Tuesday, October 04, 2016

The Unnecessary Necessity of Arts Degrees

*This is developed from a recent talk I give.
His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants in the divine nature. – 2 Peter 1.3

Peter talks about escaping the corruption that is in the world because of desire, and as Christians we’ve been trained to read that as meaning the creation is evil. That is this world, this creation, the thing God said several times over at the beginning of time was good, good, very good, but which Paul's says in Romans has now been subjected to decay.  The world is corrupted; therefore the whole of material existence is evil. But that’s not quite where Peter takes it does he? That has more to do with Gnosticism or Buddhism than with the gospel of the resurrected, embodied, Jesus Christ. The world is corrupted not because of something inherently wrong with materiality, but with human desire and our malfunctioning hearts:

“In sin we divide the good world God has made into two “worlds”, one good and the other evil, and we make our own contingent perspectives the criterion for the division. And this gives a new, negative sense to the term “world”, which we have hitherto spoken of positively as God’s creation. This negative sense is characteristic of the New Testament, and points to the reality a constructed world, a world of our own imagination, pitched over against the created world and in opposition to it.”[1]

The Biblical account holds that God made all things not under compulsion or out necessity, but as a gushing forth of love. God's gracious action in creation belongs from the first to that delight, pleasure and regard that the Trinity enjoys from eternity, as an outward and unnecessary expression of that love; and thus creation must be received before all else as gift and as beauty. God is not grey; and he does not create a grey world. ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God’ as English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote. Creation wasn't just what needed to be done and no more; it was an excessive and even decadent act. It was more than a bit unnecessary.[2] 

Moreover, we must maintain that God entered into the world, and experienced pain and death to rescue the splendour of what he had made – including you and me. He did not sit idly by as creation was plunged into death and decay, as we fooled about fooling about with drink and sex and ambition, half-hearted creatures like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.[3] He condescended himself into our decay so that we might share his life.

This theological conviction concerning creation and redemption is, I believe, profoundly connected to the vocation of Arts students. Understanding the world rightly – that it was created by God, who loves his world, who sustains his world, who will one day rescue his world from sin and decay rather than allow it to slide in nothingness – that is what sustains the task of universities generally, and the B.A. more specifically. 

I spend a lot of time in my work with postgrads thinking about the university: what is the university? Why does it exist? Arts students are, in many ways, a relic, a fossil, from a by-gone era. The Arts degree is the remnant of the original degrees awarded by universities (developments of the Trivium and the Quadrivium), deposits of a time when universities where established across Europe by Christians in order to facilitate a depth of knowledge and insight into God and his world. That was the original vision of the university, interested in the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge because all truth is God’s truth, and thereby holding together the ordered reality of the universe. It was a thoroughly Christian vision – one which has long since been replaced by universities driven by economic rationalism, where universities now exist on the one hand to develop the next generation of leaders of the welfare states which sustain the universities;[4] and on the other to facilitate the kind of research which will make money and fulfill that vague category of ‘being good for the nation’, which mostly equates to science and engineering.

For art students, their mere presence within the university is a constant reminder of the original purpose of universities: towering spires pursuing the knowledge and love of God. You can find slight echos of this even in Sydney University, which has always been secular. The next time you’re in the great hall, look up at the two angels that hover of the dais at the front, and try and make out the Latin on their scrolls. To the left: Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth; to the right: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Arts students are fossils to this vision. But much like the Wollemi Pine or crocodiles, they are living fossils, a very present reminder of a different age.

I want to place the emphasis on the word LIVING fossils. The university has plenty of inanimate sandstone around the place to pretend that it's Oxbridge and Hogwarts. Their vocation as Arts students is not exhausted by just turning up to campus 1-2 days a week. Instead their calling is testify to the goodness this rich and diverse creation by studying it at depth. Whether you study modern philosophy or Aztec philology, whether you research the events of history or the currents of political science, whether you're researching drama or music or gender or sociology, classics or anthropology, there is a dignity and worth in studying each of these thingsnot because our culture deems them to be economically viable or productive, but because they are each part of God's world. God’s world, which God is not indifferent to; his world, which he has created with complexity and meaning, and has endowed us with the intellect and brains to deliberate, to examine, to study all these things. It’s easy to pay Arts students out, by predicting their future as McDonald’s employees. (I somehow was offered the position of manager at a different fast food store on the strength of being an Arts graduate alone; I declined). 

But they are not studying just an Arts degree: their study is one of the most human things one could do [recalling especially Adam's task in Genesis 2.1920, which was not merely scientific, but required linguistics, hermeneutics, and so on). It’s part of our calling as God’s representative ruling presence in the world. Therefore be people who engage with your mind: read books which no one else in the university will read; read deeply and widely; talk to people across diverse disciplines. Immerse yourselves in your study of God's world. Engage well; Augustine was right I suspect when he said that to know something is to love that thing.

Their challenge is to not rest content with just learning things, but doing the hard, integrative work of connecting what your study with the gospel? How does modern history connect with the gospel? How does sociology, anthropology, or linguistics connect with the gospel? What does the death and resurrection of Jesus have to say about geography, or English? How does the gospel both affirm and challenge the stories my major tells about itself? How are all these things completed in Jesus? How can I use the logic of the gospel re-narrate what my discipline is to my friends in a way that is compelling?  The world is made up of languages and ideas, creatures and events.Study those things. Engage with words and ideas, taking every thought captive for the obedience of Christ. That is not where the problem of sinful desire lies. The problem is not with materiality. Don’t fall into the sub-Christian trap of thinking that God’s going to abandon his creation. As God’s representative ruling presence, and as Arts students, your calling is go about studying and knowing God’s world at depth. As I said a few moments ago, this is a sidebar, a discursive. But engaging with God means engaging him with our minds as well as our hearts, and necessitates engaging the world he has made. 

That God made the beautiful when it was unnecessary to do this is love. To study the logic and rhythm of that world in all its complexity and beauty is the task of the student, and the Arts student especially. 

[1] Oliver O’Donovan, ‘Admiring’. http://www.newcollege.unsw.edu.au/newcollegelectures.html.
[2] My thanks to Michael Jensen's second year doctrine lectures for some of these ideas.
[3] Cf. C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory: “…it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
[3] I owe this idea to Dr. Mark Hutchinson.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016


A year ago today Alison and I were jumping on a plane bound for Europe. It was long hoped for but unexpected - it was only thanks to the wedding of a friend and the generosity of our family that we were able to go. We had three delightful weeks taking in culture and seeing friends in London, Oxford, Paris, Rome, and Florence. We even had our own hashtag: #MoffittGrandTour. For me especially, on my first European trip, and as a long time Anglophile, there was something special about being in England - gazing at St Paul's Cathedral (this hope for the resurrection which rises out of the midst of the city); drinking cider in the evening in Kensington Gardens as the fading summer light ran through the long grass; wandering through Christ Church Meadow, glistening green after a downpour. The smell of the roses, the taste of the raspberries, the 35° summer heat had never felt so good. Nor had the rabbits, the foxes, or the deer felt more in their place. - there was an allure about being in the home of my ancestors. 

It felt almost decadent to be experiencing so much beauty.

That is the allure of travel. Travel provides us with stories to tell, and experiences to gather. And yet, isn't it more than that? Are our overseas trips really just about curating the perfect Instagram collection? 

The Romantic in me makes me want to say that travel is part of our search for something more. We travel around finding the extraordinary in the most ordinary of things, and beauty in the sublime. It is this quest, this syndrome of Romanticism, which underwrites our devouring of travel. The contemporary British author Ali Smith, reflecting on a period of many overseas journeys, speaks about this search like this:
Also, the gallery had a very lovely café/restaurant; there was leek soup the day I went, very nice, and even its toilets are works of art, with little plaques outside them like paintings have next to them for their title/artist information.
But pretty much the whole time I was there, I was still trying to get elsewhere.
Amidst all the beauty and wonder that Smith saw in places like Naples and Rotterdam, she was still searching for this place - this place she calls 'elsewhere'. Even when standing there in one place, she was looking for another place of perfect beauty and transcendence. She goes on to describe 'elsewhere':
Elsewhere there are no mobile phones.  Elsewhere sleep is deep and the mornings are wonderful.  Elsewhere art is endless, exhibitions are free and galleries are open twenty-four hours.  Elsewhere alcohol is a joke that everybody finds funny.  Elsewhere everybody is as welcoming as they’d be if you’d come home after a very long time away and they’d really missed you.  Elsewhere nobody stops you in the street and says, Are you a Catholic or a Protestant, and when you say neither, I’m a Muslim, then says yeah but are you a Catholic Muslim or a Protestant Muslim?  Elsewhere there are no religions.  Elsewhere there are no borders.  Elsewhere nobody is a refugee or an asylum seeker whose worth can be decided about by a government.  Elsewhere nobody is something to be decided about by anybody.  Elsewhere there are no preconceptions.  Elsewhere all wrongs are righted.  Elsewhere the supermarkets don’t own us.  Elsewhere we use our hands for cups and the rivers are clean and drinkable.  Elsewhere the words of the politicians are nourishing to the heart.  Elsewhere charlatans are known for their wisdom.  Elsewhere history has been kind.  Elsewhere nobody would ever say the words bring back the death penalty.  Elsewhere the graves of the dead are empty and their spirits fly above the cities in instinctual, shapeshifting formations that astound the eye.  Elsewhere poems cancel imprisonment.  Elsewhere we do time differently.Every time I travel, I head for it.  Every time I come home, I look for it.- Ali Smith, The Art of Elsewhere
It's ideal. It's transcendent. It's never discovered. It's never arrived at.

Smith is searching for a place where we can be at home - we are yearning for it. If Smith is correct, then our journeys overseas, our fascination with art, our love of things which point beyond mere immanence, are fueled by our innate desire for something more. 

The syndrome Smith diagnoses experientially has been recognized theologically for some time. One of the books which we appreciated the most on our travels last year was The Weight of Glory by C.S. Lewis. We engaged with so much beauty as we traveled, and Lewis helped us respond to this cultural wealth as worshipers, rather than consumers. He writes that:
"...our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.
And this brings me to the other sense of glory—glory as brightness, splendour, luminosity. We are to shine as the sun, we are to be given the Morning Star. I think I begin to see what it means. In one way, of course, God has given us the Morning Star already: you can go and enjoy the gift on many fine mornings if you get up early enough. What more, you may ask, do we want? Ah, but we want so much more— something the books on aesthetics take little notice of. But the poets and the mythologies know all about it. We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves—that, though we cannot, yet these projections can, enjoy in themselves that beauty grace, and power of which Nature is the image. That is why the poets tell us such lovely falsehoods. They talk as if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it can’t. They tell us that “beauty born of murmuring sound” will pass into a human face; but it won’t. Or not yet. For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendour of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy. At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in."
Lewis captured for us the tragedy of fleetingly taking in the beauty of this building or that artwork or this landscape: we were viewing it for a moment, before moving on to leave it all behind. To witness such things and to be parted from them immediately was melancholic. But Lewis gave us the language to process this.  Our desires weren't wrong, but were designed to direct our hearts towards the God for whom they were made, and the future he has prepared for us in Christ when we shall be united to him, and the Holy Spirit has perfected the creation. 
I read Lewis as an answer to Smith. Her 'elsewhere' is real. We live in a world which is simultaneously a world made for us and a world which we feel estranged from. We are not at home in this world. But one day we shall be, when elsewhere is brought home, and the creation overflows with the abundance of God's perfect peace. We look, as the Creed puts it, for the life of the world to come, a life that is secured by righteousness himself making his home with us. This end of the world and the beginning of another enables us to live well now, as it gives us back our present. For we know that 'elsewhere' will not be found by ourselves, but only in Jesus Christ. 

Monday, June 13, 2016

World Without End? A Theological Playlist

Last year I spent a lot of time sitting with 2 Peter, particularity 3.5-13. I translated and re-translated the Greek. I analysed every textual variant in the passage. I slowly exegeted the text. I read every commentary and journal article I could find on 2 Peter 3. I tried to understand Peter's eschatology as a whole. I worked my way through the theological and ethical implications of the passage. The result was a 15,000 Moore College Project: World Without End? Continuity and Discontinuity in 2 Peter 3:5-13.

I spent a lot of time digesting 2 Peter 3. It is a difficult passage, which has sparked several debates in over the last two centuries over the substance of the world to come. Yet in spite of these controversies, 2 Peter 3 has a simple message: Jesus Christ will return to judge the whole earth. Using vivid language, Peter depicts the lid being ripped off human affairs so that every human activity is evaluated and scrutinized from God's perspective; and every human eye sees how God intends life to be lived.

It is, quite frankly, a fairly positive image of evil removed and a transformed created order. In a world where justice is not always done, and then not always seen to be done, 2 Peter 3 describes a world set to rights, a world where justice makes its home. With this future in view, Peter fuels our imagination for life now, since 'holiness and godliness' are the apparent obvious responses to a world set free from sin and malfunction desires; they are the habits befitting creation perfected.

Whilst the piles of books felt never-ending, one of the things that sustained my writing was the 2 Peter 3 playlist I curated throughout last year. In the spirit of my fourth year project, I gravitated towards songs of dissonant eschatologies and apocalyptic themes, the playlist becoming an extension of the conversations that were happening around me. In recognition of this, here are a few notable mentions:

Sufjan Stevens - The Transfiguration
It was inevitable that Sufjan was going to feature on this playlist; but at the start of 2015 I did not realize the significance of this song. Central to my argument is that 2 Peter 3's description of the Parousia is a theophany, the paradigm for which Peter had previously established in his own account of the transfiguration 1.16-18. 

The eerie beauty of this song easily captured something of the confusion and wonder of that moment when Jesus was manifested in full magnificence. Hearing this each time on the playlist was always a distracting moment, but a welcome one as it reminded me each time that the true object of my task last year was not knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but worship.

Bon Iver - Bon Iver
Yes, I decided to include the whole album on my playlist. When I was re-listening to the playlist at Easter, Alison asked me why I had included Bon Iver, since it doesn't seem particularly apocalyptic. The reason was quite simple: the whole album is about place and space, people and time. Given that each of these four elements are significant features of creation, it felt quite fitting to include the whole. It was a constant reminder to me that what I was writing about eschatology needed to connect somehow with a doctrine of creation.

With 2 Peter 3 serving as the locus classicus for those who want to argue for the total destruction of the world and a second creatio ex nihilo, the epic scale of songs like Perth and Minnesota, WI stopped that from conversation from being just theoretical, but for me at least kept my thinking focused on actual places.

Paul Kelly - Meet Me In the Middle of the Air
Like 2 Peter 3, 1 Thessalonians 4 is passage which is used in curious ways to explain various eschatological schema. What is often missed is Paul's employment of a Roman custom to comfort the Thessalonians with the hope of resurrection and the glory awaiting the living and the dead. I'm not sure if Paul Kelly is Christian, but his song perfectly brings together 1 Thessalonians 4 with Psalm 23. There's an amazing Christology involved in this, which provides a picture of his provision and care as our good shepherd.

Talking Heads - Heaven
This is one of the songs which originally featured on a playlist Alison created about clashing eschatologies. Talking Head sing 'Heaven is a place/A place where nothing/Nothing ever happens', and a little later 'It's hard to imagine that/Nothing at all/Could be so exciting/Could be this much fun'. Heaven is beautiful but tedious - perhaps purposefully so. Which stands in such contrast to the picture of the new heavens and new earth described by 2 Peter. The future envisioned by Peter, which Christians begin to inhabit at least behaviorally now, is far different from the bland nothingness of Heaven. It is instead one of beauty and justice, one which inspires the imagination and praxis of people today.

The National - Fake Empire
Whilst 2 Peter 3.10 is about every thought and deed of humanity being disclosed, Fake Empire is about 'where you can't deal with the reality of what's really going on, so let's just pretend that the world's full of bluebirds and ice skating.' It speaks of a generation disillusioned and apathetic. The soaring but simple poly-rhythm of the song inspired the Obama campaign in 2008 to use an instrumental version of the song - ironic given that the song decries modern America.

Dvorak - New World Symphony 
There's nothing like a late-romantic European symphony combined with the optimism and passion of America. Whilst Dvorak drew on several influences (such as Native-American and African-American) for his ninth symphony, it's the possibilities of the dawning age of America that he seems to capture. From the wide open planes to rising industrial might, the opening brings it all together.

It's hard not to listen to this symphony and not be caught up in the idealism, the Hegelian romanticism. Surely the Christian gospel has the resources to respond to this appeal of our imagination and desires? Herein lies the significance of articulating not just the right kind of eschatology, but also teleology, which longs indeed for a new world, but one from freed from the sin and corruption we see around us.

Michael Nyman - MGV: Musique à grande vitesse
To be honest, I only discovered this piece this year after the Australian Ballet's performance of DGV©: Danse à grande vitesse. But I like to imagine that it would have made the list last year. In many ways MGV is not too dissimilar to Dvorak's New World Symphony. Commissioned for the opening of the TGV Paris-Lille train line in the early 1990's it's hard not to get swept up in the ambition, the movement, the progress of Nyman's creation, And having traveled on a TGV last year, this is music that's as irresistible in its energy, speed, and sheer noise, as any journey by TGV.

I like to think that with a century between, MGV is perhaps more chastened in it's optimism than New World Symphony. Nonetheless MGV is still hopeful, and that hope is inextricably tied via the TGV to the advancement of society through technology. I found myself appropriating the composition though; as the music captures journeying through landscapes I imagine myself not progressing towards modernity, but travelling through a world made new. It's the challenge of interacting with the narrative modernity - of maintaining hope without equating that hope with the story of progress. To do so we need to not lost sight of the apocalyptic, that God will intervene in history to establish his new heavens and new earth.

My Brightest Diamond - In the Beginning
I think that it is fair to say that there was a particular flavour to the posts on this blog in 2015: holding together God's work in creation and redemption as two distinct but united realities (i.e. here, here, here, and here). Shara Worden manages to achieve that in this song. She begins with slow, but majestic recounting of Genesis' account, which calls to mind the poetic insights of Tolkien and Lewis in their own creation accounts in The Silmarillion and The Magicians Nephew. 

But before long the song moves to 'This glorious day the earth is shaking hallelujah/And I will join the unending hymn hallelujah'. Bringing creation and eschaton together is brilliantly insightful, for the Christian doctrine has more to say than the opening chapters of Genesis. It has a distinct eschatological shape which is determined at the center by Christology. For it was for Jesus that all things were created, and through him by God's power and sovereignty the creation in bound for resurrection glory. As Calvin wrote in his commentary on Romans 8: '‘No part of the universe is untouched by the longing with which everything in this world aspires to the hope of resurrection.'

The Decemberists - 12/17/12
This song takes it's name from President Obama's national address in December 2012 after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I'm writing this in the wake of the latest gun tragedy in Orlando. The final lines of the song lend their name to the album: 'And O my god, what a world you have made here. What a terrible world, what a beautiful world. What a world you have made here'.

The Decemberists manage to capture the fragility of life in the fragility of 12/17/12. And the background to the song adds to the emotion of the piece - perhaps all the more so as we continue to see such tragedies in America. The challenge for me coming out of this song is not to rest satisfied with shallow answers about suffering and evil. 2 Peter 3 envisions the total removal of evil from the created order; God does not sit idly by in the face of such wickedness and tragedy, and his patience should not be mistaken as such. Instead, the terribleness of this world we be held to account when it is overwhelmed with Christ's righteousness.

Five Iron Frenzy - World Without End
Five Iron are more Alison's band than mine. But having listened to them on countless car trips over the last decade, they have grown on me. And with the phrase World Without End appearing in my project title, this song was always guaranteed to be on this list. A translation of Ephesians 3.21, and based on the Latin phrase in saecula saeculorum, world without end as it was used in English liturgy was connected to the idea of eternity - forever and ever. Connected with God's creation, human or not, the phrase speaks not of our immortality, but God's election to be our God forever, not only God with us, but God for us. It was this conviction which lead the church over 1800 years to read 2 Peter 3.10 in light of other passages such as Romans 8, and hope that this travailing world would be transformed and renewed rather than annihilated and destroyed.
In the soundless awe and wonder,
Words fall short to hope again.
How beautiful,
How vast Your love is,
New forever,
World without an end.

Other honourable mentions:

Sunday, April 10, 2016

A Servant in Word and Deed

Several weeks ago I was ordained as a deacon in the Anglican Church of Australia. It was in many ways a curious occasion, baffling as much to some who were there as it was to those who watched via the immediacy of social media: 27 men and women dressed in long, flowing robes on a warm, Sydney summers day; a formality in a service amidst a city which does not handle gravitas very well; a seriousness of commitment and vocation from members of a generation who easily default to irony, sarcasm, and cynicism. For all these contradictions it was for me the culmination of 15 years of prayer and discernment, a reminder of God grace calling me out of darkness and into his light, and a delight to share the day with my family and friends.

The office of deacon is an ancient one, originating in the days of the Apostles, with a particular charge to care for the welfare of the church. Whilst the record of the early church testifies to attention of the deacon towards widows and orphans, the rise in prominence of the mass obscured the once prominent role of aid and care in a deacons vocation. One of the recoveries during the reformation in the English Church was to return this purpose to the diaconate. The is was reflected for instance in Book of Common Prayer 1662, whilst deacons where to be placed in local churches to assist in preaching, reading, catechizing, and distributing the Lord's Supper, their peculiar task where applicable was 'to search for the sick, poor, and impotent people of the Parish' that they might be relieved through the parish alms. In many ways this represented the thinking of reformer Martin Bucer, whose presence in England in 1549-1551 left a lasting impact on Cranmer and the production of the second Book of Common Prayer in 1552. Bucer believed that the priority of a deacons work was in the care for the poor of the parish. This formed an integral part of the church's work, rather than a periphery activity, bestowed upon the church by divine right and commandment. This was reflected in the the service for Holy Communion, during which the deacons were to collect alms not for the needs of the church, but the welfare of the poor.

For the Reformers like Bucer and Cranmer, this was in many ways a recovery of the apostolic church's commitment to the gospel, and the priority to preach the gospel in word and deed. The Apostles of course had taught that true faith and a right grasp of Holy Scripture would evidence itself through deeds of mercy (James 2.1-23). Materialism was condemned as a grievous sin (1 Timothy 6.17–19; James 5.1–6), whilst the church would gain a reputation for its love of and care for the poor. A special class of officers—deacons—were established to coordinate the church’s ministry of mercy. We should not be surprised then that the first two sets of church leaders were word-leaders (apostles) and deed-leaders (the diakonoi of Acts 6).

The Acts of the Apostles is a case in point. One way to summarize Acts is as the triumph of the word, as the gospel spreads from Jerusalem outwards into the world, unbound and unhindered even under the nose of Caesar in Rome (Acts 28.30-31). In Acts evangelism is the basic and foundational form of ministry, as the eternal, objective, reality of Christ's Lordship is extended to people's hearts. Nevertheless, in Acts ministries of mercy are inseparably connected to evangelism. So much so that Acts draws a close connection between the sharing of possessions and the multiplication of converts through the preaching of the word. The descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the explosive growth in numbers (Acts 2.41) were connected to radical sharing with the needy (2.44–45). After the ministry of the Seven diakonia was firmly established, 'the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly' (Acts 6.7).

Ministry of the word is the most basic as it is the ministry which most fully remedies the roots of 'the human condition'. Whilst God while redeem both our souls and our bodies, it is the ministry of the word and prayer which cuts to the heart, killing the root of sin and death. However, the Acts of the Apostles teaches that ministries of word and deed are both necessary, inseparable, and interdependent.

Whilst there is always a danger within the threefold order that word will overwhelm deed, it is fitting that within the present arrangements the office of deacon should seek to combine the priority of these three principles; that is the unity of word and deed. The first deacons, Stephen and Philip, are exemplars of this.Thus, the priority of the deacon's vocation within the church is to embody God's provision to the church of ministries both in word and deed.

ALMIGHTY God, who by thy divine providence hast appointed divers Orders of Ministers in thy Church, and didst inspire thine Apostles to choose into the Order of Deacons the first Martyr Saint Stephen, with others: Mercifully behold these thy servants now called to the like office and administration; replenish them so with the truth of thy doctrine, and adorn them with innocency of life, that, both by word and good example, they may faithfully serve thee in this office, to the glory of thy Name, and the edification of thy Church; through the merits of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and for ever. Amen.
       - Collect from the Ordering of Deacons, Book of Common Prayer.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Incarnation and Passion: On The Annunciation and Good Friday

This Friday marks a curious occasion for observers of liturgical calendars. For whilst this Friday is Good Friday, the day recalling Jesus crucifixion, this Friday - occurring on March 25 - is also the Feast of the Annunciation, recalling the day upon which the angel Gabriel appeared to the Blessed Virgin Mary. By extension, this day was considered to be day on which Jesus was conceived; a deduction arrived at through the early celebration among Christians of Jesus' birth on December 25. So significant was the Feast of the Annunciation that until 1752, it was regarded in England as the commencement of the New Year.

This confluence Good Friday and Annunciation, whilst rare, is not unheard of. The last time this occurred was in 2005; but it won't happen again until 2157 (although if recent attempts to set the date of Pascha/Easter are carried through, it may never happen again). This is a rare occurrence and a special one, because it means that for once the day falls on its 'true' date: in Patristic and Medieval tradition, March 25 was considered to be the historical date of the Crucifixion.* Whereas today many churches will celebrate the Annunciation at a later time, in Patristic and Medieval practice the celebration/commemoration were combined. What this provide us with is an opportunity to consider together Jesus incarnation and death in a way we would not normally do. In Australia there has been a type of this in the appearance of Hot Cross Buns in supermarkets from Boxing Day. But much more than than, we have an opportunity to reflect on the one who did not exploit his equality with God, but became human, learnt obedience and died on a cross. It is the trajectory we see in a passage like Philippians 2, and discernible in the Gospel's account of Christ's temptation. Faced with the opportunity to be the Messiah and not face death, Jesus turned down the advances of the satan and pursued the route which would lead to his death.**

That the incarnation and redemption are bound together is actually on view from the beginning of Matthew's Gospel. In Joseph's annunciation we are told that Mary 'will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.' Jesus assumed our nature, so that from within our flesh we might be redeemed: 'Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death' (Hebrews 2.14-15). Made human in every way, he was to make atonement for our sins.

By the fourth century in the thinking of Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus this would be crafted into the phrase 'What is not assumed cannot be redeemed'. The sharpness of this statement reflects that a lucid awareness of the connection between incarnation and redemption was long present in the early church. Earlier, in the second century, Irenaeus had said:

For it was incumbent upon the Mediator between God and men, by His relationship to both, to bring both into friendship and concord, and present man to God, while He revealed God to man...For it behooved Him who was to destroy sin, and redeem man under the power of death, that He should Himself be made that very same thing which he was, that is, man; who had been drawn by sin into bondage, but was held by death, so that sin should be destroyed by man, and man should go forth from death. 
This concurrence of Annunciation and Passion took place in 1608 and was marked by John Donne with his poem: Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling upon One Day, 1608. Not as well known as other Donne poems, it is nonetheless a rich piece of work which explores the interplay set out in the second line: the ‘hither and away’ Christ comes by the word of Gabriel through the Holy Spirit, and is taken away on the cross:
Tamely, frail body, abstain today; today
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came and went away;
She sees Him nothing twice at once, who’s all;
She sees a Cedar plant itself and fall,
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive yet dead;
She sees at once the virgin mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty and at scarce fifteen;
At once a Son is promised her, and gone;
Gabriel gives Christ to her, He her to John;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity,
At once receiver and the legacy;
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
The abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one
(As in plain maps, the furthest west is east)
Of the Angels’ Ave and Consummatum est.
How well the Church, God’s court of faculties,
Deals in some times and seldom joining these!
As by the self-fixed Pole we never do
Direct our course, but the next star thereto,
Which shows where the other is and which we say
(Because it strays not far) doth never stray,
So God by His Church, nearest to Him, we know
And stand firm, if we by her motion go;
His Spirit, as His fiery pillar doth
Lead, and His Church, as cloud, to one end both.
This Church, by letting these days join, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one:
Or ‘twas in Him the same humility
That He would be a man and leave to be:
Or as creation He had made, as God,
With the last judgment but one period,
His imitating Spouse would join in one
Manhood’s extremes: He shall come, He is gone:
Or as though the least of His pains, deeds, or words,
Would busy a life, she all this day affords;
This treasure then, in gross, my soul uplay,
And in my life retail it every day.
The coincidence of feast and fast gains rather than loses from being a rare occurrence, as Donne suggests - falling 'some times and seldom'. Although these coincidences often have their origin as much in pragmatic decisions about the calendar as in theology, with the kind of approach Donne exemplifies here they can be read in meaningful and imaginative ways. Through such eyes, a meeting of feasts like this year's is not exactly a coincidence, but perhaps one of those 'occasional mercies' of which Donne writes elsewhere: 'such mercies as a regenerate man will call mercies, though a natural man would call them accidents, or occurrences, or contingencies'.

Whilst it leaves Donne unsure as to whether he should feast or fast, the combination of both holy days brings together two gospel events which are often held apart. There are, in fact, two parts of the same move by the Lord who condescended himself first in human nature, and then in human death. 'This Church, by letting these days join, hath shown | Death and conception in mankind is one: | Or ‘twas in Him the same humility'. This overlay of incarnation and crucifixion, feast and fast, fixed date and movable observance, offer us an insight into the economy of God's salvation: that for us and our salvation, he came down from heaven.

[Update: A Clerk of Oxford has, independently and several sources, published on this here]
* See Augustine's explanation here.
** With thanks to my teacher, Dr David Höhne for this point.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Toil and Telos

 photo P7123340.jpgIt was cold and wet that June weekend when I started one my first jobs. I was still in high school, but had taken a job in a lumber yard in the Blue Mountains, helping one of my dad's mates. There were upsides to the task: I got paid, which was always a bonus, and I learnt how to drive a bobcat around the yard. But mostly, it was hard, backbreaking drudgery. My role was to fill bag after bag with 30kg of wood. More often than not it was either raining or threatening to snow, and my gloves were barely enough to keep any warmth in my hands, let alone keep the splinters out (especially when we'd deliver a truck load of wood to someone's house). Look closely at my hands today and you'll still find the scars. Fueled on one cheese and ham toasted sandwich from the igloo like shed on site, it was toilsome labour. Nevertheless it kept my family and many others in our community warm through the bleak mountain winter.

It's a job I think back on from time to time as I meet with PhD students and academic staff. Their work and mine as a 17 year old could not be more be different. There are not many splinters to contend with when you're writing a doctorate in history or chemistry. Nevertheless, it would not be adequate in either situation to describe work as mere toil.

Yes work is hard, it's laborious, sometimes it's even tedious. Toil is the characterisation of work in a broken, frustrated world. However, work has the potential to much more than this. True, sin's entry into the world has frustrated our work, leaving all our labour vunerable to the ravages of time and death. But to define work as just drudgery leaves us without any ability to consider whether work is good or bad. To work in pokey machine development may be toilsome. But the mere fact of travailing does not guarantee that particular work is good. Toil may be an adequate description of work today, particularly in a fallen world, but merely offering a description of work is insufficient. The goodness or not of work is not found in the ontology of work alone, but also in its teleology. In the words of Oliver O'Donovan, work is
'a condition of rest and worship, and rest and worship are a condition of work.  Work satisfies our destiny as human beings called to fellowship with God.'
Work is purposeful because it points both to the rest which is structured into the rhythms of life in creation and the rest which is achieved in Christ's gospel accomplishment.

Herein lies the deficiency of defining work as mere toil: it is not an evangelical definition of work. It is, to be sure, a definition based in the reality of the fall. But whereas the fall can name a present experience of work, the teleology of our labour is only revealed in the gospel. It's in Jesus' lordship that work is re-purposed, not in the construction of the new creation, but as a harbinger of the new world as Christ's people live and labour in a way which accords with the reality of that Lordship. Our work will in this age only ever be partial as God's rest is achieved in and only through Jesus. But where our labour contributes to the welfare of others, and is empowered by rightly ordered love for God and neighbour, we can say that our work is not only toilsome, but good.

There may be times and circumstances when the only reasonable expectation of our work is to endure.Our work has been frustrated. But what the gospel gives us is the ability to bring new meaning to our work*, to understand work in relation to its telos; that is, to see work with the eyes of faith, as a sign of the reality that God is still at work in this world (John 5.17), and will bring creation to the completion of his purposes in Christ Jesus.

* It is this superimposition of meaning on our work which may prevent work becoming idolatrous. Our work's significance is not found in its ability to provide us with security, comfort, approval, our power, but the way it signifies Christ's provision of all these things for us. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Nine Thoughts and Observations on Advent

1. ‘Always winter, never Christmas.’  One of the things I appreciate most about the Advent season is the ability it has to unsettle my comfortable acceptance of the way things are. Whether you are prepared for it or not – indeed whether you like it or not – Advent arrives, and refuses admittance to the mere sentimentality and mercantilism of the festive season. Advent drags our attention to the past, yet at the same time does not allow our sight to remain there, but sets our eyes towards the future. The seeming contradiction of Advent teaches us that we live in disjointed times, where the reality of things is incongruous with the present systems of the world. For those who live by faith rather than sight, we are awaiting the day when the world of this day gives way to a new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells.

2. The hope for righteousness to make its home among us is the promise of Christmas Day. The meekness and humility of the manger in no way obfuscates the reality that in particular one child dwelt the fullness of God. However, where the first coming was wrapped in swaddling clothes, the second coming will be wrapped in glory and light as Christ comes in power and majesty to lay bare the secret thoughts of our hearts as he judges the quick and dead. In setting the world to rights, Christ Jesus, the very personification of righteousness, will come at last to dwell with us. Such apocalyptic visions lay claim to our imaginations; how else could we live as though history will one day rhyme with justice? That our now and not yet will one day align.

3. As a season of preparation and waiting, Advent’s program for reading Scripture and prayer discloses the follies of my own lusty heart. Restless and unsated, I find my loves and desires unaligned from true rest and satisfaction. Our Advent preparation calls upon a reorientating our hearts in anticipation of Christ’s reordering of the world. Whilst all our work without love is worth nothing, Advent, like the entire liturgical calendar, calls us towards perfectly love God, leaving aside our worthless works and instead use our bodies, heart, and soul, in worship. You called and cried out loud O Lord, and shattered my deafness. Radiant and resplendent, put to flight to my blindness. For to rightly live is to rightly love – and be loved.

4. We moved homes at the beginning of Advent. Amidst the cleaning and the boxes, the habits and practices we’ve developed over the past few years have kicked into gear around the household, helping our Advent devotion to remain uncluttered by the move. But what has surprised me most this year has been the smells of Advent. I forgot what it was like to arrive home to be greeted by a wreath hanging on the door, and the sweet fragrance of of flowers and leaves. It is an enthralling odour, filling not only the senses but the stairwell of our apartment. Alas that these perfumes are also an aroma of death, as the flowers, the leaves, the wreath itself withers and fades. The search for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come is never far away at Advent.

5. Move past the wreath though, and inside you'll find a Christmas tree - our first real Christmas tree. Not that one bedroom sized plastics trees weren't real. They were however, the verisimilitude of Christmas trees. One of our favourite seasonal poems is Eliot's 'On the Cultivation of Christmas Trees'. Our tree is, for all intents and purposes, uncultivated. It is a wild brute of a tree, trimmed but untamed, with branches and trunks running whither they please. Yet this spindly wood, with one limb here and another there, resembles the members of the forest bringing their hands together in a resounding clap at the coming of the Lord. For Eliot the tree is an occasion for wonder, of amazement without pretext. To be awoken by the peculiar and exciting smell of our tree recalls to my mind the entwined fate of the world and my body. Fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy not at their annihilation or replacement but their transformation and perfection. My body will rise from the earth, and the earth itself shall be changed, for the Son of God has come to the world which he has made so that we might be renewed after his likeness.

6. In the fullness of time, God sent forth his Son. The day is almost here, salvation is close to hand. The redemption of time lies at the heart of many Advent practices, as we mark the days until Christmas, ever vigilant for the coming of the Son of Man: wreaths and candles, calendars and trees, all trace the progression of not merely time across the season but the dawning of a great light amidst the darkness. This past week I have found myself each night praying the ‘O Antiphons’. These ancient prayers, (mostly known to us now in the Advent carol par excellence of our generation, 'O Come, O Come, Emmanuel'), disallow counting down to Christmas for its own sake. Instead, they invite us to consider the origins of our own impatience, making use of the time by exploring the nature of our desires. The ‘O Antiphons’ speak of an urgent longing; a longing which is addressed to Christ as safe harbour for all kinds of holy desires rarely encountered in this world: wisdom, justice, peace, enlightenment, freedom, and unfailing companionship. The fleeting nature of such necessities fuels the Advent craving: Maranatha!

7. While the O Antiphons capture Scripture’s penultimate prayer, ‘Come!’, we dare not forget that Christ’s first coming was the fulfilment of Israel’s longing amidst the pain and grief of exile. This story too must be rehearsed and learnt again in anticipation of celebrating the feast. For Israel’s grief and longing is the story of a creation which finds itself estranged and exiled from the God who made it. In finding this wider story played out in the story of one people, the celebration of the Son’s journey into the far country is a celebration for all people. Israel’s consolation becomes our consolation, as our fears, our grief, our pain is met in the one who sheds light into all darkness.

8. Where Advent pulls our imagination and yearning in two directions, the season drives us towards the marvel of the incarnation, where the past and the future are ‘conquered and reconciled’, where God’s only begotten took on flesh, and became human, so that humanity might become like him. If the beginning reminds us of the end, and the first coming of the second coming, Advent’s focus on the new world naturally leads into the celebration of Christ’s birth. It was there that the new world was given birth in the coming of Emmanuel, and it is for his coming again, when God shall dwell among us forever, that we now look.

9. Let us therefore, celebrate the feast, not for its own sake, but as a foretaste of the perfection of all things when God will be all in all. Let us rejoice in the giveness of things, of creation not set aside to decay, but that dirt and earth was taken into the Godhead itself (for of such stuff are humans made of). Let us rejoice in giving and receiving. At the conclusion of another Advent, which begins a new year but calls to mind a new world, let us rejoice in God’s prodigality, and respond with adoration and thankfulness. ‘This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Line of Connection

Earlier this year I was given a very special book: Oliver O'Donovan's The Problem of Self-Love in St. Augustine, first published in 1980. Little did I realize that it would have so much to do with some of my interests this year. In chapter six,  which concludes a study on Augustine and eudaemonism, O'Donovan lays out a beautiful summary of Augustine's take on creation, teleology and redemption.

Augustine's picture of the universe shows us one who is the source and goal of being, value, and activity, himself in the center of the universe and at rest; and it shows us the remainder of the universe in constant movement, which, while it may tend toward or away from the center is yet held in relation to it, so that all other beings lean, in a multiplicity of ways, toward the source and goal of being. But the force which draws these moving galaxies of souls is immanent to them, a kind of dynamic nostalgia rather than a transcendent summons from the center. Such a summons, of course, is presupposed; but it is reflected by this responsive movement which is other than itself, so that there is a real reciprocity between Creator and creature...
It is the meaning of salvation that is at stake: is it ‘fulfillment,’ ‘recapitulation’? . . . Between that which is and that which will be there must be a line of connection, the redemptive purpose of God. We cannot simply say that agape has no presuppositions, for God presupposes that which he himself has already given in agape. However dramatic a transformation redemption may involve, however opaque to man's mind the continuity may be, we know, and whenever we repeat the Trinitarian creed with Saint Augustine we confess that our being-as-we-are and our being-as-we-shall-be are held together as works of the One God who both our Creator and Redeemer.

Between that which is and that which will be there must be a line of connection...if salvation is truly salvation, if redemption is truly redemption, it necessitates continuity between that which is natural, and the perfect.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Forgetting to be Secular

Over the past two years I've enjoyed dipping into Charles Taylor's epic A Secular Age and James K.A. Smith's reading guide, How (Not) to be Secular. More recently I have been reading Augustine and Oliver O'Donovan, and have rediscovered this quote by O'Donovan on the Christian (and eschatological) nature of the secular, which seems to be along the same lines as Taylor and Smith:

"The Christian conception of the 'secularity' of political society arose directly out of this Jewish wrestling with unfulfilled promise.  Refusing, on the one hand, to give up what it knew of God, itself, and the world, accepting, on the other, that what it knew was incomplete and demanded validation, Israel understood itself and its knowledge and love of God as a contradiction to be endured in hope. 'Secularity' is irreducibly an eschatological notion; it requires an eschatological faith to sustain it, a belief in a disclosure that is 'not yet' but is absolutely presupposed as the inner meaning of what we know already.  If we allow the 'not yet' to slide toward 'never,' we say something entirely different and wholly incompatible, for the virtue that undergirds all secular politics is an expectant patience. What follows from the rejection of belief is an intolerable tension between the need for meaning in society and the only partial capacity of society to satisfy the need.  An unbelieving society has forgotten how to be secular."
- Oliver O'Donovan, Common Objects of Love: Moral Reflection and the Shaping of Community, 42.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Societas 2015

A few months late, but Societas, the annual student publication of Moore Theological College, is out. You'll even find a piece by me...on worship.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Athanasius: The First Thing You Must Grasp

I hope you will forgive another post concerning creation and redemption. During Christmas I had opportunity to revisit The Incarnation by Athanasius. As I read, one theme kept reappearing in Athanasius as much as it had in other Patristics that I have read (particularly Irenaeus and the Cappodocians). That is, the centrality of the renewal of creation in early Christian theology. For the great defender of the Nicene faith, the connection between creation and redemption is essential to grasp.
You must understand why it is that the Word of the Father, so great and so high, has been made manifest in bodily form. He has not assumed a body as proper to His own nature, far from it, for as the Word He is without body. He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men. We will begin, then, with the creation of the world and with God its Maker, for the first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning. - The Incarnation, 1.1
From the outset of his short meditation on the redemption won through Christ's incarnation, Athanasius is able to hold together the coherence between creation and salvation. Rather than running from anything physical, Athanasius maintains that physicality is not the problem, but rather a venue of God's glory in redemption. It's a coherence which is surely instructive for us today.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Hermeneutical Reflex: On Speech-Act Theory and Charitable Reading

I’ve recently had the opportunity to read and reflect on Speech-Act theory. For those a little fuzzy on the details, Speech-Act theory arose as a linguistic and philosophical response in the mid-twentieth century to the prevailing idea of the time that language is all about the mere transference of ideas. Speech-Act theory holds that language does more than convey bits of information. Rather, language is a medium by which persons performs actions in relation to another.

Implied within Speech-Acts theory is a wonderful anthropology in which humans are more than machines sending and receiving information. We are creatures who relate to one another, and language is part of that relating. In fact, language does something. We see this in cases such as during a wedding, when the minister declares the man and woman to be husband and wife. That is simply the conveyance of information; the declaration does something – it creates a whole new reality. 
Likewise in declaring a defendant to innocent or guilty, a magistrate is not merely communicating ideas, but doing something with her language. The classic example used by Speech-Act theorists such as J.L. Austin and John R. Searle would be a promise (although it applies to other areas of speech). In making a promise, I am binding myself certain obligations to keep my word. And they would argue, it entails you as the listener to certain duties to take me at my word.

Speech-Acts has been appropriated by several biblical scholars and theologians in the last 30-40 years or so. Some have used the theory to help interpret various illocutionary acts within scripture. Others have used it to develop a theological hermeneutic in which scripture is God’s Speech-Act, his divine discourse through which he speaks. Kevin Vanhoozer traces this to actions of the persons of godhead within the economic Trinity, which makes for interesting reading.

Part of the attraction of the Speech-Acts model for Christians has been the seriousness in which handles the authorial intent of scripture. The theory does not allow you to value you receivers’ interpretation over the text or the author, but appropriately respond to the rights of the author, text, and reader. For Vanhoozer, part of the way language works is that it creates covenants between people. Because language is more about action than representation, “this entails certain rights and responsibilities on the part of authors and readers.” For the reader, one of the obligations binding their reading is that the meaning of a text is not indeterminate or irrelevant, but determined by the conventions of both the author and the text. This means then that as we readers, we have a covenantal discourse duty to read charitably.

This is by no means the main point in terms of the appropriation of Speech-Acts for biblical studies, but vastly important none the less. Speech-Acts theory provides another plank for Christians to operate within an epistemology of hermeneutics. In fact, I am persuaded that to the degree that you apprehend your salvation by grace alone is the degree to which you will operate in epistemic humility. An epistemology that is marked and charged by grace must of necessity take people at their word, exercising a love and imagination that what people say, they will do. This does not rule out disagreeing with people – by no means! Nor does it rule out saying something is wrong. But because we are committed to understanding the intent of the speaker/author (that is, on their own terms), that means we are bound to listen/read people charitably. Or as was recently suggested in an excellent sermon I heard at college, disagreeing charitably with someone means representing them accurately rather than a straw man, such that they would agree with your description of their views.

During my reading I came across a suggestion from Mark Thompson that done well, criticism is an act of service for the reading community. Here are two very brief quotes that were used to make that point:
“ …the first task of the critic is respectfully to discern and accept the actual nature of what he or she is reading…” – Peter Jensen
“…the first hermeneutical reflex…should be charity towards the author.” – Kevin J. Vanhoozer.
The epistemic humility espoused by Speech-Acts theory is not opposed to criticism. That is all part of relating to people in a covenant of discourse.  But to be done well, it must of necessity be done charitably.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Cross and Creation

A question I have been pondering over the last few days has been, ‘if you are weak on the doctrine of creation, does that lead to a weakness on the doctrine of the atonement?’ The doctrine of creation has increasingly become a hot button issue amongst evangelicals, and not just in the traditional areas of gender and marriage. Vocation and work, aesthetics, culture, ecological care, questions of continuity and discontinuity between the present creation and the new creation; these issues and more have been recently re-examined in light of a strong doctrine of creation.

What is a strong doctrine of creation? Merely that the doctrine is non-negotiable for the church. It is a creedal belief which is part of the fabric of Christian response to God's revelation. But more than this, a strong doctrine of creation would hold that this world which God said was ‘very good’ was made as a project – with a telos – which it will be brought to in Christ Jesus, through whom and for whom it was made. A strong doctrine of creation is complemented by a vigorous doctrine of new creation, both of which are bound together a doctrine of redemption which holds what God accomplished through his Christ was rescue his world from sin, death, and evil so that it might flourish as it was originally intended to.

I’ve been pondering my original question because I am increasingly getting the impression – from blogs, sermons, and conversations – that the doctrine of creation is seen to be a distraction from the priority of the gospel. On this line of reasoning, issues such as vocation and work, culture, ecology, aesthetics, and so on are also seen as a nuisance; a distraction from the center.

I’m not sure what quite motivates this line of thinking – perhaps it’s a fear that these other issues will mitigate evangelistic zeal, or that a strong creational line of thinking along these issues hasn’t adequately wrestled with the rupture of sin in creation. Suffice it to say that I don’t either of those hold to be true.

Instead I’m concerned with thinking through these issues which arise out of creation because I believe submitting every aspect of my life under Christ warrants it. What we find in scripture is that on the cross the Lord Jesus was atoning for the sins of the world, reconciling to God all things, by making peace through the blood of his cross. The re-ordering of creation away from destruction and death towards its divinely ordained end only takes shapes in so far as Jesus makes peace through the blood of his cross.
“The reconciliation of all things to God can be achieved only by him who is at once Christ the creator and a human being who restores the project of creation to its proper destiny by what he does.” -Gunton
God created this world through and for the Son, so that it might be perfected in him, that the created order might under human dominion flourish and offer back to God the praise of our lips and the thanks of our hearts. Instead that order was inverted, as creation offered thanks and praise to itself, and directed itself towards death. On the cross we see the Son overcoming the forces opposed to creation’s flourishing through his cleansing of the pollution which had infiltrated and subverted creation as a result of human sin, that the world might be reconciled to God the Father. It is the resurrection of the crucified Christ which, according to Gunton, “realizes and guarantees that this man is the mediator of the reconciliation of all things.”

The point is this: if you divorce the cross from creation, you are at risk of missing what God was doing in the propitiatory death of his Son. Christian thinking on work or culture is all undertaken in light of this reality, that God made the world good, and having liberated it in Christ, he will bring it to completion in him. And as we live in this now/not yet phase, we look forward to that end, that telos, and live now in its light. For the Word has come in the flesh to renew the face of the earth.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

The Fullness of Time

Good Friday 2015 marks 1982 years to the day that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem. The gap in time between now and then feels particularly large – in the two millennia which proceeded AD33, so much has changed, and so much time has passed. And the crucifixion of Christ is well and truly in the past. In our conception of time, one thing happens after another, when something is past, it is past. The present just is; it is homogeneous and univocal, extending a gulf between the past and the present.

The social imagery of time has not always been thus. During the Middle Ages, time was conceived of either belonging to either eternal or sacred time or the profane or mundane or secular time – saeculum. We would consider the later time normal time. However, mundane time could be punctuated by higher times, reordering the mundane and creating warps. According to Charles Taylor, ‘Events which were far apart in profane time could nevertheless be closely linked.’ 

Our social encasing in secular time today has changed this conception. Our experience of time is seen as natural and not a construction. Time for us is a commodity not to be wasted. It is tightly organized and measured, which seems natural to us. For the Greek philosophers, the eternal time was the most real of time. What happened in ordinary time was the embodiment of what take place in higher times, the realm of Ideas as Aristotle called it. What happened in ordinary time was less real than the timeless, destined to exist as a shadow, or as the Stoics had it, to return to the original undifferentiated state after the great conflagration.

It was Augustine of Hippo who launched the sacred and secular into medieval social imagination. Without abandoning eternity, Augustine argued that what happened in ordinary time cannot be less than fully real. It is the realm in which God interacted with humans, placing them in the garden, forming a covenant with them in Palestine, promising them a son who would reign on the throne, raising one  from the dead who had been crucified. The Christian concept of time is different from the world it arose from; higher time is not timeless reality, but gathered time.

In Confessions XI, Augustine examination of lived time conceives of eternity not as Aristotle’s extensionless boundary of time periods, but ‘the gathering together of past into present to project a future. The past, which ‘objectively’ exists no more, is here in my present; it shapes this moment in which I turn to a future, which ‘objectively’ is not yet, but which is here qua project’ (Taylor: 2007).

For Augustine, rising to eternity is rising to participate in God's instant, as all times are present to him. He holds them all in this ‘extended simultaneity. His now contains all time.’ Ordinary time is dispersed time; we become cut off from our present and out of touch with our future. ‘We get lost in our little parcel of time’ says Taylor. But out of our longing for eternity, (for the one for whom we were made and our hearts our restless until they rest in him), we strive to go beyond our parcel, and invest it with eternal significance, which leads to idolizing things.

Eternity does not abolish time, but gathers it into an instant. In this social imaginary, ordinary time was punctuated and organized by the higher times. Ordinary time was not homogeneous, empty, or mutually interchangeable. It was space – instead ordinary time was ordered and coloured by its relation to higher times. It was the higher times of the liturgical calendar, with the remembrance and recapitulation of Christ’s time on earth, which ordered time.

This means that events can be situated in relation to more than one type of time. On this reasoning, this year’s Good Friday could be understood to be closer in time to the Crucifixion on 3 April 33 than 2 April 2015 would be. 

We don’t ordinarily think like this.Our celebration at church this year is more likely to be mnemonic rather than kairotic. But sitting there tomorrow, as we read the Gospel account of Jesus’ death 1982 years ago, I don’t think I’ll be able to stop myself from pondering.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Charles Simeon on Gospel Charity

Charles Simeon was known as the Prince of Evangelicals. Converted during his undergraduate years at Cambridge through reading the Book of Common Prayer's Holy Communion service, Simeonplayed a significant role in the late 18th, and early 19th centuries - in what David Bebbington describes as one of two great waves of evangelicalism. 

Simeon was a thorough going evangelical of Calvinist persuasion. But Simeon was not factional;at a time when English evangelicals were divided over Calvinist and Arminian theologies, he had no time for those who lacked generosity and charitable in their dealings towards others outside their own tribe.. On the key doctrine of election from Romans 9 Simeon preached:
Many there are who cannot see these truths [the doctrines of God's sovereignty], who yet are in a state truly pleasing to God; yea many, at whose feet the best of us may be glad to be found in heaven. It is a great evil, when these doctrines are made a ground of separation one from another, and when the advocates of different systems anathematize each other... In reference to truths which are involved in so much obscurity as those which relate to the sovereignty of God mutual kindness and concession are far better than vehement argumentation and uncharitable discussion (Horae Homileticae, Vol. 15, 357).
One example of this attitude at work in Simeon's life comes from a conversation between (the Calvinist) Simeon and an elderly (Arminian) John Wesley:
Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian; and I have been sometimes called a Calvinist; and therefore I suppose we are to draw daggers. But before I consent to begin the combat, with your permission I will ask you a few questions. Pray, Sir, do you feel yourself a depraved creature, so depraved that you would never have thought of turning to God, if God had not first put it into your heart?
Yes, I do indeed.
And do you utterly despair of recommending yourself to God by anything you can do; and look for salvation solely through the blood and righteousness of Christ?
Yes, solely through Christ.
But, Sir, supposing you were at first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?
No, I must be saved by Christ from first to last. 
Allowing, then, that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?
What then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother's arms?
Yes, altogether.
And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto His heavenly kingdom?
Yes, I have no hope but in Him.
Then, Sir, with your leave I will put up my dagger again; for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election, my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is in substance all that I hold, and as I hold it; and therefore, if you please, instead of searching out terms and phrases to be a ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things wherein we agree. (H.C.G. Moule, Charles Simeon, London: InterVarsity, 1948, 79ff.) 

May God raise up more men and women like Simeon who make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.