Wednesday, 24 March 2010

The Blunderbuss Effect

There is a security camera in our village.

Now Welwyn is not perfect and I am sure that even in this rather sleepy quarter of middle Hertfordshire there are some (dare I say it) criminals and (yes, even) louts. But we are not a city centre; we are not Birmingham, London or Manchester. Gracious me, we are not even Welwyn Garden City, where there are, if they will pardon me saying it, probably hives of yobbos. The front page of our local paper last week was celebrating a police 'swoop' on a noisy neighbour. That is how bad things are getting around here.

Nonetheless - Welwyn has a security camera.

Did I say 'a' camera?

I should say cameras. Four of them. On one tall black pole near the bridge over the River Mimram. Two looking down the street, one examining the bridge and the other scrutinizing a car-park.

Mind you, we should count ourselves lucky. Statistics tell us that there is one CCTV camera for every 14 people in Britain (yes, about 4 million of them) so in Welwyn we should have about 250 'public eyes'. Perhaps I just haven't seen them yet.

Because, therefore, of a small minority of potential disturbers of the peace, the rest of us have our potterings and perambulations, our wanderings and our window shopping, our chattings and conversations all recorded on a camera which probably feeds a small screen in some dingy security firm or police office. As a friend in the village said - 'It makes you feel you have to behave'. Exactly. It is that sense of 'Big Brother' which is so intrusive, the authoritarian wet blanket taking the edge off the enjoyment of a hitherto self-regulated freedom.

It is part too of the blunderbuss effect. A blunderbuss is an old type of firearm which, unlike a rifle with one bullet more or less accurately aimed, fires a load of shot over a wide area. One of the features of modern life is deprivation or inconvenience suffered by the many on account of the few. For example, because of a tiny minority of extremists who may want to blow up a plane, millions have to endure tedious security checks. Because of the small minority of real paedophiles, millions have to be treated as potential criminals and put up with endless bureacracy. Because of a few vicious dogs, it was even suggested that all dog owners should pay insurance in case their dog attacked someone. Thankfully that has been dropped.

From another perspective, because of a small minority of people who want to practise a gay lifestyle, millions of us have to fight not to have our children taught that perversion is normal. Not the same as catching potential criminals but still a minority imposing on a majority.

Is the blunderbuss really necessary? Is it necessary to spread the net wide enough to catch everybody, in order to apprehend the few? Or is it just the easiest way? Will the determined terrorist or paedophile or yobbo be caught like this? I suppose some will point to CCTV evidence which has helped convict some criminals, but was it the only evidence? Was it crucial?

Perhaps the price of greater (if not absolute) security is the reduction of freedom. Maybe Welwyn has to have a (sorry,four) CCTV cameras to survey a short High Street. Maybe we will have to behave. And maybe Big Brother will keep us all safe. But I can't help feeling something has died as, on my way home, I ruefully return the steely gaze of the fourfold unblinking Cyclops.

L'Abri Ideas library

To mention Francis Schaeffer these days is a slightly unnerving experience. There are those who will warm to you immediately; young people, on the other hand, tend not to know who you are talking about; and some older Reformed types purse their lips and raise an eyebrow in silent disapproval; or is it pity?

Nonetheless I am glad to be able to publicise a new venture on the L'Abri website - - called the 'L'Abri Ideas library'. They have made available 1000 recorded lectures from over the last 50 years and many are available for free download. Many of the lectures are by Dr Schaeffer himself. There are Bible studies, sermons and lectures on all manner of subjects from a Christian perspective.

Just visit the above website and go to 'Resources'.

Well worth a visit - even if you may not want to dot every 'i' and cross every 't' with all the lecturers.

For Schaeffer aficionados it promises a real treat.

On a personal note, if you want to hear a lecture I gave at the Evangelical Library three years ago on Schaeffer, the EL may still have recordings available. I spoke of my personal encounter with Schaeffer many (!) years ago and his impact on me, and evaluated him as an evangelist, pastor, prophet and communicator.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

John Piper and the covenant of works

John Piper does not believe in a covenant of works.

Now to some that will sound like the cry of Chicken Licken who thought the sky was falling in because an acorn dropped on his head. 'You may think its worth shouting about but - who else really cares?'

Well,quite a lot of people do judging by various websites. But stop - let's go back -what exactly is the covenant of works anyway? Then we can work out if it's worth bothering about John Piper's denial of it.

The covenant of works is what Reformed theologians have generally held to be the arrangement under which God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden. For example, the Westminster Confession Chapter 7 para 2 says: 'The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience'. Equally important is the previous paragraph which states that, although we owe God obedience as creatures, because the distance between God and us is so great, for us to enjoy blessedness and reward required a further step from God to man, a 'voluntary condescension' which God 'has been pleased to express by way of covenant'. Even the first covenant was an act of freely given kindness; whether this is best called 'grace' is doubtful as it risks confusion of the pre-Fall arrangement with God's kindness to sinners for which the word grace is reserved in Scripture. See further below.

When Adam fell, and all mankind in him, God made a second covenant called the covenant of grace in which salvation is offered to sinners freely in Christ through faith. This covenant is revealed in Genesis 3:15.

Now nobody claims that the word 'covenant' appears in Genesis 1-3 and other names have been suggested for the 'agreement' with Adam - covenant of 'nature' or 'creation' for example. Nonetheless theologians have insisted that the elements of a covenant are there between God and Adam and the terms of it were eternal life for perfect obedience. Adam, even if he had access to the tree of life during his time in Eden, (which some assert and others deny) was subject to change in himself, with a possibility of sinning and under a prohibition which indicated that his tenure in God's favour was 'losable' - not a condition compatible with an eternally blessed state. Moreover it showed that the condition of permanent enjoyment of eternal life was perfect obedience. By his one act of disobedience, Adam lost everything for himself and his posterity (Rom 5:19).

In short, he was a representative man, on 'probation' and in covenant.

It is Romans 5:12f which also shows us the remedy for Adam's fall: the Second Adam, Christ, by his one act of obedience, provided what Adam lost. In other words he fulfilled the covenant of works (which some say is reflected for example in such New Testament passages as Romans 2:6-11; or Matthew 19:17 in Jesus' encounter with the rich young ruler; which both promise life for obedience).

Now what is the problem with denying a covenant of works?

Simply, you threaten the gospel. The Romans 5 parallel between Adam and Christ is central to our understanding of how Christ provides salvation. It is about obedience overwriting disobedience. That obedience was called for because there was an unsatisfied covenant - that of 'works', with Adam. The condition of blessing had not been fulfilled. God did not change what he had instituted; he provided a Person who could fulfil that covenant.

Another way of looking at this is the relationship between Law and Gospel. The covenant of works is 'Law' as a way of obtaining eternal life; the covenant of grace is 'gospel'. But the difference is not in the terms of the covenant so much as in the person performing them. Each human being owes God 100% obedience as Adam did; because of sin in us from conception we are unable to offer that - if Adam failed how much more will we; but Christ is the Second Adam to provide obedience where we fail.

What does John Piper say? In an extract from A Godward Life (pages 172-73) we read: 'What made Adam's sin so evil was that God showed him unmerited favour and offered himself to Adam as an everlasting Father to be trusted in all his counsel for Adam's good'. OK? Well, just, but it does sound a bit like gospel.

Again,'The command [in the garden] was that Adam trust God's goodness'. Was it? Was it not that Adam should not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Trusting in God's goodness was a precondition, but was not the 'command'.

Again,'Adam's test was whether he would prove the trustworthiness of God in reckoning God more to be desired than the prospect of Satan's favour'. It is beginning to sound as if 'desiring God' has become a 'Procrustean bed' squeezing everything into its mould.

Again 'There was no hint that Adam was to earn or deserve. The atmosphere was one of testing faith in unmerited favour, not testing willingness to earn or merit'. Now hold on - we are slipping into something here. Who ever said that Adam was being tested on his willingness to earn or merit? He was being tested on his readiness to obey freely his Creator, out of no other motive than that his Creator said so.

Again, 'The command of God was for the obedience that comes from faith...Christ rendered to God the obedience that Adam forsook. He fulfilled the Law perfectly in the way the Law was meant to be fulfilled, not by works, but by faith (Rom 9:32). Thus he obtained life for his people not by wages, but by fulfilling the conditions of a faithful Son'.

Now - what does it mean to fulfil the Law 'by works' anyway? You either fulfil it or you don't. No-one denies that faith is a precondition of fulfilling the Law. But the Law still has to be fulfilled perfectly. The issue is plain obedience. We are 'made sinners' by one act of disobedience and 'justified' by one act of 'obedience' - Rom 5:19.

It seems as if Piper is assuming an equation between 'justification by works' which is the covenant of works, with a slavish, post-Fall, notion of merit. There is a big difference between, on the one hand, lovingly obeying perfectly and being rewarded for it which was the reasonable condition of eternal life imposed on Adam in Eden, and which the Lord Jesus performed, which is rightly termed 'merit' in the Reformed Confessions, for example,; and, on the other, the notion of 'slavish' merit which is the speciality of Judaizers,the medieval church and every self-justifying sinner who has walked the earth. The idea of 'fulfilling the Law by works' seems to suggest that this is the only fulfilling of the law Piper can envisage apart from the grace of the gospel. But then - who fulfilled the law for the gospel to become possible? Jesus.

Piper goes on to discuss Romans 2:7-10. The two main interpretations are that God's 'giving eternal life' to perseverance in doing good, means either(i) that this is a promise to anyone on the basis of works but no-one actually will acheive this because we are sinnners; or (ii) that this is a description of a Christian whose change of life is being evidenced by the Holy Spirit creating obedience in his life. This latter interpretation is what is preferred by Piper, and other exegetes prefer it too. Apart however from the fact that in this part of Romans the discussion of man's obedience 'as man',is far more in context, what seems to be the reason for Piper's rejection of the former interpretation is telling: namely that 'God never promised eternal life on the basis of good deeds but always makes good deeds the evidence of faith...'.

So - the covenant of works is again denied.

Problem? Grace is in effect taken back into and behind the arrangement with unfallen Adam and the distinction between the covenants of works and of grace is flattened out. In this case what did the Fall effect? Was the curse mere chastisement? Or real damnation for all who now fail to maintain the covenant of works?

It is interesting too that the covenant of works is also denied by proponents of Federal Vision, with a similar flattening out of the covenants and a dislike of anything that smacks of 'merit'. They also distort the meaning of biblical covenants... but that is another story.

Does the covenant of works matter? Maybe we could even concede that the phrase in itself could be changed; but the reality is essential for maintaining the distinction of Law and Gospel, for understanding the work of Christ,the parallel between the first amd last Adams, justification by faith and the provision of imputed righteousness. To deny it puts a question mark over the definition of sin and blurs the requirement for perfect righteousness. It is strange that John Piper who has written so helpfully on justification and imputation takes a stance here that threatens to undermine both.

The sermon as an act of love

'If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing'. (1 Cor 13:1,2).

Preaching recently on this chapter it struck me forcibly how the 'best' preaching with the 'best' doctrine fits neatly into Paul's description of what amounts to precisely 'nothing' without love. When all allowances have been made for Paul's polemic against Corinthian immaturity about gifts and for what scholars call hyperbole, it is still a damning indictment of many of our values. What is impressive, what is spectacular, what attracts admiration, is so much more desirable than what reflects the character of God.

So if I take this seriously, what difference would this make to my preaching? What would a sermon that was an act of love look like - or sound like?

1. It would be an offering of love to the Lord. First, my love is to be for him, and only then for the people in the pews. My preaching must first be an expression of loving God with all my heart, soul and mind. Its first aim would be the glory of God and only then the good of man. I would want to please him, not man, and not seek glory from man (1 Thess.2:4,6).

2. It would be part of my presenting my body as a living sacrifice, my reasonable worship(Rom 12:1).

3. It would be the use of my gifts in love, as Paul exhorts the Corinthians, which means primarily that it is for the 'common good' (1 Cor 12:7),to edify, to build up, the church (14:3,4,5 etc). As Paul constantly insists in chapter 14, communication in the church must be intelligible. Can the people understand this? Is it getting through to them?

4. In preparation therefore I would think more specifically about the good I wanted to do the people. Reading something about sermon preparation recently, the author mentioned in the penultimate paragraph of a substantial lecture, that 'the sermon must have application'. That is probably how I have usually approached things. But if love informed my preaching, would this be adequate? Would I not be thinking all along in terms of application, not just as something which the sermon 'should have'? How else is a sermon to build up the church?

5. I would think of the flock of God as my children for whom I am responsible (1 Thess.1:7,11).

6. I would want to share with the people not only the gospel but my own self (1 Thess. 2:8). I would want to show in my preaching that I cared for them and wanted them to know Christ and grow in Christ, exhorting and encouraging with all earnestness.

7. I would realise that preaching was not only the work of 40 minutes or so but part of a life of labour for the gospel (1 Thess 2:9; Acts 20:18-24).

8. I would be more thankful for the people, praying for them more diligently (1 Thess 1:2,3).

9. I would earnestly want Christ to be formed in them (Gal 4:19).

10. My preaching would be patient, not envying (no oblique criticims of other churches or ministers who seem to be doing better than you), long-suffering, not registering impatience with any member or the church; kind; not boastful, so no self-references which glorify me; and not arrogant as if I knew it all or was the really important person in the church; not self-seeking or irritable or resentful ('keeping a record of wrongs' - ever used a sermon to take revenge on someone you had not the courage to face personally?); would not gloat over wrongdoing but rejoice in what is good; it would be an expression of my bearing all things, hoping all things, believing all things and enduring all things.

I have a long way to go.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Unbelief is Foolishness

A little wit and wisdom from St Hilary (c. AD 315-67)

"Thus all unbelief is foolishness, for it takes such wisdom as its own finite perception can attain, and measuring infinity by that petty scale, concludes that what it cannot understand must be impossible. Unbelief is the result of incapacity engaged in argument. Men are sure that an event never happened, because they have made up their minds that it could never happen"
(Quoted in Systematic Theology vol 1 by Douglas Kelly, on p 19).

Monday, 1 March 2010

Systematic Theology: Queen or cinderella (3) ?

More reasons for doing systematic theology(ST).

Fourth, the nature of the gospel demands it. Not only does preaching require a systematising of Scripture, but we must obey the command of the Lord Jesus to go into the world, discipling all nations, teaching them all that Jesus has commanded...( Matt 28:16f). Such an endeavour demands that the whole word of Christ, the whole counsel of God, be communicated in thorough, accurate form, the parts in relation to the whole. As Wayne Grudem points out, such an exercise, (i) helps to overcome our wrong thinking and confronts us with the truth of Scripture; (ii) helps us to make better decisions in the future with regard to teachings that arise and need to assessed for consistency with Scripture; and (iii) makes us better disciples and helps spiritual growth. ST also helps preachers to think theologically and preach in a balanced, thorough way.

Fifth (and finally), the nature of the church demands it. There has been much discomfort in recent years about ST as traditionally done, basically because it is seen as too 'propositional' in content, too much influenced by Enlightenment presuppositions and methods and therefore dry, dull and remote from the daily life of the church. One articulate proponent of such criticism but from within the evangelical camp is Kevin Vanhoozer. Having not read his works but only read about him I tread cautiously, and will happily be corrected, but it seems fairly clear that he develops the idea of the dramatic nature of the Christian story. In his scenario, God is the playwright, the drama is the history of redemption, the script is Scripture, the dramaturge (who works on the script and interprets it for the actors) is the theologian (therefore theology is dramaturgy), the director is the Holy Spirit and pastors under him, and the actors are all believers. Doctrine is the fruit of dramaturgy, becoming direction for the actors - Christians - in wise living, in playing their part to the full in the drama of redemption.

Vanhoozer is obviously concerned that doctrine is seen as abstract and unrelated to the lives of ordinary Christians, too fond of presenting the Bible as a deposit of revealed truths and propositions whereas in fact God speaks to us in promises, warnings, comfort, commands etc. Vanhoozer has in his sight particularly Charles Hodge and Carl Henry and their ilk. (Hodge has been ably defended on this score by Paul Helm).

Now you may like me already be thinking in terms of 'caricature' not to mention 'straw man' which always helps to give a new way of looking at things a certain plausibility. A lot of what is said ties up with 'speech act ' theory (on which Vanhoozer has written fully in the past) and the idea of the Bible and preaching as narrative etc. But his 2005 book 'The Drama of Doctrine' has worked it out more fully than most.

What can be said? Some questions would be: does the dramaturge have such a role in the Bible? Who are these theologians who mediate the Bible for the pastors and people to follow? Should not each pastor and congregation under the guidance of the Holy Spirit be their own 'dramaturges' within the received traditions of the church? And what of the purpose of the Script? Is not the Bible a letter from God to his people? Is it not to bring his people into relationship with him? Does not the idea of God as a playwright (who may be totally unknown to the actors of a play - usually dead!) make him seem horribly remote and almost irrelevant once one has the script - and those dramaturges? What actor wants to enter into a personal relationship with the playwright?

Perhaps I am being unfair to Vanhoozer. But overall the whole presupposition of his thesis seems rather flimsy - that doctrine in the form of propositions is (i) unrepresentative of the intent and nature of Scripture; (of course there is more to Scripture but haven't theologians always known that? and are not promises, commands etc the very stuff of doctrine?); and (ii) unhelpful to the church. Relevance to the church however has been the burden of true systematic theologians throughout history. Listen to Calvin:

'Doctrine is not an affair of the tongue, but of the life; is not apprehended by the intellect and memory merely , like other branches of learning, but is received only when it possesses the whole soul, and finds its seat and habitation in the inmost recesses of the heart...To doctrine in which our religion is contained, we have given the first place, since by it our salvation commences; but it must be transfused into the breast, and pass into the conduct, and so transform us into itself, as not to prove unfruitful' (Insts. And so would say Hodge and Henry we can be sure.

Moreover Warfield quotes Auguste Sabatier: 'The promulgation of each dogma has been imposed on the church by some practical necessity' ('The Idea of Systematic Theology'; p 81 in Studies in Theology). That is, it is not an ivory tower discipline but carved out in the stuff of history.

So where do we go to make sure doctrine is relevant to the church and to Christian lives? We could look to a use of ST which helps the church to state its beliefs for the encouragement of its own faith, the proclamation of the gospel and the glory of God. We could look to the use of ST to help the church define what it believes clearly, to be memorised if need be, to instruct one another, young and old, and to witness to the outside world. We could see where ST has been hammered out on the forge of history to unite the true church in its fundamental beliefs, to help it to discern error and to know how and in what respects different branches of the church may unite and have fellowship with one another. We could even begin it with a personal, pastoral question like: 'What is your only comfort, in life and in death?' and answer: 'That I belong - body and soul, in life and in death - not to myself but to my faithful Saviour, Jesus Christ...' (Heidelberg Catechism, Q1).

In fact we could call it something like 'Confessional Theology'. Dramatic enough? Those who hammered out the confessions and creeds of the past would have thought so. And millions of Christians have thought so ever since. 'Dogma' they call it - hence Dogmatic Theology, a synonym for ST but with the added punch of being explicitly conducted within the discipline of the church.

(The relationship between confessions and ST is an interesting one - but suffice it to say that the confessions are the result of a lot of hard work in ST and they remain theoretically subject to the possibility of development in the light of further work in ST - though improvements are not often seen!)

To close - a quote from HCG Moule in Warfield (op cit p 86): '[All saving truth a believer enjoys is doctrine]; it is made to live in the heart by the Holy Ghost given to him. But it is itself creed, not life. It is revealed information'.

Maybe what we need is not the reconfiguring of doctrine to make it more dramatic, but more of the Holy Spirit to make it live.

Systematic Theology: Queen or cinderella (2)?

So what good reasons are there for doing systematic theology (ST)? We shall stick with this definition of ST: that it is the attempt to answer the question, what does the whole Bible say on this biblical subject? It is a synthesising, harmonising and summarising discipline using the biblical materials provided by exegesis and biblical theology.

I am making several assumptions at this stage: (i) that God exists; (ii) that he has revealed himself in many ways but, supremely, in writing in the Scriptures and personally in his Son ; (iii) that his revelation has been given in the context of covenantal relationship with his human creatures.

The first good reason for doing ST is that the nature of God demands it. The Lord is one God , perfectly self-consistent, and of one mind. Thus, presupposing as we must do to begin theology that God has spoken, we can further assume that his self-revelation will be self-consistent. To examine that revelation as thoroughly as we can to pursue its inner harmony is a duty of the covenant creature. The use of our minds made, as the whole person is made, in God's image, to pursue the mind of our Maker in his revelation is part of loving him with all our mind. To seek out the consisency of that revelation is to pursue his mind as far as we can. As Douglas Kelly puts it in the early pages of his Systematic Theology, it is to put questions to God's revelation so that he will reveal himself further.

So doing we see the parts of God's revealed will in relation to each other and in relation to the whole. We think the thoughts of God after him. Warfield's illustration is not perfect but helpful nonetheless: if exegesis gathers together individual soldiers, biblical theology puts them into regiments and companies, and ST sees them as part of a complete army to be manouevred into battle.

Is this artificial? No. We do it automatically. Any Christian who witnesses to a friend to tell them 'you are a sinner, Christ died for sinners, so believe and be saved', is using ST. Any believer who wearily but gladly rests on 'the Lamb of God, slain for me' is doing so in the context of a ST. For what would the individual idea mean apart from the framework of Scripture?

By nature we are synthesisers of information, striving for unity. The challenge is to do it as thoroughly and accurately as possible. The nature of man in God's image requires ST. Our use of reason to draw deductions from Scripture is authorised so far as it does not conflict with other Scripture; complete harmony will not be possible and we shall have to content ourselves with living with paradox at many points.

Second, the character of God demands it. God is self-consistent; he is also faithful and reliable. We can trust his revelation. His trustworthiness means he tells us the truth. A lover of truth, which a lover of God will be, will want to understand truth as far as possible as a homage to his Lord.

Third, the nature of Scripture demands it. The Bible is a book from God that is not set out systematically in the sense we are using. It is in some senses a history book, tracing the story of God's purposes from creation to consummation. Why do we need more? Quite simply, so we can preach it. Scripture has been given developmentally and incrementally; the message is not explicit until at least the Christ event of the New Testament, and possibly not until the end of Revelation. The whole has to be read in the light of the last 20% or so, the Old in the light of the New. Biblical Theology is in some ways an Old Testament discipline; once Christ has come, its work is largely done; equally, ST is only just beginning here and begins to understand the whole in the light of the consummation.

If ST did not do this, we would forever be telling a story but without a punchline; we would have no gospel to preach, no demand to make in God's name of sinners, no good news to offer.

B.B.Warfield says: 'The systematic theologian is pre-eminently a preacher of the gospel and the end of his work is obviously not merely the logical arrangement of the truths which come under his hand, but the moving of men, through their power, to love God with all their hearts and their neighbour as themselves...' For this, he needs to 'be having a full, rich, deep religious experience of the great doctrines with which he deals; he needs to be living close to God'.

Moreover, the student of systematic theology, adds Warfield, must not be merely a student, 'but, like the beloved disciple himself, in every sense...a divine'. ('The Idea of Systematic Theology',p 86-7 in Studies in Theology.)

Some more reasons for ST next time, and also a response to some who think doctrine needs to be thought of differently if we are to make it useful to the church.