Thursday, October 09, 2014

Responding to ISIS

I wrote this for folks at church; some people have found it helpful, so I thought I'd share it more widely. Here are a few quick thoughts on how to respond to the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, which has obviously been in the news a lot recently with the execution murder of Alan Henning.

1. Remember God's Justice

Lots of the Psalms can appear quite bleak at first reading. But actually, they were written precisely to help God's people respond to difficult situations like the rise of the Islamic State. Here's Psalm 10:7-15, for example.

7 His mouth is full of lies and threats;
trouble and evil are under his tongue.
8 He lies in wait near the villages;
from ambush he murders the innocent.
His eyes watch in secret for his victims;
9 like a lion in cover he lies in wait.
He lies in wait to catch the helpless;
he catches the helpless and drags them off in his net.
10 His victims are crushed, they collapse;
they fall under his strength.
11 He says to himself, “God will never notice;
he covers his face and never sees.”

12 Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God.
Do not forget the helpless.
13 Why does the wicked man revile God?
Why does he say to himself,
“He won’t call me to account”?
14 But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted;
you consider their grief and take it in hand.
The victims commit themselves to you;
you are the helper of the fatherless.
15 Break the arm of the wicked man;
call the evildoer to account for his wickedness
that would not otherwise be found out.

And the Psalms keep pointing us back to God's justice. He will do what is right. He will repay those who attack and murder the innocent; he will repay those who have been hurt unjustly, and those who have hurt them.

2. Don't be afraid

It's easy to be afraid of the seeming rise of Islamic fundamentalism. But the fact is, the Bible is very clear that God's people will always be opposed. The way the UK has been for centuries, where Christians are free to practice our beliefs and even in positions of power, is very much the minority position in world history. We should not be surprised that people who do what is right are sometimes attacked. We shouldn't be surprised that Christians are attacked and persecuted. We should remember and support them (and see Open Doors for ways to do just that). The Bible is also clear that we don't need to be afraid of those who oppose us. We know the end of the story – we know that Jesus wins.

But that final victory does not come about by us fighting. Even in the final battle in Revelation, in Rev 20:7-9, all the armies of the world gather to attack God's people, but God's people do not need to fight to defend themselves. God wins the victory, and God will defeat Islamic fundamentalism, whether sooner or later; we do not need to be afraid.

3. Love our neighbours; love our enemies

Our call is rather different. We are called to love those who hate us; to pray for those who persecute us. Christianity did not conquer the Roman Empire by military force; we conquered it by patient suffering and love for the oppressed. We should pray for those in authority in ISIS and those who seek to kill Christians, that their hearts would be changed just as the Apostle Paul's was.

We are also called to love our neighbours. It's important to recognise that there are many Muslims who are appalled at the things being done in the name of Islam. We should love them and seek to support them and defend them from those in this country who would seek to hurt them.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Scarves, Stoles and Symbolism

Symbols change their meaning with time.

When I was growing up, one symbol that had a very clear meaning for me was whether ministers wore scarf or stole. (Scarves are black; stoles have the colour of the liturgical season – green, white, red or purple). If a vicar wore a black scarf, it showed that they understood that their role was primarily as a preacher of God's Word. If they wore a stole, it meant that they saw their ministry as being priests, re-sacrificing Jesus on the altar.

That understanding informed what I wore for my ordination. Lots of evangelical ordinands share that view and want to be given a black scarf at their ordination rather than a white stole, because it symbolises being given authority to preach rather than authority to re-enact the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. The official rules of course say that it makes no doctrinal difference which you wear, but that just prompted a friend of mine to find out what the doctrinal difference was. He wore a scarf.

Years later, I found myself in a different part of the country, in a church where no-one would even dream of thinking that the minister re-enacted Jesus sacrifice of himself at communion, and everyone was clear that a big part of the vicar's role was preaching. When I asked them how they understood the difference between scarves and stoles, the only difference they could find was that stoles were colourful and showed that the minsters valued colour and symbols but that scarves showed the vicar was a bit old-fashioned.

Of course, if people understand the symbolism that way, then I'm not going to be so insistent on wearing a scarf rather than a stole... Symbols are flexible and can mean different things in different contexts. There is nothing inherent about a black scarf that means it's about preaching or about a coloured stole that means it carries a certain understanding of communion – those are labels that some people choose to attach to those items of clothing.

Now it seems that scarves are dying out altogether. Some bishops ban them at ordinations. I don't think that's usually because of theology; I suspect it's because it looks neater if everyone is wearing the same thing. But more evangelicals avoid robes as often as they possibly can, which again comes down to symbolism.

For some people, robes symbolise the church they of their parents stopped going to – the idea of a minister who is boring, old-fashioned and out of touch. (That's not always a bad thing; I wear robes every week for a service where it's a positively good thing.) For others, robes symbolise that the people wearing them are different from everyone else. Ironically, that's how robes came about, but in not the way that you'd expect.

In the 400s AD, some clergy had started dressing in a way that was designed to look impressive. Pope Celestine I objected strongly and wrote this:

We bishops must be distinguished from the people and others by our learning, not our dress, by our life not by our robes, by purity of heart not by elegance.
Quoted in Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy, p.401

Shortly afterwards, to stop the clergy wearing fancy clothes that set them apart, the church introduced some rules about what clergy should wear. Ironically, it was those very rules that then stayed the same for centuries and resulted in clergy wearing different clothes from everyone else as fashion changed!

In the late Roman Empire, people who held an office (magistrates, etc) would wear a special scarf to identify themselves and to show the authority that had been given them to do their role. It's that scarf that is the ancestor of both the scarf and the stole.

People who think that robes make an important statement, and that clergy are more about preaching than presiding at communion are also likely to think that robes themselves communicate the wrong message to people, and so are more likely to avoid wearing them, except on special occasions.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Old Testament Source Criticism

I spend quite a bit of my life digging into details of the text of the Bible. I love doing it, but I didn't love studying large parts of the OT at university, and I don't like the way it's often taught today. The main reason comes down to two words: source criticism.

Source criticism is about trying to understand the history of a text. A source critic might read Lord of the Rings, for example, and try to work out how the text came to take the form it did. It's much easier if you've got copies of earlier versions, or of the author's working. We don't have those in the case of the Bible, though.

Source criticism can be a useful tool to have when studying the Old Testament. There are a few places where it produces helpful insights. For example, Psalm 89 seems to have been a Psalm about God's goodness in creation, to which someone has added a bit in a different style about God's goodness in making promises to David, to which someone else has added in another style a complaint that God isn't keeping those promises and prayer that he would. Or Amos 4 & 5 seem to be a speech Amos gives in the (Northern) temple, interspersed with some verses of a hymn that's being sung, creating an effect a bit like Simon & Garfunkel singing Silent Night over the evening news. Seeing those aspects of a passage actually help us to understand the meaning of the passage better.

Where Source Criticism gets annoying is when scholars treat it like the main tool they should be using to understand a passage. This is especially true in the Pentateuch, and especially with a theory called the Documentary Hypothesis (JEDP). In that theory, Genesis - Deuteronomy somehow contain the full text of four older documents, called J, E, D and P, and probably the majority of non-evangelical Pentateuch scholars seem to spend most of their time (and most of the space in commentaries) arguing about precisely which bit comes from which source. The result is rather as you'd expect if you read a novel with your main concern being trying to work out how the author had drafted it - you completely miss the point.

C.S. Lewis, who was both an author and an expert on old texts, writes this on Biblical source criticism:

This then is my first bleat. These men ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves. They claim to see fern-seed and can't see an elephant ten yards away in broad daylight.


My impression is that in the whole of my experience, not one of these guesses [of reviews where others try to reconstruct how he wrote things] has on any point been right; that the method shows a record of one hundred per cent failure. You would expect by mere chance they would hit as often as they miss. But it is my impression that they do no such thing. I can't remember a single hit.


They assume that you wrote a story as they would try to write a story; the fact that they would so try explains why they have not produced any stories.

(from Fern Seed and Elephants)

Let's backtrack for a moment. The main reason that the JEDP hypothesis came about in the first place was because the Pentateuch really doesn't read like history as written by a modern westerner. Here's an example:

4 Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. 5 On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.’

6 So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, ‘In the evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, 7 and in the morning you will see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we, that you should grumble against us?’ 8 Moses also said, ‘You will know that it was the Lord when he gives you meat to eat in the evening and all the bread you want in the morning, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we? You are not grumbling against us, but against the Lord.’

9 Then Moses told Aaron, ‘Say to the entire Israelite community, “Come before the Lord, for he has heard your grumbling.”’

10 While Aaron was speaking to the whole Israelite community, they looked towards the desert, and there was the glory of the Lord appearing in the cloud.

11 The Lord said to Moses, 12 ‘I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, “At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.”’

Exodus 16:4-12, NIV

The passage clearly says things more than once. It reads like there are two accounts of the same event with slight variations in the same passage. It does not read like it was written by a modern western historian. But there's a simple reason for that - it wasn't written by a modern western historian - it was written by an ancient Israelite, and they wrote rather differently from us.

Take the Psalms, for example. The basic literary technique in Psalms is that you say something, then you say it again using slightly different words - sometimes giving a little more information, sometimes not.

Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord;
let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
2 Let us come before him with thanksgiving
and extol him with music and song.

3 For the Lord is the great God,
the great King above all gods.
4 In his hand are the depths of the earth,
and the mountain peaks belong to him.
5 The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land.

Psalm 95:1-5, NIV

No-one in their right mind would suggest that "the Lord is the great God" must have been written by a different person from "the great King above all gods". That's how Hebrew poetry works. So we shouldn't be surprised if Hebrew prose shows some of the same structures. There's often repetition; there's often clarification. It may well be linked to the fact it was originally written in a non-literate culture, so was written to be remembered easily.

But they don't just repeat randomly; there are all kinds of interesting structures in Hebrew prose. One of the most common is the chiasm, where the passage repeats itself in a mirror image around a central verse. Exodus 16 is one of those:

The whole section is exposing the fact that the Israelites are doubting that God is with them. The passage points to the fact that God will show his presence among them by providing them food. It's a carefully constructed work of literary art rather than a badly meshed together group of extracts from sources.

Now a decent commentary will spend more time on the important aspects of the structure rather than JEDP, but most won't. Decent teaching material on the Pentateuch will spend more time discussing structures like that than JEDP, but most doesn't. And that makes me sad.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Three Quick Book Reviews

It's been a while since I've posted on here – largely because of the summer. Here are some reviews of non-fiction books I've read recently...

Celebration of Discipline – Richard Foster

This book is far far better than its title! One of the huge dangers facing any book on spiritual disciplines is legalism, which Foster avoids well. It is easy to see how this book became a classic, and was one of the key influences in helping evangelicals learn from some of the riches of other traditions. Lots of wise practical advice about fasting and so on as well.

In some ways, Christian culture in the 2010s might be even more compromised by seeking after comfort than it was in the 1980s when the book was written, and hence even more in need of the spiritual disciplines.

There aren't many books which I'd say are a “must read” for modern Christians. This might well be one!

Liturgical Worship – Mark Earey

This is the recommended textbook for a course I'm teaching in the Autumn on liturgy. It's a really good book for giving an introduction to the shape and nature of Anglican liturgy.

There are a couple of places where I felt he missed important points – for example he sees the options with deciding what to preach on as either following a lectionary or having the danger of going for the preachers' pet topics – ignoring the pattern I've come across many times of systematic preaching through chunks of Scripture, but varying the genre regularly. But by and large, I thought that Earey gives a fair representation of most of the breadth of Anglican positions on various topics.

There are quite a few grand-sounding statements about liturgy – that it is the “Corporate drama of being the people of God” and “a public symbolic shaping of space and time in order that our hearts and lives might be shaped in the image of Christ”, but at times I felt it could do with a lot more fleshing out.

I don't think we covered liturgy very well at theological college at all. I'd have found this a really helpful introduction to the topic, but it's not more than that.

The Breeze of the Centuries – Michael Reeves

This is an introduction to a handful of great Christian thinkers from before the Reformation period – the Apostolic Fathers, Irenaeus, Athanasius, Anselm, Aquinas.

With each of them, Reeves gives a short biography, complete with humorous anecdotes, and a summary of their major works, theology and influence.

There's a lot of good stuff there. It's certainly helpful to see the people in their wider context. Reeves doesn't let people slip into their own stereotypes – he doesn't let them always be right and points out some of Anselm's theological weirdnesses (for example). It's certainly a good introduction to the theologians he covers, but it's the weakest of the three Michael Reeves books I've read.

Here's one of the high points of the book:

Augustine provides a prime example of what it is like to read a great theologian from the past: both grand and alien, both profoundly right and profoundly wrong (often in the same sentence), he challenges in every way. His great temporal distance from us dares our comfortable and well-worn formulas. Even the mistakes we recognise as characteristic of his age force us to ask what mistakes are characteristic of ours. (p.100)

There are a couple of things I found difficult or unhelpful. One is the selection of theologians – they're almost all Westerners (Justin Martyr and Athanasius are the only exceptions), and it seems odd not to mention Origen or the Cappadocians. Reeves also seems to say that there weren't any significant theologians between Augustine and Anselm, which seems a little unfair to John of Damascus and co. Maybe it would have been better as two books – one on patristic theologians and one on medieval ones, with people like Bernard of Clairvaux, Tauler, Catherine of Siena, etc.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

How I File Sermon Notes

I'm a little obsessive when it comes to organising things on my computer. That's in complete contrast to organising things on my desk, but that's another story...
Here's a system I've found easy to use and helpful for filing sermon notes on the computer.

1. Have a computer folder for upcoming talks, with a subfolder for each talk and event. Here's mine:

Note that the subfolder names have the date of the event first, in yymmdd format. It used to be yyyymmdd, but I figure I'm not going to be preaching still in the year 2100, so I don't need the first two digits.

That means that if I sort the folders alphabetically, they sort into chronological order, and I can see what's coming up.

I create this folder about once a term, and clear out the old one into my filing system. I find it much easier to keep this folder on a cloud drive, so I can access it from anywhere. I keep all the files related to each talk in the appropriate folder.

2. Have a folder for each book of the Bible. I find a list of 66 quite hard to work with, so I subdivide into genres, then by books, putting a number in front of the book name so that sorting by name also sorts by book order.

For example, the book of Psalms is at Bible/3. Poetry-Wisdom/2. Psalms

3. File notes in the appropriate folder, with a title that looks like this:
Matthew 05v01-16 140621

Having a file title like that means that sorting by name sorts by order within the book, and lets you see immediately when the talk was done as well. Note the importance of trailing zeros – otherwise it would sort Matthew 1, Matthew 15, Matthew 2. In Psalms you need more trailing zeros – so it's Psalm 008 or Psalm 037 because there are more than 100 chapters.

I file notes from sermons that I've preached (still in folders with appropriate files); interesting articles that I've read online; notes I took in lectures in college; notes from talks I've listened to (scanned in), and so on. Here's an example from my folder on John.

4. Show cross-references with shortcuts
One of the beauties of an electronic filing system is that shortcuts are easy to create. If I preached a sermon on Acts 2, for example, that strongly referred to the Tower of Babel, I could create a shortcut to the Acts 2 folder and rename the shortcut as Genesis 11, and file it appropriately.

It makes things really easy to file and to find again. I guess it took a couple of hours to set up in the first place, but it didn't take long to more than recover that time back!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

"Discipline" - an unhelpful translation?

Here's a passage which I find really unhelpful when you're going through a hard time, but which shouldn't be...

And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,

‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.’

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined – and everyone undergoes discipline – then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
Hebrews 12:5-11, NIV

So what? We're meant to endure hardship as discipline? Try telling that to the woman whose child has died – that it's God disciplining her! How's that a “word of encouragement”? It's stupid, pastorally insensitive, and just plain wrong. We don't live under the law. We don't believe in a God who gives us petty material rewards for obedience and punishments for disobedience. Maybe that's the way it worked in Leviticus, but not for the Christian.

There are two problems here. The first is the word “discipline” - most translations seem to use it in Hebrews 12, but I don't think it's warranted.

Discipline: the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience.
παιδεια: upbringing, training, instruction.

The Greek word which we translate as “discipline” doesn't quite mean that though. “Training” would be a better translation – it's the idea of an adult training a child. Sometimes that involves punishing disobedience - we suffer because we do things wrong. Sometimes, like with hard physical training, it's difficult and painful when we do it right as well. The word used for "discipline" here carries both ideas - it's the same word translated “training” in 2 Timothy 3:16. The passage isn't saying that all hardship is discipline. It's saying that God uses hardship to train us, like any kind of training can be hard, but we respect it and work with it.

The NIV translators generally did a great job – it's just about the best translation of the Bible into modern English. But they had a shocker when it got to Hebrews 12:7, and most other translations didn't do a lot better...
“Endure hardship as discipline – God is treating you as his children.” (NIV)
“It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons.” (ESV)
”Be patient when you are being corrected! This is how God treats his children.” (CEV)
”Endure what you suffer as being a father's punishment; your suffering shows that God is treating you as his children.” (Good News)
If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons;” (NJKV)
The NRSV is probably the most helpful of the major translations here, except that it still uses “discipline”; “Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children...”
I think Eugene Peterson pretty much nails the sense though in the Message:
God is educating you; that’s why you must never drop out. He’s treating you as dear children. This trouble you’re in isn’t punishment; it’s training, the normal experience of children.
The idea is that we should endure difficulties and hardship because God uses them to train us. God is our Father. He hasn't let go of us; he isn't leaving us to the ravages of chance or punishing us for our own weakness. He knows what he is doing, and he is training us to trust him, even in and through the difficult times. Now that's a comfort, and an encouragement to keep going!

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Pet Peeves - Misusing "Quantum"

One thing which annoys me is when people who don't know what they're talking about abuse scientific language. One of the most egregious examples of this is the word "Quantum". It sounds cool, I know, but it really doesn't mean what most people seem to think it means.

This is what "Quantum" means:

Quantum: the smallest possible non-zero amount of something

It was actually quite a revolutionary idea to start with. There is a smallest possible amount of water - you can't take a jug of water and keep pouring half of it away - eventually you will end up with the smallest possible amount of water, and you either pour it all away or keep it all. Or I guess you could try splitting it and if you did it really cleverly you might end up with two beryllium hydride radicals which aren't water at all. Quantum is weird because we're used to the real world, where there are normally so many lumps of stuff that it looks smooth to us.

The same is true of pretty much anything - there's a smallest possible amount of light (one photon), of electric charge, of electricity, whatever. Maybe even of space, which I find quite weird as an idea. This leads to a couple of other common phrases:

Quantum Mechanics: the study of how quantum stuff behaves.

Quantum Leap: a jump between two states with no intermediate stages - i.e. the smallest possible change in something.

Quantum leaps can be big (I guess), just usually they're really small. A legitimate example would be to say that moving from DVD to Blu-Ray is a quantum leap, because there are no intermediate stages. But the fact it's a quantum leap doesn't imply anything about the size or the significance, just that there's no intermediate step. "On the 100-question multiple choice physics exam, Tony went from 35% to 36%. That's a quantum leap.

Misusing the word "quantum" is like claiming that Shakespeare was a great novelist. It's a basic error which just makes people look stupid.


Quantum of the Seas is a boat. Its name means "smallest possible amount of the seas", and it claims to be the smallest possible step forwards from its predecessors. On that basis, I wouldn't bother.

Almost every single use of the word "quantum" in relation to the social sciences or arts subjects I've read has demonstrated major misunderstandings - even C.S. Lewis in Miracles. The big exceptions are when the author themselves has a masters or better in physics - e.g. John Polkinghorne.

Quantum of Solace is a film. I think they actually got the title about right - it's like a crumb of solace only much much smaller as Bond continues the transformation from hard man to killer to utterly ruthless and remorseless suave super-agent.

Quantum Leap can be forgiven just about anything.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

How to Handle Difficult Issues Biblically

1 Corinthians 8-10 is an often-neglected bit of the New Testament (except for a few verses in chapter 9, usually read out of context). But actually it provides us with a really helpful pattern for working with difficult issues in the Church.

The problem in Corinth was the issue of meat sacrificed to idols. In first century Corinth, most meat was slaughtered in the context of worship at one or other of the many temples. It was then either served at public feasts, served at guild meals or sold in the meat market. Membership of most trades required being in a guild; they generally met in pagan temples. If you ate meat that had been sacrificed to idols, it was often understood as sharing in the worship of the god to whom it had been sacrificed, just as Communion was seen as sharing in Jesus' sacrifice. The Corinthian church was obviously divided on the issue, and had asked Paul for advice.

So how does Paul handle this difficult situation?

  1. Come up with the best Biblical-theological case on both sides (8:1-7; 10:1-12; 10:14-22). Some people think Paul is contradicting himself here, but actually he's stating the strongest arguments on both sides before coming to a conclusion. So often when we try to have debates now in the church, people only state one point of view and as a result are rejected by the other side. Paul clearly understands both sides, and states both arguments well. The arguments here are Biblical / theological in character - Paul argues from theology and the Shema (8v4-6), from the history of Israel (10v1-11), from the nature of communion (10v16-21).
  2. Recognise that both sides are probably right, and identify the real issue. If both sides are supported by good scriptural arguments, both are probably right. If they look like they contradict each other, we need to see why they don't really. Here, Paul does it by seeing the gap between eating meat and actually participating in the sacrifice, which is an attitude of mind or heart on the part of the worshipper. [It is of course very possible to have bad arguments from Scripture too; I'm not saying those are right.]
  3. Recognise explicitly that many people won't have done all the theology, and will be responding from their gut. Honour them and their consciences (8:7-13). This is again something we often miss today, and in some situations one side's consciences may say not to do something and the other side may say to do it, and it's genuinely hard to honour both, but we should try anyway.
  4. Follow the example of Jesus, who laid down his rights for others, but don't slip into legalism. Maintain the importance of Christian freedom, but let it be trumped by love. As soon as people start talking about their rights, they show they've missed the point. The point of rights for the Christian is that we lay them down for others. That's what Paul means by "follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" in 11v1. Jesus, being in very nature God, laid down his rights for us. Paul, having the right to financial support and to live as he wanted within the "law of Christ", gave those rights up for the sake of those he was ministering to. So we should also give up our rights for the sake of each other, even if that means avoiding offending their over-scrupulous consciences.

A couple of quick applications to current issues in the C of E:

People who talk about women's right to be bishops (for example) don't really understand what it is to live as a Christian, let alone to be a bishop. If women do have that right, they should be willing to lay it down for the sake of their brothers and sisters who would be offended by it. And those brothers and sisters should probably lay down their right not to be offended for the sake of preserving unity and allowing women to serve in the capacity of bishop.

What the homosexuality squabble debate desperately needs is people who are willing to articulate both sides of the Biblical argument and show how they fit together. So often what is produced by both camps is hideously one-sided, and sometimes just ignores important pastoral issues or runs roughshod over the consciences of those who in good conscience disagree, even if they do so without good reasons. Yes, if we disagree with someone, we should seek to persuade them, but we should do so in love - whether love for the knee-jerk homophobes or for the "out and proud" types.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Communion Services in the Early Church

In the early church, there were three main types of service – the agape meal, the synaxis (similar to Service of the Word), and the eucharist (Greek for “thanksgiving”). Over the years, the agape meal largely faded out, and the synaxis and eucharist merged to make the modern Communion Service. In this post, I'll trace very briefly how we got from the Early Church (pre-325) to the modern situation in the Church of England.


The structure of the synaxis was as follows: Greeting, Bible Reading, Sung Worship, Bible Reading, Sermon, Outsiders Leave, Prayers, Dismissal. I've already written about how some of the elements worked, but one development it's worth noting is that the “traditional” pattern of Epistle, Psalm and Gospel readings developed from the earlier practice of one reading at the start of the service, then a time of sung worship (usually using Psalms), then a second reading which was the basis for the sermon. Outsiders were welcome to attend the service, but were expected to leave after the sermon and before the prayers. Catechumens (people who were preparing for baptism) were welcome to stay for the prayers but were expected to leave before the Eucharist, at what is now the Peace.


Dix identifies four key stages in the Eucharist service, which are reflected in the gospels – Jesus took bread (1), he gave thanks (2), he broke it (3) and gave it to the disciples (4).

Offertory - “he took bread”
Originally there was just one loaf (1 Cor 10:17), but in the 100s AD, members of the congregation brought their own bread to church to share, and it was brought forwards at this point, like the wave offering or the grain offering in the OT. People offering their own bread for the Communion came to be seen as symbolic of offering their lives to God and having them transformed; after people started believing that the bread became Jesus during the prayer, it eventually got confused into the idea of us offering Jesus' sacrifice on the cross. To make it clear that we can only offer ourselves to God because of what God has done in giving Jesus as a sacrifice in our place, Cranmer moved the language of offering ourselves to after the Communion. Sometimes (e.g. 1662) the offertory gets confused with the money offering too. (Wafers are a much later innovation, and in my opinion a wrong one.)
Eucharist - “he gave thanks”
A prayer was said over the bread and wine, thanking God. The prayer typically followed the pattern: blessing God, thanks for creation, thanks for redemption, thanks for the new covenant (and our place in it), institution narrative (i.e. the story of the Last Supper), prayer for us as we receive communion, praising God again. Later on, the Sanctus came to replace or be integrated into the Thanksgiving sections. The key phrase in this whole section is Jesus' command to “do this in remembrance of me” - reminding us that we are sharing communion to remember Jesus. The Prayer of Humble Access is descended from the minister's prayer for the people as we receive communion.
Sometimes other prayers were inserted after the Eucharistic Prayer, largely because of the 4th century idea that the prayer of thanksgiving “consecrated” the bread and the wine, and that somehow God was therefore more present then, and so prayer was more likely to be heard. We see remnants of this in the use of the Lord's Prayer in Common Worship Order 1. Sometimes it even went far enough that the prayers during the Synaxis ceased to be used – we don't need two periods of intercession during the service. Of course, originally, the prayers of intercession were in the Synaxis rather than the Eucharist, and I think that's the best place for them.
Fraction - “he broke it”
The bread is broken so that it can be distributed. Originally this may well have used 1 Cor 10:17, but after the church stopped using just one loaf they switched to using words like “God's holy gifts for God's holy people” or “the body of Christ, broken for you.” Sometimes people today use 1 Cor 10:17 "though we are many, we are one body, for we all share in the one bread", but do it without using one loaf. That seems silly to me. In the medieval church, the Fraction came to be seen as the point at which Jesus' body was actually broken, so Cranmer dropped it altogether. 1662 re-introduced it during the Institution Narrative, which is historically odd.
Communion - “he gave it to them”
Distribution of the bread and wine was usually done with the ministers standing, and the people walking between them. Afterwards, there was just a short dismissal and the service ended.

(This is part of an irregular series spinning off Gregory Dix's On the Shape of the Liturgy. The data is almost all from Dix, but I've reworked it in the light of a rather different theology.)

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

The Prepositions of Salvation

When we're thinking about how God saves us, it's surprisingly important to get our prepositions right. Prepositions are words like “onto” or “under” which describe how two objects are related to each other.

The Bible tells us we are saved:

from sin
Naturally we all suffer from what one author helpfully describes as “the human propensity to f*** things up”. That means that the way things are by nature, we are cut off from God and when it comes to God's plan to sort the universe out and fix what is wrong; we are part of the problem that God will get rid of rather than part of the solution. That is what we are saved from.
by grace
Because the way we are is part of the problem, we can't do anything to earn God's favour. We can't do anything to make him like us, because we just mess everything up. But God loves us as we are, even though he knows what we are like. That's called grace – it's God's undeserved love for us.
of God
It's not grace as some impersonal force in the universe, it's the grace of God. God as revealed in the Bible and in Jesus is not an impersonal force who seeks to make us into better people – he is a person (or three), who seeks to mend us and transform us through our relationship with him.
through faith
We take hold of God's salvation / forgiveness / transformation through faith, which simply means trust. It is trust on the basis of available evidence, but which goes beyond the evidence – just like we do every day. When I turn the steering wheel of my car, I trust that it will cause the car to turn. I have good reason for that trust – it has worked every previous time, but that doesn't guarantee it will work in the future. Nevertheless, I choose to put my faith in the steering column of my car to do its work. In the same way, I trust God to save me, to forgive me, to transform me. And we're saved through faith, not by faith. It isn't something we do to earn anything – it is simply how we take hold of what God has done.
in Christ
It isn't just “faith” in the sense of some generic perception of something beyond ourselves that saves us. It's faith specifically in Christ. It's trusting what Jesus did for us when he died in our place on the cross and rose from the dead to offer new life to all those who trust him.
into Christ
But we're saved “in Christ” in a much deeper sense than that. In a profound sense, when we trust in Jesus, we're united to him so that we receive the blessings which he deserves, we are raised from the dead in his resurrection, and so on. We are saved into Christ, and therefore into his new people, his family the Church.
for works
We aren't saved by what we do. Our faith which takes hold of God's salvation – the fact that we trust in Jesus – shows itself in what we do, but we are saved by the grace of God so that we might do good works, so that we might be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. You don't have to do good works to become a Christian, but those who have already become Christians should do good works.
to the glory of God
the aim of all of it is the glory of God. It's not to make us look good or to feel better than other people. It's so that everyone will see how awesome God is. God the Father wants the world to know how amazing his Son is. God the Son wants the world to see the love of his Father and then transformation that comes from the Holy Spirit. God the Holy Spirit wants us to worship the Father through trusting God the Son.

We see this wonderfully illustrated in passages such as Ephesians 2:4-10 (NIV).

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

My Problem with "Rev"

This week saw the last-ever episode of the TV series Rev, about the vicar of a “failing” church in London. I've watched a fair bit of it, and all of the last series, but I always found it made me profoundly uncomfortable. This is why.

It wasn't because God hardly shows up, though he doesn't much. It wasn't because it's subtly hostile to the church, though it is, particularly in its depiction of all other clergy other than Adam as nasty pieces of work. It was because I found it all-too believable, and it made me face up to one of the fundamental problems faced by the Church of England. When I can do something about problems (or when it's my job to), I think it's important to face them and deal with them, but problems like this I'd rather bury my head in the sand and ignore. In some senses, it's none of my business, but it breaks my heart.

The Church of England has long been built on a foundation of fudge. We aren't really a denomination – we're a national Church which is a variously dysfunctional association of congregations bound together by a shared history which we disagree about, an often-distant episcopacy, a rough agreement that the Creeds are on the whole a good thing, an immensely flexible liturgy that can be indistinguishable from either Rome or Vineyard, and a slightly grudging agreement to work together for the common good. One of the problems with this is that there are some fairly fundamental things that we really don't agree on but never discuss, in particular the nature of ordained ministry.

As far as I can tell, there are two main ideas about the nature of ordained ministry in the Church of England – the ontological and the functional, or in less technical language “being a priest” versus “leading the church”. I'll explain what I mean.

Two Views of Ordained Ministry

The ontological view of ministry is probably the more widely-held view. It's certainly the closest thing to an official view in the C of E. It says that when someone is ordained priest, they become a priest – that is who they are, and it doesn't go away (unless someone does something really bad, and the bishop goes a stage beyond sacking them). Priests are allowed to preside at communion, pronounce official blessing and absolution on people, and so on. Non-priests aren't, but a priest is a priest is a priest, whether they are a vicar, an army chaplain or a retired social worker who helps out in the local church and got ordained so they can help out with communion services.

The C of E selects people for ordination on the basis of this idea. Their criteria are roughly as follows:

  • do they live out some kind of spirituality, and can they articulate why they feel called to be a priest in the C of E?
  • are they moderately well-adjusted as a person – are they aware of their strengths and weaknesses, wanting to grow, willing to serve and to lead, possessing integrity?
  • do they have a decent understanding of the Christian faith, including the importance of reaching outsiders?

This isn't the view which comes naturally to me, but I've come to see some of its strengths. It's great to be able to appoint people like that as official ambassadors for the church. On the various occasions when Adam had a crisis of calling through the series, it was aspects of this call – the call to be a priest – which he kept coming back to.

The other view of ordained ministry is the functional view. It says that there is clearly a call to be different, but that call applies to all Christians. The distinctive call is a call to lead churches – to do something. On this view, a retired vicar is the same as any other member of the congregation, albeit with some skills and wisdom they might like to share.

The key texts for this view are the Pastoral Epistles – letters written by Paul to church leaders in the 60s AD, along with a few other bits like Acts 20 and 1 Peter 5. These distinguish several different levels of leadership in a church, from people who are involved in running practical areas of the church's life (e.g. Stephen) to people who are involved in appointing church leaders across a wider area (e.g. Titus). The criteria these passages give for someone to be involved in a senior leadership position in a church are:

  • Character: good reputation in the community, above reproach, free from addictions, self-controlled, not argumentative, gentle, dignified, sensible, hospitable, not someone who runs after money.
  • Domestic situation: either celibate or faithfully married, looks after own household well, spouse and children (under 12-ish) believe.
  • Faith / skills: not a new believer, doctrinally sound, secure faith, good at teaching the Bible

The Problem

The problem is that these don't quite match, but the C of E pretends they do. I don't have a problem with people being called to be priests, but the call to be a church leader is different. Just because someone is called to be a priest, doesn't mean they're called to lead a church, but the C of E assumes it as the norm.

The result is people like Adam Smallbone in Rev. He's a nice guy; he's clearly got some kind of call on his life. But according to that list, he isn't called to lead a church, and the tension in the series comes from fact that no-one quite grasps that he may well be called to be a priest by the C of E's understanding, but he isn't called to lead a church by the Bible's understanding.

We see the problems shining through in the series. Adam isn't a good preacher; as a result his congregation don't have transforming encounters with God's word and so don't change. We see that painfully clearly when it comes to welcoming a repentant paedophile into the church. Adam understands grace, but he hasn't communicated that understanding to the rest of the church, so they reject him. Adam's wife isn't properly on board with him being a vicar – she clearly resents it and it causes all kinds of problems for her faith, and for his leadership. I know both from personal experience and from that of friends that if a vicar's spouse isn't keen on them following the calling to lead a church, it won't work.

The tragedy is that Adam has been badly let down by the C of E in its confusion between the calling to be a priest and the calling to lead a church. As a result, everyone loses – Adam, the local church, the wider church.

That's what breaks my heart. There are people with a real heart for serving God who have been misled into thinking it should be by leading a church, and end up being chewed up and spat out. There are churches where people aren't growing in their faith because they're being led by people who can't preach properly. And all because we confuse two different things – the calling to be a priest and the calling to lead a church.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Unapologetic - Francis Spufford

This is an utterly remarkable book. Here's part of Spufford's explanation of what the book is for:

You can read any number of defences of Christian ideas. This, however, is a defence of Christian emotions – of their intelligibility, of their grown-up dignity. The book is called Unapologetic because it isn't giving an 'apologia', the technical term for a defence of the ideas.

And also because I'm not sorry.

Spufford is a novelist and lecturer in creative writing, and it shows. The book is incredibly well written and saturated in knowing references to modern highbrow culture – not in a showing-off sort of way, but in a way that shows utter familiarity with the Guardian-reading arts scene and much prefers knowing allusions to quotes or references.

He says he seeks to be utterly honest, and that shows too, in a kind of fearless way. He isn't afraid to describe God as a “sky fairy” in a way that gently takes the mick out of those who do, or to explain where his ideas diverge from either popular orthodoxy or Christian orthodoxy (of which more later). It isn't a book of tightly-argued logic; it's a description of how his emotions work as a Christian, written in complete non-Christianese.

Spufford's explanation of sin is just about the best I've ever read for the non-Christian reader. Some of his phrases - “Human Propensity to F*** things Up” (or HptFtU) for sin, or “International League of the Guilty” for church are brilliant, and there are some important ideas he's clearly got a better grip of than many Christian writers, if you aren't offended by the language (and that's only coarse-Anglo Saxonisms, not swearing).

There are some significant weaknesses though. I think the root one is that the church Spufford goes to doesn't seem to believe in the verbal inspiration of Scripture – I'd guess it's fairly liberal catholic C of E. So while Spufford affirms the physical resurrection of Jesus, he's unsure about eternal life for the rest of us, and doesn't believe in Hell. I'd love to sit down and have a chat with him about that – I suspect that the kind of hell he doesn't believe in is a kind I don't believe in either.

The same problem shines through in a number of other areas. There isn't really the idea of a propositional grounding for ethics, his take on the cross seems to be vaguely Girardian. Perplexingly in a book about emotions, the Holy Spirit doesn't get a look in and there isn't really a sense of the exciting growth in experience and knowledge of the love of Christ that you get in Eph 3:14-21.

I'd love to chat to him. On the basis of this book, he's clearly a Christian; he's got a wonderful way with words, a great sense of humour and such a clear understanding of the nature of sin. But there's so much more which God has for those who love him, and I can't help feeling he's missing out on it.

Oh, and whether you're a Christian wanting a fresh look at things, or a non-Christian wanting to understand why Christianity makes sense, as long as you're willing to engage with something you'll disagree with, this book is a great read.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Quick Book Reviews

Michael Reeves – The Unquenchable Flame

This is a very readable, clear and entertaining introduction to the Reformation. Obviously, it's an area I've studied a bit, and I can't say I learnt a lot new from this book, but I really enjoyed reading it! There are a couple of things he gets wrong – for example he recognises that Calvin wasn't a Calvinist, but I'm not sure he realises that Zwingli wasn't a Zwinglian either. There are, of course, loads of things he could usefully go into more detail on, but as a short (under 200 page) paperback introduction to the Reformation goes, this is as good as it gets.

Vaughan Roberts – True Friendship

This is a very short book (not even 100 pages), but it's brilliant and well worth a read. Vaughan has obviously read and thought a lot on the topic, and condenses it really well. Here are a couple of really helpful ideas I picked up from it.

  • Our culture idolises sex in such a way that friendship is dramatically de-valued. It seems a common belief that all truly intimate relationships are sexual relationships, especially for men. As a result, classic Biblical teaching on sexual ethics sounds like it is condemning those who aren't able to marry to a lifetime of loneliness. This might be because they're exclusively same sex attracted like Vaughan is, or because they can't find a suitable Christian mate like several people I know, or for a variety of other reasons.
  • Don't worry about other people not being good friends to you – make sure you're a good friend to others.


Malcolm Gladwell – What the Dog Saw

Malcolm Gladwell has become famous in the UK for his book-length popular treatments of social science topics, such as The Tipping Point and Outliers. This is a collection of 20 shorter articles (20 pages or so each) which he wrote for the New Yorker magazine. It's typical Gladwell – he can make pretty much anything seem interesting, even the history of advertising hair dye. It's always thought provoking, always informative, always entertaining.

John C Maxwell – Winning with People

This is a typical John Maxwell book. 25 big points about how to work well with people, explained really clearly, illustrated well, and explained in such a way that they seem utterly obvious. I can see that if someone really needed to learn soft people skills, this book could change their life, but it's got enough helpful advice that pretty much anyone would benefit.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

What about the Apocrypha?

The first record of the process of writing the Old Testament is God writing the 10 Commandments on stone tablets on Mount Sinai in Exodus 20. But only a few chapters later, in Ex 24:7, Moses has something which is described as the “book of the covenant”, which is probably Exodus 20-23, written down by Moses. From then, the Old Testament grew, through a process of editing and compiling various accounts, and people writing down messages given by God to inspired prophets, and so on. There's lots of detail, but it's very dull and the kind of thing boring academics argue about. It's far more interesting and helpful to talk about what the text means than try to come up with novel theories for how it came to be the way it is.

Peter sums up the overall process well:

Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.2 Peter 1:20-21

The result, over a period of 1000 years or so, was the Tanakh. Tanakh is the Hebrew name for Torah (law) + Naviim (prophets) + Khetuvim (writings), and is pretty much exactly the 39 books of the Old Testament in most modern Protestant Bibles, but in a different order. It's written in Hebrew, with a few bits in Aramaic, which is closely related to Hebrew. It's possible a few bits (Daniel?) might have been written after the Greek conquest, but if so they were written in the old language, for the old culture and set before the conquest.

After the Exile to Babylon, the Jews gained a degree of independence under the Persian Empire, the beginnings of which are seen in Ezra and Nehemiah. But the Persian empire fell to Alexander the Great in 332BC, and over time Greek rule transformed Israel. Tensions occasionally rose as high as violent revolt, especially the one led by the Maccabees in 164BC, which led to an independent Jewish state until it was swallowed up by the Roman Empire.

However, most Jews lived outside Israel, in what is now Egypt, Syria, Turkey and Iraq, they spoke Greek rather than Hebrew as a first language and were heavily influenced by Greek culture in a way that the Palestinian Jews had largely resisted. These Jews translated the Tanakh into Greek, so they could read and study it more easily, with the result being the Septuagint (usually abbreviated to LXX). The LXX isn't quite a straight translation though. Some books (Jeremiah) are a bit shorter in the LXX. Others (Daniel, Esther) are a bit longer, with the addition of new stories to Daniel and explicit references to God and prayer in Esther. Some new books were added too - some stories (Tobit, Judith), some history (Maccabees), and some which fit the Greek/Jewish culture, like Wisdom of Solomon, which says how wonderful Greek philosophy is, then points out it's all there and even better in the Tanakh. The books were also in a different order, with the LXX closer to the order you'd find in most Bibles today.

That meant there were some striking differences between the Hebrew Scriptures, used by Palestinian Jews, and the standard Greek translation of it, used by Grecian Jews.

What about Jesus and the apostles?

Jesus and the first apostles were Palestinian Jews and therefore used the Hebrew Tanakh. Paul was at home in either culture – he was brought up in Turkey, but studied in Jerusalem – and although he quotes from the LXX when writing to Greek-speaking Christians, he only quotes from the bits which were translations of the Hebrew/Aramaic original.

By the end of Acts, however, the majority of Christians didn't speak Hebrew or Aramaic, only Greek, and this was stronger still after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70. After that, the early church almost exclusively used the LXX for their Old Testament.

And the Jews?

Meanwhile, the Jews met to discuss the problem at the council of Jamnia, which is often seen as the start of Rabbinic Judaism (i.e. after the temple and the destruction of Israel). They agreed that the Hebrew Tanakh was indeed Scripture, but the extra bits in the Greek LXX weren't.

St Jerome

During the centuries of persecution, the LXX seems to have been fairly readily available. Judaism wasn't persecuted in the same way that Christianity was, and most churches seem to have owned and used the LXX as Scripture. When St Jerome was commissioned to translate the Bible into Latin in 382, he found the problems, and argued against the use of the extra bits in the LXX. Augustine countered, arguing that the LXX itself was inspired by God, even where it got the translation of the underlying Hebrew wrong. Jerome made some compromises and his translation (the Vulgate) became the standard translation in the Latin-speaking world. The Vulgate:

  • Translated the Hebrew text of the books in the Tanakh, but noted where the Greek disagreed.
  • Where there were extra bits in the LXX, translated them too but mostly tagged them on at the end of each book.
  • Kept the LXX book order, including the extra books.

And so it stayed for 1000 years.

The Reformation

In the 1500s, the Reformers rebelled against the established Latin Church. As part of this, they looked again at the question of which books should be in the Bible, and almost all of them concluded that the Old Testament we use should be the Hebrew Tanakh, not the Greek Septuagint. Luther, for example, translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into German, and relegated the books that were only in the LXX to an appendix to the OT entitled “Apocrypha: These Books Are Not Held Equal to the Scriptures, but Are Useful and Good to Read”. Luther's idea was widely copied. In the Church of England, the policy was (and remains) as follows:

And the other Books (as Jerome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine.

Over time, the Apocrypha was dropped from most Bibles to save on printing costs and to make it clear that they aren't on the same level as Scripture.

Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church met at the Council of Trent to decide how to respond to the Reformation. One of the items on the agenda was which books should be in the Bibles, and Trent ruled that all the books in the LXX were Scripture.

The Situation Today

By and large, the situation today is as follows:

  • The Protestant Old Testament is the Hebrew Tanakh, but with the Greek order of books.
  • The Catholic Old Testament is the slightly weird Jerome-compromise of a combination between the Hebrew and Greek Old Testaments, but all held to be authoritative.
  • The Orthodox Old Testament is the LXX, with various slight variations among different groups.

And for those who are interested, the order of books in the Hebrew Tanakh is as follows:

  • Genesis – Deuteronomy (the Torah)
  • Joshua - 2 Kings, but missing out Ruth (the Former Prophets)
  • Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel (the Major Prophets)
  • Hosea – Malachi (the Minor Prophets)
  • Psalms
  • Job
  • Proverbs
  • Ruth
  • Song of Songs
  • Ecclesiastes
  • Lamentations
  • Esther
  • Daniel
  • Ezra - Nehemiah
  • 1& 2 Chronicles

(And that was the simplified version!)

Monday, February 24, 2014

Where did the New Testament Come From?

“prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” 2 Pet 1:21

Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead in either AD 30 or 33. By AD50, the church had grown enough that some of the leaders of the church needed to write to other bits of it (Galatians written in 48, 1 Thessalonians in 51, James maybe even earlier). The churches found these letters so valuable that they made copies of them, and circulated them to other churches as well, and reading them alongside the Old Testament. Even by the time 2 Peter was written (mid-late 60s?), people were evidently reading Paul's letters as Scripture (2 Pet 3:16).

Also in the 60s, the apostles started to realise that they were probably going to die before Jesus returned. Some of the apostles who had known Jesus (Peter, via his friend Mark; Matthew; John) wrote down accounts of what Jesus had done and said. They'd already been preaching this for 30 years; it's like writing an account of the Falklands War today, using the accounts of soldiers who fought there – the same sort of timescale. Books weren't in common use yet, but the early church very quickly created a scroll of the four gospels, which almost every early Christian church seems to have had access to, along with another scroll of the Letters of Paul.

For the next few hundred years, Christianity was illegal, and often persecuted. Printing, of course, hadn't been invented, and so churches tended to have a collection of scrolls of New Testament writings which they used. Besides Paul and the Gospels, they might well have some of the other NT letters (Hebrews-Revelation, especially 1 John), and maybe some other books like the letters of Clement, Bishop of Rome in the 90s.

In the 100s, lots of false teachers arose, just like Jesus said they would. Some of them (e.g. Marcion) tried cutting bits out of the Bible because they wanted to cut off any hints of Jewish roots. Others (e.g. the author of the Gospel of Thomas) wrote fake “gospels” to try to add things into the Bible which fit their own agenda. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in about 180, wrote about them and pointed out that the church had always had the 4 gospels and that they shouldn't accept any of the new nonsense. [If you want to, why not try reading some of these fake “gnostic” gospels – they're very different to the real thing, and can be quite funny in an awful way. They tell us far more about what the authors liked (secret knowledge, petty magic tricks) or didn't like (women) than about Jesus though.]

When Christianity eventually became legal, in the early 300s, the church started to compare notes on which books they had, and which ones were Scripture. Interestingly, they didn't discuss it at the Council of Nicea, which was the first big Christian get-together after Christianity was made legal – there were more pressing things to discuss like Jesus being God and the date of Easter. It wasn't so much a process of deciding which books were Scripture as recognising. If I pick someone out of a police line up, I'm not deciding that that person robbed my house; I'm recognising the person who did it.

The criteria the Church used were roughly:

  • Is it either by an apostle (leader of the early church personally commissioned by Jesus – Peter, John, Paul, James, etc), or was it approved of by an apostle (Luke, Mark)?
  • Does it fit with the rest of the apostolic teaching? (“Acts of Paul” was ditched as it clearly wasn't by Paul because it didn't fit with the rest of his teaching.)
  • Has it been used by a lot of Christians, and tested to see that it has the effects that we expect Scripture to have?

Using these criteria, Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, wrote the list we've got today in his Easter Sunday letter of 367, and this was ratified by the Council of Carthage in 397. It's easy enough to find copies of the books that they decided to leave out – Shepherd of Hermas, 1 Clement, the Didache, and so on. They don't add much.

There's a different question, about how sure we can be that the New Testament we read today is what was originally written. Ian Paul, who knows more about these things than me, has some helpful comments.

As a consequence of all this, we can be very sure that what we have as the New Testament now is pretty much exactly what those who knew Jesus personally were saying and teaching about him in the Early Church.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Whom do you serve?

We all serve someone or something, whether we intend to or not. The weird thing is that we sometimes get to choose who.

So the stereotypical career-obsessed man is actually serving his career, sometimes even becomes a slave to his career. Perhaps a clearer question is “Where do you seek fulfilment?” The person who seeks fulfilment through sporting achievement serves their sport – they give their energy, their time, their effort to their sport, sometimes to the exclusion of other things in their lives.

The Romans used to personify these ways of seeking fulfilment – the person who looked for it in wine and feasting was said to serve Bacchus; the person who looked for it in sex or war served Venus or Mars.

Against that background, God's first commandment to his people cuts like a knife. “You shall have no other gods in my sight.” Sure we can do sport, drink wine, work hard at our jobs, but we should seek our ultimate source of fulfilment in God alone.

For those of us who seek to serve God, there is, however, an even bigger danger. The second commandment begins “You shall not make for yourselves an idol...” The danger warned of in the first commandment is the danger of false pretenders to God's throne. The danger in the second commandment is of imposters pretending to be God.

How do we decide who God is? There are three choices. Either we listen to others, or we see what he has revealed to us, or we make something up for ourselves. When we follow others, there's a danger that we're just following what someone else has made up about God. When God says “You shall not make for yourselves an idol...”, he's telling us to avoid making our own pictures of what God is like, and to follow the picture he has already given us in the Bible and in Jesus, as described in the Bible.

Saying “I like to think of God as...” is pretty stupid anyway. Why should there be any relation between the way we like to think of God and the way he actually is? Since when is our personal preference a reliable guide to the nature of the one who created the universe? That isn't much that works like that in the world, is there? (And for any pedantic not-yet-Christians out there – yes, I realise this isn't arguing for Christianity, only against self-constructed images of God and towards ones which come from plausible sources of revelation).

It seems to me that there are three quite different pictures of God going round in the church at the moment, only one of which comes from the Bible.

There's the picture of God as grumpy judge, defender of Victorian morality and condemner of those sins which we're more likely to approve of now than the Victorians were such as sexual promiscuity. For some reason he seems less bothered by the sins which we're more likely to be against now, such as wife-beating. This picture of God doesn't have much room for a Jesus who was criticised for hanging out with tax collectors, prostitutes and other known and notorious sinners.

There's also his opposite – God as the personification of the Spirit of the Age. This God doesn't judge or condemn people, except maybe those who do violence against children or who condemn others. He is open to changing and evolving morality, and in fact isn't overly keen on being described as “he” at all. This picture of God doesn't leave room for a Jesus who is fully divine and yet began his ministry by calling people to repentance, or who died to take God's just punishment on sin on himself.

Neither of those is the real God. Both of them are idols, spirits of this age or of the previous one that we transplant onto God and then blasphemously claim to be the real God.

The real God is far too uncomfortable for either of them. He commands us to be discerning but never condemning, to be in the world but not of it, to genuinely love the sinner and genuinely hate the sin, to serve him whose service is perfect freedom, to give everything to take hold of what is freely offered, to lose our lives for his sake and so to find them, to worship the one who is fully God and fully man, who died for us and lives and reigns forever. To him be the glory, now and forever!

Monday, January 27, 2014

How did the Early Christians Worship?

One of the pleasant surprises in reading The Shape of the Liturgy was finding a summary of how "church services" worked in about 200AD. There were two main types of service, a non-communion service (called the Synaxis - being led together), and a communion service (called the Eucharist - giving thanks). They sometimes happened separately, sometimes one after another with the synaxis first. This is roughly what the synaxis service looked like:

  1. Greeting: the minister would welcome the people, often saying "the Lord be with you", and they'd reply "And also with you".
  2. Bible Reading
  3. Time of Sung Worship: they then sung a selection of (mostly) Psalms in the then-contemporary style, which was kind of like chanting led from the front by special singers with choruses for everyone to join in on. These were in response to the first Bible reading.
  4. Bible Reading: or sometimes more than one
  5. Sermon: It was always the senior minister (episkopos) preaching - in fact, it was seen as a scandal if the minister was there and not preaching. The sermon was clearly based on the passage that had just been read, not on the preacher's own opinion. The minister preached while sitting on his seat, which was in the middle at the front, facing the congregation. That's the origin of the phrase "ex cathedra".
  6. Outsiders leave: Outsiders were asked to leave at that point - folk who were on the way in but hadn't been welcomed into full memmbership yet (catechumens) were allowed to stay.
  7. Prayers: A deacon would read a topic for prayer; the people would pray in silence while kneeling; the minister would say a prayer to sum it up; loop.
  8. Dismissal

The meetings were usually in the large central area of the house of a well-off member of the church. The minister wore normal clothes for the service (which might look rather like today's robes...)

What struck me as encouraging about that service pattern is how similar it is to a lot of contemporary evangelical services. Dix always over-interprets in a Catholic and ceremonial direction, so it was especially encouraging to find this as his summary of a church service. I guess what's striking comparing it to the first century is that there's a lot more scope for spontaneity. Paul writes in 1 Cor 14:26.

When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.

I guess if services had the same pattern, the most natural place for these would be in the time of sung worship, especially since Paul sees the possibility of outsiders being there (e.g. v22). It's possible that sort of thing is still going on in AD 200, but either that it isn't clearly recorded or that Dix ignored it. As I said, he always over-interprets in a Catholic and ceremonial direction.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Shape of the Liturgy - Gregory Dix

I've recently been reading one of the classic works of 20th century Anglican theology - The Shape of the Liturgy by Dom Gregory Dix. It's spurred quite a bit of thinking, both in agreement and disagreement with Dix himself and with the way his work has been appropriated or not.

Who was Dix?

Dom Gregory Dix was an English monk and historian. As far as I can tell, he is just about the greatest English-language expert ever on early liturgical texts – what Christians from AD150 to 500 or so wrote about how they worshipped. He was the kind of scholar who could not just quote the 3rd Century Syriac Liturgy of Addai and Mari, but would also know if there was a manuscript in Coptic which put it differently, and whether that might be because they were both translations of a Greek original which said something slightly different.

What was his book?

His magnum opus was The Shape of the Liturgy, written during WW2, in which he shows how the Communion Service has come to take the shape it has. It was written primarily to argue that the BCP communion service (1662, but mostly dating back to Cranmer's work in 1549/1552) had got it all wrong. At the time, 1662 was the only service permitted in the Church of England, and most of the revisions to it, including Common Worship, have been strongly influenced by Dix's work.

What did he think of the Reformation?

Dix hated the Reformation, though he wasn't a great fan of late medieval Catholicism either. For example, he spends a couple of pages considering whether Luther was equivalent to Hitler. To be fair to Dix, he does conclude “no”, but even asking the question seems a little excessive.

Why did you read this book?

I grew up with the BCP liturgy, and I still use it now some of the time. I also use some of the modern liturgies, and I wanted to understand why they've made some of the changes, and to understand some of the oddities of Anglican communion liturgy.

Such as?

Why the Lord's Prayer isn't used during the prayers, but interrupts the middle of Communion instead.

It turns out that the Communion bit used to be (sometimes) a separate service, with only one prayer in. In AD348, a chap called Cyril of Jerusalem came up with the idea that God is present in the bread and wine after they've been prayed over in a way that he wasn't beforehand, and so praying after that makes the prayers more effective. So he tagged lots of prayers (Lord's Prayer included) onto the end of the Communion prayer. Cyril was seen as being at the cutting edge of new liturgies in the 4th century, and by 600AD, everyone was doing it. Cranmer disagreed, and put it after the people had received communion, but the modern liturgies have moved it back.

I'm content that Cyril's theology of communion is wrong, and if that's the reason for the Lord's Prayer being there, then I'm happy to move it back to the prayers where it belongs. I like to tinker with stuff, but I want to understand why things are where they are in the first place so that I don't break anything important by my tinkering.

It's worth mentioning that I've found reading the book a really interesting experience, and will probably be writing more thoughts spinning off it in the near future. For what it's worth, I think Dix makes some really good points that haven't been properly taken on board properly in Common Worship and some spectacular mistakes too.

Friday, January 10, 2014

TV Series - Dangerous Journey

When I was a kid, I loved watching this on TV. It's a children's adaptation of Bunyan's classic Pilgrim's Progress, free on Youtube if you've got a couple of hours to watch it - I'm doing one 15-minute episode a day for a couple of weeks...

(HT - Justin Taylor)

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Book Review - What is the Mission of the Church?

There's quite a bit of debate around at the moment among Christians about what is meant by mission. On one side are positions like the Anglican 5 Marks of Mission:

The Mission of the Church is the mission of Christ:

  • To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  • To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
  • To respond to human need by loving service
  • To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation
  • To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth


Most official documents then include a comment like this (from the same page)

The first mark of mission... is really a summary of what all mission is about, because it is based on Jesus' own summary of his mission (Matthew 4:17, Mark 1:14-15, Luke 4:18, Luke 7:22; cf. John 3:14-17). Instead of being just one (albeit the first) of five distinct activities, this should be the key statement about everything we do in mission.

Comments like this are important but all too often ignored in practice by churches that (for example) adopt the UN Millennium Development Goals as their mission statement, or count their valuable work in running a recycling centre as mission.

DeYoung and Gilbert's book is the best statement I have come across of the other side of the debate. Here's a rough summary of what they say:

The Church's mission is summarised in the Great Commission – “to go into the world and make disciples by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit and gathering these disciples into churches, that they might worship the Lord and obey his commands now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father.” (p62)

The gospel is about the restoration of the whole of creation, but the centre of the gospel is the reconciliation of God and humanity brought about by forgiveness of sins through the death of Jesus. Being part of the kingdom of God requires acknowledging the kingship of Jesus – hence all gospel preaching demands response of repentance and faith.

We cannot build or grow God's kingdom – that is God's work and is never ascribed to people in Scripture. We are to bear witness to it – we are subjects and heralds of the kingdom, not its agents.

Biblical challenges to just living are about supporting those who cannot provide for themselves, treating the poor with dignity and not showing partiality to the rich, and not oppressing the poor by cheating them of promises payment. “If we truly believe the gospel of God's grace, we will be transformed to show grace to others in their time of need.” (p171)

“Social Justice” is a slippery phrase, but it's much clearer to talk about loving each other. Doing good to others and alleviating need is an opportunity for the church, not a responsibility to beat ourselves up over when we hear of injustice that we can do nothing about. “We really ought to love everyone, not all in the same way, but when we can, where we can, however we can.” (p193) “We are finite creatures and therefore it's important for us not to flog ourselves with undue guilt because we cannot show full, unbounded, active, suffering-relieving love to all seven billion people on the planet.” (p225)

The Biblical concept of “shalom” needs a lot more scholarly attention. There is both continuity and discontinuity between the Old Creation and the New Creation, but entrance into the New Creation is only through Jesus. Peace with God is the most important sort of peace, and so when we talk about seeking shalom for our communities, seeking peace between people and God has to be our top priority.

“It is not the church's responsibility to right every wrong or to meet every need, though we have Biblical motivation to do some of both. It is our responsibility however – our unique mission and plain priority – that this unpopular, impractical gospel message gets told, that neighbours and nations may know that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing, they may have life in his name.” (p249)

In other words, DeYoung and Gilbert argue that the mission of the Church is not the same as the mission of God, because we are finite beings called by God to witness to what he has done, is doing and will do in Jesus. They also draw a distinction between the mission of the church and the good that Christians as individuals should do in the world when we have the opportunity to do so.

Why does this matter? Because what our mission is affects what our focus is. If the mission of the church is to evangelise and make disciples, that is what we should focus on. (Making disciples of course includes encouraging and equipping members of the church to live for God in the world.) But if the mission of the church is seen as including striving to safeguard the integrity of creation, then the church would look rather different.

My Response

I have to say, I found DeYoung and Gilbert's main idea persuasive and compelling. I think they did enough to establish what they set out to do. In particular, I liked their argument that we should see injustice as a potential opportunity for us to love others rather than as an area of responsibility which we should feel guilty over. It was immensely liberating, especially given the way that so many sessions on global justice issues often present it in a guilt-tripping sort of way.

The biggest weakness, I thought, concerned their discussion of whether the Western Church is currently unjust. They recognised the importance of justice at an individual level, but didn't consider the potential for structural injustice. It is quite possible that even though we as individuals might not be oppressing the poor or defrauding workers of their wages, we might well be participating in and supporting structures which do oppress the poor by keeping them poor and denying them opportunities which are offered to the rich. There's obviously a lot more work to be done on that, but it doesn't affect their overall argument.

I started this post by saying that there is quite a bit of debate around. Actually, there is nowhere near enough. Last year I went on a conference, organised by evangelical Anglicans, on the issue of Seeking Justice. I was hoping it would at least address the sort of question that DeYoung raises, but there wasn't even a seminar on it - the opposite view was everywhere assumed. For those in the UK, DeYoung is speaking on themes from his book at a conference on 31st January.