Tuesday, July 01, 2014

How I File Sermon Notes

I'm a little obsessive when it comes to organising things on my computer. That's in complete contrast to organising things on my desk, but that's another story...
Here's a system I've found easy to use and helpful for filing sermon notes on the computer.

1. Have a computer folder for upcoming talks, with a subfolder for each talk and event. Here's mine:

Note that the subfolder names have the date of the event first, in yymmdd format. It used to be yyyymmdd, but I figure I'm not going to be preaching still in the year 2100, so I don't need the first two digits.

That means that if I sort the folders alphabetically, they sort into chronological order, and I can see what's coming up.

I create this folder about once a term, and clear out the old one into my filing system. I find it much easier to keep this folder on a cloud drive, so I can access it from anywhere. I keep all the files related to each talk in the appropriate folder.

2. Have a folder for each book of the Bible. I find a list of 66 quite hard to work with, so I subdivide into genres, then by books, putting a number in front of the book name so that sorting by name also sorts by book order.

For example, the book of Psalms is at Bible/3. Poetry-Wisdom/2. Psalms

3. File notes in the appropriate folder, with a title that looks like this:
Matthew 05v01-16 140621

Having a file title like that means that sorting by name sorts by order within the book, and lets you see immediately when the talk was done as well. Note the importance of trailing zeros – otherwise it would sort Matthew 1, Matthew 15, Matthew 2. In Psalms you need more trailing zeros – so it's Psalm 008 or Psalm 037 because there are more than 100 chapters.

I file notes from sermons that I've preached (still in folders with appropriate files); interesting articles that I've read online; notes I took in lectures in college; notes from talks I've listened to (scanned in), and so on. Here's an example from my folder on John.

4. Show cross-references with shortcuts
One of the beauties of an electronic filing system is that shortcuts are easy to create. If I preached a sermon on Acts 2, for example, that strongly referred to the Tower of Babel, I could create a shortcut to the Acts 2 folder and rename the shortcut as Genesis 11, and file it appropriately.

It makes things really easy to file and to find again. I guess it took a couple of hours to set up in the first place, but it didn't take long to more than recover that time back!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

"Discipline" - an unhelpful translation?

Here's a passage which I find really unhelpful when you're going through a hard time, but which shouldn't be...

And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,

‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.’

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined – and everyone undergoes discipline – then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
Hebrews 12:5-11, NIV

So what? We're meant to endure hardship as discipline? Try telling that to the woman whose child has died – that it's God disciplining her! How's that a “word of encouragement”? It's stupid, pastorally insensitive, and just plain wrong. We don't live under the law. We don't believe in a God who gives us petty material rewards for obedience and punishments for disobedience. Maybe that's the way it worked in Leviticus, but not for the Christian.

There are two problems here. The first is the word “discipline” - most translations seem to use it in Hebrews 12, but I don't think it's warranted.

Discipline: the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience.
παιδεια: upbringing, training, instruction.

The Greek word which we translate as “discipline” doesn't quite mean that though. “Training” would be a better translation – it's the idea of an adult training a child. Sometimes that involves punishing disobedience - we suffer because we do things wrong. Sometimes, like with hard physical training, it's difficult and painful when we do it right as well. The word used for "discipline" here carries both ideas - it's the same word translated “training” in 2 Timothy 3:16. The passage isn't saying that all hardship is discipline. It's saying that God uses hardship to train us, like any kind of training can be hard, but we respect it and work with it.

The NIV translators generally did a great job – it's just about the best translation of the Bible into modern English. But they had a shocker when it got to Hebrews 12:7, and most other translations didn't do a lot better...
“Endure hardship as discipline – God is treating you as his children.” (NIV)
“It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons.” (ESV)
”Be patient when you are being corrected! This is how God treats his children.” (CEV)
”Endure what you suffer as being a father's punishment; your suffering shows that God is treating you as his children.” (Good News)
If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons;” (NJKV)
The NRSV is probably the most helpful of the major translations here, except that it still uses “discipline”; “Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children...”
I think Eugene Peterson pretty much nails the sense though in the Message:
God is educating you; that’s why you must never drop out. He’s treating you as dear children. This trouble you’re in isn’t punishment; it’s training, the normal experience of children.
The idea is that we should endure difficulties and hardship because God uses them to train us. God is our Father. He hasn't let go of us; he isn't leaving us to the ravages of chance or punishing us for our own weakness. He knows what he is doing, and he is training us to trust him, even in and through the difficult times. Now that's a comfort, and an encouragement to keep going!

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Pet Peeves - Misusing "Quantum"

One thing which annoys me is when people who don't know what they're talking about abuse scientific language. One of the most egregious examples of this is the word "Quantum". It sounds cool, I know, but it really doesn't mean what most people seem to think it means.

This is what "Quantum" means:

Quantum: the smallest possible non-zero amount of something

It was actually quite a revolutionary idea to start with. There is a smallest possible amount of water - you can't take a jug of water and keep pouring half of it away - eventually you will end up with the smallest possible amount of water, and you either pour it all away or keep it all. Or I guess you could try splitting it and if you did it really cleverly you might end up with two beryllium hydride radicals which aren't water at all. Quantum is weird because we're used to the real world, where there are normally so many lumps of stuff that it looks smooth to us.

The same is true of pretty much anything - there's a smallest possible amount of light (one photon), of electric charge, of electricity, whatever. Maybe even of space, which I find quite weird as an idea. This leads to a couple of other common phrases:

Quantum Mechanics: the study of how quantum stuff behaves.

Quantum Leap: a jump between two states with no intermediate stages - i.e. the smallest possible change in something.

Quantum leaps can be big (I guess), just usually they're really small. A legitimate example would be to say that moving from DVD to Blu-Ray is a quantum leap, because there are no intermediate stages. But the fact it's a quantum leap doesn't imply anything about the size or the significance, just that there's no intermediate step. "On the 100-question multiple choice physics exam, Tony went from 35% to 36%. That's a quantum leap.

Misusing the word "quantum" is like claiming that Shakespeare was a great novelist. It's a basic error which just makes people look stupid.


Quantum of the Seas is a boat. Its name means "smallest possible amount of the seas", and it claims to be the smallest possible step forwards from its predecessors. On that basis, I wouldn't bother.

Almost every single use of the word "quantum" in relation to the social sciences or arts subjects I've read has demonstrated major misunderstandings - even C.S. Lewis in Miracles. The big exceptions are when the author themselves has a masters or better in physics - e.g. John Polkinghorne.

Quantum of Solace is a film. I think they actually got the title about right - it's like a crumb of solace only much much smaller as Bond continues the transformation from hard man to killer to utterly ruthless and remorseless suave super-agent.

Quantum Leap can be forgiven just about anything.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

How to Handle Difficult Issues Biblically

1 Corinthians 8-10 is an often-neglected bit of the New Testament (except for a few verses in chapter 9, usually read out of context). But actually it provides us with a really helpful pattern for working with difficult issues in the Church.

The problem in Corinth was the issue of meat sacrificed to idols. In first century Corinth, most meat was slaughtered in the context of worship at one or other of the many temples. It was then either served at public feasts, served at guild meals or sold in the meat market. Membership of most trades required being in a guild; they generally met in pagan temples. If you ate meat that had been sacrificed to idols, it was often understood as sharing in the worship of the god to whom it had been sacrificed, just as Communion was seen as sharing in Jesus' sacrifice. The Corinthian church was obviously divided on the issue, and had asked Paul for advice.

So how does Paul handle this difficult situation?

  1. Come up with the best Biblical-theological case on both sides (8:1-7; 10:1-12; 10:14-22). Some people think Paul is contradicting himself here, but actually he's stating the strongest arguments on both sides before coming to a conclusion. So often when we try to have debates now in the church, people only state one point of view and as a result are rejected by the other side. Paul clearly understands both sides, and states both arguments well. The arguments here are Biblical / theological in character - Paul argues from theology and the Shema (8v4-6), from the history of Israel (10v1-11), from the nature of communion (10v16-21).
  2. Recognise that both sides are probably right, and identify the real issue. If both sides are supported by good scriptural arguments, both are probably right. If they look like they contradict each other, we need to see why they don't really. Here, Paul does it by seeing the gap between eating meat and actually participating in the sacrifice, which is an attitude of mind or heart on the part of the worshipper. [It is of course very possible to have bad arguments from Scripture too; I'm not saying those are right.]
  3. Recognise explicitly that many people won't have done all the theology, and will be responding from their gut. Honour them and their consciences (8:7-13). This is again something we often miss today, and in some situations one side's consciences may say not to do something and the other side may say to do it, and it's genuinely hard to honour both, but we should try anyway.
  4. Follow the example of Jesus, who laid down his rights for others, but don't slip into legalism. Maintain the importance of Christian freedom, but let it be trumped by love. As soon as people start talking about their rights, they show they've missed the point. The point of rights for the Christian is that we lay them down for others. That's what Paul means by "follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" in 11v1. Jesus, being in very nature God, laid down his rights for us. Paul, having the right to financial support and to live as he wanted within the "law of Christ", gave those rights up for the sake of those he was ministering to. So we should also give up our rights for the sake of each other, even if that means avoiding offending their over-scrupulous consciences.

A couple of quick applications to current issues in the C of E:

People who talk about women's right to be bishops (for example) don't really understand what it is to live as a Christian, let alone to be a bishop. If women do have that right, they should be willing to lay it down for the sake of their brothers and sisters who would be offended by it. And those brothers and sisters should probably lay down their right not to be offended for the sake of preserving unity and allowing women to serve in the capacity of bishop.

What the homosexuality squabble debate desperately needs is people who are willing to articulate both sides of the Biblical argument and show how they fit together. So often what is produced by both camps is hideously one-sided, and sometimes just ignores important pastoral issues or runs roughshod over the consciences of those who in good conscience disagree, even if they do so without good reasons. Yes, if we disagree with someone, we should seek to persuade them, but we should do so in love - whether love for the knee-jerk homophobes or for the "out and proud" types.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Communion Services in the Early Church

In the early church, there were three main types of service – the agape meal, the synaxis (similar to Service of the Word), and the eucharist (Greek for “thanksgiving”). Over the years, the agape meal largely faded out, and the synaxis and eucharist merged to make the modern Communion Service. In this post, I'll trace very briefly how we got from the Early Church (pre-325) to the modern situation in the Church of England.


The structure of the synaxis was as follows: Greeting, Bible Reading, Sung Worship, Bible Reading, Sermon, Outsiders Leave, Prayers, Dismissal. I've already written about how some of the elements worked, but one development it's worth noting is that the “traditional” pattern of Epistle, Psalm and Gospel readings developed from the earlier practice of one reading at the start of the service, then a time of sung worship (usually using Psalms), then a second reading which was the basis for the sermon. Outsiders were welcome to attend the service, but were expected to leave after the sermon and before the prayers. Catechumens (people who were preparing for baptism) were welcome to stay for the prayers but were expected to leave before the Eucharist, at what is now the Peace.


Dix identifies four key stages in the Eucharist service, which are reflected in the gospels – Jesus took bread (1), he gave thanks (2), he broke it (3) and gave it to the disciples (4).

Offertory - “he took bread”
Originally there was just one loaf (1 Cor 10:17), but in the 100s AD, members of the congregation brought their own bread to church to share, and it was brought forwards at this point, like the wave offering or the grain offering in the OT. People offering their own bread for the Communion came to be seen as symbolic of offering their lives to God and having them transformed; after people started believing that the bread became Jesus during the prayer, it eventually got confused into the idea of us offering Jesus' sacrifice on the cross. To make it clear that we can only offer ourselves to God because of what God has done in giving Jesus as a sacrifice in our place, Cranmer moved the language of offering ourselves to after the Communion. Sometimes (e.g. 1662) the offertory gets confused with the money offering too. (Wafers are a much later innovation, and in my opinion a wrong one.)
Eucharist - “he gave thanks”
A prayer was said over the bread and wine, thanking God. The prayer typically followed the pattern: blessing God, thanks for creation, thanks for redemption, thanks for the new covenant (and our place in it), institution narrative (i.e. the story of the Last Supper), prayer for us as we receive communion, praising God again. Later on, the Sanctus came to replace or be integrated into the Thanksgiving sections. The key phrase in this whole section is Jesus' command to “do this in remembrance of me” - reminding us that we are sharing communion to remember Jesus. The Prayer of Humble Access is descended from the minister's prayer for the people as we receive communion.
Sometimes other prayers were inserted after the Eucharistic Prayer, largely because of the 4th century idea that the prayer of thanksgiving “consecrated” the bread and the wine, and that somehow God was therefore more present then, and so prayer was more likely to be heard. We see remnants of this in the use of the Lord's Prayer in Common Worship Order 1. Sometimes it even went far enough that the prayers during the Synaxis ceased to be used – we don't need two periods of intercession during the service. Of course, originally, the prayers of intercession were in the Synaxis rather than the Eucharist, and I think that's the best place for them.
Fraction - “he broke it”
The bread is broken so that it can be distributed. Originally this may well have used 1 Cor 10:17, but after the church stopped using just one loaf they switched to using words like “God's holy gifts for God's holy people” or “the body of Christ, broken for you.” Sometimes people today use 1 Cor 10:17 "though we are many, we are one body, for we all share in the one bread", but do it without using one loaf. That seems silly to me. In the medieval church, the Fraction came to be seen as the point at which Jesus' body was actually broken, so Cranmer dropped it altogether. 1662 re-introduced it during the Institution Narrative, which is historically odd.
Communion - “he gave it to them”
Distribution of the bread and wine was usually done with the ministers standing, and the people walking between them. Afterwards, there was just a short dismissal and the service ended.

(This is part of an irregular series spinning off Gregory Dix's On the Shape of the Liturgy. The data is almost all from Dix, but I've reworked it in the light of a rather different theology.)

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

The Prepositions of Salvation

When we're thinking about how God saves us, it's surprisingly important to get our prepositions right. Prepositions are words like “onto” or “under” which describe how two objects are related to each other.

The Bible tells us we are saved:

from sin
Naturally we all suffer from what one author helpfully describes as “the human propensity to f*** things up”. That means that the way things are by nature, we are cut off from God and when it comes to God's plan to sort the universe out and fix what is wrong; we are part of the problem that God will get rid of rather than part of the solution. That is what we are saved from.
by grace
Because the way we are is part of the problem, we can't do anything to earn God's favour. We can't do anything to make him like us, because we just mess everything up. But God loves us as we are, even though he knows what we are like. That's called grace – it's God's undeserved love for us.
of God
It's not grace as some impersonal force in the universe, it's the grace of God. God as revealed in the Bible and in Jesus is not an impersonal force who seeks to make us into better people – he is a person (or three), who seeks to mend us and transform us through our relationship with him.
through faith
We take hold of God's salvation / forgiveness / transformation through faith, which simply means trust. It is trust on the basis of available evidence, but which goes beyond the evidence – just like we do every day. When I turn the steering wheel of my car, I trust that it will cause the car to turn. I have good reason for that trust – it has worked every previous time, but that doesn't guarantee it will work in the future. Nevertheless, I choose to put my faith in the steering column of my car to do its work. In the same way, I trust God to save me, to forgive me, to transform me. And we're saved through faith, not by faith. It isn't something we do to earn anything – it is simply how we take hold of what God has done.
in Christ
It isn't just “faith” in the sense of some generic perception of something beyond ourselves that saves us. It's faith specifically in Christ. It's trusting what Jesus did for us when he died in our place on the cross and rose from the dead to offer new life to all those who trust him.
into Christ
But we're saved “in Christ” in a much deeper sense than that. In a profound sense, when we trust in Jesus, we're united to him so that we receive the blessings which he deserves, we are raised from the dead in his resurrection, and so on. We are saved into Christ, and therefore into his new people, his family the Church.
for works
We aren't saved by what we do. Our faith which takes hold of God's salvation – the fact that we trust in Jesus – shows itself in what we do, but we are saved by the grace of God so that we might do good works, so that we might be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. You don't have to do good works to become a Christian, but those who have already become Christians should do good works.
to the glory of God
the aim of all of it is the glory of God. It's not to make us look good or to feel better than other people. It's so that everyone will see how awesome God is. God the Father wants the world to know how amazing his Son is. God the Son wants the world to see the love of his Father and then transformation that comes from the Holy Spirit. God the Holy Spirit wants us to worship the Father through trusting God the Son.

We see this wonderfully illustrated in passages such as Ephesians 2:4-10 (NIV).

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

My Problem with "Rev"

This week saw the last-ever episode of the TV series Rev, about the vicar of a “failing” church in London. I've watched a fair bit of it, and all of the last series, but I always found it made me profoundly uncomfortable. This is why.

It wasn't because God hardly shows up, though he doesn't much. It wasn't because it's subtly hostile to the church, though it is, particularly in its depiction of all other clergy other than Adam as nasty pieces of work. It was because I found it all-too believable, and it made me face up to one of the fundamental problems faced by the Church of England. When I can do something about problems (or when it's my job to), I think it's important to face them and deal with them, but problems like this I'd rather bury my head in the sand and ignore. In some senses, it's none of my business, but it breaks my heart.

The Church of England has long been built on a foundation of fudge. We aren't really a denomination – we're a national Church which is a variously dysfunctional association of congregations bound together by a shared history which we disagree about, an often-distant episcopacy, a rough agreement that the Creeds are on the whole a good thing, an immensely flexible liturgy that can be indistinguishable from either Rome or Vineyard, and a slightly grudging agreement to work together for the common good. One of the problems with this is that there are some fairly fundamental things that we really don't agree on but never discuss, in particular the nature of ordained ministry.

As far as I can tell, there are two main ideas about the nature of ordained ministry in the Church of England – the ontological and the functional, or in less technical language “being a priest” versus “leading the church”. I'll explain what I mean.

Two Views of Ordained Ministry

The ontological view of ministry is probably the more widely-held view. It's certainly the closest thing to an official view in the C of E. It says that when someone is ordained priest, they become a priest – that is who they are, and it doesn't go away (unless someone does something really bad, and the bishop goes a stage beyond sacking them). Priests are allowed to preside at communion, pronounce official blessing and absolution on people, and so on. Non-priests aren't, but a priest is a priest is a priest, whether they are a vicar, an army chaplain or a retired social worker who helps out in the local church and got ordained so they can help out with communion services.

The C of E selects people for ordination on the basis of this idea. Their criteria are roughly as follows:

  • do they live out some kind of spirituality, and can they articulate why they feel called to be a priest in the C of E?
  • are they moderately well-adjusted as a person – are they aware of their strengths and weaknesses, wanting to grow, willing to serve and to lead, possessing integrity?
  • do they have a decent understanding of the Christian faith, including the importance of reaching outsiders?

This isn't the view which comes naturally to me, but I've come to see some of its strengths. It's great to be able to appoint people like that as official ambassadors for the church. On the various occasions when Adam had a crisis of calling through the series, it was aspects of this call – the call to be a priest – which he kept coming back to.

The other view of ordained ministry is the functional view. It says that there is clearly a call to be different, but that call applies to all Christians. The distinctive call is a call to lead churches – to do something. On this view, a retired vicar is the same as any other member of the congregation, albeit with some skills and wisdom they might like to share.

The key texts for this view are the Pastoral Epistles – letters written by Paul to church leaders in the 60s AD, along with a few other bits like Acts 20 and 1 Peter 5. These distinguish several different levels of leadership in a church, from people who are involved in running practical areas of the church's life (e.g. Stephen) to people who are involved in appointing church leaders across a wider area (e.g. Titus). The criteria these passages give for someone to be involved in a senior leadership position in a church are:

  • Character: good reputation in the community, above reproach, free from addictions, self-controlled, not argumentative, gentle, dignified, sensible, hospitable, not someone who runs after money.
  • Domestic situation: either celibate or faithfully married, looks after own household well, spouse and children (under 12-ish) believe.
  • Faith / skills: not a new believer, doctrinally sound, secure faith, good at teaching the Bible

The Problem

The problem is that these don't quite match, but the C of E pretends they do. I don't have a problem with people being called to be priests, but the call to be a church leader is different. Just because someone is called to be a priest, doesn't mean they're called to lead a church, but the C of E assumes it as the norm.

The result is people like Adam Smallbone in Rev. He's a nice guy; he's clearly got some kind of call on his life. But according to that list, he isn't called to lead a church, and the tension in the series comes from fact that no-one quite grasps that he may well be called to be a priest by the C of E's understanding, but he isn't called to lead a church by the Bible's understanding.

We see the problems shining through in the series. Adam isn't a good preacher; as a result his congregation don't have transforming encounters with God's word and so don't change. We see that painfully clearly when it comes to welcoming a repentant paedophile into the church. Adam understands grace, but he hasn't communicated that understanding to the rest of the church, so they reject him. Adam's wife isn't properly on board with him being a vicar – she clearly resents it and it causes all kinds of problems for her faith, and for his leadership. I know both from personal experience and from that of friends that if a vicar's spouse isn't keen on them following the calling to lead a church, it won't work.

The tragedy is that Adam has been badly let down by the C of E in its confusion between the calling to be a priest and the calling to lead a church. As a result, everyone loses – Adam, the local church, the wider church.

That's what breaks my heart. There are people with a real heart for serving God who have been misled into thinking it should be by leading a church, and end up being chewed up and spat out. There are churches where people aren't growing in their faith because they're being led by people who can't preach properly. And all because we confuse two different things – the calling to be a priest and the calling to lead a church.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Unapologetic - Francis Spufford

This is an utterly remarkable book. Here's part of Spufford's explanation of what the book is for:

You can read any number of defences of Christian ideas. This, however, is a defence of Christian emotions – of their intelligibility, of their grown-up dignity. The book is called Unapologetic because it isn't giving an 'apologia', the technical term for a defence of the ideas.

And also because I'm not sorry.

Spufford is a novelist and lecturer in creative writing, and it shows. The book is incredibly well written and saturated in knowing references to modern highbrow culture – not in a showing-off sort of way, but in a way that shows utter familiarity with the Guardian-reading arts scene and much prefers knowing allusions to quotes or references.

He says he seeks to be utterly honest, and that shows too, in a kind of fearless way. He isn't afraid to describe God as a “sky fairy” in a way that gently takes the mick out of those who do, or to explain where his ideas diverge from either popular orthodoxy or Christian orthodoxy (of which more later). It isn't a book of tightly-argued logic; it's a description of how his emotions work as a Christian, written in complete non-Christianese.

Spufford's explanation of sin is just about the best I've ever read for the non-Christian reader. Some of his phrases - “Human Propensity to F*** things Up” (or HptFtU) for sin, or “International League of the Guilty” for church are brilliant, and there are some important ideas he's clearly got a better grip of than many Christian writers, if you aren't offended by the language (and that's only coarse-Anglo Saxonisms, not swearing).

There are some significant weaknesses though. I think the root one is that the church Spufford goes to doesn't seem to believe in the verbal inspiration of Scripture – I'd guess it's fairly liberal catholic C of E. So while Spufford affirms the physical resurrection of Jesus, he's unsure about eternal life for the rest of us, and doesn't believe in Hell. I'd love to sit down and have a chat with him about that – I suspect that the kind of hell he doesn't believe in is a kind I don't believe in either.

The same problem shines through in a number of other areas. There isn't really the idea of a propositional grounding for ethics, his take on the cross seems to be vaguely Girardian. Perplexingly in a book about emotions, the Holy Spirit doesn't get a look in and there isn't really a sense of the exciting growth in experience and knowledge of the love of Christ that you get in Eph 3:14-21.

I'd love to chat to him. On the basis of this book, he's clearly a Christian; he's got a wonderful way with words, a great sense of humour and such a clear understanding of the nature of sin. But there's so much more which God has for those who love him, and I can't help feeling he's missing out on it.

Oh, and whether you're a Christian wanting a fresh look at things, or a non-Christian wanting to understand why Christianity makes sense, as long as you're willing to engage with something you'll disagree with, this book is a great read.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Quick Book Reviews

Michael Reeves – The Unquenchable Flame

This is a very readable, clear and entertaining introduction to the Reformation. Obviously, it's an area I've studied a bit, and I can't say I learnt a lot new from this book, but I really enjoyed reading it! There are a couple of things he gets wrong – for example he recognises that Calvin wasn't a Calvinist, but I'm not sure he realises that Zwingli wasn't a Zwinglian either. There are, of course, loads of things he could usefully go into more detail on, but as a short (under 200 page) paperback introduction to the Reformation goes, this is as good as it gets.

Vaughan Roberts – True Friendship

This is a very short book (not even 100 pages), but it's brilliant and well worth a read. Vaughan has obviously read and thought a lot on the topic, and condenses it really well. Here are a couple of really helpful ideas I picked up from it.

  • Our culture idolises sex in such a way that friendship is dramatically de-valued. It seems a common belief that all truly intimate relationships are sexual relationships, especially for men. As a result, classic Biblical teaching on sexual ethics sounds like it is condemning those who aren't able to marry to a lifetime of loneliness. This might be because they're exclusively same sex attracted like Vaughan is, or because they can't find a suitable Christian mate like several people I know, or for a variety of other reasons.
  • Don't worry about other people not being good friends to you – make sure you're a good friend to others.


Malcolm Gladwell – What the Dog Saw

Malcolm Gladwell has become famous in the UK for his book-length popular treatments of social science topics, such as The Tipping Point and Outliers. This is a collection of 20 shorter articles (20 pages or so each) which he wrote for the New Yorker magazine. It's typical Gladwell – he can make pretty much anything seem interesting, even the history of advertising hair dye. It's always thought provoking, always informative, always entertaining.

John C Maxwell – Winning with People

This is a typical John Maxwell book. 25 big points about how to work well with people, explained really clearly, illustrated well, and explained in such a way that they seem utterly obvious. I can see that if someone really needed to learn soft people skills, this book could change their life, but it's got enough helpful advice that pretty much anyone would benefit.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

What about the Apocrypha?

The first record of the process of writing the Old Testament is God writing the 10 Commandments on stone tablets on Mount Sinai in Exodus 20. But only a few chapters later, in Ex 24:7, Moses has something which is described as the “book of the covenant”, which is probably Exodus 20-23, written down by Moses. From then, the Old Testament grew, through a process of editing and compiling various accounts, and people writing down messages given by God to inspired prophets, and so on. There's lots of detail, but it's very dull and the kind of thing boring academics argue about. It's far more interesting and helpful to talk about what the text means than try to come up with novel theories for how it came to be the way it is.

Peter sums up the overall process well:

Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.2 Peter 1:20-21

The result, over a period of 1000 years or so, was the Tanakh. Tanakh is the Hebrew name for Torah (law) + Naviim (prophets) + Khetuvim (writings), and is pretty much exactly the 39 books of the Old Testament in most modern Protestant Bibles, but in a different order. It's written in Hebrew, with a few bits in Aramaic, which is closely related to Hebrew. It's possible a few bits (Daniel?) might have been written after the Greek conquest, but if so they were written in the old language, for the old culture and set before the conquest.

After the Exile to Babylon, the Jews gained a degree of independence under the Persian Empire, the beginnings of which are seen in Ezra and Nehemiah. But the Persian empire fell to Alexander the Great in 332BC, and over time Greek rule transformed Israel. Tensions occasionally rose as high as violent revolt, especially the one led by the Maccabees in 164BC, which led to an independent Jewish state until it was swallowed up by the Roman Empire.

However, most Jews lived outside Israel, in what is now Egypt, Syria, Turkey and Iraq, they spoke Greek rather than Hebrew as a first language and were heavily influenced by Greek culture in a way that the Palestinian Jews had largely resisted. These Jews translated the Tanakh into Greek, so they could read and study it more easily, with the result being the Septuagint (usually abbreviated to LXX). The LXX isn't quite a straight translation though. Some books (Jeremiah) are a bit shorter in the LXX. Others (Daniel, Esther) are a bit longer, with the addition of new stories to Daniel and explicit references to God and prayer in Esther. Some new books were added too - some stories (Tobit, Judith), some history (Maccabees), and some which fit the Greek/Jewish culture, like Wisdom of Solomon, which says how wonderful Greek philosophy is, then points out it's all there and even better in the Tanakh. The books were also in a different order, with the LXX closer to the order you'd find in most Bibles today.

That meant there were some striking differences between the Hebrew Scriptures, used by Palestinian Jews, and the standard Greek translation of it, used by Grecian Jews.

What about Jesus and the apostles?

Jesus and the first apostles were Palestinian Jews and therefore used the Hebrew Tanakh. Paul was at home in either culture – he was brought up in Turkey, but studied in Jerusalem – and although he quotes from the LXX when writing to Greek-speaking Christians, he only quotes from the bits which were translations of the Hebrew/Aramaic original.

By the end of Acts, however, the majority of Christians didn't speak Hebrew or Aramaic, only Greek, and this was stronger still after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70. After that, the early church almost exclusively used the LXX for their Old Testament.

And the Jews?

Meanwhile, the Jews met to discuss the problem at the council of Jamnia, which is often seen as the start of Rabbinic Judaism (i.e. after the temple and the destruction of Israel). They agreed that the Hebrew Tanakh was indeed Scripture, but the extra bits in the Greek LXX weren't.

St Jerome

During the centuries of persecution, the LXX seems to have been fairly readily available. Judaism wasn't persecuted in the same way that Christianity was, and most churches seem to have owned and used the LXX as Scripture. When St Jerome was commissioned to translate the Bible into Latin in 382, he found the problems, and argued against the use of the extra bits in the LXX. Augustine countered, arguing that the LXX itself was inspired by God, even where it got the translation of the underlying Hebrew wrong. Jerome made some compromises and his translation (the Vulgate) became the standard translation in the Latin-speaking world. The Vulgate:

  • Translated the Hebrew text of the books in the Tanakh, but noted where the Greek disagreed.
  • Where there were extra bits in the LXX, translated them too but mostly tagged them on at the end of each book.
  • Kept the LXX book order, including the extra books.

And so it stayed for 1000 years.

The Reformation

In the 1500s, the Reformers rebelled against the established Latin Church. As part of this, they looked again at the question of which books should be in the Bible, and almost all of them concluded that the Old Testament we use should be the Hebrew Tanakh, not the Greek Septuagint. Luther, for example, translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into German, and relegated the books that were only in the LXX to an appendix to the OT entitled “Apocrypha: These Books Are Not Held Equal to the Scriptures, but Are Useful and Good to Read”. Luther's idea was widely copied. In the Church of England, the policy was (and remains) as follows:

And the other Books (as Jerome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine.

Over time, the Apocrypha was dropped from most Bibles to save on printing costs and to make it clear that they aren't on the same level as Scripture.

Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church met at the Council of Trent to decide how to respond to the Reformation. One of the items on the agenda was which books should be in the Bibles, and Trent ruled that all the books in the LXX were Scripture.

The Situation Today

By and large, the situation today is as follows:

  • The Protestant Old Testament is the Hebrew Tanakh, but with the Greek order of books.
  • The Catholic Old Testament is the slightly weird Jerome-compromise of a combination between the Hebrew and Greek Old Testaments, but all held to be authoritative.
  • The Orthodox Old Testament is the LXX, with various slight variations among different groups.

And for those who are interested, the order of books in the Hebrew Tanakh is as follows:

  • Genesis – Deuteronomy (the Torah)
  • Joshua - 2 Kings, but missing out Ruth (the Former Prophets)
  • Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel (the Major Prophets)
  • Hosea – Malachi (the Minor Prophets)
  • Psalms
  • Job
  • Proverbs
  • Ruth
  • Song of Songs
  • Ecclesiastes
  • Lamentations
  • Esther
  • Daniel
  • Ezra - Nehemiah
  • 1& 2 Chronicles

(And that was the simplified version!)