Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Old Testament Source Criticism

I spend quite a bit of my life digging into details of the text of the Bible. I love doing it, but I didn't love studying large parts of the OT at university, and I don't like the way it's often taught today. The main reason comes down to two words: source criticism.

Source criticism is about trying to understand the history of a text. A source critic might read Lord of the Rings, for example, and try to work out how the text came to take the form it did. It's much easier if you've got copies of earlier versions, or of the author's working. We don't have those in the case of the Bible, though.

Source criticism can be a useful tool to have when studying the Old Testament. There are a few places where it produces helpful insights. For example, Psalm 89 seems to have been a Psalm about God's goodness in creation, to which someone has added a bit in a different style about God's goodness in making promises to David, to which someone else has added in another style a complaint that God isn't keeping those promises and prayer that he would. Or Amos 4 & 5 seem to be a speech Amos gives in the (Northern) temple, interspersed with some verses of a hymn that's being sung, creating an effect a bit like Simon & Garfunkel singing Silent Night over the evening news. Seeing those aspects of a passage actually help us to understand the meaning of the passage better.

Where Source Criticism gets annoying is when scholars treat it like the main tool they should be using to understand a passage. This is especially true in the Pentateuch, and especially with a theory called the Documentary Hypothesis (JEDP). In that theory, Genesis - Deuteronomy somehow contain the full text of four older documents, called J, E, D and P, and probably the majority of non-evangelical Pentateuch scholars seem to spend most of their time (and most of the space in commentaries) arguing about precisely which bit comes from which source. The result is rather as you'd expect if you read a novel with your main concern being trying to work out how the author had drafted it - you completely miss the point.

C.S. Lewis, who was both an author and an expert on old texts, writes this on Biblical source criticism:

This then is my first bleat. These men ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves. They claim to see fern-seed and can't see an elephant ten yards away in broad daylight.

...

My impression is that in the whole of my experience, not one of these guesses [of reviews where others try to reconstruct how he wrote things] has on any point been right; that the method shows a record of one hundred per cent failure. You would expect by mere chance they would hit as often as they miss. But it is my impression that they do no such thing. I can't remember a single hit.

...

They assume that you wrote a story as they would try to write a story; the fact that they would so try explains why they have not produced any stories.

(from Fern Seed and Elephants)

Let's backtrack for a moment. The main reason that the JEDP hypothesis came about in the first place was because the Pentateuch really doesn't read like history as written by a modern westerner. Here's an example:

4 Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. 5 On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.’

6 So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, ‘In the evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, 7 and in the morning you will see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we, that you should grumble against us?’ 8 Moses also said, ‘You will know that it was the Lord when he gives you meat to eat in the evening and all the bread you want in the morning, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we? You are not grumbling against us, but against the Lord.’

9 Then Moses told Aaron, ‘Say to the entire Israelite community, “Come before the Lord, for he has heard your grumbling.”’

10 While Aaron was speaking to the whole Israelite community, they looked towards the desert, and there was the glory of the Lord appearing in the cloud.

11 The Lord said to Moses, 12 ‘I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, “At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.”’

Exodus 16:4-12, NIV

The passage clearly says things more than once. It reads like there are two accounts of the same event with slight variations in the same passage. It does not read like it was written by a modern western historian. But there's a simple reason for that - it wasn't written by a modern western historian - it was written by an ancient Israelite, and they wrote rather differently from us.

Take the Psalms, for example. The basic literary technique in Psalms is that you say something, then you say it again using slightly different words - sometimes giving a little more information, sometimes not.

Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord;
let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
2 Let us come before him with thanksgiving
and extol him with music and song.

3 For the Lord is the great God,
the great King above all gods.
4 In his hand are the depths of the earth,
and the mountain peaks belong to him.
5 The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land.

Psalm 95:1-5, NIV

No-one in their right mind would suggest that "the Lord is the great God" must have been written by a different person from "the great King above all gods". That's how Hebrew poetry works. So we shouldn't be surprised if Hebrew prose shows some of the same structures. There's often repetition; there's often clarification. It may well be linked to the fact it was originally written in a non-literate culture, so was written to be remembered easily.

But they don't just repeat randomly; there are all kinds of interesting structures in Hebrew prose. One of the most common is the chiasm, where the passage repeats itself in a mirror image around a central verse. Exodus 16 is one of those:

The whole section is exposing the fact that the Israelites are doubting that God is with them. The passage points to the fact that God will show his presence among them by providing them food. It's a carefully constructed work of literary art rather than a badly meshed together group of extracts from sources.

Now a decent commentary will spend more time on the important aspects of the structure rather than JEDP, but most won't. Decent teaching material on the Pentateuch will spend more time discussing structures like that than JEDP, but most doesn't. And that makes me sad.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Three Quick Book Reviews

It's been a while since I've posted on here – largely because of the summer. Here are some reviews of non-fiction books I've read recently...

Celebration of Discipline – Richard Foster

This book is far far better than its title! One of the huge dangers facing any book on spiritual disciplines is legalism, which Foster avoids well. It is easy to see how this book became a classic, and was one of the key influences in helping evangelicals learn from some of the riches of other traditions. Lots of wise practical advice about fasting and so on as well.

In some ways, Christian culture in the 2010s might be even more compromised by seeking after comfort than it was in the 1980s when the book was written, and hence even more in need of the spiritual disciplines.

There aren't many books which I'd say are a “must read” for modern Christians. This might well be one!

Liturgical Worship – Mark Earey

This is the recommended textbook for a course I'm teaching in the Autumn on liturgy. It's a really good book for giving an introduction to the shape and nature of Anglican liturgy.

There are a couple of places where I felt he missed important points – for example he sees the options with deciding what to preach on as either following a lectionary or having the danger of going for the preachers' pet topics – ignoring the pattern I've come across many times of systematic preaching through chunks of Scripture, but varying the genre regularly. But by and large, I thought that Earey gives a fair representation of most of the breadth of Anglican positions on various topics.

There are quite a few grand-sounding statements about liturgy – that it is the “Corporate drama of being the people of God” and “a public symbolic shaping of space and time in order that our hearts and lives might be shaped in the image of Christ”, but at times I felt it could do with a lot more fleshing out.

I don't think we covered liturgy very well at theological college at all. I'd have found this a really helpful introduction to the topic, but it's not more than that.

The Breeze of the Centuries – Michael Reeves

This is an introduction to a handful of great Christian thinkers from before the Reformation period – the Apostolic Fathers, Irenaeus, Athanasius, Anselm, Aquinas.

With each of them, Reeves gives a short biography, complete with humorous anecdotes, and a summary of their major works, theology and influence.

There's a lot of good stuff there. It's certainly helpful to see the people in their wider context. Reeves doesn't let people slip into their own stereotypes – he doesn't let them always be right and points out some of Anselm's theological weirdnesses (for example). It's certainly a good introduction to the theologians he covers, but it's the weakest of the three Michael Reeves books I've read.

Here's one of the high points of the book:

Augustine provides a prime example of what it is like to read a great theologian from the past: both grand and alien, both profoundly right and profoundly wrong (often in the same sentence), he challenges in every way. His great temporal distance from us dares our comfortable and well-worn formulas. Even the mistakes we recognise as characteristic of his age force us to ask what mistakes are characteristic of ours. (p.100)

There are a couple of things I found difficult or unhelpful. One is the selection of theologians – they're almost all Westerners (Justin Martyr and Athanasius are the only exceptions), and it seems odd not to mention Origen or the Cappadocians. Reeves also seems to say that there weren't any significant theologians between Augustine and Anselm, which seems a little unfair to John of Damascus and co. Maybe it would have been better as two books – one on patristic theologians and one on medieval ones, with people like Bernard of Clairvaux, Tauler, Catherine of Siena, etc.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

How I File Sermon Notes

I'm a little obsessive when it comes to organising things on my computer. That's in complete contrast to organising things on my desk, but that's another story...
Here's a system I've found easy to use and helpful for filing sermon notes on the computer.

1. Have a computer folder for upcoming talks, with a subfolder for each talk and event. Here's mine:

Note that the subfolder names have the date of the event first, in yymmdd format. It used to be yyyymmdd, but I figure I'm not going to be preaching still in the year 2100, so I don't need the first two digits.

That means that if I sort the folders alphabetically, they sort into chronological order, and I can see what's coming up.

I create this folder about once a term, and clear out the old one into my filing system. I find it much easier to keep this folder on a cloud drive, so I can access it from anywhere. I keep all the files related to each talk in the appropriate folder.

2. Have a folder for each book of the Bible. I find a list of 66 quite hard to work with, so I subdivide into genres, then by books, putting a number in front of the book name so that sorting by name also sorts by book order.

For example, the book of Psalms is at Bible/3. Poetry-Wisdom/2. Psalms

3. File notes in the appropriate folder, with a title that looks like this:
Matthew 05v01-16 140621

Having a file title like that means that sorting by name sorts by order within the book, and lets you see immediately when the talk was done as well. Note the importance of trailing zeros – otherwise it would sort Matthew 1, Matthew 15, Matthew 2. In Psalms you need more trailing zeros – so it's Psalm 008 or Psalm 037 because there are more than 100 chapters.

I file notes from sermons that I've preached (still in folders with appropriate files); interesting articles that I've read online; notes I took in lectures in college; notes from talks I've listened to (scanned in), and so on. Here's an example from my folder on John.


4. Show cross-references with shortcuts
One of the beauties of an electronic filing system is that shortcuts are easy to create. If I preached a sermon on Acts 2, for example, that strongly referred to the Tower of Babel, I could create a shortcut to the Acts 2 folder and rename the shortcut as Genesis 11, and file it appropriately.

It makes things really easy to file and to find again. I guess it took a couple of hours to set up in the first place, but it didn't take long to more than recover that time back!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

"Discipline" - an unhelpful translation?

Here's a passage which I find really unhelpful when you're going through a hard time, but which shouldn't be...

And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,

‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.’

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined – and everyone undergoes discipline – then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
Hebrews 12:5-11, NIV

So what? We're meant to endure hardship as discipline? Try telling that to the woman whose child has died – that it's God disciplining her! How's that a “word of encouragement”? It's stupid, pastorally insensitive, and just plain wrong. We don't live under the law. We don't believe in a God who gives us petty material rewards for obedience and punishments for disobedience. Maybe that's the way it worked in Leviticus, but not for the Christian.

There are two problems here. The first is the word “discipline” - most translations seem to use it in Hebrews 12, but I don't think it's warranted.

Discipline: the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience.
παιδεια: upbringing, training, instruction.

The Greek word which we translate as “discipline” doesn't quite mean that though. “Training” would be a better translation – it's the idea of an adult training a child. Sometimes that involves punishing disobedience - we suffer because we do things wrong. Sometimes, like with hard physical training, it's difficult and painful when we do it right as well. The word used for "discipline" here carries both ideas - it's the same word translated “training” in 2 Timothy 3:16. The passage isn't saying that all hardship is discipline. It's saying that God uses hardship to train us, like any kind of training can be hard, but we respect it and work with it.

The NIV translators generally did a great job – it's just about the best translation of the Bible into modern English. But they had a shocker when it got to Hebrews 12:7, and most other translations didn't do a lot better...
“Endure hardship as discipline – God is treating you as his children.” (NIV)
“It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons.” (ESV)
”Be patient when you are being corrected! This is how God treats his children.” (CEV)
”Endure what you suffer as being a father's punishment; your suffering shows that God is treating you as his children.” (Good News)
If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons;” (NJKV)
The NRSV is probably the most helpful of the major translations here, except that it still uses “discipline”; “Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children...”
I think Eugene Peterson pretty much nails the sense though in the Message:
God is educating you; that’s why you must never drop out. He’s treating you as dear children. This trouble you’re in isn’t punishment; it’s training, the normal experience of children.
The idea is that we should endure difficulties and hardship because God uses them to train us. God is our Father. He hasn't let go of us; he isn't leaving us to the ravages of chance or punishing us for our own weakness. He knows what he is doing, and he is training us to trust him, even in and through the difficult times. Now that's a comfort, and an encouragement to keep going!

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Pet Peeves - Misusing "Quantum"

One thing which annoys me is when people who don't know what they're talking about abuse scientific language. One of the most egregious examples of this is the word "Quantum". It sounds cool, I know, but it really doesn't mean what most people seem to think it means.

This is what "Quantum" means:

Quantum: the smallest possible non-zero amount of something

It was actually quite a revolutionary idea to start with. There is a smallest possible amount of water - you can't take a jug of water and keep pouring half of it away - eventually you will end up with the smallest possible amount of water, and you either pour it all away or keep it all. Or I guess you could try splitting it and if you did it really cleverly you might end up with two beryllium hydride radicals which aren't water at all. Quantum is weird because we're used to the real world, where there are normally so many lumps of stuff that it looks smooth to us.

The same is true of pretty much anything - there's a smallest possible amount of light (one photon), of electric charge, of electricity, whatever. Maybe even of space, which I find quite weird as an idea. This leads to a couple of other common phrases:

Quantum Mechanics: the study of how quantum stuff behaves.

Quantum Leap: a jump between two states with no intermediate stages - i.e. the smallest possible change in something.

Quantum leaps can be big (I guess), just usually they're really small. A legitimate example would be to say that moving from DVD to Blu-Ray is a quantum leap, because there are no intermediate stages. But the fact it's a quantum leap doesn't imply anything about the size or the significance, just that there's no intermediate step. "On the 100-question multiple choice physics exam, Tony went from 35% to 36%. That's a quantum leap.

Misusing the word "quantum" is like claiming that Shakespeare was a great novelist. It's a basic error which just makes people look stupid.

Examples

Quantum of the Seas is a boat. Its name means "smallest possible amount of the seas", and it claims to be the smallest possible step forwards from its predecessors. On that basis, I wouldn't bother.

Almost every single use of the word "quantum" in relation to the social sciences or arts subjects I've read has demonstrated major misunderstandings - even C.S. Lewis in Miracles. The big exceptions are when the author themselves has a masters or better in physics - e.g. John Polkinghorne.

Quantum of Solace is a film. I think they actually got the title about right - it's like a crumb of solace only much much smaller as Bond continues the transformation from hard man to killer to utterly ruthless and remorseless suave super-agent.

Quantum Leap can be forgiven just about anything.



Tuesday, May 27, 2014

How to Handle Difficult Issues Biblically

1 Corinthians 8-10 is an often-neglected bit of the New Testament (except for a few verses in chapter 9, usually read out of context). But actually it provides us with a really helpful pattern for working with difficult issues in the Church.

The problem in Corinth was the issue of meat sacrificed to idols. In first century Corinth, most meat was slaughtered in the context of worship at one or other of the many temples. It was then either served at public feasts, served at guild meals or sold in the meat market. Membership of most trades required being in a guild; they generally met in pagan temples. If you ate meat that had been sacrificed to idols, it was often understood as sharing in the worship of the god to whom it had been sacrificed, just as Communion was seen as sharing in Jesus' sacrifice. The Corinthian church was obviously divided on the issue, and had asked Paul for advice.

So how does Paul handle this difficult situation?

  1. Come up with the best Biblical-theological case on both sides (8:1-7; 10:1-12; 10:14-22). Some people think Paul is contradicting himself here, but actually he's stating the strongest arguments on both sides before coming to a conclusion. So often when we try to have debates now in the church, people only state one point of view and as a result are rejected by the other side. Paul clearly understands both sides, and states both arguments well. The arguments here are Biblical / theological in character - Paul argues from theology and the Shema (8v4-6), from the history of Israel (10v1-11), from the nature of communion (10v16-21).
  2. Recognise that both sides are probably right, and identify the real issue. If both sides are supported by good scriptural arguments, both are probably right. If they look like they contradict each other, we need to see why they don't really. Here, Paul does it by seeing the gap between eating meat and actually participating in the sacrifice, which is an attitude of mind or heart on the part of the worshipper. [It is of course very possible to have bad arguments from Scripture too; I'm not saying those are right.]
  3. Recognise explicitly that many people won't have done all the theology, and will be responding from their gut. Honour them and their consciences (8:7-13). This is again something we often miss today, and in some situations one side's consciences may say not to do something and the other side may say to do it, and it's genuinely hard to honour both, but we should try anyway.
  4. Follow the example of Jesus, who laid down his rights for others, but don't slip into legalism. Maintain the importance of Christian freedom, but let it be trumped by love. As soon as people start talking about their rights, they show they've missed the point. The point of rights for the Christian is that we lay them down for others. That's what Paul means by "follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" in 11v1. Jesus, being in very nature God, laid down his rights for us. Paul, having the right to financial support and to live as he wanted within the "law of Christ", gave those rights up for the sake of those he was ministering to. So we should also give up our rights for the sake of each other, even if that means avoiding offending their over-scrupulous consciences.

A couple of quick applications to current issues in the C of E:

People who talk about women's right to be bishops (for example) don't really understand what it is to live as a Christian, let alone to be a bishop. If women do have that right, they should be willing to lay it down for the sake of their brothers and sisters who would be offended by it. And those brothers and sisters should probably lay down their right not to be offended for the sake of preserving unity and allowing women to serve in the capacity of bishop.

What the homosexuality squabble debate desperately needs is people who are willing to articulate both sides of the Biblical argument and show how they fit together. So often what is produced by both camps is hideously one-sided, and sometimes just ignores important pastoral issues or runs roughshod over the consciences of those who in good conscience disagree, even if they do so without good reasons. Yes, if we disagree with someone, we should seek to persuade them, but we should do so in love - whether love for the knee-jerk homophobes or for the "out and proud" types.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Communion Services in the Early Church

In the early church, there were three main types of service – the agape meal, the synaxis (similar to Service of the Word), and the eucharist (Greek for “thanksgiving”). Over the years, the agape meal largely faded out, and the synaxis and eucharist merged to make the modern Communion Service. In this post, I'll trace very briefly how we got from the Early Church (pre-325) to the modern situation in the Church of England.

Synaxis

The structure of the synaxis was as follows: Greeting, Bible Reading, Sung Worship, Bible Reading, Sermon, Outsiders Leave, Prayers, Dismissal. I've already written about how some of the elements worked, but one development it's worth noting is that the “traditional” pattern of Epistle, Psalm and Gospel readings developed from the earlier practice of one reading at the start of the service, then a time of sung worship (usually using Psalms), then a second reading which was the basis for the sermon. Outsiders were welcome to attend the service, but were expected to leave after the sermon and before the prayers. Catechumens (people who were preparing for baptism) were welcome to stay for the prayers but were expected to leave before the Eucharist, at what is now the Peace.

Eucharist

Dix identifies four key stages in the Eucharist service, which are reflected in the gospels – Jesus took bread (1), he gave thanks (2), he broke it (3) and gave it to the disciples (4).

Offertory - “he took bread”
Originally there was just one loaf (1 Cor 10:17), but in the 100s AD, members of the congregation brought their own bread to church to share, and it was brought forwards at this point, like the wave offering or the grain offering in the OT. People offering their own bread for the Communion came to be seen as symbolic of offering their lives to God and having them transformed; after people started believing that the bread became Jesus during the prayer, it eventually got confused into the idea of us offering Jesus' sacrifice on the cross. To make it clear that we can only offer ourselves to God because of what God has done in giving Jesus as a sacrifice in our place, Cranmer moved the language of offering ourselves to after the Communion. Sometimes (e.g. 1662) the offertory gets confused with the money offering too. (Wafers are a much later innovation, and in my opinion a wrong one.)
Eucharist - “he gave thanks”
A prayer was said over the bread and wine, thanking God. The prayer typically followed the pattern: blessing God, thanks for creation, thanks for redemption, thanks for the new covenant (and our place in it), institution narrative (i.e. the story of the Last Supper), prayer for us as we receive communion, praising God again. Later on, the Sanctus came to replace or be integrated into the Thanksgiving sections. The key phrase in this whole section is Jesus' command to “do this in remembrance of me” - reminding us that we are sharing communion to remember Jesus. The Prayer of Humble Access is descended from the minister's prayer for the people as we receive communion.
Sometimes other prayers were inserted after the Eucharistic Prayer, largely because of the 4th century idea that the prayer of thanksgiving “consecrated” the bread and the wine, and that somehow God was therefore more present then, and so prayer was more likely to be heard. We see remnants of this in the use of the Lord's Prayer in Common Worship Order 1. Sometimes it even went far enough that the prayers during the Synaxis ceased to be used – we don't need two periods of intercession during the service. Of course, originally, the prayers of intercession were in the Synaxis rather than the Eucharist, and I think that's the best place for them.
Fraction - “he broke it”
The bread is broken so that it can be distributed. Originally this may well have used 1 Cor 10:17, but after the church stopped using just one loaf they switched to using words like “God's holy gifts for God's holy people” or “the body of Christ, broken for you.” Sometimes people today use 1 Cor 10:17 "though we are many, we are one body, for we all share in the one bread", but do it without using one loaf. That seems silly to me. In the medieval church, the Fraction came to be seen as the point at which Jesus' body was actually broken, so Cranmer dropped it altogether. 1662 re-introduced it during the Institution Narrative, which is historically odd.
Communion - “he gave it to them”
Distribution of the bread and wine was usually done with the ministers standing, and the people walking between them. Afterwards, there was just a short dismissal and the service ended.

(This is part of an irregular series spinning off Gregory Dix's On the Shape of the Liturgy. The data is almost all from Dix, but I've reworked it in the light of a rather different theology.)

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

The Prepositions of Salvation

When we're thinking about how God saves us, it's surprisingly important to get our prepositions right. Prepositions are words like “onto” or “under” which describe how two objects are related to each other.

The Bible tells us we are saved:

from sin
Naturally we all suffer from what one author helpfully describes as “the human propensity to f*** things up”. That means that the way things are by nature, we are cut off from God and when it comes to God's plan to sort the universe out and fix what is wrong; we are part of the problem that God will get rid of rather than part of the solution. That is what we are saved from.
by grace
Because the way we are is part of the problem, we can't do anything to earn God's favour. We can't do anything to make him like us, because we just mess everything up. But God loves us as we are, even though he knows what we are like. That's called grace – it's God's undeserved love for us.
of God
It's not grace as some impersonal force in the universe, it's the grace of God. God as revealed in the Bible and in Jesus is not an impersonal force who seeks to make us into better people – he is a person (or three), who seeks to mend us and transform us through our relationship with him.
through faith
We take hold of God's salvation / forgiveness / transformation through faith, which simply means trust. It is trust on the basis of available evidence, but which goes beyond the evidence – just like we do every day. When I turn the steering wheel of my car, I trust that it will cause the car to turn. I have good reason for that trust – it has worked every previous time, but that doesn't guarantee it will work in the future. Nevertheless, I choose to put my faith in the steering column of my car to do its work. In the same way, I trust God to save me, to forgive me, to transform me. And we're saved through faith, not by faith. It isn't something we do to earn anything – it is simply how we take hold of what God has done.
in Christ
It isn't just “faith” in the sense of some generic perception of something beyond ourselves that saves us. It's faith specifically in Christ. It's trusting what Jesus did for us when he died in our place on the cross and rose from the dead to offer new life to all those who trust him.
into Christ
But we're saved “in Christ” in a much deeper sense than that. In a profound sense, when we trust in Jesus, we're united to him so that we receive the blessings which he deserves, we are raised from the dead in his resurrection, and so on. We are saved into Christ, and therefore into his new people, his family the Church.
for works
We aren't saved by what we do. Our faith which takes hold of God's salvation – the fact that we trust in Jesus – shows itself in what we do, but we are saved by the grace of God so that we might do good works, so that we might be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. You don't have to do good works to become a Christian, but those who have already become Christians should do good works.
to the glory of God
the aim of all of it is the glory of God. It's not to make us look good or to feel better than other people. It's so that everyone will see how awesome God is. God the Father wants the world to know how amazing his Son is. God the Son wants the world to see the love of his Father and then transformation that comes from the Holy Spirit. God the Holy Spirit wants us to worship the Father through trusting God the Son.

We see this wonderfully illustrated in passages such as Ephesians 2:4-10 (NIV).

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

My Problem with "Rev"

This week saw the last-ever episode of the TV series Rev, about the vicar of a “failing” church in London. I've watched a fair bit of it, and all of the last series, but I always found it made me profoundly uncomfortable. This is why.

It wasn't because God hardly shows up, though he doesn't much. It wasn't because it's subtly hostile to the church, though it is, particularly in its depiction of all other clergy other than Adam as nasty pieces of work. It was because I found it all-too believable, and it made me face up to one of the fundamental problems faced by the Church of England. When I can do something about problems (or when it's my job to), I think it's important to face them and deal with them, but problems like this I'd rather bury my head in the sand and ignore. In some senses, it's none of my business, but it breaks my heart.

The Church of England has long been built on a foundation of fudge. We aren't really a denomination – we're a national Church which is a variously dysfunctional association of congregations bound together by a shared history which we disagree about, an often-distant episcopacy, a rough agreement that the Creeds are on the whole a good thing, an immensely flexible liturgy that can be indistinguishable from either Rome or Vineyard, and a slightly grudging agreement to work together for the common good. One of the problems with this is that there are some fairly fundamental things that we really don't agree on but never discuss, in particular the nature of ordained ministry.

As far as I can tell, there are two main ideas about the nature of ordained ministry in the Church of England – the ontological and the functional, or in less technical language “being a priest” versus “leading the church”. I'll explain what I mean.


Two Views of Ordained Ministry


The ontological view of ministry is probably the more widely-held view. It's certainly the closest thing to an official view in the C of E. It says that when someone is ordained priest, they become a priest – that is who they are, and it doesn't go away (unless someone does something really bad, and the bishop goes a stage beyond sacking them). Priests are allowed to preside at communion, pronounce official blessing and absolution on people, and so on. Non-priests aren't, but a priest is a priest is a priest, whether they are a vicar, an army chaplain or a retired social worker who helps out in the local church and got ordained so they can help out with communion services.

The C of E selects people for ordination on the basis of this idea. Their criteria are roughly as follows:

  • do they live out some kind of spirituality, and can they articulate why they feel called to be a priest in the C of E?
  • are they moderately well-adjusted as a person – are they aware of their strengths and weaknesses, wanting to grow, willing to serve and to lead, possessing integrity?
  • do they have a decent understanding of the Christian faith, including the importance of reaching outsiders?

This isn't the view which comes naturally to me, but I've come to see some of its strengths. It's great to be able to appoint people like that as official ambassadors for the church. On the various occasions when Adam had a crisis of calling through the series, it was aspects of this call – the call to be a priest – which he kept coming back to.

The other view of ordained ministry is the functional view. It says that there is clearly a call to be different, but that call applies to all Christians. The distinctive call is a call to lead churches – to do something. On this view, a retired vicar is the same as any other member of the congregation, albeit with some skills and wisdom they might like to share.

The key texts for this view are the Pastoral Epistles – letters written by Paul to church leaders in the 60s AD, along with a few other bits like Acts 20 and 1 Peter 5. These distinguish several different levels of leadership in a church, from people who are involved in running practical areas of the church's life (e.g. Stephen) to people who are involved in appointing church leaders across a wider area (e.g. Titus). The criteria these passages give for someone to be involved in a senior leadership position in a church are:

  • Character: good reputation in the community, above reproach, free from addictions, self-controlled, not argumentative, gentle, dignified, sensible, hospitable, not someone who runs after money.
  • Domestic situation: either celibate or faithfully married, looks after own household well, spouse and children (under 12-ish) believe.
  • Faith / skills: not a new believer, doctrinally sound, secure faith, good at teaching the Bible

The Problem

The problem is that these don't quite match, but the C of E pretends they do. I don't have a problem with people being called to be priests, but the call to be a church leader is different. Just because someone is called to be a priest, doesn't mean they're called to lead a church, but the C of E assumes it as the norm.

The result is people like Adam Smallbone in Rev. He's a nice guy; he's clearly got some kind of call on his life. But according to that list, he isn't called to lead a church, and the tension in the series comes from fact that no-one quite grasps that he may well be called to be a priest by the C of E's understanding, but he isn't called to lead a church by the Bible's understanding.

We see the problems shining through in the series. Adam isn't a good preacher; as a result his congregation don't have transforming encounters with God's word and so don't change. We see that painfully clearly when it comes to welcoming a repentant paedophile into the church. Adam understands grace, but he hasn't communicated that understanding to the rest of the church, so they reject him. Adam's wife isn't properly on board with him being a vicar – she clearly resents it and it causes all kinds of problems for her faith, and for his leadership. I know both from personal experience and from that of friends that if a vicar's spouse isn't keen on them following the calling to lead a church, it won't work.

The tragedy is that Adam has been badly let down by the C of E in its confusion between the calling to be a priest and the calling to lead a church. As a result, everyone loses – Adam, the local church, the wider church.

That's what breaks my heart. There are people with a real heart for serving God who have been misled into thinking it should be by leading a church, and end up being chewed up and spat out. There are churches where people aren't growing in their faith because they're being led by people who can't preach properly. And all because we confuse two different things – the calling to be a priest and the calling to lead a church.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Unapologetic - Francis Spufford

This is an utterly remarkable book. Here's part of Spufford's explanation of what the book is for:

You can read any number of defences of Christian ideas. This, however, is a defence of Christian emotions – of their intelligibility, of their grown-up dignity. The book is called Unapologetic because it isn't giving an 'apologia', the technical term for a defence of the ideas.

And also because I'm not sorry.

Spufford is a novelist and lecturer in creative writing, and it shows. The book is incredibly well written and saturated in knowing references to modern highbrow culture – not in a showing-off sort of way, but in a way that shows utter familiarity with the Guardian-reading arts scene and much prefers knowing allusions to quotes or references.

He says he seeks to be utterly honest, and that shows too, in a kind of fearless way. He isn't afraid to describe God as a “sky fairy” in a way that gently takes the mick out of those who do, or to explain where his ideas diverge from either popular orthodoxy or Christian orthodoxy (of which more later). It isn't a book of tightly-argued logic; it's a description of how his emotions work as a Christian, written in complete non-Christianese.

Spufford's explanation of sin is just about the best I've ever read for the non-Christian reader. Some of his phrases - “Human Propensity to F*** things Up” (or HptFtU) for sin, or “International League of the Guilty” for church are brilliant, and there are some important ideas he's clearly got a better grip of than many Christian writers, if you aren't offended by the language (and that's only coarse-Anglo Saxonisms, not swearing).

There are some significant weaknesses though. I think the root one is that the church Spufford goes to doesn't seem to believe in the verbal inspiration of Scripture – I'd guess it's fairly liberal catholic C of E. So while Spufford affirms the physical resurrection of Jesus, he's unsure about eternal life for the rest of us, and doesn't believe in Hell. I'd love to sit down and have a chat with him about that – I suspect that the kind of hell he doesn't believe in is a kind I don't believe in either.

The same problem shines through in a number of other areas. There isn't really the idea of a propositional grounding for ethics, his take on the cross seems to be vaguely Girardian. Perplexingly in a book about emotions, the Holy Spirit doesn't get a look in and there isn't really a sense of the exciting growth in experience and knowledge of the love of Christ that you get in Eph 3:14-21.

I'd love to chat to him. On the basis of this book, he's clearly a Christian; he's got a wonderful way with words, a great sense of humour and such a clear understanding of the nature of sin. But there's so much more which God has for those who love him, and I can't help feeling he's missing out on it.

Oh, and whether you're a Christian wanting a fresh look at things, or a non-Christian wanting to understand why Christianity makes sense, as long as you're willing to engage with something you'll disagree with, this book is a great read.