Monday, August 17, 2015

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Out now: The Pastor As Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision


This book to which I made a modest contribution, with a piece on The Drama of Preaching is out now. Download a Kindle sample to see what it's all about, here

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Inside Out: salvation through sorrow

This same memory also contains the feelings of my mind... For I remember that I was happy when I am not happy now, and I recall my past sadness when I am not sad now... Great indeed is the power of memory! It is something terrifying, my God, a profound and infinite multiplicity; and this thing is the mind, and this thing is I myself. What then am I, my God? [Confessions of Saint Augustine, Book X:14, 17]
The other day the wife and I went to see the latest Disney/Pixar film, Inside Out. Our children are all grown up now so there was no need for us to see a kiddie flick, but serious minded Times columnist Melanie Phillips recommended it and that was excuse enough for me.

The film focuses on Riley, an 11-year old girl and her struggle to adjust to life when her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. Her feelings are controlled by five characters representing her emotions; Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear and Anger. Joy is a little bit having John Piper live in your head. A girl one. 'C'mon, cheer up. Be a happy Christian Hedonist.' 

As we've come to expect of Pixar. the film is a visually stunning spectacle, especially as we join Joy and Sadness on a trip around Riley's brain as they seek to recover her personality-forming core memories. Some great visual jokes as the characters transform into Picasso versions of themselves in the Abstract Thought sector.

I won't spoil the plot for you by summarising it here. You'll have to look elsewhere for a proper film review. I'm not Barry Norman/Mark Kermode. Certainly not Claudia Winkleman. But the key message is that core memories, both happy and sad have a deep effect on our personalities. And that's what got me thinking.

Joy keeps trying to cheer Riley up, as she's feeling out of sorts in her new environment. At all costs she wants to stop Sadness touching the girl's core memories. But it is only when Riley is allowed to feel sad that she realises how much she is loved and pulls back from doing something stupid. She's saved through sorrow.

Kind of profound for a kids' film; the deep link between sadness and love. That works on a human level, but it also has theological resonance. God reveals the greatness of his love to us through the person of his Son. Jesus became a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief in order to rescue us from the misery of sin. Surveying the wondrous Cross we reflect, 'Did e're such love and sorrow meet/or thorns compose so rich a crown?' Had the fall not have happened and all its tragic after effects, we would not have known the full depths of divine love for sin-ruined humanity.

In the film Joy comes to learn the healing power of sympathy from Sadness. Jesus' continued love for us is disclosed in that even in his exalted state he is able to sympathise with his suffering people, Hebrews 4:15. See Thomas Goodwin's The Heart of Christ Towards Sinners on Earth.

Some take the words of Revelation 21:4 'for the former things have passed away' to mean that the redeemed in glory will have no memory of sorrow, crying, or pain. But I don't think that's right. Jesus won't greet us with some kind of Men in Black memory wiping device when he gives us our resurrection bodies and welcomes us to the new creation. In John's vision it is the 'former things' that will pass away, not the memory of them. The saints in glory will remember their sins, sufferings and struggles. Were that not the case, how could they sing to the Lamb, 'you have redeemed us to God by your blood' (Revelation 5:9)? With no memory of former events they would have no comprehension of why they ever needed redemption, and would not therefore be moved to worship the Lamb for his saving work.

Besides, as Inside Out suggests, our memories make us who we are, and there is continuity of personal identity for believers in their resurrection bodies. Grace does not destroy nature, but redeems, restores and perfects it. We will not be resurrected to a state amnesia. As Augustine reflects in the words at the top of this post, memory is mind and mind is me. In the glory even memories we would rather forget will not be obliterated, but will be understood in relation to God's purpose. Then and only then will we be able to grasp Romans 8:28 in its full wonder. The rich tapestry of our Father's wise and sovereign plan for our lives will be revealed with all its twists and turns, joys and sorrows. We will hear him say, 'I meant it for good', as he reaches out a fatherly hand to wipe away every tear from our faces. And a joy before unknown will fill our hearts.

But what of the memory of our sins? Even that will serve to enrich our joy in the Lord for redeeming us at such a cost. Overwhelmed by his love for miserable sinners, we will sing all the louder, 'Worthy is the Lamb that was slain!' 

Monday, August 03, 2015

Second thoughts on Two Kingdoms


It's nice, isn't it, getting a new 'view'? First of all there's the discovery that there's a new 'view' to be had. Then there's the dawning realisation that you are convinced by the 'view', being pretty plausible and all. You're kind of aware than not everyone might agree with your new 'view'. But they're just silly and don't understand what it's all about. So it's a bit of a pain when someone critiques the 'view' that you've gone to some effort to get, and it seems that it isn't that great after all. Wrong, even. It's like, 'I really loved that view and can't be doing with all that changing my mind malarkey.' Know what I mean? 

Well, I was pretty sure I was a 'Two Kingdoms' man ever since reading David Van Drunen's Living in God's Two Kingdoms. Must admit that I found his A Biblical Case for Natural Law unsatisfactory in a number of ways. But that didn't really shake up my new-found 2K convictions. You can imagine how inconvenient it was when I read what Tim Keller had to say about 2K-ers in his Centre Church. He was all, 2K-ers are a bit, 'am I bothered?' about effecting cultural change, what with the 'Common Kingdom' being transitory and such. Made 2K-ers sound like Pietists, with little motivation for doing good in society. Need a nice dollop of transformationist zeal to sort them out.

Came agonisingly close to making me change my mind. But there was no need for that. The basic 2K insight of that Jesus is king of the world and the church, but relates to the two realms in different ways holds good. Maintaining a distinction between the 'Common Kingdom' and 'Redemptive Kingdom' is biblically sound. But the relationship between the Two Kingdoms needs to be spelt out in a nuanced way. 

Alright, that means I'm going to have go all nuancy and complicated, but bear with me. Unless you've got something better to do. And if so, just go and do it. Stuff needs transforming. Lots of it. But if you can't be doing with all that and you're still around, here goes. Pietist. 

The thing is that I've always been a 2K man, only I wouldn't have put it in quite those terms until reading Van Drunen. Well, not quite always. I wasn't a 2K kid when I was 10, way before I got saved. And when I was converted 2K views didn't enter my mind as if by some kind of heavenly Wi-Fi. But instinctively I've long been a bit suspicious of  world dominating transformationist schemes. When a twenty-something theological student I went to hear S. T. Logan speak. He was on about the 'cultural mandate' and that believers should be looking to grab the commanding heights of academia, politics and society with a 'Christian view' of this, that, and the other. After he was done there was a Q&A session. I had a point and a question. The point: 'Yeah, like that's going to happen.' The question: 'What if  you're a Christian dustman?' In other words, Logan's vision of world-transforming Christian views was both unachievable and elitist. It's fair to say that the speaker was a bit miffed at my interjections.

The 2K position chastens our grand schemes for 'redeeming the culture'. It emphasises that all good honest work is to be recognised as a calling from God and there isn't always a distinctively Christian view of of every academic discipline, profession, or trade. What's the Christian approach to rubbish collecting, or plumbing, or economic policy? In all these areas and more believers work in the 'Common Kingdom' alongside those who don't share our faith and in accordance with commonly accepted ethical principles and working practices. The believer, whether a particle physicist or postman will do their work as unto the Lord and bring their faith to bear upon their calling, but won't harbour schemes for a Christian takeover of letter delivery, or what have you.

Here's where it gets a little complicated. Van Drunen puts way too much weight on 'natural law' as the governing ethical standard in the 'Common Kingdom' to which all people are subject, irrespective of their faith. His account doesn't factor in the extent to which the Christian faith has had a profound effect on shaping Western values and ethical principles. For example, in the West we abhor nepotism and believe that people should get on in life on the basis of what they know rather than who they know. Financial corruption on the part of politicians is frowned upon because we believe that public servants should serve the public rather than themselves (for example, see Lord Nolan's 'The 7 principles of public life').

But there is nothing inevitable or 'natural' about that view. It was recently reported that in Kenya only 1% of public expenditure can be properly accounted for (see here). In the ancient, pre-Christian world nepotism and the use of power for personal enrichment was rife. As rich as Croesus and all that. Why do we view that kind of thing as totally unacceptable today? In large part because our culture is living off borrowed capital from the Christian faith. The sustained application of biblical principles to public life has had a deep and lasting impact on Western society, even after many Westerners have abandoned the Christian faith. See Atheist Delusions by David Bentley Hart. 2K-ers need to take on board Dan Strange's points on The Sufficiency of Scripture for Public Theology and be less sanguine about the cultural load bearing capacity of natural law.

How, then, can we be true to the 2K vision and its valid distinction between the 'Common Kingdom' and 'Redemptive Kingdom' without lapsing into Pietism? Or how may we seek to redress the balance and apply biblical principles to public life, without positing unworkable schemes for 'baptising/redeeming/transforming' the culture? Michel Horton addresses these points in his piece on Two Kingdoms and Slavery. Kevin De Young also has a go, here.

For a start we need to bear in mind the difference between the role of the 'gathered church' and the 'scattered church'. The 'gathered church' has been called to proclaim the gospel, administer the sacraments and disciple believers. As such the 'gathered church' is not to try and act as an agent for social reform, much less become a political pressure group. But if she is doing her job of making disciples properly, the 'gathered church' will be equipping the 'scattered church' to live as whole life followers of Jesus in the home, community, workplace, nation, and as global citizens.

As believers follow their callings in the 'Common Kingdom' they will act as 'salt' in a decaying world and 'light' in a dark world. 2K advocates fully accept that, Van Drunen included. But their position tempers our hopes of what is possible in this world and silences loose talk of building the Kingdom of God on earth by social activism. It recalls the church to gospel-centered mission and disciple making, while empowering believers to fully engage with life in the 'Common Kingdom' for the glory of God and the good of their fellow human beings.

When the 'gathered church' fails in its task, Christians will have little impact on the culture. According to Operation World, Kenya is 82% Christian, almost 50% Evangelical, But OW also acknowledges that corruption is rife in that country. Nominalism is a real problem, with only 7% of Christians attending church regularly. It's little surprise then, if many Christians aren't being discipled effectively, that there is a widespread failure to apply biblical principles to society. Natural law won't sort that out, only the church teaching believers to observe all that Jesus has commanded them in all areas of life, private and public.

So, even on second thoughts the 2K view still stands. But I'm grateful to Keller for provoking me to review my position and address some of the weaknesses in the 2K case evidenced in the accounts of some of its recent advocates. No need to go to the bother of changing my my mind, then. How cool is that? 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Ten Cities that made an Empire by Tristram Hunt

Image result for ten cities that made an empire

Ten Cities that made an Empire
Tristram Hunt, Allen Lane, 514pp, £25.00 

These days Tristram Hunt is probably best known as Labour's Shadow Secretary of State for Education. He considered putting himself forward for the Labour leadership election, but was unable to garner enough support from fellow MPs. Of the 'Blairite' right, he has thrown his support behind Liz Kendall. Who knows whether Labour will in fact opt for the leftist Jeremy Corbyn, and in all likelihood consign itself to electoral oblivion? As an historian Hunt knows full well that no institution is bound to last for ever. The impregnable seeming British Empire had its rise and fall. It remains to be seen whether the British Labour Party has a future, or will soon be consigned to history. If the worst comes to the worst politically, at least Hunt will be able to return to his old day job, so it's just as well that he continues to publish historical works. And very good ones at that.  

Horace Walpole affected amazement at how in founding world-spanning empire, 'a peaceable, quiet set of tradesfolks' had somehow become 'heirs-apparent of the Romans'. It kind of just happened, who knew how? But, contra Walpole, it took considerable effort, ingenuity and brute force to create, develop and sustain the British Empire. The distinctive feature of Hunt's account of this story is that he shows the effect of empire on ten key cites and explains how those cities in turn helped shape the direction of British imperial expansion. A chapter is devoted each city; Boston, Bridgetown, Dublin, Cape Town, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Bombay, Melbourne, New Delhi and Liverpool.

As the Empire touched on these cities it transformed their buildings and streets and impacted upon both the colonised and colonists. Hunt introduces us to tales of ambitious empire builders, audacious land grabs, rapacious traders and well-meaning social reformers. He guides us though the burgeoning cities of empire, with all their grime and grandeur. The author is not one to moralise, but the less savoury aspects of empire are laid bare, the barbarity of the slave trade, the casual racism endemic in British Raj, Hong Kong and the Opium Wars and so on. While the empire may have bestowed benefits on the lands it colonised, there was always a price to pay. A salutary reminder that 'British Values' haven't always been all love and light.  

The British Empire was touted as the one on which the sun never set. But the sun did eventually come down on the Empire and when it did, that had just as much an effect on Liverpool as an imperial port, as it did New Delhi. But Liverpool, which fell so low during the 1980's as a result of imperial decline is now being transformed once more as a result of massive Chinese investment in its infrastructure. A case of reverse colonisation, perhaps? Payback time for 'borrowing' Hong Kong.

Hunt writes well, packing in a mass of detail, but without leaving the reader feeling overwhelmed by the fast-paced narrative. His city-by-city approach to the story of empire enables him to blend intimacy with the big picture. The work is a reminder of the historic importance of world-shaping cities. In his book, Center Church, Tim Keller notes, "In 1950, New York and London were the only world cities with metro-area populations of over ten million people. Today, however, there are more than twenty such cities — twelve of which achieved that ranking in the last two decades — with many more to come." [Keller, Timothy; Keller, Timothy (2012-09-04). Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Kindle Locations 4259-4260). Zondervan. Kindle Edition. The emergence of global cities]. 

Keller reminds us that ministry to these global city ministry is of strategic importance for world mission. "If Christians want to reach the unreached, we must go to the cities. To reach the rising generations, we must go to the cities. To have any impact for Christ on the creation of culture, we must go to the cities. To serve the poor, we must go to the cities." [Keller, Timothy; Keller, Timothy (2012-09-04). Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Kindle Locations 4514-4516). Zondervan. Kindle Edition]. The mission of the Church is not neo-imperial adventurism, however, but that of proclaiming the world-changing good news of Jesus to the people of all nations.  

Pride of man and earthly glory,
Sword and crown betray His trust;
What with care and toil He buildeth,
Tower and temple fall to dust.
But God’s power, hour by hour,
Is my temple and my tower.

*I am grateful to the publishers for sending me a complementary review copy. 

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

The Heart of Christ by Thomas Goodwin

The Heart of Christ Towards Sinners on Earth
by Thomas Goodwin, Kindle edition

On Sunday evenings I've been doing a series on Jesus our Prophet, Priest and King. In considering Jesus' High Priestly work I wanted to devote a sermon to Hebrews 4:15, with a special emphasis on our Lord's sympathy. The commentaries don't have a lot to say about that aspect of the verse, but I remembered finding Paul Cook's 1980 Westminster Conference paper, Thomas Goodwin: Mystic?' (see here) helpful in exploring the theme. Cook devotes careful attention to the title under review. Having read his piece I intended to look up the Puritan preacher's work for myself, but I'd never got round to it. The prospect of preaching on Hebrews 4:15 provided just the stimulus I needed to make that good. 

It really is a remarkable little work. Goodwin reflects on the heart of Christ towards his people as set out in Hebrews 4:15 biblically, theologically and pastorally. 

Biblically he reasons from expressions of Christ's heart towards his people during his earthly life and ministry, especially as found in the Farewell Discourse of the Gospel According to John, chapters 13-17.

Theologically Goodwin shows how each person of the Trinity is involved in fitting the person of Christ to act as our sympathetic High Priest. In addition he points out that the human nature of the exalted Son of God is endued with heightened intellectual, emotional and bodily powers. That makes him all the more able to sympathise with his suffering people.

Goodwin argues that during the 'days of his flesh' (Hebrews 5:7) the emotional life of the incarnate Son was subject to imperfection, This is not to deny that he was 'without sin' (Hebrews 4:15), but that during Christ's earthly ministry he suffered frailty of body and soul and knew what it was to be disquieted and perturbed (Hebrews 5:7). The glorified Jesus knows nothing of such emotional weaknesses, but that does not mean we should conceive of him as unemotional. "His perfection destroys not his affections, but only corrects and amends the imperfection of them." [Goodwin, Thomas (2015-06-04). The Heart of Christ in Heaven Towards Sinners on Earth (Kindle Locations 1810-1811). Blue Letter Bible. Kindle Edition.]

In another sense Goodwin posits that even in his current glorified state Christ's emotional life remains in an imperfect state so long as his people are subjected to suffering in the world. He will only be perfectly happy when they are, "until he has filled them with all happiness and delivered them from all misery, himself remains under some kind of imperfection and answerably his affections also, which are suited to this his relation, have some want of imperfection in them, while they lie under misery, in comparison of what his heart shall have when they receive this fullness." [Goodwin, Thomas (2015-06-04). The Heart of Christ in Heaven Towards Sinners on Earth (Kindle Locations 1855-1858). Blue Letter Bible. Kindle Edition.] Jesus will only know the totality of the fullness of the joy set before him for which he endured the cross when the last of God's many sons have been brought to glory.

Pastorally Goowdin  assures his readers that our sympathetic High Priest is able to do more than say, 'there, there' to his suffering people. His pity is joined with power (Hebrews 4:15, 7:25). "Come boldly (says the text), μετὰ   παῤῥησίας, even with open mouth, to lay open your complaints, and you shall find grace and mercy to help in time of need. Men love to see themselves pitied by friends, though they cannot help them; Christ can and will do both." [Goodwin, Thomas (2015-06-04). The Heart of Christ in Heaven Towards Sinners on Earth (Kindle Locations 1971-1973). Blue Letter Bible. Kindle Edition.]

A gem of Puritan pastoral theology that points God's suffering people to the sympathetic, love-filled heart of Christ.