Tag Archives: theology

Enough already: you’ve had 40 years!

It is one of my fantasies to hear the following on an interview programme:

“Interviewer: Good morning bishop. I understand you want to talk to us about this report that you are calling a ‘prophetic call to the nation’ on this important issue. First however, I must ask you to clarify something. What is the view of the church on gay sexual relationships?

Bishop: I’m sorry, the church hasn’t got a united view, so I can’t really comment.

Interviewer: So you ask us to accept this report as prophetic, but you are unable to discern the will of God after 40 years on the gay issue. Clearly therefore the report has no credibility – so I won’t ask listeners to waste any of their time on it. You can go now, bishop.”

Whilst the quote: ‘The hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed’ is Milton, not biblical, the thought reflects Zechariah and Ezekiel concern for the uncared people of Israel. And so it is now; the bishops of the Church of England are divided on this issue, so prefer to kick the can down the road than admit they have no ability to make a decision. For how would they decide? They have no agreed basis of authority: they have nothing to which they can appeal that they would admit is the basis on which to make the decision. So they duck and dive – and look ridiculous.

And the implication that a non-Christian can rightly draw is: ‘They don’t know what God says about this, so how can they be confident of ANYTHING?’

A biblical insight

In one passage Jesus commands:

‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do.’ (Matthew 23)

In another Jesus appears to contradict his own teaching by refusing to do what they say:

‘Now when He came into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people confronted Him as He was teaching, and said, “By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?”

But Jesus answered and said to them, “I also will ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things: The baptism of John—where was it from? From heaven or from men?”

And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ we fear the multitude, for all count John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus and said, “We do not know.”

And He said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”’ Matthew 21

The conclusion that we can draw from this is that if our leaders are unwilling to answer a clear question about what they believe is of God, then they have resigned their authority over us, and we have every right to ignore those who fail this test.


The Cape Town drought and the primary lesson of Sodom

One of the arguments which the church has largely stopped even trying to defend is the claim that God actively judges nations today. This is a common-place of the Old Testament: the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is the most blatant example of this, and it is a passing theme in all the major prophets. Amos (cpt 1) starts with a series of judgements of the nations surrounding before bringing his focus onto Israel; a softening up exercise, but one recording God’s condemnation, and plans to punish, gentile nations; it is ironic that many liberal Christians love to quote Amos about social injustice, but would be very twitchy at engaging with the idea that God actually does do judgement.

At first sight the New Testament is less clear on the issue; it’s worth remember though that the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD is foretold as a punishment for the Jews’ rejection of Israel. The book of Revelation presents the judgements on the world as an attempt by God to get their attention; the refrain is ‘they did not repent despite these punishments.

On the whole modern Christianity is allergic to the suggestion. In part this derives from bad theology: ‘how can a God of love bring active destruction on those He loves?’ – a question which the Old Testament struggles with and yet ultimately has no doubts about (e.g. Hosea 11). And it is better for people to hurt now than to end up permanently separated from God. However the bigger problem is that naturalistic explanations of the events that the bible describes as the judgements of God make it problematic to ascribe them to God: the earthquake / drought / invasion happened because of processes that we now understand so it can’t have been God’s work. This is, of course, to miss the way that God works through natural effects, as well as dismissing the ‘butterfly effect’ that means that a minimal intervention by God may have caused these events without it being visible to the outside observer.

The effect however is clear: suggest that a specific event is God’s judgement and you will be laughed at. So we don’t try. Of course part of the problem is that when you turn up AFTER the event and announce that it was God saying something, you have minimal credibility and will be seen as merely trying to pursue your particular agenda; add in a propensity to try and interpret the event as part of an eschatology and you’ve totally lost it.

Biblically the perfect example of the opposite is Elijah’s announcing the drought beforehand, and ending it when the people had changed. Modern attempts are generally unsatisfactory: David Wilkerson’s ‘The Vision’ is a mixed bag, Clifford Hill’s ‘Towards the Dawn’ and ‘The Day comes’ lack specific statements, and what was specific is now painfully long in the tooth, whilst David Pawson’s prediction that the UK will become an Islamic state, whilst still on track, is hard to focus on. Perhaps the biggest problem for the pessimistic prophets is that on the whole things are getting significantly better; internationally poverty is falling rapidly, and in the UK crime levels have declined steeply and in general there have been few major disasters.

Which brings us to the present drought in Cape Town. Amos seems to be unambiguous:

If there is calamity in a city, will not the Lord have done it?….

I also withheld rain from you,
When there were still three months to the harvest.
I made it rain on one city,
I withheld rain from another city.
One part was rained upon,
And where it did not rain the part withered.
So two or three cities wandered to another city to drink water,
But they were not satisfied;
Yet you have not returned to Me,”
Says the Lord.

Amos cpt 3, 4.

On the basis of that, are we justified in following the atheist assumption that the Cape Town situation is just coincidence, or is God trying to get their attention? Is it easier for us to avoid discussion of the truth that God CAN intervene in this way because it can make other arguments about God harder to sustain – or should we be willing to take the hit because people have a right to know? James 3 warns us: ‘let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.’ And note of course that the Cape Town situation DOESN’T imply that they are any worse sinners, given Luke 13’s warning on that.

So where do we go on this? It appears there is a substantial hole in the ministry of the church in warning the world of the judgements that God is proposing to bring:

‘Surely the Lord God does nothing,

Unless He reveals His secret to His servants the prophets.’

Amos 3

Of course we’ve had this hole so long that we don’t know what we are missing, but as the passage in Ezekiel about the watchman that is usually applied to evangelism reminds us: if we fail to warn people and they die in their sins, then God will require their blood of us. (Ezekiel 33).

Ultimately we need to hear from the Lord so that with Amos we can say:

A lion has roared!
Who will not fear?
The Lord God has spoken!
Who can but prophesy?

Amos 3

May God provide us with the prophets that we need to see the church healthy and the world rightly warned.

Verses I’ve never seen before (3)

 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ” (Romans 1)

Paul describes his ministry as being to bring about OBEDIENCE. Not just reconciliation to God, forgiveness of sin, the establishment of the church, but obedience. We don’t do a lot of preaching towards that; when one hears a preacher describing God as ‘desperate’ that we should accept Him. I suspect he’s lost the plot. Jesus’ preaching starts with a call to repentance, and it’s a word that is found throughout the New Testament. We are called to become citizens of God’s kingdom, which implies obeying His laws. Not a popular message, but whatever else the reformation is about, it’s about doing what the bible teaches, not what is fashionable.

Note of course this is NOT a call to moral perfection for the sake of it; it is the obedience that derives from faith because God is worth obeying because of what He has done for us, not merely because He is the ruler of the universe.

Verses that don’t say what you think they say (4)

Solus Christus, Baby! By Christ Alone! - DatPostmil


But Christianity’s claims are not as simply exclusive as we tend to think. Consider these verses:

No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. Jn 6:44

“Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.” Jn 6:55

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.  Jn 14:6

but also:

And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd. Jn 10:16

So the claim is that Jesus is the only means by which a person can approach God.  That’s what Christianity proclaims, but its doctrine is complex. Given that the OT has many examples of people who are engaging with God without knowledge of Jesus, a fuller understanding sees Jesus as the one who opens the way, enabling people to enter as a result of His death at Calvary; as a result I am very confident I will be surprised by who is up there with us.

However that NEVER allows the church not to proclaim the grace and mercy of God as the way to find Him; if non-Christians don’t respond to that message, it is LIKELY, though not certain, that they won’t make it, and such a proclamation will gather some who hadn’t got the message via their own religion. To the extent a church fails to endorse active evangelism of non-Christians of any sort, to that extent it is being unfaithful to God. Which is not, of course, to endorse crass, confrontational, and ineffective evangelism. But all must be actively called by Christians to discover Jesus for themselves.

Part of the problem that in this multi-faith world it is FAR more comfortable to avoid issuing such challenges to those outside the faith. Of course they’ll be fine when they stand before the judgement seat of Jesus. They’ve lived good lives. They’ve inspired many. Such is a gospel of works – and is well short of the Christian message of all needing grace.


Marian Shrines

On a recent visit to Montserrat I saw the following statement


This is a concept that Protestants get twitchy about. The board outside the basilica is helpful: the problem comes when in practice the focus remains on Mary and Jesus in effect gets ignored. I know too many ex-Catholics to be enthusiastic about their general record, but equally the number of ex-Protestants in the Catholic church is not trivial. Certainly the style is one that the British are sceptical of: modern Catholic churches in England would not welcome this sort of iconography. Yet any attempt to be simplistically dismissive ends up endorsing the sort of vandalism that our Protestant forebears endorsed at the time of the Reformation. That was appalling, and we need to be discerning.

The temptation is to make the easy grab; there’s nothing right with the Catholic church, they are a sect like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons, and need to be treated as such, or there’s nothing WRONG with Catholicism, they are just misunderstood and their heart is in the right place and that’s all that matters. In response to Rome’s massive persecution at the time of the Reformation of groups and individuals whom Protestants would now call their own – Waldensians, Hussites and lollards before Luther, and many Lutherans, Calvinists and Anglicans after 1517 – it is easy to be dismissive of their present attempts to do better as merely a deception. Or we can argue that it was all a sad mistake over language – a conclusion that the Lutheran RC agreement does offer some support for.

An interesting feature of this notice, and what I saw at one of the churches I visited in Barcelona, is the absence of any respect for the holy anymore. The Montserrat service was received as a tourist show, with people having to be silenced. At the Barcelona church kids were playing in the most place and having their photographs taken by their father while posing in front of the sacred statue. Of course the insistence of the modern church on emphasising the loving nature of God to the virtual exclusion of anything else probably accentuates this: ‘take off your shoes because the ground is holy’, is an approach which has little resonance today.

And it is in that context that one element in Catholic theology comes back to bite us. Catholic theology argues that the saints are conscious and aware of what is going on on earth. Specifically it suggests that we can ask them to pray for us in the same way that we Protestants ask Christians friend still on earth to pray for us. We however draw the line at asking for those who’ve died to do so. The messy question is why we – and Paul in the New Testament – ask for those prayers. However once we’ve accepted that those requests are legitimate, not least because they are clearly made in the New Testament, we have to address why it’s NOT legitimate to ask the saints above to pray as well. One protestant answer is to deny that the saints above are conscious, a view which requires some wriggling in the face of certain verses (e.g. Moses appearing with Jesus at the transfiguration having died), but does solve a lot of problems. The other is more interesting: if intercession is asking the God in whom we have HOPE for things, then it makes little sense for those who see God to intercede. However the fact that Jesus is described as ‘interceding’ for us in heaven (Heb 7:25) muddies the waters here. The iffy paraphrase of the Living Bible does follow the Protestant logic to its conclusion: ‘He is able to save completely all who come to God through him. Since he will live forever, he will always be there to remind God that he has paid for their sins with his blood.’

Yet more broadly it is seems clear that the intercession of those saints for the Catholic church has not resulted in a healthy church; its failings and corruption over the years give atheists much ammunition. Of course it might have worse if the saints in glory hadn’t been praying, but that’s rather difficult to prove.

Overall the issue raises hard questions where neither side is entirely biblical on a simple reading of scripture!


When the bible bites back…

One of the advantages of reading the bible straight through is that you get to see the passages that are usually ignored by preachers. This has been been my experience in the last few days looking at Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians; there are some verses in them that I’m sure I’ve never seen…

On church authority

1 Thess 5:12 in most versions is something like:

But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you NRSV

This is followed by v 27

I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of them. (NRSV)

So what we see here is a strong endorsement of clear church authority in the earliest days of the Gentile church; 1 Thessalonians is dated very early. In our individualistic membership of the church today we need to respect our leaders and take their authority more seriously; wandering around between churches for no good reason is deeply flawed.

On love for the brethren

We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing. Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.’ (2 Thess 1)

It is extraordinary to my mind that Paul rates the growth of the love between the brethren as being as important as their faith growing more and more. And it’s a perspective that many of us who roll up to church once a week, or even maybe get along to a housegroup once a week as well will find challenging; our relationships in the body should be growing lots – and on that test we (I) fail spectacularly.

We (I) need to do better…

Pacifism and parenting – a new point in the pacifist debate?

I’ve been engaging with the debate over pacifism recently as a subtext of my studies in Constantine. Much is said on the topic, and the view of the early church seems to be very mixed, with strong defences of pacifism from both Origen and Tertullian, yet there is clear evidence of Christians being present at all levels in the Roman army and government before Constantine. Following his rise to power, pacifism was largely rejected, although a continuing strand discouraged ex-soldiers from being given clerical office. By the middle ages it had become an ideal for some monks, but the crusades and the military orders – Templars, Hospitalers and Teutonic Knights amongst others = demonstrate that on the whole church was reconciled to the use of force.

The Reformation reopened the debate, and the Anabaptist tradition espoused most visibily in recent years by Yoder and subsequently made more popular by the efforts of Hauerwas seeks to justify a strongly pacifist interpretation of the New Testament. This follows quite naturally from some of the comments of Jesus about ‘turning the other cheek’. The problem comes when this is taken to exclude Christians from any coercive role in a state; as Constantine’s defenders point out, are we to tell the office holder in the state to resign if they become a Christian?

The traditional ‘move’ in the ethical debate is to separate the role of the Christian as an individual from what they do as a officer of state. This is criticised by the pacifist tradition in favour of arguing that it is God’s command not to resist evil / take revenge etc, and this is not challenged by the change of hats. It is my contention that this fails to note the role of parents in using force and ensuring justice for their children; if Molly is beating up her little brother Timothy, it is clearly the duty of the parent to address this sin / evil / breach of justice. In doing so the parents are fulfilling a role that they have voluntarily adopted, especially these days. Yet our pacifist co-religionists fail to extend a similar legitimation to Christian officers of the state. Is this coherent?

As ever with pacifist arguments, once the dam is breached, the rest of the case for Christians to enforce the law with force must be admitted; if it is my duty to protect Timothy from Molly as a parent, it is surely equally my duty to protect Timothy from the rampaging criminal. If I can do that as a parent, I can surely do it as a officer of the law. And if I can use force to stop the local criminal, it follows that I can use the police to protect a small island from pirates, or an army to protect a state from invaders.