Tuesday, February 08, 2005


I will be giving up the Internet for Lent. I have given myself a small dispensation for checking and answering e-mails (I get a few hundred a day, mostly from discussion lists). Things are going to be quiet around here for a while.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Younger Brothers 

My brother Jonathan and his wife Monika have posted for the first time on their new blog (a Christmas present from Peter). By the way, Peter celebrates his 15th birthday on Saturday this week. It would make him very happy if he had lots of visitors on his blog over the next few days (even better if they left comments!). Mark is getting on well at the moment. Since we sent him to Coventry he has really settled in and is a very active member of the Christian Union. This weekend he challenged a Muslim friend, who has been attending Christian meetings and having studies with Mark for months, about the pressing need for repentance. His friend was very thoughtful and is counting the cost. Please pray for him at this crucial time. Tomorrow he will probably be visited by Annewieke and some of Elbert's relatives. This weekend I will be in Wales. I hope to meet up with two of my Polish friends and to get some serious study done (please pray that this would work out). I will be accompanying Peter for part of his journey to Coventry, where he will spend a day with Mark.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

A Confession 

Warning: What I am about to reveal might well mark me out as a theological leper. My blog may well have to be torn down, word by word, and cast outside the blogosphere. I held to a theonomic reconstructionist position once. During my last year or so as a Baptist, I was firmly in favour of the reconstructionist movement. I read lots of North, Rushdoony, Bahnsen and the like (for some reason I didn't really 'get' Jordan at this time; he seemed to be working on a totally different wavelength). When I became a paedobaptist in conviction my former interest in reconstructionism rapidly waned. For some reason, after becoming a paedobaptist I did not pick up a reconstructionist book again. After a few months as a paedobaptist the issue of reconstructionism was raised and I gradually realized that I just wasn't a reconstructionist any more. I think that it was a greater appreciation of development in redemptive history that persuaded me against it. That may seem a strange thing to say, considering the fact that I was moving from a Baptist to a paedobaptist position, but that was the way that it was. By now I have moved quite some way away from the reconstructionist position. In retrospect I see huge problems in the approach taken by the reconstructionists. I no longer find their approach to biblical law persuasive, and their approach to economics seems deeply problematic too. That said, the manner in which they have been caricatured by their opponents troubles me. Today I made comments here and here and tried to come to defence of the reconstructionists against those who would dismiss them all as fanatical crackpots (although many of them are). My comments were not appreciated. Whilst many others might want to bury their past connections to the reconstructionist movement (possibly as a result of painful experiences, which I understand), I believe that I have an awful lot to thank them for. I have come to realize that if it was not for the reconstructionists, I would not hold the position that I hold today. When I first read the reconstructionists I was excited to find people who were trying to take the whole Bible seriously. There was an uncomfortable silence in many of the evangelical writers that I read when it came to thinking out the contemporary implications of verses such as Leviticus 20:13 (death penalty for homosexuals). These writers might talk about the continuity of the two testamants and the fact that the OT provides Christians with ethical standards that are applicable for today. However, these writers were unwilling to give any thought to the possibility that such a sanction as that of Leviticus 20:13 might have a place today. The notion was not so much wrong as simply unthinkable and the possibility could never be entertained for a moment. I soon became aware that many texts were an embarrassment to most evangelicals and they refused to look the text in the eye. They were trying to convince themselves that it had no application for today, because they could not stomach the idea that it might. It was the willingness of the reconstructionists to do serious business with such texts that really drew me to them. Deep down I am probably just a fundamentalist who is determined to be led by Scripture, rather than my prejudices, even if I might end up in places where I do not want to go. I hate the idea that I should let any text be an embarrassment to me. In the OT, our gracious God commanded that homosexuals be put to death and, consequently, the subject should not be treated as taboo; we must do full justice to God's Word. The reconstructionists taught me never to be ashamed of Scripture and to take the Bible seriously, even when — especially when — it went entirely against my grain to do so. Naturally, I hate the idea of putting homosexuals to death. Naturally, I think it is barbaric and sickening. However, I must commit myself to be led by Scripture, rather than by my gut feelings. This commitment eventually led me to become a paedobaptist. This commitment also led me to abandon reconstructionism itself. This commitment has led me to entertain the possibility that the Reformers may have been wrong in their portrayal of first century Judaism and has contributed to my willingness to read and appreciate NPP authors. Being a reconstructionist gave me a crash course in the ability of Reformed Christians to bear false witness against their brothers. Having seen the manner in which reconstructionism had been caricatured and misrepresented, I took the Reformed critiques of Wright with a pinch of salt. Reading the reconstructionists gave me a desire to read as widely as possible. Before reading the reconstructionists, my reading was limited to certain 'safe' Reformed authors. As I read the reconstructionists I came to be aware of the need for Christians to read more widely. I started to read some of the people that they footnoted. I read von Mises. I read Rothbard. I read Postman. I read Schmemann. I read Schilder. Reading these authors exposed me to even more authors. I started to see the Church as something far bigger than the narrow evangelical or Reformed traditions. I started to believe that Christians had something biblical to contribute to the various different intellectual conversations within our society and that thoughtful Christian faith was not limited to the ghetto of theological departments. Just needed to say that.
I haven’t had as much time and energy as I would like to read and study over the last few weeks. Over the last couple of days in particular I have been really exhausted. Unfortunately much of the work that I have had to do during that time has demanded a lot of creative input, something which is very hard to whip up when you are tired. This weekend we have visitors staying, so I will probably not be using my room (and my computer) much for the next couple of days. Next weekend I will be away and I hope to spend at least one day of that time in concentrated study, something I haven’t done much of for quite some time now. At present I am struggling with writer’s block. Of course, writer’s block is often just a euphemism for sloth and I feel that this is the case in my situation. Nevertheless, identifying it is far easier than shaking it. At the moment I am working through a number of different books. I am enjoying Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses; his translation of the Pentateuch makes for very stimulating reading. I am halfway through The Fifth Head of Cerberus, which is my first exposure to the writing of Gene Wolfe. I am ashamed of the fact that I never went to the trouble of reading his work before now. His style is scintillating and thought-provoking. A number of people I respect have recommended Wolfe and, in retrospect, my reluctance in reading him was inexcusable. Paul Duggan has a fan page and James Jordan has frequently made reference to his works. James Jordan’s Through New Eyes is also on my reading list. I have read it a number of times before, but it is a book that bears rereading. I have just finished listening to Jordan’s lectures on reading the Bible and these precipitated my decision to pick up Through New Eyes again. The Christian world would be a better place if everyone read Jordan. When I first read Jordan I found his approach to the text quite bizarre and many of his ideas seemed more like flights of fancy than the fruit of serious exegesis. As I spent more time reading Scripture, however, I found myself converted to Jordan’s position. At Gaines’ recommendation I am reading Marva Dawn’s Unfettered Hope: A Call to Faithful Living in an Affluent Society. Marva Dawn’s work is always brimful of insights and is also quite accessible and readable. Unfettered Hope is no exception. Nevertheless, if there is one quibble that I have with Marva Dawn, it is her tendency to place too much of the responsibility for the poverty of the third world at the door of the West. It seems to me that this simply reinforces the victim mentality that is much of the problem in the third world. Life is not a ‘zero-sum’ game, despite the tendency of many Christian writers to treat it this way. The West was not always ‘the West’ as we think of it. The wealth of the West is not merely the natural state of affairs, but only came as a result of diligent development of capital over many centuries. Britain and America were not created with ready-made infrastructures and high standards of living that were somehow denied to the rest of the world. The wealth of the West is not necessarily at the expense of the rest of the world. We can only consume so much because we produce so much. This is not to say that there aren’t immense problems with the way that we live in the West (worship of Mammon being one among many). I don’t think that we do the third world any favours when we continually cast it in the role of ‘victim’ and fail to point out that, in many respects, they have been the architects of quite a few of their own problems. Passivity in the face of natural forces (as can be seen in animism), widespread corruption in government, a failure to take responsibility and to take the initiative, a lack of a social stigma attached to laziness, a lack of law and order, a lack of a future orientation, a view of the world as a given and unchanging order, certain forms of caste and tribal systems, systemic envy that endangers property, and religions that totally renounce the world probably play much more of a role in the poverty of the third world than anything that the West does. I believe that the West has preyed upon the third world in various ways and used vices such as those listed above to its benefit. Western nations may rightly be accused of encouraging, perpetuating and exploiting these vices in the populations of third world countries as a means of extending their economic empires. Britain’s colonial expansion could hardly have succeeded, had we not exploited the weaknesses of various societies (e.g. the caste system in India). It seems to me that a lot of blame should be laid at the door of the West, but that writers like Marva Dawn take it too far. All too often I am told by the authors that I read that I should feel guilty about the fact that, living in the West, I enjoy a relatively wealthy lifestyle. Although I believe that there is much to be ashamed of in our history and current practice in relation to the third world, I just don’t believe that we bear all the responsibility that it being placed upon us. Rather than giving purely out of guilt, I believe that we should be giving primarily out of love and concern. I also believe that speaking truthfully about the causes of much of the poverty of this world may not be politically correct, but it may do more good than sustaining the victim mentality that often serves to keep many people in our world poor. I know that this might sound awfully controversial, but it's my opinion. I have seen too many poor people close up to have romantic views of their lack of complicity in their own problems. Their slavery is not merely a slavery to sinful systems, but to their own sinful vices. I should hardly need to say that this is not to be used as an excuse for a lack of concern. It can help us to focus our concern more effectively, though.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Response to Dave Armstrong on Transubstantiation 1 

The following is an open response to Dave Armstrong's response to my posts on the subject of transubstantiation (I, II, III). Dave, Thank you very much for taking the time to respond to my posts. I was heartened to observe areas of common ground and would like to probe some of our differences a bit further. I am trying to understand some of the key things that you are seeking to maintain in order that we may arrive at a better mutual understanding on this issue. To this same end I will try to more clearly articulate some of my fundamental concerns. I will probably write a few posts (provided that I can find the time) designed to tease out some of the roots to our differences. Hopefully any remaining misunderstandings will be uncovered in the process. I appreciate the frankness of your response. I see little benefit in a feigned agreement or false peace between positions that remain opposed. There is no single area in which my theological understanding would not benefit from the corrective provided by other Christians. There is a significant possibility that there are some correctives that you can provide to my position on the Eucharist. Whilst I see little hope of either of us persuading the other of our opinions in their entirety, I seldom leave a discussion without my view having been refined and challenged by the process of debate. I trust that this will prove to be no exception. Lord-willing, the following post will serve to identify areas of difference more closely. I intend this post as an extended expression of one of my root convictions about the Eucharist. I hope that you will regard it in this light, rather than as a direct challenge to your position. Ideally you will be able to respond by revealing to what degree the following points represent shared convictions, and to what degree your convictions in this area differ from my own. Finally, I would value your patience. I will probably not be able to respond to you as quickly as either of us would like. At the moment I am sorely lacking in both the time and the energy that I require. You describe transubstantiation as a ‘miracle’. I would resist using such language to describe what happens in the Supper, not because we do not eat of Christ’s body and drink of His blood, but because it generally presupposes a purely extrinsic relationship between some realm of ‘nature’ and another putative realm of ‘super-nature’. A miracle is an invasion of the former by the latter. I am trying to reject the idea of an extrinsic relationship in favour of a more intrinsic relationship. Chief among my problems with the doctrine of transubstantiation in many of its common forms is that the Supper is perceived as possessing some ontology peculiar to itself as ‘sacrament’, something that sharply separates it from the form of sacramentality possessed by the world in general. Rather than standing in a very clear continuity with the Passover that precedes it and the daily meals that surround it, the Eucharist ends up becoming something quite alien to these things — a miracle. Once again, I am not denying that we feed on Christ in the Supper. What I am denying is the idea that the Supper is somehow some radically different entity from the Passover and our day-to-day meals. The manner in which the Eucharist is practiced in many churches serves to present the Supper as separated from the rest of life. Rather than being the fulfilment of all that our daily meals were designed to be, the Supper soon loses all resemblance to any other supper. I strongly believe that the Supper should be regarded as one of one daily meals. For this reason, I am firmly in favour of the practice of celebrating the Eucharist within the context of a meal that the gathered assembly of the church all partake of. Sometime in the course of the meal, the bread should be taken by the head of the assembly and he should offer a simple prayer of thanksgiving (e.g. ‘Lord, we thank You for bread, which You have given to sustain men’s hearts’); then, after pronouncing the words of institution, it should be distributed by the deacons. At the conclusion of the meal the head of the assembly should take the cup, offer another simple prayer of thanksgiving (e.g. ‘Lord, we thank You for wine, which You have given to make men’s hearts glad’); then the words of institution should be pronounced and the deacons should pass it around to the congregation. All the baptized (but only the baptized) should partake, young children included. Such a practice is far more preferable to partaking while on your knees in front of a communion rail. This is a strange way to eat a meal. Once transubstantiation has been elevated to the status of ‘miracle’, it is effectively sundered from the OT rites that preceded it. Transubstantiation is ‘supernatural’ in a manner that the Passover meal never was. As a result the focus of Eucharistic theology is drawn away from the OT background to elaborate philosophical constructs designed to articulate the precise ‘mechanics’ of the miracle of transubstantiation. I am arguing that the ‘substance’ of the sacrament does not change from the old to the new covenant. In some sense or other, the ‘substance’ is Christ in both covenants (this is not to deny that we have a far deeper participation in Christ in the new covenant). The new covenant Eucharist is a ‘conjugation’ of a number of OT rites. The Eucharist is the fulfilment and consummation of the Passover as it is a manifestation of, and participation in, the new covenant order, where Christ is all in all. The Eucharist will one day itself be fulfilled and consummated in the great Marriage Supper of the Lamb. The Eucharist is a foretaste of the Marriage Supper in a similar manner to the manner in which the Passover was a foretaste in the Eucharist. What is my point in all of this? My point is simply that the Supper is woven into the fabric of the whole of our lives. The Supper is somehow continuous with the meals that we eat from day to day; the Supper is somehow continuous with all of the God-ordained eating rites in the previous history of the people of God. As James Jordan and others have observed, the basic form of the action in the Supper (i.e. taking, thanking, separating, renaming, distributing, evaluating, enjoying) is one that is more or less applicable to almost every series of actions in our lives. Man takes parts of the world, restructures them, renames them, presents them in some form or other to different people, who evaluate these restructured parts of the world and (hopefully) go on to enjoy them. This pattern is exhibited even in the most mundane actions of life. Sinful man consistently approaches the sequence as follows: take, give thanks, restructure, rename, distribute, evaluate, enjoy (Romans 1:21). The ritual of the Eucharist is designed (among many other things) to impress upon us this second element in the sequence in order that we might live the whole of our lives eucharistically. The Eucharistic elements are some of the most common and fundamental elements of human life and culture. If they are drawn into the new world order, somehow the entirety of human culture is implicated also. By construing transubstantiation as a ‘discrete miraculous exception’ (Catherine Pickstock’s phrase), the fabric of this world is no longer implicated in the same way in the Eucharistic celebration. This is one of the chief things that concern me about the position that you seem to be articulating. Perhaps I am misunderstanding you here. The Body and Blood that we eat and drink are not just ‘phenomenologically’ bread and wine, but are completely continuous with the reality of bread and wine. The bread is not evacuated of its substance (as if it were a container) to make room for the Body; rather the bread now subsists in the Body and the Body is present in the bread. The bread now ‘lives and moves and has its being’ (for want of a better way of putting it) in Christ. The manner in which the bread is taken up into Christ and receives its substance from Him (by the work of the Holy Spirit) makes the language of ‘transubstantiation’ appropriate. As Pickstock expresses it in her defence of Aquinas’ doctrine, ‘the substantiality of the bread is not so much destroyed as more utterly constituted by being taken up into God.’ I find little to object to in this statement. I do not believe in impanation. What takes place in the Supper is not a matter of Christ coming into our world in order to inhabit it (as was the case in the Incarnation), but is a matter of our world being drawn into and grounded in the resurrected and ascended Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit. It is a matter of the Church drawing its being from Christ. We are ‘transubstantiated’ from a gathering of faithful believers into the Body of Christ as we draw our substance from Him in the celebration of the Eucharist. Such a form of ‘transubstantiation’, which is the position that I essentially hold to, is totally consistent with the claim that adoration of the elements is unbiblical and idolatrous. The analogy between the manner in which the Christ is the body of Christ and the manner in which the bread is the body of Christ is also thoroughly appropriate within the form of transubstantiation expressed above. The Church gains its substance from Christ — we are bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh — but the Church is still in some manner distinct from Christ. In the same manner the bread and wine take their substance from Christ, but are not to be worshipped as Christ. The change in substance is not a sufficient proof for the validity of the common forms of Eucharistic adoration.

Wright on Israel's place in God's plan of Salvation 

N.T. Wright has often claimed that God sent His Son to do for Israel what Israel could not do for herself. It was the historical failure of Israel that precipitated, in some sense, the advent of Christ. At this point one might wonder whether Jesus is God's 'Plan B', with Israel being 'Plan A'. The following quote, from the middle of the sixth talk in Wright's Romans in a Week lectures helps to clarify his position:—

[Paul] is exonerating the Torah from blame again. He’s done that in terms of how sin arrived; he’s now doing it in terms of how sin continues. Verse 20: “If I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” And, going back to verse 13: “It was not the good thing that brought death to me, it was sin.” So, the Torah is exonerated and, actually, so is the ‘I’. The ‘I’ — the Israel — is in this strange state of finding things happening which the ‘I’ does not want. And so the Torah is exonerated and the ‘I’ is exonerated; it is sin which is highlighted as the real guilty culprit. That’s the first thing that I want you to notice.

The second thing is the two ‘in order that’s in verse 13…. Let me give it to you in the Greek: “But it was sin, in order thathina — it might appear as sin, working death in me through the good thing, in order that sin might become exceedingly sinful through the commandment.” Now, when you get that ‘in order that’ … we have a sense of the purpose of God. We have a sense of the purpose of God, which goes back to Romans 5:20 again: “The Law came in alongside so that — hina — the trespass might abound.” What on earth was God up to, giving the Torah, if this was its designed effect? Surely God wanted His people to be holy, not to become more sinful! Surely if God was giving the Torah in order to make sin increase that was an act of wickedness on God’s part! The strange thing is, when you put Romans 7 and Romans 8 together, you see that, under this very concept within this little word hina, we have actually an entire atonement theology, because God’s purpose in the Torah … was to draw sin together into one place … in order that Israel’s representative might take the weight of that sin onto Himself, so that, as Paul says in 8:3-4, sin could be condemned at that one point, so that the deceiver is deceived. Sin has deceived me, but now by the Torah God is, as it were, deceiving sin, drawing sin into one place where it can at last be dealt with.

I hadn’t seen this until about three years ago when I was lecturing on Romans and I got to this point in my lectures, and I looked at verse 13 and I thought: “it is very odd, those two ‘hina’s, those two ‘in order that’s, because it really does look like the divine purpose.” And suddenly a light went on in my mind and I thought of Romans 8:3-4, where Paul talks about God condemning sin in the flesh. You see, in atonement theology from that day to this people have constantly said, “how can it be that the death of one human being 2000 years ago is relevant for me?” And most Christians, including most within the evangelical tradition, have answered in terms of an abstract atonement theology — an atonement theology which works in mid air somewhere — unrelated to the physicality, to the specificity, of Israel’s history and indeed of Jesus — a transaction which takes place purely at a spiritual level. But it seems to me from my study of Jesus on the one hand, and then from my study of Paul on the other, there’s something much more concrete going on.

Israel was the chosen people of God. Let’s recapitulate. Why did God choose this people? Answer: to deal with the sin of the world. How were they to deal with the sin of the world? By simply teaching the world great truths? That’s not going to touch the depth of the problem of sin. No, sin is a power — a force — which must be condemned and Israel is God’s answer to the problem of sin, because Israel is the place where sin is to be drawn together into one point. Not so that ethnic Israel might be altogether condemned, but so that ethnic Israel can hand her horrible burden of election onto the elect Messiah, who will then die on the cross as sin is there condemned. That is, I think, the major point of atonement theology, which undergirds this whole chapter and which is actually the best way that I have yet seen of getting at the heart of Paul’s whole theology of the cross.

So, 13 to 20, the purpose of the Torah finds Israel caught up in this strange dilemma. Israel was not meant to be a kind of paradigmatic example of how people get saved. Israel was part of the historical purpose of God, which was always going to remain ambiguous until Christ died on the cross as the fulfilment of that.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Dave Armstrong on Transubstantiation 

Dave Armstrong has responded to my recent posts on the subject of transubstantiation (I, II, III). His response can be found here. If anyone wants to comment, this is the place to do so. Update The Pontificator has also added his thoughts (how does he maintain such a prodigious output?).

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