Archive for the ‘Bible’ Category

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.

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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!

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

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.

Mounce on the “Which Bible version?” debate

November 23, 2009

Really found this post from Bill Mounce on the TNIV and the ESV helpful – for the record, I’m one of those people who uses both in various settings (and tries hard to use the Greek!). “Which translation should I use?” is a discussion which I’ve encountered in almost every Christian fellowship I’ve been part of (and one which is in some ways quite important!) but not always one which is carefully handled. I think the warnings against slurring the motives of the translators of versions we don’t like is one we all would do well to heed.

Come, see how he dies…

October 29, 2009

I think we don’t talk enough about the resurrection. I’m not talking about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, circa 30 AD – though the more we talk about that, the better. I mean we don’t talk enough about the one that’s going to happen – your resurrection and mine. The Nicene Creed has “I believe in the resurrection of the dead”, and we don’t explicitly deny this, but we much prefer to talk about “going to heaven when we die”. The problem is, most people hear that and think of the immortality of the soul. Pictures of people in heaven floating around playing harps on clouds doesn’t help.

heaven

Bad theology

We forget that the Bible doesn’t offer the solution to death of the immortality of the soul, but offers instead the resurrection of the body – at the return of Christ and the renewing of all creation. Daniel 12:1-4 gives voice to this:

But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.

Paul says the same thing in 1Corinthians 15:

the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.

This is so different to the idea of the immortality of the soul. Christians should resist the sharp dualism offered by the idea of an immortal soul being released from a mortal body – that’s Platonism, not Christianity!

This affects our view of death, as well. Oscar Cullmann famously presented the difference between the Greek view of death and the immortality of the soul and the Christian view of death and the resurrection of the body by comparing the deaths of Socrates and Jesus.
(Oscar Cullmann, “Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? The Witness of the New Testament” in Krister Stendahl (ed.), Immortality and Resurrection, Death and Resurrection (New York: Macmillan, 1965))

Socrates faces death calmly. For him, it is insignificant because the soul is essentially deathless. Drinking the hemlock only sets him, the real Socrates, free from the prison-house of his body. Death liberates his soul, and he returns to eternity. “The destruction of the body cannot mean the destruction of the soul any more than a musical composition can be destroyed when the instrument is destroyed”.

By contrast, come, see how Jesus dies. In Gethsemane he struggles with his impending fate. He knows that his life can be entrusted to his Father’s faithfulness and love, but death is an all-too-real experience. He is in agony anticipating it. Death means being forsaken by God and being taken away from real, full-blooded existence, at least for a while. Jesus knows he is an embodied being, and that whatever existence there is in the grave, it is radically reduced from the fullness of life God intends for humanity. Death is a horror and a terror, beyond which we can only have hope because of God’s promised recreation: resurrection of the body.

Cullmann’s point should stop us from being careless in the way we express the Christian hope. It is not enough to say “I will go to heaven when I die” – death must be undone and the dead must be raised in new, perfect, incorruptible bodies. Death is ambiguous at best – an enemy which cannot ultimately harm us; inevitable, but not the final word. It will be undone – until then, we can recognize with our Saviour its horror and unnaturalness; in hope because God has promised to resurrect the dead, and God keeps his promises.

Non-Scriptural language

October 7, 2009

Does it bother you that the word trinity is not found in the Bible? It bothers some people – for example, Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is unbiblical on the grounds that the word trinity is non-Scriptural. It seems that, during the Arian Controversy, Athanasius had to answer the objection that, in formulating the Nicene Creed, the orthodox bishops had used non-Scriptural language – probably focussing on the use of the word οὐσία (essence, substance, being). Athanasius replies, defending his use of such language at length (De Decretis, 18-24). Both the opponents and supporters of Nicea used non-Scriptural terminology, according to Athanasius, but the language used in the creed was valid because it expressed the truth:

But if someone enquires accurately into the things written and defined by the council, he will find that it completely embraces the sense of the truth, especially if one were to enquire with a love of learning and hear the fitting reason for the use of these words.
De Decretis, 18

Second, Arianism was a subtle heresy which attempted to defend itself from the Scriptures. The Arians and non-Arians would both have assented to the same Scriptural phrases about the Son’s relationship to the Father, but have understood it in different ways. Therefore, Athanasius says, it became necessary to rule out certain false ways of interpreting the Scriptural language, using non-Scriptural terms. But, this language is acceptable because it “gather[s] together the sense of Scripture”:

Nevertheless, let it be known to anyone who wishes to learn, that even if the words are not as such in the Scriptures, yet, as has been said before, they contain the sense of the Scriptures and they express this sense and communicate it to those who have ears that are whole and hearken unto piety.
De Decretis, 21.

In this way, while we concede that much of the language used in orthodox definitions of Christology and the Trinity are non-Scriptural or non-biblical (that is, they are not part of the vocabulary of the Bible), they are not for that reason unscriptural or unbiblical. Of course, Christians need to be careful that they find and use appropriate language when trying to “gather up the sense of Scripture”, but they need not feel limited to only using the Biblical vocabulary when doing theology. Such a limitation would also really limit theology to works written in Hebrew or Greek, since all translation involves interpretation to a greater or lesser extent. Non-Scriptural vocabulary often helps explain what the Biblical language means, rule out false interpretations where there is potential ambiguity, and acts as a shorthand for things that are Scriptural.

Should anyone then worry that the word trinity isn’t found in the Bible? No – because it is shorthand for the truth taught in the Bible about God’s identity. The Bible does teach that there is one God; that the Father is God; that the Son is God; that the Holy Spirit is God; and that the Father is not the Son nor the Spirit, and that the Son is not the Spirit nor the Father, and that the Spirit is not the Father nor the Son. These seven statements (and the nuances given in Scripture) lead directly to the Trinitarian belief expressed in e.g. the Athanasian Creed, and the word trinity is a useful shorthand for this, and fully commensurate with the sense of Scripture.

Why New Testament ethics can’t be summed up by “love”

September 22, 2009

The first and greatest commandment, Jesus tells us, is to love God; the second to love our neighbour – and on these two the whole Law and Prophets depend. Paul echoes this in Romans 13:8: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” and it is also prominent in the Gospel and Epistles of John. So why is it that Richard B. Hays does not use “love” as one of his focal images in his synthesis of New Testament ethics in The Moral Vision of the New Testament (London: T&T Clark, 1997)?

First, there are some New Testament authors for whom love is not an ethical emphasis. Hays mentions Mark’s gospel here – discipleship is defined more in terms of following Jesus and taking up one’s cross than it is by love. “If Mark were the only Gospel in the New Testament canon, it would be very difficult to make a case for love as a major motif in Christian ethics” (p.200). Hebrews and Revelation also have only sporadic references to love, and Acts does not contain the word “love” (more properly, any of the various Greek terms translated “love”) either as a noun or a verb. Luke is not opposed to love, but it does not form part of his narrative in Acts about the emergence and growth of the church. The problem is then that synthesising the ethical teaching of the New Testament with a focal point of “love”  drives these texts to the periphery of the canon, which is “an unacceptable result” (p.202).

Second, love is not really an image which can become a focal point in the same way as Hays’ suggested triad of “Community, Cross and New Creation” but an interpretation of an image. Hays points out that what the New Testament means by “love” is embodied and shown most clearly in the cross. The gospel narrative gives meaning and content to “love”, rather than the other way around:

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. (1John 3:16)

In addition, though Hays does not mention it, John 3:16 might be better translated:

For thus God loved the world: He gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but shall have everlasting life.

John 3:16 begins with a statement of the manner in which God loved the world (God loved the world in this way, that he…), not about the degree to which he has loved it (“God loved the world so much, that he…) 

Apart from the focal image of the cross, love is ambiguous in meaning, which leads to the third reason Hays does not adopt it as a focus: the term can easily become debased in popular use and detached from the cross. Hays quotes Stanley Hauerwas to this effect: “The ethics of love is often but a cover for what is fundamentally an assertion of ethical relativism.” If love becomes a focal point of ethics, rather than the points of community, cross and new creation, ethics can lose its moorings in the gospel story. The radical demands of Christian discipleship made by the New Testament (e.g. Mark 8:38) might not be seen as “loving” things to impose upon others. I think that this is a very important observation – almost every appeal I have heard to evade the didactic moral teaching of the New Testament has been based on the priority of the admonition to love. Yet if we take the point Hays makes that the New Testament’s gospel narrative gives content, shape and meaning to “love” then such evasions become much less persuasive. We need to look to the gospel narrative, the Christian community and the Christian hope to know what we are to love and how we are to love it.

God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1John 4:9-10)