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Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Letter to Robert Jenrick objecting to Westbury Waste Incinerator Plant

The Rt. Hon Robert Jenrick MP
Secretary of State
Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government
2 Marsham Street,
London
SW1P 4DF

 Dear The Rt. Hon Robert Jenrick MP,

We are writing to object to the granting of planning approval for the Waste Incinerator plant at Northacre Industrial Estate, Westbury by the Strategic Planning Panel of Wiltshire Council in June 2021. This was despite over 2000 objections made by local residents, as well as opposition from Westbury Town Council and seventeen other neighbouring town and parish councils.

Many people living in the Westbury already suffer with chronic health problems. Cancer and lung condition deaths are higher here than across Wiltshire. Poor air quality has been exacerbated by HGVs being diverted from Bath onto the A350 through Westbury.

The incinerator would mean an estimated additional 20,000 truck journeys a year around the town. Smoke belching from the incinerator chimney would make the situation even worse, further damaging the health of Westbury residents.

Arla Foods (Westbury) Ltd are so concerned about the impact of the plant on air quality that they have threatened to close their dairy if the waste incinerator is allowed to go ahead, resulting in the loss of at least 250 jobs.

The incinerator will increase CO2 emissions, flying in the face of the government’s Climate Emergency Commitments. The children and young people of the town deserve better than to have their lives blighted by growing up in the shadow of this environmentally disastrous development.

I understand our local MP The Rt. Hon Dr Andrew Murrison has written to you asking that you ‘call in’ the decision of the Strategic Planning Panel for review. In the light of overwhelming local objections, I would ask that you overturn planning approval for siting a waste incinerator plant in Westbury, where it is certainly not wanted.  

Yours sincerely..... 

Thursday, July 08, 2021

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, by Carl R. Trueman

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: 
Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism and the Road to Sexual Revolution,
by Carl R. Trueman, Crossway, 2020. 434pp, Kindle edition 

The other week Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick was interviewed on Times Radio. It's the job of journalists to put government Ministers on the spot by asking them tricky questions. But the nature of what constitutes a 'tricky question' changes. In this case Jenrick was quizzed on whether he agreed with his colleague, Liz Truss, the International Trade Secretary that you need to have a vagina to be a woman (see here). The Housing Secretary replied, 'I think there's a matter of biology, of course, what is a woman. I mean absolutely, I agree with Liz Truss. That's the point that she's made in the past.' Given the constraints of collective responsibility, how could Jenrick say otherwise? He knew, however, that a trap was being set and not wanting to offend the perpetually offended trans lobby, the minister qualified his words saying, 'Undoubtedly, of course we want to ensure that those people who are trans can live their life comfortably. I want everyone to be able to live their life the way they want to and be happy and to find love wherever they can do.' 

Expressive individualism 

You may be wondering how on earth we got ourselves into a position where journalists put government ministers through their paces by asking them whether women have vaginas. Since when did the basic facts of biology become a matter of political debate? Charles Taylor speaks of the 'social imaginary', a set of underlying assumptions that make beliefs plausible at any given time. In a less secular age faith in God was part of the 'social imaginary'. While a minority may have dissented, most people assumed the existence of a divine being and lived their lives accordingly. Now, not so much. The 'social imaginary' is limited to the immanent frame, haunted only on occasion by the sense of a transcendent realm. Similarly, the idea that a man can become a woman and just as much a woman as someone who was born female would have been regarded as nonsense until relatively recently. But now it is part of the 'social imaginary' and to dissent from that view is to attract accusations of 'transphobia', which Robert Jenrick for one was so keen to avoid

In this book Carl Trueman sets out how the 'social imaginary' of the Western world lent itself to the belief that a man can become a woman, or vice versa. Transgender ideology didn't emerge from nowhere. The writer traces its roots back to the 18th-century Romantic movement. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the father of Romanticism. He held that people are born free and innocent, but are corrupted by society which imposes its oppressive values on the individual in order to force to them into conformity with accepted standards of behaviour. English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley agreed. He wanted to break free from from societal norms that were based on monogamous marriage so he could practice sexual self-expression. That was the only authentic way to live, free from outward constraints. The Romantics expected society to uphold basic moral values for the good of everyone concerned, but the emphasis was on the psychological fulfillment of the individual. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson might call it 'cakeism', a case of  'having one's cake and eating it'. The Romantics granted the benefits of Christian ethics for society as a whole, but reserved the right to transgress the elements that hindered their self-expression. Friedrich Nietzsche saw things more clearly. If God was pronounced dead, then faith-based values ceased to have any validity. Heroic self-invention is the only way forwards. Add Karl Marx and Charles Darwin to the mix and all sense that human beings are distinct creatures with a nature bestowed upon them by God is lost. We are plastic people in a fluid world. 

Then along came Sigmund Freud to sex things up a bit. He basically thought that everything is about sex. Society enforces the suppression of the sex drive of the individual by insisting that desire is channelled through monogamous marriage. That may not necessarily be a bad thing, but marriage is simply a social construct from which people may be free to deviate should they wish. Freud had no time for belief in God, rendering marriage as a 'divine ordinance' meaningless. Taking their cue from Freud, Marxist thinkers such as Herbert Marcuse began to see patterns of oppression more in psychological than economic terms. People with sexual proclivities that deviated from the norms of society weren't so much 'depraved deviants' as victims of heteronormative oppression. 

The Romantics taught the primacy of psychological self-expression over and against the norms of society. Freud emphasised the primacy of the sexual in the realm of psychology. Marx argued that rather than being a fixed entity, human nature is shaped by the economic tides of history. Industrialisation had a profound effect on how society viewed the role of women. The rise of the machines meant that women as well as men could be employed in factories, eroding traditional gender-based distinctions. Modern medicine has made further erosion possible. Men may be given female sex hormones. They may submit to sex change surgery so that the body of a natal male is refashioned to resemble that of a woman. (DNA and internal reproductive organs aside). Expressive individualism demands that if a man feels he is really a woman, but trapped in the wrong body, his psychology trumps his biology and his gender identity must be validated by society. 'Trans women are women', get over it. 

That's what you get when the 'social imaginary' is the product of expressive individualism. Robert Jenrick's nod towards trans ideology cited earlier is a perfect case in point, 'of course we want to ensure that those people who are trans can live their life comfortably. I want everyone to be able to live their life the way they want to and be happy and to find love wherever they can do.' In this context the idea that sex is immutably rooted in biology and that biology should have something to say about sexual expression is regarded as oppressive. 

Tensions 

And so it is that in England the LGBT pressure group 'Educate & Celebrate' seeks access to schools so it can advance its mission to 'smash heteronormativity' (see here). Children are taught they can choose whether to be a boy or a girl, based on how they feel inside. Expressive individualism for kids. But there are pushbacks, especially from feminist groups whose whole outlook is based on women being oppressed by a patriarchal society on the basis of sex differences. Feminists resent the downgrading of their biological reality by men who demand to be recognised as women. They are also outraged that biologically intact males who identify as female are given access women's toilets, prisons and refuges. Parents are alarmed when it becomes apparent that their children have been exposed to the kind of trans propaganda promoted by groups such as 'Educate & Celebrate'. Even that bastion of 'muscular liberalism', Ofsted is now concerned about the influence of lobby groups on sex education in schools (see here). 

Adding the 'T' to the LGB lobby has also resulted in tensions. The gay lobby traditionally fought for rights on the basis that people don't choose to be gay or lesbian. Sexual identity is fixed and society should't regard same-sex attracted people as deviants who should be made to conform heterosexual norms. Trans ideology promotes the idea that sexual identity is not fixed, but fluid. If they wish, people should be able to identify as a gender that is different to their birth sex. 'Trans women are women' and woe betide anyone who says otherwise. But lesbian sexuality is based on attraction to people of the same sex, not male-bodied people who identify as women. The LGBT lobby group Stonewall is being dropped by government departments because of its attempts to silence gender critical voices and the misleading advice it gives on the Equality Act and female-only spaces (see here). 

True identity 

In an Unscientific Postscript Trueman looks at how things may pan out in Western culture, captured as it has been by expressive individualism. With the trans lobby labelling gender critical feminists as a bunch of no good 'TERFs' (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists), intersectionality isn't exactly providing a recipe for a more harmonious society. Free speech and with it freedom of religion is likely to come off worst when Christians voice their opposition to the LGBT agenda. After all, the 'heteronormativity' represented by traditional Christians is part of the problem and we can't have people voicing opinions that would disturb the phycological wellbeing of others. But we must stand firm and not allow the world to press us into its mould. Contra expressive individualism, people are not free to crate their own identity. Human identity is a given thing, rooted in our being made in the image of God as male and female. Marriage can't simply be redefined so as to ignore that reality. The identity of the believer is not located in their sexuality, or gender identity, but in Christ. Our task is to preach him and all things in relation to him, Colossians 1:28-29. 

Thursday, July 01, 2021

Methodism: 'an alien place for conservative evangelicals'

As a boy I used to attend the local Wesleyan Methodist Chapel Sunday School. I believe the work has since closed, but when I was a kid a good number of children used to attend 'Aunty Betty's' Sunday School meetings. I can't recall much of what we were taught, but the lessons were Scripture-focussed. Bible stories mainly, rather than clear presentations of the gospel. I have no lingering impression of the Way of Salvation ever being explained to the children. The Christmas Nativity Play was an annual highlight, as parents would also attend. I have a vague recollection of being a shepherd; decked out in a dressing gown and with a tea towel on my head that was kept in place by one of those snake-buckle belts that were all the rage in the 1970s. 

So much for my youthful brush with Methodism. Todays' Methodist Church is a far cry from anything 'Aunty Betty' would have recognised, let alone John Wesley. Yesterday The Times newspaper reported Methodists to allow same-sex weddings. Members of the Methodist Conference voted on a motion that marriage could be defined as a union between "two people", rather than only between "one man and one woman". The vote to redefine marriage passed with 254 in favour to only 46 against. Methodists leaders expressed concern that a significant minority of 'traditionalists' might leave the grouping over this matter. Opponents of same-sex marriage were assured that there were safeguards in place that would allow them to opt out of performing same-sex weddings.  

One evangelical minister responded, "There's a real sense that the Church has become an increasingly alien place to be a conservative evangelical, and there is a sense that the Church is on a direction of travel which many over the course of this next year or two will probably feel unable to sustain". (See this report in Christian Today). A request that evangelicals be allowed to leave Methodism with their church buildings and assets was quite predictably rejected. Evangelicals are none the less weighing up their options.

Methodism was born of the 18th century Evangelical Revival. Methodism had two main branches, those who followed the Calvinistic teaching of George Whitefield and others who came under the influence of the Arminian John Wesley. The Methodist Church of today had its genesis in Wesleyan Methodism.  Whitefield and Wesley had their doctrinal disagreements, but they were united in the basic elements of evangelical belief. The historian David Bebbington has identified four defining characteristics of evangelicalism
  • Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a life long process of following Jesus
  • Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts
  • Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
  • Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity
The vote of the Methodist Conference to allow same-sex weddings didn't come from nowhere. In his Wesley and Men Who Followed (2003, Banner of Truth Trust), Iain H. Murray tells the story of how Methodism gradually drifted away from its evangelical origins. Certainly 'Biblicism' as defined by Bebbington is no longer the default position of the Methodist Church.  John Wesley was ready to be called a 'Bible bigot'. Many of today's Methodists would probably run a mile to get away from any such label. But that is nothing new. In 1965 Donald Soper was president of the Methodist Conference. Far from being a 'Man of One Book', he held that the Scriptures 'represent an incubus' and proposed a one-year ban on Bible reading. 

Around the same time Leslie Weatherhead argued that, 'William Temple was just bas inspired as Paul and T. S. Eliot more inspired than the Song of Solomon'. Weatherhead was especially opposed to the deity of Christ and his substitutionary atonement. Commenting on the text, 'Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins' (Hebrews 9:22), the Methodist leader countered, 'In our modern view this is simply not true.' Old fashioned Methodists were left asking, 'Was John Wesley deceived? have our hymnwriters been deceived in their immortal songs? Was Saul of Tarsus deceived? Have we all been deceived?' (See Wesley and Men Who Followed, p. 257-258). 

In his 1966 address, Evangelical Unity: An Appeal. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones asked, 'Are we content, as evangelicals, to go on being nothing but an evangelical wing of a church?' At least since the 1960's evangelicals have been a minority group within the Methodism. Liberal thinking that is happy to accommodate itself to contemporary opinion has prevailed. The overwhelming vote in favour of redefining marriage is merely a symptom of a deeper doctrinal and spiritual malaise. The leadership of the Methodist Church has long sold the pass when it comes to the authority of Scripture and basic gospel truths such as the deity of Christ and his penal substitutionary death. How can evangelicals continue stand shoulder to shoulder with leaders who have departed from the gospel? 

Yes, 'traditionalists' within Methodism may be granted an 'opt out' when it comes to performing same-sex weddings. At least for now. But wouldn't it be better for people who are committed to the gospel to opt out altogether from a church grouping that takes its lead from the spirit of the age, rather than the authority of the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures? Separation will be costly, but separation need not mean isolation for evangelical Methodists. The call is for them to come out and come together with other gospel churches who stand for the truth in these days of compromise and confusion.  

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Subordination? Another Shedd-load of Trinitarian theology


In an earlier post I wrote appreciatively of W. G. T. Shedd's handling in of the relationship between the single divine essence and the three persons of the Trinity. In this article I offer criticism of the theologian's argument that the Son is subordinate to the Father "in respect to order and relationship". He is clear that there is no subordination of essence,
While there is this absolute equality among divine persons in respect to the grade of being to which they belong, and all are alike infinite and uncreated in nature and essence, there is at the same time a kind of subordination among them....As a relation, sonship is subordinate to fatherhood. (p.  301).

Shedd distinguishes his position from Arianism, which teaches subordination of essence as well as person.  But he is clear that an element of subordination is intrinsic to the relation between the Father and the Son. Subordination cannot be limited to the Son's mediatorial role, "This... involves condescension and humiliation; but the trinitarian subordination does not. It is no humiliation or condescension for a son to be the son of his father." (p. 302). 

This subordination is rooted in the eternal relations of origin according to which the Father is unbegotten, the Son is eternally begotten of the Father and the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son. The external actions of the Trinity are undivided. That is because, "In every external operation of a person, the whole essence operates, because the whole essence is in each person. The operation, consequently, while peculiar to a person, is at the same time essential, that is, is wrought by that one divine essence which is also and alike in the other persons." (p. 304-305). But when it comes to the internal actions, only the Father may be said to beget and only the Father and Son may be said to spirate. Accordingly,

The internal characteristics include the order according to which the Father is immutably the first, the Son immutably the second, the Spirit immutably the third person of the Trinity, and the ground or foundation of this order in certain constitutional and necessary acts in the divine essence. (p. 302).  

The view advanced by Shedd is far from the Eternal Relation of Authority and Submission of the Father in relation to the Son that is advocated by some contemporary Evangelical theologians. Unlike them Shedd does not teach that will is an attribute of the persons, rather than the divine essence, and that the Son eternally submitted his will to that of the Father. Neither does Shedd suggest that the Father possesses a personal attribute of authority that the Son does not share. Divine authority is a perfection of God's being, which is possessed wholly and without division by all three persons. The the persons may be distinguished only in terms of the eternal relations of origin and in no other way. 

What Shedd does say is that being Son involves subordination to the Father according to the order of persons in the Trinity, "It relates only to the personal characteristics of paternity, filiation, and procession." (p. 303). He does not make this point, but it is commonplace in classic Trinitarian theology to hold that the economic missions of the Trinity reflect the eternal processions. The persons are not interchangeable and so it was fitting that the Son was sent into the world by the Father and that the Holy Spirit was poured out by the Son from the Father.  Herman Bavinck spells this out,

But this "being sent" in time is a reflection of the imminent relations of the three persons in the divine being and is grounded in generation and spiration. The incarnation of the Word has its archetype in the generation of the Son, and the outpouring of the Spirit is a weak analogy of the procession from the Father and the Son. The church fathers, accordingly, derived the eternal and imminent relations existing between the persons from the relations that were manifest before the human eye in time. (Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation Volume 2, Baker Academic, 2006, p. 320-321).

Unlike Shedd, however, theologians in the classic tradition have tended to avoid using the language of 'subordination', which smacks of Arianism. Although as already pointed out, Shedd is careful to distinguish what he calls 'trinitarian subordination' from any idea that the Son's essence is in any way inferior to that of the Father. The Particular Baptist pastor-theologian John Gill (1697-1771) better represents classic Trinitarianism. In his discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity Gill explicitly rules out any notion of subordination when it comes both to the Son's essence and person, 

Christ, as all sound divines hold, is αυτοθεος, “God of himself”, and independent of any other, though he is the Son of the Father; and as the distinct personality of the Son of God arises from his relation to his Father as such, so the distinct personality of the Father arises from his relation to his Son as such; hence the distinct personality of the one, is no more dependent, than the distinct personality of the other; and both arise from their mutual relation to each other; and both arise and commence together, and not one before the other; and both are founded in eternal generation. (Gill, John. A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity (With Active TOC and Bible Links) . E4 Group. Kindle Edition.) 

And he goes on to say,

As to subordination and subjection, and inequality, which it is supposed the Sonship of Christ by generation implies; it may be answered, that Christ in his office-capacity, in which he, as Mediator, is a Servant, and as he is man, and appeared in the form of one; it will be acknowledged, that he is subordinate and subject to the Father; but not as he is the Son of God: and whatever inequality sonship may imply among men, it implies no such thing in the divine nature, among the divine persons; who in it subsist in perfect equality with one another; and in particular, the Scriptures represent the Son of God as equal to his Father, as one who thought it no robbery to be equal with God; being of the same nature, and having the same perfections with him, and that he is equal to him with respect to power and authority; for with respect to power he says, “I and my Father are one”; and they represent him as having the same claim to equal honour, homage, and worship; since all men are “to honour the Son, as they honour the Father”; not as in subordination to him, but as equal with him. (Gill, John. A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity (With Active TOC and Bible Links) . E4 Group. Kindle Edition.) 

What Shedd denies Gill affirms, namely that it is only in respect to his 'office capacity... as Mediator' that Christ may be said to be subordinate to the Father. The Son assumed the role of Mediator in eternity. The counsel of redemption was an expression of the one will of God differently appropriated by the three persons so that the Father would send the Son, the Son would be sent by the Father and the Spirit would be sent by the Father and the Son. The economic missions reflected the order of the eternal processions, but the processions do not involve any hint of subordination. The divine persons 'subsist in perfect equality' (Gill). The Son's subordination to the Father was official, not essential, or personal. Although the Son was 'in the form of God', he 'did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped [held onto at all costs], but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." (Philippians 2:6-8). 

Quotations from Dogmatic Theology Volume I, Klock & Klock 1979 reprint. You can also find a e-copy online, but the pagination is different, here. See p. 5 of the PDF for clickable contents. Also, see her for an article by Michael Haykin on John Gill and His  Defence of the Trinity

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The Journey to the Mayflower: God’s Outlaws and the Invention of Freedom, by Stephen Tomkins

2020 Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, Audible edition

In September 1620 a band of intrepid pilgrims boarded the Mayflower and set off for a new life in the New World. The colony they founded helped to shape what became the United States of America. They were Separatists, that is men and women who had left the Church of England to gather themselves into congregations that were governed by their understanding of the biblical model of church life. That was a radical step during the late 1500's and early 1600's. The Monarch was the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. To leave the Anglican Church was not to exercise a legitimate religious right, it was an act of sedition against the State. 

While the Puritans agitated for a further reformation of the Church of England from within as permitted by the authorities, Separatists advocated Reformation Without Tarrying for Anie, as Robert Browne put it in one of the key works of Separatism. The hostile attentions of government and the Bishops drove the Separatist churches underground, initially in London and then elsewhere in England. If caught Separatists leaders were left to fester in prison, or even faced execution. Henry Barrow and John Greenwood were hanged in April 1593 for writing seditious books. John Penry was similarly charged and executed one month later. 

Separatists were often labelled 'Brownists' after their leader Robert Browne. Browne fled persecution in England, founding a Separatist Church in Holland, but the work was riven by factions and infighting. Not finding Separatism to his liking after all, Browne returned to the Church of England. The Separatists hated being labelled with the name of a turncoat. 

Separatists longed to be free to gather their congregations composed of true believers and their children outside of the Church of England. Some regarded the Established Church as hopelessly corrupt and false, others as a true Church that was badly in need of further reform. Separatist thinkers noted that coercing people into belonging to a certain church was alien to the spirit of true Christianity. The New Testament model of church life was not that of the Bishop-dominated Church of England, but congregational, where church members had a say in the government of the church and the appointment of its leaders. 

Some like John Smyth and Thomas Helwys took Separatism to the next logical step and became Baptists. After all, if the church was to be composed of true believers covenanted together, infants could neither believe or willingly covenant to belong to a congregation. Smyth and Helwys came under the influence of Arminianism while in Holland. They were 'General Baptists', believing that Christ died for all people in general. Separatist Hanseard Knollys and others advocated believer's baptism, but within a Calvinistic framework. They were 'Particular Baptists'. teaching that Jesus laid down his life for the elect in particular. 

John Robinson (1576-1625) led a Separatist congregation in Leiden, Holland, where it was possible to 'do church' free from the persecution they would have faced in England. Robinson was a strong advocate of religious liberty and freedom of conscience. The Separatist imagination was fired by the story of the children of Israel leaving oppression in Egypt in search of freedom to serve the Lord in the Promised Land. For Robinson and members of his flock the Promised Land was the New World. And so it was 'All aboard the Mayflower' in September 1620.

The governing document of their Plymouth Colony was the 'Mayflower Compact', in which 41 of the 101 passengers elected to covenant together to form a 'Body Politick' to govern the colony in line with 'just and equal laws'. The original Separatists often faced brutal harassment and persecution. They were regarded as a threat to the good order of church and state. But their key ideas would exert a powerful influence on the development of modern society. Ideas such as the separation of church and state, freedom of religion and the democratic right to self-determination. Congregationalists and Baptists are now sizeable groups in the global Christian family.

Ably read by Richard Burnip, Stephen Tomkins' account of The Journey to the Mayflower tells the compelling story of a despised sect who changed the world. Well worth a listen. 

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Bavinck: A Critical Biography, James Eglinton

Baker Academic, 2020, 450pp

Even if you think Dogmatics is the name of the dog in Asterix the Gaul, you should probably read this book. That's Dogmatix to you, anyway. If you are a Christian who is struggling to hold fast to the faith in rapidly changing times, (and who isn't?) you will find a soul mate in good old Herman. If you are theologically aware enough to know that Dogmatics is not in fact the canine companion of Asterix, this biog is certainly just the thing for you. 

It took me seven years of on/off reading, to finish reading the English translation of Herman Bavinck's magisterial four volume Reformed Dogmatics. I appreciated the depth of Bavinck's scholarship, admired his orthodox yet original theological vision and valued his attempt at bringing Reformed theology into dialogue with the concerns of the modern world. Yes, Bavinck was a Presbyterian and I'm a Reformed Baptist, so there were points of disagreement, but I won't hold that against him. Catholic-spirited of me, I know. 

But what of the man himself? The English translation of Reformed Dogmatics carries a biographical sketch, which is a handy guide. In 2010 Ron Gleason published Herman Bavinck: Pastor,  Churchman, Statesman and Theologian. The Gleason effort was defective in a number of respects, leaving me hoping for a biography that would offer a more compelling portrait of its subject. See my review here.  Cue James Eglinton's Bavinck: A Critical Biography. 

It's a 'critical' biography not because the author keeps having a go at Bavinck, but because the work is based on a fresh reading of the original source materials, rather than being a rehash of earlier Dutch biographies. The picture that has emerged from previous accounts of Bavinck's life is of a somewhat conflicted figure. He was the product of the highly conservative Christian Reformed Church and yet he also desired to be a man of the modern world, moving ever closer to the centre of Dutch society. 

Eglinton challenges that take. The separatist Christian Reformed Churches had been coming in from the cold for some time. The beginning of the modern era in Dutch national life was signalled in 1848 when toleration was granted to other church groupings beyond the established Dutch Reformed Church. The life of Bavinck's father, Jan straddled the pre-modern and modern periods in Holland. He began his pastoral ministry in 1848. Members of the Christian Reformed Church no longer faced discrimination. Some Separatists welcomed the opportunities that their new-found freedom offered, Jan Bavinck was one. Others worried that their orthodox stance would come under pressure should they engage too closely with the modern world. 

Herman Bavinck began his theological training in the Christian Reformed Church's own Theological School in Kampen. It was not to his liking. He wanted to broaden his horizons and study under the modern theologians at the University of Leiden. Some more conservative, not to say reactionary members of his own denomination criticised him for the move. But with his father's support Bavinck enrolled at Leiden, while remaining a student at Kampen. Bavinck excelled in his studies, where he faced the challenge of maintaining his Reformed faith in an academic environment dominated by a critical attitude to the Bible and a revisionist approach to doctrinal orthodoxy. Friendships struck at Leiden were to endure throughout Bavinck's lifetime. 

The move to Leiden did not signal a move away from the Christian Reformed Church on Bavinck's part. On completing his studies both at Leiden and Kampen Herman accepted the call to pastor the denomination's congregation at Franeker, where he served from 1881-82. Following that short spell in pastoral ministry Bavinck was appointed to teach at the Theological School in Kampen, where he remained until 1902. It was during his time there that Bavinck wrote the original editions of his Reformed Dogmatics, which he continued to edit and revise over the years. His time at Leiden acquainted Bavinck with the modern philosophical and theological ideas with which he wrestled in his Dogmatics. That gives the theologian's writings a fresh feel, as he engaged with a wide range of thinkers, while maintaining an orthodox Reformed standpoint. His approach was that of 'theological theology', where the discipline justified itself on its own terms as faith seeking understanding of God's self-revelation in Holy Scripture.   

In the early phase of his teaching ministry Bavinck sought to advance Reformed distinctives over and against alternative versions of the Christian faith. He viewed Dutch society and culture as Reformed in nature, unlike America, where he did not see Reformed theology taking off in a big way. As Dutch society became increasingly secular under the influence of Friedrich Nietzsch and others, Bavinck shifted his emphasis. He urged the churches to engage in evangelism and devoted himself to defending the Christian faith understood more broadly, rather than simply championing the distinctive aspects of Reformed theology. 

Even before he became a Professor at Kampen Bavinck had come to the attention of Abraham Kuyper, who had established his Free University on Reformed principles in Amsterdam. Over the years Kuyper made several attempts at luring Bavinck to the University. It was only when Bavinck became weary of the tensions between fellow lecturers at Kampen that he eventually succumbed, taking up the position of Professor of Theology at Amsterdam. By that time the Christian Reformed Church had merged with the Doleantie churches associated with Kuyper to form the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. Attempts at bringing together the Theological School and the Free University to form a single educational institution ended in failure, much to the frustration of all involved. Bavinck included.  

Kuyper and Bavinck were united in their quest to reshape Dutch society in line with a Christian worldview. Bavinck was active in the Antirevolutionary Party under which Kuyper became Prime Minister of Holland from 1901-05. Eglinton describes Kuyper as a Zeus-like figure, who viewed the world from a lofty Olympian perspective, confident of his ability to to reorder human affairs. Bavinck was ever the careful scholar, journeying like Odysseus from a starting point to the truth. He lacked Kuyper's political skills and did not make a success of his role as chairman of the Antirevolutionary Party. Bavinck was not always in theological agreement with Kuyper. He carefully distanced himself from the latter's stance on the presumptive regeneration of baptised infants and justification from eternity. Kuyper was very much a man of affairs. Even his death was a public event, while Bavinck was a deeply private character. 

That fact makes Eglingon's biography all the more impressive an achievement. His use of Bavinck's dagboeks (private journals) and correspondence enabled him to get under the theologian's skin. We feel for him as the young Bavinck falls in love with Amelia den Dekker. Any hopes of him marrying his beloved Amelia were dashed by her unyielding father. Bavinck later to marry Johanna Adriana Schippers, which whom he had a daughter. Bavinck had an enlightened view of the place of women in society and championed female suffrage in the face of opposition from Kuyper. He was capable of maintaining close friendship with people whose views were far different to his own, such as Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje. They became friends when they were students at Leiden. Snouck was a liberal skeptic who secretly converted to Islam. He questioned how Bavinck could hold to conservative views, given what he had learned under the liberal lecturers at university. Bavinck defended his position, but without alienating his freethinking friend. In polarised times like our own the two men provide a model of of critical, yet cordial engagement between people with wildly different views.

Herman Bavinck was born in 1854, just as the Secession Churches were adjusting the new-found freedoms offered by the modern world. He ended his life a scholar garlanded with academic honours and a statesman elevated to the Upper House of the Dutch Parliament. All the while Bavinck felt the ground moving under his feet as Dutch society became increasingly post-Christian in outlook. He sought to engage with the challenges of the modernity, rather than retreating into a ghetto mentality, a strategy favoured by some Separatists. Bavinck maintained his Kuyperian vision of a culture shaped in all its parts by the Christian faith, but he realised that Christianised society could not be achieved without Christians. Over the course of his lifetime theologian witnessed the Dutch element of Christendom becoming progressively estranged from the faith. With that in mind the older Bavinck rallied the churches to the cause of evangelism, which he defined as "the proclamation of the evangel (the good news of salvation in Christ) to Jews and gentiles." (p. 317). 

Eglington has produced a well-written and rounded account of Herman Bavinck's life set in the context of his rapidly changing times. By going back to the original sources the biographer corrects some of the inaccuracies present in previous biographies. Especially that the subject was painfully torn between his Seceder roots and the modern Dutch society in which he found himself. The author presents a compelling portrait of the man behind the voluminous writings. He was no conflicted soul, but a Reformed Catholic, faithful to the Calvinistic doctrinal heritage of his Church, yet concerned to address the challenges raised by modern thought. In fact as Bavinck claimed, "modern culture and Christianity are inseparable", a point ably demonstrated by Tom Holland in his Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind

Kuyper's all-embracing vision may be summed in his famous words, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” Bavinck agreed. The two men poured a huge amount of effort into reshaping Dutch society in line with a Christian worldview. Meanwhile, Dutch society was drifting away from the faith. Bavinck saw, perhaps too late, that the great need of the hour was for the church to engage in evangelism. If that was the case in the early years of 20th century Europe, how much more urgent is the call to herald the evangel in the early years of the 21st century. 

Beyond renewed evangelistic endeavour, if lost ground is to be recovered for the gospel in the 'post-Christian' West, what is needed is a mighty outpouring of the Spirit in revival power. Bavinck seemed to be a little circumspect about revivals and the strange phenomena sometimes associated with them (see this post on Herman Bavinck and Evan Roberts). But he knew well enough that the preaching of the word needs to be accompanied by the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit,  ‘[The Holy Spirit] always works through the word but not always in the same way…Hence the subjective activity of the Spirit has to be added to the objective word. In the nature of the case it cannot be enclosed in the word; it is another activity, an additional activity, a subjective activity, not through but along with the word’. (Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Four: Holy Spirit, Church, And New Creation, Herman Bavinck, Grand Rapids, Baker, 2008, 459-460). Yes, we need to apply the Word of God to the whole of life and herald the gospel of salvation. But if we would see whole societies transformed, the church needs to be revived and the preaching of the gospel of empowered by the Spirit so that multitudes sinners are converted to Christ. 

If Bavinck was too optimistic in his expectation that Dutch society would maintain its Reformed character, he was too pessimistic in thinking that America would have little time for  Reformed theology. The publication of his Reformed Dogmatics in English translation by an American publishing house has led to renewed interest in Bavinck's life and thought both in the USA and on this side of the Pond. James Eglingon has done a great service in producing this excellent account of the life and times of Herman Bavinck, whom he describes as 'an orthodox Calvinist, a modern European and a man of science'. 

* Most importantly, I get a footnote all to myself, n 13 on p. xx and a mention in the Bibliography, p. 428. 

Monday, June 14, 2021

On the divine persons: a Shedd-load of Trinitarian theology


W. G. T. Shedd (1820-1894) devotes a lengthy chapter in Dogmatic Theology Volume I  to Trinity in Unity. It's not my purpose to sketch out his teaching as a whole. Rather, I want to draw attention to his remarkable treatment of the relationship between the single divine essence and the three persons of the Trinity. 

The theologian takes the simplicity of God's essence for granted and denies that the essence is in any way 'chunked-up' (my words) between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Rather, "this undivided essence is common to three persons" (p. 268). Further, "The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each and simultaneously the whole divine essence; so that while there are three persons, there is but one essence." (p. 275). Shedd admits, however, "that we have no adequate idea of what is meant be person when applied to God and use it only because distinct personal attributes and actions are ascribed to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in Scripture". (p. 268). 

These "personal attributes and actions" are the eternal relations of origin within God, namely, "That immanent and necessary activity within divine essence whereby the Father begets the Son, and the Father and the Son spirate the Spirit, makes it to be self-contemplating, self-knowing, and self-communing." (p. 272). The divine persons are not interchangeable. The Father only is unbegotten, the Son alone is begotten of the Father, the Holy Spirit uniquely proceeds from the Father and the Son. But it is simply in terms of the eternal relations of origin that we may distinguish the persons. In essence they are one, 
The whole undivided divine nature is in each divine person simultaneously and eternally. The modifying of divine nature by eternal generation and spiration does not divide the nature, as temporal generation does, but leaves it whole and entire, so that the substance of the begotten Son and the spirated Spirit is numerically and identically that of the unbegotten and unspirated Father. (p. 278).

Shedd then proceeds to discuss how the three persons relate each to the others. I quote him at length, 

Revelation clearly teaches that these personal characteristics are so marked and peculiar that the three divine persons are objective to each other. God the Father and God the Son are so distinct from each other that some actions which can be ascribed to the one cannot be ascribed to the other. The Father "sends" the Son; this act of sending the Son cannot be attributed to the Son. The Father "loves" the Son; this act of loving the Son cannot be ascribed to the Son. An examination of the Scriptures gives the following series of twelve actions and relations of the three trinitarian persons, which prove that they are objective to one another, that one may do or experience something that is personal to himself and is not personal to the others. One divine person … loves another (John 3:35) dwells in another (John 14:10–11) suffers from another (Zech. 13:7) knows another (Matt. 11:27) addresses another (Heb. 1:8) is the way to another (John 14:6) speaks of another (Luke 3:22) glorifies another (John 17:5) confers with another (Gen. 1:26; 11:7) plans with another (Isa. 9:6) sends another (Gen. 16:7; John 14:26) rewards another (Phil. 2:5–11; Heb. 2:9) Here are twelve different actions and relations which demonstrate that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not one and the same person. (p. 279). 

Each person of the Trinity stands in an 'I"-"Thou" relation to the others. Shedd teases out what that means for the divine self-consciousness, "And the three persons are so real and distinct from each other that each possesses a hypostatic or trinitarian consciousness different from that of the others. The second person is conscious that he is the Son and not the Father, when he says, "O Father, glorify me" (John 17:5). The first person is conscious that he is the Father and not the Son, when he says, "You are my Son, this day have I begotten you" (Heb. 1:5). The third person is conscious that he is the Spirit and neither the Father nor the Son, when he says, "Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them" (Acts 13:2)." (p. 282). 

But that does not mean that the divine persons are three individual centres of self-consciousness, akin to three human persons having a chat. Shedd is no social Trinitarian. He explains, "These three hypostatic consciousnesses constitute the one self-consciousness of divine essence. By reason of and as the result of these three forms of consciousness, divine essence is self-contemplative, self-cognitive, and self-communing. Though there are three forms of consciousness, there are not three essences or three understandings or three wills in the Godhead because a consciousness is not an essence or an understanding or a will. There is only one essence, having one understanding and one will. But this unity of essence, understanding, and will has three different forms of consciousness: paternal, filial, and spiritual because it has three different forms of subsistence, namely, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit." Shedd draws an analogy between the divine essence in relation to the persons and the divine self-consciousness and the hypostatic/personal consciousnesses,  "As the one divine essence is the same thing with the three persons, and not a fourth different thing by itself, so the one divine self-consciousness is the same thing with the three hypostatic consciousnesses and not a fourth different thing by itself." (p. 282-283). 

Shedd's handling of the doctrine of the Trinity has relevance for debates within Evangelicalism on the Eternal Relational Submission (ERS) of the Son to the Father. Advocates of ERS sometimes argue that classic Trinitarianism fails to do justice to divine personhood, having little to say beyond the eternal relations of origin. As Shedd makes clear, however, Father, Son and Holy Spirit each stand in an "I"-"Thou" relation to the others. But that does not mean we should attribute an individual will to each person, or posit that each is a distinct centre of self-consciousness. As Shedd rightly underlines, will is an attribute of the divine being and there is only one self-consciousness in God. The theologian's distinction between the personal consciousness of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and the singular divine self-consciousness is a useful safeguard against social Trinitarianism. "The three hypostatical [personal] consciousnesses in their combination and unity constitute the one self-consciousness." (p. 283).  

You never know what useful stuff may be found lying around in the Shedd. I may rummage around a little more. 

Quotations from Dogmatic Theology Volume I, Klock & Klock 1979 reprint. You can also find a e-copy online, but the pagination is different, here. See p. 5 of the PDF for clickable contents. 

Friday, June 11, 2021

Unchanging Joy

The pandemic has deprived us of many of the things that fill life with joy. Until recently we were unable to see, let alone hug loved ones who live outside our area. Cinemas, pubs and restaurants were closed. Beauty spots were off limits. Many were furloughed and so deprived of the camaraderie of the workplace and a sense of job satisfaction. Children were unable to meet their friends in school. It’s been tough.

Thankfully, we are now emerging from lockdown and are free to enjoy some of the simple pleasures of life once more. A welcome sign of a return to normality was the FA Cup Final featuring Chelsea vs Leicester City, with 21,000 fans in attendance. As is traditional, the hymn ‘Abide with Me’ was sung before kick off.  The words seemed to have added poignancy this year,

Change and decay in all around I see,
O Thou who changest not, abide with me

Whether the emergence of new Covid variants will hinder the removal of all remaining restrictions on 21 June remains to be seen. If our chief joy in life is based on circumstances, our happiness will fluctuate wildly as we encounter good times and bad. The hymn is addressed to the Lord Jesus, the source of unchanging joy.

Jesus died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead that we may have the hope of everlasting life.  Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever. If our joy is in him, nothing on earth can touch it. Jesus shines through the gloom to point us to the skies. “In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”

* For June editions of local News & Views and Trinity parish magazines 

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

New Studies in Dogmatics: The Triune God, by Fred Sanders

Zondervan, 2016, Kindle edition, 243pp

In many treatments of the doctrine of the Trinity the theologian's basic approach is to attempt to bring together the scattered bits and pieces of the Bible's teaching into a coherent whole. Something like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. The theologian will often begin by identifying Trinitarian hints in the Old Testament and then give attention to some of the key passages in New Testament Scripture. 

Fred Sanders proposes and alternative approach. He argues that God is revealed as three persons primarily in the redemptive historical missions of the Son and the Holy Spirit. The role of Scripture is to bear witness to and interpret those missions for us. Contrary to 'Rahner's rule' Sanders is not saying that the economic Trinity we encounter in the missions is the ontological Trinity. Rather, that the eternal processions within God are disclosed in the economic missions of the Son and Holy Spirit . 

The Son is eternally begotten of the Father. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The Son and the Spirit are fully God, of the same divine essence as the Father. Given the eternal relations of origin, it was fitting that the Son should be sent into the world by the Father in order to save us from sin and that the Holy Spirit was poured out from the Father by the Son on the Day of Pentecost to give us new life. 

Hence the church confesses its belief in one God in three persons. But according to Sanders we can say no more of what it means to be a divine 'person' than that the Three have distinct eternal relations of origin. The Father in his person is unbegotten, the Son is begotten of the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. We certainly should not suffuse the personhood with any notion that the Three are separate centres of self-consciousness, each with their own distinct will, who happen to cooperate together for certain ends. Any such account shatters the simplicity of God and veers in the direction of Tritheism.  

We need to tread carefully when it comes to defining what is meant by 'persons' and not lapse into social trinitarianism. But we should also factor in the way Scripture enables us to eavesdrop on communications between the persons of the Trinity, where the Father affirms his love for the Son (Matthew 3:17) and the Son expresses his love for the Father (John 14:31). God's love in Christ is poured into the hearts of his people through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). The missions reveal the mutual love between the persons of the Trinity from eternity. The only begotten Son of the Father is the beloved Son of the Father. This has implications for our understanding of how as persons the Three relate to each other in loving communicative action. Certainly 'person' is to be preferred to some of the other alternatives such as 'mode of subsistence'. As Robert Leatham affirms, "Since God is personal, he is love, the living God, for life and love go together.' (Systematic Theology, Crossway, 2019, 9. 128). Louis Berkhof adds further clarity when he says, 'but [we] should not... lose sight of the fact that the self-distinctions in the Divine Being imply an “I” and “Thou” and “He,” in the Being of God, which assume personal relations to one another.' (Systematic Theology, Biblical Training.org edition, p. 95). 

While Sanders' treatment is enriched by the theological reflection of the church, he is keen to underline that, "Trinitarianism is a gift of revelation before it is an achievement of the church." (p. 23). Biblical exegesis is therefore the key factor on constructing a doctrine of the Trinity. But this does not mean exegesis of individual texts in glorious isolation. Biblical revelation as a whole is Trinitarian in character. The Old Testament sets the scene for the missions of the Son and the Holy Spirit. The New Testament bears its witness to their coming into the world for our salvation. Individual texts need to be seen in that light.  This overall approach has has the advantage of rescuing Trinitarian theology from the 'jigsaw puzzle' method. 

Giving attention to the biblical materials, the author discusses 'New Covenant Attestation' to the Trinity, focusing on 'The Trinitarian Life of Jesus', 'Epiphany at the Jordan', 'The Threefold Name' and 'Paul and the Presupposition of Salvation'. He then discusses 'Old Covenant Adumbration'. Sanders is not happy to label manifestations of God in the Old Testament as 'christophanies'. Evangelicals have sometimes used that label on the basis that it is the Son's nature to be visible in a way that the Father is not, which is a contradiction of 'homoousios', that the Son has the same essence as the Father. Also, the idea that it was always the Son who put in a temporary appearance in Old Testament narratives deprives the eventual enfleshment of Jesus of its uniqueness. Better to say with Augustine that the theophanies represent, “simply the one and only God, that is the Trinity without any distinction of persons.” (p. 225). In the New Testament Isaiah's vision of the Lord seated upon the throne is predicated of both the Son (John 12:40-41) and the Father (Revelation 4:2, 8 cp. Isaiah 6:3). 

That is not to say that we cannot glimpse distinct revelations of the three persons in the pages of the Old Testament. Sanders commends the Fathers' 'retrospective prosoponic (personal)' reading of Old Testament Scripture. The author cites the examples from the writings of of Gerhohus the Great (1093–1169), 

Psalm 1: Wherefore: Glory be to the Father, Who knoweth the Way of the righteous; glory be to the Son, Who is the Way of the righteous, the Man Who is blessed, and prosperous in whatsoever He doeth; glory be to the Holy Ghost, Who is the Wind that scattereth the ungodly. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen. (p. 236). 

Evangelicals have got themselves into something of a muddle on the doctrine of the Trinity of late. A narrowly biblicist approach has led to denials of eternal generation. Some have posited that the Son's will is eternally subordinate to that of the Father, attributing will to the persons of the Trinity rather than the divine nature. Sanders' approach provides a necessary corrective to these harmful tendencies. In an online article Adding Eternal Generation the theologian engages with Wayne Grudem's handling of the doctrine of the Trinity in the second edition of his Systematic Theology.  

Evangelicals are by definition people of the Evangel. That is why we need to get the doctrine of the Trinity right. The revelation of the Trinity is umbilically joined to revelation of the mystery of the gospel. For in the gospel is nothing less than the good news that the Father has sent the Son to be the Saviour of the World and to raise up ruined humanity by the power of his Spirit. In the words of the Second London Baptist Confession, 1689 "which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on Him." (2:2). Sanders' study demands careful thought as he develops his argument and interacts with a range of other scholars, but the work is no way dryly academic. As he points out, to contemplate the Trinity is to seek the face of God and tune one's mind to doxology:

Glory be to God the Father, 
Glory be to God the Son,
Glory be to God the Spirit, 
Great Jehovah three in One.
Glory, glory while eternal ages run.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Behold Your God: The Living God

1.       The living and true God

Our God is the living God. Some people say, ‘If God made everything, who made God?’ But that fails to take into account the most fundamental theological distinction: God is the Creator and everything else that exists is his creation. The existence of all other things is derivative and dependent. The Lord God has life in himself. He did not derive his existence from any other source. He is dependent on nothing. God had no beginning and will have no end. He simply exists, Hebrews 11:6. If the one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit owed his existence to another being, then that being would be the supreme God than whom none greater can be thought or imagined. We confess, 1 Corinthians 8:5-6.

That God is the Living One with life in himself is revealed in his divine Name disclosed to Moses at the burning bush. That the bush seen by Moses was ablaze, yet not consumed is suggestive of the Lord's self-existence. This was appropriate for the one whose name was revealed to Moses as,  'I AM WHO I AM' (Exodus 3:14), or Yahweh. Pagans believed that gods were fed and sustained by offerings of their worshippers. Not so the Yahweh, Psalm 50:12-15. Acts 14:15, 17:24-25, 19:26-27. God doesn’t need us, or anything from us. We can add nothing to him. He is perfectly fulfilled in the fulness of his divine life as one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Lord is the living God who speaks and saves, Deuteronomy 5:26. He showed himself the living God when arose to defend his outnumbered people and defeated their enemies against all odds, 1 Samuel 17:26, 36. 2 Kings 19:4, 16. The Living God is the object of people’s longing, Psalm 42:2, Jeremiah 2:13. Even Pagans acknowledged Israel’s Lord the living God, Daniel 6:20, 26. The gospel proclaimed by the apostles had this effect, 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10. The atoning work has this end in view, Heb 9:14.

2.       The God who gives life

Did not create the universe to satisfy some need in himself, or as fuel for his existence. God is not in a process of becoming that is dependent on the evolution of the universe. He chose to create all things simply to display his wisdom, power, goodness and glory.

Scientists have been unable to unravel the greatest secret of universe, the origin of life. They have probed other planets in search of life, but without success. There are two basic alternatives: either impersonal non-living forces created life, or a personal living God. We believe the living God gives created all things out of nothing and is the giver of life, Genesis 1:11-13, 20-23, 24-25, 26-28, 2:7. The Son of God has life in himself, John 5:26, 1:1-4. God created all things by his Word, through his Spirit: Genesis 1:2, Psalm 104:30. But the life God gives is not like his own self-existent life. All other life comes from him and his upheld by him. Any account that makes God and the world somehow interdependent contradicts the Creator/creature distinction at the hearts of biblical revelation, Isaiah 40:25-26, 28. Romans 11:33-36. Apart from God there is only death. Which is why Genesis 2:17, Romans 5:12.

3.       The God who gives eternal life

Jesus appeared to John at Patmos, Revelation 1:17-18. Jesus the Son of God became one of us, mortal man that he might give his life for his people. By his death sin is atoned for and the power of death is broken, Romans 5:20-21. Note ‘grace reigns’. Grace is God giving us what we don’t deserve. Grace by definition is free and uncompelled. God did not need to be gracious towards sinners. We have no hold on him whatsoever. Grace flows freely to sinners from the self-existent God who is love, 1 John 4:10. If God somehow needed us, he would in some way be compelled to save us. That makes a nonsense of grace, Romans 3:23-24. It is ‘by the grace of God [that] Jesus tasted death for every man’ (Hebrews 2:9). God then raised his Son from the dead. The risen Jesus has the power of an indestructible life. The first Adam received his life from God. The last Adam is a life-giving Spirit, 1 Corinthians 15:45, Romans 8:10, Acts 4:2, 5:20. John 10:10-11, 17-18, 27-30, 1 John 5:11-12. The new creation teems with light, life and love, Revelation 22:1-5. Of the heavenly Jerusalem it is written, Hebrews 12:22-24, 13:14. The living God is the believer's eternal delight, Psalm 84:2.

Behold your God: “God, having all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of Himself, is alone in and unto Himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creature which He hath made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting His own glory in, by, unto, and upon them; He is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things.” (Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, 1689, 2:2). 

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Here Comes the Son

It was certainly a 'long,cold, lonely winter'. Sub zero temperatures for weeks on end. The chilling news of mounting Covid deaths. But now we're well into spring. The trees are in blossom. Bluebells carpet local woodlands. The days are warmer and evenings lighter. Last time I checked the UK had the lowest Covid infection rates in the G7. Here comes the sun. Brighter times are ahead. 

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe C. S. Lewis depicts Narnia under the rule of the White Witch, where it was 'always winter and never Christmas'. Then suddenly the ice begins to melt. Aslan is on the move. In The Chronicles of Narnia the majestic lion is depicted as a Christ-figure. Aslan was willing to die in the place of the traitor, Edmund Pevensey. He then rose again to lead the rebellion against the White Witch’s reign of terror.

 C. S. Lewis was drawing on the Bible’s teaching that humanity lies under the wintry reign of sin and death. In the end we all succumb to the tyranny of the grave, whether paupers or princes. But the ice is thawing and new life is springing forth. Here comes the Son. Of Jesus it was written:          

“the sunrise shall visit us from on high
 to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death, 
 to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

*For May edition of local magazines/newspapers. 

Friday, April 02, 2021

'And they crucified him’

Crucifixion was a form of execution reserved for the lowest of the low. Roman citizens were exempt from the cross. It was a cruel, degrading death. Nailing a common criminal to a cross sent out a powerful message, ‘This is what you get if you mess with Rome.’ Yet that is not how we tend to view crosses today. If you see a vehicle hurtling towards you with a cross emblazoned on the side, you breathe a sigh of relief. You have fallen ill and here is an ambulance with paramedics inside to care for you and make sure you get proper treatment.

Countless thousands of people were crucified during the period of the Roman Empire. Yet it took the death of one man by crucifixion to transform the meaning of the cross. That was Jesus Christ. Viewed in one way, he was a victim of the ancient equivalent of ‘cancel culture’. His teaching upset the leaders of the Jewish people. They wanted Jesus silenced. Dead men don’t speak, so the religious authorities pressurised the Roman governor Pontius Pilate into condemning Jesus to death by crucifixion. Pilate knew that Jesus was an innocent man, but he had him crucified anyway.

Another brutal display of Roman power. Yet Jesus knew full well how he was going to die on that first Good Friday. He made no attempt to evade arrest, or to argue his case before those who sat in judgement upon him. He willingly gave himself to the death of the cross because he knew that was the only way to break the power of sin. Sin is defiance of God’s throne that cries to high heaven for justice to be done. Even in our culture where many believe that right and wrong are ‘all relative’ we can sometimes be shocked by the horror of sin; the atrocities of totalitarian regimes, the murder of a young woman on the streets of our capital city.

Jesus came to lay down his life for the sins of the world so that we may be forgiven and be put right with God. Thus understood, the cross of Jesus was the greatest act of love the world has ever seen. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Behold your God: In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit


Previously we saw that God is one. He is unique as the one true and living God. He is a unity; a simple, undivided Spirit. But in the one God are three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We may tend to think that the doctrine of the Trinity is only something that needs to bother the heads of pastors and advanced students of theology. That is not the case. Jesus commanded that new disciples are to be baptised in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19) Already in the baptismal formula we are being confronted with the fact that our God is one -  ‘name’ is singular and three, ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’. How do we make sense of that? Thankfully, we are not the first generation of believers to address that question in a spirit of faith seeking understanding. The first four centuries of church history were dominated by controversies about the Trinity. The stakes were high. At issue were fundamentals of the faith such as the knowledge of God, the salvation of God, who are the people of God and the worship of God.

The Trinity is hinted at in the Old Testament, but the mystery is more fully revealed in New Testament era, where the missions of the Son and Holy Spirit take centre stage. Jesus is included in divine identity, John 1:1-3, 1 Corinthians 8:6. The Holy Spirit is constantly mentioned in the same breath as the Father and the Son, Matthew 28:19, 1 Cor 13:14. The mystery of the Trinity is not irrational, or totally baffling.  It is a mystery in the biblical sense of truth hidden in God until he was pleased to reveal it, Colossians 1:24-27. 

1.       In the Name

'Father'. God is disclosed as Father not first and foremost because he is in some sense the universal Father of his human image bearers, or even that he is the Father of believers, his adopted children. He is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Spirit is the Spirit 'of God'. He did not become Father at some point. He is the eternal Father of the eternal Son and the eternal Spirit. We speak of the Son as eternally generated by the Father, and of the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son. The named three persons are one God. 

2.       God sending and sent                  

The Father ever loved his Son and gave him life in himself, even as the Father has life in himself, John 5:26. His Spirit is the Spirit of life (Romans 8:2). The eternal relations between Father, Son and Holy Spirit are reflected in the missions of the persons of the Trinity. The Father sent the Son into the world, rather than the other way around, 1 John 4:14. The Holy Spirit was sent by the Father in the name of the Son, John 14:26. He is the ‘Spirit of God’ and the ‘Spirit of Christ’ (Romans 8:9). Each person is concerned for the glory of the other, John 17:1, (from eternity vs. 5), Phil 2:11, John 16:14-15. Because our God is a God who communicates life, love and glory in himself, he is also a God who was pleased to communicate life and love and reveal his glory in creating the universe. Above all that includes creating human beings in his image. Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). We are made in his image (Genesis 1:26) to share in the life, love and glory of the Trinity, John 17:22-23.

Although there is an order in the persons of the Trinity, there is no hierarchy of being so that the Father is God in a superior sense to the Son or Holy Spirit. The three are fully God, of the same being as the Father. How else can we do justice to New Testament depiction of Jesus and the Spirit? The divine Name Yahweh Deuteronomy 6:4 is accorded to Jesus, John 8:58. The Spirit is the 'Spirit of Yahweh', active in creation (Genesis 1:2) and exercising Lordship (1 Corinthians 12:11).

It is wrong to say that the Son eternally submitted his will to that of the Father in the decree that he would be sent into the world. Will is a property of God’s being, not the persons. All three persons were party to the plan of salvation in which Son would come to save us in the power of the Holy Spirit, Ephesians 1:4, 9. If it is true to say, that the Father gave the Son for us, Romans 8:32, then we may also say that Son freely gave himself for us, Galatians 2:20. Father and Son are one in being and will, John 10:30.

3.       Salvation is of the triune Lord

In creation, providence and redemption God does all things by his Son and through his Spirit to his glory. Because they share one being, the three always act in concert. Only the Son became man, but he became man on being sent into the world by the Father and by the power of the Spirit in his virginal conception. Consider the miracles Jesus performed, which are jointly ascribed to all three persons of the Trinity as they share the one divine being, John 5:19-20, 14:8-11, Matthew 12:28. Consider the cross of Jesus, Hebrews 9:14 and his resurrection from the dead, Romans 8:11. 

The doctrine of the Trinity helps answer some fundamental questions:

How can we know God? John 1:18, 14:7, 14:16-17, 25. 

How can we be saved by God? Salvation is trinitarian in structure, Ephesians 1:3-14, Romans 8:1-17, Galatians 4:4-7, 1 Peter 1:1-3. Only the divine Son could atone for sin, only the divine Spirit could give us new life and communicate love of God to hearts, Romans 5:5, 8.

Who are the people God? We are 'baptised into the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’. Baptism signifies that we are brought into union with God in Christ by the Spirit. Matthew 28:19. The triune God showers his gifts upon the church, where unity in diversity thrives, 1 Corinthians 12:4-6, Ephesians 4:4-6, 7-8. 

How may we worship God? Ephesians 2:13. In our communion with God, particular communion with one person always involves the other two. The worship of heaven is trinitarian, Revelation 4 & 5. The Second London Baptist Confession 1689 states. “which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on Him.” Let us worship our adorable Trinity. 

Creeds and Confessions

We believe in one God,
      the Father almighty,
      maker of heaven and earth,
      of all things visible and invisible.

 And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
      the only Son of God,
      begotten from the Father before all ages,
           God from God,
           Light from Light,
           true God from true God,
      begotten, not made;
      of the same essence as the Father.
      Through him all things were made.

And we believe in the Holy Spirit,
      the Lord, the giver of life.
      He proceeds from the Father and the Son,
      and with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.

      We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.

From the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325) with additions by the Council of Constantinople (A.D. 381)

In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit, of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided: the Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son; all infinite, without beginning, therefore but one God, who is not to be divided in nature and being, but distinguished by several peculiar relative properties and personal relations; which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on Him. 

From the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, 1689. Chapter 2:3