Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Did the "Carol Service" Census Really Happen?

If you ask an educated atheist to show that the events described in the New Testament didn't really happen, the number one place they pick is the "carol service" census described in Luke 2.

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.
Luke 2:1-5, NIV

Bock identifies five problems people cite when it comes to this passage.

  1. There was no known empire-wide census under Augustus
  2. No Roman census would have required Joseph to go to Bethlehem to register
  3. Israel under Herod wasn't officially part of the Roman Empire until Herod died in 4BC
  4. Josephus wrote that the first Roman census was under Quirinius in AD6, and that caused a revolt
  5. Quirinius wasn't governor of Syria until 10 years after Herod died. Herod died in 4BC, Quirinius became governor of Syria in AD6.

(It's worth noting in passing that pretty much everyone agrees Jesus was born in 5 or 6 BC - the chap who invented the BC/AD dating system guessed a date for Jesus' birth and got it close, but a few years out).

Some Answers...

Here are some answers to those problems, again adapted from Bock...

1) The Romans liked doing censuses because they liked taxing people. We know there was ongoing census activity across the Roman Empire at the time of Herod.

3) We also know that vassal kings (like Herod) did censuses too when Rome told them to. There's even evidence that Jews under Herod were paying Roman taxes (and hence had been censused).

If there was a census for Roman taxation and at Roman command under Herod, it makes sense that...

2 & 4) If Herod did a census (before 4BC), he might have done it Jewish-style rather than Roman-style. A Jewish-style census could well involve going to ancestral towns, especially if Joseph owned land in Bethlehem as he might well do if descended from David. Jewish land ownership was tied to who your ancestors were. A Jewish-style census wouldn't have caused riots like the Roman-style one in AD6 and so is less likely to be mentioned by Josephus, who is the only non-Biblical historian describing Palestine in that period.

It's also clear that the census Luke is talking about isn't the one in AD6. For example, a census after 4BC wouldn't have required Joseph to go from Nazareth to Bethlehem - after 4BC they were in different provinces. Luke also knows about the AD6 census - he mentions it and the rebellion in Acts 5:37.

So what about Quirinius? Luke 2:2 reads "This was the first census that took place whilea Quirinius was governor of Syria." But the NIV has a footnote saying “Or this census took place before...” The word in question is πρωτος (protos) - dictionaries define it as “first, before, greatest”. So it could be talking about the census BEFORE the one where Quirinius was governor of Syria (the one in AD6 which caused all the trouble). We've got the same issue in English with the word "prototype", which is from πρωτος. Was the prototype of the Jaguar XF the first one, or was it something they made before they made the XF?

Literally, the verse reads “this was the first census of Quirinius, governor of Syria.” Qurinius may well have been asked to administer the census by Herod, even though he wasn't governor of Syria yet. In the same way, we might say "President George W Bush was a notorious drunkard as a young man", even though he wasn't president when he was a young man.

In conclusion, it looks like the difficulties with these verses might well cancel out. There isn't enough historical evidence to say "these verses are definitely right", but there isn't enough evidence to say they're definitely wrong either. That's one of the problems with ancient history - we often don't have enough evidence to check whether written accounts are true or not. On the other hand, we do have that evidence to check lots of other things that Luke wrote, and he gets it right time after time, so chances are he's right this time too.

Incidentally, if this is the best the sceptics can do when it comes to attacking the reliability of the New Testament, what does that say about the rest of their arguments?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Book Review - Keith Lamdin, Finding Your Leadership Style

A diocesan-run course I'm doing asked us to read this book. I read it, found it very mixed, and so wrote this review, which the good folks at Themelios were kind enough to print. They made a couple of editorial changes for the primarily US market - here's my original version.

This book represents a unique convergence of influences. Lamdin writes as a liberal catholic Anglican in strong positive interaction with Willow Creek and the Global Leadership Summit (GLS) but also significantly influenced by Freudian psychology and liberation theology.

This convergence leads to some significant strengths. The GLS would benefit from more theological reflection on secular leadership models and much of the church would benefit from clearer thinking on leadership. Lamdin seeks to do both.

In chapters 1 and 2, Lamdin introduces the idea of leadership as “one human's capacity to influence another”, and the need for leadership within the church. He introduces three necessary qualities for leadership as discontent to see what is wrong with the present situation, vision to see how it could be better and courage to speak up and lead people forwards. He also introduces six “paradigms for leadership” which he unpacks in the rest of the book: the monarch, the warrior, the servant, the elder, the contemplative and the prophet.

The final chapter, entitled “Taking the Strain” shows a thoughtful engagement with both the traditions of Anglicanism and the business thinking so prevalent at the GLS – this time on how to do ministry in ways that are physically, emotionally and spiritually sustainable. This chapter could certainly be read with profit by many in ministry. It ends with a powerful picture of ministry as a craft skill – like carving or music, which comes naturally to some, but can always be learned and improved on; it can be mastered in several different ways but never perfected by us.
The largest and most problematic part of the book, however, is the central section, where Lamdin considers his six paradigms for leadership. He begins with the two paradigms he finds to be more common and more dangerous – the monarch and the warrior. The monarch is the leader who is in charge, leading to the possibility of safety, stability and effective organisation. The warrior is the charismatic leader of a cause with passion and purpose, sometimes leading to growth and huge achievement in an organisation. Lamdin argues that neither of these paradigms is appropriate for a Christian minister.
His reasons are both pragmatic and theological. Pragmatically, Lamdin argues that these forms of leadership always resort to force and end up infantilising the followers – either by taking away their ability to decide or their ability to discern right and wrong.

Theologically, Lamdin argues that Jesus rejects the roles of monarch and warrior, instead adopting the persona of suffering servant. But in doing so Lamdin makes a serious Christological mistake. He argues that God is fully revealed in the humanity of Christ, but restricts his view of Christ only to the crucifixion – Jesus is only suffering servant, not risen king. He sets this out most fully on p59 when discussing the idea of Jesus' dual identity as suffering servant and lord of history.

“It cannot be said that Jesus was enacting servanthood while on earth but that as Christ he is 'lord' of all he surveys. The Jesus on earth has to fully embody the godhead for any view of incarnation to be viable, and so the God of all time has to be understood in terms of the kingdom teaching and living and dying of Jesus... while it is in the nature of God to be loving it cannot be in the nature of God to be 'in charge'.”

Lamdin doesn't state whether or not he believes in the Resurrection. However, if we understand that God is fully revealed in Jesus, who is both the Suffering Servant and the risen and ascended King who “will return in glory to judge the living and the dead”, we get a rather different picture.

In this picture, it is inappropriate for us to adopt the role of warrior or monarch precisely because Jesus is our perfect warrior king. We should not act as if we are in control because God is in control. We should not go on a crusade against those we define as evil because it is for God to say what our purpose should be and who the enemy is (and our struggle is not against flesh and blood).
Lamdin then considers the other four paradigms for leadership. The key theme seems to be the relationship to power. The servant, obviously Lamdin's favourite, gives up power; the elder has only the power to ask questions and expose their own ignorance; the contemplative depends on God through prayer; the prophet stands against power with the downtrodden. None of them allows for a classic “church leader”; several have troubling features such as the absence of any sense of a “word from the Lord” speaking into our human situation to either resolve ambiguity (the elder) or confront injustice (the prophet).

But the understanding of Christ as risen and ascended Lord opens up a new paradigm – the paradigm of the herald or of the under-shepherd. Both heralds and under-shepherds have no authority in themselves and do not point to themselves as saviour. They are sent by a Shepherd-King and are answerable to him, but under him can and do have delegated authority for the purpose of caring for the sheep and serving them by proclaiming the king's message to them. It seems that would be an altogether more fruitful paradigm to explore.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

More Book Reviews - Center Church / Preaching and Preachers / And the Lamb Wins

I don't post book reviews here often enough. So here are some quick reviews of three good books I've read recently.

Center Church - Timothy Keller

Keller (senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian, New York) is one of the most influential writers on theology and church at the moment, certainly in the Reformed world. And this is the closest he has come to a magnum opus. It's essentially a 400-odd page textbook on what it means to be and do church in the specific context of city-centre ministry in a global city. I'm not there, and I don't agree with Keller on everything, but if this was a course when I was at theological college, it would have been one of the best and most helpful courses on offer. He outlines different views on just about everything, shows where the tensions are, and usually shows how to plot a third way (or a fifth way) between them.

Genuinely helpful on big-picture stuff; really clearly laid out; genuinely brilliant. There's quite a bit of stuff that can't really be put into practice when you don't have a congregation of at least hundreds including talented artists (and there's not much on how to deal with having enthusiastic but not-talented amateurs), but there's lots of stuff that is helpful in my context and at painting a vision for why and how Redeemer has done what it's done, it's great.

Preaching and Preachers - Martyn Lloyd-Jones

The way I remember it, a few years ago someone did a survey of which books on preaching today's most respected preachers valued, and this one came top despite having been out of print for 20 years. So now it's back in print, sprinkled with essay-length commendations and appreciations from the likes of John Piper.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones's book was originally a series of lectures he gave on preaching in the late 60s, and the only book it really compares to is Spurgeon's Lectures to my Students. (For what it's worth, I'd rate Spurgeon slightly above P&P, but only slightly). Preachers & Preaching is like having a brilliant but utterly eccentric tutor. If you listen to him, you'll learn a lot, but some of what he says is quite batty. He has strong opinions on almost every imaginable topic, some of which are just odd (views on the shape of the roof of buildings and how it affects spiritual health of the congregation) and some of which are challenging and thought-provoking but probably wrong (why it is wrong to debate atheists).

I can see why so many great preachers value this book so highly though. It's really good, despite the quirky bits, and I've really been encouraged, challenged and built up by reading it! Strongly recommended...

And the Lamb Wins - Simon Ponsonby

This is a book-length version of Simon's St Aldate's School of Theology sessions on eschatology and the end times. It's clearly aimed at a bright undergraduate-level audience - he gives the histories of different theories on the millennium, for example. But if you can cope with that, it's very readable and a clear overview of a number of different aspects of end-times debate. He interacts with most of the main schools of thought, gives his own opinions and backs them up well. He probably succeeded in slightly changing my opinion on Israel, for example.

There are a couple of other areas I'd like to have seen him interact with - the nature of the final judgement for example, whether there is just one or two (works & faith?). But overall this is just about the best, sanest, most Biblically faithful handling of the end times I've read. I recently compared it with Randy Alcorn's Heaven, for example, and Alcorn is better on Heaven itself, but Ponsonby is clearer, more detailed and more rigorous in just about every other respect.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Nature of Christian Hope

This is adapted from a sermon I preached at a funeral today...

What is the basis for the Christian hope of life beyond the grave? One of the popular readings at a funeral is from Psalm 23.

Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
for ever.

God loves to be generous and host parties, and the Bible tells us that one day he will host the best party of all, in his house, forever, and that we are all invited. It is a party where we see clearly where now we see but a distorted reflection; where we will move from this world of black and white to glorious colour. But is that a promise we can trust, or is it what used to be called sentiment?

There's a lot of sentiment around at the time of death. Things we know aren't actually true but which are stories that make us feel better, like people becoming stars when they die or having some kind of celestial gallery where they look down on us and occasionally send us feathers, like Jesus walking on England's mountains green or death being nothing at all. Don't get me wrong, God knows there's a place for sentiment at times like this, but is that all we have to hold onto?

No. There is one man – Jesus Christ, and he gives us what the Bible calls a sure and certain hope, a hope based not on wishful thinking or sentiment but on real events and on a love that never fails, a love stronger even than death. Because Jesus really lived, 2000 years ago in Israel. And he really died, executed by the Romans. And he really rose again from the dead – not in the James Bond sense of living to die another day, but he rose from real physical death to real everlasting life.

This Sunday, Christians across the world remember that Jesus will one day return to this world in glory to put everything right and to bring in his everlasting kingdom of truth and love.

But when he does that, as the Psalmist says, if he kept a record of sins, who could stand? (Ps 130v3) However good we are, we all need God's forgiveness, and so the Psalmist continues "But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you." (Ps 130v4)

Our only true hope in life or in death is Jesus, who loves us with a love that is patient and kind, that always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Jesus, who will walk with us even through the valley of the shadow of death, Jesus who brings us God's forgiveness and his comfort so that we can serve him with reverence, Jesus who has beaten death, once and for all, and who offers us his new life in the glorious party in his Father's house forever. Trust Jesus, trust Jesus. Because one day it will be our turn, and when that day comes, may we know truly that he is with us even through the valley of the shadow of death, so that we may dwell in his house forever.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Rule of Life?

For a long time I have mistrusted the idea of a “rule of life”. It all sounded terribly... legalistic – the kind of thing that was externally imposed on someone as yet more man-made rules they had to keep before a church which had grossly misunderstood God would allow them into heaven, or something like that.

But over the last year or so, something like the idea of a “rule of life” has come at me from several angles. Here's Martyn Lloyd-Jones, for example.

... the question of discipline is thrown right back on the [preacher] himself. Nobody can tell him what to do. What controls everything is his realisation that if he is to be what he should be, if he is to be a true preacher, a spiritually minded man who is concerned about ministering to the glory of God and the edification and salvation of souls, he must do this. That should compel him to exercise this discipline. If he has the right motive and the right objective, if he is truly called, he will be so anxious to do all he has to do in the most effective manner that he will take the trouble to find out how best to order and organise himself and his day.
Preaching and Preachers, ch 9 (sic)

Or here's James Emery White:

This is what a “rule” is – a collected, organized set of practices we determine to follow in order to tend to our spirits and shepherd our souls. We need structure and discipline for our spiritual lives every bit as much as we do for every other area of life.

Whatever our “rule” may be, it can, and should, be natural to our personality and developed in light of our season of life – but it must be created. If we know that we would be profoundly served by reading, praying, and spending time with a soul friend, then we must work toward establishing the patterns of life that allow it.

Several times, the phrase “rule of life” has come up in that sort of context and in the longer and better ones (e.g. Finding a Personal Rule of Life by Harold Millar) they tend to explain it roughly as follows:

“Rule” is a translation of the Latin “regula”, which has the sense of a standard or a pattern as well as a rule – regularity rather than regulations (both come from the same Latin word). So a “rule of life” is not something external and imposed on us – it is a pattern of life that we decide to stick to because it is good for us and enables us to live at our best.
(wording my own)

My response to that is simple. If that's what you mean by the phrase “rule of life”, then wouldn't it be better to call it a “pattern for living”? That also has the nice ambiguity that it's a pattern by which I decide to live which then enables me to really live.

And with that overly-pedantic improvement made, it sounds important to do, great to put into practice and I've written one!

(that's me "really living"...)

Thursday, October 24, 2013

On Jehovah's Witnesses

We've got lots to learn from the Jehovah's Witnesses. One important thing we can learn is how easy it is to be sincerely wrong, and then misinterpret utterly obvious evidence in the light of your initial wrong conclusions.

JWs believe that God should usually be referred to as "Jehovah". This despite the fact it's a combination of a dodgy transliteration of the consonants of one Hebrew word ("YHWH" = God's name in Hebrew) into English via Latin combined with the vowels of another Hebrew word ("Adonay" = Lord). They also claim that Jesus wasn't God. This leads them into significant problems when it comes to the New Testament, for the following reasons:

  • Jesus almost always addresses God as "Father". He never addresses God as "Jehovah". When he teaches his disciples to pray, he teaches them to say "Our Father".
  • The New Testament was written in Greek; the Old Testament was written in Hebrew. YHWH, which is what "Jehovah" is trying to represent, is a Hebrew word. Greek doesn't have an H or a W, and it doesn't really have a Y either, or a J or V for that matter. Hence it would be kind of tricky to say either YHWH or Jehovah if you only spoke Greek.
  • The New Testament follows the convention of the standard Greek translation of the Old Testament and translates YHWH as kurios (Lord). While in a few cases in the NT kurios means "master", in most cases it refers to God. Most English Bible translations follow this convention as well - they translate YHWH as "LORD" and adonay or kurios as "Lord".
  • The standard confession of faith in the New Testament is "Jesus is Lord" - Jesus is kurios, which can pretty clearly be understood to be claiming Jesus as God.

That all adds together to make things look pretty bleak for the JWs. However, they have a cunning theory to deal with this. They claim that when the NT was originally written, the authors included a lot of YHWHs (using Hebrew lettering of course), and that they were then expunged and replaced with kurios at the Council of Nicea, which then decided to announce that Jesus was God when up until that point the Bible had been clear he wasn't.

There are all kinds of problems with this theory. Notably, we've got a lot of writings from before the Council of Nicea where leaders in the church claim that the Bible is clear that Jesus was God. We've also got a lot of partial New Testament manuscripts from before the Council of Nicea, when there were meant to be all these YHWHs in the text, and they just aren't there. The JWs make claims that are testable on the basis of manuscript evidence, and those claims are demonstrably false.

The JWs of course don't worry about this much. Their Bible translator (conveniently anonymous) decided for himself which "Lord" was a YHWH and which wasn't, and he did so on the basis of their theology. So their theology claims to be entirely based on their translation of the Bible, but their translation was badly done in order that it could give that theology. I wonder if their Bible translators worry that they're being dishonest.

If I held opinions about a field of academic study that not one respectable scholar in that field agreed with, it would worry me. It worries me that it doesn't worry the Jehovah's Witnesses I chat to. I take it their belief is based on their membership in the group rather than reason and evidence...

Monday, October 14, 2013

How Can We Know God?

There are four possible answers to that question.

Some people claim that great thinkers – Plato, Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Dawkins and so on can give us insight into God and what he is like. Some of what they say is right, some of what they say isn't, but as mere mortals we can never fully understand God, so whatever we say will always be incomplete. Because of this, the wiser followers of great thinkers are always open to add new ideas into what they already believe.

Others claim that we can know God because he has been revealed, often by angels, visions and so on to specific prophets – particular people in history like Moses, Mohammed or Joseph Smith. But when we look at what those prophets say, they agree on some important ideas like God being powerful, but disagree dramatically on others, like who God's chosen people are.

It therefore seems that the wisest course is agnosticism - the belief that we just can't know; we don't have enough information to make a good decision. That's pretty much David Mitchell's view...

But the apostle John tells us another way.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us.
1 John 1:1-3

John makes the startling and incredible claim that he can speak about the ultimate reality – the one from the beginning, the one who is eternal life - because he has known him not as an abstract concept or a vision or a trance, but as a man he had seen and touched and eaten with and followed.

The incredible claim at the heart of Christianity is that the God who made everything became a man – Jesus Christ – so that we could know him. And it is attested to by eye witnesses – people like Matthew who knew Jesus, like John and Peter who were close friends with him, like Luke the Greek historian who researched carefully and even Jesus' mum Mary became convinced that he was god. Not just a god in some kind of trendy manifestation of the spiritual, but the one true God, uniquely become human.

How good do you have to be to convince your best friends and even your mum that you are God? Even when they've watched you die?

Brian couldn't do it in Monty Python's mostly magnificent satire, because his mum knew that he wasn't the Messiah; he was a very naughty boy.

The Roman Emperor Caligula couldn't do it, even though he tried to convince everyone he was a god. His own bodyguard assassinated him.

But Jesus convinced his friends and family that he really was God, so much so that they travelled around the world and were willing to give their own lives to say that he really is and that therefore we can know God as he reveals himself to us in Jesus.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Knowledge, Quizzes and Knowing God

“Knowledge puffs up but love builds up”

I'm a bit of a geek for facts, especially Bible facts. When I was 6 or 7, my school teacher asked which king was killed by an arrow to the eye. I answered “Josiah”, because my cartoon Bible had Josiah being shot in the eye with an arrow. The actual Bible says that Josiah was shot with an arrow (2 Chron 35:23), but doesn't say he was shot in the eye. Then again, no contemporary accounts say King Harold II Godwinson was shot in the eye either.

For years, my knowledge held me back from knowing God. I thought that because I knew lots of stuff about God that I actually knew him. Head knowledge is not a substitute for relationship.

Head knowledge can also get in the way when it leads to pride or when we start finding our identity or our sense of self-worth in what we know rather than in the fact we are known and accepted by God.

But in its right place, knowledge can be useful – even geeky Bible trivia. Knowing which order events occur in in the gospel of Mark, for example, helps you see how the story fits together which helps you understand better some of the significance of the individual events. Or knowing small details in one story helps you see resonances and connections with other, seemingly unconnected stories.

One of the best ways I've found of learning facts, especially for people like me, is quizzes. There's nothing quite like an internet quiz for helping me to learn (say) the capitals of Caribbean countries. So here are some helpful internet quizzes I've found for getting to know Bible facts:

Books of the Bible: OT | NT | all.

OT events | Psalm 23 | Bible quotes

Bible events in order (tricky)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Christian Spirituality - the Classics (ed Arthur Holder)

This is a book of essays about 30 of the classic writings on Christian Spirituality over the centuries.

The Good

I want to read more classic devotional Christian books, but they don't appear in many libraries. There's a pretty good theological library near where I live, but they don't have Gregory the Great's Book of Pastoral Rule for example, and I'd like to get an idea of it before buying. This book is a good place to come to get an overview of quite a lot of material, and to get some ideas for things I might like to explore further.

It's also encouraging (and slightly amusing) to see how they pick out the good in things. For example, when discussing one of Kierkegaard's nuttier books, they dwell on the fact that he has a powerful critique of busyness. I sometimes find it hard to pick out the good in things where there's a lot of bad; many of these authors seem to find it much easier.

The Odd

The selection of writings they use is slightly odd. At times they seem to be going overboard to be diverse (including Mechthild of Magdeberg, presumably because she was a woman), but in other ways they are spectacularly undiverse. I did a quick tally of authors included by location (and later denomination).

100-451: Western Roman 1; Eastern Roman 3 (all Turkey / Egypt)
451-1054: Western Roman 2; Eastern Roman 1
1054-1517: Western Roman 7; Eastern Roman 1
1517-2000: European Catholic 6; European Protestant 5; US Protestant 2; US Catholic 1; Eastern Orthodox 1

There are only two books from further East than Alexandria, nothing from further south than Hippo. There's nothing from the Puritans or Anabaptists; the only vaguely evangelical ones are Luther, Edwards and Bonhoeffer. Utterly bizarrely, they pick one book from Britain in period the 1500-1700, and it's George Herbert's The Country Parson, which is about how to be a vicar in a way that leads to burnout and premature death. If you're going to pick Herbert over Cranmer, Hooker, Jewel, Andrewes, Bunyan, Perkins, Sibbes, Baxter, Owen, Donne, at least pick The Temple, which is more devotional...

Without giving it too much thought, I'd probably want to drop Mechthild, Marguerite Porete, George Herbert, Soren Kierkegaard and Evelyn Underhill and bring in Ephrem the Syrian, Bunyan, CS Lewis, and perhaps a South American and a Korean.

The Bad

What almost ruined the book for me is that most of the authors seem to be writing from the point of view of liberal imperialism rather than trying to understand the authors on their own terms - they assume a Hickean universalism and don't let the works they are describing critique it. For example, they criticise Bernard of Clairvaux for saying that the good news about Jesus leads to a greater love for God than any other system; they suggest that Jonathan Edwards' Religious Affections could apply to other religions without even mentioning that a key component is that spiritual experiences which are from God always drive us to Jesus.

Overall, I did find it an interesting read, and a helpful one. In some of the chapters, I even found the ancient authors speaking to me, even through the medium of an unsympathetic author. But this is an academic book, not a Christian one.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Now on Twitter!

I have a confession to make. I've just (re-)joined Twitter. Couldn't find my original password, so I'm now @john_allister. Some Christian leaders seem to have interesting feeds with nuggets of wisdom, others seem to use it as an extrovert's diary in which they tell anyone who cares to listen exactly what they had for breakfast and what the cat brought in. I'm very much in the former camp, except as I'm only starting to go grey, I don't have that much wisdom yet.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Spiritual Warfare

Spiritual warfare doesn't seem to be talked about much these days outside Pentecostal circles. It's a dangerous shame.

There's a line in the Anglican baptism liturgy that goes something like this:

Fight valiantly a a disciple of Christ against sin, the world and the devil, and remain Christ's faithful soldier and servant to the end of your life.

One church I used to be at had changed it to:

Stand firm as a disciple of Christ against sin, the world and the devil, and remain faithful and obedient to Christ, to the end of your life.

It's linked to the fact that the Lectionary which most churches use tends to ignore the more military bits of the Bible, especially in Psalms. But I don't follow the RCL, so I've been reading them quite a bit recently. The other day, for example, I read Psalm 59.

Deliver me from my enemies, O God;
be my fortress against those who are attacking me.
Deliver me from evildoers
and save me from those who are after my blood.
See how they lie in wait for me!
Fierce men conspire against me
for no offence or sin of mine, Lord.
I have done no wrong, yet they are ready to attack me.
Arise to help me; look on my plight!
You, Lord God Almighty,
you who are the God of Israel,
rouse yourself to punish all the nations;
show no mercy to wicked traitors.

They can be quite difficult to read these days, because we don't have physical enemies seeking to kill us, like David did, and if we do then on balance we'd prefer it if God changed their hearts so they became our friends.

When we try to apply those Psalms to our lives, there are several helpful routes to take. We can see them as the first stage in letting go of anger – asking God to take vengeance rather than doing it myself. We can see them as Psalms sung by Jesus, entrusting himself to God and asking God to rescue him from attack, which God does in the resurrection. But lately I've found it helpful to read them through the lens of Ephesians 6:12.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

As Christians, we are in a real battle. And it's no less real just because our opponents aren't physical people but ideas, temptations and spiritual forces, and we need to learn to fight them better. I'm finding it really helpful at the moment reading the "fighting Psalms" and thinking of the temptations I experience; the things that want to knock me off course in following God, and asking for his protection and rescue from them.

So when we get a decent hymn that is about spiritual warfare, I'm going to try to encourage folks to sing it...

Monday, July 01, 2013

What is the greatest number of English monarchs to be alive at once?

I was thinking about the Wars of the Roses the other night (partly as a result of the BBC series The White Queen, based on the Philippa Gregory novels. There are 5 English monarchs who feature in the series, and they all were alive during 1470-71:

  • Henry VI (1421-1471), Lancastrian claimant to the throne
  • Edward IV (1442-1483), Yorkist claimant to the throne
  • Edward V (1470-1483), Edward IV's son and successor
  • Richard III (1452-1485), Edward IV's brother and probable killer of Edward V
  • Henry VII Tudor (1457-1509), eventual victor of the Wars of the Roses

This set me to wondering what the greatest number of English monarchs to be alive at once is (excluding consorts like Elizabeth Woodville and so on).

I could think of a few other possible times where there were plenty alive at once. Just before Victoria's death, for example, her successors Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII and George VI were all alive, which gives us another 5. They could conceivably have all appeared in the same photograph as well!

But I suspect the winning period is from 1683-1685, where the following monarchs were all alive:

  • Charles II, king of England until his death in 1685
  • James II (1633-1701), his brother, deposed in 1688
  • Mary II (1662-1694), James' daughter
  • William III of Orange (1650-1702), Mary's husband but co-regent and continued to reign after her death
  • Anne (1665-1714), Mary's sister, who died without surviving children
  • George I of Hanover (1660-1727) was Anne's closest living Protestant relative at her death - the first 50 or so were all Catholics!
  • George II (1683-1760), George's son

That makes 7, due to one person being deposed by Parliament, a co-regency, several people dying childless and the throne passing to an older distant relative! I can't find any other points in history with even 5 or more, so I suspect 1683-5 is the winner... Any comparative results for other countries?

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Sword and Scimitar - Simon Scarrow

I'm usually quite a fan of violent historical fiction, of which Simon Scarrow is one of the leading exponents. This book undoubtedly gets two out of those three very well.

It's set around the siege of Malta in 1565, which was one of the key battles between the Ottoman Turks and the European powers. It was also one of the most viciously fought battles in history; but it's the history that lets Scarrow down badly.

The fictional side of it is done well – it's grippingly written and I wanted to keep on reading even though the eventual outcome of the battle is obvious from the fact that Europe did not turn Muslim in the late 1500s and Malta's capital city shares a name with the commander of the defending garrison. Yes, there's very little characterisation, but if you want historical fiction with romances and more than one developed character, read Philippa Gregory or Hilary Mantel rather than Simon Scarrow or Bernard Cornwell.

I expect he's probably right on most of the military details, including one scene which was almost too much even for me with the level of violence (think a few armoured Turks versus a horde of women and children). If anything, the violence is overdone – I'm pretty sure that being shot with a primitive musket does not make someone's “head explode like an overripe watermelon”. I'm willing to believe that the Turks deliberately desecrated one of the altars by killing a knight on it; I'm less willing to believe they'd have been ordered to do that with the line “Slaughter him like a pig!” Muslims don't kill pigs at all; still less sacrifice them on altars.

What really got on my nerves was the main character's thought life. The book includes some Q&A with Scarrow at the back – here's an extract.

Authors want to reproduce the era they are depicting with the greatest possible fidelity. That is part of the unwritten contract with the reader and it is why we spend so much time on research to get the details (large and small) correct. Readers, myself included, like to be immersed in the everyday apparatus of the past.

... By modern standards our ancestors would be considered a thoroughly cruel, sexist, racist and religiously fanatic bunch and we would find it pretty tough to empathise with them, let alone actually like them.

Isn't that therefore the job of the historical fiction writer – to help us to understand and empathise with characters (real or fictional) from the past? It's what Mantel does so well. It's what Richard Harris does in his Julius Caesar series. Past people are still people, and a good historical writer helps us feel that we understand them better.

Instead of that, Scarrow imports a very modern (and uninformed) set of thoughts. So the main character, Sir Thomas Barrett, spends much of the book thinking how silly religion is and how it causes lots of wars. Granted, most of the wars in Europe in the 1500s and 1600s had religious motives. But the 1300s and 1400s were no less bloody, and those wars (e.g. War of the Roses, Hundred Years War) tended to be to do with dynastic succession. To a knight in 1565, wars in Europe being caused by religion would be a new idea. By the 1700s and 1800s, people by and large didn't care about religion as much, and there were no fewer wars – they just tended to be about empire rather than religion. The fact is that wars are caused by people, and people find excuses for their wars, whether to do with dynasty, religion, empire, politics or whatever.

All in all, not as good as I was hoping. Not one of his best, and anachronistically anti-Christian.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

How conscious were the Old Testament authors of Christ?

There's a bit of a debate about preaching the Old Testament as Christian Scripture (which of course it is) - specifically whether we should preach as though the Old Testament authors knew they were writing about Jesus.

Here's an example of what I mean from the frequently excellent Glen Scrivener:

So how do we keep those two things together: Christ-focus and authorial intent? Only by saying that the OT in its own context is consciously a proclamation of Christ – His sufferings and glories. Without an insistence that the Hebrew Scriptures are already and intentionally Christian – without maintaining that ‘the lights are already on’ – then the “true and better” typology stuff will be good for a sermon or two, but it won’t transform our preaching or our churches.

Are "the Hebrew Scriptures already and intentionally Christian"? I don't think it's as simple as yes or no, and I'd like to illustrate it from three passages I've preached on in the last few months.

Psalm 44 - they can't be!

Psalm 44 is one of the darkest passages in the Old Testament. I don't think that the human author of Ps 44 can have been conscious of Christ when he was writing, otherwise he was being unfaithful.

In v1-8 the Psalmist looks back at God's past action in history, and praises him for it. It's centred on v4 - “You are my king and my God, who decrees victories for Jacob.”
v9-16 are then a series of accusations levelled at God – that it feels and looks like he has taken them to a charity shop and dumped them there.
v17-21 are the Psalmist pointing out that they had not done anything to deserve this punishment.
v23-26 are the Psalmist therefore asking God to wake up and help them because of his unfailing covenant love.

v22 is really interesting. “Yet for your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” There are definite echoes of all sorts of things, but the core idea is that the people are suffering and dying for God's sake – because of him. Perhaps it is opposition to them because they follow God faithfully, and he does not seem to be protecting them.

In Romans 8, Paul takes v22 and quotes it. He treats it as an example of the kind of sufferings which Christians experience in this life, and then goes on to say “No, in all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

My point is this. I do not doubt that Psalm 44, rightly understood is about Jesus. It is really helpful to see it as a song that Jesus sings, speaking of his undeserved suffering for the sake of following God. It is wonderful to notice in v22 that even when we suffer like sheep to be slaughtered, we are following in the steps of the one who became like a sheep to be slaughtered for us. But a Christian take on it requires a stronger vision of God's final victory. All that Psalm 44 has is confidence in God's character on the basis of past action; it is a backward-looking faith rather than the resurrection faith which looks forwards to God's final victory and restoration of all things. That's why the way Paul uses Ps 44 in Romans 8 is so significant – Paul shows how the wonderful truths he has been writing about transform even the darkness of Psalm 44.

Psalm 45 – they must be!

The very next Psalm is a complete contrast in lots of ways. It is a wedding Psalm, which transforms the darkness and despondency of Ps 42-44 into the triumph and security of Ps 46-48. The first half of the Psalm (v2-9) are praising the king, and his language gets more and more exalted, famously reaching the heights of v6-7.

Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a sceptre of justice will be the sceptre of your kingdom. You love righteousness and hate wickedness, therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.

Some people try to weasel out of the king being called “God” here, generally unsuccessfully. Perhaps the best such suggestion is that v3-6 are a prayer to God, which happens to be in the middle of v2-9 addressing the king. But there's no textual evidence for it, and in any case Hebrews 1:8-9 treats it as a continuous section addressing Jesus.

At the very least, you end up with something like G.H. Wilson's position in the NIVAC commentary, where he argues that this Psalm was kept even in the exile because Israel were holding onto God's kingship and marriage to his people even after earthly kings and royal weddings had ceased. In any case, it looks very much as if the Psalmist sees through the earthly royal wedding he is writing for to the wedding of God and his people – of Christ and the Church.

Are "the Hebrew Scriptures already and intentionally Christian"?

I think the best way to answer this question is to recognise the dual authorship of the Scriptures. There is the human author (and sometimes editor too!), and there is the divine author. The same passage can be rightly attributed to both David and God, as with Psalm 110.

Given that, it makes perfect sense to say that for the divine author, the Hebrew Scriptures are already and intentionally Christian, since the author of them is God the Holy Trinity. Certainly to preach them in a way which does not point to Christ is to ignore their significance, and is a fundamentally non-Christian hermeneutic.

But are the Hebrew Scriptures already and intentionally Christian in the mind of the human author? I'd want to say “sometimes, but not always”. What does that mean for preaching? It means we have to work at it!

The third passage is Joshua 2, and I'll try to cover that next time...

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Homosexuality and the Church - One Last Time

It's a difficult issue to avoid at the moment, largely because culture seems to be moving fast, and in a direction that is away from historic Christianity. There are three big issues here, and it's important to recognise that they are distinct issues - far too many people on all sides confuse them, to their peril.

1. What should our attitude be to people who experience same-sex attraction?

Simple - Love and compassion, same as everyone else. Sure, they are sinners, but so am I. Their same-sex attraction is not the most important thing about them, and we should resist labelling them as such. For years people have suffered opprobrium because of feelings they did not choose to have, and now they have become a political football. Treat them as individuals whom God loves, just like you are.

2. Is same-sex sex consistent with Christianity?

Again, the answer is pretty simple - No. Quite a few people disagree, but they always seem to do so on the basis of trying to treat people lovingly rather than having actually looked at the texts - they seem to twist the Bible's teaching on this to make it seem more compassionate. And I understand where they are coming from, I really do. But I still haven't seen a single decent argument from the Bible that same-sex sex is a good thing or a single respectable Bible scholar who argues that either Jesus or Paul would have approved of it. For those who do try to argue that same-sex sex is consistent with the Bible, here are a few questions which show the futility of their position:

  1. If Paul had been told about a same-sex couple who wanted to marry and have consensual sex, do you honestly think he would have approved? (see here for Andrew Wilson pushing Rob Bell on that very question, which Bell keeps on avoiding.)
  2. At the time the New Testament was written, were there people who were gay in the modern sense of the word? (if yes, then Paul wasn't just speaking into the context of pederasty; if no then orientation is only a social construct)
  3. Can a human life be perfectly fulfilled without sex?
  4. If you could be convinced that the New Testament condemned all same-sex sex, would you agree with it?

John 8 is a wonderful passage for thinking through our response to individuals. Having stopped all the criticism and condemnation of the woman there, Jesus turns to her and says "Neither do I condemn you; go now and leave your life of sin."

It's also worth saying that there's a big question for the church to wrestle with here. The Bible clearly speaks a lot about the value of same-sex friendships, and for centuries it was accepted as normal for two male friends to share a house without having sex. The question is "if there are two men who experience same sex attraction, and want to live together as friends but without having sex, is that ok?" I'd say yes...

3. To what extent should we expect society to regulate itself by Biblical standards?

This is the key to the same-sex marriage debate. In general, the older generations think this is still a Christian country. Constitutionally, of course, it is, but that is becoming more and more of an anomaly and it wouldn't surprise me if the gay marriage issue leads to disestablishment in time.

It is clearly wrong to expect Christians to disengage their brains either when in church or when relating to the big political questions of the day. Because Christians believe that the Bible is in some sense a record of God's revelation into the world, they should therefore see that it does have something to say. And since Christians believe that God's revealed way of running our lives is better than the way we'd just figure out for ourselves, we also believe that society would be better if it defined marriage as one man and one woman for life.

But I don't think that's the issue any more. In the 1960s, bishops argued that just because homosexual sex was a sin did not mean it should be a crime - it should be in the same category as greed and pride. We accept that same-sex sex should be legal now; we even accept that it makes perfect sense for there to be a form of legal recognition for same-sex partnerships. None of that is an issue any more.

4. So what's the problem?

The issue with the currently proposed law is none of those. If the proposed legislation were to rename "civil partnerships" as "same-sex marriages", I don't think there would be anywhere near as much opposition. The problems with the proposed law are essentially threefold.

  • First, it is a big change without any mandate - it wasn't in a manifesto, there hasn't been proper public debate, etc.
  • Secondly, it is desperately trying to say that two different things are in fact the same thing, and not quite managing it.
  • Third, by saying that same-sex marriage is the same as marriage, it's opening the door for future discrimination against those who disagree on principle. I don't see the quadruple lock as surviving a legal challenge once same-sex marriage is ensconced as a human right, and I'm willing to bet we will see ministers and churches taken to court over this within the next decade.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Christians and the OT Law

Here are 10 quick tips on how to apply and understand the Old Testament Law as Christians.

  1. The Law isn't just commandments. The Jewish word usually translated "law" - Torah - actually refers to the first 5 books of the Bible. What we read as commandments are set within the context of story, and are inseparable from it.
  2. The Law was always about how to respond to salvation. Just before the 10 Commandments are given comes the wonderful Exodus 19. The Law, for the people of Israel, was about how to respond to the fact that God had already saved them, and how to continue as God's saved people.
  3. The Law was given to the nation of Israel - it was given in a specific time and context to a specific group of people to show them how to respond to God saving them from slavery in Egypt. It wasn't given to 21st century Gentile Christians living in the UK (or anywhere else). So it doesn't apply directly to us.
  4. The Law was given in the knowledge it wouldn't be kept. Just after the commandments finish, in Deuteronomy 32, comes a wonderful song from Moses responding to the law. And in it, he recognises that the people won't keep the law and will need saving again. Jesus isn't therefore a Plan B, he is part 2 (or 3, or whatever) of Plan A. The Law shows us that we are incapable of keeping it, despite the best possible carrots and the worst possible sticks. The problem is the human heart.
  5. Jesus is the perfect Law-keeper. But Jesus kept the Law perfectly. He did what we could not do.
  6. Jesus embodies the character of God as revealed in the Law. He doesn't just fulfil the Law by not breaking it - he shows us more clearly the God who gave the Law.
  7. Jesus is the answer to the problem posed by the Law. The problem the Law shows is that even if God rescues us, we still can't live up to it. Jesus solves that by rescuing us from our own inadequacy, from God's right anger against that inadequacy, and by giving us his Spirit to live in us and transform us.
  8. The Law reveals the character of God our Father, especially in the importance of love - loving God and those around us, as well as showing us worked examples of what that love looks like in the culture of the time. We can therefore apply it to how we should respond to God's greater salvation in Jesus, but to do that takes work. There's a great outline of how to go about it in CJH Wright's book Old Testament Ethics for the People of God.
  9. The Law leads us to God the Son, and shows us our need of his sin-bearing sacrifice.
  10. The Law shows us our need for transformation by God the Holy Spirit. In New Testament thought, the Spirit replaces the Law. That is why there are so many parallels between Pentecost and Sinai.

What have I missed off? Anything important?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Seven Days That Divide the World – John Lennox

I know that the whole creation / evolution argument is (or should be) old hat now, but it still rumbles on in some corners, and seems to be very much live in the USA. Maybe it's just that I got fed up of the poor reasoning on both sides of the argument and dropped out of it a while ago.

John Lennox is one of the best writers and speakers in the debate at the moment. His previous books God's Undertaker and Gunning for God are among the best I've read on science/religion and apologetics, so I was expecting good things of this one too. I wasn't disappointed. Well, I was, but not to start with...

The first three chapters are the best thing I've read on the creation / evolution debate in a long time. Lennox frames it by using the heliocentrism debates of the 16th-18th centuries to show that one generation's dogmatic insistence on one interpretation of the text in the face of science is another generation's mad over-literalism.

The next chapter is a bit of a let down. Lennox debunks a lot of the common myths in the creation / evolution debate but ends up committing himself to the odd view that the universe is old, that apes evolved but that Adam and Eve were a direct creation. In doing so, he argues that young earth creationists should accept that their view flies in the face of the scientific evidence but ignores the significant genetic evidence that we share ancestry with apes just as much as they do with each other. It seems to be almost a worst of all possible worlds view – he avoids over-literalism in the understanding of Genesis 1 and affirms the importance of scientific evidence, but then ignores the scientific evidence on the basis of what looks like an over-literalistic reading of a single verse. Alternatively (i.e. from a YEC point of view), he rejects large amounts of what the Bible says in favour of dodgy science, but still tries clinging onto one bit of it.

Chapter 5 is closer to a return to form. Lennox examines what the point of Genesis 1 actually is, if it isn't to teach specific details about how the universe came to exist. There are still weaknesses in this chapter though – Lennox doesn't really get into the culture at the time Genesis 1 was written, so only sees some of how Genesis connects with today's culture. He doesn't point out how it shows God as the consistent and sole creator of the universe, which is so important for understanding of science. Of course Lennox believes that, but it's easy to miss it in Genesis 1 unless you see it as in part a reaction to the polytheistic creation narratives of surrounding cultures. Another example would be Genesis giving people the status that the other nations gave to their kings.

There's some of that in the appendices, when he discusses whether the Genesis account is derived from the Babylonian one, but Lennox never really draws out the significance of the important contrasts. The other appendices are pretty good, but never really get to the height of the first three chapters. The book is well worth the price just for those.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Cranmer on Gosnell

Cranmer has done an excellent post about the Kermit Gosnell trial.

"The nation cries out for a latter-day Shaftsbury or Wilberforce in Parliament who will bang on about this barbarism ad nauseam, day after day, week after week, until something is done about it."

Some of the comments are slightly confused though. It's perfectly consistent to be anti-abortion but pro-death penalty. After all, the babies haven't done anything wrong, and it's still possible to believe that we can do something that forfeits our right to live. I don't think the death penalty is appropriate though - I think there's too much potential for abuse with wrong verdicts and so on.

In fact, from a logical point of view, it's much easier to be pro-death penalty and anti-abortion than vice versa.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Dallas Willard on Grace and Success in Ministry

Methinks I need to read some more of Dallas Willard's books. He recently went to be with his Lord and Saviour...

Monday, April 08, 2013

What's Wrong with Calvinism?

If you had to describe my theology, you could do a lot worse than “Calvinist”. If I'm wrestling with a difficult question, I often look at what John Calvin wrote on it and I find myself agreeing far more often than I disagree with him. I'd certainly put his name on any shortlist of theologians who have influenced my thinking. Yet "Calvinist" isn't a label I'd claim for myself, and this is why.

John Calvin died in 1564, but by the early 1600s a big argument had grown up between his followers and a Dutch theologian called Arminius. In 1619, at the Synod of Dort, Calvinism was “clarified” by the famous five points, which were a reaction against Arminianism. And I guess that's the start of the problem. I agree with all five points as they were understood by Calvin, but I think that all of them need clarification and qualification – any of them can be easily distorted.

The Five Points of Calvinism:

Total Depravity – Everything that we do is contaminated by our sin, so that nothing we do is completely pure.
Unconditional Election – God's choice of people is not due to anything inherently good about them.
Limited Atonement – Jesus' death is only effective for those who put their trust in him
Irresistible Grace – We can't thwart God's sovereign plan.
Perseverance of the Saints – Once people put their trust in Jesus, they will keep on trusting him.

It is easy to misunderstand any or all of the five points. For example, total depravity rightly means that nothing we do is ever entirely pure, but it is often understood to mean that everything we do is always wholly bad. Even the name suggests the wrong interpretation!

But even worse is that the five points were originally intended as a summary of the disagreement between Calvinism and Arminianism, but instead they have become a summary of the whole doctrine of Calvinism. Calvin wrote his Institutes of the Christian Religion as an attempt to summarise Christian doctrine on its own terms rather than in reaction to anything else. He tried to put the areas of controversy into their proper place rather than up front. But because Calvinism is so often defined by the five points, it becomes distorted so that predestination is the main point rather than a subsidiary one. For example, Calvin discusses predestination in book 3, section 21 of the Institutes, but Berkhof, the 20th Century Calvinist, puts it in Chapter 1 of his Systematic Theology. You end up with a bad caricature of Christianity, with some parts emphasised out of all proportion and others ignored completely.

As a result, Calvinism has become very life-denying. Calvin was willing even to affirm the good in idolatry – that it showed that people were hungry for God (Institutes, 1.3.1). When Paul was in Athens, he affirmed things that were good about their religion and philosophy. But when I hear many Calvinists preach today, they only preach sin, and they often preach that every action of their hearers is only evil all the time, to which the simple response is “If that's what you think, then you're obviously wrong.” Why should people who have a strong doctrine of the remnants of God's image in people reject that those people are still capable of good? Not good that earns salvation, but good nevertheless?

The “tradition” in Calvinism is to be very negative about pretty much all forms of human culture – art, drama, literature, etc. There are of course some Christians who seem to go overboard the other way – who are always praising whatever is new or interesting in culture without really critically engaging with it. But surely the right way for us to proceed is via seeing and naming the good, and recognising and engaging with the bad as well.

I think Tim Keller is a brilliant example of a better way. Doctrinally, I don't think he'd disagree with Calvin on much, but he seems to be very good at avoiding positions which are just reactive against something else. For example, on culture he writes: “our stance towards every human culture should be one of critical enjoyment and an appropriate wariness”, which is about a million miles from the stereotypical Puritan Calvinist rejection of human culture.

Calvinism's attitude to culture is just one example. The distortion of Biblical Christianity which happens when we see the five points of Calvinism (or other disputes of the Reformation) as central rather than as peripheral affects all sorts of areas, almost invariably for the worse.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Trajectory Argument for Gay Marriage

I wish I was wrong about homosexuality - it would make life so much easier if there were even a half-decent Biblical or theological argumet for the legitimacy of committed same-sex sexual relationships. But I've never seen one, and so my conscience is held captive by the Word of God.

One of the really poor excuses for an argument in favour of gay marriage is what is sometimes called the trajectory argument. Steve Chalke spends about half his time on it here. It goes roughly as follows:

There are several things in the New Testament which the NT writers seem fine with but because of our years of reflecting on the Bible and doing ministry in a changing culture we now realise are wrong - the obvious examples are slavery and banning women from teaching. The Church's attitude to homosexuality is another one of those.

The danger with this argument is that in this form you can apply it to just about anything where the Bible disagrees with contemporary culture - where it applies and where it doesn't becomes just a matter for individual conscience, and the Bible loses its prophetic power to challenge our ways of thinking when we are too deeply shaped by our culture. We need some kind of clear control to see when a development is legitimate and when it isn't.

The best such control is trajectory - when we compare the New Testament to the surrounding culture, and see which direction the Bible moves the culture in. We can see this argument can be valid by thinking about the Civil Rights movement in the US. They campaigned for small steps to be made in terms of desegregating schools - they didn't campaign for a black President immediately. And that's pretty much what the Bible does with slavery. In a society where masters had strong rights over slaves but slave revolts were brutally suppressed, the Bible condemned slave trading and masters beating their slaves, and called slaves and masters brothers. It is clearly heading towards the abolition of slavery, even thought that move would have been unacceptable in the Roman society of the day.

We could say the same about polygamy. Polygamy is never portrayed positively in the Bible, and in the NT, it is banned for church leaders. The trajectory is clearly towards monogamy.

But what about when we look at the trajectory for homosexuality? In the above link, Steve Chalke summarises the situation in the ancient world fairly well:

It is common knowledge that from the early Republican times of Ancient Rome it was considered natural and unremarkable for adult males to be sexually attracted to and to pursue teen-aged youths of both sexes. Pederasty (a homogenital relationship between a man and a pubescent boy outside his immediate family) was regarded as normal and condoned... Though same-sex relations between women are not as well documented, the Romans generally had far more flexible gender categories than our contemporary society.

If anything, Chalke underplays it. The Romans also allowed same-sex adult sexual encounters, as long as it was a high-status man initiating. But most of the New Testament was written in and to culturally Greek areas, which were even more permissive - see here for example. And into that society, the New Testament and the early church advocated that sex belongs inside heterosexual lifelong marriage, and not outside. There is no hint of other relationships being potentially equivalent to marriage. There is no question of homosexual relationships being equal to heterosexual marriage, even though that would have been more accepted in the society of the day than at any time since.

The huge problem with the trajectory argument for allowing same-sex marriage is that the trajectory is in exactly the wrong direction.

Steve Chalke and Homosexuality

It is being widely reported that Steve Chalke has "come out" in favour of gay marriage. Here's his paper on it, and here are some more resources on it. Peter Ould, whose thinking I generally find very helpful on issues around homosexuality has started a reply here, which show that Chalke's work on the Bible passages is somewhat lacking.

I agree that at times the church has been guilty of hatred of people who experience same-sex attraction, and that we need to repent of that. However, I don't think we should change the Biblical understanding of marriage in order to do that - that would seem to be something of an extreme over-reaction.

I'd want to add three more questions for Steve Chalke:

1. Why do you put people into boxes marked "homosexual" or "heterosexual"? Isn't that part of the problem?

2. Is there any evidence in the Bible either that sex outside marriage should be permitted or that marriage should not always be between a man and a woman?

3. Do unhappily single people have the gift of celibacy?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Unbelievable - the Slaughter of the Amalekites

As you may have noticed, I've been blogging quite a bit about the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15. That's because I've been doing a bit of work on them because I'm in a debate on the radio tomorrow - on Justin Brierley's show Unbelievable. It's at 2:30pm, on Premier Christian Radio.

For those who are interested in reading a bit more about the Amalekites and where I'm at with understanding them at the moment, I've created a dedicated page to pull together stuff I've written on the issue.

But Isn't God a God of Love?

Absolutely. John tells us that God is not just a God of love, but God is himself love. Twice in the New Testament it tells us that "God is love". That love is primarily seen in God's love within the Trinity. From all eternity, and into all eternity, the Father, Son and Spirit love each other with a perfect, all-consuming, all-embracing love. But that love also overflows to us. God loves us so much that he seeks to include us in his inter-Trinitarian love.

But love is not something fluffy. If necessary, love will fight to protect what it loves. In the same book it tells us that God is love, 1 John, it also tells us that "God is light, in him there is no darkness at all". God is love, and that love opposes the darkness that would seek to dethrone the Trinity, or seek to harm God's people.

Sometimes by the way that we reject God, by the way that we fight against him, we force him to oppose us. The Amalekites did that. And when God fights against someone because they fight against him, he does not like to do it. He does not rejoice in the death of sinners, but rather that they should turn from their wickedness and live. (Ezekiel 18:23) God's judgement is described in the Bible as his "strange work" and his "alien task" (Isaiah 28:21). It doesn't come naturally to him.

This tension reaches its climax on the cross. We see right through the Old Testament that in order for God to bless the world through his people, he must destroy those who oppose them. And in the cross he does both. The Second Person of the Trinity, God himself, becomes a man to be God's own people; to be the means of blessing to all the world, and also to become the man who must suffer and die. God bears his own punishment on sin so that we, the guilty ones, can be free.

Yes, God is a God of love. He is a God of love who loves so much that he defends what he loves, and when he loves his own enemies, he defends them by taking the punishment on himself. This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to bear our sin.

Amalekites - What About the Children?

We've already seen that there were lots of ways out for individual Amalekites who wanted to run away. We have seen that the primary intention of God's command in 1 Samuel 15:3 is to stop the Israelites profiting from the destruction of the Amalekites. But given that command what about children who remained? Would they have been killed?

Probably, yes. And that's hard to say.

But think about the situation. We've seen that the Israelite army was huge and slow-moving - that there was plenty of time for people to get away. Whose fault is it if children stay behind for a battle? Whose fault is it if a parent takes their children to war and the children get killed?

It's the parents' fault, isn't it? Let's take an example from WW2. Just before the D-Day invasion, the Allies parachuted troops into France to secure vital bridges and so on. The normal orders for such troops is to take no prisoners, just like for the Israelite army. Now suppose they are faced by a column of German infantry, and the column includes women and children, who are also fighting. Whose fault is it if those children die? Is it Churchill's, for ordering that the troops take no prisoners? Or is it their parents' for making them fight when they should be keeping them safe?

Same here.

Were the Amalekites wiped out?

If God's command to Saul in 1 Samuel 15 was exhaustive - if God was commanding a genocide, then we would expect the Amalekites to be wiped out. After all, Saul is only criticised for taking plunder, not for sparing them. He thinks he obeys Samuel's command (1 Sam 15:20).

But that's not what we see. In 1 Samuel 27:8, there are still Amalekites around for David to raid. In Esther, Haman seems to be descended from the kings of the Amalekites. They weren't wiped out, therefore God didn't command a genocide.

"But this generation of Amalekites weren't guilty!"

In 1 Samuel 15, God tells Saul to kill the Amalekites because of something their ancestors had done. Just after the Exodus (if I had to guess a date, I'd guess 1280BC, but it could be as early as 1450BC), the Amalekites attacked Israel in the desert. But in about 1040BC, God says they will be punished for it. How can that be fair?

In Ezekiel 18, God says that he doesn't punish anyone for their ancestors' sins - people are punished for their own sins. But even then, there's the assumption that people normally follow their parents. Most people do what they saw their parents do. So if the parents are alcoholic or abusive, the children are more likely to grow up to be alcoholic or abusive. The parents' behaviour helps to explain why the child is like that, but it doesn't excuse it. People are still responsible for their own actions, and they can be judged for their parents' sins only when they themselves continue to walk in the way their parents walked, when they make their parents' sin their own.

The Amalekites were like that with attacking God's people. They had kept on doing it generation after generation - at least 5 times in the 250-odd years between the Exodus and Saul. The Amalekites as a nation are being judged because they keep attacking God's people, but individual Amalekites are judged based on their own actions.

You see, individual Amalekites have the chance to distance themselves from their nation (see Is there a way out for the Amalekites?). If they stay and fight, it shows they agree with the way their nation has acted.

There is evidence in the passage as well that individuals are judged for their own sin rather than the sin of their ancestors. In v18 they are described as "wicked people", and in v33 Agag is killed because his sword has made women childless.

God calls time on the Amalekites as a nation because of the actions of their ancestors, which they have continued in. But inidivdual Amalekites are judged for their own actions. If they distance themselves from their nation, they are spared.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Amalekites - What did God actually command?

At first sight, God's command to Saul looks clear and unambiguous.

Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.
1 Samuel 15:3, NIV

But if we are going to understand it correctly, we need to see how Saul would have understood it. We can see a lot of that from reading the passage closely, and from reading other similar and related passages.

Saul wouldn't have understood the command exhaustively to mean that he must kill all the Amalekites. We see this from 1 Kings 11, for 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

The writer doesn't see a problem with both saying that the soldiers killed everyone there, and also that there were some survivors who escaped. It doesn't mean "hunt down and exterminate the Amalekites"; it means "kill everyone who stays and fights".

I don't think Saul would have understood the command vindictively either, when we understand how war worked back then. The purpose of war was generally to take plunder - slaves, valuables or flocks. The rules governing war in Deuteronomy 20 specifically allowed Israelites to take plunder when fighting outside their own land. But here the Israelites are specifically forbidden from taking any plunder - whether cattle or livestock or wives or slaves. That's why children are included - it's not telling the Israelites to be especially vicious - it's telling them not to profit from the battle.

That also makes most sense of why Saul is condemned later in the passage. Saul allows the Amalekite king to live, and also allows his soldiers to take some plunder. And Samuel says:

Why did you not obey the Lord? Why did you pounce on the plunder and do evil in the eyes of the Lord?
1 Samuel 15:19

Saul's sin in this passage is not showing mercy to the Amalekites; his sin is trying to profit from their destruction, because that is what God specifically forbids in v3.

I suppose a modern equivalent of v3 would be "Attack them. Take no prisoners. Take no plunder." That's what God commanded Saul to do to the Amalekites.

Was there a way out for the Amalekites?

So was there a way out for the Amalekites?

When the Israelites attacked them, the Amalekites had four options.

Option 1 - (Bravely) Run Away

The Israelite army didn't have cars or aeroplanes. They would have moved at the speed of the slowest unit, which was probably a heavy wagon with supplies. We're told the army consisted of 210,000 men. They were a huge army, and moved slowly. That means it was very easy to spot them coming, and very easy to run away. In the ancient world, the number of civilian casualties in war was tiny. This is mainly because it was very easy to run away. Only the people who stay to fight get killed.

Option 2 - Join the Kenites

The Kenites lived in the same area as the Amalekites, but they were friendly towards the Israelites. When Saul's army arrived at the Amalekite city, the first thing they do is send 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.

Option 3 - Surrender

There's a set of rules for how Israel was meant to conduct their wars outside their own borders. We don't know if Israel followed them or not on this occasion, but they should have done.

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

God's specific command to Saul in 1 Samuel 15 overrides the rest of those orders (about prisoners and plunder), but not the first bit. Saul should have offered the Amalekites the chance to surrender and join in with the Israelites and God's plan to bless the world.

Option 4 - Stay and Fight

The fourth choice the Amalekites had was to hold onto their identity as the people who always fight the Israelites, and stay and fight. This option is the only one which leads to the Amalekites being killed.

1 Samuel 15 - What's the Big Picture?

When we are trying to understand a difficult passage like 1 Samuel 15, it is really important to get a good idea of where the passage fits into the big picture. And that's particularly true with this one. In particular, we need to understand why Israel was important.

At this point in the story, Israel are 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 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.

Who Were the Amalekites?

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. They had attacked Israel at least five times over a period of about 250 years.

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.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Prayer Request

I know I don't usually post prayer requests on here, but tomorrow I'm due to be doing a radio debate with an atheist called Justin Schieber on the Amalekite Genocide of 1 Samuel 15. Please pray for me.

I'll post some more stuff for discussion up here over the next few days, and a link to the recording of the debate when it's available. For the meantime, here's a link to some of my past stuff on the Amalekites. I've moved on a bit since then though...

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Coping with Bible Disagreements

There are a few areas where the Bible doesn't seem to speak with a single voice on a topic. Examples are the nature of hell, remarriage after divorce and the order of events at the end of the world. It isn't so much that what the Bible says is unclear – but that it seems to clearly say different things in different places.

When that happens, we get to choose how we respond.

  • The non-Christian response is to say that the Bible just contradicts itself and ignore it. Some Christians try that response, but I don't think it's helpful or productive. Neither do I think Christians should try it, unless they've tried the other options and found them wanting.
  • The response of the busy Christian is to accept that there is probably an answer out there somewhere, but that it isn't particularly relevant to my life now, and so ignore it. That's what I did for many years on the question of the role of the Jews after the time of Jesus. It wasn't relevant to what I was doing, so I used what I knew and didn't worry too much about the rest.
  • The proof-texting response is to take one set of verses and passages, usually the ones closest to the view which we'd want to take anyway or which our group takes, and make them the basis for our view on the issue, then either ignore or re-interpret the verses which seem to put forward other views to explain why they are wrong. That's what tends to happen when the debate is split down party lines, as with the debate on the nature of hell.
  • My preferred response is to try to find an answer which fits all the passages which discuss the issue, and explains why they seem to say what they say. The ideal is that you find a point of view where all the passages that we have are legitimate ways of explaining it for the contexts that they are written to. Once you've done that, I think you've got good reason to think that you're probably right on one of those issues, but not otherwise.