Christianity and the Life of the Mind

1 05 2013

In the first century, Christianity blossomed and developed as a direct result of the concept of the codices (the binding of paper to form books as opposed to scrolls) and the invention of the printing press (in 1450 AD) made possible the Reformation that led to the spread of Christian ideals, thought and debate. Far from being an anti-intellectual movement Christianity fostered a culture in which the ideals of previous generations can be brought into conversation with contemporary cultural and intellectual ideas.

Just a cursory glance at the past will reveal the importance of the Christian contribution to education both through the founding of Monastic Schools (the origin of many Universities today) and later through the ‘Ragged Schools’ movement (a forerunner of universal child education). It is important to recognise that the establishment of these learning communities emerged alongside a depth of Christian thought on artistic, literary, historical, scientific, philosophical and theological ideas. Far from fostering a materialistic worldview that reduces existence to the sum of its elements, Christian intellectual inquiry has opened up a breadth of perspectives through which to learn and appreciate the world in which we live.

The English philosopher, statesman and scientist, Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626 AD), often credited as the father of empiricism (the scientific method), observed that ‘a little philosophy inclineth a man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion’. This is a truth that is borne out in Prof Terry Eagleton critique of Richard Dawkin’s ‘lunging, failing, mispunching’ book, The God Delusion. There the Marxist literary critic is almost certainly right when he quips, ‘even Richard Dawkins lives more by faith than by reason’. In this way Dawkin’s illustrates, Francis Bacon’s claim that ‘the great atheists, indeed are hypocrites; which are ever handling holy things, but without feeling’.

For this reason it is better to offer a positive vision of what we understand of reason, faith and the world in which we live rather than to offer criticisms of a faith half understood.

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On the significance of the resurrection

9 03 2012

I was asked to write an article for our church newssheet the other day on the significance of the resurrection. And it got me thinking, I guess many of us know the comfort of the cross; we look fondly on it for assurance of forgiveness, freedom from sin, knowledge of God’s love for us. I would imagine that all three of us (Phil, Paul and I) have articulated these truths several times over. I guess we are comfortable and at home with these truths and our congregations are too.

Yet there is Word far more challenging and perhaps comforting in the good news of the resurrection. It is the calling not simply to what Martyn Lloyd Jones described as ‘dead’ orthodoxy but to a living faith. It is the calling to come to God’s house expecting to be thrilled by the nearness, the power and the tenderness of God with us.

So significant is the resurrection that the apostle Paul writes: ‘if Christ has not been raised then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain’ (1 Corinthians 15:14). For it is the resurrection that sets apart Jesus’ death from that of any other martyr. It is the resurrection that explains the growth of the Christian faith from a handful of Galilean peasants to a thriving faith throughout the Mediterranean world. It is the resurrection that makes it possible for us to have, not simply true beliefs but, living faith- a relationship with Jesus.

Jesus said, ‘If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him’ (John 14:23). This encounter with the living Jesus making his home with us, by the Spirit, has been the experience of Christian people right through the ages.

The Welsh Methodist, Howell Harris (1714-1773), described his own experience saying: ‘Suddenly I felt my heart melting within me like wax before fire, and love to God for my Saviour. I felt also not only love and peace, but a longing to die and be with Christ. Then there came a cry into my soul within that I had never known before – Abba, Father!’ It can be intimidating to read of people who have had such intimate and profound encounters with Jesus in the Spirit, but I believe that these accounts are genuine and should give us hope that Jesus has yet more to offer us.

Christian faith shouldn’t be a static thing. It should be a living growing deepening journey as we discover just how faithful and true Jesus is.

Father God, we thank you for the good news of the resurrection and the living relationship we have with Jesus through it. Speak to us by your Spirit help us to know more personally your love for us, so that in our daily lives we would know the joy of true communion with you. Help us to come to your Word and to worship with expectant hearts willing to be thrilled by your limitless grace. In the name of your Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.





A Sermon on Christmas

5 12 2010

“He, through whom time was made, was made in time;
And He, older by eternity that the world itself, was younger in age than many of His servants in the world;
He, who made man, was made man;
He was given existence by a mother whom He brought into existence;
He was carried in hands which He formed;
He nursed at breasts which He filled;
He cried like a babe in the manger in speechless infancy — this Word without which human eloquence is speechless!”
 – St Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 A.D.)





Considering ‘Justification’ is Wright right?

5 04 2010

I thought that I would revisit the topic of atonement or more particularly faith and justification. I have for a little while been just that tiny bit edgy about justification as I have noted the war of words between pastor-theologians like John Piper and the scholar-bishop N.T. Wright. Coming from a Reformed position I have always understood ‘justification’ as that declaration of righteousness made on the basis of our faith in Christ’s righteousness. Upon the cross a great exchange takes place as He for us is made to be sin who knew no sin (1 Cor. 5:21) and His sinless record is imputed to us.

Quite frankly the New Perspective on Paul had just passed me by; during my undergraduate studies I knew well enough that I should avoid the quagmire of current evangelical debate and confusion on the subject. However, this didn’t stop me from taking an interest in such an important aspect of biblical theology, nor in the growing debates surrounding it. In recent years I’ve spent more time thinking of practical theology (which in my view is too estranged from biblical and doctrinal theology to truly sustain itself), missiology and ecclesiology than biblical studies.   

I have of course noted the recent spat between a number of mainly American evangelicals and N.T. Wright on the subject. John Piper a man I greatly admire wrote a very influential book the Future of Justification and Tom Wright responded with Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. I have also read the thoughts of other influential commentators on this debate (such as Ben Witherington III)

In terms of what has already been argued I am not sure that I will add anything fresh, but as an observer I will say that the debate needs to be put into context. I have to say I sympathise with the intentions of both Wright and Piper but disagree with much secondary scholarship. I find that Wright calling people like the authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions and D.A. Carson somehow ‘sub-biblical’, simply because they don’t agree with him, unwarranted. I also find the kind of Reformed evangelical tribalism that wants to denounce and reject Wright as ‘on his way to Rome’ ridiculous.

I have just read a paper by N.T. Wright entitled ‘Justification: the Biblical Basis and its relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism’ and given the range of views on justification quite frankly I’m surprised by how tame he appears – no faith + works stuff, no eschatological delay regarding justification, quite the opposite. He states clearly:

‘The positive result of justification is that we live for God because Christ has died for us. Good works, as the Reformers never tired of saying, are done not to earn salvation but out of gratitude for it: not out of fear lest we should be lost after all but out of joy that we are saved after all.’

‘Justification’, Wright says, ‘is God’s righteous declaration in the present that the person who believes in the risen Lord Jesus Christ is a member of the covenant family, whose sins have been dealt with on the cross and who is therefore assured of eternal life’.

The real conflict in this debate seems much smaller than many commentators like to make it. I suspect the differences between N.T. Wright and the Reformers to be slight indeed. N.T. Wright seems to be stressing that justification is not a means of applying salvation but is God’s declaration that on the basis of the gift evident in faith both Jews and Gentiles who believe in Christ have already become Christians (and in becoming Christians have appropriated all the benefits of salvation past, present and future). Seen in this context faith does not enable us to receive an imputed righteousness that was Christ’s, but rather this faith unites us to the Covenant people (the Old Testament and New Testament Church) and in making us a part of this we are saved.

Wright believes that ‘justification’ in his scheme does not require drastic changes to our soteriology but raises our ecclesiology (the importance of outward practice of faith) and provides a solution to many pastoral crises which revolve around the existential doubt. It also undermines the growing cult of personal religion (which we fancy to be justifying faith). Wright makes it clear that the cutting point for this doctrine is not the outward practices of the faith that characterise say the Anglo-Catholics, but rather the knife is placed at the heart of those who believe that there can be many ways of salvation apart from the incarnation, cross and resurrection of the Lord of all.

I don’t know how this squares with all that Wright has said elsewhere but as someone from a Reformed Church (albeit one beset by liberalism) and as someone who respects both John Piper and N.T. Wright, I found this very helpful. It can be found at the http://www.ntwrightpage.com. I hope you enjoy it too.

For Piper Wright’s rejection of the personal imputation of righteousness by faith is a serious error that he fears creates a vacuum that may be filled with a return to an imparted righteousness and a process understanding of salvation. Wright, however, does not seem to have fallen into these errors (despite the fact that some of his “supporters” present him as defending this position). What I have to say in Piper’s favour is that Christ’s righteousness does appear to be imputed to us. We are told in 1 Cor. 1:30, for example, that being in Christ Jesus, ‘he has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.’ And to Wright’s credit he acknowledges that this appears to be what is taught in this passage. His main argument is that it is not explicitly taught in Romans… but I will leave you to make your own mind up about that!





A Reflection for Good Friday

2 04 2010

When Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron Valley, where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, for Jesus often met there with his disciples. So Judas, having procured a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons. Then Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?” They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said to them, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them.  When Jesus said to them, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground. So he asked them again, “Whom do you seek?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. So, if you seek me, let these men go.” This was to fulfil the word that he had spoken: “Of those whom you gave me I have lost not one.” Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”

–      John 18: 1-11

Jesus goes out to a quiet lonely place, not far from the city, a place of olive groves, a space in which to pray and reflect, but this place of solitude is invaded, not by friends (who fall asleep when Jesus calls for them to be vigilant) but by soldiers and enemies of his mission. In John’s Gospel we are told that secular and religious powers of Jesus’ day come together in this one act of lawless brutality. Not in the daylight but under the cover of darkness, Judas goes out from among the disciples and we are told ‘it was night’, then with lanterns and torches and weapons they come to arrest him, Jesus, the light of the world.

Like so many stories we hear of victims of injustice, Jesus is arrested and tried at night (in violation of the law), the testimony of his accusers is confused, and the trial presided over by a biased judge. Jesus knows what is about to come upon him, he is to drink the cup of suffering, yet he does not fight instead he steps forward and assures his captors that he is the man they seek. Notice how they respond seized by fear they step back and fall to the ground. These warriors, these men bearing arms, come to overpower this man of peace but cannot help but draw back as this man steps forward with an unexpected dignity, majesty and power.

Time and time again we come up against Jesus with our anger and violence, fuelled by our own (often self-inflicted) hurts, and often we are disarmed by these same words, ‘I am he’. Looking at him we are startled by the man we see, a man-God, who knows our troubles, who has experienced betrayal, who has suffered injustice, pain and loss. Confronted with Christ, the man, we step back, we fall down, and for a moment we are disarmed as we comprehend something of God in this man’s humanity.

For a moment it seems as though Jesus is victorious, these men of weapons act as though they are going to surrender to this man of peace. Then Peter steps forward, sword in hand, to take advantage of the situation, but Jesus rebukes him. What utter grace? Jesus who knows all that would happen to him, the false trial, the beating, the scourging, the mocking, the pain of the cross, thinks not of the violence done to him but of those perpetrating it against him. ‘Shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?’

Jesus understands that for these men to truly surrender and to find amnesty, their deeds of darkness must be accounted for, their debt must be cancelled, their sin-burden must be carried, and so he chooses, in that moment, the cross. With all its ugliness, cruelty and agony, Jesus chooses it. For the cross is the consequence of sin and at the cross the true nature of sin is revealed. In the cross we see sin’s brutality, that it would have us murder God, the Source of all beauty and truth and light.

Yet, just as the cross exposes sin for what it is, so through embracing the cross Jesus has borne the curse of sin to bring us peace. Upon the cross the deeds of darkness are accounted for, the price for sin is paid, and the burden of sin is carried. And so that is why we call this Good Friday: good!

 For surely he has borne our griefs
   and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
   smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
   he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
   and with his stripes we are healed

–      Isaiah 53:4-5





church/kingdom and church/mission

29 05 2007

i was asked to answer some questions in a methodist fresh expressions research forum. specifically on the role of church/mission and church/kingdom as concepts within methodist fresh expressions. i thought i would repeat my answer here:

hmm… i’m not sure if i’m qualified to speak on methodist fresh expressions as i’m not a methodist myself coming from the reformed tradition. however, i have read wesley’s sermons and believe you might find wisdom in wesley’s seventh sermon entitled ‘the way to the kingdom’. it makes it clear that wesley saw two legs to the kingdom of God, the first being holiness/obedience and the second being happiness/peace in the heart. the way, wesley believed or even insisted, must be repentance and belief in the gospel – indeed he wrote, ‘He [God] would set up his kingdom among men, and reign in the hearts of His people’ and also ‘Wheresoever, therefore, the gospel of Christ is preached, this His “kingdom is nigh at hand”.’ – if this then doesn’t identify church and kingdom in the thought of the wesley brothers then i am not sure what will.

i believe one of the dangers of the fresh expressions movement, and perhaps a way not left open by wesley, is to make a false and potentially devestating separation between the church and the kingdom. it seems to me that fresh expressions rides on a wave that sees evangelicals (with a passion for evangelism proclamation of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus) and liberals (who embraced Adolf von Harnack’s emphasis upon the social message of the gospel) united in mission. equally those who might like to disrupt this holy harmony might use a radical, and unwarranted, separation between church and the kingdom as a lever to force apart evangelicals and liberals who are discovering common ground.

so to mission and the church, we agree that it is God’s mission, which the church is invited to participate in. this is in keeping with the methodist doctrine of prevenient grace but the goal is that God would reign (establish his kingdom) in the hearts of his people, the consequences of which are social holiness. without either of these, repentance or social holiness, the gospel of Jesus proclaimed by Wesley would be incomplete. i think, therefore, the church is both an agent of and result of mission in its most complete sense. the question ‘does “church do” mission or “mission do” church?’ then is answered,’yes, both, and’. but the challenge then is what shape our church should take if its task is to “make disciples” and disciples are to be both church and do mission. both of which are corporate and individual endeavours as the holy community the trinity reveals.

i suspect that we may have failed in our mandate to make disciples because we saw mission as something done by a select group within the church rather than the aim of the entire church. surely discipleship is best expressed not by cerebral creeds and formulas but by active engagement in theological mission. rather than thinking we must do mission to get people through the doors then we must do discipleship, surely we would do better to see mission as something we are calling people to whilst being engaged in ourselves? i am convinced that this is the meaning of the Christian life to meet with God and one another as we respond to God’s call to join His mission in the world.





The Foolishness of the Cross

29 03 2007

It’s April fools day and I thought I’d speak to you this morning about foolishness. We’ve all played the fool from time to time haven’t we? Playing practical jokes on our friends, misleading them, or surprising them in humorous ways. Well, I certainly have.

But there is a stupider side to foolishness isn’t there? An embarrassing side, which I’m sure we have all had our fair share of.

I can remember waiting in the cold for several hours for a young lady I’d agreed to meet unfortunately she’d left before me and wasn’t coming but instead of waiting half an hour and going my own way I waited four hours before finally catching the train home. In hindsight, I guess that was a pretty foolish thing to do. 

But, I know I’m not the only one to act in a foolish way, in Hans Christen Anderson’s fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes: A great emperor is fooled into wearing nothing as he is told that only “the worthy and intelligent” are able to see the fine robes he is wearing. Being too embarrassed to admit that he cannot see the clothes himself the emperor parades through the streets until a young boy whispers ‘the emperor’s got no clothes on’.

I’m sure you’ve heard that famous story or perhaps you can think of an equivalent story.

In the Bible foolishness is treated in a number of ways: In the Old Testament the fool is a person who denies the existence of God or who acts without moral restraint. Fools are described as being ignorant of the truth, deceitful liars, slanderers, and lazy. In the New Testament fools are those who fail to heed the warnings, they ignore Jesus words. Hence, the story of the wise and the foolish builders; the foolish builder is compared to the person who ignores Jesus’ teaching.

However, in our verses today Paul writes about the foolishness of preaching the cross and picks out three groups (the Jews, the Greeks, and the Christian community) he argues that the weakness of God is stronger than the strength of great people and that the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of great people.

1.      Paul argues that the cross is nothing but weakness to the Jews, for they demanded signs but they saw the messiah hung upon a cross. Our first reading this morning told of Jesus triumphant procession into Jerusalem; expectations must have been high the Jews must have felt that Jesus had come to overthrow their Gentile rulers but their expectations were dashed upon the rocks of reality.

It is interesting to note all the excitement surrounding Jeffrey Archer’s The Gospel According to Judas. In this story, Judas is portrayed as being a faithful follower of Jesus. Speculating about Judas’ motives for betraying Jesus it suggests that Judas is acting upon Jesus command. However, the orthodox interpretation raises a more interesting possibility. Judas betrayed Jesus not simply for thirty pieces of silver but to engineer a showdown between Jesus and the civil authorities.

In Jesus day, people were awaiting the coming of a king who would overthrow the Roman Empire and Judas Iscariot was no different. In fact, Judas was probably a zealot, committed to overthrowing the Roman Empire. Judas’ surname Iscariot may be a form ‘Sicarii’ meaning ‘dagger-man’. However, when Judas realised that his plan had failed and Jesus had been nailed to the cross he was overcome with remorse and the gospels tell us that Judas took his own life.

But, “what does all this stuff about Judas have to do with the weakness of the cross?” you may be asking. Well, if the Jews and Judas expected Jesus to triumph over the Roman Empire the cross must have seemed like an abomination!

Today, there are those for whom the way of cross and self-sacrifice seems awful. For example, there are conservative bible-believing Christians who have been utterly behind the war in Iraq. I suspect that some of these Christians much like the Jews of Jesus’ day would feel more comfortable with a conquering hero than the crucified Lord. And although they would hardly admit it the suffering of the cross is a rebuke to their imperialistic Christianity.

Likewise, there are those who consider Christianity to be a religion of weakness and who reject the gospel on the grounds that Christ’s patience, unconditional love, free grace, and humility are weaknesses in a world that praises the ambitious, socially successful, powerful and admired icons of pop culture.

In all of this, with Paul, I affirm, “the weakness of God is stronger than human strength”.

So we know why the cross was a stumbling block to the Jews, but what about the Greeks? Why does Paul suggest that suggest that the cross is foolishness to the Greeks?

2.      It is easy to see that faced with the philosophy of Socrates and Plato; the teaching of illiterate fishermen must have seemed little more than foolishness. Indeed Aristotle, whose statue stands today in the great City of Thessalonica, was the tutor of Alexander the Great. Compared with him, the wisdom of an itinerant teacher from Israel, a vassal state within the Roman Empire, must have seemed ridiculous.

But there is a further problem, whilst Jesus held little esteem when compared to the Greek philosophers, the Old Testament prophecies and scriptures held even less interest for the Greeks. In fact, the entire Jewish faith with its forms of reasoning, ideas, symbols, and witticisms was like a foreign language to the Greeks. Hence, when Paul is speaking in Athens people dismiss him as preaching foreign gods.

It should come as no surprise that it is possible to draw a comparison between the situation that has arisen today and the context the apostle was writing into. We like the Greeks have our contemporary philosophers; people like Richard Dawkins, who chant the mantra “faith is the absence of reason”.  And despite our best efforts to argue: 

a.       with the explorer William Adams that “faith is the continuation of reason”

b.      or with the theologian St Augustine that “faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe” All our attempts fall on deaf ears because to Richard Dawkins these ideas are completely alien to his pattern of thinking.

And so like Paul we also end up affirming that, “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom”.

3.      Finally, we come to the message of the apostle to the Christian community in Corinth.

“Brothers and Sisters think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many of you were influential; not many of you were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

In this Paul is reminding us that the God who has chosen to display His infinite wisdom in the form of foolishness and weakness has chosen us and called us in our foolishness and weakness to shame the wise and the strong. Pastor John Piper puts it like this: “the infinitely wise way of salvation in the death of Christ is rooted in an infinitely wise way of choosing sinners before the cross, and an infinitely wise way of calling sinners after the cross.” And why has God done it in this way? So, that “the one who boasts may boast only in the Lord”. In other words, everything that is involved in our salvation: the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ; our calling, response, and sanctification has been brought about so that we might not boast in ourselves but praise our Father in Heaven!

Well, I began this morning by talking about the emperors new clothes and the reception he was given as he was paraded through the streets, today we celebrate another emperor who was paraded through the streets, beaten, abused, taunted, tortured, murdered and the challenge is do you see the wisdom of the cross?

my sermon for Palm Sunday – some changes have been made- this is the more radical version)