Monday, December 29, 2008

J.C. Ryle on Preaching

Some quotes from "Christian Leaders of the 18th Century by J.C. Ryle.

No-one can be a good preacher to the people who is not willing to preach in a manner that seems childish and vulgar to some.
(Attributed to Martin Luther)

You must speak from the heart if you wish to speak to the heart.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas, Elephants and Symmetry-Breaking

There's a well known story that seems to have seeped deep into the modern British consciousness, about a group of men trying to understand what an elephant is like by touch alone (they are either blindfolded or blind, depending on the variant of the story). So one man has the trunk, and he declares that the elephant is like a snake. Another has the tail, and he declares the elephant is like a rope. Another has a leg, and he says the elephant is like a tree. Yet another the side, and he says the elephant is like a wall. And so on...

And that is very much like people trying to find out what God is like. We can tell something about him/her through the world she/he has made, but we also observe that other people can come to very different conclusions about God, because they look from different perspectives. But we are also fallible and some of our conclusions are wrong, just we can't tell which ones. In more mathematical language, we see that our position is essentially symmetrical to someone else's, except that we disagree on what God is like, which means that we should not be too certain about what we believe. So we look on people who are certain as being highly suspect.

But Christmas changes all of that, or it should do. Because the message we proclaim at Christmas is that the symmetry is broken. It isn't just different people coming up with different ideas about what God is like because they are coming from different places and looking at different bits of the evidence. It isn't just different groups of people each claiming that God has given them a different book. At Christmas, God himself came into the world in the person of Jesus, and showed us what he was like. So in a world of so much uncertainty, we can really know him. That's something worth getting excited about!

Happy Christmas!

Bizarre Retail Practices

I was looking for Christmas cards for family in a well-known high street shop the other day. They had some really beautiful cards. But all the best cards were in boxes of 10 identical cards for £4.99 or £6.99, which just seems totally bizarre to me.

People buy the nicest Christmas cards for the people they are closest to. And the people they are closest to often know the other people they are closest to and spend time in their houses. So I don't want the same design of Christmas card for my parents (for example) as for my sisters. I want to show that individual thought has gone into it.

Had these cards been selling at £1.50 each, I'd probably have bought quite a few. If they'd been in boxes of 10 mixed cards, I'd have been delighted. But when the smallest quantity buyable was a box of 10, and they were all identical, I'm not going to do it, and it wasn't surprising that there were so many of these boxes of nice Christmas cards still on the shelves a few days before Christmas.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Jesus and Christmas

This isn't a Christmas post - that will come later in the week. This is a quote from Rod Liddle in the Spectator, dated 20/27th December 2008...

In the north of England a boy was not allowed to attend his school's Christmas party because his parents had insisted, ever since he joined the school, that he should not be required to attend lessons in Religious Education. The school presumably thought that they were being scrupulous in abiding by the wishes of the parents - but apparently not. The boy's mum, a Ms Dawn Riddell, was incandescent at the 'cruelty' inflicted upon her poor son. Christmas parties, she said, have got 'absolutely nothing to do with Jesus'. I think that's one of my favourite quotes of this year or any year. And that's where we are now, too.

George Herbert - Love

This poem - Love by George Herbert is a favourite of a fair few people I know. It's well worth some thought...

LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.

'A guest,' I answer'd, 'worthy to be here:'
Love said, 'You shall be he.'
'I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.'
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
'Who made the eyes but I?'

'Truth, Lord; but I have marr'd them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.'
'And know you not,' says Love, 'Who bore the blame?'
'My dear, then I will serve.'
'You must sit down,' says Love, 'and taste my meat.'
So I did sit and eat.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Qualifying Annihilationism

Overview of my stuff about Hell.

This is part of a spate of posts I'm writing on the topic of Hell. I might put some kind of structure in later. I'm not writing these because I like to talk about Hell - I don't. I'm writing them because there's a lot of confusion about Hell..

There's a growing movement in some evangelical bits of the church towards annihilationism - the idea that Hell is actually a state of non-existence - that people who aren't saved by Jesus eventually just cease to exist rather than the traditional idea that they suffer consciously in hell forever. (As I've posted recently, I think it's a better expression of the full teaching of Scripture to talk about some form of ruin than about people as they are now being tormented.)

There's quite a lot that could be said about annihilationism. As I've already mentioned, I don't go along with it because I think the case for eternal ruined existence is better. But even for those who do go along with annihilationism, if they take the Bible as authoritative, there are still some qualifications that need to be put on their belief from what the Bible teaches clearly.

  • What matters is not what we feel to be preferable, but what is actually the case.
  • The saved and the unsaved will all be raised from the dead (Daniel 12:2) and judged.
  • There needs to be some form of suffering after the final judgment. What does it mean for the judge of all the Earth to do right when the rich unsaved oppresses the poor unsaved and both die in that state? Or if Heinrich Himmler and Mahatma Gandhi are both unsaved, how can it be fair that they get the same punishment? This is also strongly implied by passages such as Matthew 11:21-24 and Luke 12:47-48.
  • Satan does indeed seem to suffer eternal conscious torment (Rev 20:10).

Redirecting the Message of the Gospel

As long as I can discover no connection between the Gospel and the problems of my life, then it has nothing to say to me and I am not interested. And that is precisely why the Gospel must be preached afresh and told anew in every generation, since every generation has its own unique questions. This is why the Gospel must constantly be forwarded to a new address, because the recipient is repeatedly changing his place of residence... In short, if the basic questions of life have shifted, then I must redirect the message of the Gospel. Otherwise I am answering questions that have never been asked. And, upon hearing such answers, my opposite number will just shake his head and say 'that's no concern of mine. It has nothing to do with me.
Thielecke, How Modern Should Theology Be?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

What are People Like in Hell?

Overview of my stuff about Hell.

I've finished my essay on hell now. It turned out that one of the key questions was what people were like in hell. Here are some quotes on that which I found helpful.

To enter hell is to be banished from humanity. What is cast (or casts itself) into hell is not a man: it is ‘remains’.
C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

When human beings give their heartfelt allegiance and worship to that which is not God, they progressively cease to reflect the image of God... it is possible for human beings to so continue down this road.. that after death they become at last, by their own effective choice, beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all... they pass simultaneously not only beyond hope but also beyond pity.
Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope

Sometimes people ask me: "In heaven how can I be happy, knowing that my fellow human-beings - maybe the people I love best - are in hell?" And the answer is simple. No human being will be in hell. The creatures in hell are not human beings any longer... The person you knew and loved will not be in hell. That person had so many lovable qualities - the remnants of the image of God - but now, the image of God has been obliterated... You could not love the creature in hell if you tried - God cannot love that creature - there is nothing there to love.
Stephen Rees

Wright - Lectionaries

Whenever you see, in an official lectionary, the command to omit two or three verses, you can normally be sure that they contain words of judgment. Unless, of course, they are about sex.
Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, p.190

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Immigration Law

I should confess a slight personal interest in this rant - my sister and aunt both married Americans. At college, two students have already been forced to leave the country (one of them came back), another one got refused entry, one staff member nearly got refused entry and another student currently has 7 days left to appeal or leave.

British immigration law is stupid.

The Biblical perspective on it is that Jesus was a refugee in Egypt for a bit, thereby massively dignifying the status of refugees, and meaning we should treat them well. In addition, in the Old Testament, Israel's law stresses the importance of treating foreigners who come to live in the land well, as long as they don't do stuff like inciting people to worship false gods or anything.

In fact, that seems like a good model. What's happened in Britain of course is that we've got scared of immigrants as a result of international terrorism and so on, and so have massively tightened up the law, without massively tightening up on enforcement. So now any terrorists wanting to come and live in the UK have to do it illegally rather than legally, which I'm sure will put most of them off because terrorists are good, law-abiding folk.

Although I've heard people annoyed or scared about immigrants from countries such as Pakistan (some of which is fear of terrorism, some of which is racism) and Poland (but they're citizens of an EU country, we can't really keep them out), I haven't heard anyone annoyed or scared about immigrants from countries where the culture and population are essentially descended from Brits.

You don't see scare stories on the news about Australian or American immigrants, whatever their ethnic background. You don't find people being all worried about the Canadians or New Zealanders who just moved in next door.

But the British government, in their infinite wisdom, seem to have managed to make life difficult for the very large number of immigrants from former colonies, who no-one is worried about. And that is the main substance of this rant, because it looks like incompetence rather than partially justified fear.

I don't know exactly what the forms ask or how the system works, but it seems to me sensible on a purely human level, without even bothering to do theological reflection on it, to partially filter applicants according to the country they are from. Do nationals from their country have any history of causing social problems in the UK or similar countries? If no, I don't see the problem with granting them indefinite leave to remain. Under the current system, Barack Obama might find difficulty in getting permission to work in the UK long term. I don't see any reason whatsoever why that should be the case.

And nor am I saying that people with Pakistani nationality, for example, should all be kept out, just that if we're worried about terrorism, maybe we should stop putting so much effort keeping out people who aren't going to be a problem, start genuinely welcoming immigrants who need out help and spending all the extra time concentrating on discerning which of the people from potentially problematic countries will cause trouble, and keeping them out.

Proposal: give automatic leave to remain indefinitely to all citizens of stable friendly countries with sufficiently similar cultures, and welcome genuine refugees.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Optical Illusions

There are some great optical illusions here. I used quite a few of them when I was teaching A-level physics. It's a great reminder that we actually do a lot of processing between our eyes and the bit of the brain that thinks it's seeing.

In this image, squares A and B are actually the same colour; our brain just processes them differently - it often took using a computer graphics program to move them next to each other to convince people it really worked.

This image is actually static. Lots of people see that it's moving, and which bits are moving keeps changing. It's actually because of how our eyes focus - the bits at the edge aren't in exactly the right position, and also our eyes tend to be drawn to movement, which means that when we focus on one bit, the other bits look like they move as which bit of our eye we are using to focus on them changes.

From a spiritual point of view, they are also great reminders that what we see isn't the ultimate level of reality, because Jesus has been raised from the dead, which means that the "real us" is who we will be one day when we too have been raised from the dead, which changes our perspective on suffering in this life and so on.

For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight.

2 Corinthians 4:17-5:7, NIV

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Jesus and Amos 8

I was preaching on Amos 8 the other day. At first sight, it's a really dark and bleak passage, with lots of judgement and not much else. What really struck me, although this doesn't appear heavily in any of the commentaries I looked at, is that the chapter is all about Jesus. Here's the big judgement section from Amos 8.

The LORD has sworn by the Pride of Jacob: "I will never forget anything they have done.

"Will not the land tremble for this,
and all who live in it mourn?
The whole land will rise like the Nile;
it will be stirred up and then sink
like the river of Egypt.

"In that day," declares the Sovereign LORD,
"I will make the sun go down at noon
and darken the earth in broad daylight.

I will turn your religious feasts into mourning
and all your singing into weeping.
I will make all of you wear sackcloth
and shave your heads.
I will make that time like mourning for an only son
and the end of it like a bitter day.

"The days are coming," declares the Sovereign LORD,
"when I will send a famine through the land—
not a famine of food or a thirst for water,
but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD.

Men will stagger from sea to sea
and wander from north to east,
searching for the word of the LORD,
but they will not find it.

"In that day
"the lovely young women and strong young men
will faint because of thirst.
They who swear by the shame of Samaria,
or say, 'As surely as your god lives, O Dan,'
or, 'As surely as the god of Beersheba lives'—
they will fall,
never to rise again."

Amos 8:8-14, NIV

Several things strike me. On a minor theology note, for example, according to most liberal scholars this is one of the earliest written passages in the entire Bible, but it still has a lot of features of the apocalyptic prophecy which isn't meant to be invented for another few hundred years...

But more importantly, here are the main features of God's judgement in the passage:

  • Earth shaking
  • Sky going dark at midday
  • Religious feasts turned into mourning for an only son
  • Famine of hearing the words of the Lord
  • Strong young people fainting because of thirst

All of those happened when Jesus was on the cross. Jesus truly is the one who bears God's judgement for us.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

A Christian Perspective on the Financial Crisis

Last week, we had some high-flying financial chap who is also a committed Christian come in and give us a talk about a Christian perspective on the financial crisis. You can read a rough summary of what he said here.

I want to give a different perspective...

After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven. He had great authority, and the earth was illuminated by his splendor. With a mighty voice he shouted:
" 'Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!'
She has become a dwelling for demons
and a haunt for every evil spirit,
a haunt for every unclean bird,
a haunt for every unclean and detestable animal.
For all the nations have drunk
the maddening wine of her adulteries.
The kings of the earth committed adultery with her,
and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries."

Then I heard another voice from heaven say:
" 'Come out of her, my people,'
so that you will not share in her sins,
so that you will not receive any of her plagues;
for her sins are piled up to heaven,
and God has remembered her crimes."


"The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore — cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and human beings sold as slaves.


In one hour such great wealth has been brought to ruin!'


"Rejoice over her, you heavens!
Rejoice, you people of God!
Rejoice, apostles and prophets!
For God has judged her
with the judgment she imposed on you."

from Revelation 18, TNIV

Without going too deeply into how to interpret Revelation, an eschatological Christian perspective on the financial crisis might look something like this:

  • Financial markets and so on will be destroyed, therefore we should not find security in them.
  • At the end (or maybe even in the present), it will be clear that what exists as a world trading system is hostile to the Church.
  • It will be destroyed by God.
  • The Church's response should be to rejoice at the destruction of Babylon because of the hostility Babylon has shown to the Church.

This all somewhat raises the question of why it's so different now. I suspect it's partly that the Church is hugely compromised with society and with the world's view of money...

Thursday, December 04, 2008


According to Typealyzer (for which thanks to Bishop Alan, my blog suggests it is written in the style of a Myers-Briggs INTP. This is comforting, as I am an INTP, and like it that way.

The logical and analytical type. They are especialy attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.

They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.



What is concerning to me is a) that they seem to have mis-spelt especially and b) that the person in the picture is clearly using a Mac, which I don't like as I find them harder to reconfigure...

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Head First Physics

Head First Physics is a physics textbook written by a friend of mine.

It's a really helpful way into thinking about mechanics (and it is pretty much all mechanics), especially for people who aren't that good at maths. It's aimed at an American audience, but it covers mechanics roughly up to the British A-level.

Amusingly, the first and last words in the book are by me! Here they are:

If you want to learn some Physics, but you think it's too difficult, buy this book! It will probably help, and if it doesn't, you can always use it as a doorstop or hamster bedding or something.

This is a truly remarkable book. The physics is taught clearly and without too much mathematics by looking at a series of well-chosen real-life or comedy tasks. If math really doesn't turn you on, this is a great way to learn Physics! I didn't think it was possible to do some of this stuff without calculus, but Head First Physics has done it.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Secular Academia and the Bible

There's an interesting discussion around my last post. The question is essentially whether Christians should read the Bible in the same way that secular academics tell them to. So here's my perspective on that.

I think it's important for some Christians to understand how and why secular academics approach the Bible. It's important for them to be able to speak the language of secular academic study, and to learn what they can from it. I hope I've done a bit of that myself.

It's also important that they don't accept all of secular academic conclusions about the Bible without critically examining them. There is no such thing as a neutral viewpoint when it comes to human academic endeavour, especially in theology. Some of the conclusions are helpful and valid. For example, recognising that a large section of the book of Joshua is in the same genre as a lot of Ancient Near Eastern victory lists, and therefore it doesn't necessarily all need to have happened at the same time or in that order, is important and helpful for understanding the book and its relation to history.

But a large portion of secular academic study of the Bible rests on the presupposition that God does not act directly in this world, and God does not speak in the way that Jesus (for example) claims that he does. I disagree with that presupposition on philosophical and experiential grounds, and therefore I feel at liberty to disagree with those conclusions of secular academia that rest on that presupposition. There are other bad presuppositions too, but that's the biggest one.

Because of that, and because Christianity is not fundamentally about getting a first at Oxford in Theology (though it's nice when that happens, it's really not very important!) but about being in a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, the priority of the Christian minister should be to teach what is true rather than just what the academics say.

That doesn't mean that what we do is at all academically irresponsible. The quotation I cited last time can be read as answering the simple question "Given the Christian understanding of Jesus as God, and the Apostles as inspired by God's Spirit, how should we read the Old Testament?" It was written by the former professor of Old Testament and hermeneutics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia...

As a comment for my previous post, Speaker for the Dead made this good point.

If Jesus is the Son of God, our reading of the Old Testament should center around that fact... But if a Christian can demonstrate that the NT is an inspired document quite unlike any other, he is entirely justified in using it to analyze other inspired texts.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Understanding the Old Testament

A Christian understanding of the OT should begin with what God revealed to the Apostles and what they model for us: the centrality of the death and resurrection of Christ for OT interpretation... The reality of the crucified and risen Christ is both the goal and font of Christian biblical interpretation.
Peter Enns, Apostolic Hermeneutics