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Archive for February, 2012

I believe the Bible is the word of God because in it God speaks.  This is not an unfortunate circularity.  At the end of the day nothing could convince me it’s God’s word except that God speaks.  You could tell me it’s great history, it’s logically coherent and displays incredible internal consistency as a library of books over many centuries.  Great, I believe all those things.  But that doesn’t make it God’s word.  The only thing that could authenticate the Bible as God’s word is if God personally speaks through it.  And at that stage I’m essentially saying that it’s God’s word because it’s God’s word.

Or to shift that argument to christology, I believe that Jesus is the Radiance of the Father’s glory because in Him I’ve met the glorious Father.  Yet this Father is met only in the face of the Son.  In other words, I know that Jesus is Lord because I see in Him the kind of Lord that only Jesus reveals.  There is a self-authenticating majesty to Jesus such that I say, along with Lord Byron, “If God’s not like Jesus, He ought to be.”  Jesus is the kind of God that I believe in – the kind of God that Jesus uniquely reveals.  He’s IT.  And I know He’s IT because, well, look at Him!  Jesus is Lord because Jesus is Lord.

At this point you’ll note how inter-related these two circularities are.  And also the integral role of the Spirit in both.  He brings us God’s written word with divine authority, illuminating Christ so that, in Him, we might see and know the Father.

Now “circular arguments” get a bad name.  For one thing it sounds like buying into them will trap you.  Actually, if you find yourself in the right Circle, you’ll finally be free.  The Circle of Father, Son and Spirit doesn’t limit you.  No these ultimate realities (because they really are ultimate) enable you to move out into the world all the wiser for knowing their Lordship.  With the Spirit-breathed word, and the Lens of the Father’s Son… then you can really get somewhere.  From this knowledge you’ll find all sorts of other things illuminated by God’s Light.

But still, people will cry foul.  “You can’t reason in a circle” people will say.  But hang on, we all employ circular reasoning whenever we make claims about ultimate reality.  Didn’t your mum ever justify her pronouncements with “Because I’m the mummy”?

It’s inevitable that your ultimate ground of authentication must authenticate itself, or it isn’t ultimate.

Now this plays out in all sorts of areas.  But think, for instance, of the naturalist assumption that the “natural” realm is best placed to judge any hypothetical “further realm”.  If a “further realm” exists, they say, it must play by the rules of naturalism.  This, of course, radically limits the kinds of realms the naturalist would be willing to admit and means that the gods they consider can only be superbeings within the world.

Now the naturalist cannot establish such a priority via naturalism.  It is, by definition, beyond the ability of the natural sciences to pronounce on the existence of realms beyond their scope.  Yet naturalists assume that the “natural” realm is all there is, was, or ever shall be.

Naturalism, they say, is the best explanation of ultimate reality because other explanations fail naturalistic tests.  Or, to put it most simply, naturalism is true (or our best bet) because naturalism says so.

Now let’s be clear – belief in naturalism is not a groundless leap of faith.  It’s a faith commitment that springs from compelling evidence (true faith always does).  The evidence is this: trusting our own powers of perception and reasoning has produced great success in the natural sciences.  I.e. it works, it explains things, when we move out into the world on its basis things make sense.

But,

1) The Christian does not deny the explanatory power of the naturalistic sciences.  The Christian believes that such sciences have sprung from a broader Christian world-view and rejoice in the fruits of the gospel here.  Christians simply deny that such knowledge is the only or surest knowledge.

In fact,

2) The Christian sees that naturalism is horrifically reductionistic and harmful when seeking to be applied beyond the natural sciences.  As the old saying goes, If all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  To treat human personhood and relationships, ethics and aesthetics, to say nothing of a relationship with God, as a mere interplay of matter and energy is to misunderstand these things greatly.  The explanatory power breaks down here in a catastrophic way.  And yet, these things – love, forgiveness, beauty, goodness etc – are the most precious realities in human existence.

In the discussion between Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams the other day, Dawkins said he “believed” we would find naturalistic explanations for consciousness – explanations which we do not now possess.  That is a consistent faith position within his world-view.  Naturalism has produced the goods in many spheres of enquiry – he trusts that consciousness will be one more success story for the natural sciences.

Yet all the while an explanation for personal reality presents itself to Dawkins.  One which does not rule out science but underpins it.  And one which accounts for the priority of the personal which is the most blindingly obvious reality which we encounter moment by moment. Nothing else accounts for it like this accounts for it…

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.   (John 1:1-4)

I honestly don’t know why Dawkins – or anyone – can’t see it.  How can there be darkness when the Light of Christ is so dazzlingly obvious?  But then I would say that.  I’m in the grip of the ultimate Circularity!

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Sermon: Luke 7:36-50

When we think of Jesus, we expect a Teacher, and we get a Saviour.  We expect a loan-shark and He forgives us freely.  We expect that He’ll burden us, instead He says “This is my body which is given for you… This is my blood which is shed for you.”  We expect that He’ll take from us, instead He gives Himself to us – even to the point of death.  We expect a throne of judgement, instead He takes the judgement on the cross and, to us, He opens up a banqueting hall.  He says, “Welcome!  Come in, come one, come all, come sinners and feast with me.

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Happy Friday

Horribly, cringefully, hilarious…

Wonderfully, gloriously, beautiful…

…and everything you always suspected…

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Brian Cox – dream-boat physicist, not craggy-faced actor – recently said this:

 Our civilization was built on the foundations of reason and rational thinking embodied in the scientific method, and our future depends on the widespread acceptance of science as THE ONLY WAY WE HAVE to meet many, if not all, of the great challenges we face. (here)

Well now.  Them there’s fighting words.  Therefore, I thought it was time to repost this from two years ago (see how cutting edge CTT is?  Discussing Cox two years ago!)

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Just watched this documentary on the Large Hadron Collider: “The Big Bang Machine.” (BBC4) presented by Brian Cox.

Here’s an extract from around 4:20 – 7:20.

Physics is stuck and the only thing left to do is recreate the universe as it was a fraction of a second after the big bang.  That’s what the LHC is designed to do.  To smash bits of matter together at energies  never before achieved so that we can stare at the face of creation…

So here’s the aim – to stare at the face of creation.

And this is the means – to smash particles together.

Notice the disjunct between the stated aim and the means!   Cox excites us about the scientific quest promising us a ‘face’ to creation.  Of course “face” says communicative, conscious.  It says personality.  It’s no wonder that Cox wants to reach for this kind of language because at bottom it’s personal reality that we long to see.  But all Cox can give us is particles.  This is the trouble.

What do you say of a person who promises you a face but gives you only particles?

What do you say of an enterprise that can describe a face only in terms of its sub-atomic particles?

He continues…

…Every civilization has its own creation story.  The ancient Chinese, indian mystics and Christian theologians all place a divine creator at the heart of their creation stories.  Science too has an elaborate story that describes the universe’s genesis.  It tells us how the fundamental constituents of the cosmos took on their form.  The difference with this story is that we can test it.  We can find out if its true by tearing matter apart and looking at the pieces.  All you need is a machine powerful enough to restage the first moments after creation…

This was the sentence that made me sit up and take notice: “Every civilization has its own creation story.”  And Cox puts ‘science’ in there among Indian mystics and Christian theologians.  Ok good.  We’re all telling stories about the world around us – scientists included.  But what does Cox say is the difference with science?  Answer: “we can test it.”  Hmm.  How will science be tested?  Tearing apart matter and looking at the pieces.

Well now that’s a very sensible test if you think that matter is what explains everything.  If you have a story about the world that says everything came about via material means then test matter.  Yes indeed that’s testable.  But it’s not the only thing that’s testable.  What if your story about the world says ‘Everything came about via the Word who was with God in the beginning and then became flesh and dwelt among us.’  Is that testable?  You betcha!  Every bit as much as the ‘science’ story.  It’s just that you test this story in ways appropriate to its nature.

All science works by testing its object of study in accordance with its nature.  You don’t do astronomy with a microscope – your means of testing is adapted to the thing tested.  So if you think it’s all about matter, you study matter.  But if you think it’s all about the Word then you study the Word.  Theology in this sense is completely scientific.  It is taking its Object of enquiry completely seriously and pursuing thorough investigation according the nature of the Word – ie it is listening obediently to Him.  That’s good science.  And it’s our only hope of actually seeing the Face that explains our world.  Particles won’t get you to the Person – but the Person can help you explain particles…

Cox continues…

In the beginning there was nothing. No space, no time just endless nothing.  Then 13.7 billion years ago from nothing came everything.  The universe exploded into existence.  From that fireball of energy emerged the simplest building blocks of matter.  Finding experimental evidence of these fundamental entities has become the holy grail of physics.

Notice first that this creation story is just as miraculous as any other.  “From nothing came everything”.  No explanations are given.  None ever could be.  This is the astonishing miracle at the heart of our modern creation story.  It is not the case that only primitive ‘religion’ believes in miracles.  The ‘science’ creation story is equally miraculous.

And again do you how science proceeds?  It proceeds like theology.  The scientific worldview says there must have been simple building blocks of matter that existed after the big bang.  Of course we’ve never observed these.  Nonetheless the worldview tells us they must have existed.  Therefore science seeks after evidence of what it believes to be true even without the evidence.  It has faith (an assurance of things hoped for (Heb 11:1f)) and from this faith it seeks understanding.  That is the scientific pursuit and it is no more or less a faith-based enterprise than theology.  And that’s no bad thing, it’s just the way things are.  It would just be nice if scientists came clean about it!

The point is this – don’t let anyone tell you science is about matter not miracles or fact and not faith.  The truth is we all have our creation stories.

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Careful, lest you drift!

Our home group Bible study were finishing off Hebrews last night.  We did a bit of an overview and I asked  what we’d all take away from the book.

One person said that the warning passages leapt out at them.  Things like:

We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.  (Hebrews 2:1)

Another person said they were struck by the once-for-all finished-ness of Christ’s work.  Jesus – our Brother – has become our High Priest and accomplished it all on our behalf.  Amazing grace!

So there I was, leading the study, sat between these two reactions to the Letter.  How would I acknowledge both these realities?

Here’s one option:  “Indeed, you both make excellent points.  We need to balance the warning passages against the grace passages.  The grace stuff is nice, but the warnings prevent us going too crazy with the grace thing.”

Have you heard that kind of teaching?  It comes from people who have a high view of the Bible.  They want to honour both strands of teaching and for that we can commend them.  But…

Isn’t there another way of taking both elements seriously?

Imagine if the warnings are grave admonishments not to forget the grace of Christ?  Imagine if the thing we’re tempted to drift towards is legalistic, ritualistic, earnest spiritual points-scoring?  Imagine if Christ’s finished work is the truth we’re always forgetting?

Well then… be warned – Christ alone has achieved salvation, by grace alone, received by faith alone.  Be warned!  If that’s true then there is no spiritual life to be found in any other message, any other system, any other life.   Return at once to this hope:

Let us flee to take hold of the hope offered to us [that we] may be greatly encouraged. 19 We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever.  (Hebrews 6:18-20)

We must beware.  All of us naturally drift in the Christian life.  We must flee from those temptations.  We must take hold of true gospel hope.  But remember – the direction in which we’re tempted to drift is towards earnest spiritual endeavour.  When the Bible says, “Don’t drift!” it’s not trying to bring you back to serious-minded religious behaviour, it’s calling you from it.

Don’t drift!  Open your Bible and return to your true hope – Christ alone.

PS – in this light, you might like to consider Dan Hames’ post on Lent

 

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John Brand at Cutting it Straight asked me the following questions:

1. How did you get into blogging?

2. Why do you blog? What is, if you like your ‘Mission Statement’ as a blogger?

3. What do you see as the strategic benefits of Christian blogging?

4. What are some of the problems and weaknesses you see as you survey the Christian blogging scene?

5. Is there a gap in the scene; an area of Christian life or ministry that is not being adequately addressed?

6. What advice would you give to someone considering starting blogging?

7. What are your favourite 5 Christian blogs?

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Here are my responses

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Luke 19:1-10 Sermon

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Freedom and the Problem of Evil

In The Good GodMike Reeves writes briefly on the problem of evil.  A unitarian God would either be threatened by evil or the author of it, but…

The triune God… is the sort of God who will make room for another to have real existence. The Father, who delights to have a Son, chooses to create many children who will have real lives of their own, to share the love and freedom he has always enjoyed. The creatures of the triune God are not mere extensions of him; he gives them life and personal being. Allowing them that, though, means allowing them to turn away from himself – and that is the origin of evil. By graciously giving his creatures the room to exist, the triune God allows them the freedom to turn away without himself being the author of evil.  The Good God, p39-40

This is so helpful in placing “evil” in the context of trinitarian thought.  Let’s take this thought a step further and consider freedom also in triune terms.

Because actually the Christian does not think of “freedom” the same way as the unitarian.  Or at least we shouldn’t!

Often, however, we do conceive of “divine sovereignty” in unitarian terms.  At that point “human freedom” is considered as, ultimately, a fiction or as an escape from God’s all-determining supremacy.  If we imagine God’s sovereignty as uni-directional then it can only bear down on that which is other than God.  In this case God is always determining.  That which is other than God is always being determined.

But what if the Lord has existed in I-Thou relations in eternity?  What if there’s been reciprocity and mutual-determination within God’s being?  And what if, in the determination of this God, the Son becomes Man to draw the creature into these mutual relations?

Well you start to see give-and-take, offer-and-response as something that doesn’t threaten God’s divine nature, but that actually constitutes it!

Freedom, then, is not something opposed to divine sovereignty.  Freedom is finding your place as your distinct self in these relationships.

It’s our distinctness that Mike is highlighting in the quote above.  We do not originate as growths within the divine being.  We are given a concrete and particular existence outside of God.  Our freedom therefore speaks of our genuine other-ness to God.  But we must always say that this otherness is intended as an otherness-in-relation.

Think about it like this:  the Son is definitionally free (since He is “the Son” and not “A Slave”).  But “Son” also speaks of “Obedience” “Likeness” “Sent-ness”.  His freedom is found in relationship with His Father – He is who He is in that union.

The same will be true for our freedom.  We are set free by the Son (John 8:36) – liberated into His Sonship (Galatians 4:4-7).  Therefore it is very much a freedom found in the triune relationships – united to the Son, filled with the Spirit of Adoption, calling on our Abba, Father.  To be outside these relationships is not freedom, it’s slavery.

Therefore we mustn’t define things in such a way that sinning is considered an expression of freedom.  Choosing to reject God is not the exercise of freedom but its opposite.  Rejecting this God means embracing slavery.

Therefore freedom is not centred on the garden of Eden.  It’s bed-rock definition is not ‘our ability to choose evil.’  For a start, that places our freedom above God, and above the freedom of the new creation!  No, as Mike well knows, the freedom he mentions in this quote – i.e. the freedom of “allowance” and “distinctness” – is not the whole story.  We need to go to another garden to find a true definition of freedom.

In Gethsemane the Son submits His will to His Abba, Father to save us slaves who chose the darkness.  And in this submission He expresses His nature as “Son” more clearly than ever.  Here is freedom – here is Man living responsibly before His God and expressing His true identity.  But it’s dripping in the blood, sweat and tears of submission and sacrifice.

All of this is to say that “freedom” does indeed entail God’s allowance of man to turn.  But it’s in no way exhausted or defined by that possibility.  True freedom is upheld by this: when we turned to the darkness, God did not prevent us but pursued us.  As the name implies, it’s redemption rather than creation that makes us free.  It’s ultimately in His decision and act that we find freedom.

 

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Happy Friday

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From a letter to an American woman, 31.7.62

I have a notion that, apart from actual pain, men and women are quite diversely afflicted by illness.  To a woman one of the great evils about it is that she can’t do things.  To a man (or anyway a man like me) the great consolation is the reflection “well, anyway, no-one can now demand that I should do anything.” I have often had the fancy that one stage in purgatory might be a great big kitchen in which things are always going wrong – milk boiling over, crockery getting smashed, toast burning, animals stealing.  The women have to learn to sit still and mind their own business: the men have to learn to jump up and do something about it. When both sexes have mastered this exercise, they go on to the next.

A clarification written 03.09.62

[this] is simply my lifelong experience – that men are more likely to hand over to others what they ought to do themselves, and women more likely to do themselves what others wish they would leave alone.  Hence both sexes must be told “mind your own business” but in two different senses.

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I think that’s very incisive.  By the way – how serious do you think he is about “purgatory”?

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So, as we’ve seen, God does not treat the world as a tool to be used.  He’s not in the whole creation-salvation thing for what He can get out of it.  He’s in it in order to pour Himself out.  This is His glory – it is His eternal nature to love the other.  That’s what it means to say He creates for His glory.  i.e. He creates that He might sacrifice and give of Himself (Revelation 13:8).  In other words God is for us.  Really and utterly and to the depths of His being, the living God is for us.  This isn’t just window-dressing for a more fundamental narcissism.  It is God’s uncreated and eternal glory to live for the other.

Once we’ve grasped this, we’ve learnt the secret of life.  Kant wasn’t so far off really.  Treating people as ends in themselves is absolutely right and good.  If even God does it, then it must be the good life.  But such living is the fruit of the gospel.  It’s the good life that comes about with this good God.

Yet it runs counter to all the ways we’re tempted to think and act in the world.  Here are some of my temptations to treat things as means rather than ends in themselves…

Salvation

Like a gold-digging wife, I eye  up Jesus in terms of the heavenly blessings He has to His name.  I conceive of salvation as “escape from hell, forgiveness of sins, feelings of love, assurance and purpose…” and I think of Christ crucified as the mechanism that secures these ultimate benefits.  I use Jesus to serve myself.  But I forget that He serves me.  And that He is salvation Himself!

“Godliness

I can use godliness as a means – and not just for “financial gain” (1 Timothy 6:5). I have all sorts of motivations for “being godly” – salvation, self-righteousness, status, self-protection.  And so, I don’t do good “for righteousness’ sake” (Matthew 5:10), I do it for my sake.  Yet in all this I forget that godliness with contentment is itself great gain (1 Timothy 6:6).  There’s much truth to the saying “a good deed is it’s own reward.”

Mission

I move out into the world to “gain converts”.  Every friend has a target on their back.  Every act and engagement is calculated according to its evangelistic potential.  I love unbelievers only to the degree that they are winnable to the gospel.  Essentially I conceive of mission as “gaining converts” rather than “offering Christ.”  Much of this stems from the delusion that I can “give the growth” when all I’m called to is “scattering the seed.”

Ministry

I enter into ministry for “shameful gain” (1 Peter 5:2-3).  Perhaps for money.  Perhaps to seem like a big-shot. Perhaps to exercise authority over others.  Perhaps to escape into a nice little ecclesiastical life.  But Paul had it right when he identified his flock as his crown (Phil 4:1; 2 Thes 2:19).  The people to whom he ministered were his joy.  They were the gain which he saw in all his ministry.

Pastoring

I preach the gospel in order to give people law.  I use the gospel as a spoonful of sugar.  It helps the medicine of arduous “discipleship” go down.  “We mustn’t forget grace…” I say at the start of the sermon.  And then lay down the law.  But in doing so I’m essentially saying that Jesus is a means towards something more vital – moral rectitude.  What would pastoring look like if my ultimate goal was to give away Christ for free?  (1 Corinthians 9:18)

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Can you think of other realms in which we live conditionally and suffer for it?  How does the self-giving life of the Trinity release us into living free?

 

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Mission talks

I spoke at this mission to Plymouth University last week.

The students were wonderful. They prayed for 100 hours solid the week before. We saw many answers to prayer. Non-Christians invited. Seed sown.  Christians and non-Christians alike seeing the grace of Jesus afresh.  Please pray for those who are now following up on their interest in Christ as the Christian Union runs an Alpha course for them.

Unfortunately only two of the talks recorded in a listenable form:

3 in 1 – Have Christians got God right?

Meeting Jesus – Luke 15

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Jonathan Edwards here speaks of God’s pleasure in creation:

“the pleasure God hath in those things which have been mentioned, is rather a pleasure in diffusing and communicating to, than in receiving from, the creature. Surely, it is no argument of indigence [i.e. neediness] in God that he is inclined to communicate of his infinite fullness. It is no argument of the emptiness or deficiency of a fountain, that it is inclined to overflow.”

God creates from fullness not need.  His glory is not about demanding but giving.  From the Father’s eternal begetting of the Son comes the logic of creation’s in-time manufacture.  Creation is not the first time God has to relate to another.  Instead, creation finds its origin in His already-outgoing nature.

Creation is, therefore, birthed in self-giving love, not willed out of any necessity.  We can rest assured – God has not called us forth to gain from us, but to give to us.  In this sense we are “created for His glory.”  We exist precisely because it is His glorious nature to give life.

The Father has eternally poured life and blessings onto and into His Son by the Spirit.  He continues to express this glory by pouring out life to the world through His Christ.  In this way creation will be glorified, as the Lord gives of Himself, even to the depths of the cross.

Or to say it how Jesus did: “He who loses his life will find it.” (Luke 17:33).  First it is God who finds His life in losing it.  He is who He is as He gives Himself away for the world.  Therefore Jesus does not call us into anything He hasn’t eternally and originally been part of.  But now, through His invitation, we get to share in it.  Glory!

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“Different paths up the same mountain” is arrogant and ignorant.

It’s arrogant because only someone with a God’s eye view could make that judgement

It’s ignorant because world religions are saying vastly different things.

Only Jesus saves. Only Jesus is a self-giving Lord.

Jeremiah 2 – He is a Fountain of living waters.

Every other god is empty. And leaves its followers empty.

John 4 – here is Jesus approaching someone who’s dug a lot of broken wells.

Jesus goes thirsty so that we can drink

If we see His self-giving, we’ll be won back to the Fountain again.

 

 

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Why does God allow suffering?

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John 11 is the problem of suffering in miniature:

Jesus could prevent the suffering (v1-6)

Instead He allows it

It’s more glorious this way.

When we turn to darkness, the Lord does not prevent us, He pursues us.

Martha doesn’t understand – she’s comforted with doctrine. (v20-27)

Mary doesn’t understand – she’s comforted with tears. (v32-35)

But Jesus doesn’t just weep, His word is incredibly powerful.  (v38-44)

Jesus raises and sets free – this is His glory.

The first sight Lazarus would see is the tear-stained face of Christ.

The Resurrection suffers to bring life.

He could heal but doesn’t

His ultimate purpose is not to patch up the old creation

His glory is resurrection and the world is invited.

Some receive it, some stand against it. (v45-46)

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Happy Friday

Say what you see…

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Here’s a thawed out post from two years ago…

Last week at youth club it was pandemonium.  We had to ban 3/4 of the kids for this week.

So tonight we were expecting small numbers.  But not as small as it turned out.  Only four turned up.  And three of them had actually been banned the week before and should not have been there.  The one legitimate member was desperate that we let in her three mates.

What should we do?  Should we let them all in even though word would get around that our ‘no’ doesn’t mean ‘no’ (these kids really need to learn boundaries!)?  Or should we stand on principle, keep the three out and admit the one girl who really didn’t want to be the only kid in the club?

Well the other youth leaders know I’m a soft touch, so before I caved in and let everyone come they issued a firm ‘no’ and we ran the club with five leaders and one youth.  The one youth was not happy.  She neither spoke nor joined in any of the activities.  Sigh.

It was only as we left that I realised the right course of action.  See as we left, the three banned youth were still hanging around church property – they had nothing else to do on a Thursday night.  And then it struck me – I should have gone out and joined them in their exile.  Wouldn’t that have been the Christmas thing to do?

Wouldabeen great!  We would be telling them, Our no means no – they can’t come in.  But nonetheless, I will go out to them.  If they can’t come in to hear the word of life I’ll go out into their cold, dark banishment and bring it to them.

And so I kicked myself all the way home.  Why didn’t I think of that earlier?  But as I was berating myself, a plan began to form…  In future, I’ll ban ’em all just so that the following week I can join them in it!  Cunning huh?

Which brings me to the moral of this story: Don’t trust the supralapsarian youth leader.

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Evangelistic sermon on John 1:

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