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?

Friday, 23 February 2018

Book Review: Matthew Curtis Fleischer, The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence

Matthew Curtis Fleischer, The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence (Oklahoma City, OK: Epic Octavius the Triumphant, 2017)

I am grateful to the author for supplying me with an advanced reader copy of his book.

The Old Testament appears to present its readers with a God who condones, endorses, and even commands violence. In The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence, Matthew Curtis Fleischer argues that despite appearances to the contrary, the Old Testament makes it clear as early as the opening chapters of Genesis that violence (understood as ‘the use of physical force against a person or his property’, p. 7) does not have a place in the good world God created. While Fleischer acknowledges that there are times when God does command the people of Israel to commit violent acts, these are limited to the pre-monarchical period when Israel was required to drive the other nations from Canaan as part of their settlement of the promised land. After this, Fleischer contends, the people were not intended to engage in hostilities again, and certainly not commanded to indulge in nationalistic expansionism. Instead, Israel was called to uphold the Mosaic law and show itself to be a nation entirely dependent on God for its security and prosperity rather than on treaties, its military, or imperialistic pretensions.

Fleischer’s case makes much of the notion of incremental ethical revelation, the idea that God revealed God’s ethical standards for Israel (and through Israel, humanity) in stages. Ideas about nonviolence in a violent world would likely have been rejected, Fleischer explains, and so God tolerated certain forms of violence for a time for the sake of purging impurity from the people and judgement on other nations, all the while leading God’s people to recognise and accept that violence has no legitimate place in the world. This incremental revelation about acting nonviolently eventually finds its ultimate fulfilment in Jesus, who taught and practised nonviolence and expected his followers to do the same. It is a compelling position, and Fleischer defends it confidently, clearly, and comprehensively.

However, while the idea of incremental ethical revelation is persuasive, it does condition Fleischer’s approach to reading the Old Testament in a particular way. Fleischer is correct to observe that the Old Testament books are essentially snapshots of God captured at different points during Israel’s history; but his particular construal means the later texts must somehow enhance the earlier portraits of God’s relationship with Israel, with the further implication that what could be called a chronological reading of the Old Testament (where later texts are more accurate or ethically responsible than earlier texts) must take precedence over a canonical one (where later texts might come before or be incorporated into earlier texts). This makes it possible to say that much, if not all, of the violence in the Old Testament is actually not commanded by God at all, but that (to put it crudely) the writers of the Old Testament, shaped by a violent environment, presumed God to have commanded it. Admittedly, there is something persuasive about this, but it does not seem to do justice to the canonicity of Scripture, especially when compared to Fleischer’s reading of the New Testament, which does not seem to deploy the same hermeneutical framework and tends, in my view, to downplay those New Testament verses that do suggest some sort of violence.

This reservation aside, Fleischer’s case is strong, and, as noted above, he defends it rigorously and well. The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence appears to have been written with a gun-toting, Trump-supporting US audience in mind, but much of what Fleischer writes for his compatriots translates easily into other national contexts. Stylistically, there are too many instances where Fleischer makes his point sufficiently well but then supports it unnecessarily by quoting from two or more scholars for support. Moreover, while I can appreciate the need for thoroughness, the final few chapters seemed less focussed than the earlier ones. Taken together, these two elements make the book feel unnecessarily lengthy. Nonetheless, The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence is certainly worth reading, and I have no hesitations in recommending it as a helpful study especially for Christians who desire an in-depth but non-technical account of how violence in the Old Testament can be interpreted.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Exit, Pursued by a Psalmist: Stage Directions in the Psalms

Every so often, I come across an aside or a comment that for some unfathomable reason delights me. Here’s the latest:

[Psalm 87:7] is by any reckoning a very strange verse. The suggestion has even been made that it is not part of the poem, as such, at all, but a rubric or stage direction: ‘At this point the singers and dancers will perform All my Fountains are in You’! As if to balance that, verse 1 looks more like a title than a first line. Literally, it reads simply ‘His foundation on the holy mountains’.

Michael Wilcock, The Message of Psalms 73–150: Songs for the People of God. The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: IVP, 2001), p.58

I’ve not found this particular suggestion about 87:7 in any of the commentaries on the Psalms I have easy access to, but I’d love to know who originally suggested it – unless, of course, this is Wilcock being modest about his own take on the verse.