Friday, November 29, 2013

Clarity of Scripture

Whether or not scripture is clear is rapidly becoming the crucial question facing the Anglican Church. The doctrine of scripture's clarity was sharpened during the reformation era, against the backdrop of debates with the Roman church over sacramental practice and ecclesial authority.

The protestants argued that scripture was clear — this appeared to many as patently specious.

Did not the protestants disagree among themselves? They did.

Did they not favour calling councils as a way of resolving debate? They did.

Did they not demand arduous academic training in order to interpret the Bible in preaching? They did.

Did they not admit parts of the Bible were difficult to understand? They did.

All the above seemed to evidence that the part of the church most enthusiastic to champion scripture's clarity were more than a little confused. They would have done well to admit they needed the pope and magisterium to bring a little unity, clarity and insight to Bible reading.

The historical setting in which the doctrine of scripture's clarity was most vigorously commended was one which in many ways suggested it an implausible doctrine to hold.

So too today, there are many cultural factors which make it seem that scripture's clarity is implausible:

Information exchange has heightened to such an extreme pace that any statement can be challenged almost instantly.

Deconstructionist philosophy has rendered us suspicious of language itself.

Scandals in almost every public institution have destroyed a generation's trust in leaders' claims.

The mixing pot of cultures and races has made us fear certainty of one's perspective is an imposition.

The replacement of deep reading by a posture of ironic scepticism and soundbites makes the teaching of anything that is not tweetable, difficult, to say the least.

Cultural and personal experiences of rejection and alienation have led many to assume disagreement is inseparable from personal animosity.

Idolatry of democracy has led many to think that a majority is in the right, and that is the end of things.

Believing that scripture is clear on anything - never mind controverted issues - would seem an impossible thing for somebody today to believe.

And yet. And yet. The protestant reformers who most passionately argued for scripture's clarity did so fully aware of the weight of arguments that seemed to make their claims invalid.
Their belief that scripture spoke clearly was a deep doctrine, which on the surface might have appeared to be contradicted by many factors — but when understood as the doctrine was intended to be understood, the objections were found to be irrelevant. Those who thought scripture obscure, had not even grasped what it meant to claim it is clear.

So today. Perhaps the scriptures are indeed unclear. There are reasons enough to think so. If scripture is unclear we may as well seek unity and clarity on important issues through listening to people who hold opposing views. Perhaps sincerity is truth; perhaps majorities are always right; perhaps the reality of disagreements mean scripture is obscure.

Or - perhaps none of the assumed objections in the past or present actually go deep enough to touch the actual doctrine of scripture's clarity?

In his refutation of a book by Stephen Gardner, Thomas Cranmer directs people wondering if scripture can be clear back to the founder of the Western theological tradition. Cranmer observes:

'Saint Augustine in his book De Doctrina instructs Christian people how they should understand those places of scripture that seem hard and obscure...'

To those wondering if the clarity of scripture is a doctrine that can be believed today - remember that those who have in the past held that scripture is clear have been led to contend, suffer and minister with a conviction that was deeply held, and as such was embedded in a series of interconnected doctrines that are frankly not going to be found in the secular media or twitter feeds. Read Augustine, Cranmer, Calvin, Hooker and the great theologians of the Church if you want to understand what the actual doctrine of scripture's clarity states.

Of course - if you what you really want is to believe scripture is unclear .... stick to Twitter and the BBC news site.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Strategic Friendships

I only recently heard of the concept of 'intentional friendship' — the idea that Christians ought to be 'strategic' in making friends with particular people they think will be helpful for ministry support, evangelism and so forth.

On the face of it, such an idea has much to commend it. After all, everybody has limited time, and with people moving round the world and country so frequently, without some care and effort being taken, one will drift apart from everybody!

However it seems to me that the idea of choosing friends could do with a bit more theological reflection, before it is embraced uncritically. Jesus sure didn't find me useful or appealing when he became my friend — it would be odd if he blessed ministry that involved itself in methods of making friends so different to his own approach.

Everybody has a fleshly desire to be on the in group — see C.S. Lewis's classic essay 'The Inner Ring.' All of us are lazy to some degree, and could be easily persuaded to hold back from relationships once we have arranged our lives in such a way that we have what we think are the requisite number of 'intentional' or 'strategic' friends. The 'I'm OK - you can go talk to somebody else' school of ministry.

I wonder if the development of Christ-like character might not demand an openness to friendship with other people, which to a great degree sets aside our propensity to plan, choose, select and evaluate others?

Augustine wrote this about friendship:

'In no respect should we judge an unknown person, and no person is known except through friendship. Therefore we ought to endure the bad qualities of our friends as we enjoy and understand their good ones.
The friendship of nobody who seeks to become our friend should be rejected — not that he should at once be received into our friendship, but that we should be open to receiving him and to treating him in such a way that he can be received. We can say that a person has been received into friendship with us once we dare to disclose all our thoughts to him. If some status or temporal dignity makes it difficult for another person to approach us in friendship, we should approach him with a humility of soul and courtesy.
Sometimes a person's bad qualities are known to us before their good ones and so we are offended and to an extent repelled. So we leave them and never discover their concealed good qualities.
And so the Lord Jesus, who wants us to be his imitators, admonishes us to tolerate another's weaknesses, so that we can be led by a charitable tolerance to those good qualities which may be enjoyed with pleasure. He said 'A doctor is needed not for the healthy but the sick.' (Mt. 9:12) … [We should not] dismiss somebody … because we were unable to endure certain frailties at the outset of a friendship, and even worse, make a rash judgement about that person, fearing not what is said 'Do not judge, lest you be judged' (Mt. 7:1) and 'By the measure you have measured it shall be measured out to you.' (Mt. 7:2)
Augustine's Miscellany of 83 Questions, LXXXI.6.

The reason I have spent so many hours (days?!) reading Augustine is not merely that I would enjoy talking with him and spending time enjoying a meal in his company — it is that I am sure he would invite me to do just that; and not due to anything in me he found attractive or useful. Augustine just didn't think strategically or intentionally about his friendships, because it was Jesus he was thinking about.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Jonathan Edwards on Theological Colleges

"It may be thought I meddle in the affairs of theological colleges, yet I shall take the liberty of an Englishman (that speaks his mind freely in public affairs) and the liberty of a minister (who may speak his mind freely about things that concern the Kingdom) to give my opinion with respect to those societies — It appears to me that care should be taken, some way or other, that those societies should in fact be nurseries of piety. Otherwise they are fundamentally ruined and undone as to their main design and most fundamental end." Edwards, 4:510.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

You in the pulpit - wake up! (then wake me up)

Jonathan Edwards: "I think an exceeding affectionate way of preaching about the great things of religion has … a much greater tendency to beget true apprehensions of them, than a moderate, dull, indifferent way of speaking of 'em. An appearance of affection and earnestness in the manner of delivery, if it be very great indeed, and agreeable to the nature of the subject, … and has no appearance of being feigned or forced, has much greater tendency to beget true ideas of that spoken … than a more cold and indiffernet way of speaking of them...

If the subject be worthy of very great affection, then a speaking of it with very great affection is most agreeable to the nature of that subject … and therefore has most of a tendency to beget true ideas of it.

And I don't think ministers are to be blamed for raising the affections of their hearers too high, if that which they are affected with be worthy of that affection ... I should think [it] my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided they are affected with nothing but the truth...

I know it has long been fashionable to despise a very earnest and [passionate] way of preaching. They only have been valued as preachers who have shown the greatest extent of learning, strength of reason, and correctness of method and language: I humbly conceive it has been for want of understanding, or duly considering human nature that such preaching has been thought to meet ... the ends of preaching."

Jonathan Edwards, Works, 4:386-7.

Re-read the final sentence. Does your preaching meet the ends of preaching? In modern parlance, is it fit for purpose?

Monday, July 08, 2013

Sermon: A Slave's Ministry Ambitions


If you are engaged in Christian ministry, or thinking about it — you may like this sermon I preached recently at St. James' Church, Muswell Hill.

It is on Mark 10:35-42 and deals with issues to do with ambition and expectations for ministry.

Click on this link to play: Sermon Mark 10

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A Broad Church

The Church of England is in popular parlance a 'broad church.' That is it includes within it a range of convictions. As the state church it feels a duty to provide ministry to all who are in England. In many settings this has led to a toning down of parts of the Christian message unappealing to secular preferences.

Broadchurch is also the title of a riveting new British police drama. Set on an island of the name 'Broadchuch' the cast includes top British stars - Tennant (of Dr Who fame) plays the lead detective. He is supported by the 'wife' of BBC's 'Rev' - Olivia Coleman. I noticed other actors who have starred in Hollywood films alongside Michael Caine (Newsagent owner was Harry Brown's mate).

Superficially the drama is a classic detective 'who dunnit?' Within minutes of the first episode an eleven year old boy is found murdered. On a close knit island community such as 'Broadchurch' it is inevitable that the parents of the murdered kid know his killer. In a painful scene they list all the suspects - their friends. The drama has just aired its third of eight shows - and it has been astonishingly popular. CS Lewis used to moan that students did not know their Bible's well enough to see the relevant allusions which steep English literature. It is a pity that none of the secular reviewers know their Bible's well enough to see why the story is so rich and compelling.

For Broad Church is far more than merely a formulaic murder enquiry show. The opening title shot of episode one pans past a Church notice board with the Bible verse 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' Words spoken by Jesus - but the notice is tattered and worn. It speaks - as you see in the story that follows - not of a reality in the parish church. For the vicar finds his flock diminished in number - commenting on this with frustration.

Rather the ideal of love and connection and care seems to be found in the island community itself. Wandering down the street a father greets person after person by name - enquiring after sick relative, joking with shop owners and making a contribution to the community. Within minutes the appearance of a loving neighbourly family is shattered - the man's son is killed. Drugs, violence, lies, underage sex, affairs, bullying - all these lie underneath the surface of the island's happy facade. The local detective and pathologist and reporter all protest 'these sorts of things don't happen here. The body on a beach tells another story.

What is going on in this story? It seems to me that the script writers have crafted a story in which they play with the concept of a Broad Church. The ideals of the Church - love of neighbour - have been romanticised in the island's self perception. This is shattered by a murder. The real drama is in whether in its collective response to murder and evil, the island can somehow resurrect a more enduring reality of neighbourly love. They hope to ape the ideals of Church, in a Godless secular culture.

The vicar is a sympathetic character, and elicits confidence from the bereaved mother. He genuinely cares and (so far) his weaknesses can be put down to inexperience. That the secular island is the real church in the narrative is demonstrated however in the way he seeks wisdom from the unbeleivers on how to comfort and lead them into wholeness. The message is that the Church has lost its spiritual way, and the unbelievers can offer what has been forgotten. Real wisdom is in the world.

David Tennant punches in a terrific performance - a new kooky take on the angst ridden detective. The only foreigner to the island people, e is inches away from dropping dead from some kind of medical condition related to stress. When his doctor tells him he needs to back away from stressful murder enquiries he refuses - knowing that pursuing justice may cost him his life. He is plagued with guilt over a previous child murder case he messed up. He loathes the island he has landed up on, but insists he will stay, shouting with passion, "It is my penance." Similarily the murdered boy's dad comments that God was absent when his child was killed, and believes the death is a punishment for his own wrongdoing.

TV drama in recent years has become very sophisticated. Religion is always significant- in the recent Danish and Sweedish dramas that have been on our screens we have seen the dismissal of, or mocking of, Christianity as an impotent force. Broad Church is a very Anglican take on the role of religion in culture. Only in England could we come up with a drama steeped in the idea that the Church has broadened so much that it not only ministers to all in the nation, but it has stumbled on the way, and been superceeded by secular society (No - America is very different, and since they could not follow 'The Office' ...). Secular society in Britain cannot forget the Church or the communality that is woven into the fabric of our culture's centuries of engagement with the Church. Our best stories are retellings of the Story; our most foolish hope is that we can recreate what God offers in the Church, without God or Church.

We are only three episodes into this story. (You can view them on ITV Player if you are in the UK) How will the story develop? My guess is that the 'Church' - the island - will be given new life through the sacrificial laying down of an innocent life from one who has come into the island from a foreign realm. Justice will be thought to have been done, and the island will experience restored relationships. God won't be needed, and the psychic (yes there is one!) will be found to have been right all along.

To which I say - its a great myth.

There is a true version of this story. Good news for those who seek true community, wonder if there can be atonement for sin, and know that under the surface of nice facades lurk all kinds of sin. Why not visit your (real) local church after you watch Broad Church?

Sunday, December 04, 2011

21 Years Old - What you need

I have just returned from visiting a former student in Hereford, starting his first pastorate.

I could not resist a pause on the 360 odd mile round trip to explore a second hand bookshop. One of the titles I purchased was a book which turned out to have a handwritten inscription. In beautiful copperplate ink, it reads thus:

'Oct 19th, 1898

To Evelyn Milnes Gaskill,

With much affectionate remembrance on his 21st birthday -

Words are the true reflection of the mind,

If it so be, that they be honest, each to the other, nor by pride do overreach the cord, which God around them hath entwined; Thus when the heart is warm, it is inclined to utter by the tongue sweet words of love, responsive to the thoughts that inward move - words that seek out and will not lag behind.

Tis so dear Evelyn, between you and me, on this occasion of your natal day,

When you attain to manhood's full estate,

My prayers rise up today that you may be in God's safe keeping, as years pass away; Blest in this love, whose bidding angels wait.

Jo Sharp'

One assumes with an inscription such as that, the young woman selected the book with care - it would contain the kind of knowledge that a man would require upon reaching 'manhood's full estate' in the year 1898.

The book's title?

'A History of the Church of England' by Henry Wakeman, fellow of All Soul's College, Oxford.

Times have changed - today not many 21 year old's receive a book like that as a sign of being equipped for adult life.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Church & State

“The Queen is not only very charming, but incredibly well-informed. Less agreeable, are the visits and letters from the Archbishop of Canterbury [Fisher]. I try to talk to him about religion. He seems to be quite uninterested and reverts all the time to politics.”


Diary of Harold MacMillan British Prime Minister, 1957-1963

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Hell: The End of Sin?

As evangelicals rush to defend the orthodox doctrine of hell, caution may be in order.

Some of the popular attempts to defend the Bible's teaching have a high price.

One such approach is the idea that everlasting hell is fair since the damned in hell continue to rebel and sin without repentance. This apology is utilised by leading writers such as DA Carson:

'What is hard to prove, but seems to me probable, is that one reason why the conscious punishment of hell is ongoing is because sin is ongoing' Gagging of God, p.533.

The chapter from which this quote is taken is one of the best summaries of the issues available, and one I frequently recommend. Carson himself admits that the apology is 'hard to prove'.

Tim Keller makes much of the idea, originally taught by CS Lewis (Problem of Pain) that hell's 'door is locked on the inside'. Keller develops these ideas in his Reason for God, Chapter 5.
Recently, in response to Rob Bell, the idea that rebellion and sin are ongoing in hell has been commended by various evangelical teachers.

Defending hell's justice on the basis of people's ongoing rebellion is an appealing approach. Tragically though it is an apologetic which comes with a high price - it is predicated upon a Pelagian prioritising of human freedom over God's sovereignty. This is seen very clearly in the development of the approach by Keller and Lewis, which makes the reality of hell more palatable by calling into doubt the sovereign freedom of God, as the ultimate reason for hell. Ironically even those who have come to a Calvinsit/Augustinian view of the will, are susceptible to accepting the Pelagian approach when it comes to post-mortem existence. The injustice done to God's sovereignty is just as real at that point of reality.

The Pelagian prioritising of human choice over God's sovereignty was presumably the reason Augustine - a strong defender of the Biblical view of hell as everlasting torment - refused to countenance the idea that sin exists in hell. The idea that sin could continue to exist and even be enlarged in hell flies in the face of the expectation that after Christ's return, all sin is ended and God is glorified in all things.

Augustine wrote:

'After the resurrection, when the universal judgement is over and done with, the two cities will have their boundaries, one of the good the other of the wicked, both composed of angels and people. The former will have no will to sin and the latter no ability to do so, nor will either have any possibility of dying.'
Enchiridion, 29.111.

Rather than a portrait of hell as a place where sin continues and grows as it is endlessly freely chosen by the rebellious damned, Augustine saw the Biblical texts as urging him to conceive of hell as a place where sinners glorify God by agreeing with the rightness of God's judgement, regretting their sins (which the New Testament describes as having been done 'in the body,' not post-mortem) and being subject to the fearsome reality of God's righteous, holy wrath.

God is God of this world, and the future worlds of heaven and hell. Humanity has never been, nor ever will be, in charge. Sin truly will be no more after Christ returns. Thankfully, in view of the horrific nature of hell, the God who is in charge is abounding in mercy and intervenes to give us that which we could never desire of ourselves.