Friday, September 29, 2006

The Purpose of Miracles

This is carrying on a series on miracles I started here with a study on how the word "miracles" is used and continued here, by thinking about the relationship between miracles and the laws of nature. The question I'd like to consider this time is the purpose of miracles.

In other words, this is an attempt to answer why God doesn't do more miracles to heal people, etc. (though I know plenty of people I trust who say they have seen miracles in the last few years)

What Miracles Don't Do

Perhaps surprisingly, what we've established over the course of these posts (read the comments too, and also this post that sprang out of a comment) is that miracles don't actually help people believe much. If people have decided not to believe in God, there is always another explanation they can think of for any miracle, whether it's the apparatus not working, whether it's alien technology, whatever. If someone doesn't want to believe, then a miracle isn't going to convince them. That's also true in the Bible - Pharaoh in Exodus is one classic example. God sends all kinds of plagues on Egypt, yet Pharaoh will not give in until in the end his army is destroyed in the Red Sea. The Israelites see the miracles too, and profit from them, yet over the following years they keep on failing to trust God.

So then, what's the point of miracles if they don't help people to believe?

The "Big" Miracles

There are a few miracles in the Bible that are referred to again and again, and it will actually help a lot if we think about them.

The miracles in Exodus are "big" - the plagues on Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, the manna in the desert, ... They were all about God saving his people from slavery in Egypt so that they could worship him.

Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, "This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: 4 'You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession
Exodus 19:3-5, NIV

The other really "big" miracle was the resurrection of Jesus. And once again, it's about God saving people so they could know him. In this case, Jesus rising from the dead meant that he beat death, so that people who trust in him can beat death too, so that we can know him. Just like God saved Israel from Egypt so they could know him and worship him, God saved us from sin and death so that we can know him and worship him.

The big miracles seem to be about God saving people so they can know him and worship him. So what about the small miracles?

The "Small" Miracles

Most of the other miracles in the Bible happen around a few key figures. Moses did quite a few, which showed people that God was going to use him to save his people. Elijah and Elisha did some, which showed that God was using them to warn his people to stay close to him. Jesus did lots, which again showed people that God was going to use him to save the people. And the apostles did some, which showed people they were announcing how they could know Jesus.

So if the "big" miracles are all about God saving people so they could know him, the small miracles seem to be about God pointing out to people that he's doing some saving. The point of miracles is that they point to God saving people in Jesus.

The Priority of Miracles

Here's the account of one of Jesus' miracles:

A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. So many gathered that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. Some men came, bringing to him a paralytic, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus and, after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralyzed man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven."

Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, "Why does this fellow talk like that? He's blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?"

Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, "Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up, take your mat and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins . . . ." He said to the paralytic, "I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home." He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this!"
Mark 2:1-12, NIV

Now, there's quite a lot going on there, but there are a few points which it's useful to think about here:

What was Jesus' priority for the paralytic? Well, the passage makes it look very much like Jesus thought that the forgiveness was important, and the miracle was only done to show that he could forgive people. Jesus seems to think it is more important that people should be forgiven and should be right with him (which means we can know him) than that we are physically healthy. That actually makes sense when you think about it. What matters more? Where we spend eternity or how easily we can move around for the next 50 years?

Why did Jesus heal the person then? To show that he could forgive sins - once again, it's to point to the fact that he really is the saviour. He can save people, he can forgive them.

It matters far more that we are forgiven than that we are well.

So what is God's priority for a paralytic today? Or for someone with an amputated limb? That they should be forgiven, get right with God and be able to know him, to praise and worship him. That's far more important than physical healing?

Miracles don't convince people, but they do point to Jesus who saves people.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Jerry Bridges - the Pursuit of Holiness

This is a good, short, basic book on holiness. I was given it at a convention I went to last year - I can see why they gave it out. Quite challenging, but little I hadn't heard lots of times before.

I'm still thinking through the huge implications of yesterday's post and quite a bit of stuff happening here.

I'd really appreciate your prayers (those of you who pray) for wisdom as to what I'm meant to be doing. I know it's right for me to be here, and for so long so much of what I've been doing has been building up to this, but I really need God's continued guidance for knowing what to do now I'm here.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Cross-Cultural Mission

One of the basic principles of Christian mission is described by Paul in his first letter to the church in Corinth:

Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
1 Corinthians 9:19-23, NIV

Basically, if we want to reach goths with the good news of Jesus (for example), the best way of doing that is to give up all the secondary cultural stuff and become a Christian who is also a goth.

Otherwise, if you've got a bunch of Christians who are all (as many are in the UK) white, university educated, middle class, non-smoking professionals, then outsiders are going to look in and say "That's a place for white university educated middle class non-smoking professionals, but I'm a black brickie who smokes and left school at 16, so I don't fit in." It shows people that they can fit in, it gets rid of most of the barriers, and lets them see Jesus better on their own terms. It doesn't demand that they have to change all their cultural stuff, that might well define who they are, if they are going to become a Christian.

I'm a Christian first and foremost. Yes, I'm white, middle class, university educated, non-smoking. But that should all be negotiable (except it's hard to change my DNA or the past). It doesn't define who I am, so I can change it if I love other people enough and really want them to know Jesus.

Now here's where the rubber hits the road. I know of no Christian churches which are doing this in trying to reach Muslims. I don't know Christian churches where the leaders grow beards, the women wear head coverings, they sit on the floor and put the Bible on a stand, where they only eat halal food. And we wonder why so few Muslims in the UK become Christians! Isn't it obvious! It's because we're not making the effort - because we are holding too tightly to our own culture to bother trying to reach them. I'm not saying we should become Muslims; I'm saying that where issues are negotiable (like hair styles, probably not like gender roles) then we should be willing to compromise to reach others.

What do we do instead? Benedictine techno-trance (no offence to those who really love that stuff), but the C of E seems to plug loads of money into alt.worship stuff because it is trendy even though it seems to bear no fruit and they don't know who it's meant to be reaching.

I know some great fresh expressions of church. I've talked about some on this blog - I've got friends involved with initiatives like the Plant and Eden. But they work precisely because they are losing classic white, middle class, etc culture and changing their culture to that of the people they are trying to reach. Where are the Christians willing to become like Muslims to win the Muslims?

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


There was an interesting opinion piece in the Telegraph this morning about Darfur. Basically, as is well known, it seems that a group of muslims is killing a group of Christians, and has killed about 180,000 so far.

Yes, I think it is in a way surprising how little the West is doing there. Yes, on one level I think it is sad. Who do I think is winning? The Christians.

What we have there is a conflict between two cultures. On one hand, militant Muslims who are happy to kill for their faith. On the other, Christians who are willing to die for theirs. What is victory in that situation? For the Christian, victory is to stay faithful and to die. Those 180,000 are following the way of their Saviour, who submitted himself even to death.

At some times in the past, Christians have got it wrong and have fought back, even occasionally fought offensively. But it is clear that in doing so, they were not following Jesus.

What happens if the war in England becomes violent? What happens if those who refuse to convert to Islam are one day lined up and killed? Then I sincerely hope and pray that I will have the courage to join those 180,000 in conquering by enduring, even to the point of death.

In the (complex and hugely symbolic) book of Revelation, there is a final battle, which is between God's people and everyone else.

When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth—Gog and Magog — to gather them for battle. In number they are like the sand on the seashore. They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God's people, the city he loves.
Revelation 20:7-9a, NIV

God's people are hopelessly overwhelmed and outnumbered. But God's people do not fight back. What happens? The description of the battle is brief:

But fire came down from heaven and devoured them.
Revelation 20:9b, NIV

If any physical fighting for the faith needs to be done, leave it to God. The job of Christians is to stay faithful, to suffer and if needs be, to die.

Difficult question - would I have fought in WW2? Quite possibly. I think there's a difference between fighting to defend myself against attack for being a Christian and potentially laying down my life to defend my country, my family and others from evil.

Monday, September 25, 2006


One of the distinctive things Christians seem to do a lot is singing. Yesterday, I went to two churches with two very different approaches to singing.

Why Sing?

Because the Bible tells us to:

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.
Colossians 3:16

Because singing expresses joy in a way that words without singing don't seem able to:

Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
Psalm 95:1, NIV

All the lands are at rest and at peace; they break into singing.
Isaiah 14:7, NIV

Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem!
Zephaniah 3:14, NIV

Because it is a good and pleasant thing to do:

Praise the LORD, for the LORD is good;
sing praise to his name, for that is pleasant.
Psalm 135:3, NIV

Praise the LORD.
How good it is to sing praises to our God,
how pleasant and fitting to praise him!
Psalm 147:1, NIV

So basically, the point of singing is largely to express gratitude and joy at our relationship with Jesus.

Now when I think about the way that singing has often been done in churches I've been to, I find that it doesn't seem aimed to do that at all. The "hymn sandwich" model (hymn then something else then hymn, then something else, etc) seems designed to express a bit of joy, then get on with something else, then express a bit more joy, as if it was somehow wrong to express lots and lots of joy and actually get excited about Jesus as we express our joy in him.

And don't even get me started about hymn singing in school - I'm still not sure what the point of that is. Why should people who don't have a relationship with Jesus be excited about it?

Now I think there are things we've still got to be careful of. We've got to be careful that we don't sing stuff that isn't true or that we don't believe, coz we don't want to be hypocrites any more than we already are; we should be careful that everything is done in an ordered way rather than chaotically.

However, I think it's important that if we're singing to express joy, then we should express joy in our singing - in the way that we sing, in what we sing, in the way that we put songs together. And the way that people work, it seems that it's somehow easier to express more joy by singing for 10 mins at once than it is for singing for two chunks of 5 mins with a 5 minute break in between to sit down in silence and listen to some boring notices.

Just a thought...

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Does Science Work?

In a recent discussion, JL posted some interesting thoughts on the nature of knowledge in science. He's also done them as a post on his blog. I think there are some very interesting points here, that it's well thought through and well written, and while I agree with most of them, there are a few things that need a bit of clarification.

I give you this analogy: Before you walk into a building, you don't know how structurally safe it might be, and whether or not it might collapse on top of you. You might be 50% certain - either it will collapse, or it won't. You decide that your accumulated experience with buildings is a good guide, and enter the building. If you repeatedly return to the same building, and it doesn't collapse on top of you, your previous experience leads you to the conclusion that this building is structurally sound, and is unlikely to fall down while you are inside. You go further into the building each time you visit, increasing the risk of being trapped or hurt if it does start to collapse. You might be 80% sure, or 90%, or given long enough, 99.999999% sure. You can never be 100% sure, but you conclude that given the evidence and experience, the likelihood of this particular building collapsing with you inside is remote in the extreme.

I agree with the majority of what you say about science here (well, I would, I was a physics teacher until last month).

I think the analogy could be improved a little, however.

We don't have experience of anything else "like" science. We don't have a (naturalistic) understanding of why it works. We don't have any explanation of why or how electrons and photons should interact in the way they do in QED - we just observe that they do. In fact, that has to be true of any theory we see as fundamental.

So science is more like seeing a building with no visible means of support. We can't see a priori why it should stay up. We can't go away and test other things like it to see that they stay up, because there isn't anything else like it. We can't use our pre-existing understanding of engineering to say that it looks as if it should stay up, because we don't have any pre-existing understanding of the universe.

But yes, the reason most people believe that science will continue to work is that it has worked so far. That's not the reason I believe science continues to work - I believe it continues to work because God is reliable, and he continues to work it.

Actually, I think what you describe is a very good analogy for faith. Not in the post-existential sense of "a leap in the dark", but a process of putting your trust in something based on a growing understanding (which is how the Bible uses the word). So I observe that God is trustworthy and doesn't let me down, so I trust him a bit more, and so on.

Taking the analogy further, if the building has been carefully planned and thoroughly tested, well designed and constructed, it will survive all manner of adversity unscathed: fires, floods, earthquakes, strong winds. By the same token, small defects might be uncovered after such events, and these deserve much scrutiny and enquiry, and ultimately some resolution.

I agree. This is also largely the point I was making with miracles and people not believing - even the (hypothetical) absolute rationalist could say it was simply an example of some science or technology they had not yet fully understood. I'm pretty certain that miracles have happened. I have good reason to believe that they still happen.

When people don't believe, in my limited experience (others who read this blog have far more), it is usually either because they have not yet realised how trustworthy God is, how amazing Christ is and how wonderful it is to have a relationship with him, or it is because they have decided not to believe.

I very much doubt that it is possible to prove anything to someone who has decided not to believe, unless God first weakens that resolution. I think that's what is meant in the Bible by the phrase "a hard heart".

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Taking Days Off

One thing I'm really grateful for is the whole idea of days off. Saturday, for example, is currently my day when I don't do any work. With that in mind, I intend this is to be my last blog entry on a Saturday for some time.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Father Christmas

A random not-especially-seasonal post today. I was in a coversation a few days ago where the topic came up and I realised I should write some more on it.

I was quite traumatised as a child over the whole Santa Claus thing. Here's how it happened.

My parents, in a well-meaning but ultimately misguided way, had told me that Father Christmas existed. They told me that he came down the chimney and put presents in my stocking. My stocking certainly went from being empty to being full of presents overnight, and many of the presents claimed to be from Father Christmas.

Having a fairly scientific mindset, I wanted to know how this worked. Specifically, I was bothered about the fact the chimney was bricked up and wasn't sure about the level of communication that seemed to take place between Father Christmas and my parents. So I stayed awake one year - I guess I was about 6 - and waited to see what would happen. As my parents were going to bed, I heard my mother come into the room, so I said hello. She seemed surprised, mumbled something about checking if I was asleep so Father Christmas could come, and went out. I figured I'd better pretend to be asleep the next time, and true to form, my mum filled my stocking with presents.

The next morning, I mentioned this to my parents, and they still tried to maintain that Santa existed, but came up with some much less plausible story, which I didn't believe. I know now that they meant well, but I also know that I lost a lot of respect for my parents that Christmas. I stopped regarding what they said as true just because they said it - I stopped trusting them. It felt as if they were lying to me, and thinking I was stupid to believe the lies.

Why do I say this? Because lies, however well-intentioned, damage relationships.

I think there are some situations where lying is ok - for example if I was hiding a load of Jews in Nazi Germany and the SS came looking. One thing that Daniel Hill has been pushing me on a fair bit lately in when I think it is ok to lie and when I think it isn't. I guess the key issues there are an understanding of the big picture, a knowledge of how others would respond to your statement, and issues of informed and humble consciences. If my parents had understood how lying about Santa would affect me, they wouldn't have done it.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Power of Community

One of the more difficult decisions I made over the last year was where to train for the ordained ministry. The choice basically came down to two colleges. One of them had lots and lots of people like me, most of whom had pretty similar views to where I was coming from (not all of which views I entirely agreed with, of which more later I guess). Most of the teaching was done by lectures, also done by people with a similar background to me, where you were told stuff and expected to absorb and learn it.

The other college had lots of people, but many of them not like me, though most sharing a few basic assumptions (authority of Scripture, etc). Teaching was mostly done by being told to read a lot and write lots of essays, then being expected to be able to argue through the issues one on one with people who knew a lot about the field. A lot of the course was done by non-Christians in a secular university, but within the support of a Christian community.

I chose the latter, and I'm glad I did. If I learnt in a community with people with similar backgrounds and opinions, I'd either end up agreeing with them without having really engaged with the issues, or I'd end up disagreeing with them because I'm sometimes contrary like that. This way, I get to make my own mind up as to what the Bible teaches, while being exposed to a broader range of opinions, and there is much less likely to be compulsion to take (or oppose) a party line.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

John Pollock - Shaftesbury the Reformer

This is a fairly short ( < 200 pages) biography of the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury. Reading it, I found it hard to understand how he didn't make the shortlist for "Greatest Britons", well, except that it was voted for by the general public, and there doesn't seem to be a large public awareness of Shaftesbury. To be honest, I didn't know what he did, except thinking that he had something to do with prison reform, which I have at times been quite ambivalent about.

In brief, Shaftesbury was a 19th century English nobleman, MP and social reformer. He was heavily involved with campaigning against and stopping the quasi-slave-labour culture of the 1800s (especially for children), providing education and apprenticeships for street children, helping to reform criminals, abolishing the burning of widows in Indian, and was involved in founding and/or leading a vast number of organisations including the Bible Society, the RSPCA, the NSPCC, the YMCA, ... One of the striking things is the way that his actions flowed out of his sincere trust in Jesus - he was for a while virtually the official spokesman for Christians in England and many of the organisations he was involved with were explicitly Christian. It has certainly been argued that without the reforms he introduced, England might well have fallen to revolution in the mid-1800s, as many other countries in Europe did.

This biography is certainly a good introduction to Shaftesbury, but doesn't really have space to get into detail about what was going on in his mind, as there is so much that he did.

One interesting question: How come the great pioneering social reformers in history have almost all been committed Christians? The only one I can think of offhand who wasn't was Gandhi, and even he claimed to have been hugely influenced by Jesus. Maybe it's my selective knowledge of history, but William Wilberforce, Lord Shaftesbury, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, ...

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

First Impressions of Wycliffe Hall

The people here seem nice - helped me unloading the car, offered cup of tea, etc. Good at making me feel welcome.

There's a load of Greek grammar stuck to the wall in the bathroom - :o) I might find myself getting used to this place!

The Pope, etc

I suppose I ought to comment briefly on the Pope and his words about Islam. But pretty much everything there is to say is obvious, so I'll do it by quoting someone who said it better than I could.

The point is, if you want to undo stereotypes the best way of doing so is not to blame a person who supposedly reinforces a negative stereotype, but in reacting in a way that different than the stereotype. The stereotype of Muslims tells us that they would react to the pope's words with anger, violence and calls for blood. Sure enough, many Muslims reacted with anger, violence and calls for blood. So who is reinforcing the negative stereotype?
Tim Challies

Yes, it's a war. Yes, we as Christians are probably going to have to fight it. I hope and pray we're not going to use violence in doing it, because that would be really stupid.

This might be for some an occasion to dig out that great victory hymn from the book of Revelation.

They overcame him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death.
Revelation 12:11, NIV

This is not talking about suicide bombers - this is talking about people winning by being willing to die (rather than to kill) for the one whom they love - Jesus. And yes, I know in context it's talking about defeating Satan, but the principle holds the same.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Don't Stop Moving...

Though it seems that I have. I'm in Oxford now, have a room, getting towards sorting it out...

Moving Progress (Again!)

For the second time in three days, I'm aiming to move house today! (Heavy house, small llama, thus difficult to drag, might take a while)

I'm aiming to do another post late today or tomorrow, but it might not happen. Thanks for your patience.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Miracles and the Laws of Nature

This is the second in a series on miracles - the first can be found here. It's mostly stuff I wrote a while ago, but haven't put on the Web until now.

Do Miracles Break the Laws of Nature?

It is a common belief today that a miracle is something that does not fit in with the laws of nature. Does the Bible support this? Let's look once again at the events surrounding the Exodus, in this case, the parting of the Red Sea, one of the many miracles performed by God to rescue the Israelites from Egypt.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the LORD drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.
Exodus 14:21-22, NIV

First, let us be clear that this was God's action. I showed last time that the purpose was to teach the Egyptians and the Israelites that God was powerful. The passage above says clearly that it was God who drove the water back.

Why then was there a wind, and why did it take all night? It certainly seems that here God uses normal "scientific" means to drive the water back, just as he uses normal "scientific" means (gravity) to cause it to crash back down on the Egyptians.

This should not surprise us. After all, if scientific laws are only a description of the way that God acts in the universe, then why should he not follow them when demonstrating his power? If God brings the rain through the normal physical processes at work in the universe, why should he not deliver his people using those same processes?

The crossing of the Red Sea can be "explained" in terms of physics. So what makes it a miracle?

The parting of the Red Sea is a miracle because it displays God's power. Moses could not have parted the sea on his own. Neither could Pharaoh, and neither could we. But God could.

I have heard it said that occasionally strong winds do come, and do cause the sea in that area to part. Even so, people cannot make it part on demand.

If we could build a machine to do it, then that would still not make this occurrence any less of a miracle, because God did not use such a machine. It was a miracle because it showed that the wind and water obeyed God in a way that they do not obey people.

We see the same thing in Mark 4:35-41. Jesus commands a storm to stop, and it stops. It was not a miracle because the storm stopped –storms stop all the time. It was a miracle because, as the disciples noted:

"Even the wind and the waves obey him."

So, in the Bible, miracles do not have to break the laws of nature in order to be miracles.

Can Miracles Break The Laws Of Nature?

There is a real danger of saying that God does not work through the normal operation of science. But there is also a danger of domesticating him and saying that he can only work through the normal operation of science.

In some miracles, such as the parting of the Red Sea, God works in accordance with the laws of science. But that is not true of all miracles.

The clearest example is the resurrection of Jesus. All the evidence points to Jesus being dead on the Friday evening. Yet on the Sunday morning, Jesus was able to convince people that he had conquered death rather than merely surviving it. This was not just a resuscitation where Jesus came back from death but was still near it. This was a resurrection where Jesus conquered death and came out the other side.

Now this does not fit in with the normally observed way that the universe works. In general, people do not come back from the dead. Occasionally, people are wrongly thought to be dead and later revive. But when they do, they are nowhere near as clearly dead as Jesus was, nor able to give the impression that have conquered death so soon afterwards.

So Jesus' resurrection was not in accordance with the laws of science.

That does not make it in some way more God's action than parting the Red Sea. Both are miracles; both are things which God did and we could not, and both point to God's power and rescue of his people. One is done through the way the universe usually works, and one is not.

How Can God Break His Own Laws?

All of this raises an important question about God's faithfulness. After all, in Jeremiah, God said that he had "established the fixed laws of heaven and Earth", and he used it to show his faithfulness.

So if God established those laws as fixed, how can he break them?

I think the best answer to this is that there is one fundamental law of the universe, which is that everything does what God tells it to do. This is actually necessary if we are to explain how the universe works at all.

Now if the fundamental law of the universe is that it does what God tells it to do, he can sometimes tell it to do things a bit differently.

Why would he do this? To show clearly that he is God, and that he has total power over the whole universe. To show that he is not domesticated – that he is not always limited by what we think he should be like. To show that he is not limited by the way that the universe works, but that he can do anything he wants to do. Scientific agnostics can cling on in the face of miracles such as the parting of the Red Sea by saying that it is just a very unlikely coincidence. But they can do nothing in the face of the resurrection of Jesus.

As Don Carson writes:

A miracle is not God doing something for a change, it is God doing something out of the ordinary. That God normally operates the universe consistently makes science possible; that he does not always do so should keep science humble.
Don Carson, How Long, O Lord?

So why then does God sometimes do miracles which fit in with the way that the universe works? To show that he is God over science as well. God is accomplishing his purpose through the normal way that the universe works, just as he is also accomplishing it when he does things a bit differently. It is to show us that the universe does not just carry on regardless except for the odd moment when God steps in and decides to act. God is continually at work in the universe.

Moving Progress

Just to say that stage 1 of the move is all done and I'm enjoying a short rest before stage 2, which might well be tomorrow. Thanks for the prayers...

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Moving House

I'm (finally) moving house today, and then again on Monday. I'll try to post, but might not manage much, especially with getting used to a new city, intermittent net access and then my course starting on Wednesday.

So sorry if I'm very slow replying to comments, e-mails, etc.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Women Bishops (Part 3)

Part 1
Part 2

This was probably the best bit of the debate. Mr Allister spoke on "the current situation and ways ahead". He spent quite a while explaining why it was important to stay united with other evangelicals under the authority of Scripture, even and especially when we disagreed over what it said, and that it was important to love one another rather than throwing labels around.

He then went on to explain why the current situation has reached an empasse at General Synod, and may well remain there for a few years.

He answered a question about what to do when people on each side think their side is not only right, but also have conscience arguments for it very well. He spoke about the idea of "corporate conscience" - that we can essentially submit to the corporate conscience on issues such as this, even if we personally don't agree with it because we recognise that to do otherwise would be to offend our Bible-believing brothers and sisters who disagree with us on one point of interpretation. That certainly seemed to offer a genuine way forwards within the C of E for both parties, whatever happens with this issue.

This contrasts with what looks to me an awful lot like pride and status-seeking by those at both extremes - those women who are demanding exactly the same status as male bishops (i.e. not allowing respect for the conscience of those who have good theological reasons for rejecting them), all those who seem to have pre-decided the issue and aren't open to persuasion, those men who insist they will leave rather than be in the same church as female bishops.


There were a few other good points raised in discussion - that the nature of ordination and bishops were essentially still ill-defined, that authority in the church comes from being given it by predecessors and so on (back to Jesus) and that the authority given us by our predecessors did not include the authority to consecrate women as bishops, the fact that history suggests that the C of E makes new rules by old ones being broken rather than by discussion, ...

Reflection on the Debate

I thought the debate was helpful, especially for newcomers to the issue. However, I didn't think either of the main speakers really either got beyond the standard arguments or engaged with the other person's arguments beyond a superficial level, which was a bit disappointing.

My Opinion

I think there are a few things we can say for certain, but that they don't clearly define a single position in the middle - I think they define a range of positions. I think some of the things we can say for certain are:

  • Men and women are equal - both are equally saved, equally incorporated into Christ, equally valuable to him (e.g. Gal 3).
  • Men and women, while equal, are also different.
  • One of the ways in which they are different is in terms of roles in marriage. Husbands are to be the loving, self-sacrificing head; wives are to be loving and submissive - to model the relationship between Christ and the Church (Eph 5)
  • Women have an important role in church leadership. This role should include teaching women (Titus) and they should not be excluded from praying or prophesying in church meetings (1 Cor 11). Roles clearly open to women also include the role of deacon.
  • All too often in the past, the church has used a clergy-only model, which has been hugely damaging to the valuable work of lay people, and women in particular.
  • Because men and women are complementary, and designed to be so (Gen 2), I would expect their work in the Church to be complementary (body metaphors). However, since there are as many different roles as there are people in the Church, that might include roles for which the C of E requires ordination as presbyter or bishop.
  • The relationship between husband and wife should not be damaged or subverted by what goes on in the church (which is certainly one meaning of the controversial bit in 1 Cor 11).

I'm not convinced (at the moment) by the argument that men are in some sense the head of women outside marriage. Nor am I convinced that the Bible is clearly in favour of women in the role of "presbyter" or "episkopos". I would imagine that there would be extra tensions in the marriages of married women elders or bishops - care would have to be taken to help there (screening of clergy husbands??)... Of course, there are arguments from history (though a few groups in the early centuries, did have women presbyters and bishops), and arguments both ways from unity (Methodists have women bishops, RCs and Orthodox don't).

So in short, I don't know. I am happy to work alongside female clergy that I know, including those in roles of oversight. I would of course expect them to have worked through the issue in good conscience in their own mind and to be satisfied with the outcome, as well as to trying to model the relationship between Christ and the Church in their marriages (if married). But at the end of the day, all that is between them, their husband and God. I personally think it's far more important that they teach and are faithful to the teaching of the Bible than that they have a Y chromosome. If the C of E finally agrees to appoint women bishops, I guess I'll be happy to work alongside them, respecting the collective conscience of the Church.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Women Bishops (Part 2)

This is continuing my reflections on the debate last night on women bishops. Part 1 can be found here.

Arguments Against Women Bishops

Somewhat surprisingly, Mr Gales didn't bother to refute the (very shaky) equal = identical mistake explicitly, though it is a common argument. He did however spend a good bit of time in 1 Corinthians 11, arguing that the "headship" mentioned there clearly included authority (with reference to Grudem's work on the use of the word "head"), and non-identicality of nature, roles and glory, though he clearly accepted women to be equal to men in salvation. He then moved to 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, where he argued for the context to be public worship (fine) and the specific issue to be whether women were to exercise authority by interpreting tongues (which seemed to be reading his view into the passage - a fairer interpretation would have been that it is generally about order in services, and women not being meant to natter).

Moving on then to 1 Timothy 2:11-14, he again argued that the context was public worship with a contrast between v11 - women can learn and v12 - women can't teach or have authority over men and v13-14 giving backing from creation to show that it wasn't just referring to a specific instance but was more general and that women's distinctive role within the church was the raising of children.

He closed by pointing out that language today is often seen as loaded and all too often we worry about status and so on, when that is not the concern of the Bible.

My Reflections

I don't think he established his case well enough. For the 1 Corinthians 11 reference to show that women shouldn't be bishops, he needed to establish that it was more general than just marriage (which is difficult when the Greek words for "husband and wife" are the same as for "man and woman"). Ditto with the 1 Timothy 2 passage - could it be just referring to how married couples were to relate to each other in church? In personal discussion afterwards, he handled this issue better, saying explicitly that men in general had headship over women in general, but was unable to back that up Biblically. It's difficult when the creation arguments refer to Adam and Eve, who were married... If the male/female headship issue is only applicable in marriage, of course, then it raises the question of single women and whether they are allowed to exercise authority in the church.

There was also some discussion about Deborah, and whether or not her leadership of Israel was only due to Barak's weakness and the question of the nature of authority and whether the issue was with women "lording it over" men or with women serving.

I think the third part of the debate was probably the best, of which more later...

Is It Time for Women Bishops in the C of E?

Last night, I was at a debate with that title, which was organised by the Chester Diocesan Evangelical Fellowship. Ian Enticott (Kelsall) spoke for, Simon Gales (Lindow) spoke against, Donald Allister (archdeacon) spoke about the current situation and the way forwards. Mike Smith (Hartford) chaired the meeting.

I'm not going to report exactly what was said - it's not really my style. I'm going to synthesise and reflect a bit too...

Points of Agreement

It was generally agreed that, as evangelicals, the key question was whether women bishops were permitted by the Bible. The main speakers also agreed on the key passages, partularly 1 Timothy 2, 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Corinthians 14. They also agreed that women should be allowed and encouraged to take some positions of responsibility within the church, for example praying or prophesying in the congregation (1 Cor 11:5) or deacon (whatever that is, Rom 16:1). Both agreed that in 1 Timothy 2, Paul's command to let women learn in v11 was the main shock for the original readers, though disagreed with the significance of v12 in that light. Both also agreed that Jesus appointing only male disciples did not lead to a solid argument against women bishops, and both agreed that if women presbyters should be allowed, so should women bishops be, with Mr Gales saying the ordination of women to the presbyterate had been a mistake. The debate was conducted in a friendly and polite way.

Arguments for Women Bishops

Mr Enticott spent some time looking at 1 Tim 2:11-12, specifically highlighting that both "woman" and "man" were singular (and why should this be so if Paul is commanding a general men over women thing?) and that they could be equally well translated "husband" and "wife". He also highlighted that "exercise authority over" is not the usual Biblical word for "authority" and might well be better translated "lord it over".

Furthermore, he pointed out a number of women in leadership positions in the early church, including Priscilla correcting Apollos in Acts 18:26 and seeming to take more of a leadership role than her husband Aquila. He also mentioned Junais and Pheobe in Romans 16, drawing attention to the fact that Pheobe takes the masculine form of the word "deacon", suggesting that male titles could be and were used of women in the Church.

He then went on to a much weaker (in my opinion) section, where he argued from Galatians 3, etc, that there is no male or female in Christ and that we all, men and women are sons of God. I know it's a commonly used argument, but it's pretty clear that it's referring to salvation, where God makes no distinction between men and women, but that while men and women are equal, we aren't identical (as the sections in the NT on marriage show). His most interesting comment was that the male/female distinction doesn't exist in terms of the Holy Spirit, which would probably repay a little more thought.

He then went on more briefly to look at 1 Corinthians 11, where he questioned the nature of headship, specifically showing it involved an element of equality, and then 1 Corinthians 14:34, where he showed the word "silent" was used in the passage not for permanant silence, but for being quiet when someone else was speaking.

My Reflections

I think that Mr Enticott might have fallen slightly too much for the equal = identical mistake. Specifically, the way he worded things made it look as if he advocated men and women having identical roles in the church and in marriage, and he didn't provide an adequate explanation of the nature of headship in 1 Corinthians 11. We all agree (or should) that men and women are equal; the question is whether both can be bishops, which is altogether different. He was also sometimes slightly too quick to jump to his conclusion. For example, in 1 Timothy 2, he went straight from women learning to women therefore being meant to teach men. I didn't get that conceptual leap at all. On the other hand, I thought some of his arguments were good - particularly in terms of 1 Timothy 2.

Part 2...

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Good News on Fashion

It's not often I think a fashion story is good news. So here's one I noticed today. In brief, Madrid Fashion Week seems to have introduced a rule banning models with a BMI of under 18 (under 18 is significantly underweight).

To be honest, one thing I really don't get is the difference between the male and female conceptions of beauty. I can understand women wanting to be attractive. But what (other than eating disorders) motivates them to get as this as many of them do? Wanting to show their stomachs off? Some kind of twisted one-up-woman-ship and pride?

Why is it that when the surveys consistently say that Western men like women with a BMI between (say) 18.5 and 25, which range is deemed "healthy", then many women try getting theirs between (say) 16 and 20?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Staying or Going?

One of the interesting issues I've discussed a bit online is the whole issue of how to respond to being in a church when I strongly disagree with other members of it. Of course, Christians holding to "traditional" views of (for example) sexual morality have a much more difficult time of it in ECUSA - the Anglican Church in the US.

Here's an interesting interview with a minister in ECUSA, who is pretty sure that the right thing to do is stay. What I find particularly interesting is his broader theological view than the one or two texts usually trotted out - he thinks in terms of divorce, in terms of what it meant for the Old Testament prophets to be part of an apostate people, etc. Interesting stuff (and thanks to SAA for drawing this to my attention).

Monday, September 11, 2006

The "Problem" of Evil

Here's a quote from a comment on one of my recent posts:

The problem from evil DOES disprove the existence of a loving omnipotent god.

I figure it needs a bit of space to respond to, so I might as well write a bit on it...

The "Problem"

The classic statement of the "problem of evil" goes something like this:

1) If God is omnipotent (all-powerful), he can stop suffering if he wants to
2) If God is loving, he will stop suffering if he can
3) So if God is loving and omnipotent, he will stop suffering
4) Suffering exists
5) Therefore God is not loving and omnipotent

As you can guess, I don't think it works at all.

Problems with the "Problem" - 1. Misdefining "love"

There are a few problems with the so-called "problem of evil". First, statement 2) is flawed. It assumes that "loving" means "wanting others to avoid suffering as much as possible". As far as I can tell, that's a fairly modern cultural assumption, and it's one of those assumptions that stops working if you look at it for long.

For example, a loving parent will often allow their children to play, even if it might mean the children hurting themselves. If they wanted to minimise pain, they'd put the child on a morphine drip and lock them in their room. As the child gets older, a loving parent might well allow the child to cross roads on their own, despite the risk of getting run over. They might allow or even encourage their child to learn to drive, despite the risks of road accidents. The best way of minimising pain is to give someone a massive dose of anasthetic and kill them. And if you let them live, don't let them ever get romantically involved with anyone else. Love does not mean "aiming to minimise pain".

But what if we're talking about serious suffering? What if when we say "suffering", we mean "dying before age 35"? Once again, love doesn't mean "always wanting to preserve life". Steve Irwin died recently in what seems to have been a freak accident with a stingray. Was it loving of his wife and family to let him go? Yes. Given what Steve Irwin's persona seems to have been like, it would have been unloving not to let him go.

In the same way, God lovingly allows us the dignity of the consequences of our actions. If I hit someone, they can feel pain. If I sit alongside someone, they can be comforted. If I drive at 100mph off a cliff, I die. If I bury a landmine, it might explode and hurt or kill someone. Our actions are our fault.

Problems with the "Problem" - 2. Missing the Point

Another problem with the "problem" is that it completely misses the point. Christianity doesn't claim that God makes life pain-free or suffering-free. Actually, it claims it makes life more painful, with more suffering (and more joy and hope) for those who follow it.

What is promised for Christians who are suffering is endurance, hope and joy, not freedom from suffering.

Problems with the "Problem" - 3. REALLY Missing the Point

What is the main thing Christianity says about suffering?

That God himself is not an impassive observer - that he came to share in the world's suffering - that he was rejected, persecuted, beaten, suffered, and that he died, and that somehow through that suffering and death, he accomplished a great good. Jesus showed that suffering and death is not the final word - he showed that he can and does use it for God's glory and for the good of God's people.

Problems with the "Problem" - 4. Forgetting the tenses

The other point worth mentioning, of course, is that God has promised that he will one day deal with suffering totally (for his people, at least). There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. But that isn't yet - God hasn't yet finished what he is doing and the way he is working in the suffering of this world to accomplish his purposes.

God is omnipotent, he is loving, he shares in our suffering, he suffers for us, he promises that one day there will be an end to suffering. I'm grateful that he's God, and not me, and not anyone else.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Miracles - a Word Study

This is the first part in what may well be a series on miracles, etc. Several of the comments have flagged up that it's an area that needs explaining. It's going to be useful to first look at what the word "miracle" means in the Bible before we look at some of the implications...

The English word "miracle" does not occur in the original text of the Bible – it was written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. So we should not automatically assume that the word "miracle" is necessarily the best translation of all the words used in the original. We need to think about what the words used for miracles actually mean. "Miracle" comes from the Latin word "miraculum", meaning an object of wonder. So, in English, a miracle is something that people are amazed at.

In the New Testament, there are three groups of words often translated as "miracle" or "miraculous" – δυναμις (dunamis), σημειον (semeion) and τερας (teras).

Dunamis comes from the same root as our word "dynamic", and is well translated by the English word "power". So a miracle where the word dunamis is used is something powerful that is done. An example is in Acts 8:13

Simon himself believed and was baptised. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.

Semeion means "sign". So a miracle where semeion is used is something that points someone or something out as special and different. In the verse above, the word translated "signs" is semeia – the plural of semeion.

Every time teras is used in the New Testament, it is paired with semeion. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it is used to translate the word mowpheth (see later), so it seems to mean roughly the same as dunamis.

All three are used in Acts 2:22.

Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles (dunamis), wonders (teras) and signs (semeion), which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.

These three words are not talking about different events. There are not some things that are miracles, some that are signs, and some that are wonders. In his gospel, John consistently uses the word semeion for all of them. These three words are complementary ways of describing the same events. Dunamis and teras emphasise God's power, and semeion emphasises the significance.

In the Old Testament, there are three Hebrew words used – mowpheth, 'owth, and pala' (I haven't yet set up this computer to be able to type in Hebrew).

'Owth means much the same as semeion, and is usually translated as "sign". Mowpheth means something like "wonder" or "display of God's power". Both can be seen used in Deuteronomy 26:8 and elsewhere, usually talking about the events connected with the Exodus.

So the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders.

The Hebrew pairing of 'owth and mowpheth seems to be equivalent to the Greek pairing of semeion and either dunamis or teras. Just like in the New Testament, the words seem to refer to the same things – the same events at the Exodus were both signs and wonders, as were Jesus' miracles.

Pala' means something like "amazingly better than anything else". We see it used in Genesis 18:14

Is anything too hard (pala') for the LORD?

It is also used to mean things which are amazing because they are so difficult to do.

Before all your people, I will do wonders (pala') never before done in any nation in all the world.
Exodus 34:10

So then, what shall we say a miracle is? The words used in the Bible to describe them point to this as a definition:

A miracle is a demonstration of (God's) power which acts as a sign to show that God is particularly at work.

There may of course be other purposes for the miracle as well. The crossing of the Red Sea also served the purpose of God rescuing his people from the Egyptians. But even then, God could have rescued the Israelites without a miracle. God said that the purpose was so that

The Egyptians will know that I am the LORD when I gain glory through Pharaoh, his chariots and his horsemen.
Exodus 14:18

And afterwards we see the effect of the miracle on God's people.

And when the Israelites saw the great power the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.
Exodus 14:31

God's stated purpose in the miracles of the Exodus was to use them as a sign to show people that he was (and therefore still is) God.

In fact, miracles in the Bible are always signs. The very first miracle where a person is involved in performing it is in Exodus 4, where God is giving Moses some signs:

"This," said the LORD, "is so that they may believe that the LORD, the God of their fathers – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob – has appeared to you."
Exodus 4:5

It is therefore not at all surprising that miracles in the Bible mostly occur when God is revealing more of himself to the people: in the work of Moses and Joshua (the Law), Elijah and Elisha (the Prophets), Jesus and the apostles (the Gospel).

I'll think about the implications of this and look at some examples in more detail another time.

Part 2...

Saturday, September 09, 2006

More Thoughts on Traffic

I've spent a lot of time over the last couple of days driving on motorways, and I have a few more thoughts on traffic. It's worth qualifying this all by saying I'm not (yet) a great or greatly experienced driver, but these are my reflections.

A large proportion of the delays on motorways are caused by one slow vehicle overtaking an even slower vehicle (or even x3 or 4), which slows the faster lanes down. This could be reduced by imposing a minimum speed limit for motorways except in jams.

The rules on motoring offences are illogical. For example, driving safely at 60pmh on a deserted bit of dual carriageway in Manchester is heavily penalised despite having no effect on other users, whereas driving at 30mph down a single lane country road where it is safe to drive at 60mph is legal and carries no penalty whatsoever although it can cause great inconvenience to other road users.

I therefore suggest that hypothetically, road penalties should be linked to inconvenience caused to other users. So driving too fast on a deserted road with unrailed cliffs shouldn't be an offence if you're the only person in the car and there's no-one living at the bottom of the cliffs.

Killing someone by dangerous driving, or running the risk of doing so, would of course be the most serious offence, punishable by a lifetime ban, huge fines, etc. But what if being much too slow turning out of a junction or driving at 30mph in a 60mph limit was a more serious offence and speeding was only an offence if dangerous?

Friday, September 08, 2006

Free Speech

What a world we live in! Today, I came across some interesting news about events in the UK from the blog of an American Baptist minister. He seems to trust the Daily Mail, which I'm aware is sometimes regarded as somewhere between the Sport and the Star in terms of journalistic standards, so I checked, and the same story (albeit much shorter) made it onto the BBC News website. Here's Melanie Phillips' editorial in the Daily Mail, which makes interesting reading.

To summarise quickly - a Christian campaigner (same guy as protested against Jerry Springer - the Opera, thereby getting it huge publicity) got arrested for the heinous crime of handing out leaflets at a gay rally in Cardiff. The leaflets consisted mostly of verses from the King James Bible about why homosexuality was wrong.

A few things spring to mind.

First, I think what he was doing is totally the wrong way to go about the issue of homosexuality, and the British version of the "culture war". Why should we expect non-Christians to obey Christian standards of behaviour? And why should we expect them to do so when we use language that is 400 years out of date? Would that he had been handing out leaflets explaining clearly to the people there how true fulfilment and liberation can be found only in Christ!

Secondly, it is worrying for the state of the nation as a whole that he was arrested. It's a slight but significant escalation from when the police interviewed the Bishop of Chester after he said that homosexual sex was wrong. Lets think of an analagous situation - lets imagine a big Christian outdoor event in a public place. Lets imagine some gay campaigners or muslims peacefully handing out leaflets saying that Jesus isn't God, we're all hateful and we're all going to Hell. That's fine. I disagree with them, but I'd defend their right to do it. This country has a long and good tradition of free speech.

These events suggest we're moving away from that. Will Christianity become illegal in Britain in my lifetime? Probably not, but I don't think that will stop some within the police from treating it as if it is.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Answers to Prayer

Over the summer, I've had some pretty cool answers to prayer. For example, I knew that I needed to sell my house, and that it would take about 6 weeks to get all the legal faffing sorted after selling it. This gave me two weeks to sell it. I prayed about it. How long did it take to sell? Two weeks.

I needed to pass my driving test. There was a small problem. I didn't really think I was ready. My instructor didn't think I was ready. And I was taking the test in a ridiculously heavy rainstorm, it having been dry through all my lessons. I'd prayed about it. I passed.

The question is this: Why am I so reluctant, when talking to non-Christians, to say that these are direct answers to prayer?

If I wanted to blame other people, the obvious people to blame would be those nutcases who say "If you send me £20, I will post you a cloth I've blown my nose on and prayed over, and it will make you better" or the many fake or psychosomatic accounts of healing. I'm not saying there aren't genuine healings out there - I'm pretty sure there are. But the dodgy ones give the whole area a bad name.

Another group I might try to blame is the people who ascribe every little thing to answered prayer. "The bill at the shop came to £5.73, and you'll never guess how much change I had in my purse. It was a real answer to prayer - I didn't have to use that ten pound note." The issue here isn't triviality - I'm sure that God does care about every little detail of our lives and is quite capable of making sure we have the exact change - it's pointlessness and high probability of coincidence. Even making naive assumptions about money, you'd expect to have enough change not to go into the next pound up at least 50% of the time, and the chance of having the exact change is only around 1 in 100 - you'd expect it to happen once every few weeks. So claiming it's a direct act of God (in a way that it isn't if you'd had 10p over), when there's no real purpose to it and it didn't actually help you much is silly. It makes people think that "God" is just the name that you give to coincidences.

The pointlessness thing is also important. God is not a slot-machine God. We don't pray and then get whatever we pray for. God is the all-powerful, all-wise creator of the universe. He doesn't exist merely to give us whatever we want. God's purpose is glorifying his name. The point of prayer is largely to submit ourselves to God and to rely on him for everything we need in following him. That's partly why I'm sure that me passing my driving test and selling my house were in response to prayer. Realisitically, those things needed to happen when they did so that I can go on this course to train to be a minister in the C of E. I'm pretty sure that's exactly what God wants me to be doing, so he will make sure that it happens.

So why do I find it difficult to tell non-Christians that it's answered prayer? Is it because stuff like I've discussed above has so messed up their conception of prayer that they think they understand it but really don't? Is it because I'm somehow embarrassed? Is it because I don't want to get into an argument about why God never answered their prayers for a pony (or whatever)? Probably a bit of all of them.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Hunting - funny news story

Regardless of what you think of hunting, the law about it is very silly. For example, it forbids classic hunting, but allows hunters to use dogs to flush the animals out then eagles to kill them, which probably makes it more of a spectacle. I was therefore amused to read this story this morning in the Telegraph. Here's a quick sample.

A retired police officer has admitted twice flouting the new hunting law by allowing his terrier dog to chase and kill a mouse and a mole.

George Morrison, 51, reported himself to former colleagues but he was not prosecuted over either incident.


Mr Morrison served with Northumbria Police for 30 years before retiring as a detective inspector three months after the Government's Hunting Act came into force in February last year.

He turned himself in to the police on both occasions to demonstrate that the 2004 Hunting Act was a "ridiculous law".

Thinking about it, it is possible that the law does exactly what it was intended to do - appeases the hunting protesters while not actually stopping hunting. (If it works, it shows the hunting protesters were actually motivated by pride, not by concerns for animal welfare, but I think we knew that anyway.) The downside of that though is that it weakens the notions of the rule of law and the utility of law still further.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Exodus 20:2

One of the things that annoyed me about St Mary's (and the Book of Common Prayer) was how the Bible is misused in the Communion Service. I haven't yet checked with Catholics to see whether this was an abuse carried over from them at the time of the Reformation, or whether it is an abuse invented by Cranmer or someone.

One of the big emphases in the Communion Service (and rightly so) is on the fact that we don't deserve what Jesus did for us in dying for us, and we don't deserve what he is doing for us and in us as we participate in Communion. As part of that, the 10 Commandments are read out near the start of the service, to remind us of some of God's standards. This is what is said:

God spake these words and said:
I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt have none other gods but me...

It's a quote from some old translation of Exodus 20. Except it isn't. It's a corruption. Exodus 20 reads:

And God spoke all these words, saying,
"I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me...."
Exodus 20:1-3, ESV

The difference is significant. In the first one, it looks like God demands that kind of loyalty simply because he exists, and therefore that obeying God might somehow get us right with him.

But in the real Bible passage, God makes it clear that he has already saved the people and brought them out of slavery. The 10 Commandments are then telling Israel how they should respond to that rescue. It makes it clear that obeying the 10 Commandments isn't about trying to be saved - it's about responding to being saved and responding to God's revelation of himself.

It's a difference between two views of what living as a Christian is about. The first view says:

Be good -> God will be nice to you

That's not what the 10 Commandments are saying. They're much more like this:

God has saved you -> Follow Him -> God will keep on blessing you

That's why there are links in the 10 Commandments to future blessing, and they are all blessings in terms of what God has already done for his people.

It's the same kind of idea in the New Testament. God has done the decisive action to save us - sending Jesus to die in our place so that we can be united with him. Our response is then to follow Jesus, to live as people who are in him. And if we do that, it shows that we really are in him and he will keep on blessing us by bringing us into closer and closer union with Christ that will one day be perfected in heaven.

But that's not what we say if we misuse the 10 Commandments by missing out Ex 20:2. It's not just in the Prayer Book either - churches that have the 10 Commandments on the walls often miss it off too. I'm glad to see that the newer version of that service includes v2, even if it is in brackets. It makes it look as if they've realised it was a mistake to miss it out, but they're kind of scared to mess about with it. But it really doesn't explain why we still missed Ex 20:2 out when using the modern langauge service at St Mary's....

For what it's worth, I've taken this up publically and privately with the leadership at St Mary's. They agree with me, but haven't changed anything.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Saying Goodbye

Yesterday, I said goodbye to a lot of people at church. I've been going there since I was 11 - long before I became a Christian. Some people there have known me well for ages - including when I was really nasty, etc (though I'm still not perfect, I'm better than I used to be!).

I haven't enjoyed all my time there. There are a lot of things I think they get badly wrong, many of which I've commented on there, some of which I have commented on on here, and some of which I will comment on on here in the future. They aren't by any means perfect, but the last few years there, I've really felt accepted and loved and useful. They're family, and I'm sorry to leave them.

So to everyone at St Mary's, Cheadle, thank you very much. I will endeavour to continue to pray for you and wish you all the best. Oh, and I aim to be back when I'm in the area, but that won't be very often.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Pascal's Wager

This is an old argument thought up by the French physicist, mathematcian and philosopher Blaise Pascal. I'd be interested to see people's thoughts on it.

It's not meant to be an argument that says Christianity is true - Pascal helped invent probability theory in maths; it's meant to be an argument about which way is the better bet, Christianity or atheism.

The Argument

The argument basically goes like this...

Lets assume there are only two possibilities for belief - Christianity and Atheism and that one and only one of them is correct. For the sake of argument, lets say that the probability of the Christians being correct is p, so the probability of the Atheists being correct is 1-p.Each belief has a group of people who follow it - the Christians and the Atheists.

If Atheism is correct, then both groups will end up exactly the same - pushing up the daisies. If Christianity is correct, then the Christians will end up very much better off than the Atheists. Lets call the amount the Christians will be better off than the Atheists in this scenario H.

So the Christians stand chance p of gaining H - their expected gain is pH.

The Atheists, by contrast, have no expected gain. Whether they are right or not, they do not end up better off than the Christians. So, said Pascal, if you're betting, it's much better to bet on being a Christian than an Atheist.


The usual criticisms I hear of Pascal's Wager go something along these lines:

1. Probability theory doesn't work on this.

2. Pascal only gets the results he does because he has massively oversimplified the situation. There are far more possibilities than just Christianity and Atheism. And surely leading a good life has to count for something, even if I don't believe in God.

3. It doesn't work, because Atheists get to make the most of their life now, whereas Christians are busy worrying about the next one.

My Analysis

I don't understand 1. Why shouldn't probability theory work on this?

2. really doesn't work either. Yes, you could introduce other ideas - Islam, Buddhism, etc. But it wouldn't change the fact that Christians end up better off than Atheists on average unless you start introducing silly religions that treat Atheists better than Christians in the afterlife, and give them a higher probability than Christianity. I don't see any of those religions around, and I don't think I've ever heard any arguments for their validity... Of course, you might decide that Islam (for example) comes out as an even better bet, but that doesn't change the fact that Christianity comes out better than Atheism

The third objection is better. Being a Christian does cost stuff in this life (but also, I think, makes this life a lot more livable). Lets say that being a Christian in this life costs an extra amount c compared to being an Atheist.

In that case, Christians would gain pH and lose c, so their expected gain would be pH - c. Atheists would still have zero gain.

So in order for Atheism to be a better bet than Christianity, c > pH. In other words, the cost of being a Christian would have to be bigger than the probability of Christianity being true multiplied by the gain Christians get if they are right in the afterlife.

In other words, to be an Atheist rather than a Christian, you are either very poor at betting or sure of at least one of the following options:

  • that it would cost an immense amount to be a Christian, so great that even a decent chance of an eternity of paradise would not make up for it
  • the chance of Christianity being true is vanishingly small (to which I would say that if so many otherwise sensible people believe it, it's not going to be that unlikely)
  • the promised reward in Christianity is not that great.

So what do people think? Which is it?

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Miscellaneous Quotes

Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school.
Albert Einstein

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.
Albert Einstein

Quantum Mechanics is the dreams that stuff is made of.
Steven Wright

In order to form an immaculate member of a flock of sheep one must, above all, be a sheep.
Albert Einstein

Verbing weirds English real good.

I am no longer officially a teacher!

Friday, September 01, 2006


Not surprisingly, most of my favourite physicists in history were Christians - Pascal, Boyle, Faraday, Kelvin, Maxwell, ... I guess that's largely because I'd count them as my brothers - the similarity between me and them is far greater than between me and most other people. That's true even though I think in very different ways from some of them (Faraday couldn't do maths, for example).

But that doesn't mean that I only respect Christian physicists or only identify with them. For example (just like most other physicists), I have a vast amount of respect for Richard Feynman. He wasn't a Christian - as I recall, he was nominally Jewish (meaning he said he was but it didn't seem to make any difference to his life). But God had given him some really great gifts in terms of intellectual understanding and intelligence as well as his upbringing. Though he didn't explicitly use them for God's glory, I think that God was glorified through his use of them, because we got to understand the universe better and so see more of how amazing God is.

Does that mean I think Feynman went to heaven? Sadly, no. But that doesn't mean everything he said or did was wrong. I think it's easy for people to miss that sometimes. Just because we disagree with people on one thing, doesn't mean they're wrong on other stuff.

Or take Orson Scott Card. I've really enjoyed reading his Ender Series of science fiction books. There's been a lot in there that hinted at belief in God, and some really interesting ideas. I finished the series the other day, and read a note at the end where he explains that it's actually Mormon fiction, and writes some otherwise good stuff about how it's important to create art as people with religious beliefs (which links with what McGrath writes in The Twilight of Atheism). Reflecting on some of the storyline, I can see that there are explicitly Mormon elements to it (though I really don't see how it's compatible with Mormon beliefs on the nature of God or underwear - if you want to discuss that, we can do it in comments or another post - let me know). Does that mean that I think worse of it? No. I think it is a wonderfully imagined and very thought-provoking series with a lot to say about issues of how we treat strangers and so on. Had there been a lengthy explanation of why we should all be Mormons (as Philip Pullman does with atheism), that might have been different. As it is, I am happy rejoicing in God's gifts to others, which they can still use to his glory, even if they don't intend to do so.