Archive for December, 2009

Farewell to the Noughties!

December 31, 2009

I’ve been indulging a bit of nostalgia and reading some of the news coverage of the previous ten years – the “noughties”. Never mind the silly name, nor the collective counting mistake that makes us think a decade ends in a year ending in 9 rather than 0 (there was, after all, no “year zero”…) – I for one enjoyed reading through what various people had put as memorable or significant events, people, ideas, songs, videos etc.

I’m quite historically minded. In fact, I was originally studying for a degree in German & History at Nottingham before switching to do Theology. So my eye’s naturally been drawn to discussions of what the most significant events of the Noughties were.

Few people would dispute the significance of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. I think most of us can still remember first hearing about them – the confusion, rumours, fear, incredulity… And not only were they significant in terms of the horror of the events themselves, but also for the reprecussions that followed in their wake. 

One of those is that Britain has been involved in two major wars this decade – both difficult, and unresolved. We remain at war in Afghanistan, and the United States remains at war in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps it’s too early to make the call on the outcome of those conflicts, but many people are pessimistic about them.

Terrorism has become a common and pervasive fear – perhaps even out of proportion to its actual danger to us. Yet the danger, even if overstated, is not absent – this Christmas saw an apparently botched attempt to destroy an aeroplane full of civilian passengers near Detroit. The effects of terrorism have reached us all – who knew in 2000 what the words “al-Qaeda”, “dirty bomb” or “liquid explosives” meant? Civil liberties have drastically altered in the UK – a change in fact largely accepted by most people. As an illustration, in 2000 a web page containing these words which claimed it would set off all sorts of secret service red flags would have seemed crazy – tinfoil hat crazy. In 2009, few internet users doubt that various agencies monitor internet communication under anti-terrorism legislation. From a legal perspective, this could turn out to be hugely significant.

The way we use the internet has also changed – blogs, Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, mobile broadband, WiFi… Actually, when I say “we”, I don’t think I even knew what the Internet was until 2001/2 ish! At which time I was still in school doing Year 9 SATs… remember those? Some current university students were doing their Year 6 SATs. Wow.

Education has changed – top-up fees, more university places, some entirely new courses. I’ve got no idea about the long-term significance of the new fees settlement in terms of changing the social mix or financial situation of Universities, but I suspect it’s going to be financially significant for students like me who have large student debts. When I (hopefully) graduate in 2010, I’m going to owe the government about £30,000. Wow. Good job I didn’t decide to study Medicine or Architecture!

The trouble though, is that, so soon after all these things, it is really hard to evaluate their significance. In a way, that’s the problem with all historical writing – you cannot know the future, ultimate significance of anything. Something which seems like a big deal today might turn out to be a ripple, whereas a hidden, unnoticed event may alter the current of history in much bigger ways. Unless you’re God, you can only make provisional judgements about the ultimate significance of events.

Though, I’ve been thinking – something that we’ve been told is a big deal is the Church. In the big, cosmic sense. It’s a prime example of one of those unnoticed things – it looks weak, but has the gospel, which is the power of God for saving the world. It looks foolish, but has the mind of Christ. Its normal, unglamorous work of preaching the gospel looks like a very inefficient farmer sowing (Mark 4:1-20). Sometimes the fruit comes very slowly indeed – and we’re tempted to think we’re doing it wrong. But slowly, person by person, God has continued to build his Church – investing his eternal significance into every single one who he welcomes into this community. This decade, through the witness of ordinary Christians, millions and millions of people have become Christians – which is surely worth rejoicing over! And I was one of them.

Why do you, being God, make yourself man?

December 24, 2009

Athanasius turns around the charge the religious experts level at Jesus in John 10:33. They say to him “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.” Why does Jesus, a man, make himself God? Rather, Athanasius says, in De Decretis 1, they should have put it: “Why do you, being God, make yourself man?” (διατὶ σὺ θεὸς ὤν ἄνθρωπος γέγονας;)

Why indeed? This is the surprise, the twist, in the Christmas narrative. Why is it that one of the Trinity has taken on humanity? Why has God become human – and a baby at that? Why has “he who was rich beyond all splendour” become so poor?

Christians have always marvelled at this – and spoken their answer in reverent awe. They take their cue from the Scriptures – for example, in Paul’s claim that Jesus came “in the fulness of time” to redeem us (Galatians 4:4), and John’s claim that he came to bring light, life, truth and grace (John 1), and in the “trustworthy saying” of 1Timothy 1:15: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”. God became man to save humanity.

Reflecting on this, Athanasius writes in his On the Incarnation that it was indeed necessary for God to become human to save humanity from sin, and the conseqences of sin – “death and corruption”. In words which resonate with such later writers as Augustine, Anselm and Calvin, and draw upon Paul’s language of “union with Christ”, he says:

“taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This he did out of sheer love for us, so that in his death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men” (2.8)

Christmas and Easter are bound together. As God became human, he became able to suffer the death and corruption that came about as a result of humanity’s sin. Truly becoming man, he was truly able to die, and in dying, “abolish” the punishment of death and corruption for all those united to him. Because he was, is and remains also God, death could have no hold on him, and was itself defeated – setting us free:

For by the sacrifice of His own body He did two things: He put an end to the law of death which barred our way; and He made a new beginning of life for us, by giving us the hope of resurrection. By man death has gained its power over men; by the Word made Man death has been destroyed and life raised up anew. (2.10)

Athanasius points us beyond a pretty Nativity scene and gifts and goodwill to the mind-changing truth behind Christmas. That child in the manger is also God. “He who made the world lies in Mary’s arms”, in the words of a modern Christmas song. Why has he come? To reveal, to heal, to rescue… by his death. Easter cannot but follow Christmas, and that child cannot but one day be rejected and crucified – and in dying, paradoxically defeat death and sin and corruption for those he calls to be united with him. It’s powerful. It’s not what we expect. And if it’s true, it changes everything.

And all this, to use Athanasius’ phrase, is done “out of sheer love for us”.

Darwinism

December 24, 2009

A lot of my friends are writing an essay on whether science in general, and darwinism in particular, are compatible with Christian belief. It’s got me – someone who’s tempted to be a bit of a fence-sitter on the whole issue – thinking a bit about the issues involved.

A lot of Christians have strong opinions on the issue – depending on who you talk to, the mainstream scientific opinion on the origins of life is either anti-Christian and contradictory, or not in the slightest bit of conflict with Christianity. I’m not going to try and put forward a particular view of origins as being the correct one here – there are plenty of books I can suggest for those interested that do precisely that – but I do think it’s a bit more complex than those two options.

I’m not happy with the assumptions that Christians who have strong views often make about those who have the opposite views: Creationists often think evolutionists are theological liberals or commiting apostasy; evolutionists often think creationists are backwards and fundamentalist. Actually there are educated, non-fundamentalist Christians who don’t believe in evolution, and faithful, orthodox, even conservative, ones who do. Wayne Grudem does us all a favour in his Systematic Theology by pointing out that the test of whether we’ve really grasped the message of the Bible’s statements on creation is how we treat those Christians who disagree with the interpretation we hold. And there are a lot of different, nuanced, positions taken by Christians. Alister McGrath, in a lecture a while ago when he visited Nottingham, said he’s heard of at least 20 Christian positions on origins. Adrian Warnock lists 6 (+1 Atheist perspective) on his blog, with some good links to further resources. So let’s not pretend it’s obvious to all Christians (or even all “real” Christians – whatever content we want to put into that loaded phrase) that any one view is right.

I’m also not happy with presentations of the issue that make it seem like there are no problems with a particular view of origins. A problem for young-earth creationism is why God created a world that appears to be much older than it is on numerous different indicators of age; or why there are two accounts of creation in Genesis. There are some explantions which creationists offer for these phenomena, but also a lot of them are honest enough to admit that there are “difficulties” or problems that remain unresolved. I think it is the same for Darwinism and Christian belief.

Even if we separate “Darwinism” from “naturalism” and say that we’re only talking about evolution within a Christian framework, it’s good to be aware of the potential areas of tension. I think a few of the difficulties for reconciling Darwinism and (evangelical – though some problems also apply to nonevangelicals) Christian faith might be:

  • Biblical difficulties – are there texts which are hard to interpret in a Darwinian framework? How are (e.g.) Genesis 1 and 2 to be understood? Romans 5:12? Were Adam and Eve the first people? Was there a “historical” (in the sense of an actual event, whether or not investigable by historians) Adam and “Fall”?
  • Theological difficulties – the problem of evil being a big one. If we want to adopt an “Augustinian Theodicy” which ascribes suffering, death and evil to judgement upon humanity’s sin then there doesn’t appear to be room for natural selection – at least not without extensive modifications of the traditional theodicy. Augustinian theodicy and Darwinism seem very hard to reconcile – so which one do we abandon, modify or reconsider?
  • Philosophical problems – is a God who creates by seemingly natural processes the same God as the one who seems personal and interventionist in the Bible? Isn’t he rather the God of Deism who winds up the universe and then sits back? And is there any real basis for an ontological distinction between humans and animals such as the gospel might suggest to us?

I’m aware that some, and I’m I’m sure that all, of these questions can be answered by Christians who believe in evolution – and I look forward to reading some of the essays people are writing on this question at the moment. But I don’t think I could say there was no conflict between Darwinism and Christian faith. These kinds of points remain points of tension just as much as the Biblical and Scientific problems for Christians who reject evolution. At the current point in the debate, do we have to say that no one option is entirely satisfactory for Christians? I think that we might. While still professing faith in the gospel and a confidence in the Scriptures, it is possible to admit that there are some things we just don’t understand – and how precisely the world and human beings were created might be one of them.

Trinity Sermon

December 10, 2009

As part of my course this semester on the Trinity, we had the opportunity to give a ten-minute presentation in the format of either a sermon on the Trinity or a diatribe against the Trinity. In our class we had 15 sermons and 1 diatribe. The sermons were quite varied and it was fascinating to hear sermons from people who come from very different Christian backgrounds, (one of the great things about studying theology at Nottingham!) and to receive written feedback from other students. One student thought my sermon was “a bit fundamentalist” – by which I can only assume he meant “Evangelical Protestant” (the two, incidentally, are not synonymous!) since I took out the bits about gun ownership and stoning adulterers. Or something.

The idea of doing a sermon was (according to our lecturer) because there were so many really bad sermons on the Trinity. According to a vicar I know, a certain famous Anglican bishop regularly used to  “pull a sickie” on Trinity Sunday to avoid having to preach on the doctrine. Which is a shame, since it’s not really that hard to get the basics of what Christians mean when they say God is Trinity (though, to balance that claim, it’s not possible to comprehend God’s trinitarian nature in entirety) and, importantly, it’s not a doctrine we need to be embarrassed about, but actually something that is good news. Here’s what I said:

Trinity Sermon – 1/12/2009

“Holy, Holy, Holy, Merciful and Mighty,
God in three persons, blessèd Trinity.”

Thus reads the well-loved hymn. But what do we mean by the word “Trinity”, and why is it important? It has a bit of a reputation for being hard to understand. Sometimes people even give the impression that the Trinity is a bit of an embarrassing doctrine, and that Christianity would be a lot easier to understand if we got rid of it.

In the short amount of time we have here, I’d like briefly to make three points, which I hope will shed some light on the Trinity and why it’s important. We can’t comprehend the mystery of the Trinity in the sense of knowing everything there is to know, but I hope that we might at least be able to understand what God wants us to know about his Triune identity.

 First, I want to say that the Trinity is a distinctively Christian doctrine – it is specific to Christianity. Second, that Christianity is distinctively Trinitarian – that you can’t have Christian faith without the God who is Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Third, that believing in the Triune God isn’t something we should be embarrassed about, but rather something we should be joyful about, and something to celebrate.

So, first – the Trinity is important because it is distinctively Christian. It is about what kind of God we worship. You don’t have to talk to too many people or read too many newspapers before you encounter the very fashionable idea that all religions are essentially the same, or really all have the same God. Have you heard that opinion recently? It’s quite a common one, and quite an attractive one in terms of playing down religious conflict. But whenever I hear someone say that all religions lead to God, or serve the same God, I want to ask, Which God is that? It’s not a small question – perhaps one of the most impassioned cries of the Old Testament is not to serve false Gods. We do not want to be idolaters. So we need to be sure what kind of God we worship.

When we look at the Nicene Creed we find that it begins with “We believe in one God” and then immediately goes on to speak of ‘the Father Almighty’, ‘one Lord Jesus Christ’ and ‘the Holy Spirit’.  The one God Christians believe in, worship and praise isn’t a simple numerical “one” but is, in fact, these Three.  As the noted theologian Gregory of Nazianzus would say a few decades after Nicea, “when I say God, I mean Father, Son and Holy Spirit”.

Let’s look at what Paul says in 1Corinthians 8:6

“For us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.”

Here Paul is quite happy to affirm there is one God, but implies that one God is multipersonal. In fact, what Paul is doing is very radical. He is taking the “Shema” formula from Deuteronomy 6 – the prayer said by pious Jews every day – “Hear O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One” and reworking it as “There is One God, the Father, One Lord, Jesus Christ”. As Bishop Tom Wright comments:

“The whole argument of the chapter hinges precisely on [Paul] being a Jewish-style monotheist, over against pagan polytheism; and, as the lynchpin of the argument, he has quoted the most central and holy confession of that monotheism and has placed Jesus firmly in the middle of it … This verse is one of the mostly genuinely revolutionary bits of theology ever written.”

The one God and the one Lord are the Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit). This is the kind of God Christians worship – radically different both from  polytheism (that is, many Gods) and from strict, numerical monotheism (that God is not only one essence, but also one-personal).

This brings us to the second point I’d like to make. Christianity is distinctively Trinitarian. You can’t have Christianity without it. The so-called Athanasian Creed is very firm on this point:

WHOSOEVER WILL BE SAVED,
before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith.
Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled,
without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

And the Catholic Faith is this:
That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity,
neither confounding the Persons,
nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father,
another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost.

That is, we must believe in the Triune God if we are to be saved.  Notice, too, the warnings against “confounding the persons” – which means collapsing the Father, Son and Holy Spirit into just three ways of looking at the same thing – and against “dividing the substance” – that is, saying that there are three Gods. The first error is called Modalism and throws up huge problems – if God appears some times as Father and other times as Son or Spirit, then he isn’t really three – but then, who was Jesus praying to when he prayed to the Father? The second error is called Tritheism – from the Greek for Three Gods. This, as we have seen, is not what the Bible teaches. There is one God, in three persons, not three Gods. But if all this is seeming complicated – and it is a divinely revealed mystery – we need to realise why it is so important that this creed can say there is no Christianity without it. There cannot be salvation unless God is Trinitarian – at least not as the New Testament sees it.

Take as an example Paul’s words in Galatians 4:4-6:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’

Here we discover all three persons of the Trinity at work in our salvation. See how they relate to each other – the Father sends his Son to redeem us – and also sends his Spirit (who is also linked to the Son) to us. The three are all at work together and intertwined… though definitely distinct. The Father isn’t the Son and the Son isn’t the Spirit and the Spirit isn’t the Father.  And yet there is one God who saves us.

So, finally, the Trinity is good news. Look back at Galatians 4:6. Our salvation is a work of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Father has sent the Son to redeem us – to rescue us from our sins, which Paul unpacks at length in this letter. But here Paul gives us an insight into what God’s purpose for that rescue is. The Father has sent the Son – Jesus Christ – to rescue us that we might receive adoption as children. In Jesus Christ, we are adopted by his Father and brought into the life of the Trinity. Likewise, through the Spirit we are able to call the Father that intimate term of “Abba!”, which Jesus himself uses in praying to the Father. When we pray the “Our Father”, we really, really mean it. God the Father is our Father not in the sense that he is the father and creator of all humanity, but in the special stronger sense that he has adopted us as children in Jesus Christ. We are caught up together in the life of the Trinity as we are united with God and are being made into the image of this community of unity and love. We can call God “Father” and mean it!

So we should not be embarrassed about the doctrine of the Trinity. It is not something we can completely comprehend, but it is a mystery which God has shown us enough of that we can know him truly as the Triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – three persons in unity. This makes Christianity unique, and it makes Christianity good news because this God can save us, bring us into relationship with himself, adopt us and give us hope.