Tuesday, March 31, 2009

White As Snow

An edited version of my Morning Thought, for BBC Radio Wiltshire
Maybe I shouldn’t be admitting this to you, but I’m a something of a fan of the Irish rock band U2. I’ve liked them for so long that I bought their early albums on cassette. Remember those plastic things with the little wheels and brown tape that would often come undone and you had to wind it back in with a pencil? Ah the good old days before CDs and downloads.

Anyway, I eagerly anticipated the release of their latest album, No Line on the Horizon. And on the whole I wasn’t disappointed. What attracts me to U2 is not only the music, but also their thought provoking lyrics. The band have tackled some pretty big ideas in their songs, and the latest offering is no exception. Faith, hope and love loom large in several of the tracks.

The Poet Laureate Andrew Motion recently said that in order to fully understand English literature, school children should be taught the Bible. Writers like Shakespeare and Milton drew heavily on biblical language and ideas. Something similar could be said for U2.

The song ‘White As Snow’ is sung from the perspective of a soldier in Afghanistan. It is full of biblical imagery, meditating on the themes of forgiveness and love in a war-torn world. The soldier once knew the love divine. But now he is not so sure. Faith and love have turned into suspicion and hostility. A wounded and broken man, the soldier asks "what can make the heart as white as snow?" The answer is we receive forgiveness “only through the lamb as white as snow”. But what’s all that about? I think two passages of Scripture are being referred to here,

“Come now, and let us reason together”,
Says the LORD,
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
They shall be as white as snow”
(Isaiah 1:18).

And it was said of Jesus, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”. (John 1:19).

This U2 song brings us close to the heart of the Christian message. It’s all about cleansing and forgiveness through Jesus Christ, the lamb as white as snow. What more in the name of love?
On BBC Radio Wiltshire around 6.25 each morning from Monday 30th March to Friday 3rd April. Frequency 103.6, 104.3 & 103.5 FM, or listen online.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Life in cyberspace

An edited version of my Morning Thought, for BBC Radio Wiltshire

There is no getting away from it. Life in the UK is being increasingly lived in cyberspace. Most homes now have internet access. You may even be listening online rather than on a trusty old wireless. Information Technology is one of the core subjects taught in school. In the old days you were happy if you left school with a good grasp of the “Three R’s”. Nowadays you are not properly educated unless you can send an e-mail and Google for information which you can copy for your homework. How would today’s young scholars manage without Wikipedia?

The internet has changed the way we relate to each other. 7 million people in the UK have signed up to Facebook, the social networking site, including me. I’m not sure why I did it. And to be honest I find it all a bit bewildering. It’s probably my age. I started getting friendship requests from people who I thought were already my mates. People whom I didn’t even know asked if they could be my friends. I suppose it’s nice to be popular. But there must be more to friendship than adding someone to a list on Facebook.

I’m not saying things like Facebook, Twitter and blogging are necessarily bad. They can help to keep people in touch, enable useful information to be made available and so on. But Cyberspace is virtual reality. There can be no substitute for relationships with flesh and blood people in the real world. Jesus is the Word made flesh. He did not simply send us information from heaven. He became one of us. Jesus befriended a wide range of people. He took and interest in their lives and shared with them the good news of God’s kingdom. Ultimately went to the cross for us, saying, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” As the old hymn says,
What a friend we have in Jesus,
all our sins and griefs to bear!
Now there’s a true friend for you.
On BBC Radio Wiltshire around 6.25 each morning from Monday 30th March to Friday 3rd April. Frequency 103.6, 104.3 & 103.5 FM, or listen online.

Friday, March 27, 2009

John Webster on Bible reading

"Faithful reading of Holy Scripture in the economy of grace is an episode in the history of sin and its overcoming." (Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 87).

BBC Radio Wiltshire 'Morning Thought'

Readers may be interested to know that I'm scheduled to give a 'Morning Thought' on BBC Radio Wiltshire just before 6.30 each morning from Monday 30th March to Friday 3rd April. Frequency 103.6, 104.3 & 103.5FM, or listen online. I'll posts the scripts on the blog day by day.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Independency and Congregationalism: what's the difference?

John Owen (1616-1683)
A friend asked me to define the difference between Independency and Congregationalism. I used to be a convinced Congregationalist, infant baptism and all. Even though I am now a Baptist, I still hold to Congregational/Independent principles of church government.
The terms are often used interchanchably. But there is a difference in meaning:
Independency defines the relationship between churches i.e. each local church is independent and self-governing under Christ. Local churches may and should work together and express the unity of the body of Christ, but no church is "over" another and no tier of inter-church government stands over the local church. Independents don't recognise the validity of Presbyterian connexions or the Roman Catholic/Orthodox/Anglican hierarchy.

Congregationalism defines the way in which the local church is governed - with the consent of the members, who are meant to be "visible saints". But in classic Congregationalist polity (see John Owen's The True Nature of a Gospel Church - Works vol. 16) this does not mean that the members rule the roost. The eldership has been appointed to rule and govern the church with the consent of the members ( 1 Tim 5:17 etc).

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

No Line On The Horizon - U2

I know U2's latest has been out for a few weeks now and this is a bit late in the day for me to share my thoughts, but there we are. I suppose the delay as I've made some jottings for this post and then put it on the back burner has given me time to give the album a proper listen. Of one thing I'm sure, making Get On Your Boots was the album's first single was a bit of a gaffe. The song has a good riff and unexpected twists and turns, but some of the words are a bit embarrassing for a "senior" band like U2. "Bossy boots" please. Thankfully the opening three tracks, are much better, No Line One The Horizon is a great start to the album. Magnificent is up there with Gloria as a spiritual anthem. Moment of Surrender is a thoughtful slow burner which climaxes in a molten Edge guitar solo.
Despite some nice sonic touches, Unknown Caller doesn't quite work. Rife with computer terminology, like, "reboot yourself" and "force quit and move to trash", the song would make good hold music on PC World's helpline. I suppose it's better than having to listen to Vivaldi's Four Seasons on an endless loop, but that's not saying much. On the plus side, what with all the technical support from Bono it would save callers having to hang on for three and a half hours before getting connected to an advisor. Even when they are not at their best U2 still have their uses.
As we've come to expect from U2, the album explores some big ideas. Faith, hope and love feature strongly, especially love. Magnificent proclaims, "Only love can leave such a mark, but only love can heal such a scar." Love marks and wounds us. Jacob was left limping after he wrestled with the Lord. But only love, the love of God can heal and restore broken human beings. I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight asks, "Is it true that perfect love casts out fear?", reflecting on 1 John 4:18. In a nice twist on the familiar refrain, "Stand up for your rights", Stand Up Comedy urges listeners to "Stand up for your love." The same song, with its talk of "getting over certainty" also reveals why U2 are the band of choice for the postevangelical set. But there is also a plea to let God be God, which may give the trendy Open Theists pause for thought, "Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady". Quite.
White As Snow is sung from the perspective of a soldier in Afghanistan and is full of biblical imagery. It is a meditation on the theme of forgiveness and cleansing from the defilement of sin in a war-torn world. How is forgiveness possible? Only through the "lamb as white as snow" Isaiah 1:18, 1 Peter 1:18 & 19.
Fez-Being Born captures something of the Turkish location of the early recording sessions. It begins with a Arab-influenced ambiance, complete with Turkish sounding noises-off. The slightly disorientating intro is suggestive of Radiohead's subversive classic, Kid A. But before too long the Edge's signature guitar chimes kick in to remind the listener that this is a U2 song after all. With a little more adventure the experimental flavour of the opening bars this could sustained throughout the track. Or was it the case that an Eno-inspired intro was simply tacked onto the beginning of what turns out to be a rather standard U2 track?
One or two criticisms aside, I have to say that the album is steadily growing on me. It has all the marks of the group's mature sound. New directions are hinted at, while the band remain true to themselves. No Line On The Horizon is a more coherent collection of songs than their last offering, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, which has some great tunes like Vertigo, Miracle Drug and Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own, but didn't really exceed the sum of its parts.
U2 haven't lost their sense of irony and NLOTH doesn't take itself too seriously. In Stand Up Comedy, Bono knowingly warns his Josephine to beware of Napoleonic "small men with big ideas". A touch of autobiography in there somewhere perhaps? But it's U2's very determination to explore big ideas that sets the band apart from their peers and wannabe rivals. You don't have to go down the road of having so-called U2charists in church to see that the band's use of biblical allusions and scriptural imagery can offer us an opportunity to reflect further on the message of love and forgiveness through the lamb as white as snow.
Also, see Byron's thoughtful posts here and here and Michael's majestic rant here.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Biblicism: a definition

On Facebook Stephen Dancer of Doggie's Breakfast, asked for a definition of "biblicism", a much used but seldom defined word. Here's my stab at it:
An attitude to the Bible that downplays the witness of the Spirit, sidelines the theological inheritance of the church, denies that truth may be rightly deduced from Scripture, and tends to a wooden, literalistic interpretation of God's Word.
Fair enough, or what?

But for the Grace of God by Cornelis P. Venema

But for the Grace of God: An Exposition of the Canons of Dort
by Cornelis P. Venema, Reformed Fellowship Inc., 1994, 145pp
We've all heard of the so-called "Five Points of Calvinism", usually referred to under the acronym TULIP, meaning Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and Final Perseverance. But how many of us have actually read, let alone studied the Canons of Dort that first gave expression to the "Five Points"? In this helpful little book, Cornelis Venema sets the Synod of Dort in its historical context and gives us an insightful exposition of the Canons. He works through each point of doctrine in turn, giving a clear statement of the teaching of the Calvinistic divines and then subjecting their theology to biblical scrutiny. His aim throughout is to consider whether the Canons of Dort reflect the teaching of Scripture. The book concludes with an Appendix where the Canons of Dort are reproduced in full.
Although I would claim to be a "Five Point Calvinist", I must admit that I hadn't done an awful lot of work on the Synod of Dort. What I found here was an unexpected joy and delight. Contrary to what some might suggest, the Canons are far from being a relic of Reformed scholasticism or simply a reaction to the Arminianism of the Remonstrants. While not being a comprehensive confession of faith, they set forth the biblical teaching on the areas covered with clarity, sensitivity and care. Misunderstandings are cleared up and objections to the Calvinistic doctrine are refuted graciously yet firmly.
The theology of the Canons of Dort is in no way a hindrance to evangelism. Quite the contrary. The sacrificial death of the Son is of "infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world". (Second main point, Article 3). His death effects the salvation of all those for whom he died. On that basis the promise of the gospel that all who repent and believe will not perish, but have eternal life, "ought to be announced and declared without differentiation or discrimination to all nations and people" (Second main point, Article 5).
The great concern of the Synod of Dort was to insist that salvation is by the grace of our Triune Redeemer alone. The one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit planned, executed and will effectively apply the great work of salvation. To him belongs all the glory for saving lost sinners. TULIP may not ammount to the the gospel in its totality, but leave out any one point and the gospel is seriously diminished.

Monday, March 23, 2009

An evening with John Blanchard

On Saturday evening we had John Blanchard come to speak at West Lavington Village Hall on 'Has science got rid of God?' A pretty packed hall heard him address the question with his customary clarity and insight. Science has not got rid of God because science is the attempt to discover truth in nature. It is not suited to adjudicate on the existence of God because he is transcendent - outside and above nature. Science has its uses, but it cannot speak dogmatically on the God question. It has no explanation for why the universe exists. Science cannot tell us why the laws of nature work as they do, nor why the universe if finely tuned for intelligent life. Contrary to the claims of Richard Dawkins and his ilk, modern science has not got rid of God. If anything discoveries like the complexity of even the most simple life-forms and the anthropic principle make belief in God easier.
The veteran evangelist concluded his lively and interesting talk by setting Jesus Christ before us in all his divine grandeur. It is only in him that we can find salvation and the hope of everlasting life. If you want to know more, then 'Has science got rid of God?' is available from Evangelical Press as a book, CD, and DVD.
Day One Publications have just brought out Travel With John Blanchard, detailing the life of 'Guernsey's evangelist, author and Christian apologist'. Dr. Blanchard has the distinction of being the only living subject of the popular 'Travel With' series. He kindly gave me a free signed copy, which was nice. A couple of our members also bought me Blanchard's The Complete Gathered Gold, 'A treasury of quotations for Christians'. Considering I didn't intend to buy any books on the day, I still managed not to leave empty handed. The Lord is good!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Is the fine tuning of the universe an evidence for God?

I don't know if readers have come across Premier Christian Radio's Unbelievable, aired on Saturday afternoons. In each programme Justin Brierley hosts a discussion between a Christian and a non-believer. It is often a really thought provoking show. The latest one is on the subject, 'Fine Tuning of the Universe - is it evidence of God?' Nicholas Beale, co-author with Christian physicist John Polkinghorne of Questions of Truth (WJK), argues that fine tuning is an evidence for God. The atheist Julian Baggini disagrees. You can catch up with this week's programme and previous shows online. Here are some critical reflections on the discussion as it developed.
Nicholas Beale, a mathematician by trade makes a good case for God on the basis of fine tuning and the so-called "anthropic principle", which is concerned with the question, "Why is the universe just right for human life?" Beale avoids falling into a "God of the gaps" approach, insisting that we see God at work in the understandable "laws of nature" as well as in the mysterious aspects of science that we have yet to comprehend. But he comes a little unstuck because he accepts a Darwinian theory of origins. In his view, God made the world complete with suffering and death because that is what was necessary for evolution by natural selection to work. Beale tries to get round the problem that this means a good God created an imperfect world, "red in tooth and claw", by saying that God took the suffering of the world upon himself in Christ. However this makes redemption seem like another act of fine tuning, as God acted in Christ to remove the suffering and evil that were present in the world as originally created.
A more biblical approach to the problem of suffering will insist that God made the world "very good" as Genesis 1 declares. Suffering and death are consequent upon the fall of man into sin (Genesis 3). Redemption in that case is not the Creator correctively fine tuning his flawed-by-design creation. It is an act of free, undeserved and astonishing grace towards rebellious sinners, who have brought his just wrath upon themselves and his curse upon the creation. Neal's approach shows the accommodation that theistic evolution makes with Darwinism plays havoc with the Bible's essential plot line of Creation/Ruin/Redemption/Re-creation. Now, I'm not saying that natural selection has no explanatory power when it comes to describing how the "kinds" of creatures God originally made developed into the diverse and varied species that exist today. In creating life, it seems that God made living organisms flexible enough to adapt to differing environments and so on. But the wholesale acceptance of a Darwinian explanation of origins seriously skews the basic plot line of biblical revelation.
Another thing that struck me was the atheist Julian Baggini's point that believers only see the fine tuning of the universe as an evidence for God because they begin with the prior assumption that he exists. As the philosopher argued, the existence of a loving Creator cannot simply be "read off" the data of science. That is true enough. Baggini helpfully reminds us of the importance of presuppositions. Evidentialist apologetics assumes that the data of science is neutral ground that the believer and unbeliever can examine together without prejudice. But that is not the case. The believer starts with the basic presupposition that God exists. It is from that standpoint he views the phenomenon of the universe. The consistent Christian theist does not argue from design to a designer. He begins with the God who has revealed himself in creation, the human heart and Scripture and understands everything in that light. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom! The Christian therefore is able to make sense of this originally good, yet fallen world which God created, and that he has acted in Christ to redeem. The heavens declare his glory and the earth is full of his goodness, even while the whole creation groans with frustration, awaiting its liberation from disorder and entropy. The unbeliever however views exactly the same data from the presupposition that God does not exist. The truth concerning his existence is suppressed (Romans 1:18ff). Conclusions drawn from the data are therefore faulty. It's all in the presuppositions.
Baggini claims that the theistic approach to science takes the mystery out of it all because every time believers see something unexplainable, they invoke God. That is a slight oversimplification. Besides, God is the ultimate mystery. He is beyond even the mystery of a finely tuned universe that is fit for human life. He is the one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He is sovereign, yet we are accountable to him for our actions. The triune God loves fallen human beings. In Christ, the infinite embraced the finite and became one of us to rescue us from our sin. There is no greater mystery than the mystery of God's love revealed at Calvary, and poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. "Tis mystery all, the immortal dies/who can explore his strange design?" Throughout eternity we shall remain baffled, amazed and surprised by the mystery of the triune God who is love. The task of theology is not to explain the mystery of God, but to set out the limits of God's self-revelation in Scripture. In the words of Augustine, the purpose of doctrine is to "erect a fence around the mystery" that will keep the faithful from attempting to pry into the hidden depths of God's being.
To conclude, arguments concerning the fine tuning of the universe and the anthropic principle may be used by believers as they seek to witness to their non-Christian friends. But such arguments only make sense once we have made it clear that we are arguing from the presupposition that God exists to show that the world as it is is consistent with biblical revelation. The function of apologetics in this context is to demonstrate that reality is in keeping with the presuppositions of Christian theism - the universe looks just as we might expect given that is was designed and made by a loving Creator. But that is not all we have to say. The fall has to be factored in to explain the presence of evil and suffering, death and decay in God's world. And we gladly proclaim what could never be deduced from observing the natural world; the revelation of God in a mystery that is the gospel of salvation. The ultimate anthropic principle is that God became man in Christ to rescue human beings from sin and death. In Jesus' incarnation, atoning death and bodily resurrection, God has acted not only to save individual human beings, but to renew the whole cosmos, Romans 8:18-22. We can only see all this when we start with the presupposition that God is there, and he is not silent. We believe in order to understand. There is no other way, Hebrews 11:3, 1 John 5:20.
On the next edition of Unbelievable, David Robertson will be discussing his book The Dawkins Letters, with an atheist blogger.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Blogging in the name of the Lord, Series 5 "Box Set"

Here are the interviews in order of appearance in a special commemorative "box set". I hope you enjoyed reading these conversations on theology, ministry, books, music and other stuff. Look out for Series 6 in the Summer.
Sam Waldron (forthcoming)
Extra: An interview with non-blogger

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The 1859 Revival in Wales (Part 3)

A three-part series based on a talk given at one of our Wednesday evening Prayer Meetings. You might like to catch up with Part 1 and Part 2.
4. The Revival Spreads

In February of 1859 a Calvinistic Methodist presbytery meeting was held in Aberaeron, south of Aberystwyth (pictured above). The churches had been urged to pray for God’s blessing upon the meetings. David Morgan was booked to preach during the presbytery gathering. Some were hostile to his presence and attended his first meeting with an antagonistic spirit. But such was God’s evident presence in the service that the all opposition was subdued. Morgan was given to preach most powerfully in the second meeting. Evan Philips witnessed the occasion,
"The revivalist stood in the pulpit and glanced around the audience, gazing more especially at the crowd of young people in the audience. That gaze was terrible. Hardly any one in the gallery could endure it. With one impulse they bent their heads like a sensitive plant touched. 'The world's sin is great', he says. The words fall like lead on the hearts of the multitude. 'Christ's atonement is greater,' he adds; and a shower of tears falls through a bright sky of joy." (Revival Comes to Wales, Eifion Evans, Evangelical Press of Wales, p. 73. All quotes where only a page number is given are from this title).
By the end of the week following the presbytery, forty people applied to join the Aberaeron church. The work begun under David Morgan’s ministry went from strength to strength. By the end of 1860 about 200 were added to the fellowship. After the Aberaeron presbytery, Morgan’s influence began to grow and the southern Cardiganshire churches embraced the revival. Soon many parts of Wales would experience a powerful outpouring of the Spirit.
As the year progressed the revival spread throughout Wales. David Morgan preached extensively throughout the Principality and was a powerful instrument of revival blessing. In the autumn of 1859 the preacher was invited to hold meetings in Ebbw Vale, Monmouthshire.
"A deputation waited upon him at the Llangeitho Association in 1859 to invite him to Ebbw Vale and district. They were headed by David Hugues, who had arranged his previous tour in the days of his comparitive obscurity. The revivalist expressed a fear that he could not arrange a tour in Monmouthshire. 'Look you, David, my boy'' expostulated a the quaint old deacon, 'we at Ebbw Vale were dealing with you when you were carrying a basket on your arm and trading on a small scale, and now that you have opened an emporium, don't you think that you can turn the cold shoulder to your old customers.' This arrow found a joint in the revivalist's armour, and he yielded at once." (p. 91-92).

But Wales also experienced a moving of the Spirit independently of Morgan's ministry. Almost every county was touched. Thomas Phillips, an eyewitness and participant in the revival charted its course in The Welsh Revival; Its Origin & Development, reprinted in 1989 by the Banner of Truth Trust. I commend his account to those who wish to fill in the details.
Suffice to say for now that the refreshing gales of the Spirit breathed new life into moribund churches The Word was preached with fresh power and many were soundly converted. And still the churches prayed in earnest for yet more of the Spirit’s presence in their midst. It is reckoned that 110,000 people were added to the churches as a result of the 1859 revival in Wales. The Welsh communities in Liverpool and the Midlands were also affected by the awakening. During the same period there were also remarkable outpourings of the Spirit in Ulster, Scotland and England. Spurgeon experienced revival in his New Park Street Ministry. It might be said that 1859 was the last UK-wide revival.

5. Some Characteristics of the Revival

1) Fervent Prayer

Reports of the New York revival led to earnest prayer in the Welsh churches. The coming of revival also led to the churches laying a renewed emphasis on prayer. Psalm 85:6, Psalm 80:18. That is a lesson that we need to take to heart. We must pray fervently and persistently for a fresh outpouring of the Spirit. What else will revive and renew the churches? What else will awaken lost and indifferent sinners to their need of a Saviour? Yes, we must carry on preaching and witnessing. We must engage with the modern world and its concerns. But we need the demonstration of the Spirit and power to give our witness saving effectiveness.

2) Powerful Preaching

There was much preaching in Wales prior to the 1859 revival. But preaching during the revival was of a different kind. As early as the February of that year Thomas Edwards commented,
"The revival has made a great change in the style of preaching and in the spirit of the preacher. It would appear that the object is, more than ever, to preach the substantial truths of the gospel, so earnestly, closely and personally, that the hearers may feel that the preacher's aim is to save their should, and that God, by His means, desires to bring them to Himself." (p. 113).
Some were critical of David Morgan’s preaching during the revival. He passionately would urge sinners to turn to Christ without delay. One John Jones of Bleannannarch was none too happy with this, and he tackled the younger minister on the subject,
"What is this that I hear about you, David, my boy?' said John Jones. 'What have you heard?', asked David Morgan guardedly. 'What have I heard? What means this lugging of the people into church fellowship without giving them time to sit down and consider and count the cost before they begin to build?' 'What time ought a sinner to get to consider, Mr. Jones?' 'Moe than you give them, by all accounts.' 'You are criticising my method; what is your idea of a reasonable period for considering this great question?' Accepting the challenge, John Jones retorted, 'A month is not too much at least.' David Morgan saw that his enemy was delivered into his hand, and replied, 'Well! Well! God's Spirit says, Today; the devil says Tomorrow; but the old evangelist of Blaenannerch says, A month hence will do'." (p. 71).
That is the kind of preaching we need, urgent, plain, passionate and gospel-centred. But sitting under such searching ministry would not be comfortable. The lost would be convicted of their sin and need of a Saviour. In Part 1 we saw how Humphrey Jones and David Morgan would preach with searching power to believers. How many of us could bear to be soundly rebuked for being “at ease in Zion” or "lukewarm"? We are interested in the story of revivals. Are they not thrilling accounts of what the Lord can do? But how would we fare if revival truly came to the Church? The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth. Could we bear to sit beneath his penetrating gaze and be rebuked for our prayerlessness, lack of love, bickering and unbelief?

3) Conversions

Conversions are few and far between these days. Larger and smaller churches report but few sinners coming to faith in Christ. But as I have pointed out, around 110,000 were converted in Wales during 1859. Now, revival is first and foremost the re-vival – the re-awakening of the church. But true revivals also have a powerful effect upon the world. The ungodly begin to realise that there is a God in Zion. The church is given proclaim the gospel with fresh power and authority. 1 Thess 1:5.

4) New measures

C. G. Finney was an extreme Armininan who believed that all possible means should be used to induce the sinner to decide for Christ. Rather than believing that revival was a sovereign work of the Spirit, he suggested that revivals could be obtained if believers fulfilled certain conditions. This led to evangelistic campaigns being labelled “revivals”, an understanding of the word that would have been unrecognised by an earlier generation of men who experienced true revival.

Humphrey Jones, an Arminian was more deeply influenced by Finney than the Calvinist, David Morgan. Morgan, who was schooled the theology of the Puritans understood that revival is a sovereign work of the Spirit that is outside of man’s control. We saw in Part 2 that in October 1858 the preacher went to sleep one night and woke at 4 a.m. a changed man. He was endued with an extraordinary memory for spiritual things. His preaching from that date was marked with a new power. It has been said that Morgan went to bed like a lamb and awoke as a lion. But as the revival drew to an end the experience was reversed. His son testified,
"This astonishing endowment of memory was revoked as suddenly and unexpectedly as it was conferred. One night, in less than two years; time he went to sleep in possession of it, and when he awoke - it was gone!" (p. 54).
The pulpit lion was a lamb one more. David Morgan settled down to an ordinary, yet faithful pastoral ministry in the Calvinistic Methodist Church.
Humphrey Jones however had difficulty coping with that fact that revival did not invariably attend his ministry. Following Finney, he believed that revivals could be stimulated and perpetuated by man. Some sensed that he was sometimes trying to engineer a revival. If he felt that people were not responding to his ministry as he expected, he would stop preaching and ask for those who opened in prayer to start again. As Eifion Evans comments, for Jones, lack of success mean that, “There was something wrong with the machinery, and that had to be corrected before proceeding any further”. (Fire in the Thatch: The True Nature of Religious Revival, Eifion Evans, Evangelical Press of Wales, 1996, p. 199). Jones’ “revival meetings” in Aberystwyth ended in confusion and decline. He believed that the revival was going to usher in the Millennium, which he prophesied would come in July 1859. It obviously didn’t happen. The preacher withdrew from his work in the revival citing physical weakness. He ended up having to spend time in Carmarthen Mental Hospital, an exhausted and broken man. His experience shows us the danger of trying to stir up a revival using certain techniques, even techniques that the Lord has been pleased to use before. Revival is a sovereign work of the Spirit – an intensification of his ordinary work in renewing the church and regenerating sinners. We cannot manufacture a revival. Preachers who try to “engineer” revivals are doomed to failure and disillusionment. We sometimes forget the Holy Spirit is not a force that we can “tap into” at will. He is the third Person of the Trinity, sent by the Father to glorify the Son. His work in the church is subject to fluctuation and change as he wills. Sometimes preaching may come with evident Holy Spirit power, at others this is less so. The preacher and congregation may long and pray for more of the Holy Spirit’s empowering, but we cannot force his hand.

It was during the 1859 revival that certain Finneyite practices or “New Measures” began to be introduced to the Welsh Churches. Humphrey Jones and David Morgan would call upon people to make a visible response to their preaching, whether by raising their hands or coming to the front of the chapel. The "altar calls" associated with Billy Graham’s ministry are Finneyite in origin. It has to be said that Humphrey Jones and David Morgan were a lot more circumspect concerning the publication of numbers of converts than we might find in modern crusade evangelism. Converts were only added to the membership of the churches on evidence of a changed life. Most of the converts stood the test of time. But the introduction of “New Measures” during the 1850’s have had a detrimental effect on the evangelistic efforts of the church right up to the present day. (Mass crusade evangelism complete with "altar calls", publication of numbers of "decisions for Christ" etc). But in all revivals we see a mixture of good and bad. As Jonathan Edwards has taught us, we should not reject what was evidently a work of God for the sake of some suspect practices.

5) Concern for Glory of God

We saw this in Part 2, when after the meeting at Devil’s Bridge, David Morgan shouted Ps. 115:1 at the top of his voice. I wonder if we are far too “me and my needs” centred than God centred? During the 1859, people did not attend meetings as consumers to have their needs met, but as worshippers to glorify God and sinners to seek his grace. In August 1859 an open air prayer meeting was held at 8am, with 18,000 in attendance. A young farmhand prayed, “May the Heavenly Dove descend now upon this meadow!” A deep and awesome silence fell upon the meeting and David Morgan prayed powerfully for those who were to preach the Word that day. After the meeting two men entered into conversation,
"A new minutes later, Thomas John, Cilgerran, walked in a field nearby lost in reverie. A friend stopped him, and said, 'What a glorious sight that was, when the thousands were engaged in silent prayer at Mr. Morgan's request! Did you ever see anything like it, Mr. John?' He answered solemnly, 'I didn't see one of them: I saw no one but God. I am going home,' he said suddenly. 'How terrible is this place! It is too terrible for me. My flesh is too weak to bear this weight of glory...'." (p. 90).

That is revival – when a man leaves a meeting and says, “I saw no one but God” and is overwhelmed by his glory. That is what revival is ultimately all about – the glory of God blazing forth in the church. Let us pray, Exodus 33:18. May the Lord hear us and send forth his Spirit that we might see more of his glory in the face of Jesus Christ, 2 Corinthians 4:6, John 16:14. "Will you not revive us again?", Psalm 85:6.

Monday, March 16, 2009

A concise commentary on the Acts of the Apostles

I heard this quote in a talk on the 'Holy Spirit and Evangelism' at a Ministers' Fraternal in Honiton, Devon earlier today. A concise commentary on Acts:
Jesus went up
The Spirit came down
The apostles went out
Sinners came in
Who needs F.F. Bruce and Howard Marshall when you've got that neat summary?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Donald Macleod on practical trinitarianism

I returned to the Land of my Fathers yesterday for the inaugural meeting of the Pastors' Forum. Our speaker was Professor Donald Macleod of the Free Church College Edinburgh. It was interesting that in his opening remarks Macleod felt the need to doff his cap to "the Doctor". As a younger man he had been quite critical of Lloyd-Jones' teaching on the baptism with the Holy Spirit in his book, The Spirit of Promise. The theologian assured us of his respect and admiration for Lloyd-Jones. He still disagreed with him on the work of the Spirit, but Macleod seemed to admit to a certain youthful impertinence in his earlier critique of the preacher's doctrine. Having got that out of the way, we were off.
Macleod gave an introductory address on the purpose of theology and then gave two lectures on the doctrine of the Trinity. In the first he set forth the doctrine on the basis of Scripture, taking into account the historic creeds and confessions of the church. Interestingly he disagreed with Luther's famous statement that justification by faith alone is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls. Macleod insisted that the deity of Christ, as defined by the Nicene formula that the Son is homoousios with the Father is more fundamental. Unless the Son is of the same substance as the Father, the incarnation is not a true revelation of God. The atoning work of Christ is sufficient to save sinners only because he who died was both fully God and fully man. Justification, indeed the whole of the Christian faith rests on homoousion.

Macleod warned of the danger of adopting a solo scriptura approach to doctrine that dismissed the value of confessions of faith. While the full deity of Christ is clearly taught in Scripture, the Nicene Creed, accepted by the whole church, helps to safeguard the confession that Jesus Christ is God the Son. When Dissenters like Philip Doddridge began to sideline confessions of faith, Arianism soon followed.

In his second address on the Trinity, the Professor set out some of the Practical Implications of the doctrine. Here are some notes of what he had to say together with one or two critical reflections,

1. The Trinity and our understanding of God

The Trinity reminds us of the mysteriousness of God. How he can be three and one is beyond our human experience and understanding. God can only be known because he has chosen to reveal himself to us. Our knowledge of him is a partial, ectypal knowledge of his archetypal knowledge of himself. Theological reflection brings us face to face with the mystery of God, whose ways are past finding out, Romans 11:33-36.

2. How God is love

God is love not first and foremost because he loves human beings. If that were the case, then he did not love before we were made. The Unitarian conception of God makes his existence loveless before he brought us into being. His love is the divine response to creaturely existence. But it is not something that is intrinsic to his own inner life. It cannot therefore be properly said of a solitary monad that "God is love", 1 John 4:8. However, the doctrine of the Trinity explicates how God is love. God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have eternally existed in a relationship of love, with each person loving the other and being loved by the other. On that basis alone we can say that God is love. Love is intrinsic to his very existence and divine identity. Yes, the intertrinirarian love flows out to the creature (John 17:26). But God's love did not find its origin in his relationship to human beings made in his image. He is love first and foremost within the relationship between the co-equal and co-eternal Persons of the godhead, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The depth of God's love for us is seen in that he gave his one and only Son, whom he had loved from eternity, to the suffering of the cross for our salvation, Romans 8:32. John 3:16 only makes sense in the context of trinitarian theology. God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son... The glory of penal substitutionary atonement is that it was none other than the Son of God who paid the price of sin for us.
3. The Trinity and our understanding of human beings
It is significant that God said "Let us make man in our image", Genesis 1:26. According to Macleod this means that were made in the image of the Triune God. Maybe it would be better to say that we were made in the image of God, the image of God being his Son (Hebrews 1:3). Certainly, the goal of redemption is that sin is removed so that we are conformed to the image of God's Son (Colossians 1:15, 3:9 & 10, Romans 8:29). But if we were made in the image of God in this second sense, then we still have to say that the Son as the image of God has always existed in union with the Father and the Spirit. A solitary existence is not a option for God's image-bearers. Being in an I-Thou relationship with others is part and parcel of what it means to be human. That is why it was not good for Adam to be alone. He needed Eve, his equal in bearing God's image, yet his other as woman to complete him. This does not mean that getting married and having children are essential to a full human life. But a reclusiveness that avoids human relationships is not an option. The Word was "with God" (John 1:1). We need to be with others. Jesus was single, yet he chose the twelve to be with him and was surrounded by a circle of friends. A similar point could be made regarding Paul, who was single, but rarely without human fellowship and company.
Mrs. Thatcher was so wrong in saying that "there is no such thing as society". Human society is vastly important. Drawing on the doctrine of the Trinity we can say that in society all human beings are equal. Each is worthy of our love and respect. Yet we are all different. A good society will recognise the true dignity and value of each human life and give space for people to be themselves. We have to beware of social trinitarianism which collapses God's unique triune life into human society. And we have to stress that it is the church as God's chosen people that gives the fullest expression of human life modelled on the unity and diversity of the Trinity. But Macleod makes some good points here. In our increasingly impersonal, fragmented and lonely world we need to be reminded that human beings were made for society and community. It is not good for man to be alone.
4. The Trinity and soteriology
In traditional systematics, distinct aspects of the work of salvation are often attributed to each person of the Trinity. The Father chooses, the Son redeems by his blood and the Spirit applies the work of salvation. But this neat pattern does not reflect the witness of Scripture. Each aspect of salvation is thoroughly trinitarian. The Father chose us in Christ through sanctification of the Spirit. In the incarnation the Father sent the Son into the world as man by the power of the Holy Spirit. At the cross, the Son offered himself to God through the eternal Spirit. In terms of the application of redemption, God made us alive together with Christ when we were born again by the Holy Spirit. Eschatologically, we shall be raised to life and glory by the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead. Systematics should reflect the trinitarian concerns of Scripture when seeking to construct a truly biblical account of soteriology.
5. The Trinity and the church
Church life is modelled on the unity and diversity of the Trinity (John 17, Ephesians 4, 1 Corinthians 12). The sharing and co-operation of God's trinitarian life and acts should be exemplified in the church. Jesus makes the perichoretic relations of the Trinity the pattern and dynamic for Christian unity in John 17:20, 21, 26. Are believers lovingly involved in one anothers' lives, without that concern becoming meddlesome and intrusive?
Under this heading. Macleod suggested that being born again is the basis of church unity. I suppose that is right in one very important respect. All truly born again people have certainly been united to the body of Christ by the Spirit of God. But Macleod's proposal calls for careful qualification. All the major Christian traditions claim that the visible church is composed of born again people, at least ideally. However, understanding of what is entailed by the new birth differs widely. The Roman Catholic conception of baptismal regeneration is quite different from the Evangelical Protestant (and I would argue biblical) position. An untested claim that a Church is comprised of "born again" believers is not a sufficient ground for ecumenical unity. How this can be squared with the theologian's earlier insistence on the importance of creeds and confessions, I'm not exactly sure. Besides, Scripture insists that other important truths like justification by faith alone cannot be sidelined for the sake of visible unity - Galatians 1.
Macleod wrapped things up with some helpful reflections on how we may ensure that the prayers, singing and teaching of the church are thoroughly Trinitarian.
In all this was an auspicious start to the Pastors' Forum. It also was good meet up with some old friends and nice to bump into fellow blogger Stephen Dancer, whom I had interviewed, but never met outside the confines of cyberspace.

Monday, March 09, 2009

The 1859 Revival in Wales (Part 2)

A three-part series based on a talk given at one of our Wednesday evening Prayer Meetings. You might like to catch up with Part 1.

3. The Men God Used

There were two principal instruments of the 1859 Revival in Wales, Humphrey Jones and David Morgan.

Humphrey Jones

Jones was a native of Cardiganshire. He was converted at the age of sixteen after a period of prolonged conviction of sin. Soon he began to preach among the Wesleyan Methodists. By his own claim, hundreds of people were converted under his early preaching. This early success led him to apply for the Wesleyan ministry. But they turned him down. Resolved to preach come what may, in 1854 he emigrated to America. He spent a year preaching to Welsh settlers in New York before being ordained a deacon with the Episcopalian Methodists. Jones was then appointed missioner to the Welsh community in Wisconsin. However, after twelve months he severed his links with the Episcopalian Methodists. This gave him freedom to preach wherever he chose.

The power of the Spirit was evident in his preaching. There were remarkable meetings in Milwaukee, where forty-five people professed conversion. Under his preaching in Onedia, New York it is reported that seven hundred owned Jesus as their Saviour.

Jones was concerned to see the revival blessing spread to his native land, so in 1858 he returned to Wales, arriving in the June of that year. He began to preach on searching texts like Amos 6:1 and Revelation 3:16. Christians were humbled and the unconverted awakened. In a letter to the Welsh Herald newspaper he described what had been happening under his preaching in and around his home village of Tre'r-ddol in the summer of 1858,
"Fifty-one have been converted in this locality up to the present. This is regarded as a major revival in such a small congregation and in such a sparsely populated area. The revival continues. The movement has proved influential far and near... I believe that Wales is on the brink blessed things, and that revivals will be commonplace throughout the land." (Revival Comes to Wales, Eifion Evans, Evangelical Press of Wales, p. 48. All quotes where only a page number is given are from this title).

Jones was something of an unusual figure on the Welsh religious scene. He was a Wesleyan Methodist – an Arminian in a land dominated by Calvinistic Methodism. But it seems that the Lord was pleased to use the young preacher to prepare the ground for the 1859 revival.

David Morgan

David Morgan was a carpenter by trade. He was converted at the age of 21. Noticing the depth of feeling and rich quality of his prayers, people urged him to preach. In 1848 he was accepted as a ministerial candidate for the Llangeitho Association of the Calvinistic Methodists. But he refused to go to college for formal ministerial training. Morgan received his theological education by reading the old Puritans authors like Thomas Watson and John Owen. He was ultimately ordained in 1857.

It has to be said that Morgan was more than a little wary of the early revival meetings that had been occurring under the ministry of Humphrey Jones. But all that was to change when David Morgan heard Jones preach in Pont-rhyd-y-groes at the end of September, 1858. He spoke powerfully on Revelation 3:16. As he listened, David Morgan became aware of shortcomings in his ministry. The dire need of the church also pressed upon him. After the service, Morgan sought the preacher’s counsel. He was now convinced that the Holy Spirit was active in Jones’ ministry.
"They conversed for hours about the forlorn condition of Zion, and Mr. Jones insisted that it was due to the drowsiness and supineness of the watchmen on its walls. At last David Morgan said, 'There can be no harm in out attempting to rouse the churches of the religion; I am willing to do my best. We can do no mischief by holding prayer meetings, though there should be no more than man in it all'. 'You do that,' responded the other, 'and I will guarantee that God will be with you very soon'." (p. 52).

Deeply affected by Jones’ searching preaching and challenged by the news of what had been happening in New York, David Morgan began to pray in earnest for the blessing of God upon his ministry. Such was his concern on soul that he cancelled a preaching engagement on 3rd October and instead went to hear Humphrey Jones at Ysbyty Ystwyth. He spoke with great earnestness in Amos 6:1, but the congregation remained cold and unresponsive. In a church meeting after the service, Jones publicly rebuked the elders of the church,
"The preacher complained rather bitterly of the frigidity of the religious atmosphere, and turning to the elders, said, 'Not one of you helped me with so much as an "Amen".' One of them...rose and replied, 'It is very difficult for a man, when the ministry condemns him, to cry "Amen" with it.' Overcome by sudden feeling, the old man burst into tears, and fell into his seat as if in a swoon. he was a man of undoubted piety, and unfailing faithfulness in all departments of Christian work; and when he was heard acknowledging his guilt in the face of the sermon, the entire church was struck by an overwhelming wave of emotion, and, as if by a simultaneous impulse, every face was bowed low and bathed in tears." (p. 53).

David Morgan preached on the following Monday, but his ministry still lacked power. On the Tuesday night however, something strange and remarkable happened to him. As the preacher’s son explains,
"He retired to his rest as his usual time on Tuesday evening, and slept for some hours. He awoke about 4 a.m., and was instantly conscious that some strange, mysterious change had come over him. He became aware with awe of a marvellous illumination of his faculties, especially of his memory. 'I awoke about four in the morning.' said he himself, 'remembering everything of a religious nature that I had ever learnt or heard'." ( p. 54).
Congregations soon became aware that Morgan's ministry was attended with fresh power. In his intercessory prayers he seemed to be able to remember the names of hundreds of people and recall the details of their spiritual condition. Which absent-minded preacher would not wish for such a gift? He began to co-operate closely with Humphrey Jones and they held preaching meetings together. Churches were stirred and challenged, and sinners saved as they proclaimed the Word of God with power and convicion. There was now a real expectation that the Lord was about to do greater things. In once service in late November 1859 David Morgan cried out in prayer,
"We thank Thee, O Lord, that there are indications of a rising cloud. It is but a little one, like a man's hand, but it is a cloud and it arises from the sea. Let the whole sky grow black! Let the whole sky grow black! LET THE WHOLE SKY GROW BLACK!" (p. 58).

By the end of December 1858, Morgan was already exercising a powerful awakening ministry. Let me give you two instances of this, one concerning his personal work and another of his preaching at that time. He urged an old stone-breaker to accompany him to a prayer meeting. The man refused his invitation, complaining that he would loose sixpence in pay if he had an hour off work. Morgan offered to give him a sixpenny bit if he came with him. The worker angrily rejected this offer saying, "I don't want your sixpence or your service". At this, the preacher insisted on praying for the old man. "You have a soul worth more than the world, in danger of eternal death." said Morgan before dropping to his knees and praying that God would melt the heart of the sin-hardened rebel. "Stop! Stop!" said the old man, grasping Morgan by the arm, "I'll come with you." And so he did. The aged worker remained behind for an after-meeting. David Morgan asked him what he wanted to which he replied, "Mercy for my poor soul. I have grown too old for Victoria (he was a discharged old soldier), but perhaps Jesus Christ will enrol me in His army and succor my poor soul."
On 23rd December, Morgan ministered at Pen-llwyn and his preaching had a marked prophetic quality,
"In the middle of his sermon he startled his audience by suddenly exclaiming, 'If any of you tonight deny the deity of the Son, I have nothing better to tell you than what Morgan Howell, Newport, shouted on Lampeter bridge, "Though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor. He became poor when He came to Bethlehem; tell me, when was He rich?"' This remark was utterly irrelevant to the preacher's subjects matter, and no one could conjecture whence it came, and wither it went. Thy mystery was solved in the after-meeting, for among the converts were three Unitarians...whose presence in the service was quite accidental, and certainly unknown to the preacher." (p. 62-63).

Daivd Morgan preached at Devil’s Bridge on New Year’s Day, 1859 (the dramatic waterfall at Devil's Bridge is featured at the top of the post). A veteran minister described the event,
"The evening service was terrible. So near was the revivalist to his God that none could gaze steadfastly at him. Many of the hearers swooned. On the way home I dared not break the silence for miles. Towards midnight I ventured to say, 'Didn't we have blessed meetings, Mr. Morgan?' 'Yes.' he replied; and after a pause, added, 'The Lord would give us great things if He could only trust us'. 'What do you mean?' I asked. 'If he could only trust us not to steal the glory for ourselves.' Then the midnight air rang with his cry, at the top of his voice, 'Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto Thy name give glory'." (p 69-70).
So these were the men God used to light the fires of the 1859 revival in Wales. Humphrey Jones and David Morgan were mighty in prayer, powerful in preaching and jealous for God's glory. May the Lord raise up men of like calibre to awaken the churches in our day.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Christ and Culture Revisited by D. A. Carson

Christ and Culture Revisited by D. A. Carson,
IVP/Apollos, 2008, 243pp
How should Christians view their relationship to culture? The classic response was formulated by Richard Niebuhr in his still influential Christ and Culture, 1951. He suggested five possible ways of modelling the interface between Christ and culture, 1) Christ against Culture. This position set Christ in opposition to culture, emphasising the falseness of the world and the need for believers to adopt a hostile stance to to the values and achievements of society. This is the Fundamentalists' preferred model. 2) The Christ of Culture suggests an altogether more cosy relationship between Christ and culture. The culture is seen as an expression of the imminent presence of Christ in all men. Gnostics and theological liberals tend towards this viewpoint. However, the uniqueness of Christ as set forth is biblical revelation is often compromised and the seriousness of sin minimised. 3) Christ above Culture acknowledges the uniqueness of Christ, but attempts a synthesis between Christ and the culture as seen in the theology of Thomas Aquinas. He sought to integrate philosophy and theology, law and gospel into one grand system. Aquinas provided the intellectual underpinnings for medieval Christendom, where Christ and culture were unified (at least in theory). As has been pointed out, option three runs the risk of institutionalising the gospel, and conflating the Kingdom of God with the prevailing culture. Lutherans have proposed a more dualistic model: 4) Christ and Culture in Paradox. Luther knew full well that all human culture has been corrupted by sin. But he was also aware that this is God's world in Christians which have been called to live for his glory. The believer simply has to cope with the tensions of this situation, which will remain unresolved until the consummation. This paradoxical stance has led to cultural conservatism amongst some Lutherans. Evils such as slavery or the rise of National Socialism have been viewed as symptoms of the unavoidable tension that exists between Christ and the kingdom of this world, and left unchallenged. Then we come to 5) Christ the Transformer of Culture. According to Niebur, this option is in keeping with certain strands of biblical teaching and is the preferred option of Augustine and the Reformers. However, at least as Niebur understands it, this model tends towards the universal transformation of culture by the power of Christ. The problem is that in this construction, the distinction between the church as the people of God, and the world that lies under his judgement has been eroded. Yes, Christians may and should have a transformative effect upon a society, but there will be no total cultural renewal this side of the new creation.
Carson criticises Niebuhr's "five model" approach on a number of grounds. Apart from option 2, all of his models have some basis in Scripture. They are not to be set against each other as competing options. That way lies reductionism. Also, some of his models may be more applicable than others in certain cultural situations. The Bible has a positive view of the state and its powers (Romans 13), but Scripture also knows that the state can become an agent of demonic oppression (Revelations 13). Believers in the West will be aware of the many paradoxes that exist between Christ and culture. But we are also in a position to try and effect cultural change through the democratic process. For Christians living under radical Islamic regimes, where persecution is rife and cultural transformation seems pretty unlikely, option 1 provides the most relevant model. Bearing all this in mind, we are not entitled to elevate any single one of Niebuhr's models as the only option that is open to Christians in every given situation.
What then does Carson propose in place of Niebur? He suggests that we should view the Christ/culture relationship in the light of the great turning points of redemptive history namely, Creation and the Fall, Israel and the Law, Christ and the New Covenant, and A Heaven to Be Gained and a Hell to Be Feared. God created this word and declared it very good. Human beings are God's image bearers with a responsibility to govern and care for the created environment. But we sinned against God and brought suffering and death into the world. The essence of sin is idolatry, the attempt to de-god God and put man in his place. We deserve nothing but his judgement and wrath. But God did not abandon this fallen, rebellious world. He still upholds all things and showers the human race with his good gifts. This means that while all human cultures are deeply affected by sin, they are not altogether devoid of good things as a result of God's common grace. But beyond "common grace" God has chosen to bring the blessing of saving grace to the nations. He entered into a covenant relationship with Abraham and his descendants, the children of Israel. Israel was constituted as theocratic nation subject to God's law.
The promise of the Abrahamic covenant was ultimately fulfilled in the coming of Christ, the incarnate Word of God. By his, life, death and resurrection, Christ has inaugurated the kingdom of God. Unlike Israel, the church is not a theocratic nation. The church comprises the people of God who have been gathered out of all nations. This poses a question for the relationship between the Christian and the state. How should followers of King Jesus relate to the powers that be? Jesus himself addressed this issue saying that we must, "Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's" (Matthew 22:21). Caesar's power is not ultimate. He cannot take the place of God. But the state has been ordained by God to keep law and order in society and Christians must respect this fact (Romans 13:1-7). While we aught to be good citizens and work for the benefit of society, we know that there will be no earthly utopia this side of the consummation. We have to live with the tensions characteristic of the last days where the kingdom of God has come but has not yet been fully realised. Jesus' kingly rule will be contested until he returns and only then will every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord.
Carson argues that viewing the Christ/culture relationship from the standpoint of the key stages of biblical theology will give us a robust and adaptable way of handling the subject. His approach is rooted in the non-negotiables of Scripture and is flexible enough to be applied to a whole range of cultural situations. While Niebuhr's models may be of some value, no single one of them may be accorded canonical authority and some are only of use in particular cultural settings.
In the remainder of the book Carson uses his redemptive historical grid to reflect on a whole range of issues. Refining Culture and Redefining Postmodernism are discussed in chapter 3. Secularism, Democracy, Freedom and Power are given the Carson treatment in chapter 4. The relationship between Church and State is further probed in chapter 5, before the book concludes with a summarising chapter On Disputed Agendas, Frustrated Utopias and Ongoing Tensions. Carson writes on all these subjects with great insight and understanding. He mainly has the American situation in mind, but is also aware of what is happening in the UK, Europe and the developing world. He challenges the hardline secularist vision of culture, found all too often in the West which attempts to push the Christian faith to the sidelines of society. With this in mind, Carson attempts to set out a scriptural account of the relationship between church and state. The distinction between church and state in the New Testament suggests that the church should not be established as the religious arm of the state (the Church of England should therefore be disestablished - see here). But this does not mean that the Christian faith has no role in the public square. Jesus Christ is Lord of all. While his Lordship may be contested, believers have been called to bear witness to Christ in every area of life.
In this book Carson helps us to think through the often difficult relationship between Christ, his followers and culture. He makes a helpful distinction between the task of the church in fulfilling the Great Commission and the role of the individual believer who may engage with the culture on a whole range of levels including politics, the arts and social reform. Ever the careful scholar, Carson interacts critically with a wide range of authors from Augustine to Hauerwas and Derrida to Kuyper. His proposals avoid the extremes of Fundamentalist rejection and Liberal accommodation. We must endeavour be faithful to the Lord Jesus and "seek the good of the city" until he comes to make all things new. Carson doesn't tell us whether we should like Coldplay or Chopin, though. I suppose we'll have to work that one out for ourselves.

Monday, March 02, 2009

John Blanchard: Has science got rid of God?

An Evening with John Blanchard:
"Has science got rid of God?"
Saturday 21st March, 6pm,
West Lavington Village Hall,
Sandfield, West Lavington, Wiltshire
More details and directions here.
Many people seem to assume that modern science has got rid of God. Or at least got rid of the need to believe in a divine being. We now understand so much about the world that we don't need to invoke him as an explanation for the universe. This view has especially taken hold since the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species 150 years ago. But has science really got rid of God? If you are interested in this issue whether as a believer or a non-believer then you might like to know of a special event later this month. John Blanchard, an international speaker and bestselling author has been booked to speak at West Lavington Village Hall on the question "Has science got rid of God?"

While the likes of Richard Dawkins might claim that it has, there might be another side to the story. The Bible begins with the grand assertion, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth". The fact that the universe exists, and that we are here to wonder at the meaning of it all is due to God's creative power. Time plus random forces do not provide an adequate explanation for the origin of the universe, and the teeming diversity of life on earth. But God is more than a convenient explanation for life, the universe and everything. We can have a personal relationship with him as Father through the Lord Jesus Christ who came into the world to bring us back to God.

Do the heavens declare God's glory or do we live in randomly created world that is without purpose and hope? If you are up for the challenge of thinking about this fascinating question then clear your diary for this event.
Book table
Light refreshments