Archive for January, 2010

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.

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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.

Hilary on Scripture and Theology

January 6, 2010

Hilary of Poitiers was one of John Calvin’s favourite theologians. Writing in Latin in the 4th Century, he gave a remarkably lucid and clear account of the doctrine of the Trinity in “On the Trinity” (356-360).  Discussing the question of religious language and how we can even begin to describe God, he writes that we must not hesitate to affirm that which God has made known about himself in Scripture. We must believe what God says about himself, and our theology must come from Scripture. But we should not twist Scripture or take it out of context (what was later called “proof-texting”) – for doing so is easily deceitful. Instead, we must pay careful attention to the context and circumstances of the texts we quote. There is a need for careful exegesis in the move from biblical studies to systematic theology. It’s easy to see why Calvin found him so helpful:

“We must believe God when he speaks about himself and we must not resist those truths which he has revealed to us for our understanding. We must either deny Him after the manner of the heathens if we reject His proofs or, if we believe Him to be God as He is, then we cannot have any other concept of Him than that which He has revealed about Himself. Let there be an end, therefore, to the personal opinions of men, and do not allow our human judgement to trespass upon the order established by God! For this reason we pursue the godless and impious teachings about God by the very same texts of the divine words, and we shall base everything on the testimony of Him who is the subject of our investigation, and shall not attempt to deceive or to mislead our unlearned listeners by merely citing some quotations from the texts without explaining all the attendant circumstances. The understanding of the words is to be deduced from the reasons why they were spoken, because the words are subordinated to the event, not the event to the words (non sermoni res, sed rei sermo subjectus est). But we shall examine everything, while at the same time we shall explain the reasons why they were said and the meaning of the words.”
On the Trinity, 4.14