Sunday, 29 March 2020

When the Storm Rages On: A Sermon on Matthew 14:22-33

As many local churches are doing at the moment, my church is pre-recording its Sunday service and uploading it to YouTube. This week I’m preaching, which means, given the current circumstances, you can find my mug online, as well as finding the sermon text reproduced here. I’m not going to provide a link to the online version, though!

Psalm 77:1-20; Matthew 14:22-33

‘Jesus Walks on Water’, by Laura James, 1998
In the past couple of decades, here in the United Kingdom, bombs have exploded on London Transport, economic injustice has led to the rise of food banks, political wrangling has resulted in Brexit—and now the coronavirus, COVID-19, has us all shrouded by its shadow. We live in uncertain times. All times are uncertain, of course, but with the spread of this virus and its disruption of our everyday life, our current time, today, appears far more uncertain than anything most of us have ever known. It could well be that we as a society, as a nation, as a planet will be talking about this coronavirus and its effects for years to come. Is the current pandemic going to define who we are for the foreseeable future? Time will tell.

Of course, every generation, every society, has its own defining moments. For the ancient Israelites, the exodus was a major one. The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt for centuries until the Lord used Moses and his brother Aaron to rescue them. And the way the Lord rescued his people—a series of extraordinary events culminating in the Red Sea parting to ensure the Israelites’ escape—was so mind-blowing that it etched itself onto the collective memory of the people. It became a defining moment for all subsequent generations. To this day, Jews around the world remember the astonishing events of the night the Lord rescued the people of Israel from Egypt.

This is also why so many Old Testament passages, including today’s psalm, Psalm 77, make use of exodus imagery when asking the Lord for help.

I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord;
      I will remember your wonders of old. . . .
With your strong arm you redeemed your people,
      the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. . . .
When the waters saw you, O God,
      when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
      the very deep trembled. . . .
Your way was through the sea,
      your path, through the mighty waters;
      yet your footprints were unseen.
You led your people like a flock
      by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

A few weeks ago, Janice preached on Matthew 8, where Jesus calms the storm. You’ll recall that the disciples were literally all at sea in the middle of a storm, but Jesus commanded the storm to stop, which it did. As Janice said, the natural message for us to take from this is that Jesus can calm the storms of our circumstances as well as the storms in our hearts. Jesus brings that calming peace we all need when the storms of life threaten to capsize and drown us. It’s a good message, a vital message, for us all at the moment.

But what happens when Jesus doesn’t calm the storm? What happens when the storm rages on all around us, when our fears and anxieties about the coronavirus or about anything else have such a grip on our hearts and minds that all our thoughts and emotions are mixed up, churning away in our stomachs? What happens when we pray for people to get well, for people not to lose their jobs or homes, for food supplies not to run out, and, above all at the moment, for the coronavirus to stop spreading and die out—and still the disease spreads, knocking down anyone who gets in its way? What then? Enough people are praying for these things, so why is God not doing anything about it? As Psalm 77 puts it, has the Lord’s ‘steadfast love ceased forever? . . . Has God forgotten to be gracious?’ It’s all so different now, the psalmist complains. God worked wonders in the past; God marched ‘through the mighty waters’ with footprints unseen; so why isn’t God doing anything now?

Today’s reading from Matthew offers us some encouragement and hope. As Janice reminded us a few weeks ago, Jesus had already calmed a storm to save the disciples from a watery grave; but in today’s reading from Matthew 14, the disciples are once again in stormy seas. Verses 24-25 suggest to me that this situation was not quite as bad as the earlier one, but it still seems pretty full on. And no doubt the disciples, some of whom were experienced fishermen and so used to sailing in choppy waters, were cold, wet, fed up, and absolutely knackered. No wonder, then, that they freaked out when they saw a human figure approaching them in spite of the atrocious weather. ‘It’s a ghost!’ What else would they have thought? The disciples weren’t idiots; they knew people couldn’t walk on water; and so, quite naturally, they were terrified.

We read that Jesus tells the disciples who he is straightaway; I suppose he didn’t want them to be scared, and certainly not scared of him. And so he says, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’

The Bible translation we use obscures something important here. Jesus isn’t just saying, ‘Don’t worry—it’s me, folks!’ The actual words are ‘I am’—and this simple phrase again recalls the exodus story, where the Lord reveals himself to Moses using the words ‘I am’. It’s no coincidence. The God who called Moses and freed the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt by walking them through the Red Sea and treading with footsteps unseen is also the God made flesh in Jesus Christ and walking towards the frightened disciples on the stormy sea. ‘Take heart, I am; don’t be afraid.’ The disciples saw Jesus and heard God.

But notice: the storm is still going on. Whereas earlier in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus calmed the storm, here, in Matthew 14, Jesus doesn’t calm the storm but lets it rage on. Jesus’s concern is to comfort the disciples with his presence. And that is enough, it seems, for these men.

But is it enough for us today, especially given the coronavirus storm all around us? Well, yes, it is enough, for Jesus is with us now and always, if only we would listen for his comforting words and accept his tender embrace. But no, it is not enough, for we know Jesus is the God who can command storms to stop as well as walk on squally seas. So why does Jesus calm some storms but not others?

I’d be lying if I said I knew. Jesus is Lord, not me. I simply need to remain faithful and committed to Jesus, trusting that he knows what he’s doing even when things all around me are rough. Perhaps this is why Matthew includes this little story about Peter. It seems Peter wants to be like Jesus, walking on the water; and Jesus commends Peter for this, calling him forwards. Peter starts well: presumably his eyes are fixed on Jesus, trusting that the Lord has everything in hand. But then, suddenly, perhaps realising the absurdity of what he’s doing, Peter loses focus, allows the storm to overwhelm him, and begins to sink.

‘Lord, save me!’

I’m sure we can all identify with Peter here, and perhaps even more so at the moment. The obvious message here is not to let the surrounding winds and waves and rains obscure our vision of Jesus.

But what else can we say? First of all, if we’re wondering where God is at the moment, or what God is doing, or why God is taking so long to do anything decisive about the coronavirus or anything else that might be bothering us, then let’s be aware that these sorts of questions have always troubled God’s people. And we don’t have to put on some kind of spiritual gloss on our worries. If you are scared or anxious or angry—tell God! So many psalms have a real go at God, almost demanding to know why God isn’t doing anything about anything, especially when God has done spectacular things in the past. Remember Psalm 77, verse three: ‘I think of God, and I moan’. Many psalms, like Psalm 77, are a gift, helping us pray when things aren’t right and God seems far away.

Second, when Jesus doesn’t calm our storms, he is certainly there with us, for he is Lord over everything, including the coronavirus, and comforts us and encourages us with his words and presence. We don’t know why he allows some storms to continue while others go away quickly; that’s something each of us needs to wrestle with for ourselves; but we can trust that God in Christ is with us by God’s Holy Spirit, encouraging us with God’s presence so we needn’t be frightened and terrified.

Third, Jesus’s faithfulness to us in our storms means that we can be faithful to Jesus, that we can walk on water even as he walks on the chaotic sea. Jesus still calls us to be his disciples, even though the coronavirus and the lockdown have radically changed the way we follow him. And whether we sink or stay upright is up to us, though Jesus is, of course, ready to grab us should we lose heart.

And finally, notice that we don’t know how far Jesus was from the boat; he may have been very close; he may have been quite distant, though within the disciples’ earshot. And because of this, we don’t know how far Peter walked on stormy waters. It may have been a step or two, or it may have been far longer, even quite a few metres. My point is this: we don’t know how long storms will last or how far we will have to walk in them. But we do know that when Jesus finally gets into the boat with us, the winds and the waves and the rains will cease, and all our fears will give way to worship.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

A New Study Bible: NIV Bible Speaks Today

Within the past week, a new study Bible has been released into the wild: NIV Bible Speaks Today.

You may already be familiar with the Bible Speaks Today series, which largely contains expositions or quasi-commentaries on each of the biblical books. The NIV Bible Speaks Today volume takes selected highlights of each individual volume in the series and edits them into a conventional study Bible package, as well as including questions for group or personal reflection. It’s a very good idea and the Bible itself is well produced. My faux-leather edition looks and feels lovely. I’ve always wanted a large ‘bendy’ Bible!

Why am I plugging this? Well, I was one of the four content editors working on the Old Testament under the leadership of Debra Reid (Spurgeon’s College). Our task was to read through the Bible Speaks Today books assigned to us to find the aforementioned selected highlights, edit them into ‘panels’, and then devise the also-aforementioned study questions. It was quite challenging at times, especially writing questions that would be helpful, but I enjoyed working on it and am pleased to see it published. In case you’re wondering, I worked on Leviticus, Ezra, Job, Psalms (jointly with Debra), Proverbs, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Nahum, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi—quite a few, really.

So if you’re on the lookout for a new Bible or a new study Bible in particular, or if you are a preacher or a small group leader in a church, I can recommend NIV Bible Speaks Today, and I do so wholeheartedly. (Apologies if the above and below photos are not especially clear, but at least you now know what Derek Tidball thinks about mould in Leviticus.)

Monday, 9 March 2020

Learning about God

On the rare occasion when I teach a group or a class, I tend to impart (relevant) information and invite the learners to ask questions as I go along. Also, I refrain from giving my opinion or indicating my stance unless specifically requested to do so; I see my role as showing learners what positions are out there and their developmental history, and to show learners how to navigate these in some way. This approach usually works and, as a tutor, it’s good when I see the light bulb moment in learners’ eyes as a switch is flicked, and especially pleasing when I sense that the flash has illuminated something that has been troubling a learner for some time. Theology is far from a dry, academic discipline when it addresses questions of ultimate importance in a person’s relationship with God.

But sometimes this impart-and-invite approach doesn’t work. The learners are simply there because they have to be there, perhaps as part of some wider training that they’re doing, and so don’t see the value in the sessions. (Or perhaps I’m just a shockingly poor teacher. One person’s written feedback from a class I took a while ago said, ‘Terry was very poor. Please don’t use him again.’ True, I was inexperienced and probably pitched the session at the wrong level—but, really: ‘Please don’t use him again’? It still hurts, twelve years or so on. Anyway, I digress.) Why is this? I’m going to quote at some length from Adam Neder’s recent book, Theology as a Way of Life:

Many students enter our classes seeking various forms of safety, security, and control. They want a teacher who will offer them sanctuary from the various threats inherent to Christian existence, someone who will alleviate the difficulty by reducing some of the risks associated with believing in God. This desire takes many forms, but two seem especially common.
The first is a search for the security of theological certainty. When confused by the chaos of contemporary life, caught in patterns of doubt, threatened by the existence of intelligent unbelievers, unnerved by the complexity and diversity of the church’s own history of theological reflection, or for countless other reasons, many students seek refuge in a teacher who will tell them what to think. They want an expert who will provide them with definitive theological solutions, someone who will tie up the loose ends and alleviate the various pressures they are experiencing. The last thing these students want is a teacher who requires them to make their own theological decisions—a teacher through whom they come to realize that Christianity is even more demanding than they realized.
For other students, the desire for security takes the mirror-opposite form. Rather than unreservedly committing themselves to a single teacher or tradition, they embrace the safety of ceaseless uncertainty. For these students, theological education becomes a process of endless deliberation. Forever reading, thinking, and talking, they never get around to making decisions. Theological reflection and conversation become substitutes for theological commitment. Protected by the fact that there is always more to learn, another angle to consider, a new position to evaluate, these students retreat into a state of permanently suspended judgment in which they are ‘always being instructed and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth’ (2 Tim. 3:7). While superficially different, these two outlooks share a common unwillingness to embrace the risks associated with Christian existence.

Adam Neder, Theology as a Way of Life: On Teaching and Learning the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019), 104–105

It is admittedly easier to be told what to believe—hence the appeal of fundamentalisms, I guess—and there’s a pseudo-profundity and/or a false humility in describing oneself as, say, a seeker or on a journey towards the truth. But Neder’s response to these outlooks emphasises the need for commitment: choices must be made, decisions taken. ‘Real theological education is a process of continual confrontation with God,’ Neder writes (p. 108).

Neder writes from the perspective of someone who teaches theology at university level, but I think the substance of the passage I’ve quoted can also apply to sermons and responses to sermons. When I preach, I want to make a difference to the people in the congregation: to inspire, to encourage, to challenge, all as seems appropriate to me on the basis of the biblical passages I use. But I also can’t help but wonder who simply wants to be told what the passage means without any flowery elaboration; who doesn’t want to know anything substantive about what the passage means as such but is only after ‘practical application’ (‘What it means for me today’); who doesn’t want to be told what the passage means because it might contradict their preferred reading of the passages; and who would prefer not to have a sermon at all. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but teaching and preaching flatten me sometimes . . .

Theology as a Way of Life is a very good book and I’d recommend it as important reading to anyone who teaches theology in any context. Those learning theology will also benefit from it. Neder emphasises throughout that theology is something done in a relationship with the living God, and that includes theology done in a classroom.

Thursday, 5 March 2020

Book Review: Julie Canlis, A Theology of the Ordinary

Julie Canlis, A Theology of the Ordinary, 2nd ed. (Wenatchee, MA: Godspeed Press, 2018)

Certain strands of Christianity thrive, it seems, on excitement. When I came to faith in the late 1980s, immediately I dived enthusiastically into the world of Christian paperbacks (The Cross and the Switchblade! God’s Smuggler! No Compromise!), Contemporary Christian Music, and Chick tracts, all of which conspired to make it quite clear to my impressionable teenage mind that following Jesus was (or should be) an ever-burning fire of evangelism that, supported by signs and wonders and evidential apologetics, would lead Satan-blinded wretches (i.e. my family and friends) to mass repentance and, importantly, revival. Of course, revival never happened, despite my best attempts at spreading the good news. By the time I started university in the mid-1990s, I had toned the evangelistic efforts down a notch, and these days I merely want to get on with my life as a genuinely faithful Christian but without the added pressure of being responsible for billions of hellbound souls. Nonetheless, the idea that Christianity is or should be exciting or radical or passionate is something that still has its foot in the door of my brain. Old presumptions die hard.

A Theology of the Ordinary is the perfect antidote to adrenalised Christianity. Julie Canlis opens her slim book (sixty-eight postcard-sized pages) by noting how many recent books on Christian discipleship appear to presuppose and encourage a journey of spiritual discovery and intensity while downplaying the fact that discipleship for most people is conducted in the workplace or at home and without clear-cut opportunities to mount a soapbox and orate the gospel to the dying masses. Canlis does not scorn or reject the need for passionate discipleship, but rather balances this against an equal need to recognise the triune God’s presence in the everyday. As she expresses it, ‘A robust trinitarian theology of the ordinary will not undermine being passionate or sold-out but will ground and purify it’ (p. 3).

The majority of A Theology of the Ordinary relays what Canlis calls ‘the trinitarian story’, looking at creation, redemption, and the new creation, but all with a focus on how these affect the mundane. Much of the chapter on creation outlines the increasingly popular idea that God’s good creation is God’s temple, with humanity serving as priests within it. This notion provides a framework for discussing how Jesus redeems and recreates (fallen) humanity in and through his own life—‘Each stage of His “ordinary” human life was crucial to the atonement’ (p. 30)—and for a series of observations on how the Holy Spirit draws us to the Father through Christ (or places us in Christ to know the Father) in the world. Canlis also provides as part of these three chapters the relevant counter-stories—Gnosticism, Docetism, and Platonism—that she believes militate against a truly Christian portrayal of ordinary life. Her inclusion of these counter-stories is effective and demonstrates precisely why good theology is necessary for the Church. Each chapter closes with questions for further reflection, which makes this book an ideal read for church home groups and the like.

It seems fitting to end this review with Canlis’s own concluding words:

When we live our lives as ordinary persons [in Christ], we become an extraordinary picture to the world of what we were intended to be: God and humanity united together in heart and purpose. (p. 66)

Thank you, Jon, for giving me a copy of this book!

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

On Being Faithful in Prayer

On most mornings, once my son has left for school and my wife for work, I sit at the collapsible table that is my desk, open my prayer book and Bible, and commit the day to God.

Sometimes this simple act of piety provides a framework for the day. Saying Morning Prayer connects me to the wider world and reminds me of the catholicity of the Church. As I pray, the liturgy helps me to appreciate that I am part of a body transcending space and time: the Holy Spirit somehow incorporates me, as well as countless others, into the body of the risen Jesus, and in this way we all are involved in God’s oversight of the world. I am coming to believe that saying Morning Prayer verges on the profound—not because I am saying it, but because God has given it as a gift to be said.

But sometimes, many times, saying Morning Prayer is simply nothing more than me vocalising words on a page as my mind wanders. Today, for example, I read Psalm 44, out loud (as is my custom), but I don’t recall much of what I read. The ancient words, which I believe are divinely inspired, have little impact on a mind that is thinking about writing a blog post about Morning Prayer (ta-da!), or wondering if I can slot in an hour or so of Fifa 20 later in the day, or speculating as to whether the home shopping delivery will come on time (with a free sample of COVID-19 slipped in among the branded cherry-flavoured, sugar-free cola).

Part of the problem, if problem it is, I suppose is familiarity. I’m well acquainted with both the words of Scripture and the words of Common Worship: Daily Prayer. To be sure, when I properly study the Bible, like I do when I’m preparing for a sermon, I always learn new things. Always. But often during my more intentionally devotional moments, in those moments after I’ve asked the Lord to open my lips so my mouth can proclaim his praise, the words are just marks on a page, sounds in the air, all distanced from my heart and soul and strength and mind.

For much of my life, I have felt guilty about this disconnection. Shouldn’t prayer be stirring, Bible reading invigorating, praise heartfelt, and interceding compassionate and sincere? I suppose all these can be so, and I’m sure they are for many people. But really, none of these practices has to electrify me or be thrilling in and of itself. If I truly commit to the great high priesthood of Jesus, I cannot suppose the effectiveness or otherwise of any of these things in any way depends on me. These days, I’m content simply to read the words of the liturgy—sometimes genuinely inhabiting the words, but mostly standing outside them in greater or lesser degrees of proximity—for I’m finally beginning to understand that faithfulness and commitment in prayer takes priority over novelty and excitement.

Monday, 17 February 2020

False Prophets and Christian Discipleship: A Sermon on Matthew 7:13-27

The church where I worship is going through Matthew’s Gospel at the moment (though not quite in line with the lectionary), and I preached yesterday. As is my custom, I thought I’d reproduce it here for your amusement. Interestingly (perhaps), while preparing the sermon, I came across two things that could be filed under ‘weird Christian beliefs’: grave sucking and the Kansas City Chiefs revival prophecy. So even though I’m far from convinced my sermon constitutes a landmark moment in homiletical insight, at least part of the message I tried to convey surely remains valid.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 7:13-27

I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live. (Deut 30:19)

These words come towards the end of Moses’s long speech to the Israelites as they prepare to enter the promised land. Moses has just reminded them of everything that had happened since the Israelites escaped slavery in Egypt. Moses has also outlined the various decrees and laws the Lord has given them to live by. By living according to these decrees and laws, the Israelites would mark themselves out as the Lord’s people. All the nearby nations would see how the Israelites lived and know that the Lord lived with them. It wouldn’t be easy to live according to the Lord’s decrees and laws, of course, but neither would it be impossible. What the people of Israel needed to know and believe and accept was that loving the Lord and obeying the Lord’s commandments meant life. ‘Choose life,’ said Moses. ‘Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.’

Fifteen hundred years or so later, we see in Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus is doing pretty much the same thing as Moses. Jesus has been speaking to his disciples and the crowds, teaching them the meaning of the law and the prophets, and raising the bar for life as God’s people. In our reading from Matthew today, we join Jesus as he wraps up his talk. ‘Enter through the narrow gate,’ he says. Hear the echo: ‘Choose life,’ says Moses; ‘Enter,’ says Jesus; ‘enter through the narrow gate, the gate that leads to life.’

This isn’t quite what Jesus had in mind . . .
Yes, enter. Most of us are here today because we have entered through the narrow gate. And having entered, we are now all at different stages along the road that leads to life. But it really isn’t an easy road to travel on. The road goes up and down, round and round, on and on, bump after bump after bump. Sometimes the road feels so smooth and hazard-free that we’ll take our hands off the wheel and crash over the edge. Sometimes the road is covered in fog so thick we can’t see where we’re going and feel it safest to pull over and wait until things clear. Sometimes we forget where we’re going, or even why we’re going, and lose confidence in the compass or the maps or the satnavs we’re using. And sometimes we even wonder why we bothered to head out in the first place!

Nonetheless, the journey is worth it. We have entered through the narrow gate, and we are on the road, because by God’s Holy Spirit we know and believe and accept that this is the way, the only way, to find the life God has promised—the life of the age to come, the kingdom of heaven.

But why is the road to life so hard? The obvious thing to say here is that this road is simply not as accessible or as well travelled as the other road, the wider road that leads to destruction. However, Jesus also warns us of roadblocks or dead ends along the way that may prevent us from ever reaching the destination: false prophets. Verse fifteen: ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.’

What is a false prophet? Jesus doesn’t tell us; and if he has anyone in mind, he certainly isn’t naming names. But when Jesus refers to false prophets again later in Matthew’s Gospel, he suggests that these are people who somehow mislead and deceive God’s people, causing us to lose our way. False prophets mislead God’s people, telling us what we want to hear rather than what we need to hear. False prophets tell us that there are shortcuts on the road to life, that the road is actually not all that difficult to drive on, that we can improve our performance and streak ahead. False prophets tell us that the road should be smooth and the journey plain sailing, and that any potholes we hit is due to our own dangerous or careless driving. False prophets tell us that getting to the destination isn’t that important—what really matters is the journey itself.

But Jesus says the destination is important and the road hard.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t tell us to go hunting for false prophets but just to look out for them. They can be recognised by their fruits. Notice, too, that Jesus doesn’t tell us to judge them or condemn them. Verses twenty-one to twenty-three say that the judgement of false prophets is Jesus’s responsibility. We are to look out for false prophets by discerning their bad fruits, but only the Lord can make that final judgement where he says to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’

So what are we to make of all this?

First of all, we need to look out for anyone who wants to push us off the road to life through deception and half-truths. But the way to discern when someone is nudging or shoving us off the road is to know how the road is marked out and where the road finishes—and as clich├ęd as it sounds, we know this through reading the Bible, through meeting together, and through understanding what is central to the Christian faith. When we don’t know what the Bible says or how to read it well, or when we don’t know what the Christian faith teaches or why some of its more technical ideas matter, we will be open to all kinds of deception and half-truths that could block us on the road to life, or even knock us off it for good.

Second, if it’s fair to say that false prophets are those who mislead God’s people into thinking that the road to life is smooth and scenic, then it is also fair to say that we have a tendency to mislead ourselves into thinking that the road to life is smooth and scenic. We can trick ourselves into thinking that Christianity is little more than a moral framework or a system of ethics, no better and no worse than any other way of living a good life. But if we treat Christianity in this sort of way, rather than as a faith commitment to the risen Jesus, who is Lord over all, then it is possible that we have become the false prophets Jesus warned us about.

Let me be clear: Jesus isn’t warning us about false prophets to show us how gullible or how prone to self-deception we can be. Nor is Jesus intending for us to worry that he will deny knowing us on the day of judgement and toss us away. Remember Paul’s words from his letter to the Romans: ‘There is . . . no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Rom. 8:1). No, Jesus’s point, as verses twenty-four to twenty-seven show us, is to encourage us—to encourage us to hear his words and to act on them; and in doing so, we will withstand the coming storm of judgement.

And so this is what it all comes down to: hearing what Jesus says and obeying his commands. The way not to be deceived by false prophets is to hear what Jesus says and obey his commands. The way not to deceive ourselves is to hear what Jesus says and obey his commands.

Is it all really this simple? Yes . . . and no! The message is simple, but its outworking difficult. Jesus says the road to life is hard; life as a Christian is hard; Christian discipleship is hard. Anyone who tries to tell us otherwise is, frankly, misguided or even deluded. But as hard as the Christian life can be, remember: this is the road that leads to the life of the age to come—and one day, driven by God’s Spirit, we will arrive at the destination that God in Christ has secured for us, if we are brave enough and faithful enough to act on Jesus’s words.

So if you have entered through the narrow gate, if you are travelling on this hardest of roads, then you have chosen well, for you have chosen life!

Monday, 3 February 2020

Book Notice: Providence: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Account

Mark Elliott has already published two books dealing with providence, and a third is due to be published by Baker Academic in April 2020. Here’s the blurb:

This book by a leading scholar of Christian theology and exegesis is a capstone of years of research on the history and theology of the doctrine of providence. Addressing a topic of perennial interest in Christian theology, Mark Elliott offers a constructive account of the doctrine of providence and shows that, contrary to received opinion, the Bible has a lot to say about providence as a distinct doctrine within the wider scope of God’s acts of salvation.

Elliott explains that providence operates outside the range of knowledge and full comprehensibility, eluding faith and transcending revelation. Therefore, readers must look for traces of God’s action in the stories and philosophies of the biblical authors, which appear in the biblical corpus in such themes as the hand of God, the face of God, the kingdom, the plan of God, blessing, life, breath, enduring order, judgment, protection, and the hidden God. Elliott explores these themes in such a way that the entirety of the Bible across both Testaments bears witness to the theme of providence. He concludes by showing how the findings of his analysis speak to the concerns of systematic and practical theologians.

1. Is Providence Topical or Even Biblical?
2. Alternative Themes to Providence in the Bible
3. Providence and Divine Action, Viewed Biblically
4. Finding Providence across the Old Testament Genres
5. Providence as Set Forth in the New Testament
6. Systematic Considerations in the Light of Biblical Theology

I had mixed thoughts about The Heart of Biblical Theology and Providence Perceived, but Providence: ABHTA looks to be a more constructive piece. I shall look forward to getting this in due course.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Book Notice: What is Jesus Doing?

Here’s a newly published book that promises much, especially if you want to know what Jesus is up to these days: What is Jesus Doing? God’s Activity in the Life and Work of the Church, edited by Edwin Chr. van Driel. The blurb:

Jesus is present here and now, Christians have always affirmed. But how are we to understand his present activity in a challenging, post-Christian context? In what ways is he at work in our congregational worship, pastoral care, preaching—and even our board meetings?
At a time when many feel uncertain about the future of the church, What Is Jesus Doing? brings together leading thinkers in pastoral theology, homiletics, liturgical theology, and missiology in a compelling resource for pastors and theologians. Emphasizing the reality of Jesus both as the resurrected, ascended Christ and as present and active today, the contributors consider how to recognize the divine presence and join in what God is already doing in all areas of church ministry.
So why do I say this promises much? Speaking very generally, books on divine action and providence tend to overlook what God is doing in the churches, including in pastoral care and the like. So I think this book has the potential to correct the course, even if only by a degree or two.

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.