Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Emergence: A Primer

OK, as promised here is a little primer on emergence as its theological relevance. And I totally disavow any pretensions of authority on this subject, this is the noddy version from noddy himself.

Alongside the exciting discoveries being made about the smallest parts of the universe in quantum mechanics there has also been the development of complexity theory, which deals not with the parts but with the whole that those parts make. What has become more and more aparent is that a purely mechanistic description of many complex systems (both articificial and naturally occuring) observed is not adequate. Put another way, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. So the most common examples of this are the patterns that form on sand when driven by the wind or the patterns that form on computer generated displays of thousands of lights flashing at random. In a purely mechanistic universe these pattern should not occur (at least not a often as they do). The whole appears to have an effect on the parts.

Emergence is a related idea. In a purely mechanistic universe all cause and effect flows from the bottom up. So if you can fully understand the laws of physics then you should be able to predict the laws of chemistry, and if you can understand chemistry then you should be able to predict the laws of biology. Why? because chemicals are constituted of physical components, and biological matter is constituted of chemicals. In (mechanistic) theory all biology should be reducible to physics. . . except it's not.

What seems to be the case is that at greater levels of complexity (e.g. atoms forming molecules, or chemicals forming protein chains) new properties are added whch could never be predicted from the component parts. This has led some to suggest that when new levels of complexity are reached new information is actually added to the universe. Rather than the parts dictating what the whole will be, the complexity of the whole emerges as something more than the sum of the parts. This suggests a cause and effect that works from the top-down rather than the mechanistic botttom-up.

The reason some theologians find this very exciting is that the top-down cause and effect suggest a force at work in the universe that is external to the observable laws of physics, and some have not been shy to suggest that this force could be the Spirit of God at work in the ongoing process of creating and sustaining the universe. Personally, the jury is still out, but it is very interesting stuff.

Further reading:

Yong, Amos, ‘Ruach, the Primordial Chaos, and the Breath of Life: Emergence Theory and the
Creation Narrative in Pneumatological Perspective.’
and
John Polkinghorne ‘The Hidden spirit and the Cosmos’
both in Michael Welker (ed) The Work of the Spirit, (Grand rapids: Eerdmans, 2007)

Pannenberg, Wolfhart ‘God as Spirit—and Natural Science.’ in Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science, (2001, 36:4), 783-95

Most of the books on this page by Philip Clayton

Let me know what you think, :-)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Theology of Scripture in Ivanhoe

Sir Walter Scott, the inventor of historical fiction and writer of many a swashbuckling tale, has not, as far as I am aware, been subjected to a sustained theological examination. Given that his primary intentions in writing novels seems to have been to entertain and make money that is perhaps not surprising. I have read Ivanhoe a few times before and always enjoyed it (it is the only work of his I have read - will have to remedy that) but theological study does sensitise one to things that you might otherwise miss in the excitement of tale of chivalry and damsels in distress. One of those damsels, Rebecca the Jewish Healer, attempts to extricate herself from her predicament by appealing to the Christian faith of her amorous captor, the templar Brain Bois-Guilbert. The templar explains to her that any "lesser folly" than marriage can be "speedily absolved" by the Preceptory of his order and that the templar knights only follow the example of Solomon in their licentious behaviour. To which Rebecca responds with the rebuke:
If thou readest the scripture . . . and the lives of the saints, only to justify thine own licence and profligacy, thy crime is like that of him who extracts poison from the most healthful and necessary of herbs.

[page 187 of the 1995 Wordsworth edition]

Which I think is a wonderful narrative exposition of a principle that must surely be included within any true theology of scripture, that the reader who reads not to seek God and God's will but for the sake of some other agenda will, regardless of the inerrancy or otherwise of the text, find what they want. But in doing so they act as atheists who deny God's word and bend the text to their own ends.

In the story of Ivanhoe an ironic twist is given to this tiny thread when the grand master of the templars tries Rebecca for witchcraft he examines one of her medicines,
after crossing himself [he] took the box into his hand, and, learned in most of the Eastern tongues, read with ease the motto on the lid - The Lion of the Tribe of Judah hath conquered. 'Strange powers of Sathanas,' said he, 'which can convert Scripture into blasphemy, mingling poison with our necessary food!'
[page 313]

So Rebecca the healer is accused of turning scripture into poison, the very thing she rightly accused Bois-Guilbert of. All the while the real blasphemy is the show trial the grand master templar presides over in God's name and by which he attempts to have Rebecca burned at the stake. But, and this is one reason why I love this novel, God gets the last word. But you will have to wait for another post to find out what it is . . . or read the book yourself.

Let me know what you think, :-)

An Apology for Apologetics!

Apologetics is a very powerful tool, but it's ultimately janitorial. Many people encounter obstacles to the faith. Think of the Christian, for example, who loses a relative and is assailed by the question, Why did God allow that? Even the believer can be haunted by difficulties that get in the way of building a relationship with God.

Apologetics can come in and help to make important distinctions and clarify some of the difficulties. You are doing no more than clearing away debris that blocks the door to faith, and ultimately it is God's love that has to work its way into a heart. Conversion ultimately comes from that; apologetics only clears the driveway.

From Dinesh D'Souza in a Christianity Today interview.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Two Faced Approach to Idolatry?

I continue my slow but very enjoyable reading of Chris Wright's, The Mission of God (IVP, 2006). (Which also inspired this earlier post.) Wright's treatment of idolatry, the subjectof his second major section, is simply fantastic and he has both answered a number of questions and posed questions I hadn't properly thought of before. In pages 179-188 he finishes his chapter on idolatry with an examination of Paul's approaches. To summarise, in Acts Paul's evangelistic preaching treats idolatry markedly differently to how he does in Romans and 1 Corinthians. Wright suggests that Paul reserves his strongest langauge about idolatry for theological and pastoral discussions with Christians (Rom 1:18-32, 1 Cor 8-10) but moderates his tone considerably when talking to pagans (Acts 14:8-20; 17:16-34; 19:23-41).

Wright, also argues that this approach of Paul's is entirely consistent with the modus operandi of the OT prophets who would accuse the pagan nations of numerous moral wrongs but would only mock idolatry per se when confronting those who should know better, the people of God (e.g. Amos, who lists the sins of the surrounding nations in 1:1-2:3, but only mentions idol worship in connection with Judah in 2:4).

Wright concludes, "in confronting idolatry, we need to be discerning about what responses are appropriate in different contexts, learning from the apostles and prophets as we do so." (p188)

The conclusion then seems to lead us to have two faces with regard to idolatry. When talking to pagans we major on the kindness and mercy of God and don't attack their gods directly, but when dealing with those who should know better we pull out all the stops and expose idolatry in all its depraved sinfulness. Now on one hand this makes sense, there is no point lambasting people for what they cannot help, if you don't know God then you have no reason not to worship others gods (whether they be traditional idols or contempary analogues), but those who do know God are doubly culpable. But on the other hand it does seem like there is potentially going to be some inconsistency between what is said in house and in public. The problem is exascerbated by the way so little Christian discourse is actually in house anymore. We put our sermons on the internet, we publish our books, and our inter and intra denominational disuputes are the stuff of news programs and history books. What we say in private will be shouted from the rooftops one way or another, especially if it is deemed offensive by the general public. The recent furore over Brian Tamaki's oath is a good example of that. While I am convinced by Wright's arguments, I think the onus needs to be on us to make sure that what we say in private is still something we would be happy to be heard in public. And if you aren't, best not to say it at all!

Let me know what you think, :-)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Yet another instance of 2 Chron 7:14 abuse!

I get so tired of hearing 2 Chron 7:14 quoted by western Christians in regard to their own nations. In its context it is quite clearly about ancient Israel and the unique relationship it would enjoy as the site of God's temple. Today the temple site has a mosque built on it and Garth George seems to think that it is actually about New Zealand. So in its literal sense it no longer applies. Quite what modern Christians are supposed to take from it is another matter, but it certainly isn't a promise of national social or religious renewal if enough people pray for it. Don't even get me started on his use of Isaiah 6:9-10, which is apparently a rebuke for a failure to take interest in Maori/Pakeha tensions!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Wright on Story, Worldviews and Theology

Telling stories was (according to the synoptic gospels) one of Jesus' most characteristic modes of teaching. And . . . it would clearly be quite wrong to see these stories as mere illustrations of truths that could in principle have been articulated in a purer more abstract form. They were ways of breaking open the worldview of Jesus' hearers, so that it could be remoulded into the worldview which he, Jesus, was commending. His stories, like all stories in principle, invited his hearers into a new world, making the implicit suggestion that the new worldview be tried on for size with a view to permanent purchase. . .

If it is true that all worldviews are at the deepest level shorthand formulae to express stories, this is particularly clear in the case of Judaism. Belief in one god, who called Israeli to be his people, is the very foundation of Judaism. The only proper way of talking about a god like this, who makes the world and then acts within it, is through narration. To 'boil off' an abstract set of propositions as though one were thereby getting to a more foundational statement would actually be to falsify this worldview at a basic point.


NT Wright, NTPG, p77

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Inerrancy: A Short Blogography and 2 Points

I started writing a further post on Beyond Inerrancy, but the next step is to expound a Christ centred hermeneutic, and that just seemed beyond me this weekend. See my essay on preaching the OT if you'd like to see the beginnings of my thinkings on the subject (BTW it's not my finest moment but it got the job done). So, in lieu, here are some of the blogs on the subject that I've enjoyed:

Chris Tilling has an extensive series of blogs on the subject, and he was the first guy to get me thinking about it. Well worth the time to read.

Then there is Kiwi Blogger Glenn's take and the equally Kiwi Thinking Matters response.

From a different angle Tim resists the urge to become an inerrantist for the cause of monogamy (by the way the conversation in the comments is where it gets really interesting). Tim's conversation partner in the last link, John Hobbins, lets loose here and cautions all who too easily cast aside their theological heritage here.

While Steve at Undeception has more posts on the subject than one can shake a stick at. And then of course there is Peter Enn's entire blog.

And if you follow those links they will take you to many, many more.

One observation is the way that someone's context radically affects the way people view these terms. Those who feel the bigger threat to the church's health is Bible denying liberals will want to champion inerrancy, while those who feel it is the proof-texting fundamentalists who are the bigger danger are more likely to want to brush it under the carpet. But then no surprise. As I've argued before, all Christian theology is contextual.

One clarification I feel I need to make is to point out that in my posts I have avoided saying "the Bible is not inerrant," not least because I would not be willing to say "the Bible is errant." This is why I didn't resonate with Glenn's approach, it seemed to be more about pointing out scripture's failure to meet the criteria than the unsuitability of the criteria itself. Again this could well be a contextual issue, it is quite possible that in different circumstances inerrancy would be much more meaningful to me, I just don't know what they are yet. :-D

Either way I think this conversation has got plenty of legs left.
Let me know what you think, :-)

Friday, December 11, 2009

New Kiwi Preaching Blog

The Kiwi Made Preaching event that happened earlier this year has now spawned a blog. Should be good, 25 diverse but experienced contributors will be posting here about faithfully and creatively communicating the Bible in contemporary NZ. There is also a useful and growing resources section.

http://kiwimadepreaching.wordpress.com/

(I've added it to my select blog list on the right.)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

NT Wright at CTI

He starts talking about his new book around the four minute mark



Hmmm, i'm gonna have to hurry up and read the first three aren't I?



"Paul is always three steps ahead of me," I know the feeling. :-)
"What you are looking at when you are doing serious research is the things that people are going to take for granted in a generation or two." No pressure then . . . ;-)

Hell?

One day I'll get round to this one, but until then here is a post on the subject from Tim Keller, here is a response to it from the fundaMentalist Pyromaniacs, and here is a totally different approach to the subject. Personally I think most peole when they read or talk about Hell are working with a concept that has been defined more by medieval superstition (and popular culture) than biblical research, so you might be able to guess which of the above approaches I tend to lean towards (but maybe not, I like to keep you in suspense). But more to come later . . .

[Edit. Sorry, I wrongly assumed that the Pyro's were discussing the Tim Keller article on Hell I had read, but they weren't it was this one. Same guy but different article. Thanks Glenn!]

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Beyond Inerrancy: Towards a Meaningful Theology of Scripture

So if Inerrancy is meaningless (see previous post) how can we express a "high view" of scripture without it? Well I would suggest that the two things wrong with inerrancy need to be two things right with any other proposal, namely that the Bible we have now must be shown to be the word of God and that word must be guarded against the claims of any "authoritative interpreters."

The place I would start is Isaiah 55. This text affirms a number of things forcefully and beautifully.

In vs1-3, God calls us to come to him and listen to him for our salvation, but in vs6-7 we are told to call on God and seek him. Thus the word of God is shown to be dialogical. It both represents God's word to us and calls us into conversation with God and searching for God through that word. Then in vs8-10 the nature of God word to us is expounded. It is both alien and beyond us (vs8-9) but also purposeful, dynamic, and effective (v10).

We could then heuristically apply this as framework for our own understanding of scripture. This might have the following results:

1. Because God's word is a dynamic communication it is not stored in static historical documents no longer extant, but comes to us through the various traditions of scripture including the Septuagint, the Masoretic Text, the KJV, the Luther Bible and the Paipera Tapu (to name but a few). The changing and varied nature of these traditions are evidence of God's dynamic communication with the world, not the second best option to having the "original manuscripts."

2. Because God's word is beyond human thought no human is permitted to set themselves above the text to give an authoritative interpretation. Instead we are all called into humble searching dialogue with the text, confident that God will achieve what he wills through it (perhaps provided we "give ear" and "hear" (v3) rather than come to the text with our own assumptions) but conscious that any ultimate grasp of it is beyond our reach.

Let me know what you think :-)

P.S. This approach might also spare us from needing to talk about the "preservation of scripture" (which makes it sound like a fossil) and the "perspecuity of scripture" (which is another strong tower for those who use the Bible to beat others over the head).

Monday, December 7, 2009

2 Reasons Why Inerrancy is Meaningless

Over at Thinking Matters there is a discussion about the doctrine of Inerrancy, the teaching that the Bible is without error. This is given its fullest and most recent form in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.

The first reason this statement is meaningless is that it carefully specifies which Bible it refers to, and it is not the NJV, or the NIV or even Nestle and Aland 4th Edition, but the "autographic text of Scripture." Which is just nonsense. While some of the books of the Bible, especially the NT epistles could be said to have had autographic texts, many are the product of sustained development and/or combined traditions. Were these traditions or earlier forms inerrant also? And at what point did the scriptures cease to be inerrant, i.e. the diverse traditions that we have now? More to the point, even if at some stage the "original manuscripts" did exist at some time in some pristine inerrant form, it does us no good whatsoever as they are no longer extant. In Article 10 the authors of the statement preempt my objection.
We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original. We deny that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant.
That final denial changes nothing. The doctrine of Inerrancy given here is about a set of documents that no longer exists and never existed as a set. Not only that but because we don't have the originals to compare we can never be sure which copies and translations are the word of God (according to this statement). This doctrine actually takes the Bible away from us as God's word, instead of reasuring us of its character as divine revelation.

The second reason Inerrancy is meaningless is that even if we had before us a pristine inerrant text (which we don't) it would still require an inerrant authoritative interpretation for its inerrancy to be any good for us. As I understand it, the root of this sort of inerrancy talk is actually found in the Roman Catholic church during the Reformation, for exactly this reason. They wanted to hedge the Bible in from the reformers and so argued that only the church could give an authoritative interpretation of the inerrant document. How this control freak tendency manifests itself now is painfully apparent over at the Thinking Matters website where the authoritative interpretation is appears to be in the hands of whoever is asserting inerrancy most vehemently. In the comments of his post Bnon is able to appeal to the "clear" sensus plenior* (comment at 3:47 on 20Nov) and also use his clearly limited (not to mention inaccurate) understanding of Koine Greek to browbeat an opponent without actually explaining what he means** (comment at 11:31 on 20Nov). The fact that he feels able to do this is presumably the result of understanding himself as that authoritative interpreter of the inerrant documents. At least I can't think of any other good reason.

Don't get me wrong, I have a high view of Scripture, high enough to have devoted the last 10 years of my life to teaching and studying it. But talk of inerrancy doesn't do the Bible any favours, it's just power games and nonsense.

Let me know what you think :-)


* The Sensus Plenior is characterised by it being something beyond the literal meaning of the text and therefore something not at all "clear."
** In Koine Greek, as in modern English, it is perfectly possible to refer to the same thing with two different words, e.g. "My running-shoes are on my feet, yes my trainers." Which is beside the point as both Heb 4:12 and John 1:1 use logos. (Of course that doesn't mean Heb 4:12 and John 1:1 are referring to the same object, only that they are not necessarily not doing so on the basis of the words used.)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

December Barnabas Fund Headlines

RUSSIA - CHRISTIAN LEADER MURDERED IN HIS CHURCH
VIETNAM - CHRISTIAN DENOMINATION AWARDED OFFICIAL RECOGNITION
IRAQ - BOMBS EXPLODE IN CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY
EGYPT - "MASSIVE CHAOS" AS VIOLENCE ERUPTS BETWEEN CHRISTIANS AND MUSLIMS
CHINA - CHRISTIANS PERSEVERE IN MEETING FOR WORSHIP DESPITE ALL OPPOSITION
SUDAN - CHRISTIAN GIRL LASHED FOR "INDECENT" SKIRT
INDONESIA - CHRISTIAN STUDENTS EVICTED FROM REFUGE
EGYPT - DAUGHTER OF CONVERT APPEALS TO PRESIDENT OBAMA
IRAN - GOOD NEWS STORY

As always more on the Barnabas fund website. And if you don't get their email newsletter then you should. You'd be amazed what goes on in the world and yet never makes the papers.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

New Look!

In case you haven't noticed, I thought it was time for a new look for the blog, all those dark colours were a little too forbidding. I also wanted a wider panel for the blog itself, hopefully that doesn't make it too hard to read and saves you some effort with the scroll wheel on your mouse!

Let me know what you think :-)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Confession

Stephen Webb in "Theology as Confesssion," a chapter in To Teach, To Delight, And To Move, writes,
Christians typically confess their personal sins in private, with a priest or directly to God; and they typically confess their faith in public, with others, in the church . . . This double structure of confessional acts is broken apart in modern culture . . . Today, ironically, the public confession of faith has been privatized, while the (normally private) confession of sin has been increasingly publicized. Indeed, we live in a hyper-confessional culture, in which many people seem to want to divulge their private lives, but nobody has anything really interesting to say. [p110-11]
Which strikes me as being a spot-on observation. His critique continues,
Without forgiveness, confessing becomes another form of rationalizing. We turn our failures into a coherent whole by dramatizing them through a plausible plot . . . Confessions are public, but only in the sense of blurring the boundary between what used to be private, making us all into voyeurs. Confessions are not public in the sense of forming a community of those who seek the truth. [p116]
Where I think we see this the most is on documentaries and reality TV shows where people expose their damaged inner selves in front of large audiences who are only viewing for the sake of entertainment.

Webb's critique is good, but his construction seems underdeveloped. He draws on Kierkegaard's "rejection of inwardness as a criterion of authenticity," and comes to the conclusion that, "The truth does not come to us from within. It comes from our transparency to the divine that is outside us." [p125] Which is great as far as it goes but hardly as concrete and useful as his critique of modern culture. Still, a useful article and I think an important insight into a way in which today's Christian community should seek to contrast with the wider world.

let me know what you think :-)

Monday, November 30, 2009

Slaying Sacred Cows

A few sacred cows are in the firing line at the moment :-)

Greg Boyd is working on a new book reconciling "the violent God of the O.T. with the crucified God of the new." He helpfully lists his six principles which he will expound in the book. He has some really interesting ideas there. Boyd is also one of the more vocal Open Theism proponents, he provides an article arguing that the "two driving motivations that led early Christians to assume God knows the future exhaustively as a realm of definite facts (rather than partly as a domain of possibilities) derive from pre-Christian pagan philosophy." I'm looking forward to reading it sometime.

On the other hand Steve of Undeception appears to be going to town on Gen 1-11 posting on Gen 1 and on the Fall. I hadn't been to his blog in ages but he seems to be going off on one regarding inerrancy, etc. Can't help but feel he is ploughing some tired old ground, but good on him for trying.

And this one is old, but I came across it recently, let me just warn you, it could ruin your enjoyment of the Lord of the Rings films forever . . . but you should still read it.

The Danger of Apologetics

The most neglected theme of this blog is the one of diaspora. But it is one I am keen not to lose grip on because it is a metaphor that has many insights to offer and is an important antidote to many vices that are the hangover from "Christendom." In recent past the church in NZ has probably been most noticeable in the public arena regarding the evolution/creation debate, same sex marriage, and to a lesser extent the anti smacking bill. All of these issues stem not from essential Christian doctrines but from Christians trying to answer challenges the wider society has given.
The Jews of the Hellenistic Diaspora thus found themselves interpreting their particularity in terms of a thought-world that bore no original relationship to it. The particularity of Israel was sometimes a burden to them in relationships with Gentiles, but it was also essential to their own sense of national and religious identity. Without it, they could not survive as a people. yet they could not survive with it, either, unless they were prepared to explain and defend it in terms intelligible to the larger world, and the very process of explanation and defense tended to alter the characteristic of the thing being explained.

From, Dirt, Greed and Sex, by L. William Countryman.

The great problem with today's Christian public interaction is that it is largely reactive and so the agenda has been set from outside the church. The result is that the church becomes increasingly positioned over and against secondary and marginal issues which in turn become much greater and assume a more central significance than they should have. In defending our faith against these attacks we run the danger of becoming a caricature of ourselves and losing sight of what really makes us who we are. Apologetics is very important, even essential, to maintaining a diaspora identity but it must be done wisely with an eye on the effect engaging in such a defense has on us. The first task of apologetics should not be to convince the scoffer but to preserve the integrity of that which is being defended. Otherwise even if we win such battles they will be only Pyrrhic Victories.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Contradictions in the Resurrection Narratives?

Well after ETB's insane gibbering 5 comment flame of my earlier post I thought maybe it was not so obvious to some people why the differing Resurrection accounts in the Gospels do nothing to suggest that the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth couldn't have happened, and so I should do a post on the subject. It is important to point out that this is not an argument why any one must believe it did happen, only that the differing accounts are evidence in favour rather than against it. Another blogger, Michael Bird, writes in How Did Christianity Begin?,
According to Paul, again in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, the risen Jesus was seen by individuals and groups . . . This early tradition interlocks with the multiple accounts in the Gospels that narrate persons seeing, hearing and touching the resurrected Jesus. There are clear divergences in the details provided by the Evangelists that do not appear to add up; indeed, we can speak of an excited bewilderment as to exactly where, when and who saw the risen Jesus and in what order, but this only adds to the realism. In the words of E.P Sanders: 'Calculated deception should have produced greater unanimity. Instead there seems to have been competitors: "I saw him first!" "No! I did."' [The Historical Figure of Jesus, 1993, p280] As we investigate the various stories of the appearances at the tomb, in a locked room, on a road out of Jerusalem, in Galilee and by the Lake of Tiberius we are led to the conclusion that several individuals and groups believed that they had genuinely seen Jesus alive in a physical mode of existence after his death.

There is often the idea in people's heads, it seems to me, of a monolithic early Christian group agreeing on a fiction or delusion on which will rest the substance of their faith and then producing or selecting only those documents that seemed to substantiate those claims. But what is evidenced by the narrative in Acts and the composition of the NT itself is that from an early stage the church as a whole was scattered to different localities and although there would have been contact between the different groups (especially through relationships to significant figures) to some extent they evolved independently of each other. This is seen most clearly in the Gospel of John which relates a very different tradition to the other three gospels.

Instead the NT is something of an "ecumenical" document representing a number of different strands of early Christianity (e.g. Matthean, Johanine, Pauline, Petrine, etc). This is why each gospel shows evidence of having access to different sources than the others, although Mathew and Luke both seem to have had access to both Mark and a sayings tradition, "Q". The scattering that took place near the start of Church history meant that no harmonized authoritative version of events could be established. Instead, different communities independently recorded their best version of events. And this is exactly what the "contradictions" in the Resurrection narratives display, competing versions of an event that these different communities are nonetheless absolutely convinced took place. A convincing that was probably the result of hearing eye witness testimony and having it verified in their own personal religious experience. The fact that the gospel Resurrection accounts contradict each other in the details does not stop them all confirming the same event in its essentials.

To conclude: I couldn't give a tinker's fart how many angels were present or who saw him first, but if Jesus of Nazareth really was raised from the dead then that is something worth knowing about!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Ellipsis and Theosis

One of the features of NT Greek which provide difficulty for the modern day interpreter (or me at least) is its ability to sometimes produce sentences devoid of verbs. The great classic of this in Paul's writings is 1 Corinthians 8:6.
yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (NIV)

yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. (NRSV)

I have taken the liberty of putting every word which the Greek text does not include in bold italic. When there is no verb the interpreter has to decide what is intended. Is it simply an equative construction that is establishing a general relationship between the subject and object, or is there a verb implied by the context, or is it an ellipsis (missing verb) that indicates a well know saying where the verb does not need to be supplied because the original reader already knows the saying? 1 Corinthians 8:6 could be translated,
but for us one God, The Father, out from whom everything and us into him, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom everything and us through him. (my rough trans.)
Which makes quite a bit of sense even without those verbs, and even perhaps makes a different sense once deprived of those verbs. It sounds now possibly like a statement of theosis. You might then interpret it to be saying, "Everything has come from God, and our destiny is to become like him. Everything that is came from God through Christ and it is through Christ that we will become like God."

In the context of 1 Corinthians 8 and its discussion of idolatry this makes as much sense as the other interpretations. It is then not just that God is the only god because he is the only creator but also that he is the only God because he is the only god with whom we anticipate union through Christ.

Let me know what you think :-)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Funeral Thoughts

I was at a family funeral yesterday and it was tough going. A very dearly cherished person had perished tragically and before time. I was amazed by how many people turned out for the funeral, I'm guessing 500. I was more surprised though how completely absent of either hope of gratitude the service was. Although held in a church, God didn't really get a look in. There was no prayer or hymns, no way for the congregation to participate, except to listen to those who spoke, all of whom shared loss, disbelief, anger, grief and unhappiness. This is of course now fairly standard in a society that has cast off religious roots, and although claims to still be "spiritual" has no resources for coping with the event of untimely death except sad vague songs sung by professionals and PowerPoint presentations.

I know I could not expect much hope at a non-christian funeral. Although the clergy person on duty was quite frankly a total waste of space, I have never heard anyone before use the theory of emergence to comfort grieving people and I hope never to again. I think I was probably the only person there to know what he was going on about, how many people have studied emergence theory in relation to theology? (maybe lots have, I have led a sheltered life) Certainly his incoherent ramblings, pseudo-scientific speculations, and half hearted biblical allusions didn't leave anyone the wiser.

But everyone seemed angry at the universe or God or whatever for what had happened. Fair enough, those feelings were real and needed to be expressed. But that same universe in which the dearly departed had suffered a tragic death was the only universe in which she could ever have existed. In one sense, for that wonderful person to have existed in the way she did, she also had to die the way she did.
When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other.

These words from Ecclesiastes 7:14 make the point. When we are angry about the bad we need to remember that we didn't complain when we received the good. Whether it is God or just some faceless universe everything in life ultimately comes to us from the same hand. Even at times of loss gratitude needs to be expressed. Gratitude for a life well lived and for love given and received. Remembrance will bring pain but it should also bring happiness, because although you feel the loss now, it would have been worse to never have known who you are missing at all.

Another verse from Ecclesiastes 7, verse 2:
It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Two Sermons on Sin

Well, often you hear people complaining that preachers never preach on sin, they just keep it light and fluffy and entertaining. Well, without consciously setting out to do so, I have preached the last two Sunday mornings on sin. The first was on 2:Kings 5 @ Waiheke Baptist and today's was on Acts 5:1-11 @ my home church, Mount Wellington Community Church.

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2 Kings 5
, I did this one following the flow of the three sections of narrative calling attention to the "small things" on which the story turns:

Vs 1-7. The contrast between the mighty military commander Naaman afflicted with a nasty skin condition and the nameless Israelite slave girl who takes pity on him. And the contrast between the King (Jehoram?) of Israel's poverty of faith and that of the slave girl.

Vs 8-19. We then have Naaman learning about the god of Israel. A God who is no respecter of persons. Who cannot be bought. And yet who gives his grace and healing in return for the simplest of obediences. It is another nameless servant who convinces his master to humble himself to such a small deed. And Naaman is healed and is converted to the worship of the God of Israel.

Of course this is a great point to talk about how God saves us in Christ, something we could never buy or acheive but that is given to us in the simple act of obedience when we come to Christ to be cleansed of our sin - so that's exactly what I did.

So far so good, God at work in the little people and the small things, and an OT gospel message as an added extra. At this point we are all feeling pretty good. But this story has a sting in its tail . . .

Vs 20-27. Gehazi, Elisha's servant, doesn't get that Naaman is being taught about God and doesn't want him to get let off lightly. He tells a little lie and gets a little treasure. in doing so he undermines the lessons Naaman has been taught, makes out that God's grace is something that can be bought, and on the cheap at that. Then he tells another little lie to Elisha. His punishment, he gets stricken with Naaman's skin disease.

So, the small things matter, both the good and the bad. Don't despise the little people and the small deeds, and don't imagine the small sins don't matter either.

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Acts 5:1-11, I did a little differently to normal as it is one of those texts where I think we need to acknowledge our discomfort and difficulty.

First I talked about the contrast between our cuddly domesticated God and the "wild God" of the Bible, who is dangerous and does things we don't expect or like. Christian maturity comes when we still seek to know and serve God when it turns out he is not tame and may allow or even cause bad stuff to happen to us and the people we love.

Then I pointed out that most of the questions we tend to come to this text with simply aren't answered here. E.g. why did they die? or, why didn't Peter try to warn them or intercede for them? Instead we are really told two things with certainty.

Vs 3 & 9. As Jews who had the history and scriptures, they knew about their "wild God" and as Christians they knew they and the community had received the Holy Spirit, and yet they still lied. In that moment they were acting as atheists, as if God were not dangerous and as if the Holy Spirit were not in them. In many ways the surprise is not that they were treated so harshly but that the rest of us get off so lightly.

Vs 5 &11. What happened to Ananias and Saphira had the effect of inspiring reverent fear in the church. I took some time to explain the difference between that sort of fear (fobos - terror awe, respect, reverence) and the fear described in 2 Tim 1:7 (deilia- cowardice, timidity, weakness). It should not be so much a case of, “God is watching you so don’t do anything naughty!” but instead of, “God is with you, wow! Live a life that is holy!”

I finished up with the suggestion that the issue is what we fill our hearts with (vs 3) and that we need to cultivate our sensitivity to and awareness of the Spirit and guard against getting filled up with sinful desires. I almost used the Native American illustration of the two wolves but didn't at the last minute. I also majored on the importance of being a people of truth and scrupulous honesty. I felt the application of this one needed more work, it seemed to go a bit flat at the end, (although it may just have been me running out of blood sugar) but hopefully that is something people can do for themselves anyway, I just dig for treasure it is up to them how they spend it . . .

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So, there you go, two sermons on sin, exactly what it said on the tin.

Let me know what you think :-)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Typology

Here is a useful essay on Typology as a method for interpreting scripture. Funny thing is, I currently preach mainly at an Open Brethren Church and the three years I had been there I had never heard anyone use Typology, despite the fact the Brethren are famous for (overdoing) it. So one sermon where I had used Typology to interpret the scripture (it was the story of Sampson I think) I thought it best to give a little introduction and explanation of method, and they all looked at me like I was teaching them to suck eggs! One of the reasons for Typology's neglect by many Biblical interpreters is because "typology assumes that history is the arena of God’s saving activity" which is of course an assumption of faith. Actually I think Typology is one of the key ways in which the coherence of scripture as whole can be asserted. Despite the differing theological emphases and historical/cultural contexts of the various books the actions of God they describe all bear characteristics of the the antitypical God event: the advent, life, cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ (I write this proleptically, cos I'm not sure this has been proven, but I am sure it could be!).

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Missing Elements of Human Rights: A Theological Opportunity?

I've posted a fair bit about human rights and human responsibility, but generally only to be critical. I have yet to try to construct anything useful. Roman Catholic Theologian Anthony Kelly makes the same critique but with reference to some interesting and little know data:

While it is true that the terrible toll of the victims of totalitarian regimes have pricked the conscience of the international community, that conscience has not been uniformly reformed. The moral revolution that was hoped for has been frustrated in innumerable instances. One example is the prevalence of a spurious language of victimhood. Claiming “victim status” has now become a familiar manipulative technique in politics. A contributing factor in this distortion is the missing element in the UNDHR itself. As it framers admitted, there was no accompanying declaration of responsibilities—on the part of persons, groups or institutions—to assume the duty of implementing the basic rights in question. Another document was promised, but never appeared. With no reasoned grounding of universal human rights in universal responsibility, rights-language can be simply taken over by a consumerist culture. If that is the case, the appeal to rights is no more than a political machination, a useful rhetoric for the exercise of power. It balloons out into an uncontrolled assertion of rights, individual or corporate, against others, without any commitment to the common good and of responsibility for the truly powerless. And so it happens that the originally noble conception of human rights for all is trivialised, liable to exploitation by the politically adept few. Shared responsibility for the most vulnerable and powerless is thus compromised. A study by L. C. Keith sought to assess how much belonging to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights affected the promotion of human rights. [Journal for Peace Research 36, no. 1 (1999): 95-118] After examining a hundred and seventy eight countries over an eighteen-year period, his conclusions were not optimistic: observable impact was minimal.
He sees this lacuna as an opportunity for constructive theological work:

The very gap in the UNDHR Declaration and the current confusion as to what constitutes the basis of human rights is an open door for Christian theology, inviting it to recover a distinctive voice. The message would be something like this: Jesus’ rising from the dead undermines the history of mutual blaming and victimisation. For he freely exposed himself to the violence of cultural forces in order to disrupt, once and for all, the old world order based on the victimisation of others. His resurrection is not a new thought, but an interuptive and communicative event. It has its effect in a human community transformed into the image of the self-giving love of God. Jesus is glorified, not so as to glorify the role of the victim, but to unmask the victimising dynamics latent in all societies. The resurrection of this victim has a disturbing but liberating effect in the human community. It demands to be taken as the decisive influence in human relationships, the inexhaustible inspiration of responsibility for those victimised by suffering and oppression. Those who have suffered (victims, martyrs), and those who have caused such suffering (the enemy), are alike enfolded in the originary compassion and forgiveness embodied in the risen One.
Extracts from the article "The Resurrection and Moral Theology".

I think Kelly is working here in the direction that Jurgen Moltmann has already taken, and I'm surprised not to see Moltmann referenced in the article (he has been heavily involved in the ecumenical movement.) The themes of hope and the resurrection' s contradiction of death and violence are Moltmann's bread and butter.

The real concern I have is that while such thinking provides an ethic for the Christian it is is not easily applicable to the political sphere where most people live in ignorance of the resurrection of Christ and its implications. Moltmann has been saying this sort of stuff for decades and many Christians have taken notice, but it has had little or no effect on such organisations as the UN because the logic on which it is founded is peculiarly Christian. I have to be honest, in my old age I think I am becoming a Niebuhrian Christian Realist. I don't like it, I especially don't like how close it seems to bring me to being a Lutheran "two kingdoms" kind of thinker, but it is better than classical just war theory (although this guy doesn't think so) because it refuses to relativise the teaching of Christ .

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Most Self -deprecating Prologue Ever?

These sermons are published at the request of some who heard them, but against the judgement of the Author. Should they, however, be found useful by but one reader, in the work of self examination and penitence, he will be content to bear the blame which he is conscious of deserving, for committing to the press discourses which have little but the importance of the subject to recommend them.

Page vii of The Sinfulness of Little Sins, by John Jackson which I haven't read yet, and he may well be right, but such a prologue surely invites you to find out if the modesty is false or much needed?

Book Notice: Myk Habets, The Anointed Son

Congrats to Myk Habets on the release of his book, The Anointed Son: A Trinitarian Spirit Christology. I've just ordered my copy, a review to follow.

Endorsed by no less than Gary Badcock, Amos Yong, and Ralph Del Colle! (All heavyweights in the the area of Pneumatology/Holy Spirit) Del Colle writes:

After the initial emergence of Spirit Christology some three decades ago, various models from different perspectives have been proposed. In this comprehensive work by Myk Habets we now possess a definitive account of this new approach to the mystery of Christ and the Spirit that will stand as a classic in its own right. Habets advances the conversation with his own constructive proposal that garners biblical, historical, and systematic arguments in demonstration of the rich harvest that was once only a promise.


His other book to come out this year is too pricey for me! But has also received a warm reception. Don't forget me, Myk, when you are rich and famous! :-)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Some Pagan Wisdom

Pseudo-Crates, Epistle 15

Shun not only the worst of evils, injustic and self-indulgence, but also their causes, pleasures. For you will concentrate on these alone, both present and future, and on nothing else. And pursue not only the best of goods, self control and perseverance, but also their causes, toils, and do not shun them on account of their harshness. For would you not exchange inferior things for something great? As you would receeive gold in exchange for copper, so you would receive virtue in exchange for toils.


From this book.

I especially like the last sentence. As a teacher I have found this one of the hardest things to help students appreciate. The rewards of hard work! But then it took me thirty years to work it out, so why should they be any quicker? Of course, the satisfaction of hard work and the development of self control and perseverance are not without their own dangers: pride, self reliance, and addiction to work. It's a good quote for a pagan but I prefer Ecclesiastes 2:24,

There is nothng better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?

Or even better, our NT purveyor of wisdom, James 1:17

Every generous at of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

The good deeds and the good things are all from God, so particpate and enjoy with thankfulness.

Friday, November 13, 2009

I love U

That was the custom number plate on a car that was dawdling in the middle lane of the motorway this morning. As I approached I was feeling mildly irritated by the dawdling but couldn't help but smile when I read the plate. I know I wasn't the object of that sentence but at the same time just reading those words cheered me up. As I passed the car I saw it was being driven by a middle aged lady, who obviously aware that having such a number plate meant many inquiring looks from other motorists, kept her eyes trained dead ahead. In that brief moment I thought of how how the person who gave her that number plate must have loved her. Then, after returning my eyes to the road ahead, I thought about how much she must love him (?) to actually drive around with that plate on her car. The number plate was both an embarrassingly public declaration of love, but also a very public acceptance of that love.

It gave me a warm glow at the time.

Love needs to be public. Somehow a love that we keep to ourselves and hide away from others is not really complete. The public declaration of an internal feeling lends it a substance and reality that it lacks when only a secret. Not only that, but when public that love can benefit others around who witness it. God's love for us was made public in the cross of Christ (1 John 3:16) and continues to be made public when those who God loves take up their own crosses, discipleship. When we live according to the radical demands of the gospel it is not a burden but a gift (1 John 5:3). we don't live in denial of ourselves to show how much we can love, but to show how much we are loved by God and our acceptance of that love. Just like that lady's number plate showed first that she was loved, and only then that she loved back, our lives should show that "We love because God first loved us." (1 John 4:19)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Are the critics missing something about Destiny?

Mick Duncan makes the point that those who are reacting against the predominantly working class church Destiny are doing so from a rather narrow middle class perspective. Of course, sociologists always want to make these things about class. ;-) You could also point out some significant differences in racial and cultural makeup.

Thinking about evangelism

I've been doing a bit of that recently, no answers yet, but here are a suggested 10 Commandments of Mission.

Atheist lessons

This cartoon is very funny. (Hat tip to James McGrath)

It is penned by an atheist and is obviously designed to poke fun at and expose the hypocrisy of Christians. While I obviously don't agree with much of the content and aims of the site, exposing hypocrisy is, I think, a valuable contribution.

But I also think the cartoon is a wonderful introduction, both to the importance of the study of Biblical hermeneutics, i.e. how we interpret the scriptures, and secondly a rather pointed reminder that discipleship is far more about radical living than just assenting to radical beliefs.

Let me know what you think :-)

P.S. And if anyone wonders why I don't do Christmas trees... now you know!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Brian Tamaki and Gary Hamel

Brian Tamaki made headlines in NZ recently with his extraordinary accomplishment to get 700 men to swear an oath of loyalty and obedience to him and his lady wife. Now most pastors would be happy merely with 700 people actually turning up to hear them preach every couple of weeks but Brian needs more commitment than that. Now the thing that is interesting is the way that Brian Tamaki already has a very committed congregation that tithe huge amounts of money and have allowed him to establish one of the largest churches and Christian social service providers in Auckland. Admittedly there is a high drop out rate, but there is with all large churches. In terms of church growth and finances he is the most successful pastor in the country. Why should he need MORE? It sadly speaks of an insecurity with the informal relationship that exists between most church leaders and their congregations. He no longer wants to work to bring people with him, he wants to be able to assume their compliance. Only a few church leaders believe they have the power of life and death over their congregations, and certainly as far as evangelical/charismatic churches go most pastors know that they must bring people with them rather than just demand obedience.

Gary Hamel in two excellent posts on his management blog, how to tell if you are a natural leader and the hidden cost of overbearing bosses, unknowingly critiques Brian Tamaki by arguing how organisations need to move away from formal authority (which demands things from the top) towards accountable and decentralised leadership:

In traditional power settings, key decisions have to be approved by one’s superiors, but merely explained to one’s subordinates. This reality often tempts managers to ignore the disquieting views of direct reports, and to content themselves with compliance when they should be seeking genuine commitment. The result: employees who can no longer be bothered to bring troublesome truths to light and are unlikely to go the extra mile.

Now this is cutting edge management theory but it is something those who claim to be Bible readers should have known for a long time (try reading 2 Samuel or Romans 12:1-8 for example!). Formal rigid power structures are simply not appropriate to churches because they disenfranchise the people of God and instead put all the responsibility for discerning the mind of Christ on the "anointed few." Brian Tamaki's excess is unfortunately only an extreme example of a much wider trend among evangelical/charismatic churches to treat the pastor as an some sort of anointed leader CEO instead of demanding that he or she (but lets face it it's mostly he) actually "equips the saints for the work of ministry" (Eph 4:12). The leader that wants to see Christians going the extra mile in their dedication to building the Kingdom of God doesn't need an oath of obedience, they need to edify, involve, and empower all the members of the body of Christ.

But this empowerment of the whole congregation is not just for the sake of the Kingdom and the members, it is also for the sake of the pastor. The pastor who places themselves above reproach or criticism is surely heading for disaster. Tamaki complains that in forming this "covenant" he has done nothing wrong... "I didn't steal or sleep with the church secretary," he says. The problem is he has created the exact environment for himself where he is most likely to do such things. Surrounded by people who wont dream of criticising or warning him if his behaviour becomes risky or questionable it is surely only a matter of time before some scandal ensues. Power corrupts. If Brian really is a "man of God" then he will be seeking to make sure he is not corrupted by the power he has as the leader of such a large church. The only way to do that is to surround yourself with people who will disagree and criticise you and keep you honest (and yes Brian if you are reading this, I do volunteer to help!). 700 men sworn to stand up when you enter the room and silence those who criticise you wont help one bit, sorry.

Let me know what you think :-)

PS. For another perspective on leadership see Simon Walker's trilogy on leadership, the undefended leader, reviewed by Paul Windsor here, here, and here! I'm yet to get hold of the books, but after the enthusiastic endorsement of Paul and others I think I need to.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Contradictions in the Bible

I find it very amusing when people think they have somehow achieved something when they find contradictions in the narratives of the Bible. E.g. that somehow the fact that the gospel writers cannot agree on the number of angels present at the resurrection tomb somehow proves it couldn't have happened. Almost as (tragically) amusing as the literalistic Christians who try and create "harmonized" versions to "reconcile" the different narratives. Well, I am sure God appreciates your efforts to correct his mistakes! But that is not what I am posting about here.

The real contradictions in the Bible are the source of its most beautiful theology. When you contradict something your speak (dict) against (contra) it. In Deuteronomy 10:14-19 we have two wonderful examples of Biblical contradictions that result in meaningful practical theology.

14. To the Lord you God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it.

So here we have a clear statement that God is in sole possession of the whole universe both seen and unseen. This is a clear affirmation of God's universality (i.e. he is no provincial deity belonging to a local people group) and of his transcendence (i.e. otherness and difference from the concerns and world of humanity).

15 Yet the Lord set his affection on your forefathers and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations, as it is today.

Yet in the very next verse this picture of a universal transcendent almighty God is contradicted by the statement that God had chosen Israel (i.e. was behaving not universally but particularly) and loved them (was allowing himself to be concerned and affected by their actions and well being). And so the Israelites are being presented with a tension that this contradiction has created. They believe both statements even though there appears to be an incompatibility between them. This tension creates an energy that pushes Israel to respond in a certain way.

16. Circumcise your hearts therefore, and do not be stiff necked any longer.


Because the universal God has chosen to be God to Israel in particular they must do two things: maintain a purity and holiness of "heart" (i.e. the inner person), and must be humble and teachable (because they will be the ones to teach the rest of the world about God).

The pattern is then repeated in 17-19:

17. For the lord you God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes.

Once again God's transcendence is asserted and this time also his great power. Of course, God accepts no bribes, not only because he already owns everything (vs 14), but because of his totally incorruptible character.

18. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien [foreigner], giving him food and clothing.

Wait a minute, if God is impartial, how can he take sides and defend the cause of these? Wait a minute, if God is powerful why does he have any interest in the powerless of society? Once again this contradiction creates a tension that requires action of those who know God.

19 And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens [foreigners] in Egypt.


And so the people of Israel are not to behave like some super race, feeling superior that God has chosen them. Instead they are to love (!!!) those who are different and vulnerable in their society reflecting the fact that their God contradicts his universality and unlimited power with a particular concern for the powerless.

Now some of you will be thinking that those contradictions are nothing of the sort. But that is only because you are used to thinking about God from the end of 2000 years of Christianity, 2000 years after God was revealed in and through Jesus Christ. From the point of view of the ancient near east when these text were given to Israel, many centuries before Christ, these contradictions are both blatant and highly surprising.

Let me know what you think :-)

[Thanks to Chris Wright, The Mission of God, p79, for this structural analysis of Deut 10:14-19!]

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Headlines from Barnabas Fund

IRAN - UPDATE ON IMPRISONED CHRISTIAN WOMEN
INDIA - ANTI-CHRISTIAN VIOLENCE TOWARDS PASTORS WAGED ACROSS INDIA
EGYPT - MOB SURROUNDS CHURCH WITH CONGREGATION TRAPPED INSIDE
CHINA - TEENAGER EXPELLED FROM SCHOOL FOR HIS FAITH
SENEGAL AND UK - CHURCHES ACCUSED OF NOISE POLLUTION
USA - HILLARY CLINTON TAKES A STAND ON RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
EGYPT - RELATIVES ARRESTED TO FORCE CHRISTIAN TO TURN HIMSELF IN TO POLICE

As always more info at the BF website. The final story is particularly emotive. The man wanted by the police had helped to rescue a Christian girl who had been abducted and forced to marry a Muslim. As always this newsletter reminds me how so much of the church around the world face great sacrifices for their faith and risk danger to them selves and to their families.

The first word of the Bible

Thanks to Tim for this link to a fascinating Jewish commentary on the first word of the Bible.

In short the Hebrew word often translated "in the beggining" (B'reishit)has a number of unusual gramattical features. The commentary argues that probably the most accurate translation is not "in the beggining God created" but actually reading it as the first of a long series of subordinate clauses, e.g. "When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light." (JPS trans). Thus grammatically, "God said..." is in fact the first proper sentence of the Bible.

However, the gramatical peculiarities have also opened up the possibility for some Rabbinic interpreters to find quite different meanings for that first word. Suggesting instead of "in the beggining" we could actually read "For the sake of Torah" or "For the sake of Israel."

So, my thought is, if we understand God created the heavens and the earth for the sake of his word (Torah) and the sake of his elect (Israel), the Christian could equally well say, "For the sake of Christ," who is the fulfillment and antitype of both!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What's wrong with the TULIP?

In honour of my latest addition to my blog list I have decided to post on TULIP, the acronym most often associated with Calvinism. I came across this blog after discussing with my teacher, colleague, and friend Dr. Myk Habets about a book project he is working on, on the subject of defining an "Evangelical Calvinism." This is in opposition to "Federal Calvinism" which they see as a legitimate extension of Calvinism, but not the only legitimate one, and not necessarily the best. I was raised an Arminian, which people often forget is a type of Calvinism, but it was the branch of the family that TULIP was designed to refute (a century after Calvin). I no longer call myself by any label, other than the hopelessly vague "Evangelical." Part of what the nascent "Evangelical Calvinist" movement is trying to do is to reframe the tenets of "Federal Calvinism" away from the un-Calvin obsession with covenant and towards a more Calvinesque obsession with Christ. An initial attempt to reframe the TULIP is made here.

What is the TULIP?
  • Total Depravity (of fallen humanity)
  • Unconditional Election (of God's people)
  • Limited Atonement (for humanity by Christ)
  • Irresistible Grace (of God)
  • Perseverance (of God's people, i.e. they cannot lose their salvation)
What is wrong with TULIP?

Total depravity can either be taken to mean that humanity is totally depraved or that every part of humanity is touched by sin. A biblical view of humanity, IMHO, should never forget that humanity was first made in the image of God (Imago Dei) and that the fall never took that away. Just as every area of human life is touched by sin and has potential for evil, every area has an equal (or greater) potential for good. So while total depravity in a limited sense is possible good doctrine, it certainly should not be the first point you make about either humanity (anthropology) or God's salvation (soteriology).

That the God of the Bible is an electing God, who chooses people according to his own often secret agenda is proven by innumerable proof-texts and the overall narrative of scripture. But it needs to be said that this same scriptural narrative often portrays even the people whom God has chosen falling out of God's favour. Unconditional Election merely affrims that God's electional is not based on any criteria that a human has any hope of fulfilling by choice, God's choice therefore doesn't come with strings attached!

IMHO, Limited Atonement is the most hateful of doctrines in the TULIP sequence. This is the idea that Christ did not die for everyone but only those that would be saved, it argues that there are rafts of humanity out there who simply cannot be saved because Christ's atonement does not cover them. The motive behind this doctrine is to avoid suggesting that God could be thwarted in his desire to save. If God wants to save everyone but can only save some, that would suggest God is weak or incompetent. Thus Limited Atonement suggests that God must only have intended to save some. However, to my mind this doctrine does far more harm by limiting the availability of God's grace and love, and is not the solution to the problem of those who do not respond to the Gospel.

The Irresistible Grace of God is a doctrine that argues that if God desire to save someone they cannot get out of that salvation. In one sense I have no problem with this as it is manifestly true. On the other hand I do not think this necessarily means therefore that God simply hasn't willed to save those who are not saved. I think we need to affirm that God's grace can be and often is resisted, but that the human capacity to resist that grace is in fact evidence of that grace. God's gift of autonomy and free volition to humanity.

The Perseverance of the saints, God's elect people, is an interesting one. People obviously do fall away from time to time, is it "once saved, always saved" or simply that those who fall away show they were never saved in the first place? Personally I feel the NT emphasis on perseverance as something to be done rather than something to be assumed speaks against this. Likewise the OT emphasis on Covenant Nomism.

Now that was a big post and I am aware with some more time I should probably give you some Bible verses and stuff, but hopefully you can see what I am getting at and where I am getting it from? In case you are still wondering where I stand, I do like Calvin, from what little I have read, but I don't like TULIP, as far as I understand it correctly. Let me know what you think :-)

P.S See also this post on Myths and Urban Legends about Calvin and for a more polemical piece Evangelical Calvinism is an Oxymoron

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

can human rights dehumanize us?

Currently reading a very impressive article "Rhetoric, Postemodernism, and Theological education," by A.K.M Adam writing in To Teach, to Delight, and to Move, 2004, the following quotes are from page 69:

"Modern ethical reasoning speaks "human rights" as its native language, asserting the fundamental interchangeability of any human person - though these are usually defined in markedly particular terms (citizens of the United States have "free speech" as a human right, but not adequate health care, whereas citizens of China have "adequate health care" as a human right, but not free speech)."

This to me is a very important insight, the language of human rights is very relative depending on your cultural location. Hence so much misunderstanding between the West and radical Islam, to the westerner the sexual display of women in public is their human right, but to a conservative Muslim, or orthodox Jew, it is her human right to be covered up and protected from the lust of men, and it is mens right to be protected from her lust inducing potential! Yet most rights campaigners assume that their concept of human rights is universal and that no other possibilities exist. This is most tellingly manifest in the talk we have now in NZ regarding sexual rights. That prostitutes have a right to sell their bodies on the streets and homosexuals have a right to adopt children or marry is the obvious manifest universal truth to the liberal majority, and yet is it really being a reactionary conservative to suggest that these are not truly human rights at all, but rather arbitrary ones?

"To the extent that such a person a hypothetical person is universal, of course, [they are] no one in particular - but the God of Christian theology knows everyone particularly, so that the extent that theologians permit a modern insistence on universality to dominate their doctrines, they collaborate with the modern proclivity toward homogenisation."

This one could really screw with your mind, how do you do theology if you have to accept that God deals with everyone on a case by case basis?! What does this really mean? Is this a demand for situation ethics? Are there not universal axioms that can be applied to the human race? The idea that no person can be interchanged with another really makes the issue of 'rights' a very thorny one, because people 'rights' are always going to impinge on the rights of others. Especially in a world where people don't recognise the subjectivity of those rights.

In this way the idea of 'rights' dehumanizes and puts all the attention on the person as victim demanding to be treated fairly. By contrast we gain our humanity by living up to our responsibilities to each other, often giving to and serving those who in our world might have no rights to our resources and concern. It means nothing to assert that a street urchin in an Indian metroplolis has a right to food. It means a great deal to assert that maybe I have a responsibility to feed her. As a victim whose rights are being ignored, she is dehumanized; just one more statistic. As someone to whom I am inescapably connected she is a human who belongs to me, and to whom I belong. If I meet her rights I place myself above her as her saviour. If I fulfill my responsibilities, she allows me to be who I should be, and we are both beneath the saviour who called me to serve and who blesses her through me.

Just thinking out loud, :-), let me know what you think.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Essays on the Spirit

Well I have finally got round to putting up some of my essays on googledocs. It is not so much that I think everyone needs to hear what I have to say, but that I have put heaps of work into them all and if they can be of use to anyone else, so much the better. This year our church has as its teaching theme Zechariah 4:6 "'Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,' says the LORD Almighty." And so I thought I would highlight in this post essays that I had written where the Spirit of God was a significant theme. The essays are presented on the right hand side-bar of this blog. Spirit related ones are:


The first two are probably the most accessible. (BTW Pneumatology = theology of the Holy Spirit.) The second two were written for one of the taught courses I took for the Masters program I am on. The Spirit and the Cross is a piece of work I especially enjoyed doing and if I have time next year I will try to bring it up to publication standard.

I should add that all these essays have moments of embarrassment for me. I would love to go through them all and improve them. But who has time for that? They may not say things as well as I might want to, but they do say them and I think some of the things they say are worth saying. Just remember these are the writings of a student, not an expert. I reserve the right to be wrong! (and to change my mind) So feel free to laugh at me fumbling my way through the complexities of a new discipline :-) The other thing is that it may take some effort to read for a non-specialist reader, but either have a dictionary handy or open an Internet dictionary and enjoy learning some new words as you go!

If you find any of the links don't work, please let me know. Let me know what you think :-)