Archive for January, 2013

God and us: the picture version

Posted: January 30, 2013 by J in Theology

How does God relate to his world?

VIEW 1: In the West, we often say God is far away from us, cut off from the world, in a different place. For him to step in takes a miracle.
God does not seem to be a regular player in the events of everyday life.

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VIEW 2: In the East, religions often say the world is all part of God. There is no difference between the world and the deity. The world has no separate existence of its own. Every rock, every tree is divine, for the world is flooded with divinity.

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VIEW 3: The Reformed Protestant view is a little more complex. God and the world are different, each has its own existence. But they are in close relationship. The world exists outside God, but it is ‘stuck’ to him: it cannot act or function independently of God. It can only move in tandem with him.

Thus everything that happens, necessarily happens according to God’s will, nothing against it. Conditions in the world are thus always an expression of God’s mind, no one and nothing can escape it. And so that mind can be read off the face of worldly conditions. What is God’s will? Whatever happens:¬† (as I understand it, Islam also holds this view)

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VIEW 4: There is another Christian view. It is more complex still. It involves an understanding of God as Trinity. It also allows for the possibility of a threat to God’s sovereignty or rule.

In this view, the world has existence distinct from God, and also has space to act distinctly. It is possible for the creation to resist God’s will.

How is this view different from the Western view, VIEW 1? Because there is no ontological barrier between God and us. God is free to act in his world, not as a strange intruder, but as a rightful presence. He acts in the world through his Son and his Spirit, what Irenaeus called God’s ‘two hands’.

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Through his ‘two hands’, God can be present and act ‘down here’ without sacrificing the distance between him and us. Thus he avoids either

  • overwhelming the world with divinity by his presence, so it loses its space for distinct existence (as in VIEW 2)

OR

  • overwhelming the world with his will, cancelling the world’s freedom of action (as in VIEW 3)

Things, on this view, may go badly wrong in the world. The world may fall into evil and insanity, far from God’s will. Worldly conditions are thus no reliable index of the mind or character of God.

God may even have to fight for his place as sovereign ruler of creation. In other words, there may be events in God’s relationship to his world. It all gets a bit complicated and messy. There may be a story to be told about it all.

People who hold this view tend to say that there is a story, and they call that story the gospel.

Which view?

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When I went to college, I think I hoped that by the end of four years, some big picture idea might have emerged, a central concept that focussed and structured the things I believed about Jesus and Christian faith. No such idea was forthcoming.

Is there one? A gravitational centre around which NT theology turns? A central idea that enables and controls the structure of gospel thought? Something that makes everything else connect and hang together?

Suggestions?

Is it true that religion in general tends to dampen or discourage people’s compassion for the sufferings of others?

Are there any religions that don’t have this effect on their people?

Why has the Christian church for so long adhered to the doctrine of an impassible God?

I just don’t get it. Why do we Christians, of all people, want to assert that God cannot suffer?

I can say its just the Greeks taking over the gospel. But is there more to it than that? Are there any problems with asserting that God has suffered? Are those who hold to this trying to protect something valuable, that I can’t appreciate?

What am I missing here?

Is our church life and discipleship lacking because we don’t fully believe the things we teach?

Or is it because we do believe them?

Boring sermons: we don’t know why it matters

Posted: January 26, 2013 by deadfliesmike in General

Why are we bad at evangelism?
Why don’t people invite other people to church?
To my mind, there is one massive reason (at least in my church context). The sermons at our churches consistently suck. As I visit Anglican churches around the traps, most of the preaching has been terrible. And it takes up most of the service.
It is not that the preaching is unfaithful (sometimes it is though), it is that the preachers don’t seem to be ale to communicate why this passage MATTERS. (other than, it matters because my interpretation is correct and these other people are wrong).
We get long explanations and commentary on a passage, but little communication of why it is important
Now, don’t get me wrong, these preachers try to do some application, but it is so rarely from close attention to the text. Application generally comes from skipping to my favourite theological hobby horse (for most it is the cross, for me it is the resurrection).
Over and over again preachers fail to pay attention to the logic and language and conceptuality of the scripture in front of them (and us) as they attempt to apply.

I have a hunch that this is because the preachers aren’t asking themselves “Why was this portion written?” “Why did the writer need to say this?” “Why might we need to hear it?” “What part of our world and lives need to hear this word?”. Or if they are asking the question, the answer is “So that we would have….doctrine”
I used to think that this was just poor communication, but I’m starting to think, as i listen to these sermons, that the preacher actually doesn’t know why the passage matters. He hasn’t done enough work on this passage to really understand it’s importance.
It seems the passage isn’t really sinking into the bones of the preacher, isn’t becoming the glasses through which he sees the world anew.

You don’t have to think of church as primarily the Sunday meeting. You don’t have to think of the sermon as the centre of the service. But lets admit it. In Sydney Anglican churches, this is the case. So you would think that we would wise up and actually learn to preach.

One of the best experiences I had was a minister ripping apart a sermon of mine
“You have to tell these people why they should care, why they should listen. ‘because it is in the Bible’ is not a good enough reason. ”

Most preaching I have heard in Sydney assumes you want to listen because you want information about the Bible. A few preachers have been able to consistently show why it is important to listen to this scripture today.
Yet we tell a story about ourselves that we are super preachers.

Questions I’d like answered 3 – church?

Posted: January 26, 2013 by J in General

We evangelicals know that you can get right with God ‘directly’, by faith in Jesus. You don’t need the church to mediate salvation. The church is not part of the gospel, and joining a local church, while an important result of becoming a Christian, is not of the essence, not involved in the actual conversion. It’s the fruit, not the thing itself.

QUESTION: If joining a church is not fundamental to becoming a Christian, how can it ever get to be a fundamental part of living as a Christian?¬† How does church ‘jump the gap’ later on, from non-essential to essential? How can local church membership ever be anything more than an add-on to Christian faith?

Questions I’d like answered 2 – The Cross

Posted: January 25, 2013 by J in General

The cross is where God is most fully and definitely revealed. We all agree about that. So whatever God is seen to be doing at the cross, will be core to his identity.

We say that the main thing happening at the cross is Penal Substitutionary Atonement. God punishing his son for sins we committed.

From the point of view of the Son, graciously ‘suffering for others’ is presumably revealed as core to his divine identity.

But for the Father, what is revealed? Here at the definite revealing of the Father, what do we see?

The infliction of punishment.

QUESTION: Is that really what we want to say about the core of God’s identity? If not, which bit of the above reasoning would we change?

Here at The Grit we have more questions than you could poke a stick at. Sometimes the pressure gets too great, and I just have to let some out. This short series is a kind of de-pressurising.

But also, I’d like some answers. I really would, and I’m hoping you can help with that.

Here’s no.1

Jesus was supposed to redeem and restore Israel. That’s what the infancy narratives in Luke lead us to expect would be his main accomplishment. Jesus called twelve disciples: surely symbolic of a new reconstitution of Israel. Renewed Israel: that’s the goal.

In the end, much of the nation rejects Jesus. But the Christian church is born in Jerusalem, and spreads out to ‘the ends of the earth’. The Christian church is composed of Jews and Gentiles, one people, unified in Christ. In Luke/Acts this church is the main result or outcome of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

QUESTION: So what happened about the new Israel? Did Jesus fail to live up to expectation? Or is the church the renewed Israel?

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My Assessment:
Vos’s ‘eschatology’ take on Paul has massive explanatory power, compared to the more common approach of seeing his thought structured around the theme of ‘salvation.’ We find new insights into the texts at nearly every point, knotty exegetical problems resolved in new ways: Vos’s angle on things delivers the goods.

I’m sold. Vos has pointed the way forward in Paul studies, and the rest of us would do well to follow it. Nice to have an evangelical breaking ground for us like this – we’re usually a pretty staid, unimaginative lot in these things.

I can only wonder that evangelicals (at least my kind) have managed to adopt the biblical theology framework that Vos is using, without picking up on the main exegetical and theological goods it has to offer. We still haven’t learned to read Paul the way Vos is suggesting: eschatologically. We haven’t learned to talk about the Spirit in these ways. We haven’t figured out the centrality of the resurrection in Paul’s theology. It’s all there in Vos, 80 years ago. I reckon we still haven’t nearly caught up to him in getting this biblical theology thing to bear fruit.

Gaffin rates this book, says it’s a milestone in the contribution of biblical theology to our understanding of the NT. No doubt he’s right. But there are some pretty big obstacles in the way of its ongoing usefulness.

The biggest one is the writing style. Geerhardus Vos was not a native English speaker, and there are times when it feels like we’re reading Dutch here, not English. What’s needed is not so much a good editor, but almost a good translator. This language factor makes the book unpleasant reading. And in any language, Vos would not be a good writer. He writes extraordinarily long paragraphs with no topic sentence at the beginning and no summary sentence at the end. Chapters do not begin with a clear thesis, or end with a conclusion. It’s hard going following where we’re up to in the argument.

There is structure to Vos’s writing, but it’s not on the surface, and it took me repeated readings to get the hang of it. This is a nuisance, to say the least.

Also, he’s bitsy. The whole book feels more like a collection of articles on a common topic, rather than an organically developing book. Individual chapters can feel the same – lacking direction. Some chapters feel like a collection of inquiries or observations¬† with no clear reason why one follows the other. Some are little developed, and can feel a bit tacked on.

The book as a whole, even its core ideas, seem a bit introductory, exploratory, but not thoroughly developed. I kept wishing he would take things further. This is not surprising in a pioneering work: Vos has opened up new areas for inquiry, got the ball rolling. It’s too much to expect him to do all the work, take it to its fullest conclusions.

A more serious annoyance is the book’s length. Vos takes a long time to make his points. Some chapters take tens of pages to arrive at an uncertain or negative result. I found this painful.

Another weakness is the old-school methodology in deriving theology from text. Writing in the 1920s, there’s no reason why Vos should be acquainted with modern linguistic insights – and he isn’t. There is the old etymologising approach to word meaning, there is the confusion between words in the text and theological concepts. In short, while his main conclusions are persuasive, in many side matters and details they are unconvincing, hamstrung by exegetical fallacies and general bad theological method. Though some of this is probably to be put down to poor communication – his case looks weaker than it probably is.

A last thing that’s going to minimise Vos’s popularity is the fact that Gaffin has nicked all his best stuff and developed it further, in a more accessible style and with far better methodology, in his Resurrection and Redemption. This book, while still not the easiest in the world to read, is shorter and better written than Vos. Gaffin gives heaps more bang for your buck, each chapter is crammed full of awesome content, there’s no fat.

I’m glad I read Vos, but if I were to go back to it I’d only look at ch’s 1 and 2, 6 on resurrection, and then 11 and 12 on the Judgement and Eternal State. The rest I cannot recommend to anyone who values their time. To them I’d mainly recommend, go read Gaffin’s brilliant work. He stood on the shoulders of this giant, and saw further and clearer.