Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Quote of the Day

The proof of the pudding is in the exegeting.

Remark made by Steve Timmis in discussing a hypothesis on the social background to Hebrews and the need to test such hypotheses exegetically.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Bird of the day

A serin, perched outside my window, along Carrer del Nord, Terrassa, today, 10 minutes ago! A pretty little finch, they are common here.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Richard Baxter on church divisiones

Read this today, from Tidball, Derek Skilful Shepherds. In a chapter on unity, he discusses Richard Baxter's work The Cure of Church Divisions in which, "with astute insight and spiritual depth he addresses sixty propositions to those who would cause division and a further twenty-two to the pastors who had to handle the situation." (301) Tidball summarises about half of Baxter's 60, of which these are my own selection:

1. Not to forget the legitimate differences between being a younger and older Christian.
2. To be wary of the deep-rooted temptation to spiritual pride.
6. Of the need to recognize the difference between the visible and invisible church, so that they do not demand more of the church on earth than God does.
9. That for a church to excommunicate the impenitent is a duty, but for the godly to separate themselves from the church is usually a sin.
21. That religious people who speak evil of others should not be believed or even given a hearing.
27. That it is possible to misinterpret the answers to our prayers, believing that God has approved of them when we are really only seeing the effects of our own prejudices, passions and ignorances.
29. That care needs to be exercised when uncertain in case, in a desire to find a solution to our troubled minds, we follow a path that becomes a snare.
30. That one must be a learner until fit and called to teach.
38. That truth must not be neglected but neither should one insist on every detail of it at the expense of peace in the church.
47. Of the danger, in opposing error, of swinging the pendulum to the opposite extreme, which is just as bad.
48. That there is need to talk more about our own faults than the faults of others.
49. Of the need to talk about the good in others rather than their faults.
52. That revenge of heart and tongue is as bad as physical revenge

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

On Jacob wrestling with God

Quotes from Tim Chester The Message of Prayer pp.96-98

Jacob has spent his life searching for blessing, but avoiding God.

God is dangerous. He is the aggressor in the narrative. He is not comfortable to have around. Yet in the struggle with God our relationship with him grows and our faith is immeasurably deepened.

It is true that prayer is a struggle against our sinful nature, which retains its disinclination towards prayer, so that to wrestle in prayer is struggle against ourselves. But prayer can also be a struggle against God. This was Jacob's experience and, as we have seen, his experience was defining for the people of God. It is not, of course, that a reluctant God can be won over by our persistence. It is rather that God also purposes for us to deepen our relationship with him - he wants us to share the intimacy of the trinitarian relationship, and rattling through a list of prayer requests falls far short of this purpose!

God may actually resist us when we pray in order that we in turn may resist and overcome his resistance, and so be led into deeper dependence on him and greater enrichment from him at the end of the day. (Packer)

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Well Done Hatters

A diversion from my usual posts to congratulate my favourite football team!

Well done Luton Town!

Well done again!

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Theology and Mission

Some quotes from Chester & Timmis Total Church, from their chapter on theology. [quotes from pp.151-153

Meaningful theology needs to take place primarily in the routine life of the people of God. It needs to be discourse that engages with life and arises out of life.

Mission is the opportunity to rethink which elements of what we believe do belong to the gospel and which in fact belong to our culture.

We need to rethink all of theology in missionary terms because every situation is a missionary situation. We need a missional approach to doctrine, to biblical studies, to church history, to ethics, to pastoral care and so on.

[This] also means that when issues arise in our churches and ministry, time should be taken to reflect on them theologically. They often present real opportunities to move forward in theological understanding. And without this theological reflection we will be driven by pragmatism or tradition. As theologians together, our ‘subject’ should be exploring the missiological implications of all theology in every aspect of the life of the local church and every detail of the lives of believers.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Time Management in a Digital Age

Some quotes from Don Carson about the particular challenges of managing time & being effective in ministry in our noisy digital age. From an address on "Is culture shaping us or are we shaping the culture?"

Time Management

It’s tied up in part with the incessant demand of a digital world… There is always digital input somewhere, unless you actually self-consciously cut yourself off from it. So that time management, to allow yourself time to read and think and meditate and pray is becoming a really crucial issue. It’s not just that we are sacrificing the important on the altar of the urgent. Most of this stuff is not urgent. We’re sacrificing the important on the altar of the noisy, or on the altar of the digitally visual, on the altar of that little ‘ping’… Somewhere along the line, if you are going to be committed to ministry that is effused with intercession and meditating on the Word of God you are going to have to turn off a whole lot of off switches… It’s becoming a crucial thing for maintaining integrity in ministry.
[from 35.00]

Learn how to use the little bits of time... 15 minutes here, 20 minutes there.

Work hard and play hard and never confuse the two. There are lots of people who work long hours but it’s diluted by all kinds of interruptions… So they put in the hours but when you actually calculate actual productive time they’ve put in it’s not actually that much… An awful lot of it is learning to be efficient at doing one thing at a time.

[question asked about time management from 50.50, these quotes from 54.00]

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Some Quotes on Prayer

I've started reading through The Message of Prayer by Tim Chester. Here are some quotes I have found helpful so far:

Prayer is the conversation of friends. It is not a mere convenience for letting God know what we are thinking or what we want. Prayer is that for which we were made. It is at the heart of God's plan of salvation. To understand the tremendous privilege and import of prayer we need to see it in the context of God's purpose to have a relationship with his people... In other words, prayer is part of the definition of what it means to be a Christian. (27)

The riddle of creation is that God should desire to enter into a relationship with his creatures outside his trinitarian being. And this riddle is the foundation of prayer - and not only of prayer but of human existence. (29)

The genius of Moses is to recognise that salvation is fellowship with God. (32, commenting on Exodus 33)

Prayer is not ultimate but penultimate, a pointer to the day when we shall see God face to face. It directs our attention forward to our participation in the trinitarian community. Prayer is an anticipation of the day when we shall truly know even as we are truly known. (38)

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Review of Peter Jensen (2002) The Revelation of God

The Revelation of God by Peter Jensen was published in 2002 in IVP's Contours of Christian Theology series. It has recently been translated into Spanish by CEEB/Andamio in the new Biblioteca José M. Martínez.

In this work, Jensen seeks to formulate a fresh approach to the question of revelation. The Enlightenment critique of the Christian claim to a unique revelation of God remains strong today, and many Christian attempts to answer it have failed. In this review, I will outline the main line of argument Jensen pursues (taking up chapters 1-4 of the book), before briefly mentioning the other areas covered in chapters 5-11 and finishing with some personal response.
The place we must start, Jensen argues, is with the central claim of the Bible that it is through responding to the message of the gospel that people attain to a true knowledge of God. Rather than discussing revelation as a general concept, and then asking if the Christian scriptures fit that concept, a surer approach is to begin with the gospel as that supreme locus of the knowledge of God and take it as the paradigm for revelation.

“The achievement of the gospel is that people come to know God through informative and hortatory words about him.” (35) We come to be friends with God through hearing and responding to the message of the gospel. In this sense, it is not helpful to talk about Christ himself as the supreme paradigm of revelation (e.g. Barth) for, while the centrality of Christ to the gospel is obvious, Christ comes to us through the words of the gospel, proclaimed by human messengers.

The gospel word – fundamentally, the declaration that Jesus is Lord – commends itself to us as the Word of God through three arguments, 1) the claim that Jesus is the Christ, fulfilling the Old Testament Scriptures, 2) the historical testimony of the first witnesses and evangelists and 3) its power to interpret human experience.

The gospel comes to us as a Word from God, with promises and demands. The specific nature of this gospel word gives a definite shape to the type of relationship we can have with God through responding to this gospel. In the gospel, God speaks. That speaking shows us a God who creates, judges and saves. He stands over and against a rebellious humanity with a word of warning about coming judgment. But this word specifically centres on Jesus Christ as Lord through his death, resurrection and exaltation. It is therefore simultaneously a warning of judgment and a word of promise about God’s love and mercy. Finally, this gospel word comes to us with a demand for repentance and faith that we may receive that promise of mercy.

How does the nature of the gospel shape the knowledge of God that can be attained through it? By default, we do not know God, we are in rebellious ignorance of Him. The good news of the gospel is that we can be reconciled to God and know him as his friends. In that friendship, as in any friendship, words play a central role: “language creates that personal union that incorporates without assimiliting.” (67) We talk to God through prayer, but how does God speak to us? In the Old Testament we see God identifying Himself through His deeds and through words about His deeds. In particular, “it his ability to do what he says he will do that identifies the Lord and shows that he is God indeed” (69), in other words, God makes himself known through words of promise and fulfilment.

Next, we see that God often formalises His promises in covenants, defined by Jensen as “a promise given under oath, accompanied by stipulations and sealed with a sign.” (75) We can then trace these ideas of promise/fulfilment and covenant through to Christ Himself and, significantly, the Bible. Scripture is nothing less than ‘the book of the covenant’ “for in it the covenant of God is recorded, expounded and applied.” (81) By this argument, Jensen arrives at the conclusion that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God for us today. It is that which structures and regulates our covenant relationship with God, it is the means through which God speaks to us, and all this flows out of the first point about the gospel message itself being the paradigm of revelation.
Many questions remain to be treated, and Jensen concludes the first part of the book by outlining four fundamental axioms, derived from this key insight that the gospel is the paradigm for revelation, for addressing the issue of revelation more generally. These are:

1) “The gospel is the key element in coming to a saving knowledge of God” (85)
2) “Christian revelation is basically verbal” (87)
3) “Revelation conveys both information and relationship” (90)
4) “Scripture is revelation” (92)

Thus Jensen’s central argument is that “God’s central revelation of himself… is evangelical at heart, covenantal by nature and scriptural in form.” Following from this, Jensen goes on to ask how the gospel helps us to interpret human experience and specifically religious experience, especially whether there are ways to attain true knowledge of God that do not pass through the gospel. (chapters 5-6) He then discusses at length some thorny questions about the authority, nature and reading of Scripture (chapters 7-9). He concludes by examining the work of the Spirit in revelation and whether we can speak of contemporary special revelation today (e.g. prophecy) (chapters 10 and 11).

This is a book to be read and digested slowly. The argument is sometimes dense, but it is worth taking the trouble, because Jensen has fresh things to say on many topics. Often his choice of words is striking and very helpful, and helps us to see things in a new way. Using the categories of knowledge of God, gospel and covenant in relation to revelation do exactly that, and seeing the Bible as the Book of the Covenant is especially helpful, because it reminds us of the centrality of (and nature of) our relationship with God as well as giving fresh meaning to its authority.
Remembering that the Bible is a covenental book should also remind us that God speaks to us as his covenant people. Our tendency to read the bible individualistically ought to be challenged by understanding that Christ rules his church through the Word. (cf.p.223)

Seeing the Gospel as that which enables us to rightly interpret our experience is also important. In Jensen’s words:
“Human thought characteristically moves from what is known to what is unknown. When the gospel is preached, it invariably uses the language and concepts that refer to human experience in order to explicate itself. The gospel speaks of love, wrath, forgiveness, faith, repentance, sin and death. These are all common human experiences: in each case the gospel takes our inadequate understanding of the experience and gives us new and powerful wisdom about it. The reinterpretation is often so intense that it constitutes a revolution, a conversion of thought and practice…” (110)

Using the gospel as that which explains our experience has a lot to say to our evangelism and apologetics. Evangelism is helping others see who they really are! Jensen’s thoughts here coincide nicely with what Andrew Walls writes about conversion not being about substituting something totally new but transforming, turning what is already there. (see my previous post) Brilliant!

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Brilliant stuff by Andrew Walls on culture and contextualisation

The gospel is not fixed to one cultural form, but is to be translated into every culture, re-orientating each one Godwards… the Christian faith is ‘infinitely translatable’ and its history is a history of diffusion across cultural boundaries and its appropriation by new cultures… Cultural diversity is an implication of the Lordship of Christ… Christ’s Great Commission is to disciple the nations, not to make some disciples in each nation.

These are some of the main ideas from the work of Andrew Walls, honorary professor at Edinburgh University, on contextualisation and the relationship between the gospel and culture, on which I wrote an essay for the Northern Training Institute.

Andrew Walls has, as far as I know, written no books per se, but there are two collections of his essays, The Missionary Movement in Christian History and The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History. Each book is divided into three sections: the first is on the transmission of the christian faith, the second is on Africa and the third on the Western Missionary Movement.

They are really well-worth reading, I recommend them!

I read most of the essays in the first section of each book for my essay:

Diversity and Translation in Christian Mission: Andrew Walls on Contextualisation

(If the link doesn´t work, try here)

Wednesday, March 04, 2009


He suffered not that we might not suffer but that in our suffering we would become like Him.

- Tim Keller, in lecture 8 "Applying to Christ: Getting Down to Earth Part One" in a series by Keller & Clowney on Preaching Christ in a Postmodern World

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

How does the Book of Ecclesiastes Point to Jesus?

The enigmatic book of Ecclesiastes's contribution to the canon of Scripture is distinctive and important. Like the rest of the Old Testament Scriptures, it points to Christ (Luke 24.44), although in a different way to, say, the messianic psalms or the typologies of the temple and the sacrificial system.

Ecclesiastes shows us the frustration of living in a fallen world. It is in some ways an exposition of Genesis 3. The key word is ‘vanity’ or ‘meaninglessness’, which appears at both the beginning (1.2) and the end of the book (12.8), as well as in many places throughout. The emphasis is on the transitoriness of life, and the lack of satisfaction to be found therein – whether through work or pleasure or wisdom. The preacher is determined to tear it all down, everything to which we may turn for ultimate meaning. “Everything is meaningless” (1.2) There is also a frustration at injustice in the world – the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. And while there are hints of an ultimate judgment to right the wrongs (e.g. 3.17), the dominant note is that death marks the end and robs the achievements of life of any meaning.

Within this frustrating world, the preacher calls us to make the best of it: to enjoy our work and seek to live happily the few days we have. We must learn to live with the mystery: wisdom has its limits, we won’t be able to fathom it all out. The conclusion, then is this: life is meaningless and the best we can do is this: fear God and keep his commandments.

Ecclesiastes’ contribution to the canon of Scripture is important: it balances the wisdom of Proverbs and elsewhere which emphasise the order of creation, by reminding us of the disorder of a fallen creation, and the frustration produced by that disorder. It warns us against coming up with simplistic answers, and all-too-pat theodicies. It contributes to the unresolved and incomplete nature of the Old Testament Scriptures awaiting the One who would fulfill them all. Ecclesiastes leaves us with unresolved questions: the conclusion to fear God and keep his commandments is right as far as it goes, but leaves us crying out for something more, some kind of fuller resolution to the problem of the frustration of a fallen world.

This, then, is how Ecclesiastes points to Christ: Jesus is the one who entered into the frustration of the world and by his work overcame it. He experienced in his life the tears, exhaustion and perplexity of living in a world tainted with sin and, more importantly, he conquered the root of the world’s frustration by his substitionary death on the cross. Sin and death defeated through the cross and the resurrection. Thus the unresolved questions of Ecclesiastes are answered: the hopes of resurrection and new creation and the certainty of final judgment, all of which lie in the hands of Jesus Christ, resolve the problems of injustice and death and vanity.

And yet, it is also vital to grasp how the questions of Ecclesiastes are resolved. In fact, we still live in an Ecclesiastes-world of vanity, frustration, injustice and death. There is continuity between the pre-cross and the post-cross worlds, as especially Romans 8.18ff makes clear: the creation is still groaning. What has changed is that Christ’s work has brought a certain hope of final resolution and the inbreaking of that eternal life into the present time. Paul therefore writes with confidence of the “glory that will be revealed in us” as being far beyond comparison with “our present sufferings.”

The frustration of Ecclesiastes is not removed by becoming a Christian but is modified by hope in Christ. We live, therefore, in the tension between the seen and experienced fallen world and the unseen eternal world to come. It is the Christian tension of walking in faith not sight. For the unbeliever, Ecclesiastes functions in a similar way: it describes their own experience of frustration, and, in the context of the whole canon, points to the hope that can be theirs too in Jesus Christ.

This was an assignment I wrote for NTI last August. The tutor added the following helpful comment:

Thanks for this. Good stuff. I don't have much to add. I find it helpful to think in terms of the judgment referred in the closing verses as the imposition of meaning and order on a meaningless and disordered world. We live in a world in which good and evil are meaningless - they seem arbitrarily determined and inconsistently rewarded. But one day God will impose order on the world through judgment. Good will seen to be good and evil will seen to be evil when God judges the world through Jesus.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Book review - The Temple and the Church's Mission by Greg Beale

This is a marvellous book! Here is a review I wrote for NTI.

Why is it, Beale asks, that in the climatic vision of the final state, John sees “‘a new heaven and a new earth’ in Revelation 21.1 and yet in 21.2-3, 10-22.3 he sees a city that is garden-like, in the shape of a temple?” (23) Where are the mountains and the trees? The answer, which he develops in great detail through nearly 400 pages, is key to comprehending the meaning of the Bible and hence the church’s mission. In John’s vision, the new creation and the garden-city temple are the same thing, the significance of which is to indicate that in the final state, God’s presence will fill the whole cosmos. This is the end to which the whole Bible story has been heading and which the whole tabernacle/temple theme has been pointing and it is the purpose of God’s original creation. Here are some of Beale’s principle lines of argument:

1. The structure of the temple in the Old Testament represents the cosmos, as in the following table.

outer court - habitable world where humanity dwelt
holy place - visible heavens and its light sources
holy of holies - invisible dimension of the cosmos, where God and his heavenly hosts dwelt

2. Israel’s tabernacle and temple recapitulate the original temple in the Garden of Eden.

3. God’s intention was that the garden-temple of Eden was to expand to fill the earth through the rule of its priest-king, Adam

4. This purpose of expanding the temple to fill the earth was passed on to Israel, who failed, and placed in the eschatological future by the prophets, e.g. Hab 2.14 “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea:”

5. Israel’s temple therefore was not an end in itself an “architect’s model” whose purpose was to point to a greater fulfilment, “the great goal of spreading the light of God’s presence throughout the earth until the entire world was under God’s tabernacling presence.” (170)

6. Christ and his people are seen in the New Testament as the beginning of that end-time temple, inaugurated at Christ’s first coming and to be consummated at his second.

7. In other words, the eschatological cosmos-wide temple is the new creation – “eschatology not only recapitulates the protology of Eden but escalates it” (368)

The conclusion is that “the temple in Revelation 21-22 symbolically represents the entire new cosmos because that was the goal of God’s temple-building process throughout sacred history.” (369)

This then, bears, on the church’s mission, which is no less than, “expanding the sacred sphere of God’s presence in order that others would experience it and come into the sacred temple themselves.” (399)

This is the kind of deep theological reflection that, if assimilated, provides powerful fuel for mission. There is a richness in Beale’s treatment of the intertwining themes of temple, presence, creation & new creation, kingdom of God etc. that brings you into the symbolic thought-world of the bible that excites the imagination. Indeed, it evokes praise to God and longing for the consummation of that final day. I find Beale’s thesis totally compelling.

Having said that, some of Beale’s specific arguments and exegesis is at first glance rather weak; many times he builds his case on plausible or possible interpretations or allusions. Beale himself recognises this and asserts that the arguments work cumulatively, so that the weaker lines of argument support the broader cumulative case or, alternatively, if dismissed, by no means undermine the overall thesis.

This book is also very helpful as a model of biblical theology and how to interpret scripture. I found some of his concluding hermeneutical reflections particularly striking. For example, in Hebrews it is the heavenly temple that is literal while the earthly temple is the figurative one, thus overturning a common view of what ‘literal’ means. The physical temples were meant to be models of the true, eternal one. Therefore, “to see Christ and the church as the true end-time temple is neither an allegorical spiritualization of the Old Testament temple nor of prophecies of an eschatological temple, but is an identification of the temple’s real meaning.” (374)

Questions and Connections
My main question is to do with how to bring this rich theology through into the practice of ministry and mission. Beale himself limits such reflection to an 8-page final chapter. Here are my own brief reflections.

The importance of understanding biblical theology: Having a grasp of the kinds of themes that Beale develops a) provides a framework for understanding individual parts of Scripture b) clarifies what God’s big plan is and thus helps us to understand ourselves and our mission. These will then play out in the very practical level of Christian life and witness. I am convinced that christians would benefit enormously in the long-term from having a firm grounding in this kind of biblical theology. This does not mean getting everyone to read The Temple and the Church’s Mission (it's too big!), but at least to grasp some of the themes at a simple level.

Finally, understanding God’s final purpose as filling the cosmos with his presence helps us to

a) give proper value to the material, created order

b) value the anticipatory presence of God we experience now as Christians through the Spirit, in prayer etc.

c) value, in particular, the community of God’s people as the locus of His presence

d) praise God for Christ, the true temple, who has made God’s big purpose reality etc.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

An atheist advocates Christian evangelism in Africa

Fascinating article by atheist Matthew Parris in the Times on why he believes that Africa needs God.

"Missionaries, not aid money, are the solution to Africa's biggest problem - the crushing passivity of the people's mindset."

"Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete."

Reading suggestions for 2009

Not from me:

Tim Chester with a "new flexible Bible reading plan designed with groups in mind" and

David Field with links to reading plans for the New Testament in Greek, Calvin's Institutes and "A reminder from the Audio Bible Page that it only takes around FIFTY FOUR HOURS to listen to the entire Bible being read out." - here

Justin Taylor with more reading plans and ten questions to ask at the start of the year (from Don Whitney)

Starting 2009 by thinking about Jesus

This quote from John Owen struck me back in August & September. It is an entirely appropriate thought with which to begin a new year:

It is by beholding the glory of Christ by faith that we are spiritually edified and built up in this world, for as we behold his glory, his life and power of faith grow stronger and stronger. It is by faith that we grow to love Christ. So if we desire strong faith and powerful love, which give us rest, peace and satisfaction, we must seek them by diligently beholding the glory of Christ by faith. In this duty I desire to live and to die. On Christ's glory I would fix all my thoughts and desires, and the more I see of the glory of Christ, the more the painted beauties of this world will wither in my eyes and I will be more and more crucified to this world.

John Owen, The Glory of Christ, (Banner of Truth, abridged edition) p.7