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Archive for June, 2010

Thought this was relevant to the triune creation stuff I’ve been blogging.  This is what you get when you mess with “Let us“…

It’s also a good reminder not to make “nothing” into a big black something.  To say that God creates out of nothing is not to imagine a gigantic, universe-shaped hole into which creation then slots.  It means that before creation, the Father, Son and Spirit were all of reality.  When He creates God is massively relativized by the cosmos.  Creation is the beginning of the Lord’s humbling that climaxes at the cross.

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…continued from here

Creation

Where has creation come from?  There are three popular options.

1) Maybe it’s come out of some problem in the heavenly realms.  Perhaps it’s the body of a slain monster as in the Babylonian myth Enuma Elish – literally a monstrosity.  Perhaps, as the Gnostics would have it, creation arises after a member of the spiritual realm has been sin-binned for some misdemeanor.  Again, this being who is outside the spiritual constitutes creation.  Perhaps – a popular one today – it’s arisen from explosions and endless struggle.  In these variations on a theme the underlying belief is that fall precedes creation and gives rise to it.

2) Another option is to say that creation has always existed.  It’s just an immovable, eternal fact – godlike in its own right.  Here, if you believe in God, he’s got his hands tied and basically does his best with the materials available.

3) A third option is to say creation is a matter of the will.  There is first a God (or some power or principle), and creation exists alongside as a demonstration of his power.  To get to the heart of all things is not to find a heart at all but only force.

Interestingly our modern creation myth is a synthesis of all these errors.  We are the result of explosions, chaos, death and struggle; God (if he exists) is a far-off clockmaker and really the only way to live in such a world is to acknowledge that might is right and propagate our selfish genes.

But there is another way to see creation.  And the trinity is crucial.

As Irenaeus and Athanasius saw it, the Father of all was first Father of the Son Whom He loves.  And this Father-Son love in the Spirit provides the key to understanding creation rightly.  Robert Jenson puts it well:

The Father’s love of the Son is… the possibility of creation.  Insofar as to be a creature is to be other than God, we may say that the Father’s love of the Son as other than himself is the possibility of creation’s otherness from God. (R.Jenson: Systematic Theology, vol 2, p48.)

The massive significance of this can be seen when we ask the question, what is it like to be ‘other’ than God?

With option 1) above, to be other than God is to be a cosmic embarrassment, the fruit of a defect.  With option 2) to be other than God means to be a cog in an impersonal machine.  With option 3) to be other than God is to be a slave.  But with the triune God, to be Other than God is to be beloved and included.

In eternity the Son has been Other to God.  He is the Father’s eternal complement as Body to Head (1 Cor 11:3).  Otherness is therefore not competitive or defective but corresponding and desired.  And creation that is in Christ and through Christ and for Christ is the extension of this eternal love-for-otherness.  Colin Gunton says:

To create in the Son means to create by the mediation of the One who is the way of God out into that which is not Himself.  (Triune Creator, p144)

Before creation there was not nothing and there were not wars, there was a Loving Father eternally anointing His Son in the Spirit.  And as Irenaeus has said, that Son is called Christ “since through Him the Father anoints and adorns all things.” (Demonstration §53)

That’s worth meditating on!

For Irenaeus, even our individual formation in the womb comes through Christ.  (Ad. Her. IV.31.2; V.15.3)

The Father of Jesus brought all things into existence from nothing through His two hands – the Son and the Spirit, His Word and Wisdom.

For the hands of God in Scripture see, for e.g. Isaiah 48:13, 51:9; Psalm 98:1; Ezekiel 3:14,16; Daniel 5:5; 10:10f; Matthew 12:28; Luke 11:20.

So Irenaeus says:

This hand of God which formed us at the beginning, and which does form us in the womb, has in the last times sought us out who were lost, winning back His own, and taking up the lost sheep upon His shoulders, and with joy restoring it to the fold of life.  (Ad. Her. V.15.2);

And, because God is rational, he therefore created what is made by his Word, and, as God is Spirit, so he disposed everything by his Spirit. (Demonstration. 5.);

For with Him were always present the Word and Wisdom, the Son and the Spirit, by whom and in whom, freely and spontaneously, He made all things. (Ad. Her. IV.20.1)

On all these points, Athanasius was in agreement.

The key advance which Athanasius made with regard to a Christological doctrine of creation was his definitive differentiation between the Son’s eternal generation from the Father and creation’s in-time manufacture.  Irenaeus would surely have agreed with Athanasius on these points but he didn’t have an Arius forcing him to articulate his position in quite the same way.

The issue arose because for Arius the world was willed by a God who is not essentially Father and therefore not essentially Lover.  The world is a product of will.  And Christ too is the off-shoot of this will since he must be made as a demi-god mediator in order to (somehow!) bridge the infinite otherness-gap of God and creation.  All of this is the absurdity of unitarianism.  Yet it was Arius who found trinitarian thinking absurd.

He would ask Athanasius, “Why do you say there was a time when creation began to exist, but not a time when the Son began to exist? What convincing distinction can be made between begetting and making?”

Athanasius answers that there is a crucial distinction between what is begotten and what is willed.  Paternity is a matter of essence, not will. As soon as a father has a son he is a father.  Therefore the Father has always been Father just as the Son has always existed.  Yet creating is a matter of will not essence – one can be a maker before one actually makes.  Therefore, just because God has always been Maker does not mean that there has always been something that is made (i.e. creation).

So creation has a beginning in time but the Son does not.  Jesus is the Father’s Son by nature (or essence), creation is God’s handiwork by will. He is Begotten not Made as the creed now says.

But here’s the good bit – the Father has willed a commitment to the creation that is very much tied to His essential commitment to the Son.  The creature is lovingly and purposefully willed by the Father as that which is ‘after’ His eternal Image Whom He loves. His love for the creature corresponds to His love for the Son, for when He beholds the creation He delights ‘in seeing the works made after His own Image; even this rejoicing of God is on account of His own Image.’ (Contra Arianus. II.82)

Because of the mediation of the Son, creation could never be a matter of indifference to the Father.  The love with which He has loved the Son is now bound up in the world He has made for Him.  But precisely because it is for Him then Athanasius has successfully reversed Arius’ heretical proposition:

It is not He who was created for us, but we are created for Him. (Contra Arianus, II.31)

A properly trinitarian account of creation has therefore preserved the honour of Christ as Divine Creator but also the honour of the world as beloved creature.

Where have we gotten to?

I do not live in a monstrous reality arising from chaos.  I don’t live in a grand, impersonal machine.  And I don’t exist for the magnification of might.  I am from the Father, created purposefully out of His overflowing love through the Son, and – by the Spirit – for Him.

It’s that “for Him that’s we’ll discuss next time.  We will consider the purpose for creation.

More to come…

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…continued from here

To know Christ is to know the ‘one Lord… through Whom all things came and through Whom we live.’ (1 Cor 8:6).  Therefore, without a Christological doctrine of creation, it is not simply that Christ’s work will be incomprehensible, Christ Himself will be blasphemed.

Thus, against the heresies of the sub-Apostolic era, it fell to theologians such as Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 200) and Athanasius (c. 297 – 373) to uphold the continuity of creation and redemption.  They were able to do so precisely because, for them, Christ and His work was not a metaphysical conundrum to be solved – how can the Creator-Word become flesh? Instead, the Word-become-flesh was the Rock upon which they built (cf Col 2:8f; John 14:6; Matthew 11:25-27; Colossians 1:15; John 1:18)

Trevor Hart makes this analysis of Irenaeus:

[he made] the person of the Incarnate Son his dogmatic starting point, rather than the dualistic framework provided by the categories of Greek thought.

(T. Hart, ‘Irenaeus, recapitulation and physical redemption’, Christ in Our Place, Ed: Trevor Hart and Daniel Thimell, Paternoster, 1989. p.179)

Athanasius’ starting point is similarly Christocentric:

The first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word who made it in the beginning.  (De incarn. 1)

These men were not concerned to hold creation and redemption together in an abstract sense (so as to keep a balanced theological ledger).  Rather their commitment to Christ as Beginning and End of all things forced them to think through creation and redemption as the one divine work of the One Divine Word.  The Bishops of Lyon and Alexandria were therefore able to maintain the coherence of creation and redemption in Christ and therefore to guard the gospel that still speaks powerfully today into our confusions.

To begin with, we will look at the confusions of their day as the context for their theology.

Heresies

The early Church was assailed on all sides by those who divorced their understanding of Christ and His work from their understanding of the creator God.  Those heresies which were most pernicious were precisely those which insisted on the centrality of Christ to redemption.  Yet immediately the question must be raised ‘Redemption from what? And to what? And by Whom?’

The answers given by Marcion (c.80 – c. 160) were disturbing.  Christ saves us from the Creator God of the Old Testament who is bad (viz. involvement with creation), capricious, legalistic and not the Father of Jesus.  The death of Christ purchases salvation and His soul’s rising from death gives hope for our own soulish afterlife.

The Gnostic, Valentinus (in Rome from c. 136-165), provided Irenaeus with his chief ‘whipping boy’.  He taught that the creator is not the Supreme Being but, as Irenaeus caricatures, ‘the fruit of a defect’ existing in a long chain of deity (the pleroma) which kept the created order at a great (almost by definition, unbridgeable) distance.  Christ is simply one emanation from this pleroma (lit. ‘fullness’) as opposed to the One in Whom all the fullness of God dwells (Col 2:9).  He came to save the true pneumatikoi (the ‘spiritual’) from this material world through imparting secret gnosis (‘knowledge’).

Arius (c. 250 – c. 336), was perhaps the most serious threat to orthodox Christianity because his account of Christ’s saving work was so apparently Scriptural.  The ‘what’ of the cross was set forth plainly.  Yet the ‘Who’ of the cross proved the decisive error.  Arius committed the fundamental mistake outlined in the introduction – that of deciding his doctrines of God, of man and of creation in advance of considering the God-Man Creator.  For him, the Divine Being is unitary and without distinctions, must be un-begotten, can have no contact with creation and can never partake in human (i.e. changeable) existence.  Of course he could subscribe to none of these views if Christ were his dogmatic foundation. Thus it fell naturally to Athanasius, whose Christocentricity we have noted, to defeat this terrible heresy.

All of these heresies fail, not only on the point of Christ’s identity but also on the goal of His redemption.  And such failures have contemporary echoes.  If God and the created order are necessarily incompatible then you may have an earthy salvation but not true fellowship with God (think of Islam where paradise is exceedingly carnal but a place from which Allah is conspicuously absent).  On the other hand you might have a spiritual future but only by escaping the creation (think of Buddhism or the new age movement).  But how do you have both?

You need to affirm what Irenaeus and Athanasius saw so clearly: creation and salvation are part of the one divine work of the one divine Word.

More to come…

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Famously Adolf Von Harnack asserted in the History of Dogma that much of Christian theology betrayed the “work of the Greek spirit on the soil of the gospel.”  Now to be fair, the old liberal didn’t have much gospel himself but the observation has something to it.

On the one hand we have the Scriptures beginning with a very good creation, full of promises of land and seed and a Saviour taking flesh to renew heaven and earth.  On the other we have a Hellenizing spirit which pits body and soul, earth and heaven, time and eternity against each other.   When this spirit meets this gospel – and Harnack was right, this is a perennial danger – it always yields bad fruit.

But in this series I want to look at two towering exceptions in the history of theology – Irenaeus and Athanasius.  In their day they resisted ‘the Greek spirit’ and called the church back to the fertile soil of the gospel.  There they found the Fountainhead of those unities which escaped the philosophers of this age.  In Jesus Christ they saw creation and salvation held together as one work performed by one Word.  And from there flowed a unified account of all reality.

In our own day we would do well to hear their voices.  Because we too find it completely obvious to fall for the old dualisms.

In the realm of the body, we see self-harm and eating disorders, promiscuity and confusion over sexual identity, compulsive dieting and body-building, cosmetic surgery and gender re-assignment.  These are problems commonly found in the world but also in our churches.  We seem deeply uncomfortable with our bodily existence.

In the realm of the environment, we see the extremes of those who simply consume the earth and those who worship it.

In worship there are the ritualists who consider their sacramental practice to work ex opere operato and there are the low church minimalists running scared from anything physical.

And theologically, as we consider the relationship of creation and redemption, some mistake political harmony, social justice or economic liberation for salvation.  In reaction, some cut loose creation from salvation with an anti-physical gospel and an escapist eschatology.  And some will dissolve any final distinction between creation and redemption and opt for universalism.

In view of this, the proper co-ordination of creation and redemption (and its attendant co-ordinations of body and soul, time and eternity, etc, etc) is a vital task for us all.

Irenaeus and Athanasius are going to help us massively.  And they will help because they put Jesus Christ at the centre of their thinking.

More to come…

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Happy Friday

You can watch whole episodes of the IT Crowd here.

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Mike Reeves talks about Adam and Christ in these great audios on sin and evil.  Once we frame creation and salvation as the story of two men we see things much clearer.

For one thing we’re able to honour Christ not only as Substitute but also as Representative.  And we need both.

You see Christ drinks the cup so that – in one sense – we don’t have to (Mark 10:38).  But in another sense we do drink the cup He drinks and are baptised with the baptism with which He is baptised (Mark 10:39).  He does die for us so that we do not face that same judging fire – this is His substitution.  But we also die in Him experiencing it as a purifying fire – this is His representation.

We tend to be good at ‘substitution’ talk but not so good at ‘representation’ talk.  Consider this fairly common way of conceiving salvation and judgement…

salvation-judgement1

Here the key players are the saved and the damned.  Christ is not in the picture.  But of course once we’ve set things up like this, Christ becomes extremely necessary.  But He’s necessary in that the cross becomes the accounting tool required to balance the justice books.  Without the cross the story doesn’t work.  So in that sense Christ is central.  But in effect, He’s a peripheral figure only required because other factors are calling the shots.

When things are viewed like this, Christ is very much thought of as ‘substitute’ but not really ‘representative’.  And, when the details are pressed, even His substitution will start to look very unlike the biblical portrait.

We need a better formulation.  We’ll think of 1 Peter 4 and then tie this back to Adam and Christ.

In 1 Peter 4:17 it says that judgement begins with the house of God.  It doesn’t say ‘Judgement avoids the house of God.’  It begins there.  It begins with Christ, the true Temple of God.  It continues with the church, the temple of God in another sense.  But then it flows out to the world – God’s house in yet another sense.

salvation-judgement2

Here humanity is judged.  And this is where Adam and Christ will be so helpful for us.

The LORD pronounces His curse on Adam.  And all humanity is in him.  “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” (Rom 5:12)  It is a universal judgement.  No exceptions.  The only path to salvation is the path through judgement.

But Adam is a type of the One to come (Rom 5:14).  He was only ever setting the scene for Christ to take centre stage.  And He does so, assuming the very humanity of Adam as substitute and representative.

salvation-judgement31

Here centre stage is not occupied by the two bodies of people (the damned and the saved).  What’s driving everything is the two humanities (Adam and Christ).  And the former is expressly a type of the Latter.  And the Latter expressly assumes the fate of the former.  So that in all things Christ will have the preeminence! (Col 1:18)

These diagrams were originally used in a blog post on judgement and salvation in Isaiah and for a sermon on Isaiah 2:6-22 (listen here).

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Here’s a terrific excerpt from One Million Tiny Plays About Britain by Craig Taylor.  It was a Guardian column that sadly was never allowed to reach its goal…

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Two old women finish their tea at a cafe in Lichfield. One holds the bill…

Anna Oh, you. Now don’t be so utterly ridiculous.

Eva I insist. I insist, my dear.

Anna Absolutely not and I won’t hear another word from silly old you.

Eva Well, I won’t hand it over.

Anna You give it to me right now.

Eva I won’t. I won’t, and that’s the end of it.

Anna I can’t have you paying for this, can I?

Eva You paid for the last tea.

Anna And that was nearly a year ago, silly.

Eva Exactly. Just put that wallet away now, you troublemaker.

Anna That’s enough. Give it to me.

Eva I’m going to pay and that’s that.

Anna Then I’m putting some money in your purse.

Eva You’re going nowhere near my purse.

Anna I need to say thank you.

Eva Then a simple thank you’s enough.

Anna You know how I feel about this, dear.

Eva Well, fair is fair.

Anna I don’t believe it is fair, if you don’t mind.

Eva Then you can take me out for a nice meal next time, can’t you?

Anna This is my treat.

Eva It is completely my treat and I want to pay. The end.

Anna No. [Pause]

Eva Now sit down. I’m just going to put it on my credit card and we’ll go on with our lovely afternoon.

Anna Tell me how much it is.

Eva And we’ll see the dahlias out in Biddulph.

Anna I’ll sit right here then. I’ll just sit.

Eva Well, you’re being silly.

Anna You’re being silly.

Eva I don’t want your money. A simple thank you is fine.

Anna I’d like to give you some money.

Eva Just say thank you now. Just say it.

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The anger is palpable.

And notice that their civility isn’t actually a cover for their rage – it is precisely the vehicle for it.  Far from hiding their hostility, their manners are the menacing thing.  They will kill each other with ‘kindness.’

But what is this ‘kindness’ that they hurl at each other?

‘Fair is fair.’ ‘I want to pay.’ ‘I don’t want your money.’

They may as well say ‘I don’t want your friendship.’  For what friendship is founded on ‘fairness’ and ‘payment’?  No these are not the words of friends.  And this is not a demonstration of good manners.  Here their manners are their weapons.  And they destroy themselves and each other by them.

What is the essence of this ‘friendship’?  What throbs away at the heart of this ‘civility’?   It is their refusal to receive in gratitude.  The turning of gift into duty.  A determination to achieve what can only be given.

And by this mentality, however cultured, they despise the gratuity of God’s little pleasures and they despise each other.  Here is the clenched fist in the presence of grace.  It is the deepest perversion of all our natures.

And it’s all amply illustrated by two old ladies in a tea shop.

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Warning

My wife’s just bought me a Fender Stratocaster for my birthday. This could spell the death of the blog…

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Just playing around with some thoughts.  Comments welcomed…

Jesus Christ crushed the head of Satan (Gen 3:15); drove out the devil (John 12:31) and disarmed the rulers and authorities, putting them to open shame and triumphing over them (Col 2:15).

How?

Through dying on a cross.

He didn’t come down from the cross to bust out some ultimate fighting moves on the devil.  It’s not that, as He died, the Spirit went to work on Satan behind the scenes with baseball bats and chains.  The cross wasn’t Christ’s non-violent resistance stunt distracting us while the elect angels went ballistic on the forces of evil.

No, it’s all there on Golgotha.  The all-time decisive cosmic face-off did not involve hordes of spiritual forces doing battle in the heavenlies.  It involved a lonely Man on a lonely hill.  The taunts of the devil rang out from the lips of His enemies: “If you are the Son of God, come down now from the cross.”  The diabolical onslaught did not come through waves of black magic but through the simple appeal to use power and save self.

The greatest ever spiritual battle involved the simple choice of whether this Man would obey His Father or serve Himself.  The height and width and breadth of the battlefield was that single cross.  The one Victor was that Champion strung up on a tree.  Right there this defenceless Man was crushing, driving out, disarming and triumphing over evil once and for all.

What does that tell you about evil?

Well if it was something like an equal and opposite force, then you might expect a heavenly punch-up.  But it’s not.  It’s not a created thing but a perversion.  It’s a parasite, distorting everything good and pulling it down into oblivion.  (See these recent Mike Reeves talks on evil for more).

And so the Author of Life enters into this matrix of death.  Christ absorbs this evil at its worst and transforms it.  He does this, not by taking it seriously as a legitimate opponent but by entering it in simple obedience to His Father’s will.  As this Man trusts God – even in the jaws of death – He reverses the cycle of self-assertion and self-vindication.  This cycle is the very opposite of God’s own life and therefore the quintessence of evil.  So the Source of good goes to the heart of evil and, by turning the other cheek, overturns the whole thing.

Therefore we get the ultimate Genesis 50:20 moment.  Even what Satan intends for evil, God intends for good.

So, again, evil is not granted an existence alongside God and His creation-redemption agenda.  It is a perversion which is then taken up into the purposes of God and made to serve Him.

Well then.  We stand, clothed in Christ and His victory.  And the evil one, thrashing around in his death-throes, fires some flaming arrows our way – some mixture of temptations and condemnations.  And both James and Peter tell us “resist the devil” (1 Pet 5:9; James 4:7) and James adds the promise “and he will flee from you.”

That’s always seemed to me an extraordinary promise.  Doesn’t it sound a little far fetched to believe that I can send Satan scurrying into the night?  Yet that’s exactly what “fleeing” means – running scared.  And how are we going to make Satan flee from us?  Simply by resisting him.  That just means ‘standing against’ him.  He wants you to indulge a craving, you simply stand against it.  Nothing more, nothing less, just resist.  He wants you to wallow in past sins, you simply stand against it.  And the devil runs for his life!  He has met a Christian – a little Christ – one clothed in the Champion and employing those same tactics.

If that sounds incredible to us, maybe we don’t properly understand Satan or his defeat.  Recently the devil’s been coming at me with some recurring thoughts about myself.  Ordinarily I’d get embroiled in an endless round of indulging the thoughts and then condemning myself for them.  Either way he wins.  I can’t explain exactly why but of late I’ve just known a real freedom to laugh at the temptations – whether I’ve caught myself entertaining them or not.  Whatever.  I’m not called to engage Satan mano e mano.  That battle’s been won.  And I don’t get to nip his temptations in the bud – that’s not an option.  My job’s pretty simple.  Just stand in Christ and refuse to take his temptations seriously.

And maybe to fart at him.

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Ok, so Christians and evangelism.  Is everyone supposed to look like this guy?

Or do we send those few nut-jobs out on the street so that we can get on with the the kumbaya’s, the marshmallows, oh and “building the kingdom” (insert meaning here).

Well blog du jour seems to be modelling community on the trinity.  So here goes.

The Ultimate community-on-mission is God who is a multi-Personal union moving outwards.  Two things are important here.  First, mission is not just one of the things God does.  His ek-centric (outgoing) life is His very way of being.  Second, the Three do not take on identical roles but Each depends on the Others in order to corporately perform the work.

So now, we are swept up into mission as the Spirit unites us to the One Sent from the Father.  “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:21)  We will also share these two characteristics.

First, mission is not just one of the things the church does.  We are sent ones commissioned by the Sent One.  We are created by mission and for mission.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light.  (1 Pet 2:9)

It’s not that church, from time to time, decides to act in a missionary way.  It is missionary, that is its nature.  So when we became Christians we joined an evangelistic organisation.  If we’re in the body we need to know that the body is heading somewhere.  It’s always going to the nations to disciple them.  You cannot ‘buy into’ Christ without ‘buying into’ evangelism.  The Christian’s life and being is now oriented towards this mission.  There is not ‘love’ or ‘unity’ as well as ‘mission.’  But rather there is love and unity in mission.

But second, as with the Trinity, we don’t all do the same stuff.  Same mission, different roles.

Later in Peter’s letter he speaks about two broad categories of gifting – speakers and servers (1 Pet 4:10ff).  And he implores them to get on with their particular giftings.

And that’s great.  It’s so unfortunate when people think of ‘evangelism’ simply in terms of the guy in the picture!  And it’s tragic when  giftings aren’t recognized and encouraged.  We want diversity and we certainly don’t want to cram people into the same moulds.  So Peter speaks of different giftings – ‘speakers’ and ‘servers’.  But let’s not imagine that he has thereby set forth completely different spheres of operation!  That wouldn’t be a very good model of the Trinity.

No, think of the diakonos kind of serving spoken of here (which most basically means table-serving, ie hospitality gifts).  And think of combining this with the speaking gifts?  What if the differently gifted church members collaborated in the missionary task – good food and hospitality and those good with words are liberally sprinkled around the place – what a powerful gospel work!

At such evangelistic dinner parties it is very true that some are performing quite different functions to others.  But they are all being thoroughly missionary.  It’s a unified diversity and it’s going somewhere – to the nations!

If we get our trinitarian styled mission communities wrong…

The Arian church will laud the noble few who do the real missionary work  (i.e. street preaching etc…)

The Tritheist church will have the speakers heading off by themselves and the servers serving a quite different agenda.

The Modalist church will forget giftings altogether and fit everyone into the same mould.

But the truly trinitarian church will allow the particular giftings to flourish in the service of the one missionary aim.

This post was prompted by this and this.  And I wrote some more about this back here.

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Evangelism from the Psalms

I’d love to do a whole pile of teaching on evangelism from the Psalms.  But right now I’ve only got time for a sentence.

Evangelism Psalms-style means joyfully declaring the true LORD of this world and His mighty deeds.

In other words it is praise.  And conversion happens when they join in.

We can get so distracted by ‘relevance’ and ‘reason’ and ‘human response’.  But we actually scratch all these itches in a far more satisfactory way if we pass over them directly and devote ourselves to the central task.  We say “Let me tell you the happy news of the true God of this world – this active, praiseworthy, saving LORD.”

And it’s not so much about explaining how to be saved but how He has saved.

They are saved when they find themselves caught up in this act of worship.

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Hebrews 12:14-29 Sermon.  Audio here.  Text below.

Mountains are often thought of as spiritual.  A mountaintop experience is a spiritual experience.  People say they often feel closer to God or closer to spiritual things when they’re on a mountain.

And the bible begins in Eden which is described in Ezekiel 28 as “the holy mountain of God.”  Genesis 2 says that rivers flowed out of this mountain garden and down to the rest of the world.  So humanity began on high.  And the fall, was literally a descent down the mountain, away from God’s presence.

If anyone were to get back into God’s presence, not only would they have to get past the guardian cherubim, these angelic bouncers with their flaming swords barring the entrance.  They would have to ascend the hill of the LORD (Psalm 24).  And that’s just commonly the way the bible speaks.

The bible speaks of Jesus having descended from the heights.  And as He lived among us He lived the perfect life.  The life of other-centred love and sacrifice that you and I should live but don’t – Jesus did it.  And then He died the perfect death as our sacrifice for sins.  And then, when He arose, He ascended back into the Most Holy Place – heaven itself – and He went there as our perfect Priest.  We have a Friend in very high places.

That’s the argument Hebrews has been making for the last 12 chapters.  Jesus has come and lived our life for us.  He’s entered into the depths of our suffering and struggle and He’s lived the faithful life we never could.  But He did it FOR US.

And then He died the perfect sacrificial death on the cross.  And He did it FOR US.  You and I deserve to die in the depths because of our filth and uncleanness.  But His godforsaken death in the depths is counted before God FOR US.

And then He has ascended as the perfect Priest into heaven FOR US.  We don’t have the right to be in the holy presence of God, but He is there on our behalf.  He represents us in the highest place imaginable.

If we trust Jesus then we get joined to Jesus.  And His life is our life, His death is our death, His ascension to God is our ascension to God.

And after 12 chapters of this kind of argument, the writer says in this section: “Don’t you know where you are?  Do you have any idea where Christ has brought you?”

You are on the mountaintop.  You have reached the summit.

These verses are here to wake us up to our mountaintop experience with God.  And once we realize where we are – where Christ has brought us – then this passage will tell us how to move out into the world from these height.

That’s how we’ll study this chapter.  We’ll begin on the mountaintop.  We’ll appreciate where we are – secure on the high ground.  And then we’ll consider how we’re meant to walk out into the world

But first the mountaintop experience.

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Happy Friday

Good news.  Broadband back.  280 items in my Google reader.  And I’ve “read” them all with the click of a button.  Aint technology marvellous.

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My broadband’s down for a while so I’m just emailing this in from my phone. I won’t be able to write or respond for a bit but I will be getting your comments.

So why don’t you help me out with something I’m thinking through: How should we go about enthusing Christians for evangelism?

Any thoughts?

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PLEASE NOTE:  John Frame is not ‘a baddie’.  It would be hard to find a contemporary systematic theologian as engaging, clear and humble-hearted as Frame.  He is very easy to like.  And my beef here is down to a certain way of doing trinitarian theology and a certain dislike of scholastic theology and of the doctrine of simplicity in particular.  Those views of mine probably make me the baddie in many minds.  But hopefully we can get beyond caricatures and affirm what is good, be challenged where we need challenging and keep sharpening our intellects and softening our hearts.

What started me thinking about Frame was a great post Pete’s written against the idea of “balance”: Balance is tritheistic.  We do not seek to walk a tightrope between divine sovereignty and human responsibility or between transcendence and immanence or between unitarianism and polytheism or between faith and works or between evangelism and social action or between any other supposed polarities. As Pete says, such thinking assumes that the ‘many’ are over against the ‘one’ – it’s tritheistic.

To view this as a trinitarian question is exactly right.  But at one point Pete speaks of ‘perspectivalism’ as though it was doing the same job as trinitarian thinking.  I don’t think it does.  From my reading of Frame, perspectivalism  stems from a consideration of the three Lordship attributes (authority, control, presence) and how they are ultimately identical in the simple divine essence.  What’s more when this kind of triadic thinking is applied to the actual Trinity you get modalism (as Frame admits).  Perspectivalism is triadic.  But then Plato’s god is triadic.  Allah has an eternal word and a spirit.  Triadic doesn’t mean trinitarian.  And I think we’re missing a major trick if we think we’re being trinitarian every time we co-ordinate a group of three.  There are right and wrong ways to do it.

My fear is that if ‘perpectivalism’ is seen as the answer to ‘balance’, then tritheistic balance will just be replaced by modalistic balance.   Both modalism and tritheism share a concern to uphold the equal deity of the Three.  The tritheist does it by cutting them loose from one another while the modalist does it by equally smushing them into the same divine stuff.  Balance for the former means equal air time for the three separate entities.  Balance for the latter means blurring the distinctions and saying they’re all deep down the same.

And both are as bad as each other.

Perichoresis on the other hand is the way the ultimate Triad relates.  And I believe this provides a far more helpful way to co-ordinate other relations.  Not least because perichoresis upholds the need for a starting point and a structure.  With perichoresis there is a Beginning and a Way.  And you have to get the Beginning right (you can’t start just anywhere).  And you have to continue according to the Way (you can’t proceed any old how).

To know God you must begin with Jesus illuminated by the Spirit as He reveals the Father.  That is the only beginning you can make.  Because there is an inherent and non-reversible structure to the relation.  And as you proceed in your knowledge of God your method will be determined by the concrete and asymmetrical (functional) hierarchy of Father, Son and Spirit.

Perspectivalism won’t give you this.  If perspectivalism pure and simple is your guide then you are meant to look deep enough into God’s ‘presence’ and you’ll get his ‘control’ and ‘authority’ thrown in.  Or you’ll look deep enough into his ‘authority’ and you’ll see the other two.  Perspectivalism won’t give you a starting point or a method.  Not in any hard and fast sense.

But that’s a problem.  Because in so many of those polarities mentioned above there are right and wrong ways to relate them.

Take for instance the way Keller uses perspectivalism in preaching.  We need preaching that is doctrinal (normative), personal (existential) and culturally transformative (situational).  Now perspectivalism might be able to tell you to hit all three bases but, by itself, it won’t allow you to have a priority nor give you a right method for how to co-ordinate them.  But, in my opinion, you can’t just preach cultural transformation trusting that, in the end, this perspective will naturally include the other two.  Rather I’d want to make a strong case for proclaiming Christ’s finished work extra nos and only then, on that basis, making personal and cultural applications.  There is a Beginning and a Way inherent to those relations. 

Pete also mentions the relation between evangelism and social action.  I have some very particular views on this relationship.  We must not simply balance up the two “like two wings of a bird” as some would have it.  There is a Beginning and a Way.  The Beginning is gospel proclamation.  And the Way to continue in that relation is under the banner of explicit gospelling. 

Perhaps my biggest beef is in the realm of theological method.  Frame assiduously avoids talk of ‘starting points’ in theology.  (I’m sure it sounds all too Barthian!)  The centre of theology is, for him, every word that proceeds from God’s mouth.  Yet Scripture speaks of matters “of first importance” (1 Cor 15:1ff) and in particular Christ is set forward as the Way, the Truth, the Word, the Image, the Revealer, the Mystery, the Hiding Place of God’s revelation (John 14:6; John 1:1-3; Col 1:15f; John 1:18; Col 2:8f; Matt 11:25-27).  There is a perichoretic structuring of revelation that cannot be ironed out.  In theology the Beginning and the Way is Christ or else you have nothing of God. 

I commonly hear people reacting against ‘starting points’ and ‘christocentric methodology’ and often this objection is registered with Frame’s name somewhere on the horizon.  “Because of perspectivalism we shouldn’t get too hung up on certain ways of approaching X, Y and Z.”

That’s a major, major pity.  And it’s absolutely wrong.  The ultimate relational principle is not perspectivalism.  It’s perichoresis.  And this gives us every reason to approach theology (and everything else!) expecting structure and hierarchy, beginnings and ways.  Our starting points and methodology are absolutely crucial – the trinitarian nature of reality guarantees it.

A fuller essay on Frame is here

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How should we respond to sin in our lives?

One response is to think ‘Come on Glen, I’m better than that.’

Another is to think ‘Come on Glen, Christ is better than that.’

The first may produce a very moral life.  But the devil is more than happy to concede to you a Christ-less morality.  Self-righteousness is a far muddier swamp than unrighteous living.  I am not better than my sin.  I am not even better than the foulest evil I’ve imagined.

Instead, when I sin I am revealed as the person I’ve always been.  Psalm 51:5 has often struck me.  Here is David with blood on his hands.  Yet his confession is that the man who committed adultery and murder is the man he had always been.

We think when we’ve sinned that it was just a blot on our otherwise acceptable record.  The word of God says our sins simply express the person we have always been (Matt 7:17f). My gross sins are not ‘out of character’ – they are me with the hand-brake off.

No sin can shock me.  Not my own, nor the sins of my brothers and sisters who confess to me.  If the blood of God was shed for my sin (Acts 20:28) – then my sin is infinitely heinous.  No, I’m not better than sin.  But Christ is.

This is true in two senses.

First it’s true in the sense that Christ is more desirable than sin.  In the wilderness of temptations, Satan can only offer me a bucket of salt.  Christ always stands before me with living waters (John 4:10; 7:38; Rev 7:17).  The father of lies tells me life is found in this sin.  Jesus tells me it’s a broken cistern that can hold no water.  Only His waters are truly life-giving. (Jer 2:12-13)  I forsake even my precious sins because I have learnt that Jesus is more desirable.

But Christ is better than sin in another, much more important, sense. For He is the good person that I fail to be.  He is the reality that stands before the holy Father – not my sin.

My sin, though it clings to my bones and sinks to the depths of my heart, does not define me, Christ does.  When the Father looks to find me, He does not look in the record that stands against me (Ps 130:3; Col 2:14).  He looks to His Beloved Son and finds me hidden there.

Which means even as the diseased tree of my flesh produces in me the very worst fruit, Christ is my Plea, my Status, my Righteousness.  Even as the chief of sinners, even in the act of my worst rebellion, Christ – the One who is infinitely better – defines me and not my sin.

So Christ is better in both these senses.  But – and here’s where this post has been heading – without being utterly convinced of this latter sense, the former sense could easily lead to a Pharasaism not unlike the ‘I am better than sin’ response.

How so?

Well if I respond to sin simply by saying ‘Jesus is more desirable’ it basically throws me back on myself.  I am left with my own heart and its ability to desire Jesus.  The work of annihilating sin becomes simply my work of destroying my heart idols.  The work of liberation is simply the work of my affections desiring Christ with sufficient ardour.  Where is the locus of this redemption?  Me.

Now do my heart-idols need crucifying?  Yes.  Do I need Christ uppermost in my affections?  Yes.  But by golly, if I found it hard to reform my outward behaviour – how hard is it going to be to reform my inner world??!  Impossible.

So, you say, that’s why we need the gracious work of the Spirit and diligently to employ the means of grace, etc, etc.  Well… there’s a time and a place for that.  But let’s think.  If that’s our bottom line, doesn’t it sound exactly like the Catholic view of grace?  “It’s all of grace” says the Catholic “… supernatural, infused grace worked in us, with which we cooperate, making us better and better over time.”  Doesn’t that sound very similar to “We fight sin by enflaming our affections for Christ – flames stoked by the Spirit via His means of grace”?

It’s not that there’s no place for the ‘Christ is more desirable’ approach.  It’s that we must recognize it’s true place – i.e. after we’re assured of the extrinsic work of Christ.  “Grace” is not basically a supernatural empowerment to work at my salvation or to enflame my Christian affections.  “Grace” is the work of Christ alone on behalf of sinners who contribute nothing.  (This is similar to the points I made here – grace is not so much the bread David provides as the victory David wins).

Therefore my first reponse to sin is this – even in the very midst of sin, Jesus has been carrying me on His heart before the Father.  Even ensnared in the darkest selfishness, the Spirit has been calling ‘Abba’ from within me.  Even as my heart desired worthless idols, the Father loved me even as He loves Christ.

This is the truth that really changes us.  It reveals to us that not even our sin can separate us from the love of God in Christ.  We realize again that our darkness is not a locked basement to the Lord.  Even our self-willed rebellion cannot remove us from His embrace.  We sin in His face – this drives us down in contrition.  And at the same time He is lifting us up to the Father.

The truth that really changes us is that our lives are not our own.  Jesus has taken possession of us in spite of ourselves and wills to do us eternal good.  The Spirit of sonship is already praying ‘Abba’ in you.  The affections you are so keen to enflame are already ablaze – and that, even as you quench Him!

Now surrender. Now be conquered. Now receive what is entirely beyond you.  And see if you don’t love Him with renewed and supernatural vigour!  But don’t begin with your heart for Christ.  Begin with His heart for you.

We love because He first loved us. 1 John 4:19

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When I was at Oak Hill, John Frame’s “Doctrine of the Knowledge of God” was referred to by students as ‘The greatest book in the world ever’.  Oak Hill was that kind of place.  But more and more, through people like Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll, I’m hearing Frame’s stuff – particularly his perspectivalism – cited in reformed circles.  If you’ve never heard of Frame or perspectivalism, skip this post.  I’ll get to some implications in a follow up.  For those who are all too interested here’s a longer essay I’ve written on his Doctrine of the Knowledge of God.

But for the low-down, his big idea goes something like this…

As finite creatures we don’t see things from all the angles like God does.  But our perspectives are neither untrue, nor are they the whole truth.  They aren’t competitive, they actually cohere.

So in Frame’s doctrine of God, he talks about the triad of God’s authority, control and presence. Though we might view these ‘Lordship’ attributes as different, Frame would say they are ultimately identical in the simple divine essence.  We have here a concept of the one and the three but it’s not exactly the trinity.

When we view epistemology through this triadic lens we see that knowledge involves a knowing subject, the known object and the norms by which the object is known.  This generates the existential perspective, the situational perspective and the normative perspective.

Again the key to Frame’s multi-perspectivalism is that these three perspectives are not competing realities as though any need to be given priority. They are complementary perspectives on the one unified reality.

And this can be helpful when, for instance in studies of ethics, you get turf wars over whether duty ethics (the deontologists) should rule the roost with their norms.  Or whether outcome-focussed ethics (the utilitarians) should claim victory for the situational perspective.  Or maybe the existential angle is best and the virtue ethicists should win.  But no, says Frame, they’re not competing claims but integrated perspectives.

It’s a neat concept and you can put it to a thousand uses.  So you might hear Driscoll speaking about leadership in terms of Prophets (normative), Priests (existential) and Kings (situational).  And we need all three to operate effectively.

Or you’ll hear Keller talk about sermons needing to be doctrinally proclaiming Christ (normative), motivating personal growth in grace (existential) and aiming at cultural transformation (situational).

It’s not the worst idea in the world.  But I think it’s got real limitations.

It’s one thing to see triads everywhere (they are – it is the Lord’s world after all).  But it’s not obvious that these ‘threes’ should be united the way Frame’s Lordship attributes coinhere in the simple divine essence.  I won’t get into divine simplicity here but for now let’s just note that there’s a more fundamental triad.  And the unity of these Three is emphatically not perspectival.

To see the Father, Son and Spirit as perspectives on the one God is modalism pure and simple.  Frame knows this and admits as much here.  But he argues that the Persons are not less than perspectives on the one God, but more.  I would say that they are something quite different and that it’s too much of a flirtation with modalism to think perspectivally at all about the Persons.

No the ultimate Triad is united perichoretically not perspectivally. Perichoresis means the mutual indwelling of the Persons.  And the great difference with perichoresis is that the Three maintain their distinctions all the way down.  They don’t become a singularity in some simple divine essence – rather the divine essence is eternally what it is as the mutual indwelling of these concretely particular Persons.  Most importantly, the Three co-exist in structured, (functionally) hierarchical, non-reversible relations.  This means that there is a particular Beginning that you have to make with the relations and a particular Way that they inter-relate.

It’s not that you look to the Father who reveals the Spirit in the power of the Son.  No quite definitely you look to the Son in the power of the Spirit to reveal the Father.  There is a particular starting point and a particular way to proceed.  With perspectivalism you can start anywhere and proceed how you like as long as you cover all your bases.  Not so with perichoretic relations.  Starting points and methodologies become all important.  There is a Way in and a Way to proceed.

So what?  That’s for next time…

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