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.

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 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.