Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Great Evangelical Identity Crisis

The very idea of what it means to be an Evangelical has been subject to revision and redefinition in the last couple of decades. In 1989 D. W. Bebbington published his seminal Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: a history from the 1730’s to the 1980’s (Unwin Hayman). I read it while studying for the ministry at the London Theological Seminary (1988-90). The historian acknowledged Evangelicalism had its origins in the Reformation and Puritan movements of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But, he argued, Evangelicalism as such was largely a new, distinctly eighteenth century phenomenon, shaped by various spiritual and social factors peculiar to that time. Bebbington proposed four defining characteristics of Evangelical religion,

conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regards for the Bible; and what might be called crucicentrsim, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism. (p. 3).
Bebbington’s “quadrilateral” is often taken as a starting point for the discussion of Evangelical identity. But while few would wish to deny that his four characteristics are indeed hallmarks of Evangelical Christianity, they are not fit for purpose when it comes to defining Evangelicalism. Part of the problem is that Bebbington has minimized the extent to which Evangelicalism was indebted to the theological heritage of the Reformation and Puritan periods. Chris Sinksinson attempts to redress the balance,

If we take the Reformation as our starting point then evangelicalism is born out of a theological rediscovery. Of course there is a breadth to the Reformation but the breadth is held together by a shift in the location of authority from church councils and traditions to the Bible. Ultimately, to be evangelical is to be biblical in our approach to the knowledge of God and life.

As a movement stemming from the Reformation, evangelicalism is essentially creedal. Not only that, there are clear doctrinal commitments that make up the creed. (Table Talk, Issue 14. Summer 2005, Published by Affinity)
The trouble is that if we make eighteenth century Evangelicalism definitive for the movement as it developed from that point, then we suffer an instant loss of theological coherence. Eighteenth century Evangelicalism was divided between Calvinists like George Whitefield and Daniel Rowlands and the Arminian Wesley brothers. From the standpoint of Reformation theology, Arminianism was an aberration, condemned at the Synod of Dort in 1618. But, according to Bebbington, if Calvinists and Arminians shared his four-fold identity markers, then both groupings were to be regarded as equally Evangelical.

I am not casting doubt on whether the Wesley brothers and their followers preached the gospel. They most certainly did, at least in a truncated form. But I am arguing that it is a mistake to make eighteenth century Evangelicalism the defining period for the subsequent Evangelical movement. The redefinition of Evangelicalism along such lines is a recipe for theological confusion and anarchy.

Evangelicalism in its best and most consistent form is an expression of the Reformed faith. And it is worth stressing that the Reformers had no wish to reject the theological heritage of the church and start again from scratch. They saw themselves as defenders of the Catholic tradition that had been corrupted by the Roman Catholic Church of their day. The Reformers held to the ancient Trinitarian creeds and the teachings of the church fathers, especially Augustine, with his emphasis on the sovereignty of grace. Of course, they taught that the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture is the supreme authority, but they were Catholic in outlook, holding to the faith confessed by the church throughout the ages.

Contrary to Bebbington and other recent revisionists, Evangelicalism is not the theologically amorphous product of the Evangelical Revival of eighteenth century. Properly understood and defined, it is biblical Christianity, Catholic and Reformed; the faith once delivered to the saints in contemporary expression. Bebbington’s widely adopted definition of Evangelicalism weakens the confessional integrity of the Evangelical movement. Evangelicalism needs the rich resources of biblically faithful Reformed theology if it is to respond to the challenges of the present hour.

* An excerpt from an article written by me for The Gospel Truth, edited by Mike Grimshaw entitled The Great Evangelical Identity Crisis 1980-2010.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

PTS Preachers Conference

This year's PTS Preachers Conference is to be held on Saturday 16th October at Ebenezer, Old Hill, Cradley Heath in the West Midlands. The subjects and speakers planned are:

Preaching and the Scottish Reformation (David Carmichael)
Preaching to the saints (Guy Davies)
Preaching to the sinners (Andrew Davies)
Conference Sermon (Jeremy Brooks)

The conference runs from 9:30am to 4:30pm, and the fee of £20 includes a fish and chip lunch. To book, or for more information visit the PTS website, here.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Remythologizing Theology by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Review Part 3)

The Triune God whose being is in his communicating

Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion and Authorship
by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Cambridge University Press, 2010, 539pp
(Review series Part 3)

So, Vanhoozer finds classical theism insufficiently attuned to biblical revelation and charges open panentheism with failing to do justice to the sovereign transcendence of the Creator (see Part 2). What does he propose in place of these two visions of God? His remythologizing project attempts articulate the metaphysics that are implicit in the biblical mythos (dramatic plot). What we say of God’s being and identity must be subject to his theodramatic action as revealed in Holy Scripture. In other words, first theology or the study of God is an exercise in biblical reasoning.

Vanhoozer sketches out what he calls a “post-Barthian Thomism”. He recognizes Karl Barth as a fellow remythologizer. According to Barth, God’s being is in his act, and God’s being in act is expressed in the event of Jesus Christ. God speaks in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word. But we are not to regard Scripture as divine speech. The Bible bears witness to God’s self-revelation in Christ, but it would be a contravention of the divine freedom to tie his speech to the words of Scripture. This is where Vanhoozer differs from Barth. He agrees that Jesus Christ is the full and final revelation of God and that the incarnate Word is the apogee of divine speech. But he protests that the incarnation only makes sense in the context of Yahweh’s speech to Israel in the Law and the Prophets,

God’s speech in Jesus Christ may be definitive, but it presupposes prior divine communicative action. The God whose nature is displayed in the history of Jesus Christ is the same as the God who declares his nature by his name in Exodus 3:14 and 34:6-7, merciful, gracious and steadfast love. (p. 215).
Remythologized theology pays careful attention to the self-revelation of God in Holy Scripture. It is the One who at various times and in various ways spoke to the fathers by the prophets, who has in these last days spoken to us by his Son (Hebrews 1:1-2).

By “post-Barthian Thomism” Vanhoozer has in mind Aquinas’s insight that being is not a static substance, but a dynamic act. Hence, God’s being is in his communicative act. He is the God who acts by speaking to create and sustain the universe and bring his human creatures into fellowship with himself. Human beings as created in the image of God are uniquely capable of having communicative relationship with their Maker. This relationship, disrupted by sin, is  restored by the redeeming work of Jesus, the Word made flesh. Vanhoozer hopes that this vision of “communicative theism affords new resources for understanding participation in Christ (union) and the life of the triune God (communion)”. (p. 240).

God’s being is in his communicating not simply in the relation he sustains to his creatures. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are communicative agents in the imminent Trinity, enjoying a blessed communion of life, light and love. In the economic Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit act to savingly communicate life, light and love to a world that lies under judgement in death, darkness and hatred. The Father sent his Son to save lost human beings from condemnation by his atoning death and resurrection. The Spirit communicates the truth and life of Jesus to the people of God.

God is love, and the redemptive love of the Father, displayed in the cross of Christ, is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. However, contrary to "Rahner’s rule", we cannot say that “the economic Trinity is the imminent Trinity”, reducing God’s being to what he does in history. Rather, as Vanhoozer puts it, “the economic Trinity communicates the imminent Trinity”. (p. 294).  The focus of drama of redemption is the communicative action of God, where the Father brings sinful human beings into union with Christ and communion with himself by the power of the Spirit.

Vanhoozer is to be commended for his attempt to make biblical revelation definitive for developing a metaphysical account of the identity, being, and ways of God. In doing so, he has avoided the pitfalls of open theism, which fails to do justice to the Creator/creature distinction, and “perfect being theology” that gives too much weight to human ideas about God at the expense of scriptural reasoning. A distinctly Christian metaphysics is a work of faith seeking understanding of the Triune God whose being in communicative act is revealed in the mythos of the biblical theodrama.

The theologian's thoroughgoing trinitarianism is  most welcome. In many works on the doctrine of God, consideration of the doctrine of the Trinity is tacked onto the end, almost as an afterthought. For example, in John M. Frame’s massive 864 page, The Doctrine of God, (P&R, 2002), discussion of the Trinity is reserved until the sixth and final part of the book, following extensive coverage of the being, attributes and lordship of God. Not so Vanhoozer, where his communicative theism is explicitly trinitarian from beginning to end.

In the next post in this review series I hope to give attention Vahoozer's attempt to probe the relationship between the commutative sovereignty of the Triune God and human freedom.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Giving is Good

The venal Gordon Gekko of Wall Street infamously quipped that “greed is good”. Our acquisitive society agrees. Covetousness makes the world go round. Advertising plays on our desire to accumulate more and more stuff, whether we need it or not. Towards the end of his acute analysis of our current financial woes in his book, Who Runs Britain?, Robert Peston makes an astonishing statement worthy of Gekko himself, "It may not be pretty but, on the whole, greed is good". However, the credit crunch was in part caused by the covetousness of city slickers who took huge risks for quick, easy and lucrative returns.

The problem with greed is that it fails to recognise that material things such as food, clothing and housing are not ours by right. They are God's gifts to us. When we see material goods as gifts rather than simply possessions, the appropriate response is gratitude rather than greed. With Job we will learn to accept without resentment that what the Lord gives, he can also take away, Job 1:21.

Regarding our material wealth as a gift will also enable us to defy the impulse towards greed by prompting us to share with others what the Lord has graciously given to us. For Christians the watchword is not, "greed is good", but "It is more blessed to give than to receive." (Acts 20:35). In other words, "Giving is good".

At this time of year many churches hold Harvest Services, an opportunity to give thanks to God and share what he has given to us with others. Yesterday Sarah and I delivered some Harvest leaflets around the delightful village of Great Cheverell, near West Lavington, Wiltshire. Delivering leaflets in a rural setting is a great way of keeping fit, enjoying the countryside, and spreading the gospel at the same time. On Friday evening I'll be off to Newhouse Baptist Church in Devon to speak at at Harvest Supper. See here for our Harvest celebrations.  Harvest Time is a good opportunity remembering that,

All good gifts around us
Are sent from heaven above;
Then thank the Lord,
O thank the Lord,
For all his love.

* An edited version of his post was written for October's  News & Views, West Lavington parish magazine.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Some thoughts on the Papal visit

Everyone agreed that old Ratzy lacks the film star charisma of the last Pope to visit this green and pleasant land, John Paul II. Everyone agreed that the Pope's tour of the UK would be overshadowed by the child abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. Everyone apart from Chris Patten, the Roman Catholic grandee charged with organising the event, agreed that the papal visit would therefore be something of a damp squib. Now, however, everyone seems to agree that the state visit of Benedict XVI was a rip roaring success. It turns out that the famously combative German Shepherd has a nice smile. He kisses babies. He is sorry for Rome's failure to protect children from predatory priests. He is given the ultimate political accolade, as David Cameron tries to enlist "His Holiness" as a spokesman for the Big Society. According to The Times, "The Government with Opposition MPs and Catholic and Anglican bishops is expected to spend the next few days working out how to capitalise on what is being described as 'the Benedict bounce'."

Of course, not everybody was quite so impressed. Richard Dawkins, who is rapidly becoming the unacceptable face of atheism denounced the Pope for his being leader of "the world's second most evil religion." No doubt disturbed by seeing the papal insignia fluttering in the breeze above Westminster Abbey, some Protestants demonstrators greeted Ratzinger's arrival at the Abbey with cries of "Antichrist, Antichrist!"  Ah, well, you can't please everybody.

Now, I am theologically predisposed to disagree with a man who claims, "full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered." Such power belongs to Jesus Christ alone. But even I have to admit that Benedict's central message to civic society was bang on. Repeatedly he warned of the danger of rampant secularism being allowed to squeeze faith-based values from the public square. It seems that politicians are getting the point, with David Cameron saying, "For many faith is a spur to action. It shapes their beliefs and behaviour, and gives them a sense of purpose. Crucially, it is their faith that inspires them to help others. And we should celebrate that. Faith is part of the fabric of our country, It always has been and always will be." The Prime Minister "doing God", my, how things have changed.

But let's not get too carried away by all this. It will take more than the Pope's visit to revitalise the Christian faith in our country. Indeed, some aspects of the visit serve as a reminder of the fact that many of the dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church are far from the teaching of the New Testament. The very idea of a Pope exercising unlimited power over the whole church has no foundation in Holy Scripture. The Roman Catholic Church attributes the titles "Holy Father, and "Vicar of Christ" to the Pope. Evangelical Protestants agree with Rome on the doctrine of the Trinity as set out by the early church councils. But speaking of the Pope in the language just mentioned dishonours the blessed Trinity. The church has only  one Holy Father, that is God the Father (John 17:11). The true ‘vicar of Christ’ is the Holy Spirit,  who has come to earth in the place of Jesus, (John 16:7, 13-14). The Spirit of Christ dwells in the heart of every believer. The Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures is our ultimate authority. We need no infallible Pope to guide the church.

The high ceremony associated with the "beatification" of John Henry Newman is a far cry from the Bible, where all believers are called saints simply by virtue of their being set apart to God as holy through union with Christ, Romans 1:7.

The Masses at which Benedict officiated were a travesty of the Lord's Supper as instituted by Jesus. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the Lord's Supper is a re-offering of the sacrifice of Christ and that the bread and wine are actually changed into the body and blood of the Saviour. This only became official church teaching in 1215 at the Second Lateral Council. The "elevation of the host" at the Mass, where the faithful adore the "transubstantiated" bread borders on idolatry. With the early church fathers and the Reformers we believe that according to Scripture the Lord's Supper is a fellowship meal that is to be kept by believers in remembrance of the finished work of Christ. The bread and wine are symbols to believers of Christ's body and blood. At the Lord's Supper we enjoy communion with the risen Christ, who is present at the Table by his Spirit. The Protestant martyrs of the English Reformation were consigned to cruel flames precisely because of their denial of the Roman doctrine of the Mass.

While we might applaud  Benedict's penetrating critique of of atheistic secularism and welcome his clear stand against the culture of death, Rome isn't the answer to the spiritual problems of modern Britain. With its many unbiblical teachings it is part of the problem. Evangelicals may act as "co-belligerents" with Roman Catholics on issues like abortion and euthanasia, speaking out for faith-based values in public life. But we also must be clear on the serious theological differences between Rome and genuinely biblical Christianity. Above all, what we need is not "Benedict's bounce", but a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon gospel preaching churches to enable us to proclaim the word of God with boldness and power. It is not enough for us to simply denounce the errors of Rome. We need to search our own hearts, return to the Lord and cry out to him that he will revive his work again in our land.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Jeremy Brooks responds to press coverage of PTS Papal Protest

Saturday's Daily Mail included this report of the Protestant Truth Society's Papal Protest in  London on Friday afternoon,
When the Pope later arrived at Westminster Abbey, a mob of 500 Evangelical Protestants accused him of being the ‘anti-Christ’. They outnumbered and out-shouted the secular protesters whose views have dominated BBC reports. The demonstrators, from the group the Protestant Truth Society, screamed ‘Heretic’ and ‘Nazi’.
In response, Jeremy Brooks, PTS Director of Ministries has written this letter to the paper,

Dear Sir

In your weekend coverage of the Pope's visit to Britain, you published a small piece entitled Abuse victims and evangelical Protestants join in the catcalls, which reported that, "The demonstrators, from the group the Protestant Truth Society, screamed: 'Heretic' and 'Nazi'." As one of the leaders of the PTS protest, I would like to say that I never heard anyone in our group use either of those terms, and that had I done so, then I would have intervened immediately to stop them. The purpose of our peaceful protest was not to insult either the Pope or his Roman Catholic followers, but rather to highlight his false claims to be the head of the church on earth, the sovereign over the nations of the world, and that Rome's gospel is the biblical one. Biblical Protestants believe that Christ alone is both Head of the church and Sovereign over the nations, and that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in the finished work of Jesus Christ alone.

Yours faithfully

Rev. Jeremy Brooks, Protestant Truth Society

Friday, September 17, 2010

Protest Song

PTS Papal Protest

I'm writing this post in Starbucks, Paddington Station, in between munching on a tasty panini and slurping a nice big cup of cappucino. It's busy and the hubhub of friendly chit chat fills the air. My train isn't due to leave for home for another 30 minutes or so. Sitting here watching the world go by, it seems a million miles away from this afternoon's Papal Protest outside Westminster Abbey.

Quite a crowd gathered to cheer or jeer the pope on his arrival. Banners were unfurled and biblical texts placarded. Some chanted, 'We love the pope!', others shouted, 'Antichrist, Antchrist!'.

Me, I had several good conversations with members of the crowd and handed out some gospel literature. It was good to have fellowship with other members of the PTS. Stephen Holland interviewed me for one of his YouTube films. Jeremy Brooks, our Director of Ministries was interviewed by BBC News.

I hope that the protest was an effective witness for the gospel. A friend texted me to say that our singing sounded good on TV, so that's something.

Papal Protest

Later today I'll be heading off to London to take part in a protest against the state visit of Pope Benedict XVI. The event has been organised by the Protestant Truth Society, which exists to assist Christians and churches to stand for biblical truth in all its glory and against error in all its forms. It will be a peaceful protest. We have no wish to disrupt the Papal visit. We respect the freedom of Roman Catholics to follow their faith in this land. If they want to gather to meet the pope as he travels around the UK, that’s fine. On some matters we agree with him. For example, he is right to warn against an aggressively secular outlook that has little room for faith-based values in society. We admire Rome's strong stance on abortion, euthanasia and the unique value of heterosexual marriage.

The purpose of our protest is to bear witness to some important biblical truths that we believe are undermined by certain Roman Catholic teachings.

Doctrinal differences

Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics share a commitment to some essential Christian truths such as the doctrine of the Trinity and that Jesus is the Son of God who became man to save us from sin. But serious differences still exist.

1. Who is the head of the Church?

According to the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church,
The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter's successor, "is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful. For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.(Para. 882)
We disagree with that claim. According to Scripture Christ is the sole head of the church He alone has supreme and unhindered power over the people of God, Ephesians 1:22-23. Matthew 28:18-20.

2. Who has authority over the Church?

Is it Bible plus the Pope making infallible pronouncements as Rome says, or is it  solely the Holy Spirit  speaking in the Scriptures?

3. What happens at the Lord’s Supper?

At the heart of Roman faith and worship is the Mass. Rome teaches that the bread and wine at the Lord's Table are "transubstantiated" into the body and blood of Christ. At the Mass the priest re-offers the sacrifice of Christ. We believe that the Lord's Supper is a fellowship meal where the people of God eat bread and drink wine as symbols of the incarnation and sacrificial death of Christ. We feed upon Christ by faith as he is present among his people by the power of the Holy Spirit. There is no need to re-offer Christ's sacrifice as he atoned for sin once and for all at Calvary.

4. How may be come into the presence of God?

According to Rome the faithful may enter the presence of God through intermediaries such as the Pope, priests, Mary and the saints. We believe that Jesus Christ is the sole mediator between God and men, 1 Timothy 2:5. Only by his obedience, blood and intercession may we draw near to the Father by the presence of the Spirit.

We think that it is worth bearing witness to these biblical truths that are undermined by Roman Catholic teaching.


 The pope's visit also has political implications. In the past popes exercised huge political power in Europe and beyond. Famously it was the pope who refused to allow Henry VIII to divorce Catherine of Aragon, which led to Henry’s breech with Rome. Even today the pope wields political power as head of the Vatican City State. The Vatican has diplomatic relations with 178 countries and has a permanent diplomatic mission to the EU. We think that this is problematic, because the church was founded not to wield political power, but to preach the good news of Jesus to the world and nurture the followers of Christ. Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world”.

When Pope John Paul II visited the UK in 1982 he came simply to encourage the Catholic faithful. But Pope Benedict XVI is here on a formal state visit. This throws up all kinds of constitutional issues for our Protestant nation. At her Coronation Oath Her Majesty the Queen swore to uphold,

the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel… [and] maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law
But only recently the pope was making overtures to disaffected Church of England clergymen, tempting them to convert to Rome over the issue of women bishops, much to the annoyance of the Archbishop of Canterbury. That puts the Queen as supreme governor of the Church of England in a very difficult position.

The reason why the monarch cannot be a Roman Catholic is not a matter of religious discrimination. It is to save the UK’s head of state from a conflict of interest. Our sovereign should not be subject to the authority of another head of state, namely the pope.

We hope to highlight these issues by holding a peaceful protest this afternoon at The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Broad Sanctuary, Westminster, see here.

I discussed the Papal Visit with Matthew Smith on the this morning's BBC Radio Wiltshire breakfast programme. You might be able to catch the interview on BBC iPlayer, when it becomes available, here. It was broadcast around 7.45am, approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes into the programme.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Rubicon by Tom Holland

Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic,
Tom Holland, Abacus, 2003, 430pp

Reading John Owen's A Vindication of the Animadversions on Fiat Lux, the second part of his dialogue with Fransician Friar, John Vincent Cane, I came across a reference to an episode in the history of the Roman Republic. Owen is critiquing the worship of images in the Roman Catholic Church and he tells of the time when Clodius banished Cicero, vengefully demolished his mansion and set up an image of the goddess Liberty in its place. When Cicero returned from exile he removed the temple dedicated to the goddess and set about rebuilding his home. He justified this sacrilegious act by saying that the image of Liberty was based on an infamous Tangerian whore. According to Owen, the Roman orator also made mention of a painter whose picture of Venus and her companions was based on "some strumpet or other that he kept company withal". For Owen, the lesson for image worshipping papists was plain,
And whether you have not been so imposed upon sometimes or no I very much question; in which case nothing but your imagination can free you from the worship of a prostitute when you aim your devotion another way. (Works of John Owen, Volume 14, p. 454.)
The thing is, that due to Tom Holland's Rubicon, Owen's allusion was not lost on me. I had just been reading about the banishment of Cicero and of what Cloduis did to his house. I'm not saying that the main reason for genning up on ancient Roman history is in order to get the learned John Owen's classical references, but it can't be a bad side effect. Owen was, as Carl Trueman points out a "Renaissance Man". His Oxford eduction aimed at "the cultivation of the idea of the general scholar, the man who had a good grounding in the whole field of human learning, and the cultivation of a deep love for the Classics... it is not surprising that Owen's works are replete with quotations from, and allusions to, classical authors." (John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man, Carl R. Trueman, Ashgate, 2007, p. 15).

For this summer's holiday reading I chose Marilynne Robertson's novel Gilead, which I hungrily devoured in the first week. Looking for something else to read, I popped into the Carmarthen branch of Waterstones. A couple of titles caught my eye, including Bill Bryson's biography of Shakespeare, but in the end I opted for Rubicon and I'm glad I did. It is a brilliantly written book that tells the gripping story of the rise and fall of the Roman Republic.

The Republic was a mass of contradictions. Romans believed themselves to be morally superior to other peoples, yet they were capable of brutal savagery and pitiless revenge, all for the glory of Rome. Many years after Carthage had ceased to be a threat the Republic and its empire, the city which launched Hannibal's elephants into battle was reduced to rubble. That'll teach 'em. Romans were proud of their republican constitution with its balance of powers, and yet the big beasts of the political world thought nothing of using scheming machinations, violence and intimidation to fulfil their quest for personal greatness.

The Republic's empire held sway over huge swathes of Europe, Asia and north Africa. To further extend the empire and subdue its sometimes restless subjects, Roman generals won bloody battles against improbable odds. Military conquest was often the road to political power. Holland vividly brings the mighty warriors of Rome to life. Sulla, Pompey and Julius Caesar arise once again to smite the Barbarian hordes and reap the political fruits of conquest. Here we  also are introduced to the menacingly manipulative Crassus, the bullying and unprincipled Cloduis, Cicero, the Republic's chief orator-politician and the incorruptible Cato, not to mention the doomed romance of Anthony and Cleopatra.

For all its ideals of constitutional propriety, the Republic was destined to fall victim to the competing egos of its power-crazed big players. The moment Julius Caesar led his legions across the Rubicon, and had them march on Rome, the days of the Republic were numbered. He emerged triumphant from the ensuing civil war and won the battle for Rome, but his glory was to be short lived. Famously, on the Ides of March he was assassinated by his rivals in a conspiracy led by Brutus and Cassius. It fell to Caesar's son, Octavian, or Caesar Augustus to put an end to hundreds of years if republican rule, assuming the powers, if not the title of a king.

It was during the time of Caesar Augustus that another King was born in the Judean backwater of Bethlehem. The event would not have registered in the seat of Roman power. But his Kingdom would smash the mighty empires of this world to nothing. He would conquer the nations not by political cunning or brute force, but by redeeming a people by his blood out of every tribe, tongue and nation. And his name is Jesus, the Prince of Peace, Isaiah 9:6-7, Daniel 2:44-45.

Pride of man and earthly glory,
Sword and crown betray his trust;
What with care and toil he buildeth,
Tower and temple, fall to dust,
But God’s power,
Hour by hour,
Is my temple and my tower.
(Robert Bridges, 1844-1930)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Remythologizing Theology by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Review Part 2)

Panentheism, or God (not) Transcendent

Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion and Authorship
by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Cambridge University Press, 2010, 539pp
(Review series Part 2)

Vanhoozer does not reject classical theism out of hand. He wishes to retool the tradition to make it more attentive to the biblical theodrama. But there are some contemporary understandings of God that he finds altogether more problematic. He gives a thoughtful critique of open theism, or “open panentheism” as he calls it. Panentheism attempts to offer a more personal account of God’s relationship to the world, but it robs God of his sovereign lordship and fails to do justice to the Creator/creature distinction. Also, in the thinking of panentheists such as Jurgren Moltmann, the imminent Trinity (God as he is in himself) is collapsed into the economic Trinity (God as he is for us).

In classic orthodox theology, perichoresis denotes the mutual indwelling of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the godhead. Moltmann makes perichoresis a model of how God relates to the world in a state of mutual action and interaction. The self-emptying of Christ at the incarnation, where the divine Son took a human nature becomes a model of God’s kenotic relationship with the world. Accordingly, creation entailed an act of divine self-emptying in which God limited his infinite knowledge and power in order to make space for the autonomy of the creature. God’s very being is determined by his relationship to the world. His love for the world made him vulnerable to suffering when human beings rejected a lovingly reciprocal relationship with their Maker.

As Vanhoozer points out, panentheism surrenders the transcendence of God and places illegitimate limits on his sovereign freedom. Neither perichoresis or kenosis may be used as models of how God relates to the world in general terms. The former is unique to the imminent Trinity and the latter is unique to the incarnation of Christ. God is the transcendent Lord, totally sovereign in all his works and ways. God's love for the world cannot be depicted in reciprocal, perichoretic language. Such a construction forgets that God is independent of his creatures and that he loves this fallen world in self-giving freedom. His is a love that effects salvation and consummates communion, rather than a love that helplessly suffers rejection and disappointment. In so far as human beings share in the perichoretic fellowship of the Trinity, they do so, not simply as creatures, but as saved sinners, (John 14:10, 20-21). The biblical idea of kenosis (Philippians 2:5-8) is a singularity that belongs solely to the incarnation of the Son, who took a human nature to save the world from sin and death. Kenosis cannot be broadened out and used as a key to understanding God’s relationship to his creation as an act of divine self-emptying.

Ironically, in reducing God to his relationship to the world in the name of a more personalist account of Creator/creature engagement, panentheism has succeeded in compromising the divine personhood. Persons cannot be reduced to their relationships with others. Relationships do not constitute persons, rather persons have relationships. God's personhood is not constituted by his relationship to the creation. His triune personhood existed and found its full expression in the perichoretic communion between Father, Son and Holy Spirit before ever the world was made.

The panentheism found in writers such as Moltmann is haunted by Feurbach’s ghost. Panentheists have re-imagined God in terms better suited to the spirit of the age, with its profound dislike of authority and control. They have succeeded in making a god in their own image, stressing interdependence over transcendence and the autonomy of the creature over the sovereignty of God.

Vanhoozer has exposed some of the fundamental flaws in open theism and panentheism. At a time when such views of God are attracting support amongst Evangelicals (like Clark Pinnock and Steve Chalke), we should pay careful attention to his quietly devastating critique of kenotic-perichoretic relational theology.

The subject of Vanhoozer's remythologized theology is not the product of human projection, but divine self-revelation. He is the Lord God Almighty, one true and living God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The triune God whose being is in his communicating is the focus of the next section of this remarkable work.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Samuel van Hoogstraten’s perspective on art

On Saturday our children attended a Youth Conference at Grace Church, Westerleigh. While they were there Sarah and I visited Dyrham Park, a National Trust property which is not too far away from Westerleigh, making it handy for collecting the children at the end of the day. We had a lovely lunch and enjoyed a guided tour of the gardens before exploring the 17th century stately home. Its art collection includes a couple of paintings by the Dutch perspectivalist, Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-1678).

The artist, who honed his skills in Rembrandt's Amsterdam studio, hailed from Dortrecht. The town earned its place in theological history by hosting Synod of Dort in 1618. The Synod formulated the  so-called "Five Points of Calvinism" to rebut the five points of the Arminian Remonstrants. It seems that Samuel van Hoogstraten's approach to painting was influenced by Calvinistic thinking. In an essay on The Visible World. Samuel van Hoogstraten’s Art Theory and the Legitimation of Painting in the Seventeenth Century, Thijs Weststeijn writes,
Van Hoogstraten’s focus on the painter’s careful examination of the details of the visible world can be related to his Calvinist background, and to the formulation in the Dordrecht catechism that revelation takes place not only through scripture, but also through the ‘Book of Nature’. The notion that creation is God’s artwork, and that the painter in particular should pay attention to this, are commonplaces in the international tradition of art theory.
You can see a fine example of one of van Hoogstraten's works in the image at the top of this post (from a photograph taken inside Dyrham House). At first glance you may think that I have taken a shot of a room with an open door which leads to a long corridor. But look again (click on the image to enlarge). The passageway with the white tiled floor featuring black crosses, with a sweeping brush and small dog in the foreground, is in fact a perspectival painting hung in a doorway.

You can read the whole of Thijs Weststeijn's fascinating essay  on Samuel van Hoogstraten’s art theory here (PDF).

Friday, September 10, 2010

Remythologizing Theology by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Review Part 1)

What is Remythologizing Theology?
Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion and Authorship
by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Cambridge University Press, 2010, 539pp
(Review series Part 1)

To date most of Kevin Vanhoozer’s published theological work has been in the area of method. In his The Drama of Doctrine, (WJK, 2005), he proposed a “canonical linguistic approach to Christian theology”. Theology, he argued is not first and foremost about systematising the data of biblical revelation. The aim of theology is to enable the people of God to play their roles in the great drama of redemption. His focus was not simply on the words of Holy Scripture, but the communicative action of God who acts by speaking to accomplish his purposes in the world.

The present work sees Vanhoozer put his methodological proposals into practice in this full-length study on the doctrine of God. The book’s title immediately calls for explanation. What exactly does the author mean by, “Remythologizing Theology”? Bultmann endeavoured to demythologise the Bible. He regarded the supernatural and miraculous content of Scripture as mythological. Who, he asked, in the age of the electric light bulb, could believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, walked on water, or rose from the dead? The Bible had to be stripped of these "myths" in order to get to the core spiritual and ethical message of the Christian faith.

The trouble with Bultmann’s demythologising project was that he rejected the possibility that God intervenes in the phenomenal world of space and time. His actions take place in the noumenal world of the human consciousness. This Kantian depiction of God’s action robs revelation of its objective character and places the focus on subjective human awareness of the divine. The German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach took his one step further, arguing that god is simply the projection of human consciousness. The demythologising of theology is the high road to atheism.

By remythologizing Vanhoozer is not suggesting that we need to put the miraculous “myths” back into the Bible. What he has in mind in “remythologizing” is not “myth”, meaning a sacred story with little relation to the real world, but “mythos”, meaning “dramatic plot”. He offers this definition of remythologizing theology,

It is a way of viewing God, Scripture and hermeneutics in terms of their mutual implications, all coordinated by the notion of communicative action: the triune God is the ultimate communicative agent of Scripture; Scripture is an element in the triune God’s communicative action; interpretation is the way the church demonstrates her understanding of what God is saying and doing in and through Scripture by right theodramatic participation. (p. 30).
By remythologizing theology, Vanhoozer puts the accent on God's own self-projection, the communicative action of the triune God as revealed in the dramatic plot of biblical revelation. “Communicative action” are the key words here. The writer wishes to reconfigure God’s relationship to the world in terms of divine communicative action rather than the causal account of God’s interaction with the world favoured by classical theism.

Classical theism tends to view God as the supreme and perfect being and the metaphysical First Cause of the universe. For Vanhoozer, God’s being is in his communicative act. He is not so much the One to whom limitless perfection might be attributed by human beings, as the God of Abhraham, Isaac and Jacob, who is revealed in his word-acts as disclosed in Holy Scripture. He is better described as the Author rather than First Cause of creation. This emphasis on divine self-revelation safeguards theology from Feuerbach’s suggestion that God is the projection of human ideas of infinite perfection. In addition, in shifting the focus from God’s causal relation to the world to his communicative action, Vanhoozer hopes to provide a more deeply personal account of how God interacts with his human creatures.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Robert Letham on the 39 Articles, the Westminster Assembly and fish & chips

It is often assumed that the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England had little impact on the work of the Westminster Assembly. According to B. B. Warfield only "minute" traces of the Articles may be found in the Westminster Confession and its attendant catechetical literature. However, in his recent book, The Westminster Assembly: Reading its theology in historical context (P&R, 2009), Robert Letham challenges that view, detailing where the Westminster Confession was dependent upon material drawn from the Articles. His surprising conclusion is this,
The Thirty-Nine were a major source for the Assembly, if not the major source. The Assembly is solidly in line with the English Reformed tradition. If the Assembly documents are like a sumptuous cheesecake, the solid, crunchy crust is Cranmer. If we were to suppose them to be a succulent piece of deep-fried plaice, the chips, salt, and vinegar come from the earlier English Reformed tradition. (P. 81).
I think that is what is meant by 'food for thought'.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Penknap Providence Church 200th Anniversary report

In April 1810 George Phillips preached at an open air meeting. His text was Acts 16:14. He drew his listeners' attention to Lydia, whose heart the Lord opened to heed the message spoken by the apostle Paul. Many in the al fresco congregation were known to him, but the outdoor surroundings were something of a novelty. Phillips was no longer welcome in the pulpit of Westbury Leigh Baptist Church of which he was until recently the pastor. He was converted under the preaching of Charles Wesley and some in the congregation suspected him of having Arminian leanings. Not wishing to be a cause of strife among the people, the preacher resigned his charge.

That is why he found himself addressing an open air gathering one Sunday in April two centuries ago. This was to be the first of a series of outdoor meetings that led to the founding of Penknap Providence Church, Dilton Marsh, Wiltshire. By the October of 1810 a place of worship had been erected on Penknap field. The church was called 'Providence' as the open air meetings held prior to the building of the Chapel were not once hindered by rain.

The newly founded congregation consisted of only thirty members. By the end of Phillips' twenty three year ministry over 200 people had been baptised and added to the church. So much for the pastor's Arminian predilections, the new work was established as a Particular Baptist Church holding to the decidedly Calvinistic Second London Baptist Confession of 1689.

And so it was that two hundred years later almost one hundred people gathered at the Chapel on Saturday 4th September to praise God for blessings past and look forward to his blessing upon the work in the future. Geoff Thomas of Aberystwyth preached an encouraging message on Romans 15:13 (which you can listen to here). We were pleased to welcome friends from neighboring fellowships and local dignitaries including the Mayor of Westbury and Andrew Murrison, MP. A special booklet detailing the history of the church was made available.

Compared with the large congregations of old a relatively small number of believers now meet at the Chapel Sunday by Sunday to worship God. But we still hold to the faith of our fathers, and efforts are made to reach out to the community with the gospel.

Please pray for a fresh outpouring of the Spirit upon the work, so that we may see the Lord opening the hearts of many to give attention to his saving Word in these days.

Much has changed since the founding of our church, but Scripture assures us that 'Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever.' (Hebrews 13:8).

* An edited version of this report will appear in November's Evangelical Times.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Today's the day we mark the 200th Anniversary of Penknap Providence Church

Today we'll be celebrating the 200th anniversary of Penknap Providence Church with a special service at 4pm, preacher: Geoff Thomas. The other day Heather Skull of BBC Wiltshire called in at the Chapel to interview me for the occasion, see here.

Here's an excerpt from the 200th Anniversary booklet, describing how the Church was forged in the fires of contention and strife:

The Church was founded under the preaching of George Phillips. Mr Phillips, the son of a Devonshire farmer was converted under the preaching of Charles Wesley. Originally he was called to be the Pastor of Westbury Leigh Baptist Church, but resigned from his charge as some members of the congregation were suspicious of his Methodist background.

Phillips held a series of open air preaching meetings, beginning in April 1810 that led to the formation of the Church. By the October of that year, the Chapel had been built.

The Church was called 'Providence' because the open air services that led to the gathering of the Church were not once hindered by rain. 'Penknap' is the name of the field on which the Chapel was built.

The Penknap Providence Church was constituted as a Particular Baptist Church, holding to the Doctrines of Grace as set out in the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689.

The Lord greatly blessed the ministry of the founding Pastor of the Church. The work began with only 30 members, but during the 23 years of Phillips’ ministry it is recorded that 232 people were baptised and added to the Church. The preacher died on March 12th 1833, aged 82. A plaque was placed over the pulpit in his memory, paying tribute to his zealous and fruitful ministry.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Aber 2010 Evening Meetings

See here and here for some notes on Dale Ralph Davis' conference addresses. A variety of men preached in the evening meetings from Monday to Friday.

Gareth Williams gave an exposition of Colossians 1:15-2:15. Under three main headings he set before us the danger of error and the sufficiency of Christ:  I. The destructive drawing away from the truth. II. The Precious possession of the truth, and III. The confident continuing in the truth.

Traditionally the evening meetings have been evangelistic in intent and my good friend Martin Downes bore that in mind in his message on Acts 24:24-27, When Christianity gets personal.  Paul's preaching on "righteousness, self-control and the judgement to come" began to get under Felix's skin. Yet while he was interested in the Christian faith, he refused to repent and believe the gospel. Downes urged his hearers not to repeat this tragic mistake.

On Wednesday evening Bill James preached on Ephesians 3:14-21, setting before us the love of God for us and the love of Christ for the world.

Thursday evening's speaker, Steve Brady caused something of a stir with his message on 1 Thessalonians 5:12-15. His humorous pulpit manner made some laugh and others fume. But he made some good practical points, looking at the question, The local church - thriving or surviving? His prescription for a thriving local church: I. Honour your leaders. II. Help each other, and III. Handle everyone with kindness.

In his inimitable style, Stuart Olyott brought the conference to a fitting conclusion. He preached on 1 Timothy 3:16. His message was entitled, This is it! The verse gives us a flavour of authentic gospel preaching. I. Three great words: Great, mystery, godliness. II. Six striking facts (look them up for yourself in the text), and III. One Inescapable conclusion: "True gospel preaching is not about you. It is for you, but it is about Jesus, John 3:16. This is it! Galatians 2:20, "no longer I, but Christ".

DVD and CD recordings of these messages can be ordered from the Evangelical Movement of Wales. Listen out for Stuart Olyott having us sing Who is this in yonder stall? not after, but during his message to highlight that "God was manifest in the flesh"  The main speaker for Aber 2011 will be David Norman Jones of Tasmania (8-12 August).

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Beginning with Moses reloaded

Luke 24:27 is just one of many NT axioms that underpin evangelical biblical theology and it provides part of the rationale for recognising that the whole Bible resonates with Christological significance and that all our preaching must aim to preach Christ in a way that reflects, and that is shaped by, the overarching biblical plotline.
Beginning with Moses, the biblical theology website has been relaunched with bags of new resources. Check it out.