Richard Hays' book Reading Backwards is a remarkably insightful piece of work, which prompts some thoughts about how the four evangelists (and for that matter the other NT authors, though that is not Hays' concern here) depicted Jesus' divinity.
It is sometimes assumed that the apparent reticence of the evangelists to ascribe deity to Jesus (at least in straightforward, blunt, propositional, "Jesus is God" terms) reflects either the fact that they would have disagreed outright with the idea; or perhaps the fact that they were feeling their way towards something that they did not fully grasp, and which only later came to understood more fully.The former possibility is problematic for obvious reasons; the latter seems to me somewhat patronising.
What is less commonly considered is the possibility that the New Testament authors may have grasped with a great deal of sophistication and nuance exactly who Jesus is (though perhaps not in the terms that became prominent in later theological and philosophical discussions of the incarnation), and that they simply chose to express this understanding in narrative form, within a complex of allusions and echoes, narrative retellings and reidentifications, metaphors, types and figures - the sort of thing Richard Hays calls "Figural Christology". The substance is all there; our failure to see it reflects less the NT authors' crudeness or lack of theological development, and more our somewhat shrunken idea of what counts as "theological truth".
In any case, perhaps even to ask "What did the evangelists believe about Jesus?" is a slightly misdirected question, because it all to easily draws our attention away from the NT text to speculations about what was believed by people long dead. This is a mistake, and one which inevitably leads to dead-end speculation, because apart from the evidence of the NT writings we have very little idea what the NT authors believed. It's also pretty tragic, because we have no direct access to the minds of long-dead men, but the NT writings are directly in front of us. And it is these writings, not some speculative reconstruction of the thoughts of the men that wrote them, which comprise the Holy Scriptures and teach us the faith.
These writings - inspired as they are by the Spirit of God, so that the human authors may well have spoken better than they knew - certainly do speak of a man, Jesus of Nazareth, in whom Israel's God came to be present in the world; a man whose words and works are the words and works of God; a man in whom the invisible became visible, the eternal became temporal, the immortal became mortal; a man through whose sacrificial saving grace God was and is at work to save the world. These and similar narrative formulations may lack something of the philosophical precision of later Christological formulations, but I'm not sure they lack so much of their substance. On the contrary, at its best, the road to Chalcedon and beyond is simply an attempt to draw out and express again (perhaps in response to critics, perhaps as a natural process of spiritual-intellectual development, perhaps in pursuit of further clarity, perhaps for other reasons) what the Scriptures actually say about Jesus.
I suspect that exegetes like Richard Hays have a great deal to teach us about how the Scriptures speak of our Saviour.
A few questions:
(1) Can you affirm that "God is one"? When you do so, do you feel the need to offer any kind of qualification or nuance to clarify the exact sense in which he is one?
(2) Can you affirm that "God is three"? When you do so, do you feel the need to offer any kind of qualification or nuance to clarify the exact sense in which he is three?
Now comes the test. Scroll down.
Are you sure you've answered the two questions above?
Including the second part of each question?
Good. Now, here comes the test.
Did you feel it necessary to offer any qualification or nuance in your answers to either of the questions?
If so, did you feel the need to offer the same degree of qualification or nuance?
If so, that's fine.
But if not, there may be a problem. Typically, it goes like this: "I'm happy saying 'God is one' unqualifiedly, but when I say 'God is three,' I feel the need to clarify the sense in which he is three, because just saying 'God is three' makes me feel uncomfortable."
If this is how you feel, then it's likely (though perhaps not certain) that you regard the singular divine essence as somehow more ultimate, more onotological basic or fundamental, than the three persons, Father, Son and Spirit.
And yes, you guessed it: that would be bad.
A friend recently raised some questions of the status of the unwritten apostolic traditions referred to in 2 Thess 2:15: "So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter." In particular:
(1) How should be handle the fact that there appear to be traditions which Paul regards as authoritative and the church should have accepted as binding, but which are not (or at least not necessarily) included among the extant written Scriptures
(2) How might traditions be related to certain practices that are not explicitly commanded (or even implicitly taught) in the NT Scriptures, but which nonetheless appear to have arisen and become widespread or near-universal very early in the church's life, even as far back as the first century (according to some historians, it seems that twice-weekly fasting might fall into this category)?
One approach would be to seek to infer the content of the unwritten traditions from the practices and doctrines which (we think) quickly became widespread, and then to seek to follow these traditions on the basis that, since they all did it back then, they probably had better reasons for doing so that we have for not doing so.
I'm not ready to propose a comprehensive way forward. However, it's worth clarifying that there is some other biblical data that ought to be thrown into the pot. In particular:
(a) The term commonly translated "traditions" (Gk. paradosis) is also used to denote Scriptural "human traditions" which are to be avoided (Mt 15:2-3, 6; Mk. 7:3, 5, 8-9, 13; Gal 1:14; Col 2:8). In these cases, the context make it clear that such traditions are to be shunned, not followed.
(b) Furthermore, it is also clear that is it possible for apostolic traditions (as opposed to mere "human traditions," as in (a) above) to become seriously distorted. For in 1 Corinthians 11:2 Paul writes, "Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you," which must imply at least the possibility that some were failing to maintain the traditions in that way. And in 2 Thessalonians 3:6 he says, "Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us," which implies much the same thing.
(c) We know (because the Bible shows us) that it doesn't take long for even faithful people to start drifting from the truth bequeathed to them. Consider Judges 2:1-15, for example, or the successors of any of the "Reforming Kings" in Israel's later monarchy. In fact, one generation seems to be more than enough. Even if we knew that (to take one example) twice-weekly fasting because absolutely universal by 80AD, questions would remain about whether this was actually connected with the (putative unwritten) apostolic teaching, or a distirtion of it.
(d) On the other hand, merely asking such questions highights the widespread negligence of our traditions in many Reformed and evangelical circles. Are we too quick to sling anything "traditional" into the Mk 7 box, without first considering whether our forefathers in the faith might have had very good reasons for doing what they did? And might this not offer a potentially fruitful way forward for working through problems that seem to our minds almost intractable?
Here's a challenge for young people at Emmanuel aged 11 and over.
Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations is a book by Alex and Brett Harris.
Most people don't expect you to understand this book. And even if you understand, they don't expect you to care. And even if you care, they don't expect you to do anything about it. And even if you do something about it, they don't expect it to last.
This book is for you if you want to be different.
This book is for you if you want to resist the low expectations that limit your potential to grow as a Christian.
This book is for you if you want to combat the idea that adolescence is a vacation from responsibility.
Weaving together biblical insights and modern examples, it maps out five ways young people can respond to make personal and social change.
So here's the challenge: Get a copy of this book, read it, and then we'll meet together to talk about it and start putting it into action. Copies are available online, between £5 and £10 new. Last Sunday I had a couple of copies that I could have lent you, but you've missed them now - other people have already taken them, so you'll have to get your own. Please email or phone me before Monday 9 November if you want to take part.
Here's one of the best moments in the first chapter of Michael Reeves's wonderful book, The Good God: Enjoying Father, Son and Spirit:
“Even the most basic call to believe in the Son of God is an invitation to a Trinitarian faith. Jesus is described as the Son of God. God is his Father. And he is the Christ, the one anointed with the Spirit. When you start with the Jesus of the Bible, it is the triune God you get.” (p. 19)
Looking forward to reading this with folks at Emmanuel.
These questions are designed to helppeople at Emmanuel (and elsewhere) get the most out of Michael Reeves’ book, The Good God: Enjoying Father, Son and Spirit. It’s a remarkable book – it tackles a subject widely regarded as one of the most difficult in Christian theology, and touches upon an extraordinarily broad range of historical figures and theological debates, yet at the same time it remains extremely readable and encouragingly short (just over 100 pages).
The book contains an introduction, five chapters and a brief conclusion. I'm going to be inviting people at Emmanuel to meet together three times as we work through the book, beginning in the first session by looking at the introduction and chapter 1.
We’ll get most out of our time together if we read the relevant sections before we meet. To help with this, I’ve included some quotations below, along with some questions for reflection, designed to draw your attention to some particularly striking things the book says. I encourage you to think about these quotations and questions as you read through the book, and if you find it helpful you might like to make a note of any thoughts you have so that you can share them with the rest of the group when we get together. Of course, feel free to raise other issues too – these questions are just to get you started.
At the risk of stating the obvious, one brief word of explanation: the word “triune” comes from two Latin words, tri (three) and unus (one). Thus “triune” means “three and one.”
Introduction: Here be Dragons?
1. “The Christian books that really fly off the shelves are the ‘how to’ books, the ones that give you something immediate you do.” (p. vii)
- Why do you think this is?
2. “We will see that the triune nature of this God affects everything from how we listen to music to how we pray: it makes for happier marriages, warmer dealings with others, better church life; it gives Christians assurance, shapes holiness, and transforms the very way we look at the world around us.” (p. viii)
- Can you imagine how the doctrine of the Trinity might affect these aspects of our lives? (Don’t worry if you can’t – that’s what the rest of the book is about!)
3. “God is a mystery in that who he is and what he is like are secrets, things we would never have worked out by ourselves. But this triune God has revealed himself to us.” (p. ix)
- Would you say that God is “mysterious”? In what sense?
- Do you think that God is “diminished” in some way if he becomes less mysterious? Why or why not?
4. “We must believe in the Trinity or ‘perish everlastingly’? No, that goes too far, surely? ... How could something so curious be necessary for salvation?” (p. xii)
- What do you think about these questions?
- Why, according to Michael, is the doctrine of the Trinity so important (see also p. xiii)?
5. “Instead of starting from scratch and seeing that the triune God is a radically different sort of being from another candidate for ‘God,’ we try to stuff Father, Son and Spirit into how we have always thought of God.” (p. xiv)
- Might this help us understand why the doctrine of the Trinity seems confusing?
Chapter 1: What was God doing before creation?
6. “The fact that Jesus is ‘the Son’ really says it all. Being a Son means he has a Father ... Before he ever created, before he ever ruled the world, before anything else, this God was a Father loving his Son.” (pp. 2-3)
- If God is eternal (i.e. not bound by time), can we really talk about what he was doing “before” creation?
7. “Love is not something the Father has, merely one of his many moods. Rather, he is love ... if he did not love, he could not be Father.” (p. 8)
- How does the Fatherhood of God help us to understand God’s love?
8. “But (and this is a big but) that is not to say that the Trinity is like a club that the Father, Son and Spirit have decided to join. They are not three persons who simply manage to get along well – even very well – with each other.” (p. 15)
- So, if the Trinity is not this kind of “club,” what is it? How does Michael explain this (pp. 15-16)?
9. “The Father is who he is by virtue of his relationship with the Son. Think again of the image of the fountain: a fountain is not a fountain if it does not pour forth water. Just so, the Father would not be the Father without his Son (who he loves through the Spirit). And the Son would not be the Son without the Father.” (p. 16)
- Does this help us to understand how the one God can also be three – Father, Son and Spirit?
10. “Even the most basic call to believe in the Son of God is an invitation to a Trinitarian faith. Jesus is described as the Son of God. God is his Father. And he is the Christ, the one anointed with the Spirit. When you start with the Jesus of the Bible, it is the triune God you get.” (p. 19)
- How does this insight help us to see the importance of the Trinity for our faith in Christ?
I recently spotted a photo of a friend in church, and behind him hung the Union Flag. (Actually, it turned out to be the church hall, so what follows is perhaps less relevant to that particular incident, but the issue still arises elsewhere.) It looked (to me, at least) a little incongruous - at the very least, it raised the question of the proper place of such national symbols in our places of worship.
Of course, in many Church of England churches it's just fairly normal to find a flag hanging in the santuary. Perhaps it's one of those things that has always been there, or perhaps the Boys' Brigade left it there. There's no deliberate attempt to make a theological or political point, though of course the mere presence of the flag could still be understood by some in that way. And this raises questions, such as: What political statements would we want to make in such a context? Are there some political claims that would be theologically objectionable, or at least inappropriate? And so on.
Or perhaps (as another friend suggested) the presence of the Union Flag represents an attempt to articulate our responsibility to pray for our nation. In this case, the motive is surely a good one in view of 1 Timothy 2. Yet still one might question whether the presence of a flag would be the right way to articulate this responsibility.
After all, one might easily argue on the basis of 1 Timothy 2 that we have a responsibility to pray for the leaders of the EU. But I somehow think it's unlike that all the folks who currently hoist the Union Flag in their churches would be equally happy to worship under those twelve golden stars.
We've recently moved venue (slighty) to a different part of Ashmole Academy in Southgate - the Main School Hall. This change has brought with it many blessings, including more space, more light, and better acoustics. It's also brought with it an intriguing practical-theological challenge.
In our new venue we have the use of a nice perspex lectern. It's a dramatic improvement on our previous arrangement, in which the speaker / leader / preacher spoke from behind a slightly-chunkier-than-usual music stand. But the new lectern isn't a plain one; instead, the front is adorned with the coat of arms of Ashmole Academy, presumably reflecting the (justified) pride of the school leadership and staff in their identity, their achievements, and so on.
But this poses a problem for us as a church. Previously, we could kid ourselves that there was such a thing as a "neutral" design or a "non-design", since a blank black music stand doesn't exactly look like a conscious aesthetic choice. But this misleading pretence is no longer possible. If we make no conscious decisions about how to decorate our worship-space, we won't be left with "nothing"; we'll be left with a design (the Ashmole coat of arms) that mis-identifies us, and which therefore is hardly an appropriate choice in the long term. This highlights the fact that even our previous choice of black-painted-metal was still (implicitly) a choice of something, and it forces upon us a very profitable set of questions about what kinds of decorations ought to adorn the space in which we gather to worship God as a church.
To put it another way, we've been forced to extend our presuppositionalism beyond epistemology and ethics to aesthetics; beyond truth and goodness to beauty. And a jolly good thing too, for just as there is no neutrality in truth or goodness, so there is no neutrality in beauty either. We've neglected this for too long; it's about time we thought about it.
But merely recognising the challenge doesn't solve the problem; it just paints it in starker colours. In particular, it highlights:
(1) That the biblical or theological criteria by which "good" or "bad" aesthetics ought to be judged seem a good deal less obvious than those used to make epistemological or moral choices.
(2) That (perhaps understandably, therefore) evangelical and Reformed churches don't have a great tradition of beautiful ecclesiastical designs upon which we can draw to help us make such choices. On the contrary, like us (until now) many evangelical and Reformed churches seem to have rested secure in the comfortable but misguided assumption that four black walls and a pulpit is just fine when it comes to interior design of church buildings, since after all it's hard to commit idolatry if there's nothing there to idolize.
(3) That by contrast other church traditions - particularly Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox traditions - have a much richer, more textured, and (if the truth be told) more theologically-informed tradition of ecclesiastical aesthetics. Unfortunately, however, it's probably not wise to simply pull something off the shelf from those corners of the ecclesiastical library, since it's fairly clear that the theology that has historically informed the choices is too often questionable, and occasionally downright destructive.
So, at the moment we're working on a solution. We're not exactly sure what we're going to do. But fortunately we can no longer do nothing.
... if you want to forget that you are part of a worldwide movement of Christians with connections to the church through the ages; if you want to prevent the whole congregation participating in worship together; if you want to keep empowering postmodern individualism in the church; if you want to decrease the amount of Scripture in your services; or if you want to reinvent the doxological wheel while ignoring the wisdom of the past.
The good folks over at WordMP3.com have been putting outstanding Christian resources online for years. They're well worth a visit, especially if you have hours of downtime (commuting? in the gym? in the car?) when you could do with something edifying to listen to.
Among the recent offerings is this set of lectures from James Jordan, Discovering Biblical Theology.
And for what it's worth, already in just the first few minutes of lecture 1, we discover that Jordan does not in fact believe some of the strange and erroneous ideas popularly ascribed to him. To wit (let the hearer understand):
"Now, in theology, we use the word 'regeneration' in a different way than the Bible uses it right here [in Titus 3]. We use it in Calvinism to mean an inward change in the heart that causes you to open up and love God, and you're never going to lose that. That is a systematic-theological, 'church definition' of regeneration.
"[However,] in the Bible, in this passage and one other, the word 'regeneration" means 'new creation'. Every baby that is baptized is put into the new creation. He may grow up and wander away from it. He may come to hate it. But he starts out with the gift of God of being transferred out of the old world into the church, which is the new world. And that's just an objective transfer, just as if you move from here to Alaska ... as if you were adopted into another family and got another name."
And later, by way of further explanation:
"We've got to be aware, when we read the Bible, that the Bible doesn't always say things the same way our catechisms and confessions do."
... about the bishops."
Not my words. That's simply what one senior government adviser apparently said to a journalist in relation to the proposed changes to Sunday trading regulations.
Well, at least that's now clear.
... a fantastic new evangelistic book by Glen Scrivener. Great to give away, just a couple of quid a copy at 10ofThose.com.
... against exclusive Psalmody:
Are we really forbidden to sing the name of Jesus?