Friday, 30 April 2010

Prove God exists and we'll protect your right to act on what you believe!

'In the eye of everyone save the believer, religious faith is necessarily subjective, being incommunicable by any kind of proof or evidence' said Lord Justice Laws in a recent case. He was ruling against Gary Macfarlane, a Christian relationship counsellor who was sacked because he refused to give sex therapy sessions to a homosexual couple, because of his beliefs. The judge also said that no religious beliefs could be protected under the law. 'The promulgation of law for the protection of a position held purely on religious grounds cannot therefore be justified...It is irrational, as preferring the subjective over the objective. But it is also divisive, capricious and arbitrary.[It would set] our constitution on the way to a theocracy, which is necessarily autocratic'.(Taken from the Daily Telegraph 30th April).

Well, well. Lots could be said and Rt Rev Dr Michael Nazir-Ali says some of it very well in a comment in the same paper. I shall just put out a few thoughts:

1. Has not freedom of religion long been regarded as a fundamental human right?

2. Does that not entail the protection of such beliefs under the law?

3. This protection is not on the basis of the objective verifiability of such beliefs or their 'rationality' but on the presupposition that in a society which respects the individual (which idea, we may say, is a development of Christianity - Calvinistic Christianity no less) people should be able to worship as they wish without interference from the state.

4. Presumably Laws, LJ, knows this and would not stop Mr Macfarlane worshipping in his church on Sunday; so the issue then is not about his faith as such but about the practice of Mr Macfarlane's religion in the public square from Monday to Saturday.

5. It is therefore a question of morality more than religion in itself; a matter of the moral implications entailed in Mr Macfarlane's Christian faith. To the Christian this is inseparable from the faith - as it would be for any serious religious adherent.

6. Presumably then the judge's objection is that this moral stance of Mr Macfarlane cannot be seen to be based on any 'objective' criteria, anything 'rational'. Putting it another way, it appears (from the scanty material to which I have had access) that had Mr Macfarlane's moral stance been based on some objectively verifiable criteria, he would have had his rights protected.

7. But what could that be? What could be an objective basis for morality which would have passed Lord Justice Laws' test? Would it need to show some obvious public benefit (a utilitarian test)? Or be 'scientifically' proven (a positivist test)? Lord Justice Laws does not seem to have based his judgement on the rightness or otherwise of homosexuality - indeed that has not come into it. So Mr Macfarlane would presumably not be required to show that his morality was 'superior' to that which either tolerates or promotes homosexuality. The basis of the judge's argument is not the merits of the content of Christian morality but its lack, apparently, of objective grounds.

8. Are we at the stage therefore where we have to be prepared to go to court in such matters prepared to 'prove' the 'truth' of Christianity (a matter on which Dr Nazir -Ali gives a few useful hints)? Surely courts are not qualified to judge such matters!Surely judges would not want to try! Could courts be flooded with church historians, theologians, philosophers and Christians with a testimony wheeled in as expert witnesses? But how else can one show the objective validity of a faith? Laws LJ presumably thinks no religion could ever do that. In a sense he is right; one can produce evidence for its goodness and usefulness, in principle and in history, and why should not that be allowed? However it would not amount to the establishing of an objective basis for the morality. Could evidence ever do more than show that the morality was practically beneficial? Could anything less than the proof of God's existence ultimately satisfy Laws LJ's test in the Macfarlane case? And is any court seriously going to want to try to adjudicate that?

9. But then - what objective basis ultimately is there for any value system? If Laws LJ were asked to provide objective, rational criteria by which his own presumably secular morality could be established - from where would it come? Does not the quest for all 'objectivity' finally resolve itself into a faith issue?

10. In conclusion, a fascinating bundle of questions is being raised by these cases and it is hoped that this will go to a higher court - which would have to be the Supreme Court. Left as it is, Laws LJ seems to have left the protection of religous rights, even to worship, quite apart from the practice of Christian principles in the work-place, without a foundation that the law would recognise. This would seem to undermine some fundamental and widely entrenched rights legislation in Europe. Did he mean to go that far? He has also left all rights in a state of uncertainty - for what is the objective basis for any protection of rights? What is the objective basis for example for freedom of speech? Or the right of association?

11.It also leaves Christians able to hold their faith privately but unable to express it publicly in any situation where it comes into conflict with popular mores, without fear of legal sanctions. Whether or not we call this persecution, it is certainly creating an environment in which persecution is inevitable.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Banner 2010

Thanks to the Banner of Truth Trust for organising another fine conference for ministers at Leicester (April 26-29).

We had a winsome start from Wyn Hughes (Cardiff) reminding us from Romans 1:17 of why we value the gospel. O. Palmer Robertson gave us a treat with three very different but equally spell-binding addresses. The first was on prayer, introducing us to Matthew Henry's 'A Method for Prayer', which Palmer is revising for publication in modern format next year. This should be an invaluable resource to refresh our sometimes tired public prayers and indeed our private praying. The second address was a wonderful biography of a missionary of whom no-one had heard - William Hoppe Murray - in what is now Malawi in the early 20th Century. The 10-fold challenge of this man was powerful, but his humanity was as attractive and inspired us without depressing us. Thirdly came a fine call to preach the gospel to all nations, reminding us that the 'mystery' of the gospel, now revealed, was not just that the gospel was for Gentiles, but that it was for Gentiles on equal terms with the Jew. There is no advantage, in terms of salvation, in being a Jew now, he said - see his 'The Israel of God' for more on this excellent and refreshing approach to the issue of Israel today.

Iain D. Campbell gave two stirring addresses on the Lord's Day.The first was a biblical -panoramic survey of the sabbath rest, something Iain does so well as he brings the whole Bible to bear on his subject. Some may have wished for a bit more exegetical detail and support for his main argument in the second address - that the Lord's Day still stands. But for those convinced it was a fine exhortation on the potential and hope for the Lord's Day.

Ted Donnelly closed with a moving sermon on Peter's response to the Lord after the resurrection - 'Lord you know everything' - John 21:15-17. It was a heartwarming and encouraging way to end the conference.

As well as all this there was the usual good fellowship and renewed acquaintances. A good four days which always goes all too quickly each year.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

The Obedience of Christ

We are familiar with the glorious truth of Christ's obedience. We are familiar too with the traditional dual description of his obedience as 'active' and 'passive'. By active, is meant what he actively 'did'; by 'passive' is meant what he 'suffered'.

Just about anyone, however, who tries to think or write seriously about the atonement, while using these descriptions, finds them at best inadequate, at worst thoroughly misleading. In 'The Atonement' for example, Hugh Martin speaks of 'the unhappy and not very intelligible expression, "Christ's active and passsive obedience"' and after rather grudgingly allowing the phrase with suitable explanations he continues, 'But it may be safely doubted whether the phrase 'passive obedience' naturally indicates anything that can be properly called obedience at all...'" (p 81). The etymology of the word 'passive' from the Latin for 'suffering' means little to most of us today and even if it does, it does not help theologically.

Let me suggest at least three reasons why 'active' and 'passive' are poor adjectives to use:

1. They obviously suggest that some of Christ's obedience was 'passive',that is, he suffered and endured to some extent involuntarily. This is quite untrue. All of Christ's obedience was active, or it would not have been obedience.

2. It inevitably causes us to think in terms of a place or point where his obedience stopped being active and began to be passive. This is not essential to the terms, as they can of course apply to two kinds of obedience running concurrently through his life and death. Nonetheless, the tendency fostered by this nomenclature is to think of the cross as something inherently passive and the rest of Christ's life as active. This is a flawed way of thinking of the work of Christ. Christ's death on the cross was active self-offering, victorious throughout; 'Into thy hands O Lord I commend my spirit.' Moreover, he 'endured' from the moment of his birth.

3. The descriptions 'active' and 'passive' bear no relation to that which obedience is reflective of - the law of God. They suggest that there were times when the will of Christ was active, other times when it was quiescent, though Christ was always 'willing' throughout his obedience. But these words tell us nothing theological or even biblical about his obedience.

What is needed is a description of his work that reflects its twofold aspect accurately.

This means that it should reflect the fact that all of Christ's obedience was in relation to the law of God. Further, some of his suffering was in relation to the precepts of God, to provide a perfect, personal and perpetual obedience for his people; and part of Christ's obedience was in relation to the sanction, or penalty, of God's law, namely death in all its forms.

Why cannot we therefore use universally the words preceptive to decscribe Christ's obedience so far as it was providing a righteousness in obedience to the law; and penal to describe what he suffered in relation to the penalty of the law? These words are hardly new but could surely be adopted more widely. This preceptive-penal obedience of Christ ran through his whole life from conception to grave embracing all his self-offering, his priestly act on our behalf, in all he did and endured at every moment of his life. These words accurately describe what his suffering was all about, unlike the present active-passive description which only misleads.

I propose...the adoption of these terms.

If not passed - I shall continue to use them myself anyway!