Thursday, March 24, 2011

Jesus of Nazareth by Joseph Ratzinger

In an online "Fleabytes" broadcast entitled No Pope of Rome?, David Robertson, editor of the Free Church of Scotland's Monthly Record pondered the significance of Pope Benedict XVIth's state visit to the UK in September 2010. It was a thoughtful piece, reflecting on the dangers of religious prejudice and sectarian bigotry.

As a prominent Minister in one of Scotland's most avowedly Protestant denominations, Robertson was careful to say that he disagreed with some of the main tenets of the Roman Catholic Church, "I'm not going to defend the papal office. I think that Catholic soteriology is wrong and confusing, their view of baptism is wrong, and their view of the Mass is at best nonsensical and  at worst, blasphemous. And to be honest, I don't even think that there should be a pope".

However, brandishing the book under review in this post, Robertson said that reading Benedict XVIth's Jesus of Nazareth made him warm to the pope as a "Christian brother". Surprising words from a man in his position. Robertson attempted to justify his stance towards "brother Ratzinger" by quoting what Robert Murray M'Cheyne wrote concerning the Bavarian Roman Catholic priest, Martin Boos,
...the living servant of Christ is dear to my heart, and welcome to address my flock, let him come from whatever quarter of the earth he may.... If dear Martin Boos were alive, pastor of the Church of Rome though he was, he would have been welcome too; and who that knows the value of souls and the value of a living testimony would say it was wrong?
Boos was an unusual Roman Catholic clergyman in that he believed in justification by faith alone (see here and here). Ratzinger, however, doesn't. When Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, his initial response to the Joint Declaration on Justification by the Holy See and the World Lutheran Federation, was to pronounce that Lutheran doctrine of justification is incompatible with the Roman Catholic teaching on the consequences of baptism. In his book on Saint Paul, Ignatius Press, 2009, Ratzinger looks at Paul's teaching on justification by faith. He says that "Luther's phrase: "faith alone" is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love." (p. 82) While it is right that the faith which alone justifies "works through love" (Galatians 5:6), it is not the case that we are justified on account of our love to God and man so that, "And thus transformed by [Christ's] love, by the love of God and neighbour, we can truly be just in God's eyes." (p. 83). That is in keeping with classic post-Tridentine Roman Catholic teaching on justification. Faith and works are merged as the basis of the sinner's justification before God. Given what Paul wrote in Galatians 1:6-9 concerning false teachers who denied justification by faith alone, I wonder whether Robertson was wise to suggest that the current pope might be welcome in a Free Church of Scotland pulpit.

And so to the book that made David Robertson so warm to Joseph Ratzinger. I can certainly understand what Robertson means, as there are many good and helpful things in this work. Given the often heard Protestant complaint that Rome pays little attention to the Bible, it is refreshing that the current leader of the Roman Catholic church has devoted sustained and serious attention to Scripture's witness to Jesus Christ. Ratzinger makes it clear that this study is in no way an exercise of the magisterium (Rome's official interpretation of the Bible). Rather, he says it is, "solely an expression of my personal search 'for the face of the Lord' (cf. Ps. 27:8)."

The book gives a portrait of the life and teaching of Jesus from his baptism to the transfiguration. In his approach to the Bible, Ratzinger adopts the practice of "canonical exegesis". He attempts to read individual texts of Scripture in the light of the whole. He deploys a "Christological hermeneutic", which recognises that Jesus is the key to understanding the Bible as a unity. He has a fine sense of the redemptive-historical flow of biblical revelation. Ratzinger's handling of Scripture is often insightful and is shot through with telling practical application.  He thoughtfully relates teaching of Jesus in 1st century to important issues in the 21st. His interpretation of the Bible is informed by the rich heritage of patristic exegesis. However, Ratzinger's indebtedness to critical scholarship is betrayed by his use of the label "Deutero-Isaiah" for Isaiah 40-55, which he dates at the end of the Babylonian exile (p. 347).

Ratzinger's handling of Jesus' parable of the vinedressers in Mark 12:1-12 is a good example of his overall approach. He sets the parable against the backdrop of Isaiah 5 and Psalm 80 and carefully unpacks its message before saying of the words, "Come, let us kill him [the son], and the inheritance will be ours." (Mark 12:7),   "Isn't this precisely the logic of the modern age, of our age? Let us declare that God is dead, then we ourselves will be God.... At last we can do as we please." (p. 257).

In his role as Prefect for the Doctrine of the Congregation of the Faith (1981-2005), Ratzinger was a scourge of liberal theologians who wished to overturn the faith of the Church.  Here he has little patience with the view that Jesus was little more than a great teacher and a good example for us to follow. He makes it clear at the outset that Jesus of Nazareth, as the only Son of the Father, is fully God and truly man. Working from that standpoint, he discusses the key events of Jesus' earthly life, his baptism, temptations, Peter's confession that Jesus is the Son of God, and his transfiguration. He also gives attention to Jesus' teaching as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels; the Gospel of the Kingdom, the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord's Prayer and the message of the parables. Ratzinger devotes a chapter to the Principal Images of John's Gospel; Water, Vine and Wine, Bread and The Shepherd. Finally in a concluding essay on Jesus Declares His Identity, he looks at three Christological names, The Son of Man, The Son and I Am.

There are many things in this work that will warm the hearts of Evangelical Christians. Commenting on Jesus' self-identification as "I AM", he writes,  
"When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am he" (Jn. 8:28). On the Cross, his Sonship, his oneness with the Father becomes visible. The Cross is the true "height". It is the height of "love to the end" (Jn. 13:1). On the Cross, Jesus is exalted to the very height of the God who is love. It is there that he can be "known", that the "I am he" can be recognized. (p. 349).  
While Roman dogmas don't unduly protrude in the text, they are nevertheless present as a reminder that the author of this study is none other than Pope Benedict XVI. Being "born of water and the Spirit", John 3:5 is explained in terms of baptismal regeneration, p. 239f. The Bread of Life discourse in John 6 is interpreted sacramentally in language suggestive of transubstantiation, p. 267-272. While Ratzinger does not spell out the Roman teaching on papal primacy in his handling of Matthew 16:18, a note in the back of the book (p. 373) shows that he still holds to this dogma. As the most recent "successor of Peter", Benedict XVI believes that he has "full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered." (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Para. 882).

In commending Ratzinger as a "Christian brother" on the basis of this work, David Robertson has fallen into a similar trap to Evangelicals involved in Evangelicals and Catholics Together. In their book Is The Reformation Over, Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom argue that as Evangelicals agree with around two thirds of the teaching in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that we should regard Roman Catholics as "Christians" without qualification. That is clearly problematic, as the differences concern serious, gospel-defining issues. Similarly, while we might agree with many of the things that Benedict XVI has to say in Jesus of Nazareth,  his teaching must be taken as a whole. We must also take into account his views on baptismal regeneration, the Mass, justification by faith, Scripture and tradition, and so on. Whether the pope should be regarded as a "Christian brother" who should be made welcome in Protestant pulpits should be on the basis of his theology in the round, not simply on evidence selectively culled from this book.

Let us never forget that in claiming "universal power over the whole Church", the pope has usurped the unique role of Jesus of Nazareth as the head of the Church. In his broadcast, David Robertson quotes Ratzinger's  words found on page 260 of this book and urges him to apply them to himself as pope. "When man and his institutions climb too high, they need to be cut back; what has become too big must be brought back to the simplicity and poverty of the Lord himself." That is precisely the problem. The papacy grandly claims the right to exercise "unhindered" power over the people of God. If Ratzinger really meant what he said regarding returning to the simplicity and poverty of the Lord, and took his own words to heart, he would resign from office forthwith and become a simple preacher of the gospel. His book was first published in 2007. As yet there is no sign of the current pope renouncing his claim to be the "Vicar of Christ" and vacating the Vatican so that Jesus of Nazareth can take centre stage in the Roman Catholic Church. That in itself speaks volumes and should put us on our guard before Evangelical Protestants start enthusiastically hailing Ratzinger on the strength of this volume.

Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, by Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, Bloomsbury, 2008 paperback edition, 374pp.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Brian Edwards on Biblical Christian Leadership

At yesterday's West Country Reformed Ministers' Fraternal, Brian Edwards spoke on Biblical Christian Leadership, taking as his starting point Paul's words in 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12. Here are some notes. They don't give a full flavour of Brian's engaging and challenging talk, just a little taste. But that's better than nothing.

The apostle Paul is a role model for leaders. His New Testament letters were addressed to real people in  real life situations, which makes them all the more relevant to us.

1. Paul's spiritual depth

Pastors are first and foremost Christians who are called to live for glory of Jesus,  Philippians 3:10-11. Paul's prayers provide a model for our private and public prayers, Ephesians 1:15-23, 3:14-21. A passion for Christ is essential for leadership. We must enjoy and love Christ above all, more than theological study, preaching etc. We need to be  'venturesome leaders', who trust in promises of God.

2. Moral integrity

Paul handled monetary gifts in such a way that no accusation of personal enrichment could be made against him, 2 Corinthians 8-9. Elders must have a good reputation with outsiders, 1 Timothy 3:7. The world is watching us, examining our behaviour. There must not be even a hint of sexual impropriety in the church, Ephesians 5:3. Husbands and wives should guard one another in this respect. Also we must show integrity with regard to matters like pirated software, CD/DVDs, copyright for songs etc.

3. Personal courage

We need to show courage in the face of suffering, 2 Corinthians 11. But also we need to be courageous in facing issues in church life. Paul faced down both Peter and Barnabas peter Galatians 2:11-21. The apostle was gentle, 2 Corinthians 10:1. Yet he was heavy if need be, 2 Corinthians 13:1-3. We must not be afraid to grasp nettles and deal with issues in the church.  Leadership can be lonely, 2 Timothy 4:16. Sloppy service must not be tolerated in the church because members are "volunteers". Bad theology. Church members have been enlisted in the service of Christ.
4. Hard work

Paul commended those who worked hard in Romans 16. He worked hard,  1 Corinthians 15:10. But in working hard we must do the right things, Ephesians 5:15, Philippians 1:10. That said, a workaholic is not a good leader. 

5. Pastoral care

Paul could be very tender and motherly, 1 Thessalonians 2:7, but he could also be firm and fatherly, 1 Thessalonians 2:11-12. He knew care or anxiety for the churches, 2 Corinthians 11:28. The same word is used in Matthew 6:25 and Philippians 4:6. This was not a selfish anxiety, but an expression of Paul's pastoral heart, 1 Thessalonians 3:1-5. See also his concern for the believer under discipline at Corinth, 1 Corinthians 5 cf.  2 Corinthians 2:3-11. Paul prayed for his co-workers and the churches.

6. Practical encouragement

According to USA's President Trueman, leadership is about "getting people to do what they don't want, and to like it". Paul  led by encouraging the churches and his fellow-workers. He thanked God for them, Colossians 1:3-8. Sometimes we can become jaundiced and have a narrowed vision of the what the Lord is doing, but we need to encourage our people that God is working in the world today. Paul warmly commended people to the churches, Philippians 2:19-24 & 25-30.  See also Romans 16, where he mentions 30 people, 11 of whom were women. Recognition and gratitude are important. Remind people that their labours are not in vain, 1 Corinthians 15:58.

7. Tact and diplomacy

Tactful teaching on giving, 2 Corinthians 8.
Tactful handling of the issue of Onesimus the runaway slave in Philemon.
Tactful intervention to reconcile warring church members Philippians 4:2.

8. Clear vision

Paul knew which battles to fight,  Titus 3:9. We don't have to win every battle and always insist on having our own way. He had a vision for training leaders 2 Timothy 2:2. He was good at delegating work to others, Titus 1:5. He knew the difference between tactics and strategy, keeping his focus on the latter.

9. Sincere humility.

Paul wasn't threatened by the ministry of others, Philippians 1:12-18. He had the mind of Christ, Philippians 2:5-11. He changed his mind about John Mark, Acts 15:36-41 cf. 2 Timothy 4:11. Sometimes we need to be willing to admit we were wrong and make a u-turn. Humility is essential for ministry, Hebrews 5:1.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Mostyn Roberts on Equality and Diversity

Mostyn has an excellent post on The Johns, Equality and Diversity. Here's an excerpt,
Equality, once so fair a maid, is a slave, a poor downtrodden thing, a shadow of her former self, so that people who once delighted in her feel ashamed to mention her or be acquainted with her. Because after all, she is not in truth the lady she once was. She is exploited to perpetrate the lie that all ideas are the same, instead of preserving the truth that all people are equal before God and the law.

Or take Diversity. She and Equality would be seen walking arm in arm, Diversity a delightful complement to her elder sister, preserving the truth that because all are equal, differences will be tolerated and even rejoiced in. Equality and Diversity therefore represented two sides of the same coin, and both could hold their heads high in a society that professed Christian values.

As Equality faded, however, inevitably Diversity was tarnished too. She now means in practice that 'whatever you believe or however you live will be tolerated'. Funnily enough, though, that is what the jaded version of Equality means too. As a Lady, Diversity complemented Equality; now she merely echoes her. As the servants of a higher God have become the slaves of a lesser god, they have become more and more alike. Sin does that. The two principles have become so alike that they have come to mean the same thing: anything goes.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach by Michael R. Licona

The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach
Michael R. Licona, IVP Academic/Apollos, 2010, 718pp,

The author’s main thesis is that biblical scholars often engage in the study of history in a way that is quite different from historians who are not involved in the world of biblical studies. Frequently critical scholars regard the biblical texts with a high degree of scepticism. They demand an almost impossible degree of historical certainty before they will acknowledge that an event described in the Bible actually happened. Licona wants to see what biblical scholars might have to learn from the methods and practices of other students of ancient history. He then proposes to apply the methodology of non-biblical historians to the question of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

The first main section of the book gives attention to historical method (that is what is meant by “historiography”). Here Licona faces the issues such as the historian’s horizon or worldview prejudicing his reading of the facts, whether it is possible to recover the past in any meaningful way, and what is the burden of proof. He concludes that the best explanation of the historical data will pass five basic criteria: 1. Explanatory scope. 2. Explanatory power. 3. Plausibility. 4. Less ad hoc, meaning no need to employ extraneous arguments. 5. Illumination.

Next Licona discusses whether it is legitimate for historians to investigate miraculous events. Many would say, “no”. But after laying down some careful safeguards against na├»ve gullibility regarding the miraculous, the author argues that historians should not simply rule out the serious investigation of supernatural events like the resurrection of Jesus.

Attention is given to the evaluation of historical sources. For the sake of this study, Licona wants to determine what is the most plausible source of historical data for the resurrection of Jesus. He argues that greatest plausibility should be awarded to the earliest witness to apostolic teaching on the resurrection. This is largely found in the writings of Paul, especially 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. Other biblical writings such as the canonical Gospels are regarded as “possible” sources of information for the early apostolic tradition, alongside Josephus, while 1 Clement is awarded a “possible plus”. This is in keeping with Licona’s methodological neutrality, where, for the sake of this study he does not regard the Bible as the inspired Word of God, but a merely human source of historical data. I will return to this point later in the review.

A chapter is devoted to The Historical Bedrock Pertaining to the Fate of Jesus. By “historical bedrock”, Licona means strongly evidenced facts accepted as such by nearly all contemporary historians. There is some good exegetical material here on "spiritual" nature of the resurrection body in 1 Corinthians 15. Having surveyed the evidence, Licona boils the historical bedrock down to three main points: 1. Jesus died by crucifixion. 2. Jesus' disciples had experiences that led them to believe that he had risen from the dead. 3. Later, Paul was converted after experiencing what he understood to be a postresurrection appearance of Jesus.

Finally Licona weighs six different hypotheses that attempt to explain the historical bedrock against the five basic criterion set out earlier in the book. The first five hypotheses offer various naturalistic explanations of the facts, claiming that the disciples' experience of the risen Jesus were hallucinations or grief-induced sates of altered consciousness. Licona finds these theories wanting. The best explanation for the historical bedrock is that Jesus rose bodily from the grave. Thus, Licona concludes, having deployed rigorous historical methodology, that it is “very certain” that Jesus rose from the dead.

We are pleased that Licona reached this conclusion after almost 600 pages of close argumentation. His attempt to bring the rigour of responsible historical method to bear on the world of biblical studies is to be welcomed. But I question his general approach to apologetics, especially his claimed neutrality on the Bible as God’s inspired Word. The Christian apologist should begin with the presupposition that God is there and that his Word is truth. The Gospels are more than a “possible” source of historical fact. Holy Scripture may be trusted on historical just as much as theological matters. That is the starting point for attempting to give a reasoned defence of the Gospel, including the claim that God raised Jesus from the dead. The task of the apologist is to endeavour to demonstrate that the known facts are fully in accord with God’s self-revelation in the Bible and that competing views and theories cannot offer an adequate explanation of reality. This does not mean that the apologist is bound to prove that the Bible is God's inerrant Word before saying anything else, but it should be made clear that this is one of his underlying presuppositions. That said, this volume should stimulate biblical scholars to give fresh and serious attention to the Bible’s witness to the resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ from the dead.

* Reviewed for Protestant Truth magazine.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative by Carl R. Trueman

Back in the dim and distant days of the 1980's, when Mrs. Thatcher held sway over Britain, I was something of a lefty. I used to attend meetings of the local branch of the Labour Party. Together with my comrades I tut-tutted  at the "police brutality" inflicted on heroic striking miners. I felt bitterly disappointed when Neil Kinnock failed to beat Margaret Thatcher and then John Major at successive general elections. At around the same time Carl Trueman was a young Tory, which would explain his liking for Dire Straits and other awful yuppie bands.  Musically it was Billy Bragg and The Jam/Style Council for me, not Dire Straits and Duran Duran. Becoming a Christian in the mid-80's didn't alter my basic political stance, although, over time my views became more centrist, or at lest centre leftist.

Living in south Wales and witnessing as I did the drastic decline of the UK's industrial base under Thatcher and the mass unemployment caused by the closure of factories and coal mines, I was never going to fall for her "there's no such thing as society" laissez-faire capitalism. But I also realised that old-style socialist economics, with the State propping up inefficient nationalised industries like British Leyland was hardly the way forward. Despite its harshness, Thatcherism had become the new economic orthodoxy. There was no going back to the cosy, post-1945 world of the Keynsian interventionist State.

Painfully at first the Labour Party began to adjust its policies fit in with the new political climate.  Under Tony Blair, "New Labour" was launched. In a highly symbolic measure Blair had the party ditch its outdated "Clause 4", which, in theory committed a Labour government to achieving "the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange". New Labour embraced the power of the markets, but also saw a positive role for government as a facilitating "helping hand" for the people. This was the celebrated/much derided "Third Way" between dog-eat-dog capitalism and the common ownership of all dogs entailed by socialism. Blair made no secret of his Christian inclinations and some of New Labour's rhetoric sounded attractive to conservative evangelicals (at least this one), "rights and responsibilities", "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime", "education, education, education" etc. I well remember staying up late on the May 1997 election night, watching with wide-eyed wonder as Tory grandees like Michel Portillo lost their seats, helpless before the seemingly irresistible force of the New Labour electoral landslide. Ah, "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive". After the greyness and sleaze of the Major years there was hope that, in the words of Labour's election anthem, "Things can only get better." (Cue empty laughter).

For me, being "of the Left" involved wanting a fairer society, where the Government used its power to alleviate poverty and open up opportunities for the less well off to improve their lot. This was linked to a strong sense that people must take responsibility for their lives rather than live off State handouts. Thus social justice and personal responsibility go hand in hand. However, under New Labour the gap between rich and poor grew ever wider. The Government's "light touch" approach to City regulation helped to foment the casino capitalism that led to the Credit Crunch. Just read Who Runs Britain? by Robert Peston. During the Labour years family breakdown became endemic, thrusting even more people into poverty. Holding to the politically correct view that "families come in all shapes and sizes - and that's a good thing", Labour failed to recognise that stable marriages provide the glue that holds families and society together. The Government's answer to the social disorder caused by family breakdown was to slap ASBOS on tearaway teenagers and the widespread installation of CCVT cameras to keep an eye on unruly citizens. For an analysis of Labour's "Broken Britain" have a look at Red Tory by Philip Blond.

Many Christians who welcomed the dawn of Blair's New Labour project were thoroughly disillusioned by the end of the Blair/Brown years. However, it would be churlish not to recognise some of the Government's positive achievements; peace in  Northern Ireland, Tax Credits that make work pay (how many pastors would have to leave the Ministry if Tax Credits were suddenly withdrawn?), investment in public services etc. But by the end of the New Labour years Britain was a more difficult place to be a Christian. Christian adoption agencies were forced to close for refusing to place children with homosexual couples. The Government attempted to remove the right of churches not to employ gay youth workers. Why on earth did a left of centre Government seem more interested in championing "gay rights" rather than helping the poor?

Trueman provides the answer. Yes, this is ostensibly a book review rather than an account of my own political journey (if that doesn't sound too Blairite), so I'd better say something about Republocrat at this point. With the failure of Marxist economics signalled by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of the consumer society, left-leaning intellectuals began to realise that what the poor wanted was not political liberation, but more stuff. Designer goods, cable TV, foreign holidays etc. In a fusion of Marx and Freud, Herbert Marcuse proposed that oppression be defined not simply as the poor being exploited by the rich, but also in psychological terms. The recognition of heterosexual marriage as "the norm" excluded gays, who then cried, "Help! We're being oppressed." Hence the Left's championing of "gay rights". This leads to perverse consequences. As noted, Christian adoption agencies, dedicated to helping some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children in society had to close because their policy of only allocating children to heterosexual couples was deemed discriminatory and therefore oppressive to gays. Sadly, the Lib-Con Coalition is as committed to the cause of "gay rights" as the previous administration, with the result that Christians will not be able to decide their political allegiances on this issue alone.

As something of a lefty I've always been a bit baffled by the alliance between right wing Republicanism and conservative evangelicalism in the USA. One of Trueman's aims in this book is to pick apart the assumption that conservative evangelicalism and conservative politics are inevitable bedfellows. It is always dangerous for believers to equate their chosen political cause with the kingdom of God. Trueman rightly rejects talk of America's "manifest destiny" in world history. He denounces the so-called Patriot's Bible as a blasphemous identification of America with God's redemptive-historical purposes. Trueman warns against the slipperiness of secularisation. It may seem that America is a "more Christian" country compared with many European nations, but sometimes a veneer of religiosity is simply a cover for deeply unchristian values. What is Joel Olsteen's "gospel" of health, wealth and prosperity but a reflection of the materialistic goals and aspirations of Middle America? The Right isn't always right and (contra Max Weber) there is no necessary correlation between Calvinism and market capitalism. Capitalism may be better than Communism, but that doesn't mean that Regan and Thatcher miraculously happened upon the economics of the eschaton. Two words, "Credit" and Crunch" serve to disabuse us of any such notion.

In a chapter entertainingly entitled,  "Not-So-Fantastic Mr.Fox", Trueman deals with the political bias of US news outlets, especially Fox News, which at least some conservative Christians regard as the neutral news that tells it straight. Er, no. Fox News, which is part of Rupert Murdoch's media empire has its own right-wing populist agenda. Perhaps American Christians will be surprised to learn that Murdoch's interests include that ardent promoter of Christian values in the UK,  The Sun newspaper, with its infamous Page Three Girls. No news media is free from bias, not even good old Auntie Beeb. As BBC political pundit Andrew Marr admitted,
The BBC is not impartial or neutral. It's a publicly funded, urban organisation with an abnormally large number of young people, ethnic minorities and gay people. It has a liberal bias not so much a party-political bias. It is better expressed as a cultural liberal bias.
Christians should exercise discernment in their use of news media, and not blindly follow the line of their chosen newspaper, or broadcaster. Gospel Truth is found only in the Bible, not in the Daily Mail, or the Guardian for that matter.

In Republocrat, Trueman has given us a fascinating "outsider's view"on American politics. I suspect that with his questioning of the inevitability of the link between conservative theology  and conservative  politics, his book will cause something of a stir on the other side of the Pond. It also has something to say to our situation here in the UK. After all, we are not immune from the temptation to identify our favoured political party with the cause of Christ. Witness Spurgeon campaigning for Gladstone's Liberal Party. While many Christians might be mightily fed up with the Left in the wake of the New Labour years, we mustn't go thinking that  David Cameron's "Big Society" is a manifestation of the kingdom of God on earth.

After having read this review you might be wondering what exactly Trueman's "liberal conservatism" means in terms of UK party politics. You'll have to get the book to find out. You may well be surprised/shocked/laugh out loud.

Republocrat: Confessions of a Conservative Liberal, Carl R. Trueman, P&R, 2010, 110pp.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The self-emptying of Jesus

Philippians 2:5-11

Having described Jesus in the highest terms redolent of divine majesty (see here), Paul now tells us what he who was in the form of God was willing to do. This is the mindset or attitude that we are to imitate, Philippians 2:5.

i. Christ Jesus did not regard his equality with God something to be grasped

Some in the church at Philippi were selfish and grasping, Philippians 2:1-3. Christ expressed a different attitude, Philippians 2:6-7.

Does this mean that Jesus did not choose to grasp at equality with God? We have already seen that equality with God was his from eternity as the Father’s only Son, John 5:18. One does not grasp at what one already has. There is no need to speculate that the Son was somehow tempted to usurp the Father’s primacy in the Trinity (contra. Alec Motyer's Bible Speaks Today commentary on Philippians, IVP). As man Jesus was subject to temptation, but not as God, James 1:13

What Paul means is that Jesus refused to "grasp" in the sense of hold onto his equality with God at all costs. He was willing to forgo his divine privileges and be made low for the sake of others. For Jesus, being equal with God did not consist in grasping and taking for himself, standing on his dignity. Rather, as he who was “in the form of the giving God”, being equal with God consisted of giving rather than getting. Hywel Jones argues that the words translated in the ESV,

‘though he was in the form of God’ pointing out the contrast between his eternal deity and his subsequent condescension… could be understood in a causal sense and translated ‘Because he was in very nature God he did not regard equality with God as something to hold on to.’ This would declare that everything that which comes into the category of his self-giving is the consequence and expression of the kind of deity which belongs to him. (Welwyn Bible Commentary on Philippians, EP, p. 75).
So NIV and NKJV, “Being in very nature God”, “Being in the form of God”. The thought is not that of contrast, but self-expression. "Being in the form of God he emptied himself". How different to the lords and potentates of this world. We are currently witnessing the grotesque spectacle of Gaddafi holding on to power at all costs. Not so Jesus. He was not self-seeking, self-regarding or self-important. Love does not seek its own. This was the attitude led to the Son of God becoming man. It was also the attitude that governed his incarnate life, John 13.

ii. Christ emptied himself by taking the form of a servant

That is a literal translation of Philippians 2:7. The one who was equal with God emptied himself. Does this mean that on becoming man that Jesus emptied himself of his deity? That was the old liberal view. We sometimes see a variant of it  among Evangelicals. Some attempt to make sense of Mark 13:32 by saying that at the incarnation the Son laid aside or somehow voluntarily limited his infinite knowledge. Hymns tell us  that Jesus “laid aside his glory”, contrary John 1:14. However, when Paul says that Jesus “emptied himself” he does not mean that he emptied himself of one iota of his divine being and attributes. Rather “emptied” often means to become powerless or emptied of significance, 1 Cor 1:17. The AV translation captures the meaning, “he made himself nothing”.

Paul further explains what he means by the self-emptying of Christ. He emptied himself “by taking the form of a servant”. When he who was in the form of God took the form of a servant he did not cease to be God, rather he became the God-Man. And not a great man either. He took the form of a servant or slave (doulos). Slaves had no rights. They were the lowest of the low in the Roman Empire. Writing of the period of the Roman Republic, just prior to the coming of Christ, Tom Holland describes the lot of slaves in the ancient world,

Gangs [of slaves] were bough wholesale, branded and shackled, then set to labour from dawn until dusk. At night they would be locked up in huge, crowded barracks. Not a shred of privacy or dignity was permitted them… Exhaustion was remedied by the whip, while insubordination would be handled by private contractors who specialised in the torture – and sometimes execution - of uppity slaves. The crippled or prematurely aged could expect to be cast aside, like diseased cattle or shattered wine jars. After all, as Roman agriculturalists liked to remind their readers, there was no point in wasting money on useless tools. (p. 146-147, Republic).
Read in this light, Paul is saying something amazing, “He who was in the form of God made himself nothing, taking the form of a slave.” That is the costly, self-giving, self-abasing  mindset that is to characterise those who follow the Servant King. The Old Testament background to Jesus as servant is found Isaiah's 'Servant Songs', Isaiah 42-53. Jesus identified himself as one who came to serve, Matthew 20:28.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Growing to Serve

On Saturday morning I have three talks at Growing to Serve, Grace Church, Westerleigh. Here's an excerpt from the second message on the Incarnation of Christ, an exposition of Philippians 2:5-11.

1. The one who became incarnate

Who became incarnate?

i. He who was in the form of God

Philippians 2:6. What does it mean that Jesus was “in the form of God”. Recent scholarship has suggested that “form” is more or less interchangeable with the words, “image” and “glory” (see Tyndale New Testament Commentary, IVP, Ralph P. Martin). Christ is certainly the image and glory of God (2 Corinthians 4:6). Taking “form” to mean “image” it is suggested that Paul is contrasting Christ with Adam in that Adam grasped at equality with God, while Jesus did not. But “form” has its own distinct meaning. Gordon Fee defines “form” as “that which truly characterizes a given reality”. (NICNT Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, Eerdmans). This is in line with the older understanding of the word.

B. B. Warfield used the illustration of a sword. The form of a sword consists of the features that make a sword a sword as distinct from other metal objects such as a fork or spoon. The sword is a metal cutting or thrusting implement with a handle and a blade. That is its essential form. So, says Warfield,

What Paul asserts then, when he says that Christ Jesus existed in the “form of God”, is that he had all those characterizing qualities that make God God. (The Saviour of the World, Banner of Truth, p. 253ff),
But what are the "characterising qualities of God"? The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks,
Q. 4. What is God?
A. God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.
As Jesus is in the form of God, all those “characterizing qualities” belong to him. And so we can say with Warfield that, “He who is ‘in the form of God’, is God”. That is what lies behind the NIV’s translation that Jesus was “in very nature God”. In his eternal, pre-incarnate state, Jesus was fully divine in every respect. This is the starting point of Paul’s "hymn".

ii. Jesus and the divine identity

Let us reflect a little more on the divine identity of Jesus. He is at one time distinguishable from God [the Father], as he is "in the form of God" and being "in the form of God", he is God.

The deity of Christ is one of the central truths of the New Testament. Again and again the apostles very deliberately included Jesus in the divine identity.

As Jews they believed that the one true and living God was distinguished from idols by two great facts: He was the creator and he is the sovereign Lord of the universe. Genesis 1, Psalm 96:5, 97:1, 145:1, Daniel 4:34-35. With that in mind, notice that writers of the NT did not hesitate to include Jesus in the divine identity by describing him as both Creator and Lord, Deuteronomy 6:4 cf. 1 Corinthians 8:6, John 1:1-3, and Isaiah 45:22-23 cf. Phil 2:11. This understanding of Jesus went back to his own consciousness of being the Son of God, John 5:17-23, 8:28, 58, and was confirmed by his resurrection John 20:28. On occasion Paul referred to Christ as "God", or "our great God",  Romans 9:5, Titus 2:13.

iii. Jesus was of the same divine essence as the Father

It was to safeguard Jesus’ place in the divine identity that the early church drew up the Nicene creed in 325 AD. The issue was this: Is Jesus fully divine – as much God as the Father is God, or is he “God” in some inferior, subordinate sense? The orthodox held that the Son was of the same essence as the Father. He was homoousios. Arius taught that the Son was heteroousios his essence was different to that of the Father. This was not a technical augment over words. If the Son was not homoousios with the Father, then he could not be the full and final revelation of God. How would John 1:18, Hebrews 1:1-3 hold true? Moreover, if he was not fully God, then his saving work lacked the infinite value and worth that was necessary for him to save human beings from sin, Ephesians 1:7. And so the Nicene Creed confessed,

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance [homoousios] with the Father, by whom all things were made.
Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us….
Now, John Calvin was careful to make it clear that when we speak of the Son being begotten of the Father, we are not to think that the Father communicated the divine essence to the Son,

the Godhead is absolutely of itself [autotheos]. And hence also we hold that the Son, regarded as God, without reference to his person, is also of himself [autotheos]; though we also say that, regarded as Son, he is of the Father. Thus his essence is without beginning, while his person has its beginning in God". (Institutes I:XIII:25).
The Son, in his divine essence is I AM, the self-existing One. He did not derive his deity from the Father. He is Son because he is of the Father, but he is God because he is God. This insight eliminates any idea of the Son being God in a subordinate sense. Thus, according to B. B. Warfield, the church’s confession that the Son is homoousios with the Father came into its own. As the form of God Jesus was as much God as the Father and the Holy Spirit. And so we sing,

Who is he in yonder stall?
Tis the Lord, the King of glory!

This is what Paul wants us to understand about Christ Jesus, the one who from eternity was with God in the form of God. Paul’s teaching here is in accordance with Jesus’s self-understanding, as disclosed in the Gospels, John 17:5.

All three talks are on the 'Growing to Serve' website:

Introducing Philippians (here)
The Incarnation of Christ (here)
Developing Humility (here)

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Living for God's Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism by Joel R. Beeke

Living for God's Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism,
Joel R. Beeke, Reformation Trust, 2008, 416pp.

When Joel Beeke gave the main addresses at the Evangelical Movement of Wales' Aberystwyth Conference a few years ago, he was asked which of his many books he would most like people to read. He opted for this one. I've profited from Beeke's ministry on number of occasions and I've frequently found his writings helpful, so with his commendation in mind I toddled off to the conference bookshop and invested in this tome.

Despite its size (a hefty 400-pager) and title, the book isn't at all heavy going. I read it through on Sunday evenings, when I'm often feeling a little weary and brain dead.

Beeke's aim is to show that Calvinism isn't simply a set of doctrines. As the title shows, it is all about living for God's glory. The writer devotes a chapter to the history of Calvinism and then endeavours to define what he calls "Calvinism in the Mind",  by which he means Calvinistic theology. Somewhat stereotypically he defines Calvinistic theology in terms of the good ol' "Five Points of Calvinism". Now, I'm all in favour "TULIP" theology, but as Beeke himself acknowlages, the "Five Points" were never meant to be a handy summary of Calvinistic teaching in the round. They were simply the Reformed response to the Arminian five point Remonstrance at the Synod of Dort. So, why allow Arminians to set the agenda? It makes Calvinists seem defensive and obsessively polemical. Besides, it is reductionistic to discuss "Calvinism in the Mind" mainly in terms of the Five Points. Whence Calvin's emphasis on divine self-revelation, or union with Christ, or justification by faith alone? Beeke's treatment of the Five Points is helpful enough, but we really do need to be more imaginative in our attempts to commend Calvinism in all its breadth and depth to the wider Evangelical movement.

However we define it, Calvinism isn't all in the mind. In the next section Beeke turns to "Calvinism in the Heart". This is better, especially Michel Haykin's chapter on Cultivating the Spirit. Beeke's own explorations of Calvin's God-exalting piety and sanctification in Puritan thought and practice give a real insight into the Reformed faith's robustly biblical and deeply practical teaching on the Christian life. Beeke's essays are informed by his wide reading of Puritan authors, but on pursuing the chapter endnotes I was a little disappointed that some of his choice quotes had been culled from books of quotations like John Blanchard's Gathered Gold. I might be getting overly fussy and cantankerous in my old age, and this is a meant to be a popular rather than scholarly work, but please!

The Reformation was all about the re-formation of the church along scriptural lines so it is good that a major part of the book is devoted to "Calvinism in the Church". Useful material here on church government and discpline by Derek Thomas, worship by Ray Lanning and preaching by Robert Oliver and Beeke. Essays on Calvin's evangelism and Puritan evangelism are a reminder that the Reformed faith when properly understood is not at all inimical to evangelistic zeal. Au contraire.

"Calvinism in Practice" includes essays on marriage, the family, work, politics and ethics, showing that Calvinism offers a theology for the whole of life. Good stuff.

Sinclair Ferguson's excellent piece on doxological Calvism concludes the book. He relates an anecdote from the writings of B. B. Warfield. There was violent rioting in an American city. A man spied a stranger walking calmly up the road. As the stranger passed by the man turned  and asked him, "What is the chief end of man?" To which he replied, "Man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever." They had recognised from each other's unruffled demeanor that each was a "Shorter Catechism boy". That is doxological Calvinism - living for the glory of God and knowing the peace that comes from resting in a sovereign God.