Monday, July 31, 2006

Praying for the Dead

One of the reasons I'm writing some of this down is that I know when I come out of Wycliffe, some people are going to accuse me of changing my views. I want it to be clear before I go in what my views are, so we can see if that's true or not. And one of the areas I disagree with classic evangelicalism on is the area of praying for the dead.

Praying for the dead and Purgatory

I guess the problem started a long time ago when some Roman Catholics started teaching about Purgatory as a real place, where many people went when they died. If you'd been pretty good, you were only there for a short time, and if you'd been bad, you were there for a much longer time, basically working off your sin and being purified. And afterwards, you got to go to heaven. I know that isn't what the current Bishop of Rome teaches about Purgatory, but that's what people used to believe.

There then got to be lots of beliefs about how you could reduce your time in Purgatory, and churchy people started using it as a way to motivate other people to do what they wanted them to do. So if you went to certain places, or went on pilgrimage, or gave your money to the church, they might say that it reduced the amount of time you were in Purgatory.

One of the most common beliefs about this was that if you prayed for someone who was already dead, it could reduce their time in Purgatory. So people used to go to silly lengths to get people to pray for them after they died. As I understand it, the school I used to go to (and teach at) was set up by someone who wanted there to be lots of people praying for him (and his parents) after he died, so they wouldn't have to spend so long in Purgatory. That was the reason.

There were several big problems with this idea about Purgatory and praying for the dead:

  • The Bible didn't teach it at all - it was an idea that people had made up much later
  • It actually went against what the Bible taught. We don't have to go through a literal Purgatory - if we're Christians then Jesus has already taken our sins and paid for them. We don't have to do it again.
  • It suggests that we can somehow impress God. But we already owe him everything! Giving something which is already his doesn't make up for the bits we haven't given in the past. We can never pay off our debt to God. So it's just as well that Jesus has paid it.
  • God is not a slot-machine God. Just coz we pray for people, doesn't mean it automatically makes their situation better.

Because of this, the Reformers really really objected to the idea of Purgatory (and therefore also praying for the dead and being able to "get time off for good behaviour"). And because people like Luther and Calvin objected to it, for very good reason, today's evangelicals, who really respect Luther and Calvin, they also reject it.

The Problem

But there's a big problem with this. The problem is that praying for the dead didn't start with people who believed in Purgatory, and most people who pray for the dead today don't do it because they think it will reduce their time in Purgatory.

The other argument I have heard used against praying for the dead goes something like this:

The situation of people who are dead depends on their relationship with Jesus when they were alive. We can't do anything to change that, so there's no point praying for them.

I started really thinking about this, when I realised that that argument didn't work, and that there could be good reasons to pray for the dead.

Time and again in the Bible, we see that God promises something, then the response of the people is to pray that that promise would be kept. We see it, for example, with Daniel. God had promised that his people would be exiled to Babylon for 70 years. Daniel realises this when the 70 years are nearly up...

It was the first year of the reign of Darius the Mede, the son of Ahasuerus, who became king of the Babylonians. During the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, was studying the writings of the prophets. I learned from the word of the LORD, as recorded by Jeremiah the prophet, that Jerusalem must lie desolate for seventy years. So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and fasting. I wore rough sackcloth and sprinkled myself with ashes.
Daniel 9:1-3, NLT

Does Daniel think it will change anything? Probably not - God always keeps his promises. So why does he do it? Because he wants to show that he trusts God. He wants to be part of what God is doing, and the way to do that is by humbling ourselves and asking him for what he has already promised. It's also good because it means changing the direction we are thinking in and acting in, and making it the direction God is thinking in and acting in. It is saying that he recognises that what God wants is what he wants. It means that after it happens, he will not be caught by surprise, but will be praising God and recognising that God is faithful.

So how does this affect praying for the dead? Well, God has promised that when Christians die, he will take them to be with him. So what should be my response? Praying for Christians, when they die, that God would take them to be with him.

It is also hugely useful pastorally. If someone I cared about died, I'd really want to talk to God about it and about them. I'd really want to trust God - that he knew what he was doing and that he'd look after them. And I'd want to express that trust in God in prayer, praising him for his promises and praying that he would keep them, just as he has always kept them.

I don't see a problem with that kind of praying for the dead. In fact, I think it seems a good and healthy thing to do.

Much later edit to add this quote from NT Wright in For all the saints (source):

'May the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace and rise in glory'. Amen to that. Amen, too, to the peace, consolation, and gradual assuaging of grief that comes from thus leaving those who love in the safe and sure mercies of the loving Creator and Redeemer.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Other blog - book reviews

I've decided to put reviews of books I've read as part of my study on one of my other blogs, basically because I'm aware it could get boring for some here and my thoughts sometimes get a bit long. I might well put short comments and links here.

First book I've read is RE Clements - A Century of Old Testament Study, which is basically about how people who don't believe what the Bible says about history try to put together alternative histories for Israel. I'm now reading another book about how people can take the Old Testament seriously as history.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

RE Clements - A Century of Old Testament Study

It's worth clearing a few things up before I deal with the book in detail. First up, RE Clements is not the same person as Roy Clements, the formerly prominent gay evangelical preacher. Shame - that would have made it more interesting. RE Clements has a photo which takes up a quarter of the back of the book, wearing a stuffy shirt and tie, gazing slightly confusedly into the distance. Bad sign.

Secondly, this is my first real encounter with a symphathetic treatment of OT liberal criticism. My main previous one was reading Josh McDowell's More Evidence that Demands a Verdict, but that was over a decade ago.

What Clements does well is to present an outline of the views and trends of liberal criticism of the Old Testament, basically from Wellhausen (late 1800s) to the late 1970s. He also interacts with some of the views and makes his own thinking clear. And he does the whole literature review thing pretty well.

What he doesn't do, or provide any justification for, is the underlying assumptions of the liberal critical movement. Roughly, the movement seems to assume:

  • The development of religion in OT Israel follows broad trends put forwards in some kind of religious sociology. So the development of an individualistic conception of morality, for example, has to come quite late.
  • Predictive prophecy doesn't work. So, for example, the fact that Deuteronomy basically sketches out the outline of what happens in Joshua - 2 Kings (and it does) means that it must have been written after those events occurred, though it may have strands of earlier tradition in it
  • That the OT history is written not primarily to record what happened, but for the benefit of the original readers (I kind of agree with this one)
  • That the "traditional view" e.g. (Genesis - Deuteronomy written by Moses) is wrong, and most of the OT stems from around the time of the exile, or later.
  • If two bits are stylistically different (e.g. prose and poetry sections in Jeremiah), they must have been written by different groups of people at different times. One can only wonder what they would make of a novel by Iain M Banks or Margaret Attwood, where multiple different stylings are quite normal. McDowell applies their methods to Dante's Inferno with interesting results.
  • That the OT is not all about Jesus.

One of my (many) concerns about this approach is their attitude to testability. For example, originally they predicted that the wisdom literature (Proverbs, etc) had to come as a development of the work of the Prophets, and hence to be post-exilic. But then some ancient Egyptian stuff was discovered, very similar to bis of Proverbs, that predated Moses. So wisdom was then moved earlier in their conception. They had the 10 Commandments as being a late development, but then found that the Egyptians and Babylonians had similar systems of laws earlier than the traditionalists (like me) would claim they were written.

Nor, as far as I am aware, have the methods of soure criticism or form criticism been applied to books of known provenance to test them. Had they been, I suspect they would have failed. In addition, the methods produce a wide variety of different interpretations of what actually happened. The methods therefore seem to me decidedly unscientific.

It is certainly noteworthy that when they deal with Bible books that we know were compiled from a variety of sources (Samuel and Kings), their methods seem significantly less successful than when working with books that might conceivably have been the work of a single author (e.g. Exodus). That suggests to me that they find a lot of false positives.

In trying to reconstruct a theology of the OT, they also ignore the major theme of the future hope of the Christ (which is kind of hard to miss). This is especially of concern since if we are taking a Christian view of the OT, it is certainly worth seeing what Christ himself said about the Old Testament.

You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
John 5:39-40

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
Luke 24:27

It is perfectly understandable that they cannot come to an integrated understanding of OT theology withouth Christ - he is the integration point of OT theology.

There are nevertheless some interesting questions raised, though I don't think they necessarily answer them too well. In some cases, Clements even recognises that they haven't really answered them:

  • To what extent were the historical books edited and modified by their eventual compilers? We can see that it must have happened a fair bit (e.g. by comparing Samuel/Kings with Chronicles). I think we as evangelicals sometimes lose sight of the fact that the Jews regarded Joshua - Esther as prophetic books.
  • What was the role of oral tradition in preserving material (e.g. patriarchal accounts in Genesis, prophesy)? To what extent was the material then shaped by the community which preserved it as well as vice versa?
  • What was the original purpose of the Psalms? Were e.g. the angsty ones they written as someone feeling a lot of angst, or were they written essentially as scripts for a mystery play? And what does Ps 45 mean?
  • Who compiled Proverbs? Why?
  • Why was the OT written in the way that it is, with so many different styles?

Overall, one thing that really gets to me is the subjectivity of the whole liberal criticism thing. In the summary, Clements writes:

What Wellhausen's Prolegomena achieved for Old Testament studies was a better picture of the history of Israel's religious institutions than that which had been afforded by the traditional view which is reflected in the Old Testament itself. It offered a satisfactory working basis from which it became possible to place is a comprehensible sequence the various layers of material containing references to them. That such a sequence made use of a broadly evolutionary theory of development and historical growth is undeniable, but nevertheless it was more credible than the traditional view which it replaced.

Better? More credible? Says who? On what criteria? If there is a God who raised Jesus Christ bodily from the dead, then he is more than capable of revealing his law to a nation on a mountain in the desert. And given that they came from a culture which already had a code of law and which could already write it down just makes it seem more likely that they just might have written it down in such an event. If there is not a God who raised Jesus Christ bodily from the dead, then I see no reason why it's even worth bothering worrying about what happened to Israel 3000 years ago.

Two Books About Running Churches

I've been reading quite a bit recently. Two books I've read, which I thought it would be interesting to contrast, are Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Church and Mark Dever & Paul Alexander's The Deliberate Church.

Both are written by the leaders of large baptist churches in the US. Both have some very American features in common - the use of a written church constitution. Both have a formalised membership system with clear (and some might say legalistic) expectations of members.

The big contrast between the two books is in terms of where they get their ideas from about leading and growing churches. Warren's book is good at the application of wisdom - a high proportion of his quotes are from Proverbs, and most of what he writes seems like common sense. In particular, he is good at wisdom in listening to the local community and seeking to reach them where they are as well as wisdom in focusing the work of the church on what the church should be doing (which he identifies as worship, evangelism, fellowship, disicpleship and service).

Dever & Alexander, on the other hand, aim to focus far more on what the Bible says about leading churches. There's a lot more about the importance of eldership, church discipline, etc. There are also useful correctives to some of Warren's weaknesses - his book does not actually articulate the gospel clearly - it assumes it, and at times could certainly be open to accusations of seeking to entertain non-Christians or not be completely clear what it's all about. I can see that people might view The Purpose Driven Church as a way to set up a very efficient and popular organisation without neccesarily making direct claims to absolute truth. It would be much harder to interpret The Deliberate Church like that.

But that's not to say that Dever & Alexander have got it all right. While much stronger on the doctrine and management of the church, and importantly clear on being cautious what message we communicate in our evangelism, they do not cover a lot of Warren's key material on identifying and reaching the community. Incidentally, if they did, I think they might well do it better - Warren's weakness there was that he mainly wrote about getting people who are already like the community to reach them, rather than sacrifically becoming all things to all men. Dever & Alexander's big weakness, other than weaknesses of omission, is that they sometimes take the argument from Scripture too far - to cover closed communion services, for example, and instead of working outwards from the Bible, they take a few (and only a few) of their own presuppositions and attempt a post facto justification of them from Scripture.

All in all then, I think God has gifted people differently for the building up of his church. Dever is a much better handler of Scripture than Warren; I suspect Warren is a better handler of people. Both skills are needed, and I found both books immenseley helpful in thinking through issues of church leadership.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Why Revision is Cheating

This is one of those things I don't think I was allowed to say back when I was teaching...

Most of education seems to be assessed by exams. Great, I think, as someone who is quite good at them. Exams are designed to test your on-the-spot recall of and ability at answering questions on a subject. It's not all that matters in real-life use of a subject - what you do when you have time to think about it and can go away and look stuff up also matters - but it's an important part.

What you virtually never get in real life though is having to recall all the material you have studied, and getting six months notice that it's going to be at such and such a time, in such and such a place. My pupils didn't give me six months' notice that they were going to ask me about gravity or how batteries work or whatever. They just did it.

So if exams are really texting your ability to think on the spot, then revising for them is kind of cheating. It's a legal kind of cheating, but it's cheating nonetheless because you don't get much notice in real life.

If exams aren't testing your ability to think on the spot, then why not make them open book?

And yes, I know that coursework, especially at GCSE, is an even more flawed system.

Oh yes, another thing. If exams are testing your ability to think on the spot and whatever, they why give some people extra time for dyslexia (literally bad reading)? They don't get it in real life - they have to compete on an even playing field with everyone else. Or if people with dyslexia get extra time, why not give people who can read really well (eulexia) less time? I honestly can't see what the exam system is meant to be doing.

But hey, I was always pretty good at exams, and I've got a load more to do. And yes, I'll probably revise for them. But I'll still think it's cheating.

Thursday, July 27, 2006


Apparently, teaching is the least boring job. I notice that being a church minister wasn't on their lists at all.

While I did like teaching, and was rarely bored, it is sad that so many people seem bored by their jobs. I tended to use the priniciples:

  • If it's boring, is it worth doing at all?
  • If it's worth doing, how can I make it less boring?

Monday, July 24, 2006

Holy, Holy, Holy

This is starting to write down some of my thinking through of Christian theology, thinking specifically about the nature of God.

In Hebrew, and a lot of other languages, if you want to say "very tall", for example, you would say "tall tall". The repetition of the word emphasises and intensifies the meaning. There's plenty of examples of this in the Bible - the Holy of Holies, God as Lord of Lords and King of Kings. But there's one time, just one, in the Bible where the same word is used three times in succession. It's written by a prophet named Isaiah, describing a vision he had.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

"Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory."

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

Isaiah 6:1-4, NIV

God is holy. Not just holy though, or even holy holy. He is holy holy holy. Even compared to everything else that is holy or even holy holy (which only a few things in the Bible are), God is still awesomely holy above that. So what does it mean for God to be holy?

The word "holy" actually means something along the lines of "set apart" or "different". So God worked 6 days in the week, and the seventh one was different or holy. God is holy holy holy. If we were to make a list of every single thing that exists - dust, stars, galaxies, God, earwigs, people, nations, buildings, the whole universe, God, computers, angels, demons, etc, etc - and then we tried to split everything that exists into two groups based on how similar they were to everything else, God would be in one group, and everything else that exists would be in the other group. God is totally different to everything else there is.

OK, so how is he different?

There's a whole load of stuff been written about this, and to be honest, a lot of it might claim to be Christian, but owes a lot more to ancient Greek philosophy than to the Bible.

In the Bible, the key way in which God is different from everything else is that God can do whatever he wants. We can't. When filling in forms as part of applying for ordination training, there was an unduly intrusive medical form, which asked among other questions "Is your mobility restricted?" Now, I hate people using jargon when they are trying to communicate with people who actually speak a different language. So I figured I'd answer this one like a physicist. "Yes," I put, "I can't fly." Perfectly true. However much I want to, I cannot fly (unless I cheat by using an aeroplane or something). My mobility is restricted - I cannot do whatever I want. But God isn't like that. He can do whatever he wants to do.

This sheer awesomeness has dramatic consequences for the rest of the universe. It means that we cannot peacefully co-exist with a God like that. In the vision, even the awesome seraphs (which seem to be special creatures created by God, which never do anything wrong and spend all their time with God), even they can't look at God, Even they have to cover themselves from his sight. But it's much worse for us. Here's the next bit of Isaiah's vision:

"Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty."
Isaiah 6:5

In the Bible, perfect things that are made by God are generally classed as "clean", which is a step down from "holy" (just one holy). Clean things can't cope in God's presence. But unclean things are things which aren't perfect either - people who have done stuff wrong, physically imperfect objects, etc. Isaiah is unclean, like us, he isn't perfect and so he can't possibly cope in God's presence. So his response "Woe to me! I am ruined!" is perfectly justified.

But that's not all. The vision goes on:

Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, "See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for."

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?"
And I said, "Here am I. Send me!"

Isaiah 6:6-8, NIV

Isaiah is cleaned up so that he can cope with the presence of God. It happens through a sacrifice, just as the perfect cleaning up so that we can cope with God's presence happens through Jesus.

He is then sent out - his realisation of something of how holy God is means that he has to go out and obey God.

That's a little of who God is, and how it should affect us.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Sea

This is a bit of a technical post, but I know there are some technical types who read this, and I'm hoping for a bit of help.

This morning, I was reading 2 Chronicles 4, where it says this:

Then he [Solomon] made the sea of cast metal. It was round, ten cubits from brim to brim, and five cubits high, and a line of thirty cubits measured its circumference. Under it were figures of gourds, for ten cubits, compassing the sea all around. The gourds were in two rows, cast with it when it was cast. It stood on twelve oxen, three facing north, three facing west, three facing south, and three facing east. The sea was set on them, and all their rear parts were inward. Its thickness was a handbreadth. And its brim was made like the brim of a cup, like the flower of a lily. It held 3,000 baths.
2 Chronicles 4:2-5, ESV

This passage is quite famous, because along with a parallel passage in 1 Kings, of which more later, it is the earliest evidence for an estimate of pi - in this case 30/10 = 3. I've also used this passage quite a bit as a way of spotting when people claiming to find mistakes in the Bible text are just being silly or not. If they are being silly, they tend to pick up on this as evidence that the Bible is wrong, because we know that pi isn't exactly 3. But on the other hand, both the 30 and the 10 are given to 1 significant figure (implicit, measurements can't be exact) and so the value for pi is within the expected range.

That's standard stuff and not my problem here. My difficulty here is when it comes to the capacity of the Sea. It's interesting that the parallel passage in 1 Kings has the capacity as 2000 baths. I used to think that one was a "full" figure and one was a "when in use" figure. But now I don't.

Taking the standard values of the cubit as 45cm and the bath as 22 litres gives the following figures:

  • The capacity of the Sea is stated as 66 kilolitres in 2 Chron 4:5 and 44 kilolitres in 1 Kings 7:26
  • If the radius is 5.0 cubits, and the Sea is hemispherical, it would have a capacity of 24000 litres
  • If the radius is 5.5 cubits and it is hemispherical, it has a capacity of 32 kilolitres
  • If the radius is 5.5 cubits and it is a cylinder, it has a capacity of 48 kilolitres - enough for 1 Kings 7:26, but not enough for 2 Chron 4:5 - ditto if it is a hemi-ellispoid with a mean depth of 5.5 cubits.

Neither is the error small enough to be a rounding error in the 3000.

I therefore conclude that one of the following must be true:

  • 2 Chronicles 4:5 has one of the rare copying errors in Scripture - there are a couple of others, including I think another one with numbers near the beginning of 2 Chronicles. Maybe the scribe who was making an early copy had an off day (on balance, my guess).
  • I've missed something here (possible, but unlikely)
  • The Hebrew "3000" can mean "more than 2000, but not as many as 4000", and the actual figure was just over 2000. (possible, I guess, but I'd want another example of that use)
  • This was a special, magical, Sea, and the laws of geometry don't apply to it (yeah, right)
  • Biblical history isn't that accurate in general either (just plain wrong)

Any thoughts?


Pearls Before Swine is one of my favourite cartoons on the Internet. today's episode is a particular classic. So telling, so profound, so like people. Funny and yet deeply sad. But be careful - the comics only stay on there for 30 days...

Friday, July 21, 2006

Liking Sad Films

A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with a friend. She said she only liked happy films, because they cheered her up. But I like sad films too, and that got me wondering why.

Take Grave of the Fireflies, for example - the film we were discussing at the time. It is a very sad film about two children struggling (and ultimately failing) to survive in Japan at the end of World War 2, starting with the Kobe firebombings. And no, it's not a surprise that they don't make it to the end of the film; the film starts with the second one dying.

But it's a beautiful film too. The firefly - shining so brightly and with so much pleasure, then dying all too soon - is a metaphor used heavily in the film. There's a point where they choose, quite clearly, to be like fireflies, enjoy life and die rather than probably survive but in drudgery.

I guess it's a question of how we deal with the difficulties of suffering and the fact that all too often the world sucks. We can try running away from it and only thinking about the good, which seems to be what my friend was doing. We can see the bad, recognise it is there and still see good and beauty in it, which is what Grave of the Fireflies does so well. But probably my favourite sort of film in general is the type where things get really bad, then good comes out of it. After all, that's what God says this life is like; that's what happened with Jesus.

Which attitude is going to help when things get really bad - to ignore suffering or to look through it and see the joy that lies beyond? Thinking about it, I can see why my friend only likes happy films. She's not a Christian, and she's clever enough to realise that without God, there is no real hope in the face of suffering, except that it would go away. But that's not where I am. I see God through the tears. I see that even when things were as bad as they could get - when Jesus Christ was being killed on the cross, then God was working; that he was using it to accomplish his purpose, and that the world is better now for it, and we can see God more clearly.

To quote one of my favourite films:

It's like in the great stories... the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn't want to know the end, because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened?

But in the end, it's only a passing thing - the shadow; even darkness must pass; the new day will come. And when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you - that meant something - even if you were too small to understand why.

Sam, from Lord of the Rings - The Two Towers

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Rejoice With Trembling

I've been really struck today by three words in Psalm 2:11.

rejoice with trembling

The context is how we are to respond to God's enthronement of Jesus as King, ruler and judge. We should rejoice in him - actively expressing joy, overflowing and delighted in him, but we should do so with trembling - not of the uncontrollable shaking type but out of fear. God is not tame. He is all-powerful and very very scary so we should tremble before him. But because we take refuge in him (v12), his awesome and scary power is a cause for great rejoicing.

A difficult balance, but an important one.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

places I've been

create your own visited countries map

Hmmm... Mine doesn't look very impressive...

Church isn't a Club

This post has been prompted largely by some of the very good points made by other people in dicussion after the talk on evangelism.

It's fairly easy for Christians to talk about church as if it's some kind of club that we go to, as if it were tennis, judo, ballroom dancing, rotary, whatever. The problems with that are that is isn't true and it's dangerous.

Why it's dangerous

It's dangerous because that makes it sound awfully like it's an optional interest or a social grouping we're involved with. And maybe people might want to come along and try it, in the same way they might go along and try yoga or something. It'd be interesting to know how the take-up rate compares for people inviting their friends along and for the friends coming along.

Why it's not true

And it's not true because church isn't about meeting together over a common interest, like warganming or something. It's about meeting together to praise, and meet with, the one true living God - the God who created the entire universe and who has claim to our obedience.

I've heard church leaders pray that people would come to see how amazing church is. Yes, we should be loving one another and caring for one another, but that's not the point. The point is people coming to see how amazing God is. And he's not an "optional interest". It's time to start talking more about Jesus.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Evangelism and the Glory of God

I was at a meeting the other day where we heard a recording of a prominent local Christian speaker give five reasons why he sometimes "bottled it" when it came to talking to people about Jesus. His reasons were as follows:

  • afraid of what people think of us
  • ashamed of the gospel
  • failing to grasp the immensity of Jesus' love
  • forgetting how serious the gospel really is
  • not being that bothered about God's glory

I was thinking about this, and I think that all five of those stem from the same root cause, which is that we do not sufficiently see God's glory, which is largely because we do not sufficiently seek to see God's glory.

If we come to understand something of how amazing Jesus is, then we won't care what other people think of us compared to how faithful we are being to him; we won't be ashamed of the gospel and will see how serious is it because we see that it is all about coming to know the surpassing greatness of Jesus; we will be seeing the immensity of his love better; we will be passionate about God's glory and seeking to see him more and more glorified in us.

If we think Christianity is all about being part of a club, we might introduce others. If we think it is all about how to be forgiven and get to heaven, then logically we should tell others (but people aren't that logical). If we see rightly that it is about how to know the surpassingly amazing God, then we might actually be sufficiently passionate about that to tell people.

Back to learning Greek

One of my objectives over the summer is to improve my Greek a bit more, so next term doesn't come as too much of a shock! I haven't studied any since the new year, and gave myself some tests on it this morning. Thankfully, I didn't do too badly - 90%ish, which is ok, but not as good as it would be if I'd been studying a bit.

But the point of this post is to heartily recommend VocabOne as an easy program for learning vocab in foreign languages. I've set it so that the questions are all posed in one of the Greek fonts, so it asks me a couple of hundred Greek->English questions. I could do it the other way round too, but I figure that I won't be expected to rewrite the Greek NT from the English translation....

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Why I Didn't Drive

I've got my driving test in a few weeks, only a decade or so later than most people my age did it. So here's why I delayed for 10 years, and why I changed my mind.

Reason 1: The Environment

Driving cars is bad for the environment and stuff. Loads of carbon dioxide, a fair bit of nitrous oxides, complex hydrocarbons, etc. I really don't get on well with traffic fumes, so thought it would be hypocritical to moan about cars and drive one.

However, I now don't think the problem is cars per se. I think part of the problem is the way that the tax system is structured - petrol isn't expensive enough and clean alternatives aren't cheap enough. Part of it also is the way society and cities, etc are constructed - it's actually really difficult to cope without a car. What really brought this home to me was buying furniture. Unless you get it from the kind of expensive place that delivers it, you need a way of carting it around. And there's not much you can carry in a rucksack....

Reason 2: Social Responsibility

10 years ago, I didn't think I was ready to be in control of a tonne of metal moving at 30mph next to small children who would be killed if I swerved slightly. I think I've got more reliable since then; I think there are also a lot of drivers who don't even consider this.

Reason 3: Laziness

If I had a car, chance are I'd drive it everywhere. Then I wouldn't get any exercise and would get fat. Possibly true round here, especially with school dinners. But less true in Oxford - there's a lot of places you can't drive to / it would be slower to drive to. Oh, and I can't help myself to lunches any more.

Reason 4: Being Awkward

Still true, but it's now more awkward for me not to drive than it is for society that I don't.

Other reasons to drive:
  • It's inconvenient for other people giving me lifts
  • It means I can go shopping more easily when shops are further away
  • More flexibility in visiting people who don't live near public transport routes

Friday, July 14, 2006

Missing School, etc

It's now 3 days since I left. What I miss about school is mainly the people and the high amount of personal contact. When I was there, I'd spend 10 hours a day or so with people, and a lot of that talking to them. Most schools haven't broken up yet, so church is still on term-time with meetings and so on. If I just see people at church meetings and stuff, that's 7½ hours per week, including meeting up with people to read the Bible and pray and stuff. When church moves into holiday mode, that will go down. It's a huge difference...

On the other hand, last night, there were loads of people over here doing a lot more cleaning, etc. I'm still emotionally drained from it - binning stuff isn't easy for me, especially when it's seeing other people binning my stuff... They did a good job of cleaning, mind you, and it's now a case of waiting for the estate agent.

On a related note, I've figured out why I'm often so apparently messy. It's a saving time thing. I want the stuff I use a lot where I can get at it in the minimum time possible. So it's no use having my shredder (for example) on a shelf where I'd need a step ladder to get at it; I want it when I can reach it from my desk. But it's on the high shelf now, and I admit it looks a lot neater there, so I'll probably put up with the whole hassle of getting stuff out then putting it away for a while. At least until the house is sold.

Friday, July 07, 2006


I praise God for my friends in 24:7.

I'm male and single. At my leaving do at work this week, one of the things I was given was a plaque saying "a cluttered desk is a sign of genius". I'm pretty busy most of the time. So as you can imagine, my house is pretty hideously messy most of the time too. And I'm moving, so need to sell it.

So I praise God for the folks in 24:7 who:

  • offered to help tidy it - I'm too proud to ask for help usually and don't like putting others out just coz they feel obliged to help and I asked
  • gave up their free time to help
  • did such a great job last night - I'm almost scared to use some bits of the house now, in case I mess them up!
  • offered to come back next week to finish it

You guys/gals - thankss sooo much... It's really helpful and also encouraging that God is building a people for himself here.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


Part of the reason I'm writing some of this stuff is as a "way-marker" - so that when I come out of theological college, I (and others) have got a reference to know where I was at when I went in.

An increasing number of evangelicals these days seem to be adopting what I believe is called the Zwinglian model of Communion - that when we share the bread and the wine, it is only a reminder of what Jesus did for us. Some of them would then go on to say that it therefore is only something secondary in the life of the Church. Of course, I disagree with both of those.

Communion - What is Going On?

I think the passage which most easily stops the Zwinglian view of communion is this one:

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar?
1 Corinthians 10:16-18, ESV

I've never come across a satisfactory Zwinglian treatment of that. When we share communion, it is a participation in the body and blood of Christ.

That fits perfectly the sacrificial symbolism in Jesus' death as well. He is the perfect sacrifice for our sins. And how did the Israelites participate in the sacrifice? By eating the body of the sacrifice. How do we participate in Jesus' sacrifice for us? By eating his body and drinking his blood.

Drinking the blood of sacrifices was of course forbidden in the Old Testament - blood was used for external sprinkling to purify things. But we drink it - it is a better participation in the sacrifice than was possible under the Old Covenant, and it is internal in its effects, not just external.

That isn't to say, of course, that Jesus is re-sacrificed at Communion. That's a horrible idea and totally against what the Bible says. Jesus died once for all, on the cross, at Calvary, 2000-odd years ago. Sharing the bread and wine now is a timebound participation in Jesus' eternal, once-for-all, sacrifice.

What about the bread and wine?

The Roman idea of transsubstantiaton seems to be based on an Aristotelian idea that there is a distinction between the "accident" of something (what it looks like, what it's made of) and the "substance" of something (what it really is). They'd then say that the "accident" of the bread and wine stays the same, but that the "substance" changes into body and blood. I think that's bunk, for the simple reason that it seems to have abosorbed far too much bad philosophy.

I think what Jesus meant when he said "This is my body" was quite clear - that by eating it, the effect was as if they had eaten Jesus' body and participated in the sacrifice. So there is a Real Presence, but it is not a Real Physical Presence. The bread and the wine, while it should be treated with reverence, is not Jesus. It is bread and wine. But it is a means by which we receive Jesus.

Who can preside?

I'm happy to abide by Church discipline on this one, but as far as I can tell, God is the one who acts at Communion. It should be a Christian presiding, and they should be a recognised leader within the Church. Does it matter if they've been ordained or not? Not to me.

Saturday, July 01, 2006


I was studying the Bible the other day with a friend. We were using a booklet that asked some questions about the passage to help us think through the Bible, and, as sometimes happens, I ended up getting quite annoyed with the booklet.

This booklet was generally pretty good – it was Mark 1-8, by Tim Chester. I've used other booklets (Mark 9-16, 1 Peter) in the same series by him pretty effectively in homegroups. And yes, there have been a few things I've thought he missed, a few times I've thought the questions were too leading or whatever, but as those booklets go, they're among the best I've used.

But not this time. The passage we were studying was the start of Mark 7. The Pharisees and scribes challenge Jesus

"Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?"
Mark 7:5, ESV

Jesus replies with

"Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, "'This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'
You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men." And he said to them, "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!
Mark 7:6-9, ESV

The book then used these verses to establish a dichotomy between “tradition” on one hand and God's Word / Jesus on the other hand, with tradition as bad and God's Word as good. It went on to ask questions assuming that tradition was always bad. For example:

4. Religious tradition leaves us far from God. What brings us close to God?


Read Mark 12v28-31. What is the heart of the law, according to Jesus? How do religious traditions contradict this, according to Jesus in Mark 7?

There are two huge problems with this, and both are hidden in the NIV.

The Problems

The first is that it doesn't pay close enough attention to the passage. In the NIV, the end of verse 7 and v8 read:

'their teachings are just rules [ενταλματα] taught by men.'
You have let go of the commandments [εντολην] of God and are holding onto the traditions of men.
Mark 7:7-8, NIV

The tension in the passage isn't between God's commandments and the traditions of men. It's between God's commandments and the traditions of men. Jesus shows this by using a very similar root word (“commandments”) at the end of v7 to at the start of v8. The problem isn't that the things the Pharisees are doing are traditions. The problem is that they are holding onto something that is from men.

The second problem is the way that the word for tradition [παραδοσις] is used elsewhere in the New Testament. If the booklet's interpretation (that the problem was tradition) was right, then παραδοσις would always be used in a negative sense.

Most of the time it is, but not always. Here are the counter-examples.

Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.
1 Corinthians 11:2, ESV

So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.
2 Thessalonians 2:15, ESV

Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.
2 Thessalonians 3:6, ESV

In the NIV, these three are all translated “teaching” or “teachings” rather than “traditions” or “tradition”, though the alternative is mentioned in the footnote. (Many thanks to some of my less evangelical friends for pointing out this deficiency in the NIV). Once again, the point is that traditions are not bad per se, but only if their origin is human and people are holding onto them.

In fact, of all the New Testament uses of the word παραδοσις, every single negative use has “of men” or “of the elders” or “your” or “ancestral” or something like that attached. And every single good use has an attachment showing it's of apostolic origin. The problem isn't the tradition; it's where it comes from.


This misinterpretation also affects application. For example, if we say that it is tradition that is the problem, then we start wanting to do things like get rid of celebrating the Lord's Supper, which would be a very bad thing to do. Yes, it's a tradition, but it was started by Jesus, so it's a good tradition and we should keep doing it.

In fact, even then, traditions from men are only spoken of negatively either when they are opposed to God's word, when they become something we hold onto at the expense of God word or trust in instead of Jesus. There is a risk that we might ditch a lot of valuable and godly traditions, albeit from godly men, simply because they are traditions, without considering whether they are actually unhelpful. If a tradition, for example, saying the services in a language not understanded of the people ;o), has become unhelpful, then we should ditch it because it is then standing opposed to God's word which tells us to proclaim the gospel to everyone. We shouldn't hold onto traditions at the expense of God's word. But we shouldn't just ditch them because they are traditions.

So how would the passage apply? I think it applies to anything, whether tradition or not, that comes from men but that we hold onto instead of God's word in Jesus. So if we hold onto our untraditional way of doing services instead of onto God's word and Jesus, then that is just as much at fault as the Pharisees were. If we hold onto our man-made notion that God is against tradition, rather than just unhelpful tradition, and by doing so we reject God's commandment to remember his death by sharing bread and wine, that is just as much at fault as the Pharisees were.

Hold onto the things of God. Do not hold onto the things of man.