Friday, October 02, 2015

On finishing reading 'Reformed Dogmatics' by Herman Bavinck

Working my way through Bavinck's mighty four volume Reformed Dogmatics (Volumes 1-4, Baker Academic) has been my big long term reading project. The other day I finished the final volume. Looking back through the blog I notice that the set was delivered in May 2008 (see here). Didn't realise that it's taken me over seven years to get through the whole thing. Although I must admit that my progress has been rather fitful, with months sometimes passing between reads. That said, Bavinck's work needs to be absorbed rather than skimmed if you're going to get the best out of it.

Reformed Dogmatics is easily the best systematic theology I've yet encountered. It puts Berkhof and Reymond in the shade and is far better than Hodge. Right across the whole gamut of systematics  RD is marked by fresh and insightful exegesis, sensitivity to the flow of biblical revelation, awareness of the doctrinal heritage of the church, and deep theological reflection. The work is an organic whole; a mighty exposition of the being, persons, will  and acts of the triune God. 

In an era of the theology tweet and bite sized books for busy pastors, Bavinck offers something substantial, profound and satisfying. His approach is thoroughly presuppositional. Bavinck begins with God and ends with him. He is presented as the Alpha and Omega of theology, it's self-revealing source and ultimate goal. Here is a work of theology as faith seeking understanding that is designed to shape our minds in the light of God's Word, move our hearts to worship in response to God's Ways, and stir our wills to be about God's Work. If pastors aspire to be pastor-theologians for the sake of the people of God, they would do well to study Reformed Dogmatics. Let the man himself define what he means by dogmatic theology:  
Dogmatics is the system of the knowledge of God as he has revealed himself in Christ; it is the system of the Christian religion. And the essence of the Christian religion consists in the reality that the creation of the Father, ruined by sin, is restored in the death of the Son of God and re-created by the grace of the Holy Spirit into a kingdom of God. Dogmatics shows us how God, who is all-sufficient in himself, nevertheless glorifies himself in his creation, which, even when torn apart by sin, is gathered up again in Christ. (Eph 1:10). It describes for us God, always God from beginning to end - God in his being, God in his creation, God against sin, God in Christ, God breaking down all resistance through the Holy Spirit and guiding the whole of creation back to the objective he decreed for it: the glory of his name. Dogmatics, therefore, is not a dull science. It is a theodicy, a doxology of all God's virtues and perfections, a hymn of adoration and thanksgiving, a "glory to God in the highest" (Luke 2:14). (RD Volume 1, p. 112)
From Volume 1-4 Bavinck unfolds the great drama of creation, ruin, redemption and renewal. He constantly returns to the thought that God in his grace has not abandoned the world that he made in rescuing it from sin. Rather, by grace he redeems, restores, and perfects it. The climax of his eschatological vision is not the believer dying and going to heaven, but the new creation.
The stage of glory will be no mere restoration of the state of nature, but a re-formation that, thanks to the power of Christ, transforms all matter into form, all potency into actuality, and presents the entire creation before the face of God, brilliant in unfading splendor and blossoming in a springtime of eternal youth. (RD Volume 4, p. 720).   
See here for blog posts on various aspects of RD.  My next 'big read' will be The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way, by Michael Horton, Zondervan. Our people bought me this to mark my 10th anniversary in the pastorate in 2013, but I've been keeping it until I'd finished reading Bavinck. It's always good to have a 'biggie' on the go. In my formative years as a preacher I read Preaching and Preachers,  by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. I was struck by his counsel,  
Time must be found for reading, and we turn now to the more intellectual type of reading. The first is theology. There is no greater mistake than to think that you finish with theology when you leave a seminary. The preacher should continue to read theology as long as he is alive. The more he reads the better and there are many authors and systems to be studied. I have known men in the ministry, and men in various other walks of life who stop reading when they finish their training. They think they have acquired all they need; they have their lecture notes, and nothing further is necessary. The result is that they vegetate and become quite useless. Keep on reading; and read the big works. (Preaching and Preachers by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Hodder and Stoughton, 1985, p. 177).
You can't get much bigger or grander in scope and scale than Herman Bavinck's great magnum opus. Delve into his Reformed Dogmatics. Don't just take my word for it. It's Doctor's orders and will do you good. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Center Church by Timothy Keller

Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in your City,
by Timothy Keller, Zondervan, Kindle Edition

You've got your fundies on the one hand; right on many things, but also a bit repulsive. Not being very into engaging the culture and that. And then you've got your liberals on the other; wrong on most things, but also quite nice. They don't so much want to engage the culture, as have it tell the church what to believe about stuff. Someone's got to. Between these two extremes is Keller's 'Church of the Third Way', or 'Center Church' as he persists in calling it. Look, I know it's 'Centre', not 'Center', but I'm contextualising my spelling as it's an American book I'm reviewing and spelling isn't their strong point across The Pond. OK?

Anyhow, a 'Center Church' is thoroughly evangelical when it comes to believing and proclaiming the gospel, but is also culturally engaged and socially active. The 'Center Church' vision is especially apt for big cities like New York, where Keller ministers, but other global cities such as London, Paris, or Mexico City would fit the bill. I serve town and village churches. There isn't much resemblance between New York and Westbury. or West Lavngton and Manhattan. We don't have sky scrapers, yellow taxis, or Woody Allen, and they don't have a massive White Horse carved into a hillside. As far as I know, anyway. Despite these drawbacks, there is enough in Keller's work to provide food for thought for those who, like me, are involved in small town-based ministries.

The book begins with a clear, compelling and unambiguous statement of the Gospel that the church has been called to perform and proclaim. Only the gospel can tear down our idols and reconnect us with the one true and living God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Keller is careful to distance himself from those who are so concerned to promote social activism that they neglect or even reject evangelism and disciple making. Above all else church exists to fulfill the Great Commission. That is done as the 'scattered church' goes out into the world, bearing witness to the gospel in everyday life. But Keller also emphasises the importance of gospel preaching in the context of the 'gathered church'. Old Testament revelation held out the expectation that the nations would come to know the Lord as Israel declared his praises. In the New Testament we have indications that non-believers were present in church meetings and that the Word had a saving impact on their lives, 1 Corinthians 14:24-25.

Keller has a lot to say on engaging the culture. While the gospel doesn't change, that essential message needs to be communicated in culturally appropriate ways. We see glimpses of that in the New Testament. Paul's approach in Acts 13 was quite different to the way he went about things in Acts 17. In the USA and UK the culture is increasingly 'post-Christian' and the church cannot simply assume that non-believers are familiar with the basic elements of the Christian faith. 'Defeater beliefs' that stand in the way of faith need to be challenged in a winsome and persuasive way. Do we preachers work hard enough at relating the eternal Word to the concerns and issues of our own day and age? As we marshal arguments for the gospel in our preaching will will not only speak to any non-Christians in our congregations, we will also help our people to be more effective in giving a reason for their hope in personal witness.

We preachers are often quite negative when it comes to speaking about the culture. It's all, 'things are getting worse and worse. Have nothing to do with it'. I've even heard preachers say with some pride, 'We don't compromise by trying to be contemporary.' But that's just silly. Being a bit quaint and old fashioned is not a litmus test of faithfulness to the gospel.  Keller's approach is helpful here. Rather than blanket negativity, he suggests that in any culture there are aspects that the gospel confirms, completes and contradicts.

The gospel confirms the unique value of each individual human being. Our culture by and large (under the influence of Christian teaching no doubt) agrees with that. Hence legislation that outlaws discrimination on the grounds of gender, race or disability. In our culture people are questing for meaning and purpose in life. Some do so through pleasure seeking, others by steadfastly pursuing their careers. But it's only the gospel that can provide complete fulfillment and satisfaction by reconciling us to God. Sadly there are things in our culture that the gospel contradicts. Abortion, for example. And when that is the case, the task of the church is to announce God's shuddering, "No!" and call for repentance.

But by God's 'common grace' the culture isn't all bad and Christians are called to engage with it through artistic pursuits, in the workplace, and by getting involved in their local communities. If all preachers ever do is denounce the culture, that will lead to Christians disengaging from life in the world, rather than seeking to be salt and light in it. The church should help believers understand what it means to put their faith into practice in the whole of their lives. Preachers should apply what the Bible says not only to the life of the gathered church, but every area of life. It's only right that churches and individual Christians should seek to build bridges to their local communities by running parent and toddler groups, contributing to food banks, supporting the sick and troubled, getting involved as school governors, and so on. It's not a matter of either evangelism, or seeking the well-being of the community, but gospel faith working by love.

I reflect on what Keller has to say on the interplay between faith and culture as it touches on the 'Two Kingdoms' view in another post.

The writer has some helpful things to say on every member ministry and what that looks like in practice for both the 'gathered church ' and 'scattered church', or 'organisational church' and 'organic church', as he puts it. His preferred method of reaching cities for Christ is church planting. I'm fully behind church planting ventures. As a fellowship we support the Grace Baptist Partnership. But such strategy isn't necessarily viable for small town churches, let alone village works. In those cases it's more a matter of revitalising existing local churches and reconnecting them with their local communities.

Keller's constant attempt to grab the middle ground can grate a little, You can grow tired of, 'On the one hand this extreme, and on the other that, but the Centre Church will position itself slap bang in the middle'. Some of the stuff he has to say is more relevant to a big city church with an arty, white collar membership. That isn't my lot. But there is thought provoking stuff here that caused me to reflect on my own practice and that of the churches I serve. Two big questions: How effective are we engaging the culture with the gospel in ways that confirm, complete and contradict it as appropriate? And how can we ensure that the 'organisational church' with its leadership structures, meetings and activities is equipping the 'organic church' to serve and bear witness to Jesus in today's world?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision by Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan

The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision 
by Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, Baker Academic, 2015, 221pp.

Theology is sometimes viewed as a somewhat abstruse body of knowledge, beloved of academic pointy-heads, but of little use to believers in their everyday lives. Or worse. In an episode of the classic BBC sitcom Yes Prime Minister, head of the Civil Service, Sir Humphrey advised the PM on his duties with regard to appointing a Church of England Bishop. He explained that the church was run by theologians and that 'theology's a device for helping agnostics stay within the church'. [See from 9  mins in on this episode]. That was back in the days of the Liberal ascendancy when Runcie was Archbishop of Canterbury, so perhaps the remarks had some justification. But they represent a sorry slur on theology and theologians. At its best theology is not about obfuscating unbelief, but faith seeking understanding of what is in Christ. And understanding what is in Christ and living in the light of that reality is of the essence of the Christian life.

Hence this book, co-authored by Vanhoozer and Strachan. It has long been an ambition in the former's body of work 'to make the pastoral lamb lie down with the theological lion.' (The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, WJK, 2005, xii). The central thesis of this book is that the pastor is a public intellectual; a theologian for the sake of the people of God. That point isn't widely understood, even among Evangelical churches. All too often the church has borrowed its understanding of leadership from the world. The pastor is seen as a CEO, counselor, or kindly social worker. We need to return to the biblical model of Minister as pastor-teacher, whose main role is to communicate what is in Christ to the people of God.   

This vision is rooted in the Scriptures. Strachan devotes a fascinating chapter to the differing ways in which prophets, priests and kings functioned as theologians to the Old Testament people of God. He argues that pastors now function as prophets ministering truth, priests ministering grace, and kings ministering wisdom. Of course, Christ is the great Prophet, Priest and King. In a very real sense all God's people share in these three offices under the new covenant. But Strachan sets out the lines of continuity between the key Old Testament offices and pastoral ministry as described in the New Testament. Indeed, his case may have been strengthened had he made mention of the way in which the Old Testament kings were called 'shepherds' and that pastors have been appointed to 'rule' in the church as part of the eldership team (1 Timothy 5:17, Hebrews 13:17). Strachan also traces the historical development of the pastoral office over the course of church history. 

Next Vanhoozer gets us 'In the Evangelical Mood: The Purpose of the Pastor-Theologian', giving attention to the indicatives and imperatives of the gospel that the pastor is to inhabit and minister. According to the philosopher Heidegger, human life is afflicted with a nagging sense of anxiety concerning our finite condition. The human being is a being-towards-death. But the good news of Jesus Christ transforms believers into beings-towards-resurrection.They have been delivered from the fear of death and look forward in hope to a new creation that has already begun to dawn in Christ, and through Christ, in them. The focus is not so much on ousia (being in general), as parousia (being in the light of Christ's coming). Pastors are called to minister this reality by setting out the grand indicative concerning what God has done in Christ for his people. They help the people of God to grasp what is in Christ and what they are in him by ministering the word, thus nurturing believers in biblical literacy. Being equipped with 'canon sense' will also help Christians to understand, critique and relate the gospel to the culture in meaningful ways. But the pastor's task is not limited to declaring the good news of Jesus in the indicative mood. They must also set out the imperatives that flow from participating in what is in Christ; getting wisdom, walking in love and imitating Jesus. Thus, pastors help the people of God to play their roles in the great drama of God's redeeming grace.

The practical skills that pastors need to accomplish their work are the focus of attention in the next chapter, 'Artisans in the House of God: The Practices of the Pastor-Theologian'. They include building the church as a disciple-maker, proclaiming what is in Christ as an evangelist, teaching what is in Christ as a catechist, celebrating what is in Christ as a liturgist, and demonstrating what is in Christ as an apologist. These differing facets of the pastoral ministry are explored with a good mix of sound biblical insight and shrewd practical application. The use made of Ezra-Nehemiah in the section on building the church made for interesting reading, as I've not long completed a series of sermons on those Bible books. Vanhoozer concludes with Fifty-Five Summary Theses on the Pastor as Public Theologian

Interspersed between the major chapters of this book you'll find twelve 'Pastoral Perspectives', short pieces written by pastors that aim to show what it means to be a 'pastor-theologian' in the context of everyday church life. One of them is by yours truly on The Drama of Preaching. I can't really vouch for that bit, but I'd recommend that all aspiring and serving pastors give this book a thoughtful and prayerful read. If the pastor as public theologian is a lost vision, this well written and passionately argued book certainly makes a grand attempt at reclaiming it. Anything that helps pastors to minister what is in Christ more effectively must be good for us, the people whom we have been called to serve, and the world that so desperately needs to hear the life-transforming message of the gospel.  

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Amy Carmichael: 'Beauty for Ashes', A Biography, by Iain H. Murray

Amy Carmichael: 'Beauty for Ashes', A Biography,
by Iain H. Murray, Banner of Truth Trust, 2015, 168pp

Must confess that I didn't know an awful lot about Amy Carmichael. Apart from what I'd read years ago in psychiatrist Gaius Davies' [no relation] Genius and Grace. Bit of a nutter, apparently. An hysteric with a penchant for melodrama. Cared for vulnerable children in India, which was nice, but set herself as a Protestant 'Mother Superior'. Something of a poet.

Iain Murray's brief biog presents a more rounded portrait of the missionary-poet and her work in founding the Dohnavur Fellowship, which was originally set up as a refuge for children who were in danger of being dragged into ritual prostitution. Hers is a fine story of faith and fortitude, well told by Murray. 

I used some of my birthday money to buy the book with the intention of reading it on holiday. So gripping was Murray's account that I'd finished it within a day or two of our summer break. Admittedly, Carmichael isn't your typical 'Banner Woman'. Her piety was that of Kewsick-mysticism rather than  experimental Calvinism, but she evidently loved  the Lord and had a deep concern for needy children. Murray highlights the value of her devotional writings and commends her example of sacrificial service.  

Murray is critical of Carmichael's take on guidance by spiritual impulse and acknowledges that she could sometimes be headstrong and hot-tempered. But he defends her of Davies' charge that she could brook no disagreement from her co-workers and would send dissenters packing. That is how Davies explains Amy falling out with Stephen Niell, whom the psychiatrist describes as 'the brilliant Bishop of Tinnevelly'. Murray points out what Davies neglects to mention - that Niell rejected the inerrancy of Scripture. Carmichael's disagreement with him was not so much a personality clash, as a serious doctrinal disagreement. Murray devotes a chapter to exposing the detrimental impact of a critical view of the Bible on the cause of world mission. 

Not the author's best biog by a long chalk, but an inspiring little book none the less. Well worth a read. 

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.