Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Book Review: James Webb, The Second Listening Book: Loaded Question & Other Stories

James Webb, The Second Listening Book: Loaded Question & Other Stories (Canterbury: Lioness Writing, 2016)

I am grateful to Elsa Lewis at Lioness Writing Ltd for a review copy. Also, for the sake of full disclosure, I should note that I have known the author since we studied together at King’s College London in the 1990s. I have sought to be as objective as possible in this review.

James Webb is quite the storyteller. I have already reviewed his first collection of short stories, The Listening Book: The Soul Painting & Other Stories, here, and I am pleased to say that much of what I noted there applies to The Second Listening Book as well. The stories in the first Listening Book were presented as opportunities to hear God’s still small voice. In this second volume, Webb suggests that his tales are taken as honest and truthful nourishment for the soul.

The twenty-seven stories here range from two short paragraphs and eight pages in length. Each narrative is well written and instantly opens the mind’s eye to the world Webb wants to communicate. Webb knows what he wants to say and for the most part uses an appropriate amount of detail and even whimsy to connect with his readers, though I found his shorter stories tended to achieve this more effectively than the longer ones. The fables that I appreciated most are those which prompted me to reflect on my character (‘Losing the Edge’, ‘Of Myself and Others’, ‘Narrow Road’), but other standout entries include ‘Loaded Question’, where a man discusses miracles and God’s existence with a squirrel; ‘Signs and Wonders’, in which melons figure prominently; ‘Date of Birth’, concerning the when of surrendering one’s life to Christ; and ‘Happily Ever After’, which closes with the sharp line, ‘People would rather have a happy ending than the right ending’ (p. 91).

The Second Listening Book, as a compilation of short stories, should not be read from cover to cover in one sitting (something I also said of its predecessor). Ideally, they should be read carefully and reflectively; they should be savoured, not devoured. The volume also contains a number of original black-and-white illustrations and photographs from Carys Jenkins, Alice Journeaux, Joshua Gauton, and Mark Lewis. These are very well done, but I would like to have seen at least some flashes of colour, as with the first collection, which contained many full-colour photographs. Also—and this is surely the most minor of quibbles—I would like to have seen more variety in the way the stories are laid out in the book. The format of The Second Listening Book follows that of the first one, but for some reason it does not work quite so well for me this time. Perhaps some of the illustrations could have been reproduced on a smaller scale and incorporated within the text layout.

Overall, this is another excellent collection of short stories from James Webb, and The Second Listening Book is worth adding to your bookshelves.

Monday, 14 May 2018

The Ascension and the Apostles: A Sermon on Acts 1

The local church where I worship has just started a short sermon series on Acts 1–8. I happened to be given the preaching slot for the opening sermon, which not only had to introduce the series, but also deal with Ascension Day and the apostles to cover the lectionary passages. Here’s my effort.

John 17:6-19; Acts 1:1-26

Of all the strange events and happenings recorded in the Bible, the ascension of Jesus is one of the strangest. Think about it: after leaving some brief instructions to the eleven apostles about what to do next, Jesus takes off—perhaps like a rocket, perhaps like a hot air balloon—and disappears. Indeed, this is surely one of the strangest events recorded in the Bible. What should we make of it?

Are you ready to imitate Christ?

First of all, however strange we may find this story from Acts 1, it’s in line with how the Gospels present Jesus, especially Jesus after his resurrection. He comes and goes, appears and disappears, breaks bread and eats fish. Even though he is resurrected a man of flesh and blood, there is something . . . different, very different, about Jesus after his resurrection. It’s as though his body is no longer limited to the physics of this world but follows the physics of the world or the age to come. When we keep in mind that the Jesus of Acts 1 is the risen Jesus of the Gospels, his ascension really doesn’t seem all that unusual. It’s all part of the same package.

That said, Jesus doesn’t seem to ascend by using his own skills or abilities—Acts 1 says ‘he was lifted up’. Someone else did the lifting. We can assume this was God the Father, drawing his Son to his side by the power of the Holy Spirit. The mention of clouds and heaven in this passage indicates that the resurrected Jesus was entering the presence of his Father. Whatever we think about this passage, whether we take it to be heavy in symbolism or not, we should keep in mind that this is something the eleven apostles claimed to have seen. The apostles saw Jesus ascending, saw him moving into God’s presence before their very eyes. Like the resurrection, the ascension of Jesus was a strange event—but an event nonetheless; something that happened.

But the significance of Jesus’s ascension doesn’t lie in how it may or may not have happened; it lies in the fact that the risen and ascended Jesus now sits at the right hand of God his Father. The ascended Jesus has power and authority over all the nations; he is sovereign. The ascended Jesus has made it possible for us to enter God’s presence for ourselves through him without the need for fastidious rule-keeping or elaborate blood rituals. The ascended Jesus sympathises with our weaknesses and prays for us in the presence of God his Father. And the ascended Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit, pouring out the Spirit over the whole earth, drenching us all with the presence of God himself. So while the ascension is undoubtedly a strange event, it is also highly significant for the Christian faith—because without the ascension of the risen Jesus, there would have been no giving of the Spirit at Pentecost; and without the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, there would be no Church; and without the Church, there would be no Holy Trinity Beckenham. There would be no us.

But there is an us. There is a Holy Trinity Beckenham. There is a Church, the Church, the body of Christ. There was a Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was given. And this same Spirit of Jesus is still with us, giving us Jesus through bread and wine, equipping and empowering us always to be faithful to the Son who sits at the right hand of God the Father. Jesus sends each and every one of us to walk in the steps of the apostles—of Peter, James, John, and the rest—and follow their lead, even as they followed the lead of Jesus himself. This is what we see in today’s Gospel reading from John: just as the Father had sent Jesus into the world, so now Jesus sends his apostles into the world. Acts fleshes this out even more: the apostles are sent into the world—first, Jerusalem; then, Judea and Samaria; and then to the ends of the earth—to tell anyone and everyone who’ll hear: Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again!

This task which Jesus sent the apostles to do was not an easy one. The apostles would face all sorts of difficulties and hurdles arising not only from those who didn’t believe, but even from their fellow believers. They would be mocked, tortured, imprisoned, slaughtered. But they would know that the risen and ascended Jesus, who himself had suffered and died while staying faithful to God—they would know that the risen and ascended Jesus was praying for them, praying for their protection from the evil one, praying that they would continually tell the truth about the strange things they had heard and seen. And with the Holy Spirit working within and among them, the apostles would do just this.

And let’s be honest: little has changed! In the same way as the risen and ascended Jesus sent the apostles as witnesses to him, so he sends us now to declare with confidence the same message: Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again!

You see, even though we are separated from Peter, James, John, and the others by two thousand years, we are still the same Church. And because we are the same Church, there shouldn’t be any need for us to long for a return to some mythical golden age of Christian evangelism and mission—the book of Acts shows us there never really was such a golden age. The Church just had a good start. Far more important is that we tell others about the good end God has planned for the world when the risen and ascended Jesus returns in glory.

I started by saying that the ascension is one of the strangest events and happenings recorded in the Bible. But let’s be clear: the story of the Church is stranger still. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be going through the early chapters of Acts. We’ll see how the Spirit came and transformed the apostles’ witness. We’ll see how the apostles healed both the sick and those afflicted by so-called unclean spirits before being thrown in prison by the authorities. And we’ll see how the apostles dealt with issues of corruption and segregation—and even bad administration. But more than this: we’ll see how the Spirit inspired the apostles to declare the good news of Jesus, so much so that the number of believers grew from 120 to 3000 to 5000 and countless, countless more in Jerusalem and beyond.

It’s an exciting story—and it will be good for us to listen out for what God has to say to us over the coming weeks. But let’s keep one thing in mind: the book of Acts is not just the apostles’ story. Nor is it simply the story of the beginning of the Church. No, the book of Acts is our story, too—and our story, however strange or wonderful or tedious it might be at times, is fundamentally the story of Jesus, our risen and ascended Lord, who rules over all. Let’s tell the world all about him, as often as we can, until he comes again.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Book Review: Lucy Peppiatt, Unveiling Paul’s Women

Lucy Peppiatt, Unveiling Paul’s Women: Making Sense of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018)

I am grateful to Wipf and Stock for a review copy.

In Women and Worship at Corinth (2015; see my review here), Lucy Peppiatt argued that certain passages in 1 Corinthians relating to women and order in worship juxtapose Corinthian quotations or slogans alongside Paul’s own thoughts. According to Peppiatt, 1 Corinthians 11:4-5b, 7-10, 14, and 14:21-22, 34-35 are Corinthian stances Paul is quoting as part of his counter-argument to defend and endorse women in positions of ecclesial leadership and participation in worship. Peppiatt’s approach is compelling and insightful, deserving, in my view, wide dissemination and engagement.

Peppiatt has now published Unveiling Paul’s Women, a ‘shorter, simpler version’ (p. xiii) of her case as it relates particularly to 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. The first half identifies the various issues, oddities, and contradictions raised by a plain reading of these verses, explaining how and why it is plausible to read this passage as containing the Corinthians’ own suspect theology. The second half explores 11:7-10 (‘image and glory’) and 11:3 (‘head’) in more depth, and concludes with a helpful chapter demonstrating that Paul’s thought in 1 Corinthians 11 coheres with his overall theological vision of reconciliation in Christ.

As a clear introduction to 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and as a defence of Paul, Unveiling Paul’s Women is an unqualified success. Each chapter is divided into several brief sections, allowing readers to process each step of the argument without losing the thrust of the whole. Not everyone will appreciate this approach, but I do feel it models a way for how popular-level theology could be written. The least satisfying aspects of the book lie in some of Peppiatt’s finer discussion: so far as I could tell, she does not explain why the Corinthian leadership used image and glory (11:7) rather than image and likeness (Gen 1:26—assuming, of course, that the allusion to the first Genesis creation account is valid), and she does not offer anything substantial about how to understand Paul’s threefold use of kephale (‘head’) in 11:3. However, I emphasise that I found these two aspects the least satisfying—it would be difficult to claim that these weaken Peppiatt’s overall position.

I have no hesitation in commending Unveiling Paul’s Women. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that anyone in Christian leadership, broadly construed, should read this book, especially if they would find it difficult to read the longer, more detailed, Women and Worship at Corinth. Those who have already read the earlier book should find it worthwhile to read Unveiling Paul’s Women, too, insofar as it takes into account responses to Women and Worship at Corinth and more recent Pauline scholarship, and offers glimpses into how 1 Corinthians 11 could be preached on or taught in a local church context.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

David Fergusson’s Forthcoming Monograph on the Doctrine of Providence

Details are now available for a book I’ve been looking forward to for a long time: David Fergusson’s monograph, The Providence of God: A Polyphonic Approach. Here is the description courtesy of Cambridge University Press’s website:

The concept of providence is embedded in the life and theology of the church. Its uses are frequent and varied in understandings of politics, nature, and individual life-stories. Parallels can be discerned in other faiths.  In this volume, David Fergusson traces the development of providential ideas at successive periods in church history. These include the early appropriation of Stoic and Platonic ideas, the codification of providence in the middle ages, its foregrounding in Reformed theology, and its secular applications in the modern era. Responses to the Lisbon earthquake (1755) provide an instructive case study. Although confidence in divine providence was shaken after 1914, several models were advanced during the twentieth century. Drawing upon this diversity of approaches, Fergusson offers a chastened but constructive account for the contemporary church. Arguing for a polyphonic approach, he aims to distribute providence across all three articles of the faith.  

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

God the Father is the Initiator of All Divine Activity

No doubt Facebook has its problems, but it does keep me informed about new book releases. One of the latest of these looks very interesting: Ryan L. Rippee, That God May Be All in All: A Paterology Demonstrating That the Father Is the Initiator of All Divine Activity (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2018). I think the subtitle makes it fairly clear what the book’s about, but in case there’s any doubt, here is the thesis as outlined on p. 3 (accessed through the publisher’s website):

Through a biblical and exegetical study of the Father’s roles and works, this book will argue that within the inseparable operations of the Triune God, the Father is the initiator of all divine activity. This does not mean that God the Son or God the Holy Spirit are inferior, for initiation is a question of order, not rank. Scripture repeatedly affirms that there is one and only one God; that God exists eternally in three distinct persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), and that these persons fully possess the divine essence and attributes. Furthermore, the initiating role of the Father is consistent with inseparable operations. Again, Scripture teaches that there are real distinctions, without ultimate separation, in regard to how the three persons of the Trinity operate. As such, this book will quite often shift the lens from their unity to their uniqueness. Thus, what this book will demonstrate is that within the undivided work of the Triune God, the distinct appropriation of the Father is to be the initiator. In the context of a loving eternal relationship with the Son and Spirit, the Father has planned and purposed all things, creating through the Son and by the Spirit, promising and accomplishing redemption through the sending of the Son and the Spirit, and perfecting salvation by bringing about a new heavens and new earth through his Son and Spirit. Finally, I believe that the role and works of the Father are best discovered through an exegetical study of all the relevant biblical texts rather than beginning with historical, philosophical or theological systems. Nevertheless, because those studies are useful in the formation of theology, I will engage them throughout the discussion.

Seems good, at least in theory. Rippee is using ‘Paterology’ as referring to the Father (cf. ‘Christology’ = Christ, ‘Pneumatology’ = Spirit), and it will be interesting to see if the term catches on (Rippee says he has found only one instance of it elsewhere). I’m sympathetic to what Rippee’s outline says, but I admit I’m wary that his overall case might lead to or imply eternal subordinationism, which I don’t agree with. The idea of the Father as initiator might encourage or be used to support male headship, the subordination of women, and the like. Still, I haven’t read the book, so I’ve no idea if Rippee will go on to say or imply anything like this at all. Regardless, That God May Be All in All could well be a good read.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

To die, or not to die, that is Christ’s question: a sermon on John 12:20-33

John 12:20-33; Hebrews 5:5-10 

‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’

Three times previously in John’s Gospel, we are told that Jesus’s hour—the time of his crucifixion—had not yet come. Jesus says this first about himself at the wedding in Cana, when his mother pointed out the lack of wine to him. And on both the second and third occasions we are told ‘his hour had not yet come’, Jesus had been speaking in the Jerusalem temple, leading some people to try to grab him; but they couldn’t, because ‘his hour had not yet come.’

Now, however, in our Gospel reading today, Jesus says that his ‘hour has come’. For some reason, the arrival of some God-fearing Greeks at the Passover festival wanting to see him was a clear indication to Jesus that his hour had come. Soon he would be crucified—and after that, raised from the dead and exalted to the right hand of God his Father. And Jesus seems very accepting of this. A grain of wheat must ‘die’ if it is to yield a good crop, he says, suggesting that his coming death is a good thing and necessary for the establishment of God’s kingdom. Jesus sounds very matter-of-fact here, very nonchalant, as though he is taking it all in his stride.

But verse 27 suggests otherwise. ‘The hour has come,’ says Jesus, ‘but now my soul is troubled.’

Don’t let the NRSV translation we’ve used weaken the force of what Jesus says here. While Jesus seems quite deliberately and carefully to have been preparing for his hour, now that it’s here—he’s absolutely bricking it! And why? Because even though Jesus is the eternal Son and Word of God made flesh, the mystery of Christ’s passion is that God will taste death—will die, will be killed—in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. ‘Now my soul is troubled,’ says Jesus. It’s the understatement of the year!

John’s Gospel doesn’t include an account of Gethsemane, the garden where Jesus asked his Father to take the cup of judgement away from him, but verses 27 and 28 here are his equivalent. Unless you think that Jesus was simply play-acting, even here, even in these two short verses, we can see something of the dilemma facing Jesus now that his ‘hour has come’. Up to now, Jesus has obeyed God his Father to the letter and has been focused on his destiny. But now his ‘hour has come’, now his destiny is around the corner, now that he’s hurtling towards the events of Holy Week and his bloody execution on a cruel, cruel cross—now that his ‘hour has come’, he needs to think very carefully about what his greatest desire is: is it to please and obey God his Father in heaven, who seems to have set all this up from the very beginning of his ministry; or is it to reject his calling and, quite understandably, go down the route of self-preservation? In almost literal terms, Jesus is at a crossroad.

We know in hindsight that Jesus committed himself to the way of the cross; he chose to obey his Father and overcame whatever natural desire he had not to go through with it. But I think even here in John’s Gospel, a Gospel which tends to show Jesus in control of his situations; even here in John, I think we see Jesus struggling to line up his natural desires and motivations with what he knows God wants for him. ‘Now my soul is troubled,’ he admits. ‘But should I ask my Father to save me from this hour? To spare me from the agony and humiliation of death by crucifixion? Should I offer to do something else, anything else? Should I . . . ? No. This is why I’m here; this is why I’ve come. Father,’ he says, committing himself, ‘Father, glorify your name!’

Should we be in any doubt about the significance of Jesus’s struggle here, or about the enormity of his decision, let’s look briefly at our reading from Hebrews 5. ‘In the days of his flesh,’ verse 7 says, ‘Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death’. Hebrews doesn’t say what specific prayers and supplications Jesus offered, but the fact that God is described as ‘the one . . . able to save him from death’ surely suggests that Jesus was pleading with his Father for another way, struggling with a perfectly natural desire not to die, and an equally strong desire to put God first above all else. Again, we know in hindsight what Jesus did; all I want to emphasise here is that for Jesus—even for Jesus!—it was a struggle on this occasion to focus on God and do that which pleases him. But this, in the overall scheme of Hebrews, is what makes Jesus our great high priest—the fact that he knows through his own experience how difficult life can be in all its many aspects, including our relationship with God.

I’m sure we all experience something of a struggle with God, knowing what we must do in order to please God, but all too often failing to carry it out because our own desires and motivations get in the way. We constantly have to face moments of decision where we must choose between pleasing God and pleasing ourselves. In our fallenness and sinfulness, we often give in to the temptation to do what we want rather than to see how we can be like Jesus in any given situation. Jesus was tempted, true—but he didn’t give in to temptation. Instead, by the power of the Holy Spirit, he submitted himself to God and ‘he was heard’, Hebrews tells us, ‘because of his reverent submission.’ Jesus submitted himself to his Father, and because of this; because Jesus considered obedience to his Father more precious and desirable than even his own life; because of this, the world has been judged, Satan has been dethroned, and now the risen and exalted Christ himself sits enthroned at the right hand of the Father. This is the good news of Jesus we are called to announce!

If there’s anything to take from what I’m saying today, it’s that as we follow Jesus, we should be prepared to reflect on our desires and motivations and work to line them up with God, so that in time God’s desires become our desires. We already do this to an extent every time we share our time and possessions, when we put ourselves out for other people, when we give of ourselves for those who have nothing. But sometimes our reasons for doing these things are more about how they impact us than for how they impact others. My point is that if we are following Jesus faithfully, then we will always come across situations where we have to decide, sometimes very quickly, but always by the power of the Holy Spirit, what being Christlike means in that situation. There will be a struggle as we decide between what we are naturally inclined to do and what we know from the Bible will please God and be honouring to him. The Christian life is about aiming to make sure that the former lines up with the latter so that we naturally and instinctively desire to please God. The more we, by the Holy Spirit, learn to reflect on our desires and motivations, the more we will spot the negative ones that prevent us from going forward and deeper with God, and the more we will be wanting to put them to death by the Spirit. But none of this is easy; it’s a struggle.

Ultimately, we are the children of a good God, a God who loves each and every one of us. This means we don’t look to our failures but to Jesus’s successes. He has shown us what a life pleasing to God looks like, and he calls us to follow him and his example. And because he is our great high priest, we know he is always there for us. We know he sympathises with our weakness. We know he is sitting at the right hand of the Father praying for us to live Christlike lives in a world that rejects him. But we also know that Jesus can do this only because he himself struggled with his own desires and motivations to please God. We may never have to face an ‘hour’ in the same way as Jesus; nonetheless, our struggle to please God is a very real one—but one we can get through, thanks to our God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Colin Gunton: Corrections to his Bibliography

There are a handful of entries in the published Colin Gunton bibliography (Colin E. Gunton, Revelation and Reason: Prolegomena to Systematic Theology, transcribed and edited by P. H. Brazier (London: T&T Clark, 2008), pp. 208–218) that I think are incorrect:

On p. 216, a three-volume Commentary on the Lectionary produced by Gunton is mentioned, along with the three individual volumes comprising this set on p. 217. However, this three-volume set was edited by Roger E. Van Harn and Gunton only contributed certain articles to volumes one and two. The details are as follows:

Colin E. Gunton, ‘First Lesson: Acts 5:27-32’, in Roger E. Van Harn (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans/London: Continuum, 2001), pp. 550–553

Colin E. Gunton, ‘First Lesson: Acts 7:55-60’, in Roger E. Van Harn (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans/London: Continuum, 2001), pp. 553–555

Colin E. Gunton, ‘Second Lesson: 1 Corinthians 15:51-58’, in Roger E. Van Harn (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts. The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans/London: Continuum, 2001), pp. 228–231

Colin E. Gunton, ‘Preaching from the Letters’, in Roger E. Van Harn (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts. The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans/London: Continuum, 2001), pp. 621–626

The final two of these articles (i.e. ‘1 Corinthians 15:51-58’ and ‘Preaching from the Letters’) are said to have been printed in a 2004 book entitled Exploring and Proclaiming the Apostles’ Creed, Vol. 2, also edited by Roger E. Van Harn along with David Ford and Gunton (see Gunton/Brazier, p. 218). However, I have not been able to find any trace of this book whatsoever (I have contacted the publisher, Eerdmans, but have yet to receive any response), and, taking everything into consideration, I believe that there has been an error in recording the bibliographical details. That said, there is a book edited by Roger E. Van Harn with the title Exploring and Proclaiming the Apostles’ Creed, and it does contain one of Gunton’s sermons:

Colin Gunton, ‘A Sermon: The Almighty God’, in Roger E. Van Harn, Exploring and Proclaiming the Apostles’ Creed (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans/London: Morehouse, 2004), pp. 33–37

I haven’t seen this sort of clarification anywhere else, so I hope (a) that this is of help to anyone researching Gunton, and (b) that I have not added to the confusion! If I have, please let me know so I can update/delete this post and update my own records.

Update (16/03/2018): Eerdmans has confirmed my suspicions!

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Book Review: Ian Paul, How to Interpret the Bible

Ian Paul, How to Interpret the Bible: Four Essential Questions (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2017)

I am grateful to Grove Books for a review copy.

In at least one respect, the Bible is just like any other work of literature: it needs to be interpreted, and Scripture’s status as God’s Word written does not alter this fact. But how should we go about doing the act of interpretation? In this instructive Grove Book, Ian Paul (of the Psephizo blog) contends that readers of Scripture need to ask four essential questions when coming to the biblical text:

What did it mean given it is written in this way?
What did the text mean then, to its writer and first readers?
What does this text actually say?
What does this text mean here, in this part of the story of Scripture? (pp. 7, 10, 14, 19, emphasis original)

The first question concerns genre, ‘the mechanism by which authors instruct readers how to make sense of what they have written’; genre recognition is thus ‘the literary equivalent of empathy’ (p. 7). Discerning the genre of a text is by no means always easy, but it is important to do so as accurately as possible lest its message and meaning be misconstrued. This is the error of those who treat Genesis 1 as a science textbook or the book of Revelation as ‘an “end-times timetable” for the distant future’ (p. 8).

The ESV Study Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®)
Copyright © 2008
The second question builds on the first by addressing the matter of context. Many biblical passages are illuminated by understanding the situation in which they were (thought to have been) written. Paul points to how knowledge of the region of Laodicea elucidates the ‘neither cold nor hot’ of Revelation 3:15-16: the hot springs of nearby Hierapolis brought healing and the cold springs of Colossae helped refresh; but the tepid waters of Laodicea were good for neither of these things. By comparing the Laodicean believers to lukewarm water, the risen Christ is berating them for not being effective. The point is perhaps not dependent on in-depth knowledge of Laodicea’s infrastructure, but it certainly helps to make sense of the imagery and drive the message home.

Thirdly, it is important to avoid confirmation bias by attending to the actual words used in Scripture. It is easy to read into the Bible something that it does not say, either because we have been shaped by particular traditions, or because we have already arrived at a firm conclusion about something and so cannot entertain the possibility of alternative—and perhaps more accurate—readings. Among the examples Paul uses to elaborate this point are Matthew 24:40-41 (on the rapture) and 1 Timothy 2:11-12 (on women learning in silence).

Finally, reading a particular text in the context of the whole Bible helps to discern its place in the bigger picture. This acknowledges that the biblical authors themselves had their own scriptures (which is why we see allusions to and quotations from earlier texts throughout both testaments), and that the compilers of the Old and New Testament canons recognised some kind of ‘common voice’ (p. 20) among the disparate texts. Identifying the place of an individual passage within its wider canonical context ‘deepens our understanding and can transform our interpretation’ (p. 20).

Ideally, the four questions Paul asks should all work together to make provisional but definite sense of the biblical text:

Having considered what kind of writing this is, what it meant in its context, having attended carefully to what it actually says (and not what we hope or assume it says), and noting where it comes in the story of the whole of Scripture, we then commit ourselves to the meaning that we find, and live in the light of it. This will never give us absolute certainty . . . but it will give us confidence in the meaning of the text—a confidence that is settled, and yet open to correction when we come to read this text again in the future. Both confidence and openness are necessary in the faithful reading of Scripture. (p. 23, emphasis original)

How to Interpret the Bible originated as a series of New Wine North presentations and Psephizo blog posts, and so has already seen some dissemination. However, the material in this form is particularly ideal for a Grove Book and, due largely to Paul’s customary clarity and insight, is highly suitable for anyone who suspects there is more to biblical interpretation than reading it ‘simply’ or ‘plainly’. Most chapters conclude with ‘questions for reflection’, suggesting that the material could be adapted for use in a study/home group context. This is a worthy addition to the bookshelves and is available here.

Monday, 26 February 2018

In our Sunday services, where do we put the notices?

The notices at my church yesterday morning seemed more comprehensive than usual. This reminded me of something I wrote back in October 2013 for a presentation and so I thought it should be reproduced it here.

My presentation addresses something of great concern to the Church of England, and of each individual parish church within it; a matter of such importance that we ignore it at our peril; a topic that has the potential to change the shape of worship and mission as we know it:

In our Sunday services, where do we put the notices?

In its wisdom, the Church of England has given guidance on this issue. Common Worship permits notices to be published before the Gathering, before the Prayers of Intercession, or before the Dismissal. But each of these opportunities presents potential pitfalls. Latecomers will miss the notices if they are read out at the Gathering. Notices given before the Prayers of Intercession may disturb the worshipful atmosphere. And delivering the notices just before the Dismissal is arguably not the best time, because the congregation is waiting to be sent out to love and serve the Lord after a good cup of coffee and a chocolate biscuit. So I ask again: In our Sunday services, where do we put the notices?

Of course, we might not consider the notices to be essential to our services, especially where there’s a printed notice sheet made available for each worshipper. But if the notices were delivered in such a way that they didn’t feel like randomly connected snippets of information, but a contribution to the worship made alive by the Holy Spirit, then we might think anew about what’s being said in the notices, and how they, too, can inspire and feed the worshipping community. And this in turn can help the service planners ascertain the best location for the notices.

As you might expect, I’m hoping to excavate a deeper level of meaning under what I’ve been saying about the notices. I’ve become very interested in the way our services are put together. In many respects, the Church of England is fortunate that guidance on crafting services is provided throughout Common Worship; but it seems to me that while attention is given to following this guidance, less attention is paid to consideration of what a particular service is trying to do. Or, to put it another way: How are our services forming us? And who are our services forming us to be?

These two questions suggest that a flexible approach to our liturgical structures is what’s needed. Sometimes it may be more appropriate to make use of A Service of the Word than follow Holy Communion Order One. Sometimes it may mean we have a dramatization of a Scripture passage instead of a simple reading from the lectern. And sometimes, yes—sometimes it may mean the notices come at the beginning of the service one week, but at the end the following week. But these are decisions to be made once the formational aspect of the service has been decided.

But why is this important? I don’t believe that our services, and perhaps especially our Sunday services, are optional extras, or mere ritual. I do believe that through them, and through us, the Holy Spirit can and does achieve wonderful things. Our services are occasions, and perhaps the only occasions, when the people of God actively make time in their lives to seek God, to hear God, to receive from God. Modern pressures mean that participation in a service of worship is often a welcome break from the chaos of everyday life, and an opportunity to receive strength from God. And if only for these reasons, I say it’s extremely important that our services are crafted with formation in mind.
I began my presentation by asking where in our services we should put the notices. But underlying this opening gambit are two deeper questions that I’d like for us to consider in our group discussion: How are our services forming us? And who are our services forming us to be?