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?
No.
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.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

A Real Establishment

'For since there are real men [sic], so must there also be a real establishment (plantationem), that they vanish not away among non-existent things, but progress among those which have an actual existence. For neither is the substance nor the essence of the creation annihilated (for faithful and true is He who has established it), but “the fashion of the world passeth away;” that is, those things among which transgression has occurred, since man has grown old in them. And therefore this [present] fashion has been formed temporary, God foreknowing all things; as I have pointed out in the preceding book, and have also shown, as far as was possible, the cause of the creation of this world of temporal things. But when this [present] fashion [of things] passes away, and man has been renewed, and flourishes in an incorruptible state, so as to preclude the possibility of becoming old, [then] there shall be the new heaven and the new earth, in which the new man shall remain [continually], always holding fresh converse with God. And since (or, that) these things shall ever continue without end, Isaiah declares, “For as the new heavens and the new earth which I do make, continue in my sight, saith the Lord, so shall your seed and your name remain.”' - Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 5.36.1
Irenaeus was a significant leader of the church in the second century. He learnt the faith from bishop Polycarp, who - it is said - learnt the faith from St. John. His influence was recognized widely by his contemporaries, and this was in large part built upon his writing responding to the threat of Gnosticism. In many senses, Irenaeus was the church's first biblical and systematic theologian. This forms part of the significance of the quote above. The issue of the continuity of creation is often dismissed as being the product of modern ecological concerns. Yet from the quote above it is evident that the Christian hope for new creation was not a 21st century invention or innovation, but in accord with the faith that was deposited with to the saints. Our hope is in the resurrection, the raising of our bodies, just as Jesus was raised, And an embodied existence requires - necessitates - a world to inhabit.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Dissolve Like Snow?

The February of 1779 witnessed the publication of the poetry and hymnary of the English poet William Cowper and Church of England priest John Newton. The Olney Hymns, as the collection became known, was written by the two men for use in Newton's ministry in Olney, Buckinghamshire. The parish had a history with dissenters, and was largely populated by poor and uneducated women and men. The Olney Hymns are broadly representative of  Cowper and Newton's evangelicalism, and concern to minister the gospel to also sections of society. They were also hugely popular; there are 37 known reprints of the hymnal from within 60 years of the original publication, whilst many of the hymns were re-appropriated in England and America as part of other works.

The famous of the Olney Hymns is of course Amazing Grace. If ever there was a hymn that defined the evangelical world, a pretty good case could be made for Amazing Grace. It is one of the most well known, sung, and beloved hymns of all time. Given its place in the evangelical world, it is curious to note the toing-and-froing that has surrounded the hymn. The last verse which begins "When we've been there a thousand years" is not original to Newton's work; instead it seems to have originated with a hymn written c.1790.  It's appearance with Amazing Grace did not occur until the 1852 anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Newton had originally penned an alternative ending to Amazing Grace, originally titled "Faith's Review and Expectation", as a poem Newton wrote in connection to his New Year's Day 1773 sermon on 1 Chronicles 17.16-17. Rarely included in subsequent publications of the original poem, the sixth and final stanza of the 1773 version of Amazing Grace reads thus:
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
   The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call'd me here below,
   Will be forever mine.
Newton's poetry picks up on language found in Scripture, such as in Psalms 46.6 and 97.5, of the earth and mountains giving way before the sovereign Lord. Yet rather than forming the basis of an eschatological cosmology, these verses present God as steadfast and sure in contrast to the changes and chances of this fleeting world. Crucially, in both Psalms, Jerusalem is also presented as strong and secure.

Another potential and major influence on this final stanza would be the third chapter of 2 Peter. This makes the reintroduction by some contemporary musicians of Newton's final stanza unfortunate and problematic. The 2 Peter of Newton's day left things pretty clear that this world would indeed dissolve, leaving a picture of the annihilation of creation: heaven and earth - the whole world.
10But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. 11Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved...
However, greater access to older Greek manuscripts (particularly codices Sinaitcus and Vaticanus) has changed the general reading of 2 Peter 3. Rather than being λυόμενα, dissolved, the earliest manuscripts have εὑρεθήσεται, exposed.

10But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

Whilst the heavens will pass away and the elements dissolve, the sense of Peter's argument is that the earth will be purified and redeemed. Whilst there is conjecture as to Peter's understanding of the elements in verse 10, it is unlikely given the use of this phrase across the New Testament that this word refers to the periodic table. Rather, drawing on places such as Isaiah 24 and 35, Peter' presents the apocalyptic destruction of the forces of evil. What is clear is that there is a level of both continuity and discontinuity in the New Testament's assessment of the relation between this world and the world to come, a new heavens and a new earth which we long for righteousness to be at home. And that is the problem with the stanza; whilst it captures God's steadfastness contra the world that is attested to time and again in Scripture, it doesn't sufficiently draw on the entire biblical attestation to both discontinuity and continuity.

One can hardly blame Newton for this given what he was working with. But the same is not true for us today. We god's mercy and provision, we have access to Peter's vision in verses 10-13 of a world not annihilated, but purified, cleansed and made fit for righteousness to be at home. A world which is the same and different from our world today. A world which Jesus died for, and in which we shall enjoy God forever.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

On Leaving a Place

On Sunday night Alison and I left the congregation that we have called home for the last eight and a half years. It was an evening filled with mixed emotions; we're part of a team that was being sent out from the congregation to, under God, launch a new congregation this coming Easter. It's exciting to step out like this in a fresh way and see what God does with that. Last Sunday was also tinged with sadness. There are lots memories stored up after eight and a half years, significant friendships formed, and significant steps taken in my knowledge, love, and service of God. It was hard to say goodbye. It was the building where we were married seven years ago. And of all the things I will miss, beyond the memories and the people, is the beauty of the building itself. I will miss partaking in the aesthetic quality of another age. I will miss watching the sun of an early morning flame through the stained glass in a panoply of colour against the sandstone.


The hairs on my neck stand up as I write this. It seems almost to small, to insignificant, to silly to pause and comment on. Indeed, if the church building is just a rain shelter or a sun shade, then my affections seem terribly trivial and misplaced. That is unless place, space, and beauty actually matter. For too long now we've taken our cue for church design from public school assembly halls: cheap, functional, and uninspiring. Our ecclesiastical aesthetic has developed a taste for the look and smell of a teenagers bedroom. So concerned have we become that someone might mistake a parochial building as the dwelling place of God Almighty, that we have gone out of way to make our places of worship ugly. Apathy towards beauty led to a blandness of design.

Do not mistake this a cry against functionality (which is very important), or even a rally for neo-Gothic architecture. I intend no such thing. Instead my realization after the last eight an a half years is that our aesthetic tastes communicate something. Our Christian forebears, often derided as superstitious, knew this. They built buildings appropriate for their time, fitting for the worship of the maker of all things, which conveyed the logic of the gospel: that God is in himself infinite beauty, that we care about this world and this place because we look forward to the day when it will be made new, and we invite you to leave your life that has been scarred and misshapen by sin and enjoy the beauty of the life of the Triune God.

Jean Cauvin includes a wonderful discussion in The Institutes of the Christian Religion (chapter XI) on the second commandment and the failure of the church in his day, amid the proliferation of icons, to educate and teach people. Yet for all his insight, what is striking is Cauvin's omission of the incarnation of Jesus, the "the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being". "We have seen his glory" writes the Evangelist, and in that glory, according to David Bentley Hart, we see the beautiful:

The beautiful is not a fiction of desire, nor is its nature exhausted by a phenomenology of pleasure; it can be recognized in despite of desire, or as that toward which desire must be cultivated. There is an overwhelming givenness in the beautiful, and it is discovered in astonishment, in an awareness of something fortuitous, adventitious, essentially indescribable; it is known only in the moment of response, from the position of one already addressed and able now only to reply. This priority and fortuity allow theology to hear, in the advent of beauty, the declaration of God’s goodness and glory, and to see, in the attractiveness of the beautiful, that creation is invited to partake of that goodness and glory. So say the Psalms: “Oh taste and see that the Lord is good.” Beauty thus qualifies theology’s understanding of divine glory: it shows that glory to be not only holy, powerful, immense, and righteous, but also good and desirable, a gift graciously shared; and shows also, perhaps the appeal – the pleasingness – of creation to God. In the beautiful God’s glory is revealed as something communicable and intrinsically delightful, as including the creature in its ends, and as completely worthy of love; what God’s glory necessitates and commands, beauty shows also to be gracious and inviting; glory calls not only for awe and penitence, but also for rejoicing.
The particularity of Christ's advent means that we are yet to see his glory. But over the last eight and a half years we have seen that glory reflected in the lives of our brothers and sisters as the gospel was proclaimed and we peacefully served one another. And we also glimpsed it in the splendour of that place, built and consecrated by God's people for the praise of his glory.