Monday, 21 September 2009

The importance of normal church

An excellent and greatly encouraging article by Carl Trueman, especially for those of us in normal, small, unimpressive churches. Well worth the read. One great line (and there are plenty)...
if I wanted a pretentious and incomprehensibly abstract theology with an impeccable record of emptying churches, I'd convert to Barthianism, wouldn't I?
Read the rest of it here.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Origin of the Specious

Following on from the last post on atheism, here is a new review by David Hart on yet another book arguing that if you can show some form of evolution of thought concerning God within a religion, you have proven its natural origin.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009


David Bentley Hart has recently come out with a book Atheist Delusions where he engages with people like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchins etc. as well as providing a positive account for the impact of Christianity on civilisation. It looks very interesting.

This is the blurb from Amazon:

Currently it is fashionable to be devoutly undevout. Religion's most passionate antagonists - Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and others - have publishers competing eagerly to market their various denunciations of religion, monotheism, Christianity, and Roman Catholicism. But contemporary anti-religious polemics are based not only upon profound conceptual confusions but upon facile simplifications of history or even outright historical ignorance: so contends David Bentley Hart in this bold correction of the distortions. One of the most brilliant scholars of religion of our time, Hart provides a powerful antidote to the New Atheists' misrepresentations of the Christian past, bringing into focus the truth about the most radical revolution in Western history. Hart outlines how Christianity transformed the ancient world in ways we may have forgotten: bringing liberation from fatalism, conferring great dignity on human beings, subverting the cruelest aspects of pagan society, and elevating charity above all virtues. He then argues that what we term the 'Age of Reason' was in fact the beginning of the eclipse of reason's authority as a cultural value. Hart closes the book in the present, delineating the ominous consequences of the decline of Christendom in a culture that is built upon its moral and spiritual values.

To get a feel for it, here is an excerpt from an earlier article on-line where he review Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

I would hesitate to say that Breaking the Spell is, in this sense, entirely absurd, as I doubt that it is tightly reasoned enough to merit the description. What does seem clear, however, is that, in its general form, the book's argument is one that strives (not always successfully) to preserve the shape of reason, logic, and method, even though that shape has been largely evacuated of all rational, logical, or empirical content. To put the matter bluntly, no one could mistake it for a genuinely substantial argument who was not firmly intent on doing so before ever reading the book. Viewed impartially, Dennett's project leads nowhere, and its diffuse and flimsy methods are altogether unequal to the task of capturing the complex, bewildering, endlessly diverse thing they are designed to subdue.

Monday, 14 September 2009


A great illustration on the importance of correct translation!

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Douglas Campbell

Some very quick (and undeveloped!) thoughts on Douglas' Campbell's Quest for Paul's Gospel. One thing I found very striking is his treatment of Paul's ethics. He argues that some aspects of Paul's ethics flow from his soteriology (basically the idea of union with Christ), while other aspects seem to be more 'static' and 'rooted in a particular conception of creation'. So, in Galatians 3:28 he affirms the unity of Jew and Greek; male and female etc. This, argues Campbell, is consistent with his view of salvation. However, in other places (e.g. 1 Cor 11:2-16; Romans 1) he affirms 'gender codes', and that homosexuality is 'unnatural'. These affirmations are tied to creation not salvation making his ethics inconsistent according to Campbell

What to do with this inconsistency? Campbell is clear:
'If Paul was inconsistent at this point, as seems likely, failing to prosecute his soteriology (and who of us can cast the first stone here?!), then I suggest that, having detected this, we should simply overrule those inconsistencies in the name of his central convictions. Paul’s soteriological centre, along with its consistent ethical corollaries, should trump his inconsistent ethical admonitions; his position on redemption should overrule his inconsistent statements about creation’ (p127).

I have to confess that I stopped reading the book at this point. Calling Paul inconsistent is just seems the easy way to write off the parts of his teaching you don’t like and shows that you have not understood how his theology fits together. Campbell does say (I did read on a bit!) that he doesn’t ‘suggest this lightly, but only after careful consideration. Neither do I do so because of some external agenda; it is Paul’s own position on redemption that forces us to call his creation-based ethics into question. (So here I act on in accordance with the important principle that scripture should interpret scripture.)[…] And this decision allows us to leave behind the series of theological and social problems associated with those commitments, which is surely a good thing.

An interpreter of Scripture once made the observation that our tendency is to trust ourselves and to suspect Scripture (of being inconsistent etc.) whereas the Scripture suggests that we should trust it and suspect ourselves (of having sub-conscious agendas etc.). That position will not convince anyone in the guild who takes a fundamentally critical stance towards Scripture, but to honour it as God's Word it is surely the right way to approach it.

As I say there are other problems with The Quest for Paul’s Gospel (like how he sets justification and participation in polar opposition to each other) but this one is particularly striking and revealing.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Stibbs on Church

The church is a somewhat vexed issues in parts of Anglicanism. Some say others claim too much for church - the others might reply that the 'some' have no doctrine of church at all! I have a sneaking suspicion that much of our thinking is far more influenced by the 1830s then any other period of Anglican history, but that's for another day.

It was in light of this that I was recently directed to an essay on the church by Alan Stibbs in his recently published 'Such a Great Salvation'. Stibbs was an evangelical in the mid twentieth century - not a strong period of history for evangelicals in the Anglican church.

The essay 'New Testament Teaching Concerning the Church', biblically grounds our language of church in two places. First, and most importantly, church is the 'universal and eternal company of all believers, past, present and future' (231-2). It is those who have been brought into a living and loving relationship with God through Christ by the Spirit. Significantly, 'it does not exist in the natural visible order of this world but only in the unseen spiritual order, the order of the world to come' (233). Matthew 16:18 is Stibbs starting text here, although he quickly moves into Paul's letters to expound what this church is theologically. Secondly, church is the local congregation - 2-3 gathered in Christ's name and Christ gathered with them (Matthew 18:17).

Stibbs concern is to show that this local gathering is the church; not just a part of it. In a very helpful illustration he draws our attention to the moon. When we see a crescent in the sky 'one says not "there is part of the moon" but, "there is the moon". For the part that is visible is genuine moon; and, what is more, it is actually, though to us invisibly, united with all the rest of the moon'. (234). This is not to say that the visible church is the pure church - he is all too aware that visible meetings are mixed meetings. Not all who are part of visible churches are part of God's eternal church. He is also at pains to point out that these two loci of church preclude a third, worldwide visible church - a church militant as Griffith-Thomas called it (see Principles of Theology on article 19). It was also of interest to note that date of Stibbs' publication - 1950. Stibbs is not rehashing the work of DB Knox (which was aired mainly in the 70s and 80s), he is articulating the New Testament Teaching Concerning the Church.

Friday, 11 September 2009

New Book on Paul

Douglas Campbell's new book on Paul The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul has recently been released. I had a quick look at a friend's copy yesterday. A couple of the blurbs on the back describe the book as 'massive'. It certainly is - 1376 pages!

If it is anything like his earlier Quest for Paul's Gospel, I think there are going to be some 'massive' problems with this book - and not just its length! The treatment of the Pauline ethics in the former volume was very poor. (I might try and post on that later...).

Interestingly, the Amazon re-publication picture has the cover with a foreword by NT Wright while the published edition only has a little blurb by him on the back.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

German Translation II

I thought I would give the two translation sites I mentioned in the last post a sterner test. I scanned in the following paragraph of text:

Hier wird dogmatisch argumentiert, ein Sieg über den Tod könne nur durch die leibliche Auferstehung Jesu errungen worden sein. Damit wird Paulus dogmatisch vorgeschrieben, wie er zu denken hat. Setzen wir einmal einen Augenblick voraus, das sei wirklich die Meinung des Paulus, dann ergäben sich unlösbare Fragen. Z.B.: Wieso bedeutet die leibliche Auferstehung Jesu die Überwindung des Todes überhaupt, zumal wenn man zugleich betont, es handele sich be idem Leib des Auferstandenen um denselben Leib, den auch der Gekreuzigte gehabt habe? Wieso unterscheidet sich diese Wiederbelebung eines Leibes prinzipiell von den Totenauferweckungen in den Evangelien?

Here is what Yahoo Babelfish came up with:

Here dogmatisch one argues, a victory over death can have been achieved only by physical resurrection Jesu. Thus Paulus is dogmatisch prescribed, how he has to think. If we presuppose once one instant, that are really the opinion of the Paulus, then unsolvable questions would result. E.G.: Why does physical resurrection Jesu mean the overcoming of death at all, particularly since if one stresses at the same time, it concerns fuel element idem body of the Auferstandenen the same body, which also the Gekreuzigte had? Why does this revival of a body differ in principle from the dead on arousing in the gospels?

Not only is this pretty meaningless, there are a number of words left untranslated.

Here is what Google Translate came up with:

Here is dogmatically argued that a victory over death could have been achieved only through the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Here Paul is dogmatically imposed, as he thought. Let's us assume for a moment that was really the opinion of Paul, then there would be unsolvable issues. For example: Why does the bodily resurrection of Jesus overcoming death at all, especially if one also insists that it is where prizes constituted body of the resurrected by the same body which had the even had the Crucified? Why is this different in principle from the revival of a bodily resurrection of the dead in the Gospels?

Not perfect by any means (though it does help to have the context - as it stands it seems a pretty random paragraph) but a lot lot better than Babelfish. It gets all the vocab and reads much more like an English paragraph.

German Translation

One of the joys (!) of doing a PhD in NT is learning German. Thankfully in this Internet age there are a number of helps available. The danger, of course, is that you can rely too much on on-line dictionaries. However, they do make life a lot easier.

I use on-line dictionaries all the time, probably in this order:

Up until recently I had been skeptical about on-line translation sites, mainly because I had only used Yahoo's Babelfish. However, recently I have been using Google Translate and have been very impressed. As a comparison, here is a German phrase I was looking at this morning: 'Setzen wir einmal einen Augenblick voraus'. Babelfish renders it: 'We presuppose once one instant' which is a word for word rendering and is next to useless. However, Google produces: 'Let's assume for a moment'. Bingo! Google gets the idiom and provides a good translation. Now, it is not always so good but I am finding that often it is.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Obscene Speech in Paul III

Hultin’s thesis turns on the reference to salt in Colossians (commanded) and the word eutrapelia in Ephesians (condemned) refer to the same thing - witty speech.

A few very quick reflections:

First, and obviously, they are different words and so there is not an absolute contradiction.

Secondly, though salt had a usual first century meaning (humour) - it also has a strong Biblical usage that does not mean humour (e.g. the OT reference to the covenant; Matthew 5:13 - You are the salt of the earth). Hultin may deal with this in his book, but I think this is a potential problem for his thesis.

In the question time following his paper, a couple of other interesting suggestions were made:
a. The context can affect the meaning of a word - not to change it totally but still significantly. So, the word eutrapelia follows some fairly negative words - filthiness, foolish talk. There is no real indication that the third word in the series is any different.

b. It could be (and I think this might be the most likely) that when Paul says
verse 3 ‘But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you’ and then continues in verse 4 ‘Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor eutrapelia, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving’ we are to connect the two. That is, these evil things (sexual immorality, impurity, covetousness) should not appear in our speech - even through the otherwise good speech-form of wit. In other words it is not wit per se that he is condemning but what we might describe as double-entendre. I think that is possible in the Greek and fits the context.

That would mean, of course, that the ESV (‘crude joking’) is a fairly good translation! Our humour - in and of itself a good / neutral thing - must not be used in an inappropriate manner.

Obscene Speech in Paul II

i. If Hultin is right why would the author of Ephesians [i.e. Paul!] have forbidden something that was universally have been understood positively?
ii. Does this not create a contradiction between Colossians and Ephesians - with one commending witty speech and one condemning it?

Hultin argues that Ephesians has a concept of ‘sacred speech’ similar to the OT. So, like the camp or the temple in the OT were holy and so, for example, the latrine had to be kept outside the camp. In a similar way, Hultin argues, believers are themselves a sacred space and so their speech had to be above reproach. At one point he says: ‘What better than the mouth […] to inculcate a sense of omni-presence of God and the connection to the holy body of Christ’.

In other words, according to Hultin, Colossians commends charming, witty speech to win the outsider while Ephesians commends totally different, holy speech that will convict outsiders of their sin. We might say that Col commends evangelism while Eph commends the testimony of a holy life.

Obviously there is a tension here between the two letters - which is not a problem for Hultin who holds them to be written by different people. Do we then have to believe that Paul contradicts himself? I don’t think so!

Obscene Speech in Paul I

Last weekend I attended the British New Testament Society Conference in Aberdeen. This is an annual meeting for people researching, teaching or studying the New Testament at university level.
There were a mixture of plenary sessions and seminars. Some of the papers, if I am honest, were a little on the obscure side! However, some were excellent including one by Dr Jeremy Hultin of Yale entitled ‘Watch Your Mouth: What the prohibitions of foul language tell us about Colossians and Ephesians’.

Colossians and Ephesians both have verses concerning language. However, there are interesting differences between the two letters. Below are some quick recollections from his talk. If you want to investigate further you could check out his book The Ethics of Obscene Speech in Early Christianity and its Environment. [Please note though that he is coming from a more critical position i.e. he does not hold that Paul wrote Colossians or Ephesians and would not hold to an evangelical view of Scripture].

Colossians 3:8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. […] 4:6 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.

Hultin made some interesting points here. He argued that the word translated by the ESV as ‘obscene talk’ (aischrologian) does not have any kind of sexual reference (as many swear words in English have) but should be understood as abusive, unkind speech. Secondly, he argued that the references in 4:6 to grace and salt would have been understood by first century readers as a reference to charming (the reference to grace) and witty (the reference to salt) speech. ‘Salt’, Hultin shows, is often used in 1st C texts as a synonym for ‘humour’ or wit.

Ephesians 5:3-4 But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. 4 Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.

The word translated ‘crude joking’ in the ESV (eutrapelia) is often rendered in this negative way by English Bibles. However, Hultin argues (convincingly) that this word would actually have been understood positively in the first century. So, doctors were urged to speak in this way to their patients to make them feel at ease; similarly lawyers with their clients and generals with their troops. Hultin argues that the word should be rendered ‘wit’. It is an ease of speech that was neutral or positive.

Now, there are two issues here:
i. If Hultin is right, why would the author of Ephesians [i.e. Paul!] have forbidden something that was universally have been understood positively?
ii. Does this not create a contradiction between Colossians and Ephesians - with one commending witty speech and one condemning it?

I think there are good answers to both and will post on them shortly.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Review - He Who Gives Life

I've just finished reading Graham Cole's book on the Holy Spirit - He Who Gives Life. As I've found with most of the volumes in the Foundations of Evangelical Theology series, it's a text book, which is a clear and biblical articulation of the doctrine under consideration. He initiates his thoughts by setting forth his methodology, drawing attention to the primary importance of Scripture and the supporting voices of church history, all the while clearly identifying and giving weight to the rich variety of Scripture in terms of genre and locale in salvation history - Cole's concern is that we read the Bible to come to an understanding of the Holy Spirit. That said, Cole is quite happy to draw theological opinions (theologoumena) from the text, recognising that there is a difference between what we must and might believe.

Starting with the mystery of the Holy Spirit, and the importance of allowing God to be who He is, Cole traces some of the major themes in church history as to the person and work of the Spirit - the Spirit as the bond of love (Augustine), Spirit as the perfecting cause (Basil of Caesarea) and the idea that love requires a third Person (Richard of St Victor). He also engages with the filioque debate, drawing clear and contemporary application from the subject, without exhausting the reader.

The second and third parts of the work deal with the Spirit in the Old and New Testaments respectively. The ground Cole covers here is too vast to even survey, but is all ground worth walking. His articulation of the work of the Spirit in the life of Christ, and the way he addresses these issues through the key events in Christ's life was refreshing to read, as was his careful and methodologically appropriate handling of the event in Acts.

The work of the Spirit in the church and in the believer omitted some material, on the grounds that it had been covered in other volumes in the series (namely Demarest's The Cross and Salvation), and while it is disappointing to not have some of these topics addressed in a work on the Spirit, it was an understandable choice.

What was particularly refreshing throughout the work was the way Cole was quite happy to walk a path between what he deems evangelical rationalism and evangelical mysticism. He's quite happy to speak of the mystery of the Spirit - and indeed his appropriate epistemic humility (not wanting to claim certainty where the Bible doesn't give it) was refreshing, particularly on the issue of the extent to which the Trinity can be used as a 'solution' or 'answer' to particular ecclesial issues. This epistemic humility, however, doesn't stop him from engaging with the implications for belief and practice - a regular section included at the end of each chapter in the work, nor from drawing theological opinions on the basis of the biblical date.

There is no doubt that he covers a vast breath of topics, grounding his position biblically, theologically and historically. Of course I came away with as many questions as answers, but the overall experience of engaging with Cole on this subject matter was one I thoroughly enjoyed. While a more robust and sustained engagement with some of the pop-theology which exists in many churches around the person and work of the Spirit would have been helpful (particularly for evangelicals in non-evangelical contexts), Cole gives the framework, surveys the data, and sets the direction for Christians to be able to make those engagements. It's a very good book, and I don't hesitate to doubt J I Packer's endorsement that it is 'the widest-ranging textbook on pneumatology that currently exits.' A valuable resource for anyone seeking to understand, relate to, and serve our Triune God.

Friday, 31 July 2009

Australian 'theology'

Brilliant. I know it's geek humour, but it's still brilliant.
ht con campbell

Thursday, 30 July 2009

The Body of Christ

One of the things that I have been looking at for my PhD is the question of whether - according to Paul - Christ currently has an independent physical body. Philippians 3:21 and 1 Corinthians 15 seem to make it clear but interestingly a number of people argue that the church (and/or the bread in the Lord's Supper) is the only physical body that Christ possesses.

So Graham Ward in an essay on the Body of Christ in the volume Radical Orthodoxy contends that

The body of Jesus Christ is not lost, nor does it reside now in heaven as a discrete object[…]. The body of Jesus Christ, the body of God, is permeable, transcorporeal, transpositional. We have no access to the body of the gendered Jew […] because the Church is now the body of Christ, so to understand the body of Jesus we can only examine what the Church is and what it has to say concerning the nature of that body. […] God in Christ dies and the Church is born. One gives way to the other, without remainder.

Similarly, Robert Jenson in his Systematic Theology notes that ‘in a Copernican universe [there] is no plausible accommodation for the risen Christ’s body’. However, if ‘there is no place for Jesus’ risen body, how is it a body at all’? Jenson concludes that although

Paul clearly thinks of the Lord as in some sense visibly located in heaven spatially related to the rest of creation, the only body of Christ to which Paul ever actually refers is not an entity in this heaven but the Eucharist’s loaf and cup and the church assembled around them.

I think that as well as the verses I mentioned above, that there are strong theological reasons for insisting that Christ continues to exist as a human being which means that he has his own, independent human body. Hopefully, in due course I will post on it...(but given my posting record I wouldn't hold your breath!).

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Someone's made it

It's not necessarily a big deal on the world-wide stage of biblical and theological scholarship, but Pete, co-author of But Now has recently had a review published in Themelios. It's the first thing either of us have had published (unless Pete's been working under a pseudonym), and if we were betting men I'd probably owe him a bottle of something. You can read it here. Personally I agree with his review of the book - it's an excellently balanced critique of Barth which as Pete notes, presents a 'robust and fair interaction with Barth'. And I can guarantee it's the first review you've read in a long time which contains the word 'prophylactic'. Congratulations Pete - we look forward to many more!

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Christ and Nothing

A friend recently introduced me to the writing of David Bentley Hart. He is (according to Wiki) an 'Eastern Orthodox theologian, philosopher, writer, and cultural commentator'. As an evangelical Protestant there are obviosuly many things that we would not agree on, but having read a few of his articles I have found them profoundly penetrating in their analysis of culture and world-view. Try this one for starters. Here is the intro:

As modern men and women — to the degree that we are modern — we believe in nothing. This is not to say, I hasten to add, that we do not believe in anything; I mean, rather, that we hold an unshakable, if often unconscious, faith in the nothing, or in nothingness as such. It is this in which we place our trust, upon which we venture our souls, and onto which we project the values by which we measure the meaningfulness of our lives. Or, to phrase the matter more simply and starkly, our religion is one of very comfortable nihilism.

Uploading the Old Testament

To be perfectly honest my sermons don't usually contain a lot of illustrations. This is due to my inability to think of appropriate illustrations rather than for any theological or homiletical reason. And when I do think up illustrations, they often aren't that good.

Except on Sunday. On Sunday I did alright. In fact, I was so happy with it I'm going to use it again this Sunday.

Sunday last we were looking at Jesus walking on water in Mark 6. In the text the disciples look at the information provided to them - Jesus walking on water in the middle of the lake in the middle of a gale in the middle of the night - and they make an assessment of who he is - he's a ghost (6:49). Mark however writes his account in such a way as to provide us with more information - he walks on water (cf Job 9:8-11) he goes to pass the disciples by (cf Ex 33:21); he declares his name (cf Ex 3:14) - and we should make an assessment of who he is. But we can only make that assessment if we understand the information - if we see what is happening in front of us.

And here's the illustration. Chuck is a programme on here in NZ on Wednesday evenings. Chuck is an unwilling secret agent - he's had the Intersect - a top secret database containing details of all major threats to the government - accidentally uploaded into his brain. What that means is that when he sees a person, a building, hears a voice or views a code which is in the Intersect he 'flashes' - all the information about the item he's seen comes flooding into his head. It allows him to understand what is in front of him.

In exactly the same way when we read Mark 6 (and indeed all of the New Testament) we should 'flash' - the information stored in our heads about the Old Testament about the types and promises of Christ, about God's overarching plan of salvation, should come flooding into our heads, that we might understand what is happening in front of of us. And yet of course the problem for many Christians is that we don't know our Old Testaments. We don't read it. We don't preach on it. We find it difficult to understand and apply and so we just abandon it. And so it isn't in our heads. We have no information upon which to 'flash'. And of course that means that when we read the New Testament - when we're confronted with the person of Jesus and God's action in and through him - it is impossible to really understand what is happening. And the danger is that we make the same mistake the disciples did - we identify, and therefore respond to, Jesus wrongly.

And in case you're wondering, I'm going to use the Chuck illustration again this week because we're starting a four week series on why and how we should read the Old Testament. Nothing like putting your money where your mouth is.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Influential books - Number 2

I'm going to cheat a little with this one, because it isn't so much a book as an article in a book. The book is B.B. Warfield's The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible and while I've found most of the articles in the book helpful, it was particularly 'The biblical idea of Inspiration' which influenced me. The article was originally titled 'Inspiration' and written for the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, and can be found in full here.

When I first read this I had no idea of the polemical context into which Warfield wrote, nor of the general state of liberal scholarship which Warfield deals with. At that level I read him very simply - and he still rewards reading in such a way. His concern is to show the nature of the Scriptures as breathed out by God, and does this first of all by the careful exegesis of 2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:19-21 and John 10:34f, and concludes with the authoritative nature of Scripture, because of the nature of its author - 'What Scripture says, God says...'.

He goes on to posit an incredibly close relationship between God and Scripture, grounding it upon the fact that the NT is happy to assign to 'Scripture' what was actually said by God (e.g., Rom 9:17), and therefore to argue that what Scriptures says is what God says (not said).

However, Warfield then goes on to address the human nature of Scripture, and the reality of human authorship, all the while wanting to grasp a more organic, more intimate event than what is conveyed by the term 'dictation'. Here we return to the concept of the spiration of Scripture - the divine breathing out, through the totality of human agency, the very words of God.

Warfield spends some pages stressing God's total control in providence over the entirety of a person's life, so that what they (for example, Paul) write is exactly what God intends for them to write. Given this, Warfield goes one step further, grounding inspiration as a mode of revelation. Not just a record of revelatory acts, but as an act of redemptive revelation in and of itself.

As I noted earlier, I didn't understand all this when I first read it. And, to be fair, having skimmed the article to write this, I think there's a fair bit in there that I would want to spend some more time thinking about. But what did influence me particularly was the way in which I came away from reading the article realising that I could have confidence in the Bible, because to do so was really to have confidence in God. Not in the sense that I ascribed divine personality to the Scriptures themselves, but because through them I hear the voice of a loving and speaking and acting God. I could take confidence in what I read.

This was vitally important to me because when I first read this I had not long left a church which had implicitly (and at times explicitly) told me that I couldn't have confidence in the Bible. That it wasn't 'real' in the sense that it didn't all happen like it was written. And even I could see that if that was the case with certain miracles (which was the presenting issue), where did you stop? The virgin birth? The resurrection? My sinfulness? The cross? The reality of Jesus? My eternal salvation?

Warfield showed me that God told me I could trust the Bible. I could trust it because it was his word, and because it was his word, not only could I trust it, I must.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Influential books - Number 1

Having been tagged (or whatever) by Ouldy, as well as having been given a standard to live up to, I thought that I’d take up the challenge. Here it is:

"Name the five books (or scholars) that had the most immediate and lasting influence on how you read the Bible. Note that these need not be your five favorite books, or even the five with which you most strongly agree. Instead, I want to know what five books have permanently changed the way you think. Then tag five others."

I’m sure Pete will add to the list (given that all he gets to do nowadays is read!), but for mine, the following are probably the most influential. Given the influence that some of these books have had on me, I’ll post on a separate on each day. Oh, and we'll tag at the end of the series.

Bruce Ware God’s Greater Glory (Crossway, 2004)

I read this book in 2005 while at Moore College. I think like lots of the things you read when studying, you expect to learn from it, but not necessarily be deeply affected by it. And yet Ware’s style, because it is thoroughly expositional, won’t allow that. And I was deeply affected by it, because in God’s providential care, he brought me to read this work at just the right time. But more of that later.

The work is on the doctrine of providence, about God’s sovereign control, governance and preservation of creation. It addresses issues of transcendence and immanence, of human ‘freedom’ and ways of understanding it biblically and philosophically, of good and evil, of divine immutability and the temporality of the Word incarnate. And while this list appears heavy (and it is – although Ware addresses these issues with depth and clarity), there is a constant leitmotif of application to the Christian life. The problems with libertarian freedom, for example, are not only articulated in a philosophical sense – they are demonstrated in the gritty reality of life.

The second half of the book turns to the more immediately practical – what does it mean to live the Christian life before the face of this providential God. In one sense, this is the imperative to the first half of the book’s indicative. How we exist before God in the face of suffering, the asymmetrical nature of the relationship between the divine and his creation, the nature and purpose of prayer, and the true grounds and purpose of service are all addressed in a gentle, practical and loving way. The book concludes with a chapter reflecting on the inconsistency of open theism and the providential nature of God as articulated in the preceding chapters.

And yet the book was influential for me not only because it set out the glorious truths of Scripture clearly, nor because of the way it undertook the process of theology – setting out boundary markers and spectrum texts and working only within these – allowing the secret things of God to be the secret things. The book affected me because in the weeks after I read it my wife Amanda gave birth prematurely to our second son, Theodore. Theo was born at 27 weeks (compared to a normal 40 week pregnancy), and he weighted 632 grams (1 pound 6 if you’re old school). His life was in constant danger in those first few days, and the next few months while he was in hospital were ridiculously hard on us as a family.

Since then I’ve been asked plenty of times whether my faith in God was shaken, whether I asked ‘why’, or whether I was angry at God. It wasn’t, I didn’t, and I wasn’t. You see serious, biblical, thoughtful theology had prepared me. Was I worried? Of course! Did I pray? Constantly. And yet God had prepared me, through the words of Scripture, unpacked and articulated by Bruce Ware, to trust in His glorious, sovereign, providential care. God had got me ready to trust in Him and his goodness in the face of fear and worry, the likes of which I had never known before. I had been brought to a place to see and grasp God’s greater glory, to know my place as a creature – beloved and saved in Christ Jesus, yes – but a creature nonetheless, and to know the God was God and will always be God, and that he is and always will be good.

I’m thankful that Theo has survived, and is a healthy, cheeky three year old. And I'm thankful for the way my life and ministry has been formed by that. And I am incredibly thankful for the way in which God brought Theo into the world, because through that, and through this book, I was brought to know and grasp more fully God’s sovereign providence. For that I will be forever thankful, for to spend life and eternity without this God – to not be known by him, and saved by his Son, and freed to serve him – is no life at all.

Friday, 1 May 2009

What is preaching?

Justice Potter Stewart famously said of pornography: 'I can't define it, but I know it when I see it.' Often we can feel the same about preaching. It's difficult to define what makes preaching, or certainly what makes 'good' preaching, but we know it when we see or hear it. Or as Lloyd-Jones says:
Preaching is [...] difficult to define. [...] Preaching is something that one recognises when one hears it. So the best we can do is say certain things about it...
Preaching and Preachers p. 81.
And those certain things are:
  • It involves the whole of the preacher
  • It has a sense of authority and control over the congregation and the proceedings
  • It contains an element of freedom (on the part of the preacher)
  • The preacher derives something from the congregation (in that he observes and feeds off and responds to the congregation)
  • It is serious
  • It is zealous
  • It is warm
  • It is urgent
  • It is persuasive
  • It is powerful

How does your preaching stack up to this? Would Lloyd-Jones calls what he hears in your church on Sunday preaching? Are there other things that you would want to say about what makes preaching?

But let's allow the great man the last word:
What is preaching? Logic on fire! Eloquent reason! [...] It is theology on fire. And a theology which does not take fire, I maintain, is a defective theology, or at least the man's understanding of it is defective. Preaching is theology come through a man who is on fire. A true understanding and experience of the Truth must lead to this. I say again that a man who can speak about these things dispassionately has no right whatsoever to be in a pulpit; and should never be allowed to enter one. What is the chief end of preaching? I like to think it is this. It is to give men and women a sense of God and His presence.
Preaching and Preachers, p. 97.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Preaching in Church

A friend of mine at College did some serious thinking about the place of virtual church - 'attending' church on-line. It seemed a somewhat ethereal issue at the time, but not any more. Churches have sprung up in Second Life, and the increase in podcasts of sermons is unending (one wonders if this is the new measure of success as a preaching - not church size, but number of downloads).

Obviously Lloyd-Jones didn't stream his sermons, and in Preaching and Preachers he doesn't comment on the pros and cons of multi-campus, live-streamed video links. But he does deal with the 1970s equivalent under the objection to preaching that people would be better to stay at home, read journals and published sermons, or listen to preachers on the radio. Listen to Lloyd-Jones' answer:

Another thing, which I find very difficult to put into words, but which to me is most important is that the man himself [who listens to a sermon on the radio or reads printed sermons] is too much in control. What I mean is that if you do not agree with the book you can put it down, if you do not like what you are hearing on the television you can switch it off. You are an isolated individual and you are in control of the situation. Or, to put it more positively, that whole approach lacks the vital element of Church. Now the Church is a missionary body, and we must recapture this notion that the whole Church is a part of this witness to the Gospel and its truth and message. It is therefore most important that people should come together and listen in companies in the realm of the Church. That has an impact in and of itself. [...] The preacher after all is not speaking for himself, he is speaking for the Church, he is explaining what the Church is and what these people are, and why they are what they are.
Preaching and Preachers, p.42

His point is that the church itself is part of the preaching event. They are the people of God formed by, constituted by, the Word of God. They are under His authority. And by their very existence they testify to the veracity of this word. This word is truth - here, look around, see this truth in action, in reconciled relationships, in forgiveness, in love, in Jew and Gentile sharing a meal.

To hear a sermon is not only an intellectual exercise. It it to submit to God's authority revealed in the Scriptures, mediated by the Spirit, in and by the company of God's people.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Pastoral Preaching

Lloyd-Jones' task in his book Preaching and Preachers is to show the primacy of preaching - to show that it is the church's primary task. Early on in the book he justifies this in light of attacks on preaching, and particularly the place of 'personal counselling' as being the minister's primary task rather than preaching. Such counselling has its place - yes. But it is to supplement, not supplant the preaching.

Many of us would agree with this, but I wonder if we actually tie the two together as strongly as we might? I think we often say that the word is being preached, and the word is being used pastorally, and leave it at that. I wonder if we could do more. I wonder if in our pastoral visiting and care, whether we would do well to use the sermon as the launching point. To use what was declared in the power of the Spirit as the place where we start our pastoral care. Not just 'what did you think of the sermon?', but 'Sunday's sermon dealt with the issue of X. Tell me about this in your Christian life.' To do so would be hard work - if like me you're on your own in a church (i.e., the preacher is doing most of the pastoral work) it can feel a little arrogant - but it would be saying that what happens on a Sunday is not just a take-it-or-leave-it event. It is God's word being declared to God's people, and should therefore have an effect on their lives. And our job as curer of souls is to see that effect worked out.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Preaching and Preachers

We've recently been on holiday, where I read Lloyd-Jones' Preachers and Preaching. It's one of those books where I've dipped into it, but, until now, had never read through. Even though it was written in the early 70s, following a series of lectures given in 1969, it contains perennial truths. There's much in it which we could disagree with, and it's obviously written by a preacher - there are sweeping statements made which only later are nuanced and refined. But there is a sensitivity and a joy to the task of preaching which just flows out of the book. Over the next few days I hope to post a small series of highlights (and low-lights, which will help us think things through) from my reading. My aim is that we might think more carefully about preaching, and about the place of preaching in the congregation (and the task of the preacher in that congregation), and ultimately be spurred on to the task of proclamation of the gospel which has been entrusted to us.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009


I've had a bit of a book bonanza of late (thanks to a birthday and generous friends). Really enjoying Peter Adam's work on Scripture Written For Us, as well as sinking my teeth the first volume of Kelly's Systematic Theology - it's like the good parts of Barth and TF Torrance together with the some patristics all built on careful exegesis interacting with contemporary issues (I can already hear you Barthians saying 'but the good parts of Barth are the bits where he deals with the patristics and does exegesis'). I've also got Beale's defence of inerrancy lined up for a rainy day (and given that we're going into winter there are going to be a few of those).

I've also just started Driscoll's book Vintage Church. I'm really enjoying it as we come from a similar theological foundation of what church is. But I was really disappointed as I read of his summary of other denominations. I should have expected trouble when I read the subheading: 'Catholics: Roman, Eastern, and Anglican' (pg 41). Driscoll takes a reasonably fair crack at the Roman Catholics in terms of their papal authority, and while it isn't as theological nuanced as say Volf's work on the church, After our Likeness, it isn't wrong. But then he comes to the Anglicans p42).

Our ecclesiology is described in 57 words, 51 of which are a quote from Kevin Giles. This quote is introduced by 5 words ('Anglican theologian Kevin Giles says...'), and the quote itself states that, apart from the claims of the pope, Anglo-Catholics 'conceive of the church in exactly these terms' - these terms being how the Roman Catholic church has been described. The quote then goes on to say how Anglo-Catholics actually ground their ecclesiology in the three-fold order even more so than the Roman Catholics do.

All fine and well - I've no problems with this. What I have a problem with, and am really quite disappointed about given Driscolls' propensity for research, is that after the noun 'Anglo-Catholic' in Giles' quote, Driscoll adds ' [Anglican] '. He is saying that Anglo-Catholic = Anglican, and, therefore, that Anglican ecclesiology = Anglo-Catholic, and therefore Roman Catholic ecclesiology. Kevin Giles, the only 'Anglican Theologian' quoted, makes a comment about Anglo-Catholic Anglicans (which is pretty much true), but which is then applied to all Anglicans. It's a sloppy piece of work, which doesn't do historical Anglicanism any favours (Driscoll could have at least gone to Article 19!), nor does justice to the fine ecclesiological thinking done by evangelical Anglicans such as Stott, Packer, or, more recently, Mark Thompson, which, incidentally, ends up much closer to Driscoll than his readership would be led to believe.

So while I go on to agree with much of what Driscoll writes about church, including his historical work, it's like finishing a good meal after your second mouthful included something rotten. You can still enjoy what follows, but you've got a bad taste in your mouth.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Can you trust the Internet?

I am writing something on Ernst Kasemann (a German NT scholar) and I wanted to find out the date that he died. That is the sort of simple information that the Internet is great at providing - you would think! A quick jump to Wikipedia and I find that it was 17 Feb 1998. Just to be certain I have a look at another site (The Biography Research Guide) which confirms that it was 17 Feb 1998. However, I then come across another article that has his death as 14 Feb 1998. Finally, I find an article on my desk that has his death as 1997.

I guess there are two morals to this story:

Firstly, you can't trust everything you read on the web...but my guess is you knew that already ....

Secondly, you have to be a bit of a Geek to do a Phd...but my guess is you knew that already...

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Harris on Cicero on Writing Sermons (sort of)

I have just finished Robert Harris' Imperium - a fantastic historical-fiction account of the life of Cicero. At one point Harris describes the process of speech-writing and it reminded me of sermon-writing:

No one can really claim to know politics properly until he has stayed up all night, writing a speech for delivery the following day. While the world sleeps, the orator paces around by lamplight, wondering what madness ever brought him to this occupation in the first place. Arguments are prepared and discarded. Versions of openings and middle sections and perorations lie in drifts across the floor. The exhausted mind ceases to have any coherent grip upon the purpose of the enterprise, so that often - usually an hour or two after midnight - there comes a point where failing to turn up, feigning illness and hiding at home seem the only realistic options. And then, somehow, under pressure of panic, just as humiliation beckons, the parts cohere, and there it is: a speech. A second-rate orator now retires gratefully to bed. A Cicero stays up and commits it to memory.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Bunyan's Boldness

From the Reformation 21 Blog:

In one of his two sermons on Ecclesiastes 9:10 (about doing things with all your might), Charles Spurgeon refers to the imprisonment of John Bunyan, and to Bunyan's undying commitment to preach the gospel, regardless of persecution. Here is what Bunyan said to his judge: "If I lie in prison until the moss grows on my eyelids, I will never make a promise to withhold from preaching. . . . If you will let me out of prison to-day, I will preach again to-morrow, by the help of God."

Friday, 6 March 2009


Over on the Sydney Anglicans website there is (it seems to me) a very healthy debate on the use of the word ‘worship’ with respect to Christian meetings. This discussion is in response to a (very helpful) article on the subject by David Peterson.

I have no intention of entering into the debate but just to make an observation. The ‘classic’ viewpoint was that worship was what we did in church. The ‘Sydney’ corrective (for want of a better word) was to highlight verses like Romans 12:1 etc which show that worship is concerned with all of life.

At the risk of a massive oversimplification, the problem, as I see it, is the application of this insight. Instead of approaching all of life like we used to approach church (reverently, conscious of God etc), we now approach church like we used to approach the rest of life (casually, without much thought for God etc.) To use a fairly blunt analogy, it is like being told that all sins are the same and then committing murder because it’s just the same as getting angry i.e. no big deal - rather than hating anger as much as murder because they come from the same root.

Those of us who want to stress that all of life is worship need to approach the rest of life the way others used to approach church meeting. In other words, we need to show that this viewpoint does not diminish our reverence for God but heightens it - both in the corporate meeting and out of it.

Better late than never...

Archibald Robertson on Athanasius:

In the whole of our minute knowledge of his life there is a total lack of self-interest. The glory of God and the welfare of the Church absorbed him fully at all times. . . . The Emperors recognized him as a political force of the first order . . . but on no occasion does he yield to the temptation of using the arm of flesh. Almost unconscious of his own power . . . his humility is the more real for never being conspicuously paraded. . . . Courage, self-sacrifice, steadiness of purpose, versatility and resourcefulness, width of ready sympathy, were all harmonized by deep reverence and the discipline of a single-minded lover of Christ

Thursday, 1 January 2009


It's that time again, isn't it? New year resolution time. The time to decide that our lives will be better in some way - try for a few days - then feel guilty for not being able to do what we say. It's really nothing more than works righteousness.

So rather than 'resolving' to do things on my own this year - to make myself a better person, my plan is to seek to use the New Year as a concrete marker to pray directly and specifically for the Holy Spirit to work in me in particular ways in accordance with God's word. That is, I'm going to ask God (and work hard at the same time in his power), to 're-form' me in particular areas and ways. In the areas of prayer, study (both the Bible and the study of the church - doctrine and history), and various aspects of Christian character, as well as others, I'm going to systematically seek God's reforming work in me. I'd value your prayers, and would encourage you to give it a crack.