Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Yet More Wordle

Continuing on from my last post, here are some more Wordle images from the text of the ESV translation of the Bible. I'm using the ESV because it's fairly literal - so it gives you a good idea of what the underlying words are in Hebrew and Greek. Although I'd rather use a translation which is gender-neutral when the underlying text is gender-neutral, the ESV is much more readily available in electronic format than the NRSV.

Anyway, here's a Wordle image for the gospels:

And here's Paul's letters:

Here's one for the rest of the New Testament:

Which can be subdivided into the General Letters:

And Revelation:

Here's one for the whole NT:

Sunday, December 27, 2009

More Wordle Images

I've spent a bit of time today tinkering with Wordle, as previously featured here. Here are some of the results - all were created using Wordle, all use the ESV.

The Pentateuch:

The "historical books" (Western classification rather than Hebrew one):

Wisdom literature:

Prophets (Western classification):

And here's the whole Old Testament:

Saturday, December 26, 2009

"Man flu" and sexism

I'm genuinely happy that TV ads which are sexist against women aren't allowed any more. But it still seems ok to do ads which are sexist against men. Take for example a recent Boots ad, which presents a man as malingering in bed with a cold, and his wife with the same cold carrying on doing shopping and looking after children. This seems to be presented as a typical situation.

I am aware of the myth of "man flu", but I have never come across a single case. When I worked as a teacher, women were (it seemed to me) slightly more likely to be absent with illness than men. However, I suspect that was because the few departments where people shouldn't carry on working if they had a slight cold (e.g. food technology) were mostly staffed by women, and the departments where there were more men (e.g. chemistry) were departments where teachers could carry on working with a cold.

I find it odd that adverts which are sexist and demeaning to women are (rightly) banned, but adverts which seem sexist and demeaning to men, and particularly to the role of father, are allowed...

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Piper - God is Happy

It is good news that God is gloriously happy. No-one would want to spend eternity with an unhappy God. If God is unhappy, then the goal of the gospel is not a happy goal, and that means it would be no gospel at all. But, in fact, Jesus invites us to spend eternity with a happy God when he says, "Enter into the joy of your master" (Matthew 25:23). Jesus lived and died that his joy - God's joy - might be in us and our joy might be full (John 15:11; 17:13).

John Piper, The Pleasures of God, p.26

Consecrating Vices

John Piper (in the introduction to The Pleasures of God, strongly recommended a book called The Life of God in the Soul of Man by Scougal, so I'm having a go at reading it. Here's a quote from near the beginning that really struck me.

There are but too many Christians who would consecrate their vices, and follow their corrupt affections, whose ragged humour and sullen pride must pass for Christian severity; whose fierce wrath, and bitter rage against their enemies, must be called holy zeal; whose petulancy towards their superiors, or rebellion against their governors, must have the name of Christian courage and resolution.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Jesus-style apologetics

I've been thinking a bit recently about how Jesus tended to answer difficult questions. When they came from people who were out to trap him, he tended to answer them with another question of his own which exposed either the underlying false assumptions or the underlying hypocrisy.
 
So what would this look like with the whole issue of Old Testament genocides? Maybe something like this...
 
[Questioner] Doesn't God command lots of genocides in the Old Testament?
[Jesus] You answer me a question first. Was William the Conqueror a war criminal or not?
 
Just a thought...

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Advent and Prayer H

There's a tension in the Church between Advent as a time for looking forwards to Christmas and Advent as a time for looking forwards to Jesus coming again. I notice in the Daily Prayer that there's a shift from one to the other on 16th/17th December, which I assume is chosen to be a week before Christmas.

Part of the problem is that whoever put the Church calendar together made a silly mistake. In the official church calendar, the season of Christmas starts on Christmas Day, and then runs for a few weeks. But that's exactly opposite to how festivals work in the Old Testament and in common sense. In the OT, if festivals run for a week, the big event is at the end of the festival, not the start. Otherwise everything else is anti-climactic.

So by trying to say that the holiday starts with Christmas (as some rule-following liturgical purists claim), if we're going to avoid all the rest of the season being an anti-climax, we need something at least as big to end it. Some people try doing that with Epiphany, but it doesn't really work. Not in the West, anyway. So what happens is that New Year gets seen as the end of the festival, and then becomes the natural place to transfer the real celebrations too. Which is probably why New Year is getting bigger and bigger, partly at the expense of Christmas.

The obvious solution is to allow a decent period of time before Christmas - say 2 weeks or so - as a build-up to Christmas, with Christmas as then the climax of the festivities. Which makes Advent difficult again...

Advent is traditionally a time for thinking about the "four last things" - death, judgement, heaven and hell. As such, last Sunday fit fairly well with the end of our series on the Creed - thinking about Jesus coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom having no end.

I was preaching on this on Sunday, and made reference to Communion being a foretaste of the eschatological feast, except I said it in English. And I quoted "until he comes again" from 1 Cor 11:26 and the Anglican liturgy. And then, in the rest of the service, I noticed that those references were completely missing from the liturgy, because we were using Prayer H, which is the one normally used in Anglican Charismatic circles. I'm normally a fan of prayer H, because it misses out so much of the waffle that characterises the other prayers, which means it's more family-friendly and so on. But it also misses out all reference to Jesus' coming in glory. Why couldn't they just have put in "until he comes again" somewhere?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Christmas Letter - from church magazine...

How do you feel about Christmas?

Some people love it and have never reallylost the wonderful child-like innocence of it all – they can't wait for the decorations to go up, the music to start playing and the anticipation of the big day itself, spent with loved ones.

For others, it's one of the toughest times of the year. Cold weather, memories of past Christmases where everything went very wrong, broken relationships and loneliness all take their toll. And Christmas is the hardest time to be alone.

And for those of us who go to church, Christmas is often the time when we hear sermon after sermon reminding us not to take Christ out of Christmas, or all we'll be left with is M&S. It's clever, but I don't think it goes far enough.

So amid the abandoned diets, merry-making and sorrow, preparations and presents and pies, let me offer three quick thoughts about Christmas.

1. Let Christmas blow your mind

Of course, Christmas is about Jesus being born in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago. And it's a great story to teach children – there are all kinds of useful lessons about it being important to treat refugees and poor people well. But so often we leave the Christmas story for the children, and we don't stop to realise how earth-shatteringly huge it is. It's like buying a new car, and only ever using it to enjoy the way the windscreen wipers work!

Christmas is when the infinite, eternal God, who made everything that exists became part of his own creation. And not an important part either. He didn't become King of the Universe at Christmas, though even that would have been a big step down. He became an illegitimate baby born to a poor couple from a conquered race, born in a grotty cave-stable in an insignificant backwater of a town in the unfashionable end of the Roman Empire. And that is the same God who spoke and the universe was created. A Christmas carol puts it well:

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain; Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign. In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Or as C.S. Lewis wrote in The Last Battle: “In our world, too, a stable once held something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.” If that doesn't blow your mind, I don't know what will.

2. Let Christmas bring you to your knees

And God did this not just to blow our minds, but to enter into our experience. The God of the Universe became one of us and lived as one of us so that we could know him and be with him. God himself bridged the gap between people and God, and at immense cost to himself.

Do we praise and worship God for Christmas? Do we let the facts of Christmas bring us to our knees? I recommend that you take some time on your own or with another Christian to just think about what God did at Christmas until you are left with no choice but to worship him for it.

3. Let Christmas warm your heart

Christmas is also a time to celebrate what we have in this life. Telling people to put Jesus at the centre of Christmas often doesn't work because they don't see how he will help them enjoy Christmas more. We need to show them that Jesus was right when he said “I have come that they may have life to the full,” and that the best life to live is one with Jesus at the centre.

So I hope and pray you will all enjoy Christmas, that you will enjoy Christmas all the more because Jesus is at the centre of it, and that you will share that enjoyment with others who don't have as much to rejoice about.

God bless, and have a very Happy Christmas!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Parable of the Sower

Jesus was very good at telling stories. We are rather less good at understanding them. Some of the stories Jesus told were very clever and multi-layered. We are especially bad at understanding those. Two quick examples:

The Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 has for a long time largely been understood as being about the "prodigal son". For such a long time, in fact, that the word prodigal has had time to change its meaning rather significantly, therefore making the title doubly inaccurate. It was pretty clear to people who looked at the context and the parable a bit that the elder brother was a more important character than he was often given credit for - he's the one whom the listeners were meant to be identifying with, and so on. But Tim Keller's excellent book The Prodigal God points out what should have been obvious all along - that the central character is the forgiving Father, but that the parable is challenging and illuminating on a whole series of levels - notably by looking at the three main characters in turn.

However, the popular understanding of the Parable of the Sower seems to be heading the other way. Far too many times in the last few weeks, and often by people who should have known better, I've heard it described as the Parable of the Soils. And of course, that is one valid level of interpretation. There is an important point there about how different types of soil respond to the message - which one are we going to be? That may well even be the primary meaning in Luke 8 - the same parable sometimes is used to make different points in different gospels (e.g. the parable of the lost sheep). But the parable is used three times, and it's usually preached from either Matthew 13 or Mark 4, and neither of those passages let us leave the interpretation there.

Matthew 13 doesn't even allow us to call it "The Parable of the Soils", because it is one of the very few parables that Jesus names for us. And he calls it "The Parable of the Sower" (Matt 13:18). And once we realise that it is primarily about the sower, not the soils, it makes more sense.

It's always a good idea to look for surprises (relative to the culture they were originally spoken in) in the parables. So in the badly-named parable of the Prodigal Son, the big surprise is that the Father was watching for his son to come home, and ran to greet him and welcome him back. The parable of the sower (in Matthew and Mark) has two big surprises. One is that the sower sows everywhere, not seeming to care what sort of soil the seed lands on. That is a silly way of sowing. The other is the result - getting a crop of "thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown" (Mark 4:20) is a ridiculously high yield, especially for such a silly method of sowing.

In both Matthew and Mark, these make perfect sense when read in context, because in both gospels the parable follows straight on from people rejecting Jesus, and specifically from the incident where Jesus' mother and brothers try to get him back, but Jesus says that whoever follows him is his brother and sister and mother.

The natural question to ask in that situation and in that culture is this. "If Jesus is someone really special, why are so many people rejecting him?" That's why, too, in both Matt 13 and Mark 4, Jesus quotes a chunk of Isaiah 6 about God's people rejecting God's message. The focus then turns back to the character of the sower in the passage. Why is the sower sowing in such a way? Why is Jesus ministering to people, many of whom reject him. Why isn't he cherry picking the people who are most receptive?

And the parable's answer is that God's strategy is this mad sowing - the telling everyone sowing, and that that method of sowing produces the really abundant harvests. So we shouldn't get worried by people rejecting the message. Something like that, anyway...

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Make Life Flow

As a church, we're supporting Tearfund's Make Life Flow campaign. As part of this campaign, several videos have been made, set in a village in Uganda where girls have to walk a long way to get water - the only spring is 1½ miles from the village, and down a very steep hill. The village in question is clearly in a bit of Uganda where there is plenty of water - Tearfund have helped to build a large rainwater storage tank, and there's lots of greenery around.

I don't doubt the campaign is a good one, but the videos left me unsettled because there were so many questions unanswered.

  1. As far as I can tell, every single old village in the UK (before water mains) was built on a river, stream or spring. Why was this one not? Were they refugees from some conflict? I can understand villages being built away from springs in areas where there isn't much water around, but this isn't one of those areas.
  2. In areas where there isn't a regular stable water supply (e.g. Israel), people have been building underground cisterns to store water in for thousands of years - at least as early as Genesis 37. Essentially, Tearfund have helped the village to do that (except with overground tanks). Why didn't they have cisterns already? Why wasn't that part of building the village in the first place?
  3. In the video, there were lots of women and teenage girls, but very few men and teenage boys (except the pastor and the schoolteacher). Where were they? The obvious answer would be doing some kind of herding work, but if all the men were some distance away, why was there so much danger of the women being raped on their way to collect water? And if they weren't some distance away, why weren't they offering to protect the women collecting water?
  4. Why weren't the men helping to improve the infrastructure, when it's obviously something which creates a lot of benefits and their physical strength would have been useful?

I guess it seems that there are so many background questions and issues that need tackling to really do something about poverty like this. I think I understand urban poverty far better - not that I know what to do about that either... Still, what Tearfund are doing looks like a good start.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Wesley Owen

Wesley Owen bookshops are up for sale. It will be a sad day if they close down - the local Wesley Owen is very good and is the only Christian bookshop within 30 mins drive of here...

Added to which, Wesley Owen and STL distribution (also up for sale) provide the services necessary for most of the church bookshops and bookstalls in the country.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Am I a Conservative Evangelical?

It isn't the sort of question that keeps me awake at night. But it's something I think about occasionally...

It's easy to say that I used to be. 5 years ago I was involved in lay leadership in a conservative evangelical church, going to conservative evangelical camps and conferences and so on and agreeing with most of what was being said, and reading mostly conservative evangelical books. I criticised mainstream conservative evangelicalism on issues like their failure to communicate the primacy of grace when discussing homosexuality, but I did so from within the movement.

But am I still one? My context has certainly changed - I'm now an ordained minister in a charismatic evangelical church and while I still go to some conservative evangelical events, I probably go to more charismatic evangelical ones and read quite a lot of books from both charismatic and open evangelical perspectives. And I seem to fit the label "conservamatic" fairly well, though I'm a lot more comfortable in high church settings than most conservatives or charismatics, and don't like being defined as fitting into any one group.

The thing is, my theology hasn't changed much at all. There are quite a lot of areas where my understanding has deepened or clarified, but I don't think my theology has moved much. The big things that have changed which affect whether I'm a conservative evangelical or not, as far as I can tell, are:

  • I've realised that conservative evangelicals often emphasise and word things in reaction against points of view they've come into conflict with - especially Ryle's caricature of 16th century Roman Catholicism, modernist liberalism, postmodern syncretism and pentecostalism.
  • I've realised that there are a good number of charismatics who don't fall into the traps which I used to associate with them, and that a lot of them don't mean what I thought they meant in the way they talk about the Holy Spirit. Many of them also seem to use the ecstatic gifts (which I never really thought had ceased) sensibly rather than just ignoring them as the conservative evangelicals did.
  • I think I understand much better how it is quite possible to be a sincere and Bible-believing Christian and to be a convinced charismatic (like my training incumbent) or anglo-catholic (like the local suffregan bishop), and I'm happy getting along with such people and even being a regular member of their churches. I think there are much more important issues than church politics, such as love for God and others, mission and evangelism, and so on.
  • Conservative evangelical culture has solidified a bit more and moved slightly, and I'm not hanging around with them as much.

Having thought about it a bit, I think I'm happy and comfortable being a conservative evangelical (albeit one with charismatic leanings and some catholic sympathies) when I hang around with conservative evangelicals. And when I hang around with charismatics, I'm happy being a charismatic with strong Biblical tendancies and conservative influences. When I hang out with open evangelicals, I'm happy fitting in at the more conservative end of open evangelicalism unless they start conservative-bashing. And when I hang around with wider groups, I'm happy not really fitting any label well but saying controversial stuff and trying to mix up the stupor that seems to hang over such gatherings. And I think and find it is quite possible to be all of those without inconsistency.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Bonhoeffer - being alone

Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community. Alone you stood before God when He called you; alone you had to answer that call; alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and give an account to God. You cannot escape from yourself; for God has singled you out. If you refuse to be alone, you are rejecting Christ's call to you, and you can have no part in the community of those who are called... Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. Into the community you were called--the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. You are not alone even in death, and on the Last Day you will be only one member of the great congregation of Jesus Christ. If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Jesus Christ.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)

Hat tip to CQOD.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Glo

Glo claims to be the next big thing in Bible study. It's a computer programme; it's quite expensive, but I got given a free copy with all the functionality and a fair bit of the content, so I thought I should probably review it.

The first thing to say is that it is a biiig programme. Like 18GB of hard drive, and needs a machine that can cope with Vista easily. I've got a fairly new computer with 3GB of RAM and an Intel T1600 Dual-Core processor, and Glo was pretty slow on it.

The interface does look very nice and kind of funky. It's clean and modern and looks good - the promotional video is just about right for that, except you probably need a very top-end computer to get that kind of performance. But I've seen websites with that kind of functionality which work much quicker, probably because they are using the greater power of servers. Which makes me wonder - wouldn't "the Bible for the digital age" be better working off some very fast servers somewhere? Kind of like BibleGateway, but maybe looking a bit funkier?

Glo seems to come with the KJV, NIV and CEV. But the search tools are fairly basic, and there doesn't seem to be any facility for using original languages or anything. And that's important because I was doing that stuff even before I went to theological college, thanks to e-sword, which is free, has Hebrew and Greek, and integrates Strong's numbers, unlike Glo, which is quite expensive.

Some of the resources that come with it are quite nice. Little video tours of places in Israel and so on. Study notes of a fairly comparable level to the NIV study Bible. A zoomable map interface that is very clearly based on Google Earth.

But Glo seems to be "all fur coat and no knickers" as the saying goes. The map interface doesn't seem to be searchable at all, and neither does the timeline (which I'd been hoping would be useful for teaching a Bible overview - nope). There's a basic search for the Bible text, but it's only a basic search. I tried searching for "Chronicles" in the search box, and it didn't even tell me there were two books of the Bible called "Chronicles". And the level of scholarship that has gone into this is pretty shoddy.

Don't get me wrong - I'm an evangelical who believes that Scripture (as originally given) is perfect, and I think that theological study is good and important when done rightly but all too often it's done badly. So let me give an example.

There's a video about Jesus' birth on Glo. And they visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. They seem to have only been there on a pretty crowded day - it was rammed with people - whereas when I went there it wasn't too full at all. There's a bit of film in the grotto under the church where Jesus was quite possibly born. But then they point out (rightly) that it wouldn't have been like that then, so the rest of the film is in a free-standing stable. Which misses something quite big. All the early post-Biblical accounts point to Jesus being born in a cave. The grotto under the Church of the Nativity is a cave. Archaeology tells us that Bethlehem had a fair few caves, and a lot of them had a little shelter built onto the front and were used either as houses or as barns. So Jesus was probably born in a cave which had been partly converted into a barn or something like that. The idea of Jesus being born in a free-standing stable just doesn't seem to exist for centuries afterwards. And yet they blithely go along with it. The message of the video - that Jesus went all the way to the bottom to get us - was pretty good though. It's just a shame they messed it up with poor scholarship.

Or take the Bible timeline. OK, so they don't give a date for Adam and Eve (though their position on the timeline does make it look like 4000BC). But they very clearly put the Exodus at 1400BC, and try treating the Judges as sequential. Now the only way of getting the Exodus to 1400BC is if we take 1 Kings 6:1 absolutely literally. But 1 Kings 6:1 says a certain period of time was 480 years, and 40 and 12 are both clearly symbolic in Israelite thought. The archaeology suggests 1200BC as a much better date for the Exodus. The Judges shouldn't be sequential for the following reasons:
1) almost all of them only seem to operate in a small area, and the areas mostly don't overlap.
2) if you add up the total time the Judges ruled for and the times of oppression between judges, you get some very big number which doesn't fit into any Biblical chronology
But Glo just seems to ignore all of this. It's as if they've taken a lot of their intellectual content from someone who thinks that academic study of the Bible is a bad thing.

To summarise, I'd recommend Glo for someone who has a very fast computer and wants stuff to look pretty. Or if you want a series of video clips of Americans looking around sites that come up in the Bible. Or if you want an electronic Bible that has notes at the level of a basic study Bible, but costs three times as much. But not if you want Bible study software.

It's a shame really, because this could have been so much better. Like by giving BibleGateway a new interface, putting a load of videos up of Israel and so on, done by someone who knows what they are talking about, and releasing a patch for Google Earth that displays Biblical locations while being searchable.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Subverting Halloween

Last Saturday night, I went for a walk. It's easier being out on Halloween, because it avoids the problem of what to do with trick-or-treaters. And I got thinking about how to subvert Halloween - subverting often being much better and more fun than opposing... Of course, Halloween seems to by dying out slowly, so it's no longer as much of a problem as it was for Christians. Anyhow, here's what I came up with on how to subvert it.

  • Use the fact it's Reformation Day on 31st October and All Saints' on 1st November.
  • Hold a "heroes of the faith" dressing up event. Ideas - Peter and fishing nets (or fishnets), Daniel and some lions, David and a slingshot with some toy sheep, Luther with his beer or tonsure (depending on age), Zwingli with some sausages, Cranmer's wife in a box, Catherine with a wheel, Jael and a tent peg...
  • Put up posters beforehand saying you'll give sweets to anyone dressed as a goodie. Give people stuff if they're dressed as Spiderman or whatever, but not if they're dressed as witches, devils or the psycho killer from Scream.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Holy Sonnet X

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou thinkst thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow
And soonest our best men with thee do go
Rest of their bones and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppies or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke. Why swellst thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die!

John Donne

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Calvinism?

I don't tend to describe myself as a Calvinist very often.

Depending on what you mean by the term, I probably am one - I think that Calvin's description of how people are saved (his soteriology) is basically the same as what the Bible teaches, and I therefore agree with it. I think Calvin was a very clever bloke and a very gifted Bible teacher and systematic theologian. That doesn't mean I agree with absolutely everything he said, or that I think the fact that he said it settles an argument, but it is definitely worth reading what he said and wrote.

One reason I don't like the label is that it smacks of putting human views about God above worshipping God (in a depressingly 1 Corinthians 1:12 way). But that's not what I'm writing about today.

What I'm writing about today is the way that “5 point Calvinism” is often badly misunderstood to the point where the label “Calvinism” is often understood to mean something very different from what Calvin actually thought.

Calvin died in 1564, but after his death a big argument developed between people who mostly agreed with Calvin and a chap called Arminius about how people were saved. This led to a big meeting called the Synod of Dort, which ended with the Calvinists agreeing on the famous 5 points (in 1619).

Total Depravity
Unconditional Election
Limited Atonement
Irresistible Grace
Perseverance of the Saints

(Note the TULIP acronym.) Now all of those, when properly understood (and taken in the context of the debate with the Arminians), are really important truths. But each of the catchy titles is so vague that it is often misunderstood and taken to mean something it shouldn't mean at all. So some people think they are Calvinists, when actually they're nutters. To protect against that, I think it would have been more helpful if they'd stated stuff like individual responsibility as well, so it didn't look like top-down systematics rather than bottom-up systematics. I know too that a lot of people who described themselves as Calvinists after Calvin's death went a lot further than Calvin did, and I'm not sure if those who attended the Synod of Dort were among them. It's possible that what I think is the correct interpretation of the 5 points isn't actually what they meant by them at Dort. But I'm fairly sure it's what Calvin (and a lot of modern Calvinists) would have meant by them, if he'd said them.

And that's why I don't describe myself as a Calvinist, because what people think Calvinists believe is some distance from what we actually do believe.

Total Depravity

What it should mean: Total depravity means that everything we do and every part of us is affected by the fact we are sinners. We can't do anything that is totally pure and therefore we cannot earn God's favour.

What it shouldn't mean: Total depravity is often understood to mean that people are as bad as we can possibly be, and that we (especially non-Christians) can't do anything good or right. And to be fair, that's what the label sounds like it means too. But it's not what the Bible teaches; it's not what Calvin taught; it's obviously false.

Unconditional Election

What it should mean: Unconditional Election means that we can't earn God's favour or make God choose us. His choice is free and sovereign.

What it shouldn't mean: It doesn't mean that you can have someone who desperately wants God, but finds themselves cut off from him because he hasn't chosen them. It doesn't mean that what we do doesn't matter either, or that God treats the Pol Pots of this world the same as the Mahatma Ghandis.

Limited Atonement

What it should mean: Limited Atonement should mean that Jesus died for the sins of anyone who repents and turns to him, but not for the sins of everyone. People aren't just automatically forgiven because Jesus died – there is a need for individual repentance and faith – but anyone can be forgiven if they repent.

What it shouldn't mean: It shouldn't mean (and Calvin very clearly doesn't mean) that Jesus only died for the sins of a certain clear group of people – the “elect”, so that there's no point trying to reach those who aren't elect. Jesus, Peter, Paul (yes, and Calvin too) were very keen on evangelism – telling people outside the Church to turn to Jesus and trust him.

Irresistible Grace

What it should mean: Irresistible Grace should mean that when God draws someone to him, he does it in such a way that it transforms their desires as well.

What it shouldn't mean: It shouldn't mean that God brings people to him against their will, kicking and screaming.

Perseverance of the Saints

What it should mean: It should mean that nothing the world or the devil throws at those who trust Jesus can stop us from following him. Once someone really has come to trust in Christ, they keep going. Of course, the NT teaches in a couple of places that the key sign that someone has really come to trust Christ is that they keep going...

What it shouldn't mean: It isn't grounds for complacency. It is quite clear that there are people who can look as if they are “in”, who then subsequently show that they weren't. So just because someone “prayed the prayer” 20 years ago, means approximately nothing for whether they are or aren't following Jesus today, and whether they are saved or not.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Spirit at Work in the World

There's an ongoing tension in Christian theology over the extent to which the Holy Spirit is operative in the world. For example, Justin Martyr argued that since the Greek philosophers had found truth, they must have been indwelt by the Truth.

Calvin too comments on this:

The swift and versatile movements of the soul in glancing from heaven to earth, connecting the future with the past, retaining the remembrance of former years, nay, forming creations of its own—its skill, moreover, in making astonishing discoveries, and inventing so many wonderful arts, are sure indications of the agency of God in man.
Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.5.5

The question is how this can be squared with the clear fact from Scripture that the Holy Spirit only indwells those who trust in Christ.

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.
Romans 8:14-15, TNIV

So what are we to make of the way that non-Christians often do things that lead to truth and goodness and so on? And it's important to recognise that they do - all too often, Christians tend to forget that. The stereotype I guess is that conservative evangelicals forget that non-Christians do good stuff at all, charismatics see it as the work of the Spirit and get on board with it and liberals go one step further and conclude that those people are ok without knowing Jesus.

I was pondering this tension a few weeks ago, and I came to the conclusion that it makes most sense if the work of the Spirit among those who aren't Christians is primarily to maintain what is left of the image of God in them. We were created good, and though our rebellion against God affected every part of us so that nothing we do is ever wholly perfect, it didn't affect every part of us totally - it is rare that anything anyone does is ever wholly evil either. When non-Christians do what is right, it is reflecting a bit of the glory of the God who originally made them and continues to sustain them.

I think that by identifying the work of the Spirit in the non-Christian world primarily with maintaining the remnant of the image of God in people, we get rid of what is otherwise a difficult tension.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Harvest Sermon

This is the sermon I preached at Harvest. The passage is 1 John 3:11-19.

As it's Harvest today, here's a quick quiz. Hands up; first hand up with the right answer gets a Harvest bar.

Question 1: What grows in fields that is one of the main ingredients of bread? (corn / wheat)

Question 2: During the Jewish harvest festival, people weren't allowed to live in houses. What did they have to live in instead? (tents / tabernacles)

Question 3: What do the Americans call their Harvest festival? (Thanksgiving)

Question 4: One of the things Americans do at Thanksgiving is they act out the first harvest festival some of the settlers had in America. But when is the first harvest festival in the Bible? (Cain and Abel)

Question 5: How did it end? (Cain kills Abel)

Now that's a bit disturbing, isn't it? The first harvest festival in the Bible was with two brothers, Cain and Abel, both farmers, and it ended with Cain killing his brother.

That's because there are two ways to give – two ways to give, and the passage we read earlier talks about them.

The first way to give is the way Cain did. Cain gave because he was a good person. He gave, but he didn't love. He gave because he thought that would show he was a good person, and then maybe God would accept him. Cain gave because he was good. And what happened? God wasn't pleased with him, but he was pleased with Cain's brother Abel. So Cain got angry and ended up killing his brother.

You see, sometimes when we give, the giving is really about us. It is us saying we are good and generous and decent. And the shock of the first harvest festival is that God isn't pleased with Cain. So Cain gets angry because he thinks God owes him one. But we can't make God like us by being decent people. Giving stuff at harvest doesn't mean that God accepts us. Cain giving at the first harvest festival was meant to show how good he was, but actually showed how evil he was, because he ended up killing his brother. Giving because we are decent people actually ends up showing that we aren't.

The other way to give is the way Jesus gives. At the Jewish harvest festival, people were meant to give the best of what they had, and the first bits of their fruit and so on. And that's what God did. He gave us the best of what he had to give, he gave Jesus. And Jesus gave himself for us even though we're not decent people. That is how we know what love is. That is the way we should be giving – not giving stuff because we're decent people and to show that we're good, but giving ourselves, because God is good and that's what he did for us. And so we give our money and our stuff not to earn God's favour but because we have already given ourselves to God who has given everything to us.

So when we see our brothers and sisters in need, like we have done in the video, we have pity on them, and we give to them because nothing we have is ours any more – it's God's, and he loves them. And we don't just love them with the things we say, we actually do something about it. And yes, it's the people in the video, but it's also one another in this congregation. It's brilliant when I see people really giving of themselves to look after each other here, and I'm going to be even more encouraged when I see that even more.

Because if we're actually doing that, says John, that's evidence that we're really Christians. It's God's love shining through us.` It's like putting a candle into a candle jar.

God's love shines out like a light. And when that love is inside us, it shines out. It's God's love shining still, but it's shining through us and it maybe looks a bit different because of our situation and what we're like, but that light shines. And if we see the light shining in people, that tells us there's a candle inside. When we see people loving one another like Jesus does, that shows us that they really know Jesus – that they've really got that light inside them – that they really know they're loved and accepted by God, and so they are loving others.

Not loving others because they should, or because it's the right thing to do, or to try to make God happy with them, but loving because God's love is living in them.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Amazon and Odd Choice of Recommended Books....

This e-mail was sent to me today...

Greetings from Amazon.co.uk,

We've noticed that customers who have purchased or rated books by C. S. Lewis have also purchased Kragos and Kildor the Two-headed Demon (Beast Quest) by Adam Blade. For this reason, you might like to know that Kragos and Kildor the Two-headed Demon (Beast Quest) is now available.

Not quite what I had in mind...

Thursday, October 08, 2009

A Scandal in Spiritual Illiteracy

The other day, I was at a gathering of curates. (What's the collective noun for curates?) We were discussing a book which was partly about the Charismatic movement. And it came out in conversation that half of the people in the room had no experience of charismaticism at all. I think that's a scandal.

Consider this - roughly 1/3 of the world's Christians are charismatic or Pentecostal. Among regular church-attenders in this country, the proportion of charismatics and Pentecostals is probably about 20% and growing fast. And half the people in the room had no experience of them at all, and we were all ordained ministers in the Church of England.

When I was considering training for ordination in the Church of England, we discussed my experience of the breadth of the Church, and I was told to spend 3 months worshipping at a high Anglo-Catholic church. I did, and I found it helpful. When I was at college, I made an effort to broaden my experience as much as possible. I spent time at churches in difficult UPAs and in the countryside because I was more used to the suburbs. I spent time at an Anglican church in the developing world because I've lived in the UK all my life. I got to the point where I've got a decent level of exposure to pretty much everything that happens in the C of E. Some of it I disagree with; some of it I think is wrong or mad, but at least I'm aware of it and have spoken to people who do it and got to know a bit about where they are coming from. Much of that was expected of me as part of my training; some of it was me wanting to understand where different people were coming from.

So how on earth have people got through selection and ordination training and even got ordained and through a decent chunk of their curacies without any experience or understanding of the charismatic movement? I'm not blaming them at all - it's the job of those providing and overseeing their training to make sure that that happens, and I think it's a scandal that they have been allowed to do so.

(As it happens, I think the charismatic movement tends to get some things wrong and a lot of things right - not least the expectation of personal experience of God's action. But that's largely irrelevant to this rant...)

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Odd Happenings

My fiancee has suggested I put more of this sort of thing up...

I spent a decent chunk of today getting an old green toilet out of the loft of someone's house, because we need it for a service on Sunday. Struggling backwards down a ladder holding a dirty toilet bowl isn't always what I'd expected to be top fo the list of things to do in a curacy, but never mind!

The church has received a generous donation of a large number of fresh corns-on-the-cob (I think that's the plural) from a local farmer. Apparently a truckload or so... Now under normal circumstances, we'd donate them to the local homeless shelter, but in this case it seems they're not fit for human consumption - they're some different species that is grown for cattle feed. Not sure why they were donated, or if we asked for them, but mine not to reason why and all. So we're apparently using them to decorate the church with. It remains to be seen what result this will have.

And I'm planning a controversial Harvest family service sermon for Sunday...

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Sermon on Creation

Here's a sermon I preached recently on the topic of creation.

MP3 downloadable from here.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Liberal God and the Amalekites

I've been doing a bit more thinking about the whole question of passages like 1 Samuel 15, and what seems to be going on here is a fundamental clash of worldviews – a clash between two gods (or two sets of ideas about God).

On one hand, there is what I'll call the Liberal God. This is God as conceptualised by most of society today. He/she is in many ways similar to the Deist idea of God – she/he doesn't actually do much in terms of acting in objective ways in space-time history. But the idea actually relies more on the ideas of the early liberal theologians – this is still a god who cares about us and whom we can experiences of (though I've argued elsewhere that that probably requires a god who can and does act in an objective way in space-time history – though I guess that might not hold if it's also the god of Process Theology who isn't really a god at all). The Liberal God embodies the Spirit of the Age rather than the Holy Spirit – there isn't much conception of transcendent holiness, but rather a loving tolerance that covers everyone who doesn't deliberately cause harm or offence to others, regardless of their race, colour, creed, gender, sexual orientation, fetishes, etc. The Liberal God's first commandment is to be true to yourself and to love yourself with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. The Liberal God would never command a genocide, and would certainly let good people (like most of us) into heaven.

On the other hand, there is the God of the Bible – i.e. God as the Bible depicts him. He is actually quite discomforting, and doesn't really seem to fit in comfortably to any human culture – he is far more accepting and loving than most human cultures have been, but at the same time he is holy and cannot stand sin. And he has a strange loyalty at times to some groups of people.

A fair few people think that actually these two “God”s are the same. So the Bible is seen as the story of the human encounter with the Liberal God, who gradually draws them from their original understanding of him as petty and rather like them, into the truer understanding of him/her as loving, generous, liberal and rather like Desmond Tutu. For these people, passages such as 1 Samuel 15 are relics of an earlier understanding of God.

[It's probably worth pointing out at this stage that actually that idea doesn't work. Revelation was probably one of the last books of the Bible to be written, and is pretty much like their idea of early stuff. And Ruth is pretty early, and is much more like their idea of later stuff. I don't think that way of thinking about how the Bible develops really works – the more conventional evangelical one fits the data much better.]

The question that passages such as 1 Samuel 15 make us face is which of these conceptions of God is the true one. And the way this is generally decided is which conception of God is morally better. And that's what I was trying to think about in my series of posts on 1 Samuel 15.

So which is better? A God who chooses to bless everyone in some vague nebulous way without ever using violence, or a God who chooses to bless the world in a concrete, real and self-sacrificial way through a specific group of people, and then acts to protect them when they are threatened? That's what I've been seeking to address in my posts on the Amalekites...

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Joseph

Some scholars like to claim that as few of the events described in the Bible actually happened. It isn't at all rare to find people who say that Biblical history starts at about the time of Hezekiah (2 Kings) or David (2 Samuel), and that the earlier stuff is all myth. There are even some people who claim that the history starts in Ezra.

Of course, I don't agree with them, and I think it's a very cavalier approach to history to ignore the only documents we have that describe much of the earlier history. But outside the Bible, there isn't much evidence either way for events before David - Israel wasn't settled then in a way that produces much in the way of archaeology. There's some from the time of Joshua, but that's contested because it isn't clear and could be made to fit half a dozen very different scenarios.

And then something like this comes along. They've found some coins in Egypt from the right sort of time which seem to refer to Joseph. That's Joseph the son of Jacob (as in Genesis) rather than Joseph the husband of Mary. If these are real, they blow massive amounts of liberal Biblical scholarship out of the water. I believe the previous record for the oldest Biblical character referred to in an archaeological inscription was David (c. 1000 BC), but that was from a while later referring to the kings of Jerusalem as "sons of David". If this is the same Joseph, it pushes it right back to about 1600BC...

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Phantom of the Opera

Here's some of the TV info blurb for the film of the Phantom of the Opera, as shown on Film4:

Joel Schumacher directs this darkly Gothic interpretation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage musical

Andrew Lloyd Webber's famous musical is, as the name suggests, about a phantom who lives in an opera house. The script requires a few murders and attempted murders and has several significant scenes set in a graveyard and abandoned caves under the opera house.

It contains lines like "Down once more to the dungeon of my dark despair / Down we plunge to the prison of my mind!"

And yet, somehow, the blurb suggests that it might be possible to produce an interpretation of Phantom that isn't darkly gothic!

Don't get me wrong, I think Phantom is ALW's best musical. It's probably my second favourite musical (after Les Mis). It's clever, and has some real feel-good moments. But it is dark, and it is gothic. Oh, and I enjoyed the stage version more than the film.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Always Going Deeper

Knowing God is the biggest adventure anyone can ever have.

Here is where Gregory of Nyssa makes his most noteworthy contribution to Christian theology: that the Christian life must first be defined by seeking God without end, and "that true satisfaction of the soul's desire consists in constantly going on with this quest and never ceasing in the ascent to God." This is a joyful conclusion, since it ensures that one can always progress in holiness because spiritual progress is one of infinite growth. For the Platonist, all change is regarded as a defect or loss; in Gregory's system, the process of changing may be redeemed by perpetual growth in the good. It is this sort of movement that describes our transformation "from one degree of glory to another" (2 Cor. 3:18, ESV). However much the Christian is transformed into the likeness of God, God remains ever beyond, so that the soul must always push forward in anticipation in this life and in the one to come.

Ancient writers like Gregory remind us that the door to joyful mystery must be opened. Knowledge, even the knowledge that comes from Scripture, is not undermined but humbled, as it is placed before the vast depths of God. Because God is eternal and infinite, there will never come a time when we've exhausted all that God has to give us; we'll never plumb the depths of the Almighty, but will always find ourselves going deeper in and higher up.

D.H. Williams, from here.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

God Inside Out - Simon Ponsonby

I've recently finished reading God Inside Out by Simon Ponsonby. Apparently, someone who had read the book though it was so good that they bought a copy for every ordinand in the C of E. Very generous of them. I thought it was certainly good, but not good enough that I'd have bought a copy for all ordinands...

The book sets out to try to provide a Biblical and charismatic account of the person and work of the Spirit, and it does that pretty well. The way he handles, for example, the doctrine of Baptism in the Spirit is excellent. (He argues that the Pentecostal experience is right, but their theologising of it is wrong, and it isn't a "second blessing" of the kind they talk about.)

The one area Ponsonby really doesn't cover, and which I wish he had done, because it's something I think I disagree with a lot of charismatics on, is the question of having "more of the Spirit" and so on. I guess I'm just going to have to read his book on the topic - More.

Here are some good quotes.

If adoration and consecration are not the net result of our theological studies, either what we have studied is flawed, or we ourselves are blinded.
p.17

Man cannot live without joy; therefore when he is deprived of true spiritual joys it is necessary that he become addicted to carnal pleasures.
Thomas Aquinas, quoted on p.196

The spiritual worship which is claimed demands a spiritual force which is not innate in man; to worship in spirit and truth is possible only through the Spirit of God
H.B Swete, quoted on p.303

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Engagement

Sorry for the lack of posting recently. A large part of this is that I've been on holiday recently, and my lovely girlfriend has agreed to become my lovely fiancée, which I'm delighted about.

Here's a photo of us together.

I might post some more when I'm less snowed under with sermon prep...

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Amalekite Genocide 4

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

We've been thinking about God's command in 1 Samuel 15 to kill the Amalekites. We've seen that the Amalekites were people who had set themselves in opposition to God's plan to bless the world; we've seen that the command gave plenty of scope for individual Amalekites to change their minds and escape from the attack. Now I want to look at the Amalekite genocide in the light of the cross.

Jesus is the True Israel

The first thing I want to note is that the theme of Israel as God's means of blessing the whole earth finds its fulfilment in Jesus. Jesus is where God reveals himself perfectly; Jesus is the one the nations stream to; he is the one who obeys God perfectly. Again and again, the gospels present Jesus as the True Israel. As Jesus says in Matthew 5:17

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

And as such, Jesus is the one whom God defends, and the one whom he appoints as judge over the nations.

Jesus is made the True Amalek

As the Bible goes on, it becomes clear that the enmity to God and his plans which was so clear in the Amalekites is found in each individual person. We all try to resist God's plan, to reject our part in it and oppose Jesus' lordship. And the Bible calls that sin. But in one of the most shocking verses of the Bible, we read this.

God made him who had no sin [i.e. Jesus] to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
2 Corinthians 5:21, NIV

Jesus became the personification of all opposition to God. He was made the true Amalek as well as the true Israel. He became the one who had to be killed so that God could bless the whole world. And he did that for us, for those who reject him and oppose him, so that we can know what it means to be part of God's true people.

That is the true and lasting significance of the sentence to destruction in 1 Samuel 15. It is the sentence that God himself in the person of Jesus chose to take on himself for us. Jesus becomes the person whom God destroys so that we can become the people whom God defends.

Christian Contemporary Music

When I was a teenager, I used to listen mainly to Christian Contemporary Music (CCM). That wasn't forced on me - it was my decision. The reason was that I found myself being too easily influenced by some of the lyrics in secular pop music, which I was only just beginning to get into when I gave up listening to it.

If I was now advising someone like I was then, I'd given them a copy of Desiring God by John Piper, a load of Matt Redman CDs and some U2. But I didn't really know about U2 and the cutting edge (pun intentional) of worship music at the time was Martin Smith and songs like "These are the days of Elijah" and "Do you feel the mountains tremble?" And while those songs have some merit (Days of Elijah has a great chorus), the verses are too, well, untrue, for me to get on well with them. So CCM it was, and even then I was pretty picky.

As a result of this, I got to know a lot of CCM before I knew much secular pop. Now that I listen to quite a bit more pop music, one thing has really struck me. An awful lot of the award-winning CCM artists, people I thought were really musically inventive and so on, ripped their best tunes off secular pop music. I don't think DC Talk or the Tribe did, but a lot of others certainly did.

Now, let's view this through the lens of the US Culture Wars. In the US, or so I understand, there are a significant number of people who only listen to Christian music, even to the point of rejecting secular pop. However, many of their heroes in the CCM scene are lifting their tunes from secular pop, which means that they themselves are listening to quite a lot of it. Hmmmmm....

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Amalekite Genocide 3

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

So far, we have seen that the Amalekites were the nation that always opposed God's plan to bless the world. But even given that, it can still be difficult to see how the same God that loved his enemies so much that he died for them could command that the Amalekites could be wiped out in the way that he does in 1 Samuel 15.

The first place to start looking for an answer is in the passage itself...

In verse 5, Saul reaches the city of the Amalekites. But he doesn't attack immediately. Instead he sends a message to another tribe – the Kenites. According to Judges 4:11, the Kenites were the descendants of Moses' father-in-law, variously called Jethro and Hobab. Now here's an interesting contrast.

The first two groups of people that the Israelites meet after coming out of Egypt are the Amalekites in Exodus 17 and the Kenites (Jethro and his family) in Exodus 18. The Amalekites try to destroy Israel. Jethro and his family help Israel. They want in on God's blessing which is coming to the whole world, and they help Israel and worship the God of Israel.

So when Saul comes to fight against the Amalekites, the first thing he does is that he sends a message to the Kenites.

Then Saul said to the Kenites, "Go, depart; go down from among the Amalekites, lest I destroy you with them. For you showed kindness to all the people of Israel when they came up out of Egypt." So the Kenites departed from among the Amalekites.
1 Samuel 15:6

Now, that makes it look very much as if the Kenites are mingling with the Amalekites fairly freely. Suppose an Amalekite decided that they didn't want to fight against Israel. There doesn't seem to have been anything stopping them from deciding to be a Kenite – dressing themselves up as a Kenite and just slipping off. The Amalekites had a way out, if only they were willing to deny their identity as Amalekites.

You see, the Amalekites' national identity is set up against Israel and against God's plan to bless the world. But there is a way out – they just have to renounce that identity and join in with the people who worshipped and served God. They have to get rid of the thing that means they will be going against God. Maybe some of them did. But many of them didn't.

The second way out is the one given in Deuteronomy 20, which is where the laws for how Israel was meant to fight its battles are set out.

When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it. And if it responds to you peaceably and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you. But if it makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it. And when the LORD your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword...
Deuteronomy 20:10-13, ESV

I don't know if Saul followed this rule or not when he attacked the Amalekites, but he should have done. If the Amalekites had surrendered, they would have been spared. But once again, they would have had to renounce their identity as Amalekites and become vassals of Israel. The only way they would have been destroyed is if they refused to surrender to God's plan.

So the Amalekites as a group had the opportunity to surrender to God's plan to bless the world, and the Amalekites as individuals had the opportunity to renounce their group and join in with the people who had sought to be a part of God's plan. It's not exactly genocide, is it?

Paul Copan, in his recent paper Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites points out that the command is to kill whoever is there, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they kill women and children. As Goldingay writes: “When a city is in danger of falling, people do not simply wait there to be killed; they get out... Only people who do not get out, such as the city's defenders, get killed.” So the command in 1 Samuel 15:3 looks a lot less like genocide, and a lot more like “If anyone - man, woman, child, whoever - doesn't take the chance to give up their struggle permanently, then kill them. And make sure that you don't profit from doing it.”

This is backed up by the way that Hebrew writers seem to use language when talking about war. Here's an example.

Hadad was from the royal family of Edom, and here is how the LORD made him Solomon's enemy: Some time earlier, when David conquered the nation of Edom, Joab his army commander went there to bury those who had died in battle. Joab and his soldiers stayed in Edom six months, and during that time they killed every man and boy who lived there. Hadad was a boy at the time, but he escaped to Midian with some of his father's officials...
1 Kings 11:14-17, CEV

Killing every man and boy who lives in Edom doesn't mean “killing every man and boy who lived in Edom and making sure that none escape”. It seems that it means “making sure there aren't any men or boys living there any more.” In the same way, killing all the Amalekites seems to mean killing everyone who keep on identifying themselves as Amalekites and who keep setting themselves against God's plan.

This is about breaking and destroying the identity of Amalek as a nation, so that they as a nation cannot continue to oppose God's plan to bless the world. It isn't about hatred of individuals, or about killing those individuals, unless they want to keep on being Amalekites and to keep on fighting against God's plan.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Right Use of the Old Testament

I was reading 1 Timothy 1 this morning, and realised that it could have been written to some modern Biblical scholars.

As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain persons not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God's work—which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.

We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers. And it is for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.

1 Timothy 1:3-11, TNIV

People shouldn't waste their time on myths, endless genealogies, or source criticism of the OT. The purpose of the Law (and Paul's examples all seem to be related to the 10 Commandments here) is not to give us insight into its sources or its relation to other ANE codes of law, but to tell people who are living wrongly how to live rightly.

The Amalekite Genocide 2

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

I've been discussing 1 Samuel 15, and God's command to Saul to exterminate the Amalekites. So far, I've established that the Amalekites were the nation who, more than any other, attacked and tried to destroy the Israelites. They had been attacking the Israelites right from when Israel came out of Egypt, and they would keep on doing so for another 600 years.

But so far, what I've written could be seen as just God taking sides in an old argument between two nations. Or as someone put it "A toddler-God here, kicking over his blue toy soldiers, because today he likes the green ones better."

To understand why that isn't the case, we need to think about the place of this all in the big picture of the Bible.

The Amalekites in Salvation History

Israel was God's chosen people. But they weren't chosen so God could bless them and curse everyone else. They were chosen to be God's conduit of blessing to the whole world (as Chris Wright keeps pointing out). As God's original promise to Abraham says:

all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.
Genesis 12:3b, NIV

Israel was God's chosen conduit of blessing to the whole world. Amalek had actually had a chance to be there as well, being descended from Esau. But Esau had renounced his blessing, trading it in for a bowl of soup, and Amalek continued in that. They had decided that they would oppose the very means that God had chosen to bless them and every other nation, and by the time we reach 1 Samuel 15, they have been consistently opposing it for hundreds of years and show no sign of letting up.

In his book Violence, Hospitality and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition, theologian Hans Boersma points out that hospitality requires the potential for violence. Suppose that Britain welcomes a refugee from Burma. In Burma, they are being hunted by the authorities because of their statements about human rights violations, or something like that. If Britain really welcomes them, part of that is being willing to resist the Burmese government sending agents over here to kill them, and resisting in a violent way if necessary. Part of hospitality is willingness to protect the people you are being hospitable towards.

In the same way, God is determined to bless the world, and at the stage of 1 Samuel 15, the way he has decided to bless the world is through Israel shining as a light for him among the nations. As it turns out, they're rubbish at that, but that's a different story. Even so, we still get people like Ruth and like the Gibeonites coming in from outside Israel to experience some of God's blessing to the world through Israel. And so part of what it means for God to bless the world is for God to protect Israel, his pipeline for blessing to the world.

The Amalekites had chosen not to be part of the means by which God blessed the world, and now they chose to oppose the means God was using to bring blessing to the world. If God was going to keep on blessing the world, he needed to stop the Amalekites.

But what about the children?

So far, I think I've established a decent reason for why God should want people to fight against the Amalekites. But we still haven't really dealt with the issue – why does God command a genocide here?

I think there are several reasons. Minor ones include that the Amalekites seem to have been notorious for killing children when they attacked (1 Sam 15:33), so it is repayment in kind. But while there's a kind of grisly poetic justice about that, I don't think it's the main reason, and I don't think it's an adequate answer either.

A better reason is the one given in Exodus 17.

The LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.
Exodus 17:16b, ESV

God knew that the Amalekites would always oppose Israel – that the children of the Amalekites would do it when they grew up, and their descendants too – as we see with Haman in the book of Esther.

Time for an analogy. Suppose that you met Stalin, or Harold Shipman, or some notorious evil person, when they were a child. Suppose you somehow knew all the evil they would do, all the lives they would destroy, and that the only way you could stop it was by killing them, and that was within your power. Could it be right to kill them in such a situation?

It isn't an easy question. I think it's probably similar to the one that Bonhoeffer wrestled with. He was a pacifist church leader in Nazi Germany, and was eventually executed for his part in a plot to kill Hitler. He wrestled with it for a long time, and eventually concluded that he had to, not because of what Hitler had done – that's a matter for God's judgement – but because of what Hitler would continue to do if he was not stopped.

My point is this. I think that in a situation like that, God could command the killing of a young Joseph Stalin because he knows the future and knows for certain what would happen if we didn't do it. If we were absolutely 100% certain that we were hearing God correctly, it wouldn't be wrong to obey God on something like that.

And the situation in 1 Samuel 15 is that God knew the Amalekites. He knew they were a nation that had rejected a part in God's plan to bless the world. He knew that their actions for hundreds of years had been set on destroying and stopping God's plan to bless the world. He knew that if they weren't destroyed, they would continue to try to stop his plan. And in fact, they weren't destroyed and they did continue to try to thwart God's plan, so he was proved right by that.

It's an issue of protection. If the Amalekite army had been defeated once in battle and left to retreat, they would have come back eventually. It would have been limited protection for a limited time. But what God wants is total protection for his plan to bless the world, forever. Without total destruction of the Amalekites, they were going to keep on coming back, and God's plan would not be safe.

But this still sounds, well, merciless. We'll see why it wasn't as merciless as it looks in part 3...

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Amalekite Genocide - Part 1

Over at Ship of Fools, there's a discussion going on entitled "Chapter and Worse - because the Good Book could be Better". I'm pretty sure that's not true, so I've been wading in on some of the discussions and trying to show the value of the verses. It seems to me that if all the passages people didn't like were omitted, the Bible would have nothing to say to us except that God loves us because we are wonderful people or something.

Anyway, one of the passages which came up (as I thought it probably would) was the so-called Amalekite genocide in 1 Samuel 15.

And Samuel said to Saul, "The LORD sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, 'I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.'"
1 Samuel 15:1-3, ESV

People argue, with a fair bit of justification, that this looks like God is commanding genocide, and that genocide is a Very Bad Thing, so that creates some problems for our understanding of God's goodness.

I honestly think that's all true. There are various ways people have tried getting out of it, and they don't really work.

  • Some people try saying that the Bible isn't accurate in reporting this event. But that then implies that the Bible isn't an accurate record for knowing God's character, so we can't really know God at all.
  • Some people try saying that this is Samuel's command, not God's, and that Samuel is only saying that it comes from God. However, that runs into problems when you remember that 1 Samuel presents Samuel as an ideal prophet - the prophet like Moses from Deuteronomy 18 who accurately speaks from God.

It also gets worse for people who try to avoid the force of these verses. Saul doesn't obey Samuel's command - he spares the life of King Agag (probably a title for the king of the Amalekites, like Pharaoh is of the king of the Egyptians), and also of some of the animals and so on, as a result of which God gets annoyed with Saul, and rejects him as king (v10-25).

I think we have to take the full force of these verses. God commands a genocide, and yet somehow he is good and loving. What on earth (or in heaven) is going on?

Before we can get to an answer to that, we need to think about several key issues.

Who were the Amalekites?

First up, who were the Amalekites? What made them so bad?

The Amalekites were the descendents and followers of Amalek, grandson of Esau (Genesis 36:12,16), brother of Jacob also known as Israel. As such, the Amalekites weren't total foreigners to God. Esau was the one who had sold his birthright and his part in God's promise. He had been part of God's covenant people, but he valued his own apetites more. So the Edomites (Esau's descendents, including the Amalekites) were people who had opted out en masse of the covenant which defined God's people.

They weren't Canaanites. Israel was not a threat to them; Israel was not going to take their land. Their relationship to the Amalekites was like their relationship to the other Edomites when they said "Please let us pass through your country. We will not go through any field or vineyard, or drink water from any well. We will travel along the king's highway and not turn to the right or to the left until we have passed through your territory." (Numbers 20:17)

But the Amalekites really really didn't like Israel. At the very birth of the nation of Israel, when they came out of Egypt and were at their most vulnerable, before they even got to Sinai and when they didn't even have any water, the Amalekites came and attacked them (Exodus 17:8). Israel were forced to fight their very first battle, fighting for their lives against the Amalekites, under the leadership of Moses. After God gave Moses an amazing victory, Exodus says this:

Then the LORD said to Moses, "Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it, because I will completely blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven."

Moses built an altar and called it The LORD is my Banner. He said, "For hands were lifted up to the throne of the LORD. The LORD will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation."

Exodus 17:14-16, NIV

The Amalekites were the people who hated Israel, right from the start. And though Moses said that God would be at war it looks very much as if it's the Amalekites who are at war with him. Israel have a lot of wars between Moses and Saul, but they never once attack the Amalekites.

The Amalekites attack Israel though. In Numbers 14:45, they attack Israel again while they are still in the desert. In Judges 3:13 they join in with the Moabites in attacking Israel. In Judges 6:3, they invade Israel "whenever the Israelites planted their crops", and together with the Midianites "did not spare a living thing for Israel, neither sheep nor cattle nor donkeys." Later in Judges 6 and 7 they invade again and are fought off by Gideon. The Amalekites show that generation after generation, they are at war with Israel and with God.

Even long after Saul (and Saul's successor David) have fought against and mostly eradicated the Amalekites, we get one more Amalekite coming up. 600 years after them, the Persians are ruling the whole area, and a man called Haman, an Agagite gets a lot of power. "Agagite" probably means that he was descended from the Amalekite kings, known as Agag.

After these events, King Xerxes (of Persia) honored Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, elevating him and giving him a seat of honor higher than that of all the other nobles. All the royal officials at the king's gate knelt down and paid honor to Haman, for the king had commanded this concerning him. But Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor.

Then the royal officials at the king's gate asked Mordecai, "Why do you disobey the king's command?" Day after day they spoke to him but he refused to comply. Therefore they told Haman about it to see whether Mordecai's behavior would be tolerated, for he had told them he was a Jew.

When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor, he was enraged. Yet having learned who Mordecai's people were, he scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai. Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai's people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes.

Esther 3:1-6, NIV

The Amalekites weren't just any old people. They were the nation who more than any other tried to destroy Israel. They had been trying to eradicate and plunder Israel from the very birth of Israel, 200-400 years before the command in 1 Samuel 15, and they would continue for another 600 years.

The Amalekites were vicious as well, and were noted for killing children (1 Sam 15:33).

That explains some of the background to the conflict in 1 Samuel 15. It shows that what is being commanded is an act of war in a conflict which the Israelites didn't start, and which was never going to be resolved by negotiation. But I don't think it fully explains or justifies the command - that needs us to think about the theological context as well, which can wait for another post.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Being True to Yourself

There's something I've noticed where the Church is blindly following society, and getting into all kinds of trouble as a result.

In general, it's more of a problem the more the church understands and identifies with contemporary society. So I'd guess that a clear majority of charismatic evangelical leaders I know believe this in some form, with fewer conservative evangelicals going along with it (but then, I think charismatics are usually better at relating to postmodern society - conservatives are often still relating to modern society, which explains why in university towns people doing artsy subjects tend to be a lot more charismatic than people doing sciencey subjects).

Liberals seem to believe this far more than traditionalists. And I've hardly come across it at all among conservative Anglo-Catholics, but they often seem to relate to modern society by having rituals which contrast dramatically with it.

The belief that I think the Church has absorbed from culture is this:

It is very important to have "personal integrity" - to be true to yourself and to act in a way that fits with who you are.

I want to think about this area briefly. I think it's very important. For example, I think it is one of the key issues underlying the whole gay debate, and unless it is dealt with, could well lead to a big split among evangelicals.

Personal Integrity

Firstly, I'm pretty sure that's not what "personal integrity" means. Personal integrity means keeping your word, even when it hurts (Ps 15:4) and sticking by moral principles rather than by some sense of who I am.

God's Integrity

The closest passage I can think of in the Bible to this common view is 2 Timothy 2:13 - "if we are faithless, God will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself." But things are different for God, because he's perfect. Compare the following two sentences: "I should not disown God." and "I should not disown myself." Which is more important? Isn't it obvious that the key issue is not disowning God rather than no disowning myself? Why? Because to disown God means acting in a way that doesn't fit with his perfect character. God cannot disown himself, so we should not disown him.

The crunch issue here is the Incarnation and the cross.

Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death —
even death on a cross!

Philippians 2:4-8, NIV

Was Christ true to himself? In the sense of being true to his Father and to his Father's moral character, yes he was. But in today's sense of being true to who he himself was, he most certainly wasn't true to that. He was something and made himself nothing. When the moral and ethical imperatives of being true to God clashed with the ontological imperatives of being "true to himself", Jesus Christ became nothing, and he did it for us.

The Way of the Cross

And actually, that's meant to be a big part of the pattern for our lives.

Then Jesus 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.
Mark 8:34-35, NIV

Are we meant to be true to ourselves? No. We're meant to deny ourselves, be true to Jesus and to his Father, and follow in the glorious way of the Cross and Resurrection into new life in him.

The Way of the Cross in Mission

We are called to be Christ in our societies - Christ crucified to our old lives and raised in our new ones. And part of what that means is extreme adaptability in missions, because Christ became human and made himself nothing for us.

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.
1 Corinthians 9:19-22

Those words grate with contemporary assumptions about being true to yourself. We have got so good at becoming like modern society to win modern society, that we have absorbed far too many of the unhealthy aspects of it. Some of us have often ceased to be merely in the world - too often we are of it as well. And others are not sufficiently in it because we spent so long in a past world that we got wedded to that instead.

Paul was willing to place the issue of who he was up for grabs, because it was far more important that he reach people for Christ than that he be "true to who he was". Paul was true to Jesus - willing to deny himself. Are we?

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Monotheism and Monolatrism

In my last post, I wrote quite a bit of dull academic stuff about monotheism in ancient Israel and in modern academic theology. This post should hopefully be more relevant and interesting.

What the Old Testament often teaches isn't monotheism – the belief that only one god actually exists. What the Bible tends to teach instead is monolatrism. A few definitions will help:

Monotheism: - the belief that only one god exists
Henotheism: - worshipping only one god without denying the existence of other gods
Monolatrism: - the belief that there is only one god who is worth worshipping.

I think monolatrism is actually quite a sensible approach. If you're standing next to the temple of Baal, it's quite hard to persuade people that Baal doesn't really exist. Finding proof that something doesn't exist is usually very hard outside mathematics. What the prophets argued was that Baal was useless and wasn't worth worshipping. He couldn't save people, he couldn't call down fire on sacrifices, he wasn't worth worshipping.

Today, the idols are often different. There aren't many people who worship statues of Baal around. But there are plenty of people who worship football teams, or money, or success, or pleasure. And what we are to show them isn't that their gods don't exist, but that they aren't worth worshipping – it isn't worth giving your life to a football team or to money or to pleasure. But it is worth giving your life to God.

It actually makes far more sense to teach monolatrism than monotheism when you're speaking to people who don't agree with you. So it isn't surprising that that's what the prophets did in the Old Testament. And, contrary to a lot of modern theologians, it doesn't show that they're on a journey from polytheism to monotheism.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Monotheism in History

Sorry for not posting much recently - I've been away on a conference. Thoughts from that at some point...

At the moment, I'm reading The Church in an Age of Revolution by Alec Vidler. It's good as a kind of overview of the church in Britain and bits of Europe from 1789 to somewhere in the mid 1900s. One of the big events during that time is the rise of liberal Biblical interpretation and liberal scholarship challenging the authority of Scripture. One of the things that annoys me about the book is Vidler's continuing description of those who keep teaching the same truths and keep on teaching the Bible as reliable as "naive". That in itself could be a very naive description. Just because something is written by a "scholar" doesn't mean it's true, and especially not when the scholarship is done as shoddily as a lot of the stuff which was seen to challenge the Bible.

I don't even think that whole area should be described as "theology". After all, theology is about knowing and studying God ("theos"), just as biology is about knowing about and studying life ("bios"). But we cannot know God without him revealing himself to us, and if he hasn't revealed himself, as many so-called "theologians" claim, then we can't know him or study him. Anyway, enough of the rant. To the point.

One of the big areas in which the Bible is often attacked as unreliable is the way it describes the development of Israelite beliefs about God. Many modern scholars claim that Israel started out polytheistic, and developed via henotheism (believing that one god is much more important than the others) at the time of Hezekiah and Josiah (700s and 600s BC) to monotheism (belief that there's only one God) at the time of the exile (500s BC). They believe this partly because that is how they think religions develop (though without much evidence because they've never watched a religion develop), and partly because the archaeological evidence shows that there were lots of idols of different gods, particularly Asherah and Baal, around for the few hundred years before Hezekiah. And then because they think that the idea of monotheism only comes along in the 500s BC, they say that all the bits of the Bible that teach monotheism must have been written after that, and so you get most of the OT written during the Exile.

The main reason that I think this is bad scholarship is that the archaeological evidence also agrees pretty much perfectly with the Biblical account. After all, the Bible doesn't say that the people of Israel were monotheistic before Hezekiah. In fact, it says they worshipped lots and lots of idols.

Even worse, the Israelites tried to hide their sins from the LORD their God. They built their own local shrines everywhere in Israel - from small towns to large, walled cities. They also built stone images of foreign gods and set up sacred poles for the worship of Asherah on every hill and under every shady tree. They offered sacrifices at the shrines, just as the foreign nations had done before the LORD forced them out of Israel. They did sinful things that made the LORD very angry.

Even though the LORD had commanded the Israelites not to worship idols, they did it anyway. So the LORD made sure that every prophet warned Israel and Judah with these words: "I, the LORD, command you to stop doing sinful things and start obeying my laws and teachings! I gave them to your ancestors, and I told my servants the prophets to repeat them to you."

2 Kings 17:9-13, CEV

The picture the Bible paints isn't one of lots of monotheistic obedient Israelites. It's a picture where there are vast numbers of idols, but God keeps telling them that the idols are a bad idea. What Hezekiah and Josiah do is to try to get rid of the idolatry by returning to monolatry (only worshipping one god, whether or not you believe the others exist).

Hezekiah obeyed the LORD, just as his ancestor David had done. He destroyed the local shrines, then tore down the images of foreign gods and cut down the sacred pole for worshiping the goddess Asherah. He also smashed the bronze snake Moses had made. The people had named it Nehushtan and had been offering sacrifices to it.

2 Kings 18:3-4, CEV

So when people find statues that show people thought that God was married to Asherah, or that they worshipped Baal or whatever, we shouldn't be surprised at all. The archaeological evidence fits the Bible on this one just fine, so we don't need another theory.

Of course, the big difference between the two theories is what happened earlier. The Bible does say that there were a few brief periods much earlier in Israel's history when they only really did worship God and didn't use idols.

Israel served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work that the LORD did for Israel.
Joshua 24:31, ESV

There's also the time from early in David's reign until when Solomon introduced idol worship to keep his wives happy - that's somewhere around 1200BC with Joshua and around 1000BC with David and Solomon.

And interestingly enough, when we look at the archaeology for those periods, we find far fewer idols. Finkelstein, for example, found a whole series of villages in the hill country from about 1200BC, with virtually no idols or pig bones. Could this possibly suggest that Israel's later idolatry was not a stage in their religious development forwards, but rather them turning away from their earlier monotheism to idolatry, before finally coming back to monotheism during the exile? In other words, exactly what the Bible says happened....

I was going to write about why teaching henotheism and monolatry are possibly better responses to idolatry than teaching monotheism, but I seem to have written quite enough for now already!