Friday, April 18, 2014

The Gospel According to David Cameron

Click to enlarge

Our sainted Prime Minister, David Cameron is at it again. 'Doing God' and that. In a recent article in the Church Times he wrote of My faith in the Church of England. It used to be a convention at Prime Minister's Question Time for the PM to respond to questions from MPs with the words, 'I refer the Honourable Gentleman to the answer I gave some moments ago'. May I refer you, honourable reader to a blog post published some days ago,  David Cameron on Jesus and the Big Society?  In it I took issue with Cameron's claim that it is the business of the State to do evangelism. He was a little vague on what exactly he meant by evangelistic activity in his address to church leaders last week, but in his Church Times piece, Cameron offered a little clarification. Well, not really. Here's what he said, 
I am not one for doctrinal purity, and I don't believe it is essential for evangelism about the Church's role in our society or its importance.
But what is evangelism if not the proclamation of Christian teaching/doctrine concerning the action of God in saving us from from sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? That's certainly what Paul seemed to think, 1 Corinthians 15:1-5. Even boiled down to its essentials the gospel involves a whole range of biblical doctrines including the doctrine of God as Trinity, the doctrine of man as God's image bearer, the doctrine of sin understood as rebellion against God, the doctrine of Christ as a divine person with a human nature, the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, the doctrine of Christ's bodily resurrection, the doctrine of salvation as applied by the Spirit, and the doctrine of the resurrection of all humanity to judgement or eternal glory. 

Strangely, Cameron calls attention to none of the above in his article as he attempts to elucidate what he means by evangelism. But you can't have evangelism without the evangel. Admittedly, doctrinal purity in the sense of theological pedantry isn't essential for evangelism. I'm sure that there are both infralapsarians and supralapsatrians in the kingdom of God. But it isn't nit picking to insist on certain doctrinal commitments as essential to a faithful proclamation of the gospel. Failing even to mention what happened on Good Friday and Easter Sunday is something of a lacuna in what was ostensibly an Easter message on evangelism by the PM. Like writing an essay on Shakespeare's Hamlet, without referencing the eponymous Prince. Or worse.

The nearest thing that Cameron gets to defining the evangelistic task is in his final paragraph, 
As politicians, I hope we can draw on these values to infuse politics with a greater sense of evangelism about some of the things we are trying to change. We see our churches as vital partners. If we pull together, we can change the world and make it a better place. That to me is what a lot of the Christian message is about - and it is a confidence in our Christianity that we can all reflect on this Easter. If we pull together, we can change the world and make it a better place. That to me is what a lot of the Christian message is about - and it is a confidence in our Christianity that we can all reflect on this Easter.
What? Rather than on the Cross and Empty Tomb? But back up a minute. Read the penultimate sentence again. What's the difference between that sentiment and the aspirations of secular humanism? At best it smacks of Pelagian self-help moralism. 'Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners' (1 Timothy 1:15) it certainly isn't. Cameron's gospel seems to make what happened on Good Friday and Easter Sunday pretty much redundant. Sounds more like 'Buck Rogers' by Feeder,
I think we're gonna make it
I think we're gonna save it yeah
So don't you try and fake it anymore
Buck Rogers, Buck Rogers
Believing the gospel message of life-transforming grace has inspired Christians to make a difference in the world by doing good to others. But that is not evangelism. Our confidence is not in Christianity as a force for social change. Our faith is certainly not in the Church of England, but in Christ who died for our sins and was raised from the dead to reconcile the world to God. That is the evangel without which there can be no evangelism. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Easter and the Trinity


Easter is all about what Jesus did to save us from sin, right? Kind of. Easter only makes sense when understood as the united action of the Trinity in the drama of redemption. It was the one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit who determined that Easter would happen in order to save his people, chosen by the Trinity before the foundation of the world. They were chosen, not on the basis of foreseen faith or works, but simply because they were loved by Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who wanted to draw lost sinners into the warmth of their embrace. In eternity the Father gave this elect people to his Son, appointed him as their Saviour, gifted him with the Holy Spirit for the work of redemption and promised him glory on its accomplishment. 

The Father sent his Son into the world as Man, born of Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Father upheld, taught and guided his incarnate Son by the Spirit and enabled him to live a life of righteous obedience on behalf of his chosen people. At the cross Christ offered himself up to God through the eternal Spirit to atone for our sins, in order that we might be justified, reconciled to God and set apart as his holy people. Through the Spirit of holiness the Father gave Jesus power to lay down his life and power to take it again. And so he arose on the third day according to the Scriptures and was appointed the Son of God with power. At his resurrection Jesus, the last Adam became a life-giving Spirit who bestows life, glory and immortality upon God's new humanity. 

The Father applies the salvation accomplished at Easter upon his chosen people by uniting them to Christ by his Spirit. In Christ sinners die to the old life of sin and are raised to a new life of holiness, they are justified by faith alone and given grace to persevere to the end by the empowering presence of the Spirit. The Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead will also give resurrection life to the mortal bodies of his people. And so God's chosen people will be raised with incorruptible spiritual  bodies, conformed to the image of his Son and be made partakers of the divine nature. They will live in the new creation in the presence of their Saviour God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and experience the intensity of his loving communicative action for all eternity.  

Thank the Trinity for Easter! 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Easter Hope

Compared with Christmas, Easter seems to be the poor relation of Christian festivals. I know we have Eggs, Bunnies and Bonnets, but Easter doesn't attract the same frenzied attention as the Christmas period. That is understandable. Remembering the birth of a Child is a more obvious cause of joy and gladness than recalling the death of a Man.

But what we commemorate at Christmas time, the birth of Jesus Christ was not an end in itself. Christians believe that the Son of God was born into our world as man to bring us back to God. For that to happen Jesus had to suffer and die on the Cross for the wrong things that we have done. He wasn’t forced to die in our place. He willingly laid down his life that we may be forgiven and put right with God. That is the measure of his love for the world.

Jesus was crucified and buried on Good Friday. But that is not the end of the story. Jesus rose again from the dead on the first Easter Sunday morning. He showed himself to his amazed followers, convincing them that he was alive from the dead. ‘He is risen!’ is the glad message of Easter.

Now those who believe in Jesus can have a restored relationship with God and the hope of everlasting life. ‘Jesus is risen!’ He is the reason for our hope. 

* For the Easter edition of The White Horse News

Thursday, April 10, 2014

David Cameron on Jesus and the Big Society


Tony Blair's Spin Doctor-in-Chief, Alistair Campbell famously batted away a journalist's question concerning the faith of the former Prime Minister by saying, "We don't do God." His curt response was taken by many commentators as a symptom of our secular age, where faith and public life just don't mix. Well, the current Prime Minister has taken it upon himself to mix them up and "do God" in a big way. In a recent speech to Christian leaders in Downing Street David Cameron claimed that, “Jesus invented the big society 2,000 years ago. I just want to see more of it.” (See here and here)He went on to use the language of "evangelism" in relation to the activities of the State and spoke of his enjoyment of Church-going, which gives him "a little bit of peace and hopefully a little bit of guidance.” Fair enough, I suppose. 

Being a Christian and that. you might expect that I'd be inclined to applaud  the PM's remarks. Not quite. Call me curmudgeonly old contratian if you like, but you're not going to get anything more enthusiastic from me than the sound of one hand clapping. Why so churlish? For starters, I'm inclined to be a tad cynical concerning Cameron's paean to "Christian Britain". Might it have something to do with wooing disillusioned Christian Tory voters back to the fold? Could be. After all, it is widely reported that many are shifting their allegiance to Ukip in the wake of the introduction of gay marriage by Cameron's government. Besides, what on earth did the PM mean by, “Jesus invented the big society 2,000 years ago. I just want to see more of it”? Was he conflating the 'big society' with the kingdom of God, and was he proposing to ensure that there will be 'more of it' by harnessing the power of the State? Christendom redux. Who does Cameron think he is, Charlemagne the Great?

But my main beef is with David Cameron using the language of evangelism in relation to the work of government. He is quoted as saying, "Of course I see my number one role and responsibility as sorting out the economy and turning the economy round... Aside from that there are some really big things that this government is doing which are about that improving state of the world and evangelism.” Uh? Since when has it been the business of government to do evangelism? Evangelism in the New Testament sense of the word means to herald the good news of Christ crucified and risen for the salvation of the world. Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't that the mission of the Church rather than the State? The State can and should use it's power to free up the Church to get on with its task. Paul encouraged Christians to pray for rulers to that end, 1 Timothy 2:1-7. What Cameron had to say on using overseas aid to help alleviate the plight of persecuted Christians should certainly be welcomed in that light. That's why one hand is clapping. But to speak of the government doing evangelism is another thing altogether. 

Church and State have quite different roles and a clear distinction should be made between the two institutions. The State has been ordained by God to restrain evil and promote the wellbeing of society (Romans 13:1-7). The Church has been called to carry out her Great Commission from the Lord Jesus to preach the gospel and make disciples for Christ from all peoples (Matthew 28:18-20). But the Church should not expect or desire that the State will proclaim the gospel. Fix the economy. Reform the Heath Service. Pass better laws. Yes to all those things. But evangelism? No. The cause of the gospel is always harmed when harnessed to the power of the State. Look what happened when Missionaries cosied up to Empire Builders in the Victorian era. We need to remember the Church fulfills her Christ-ordained task, 'Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord of hosts'. (Zechariah 4:6). 

That is not to argue for a secular State where faith-based values are denied a voice in the public square. Such secularism is not neutrality, but the privileging of atheism. Believers are called to 'seek the peace of the city' (Jeremiah 29:7) by bringing God's word to bear on the issues of the day and living as whole life disciples of Jesus. Rather than having a 'Charlemagne complex' maybe that's what Cameron meant by "Jesus invented the big society". Jesus called his followers to salt and light in the world, Matthew 5:13-16. Inspired by their faith believers have often worked for the good of their fellow citizens. The Good Samaritan and all that. Think of Wilberforce and Shaftesbury in the world of politics, Christians helping their communities by setting up food banks, serving as school governors, or what have you. If Cameron wants to carve out a bigger role for faith-based organisations in Britain, that is all to the good. But that is not to say that we wish the State to join us in doing the work of evangelism. Christians having a beneficial effect on society is not the gospel. It is a consequence of the gospel that calls believers to a life of love and service.

Still, the 'big society' that Jesus 'invented' was not a Christianised State, but the people of God gathered out of all nations, redeemed by his blood and transformed by his resurrection power. No political party may lay claim to God's 'big society', not Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem or Ukip. It's way too big for that,
I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9-10) 

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Banner Ministers' Conference 2014


After the Easter Hols (not that we're going away anywhere) I'm looking forward to the Banner Ministers' Conference. Unusually it's a three dayer this year rather than the customary four. Looks like a good line-up:

Tuesday, 22 April

  • 3.30pm – Opening Sermon – Andrew Davies
  • 5.00pm – Preaching Sin in the Contemporary World – David Meredith
  • 8.00pm – Semper Reformanda – Garry Williams

Wednesday, 23 April

  • 7.25am – United Prayer
  • 9.00am – The Church: The Theatre of God’s Glory – Norman McAuley
  • 11.00am – The Flow of the Psalms [1] – O. Palmer Robertson
  • 3.30pm – Metaphors for Ministers – Garry Williams
  • 5.00pm – Biographical Sketch – Iain Murray
  • 8.00pm – Preaching Christ in the Contemporary World – David Meredith

Thursday, 24 April

  • 7.25am – United Prayer
  • 9.00am – The Church: God’s Witness to the World – Norman McAuley
  • 10.30am – The Flow of the Psalms [2] – O. Palmer Robertson
  • 12.00pm – Closing Sermon – Andrew Davies
See here for more info. 

Monday, April 07, 2014

Ebenezer Baptist Church 175th Anniversary

Over the weekend we celebrated the 175th anniversary of the founding of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where I am joint-pastor. The original Chapel that housed the church was built in 1839 with chalk blocks hewn from the local hills and was reconstructed in 1895, using red brick. But the Baptist cause in West Lavington can be traced back to the middle of the 18th century and the labours of David Saunders, the ‘Shepherd of Salisbury Plain’. Local historian Andrew Jones wrote a short history of the church to mark the occasion. 

In this anniversary year it was fitting that we paused to thank God for his goodness to this congregation since it began right up until the present day. The name ‘Ebenezer’ is taken from 1 Samuel 7:12. After the overthrow of the Philistines the prophet Samuel set up a stone and called it ‘Ebenezer’ meaning ‘a stone of help’, saying, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.”

Our guest preacher for the Saturday and Sunday services was Bernard Lewis, Minister of Emmanuel Evangelical Church, Newport and LTS old boy. Bernard's passionate, gospel-centred ministry was an encouragement and challenge to us all. It was also good to have friends from other fellowships join us, especially on the Saturday, when the service was followed by a traditional 'Chapel Tea'. 

Like Samuel of old we can say, ‘thus far the Lord has helped us’ and we believe that he will continue to do so as we trust in him. Much has changed since Ebenezer Baptist Church first came into being, but the Bible assures us that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever.” (Hebrews 13:8). We continue to serve him and proclaim his saving name to the people of the West Lavington area. 

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Drenched


Our area hasn’t been affected by the seemingly endless rainfall as badly as some parts of the country. But there’s no getting away from the fact that it has been rather damp outside of late. For weeks the top news item has featured some welly-wearing politician or other trying to look as though they are in control as they visit flood affected towns and villages. Who’s to blame? Some point to global warming, others to poor planning decisions that allowed building on flood plains. Experts argue about whether or not dredging rivers would have made a difference. I don’t know.

The winter storms raise questions concerning some of our deeply held assumptions. We expect the government to be able to sort out many of the problems we face as a society. But recent events have exposed the limits of State power. As King Canute could not turn the tide at his command, so government ministers cannot order the Thames, Parrett, or Severn to return to the limits of their banks. ‘An Englishman’s home is his castle’, we say. But rising rivers are no respecters of the sanctity of property. People’s houses that once seemed to stand so firm and secure have been invaded by murky torrents that ruin everything in their wake.

Human power at its most organised is no match for the force of nature. Our achievements, writ large in property and possessions can be swept away in a moment. The Christian lives in this world, but does not live simply for what this world has to offer. Faith teaches us to ‘fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.’ Where are you setting your sights?  

* For News & Views, West Lavington Parish Magazine 

Monday, March 03, 2014

Being Strategic: a practical guide for school governors by David Marriott


Being Strategic: a practical guide for school governors by David Marriott,
third edition, Adamson Publishing Ltd, 2013, 47pp, £9.95. 

'Strategic' is one of those words that when slipped into conversation can give the speaker the impression that they know what they are talking about. Say, 'Now we really need to be strategic' and everyone will nod. Try it. But there's more to being strategic than repeated use of the word. The Governing Body is meant to be the school's strategic leadership team. However, some Governing Bodies seem to be so intent in meddling in the everyday running of their school that the strategic bit is sidelined. It is then left to others to develop a compelling vision of what the school could be like and work out how to get there. Or maybe the vision thing doesn't get done at all, and a school gets stuck in the Doldrums of ever requiring improvement, but never seeming to make much headway. 

It is to help try and avoid that kind of impasse that David Marriott penned this book. He describes step by step what it means for a Governing Body to be strategic. He shows how governors can get a handle on the where their school is currently and how to work out where they want it to be in the future. Guidance is given on how to devise Vision and Mission Statements that will give governors and the school they lead a strong sense of purpose. Words like 'vision', 'values', 'mission' and 'strategy' are much bandied about in governor circles. But Buzz Words don't buzz if they are devoid of content. Marriott clearly explains what they mean in the context of the school governance. 

Being strategic involves the whole Governing Body holding the school to account accurately and objectively, checking the schools strengths and weaknesses against a wide range of evidence. It means that governors and senior leaders own a shared vision of the future prospects of the school that is informed by their values and driven by a clear sense of mission. The Headteacher will play a key role in determining the direction of the school and Marriott stresses the importance of governors developing a good working relationship with the Head that involves both challenge and support. 

Being Strategic is a helpful tool for sharpening up the practice of governance. Following Marriott's suggestion we subjected a recent Head's report to the Full Governing Body to a SWOT analysis that enabled us to get to grips with the school's Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities and Threats. Again (almost literally) taking a leaf out of this book at the next FGB we'll be asking four questions:
  • What do we want that we don't have? (need to achieve)
  • What do we want that we already have? (need to preserve)
  • What don't we have that we don't want? (need to avoid)
  • What do we have now that we don't want? (need to eliminate)
The SWOT analysis was a useful exercise in understanding where we are now. Looking at the questions mentioned above will assist us in thinking critically about the school's future. The author also includes material on governor involvement in strategic planning, target setting, policy making and much more. He manages to pack quite a lot into a relatively brief book which is jam packed full of good advice and helpful tips.

All current or wannabe school governors would benefit from taking a look at Being Strategic. But I think it would be of particular value to Chairs, Vice-Chairs, Chairs of Committees and those who aspire to such roles in the future. The only drawback is that at £9.95 it's a bit pricey for a slim volume, weighing in at less than fifty pages. It's a helpful book, but not quite worth it's weight in gold. Perhaps the best thing would be for a Governing Body to invest in copy or two using money from their training budget so that the book can be lent out to interested colleagues. If our School Business Manager is reading this, that was a none too subtle hint.

Highly recommended.

I'm grateful to Adamson Publishing Ltd for sending me a complimentary review copy of the latest edition of this work. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Something to live for

 
A recent survey conducted by the Prince of Wales Trust disclosed that three quarters of of a million young people felt that they have nothing to live for. Many of the respondents were long-term unemployed. That’s a very sad statistic and something of an indictment on our society. The young of all people should be full of hope and optimism about life, but evidently many are not.
Clearly politicians have their a job to do in ensuring that young people are offered meaningful work opportunities. But even then, work and the money employment provides cannot by itself fill the spiritual void that many people feel, whether old or young. Human beings were made by God and for God and it is only as we enjoy fellowship with him that we will find true fulfilment in life.

Jesus came to reconnect us with God. He died on the Cross to remove our sin that acts as a barrier between us and our Maker. Through the power of his resurrection Jesus is able to give life and hope to all who believe in him. Not that following Jesus will automatically get someone a job, or deal with all their problems. But knowing the reality of his love gives people something to live for even in the bleakest of circumstances. 

* For the February edition of News & Views, West Lavington Parish Magazine. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Charles Hodge: Pride of Princeton by W. Andrew Hoffecker

Charles Hodge: Pride of Princeton,
by W. Andrew Hoffecker, P&R, 460pp, 2011

I'm sure that as a church history boffin, Andrew Hoffecker knows his stuff. But I think he's written the wrong biography. Or at lest P&R has made a colossal publishing error and put the incorrect cover on the Professor's book. Why do I say that? Because the 'Charles Hodge' who emerges from these pages sounds suspiciously like a certain church historian who labours at the step-child of Old Princeton, Westminster Theological Seminary.

Hoffecker's 'Hodge' was a stickler for Presbyterian confessionalism and was suspicious of pan-Evangelical alliances. He was a keen controversialist, whose contributions to the widely read theological journal, Princeton Review served more or less the same purpose as Reformation 21's Online Magazine today.  Alright, 'Hodge' was a systematic theologian and his contemporary alter ego is a historian, but still, there are enough parallels to give rise to an intriguing question. Has Hoffecker in fact given us the biography of Carl Trueman in the guise of an historical novel?  

Admittedly, no other reviewer has noticed this. Not even Carl Trueman, who lines up with various other rent-a-blurb worthies at the front of the book. But it's a theory, and who's to say I'm wrong?  If, on the other hand I'm quite mistaken, it means that the Old Princeton systematician has a lot to say to the contemporary Evangelical scene and we would do well to listen to give him a hearing. 

But enough of this nonsense and on to a proper review. Hoffecker's key to understanding Hodge (I dispense with the quote marks and concede that this is a genuine biography after all) is that he was shaped by the New Side piety that flowed from the Great Awakening and Old School Presbyterian orthodoxy, with its dogged allegiance to the Westminster Standards. Hodge's approach to theology, involving the systematisation of the fruits of inductive Bible study along scientific lines has come in for a fair bit of criticism of late, perhaps justly so in some respects. But the Hodge who comes through in this biography was no clinical systematiser. He was a man of deep piety with a passionate concern to communicate and conserve Scriptural truth as understood by the historic Reformed faith. 

Hodge famously boasted that Princeton Seminary had invented no new doctrines, but that did not mean he was unaware of what was going on the the rapidly changing world of 19th century theology. His studies in Germany, heartland of theological liberalism, gave him first-hand experience of the latest trends in scholarship and their disastrous consequences as far as genuine Christianity was concerned. Hodge not only engaged in controversy with out-and-out Liberals. He also entered the fray against New School Presbyterians, who, with their openness to pan-Evangelical alliances were seen by Hodge as a threat to the theological integrity of his denomination. He also took an interest in the argument over Darwinism, rejecting the theory of evolution due to its unscientific character and worrying theological implications. While he acknowledged that all facts are God's facts, he also understood that human explanations of factual evidence may be deeply flawed. 

Yet Hodge was no pugilist who delighted in polemics for their own sake. He usually opted to follow a middle course between extremes on both sides in the many ecclesiastical spats that raged in 19th century American Presbyterianism. On the vexed matter of slavery that was to tear apart both church and state, Hodge was in favour of the gradual elimination of slavery but against salve-holding church members being subject to excommunication. It's a pity that he didn't take a clearer line on this issue, but his moderate stance was typical of the man. 

Hodge's position as Professor of Didactic Theology and editor of the Princeton Review, made him a figure of huge influence in his time. The celebration of his fifty years service at Princeton in 1872 was a massive event, attended by academic and ecclesiastical luminaries and a large cohort of former students. His Systematic Theology is regarded as an important, if flawed contribution to Reformed systematics. The flame of orthodoxy passed from the hands of Charles to his son, A. A. Hodge and then in turn to to B. B. Warfield and J. Gresham Machen. By Machen's time Princeton had been infiltrated by Liberalism, which led to him leaving Hodge's old seminary to found the Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929. 

Hodge stands as a timely witness to the unique value of the of the historic Reformed faith. In our day as his lowest common denominator Evangelicalism seeks to swallow up all in its wake. Hodge was catholic spirited enough to engage with the wider Evangelical scene, but in the main his activities were devoted to a Church that held to an elaborate confession of Reformed doctrine. I'm a Reformed Baptist, not a Presbyterian. Hodge's almost obsessive fretting over the decreasing incidence of infant baptism in his denomination garnered little sympathy from me. Would that the practice had died out altogether. However, I admire Hodge's firm insistence that the Church, not any parachurch organisation is the focal point of God's activity in the world. The importance of safeguarding the doctrine and life of the Church cannot therefore be overestimated. Banging this drum Charles Hodge does sound suspiciously like Carl Trueman, or is it the other way round? I shall leave you to work that one out for yourselves .