Thursday, October 29, 2009


I don't tend to describe myself as a Calvinist very often.

Depending on what you mean by the term, I probably am one - I think that Calvin's description of how people are saved (his soteriology) is basically the same as what the Bible teaches, and I therefore agree with it. I think Calvin was a very clever bloke and a very gifted Bible teacher and systematic theologian. That doesn't mean I agree with absolutely everything he said, or that I think the fact that he said it settles an argument, but it is definitely worth reading what he said and wrote.

One reason I don't like the label is that it smacks of putting human views about God above worshipping God (in a depressingly 1 Corinthians 1:12 way). But that's not what I'm writing about today.

What I'm writing about today is the way that “5 point Calvinism” is often badly misunderstood to the point where the label “Calvinism” is often understood to mean something very different from what Calvin actually thought.

Calvin died in 1564, but after his death a big argument developed between people who mostly agreed with Calvin and a chap called Arminius about how people were saved. This led to a big meeting called the Synod of Dort, which ended with the Calvinists agreeing on the famous 5 points (in 1619).

Total Depravity
Unconditional Election
Limited Atonement
Irresistible Grace
Perseverance of the Saints

(Note the TULIP acronym.) Now all of those, when properly understood (and taken in the context of the debate with the Arminians), are really important truths. But each of the catchy titles is so vague that it is often misunderstood and taken to mean something it shouldn't mean at all. So some people think they are Calvinists, when actually they're nutters. To protect against that, I think it would have been more helpful if they'd stated stuff like individual responsibility as well, so it didn't look like top-down systematics rather than bottom-up systematics. I know too that a lot of people who described themselves as Calvinists after Calvin's death went a lot further than Calvin did, and I'm not sure if those who attended the Synod of Dort were among them. It's possible that what I think is the correct interpretation of the 5 points isn't actually what they meant by them at Dort. But I'm fairly sure it's what Calvin (and a lot of modern Calvinists) would have meant by them, if he'd said them.

And that's why I don't describe myself as a Calvinist, because what people think Calvinists believe is some distance from what we actually do believe.

Total Depravity

What it should mean: Total depravity means that everything we do and every part of us is affected by the fact we are sinners. We can't do anything that is totally pure and therefore we cannot earn God's favour.

What it shouldn't mean: Total depravity is often understood to mean that people are as bad as we can possibly be, and that we (especially non-Christians) can't do anything good or right. And to be fair, that's what the label sounds like it means too. But it's not what the Bible teaches; it's not what Calvin taught; it's obviously false.

Unconditional Election

What it should mean: Unconditional Election means that we can't earn God's favour or make God choose us. His choice is free and sovereign.

What it shouldn't mean: It doesn't mean that you can have someone who desperately wants God, but finds themselves cut off from him because he hasn't chosen them. It doesn't mean that what we do doesn't matter either, or that God treats the Pol Pots of this world the same as the Mahatma Ghandis.

Limited Atonement

What it should mean: Limited Atonement should mean that Jesus died for the sins of anyone who repents and turns to him, but not for the sins of everyone. People aren't just automatically forgiven because Jesus died – there is a need for individual repentance and faith – but anyone can be forgiven if they repent.

What it shouldn't mean: It shouldn't mean (and Calvin very clearly doesn't mean) that Jesus only died for the sins of a certain clear group of people – the “elect”, so that there's no point trying to reach those who aren't elect. Jesus, Peter, Paul (yes, and Calvin too) were very keen on evangelism – telling people outside the Church to turn to Jesus and trust him.

Irresistible Grace

What it should mean: Irresistible Grace should mean that when God draws someone to him, he does it in such a way that it transforms their desires as well.

What it shouldn't mean: It shouldn't mean that God brings people to him against their will, kicking and screaming.

Perseverance of the Saints

What it should mean: It should mean that nothing the world or the devil throws at those who trust Jesus can stop us from following him. Once someone really has come to trust in Christ, they keep going. Of course, the NT teaches in a couple of places that the key sign that someone has really come to trust Christ is that they keep going...

What it shouldn't mean: It isn't grounds for complacency. It is quite clear that there are people who can look as if they are “in”, who then subsequently show that they weren't. So just because someone “prayed the prayer” 20 years ago, means approximately nothing for whether they are or aren't following Jesus today, and whether they are saved or not.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Spirit at Work in the World

There's an ongoing tension in Christian theology over the extent to which the Holy Spirit is operative in the world. For example, Justin Martyr argued that since the Greek philosophers had found truth, they must have been indwelt by the Truth.

Calvin too comments on this:

The swift and versatile movements of the soul in glancing from heaven to earth, connecting the future with the past, retaining the remembrance of former years, nay, forming creations of its own—its skill, moreover, in making astonishing discoveries, and inventing so many wonderful arts, are sure indications of the agency of God in man.
Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.5.5

The question is how this can be squared with the clear fact from Scripture that the Holy Spirit only indwells those who trust in Christ.

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.
Romans 8:14-15, TNIV

So what are we to make of the way that non-Christians often do things that lead to truth and goodness and so on? And it's important to recognise that they do - all too often, Christians tend to forget that. The stereotype I guess is that conservative evangelicals forget that non-Christians do good stuff at all, charismatics see it as the work of the Spirit and get on board with it and liberals go one step further and conclude that those people are ok without knowing Jesus.

I was pondering this tension a few weeks ago, and I came to the conclusion that it makes most sense if the work of the Spirit among those who aren't Christians is primarily to maintain what is left of the image of God in them. We were created good, and though our rebellion against God affected every part of us so that nothing we do is ever wholly perfect, it didn't affect every part of us totally - it is rare that anything anyone does is ever wholly evil either. When non-Christians do what is right, it is reflecting a bit of the glory of the God who originally made them and continues to sustain them.

I think that by identifying the work of the Spirit in the non-Christian world primarily with maintaining the remnant of the image of God in people, we get rid of what is otherwise a difficult tension.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Harvest Sermon

This is the sermon I preached at Harvest. The passage is 1 John 3:11-19.

As it's Harvest today, here's a quick quiz. Hands up; first hand up with the right answer gets a Harvest bar.

Question 1: What grows in fields that is one of the main ingredients of bread? (corn / wheat)

Question 2: During the Jewish harvest festival, people weren't allowed to live in houses. What did they have to live in instead? (tents / tabernacles)

Question 3: What do the Americans call their Harvest festival? (Thanksgiving)

Question 4: One of the things Americans do at Thanksgiving is they act out the first harvest festival some of the settlers had in America. But when is the first harvest festival in the Bible? (Cain and Abel)

Question 5: How did it end? (Cain kills Abel)

Now that's a bit disturbing, isn't it? The first harvest festival in the Bible was with two brothers, Cain and Abel, both farmers, and it ended with Cain killing his brother.

That's because there are two ways to give – two ways to give, and the passage we read earlier talks about them.

The first way to give is the way Cain did. Cain gave because he was a good person. He gave, but he didn't love. He gave because he thought that would show he was a good person, and then maybe God would accept him. Cain gave because he was good. And what happened? God wasn't pleased with him, but he was pleased with Cain's brother Abel. So Cain got angry and ended up killing his brother.

You see, sometimes when we give, the giving is really about us. It is us saying we are good and generous and decent. And the shock of the first harvest festival is that God isn't pleased with Cain. So Cain gets angry because he thinks God owes him one. But we can't make God like us by being decent people. Giving stuff at harvest doesn't mean that God accepts us. Cain giving at the first harvest festival was meant to show how good he was, but actually showed how evil he was, because he ended up killing his brother. Giving because we are decent people actually ends up showing that we aren't.

The other way to give is the way Jesus gives. At the Jewish harvest festival, people were meant to give the best of what they had, and the first bits of their fruit and so on. And that's what God did. He gave us the best of what he had to give, he gave Jesus. And Jesus gave himself for us even though we're not decent people. That is how we know what love is. That is the way we should be giving – not giving stuff because we're decent people and to show that we're good, but giving ourselves, because God is good and that's what he did for us. And so we give our money and our stuff not to earn God's favour but because we have already given ourselves to God who has given everything to us.

So when we see our brothers and sisters in need, like we have done in the video, we have pity on them, and we give to them because nothing we have is ours any more – it's God's, and he loves them. And we don't just love them with the things we say, we actually do something about it. And yes, it's the people in the video, but it's also one another in this congregation. It's brilliant when I see people really giving of themselves to look after each other here, and I'm going to be even more encouraged when I see that even more.

Because if we're actually doing that, says John, that's evidence that we're really Christians. It's God's love shining through us.` It's like putting a candle into a candle jar.

God's love shines out like a light. And when that love is inside us, it shines out. It's God's love shining still, but it's shining through us and it maybe looks a bit different because of our situation and what we're like, but that light shines. And if we see the light shining in people, that tells us there's a candle inside. When we see people loving one another like Jesus does, that shows us that they really know Jesus – that they've really got that light inside them – that they really know they're loved and accepted by God, and so they are loving others.

Not loving others because they should, or because it's the right thing to do, or to try to make God happy with them, but loving because God's love is living in them.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Amazon and Odd Choice of Recommended Books....

This e-mail was sent to me today...

Greetings from,

We've noticed that customers who have purchased or rated books by C. S. Lewis have also purchased Kragos and Kildor the Two-headed Demon (Beast Quest) by Adam Blade. For this reason, you might like to know that Kragos and Kildor the Two-headed Demon (Beast Quest) is now available.

Not quite what I had in mind...

Thursday, October 08, 2009

A Scandal in Spiritual Illiteracy

The other day, I was at a gathering of curates. (What's the collective noun for curates?) We were discussing a book which was partly about the Charismatic movement. And it came out in conversation that half of the people in the room had no experience of charismaticism at all. I think that's a scandal.

Consider this - roughly 1/3 of the world's Christians are charismatic or Pentecostal. Among regular church-attenders in this country, the proportion of charismatics and Pentecostals is probably about 20% and growing fast. And half the people in the room had no experience of them at all, and we were all ordained ministers in the Church of England.

When I was considering training for ordination in the Church of England, we discussed my experience of the breadth of the Church, and I was told to spend 3 months worshipping at a high Anglo-Catholic church. I did, and I found it helpful. When I was at college, I made an effort to broaden my experience as much as possible. I spent time at churches in difficult UPAs and in the countryside because I was more used to the suburbs. I spent time at an Anglican church in the developing world because I've lived in the UK all my life. I got to the point where I've got a decent level of exposure to pretty much everything that happens in the C of E. Some of it I disagree with; some of it I think is wrong or mad, but at least I'm aware of it and have spoken to people who do it and got to know a bit about where they are coming from. Much of that was expected of me as part of my training; some of it was me wanting to understand where different people were coming from.

So how on earth have people got through selection and ordination training and even got ordained and through a decent chunk of their curacies without any experience or understanding of the charismatic movement? I'm not blaming them at all - it's the job of those providing and overseeing their training to make sure that that happens, and I think it's a scandal that they have been allowed to do so.

(As it happens, I think the charismatic movement tends to get some things wrong and a lot of things right - not least the expectation of personal experience of God's action. But that's largely irrelevant to this rant...)

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Odd Happenings

My fiancee has suggested I put more of this sort of thing up...

I spent a decent chunk of today getting an old green toilet out of the loft of someone's house, because we need it for a service on Sunday. Struggling backwards down a ladder holding a dirty toilet bowl isn't always what I'd expected to be top fo the list of things to do in a curacy, but never mind!

The church has received a generous donation of a large number of fresh corns-on-the-cob (I think that's the plural) from a local farmer. Apparently a truckload or so... Now under normal circumstances, we'd donate them to the local homeless shelter, but in this case it seems they're not fit for human consumption - they're some different species that is grown for cattle feed. Not sure why they were donated, or if we asked for them, but mine not to reason why and all. So we're apparently using them to decorate the church with. It remains to be seen what result this will have.

And I'm planning a controversial Harvest family service sermon for Sunday...

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Sermon on Creation

Here's a sermon I preached recently on the topic of creation.

MP3 downloadable from here.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Liberal God and the Amalekites

I've been doing a bit more thinking about the whole question of passages like 1 Samuel 15, and what seems to be going on here is a fundamental clash of worldviews – a clash between two gods (or two sets of ideas about God).

On one hand, there is what I'll call the Liberal God. This is God as conceptualised by most of society today. He/she is in many ways similar to the Deist idea of God – she/he doesn't actually do much in terms of acting in objective ways in space-time history. But the idea actually relies more on the ideas of the early liberal theologians – this is still a god who cares about us and whom we can experiences of (though I've argued elsewhere that that probably requires a god who can and does act in an objective way in space-time history – though I guess that might not hold if it's also the god of Process Theology who isn't really a god at all). The Liberal God embodies the Spirit of the Age rather than the Holy Spirit – there isn't much conception of transcendent holiness, but rather a loving tolerance that covers everyone who doesn't deliberately cause harm or offence to others, regardless of their race, colour, creed, gender, sexual orientation, fetishes, etc. The Liberal God's first commandment is to be true to yourself and to love yourself with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. The Liberal God would never command a genocide, and would certainly let good people (like most of us) into heaven.

On the other hand, there is the God of the Bible – i.e. God as the Bible depicts him. He is actually quite discomforting, and doesn't really seem to fit in comfortably to any human culture – he is far more accepting and loving than most human cultures have been, but at the same time he is holy and cannot stand sin. And he has a strange loyalty at times to some groups of people.

A fair few people think that actually these two “God”s are the same. So the Bible is seen as the story of the human encounter with the Liberal God, who gradually draws them from their original understanding of him as petty and rather like them, into the truer understanding of him/her as loving, generous, liberal and rather like Desmond Tutu. For these people, passages such as 1 Samuel 15 are relics of an earlier understanding of God.

[It's probably worth pointing out at this stage that actually that idea doesn't work. Revelation was probably one of the last books of the Bible to be written, and is pretty much like their idea of early stuff. And Ruth is pretty early, and is much more like their idea of later stuff. I don't think that way of thinking about how the Bible develops really works – the more conventional evangelical one fits the data much better.]

The question that passages such as 1 Samuel 15 make us face is which of these conceptions of God is the true one. And the way this is generally decided is which conception of God is morally better. And that's what I was trying to think about in my series of posts on 1 Samuel 15.

So which is better? A God who chooses to bless everyone in some vague nebulous way without ever using violence, or a God who chooses to bless the world in a concrete, real and self-sacrificial way through a specific group of people, and then acts to protect them when they are threatened? That's what I've been seeking to address in my posts on the Amalekites...