Monthly Archives: April 2020

Bob Dylan – “I Contain Multitudes”

Bob Dylan has dropped two surprise songs in recent weeks. The first was the 17-minute ‘Murder Most Foul’ which has received mixed reviews. Sometimes a Dylan song grows on you, or on me at least, though I am not sure this one will. It is not amongst his best work. But I did enjoy this second song ‘I Contain Multitudes’ which has something profound and original in its idea that who we are includes the compilation of all the various influences that have shaped our life, attitudes, vision and behaviour.  This is true, including as well, those not-so-good influences which are nevertheless real and really part of who I am and have become.

I have also included a clip of one of his early, amazing folk-protest songs which some of you might enjoy. If you like Dylan, the Guardian also recently published someone’s list of Dylan’s best songs. It will give you something to argue with!


Pierre Maury on ‘Election and Faith’

In 1936 at the International Congress of Calvinist Theology conducted in Geneva to celebrate the 400-year anniversary of the first edition of Calvin’s Institutes, French preacher-theologian Pierre Maury presented a paper entitled ‘Election et Foi.’ Karl Barth would later recall that the address had made a profound impression on him, providing the decisive contribution to his own thought on the doctrine of predestination.

Maury’s lecture has been recently translated and published in English thanks to the work of Simon Hattrell, in his edited volume Election, Barth, and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury Gave a ‘Decisive Impetus’ to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election. The volume includes testimony from those who knew Maury, including Barth, as well as three lectures by Maury that provide a good insight into his thought concerning election, and a number of additional contemporary essays discussing the doctrine in Barth and Maury’s theology.

Over the next few weeks I will provide a summary of Maury’s lectures in order to make more generally available what he said that so impressed Barth. Of course, better yet would be to buy the book!

The 1936 lecture itself, is quite short. Maury begins by indicating the approach he will take to the doctrine, which initially sounds characteristically Reformed:

We did not give ourselves life nor will we be able to avoid death. We have not chosen to live; we cannot choose to not die. It is therefore not a question here of our choice, the one that we make, but the choice of which we are the object, that which is made (or not made) of us. These are those insurmountable limits, which are imposed on us, which election calls to mind (42).

Since the doctrine of election trumps all our categories of reason and wisdom, we cannot approach it philosophically but only in accordance with faith, led and guided by the Scriptures. Hence the title, ‘Election and Faith.’ Scripture will be the guide of faith and not a teacher of philosophy. “It will lead us in some points to not follow what Calvin heard in it. But that will not be being unfaithful to him; on the contrary, that will be truly Calvinist” (43).

When we begin with Scripture, however, we find that election is christologically ordered. For Maury, the eternal and the incarnate Christ is the origin, ground, and goal of God’s election. This election is entirely free, wholly God’s initiative, and yet at the cross it is shown to have cost God everything.

We will take our stand, therefore, in speaking of predestination, on this solid ground, where the hidden mystery of God becomes the revealed grace which is offered to us. We can truly say that outside of Christ, there is neither election, nor knowledge of election . . . Outside of Christ, we know neither who the God who elects is, nor those He elects, nor how He elects them (43).

Jesus Christ is not merely the point of the knowledge of divine election, but is in himself the election:

So the election is nothing else than the eternal and temporal existence of Jesus Christ, our mediator. For it is in Him, in Him crucified, in Him alone, that God has met us. Because it is in Christ, we know that election is not some unfathomable eternal caprice or whim, a game played out in the infinitely distant idleness of eternity but a concrete reality, our reality. It bears the marks of the historical and real life of Jesus Christ, living, dying, rising for us (46).

Election is, negatively, God taking all our sin and alienation on the cross. This is grace. Here, here alone, but here truly, we see that God is love. Election, therefore, consists in the rejection of Jesus Christ.

Before the cross, too, we understand this paradox: the price of free election. For election does not cost us anything, but God it cost His Son. For God to extend grace, to forgive, is to give everything, to give everything for us who cannot give Him anything. . . . This is the night of the ninth hour. What does this darkness mean? Revelation says: punishment. And the Son believes it: punishment, God’s wrath. The only one who will understand grace in election is the same one who understands that it is fulfilled in Christ dying, smitten by God, deserted by men. The only one who will understand how election is sheer pardon is the one who, before the cross, does not come with arguments or with good works, with religious emotion or objections, but who stands there speechless because they have nothing to say, nothing to do, nothing to put forward (47-48).

The human response to this election is to choose, decisively, for or against. At the cross we see ourselves—and so judgement, rejection, and condemnation; and at the cross we see God—and so grace, acceptance, and justification. This is double-predestination, though in Maury’s hands it refers not to two separate classes of people (salvation for some, damnation for the rest), but is applied to each person. The church may and must speak of double-predestination but only in this way. That is, it may preach ‘the word of the cross.’ Indeed apart from the cross, double-predestination is solely an eschatological concept: we cannot sort anyone into these categories.

The elect, in their election, accept everything from the cross: condemnation and grace, judgement and forgiveness, demand and promise, renouncement and life. They accept, that is to say, they no longer have anything, they allow everything to be given to them . . . Predestination is therefore very much double (51, 52).

When asked, upon whom does salvation depend? Maury responds as expected: upon God, of course! Though this answer is known only in faith. Faith is a decisive human act with no opt-out clause. Faith is to risk everything in our reply to this judgement and grace addressed to us. “To accept Jesus Christ, to be chosen by God, means to choose to turn away from ourselves forever. That means to have from now on an absolute Lord . . . ” (50).

To look to the cross is to respond in kind. In choosing Christ we no longer choose ourselves but embrace a vocation to be conformed to Christ. There is a life that is appropriate to the elect: a life of continuing faith lest the believer transform God’s election into their own possession; a life of prayer since all depends on God—and the truest prayer is that which asks for the Holy Spirit; and finally, a life of obedience to the God who has and continues, to call them.

Pierre Maury, "Election et Foi (Election and Faith)" in Election, Barth, and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury Gave a 'Decisive Impetus' to Karl Barth's Doctrine of Election." Edited by Simon Hattrell, 41-59. Second edition; Eugene: Pickwick, 2019.

Scripture on Sunday – Mark 14:1-11

Read Mark 14:1-11

I have been meditating on this passage for more than a week, through holy week and beyond! This is a wonderful story with multiple levels of meaning and insight. My focus in this post, however, concerns its message rather than the many points of exegetical interest.

The story beginning in verse 3 portrays an unknown woman approaching Jesus while he was having dinner at the home of Simon the leper. She breaks a flask of expensive perfume and uses it to anoint Jesus’ head. Others at the dinner party are outraged at the waste, and criticise her. They insist that the perfume could have been sold for 300 denarii—a year’s wages!—and the money given to the poor. But Jesus defends and commends her. She has done a beautiful thing for him, a good work of compassion. Somehow, she has insight into his approaching death and he interprets her anointing as an anointing for his burial, performed beforehand (a hint at his resurrection, that there will not be opportunity later, after his death, for the usual anointing?). Thus Jesus commands: “Leave her alone! Wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

Morna Hooker’s comment captures something of the subtlety and complexity of Mark’s story:

If it seems strange that the story should be told as a memorial to a woman whose name Mark does not record, this is because it is what she has done that is all important. In pouring out her gift over his head, she has in one action anointed him Messiah, proclaimed his death and resurrection and made an act of total commitment to him as Lord: the story is itself a proclamation of the good news which is to be preached throughout the whole world (The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries, 330; emphasis added).

Mark has chosen this story to place at the beginning of his passion narrative, no doubt due to the reference to Jesus’ burial, and perhaps with a nod to his resurrection. But he has also set the passage in the midst of a story of conspiracy and betrayal (vv. 1-2, 10-11). This is a common literary device in Mark’s gospel, in which the ‘inserted’ story and its frame function together to provide an overarching message. In this case, the devotion of the woman as an exemplar of true discipleship is set off against the hatred of the religious leaders who cannot abide Jesus, and Judas’ betrayal of Jesus for a sum of money.

Her devotion is extravagant, an outpouring of love without limit. She breaks the flask, giving her all. Was she a wealthy woman? Was this her dowry? A gift from a husband? All she had left in the world? We do not know. But she gave it all. She gave it to Jesus in view of his approaching death. In some sense, she is echoing ahead of time, his own gift of his all.

The disciples rebuke her for her ‘waste,’ but Jesus rebukes them in turn. Nothing ever given to and for him is wasted, nor will it be forgotten. The gift may not be understood or appreciated by others. Some may see a Christian’s devotion as misguided, a waste of a life, a waste of resources, time and energy. But in the kingdom of God, nothing is wasted, nothing forgotten. Jesus receives it as a precious gift, something beautiful done for him.

Let me finish with another citation, this time from Donald Senior:

Wherever the gospel is preached her story will be told because this story is gospel, the ‘Good News’ of Jesus’ liberating death and the call to respond to it. Thus at the very beginning of the passion story, as opposition and treachery mount against Jesus, Mark lifts up an example of authentic discipleship. Not one of the twelve but a woman, whom the tradition has not even graced with a name, one shunted aside in a patriarchal culture, becomes the paradigm (The Passion of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, 47; original emphasis).

Nothing is wasted; nothing forgotten.

A Good-Friday Prayer

O Lord, our God:
We have gathered this day in order to consider how You carried out
Your good and strong will for the world and for us all by letting our Lord Jesus Christ,
Your dear Son, become captive that we might become free,
by letting Him be judged guilty that we might be innocent,
by letting Him suffer that we might have joy,
by giving Him up to death so that we might live eternally.

Of ourselves we can only go astray.
And we have not deserved such deliverance, not one of us.
But in the inconceivable greatness of Your mercy
You have shared our sin and our misery in order to do such great things for us.
How else should we thank You except by comprehending,
laying hold on this great deed, and letting it hold sway?
Yet how can that happen unless the same living Saviour,
who for us suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried but now is risen,
come Himself into our midst, speak to our hearts and consciences,
open us to Your love, lead us on to entrust ourselves entirely to it,
and to live from this love and from it alone.
In all humility but also in all confidence,
we beseech You to grant this through the power of Your Holy Spirit.

(Karl Barth, Selected Prayers, 34, adjusted)

Meditation in a Toolshed: Doodling CS Lewis

At some time in the past I have read this little meditation by CS Lewis, probably after reading Kevin Vanhoozer’s meditation on CS Lewis’ meditation (“Meditation in a Postmodern Toolshed”). But having happened upon this fascinating exercise in ‘doodling’ Lewis, I decided to read it again.

The short piece is an argument made almost seventy-five years ago, against the conceit of critical modes of thought as inherently superior to other forms of knowledge. Lewis does not reject criticism, but nor does he allow it to claim its self-appointed role as the arbiter of genuine knowledge. The argument is made using a simple and homely illustration:

I was standing today in a dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.

Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, ninety-odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences (607).

Lewis reflects on the nature of subjective experiential knowledge and objective observational knowledge. Both forms of knowledge may be legitimate; both have their place. “You get one experience of a thing when you look along it and another when you look at it. Which is the ‘true’ or ‘valid’ experience?” (608)

The answer to that question cannot be given in advance. Sometimes both the subjective and the objective are required to mutually inform each other. Some things, however, can only be properly assessed from the ‘inside,’ as a participant. “We must take each case on its merits. But we must start with no prejudice for or against either kind of looking” (610). Nonetheless, in Lewis’ estimation, the prejudice against subjectivity must end!

Things have changed markedly in the years since Lewis penned his little reflection for a local newspaper. On the one hand the ‘modern,’ objective critical mindset that Lewis was critiquing has developed into a range of postmodern forms of criticism that sometimes devolve into a kind of elitist ‘critiquiness.’ And the same postmodern ethos champions subjectivity to such a degree that were Lewis writing today, he may well switch his argument to affirm the need for some objective analysis!

Lewis raises important questions for the student studying scripture and theology. Does one gain a better or truer understanding of the ‘subject matter’ of Christian faith (i.e. Jesus Christ; God; etc.) as a participant on the inside, or as an observer on the outside? Or are both perspectives and both approaches necessary? Can one, however, gain a true understanding of the ‘subject matter’ of Christian faith merely from the outside as an objective observer? That is, is a purely critical orientation sufficient?

For much of the Christian tradition the answer has been No. Faith seeking understanding presupposes faith as the beginning point of theological enquiry. That is, theological enquiry is initially (and inherently?) an activity of those on the inside. To banish faith from the classroom in the name of scholarly objectivity is to misunderstand and to hamstring the nature of the inquiry. But once faith is allowed and acknowledged as primary in the epistemological and hermeneutical enterprise, it seeks understanding, engaging the critical faculties in the service of faith.

This holds also for biblical studies. An approach that looks merely at the beam will miss the most fundamental details of the passages being studied. Looking at the beam is useful and instructive, orienting the reader to context, history, and worldview. Looking along the beam engages one as a participant in a wider and broader movement, in which the person studying the text is not simply an objective reader, aloof and at an arm’s length from the world of the text, but, together with the biblical author, is caught up to become an inhabitant of that world—the ‘new world in the Bible’ (Barth). This is the world of God, of God’s work, God’s grace, God’s command, and God’s kingdom.

I hope you enjoy the video, and the talent of the doodler. And I hope that CS Lewis’ little meditation might spark a little meditation of your own.

“Meditation in a Toolshed.”
Originally published in The Coventry Evening Telegraph on July 17, 1945, Lewis’ short meditation has been reprinted a number of times including in my copy of
Lewis, Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces.
Lesley Walmsley ed. (London: HarperCollins, 2000), 607-610.

New Issue of Crucible

The new issue of Crucible has been published and is available online. The journal has re-focussed recently to become more related to practical theology and ministry. This issue has three major articles which concern issues of the relationship between ecclesiology and culture; intra-church, national and worship practice. To my mind, the article on the missional significance of the Eucharist looks particularly interesting.

Crucible will return with at least one other edition in the coming months and welcome contributions from all thoughtful evangelicals especially regarding their ideas about theology, ministry or mission or combinations of these.