Tuesday, 3 June 2014

'Near Christianity' and 'Orthodoxy'

Near Christianity by Alistair Brown jumped out at me from a church bookshelf because of its title. It turned out to have much more than an interesting pun in its favour: it's a serious look at certain evangelical beliefs that don't hold water when compared to Scripture. From the idea that you should read the Bible everyday (no matter how piecemeal this makes your reading of sections designed to be read at length), to the role 'a sense of peace' should play in our decision-making (a lot less than we'd like), this book has some fantastic insights that alleviate some of the Pharisaical burdens modern evangelicalism can place on believers who, while not having 'Catholic guilt', can often end up with 'quiet-time guilt'! Originally published in 1996, I can only presume its out of print status is due to its suggestions going unheeded. The myths it criticises have certainly continued to swill around the church for the past eighteen years, often having an effect on my own faith, which is why it resonated with me so much, I suppose.

Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton is a book I've been meaning to get around to for a while. Quite a different approach to 'apologetics' than Mere Christianity, I preferred its free-wheeling insights to that slightly more well-known volume - it's as much an appeal to the imagination than to reason. Chesterton's style is quite dense, but concentration pays off. I'd like to return to it again at some point to get more out of his long paragraphs that I've missed from an initial read.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Scaterd Few and Ian White

I've been listening to the work of two very different Christian musicians, recently.

Scaterd Few were one of the first Christian punk bands to emerge from the USA in the eighties. I've loved re-visiting their 1990 album Sin Disease - it's an interesting blend of hardcore punk, funk and metal. Singer and guitarist Allan Aguirre wrote some fantastically direct lyrics ('Kill the Sarx' being a particularly great song in this regard), while his brother and co-songwriter Omar Domkus contributed some of the best fretless bass playing I've heard on a punk record - not something you hear everyday! The follow-up album Jawboneofanass is also great, with less straight punk, but some brilliant compositions nonetheless ('Reel Not Real' is a highlight). Aguirre is now heading up a reggae worship band called Men As Trees Walking: he's also a great Bible teacher, which some great expositions of the relevance of the Old Testament for Christians today - something readers of this blog will know is close to my heart.

The second musician is Ian White. Listening to his Psalms set to music has taken me right back to my childhood: my parents played the tapes in the car many times over, and I can still remember most of the melodies. White managed to create settings of the Psalms which don't twist the words awkwardly and are really memorable. The sound is quite eighties, but more new-wave than synth-cheese, so I'm happy. His guitar playing is pretty good, too.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

A Simple Christology and Trinitarian Theology

There is only one true God (John 17:3). Jesus is the truth (John 14:6) and he is called God (John 1:1; 20:28). Therefore, he is the one true God.

How can this be? In 1 Corinthians 2:11 Paul makes a direct link between a person and the spirit of that person. In Romans 8:9-11 he speaks of the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ as being one and the same, and 1 Corinthians 12:13 emphasizes that there is one Spirit that believers are baptized into. It therefore seems appropriate to speak of an ontological unity of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit: they are the same being, and yet exist simultaneously as separate hypostases, as seen in Mark 9:1-11.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

'The Lost World of Scripture'

John Walton and D. Brent Sandy have recently had their new book published: The Lost World of Scripture. I'm not going to give it a full review, but if you're at all interested in issues of inerrancy and the textual development of the Bible it's worth a read - particularly on the issues of NT fulfillment of OT prophecy and the innerrancy of supposed 'original autographs'. More is to be done, but this volume could lay some important groundwork if the evangelical world gives it the hearing it deserves.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

God's Words

  • The church has felt the words of the Old and New Testaments to be uniquely and authoritatively true. I trust this is because the speaking, self-revealing God they witness to wants His people to believe these truths (Is. 55). Therefore, it is entirely appropriate to declare in faith that the Bible is 'the word of God.'
  • The providential work needed for this to come about is something that God is more than able to accomplish (Job 42; Mark 10:17-31), and we can trust Him because His words are flawlessly true (Ps. 19, 119; Prov. 30:1-6; John 17:17) and He does not lie (Nu. 23:19; Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18).
  • Even when He uses an agent to deceive people for His purposes, He still leaves an ultimate witness to the truth (1 Kings 22), and although He can give laws that are 'not good' in judgement (Ez. 20:23-26), this will only happen if His people reject the truth He has already given them - a problem that the Jewish people and the church have avoided by accepting the Torah as true, just as Christ accepted it. 
  • Whereas the OT canon developed over a significant amount of Israel's history, the NT canon centers around the person of Jesus Christ as the final culmination of God's revelation (Hebrews 1:1-2). I therefore trust that God has ensured His church received the complete context to understand Jesus correctly, resulting in a canon that needs no further additions for a supposedly fuller understanding.
  • None of the above can be proved: it can only be trusted. I believe it to be true because I feel compelled to trust in the God of the Christian Bible, a situation I trust has been created by Him so that I might know the truth. I have no external criteria for judging individual portions of the canon to be true or false, and so I trust that it is all truth of the highest order that is vital for God's people to know and believe.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

The Bible as God's Word

 How might a doctrine of Holy Scripture be best articulated? Most evangelicals would point to 2 Timothy 3:16 as the place to start. For reasons I'll get to later, I'm not sure if that is truly the best place for such a foundation. Ultimately, our doctrine of Scripture must flow from from trust in a faithful God who wants to lead His people into truth, rather than a particular proof-text.

 To start with the obvious, the Bible is a book containing words that its authors believed to be true. It is made up of books chosen by Jews and Christians because they believed them to be true and valuable for teaching. But the question arises: how do we know these words are true? How can we trust the authors when they are men like us, error-filled (Psalm 19:12) and culturally conditioned? What gives these words their authority?

 There is One whose words are said to be true - YHWH, the Lord God. His words are pure (Psalm 12:6), perfect (Psalm 19:7-10), true (Isaiah 45:19) and truth (Psalm 119:160). If anyone can give us the Truth above the morass of human opinions, beliefs and confusion (Job 28:13-23), this all-knowing God can. What's more, it's reported that He wants to lead sinners into truth and to instruct people in what is right (Psalm 25; 31:3; 73:24), and that He is the shepherd of His people who wants to guide them (Psalm 23; 31:3: Ezekiel 34). These intentions are seen in how He reveals Himself through His words to His people through the prophets and fully in the person of Christ, as well as in his hatred for those who lead his people astray in matters of truth (Jeremiah 23). Indeed, throughout the Bible God speaks to various people so that they may hear the truth. He is also portrayed as being able to bring about whatever He desires, saying that His word accomplishes exactly what He wants it to do (Isaiah 55).

 If this is the case, it's entirely possible that He has guided the authors of Scripture to write words that are flawlessly true, that we can trust - His words. He could even use words not directly quoted as being from Him, or even not originally directly inspired by Him, using them to teach us by placing them in the same canon as directly quoted words. By leading his people to accept those words as true alongside his quoted words - I'm thinking of narrative portions and books such as Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs - He gives them as His own words, what He wanted to communicate to his people then and to his people now. It's therefore possible that He has guided His people in recognizing which books are from Him at all, leading to their canonization and contextualization through being part of the whole. This is not too difficult for the One who is able to do whatever he wants (Job 29:11; Psalm 135:6; Isaiah 55). If we trust that He, as our good Shepherd, has done this, we can have a truly firm foundation to build our beliefs on.

 This seems to be the logic that Jesus and the early church used. They didn't have 2 Timothy 3:16, and yet they still affirmed that God had spoken Scripture not directly attributed to Him (Matt 19:4-5) and even spoken to Him (Acts 1:15-20), all the while relying on Scripture as being completely true. 

 Such a belief is unprovable, of course. But without it, it becomes quite impossible for our beliefs to have a possible basis in truth. With no clear guidance and revelation from a being who does know all things, we are left with our own guesswork, having no standard against which to judge the truth of our theology or ethics or hopes. If we don't believe that God has guided the authors and selectors of Scripture into all truth concerning those things, then we have no real basis on how to decide which bits of the Bible to believe and which not to. We end up choosing the bits we like and rejecting the bits we don't - but how on earth can we tell that we've made the right decision, or that God has spoken at all? Trust in God's desire and ability to reveal perfect truth to us, then, becomes essential, however that truth might be conveyed. Any other belief betrays a lack of trust in God's desire and ability to guide us, making society's zeitgeist or one's own standards the arbiter of what is true.

 This means that 2 Timothy 3:16, 'All Scripture is God-breathed', is not the be all and end all of a doctrine of Scripture, and for good reason. There's an ambiguity in translating the verse: some translators would render v.16 as 'All God-breathed Scripture is also useful for teaching', taking the Greek kai to mean 'also' instead of 'and'. Others would say that the usual translation is much more likely (for instance, those behind the NET Bible), but are we just to place our faith in a stronger probability? Also at issue is the meaning of 'God-breathed'. Some would suggest it means 'breathed into' in the sense of Genesis 2:7, meaning that Scripture potentially contains theological and ethical error from men (just as Adam made mistakes), and God uses it merely as a pedagogical tool with many examples of 'what not to believe'. But there's another example of God breathing in Scripture: His breath directly created the host of heaven according to Psalm 33. This is besides the fact that it's natural to associate breath with words and that the text doesn't say God breathed 'into' Scripture as He did with Adam.

But if we trust that God wants to lead men into the 'knowledge of the truth' (2 Tim 3:7), then we must trust that He has given us the only words that could possibly be definitely true - His own. This informs our understanding of 'God-breathed', and also means that the syntax of the verse is not a make-or-break problem. Because we already trust that God has given us His words through man's words in Scripture, we know what those 'God-breathed Scriptures' are, however the sentence is translated.

What we believe Scripture to be, then, is informed by our trust in a faithful God who wants to communicate truth (John 16:13), rather than any trust in the probable meaning of a single verse. Of course, exactly what kind of flawless truth God wants to convey through the various texts of the Bible is a matter for discussion (as I've explored here, here and here) and we must be open to how He may have placed originally contentious sources together in this new canonical context to clarify, rather than contradict, each other. but for those who trust that God wants to guide us into the truth, a belief that He has breathed the entirety of the Scriptures as His words can be the only secure starting point for believing that any of could be true at all.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Jacques Ellul

I've been spending the past two months on a bit of a Jacques Ellul binge... I've read The Technological Society, Propaganda, The Presence of the Kingdom, The Humiliation of the Word, The Technological Bluff, The Meaning of the City and On Freedom, Power and Love.

Over the years I've felt uncomfortable about many aspects of the modern world, from technological 'progress', to politics and economics, but without being able to articulate exactly why. Well, in his eventful life Ellul, a French sociologist and lay theologian, managed to explain exactly what it is that's wrong, and also the only basis for any hope that we could have in the face of all-pervading deception. You might not agree with all of his sociological analysis or theology, but I've never read anyone who makes you go 'yes, that's exactly it!' so often and with such insight.

My favorites:

The Technological Society is foundational to his thought. Very thorough, very dense, but worth it. 'Technique' - a set of procedures used to get a determined result - has become an end in itself rather than serving any human purpose. The result is greater efficiency... and less humanity. You'll never see things the same way again.

The Presence of the Kingdom lays out some ideas as to how Christians can be witnesses for the gospel in the modern world in light of a society dominated by technique. Suffice to say that for Ellul it doesn't involve any trust in politics, which would mean even more blind acquiescence to technique, although we can look for how God might be at work through politics.

The Meaning of the City is the most beautiful book Ellul wrote. A wonderful exposition of the city as a theological category throughout the Bible - the place of man's ultimate rebellion, and yet a place taken up into God's final purposes. Ellul demonstrates perfectly the nature of a Christian as the ultimate pessimist, humanly speaking, but also the ultimate optimist as someone raised to new life in Jesus Christ.

The Humilation of the Word impressed upon me even more the urgent need for us to find the right words to interpret reality - which can only ever be God's Word, a revelation from outside our own sphere. In a world dominated by images more than ever - images which can only ever show bare reality rather than meaningful truth - this is vital.