Friday, 31 October 2008

Is the ESV S-B that good?

There seem to be three big events in my on-line world at the moment. Two elections (yes, NZ is having one as well), and the release of the ESV study-bible. I've cancelled my order (when the NZ dollar fell from US.86 to US.56 it seemed a good idea to delete Amazon from my favorites), and am hearing very good things about it. I've also read a few of the freebies and they look great.

But I am a bit concerned when I hear people saying things like:

... a resource that trumps my seminary education...

Now there's a possibility that the blogger is being a little sarcastic (and of course it depends entirely on where he went to seminary), but I'd question whether any book, even the ESV study-bible trumps a seminary education. It's just a study bible. But then again I haven't read it. So if you have, I'd love to know - is the ESV study-bible THAT good?

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

A blind haircut

I had my haircut today.

For me, having my haircut is an extraordinary event. For I am quite blind and have to take my glasses off when I sit in the chair, and so my experience of having my haircut is seeing a blurry figure dancing around slashing at my head with a pair of scissors.

It's also an extraordinary event because I get to see (in a metaphorical sense - remember the glasses are still off), the response of the hairdresser when I tell them that I'm a church minister. There's always a longer-than-average pause. I'm tempted to try out some different occupations on hairdressers just to see what gets the longest pause, but I fear I wouldn't be able to carry on the conversation in good faith when they ask me how I got into taxidermy.

The pause today was followed by 'oh, I'm not religious in any way. I'm really not religious at all. I've never really been to church'. We then spoke about all the churches she'd been to in Europe, and I tried to think of a way of explaining the gospel through reformation church history (but I find it hard to think quickly when I can't see clearly - remember, the glasses still off).

Later in the conversation we were talking about what a nice town Methven is, and how she likes it much more than Ashburton (Ashburton (or Ashvegas as it's known in our house) is the major town in mid-Canterbury). As we were talking about why it is that Methven is nicer than Ashburton, she relayed to me how a friend suggested to her that its because Ashburton has a major train track running through it, and that train line carries all the good energy out of the town. My hairdresser wasn't willing to rule that possiblility out.

And I realised that while I might be sitting there blind as a bat because my glasses were off, she was blinded in a far more terrible way. For the god of this age has blinded her eyes to the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ (2 Cor 4:4). The idea that a train track can carry good energy out of a town is entertained, but there is a refusal to go to hear how God carried her sins to the cross.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Colour me bad

We received today a free parenting magazine. Now, I want to be clear that I'm all for helping parents be good parents - anything that anyone can do to encourage, equip and support parents to raise their kids is a good thing.

However, in this edition there is an article entitled 'What colours should your baby wear?' Being the metrosexual guy that I am, I launched into it.

There was some gold (no pun intended) in it - gentle colours, such as soft pink, are used with babies 'because it is the colour of the womb, as well as the colour of unconditional love' (bet you didn't know either of those life-changing pieces of information).

But the bit that particularly struck me was the detailed description of why colour is so important. I won't quote it all, but follow the 'argument'. At the heart of all matter are atoms, and in atoms are electrons, and when you open up an electron (you probably need a pretty sharp knife), all you're left with 'are two banks of energy - two electrical charges! This is the basis of all life'.

Ok, so you've got your electron open on the bench. We're then told (and I have to quote this):

Reversing the process is how matter is formed. Energy has layers like an onion [and Shrek], each one making the energy more dense. The first cloak of energy is COLOUR, the second [...] SOUND, the third [...] is MATTER. That's when rocks, trees and human bodies start being seen.
Again, bet you didn't know that inside every rock was sound. But some of your wives know that inside every man there's sound - and plenty of it. But then we get to the heart of it:

What this means - and this is important folks - is that we can alter and change ourselves, from the outside in, just by wearing and looking at different colours.

Apart from the fact that is must really suck to be blind, and apart from the fact that this kind of kooky new-age pseudo-science can be seen through by a 5 year old, the premise - that we can alter and change ourselves from the outside in - is as old as the hills.

It implies that we can do something to make ourselves better. Be it wearing certain colours, or praying facing a certain direction, or receiving a sacrament from a particular person - we have the power to change ourselves. If we do stuff on the outside, the inside will change. And yet Jesus is crystal clear - what you do on the outside can't change the inside. In fact, it's in the inside that makes the outside dirty, and no matter how much you spruce up the outside, it doesn't change the inside. What you need is someone to change the inside for you.

Of course this article did get one thing (almost) right. Soft pink is the colour of unconditional love. It was seen flowing from the head, and the hands, and the side of the one who died so that the inside might be changed.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Devaluing God

I'm preaching this Sunday on John 2:12ff - the clearing of the temple. One line of application is the priority of person over place. In his interaction with the Jewish leadership, Jesus clearly transfers the location of access to the Father from the temple to himself (Jn 2:22)

What has struck me in thinking about this is that by people thinking that there is something 'holy' about the church building - that they are somehow closer to God, or that the area up the front is somehow 'special' - they aren't actually treating that place with more respect and value - they are devaluing the rest of their lives, and more importantly, the presence and work of God in the rest of their lives.

If God were more present in a particular geographical space (such as a church), then we'd certainly have to watch our thoughts, attitudes, behaviour, etc. more while we were in that space. Then, when we left, we could relax a little. It wouldn't matter as much how we lived, for God wasn't as present as he is in that other place. And yet the comfort of the gospel of Jesus is that he will never leave us or forsake us (Heb 13:5) - it was good that Jesus 'went away', for only then would the Spirit come and be with believers 'forever' (Jn 14:16). God's people are where he dwells (Eph 2:22), and therefore how we act at all times is of vital importance (1 Cor 6:19-20; Eph 4:30).

To say that God is 'more present' in a particular place is to devalue the worth and importance of every other place, and particularly to devalue the indwelling presence and work of Jesus' Spirit in his people in every place.

Monday, 20 October 2008

A Profound Post

Having not blogged for a couple of weeks, I thought I would return with a particularly profound post:

Apparently half the global population of tigers reside in captivity in Texas.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Two types of clarity

As noted earlier, I've just finished reading Mark Thompson's excellent book on the clarity of Scripture: A Clear and Present Word. Clearly (excuse the pun) this doctrine is timely and important - in a world where people claim that the Bible either can't be understood, or can be understood any way we choose, or has been misunderstood for centuries (and now we have it right!), or requires the church to understand it for us, a right and carefully thought out understanding of this topic is vital.

One thing which struck me on this reading was Luther's precise articulation of different types of clarity in Scripture. First, there is the external clarity of the Bible. "God has graciously chosen to express himself in the ordinary conventions of human language." (A Clear and Present Word, 148-9) This is what makes the comprehension and context questions of a Bible Study possible. We can translate it, read it, understand it. We can see structure in composition and rhetorical argument. It is clear because God has accommodated himself to human language (although of course its God's language to start off with!).

Secondly, however, there is as Luther describes, an internal clarity. That is, to understand the Bible as what it truly is, the revelation of God to us, which requires the Spirit of God in us. "Understanding in the true Christian sense, is more than making sense of the words on the page [...] Scripture remains God's word by which he addresses the human heart. God's clear word is made clear to believers by God." (A Clear and Present Word, 149). And this of course, is the glorious 'a ha!' moment in a Bible Study. When we hear God speaking to us through the text. When we are brought face to face with the glory of God in Christ, and respond in repentance and faith, and praise and proclamation.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Owen's heart

It's been a while since I've read any Owen, and I'm feeling the lack of weight and substance. Sinclair Ferguson made a comment somewhere that after he's read Owen he wonders why he spends time reading other theologians (or something like that). I can understand that (although I'm not sure I'd give up on the other theologians, but then again I'm sure neither would Ferguson). However, Owen's certainly got his difficulties, not least of which is he's hard to read. But he is rewarding, stimulating, and most importantly, he writes theology (and often very direct polemical theology) as a Christian man. When you read Owen you get the feeling that while his arguments are dense, complicated, and exhaustive (as well as being exhausting), his overarching purpose is to encourage you as a Christian, or to protect you from false teaching. The really important thing is not that you understand everything, but that you believe:

For my part, I had much rather my lot should be found among them who do really believe with the heart unto righteousness, though they are not able to give a tolerable definition of faith unto others, than among them who can endlessly dispute about it with seeming accuracy and skill, but are negligent in the exercise of it as their own duty.

The Doctrine of Justification by Faith – 5:63

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Thompson on Scripture

Next Sunday (the 19th), Mark Thompson is visiting Christchurch to speak on the clarity of Scripture (details here). As a bit of pre-game warm up I thought I'd have a wander through the book of his 2005 Moore College Annual Lectures, A Clear and Present Word. How's this for a wonderful statement:

Christian doctrine is not essentially rational, mechanistic or impersonal, but is relational at its very core because God in his eternal being is relational and determines all reality. A Christian doctrine of Scripture must speak of Scripture as it is related to God, and this will of necessity draw attention to the person, work and words of Jesus Christ, the one who is genuinely and without reduction both God and human. Scripture exists by and within the purpose of God to be known by men and women, those he is determined to rescue for himself. It is properly understood as an integral part of the purposeful communicative activity of God (Clear and Present Word, 78-9).

I wonder if we can go even further, and suggest that given what Thompson has said about the nature of the Scriptures being grounded in the nature of God (relational and communicative), it is right to speak of the Bible as being not only an 'integral part of the purposeful communicative activity of God', but also an integral part of the purposeful salvific activity of God.

Of course this salvific activity would need to be understood broadly (so as to include both the softening and hardening of hearts), and one would not want to restrict God's salvific activity to the presence or articulation of the exact words of Scripture (such a view would be validly open to Barth's critique of restriction of God's sovereignty), but the Bible not only communicates what God has, is, and will do, but the message of which is effective, by the Holy Spirit, in bringing those purposes about - 'and you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation (Eph 1:13).

My boys!

Here is a great news item about my former minister (and dear friend) and my current web designers (also dear friends). It makes it sound as though posting sermons on-line is a new thing, but St John's has been doing it for a long time. St John's website can be found here. And in shameless shelf-promotion, our website can be found here.

My Boy!

I'm not normally the sort of parent who raves about his kids, but I do have do make an exception. Yesterday was Theo's third birthday, and lucky kid got a bike (tiny little thing, because Theo's a tiny little thing). Liam came home from preschool in the afternoon and saw the bike (he knew we were giving it to Theo and was very excited). Liam grabs it from against the wall, hops on, and rides it 8 metres or so across the lawn.

Not a lot amazing about that. Except that the bike didn't have training wheels. And except that Liam had never before then been on a bike that didn't have training wheels. So Liam has essentially taught himself to ride a bike. And by the end of the afternoon he was cornering, stopping, and even occasionally getting off without falling.

But I have my doubts about Liam's naturally talents. For I fear that he got so good by making some sort of evil pact with the rose bush fairies - they seem to have demanded a blood offering, and Liam certainly left a LOT of blood on the rose bush throughout the day!

Saturday, 4 October 2008

This Sunday...

...arguably marks beginning of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Thanks be to God that things are different now.

Understanding Bultmann on Mythology

Bultmann begins his famous essay The New Testament and Mythology by arguing that

the cosmology of the New Testament is essentially mythical in character. The world is viewed as a three storied structure, with the earth in the centre, the heaven above, and the underworld beneath’.

Bultmann argues that the roots of this mythical world-view lie with Jewish Apocalyptic and Gnosticism. This mythology makes the Christian message

incredible to modern man, for he is convinced that the mythical view of the world is obsolete.

Crucially, Bultmann asks if

when we preach the Gospel to-day, we expect our converts to accept not only the Gospel message, but also the mythical view of the world in which it is set.

Rather, shouldn’t we expect that

the New Testament embody a truth which is quite independent of its mythical setting?


If it does, theology must undertake the task of stripping the Kerygma from its mythical framework, of “demythologizing” it.

This question is crucial to our proclamation of the gospel:

Can Christian preaching expect modern man to accept the mythical view of the world as true. To do so would be both senseless and impossible. It would be senseless, because there is nothing specifically Christian in the mythical view of the world as such. It is simply the cosmology of a pre-scientific age. Again, it would be impossible, because no man can adopt a view of the world by his own volition—it is already determined for him by his place in history. Of course such a view is not absolutely unalterable,
It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modem medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles. We think we can manage it in our own lives, but to expect others to do so is to make the Christian faith unintelligible and unacceptable to the modern world.

Thus, if
the truth of the New Testament proclamation is to be preserved, the only way is to demythologize it.

But, interestingly Bultmann argus that

our motive in so doing must not be to make the New Testament relevant to the modern world at all costs. The question is simply whether the New Testament message consists exclusively of mythology, or whether it actually demands the elimination of myth if it is to be understood as it is meant to be.

If you have read this far well done! We'll see what Rudi argues about the New Testament's demands next time.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Bultmann on his critics II

Following on from the Bultmann post below, a few aspects call for reflection:

-Whatever else this tells us, it tells us that if we are going to criticise people, we need to do it carefully and thoroughly. To give a related example, I have heard a number of people (myself included!) who simply reject Barth's position on Scripture as 'Scripture contains the Word of God'. This is not an accurate summary at all. Not only is it discourteous to the person you are criticising, it will never win over them or anyone who has embraced their teaching. If you are going to reject someone’s teaching - you need to make sure that you are rejecting what they actually teach and not a caricature. (So, for a more accurate criticism of Barth’s view of Scripture, see Mark Thompson’s essay in this volume).

-It is interesting that Bultmann’s concern is to make the gospel understandable to those outside the church. This, on one level is commendable, but - as we will see when we actually read some of his writing (carefully!) ­ - can also produce instability in that the centre of your theological reflection becomes not the Scriptures themselves but your audience. It would seem that a number of modern distortions of the gospel follow this path.

-What are we to make of Bultmann’s call for what we might label ‘epistemic humility’. ‘

They cannot imagine that they themselves could possibly be in error. They cannot listen any longer to another opinion or feel challenged to re-examine their own position. They do not know that Christian insight has to be won in inner wrestling and in brotherly discussion, and that this must proceed step by step.’

As Christians, must we remain permanently in a state of uncertainty about what we believe or have been taught? Is there nothing that we can be absolutely sure about? It seems that actually the NT breathes an air of confidence. Christians are expected to be able to grasp and hold onto the teaching of the apostles. So, Paul tells Timothy to ‘ guard the good deposit entrusted to you’ (2 Tim 1:14); Paul can be so certain that the Galatians understand the gospel that he can warn them that if anyone preaches a different gospel they are under a curse (Galatians 1:9). These two examples - and we could add many more- show that the tenor of the NT is not ‘epistemic humility’ but ‘humble certainty’. Humble in that we continue to depend on God - Timothy is told to guard the deposit ‘by the Holy Spirit’. But certain in that the Bible is clear .

Bultmann raises interesting questions, and hopefully in the next few posts we can look at what he actually said, so that we can engage with him fairly and accurately.

Bultmann on his critics

Having recovered from my first encounter with Bultmann, I decided to start by actually reading a brief introduction that Bultmann wrote to a collection of essays discussing his theology. Bultmann is famous for his idea that we need to 'demythologize' the NT. That is, we need to strip it of its mythical elements - so that we can get to the heart, the kerygma. I will hopefully post more on this later, but the introduction is fascinating to read in terms of how he received the criticism that came his way. I have included some pretty big chunks of text below - but they are worth reading...

He begins:

Apart from purely personal correspondence the daily mail arriving in recent years on my desk can be divided into four groups: 1, book catalogues; 2, advertisements for wine and cigars; 3, East German propaganda; and 4, letters on the subject of demythologizing.

It is the 4th group that he is concerned about:

It is incredible how many people assume the right to sit in judgement on me when they have never read a single word of mine. I could not possibly reply to all of them. In certain cases I have replied, especially when they have attacked my person with special severity. Some, for example, have prophesied that I would come to a dreadful end like Voltaire or Nietzsche. In that case I inquired on what grounds the -writer based this, and which of my writings he had read. The reply came without fail: he had read none of my writings! He had simply lathered from some Sunday paper or parish magazine that I am a teacher of false doctrines.

Bultmann is then scathing about the publishers:

I consider it irresponsible that Sunday papers or parish magazines should bring the topic - I almost said the slogan - of demythologizing before the laity at all, a topic of which they understand nothing, and which they are bound to misinterpret because it needs a theological education to understand it.

He then gets to the heart of the matter:

What is especially shattering is the inability of such writers of articles, and the correspondents they have misled, to face up to the question. With unflinching pharisaism they condemn an opinion different from their own as false doctrine, in the certain conviction that their own opinion alone represents the truth. They cannot imagine that they themselves could possibly be in error. They cannot listen any longer to another opinion or feel challenged to re-examine their own position. They do not know that Christian insight has to be won in inner wrestling and in brotherly discussion, and that this must proceed step by step. Thus they show that they are deaf to questions which nowadays trouble many people - young and old - in the Church, and hat by closing their ears to such questions they also deprive themselves of the opportunity of helping those who ask these questions. Thus it is their fault as much a much as anyone’s many people turn their backs on the Church. They are like the scribes and Pharisees who stop others from entering the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 23.13; Luke 11.52). Some of my correspondents try to lecture me in a way which I can only call conceited. They point to biblical passages without stopping to link that I have been familiar with those passages for years and without giving me the benefit of the doubt that in the course of my profession I have had reason to reflect on their meaning. Thus they do not credit me with any conscientious work, but reproach me for being irresponsible ad superficial. I consider that impertinent as well as conceited. And although it is touching that some of my correspondents assure me that they are praying for my conversion the same conceited attitude lies behind this.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

A question of Jensen on Driscoll

I was fortunate enough recently to visit Sydney and hear Don Carson and Kent Hughes speak. Two incredibly godly, learned, compelling teachers, and it was a joy to sit at their feet. Oh, and Mark Driscoll was there as well (which is in no way to imply that he isn't godly, learned or compelling!). If you don't know who he is, check out here (and congrats on waking up from the coma you've been in for the past couple of years).

Driscoll made 18 comments on the state of the church in Sydney, and it is fair to say that people in Sydney have not stopped talking about them. Personally I think many were spot on, some were deliberate (hopefully) caricatures and exaggerations designed to waken the slumbering, and a couple were unhelpful and wrong. Most recently, over at the Sola Panel (wish we'd thought of that name), Phillip Jensen has offered his thoughts, which are very helpful and steer a good middle ground.

However, I have difficulties with one of Phillip's comments. He says:
His [Driscoll's] address to us in the Cathedral was more that of a prophetic preacher than an expositor of the Bible

Driscoll's first comment was that 'the Bible guys are not the missional guys'. His seventh was that 'your teaching lacks [...] apologetics, mission, and application. Both statements are cutting critiques because they are stating that we [those who might align themselves with conservative evangelicalism] are handling the bible incorrectly. They're saying that we 'teach' the Bible without apologetics, mission, and application(!). That when we handle the Scriptures we are somehow not thinking about the culture (ecclesial and secular) that the Word is speaking into.

And my difficulty with Phillip's comments is that he implicitly affirms what Driscoll has criticised. He has validated Driscoll's criticism by splitting apart what shouldn't be. That being a 'prophetic preacher' can be separated out (somehow!) from being 'an expositor of the Bible'. They can't be. To expose the Scriptures is, by the power of God's Spirit, to prophetically (Rev 19:10) proclaim (2 Tim 4:2). And as God's word is made clear, as it is shown to counter our culture, as questions which oppose the message are answered, as it is prayerfully and graciously and lovingly applied to the hearers (Christian and non-Christian alike), the expositor is prophetically proclaiming the glorious gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The great irony in this, of course, is that Phillip is both, par excellence - by being an expositor of the Bible he is a prophetic preacher. And of course I'm sure Phillip wouldn't try to separate them out. But it is a timely reminder for us to keep on our toes, and to handle the word of truth correctly. Let us not separate what God has joined together.

Rudolf Bultmann

This coming week I will be trying to read quite a bit of Rudolf Bultmann. My first impression was not so good. I bought a copy of his NT Theology which was sealed with cellophane. In my attempt to open it I knocked my cappucino all over myself. So, there you go...make of that what you will.

Durham Cathedral

Continuing this mini-series of posts of no particular importance (unlike the vast majority of our highly significant reflections), apparently in years gone by if you committed a serious crime you could flee to Durham cathedral and knock on the door. You would then be given refuge for 37 days in which time you could get your affairs together. You then had the option to stand trial or to flee the country by the nearest port. Not sure if it mattered how many letters you had in your surname...

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

A very slow morning

This is of no weight, notice, import or significance. So, if you've having a slow day (as obviously I am), then read on. Otherwise, go and do something useful.

I'm sitting here at my desk gazing around aimlessly when something struck me. There are very few theologians of significance who have seven letters in their surname (and by 'theologians of significance, I mean theologians whose books I own, and by theologians I'm including historians and biblical scholars). Now of course the observant of you will immediately pick up on the fact that my surname as 7 letters, so it's not difficult to imagine the delusion of grandeur I was drifting away on.

But think about it. There aren't many. There are some (Barrett, Hoekema, Barnett, Wallace, Brunner, Goodwin, Trueman, Webster)

But the big guns are 6 and 8 letters (with a few 'fivers' thrown in - Stott, Barth, Piper, Bruce, Henry, and of course Doyle): Carson, Wright, Morris, O'Brien, Packer, Thomas, Murray, Grudem, Gunton, Machen, Nicole, Luther, Calvin, Spurgeon, Westcott, Warfield, Demarest, Robinson, Torrance, Bromiley, Moltmann. The list goes on.

Now of course some of you will suggest that this is just the way things work - 7 letter names just aren't as popular as others. But still - you've got to wonder...