Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Jesus of Nazareth (Zeffirelli)

It's interesting watching films of the gospels...

This is probably the most critically acclaimed one, but not necessarily the best. For what it's worth, the Passion of the Christ is better in every respect from Gethsemane onwards.

Important points to note about this film:

  • Overwhelmingly white and British. Most characters have RP accents. Donald Pleasence as one of the Magi is particularly unsettling. And that also means they don't show enough emotion.
  • It's done in the style of a "film of the book" where they mess about with the plot-line quite a bit. They even mess up bits of the theology (Jesus on the Law, for example).
  • Lots of good incidental stuff - it actually looks like 1st century Judea for much of the film (geeky note - though they get the temple wrong. The stones are much too small, for one thing).
  • Very few special effects, which means very few miracles.

What's interesting on the subject of miracles is that the film actually seems to be telling the story in a sceptical way - kind of like >Shadow of the Galilean, but less extreme. Most films from books jazz the plot up a bit. This does the opposite. So the only miracles are the feeding of the 5000, raising of Lazarus and Jairus' daughter (done so there's questions over how dead they were), the healing of a man born blind (done with questions over whether he was blind at all, even before he is healed). There's no darkness at the crucifixion, not even a storm.

The Resurrection is particularly oddly done - you don't see Mary meeting Jesus, but you do see her telling the disciples. There's then a long scene where Peter seems to persuade everyone that Jesus is alive because they all betrayed him and so they have to spread his message (not sure how that was meant to work). Then you have the Great Commission scene, where after the previous scene you're not sure if it's fantasy or not. I honestly wasn't sure whether Zeffirelli wanted to say the Resurrection happened or wanted to try to explain how people might have thought it happened. He probably left it deliberately ambiguous.

I'd be happy with using clips from this in church - the Triumphal Entry, for example, is done well, and there's some good discussion over expecting the Messiah to be a military figure. And it's good to be reminded of large chunks of the gospel narrative. But at the end of the day, I don't think it's actually telling the same story as the gospels.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A Great Birthday Present!

A couple of months ago now, it was my birthday. One of the presents I was given was a copy of the whole ESV being read out in MP3 format. It was a great present.

I do quite a bit of driving. My placement next year, for example, is over 30 mins away by car. It takes 2½ hours to drive to my parents' place. And having the Bible on MP3 means that I can spend a good fraction of that time listening to the Bible.

It makes getting a big picture of books and so on much easier. It makes revising for my Bible exams much easier. It makes studying the Bible while I'm running or walking or something much easier.

So thanks again!

Monday, January 28, 2008

Ryle - worship

The first two of these quotes could be seen as heavily critical of the practices of modern conservative evangelicalism...

For another thing, true public worship must be the worship of the heart. I mean by this, that the affections must be employed as well as our intellect, and our inward man must serve God as well as our body.

J.C. Ryle, Knots Untied - Worship

Reason and common sense alike teach the usefulness of the practice of publicly reading the Scriptures.... What safer plan can be devised for the instruction of such people than the regular reading of God's Word? A congregation which hears but little of the Bible is always in danger of becoming entirely dependent on its minister. God should always speak in the assembly of His people as well as man.

J.C. Ryle, Knots Untied - Worship

Whatever man may please to say, the grand test of the value of any kind of worship is the effect it produces on the lives of the worshippers... The best Church Services for the congregation are those which make its individual members most holy at home and alone. If we want to know whether our own public worship is doing us good, let us try it by these tests. Does it quicken our conscience? Does it send us to Christ? Does it add to our knowledge? Does it sanctify our life?

J.C. Ryle, Knots Untied - Worship

Let me add in a criticism of my own, and one which I think many charismatics do much much better than we do. So often in a good sermon I can sense that God is working in people's hearts and convicting them. And so often afterwards, I can hear the same old conversations about football or work or whatever starting up again and sense the Devil snatching away the seed that was planted. Why do we not follow sermons and/or services with extended periods for prayer, alone or with others? Yes - let people talk about ephemera if they want to, but why do we not encourage a culture of prayerfully taking things to God and struggling with them before God?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Marriage and Society

From a discussion I had over lunch today:

In English schools, lots of society stuff is taught in PSHE lessons. Sex education, drugs, eating disorders, all that sort of thing. But marriage isn't on the syllabus at all.

Where do non-Christians learn about marriage, apart from soap operas?

Is it any wonder the marriage rate is declining?

Friday, January 25, 2008

General Revelation

I've had to do quite a bit of reading recently on the idea of General Revelation and Natural Theology - basically what we can tell about God from looking at the world around us.

I still think Calvin's treatment of it is about as good as they come. He points out that we should be able to tell lots about God from creation, but that we can't see all of it, and we often get bits wrong because we're sinful and blind, and because the blindness and the sinfulness are linked, it's our fault that we don't see God more clearly in the world.

What's interesting though is seeing what the Bible tells us we should be able to tell about God from the world around us.

  • That God is real
  • That God is powerful beyond our understanding (e.g. Job 38)
  • That God is wise beyond our understanding (e.g. Isaiah 55:8-9)
  • That God is reliable (e.g. Jeremiah 33:25-26)
  • That we should obey God (e.g. Jeremiah 8:7-9, 18:13-15)
  • That God is patient

In other words, what we should be able to know about God from the world around us isn't enough that we can be saved. But it is enough that we should be able to see that we desperately need saving, and that we can trust God to do it. It's enough to point us to Jesus, but not enough to replace him.

Being able to see God in the universe doesn't mean that we have authority or power over God - it's because he graciously made us as human beings and made the universe in such a way that we could tell a bit about him from it.

Those things we can tell about God from the universe actually sum up lots of the reasons I enjoyed studying physics so much...

I could put in lots of stuff here about the Barth / Brunner debate, but I can't be bothered, and I don't think it would help that much.

Recent Economics

My knowledge of statistics is decent; my knowledge of economics is not. But even I (after a little reading) can tell that the sub-prime loans crisis was due to people forgetting that probabilities need to be independent for simple maths to work on them.

Here's an example:

Let's say the probability of Man Utd winning the Premiership is 1/3, the probability of me getting over 60% on my patristics exam is 1/2 and the probability of Arsenal finishing outside the top two of the Premiership is 1/4.

Now how I do in my exams is pretty much independent of what goes on in football, so I can say that the chance of Man Utd winning the Premiership and of me getting over 60% on my patristics exam is 1/3 x 1/2 = 1/6.

But the chance of Man Utd winning and Arsenal finishing outside the top two aren't independent. If one happens, the other is more likely to happen. So the probability of that isn't just 1/3 x 1/4 = 1/12. It's going to be more than that.

That's roughly what happened with the sub-prime mortgages. They took lots of events which actually were connected to each other, in this case the chances of poor people in America being unable to pay their mortgages, but just multiplied the probabilities when assessing the risks. If someone had done that in a GCSE maths class I was teaching, I'd have told them off. But when they're doing it with the global economy, they probably deserve to be sacked and sued until they can't get any kind of mortgage, especially because the people their incompetence hurts most will be the poor. It pretty much always is.

Here's a great rant:

As a result of America's mortgage crisis, we have learnt that, to play in banking's premier league, you need much more than a degree from Harvard Business School, the morals of an alley cat and an unbridled lust for riches. These attributes help, but the sine qua non of a seat at the top table is a willingness to suspend disbelief until junk loans to trailer-dwelling welfare claimants can be diced, sliced, spiced and resold as triple-A securities. This takes some doing, as the business - quite clearly - makes no sense.

It is like a restaurateur opening up cans of dog-meat, sprinkling it with herbs, presenting the mix as steak tartare, and charging £25 a portion for something that will poison most of his customers. The difference is, passing off chopped donkey for Aberdeen Angus would be illegal; the repackaging of toxic sub-prime mortgages as high-quality investments was not.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Tom Ambrose

Thought it was worth posting to say that this looks to be one of the worse miscarriages of justice I've seen in the C of E. I don't know all the ins and outs of the case, so I might conceivably be wrong, but I don't think I am.

Yes, there may well have been a breakdown in relationships, but in this case the solution to that is internal church discipline of the offending parties, if necessary backed up by the bishop, archdeacon, etc. If half of what Ms Gledhill writes is true, Mr Ambrose has been very hard done by indeed.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Calvin - Delight in God

Here's John Calvin sounding like John Piper:

But although our mind cannot conceive of God, without rendering some worship to him, it will not, however, be sufficient simply to hold that he is the only being whom all ought to worship and adore, unless we are also persuaded that he is the fountain of all goodness, and that we must seek everything in him, and in none but him.


For, until men feel that they owe everything to God, that they are cherished by his paternal care, and that he is the author of all their blessings, so that nought is to be looked for away from him, they will never submit to him in voluntary obedience; nay, unless they place their entire happiness in him, they will never yield up their whole selves to him in truth and sincerity.

Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.2.1

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Boston Molasses Disaster

At a quiz tonight, to my great surprise, I got a question on the Boston Molasses Disaster correct. It deserves to be better known, as at least 21 people met a sticky and surprising end.

At 529 Commercial Street, a huge molasses tank 50 ft (15 m) tall, 90 ft (27 m) in diameter and containing as much as 2,300,000 US gal (8,700,000 L) collapsed. Witnesses stated that as it collapsed there was a loud rumbling sound like a machine gun as the rivets shot out of the tank, and that the ground shook as if a train were passing by.

The collapse unleashed an immense wave of molasses between 8 and 15 ft (2.5 to 4.5 m) high, moving at 35 mph (56 km/h) and exerting a pressure of 2 ton/ft² (200 kPa). The molasses wave was of sufficient force to break the girders of the adjacent Boston Elevated Railway's Atlantic Avenue structure and lift a train off the tracks. Nearby, buildings were swept off their foundations and crushed. Several blocks were flooded to a depth of 2 to 3 feet.


From time to time, I find it helpful to question things which are often assumed in Christianity. I don't mean things that have been discussed and agreed on, like the Nicene Creed or the Chalcedonian definition or anything, I mean things we always take for granted because we're always taught them, like "Jesus wept" being the shortest verse in the Bible (it isn't; it's three words in Greek; 1 Thess 5:16, 17 are each only two words in Greek, and 1 Thes 5:17 is two words in most English translations as well, though 1 Thes 5:16 is shorter in terms of letters). Sometimes I change my mind partly as a result of thinking it through, like I did with Soul sleep, (mind change).

Anyway - omnipresence. Here's what I think at the moment:

The Bible doesn't teach that God is omnipresent. It teaches he is with believers whereever they are. It teaches he can see everywhere, he can act everywhere and anywhere, but it doesn't teach that he actually is everywhere.

In fact, the idea of God being spatially located in that way doesn't actually make a lot of sense to me. I think it's a leftover from Greek philosophy, and has a nasty tendency to head towards panentheism. Anyone want to argue / agree?

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Random Thoughts

I was in a supermarket the other day, and was disturbed by just how much more space is given to fizzy drinks than to fruit juice. I mean - who drinks more fizzy than fruit juice anyway? I think I might have done for about a year when I was a teenager.

Today I've sung two great songs about the cross - And Can it Be and Oh to see the dawn. And what struck me was just how little we often pay attention to the words of great hymns we're used to, especially when they've got lively tunes. I remember years ago reading through a hymnbook with a new Christian - teaching them hymns and so on. We got to "And Can it Be", and my reaction was just to sing it quickly and skate over it. But my friend broke down in tears, because she actually paid attention to the words...

And can it be, that I should gain
An interest in the Saviour's blood? Died he for me, who caused his pain, For me who him to death pursued? Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

Now it is that "Oh to see the dawn" has a better tune for the words, or is it just that we're less familiar with it? Because I'm always moved when I sing it, and I just welly And Can it Be out without getting moved so much...

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Corporate Incorporation and Baptism

These are my thoughts semi-spinning off a seminar held at Wycliffe with the (very intelligent and well-read) Dr Benno van den Torren. It's quite possible I've mangled the arguments beyond recognition – if I've done so it's my fault.

Who makes decisions?

It's very interesting that the credobaptist movement only really got going during the Enlightenment, because it assumes some ideas which don't seem to have existed in the same way before then.

One of them is the notion of individual autonomy. In the modern world, we tend to think that the fundamental decision-making unit of society is the individual person, which incidentally is part of the reason for family breakdown and so on. Interestingly, the Bible teaches individual responsibility a lot, but doesn't teach individual autonomy, though we often read it back in from our culture.

Even in our culture, if we look at what actually happens with decision-making, not all individuals are autonomous. Some married couples or best friends always make decisions as a couple. Some types of disability mean that people depend on others for their decisions. The same could be said of some elderly people, who no longer make decisions for themselves, and some children, who do not yet make decisions for themselves.

In other cultures, it's even stronger. Some tribal cultures, the tribal chief will decide everything that matters. In some cultures, the corporation makes many important decisions. Where there is slavery, often the slaves do not get to make decisions for themselves, which is part of the reason we in the West hate the idea so much, because we value our own autonomy so highly. We even tend to describe relationships where one person does not have as much decision-making ability as we would like as “abusive”, but abusive relationships exist too.

Children are a particularly interesting example. The process of growing up, with all the stresses and strains of that, can usually be described in the (post-)modern West as going from the child having zero autonomy – they don't decide what to wear or where to go or anything to full autonomy.

So even in the West, the situation is a lot more complex than simply being individuals making their own decisions. There are still some corporate decision-making units, and there are lots of shades of grey.

The New Testament

The same was true in the Roman world in which the events in the New Testament take place. Slavery was very much legal, though with a large number of freedmen – ex-slaves. Wives and children were legally property of the husband / father, to the point where Paul could say that the difference between a slave and a son is that the son will one day inherit.

Some slaves do seem to have made their own decisions – Onesimus being a good example, even if he is most famous for running away, but there was wide variation in terms of both the educational level and the degree of autonomy that slaves had. Some were effectively estate managers, others were effectively treated as machines. Likewise with some wives – there are several places where Christian wives of non-Christian husbands are addressed.

What is interesting when we come to consider baptism in the New Testament world is that sometime individuals were baptised (for example the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, who seems to have been a very powerful slave), and sometimes whole corporate units are baptised because the person in charge becomes a Christian.


One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay." And she prevailed upon us.
Acts 16:14-15, ESV

There's no evidence of individual faith there from anyone in the household except Lydia. The household of a trader of purple goods would probably have included quite a few slaves and so on. Were there children? I don't think it matters. There's baptism without any record of individual profession of faith here.

And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" And they said, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household." And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.
Acts 16:29-34, ESV

Here, the whole household gets to hear, but only the jailer is recorded as believing, and the whole household gets baptised.

In that culture, it would have been very unusual for one of his slaves to refuse to go along with the master's beliefs. Which is why there's quite a bit in the New Testament about the difficult situation where a slave does become a Christian without the master doing so.

Other people who get baptised with their entire households: Crispus in Acts 18:8, Stephanas in 1 Corinthians 1:16. It's interesting that a decent fraction of all the baptisms we have recorded in the New Testament are baptising whole households. And whole households, not just everyone in the household except scullery maid number 3, who doesn't actually seem to have an individual faith.

The point is that baptism in the New Testament isn't just baptising people who believe; it also seems to be baptising anyone who is dependent on the believer for decision-making. They don't wait until the slaves profess individual faith or until they are free and so can believe without compulsion. If there were children in those households, would they have been baptised, or would they have waited? Waited for what? If slaves are being baptised, then children would be too.

The application to infant baptism today is obvious.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Respect to the Catholics

You've sometimes got to hand it to the Roman Catholics...

I'm doing a theology degree at a secular university which has some Catholic (and some Protestant) bits attached. Today I went to a class which was meant to be part of an 8 class series covering modern theology, given by a Catholic visiting fellow at the university. And what was he using as his only text for the 8 week course?

The Roman Catholic Catechism.

By comparison, a parallel class was spending the first week thinking about Bultmann (who I'd characterise as an atheist existentialist desperately trying to be a Christian without giving up the atheism or the existentialism).

Now I'm not sure I'd have the guts even to consider basing an 8 week theology course in a secular university on the 39 Articles, or the UCCF DB, or the Westminster Confession, or the C of E catechism, unless it was specifically specified as the subject for the course.

Whether it's wise to do so or not is a completely different question. But respect to the Catholics for having the guts to try...

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Pannenberg, Brunner, Barth - Revelation

For the last two days, I've been (meant to be) reading some modern (some even German-speaking) theologians. All of them seem to give at best a mixed bag, in terms of both comprehensibility and truthfulness, but here are some of the highlights...

Thus, we saw that it is only the end of all events which could bring in the final self-manifestation of Jahweh, the perfection of his revelation.... the witness of the New Testament is that in the fate of Jesus Christ the end is not only seen ahead of time, but is experienced by means of a foretaste. For, in him, the resurrection of the dead has already taken place, though to all other men this is still something yet to be experienced.


Now the history of the world is only visible when one stands at its end... With the resurrection of Jesus, the end of history has already occurred, although it does not strike us in this way. It is through the resurrection that God has substantiated his deity in an ultimate way and is now manifest as the God of all men. It is only the eschatological character of the Christ event that establishes that there will be no further self-manifestation of God beyond this event. Thus, the end of the world will be on a cosmic scale what has already happened in Jesus.

Wolfhart Pannenberg, Dogmatic Theses of the Concept of Revelation

As a rule the modern man does not understand the claim of Christianity to be a religion of revelation, and he therefore rejects it. The most characteristic element of the present age, and that which distinguishes it from earlier periods in history, is the almost complete disappearance of the sense of transcendence and the consciousness of revelation.

Emil Brunner, Revelation and Reason

All the Church need do is just this: After any exegesis propounded in it, even the very best, it has to realise afresh the distinction between text and commentary and to let the text speak again without let or hindrance, so that it will experience the lordship of this free power...


Thus God does reveal himself in statements, through the medium of speech, and indeed of human speech. His word is always this or that word spoken by the prophets and apostles and proclaimed in the Church. The personal character of God's Word is not, therefore, to be played off against its verbal or spiritual character.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics

Monday, January 14, 2008

Harry Potter - alternative ending

Hat tip to Caleb for this one.

Here is a well-written and quite cool, (if a little theologically dubious), alternative ending to Harry Potter 7, from back when the last word was officially "scar".

The Sceptic's Dream

I was listening to Daniel 2 yesterday, and was reminded of how much I like it, particularly what we see of the character of Nebuchadnezzar.

He's the King of Babylon - the most powerful kingdom in the known world. And more than that, he's not taken in by all the superstition and "smart guys" in the royal court, though he's not quite modern either. So when he has a dream, he thinks it has a meaning and is worried about it. But he knows that if the court astrologers and so on aren't just faking it, they'll be able to tell him what the dream was as well as the meaning.

Then the king answered, "I am certain that you are trying to gain time, because you realize that this is what I have firmly decided: If you do not tell me the dream, there is just one penalty for you. You have conspired to tell me misleading and wicked things, hoping the situation will change. So then, tell me the dream, and I will know that you can interpret it for me."

The astrologers answered the king, "There is not a man on earth who can do what the king asks! No king, however great and mighty, has ever asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or astrologer. What the king asks is too difficult. No one can reveal it to the king except the gods, and they do not live among men."

This made the king so angry and furious that he ordered the execution of all the wise men of Babylon.

Daniel 2:8-12, NIV

Now I'm not saying I'd want to work for Nebuchadnezzar - his labour relations policy had a lot to be desired and he had some issues with pride, but I've got a lot of sympathy with him here. The astrologers and wise guys claimed to have access to some form of knowledge from beyond the universe. Neb calls their bluff, and wins.

It's interesting also that the astrologers, despite all their claims (and the Babylonians arguably invented Western astrology and astronomy), are still functional atheists when it comes to checkable claims. They genuinely don't think that gods reveal things to people, or that gods live among men, which makes one wonder precisely how they claimed their astrology and so on worked. Ask Russell Grant, or whoever the astrologers of today are, what the biggest news story of 2008 will be, and if they get it wrong, they're obviously bogus. They won't know any better than anyone else.

Anyway, Daniel shows up and says this:

Daniel replied, "No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries. He has shown King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen in days to come. Your dream and the visions that passed through your mind as you lay on your bed are these...

Daniel 2:27-28, NIV

And the story ends like this:

The king said to Daniel, "Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery."

Daniel 2:47, NIV

One of the big concerns of the prophets is attacking idolatry. Daniel does it in an unusual way - he presents a series of stories which serve as contests between God and the various gods worshipped in Babylon, the most powerful nation in the known world. Here he shows that the gods the astrologers and wise guys claimed to follow are precisely zero use when it comes to testable stuff, but that God can reveal mysteries.

And that seems to chime in with a lot of sceptics' views. The Babylonian religion looks like it is actually completely ineffective. Yes, there are clever guys involved, giving their own wisdom. But there is no access to transcendent truth or revelation in a way that goes beyond what normal people have. And the astrologers and so on know it when it comes to the crunch. There's a chance they're even just going along with it to keep themselves in business.

But there is a real God, who does have the power to reveal mysteries, and to act, and to save his people.

Webb - Healing

Hezekiah recovered as the Lord said he would. It is rather surprising, however, after the astonishing nature of the sign, to be told that recovery itself was accomplished by something as mundane as the preparation and application of a poultice! But if we are surprised, it is because of a defect in our own theology rather than anything incongruous in the text. For there is no disjunction in Scripture between miraculous and natural healing, as though God were involved in one and not the other. He is as much Lord of the soothing poultice as he is of the moving shadow, and perhaps our eyes would be more open and our hearts more thankful if only we could grasp this simple and sane biblical truth more firmly.

Barry Webb, The Message of Isaiah (comments on Isaiah 38

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Ryle - trusting in anything except Christ

In himself [the regenerate person] sees nothing but unworthiness, but in Christ he sees ground for the fullest confidence, and trusting in Him, he believes that his sins are all forgiven, and his iniquities put away. He believes that for the sake of Christ's finished work and death upon the cross he is reckoned righteous in God's sight, and may look forward to death and judgment without alarm. He may have his fears and doubts. He may sometimes tell you he feels as if he had no faith at all. But ask him whether he is willing to trust in anything instead of Christ, and see what he will say. Ask him whether he will rest his hopes of eternal life on his own goodness, his own amendments, his prayers, his minister, his doings in church and out of church, either in whole or in part, and see what he will reply. Ask him whether he will give up Christ, and place his confidence in any other way of salvation. Depend upon it, he would say, that though he does feel weak and bad, he would not give up Christ for all the world...

J.C. Ryle, Knots Untied

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Your Choice

It's odd; when I was doing swimming lifesaving training, we weren't taught to do the following:

[Throw rope to drowning person]

Now, you have a choice to make. If you want, you can take hold of that rope and pull yourself out. Or maybe you haven't yet made up your mind, in which case I can throw you this booklet about different types of rope and how wonderful it is to live life when you aren't drowning. I'm not going to put any pressure on you. In a couple of minutes, I'm going to show you how to pull on a rope, which if you want to, you can copy.

So why do that when preaching evangelistic sermons?

I remember one scenario we did where I had to play someone who didn't want to be rescued, and maybe took to the role slightly too much. One guy dived in; I held him under for a bit. Eventually, four of them dived in, each grabbed one limb, and swum me to shore like that.

I think we have a choice to make about whether we actually care about non-Christians...

(And just pointing out that of course I think it's important to respect people. It's also important to get people thinking, which is what I'm trying to do here.)

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Difficult Theology

Often, when there's a difficult problem in theology, people seem to come at it by assuming the truth of one philosophical / theological system or other, and then end up fighting for some passages against other ones. I don't think that's the ideal evangelical way to do it.

It's much better to be clear first on everything that we can affirm or deny explicitly from Scripture, make sure those are in place, then seeing what we can fit around them. I guess I see it more as bottom-up theology than top-down - not assuming the overall shape of the doctrine until later, and even then leaving room for vagueness.

So, for example, with predestination:

  • Only those whom God the Father has called come to the Son
  • God predestines those who follow him from at least as far back as the creation of the world
  • We are responsible for our own actions and for whether or not we follow Jesus
  • Christians should tell people who aren't Christians about Jesus and put a lot of effort into trying to persuade them to become Christians.

Now, if we hold all of those together, we avoid a lot of the common errors, and it becomes apparent that the problems a lot of people have are actually because of dodgy logic (assuming all of those statements are true, and that that's possible).

There does appear to be a logical difficulty there (and it's a slightly different logical difficulty depending on whether or not we have free will), but theres a way out in each case:

  • If we do have free will (in some sense), then it means that our freedom can't rule out God having predetermined what we freely decide. And that might be possible if God's outside time.
  • If we don't have free will, then it means that moral responsibility can still exist without freedom of will. And that also seems possible, because God can ascribe whatever responsibilities he wants

I don't know if free will exists or not. The Bible doesn't say, and I don't think you can derive an answer either way from the Bible. Modern physics suggests not, but modern physics might be wrong on that.

I think it is wrong to be dogmatic on specific theological theories which we use to connect data from the Bible, but right to be dogmatic on those data.

Elaine Storkey - Evangelical Unity

From Elaine Storkey, quoted on Ruth Gledhill's blog, comments by me.

'For me, this never started out as a battle between conservatives and open evangelicals. For me, this was trying to draw attention to the fact that we were unhappy with the style of management at Wycliffe Hall. But as time evolved, it started to feel more theological.

'I am alarmed at the way big walls between people and groups have started to emerge in the way they did not before. People had nuances and differences, but we all worked well together. From the Fulcrum point of view, it is not what we are wanting. We want to work with everybody rather than create a new camp.

Odd - my experience of Fulcrum is that it exists precisely to create a new camp and not work with conservative evangelicals. And the proposed court case seems to point in the same direction.

I agree with the alarm at big walls. Working together and avoiding infighting is much better.

'I am alarmed at the belligerence of the conservative camp, where they are seemingly going out of their way to make life as difficult as possible for the Archbishop of Canterbury. I cannot imagine what the reasons are. They are being destructive rather than constructive, finding something to argue about rather than working together to find a fruitful outcome.

'I am bewildered as to why anyone would want to spend their energy doing this when there is a world out there we should be speaking to of the love of God. And we should not just be speaking it, we should be living it, first of all, in the way we love one another, and also in the way we love them.

Once again, I can think of very very few conservative evangelicals who give their effort to fighting internal battles. Most of the ones I know are focusing on evangelism and discipleship within their churches and planting new churches, only really getting involved in politics when they feel it to be necessary - e.g. because they think the C of E is being unnecessarily unhelpful in stopping them from planting more churches. It is genuinely sad that given that there is infighting.

'What is the point of going out and trying to find heretics, so we can shoot them down? It seems so unloving and so unproductive. I cannot figure it out.

I don't know many people who go out to find heretics. But because conservative evangelicalism sees itself as following the twin mandate of the Pastorals to defend and proclaim the gospel, when they come across heretics they do tend to try to shoot them down. But the main business is proclaiming the gospel.

'Never before in the history of the evangelical church have we had so many evangelicals and of such talent. The whole way we could pull together with other people and other traditions of the church, it could be fantastic.

Quite. Events like Hope 08 seem to be showing just that starting to happen, though of course more effort is going to go into growing individual congregations than into politics.

But rather than do that, we end up squabbling. It is appalling. It is ridiculous. There is no victory there. It is just daft.'

My thoughts exactly. It's odd how different things look from a different point of view, isn't it?

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Comment on Latest Wycliffe Hall Stuff

More developments in the slow car wreck that is Wycliffe Hall's media coverage can be found here or more comprehensibly here or here.

I've now removed the bulk of this post...

ETA - it appears that Fulcrum have linked to this. I have no intention of getting drawn into any more discussions on this topic, as I don't think I've found any fora where people are genuinely interested in discussing it rather than just being nasty about the participants. I've also clarified my first paragraph because it wasn't clear enough.

Edited again to add that my friend Ben has also commented on this.

What they sung at the Last Supper

Sorry that I've been so poor at updating this blog recently. I'm doing a full-time course on the sacraments at the moment, and I've also got exams on various Biblical stuff later in the week.

The highlight of the sacraments course so far has been realising what hymn Jesus and the disciples were probably singing as they left the Last Supper.

I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the LORD. The LORD has disciplined me severely, but he has not given me over to death. Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD. This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the LORD's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we pray, O LORD! O LORD, we pray, give us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD! We bless you from the house of the LORD. The LORD is God, and he has made his light to shine upon us. Bind the festal sacrifice with cords, up to the horns of the altar! You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God; I will extol you. Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!

Psalms 118:17-29, ESV

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Ryle on Baptism

I thought it's worth posting the thoughts of J.C. Ryle, noted 19th century evangelical and Anglican Bishop of Liverpool on the question of infant baptism. These are taken from Knots Untied, chapter 5. I provide only an outline of his thought, and haven't changed the language where I'm quoting him directly. When he was writing, "man" was legitimately gender-inclusive.

What Baptism Is
  • Baptism is an ordinance appointed by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the continual admission of fresh members into His visible Church.
  • Baptism is an ordinance of great simplicity.
  • Baptism is an ordinance on which we may confidently expect the highest blessings, when it is rightly used (which right usage includes faith and prayer).
  • Baptism is an ordinance which is expressly named in the New Testament about 80 times.
  • Baptism is an ordinance which, according to Scripture, a man may receive, and yet get no good from it.
  • Baptism is an ordinance which in Apostolic times went together with the first beginnings of a man's religion.
  • Baptism is an ordinance which a man may never receive, and yet be a true Christian and be saved. The essential baptism is baptism of the Holy Spirit, given to the heart.
The Mode of Baptism

Ryle argues that the Bible does not come down clearly on the side of either sprinkling or immersion, and the BCP clearly allows either. He points out that there are clearly some situations where not everyone could be baptised by immersion (e.g. during a drought), but baptism should still be practiced, and hence that baptism by sprinkling is valid. He also points out that the verb baptizo is used of washing before a meal in Luke 11:38.

To whom ought baptism to be administered?

Ryle argues that both adult converts and children of Christians ought to be baptised. He gives the following arguments for children of Christians.

  • Children were admitted into the Old Testament Church by a formal ordinance.

The general tendency of the Gospel is to increase men's spiritual privileges and not to diminish them. Nothing, I believe, would astonish a Jewish convert so much as to tell him that his children could not be baptized! "If they are fit to receive circumcision," he would reply, "why are they not fit to receive baptism?" And my own firm conviction has long been that no Baptist could give him an answer... I never saw an argument against infant baptism that might not have been equally directed against infant circumcision.

  • The baptism of children is nowhere forbidden in the New Testament. Ryle points out that with so many of the early Church being Jews, they would naturally have assumed their children could be baptised unless it was commanded otherwise.
  • The baptism of households is specially mentioned in the New Testament, and children are not specifically excluded from that.
  • The behaviour of our Lord Jesus to little children, as recorded in the Gospels, is very peculiar and full of meaning.
  • Baptism of little children was a practice with which the Jews were perfectly familiar. When proselytes were received into the Jewish Church by baptism, before our Lord Jesus Christ came, their infants were received, and baptized with them, as a matter of course (ref Lightfoot).
  • Infant baptism was uniformly practiced by all the early Christians (with the single exception of perhaps Tertullian).
  • The vast majority of eminent Christians from the period of the Protestant Reformation down to the present day have maintained the rights of infants to be baptized.

Ryle then agrees that there is no specific command for infant baptism either, but in light of the above points it seems the more logical position for the early Church to hold without needing to be told. He gives the examples of admission of women to the Lord's Supper, which is nowhere commanded in the New Testament.

He then replies to the Baptist argument that only those who repent and believe should be baptized:

In reply to this argument, I ask to be shown a single text which says that nobody ought to be baptized until he repents and believes. I shall ask in vain... To assert that [the Biblical references to baptism] forbid anyone to be baptized unless he repents and believes is to put a meaning on the words that they were never meant to bear...

After all, will anyone tell us that an intelligent profession of repentance and faith is absolutely necessary to salvation? Would even the most rigid Baptist say that because infants cannot believe, all infants must be damned? ... Will any man dare to say that infants cannot receive grace and the Holy Ghost? John the Baptist, we know, was filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother's womb (Luke 1:15). Will anyone dare to tell us that infants cannot be elect - cannot be in the covenant - cannot have new hearts - cannot be born again - cannot go to heaven when they die? ... Yet surely those who may be members of the glorious Church above, may be admitted to the Church below! ... Those who can be capable of being baptized by the Holy Ghost, may surely be baptized with water!

What position baptism ought to hold in our religion
  • Don't despise it
  • Don't make an idol of it
  • Baptism is frequently mentioned in the New Testament, but nowhere near as frequently as some other big topics. It is important, but not the main thing.
  • Baptism is spoken of with deep reverence, and in close connection with the highest privileges and blessings.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Obscurantism and Meaninglessness

If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me.
1 Corinthians 14:11, NIV

I thought it was worth doing a post on one of the great landmark papers in the history of science and philosophy - the well-named Transgressing the Boundaries - Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. It was written by Alan Sokal, Professor of Physics at New York University. Sokal comments on it here.

The paper is especially notable, because it was deliberately written as a load of rubbish and was submitted to and accepted by a peer-reviewed journal. Sokal himself wrote of it:

Nowhere in all of this is there anything resembling a logical sequence of thought; one finds only citations of authority, plays on words, strained analogies, and bald assertions.

And it was accepted by a peer-reviewed academic journal. My point is this:

Rule 1 - If someone is not clear in what they are saying, it is quite possible that what they are saying is actually a load of rubbish.

Rule 2 - If we are not clear in what we are saying, there is a high chance of everyone else writing it off as a load of rubbish.

But then again, they might think it's really clever. But it's better to be understood and disagreed with than to have people think you're clever. If Rule 1 was more widely appreciated, it would help clarity of communication greatly.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

German Theologians

I don't like admitting when I don't understand something. I'm fine with admitting that I'm not exactly the greatest person in the world at a lot of practical stuff, but if I don't understand something, I either blame it on poor explanation or on the concept itself not making sense. So with the plot of Transformers or the intellectual coherence of Marcus Borg's thoughts about Jesus or the assumptions underlying much of modern source criticism, I'm happy and reasonably confident saying that the emperor does indeed have no clothes. By contrast, with modern particle physics, I was convinced there was something I didn't get, and I went away and worked at it (even after messing up an exam) until I realised that I was assuming that quarks actually existed in a real sense and once I realised that they didn't exist in the same way I had thought they did, it all made sense.

On one hand, I don't want to throw away almost the whole of German-language theology since Kant in the late 1700s. (Added for clarification - up to the publication of Barth's Commentary on Romans in 1919, but still with a lot of rubbish since then.) It's got to mean something, and probably something useful I can learn from. But on the other hand, almost every time I read something theological which was originally written in German, my gut reaction is that it's meaningless overly verbose drivel resting on an absence of underlying logical thought processes.

I don't think it's the theological ideas per se. I can understand Hume and Dawkins and Sanders and Borg and Edwards and Pascal and Calvin and Luther and Wright and even Mowinckel. I don't agree with all of them, and some of them are hard work, but I can at least understand their ideas and see where they are coming from. But anything originally written in German from Kant onwards just seems to make virutally no sense. The same also applies to some English writers who have been heavily influenced by Germans - Torrance, for example.

And it's only with theology. I'm fine reading Thomas Mann (in translation). Just about the only exception is Bonhoeffer...

This leaves me in a bit of a quandary. I think I have the following options:

  • German as a language is fundamentally unsuited to theological thought (but this seems ludicrous - I'm fine reading Luther or Melanchthon, but maybe that's because they did lots of work in Latin). And I know other people who are generally sensible who seem fine reading German theology.
  • There's either some mental deficiency in me or some important underlying concept I haven't grasped or been taught from roughly the time of Kant or earlier.
  • German language theologians, or their translators, look down on Rowan Williams because they think he is too populist and clear. Obscurantism is seen as a virtue.
  • Kant, or someone, made some fundamental mistakes which dramatically undermine his intelligibility to someone who thinks fairly scientifically (which I do). These have been perpetuated since.
  • Monty Python were right

Here's an example of what I mean, from a book originally written in German which is meant to explain modern theology clearly to people who don't already know it.

But Kant immediately adds "we have here to deal with a natural and inevitable illusion," with a dialectic "inherent in and inseparable from human reason". Hence we are not dealing with illusion in the ordinary, purely subjective sense but with an epistemological and anthropological necessity; one might almost say with an existential element of existence. Pure reason simply cannot avoid producing transcendental ideas which have no starting point in observation. Indeed, it cannot but think of itself (as soul), of its object (as world) and of all objects of thought in general (as God). Of these pure "objects" of thought we have no knowledge, "but a problematic concept only." "The transcendental (subjective) reality, at least of pure concepts of reason, depends on our being led to such ideas by a necessary syllogism of reason". Kant struggles with the language in order to grasp these syllogisms, "rather to be called sophistical (vernunftelnde) than rational (vernunftschlusse)" in both their positive and negative implications.

H. Berkhof, Two Hundred Years of Theology, p2

I think I understand some of what it's saying, but it reads too much like the output of the postmodernism generator for me to be sure...

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Ryle - liberalism

I feel it a duty to bear my solemn testimony against the spirit of the day we live in... It is the system which is so liberal, that it dares not say anything is false. It is the system which is so charitable, that it will allow everything to be true. It is the system, which seems ready to honour others as well as our Lord Jesus Christ, to class them all together, and to think well of all... It is the system which is so scrupulous about the feelings of others, that we are never to say they are wrong. It is the system which is so liberal that it calls a man a bigot if he dares to say "I know my views are right."...

What is it all but a bowing down before a great idol, speciously called liberality? What is it all but a sacrificing of truth upon the altar of a caricature of charity? What is it all but the worship of a shadow, a phantom and an unreality? What can be more absurd than to profess ourselves content with "earnestness", when we do not know what we are earnest about? Has the Lord God spoken to us in the Bible, or has he not?... From the liberality which says everyone is right, from the charity which forbids us to say anybody is wrong, from the peace which is bought at the expense of truth - may the good Lord deliver us!

J.C. Ryle, Knots Untied

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