Monday, July 07, 2014

From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, Edited by David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson

Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological and Pastoral Perspective 
Edited by David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, Crossway, 2013, 703pp

The doctrine of definite atonement has long been a storm centre for theological controversy. Even theologians who agree with most other key aspects of historic Calvinistic teaching baulk at accepting that Christ died solely for the elect. Hence the attempt by Hypothetical Universalists and Amyraldians to have their theological cake in terms of preserving unconditional election, while eating a universalist doctrine of the atonement in which Christ died for all human beings without exception. Perhaps part of the problem is with the label 'limited atonement'. Admittedly, it carries the advantage of putting the 'L' into TULIP, but in almost every other respect it is unhelpful, if not misleading. After all, unless you are an absolute and unqualified universalist and believe that all human beings are going to be saved in the end, your theology of the cross is going to entail certain limits. The question is, 'what limits?' Either Christ died only for the elect and therefore his atoning work was limited in its extent. Or we may take it that he died for all, but not all are saved, and so his death was limited in its saving effectiveness. For that reason the editors are to be congratulated ensuring that 'definite atonement' rather than 'limited atonement' is used consistently throughout the book to describe the view that Christ died definitively and savingly for his people. Bang goes TULIP then, but since when as mnemonic suitability come before theological accuracy?  

Whatever it's called, some people may wonder whether this point of doctrine important enough to warrant the reader ploughing though a hefty 700 page multi-author volume. Isn't 'definite atonement' one of those teachings that may well  be fascinating to historical theologians, but has a slender biblical base, little constructive theological value and almost no pastoral relevance? Er, no. Biblically, theologically and pastorally definite atonement is of huge import. If the cross of Christ is at the heart of God's way of salvation, then understanding what was accomplished at the cross and the significance of that accomplishment for the life and mission of the church must count for something. The opening chapter on Sacred Theology and the Reading of the Divine Word sets the stage by mapping out a constructive theological approach to the doctrine of definite atonement. The editors argue for an integrative methodology that takes Scripture seriously, is sensitive to the theological heritage of the church, systematically rigorous and pastorally helpful. It is intended that this approach will yield a cumulatively persuasive case  for the doctrine of definite atonement. Although polemics cannot be avoided when treating a subject like this, the editors wish to model a firm, yet respectful engagement with critics of the view advocated in this book. 

A stellar cast of Reformed luminaries has been assembled to explore definite atonement from almost every angle. The book begins with a study of definite atonement in church history. Fascinating chapters give attention to the presence of the doctrine in the Ancient, Medieval and Reformed Church. It seems that for centuries the definiteness of the atonement was assumed by the great thinkers of the Church, but only became a matter of intense theological argumentation in the light of the Remonstrant controversy. In the face of Arminian pressure the Synod of Dort opted to maintain the doctrine of definite atonement. The historical studies provide the background to the later biblical, theological and pastoral sections. Indeed, the fact that many writers opt to interact with figures mentioned in the historical chapters as biblical and theological dialogue partners means that the book can have a slightly repetitive feel. The deja vu factor, often a failing with multi-author works is unusually pronounced here. Hypothetical Universalism is especially done to death. Perhaps the editors could have been a little more ruthless with their star writers, 'been there, done that, sorry'. That said, it's not just the usual suspects like Moise  Amyraut who attract attention. The views of Karl Barth, John McLeod Campbell, J.B and T. F. Torrance, are also carefully critiqued. 

However, a tendency to go round in circles aside, it has to be said that there is a wealth of good things in this book. Some of the chapters are simply outstanding. Tempting as it may be, I'm not going to mirco-review every contribution in here. Flagging up some of the highlights will have to suffice. On the Biblical Perspective front, J. Alec Motyer on Isaiah's Suffering Servant is amazingly insightful. Jonathan Gibson's handling of the Pauline material is exegetically cogent and theologically rich. Thomas Shreiner faces some "Problematic Texts" with honesty and persuasiveness. It would be invidious to single out chapters from the Theological Perspective section, so full is it with mind expanding and heart warming theological reflection. Just read it. The same goes for the final section on the pastoral implications of definite atonement. 

Taken as a whole, the book left me with a deep sense that the doctrine of definite atonement is rooted in Holy Scripture, is essential for understanding salvation as the united action of the Holy Trinity, and is vital for the life and mission of the Church. Christ's death did not simply make salvation a possibility should anyone have wished to be saved. He came from heaven to seek the people given him by the Father before the world was made. Jesus saved them by his blood. He secured in his atoning work the power of the Spirit to bestow repentance and faith upon the elect that they may receive all the benefits of his atoning work on their behalf. And so we can be confident that a vast multitude that no man can number will be gathered from all nations. Chosen by God, redeemed by Jesus and made new by the Spirit, they will unite their voices in a shout of eternal praise to triune God who saved them. 

Highly recommended. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

On reaching 'Generation Citizen'

In a spate of newspaper articles (here, for example) on the youth of today columnists have drawn attention to 'Generation Citizen'. Apparently today's bright young things are more likely than self-indulgent 'Baby Boomers' to get involved in voluntary activities. When choosing a job they are more interested in a company's ethics and values than its lucrative bonus offers. Reportedly, being raised during the 'Great Slump' has given our young people a more serious and determined outlook on life. They know that if they are going to make it they need self-discipline and hard work. Today's youngsters are not so much hedonistic ravers as altruistic world savers. What's not to like?

My question in this post is how may we contextualise the gospel to appeal to 'Generation Citizen'? John Piper's well known championing of 'Christian Hedonism' could be described as an attempt to contextualise the Christian message for hedonistic 'Baby Boomers', for whom the quest for pleasure was the main thing in life. Admittedly, Piper attempted to reorientate pleasure seeking towards God. He famously proposed a tweak to Answer 1 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism to the effect that, 'Man's chief end is to glorify God by enjoying him for ever'. But I wonder whether earnest 'Generation Citizen' types will find all that talk of theological pleasure seeking a little bit frivolous and self-indulgent?

The Christian faith lays great importance on personal responsibility, virtuous conduct, stable family life and hard work. Community service is also important for believers.  'Generation Citizens' have grown tired of the narrow individualism of the previous generation. Today's young people want to get involved in their local communities. It needs to be stressed that being a Christian is not an individualistic spiritual quest. It draws one into the shared life of the church, where people of all ages and backgrounds care for each other and bear witness together to the good news of Jesus.

Churches at their best are deeply embedded in their local communities. They run Parent and Toddler Groups, clubs for children and young people, ensure that the elderly are visited, and so on. Aside from the direct activities of the church, believers often get involved in activities like serving as hospital link drivers or school governors, for example. They do so because they want to contribute to the wellbeing of their local community, or 'seek the peace of the city' to use Jeremiah's words, (Jeremiah 29:7). Christians want to make a difference and that in itself will speak volumes to contentious young people.

If the church is to engage with 'Generation Citizens' we will need to deploy what I call the 'Titus Strategy'. By that I mean that we implement Paul's programme for developing thriving gospel churches on the island of Crete. The newly planted churches on that island were in something of a mess. They had become too much like the world to win the world to the different and better way of the gospel. Paul sent Titus to Crete to ensure that the churches were well led by godly and able elders. The task of the elders was to root out false teaching, preach the gospel with clarity and show how the faith should be worked out in every area of believers' lives.

Teaching on practical Christian living was to be applied searchingly and discriminatingly to older and younger men and women. The conduct of believers in the world of work was to 'adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things' (Titus 2:10). Paul wanted believers on the isle of Crete to stand out from that notoriously corrupt society (Titus 1:12-13). They were to be 'zealous for good works', (Titus 2:14), 'ready for every good work' (Titus 3:1), and 'careful to maintain good works' (Titus 3:8, 14).

Paul's 'Titus Strategy' wasn't a 1st Century equivalent of do-goodery. All of the apostle's imperatives on doing good works were rooted in the the grand indicative of the gospel, Titus 2:11-14, 3:4-7. It is the life-transforming power of the gospel that impels the believer to do good both within the life of the church and also in the life of the community, Galatians 6:10. What 'Generation Citizens' need above all else is the gospel in all its fulness. They need to see the gospel embodied in the lives of believers as they faithfully play their roles in the drama of redemption. But they also need to hear the message of salvation boldly proclaimed that they may believe it and be reconciled to God.

We welcome a new emphasis on young people becoming engaged and active citizens. That's all well and good. But the Christian faith is not about changing the world by human effort, but the salvation of the world by God's grace. Receiving that message involves accepting that however well intentioned we may be, that we are all sinners in need of forgiveness and a fresh start in life. That's a hard thought to take on board. It humbles our pride and exposes our spiritual brokenness. But the fact is that it is often those who have surrendered themselves to God's free offer of mercy in Jesus who have then gone on to make a big difference in society. Think of William Wilberforce's campaign to abolish slavery or Lord Shaftesbury's agitation for better working conditions for ordinary people, or John Howard's prison reforms. Those whose 'citizenship is in heaven' have repeatedly been among the most active citizens in their generation. We have a message for 'Generation Citizen' that needs to be powerfully preached and practically performed by the people of God today. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

More Important than Life and Death?

 
I can tell something’s going on. I’m astute like that. Can’t quite figure out what it is, though. Will someone please tell me why people have suddenly come over all patriotic round here? English flags adorn houses. Cars, even. All of a sudden there’s nothing worth watching on the telly. It’s all football, football, football. I’ve heard people getting all het up about England losing 2-1 to Uruguay. Something about Suarez, is it?  Baffles me.
 
Alright, I know. It’s Word Cup time and England aren't exactly doing too well. It’s not even certain that they’ll still be in the competition by the time you read this*. Football. More of a rugby man myself. But some people quite like the game, apparently. Bill Shankly the great Liverpool manager said,   “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” 
 
Really? What or who could possibly be more important than life and death? Only One who could save us from death and give us life, and that’s Jesus.  

* Written for the July/August edition of News & Views, West Lavington Parish Magazine. The deadline was before England were knocked out of the Word Cup when Italy lost to Costa Rica 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Faith in Education


The prayer handbook Operation World devotes much of June to prayer for India. Today I read the entry for the state of Mizoram, an Indian enclave between Bangladesh and Myanmar inhabited by almost 900,000 people. It is reckoned that 85% of the population are Christian. OW records that, "Awakenings and revivals in recent years have dynamised the Church and transformed society. It is now the most literate and well-educated state in India." The entry made me reflect on the relationship between Christianity and education. During the Medieval period learning was kept alive by the Church. The Reformation stimulated increased levels of literacy and gave impetus to scientific inquiry and artistic flourishing. The role of faith in education has grabbed the headlines in recent days. But not in a good way. 

As a school governor I've been keeping a weather eye on the so-called 'Trojan Horse' story. School governance was seemingly part of the problem in at least some of the Birmingham schools that have been placed in special measures by Ofsted. Hardline Muslim were found to have infiltrated governing bodies. They used their power to force through drastic changes to the curriculum. In one school students were deprived of expressive and performing arts lessons. Systems of governance intended to ensure that decisions were not made by a small, unrepresentative number of board members were used to block measures with which radical Islamists disagreed. Cliques would walk out of meetings when agenda items they opposed were up for discussion. Committees were consequently rendered inquorate and incapable of making a decision. It is reported that some governors became far too involved in the everyday running of their schools, creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation for senior leaders and staff. Religious preachers were allowed to use extremist language in school assemblies, such as labelling white women 'prostitutes'. 

The affair has caused a huge spat between Michael Gove and Theresa May on who was to blame for allowing this situation to develop. Was it the Department of Education, or the Home Office? Part of the problem was a misuse of the freedom that comes with academisation. Unlike LA maintained schools, Academies are not bound to follow the National Curriculum. But that educational liberty was never intended to become a licence to ban music and drawing lessons because they are 'un-Islamic'. Head of Oftsed, Sir Michael Wilshaw has suggested that there needs to be some tightening up in that area. Schools should be free to vary the curricula they offer, but not to the extent that key components such as the arts are dropped altogether.  

Some commentators have used what has been happening in Birmingham as an excuse to call for all faith schools to be closed. But there's a subtle difference between having children sing All things bright and beautiful in your local CofE primary school and the dark goings on reported in Park View and Oldknow Academies. The Church was the main education provider for children in this country before the State ever got in on the act. Church schools are often academically successful and provide a strong Christian ethos that enables children to thrive and develop. 

That said, all schools are expected to give their students a rich social, moral,  spiritual and cultural diet that will help form them into reflective individuals with a strong sense of moral purpose. RE lessons rightly teach pupils about all faiths. Having some understanding of different belief systems is important for young people growing up in a multicultural society. It isn't the job of RE teachers to proselytise, but to inform, explain and provoke reflection. It's a great pity that Gove chose not to include RE in the range of EBacc subjects. The predictable result has been that the subject has been sidelined in many schools. Nevertheless, Ofsted will no doubt be keeping a much closer eye on the ethos of schools, to ensure that they are promoting 'British Values' such as democracy, freedom, tolerance and the rule of law . 

Some Christian parents may wish to home-school their children, others may opt to send them to Christian schools. That's their right. But many believers send their children to the local State school. It is the responsibility of Christian parents to bring up their children in the 'nurture and admonition of the Lord'. But it has never been part of the faith to shun what may be learned from those who do not share our beliefs. John Calvin has a wonderful passage in the Institutes where he says,
If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we insult the Giver. How, then, can we deny that truth must have beamed on those ancient lawgivers who arranged civil order and discipline with so much equity? Shall we say that the philosophers, in their exquisite researches and skilful description of nature, were blind? Shall we deny the possession of intellect to those who drew up rules for discourse, and taught us to speak in accordance with reason? Shall we say that those who, by the cultivation of the medical art, expended their industry in our behalf were only raving? What shall we say of the mathematical sciences? Shall we deem them to be the dreams of madmen? Nay, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without the highest admiration; an admiration which their excellence will not allow us to withhold. But shall we deem anything to be noble and praiseworthy, without tracing it to the hand of God? [Calvin, John (2008-04-03). Institutes of the Christian Religion (Kindle Locations 4899-4906). Signalman Publishing. Kindle Edition]. 
Believers often get involved in PTAs or Governing Boards because they want to be of service to their communities in some way. But a Christian governor will not use underhand tactics in order to impose their beliefs on a non-denominational school. Christian teaching on the moral frailty of all human beings underpins a proper emphasis on transparent systems of  scrutiny and accountability. 'Power corrupts, absolute  power corrupts absolutely' and all that. Accountability in the world of education means that there needs to be a clear separation of powers between the Governing Board at the strategic level and the operational running of the school by senior leaders. That separation of powers breaks down when governors routinely meddle in the everyday affairs of the school, often with deleterious results. What's been happening in Birmingham is a rather extreme case in point.

Speaking with some governors you would think that the strategic/operational dividing line is only in place to stop them having fun. But it is not the job of governors to 'play schools'. It seems passing strange to me that any Board of Governors would wish to descend from the commanding heights of strategic leadership to muddy their fair hands in the everyday running of the school. Others are well paid for doing just that. Governors should simply focus on what they are not paid a penny to do: set the overall direction of the school and hold senior leaders to account to make sure the school is heading in the direction they have set.

Checks and balances should be in place to ensure that governors do not abuse their power. The clerk should advise the board if it is acting inappropriately. Should their advice be ignored, irregularities should be minuted and the LA or Department of Education informed of what has been happening. Action should then taken quickly to investigate alleged improprieties and  the situation remedied before things get out of hand. Heads and other concerned governors should also be prepared to sound an alarm. The problem with Birmingham was that warnings concerning the conduct of governors went unheeded by the education authorities. The situation was allowed to deteriorate and schools ended up being  placed in special measures. Better not to turn a blind eye while schools sink into a swamp of extremism rather than having to take drastic action to 'drain the swamp' when it's too late.

However, there is a role for faith in education, both in terms of faith schools and believers getting involved in various ways. The Christian faith especially has often gone hand in hand with a strong emphasis on the importance of broad-based, value-laden education. I also have faith in education as a driver of social mobility, helping every student, even the most disadvantaged overcome barriers to achievement in life. But even the best of educations can only do so much. That's why my ultimate faith is not in education, but the God of the gospel. 

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

On the Rich List?

 
It’s that time of year when The Sunday Times publishes it’s annual Rich List. Maybe you’ve been checking it out to make sure you are on its list of Richest People on Screen, Richest People in Fashion, or what have you. Maybe not. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with people being wealthy. Especially if their riches are hard earned and put to good use. But it’s difficult for those of us who are unlikely ever to trouble a Times Rich List to avoid just a twinge of envy.

The Christian faith doesn’t make a virtue of poverty, but the Bible warns us not to trust in uncertain riches.  It encourages those who believe to be contented with their lot and generous towards others. Turning conventional wisdom on its head Jesus said that it is ‘more blessed to give than to receive’.  He spoke of the folly of those who lay up treasure for themselves, but are not rich towards God.

C. T. Studd was involved in the original Ashes cricket match  against Australia. As a child of wealth and Cambridge graduate, Studd had the world at his feet. But he gave away his inheritance and became a missionary in China. His life’s motto was, "If Jesus Christ is God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for Him." That’s what it means to be ‘rich towards God’. Are you on that Rich List?

* From June's News & Views, West Lavington Parish Magazine. 

Monday, June 02, 2014

On meeting Thomas Hardy at King Alfred's Tower

On Saturday Sarah and I headed for King Alfred's Tower, which stands tall in the Stourhead estate. Not for the first time we climbed the 205 steps to the top. The vantage point affords wonderful views of the Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire countryside. Once we'd got our breath back and taken in the scenery we made our way back down the spiral staircase to the bottom of the tower. We lingered in the entrance hall to read the information displays. The tower was built in the late 1700's by Henry Hoare II, owner of Stourhead. Amongst other things the folly was erected to commemorate the achievements of King Alfred the Great. In that sense it serves as a memorial to 'Christian England'. A stone tablet above the door on the east face of the tower reads,

ALFRED THE GREAT
AD 879 on this Summit
Erected his Standard
Against Danish Invaders
To him We owe The Origin of Juries
The Establishment of a Militia
The Creation of a Naval Force
ALFRED The Light of a Benighted Age
Was a Philosopher and a Christian
The Father of his People
The Founder of the English
MONARCHY and LIBERTY"

One of the information boards mentions that Thomas Hardy referenced the tower in one of his poems, Channel Firing. Written in 1914, at the outbreak of the Great War, it recalls the firing of heavy guns in the Channel. Such was the force of the gunfire that the poet reckons that some may have mistaken the racket for Judgement-day,

That night your great guns, unawares,
Shook all our coffins as we lay,
And broke the chancel window-squares,
We thought it was the Judgment-day

What Hardy calls 'Stourton Tower' gets a mention in the final verse,

Again the guns disturbed the hour,
Roaring their readiness to avenge,
As far inland as Stourton Tower,
And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.

Hardy lost his Christian faith as a young man. Nevertheless in the poem he imagines God reassuring anyone who might have been alarmed that it was not Judgement-day after all. In his verse the poet gently mocks the idea of divine judgement. He suggests that even with the madness and horror of the Great War, that what he calls 'our indifferent century' was better off without a belief in the Day of Reckoning. Wishful thinking, I wonder. 

And so we met with Thomas Hardy at King Alfred's Tower. In one way it was fitting that the structure that looms over Wessex should be associated with the king of that ancient domain and the novelist whose stories were set in the Wessex of his imagining. Far from the Madding Crowd, and all that. 

On the other hand, that Stourton Tower is haunted by the memory of both Christian monarch and sceptical poet seems somewhat incongruous. Hardy was one of a select band of authors who were determined to undermine Christian faith and morality in the late Victorian era (see here). The critic Edmund Gosse wondered, 'What has Providence done to Mr. Hardy that he should rise up in the arable land of Wessex and shake his fist at his Creator?' 

Hardy's last words were to his nurse, Eva Dugdale, 'Eva, what is this?' Was it his Maker, whose existence the writer had long denied and whose judgement he derided, Hebrews 9:27? 

In an earlier post Juxtaposition: Herman Bavinck on God's fatherly providence and Thomas Hardy's blighted star (here), I contrast Thomas Hardy's bleak fatalism with Herman Bavinck's teaching on the providence of God. 

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

God's Philosophers by James Hannam

God's Philosophers: 
How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science,
by James Hannam, Icon Books, 2009, Kindle edition, £4.79. 

In an article entitled Even Christianity is not really Christian in Saturday's edition of The Times, A. C. Grayling weighed in to the 'Christian Nation' debate sparked by David Cameron's sudden conversion to the virtues State-sponsored evangelism. It's one of those 'What has Christianity done for us?' pieces. While writing with an air of grave expertise, Grayling's use of the historical evidence is, in fact as selective as a bag of good of Woolies' Pick & Mix. He trots out the tired old cliché that the Early and Medieval Church suppressed learning and inquiry with the effect that scientific progress was retarded and human ingenuity stifled. Grayling alleges that Christianity banned study of Greek and Roman philosophy, and so plunged Europe into a Dark Age that only ended with with the rediscovery of the classical wisdom at the Enlightenment. The writer opined, "There was little learning worth the name in the first seven centuries of Christian dominance because it had suppressed inquiry". 

However, as Hannam shows in God's Philosophers, if anything, the Medieval world wasn't held back by its ignorance of Antiquity, but by too much deference for the philosophers of old. It was only when Medieval medics began to question Galen's four humours-based quackery that medicine began make progress. Early natural philosophers tended to accept Aristotle's ideas without question, not realising that many of them were incorrect. Aristotle argued that that a heavier weight will fall faster than a lighter one. That was empirically disproven by John Philoponus in the sixth century. Even then, some chose to believe Aristotle rather than the empirical evidence. Early Merton Calculator Thomas Brawardine (c.1290-1349), propounded a theoretical basis for what Philiponus had discovered experimentally, thus blowing Aristotle's theory out of the water. 

In an odd section Grayling argues that because word such as medicine, technology and telescope are derived from Greek and Latin that the ideas and inventions they describe also derive from that culture. But since when had etymology been a sound guide to the origin of concepts? Anachronistic, or what? The telescope was originally invented by Hans Lipperhey of Holland (d.1619) and further refined by Galileo. But Lipperhey and Galileo would have got nowhere had not spectacles been invented in Venice in the 1300's. As Hannam points out,
the people of medieval Europe invented spectacles, the mechanical clock, the windmill and the blast furnace by themselves. Lenses and cameras, almost all kinds of machinery and the industrial revolution itself all owe their origins to the forgotten inventors of the Middle Ages. Just because we don’t know their names, this does not mean that we should not recognise their achievements. (Hannam, James (2009-08-07). God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (p. 5). Icon Books. Kindle Edition.)
Grayling of course mentions the case of Galileo, claiming that the Church shut him up for championing the heliocentric view of the universe propounded by Copernicus as contrary to Scripture. Hannam offers a fair and nuanced account of the trial of the great man at the hands of the Inquisition. Contrary to Grayling's article it was not so much the teaching of the Bible that was at stake, as the Roman Catholic Church's deference for the Greek philosopher Ptolemy's vision of an earth-centred universe. Once more, it is a reminder that while classical civilisation had much to offer in terms of Pythagoras' mathematical theories and so on, the ideas of Greece and Rome could sometimes be an impediment rather than a stimulus to the advance of scientific understanding. 

Now, Hannam doesn't pretend that what used to be called the Dark Age was in fact a glittering Golden Age. The Church wasn't always an ally of progress. Medieval natural philosophers were often as interested in magic and astrology as exploring the wonders of nature. But the Christian belief that God created an orderly universe encouraged natural philosophers to explore and understand the world in which they lived. In doing so they laid the foundations of modern scientific inquiry. Theology was a friend rather than an enemy of natural philosophy. As Hannam writes,
However, the most significant contribution of the natural philosophers of the Middle Ages was to make modern science even conceivable. They made science safe in a Christian context, showed how it could be useful and constructed a worldview where it made sense. Their central belief that nature was created by God and so worthy of their attention was one that Galileo wholeheartedly endorsed. Without that awareness, modern science would simply not have happened. (Hannam, James (2009-08-07). God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (p. 336). Icon Books. Kindle Edition). 
Grayling doesn't seem to appreciate that point. In fact his understanding of Christian theology is as lamentable as his grasp of history. He alleges that Paul taught that the faithful dead will "see no corruption", but will sleep in their graves until the last trump and the resurrection of the dead. Quite the contrary. Paul believed that Christ uniquely saw no corruption while he lay in the tomb prior to his resurrection (Acts 13:35-37). But of the believer the apostle wrote, "the body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption" (1 Corinthians 15:42). 

Also, Grayling is wrong to suggest that early Christians borrowed the idea of an immortal soul from Plato as a way of getting around the inconvenient truth that the bodies of believers did in fact return to dust in their graves. In the New Testament the language of immortality is reserved for the resurrection body, 1 Corinthians 15:53-54). That is about as un-Greek as you can get. Plato believed that that physical matter was evil and the body a prison house for the soul, of which it is well rid at death. The idea of bodily resurrection made no sense at all in the world of Greek philosophy. Note the reception that Paul received when speaking to intellectuals at Athens, Acts 17:31-32. The resurrection of the body makes perfect sense However, in the Judeo-Christian worldview, where God created the spiritual and material realms and declared them very good. Jesus came not simply to 'save our souls', but to rescue complete human beings from sin and its deadly effects. In Christian teaching eternal life means not simply the soul of the believer going to heaven when they die, but the resurrection of the body to immortal glory at the return of Christ.

Having said all that, I agree with Grayling that Britain today is not a Christian country. David Cameron was wrong to suggest that it is (see here). But it is foolish to deny that the Christian faith has had a positive impact on world history. As David Bentley Hart has shown in his Atheist Delusions, the Classical world wasn't quite as full of light, love and virtue as Grayling suggests. Many of our most cherished values such as the unique dignity and personhood of every human being were Christian in their origin, not pagan. Moreover, Hannam's God's Philosophers decisively puts the lie to Grayling's claim that, "There was little learning worth the name in the first seven centuries of Christian dominance because it had suppressed inquiry". Hardly. 

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