Saturday, June 30, 2007

Multiple Integrities

How do I as a Christian act towards other Christians who disagree with me? There's still a disagreement rumbling on in the evangelical bit of the C of E about women leading churches, and whether it should happen or not. Years ago, when they changed the rules so that women were allowed to lead churches, some people thought it was a bad idea - basically this was because they thought that men and women were different but equal and that the Bible said that the differences should be reflected in the jobs that men and women do in churches. The C of E then introduced the idea of two integrities, which meant that people could believe either that women should be allowed to lead churches, or that they shouldn't, and that we'd all try not to offend the other lot.

That's a great idea, and actually it comes out of being humble when we try to understand the Bible. I know that I'm not omniscient, even if I can use long words. I know that I don't understand things perfectly and that other people might have a better idea. And so I try to believe what I think the Bible teaches, and I let what other people think and have thought it teaches affect what I think, but if someone else who is doing the same disagrees with me, we talk about it and I try to understand where they are coming from, and then maybe one of us changes our mind or maybe we agree that the other person's position makes sense but we agree to disagree.

But that doesn't mean it's acceptable for people to believe whatever they want. For example, the Bible is very clear that Jesus is God, in a way that I am not. To my mind, the distinction comes either when people get to the point of saying “well, the Bible might say that, but I disagree with it”, or if they go dramatically against what the Church has always thought if it's an area where the Church right through history has agreed on something.

What seems to be happening in some circles in what passes for evangelicalism now is that some people seem to be rejecting other people's ability to conclude stuff they disagree with from a passage. So, for example, some people say that Christians shouldn't be allowed to believe that the differences between men and women should affect which jobs they can do in a church, whatever the Bible teaches.

To my mind, if someone can say “Believe me, rather than what you think the Bible says” then they're not being an evangelical Christian.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Character Studies

I question the validity of much biographical preaching and Bible studies billed as character studies of Biblical figures. Almost by their very nature, by their chosen starting points, such efforts begin by looking in the wrong direction. It is as if Scripture cries "Behold your God!" (cf Is 40:9), and we reply "Thank you, but we have found something more interesting to us."
Dale Ralph Davis, Judges

Of course, there is still a place for some biographical preaching and character studies, but only when it is using the life of Nicodemus (or whoever) to point us to God.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Bad, Bad, Bad Applications

Sometimes preachers get their applications wrong, and it annoys me. I can see what the passage says; I can see what the passage means, but I have no idea whatsoever how you can say it applies like that.

Of course, sermons should be applied. People should be made uncomfortable; they should see that not everything is the way it should be, and they should see what to do about that. But there are good ways of doing that and bad ways of doing that. One good way is to establish “timeless truths” that the passage teaches, and then apply them to specific situations today – God does not want people to steal, so don't take stationery supplies from work for personal use, for example (though that's a bit obvious). Another way is to establish a correspondence between situations then and situations now, but you need to be able to show it works. For example, the disciples being called to follow Jesus is like us being called to follow Jesus. Daniel's prayer in Daniel 9 is a model prayer for us, and so on.

On the other hand, it is quite easy to do that wrongly – to establish a false connection between the past and the present and end up with unregulated analogy, or to say that just because something happened in the past it is a good example for us to follow. So David killing Goliath, instead of being about how the kingship of God's unlikely king is confirmed (which is what the context suggests), is treated as if it is about us needing to kill the problems in our lives.

Often preachers don't show their working, as to how they get from the passage to the application, or even make it so that the application dominates the sermon. But there's a small gap in the way the congregation sees it between preachers not showing their working and preachers not doing their working or doing it wrongly. So we're told that Ephesians 2 is about how to handle conflict situations at work, for example, or that Haggai 1 is about the 17 qualities of a truly inspirational leader, and there's no evidence given.

With this in mind, I give you some (tongue in cheek) applications of Bible passages:

The Naomi Principle

How should we go about proactive leadership in the Church? How can we stop the decline of congregations while avoiding burnout, keeping ourselves fresh and always making sure to have the time for our families and hobbies? How can our churches stay relevant to culture? I give you, the Naomi principle, from that great woman of God who led Ruth to faith:

Wait, my daughter, and see what happens...
Ruth 3:18, NIV

Esther's Secret of Success

How can we succeed at work? Lets take advice from Esther, who rose from being a young orphaned Jewish girl to being the queen of the whole Persian Empire. From Esther, we learn the following key secrets of success:

  • Always be willing to act like a trophy for the boss (1:10-12)
  • Get the best beauty treatments possible. (2:9)
  • The best way to the top is to sleep with the boss (2:12-17)
  • Don't forget to ruthlessly destroy anyone who crosses you (8-9)
Learning Pastoral Skills from Nehemiah

I'm sure that sometimes we have all come across people we disagree with on certain issues. Is it right for Christians to go to the cinema or not? What about if it's an 18-certificate film? Well, we can learn a lot from Nehemiah about how to handle these little differences.

And I confronted them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair. And I made them take oath in the name of God
Nehemiah 13:25, ESV

Coping with Regret

Or how should we cope with doing something we regret? Well, I'm sure we could all learn from a man who spent three years learning personally from Jesus himself.

Then Judas bought some land with the money he was given for doing that evil thing. He fell headfirst into the field. His body burst open, and all his insides came out.
Acts 1:18, CEV

Monday, June 25, 2007

Worship As You Like It? - Sotirios Christou

I got given a copy of this book, so I thought I might as well read it and review it.

On one level, it's a very strange book. The author's name (Greek for "Christ's Salvation") is cool. The whole book seems to be in black 12pt Times New Roman - even the headers, titles. Even the front cover`uses Times, but that's bigger and blue and makes it look as if WAYLI should spell something.

The first 60% or so of the book is a look at the Biblical theology of worship, but pretty much only using the Old Testament, Hebrews and Revelation. What he says is all true. I'd have thought most of it was pretty obvious to someone who's read the Bible a few times through and was awake. It's odd that he writes in a very academic style, and cites a lot of scholars, but usually only to say things that I think are pretty obvious anyway.

The next 40% of the book is an engagement with contemporary charismatic worship. He's affirming of a lot of it, and makes some good criticisms - for example observing how much of it is centred on the worshipers' response rather than the God they are meant to be worshiping, or the lack of Trinitarian focus.

On the other hand, there are large sections he doesn't critique at all. For example, while earlier he sees the danger of essentially emotional manipulation in worship, at the end he assumes that what is described by worship leaders as "coming into the presence of God" actually is coming into the presence of God. It's an interesting idea, but I have yet to see it adequately theologically grounded in anything other than people's subjective experience of what could look to an outsider like a form of emotional masturbation.

At the end of the day, it was an interesting read, but the first 60% seems disconnected from the next 40%, and while many of his criticisms and useful thoughts are spot on, and his analysis of Wimbur's theology of worship (for example) is useful, there are a lot both of important criticisms he misses and things that he criticises that are fine - for example he suggests ditching powerpoint in favour of hymnbooks - and he doesn't externalise himself enough from charismatic worship to provide a proper description of the underlying theology. Oh, and he desperately needs an editor to spot the spelling mistakes, extra spaces, eccentric punctuation, inconsistent spacing, etc.

Sunday, June 24, 2007


While I was in Israel, one of the locals said something interesting. He said that many of the paths in use were created by donkeys, and had often been there for thousands of years. The reason he gave for this was that donkeys allegedly always take the easiest route from A to B, even over difficult terrain. That got me thinking.

It should be reasonably easy to set up a situation with a donkey and a mathematically well-defined surface, and to see whether it does indeed take something very close to the minimum energy route from A to B, and what sort of distance this holds over. Does it work as far as the eye can see? How does it cope with variable terrain types - e.g. mud, solid grass, rocks? Does it follow the sort of route that would be predicted by a proper mathematical minimum energy route, or does it follow a local energy minimization, or even just a picking a vaguely easy route for the next 20m that leads in the right sort of direction?

I'm sure there's a PhD project in there somewhere, for a mathematician who likes donkeys...

Shechem, Abimelech, Baal-berith

I was reading the particularly unpleasant Judges 9 this morning, and a minor detail struck me. Most of the plot of Judges 9 takes place in Shechem.

Now Shechem comes up quite a lot in the early bits of the Bible. It was the site of a rather painful episode in Genesis 34, where the prince of Shechem rapes Jacob's daughter so some of his sons take revenge.

But it was the site of a lot of good things too. It was where God had appeared to Abraham for the first time after he reached the Promised Land (Genesis 12:6-7). It was where Jacob's family finally rejected idolatry (Genesis 35:4). It was a city of refuge, where someone could flee to to avoid blood feuds and get a proper trial (Joshua 21:21).

But most importantly, it was the site of Joshua's final speech and public farewell in Joshua 24. It was where the people promised solemnly to obey God even though Joshua said they couldn't.

Then Joshua said to the people, "You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD, to serve him." And they said, "We are witnesses." He said, "Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the LORD, the God of Israel." And the people said to Joshua, "The LORD our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey." So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and put in place statutes and rules for them at Shechem. And Joshua wrote these words in the Book of the Law of God. And he took a large stone and set it up there under the terebinth that was by the sanctuary of the LORD. And Joshua said to all the people, "Behold, this stone shall be a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of the LORD that he spoke to us. Therefore it shall be a witness against you, lest you deal falsely with your God."
Joshua 24:22-27, ESV

Then we come to Judges 9. Judges is a remarkable demonstration of how God's people keep on needing to be saved, and throughout the book their saviours get less and less conventional, and morally more and more compromised, and the people cry for help less and less. And right in the middle, we get Judges 9 and the story of Abimelech. Normally in Judges, the people need saving from some foreign invaders. In Judges 9 they need saving from their own ruler – Abimelech. I could go on about the story for ages, but I just want to focus on one tiny detail.

The story is set in Shechem – the town of the covenant (covenant in Hebrew is berith), where less than 200 years before there had been a sanctuary of the LORD (Yahweh). Now, what is the main religious institution there? The temple of Baal-berith – Baal of the covenant. Their problem wasn't that they'd all suddenly gone apostate and all decided to become Muslims or Canaanites. It wasn't that there had been lots of immigration of Baal-worshippers. The temple, in the town of Yahweh's covenant, was to Baal of the covenant. It was a process of syncretism. They had blurred the worship of Yahweh and the worship of Baal. They'd taken what they knew to be true about God, and mixed it with what they wanted God to be like, or what the Canaanites around them said God was like until in the end they couldn't tell the difference between the true God and false gods.

And it struck me that there's so much danger of us doing the same. Yes, sometimes it's obvious, like when someone claims to be 100% Muslim and 100% Christian. But sometimes it's smaller. Like when we take ideas from society about what God is like and mix them up with the truth until we can't tell the difference. Does God really punish sin? Does Jesus really claim to be the only way to God? Does following Jesus really mean dying to ourselves and making ourselves nothing so that Jesus can be everything to us? Does God really value humility more than entertainment, or love more than soundness?

Are we really following the God who has revealed himself, or are we following our own ideas or someone else's ideas about what he should be like?

Friday, June 22, 2007

Shifting the Argument

This is one of those arguing techniques that Christians have a very unfortunate habit of getting caught out by. I don't know whether people use it deliberately or not, but it seems to work.

The idea goes something like this:

[Person 1]: I like shepherd's pie
[Person 2]: But it's often got overcooked peas in and they are horrible
[Person 1]: No they aren't - they're the best bit

Because people's pride has got involved or something, they want to defend against what the other person says, even if it slightly misses the target. So in the above example, they went from defending a reasonable contention - that shepherd's pie is nice - to a completely unreasonable one - that the overcooked peas are the best bit. If you think that example is bad, there are some more real-life ones later.

Here's a responses that would have kept the argument on track.

[Person 1]: I like shepherd's pie
[Person 2]: But it's often got overcooked peas in and they are horrible
[Person 1]: But in shepherd's pie they are transformed by their surroundings so that they are actually quite nice and they make their surroundings nicer too. One of the best things about shepherd's pie is the way it takes rubbish things, like overcooked peas, and makes them good.

Here are some examples of how Christians have got sidetracked like that.

In the 1800s, pretty much all the non-Christian scientists, and some Christian scientists, thought that Darwin's ideas were pretty neat, and that they might well explain how complex animals came to exist. Other Christians didn't - they didn't think that Darwin's ideas made too much sense and they believed in a God who could do things differently if he wanted to. For people who didn't believe in God, evolution was the only way to explain how complex animals came to exist, so there wasn't so much choice.

Over time, the conversation went something like this:

[Christian]: Evolution didn't necessarily happen - I know that God could have done it directly if he wants to and the scientific evidence isn't conclusive.
[Atheist]: Evolution happened. There's lots of evidence.
[Christian]: Evolution didn't happen.

It's as if there's a pressure to force people into holding the opposite position to the person they are arguing with, which Christians are particularly vulnerable to. In fact, I might state that an an aphorismy thing.

In any argument, there is a psychological pressure towards holding an intellectual position diametrically opposite to that of one's antagonist.
"Allister's first rule of arguments"

Sadly, I think we can see the same in the McGrath/Dawkins debate. It's as if the following has happened.

[McGrath]: [explains Christian theology]
[Dawkins]: God doesn't exist, [attacks religion in general].
[McGrath]: God does exist [defends religion in general]

But that is silly. We don't believe that religion in general is true. When it comes to Islam, Hinduism, etc, we should largely agree with Richard Dawkins. What we should be arguing for is not the general existence of God and religion in general, but the specific divinity of Jesus Christ.

The result of that debate is that we get steered off into discussing whether God exists in the abstract, when the whole point of Christianity is that God is not abstract. He walked round on the Earth 2000 years ago.

That last bit is kind of a synthesis of my thought and the third hand comments of a tutor here - John Lennox. When he debates Dawkins (and they've got a booking), I hope the debate would go more like this.

[Lennox]: [Christian theology] i.e. Jesus is God
[Dawkins]: God doesn't exist, [attacks religion in general].
[Lennox]: I agree with you on most of that, but Jesus was quite clearly God [insert evidence here], so there must be a God, and the question is how we make sense of that and what we do about it.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Quote - Richard Hooker

We had rather followe the perfections of them whome we like not, than in defectes resemble them whome we love.
Richard Hooker

Richard Hooker

Serious respect to Richard Hooker (1554-1600). He manages to be iconic for vast swathes of the Church of England, because he is big on what most people think is important about their own group.

So theologically, he was pretty much Calvinist. Some people tend to argue with that - it's mostly because they haven't read enough of either Hooker or Calvin and think that just because Hooker disagreed with a bunch of people who called themselves Calvinists means that he disagreed with Calvin too. He didn't. The people he disagreed with went a long way beyond Calvin.

Most Calvinists automatically rejected stuff if it was what the Roman Catholics said. A chap called Cartwright even argued that it was safer copying the Muslims than the Roman Catholics. But Hooker didn't, and that was both unusual and mature of him - lots of people still haven't got to this stage in their thinking 400 years later.

Where Rome keepeth that which is ancienter and better; others whome we much more affect leavinge it for newer, and changinge it for worse, we had rather followe the perfections of them whome we like not, than in defectes resemble them whome we love.

This meant that Hooker was much more into ceremonies and so on than most of the people he agreed with theologically, because he saw that visual stuff can often have a bigger impact than just words.

The end which is aimed at in setting down the outward form of all religious actions is the edification of the church. Now men are edified when either their understanding is taught somewhat whereof in such actions it behoveth all men to consider or when their hearts are moved with any affection suitable thereunto; when their minds are in any sort stirred up unto that reverence, devotion, attention and due regard which in those cases seemeth requisite. Because therefore unto this purpose not only speech but also sundry sensible means besides have always been thought necessary and especially those means which being object to the eye, the liveliest and most apprehensive sense of all other, have in that respect seemed the fittest to make a deep and a strong impression...

Hooker was also big on radical inclusivity - he wanted to get as many people as possible coming into churches and feeling welcome, though he recognised that that didn't mean they were saved or Christians, but it meant they could hear and see and maybe understand more.

So what can we learn from Hooker? For me, the main thing is a reminder not to ignore ideas just because they come from people we don't like or disagree with.

Commentaries I Recommend

These are commentaries I personally recommend, which means I have used them quite a bit and really like them. I have plenty of other commentaries, some of which I expect I will like just as much when I use them a bit more, but I haven't yet used them in enough detail to be able to recommend them publically. There are even probably some I can't remember at the moment, but I'll put them up here when I do remember them.

In my earlier series of review on commentaries, I categorised them as paperback / hardback / heavy. Here, I think I prefer to distinguish by purpose. So the first commentary listed is something I've found helpful devotionally. The second is something I find helpful for getting to grips with the passage at a deeper level. Before I started at theological college, I'd have found one from the first column fine for work on preparing a sermon. Now I'd tend to use more...

It's worth adding that I find this site useful, but often over 10 years old so misses the best of the new. This page does a similar thing to what I am doing, but more years down the line.

Commentaries in square brackets are ones I haven't used enough to recommend properly, but which look excellent.

Genesis: / [Waltke]
Exodus: A Motyer (BST) /
Leviticus: /
Numbers: [G Wenham] /
Deuteronomy: C Wright (NIBC) / G McConville (Apollos)
Joshua: DR Davis (Focus) /
Judges: DR Davis (Focus) / Block (NAC)
Ruth: I Duguid (REC)/ [Block (NAC)]
1 Samuel: DR Davis (Focus) /
2 Samuel: DR Davis (Focus) /
1 Kings: DR Davis (Focus, but see this) / I Provan (NIBC) but light
2 Kings: DR Davis (Focus) / I Provan (NIBC) but light
1 Chronicles: Wilcock (BST) /
2 Chronicles: Wilcock (BST) /
Ezra: / [Williamson]
Nehemiah: Brown (BST) / [Williamson]
Esther: I Duguid (REC) / [Jobes (NIVAC)]
Job: C Ash ("Out of the Storm") / [Clines (Word)]
Psalms: see here
Proverbs: / [Longman (Baker)]
Ecclesiastes: I Provan (NIVAC) / Provan (NIVAC)
Song of Songs: [Gledhill (BST)] /
Isaiah: Webb (BST) / A Motyer (IVP), [Oswalt (NIC)]
Jeremiah: / Holladay (Heremneia)
Lamentations: / [Berlin (OTL)]
Ezekiel: C Wright (BST) / [Block (NIC)]
Daniel: /
Hosea: / McComiskey (Baker)
Joel: /
Amos: Roy Clements (When God's Patience Runs Out) /
Obadiah: /
Jonah: RT Kendal (paternoster classics) /
Micah: DR Davis / [Waltke (Eerdmans)]
Nahum: /
Habakkuk: J Lamb (Keswick) /
Zephaniah: JL Mackay (Focus) /
Haggai: /
Zechariah: B Webb (BST) /
Malachi: /
Matthew: / D Carson (EBC)
Mark: / RT France (NIGTC)
Luke: / [Bock (Baker)]
John: / D Carson (Pillar)
Acts: J Stott (BST) / [Bock (Baker)]
Romans: J Stott (BST) / T Schreiner (Baker)
1 Corinthians: / [Thiselton (NIGTC)]
2 Corinthians: R Clements, (the Strength of Weakness) /
Galatians: R Clements (no longer slaves) or Stott (BST) /
Ephesians: J Stott (BST) / [O'Brien]
Philippians: / [O'Brien]
Colossians: / [O'Brien]
1 Thessalonians: [Stott] /
2 Thessalonians: [Stott] /
1 Timothy: [Stott] /
2 Timothy: [Stott] /
Titus: [Stott] /
Philemon: / [O'Brien]
Hebrews: /
James: D Moo (Pillar) / D Moo (Pillar)
1 Peter: W Grudem (Tyndale) /
2 Peter: /
1 John: J Stott (Tyndale) /
2 John: J Stott (Tyndale) /
3 John: J Stott (Tyndale) /
Jude: /
Revelation: Richardson (Revelation Unwrapped) /

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Grace and Holiness

There is nothing amazing about grace as long as there is nothing fearful about holiness.
Dale Ralph Davis, Judges

Monday, June 18, 2007

More Quotes

It is not attributed to you as a fault that you lack knowledge unwillingly, but that you fail to seek the knowledge you do not have. And it is not attributed to you as a fault that you fail to bind up the parts which are wounded, but that you disdain him who is willing to heal them.
Augustine of Hippo

The best and safest way for you therefore, my dear brethren, is, to call your deeds past to a new reckoning, to re-examine the cause ye have taken in hand, and to try it even point by point, argument by argument, with all the diligent exactness ye can; to lay aside the gall of that bitterness wherein your minds have hitherto over-abounded, and with meekness to search the truth. Think ye are men, deem it not impossible for you to err; sift unpartially your own hearts, whether it be force of reason or vehemency of affection, which hath bred and still doth feed these opinions in you.
Richard Hooker

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Last Temptation of Christ

I know this film is controversial, and I've heard a lot of stuff about it. So I thought I'd watch it and see what I thought. Here's an outline of the plot.

What is meant to be controversial about this film is the way that Jesus is tempted sexually - specifically to come down from the cross, enjoy a "normal" life, first with Mary Magdalene, then with Mary of Bethany (and Martha on the side with the argument that "there is only one woman in the world"). I don't have a problem with the idea that Jesus was tempted to avoid the cross, to live a normal life, to settle down and have kids, even to sleep with multiple women. If Jesus was "tempted in every way, just as we are", that temptation might well have included that sort of thing.

I guess the whole Judas storyline, with Judas being Jesus' closest disciple, the only one whom Jesus trusts enough to ask him to betray him, is also controversial. It doesn't fit with Judas being the one who was embezzling funds from Jesus though, so I don't tend to agree with it.

The film is meant to be struggling with the tension between the divinity of Christ and his humanity. But where the film goes wrong isn't on overemphasising the humanity of Jesus, but underemphasising his divinity. So the film presents a Jesus who thinks at one point that the voices telling him he is the Son of God are demonic, for example, and who doubts his own Messiahship for almost all the film. Despite what the Wikipedia page says, this Jesus frequently refers to stuff he's done wrong, so seems to be sinful too, as well as a pantheist. The Jesus of the film isn't a Jesus who could inspire his followers (not just Paul - the people who knew him during his life) to write the gospels.

This tension gets recognised as the film goes on. So in the long vision/temptation sequence where Jesus is tempted to avoid the cross, he meets Paul who is preaching Christianity and who ends up rejecting him because the Christ of faith is far more useful to him than the Jesus of history who (in this case) wasn't crucified. That just doesn't work. It doesn't explain Paul's conversion, or his willingness to die for what he taught, as well as using ideas that just didn't appear for another 1800 years or so.

In fact, in the film, the only way that Jesus is able to go through with the crucifixion is after the temptation sequence (and ironically after Judas accuses him of being a traitor) when he realises that he really is the Messiah and he really does have to die. The problem is that in order to inspire the reaction he clearly did inspire in those around him, he needs to have been less of a bumbling failure for the rest of his ministry.

I've studied a bit of patristics this term, which is a lot of debates in the early church, mostly about how best to explain who Jesus was. They concluded that Jesus was fully man and fully God from the start because that was the only conclusion that fit their historical data. It doesn't fit this film.

Friday, June 15, 2007


I watched a bit of the film The Devil Wears Prada earlier, but I really couldn't get into it. Part of my problem was this: I cannot see the point of fashion. I can see the point of wearing clothes that look clean and/or smart, clothes that show off a figure if there are bits deemed worthy of showing off, clothes of colours that match each other or oneself, and so on.

But I can neither see the point in either the line-drawing that says one set of clothes is unfashionable and another is fashionable, nor understand or sympathise with the stupid herd mentality that seeks to follow what is essentially an arbitrary and pointless line.

What kind of idiot cares if a bag cost £2000 or £200 or £2 if it looks nice and functions well? Except of course that £2 is much better value.

Now, wearing Pravda - that sounds interesting. Newspaper clothes and all. :)

Noise in the Cinema

Another great cartoon from Pearls Before Swine:

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Predestination Question

A slight paraphrase:

If God decides not to open the eyes of those he knows would say "no" anyway, is that predestination?
M.C. Steenberg

I think it's an interesting question...

Good News

This is great news. I'm fed up with people thinking that it's a good idea to show off what underwear they're wearing or that they don't have belts or something.

Wearing trousers like that is like shouting "Look at me! I'm wearing boxer shorts! And if you try to make me run, I might well fall over!"

Folks - I don't want to think about what underwear you're wearing. And that's especially true if it's a thong.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Augustine of Hippo - Sin

As I have said, therefore, sin is not a desire for naturally evil things, but an abandonment of better things. And this itself is evil, not that nature which the sinner uses evilly. For evil is to use a good evilly.
Augustine of Hippo

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Love Oxford

I went to Love Oxford this morning. It was a kind of communal event for all the different churches in Oxford, in the city centre, and was mostly very good. It's great to be able to express unity by all meeting together, singing together, praying together, reading the Bible together, etc. The sermon was pretty good, and the meeting was done very well. My subconscious heresy-spotting apparatus didn't catch anything, which was great. Lots of prayers for the city, including for the police, council, etc.

Some of my few concerns were over who didn't join in. There wasn't any sign of the RCs or Orthodox, even though there are plenty of them around. One of the main churches hadn't cancelled their 11:30 service (I really don't know why), though quite a few folk from there, including several of the staff, were at Love Oxford.

The other thing I found difficult was how loving it was to people at Balliol College, which it was right outside (or Exeter just down the road) to make a lot of noise outside their windows at 11:30 on a Sunday morning when they might be trying to revise for exams later this week. I just pray they found the whole thing interesting / encouraging / challenging...

Thursday, June 07, 2007


I've written seven patristics essays so far this term. Each one of them has been due in for a tutorial where we disucss the topic involved. Today I realised that I've only finished one of them more than an hour before the tutorial was due to start. Nothing focuses the mind like a deadline, I find...

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Jerome K Jerome - Work

It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do.

I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours. I love to keep it by me: the idea of getting rid of it nearly breaks my heart.

A Response to Joanna Colicutt McGrath

This is a response to this article, which was published in the Guardian on 2nd June. You don't need to have read the article beforehand though.

Mary Douglas may well have made the point that the food laws in Leviticus are all to do with category violation - aquatic animals that have scales are "clean" or kosher, aquatic animals that don't have scales aren't, and so on. It was common teaching in a strongly conservative evangelical church I attended from 1996-2000 when we did a series on Leviticus too, so it's hardly an insight the conservatives ignore.

Where Ms McGrath is less orthodox in her understanding of the Bible is in linking the rules in Leviticus to a "huge anxiety" arising from things being out of place. To do so is to assume that the Scriptures, including the food laws of Leviticus, are not inspired in the sense that is traditionally understood. It is quite possibly an intellectually legitimate understanding, but it is not an evangelical understanding of Scripture.

Contrast the more conventionally evangelical take on this (and yes, the irony is deliberate). Isaiah picks up the same theme in his first chapter:

Hear, O heavens! Listen, O earth!
For the LORD has spoken:
"I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows his master,
the donkey his owner's manger,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand."
Isaiah 1:2-3, NIV

We are the category violators. Everything else in the universe obeys God and belongs to the place it belongs to. But people don't. We don't know the God who made us, we don't obey him, even though the observed laws of nature testify to the universe always obeying God.

But Jesus did obey God. He was the only person who was not a category violator - the only person who was intrinsically clean, the only person who lived in obedience to God. And so he was crucified, not as a category violator when surrounded by non-violators, but as the only category keeper surrounded by violators.

We don't make the categories. God does.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Why I am a Conservative Evangelical

I hate labels. I hate the way they say that I am someone and I am not like another group of people, when actually we agree on so much. I love it when I find that people supposedly in a different group to me actually agree with me on pretty much everything. I was a conservative evangelical, and I deliberately came to what looked like the broadest theological college which still seemed to take the Bible seriously, and to be honest, I wanted to lose my labels. But I've ended up finding them.

It's worth saying what I don't mean before I say what I do mean. I don't mean that I disrespect the traditions of the church - one of my favourite subjects at the moment is patristic theology, and I seem to be getting more liturgical as time goes on. In fact, I know some people who'd call themsevles Anglo-Catholics who I'd agree with on pretty much anything, and I've got a lot of respect for various Orthodox and Roman Catholic people as brothers and sisters in Christ. Nor do I mean that I reject charismatic stuff (though there are issues there, I've discussed some of them here and I'll probably discuss more in the future). One of the problems with the label of "conservative evangelical", is that it can be seen to be "conservative" as opposed to "open" or "conservative" as opposed to "charismatic". I mean the former.

So why do I call myself an evangelical? Because I've come across people who claim to be Christians and are willing to say "I am pretty sure that the Bible teaches this, but the Bible is wrong." Now I'm not in a position to say anything about their individual salvation - it's possible to trust Jesus and have all kinds of wrong and screwy ideas and I'm sure some of my ideas are very screwy and wrong (I wish I knew which ones!). But at the end of the day, I cannot see that I could say that sort of thing and it not be stemming out of a human pride that is the exact opposite of what the gospel is all about. For me, being a Christian means following God wherever he wants me to go. And yes, I'm meant to use my reason and stuff, but at the end of the day, if the Bible teaches something, that's what I'm meant to believe. I know there are lots of people who don't say they are evangelicals who believe that too, but I think it's important for me to stress it at the moment.

I call myself an evangelical because if I'm convinced the Bible says something, that's what I'll aim to believe.

And why conservative? There's an increasing polarisation within evangelicalism along conservative/open lines. And it's interesting, because there is a huge amount of overlap between the groups. Almost all the conventional definitions of "open evangelical" fit most of the conservative evangelicals I know, and almost all the conventional definitions of "conservative evangelical" fit most of the open evangelicals I know. One of the reasons I didn't get on with conservative evangelicalism in the past is that they are often far too quick to come across as not loving people outside the church, even though they do. But recent experience and news articles and so on suggest to me the following definitions of "open" and "conservative" evangelicals.

Conservative evangelicals are evangelicals who find it easier to love those inside evangelicalism than those outside.

Open evangelicals are evangelicals who find it easier to love those outside evangelicalism than those inside.

It is sad that there seems to have been so much sniping at conservatives from opens, and sad that in the past there has been so much sniping by conservatives at non-evangelicals. And ideally, we should love those inside and those outside the church, and I'm sure that Christian evangelicals of whatever stripe will aim to do that. But it looks to me as if the command to love other Christians (many but not all of whom are evangelicals) is even more important that loving outsiders. So I'm faced with a horrible choice. Would I rather be known as someone who condemns everyone who doesn't go to church every week (to take an example from the press recently), or someone who hates other Christians and attacks them in public? With such a dilemma, being known as a conservative evangelical seems the lesser of two evils.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Cranmer - Reform

One of the things I've got out of this term so far is an even bigger respect for Thomas Cranmer.

To private subjects, it appertaineth not to reform things, but quietly to suffer what they cannot ammend.

For Cranmer, "quietly to suffer what they cannot ammend" meant quietly suffering the execution of his sponsor (Anne Bolyen) on trumped-up charges of adultery, seeing close friends and allies of his executed (Thomas Cromwell) or burnt at the stake (Latimer and Ridley) and in the end his own burning at the stake. Serious respect.