Monthly Archives: May 2016

Christian Moral Reflection

Ethics on a NapkinA week or so ago I was invited to give a brief (15 minutes!) introduction to Christian Moral Reflection to a Baptist congregation who gathered to meet on a rainy Friday evening. I rejoiced that the church leaders cared to instruct their congregation with respect to serious moral issues, and provide forums for discussion and deliberation on these matters. I shared the agenda with Scott Higgins who was speaking about asylum seekers and Christian responsibility in face of an upcoming election. Other speakers addressed topics such as responding to homelessness in the local area, ethical shopping, etc. My short address was first on the agenda and hopefully helped set a framework for how Christian congregations might engage in moral reflection. Certainly the discussion in the forum group afterwards was lively, engaged and heartening.

I started the lecture with an account of about a dozen moral issues I had confronted in my own life in the past two weeks, including everything from reflecting on euthanasia, care for elderly parents, whether I can buy Levis since I need new jeans, how many books do I actually need, whether I should watch Game of Thrones, if it is okay to work in certain industries (e.g. military, banking, etc.), why I work such long hours, how we should use our money now that we receive more of it than we have in the past, and so on…


So many issues! So many feelings, decisions and responsibilities! So many different areas of my life: family, relationships, work, church, faith, money, character, words, leisure, sexuality, marriage, promises, habits, clothing, possessions, animals, food, emotions, thoughts, values, priorities—it never ends! From the most personal to the most public aspects of existence, my life and choices are put to question. It seems all too much! And yet, all of it is important. What am I to do? What am I responsible for? How do I even make all these decisions? Should I even try? Or just kick back and lose myself in Netflix?

To be human is to be confronted with ethics. Even those who reject most of the ethical positions society insists on usually have a code of ethics that binds them together. Honour among thieves.

What is (Christian) Ethics?
Ethics has to do with right and wrong, good and evil, better and best, beauty and value. What makes a beautiful life, a good life, a life that is characterised by truth? Ethics is concerned with issues and decisions, proper conduct and good character. What Must I Do?

Christian ethics asks the same question and is concerned with the same issues, but from a distinctively Christian point of view. Now that I am a Christian, how should I think about all these things? Does being a Christian make any difference? Yes, actually. Right from the start, being a Christian meant living differently to those around us.

Given the utter complexity of modern life and the plurality of issues with which we are faced how can we live ethically? What resources do we have?

One answer to that question is immediately apparent for Christians: God has given us the Scriptures! Yes, absolutely! The Bible is the supreme, unique and irreplaceable guide for Christian life, including Christian ethics. Yet, Scripture is not clear on many issues and silent on many more. Even those topics addressed by Scripture in some degree are open to different interpretation and different application by godly, sincere believers. How, then, can we become a Christian, and more importantly, a Christian community, shaped by Scripture? How might we think? How should we behave?

Christian Moral Reflection
In his brief essay on Christian moral reflection Oliver O’Donovan states that,

Christian moral reasoning involves the exercise of two kinds of thought together: 1. reflection; and 2. deliberation. Reflection is thought about something; when we reflect, we ask, ‘What is the truth?’ Deliberation is thought toward action; when we deliberate, we ask ‘What are we to do?’ (O’Donovan, “Christian Moral Reflection” in Atkinson (ed), New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology).

To reflect is to think about things in general. Christians reflect on the revelation of God given in Christ, digging deeply into the words of God, seeking to understand his ways and his will. The words of Scripture—the laws, the songs, the narratives and stories, the proverbs and parables, the teachings, the letters, the promises, commands and warnings, the visions, the prophets and even all the weird bits: all these help us grasp a little of God’s will for our lives. They begin to shape a Christian imagination that can envision the kingdom, that can imagine a way of being Christian in the world. Christians ponder the ways of God in his interaction with the world, and what it means to be the people of God in the midst of the world.

Christians also explore the world itself, God’s creation and the ways of the world, its patterns and purposes, all in the light of revelation. They contemplate the experience of life in the world in the light of revelation to gain further insight into God’s purposes for human life. All the stuff of life is food for thought. Anything and everything becomes an object of reflection. We talk about this stuff in our churches and home groups, thinking about the whole of life in the light of God’s revelation in Scripture and in Christ.

This kind of theological and practical reflection provides the context for deliberation, which is thought towards action. Christians deliberate when they must consider how they will respond and act in specific cases and situations. What does it mean to deliberate? Judges, doctors and politicians all deliberate. It means to assemble all the facts of the case at hand and consider them carefully in light of the relevant frameworks we have developed in our reflections. To deliberate is to propose and examine various options and approaches to the issue at hand, to give and hear reasons for each approach, and to weigh them up. Deliberation as ‘thought toward action’ considers how one is to respond and act in specific cases and situations. However, as O’Donovan goes on to say,

There must be a corresponding form of deliberation, so that we think how to shape the way we live, not only how to shape the next thing we do. We can frame policies for the conduct of our lives. … We deliberate on our attitudes to specific areas of practical concern. … To form that attitude rightly is part of the obedience we each owe God. … We must form a policy about the right and wrong of sexual self-disposal, for example, quite apart from any particular occasion of sexual opportunity; we must have attitudes to the possession and use of wealth before we inherit an estate. We need to approach concrete decisions with moral policies already formed.

Moral reflection, then, is a form of what is called practical reason, the development of frameworks within which to think about moral action, and then the exercise of deliberation in particular cases in order to discern what response is most fitting in the circumstance. Allen Verhey speaks about becoming a community of discourse, deliberation and discernment where such conversations are the normal pattern of life in the church. All three phases are necessary for Christian moral reflection just as they are for a doctor’s professional practice. There may be multiple possible responses to the situation we face. Which is best? Which is most fitting in light of the gospel? Which response has best chance of bringing forth good fruit? There may be multiple possible responses, but not all are equally worthy.


In this short piece I have not tried to say what Christians must think and do. Nor have I had time to reflect as a Christian on any particular issue. What I have tried to do is to show the way in which Christian moral reflection may be undertaken so that you may practise this in your Christian community and by so doing, become a community of moral discourse, deliberation and discernment, and more importantly, further the purposes of God in the world through the witness of your loving lives. This Christian ethics: to live as the people of God in the world, as a community of worship, Word and witness.

Scripture on Sunday – Psalm 16 (Part 2)

The Path of LifeLast week we studied the first six verses of this psalm and found a single-minded, whole-hearted declaration of allegiance to the Lord. The psalmist looks to God himself as his inheritance, rather than to God’s blessings and gifts. And yet, the Lord does give blessings as well as his own presence; the second part of the psalm enumerates these many blessings that the faithful might experience. For the psalmist, these blessings include counsel and guidance, defence, security, and deliverance. Nevertheless, to have the Lord is to have all there is, every blessing and more besides.

David blesses the Lord “who has counselled me.” If we recall that this psalm was probably composed in the midst of desperate circumstances, we might assume that this divine counsel specifically addressed David’s present need. That may be the case. But it is also true that God’s general counsel provides the foundation for his wisdom in specific circumstances. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10), and unless one is instructed first in this initial wisdom which learns to view the world from a theocentric centre, it may be that they cannot discern the specific direction required in particular circumstances. David’s allegiance to Yahweh, and his whole-hearted trust in him, provides the framework within which he receives the divine counsel.

It is also of interest to note the manner in which this counsel came: “Indeed, my mind instructs me in the night” (NASB). The counsel did not arrive in some spectacular manner such as via an angel or a vision, but by means of his own thought processes as David prayerfully pondered his circumstances. God can and sometimes may use more spectacular means to convey his wisdom and will, but it is good for us to be reminded that more often, it seems that God uses very ordinary channels to accomplish his purposes. Of course there remains the twin requirements of learning to distinguish the divine counsel from the counsel of our own hearts, and of learning to test and confirm this guidance by means of the other gifts of grace God has given us in Scripture and the community of his people.

The final verses of the psalm are a celebration of confidence in God, again, in the midst of the most desperate circumstances. Craigie (153) titled his exposition on this psalm, “Confidence in the Face of Death.” Convinced that Yahweh is his only good, and thus his only hope, the psalmist sets the Lord continually before him, giving his attention to the Lord, placing his hope and confidence in him. More comforting still is the thought that the Lord himself is at his own right hand: even in dire straits he will not be shaken (cf. 15:5). Therefore, the psalmist rests in God, his whole being rejoicing in God’s presence, power and promise—heart, soul and even flesh.

Craigie reads these final verses as applying directly to the psalmists own immediate circumstances:

With respect to the initial meaning of the psalm, it is probable that this concluding section should not be interpreted either messianically or in terms of individual eschatology; … The acute concern of the psalmist was an immediate crisis and an immediate deliverance. His body had been endangered and his life threatened with untimely termination in Sheol. … The psalmist acknowledges that God makes him know, or experience, the “path of life,” not the afterlife, but the fullness of life here and now which is enriched by the rejoicing which emerges from an awareness of the divine presence (Craigie, Psalms 1-50, 158).

In this interpretation, verse ten is simply the psalmist’s assurance that his present circumstances will not result in his death, while the eleventh verse portrays the ongoing life that God gives as one of joy and satisfaction. This joy is grounded both in who God is and what God gives: the joys of his face (“presence”) and the joys of his right hand (“in your right hand”; see Kidner, 86).

Craigie’s conclusion helps make sense of the psalm in its original context, with the added benefit of instructing our hearts in the ways of faith, especially when ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ loom large. The path of life issues from a steadfast allegiance to God in faith, a recognition that only in him is our good to be found; seeking our good and deliverance elsewhere is to embark on a different path where hope is vain and sorrows multiply.

Nevertheless, from the earliest days of the Christian church this psalm has been read messianically. In his great Pentecost sermon, the apostle Peter argues that David indeed died and was buried. But David spoke as a prophet of the resurrection, for it was Christ who was neither abandoned to hell and whose flesh did not suffer decay in the grave (Acts 2:25-31). And so from the earliest days of the Christian church this psalm has also been read in terms of individual eschatology: the “path of life” transcends the bounds of this world and its hopes, extending beyond the grave to the life to come, evermore in the presence of God and the fullness of joy.

The Christian reception of Ps. 16 illustrates a reading strategy that quite transforms the original pedagogy. The general counsel for a morally flourishing and satisfying life with God morphs into a uniquely Christian vision of adhering to the risen Lord … Christianity is born by wrestling with ancient texts in light of startling events that require textual grounding in order to be theologically warranted. The Christian reading of David’s psalm is a fresh instruction for people in a quite different context than the one the psalmist originally attributed to David. But the underlying hope is the same (Charry, Psalms 1-50, 76).

End in Sight

Light_at_the_end_of_the_tunnel_This has been a very full semester for me, although now the end is in sight. The main source of the busyness has been teaching an introductory unit in church history which I am very much enjoying (great class!), as well as preparing the content for a distance studies mode. Each week’s lesson requires the research and writing of an approximately 5000-word paper. I have also taught two other units which have required a good deal of work, but not as much as the church history. On top of that, I have had more local church engagements and preaching spots than usual – something I also enjoy, though in hindsight, had I known just how busy I was going to be, I might not have taken on so much. Last Friday evening I gave a brief lecture on Christian Moral Reflection at Lake Joondalup Baptist. Last night I gave a short teaching on Life in the Holy Spirit at Inglewood Community Church. Later today Monica and I are driving three hours south to Margaret River for a worship seminar at the Baptist Church there tomorrow morning. On Sunday week I must prepare a new sermon for Lesmurdie Baptist—and on a challenging topic!

All this is to explain why my blogging has been quite minimal this semester; something had to give. Though I do love my work: it is a wonderful privilege to get to do what I do….

Scripture on Sunday – Psalm 16

The Path of LifeWe do not know the origin of this psalm, or the circumstances in which it was written. The superscription refers to it as “A Mikhtam of David.” Just what a Mikhtam is, no one really knows, and numerous suggestions have been made. Five other psalms of David are also named Mikhtam (Psalms 56-60), and four of these include a historical note of desperate circumstances faced by David. Perhaps, then, a Mikhtam is a type of Psalm that instructs “one how to think and behave theologically when in extremis” (Charry, Psalms 1-50, 73). If so, then this psalm is a beautiful picture of trust and confidence in God, in a time when the singer was under extreme pressure.

The psalm opens with an appeal for protection: “Preserve me O God, for I take refuge in you.” The image of taking refuge in God is prominent in the early psalms, with its first appearance in 2:12 setting the tone: “How blessed are all who take refuge in him!” (cf. 5:11; 7:1; 11:1; 14:6). This psalm enumerates the rich blessings that await the ‘refugee’ who seeks their shelter in God (Kidner, Psalms 1-72, 86).

What it means to seek refuge in God is shown in the following verses. Verses 2-4 are a firm declaration of allegiance towards God, and a refusal to seek help and refuge elsewhere. Verses 5-6 are a joyful acknowledgement of God’s enduring blessing. Thus, to take refuge in God is to turn to him, acknowledging and submitting to his lordship, and to seek and find in him alone our sole good and sole source of good. That is, it is to turn away from every other promise or source of good, blessing, life, joy or satisfaction (Stott).

Every commentator acknowledges difficulties in the translation and interpretation of verses 2-4a. Craigie suggests that the psalmist is not the speaker in these verses but is presenting a dialogue with a syncretist (“You said to the Lord”)—someone confessing Yahweh and also trusting in idols (‘holy ones’ and ‘the noble’ or ‘mighty ones’; Craigie, Psalms 1-50, 154-155).  While Craigie bases his argument on the grammar of the Hebrew, it is more straight-forward and easier to make sense of the passage if we accept the traditional interpretation which reads verse two as “I said to the Lord…”

Thus, the psalmist acknowledges the lordship of Yahweh: “You are my master,” and recognises that his sole good is found in God. This affirmation is expanded in verses 5-6 where the psalmist confesses that God himself is his inheritance. That is, the Lord does not give something else as his inheritance, something other than his presence and being, but gives himself. The psalmist finds that he is satisfied with God himself and not simply with the gifts, blessings and protection that God gives. “The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places; Indeed, my heritage is beautiful to me.” God himself is his portion and cup. God himself is his hope and inheritance.

This single-minded allegiance to God has a corollary: the repudiation of all other gods as the source of good, protection and life. Thus the psalmist vows that he will not participate in idol worship, nor even speak the names of these so-called gods. Nor will he associate with those who follow other gods: his associates will be the ‘saints,’ the ‘holy ones’ and ‘the noble’ of the land. He delights in the fellowship of the faithful. Verse 4a gives the reason: “those who choose [or run after] another god multiply their sorrows.” Again, although the underlying Hebrew text is difficult, the meaning of the traditional translation is quite clear: the path of sorrow awaits those who turn from the Lord to trust in and serve other gods. Kidner (84), noting that the language echoes that of Genesis 3:16, notes that “there could hardly be a more ominous allusion to what follows from apostasy.” Just as the fall of Adam and Eve resulted in great suffering and loss for them and their children, so those who forsake their allegiance to God ultimately will know only sorrows.

The first six verses of this psalm, then, are an affirmation and declaration of steadfast allegiance to Yahweh, and an acknowledgement that only in him will the psalmist find his true and only good. That Mikhtam suggests that these words were spoken in a time of stress and distress only heightens the degree sense of trust being shown by the psalmist. It is easy to trust when the sun is shining; far more difficult when life is a struggle, and exceedingly hard in desperate times when we are tempted to look for any refuge that promises deliverance.

For myself, the psalm speaks not only to external pressures, but also to internal. To what do I turn when feeling stressed or distressed? What do I see as my ‘good’? To what do I look to satisfy an aching heart, a lonely soul, a distressed mind, or a stressed life? Where do I look for my source of joy, relief, satisfaction and hope? Can I truly say to the Lord, “You are my sole good—my soul good—I have no good besides you”? Idols are made not only of wood and stone; our psychological idols can also drive the sins and addictions that assault our lives. This psalm reminds us that all our hope, joy, satisfaction and life is found only in God, and that we err when look for them elsewhere.

To be continued next week

Ethics & Apologetics: Two Events

secular-juggernautThese two events might be of interest to people living in Perth.

Tonight and tomorrow, Lake Joondalup Baptist Church is hosting their “Rock the Boats…Some More” seminar, their second seminar focussing on everyday ethics for everyday Christians. Sessions will address topics of asylum seekers and refugees, homelessness, Ethical Purchasing, the Environment, the upcoming Election and more. Speakers include Scott Higgins from A Just Cause, Eliza Johnson from Baptist World Aid, and Troy Pickard, Mayor of the City of Joondalup. I will be starting the seminar with a 15-minute spot addressing the questions: “What is Christian ethics? How Do We Think? How Should We Behave?” Fifteen minutes! The seminar is free to attend, at Lake Joondalup Baptist College Auditorium, 8 Kennedya Drive, Joondalup. It starts tonight at 7pm and on Saturday morning at 9am.

The other event is The Secular Juggernaut, hosted by City Bible Forum, a ministry dedicated to bearing witness to Christ in the CBD. The event is the 2016 Smith Lecture given by Roy Williams, author of God, Actually and Post-God Nation. The event begins with canapes and drinks at 5:30pm on Thursday May 26, followed by the lecture and Q&A at 6:30pm. The event is being held at the Atrium Theatrette, 168 St. George’s Terrace (cnr. King St.), Perth. Cost is $40, $180 for groups of five. I had planned to go until I realised I am booked to speak elsewhere. Williams will address the topic: “Christianity is perceived by more Australians than ever as implausible, undesirable or irrelevant. Why is it so? Does it matter?”

A Sermon on Sunday

Bubble-bursts-at-the-right-moment-resizecrop--Today I am preaching for the first time at my own church, where we have been attending for about the last two years. The theme this month is Seek, and intends to explore what it means to live a Spirit-directed life. Here is an outline of my message which intends to (a) lay a biblical foundation for being led by the Spirit, and (b) to illustrate this biblical truth with stories from my own life and that of others. My hope is that the congregation will be encouraged to reflect on their own experiences in order to identify how they have experienced the Spirit’s leading in times past, and so with greater confidence, be open and responsive to the Spirit’s continued work in their lives. In the end I ran out of time before I ran out of examples. But hopefully, the message will bear fruit in the people’s lives. Inglewood Church have put the sermon up online if you want to listen to it.


Three Key Texts

John 10:1-5, 27         
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” …

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.

One of the most precious promises the believer has, is that the Good Shepherd not only finds and saves us, but calls us by name, knows us and leads us. The blessing of divine guidance is not about experiences, but about knowing the Guide. My sheep hear my voice…and they follow me. This is one of the ways in which God draws close to us, and draws us close to himself. It is one of the ways in which he draws the Christian to participate in his own life and work.

Proverbs 20:27
The human spirit is the lamp of the Lord, searching every innermost part.

Spiritual guidance is spiritually received. We err if we seek to ‘hear God’ by means of the physical senses—seeing something, hearing something, etc. Through the senses we contact the physical world. The world of the Holy Spirit is discerned spiritually. One way in which God  enlightens us is via the spiritual dimension of our life, and so it is necessary that we become spiritually attuned to ‘the still, small voice; the gentle whisper.’

Romans 8:12-16; 9:1 
 So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons and daughters, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. …

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit…

In this text we gain some specific insight into how the ‘still, small voice’ comes to us, and so how we might recognise and name it in our experience. The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit. … My conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit.

My contention: if Christians can learn to recognise the promptings and intuitions—the ‘voice’—of their own conscience, they can learn to be led by the Holy Spirit.

  • This is not for a moment to identify the divine and human spirit, but to insist that somehow, the Holy Spirit touches the human spirit and a communication takes place whereby we know what we previously had no way of knowing. Image: a fragment is transferred from the hard-drive to the floppy drive.

This ‘inner witness’ might be likened to a hunch, an intuition, an inner prompting or urging, an awareness, a perception or premonition. Further, verse 13 shows that one of the primary ways in which we can begin to learn this way of the Spirit is via the common experience of conviction: “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body…”

Learning the Way of the Spirit

In the second part of the sermon I simply tell a range of stories from my own life and that of others which illustrate a variety of ways in which the ‘inner witness’ might be experienced, so that listeners can begin to identify in their own experience how and when the Spirit may have spoken to them. Some of these ways include:

  1. A text of Scripture coming to mind at just the right time
  2. An inner conviction, prompting or urging
  3. A ‘burden’ and strong sense of urging, especially to do with prayer
  4. A movement of compassion towards others
  5. An inner unease or restlessness concerning something specific
  6. A picture, image or impression
  7. An inner ‘voice’ in which specific words are heard

Noel Vose: A Life Well-Lived

Noel Vose 2
Noel, on his 91st birthday, at Providence Church in Midland.

Yesterday I joined many hundreds of others to celebrate the life of Noel Vose. Noel was one of those rare breed whose lives are larger-than-life. At the age of ninety-four he remained active, alert, engaged, interested, and loved.

The young Noel’s circumstances were humble, his education meagre. Yet against the odds he gained an education, finally being awarded his PhD for a thesis on John Owen in 1963 from the University of Iowa. His wife, Heather, and their two children had already returned to Australia from the United States, and so Noel sent a telegram to advise of his success: “NOW IM A PHOOLISH DUNCE LOVE NOEL” (See Moore, Noel Vose, 130).

I have a vague memory of Noel telling me once that he was the first Baptist in Australia to be awarded the degree. Or perhaps he said “first Baptist minister.” Either way, he was rightfully proud of his achievement.

Noel became the founding principal of the Baptist Theological College of Western Australia. Many years later I was the recipient of his diligence and industry, becoming a student at the College, and years later again, am privileged to teach at the now renamed Vose Seminary.

Noel went on to lead the Australian Baptists before serving as President of the Baptist World Alliance. He has met with heads of state and sat on international councils, exercising his enormous influence for good. In his eighties, the Roman Catholics and Baptists were conducting an international consultation at the Vatican. Noel was invited as a Baptist representative and in a small gathering also met his Holiness, the Pope.

After preaching at Parkerville one Sunday morning from Psalm 77 on the importance of meditation in the Scriptures, Noel thanked me for the message and told me of that meeting. He told of a cardinal speaking to the small group and citing Jerome, “If you don’t know the Scriptures, you don’t know Christ!” He told of another meeting on another day in which the Pope spoke and also cited Jerome, “If you don’t know the Scriptures, you don’t know Christ!”

“Twice they said it, this cardinal and the pope! We Baptists sometimes think we are people of the word, but we are not the only ones! And we had best stay people of the word!” And then he looked me square in the eye, gripped my hand and said with great emphasis, “If you don’t know the Scriptures, you don’t know Christ!

For all his stature and accomplishments, Noel was interested in the individual, taking time to seek out the newcomers and the young, to inquire after their faith and learn of their ministry. One left his presence feeling carefully listened to, challenged, and deeply encouraged.

When Noel learned of my own interest in Karl Barth, he told me of attending Barth’s 1962 lectures in Chicago. He had driven all night with a friend to get there, and upon arriving and hearing Barth’s slow English in a thick guttural accent, wondered how he would stay awake! The room for the first lecture was packed with several thousand people and Noel had had to stand in the rear of the auditorium, peering around a column. After a few minutes, however, he realised that Barth was making him think “great thoughts about God.” A few weeks later, he gave me a little parcel: it was his handwritten notes from that series of lectures, as well as his copy of the famed Time magazine featuring Barth on the cover. “You might find these of interest,” he said.

In his address at the funeral, Arthur Payne said of Noel, “he was a man in whose presence you became better than you are.” Even more insightful was the word spoken by his granddaughter about his life of prayer. He told her many times: “Your prayers are powerful; you can change the world with your prayers.” He was a man of regular, constant, fervent prayer.

A man of prayer. A man of the Word. A man of immense personal integrity and presence. A man of vision, devotion and compassion. A man tireless in his service of God and God’s people. Noel Vose has left us an example to follow and perhaps, a mantle to take up. His was an extraordinary life, a life well-lived. May we follow him, as he followed Christ.

Worship on Sunday – Veni Creator Spiritus

Raban-Maur_Alcuin_OtgarNext week is Pentecost Sunday – perhaps this medieval hymn will help us prepare. Said to be written by Rabanus Maurus (c. 776-856), a Benedictine monk and archbishop of Mainz, the hymn has beautiful, faith-filled words, and here is chanted in the Latin:

Veni Creator Spiritus
Come, Holy Ghost, Creator blest,

and in our hearts take up Thy rest;
come with Thy grace and heav’nly aid,
To fill the hearts which Thou hast made.

O Comforter, to Thee we cry,
Thou heav’nly gift of God most high,
Thou Fount of life, and Fire of love,
and sweet anointing from above.

O Finger of the hand divine,
the sevenfold gifts of grace are thine;
true promise of the Father thou,
who dost the tongue with power endow.

Thy light to every sense impart,
and shed thy love in every heart;
thine own unfailing might supply
to strengthen our infirmity.

Drive far away our ghostly foe,
and thine abiding peace bestow;
if thou be our preventing Guide,
no evil can our steps betide.

Praise we the Father and the Son
and Holy Spirit with them One;
and may the Son on us bestow
the gifts that from the Spirit flow.

Preparing for Princeton

KBC_2016_1024x375_(1)Early in the year I submitted an abstract for the 2016 Karl Barth Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary. After the call period finished I expected that my paper was not chosen, but then a spot opened up for me and I am excited to be going. Excited and a little over-awed. I am so busy this semester, I don’t have a lot of prep time. The theme of the Conference is Karl Barth’s Pneumatology and the Global Pentecostal Movement. My abstract for the conference is:

‘Changed into Another Man’:
The Meaning of “Baptism with the Holy Spirit” in Karl Barth,
in Conversation with the Pentecostal Doctrine

Late in his career, Karl Barth prepared a little section for the Church Dogmatics entitled “Baptism with the Holy Spirit” (IV/4:3-40). This paper presents a careful exposition of Barth’s doctrine of ‘Baptism with the Holy Spirit,’ showing that Barth conceived of the Spirit as the conjunction between the objective act of God’s reconciliation achieved in Christ in history, and the event of Christian faith. In the Holy Spirit, the mediating link between these two aspects of the one event, Christian faith is grounded not in an act of humanity but in that of God. That is, the Christian’s apprehension of faith in Christ is a genuine participation in, and incorporation into the life of the triune God, rather than simply a limited, and indeed, earth-bound, existential or ecclesiological event.

While the exposition makes clear that Barth’s doctrine is materially different to that of classic Pentecostalism, certain affinities may be noted between the two positions. In particular one notes the experiential language Barth uses to describe the encounter which transpires between God and the human agent. Second, is Barth’s insistence that the Baptism with the Holy Spirit involves the ontic renewal of the Christian such they become in truth ‘a different [person]’ (18). These features of Barth’s exposition suggest that his doctrine, although distinct in form and content from that of Pentecostalism, may in fact address the deeper longing of that movement for a dynamic, experiential ‘life in the Spirit.’


Scripture on Sunday – Psalm 15

Light through CloudsRead Psalm 15

I am writing these words in the guest room of our Melbourne friends who, over the years, have time and again shown us great kindness and hospitality, welcoming us into their home, and taking an interest in our lives, work, and family. What a privilege to be a guest in someone’s home, to find a place of welcome and acceptance, kindness, warmth and blessing. Thank you Gordon and Maggie!

And so it is with Psalm 15: “O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” I might re-phrase it differently: “God, who can be a guest in your home? Who will you invite to live with you in your tent?”

It is important to begin, perhaps, with an acknowledgement that this psalm does not sit easily with Protestant convictions concerning grace, justification and acceptance with God. Must one work in order to find acceptance with God and entry into God’s house? Or is one freely welcomed on account of grace with no entry requirements whatsoever? It is equally important to recognise that this way of setting up the question, this either-or dichotomy, misrepresents not only Scripture, but Protestantism as well. As this psalm so clearly testifies, it has ever been the case that the call to be welcomed as God’s people includes within that call a responsibility, a concurrent call to holiness in the presence of the holy God. “Be holy, as I am holy!” (Leviticus 19:2; cf. 1 Peter 1:15-16).

Some modern commentators view Psalm 15 as an ‘entry liturgy’ in the worship of ancient Israel. As the pilgrims and worshippers assembled at the Jerusalem temple for one of the great annual festivals, the priests instruct them concerning the requirements which dictate entry into God’s presence (see also Psalm 24:3-6 and Isaiah 33:14-17). While it may well be that such liturgies occurred in ancient Israel, it is likely that the psalm should be understood in a more general sense than ‘entry’ requirements. It speaks of those who would not simply seek entry to God’s house, but who would abide and dwell in his presence. Thus it is concerned with the kind of life appropriate for those who would identify as God’s people, of those who would be guests in his house—and more than guests—children!

If verse one poses the essential question, the rest of the psalm supplies the answer. Craigie, notes that the psalm provides ten exhortations as the answer to the opening question, and that this structure indicates the function of the psalm:

This tenfold structure of conditions is analogous to the Decalogue in principle and with respect to the sense of wholeness, though there are no precise inner correspondences between the conditions and the Commandments. Rather, the tenfold structure suggests once again the didactic context of the wisdom school; young persons were being instructed to tick off, as it were, on their ten fingers the moral conditions prerequisite to participation in worship. Thus the conditions for admission to worship are apparently presented here in the curriculum of moral instruction and symbolically represent morality in its entirety, rather than covering every facet of the moral life in detail (Craigie, Psalms 1-50, 150-151).

Despite the evident attractions of Craigie’s view (and its equally evident applicability to pastoral work and parenting), I prefer to think of the second verse as the answer to the question, with vv. 3-5b providing illustrations and amplifications of the answer given in verse two. The second verse lists three overarching criteria for those who would ‘dwell’ in God’s presence: they are those who walk with integrity, who work righteousness, and who speak truth in their own hearts. I find in this characterisation a certain correspondence with Micah 6:8:

With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? …
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

To ‘walk with integrity’ suggests congruence between one’s private and public self: ‘what you see is what you get.’ The word itself (tāmîm) refers to wholeness or completeness, to be ‘perfect’ in the sense of blameless; thus it speaks of wholehearted devotion and consecration to the Lord (Vangemeren (ed.), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, vol. 4, 307). To ‘work righteousness’ speaks of active goodness, especially in relationship toward others, and so corresponds to Micah’s “to do justice and to love kindness.” To ‘speak truth in [one’s] heart’ rules out the kind of self-deception whereby we are wont to rationalise bad behaviour and impure motives (Charry, Psalms 1-50, 71). It refers to an inner honesty with oneself and before God, an acknowledgement of the truth about ourselves, including our own brokenness and sin. Such confession orients us humbly toward God, and prepares us for genuine worship.

Verses 3-5b then unpack these positive characteristics with reference especially to the way in which we speak, relate with others, and use our money. This in itself is significant: true righteousness has more to do with character and relationships than it does with ‘religious’ acts and activities. God is concerned with relational and social holiness and not simply with personal morality, although that, too, is important. The righteousness which is to characterise the people of God consists in truthful speech, generous use of our resources, and care of our neighbour.

It is of interest that the psalm uses both positive and negative descriptions to describe the character of the righteous, since righteousness consists not only in active goodness but also in the absence of evil (Craigie, 151). The righteousness person does not slander, does not take bribes, etc. What is proscribed protects the neighbour and acts as a brake or restraint on our own tendencies. It may be that the positive descriptors set forth the path of righteousness that we are to walk, while the proscriptions act as fences to keep us from wandering from the path.

Inner dispositions, self-regulation, and habitual practices come together for the formation of virtue. This is a life that pleases God and is fitted for worship. But who could possibly meet these exacting standards? Here, once more, Craigie’s pastoral wisdom is evident:

In the history of Christian and Jewish worship, there have emerged two extremes toward which the worshipper may be tempted to move. On the one hand, there have been times when the holiness of God has been stressed so powerfully, that the ordinary mortal has felt it impossible to approach God in worship or prayer. On the other hand, the open access to God in prayer has sometimes been so stressed that admission to God’s presence becomes a thoughtless and casual matter. Between these two poles, there is a proper median: there is indeed access to the Holy God in worship and prayer, but it must be employed carefully, not casually, with appropriate preparation and reverence. … One the one hand, we must live in such a way that we may prepare for worship with integrity, without hypocrisy; on the other hand, the introspection involved, prior to worship, clarifies beyond any doubt the need for forgiveness (152-153).

The psalm climaxes with a wonderful promise: “Those who do these things will never be moved.” Surely this refers back to the opening question: never moved from God’s presence and grace, regardless of circumstances that arise on earth.