Random musings on life, the universe and nothing in particular...
Monday, December 29, 2003
I have just concluded my series on Physical Eating in the Eucharist on my other blog.
I will be away for the next few days, visiting friends down south. I will probably not post again until Thursday or Friday.
The Reformed faith really does not need 'defenders' like this. This is one of the most ridiculous statements I have ever heard. It does not need to be commented on. Anyone who has read a conservative proponent of the New Perspective will be well aware that precisely the opposite is the case.
Anyway, since when did Baptists become the arbiters of what counts as 'Reformed'? Much as I respect and appreciate Baptist theologians, their right to be on the good ship 'Reformed' is tenuous in a number of respects. If John Calvin would be uncomfortable with N.T. Wright, he would be no less uncomfortable with James White.
If White had done his homework, we might have had a reasonable critique. He hasn't. It is high time that the Reformed camp started to clamp down on shoddy scholarship within its ranks and publically expose it for what it is. There are too many clones of James Whites and John Robbins around. Their fundamental conviction seems to be that when God created the narrow way, He didn't create it half narrrow enough.
...by temperament I'm a big-picture person as opposed to a details person. Most biblical scholars are detail people. The problem with people like that is that when they are put in front of a class of first-year students, they will start talking about the textual problems in Romans 2 when students have no idea who Paul is.
For Hooker’s opponents, sacraments could only be human actions designed to further the homogeneity of that community of uniform spiritual achievement which is the holy congregation. Hooker, on the other hand, affirms the possibility of uneven, confused faith, even the confused ecclesial loyalties of the ‘church papist’, as something acceptable within the reformed congregation. This is entirely of a piece with the defence of a liturgy that is more than verbal instruction. Hooker traces these two issues to a Christology which is centred upon divine gift and ontological transformation, and a consequent sacramental theology which affirms the hiddenness but effectiveness of divine presence and work in the forms of our ritual action.
N.T. Wright took the Christmas Service on BBC Radio 4 this morning. The little I heard of it was very good. I'm not sure if any audio will be available online. However, if I come across any I will link to it.
After some responses to a previous post (The Cross and the Cradle from two days ago) I promised to give an outline of the first chapter (‘Personhood and Being’) of John Zizioulas’ Being As Communion. Zizioulas is an important Orthodox scholar and is Metropolitan of Pergamon, in the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Born in 1931, he studied at the Universities of Thessaloniki and Athens, becoming a Doctor of Theology in 1965. He has been Professor of Theology at Glasgow University and at King’s College in London. He has been a key figure in a number of important ecumenical dialogues.
Being As Communion is a must read, particularly if you have been raised in a Western church. It will open your eyes to some of the riches of the Eastern tradition and make you aware of some of the blindspots of Western theology. I first obtained this book from my local Christian bookstore. It was an impulse buy and I had not previously heard of the book or the author. The book was so different from the books that surrounded it that it caught my attention. As it was cheap I purchased it, expecting something different, but nothing as stimulating and thought-provoking as the book turned out to be. Whether you end up agreeing with him or not, you will be challenged by your reading of Zizioulas.
Peter Leithart has interacted with the thought of Zizioulas in his helpful article “Framing” Sacramental Theology: Trinity and Symbol (Westminster Theological Journal 62.1 ). Whilst Leithart’s article is not (to my knowledge) available online, a discussion of it is. Whilst I would share some of Leithart’s concerns with Zizioulas’ theology, I do not think that I would be quite as critical of it or, to put it another way, I might be more inclined to see the merit in some of the more controversial positions that Zizioulas holds.
What is the ‘Person’
Zizioulas argues that the concept of the person is inextricably bound with patristic theology and ecclesiology. Greek thought was unable to give a coherent account of personhood. This was because Greek thought was wedded to monism. Ultimate ontological unity means that God Himself is incapable of freely ‘dialoguing’ with the world, being bound by ontological necessity to the world and the world being bound to Him. If freedom is essential to personhood, then there is no possibility of a fully personal being in such a framework. Freedom can have no ontological ultimacy. Personhood is without ontological content.
The term ‘person’ (prosōpon) in Greek quickly became associated with the mask in the theatre in its meaning. Zizioulas argues that within Greek thought this is all that the person was, a ‘mask’. The ‘mask’ enables the actor to acquire a degree of freedom the world denies him. However, once the mask is removed, necessity returns and freedom evaporates. To become a person in Greek thought was to have something added to your being, the person could not be the true being. The Roman term persona bore a similar meaning. It referred primarily to the role played by someone in social and legal relationships and gave no account of the ontology of the person. Whilst both the Greek and Roman world were able to show man ‘a dimension of existence which may be called personal, this dimension could never be ontologically justified.
The concept of the person was first given genuine ontological content as a result of the Church’s attempt to give expression to the doctrine of the Trinity. Within this attempt, a philosophical landmark was achieved: the ‘hypostasis’ was identified with the ‘person’. The term ‘hypostasis’ had previous been associated with the essence of man and would have been sharply distinguished from the term ‘person’. Now the person became the hypostasis of the being itself. The person now became the constitutive element of being.
This revolution was accomplished as a result of two things. Firstly, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo destroyed the ‘closed circle’ ontology of the Greeks. The world was no longer to be seen as ontologically necessary but was rather a product of freedom. ‘That which exists was liberated from itself; the being of the world became free from necessity.’
Secondly, the doctrine of God developed by the early church gave ontological ultimacy to personhood. Zizioulas argues against the idea that the ontological ‘principle’ of God is founded upon an impersonal divine substance, maintaining that the person of the Father is the ‘cause’ or ‘principle’ of the being and life of God.
Thus when we say that God “is,” we do not bind the personal freedom of God—the being of God is not an ontological “necessity” or a simple “reality” for God—but we ascribe the being of God to His personal freedom.
God’s existence is founded upon His free will to exist. The Father freely begets the Son and brings forth the Spirit. The substance of God never can be conceived of as a naked state without hypostasis. Being is traced back to person rather than nature or substance. Consequently, God is ontologically free. ‘He transcends and abolishes the ontological necessity of the substance by being God as Father.’ God’s being is found in an act of communion. The Trinity exists not because the divine nature is itself ecstatic, but because the communion is freely willed by the Father as a person.
Love has ontological ultimacy.
The expression “God is love” (I John 4:16) signifies that God “subsists” as Trinity, that is, as person and not as substance. Love is not an emanation or “property” of the substance of God … but is constitutive of His substance…. Thus love ceases to be a qualifying … property of being and becomes the supreme ontological predicate. Love as God’s mode of existence “hypostasizes” God, constitutes His being. Therefore, as a result of love, the ontology of God is not subject to the necessity of the substance. Love is identified with ontological freedom.
God’s immortality is not founded on the continuance of His substance but on account of His Trinitarian existence.
The life of God is eternal because it is personal, that is to say, it is realized as an expression of free communion, as love. Life and love are identified in the person: the person does not die only because it is loved and loves…. Death for a person means ceasing to love and to be loved, ceasing to be unique and unrepeatable, whereas life for the person means the survival of its hypostasis, which is affirmed and maintained by love.
Outside of the communion of love, the person becomes a being indistinguishable from other beings.
I believe that Zizioulas’ treatment of the subject of personhood and being is very helpful. In my next post I will give more attention to the anthropological implications of Zizioulas’ thesis. For the moment I will focus upon Zizioulas’ articulation of the doctrine of God. Here there are a number of things to appreciate and a few areas to question. I will begin with three areas of appreciation.
Firstly, his maintaining of the personal nature of God is salutary. Although I believe that his objection that Western theology places the ontological principle of God in the divine substance should be far more qualified, it is nonetheless an error that our attention should be drawn to. God is not a product of the necessity of an impersonal substance, but freely exists in love.
Secondly, his statement that God “subsists” as Trinity is again helpful. By giving the Trinity ontological ultimacy (rather than reserving this for the substance of God), relationships are given ontological ultimacy. The significance of this insight should not be underestimated. Multiplicity is built into the very heart of ontology and is not a ‘second storey’ or departure from it.
Thirdly, by recognizing the constitutive nature of love for being each Person of the Trinity finds its identity only in relationship with the other Persons.
I will now move on to one particular area of concern.
I remain unconvinced by Zizioulas’ treatment of the Father as the source of the Trinity. I believe that his approach tends towards a dangerous subordinationism. Part of my concern might be attributed to the fact that I am, as a child of the Western Church, inclined to approach the issue of the Trinity from a different direction. However, I do not believe that my concerns can be wholly accounted for by this.
I am certainly convinced that God’s unity is personal. However, Zizioulas’ account of the unity of God is not, in my opinion, demanded by this. We need not say that God owes His existence to the Father in the same manner that Zizioulas does. I do not believe that Zizioulas gives enough weight to the fact that the Father is conditioned by the Son, just as the Son is conditioned by the Father.
Whilst some have been inclined to argue that the language of Father and Son merely speaks of reciprocity within the Trinity, I believe that the term Father must be understood to convey more than this. The Trinity should not be understood merely as three persons co-existing in communion. There is ‘eternal subordination’ of the Son and the Spirit to the Father. The origin of the Father-Son relationship is to be found in the Father. It is clear that the Father possesses a primacy as the first Person of the Trinity. However, we should beware of presuming that this implies ontological subordination. Zizioulas seems to lean too far in this direction.
If personhood has ontological ultimacy and ‘God owes His existence to the Father’, we do seem to be talking about ontological subordination. I believe that there could be no Father without the Son and yet the Father is in some sense the originator of this relationship (of course, language of ‘origin’ and ‘cause’ when applied within the eternal Trinity should be used extremely carefully). I am persuaded that Zizioulas’ account fails when the first part of this statement is put into the equation.
As I believe that the Son is autotheos, I am unwilling to follow Zizioulas at this point. However, I am convinced that the ontological ultimacy of personhood need not be undermined by this. Perhaps Zizioulas, by placing too much emphasis upon one particular starting point for this doctrine, fails to recognize the existence of many valid perspectives on the question.
How can we argue for a personal oneness of God? One of the most bold ways of declaring the personal nature of God’s unity is seen in Cornelius Van Til’s statement that ‘God, that is the whole Godhead, is one person.’ Such a paradoxical statement helps to humble us before the mystery. It maintains what Zizioulas is trying to defend, albeit in a manner that would probably be quite unsatisfactory to him. Van Til also contends that the ‘oneness’ and the ‘threeness’ have equal ultimacy. This is again helpful, providing a caution against attempts to discover first ‘causes’ and the like.
It is important that the perichoretic unity of God is recognized. This is the dynamic unity by which each Person of the Trinity indwells the others. The Persons of the Trinity are mutually constitutive of each other and each Person of the Trinity is co-terminous with the whole being of God. The Father’s relationship to the Son is not something that belongs to one particular ‘moment’ in eternity, but is something continually occurring.
In my next post (or possible two) I hope to conclude this look at Zizioulas by dealing with his approach to anthropology and salvation.
The previous post from Jonathan's perspective...
I have just heard Jonathan's side of the story of what happened last night. Apparently the first thing he remembers is standing in the middle of my room with a pile of books around him. He must have been sleep-walking.
Last night I was woken up in the wee hours by an almighty crash. Having often wondered what my many volumes of Warfield, Berkhof, Calvin, Turretin and others would sound like if thrown onto my desk, I now found out.
My brother Jonathan is staying over for Christmas and is sharing my room (Richard is away in France for Christmas). Last night he got up for something and somehow lost his footing when returning into the room. He must have grabbed onto the shelf and pulled the whole thing down.
This morning I was comforted to see that there was no obvious damage. The books have been put up again. However, when I began to use my computer I realized that my keyboard was malfunctioning. The return key stubbornly refused to work. Interesting as life would be were one only able to write one paragraph, I was relieved when after numerous carefully applied blows it started working again.
The following are some brief and rushed thoughts on the relationship between the Incarnation and the Death of Christ. Were I to have more time to devote to this I would probably express this in quite a different way. With this necessary qualifier I will begin.
Within Reformed circles we have often distinguished very sharply between Christ’s death and the rest of His life. We generally speak of Christ’s ‘active’ and ‘passive’ obedience as terms referring to two distinct periods of Christ’s life (rather than as aspects of His work — see Murray’s Redemption). Christ’s ‘active’ obedience, often conceived of as His obedience in life, is generally detached from His passive obedience — His obedience in death (of course, when we start to think in terms of the ‘faithfulness of Jesus Christ’ we will be saved from some of the errors that such language can tempt us into). Both of these aspects of Christ’s work are understood in terms of the Law.
By framing Christ’s work in such a manner we risk losing sight of certain key aspects of His work. The Adamic nature of Christ’s work can easily be misunderstood when it is reinterpreted within such categories. The distorting concept of the covenant of works can all too easily come to the fore. Christ certainly came to fulfil the Torah, but when the Torah is understood as a timeless principle of merit-salvation and sacrifice, the nature of this fulfilment can be misconstrued.
A number of aspects of our Lord’s work do not fit tidily into the system that is created when we understand our theology within such categories. One of these aspects is the self-emptying of the Son of God in the Incarnation. We cannot see how this could be an act of propitiatory atonement, nor do we see how it is fulfilling a positive commandment of the Law. Whilst an overly narrow view of the Torah is partly to blame for this failure, it is not my purpose to argue for a broader perspective on Christ’s fulfilment of the Law here. What I do intend to do is to draw our attention back to the Incarnation.
Many people have said that the shadow of the Cross hangs over the Cradle. This is helpful. However, many have understood the Incarnation to be little more than the means towards the end of the Atonement, which belongs to Good Friday alone. That a narrowing of our understanding of this doctrine has occurred might be indicated by the etymology of the word atone, something I have mentioned in passing before.
The Necessity of the Incarnation
The Incarnation was not merely a necessary means by which Christ was to get to the cross. Before we explore this in more depth it might be worth commenting upon the fact that it was actually necessary for the cross. Why was it necessary that God the Son should first take our nature to Himself before dealing with the burden of our sins? This question is not asked as much as it should be. One common answer is that only like can atone for like. Whether this is the case or not, I believe that the biblical answer is far bigger than this. The atonement must reach to the very core of what man is and involve his very nature.
For many Christians today the fact that Jesus was a human being from the Jewish nation has little if any place in their understanding of the atonement. The atonement is gradually wrenched from its historical setting and becomes an abstract event that rests like oil upon the water of the context in which it occurred. When the atonement is understood in this manner it can all too easily be detached from the events of Christ’s life also. Christ’s life is merely like a ladder which He climbed in order to be in the right ‘position’ to accomplish the Atonement. One this ‘position’ has been reached the ladder can be kicked away.
I believe that the picture that the Bible presents us with is quite different from this. The events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, whilst forming the climax of Christ’s work, should not be allowed to blind us to the central importance of other events such as the Incarnation.
We need to construct a view of the work of Christ that manages to reintegrate the self-emptying of the Son of God. We need to see the cross and the cradle as part of one action. The Person of Christ is the necessary prerequisite to the work of Christ. Christ both embodies and accomplishes reconciliation. He brings man and God together in His work and embodies this unity in His Person. Emil Brunner writes in The Mediator:—
…it is important that the doctrine of the Person of the Mediator should not be subordinated to that of His Work. The Mediator, in His Person, is not a means to an end, but a self-end… He is not merely—as, for instance, in the doctrine of Anselm—the instrument of the reconciliation. The doctrine of the Incarnation, the Christmas message, is as important as the doctrine of “satisfaction,” the message of Good Friday. Neither can be separated from the other, for both mean this, that God comes.
The Person and the work of Christ both act together to fulfil the great end of the bringing together of God and man. The Incarnation and the crucifixion form a unity, both being part of the same movement, spanning the gap between God and man. The humanity which Christ identifies Himself with in the Incarnation, He identifies with to the fullest extreme in the crucifixion. He identifies Himself so much with man that He even identifies Himself with that which alienates man from God, becoming sin for us.
The Incarnation as Atonement
The Incarnation of Christ can be thought of as an atoning act. I do not mean by this that the Incarnation pays for sin, or anything like that. What I mean is that this is one of the key actions by which fellowship between God and man is restored. Man’s distance from God is not merely to be seen in the fact that he is a sinner. This distance is also an ontological distance. True being is found in personhood, rather than in the nature. Man was created to find his being in communion with God. He was created in God’s image. Outside of relationship with God this image would be lost.
[I have made many of the following comments on the Hornes.org Forums] Man’s true being cannot be understood apart from man’s relationships. Man’s plight is not merely ethical, but is in a real sense a problem of ontology. The source of man’s being is cut off when communion with God is broken. Like a branch cut from a tree man will wither and die. Man’s being (‘personhood’) is formed by giving and receiving. True being can only be achieved in fellowship with God, in the reciprocity of giving and receiving. As this chain is broken by sin, man is trapped by his nature. Man’s nature can only be perfected in this chain of reciprocity. As John Zizioulas observes, man’s ‘personality’ is gradually extinguished when he turns away from God. He is bound by the necessity of his own nature, the only ground in which he can be hypostasized as a sinner. Only in fellowship with God can authentic personhood be found and freedom be achieved.
In communion with God in Christ man finds his hypostasis in the ‘God’ and is freed from the biological necessity (e.g. death, separation and individualism) of his createdness. In Christ man affirms his personal existence on the basis of communion with God rather than on the basis of his own biological existence. Man’s being is now rooted in the divine, rather than the created sphere.
In the Incarnation we see God giving Himself to man. In the life, which culminates in the death, of Christ man is giving back to God. Christ’s obedience unto death is exactly the obedience which Adam failed to give. In the Incarnation, Christ identifies Himself with man’s nature in alienation from God (‘coming in the likeness of sinful flesh’). The atonement has the Incarnation as its basis. Christ was obedient to the point of death and gave His life so that He might take it up again. In the resurrection we see Christ taking up His life again, now no longer ‘in the flesh’ (in the constrained necessity of a biological hypostasis) but ‘in the Spirit’ (in the freedom of love and communion). The resurrection provides the hermeneutic for the Incarnation. The Incarnation has as its goal the perfecting of human nature in communion with God — the solving of the problem of man’s being. As Protestants we need to recapture the doctrine of theosis.
In the model presented above (one of numerous models by which we understand the mystery), the cradle and the cross belong to one action — God gives Himself to man in Christ and man gives himself to God in Christ. Anyone with their eyes open will realize that this truth is beautifully exemplified in the Eucharist.
There is always a danger that the Incarnation might be reduced to the level of a mere doctrine. We can only be preserved from this by recognizing the atoning significance of the Incarnation. The fact of the Incarnation lies at the root of our existence as the church. As the Eucharistic community we have been formed by the action that comprehends the self-giving action of the Son of God and Son of Man in His Incarnation and Crucifixion. Man’s new being is found in the church as the body of Christ. As Nevin observed, the Incarnation would be ‘shorn of meaning’ were this not the case. The result of the Incarnation is that there is now the church.
I must admit, the language of 'asking Jesus into your heart' can grate sometimes. Whilst there may (perhaps) be some ways in which such language can be biblically employed, the vast majority of uses of it fail to meet this necessary standard. To challenge such language is to open oneself up to charges of heresy. Christians are in many evangelical circles, by definition, people who have asked Jesus into their hearts. Nevertheless I believe that it is important that we theologically question our evangelical clichés.
We evangelicals have a whole host of clichés. Anyone who has listened to us pray will be well aware of this. Whilst we would never fall into the sin of vain repetition, we have developed a host of trite expressions that can be put together in different permutations to form prayers that would pass muster in any evangelical church. Many people do not have a clue what these phrases mean, they merely sound pious.
I do not know how the term 'asking Jesus into your heart' arose. However, I am convinced that dangerous errors can be conveyed by it. For many evangelicals 'asking Jesus into you heart' is understood against the backdrop of certain elements of the Christmas story. There was no room for Jesus to be born in the inn, but I would like for baby Jesus to be born in my heart. Jesus is out in the cold and powerless unless I will give Him room in my life.
'Asking Jesus into your heart' provides the model in which many evangelicals understand salvation. The priority of God's grace is virtually ignored by this expression. Biblically, salvation is not so much a case of us 'asking Jesus into our hearts' as it is a case of Jesus breaking through into our hearts in a new creative act of God's sovereign grace (2 Corinthians 4:6).
One of the things that particularly troubles me about this expression is the doctrine of Christ's Lordship that so often accompanies it. I can imagine that the first century Roman would be puzzled if you asked him if he had asked Caesar into his heart to be his personal Lord and Saviour. I can imagine that the first century Christian would give a similiar response if you asked Him the same question about Christ.
Something is rotten in the church when it begins to conceive of Christ's Lordship as something that we have given Him. However, this mistaken notion is quite widespread. The objective nature of Christ's Lordship is almost universally muted. Such a Christ poses no threat to Caesar. If Christ is only the Lord of the areas of life that we give to Him, Caesar has the world pretty much to himself. This voluntaristic, individualistic and purely subjective gospel poses him no threat.
Jesus the Messiah has become the Lord of all whether we like it or not, whether we believe it or not. This is the church's confession. All old allegiances must be reassessed in the light of this fact. The world has been radically destabilized by the event of the cross. A new Kingdom is being formed while all other kingdoms crumble into dust. Such a gospel requires faithfulness and steadfast discipleship and not merely a bare assent to propositions. If Christ is Lord of all then we must live the whole of our lives as His servants, ambassadors and disciples.
The gospel is the fact that Jesus is Lord of all, not that you can ask Him into your heart and, when you shed this mortal coil, fly up to heaven. The gospel is a message that challenges us in every aspect of our lives. People continually speak about the comforting doctrine of justification by faith and all too easily forget just how discomforting and challenging the biblical fact of justification is. We live in a world that is still reeling from the events of Calvary.
Protestants have all too often subordinated everything to soteriology. We give far less attention than we should do to 'theology proper', the centre of our attention is the heart of the individual. If God is not put in the centre of the picture, however, we have emasculated the gospel. The very challenge and discomfort of the gospel lies in the fact that it is God's setting the world to rights through His anointed, Jesus the Messiah. Only with God in the centre of the picture does the gospel start to make sense.
Some gripe about the fact that the Apostles' Creed does not refer to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. For many justification of the individual by faith alone should form the central confession of the Christian church. Justification by faith alone is certainly one of the key truths that follow from our confession of Jesus' universal Lordship. However, to place this doctrine in the centre is to open ourselves up to great imbalance.
The gospel may gradually be reduced to a mere personal invitation. It will be domesticated, the Lordship of Christ being bounded by human autonomy and the deeply unsettling nature of the gospel being ignored.
I believe that we need to reform our language as evangelicals. We need to think before we speak. I have noticed how surprised people can be when you start to express your faith in terms other than those provided by the well-worn pious clichés. Many people have simply never considered that there might be another way.
I have just started a brief series on the subject of Physical Eating in the Eucharist on Sacramental-blog. It should be finished some time within the next week or so. Within it I hope to argue for, among other things, the importance of the fact that we eat physical food in the Eucharist. It seems to me that the implications of this most obvious of facts can easily be missed by those of us who believe that the organ of reception for the body and blood of Christ is faith.
And, yes, I have every intention of finishing my Justification and Catholicity series (I've barely touched the catholicity part yet). Unfortunately, the next few weeks do not promise much time to devote to this task.
THE police force criticised for its part in the Ian Huntley case kept a secret list of Irish people in its area, regardless of whether they were suspected of breaking the law.
The database of Irish residents on Humberside was compiled during a campaign codenamed Operation Pre-Empt. Special Branch had been concerned that ports in the area could become entry points for republican terrorists and that local chemical plants could be targets for bombing raids.
Divisions and branches in Humberside were told to notify Special Branch as quickly as possible of “anyone of Irish origin, descent or background” who was brought into custody, subjected to a routine street or driving check, or subject to any police inquiry “for any reason”. Special Branch was also to be told of any people with Irish names brought to the attention of police by members of the public, “in particular when seeking accommodation”.
Read the rest here (those of you in America will not be able to access this without a subscription).
Tim Gallant's article Covenantal Nomism? is fantastic. I hope that readers of Justification and Variegated Nomism will take the time to engage with it. Unfortunately, I get the impression that for many Justification and Variegated Nomism is not a book to be read, merely an excuse to go on as if the New Perspective never happened.
It's 13:50 and I have just returned from watching The Return of the King. In my humble opinion it is the best of the three. I will probably see it again tomorrow evening. Some of us reserved Brits even applauded afterwards; it was obviously something very special!
The showing was at 10 o'clock and we had agreed (after watching The Two Towers round at Jonathan's last night) to meet up at our house at nine and to be at the cinema by about ten past. Come 9 o'clock, we ring up Jonathan to ask him why he's taking his time. He is woken up by the phone and we tell him to hurry up.
Now Jonathan has been known to be slow on the uptake, but this was bad even for him. Monika was gracious enough to go to pick him up. Jonathan repaid her by shielding her eyes for all of the Shelob scenes.
The talk I gave on the subject of euthanasia yesterday went OK. I was asked to give it again in the evening at a theological class that has been started by our church. It was good to be able to go through the material again in greater depth. Before speaking on the subject I reread Hauerwas on the subject and listened to his talk on Why We’re Afraid to Die in America (a talk that I’ve linked to before) again. His thoughts are very insightful.
Hauerwas observes that our attitude towards death differs quite markedly from those of medieval Christians. We wish to die suddenly, painlessly and without being a burden. Medieval Christians did not want their deaths to be sudden. Indeed, they prayed that they would be spared such a death. It was more important that they were able to sort things out with their relatives and with God before they died. They feared God more than they feared death.
Hauerwas argues that many of the reasons why we wish to die without being a burden lie in the fact that we do not trust our families. We do not want to be a burden because we are unsure that any would be willing to bear that burden. As Christians it is part of our duty to learn how to depend upon each other. A Christian must not merely be willing to bear the burdens of others; a Christian must be willing to allow his burdens to be borne. All too often we are too proud for this. We wish to appear strong and independent.
Christians must learn to be more vulnerable and open with each other. We must learn to confess our sins to each other and share our burdens. If we obey Christ in this we will see a community formed in which people can be healed. The alienation caused by pain can only be truly counteracted within such a community. The pain we experience is no longer something that separates us from everyone else. In fact suffering and pain leads to an interdependence that calls forth community. Pain no longer belongs to the individual; it is to be shared by the whole church. When one suffers, all suffer. Living as a burden-sharing and burden-bearing people we can overcome the alienation of pain.
I have an awful lot to learn in these areas.
Apparently Steve Wilkins and the session of the Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church have no objections to a Baptist teaching in their church, so long as the Baptist denies the merits of Christ, repudiates the Gospel, and preaches covenantal legalism.
The appearance of Bishop N. T. Wright in January 2005 will be the culmination of years of efforts by the Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church to replace the Gospel of justification by faith alone with another message in the PCA.
See the whole horror file here. I am surprised that John Robbins did not find out about this sooner. However, the response is nothing less than we expected. This sort of attitude does the church of Jesus Christ no good whatsoever. It is high time that this weapon of mass destruction was decommissioned. Robbins is an embarrassment to whatever church he is a member of.
In the 'strange but true' category of history, N.T. Wright's first book (at least that I know of) was published by the Banner of Truth Trust in 1972. Rather ironic really! The title of the book was The Grace of God in the Gospel and it was a straightforward defence of the gospel against such enemies as Arminianism.
It was 'written by four undergraduates while office-holders in the Oxfoird Inter-Collegiate Christian Union' — John Cheeseman (who has since reworked the book under the title of Saving Grace), Philip Gardner, Michael Sadgrove and Tom Wright.
Michael Sadgrove is now the Dean-designate of Durham and comments on his old university friend's appointment to the post of Bishop here.
This was all brought to my mind by the news I received today that my cousin, John Aldis, will become president of Oxford University Christian Union next year. Honestly, I could not think of a better person for such a post. Congratulations John!
Vegetarianism as an eschatological act?
The eschatological significance of what we eat is something that I have been thinking about for quite some time. The dietary laws as they develop from Adam to Noah, to Leviticus, to Acts 10, etc. are far more important than we usually think. Eating says something about where we stand in relationship to the creation. The question of how our eating habits such reflect this has given me much food for thought (sorry!).
This carnivore is not totally convinced by an argument for strict vegetarianism. Jesus ate fish (or at the very least He prepared it) with His disciples after the resurrection. The idea that meat-eating must be justified by a theory of exceptions for Christians (like war) is an interesting concept, but I am not sure that I find it wholly persuasive. However, this is one area in which I have much more thinking to do. What role (if any) do animals play in the new creation? As people of the new creation how do we embody this in our praxis?
Glad as I am to see a tyrant being captured and brought to justice, I hope that this does not blind us to the fact that the war our countries waged in Iraq was unjustified.
This is all that I intend to say on this issue.
I was hoping to be able to post my next post on Justification and Catholicity yesterday (long, long overdue) and to post some stuff on the Lord's Supper. However, it did not work out. Instead I spent the day playing football, reading and doing other things.
Yesterday morning my father was asked to prepare a talk for tomorrow to give on the subject of euthanasia to some teenagers in a school. He was unable to prepare in time so he asked me to take his place. As ever, Stanley Hauerwas provides by far the most insightful approach to the subject that I have come across. On some issues I wonder why I bother to read anyone else! I am seeking to treat the issue with a strong gospel thrust. Please pray that God will be glorified in it. It is my first time speaking in such a situation and I am not a little nervous, particular as my preparation time has been very limited and I am very unsure of what to expect.
Little solid historical information is known about Nicholas except that he was born into a wealthy family and, after the early death of his pious parents, he entered a monastery and became a bishop. Some early writers claim he participated in the Council of Nicea and, when theological debate failed, that he punched a heretic who argued that Jesus was not fully divine.
"The mental image of Santa Claus punching out Arius ... has to fundamentally change the way one would ever see Santa Claus again," said Parker. "While I might not agree with his methods, I certainly admire his passion for Christological orthodoxy."
I live in Stoke-on-Trent. Those who live in Newcastle-under-Lyme (an adjoining town a short walk from our house) are quick to point out the distinction.
Stoke is a city with numerous claims to fame. We have produced some of most famous pottery in the world; Wedgwood, Royal Doulton and Spode are all very near to where I live. We may well wonder where the world would be without some of our famous sons and daughters. We have given humanity such luminaries as Robbie Williams and Anthea Turner. The captain of the Titanic also hailed from our important town.
Stoke-on-Trent used to be considered as one of the nearest things to hell on earth. In the days when the kilns used to operate, their smoke would come down and fill the buildings and streets. The air became so polluted that in some places it was considered a good day if you could see the other side of the street. When the ovens were firing it was hard to see your hand held out in front of your face.
The state of Stoke-on-Trent was so poor that, at one stage last century, an MP seriously suggested the possibility of abandoning the city altogether and starting elsewhere.
Things have improved since then, but Stoke was still recently considered worthy of the status of worst place to live in England and Wales.
It would not have hurt so much had Wales not been included.
Apparently in Stoke-on-Trent you are six times more likely to be burgled or have your car stolen than the national rate. Good jobs are also scarce. The potteries are ailing as business goes overseas and much of the other heavy industry has closed. There is low income and high unemployment.
Education in Stoke-on-Trent is not that great. The industry in the city provided a haven for academic underachievers with the thousands of manual jobs. As these jobs have departed a lot of redundant, now-unemployable, skilless workers remain. An education geared to prepare children for these safe jobs can no longer suffice. Unfortunately it has not yet caught up with the times.
Stoke-on-Trent is not a very healthy city. It used to be the sickest city in Britain and still has the greatest problem with obesity, possibly a side effect of delicacies such as mushy peas smothered in gravy. However, anyone who has tasted Staffordshire oatcakes will admit that they are deliciously addictive!
Stoke-on-Trent, Stanley Matthews' home city, boasts two mediocre football teams — Stoke City and Port Vale. City has attained to the heady heights of the middle of the first division; Vale still languishes in the second. City recently built a new ground, the Britannia Stadium, the hub around which many people's lives revolve. Whilst City used to have one of the greatest hooliganism problems in the country, it has been shedding this poor image with tougher policing.
Stoke-on-Trent is formed of six towns that grew together: Stoke-upon-Trent, Hanley, Longton, Burslem, Fenton and Tunstall. In 1924 Stoke-on-Trent became a city. To this day neighbourhoods are very closely knit and retain a strong sense of identity.
The picture I have painted may look bleak. However, Stoke has many redeeming features. Its poor image is in many respects undeserved. The surrounding countryside is beautiful and it is not hard to get out of the city. Housing is, as you might expect, dirt cheap. If you want to go to Oxford or Cambridge, coming from Stoke-on-Trent gives you a great head start as you will be considered deprived by the government and all the positive discrimination will work in your favour (if you don't have ethical qualms about this).
Most importantly, you would have to go far to find friendlier people. For a short while before moving to Stoke, our family lived in Worcester — the city of my birth (and the birthplace of Edward Elgar). Worcester is a most beautiful city, full of historic interest (it also has one of the most picturesque cricket grounds in the country). It couldn't be more of a contrast. However, the people of Worcester are nowhere near as friendly as the Stokies are.
On the other side of the Hartshill road on which we live (number 121) there is a street named Tolkien Way. When we first moved into the area I didn't know why it was called this name; I simply presumed that it was named after J.R.R. Tolkien. However, it was not named after J.R.R. Tolkien, but after John Francis Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien's oldest son.
Tolkien was the priest-in-charge at the Church of Our Lady of the Angels and St Peter in Chains, the Roman Catholic Church directly opposite our house. Whilst he was in Stoke, his father was a regular visitor. J.R.R. Tolkien was, of course, a devout Catholic and was used of God to convert C.S. Lewis to Christianity.
Apparently John Francis Tolkien was quite a character. A story is told of one service in which, unbeknownst to him, his vestments caught fire on a candle. Some people from the congregation rushed forward to try to put the fire out and Tolkien, thinking that they were trying to attack him, responded as one might expect!
I thought that I would post this quote from Wright on the subject of election in Ephesians 1, for those who would like to have more light on where he stands on this issue:—
Verses 4-6 celebrate the fact that God's people in the Messiah are chosen by grace. This is, perhaps, the most mysterious thing of all. God, the creator, 'chose us in him', that is, in the king, 'before the world was made'; and he 'foreordained us for himself'.
Many people, including many devout Christians, have found this shocking, or even unbelievable. How can God choose some and not others? How can being a follower of Jesus Christ be a matter of God's prior decision, overriding any decision or freedom of our own?
Various answers can be given to this. We have to be careful here. Paul emphasizes throughout this paragraph that everything we have in Christ is a gift of God's grace; and in the next chapter he will declare that before this grace reached down to us we were 'dead', and needing to be 'made alive' (2.5). We couldn't lift a finger to help ourselves; the rescue we needed had to come from God's side. That's one of the things this opening section is celebrating.
The second thing, which is so often missed in discussions of this point, is that our salvation in Christ is a vital stage, but only a stage, on the way to the much larger purpose of God. God's plan is for the whole cosmos, the entire universe; his choosing and calling of us, and his shaping and directing of us in the Messiah, are somehow connected with that larger intention. ....the point is that we aren't chosen for our own sake, but for the sake of what God wants to accomplish through us.
Wright has been accused of undermining divine monergism. This sounds like a sufficient declaration of it to me.
Wright's emphasis on the integral relation between worldviews, story and praxis is of great significance for ethical reflection about the Jesus tradition. Wright helps to move us beyond the study of disconnected, disembodied aphorisms; he helps us see that the significance of Jesus' parables and teachings can be comprehended only in relation to some overarching account of the storied world within which Jesus lived and moved. Without such a narrative context, the teachings become free-floating enigmas that can be interpreted at the whim of the reader to mean almost anything.... By developing a sustained reading of Jesus within a particular first-century Palestinian Jewish setting, Wright provides a controlling framework that helps us locate and understand the individual teachings.
Hays goes on to argue that
In short, Wright's account of Jesus demonstrates that we cannot think of ethics apart from discipleship. We cannot ask in a vacuum what is good or right to do, nor can we be sufficiently guided by tables of rules or general ethical principles. Instead, we must ask what it means to become a follower of this particular man Jesus, to take up his agenda, to allow our praxis to be generated by the story that he told and lived.
I believe that Hays brings to light some important issues here. Wright has given us a Jesus whose feet actually touch the ground of first-century Palestine. Once we have come into contact with this Jesus, reading the parables as fables applying a timeless ethical system seems strange, to say the least. The ethics of Jesus cannot be divorced from the kingdom-bringing mission of Jesus.
One of the key problems in many of the Reformed and evangelical debates on the law and on Christian ethics lies in the fact that ethics is abstracted from the narrative of redemptive history. We talk about 'the law' as some detached system of moral commandments and not of the 'Torah' of the redeemed people of Israel. Once we start to understand the interrelationship between praxis and story we will begin to appreciate the manner in which Paul and Jesus treat the Torah. If Jesus truly came to accomplish what He did accomplish, then the praxis of the people of God must of necessity be radically reshaped.
This reshaping does not constitute a denial of the goodness of the law. However, it means that the Torah cannot represent the final order. Any return to the system of Torah is similar to a child giving up on walking and starting to crawl everywhere again. In fact, to return to the system of the Torah following the coming of Christ would undermine the Torah itself. The whole purpose of the Torah was to lead up to Christ.
The other thing that Hays, Wright and others have brought to our attention is the corporate shape of kingdom ethics. Most evangelicals think of ethics in an individualistic manner and fail to relate ethics to ecclesiology. This has proved to be a desperate problem. Ethics, by being detached from narrative and the Christian community has become secularized and mundane. Christians often think that the average Christian life is no more 'ethical' than those of many good-living atheists.
Ethical living, however, can't merely be a human expression of gratitude for salvation, it must itself be the product, outworking and embodiment of redemption in a new society and the individuals within it. By bringing ethics back into the context of the Church and the redemptive historical narrative, Wright, Hays and those who share their approach have done the Church a great service.
I do not believe that it will be coincidental if coming years see an increased interest in Christian ethics paralleling the growth in the influence of such authors as Wright. The realm of ethics is sanctified by the theology of Wright as it can no longer be easily abstracted from redemption. I can only hope that this leads to clearer and far more regular teaching on ethics in Reformed and evangelical churches.
Whilst recovering from my cold, I have decided to do a number of the irritating little jobs that never get done otherwise. This evening, Richard and I were seeking to join his computer up to our household's network. Alongside this, I have succeeded in enabling the Internet to run across the network. Now I can finally use my own computer without competing for time on the main computer.
I was given a copy of this book today, along with a few others, and am enjoying looking through it. James Torrance is Thomas Torrance's younger brother. I might post a few quotes from it within the next few days.
I also have a major post to place on my other blog and am hoping to do the concluding posts on justification and catholicity (I have not got through these as quickly as I had hoped). These will probably have to wait until my cold has eased off a bit. I am also giving thought to an in-depth study of Wright on imputation.
Equally, in more conservative groupings, a particular theological stance, long assumed to be 'biblical' and therefore valid, can become so powerful that it will actually muzzle anything in the Bible that threatens it. A good example of this is the emasculation, in many conservative circles, of Paul's famous letter to the Romans.
God save us from such conservatism! May we always value the truth of Scripture more than our particular traditions.
I have been a little cheered today by obtaining a second hand copy of N.T. Wright's New Tasks for a Renewed Church for only 25p. It is being sold for £45 on Amazon.co.uk.
Also, Richard (who is staying with us at the moment) has just started his own blog.
Hopefully, I will get around to updating my other blog in the next few days and concluding my series on justification.
I woke up this morning feeling as if my brain had just emerged from a blender. I have a very mean cold (thanks Richard!). The task of existing is demanding enough on days like this and, having sluggishly trudged through the day, I have achieved just about nothing. My mind has been about as free-flowing as glue and thoughts blunder about in my foggy head. I grope to remember names and concepts and they seem to brush silently by as in the night. It's amazing how stupid one can feel with a heavy cold.
This persuaded me against going to the conference. I'm just thankful that this didn't happen before my Greek exam.
Since the appointment of its new headmaster, the Church of England school that my brother Peter attends has ceased calling itself a 'Christian' school and now is a self-styled 'Faith' school. The top of its latest newsletter reads as follows:—
Greetings on Guru Nanak's Birthday
This time of year is full with expectation and excitement. Our Sikh families have just celebrated Guru Nanak's birthday and our Muslim families have just celebrated Eid which concludes their holy month of Ramadan. .... Our Christian families have just entered into the period of Advent ... , a time of waiting and preparation which leads up to Christmas. Eid and Christmas are in one sense a time for the giving and receiving of presents. More importantly for us, though, they are a time and opportunity to reflect seriously on our faith. The month of Ramadan and the period of Advent encourage us to get in touch with our spiritual side.
It goes on to say:—
As a Church of England school which recognizes God's image in all people we believe that we all belong to God's family.
They should know better than this. The Christian faith is far, far more than one means among many to get 'in touch with our spiritual side.'
I am a convinced Protestant and Reformed Christian. However, there are certain concerns that I have about the manner in which some people see these traditions.
One problem we have is that many of the most formative documents within our faith are primarily reactions against error; they were not designed to be foundational declarations of the truth. This would not be a problem if we were more conscious of their original purpose. However, as some have given these documents foundational importance, there is a tendency to understand ourselves by defining ourselves against other groups and positions rather than by positively declaring our faith. Dogmatics can be reduced to the realm of polemics. Our distinctives become more important than anything else.
The Canons of Dordt are a case in point. For many people the acronym TULIP is the standard definition of what a 'Calvinist' is. This occurs despite the fact that Dordt was primarily designed to be a response to Arminian error rather than a full-orbed declaration of the Reformed faith. The Reformed faith is far far bigger than Reformed distinctives against Arminians.
The book of Galatians is another case. In the book of Galatians Paul is primarily concerned with battling error. We can learn an awful lot about the gospel from a reading of Galatians but we should not presume that Galatians was intended to be a complete declaration of the gospel. Unfortunately, many are inclined to treat it this way.
The name 'Protestant' defines us as being against Roman Catholics. Churches who see themselves as 'Protestant' are always at risk of reducing their faith to the fact that they are not Roman Catholics and becoming a reactionary tradition. However, our identity is far broader than 'Protestant' distinctives.
Even documents intended to provide a more positive declaration of our faith have often been hampered by these problems. For a tradition that has largely been hammered out in the context of heated polemics it always pays to reassess who we are and what we believe in a manner that downplays this polemical aspect.
This tendency, of course, is far broader than the Reformed or Protestant circles; even as 'Christians' we are at risk of this. Many groups have a tendency to see the 'Christian' as little more than someone who doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, doesn't dance, or go to the cinema (of course, many of us know good Christians who do all these things). The Christian can become the worldling minus.
I believe that as we come to a deeper knowledge of the fact of what we are, rather than simply what we are not, we will be better equipped to reach the world with the gospel and promote unity within the Christian church. Polemics have a very important place. However, we should always be careful to avoid them going beyond their place and taking over.
Sometimes I wonder what goes through the heads of little children. My mother childminded for a two year-old Malaysian girl until a couple of months ago. Last week Laura approached her father to ask:
"Daddy, can I be disobedient please?"
Yesterday I took my Greek exam, which went well.
Mark's friend Richard has now moved in to stay with us for the next few months. He is sharing my room, while Mark shares with Peter.
We went to watch Master and Commander again last night. It is just as good second time around.
We also booked tickets for the first showing (10a.m.) of The Return of the King on the 17th. I can't wait. :D
Unfortunately I can't play football today as my ankle isn't strong enough yet. :(
On Monday I am going down to London to attend the Westminster Conference. Hopefully I can do some Christmas shopping while I am there. I should also be able to visit my granny on the way.
My blog has been experiencing all sorts of glitches over the last while. I (hope) am beginning to get on top of them. Thank you all for your patience and particularly to those who have helped me to sort them out.
This is far too long to post in Barb’s comments! If you want this to make sense, it would probably be best if you read the comments that follow this post first.
You all raise some important questions. I’ll try to give some sort of answer to them. I will deal with each verse raised one by one:—
I take this as a reference to the joining together of Jews to Gentiles in the Church. It is probably an allusion to passages such as Micah 2:12, Isaiah 56:6-8, Ezekiel 34:23 and 37:24. I would understand the focus to be upon Gentile God-fearers, not upon elect individuals who are yet to be converted. If this is not the case, is Christ telling the Jews that they are eternally ‘unelect’ in verse 26?
I presume that this verse was quoted because of the reference here being made to the fact that the children are given to Christ by God. I think that the context teaches that the children are to be understood as the seed of Abraham (verse 16). The passage is focusing on the redemptive historical events surrounding the ministry of Christ and not upon eternity. I think that the wider context will bear out this reading.
God certainly sets apart people for His purposes. I have no problem whatsoever with this concept. Paul, of course, had a similar experience (Galatians 1:15). This, however, should not be confused with the concept of eternal election (as generally understood). Firstly, it is not from all eternity. Secondly, it is election to service and not to eternal salvation. Paul, although he knew that he had been set apart for service, could not rely on that as proof that he was sure to ‘go to heaven when he died’. Far from it. Paul was set apart to be an agent of God’s eternal purpose. He became an agent of this eternal purpose (i.e. elect) when God revealed His Son in Him.
The election being referred to here cannot be simply thought of as the election of Christ individually. It is clearly corporate. However, the ‘fixity’ is not seen in the fact that an individual belongs to a particular elect number of individuals, but in the fact that the individual belongs to Christ. Christ was elected before the foundation of the world. This necessarily involves a choice of the church as those ‘in Christ’ also. God’s eternal purpose was always the creation of a new humanity in Christ. This is what Paul is referring to here. This election takes the character of the choosing of a family, rather than the choosing of a sum of isolated individuals (there is no reason to suppose the pre-existence of the souls of the righteous). I would relate this to God’s choosing of Israel (Deuteronomy 4:37; Isaiah 41:8; Psalm 105:6). God chose Israel in the fathers (Romans 11:28); God chose the church in Christ.
No person outside of the church can claim to be elect. We all too often forget that Paul is addressing the church here and not merely a sum of elect individuals. As the church we are the elect of God (Colossians 3:12), just as children of Israel were God’s chosen people. If we paid attention to how Paul uses the verses that we too often use as ‘election proof-texts’ we would realize that they simply cannot be used to prove what we try to prove with them. Paul simply does not view things from the perspective of eternal individual election. The conclusions that are drawn from such an approach conflict with the tenor of Paul’s teaching and go far beyond anything he ever claimed.
We should also observe that the ‘elect’ are not set over against the ‘reprobate’. This is because election is a Christocentric doctrine, rather than an anthropocentric doctrine. Election always retains its gracious character in Christ. Election draws the distinction between the new humanity (or ‘new man’) in Christ and the old reprobate humanity. It is a division between two humanities rather than a division within the old humanity itself. The common Reformed doctrine of election has seriously downplayed the reality of the new humanity by generally thinking of election as a division made within the old humanity. As a result the freedom and sovereignty of God in the formation of His people has often been downplayed. People are saved because they are elect, rather than elect because they are saved. Prior to God’s salvation, I am arguing, no individual has a status of ‘elect’ that gives them a particular claim on God’s grace.
The question we must ask is where we will centre our doctrine of salvation. Will we centre it in the big drama of cosmic redemption and the divine economy, or will we centre it in the choice of a particular number from the sum of humanity? I believe that many of our problems in understanding salvation could be avoided if we chose the first option. Salvation can never be reduced to a matter of individual biography.
2 Timothy 1:9
We should beware of focusing so much upon God’s choosing to people to individual salvation in such places that we miss the eschatological context in which election is placed (a similar danger can be observed in Romans 8). We must read such passages in the light of redemptive history; if we focus exclusively on the history of individuals we will miss the point. The focus of this and related passages (e.g. Titus 1:1-3; Romans 16:25-26) is clearly God’s eschatological work in Christ. If our interpretation loses this focus we are probably missing the point somehow. Election and predestination are not so much about individual salvation as they are about God’s purpose in history, creating a new humanity in Jesus Christ. Those who are converted find themselves swept up into God’s eternal plan.
A number of comments can be made. Firstly, why can’t we understand ‘before times eternal’ to refer to God’s purpose, rather than to the gift of grace in Christ or to ‘us’ as pre-existent?
Secondly, even if we read it ‘given to us in Christ Jesus before times eternal’ it does not follow that we are ‘elect’ before we are historically united with Christ. We ‘become elect’ when we are saved, being really united to Christ and thereby becoming members of the new humanity. It is very clear, of course, that our salvation is a product of God’s will. It is God who brings us to birth by the gospel. I am not denying this. Indeed, my whole aim is to affirm the powerful and sovereign nature of this action in a way that improves upon some Reformed formulations. I am questioning the manner in which we use the biblical concept of ‘election’, not the idea that God’s grace precedes our salvation in every sense.
Given this reading, 2 Timothy 1:9 means: ‘God has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not because of anything we had done, but because of His purpose and grace, which, before time began, determined that we should be brought to birth as true members of the new man in Christ in just such a manner.’ Election hits us as at the moment of spiritual rebirth. The ‘eternal before’ of election becomes ours ‘in Christ’. The general Reformed doctrine of election, understating the distinction between the two humanities, treats the doctrine of election as if it could apply to people who do not yet participate in the new humanity in any sense. Just as I believe that I had no existence before my physical conception (apart from within the purposes of God), so I would deny that someone can be referred to as ‘elect’ before being born again as a member of the new humanity in Christ.
Let my quickly sum up some of my chief concerns with the usual way of understanding election.
I. The broader nature of election is ignored. My election takes place within the context of the broader election of the Church in history. More significantly, the fact that election is ‘in Christ’ has been downplayed.
II. The Jewish background to the doctrine of election is generally ignored. The OT emphasizes a corporate nature to election that is terribly downplayed by many Reformed theologians.
III. The distinction between the two humanities is downplayed. Consequently reprobation is badly misunderstood. The lostness of people prior to regeneration is also downplayed. The eternal ‘before’ of election only becomes true ‘in Christ’.
IV. The fact that election is choosing for service is ignored. It has been suggested that the Annunciation should provide a paradigm for understanding election. I think that this provides a very helpful and fruitful approach. It recaptures the doctrine as one that should be at the centre of our worship. Annunciation also anchors election in redemptive history and in the Triune God.
V. Election in Reformed dogmatics takes on a very different tenor to that which it has in the Pauline epistles. This should provide us with much cause to be concerned.
VI. Election in Reformed thought can often lead to a belief that elect individuals have some prior claim on God’s grace — that God saves people because they are elect. In much the same way as the Jews relied on their covenant status, we can make election the source of assurance, rather than belonging to Christ. We are elect as God commits Himself to us in covenant. This covenant should not be converted into a contract.
VII. The eschatological focus of the doctrine has largely been lost.
VIII. There are clear passages that cannot bear the sense given to the terminology of election by Reformed theologians. Romans 8:33 is one example. Taking the usual understanding this would seem to imply eternal justification, or something similar. Can no charge be brought against some individuals who have not yet repented and believed in Christ? However, understanding election in the framework I have suggested makes it clear that election happens to us at a point in history (1 Thessalonians 1:4-5). Colossians 3:12 and Titus 1:1 are other examples. Are people who have not yet repented and believed in Christ members of these groups?
IX. The concept of union with Christ has been desperately muddled as a result.
X. Election in the common Reformed mould is hard to preach as gospel.
I have tried to formulate a solution to some of these problems. My solution may well be wrong. However, I remain convinced that a solution of some variety is necessary. Even if my solution is wrong, I trust that it still has some heuristic value. The doctrine of election as it is generally understood is deeply problematic. These are merely a few of my suggestions in relation to it; I could say much more — I might get around to doing this properly sometime soon. However, I will now return to Greek revision :).
I would greatly appreciate prayer at the moment. I am quite uncertain of the direction in which I should head in the future. I am still very unsure of what to do after June next year and I see no clear way ahead.
At present I have no qualifications beyond A-levels. A-levels won't get me very far. My education was severely affected by poor health a few years ago and I am three or more years behind where I would have expected to be at this stage in my life. Although God was clearly working in the situation, I am uncertain of where to go from here.
Despite the fact that I have no real third-level qualifications (though, God-willing, I should have a college diploma in June), I have sought to teach myself as much as possible. This leaves me with the problem of merely repeating much of what I have already learned in order to be officially qualified in it. I have no time to waste in doing this. However, I feel the need of having my learning supervised, if I am to take it any further.
There are also financial considerations. If I continue in education I will probably end up with a large debt. If I were to continue on, I would have to be very sure that it is the right way to go. Then there is the church situation. I am a member of a Baptist church at the moment. However, my theological convictions differ sharply with those of the church on a number of issues. Any form of full-time ministry that would necessitate further theological education is out of the question in my current situation. As I firmly believe that theological education should be done within the context of the church I am uncertain of how to proceed. I would probably have to go elsewhere to find somewhere to minister. At present, I would feel far from comfortable about such a move.
As time goes on, I am becoming more and more convinced that I will probably have to finish my education this year and find a full-time 'secular' job locally. I don't feel comfortable about this decision but it increasingly seems to be the best of the options available. It would seem to indicate that the course I have followed over the last few years was a dead end. I would appreciate prayer for guidance as I think these things through.
One of the great triumphs of the film The Lord of the Rings, it seems to me, is that it takes precisely the opposite line [to existentialism], urging us to find our true selves by following and staying loyal to the vocation that we wouldn't have chosen, that comes to us from outside.
Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know...
The continual stream of this sort of material from the Trinity Foundation is depressing. I am not about to defend the orthodoxy of C.S. Lewis on every point on which he is challenged. I have a number of deep problems with areas of his thought. However, this constant desire to shoot down anyone who does not affirm every jot and tittle of your doctrinal shibboleths frankly irritates me. Is this material ever going to build people up, or will it just pickle them in doctrinal self-righteousness?
I am annoyed by the idea that belief in the verbal inerrancy of Scripture is necessary for salvation. I am quite convinced that many believers in verbal inerrancy are hell-bound and that many who deny verbal inerrancy will be glorified with Christ. Perhaps that makes me hell-bound too.
There are too many believers in verbal inerrancy who consistently deny the authority of Scripture in their day-to-day lives (not least in the way they speak about fellow Christians who don't share their convictions on this issue). I have become increasingly convinced that inerrancy is not the central issue that it is generally proclaimed to be. Sovereignty is. There are too many Christians who will affirm the verbal inerrancy of Scripture and then carefully circumscribe its realm of authority. However, there are Christians like N.T. Wright who deny verbal inerrancy and yet seek to bring God's authority to bear on every area of life through the Scriptures. I know whose side I would rather be on.
I am a cautious believer in inerrancy. There are, however, questions that I see no honest way of answering. Even after close study there are biblical passages that I cannot in all good conscience see any way of reconciling. The answers that are usually presented seem forced and unnatural. The only manner in which they might carry some persuasive power is if inerrancy is a fundamental presupposition. I do not believe that inerrancy (as commonly understood) is as fundamental a truth about Scripture as many proclaim it to be. There are many people who have denied inerrancy but believe in inspiration and approach the Scriptures as authoritative. They consistently treat the Scriptures with a hermeneutic of trust. I see no reason to deny that they are true Christians.
I think that comparing C.S. Lewis to the demons in James who believed in God is appalling. The sort of spirit characterizing such material actually concerns me more than many of Lewis' serious errors. I would love to see Reformed material characterized by charity, grace, respect and humility. This would, I believe, bear a powerful testimony to the sort of faith that we hold. This is the spirit that I aspire to, and so consistently fail to achieve.
I will be quite busy this week with Greek revision. I might not post again until the weekend (or later). God-willing, I will conclude my treatment of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ in my next post (the third post on the subject).