Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

Poor Bill Dumbrell

Posted: October 11, 2016 by J in Church
Tags: , ,

bill-dumbrell.jpgBill was a Christian man, I don’t think he’d be that fussed about dying.

What would have really upset Bill is the outpouring of Platonic theology that his death has triggered.

Listen to a few examples:

“A great saint has entered glory” – Archbishop Glenn Davies, Sydney Anglicans Website

“Moore Veteran called home” – Sydney Anglicans headline

“Dr Bill Dumbrell was called home into the presence of the Lord” – Moore College Website, Mark Fairful

“Bill now enjoys the presence of the Lord he served throughout his life.” Mark Thompson

“The great Bill Dumbrell has gone to Abraham’s side” – John Dickson, fb

Bill would be turning in his grave. That’s because he spent his entire career trying to teach people a different story about the Christian faith.

Not the ‘dying and going to heaven’ story, where eschatology is individualised, escapist, and death-centred. Not the story where our real home is elsewhere, and we get to go there as a spirit creature when we are finally released from the shackles of our human flesh. Not the story where the moment of death is the moment of achieving glory in the presence of the Lord forever, in heaven.

Bill devoted his public life to proclaiming a gospel different from this greek cosmology. More than any other figure from the Sydney Diocese, Bill insisted on an eschatology that was corporate, creation-focussed, and resurrection-centred. In the story Bill told, the presence of the Lord was something we would only enjoy when Christ returns. That would be the moment of glorification for believers. For Bill, our only home is planet earth, and its renewal is our only hope. Read his published works and search for any hint of the other story, the one quoted above – you won’t find it.

What you’ll find again and again is an eschatology that arises from Bill’s understanding of biblical theology, rather than from c.19th children’s hymns. He always had his eye on the big storyline, and when he thought about goals, it was the goal of that story that interested him.

Consider these quotes from Bill:

… In the epistle to the Hebrews… we refer here to the striking way in which the epistle takes up the biblically pervasive notion of “rest” as the goal towards which the faith of believers… is directed. This dependence upon the total harmony projected for the entire creation, as bound up with the notion of rest developed from Genesis 2, cannot be missed. Such references point to the establishment of the rule of the kingdom of God over an ordered creation     The End of the Beginning, p.192

Through reaffirmation of the believers hope in heaven, 1 Peter encourages resistance to the persecutions experienced by scattered congregations… The prospect for those who persevere will be the crown of glory at the manifestation of Christ.     The Search for Order, p.317

We still search for the city whose maker and builder is God. The primary eschatological event, the death of Christ, has placed us in the last days, which will be brought to a close by the return of Christ. At that time the cosmos will be changed, Christ will reign over his enemies, and believers will enter into their promised inheritance.   The Search for Order, p.326

At the end of the canon, we have returned to the beginning with an overplus… Through the sacrifice of the Lamb believers will rule, taking on the role that Adam had forfeited… For they have seen the face of the Lamb, the image into which they have been transformed, and they will be eternally in his presence. The history of salvation has ended.     The Search for Order p.346

We could go on, he said the same thing over and over. This biblical eschatology preoccupied Bill throughout his writings.

As for the other story of dying and going home to glory, Bill literally had no time for it. Never mentions it.

How sad, then to see his former colleagues foisting this other story onto him, fresh off the pages of Plato, after he is dead and can’t complain!

It’s a kind of betrayal, in effect covering over his life’s work as though it never happened. To speak of him like this is to silence the challenge of his scholarly voice. It is to say, we learned nothing from you, Bill.

These are the same colleagues who professionally ostracised Bill for so many years. When was the last time Moore College invited this ‘dear brother’ to speak at one of its meetings?

That’s fair enough if you don’t like his views. But to speak as though he didn’t hold them shows a lack of respect.

Contrast the acknowledgement outside Sydney, from another Aussie scholar, Mike Bird:

“Vale Bill Dumbrell. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.”

That’s at least a prayer Bill could recognise and relate to.

As for his Sydney colleagues, they’ve sent him off to some other-worldly paradise where I imagine he would not feel in the least ‘at home’. He certainly never looked forward to it while he was alive.

That’s why I say poor bloody Bill Dumbrell.

judgment_by_fullofeyes-d4zg5o1There is one word in Scripture which evangelicals have pointed to as evidence for Satisfaction Theory: the hilas- word group which is sometimes translated ‘Atoning sacrifice.’ Evangelicals often claim that it really means ‘propitiation.’

This word-group deserves treatment as a kind of appendix to our series on ST. For if the claim is true that hilas- means propitiation, then that might be evidence of ST in Scripture – since propitiation is a similar idea to satisfaction.

The story of propitiation goes like this: the god is angry with us. We will suffer the consequences of his wrath unless we can placate or propitiate him in some way. This concept is common in pagan religions the world over. Most Christians (including many evangelical scholars) agree that this view of god is horrendous and incompatible with the God of Israel. However some have gone for a modified take on propitiation.

How is this modified view different from the pagan one? It’s not easy to articulate this, but one distinctive is in the role played by God. In the Christian take on propitiation there is nothing we can do to turn aside God’s wrath. But God makes a way of atonement – a propitiation. His wrath is turned aside elsewhere (onto Christ) and so we escape.  This is necessary for our salvation, for his wrath must go somewhere: God cannot simply switch it off.

You can see that this has the same thought-structure as Satisfaction Theory. Propitiation is really a variant of satisfaction. This is why the hilas word group tends to be prominent in evangelical accounts of ST.

So does hilas- mean ‘propitiation’? And if so, can this word swing the debate in favour of Satisfaction Theory? We’ll take these questions in reverse order.

Firstly, can this word swing the debate in favour of ST? 

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that hilas- did mean ‘propitiation’. Would that establish the popular evangelical idea that the Cross of Christ atones by rendering satisfaction?

The reliance on ‘hilas-’ to establish this doctrine is an example of one of our evangelical besetting sins: doing our theology through word studies. We like the idea that a whole lot of meaning (= theology) can be stored in a single word. We can extract it from the word, and ‘hey presto!’ – instant theology.

Actually words don’t work in this way. And neither does theology. Modern linguistics tells us that meaning (i.e. theology) does not reside so much in individual words as it does in sentences, paragraphs, stories, books –  i.e. in larger units of language. To do our theology well, we need to exegete texts, not individual words. Ultimately the whole bible story is the unit that encodes the meaning we need. In other words biblical theology is the discipline to work with for building our theology – not word studies. To jump straight from word study to theology is to short circuit the whole process of actually reading the text.

So we should be wary of any argument that proceeds on the basis of word-studies. The hilas word-group (or any other word-group) can never be a strong argument for ST, or for any other doctrine.

For more on the problem of word-study theologising, see here.

Tomorrow: Does hilas- mean ‘propitiation’?

The-Return-of-the-King-Smeagols-BirthdayIt’s time to ask the question, why have evangelicals been so attached to this medieval theory for so long? It’s not exactly leaping off the page of Scripture demanding to be noticed. Why do we give such airtime to an idea that has so little exegetical backing?

Here we are into the realm of opinion. I can only offer my impressions. I used to hold to this satisfaction stuff. Why did I?

1. ST has become an identity marker

As liberal Christians rejected the idea of the wrath of God and everything that went with it, this area became more important for evangelicals’ sense of identity. We have long defined ourselves over against liberals. We have wanted clear ways to signal who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’. God’s wrath has become a handy identity marker for us. This being so, it is appealing to have an account of God’s wrath that is as hard-core as possible. Satisfaction theory absolutises the demands of wrath. It helps us maintain our polar opposition to liberal compromise. At the political level, it works well for us.

In other words, ST has become so closely identified with our movement, that it’s hard for us to imagine letting it go. If we stopped teaching ST, who would we be then? It’s a scary thought.

2. ST provides a simple explanation

The cross is fundamentally mysterious. But the church in the West has always had a leaning towards processes, laws and mechanics. It comes out of Roman culture. We want things analysed and explained. They aren’t like that in the Eastern church: they’re more comfortable with mystery. But we want clarity.

So we want a clear simple account of the mechanics of the cross. We want to know how it works. ST offers a very simple explanation that claims the be complete and adequate: the cross is a satisfaction. We feel like we really need this. It needs to be logical so we can explain it to people.

We want something you can draw as a diagram, put in a pamphlet and train people to recite. It needs to be reducible to a few boxes. It needs to be simple and clear!

We don’t want to be saying ‘The cross is a mystery that saves you’. We want to be able to say ‘Here’s what it’s all about.’ Scripture doesn’t say much about the mechanics of the cross, but the logic of ST covers the gaps and gives us the simple explanation we require. That’s hard to resist, and hard to give up even though we might have doubts about Scripture backing.

3. ST is a powerful and compelling idea.

Necessity. Implacable wrath. Unstoppable justice. Terrible danger. God’s grace wrestling against his anger. A great escape.

It’s hot stuff. It’s a high energy story. Luther more than anyone sensed the dramatic potential of the story and brought it out.

Satisfaction Theory makes the gospel seem urgent and important. We are ‘sinners in the hands of an angry God’, dangling over the pit, liable at any moment to be dropped into the fire. For anyone who buys this picture, it provides a strong motive for turning to Christ.

We have a kind of feeling that without this the gospel would lose its cutting edge, its forcefulness and immediacy.

4. ST is less personally confronting than other atonement theories.

Because Satisfaction Theory locates the main problem outside of us, it can leave our sense of self intact.  ST’s focus on our legal status takes the spotlight off our moral condition, our heart-trouble.

It works like this. I can acknowledge that I have sinned, fallen short of perfection, and yet maintain my sense of superiority and pride towards others. I might be guilty, but I’m basically a decent person. I’ll admit I’ve infringed God’s law (who hasn’t!), but I don’t have to admit that I’m greedy or blind or full of hatred. I’m willing to say I’m a sinner, but this is more a comment on my record than on my character. I have sinned in the past, but that doesn’t mean that sin defines me. In any given situation I can take it or leave it. This is much less confronting than the idea of sin as slavery or a kind of heart-disease characterised by stubborn rejection of God, which we’ve seen pervades the Bible story.

ST gives us, in fact, a comfortable middle-class version of sin that does little to challenge our lifestyles or the godless structures of our self-centred consumerist society.


Well that’s how it looks from where I’m standing anyway. Seems to me those are the main reasons evangelicals are attached to this medieval theory, in spite of its weak attestation in Scripture. The very suggestion that ST may not be biblical feels like a threat, an assault on Who We Are, an undermining of our simple certainty. That’s why even after being shown the exegetical problems (see previous posts), many evangelicals will still cling to ST with a kind of reverent loyalty.

What do you reckon? Have I missed anything? There may be other reasons I haven’t noticed.

court-gavelI have realised over the years that Satisfaction Theory jars for me. I’m ready to make my confession: when I sing those songs (see previous post), I feel my heart cringe inside me for a moment. I find the whole idea more of a hindrance than a help.

Why is that? Is it because I’m a closet liberal and want to secretly undermine the idea of God’s wrath? Hard to say, but meanwhile, I’d like to re-examine the Satisfaction Theory of the atonement (ST), take a critical look at it, and see if I can crystalise my concerns.

There are many ways we could come at critiquing ST. One is to ask, why is this theory of the atonement popular among evangelicals? I think in fairness we should come back to this sociological issue at the end.

So let’s start with biblical concerns, then move on to theological ones. And finally address sociological/political issues.


The most obvious objection to satisfaction theory from a biblical standpoint is that it’s very difficult to find it taught in any particular place in Scripture. The bible frequently asserts the more general truth that Christ died for our sins, but rarely does it get more specific. In particular, it never uses a term meaning ‘satisfaction’ in relation to the Cross. I hear it taught so often, but never with convincing textual support.

In fact there is no place in the Bible where God’s wrath or justice is said to be ‘satisfied’ or requiring satisfaction (in spite of the NRSV’s dodgy translations in Ezekiel, it’s not there in the Hebrew or the LXX).

Lack of satisfaction terminology is not a knock-down argument against ST. But it should definitely give us pause.

A much more serious objection relates to biblical theology. Put simply, ST does not seem to have arisen through reflection on the story of salvation history. Rather, it developed in a more abstract theological setting. Reading Anselm or Calvin, they are simply not starting from this place: the questions they are asking are worked out in a much more logical, systematic environment. “How might this atonement thing work? How can we make sense of it? Let’s collect some texts that address this. Let’s reason it out from first principles. How does it fit with other doctrines we believe?” That sort of approach.

What is notably lacking is biblical theology. I.e. there is little or no attempt to approach the atonement from the point of view of the narrative of God’s works as recorded in Scripture. And this is a real concern. All kinds of theories can be made to sound plausible, biblical – but without this discipline of biblical theology, the potential for introducing foreign ideas and distortions is great. It’s so easy to set up questions using imported categories foreign to Scripture, and deduce answers that make sense in those same categories, all with apparent Scripture backing from proof texts – but without ever connecting with the themes or narrative of Scripture.

And in fact this concept of ‘satisfaction’ would seem to fall down at this very point: it’s not easy to see how it is congruent with the bible’s meta-story.

Think about this: in ST, the great obstacle to be overcome is one located in God himself, or in an abstract universal standard like ‘honour’ or ‘justice’ – rather than a problem down here on the ground. Once we had sinned in Adam, the problem was entrenched, and nothing we did would have made any difference to it. Though (hypothetically speaking) every human from then on had been repentant and obedient, the great obstacle would have remained. Once Israel had sinned and turned away from God, his wrath would have been invoked, the justice of the law would have laid down its demand for punishment, and nothing Israel did after that would have made the slightest difference. After all, “What satisfies the law? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”

In this view, the problem from the Fall onwards has always been God’s justice. For God to establish his kingdom and salvation a way must be found to avoid his justice: we must escape from the judgement of God. We evangelicals often find ourselves talking like this.

ST and the Old Testament 

If we compare this with the Old Testament, ST would lead us to expect laments in the prophets of this sort:

When I would restore the fortunes of my people, 

when I would heal Israel,

the guilt of Ephraim is revealed,

and the righteous demands of my justice which cannot be silenced.


I want to redeem them,

but my wrath will not be turned back.


How can I pardon you?

Your children have neglected my honour,

and it must be satisfied.

But in fact we never do find such sayings in the prophets. No, the story they tell goes like this:

When I would restore the fortunes of my people,

when I would heal Israel,

the corruption of Ephraim is revealed,

and the wicked deeds of Samaria;

for they deal falsely,

the thief breaks in,

and the bandits raid outside…

Now their deeds surround them,

they are before my face.          Hosea 6:11-7:2

I want to redeem them,

but they speak lies against me.     Hosea 7:13

It’s a pretty consistent story throughout the prophets:

How can I pardon you?

Your children have forsaken me,

and have sworn by those who are no gods.     Jeremiah 5:7

Here the problem is located firmly on earth. The barrier that hinders God’s blessing and salvation is in man, not in God or in an abstract sphere. God is willing: his people are unwilling. God is offended and angry, yes. Yet Yahweh is ready to forgive: but his people are not ready to repent.

Moreover, this is the way the prophets always talkThis is the story they consistently tell, the story of Israel, the story of mankind. “All we like sheep had gone astray”. The name Israel means ‘struggled with God’, and that correctly describes the nation. They are the ones who always turn away:

You shall say to them, “Thus says the LORD:

‘When people fall, do they not get up again?

If they go astray, do they not turn back? 

Why then has this people turned away

in perpetual backsliding?

They have held fast to deceit,

they have refused to return

I have given heed and listened,

but they do not speak honestly;

no one repents of wickedness,

saying, “What have I done!” ‘”          Jeremiah 8:4-6

That’s the story. That’s the meta-problem of the OT narrative: stubborn, persistent rebellion. That’s what needs to be overcome in order to bring salvation and the fruition of God’s purposes.

ST suggests that once we have sinned there is nothing we could do that could possibly fix things. Judgement must be enacted. But the prophets insist that if Israel turns, there really is forgiveness and healing:

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another,  if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt,  then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.   Jeremiah 7:5-7

Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts…Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing. Malachi 3: 7-10

There is something Israel could do: she could renew her relationship with Yahweh if she would turn. But she will not.

It is true that for reconciliation and at-one-ment to take place, there must be forgiveness on God’s side also. He is the rightly offended party. But in the prophets this is not identified as the sticking point. In fact, the God of justice is already overflowing with mercy. From the beginning He identified himself by this quality.

The LORD, the LORD,

a God merciful and gracious,

slow to anger,

and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.          Exodus 34:6

God is sovereign in his mercy: he forgives when and where he likes. This is fundamental to his lordship. More than once, Moses finds that Yahweh the just can be successfully persuaded to forgive.  The problem then that creates the drama of the OT narrative is not the intransigence of God’s judgement. The prophets never long to dodge God’s justice. The change they long for lies elsewhere, in the hearts of men.

Can you see the problem with Satisfaction Theory?

When we come to the gospel story and ask, ‘How does God save us at the Cross of Jesus?’, surely the answer must be in the same categories that the prophets used? If the OT functions like a great question, with the gospel as the answer, then must not the answer relate pretty closely to the question? If the NT gospel provides the final and climactic chapter of the long Scripture narrative, we could be forgiven for expecting that it might resolve the main dilemmas in that story.

If the problem has centred around the abiding presence and power of sin in mankind, then it is reasonable to look for a solution, a salvation, that also centres on this problem. To put it simply, we are looking first and foremost for a way of release from our sin problem, a means of escape from our slavery. We need God’s forgiveness, yes, but the sticking point is our sinful hearts and lives.

But ST turns up an answer which pushes these issues to the periphery, and centres instead on acquital. However, as we have seen, acquital was never the main issue in the story. ST switches the discourse to a different category – the legal one. It gives an answer to a different question, not the one the OT centred on. The solution it offers does not meet the problem. Put simply, ST derails the narrative of redemption, distracting attention from its big issues. It tells a story, but not the Bible’s story. It dislocates the gospel from salvation-history. In particular it makes the whole history of Israel an irrelevance. (You can see this in many ‘gospel presentations’ based on ST: they routinely omit Israel, and don’t even miss it!).

It seems that ST doesn’t sit very comfortably with God’s revelation of himself in the OT prophets. In my book that’s a pretty serious objection to the theory.

Tomorrow: ST and the New Testament

death-of-Jesus-on-the-crossThere are many theories of the atonement, explaining how Jesus’ death (and possibly resurrection) achieves salvation. Of all of them, the one I find perhaps the most problematic is the one I keep encountering in my own evangelical tradition: the idea of satisfaction.

It’s in so many of our songs:

In our place He pays our ransom
Satisfies the law – Rob Smith

What satisfies the law
Nothing but the blood of Jesus – Lowry/Morrow

Till on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied          – Stuart Townend.

Your justice has been met
And holy wrath is satisfied
Through one atoning death – Bob Kauflin

‘Satisfaction’ theory goes like this: our sin creates a demand, which must be met. Until it is met there can be no salvation. The atonement is then the story of how God meets the demand, and thus makes our salvation possible. He meets it through the death of Jesus his son. Jesus’ death satisfies the demand on our behalf so that there is no longer any claim on us.

An unspoken addition or assumption within this theory is often: not even God can save us until satisfaction has been made.

So what is the demand which must be met or satisfied? There are a few different versions of satisfaction theory, which give different answers to that question:

1. Honour:

Satisfaction theory was first developed by Anselm in the 10th century. For a thousand years before him, the church did not teach this idea: the dominant view of the atonement was of a ransom.

Anselm saw sin as dishonouring to God, robbing him of the honour he was due. Christ’s death however is the ultimate act of obedience, and so honours God greatly. In fact, by going beyond the call of duty, it renders more honour than was needed! So Christ’s death is a work of supererogation: it has virtue to spare which can be shared with us. His death renders to God the honour we owed him but withheld.

Why was this so important? Because God could not forgive sinners until his honour was satisfied:

So then, if it be not fitting for God to do anything unjustly, or out of course, then it does not belong to his liberty or compassion or will to let the sinner go unpunished who makes no return to God of what the sinner has defrauded him. Cur Deus Homo I.12

This statement is important: God has no liberty to release sinners until the demand of honour has been met. God himself must satisfy honour before he can achieve his goal of salvation for man.

From this unpromising start, the doctrine went on to be developed further by the c.16th Reformers.

2. Justice

Calvin (the lawyer) transferred this theory into legal categories. He taught that it is God’s justice that must be satisfied.  For God to forgive sin would be unjust, and so he is restricted in his action. He must find a way to save sinners that at the same time satisfies the demands of justice. And what justice demands, is punishment. Jesus was “made a substitute and a surety in the place of transgressors and even submitted as a criminal, to sustain and suffer all the punishment which would have been inflicted on them.” (Institutes 2.16.10)

This is often expressed in terms of God’s law, which is generally identified as the law of Moses. Since the law prescribes punishment for sin, it must be enforced. The law, then, makes demands – and even God is obliged to satisfy them.

In this model God’s justice or law functions as the real problem. Let man be repentant, let God be willing to forgive: no matter. Nothing can be done until justice has been appeased through a full punishment. For justice is an absolute.

The cross of Christ then is explained as an act of punishment: the Father inflicts the punishment and the Son endures it. It must be enough punishment to cover the sins of the whole world (or if you’re a five point Calvinist, the sins of the elect). The quantity of the suffering is vital here to make the model work. Jesus in some way suffers enough, and so justice is done. Mankind can be released.

From this idea of implacable justice, flows all the talk about escaping God’s judgement, which we hear so often in our evangelical tradition. You don’t hear, say, Greek Orthodox theologians speaking like this. It developed in the West.

3. Wrath

Luther emphasised the closely related idea that demands are made by God’s wrath. Wrath is an angry force which must be reckoned with – even by God himself. It must be appeased or propitiated. It literally cannot stop until it is satisfied. Not even God can stop it – the most He can do is to turn it aside and exhaust it in some way. If it can do enough damage, eventually it will be spent – kind of ‘burnt out’.

Thus there is an actual conflict within God’s person, between wrath and mercy. This conflict is focussed at the cross where Jesus becomes the sponge who absorbs God’s wrath until there is none left – notice that quantity is important again here. He does it by his death at the cross: “And on that cross where Jesus died/ the wrath of God is satisfied”. In Jesus God overcomes wrath with mercy.

On this account we are implicitly invited to side with God’s mercy and against his wrath: wrath is to be avoided and mercy embraced. Wrath is bad and mercy good. Since God has turned on himself in this way, we inevitably do also.

Satisfaction theory: I don’t know how you feel about it. Some people love it, others hate it. Personally my concerns are biblical and theological. From those points of view I find it extremely problematic.

Tomorrow we will try to understand why this theory has become so popular in the West, and how it relates to the teaching of the NT.

timkellerI like Tim Keller. I find his preaching thought-provoking, interesting, sometimes even inspiring. He has so much to say that is good. So many helpful thoughts about the theology of the gospel and of mission.

However, I do often find myself worried about his use of Scripture. I like creativity, but sometimes I think Keller gets carried away with it, leaving me wishing we could have listened to the text a bit more.

For example, on Acts 16, (“A woman a slave and a gentile”) Keller gives us over 10 minutes on Lydia being converted by the beauty of the gospel. She has an aesthetic experience, through a rational discourse. She is attracted. Her heart is opened to listen, and the word ‘listen’ actually means ‘attracted’.

Inspiring stuff. I like this talk about the aesthetic appeal of Christ. I buy that.

There’s only one problem. Luke doesn’t say any of this. In Acts 16 there is no mention Lydia’s aesthetic experience. The word translated ‘listen’ doesn’t mean ‘attracted’. Nobody thinks it means that. Don’t know how Keller came up with it. It means ‘pay attention.’ Or ‘listen.’ At least, that’s what everyone else thinks it means!

Read Acts 16 for yourself. Luke says nothing about the beauty of Christ in this episode. Yet Keller can get 10 minutes + on aesthetics out of it.

I just pick this as an example, but really, he’s doing this often. I think he’s just got so many ideas he wants to share, it must be hard to be limited to preaching the Scripture texts.

I love creative preaching. It’s so lacking in my scene. But I also love good exegesis. I mean I value people listening carefully to hear what the text is saying. In Acts 16, and other places, I’m not sure Keller is doing that. For me, this is not a small failing.

hear-no-evil-see-no-evil-speak-no-evilAnnouncing Jesus is no simple task these days!


McCrindle research has just surveyed more than 1,000 people from across Australia on behalf of the Centre for Public Christianity. According to the poll, only 21% of those surveyed are confident the resurrection of Jesus happened, and 13% don’t think Jesus even lived. And a significant 60% believe the Bible is a book of myths.

Director of the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX), Simon Smart says the findings indicate that Australians are moving away from conventional spiritual beliefs … the overall picture is one of polarisation.

“You’re seeing people at very different ends of the spectrum there indicating a gulf between those who are confident and those who are a very long way from that.”

He says the main application for Christians is to face the reality of where Australians are at and where they are headed in terms of their beliefs, and to find new ways of engaging them.

“What we are seeing is a rapid loss of belief among many people. The church in the West must learn how to speak into a new environment where around about half the people think belief is unsustainable, they think it’s nonsense.

“It’s important that the Christian community learns to speak into that environment and not one they wish was the case or perhaps misconstrue and believe it’s more positive than it actually is.”

See more at


These are compelling figures and confronting advice. We need to ‘face the reality of where Aussies are at’ and ‘learn how to speak into a new environment…and not one they wish was the case’.


Sounds like hard work. Brain work. Can that really be true? Can gospel faithfulness really require of us that we do serious brain work? Cultural analysis?

Actually there’s two schools of thought here.

1. The Timeless Gospel will break through

One view says surveys like this will probably send us down the wrong track. Because there is something supernatural about the message of Jesus that overrides all normal rules of communication. The gospel is so powerful, God uses it to call people whether or not it makes sense in their cultural context. Surveys and so on are appropriate for everyday communicating, but the Bible message is a special case, it’s in a class of its own. Whether or not it connects with anything our society believes or cares about, quite apart from all that, God’s Spirit uses the gospel to cut through to people and call them to faith. The message is timeless, and in any time He can make it make sense in a wonderful and unexpected way.

The ultimate expression of view 1 is the Catholic church using Latin for the mass, regardless of which language the people spoke.

2. The Contextual Gospel

According to this view, although the content of the gospel message is the miraculous acts of God, the medium is not supernatural but rather that of ordinary human communication. The message can only do its thing as it is understood and appreciated by the hearers. First it has to engage them and connect with them. Then it can be used by the Spirit to transform people.

In other words the gospel is not timeless. It comes clothed in a culture: Jewish, and it also needs to be ‘enculturated’, or contextualised or presented in terms and categories that the hearers can understand in their own culture. This can take a lot of brain work on the part of preachers, especially if they are speaking across cultures.

A classic example of this approach is the Protestant reformers, who insisted on getting the Bible translated into everyday language for the common people. Their catechisms tried to explain what the gospel meant for people in c.16th Europe. These guys were willing to rethink and reform communicative practices for the sake of connecting with people.


Is the CPX survey worth paying attention to? Depends on which of these views you hold to about the way gospel communication works.

If you hold to View 2, then we need to pay attention. More than that, we need to find a new way of addressing our society that doesn’t assume they believe what we are saying. Our traditional model of preaching and evangelism is all about asserting facts with confidence, indeed with certainty. We tend to deliver a message that only makes sense to those who agree. We don’t usually acknowledge the possibility of a different view point. This leaves our hearers with a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ set of options. The CPX survey suggests we will be preaching to an ever-shrinking audience.

If you hold to View 1, then rather than rethinking anything, we just need to stick to our guns and keep the message pure. The gospel will break through.

It’s probably worth noticing that View 1 doesn’t seem to be working in Australia. There’s a whole lot of people out there keeping the message pure, but what they’re reporting back is that they don’t get traction. Ask your local Anglican minister. And the survey confirms this: ‘a rapid loss of belief.’  The gospel as we are preaching it, is not breaking through.

It’s probably worth noting also that among cross-cultural missios, View 2 is considered basic mission practice. It’s only here at home that View 1 still finds a home.

But does anyone really believe View 1? There are signs that we are living under its influence. for example: where are the denominational forums in which Christians can discuss the challenges of communicating across the gap to our own society? Where are those discussions taking place? Where is the hard thinking going on? At CPX, for sure. But at the denominational level, nowhere that I know of.

Which colleges are training our next leaders to do this sort of contextualised ministry? Not the one I went to!

In Sydney we Anglicans had ten years of mission. You might think after that would come a stock-take. People who had led the mission called for a rethink. But no, instead we launched into another ten years of mission. Without the thinking. How could we do that? It’s View 1 at work. There’s theological blinkers stopping us from looking. Bad theology –> bad practice.

And that is why we can confidently predict that this new CPX survey will be ignored by the people we are counting on to lead us in mission, here in Sydney’s churches.

Which gospel did you preach today?

Posted: April 3, 2015 by J in Bible, Church, Theology

how-to-become-a-career-coach-1There are two different gospels that got preached in our churches today. The more popular one is:

The gospel of individual salvation

“Christ died for your sins so that you could be forgiven and released from the wrath of God.”


individualist: about the individual’s problem and need. Centred around that need.

abstract: the problem is not felt or experienced, but is ‘out there’ somewhere in the spiritual realm. The solution is also not experienced or felt, but also happens elsewhere: it is justification

forensic: largely confined with questions of guilt and punishment

– propositional: there is no real narrative attached. The cross operates as an isolated mechanism, rather than part of a larger story.

vertical: about our relationship with God but not our relations with each other.

escapist: doesn’t offer any help with ordinary everyday life, but rather distracts attention away from the everyday to other, ‘higher’ things.

Friday heavy: the important work is achieved on the Friday. There’s not much left that needs doing on the Sunday.

Spirit-lite: the Holy Spirit doesn’t usually get a mention in this gospel. Not needed! The message works fine without him.


But there’s another gospel that some preached today:

The ‘kingdom of God’ gospel

“Christ came announcing and demonstrating the arrival of God’s kingdom on earth. At Easter that kingdom really and decisively arrived. We are invited to join it.”


– narrative: placing the cross within the wider story of Jesus and of God’s purposes. Propositions arise out of the narrative rather than being overlaid onto an event.

– Christ-centred:  rather than centred around our needs. The cross is really the main event in itself, rather than just a mechanism that allows for the important event to happen in our lives.

– creation-conscious: a story about God’s world, and about all humanity, rather than about me. The individual is addressed as a part of that larger picture, rather than in isolation.

– this worldly: expressing God’s commitment to his creation and the value and importance of all that happens in it. It is therefore

horizontal as well as vertical: right relationships with one another being an integral part of joining in with God’s arriving kingdom.

broad-focussed: concerned with forensic issues, but also with matters of relationship, identity, belonging, well-being, purpose and a thousand other things that all form part of ‘the kingdom of God’.

concrete and ‘earthy’: interacts with and speaks to felt needs and experiences as well as more abstract ones. Relates to actual human flourishing in the here and now, as well as the future.

– Sunday-focussed as well as Friday: while Friday was death to the old order, Sunday is the real beginning of the new. After Friday the work was only half-done.

– Spirit-rich: this kingdom only arrives because of the mighty act of God’s Spirit on Sunday, bringing in a new creation through the resurrection of Christ. It only arrives in our lives by that same Spirit doing the same work in us. (0f course you’d probably talk about this on the Sunday more than today…)

Which gospel did you guys preach at your church this Good Friday?

Losing the moral high ground

Posted: March 3, 2015 by J in Church, Mission

maxresdefault“We don’t go into churches” she said.

I’d just met this mum at school, and after a friendly chat, it occurred to me to mention our Playgroup. And that was her response.

I thought that was interesting. Not so much the attitude, but the statement. She didn’t need to say this – in fact she obviously felt a little awkward coming out with it. She knew I was ‘the minister’ and that it would put a dampener on our acquaintance. Most people who didn’t want to come would have just said, thanks for letting me know, and left it. But she felt the need to make this strong statement.

It reminded me quite a bit of the way I’ve seen some Christians admitting that they go to church. A little sheepish, but feeling that it was important to stand up and be counted. For this woman, I think it was a matter of principle, and she wanted to own that, wanted it known where her family stood.

This little exchange reminded me of what a different world the church in the West finds itself facing, especially among the upper middle class anglo professional set, to which this mum belonged, and which has been our traditional homeground.

For centuries people have had many mixed and negative feelings towards ‘the church’, whether fear or respect or guilt or lack of interest or whatever. But whatever attitudes the churches have faced we have generally felt confident about one thing in our social status: the moral high ground. Churches represented what was upright and good and moral. Society at large was generally immoral, selfish and irresponsible (in our view) – and so the church stood as a kind of bastion of righteousness, admired or avoided as the case may be.

The church has for long centuries accepted this role and acted the part of moral custodian and policeman, speaking out sternly when there was a decline in standards, letting people know who was OK and who was in disgrace, and so on. Evangelicals have added to this a missionary stance, viewing the world around them as a project to be reclaimed and redeemed by their efforts. Inside it is safe, but out there, the wrath of God is upon people and they must be warned to come in.

Built into the very DNA of our whole way of relating to society, is the assumption of moral advantage. We are OK and you are probably not OK. You ought to listen to us. 

We have always expected people might hate us for this. That they might ignore us, or mock us – isn’t goodness always subjected to this sort of treatment from debauched and cynical sinners?

What we rarely have had to face before is disapproval. We are used to people not listening to our sermons. What we are not used to is being preached to by the world. Which is what we now face from that section of the world that we ourselves come from: the educated classes.

While we were not looking, a new moralism has arisen in the West, complete with accompanying doctrine, ethical code and missionary goals. Our educated, inner-city neighbours do not think of themselves as sinners anymore. They have claimed the moral advantage. In fact, many have become increasingly puritanical. The Sydney Morning Herald editorial today speaks of “the moral high ground where we [Australians] stand”, and gushes, “The moral high ground is a place to which every human should aspire in our words and reach with our deeds.” Amen, here endeth the lesson. It might sound a bit comical, but the Herald was dead serious.

This preachiness comes naturally to the new moralists. Did you notice that they have started teaching Special Religious Education in the public schools? They call it Ethics. This social movement is zealous to capture the minds of the next generation for the cause.

There is a gallery of sins avoided and deplored by the new moralists. They are not the sins Christianity has denounced for so long, but the process is similar: expose sin in others, shun the offenders, keep bludgeoning until everyone falls into line.

The big sins of the new moralism are climate degradation, sexism and homophobia. But there are many smaller ones, including smoking, failing to recycle, gaining weight and using bad language. What constitutes bad language is also distinctive: anything that sounds religious or discriminatory is bad. Discriminatory behaviour such as ignoring migrant people is OK. But language will not be tolerated.

The new moralists expect to feel good about themselves. They know they are on the side of right. They support causes and charities. They take in causes with their breakfast cereal. Seriously. And with their Yoghurt. They want to make a difference in the world, even as they chew. The bands they listen to support causes. Think Coldplay, U2. It feels good to be a new moralist. This mum I met was telling me that her children had ‘two really solid parents’! The high moral ground is a nice place to stand…

These are fundamentally serious people. They like comedians, but preferably jokers with a message. They love their own preachers – think Tim Minchin – who tell them what they need to feel passionate about (“I hope people will be shocked – because they need to be.”)

New moralist male partners (‘husbands’ sounds horribly discriminatory) establish their creds by taking part in household chores, minding the kids, and knowing how to iron. Female partners (‘wives’ sounds so condescending), by holding down a job at the same time as bringing up kids and getting to the gym regularly.

One great way to feel good about yourself is to cultivate a sense of moral superiority over others. And there are plenty of others to look down on. The unreconstructed: people with old-fashioned ideas that are now seen as scandalous, like ‘I want to stay at home with my little kids and not go out to work.’ The smokers. People who let their children roam the neighbourhood unsupervised. Parents who use disposable nappies. Religious people who want to express their religion at all. All of these and many more are ready-made steps upon which the new moralist can climb to the moral high ground.

And of course, ‘The Church’: that nest of bigoted and disgraceful ideas that cause so much hatred and suffering. That last stronghold of an old patriarchal mindset that has kept people enslaved for centuries. We have eradicated Smallpox, but that pestilence Christianity and its accompanying symptom, ‘The Church’, has proved resistant. And pretty much every social evil can ultimately be laid at its door. This week in Sydney we are hearing how the Church promotes domestic violence. Next week it will be something else, for sure.

But the Church’s chief sin, from the new moralist point of view, is bringing religion out of the private and into the public sphere. Their dream is of a world in which every public place is swept clean of religion – especially Christian religion. New moralists do not feel guilty when they hear religion in public. They do not feel bored. They felt deeply offended. They feel angry. People are being irresponsible, abusive even.

They are aware that others do not share this point of view, but on this core doctrine, the new moralist is not willing to compromise, not one inch. For he feels the truth of it in his heart.

For people even a little influenced by the new moralism, attending a local church seems like a questionable, potentially blameworthy activity. It feels safer on the whole to not attend.

But the true new moralist knows she should go further, and take a strong stand on conscience even if that might offend someone: “We don’t go into churches”.

We have a certain amount of new moralist influence in our suburb, I know some of the card-carrying members. They know I’m the local minister. Some avoid me in the school playground. Others look at me askance, not because of anything I do (so far as I am aware!), but because I exist. Few occupations could be more shameful than minister of religion!

We’re facing a changed world. After the 1960s we thought loose morals were here to stay. But things have swung back the other way. We live in very moral, even moralising times. A kind of puritanical legalism is gaining ground. And it’s not our kind! We used to be the ones who could do the looking down, but in the eyes of a fair chunk of a society we lost the moral advantage somewhere along the way. So here are my questions to yall:

1. Who noticed?

2. How should we speak and address ourselves to our society now? Should we keep talking as though from the high ground? Or is it possible to testify to Jesus from any other position? Should we shift register? If we did that, what would it sound like? What would we say differently? 

What do you reckon?


Bauckham has told his whole story now, of the God who reveals himself to the whole world through particular people and times and places, most especially through Jesus of Nazareth. He sums up his argument by quoting Lesslie Newbigin on ‘election.’ In his book The Open Secret, LN says election is God’s way of relating to us as the humans we are, i.e. all connected. Instead of sending salvation to each man directly – an isolating salvation – God makes it pass from one to another. So then, someone must be called and sent first for the others. And this is how LN understands ‘election’: it is not for the person alone but for the others that he is called by God. A salvation that suits human needs must involve election.

That’s a pretty cool way of seeing it. And it gives an ultimate point or direction to the human story – what Bauckham has been talking about all along: from the one to the many. LN says ‘Christian faith is thus a way of understanding world history which challenges and relativises all other models  by which the meaning of history is interpreted.’


But, Bauckham points out, since the 1970s Postmodernism has challenged the very idea of an overarching meaning to human history. It rejects metanarratives as tools for projecting power. So isn’t Newbigin’s view – which is also the theme of Bible and Mission – suspect from a 21st century point of view?

This is where RB lets his model for understanding Scripture confront the modern world we live in. He wants to hear the critique postmodernism would launch at the Christian story. Is this Christian metanarrative simply a way of silencing the voices of others and controlling them? Certainly the church has been guilty of doing this, during its history. Yes. But is this dynamic of oppression built into the biblical narrative itself?

 The biblical story as a non-modern metanarrative

Postmodernism started as a critique of the metanarrative of Modernism, coming out of the Enlightenment. The dream of reason leading to progress was exposed as a tool of western domination. The biblical narrative does not share modernism’s dream of human knowledge and mastery. It sees history as the stage for the fulfilment of God’s purposes, not man’s. Much remains mysterious from our limited perspective. God’s action is not predictable but free, and often disruptive and unexpected. So mission is not a smooth expansion like Modernism’s ‘progress.’ Also, the biblical narrative, while telling an overall story, is told by many voices, and as such is manifold, untidy and multi-perspectival. It does not press all to adopt a single tidy viewpoint on life. And it does not suppress the minority voices as modernism would tend to do.

In other words the Bible’s metanarrative is not totalitarian and intolerant of diversity. There is plenty of room within it for the range of human experience and culture. The critiques of postmodernism are not really aimed at this sort of story.


That’s pretty convincing, RB. Great to have your summary of the book at the start of the chapter. Great that you open your view up to critique, and face it calmly. It’s good to have the Christian story distinguished clearly from the Enlightenment one I grew up with – we still tend to mix them up!

I can see how RB deals with and ultimately escapes the critique of postmodernism. Does it matter? Surely the gospel is going to offend people anyhow, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of that? Who cares if we upset a bunch of postmodernists?

I care, actually. Because key elements of the postmodern case seem to me to be just and true. Their critique of modernism leaves it looking oppressive and cruel. And when I see those attitudes and behaviours in the church or in her message, I want to repent of that. I want to be confident that we are not silencing the weak and siding with the strong. That’s stuff I’ve learned from Jesus.

In other words, Postmodernism has brought out strands in the Christian faith that have long lain dormant. It has preached to us things that we should have been preaching, when we were instead embarking on the grand adventure of empire. Its voice has been prophetic. God who can speak through an ass can even speak through a french philosopher! And so where it is true to the gospel, it behoves Bauckham (and us) to listen carefully and examine ourselves and the story we are telling – which is what he is doing here.

If the biblical story doesn’t fall foul of the postmodernist critique, why is it that the church’s behaviour often is oppressive and totalising? Why are so many church leaders bullies? And what does this biblical story have to offer that might challenge the abusive narratives which have captured our world? More on this next time…