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, 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 anything physical, Athanasius maintains that physicality is not the problem, but rather a venue of God's goodness in being both created and redeemed. 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 Second 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.

Monday, February 09, 2015

The Substance of the City of God

The Christian doctrine of creation is of primary significance to the church which confesses its faith in "God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth". That God made all things is part of the fabric of a Christian response to revelation. For this basic (though not uncontested reason) reason Christian doctrine relates creation to eschatology: this good but presently broken world which God made will be re-made, freed from its warped and corrupted nature, freed once more for its God-given purpose to exist for Jesus Christ

One current debate in the theological world is how to relate the two doctrines. Is the future such a breach from our current existence that the new creation bears little to no correlation to creation? The proposed solution in our previous approach was to relate the two Christologically, so that the eschaton is the perfection rather than the breach of creation.


The implications of this debate touch a whole range of areas: work, culture, the environment, and so forth. What is clear though is this issue is not an innovation of the third millennium and its present ecological crisis. A century ago the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck also reflected on this issue. Following on from Paul's description of the σχῆμα of the world - the outward form, appearance, and way of life according to BDAG - passing away, the substance of the creation is redeemed and renewed in the new creation. Bavinck at times is carried along with the poetry of his language, but nevertheless do not let that detract you:

"All that is true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing, and commendable in the whole creation, in heaven and on earth, is gathered up in the future city of God-renewed, re-created, boosted to its highest glory. 
The substance [of the city of God] is present in this creation. Just as the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, as a carbon is converted into diamond, as the grain of wheat upon dying in the ground produces other grains of wheat, as all of nature revives in the spring and dresses up in celebrative clothing, as the believing community is formed out of Adam’s fallen race, as the resurrection body is raised from the body that is dead and buried in the earth, so too, by the re-creating power of Christ, the new heaven and the new earth will one day emerge from the fire-purged elements of this world, radiant in enduring glory and forever set free from the ‘bondage to decay’ (…Rom. 8:21). More glorious than this beautiful earth, more glorious than the earthly Jerusalem, more glorious even than paradise will be the glory of the new Jerusalem, whose architect and builder is God himself. The state of glory (status gloriae) will be no mere restoration (restauratie ) of the state of nature (status naturae), but a re-foration that, thanks to the power of Christ, transforms all matter . . . into form, all potency into actuality (potentia , actus), and presents the entire creation before the face of God, brilliant in unfading splendor and blossoming in a springtime of eternal youth. Substantially nothing is lost."

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

The Honour of God

"[Only...] a renewal of the world...accords with what Scripture teaches about redemption. For the latter is never a second, brand-new creation but a re-creation of the existing world. God’s honor [sic] consists precisely in the fact that he redeems and renews the same humanity, the same world, the same heaven, and the same earth that have been corrupted and polluted by sin." - Herman Bavinck


This year I enter my fourth and final year of studies at Moore Theological College in Sydney. The past three years have, I believe, been fruitful for my heart and mind in growing in the knowledge and love of God that is in Christ Jesus.

In this final year of study, I hope to spend some time reflecting on the connection between Christian eschatology and the doctrine of creation. This seems to me a profitable area of research, as rightly correlating the two necessarily involves relating them both to God's work in Jesus Christ. Without this connection, the relatedness of creation and new creation is abrogated from the person and work of Christ, resulting in an unbalanced and distorted gospel more akin to Gnosticism and the fantasy of 19th century liberal Protestantism. As the great Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck noted, the gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus is God's "YES" to his good but ruptured world, realigning creation away from death and annihilation and towards its ultimate end. God's work of creation and redemption are not two separate works, but united in Jesus Christ, the firstborn over his creation.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Moving from Advent to Christmas

In the lead up to Christmas Alison and I helped produce an Advent series for our church: 'Waiting for the King'. This is taken from something I wrote for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, on  the transition from Advent to Christmas. It's largely built upon some work I did for college in 2014 on the theology and practice of gratitude

How do we move from Advent to Christmas? Advent interrogates the desires of our hearts in light of the coming of Christ; Christmas celebrates his first coming – God with us. If Advent is the preparation, then Christmas is the feast. It’s the celebration of God coming into his world to liberate it from the darkness and brokenness that holds it enthralled, to set us free along with it from death and our own sin.


This aspect of Christmas can easily be lost amidst the stuffed stockings and Christmas ham. But it may surprise you that the solution lies not in stripping these things back from our festivities. The gospel’s solution is to receive these good things with thanksgiving. Every good part of creation – even the toys and the food – is to be received with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4.1-5). It’s gratitude which prevents a mindless consumption at Christmas, and instead allows us to view the presents and the meals as good gifts of our generous father, as an echo of his extravagant generosity towards us in giving us his Son that first Christmas.

So as we move from Advent to Christmas, will you celebrate with gratitude and thankfulness in your heart?

One of the most extraordinary thanksgiving prayers ever written is found in the Anglican prayer book. It’s a prayer which connects our ordinary life with our salvation in Christ Jesus. It’s printed below, and you may like to use this Christmas to give expression to your heart’s delight in all of God’s gifts to us.

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give humble and hearty thanks for all your goodness and loving kindness to us and to all men; we bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace; and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us that due sense of all your mercies, that our hearts may be truly thankful and that we may declare your praise not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be all honour and glory, now and forever. Amen.
Photo: Ben Garrett 

Monday, October 27, 2014

Societas 2014

Since 1919, the students of Moore Theological College have published an annual magazine: Societas. I've been involved with the team that produces the magazine of the last two years, and the 2014 edition was launched last Friday. It contains articles from the students, along profiles of the college's students and faculty which I've found very useful in praying for the college.

Described as "a highlight of the diocesan calendar", Societas can be viewed online. Hard copies can also be obtained by contacting the college: 02 9577 9999 or email marketing@moore.edu.au.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Our Humble and Hearty Thanks

"There is something about gratitude that is so fundamentally different to grumbling." 
Back in February I wrote a piece that prescribed thankfulness as an antidote to grumbling, and speculated that the authors of the Book of Common Prayer had noticed the same dynamic. Well, it seems that the good folk at the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation are also aware of this dynamic, as David Powlison - editor of the excellent Journal of Biblical Counseling - describes in this video:

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Parish Family Tree

Long term readers of hebel will know of a slow, on going project to map the parishes of the Sydney Diocese.


View Sydney Diocese Parish Boundaries in a larger map

Partly this comes out of an appreciation of the Anglican parochial missiology. But it also comes from the present inaccessibility of parish maps. Well, related to this project has been an interest in the history of the formation of parishes in Sydney. Thanks largely to pre-existing family trees at St Philip's Church Hill and St Peter's St Peters, I've begun to compile a family tree of Sydney Anglican parishes. You might like to check it out below (click to expand):



Tuesday, September 23, 2014

From Sinner to Singer

Jesus said that it is not what goes into a person that makes them unclean, but what comes out of their heart. Out of the abundance of the heart come all kinds of sin: evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. This failure of heart, what Christian theologians have described as concupiscence or our tendency to sin, is described by the Apostle Paul in a tight little passage as the consequence of false worship.

Despite the beauty and delight of the world around us, we refused to respond to our Creator with a due sense of thankful or praise (Romans 1:21). Instead, we turned to from the Creator to the creation, worshipping it in his place, desiring the things he had made rather than our maker (Romans 1:23, 25). Through idolatry, our hearts became just as darkened and our thinking futile as the things we worshipped.

Paul is probably picking up on the idea prevalent in the Old Testament that we become what we worship. This is seen in Isaiah; the prophet is commissioned to preach to his idolatrous generation with the result that they deaf, blind, and dull hearted (Isaiah 6:9-10) – just like the idols they worship (Isaiah 42:8, 17-25)! Hence why one of things the Servant of the Lord brings is the restoration of sight to the blind.

Likewise, the Apostle John can describe our hearts in this manner. John can urge his readers to guard against idolatry (1 John 5:21; cf. 1 Corinthians 10:7, 14) because he knows that our concupiscence lies in our love of things in God’s good world (1 John 2:15-17). The problem lies not out there; it lies in mangled love or over-desires: ‘the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, pride in possessions’.  It is not hard to imagine as Andrew Cameron does that this is John’s commentary on that moment in the garden when sin was let loose on the world: (cf. Genesis 3:6) good for food’ [desire of flesh]; ‘pleasing to the eye’ [desire of eyes]; ‘desirable for wisdom’ [pride].[1] What John describes is our thankless, obsessive, destructive misappropriation of the Creator’s creation. Our love for the wrong things has bent us out of shape.

It was his reflection on these verses that led St Augustine to describe our propensity to sin as disordered love. Human beings are liturgical creatures – we are made to worship something. In our refusal to thank and glorify God, our hearts have turned to find something else to worship.
 
These are thy gifts; they are good, for thou in thy goodness has made them. Nothing in them is from us, save for sin when, neglectful of order, we fix our love on the creature, instead of on thee, the Creator.  (City of God, XV.22)
What is needed is for our misdirected hearts to be reordered, for our hearts remain restless until they come to rest in that for which they were made.

But living a just and holy life requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things: to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally. (On Christian Doctrine, I.27-28)
Millennia later, the former Augustinian monk Martin Luther diagnosed the human condition in a similar way. According the Luther, our life and worship is incurvatus in se, turned in on ourselves.

Our nature, by the corruption of the first sin, so deeply curved in on itself that it not only bends the best gifts of God towards itself and enjoys them (as is plain in the works-righteous and hypocrites), or rather even uses God himself in order to attain these gifts, but it also fails to realize that it so wickedly, curvedly, and viciously seeks all things, even God, for its own sake. (Lectures on Romans)
In like manner, John Calvin wrote in his Christian Institutes that “the human heart is an idol factory” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, I 11.8). Our hearts and minds are perpetually industrious in imagining new things to love and worship. This long tradition of equating sin with idolatry was neatly summarised a few years ago by moral theologian Oliver O’Donovan:

 [I]t is possible, notwithstanding the truth that we love and know only the good, also in a sense to love evil. We love evil by resting in the pattern of loves and dreads that comes immediately to us, treating our dreads as though they were equally real with the goods we love. ... This is perfectly expressed in the traditional Christian doctrine of original sin, described memorably by Martin Luther as an incurvatus in se, a self-enclosure. 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.[2]
The great human tragedy is that despite being the divinely commissioned image-bearers in the world, we turned from reflecting that image to the creation and love of other images. We exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped idols of our fashioning. Out of the abundance of the heart comes all kind of impurities, and our hearts had grown ruinous. Yet whilst the human heart spewed forth impurity, the Jesus Christ – the very image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15) – came forth to heal our hearts. His work is summarised by Hebrews 1:3 as such:

He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high…
Hebrews goes on to say that this purification came through Jesus’ own blood (9:14). He has put away sin once and for all (9:26), enabling those purified by him to serve the living God. The end result as pictured in Hebrews 13 is a life issuing forth as a sacrifice of praise. Those purified by Jesus the great high priest are enabled to live a life of worship to God. Along the same lines Paul encourages the mind set on the Spirit to be transformed, as the body worships God (Romans 12:1):

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
This is the antithesis of the perverted worship of Romans 1. Whereas in Romans 1 humans were dishonoured in their bodies, worshipping and serving creatures, disapproving of God which issued in a depraved mind, in Romans 12 Christians are instructed to present their bodies in the service and worship of God, which leads to the renewing of their minds, that they may approve God’s will. The achievement of Christ is to turn God’s enemies into those who are by the Spirit conformed to the image of God’s Son. We are set free from sin to respond to God by grace. In other words, we are turned from sinners into singers. We do not live under slavery to sin. The prayer of conversion is, with John Donne, that God would “Come | And recreate me now grown ruinous.”   We are made fit to worship the true and living God. Far from being hostile towards and unable to please God, I am someone who lives for the praise of God’s glory. Rather than being incurvatus in se, I live (in another of Luther’s phrases) coram Deo; that is, before God, before his face, and in his presence.

This is not to deny the presence of sin in Christians, what Don Carson describes as “shocking, inexcusable, forbidden, appalling, out of line with what we are as Christians.” But to be a Christian is to have one’s darkened heart renewed by the Spirit, so that the abundance of this heart, by God’s grace, produces fruit. Having been purified by our high priest, we are transformed from idol makers to glory reflectors, from incurvatus in se to coram Deo, from sinners to singers.

We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. (Romans 6:6)
Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. (Hebrews 13:15)


[1] Andrew Cameron, Joined-up life: A Christian account of how ethics works (Nottingham: IVP, 2011), 52-53.
[2] Oliver O’Donovan, New College Lectures 2007: Lecture 2 ‘Admiring’. http://www.newcollege.unsw.edu.au/newcollegelectures.html.