Wednesday, April 30, 2014

God's Philosophers by James Hannam

God's Philosophers: 
How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science,
by James Hannam, Icon Books, 2009, Kindle edition, £4.79. 

In an article entitled Even Christianity is not really Christian in Saturday's edition of The Times, A. C. Grayling weighed in to the 'Christian Nation' debate sparked by David Cameron's sudden conversion to the virtues State-sponsored evangelism. It's one of those 'What has Christianity done for us?' pieces. While writing with an air of grave expertise, Grayling's use of the historical evidence is, in fact as selective as a bag of good of Woolies' Pick & Mix. He trots out the tired old cliché that the Early and Medieval Church suppressed learning and inquiry with the effect that scientific progress was retarded and human ingenuity stifled. Grayling alleges that Christianity banned study of Greek and Roman philosophy, and so plunged Europe into a Dark Age that only ended with with the rediscovery of the classical wisdom at the Enlightenment. The writer opined, "There was little learning worth the name in the first seven centuries of Christian dominance because it had suppressed inquiry". 

However, as Hannam shows in God's Philosophers, if anything, the Medieval world wasn't held back by its ignorance of Antiquity, but by too much deference for the philosophers of old. It was only when Medieval medics began to question Galen's four humours-based quackery that medicine began make progress. Early natural philosophers tended to accept Aristotle's ideas without question, not realising that many of them were incorrect. Aristotle argued that that a heavier weight will fall faster than a lighter one. That was empirically disproven by John Philoponus in the sixth century. Even then, some chose to believe Aristotle rather than the empirical evidence. Early Merton Calculator Thomas Brawardine (c.1290-1349), propounded a theoretical basis for what Philiponus had discovered experimentally, thus blowing Aristotle's theory out of the water. 

In an odd section Grayling argues that because words such as medicine, technology and telescope are derived from Greek and Latin that the ideas and inventions they describe also derive from that culture. But since when had etymology been a sound guide to the origin of concepts? Anachronistic, or what? The telescope was originally invented by Hans Lipperhey of Holland (d.1619) and further refined by Galileo. But Lipperhey and Galileo would have got nowhere had not spectacles been invented in Venice in the 1300's. As Hannam points out,
the people of medieval Europe invented spectacles, the mechanical clock, the windmill and the blast furnace by themselves. Lenses and cameras, almost all kinds of machinery and the industrial revolution itself all owe their origins to the forgotten inventors of the Middle Ages. Just because we don’t know their names, this does not mean that we should not recognise their achievements. (Hannam, James (2009-08-07). God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (p. 5). Icon Books. Kindle Edition.)
Grayling of course mentions the case of Galileo, claiming that the Church shut him up for championing the heliocentric view of the universe propounded by Copernicus as contrary to Scripture. Hannam offers a fair and nuanced account of the trial of the great man at the hands of the Inquisition. Contrary to Grayling's article it was not so much the teaching of the Bible that was at stake, as the Roman Catholic Church's deference for the Greek philosopher Ptolemy's vision of an earth-centred universe. Once more, it is a reminder that while classical civilisation had much to offer in terms of Pythagoras' mathematical theories and so on, the ideas of Greece and Rome could sometimes be an impediment rather than a stimulus to the advance of scientific understanding. 

Now, Hannam doesn't pretend that what used to be called the Dark Age was in fact a glittering Golden Age. The Church wasn't always an ally of progress. Medieval natural philosophers were often as interested in magic and astrology as exploring the wonders of nature. But the Christian belief that God created an orderly universe encouraged natural philosophers to explore and understand the world in which they lived. In doing so they laid the foundations of modern scientific inquiry. Theology was a friend rather than an enemy of natural philosophy. As Hannam writes,
However, the most significant contribution of the natural philosophers of the Middle Ages was to make modern science even conceivable. They made science safe in a Christian context, showed how it could be useful and constructed a worldview where it made sense. Their central belief that nature was created by God and so worthy of their attention was one that Galileo wholeheartedly endorsed. Without that awareness, modern science would simply not have happened. (Hannam, James (2009-08-07). God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (p. 336). Icon Books. Kindle Edition). 
Grayling doesn't seem to appreciate that point. In fact his understanding of Christian theology is as lamentable as his grasp of history. He alleges that Paul taught that the faithful dead will "see no corruption", but will sleep in their graves until the last trump and the resurrection of the dead. Quite the contrary. Paul believed that Christ uniquely saw no corruption while he lay in the tomb prior to his resurrection (Acts 13:35-37). But of the believer the apostle wrote, "the body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption" (1 Corinthians 15:42). 

Also, Grayling is wrong to suggest that early Christians borrowed the idea of an immortal soul from Plato as a way of getting around the inconvenient truth that the bodies of believers did in fact return to dust in their graves. In the New Testament the language of immortality is reserved for the resurrection body, 1 Corinthians 15:53-54). That is about as un-Greek as you can get. Plato believed that that physical matter was evil and the body a prison house for the soul, of which it is well rid at death. The idea of bodily resurrection made no sense at all in the world of Greek philosophy. Note the reception that Paul received when speaking to intellectuals at Athens, Acts 17:31-32. The resurrection of the body makes perfect sense However, in the Judeo-Christian worldview, where God created the spiritual and material realms and declared them very good. Jesus came not simply to 'save our souls', but to rescue complete human beings from sin and its deadly effects. In Christian teaching eternal life means not simply the soul of the believer going to heaven when they die, but the resurrection of the body to immortal glory at the return of Christ.

Having said all that, I agree with Grayling that Britain today is not a Christian country. David Cameron was wrong to suggest that it is (see here). But it is foolish to deny that the Christian faith has had a positive impact on world history. As David Bentley Hart has shown in his Atheist Delusions, the Classical world wasn't quite as full of light, love and virtue as Grayling suggests. Many of our most cherished values such as the unique dignity and personhood of every human being were Christian in their origin, not pagan. Moreover, Hannam's God's Philosophers decisively puts the lie to Grayling's claim that, "There was little learning worth the name in the first seven centuries of Christian dominance because it had suppressed inquiry". Hardly. 

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Gospel According to David Cameron

Click to enlarge

Our sainted Prime Minister, David Cameron is at it again. 'Doing God' and that. In a recent article in the Church Times he wrote of My faith in the Church of England. It used to be a convention at Prime Minister's Question Time for the PM to respond to questions from MPs with the words, 'I refer the Honourable Gentleman to the answer I gave some moments ago'. May I refer you, honourable reader to a blog post published some days ago,  David Cameron on Jesus and the Big Society?  In it I took issue with Cameron's claim that it is the business of the State to do evangelism. He was a little vague on what exactly he meant by evangelistic activity in his address to church leaders last week, but in his Church Times piece, Cameron offered a little clarification. Well, not really. Here's what he said, 
I am not one for doctrinal purity, and I don't believe it is essential for evangelism about the Church's role in our society or its importance.
But what is evangelism if not the proclamation of Christian teaching/doctrine concerning the action of God in saving us from from sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? That's certainly what Paul seemed to think, 1 Corinthians 15:1-5. Even boiled down to its essentials the gospel involves a whole range of biblical doctrines including the doctrine of God as Trinity, the doctrine of man as God's image bearer, the doctrine of sin understood as rebellion against God, the doctrine of Christ as a divine person with a human nature, the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, the doctrine of Christ's bodily resurrection, the doctrine of salvation as applied by the Spirit, and the doctrine of the resurrection of all humanity to judgement or eternal glory. 

Strangely, Cameron calls attention to none of the above in his article as he attempts to elucidate what he means by evangelism. But you can't have evangelism without the evangel. Admittedly, doctrinal purity in the sense of theological pedantry isn't essential for evangelism. I'm sure that there are both infralapsarians and supralapsatrians in the kingdom of God. But it isn't nit picking to insist on certain doctrinal commitments as essential to a faithful proclamation of the gospel. Failing even to mention what happened on Good Friday and Easter Sunday is something of a lacuna in what was ostensibly an Easter message on evangelism by the PM. Like writing an essay on Shakespeare's Hamlet, without referencing the eponymous Prince. Or worse.

The nearest thing that Cameron gets to defining the evangelistic task is in his final paragraph, 
As politicians, I hope we can draw on these values to infuse politics with a greater sense of evangelism about some of the things we are trying to change. We see our churches as vital partners. If we pull together, we can change the world and make it a better place. That to me is what a lot of the Christian message is about - and it is a confidence in our Christianity that we can all reflect on this Easter. If we pull together, we can change the world and make it a better place. That to me is what a lot of the Christian message is about - and it is a confidence in our Christianity that we can all reflect on this Easter.
What? Rather than on the Cross and Empty Tomb? But back up a minute. Read the penultimate sentence again. What's the difference between that sentiment and the aspirations of secular humanism? At best it smacks of Pelagian self-help moralism. 'Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners' (1 Timothy 1:15) it certainly isn't. Cameron's gospel seems to make what happened on Good Friday and Easter Sunday pretty much redundant. Sounds more like 'Buck Rogers' by Feeder,
I think we're gonna make it
I think we're gonna save it yeah
So don't you try and fake it anymore
Buck Rogers, Buck Rogers
Believing the gospel message of life-transforming grace has inspired Christians to make a difference in the world by doing good to others. But that is not evangelism. Our confidence is not in Christianity as a force for social change. Our faith is certainly not in the Church of England, but in Christ who died for our sins and was raised from the dead to reconcile the world to God. That is the evangel without which there can be no evangelism. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Easter and the Trinity

Easter is all about what Jesus did to save us from sin, right? Kind of. Easter only makes sense when understood as the united action of the Trinity in the drama of redemption. It was the one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit who determined that Easter would happen in order to save his people, chosen by the Trinity before the foundation of the world. They were chosen, not on the basis of foreseen faith or works, but simply because they were loved by Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who wanted to draw lost sinners into the warmth of their embrace. In eternity the Father gave this elect people to his Son, appointed him as their Saviour, gifted him with the Holy Spirit for the work of redemption and promised him glory on its accomplishment. 

The Father sent his Son into the world as Man, born of Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Father upheld, taught and guided his incarnate Son by the Spirit and enabled him to live a life of righteous obedience on behalf of his chosen people. At the cross Christ offered himself up to God through the eternal Spirit to atone for our sins, in order that we might be justified, reconciled to God and set apart as his holy people. Through the Spirit of holiness the Father gave Jesus power to lay down his life and power to take it again. And so he arose on the third day according to the Scriptures and was appointed the Son of God with power. At his resurrection Jesus, the last Adam became a life-giving Spirit who bestows life, glory and immortality upon God's new humanity. 

The Father applies the salvation accomplished at Easter upon his chosen people by uniting them to Christ by his Spirit. In Christ sinners die to the old life of sin and are raised to a new life of holiness, they are justified by faith alone and given grace to persevere to the end by the empowering presence of the Spirit. The Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead will also give resurrection life to the mortal bodies of his people. And so God's chosen people will be raised with incorruptible spiritual  bodies, conformed to the image of his Son and be made partakers of the divine nature. They will live in the new creation in the presence of their Saviour God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and experience the intensity of his loving communicative action for all eternity.  

Thank the Trinity for Easter! 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Easter Hope

Compared with Christmas, Easter seems to be the poor relation of Christian festivals. I know we have Eggs, Bunnies and Bonnets, but Easter doesn't attract the same frenzied attention as the Christmas period. That is understandable. Remembering the birth of a Child is a more obvious cause of joy and gladness than recalling the death of a Man.

But what we commemorate at Christmas time, the birth of Jesus Christ was not an end in itself. Christians believe that the Son of God was born into our world as man to bring us back to God. For that to happen Jesus had to suffer and die on the Cross for the wrong things that we have done. He wasn’t forced to die in our place. He willingly laid down his life that we may be forgiven and put right with God. That is the measure of his love for the world.

Jesus was crucified and buried on Good Friday. But that is not the end of the story. Jesus rose again from the dead on the first Easter Sunday morning. He showed himself to his amazed followers, convincing them that he was alive from the dead. ‘He is risen!’ is the glad message of Easter.

Now those who believe in Jesus can have a restored relationship with God and the hope of everlasting life. ‘Jesus is risen!’ He is the reason for our hope. 

* For the Easter edition of The White Horse News

Thursday, April 10, 2014

David Cameron on Jesus and the Big Society

Tony Blair's Spin Doctor-in-Chief, Alistair Campbell famously batted away a journalist's question concerning the faith of the former Prime Minister by saying, "We don't do God." His curt response was taken by many commentators as a symptom of our secular age, where faith and public life just don't mix. Well, the current Prime Minister has taken it upon himself to mix them up and "do God" in a big way. In a recent speech to Christian leaders in Downing Street David Cameron claimed that, “Jesus invented the big society 2,000 years ago. I just want to see more of it.” (See here and here)He went on to use the language of "evangelism" in relation to the activities of the State and spoke of his enjoyment of Church-going, which gives him "a little bit of peace and hopefully a little bit of guidance.” Fair enough, I suppose. 

Being a Christian and that. you might expect that I'd be inclined to applaud  the PM's remarks. Not quite. Call me curmudgeonly old contratian if you like, but you're not going to get anything more enthusiastic from me than the sound of one hand clapping. Why so churlish? For starters, I'm inclined to be a tad cynical concerning Cameron's paean to "Christian Britain". Might it have something to do with wooing disillusioned Christian Tory voters back to the fold? Could be. After all, it is widely reported that many are shifting their allegiance to Ukip in the wake of the introduction of gay marriage by Cameron's government. Besides, what on earth did the PM mean by, “Jesus invented the big society 2,000 years ago. I just want to see more of it”? Was he conflating the 'big society' with the kingdom of God, and was he proposing to ensure that there will be 'more of it' by harnessing the power of the State? Christendom redux. Who does Cameron think he is, Charlemagne the Great?

But my main beef is with David Cameron using the language of evangelism in relation to the work of government. He is quoted as saying, "Of course I see my number one role and responsibility as sorting out the economy and turning the economy round... Aside from that there are some really big things that this government is doing which are about that improving state of the world and evangelism.” Uh? Since when has it been the business of government to do evangelism? Evangelism in the New Testament sense of the word means to herald the good news of Christ crucified and risen for the salvation of the world. Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't that the mission of the Church rather than the State? The State can and should use it's power to free up the Church to get on with its task. Paul encouraged Christians to pray for rulers to that end, 1 Timothy 2:1-7. What Cameron had to say on using overseas aid to help alleviate the plight of persecuted Christians should certainly be welcomed in that light. That's why one hand is clapping. But to speak of the government doing evangelism is another thing altogether. 

Church and State have quite different roles and a clear distinction should be made between the two institutions. The State has been ordained by God to restrain evil and promote the wellbeing of society (Romans 13:1-7). The Church has been called to carry out her Great Commission from the Lord Jesus to preach the gospel and make disciples for Christ from all peoples (Matthew 28:18-20). But the Church should not expect or desire that the State will proclaim the gospel. Fix the economy. Reform the Heath Service. Pass better laws. Yes to all those things. But evangelism? No. The cause of the gospel is always harmed when harnessed to the power of the State. Look what happened when Missionaries cosied up to Empire Builders in the Victorian era. We need to remember the Church fulfills her Christ-ordained task, 'Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord of hosts'. (Zechariah 4:6). 

That is not to argue for a secular State where faith-based values are denied a voice in the public square. Such secularism is not neutrality, but the privileging of atheism. Believers are called to 'seek the peace of the city' (Jeremiah 29:7) by bringing God's word to bear on the issues of the day and living as whole life disciples of Jesus. Rather than having a 'Charlemagne complex' maybe that's what Cameron meant by "Jesus invented the big society". Jesus called his followers to salt and light in the world, Matthew 5:13-16. Inspired by their faith believers have often worked for the good of their fellow citizens. The Good Samaritan and all that. Think of Wilberforce and Shaftesbury in the world of politics, Christians helping their communities by setting up food banks, serving as school governors, or what have you. If Cameron wants to carve out a bigger role for faith-based organisations in Britain, that is all to the good. But that is not to say that we wish the State to join us in doing the work of evangelism. Christians having a beneficial effect on society is not the gospel. It is a consequence of the gospel that calls believers to a life of love and service.

Still, the 'big society' that Jesus 'invented' was not a Christianised State, but the people of God gathered out of all nations, redeemed by his blood and transformed by his resurrection power. No political party may lay claim to God's 'big society', not Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem or Ukip. It's way too big for that,
I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9-10) 

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Banner Ministers' Conference 2014

After the Easter Hols (not that we're going away anywhere) I'm looking forward to the Banner Ministers' Conference. Unusually it's a three dayer this year rather than the customary four. Looks like a good line-up:

Tuesday, 22 April

  • 3.30pm – Opening Sermon – Andrew Davies
  • 5.00pm – Preaching Sin in the Contemporary World – David Meredith
  • 8.00pm – Semper Reformanda – Garry Williams

Wednesday, 23 April

  • 7.25am – United Prayer
  • 9.00am – The Church: The Theatre of God’s Glory – Norman McAuley
  • 11.00am – The Flow of the Psalms [1] – O. Palmer Robertson
  • 3.30pm – Metaphors for Ministers – Garry Williams
  • 5.00pm – Biographical Sketch – Iain Murray
  • 8.00pm – Preaching Christ in the Contemporary World – David Meredith

Thursday, 24 April

  • 7.25am – United Prayer
  • 9.00am – The Church: God’s Witness to the World – Norman McAuley
  • 10.30am – The Flow of the Psalms [2] – O. Palmer Robertson
  • 12.00pm – Closing Sermon – Andrew Davies
See here for more info. 

Monday, April 07, 2014

Ebenezer Baptist Church 175th Anniversary

Over the weekend we celebrated the 175th anniversary of the founding of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where I am joint-pastor. The original Chapel that housed the church was built in 1839 with chalk blocks hewn from the local hills and was reconstructed in 1895, using red brick. But the Baptist cause in West Lavington can be traced back to the middle of the 18th century and the labours of David Saunders, the ‘Shepherd of Salisbury Plain’. Local historian Andrew Jones wrote a short history of the church to mark the occasion. 

In this anniversary year it was fitting that we paused to thank God for his goodness to this congregation since it began right up until the present day. The name ‘Ebenezer’ is taken from 1 Samuel 7:12. After the overthrow of the Philistines the prophet Samuel set up a stone and called it ‘Ebenezer’ meaning ‘a stone of help’, saying, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.”

Our guest preacher for the Saturday and Sunday services was Bernard Lewis, Minister of Emmanuel Evangelical Church, Newport and LTS old boy. Bernard's passionate, gospel-centred ministry was an encouragement and challenge to us all. It was also good to have friends from other fellowships join us, especially on the Saturday, when the service was followed by a traditional 'Chapel Tea'. 

Like Samuel of old we can say, ‘thus far the Lord has helped us’ and we believe that he will continue to do so as we trust in him. Much has changed since Ebenezer Baptist Church first came into being, but the Bible assures us that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever.” (Hebrews 13:8). We continue to serve him and proclaim his saving name to the people of the West Lavington area.