses approximations and generalisations that would not fulfill the strictest scientific criterion. But the basic truthfulness of Scripture is not affected by this. In the face of critical scholarship, Hodge and Warfield were right to insist that the Bible is entirely trustworthy and without error.
Leading on from this, McGowan accuses inerrantists of having a 'propositionalist' view of Scripture. Propositionalists view the theologian's task in terms of extracting factual propositions from Scripture upon which to base their theological systems. In the quest for inerrant propositions, careless theologians may ride roughshod over the differing biblical genres. It has to be said that McGowan is careful to safeguard the value of biblical propositions. Where would we be without propositions like 'Jesus is Lord'? But as he points out, an overly propositionalist approach to Scripture has been rightly critiqued by the likes of Kevin Vanhoozer. It is interesting to note that notwithstanding this, Vanhoozer is still willing to affirm biblical inerrancy. I put this question to him in a recent interview. His response makes interesting reading,
"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 [in The Drama of Doctrine] 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."
Vanhoozer's position is a far cry from McGowan's. While the latter does not wish to be identified as an 'errantist', he speaks of 'discrepancies' in the Gospels that are due to God not overruling the humanity of the evangelists (p. 118). He also writes,
"If God can effectively communicate and acts savingly through imperfect human beings who are called to preach the gospel, why is it necessary to argue that the authors of Scripture were supernaturally kept from the slightest discrepancy?" (p.118).
McGowan suggests that discrepancies and apparent contradictions are not merely the product of textual corruption. Such things would have been present even in the original autographa. This causes him no problems as he has denied that God's inerrant knowledge of all things is reflected in Scripture. Once more he charges inerrantists of running the danger of "so denying the humanness of the authors of the Scriptures that they fall into a 'dictation theory' of Scripture" (p. 119). It is rather sad that McGowan, a noted Reformed theologian seems to be echoing old style liberal objections to the evangelical doctrine of Scripture at this point. He may have shown that there were some flaws in the theological methodology of the old Princeton theologians who developed the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. But I am not persuaded that he has made a good case for abandoning the historic evangelical teaching that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. McGowan says that if forced to choose between inerrancy and errancy, he would opt for the former. But his view that the veracity of God does not guarantee the entire truthfulness of his Word does not serve to engender confidence in Scripture. [Part 1, Part 3]

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Divine Spiration of Scripture by A. T. B. McGowan (Book Review: Part 1)

Locus & terminology
The Divine Spiration of Scripture: Challenging evangelical perspectives,
by A. T. B. McGowan, Apollos, 2007
It is fair to say that this book has attracted some pretty hostile reviews. The author expected as much, writing, "Clearly, some of the argument presented in this book is controversial, particularly that evangelicals should no longer use the term 'inerrancy'." A number of reviewers (here and here) have chosen to concentrate almost entirely on this controversial proposal. But I want to try and review the book as a whole. McGowan has some helpful things to say and evangelicals need to be challenged to set forth the doctrine of Scripture with greater thoughtfulness and care. The review will be split up into several posts.
McGowan begins by questioning the tendency amongst evangelicals to place the doctrine of Scripture first in the locus of systematic theology. This can also be seen in many evangelical statements of faith, which typically begin with a statement on the Bible. McGowan argues that theology should begin with God himself before considering his self-revelation in Scripture. He would like to see Scripture treated as an aspect of the work of the Holy Spirit. The writer no doubt has a point. But the task of theology is to articulate the Bible's witness to what God has done in Christ. We can only know the Lord savingly through Scripture's testimony to the God of the Gospel. So, it is not altogether inappropriate to begin with God's self-revelation in Scripture. As McGowan points out however, there is some diversity on this matter in the Reformed confessions of faith. Some like the Genevan Confession and Westminster Confession of Faith begin with a statement on Scripture, others such as the Scots Confession and the Belgic Confession start with God. At the time of the Reformation, the issue was the authority of Scripture, with Protestants insisting that Scripture alone is out authority over and against the Roman Catholic teaching that Scripture and tradition are equally authoritative. Those confessions that put Scripture first were being upfront about this. Their theology was based on Scripture alone. Post Schleiermacher it is important to establish that theology is based on the witness of Scripture. Theology is not primarily an expression of the subjective religious consciousness. Placing a statement on Scripture first in the locus of theology serves to emphasise that whatever we say about God in his triune majesty and mighty acts must be informed by his written self-revelation. This does not entail an evidentialist approach to theology, whereby we have to prove that the Bible is inerrant before we can say anything meaningful about God. That God exists and that he has revealed himself in creation and [inerrantly] in Scripture should be the basic presupposition of consistently Reformed theology. But in the last analysis, where we place the doctrine of Scripture in our theological systems is less important than what we say about Scripture. I note that John Frame, who like McGowan's is a presuppositionalist, begins his Salvation Belongs to the Lord; An Introduction to Systematic Theology with three chapters on God before discussing Scripture. Herman Bavinck, also a presuppositionalist devotes the first volume of his Reformed Dogmatics to prolegomena, including the doctrine of Scripture before he considers the God and Creation.
McGowan proposes some terminological revision in formulating the doctrine of Scripture. First he suggests that we replace "inspiration" with "spiration". In 2 Timothy 3:16, the apostle Paul writes, "All Scripture is theopneustos [God-breathed]". McGowan notes that "inspiration" literally means to 'breathe into', while "spiration" more appropriately means 'to breathe out'. 'Spiration' therefore captures Paul's meaning, that all Scripture is the product of God's creative breath. Besides, 'inspired' is often taken to mean 'inspiring' as in Shakespeare's 'inspiring' plays. Scripture is far more than a literary classic. It is God's own Spirit-given Word. I agree, then that 'spiration' is a more appropriate designation of Scripture than 'inspiration'. But it is a slightly unwieldy term and I can't see catching on outside the world of academic theology. Better I think to say with the NIV that Scripture is 'God-breathed'. Secondly, McGowan posits that 'illumination' should be replaced by 'recognition'. He rightly insists that Scripture does not need to be illuminated. It is our minds that are darkened due to the noetic effects of sin. But Scripture does speak of God enlightening the minds of believers (2 Cor 4:6, Eph 1:18). 'Illumination' is therefore a useful word when defined as the witness of the Spirit which enables the believer to recognise Scripture as the Word of God. Thirdly McGowan argues that 'comprehension' is more appropriate than 'perspicuity'. The latter could be taken to mean that Scripture is so clear that it can be understood by the human mind without the help of the Spirit. It is better therefore to speak of the Spirit giving us comprehension of the meaning of Scripture. But there is something to be said in favour of perspicuity. As McGowan acknowledges, the concept was originally developed to show that the essential message of Scripture is so clear that can be grasped by believers without the help of specialists. I suggest that perspicuity is a useful concept in our postmodern setting. Postmodern hermeneutics have cast doubt on our ability to access the meaning of Scripture. We need therefore to emphasise that the Bible is capable of being understood accurately, if never exhaustively. But this does not mean that we can truly comprehend the meaning of Scripture apart from the revelatory work of the Spirit. The final and most controversial proposal is that evangelicals should opt for 'infallibility' over 'inerrancy'. McGowan says that 'inerrancy' denotes 'a turn towards a somewhat mechanical and even rationalistic approach to Scripture, basing its authority on a set of inerrant manuscripts.' (p. 48-49). In defining 'infallibility', the writer does not speak of a quality of the biblical text, so much as God's use of Scripture,
"The argument for 'infallibility' is that the final authority for the Christian is the authority of God speaking in and through his Word and that the Holy Spirit infallibly uses God's Word to achieve all he intends to achieve." (p. 49).
We should not lose sight of God's dynamic use of his own Word. Without doubt the Lord infallibly uses Scripture to fulfill his purposes. But is it true that holding that the Bible itself is without error is necessarily to have 'a mechanical and even rationalistic' view of Scripture? I will discuss McGowan's proposals on biblical inerrancy in the next part of this review series. [Part 2, Part 3]

Friday, July 11, 2008

William Wilberforce by William Hague

William Wilberforce, The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner,
by William Hague, Harper Collins, 2007, 582 pp.
Last year marked the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. Slavery itself was abolished in the British Empire in 1833. Many men and women campaigned against the slave trade, but the acknowledged leader of the anti-slavery movement was William Wilberforce. William Hague has put us in his debt with this well written and compelling biography. He evidently does not share the reformer's evangelical convictions, but he evidences a sympathetic understanding of his subject. The author's political background (he was a Conservative Cabinet Minister, then Leader of the Opposition and is currently Shadow Foreign Secretary) give him a valuable insight into the political aspects of Wilberforce's life.
Wilberforce was the son of a wealthy Hull merchant. As a child, he spent some time living with his caring uncle and aunt, who introduced Wilberforce to evangelical Christianity. But when his parents became aware of his interest in “Methodist enthusiasm”, they brought him back home and immersed him in the glitzy world of high society. William’s early religious impressions soon evaporated. At university, Wilberforce wasted much of his time playing around and gambling, only obtaining a degree by the skin of his teeth. With his ready wit, easy charm and beautiful singing voice Wilberforce was a popular, but directionless young man. He became a Member of Parliament together with his old friend from Cambridge and one day Prime Minister, William Pitt. Wilberforce frequented the London Genteman's clubs where gambling was rife. He was ambitions and hoped to cut a dash in Parliament. But all this changed when William invited an old friend, Isaac Milner to join him on tour of Europe. Milner was a convinced evangelical. The two men often talked of religious matters and Wilberforce became increasingly serious about spiritual things. He read Philip Dodderidge’s The Rise and Progress of Religion, and the Lord used his to effect “a great change” in the young man’s life. He was converted to evangelical Christianity.
Hague endeavours to identify psychological causes for Wilberforce's conversion experience. But he does not try to explain away his turn to the evangelical faith. The writer recognises that becoming a Christian was the key event in the reformer's life. His faith gave him the moral conviction and gutsy perseverance needed to spearhead the anti-slavery campaign. But at first, conversion made him consider abandoning politics to enter the Christian ministry. He discussed his thoughts with the preacher John Newton, whom Wilberforce had known from childhood. Newton, an ex-slave trader urged him to continue in Parliament where he could use his influence for the good of society. Wilberforce now understood what he was to do with his life, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation Manners (or Morals)”. Hague demonstrates that Wilberforce's Christian faith impacted on every area of his life. Believing in Christ gave him deep joy and contentment amid the hectic business of his life.
Politics is a messy business even for a person of faith and conviction like Wilberforce. The man who dedicated his life to liberating poor slaves also supported the suspension of habeas corpus and during the time of the Napoleonic wars. Some in his own day (and since) accused Wilberforce of hypocrisy because he appeared to be more concerned for African slaves than for the poor, downtrodden British worker. But Wilberforce supported various campaigns to help and educate the poor in his own land. Hague is at his sympathetic best in trying to understand how his subject related the political complexities of the day. He argues that Wilberforce's Christian faith gave coherence to his seemingly contradictory political decisions. The great liberator attacked slavery because the vicious trade undermined Christian faith and virtue. For the same reason he accepted that civil rights had to be suspended in wartime. He was concerned lest the anti-Christian fervour of the French Revolution spread across the English Channel.
Wilberforce realised that politics is the “art of the possible". Change cannot simply be foisted on people. He set about gathering support for his two "great aims" both in parliament and in the nation at large. He worked closely with a range of interested parties, including characters like Charles James Fox and his close friend William Pitt. After many reversals and set backs, the slave trade was abolished in 1807 with Parliament voting 283 to 16 in favour of Wilberforce’s Bill. In 1833, shortly before his death, slavery was totally abolished in the British Empire.
But Wilberforce was involved in much more than the abolition of slavery. He was a best selling author. His A Practical View of Christianity exposed the nominal religion of the upper classes and set forth the evangelical faith in a provocative and winsome manner. He was an active philanthropist, involved in many good causes including the improvement of working conditions in the factories, the RSPCA. He advocated the work of overseas mission. In a three hour speech to Parliament, he successfully argued against the East India Company’s ban on evangelistic work in India.
Wilberforce was a devoted family man. He married Barbara Spooner at the age of thirty seven. Together they had six children. Hague paints a wonderful picture of Wilberforce at home, struggling against an ever mounting burden of correspondence against the backdrop of noises off from his beloved children. Wilberforce's vivacious, witty personality and generous disposition made his home a magnet for guests of all kinds. Politicians sought his advice. Campaigners tried to enlist his support. Those fallen on hard times begged for his aid. The constant stream of visitors drove domestic staff to distraction, as they could never be sure how many people to cater for at meal times. But such was life in the Wilberforce household. With an income of £8,000 a year Wilberforce was quite a wealthy man. But he ended his life in relative poverty and with no home of his own. He had to sell his property to pay off the debts incurred by one of his feckless children. But he bore his losses with good grace, acknowledging the Lord's good hand in his plight. As Hague comments, "For forty-five years he had believed in providence; he was not going to stop now." (p. 495).
William Wilberforce served in public life not out of personal ambition, but for the good of the people. His efforts alleviated the misery of countless thousands of slaves. He made goodness fashionable in the UK, and helped to reform society for the better. Hague is probably right that Wilberforce would have been a disastrous Cabinet Minister. His determination to see all sides of every question made him somewhat indecisive. While always clear on the big issues, he could flip flop back and fore on lesser matters before finally making up his mind. His approach would have been a recipe for departmental paralysis. But his winsomeness, independence of spirit and gift for parliamentary oratory made him a formidable campaigning politician. William Hague has given us a convincing and engaging portrait of William Wilberforce. If you haven't yet decided on what to read on your summer holidays, then get this inspiring book!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Exiled Preacher Interviewed

Regular readers will have come across my Blogging in the name of the Lord interviews [if not see the top three entries under 'Favourite series & posts']. Andrew Roycroft of Double Usefulness thought it was about time that I gave an interview. If the format seems somewhat familiar, that's because he's 'borrowed' most of his questions from my interviews! The cheek of it. Look out for some inspirational advice for those thinking of starting a blog. Anyway, you can see the result here.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Themelios Redivivus

Themelios, An International Journal for Pastors and Students of Theological and Religious Studies is back in action under the editorship of Don Carson. It is full of goodies including Carl Trueman's column Minority Report, various articles and reviews of Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses and Kevin Vanhoozer's The Drama of Doctrine. The journal, which is published by The Gospel Coalition, is now available for free in iPaper or PDF formats here. Thanks to the ever vigilant Martin Downes for the heads up.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Jonathan and Sarah Edwards: An uncommon union

Last Wednesday I attended our local Minister's Fraternal which meets at the Old Baptist Chapel, Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire. This year marks the 250th anniversary of the death of Jonathan Edwards, the great North American theologian of revival. As this was the occasion when wives were invited to join us at the fraternal, it was appropriate that we gave attention to the marriage of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards. Paul Oliver gave an excellent paper on the subject. He began by setting out the backdrop to the Edwards' lives. Jonathan was born in 1703, eighty years after the Pilgrim Fathers landed in America. The English speaking population were subject to attack from native Americans. The great European powers England and France fought for control of the New World. Jonathan Edwards was the son of a Congregationalist minister. He was converted in 1721, being given a sense of new things on reading 1 Timothy 1:17, "From about that that time, I began to have new apprehensions and ideas of Christ, and the work of redemption, and the glorious way of salvation by him. An inward, sweet sense of these things, at times, came into my heart; and my soul was led away in pleasant views and contemplations of them. And my mind was greatly engaged to spend my time meditation on Christ, on the beauty and excellency of his Pearson, and the lovely way of salvation by free grace in him." He met his wife to be, Sarah Pierrpont when studying at Yale College. She was only thirteen at the time, but the twenty year old Edwards was deeply impressed,
"They say there is a young lady in New Haven who is beloved of that Great Being who made and rules the world, and that there are certain seasons in which this Great Being, some way or other invisible, comes to her and fills her mind with exceeding sweet delight, and that she hardly cares for any thing, except to mediate upon him - that she expects after a while to be received up where he is, to be raised up out of the world and caught up to heaven; being assured the he loves her too well to let her remain at a distance from him always. There she is to dwell with him, and to be ravished with his love and delight for ever."
They married in 1727 and soon Edwards was settled at the assistant pastor to his grandfather Solomon Stoddard in Northampton. Stoddard had served the congregation for 60 eventful years. Edwards was to become sole pastor on Stoddard's death. Northampton was to be the scene of the some of the greatest triumphs and tragedies in the lives of Jonathan and Sarah. Together they had ten children. It is well known that Edwards would spend thirteen hours a day in his study. But this does not mean that he neglected his wife and family. He and Sarah would go horse riding together for an hour each afternoon. Edwards was careful to spend a hour every evening with his children, taking an interest in their lives and engaging them in playful conversation. Edwards could entrust the running of his household affairs to his resourceful wife. She guided their home firmly, yet with a cheerful and winsome spirit. George Whitefield stayed at the Edwards' home during the Great Awakening. The domestic bliss he witnessed at the manse made him renew his prayers for a godly wife. Other visitors were impressed by the happy piety of the Edwards household. But Sarah sometimes suffered periods of melancholy, largely brought on by the stinging criticism of Jonathan and herself by some members of the church.
The church, however experienced two seasons of revival blessing during Edwards' pastorate. There was a localised, but powerful awakening in 1735. This was the basis of the preacher's early work on revival, A Faithful Narrative of a Surprising Work of God. In late 1741/early 1741, Edwards was away from home on a preaching tour, leaving Samuel Buell to occupy his pulpit. In his absence, Northampton felt the impact of the Great Awakening. In January 1742, Sarah was given an extraordinary experience of God. After this she no longer cared about the opinions of men. She was also given to rejoice that the Lord has chosen to use another than her beloved husband as an instrument in the revival. She testified,
"I felt more perfectly subdued and weaned from the world and more fully resigned to God that I had ever been conscious of before. I felt entire indifference to the opinions, and representations, and conduct of mankind concerning me; and a perfect willingness that God should employ some other instrument than Mr Edwards in advancing the work of grace in Northampton. I was entirely swallowed up in God, as my only portion, and his honour and glory was the object of my supreme desire and delight. At the same time, I felt a far greater love to the children of God then ever before."
Jonathan Edwards was overjoyed to return home to find his church in the grip of a powerful awakening. He carefully analysed his wife's experiences and concluded that her raptures were of God. However, tensions arose between Edwards and the Northampton Church. Tensions that led to his dismissal in 1750. The pastor asked for a rise in his stipend due to rising prices, but the church would only consent after investigating the Edwards' material affairs. Some were outraged that their extravagant minister had two wigs and two teapots! In addition, Edwards argued that only those with a credible profession of faith should take the Lord's Supper. This brought into question the "Halfway Covenant" policy of Solomon Stoddard which allowed the unbelieving children of church members take the Lord's Supper. This whole area was complicated by the fact that members of the town council had to be communicants of the Congregational Church. Vested interests mobilised against Edwards. He also handled a matter of church discipline in a rather unwise and high handed way. In the end it all got too much and Edwards was voted out.
The family removed to the frontier town of Stockbridge, where Jonathan served as a missionary to the Native Americans. He wrote some of his most important theological works in the wilderness of Stockbridge, including The Freedom of the Will and Original Sin. Sarah was kept busy in the home and was active in the community. The town was affected by the Indian wars. Sarah put in a claim for providing 800 meals for needy refugees. Jonathan Edwards was later called to become Principal of the newly formed Princeton College. But died of a smallpox jab shortly after after taking office. The dying Edwards sent a message to his wife via Lucy, his youngest daughter,
"Dear Lucy, it seems to me to be the will of God, that I must shortly leave you; therefore give my kindest regards to my dear wife, and tell her, that the uncommon union, which has so long subsisted between us, has been of such a nature, as trust is spiritual, and therefore will continue for ever. And I hope she will be supported under so great a trial and submit cheerfully to the will of God. And as to my children, you are now like to be fatherless, which I hope will be an inducement to you all, to seek a Father who will never fail you."
Shortly after this Edwards looked about and said, "Now where is Jesus of Nazareth, my true and never-failing Friend?" Then, on March 22 1758, he went to be with the God of his salvation. Sarah responded to this heavy and unexpected blow with great grace,
"What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. O that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands upon our mouths! The Lord has done it. He has made me adore his goodness, that we had him so long. But my God lives; and he has my heart. O what a legacy my husband, and your father, has left us! We are all given to God; and there I am, and love to be."

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Viva La Vida or Death And All His Friends by Coldplay

Much has been made of Coldplay's attempt to branch out in new directions on their latest offering. Having long term U2 collaborator Brian Eno on board as certainly added sonic depth to Coldplay's sound. This is apparent from the rich soundscapes of the opening track, 'Life in Technicolor'. This song without words beings gently, switches tempo with some jaunty strings and builds up to a satisfying finale, with Chris Martin adding to the mix at the end with some "wo-o-o-oh's". This album is different from their previous offerings. If you don't believe me, just try playing Parachutes and Viva La Vida back to back. But this is definitely still Coldplay. They haven't gone all Kid A on us and wilfully subverted their own sound. But not even the wayward genius that is Radiohead could keep that up for more than two albums. Their latest offering, In Rainbows saw them return to order and melody over the dystopian glories of Kid A and Amnesiac.
Viva La Vida is full of surprises with hidden tracks and abrupt gear changes within songs. It is difficult to single out individual songs for special praise, but Viva La Vida and Violet Hill are just amazing. The latter is about a soldier saying goodbye to his sweetheart. He craves both reassurance, "if you love me, won't you let me know" and release, "if you love me won't you let me go". But to really appreciate this album you need to listen to it as a whole. The coda at the end of the final track brings us back to where we began. This adds to the record's underlying coherence.
The second track, Cemeteries of London introduces the two key themes of God and death that seem to pervade the album. In this track, God is a rather elusive being. In the dark streets of London people seek him in their own way. He is present everywhere,
God is in the houses and God is in my head… and all the cemeteries in London…
Yet Martin sings,
I see God come in my garden, but I don’t know what he said,
For my heart it wasn’t open… Not open…'
The idea that God is near, but somehow communication with him is blocked gives the album a sense of foreboding in the face of death. This is eloquently expressed in 42,
Those who are dead are not dead
They’re just living in my head
And since I fell for that spell
I am living there as well
Time is so short and I’m sure
There must be something more
In the final track Martin sings, "I don't want to follow death and all his friends". Worldly power does not give us the answer. The deposed monarch of the title track has lost everything and knows St. Peter won't call his name. With all this reflection on God, death and heaven, the band seem to be on a spiritual quest. There must be something more in the face of death and the fading glory of this world. But what is it? The yearning for meaning and hope in life and death is satisfied in knowing Jesus Christ. He has conquered death by his death and resurrection. Believing in him, we don't have to follow death and all his friends. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. In the Lord Jesus God draws near and speaks to us words of hope and grace. Is your heart open to him?