Monthly Archives: March 2016

Two Easter Prayers

Whitby Abbey

Christ is Risen: The world below lies desolate
Christ is Risen: The spirits of evil are fallen
Christ is Risen: The angels of God are rejoicing
Christ is Risen: The tombs of the dead are empty
Christ is Risen indeed from the dead,
the first of the sleepers,
Glory and power are his forever and ever
St. Hippolytus (AD 190-236)


O God,
Who for our redemption gave your only-begotten Son to the death of the cross,
And by his glorious resurrection delivered us from the power of our enemy:
Grant us so to die daily to sin,
That we may evermore live with him in the joy of his resurrection;
Through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
Who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
One God, now and for ever.

(Book of Common Prayer, 16th century)

Worship on Sunday

sunday-worshipA few weeks ago while preparing a talk for City Bible Forum, I read an essay by Oxford professor of philosophy Richard Swinburne, entitled “Evidence for the Resurrection.” Swinburne, who retired in 2002, is a major Christian apologist of the late twentieth-century, with substantial contributions in the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of science. He attached an appendix to his essay simply entitled “Sunday.”

Swinburne notes that since the earliest days of the church there has been a universal Christian custom of celebrating the Eucharist on a Sunday. This practice, in turn, is grounded on the belief—deriving from the apostles themselves—that Christ had risen on a particular day (Swinburne, “Evidence for the Resurrection,” in Davis, Kendall & O’Collins (eds.), The Resurrection (Oxford: OUP, 1997), 208). Swinburne provides evidence for this claim from the New Testament, but also from the Didachē, from Justin’s First Apology, and significantly, from Eusebius’ record of two Ebionite groups who celebrated “the Lord’s day very much like us in commemoration of his resurrection” (209). That the Ebionites, a group deeply committed to Jewish discipline, practised Sunday worship in place of the Sabbath, is particularly noteworthy. Also noteworthy is the fact that there is no record in the early centuries of the church of the Eucharist being practised on any other day but Sunday.

There is no plausible origin of the sacredness of Sunday from outside Christianity. There is only one simple explanation: the Eucharist was celebrated on a Sunday from the first years of Christianity because Christians believed that the central Christian event of the resurrection occurred on a Sunday (209).

This, however, is only half the story; who, asks Swinburne, in those very early days decided that the Eucharist was to be celebrated on a Sunday? There is no hint in the New Testament that the apostles made this decision. Yet there are suggestions towards an answer to this ‘who decided’ question. First, Swinburne notes that the New Testament records a number of appearances of the risen Jesus to his disciples on the first day of the week, including the day of the resurrection itself, and further, that a number of these appearances occurred in the context of a meal. Second, he notes that the descriptions of these appearances include the Eucharistic phrases Paul and Luke used in their last supper accounts (e.g. ‘breaking bread,’ ‘taking,’ giving’ and ‘in like manner’), and so suggests that Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances included the Eucharist. Third, the synoptic tradition records the word of Jesus to the effect that he will not “drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when [he] drinks it anew” in the kingdom of God (cf. Mark 14:25). Yet Swinburne notes that in Acts 10:41 Peter testifies that the risen Jesus appeared to his witnesses, and that he used to eat and drink with them after his resurrection.Swinburne

All this suggests an explanation of the universality of the tradition of Sunday celebration—not merely in the belief that Jesus rose on a Sunday, but in the belief of the apostles that they had joined with Jesus in post-resurrection Eucharists which he commanded them to continue on Sundays (211).

Swinburne acknowledges that his argument faces the silence of an explicit New Testament record of such a Eucharistic meal, but does not find this absence especially troubling. He also suggests that Paul’s “for I passed onto you what I received from the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:23), can be understood in terms of what came from the mouth of the Lord himself, via an oral tradition.

Whether or not Swinburne is correct in his suggestion—and certainly there are alternative views—some account must be given for the universal custom of Sunday Eucharistic celebration, especially amongst those Jewish believers who comprised the very earliest church. Such an account must surely come to grips with early Christian belief that Jesus rose on that first Easter, or indeed, that some of the earliest witnesses believed they ate and drank with the risen Lord on or shortly after that day.

Something happened which led to this new development in history. What happened? The most plausible explanation is simply that the earliest Christians truly believed that Jesus was raised from the dead. What is the most plausible reason for the emergence of this belief? The belief that Jesus had appeared to a variety of individuals and groups, and the testimony of those who had seen him. Even the age-old tradition of Sunday worship is an evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.

I must admit that I found Swinburne’s conclusion very attractive:

So there is some reason to suppose that the universal custom of Sunday Eucharist derives from the post-resurrection practice and command of Jesus himself… (212).

This morning in worship, the gathered community took the bread and drank the cup as we do each Sunday, and as God’s people regularly have done since the earliest days of the church, perhaps even, from that very first Easter when Jesus “took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them…” (Luke 24:30). Just as Moses and the elders ate and drank a covenant meal in the presence of Yahweh (Exodus 24), so the apostles and other believers may have done the same in the presence of the risen Christ. And so we, when we gather in worship to eat the bread and drink the cup, do so in the presence of the risen and coming Jesus, for he has promised: “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them…For I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 18:20; 28:20).

Pannenberg on the Resurrection

Pannenberg Quote

Pannenberg gave much of his life to exploring the historicity and implications of the resurrection of Jesus. This simple quote makes a very plain assertion about the nature of the evidence for the resurrection, and identifies two great barriers to belief, the second perhaps more significant than the first. I have tried to find the source of this citation. Apparently it was given in an interview with Prism magazine. I have not located the particular magazine, let alone the issue.

I see City Bible Forum have put up a copy of my notes from last week’s lecture on their blog.

The Beauty of Worship

Beautiful CreationThe last few weeks have been very busy—too busy, actually. Hopefully things will settle into a more sustainable rhythm in the next week or so. So apologies for fewer posts than usual, especially on Sundays, which typically have been the backbone of the blog.

On Saturday morning just past, I was privileged to speak at one session of the Worship for the Rest of Us conference, sponsored by the church I attend. It was a very positive morning with between 70-80 people present, including pastors, worship leaders, worship team members, etc. My role was to speak to the theology of worship and relate it somewhat to practice. As part of my presentation I provided my easy definition of worship: All that we are responding to all that God is, as well as a classic “definition” provided by William Temple. I first heard this definition many years ago and have always loved the holistic sense of it:

To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, and to devote the will to the purpose of God.

I appreciate the God-centredness of the definition, as well as the incorporation of a range of different elements in any given service of worship. I also appreciate the various aspects of the human personality touched and shaped by holistic worship: the conscience, mind, imagination, heart and will. It would be possible to extend the definition to include the affections, and even the body, since so much testimony concerning worship in the Old Testament includes a physicality often missing in contemporary worship.

The definition tempts me to ask, “What part of myself might I have left home today?” Did the worship of God challenge my will? Did I need to bring my mind, or was the worship mindless? Was my heart stirred by a vision of God and God’s grace, power, wisdom and love?

All of Temple’s points are important, though I wonder if his phrase “to purge the imagination by the beauty of God” is perhaps the most under-rated and therefore perhaps the most necessary in the contemporary church? In his Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, Eugene Peterson includes a profound section on the “conversion of the imagination.” In some sense, we are not truly, at least not fully, converted if our imaginations are still captive to the ways and mores of the world. If our identity and way of being in the world is captive to an imagination trained in greed, violence, self-centredness, and impurity, it is very unlikely we can truly live in and represent the way of the kingdom of God.

That Temple wants our imaginations filled with the beauty of God is telling. The Bible speaks of the beauty of holiness. Beauty is considered one of three “transcendental properties of being,” along with truth and goodness. A function of Christian worship, according to Temple, is to fill our minds and imaginations with a vision of the infinite beauty of God. It may be that this is one reason why the church in ages past sought to incorporate architectural and liturgical beauty into its services of worship.

But there is also paradox here: how does one view communicate the “beauty” of the cross, which in itself, was an event of abject horror and abuse? At times, human sinfulness turns beauty into degradation, ugliness and shame. Conversely, the Saviour enters into the depths of our degradation and shame in order to redeem us, that beauty may be truly restored yet not idolised. Finding beauty in God, however, means we may legitimately be drawn to and worship beauty without falling into idolatry. And perhaps, by worshipping the source and measure of all beauty, we might even reflect and pursue that beauty in the world that God has made.

Resurrection as History

Garden Tomb
The Garden Tomb

Yesterday I had opportunity to speak in the city to a small group of Christians and ‘seekers’ on the theme of ‘Resurrection as History.’ Apologetics and apologetic argument is not something I am very familiar with, but I enjoyed the occasion and had some good conversations after. The meeting was sponsored by City Bible Forum, who do a good job of bearing witness to Christ amongst city workers. Here is the introduction of my short talk…


Nobody saw the resurrection. There were no eyewitnesses. There is no description of the resurrection in the New Testament. The idea is extremely counter-intuitive: everybody dies. Everyone. And they do not come back. The sheer weight of human observation and experience from time immemorial provides a weighty counter-argument against the early Christian claim concerning the supposed resurrection of Jesus.

This weight of evidence, taken for granted by many in the modern era, has weighed heavily also on the minds of many Christians in the last couple of hundred years, to the degree that many Christians today accept a subjective account of the resurrection. That is, rather than claiming the resurrection as an objective event that occurred in history, in time and space, external to the mind and experience of human persons, and independent of them—something that actually happened irrespective of their knowledge of it and-or response to it, they claim that the resurrection is a symbol or a metaphor that explains the impact that the historical person named Jesus had on them. He died—but they came alive! He was gone, but his impact, example, ethos and teaching lives on. They cannot escape the sheer weight of his compelling personality—it is as though he were still present, still with them, still speaking with them and guiding them through their remembrances of him. And so stories of resurrection emerged, were constructed, to give symbolic representation to this compelling experience of the livingness of his example, impact, and teaching. The resurrection is understood in terms of myth: a guiding image or story that helps people understand their world and their experience.

This interpretation of the resurrection sits easily with the modern world. It bypasses difficult questions concerning the rationality of believing what can only be described as an utterly unique kind of miracle, or an absurd and silly superstition. It locates the resurrection, not in the objective world of space, time, fact and history, but in the subjective world of value and belief. In so doing it neuters the resurrection—if in fact the resurrection of Jesus did literally occur as an event in time and space, history and fact. A literal resurrection has immense implications that challenge the very core of modern and postmodern identity, culture and life.

So the question: Objective or Subjective? Did the resurrection occur in time and space? How can we know? Can historical inquiry help us to determine the answer to this question? In the time remaining I will highlight two lines of evidence traditionally maintained by the church through the centuries which testify to the probability that Jesus was literally and physically raised from the dead. There is no rocket science here, but a simple reiteration of what the church has affirmed since its earliest days. To this I add a third line of evidence which has been asserted in the last 200 years or so in the face of continuing historical criticism of the traditional account. Finally, I will conclude with a few observations of where the real battle lies.

A Prayer on Sunday

Mirza-Shoaib: Dancing on a Cloud

I bless you, O most holy God, for the unfathomable love whereby you have ordained that spirit with spirit can meet and that I, a weak and erring mortal, should have this ready access to the heart of him who moves the stars.

With bitterness and true compunction of heart I acknowledge before you the gross and selfish thoughts that I so often allow to enter my mind and to influence my deeds.

I confess, O God–

That often I let my mind wander down unclean and forbidden ways;
That often I deceive myself as to where my plain duty lies;
That often, by concealing my real motives, I pretend to be better than I am;
That often my honesty is only a matter of policy;
That often my affection for my friends is only a refined form of caring for myself;
That often my sparing of my enemy is due to nothing more than cowardice;
That often I do good deeds only that they may be seen of men, and shun evil ones only because I fear they my be found out.

O holy One, let the fire of your love enter my heart, and burn up all this coil of meanness and hypocrisy, and make my heart  as the heart of a little child.

Give me grace, O God, to pray now with pure and sincere desire for all those with whom I will have to do this day. Let me remember now my friends with love and my enemies with forgiveness, entrusting them all, as I now entrust my own soul and body, to your protecting care; through Jesus Christ. Amen.

(John Baillie, A Diary of Private Prayer, 75, adapted.
Photo: Mirza Shoaib: Dancing on a Cloud)

History and Renewal

justo_l_gonzálezJusto González makes a bold claim for the study of church history in the introduction to the second edition of his The Story of Christianity:

It is at this point that the doing of history converges with the making of it. When we study the life and work of past generations, and when we interpret it, we are doing history. But we must remember that we are reading the past in light of our present, and also that future generations will read about our times as past history. In that sense, like it or not, both by our action and by our inaction, we are making history. This is both an exhilarating opportunity and an awesome responsibility, and it demands that we do history in order to be able to make it more faithfully. Every renewal of the church, every great age in its history, has been grounded on a renewed reading of history. The same will be true as we move ahead into the twenty-first century (The Story of Christianity 1:4).

Every renewal of the church, every great age in its history, has been grounded on a renewed reading of history. I don’t know enough to prove or disprove this bold claim, but I think Christian humanism and the Protestant Reformation, as well as the origins of modern Pentecostalism might all be called as exhibits for the affirmative case.

González gives examples for how the reading of church history may help us today: the early church’s response to a indifferent or hostile culture; the response of the churches to the mass-migration of whole nations in the fourth and fifth centuries; the devotion of medieval scholastics and Protestant reformers as an inspiration to budding scholars and theologians; the history of nineteenth-century missions as a warning to pitfalls when engaged in cross-cultural interactions. In light of what is presently happening in Syria and Europe, I was particularly taken with his second example.

On Studying Theology: A Letter to My Students

Theology TogetherThis week marks the beginning of a new semester, and what a blessing to have the campus full of students again! There is a buzz about the place that simply is not here while the students are away. It is a joy to see our continuing students again, and great to see a whole lot of new students joining us. They’re excited too, and I hope their excitement grows even in the midst of challenging assignments and pressing deadlines. I look forward to another year of getting to know each other and growing together as we study and learn together. And as a new semester starts, I think about some of the things I might like to say to new students just starting out in this most joyful and perilous of endeavours…


The opportunity to study is a privilege. During our recent orientation programme, our mission’s director Lloyd emphasised this, by reminding us of the many, many people in our world who would value the opportunity to study but for whom it is not possible. A survey of history shows that only the most privileged members of society gained this opportunity.

If this is true, then theological study is a double privilege. We are invited to give our attention to reflect on Scripture and tradition, history and theology, ministry and practice in a systematic and sustained way, and so to grow in our understanding of God and his word, his will, his people, and his mission. We are invited into conversations and reflections about these matters that have been underway for millennia, as each generation seeks afresh to understand the reality within which our entire existence unfolds. We are invited to dialogue with and learn from spiritual and intellectual giants who have lived this life before us. And this invitation comes with the added benefit of being able to do all this in the company of friends and fellow-travellers.

In so doing we are also invited into a process of learning intended to issue in personal transformation. Theological study in a seminary context is not merely an academic and critical exercise—although it certainly is that—but also a self-involving discipline that engages the learner in the subject matter under consideration. How could it be otherwise?

Theology is not a religious studies programme or a course in professional practice. Nor is it a purely historical exploration of the origins, history, traditions, and content of the biblical texts and Christian tradition. Such study is possible, of course, and included within the orbit of a theological curriculum. But theology goes further, for theology is faith seeking understanding. The object of study in theology is not the Bible nor the Christian tradition, but the God who is revealed in and through Scripture, and to whom the Christian tradition seeks to bear witness. In theology, we have to do with the living God who calls and claims us even as we engage in study about him.

Quite some years ago I was engaged as a student representative on a review panel of the theology programme in a university context. During one of the meetings, the panel chair proudly proclaimed that their (theological!) institution had been in existence for almost 100 years and in that time faith had never yet entered the classroom. Even though only an undergraduate at the time, and still without the resources to think through the matter, I thought to myself, “That can’t possibly be right! How can one study theology as though God does not exist?”

This division of head and heart, this split between the spiritual and the academic is not only dehumanising and depersonalising, but alien to the object of theology, detrimental to the life of faith, and debilitating to the ministry of the church.

Augustine Reads Gentile_da_FabrianoHerein lies perhaps the most insidious danger theological students face in their studies: the temptation to allow the critical faculty to overwhelm or squeeze out the life of faith. Often this change of heart creeps up unnoticed on the student. The busyness and pressure of the workload and other life responsibilities crowd out one’s devotional life. The heady pursuit (pun intended!) of academic knowledge and grade-point excellence may issue in pride or even arrogance. Sometimes students are drawn to the avant garde opinion, the innovative or radical position, without sufficient attempt to evaluate it in the light of the gospel. Tradition and even contemporary Christian practice may be despised as old-hat, wrong-headed, offensive or dangerous. Realisation of the missteps and faulty beliefs God’s people have taken and held over the years may generate cynicism.

In all these ways and more a distanciation may take place whereby the student may become estranged from their faith, tradition, and faith community. They find themselves in the position of the spectator, standing apart, standing over against God, not necessarily as an enemy or an unbeliever, but in a more agnostic sense. God, or the people of God, no longer conform to that which we think appropriate. To some degree isolated in their “objectivity,” they may seek like-minded companionship and confirmation and the stance begins to solidify.

But wait! Is it not the case that sometimes Christian belief and practice has actually been foolish, wrong-headed, offensive and dangerous? Yes, sadly, that must be admitted. Christian justification of adventurous wars, slavery, persecution, and the oppression of others have marred the Christian story, and very careful, deliberate thought is required to identify how and why these aberrations have arisen; and how, by means of a deeper grasp and application of the gospel, they may be identified for what they are, and new ways of being the people of God learned, commended, and modelled.Here the work of theology comes into its own: theology for the sake of the church’s life and mission in the world. Theology as a Christian’s willingness to be drawn more deeply into the life and activity of the gracious God revealed in Jesus Christ, to become a participant in the drama of redemption as it continues to unfold in our lives, the lives of those around us, and the world at large. Theology as the response of those who find themselves called into the fellowship of the Lord Jesus Christ, and who wish to understand, express and obey his lordship in all of life. Theology, that is, as faith seeking understanding.

How, then, might theological students avoid falling into the snare that this danger represents? I don’t know that I can say something definitive here, but I think I can make several suggestions. First, maintain a robust Christian devotional life including prayer, Scripture reading, and other spiritual disciplines—not just to pass assignments, but to grow in your knowledge of and relationship with God. Second, maintain regular participation in a local congregation’s worship, fellowship, and mission. It will be especially helpful if you have peers or a mentor who will journey with you as a Christian while you are undertaking your studies. Together, these practices become ‘means of grace’ that help keep our hearts and lives oriented toward God, and the community and mission of his people, so that theology is undertaken in this context.

peanuts-snoopy-and-sound-theology-floodThird, and closely related, if you find your studies are disruptive such that old patterns of thought, belief and life are challenged or even overthrown, be reassured that this is surprisingly common. My own study journey involved a prolonged season of quite profound doubt—caused by my studies! My faulty foundations needed some substantial work and strengthening in order to build something stronger, taller and more enduring. When the ground is shifting under your feet you need something firm to hang on to. This is when your peer relationships, mentor and spiritual practices will be especially helpful.

In my experience—admittedly limited—a means to address this kind of disruption is twofold: first, a deeper engagement with the gospel and the tradition is required. When questions arise, it is not time to withdraw from the field, but to seek a means of addressing them that is consonant with the gospel, and the major doctrinal and practical convictions of the church. Second, an attitude of trust or respect for authority will be immeasurably helpful. Most learning in any field involves a kind of deference to authority until our own learning becomes sufficient that we too might be called a ‘master.’ Most questions are not altogether new, and it is often the case that the tradition has the resources to address the questions adequately or initially, until we have learned sufficient to think independently or afresh about them. The great temptation here is simply to jettison the tradition before we have mastered it. The tradition is certainly not infallible; nor are our interpretations of Scripture infallible. But it is folly to abandon the tradition before we have heard it and heard it well.

Fourth, seek to integrate what you are learning into your everyday life. Allow your studies shape your worldview, character and behaviour as well as your thought processes and knowledge. A primary fruit of theological study is wisdom for life. How are your studies shaping your life, your relationships, priorities, choices, and morality? Again, peers and mentors can be very helpful here, and help keep us honest and grounded.

Finally, recognise that the ultimate purpose of theological study is not a higher grade or erudite knowledge; rather, “the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5 NASB). Paul also warns that “knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies” (1 Corinthians 8:1). If our theological studies lead us to love God and love others more deeply and more truly, we are engaging in them appropriately. If our theological studies are not ultimately issuing in such love, something has gone awry—perhaps in the mode or content of instruction, or perhaps in the approach of the student. Either way, it is something to be aware of and discuss.

For myself, I love the way reading and studying theology has deepened my faith, broadened my vision, enriched my ministry and changed my life. I hope that you also find that studying theology brings you into closer proximity to and alignment with Jesus.