Paul and Jesus

April 28, 2010

Hello! It’s been a while since I’ve posted – but I’ve not given up blogging. Just not done it for a while, though I have kept on reading quite a few other people’s blogs. Kind of like my attitude to playing cricket.

Anyway, thought I’d mention that BeThinking.org have put up an excellent lecture by David Wenham on whether Paul is the real founder of Christianity. David Wenham is also the author of a number of books on the subject – Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity? (Eerdmans, 1995) and Paul and Jesus: The True Story (SPCK, 2002), both of which I’ve managed to find in my university library, so if you’re a student at a university which offers Theology/Religious Studies you might be able to read a copy for free. Of the two, the second is probably a bit more accessible.

The debate, which I had not encountered at all until coming to university, revolves around the charge that Paul actually invented what we would recognise as “Christianity”, and that Jesus (if he even existed!) taught something entirely different to Paul, and did not believe he was the divine Son of God or that his death was sacrificial (“for our sins” 1Cor 15:3; Gal. 1:4).

This is something which a lot of more liberal Jesus scholars have put across, and which quite a lot of non-scholars have found quite attractive. The idea finds a lot of resonance (apparently – I’ve not read it yet) in Philip Pullman’s new book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. I think part of the attraction is the idea that you can have Jesus’ moral teaching without all the crazy stuff about the resurrection, sacrificial death, Son of God stuff. In fact, you can have Jesus as just a human being (which is probably all you’ll find if you look at the gospels with atheist presuppositions) who taught some nice stuff but was misunderstood by his followers and misrepresented by the Church. It’s a lie, but a tremendously powerful lie because it lets you have Jesus on your own terms (he can even be an atheist if you want) and because he’s not God incarnate he can’t challenge you any more than Plato or Cicero challenge you: Take the bits of his teaching you like and discard the bits you don’t. It’s a way of being against the Church without necessarily being against Jesus (at least, not the Jesus you think really existed).

Wenham deals with these arguments very cogently, particularly in the area of Christology. I won’t summarise the arguments in this post, but I’ll just add that I’ve been studying some stuff Paul wrote for my dissertation and have discovered quite a few verbal parallels with the teaching of Jesus, and much theological cohesiveness between the attitudes of Jesus and Paul to (in this case) civil government. The two of them aren’t opposed, at least not in the texts I’ve been studying.

General Election called, and the Westminster 2010 declaration

April 6, 2010

In case you missed it, the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has just called a General Election for the 6th May. David Cameron is probably right to say that this is one of the most important elections of our generation in terms of deciding the future direction of our government. So I’d encourage everyone to vote, and to consider carefully who they vote for. If you haven’t registered to vote yet, you can download a form from http://www.aboutmyvote.co.uk and then post it in to the address on your form. They need to be received on or before the 20th April, so you have just under two weeks to register.

Some Christians I know are a bit ambivalent about whether Christians should get involved in politics. Shouldn’t we be more concerned with the Kingdom of God than the kings of this age? To be sure, I agree that the two aren’t the same, but I think Christians should take an interest in politics and, if they have it, should exercise their right to vote. The New Testament calls on us to pray for those in authority, that they may do their jobs well and justly – and in praying for good and just rulers, are we not also bound in a democracy to do what we can to vote for those who will be good and just rulers?

Lutz Pohle, in a book on the interpretation of Romans 13 in 20th-century Germany (Die Christen und Der Staat Nach Römer 13: Eine typologische Untersuchung der neueren deutschsprachigen Schriftauslegung [Mainz: Matthias-Grünewald-Verlag, 1985]), suggests some reasons why Christians should view politics as significant, even if the significance is ultimately temporary and limited:

The government is significant because it can affect the witness of the Christian in the world, and their ability to share their faith: “it can permit and make possible, even promote it, or it can attack it, hinder it and suppress it.” (p.11)

Second, Jesus’ “Render to Caesar” saying (Mark 12:17) recognizes a place for legitimate political/earthly power, which is in itself not irreducibly and in principle opposed to the Word of God (p.12). However relative and limited the good that can be achieved by governments, it is still good and as such an object of interest to the Christians.

One need not, then, accuse Christians who seek to promote the good by involvement in politics of confusing the Kingdom of God with the kingdoms of this age, nor of being “Neo-Constantinians” or “theocrats” (though such ideologies do certainly exist!). Equally, since we are dealing with the murky and temporary world of politics, with relative goods and shades of grey, one need not agree with every single policy of a party or candidate in order to vote for them – it is permissible to vote for the “lesser of two (or three, or four…) evils”.

With that in mind, I’d like to commend something I’ve signed called the “Westminster 2010 Declaration of Christian Conscience”, which calls on all parliamentary candidates (and so, all of our next MPs) to ‘respect, uphold and protect the right of Christians to hold and express Christian beliefs and act according to Christian conscience’. This is something that is going to become increasingly important for Christians in many professions – doctors and nurses and other medical staff who are concerned about abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide; teachers and school staff who face aggressive secularization of state schools, and many others who are concerned about the possibility of laws being passed which will require them to act against their conscience.  

This isn’t just special pleading by Christians. It isn’t about making Britain a “Christian nation”. It’s not partisan or denominational either. It’s about highlighting some important areas of concern to Christians, and, perhaps, opening up discussion on where exactly conscience and religious freedom fit into the competing hierarchy of “rights” which UK and EU law have established. Or, better yet, on whether these “rights” are a good or possible basis for law and justice in a pluralist society (They’re not – but that’s a topic for another post!).

But the declaration also pledges that its signatories will themselves refuse to act in unjust or immoral ways, even if commanded to by law. So there is an issue of civil disobedience. I don’t think this is wrong for Christians when the law calls upon them to do things that are wrong (cf. Acts 5:29) and that calls to civil obedience (e.g. in Romans 13:1-7) do not rule this option out. But consider it carefully before signing it, because it is a big deal.

Hopefully, this will make an impact on the candidates who are elected. And hopefully, our prayers for good and just rulers will be answered, whatever the results of the general election.

Why “Good” Friday?

April 2, 2010

He enters the capital to applause and singing crowds. Days later, he leaves it, beaten, stumbling, and being led to the place where they put him to death. As he dies, there’s darkness, despair and anguish.

Why, then, do Christians commemorate this as “Good” Friday?

The answer is so well-known that any child in Sunday school can tell you; yet so deep, profound and mind-expanding that the greatest minds in church history have found themselves speaking in hushed, humbled and reverent tones. He died for us. He died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3). He died to make peace between us and God (Romans 5:1-11).

Amazing love! How can it be
That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

Why should God die for us, for me? Why would God want to do that? For someone like me, who’s grown up in a country with a heritage still shaped by the gospel, it can seem familiar enough to skip over lightly. Speaking about the gospel with people from different religious and cultural backgrounds has opened my eyes to see how surprising this is, and how offensive it sounds. If God comes to earth, surely he would be welcomed, feted, enthroned? That would be “Good”, right? Palm Sunday should be “Good” Sunday, followed by “Terrible Friday”. Surely? In any case God wouldn’t submit to betrayal, wrongful arrest, abandonment, miscarriage of justice, beating, humiliation, mocking, and a slow, painful death. Right?

But here’s where we’re wrong. Here’s where God’s wisdom shows us to be foolish. Here my idea of what is “good” is shown up for the shadow it is – for God’s good plan subverts human wisdom. This is what God actually does! Glory is achieved through sacrifice. Christ’s crown is one of thorns. His enthronement is his execution. The innocent one is condemned that the guilty may be pardoned.

It’s crazy stuff. We would never, ever, not in a million years, work out that this was what “good” meant. No philosopher could tell us what we can see happening at the cross. When the Church calls this Friday “good”, it is able to do so because of the revelation given it by God. We call today “Good” Friday in opposition to the world and its wisdom. We call it “good” by faith and not by visible appearances.

Sunday is coming, and we know this is not the end. He has died; He has risen again. There will be a visible triumph. But, today and tomorrow are here before the day after tomorrow comes, and I’m going to spend a little time more reflecting on the message of the cross before I sing “Risen, Conquering Son” – for only the former makes the latter possible, and only reflecting on the first day will help me to understand the third correctly.

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Jesus in the Qur’an and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas

February 26, 2010

I’ve been to some of the Islam Awareness Week events at Nottingham University this week – including a talk about Jesus and Muhammed. I was surprised to hear that Jesus (or “‘Isa”) is mentioned much more frequently in the Qur’an than Muhammed is, and that several things are said about him in the Qur’an which, to my mind at least, suggest that he is more than a prophet.

One of them is the well-known verse (5:110) where several (possibly apocryphal) events from the life of Jesus are recounted: 

Then God will say, ‘Jesus, son of Mary! Remember My favour to you and to your mother: how I strengthened you with the holy spirit, so that you spoke to people in your infancy and as a grown man; how I taught you the Scripture and wisdom, the Torah and the Gospel; how, by My leave, you fashioned the shape of a bird out of clay, breathed into it, and it became, by My leave, a bird; how, by My leave, you healed the blind person and the leper; how, by My leave, you brought the dead back to life; how I restrained the Children of Israel from [harming] you when you brought them clear signs, and those of them who disbelieved said, “This is clearly nothing but sorcery”

Quite often people point out that this verse has parallels (and is probably dependent upon) the “Infancy Gospel of Thomas” (and also the “Proto-Evangel of James” for the talking baby Jesus story). There are also allusions to things in the Canonical gospels, such as healing the blind and the leper, and raising the dead. But rather than doing a “source criticism of the Qur’an”, perhaps we should consider also the theological implications of this story.

1 1 When the boy Jesus was five years old, he was playing at the ford of a rushing stream. And he gathered the disturbed water into pools and made them pure and excellent, commanding them by the character of his word alone and not by means of a deed.
   2 Then, taking soft clay from the mud, he formed twelve sparrows. It was the Sabbath when he did these things, and many children were with him.
  3 And a certain Jew, seeing the boy Jesus with the other children doing these things, went to his father Joseph and falsely accused the boy Jesus, saying that, on the Sabbath he made clay, which is not lawful, and fashioned twelve sparrows.
  4 And Joseph came and rebuked him, saying, “Why are you doing these things on the Sabbath?” But Jesus, clapping his hands, commanded the birds with a shout in front of everyone and said, “Go, take flight, and remember me, living ones.” And the sparrows, taking flight, went away squawking.
  5 When the Pharisee saw this he was amazed and reported it to all his friends.”

Following Oscar Cullmann (in his translation of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas in Hennecke and Schneemelcher (eds), N.T. Apocrypha, I:363-417), scholars have tended to see the stories about Jesus in the apocryphal gospels rather as gratuitous miracle stories – or “‘theologically mute’ stories of marvels”  when actually they have a purpose and theological significance (Stephen Gero, “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas: A Study of the Textual and Literary Problems” Novum Testamentum 13 (1971), p.47), much as the “nature miracles” of the canonical gospels have a theological (Christological) significance. In the case of the “animation of the birds” story in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, there is both a point about observing the Sabbath (Jesus is rebuked for making clay birds on the Sabbath) but also a Christological point: it is no accident that Jesus makes these birds out of clay before giving them life. This is parallel to what God does in Genesis 2:7:

“then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”

The version of the story in the Qur’an is even more closely parallel to God’s creative activity in Genesis 2:7, with the added detail that Jesus breathed into the bird so that it became a living being:

Genesis 2:7 Qur’an 5:110 (excerpt) Infancy Gospel of Thomas 1:2-4(excerpt)
then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. how, by My leave, you fashioned the shape of a bird out of clay, breathed into it, and it became, by My leave, a bird Then, taking soft clay from the mud, he formed twelve sparrows.[…]

But Jesus, clapping his hands, commanded the birds with a shout in front of everyone and said, “Go, take flight, and remember me, living ones.”

It seems to be bizarre that the Qur’an (usually an advocate of a low Christology!) should include this tale, given the high Christology implied by the story and the details of phrasing in the Qur’an. According to the Qur’an, God created Adam out of clay (7:11-12) which makes it even more clear that Jesus is doing a divine, creative thing. To be sure, the text inserts (by my leave) to a number of Jesus’ miraculous signs out of monotheistic embarassment, but the problem seems to remain. How can it be that Jesus is doing something which the Qur’an ascribes to God, if he is merely a prophet?

To this might be added the Qur’anic claim that Jesus, alone of all the prophets, is sinless; and that (arguably) he did not die. This is in tension with the normally low Christology of the Qur’an. Even from the Qur’an there are suggestions that Jesus is more than a human prophet.

Barth on why social action is not preaching

February 18, 2010

Why does the Church do social action – that is, helping meet the needs of those around us, through soup runs, community projects, clothing collections, medical missions etc.? Sometimes it is said that this is done as a way to proclaim the gospel, or to “open doors” for the gospel. But is there a problem with this? Karl Barth seems to imply so – it turns it into “propaganda” and ignores the true motivation which is genuine Christian love for our fellow human beings, and above all, for God:

“But there are also other elements in the life of the Church in which what we say about God is addressed to our fellow-men but which cannot seek to be proclamation. To this group belongs a function which from the very first has in some form been recognised to be an integral element in the life of the Church, namely, the expression of helpful solidarity in the face of the external needs of human society. This, too, is a part of man’s response to God. When and because it is he response of real man, necessarily in terms of Mt. 5:14 it is a shining light to people among whom alone man is real man. If God exists for man, as the Church’s prayer, praise and confession declare in answer to the proclamation heard, then this man as the man for whom God exists must also exist for his fellow-men with whom alone he is real man. Yet the special utterance about God which consists in the action of this man is primarily and properly directed to God and not to men. It can neither try to enter in to quite superfluous competition with society’s necessary efforts at self-help in its straits, not can it seek, as the demonstration of distinctively Christian action, to proclaim how God helps. “That they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven,” that they may be a commentary on the proclamation of God’s help, is, of course, freely promised, but cannot be its set intention. Like prayer, praise and confession, especially in cases like Francis of Assisi and Bodelschwingh, it has always been spontaneous, unpremeditated, and in the final and best sense unpractical talk about God. …

If the social work of the Church as such were to try and be proclamation, it could only become propaganda, and not very worthy propaganda at that. Genuine Christian love must always start back at [turn away from] the thought of pretending to be a proclamation of the love of Christ with its only too human action.”

Church Dogmatics 1/1, p.50

Anselm on Theology: Faith seeking understanding

February 17, 2010

I’ve been reading Karl Barth’s book on Anselm, Anselm: Fides Quarens Intellectum (German original 1931 – English translation London: SCM, 1960). There seem to be plenty of points of affinity between Barth and Anselm: the discussion of whether Barth is influenced by Anselm or just portraying him in a Barthian light I’ll leave to those who know better. There’s a lot of direct quotation of Anselm in the book though, so the points of affinity are probably genuine.

One of the things I found most arresting was Anselm’s portrayal of the role of theology. His famous statement credo ut intelligam (I believe in order that I may understand) is well known, but reverses the order that we’re brought up to assume. Post-Enlightenment philosophy teaches us that we should understand in order to believe. It’s what, amongst other things, Scientific method is based upon. For Christian theology, Anselm argues, this is inappropriate because faith can never be argued to on neutral grounds (Proslogion 1:100, 18) and that “the aim of theology cannot be to lead men to faith” (Barth, p.17). Anselm does not seek to “prove” the truth of the Christian faith, but to understand it (Barth, p.14). Faith must come from hearing the “Word of Christ” – Anselm’s term for the message from Christ, which can authentically be conveyed in human words about Christ, and by accepting this message, which is the work of the will, enabled by divine grace. (Thus, Barth points out, it is completely inappropriate for Schleiermacher to have put Anselm’s credo ut intelligam on the title page of his On the Christian Faith (p.26 n.1) – since Schleiermacher in fact took the opposite approach to theology!)

There are fundamental parts of the Christian proclamation – what Anselm calls the Word of Christ -which are mysterious and cannot be established a priori by reason alone. The Trinity, or the Incarnation, or the Resurrection would be examples of these. As Tertullian said of them, they are certain precisely because they are impossible (De Carne Christi 5.4: Certum est, quia impossible est), and to be believed because they are absurd (Prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est). This is not to say they are irrational, or super-rational – because these are misleading categories – but to highlight that one can only understand these things when one believes in them.

It’s easy to see how this could be lampooned by atheists – held up as examples of Christians sacrificing their intellects or just generally being stupid. If I remember correctly, Dawkins (mis)quotes Tertullian on this point with great glee in The God Delusion. I don’t think Anselm (or Tertullian, or Barth – or any other Christian theologian who takes this line) is committing intellectual suicide, but rather recognising a truth about faith and knowledge that has been obscured by the Enlightenment: What we believe affects what we understand and how we make sense of the world.

Furthermore, since Anselm sees belief in God and assent to the Word of Christ as thinking correctly about reality, we can add that Christians claim to be speaking truth about reality, rather than retreating into subjectivism: If it seems different to you, it must be that you hold a distorted picture of reality because of unbelief. Is this arrogant? One might think so; but it derievs from a position of intellectual humility in the face of God’s revelation. As Barth writes of Anselm’s definition of faith: “Intelligere [understanding], the intelligere for which faith seeks, is compatible with a reverent ‘I do not yet know’ or with an ultimate ignorance concerning the extent of the truth accepted in faith. But it is not compatible with an insolent ‘I know better’ in face of the ‘that…’ of this truth.” (p.27). Theology must position itself so that it claims to seek and to speak truth about God, while recognizing that this truth is given to it in grace and not by right. It should be bold but not arrogant; humble but not equivocal.

What implications does this way of thinking have for evangelism? Does it call into question a common method of apologetics – seeking to argue something along the lines of “If Jesus rose from the dead, his claims to be the Son of God are true. Historical investigation validates the New Testament accounts of Jesus rising from the dead. Therefore his claims are true – and therefore also the gospel, so you should believe it.”? Or indeed things like the Cosmological or Teleological arguments for the existence of God? I think it might. So if we accept this picture of the relationship of faith and understanding, might it not free us in evangelism to say what we know to be true without having to defend it on “neutral” (hostile) territory? Instead of accepting “I understand in order that I might believe” and fighting a losing battle to argue people into the Kingdom, one could recognise the message of “I believe in order that I maight understand” freeing us to challenge this assumption and to present the gospel on its own terms. It’s a challenging thought, and one that brings up (for me at least) worries of becoming unintelligible to those outside the church, subjectivism and the other theological “F Word” (“Fundamentalism” being the number one) of Fideism. What I’m wondering, and invite comments upon, is whether these are justified concerns or manifestations of a lack of trust in the transformative power of the Word of Christ?

“Religious status”, or, Why I am a “Christian”

February 10, 2010

My Facebook profile has a field titled “religious status”. So do the profiles of a lot of my friends. Many Christian friends I know use the field to explain a little bit of their faith – “saved by grace” or “follower of Jesus Christ” or something similar.

In January’s Christianity Today there was a short feature on how Christians use this field:

Facebook asks users to define their religion with fewer characters than it takes Twitter users (who receive 140 characters) to say what they ate for breakfast. Some Christians identify themselves with their denomination, a Bible verse, or a phrase like “staggered by the grace of Jesus.”

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler identifies himself as “Evangelical Christian/Baptist.” Relevant editor Cameron Strang says he’s “Christian–Amish.” Former coordinator of Emergent Village Tony Jones says he’s “emerging.” Mars Hill pastor Mark Driscoll? “Religion Sucks,” he writes.

Mine says “Christian”. Quite deliberately. Without wanting to criticise others’ creative use of the “Religious status” box, I’d like to explain why.

By merely putting “Christian”, I am trying to identify with the whole people of Christ; not just my church or denomination. When I first joined Facebook I did put “Christian – Baptist”. I changed it after my first term involved in my university CU because I had come to recognise I shared a meaningful fellowship and unity in Christ with others who belonged to different denominations. I use a label which does not separate what God has brought together in Christ. 

By merely putting “Christian” I make clear my commitment to the Church, and not just to individualistic faith. I have a personal relationship with God; I know that Christ died for me. But I know also that I am part of something bigger than me and God – that I have been brought into the Church, the body of Christ. The Church is important to God (see Eph. 3:10!) and I want to make it clear that it is important to me also. I use a label which identifies me as part of this community.

By merely putting “Christian” I lay aside my right to pick-and-choose the content of my belief for myself. Today it is common, even fashionable, to choose what parts of a religion one will believe in; even to combine beliefs from different religions in a modern syncretism. I no longer want to do this. I want to believe that which God reveals about himself in his Word. Freedom of thought is great, but it is also an opportunity for us to be idolatrous. Instead, may I choose to believe rightly the faith given to us by God in the gospel. I use a label which is not devised by me.

Prayer and evangelism: Colossians 4:3-4

January 27, 2010

Today I was studying Colossians 4 at the CU small groups leaders’ bible study and was struck by what Paul asks the Christians in Colossae to pray for him:

“And pray for us too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.”

First, Paul asks for prayer that he might be able to share the gospel, whether or not he is released from prison. It wouldn’t be wrong for the Colossian church to pray for his release – and verse 18 might hint at that too – but for Paul, proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ takes precedence over his legal rights.

Second, there’s a real stress both on the sovereignty of God in calling people to faith (“pray that God may open a door for our message…”) and on the need for Paul to communicate this accessibly and meaningfully (“pray that I may proclaim it clearly…”). Sometimes Christians who (correctly) stress that nobody can properly respond to the gospel without the enabling of the Holy Spirit – and indeed that our hearts and minds are “blind” to the truth of the gospel until God acts on us (2Cor 4:4-6), emphasising the need for what Reformed theologians call “prevenient grace” – sometimes these Christians can downplay the need for the gospel to be presented in culturally appropriate and accessible ways. If people need God to work to “unblind” them to the gospel, it doesn’t matter much if most people don’t understand our gospel presentation, because they’re just not ready to hear it yet. God hasn’t opened their eyes, and when he does, the Christian jargon, seventeenth-century language, and exclusive terminology we use just won’t be a hurdle. But Paul doesn’t draw this conclusion from the sovereignty of God in evangelism. Here he puts both God’s initiative and the need for clarity and communication side-by-side.

I think here we have a justification for thinking carefully about how to explain the “mystery of Christ” to the culture we find ourselves in today. How can we communicate it clearly and faithfully? Perhaps blurting out “Two Ways To Live” isn’t appropriate for every (or almost any!) situation. But lest we skip too quickly to debating methods and approaches – notice that Paul asks for prayer for this skill. It’s something we’d do well to pray for, too. I know I don’t find it easy – because I’m used to talking about the gospel to Christians where we share common terminology and attitudes and understandings (to a large degree!) and much less used to talking about the gospel with people who don’t know what “grace”, “redemption”, “reconciliation”, or even “God” means in a Christian context.

Von Rad on God and Providence

January 18, 2010

To tell the truth, I don’t always get on well with Gerhard von Rad, the famous 20th-century German Old Testament Theologian. I suspect that he separates “Salvation-History” (Heilsgeschichte) from actual history in a very damaging way. But, like Luther, I’ll take a nugget of gold from anyone. I came across this the other day – talking about the story of Joseph (Genesis 37-50):

“Only at the very end, when God has resolved everything for good, does one learn that God has held the reins in his hand all along and has directed everything … But how? No miracle ever occurred. Rather, God’s leading has worked in secret, in the plans and thoughts of men’s hearts, who have savagely gone about their own business. Thus the field for divine providence is the human heart. One would ask in vain how God intervened here. The immanently causal connection of the events was as tight as possible; there was no gap, no hollow spot set aside for human intervention. God did his work in the decisions of men.”
Gerhard von Rad, God at Work in Israel (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1980), pp.143-144.

Often we think of God’s involvement in history as passive, except when he intervenes by a miracle. God intervenes by parting the Red Sea and sending fire upon Elijah’s altar, but not in the civil war under David, or in Solomon’s building the Temple. This is not the faith of Israel – instead, every event of history is superintended by divine providence. God is in control of everything, operating in the choices made by human beings just as much as he is operative in the miraculous.

What does this mean for us? The same God is still in control today. And so we can say that all of history – past, current and that yet to occur, is under his control and working to his desired end. Furthermore, we know that the end will be a good one – as Paul says in a well-known verse, “we know that God works all things together for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). And as Joseph was able to say in hindsight: “You [his brothers] intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20).

Is this right? Can we really say that the brutal, seemingly senseless course of history is working out for good in the end? Even the horrors of the past century – the trenches, the gas chambers, the gulags and the killing fields? I suspect that the good that is to come is only fully revealed in hindsight. When this present age is over, when Christ returns to consummate history and usher in the new creation such things will make sense. On the personal level, our struggles and seeming lack of success, our apparent setbacks and experienced failures too are ordained by God for good – however invisible that good is to us now. This seems a poor justification of the events of history, doesn’t it? A giant, cosmic “what did Asquith say?” Yet this is the one that the story of Joseph offers us, and one that is thoroughly biblical from Pharoah to Paul, from Cyrus to Christ. And it is one that can give hope.

Oh for the faith properly to believe this!

Robertson’s Haiti comment is animistic, not Christian

January 16, 2010

Earthquakes and other natural disasters often invite theological explanations. I’m not at all confident that we can offer definitive explanations for why specific events happen – and Pat Robertson’s claim that Haiti is “cursed by the Devil” is not only overly specific as an explanation, but it also reflects a lack of faith in Jesus’ power over all creation and his defeat of evil spiritual powers.

This month’s Briefing contained a brief piece, called “Animism, alive and well” claiming that much Western Christianity was adopting the perspective of animism in its fascination with demonic spiritual powers affecting certain geographical locations or peoples. Sometimes you hear Christians speaking of “generational curses” that need to be lifted. It’s similar to Robertson’s claim that the nation of Haiti is cursed because of an alleged pact they made with the Devil. It’s not Christianity.

I now know that no place on earth is beyond God’s authority. If people who know and love Jesus live there, it becomes a place of blessing. God rules over every place (Ps 22:28, 103:19). Jesus won the victory over every power in his death and resurrection (Eph 3:15-23, Col 2:13-15, Rom 8:31-39). When God’s Spirit lives in you, no other spirit can muscle in (Matt 12:22-30). No special words or actions are necessary to overcome evil; all that is needed is the blood of Jesus and the word of the gospel (Rev 12:11).

Let’s pray that Christians in Haiti will be able to show the hope the gospel gives and the love of God to those around them, rather than worrying about curses, voodoo, demons or spirits which have already been defeated in Christ, and which can never triumph over his church.