Monday, July 29, 2019

The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way by Michael Horton

Zondervan, 2011, 1052pp

One of the formative influences on my ministry was reading Preaching and Preachers by Dr. D. M. Lloyd-Jones. In it the preacher urged the importance of pastors keeping up their theological reading. After all, for him preaching was 'theology on fire', and you can't have that without theology. One particular passage hit home:
Time must be found for reading, and we turn now to the more intellectual type of reading. The first is theology. There is no greater mistake than to think that you finish with theology when you leave a seminary. The preacher should continue to read theology as long as he is alive... Keep on reading; and read the big works. (Preaching and Preachers by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Hodder and Stoughton, 1985, p. 177).
Taking my cue from Lloyd-Jones, it has long been my practice to have a big work of theology on the go. For many years that was Reformed Dogmatics by Herman Bavinck. More recently I have been working my way through Michael Horton's systematic theology, The Christian Faith. 2013 marked the 10th anniversary of my pastorate. Our people arranged for a 'surprise' party to mark the occasion. Only my wife asked if I could have any book, what would it be? That kind of gave the game away that something must be up. My choice was Horton's The Christian Faith. 

Weighing in at over 1000 pages, a proper in-depth review would be quite lengthy. I don't have time to write it, and I guess few would bother reading such a prolix post. What I offer here is a rather sketchy appraisal that will hopefully encourage people to read the book for themselves. Toll lege. Job done.

I really appreciated Horton's approach to systematics. Rather than offering up a dollop of doctrine, followed by a sting of proof texts, he seeks to integrate Drama: The Greatest Story Ever Told, Doctrine: The Grammar of Faith, Doxology: Saying "Amen!", and Discipleship: The Way of Christ in the World. If that sounds a bit Vanhoozery (The Drama of Doctrine), it's probably because it is.  Good. 

Horton introduces 'Dissonant Dramas: Paradigms for Knowing God and the World'. This discussion helps to shape his treatment of the various topics of systematic theology. Pantheism is about 'Overcoming Estrangement' between the Creator and the creature by belittling God and bigging up man. That's an obvious 'no-no' from a Christian standpoint. Then we have Atheism and Deism offering, 'The Stranger We Never Meet'. No to that too. Finally, a biblical ontology gives a 'Covenant Account Of "Meeting the Stranger". This preserves the infinite distance between the Creator and the creature, yet shows how God relates to human beings by means of covenants. 'Yes' to that one.  

The divine 'Stranger' whom we meet is the Triune God, Creator, Redeemer and Perfecter. It is possible for us to know the One God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit because he has revealed himself to us in the world he has made, in the written Word he has given and in the Living Word whom he has sent. By the Spirit sinners are granted a saving knowledge of the God of covenant grace. Apart from his sovereign intervention all would be lost. Horton is a thoroughgoing Calvinist. Again, good. 

The author gives attention to the traditional loci of systematics in six Parts: Part 1: 'Knowing God: The Presuppositions of Theology. Part 2:'God Who Lives. Part 3: God Who Creates. Part 4: God Who Rescues. Part 5: God Who Reigns in Grace. Part 6: God Who Reigns in Glory. His discussion is enriched by insightful biblical exegesis, shaped by the broad redemptive historical sweep of Scripture's story, and informed by the theological reflection of the church. Horton engages with contemporary concerns and interacts critically with a broad range of theological voices from Bultmann to Barth. 

Horton argues against a subordinationist understanding of relations between  the Father and the Son in the Trinity, but he doesn't explicitly address the 'Eternal Submission of the Son' controversy. The theologian adopts Meredith Kline's view of the Mosaic Covenant as a republication of the Covenant of Works, which I believe is mistaken (see here). He speaks slightingly of Baptists and the Free Church tradition, which is a bit unfair. We also take covenant theology and  ecclesiology seriously (see here and here). Horton's treatment of glorification is especially helpful (see here). 

Obviously not as big and satisfying as Bavinck. An improvement on Berkhof. Knocks the spots off Reymond. Grudem? Don't ask me. 

Toll lege, as I say. Just what 'the Doctor' ordered.

My current 'big read' is Some Pastors and Teachers: Reflecting a Biblical Vision of what Every Minister is Called to be, by Sinclair B. Ferguson, Banner of Truth Trust, 2017. Already several chapters in. Great stuff so far. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Lion King

The original animated version of Disney’s The Lion King came out in 1994, a year before the birth of our first child. We bought a copy on video as a gift for our two year old son when his little sister was born. Our children loved the story of Simba, Nala, Pumba and Timon. They watched the video repeatedly. Mum and dad loved it too. The best children’s films appeal to children and parents alike.

Our two are now all grown up. That didn't stop my wife and me going to see the new live action version of the movie on Saturday. It was a revelation. The visuals were amazing, with real looking lions, giraffes, warthogs and meerkats. The actors who lent their voices to the characters gave Simba and the gang genuine emotional depth. The songs really pulled at the heartstrings of nostalgic parents

But what struck me on watching the remake is that the film deals with some really big themes that I hadn’t noticed before. Somehow I missed the nod to Hamlet. Wicked uncle Scar usurping his brother’s throne. Mufasa’s ghost urging Simba to sort things out. How did I not see that when watching the video of the original times without number?

Another thing was the contrasting worldviews presented to Simba by his father, Mufasa and his friends, Pumba and Timon. Mufasa tells his son to be mindful of the ‘circle of life’, the interconnected ordering of all living things. For Pumba and Timon, there is no ‘circle’, but a ‘line’ of meaninglessness. You live, you die, that’s it. May as well enjoy life while it lasts. Perhaps this contrast is more marked in the remake than the original, or maybe I’m a bit dim and just didn’t get it first time around?

Anyway, the ‘circle’ vs ‘line’ thing got me thinking. A cyclical worldview is often associated with Eastern mysticism; reincarnation and all that. The Christian faith offers a more linear view. At a cosmic level we can draw a line from creation to eschatological consummation. More individually, we get one life, that’s all. No reincarnational recycling. We are born, we die, ‘it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgement’. (Hebrews 9:27).

But it’s a bit more complicated than that. Within the linear world of time and space there are many cycles; the orbiting of planets around the sun, the waxing and waning of the moon, the annual round of the seasons, the water cycle, the complex interconnectedness of the ecosystem and so on. Ecclesiastes speaks of this, ‘All is vanity’. Things just seem to keep on going round and round, Ecclesiastes 1:1-10. The world is not without meaning, however. When we remember our Creator, life has moral purpose, Ecclesiastes 12:1, 13-14.

For Pumba and Timon, the apparent meaninglessness of linear life leads them to take a ‘let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’ approach. Simba buys into this and grows up enjoying a carefree existence with his friends. The ‘problem free philosophy of Hakuna Matata’.

Scar’s disregard for the ‘circle of life’ takes a more sinister turn. In a world without meaning all he has left is his obsessive desire for the crown. He must maintain his position as king. Even if that means his kingdom becoming a desolate wasteland as his hyena henchmen indulge in ‘overkilling’. If life is without meaning you either get hippy drop outs who couldn’t care less, or a Nietzschian ‘will to power’.

When she eventually finds him holed up in Pumba and Timon’s carefree commune, Nala helps Simba realise that life does have purpose. Simba must take his responsibilities seriously, fulfill his destiny, and liberate the Pride Lands from Scar’s tyrannical rule.

It is at this point that the film takes on a Christian aspect. Simba becomes Aslan. The true heir to the Lion King’s throne must fight to topple the Usurper, free his people and restore the ravaged earth. There are obvious echoes here of the Lion of the tribe of Judah who conquered the powers of darkness and ransomed his people by his own blood that they may share in his reign over a renewed creation (Revelation 5:5, 9-10).

In the final scenes of the film all the creatures of the Pride Lands pay homage to King Simba. One day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. He is the true Lion King, the rightful ruler over all God’s creation, Revelation 5:11-14.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019


We went to see Yesterday last week. Old married's 'date night'. The trailers looked fun, although reviews were a bit sniffy. You probably know at lest the gist of the plot. The write-up contains spoilers. A global power outage made people forget stuff. Like The Beatles. Most people anyway. A chosen few could still remember the Fab Four. 

One of them was failed musician, Jack Malik. On realising no one he encountered knew anything about The Beatles, he passed off their songs as his own and became a global pop sensation. Stadium tours, screaming fans and lucrative record deals were in the offing.

But being a global pop sensation meant leaving behind his "manager" from when he was a big fail, maths teacher, Ellie. Somehow Jack contrived not to fall in love with Lily James's character until the end. She who stuck with him in the lean times and encouraged him to pursue his dream of pop stardom. After all, as she said to him, why should he return to teaching, which would involve pouring his genius into school kids? What a waste. I mean, the bloke was the new Lennon and McCartney. Although no one had heard of them. Or Oasis, or Harry Potter. No Beatles, no Oasis figures, but no Beatles, no Harry Potter, how's that work? 

Now, I can't remember exactly how. (Was there a real life global power outage, or is it just my age?) But in a pivotal scene Jack meets up with John Lennon, who gets to still be alive. In the film's alternative universe Lennon has lived a life of obscurity, missing out on the success he enjoyed with The Beatles. That's not a failure, however, Lennon tells him because he's spent his life with the  woman he loved. And love, not fame and fortune is the measure of success. 'Money can't buy me love' he could have said, but didn't. Sadly.

Taking Lennon's advice Jack owns up to not writing songs by The Beatles, gives up on being a global pop sensation and marries Ellie. They have a family together and our hero and returns to teaching. All you need is love, see? But in the film Jack has a school assembly singing, Ob La Di Ob La Da. McCartney at his most annoyingly cheerful. Hey Jude (not dude) is saved for the credits. 

The film has a nice message. Pursue success in the ordinary, rather than chasing empty dreams. X-Factor wannabes and 'grass is greener' discontents take note. Ed Sheeran didn't get uninvented. He's in it. Some good jokes. When Jack plays Yesterday to his friends one says its a good song, but not a classic like Coldplay's, Fix You. The soundtrack is great and Himesh Patel who plays Jack sings the songs well. His Help! really feels like a cry for help. 

I didn't quite believe in Yesterday. A nice bit of escapism, but good to Get Back to reality.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Losing our religion? British Social Attitudes report

The British Social Attitudes report published this month appears to evidence a sharp decline in Christian belief over the last 35 years. In 1983 66% of the population identified as Christian, while by 2018 the figure had fallen to 38%. The percentage of the population attending religious services on a regular basis remained stable over the same period. It seems that  for many people ‘Christian’ is no longer a default label that bears little relation to what they actually believe and how they live. A key feature of the survey was ‘the rise of the nones’, with 52% of the public now saying they do not regard themselves as belonging to any religion. The United Kingdom is becoming a more secular country. Saying that, 55% still believe in some kind of divine being, 42% believe in life after death, and 50% pray, at least occasionally.

You might be surprised to hear me say that I welcome the results of the survey. I think it shows a more authentic and thoughtful approach to faith. In the past when asked about their religious allegiance people often used to say, ‘put me down as CofE’, irrespective of their personal convictions or habits of church attendance. Now people are more honest about their beliefs (or lack of them), which is a good thing. Odd as it may seem, church groupings that are trying hard to adapt to today’s more secular climate are declining. Meanwhile churches which maintain a firm belief in the teachings of the Bible are holding their own, or growing. That figures. What’s the point in going to church if the church itself doesn’t keep the faith? You can stay at home and not believe.

But you can’t have the benefits of the Christian faith while rejecting its teachings. Consistent atheists understand this. Richard Dawkins said, “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” That must be the case if you don’t believe the universe was created by God to display his wisdom and goodness. In such a godless universe human beings are nothing special. According to Stephen Hawking, “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies.” Bleak, eh?

Maybe that helps explain why belief in God is stubbornly persistent in the 21st century, despite bold predictions that faith will eventually fizzle out. Whatever may be happening here, globally the Christian faith is growing rapidly, especially in Africa, South America and China. In the secular West people sense that something is missing from their lives. The novelist Julian Barnes confessed, ‘I don’t believe in God, but I miss him’. The American journalist Hunter S. Thompson sighed, ‘All my life I have sought something I cannot name.’ We cannot escape a longing for transcendence that seems hardwired into the human mind. It seems losing our religion empties out our souls.

For many ‘nones’, however, all faith is a load of nonsense. We are well rid of ancient superstitions. Stephen Hawking quipped, ‘Heaven is a fairy story for people who are afraid of the dark.’ To which Christian thinker John Lennox cheekily responded, ‘Atheism is a fairy story for people afraid of the light’.  The Christian faith sets our little lives against the backdrop of eternity. Believing that there is a God to whom we must one day give an account is hardly a comforting thought. In the words of the Bible, 'it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment' (Hebrews 9:27). 

Human beings are not ‘chemical scum’ in a universe without meaning and purpose. We were made in the image of God that we might know God and live for his glory. In our sin we have turned our backs upon our Maker. But God loved us and sent his Son into the world to bring us back to him. That is why Jesus came as one of us to die in our place and rise again from the dead. A Christian is a person who believes these things to be true and dedicates their lives to following the Lord Jesus.

The British Social Attitudes report reveals that nominal Christianity is declining rapidly. And no wonder. A vague sense that people should be a bit nicer to each other doesn’t cut it. Neither can the God-free zone of secularism satisfy the deepest longings of the human soul. That 'something'  for which poor old Hunter S. Thompson sought, but could not name is in fact someone. His name is Jesus. He is the way, the truth and the life. 

Monday, July 08, 2019

Leadership worth following

As I write the Conservative leadership elections are in full swing, with final two candidates having launched their campaigns to be the next Prime Minister. Needless to say, each of the contenders believes they are best placed to lead our great nation through Brexit and beyond. I am no political pundit, so I shall refrain from trying to predict the winner. All will be revealed later in July.

But this might be a good time to reflect on leadership. We all know that having a good boss can make a massive difference in the world of work. We want someone with a clear idea of where they want to go and are able to inspire their staff to work with them to achieve their goals. US President Harry S. Truman once said, ‘Leadership is the ability to get men to do what they don’t want to do, and like it.’ I’m sure there’s something in that. We are often reluctant to embrace change, but a decent leader will enable us see the benefit of new ways of doing things. It certainly helps if people believe the boss has their best interests at heart.

Becoming Prime Minister in the current circumstances will present a huge leadership challenge to the successful candidate. Yes, there’s Brexit, but a host of other big issues have been kept on the back burner by the process of Britain exiting the EU. What about social care, the environment, further investment in education and defense, and so on? All got to be done, and more. 

It is sometimes suggested that politicians are motivated solely by self-interest and delusions of grandeur, but most get involved because they want to make a difference. Accusations of self-interest are nothing new,  however. It was said of Liberal Prime Minister Henry Campbell Bannerman that he 'always thought more of his policy than he did of himself'. By way of contrast, when David Lloyd George became Prime Minister, ‘he ensured the death of the Liberal Party by reversing the order of priorities.’ Remind you of anyone? 

We’ll have to see whether the next Conservative Prime Minister puts policy or himself first. Jesus offered a radically new style of leadership. His followers were vying amongst themselves to see who would be the greatest in the kingdom of God.  Jesus told them that was entirely the wrong approach, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Matthew 20:25-28)

Jesus put his people before himself. He came to serve them. He gave his life to pay the price of their sin when he died upon the cross. He is the original model of self-giving, servant leadership. Jesus Christ is the world’s true Lord with all authority in heaven and earth in his hands, yet he is gentle and lowly in heart. He calls upon us to follow him. He has taken the burden of our sins upon himself. He rose again that all who believe in him may have the hope of eternal life. Jesus will share his glory with his people when he returns. He said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’ (John 8:12). Now that’s leadership worth following.

*For July editions of News & Views and Trinity Magazine 

Monday, July 01, 2019

C. S. Lewis: A Life by Alister McGrath

Hodder, 2013, 431pp

When C. S. Lewis died on 22 November 1963 his passing was overshadowed by the assassination on that same day of US President Kennedy. Even the UK media gave scant attention to the life, achievements and death of one of the key Christian voices of the 20th century. By the end of his days Lewis was in danger of becoming a forgotten man. It perhaps seemed that interest in his writings would dwindle, as sometimes happens with authors who have their moment, and then largely fade from public awareness. 

That was not the case with C. S. Lewis. There has been a revival of interest in both his life and works in recent years. In the Christian world, Tim Keller for one has championed Lewis's approach to apologetics. In the wider culture the Chronicles of Narnia are still much loved children's stories, with adaptations by the BBC and several Hollywood films based on the books. Shadowlands starring Anthony Hopkins explored Lewis's relationship with Joy Davidman. 

Many people are aware of at least the barest outline of C.S. Lewis's life; Ulsterman, Oxford scholar, the Inklings, Mere Christianity, Screwtape, Narnia, the Davidman affair and all that. In this excellent biography Alister McGrath helps to fill in the gaps, bringing Lewis to life as a brilliant, if flawed human being. McGrath is well qualified to write this life, hailing as he does from Northern Ireland, an Oxford Academic and theologian to boot. In preparation for this biography the author read Lewis's vast correspondence in chronological order, which proved an important source of insight. 

In McGrath Lewis has a sympathetic, but by no means uncritical biographer and one who is not afraid to challenge conventionally accepted aspects of the Lewis story, even those propounded by the man himself. A close reading of Lewis's letters leads McGrath to propose a revised chronology of his subject's conversion experience. All to do with bluebells, apparently. Lewis's relationship with women as it emerges in these pages was a bit odd, from Mrs. Moore, to Joy Davidman, whom he married to enable her to remain in England rather than return to America. Yes, they fell in love later, but still. 

As a young man Lewis turned his back upon Ulster Protestantism and became an atheist, confirmed in his unbelief by his experiences as a soldier in World War I. But his atheism left him feeling unsatisfied. While lecturing at Oxford Lewis came to believe in God and then under the influence of his friend J. R. R. Tolkein he came to see that Christianity was the 'true myth' that helped to make sense of the world. By June 1932 (according to McGrath's chronology), Lewis became convinced of the deity of Christ when travelling by bus to Whipsnade Zoo. 

Lewis's initial attempts to convince others of the truth of Christianity were of a highly intellectual variety, exemplified by his books, The Pilgrim's Regress and The Problem of Pain. He found a more popular audience for his reworked BBC Radio addresses published under the title Mere Christianity. Although an Anglican, Lewis had little time for denominational labels and devoted scant attention to doctrinal disputes. The Chronicles or Narnia were an attempt on Lewis's part to show his readers the truth of  Christian faith by appealing to their imagination rather than by the use of rational argument. McGrath is insightful on the genesis of the Narnia stories and how Lewis used them to convey key aspects of the Christian message, especially through Aslan, the Christ-like hero of Narnia. 

C. S. Lewis, was, of course an academic and McGrath describes some of the tensions and difficulties Lewis encountered at Oxford University. While he produced some solid academic works in the field of English literature, fellow academics appeared to dislike Lewis's Christian faith and resented the attention he attracted as a popular apologist. Hence the move to Cambridge later in Lewis's career. 

20th century evangelicals seemed to have viewed Lewis with some suspicion. McGrath cites D. M. Lloyd-Jones's view that he was 'unsound on a number of issues, chiefly relating to the doctrine of salvation'. No doubt those looking for doctrinal instruction shouldn't make Lewis their first port of call. We can go elsewhere for that. Lewis's life story is testament to the fact that the believer is at one and the same time 'righteous and a sinner'. 

Lewis's use of the imagination in apologetics has much to recommend it. Many parents (us included) have read some if not all of the Lewis's Narnia titles to their children. Enduring interest in the Chronicles of Narnia gives the church a point of contact with the culture. At a time when the Christian story is fading from public consciousnesses in the West, the magnificent figure of Aslan, especially in his substitutionary death and resurrection acts as a signpost to the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. 

Alister McGrath has given us a fine introduction to the life and writings of C. S. Lewis. Well worth a look.