Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year's Resolutions

I feel compelled to link to Jonathan Edwards' famous resolutions, but that isn't what this post is about.

For me, the really obvious reason why people so rarely keep New Year's Resolutions is procrastination. If they're willing to put off deciding to quit smoking or whatever until the New Year, then chances are they're going to be willing to put it off another year. If you really want to change something, you should start it when you think of it. I took up jogging, and I did that a week and a half ago. Why? Because that was when I got sensible shoes for it.

I guess the exception is people who only ever introspect and try to figure out what needs changing once a year, on New Year's Eve. But then, chances are they're so unused to it, they don't introspect deeply enough.

Some Films I Saw

Iris

I hadn't made any effort to watch this film, because biopics are often fawning over people and I'm not a great Iris Murdoch fan. But the film isn't actually about what she achieved, it's about her relationship with her husband, specifically the beginning (which has far too much of Kate Winslet taking her clothes off) and the end, where she suffers badly from Alzheimers. Almost all of the film could have been about any one of a large number of people. And that caught me by surprise. Apart from the clothes thing, well done and well acted.

Pulp Fiction

I thought I had to see this. IMDB has it ranked as the 5th best film of all time (behind The Godfather I & II, The Good the Bad and the Ugly and The Shawshank Redemption). And I really can't see why.

It's a really really well made gangster film. Great acting, all that sort of thing. The storyline, in as much as there is one, is just Tarantino having fun with the genre. So Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta are bantering away and just treat killing as something incidental. Two more crooks have a discussion about why no-one ever robs a diner, and decide to rob the one they're sitting in. Bruce Willis is a boxer who seems very relaxed about killing people and really is in it for the money, regardless of risk and who seems to be avoiding being a soldier.

There isn't really any point. The fact the main sections of the story are shown out of order doesn't seem to serve any purpose. A lot of it just seems to be "slightly fun variations on the theme of gangsters", except with all the bad language and violence and splattered brains kept in. Oh, and despite all that, and a gay rape scene, and drug use and overdosing (again for no real purpose in terms of the storyline), there's no nudity.

If the really nasty aspects of this film don't worry you at all, you've got something wrong with you, but you'll really enjoy the film.

Ryle - Definitions and Disputes

It may be laid down as a rule, with tolerable confidence, that the absence of accurate definitions is the very life of religious controversy. If men would only define with precision the theological terms which they use, many disputes would die. Scores of excited disputants would discover that they do not really differ, and that their disputes have arisen from their own neglect of the great duty of explaining the meaning of words.
J.C. Ryle, Knots Untied

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Church Seasons

One of the things I've liked about Christmas this year is the fact it's over.

I don't mean that I didn't enjoy it; I did. But for too many years of my life, we've been following the Church Year which carries on calling it "Christmas" into January, and only starts Christmas at Christmas Day.

To my mind, this is one case where the world quite clearly has it more right than the Church. Jewish festivals are often week-long things, but there's always a big thing on the final day - there's still some dramatic tension to build up to and some energy to keep it going. Periods of celebration should end with a big do. But Christmas in the Church year doesn't work like that, unless you make Epiphany much bigger than I've ever seen it done in the West. (I think that's what the Orthodox do, but the Western way makes more sense of the significance of the festivals). It just seemed to peter out and singing carols into January just seemed wrong. Spreading forwards is natural because of anticipation and stuff (though I tend to limit it by not thinking about Christmas stuff until after my birthday at the start of December).

And yes, in the Church calendar, it's Advent right up until Christmas, which is about thinking about Jesus' coming as judge. And it's a real shame that the Church year is so messed up that Advent naturally gets eaten by anticipation for Christmas. But it's the fault of the church calendar.

The season of Christmas should end at Christmas, or at New Year at the latest (but then only if you make a big thing of New Year).

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Browser Share

I keep seeing stats that say that Firefox has 15% or something of the browser market. Here's the stats for my blog (I think it's only over the last 100 visits or so, but it's fairly typical.)

But then maybe it's just that the sort of people who visit my blog are more likely to use Firefox. I know I do (and I use Firefox 2, so those Firefox 1 visits aren't all me)...

Changing my mind

Fairly recently, I did a post on Soul Sleep. Today, I was listening to John's gospel, and I heard a better argument against it than any of the rubbish ones I see banded around.

Jesus said "...Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad."
John 8:56, NIV

Would that we knew our Bibles better!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Infant Baptism

A friend asked me to write down my thoughts on infant baptism. It's a difficult topic, as evident by the fact that there are so many Christians committed to the same high view of Scripture who disagree over it. It seems that those with a higher ecclesiology seem to be in favour of infant baptism, which suggests that the strongest arguments may well presuppose that the Church can decide on secondary issues. I'm going to try to ignore that argument and concentrate on some which are more traditionally evangelical in style (i.e. ignore all tradition since the Apostles). Even then, a lot of the classic arguments are rubbish. Overall, it's a tricky argument because it needs answers to other difficult questions.

Who should be baptised?

Baptism as such seems to start in the Bible with John the Baptist, but picks up on symbolism going a long way back. So in 1 Peter 3, Peter says that Noah being saved from the flood was a picture of baptism.

John the Baptist baptised people who wanted to change the way they were living (e.g. Mark 1:4-5). It didn't require a commitment to Jesus, because Jesus only really started his ministry once John was put into prison. In Acts 19:4, Paul links John's baptism to being told to follow Jesus, but not necessarily to follow Jesus.

Christians took baptism and used it differently – baptism was either in the name of Jesus (e.g. Acts 19:5) or in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (e.g. Matthew 28:19), and was seen as being different to John's baptism (as seen in Acts 19). It was seen as linked with repentance and with forgiveness (e.g. Acts 2:38) and with union with Christ (Romans 6:3).

Baptism was seen as the first thing that happened to someone as a Christian – it was linked very closely to conversion. That means there were some examples where they baptised people who later turned out not to be Christians, for example Simon Magus in Acts 8:9ff. There doesn't seem to have been detailed examinations of belief before baptism.

1 Corinthians 10 gives a striking parallel with the Old Testament. Paul argues that the whole nation of Israel was baptised, though most of them didn't “keep going”.

For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.
1 Corinthians 10:1-6, ESV

Paul clearly saw parallels between those who had been baptised in the church in Corinth and those who were physical members of the covenant people of Israel.

Conclusion – baptism seems to have been used as an initiation into the Christian community. Sometimes people were baptised who didn't keep going as Christians. In other words, it seems sensible that we should say that Christians should be baptised, but to err on the side of baptising too many people rather than too few if we are to follow the pattern of the apostolic Church.

Who is a Christian?

Since the Reformation, the trend to try to define Christians by whether they believe a certain set of beliefs has been very strong. But it doesn't seem to be the way the Bible sees saving faith – the key question is not the intellectual content of the faith, but the object of the faith.

And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. She had heard the reports about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. For she said, "If I touch even his garments, I will be made well." And immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.

And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone out from him, immediately turned about in the crowd and said, "Who touched my garments?" And his disciples said to him, "You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, 'Who touched me?'" And he looked around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth. And he said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease."
Mark 5:25-34, ESV

Biblically, I'd suggest that saving faith seems to have been trusting that Jesus could save and that no-one else could. It doesn't require any level of intellectual sophistication, though it will have more intellectual sophistication in some people than in others. The woman with bleeding thought that just touching Jesus could heal her in what we would call a superstitious way. The centurion in Matthew 8 recognised that Jesus could heal at a distance by just saying a word. Both had saving faith.

Saving faith isn't about believing precisely the right things or being able to articulate them – it's about looking to Jesus for rescue and not looking to anyone else.

Baptising Children

So then, should we baptise children?

The obvious answer is “yes, if they are Christians”.

Are children Christians? This where the arguments against infant baptism really get tied up, with the question of what the minimum age for a child to be considered a Christian is (let alone the pastoral question of the death of children before they reach that age). The most common (and consistent) view is that the right age for baptism is whenever the child can articulate a faith of their own and request baptism, though some impose arbitrary age limits. There are however significant difficulties with either position.

My parents are (and were) Christians. I was baptised as an infant. I consciously identified myself as a Christian from at least the age of 4. I could and did articulate a faith of my own and requested to be confirmed, and was confirmed. I very much suspect that in a baptist church except for one with an arbitrary age limit over 15, I'd have been baptised. But the first time I realised my sinfulness and need of salvation and repented and meant it, rather that saying what I knew was the right answer was when I was 15, after baptism and confirmation.

One of the standard baptist arguments is that “God has no grandchildren”, which is true. And so they wait until the children of Christians make their own confession of faith rather than baptising them as infants. Given that, they'd have baptised me before many people would say I became a Christian (but they'd only say that retrospectively), which is exactly what their policy tries to avoid. How many 6-year old children of committed Christian parents fail to identify themselves as Christians?

Conversely, if they impose an arbitrary age limit, they are consciously refusing to baptise those who are able to confess faith and who may well be Christians by anyone's definition. I certainly know adults who are Christians today, and who say that, as far as they remember, they have always been Christians. Given that the apostles clearly erred on the side of baptising too many people rather than too few, and that baptism followed as soon as possible after conversion, can that policy be right?

Summary – Two Arguments

I think the following points are all obvious, and between them they constitute two strong arguments for baptising the infant children of committed Christians:

First Argument

  • Committed Christians seek to raise their children to be Christians
  • Young children understand more than they can articulate
  • Young children trust their parents
  • While of course they have to decide later whether to continue in the faith, children of committed Christian parents are almost invariably professing Christians at age 6, and have at no stage prior to that professed to be not Christian.
  • The baptismal policy of the apostles was more likely to include too many people than too few, and to baptise early rather than late. There are no recorded cases of declining to baptise someone who was professing faith.

Therefore, it being clear that children of committed Christian parents trust Jesus (or think they trust Jesus) before they can profess it, and that they pretty much invariably profess faith early, it seems only sensible to baptise them at the earliest opportunity.

Second Argument

  • The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares/Weeds teaches that “the evil is always intermingled with the good” - that there are people visibly in the Church who are not “saved”, and that it will stay that way until the judgement.
  • While theologically, the significance of baptism is linked to inclusion in the group of those who are “saved”, practically it seems that baptism was rather inclusion into the visible Church (as seen from the example of Simon the Sorcerer).
  • Examining the apostolic practice of baptism, it is clear that both the Wheat and the Tares were baptised.
  • Infants of Christian couples are part of the visible Church

Hence they should be baptised.

Further considerations

I haven't discussed verses like 1 Corinthians 7:14, which says that the children of Christian couples are made holy by their parents. I think that actually works along the lines of my second argument.

There's also the question of rebaptism. If Simon had come back to faith, would the apostles have rebaptised him? My gut answer is “yes”; the policy of the C of E is “no”, and I think the usual Biblical argument for the “no” position – saying there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 5:4) doesn't work. In context that verse means that we should respect and accept the baptisms done by other Christian groups – I accept that people baptised by the Roman Catholics have been baptised and so on. It just isn't addressing the question of whether people who have been baptised, have backslidden to the point they were no longer part of the Church, and then come back to faith should be baptised again or not. On the other hand, the C of E is quite clear in its policy, and I'm happy to abide by that bit of church discipline.

The most important thing in all this, though, is for Christians to love one another, and respect that other Christians may disagree with us, that by and large they don't disagree because they're evil, but because they're genuinely trying to follow God and submit to the teaching of the Bible just as much as we are.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Food Labelling

Labels on sealed opaque food containers generally carry a picture of the food that is inside.

A bit of me feels sorry for Koreans (or other such nationalities) on finding out that this food doesn't taste as good as it looks...

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Augustine on Science

The great theologian Augustine of Hippo (c AD 400) was one of the first people to tackle the issue of the relationship of science to Christianity. Of course, "science" in the modern sense didn't exist at the time, but I'm using "science" in the loose sense of things we can know by observing the world around us.

Here's a quote:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens and other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their sizes and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics, an we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life and the kingdom of heaven, which they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?

St Augustine of Hippo, The Literal Meaning of Genesis

Ernan McMullin summarises Augustine's view on the relationship between science and religion as follows:

  • When trying to discern the meaning of a difficult Scriptural passage, one should keep in mind that different interpretations of the text may be possible, and that, in consequence, one should not rush into premature commitment to one of these, especially since further progress in the search for truth may later undermine this interpretation.
  • When there is a conflict between a proven truth about nature and a particular reading of Scripture, an alternative meaning of Scripture must be sought.
  • When there is an apparent conflict between a Scripture passage and an assertion about the natural world grounded on sense or reason, the literal reading of the Scripture passage should prevail as long as the latter assertion lacks demonstration
  • The choice of language in the scriptural writings is accommodated to the capacities of the intended audience
  • Since the primary concern of Scripture is with human salvation, texts of Scripture should not be taken to have a bearing on technical issues of natural science

Monday, December 24, 2007

3 Reasons Christmas is Offensive

He was in the world, and the world was made by him and the world knew him not.
John 1:10, KJV

I think it's interesting and sometimes helpful to push at the inconsistencies in what people believe. A large proportion of people in England today claim to believe the truth of the Christmas story (and what a dangerous word “story” is). But it runs strongly counter to so much of English culture. I'm just going to explore three themes briefly.

God became man

In today's culture, it is offensive to claim that other people are wrong when it comes to things which people have no choice over. So it's wrong to say that one race or sexual orientation or gender is better than another. And the same goes for religion, because most people seem to follow the same religion as their parents. When I was a teacher, pupils were absolutely fine with me saying what I believed. But as soon as I claimed, implicitly or explicitly, that there was something wrong with what they believed, there was opposition.

When it comes down to it, we like the old Indian Parable of the Elephant, where a group of blindfolded men try to describe an elephant by feel. And so the claim at Christmas that the one true God of the whole universe uniquely became a man, and that he did it in Israel in 6BC or thereabouts and not in India or Arabia or Mexico or Britain, should offend us. Because it means that it is possible for some people to have a position where they can know God more clearly than others, because it is possible for us to look at what Jesus said and did and say that God is like X and not like Y.

God became man, and that offends us because it means that we can know God accurately, and therefore we can say that other people are wrong in their knowledge of God.

God became poor

God became man, but God did not become the sort of man whom we might think it worth becoming. He was not born to King Herod or to Caesar Augustus, but to a woman so poor that she could afford nothing more than an animal food-trough to put him in, and that was probably borrowed.

And yes, Jesus became the greatest celebrity the world has ever known – so much a celebrity that 2000 years later, people are still fascinated by his mother's sex life and a book of completely unsubstantiated gossip about him can reach the top of the bestseller charts. But how did he use his celebrity? He did not become rich or powerful as this world defines riches or power. He did not command an army or found a school of philosophy or even get a house. He lived as a homeless teacher, and his celebrity led to crowds baying for his execution, which was what he had planned all along.

And that offends us because we value the rich or the powerful or the famous, and we want to be like them. We do not value the person who chooses to stay in poverty, give up all their power and die the death of a criminal.

God did it for us

We (stereotypical men at least) love to think that we are self-sufficient – that we can cope with life and that we don't need anyone's assistance. And when we do get help, we prefer to be able to reciprocate. People are more likely to buy something than they are to accept it for free. And yet Christmas tells us that we most definitely do need help, and we need it from a God whom we could never even hope to repay.

Why?

And you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.
Matthew 1:21, NIV

Christmas shows not only that we are inadequate and need help, but that we are morally inadequate and need rescuing from the bad things that we do, not just from circumstances outside ourselves.

That is why Christmas is offensive. Happy Christmas.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

St Sexburga

Old English names are great. Maybe one day some of them will come back into fashion - I guess Alfred is one of the most common remaining ones. And maybe names like Sexburga will come back in sooner than we might wish for. Now, can I imagine a church dedicated to St Sexburga of Ely/Kent? Apparently there is one on the Isle of Sheppey

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Romeo + Juliet

Classic modern (though some reviews bizarrely said futuristic) setting of Shakespeare's tragedy directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Leonardo diCaprio and Claire Danes, and using the original script.

Moving, done well. All the reviews on IMDB seem either to be 10 stars or 2 or fewer. It's not the most astounding possible setting of Romeo and Juliet, but it's a very good one. DiCaprio is pretty good; Danes is very good and has an amazing smile; the chemistry seems to work, as does the setting and there's a very good supporting cast.

Some very clever moments in using the script in a modern situation - use of drugs, guns, cars, and so on. And plenty to think about in terms of the use of religious imagery and so on.

Goodnight, Mister Tom

Not entirely sure how I managed to miss this one until now. It keeps coming near the top of people's opinions on best TV things. It's a made-for-TV film starring John Thaw as a grumpy old man at the start of WW2, who is told to take in a boy who has been evacuated from London.

I'd been told it was quite a sad film. Dark, definitely, but I wouldn't say it's that sad. Put in a truck at the end, and it would definitely have been a huge tear-jerker. Having said that, there is child abuse and death and so on but ultimately it's about coping through that, which is what makes it a happy film against a dark background rather than anything else. Definitely very watchable, and John Thaw really makes it, as he did most things he was in.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Difficulty Growing Up

Some things that have happened recently have made me very aware that the transition between childhood and adulthood is very difficult in this culture. Friends from several different environments, relatives, children of friends, children of colleagues, and so on. In all of them there are adult-aged children who are having huge problems with the transition.

Here are some examples:

  • The person who is paralysed by not knowing which direction to go in after (or before) university and sits at their parents' house depressed
  • The working adult child who lives with their parents and shows no sign of moving out, despite their parents wanting them to
  • The adult child who is consistently treated like a little child by their parents

In all of these the question seems to be one of responsibility and society's attitude to it. Children often do not want it because they don't know where to start and there are too many options. Parents sometimes want their children to take it without knowing how to equip them to take it. Or they expect the child to take responsibilities without the rights or the rights without that responsibilities.

So what to do about it?

Radical Church Planting

Tim Chester is currently reading Organic Church by Neil Cole, and has some very interesting insights and suggestions from it. I think I'll add that to the list of things to read next year...

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Best Practice

When I was a teacher, one of the things that bothered me most was the culture around criticism. Not the culture that meant that teachers spent half their free time bitching about pupils (though that should have bothered me more than it did). The culture that meant that teachers often refused to accept criticism or feedback. Often their self-esteem was so tied up with their own perception that they were good teachers that they really couldn't cope with the idea that they might not be, or that they might have something to learn from other people. I guess it's a bit like driving – 90% of teachers would say that they are above average.

This was more extreme in my PGCE (teacher training) than in the school I taught at for 5 years. For example, during my PGCE, I wanted to investigate what made a good explanation. My plan was to ask pupils which teachers they thought were particularly good at explaining things, then observe some lessons with those teachers and try to find commonalities. My plan got vetoed by senior staff at the school, because they couldn't stand the idea of pupils being asked who was good at explaining things because that would imply that other teachers were less good at explaining things.

The same sort of thing happens in churches too, though with even less good reason. If church A is very good at youth work, for example, then the response of neighbouring churches of different traditions is (in my experience at least) likely to be one of the following:

  • ignoring it
  • accusing them of stealing the young people from “our” church
  • pointing out deficiencies in the way that church A does things

The better response, of course, would be to get the youth workers from A in to talk about how to do youth work. Don't necessarily accept everything they say – it's possible to build what looks outwardly like a successful youth group on foundations that are distinctly not Christian, for example – but aim to learn from what they do well. Why don't more ceremonial churches get evangelicals in to talk about how to help people to grow through preaching? Why don't evangelical churches get ceremonialists in to talk about the power of the acted word? (With examples of how lives have been changed in both cases of course – it's all very saying how we think God should work in something; it's much better to say how God has worked in something).

As it is, we too often lose that in a haze of politics and pride.

Sharing best practice – good. Obvious, but ignored.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Galileo's Daughter - Dava Sobel

I suppose, like Dava Sobel's earlier book, Longitude, this is popular history of science and of scientists. It tells the story of Galileo - his life, his faith, his science, his trial, his imprisonment, through the lens of the surviving letters written to him by the person who was closest to him for much of his life – one of his daughters who spent her life in a convent.

This book was recommended to me by one of my lecturers as being a good and fairly accurate way in to the whole situation around Galileo as well as being very readable. It's not on a par with a John Grisham or something for readability, but it's certainly good as a way in, probably especially for people who are interested in relationships and everyday life as well as the science. Good.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Soul Sleep

This is one of those areas where I'm aware that I disagree with the majority and yet my position seems so obvious I can't understand why the opposing point of view is so widespread among thinking people... I think it's also one of the areas where Christianity still carries too much baggage from Greek philosophy.

The Greeks (well, the Platonists anyway) believed in the immorality of the soul. They drew a distinction between the physical, which they saw as imperfect, changing and decaying, and the world of ideas, which they saw as perfect and eternal. A human being was a physical, decaying body, united with a perfect, eternal soul, which had always existed and would always exist. In later Gnostic thought, the soul was even seen as imprisoned in the body and wanting to be released.

The Hebrews and the Apostolic Church, however, didn't see things that way. They certainly used the language of “souls”, but they didn't seem to have much conception of them as separable from bodies. The future hope of the early Christians was not in the soul living on after the body died, but of resurrection of the body. Certainly the new body would be different to the old one – in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul uses ψυχικος – “soul-like” or χοϊκος – “dust-like” of our present bodies and πνευματικος – “of the Spirit” for the resurrection body. He sees Jesus' resurrection body as the model for the resurrection body of the Christian, and that was very much physical – he could walk and talk and eat, but more than just physical in the way that our bodies are – he seems also to have been able to go through walls and so on. (As C.S. Lewis pointed out, that makes him more solid than the wall, not less. Gases can't generally go through solids too well, but solids can move through gases.)

As I've discussed elsewhere, there doesn't even seem to have been the common conception that the soul was necessarily immortal. Certainly some Old Testament writers seem to have the idea that death is the end. And Paul writes

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory."
1 Corinthians 15:51-54, ESV

So if the hope for the Christian is the resurrection of the body rather than the immortality of the soul, what happens between death and the resurrection?

The Bible never directly addresses the question, but drops plenty of hints.

And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
Daniel 12:2, ESV

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-16, ESV

It therefore seems that we can make the following statements about the state of Christians between death and resurrection:

  • They are described as “asleep” or “dead”
  • They are still in Jesus. Death does not separate them from Christ.
  • They will be raised from the dead.

My suggestion therefore is this:

It seems to me that the most likely state of Christians between death and resurrection is that they are unconscious, as if sleeping, until they are raised from the dead.

The Bible does not seem to know of consciousness without a body. And if they were conscious, what would the need be for the resurrection?

Biblical Counter-Arguments

There are three passages I hear often used against this. Two of them are very similar – Jesus saying to the thief on the cross “today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43) and Paul saying that he desires to die and be with Christ, which is better than living (Phil 1:23). However, both of these can be simply explained by pointing out that in my understanding, for the believer, the next experience after death is resurrection, as when we wake up after sleeping and do not know how long it is since we went to sleep, or as with someone coming out of a coma after a while.

The third is the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. However, this parable is notoriously difficult to use for talking about life after death, because that is nowhere near the main point of the parable, and Jesus was not beyond inventing fictional stories, characters and countries in his parables to make a valid point.

A fourth passage, which I haven't heard used in arguments, but which it is worth thinking about anyway is Revelation 6. In Revelation 6, the souls of martyrs are seen and cry out to God for vengeance. However, the fact that the souls can be seen itself tells us that this is one of the many symbolic passages in Revelation. Neither does crying out for vengeance require consciousness; Abel manages to be “still speaking” in Hebrews 11:4, because of his faith, which doesn't require him to be conscious, simply remembered. In the same way, the mere existence of the souls of the martyrs cries out for vengeance.

Further Reading

Wikipedia has a fairly helpful page. Note that none of the passages they list as being against soul sleep is actually against it.

Calvin argues strongly against my position here. Note that none of his arguments seem to address the question of whether the soul is conscious after death; only that it is alive. I say it is in Christ, but probably not consciously so, like me when I'm alseep. A sleeping person is still living.

Monday, December 17, 2007

C.S. Lewis on Christmas

Three things go by the name of Christmas. One is a religious festival. This is important and obligatory for Christians; but as it can be of no interest to anyone else, I shall naturally say no more about it here. The second (it has complex historical connections with the first, but we needn't go into them) is a popular holiday, an occasion for merry-making and hospitality. If it were my business to have a 'view' on this, I should say that I much approve of merry-making. But what I approve of much more is everybody minding his own business. I see no reason why I should volunteer views as to how other people should spend their own money in their own leisure among their own friends. It is highly probable that they want my advice on such matters as little as I want theirs. But the third thing called Christmas is unfortunately everyone's business.

I mean of course the commercial racket. The interchange of presents was a very small ingredient in the older English festivity. Mr. Pickwick took a cod with him to Dingley Dell; the reformed Scrooge ordered a turkey for his clerk; lovers sent love gifts; toys and fruit were given to children. But the idea that not only all friends but even all acquaintances should give one another presents, or at least send one another cards, is quite modern and has been forced upon us by the shopkeepers. Neither of these circumstances is in itself a reason for condemning it. I condemn it on the following grounds.

1. It gives on the whole much more pain than pleasure. You have only to stay over Christmas with a family who seriously try to 'keep' it (in its third, or commercial, aspect) in order to see that the thing is a nightmare. Long before December 25th everyone is worn out -- physically worn out by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally worn out by the effort to remember all the right recipients and to think out suitable gifts for them. They are in no trim for merry-making; much less (if they should want to) to take part in a religious act. They look far more as if there had been a long illness in the house.

2. Most of it is involuntary. The modern rule is that anyone can force you to give him a present by sending you a quite unprovoked present of his own. It is almost a blackmail. Who has not heard the wail of despair, and indeed of resentment, when, at the last moment, just as everyone hoped that the nuisance was over for one more year, the unwanted gift from Mrs. Busy (whom we hardly remember) flops unwelcomed through the letter-box, and back to the dreadful shops one of us has to go?

3. Things are given as presents which no mortal every bought for himself -- gaudy and useless gadgets, 'novelties' because no one was ever fool enough to make their like before. Have we really no better use for materials and for human skill and time than to spend them on all this rubbish?

4. The nuisance. For after all, during the racket we still have all our ordinary and necessary shopping to do, and the racket trebles the labour of it.

We are told that the whole dreary business must go on because it is good for trade. It is in fact merely one annual symptom of that lunatic condition of our country, and indeed of the world, in which everyone lives by persuading everyone else to buy things. I don't know the way out. But can it really be my duty to buy and receive masses of junk every winter just to help the shopkeepers? If the worst comes to the worst I'd sooner give them money for nothing and write if off as a charity. For nothing? Why, better for nothing than for a nuisance.

Hat tip to Ben Witherington III.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Graverobbing or Archaeology?

Archaeologists have been digging up the graves of some medieval Scottish bishops. Once again (last time I mentioned it was when they found St Paul's coffin) this raises the question of what the difference is between archaeology and just digging up corpses to put on display.

One of my housemates knows his ancestry back at least that far. Would he be happy if it was his great-great...-grandfather being dug up?

At the time (IIRC), bishops were theoretically meant to be single and celibate, but in practice there was often a system where they could effectively pay for the right to have a mistress and children. So some of these guys might have relatives still alive. Did they give their permission?

Do you think that medieval Scottish bishops would be in favour of having their remains dug out of the ground and examined by scientists for no good reason? I don't.

God's Anger

In church this morning, the preacher pointed us to a wonderful section in Micah, which seems very relevant to the whole Penal Substitutionary Atonement debate. Part of the issue there is that a lot of people have difficulty seeing that God gets angry with our sin. Seems that they're not alone...

"Do not prophesy", their prophets say. "Do not prophesy about these things; disgrace will not overtake us."

Should it be said, O house of Jacob: "Is the Spirit of the LORD angry? Does he do such things?"

Do not my words do good to him whose ways are upright?

...

Get up, go away! For this is not your resting place, because it is defiled, it is ruined, beyond all remedy.

If a liar and deceiver comes and says,'I will prophesy for you plenty of wine and beer,' he would be just the prophet for this people!

Micah 2:6-7, 10-11, NIV

Hermeneutics and Penal Substitution - Response to a Comment

Evangelicals are often accused of "proof-texting" - quoting a single verse to prove something, often without considering the context. In my experience, while evangelicals are sometimes guilty of it, it's often non-evangelicals who do it more dangerously, to the extent in some extreme situations of building entire systems of doctrine on one verse (e.g. "God is love") without considering how it fits into the theology of the rest of the Bible.

Someone (it may have been David Jackman) once cleverly said:

A text without a context is a pretext for a subtext.

When we cite verses, it's really important that we understand how they fit into their context - that often makes it much easier to see how we should understand them.

I recently received a comment on this post, which raises several interesting issues about how we understand the Bible and so on, so I thought I'd respond to it here rather than in situ.

"The doctrine of penal substitution states that God gave himself in the person of his Son (Jesus) to suffer instead of us the death, punishment, and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin."

Hmmmm........ if your idea is true the crucifixion of Jesus would have been the resolving end of all issues between you and God. However Jesus says that the issue of guilt relative to sin remains as the outstanding issue between you and God AFTER his crucifixion. What have you to say about Jesus' statement in Jn. 16:8?
God says in Gen. 9:5 NIV (the NIV being about the clearest on this point) that whenever any man looses his life by bloodshed God demands (requires) an accounting. What would you think the required accounting might be?
There is at least one sin that must be repented of to obey the Acts 2:38 command. What do you think think this sin might be relative to the outstanding issue in Jn. 16:8?
Heb. 7:12 says that a change has been made to the law of God and Rom. 5:20 says a law has been added. What law?

My Response

First up, it's not my idea. The idea of Penal Substitutionary Atonement dates back at the absolute latest to the letter to the Hebrews (1st century AD), and I'd argue it was actually God's idea before the universe began. But anyway...

As far as I can see, John 16:8 doesn't bear much relevance to the discussion at all:

But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgement: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and in regard to judgement, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.

John 16:7-11, NIV

Verse 8 says that the Holy Spirit, when he comes, will convict the world of guilt. In John, the world "world" (κοσμος) refers either to the world in rebellion against God (e.g. 1:10, 7:7) or to the world as the scope of Jesus' salvation. In Jesus' long discourse which contains John 16, "world" almost always means the world as opposed to Christians (e.g. 15:19 - "If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.").

So the Holy Spirit convicting the world of sin is telling those who are not disciples - i.e. are not followers of Jesus, that they are sinners. There's a strong world / disciples distinction in this passage.

Next, the commenter writes that "if your idea is true the crucifixion of Jesus would have been the resolving end of all issues between you and God". That simply isn't true. My appropriation of the benefits of the crucifixion would be the resolving end of all issues between me and God, rather than the crucifixion itself.

Simple analogy - suppose that someone invents an armour that is completely impervious to bullets. Does that mean the end of all deaths from bullets from that time onwards? No - it requires the use of that armour rather than just its invention, which is precisely what Acts 2:38 talks about.

And in a sense, we never get to fully appropriate the benefits of the crucifixion until we have reached full union with Christ by our own participation in his death by our death...

Genesis 9:5 is an interesting verse to cite. God says, speaking to Noah after the flood, that he holds people responsible for each others' lives - that he will "demand an accounting". (ESV is "require a reckoning", which is much the same). So God holds us accountable for each other's lives. Which is precisely why we need someone to take the punishment demanded by that accounting. We are all guilty and complicit of abusing others - not speaking out (lovingly) against abortion or unjust war, exploitation of child labour and death, living off the profits from exploiting others, hatred, using other people for our own selfish ends. Genesis 9:5 says God will hold us accountable. So we all need someone to take the penalty that we deserve.

Romans 5:20 (in context) is quite clearly talking about the role of the Mosaic Law given to Israel in the wilderness to show them how to respond to God's salvation of them in the Exodus. It served largely to show that they were sinners and needed an even better salvation. Hebrews 7:12 (in context) clearly speaks about the removal of that covenant because of Jesus' death. I've written more about the whole issue of Christians and the Old Testament Law, but I fail to see the relevance of these verses if they are understood in context.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Parable of the Ten Minas

This parable, I think, is the one that is most at odds with the way I thought when growing up.

Interestingly, the most common criticism of Christian men I hear from talking to single Christian women is that they/we are insufficiently willing to take risks.

11While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once. He said: "A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return. So he called ten of his servants and gave them ten minas. 'Put this money to work,' he said, 'until I come back.'

"But his subjects hated him and sent a delegation after him to say, 'We don't want this man to be our king.'

"He was made king, however, and returned home. Then he sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, in order to find out what they had gained with it.

"The first one came and said, 'Sir, your mina has earned ten more.'

" 'Well done, my good servant!' his master replied. 'Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.'

"The second came and said, 'Sir, your mina has earned five more.'

"His master answered, 'You take charge of five cities.'

"Then another servant came and said, 'Sir, here is your mina; I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth. 21I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.'

"His master replied, 'I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant! You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow? Why then didn't you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?'

"Then he said to those standing by, 'Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.'

" 'Sir,' they said, 'he already has ten!'

"He replied, 'I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away. But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me."

Luke 19:11-27, NIV

All kinds of interesting questions:

  • What does this say about the correct attitude to risk for God?
  • How can we be using what we have riskily?
  • How does this tie in with Luke's other teaching about money - for example the Parable of the Unjust Steward, where good stewardship is again risky stewardship?
  • Isn't it interesting that some things we are meant to take care to guard (e.g. the gospel, our hearts) and everything else we're meant to live light to?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Sexual Orientation is Bunk

I hinted at this in the comments on my previous post, and also here. The concept of sexual orientation, as it is usually presented in the British media, is rubbish, and not only so, but unhelpful rubbish. Let me explain:

A good place to start would be the Kinsey Scale. Kinsey's report in 1948 is an important cultural turning point, especially in legitimising homosexual behaviour. But this is what Kinsey actually wrote.

Males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. It is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories... The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects.

While emphasising the continuity of the gradations between exclusively heterosexual and exclusively homosexual histories, it has seemed desirable to develop some sort of classification which could be based on the relative amounts of heterosexual and homosexual experience or response in each history... An individual may be assigned a position on this scale, for each period in his life.... A seven-point scale comes nearer to showing the many gradations that actually exist."
(Kinsey, et al. (1948). pp. 639, 656)

Quote from Wikipedia, not coz it's reliable but coz it's easier.

In other words, Kinsey thought that people are not split into homosexuals, bisexuals and heterosexuals, but that there is a continuous scale (if it's continuous, 7 points isn't really enough - you'd need to allow decimal points or just give it as a percentage, as Arthur C Clarke in The Songs of Distant Earth), and people's position on that scale can and does change over time and in response to events. For example, one potential (anecdotal but plausible) response to sexual abuse is to seek sexual fulfilment in different environments. So if a woman is sexually abused by a man, that may in some cases lead to increased sexual preference for women.

In fact, the scale is multidimensional as well. Some men prefer curvier women, some prefer skinnier women, and that preference can change over time (personally, I find that a lot of my preferences change depending on who I meet). Some women prefer butch guys; some women prefer more "effeminate" guys, and that preference can change over time too. Some people have random or not-so-random fetishes, and so on.

My guess is that there are as many sexual "orientations" as there are people, and that for most of us, our sexual "orientation" is constantly changing.

So then, if sexual "orientation" is actually individual, multidimensional and changing, it seems somewhat silly to split it into straight, gay or bisexual. It strikes me as much more like food preferences (except of course with the additional strong bonding element in long-term stable relationships which doesn't really happen with food). It also means that it is silly to label someone's identity by their sexual preferences at any one time. I like Chinese food, but that is not my identity. I also like Indian food, but that isn't my identity either. And food is really important to me, but it doesn't define my identity. If someone did define their identity by their food preferences, you'd worry about them. And I think it's the same with sex.

People should no more define their identity by their sexual preferences than by their food preferences.

Of course, this has a huge effect on how to present the traditional Christian understanding of sex. The usual way that I hear it presented, people draw a distinction between orientation and practice, but that leads to the response that we are calling homosexual people to a level of sacrifice we are not calling heterosexual people to. Not true. There are no homosexual people, and there are no heterosexual people. There are just people. (Maybe I just overargued that bit, but it sounded good.)

It also leads to an implicit devaluing of homosexual people by the church, and it really doesn't help the institutionalised homophobia in the church die out.

Much better, surely, to say that there are just people, and we all have different sexual preferences, and that some sexual actions (like loving sex inside male/female lifelong marriage) are good and that some sexual actions (like sex outside marriage) are bad, but that we don't expect nonChristians to obey Christian standards.

It's like banning spinach or the use of MSG in food for some as-yet-unknown health reasons. Now I like spinach and I think that MSG does often make food taste better, and I'd be upset if they were banned, but you'd be hard pushed to argue that a ban on MSG for health reasons discriminated against particular groups in society, even though Chinese cooking does use more of it than, say, Italian cooking.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Philadelphia

This film came out when I was 15. It doesn't seem like half a lifetime ago, but I guess it was. I bought it ridiculously cheap on DVD at the supermarket...

Basic plot for those who haven't seen it - a gay lawyer with AIDS (Tom Hanks) gets sacked by his law firm and sues them for discrimination. It won Oscars for best actor and best song - the soundtrack is awesome, if only for the combination of Bruce Springsteen and Callas singing Puccini in the most powerful scene in the film. Great film.

It's amazing how dated the film seems though. There's widespread acceptance of anti-gay prejudice in a way that just seems incredibly out of place now. The way I remember it, the film was important in changing my views on homosexual discrimination - I guess that was part of the point.

And it made me think - were Christians really so stupid that we weren't fighting for the rights of gay people to be treated the same as everyone else? I know Christians were at the forefront of helping AIDS sufferers (though that's been forgotten now), but were we fighting for justice for gay people, or were we opposing it? If we weren't fighting for justice, why not? And if we were, why is it that our reputation is so consistently messed up on it?

I'm not talking about a discussion of whether homosexual practice should be legal - I think there's approximately zero chance of changing people's minds on that and it's not an argument worth having. For my part, I think it's a sin in much the same way that envy or gossip or sex outside marriage is, and we're all sinners, and that means we have absolutely no excuse to treat other people worse because they are sinners too. And I don't think that people who are persistent and unrepentant gossips should be church leaders either.

So why weren't we fighting for justice then? And why do we tolerate homophobia in the evangelical church now? (it's most definitely there...) And what are we messing up today in the same way we messed up our attitude to gay people then?

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Preaching - Quick Thoughts

The three most important things about preaching are that it should be:

  • faithful to the text
  • applied to the hearers
  • interesting

Conservative evangelical preachers, in my experience, too often only aim for the first two.

A large fraction of the Bible is story. So why is there so little narrative preaching or preaching using lots of narrative that is also faithful? Jesus did it...

Why do so few books on preaching say that prayer is the most important element of preparation?

Saturday, December 08, 2007

History of Science and Religion - Books

Probably the most common question I get asked by Christians is about the whole area of Science and Christianity. I'm still intending to write a book on it, but I'm studying the topic at Oxford first, partly to see where other people are coming from on it.

A good light introduction to the history of science and religion written by a Christian who used to lecture history of science is Unnatural Enemies by Kirsten Birkett. It's short; it's clearly written; it tries to explain why things are the way they are at the moment. Briefly put, part of it is that while many Christians thought Darwin was right about evolution, not all of them did because they still had a potential alternative explanation (God doing it directly, suddenly, recently). That meant that it looked as if Christianity and science were in conflict, which meant that the Christians tended to take up more anti-science positions and some atheists wrote histories of science making it look like they always had.

A better, more detailed, and less explicitly Christian book is Science and Religion - Some Historical Perspectives by John Hedley Brooke (former professor of Science and Religion at Oxford). It's a good academic study exploring the history of the two. It doesn't really require much background in science, religion or history. I wouldn't say it's a gripping read, but it's accessible to the sort of person who reads quite a bit. I'm also shocked I hadn't been told to read this book a long time ago... It might be quite expensive, so it's worth ordering it from a library, or getting a second-hand copy or something.

Secret Believers - Brother Andrew and Al Janssen

Just finished reading this book...

Most of it is set in a fictionalised Muslim country, and particularly a fictionalised major market town there. All the characters and events are allegedly real, but they weren't necessarily in the same place to start with.

As a way of telling true stories about Muslim Background Believers in Muslim countries, though, it's quite sensible. And as would be expected, some of the stories are quite moving.

All in all, it's really encouraging to read about how God is working in countries like that, to read about the perseverance of the church, and it's a real spur to prayer.

There's quite a bit on how to respond as well. Definitely worth a read..

Edited to add: Of course, this sort of thing also happens in England.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Criticism

One of the things I like least about evangelicalism is the way that so often we don't help other people enough because we're scared of hurting their feelings by criticising them. I'll probably get thought some kind of unfeeling male fascist for this, but never mind.

If someone is in a position of Christian leadership, they should be a mature enough Christian so that their whole self-esteem isn't based on what other people think of their ability to lead. They should therefore be able to take criticism.

When people do criticise me honestly, lovingly and constructively, I find it really helpful for improving what I'm doing. One of the most important (maybe even the only important) skill I learnt in my teacher training was the ability to evaluate and be self-critical. I know I am not good enough at being willing to criticise honestly, lovingly or constructively.

Mark Dever offers five points for how to do criticism well, and they're well worth a read:

  • Directly, not indirectly
  • Seriously, not humorously
  • As if it's important, not casually
  • Privately, not publicly
  • Out of love for them, not to express your feeling or frustration

His corollaries to each of those are also worth mentioning:

  • Don't let people misread you
  • Don't do it to try to make them like you
  • Don't bother correcting unimportant stuff
  • Don't make them worry what others think of them
  • Sincerely encourage them where God is working

And am I secretly happy that this has knocked me saying why I disagree with the 39 Articles further down the page? Maybe.

Quotes from Steve Tilley

Steve Tilley, whom I think I met in a seminar many years ago, has some amazing quotes in his most recent few blog posts.

I think I will therefore say this once more. The only, the only management question worth asking of a subordinate, is this, 'How can I help you do your job better?'

'The neighbours’ lawn may be greener because there’s a leaking sceptic tank under it.'

Do you keep your sceptics in a tank under the lawn? What happens if they escape? A lawn covered in uncertainty and suspicion? I doubt it.

The Conservative Evangelical Prosperity Gospel

Mark Meynell points out (citing Emma Park) that a lot of evangelicals fall for the Prosperity Gospel, albeit the respectable middle-class sort.

I remember one baptism or dedication service I was at, where the promises made over the child were much stronger than usual, stuff like "Do you promise that if God wants your child to work for him in poverty overseas and die young, you'll support that?", except phrased better. I think that's where we should be at. Not saying I'm quite there though...

Conservative evangelicalism is so often just a subset of white middle class culture that we share all the rubbish of that culture too.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

"Confessional Anglicanism"

I was speaking at lunch today to the son of a foreign Anglican cleric, and he expressed the view that the majority of evangelical Anglicans were in his experience confessional Anglicans - they saw the 39 Articles as a confession of faith to which they subscribed.

Now I very much like the 39 Articles - they are great at repudiating the sorts of heresies that were common in England in the mid 16th century, which is what they were written for (though I disagree with one point in them - see below) and where Anglican polity conflicts with Roman Catholic or Methodist or Presbyterian or Baptist polity, I usually agree with the Anglicans. We also mentioned Roman Catholics, who often see it as a membership thing rather than a confessional thing - they are Catholics because they were brought up Catholics or were converted in a Catholic church and can remain part of the Catholic church without necessarily agreeing with all of its doctrines.

But I see my Anglican identity much more like that - as being a "membership Anglican" rather than a "confessional Anglican". The Church of England is the historic Church in England, as preserved by the grace of God essentially since Christianity first came to England. It doesn't require me to believe or do anything contrary to Scripture, so I think it would be wrong to leave it, and right to submit to it on secondary issues on which the Bible is silent (for example, who can preside at a communion service). I'm a membership Anglican and a confessional evangelical.

As for where I disagree with the 39 Articles...

Article VIII

The three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius' Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles' Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed; for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.

Of course, Athanasius didn't write the creed that bears his name, and it was never approved by a Church Council (unlike the Nicene Creed which was confusingly from the Council of Constantinople). Athanasius' Creed is actually theologically Augustinian rather than Athanasian, and while I agree with the substance of the creed and with everything in the main body of the creed, I don't agree with the prologue, which is still part of the Creed.

Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the Catholic Faith is this...

The Creed of St Athanasius

Now, I'd like to see someone try to prove that from Holy Scripture, with particular reference to the thief on the cross and for that matter any theologian before Augustine. Oh, and to show that holding an orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is more important than trusting Jesus.

"Rational Scepticism"

In deciding which passages he will accept, [the "rational skeptic"] proceeds on the a priori assumption that miracles can't happen. So he automatically writes off any Biblical account of a wondrous happening which suggests that there is an order of reality transcending the observable regularities of nature and occasionally breaking in upon them. Nor is rational skepticism content with jettisoning the Bible's miracle stories. It also dismisses other passages on the grounds that they reflect the ignorance and prejudice of a particular age, or the propaganda interests of the Church at a particular stage of its development. Its basic rule of Biblical interpretation is: "When in doubt, throw it out." And the highest scores in the game of radical reductionism are awarded to pedagogues who find the most novel and far-fetched reasons for doubting that any part of the Bible really means what it says.

Louis Cassels, Your Bible [1967]

hat tip to CQOD.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Mary and Princesses

It's Advent...

One of the things that has quite surprised me in getting to know people is the number of women with huge princess fascination complex things. I'd quite like to try to figure out why it happens - I think it's a wanting to feel valued and beautiful thing, but there's got to be more to it in some of the extreme cases I know.

One of my best friends here at college has a young daughter who is fascinated with princesses too (so it's not just 20 somethings). And he wisely tells her that she is a princess only because she is a daughter of God, the King of the Universe.

And this kind of strikes a resonance with the build-up to Christmas. In a lot of the art representing Mary, she's depicted as wearing blue. Originally, this was because that shade of blue could only be made from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, so it showed she was really important. In some, probably the majority in this selection, she is depicted as well-off, which she'd have to be to own blue clothes. In the picture above (the Annunciation by Conrad von Soest, 1403), she looks like a noblewoman, and that's quite common in the art of the period.

But that seems to me to be almost completely missing the point.

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you."

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."

Luke 1:26-33, NIV

All the evidence we've got points to Mary being a peasant girl. She's from Nazareth, which was a small village in a provincial backwater. But she's clearly a peasant girl who is really devoted to God, as seen from her response "May it be to me as you have said". She is a peasant girl, yet she is to become the mother of the King of Kings because she has found favour with God.

Mary is not a princess. She doesn't even come close. Except that she's a daughter of the Most High God. If you have to compare this to a fairy story, it's much more like Cinderella (with the very major difference that it's true) - God comes and takes a peasant girl and makes her the mother of his King.

It's scandalous really. And it's meant to be. And it shows that God gives hope and brings light not to the princesses of this world, but to the poor who seek him. As Mary's response shows, that's what God's always done.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Loving Homosexuals

There's an interesting article here. Most of it is fairly standard conservative evangelical stuff - going through the usual passages for homosexuality, without looking at it from the point of view of the theology of marriage, and missing the detailed reasons given for the destruction of Sodom, which don't explicitly mention homosexuality anyway.

Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.
Ezekiel 16:49-50, NIV

But what's remarkable is the ending, which it's great to see from a conservative evangelical.

The first is that Christians should be in the forefront of those who protest when homosexuals are treated unjustly. That is because love and injustice are incompatible. Whenever homosexual people are the object of snide humour on the television screen or harsh penalties in the law-courts, genuinely loving Christian people ought to be the first to stand up in their support. Any minority group which suffers discrimination should have full Christian backing in a struggle for their legal and moral rights.

My second suggestion is also a requirement, if biblical standards are to be kept. Those who accept the Bible’s veto on homosexual behaviour must go out of their way to express genuine love for homosexual people.

At least two important distinctions underlie this essential Christian requirement. In the first place, temptation is not the same as sin. Even if homosexual acts are wrong in God’s eyes, it is not sinful to be tempted to make love to someone of your own sex – unless, of course, you go on to perform the act mentally (see Matthew 5:27-28 where Jesus has heterosexuals in his sights). Heterosexual Christians who ostracise their homosexual neighbours simply because of the pattern of temptations they experience are very confused and very wrong.

It's just great seeing conservative evangelicals being clear about that... The media stereotype, which is true too often in my experience, is that we are sometimes genuinely homophobic rather than being clear that it's a sin just like sex before marriage and that we're all sinners in need of grace.

Paul and the Old Testament Law

I think I learnt to explain this more clearly this week...

On one hand, Paul clearly sees the obligation to obey the Law as having been abolished in Jesus (e.g Galatians 4:21-31). On the other hand, he clearly sees the Law as undergirding a lot of his arguments and his ideas about what is moral.

I think Colin Kruse summarises the situation well.

The Mosaic law was not their law, any more than the Mosaic covenant was their covenant. However, the OT in its entirety, including the law, was their Scripture, and that meant that it was useful for ‘teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’ (2 Tim. 3:16 NIV), as long as it was read paradigmatically and not applied literally.
New Dictionary of Biblical Theology

So the Law in the Old Testament isn't our Law, but it is still our Scripture. It can still tell us what sin is, for example, and what God is like and what people are like, but it isn't a Law that we have to obey. Paul's description of what Christians are to do to the Law isn't obedience - it's fulfilment.

1 Corinthians 10 is a great example of this. Paul can say all of the following things to a group of (largely) Gentiles:

  • The ancient Israelites are "our forefathers" v1
  • They drank from Christ v4
  • They are (counter-)examples for us v6, 11
  • The Bible was written for the Church v11
  • The fulfilment of the ages has come upon us v11.

We are not under the Law. But the Law is still our Scripture, and it still tells us what sin is, and we should not sin. It still tells us what God is like, and we should not disregard that.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Calvin - Sacraments

God did not establish the sacraments so that if men strove to keep them they would obtain some virtue which would count for righteousness. Rather, he did it so to teach them that they need to find righteousness in him.

...

What do I mean? Well, baptism teaches us that we are full of filth and corruption within. Why else do we wash hands, face and body, but because we desire to wash off the dirt? We are told that baptism is our washing; therefore it follows that when we come to be baptised, and when we bring our children, we are declaring that from the mother's womb our children are already lost and condemned....

Secondly, when we receive the Lord's Supper, what is it we are doing? Are we there to acquire some merit in God's eyes? No, we are there to confess that we are like dead men who have come to seek for life outside of ourselves. The flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ must be our meat, and his blood our drink, for in him we find all that we need. Thus, the sacraments should not make us swollen with vain pride, but they should make us walk in humility, so that, empty of pride, we only seek the provision that God has made out of his infinite bounty, and that he would bestow upon us the treasures of his grace according to our need.

John Calvin, Sermon on Galatians 2:14-16

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Images of Mohammed

Silly mess with Gillian Gibbons getting jailed for letting her class vote to call the teddy bear Mohammed. The whole thing raises far too many questions...

  • Was this the same Gillian Gibbons who was my form tutor when I was 11?
  • How does Islam cope with the huge inconsistency in not allowing images of people but allowing a) TV and b) retinas?
  • What would they do if we all named our teddy bears / dogs / pigs Mohammed? Not after the "prophet", of course, but after the child who suggested they name the teddy after him?
  • Is this finally going to make the Islamists look too stupid for words?
  • Do they have photo ID in Muslim countries?
  • How many teddies or equiv called Mohammed are there in Muslim countries? I'm guessing at least hundreds, if those kids were happy to call theirs Mohammed.
  • Isn't this the sort of thing that the army is for? Aren't British passports meant to help in this?

(NB - the picture on the right is a picture of Mohammed (the famous one), but it was made by a (Persian) Muslim in the 16th century, so it's probably ok). From Wikipedia.

O Holy Night

It's starting to be the Oxbridge Christmas season, due to stupidly early holidays and so on. But hey, it's nearly Advent in the real world. I've got some interesting stuff to write on Paul's understanding of law, but at the moment I've got too much work to write something sensible.

So here is a rendition of "O Holy Night"; one of the things that is pretty much guaranteed to get me laughing.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Wow - Botafumeiro

I saw this video this morning on the Bishop of Buckingham's Blog, and was somewhat amazed. It's at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela (supposed burial place of Jesus' brother, in Spain).

The physics is somewhat cool - it's a pendulum, and you can see the rope-pullers pulling in phase with the pendulum swing, hence adding in energy at a frequency which the pendulum can't lose easily, which means it swings more and more.

Plenty of other random thoughts too though:

  • health and safety... Apparently in 1499, it came off the rope and flew through a high window in the cathedral. But that's about the size and weight of a person - how much damage could it do if the rope broke? (Geeky note - the tension in the rope is highest at the bottom of the swing) Or if someone got in the way?
  • Distraction from the service - like anyone is going to be paying any attention to anything else...
  • How do the rope-pullers keep breathing with that much incense around them?
  • I'm really not a fan of applause in church
  • I think the whole thing seems to detract from the point of incense. As Catholic friends have explained it, incense is about emphasising God's transcendence through production of CO, impairment of vision, strong aromatic odour, etc. But all it would do in that context would be reminding you of how nifty and whatever the botafumey thing was.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Piper, the Prosperity Gospel, suffering and evangelism

Well, John Piper really really really doesn't like the prosperity "gospel"...

Shocking stuff. But it reopened the bit of my mind that had been mulling on the context of 1 Peter 3:15-16 for a while.

But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience
1 Peter 3:15-16, NIV

They're so often trotted out as the standard verses for evangelism, and so often we ask why evangelism in the West is so much harder than evangelism elsewhere, and we completely ignore the context of those verses.

But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. "Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened." But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. It is better, if it is God's will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.
1 Peter 3:14-18, NIV

The opportunities for real evangelism that are talked about in 1 Peter 3 are the opportunities that come from the way that we suffer for doing what is right. And by and large, the church in the West is not willing to suffer for doing what is right. And so we don't get the people asking us for the reason for the hope that we have in the same way. And so evangelism is so much harder.

I've only led two people who weren't already Christians to Christ. In one case, someone close to me was regularly attempting suicide. In the other, my gran had just died. Evangelism works through suffering.

(more stuff on why the Prosperity Gospel is wrong here)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Prosperity "Gospel"

A friend asked me for resources about why the so-called Prosperity "Gospel" is wrong.

Ben Witherington III, a noted New Testament scholar, tackles it here.

Mark Driscoll points out that Jesus's life refutes the prosperity "gospel".

Good News

Some good news for everyone this Christmas...

Except for the waistline that is, and for those struggling with food addictions. I honestly don't understand why we as a society treat food addictions any differently from alcohol or drug addictions, and yet we do. Or why gluttony is such an easily overlooked sin. Or, for that matter, why so much of the church seems to hold a neo-Platonist view of food that says that if it tastes nice it must be evil.

They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.
1 Timothy 4:3-5, NIV

So enjoy chocolate, but enjoy it responsibly!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Beowulf

One of the bizarre things about ratings is that violence or sex in animation doesn't attract the same ratings that it does if non-animated (with, I think, the exception of displaying genitals). The problems with this get greater and greater as animation gets better and better, as is hugely obvious in Beowulf.

How was this (12A) less gory or sexual than Apocalypto (18)? In my opinion, it was significantly more gory and more sexual. In Apocalypto, they don't show hearts being ripped out, only the before and after, but in Beowulf they do. There's blood splattered everywhere, people ripped in two, lots of corpses, far more nudity than in Apocalypto, etc. And the animation is so good that a lot of the time you can't tell that it is animation.

Having said that, the animation is still far from perfect when it comes to living bits of living things - I suspect they're only using a single layer technique for human skin for example, which needs multi-layer treatment to get it right, and the eyes aren't great either. Ditto with the horses, which didn't seem to run quite right, rats, etc.

The story is a retelling and a reworking of the Anglo-Saxon epic of the same name. It says something that every other retelling of the story got an R rating in the US, but this one sexed it up a lot, literally, and got a PG-13. It's basically a hero-kills-monsters type story, but with a significant twist, which is a change from the epic poem, and certainly makes a lot of characters a lot more ambiguous. As such stories go, it's done pretty well. Good if you like that sort of thing...

Some great questions that can come out of this about the nature of sin, why we give into it, the effects, etc. Christianity Today's review is good on that front.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Disinterested Good?

I wrote some background to this post here. Lots of bits of Greek philosophy have got picked up by Christians over the years, and it takes a long time to get rid of them. One of the bits which is still hanging on in there is the idea that if we're doing something because we enjoy it, then it can't be good.

So, for example, some people think that it's wrong to follow Jesus with the aim of going to heaven.

Compare that with the Biblical attitude:

By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh's daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.
Hebrews 11:24-26, NIV

The key to doing what is right isn't acting against our own interests - it's acting by faith. Faith is recognising that it is more in our interests to follow Jesus than not to.

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?
Mark 8:34-36, NIV

A major motivation the Bible gives for being a Christian is consistently self-interest. But it is a self interest that has faith, and sees that the only way to save our lives is to lose them, and that it does us no good to gain the world yet forfeit our souls.

And I know this is very Piper-esque, but that's because he's right on this.