Archive for September, 2013

A good Christian thought blog

Posted: September 27, 2013 by J in General

I have just encountered blogger Caleb Scott Roberts from Oklahoma. His blog is theologically and politically informed, well written, and full of interest. I recommend taking a squizz.

http://calebscottroberts.com/

 

Try his article on John Piper!

There’s something there about Calvinism, sovereignty and narrative too, recently…

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I have another way I want to express my critique of the Calvinist thought-tradition I belong to. It’s another angle on the same thing:

Calvinism divorces God’s sovereignty from God’s kingdom.

These are metaphors. We can understand something about God by saying he is like one of our human rulers. He is King. He is in charge. He has a territory over which he holds sway. This is his sovereignty.

Or is it his kingdom?

Thing is, the two metaphors are not two, but one. It’s the same image. Therein lies the problem for Calvinism. Let me show you what I mean.

The first mention of God’s sovereignty in Scripture is at the Exodus:

…your right hand, O LORD, shattered the enemy…
You brought your people in and planted them on the mountain of your own possession,
the place, O LORD, that you made your abode,
the sanctuary, O LORD, that your hands have established. 
18 The LORD will rule as King forever and ever.”   Exodus 15
 

What does God’s sovereignty mean here? It means he came down and smashed Pharaoh, and created a people and gave them a land where he would rule over them. It’s not abstract, it’s very concrete. It’s about God’s presence and visible action.

In the Psalms, God’s kingship is introduced as a Messianic concept:

 He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the LORD has them in derision. 
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying, 
6 “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”     Psalm 2
 

Another classic ‘kingship psalm’, 29, begins and ends with the image of God hovering over waters:

The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;
the LORD sits enthroned as king forever.      Psalm 29

This is a creation image. God asserted his power over the waters, in the creation. They obeyed his voice. In this sense he is viewed as ‘enthroned’ over the waters. This is his kingship, or sovereignty.

Psalm 74 bemoans that in God’s absence, foes have made a mockery of his land. But that is not the whole story: there is still hope of God’s kingship.

Yet God is my King from of old,
working salvation in the earth. 
You divided the sea by your might;
you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters.    Psalm 74
 

This is God’s kingship: his victory over the waters and the leviathan. His parting the Red Sea and smashing the ‘dragon’ Egypt. And it may return.

All of these psalms view God’s kingship as something concrete and visible that happens ‘down here’. We tend to overlay this with a framework of ‘God is already fully king, it just needs revealing‘. This is an abstract structure of thought which I suspect would be meaningless to the psalmists.

Seems to me the Jewish Scriptures have a view of God’s sovereignty which is pretty close to what we might call, ‘God’s kingdom’.

In the NT, of course, God’s sovereignty (or kingdom) is completely bound up with Jesus. Revelation 15 is typical: there the first mention of God’s sovereignty in Scripture, from Exodus 15, is transformed:

And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb:
“Great and amazing are your deeds,
Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways,
King of the nations! 
Lord, who will not fear
and glorify your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come
and worship before you,
for your judgments have been revealed.” 

God can be declared ‘king of the nations’ because of his new victory, which brings all the nations to his feet. Which victory? The victory of the lamb. This is after all ‘the song of the lamb’.

In fact, the NT really has nothing to say about God as sovereign apart from what he has done in making Jesus King. This should give us pause for thought…

This kingdom is of course something that arrives. It means ‘God’s will starting to be done on earth, the way it already is in heaven, as people come under the leadership of Jesus.’ At Jesus’ resurrection and Pentecost, this starts to be a reality.

In Scripture, then there are not two concepts, God’s sovereignty and his kingdom/kingship. They are one and the same.

HOWEVER:

I am aware that systematic theology feels at liberty to use words in a different way from how the Scripture uses them. With its bent towards abstract thought, Calvinist systematics has constructed a whole theology of invisible ‘eternal’ stuff lying behind and prior to God’s action in the gospel, and labelled that concept ‘sovereignty’. Which of course, means ‘kingship’. But it uses this word in quite a different way from how the Scriptures use it.

This is a serious problem for ordinary Christians, as whatever contact they have with Calvinist systematics leads them to misread the Bible’s talk about God’s sovereignty. When they read in the NIV everywhere ‘Sovereign LORD’, they hear it as asserting the Calvinist doctrine of sovereignty. But Adonai Yahweh does not have that meaning. So we have this distortion.

It’s time for the two rival terms and concepts for God’s kingship in the Calvinist tradition to call each other out, confess that they are the same metaphor, go toe to toe and duke it out for the rightful title. This faith ain’t big enough for the two of them.

Historically, ‘sovereignty’ has packed the bigger punch, to the discomfiture of ‘kingdom/kingship’.

But I’m putting my money on ‘kingdom of God’. Coz it’s in the Bible.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

I grew up with Calvinist thinking. I spent my time reading Puritans and Spurgeon, checking things in Louis Berkhof, and promoting the books of John Piper. I was fully immersed! I made Mark Driscoll look like a soft Arminian.

Over the years I’ve questioned everything. Naturally. This is The Grit! And as I have, I’ve noticed some structural problems in my faith, some tensions, ways that it didn’t all hang together. I now hold my Calvinist heritage in a slightly more nuanced way. I’m thankful for the truth in it, but willing to acknowledge its weaknesses and critique it also.

I think some of the weakness in Calvinism occurs at a deep structural level. After a decade of thinking this over, I’m ready to sum it up. Here’s my critique:

Calvinism starts with the complete sovereignty of God. Whereas it should end there. 

By starting where it should end, it collapses the space in which the story might unfold. It has an anti-narrative bent, a static tendency, built-in. There is no deep significance to time in the Calvinist worldview. Whatever time it is, at the deepest level all is well, for every molecule is following the predetermined will of God. And so all times are fundamentally the same time.

But we need space for the story. We need time for the story. Because the story is the gospel. 

For Calvinists, God’s sovereignty is defined basically apart from the resurrection of Jesus. Whereas in the NT, I take it, that event is the defining moment for what it means that God is king. When Calvinists say, ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’, they don’t intend to be saying anything much about God’s sovereignty: that’s already been established long ago. Whereas for the apostles, ‘Jesus is Lord’ was pretty much all they had to say about God’s sovereignty.

For Calvinists, the resurrection of Jesus doesn’t really change much. There is no room for a real coronation, and real victory of God at the cross. Because God’s victory has always been total anyway. He was King the day before, just as he is the day after. The main thing that changes is the appearance of the thing to us down here. But the underlying, unseen relationship between God and the world (i.e. complete sovereignty/submission to his will)  remains the same.

In other words, God is not personally implicated or involved in the changes and events that make up the story, because there can be no real event for that sort of God. He is immutable in his utter sovereignty. Try making a story with a leading character like that!

This key aspect of the Calvinist world view, it seems to me, is ultimately anti-gospel.

for PART 2 click HERE

So privileged to hear Stanley Hauerwas last night at New College, UNSW. Of the many helpful things he talked about, here’s the one that stuck in my mind:

He quoted Robert Jenson’s famous statement: God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having first raised Israel from Egypt. 

Commenting on the Israel bit of that, SH said roughly this: ‘the word ‘raised’ links Israel’s experience to our Christian faith, as we trust in the risen one. It makes us realise how much we have in common with the story of Israel. In particular today, we the Christian church share Israel’s uncomfortable experience of not being in control.

That’s what stuck with me: not being in control. For Israel, election started off as a kind of crazy rollercoaster ride, they never knew what was around the next bend. They were totally in God’s hands. When you read the adventures of the early Christians in Acts and elsewhere, it seems our election in Christ is pretty much the same.

Not in control: I sense that we are struggling to adjust, after more than a millenium of church-state connection taught us to see Christian faith from the point of view of the powerful insider. It’s only been a few hundred years that that power has been on the wain, and only recently that we’ve felt really outsiders. Back in 1959, Sydney’s newspapers promoted the Billy Graham crusades. Now they are hostile or indifferent to Christian faith.

I think we’re still feeling the shock. And the ones feeling the most shock are us Anglicans. We are used to rule. We have establishment in the very fibre of our being. But that establishment has rejected us. It’s a profound identity crisis. The anabaptists, on the other hand, probably feel ok about things…  🙂

So now we’re not in control, and we need to reframe our faith, retell our story, rethink our practises, reinvent ourselves. We need to get comfortable with this. At present we’re still longing for the old power back, still wanting to tell our society what to do, etc. We’re still worrying that the media doesn’t like us, and desperately trying to turn that around. It’s time to stop.

I think we need some time out in the wilderness with God, like Moses, to adjust our bearings. We’re not princes in Egypt any longer. When we come back, it will be as prophets, not princes. We must embrace an identity that is alternative, unpopular, edgy, shameful, subversive.

Christian faith began as an underground movement, and it’s time we got back to those roots. The upper room. The catacomb. Speaking psychologically, you understand.

STEP 1: sell the Cathedrals. They are our strongest link with our privileged, insider, establishment past. They are powerful symbols of being in control. They are now part of the problem, hindering us from adjusting to the new reality. Everything we like about the cathedrals is why we should sell them. We need to stop liking those things.

Cathedrals are things to repent of.

This may seem to painful to contemplate. But friends, we’ve already lost our identities. Losing the cathedrals is surely a small price to pay to regain our own selves.

I should clarify: SH did not say sell the cathedrals. That is my take on living out his program of learning to not be in control. I As a friend texted me the other day, Hauerwas is the man to help us negotiate post-Christendom. And boy do we need help!

The Grit irritates 20 000 people

Posted: September 10, 2013 by J in General

Or something like that anyway. We can’t measure everyone who views us, but the ones we can measure say last night was the 20 000th hit on The Grit. 

That’s the closest thing we get to a birthday around here, so we thought we should celebrate.

At the Grit we’re dedicated to asking all the awkward questions and listening to people’s answers. It’s nice to know there are people all over the world who want to be part of that. We’ve had readers from hundreds of countries, from Iran to Ghana to Ecuador to Romania. Oh, and a few from Sydney, Australia!

Thanks to everyone who’s come along for the ride, and especially to the people who’ve been brave enough to leave comments. We really value that.

Will we do it all again for another 10 000?

 

God is Jesus

Posted: September 4, 2013 by J in Bible, Mission, Theology
Tags: , ,

When we talk about Jesus and divinity, I think we often make a serious category error. We frame our talk with the question, “Who is Jesus?”. That’s the wrong question. Here’s why.

As we read the Gospels, we find again and again that Jesus is doing the things Yahweh was supposed to do. The prophets foresaw a time when Israel’s god would return and gather his people. He himself would be their shepherd, binding up their wounds and leading them into good pastures. He would renew and re-establish Israel by pouring out his Spirit on them. His word would go out and be fruitful, bringing justice and peace to the peoples.

Time and again we see Jesus doing these things, playing this role: Yahweh’s role. When Jesus is born, we are told, ‘Yahweh has come and visited his people at last’ (Luke 1). When the demoniac is sent to tell people how much God has done for him, he tells them how much Jesus has done for him. Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem is dripping with the symbolism of Yahweh’s return and the day of the Lord (Matt. 21). It was Yahweh who was to clear the temple: Jesus does it. God was ultimately to be enthroned as king over the world. And when that enthroning takes place, when we look at the one on the throne, there sits…Jesus.

Have you ever noticed that the Gospel writers (especially the synoptics) don’t talk much about Jesus’ divine identity? Not directly, they don’t. What they do talk about is divine action. And that talk is all centred on Jesus. The things Jesus does, God does. What does it look like for Yahweh to visit? It looks like Jesus.

All-in-all, Jesus comes across as the prophetic vision with flesh on. What was only seen dimly and distantly, what the prophets could only point forward to, Jesus reveals fully. He is the splendid, full-colour, 3-D reality, the embodiment of Yahweh. This is how Paul understands Jesus: “in him the whole fulness of Yahweh dwells bodily”. “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 2, 1).

And what a surprise it is for Israel when Yahweh turns up and he isn’t what they thought. He doesn’t care about fine details of rule-keeping. He doesn’t care about clean. He doesn’t keep the Sabbath traditions. He washes people’s dirty feet. He rebukes the Jerusalem priesthood and tears shreds off the spiritual heroes in the Pharisees party. He hangs with the lowlife and the prostitutes. He hangs on a cross. He’s like a nightmare for the establishment. This is not the Yahweh they’ve been teaching all these years.

When the Jerusalem leaders fight against Jesus and kill him, they’re making a theological statement. Yahweh is not like this. But Jesus comes back. He wins. His view of things is vindicated completely, while Israel’s leaders are disgraced. Yahweh is fully embodied in Jesus after all.

If we can try to sum all this up, we would have to say that the Gospels are constantly hitting on one massive theme. It’s not ‘Jesus is God’. It’s God is Jesus.

What sort of god is Israel’s god? What is the true God really like? Who is he? Different people, different sects and parties, different nations have their own version. And now we find out.

God is Jesus.

Jesus is the definitive and complete expression of the deity.

This is a much bigger and more far-reaching statement than the one we normally like to make: ‘Jesus is God.’

Think about it. God is Jesus. It’s the answer to a question: who or where is God? What is he like? The answer: here is God. He is Jesus.

This is a claim about God, it limits what we can say about him. Who is God? Not Caesar, not Zeus or Jupiter, not Moses or John the B:  Jesus. If God is Jesus, he is not someone else. It’s a claim to uniqueness.

It’s a claim about God, and so is good for all times and all places. If God is Jesus in Roman Palestine, if God’s identity is stable, then he is Jesus always, including today. We cannot say, God is Mohammed or Buddha, or god is an Indian guru, or the Dalai Lama, or god is the statues in my neighbours’ homes, or you are God, or I am. No. God was Jesus. God is Jesus.

The message reaches out to us across the centuries, challenging us to respond. Do we want to know God? God is Jesus. So Jesus is the one to go to.

God is Jesus tells us more than just who Jesus is. It tells us about God. It’s bigger than Christology: it’s theology. Like first century Israel, we didn’t really know God, we didn’t have right content to fill that name with meaning. When we said ‘God’ we had little idea what we were saying. None of us could agree either. But now we know what ‘God’ means. It means everything we find in Jesus. Now we know who He is: he is the God and Father of that man. We know what God is like. He is like Jesus.

This makes the Gospels the heart, the most vital and interesting part of our Scriptures. For there God is finally revealed in flesh. If we want to know God, we can look and listen and learn from Jesus. In fact, if Jesus is God functions as a final word, God is Jesus is a conversation opener, an invitation to come close and explore. Everything Jesus does, everything he doesn’t do, everything he says and doesn’t say, all the surprises – every detail becomes intensely important and meaningful for us, worth pondering and discussing. For this life is revelatory. Here in the Gospels, at last, we come face to face with Yahweh himself; we can find out the truth about God.

And what we find out is pretty hard to take. How can God be like that? How can he be a crucified Galilean? Jesus kind of makes us tear up our model of God and start again. We may not like it, but it’s in our faces and we can’t escape the truth.

Who is God? God is…Jesus.

Jesus is God?

Posted: September 2, 2013 by J in Mission, Theology
Tags: , ,

Jesus is God: one of the biggest emphases in the evangelical teaching I’ve heard over the years. Especially teaching on the Gospels. It’s their main message, right? It’s the point of all those miracles, etc: as the kids’ song says, “Only God could do that!” The focus is firmly on Jesus’ identity.

Jesus is God is a powerful statement. It tells us something historical: that in first century Palestine God came down and entered into our world in a special way. It tells us that Jesus is worth paying attention to, he has a special status. We should listen to what he has to say.

But it’s a limited statement. For one thing, it’s not exclusive. Dogs have four legs, but that doesn’t mean that only dogs have four legs. Jesus is God – but that doesn’t exclude other people from being God. God could manifest himself differently at different times and places. Maybe Jesus was the manifestation for the first century? Jesus is God doesn’t assert uniqueness and challenge the relativism of our pluralist age.

Jesus is God also doesn’t in itself involve us. We are not necessarily implicated. It might be a deeply interesting fact, but it’s removed from us by 2000 years. In fact, someone might believe this message and still ask, “So what?” Nice to know God visited some people back then, now can I get on with my life – or with my buddhism?

Jesus is God tells me about Jesus. It’s the answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?” Jesus is God. What it doesn’t do is tell us which god. Where I live there are many gods. If I tell people Jesus is God they may well ask, “Which god is he?” The message assumes a shared view of God’s identity and character – we already know who God is, but now he’s become Jesus. But that shared view doesn’t exist in my part of the world. And does it exist anywhere?

Of course we can surround Jesus is God with extra details, which boost its impact. “Jesus makes exclusive claims” “Jesus is alive” etc. But the basic structure of the thought, the core message which we so often revert to – a message about the divine identity of Jesus – remains unchanged, and remains fairly weak.

If the message of the Gospels is Jesus is God, that doesn’t give me a very good reason to read them carefully or repeatedly. Once I’ve got the message – job done. I’ve mastered the Gospels, discovered the secret, and I can move on, right? Maybe leave the ministry years, and just focus on the passion and resurrection. Or more likely, leave the Gospels and focus on the doctrine in Paul’s epistles? Or maybe Jesus’ teaching is still worth studying – but his ministry more generally? If its point is to identify Jesus as God, then it probably doesn’t need ongoing attention. Nothing more boring than preaching to the converted. No wonder our people don’t keep reading the Gospels!

As I have read the Gospels over the years, I have gradually noticed that they actually have very little interest in saying “Jesus is God”. It just doesn’t seem to be in the top five of things they’re trying to communicate. Especially the synoptics, Matthew Mark and Luke. So it seems strange to me that we keep finding this as the core message there.

I do think the Gospel writers, like us evangelicals, are interested in Jesus’ identity. “Who is Jesus?” is an important question to ask. But I think we’re giving the wrong answer. The Gospels’ answer is usually: Jesus is Messiah. That’s definitely in the top five.

And I do think the Gospels have something to say about Jesus and God and identity, but I think it’s something different. That’s for tomorrow.