Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Review of When the Kings Came Marching In - Mouw


The Kings Came Marching In draws together two themes: eschatology and a Christian view of culture. To what degree ought Christians work towards the transformation of culture? What will happen to the human culture at the return of Christ? How much continuity will there be between the development of culture in history and the new heavens and earth?

Richard Mouw addresses these questions by considering one specific text: Isaiah chapter 60. In Isaiah 60 we find an eschatological vision of the holy city. Mouw’s thesis is that “it is extremely significant that when Isaiah looks to the fulfillment of God's promises, he envisions a community into which technological artifacts, political rulers, and people from many nations are gathered.” (xvi) The significance of this is that (1) the engagement of Christians in the transformation of culture is legitimated and (2) we can expect continuity (as well as discontinuity) between culture now and the Holy City which is to come.

Mouw develops his thesis in four points, derived from Isaiah 60.

Firstly, the wealth of the nations is gathered into the city. The Holy City is a place of commerce: camels of Midian & Ephah, flocks of Kedar, rams of Nebaioth, the ships of Tarshish etc. are brought in to serve the Lord and his people. This points to the transformation of human culture. Significantly, the same ships of Tarshish appear in Isaiah 2 where they are objects of judgment. God’s attitude to the instruments of human culture is ambivalent: they can be tools of rebellion and idolatry, but it is the rebellion that is judged, not the things in themselves. God reclaims “that which humans have used against him.” The original cultural mandate is fulfilled in God’s turning the objects of culture to His service: “the Holy City is the Garden-plus-the-‘filling’”

Secondly, the kings of the earth march into the city. Mouw sees these references as suggesting that there will be a settling of political accounts, a reckoning in which the kings of the earth give account for their misuse of power.

Thirdly, people from many nations are drawn to the city. People of all nations, without distinction, are converted and gathered in to the city.

Fourthly, light pervades the city. Moving to Revelation 21, which picks up the same holy city imagery, we see that the Lamb is the light of the city. There are cultural dimensions to Christ’s atoning work: "As the Lamb of God he will draw all of the goods, artifacts, and instruments of culture to himself; the kings of the earth will return their authority and power to the Lamb who sits upon the throne; Jesus is the one whose blood has purchased a multi-national community, composed of people from every tribe and tongue and nation. His redemptive ministry, as the ministry of the Lamb, is cosmic in scope." (63)

Mouw concludes by asking how we ought to live in the light of this. We can affirm that Christ will transform culture, someday, but are we ourselves to transform culture? Mouw argues 'perhaps', but culture-transformation is not explicitly mandated in scripture. So, we are to wait for the transformation that is to come. But this is an active waiting: “we must seek the city that is to come.” And we do so by pouring ourselves out in service.


One of the key questions is a hermeneutical one. What is the function of the ‘holy city’ language that Isaiah uses in his eschatological vision? That the new creation is in view is in no doubt. The question is what status does the city metaphor (and attendance cultural wealth metaphors) have in relation to the new creation. In what ways is the new creation like a city?

Contrast Alec Motyer (Prophecy of Isaiah), who argues that the ‘city’ language is no more than part of an elobarate metaphor:
Since Isaiah is thinking of the future in city terms, the gathering of the world into the embrace of the people of God is naturally seen in pilgrimage and tribute motifs. The reality is the winning of the nations by the gospel and the gathering of all into the heavenly Zion when the Lord Jesus returns. [on 60.5]
in this verse, as in all similar verses, Isaiah is stating the truth within the political terms dictated by the metaphor of the city. [on 60.14]
So while for Mouw, Isaiah “envisions a community into which technological artifacts, political rulers, and people from many nations are gathered”, Motyer envisions a community into which people from many nations are gathered, but the technological artifacts and political rulers are incidental, merely part of the metaphor.

Mouw suggests that Isaiah (and John in Revelation) saw (in vision) a real city i.e. what the future new world will actually be like. That may be so, but it is not necessary to carry the point that the city and cultural language has significance beyond being merely a metaphor. Perhaps that point cannot be established for certain, as so much hinges on your overall hermeneutical approach. However, I am very much attracted to Mouw’s view and I would say that Mouw’s basic thesis holds good. It fits with broader biblical theological themes such as the renewal of the cosmos and the resurrection of Jesus vindicating the created order (cf. O’Donovan). It also correlates well to the Holy City language in Revelation 21-22.


Thinking of my own context of working with students, what help does When the Kings Come Marching In offer?

- I would want to help students to appreciate the inherent value of culture as fulfilment of God’s creation mandate, along with understanding the idolatrous and rebellious uses to which culture, that Christ’s redemptive work is cosmic in scope and that we can look forward to a new heaven and new earth (not a disembodied heaven) which will include some kind of transformation of culture. Isaiah 60 could be a useful chapter for working through some of these issues, although I would maybe go to Revelation 21-22 and other passages first.

- This has pastoral implications in relation to issues of guidance and vocation. Simply, we can see that all kinds of jobs, that engage in all kinds of aspects of human culture (including, for example, commerce and politics) are legitimate vocations for Christians. We can glorify Christ in all kinds of work, not just so-called ‘spiritual work’. Students can be helped to think through their own future in this way. A book such as Glory Days by Julian Hardyman is helpful here. (and probably a better starting point than When the Kings)

- Finally, a caution from Mouw’s conclusion about following the clear mandates we do have in scripture. Some discussion about the transformation of culture is mysterious and perhaps even speculative. And it can certainly be easy to get carried away with a new understanding of something so that you ignore or even disparage other areas that are equally important and which the new teaching was intended to balance not replace. So, for example, an emphasis on the cosmic implications of Christ’s atonement should never replace the personal implications of substitution & forgiveness for the individual sinner. So it is helpful to remember that the transformation of culture awaits the return of Christ and therefore, whatever our engagement with culture now, it ought never to replace the business of loving our neighbour, proclaiming the gospel message etc – tasks that many brothers and sisters with a less adequate view of culture (as we would see it) get on with, with great commitment and faithfulness and with God’s blessing.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Frame on the apologetical value of ethics

I love John Frame's work on theology, epistemology, apologetics etc. (e.g. The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God and Apologetics to the Glory of God)

Well, Frame's The Doctrine of the Christian Life has just been published. This is great news and it will go on to my wish list to be sure. It's on, but not on yet. Is it available in the UK yet?

The draft of DCL used to be on-line (see here), but are (as far as I can tell) no longer available, presumably because of publication.

The following quotes are from the draft (introduction); they point out the value of Christian ethics for apologetics and evangelism.

The study of ethics has an enormous importance for our witness to the world.

We live in an age in which people are greatly concerned about ethics. Every day, the news media bring to mind issues of war and peace, preserving the environment, the powers of government, abortion and euthanasia, genetic research, and so on. Many people seem very sure of the answers to these ethical questions. But when you probe deeply into their positions, they admit that their conviction is based on nothing more than partisan consensus or individual feeling. But the Bible does give us a basis for ethical judgments: the revelation of the living God. So ethical discussions open a wide door for Christian witness.

People are far more open to discuss ethics than to discuss theistic proofs, or even "transcendental arguments." Philosophy does not excite many people today, and many are not even open to the simple witness of personal testimony and the simple gospel. But they do care about right and wrong. Christians who can talk about ethics in a cogent way, therefore, have a great apologetic and evangelistic advantage....

Monday, June 16, 2008

Chiastic Bible overview

A helpful way of summarising the Bible's over-arching story. The structure is neat (and true, not forced), the centrality of Jesus' person & acts is emphasised and it is memorable.

from David Field's lecture notes on Ethics (see lecture 002) (my adaptation - i.e. I put it in a box with a yellow background!) sorry, it's not very clear, but I couldn't get the indents any other way.

Fear of death

The man who fears death, even though he contrives to put a somewhat better face on it, is at least nearer to the truth than the man who does not fear it, or rather pretends that there is no reason why he should do so. Since it is a sign of the divine judgment of human sin and guilt, it is very much to be feared.

Barth, quoted in Field, D. & Atkinson, D. (eds) (1995) New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology (IVP), p.91 [article on 'Life, Health and Death']

Sunday, June 15, 2008

John Piper on risk

"If we walk away from risk to keep ourselves safe and solvent, we will waste our lives.

"If Christ is an all-satisfying treasure and promises to provide all our needs, even through famine and nakedness, then to live as though we had all the same values of the world would betray him." (p.107)

"my sense is that in the prosperous West, the danger in the church is not that there are too many overly zealous people who care too deeply about the lost, and invest hazardously in the cause of the Gospel, and ruin their lives with excessive mercy to the poor. For every careless saint who burns himself out and breaks up his family with misdirected zeal, I venture, there are a thousand who coast with the world, treating Jesus like a helpful add-on, but not as an all-satisfying, all-authoritative King in the cause of love." (p.118)

"One of the marks of this peacetime mind-set is what I call an avoidance ethic. In wartime we ask different questions about what to do with our lives than we do in peacetime. We ask: What can I do to advance the cause? What can I do to bring the victory? What sacrifice can I make or what risk can I take to insure the joy of triumph? In peacetime we tend to ask, What can I do to be more comfortable? To have more fun? To avoid trouble and, possibly, avoid sin?" (p.118)

"Since we all live in a world created by television, it is almost impossible to see what has happened to us. The only hope is to read what people were like in previous centuries. Biographies are a great antidote to cultural myopia and chronological snobbery. We have become almost incapable of handling any great truth reverently and deeply. Magnificent things, especially the glory of God, as David Wells says, rest with a kind of “weightlessness” even on the church." (p.121)

"At these moments, when the trifling fog of life clears and I see what I am really on earth to do, I groan over the petty pursuits that waste so many lives—and so much of mine. Just think of the magnitude of sports—a whole section of the daily newspaper. But there is no section on God. Think of the endless resources for making your home and garden more comfortable and impressive. Think of how many tens of thousands of dollars you can spend to buy more car than you need. Think of the time and energy and conversation that go into entertainment and leisure and what we call “fun stuff.” And add to that now the computer that artificially recreates the very games that are already so distant from reality; it is like a multi-layered dreamworld of insignificance expanding into nothingness." (p.125)

Quotes from John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Notes on the reading of books

1. Comprehensiveness
When I read a book I want to understand the whole of the case that the author is presenting. Chapters, sections, paragraphs all have a place within an overall structure. To understand any part truly I want to know how it fits into the whole argument.

2. Fairness
I want to understand an author’s argument accurately; I do not want to misrepresent it. This involves getting into the structure of the case the author is presenting, delaying evaluation until one has understood what the author is trying to say, not reacting too quickly but allowing a fair hearing. A full, deep response is only possible following the effort to truly understand. Otherwise a response will be superficial

3. Sparks
At the same time, it is often sections, or paragraphs, sentences or phrases that strike home, that spark off some sequence of thought or so forth. The most productive reading can be when one grabs, ponders and interacts with some smaller unit of thought. In John Piper’s words, “Books don’t change people; paragraphs do. Sometimes even sentences… My prayer is that God might be pleased to take the short readings of this book and set a sentences or a paragraph on fire in your mind.”

4. Interaction
How, then, does one interact with a book? At different levels, surely. I can seek to get a grasp of the whole, to understand fairly the overall theme which the chapters and sections and paragraphs are developing. In this case I may want to review and evaluate the whole. But equally I can interact with a phrase or sentence or paragraph or section, to allow a spark to set on fire another whole chain of thought, to develop it, argue against it, bring it into contact with other thoughts from other authors.

5. Assimilation and Assessment
The goal of learning is living; the goal of learning is loving. Reading is food for growth. And ultimately, when I read I need to take on board, put into practice that which I read, having evaluated that which is true and helpful.

Two alternative forms of interaction with a book:

A. Review
Here, I am seeking to a) accurately summarise the main thrust of the book b) evaluate its strengths and weaknesses c) think through ways in which I need to respond and change. ‘This is what the book says – this is where he is right – this is where he is wrong – this is how I need to respond’

B. Interaction
Here, I am picking up on themes, ideas, thoughts from the book that have particularly impressed me (for good or bad). I examine that thought, interact with it, challenge it, pair it up with other thoughts, draw implications from it etc. I am not seeking to present ‘what the book says’ but interact with one idea.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Lessons from Nehemiah 1-2

Here are some notes from a great Don Carson message on Nehemiah 1-2 (first of 5 messages, here)

Nehemiah’s concern for God’s promises and God’s people. Nehemiah is not for individualistic Christians.

1. A servant who perceives the need with tears and contrition
Nehemiah lives c. a century after the exile to Babylon. There have already been two movements back to Jerusalem. (Ezra 1-6 and Ezra 7-10)
But the remnant is not doing well. They had already had an aborted attempt to rebuild the walls (see Ezra 4.12 etc.)

Nehemiah’s response: not distant professionalism but deep identity with the people of God. cf. Paul, Moses, Isaiah, Ezra. We must so identify with the people of God that we are driven to tears and fasting and intercessory prayer.

2. A servant who prays with deep knowledge of God
Nehemiah presupposes that
a) God is sovereign; “It is very common in Scripture, when things are going wrong, to acknowledge God’s sovereignty”
b) God keeps covenant.
c) God expects repentance where there is sin.
d) God punishes and restores his people. cf. Deuteronomy; Revelation 2-3.
e) God knows his own people and watches over them.
f) God delights in those who revering His name.
g) God controls everything; including the most practical. Nehemiah has thought through enough to know what must be done: he needs imperial sanction (which would be a reversal of the king’s policy of 20 years ago). But he knows that God is sovereign. cf Isaiah 10. “Nehemiah sees that he is ideally placed, and he wonders.”

3. A servant who plans with patience and understanding of God’s enigmatic providence. 2.1-10
Nehemiah has planned what he is going to say, he trust in God’s sovereignty but he doesn’t know the outcome. He does what is right, but God’s sovereignty is enigmatic. God may have an alternative; cf. Esther – 4.14. ‘If I perish I perish’
You still do what is right, what is courageous, what leans on God’s providence.
Nehemiah has thought it all through, but notice that he does the opposite to Ezra! Nehemiah asks for safe-conducts but Ezra doesn’t. But the circumstances are different.

4. A servant who prosecutes with wisdom and collaboration. 2.11-20
arrives with careful reserve; quiet reconnaisance; inclusive leadership (‘we’); ignores the opposition – he is inclusive within God’s people but draws some clear lines here.

Nehemiah: a man with a godly, entrepreneurial vision. Ezra the teacher did not build the walls. A vision of how to get from here to there. Preachers need to think entrepreneurially, or work with those who can. God raises up Nehemiahs too.