Monday, 30 December 2019

My Review of William J. Abraham’s Divine Agency and Divine Action, Volume 3: Systematic Theology

My review of William J. Abraham’s Divine Agency and Divine Action, Volume 3: Systematic Theology is available via Journal of Theological Studies here. And should you wish to know what I thought to volumes one and two, go here. Have fun clicking and reading!

Monday, 2 December 2019

Book Review: Four Views on Divine Providence, ed. Dennis W. Jowers

Dennis W. Jowers (ed.), Four Views on Divine Providence (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011)

Zondervan’s Counterpoints is a book series in which proponents of particular views held by Evangelical Christians (interpret ‘Evangelical’ broadly) are invited to state their positions and then respond to those of the others—not entirely unlike an electoral hustings. Four Views on Divine Providence features essays by Paul Kjoss Helseth (‘God Causes All Things’), William Lane Craig (‘God Directs All Things’), Ron Highfield (‘God Controls by Liberating’), and Gregory A. Boyd (‘God Limits his Control’). These essays and responses are sandwiched between the editor’s introduction and conclusion.

None of the contributors offers any genuine surprises in what he outlines. Helseth’s essay is an effective statement of a traditional Reformed omnicausality, while Boyd’s is the same for an account of open theism. Craig’s chapter is essentially a case for Molinism. Highfield’s piece is perhaps the most distinctive of the four: he presumes divine omnicausality but recalls more explicitly the thrust of the whole biblical narrative by focussing on God’s freeing of humanity from the power of sin. Each position is capably argued and should be regarded as genuinely representative of at least part of the traditions they espouse.

The responses to each chapter are rather mixed. Critiques centre on disputed matters of freedom and theodicy; this is to be expected. However, it seems to me that some contributors play more fairly than others. For example, Helseth draws too freely from Boyd’s other writings rather than from what is actually presented in Four Views on Divine Providence; this seems disingenuous to me. Craig seems overconfident in Molinism’s coherence against the other views and its power to deliver on its claims. But other responses are more to the point: Highfield judges that Boyd’s approach to providence is not as christocentric as the latter claims, and Boyd offers an emotively insightful description of what is surely entailed by Helseth’s uncompromising account of divine omnicausality.

In summary, Four Views on Divine Providence is a decent addition to introductory and/or intermediate literature on the topic, but those who are already familiar with the views and the issues will find little new here other than some quotable passages. Of course, the spectacle of seeing four intelligent scholars entering the same field of play is always worth the price of admission. In that respect, I think Highfield is the player who emerges—narrowly—as the most persuasive.

Sunday, 24 November 2019

Pray for the Kingdom: A Sermon on Isaiah 61:10–62:7 and Luke 18:1-8

Why do we pray? And what do we pray for? You will have all sorts of answers to these questions, answers both mundane and profound. But one of the things we need to pray for is that God’s kingdom will come. We need to pray that God’s kingdom will come in all its fullness and glory. We need to pray that Christ the King, God’s Anointed One, God’s Messiah, will return and establish once and for all God’s kingdom of justice and peace. This kingdom is already here in part: the risen Jesus sits at the right hand of his Father in heaven, praying for us, even while God’s Holy Spirit is present among us now as we go about our daily business as faithful Christians. But the kingdom is not totally present. There is more, much more, of the kingdom to come. And so we must pray that it will come in all its fullness.

But this isn’t an easy thing to do. When we see our leaders bickering with one another; when our cupboards and wallets and purses are empty; when our bodies and minds are fragile and broken; when we see or feel all these things, it’s easy to become disillusioned with life and forget that this is not all there is. There is an age to come: not life after death in the sense of our souls floating up to heaven as our bodies decay, but in the sense that God promises to transform this world into something entirely new: the kingdom of God. The kingship of the risen Jesus and the Holy Spirit’s presence among us are evidence that God’s kingdom is growing among us even now. The age to come, God’s kingdom, is already here in part—but there is still more to come. We need not doubt its eventual arrival. But Christ our King calls us to pray that it arrives soon so that God’s justice and peace transform everything.

Jesus knows this is hard to believe, which is why, in today’s Gospel reading from Luke, he encourages us always to pray for the kingdom to come and not to lose heart, or be discouraged, or think that all our prayers are just a waste of time. God is not like the judge in the parable. The judge had to give in to the widow lest she shame him; he was concerned with nothing but his own reputation and feelings. But God is not like this judge. We do not need to badger God or trick God into dishing out true justice. And why not? It’s because God has already resolved and promised to establish the kingdom in all its fullness.

But if God has resolved and promised to establish the kingdom in all its fullness; if the kingdom is guaranteed to come; then why do we still need to pray for it to come? This is where our reading from Isaiah can help us. The theme of persistence in prayer emerges towards the end of our reading, but there is also something of an explanation as to why we should pray in the earlier verses. Let’s look at them more closely.

First of all, let’s keep in mind that today’s passage relates to a time when God’s people had returned to what was left of Jerusalem after decades of exile in Babylon. Many of these people had probably been born after the deportations and so had only heard stories about Jerusalem’s greatness and glory. Many of them had never even seen Jerusalem, let alone Jerusalem at its peak. We can only guess at how disillusioned the people were: they’d heard the stories of Jerusalem’s greatness, but now they had to face a harsh reality that didn’t match what they’d been told. Would the city, could the city, ever again reach the same heights of splendour? Did the people really care one way or the other? Did the Lord himself even care . . . really?

Isaiah’s prophecy here is placed on the lips of God’s anointed one, God’s messiah. Clothed with salvation, covered with righteousness, God’s anointed one is ready to vindicate Jerusalem by transforming the city and its people into beacons of hope for the wider world. The entire world will see what the anointed one will achieve for Jerusalem: all the other countries, all the world’s kings, will see justice done, will see Jerusalem’s glory, will know the city by a new name that speaks of God’s delight in the place. The Lord’s just dealings with the world are concentrated first on Jerusalem. The extended metaphor in Isaiah 62:5 is that of a wedding followed by the bride and groom making love. The Lord consummates Jerusalem in a bridal suite prepared by God’s messiah. The waiting is over! All is right with the world!
“Really? That’s what that verse is about?”
But note that despite all this imagery, the wedding has not yet happened. Jerusalem is not yet restored or transformed—far from it. However, God’s anointed one says he will not keep silent or rest until Jerusalem is vindicated, until God’s justice reigns supreme:

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch (Isa. 62:1).

The promise of fulfilment and vindication is sure: the Lord God will cause righteousness to blossom like a garden, the nations shall see Jerusalem’s vindication, it shall no longer be labelled Forsaken, and the Lord shall rejoice over the city—but at the time Isaiah prophesied, all this was still to happen. Isaiah’s prophecy is a promise of Jerusalem’s completion and fulfilment given at a time when reasons for hope were limited and the dreams of the people were nothing but fantasies.

This is why there are sentinels or watchmen stationed on Jerusalem’s walls. God’s anointed one has posted them there to remind the Lord of his promises to Jerusalem, to remind the Lord that he has promised good things for the city. And the sentinels remind the Lord day and night; just like the anointed one himself, the sentinels are never silent or inactive, and they will remind the Lord of his promises always and always and always and always and not stop ‘until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it renowned throughout the earth’ (Isa. 62:7). God’s promise is sure, but the sentinels’ reminders keep the promise alive in a world of discouragement, futility, and despair.

I hope you can already see where I’m going with this. In the same way that the anointed one in Isaiah posts sentinels to remind the Lord of his promises for Jerusalem, so too Jesus—God’s Anointed One, God’s Messiah, God’s King—calls us to pray for God’s kingdom to come in all its fullness and not to give up praying for this to happen. But this isn’t a case of us pestering God until God gives in to our demands. Rather, God in Christ through the Holy Spirit encourages us to remain faithful in prayer despite the uncertainties and injustices we see all around us and on the news.

Jesus’s parable of the widow and the judge isn’t designed to link God to the unjust judge, but to compare us with the persistent widow. And this challenges us. When Jesus returns—as undoubtedly he will do, one day—when Christ our King returns, will he find us faithful in prayer? Will Jesus find us on our literal or metaphorical knees praying for God’s kingdom to come regardless of whatever else is going on? Will Jesus find us praying for God’s justice to be done and perhaps through our prayers becoming agents of justice ourselves? These are tough and important questions each of us, and all of us, including me, must contend with. But we can do so with hope and assurance, for although God’s kingdom is not fully here, we know it is already here in part. What Christ our King calls us to do is to pray that the kingdom will come, that the kingdom will come quickly, and that the kingdom will come in all its fullness.

Friday, 1 November 2019

Online Symposium on David Fergusson’s The Providence of God

I am impressed by David Fergusson’s recent monograph, The Providence of God. And it seems that Sapientia: A Periodical of the Henry Center is impressed, too—so much so that they have convened an online symposium to discuss aspects of it. I was asked to contribute a short reflection to this symposium (again, I don’t know who put my name forward, but thank you!), which you can read here. Other reflections published so far are by Rebekah Earnshaw and Kevin J.Vanhoozer, and we can expect further reflections by Tom McCall and Craig Bartholomew, as well as a response by Fergusson himself.

Thursday, 31 October 2019

Colin Gunton on T&T Clark’s Theology and Religion Online

The publisher T&T Clark contacted me earlier this year and asked me—I’m not sure why: Did someone recommend me? Was I third or fourth or ninth choice? Was it something someone ate?—to write a brief essay introducing Colin Gunton’s books and essays published by T&T Clark and which would appear on their forthcoming (at the time) online resources platform. Well, that platform is now live—see here—and while you need a subscription to access Gunton’s writings online, my essay, imaginatively entitled ‘Colin Gunton: An Introduction’, is freely available. The proof is here.

Despite my earlier (partly) tongue-in-cheek questions, I am honoured to have been asked to write this essay, but also a little wary. I’ve made some judgements about the development of Gunton’s theology that those who knew him well could easily dispute if wayward. I studied under Gunton as an undergraduate in the mid-to-late 1990s and only met him once more, with a friend, a few years later when he gave a lecture on something or other at a church in the Sloane Square area and, funnily enough, on a District Line train almost immediately after that lecture. He died a month or two later.

Anyway, enough recollecting; enjoy my essay (please)!

Sunday, 27 October 2019

Book Notice: Divine Action and Providence, eds. Crisp and Sanders

Coming soon is Divine Action and Providence: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics, edited by Oliver D. Crisp and Fred Sanders. This is a first-day must-buy for me, though that might be difficult given (a) the Boxing Day release date listed by both Amazon UK and Waterstones, and (b) that my wife might already have pre-ordered it for me for my birthday (which is just over a week after Christmas). Anyway, Fred Sanders (one of the editors, as earlier noted) has written a summary of the contents and should give an indication as to why I’m geeking out about this one. You can read the summary here.

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Book Notice: The God Who Acts in History

I’ve just found out about a new book scheduled for publication in January 2020: Craig G. Bartholomew’s The God Who Acts in History. Here’s the blurb:

Did the decisive event in the history of Israel even happen?

The Bible presents a living God who speaks and acts, and whose speaking and acting is fundamental to his revelation of himself. God’s action in history may seem obvious to many Christians, but modern philosophy has problematized the idea. Today, many theologians often use the Bible to speak of God while, at best, remaining agnostic about whether he has in fact acted in history.

Historical revelation is central to both Jewish and Christian theology. Two major events in the Bible showcase divine agency: the revelation at Sinai in Exodus and the incarnation of Jesus in the gospels. Surprisingly, there is a lack of serious theological reflection on Sinai by both Jewish and Christian scholars, and those who do engage the subject often oscillate about the historicity of what occurred there.

Craig Bartholomew explores how the early church understood divine action, looks at the philosophers who derided the idea, and finally shows that the reasons for doubting the historicity of Sinai are not persuasive. The God Who Acts in History provides compelling reasons for affirming that God has acted and continues to act in history.

The publisher’s website also includes the table of contents. Of interest to me specifically is a chapter that seems to address divine action and classical theism in connection with Colin Gunton. I’ve recently finished writing two articles on Gunton (which I hope will see the light of day soon enough), as well as having already published an essay on Gunton’s account of providence, so I’m looking forward to Bartholomew’s book for this chapter if nothing else!

Monday, 14 October 2019

On Politics, Activism, and Waiting for the LORD: A Sermon on Isaiah 30:1-18

My church is currently going through Isaiah and yesterday was my turn to stand behind the lectern. I ‘felt led’ (to use a pious phrase) to take on Isaiah 30:1-18 and somehow supplement this with Matthew 6:24-34. I’m not sure I did a great job, despite (a) canvassing for opinion on how to approach political issues and (b) getting some positive feedback afterwards. I think my uncertainty about this sermon’s quality stems from what seems to be a blind acceptance that everything’s going to turn out okay, despite the fact that I loathe this sort of theology; but isn’t that the nature of trust? I’m also wary that it might look as though I’m anti-activism, which I’m not, and the adjectives I use throughout (e.g. panicked activism) were chosen deliberately. Finally, it does raise the issue of how far preachers should use sermons to denounce particular people, especially those in the political realm. As someone who merely has permission from his bishop to preach occasionally in his church, I don’t believe that this is my task when preaching. Anyway, enough waffle: enjoy!

Isaiah 30:1-18; Matthew 6:24-34

The book of Isaiah contains some of the Bible’s best known and much loved passages. ‘For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given’ (Isa. 9:6 kjv)—a Christmas favourite! ‘Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles’ (Isa. 40:31 nrsv)—comfort for the weary and despondent. ‘The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me . . . to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners’ (Isa. 61:1 nrsv)—motivation for justice, and hope for those trapped by injustice and inequality. Isaiah also contains prophecies about Jesus, a ‘man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief’ (Isa. 53:3 kjv), and prophecies about the Lord God’s plans to ‘create new heavens and a new earth’ where ‘the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind’ (Isa. 65:17 nrsv). What illumination, what comfort, what inspiration we’d all miss if we neglect to read or listen to the prophet Isaiah!

But we should not forget that Isaiah is an intensely political book. Isaiah prophesied during a time of immense international upheaval. The Assyrian Empire constantly sought to expand its territory by invading other countries, drowning those countries’ inhabitants and land in a tsunami of violence and bloodshed. Smaller nations could not defend themselves; they couldn’t stand against the Assyrian armies. And one by one, they were defeated, swallowed whole by the insatiable Assyrian monstrosity. It is against this backdrop that Isaiah prophesied.

This is where today’s reading from Isaiah 30 comes in. At first glance, it looks a little obscure: all this talk about plans and alliances and lionesses and horses and so on. But the political scene underlying the book of Isaiah as a whole helps us to understand what’s going on. The Assyrian Empire had already done away with the northern kingdom of Israel and was now banging on the door of Judah, the southern kingdom. Judah was a small nation and would not have been able to defend itself effectively against the Assyrians. And so the leaders of Judah thought the most obvious thing to do, the best thing to do, would be to ask Egypt, to the southwest, to help them repel the Assyrian invaders: to make a united stand against a common enemy, fight together, pool resources. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Practical, sensible; obvious.

Isaiah doesn’t think so. In our reading today, we see Isaiah railing against the people, or perhaps more specifically the people’s leaders, denouncing their decision to make a deal with Egypt. In verses one to seven, we see Judah attempting to forge an alliance with Egypt, despite Isaiah’s warning that the Egyptians are no longer the military force of old. ‘Egypt’s help is worthless and empty,’ Isaiah prophesies; Egypt is ‘“Rahab who sits still”,’ a once-mighty beast who has been cut down to size, all bark and no bite. Any alliance with Egypt is sure to be a waste of time, given the power and size of the Assyrian juggernaut.

Even so, precisely what is Isaiah’s problem here? Assyria may well end up destroying the combined armies of Judah and Egypt, but isn’t it better to take a stand against oppression than simply to give in? Wouldn’t it better for them to take matters into their own hands rather than let the Assyrians march all over them? Surely Isaiah wouldn’t want his own people and their allies wiped from the face of the earth without a fight?

Well, maybe not. But Isaiah objects to a deal with Egypt for one simple reason: the Lord hadn’t told Judah to do this! In fact, the Lord had told them quite the opposite: Judah was not to turn to Egypt for military assistance. Instead, Judah was to trust in the Lord alone for salvation. Verse fifteen:

For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel:
In returning and rest you shall be saved;
in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.

In other words, says the Lord, don’t be afraid of the Assyrians, don’t be worried about what the Assyrians might do to you; just get on with your lives, says the Lord, and trust me.

But—and I do sympathise with them—the people couldn’t do this. They couldn’t wait for the Lord to do something and so tried to take matters into their own hands. The people trusted their leaders to negotiate a good deal to ensure the security and prosperity of the land. But things didn’t work out this way. In the end, only the Lord’s direct intervention prevented Judah from total devastation. You can read about this in Isaiah 36–37 and 2 Kings 18–19 if you wish!

photo from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/extinction-rebellion-protests-scientists-climate-change-london-amsterdam-a9154336.html
That’s the history lesson over; but what relevance does all this have for us in a week when Brexit and Extinction Rebellion and the Turkish attacks on Syria have dominated the news? First, let’s be clear: it would be all too easy to take individual verses from this passage and apply them to our current political situation; easy, but simplistic. It is too simplistic to take, say, verse twelve, with its talk of putting trust in ‘oppression and deceit,’ and make some kind of connection, justified or otherwise, to the Prime Minister or any other world leader. We need to be careful—even as I need to be careful right now—when using the Bible to interpret current events, otherwise we might end up glorifying our own political views while demonising those of others. Whatever similarities or resonances there are between international politics then and international politics now, we simply cannot extract seemingly relevant verses from the Bible and slap them across the face of whichever global player we dislike most.

The key here, I think, lies in the fact that Judah sought Egypt’s help in defiance of the Lord’s command to wait for the Lord to act. ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved’—not by making deals with military powers. ‘In quietness and in trust shall be your strength’—not by panicked activism or reliance on Judah’s own political nous or resources. This command to wait and do nothing was a challenge to the people of Judah, not least because the most terrifying of foreign powers was breathing hot air down their necks, chomping at the bit to charge in and devour them frenziedly. But waiting and doing nothing was precisely what the Lord requested of God’s people at that time.

At that time . . . but not now, perhaps? Surely now it’s time to take a stand against those who abuse democracy, against those whose businesses and lifestyles threaten the future of our planet, against those who thrive on the misery and ill-fortune of others! Let’s stand up to our leaders when necessary; let’s break the finger bones of the corrupt and the powerful when their grip begins to tighten around the necks of the poor and powerless; let’s fight inequality and injustice and prejudice with all our might, so far as we are able. Let’s do it! All this is surely what any self-aware and empathetic citizen of this world should be fighting for, right?

Yes! But let’s remember that Christians are not just citizens of this world. The apostle Paul says ‘our citizenship is in heaven’ (Phil. 3:20), and Jesus himself encourages us to pray for God’s kingdom to come so that God’s will is ‘done, on earth as in heaven’ (Mt. 6:10). Indeed, in our Gospel reading today, from Matthew 6, Jesus tells us to ‘strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness’. This is our priority as Christians: to proclaim the good news that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and was raised to life (1 Cor. 15:3-4); to make disciples of all nations (Mt. 28:19). What this means in practice will vary, of course, from person to person, and it’s up to each one of us here today to discern what God is calling us to do in order to expand God’s kingdom. The body of Christ has many parts and we don’t all need to do precisely the same thing.

But what does this have to do with Isaiah 30? Have I been sidetracked? I don’t think so. A few moments ago, I said that there is no direct comparison between the political situation in ancient Judah and our own present situation. But I do think God’s challenge to Judah then is potentially a challenge to us now. And what is this challenge? To recognise our strength and security are found in nothing and no-one else but God alone. Judah tried to make a deal with a neighbour to defend itself against a common enemy, but left the Lord out of the picture. And there is always a danger for us to do likewise, to make political gestures and protest against corruption and abusive power while forgetting that God has not called us to construct a utopia, but to grow God’s kingdom. We can build a better tomorrow, I’m sure of it; but only God can birth—and, in Christ, has birthed—the age to come. Salvation, truly transformative salvation, is from the Lord alone.

The Lord provides
What else can we say? How about this: If we listen carefully, in both Isaiah 30 and in Matthew 6, we can hear God say, ‘Trust me.’ Despite the Assyrian presence on their doorstep, the people of Judah were told to do nothing other than trust in the Lord. And in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells us not to worry about what we’ll eat or drink or wear, because, he says, God our heavenly Father will give us what we need to live faithfully as disciples. As counterintuitive as it appears, we need not worry hopelessly or helplessly about the world or society in which we live. There are things we can do to improve the world around us; sometimes we are the answers to our own prayers. But some things only God can do, and many social changes can and will come about because God’s Spirit is at work when Christians like us—citizens of heaven, remember—when Christians like us act in Christ’s name for the good of this world. And so the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ says to us: ‘I am building my kingdom, despite the confusion and instability you see all around you. Don’t worry about tomorrow; trust me today and every day. I, the Lord, wait to be gracious to you; I will rise up to show mercy to you. For I, the Lord, am a God of justice; blessed are all you who wait for me.’

Saturday, 24 August 2019

Jesus is a Problem

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-35120965
Jesus really is a problem. He is not acceptable to the rich because he is poor. He is not acceptable to the poor because he has no scheme to milk the rich. He is not acceptable to Gentiles because he is a Jew. He is not acceptable to Jews because he is favorably disposed to Samaritans and Gentiles. He is not acceptable to women because he is a male. He is not acceptable to males because he insists on the dignity of females. He is not acceptable to religious people because he is not conventionally pious. He is not acceptable to the unconventional and the radicals because he insists on total obedience to God. He is not acceptable to the comfortable because he wanders around as a vagabond teacher. He is not acceptable to vagabond teachers because he goes to synagogue every Saturday and insists that the classical institutions of Judaism really were given to the people by God.
In the light of this very general observation about the offense of Jesus, the one rock-like piece of information we have about him is surely correct: Jesus was offensive enough to a lot of people to be crucified ignominiously.

William J. Abraham, Divine Agency and Divine Action, Volume III: Systematic Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 72