Monthly Archives: November 2016

The Essence of Christianity?

Computer and PenThe June edition of Christianity Today had a small report called “Daily Devotion” which asked the question, What’s essential to being a Christian? It was actually a report on a Pew Forum research project on how American Christians of all denominations apply their faith in daily life. The results are interesting and perhaps a little sobering as well.

Respondents answered, varying widely on church attendance and Bible reading, but held similar views on prioritizing family, being grateful, and exercising.

Highly religious evangelicals are also more likely to say honesty, forgiveness, controlling one’s temper, dressing modestly, and physical health are essential to Christianity. Evangelicals were least likely to agree that working to help the poor, protecting the environment, and buying from companies that pay a fair wage are essential to being a Christian.

In some respects, virtues such as gratitude and forgiveness are important aspects of what it means to be Christian. So is faith in God. Conspicuously absent are ideas such as obedience to Christ, keeping God’s commandments, worship and witness in the community of faith, and so on. What do you say is essential to Christianity?

Further detail from the Pew study can be found here.


CrucibleThe November issue of The Crucible has now been released, with articles on New Testament hermeneutics and growing in the midst of suffering, as well as some Australian ministry resources and book reviews.

Ed Stetzer gives his opinion on some PhD dissertations that are needed today. I do like his final paragraph: “It’s worth remembering that Ph.D. work on a specific denomination is not as helpful as research projects on likeminded people across denominations. Be an expert at something where you can make a difference for the kingdom.”

Peter Scazzero, author of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, has written a blog post entitled, “Leading out of your marriage“. Evangelicals are sometimes accused of making an idol of marriage and family. I am not convinced by those accusations, though I do sometimes think that evangelicals’ emphasis marriage and family is more culturally than theologically grounded. Scazzero’s table suggests he may have a more sacramental understanding of what marriage is. “But I speak of Christ and the Church…” (Ephesians 5).

Marriage chart1

Bruce Springsteen is coming to town in January and I have a ticket! He has been in the press a great deal just lately because of his support for Hilary Clinton, and more likely, on account of the release of his autobiography. I don’t know a lot about the man, but do enjoy his music! Favourite song? Hard to say. Born to Run is a classic. Everbody’s Got a Hungry Heart is true! American Skin is haunting, as is Streets of Philadelphia. I first heard Prove it All Night and Blinded by the Light as cover versions by other artists (Patty Smith and Manfred Mann) and loved the songs not knowing they were Springsteen written. After 2001 I enjoyed Mary’s Place from The Rising. But the song that always strikes a chord is The River. Hope he plays it.

A Sermon on Sunday

Harmony BCI am preaching again at Harmony Baptist Church today. Last week my message from Psalm 77 was centred around the devotional practice of meditating on the Scriptures. Today’s message is also focussed on the reception and use of the Bible in the Christian life, this time in terms of study rather than meditation.


Introduction: What is the Bible?
The Bible is the written Word of God; Jesus is the living Word of God (John 1:1, 14; John 5:39-40).

For Christians, the Bible is an inspired text, a divine-human book requiring divine-human interpretation. As a human book it is interpreted just like any other book: we have to read it carefully seeking to understand what the human authors sought to communicate: what was Isaiah saying? What was Matthew on about? So we pay attention to their context, their choice of words, the images and literary devices they use, the themes they develop, etc. As a divine book, however, we acknowledge a hidden author and a surplus of meaning.

Many Voices, Multiple Meanings
One of the confusing things for many Christians, one of the things we seem to know intuitively, is that the Bible is capable of many meanings. Perhaps we have heard some weird teachings in our time, or met some weird Christians with wacky interpretations of Scripture. As a result we might get anxious: what does the Bible mean? What is the right meaning?

The assumption here is that there is only one possible interpretation to the various passages in the Bible. Is this a legitimate assumption? Without succumbing to postmodern relativism it is possible to understand the Bible as a book with many voices and multiple meanings. This is not to suggest that the Bible can mean anything we want it to mean, that we can use the Bible to justify beliefs or behaviours we are already committed to, whether capitalism or socialism, militarism or pacifism. Nonetheless there is already an apparent plurality of interpretation in the Bible itself: two creation narratives, two infancy narratives, four gospels, five resurrection accounts, two accounts of Israel’s monarchy. Add to this the multiplicity of metaphors and symbols used to describe the character and work of God, the person of Christ, the achievement of the cross, the person and work of the Holy Spirit, the nature of the Christian life: is it any wonder different interpretations, different emphases arise from our study of Scripture? The Holy Spirit has given a surplus, even an excess of meaning in his inspired Word. Why? In the awesome wisdom of God he knew that multitudes of believers in multitudes of different times and climes, would need a word that addresses them.

Some Helpful Lenses When Reading Scripture

Read: Genesis 16:1-16

What do we do with a passage like this? What does the passage mean?

  1. A historian might be intrigued by the cultural practices of the day
  2. A doctoral student might focus on the origin of the Arabs in Ishmael
  3. Some might suggest that the passage teaches that the God of Islam and the God of the Jews are one and the same—and so then also, the Father of Jesus Christ
  4. A mildly feminist scholar might be concerned about the social structures that oppress powerless women
  5. A radical feminist might see further evidence of the irredeemably patriarchal nature of the biblical narratives, and argue for a wholesale reappraisal of Christian faith and practice
  6. An existentialist evangelist or a therapeutic preacher might see it as a call to authentic existence based on ‘where have you come from and where are you going?’
  7. Perhaps a Mormon would find legitimisation of the practice of polygamy

All these and more might be seen as the ‘meaning’ of the passage. When we add devotional ‘meanings’ possibilities are exponential.

  1. One person might be challenged to support a young woman with an unexpected pregnancy
  2. A male reader might find himself questioning why he persists in being a ‘wild donkey’ of a man
  3. A married woman might find herself convicted for being a grumpy wife!
  4. Another person might be encouraged to reach out to their Muslim neighbour or colleague
  5. Someone else might wonder whether the troublesome youth at work has had a rough ride
  6. A person in difficult straits may find comfort and hope in the knowledge that God cares

Lens #1: The Historical Meaning

The question to ask here is, “What did this text mean for its original audience?” Try to understand the passage in its original context: why has the biblical author included it? Before God’s Word is his Word to us it was his Word to another generation. Understanding something of what his Word meant for them will help us understand how to interpret it in our time and place. Accepting the tradition that Moses wrote the early books of the Bible, it would be an encouragement to the people of Israel not to go back to Egypt. Their future is not in Ishmael (an Egyptian mother and wife); their inheritance is in Isaac. Letting Scripture interpret Scripture: this seems to be the meaning Paul saw in the passage when he interprets Sarah and Hagar as two covenants. We are the children of the free woman, not the slave woman!

Lens #2: The Doctrinal Meaning

We can ask further: what doctrinal content is found in this text? What does it teach us about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, salvation, the church, humanity, Christian life, etc? This passage teaches us some rich things about God:

  1. he is a God who hears the affliction of those who suffer,
  2. who sees us, especially in our need
  3. God cares about the lowly, the disenfranchised, poor, outcast, etc
  4. God comes, God speaks, God promises;

We also see a challenging pattern about God and his activity: he sees Hagar and comes to her, asks her a leading question, commands her with a difficult command, and makes a promise of blessing. His command is part of his grace, even though it is so difficult. This is a paradigm for the work of grace.

Lens #3: The Cultural-Redemptive Lens

The question to ask here is, “How does this passage challenge the way we see the world? What better vision of the world does it present?” This passage could challenge us to consider the way traditional social attitudes and structures impact others. It might challenge us to think about actual people we know in impossible or vulnerable circumstances. We might question the assumptions we have about those in minority cultures.

Lens #4: The Missional Lens

What does this passage call us to, in light of the overall story of God, his purpose, and his people? How does this passage call us to act in light of who God is and what God does? As individuals and congregations take seriously the challenge of reflecting on Holy Scripture we become a people who may be ‘caught up’ into the story that God is continuing to write in the church and in the world.

Conclusion: All the World is a Stage

Interpreting Scripture can hard work, but it is necessary work and even joyful work. God has given us his Word, not simply to help us find a comforting life verse every now and then, but to renew our minds, to shape our vision, to stir our will, and so to transform our lives (Romans 12:2).

Imagine … you are a Shakespearean specialist and come across an original unfinished manuscript. How incredibly excited you are. You begin poring over it and find it incomplete – several initial acts, but the final climactic act remains unfinished. What will you do? You gather other specialists, actors, etc and begin to think through how you would write and perform the missing act. You study the existing text until you know its inner coherence, its trajectories, its emphases and problems so well that you can begin to anticipate how the action of the missing segment will proceed. You improvise…

This is the situation of the contemporary Christian. In the bible we have an incredible five-act drama, stretching across millennia, with hundreds of characters. It is an immense epic which will come to completion in a sudden burst – sixth act when everything will come to resolution. The problem, however, is that the fifth act is incomplete: the story is still being written, the actors—you and I—are still on the set, the director—the Holy Spirit—is still orchestrating the drama. We have the script—the Bible as Torah—to form and inform us. True meaning is that which we enact on the stage of history, guided by the story that has so far been written, looking for the ultimate resolution and consummation yet to come.

The Humble Apostrophe

f-bombI am sure some of my students might get so exasperated with apostrophes that, at times, they might want to use an expletive to describe them. Well, now they can (Warning – profane content).

I saw this book the other day in Boffins and (a) couldn’t believe the title, and (b) just about laughed out loud. Author Simon Griffin, an English designer, says he wrote the book for “the many designers I work with who are: a) incredibly bad at using apostrophes; b) incredibly good at using swearwords.”

It is the kind of book that might need to be kept in a brown-paper bag. But who knows? These days it might be put on display as a coffee-table book. That would probably be okay if it would help us learn how to use the humble apostrophe. Better yet, perhaps, would be to buy Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss, but maybe not so much fun.

On Monday I was in another book shop while waiting for Monica – she was in an appointment. I found a whole section of profane book titles. It seems the F*-Word has come out to play… Particularly weird is the third book with the subtitle: “The Ultimate Spiritual Way.”

Profane Book Titles

Scripture on Sunday – Psalm 77:10-12

hot-coffee & beansToday I am preaching on Psalm 77 at Harmony Baptist Church in Perth. It is a wonderful psalm, a personal lament that turns into a song of praise and trust. The key verse that makes the transition is difficult to identify. Verse 10 in the NASB reads:

Then I said, “It is my grief,
That the right hand of the Most High has changed.”

In the NIV the same verse reads:

Then I thought, ‘To this I will appeal:
    the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.’

Evidently the underlying Hebrew is somewhat obscure, leading translators to different conclusions. Either verse 10 is the climax of the lament of the first half of the psalm, or it is the transition to the more hopeful outlook of the second half. We get an indication of how this transition takes place in verses 11-12:

I shall remember the deeds of the Lord;
Surely I will remember Your wonders of old.
I will meditate on all Your work
And muse on Your deeds.

The psalmist meditates on the works of God, as made known in Scripture, and specifically, God’s saving work of redemption at the Red Sea (Exodus 14; cf Psalm 77:16-20). And as the psalmist turns their attention to God, as they meditate in the Scriptures, hope begins to break forth in the midst of their despair. They, too, are the children of Jacob, God’s flock, and so the object of his care and saving mercies.

To meditate is to consider, to ponder, to imagine, to allow one’s mind to turn the Scripture over and over. One analogy I use to describe meditation is the old process of percolating coffee which no one uses anymore. The hot water runs through the beans and as it does, the water is transformed, taking the colour, the scent and aroma, the flavour of the coffee beans. It is no longer water, but coffee. So, too, as we meditate in the Scripture, the fragrance and texture, life and power that is in the Word somehow begins to seep into our lives, working its transformational magic, changing us as the ‘Word takes flesh’, becomes embodied, in our lives.

American Evangelicals & Mr Trump

pew_trump_clinton_religionSince the election of Mr Trump last week, a number of news articles have appeared in the American press exploring the relation between his election and the evangelical vote. Reports indicate that over 80% of white evangelicals voted for Mr Trump. These articles explore why this was the case.

This first article by Emma Green (“The Evangelical Reckoning on Trump”) provides a general overview of evangelical leaders’ views regarding the relation between US evangelicalism and the Trump election.  She portrays an evangelicalism divided, especially along racial lines in the United States:

But a few predicted that this election could permanently damage attempts to create unity among evangelicals. “I spend most of my time in ministry talking and teaching about racial reconciliation,” said Jemar Tisby, the president of the Reformed African American Network, a “theologically traditional” coalition of black Christians and churches, as he described it. “The vast majority of white evangelicals with whom I interact are on board and want to see a more racially diversified and unified church. However, when that same constituency overwhelmingly supports Donald Trump, I feel like they haven’t understood any of my concerns as a racial minority and an African American.”

Olga Khazan (“Why Christians Overwhelmingly Backed Trump”) suggests that Evangelicals backed Mr Trump because they believed he would uphold their views on abortion, and perhaps even turn the clock back on abortion services:

Seven in 10 voters on Tuesday said the next president’s appointment of a new Supreme Court justice was an important factor—presumably because this judge could have a decisive vote in cases involving abortion and other social issues. Voters “were mobilized by what’s at stake & the clear contrast w/Hillary on life,”Family Research Council president Tony Perkins tweeted late Tuesday.

Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary and part of Trump’s evangelical advisory committee, “believes evangelicals were motivated to vote in unprecedented numbers because of Hillary Clinton’s record on abortion,” according to the Huffington Post.

Carl Trueman (“A Tale of Two Marxisms”) rather glumly argues that Americans have received the politician they deserve: a perfect mirror of what American culture has become.

Cool chic and celebrity connections are now far more important than coherent policies and personal integrity. And Mr. Trump is surely no better. In many ways he is more representative of the moral and intellectual vacuum of this present age than Mrs. Clinton. He really is nothing more than an entertainer, the political equivalent of a foul-mouthed stand-up comic. Yet that is precisely what makes him the perfect politician for this present age. He is the great Hegelian synthesis of modern American culture: a perfect compound of know-nothing populism, undisciplined appetites, and vacuous entertainment. Do not waste time lamenting his advent. He was inevitable: He is the very embodiment of the World Spirit.

What Trueman does not discuss is the implication that American evangelicalism has largely become culturally assimilated to the “moral and intellectual vacuum of this present age.”  I suspect, however, that he may agree with this suggestion.

Darren Guerra (“Trump, Evangelicals, Religion & the 2016 Election Exit-Polls”) argues that evangelical support for Mr Trump only rose to the levels it did after the Presidential race was reduced to the two primary candidates. That is, their support was reserved. Nevertheless, that they did support him in the end was due, perhaps, to their playing a longer game: 70% of evangelical or religious voters voted with an eye to the Supreme Court.

Given the large gaps between plurality support for Trump in the primaries and majority support for him in the general election, evangelicals clearly needed time to warm up to Trump. Evangelical support for Trump, while robust, seems to have been driven by prudential judgment and fear of a Clinton presidency, rather than by blind acceptance. To the extent that this is true, evangelical support for Trump may very well be “contingent support” that could evaporate if Trump does not deliver as promised.

Two weeks before the election Russell D. Moore, President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, gave the 29th Annual Erasmus Lecture with the (to my ears) somewhat dubious and uninspiring title, “Can the Religious Right Be Saved?” Moore was a vocal advocate of not voting for Mr Trump in the months prior to the election. The lecture is well worth listening to. The video can be found here; the podcast here.

Reading Karl Barth on Election (7)

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:63-76, The Foundation of the Doctrine.

Although Barth applauds the christological focus the Reformers brought to their discussion of election, he is not yet satisfied, for the Reformers’ focus is pastoral rather than theological; there remains behind and before Jesus Christ, the decision of the electing God apart from Jesus Christ. In a dozen probing questions Barth lays bare his central concern: it is not sufficient to speak of Christ as the mirror, the medium or the instrument of the election, particularly so if behind Christ stands the inscrutable decision of a hidden deity. If the decision of election is that of the hidden God, it will inevitably overwhelm and subvert the pastoral focus on Jesus. If so, can one truly obtain the assurance sought by the Reformers?

Barth canvasses and compares the doctrine of the Lutherans, the Calvinists, and the Remonstrants, arguing that there can be no ground ceded to Pelagianism in the doctrine of election. Beginning with the Remonstrants, Barth argues that they were semi-Pelagian, pre-cursors of modern Neo-Protestantism who make humanity the criterion of the knowledge of God, of God’s relationship to humanity, and of Christian doctrine. As a result, they refuse to acknowledge divine sovereignty in election for the human agent is independent over against God (67). Although the Remonstrants spoke of Jesus Christ as the “foundation of election,” they did not mean by this that he was the subject of election (68).

As directed against the decretum absolutum the statement (“Jesus Christ is the [foundation of election]”) does not contend for the dignity of Jesus Christ, but for the dignity of man standing over against Jesus Christ in an autonomous freedom of decision. … What they did want to say, and what they actually did say in this statement, was that in the distinctive sense of the word there is no divine decision at all. There is only the establishment of a just and reasonable order of salvation, of which Christ must be regarded as the content and the decisive instrument (68).

The 17th century Lutheran doctrine also sought to correct Calvin’s proposition by locating the origin of election in the universal mercy of God. Jesus Christ is the decreed means of salvation for the Son in all eternity pledged himself to be the perfect satisfaction in the stead and place of all. God foreknows those who will obey his call to faith and obedience, and so those who will be saved. Thus God’s election is determined by his foreknowledge, and therefore “by the actuality of an object which is distinct from God” (71).

Barth finds much to affirm in the Lutheran correction: the emphasis on divine grace and mercy as the ultimate ground of election; the Son’s self-offering in the eternal and secret counsel of the trinity; the object of election as the whole of humanity without exception; and the necessity of human faith and obedience. He laments the refusal of Reformed theology to allow the Lutheran correction to inform its own “unsatisfactory and dangerous doctrinal forms” (72). Yet, Barth ultimately rejects the Lutheran proposal even while affirming their intent to avoid the decretum absolutum. He does so because they have abstracted a theological principle—divine foreknowledge—and applied it to God. In so doing they also abstract the elected man, whose decision thus precedes and so conditions God’s election. The Lutheran position therefore reduces election to salvation—there is no election as such, and opens the door again to Pelagianism. Thus it is hardly surprising that the Reformed did not follow this Lutheran path. In this view, God is no longer truly and freely the electing God. The initiative of God’s election has been lost, and with it, God’s freedom, and so also, God’s grace.

If we inspect it closely, their teaching has nothing whatever to say about the fact that God elects. It says only that God has determined to actualise, and has actualised, His general redemptive purpose in such a form that in its operation it does necessarily give rise to a selection from amongst men. Naturally God knows about this selection from all eternity. He also affirms it by fulfilling His purpose in this particular form. But He affirms it only secondarily, and the fact that He affirms it does not mean that it is His selection in the strict sense of the word. This construction excludes the initiative of a free divine election. And at this point, in spite of all other differences, in spite of its intended and avowed anti-Pelagianism, the Lutheran teaching occupies common ground with the Arminian doctrine rejected at Dort. For this reason, and quite decisively, it can never be acceptable to Calvinists (73).

The Calvinists decisively rejected the tenet of praevisa fides (foreknowledge of faith), and with it the whole Lutheran doctrine of predestination. As they saw it, it is at this decisive point in the whole relationship of God with man that the complete freedom of grace should always be maintained. They thought it better to cling to the decretum absolutum than in attempting to avoid it to enter on a path which seemed as though it must ultimately endanger the basic interest of the Reformation (74).

Thus Barth wants to retain God’s election as election and not simply as salvation. It must be true, free, and so gracious, election. There must be no Pelagianism in salvation. All abstraction with respect to God and humanity is denied. Election must be gospel, and so also Christological. Jesus Christ is not merely the instrument or mirror of election but the subject of election. That Jesus Christ is the electing God means that there is no decretum absolutum. That Jesus Christ is the elected human means there is no praevisa fides.

“As If Nothing Had Happened”

President Trump
I [will] endeavour to carry on theology, and only theology,
now as previously, and as if nothing had happened
(Karl Barth, Theological Existence Today, 9).

On June 24, 1933 Adolf Hitler intervened directly in the German Protestant churches to bring them under the control of the new National Socialist government. Many German Christians celebrated the ascendancy of Hitler, believing the Führer to be chosen and sent by God to aid Germany in her troubles. They willingly accepted the assimilation of the church into the Nazi programme. That evening Karl Barth sat down and wrote a missive entitled Theological Existence Today. He sent a copy to Hitler, and by the time the regime banned the treatise a year later, tens of thousands of copies had been distributed.

Barth’s famous—infamous—response has sometimes been read as a statement of withdrawal from the public sphere, of the isolation of theology from the great events of the day. Barth, however, was no political or ethical quietist. Barth was not advocating a focus on esoteric theological questions disconnected from the affairs of everyday life, nor yet pietistic escapism from the horrors and difficulties of the world. His stance was an act of theological rebellion, a refusal to violate the first commandment by giving any allegiance or comfort to a false god. His response to the crisis confronting the church is that the church return to its primary vocation, simply, to be the church—the church of the cross. Barth diagnosed the crisis as a theological and spiritual rather than political crisis, and so the church’s response to the crisis must be theological and spiritual.

When Barth speaks of theological existence, it can legitimately be interpreted as Christian existence, for all Christian existence is theological existence. When Barth spoke of practising theology and only theology he meant the proclamation of the sole Lordship of Jesus Christ, the reality of the kingdom of God, the rule of divine love, the promise and claim of the one God.

Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death
(Barmen Declaration, Thesis 1).

Our situation today bears some similarities to that faced by Barth, though, one hopes, not nearly so sinister. This is not a time for Christians to wring hands in despair, to assail those too blind to see what they think they can see; let alone the time for Christians to place their hope in messiahs who cannot possibly lead them to the Promised Land. Rather, it is a time for Christians to be the church of the Word, the church under the cross.

It is the time for those who pray to continue to pray “as if nothing had happened.” For those who preach, to continue to preach “as if nothing had happened.” For those who serve in the name of Jesus Christ, who care for the poor, who seek justice, who make disciples, who practise love of neighbour, who reach out a helping hand, who act in the public square, who live virtuously, who hunger and thirst after righteousness, who bend their ear and their heart to hear the Word of God—for those who do all this and more besides in the name of Jesus, to continue to do so “as if nothing had happened.”

The really momentous things happening in our world are not those things which consume the eyes and ears of the media and social media. Rather, when Christians bow in prayer, reach out in love, attend to Holy Scripture, hold forth the Word of Life—the kingdom of heaven is among you.