Monday, April 30, 2012

Confessions of an ageing mod

It was an early start for a Saturday morning. Up at 6.30am for an 8.00am meeting. That's right 8.00am on a Saturday. But with the promise of tasty bacon butties, washed down with a mug of two of steaming hot coffee, off I went to a men's breakfast at Clink Evangelical Church, Frome. Well, it was the food and the fact that I'd agreed to speak at the meeting that got me out of bed so early on a Saturday. I'm happy to say that the breakfast was great and I enjoyed the fellowship. Whether my talk was any good I'm  not so sure, but here's more or less what I had to say.

From mod to God

The 1980's witnessed something of a mod revival. Sharp three button suits and crisp button-down shirts replaced the wilful ugliness of punk. A generation of teenagers rediscovered Motown soul classics and reconnected with The Who, The Kinks and The Small Faces. All of this was inspired by a slew of mod revival bands; Secret Affair, The Merton Parkas, and above all, The Jam. In March 1980 Going Underground topped the charts for three weeks in a row. The mods were back. 'Bliss was it to be alive in that dawn. But to be young was very heaven!' (With apologies to William Wordsworth). At least that's what I thought at the time.

Being a mod was both a help and a hindrance in my journey towards the Christian faith. 

Man in the corner shop

In my mid-teens I became disillusioned with atheism and became more and more attracted to belief in God. It was all a little vague and hazy at the time, but I remember looking at the beauty of nature and thinking, "Wow. God, not the Big Bang must have made this world." That realisation didn't really change my lifestyle much, but it was a step in the right direction. Going to a local church youth group also helped to concentrate my mind on matters of faith.

Some of the music that I listened to at the time also made me think. There is a song on The Jam's album, Sound Affects called, Man in the Corner Shop. It's all about thwarted aspiration and inter-class rivalry. The shop customer is jealous of the shop owner, and the shop owner in turn is jealous of the boss from the factory. Unexpectedly, this social disharmony is resolved not by a Marxist revolution, but by the people of the area going to church,

Go to church do the people from the area,
All shapes and classes sit and pray together.
For here they are all one,
For God created all men equal.

But what is it that causes people to envy and hate one another? Paul Weller reflects on this in Carnation,  a song from the The Jam's last studio album, The Gift.

It begins,

If you gave me a fresh carnation
I would only crush its tender petals
With me you'll have no escape
And at the same time there'll be nowhere to settle -

The song continues,

I am out of season all year 'round
Hear machinery roar to my empty sound
Touch my heart and feel winter
Hold my hand and be doomed forever -

But what is this incarnation of cruelty and heartlessness? In the last verse Weller hold up a mirror to his listeners,

And if you're wondering by now who I am
Look no further than the mirror -
Because I am the Greed and Fear
And every ounce of Hate in you.

Like Nathan the prophet to king David, Weller is saying, "You are the man" (2 Samuel 12:7). You are the problem. You are the sinner. He offers no way of salvation, but Carnation confronts us with the reality of own own personal sinfulness. The song haunted my imagination and wouldn't go away. It was one of the means by which the Lord pursued me.

The enemy

In mod mythology the greatest battle of world history was not Thermopylae, where the three hundred Spartan 'Immortals' held a million Persian invaders at bay. Neither was it Trafalgar, Waterloo, World War I, or World War II. Rather it was the clash of parka wearing mods and leather clad rockers on Brighton beach in 1964. Churchill's words at the height of the Second Word War were appropriated in commemoration of the affray, "We'll fight them on the beaches". This exposes something of the ugly heart of the mod movement and its association with mindless violence and tribalism. In the 1980's the enemy was not rockers, but punks and skinheads. But the old hatred of other tribes that sometimes erupted into violence was just the same.

However, I came to realise that my biggest enemy was not a punk with spiked-up hair or a skinhead with Doctor Martin boots, but the enemy within. How was I going to win the battle against myself, against the 'greed and fear and every ounce of hate in me'? The mod movement provided no answers to that question. That is why I needed Christ.

The Son of God became man in order to destroy the works of the evil one. By his perfect life, atoning death and mighty resurrection Jesus has defeated our true enemy; the dark alliance of Satan, sin and death. Jesus offers all who believe in him forgiveness of sin, the power of his Spirit within and the hope of everlasting life. This now is my song, 

In Eden - sad indeed that day -
My countless blessings fled away,
  My crown fell in disgrace.
But on victorious Calvary
That crown was won again for me -
  My life shall all be praise

Faith! See the place, and see the tree
Where heaven's Prince, instead of me,
  Was nailed to bear my shame.
Bruised was the serpent by the Son,
Though two had wounds, there conquered One -
  And Jesus was His Name.
(William Williams, 1717-91) 

Porcelain gods

My mod hero was The Jam's frontman, Paul Weller. I doggedly collected all The Jam's singles on vinyl and tried to copy Weller's style. The standard rig-out was Sta-Prest trousers, bowling shoes, worn with white socks and a Fred Perry polo shirt. My outlook on life was deeply influenced by the message of Weller's songs. For me he was a real pop idol. But that idol had to be broken. Weller couldn't save me from sin, or give my life meaning and purpose. The sorry trail of broken relationships that has marked his life, together with the musician's well-documented problems with drink and drugs testify to his own need of God’s life-transforming power.  As Weller said himself on his solo album, Stanley Road, he was 'just a porcelain god that shatters when it falls'.

On his return to form album, 22 Dreams, Weller has a track entitled, God. The song makes some good points about people only calling on the Almighty when they need him. But Weller's attempt to bargain with God (“save the lives of those I love/And take me instead”) belies the fact that his "God" is not the gracious and loving God of the Gospel who freely offers us grace and mercy in Christ. 

I still like Paul Weller's his music, at least some of it. I was glad to see his new album, Sonik Kicks reach number one. But he is no longer my idol. Now I worship another, the one true and living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He is my Creator, my Redeemer, my Lord, my hope, my life. “The gods of the nations are idols, but our God made the heavens.” (Psalm 96:5).

Looking Good isn't important, it's everything

Being a mod meant looking the part. The mod's favourite fashion label is Ben Sherman, whose motto is,

"Looking Good isn't important, it's everything."

While I still may be partial to a nice Ben Sherman shirt or pair of jeans, I don't agree that looking good is everything. After all, being overly concerned with looks and style is vain and superficial. That said, as befits an ageing mod, all my suits have three button jackets, and my ties tend to be on the skinny side. Once a mod always a mod.

The Christian vision of looking good involves more than clothing. Living the Christian life involves putting off the old life of sin and putting on a new life of holiness and love, Ephesians 4:22-24. That's looking good by being good, Matthew 5:16. 

Mods aspired to be 'The Face', the trendsetting cool dude with all the right threads. But for the believer nothing matters more than seeing the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ and being made like him, 2  Corinthians 4:18.*

Thursday, April 26, 2012

This week

An unusual week, this one. Due to preach away on Sunday and using a couple of "golden oldies", so no fresh sermon prep. One of our people spoke on Barnabas Fund at the Prayer Meeting/Bible Study, so no prep for that either. Not having to do any prep seems weird. School governor duties Monday morning. Spoke at the Bible Study of a neighbouring church on Tuesday. Pastoral visits. Admin. Crematorium committal this afternoon. Reviewed Gleason on Bavinck and Carson on Tolerance. I say no prep this week, but I'm due to give the talk at Friday's Kids' Club, so I'll need to do something for that. Also speaking at a Men's Breakfast Saturday morning, so I made some notes for my talk, Confessions of an ageing mod. Getting in the mood by listening to Weller's Wild Wood. Reading-wise, so far got through a good chunk of Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics Vol 3 and read a couple of chapters of Iain Murray on Archibald Brown. Great stuff. Murray should learn Dutch and write the definitive Bavinck biography. Oh, and just for fun I managed to get through a chapter or two of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cites. A Dickensian dual biog, Bavinck & Kuyper: A Tale of Two Theologians would be an interesting prospect. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Herman Bavinck: Pastor, Churchman, Statesman and Theologian by Ron Gleason

Herman Bavinck: Pastor, Churchman, Statesman, and Theologian,
Ron GleasonNew Jersey: P&R Publishing Company, 2010, xvi + 511pp.

Readers of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, recently published in English translation will understandably want to acquaint themselves with the man behind those four majestic volumes of theology. However, apart from the biographical sketch that forms part of the introduction to each volume of Reformed Dogmatics, little information on Bavinck’s life has been available in English. Ron Gleason has made good on that lacuna with this full-length biographical study.

Gleason delves into Herman Bavinck’s family background in an attempt to discover the factors that shaped his life and thought. His father, Jan Bavinck was a Separatist pastor, serving various Christian Reformed Church congregations over the course of his ministerial career. When the time came for Herman to undertake theological study it was expected that he would enrol at the Separatist Theological Seminary in Kampen. But he caused something of a stir in Separatist circles by electing instead to study at Leiden University, a bastion of theological liberalism.

How did Bavinck manage to leave Leiden with his Reformed faith intact? Gleason suggests that his upbringing among the Separatists gave him a thorough grounding in the Scriptures and Reformed theology. This is no doubt true, but the situation was a little more complicated than that. Gleason makes no mention of the crisis of faith that Bavinck experienced while at Leiden. It would have been interesting to learn how Bavinck recovered from this so that he emerged from his theological studies capable of exposing the failings of liberalism in the light of historic the Reformed faith. His ability in this area is amply displayed in Reformed Dogmatics.

After graduating from Leiden with a theology doctorate, Bavinck became pastor of a Separatist congregation in Franeker. He was only in pastoral ministry for a year, but his time as pastor had a formative influence on his work as a theology professor. Bavinck served at the Separatist seminary in Kampen from 1882-1902 and then at the Free University Amsterdam from 1902 until his untimely death in 1921.  

Much of the biography is taken up with Bavinck’s role in the ecclesiastical politics of his day. 1892 saw the union of the Christian Reformed Church and the Doleantie Churches. The Doleanite Churches were a reformist grouping in the Dutch Reformed State Church. Under the leadership of Abraham Kuyper they took a strong line against the liberalising tendencies of their denomination. But the union was not a happy one.  There were differences of emphasis in the two bodies that formed the united Church. Strong characters on both sides vied for supremacy in the newly formed body. A particularly intractable issue was the proposed merger of the theological seminary at Kampen and the Free University in Amsterdam. Bavinck was heavily involved in the tortuous and ultimately futile negotiations.

The undisputed hero of this book is Herman Bavinck. This is his biography after all. But Abraham Kuyper is cast as something approaching the villain of the piece. Apart from an occasional lapse, Bavinck is presented as a man of patient integrity and godly wisdom. Kuyper is not without his virtues, but he comes over as a slightly sinister figure. An unflattering picture emerges of Kuyper as a man who was capable of high handed imperiousness and low political cunning. Although Bavinck and Kuyper often worked closely together, they became increasingly uneasy allies and eventually fell out over Bavinck’s scheme for the merger of the Theological Seminary and Free University. While Kuyper undoubtedly had his faults, Gleason’s account seems a little one sided at times.

Gleason concentrates on Bavinck the ecclesiastical politician and gives few glimpses of his interior life. Little is said about Bavinck as a husband and father, or his personal walk with God. Readers of Reformed Dogmatics might have liked to know how the theologian went about writing his magnum opus. While this is not a theological biography, it is a biography of a theologian. More discussion of Bavinck’s special contribution to Reformed theology and an account of his key theological ideas would not have gone amiss. A good biography will give readers the feeling that they have come as near as possible to getting know the subject personally. A compelling psychological portrait will bring the subject to life as the pages turn. Gleason gets close, but he doesn't quite get under Bavinck’s skin.

In places the work suffers from an inelegant style and poor editing. Gleason’s attempts at humour are sometimes ill-judged, such as the “joke” about the discovery of gin bottles belonging Bavinck’s alcoholic predecessor as pastor at Franeker. The occasional Americanism may grate, such as “slam dunk” (p. 92) and “However, this was a huge however…” (p. 246). Gleason intimates that he will say something about the death of Herman’s brother, Johan Gerrit in chapter 7 (p. 152). But an account of Johan’s passing is held off until chapter 8, (p. 203) The exact words used by Gleason to describe Bavinck’s mindset on page 172 are repeated in the context of Kuyper’s advice to Bavinck on the following page. The writer sometimes lapses into cliché, “Both sides had thrown down the gauntlet; a line had been drawn in the sand.” (P. 253). Such blemishes detract from the reader’s enjoyment of the book.  

Gleason’s effort is currently the only one on offer when it comes to a full-length Bavinck biography in English. His carefully researched work provides a wealth of detailed biographical information. But perhaps one could have wished for a slightly more insightful and better written account of the life of the great Dutch Reformed dogmatician. 

* Reviewed for the European Journal of Theology

Friday, April 20, 2012

Banner Ministers' Conference: Some Impressions

Iain Murray
As I said before I went away, I wasn't intending on taking notes at this year's Banner. I just wanted to tune in to the ministry of the Word without the distraction of fiddling around with my phone's tiny qwerty keyboard. I'll have to invest in a tablet PC of some kind. Maybe if I'm a good boy I'll get one for my birthday in August (if that doesn't sound too Pelagian in the context of a report on the Banner Conference). Handwritten notes are next to useless as my handwriting is pretty illegible.

My 'no notes' policy seemed like a good idea at the time, but on returning home I found that I haven't got much detailed recollection of what was said in the various addresses. Maybe I've got a bad case of that well documented syndrome called 'conference head'. Maybe I'm just loosing it. Only time will tell. But one thing's for sure, the near total recall I enjoyed before I hit 40 is now a thing of the past. Hazy impressions of stuff that happened in the recent past rather than HD-sharp memories now seems to be the way of things. With that in mind, you may wish to take what I write here with a pinch of salt. My impressions are arranged by speaker rather than being a day by day, session by session account. 

Ted Donnelley

I was really looking forward to hearing Ted as I have benefited immensely from his preaching in the past. At the height of his powers his ministry had a rare combination of exegetical insight, theological acumen, homiletical skill and penetrating applicatory power. But in recent years Ted had been very unwell and was unable to preach for some time. The Lord has granted him a measure of recovery and he is now able to preach once more. Ted was scheduled to speak at the first and last sessions of the conference. He made a good start preaching on, 'Let us exalt his name together', from Psalm 34:3, but sadly became disorientated and had to stop. Nevertheless, what we heard of his message, 'Let us exalt his name...' set a fitting tone for the conference. 

Maurice Roberts

Roberts was a regular Banner speaker when I first attended the conference in the late 1980's and early 90's. And despite his pot-shots at contemporary issues (new covenant theology and the new perspective on Paul) there was something decidedly old-school about his two messages at this year's event. He spoke on 'The Justice of God' (Monday evening) and 'God's Way of Holiness' (Wednesday morning). In both cases his addresses were more like lectures in systematic theology rather than an attempt to expound and apply a passage of Scripture. What he said only had a tangential relationship with the Scriptures that were read before he spoke (1 John 1 and Colossians 3 respectively). This was a shame. The conceptual clarity of systematics is of great value when it comes to distinguishing between retributive and remunerative justice and justification and sanctification, but Roberts' material was not sufficiently grounded in and shaped by biblical exegesis. The lecture on holiness made no reference to 'definitive sanctification'. His treatment of mortification and vivification was not directly related (as it is in Colossians 3) to the fact that in Christ the believer has died to the old life of sin and has been raised to a new life of holiness. There were some good points on the role of the law in the life of holiness, but the imperatives of the Christian life must be clearly rooted in the believer's union with Christ crucified and risen. 

Matthew Brennan

More exposition from Brennan, who spoke on John the Baptist - what John thought about Jesus (from John 1 & 3 - Tuesday morning) and what Jesus thought about John (from Matthew 11 - Wednesday morning). The Baptist points us to Jesus as the Lamb of God. He was willing to decrease that Christ might increase. Good stuff.

Jonathan Watson

Watson spoke on 'The Ministry We Need - Lessons from Old Princeton (Tuesday morning). I really am a bit hazy on this one, but basically Watson's affecting talk commended the Old (pre 1929) Princeton emphasis on the importance of piety and experiential godliness for the Christian Ministry. Two Banner new Banner titles are devoted to this theme (see new releases here). 

Iain Murray 

The schedule had to be re-jigged to relieve Ted Donnelley of the responsibility of preaching the closing sermon. Iain Murray stepped in and spoke on 'The Benefits and Dangers of Controversy' (Thursday morning - first session). The benefits include the defence and clarification of the truth over and against error. This must be done. The dangers include succumbing to a sectarian spirit and combative, hypercritical attitude.  Controversy must be undertaken with care. 

Alistair Begg

Begg's three exposition of Paul's letter to Titus  were probably the conference highlight for me. (Titus 1 - Tuesday evening, Titus 2 - Wednesday evening, and Titus 3 - Thursday final session). The messages were engagingly delivered and insightful, with plenty of application to the contemporary scene. While dealing with a chapter per session meant that some details of the text had to be skipped over, there was enough substance not to leave us feeing short-changed. Good points on living for Christ in an ungodly world, the vital importance of a holy and biblically sound church leadership, God's word to old and young in our congregations, dealing with error, the glory of the gospel, good works in the community etc.

And finally 

There is, of course, more to conferences than listening to the various addresses. It was good to renew fellowship with old friends, some of whom I only get to see at Banner. It is also great to make some new acquaintances at the meal table. One day you find yourself talking about the situation in Indonesia with brothers from that country, another talking Bavinck and Kyper with black-clad Dutch Reformed men. Wednesday evening's 'Taffia', an informal gathering of (mostly, but not exclusively) Welsh ministers was a great time of fellowship. The pop flowed, Pringles were crunched and Fruit Pastilles were chewed as Geoff Thomas interviewed Matthew Brennan and Alistair Begg.

Oh, and our side won Tuesday afternoon's football match with a 'golden goal' in the dying minutes. No home goals from me this year. I managed one or two tackles and  disrupted a few attack moves. I even headed the ball. A Banner first, that. And my glasses didn't fall off. Good eh?

Dates for Banner 2013: 15-18 April.
Speakers include: Sinclair Ferguson, Jonathan Watson, Michel Reeves and Jeremy Walker.  

Monday, April 16, 2012

Off to Banner

Soon I'll be heading north up the Fosse Way for the Banner Ministers' Conference in Leicester. I'm looking forward to four days of fellowship and ministry. 

I first went to Banner in the late 1980's, when I was a student at the London Theological Seminary. Back then I was young enough to attend the Youth as well as Ministers' conferences. Wouldn't get away with that now. 

Highlights include Sinclair Ferguson on Sanctification and Genesis 3:15, Ted Donelley on the Temptation of Christ and Jeremiah, Al Martin on 1 Timothy 4:16, and Geoff Thomas' biographical sketches - Howell Harris was one and  another on a chap nicknamed 'Rip Van Winckle', whose real name escapes me. 

This year I don't plan on making notes on the messages for blog reports. I simply  want to listen to the ministry and take it all in without the distraction of typing stuff on my mobile, which is a bit fiddly anyway. I'll either do a rather impressionistic report when I get home, or maybe try posting something at the end of each day, using my phone's blogger app. We'll have to see how it goes.

I was toying with taking Bavinck's RD Vol 3 with me for some conference reading, but looking up   lots of proof texts with a paper Bible is a chore compared with using Bible Gateway on my PC. Not to worry. The other day Evangelical Times kindly sent me a review copy of Iain Murray's latest, Archibald Brown: Spurgeon's Successor, published by the Banner. I enjoyed Murray's talk on Brown at last year's Banner, so the book is packed and ready to go. 

I may grace the football field on Tuesday afternoon, but certainly not Wednesday as well. There is only so much hanging back in defence a man in his mid-40's can do. Especially one who can't really play the game in the first place. There might be a reason why I was usually last to be picked at school. No home goals this year would be nice. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A slice of Wednesday on Thursday

Yesterday we headed for Salisbury as a family member had a routine appointment at the hospital. Well, there were two appointments actually, one at 10.30am and the other at 3.40pm. With all that time to spare we headed for the city centre to grab some lunch. Also, predictably, Sarah and Rebecca wanted to do a bit of shopping. Jonathan opted to stay at home so I didn't even have anyone to talk to as the girls disappeared in the depths of New Look for an hour and a half. 

But all was not lost as I brought Don Carson's The Intolerance of Tolerance along with me. I read a few pages at the hospital and settled down to read some more in the city centre while Sarah and Rebecca hit the shops. No sooner had I parked myself on a bench, it started to rain. So, I wandered in and out of a few shops. More to stop getting wet than in the hope of buying anything. The shower quickly stopped and I was able to find a place on another bench where I could resume reading Carson. Good stuff on how the very meaning of tolerance has changed from putting up with stuff with which we don't agree to the view that honestly disagreeing with anyone is itself intolerant. Something like that anyway. I'll post a review when I'm done.

After reading a good chunk I went for a wander and ended up in Waterstones. Had a good browse, mainly in the classics, poetry and history sections before going off in search of wife and daughter so we could have lunch together. I rang Sarah's mobile only to hear her calling to me from behind. We headed for Cafe Nero, a favourite lunchtime eaterie in Salisbury. Good coffee and tasty paninis. After lunch the girls headed off to the shops and I walked aimlessly through the city centre. Found another bookshop. I can't remember what it was called, but it was a cheapo remainder job. Decent classics section, though. I'd been meaning to read some Dickens, with this year being the bicentenary of his birth. So, I snapped up A Tale of Two Cities, the Wordsworth Classics edition, for only £2. 

It was the best of times. I'd just bought a book. And the worst of times. Next I was required to give my opinion on the seemingly endless stream of outfits that Sarah and Rebecca were trying on in New Look. What's a man to do? You speak your mind, "I don't like it, its rubbish." and suddenly you are Mr. Grumpy. You tell them what you think they want to hear to get it over and done with quickly, and invite a crisis of conscience for being economical with the truth. Eventually clothes were bought  and we returned to Salisbury Hospital. 

More waiting, more reading of Carson. Started final chapter. Appointment over. Stopped reading at number 2 of Carson's ten words on tolerance. 

Drove home. 

Quick evening meal. 

Bible Study/Prayer Meeting. We discussed Zechariah 13:7-9. 

Watched The Apprentice on V+. 

And that's about it. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Remythologizing Theology by Kevin Vanhoozer - now available in paperback

Kevin Vanhoozer's contribution to the Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine series was originally published as a hardback title in 2010. At £75 a throw, its price was a little prohibitive (Cambridge University Press kindly sent me a review copy). But the good news is that Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion and Authorship, is now out in paperback, at the much reduced cost of £29.99 - see  here

Vanhoozer's basic standpoint is that of historic Reformed theology, but with special attention to the divine communicative action. In a way that is typical of the theologian's work, he has attempted to re-orientate theology towards the theodrama of biblical revelation. As such, Remythologizing Theology makes a fresh, compelling and valuable contribution to the doctrine of God. The critical interaction with open panentheism is welcome at a time when some Evangelicals (especially "post-Evangelicals" and Emergent types) seem to find such a view of God attractive. The book deserves to be read not only by theological students and theologians, but also by pastors who aspire to being pastor-theologians in order to be of better service to the people of God. 

More info: 

Sunday, April 08, 2012

The Son of God with Power

Paul begins his Epistle to the Romans with a summary statement of the gospel he wished to proclaim in Rome:
The gospel of God…concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection of the dead. (Romans 1:34.)

Paul sets before us the broken symmetry of the life Jesus Christ who was “born according to the flesh” and “declared to be the Son of God with power”. The great transitional event in these two phases of the history of Jesus Christ is his resurrection from the dead. For Paul “flesh” is synonymous with human life in a fallen world. To be born “according to the flesh” is to be born weak. God sent his Son “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Romans 8:3). To be sure, Jesus Christ “knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Yet he came as flesh, without the trappings of kingly majesty.

But this man, Jesus Christ was “declared to be the Son of God with power”. This, at any rate is how the New King James Version translates the text. Scholars are divided on how exactly we are to translate the participle “declared” in question. In usage elsewhere in the New Testament, the verb can mean to “delineate” or “demarcate”. This meaning is apparent when regional boundaries or borders are described, “in the regions of…” (Matthew 4:13, 8:34). In this sense, Jesus was “marked out” or “delineated” as the Son of God. Another use of the verb is “to determine” in God’s purpose (Luke 22:22), (Acts 2:23). The word is also used to describe Jesus being appointed or ordained by God as judge of all mankind, (Acts 10:43, 7:31).

But if we take the word here to mean “appointed”, in what meaningful sense could Jesus Christ be “appointed” as the Son of God? Orthodox Christology has always insisted that Jesus Christ ever was the Son of God. Our text itself suggests that it was “his Son” that was “born according to the flesh”. Also in Galatians 4:4 Paul affirms the pre-existence of Jesus as the Son of God. He did not become God’s Son at birth, it was as God’s Son he was sent to be born.

Evangelical expositors will want to avoid any suggestion that Jesus became the Son of God at his resurrection. This would be to fall into the heresy of adoptionism – the notion that Jesus was adopted as God’s Son, rather than being God’s Son from eternity.

Because of this difficulty with Jesus being “appointed” as the Son of God by his resurrection, some scholars prefer the translation that Jesus was “declared or “marked out” to be the Son of God”. Dr. Robert Reymond argues for this point of view (Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, Nelson, 1998, p. 240-245). He takes the words “in power” as qualifying the participle “declared” or “marked out”. Jesus was thus “powerfully marked out as the Son of God …by the resurrection of the dead.” (Reymond, 1998: 242.) Reymond, understands the phrase “by the Spirit of holiness” to mean Jesus’ divine nature, that stands contrast to his human nature as “flesh”. Thus Reymond, paraphrases the text, “who was powerfully marked out as the Son of God in accordance with his divine nature by his resurrection from the dead.” (Reymond, 1998: 243.)

But is this necessarily the best interpretation of the text? Reymond has avoided any suggestion that Christ became the Son of God by his resurrection. However, his exegesis is not shared by other Reformed scholars who prefer the translation that “Jesus…was appointed [not simply marked out as] the Son of God with power ...”

At least as far back as Geerhardus Vos, conservative scholars have argued that, “The reference [in Romans 1:4] is not  to two coexisting states in the make-up of the Saviour - his divine and human natures - but to two successive stages in his life.” (Vos, The Pauline Eschatology, P & R, 1930, p. 155.) The contrast in the text is between Jesus Christ being born according to the flesh by incarnation and appointed the Son of God with power by resurrection. The words “with power” qualify the new resurrected state of the “Son of God”. In the flesh, Jesus was the Son of God in weakness, but after his resurrection he was appointed the Son of God with power.
The apostle is dealing with some particular event in the history of the Son of God incarnate by which he was instated in a position of sovereignty and invested with power, an event which in respect of investiture with power surpassed everything that could be ascribed to him in his incarnate state. (John Murray, Romans, Eerdmans, 1987, p. 11.)
The “spirit of holiness” need not be taken to mean the Son’s divine nature as Reymond suggests. Paul’s intention is not to reflect on the relative natures, divine and human than constitute the person of the Son of God. He is describing the Son’s incarnate state before and after his resurrection from the dead. “Spirit of holiness” is a unique designation of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. However, as Barrett points out, it was a common way of referring to the Holy Spirit in Hebrew and Aramaic writing. (C. K. Barrett, Paul, Geofferey Chapman, 1994, p. 24.) If, as Barrett suggests, Paul is using a pre-existing creedal formula here, this unusual way of describing the Spirit makes perfect sense. Murray comments,
Thus when we come back to the expression “according to the Spirit of holiness”, our inference is that it refers to that stage of pneumatic endowment upon which Jesus entered through his resurrection. (Murray, 1987: 11.)
Post-resurrection, the incarnate life of the Son of God was transformed and endued with new power by the Spirit. Paul can write that, “The last Adam became a life-giving Spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:45.) Christ was conceived by the Spirit according to his human nature and endued with the Spirit at his baptism. But on his resurrection, the Son was lifted to an unprecedented plane of Holy Spirit dynamism. The time of incarnated weakness is over. Jesus is now the Son of God with power.

This interpretation, that Jesus was appointed as the Son of God with power by his resurrection, avoids the danger of adoptionist Christology, while doing justice to the language of the text. It was because Jesus Christ was God’s Son and the messianic seed of David, born according to the flesh, and who died for sinners, that he was appointed the Son of God with power. “He was raised because of what he was. He did not become Son by being raised: he was raised because he was Son.” (Donald McLeod, The Person of Christ, IVP, 1998, p. 91.)

Friday, April 06, 2012

Good Friday and the Son's impassible passion

For thus we say that He both suffered and rose again, not as though God the Word suffered in His own Nature either stripes or piercings of nails or the other wounds (for the Godhead is Impassible because It is also Incorporeal), but since that which had been made His own body suffered these things, He again is said to suffer for us, for the Impassible was in the suffering Body. (St Cyril's First Letter to Nestorius, here). 
According to Cyril of Alexandria, at Calvary, "the impassible was in the suffering Body". In so saying Cyril rightly affirmed the impassibility of the divine Word and also took into account that the Word made flesh suffered for us in his humanity. This is where the communicatio idiomatum or 'communion of attributes' in the incarnate Son comes into play. That which was true of Jesus only in his humanity, i.e. he suffered and died, was not an act of his human nature per se, but the act of the person of the Son in and through his humanity. It is  not sufficient to say that the divine nature of the Son remained impassible, while his human nature suffered on the cross. Rather, it was the case that the person of the Son of God suffered for us in his humanity, Galatians 2:20

When theologians speak of the 'passive' obedience of Christ at the cross, as distinct from the 'active' obedience of his life, it is not meant to suggest that Christ was inactive at Calvary. When used in this context, 'passive' means 'suffering', in the same way that 'impassibility' means 'without suffering'. However, we must remember that the  whole of Jesus' incarnate life involved suffering (Hebrews 5:8), and that his death was a positive act of obedience (Philippians 2:8 cf. John 10:17-18). In the words of B. B. Warfield, 'His very passion was his own action.' (The Person and Work of Christ, p. 134, P&R). 

This is important, because we should not think of Christ as a mere victim of suffering. The Son did not suffer on the cross primarily in order to show empathy with a world racked by pain and tragedy. Certainly, Jesus our great high priest is able to sympathise with our weaknesses, (Hebrews 4:15). But his cross was not so much an act of divine identity with a suffering world, as divine self-substitution for a guilty world. The good news is this: "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3 cf. 1 Peter 3:18). 

What we sinners need above above all else is not the sympathy fellow-sufferer, but the salvation accomplished by a substitute-sufferer. Jesus'  cry on the cross was not, "Now I know how you feel!", but, "It is finished!". We are saved by the impassible passion of the Word made flesh and crucified for us at Golgotha. 

Monday, April 02, 2012

The existential dust of David Sky

David Sky, my pet monkey, was last seen heading into the gloom of a chill winter's evening. That was over a year ago, on 14 January 2011 (see here).  Rumours of his whereabouts occasionally punctuated the numb emptiness engendered by his absence with the feeble risings of hope. But the slightest expectations of finding David Sky alive were repeatedly dashed with the casual cruelty of a wasp stinging a small child. It was obvious that Taffia Godfather, Dai Corleone wouldn't simply let Sky out of his clutches. Even if you are just a tea boy, you can't walk out on the Mob. As Corleone could often be overheard saying, "Keep your friends close, keep your tea bags closer."

Where David Sky once sat in my study, on the bookshelf just in front of Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 3, there is now only an empty space. Even the monkey-shaped clearing in the dust that once marked his memory has almost disappeared completely. It is as if he never existed; an existential void created by a fresh layering of study-dust. I began to wonder, was there ever such a creature as David Sky, a theological monkey?

But, the other day, after being out for an hour or so, I returned home and checked the phone for 1517 messages. On picking up the handset I heard the tell-tale beep, beep, beep tone that signalled a message had been left. On pressing 1 to listen to the message, I heard what seemed like the familiar sound of David Sky's voice. The strangely garbled message, in which not a word could be deciphered smacked of his irritating, know-all, sarcastic tone. But the message came to an abrupt end with a dull thud. Followed by silence. Could it really be him?

If it was David Sky trying desperately to leave me a message, I thought that I had heard the last of him. However, another 1571 message was left just this morning. This time I could make out a few words, but the voice, definitely Sky's, now sounded weary, haunted, with none of the customary hauteur. "". That was it. Was he really trying to say, 'sorry'?

Desperate to speak to my old monkey friend, I tried to trace his phone number, but dialling 1417 only came up with, 'The number of this caller was withheld.' There was nothing for it but to sit tight and wait for him to call again. A couple of hours went by before the phone rang. I anxiously lunged for the handset, but it was a spoken text message from the dentist, reminding me of tomorrow's check-up appointment. It was difficult to concentrate on anything else, but I pulled Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 3 from the shelf, turned to the bookmarked page and started reading.

The door bell rang, abruptly interrupting my absorption with Bavinck's rich treatment of the covenant of grace. I made my way downstairs and opened the door. It was Bathsheba Earth. She just stood there. The girl-monkey was calm, almost icily emotionless. She handed me a note. Then walked away without a word. I came to myself. Called out after her, 'Wait a minute...'. But she had gone. I unfolded the note. It was Sky's scrawly handwriting. He apologised for not getting in touch sooner. Then he explained the reason behind his strange disappearance, over a year ago.

Unfortunately I can't divulge the contents of the note for fear of jeopardising David Sky's safety. All I can say is that he's hiding from the Taffia. Should Dai Corleone discover his whereabouts there is no doubt that my old friend would find himself 'sleeping with the fishes'. And Bathsheba Earth? Actually, she's Bathsheba Sky now. For, dear reader, the monkey married her. Apparently it isn't working out too well. Hence the second 1571 message. Ah, well. For better/for worse and all that.

But it looks like David Sky has gone for good. All that's left to prove that he once existed is his long ago abandoned blog, Sky's the Limit,  and the faint traces of existential dust.