Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Reformation Day!

the practice of extorting money or other property... by the use of threats
extortion (Wiktionary)

False Teachers, Misguided Ministers, etc

My last post raised a question that I was thinking about last night. ds asked a variant of it in the comments, and it turns out that Calvin addressed it a few weeks later in his preaching (can you guess one of the books I'm reading at the moment?).

Roughly put, the question is this: Given that most false teachers mean well, how can you tell the difference between a misguided minister (like Apollos was in my Acts 18 quote, and like I am sometimes too), a false teacher (boo, hiss), and a good minister?

The good minister / misguided minister distinction is the hardest, because people don't tend to be infallible, which means that many ministers may well be misguided in some respect. But the misguided / false distinction is easier to spot.

If we desire to be Christians, let us honour the Son of God by continuing to listen to his Word and obey it, even when we do not like what it says and when our natures find it unpalatable. Thus, when anyone comes to a sermon, above all else he should be ready to be rebuked when necessary, and he should realise that if he is not comforted by it, then it is to his profit... Let us all be willing to have our wounds scratched, as it were, and to be condemned, and to hear the opposite of what we would like to hear. This is how we should prepare ourselves to be good scholars under the Son of God, and to attribute to him his rightful mastry over us. We must work all the harder at this if we see that our natures are pushing us to do the opposite, for we are often blinded by self-love.

John Calvin, Sermon on Galatians 1:8-10

In other words, I think the observable difference is that a false teacher will carry on teaching stuff, even when confronted with the fact that Scripture teaches otherwise. A true minister, when misguided (as Apollos was) will be open to correction from Scripture, when done lovingly and appropriately.

The key difference then is whether they seek to follow what the Bible says, in which case they're ok, but they might be horribly misguided and / or not gifted for the job they are meant to be doing, or whether they seek to teach their own opinions, in which case they're a false teacher, even if their own opinions are fairly close to what I think the Bible says.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Calvin - Minsterial Selection

It's always nice to have one's own opinions reinforced, especially when it's by someone who really knows what they're talking about...

Above all, men should not arrogantly exalt themselves; they should be raised up and sent by God. He has this right as supreme Majesty. However, as I have already said, there must be sufficient evidence of a man's calling. We are to exercise discernment and not blindly accept it without due thought or consideration; for Satan's agents may constantly boast of their calling, whilst disguising their true characters, and thus deceitfully infiltrate the church. It is our duty to test all such, to see whether or not God has called them.

...

How can we know whether such people [bishops or prelates] are, indeed, pleasing to him? Well, firstly they need to have been appointed in a lawful way, accompanied by calling upon the name of God. Then, they need to have been selected because they possess the necessary gifts to exercise that office.... Therefore, those who wish to be known as bishops and prelates simply must teach. If they are nothing more than idols, or dumb dogs, we are obliged to reject and despise them, inasmuch as they shamefully mock God's name and profane his greatness.

John Calvin, Sermon on Galatians 1:1-2

I suspect I disagree with Calvin on the psychology of false ministers and teachers though. I know quite a few of them, and I genuinely think most of them mean well, which changes how we are to relate to them. I guess some of it is how Priscilla and Aquila dealt with Apollos in Acts 18:

Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.
Acts 18:24-26, NIV

I love that!

Monday, October 29, 2007

British Evangelical Postmodern Christian Thinkers

I was having a discussion last night with one of my readers, and he asked if I could think of any British evangelical postmodern Christian societal analysts / thinkers / preachers / evangelists, in the way that Mark Driscoll (for example) or David F Wells (in a very different way) are in the US.

I know quite a few people who I hope will be there in a few years - several training with me, for example. But the only person who is actually out there and doing stuff I could think of offhand was Krish Kandiah, who does seem gifted at that sort of thing. Anyone know of anyone else?

I guess some of it is that British evangelicalism is so modernist in style and everything. One classic example was Garry Williams' critique of Rowan Williams, which read to me like a modernist trying to critique a postmodernist without actually understanding postmodernism. Odd, since Garry Williams is a very bright chap, but there you go.

[I'll try to keep this paragraph updated with responses.] Names I've been given: Richard Tiplady, Mark Greene and Brian Draper, Graham Cray.

Random Video

(Warning - this video contains bad language)

Hat tip to Mark Meynell.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Hymns in Amos?

I've been reading Amos quite a bit over the last few days. One of the many interesting things about Amos is the way that sometimes he just breaks off from what he was saying and inserts a random bit about God that doesn't necessarily make good grammatical sense.

There's various theories for why it happens - some people think that a later editor just bunged in chunks of a hymn, which is actually a rubbish theory because we've got lots of evidence that if there were later editors, they were pretty skilled, and it doesn't explain why they bunged it there. And if they could explain why those bits of hymn or whatever were put there, there's then no reason why Amos couldn't have done it himself.

Another theory is that Amos is using the idea of divine titularies - sometimes in some other documents from that sort of area and time, there's an interjected bit just reminding people who is speaking - kind of like in the middle of a complex sentence vaguely about the king it would say "the King of Assyria, the one who conquered nations and crushed peoples" or something like that. That's a better idea, because it actually gives a reason why this might have happened.

Another one is linked to it. Sometimes when I'm talking about a topic close to one I'm excited about, I'll just interject a random bit of enthusing into the other stuff I'm saying. I think there may well be some of that going on too. It's about reminding the readers of who God is, which helps them get the surrounding stuff in the correct light. And maybe they used bits of a hymn or something to do that, and maybe they didn't.

I think we should do that more when talking about God...

Anyhow, here are the bits in question:

For behold, he who forms the mountains and creates the wind,
and declares to man what is his thought,
who makes the morning darkness,
and treads on the heights of the earth—
the LORD, the God of hosts, is his name!
Amos 4:13, ESV

He who made the Pleiades and Orion,
and turns deep darkness into the morning
and darkens the day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea
and pours them out on the surface of the earth,
the LORD is his name; who makes destruction flash forth against the strong,
so that destruction comes upon the fortress.
Amos 5:8-9, ESV

The Lord GOD of hosts,he who touches the earth and it melts,
and all who dwell in it mourn,
and all of it rises like the Nile,
and sinks again, like the Nile of Egypt;
who builds his upper chambers in the heavens
and founds his vault upon the earth;
who calls for the waters of the sea
and pours them out upon the surface of the earth—
the LORD is his name.
Amos 9:5-6, ESV

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Abortion (again)

Just noticed this excellent piece by Charles Moore in the Telegraph. Some quotes...

It is not hard to imagine how a future Museum of London exhibition about abortion could go. It could buy up a 20th-century hospital building as its space, and take visitors round, showing them how, in one ward, staff were trying to save the lives of premature babies while, in the next, they were killing them.

...

If you want to do people wrong, you must first undermine the idea that they are people. The Nazis called Jews rats. The Hutu in Rwanda called the Tutsis cockroaches. Pseudo-Darwinian views promoted ideas about racial purity or mental or physical health which allowed those who lacked these qualities to be seen as "inferior stock".

There's also this piece by the (very English) Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor. As I've said before, I think abortion is the most important political issue, and if the left-leaning parties or newspapers want my business or votes, they shouldn't let anti-abortion campaigning be mainly the preserve of right-wingers.

Acceptable Racism?

Controversial thought:

Forms of racism that are seen as perfectly acceptable in England today are anti-Americanism, anti-Scouse-ism and Muslim anti-Semitism.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Icons

I don't like labels when they become an excuse for rejecting other people and their views without thinking about them, which they often are. But sometimes labels are useful because they identify certain common characteristics. For example, my background is strongly conservative evangelical, and us conservative evangelicals are just about starting to realise that we don't have to overreact against what some Roman Catholics believed in the 1500s any more.

One of the aspects of old Roman Catholic culture that we reacted strongly against was the use of images - it's pretty clear that some of what they did went much too far towards idolatry, and it's also pretty clear that some of the response has led to some evangelicals being more theoretical and anti-visual than Jesus (for example) was.

One thing that struck me when I started discussing the issue of icons with Orthodox people was that some of their justifications seemed fine. For example, it is obvious that in Christian doctrine, Jesus is God, and Jesus was visible. Therefore, if someone had taken a photo of Jesus, the result would be an accurate (but by no means exhaustive) picture of God. (It's just as well no-one did, otherwise we'd probably be worshipping the picture or anyone who looked vaguely like it.) And then you get to thinking about interesting questions such as "What does the Incarnation mean for the prohibition of images?"

You also get use of icons which seems to be quite similar to the later Western phenomenon of Christian biography - icons as a kind of devotional biography for a non-literate culture, leading to a focus on God because of the life of the saint involved.

Of course, there's plenty of unhelpful stuff associated with icons too. For example, the icon pictured is Rublev's famous icon of the Trinity. It's meant to have all kinds of deep significance. But to my (horribly uncultured) mind, its main significance is that it makes the Trinity look like three women with dodgy necks. That suggests that maybe Rublev had been reading too much Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory of Nyssa was a famous theologian and bishop in the late 300s AD, who argued that the reason his understanding of the Trinity didn't imply that there were three gods was that actually it was incorrect to say "three men" because all men had the same essence.

In other words, I am asserting that Rublev emphasises the threeness too much at the expense of the oneness of the Trinity, and that for me at least that makes it difficult to appreciate the other clever bits of significance in the icon. [It's worth adding of course that lots of people can and do find Rublev's icon helpful, but the use of imagery often introduces unwanted ambiguities, which some people then see as the main point.]

Taking the other side for a moment, consider this argument. If in your church, over on a side wall, there was a little photo of Jim Elliot, (or Luther, or Calvin) with a five line biography underneath and something saying "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose", (or equivalent), with no candles or kneeling or kissing or anything, would you think that was potentially helpful? Probably, yes. Would I see anything objectionable in it? Probably not, no. Certainly as a kid, I'd have found it interesting and thought provoking.

If you accept the Jim Elliot / Luther / Calvin example, the issue over use of images isn't a black-and-white one. Instead it's a question of how best to use images in worship. How do we work with a heavily visual culture, avoiding the danger that says that God isn't concerned with the physical, yet at the same time avoid the danger of idolatry? That's a better question...

Babel

What a remarkable film...

The film follows four groups of people - a Moroccan goat farmer and his family, some tourists in Morocco, the children and nanny of two of the American tourists, and some female deaf-mute volleyball players in Japan. None of the groups meet each other during the film, and their interwoven stories are connected by one event, which is very much the pivotal event in two of them, but is only more remotely causative in the other two. All four stories are sad; all four are interesting in their own right; some find better resolutions than others. There are common themes of self-sacrifice and growing up and abandonment.

The film deserves at least its 15 rating. There's violence, including against children. There's drug taking and strong sexual references. There's full female nudity, though it's more tragic than sexual.

But if you can cope with that, this is a well-made film that really makes you think.

Why Muslims Become Christians

This piece is well worth a read...

Thursday, October 25, 2007

More Books

Esther and Ruth - Reformed Expository Commentary, Iain Duguid

This is more like a book of sermons than a commentary per se. The series is meant to be written by "pastor-scholars", and each chapter is meant to be preached before publication.

Given that, it's pretty good. The sermons are Christocentric (though sometimes that's a bit forced), well thought through and good - the sort of thing that is accessible to intellectuals and non-intellectuals. The application probably isn't worked through as much as I would, but that's largely because books like this are aimed at everyone, not just at one specific group of people.

I wouldn't want this as a main reference work for preaching through a book, but I've found it useful working through the book of Esther devotionally, and I'd find it helpful for ideas for preaching through the book.

What Christ Thinks of the Church - John Stott

John Stott, preaching through the letters to the churches in Revelation 2-3. It's Stott on reasonably good form, not Stott on stunning form, but it's well worth a read.

Oh yes, and it's worth mentioning that my list of commentary recommendations is getting fuller...

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

'Korean' Prayer

This is about the phenomenon of so-called Korean prayer, which I think is a big and potentially very divisive issue.

What is it?

Basically put, it's everyone praying in their own words out loud at the same time. Sometimes they'll all be praying about the same topic, sometimes it'll be split so some are praying about one thing, some another.

Why 'Korean'?

Allegedly, it started in the Assemblies of God churches in Korea. It certainly wasn't used at the presbyterian service I went to while I was there, so it's probably unfair to tarnish a whole nation because of the practices of one group. Oddly, the Assemblies of God is something I used to be pretty much convinced was some kind of cult, but now lots of people I know seem to think is perfectly respectable...

Why is it controversial?

Charismatic-y types seem to be very keen on it, yet to be completely oblivious to the fact that conservative types find it unhelpful and offensive.

This means that 'Korean' prayer leads to conservatives thinking that charismatics care more about being entertaining than they do about faithfulness to Scripture, which isn't always true by any means (though it may be in this case), and is a very unhealthy thing to think for church unity.

What is the problem with it?

On a practical and personal level, I have to concentrate so hard on not listening to what the person / people next to me are saying that I can't concentrate on saying anything of my own. Sometimes I manage to say the Gloria in Excelsis though...

On a doctrinal level, conservatives tend to argue that it's banned by 1 Corinthians 14:26-33 -

What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.
1 Corinthians 14:26-33, ESV

Although it doesn't specifically address the practice of 'Korean' prayer, it does say that both speaking in tongues and prophecy should be practiced in an orderly way, with each speaking in turn, and when one person starts speaking, other people should be silent. Furthermore, it argues this from the nature of God, which makes it look awfully like it applies just as much to praying.

So why do charismatics do it?

When I ask charismatics about it, many of them haven't really thought about it. Others argue that 1 Corinthians 14 doesn't apply to praying and that the way that Korean prayer is done is orderly, which looks to me like it ignores Paul's argument from God's character, but seems to satisfy them.

They also cite Acts 4:24

And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said...
Acts 4:24, ESV

I suspect it's also because sometimes it's difficult to concentrate when it's just one person, who isn't me, praying out loud - it's a kind of entertainment thing.

So what do I make of Acts 4:24
  • Acts is descriptive, not normative
  • Even if this bit is descriptive, the Greek word translated "together", homothumadon, means "with one mind", "with common consent", "together". It doesn't imply them all speaking at the same time.
  • Even if they does mean all at the same time, in Acts 4:24, it goes on to say exactly what they said when "lifting their voices together" - that suggests it's more of a liturgical thing than anything else.
Conclusion

I think that 'Korean' prayer probably is wrong to do in church, because it looks like it is prohibited by 1 Corinthians 14, and the arguments for it are pretty rubbish. It is especially inappropriate in a service which is aimed at building bridges between conservatives and charismatics (for example).

However, if a church wants to do it that way, no-one objects, and the leaders involved have thought and prayed through the passages, and come to the honest conclusion that it's ok, I'm not going to object.

Cartoon from Cartoon Church.com

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Luther - the Way of Salvation

The true way of salvation is this. First, a person must realize that he is a sinner, the kind of a sinner who is congenitally unable to do any good thing. "Whatsoever is not of faith, is sin." Those who seek to earn the grace of God by their own efforts are trying to please God with sins. They mock God, and provoke His anger. The first step on the way to salvation is to repent.

The second part is this. God sent His only-begotten Son into the world that we may live through His merit. He was crucified and killed for us. By sacrificing His Son for us God revealed Himself to us as a merciful Father who donates remission of sins, righteousness, and life everlasting for Christ's sake. God hands out His gifts freely unto all men. That is the praise and glory of His mercy.

...

We say, faith apprehends Jesus Christ. Christian faith is not an inactive quality in the heart. If it is true faith it will surely take Christ for its object. Christ, apprehended by faith and dwelling in the heart, constitutes Christian righteousness, for which God gives eternal life.

Martin Luther, Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians

Monday, October 22, 2007

Calvin - Freedom in Our Souls

As long as we remain unsure of whether God loves us or hates us, we will always experience mental anguish and a worried conscience, and we will remain imprisoned by these thoughts. There will be no freedom in our souls until we are persuaded of God's mercy, that, despite our unworthiness, he will receive us lovingly and graciously. Yet, it is impossible to have such assurance unless we have before our eyes the pardon that was bought for us by the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
John Calvin, Sermon on Galatians 5:1-3

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Covenantal Nomism, or Are We Really Christians?

This is partly trying to get things clear in my own mind. I think an awful lot of people I respect greatly and often trust to get things right are very wrong on this, so I need to treat very carefully...

Here's the theory of covenantal nomism, as taught by theologian Gabriel Biel:

  • God made a covenant - a deal - with his people in Jesus
  • The deal was that he would save them, and that they had to obey him as well as they could.
  • God then graciously agrees to count people who have done as well as they could, even though they aren't perfect, as if they had done enough.

It's worth adding that Gabriel Biel was a German theologian who died in 1495, and his view of covenantal nomism would probably have been one of the main bits of theology taught to a young Martin Luther, which Luther then rejected.

It's also been argued that covenantal nomism (apart from the covenant being made through Jesus bit) was the belief of many Jews at the time of Jesus, which Jesus and Paul rejected. Actually, that's what the phrase usually means - I've just nicked it for Biel because it fits his views so well.

So far, so good, I guess. But the point is that I can't tell the difference between covenantal nomism and this:

  • God has made a covenant with his people in Jesus
  • The deal was that if people will obey Jesus and submit to him as their Saviour and Lord, he will forgive them.

Or even this...

  • We have made a covenant with God, where he saves us, and we agree to follow him.
  • Sometimes we break that covenant, and we then need to renew it. Confession and covenant renewal services are a good way of doing this.

That last one in particular sounds like a lot of things I've heard and come across as a Christian. My view, which I think Luther shared, and I'm fairly sure is what Galatians (for example) teaches is this:

  • God chooses to reveal himself to some people and to save them.
  • God gives them his Holy Spirit, which leads them increasingly to obey him
  • We cannot keep our side of whatever bargain, deal, or covenant there is, so it's just as well there is no side we have to keep. God's new covenant in Jesus' blood is completely one-sided.
  • Having been completely set free from any requirement to do anything, we should use our freedom to live in the way of God's Spirit.

Now, to my mind, that looks completely different to all the covenant renewal stuff and conditional covenants and requirements for church membership other than faith in Jesus stuff.

One thing that really worries me about this, is that if I'm right, the "fault line" goes right down the middle of evangelicalism, and most people seem completely unaware of it. I've been to covenant renewal services at both my sending church and my theological college where what was being said and taught was effectively covenantal nomism rather than free grace.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
Galatians 5:1, NIV

You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.
Galatians 5:13, NIV

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Site Redesign (again)

The last design wasn't especially popular, and only 1% or so of visitors were using monitors less than 1024x768, so I figured it was time for a redesign. Let me know what you think...

Bill Hybels - change of mind?

Hybels confesses:

We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.

In other words, spiritual growth doesn’t happen best by becoming dependent on elaborate church programs but through the age old spiritual practices of prayer, bible reading, and relationships. And, ironically, these basic disciplines do not require multi-million dollar facilities and hundreds of staff to manage.

from here

Friday, October 19, 2007

Climate Change, Global Warming, etc.

I used to be a physicist. I even used to be pretty good at Physics. I sometimes therefore get asked my opinion on climate change. This is roughly it.

One of the more difficult bits of physics is the study of complex systems, of which global climate is undoubtedly one - in fact a lot of the field was invented as a result of research by a weather forecaster called Lorenz, who found that if he changed the numbers he put into his computer simulation very very slightly, it gave a big difference in the results, which was famously explained as a butterfly flapping its wings in Asia being able to affect the course of a hurricane in the Atlantic. (The impression I get is that modern weather forecasting still hasn't really caught up with it - what they should do is put in a range of different scenarios which fit the available data, parallel process them and then come out with statistical results like "70% chance of rain" and not claim to know the shape of the clouds or whatever. My friend Chris, who is a weather forecaster, may of course correct me on this...). Basically, the upshot is that if anyone says they know what is going to happen with the weather, they're way too confident.

Anyhow, one shape that keeps coming up in the study of complex systems is the Lorenz Attractor. Basically, it seems to be good at describing how these systems work, and it's a pretty good guess to say that the global weather system will follow some kind of multi-dimensional Lorenz attractor. Features of the Lorenz Attractor are roughly as follows:

  • Generally, systems appear to stay stable
  • Every so often, but it's pretty much impossible to predict when, the system will "flip" to a different sort of stable. This flipping might take a long time, or it might be quite quick. In very complex systems, like global weather, they may be a very large number of different possible fairly stable states, so it's almost impossible to predict exactly what it will flip to.
  • A slight change in initial conditions can make a big difference to how long a system takes to flip, or which direction it flips in.

We can apply this to the global climate:

  • The global climate appears to have been fairly stable over the last 100 years or so
  • It appears to be less stable now
  • Over the last 150 years, we have put large quantities of carbon dioxide, heat, etc into the atmosphere.
  • If the climate is flipping now, it is impossible to say for sure whether it is due to human activity, but it seems likely that human activity is at least a factor.
  • We can't know precisely what the global climate will flip to
  • We're used to the climate the way it was. Cities are built assuming the shoreline is where it was, agriculture assumes the climate was the way it was, etc. Any big change in climate is therefore going to be very disruptive and cause a lot of suffering, especially to the poor, because they're always the ones who get it.
  • Because it is virtually impossible to do accurate long term predictions, it is very difficult to know exactly what to do about it. Would reducing the carbon dioxide emissions stop the current changes? If anyone says they know the answer to that one, they're far too confident.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

100 Truths

Dan Edelen celebrates 30 years of being a Christian by posting 100 important truths he's learnt. They really are worth a read through, and stopping to think about some of them. It's really encouraging, helpful and edifying to have older Christians share important things they've learnt on the way. I wish I had even more of it!

Dale Ralph Davis - One Last Time

Yesterday, I finally finished working my way through Dale Ralph Davis's excellent series of books on Joshua - 2 Kings. They've been really great for helping me read and pay attention to the Bible in my own personal reading; a great source of ideas, and would be the first book I'd look at (after the Bible, of course) if I was meant to be preaching on any of that.

I don't agree with Dr Davis on everything, and I think there are some important things he missed but serious respect to him for this series. It's one of the most useful tools I know of for helping people read and preach the Old Testament.

Here are some of my posts inspired by him:

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

NT Prophecy

All may agree that there is no new revelation to be expected concerning God in Christ, the way of salvation, the principles of the Christian life, etc. But there appears to be no good reason why the living God, who both speaks and acts (in contrast to the dead idols), cannot use the gift of prophecy to give particular local guidance to a church, nation or individual, or to warn or encourage by way of prediction as well as by reminders, in full accord with the written word of Scripture, by which all such utterances must be tested. Certainly the NT does not see it as the job of the prophet to be a doctrinal innovator, but to deliver the word the Spirit gives him in line with the truth once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3), to challenge and encourage our faith.

JPBaker, writing in The New Bible Dictionary

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Car Parks

Why it is a bad idea to have lime trees in a car park:

Not my car, of course, but I feel sorry for the owner.

Jensen - Satisfaction

I hardly think that a population prepared to be entertained by television can as yet judge what will truly enthral and satisfy the human spirit.
Peter Jensen, At the Heart of the Universe

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Stott - truth and love

Love becomes sentimental if it is not strengthened by truth, and truth becomes hard if it is not softened by love.
John Stott, What Christ Thinks of the Church

Friday, October 12, 2007

Criticising Bible Translations

I don't actually like criticising Bible translations, for the simple reason that it dents people's confidence in reading the Bible, and makes them think they should learn Greek or something.

It's therefore worth saying that something like the NIV (probably the most common translation today) is at least 99% accurate to what the original says; I just get disproportionately annoyed about the 1% because I'm a bit of a perfectionist by inclination and Bible translation is really important.

Here also are my recommendations for Bible translations:

  • Bible translation I'm most used to: NIV
  • Translations I use for my own reading: ESV, Nick King's translation
  • Translations I consult when studying a passage: ESV, NKJV, NASB, Nick King
  • Translations I've preached from: NIV, TNIV, NRSV, GNB
  • Translation I'd choose for a church: ESV if there's a fairly high level of literacy; NLT is there isn't, maybe NIV if in the middle...
  • Best gender-inclusive translation: NLT, because it's the only one I can find that doesn't mess up Hebrews 2 (it translates Ps 8 differently in Psalms and when quoted in Hebrews, but footnotes the "son of man" translation in Psalms)
  • Best translation for keeping poetry sounding poetic: NIV, NKJV

Couple of Links

Interesting things from my wider reading:

Al Mohler posts a good piece on the importance of expository preaching compared to addressing perceived needs

Abu Daoud passes on some "wisdom" from an Islamic cleric about when consent is needed for marriage (except this is the consent of the bride)

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Quote - Deutsch on Homeopathy

As I understand it, the claim is that the less you use Homeopathy, the better it works. Sounds plausible to me.
David Deutsch

NIV Sucks Again - Romans 8:5-9

Last night, I was meant to be writing a Bible study on Romans 8:5-17, for a not-especially-educated group using the NIV. Here's the NIV of verses 5-9:

Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; 7the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. 8Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. 9You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.

And I couldn't understand the passage. My problem was roughly as follows:

  • All Christians have the Spirit (v9)
  • Everyone who has the Spirit is controlled by the Spirit (v9)
  • Therefore all Christians are controlled by the Spirit.
  • But I sin, and I know the people in the group I'm meant to be leading sin too. And Paul does too (Romans 7).
  • That suggests we aren't controlled by the Spirit, and therefore aren't Christians. And neither is Paul.

My last-night solution was to hold 8v9 in tension with chapter 7 and try to believe that both were true, then look for a resolution.

But today I looked at the Greek, and realised quite how badly the NIV has mangled the passage, not only to insert the word "controlled" out of nowhere, but also to hide all the "in God" / "in the flesh" language, which is a hugely important metaphor-thing.

Nick King's translation is much much better, but also copyrighted. Here's My Literal Translation of v5-9:

5 For those who are according to the flesh think things of the flesh, but those according to the Spirit [think] the things of the Spirit. 6 For the thought of the flesh is death, but the thought of the Spirit is life and peace. 7 Because the thought of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not keep the law of God, for it can't. 8 Those who are in the flesh can't please God. 9 But we are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if the Spirit of God dwells in us. If someone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not [Christ's].

Much better (if a bit clunky), much easier to fit together with chapter 7, much closer to the genuine Christian experience - the emphasis is on our status (being in the Spirit or in the flesh) rather than our actions, which are less dependable, as highlighted in Romans 7, which are being conformed to our status and for the time being, we groan with the tension (8v23) as we wait for the redemption of our bodies, which are now bodies of death (7v24), whose deeds we are to put to death in the present (8v13). So why does the NIV get it so wrong? And why doesn't the TNIV correct the NIV's mistakes?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Stoughton - conflict between Christians

'It is amongst the mysteries of Divine Providence, that holy men in this life have to suffer sometimes in a cause which, although by themselves accounted good, is by brethren, equally honest, branded as evil; and that thus there comes to be in ecclesiastical conflicts, so much pain, at once conscientiously inflicted, and conscientiously endured. No calm thinker can fail to discern the anomaly; and no loving heart but must long for that blessed future, when the fruits of such strange discipline will be reaped by souls now divided on earth, but who will then be united in Heaven amidst the purest charity and the humblest joy.'
John Stoughton, 1867

Some things don't change...

(And thanks to Su for the quote)

Sometimes the scenery looks like this (my current desktop background). And when it does, the best thing to do is to keep on walking.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Adverts

I don't normally mind adverts on the web, as long as they aren't pop-ups or pop-overs, because I'm good at ignoring them. Some of that is because I tend to use add-ons to Firefox that remove them or require permission for flash to work or stuff, and some of it is because I'm generally fairly good at visual filtering after the initial distraction.

I tend to figure that if sites make money from adverts, that's fine, because it's essentially getting the people stupid enough to click on the adverts to pay for everyone else to use it. Kind of like the National Lottery functioning as a tax on greed. And yes, I know that wasn't what it claimed to be when it was set up. Sometimes the adverts are even for things that are useful or interesting, rather than playing games to dress up fake dolls which probably charge you for the privilege.

But then this page argues that adverts selectively target the poor and so on, which really got me thinking. What does it mean for me to love people who are greedy and stupid enough to play the lottery? What does it mean for me to love the kind of people who buy so much stuff via internet ads that they make the ads worthwhile? Should a Christian approach be to remove them from harm, or should it be to leave them to get harmed, then help them recover in the hope that they will learn? I'm honestly not sure now.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Why So Little Prayer?

As I have been thinking over the last few days, it seems to me that we are currently raising up a generation of spiritual pygmies - a generation who think that ten minutes in silence on their knees in prayer is a long time. Where are the prayer warriors of the future? Why is it that so many of the books on preaching speak so little about the critical importance of prayer for understanding and applying a passage? Why is it that we look back on the saints of old who spent two hours a day in prayer and think them strange? Why is it that the more I think about this, the more I realise not only how immature I am, but how few good role models there are?

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Charismaticism

I said I'd write this a few days ago. It's probably worth saying a bit about myself by way of introduction. I don't tend to describe myself as a charismatic, though I know I've been given gifts which I don't deserve(the word "charismata" means "things of grace" - "things we don't deserve"). On the other hand, I know a lot of charismatics; I'm at college with a good number of them, and some of the most influential people in my past have been charismatics. I've been to charismatic churches; I've sat down and chatted through a lot of the issues with quite a few different charismatic-type people over the years. I am aware that a lot of the difference between people who are more comfortable at charismatic churches and people who are comfortable at more conservative churches are actually down to temperament.

Given all of that, and given some of the situations I find myself in at the moment and from time to time, I think it would be helpful for me, and maybe at least thought-provoking for others, for me to note down some of the strengths and weaknesses that I see in modern charismaticism. Not all charismatics or charismatic churches will have all of these strengths or weaknesses. And I'm comparing them to a semi-straw man position of some very conservative evangelicals, because I think the contrast highlights some important things.

It's worth adding that I don't think the conservative / charismatic divide should exist, but it does. In some areas, the conservatives are right, and in others the charismatics are. I think the divide is largely perpetuated by both sides being too scared of the other's faults to embrace their strengths.

Strength 1 – Emotions

Emotions are an essential part of the Christian life. Our response to God is certainly meant to be more than emotional, but not less. If we do not get excited about what God has done for us, chances are there is something wrong. So when we praise God and when we preach God, our emotions should be involved. Conservatives sometimes make the mistake of forgetting that. Charismatics don't seem to.

Strength 2 – Singing

That's especially true with reference to singing. Music is a great way of expressing emotion, and it's one we are regularly encouraged to use in the Bible. We are meant to sing to God, to shout to God and to be joyful. There is a difference between singing and just saying long lists of propositions unenthusiastically, and there should be.

Strength 3 – Expecting more from God

I think at times it is too easy for conservatives to forget, or act like we've forgotten, that the Holy Spirit lives in us. I would expect the Holy Spirit living in us to make a difference to our lives. If God wants to speak to us directly, he can do. I don't see why the Old Testament prophets' experience of God speaking to them shouldn't be possible today, nor why it should be recorded in Scripture if it was not in some sense expected or useful for us. That doesn't mean that I think that God speaks today in the same way that he spoke in Scripture. It doesn't mean that our discernment of when it is God speaking and when it's just our urges is perfect, or that we should claim what we think God is saying to us to be binding on others, and of course what God says today does not conflict with what he said in the past.

Nor does it mean that everyone hears God speaking. Lots of characters in the Bible don't – many simply use wisdom and cope with what they already know, and there's nothing wrong with that. But God does speak, and he does act.

Weakness 1 – Encounter Theology

”Worship” (i.e. singing, etc.) in charismatic churches is often seen as primarily about enabling an encounter between the individual and Christ. This “encounter” seems to be a way of describing a trance-like state where the individual is particularly aware of God and not distracted by other concerns.

I think the concern for an encounter with Christ is right, but I think that to identify it with a trance-like state is decidedly unproven. Where encounter theology is dominant, there doesn't seem to be much control exercised to distinguish what may be a genuine encounter from what is essentially emotional masturbation.

Weakness 2 – Preaching as Self-Help

Strikingly, one of the places where I would expect to encounter Jesus is a service is in the faithful, passionate and applied exposition of God's word. But all too often in charismatic churches, this seems to be primarily about self-help rather than encountering Christ in his word. Where expository preaching is not the norm, or where sermons often consist of “five tips in managing your finances”, it suggests firstly that too little is expected of God speaking through the Bible and secondly that there is too little expectation of the congregation growing spiritually. I find it difficult to describe such churches as “evangelical”.

Weakness 3 – Discernment

Linked to this, it also seems much more unusual for charismatic churches to exhibit proper discernment over what is Biblical and what isn't. It is much less likely, for example, to question the theology underlying a new phenomenon. Much more likely is simply to observe that people enjoy it or say they find it helpful and to accept it uncritically.

Weakness 4 – Entertainment

I suspect that this may well be the fundamental root of the other three weaknesses, and it makes sense because this is a major feature of our culture, so it is plausible that it should have infiltrated the church.

When Christians meeting together is thought to be about entertainment, when what people find boring gets dropped, whether it is expository preaching by a rubbish preacher or quiet intercessory prayer, then entertainment seems to have become dominant. I know that as I have grown as a Christian, I appreciate time spent in quiet in prayer, or praying with others more and more. Yet the tendency among some charismatics is to make prayer more and more entertaining, for example by getting people talking at once and not spending more than a minute praying about anything, then claiming that God is doing a new thing though them.

Ditto with seeing the purpose of worship as entertainment, to be done professionally and well, and the consequent elevation of the successful entertainer / worship leader.

Praising God is not meant to be about entertainment. Of course it is not meant to be boring, but the excitement is meant to come from knowing God better, from loving him and from being in relationship with him rather than from changing what we are doing every 30 seconds or from loud music or music-induced trance-like states or novelty items or whatever.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Game Theory and Confessionalisation

In one of my exams yesterday, I had prepared for (well, kinda) and expected a question on Calvin because there had been one on every single past paper. But there wasn't, so I ended up blagging about confessionalisation from the point of view of game theory. This is a tidied up and shortened version of what I said...

Confessionalisation was a big feature of the Reformation, after the start. In 1528 (for example), there were lots and lots of different groups all across Europe, and all believing different things. You could go to London or Amsterdam or Munich or Venice and find lots of people who believed lots of different things. By 1650, that wasn't possible in the same way any more. The number of beliefs held had greatly decreased, and each region was much more homogenous.

I argued that it was an inevitable consequence of the view that religion could be legislated, and that different states could have different beliefs - the policy known as cuius regio, eius religio (each region, its own religion). If we assume (as a simplification) that there is only one issue, and it can be represented by your position on a line, then we have the following picture.

Points A and B represent the religious positions of two rulers, who are not on friendly terms. Ruler A will therefore suspect anyone to the right of him of being a sympathiser with B - they all appear to him to be in the same direction, so he will persecute everyone to his right. Ruler B, likewise, will persecute everyone to his left. This will lead to a polarisation of the centre - if they remain in the centre, they will be attacked by both the right and the left; the pressure on them greatly reduces whichever direction they travel in. Therefore the centre will largely disappear.

The second stage is that of consolidation. In this, the fairly large number of early positions consolidate over a long period of time into fewer positions. This is largely due to the influences of education, particularly of ministers and rulers, and the production of literature. If one fairly homogenous group produces large quantities of literature which become available in other areas, or if they have training facilities with such a good reputation that they attract people not just from within the group but from similar groups, they are likely to win "converts" to their cause, and to grow at the expense of those other groups. And the larger they get, the more significant this effect is. This is largely what happened with Calvinism. Due largely to better publishing and writing, and better training facilities (as well as better systematic theology and God blessing them), Calvinism grew rapidly at the expense of most of the other Protestant groupings, to the extent that the only major Protestant groups left by 1650 were Calvinists, Lutherans and Anglicans.

Of course, I simplify hugely. But it seems to work fairly well for a first order model. Apparently, though, historians aren't overly fond of this sort of thing, and I haven't heard of many people applying even very simple game theory like this to history... Never mind, it was a fun sort of idea, and I'm still a physicist in my methodology.

Glanvill - Love

they that love one another for their opinionative concurrence, love for their own sakes, not their Lord's.
Joseph Glanvill (1636-1680)

hat tip to CQOD

Friday, October 05, 2007

Another Cartoon

This one had me laughing for a while.... What that says about me, I'm not quite sure.

Church or Football?

From Dave's Cartoon Church Blog.

Get in there. I really ought at some stage to discuss my odd attitude to charismaticism, which seems to be polarising both towards and against. But I've got exams today, so I won't.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

TNIV - Worst Bit Ever

The other day, I came across what I suspect is probably the worst-translated bit of the TNIV. Whoever translated this one should probably be shot or something.

Hebrews 1 is all about Jesus and how much greater than angels he is. The author continues into Hebrews 2...

5Now it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. 6It has been testified somewhere,

"What is man, that you are mindful of him,
or the son of man, that you care for him?
7You made him for a little while lower than the angels;
you have crowned him with glory and honor,
8putting everything in subjection under his feet."

Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. 9But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

Hebrews 2:5-9, ESV

That was the ESV, which is a pretty good translation. It's talking about Jesus, saying that the world to come will be subject to him; we don't see that yet, but we do see him crowned with glory and honour.

Now here's the TNIV, same passage:

It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. 6 But there is a place where someone has testified:

"What are mere mortals that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
7 You made them a little lower than the angels;
you crowned them with glory and honor
8 and put everything under their feet."

In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. 9 But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

Hebrews 2:5-9, TNIV

I understand why they've done it, but it is really really stupid. It's because of two bits of translation philosophy, both of which they've mucked up big time.

The first is the idea of gender neutrality. If the original word translates as "person" rather than "man", they've tried to keep it gender-neutral in English. One problem with this is that they often do it by pluralisation rather than just using "they" as a third person singular pronoun, which is what modern English does. So in the quote from Psalm 8, the "Son of Man" has become "human beings".

The second is that where the OT is ambiguous, they don't allow the NT to influence translation choices, or they didn't in this case. So Psalm 8, treated without Hebrews, could be about people generally, or it could be about the Messiah. I've argued briefly that Psalm 8 should be understood as Messianic, even without the New Testament. But interpreting it as about people generally is not the Christian way to understand the Bible (I argue that from Patristics here). As Christians, we know it's about Jesus. So where there's two possible translations of the OT, and the NT makes one of them more plausible (as "Son of Man" in Psalm 8), then that's the one we should use.

Even given those, a better translation of Psalm 8 would be "What is a human that you are mindful of them, the mortal one that you care for them?" (with "Son of Man" footnoted as an alternative) Even then, Hebrews 2 could appear to be talking about Jesus rather than going off on what looks like a bizarre tangent about the authority of people that isn't anywhere in the original. The author of Hebrews thought that Psalm 8 was about Jesus. I'm not going to argue with them. But the translators of the TNIV seem to want to...

The translation of Hebrews 2 and Psalm 8 in the TNIV is not a Christian translation. (Oh, the NRSV does it too.)

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Candles

Candles are great for helping people to relax and for helping people achieve ecstatic experiences (trances, etc).

I reckon it's because of all the carbon monoxide they produce.

 

Seriously, the yellow flame means there's incomplete combustion of carbon, producing carbon monoxide, which latches onto red blood cells, preventing them from carrying oxygen to the brain. Complete combustion gives a blue flame, producing carbon dioxide.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Photo of the Day

from the BBC

Psalm 90

Here's the audio of a short sermon I preached in chapel here this morning. Here's Psalm 90, which I was preaching on.

Or download it from here.

If you'd rather read the sermon, let me know and I can put the text up here too.