Friday, 30 May 2014

Three Books about God

Three books about God have found themselves amongst my reading recently.

God is Impassible and Impassioned – Toward a theology of divine emotion – Rob Lister (IVP 2012).

Lister takes us helpfully through the arguments surrounding whether, and if so how, God ‘feels’ and ‘suffers’. His thesis is that God is impassible in the sense that he cannot be manipulated, overwhelmed, or surprised by an emotional interaction that he does not desire or have or allow to happen. This is not at all the same as saying that he is devoid of emotion (how could that be so when we have a God in Scripture who is angry, delights, loves and grieves?) nor is it the equivalent of saying that God is not affected by his creatures. On the contrary, says Lister, God is also impassioned, that is, perfectly vibrant in his affections, and he may be affected by his creatures, but as God, he is so because he wills to be so affected.

Lister outlines the historical context from the patristic authors onwards, looking at contemporary evangelical authors who reject impassibility - often because it is widely thought to be in conflict with God’s love and relationality, two modern pre-occupations - and then moves on to construct a biblical and theological model (summarised above).

Lister develops this a bit more: God’s passion transcends ours both in an ontological sense (who He is) and in an ethical sense (what he promises and does). The former (God’s ‘ontologically transcendent passion’) is what we term impassibility; the latter (God’s ‘ethically transcendent passion’) we may call his impassionedness. Passion now becomes the dominant factor, virtually equivalent to a description of God in emotional terms. Only now, in terms of God’s being, this translates as the quality of not being vulnerable to outside influences, while in terms of God’s actions and promises, it become his burning, vibrant affection.

One cannot help feeling that ‘passible’ in ‘impassible’ and ‘passion’ in ‘impassioned’ are used in different senses – the former from the original meaning of the word in Latin, that is, something that one suffers, while the latter is a strong (in God’s case perfect) affection. So how helpful it is to use it in these two ways, to call God ‘impassible ‘ and ‘impassioned’, or say that God’s ‘ontologically transcendent passion’ is his ‘impassibility’ is questionable. I know what Lister is saying, and his thesis is very helpful, but perhaps the vocabulary is not.

One other unsatisfactory part of the book is that in 284 pages only 20 are given to the incarnation and the atonement in a ‘Concluding Christological Reflection’. God’s revelation in Christ and the cross deserves more attention than this in a book on this subject.

But this is an excellent book, very full of useful discussion and Bible exposition, and is highly recommended for getting to grips with this important and difficult subject.


God’s Greater Glory – The Exalted God of Scripture and the Christian Faith - Bruce Ware (Crossway 2004)

In 'God’s Lesser Glory' Bruce Ware carried out a good demolition job on Open Theism. In this later (but now quite old!) volume he constructs a far better picture of God’s providential care of his creation. He has excellent material on God’s transcendence and immanence, the Creator–creature distinction, divine sovereignty and human freedom, and ‘concurrence’ – what he calls God working through creation.

The weakest part in my view is his section on ‘Calvinist middle knowledge’ which he constructs in an attempt to avoid God being charged with being the author of sin – in other words it is a kind of apologetic. His view of God’s government of good acts is that the government of the human will is direct, for God is the author of good and there is no conflict. But there is a difference in God’s government of evil. If we take the view that we are free when we act according to our strongest inclination, then if God, knowing how an agent will act in given circumstances, so ordains events that an agent will choose to do evil, then we cannot say that evil is done by God or due to the factors in the situation, but by the sinful nature of the agent acting freely.

This does not seem to be very effective apologetically, because is a God who prepares an evil act in all but final execution, any better morally than a God who actually moves the human will up to and including the very act (as Phil 2:12,13 seems to suggest God controls us; as also Genesis 50:20 suggests)? Give a bad man a gun knowing he will kill someone with it, or a naughty child a firework knowing he will put it through someone’s letter box – but then say ‘It wasn’t me guv’. Are you off the hook?

Of course the precise way God governs evil and good are different, but this is surely the place for a robust application of the doctrine of concurrence (which Ware discusses elsewhere), and to say with Calvin in commenting on ‘the king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord’ (Prov 21:1) that ‘in general the will not less than external works are [sic] governed by the determination of God’.

So I was not persuaded by Ware’s argument here. But overall it is a very helpful book and I enjoyed it.

Simply God - Recovering the Classical Trinity - Peter Sanlon (IVP 2014).

Peter Sanlon is a rising star in the Reformed Anglican firmament, vicar of St Mark’s, Tunbridge Wells (sorry, Royal Tunbridge Wells), and a fine young theologian.

This book is primarily reminding us of the wonder of God’s ‘simplicity’, which Sanlon calls the basic grammar of language about God, ‘the engine in the car of a healthy theology’. God’s simplicity is the doctrine that he is one, not composed of parts, and that ‘he is what he has’. All God’s attributes are co-extensive with God himself. God does not ‘have’ attributes such as patience, truthfulness, love and knowledge; he is patience, truthfulness, love and knowledge, and all perfectly. God is love, not loving; in love he gives nothing less than himself.

Sanlon works the theme of simplicity through in relation to God’s eternity and omniscience, omnipotence and goodness, immutability and impassibility.

The second part of the book looks at God’s relationality and threeness, but the burden of the book is to remind us of the importance of the oneness and especially the simplicity and unity of God, perhaps redressing a Trinitarian overload in evangelical theology in recent years. The Creator–creature distinction is emphasised, as is the classical ‘perfect being’ theology of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas and others, and the importance of remembering that language about God is always analogical rather than univocal (i.e. words cannot mean exactly the same thing when used of God as they do when used of us – he is a different order of being – but true communication is possible – hence analogy.)

Sanlon ends with a stimulating chapter applying his thesis to the areas of entertainment, religious freedoms, work and ministry, mission and church.

Every chapter concludes with a meditation and prayer.

This really is a great book.

I have enjoyed reading all these, and benefitted greatly from them. Do not let the fact that I have been critical in parts make you think that these are not good books – the overall quality is high. Ware and Lister are more overtly biblical in their treatment, Sanlon possibly more obviously philosophical and theological, really because of the nature of the subject; his final authority is evidently Scripture and where appropriate he cites it freely.

There is no greater subject for reflection than our great God, and although I did not set out to read these books with any single plan in mind, their different yet complementary theses have refreshed my mind, expanded my knowledge and spurred me to worship. Thank you to the authors!

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Os Guinness on 'True Truth'

About 100 people gathered at the Round Church, the home of Christian Heritage in Cambridge on the evening of 15th May for a commemorative meeting 30 years after Francis Schaeffer's death.

Ranald Macaulay and Andrew Fellows began proceedings with fairly brief and light but enjoyable introductions, first to Schaeffer himself (Ranald is one of his sons in law, a former director of L'Abri and founder-director of Christian Heritage) and then to L'Abri(Andrew is director of English L'Abri in Greatham, Hampshire).

After refreshments, the 'main course' was Os Guinness on 'True Truth' - a very Schaefferish phrase. He spoke brilliantly for 45 minutes without a note. He spoke of the two sources of our present crisis of truth - ideas, and also social and cultural influences.

He encouraged us that scepticism is the fruit of the over-reach of rationalism and sceptical periods never last.

He exhorted us as to the importance of this moment for Christians - unless we have a biblical view of truth our faith will be vulnerable to quick dismissal. Truth is ultimately a matter not of philosophy but of theology.

For the west this means that if there is no truth everything is a matter of power games and manipulation. Education becomes just a matter of jumping through hoops to get your qualification. Also, freedom requires truth - not only freedom from, but positively, freedom for - and this is where Christianity comes in. We need to know who we are and what we are living for. The truth will set you free.

To answer the 'heavy sceptic', (following Peter Berger and Schaeffer) we must be able to 'relativise the relativiser' - point out where the relativist is holding on to an absolute somewhere, as he surely will. Positively, point people to signs of transcendence in their own lives - inconsistencies they cannot avoid as they are living in God's world. All of us are 'suppressing the truth' (Rom 1:18-20).

We must be people who shape our desires to the truth, not like Aldous Huxley (see Ends and Means) and others who shaped truth to their desires.

Truth he concluded is ultimately about the Lord - personal.

A full audio recording of this address is available on the Christian Heritage website from next week.

Banner of Truth conference 2014

This is a bit belated - the conference was 22-24 April.

It was good.

Andrew Davies was his usual warm, winsome and edifying self, preaching at the beginning and end of the conference.

Garry Williams was crisp, clear and challenging, on 'Always Reforming' and 'Metaphors for ministers'.

Donald John Maclean stood in at the last minute for Iain Murray and gave us a helpful biography of John Knox.

David Meredith spoke on preaching sin today, and preaching Christ today. My very personal opinion was that he failed to get to grips with the subjects but I know others found him very helpful.

Norman McAuley preached encouragingly on the church from John 17 and Ephesians 1.

Finally O.Palmer Robertson gave two stimulating papers on the Psalms, with a wonderful schematic overview which he strongly hinted may at some time see publication.

Three days instead of four - a bit short, but enjoyable and refreshening.

CDs will be available .

Friday, 16 May 2014

Is Britain a Christian Country?


The debate has been engaging the airwaves,internet and print runs again: is Britain a Christian country, or was it ever? Of course it all depends on what we mean by ‘Christian’. There was never a time when every Briton was a Christian; nor even when the majority of Britons attended church; even in 1851 it has been estimated that in real terms only 25% of the nation went to church, once double counting has been allowed for.

If, however, we mean that the institutions, education, health care, laws and values of the nation have been strongly, even predominantly, influenced by Christianity, then we must say yes, of course Britain is a ‘Christian’ country. Even humanists and secularists will agree with that; what they say though is that Christianity’s time is up; move over – let other ideologies and value systems have their day.

Establishment?

A complicating factor in Britain is the establishment of the Church of England. In a recent radio discussion one defender of the ‘Christian nation’ view was also defending the establishment as if the two ideas were inseparable and a humanist was making mincemeat of him. It is pretty easy, after all, to pick holes in the idea of bishops being in the House of Lords and the monarch being head of the church. Non-conformists and secularists can make common cause on this.
Some would say that it is the establishment that makes Britain a Christian country. I am more inclined to agree with an evangelical Anglican friend who said to me recently that what made Britain Christian was in fact the great revivals and what we needed urgently today was another movement of God’s Spirit. The establishment will accomplish nothing. Surely this is nearer the truth. Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones said many years ago that Wilberforce and Shaftesbury only achieved what they did because they were riding the crest of the eighteenth and nineteenth century revivals.

Monarchs

When a monarch is a Christian and actually has power to do something, then this can be a force for good. But for this we are going back to Alfred the Great (in the ninth century) who laid the legal and institutional basis for Britain to be a ‘Christian’ country. Edward VI would be another, short-lived, example. But this is going back a bit, and Alfred was not ‘head of the church’ and Edward’s influence was hardly due to his official title as 'Defender of the Faith'. As the dissident Puritan Roger Williams (1603-83), pointed out, if you would have an established religion, remember the history of English monarchs: Henry VII found the country Catholic and let it Catholic; Henry VIII found it Catholic and left it half Protestant; Edward left it more fully Protestant; Mary turned it Catholic again; Elizabeth left it Protestant; and whither the Stuarts…?

Roger Williams

Williams was writing in the 1640s. Out of the English Reformation had come the Elizabethan Settlement and there would be a hundred years of tension before Non-conformity experienced the most painful of births in 1662. Williams was a non-conformist by conviction long before this. He went to New England in 1631 and soon found himself in conflict with the Congregationalist establishment. The men he clashed with were men whom he respected and with whom he shared the great points of Reformed theology. But Williams was committed to the separation of church and state in a more thorogoing way than any of the leading Puritans. The state, he argued, is a civil institution and not the defender of or judge of spiritual things; freedom of worship should be allowed to pagan, Jewish, ‘Turkish’ or antichristian consciences and false religion should only be fought with the sword of the Spirit, not the power of the state; uniformity of worship is not to be enforced. Fundamentally he argued that the state of Israel is not a pattern for any civil state today – a claim that hit against the very heart of the New England establishment’s rationale.

Separation of church and state

Was this because Williams was indifferent to religious truth? Not at all. In his seventies he rowed thirty miles to debate with Quakers for three days because he saw their teachings to be wrong; but Quakers were only free to be there (in Rhode Island) because of his equally strong commitment to religious freedom. He argued that a relationship of separation between church and state would in the end benefit both. He loved peace and saw this as the way to peace. He saw that ‘true civility’ (peaceful co-existence in society) and Christianity could both flourish notwithstanding freedom of conscience, and indeed fare better because of it. He had confidence that the gospel was best left to the work of God to establish and prosper. Indeed, he argued convincingly that established religion would in the end harm the gospel and the church; when the care of religion is committed to the state, argued Williams, ‘ by degrees the gardens of the churches of the saints were turned into the wilderness of whole nations…’ The ‘wall of separation’ (a phrase he used long before it was taken up by Thomas Jefferson in 1800) was needed for both church and the state to be truly themselves.

Word and Spirit

Is Britain a Christian country? In a sense, it is irrelevant. We are saddened by the ignorance, immorality and wilfulness of the campaign to dislodge Christian influence from our nation, but our task as Christians is not to build a Christian nation. It is to proclaim and bear witness to the kingdom of God. This does not mean ‘just evangelise’ but it does mean that political influence is not our primary consideration. It also means we rely not on the legal establishment of religion, but on the Spirit of and Word of God.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

What is Man?

What is man?

‘It has been said by someone that “the proper study of mankind is man”. I will not oppose the idea, but I believe it is equally true that the proper study of God’s elect is God…’ said C. H. Spurgeon. I would like to propose that God’s elect might also usefully give a little time to the biblical view of man.
Indeed it could be argued that the most neglected and the most necessary doctrine in the Christian system today is that of man. One hears much of the doctrine of God from contemporary evangelical theologians, and for this one gives thanks, but how often is the creature made in the Triune image given serious theological attention by Christians?
I say theological. There is man-centred worship, preaching and writing, but that is not the same as a theological study of man. Yet we need this to recover our bearings.

Boundaries are blurred if not erased, firstly between man and animal, according to evolution. Man is a lucky animal. Secondly, between man and machines: perhaps we are just the result of our DNA working itself out through various mechanisms. Thirdly, between us and God; he is no longer the Most High God, but a god ‘within’, whose mission in life is to make us happy.
Finally the boundary between male and female is erased. ‘People can feel like girls, they can feel like boys, they can feel like both, and they can even feel like neither’ said an American high school teacher. ‘Gender identity is about what ‘s in here (pointing to his chest) …and up here (pointing to his head) ...’ Gender is what you want it to be. Gone are the days of two genders.
Above all perhaps, it is needed because ‘we cannot have a clear and complete knowledge of God unless it is accompanied by a corresponding knowledge of ourselves’ (Calvin, Institutes, I.xv.1). Lose touch with what we are, and we speed further down the road of losing touch with God.
Let us look briefly at a few things the Bible tells us.

Man is placed in an environment prepared for him
Creation is ready for the appearance of man, indeed created for his sake (Calvin). He enters a world in which he has context. He is unique but not alone. This world will provide for him, but he will have dominion over it – to work it and care for it. He must extend the rule of God over the whole earth through ‘multiplying’ and having dominion. This was Adam’s ‘great commission’.

Man is unique
God consults with himself (Gen 1:26) before creating man. Three times the Hebrew word bara is used in Genesis 1:27 indicating that here is something special. Man alone is explicitly created male and female. Man alone has a soul inbreathed by a special act of God (Gen 2:7). He alone is given dominion over the earth, and has a helpmeet specially created for him. The punishment for his life being taken is death (Gen 9:6). Above all only he is called into a covenantal relationship with God (Gen 2:16,17). These and other things point to his uniqueness.

Man is created in God’s image
The most important aspect of man’s uniqueness is that he is created in the image of God. He resembles God, reflects God and is to represent God in creation. The image of God is something he is, not something he ‘has’. The whole of man is the image of the whole God. Even the body is included but we cannot speculate as to how.
The image is generally regarded as having two aspects – original holiness, which was entirely lost at the Fall, and a broader image, consisting of all those things in which we are different from or vastly superior to the animals - capacity for worship and a ‘sense of God’, reason, language, conscience, choice, creativity, personality, love, ability to rule the earth etc. This aspect of the image was not entirely lost (Gen. 5:1-3, 9:6, James 3:9) but is horribly distorted – totally depraved, we say.
When you become a Christian, you are renewed in the image of God through Christ – renewed in righteousness, knowledge and holiness in the image of your Creator (Eph 4:23,24; Col 3:10).

Man is male and female
This is painfully present to our minds today. We do not need to be reminded of the tragedy of this being deliberately rejected. There are sad personal cases that remind us that, physically and psychologically, we live in a fallen world, but they do not give us the right to reconstruct reality. The vast majority of ‘gender-bending’ is a philosophical issue, seeking to justify rebellion against God in the profound area of human identity.
And as we lose touch with what we are, we lose touch with the God in whose image we are made.

Man is made for God
Nothing is more important in the Genesis account than the covenant God entered into with Adam. Adam was to obey God, and the clear implication is that if he did his perfection would be rewarded with a sonship he could never lose; if he disobeyed he would die – in several ways. The whole of human history hinges on this arrangement – and is restored in the even greater event of the obedience of Christ (Romans 5:12-21).

Man is a creature under law
In the state of perfection this was not a burden. But once we lose the sense that we are creatures under law, we lose ourselves. ‘I’m sorry about yesterday – I feel bad inside’ wrote a little boy in our local school after a spell of bad behaviour. It was better than nothing –but how sadly adult– no sense of right and wrong – just how he felt. Our problems are not moral but psychological, so we think, and God, if he exists, is a therapist. We are, however, moral beings as God is a moral God. Conscience is a friend. Only this framework can prepare for conviction of sin, repentance and salvation.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

The First World War

'However the war began - by German design, by the negligence of statesmen, by the purblindness of generals- there was nothing inevitable about its course'. So says Allan Mallinson, in 1914 - Fight the Good Fight - Britain, the Army and the Coming of the First World War.

German military ambition; unprepared and complacent politicians; inadequate, not to say incompetent generals: the tangled threefold cord that led eventually to war.

It is interesting what one can learn from books about WW1; for example, Germans were called Huns because of a speech of the Kaiser in 1900 when he boasted that China during the Boxer rebellion should be made to fear the Germans in the way Europe had once feared Attila the Hun; artesian wells are named after the region of Artois; 'tanks' are so called because when first transported during the First World War, in communications between England and France they were referred to as 'water tanks' to fool the Germans who might have intercepted any messages.

The fascinating issue however is: what caused the war? The three part BBC series '37 Days' did a good job of dramatising the historical events of the summer of 1914, from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg throne, in Sarajevo on 28th June to the declaration by England of war on Germany on 4th August.

What is amazing with the wisdom of hindsight is the feeling that war could have been avoided. Why should a spot of bother in the Balkans really lead to war between the super-powers of Europe and beyond? That seems to have been the outlook of at least the British leaders. There was complacency and naivety, a kind of living in the halcyon days of Edwardian summers, not really believing anyone could actually want war in the Europe of the early 20th century.

But they reckoned without the martial mindset of Prussian dominated Germany - the one factor that did make war inevitable. To go to war to honour a commitment to Belgium and an understanding with France was after all not dishonourable or unreasonable. It was not an unnecessary war for Britain to fight. Just a tragic one ever to have been started.

Having said that, of all wars this is the most difficult for which to pin down a merely human reason, or chain of causation. An age had to come to an end, a new one begin, and it would take two wars, not one, to exhaust the world.

The result was a change of eras. It was a war taking place during an age of transition; weapons of destruction outstripped means of defence and strategies to counter them. A war of cavalry charges and gas masks, poison gas and zeppelins, tanks, aeroplanes and footslogging.

Above all, one sees men, often good men, in political leadership at the mercy of events. One cannot study the causes of this war in particular without being aware of events being carried by their own momentum. There was a sense of inevitability even while one wonders why it could not have been avoided.

Which brings one to the idea of God. Ultimately the First World War happened because he willed it, though no evil is in him. There was a divine purpose in it all, though one does not presume to know what it was other than that in the end he will be glorified. An expression of the judgement of God, certainly, an outworking of the curse, a tragic testimony to human sinfulness. Every consideration of this and other wars should profoundly humble us.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

12 Years a Slave

Based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black American who was kidnapped in New York in 1841 and spent 12 years in slavery, this is a hard film to watch. It has been much publicised and is hotly tipped for Baftas and Oscars.

Director Steve McQueen (I can never see that name without thinking of a motorbike leaping over barbed wire fences in 1940s Germany) pulls no punches in portraying the brutality of slavery, and it is not for the squeamish. One man next to me kept covering his eyes; a woman next to my wife squeaked and gasped from time to time.

The peculiar thing is, it leaves one very little to talk about. It raises no new moral issues, just emphasises how bad a bad institution really was; it does not add anything to 'Uncle Tom's Cabin', and is actually less subtle and nuanced than that peerless book.

It is however a good and powerful film, and the acting is of high quality. One is faced with the conundrum of human wickedness, in people who should have known so much better. But when human beings are regarded as possessions, almost anything is possible.

I think Hilary and I have had our ration of films for the year!