Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The cart before the horse?

Among scholars and students today, the field of biblical interpretation is divided into two distinct yet overlapping categories: exegesis and hermeneutics [...]

For our purposes at this point, the most important thing is that in our contemporary way of interpreting the Bible, we begin with exegesis and only then turn to hermeneutics [...] We move from the narrow to the broad. And our reason for this is that we believe starting with the broad would lead us to read our own theological ideas into the passage rather than reading the passages own meaning out of its context [...]

At this point, we have to recognize that the way we are trying to ensure accuracy in biblical interpretation is fundamentally different from the way the early church went about the same task. The Fathers had no qualms whatsoever about reading preconceived theological ideas into a given passages, as long as they got those ideas from elsewhere in the Bible.

pp.109-110, Don Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity)

Observing how this works in Irenaeus and Augustine:

[For Ireneaus] the key to interpreting the parables (which he finds obscure and therefore difficult) is clearer statements elsewhere in Scripture and not the context of the parables themselves. And [for] Augustine, notice that when there is ambiguity about a certain passage, one should first consult the rule of faith (which he describes as both the clearer passages of Scripture and the church's authoritative statements about it), and only if that fails should one consult the context of the passage[:]

"When words used literally cause ambiguity in Scripture, we must first determine whether we have mispunctuated or misconstrued them. When investigation reveals an uncertainty as to how a locution should be pointed or construed, the rule of faith should be consulted as it is found in the more open places of the Scriptures and in the authority of the Church... But if both meanings, or all of them, in the event that there are several, remain ambiguous after the faith has been consulted, then it is necessary to examine the context of the preceding and following parts surrounding the ambiguous place."

On Doc., bk. 3, chap.2

(pp.112-113, Don Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity)

The scarlet thread

In contrast to modern liberals (who might see no unifying theme in Scripture) and in partial contrast to modern conservatives (who tend to organize Scripture around concepts such as the covenant or the dispensations which have governed God's dealings with humanity), the church fathers tended to see the scarlet thread, the unifying theme of Scripture, as Christ. Again, this unifying theme places the emphasis in a rather different place than we do. We today start with ourselves and ask how God relates to us. The church fathers started with God, and especially with Christ, and asked how we participate in Christ. This is why virtually all of patristic thought saw theosis - humanity's becoming somehow a participant in the divine life - as the link between God and humanity.

(p. 115, Don Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity)

Promise v. covenant

I believe that this idea of promise is fundamental to the Old Testament and that it is even more foundational than the concept of covenant or the question of how God relates to humanity at different periods in redemptive history. The concept of promise places the focus on God, because God has made the promise, and the content of the promise is that God will send his own Son to us.


(pp. 121-122, Don Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity)

Some thoughts on Ecclesiastes

Major conclusion: everything is hebel

The major conclusion of the whole book is that everything is hebel ('vanity'/'vapour'/'meaningless') and a chasing after the wind.

To understand this conclusion it is helpful to keep in mind that:

  1. When Paul says in Romans 8:20 that "creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it", the word for 'futility' is the same as the word used by the Septuagint to translate hebel.
  2. Most interpreters find Genesis 1-3 to be the most significant biblical background to the book.
  3. THEREFORE remember that hebel is not inherent to life, but a result of God's curse on the old creation.
  4. THEREFORE hebel is overcome through Christ in new creation.

Qualification to the major conclusion: there is joy despite the hebel

Contrasting the negative major conclusion, is the qualification that often follows the statement that all is hebel, namely that it is "good and fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil". Some interpreters find this positive conclusion to be the major conclusion of the book, but this seems unlikely given the tone of the book as a whole and the reminders throughout that this joy is limited (simply to finding enjoyment in toil) and temporary (5:18).

Central theme: toil

The driving force behind the whole book is the question of 1:3, repeated several times later, "What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?" As Webb points out, the word 'toil' and its cognates appears 24 times in the book. From Genesis we could answer this question without Ecclesiastes as follows:

  1. Toil is good because it was part of the good creation
  2. God curses toil and makes it hard and fruitless

As we have seen, this positive and negative teaching on work is echoed in Qoheleth's discoveries. What Qoheleth adds to Genesis is what it feels like to live in this reality.

Sub-themes: death and time

Qoheleth doesn't simply jump to Genesis and the curse to answer his central question. Instead he focuses on two things which make toil hebel, namely death and time. These themes appear throughout the book and serve as destroyers of all meaning and hope of lasting joy.

Christ in Ecclesiastes

Qoheleth is not a atheist, but if he is a believer in Christ he keeps it well hidden. He relies on experience and reason alone to reach his conclusions, and never draws upon scripture. He constantly refers to God, and clearly sees God as being sovereign over hebel. Much like Romans 1, we see the limits of natural theology in giving us a true, but partial understanding of God.

His limited knowledge of God offers him some kind of hope, but it is an extremely uncertain hope because he doesn't know the character of the God who has the power to save him from hebel. Just because God is able to reverse the hebel, will he? He reminds us to fear God, but never because that gives any assurance of something better.

I think Ecclesiastes can be read as a Wisdom literature version of Genesis 1-3, without the protoevangelium. Which I think poses a difficult question for Bible readers. We always read Biblical books in the context of the whole Bible, but can we accept an interpretation of a book Ecclesiastes, which reads it entirely as what Glen Scrivener describes as a photo-negative of the Gospel?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Describing sin

When most of us think of sin we probably have in mind a few specific actions that are particularly horrific. But the Bible's depiction of sin is quite a bit more sweeping than our idea. The main concept is conveyed by a Hebrew word (hata) that is used nearly six hundred times in the Old Testament and a Greek word (hamartano) used nearly three hundred times in the New Testament. Both of these words originally came from the sphere of archery and meant the same thing: "to miss a mark." The Bible makes clear that one can miss a mark by ignorance of what one is supposed to hit (see Lev 5:15-16), be deliberately aiming at a different target (see Is 1:4) or by aiming at the right standard but falling short of it (see 1 Sam 12:23). Another biblical word for sin ('abar in Hebrew or parabaino in Greek) conveys the idea of transgressing, crossing a boundary that God has established and forbidden us to cross. Adam and Eve's eating the forbidden fruit was a transgression, and for other examples, see Jeremiah 3418 and Daniel 9:11. It as if God has drawn a line in the sand and said, "Do not cross this," but people do. A third aspect of sin is rebelling against God's authority (pasa in Hebrew or apeitheo in Greek), and thereby breaking off the relationship God desired. Amos 1-4 contains repeated references to the ways Israel has rebelled against God. A fourth aspect of sin in the Bible is translated "iniquity," and the Hebrew word behind this ('awon) conveys the idea of twisting or distortion Sin is not wrong actions, it is a distortion or perversion of one's entire character. See Job 33:9 and Proverbs 12:8 for examples of this.

(pp. 98-99, Life in the Trinity, Douglas Fairbairn)

Very helpful summary.

  1. missing the mark
  2. transgression
  3. rebellion
  4. distortion

Friday, October 18, 2013

Random fire

A few random thoughts...

Random thought 1

The choice between Cessationism and Continuationism isn't as simple as most seem to assume. Continuationism can be broken down into:

  1. The miraculous gifts continue and you find them in charismatic/pentecostal churches.
  2. The miraculous gifts continue and you find them in all sorts of churches. In particular prophecy and healing happen loads in 'conservative' churches, but they just don't recognise them as that.
  3. The miraculous gifts continue, but they are very rare and they're not what charismatic/pentecostal churches think they are.

Random thought 2

It is not necessarily a choice between:

  1. NT Prophecy does not have the same authority as Scripture so is no threat to the canon; and
  2. NT Prophecy does have the same authority as Scripture so if it continues is a threat to the canon.

A third option is:

  1. NT Prophecy does have the same authority as Scripture but it is no threat to the canon because authority is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for canonisation. Scripture also needs to be written for all the church at all timex. NT Prophecy could be (usually) for specific people at specific times, much like OT prophecy, so rarely canonisable (to invent a word).

Random thought 3

Is private tongue speaking good for you?

Your answer may depend on how you answer the following:

  1. Are Spiritual gifts ever commended for the benefit to the gifted, or are they only for the church who benefits from that person's gifts?
  2. Is it possible to edify/build yourself up, and if so should you? I.e. is Paul being sarcastic in 1 Cor 14:4?
  3. Is it possible to be edified/built up when the understanding is unfruitful (1 Cor 14:14)?

Random thought 4

Dan Hames' post has been the best food for my soul this week:

My church is unflinchingly Christ-centred. We hear the scriptures preached each week. People from every background are being converted and turning to Jesus. Our members are being discipled and transformed by the gospel of grace. We are led to engage our hearts and affections in worship and in hearing the word. There is genuine confidence in prayer – especially in petition. The Holy Spirit is loved and worshipped as a Person of the Godhead. Our clergy exercise careful discernment and are not afraid to call out false teaching, even if it feels ‘close to home’. I am surrounded by Christlike, humble, kind men and women. At times, pastoral situations and personal needs are identified by the inner prompting and guidance of the Holy Spirit. People who have been sick have been made well through the prayers of others. There is a tangible love for the Lord and a desire to know him more deeply.

The charismatic world is not without its oddities and excesses, but where there is genuine love for Jesus, there is cause to rejoice rather than criticise.

‘I must say that I had rather be among them who, in the actings of their love and affection unto Christ, do fall into some irregularities and excesses in the manner of expressing it, than among those who, professing themselves to be Christians, do almost disavow their having any thoughts of or affection unto the person of Christ.’
John Owen (Works, VII: 346)

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Psalm 19

You must have heard sermons on Psalm 19 that run something like this: General revelation is good but not enough (v.1-6), so God gives us the special revelation of the law (vv.7-11).

But that is not the end of the story. Verses 12-14 are a prayer for more:

  • A further word of justification "declare me..."
  • A further work of sanctification "keep back your servant"

It seems we need more than greater clarity, we need a different kind of revelation.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Worship: One, Two, Three

Mike Cosper in his book, Rhythms of Grace, helpfully suggests a framework for understanding worship.

  1. One Object and Author (God)
  2. Two contexts (The Scattered and the Gathered church)
  3. Three audiences (God, the church, the watching world)

The progressive agenda

We live in a context where many people and ideas claim to be “progressive." Think about it for a moment: the essential point of claiming to be progressive is that one owns the future, that the future is progressing toward the position I hold... various positions claim to be progressive, which is another way fo saying, "I own the future on this issue."

Yet in view of changing cultures and times, one could begin to have serious doubts about whether we have any sense at all of wht it means to be progressive. My generation, Generation X, was told that the future belongs to us. Younger generations are told the same thing. But of course, that's not really true since every generation has generation following it. Things that seemed progressive to my generation are likely to seem retrograde to the next. At various points in recent history, practices like eugenics and racial segregation where championed as progressive. The fact that they no longer seem progressive to us just shows how much the future isout of our grasp.

However, the question of who owns the future is one that scripture specifically addresses. Revelation 1:8 reads, "'I am the alpha and the Omega,' says the Lord god, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty." Then in the final chapter of Revelation, Jesus Christ himself says, "'I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end'" (22:13). This statement means not just the Jesus was at the beginning and the end, but that Jesus Christ "i the origin and the goal of all history." [Bauckham] Jesus is the Lord of history throughout, even to its end, which is our future.

Thus, although we cannot state with great confidence a public policy that will be truly progressive in ten of fifty years, we can state with great confidence soething about the future: it is heading toward Jesus Christ, as Lord of all.

(pp.32-33, J Todd. Billings, Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church)

A plea for expositional teaching

[I wrote this over-impassioned post for something else a little while ago, and just amended it slightly in honour of my 1000th post... I had in mind both preaching and small group study]

God inspired both the form and the content of the Bible. The Bible is a work of literature, a symphony or a work of art. The Bible’s content is words and concepts, even truths, but this content is always presented in the form of a collection of books of law, history, poetry and more. Only when the Biblical content is put in the Biblical form do we meet Christ.

If I want to read Shakespeare I could learn Elizabethan English, or study the sonnet form, but still never hear Shakespeare’s voice. I could read a library of literary critics telling me what Shakespeare is trying to communicate, but I won’t hear him say it without reading his words.

If I want to hear Beethoven’s fifth I could memorise the rhythm of the opening five bars, practice the C minor scale or even read a biography of his life. None, by themselves, will allow me to hear Beethoven.

Doctrines are sometimes understood as the grammar of the Christian faith. George Linbeck describes the historic creeds as “the grammar of religion”. The Reformation Catechisms can be understood in a similar way. They help us understand what is already being told in the Bible. They are introductions intended to make guide us to listen to the Bible, not to distract from it. That is partly why they are so short compared to the length of the Bible. They’re not meant to compete with God’s voice, but to open our ears to all that he’s saying.

I am often jealous of musically trained people who can enjoy a piece of music at a level I can never reach. But, I also remember how my uncle recalled being envied by his brother who felt he had lost the ability to enjoy music through over-criticism. There is a line to tread, but the key is to understand which has the priority. Gerhard Forde has a book entitled “Theology is for Proclamation” because he thought theology’s role was as a servant of proclamation. I agree. Theological study, at whatever level, is the servant of proclaiming Christ in the Bible.

When Calvin sat down to write the Institutes he intended it as an introduction to the study of Scriptures, with his commentaries and exegetical sermons as his major life’s work (Letter to the Reader 1539). I believe that this is a model we should follow. Thematic teaching, and Bible study skills have their place as aids, but the moment they crowd out God speaking in the form and content he chose as his revelation, we’ve made a big mistake. Biblical teaching shouldn't be an exercise in archaeology: digging through the muck, extracting the doctrines/applications and putting them in a glass box. Biblical teaching is proclaiming to someone what you’ve just heard God announce in the text. In doing this you become God’s mouthpiece, introducing the listeners to the same Jesus you saw, tasted and touched as God spoke to you by his Spirit.

We cannot explain sin better than David in Psalm 51. Theories of the atonement will not sing like the Passion narrative. Exhortations to evangelism will not encourage like hearing Paul ask for prayer that the door to the message be opened even as he sits in prison for the Gospel (Col 4). The incarnation won’t make sense until Jesus’ miracles make any other option nonsensical.

Similarly, “the one who does these things will live by them” (Lev 18) taken out of the melody line of the dialectic between law and Gospel, will lead you away from God to hell. As part of the melody it will lead you to Jesus and resurrection life, against which there is no law.

Thematic teaching will indirectly help people hear God, but they are less likely to directly hear God through it than through expositional Bible teaching. I think we should be going where the action is; where God meets us...his Word. The primary reason Christians assemble together to hear God speak, whether it is round the feet of Sinai (the original ecclesia in the Greek Old Testament) or the shore of Galilee. It should be the same for the church.

I also think that the Bible will always be more exciting than anything else. We never wanted to spend long doing football skills at school, we always just wanted to play games. Playing scales was always boring in comparison to playing a tune. Spelling was annoying, but Tolkien was engrossing. The former things are all good for enjoying the latter more, but they must play the supporting role for the main event. In the same way, having done some thematic/systematic teaching, lets go where the Father speaks in his own voice to his children.

I can’t finish without quoting Luther, who in the Preface to the German edition of his collected works, disparaged the volumes of his own writing, saying: “It was also our intention and hope, when we ourselves began to translate the Bible into German, that there should be less writing, and instead more studying and reading of the Scriptures. For all other writing is to lead the way into and point toward the Scriptures, as John the Baptist did toward Christ, saying, "He must increase, but I must decrease" [John 3:30], in order that each person may drink of the fresh spring himself.”

Why are millennials are leaving the church?

Rachel Held Evans answer seems to be attracting attention for some reason. Here are my first thoughts on an answer, for what it's worth...

Declining church membership is a Spiritual and not a sociological or marketing problem. It requires a Spiritual and not a sociological or marketing solution.


Everyone is an individual, but you could follow Jesus and break down the reasons into three categories:

  1. Some people are hardened to the Gospel for a variety of reasons. They won't even take the time to think about the Gospel because the Devil snatches it out of their mind.
  2. Some people get let the Gospel get crowded out by other concerns in their busy lives. Earning and spending money consume whole lives - literally.
  3. Some people are afraid of the cost of following Jesus, especially the cost in their relationships to family, friends and colleagues.

My guess is that there is good reason to think that the later two have been particularly on the increase over the last few decades. I'm not sure whether the first is improving or not.


  1. Preach the Gospel more - there will be no fruit without good seeds
  2. Recommend the Gospel more - by changed lives of love
  3. Pray for good soil more - because only God can change hearts.
  4. Send out more workers into the harvest - because the God uses people.

Simple, but not easy! Help us Lord!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Jesus-centred, Trinitarian gospel of Mark 1:1

"The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God"

Mark 1:1 beautifully frames the gospel as both Jesus-centred and Trinitarian. The gospel is about Jesus, but Jesus can only be understood in relationship to the Spirit who he is anointed ('Christed') with, and the Father he is "Son of".

We miss the Trinitarian nature of Mark 1:1, and so many other passages because when we read "God", we don't identify God with a person of the Trinity (usually the Father); and when we read "Christ", we read it as a surname, if we're lucky as a title, if we're really lucky as about being anointed, and very rarely as about who Jesus is anointed with.

"God [the Father] anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 10:38)

Why trust the Bible, according to the Bible

1. History doesn't contradict it, and often confirms it

"when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken" (Deut 18:22)

Under this heading comes most standard apologetics: historical evidences (archeological findings, history of manuscripts), fulfilled prophecies, how the Bible convincingly explains human nature (selfishness, dignity, longing for more etc) and personal testimony (i.e. the Bible says it brings new life and it does - look at the church).

2. It encourages our worship of God in Christ alone

"If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams." (Deut 13:1-3; cf. 1 John 4:2, 12:3)

God says through Moses that the historical evidence is not enough for something to be God's word. Evidential apologetics only gets you so far. The ultimate question is: does it speak of the real Jesus?

For my earlier and different thoughts on the same passages (!) see here.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

A final ramble on Kierkegaard

I may have been wrong on the extent of Kierkegaard's influence on Barth, but I'm in good company. Although there are some influences on Barth's early work, it seems he broke with him in some ways later on. This is Barth:

I consider him to be a teacher into whose school every theologian must go once. Woe to him who has missed it! So long as he does not remain in or return to it!

I'm probably going to take a little break from Kierkegaard, although I may return at some point because he's for grown ups too. But I should end on a high...

Kierkegaard is piercing in his analysis of humanity and Christians in particular. His uncompromising, rigerous hammering of the radical, even impossible, call to faith and Christian living is an experience in itself if you read his work. And it is his work that you should read, even if you need a good deal of support to make heads or tails of it (I recommend Stephen Evans and Sylvia Walsh as guides). As Sylvia Walsh ends her book:

it is important to read his works first of all on their own terms, that is, as indirect communications to the reader, 'that single individual', for the sake of personal appropriation, rather than as theological fodder that must be translated into some other theological framework in order to have contemporary relevance. Only then will Kierkegaard be truly read for the first time, even though we may have read him many times previously (p.206 - something that could also be said of the Bible).

So after that ramble, here is a passage which gave me hope after he'd skewered me with his Biblical idealism of what it means to be a Christian:

And what does all this mean? It means that everyone for himself, in quiet inwardness before God, shall humble himself before what it means in the strictest sense to be a Christian, admit candidly before God how it stands with him, so that he might yet accept the grace which is offered to everyone who is imperfect, that is, to everyone. And then no further; then the rest let him attend to his work, be glad in it, love his wife, be glad in her, bring up his children with joyfulness, love his fellow men, rejoice in life. If anything further is required of him, God will surely let him understand, and in such case will help him further; for the terrible language of the Law is so terrifying because it seems as if it were left to man to hold fast to Christ by his own power, whereas in the language of love it is Christ that holds him fast. So if anything further is required of him, God will surely let him understand; but this is required of everyone, that before God he should candidly humble himself in view of the requirements of ideality...

"But if the Christian life is something so terrible and frightful, how in the world can a person get the idea of accepting it?" Quite simply, and, if you want that too, quite in a Lutheran way: only the conciousness of sin can force one into this dreadful situation - the power on the other side being grace. And in that very instant the Christian life transforms itself and is sheer gentleness, grace, loving-kindness, and compassion. Looked at from any other point of view christianity is and must be a sort of madness or the greatest horror. Only the consciousness of sin is the entrance to it, and the wish to enter in by any other way is the crime of lese-majeste against Christianity.

(pp. 61-62, Training in Christianity)

Turned down pages on Kierkegaard

These are the passages I turned down the page corners for from Sylvia Walsh's astonishingly brilliant book Kierkegaard: Thinking Christianly in an existential mode.

On faith and reason (incidentally he rejected Anselm's formula: Fides Quaerens Intellectum):

in order to believe against the understanding, one must use one's understanding, first of all, to understand what it means to break with the understanding (to understand that one cannot understand), and second to distinguish the Christian paradox [of the incarnation], which one believes, from nonsense, which one cannot believe against the understanding precisely because the understanding 'will penetratingly perceive that it is nonsense and hinder him in believing it'. (p.45)

On knowing God subjectively:

God is not an object or something external that can be perceived or known objectively, although that does not mean that God lacks independent reality. Rather God is a transcendent subject who is accessible to human beings only through a personal relationship in inwardness or subjectivity. In several late journal entries Kierkegaard even goes so far as to claim that 'God is pure subjectivity, sheer unmitigated subjectivity'. by which he means that 'intrinsically the divine has no trace at all of the objective' in itself and relates objectively only to its own subjectivity through self-reflecting, in which the divine subjectivity redoubles itself in an unconditioned, perfect objectivity. As an 'infinitely faint analogy' to what he sees as the deity's objective relation to itself, Kierkegaard cites Socrates' ability to relate to himself objectively as if he were an 'entirely separate third party' or another 'I' at the moment he was condemned to death. Kierkegaard observes that most people are subjective towards themselves and objective towards others, whereas 'the task is precisely to be objective towards oneself and subjective toward all others'. In other words, like God, we should relate to ourselves objectively in self-reflection, and to others, including god, subjectively as subjects or persons. (p.54)
I wonder if Kierkegaard can say that God is 'pure subjectivity' because God is Trinity.

On proofs for God:

neither Climacus nor his alter ego Kierkegaard finds the preoccupation with demonstrating the existence of God to be efficacious. Not only do the arguments fail, they distract us from focusing on our own personal relationships to God, which is where the existence of God truly becomes present to and is known by us. (p.58)

God is love implies a need for us to change:

for Kierkegaard...the main 'thesis of Christianity'[is] that God is love....But there is a twofoldness in the thesis that God is love inasmuch as God not only loves human beings but wants to be loved by them in return. Thus, in Kierkegaard's estimation it is 'pure nonsense' to suggest, as is commonly done in Christendom, that God is 'pure love' in the sense that the deity is transformed into likeness to humans without also seeking to to transform them into likeness to him. 'No that God is love means, of course, that he will do everything to help you to love him, that is to be transformed into likeness to him', he explains. The inducement for this reciprocity of love is the forgiveness of sins, which is the starting point for Christianity and the transition to loving God [But,] 'God must make you unhappy, humanly speaking, if he is to love you and you are to love him'. This is so, he suggests, because one cannot love God in addition to the world (pp. 66-67)

Love, not power, is what creates the demand:

'omnipotence made him come into existence, but love made him come into existence for God'. But unlike God's primal omnipotence, which requires nothing of a human being because a human being is nothing before it, God's omnipotent love also requires something of a human being otherwise there would be no reciprocity between them. This is the inverse of the common understanding of the relation of omnipotence and love to requirements, as omnipotence is generally associated with imposing rigorous requirements and love with being lenient. But as Kierkegaard sees it, the existence of God's infinite love must be presupposed 'in order for a person to exist in such a way for God that there can be any question of requiring anything of him' (p.71)

On God as an author:

God may also be likened to a poet in that 'poetically he permits everything possible to come forth' and puts up with all manner of evil, nonsense, wretchedness, mediocrity, etc. in the world'. But just as a poet should not be confused with the thoughts and actions of the characters in his or her poetic productions, one should not assume 'that God consents to all that happens and how' (p.76)

On the changelessness of God:

James 1:17-21, described by Kierkegaard as 'my first, my favorite, text'....The first sentence of this text provides the biblical basis for the Christian claim of God's changelessness: 'Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no change or shadow of variation.' In the opening prayer of the discourse Kierkegaard subtly contrasts the changelessness of god in love, who is moved by everything but changed by nothing, to the unmoved mover of Aristotle which causes motion in the universe by being the object of desire or love but is not itself love or loving...The thought of God's changelessness is thus cause not only for 'sheerr fear and trembling' as to whether we are in conflict with his changeless will but also for 'sheer consolation' in that rest from our weary changeableness is to be found in it. (p.78)
On Philippians 2:
while it is within the ability of the human imagination as well as human reason to come up with the Christian idea of the incarnation without a revelation of God's love and desire for understanding and unity with human beings. (p.116)
On the atonement:
god put himself in our place by becoming a human being in order to truly be able to sympathize with us, which only divine sympathy is capable of doing. Second, unlike a merely human sympathizer, who has 'the universal and common limitation of being unable to put himself completely in another's place', the high priest of true sympathy is able to put himself completely in the sufferer's place in the sense of really being able to understand what the sufferer is going through and to comfort that person regardless of the nature of his or her sufferings. Christ is able to do this because he has suffered more than any other human being ever has or ever will suffer and has been tempted and even abandoned by God. Yet he is without sin, which is the only way Christ cannot put himself in our place and is infinitely different from us, who are all sinners. But Christ is able to put himself completely in our place in yet another way, namely by making satisfaction for our sin and guilt through his own suffering and death, suffering in our place the punishment for sin so that we may be saved and live. Addressing the reader directly, Kierkegaard asks:
Here it is indeed even more literally true that he puts himself completely in your place than in the situation we described earlier, where we indicated that he could completely understand you, but you still remain in your place, and he in his. But the satisfaction of Atonement means that you step aside and that he takes your place - does he not then put himself completely in your place?
When 'punitive justice here in the world or in judgment in the next' looks for us in the place where we stand as sinners, therefore, it will not find us, because we are no longer there and someone else stands in our place. (pp.135-136)
On Christ as 'gift' and 'example', picking up Luther's famous distinction:
with respect to Christ, Kierkegaard remarks in his journals: 'It is entirely clear that it is Christ as the prototype which must now be stressed dialectically, for the very reason that the dialectical (Christ as gift), which Luther stressed, has been taken completely in vain, so that the "imitator" in no way resembles the prototype but is absolutely undifferentiated, and then grace is merely slipped in'. Kierkegaard is quite conscious of having moved in the direction of Christ as pattern' in his writings and even cautions himself not to 'go astray by all too one-sidedly staring at Christ as the prototype'. Thus, while recognizing that 'the present situation calls for stressing "imitation"' he insists that 'the matter must above all not be turned in such a way that Christ now becomes only prototype and not Redeemer, No, the Atonement and grace are and remain definitive', for several reasons. One is that all our striving will be shown to be 'sheer paltriness' when we stand before God for judgement at the moment of death. Another is that grace is needed in order to prevent our striving from being transformed into an 'agonizing anxiety' that prevents us from striving. Perhaps the most important reason, however, is that we continue to sin while striving and therefore remain in unconditional need of the atonement. (p.138)
On Lessing's 'ugly ditch' between truths of history and truths of reason:
First and foremost, he denies that faith is knowledge, since 'all knowledge is either knowledge of the eternal, which excludes the temporal and historical as inconsequential, or it is purely historical knowledge, and no knowledge can have as its object this absurdity that the eternal is the historical' Here Climacus again applies the basic distinction of Liebniz, Lessing, and Hume between two types of knowledge: necessary, rational (demonstrative) eternal truths and contingent, empirical (probable), historical truths of fact. As Climacus sees it, faith does not fit into either of these categories, inasmuch as the object of christian faith is not an eternal truth that can be rationally known and comprehended, nor does it have the probability that is required for historical knowledge. On the contrary, 'the paradox specifically unites the contradictories, is the eternalizing of the historical and the historicizing of the eternal', which is not only objectively uncertain but objectively absurd from the standpoint of all human understanding...
As Climacus sees it, the object of faith is not a teaching about Christ that is to be comprehended through philosophy or theology but rather the teacher himself, who is the absolute paradox. (pp.155f)
On Christian love:
Christian love, by contrast, includes God as a third party or middle term in every love relation and actually makes God, who is love, the sole object of those relations...'To love God is to love oneself truly; to help another person to love God is to love another person; to be helped by another person to love God is to be loved'. (p.169)

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Proofs for the existence of God

C. Stephen Evans explains why there is a difference between proving the existence of the Loch Ness Monster and God:

Religious belief is presumed to be not innocent, but guilty until proven otherwise. Unless we can prove God's existence we must refrain from believing.

People who think like this imagine the religious situation to be something like the following: Suppose you are having an argument with someone over how many species of animals there are. Both of you agree that there are many species-cats, dogs, cows, and so on. You, however, believe in one species which your opponent does not believe in, say, the species of monsters residing in the Loch Ness. Your opponent claims that the burden of proof is on you if you want to believe in such monsters. Without strong positive evidence you would do better to refrain from believing in the Loch Ness monster.

Perhaps in this situation the burden of proof would be on you to come up with evidence for your belief. Perhaps if that evidence is less than conclusive, it would be wiser to suspend or withhold judgment. After all, we don't usually believe in monsters if we have no evidence of their reality. But belief in God is not at all comparable to belief in such a monster.

One important difference is that the Loch Ness monster is merely "one more thing." The two people that disagree about the monster agree about all the other animals. God, however, is not merely "one more thing." The person who believes in God and the person who does not believe in God do not merely disagree about God. They disagree about the very character of the universe. The believer is convinced that each and every thing exists because of God and God's creative activity. The unbeliever is convinced that natural objects exist "on their own," without any ultimate reason or purpose for being. In this situation there are no neutral "safe" facts all parties are agreed on, with one party believing some additional "risky facts." Rather, each side puts forward a certain set of facts and denies its opponents' alleged facts. There is risk on both sides.

A second important difference between the case of God and the case of the Loch Ness monster is that religious beliefs imply something fundamental about how life should be lived. Insofar as religious beliefs embody themselves in actions, suspending judgment is not possible. Even if it were possible to suspend judgment intellectually, it would by no means enable a person to avoid risk. It is clear that the faith of the religious believer and the faith of the atheist are equally risky. It is hard to see why any special burden of proof falls on the religious believer.

(pp.21-22, Why Believe? Reason and Mystery as pointers to God)

Evans is a Kierkegaard scholar, and this seems to echo the Dane's own thought:

The idea of proving the existence of God is of all things the most ridiculous. Either he exists, and then one cannot prove it (no more than I can prove that a certain human being exists; the most I can do is to let something testify to it, but then I presuppose existence) - or he does not exist, and then it cannot be proved at all.

Pointing out that 'it is generally a difficult matter to want to demonstrate that something exists', Climacus prefers the opposite approach:

Therefore, whether I am moving in the world of sensate palpability or in the world of thought, I always draw conclusions from existence, not to existence. For example, I do not demonstrate that a stone exists but that something which exists is a stone. The court of law does not demonstrate that a criminal exists but that the accused, who does indeed exist, is a criminal

(pp.55-56, Sylvia Walsh, Kierkegaard: Thinking Christianly in an existential mode)

Therefore, while it may be unjustifiable to ask whether God the Son exists, we can ask whether Jesus is God the Son. We, and the First Century Jews knew who God is through the Old Testament and through nature. Jesus showed that he was God the Creator and the God of Israel by his power and his love. He fitted, at least if you listened. I think this is what Peter Jensen (?) means by Christology from within [the Biblical narrative], rather than above or below.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Male and female roles and the Gospel

Matthew Roberts, of Trinity Church, York (woo York!) has a great article in Evangelicals Now about women in leadership:

His first point is something very helpful pastorally:

All God’s commands, though they sound like bad news when non-Christians first hear them, are really good

His second point is very helpful in showing why the issue matters:

in [one] sense, this is an issue which goes right to the heart of the gospel. Why? Because the entire ‘equality’ agenda assumes that unless women can do the same things as men they have less value. That is why opposing the idea that women and men should have the same roles is considered such an insult to women.

Now this is how non-Christian society always thinks. It cannot help connecting achievement and value. If it is true that unless we have the same role we do not have the same significance, it follows that our significance is determined by the role we have...

But this link between role and value is decisively severed by the gospel. Indeed, it is the severing of that link which is the heart of the gospel. This is what justification is. Through Christ, our value before God is not defined by what we do. Rather, it is defined by what Jesus has done for us.

Much more could be said of course...

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Before creation...

My quote of the year so far:

"prior to creation...God the Father not only loved the Son but made a promise to him" (Francis Schaeffer, Genesis in Space and Time, referring Jn 17:24; Eph 1:4, 1 Pet 1:20; Titus 1:2)
If I were to do some evangelical-culture analysis I think we're rediscovering the first part of that sentence, but loosing the second. Perhaps we need a rediscovery of the Covenant of Redemption and promissory nature of God.

When bad news becomes good news

The Trinity is bad news...

  • because it shows how intrinisic the 'outgoingness' of God is to his being. After all, your 'curved-in-on-yourselfness' seems fairly intrinsic to who you are.
  • because we killed one of the divine family. After all, the Father's love for his Son is so God-sized his wrath will be unimaginable.

Jesus is bad news...

  • because he sweated blood and went to the cross for a world that hated him. After all, how much do you do for those who love you, never mind your enemies?
  • because we killed him. After all, he has been raised from the dead and is coming again to judge the world.

The Trinity is good news...

  • because we're included in the divine life.
  • because God is "our God" and for us.

Jesus is good news...

  • because we're united in him and his resurrection.
  • because when he died and rose again it was for us and our sins.

In short, talk about God, even 'the Trinity' or 'Jesus', is not good news until we hear the promise that we are (a) in God; or (b) God is for us. The same can be said about God as 'Almighty' or 'Creator' we hear that the Almighty Creator united himself with weak creatures and is for us. What makes 'God talk' good or bad news is not the name, but the promise.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The windowless room

A quick thought...have you heard the windowless room illustration?

It runs like this...Imagine you're kidnapped, blindfolded and the next thing you know you're in a featureless, windowless room with some other people. Nobody knows how they got there, or what is on the other side of the walls, but speculation is rife. However, we can find out once someone from outside enters in. That is a bit like us in the world and Jesus coming in the flesh.

While great at pointing to Jesus as the person who reveals the truth about God, the illustration has some serious problems.

  1. It does not seem to have room for Psalm 19: "the heaven's are telling the glory of God". In the Bible it seems like the world is not a dungeon, but a greenhouse through which the glory of God shines clearly.
  2. It makes the primary mission of Jesus seem like it is one of revelation and not salvation. Agnostics and atheists may think the main question is 'how can I know the truth about God?' But the Bible gives little attention to that question in comparison with 'how can I be saved?' So far as it does address the first question, it is through answering the first question.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Responding to atheist morality

Christian responses to things like Alain de Botton's 10 Commandments - for Atheists usually focus on questioning the source of the morality. For example:

  • Authority: Who says? Without a god, on what objective basis can you say people must be moral? Ultimately, the Atheist's authority is only their word.
  • Motivation: Why bother? Theist's motivation is love for their lover, gratitude to a giver or fear of a punisher. Ultimately, the atheist's motivation is all selfgenerated.
  • Power: Who can? The Christian will point to the Holy Spirit's enabling through Christ and the church. Ultimately the atheist can only rely on him/herself.

There is a lot of value to questioning atheist morality at its source, but you can also focus on the telos of atheist law.

Whether atheist or religious, law only ends up in two places:

  • Guilt for failing to live up to the standard. Not just felt guilt (which not everyone may feel keenly), but real guilt.
  • Suffering due to failing to live up to the standard. All moral failure hurts someone, or something in this world.

Jesus can be found in both those places. He lived out Alain de Botton's commandments, Moses' and yours - better than you could imagine. But he is also in the place of guilt and suffering. Before we get up in the morning and tie our moral bootstraps to walk out the door into the world he is in that place, bearing the weight of both guilt and suffering. He's there bringing an end to both the guilt and the suffering, and the law itself, for us.

One way I think this forward orientation may help in engaging atheist moralists is that it follows the direction of travel. Rather than going against the grain and pulling the atheist back to the source, it is accepting of the truth in atheist morality but goes with it to the end.

Any thoughts?

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Bible history

When we read the story of the Bible we can see:

  1. Covenant history
  2. Christ's history
  3. the Christian's history

On Glen's blog recently it was argued that in Galatians 3-4 Paul was talking about Covenant history, not the personal history of a Christian in the journey from law to Gospel. This maybe true, but the antithesis between reading the Bible as Covenant history backed by biblical scholars and or as the individual Christian's history backed by pastor-teachers is a false one.

The Bible is primarily about Christ who took up Israel's covenant history and made it his life story. By his Spirit Christ makes his story, our story and we can suddenly see ourselves in the pages of a Scriptures of an ancient people. We don't have to choose between them, but Christ is the one that binds them all together.

All three journeys are a journey from Old Creation life slowly being put to death by God and then New Creation life being raised by his Spirit. But, that story is not straight forwardly linear and there are lots of mini-versions of the big story (e.g. Jesus' miracles). Different descriptions of that reality are used as well, e.g.: Darkness and light, slavery and adoption, cursed and blessed... anyway, I'm rambling now.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

David Attenborough's problem with evil

Someone says: ‘I believe a God of infinite mercy created every single species and the Lord looks after us and all the animals.’ Well, what about that little African boy, five years old, sitting on the banks of a river, and he’s got a worm in his eye that’s going to turn him blind in three years? Did this God that you talk about actually design this worm and say: ‘I’ll put it in this boy’s eye?’ To suggest that God specifically created a worm to torture small African children is blasphemy as far as I can see.

(Metro interview with David Attenborough, 29 January 2013)

This is what I wanted to say to David Attenborough on my commute this morning:

1. I don't know how God can be both loving and sovereign over that African boy's plight*.

2. This is how I know that he must be:

  • God the Father has always loved God the Son. From eternity past and without change he has been pouring his love out on his Son and he always will. That is who God is and if he ceased to do that he would cease to be who he is - God the Father.
  • God the Father sent his Son to die in agony, abandoned by his friends and abandoned (but still loved) by the Father he had spent eternity with.
  • God the Father did not do that because he loved someone or something more than his Son. He did it to glorify (John 17:1) and bring joy (Heb 12:2) to his Son who loved his world and his church.

So God's love and God's bringing humans to places of suffering are not incompatible. We've seen that in Jesus of Nazerth, the Son of God. Therefore, it is rational (in the same way that empircal science is rational) to believe God when he promises us that:

  • He has always loved us;
  • He has planned for us all to suffer and die; and
  • He does that because he wants to bring us joy and glory.

* can someone help me remember where I read a quote somewhere recently? It said something like: "we can argue whether God permitted, allowed, purposed, or caused something, but the fact is 'God...'". Dorothy Sayers maybe?

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Two presuppositions about baptism

Contemporary evangelicalism:

  • Our word to others
  • about our death/resurrection

Bible (I think):

  • God's word to us
  • about Jesus' death/resurrection for us

A few tweaks could be made for the different understanding of preaching.

1 Corinthians 11:1-16


  • Paul imitates Christ
  • We imitate Paul


  • Man is the glory of God.
  • Woman is the glory of man.
  • The woman's symbol of authority is the glory of woman.


  • Man is in the image of God.
  • Woman is not the image of Man (implicitly: she is also in the image of God).


  • God is the head of Christ.
  • Christ is the head of Man.
  • Man is the head of woman.


  • Men and women are dependant on God.
  • Men are dependant on women.
  • Women are dependant on Men.


  • 1 Corinthians => giving
  • Patriarchy => taking
  • Our culture => keeping

Also worthy of note that the passage is bracketed by an appeal to the tradition/practice of the historic and worldwide church.