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 :-)