Wednesday, December 21, 2011


If we are to avoid heresy we need to get the maths of the incarnation right.

The incarnation of Jesus was an act of addition not subtraction. He did not become the Son minus his divine glory when he became man. He added to his divine glory a lowly, yet perfect human nature. 

If the incarnate Son was less than fully divine, he was not the final revelation of God. Only one who was fully God and fully man could reconcile man to God through his sacrifice of infinite worth. 

But the Son did not add a human person to his divine person. The person of the Son entered into union with a human nature, conceived by the Holy Spirit in the virgin's womb. 

There is no merger of the divine and human natures of the Son so that 1 (divine) x 1 (human) = 1 Christological hybrid. The divine and human natures of the Son remain distinct, unconfused and unmixed. 

There is no division between the person of the Son and his human nature. His humanity has no independent existence or identity. We do not confess that the human nature of Jesus died for our sins, but that the Son died for us in his humanity.  

The incarnation will never be reversed by the Son subtracting his human nature from his divine person. Our great high priest who has passed through the heavens is the Son of God, who, in his humanity is able to sympathise with us in our weaknesses. 

Confessional postscript 

The Definition of Chalcedon (451 A.D) sets out the mathematics of the incarnation with great precision and care.  It should be required reading for all preachers. Not that it says all that there is to say about the wonder of Word made flesh. But as with all good creeds and confessions the Definition erects a fence around the mystery to save us from erroneous thinking and speaking about the incarnation of Jesus.  

Monday, December 19, 2011

Foundations Autumn 2011

Just in time for Christmas, the 'Autumn 2011' edition of Affinity's Theological journal Foundations has just been posted online. 

Articles include: 

Not Ashamed! The Sufficiency of Scripture
for Public Theology  
Dan Strange

So Who Is My Neighbour? 
John Legg

Evangelical Mission Organisations, Postmodern 
Controversies, and the New Heartbeat of Mission 
Thorsten Prill

Did Turretin Depart from Calvin’s View on the 
Concept of Error in the Scriptures? 
Ralph Cunnington

Review article: Trinitarian Theology  
D Eryl Davies

Also, several book reviews including my review of Bread of Heaven by Eifion Evans, complete with Yoda reference, a first for Foundations?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Bread of Heaven: The Life and Work of William Williams, Pantycelyn, by Eifion Evans

Bread of Heaven: The Life and Work of William Williams, Pantycelyn,
Eifion Evans, Bryntirion Press, 2010, 409pp

It is reckoned that a worldwide audience of two billion people tuned in to watch the wedding of Prince William and Katherine Middleton, making the service one of the most watched events in TV history. Of the three hymns sung in the service, two were by Methodists, Love Divine All Loves Excelling by Charles Wesley and Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah by William Williams. Strains of Williams’ most famous hymn will often be heard at Welsh international Rugby matches, “Bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more”.

For many, even in Christian circles, all that is known of William Williams is that he penned that hymn. One of the reasons why his life and other achievements have been shrouded in obscurity is that Williams has lacked an up-to-date biography in English. Yet, alongside Daniel Rowland and Howell Harris, the hymn writer was one of the big three leading figures of the Evangelical Revival in 18th century Wales. Howell Harris has been the subject of a recent major study, Howell Harris: From Conversion to Separation 1735-1750 by Geraint Tudur (University Press of Wales, 2000). Eifion Evans’ biography of Daniel Rowland is justly regarded as a spiritual classic, Daniel Rowland and the Great Evangelical Awakening in Wales (1985, Banner of Truth Trust). Now we can be grateful that with the publication of Evans’ volume on William Williams, that the remarkable life and work of the preacher will be more widely know and appreciated.

William Williams was a physician by trade. He was converted in his early twenties in 1738 under the preaching of Howell Harris. Williams was ordained as a Church of England curate, serving first of all in Llanwrtyd and then working alongside Daniel Rowland in Llangeitho. He was a key leader of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist movement.

Williams was a fine preacher and his ministry was much in demand in Wales and beyond. Towards the end of his life he calculated that in over forty years of preaching, he had travelled 111,800 miles, the equivalent of four times around the world. Thomas Charles testified that Williams’ “oratorical gifts were considerable; his preaching was evangelical, experiential and sweet”. He lived to proclaim salvation by the free grace of God on the basis of the finished work of Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The first generation of Calvinistic Methodists were loyal members of the Church of England. They had no wish to leave the Established Church unless thrown out by the authorities.  But this created a problem. How could new Christians be nurtured in the faith if many Church of England clergymen did not preach the gospel and were not at all sympathetic to Methodism? Societies or groups of believers were set up to operate alongside the parish church system. William Williams helped to organise these societies and the local and national Associations that oversaw them. In the societies believers were encouraged to share their experiences of the Lord and their struggles in the life of faith. It was in these groups that Williams’ gifts as a soul-physician really came into play. He wrote a book, The Experience Meeting as a manual for society leaders and to commend the value of societies to Methodist converts.

William Williams was the leading writer of the early Calvinistic Methodists. Eifion Evans gives us a flavour of his many and varied prose and poetic works. Williams published an epic poem of 1,360 verses, A View of the Kingdom of Christ, setting out the supremacy of Jesus in creation, providence and redemption. In The Life and Death of Theomemphus, the writer used Bunyanesque fictional characters to portray the trials and triumphs of a typical Calvinistic Methodist believer. His most ambitious prose effort was Pantheologia: A History of All the Religions of the World, printed in seven parts. It is fair to say that Williams’ multi-volume work of comparative religion was not the most popular of his publications. But he wrote with the laudable aim of giving Welsh Calvinistic Methodism more of an intellectual edge.

Welcome attention is also devoted to William Williams the hymn writer. His hymns give expression to all that was best about the Evangelical Revival in Wales. They are steeped in sound biblical doctrine and allude to Bible themes such as the believer’s pilgrimage to glory. But in addition, Williams’ compositions are the overflow of the heart of a gifted poet with a deep experience of communion with God. They are also enriched by the author’s intimate knowledge of the struggles of the life of faith. Evans offers fresh translations of some of Williams’ lesser know Welsh hymns (lesser known at least to English speakers).

The 18th century revival in Wales was not without controversy. Some attacked the revival from the outside. Williams defended the awakening against the charge of enthusiasm or fanaticism. He found Jonathan Edwards’ writings such as The Religions Affections helpful on this score. The revival was also rocked by controversy from within. Some adopted Sandemanian views that reduced saving faith to an intellectual assent to doctrinal propositions. Others advocated antinomianism and rejected the law of God as a rule of faith for believers. Williams refuted these errors in his writings. He also translated into Welsh works that addressed Sandemanian and antinomian false teachings.

An altogether trickier matter was Howell Harris’ adoption of aberrant Moravian views. Harris revelled in the “blood of God” to such an extent that it seemed he was teaching “patripassianism”, the view that the Father suffered on the cross. Daniel Rowland and William Williams argued for the orthodox Trinitarian teaching that at the cross Jesus the Son offered himself to God the Father through the eternal Spirit. Harris’ unorthodox teaching and erratic behaviour in the late 1740 and 50’s led to a division in the ranks of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism. Although married, Harris took a female companion with him on his preaching tours. He proclaimed Sidney Griffith a “prophetess”. The obstinate exhorter would not listen to the reproving voices of Rowland and Williams and so the old friends were forced to part. They were reunited in the 1760’s, when Wales experienced a fresh outpouring of the Spirit.

Eifion Evans has produced a most helpful, informative and stimulating biography of William Williams. He has shown that in his multidimensional ministry, Pantycelyn was much more than a hymn writer. However, Evans can sometimes pull his punches when it comes to criticism of his hero. Williams mistakenly took the appearance of the Northern Lights as an indication that the last days were at hand (see chapter 25). He was so keen to defend the revival against detractors that he was too willing to take leaping and dancing in Methodist meetings as an evidence of the presence of the Spirit. Jonathan Edwards was more cautious in his approach, insisting that effects on the body were no certain evidence of the Spirit’s work. Sometimes Evans’ style can be a little odd. Witness this sentence, almost worthy of Yoda, the syntactically challenged Star Wars character, “It was in this context that Williams forged for the Methodists this manual” (p. 263).

Anyway, I think we can learn a number of lessons from William Williams and Welsh Calvinistic Methodism.

1. Calvinistic doctrine needs to be wedded to the empowering presence of the Spirit. Evans devotes a couple of chapters to Williams’ doctrine. He held to Reformed theology alright, but it was theology on fire.  We have witnessed a welcome recovery of Reformed doctrine in the last fifty years or so. But we have not yet seen a widespread outpouring of the Spirit in revival. Truth must be experienced and its power felt.

2. The need for discernment in times of revival. At the best of times, the devil is at work sowing seeds of doctrinal confusion and goading people to fanaticism. What happened to Howell Harris in the 1740’s and 50’s is a case in point. A revival must not be dismissed on account of the presence of errors and disorder, but neither should revivals be judged uncritically.

3. There is no contradiction between spiritual life and organisational structures. The Calvinistic Methodists had their local societies and national assembly. Independent Evangelicalism often lacks appropriate structures that enable gospel churches to pool their resources and work together. A task for Affinity, perhaps? 

4. The value of believers meeting in small groups. William Williams was a great advocate of societies. Today the equivalent would be Housegroups. But may our Housegroups not simply be for the purpose of Bible study and prayer, but also an environment where believers are encouraged to share their spiritual experiences.

5. A new generation of hymn writers has much to learn from Williams’ ability to mix biblical truth with heartfelt experience of the grace of God.

6. The Church of England could not contain the new wine of Calvinistic Methodism and so the Presbyterian Church of Wales was founded in 1811. But the revival did start in the Church of England. Should such a movement of the Spirit suddenly begin in today’s Church in Wales, or the Church of England, how should those of us who have separated from the mainline denominations react? I trust that we would be generous minded enough to recognise the work of God for what it was and do all we could to support those involved.

7. Evans’ biography is written from an unashamedly Christian standpoint. Unlike the case with some recent works by Evangelical historians, Evans attributes the Evangelical Revival experienced by William Williams and others to the Holy Spirit rather than to merely human factors. His account is all the better for that. May reading this volume stir us up to lay hold of God for a fresh outpouring of the Spirit in our day.  

* Reviewed for Autumn 2011 Foundations.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Something extra from Calvin for Christmas

In his book, John Calvin's Ideas, (Oxford, 2004), Paul Helm devotes a chapter to The Extra (p. 58-92). Helm defines Calvin's extra, or the extra Calvinisticum like this: "the view that in the Incarnation the Son retained divine properties such as immensity and omnipresence and therefore Christ was not confined within the limits of a human person". It would have been better for Helm to have said, "within the limits of a human nature", but I'll let that pass for now. The main point is that Calvin was especially clear on the fact that the enfleshment of the Son entailed no change in his divine being, 
They thrust upon as something absurd, that if the Word of God became flesh, then he was confined  in the narrow prison of an earthly body. This is mere impudence! For even if in his  immeasurable essence the Word was united with human nature into one person, we do not imagine that he was confined therein. The Son of God descended miraculously from heaven, yet without abandoning heaven. He was pleased to be conceived miraculously in the Virgin's womb, to live on the earth, and hang upon the cross, and yet he continually filled the world as he had from the beginning. (Institutes II:13:4). 
As Helm points out, Calvin's "extra" was not in fact distinctive to the Reformer at all. A similar emphasis can be found in Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas and other notable Doctors of the Church. Here is Augustine,
And we think that something impossible to believe is told us about the omnipotence of God, when we are told that the Word of God, by whom all things were made, took flesh from a virgin and appeared to mortal senses without destroying His immortality, His eternity, or diminishing His power, or neglecting the government of the world, or leaving the bosom of the Father, where He is intimately with Him and in Him! (Letter to Volusian, cited in John Calvin's Ideas, p. 59).   
Also along these lines, my attention was recently drawn to a hymn by Joseph Hart (1712-68),

1    The Lord that made both heaven and earth,
            And was himself made man,
        Lay in the womb, before his birth,
            Contracted to a span.

    2    Behold, from what beginnings small
            Our great salvation rose;
        The strength of God is owned by all;
            But who his weakness knows?

    3    Let not the strong the weak despise;
            Their faith, though small, is true;
        Though low they seem in others’ eyes,
            Their Saviour seemed so too.

    4    Nor meanly of the tempted think;
            For O what tongue can tell
        How low the Lord of life must sink,
            Before he vanquished hell?

    5    As in the days of flesh he grew
            In wisdom, stature, grace,
        So in the soul that’s born anew,
            He keeps a gradual pace.

    6    No less almighty at his birth,
            Than on his throne supreme;
        His shoulders held up heaven and earth,
            When Mary held up him.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Did Jesus leave his throne when he became Man?

Christmas carols often claim that the Son of God "left his throne" when he became man. A few examples,

There was no room in Bethlehem
for Him who left his throne

Thou didst leave Thy throne
and kingly crown

The Lord of hosts, the God most high,
who quits His throne on earth to live

The trouble is that I'm at a loss as to what all that is supposed to mean. When he became man, did the Son abdicate his role in the lordship of the Trinity, ceasing to rule the cosmos together with the Father and the Holy Spirit? What does such a construction do to our doctrine of the Trinity? Besides, Scripture bears witness to the fact that the Son was involved in upholding and guiding the universe before and after he was made flesh, Colossians 1:15-17, Hebrews 1:3. And Hebrews 1:8, citing Psalm 45:6-7 insists that the Son's throne is "for ever and ever". 

The nearest Scripture gets to the idea that Christ "left his throne" is in using spatial language to describe the incarnation. In the Gospel According to John Jesus often testifies that he came down from heaven to earth, John 3:13, 6:51. But even here, we need to understand that this language is figurative, accommodated to our capacity as creatures constrained by space and time. Being of the same divine essence as the Father, the Son is omnipresent. He was not shorn of his immensity when he became Man. In the words of Augustine, Jesus  became was he was not - fully human, without ceasing to be what he was - fully God. The one who was born in Bethelem  was at one and the same time filling heaven and earth, unconstrained by the restrictions of created space. When Scripture speaks in terms of the Jesus coming down from heaven, this language is intended to convey the dazzling height from which he stooped when the Word was made flesh. 

But still, even as he was born of woman, born under the law, Jesus was the sovereign Son, ruling over all things together with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Rather than depicting Christ as surrendering a throne at the incarnation, the bible insists that he came to claim his crown as the Redeemer-King of the people of God, Isaiah 9:6-7, Luke 1:31-33. The incarnation was not an act of dethronement for the Son, but of further enthronementBecause he who was the form of God took the form of a servant and became obedient to the death of the cross, God exalted him to his right hand in glory.  Jesus is the Lamb in the midst of the throne, worthy to reign because he redeemed us to God by his blood, Acts 2:36, Philippians 2:8-11, Revelation 5:5-6, 9-10. 

Well might angels sing in wonder
as they herald forth his birth;
even they can scarcely ponder 
why God's Son came down to earth.
See Him now, enthroned in glory,
earth awaiting His return.
While our hearts recount the story
may these hearts within us burn.
(Graham Stuart Harrison) 

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Blogging in the name of the Lord: Jonathan Hunt

GD: Hello Jonathan Hunt and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.

Born 1977, born again 1992, called to preach in 2005. Married since 2002, to Clare, with one step-son, John, who is 14. I have a degree in English Literature from the Open University. For the last three years I have been full-time carer for my wife who has MS, and I have served as Preaching Elder at Cheltenham Evangelical Free Church.

GD: You blog at Pastor’s Pen. How do you view blogging in relation to the pastoral ministry?

A word of explanation, perhaps. I have blogged in various incarnations since 2004. Upon accepting the new Pastorate, I decided that I really could not continue to blog as a private individual. I do view blogging technology as useful, though, and so I will be continuing to 'blog' using a part of our new church website, This will mainly be a means of placing online the pastoral letters, articles and book reviews which I write for our monthly church magazine, the 'Morton Messenger'.

GD: You are about to become Pastor of Morton Baptist Church, Thornbury. Describe your call the work of the ministry at Thornbury.

It was a great suprise. Although Clare and I had the sense that we were open to a move somewhere, we could not see how it would work out as we needed to stay in Cheltenham for at least another 18 months. I had been aware of the church for about three years, having attending various preaching rallies there, and preached on a few Sundays. In May 2011 I attended such a rally meeting, and I was taken aside by the Church Secretary afterwards. 'May we register an interest?' he asked. I came home and discussed it with Clare, prayed, and the next day agreed that they could take it further. I was 'interviewed' by the Secretary and former Pastor, and then preached with a view twice one Sunday at the end of June. I also understand that various references from experienced ministers were taken up. On Friday 1st July, the church members extended an unanimous call to me, which I have (obviously) accepted, and I commence formally on 1st January 2012.

GD: And the Induction Service is when?

Let's get this straight - the Ordination Service AND the Induction Service are BOTH on Saturday 14th January 2012 at 2pm.

 GD: That's clear, then. What are your hopes and fears as you contemplate your first pastorate?

My hopes are many. Primarily that the Lord will be pleased to bless our ministry to the salvation of many in the area, but equally that He will bless and encourage the saints who have been bruised and battered by some considerable troubles and unexpected bereavements. Secondarily I hope as ever that I might grow in grace and be a blessing to others. I continue to be amazed that someone like me could be used in this way. A minor hope is that we might sing some more Psalms! My fears? All about myself. Jesus Christ never fails - but I know that I do! I also fear that if there is blessing, praise will be wrongly attributed to me rather than to Almighty God.

GD: Where did you train for the pastoral ministry and what did you find most helpful about your training?

Mostly in the school of experience. The past few years have seen me do pretty much everything that arises pastorally, apart from a wedding. I did attend the London Reformed Baptist Seminary for four years but I freely confess that whilst I completed full attendance and (I hope) did all the reading, I didn't manage to submit all the assignments. I continue to train myself and I am trying to study some greek now. If there was one thing most helpful about LRBS, it was the series of 'Book overviews' given by various pastors who brought out the chief themes, opportunities for teaching or evangelistic preaching, and schemes for covering the contents, in all the books of the Bible.

GD: Who has had the greatest influence on your theological development?

Peter Masters. This is the obvious truth, because he was my pastor for 24 years. I owe Dr Masters a great debt - and if I could have two attributes of his - his passion for the lost and his desire to make the scriptures accessible to everyone - then I would be very happy. I would just add that in the ten years that I have been away from London, I have continued to develop theologically, and some of my positions would now be a little different from his - although I would still affirm the 1689 confession with very minor variations.

GD: If time travel were possible, which figure from post-biblical church history would you like to meet and what would you say to him/her?

It is corny but I cannot get beyond Mr Spurgeon. I would love to know what his voice sounded like. What would I say? Nothing. I would be listening.

GD: What is the most helpful theological book that you have read in the last twelve months? It is a must read because...

A small one. 'Singing the songs of Jesus' by Michael Lefebvre (Christian Focus). Helpful because it is the best theological presentation of why we should sing the Psalms in worship. A must read because it explains so plainly why the Psalms are Christ's songs which we may sing WITH Him. It avoids the pitfall of arguing for exclusive psalmody (without saying whether that is right or wrong) and this makes the case for the singing of the Psalms in public worship all the stronger.

 GD: Care to share your top three songs or pieces of music?

My tastes are very broad. Thanks to Gary Brady (he posted a link to youtube on his blog, Heavenly Worldliness) I do enjoy the music of Adam Young, better known as 'Owl City'. A professing Christian, his lyrics are clean, the music is fun and there are many spiritual messages in the songs. My favourite track is the multiple-platiunum hit 'Fireflies'. That's only really one answer isn't it? I'll probably say  Handel's Messiah if that isn't cheating, and also 'I was glad' by Parry.

GD: What is the biggest problem facing Evangelicalism today and how should we respond?

A lack of corporate prayer. That is simply my own personal observation. Empty church prayer meetings, long silences, people praying about pet theological issues, and next to no pleading for God's blessing and help, particularly in evangelism. How we should respond is fairly obvious to my mind - make much of corporate and private prayer, encourage and exhort people to pray, and give the lead to the people we serve.

GD: And which blogs do you most enjoy reading and why?

Not very many. I use an RSS reader which allows me to see what is available at a glance. Apart from your good blog, I would say that the top five I visit every day are David Murray's Head Heart Hand, Brian Croft's Practical Shepherding, Jeff Lyle's Transforming Truth, Jeremy Walker's The Wanderer, and for politics and current affairs, Archbishop Cranmer. Very many good blogs have fallen into dis-use in recent times, I note.

GD: Thanks for that, J. Every blessing with your new ministry

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The Lord of Time

Chosen in Christ
before time's dawn;
not for my works,
but in your grace.
Sovereign Lord,
I praise you.

Redeemed by Christ
in time's fullness,
his blood shed
to set me free.
Loving Lord,
I praise you.

Crucified with Christ,
a time to die.
Baptised into death,
sin reigns no more.
Mighty Lord,
I praise you.

Risen with Christ,
a time to live.
Fullness of life
from empty tomb.
Living Lord,
I praise you.

Seated with Christ,
a time to reign
in heavenly realms,
more than a conqueror.
Exalted Lord,
I praise you.

Made like Christ
at time’s end,
raised immortal
by his voice.
Jesus, Lord,
I'll praise you.

Monday, December 05, 2011

On listening to Mendelssohn's Elijah

Augustine once said, "I want to know God, my soul and nothing else." When asked what music I like, I often reply, "I listen to William Williams, Radiohead and nothing else." Admittedly that's a bit of an exaggeration, but what I mean is that I don't much like what passes for contemporary Christian music. By that I don't mean hymns by modern writers like Stuart Townend, you understand, but Phatfish and stuff like that. Not that I've listened to a lot of Phatfish. In fact I can't remember ever doing so. But that's beside the point. I don't like their music in the same way I don't like custard and that's that. 

I enjoy listening to hymns, whether old or new, Radiohead, Coldplay etc and nothing much in between. But even that isn't an especially accurate reflection of my musical tastes, because I'm also partial to a bit of classical music; Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Sibelius, Bruch, Elgar, Mahler, Shostakovich, the usual stuff. 

Anyway, on Sunday I preached away at Cheltenham Evangelical Free Church. I went on my own and fancied listening to some music while driving. Being a it of a Sabbatarian I don't play Coldplay on the Lord's day, or even Radiohead, so I dug out my copy of Mehdelssohn's Elijah. Welsh bass baritone, Bryn Terfel sings the part of the eponymous prophet, accompanied by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under the baton of Paul Daniel. Being on my own I could turn up the car stereo really massive loud, which I can't usually do because it gives my wife 'a headache'. 

I had played the CD many times before, but the effect of listening to Elijah on full blast really blew me away. Mendelssohn's oratorio brilliantly captures the highs and lows of the Elijah's ministry, from his triumph at Mount Carmel to his despair at Horeb, the mountain of God. Terfel is amazing in the lead part, singing with great skill and a deep emotional empathy for the prophet. You  sometimes feel that he is almost sing-preaching, as he thunders against the prophets of Baal. 

It all ends by directing the listener to a new Elijah, in the form of John the Baptist with an allusion to Malachi 4:5-6 cf. Luke 1:17. Of course, John the Baptist's role was to point people to Christ. The libretto picks this up, having the chorus sing a catena of biblical quotations, including Isaiah 41:25, 42:1 & 11:2. A quartet exhorts the listener to come to the Lord, Isaiah 55:1, 3, before the chorus concludes the piece with a rousing doxology, "Thou fillest heaven with thy glory. Amen."

Mehdelssohn's Elijah ends where Handel's Messiah begins, with John the Baptist as a new Elijah, preparing the way for the Lord. Mehdelssohn's tremendous Elijah serves as a forerunner for Handel's more excellent Messiah.

I know that the Latin for "take and read" is toll lege. I don't know what the Latin is for "take and listen" so I'll just have to say it in English. Take and listen to Mendelssohn's Elijah. If you've never done so before, what are you waiting for? If you have do so before, do it again. Soon. You can catch the Terfel version on Spotify

Thursday, December 01, 2011

The Lamb in the midst of the throne

Revelation 5:6

God’s sovereignty is mediated through Jesus Christ, the Son of God who became man and redeemed us by his blood. In his humanity Jesus has been exalted to God’s right hand in glory. Jesus Christ is Lord. God’s sovereignty has a human face. “The dust of the earth is on the throne of the Majesty on high” (Rabbi Duncan). In Revelation 4 God, reigns in unapproachable light, and in absolute power over all things. We might be overwhelmed by the majesty of it all, even the angels were, Revelation 4:10-11. But in the midst of the throne is a Lamb that once was slain, the Christ of Golgotha, who knew pain and suffering, who overcame by the shedding of his blood. He is no remote potentate, who cares little for the suffering and struggles faced by his people in the world. He looks down upon his church. He sees her fighting not to lose her first love, fighting against temptation, fighting against error, facing suffering. He is able to sympathise with her. He knows our frame. He remembers that we are dust. In all our affliction he is afflicted. The sovereignty of God is tinged with the sympathy of Christ. The Lamb is in the midst of the throne.

LAMB of God, Thou now art seated
High upon Thy Father's throne;
All Thy gracious work completed,
All Thy mighty victory won:
Every knee in heaven is bending
To the Lamb for sinners slain;
Every voice and heart is swelling,
"Worthy is the Lamb to reign".

Lord, in all Thy power and glory,
Still Thy thoughts and eyes are here;
Watching o'er Thy ransomed people,
To Thy gracious heart so dear;
Thou for us art interceding;
Everlasting is Thy love;
And a blessed rest preparing
In our Father's house above.

Lamb of God, when Thou in glory
Shalt to this sad earth return,
All Thy foes shall quake before Thee,
All who now despise Thee mourn;
Then shall we at Thine appearing,
With Thee in Thy kingdom reign;
Thine the praise, and Thine the glory,
Lamb of God for sinners slain.

(James George Deck, 1802-84) 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Some thoughts on the attributes of God

You may have noticed that I've done a few brief posts on the attributes of God over the last week or so. Here are some thoughts on the theological study of  the divine attributes. 

First, I'm not sure that "attributes" is the best possible word to describe the characteristics of God's being. Louis Berkhof argued that "perfections" might be a better term. The language of divine "attributes" suggests that it is we who attribute certain qualities to God. That leaves us wide open to Feurbach's allegation that theology is merely the projection of human thoughts concerning the divine. In  reality however,  theology is an attempt  to reflect on who and what God is according to his self-revelation in Holy Scripture. 

Second, the distinction between God's communicable and incommunicable attributes (or perfections) cannot be easily maintained. What might be regarded as communicable properties, such as love and truth are properly incommunicable in their totality. God is infinite and eternal love and truth and we are but finite creatures. On the other hand, some of the supposedly incommunicable attributes such as omnipresence are capable of communication when shorn of their infinite and eternal aspects. The omnipresent God communicated presence to his creation - time and space

Third, the divine perfections should not first of all be considered in terms of God's relationship to the created order. God is not omniscient primarily because he knows all about the world he planned and made. Rather it is that in his infinite knowledge God plumbs the depths of his own being, and his omniscience is expressed in the full and complete knowledge that each person of the Trinity has of himself, and the other persons of the Godhead. 

Fourth, the doctrine of the Trinity should not be tagged onto the end of a study of the attributes of God, almost as an afterthought. God is not love first and foremost because he loves us, but because of the loving union and communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Similarly, the divine omnipresence is not primarily to be defined in relation to the creation, that in his being God fills all things. Rather, it is that the persons of the Trinity dwell in the same divine space, each indwelling the other in loving communicative action (see here).

Fifth, the divine perfections primarily concern who God is in himself in the splendour of his being and in the fullness of the intertrinitarian relations. But the study of what are traditionally called the attributes of God should not be abstracted from the drama of redemption. The one Lord God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit disclosed his perfections in all their dazzling glory when Christ offered himself to God through the eternal Spirit to save us from sin, Hebrews 9:14, John 8:28, 12:32, 17:1-2, 4-5, 1 John 4:8-10. By the communicative action of the Triune Lord we have been incorporated in the theo-drama of redeeming grace. Prayerful reflection on the perfections of God will enable us to play our roles in the drama of redemption with greater faithfulness and authenticity. Knowing God better should move us to worship him more adoringly, serve him more sacrificially, and bear witness to the gospel with greater boldness and compassion, Daniel 11:32, Colossians 1:9-10.  

Friday, November 25, 2011

Light up Westbury

An edited version of an article for this week's White Horse News & December's News & Views

Hey. I know that this is the “churchy” bit of the paper that you usually skip, but hang on a minute. “I’m not interested in religion.” You might object. Nor me. What I’m interested in is finding light in this dark world. With the bleak economic situation, the news filled with stories of death and destruction, things are pretty gloomy at the moment. Not to mention the added layer of gloom that comes with the clocks going back to the long dark age of GMT.

Will someone please switch on the lights! Speaking of which, this tonight marks the grand switching on of Westbury’s Christmas Lights. Hundreds of people, old and young will excitedly gather in the High Street. Hot drinks and mince pies will be served, maybe even candyfloss. Father Christmas will come to town. And then 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, LIGHT. The once darkened streets of Westbury will suddenly be bathed in the warm glow of the town’s Christmas illuminations.

At this time of year people also make the effort to light up their homes. For some this means a displaying simple Christmas candle arch that flickers away in the front window. Others go for more elaborate displays, covering their houses with the brightly lit icicles, reindeer, snow men, and, of course, Father Christmas. Nice. But I’d hate to have to pay their electricity bill!

It’s no coincidence that Christmas is associated with light. Christians believe that with the coming of Jesus the light of God’s love dawned in our dark world. His birth was predicted in these words, “the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79).

Jesus came to break the power of sin and death by his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead. To follow him is to walk in the light. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12). 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Banner of Truth prodigal returns

Some time ago I stopped subscribing to the print edition of the Banner of Truth magazine and fled to the far country of a Banner mag free life. However, just recently I came to myself and humbly asked the Banner of Truth if they would have me back. They didn't drape a costly robe around my shoulders, give me a ring, a new pair of sandals and kill the fatted calf, but they did the next best thing. They signed me up for a two year electronic subscription to the Banner of Truth. Shortly afterwards I received an email with a PDF copy of the mag attached. It was good to be back home in Banner land. 

Amongst other treasures, November's edition features an excellent article by Michel Reeves on Goodwin, Sibbes and the Love of Christ and carries excerpts from the writings of Ted Donnelley, whose retirement from pastoral ministry is announced in the magazine. I have been privileged to sit under Ted Donnelley's ministry (that's him on the left) on a number of occasions. His preaching never failed to inform my mind, move my heart and stir me up in the service of the King. 

Don't let any Pharasaical older brothers spoil the party by saying that they never stopped subscribing to the magazine, even when Walter Chantry was editor. Simply rejoice that I who was once lost to the Banner of Truth have now been found. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The immutability of God

In the immutability of his being God is eternally true to himself in the infinite glory of his holy love, both in the intertrinitarian relations of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and in his relationship with the creature. His steadfast love never fails.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The omniscience of God

The omniscience of God is expressed in his exhaustive knowledge of his own being and the infinite knowledge that each person of the Trinity has of himself and of the other persons of the godhead. In his eternal and infinite knowledge of all things the one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit knows whatever comes to pass in time and space because he determined whatever comes to pass in the world he created according to the purpose of his own will. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Themelios November 2011

The latest issue of The Gospel Coalition's online theological journal, Themelios is out now. From Don Carson's editorial on Spiritual Disciplines,
People think of themselves as "spiritual" because they have certain aesthetic sensibilities, or because they feel some kind of mystical connection with nature, or because they espouse some highly privatized version of one of any number of religions (but "religion" tends to be a word with negative connotations while "spirituality" has positive overtones). Under the terms of the new covenant, however, the only "spiritual" person is the person who has the Holy Spirit, poured out on individuals in regeneration. 
Lots of other good stuff too, but sadly Carl Trueman's regular 'Minority Report' column is no more. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The immensity of God

The immensity of God is the triune Lord in the plenitude of his being, in which Father, Son and Holy Spirit occupy the same divine space, each indwelling the other in loving communicative action. In the immensity of his being the Lord God, unconstrained by the restrictions of created space, is freely present to sustain, guide and redeem the universe he made for his own glory. 

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

On not buying any more books...for a while...a possible exception

Back in September I made a public resolution not to buy any more books until I have made good progress on my "unread books" pile. Since then I've finished Atheist Delusions by David Bentley Hart (reviewed here) and Bread of Heaven, Eifion Evans' biography of William Williams (I would post a review, but the good folks at Affinity have asked me to hold off until it is first published in the autumn edition of Foundations - still not out). I've also completed The Future of Justification by John Piper, which I read in the freebie PDF version - see here. I've just started on Tom Wright's response to Piper, Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision. When I'm done I hope to post a double review covering Piper and Wright's dialogue on justification by faith. I've read as far as Chapter 3 of another Piper title, Let the Nations be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions, which is very good. Also, I'm now into Volume 3 of Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics. Yesterday, waiting while my wife had a physiotherapy session, I read a decent chunk - most of chapter 17, TB/GB, of Tony Blair's The Journey, which I've had on the go for a while in fits and starts. 

But I'm seriously tempted to break my resolution by ordering Engaging with Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Life and Legacy of 'the Doctor', edited by Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones. See David Ceri's blog for the low down.


IVP have kindly agreed to send me a review copy of Engaging with Martyn Lloyd-Jones 

Friday, November 04, 2011

Steve Jobs' final achievement

It's been almost a month since Steve Jobs passed into eternity. So, this post is running a little behind the pack of journos, bloggers and opinionators who have commented on the life and death of Mr. Jobs. But more information on the technocrat has come to light since he died on 5th October. Perhaps, then, some reflections at this point might not be altogether amiss. 

Let me say up front that I'm not a card carrying member of the Steve Jobs fan club.  Sorry about that, but in the interests of full disclosure I should say that I'm writing this on a PC, not a Mac. My mobile is an Android rather than an iPhone. When I download music it's more likely to be from Amazon not iTunes. Sadly I don't posses any form of MP3 player, certainly not an overpriced iPod. Not that I've got anything against Apple heads with their "i" this, that and the other, but I'm simply not one of them. I hope that doesn't invalidate what I got to say on the world of gadgetry's Man in Black.

Jobs' philosophy of life was best summed up in his famous 2005 commencement address to Stamford University graduates. He spoke of the impact that the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer had on his life, forcing him to face up to his own mortality,
Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. 
There is a lot of wisdom in the thought that as we're all going to die we had better get on with living life to the max. The Bible urges us think in that way, Ecclesiastes 9:10. But Jobs is saying more than that. He is commending a kind of "live your dreams and follow your heart" approach to life. That may sound all very find and dandy, but it isn't actually very good advice. What if your dreams are little more than sad delusions? Think of the thousands of people who audition for reality TV shows like the X-Factor. Every one of them believes that they are the Next Big Thing in Pop Music. But their dreams are cruelly shattered by the howls of derision that greet their tuneless rendition of River Deep Mountain High. No amount of dreaming and heart following is going to change the fact that they can't sing. Better that they get on with being a good hairdresser, bricklayer, chartered accountant or whatever, earn their crust and provide for their loved ones as best they can. For most people it's not a case of "living your dreams", but "life's hard and then you die". 

Also, Steve Jobs may have succeeded in living his dreams by producing phones and stuff for Apple, but from reading reviews of his authorised biography, it seems that he was a tryanical bully to work for. Making his dreams a reality involved making his employees lives a nightmare. But that's the trouble isn't it? The "don't listen to anyone else, follow your intuition" approach to life is necessarily inconsiderate of the needs of others. Isn't that just a little bit selfish and inhuman? What does it profit a man if he invents the iPhone and loses his soul?  

Which brings us to Jobs' thoughts on death,
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.
Yes, we're all going to die. Quite true. But is death really "the single best invention of Life"? Not according to the Bible. Death isn't natures way of clearing out the old to make way for the new. It is the wages of sin. Sin alienates us from God, the giver of life. Death is the last enemy, a merciless foe rather than a kindly friend. Death robs a man of his life and loved ones of a dear relative or friend. After death comes the judgement of God, Hebrews 9:27. 

According to Jobs' sister, Mona Simpson, who witnessed him pass away, "Death didn't happen to Steve, he achieved it". His last words were, “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow”. But sadly, no one "achieves" death. We are its passive victims. I say no one. There is one exception. The death of Jesus was the greatest achievement of love ever witnessed by the world. He willingly laid down his life in order to atone for the sins of his people and save us from death, John 15:13. After achieving atonement for sin in his death, Jesus rose again from the grave, signalling the death of death itself, John 10:17-18. In the light of Jesus' death and resurrection, the believer can taunt death as a defeated foe and live life to the full to the glory of God, 1 Corinthians 15:50-58. Don't follow your heart. It's deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9). Follow Jesus, John 8:12, 11:25-26. 

Thursday, November 03, 2011

A benediction

Grace of Christ
freely granted
at blood-bought price
be with you all.

Love of God
dazzlingly disclosed
in Jesus' cross
overflow your hearts.

Fellowship of the Holy Spirit
extravagantly bestowed
by nail-pierced hands
give you peace.

Monday, October 31, 2011

So, the church is for what, exactly?

What's happening? Serious minded media types are giving attention to the true mission of the church. Usually it's like 'the church is so out of date' or 'the church is pointless' or 'the church is evil', but suddenly the church has an important task. It is actually for something. Nice, eh? Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger said so, here and Hugo Rifkind of The Times said so here (sadly you'll need to be a Times subscriber to follow the last link). Apparently, the mission of the church is to stick up for 'pious idealistic impracticalities'. At least according to Rifkind, a self-confessed 'contented agnostic'. 

You see, the argument runs,  if Jesus was around today (let's forget for a moment that according to the witness of Scripture he rose from the dead and therefore is still 'around today'), he would be on the side of the anti-capitalist protesters camped outside St. Paul's. That's what the church is for. I mean, didn't Jesus overthrow the tables of the money changers in the temple? They were the unacceptable face of first century capitalism and he sure showed them what for. And didn't Jesus say stuff like, "you cannot serve God and mammon"? So, What Would Jesus Do? He'd protest against the City fat cats with their obscene bonuses. He'd pitch his tent outside of St. Paul's with the rest of them - and probably spend the night there too.

I defend the right right to protest, but  since when did that include the right to set up camp in public places? Is camping now a radical antiestablishment act? That's news to me, and I was a boy Scout. Now, let's be honest and admit that the church authorities at St. Paul's haven't exactly covered themselves in glory in their response to the militants from Millets. It was silly to shut the doors of the cathedral for the first time since the Blitz for 'health and safety' reasons. Were they afraid that a worshipper, or worse, a paying tourist might trip over a guy rope or something? What would the real St Paul have thought of that? Health and safety. Have the assembled clergy never read 2 Corinthians 11, where Paul lists the dangers he faced in his apostolic ministry? He was flogged, mobbed, shipwrecked and stoned. Stumbling over a tent isn't included in his inventory of sufferings. Hardly being fed to the lions is it? The trouble is that if the ecclesiastics get tough and call in the cops to forcibly remove the tented agitants, that doesn't seem like a Christian thing to do. Whatever happened to "love thy neighbour" etc?

But in reality this whole debacle is a distraction from the main task of the church. As I noted earlier, Jesus' cleansing of the temple is often cited in favour of the anti-capitalist demonstrators. That is misguided. When Jesus drove the money changers from the temple courts, it wasn't because he was a kindly proto-Keynsian rather than a hard nosed lassiez faire capitalist. His motivation was rather different. The money changers were doing an OK thing in the wrong place. You see, they had set up their Bureau de Changes in the Court of the Gentiles. An area of the temple that was meant for non-Jews to come and worship the God of Israel had been turned into a busy shopping mall. That is what outraged Jesus. Look at Mark 11:15-19, especially Mark  11:17, where Jesus quotes a combination Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11.

The temple was meant to act as a magnet for the nations, to draw all people to call upon the name of Yahweh. Note Solomon's prayer at the dedication of the original temple, 1 Kings 8:41-43. The prophets looked forward to the day when the  nations would stream to Jerusalem to seek the Lord, Zechariah 8:20-23. What Jesus encountered in the temple was a travesty of this hope. Indeed in his judgement the temple and its ministry has become so irredeemably corrupt that it would be swept into oblivion, Mark 13:1-2. That's what happened in 70AD when it was destroyed by the Romans.

The new temple is the people of God, united to Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit, Ephesians 2:19-22, 1 Peter 2:4-5, 9-10. The task of the church is to proclaim the good news of salvation to the nations, Luke 24:46-49. The worldwide church of God  is not a commercial venture. It's calling is to be a house of prayer for all peoples. Admittedly St Paul's with its £14.50 entrance fee and gift shop probably isn't the best example of this. But still, the main mission of the church is not to act as a cheerleader for a band of well meaning protesters with their ill-defined anti-capitalist agenda. The church is not a political or economic pressure group. Its God-given purpose is to make disciples of Jesus, Matthew 28:18-20. 

Am I saying that the church doesn't give a fig about social justice? Hardly. There is something deeply wrong with our economic system when hedge funds are allowed to asset strip old folks' homes. Amos had a thing or two to say about the rich plundering the poor, (Amos 2:6-8), not to mention James, (James 5:1-6). Christians like William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury worked tirelessly on behalf of the poor and the oppressed. They were not concerned with 'pious idealistic impracticalities', but made a real difference to the lives of ill used and vulnerable people. Christians are doing the same today.

The key task of the church is to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to all people and demonstrate the reality of Christian love by offering practical help to those in need. That's what the church is for. I'm afraid that championing the cause of anti-capitalist campers has very little to do with it. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

It's the economy, stupid!

OK then, I thought I’d have a stab at addressing the world economic crisis. I mean, unless the news is punctuated by reports of the Defence Secretary’s resignation, or the clearance of an illegal traveller camp, or the capture/killing of Gaddafi, the current economic situation is the big story. In the words of Bill Clinton’s 1992 election campaign strategist, “It’s the economy, stupid!”

Will Greece default on its debts? Will the Eurozone survive in its present form? Will the Government’s deficit reduction programme do the job? To be honest, I don’t actually know the answer to any of those questions. You see, I’m not an economist. If you are after my opinion on whether the Bank of England’s latest round of quantitative easing (thanks, spell checker) will prove effective, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I really haven’t a clue.

So, you might ask, “What’s the point in him rather grandly proposing to address the world economic crisis on Exiled Preacher.” Good question.

Not so long ago politicians were promising an “end of boom and bust”. They held before our wondering eyes the prospect of endless economic growth and prosperity. Some wise old souls doubted whether this could really be true, but most believed that “things can only get better” (remember that one?). Then came the crash. Banks needed bailing out. Unemployment figures soared. Government cuts. Eurozone crisis. You get the picture.

Now, you’d be hard pressed to find something resembling a complete economic theory in the Bible. That’s not what the Good Book’s for. But for those who heed its message, the Bible has some pretty shrewd things to say about money. For example, “Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle.” (Proverbs 23:5 NIV). Paul warns the wealthy against trusting in “uncertain riches” (1 Timothy 6:17). Our current economic woes are testimony enough to the truth of these words.

What’s to be done? Jesus counsels us, “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:20). Set your hearts on the true and lasting riches that come through knowing Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.

* Adapted from an article for November's News & Views, West Lavington Parish Magazine. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

Juxtaposition: Herman Bavinck on God's fatherly providence and Thomas Hardy's blighted star

The lives of Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) and Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) intersected the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Both men were affected in different ways by the upheavals in thought and life that characterised that turbulent period in world history. As their respective portraits show, the Dutch Reformed theologian and the English novelist and poet shared a common a penchant for extravagant facial hair. But Bavinck and Hardy had very different outlooks upon life. In this post I want to try and bring Hardy's bleak determinism into dialogue with Bavinck's account of the fatherly providence of God. 

Reading Bavinck on providence in Reformed Dogmatics Volume 2: God and Creation (Baker Academic, 2006) put me in mind of Thomas Hardy. The theologian makes a pointed distinction between fate and God's providential rule of the universe. In her excellent biography, Thomas Hardy: Time-Torn Man (Penguin, 2007), Claire Tomlain devotes a chapter to Hardy's fatalistic outlook as it found expression in his novels. The chapter is entitled The Blighted Star, after Tess' complaint in Tess of the D'Urbevilles that this planet is a "blighted star" due to the frustrations and hardships of life. 

As a young man Thomas Hardy came under the influence of Henry Moule, the evangelical vicar of Fordington. When revival broke out under Moule's ministry in 1855, Hardy seems to have been affected. While training as an architect he began to study the New Testament in the original Greek and was a regular church goer. But this early piety was not to last. By 1866 he no longer accepted many of the key teachings of the Church. Reading the liberal theology of Essays and Reviews and the writings of the agnostic Thomas Huxley helped to unsettle his beliefs. On attempting to make a living as a writer, he became acquainted with Leslie Stephen and his atheistic fellow-travellers. 

Tomlain cites the perceptive comment of Irving Howe on the impact that his loss of faith had on Hardy's outlook, 
Because Hardy remained enough of a Christian to believe that purpose courses through the universe but not enough of a Christian to believe that purpose is benevolent or the attribute of a particular Being, he had to make his plots convey the oppressiveness of fatality without positing an agency determining the course of fate... The result was that he often seems to be coercing his plots...and sometimes...he seems to be potting against his own characters. 
This can be seen, for example in The Mayor of Casterbridge, where the impersonal forces of fate seem to conspire to bring down Michael Henchard. The erstwhile mayor dies a lonely and hopeless death. He gives up on life because of the odds fixed against him by 'that ingenious machinery contrived by the gods for reducing human possibilities of happiness to a minimum.' The final words of the novel, found on the lips of Henchard's supposed daughter, Elizabeth-Jane are devoid of hope as she reflects that, 'happiness is the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.' On reviewing Jude the Obscure, one of Hardy's most bitterly anti-Christian novels, Edmund Gosse wondered, 'What has Providence done to Mr. Hardy that he should rise up in the arable land of Wessex and shake his fist at his Creator?'

Mention of Providence brings me to Herman Bavinck's treatment of the doctrine in Reformed Dogmatics. His single chapter consideration of the subject comprises the fourth and final part of RD Vol. 2, appropriately entitled God's Fatherly Care. The theologian begins by marshalling a vast array of biblical materials. He concludes that providence is God's kingly work of upholding and governing the world that he has made in accordance with his eternal plan and purpose. "His absolute power and perfect love, accordingly, are the true object of faith in providence reflected in Holy Scripture." (p. 593). Bavinck distinguishes the divine foreordination of all things from fate. Pantheism, which fails to differentiate between the transcendent Creator and the creation, inevitably collapses into fatalism,
On its premise there is no existence other than the existence of nature; no higher power than that which operates in the world in accordance with ironclad law; no other and better life than that for which the materials are present in this visible creation. For a time people may flatter themselves with the idealistic hope that the world will perfect itself by an imminent series of developments, but soon this optimism turns into pessimism, this idealism into materialism. (p. 599).
As Howe pointed out, Hardy's fatalism was a twisted and ruined vestige of his earlier Christian belief in divine providence. He felt that life must have a purpose, even if that purpose is a pantheistic impersonal force that is out to get us. But as Bavinck makes clear, citing Augustine, God's providential ordering of the world is not "a blind coercive power, outside of and in opposition to our will, for 'the fact is that our choices fall within the order of the causes, which is known for certain to God and is contained in his foreknowledge.'" (p. 600). Christian theology recognises a concurrence between the providence of God and the free actions of his human creatures. "Neither are the secondary causes merely instruments, organs, inanimate automata, but they are genuine causes with a nature, vitality, spontaneity, manner of working,  and law of their own." (p. 614). We are not, like Hardy's characters, the unwilling victims of a malign deterministic force. We are the free subjects of God's providential rule. As the Westminster Confession of Faith states,
God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. (III:I) 
'New Atheist' Richard Dawkins goes further than Hardy, with the latter's belief that 'purpose courses through the universe'. Consistent with his unbelief, Dawkins denies that there can be any purpose in life. Without God there can be none. 
Such a universe would be neither good or bad in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, or any justice. The universe that we observe has precicely the properties that we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, but blind, pitiless indifference." Daily Telegraph, 10 May 1995. 
The biblical teaching on providence set out so helpfully by Bavinck preserves us from the hopeless pessimism of unbelief. "In all circumstances of life, it gives us good confidence in our faithful God and Father that he will provide whatever we need for body and soul and that he will turn to our good whatever adversity he sends us in this sad world, since he is able to do this as almighty God and desires to do this as a faithful Father." (p. 619).