Archive for May, 2009

What sin isn’t, and why it’s important

May 30, 2009

To paraphrase Wolfhart Pannenberg, a misunderstanding of what sin is gives us a deficient and sometimes dangerous misunderstanding of the gospel. It is important to make sure we understand what sin is, and communicate it clearly, if the gospel is not to be misunderstood or even distorted. I realise this even more given a couple of discussions I’ve been in this week about whether certain actions are sinful or not without reference to what sin is, at the level of its essential nature.

The sunday-school definition of sin I learned was that sin was the bad things we do and the good things we don’t do – but I think this really is insufficient. In the Bible, sin is spoken of more often in the singular (“sin”) rather than the plural (“sins”) – the problem of human sin is not primarily ethical (in terms of some totting-up the actions we do or don’t do) but ontological – we are sinful at the deepest levels of our being and need a rescue from this. Sin is also relational – it has no meaning outside of the terms of relationship to or alienation from God. Perhaps Anselm was onto something when he defined sin as “not giving to God what is due to him”. Anselm was talking primarily about homage, but his point can be developed to include opposing idolatry, unbelief and self-worship in all of its forms. Sin is much, much more than our actions.

Ignoring this can lead to all kinds of deficient presentations of the gospel – if we imagine the problem of sin as primarily ethical then we are likely to end up with a moralistic gospel where salvation is primarily about us doing good works (or even where it is primarily about enabling us to do good works). It may lead to a legalistic approach to the Christian life where we judge ourselves and others based on our external actions, and end up in moral dilemmas when we find that certain actions we think of as inherently sinful are permissible or even necessary in some situations.

A different distortion of the gospel can be seen in the analysis of sin found in some Liberation theology: sin is seen as oppression or unjust social structures. This has the distorting effect both of locating sin outside of ourselves (sin is something done by other people, or impersonal forces) and thus failing to recognise that our own hearts are corrupted by sin; and of equating the defeat of the power of sin by Christ with social justice and political liberation. This is far too small a horizon within which to encapsulate redemption!

Both the legalist and liberationist definitions of sin also fail to be relational – in fact, they do not have to mention God at all to function as ethical or political guides for action. Our problem in these models is not shown to be as serious as it is – alienation from God and hostility towards him. We may be seen as moral failures, but not as rebels. Or we may be seen as victims only, rather than seeing God as the most aggrieved party in all human sin. When we do this, we minimize the scale of our problem and end up looking at salvation in correspondingly insufficient categories. What the proclamation of the gospel needs is a correct theology of sin which shows what it is. We need to be honest about how bad the wound of humanity is, and not attempt to treat it with moral or political first-aid kits. Only when sin is seen to be as serious as it is can the full glory and wonder of Christ’s rescue for us be seen.

Ascension Day

May 21, 2009

“So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.””
Acts 1:6-11

There are two great reasons for Christians to remember the ascension. The first is to remind ourselves that Jesus is coming back: just as certainly as he has ascended to heaven, so he will certainly return. This world is not all there is, or all there will ever be, and it is in this wider perspective that we are to set our lives as Christians. Paul sees this as a tremendously encouraging truth for Christians: “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” (1Thess 5:9-11) .

The second is to remind ourselves of the mission given to the church – to be witnesses of Jesus Christ in all the world (Acts 1:8). Jesus’ disciples were to understand that Jesus’ kingdom was not the political, ethnic and geographic one they were expecting, but one that is not of this world (John 18:36) and which is to be proclaimed “to the ends of the earth”. Calvin commented on the disciple’s question in 1:6, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” that “there are as many errors in this question as there are words” and it remains a telling and valid point! It seems the disciples still need to be told that Jesus’ kingdom is not the materialistic worldly kind; but something much different and much better. The expansion of this Kingdom requires, however, that the disciples go from Jerusalem, outwards in the concentric circles the Book of Acts is structured around, to the ends of the earth. Their task remains the task of every generation of Christians since them – to be witnesses of Jesus Christ to all the world; bringing people into Jesus’ Kingdom, which will be fully revealed and realised at his return.

The Ascension reminds us of both of these elements of the Christian life, which is why celebrating Ascension Day is such a good idea (even if, like me, you’re not an Anglican!)

Security Protected…

May 16, 2009

…please remove prior to putting in microwave.

moto_0082

Found by my housemate on a DVD (Ice Age) from Sainsbury’s. I really can’t get my head around this one – I can’t think of any security-protected goods that are typically put in the microwave – DVDs, CDs, Alcohol, knives, clothing…

Lunchbar: How Can You Be Sure God Exists?

May 15, 2009

The topic of Lunchbar today was the question “How can you be sure that God exists?” – quite a big issue, as the speaker pointed out!

Our speaker began by questioning the position that is held by atheism: that God definitely doesn’t exist. The problem with such a position is that it is very, very hard to prove a negative statement. To know that something does not exist means that we have to know every piece of knowledge in the universe; when in fact most of us would not even claim to know a hundredth of a percent of all the available knowledge there is. The claim “God does not exist” is a problematic one; and the strong version of Atheism is epistemologically very hard to maintain.

What about the opposite claim – that God does exist? It is easier to prove a positive than a negative – so what is the positive evidence for God’s existence? Christians do think that there is evidence for God, even if they do not think that they can prove him to a mathematical or logical standard of proof. Some evidence the speaker mentioned included:

  • The explanatory power of the hypothesis “there is a God” with respect to our suspicion that there is a meaning to life. Almost all of us implicitly or explicitly believe that there is a meaning and a purpose to life; as shown by the way we live it. But where does this meaning come from?
  • We are also aware of a “religious instinct” or desire to worship something greater than ourselves. Augustine taught that God “has made us for [himself] and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in [him]”. C.S. Lewis employed the analogy of a need corresponding to something that can fulfil that need: We are hungry because there is such a thing as food; we are thirsty because there is such a thing as water; might we not be religious because there is such a thing as God? There is a “God-shaped” hole in our lives which suggests that there is a God who can fill it.
  • Morality – We instinctively feel that there are objective standards of morality; as shown by our appeal “that’s not fair” when we feel we have suffered an injustice. This gives the lie to the common idea that morality is entirely a matter of personal preference. But, if there is no God, then what is the basis for morality? Evolution? – But “the survival of the fittest” is an ethic which produced the Holocaust and Eugenics. Social consensus? But the “tyrrany of the majority” easily becomes oppressive. Economic utility? But multi-national corporations have repeatedly shown themselves able to exploit the planet and other people in the pursuit of profit. There remains the possibility that there is a “transcendent Other” (i.e. God) who is the source of morality in that he is the personal embodiment of goodness, righteousness, justice and truth.
  • There is the need to explain the transformation of lives by the gospel – as witnessed to by the atheist Matthew Parris of The Times. Christianity changes lives for the better; and Christians claim to experience God in their lives. This, too, is at least a clue that there is a God.
  • Finally there is the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which vindicates his claims and his teaching (Romans 1:3). This claim can be tested historically from the gospels, whose evidence is trustworthy and (based on) eyewitness testimony.

 

I agree with our speaker that all of these things might be clues that there is a God – but I would be very reticent myself about claiming that any of these give any grounds for certainty that there is a God. I don’t think we are capable of knowing God in a meaningful way without him revealing himself to us – which he has done in Jesus Christ. Maybe I’m just in Christological mode at the moment, but it seems to me that the main point to make in answer to the lunchbar title is that we can be sure about the existence of God because of the deity of Christ. It was really great that the speaker made this point, and placed it as the crescendo to his argument – but I’m a little uneasy about the way in which the self-revelation of Jesus is portrayed as something which we find out about primarily through the historical method.

One of my friends from CU calls this approach “Case for Christ evangelism” – the approach to evangelism that promotes historical investigation of Jesus from the gospels – “take a Gospel of Mark, read it, and decide for yourself if it is historically true”.

What do you think? Is this a convincing and/or faithful way of sharing the gospel? Is the way to see God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ through dispassionate historical investigation?

Is a sinless Jesus truly human?

May 13, 2009

In 451 the Council of Chalcedon declared that:

“We confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, composed of rational soul and body; consubstantial with the Father as to his divinity and consubstantial with us as to his humanity; “like us in all things but sin.”…”

The quote “like us in all things but sin” is a direct allusion to Hebrews 4:15 = “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” The Bible repeatedly affirms that Jesus, being fully human, was without sin – he “committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” (1Peter 2:22); “in him is no sin” (1John 3:5) and he “had no sin” (2Cor 5:21) – and Jesus himself claimed that he always did what pleased the Father (John 8:29).

But is this a contradiction of Jesus’ humanity? It is sometimes claimed that, if Jesus is truly human, he could not have been sinless (or vice-versa). “To err is human…” and Jesus can be no exception – or, if he is, he is not really human. The implication is sometimes that those who affirm the sinlessness of Jesus don’t really believe in the incarantion; they don’t really believe in his true humanity and are in fact closet Docetists.

The same principle of sin (moral error) is sometimes also charged to Jesus in respect of his teachings – might he not also be fallible in some of his views and opinions (intellectual error)? For example, in his ascription of the Pentateuch to Moses, or his teaching about hell. Is an inerrant Jesus truly human? “To err is human…”

But this is, in fact, not the case. To claim that a person who does not sin is not truly human is in fact to claim that sinfulness is an inalienable part of human nature. But then, we must logically deny that humanity in the new creation is not going to be true humanity. There will be no sin in heaven… does that mean that we will not be entirely human in heaven? No – in fact, we will be more human in the new creation. Sin is not an essential part of human nature; and in fact, to assert that it is is to measure Jesus by our humanity rather than measuring our humanity by Jesus’.

The question shouldn’t be “is Jesus as human as we are?” but rather “are we as human as Jesus is?” (Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, p.737) The upshot of all of this is that we are right to read the Bible as affirming both the full humanity and the full sinlessness of Jesus – and that imitating Christ makes us more authentically human, not less. Ultimately, when we are no longer troubled by the presence of sin in the new creation, we will be human in the way God always intended for us to be. Jesus’ sinless life is an foretaste of what that is going to be like – amazing!

Lunchbar: How can a good God send people to hell?

May 9, 2009

Lunchbar this week was on the topic “How can a good God send people to hell?“. It’s a big question for a lot of people – as we saw from the good discussion that followed in the question time. Lots of people – and lots of non-Christians in particular – are asking this question. In fact, I’ve been asked this or a similar question twice this week by two different people in general conversation when they found out that I was a Christian.

The speaker started off by explaining that a good God is also a just God. Deep down we all suspect that God must be fair, which is in fact one of the presuppositions behind the question about how God can send people to hell. The question is whether God is just: does the punishment fit the crime?

God is love – as the Bible tells us – but that doesn’t mean that God loves everything. God does not love evil – and so there is no contradiction (in fact, it may even be necessary) for a God of love to punish evil. Hell is a place where evil is punished – and because of God’s love he will not overlook or ignore evil. A few examples were given of how most of us agree that evil should be appropriately punished – for example, few people would say that sending a criminal to prison is unjust (and those who do, often say prison is unjust because they would suggest a harsher punishment!)

So the question is whether the punishment fits the crime. Is hell an appropriate punishment for sin? Often we think of sin as being trivial – something “naughty but nice”, or as only being committed against other people rather than God; or that there is a hierarchy of really bad and not-so-bad sins (the ones we commit being towards the less serious end of the scale!) and we ignore sin as rebellion against God; as treason. If we think hell is harsh it is because we do not think sin is really that big a deal. But it is!

Hell is not arbitrary or unjust, and it does not make God unloving. The most loving person who ever walked the earth was Jesus of Nazareth; and yet it is he who speaks the most often and the most graphically about hell in the Bible. Yet he did not just talk about it, but offered himself as the way of escape from hell. Jesus offers more than religious teaching – he offers himself as the way of salvation from hell: as God’s rescuer. He offers himself, and experiences the full punishment for sin, in order that we may not. The one offers himself as a sacrifice for many – and for Christians there is no need to fear going to hell, because Jesus has completely rescued them from it. So the question then becomes, why do people who have heard about Jesus Christ refuse to be rescued by him?

 

This all provoked some good questions – one of the things that was raised is whether it was indeed just for Jesus to take the punishment on our behalf – is that fair? I think one of the things that could have been said in response to this is to emphasise that Jesus was not a “third party” in all of this – a victim with no choice in the matter – but that he willingly became incarnate and went to the cross. Maybe Christians need to explain about the Trinity in answering this question – otherwise it becomes possible to misunderstand substitutionary atonement as unjust or arbitrary.

All in all though, a really good, faithful and thought-provoking Lunchbar!

Some more thoughts on Jesus and the Syrophonecian woman

May 6, 2009

Having handed in my exegetical study last week, I’ve had a few thoughts on the implications of Matthew 15:21-28 for us. I think a good starting point is from the exegetical observation that Matthew’s primary accent or concern in his presentation of this episode is salvation-historical; that is, with reference to Jesus’ consciousness of a mission (primarily) to ethnic Israel before Easter (c.f. Matthew 10:5); only after which does a mission to the nations (i.e. non-Jews) become explicitly commanded (c.f. Matthew 28:16-20). In other words, Matthew agrees with Paul’s dictum in Romans that salvation is “first for the Jew, then the Gentile” – and thus the exorcism of the Gentile woman’s daughter in this passage is, as Calvin noted, a prelude to the situation after Easter. (Commentary on Matthew, Mark and Luke, 2:116)

Taking this as the primary concern of the passage, we run into the problem in seeking out the implications for us today that we exist in a predominantly Gentile church, where the “grafting in” of the nations to the people of God (to use Paul’s metaphor) is taken for granted. There is no perception of shock or impropriety for us in this, as in this passage (15:26!). So how would we preach from this passage? We are left only the (subsidiary!) point the passage makes about faith.

Ulrich Luz makes a (helpful, I think!) suggestion in his commentary on Matthew:

“In a situation in which the gentile church was solidly established and Jewish Christianity had practically disappeared, the salvation-history interpretation of our text no longer demonstrated bthe power of God’s love that bursts the borders of Israel; it almost exclusively justified the legitimacy of the church’s status quo in history. It no longer opened new doors; it merely injured the Jews who were not present in the church. What might a new “salvation-history” interpretation that preserves something of the explosive power of the old text look like today? The text might receive new power, for example, ecumenically explosive power, if an interpreting church community were ready to identify with the Pharisees and scribes from whose territory Jesus withdrew, rather than with the Canaanite woman or her daughter as is usually done…”
(Matthew 8-20 [Hermeneia], p.341)

It’s an idea that is both intriguing and pregnant, and subversive/offensive, that we as modern Gentile Christians might have more in common with the Pharisees than we do with the woman in this text. But perhaps we do, if we are too satisfied with largely middle-class churches who do mission to largely middle-class communities. Preaching from this text should remind us again of our responsibility to take the gospel to all people – both people of all nations, and people of all social groups (perhaps Marx and Engels were onto something with the suggestion that, in the modern world, class divides more deeply than nationality? – that’s quite a rare intellectual tradition for me to agree with!) It should also remind us of grace – for in actual fact we shouldn’t have to think of ourselves as more like the Pharisees if we realise that we are actually recipients of undeserved and unmerited grace; like the woman in the text. Realisation of God’s surprising and sovereign grace in the justification of the ungodly should remind us of just why we can and should proclaim the gospel beyond our social boundaries and comfort zone – because if nobody earns God’s grace then everybody should hear the gospel. If we’ve lost sight of the shock this passage presents to conventional religious wisdom then maybe it is time to start reading it with ourselves as the Pharisees, if only to remind us of God’s powerful love and refusal to constrain it to the social or ethnic boundaries we try and impose on it.

Lunchbar: Don’t all religions lead to God?

May 2, 2009

Lunchbar yesterday was on the question of “Don’t all religions lead to God?” – certainly a topical question raised by the discussion I went to on Wednesday. I thought the speaker dealt with the topic well – making several points that I think bring a lot of clarity to this discussion:

The Elephant is not silent

If you’ve read or heard anything about whether all religions lead to God or not, chances are you’ve heard the parable of the blind men and the elephant. The moral of the story is that all religions have a bit of the truth, and none of them can pretend to have the whole truth. Religious teachers are like blind men describing the bit of the elephant they are in contact with, but none of them realise the whole truth about God. The problem with this parable is that it is told from the point of view of someone who can see, and realises that the elephant is an elephant and not a wall, rope or tree. The moral relies on the assumption that it is we who are in the position of true knowledge and can see that which the adherents of any one religion cannot see – that they are really all describing the same God, despite their protestations to the contrary. But how are we in this position? How can we have our eyes opened to see what the elephant is? To be in this position of knowledge, we actually need God to reveal himself – while he has done decisively and definitively in Jesus Christ.

The Mountain can’t be climbed

Another common parable is that where the various religions are like many paths all going to the summit of the same mountain. Again, the problem is – how can we know this? To someone on any of the paths, they are in no position of vantage to see whether any of the other paths are going the same way that they are going; it is only visible to someone in a helicopter hovering over the mountain and looking at the different people walking along different paths. These kinds of parables are often thought to typify a humble approach to religious truth by saying that we are all really going towards the same God. But are we really being humble to claim that we have such a position of wisdom and knowledge that none of the adherents of various religions have?

Much more damagingly, this parable implies that it isn’t really that hard to get to know God – it’s just a mountain we can climb up by our own efforts, oin whatever way we like. But this isn’t the case. We often treat the idea of knowing God like it’s paying a visit to our grandparents – we can just turn up whenever and they aren’t going to turn us away. In fact, it is more like going to visit the Queen: we can’t just rock up at Buckingham Palace whenever we feel like it, but it can only happen on her terms, at the time and place she has appointed. In the same way, we can only approach God on his terms.

The trouble is that none of us are good enough for God to accept us – he is holy and we are not. Even if we consider ourselves to be very good – we don’t really realise how we stand before God. Our good deeds don’t outweigh the bad – it’s as if a husband were to say to his wife on their first anniversary “Honey, I’ve been such a good husband; I’ve been faithful to you 364 days this year.” Does that make up for the one day he was unfaithful? No! And with us and God, it’s more like we’ve been faithful one day a year and unfaithful the other 364. We can’t be accepted by God by ourselves; the mountain can’t be climbed. Which is why we need God’s rescue provided in Jesus Christ.

Tolerance

One of the questions which was asked by the audience was whether a Christian society would be a tolerant one. The speaker’s answer highlighted an important point about the nature of tolerance. There are essentially two types of tolerance – the classical kind where we defend the right of people to hold beliefs with which we disagree, and the pluralist kind where we feel unable to disagree with any beliefs, and hold them all to be equally valid. The second definition of tolerance is ultimately self-defeating, as we must hold all beliefs to be equally valid, except the belief that all beliefs are not equally valid. Hoever, a view of tolerance compatible with Christianity is the classical view, and commends coexistence with other religions without condoning those other faiths’ beliefs or practises. It is in this way that a Christian society is tolerant.