Friday, December 31, 2010

Across the Spectrum: Chapters 2 & 3 - Providence and Foreknowledge

This post is a continuation from the previous post...

Chapter 2: The Providence Debate

Position 1: God is sovereign over all things (Calvinist)
Position 2: God limits his control by granting freedom (Arminian)

The Calvinist position is, essentially, this: that everything that happens was pre-ordained and planned by God. If you are saved, it is because God chose you to be one of the 'Elect', if you are damned, this is because God created you to be a 'creature of wrath'. You have no say in the matter. The Arminian position is that while God could have supreme control of everything, he chooses not to, in order to allow us to have the choice to love him or reject him.

As will be repeated in future comments on later chapters, while I was raised a Calvinist, I have had much more of an Arminian outlook for many years now. I just don't find the Calvinist beliefs particularly consistent with life experience, common sense or, indeed, a belief in a loving and just God - which is supposedly what Calvinism is all about. The Calvinist stance seems to be based on the assumption that because God has complete sovereignty over everything, he must assert complete authority over everything. Why? There's lots of things I can do, but choose not to, or only do them occasionally. Why should it be any different for God? The Calvinist approach seems to limit God's own free will, by asserting that because he can act a certain way, therefore he must act that way. Surely God can choose how he wants to act?

I once started reading J.I. Packer's book on evangelism and sovereignty - basically, what is the point of evangelism if God chooses who will be saved anyway? - and got a couple of chapters in before I realised that I really wasn't interested in the 'problem' the book was addressing. God is God as he is, not as Calvin imagined him to be.

Chapter 3: The Foreknowledge Debate
Position 1: God foreknows all that shall come to pass (Classical view)
Position 2: God knows all that shall be and all that may be (Open view)

This is another debate that I'm actually not that interested in. It doesn't really question the nature of God, but rather questions the nature of reality. Is the future pre-determined or is probability real? In a moment, I am going to walk to my fridge and get a drink of fruit juice. In the fridge there is a carton of apple juice and one of orange juice. Some days I have one, some days I have the other. Is it predetermined that I will have one or the other today or are both futures equally real possibilities? Does God know which I will choose or does he simply know that I will choose one of them, because I'm thirsty? The classical view is that God knows exactly what will be because the future is predetermined and foreknown. The open view is that both possible futures are just that: possible. That is, both are potentially real. God knows both futures but doesn't (indeed, can't) know which it will be. The classical viewpoint is that this limits God's foreknowledge, so can't be the case.

Half a sec... Mmmm. Nice drink of orange juice... Now where was I?

The main objection to the 'open' view seems (to me) to be based on a false assumption. For example, the reasoning goes like this - God planned that Jesus would be crucified, in order to achieve the salvation plan, if probability was in play, there is a chance that Judas wouldn't have betrayed Jesus, or Pilate could have released him without charge, etc. Basically, if its all a mess of probabilities, then the crucifixion might never have happened, and then where would we be?

The false assumption in there is that all God's activity happened at the start of time when he set the ball rolling, and that he is not required to be an active participant in ongoing history. Why? If God decides to achieve something, I'm sure he's big and powerful enough to ensure it happens, even in the midst of messy probabilities. Maybe we view prophesy in the wrong way. Maybe its not predictions of the future, but rather declarations by God of what he will do, irrespective of the flow of probability.

So I don't really see a problem here. I'm happy to accept that much of the future is unwritten, but some important parts of it are pre-planned.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Across the Spectrum: Chapter 1 - The Inspiration Debate

I'm currently reading 'Across the Spectrum' by Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy. The book is an overview of 'Evangelical' belief on most of the primary areas of belief in the Church today. Basically, for each topic covered, the book aims to describe each of the beliefs and justifications for holding to those beliefs, as if that section was written by a proponent of that position. Its quite interesting stuff and not as 'text book' as it sounds. Its certainly food for thought.

But, of course, the reason I am reading it is to figure out what I believe, and my reasons for believing what I believe, and whether my beliefs are justifiable and reasonable. And, of course, to have a critical look at the beliefs of others expressed in this book.

There's a lot in here, so I'll split this discussion across several posts. Here I'll look at the first chapter...

Chapter 1: The Inspiration Debate
Position 1: Without error of any kind (inerrantist view)
Position 2: Infallible in matters of faith and practice (infallibilist view)

I suppose I was raised with the 'inerrantist' belief, but I think I must have slid into the other camp as a fairly young Christian, possibly the first time I ever considered the issues. To me, the 1st position seems a bit blinkered, it basically says that the bible is right on all matters and if reality appears to disagree, then it is reality that has it wrong. Or rather, our perception of reality (whether through scientific or historical study, etc.) must be wrong.

The basic thing I find to be wrong with this point of view is that it does not allow you to question your pre-suppositions. It takes 'the bible' as its starting point, never questioning how that particular combination of 66 books came to be, or indeed, how those individual books came to be written or compiled. So all books in there are equally valid, and any excluded books are not at all valid. And yet the books of Revelation, James and the pastorals only made it into the canon by the skin of their teeth. And what about the Shepherd of Hermas? It was only just excluded.

The position is defended by asserting that Jesus had a very high regard for 'Scripture' - this is certainly the case, but what was Jesus calling scripture? Certainly not any of the 27 books of the New Testament which hadn't even been written yet, possibly not even large chunks of what we now call the Old Testament. Jesus's quotes of scripture are fairly limited to Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy and a couple of prophets. There is good evidence that the 'canon' of the OT hadn't actually been settled upon by the time of Jesus, so we can't use this as evidence for a blanket acceptance of the 66 books we now have.

Also, the position tries to explain away some minor 'apparent errors' by blaming them on scribal and transmission errors. It is only the original manuscripts (which we don't have) that were inerrant, so what we are left with is a 'mostly inerrant' book. Hmmm. I'm not sure I can reconcile that. If God went to all the trouble of giving mankind a perfect book, why didn't he then take the trouble to make sure it was kept perfect. Surely he could have saved at least one copy for posterity?

But that's not to say that I hold to the infallibilist view either. This view has its problems too. Of course, given the nature of this book, these are discussed, but I'm still not left very satisfied. Here, at least, I think the inerrantist view is more defensible. The inerrantist view is internally consistent, if you accept the unquestionable presuppositions, the whole thing works. You have clear cut lines of guidance. Not so if you consider the bible to only be infallible with regard to matters of faith and practice. How does that work? Did God inspire part of the work and then, effectively, say to the authors "you fill in the blanks"? That's not very satisfying. What criteria do you have for deciding which bits are infallible and which aren't?

So what about me? What do I believe? Well, I guess if all of Evangelical Christianity falls into one or other of those positions, then I have fallen out of Evangelical Christianity.

What I find myself believing is that believers in God have honestly written what they believed to be right about their experiences of God and the way he dealt with his people. In some cases these writings have been taken by later believers and compiled into the documents we have, which may have been modified in relatively minor ways during transmission.

So what we have is a record of belief. It may contain factual errors, it may contain misunderstandings, but it also contains the honest beliefs of people like you and me, who encountered God in some way. This makes reading it both more interesting and more tricky as sometimes you have to read between the lines and search elsewhere for context that will make the meaning clear. There's an element of detective work in trying to piece things together.

God speaks through people. He has always spoken through people. None of them were perfect and some of them wrote things down. But don't worry, God can still speak to you through imperfect people, even the ones who wrote thousands of years ago.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Great Angel by Margaret Barker

Margaret Barker's book has, as its core thesis, a concept so heretical that it almost goes full circle and comes back to being 'sound' again. I find the theory fascinating, and reasonably convincing.

It is fairly widely known and agreed by scholars that much of what we call the Old Testament was compiled and edited around about the time of the return from the Babylonian exile, that is to say a little longer ago than 500 BC.

Barker's central thesis is that during this time of compiling, the 'redactor' who compiled the work rewrote or selectively edited significant portions of the text to give a very biased account. Her specific main claim is that the pre-exilic religion of Israel had not been monotheistic at all, but had worshiped at least two gods, but this fact was written out of history by the (monotheistic) redactor, although vestiges remain in the writings.

Very broadly speaking, she says, before this the temple worship was directed to Elyon, the 'Most High God' and to his son Yahweh, who went by a number of names and was understood by some to have both male and female aspects, resulting in the female personification of Ashera/Wisdom.

Erm, so the theory is that there was an ancient religion with a Heavenly Father, an incarnated Son and a less well defined third persona linked to wisdom. Does that sound at all familiar?

Barker, by drawing on the books of the OT and a lot of extra-canonical writings, both from the OT and NT eras, does a fairly convincing job of demonstrating that her thesis is at least worthy of serious consideration, even if she doesn't necessarily manage to prove anything.

I'll admit I got a bit lost in her explanations of how the female persona of Wisdom was understood to be a second aspect of the second God, but I find her evidence that the pre-exilic religion worshiped both the 'Most High' God and Yahweh as discrete and distinct gods as compelling and even convincing.

Why is it heretical - from a Christian viewpoint - to claim that the Jews misunderstood the nature of their God and mis-represent God in the OT? We believe that the Father God and Jesus His Son are discrete and distinguishable persons, and that the Jews are wrong in believing otherwise. What if they once had the right belief and rejected (or lost) it in favour of monotheism? Is it just because their (wrong) belief got incorporated in our Bible that we can't consider that maybe they knew the right stuff and then rejected it?

Barker claims (and provides evidence) that while the monotheism of the redactor is the dominant belief of the written texts (at least, the canonical ones) from the OT era, that the 'common people' (i.e. those who were never carried away to exile) continued to worship the plural Gods long after the exiles returned. Indeed, when Philo was writing 500 years later, there is clear evidence of a plurality of Gods in his (just pre-Christian) writings. He even uses the word 'Logos' to refer to the second God, something that the writer of the 4th gospel would use for Jesus 50 years or so later.

What she suggests (but does not explicitly say in this book, I believe this is the core of her other book 'The Older Testament) is that, basically, the ruling class of Judah/Israel was removed to Babylon and indoctrinated out of their pluralistic belief into a monotheistic one, and then they were returned to Judea to impose the same beliefs on the common people. But the common people never really lost these beliefs, only those who were the recorders of history lost them. So when, several centuries later, Jesus comes along claiming to be the 'Son of God', the common people understood this, and exactly who he was claiming to be. However the priests and rulers, who had long abandoned the pluralistic beliefs, were the ones who rejected Jesus.

The book bombards the reader with evidence. To be honest, I'd have been just as convinced if about half of the stuff was removed - the chapter covering the writings of the gnostics, for example, was more confusing to me than revealing, as were some of the other chapters on "The Name" and the non-canonical 'Wisdom' writings.

However, the final two chapters (where she addresses the writings of the early Christians and the books of the New Testament) are probably the best demonstration of her thesis. Reading the final chapter is an ongoing 'why had I never noticed that before' revelation to the reader and more than convincingly demonstrates that, whatever else the early Christians believed about Jesus, they equated him (God the Son) with Yahweh (the God of Israel in the OT). This is demonstrated by comparing numerous NT passages about Jesus with OT equivalents about Yahweh. Its not that they saw Jesus as being like Yahweh, it is clear that they saw him as being Yahweh.

So even if the reader is not convinced by the other evidence (although I am, reasonably) then you still are faced with the final conundrum. If the first Christians believed Jesus to be Yahweh, and were taught by Jesus to pray to His Father, then who is the Father? The Father cannot be Yahweh, as he is the Son. Ancient traditions, although obscured in the OT, still clearly make reference to the Father of the gods, the Most High God. This is the Father of Jesus.

All this will make me read both Old and New Testaments in a new light...

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Elijah and John the Baptist

I was listening to a podcast this morning which touched upon the expectation of the Jews, in New Testament times, that 'Elijah must come first'.

This comes from the incident in the gospels immediately after the transfiguration.

In Matthew 17v9 and Mark 9v9, Jesus tells his disciples:
“Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Following this, in both accounts, the disciples ask the following question:
“Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”
This strikes me as a very odd question, in context. It doesn't appear to follow from what has gone before. It could be that the disciples are thinking "We've just seen Elijah. He's supposed to come before the Day of the Lord. Therefore, the Day of the Lord is coming. Should we not tell people about this?" but that is perhaps stretching the written story too far.

Its interesting that Luke, in his telling of the transfiguration story (chapter 9), completely omits this discussion. In his telling, the disciples simply do not tell anyone about the transfiguration, even though Jesus never prohibits this, and the disciples do not discuss Elijah further.

I guess the disciples are thinking about the last two verses of the Old Testament (Malachi 4v5&6) which read:
“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”
In Matthew & Mark, Jesus's answer to their question also raises a few issues, he says:
“To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.”
Then Matthew goes on to say that the disciples then understood that Jesus was talking to them about John the Baptist, but Mark's version of the story does not.

It is interesting to note that in John 1v19, John the Baptist is quoted as explicitly denying that he is Elijah.

So what's going on here? Was John the Baptist, in any way, Elijah?
  • Matthew says Yes
  • Mark implies Yes
  • Luke says nothing
  • John says No
Erm, that doesn't really help much. But assuming, for the moment, that Matthew has it right, in what way was John the Baptist Elijah?
  • Reincarnation? Seems a bit unbiblical... but what other options are available?
Skipping past that issue for now, what did John do that "restored all things"? Did he do what Malachi predicted and "turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents"?

Going by what is recorded in the gospels, no. John preached a message of repentance, which is about 'turning hearts' - but this was about people turning back to God, and was nothing to do with child-parent relationships. I might be inclined to read into this story something of the God as Father and us as his children reasoning, were it not for the fact that Malachi's 'parents' are emphatically plural, and something Elijah was going to do involved the parents having a turn of heart. Elijah wasn't about to turn the heart of God, was he?

But what did John the Baptist achieve? A handful of people repented and turned back to the Lord. Hardly restoring 'all things'. OK, so John baptised Jesus, but that raises more issues than it solves, and that also isn't restoring all things.

For now, the only conclusion I can come to here is that the whole thing is a mess. There is no consensus amongst the writers of the gospels as to whether or not John was Elijah or what John achieved if he was.

But the words attributed (by Matthew & Mark) to Jesus are interesting. How can anyone reconcile "Elijah comes and restores all things" and "Elijah has already come" and "They did not recognise him"? Surely if he came and was not recognised then he did not restore all things? If Elijah's mission failed, does that mean that the Day of the Lord cannot come? Or if he did come, does that mean that all things have already been restored? Confused.

Even the passage in Malachi itself is confusing. It says that:
  • Elijah will come before the dreadful day of the Lord comes
  • His mission will be to restore families back to loving relationships with each other
  • His mission will be accomplished
  • If his mission fails then the Lord will strike the land with total destruction

How can the mission fail if it will be accomplished? And what is the threat here anyway? These verses imply that 'the Day of the Lord' is not as bad as total destruction. What exactly is the 'dreadful' Day of the Lord as described here?

You know, the whole thing appears to be a confusing mess. I'm not sure any of it actually can be reconciled by someone who believes all these passages are inspired and infallible. It only makes sense using the understanding that all of these writings were written by fallible people with different (perhaps half-baked) ideas about what was going on.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

After the ascension

What happened to Jesus after he ascended?

Luke (Acts) describes him leaving in bodily form, and Revelation pictures his eventual return in bodily form, and various other places talk of him being 'seated at the right hand of the Father' - which suggests wherever he is right now, he is in bodily form (although, it also suggests the Father is in bodily form too).

But Paul (e.g. Ephesians 4v10: "He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe") talks in language that suggests that Jesus does not remain in bodily form.

Which is it?

Why does it matter?

Well, the former option has a few problems for me, specifically where exactly Jesus is, but more importantly, what he can do. In the gospels, even in resurrection appearances, Jesus appears to be limited in capabilities by his physical form - sure he can appear in locked rooms, but he can only interact with small numbers of people at any given time. Today literally millions of people pray to him on a daily basis, if he's constrained in any way by humanity, I kind of doubt that he can actually deal with all that.

If, however, he has returned to his pre-incarnation form, then will he have to re-incarnate for the second coming? (and then de-incarnate again at some time after that in order to interact with all his people?) - That all starts to get a bit messy.

The more I think about it, the more I find myself thinking that the former option (remaining in the body) is more consistent with the faith I was raised with, but is less consistent with reality and practicality - in other words, I can't see how it would actually work - while the latter option (returning to spirit) might make more spiritual sense, but starts raising questions about some doctrines like the second coming.

Anyone got any insights here? I have to say I'm really struggling with this one - the ascension seems pretty mythical to me, but if it is a myth, then either the story ended a different way, or a lot more of it is myth...

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Agnostic Christian

Being a Christian does not mean having all the answers. It does not mean that you have no doubts. It means seeking to follow Jesus wherever he leads.

One of the things I find myself considering and re-considering at the moment is the Bible. What is it? What is its role in the life of the Christian? Here's what I'm thinking:

The bible is not a book of answers, rather, it is a guide book - containing a pattern of how to live or what to do, rather than actually answering the big questions in life. In fact, I'd go further than that and say that it isn't so much a guide book as a record of what believers in the past did and believed. Sometimes the stories are there as a warning rather than as a guide.

Amazingly, its now over four years since I wrote this post about the role of the Bible and this post about 2 Timothy 3:16-17. I was basically thinking the same stuff back then, although I'm probably about to be a little bit more heretical now than I was then...

You see, I don't think I can consider the Bible as, in any way, a proof of anything anymore. I'm not sure I was ever of the opinion: "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it", but I'm now a bit further from that opinion. I'm now more like: "The Bible says it, that shows us something of what the person who wrote that bit of the bible believed, that opens up a whole heap of interesting questions..."

You see, for many years I read the Bible, and occasional books by apologists about the Bible, and occasional 'sound' commentaries on the Bible, but all stuff written from the perspective that the Bible is the inspired Word (with a capital 'W') of God.

More recently (and I guess this goes back to about 1994, when I read Robin Lane Fox's "The Unauthorised Version", if you call that 'recently') I've been reading some books which take a more 'liberal' or 'critical' look at the Bible and the more I read, the more layers of interesting (yet 'heretical') stuff I begin to see in the Bible. Stuff that's always been there but that I was prevented in seeing from my 'Evangelical' perspective.

The problem is, the more you read, the less sure of the Bible you become. Take, for example, the first couple of chapters of Genesis. I was taught to read this as one continuous creation story, and yet when you look at it closely, there are two different stories which are completely irreconcilable. In one, God creates everything, with man being the pinnacle of creation - made in the very image of God - to rule over creation. In the other, God creates the world and sees that it needs a caretaker, so he creates man to work in the garden, and gives strict commands to the man to work and stay in his place. Basically, God has not created a ruler, but a slave. And its into this situation that the Prometheus character comes, offering the man the chance to break his chains and become free. Not a devil, but the one who frees mankind from slavery. These are two conflicting and contradictory versions of the character of God. The weird thing is that most modern Christians believe that God has the character from the first story, but that we originated in the second...

Here, viewed 'critically', it is clear that there were (at least) two different ancient stories, which some later editor lumped together into one edited work. As far as I can tell, based on some of the things I have read, this editor lived in the time of the Babylonian exile, possibly later than that. That is, several thousand years after the events he's compiling a book about. I wonder what stories he left out? Presumably ones that didn't fit with his world view?

But if this is an edited work, representing the beliefs of the editors, that means that quite a lot of information may be missing, and the 'facts' may be nothing of the sort.

So where does that leave us now?


That means I have to be agnostic on many issues. Many, many issues. Almost everything, if we're honest.

Lets go for a biggie... Did God create the universe?

I dunno. The bible says that he created 'the heavens and the earth' (Genesis) or 'the worlds' (Hebrews), but as the bible doesn't count as proof, and nothing I can experience of God now can tell me about events thousands or millions of years ago, I have to remain agnostic on this one. God might have created utterly everything, or he might be part of that everything and only have created a little bit of it, or he might not be the creator, but still be God. (I said I was going to get heretical, didn't I?)

While I'm not denying the actual reality of God, through his Spirit, in the here and now, I'm beginning to perceive a fairly large chasm between our current experience and the written word. No current experience can count as evidence for any historical claim.

The problem with that statement above is that all we know about the relationship between 'God' and 'his Spirit' comes from the book that I've just said we can't be sure about.

Hmmm. Seems like I don't know anything anymore. I am agnostic.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Portofino is a seaside resort in northern Italy, and is the setting for a novel by Frank Schaeffer - the son of the well known Presbyterian missionary, writer and preacher Francis Schaeffer. The book claims to be fiction, but apparently (if you read Frank Schaeffer's autobiography 'Crazy for God') it is largely based on Frank's real life experiences as a child.

The family presented in the book are fairly extreme, fundamentalist, Presbyterian types. The book is from the point of view of the youngest son - Calvin - who isn't quite as extreme in his views as the rest of his family. (This very much mirrors Frank Schaeffer's own life, as he rejected the fundamentalism of his upbringing and is now part of an Orthodox church).

As someone who grew up in a 'Conservative Evangelical Presbyterian' church, an awful lot of this book is frighteningly familiar. The characters are slightly (but only slightly!) exaggerated versions of people I grew up around. All the attitudes and opinions are real.

And the book shows just how ridiculous and unrealistic some of the attitudes and opinions are, in the context of the real world. The book also shows the hypocrisy of the main family and the tensions within the family, all of which rung very true.

If you want a (not very flattering) look into the minds of Conservative Evangelicals in the 60s (and not much had changed by the 70s, when I came along) then this is the book for you. The opinions regarding the 'lost', trying to out-pray each other to show who was more pious, praying extended graces over meals in public places as 'witness', all this was frighteningly accurate. I particularly loved the ongoing joke about the Presbyterian church the family were part of, which kept on splitting into factions, and so the PCUSA became the PCCUSA and later the PCCCUSA.

Anyway, if your upbringing was anything like mine, you'll find this an entertaining, if cringeworthy, read.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Historical Jesus: Five Views

I've just finished reading this book. My wife thought it looked 'the most boring book ever' but I stuck with it and found it fascinating, for the most part.

The book starts with an essay (by the editors) walking the reader through the history of the 'quest' for the historical Jesus, highlighting all the main players in the debate and all the major schools of thought over the past couple of hundred years. What becomes clear in all of this is that the quest for the historical Jesus is highly dependent on the initial assumptions of the quester, and it is not clear from this essay (or any of the five that follow it) if any set of conclusions about who the 'historical' Jesus might have been are ever anything but an extrapolation from the assumptions, with little or no input from the historical research.

I should explain, just in case you don't know what is meant by the 'Historical Jesus', that this is a quest for the real Jesus - the man who actually lived and walked in Galilee - and the quest is somewhat (possibly entirely) based on the assumption that the Jesus described in the Gospels is not an accurate or unbiased picture of him. Some claim that the gospels present - at best - a view of Jesus as seen through rose tinted spectacles, while others claim that the majority of stories of Jesus in the gospels are purely mythical, with little or no basis in anything historical.

And so we come to the five essays that form the bulk of the book. These cover the range from Robert M. Price (aka 'The Bible Geek'), who presents the opinion that the Gospels are an attempt to ground an entirely mythical character in history, and there never was a real or historical Jesus, through to Darrell L. Bock, who basically takes the modern Evangelical view that the Jesus depicted in the gospels is the real Jesus, these stories are literal and fairly accurate. In between are three essays from established names in theology who - more or less - fill in the middle ground between these two extremes, occasionally agreeing with one another, occasionally disagreeing on fairly important points.

One of the most interesting things in the book is that each of the five contributors is given the opportunity to respond to each of the essays of the others. In general they do by presenting a short rebuttal that points to their own essay for details, but it is fascinating to observe the debate and the reasons each player holds for their position. Once again, it becomes apparent that in most cases, their initial assumptions completely bias their conclusions.

I must say that I found the two most extreme views (the first and last essays) to be the most interesting, while the others in the middle contained some interesting stuff, but also contained a lot of (apparently) groundless assumptions.

So I suppose the most interesting question for you to ask of me at this point is which version of the historical Jesus am I most persuaded by? The problem in this is highlighted in a few of the essays which distinguish the 'Jesus of Faith' and the 'Historical Jesus'. Indeed, some point to a significant disconnect between Jesus in his earthly ministry and the resurrected Lord Jesus. Your view of the latter inevitably colours your view of the former. In other words, if you believe that Jesus is Lord and God now, you will inevitably attribute the same characteristics back onto the historical man. So the Christian is, almost by definition, biased towards the beliefs expressed in the final essay.

And yet, there are things in the other four essays that I found compelling. I must say, less so in the case of the essay by John Dominic Crossan, who presented the historical Jesus as a secular and non miracle-doing political activist.

Of particular interest to me at the moment was the importance of Jesus's non-violent stance, emphasised by the fact that none of Jesus's followers were crucified with him - clearly Rome expected no resistance from Jesus's disciples, clearly non-violence was at the core of his teaching. And yet, this aspect of Jesus's teaching is notable by its absence in much of contemporary Christianity - indeed, many Christians actively support war and soldiers, etc. If such a wide spectrum of theologians are convinced Jesus was all about peace, why is the wider church not preaching this today?

One of the issues I had with a couple of the essays is that they started with the premise that Jesus was a product of his society. Of course, this is in part true, but if Jesus was in any way sent from God to try and change society (whether you believe he was God incarnate, in some way divine, or just a tuned-in holy man) then he was not a product of the society, but an external factor attempting to change it. Assuming that he was a product of society is to assume that God has nothing to do with it.

And this is, of course, where most of the quest for the 'historical' Jesus falls apart - if he was unique, if he did miracles, if he spoke directly from God with authority, then historical searching cannot reveal this. History deals in possibilities and probabilities. A once-in-history event is amazingly improbable and, by today's standards, impossible. History cannot confirm anything miraculous, it can only show that some historical people believed this to be true. And so the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith will always be different. It doesn't mean the latter is not true, it just means that history cannot lead us to him.

So what do I believe? I believe that someone hears prayers and sometimes answers. I believe that the blind can have their sight restored, the lame can be restored to walking, those with leprosy can be cured, the deaf can hear again. I believe there is good news for the poor. I believe the Jesus of history changed lives and restored broken people, and I believe the Jesus of faith still does.

I'm just not sure how much of a disconnect there is between the two.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Grasping equality with God

I've been listening to a lot of podcasts (from different viewpoints) on the subject of 'The Synoptic Problem' this week. (I don't get much chance to read these days, but I do get a couple of hours a day commuting time in which to listen to stuff...). I'll probably blog about the core issues sometime soon. But here's a tangent from it.

One of the basic threads running through the synoptic debate goes like this: Jesus gets more and more divine as the documents describing him get later, in Mark (probably the first gospel written), he is presented mostly as a man, in John (the last) he is presented as fully God. The implication of this is that the very first Christians did not see Jesus as being God (not part of the trinity, or anything like that) and this is a later addition to Christianity.

So. What is the earliest writing about Jesus?

It seems to me that most theologians agree that the writings of Paul predate the gospels. And there appear to be bits in Paul that he quotes from even earlier sources, including the hymn in Philippians 2.

In other words, this is possibly one of the earliest writings about Jesus:

Philippians 2v5-8
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!
Now, I'm not going to get bogged down into the old debate about what 'being in very nature God' means (maybe another time), but I am interested in the second part of that line: 'did not consider equality with God something to be grasped'.

I've had a look in multiple translations (and in the Greek dictionary!) and it seems to me to say (or at least to imply) that while Jesus had the very nature of God, he did not have equality with God. Equality was within his grasp (i.e. he was slightly lower, but not by a long way), but he chose not to try for it, rather he chose to step down.

Hang on, if Jesus didn't have equality with God to begin with, who or what is he?

The 4th gospel, which most scholars are agreed is one of the later documents in the NT, clearly presents Jesus as equal with God. But here we have a much earlier statement being fairly clear that Jesus is not equal with God. Both are in the bible. Which is true?

Friday, September 03, 2010

Where does it say...? #2

I'm reading a book at the moment that is very 'evangelical' in its view of the world. A review will probably follow when I'm finished it. But there is one thing that has been niggling me right the way through reading the book, and its this:

An awful lot of the reasoning in the book relies on the underlying assumption that this world isn't important, and that all this is really just a preparation for 'heaven', which is real life. In essence, what happens in this world doesn't matter except insofar as it gets you ready for the life to come.

Where does it say that in the bible?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

How can there be two opposing desires within the Trinity?

Inspired by a recent episode of the Reasonable Doubts podcast.

I'm still wrestling with the whole issue of the Trinity. The concept is not found 'fully formed' in the bible, but there are a smattering of verses that provide a foundation for an embryonic belief in the trinity.

What is not clear to me is how exactly the whole Trinity thing is supposed to work?

Take the situation in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14v32-36):
They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, "Sit here while I pray." He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death," he said to them. "Stay here and keep watch."

Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. "Abba, Father," he said, "everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will."
Here we clearly have the situation where the Father and the Son 'will' opposite things. They are not united in the desires of their hearts. One has to set aside his own will to do the will of the other.

Now this is perfectly understandable if they are two discrete persons, but not really understandable if they are two parts of a perfect unity.

How do trinitarians manage to harmonise this? Anyone got any insights here?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Where does it say...? #1

This is the first in an occasional series of short posts asking the simple question

'Where does it say [such and such] in the bible?'

I believe that many current 'Biblically based' Christian beliefs are based on nothing of the sort.

So where does it say that God is infinite?

Lots of Christians believe this, but where does it say it?

Thursday, August 05, 2010

The forgotten twist in 'The Prodigal Son' story

I've heard this story preached many times before, including twice this week. The emphasis used to be on the son. Then people used to focus on 'the loving Father'. More recently I've heard an awful lot about the elder brother.

But in all the times I've heard this preached, there's one aspect of the story that I've never heard a sermon on...

Luke 15v11-13:
Jesus continued: "There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them.
"Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.
And so on...
Did you notice the first twist in the story?

The younger son goes to the father and said (in essence) "Give me everything I'll get when you are dead". This is fairly shocking in itself, but the amazing thing here is that the father does this!

What does this tell us about God? He's prepared to give the full share of inheritance to those who reject him, wish him dead, or even deny his existence? What does that mean in practice?

Wednesday, July 07, 2010


I've just read 'The Post Evangelical' by Dave Tomlinson. I read it on holiday in the space of 24 hours, its a short book.

Its a good book, on the whole. Like many of the people on the Amazon reviews page, and elsewhere online, I read it with a sense of relief - there are other people out there like me. And yet, it still leaves a slightly odd aftertaste and a slightly uncomfortable feeling that I can't quite put my finger on.

So what is a 'post evangelical' you might be wondering?

Well, the book is making a case for a third flavour of modern Christianity. Like the author, I was brought up in an 'Evangelical' church where it was believed that there were only really two types of congregation - 'evangelical' or 'liberal'. If you weren't evangelical, you were liberal by default. Evangelicals are the ones who take the bible literally as the Word of God, while liberals are the ones who critically question (i.e. doubt or disbelieve) almost everything in there...

The book makes the case that there are a number of people (the book is based on a number of interviews, we are told) who don't really fit into evangelical churches, who question beliefs and doubt bible stories, but still hold to the 'evangel' - the gospel. These people are not, and do not want to be liberals, but they're not really evangelicals either - they just don't hold the same certainties about the bible or God as most evangelicals do. There is a lot more uncertainty and mystery in post-evangelicalism than there is in evangelical churches.

So there are many good points, well made in this book. And then you realise that the book was written 15 years ago and surely the post evangelical 'movement' it was describing the start of should have come to something by now...? Where are the post evangelical churches? Have I missed it, or did the movement just never happen?

While the main emphases of the book are good and well presented, it does occasionally stray off the path - it goes too far into its discussion of aspects of 'post modernism' and sociology at times, and sometimes there is no clear reason why the author holds so close to some evangelical beliefs whilst drifting so far from others. For example (and, to me this was the most clanging mis-step in the book) early on the author questions the place of marriage for the Christian - basically asking the question 'is it OK for Christians to live together before / instead of marriage?' - and coming to the out-of-place conclusion that the actual marriage ceremony is not that important to the post evangelical! And this without much justification. And then a few paragraphs further on he asserts that the post evangelical will agree with all of the Apostles Creed. Dunno about most people who the book resonates with, but I get those the other way around.

It was a good book. Not a great one. It'll only take you a couple of hours to read and it does contain some gems. Definitely recommended, despite the flaws.

Monday, June 07, 2010

The dynamics of prayer...

There is a strange dynamic in corporate prayer. Maybe you've noticed it yourself, or maybe its just me.

Every now and again in a corporate prayer setting, like a prayer meeting or - in the specific instance I'm thinking of here - during 'ministry time' in a church service, an odd thing happens.

I don't know about you, but for me in a corporate prayer setting, I never jump right in straight away when someone else has finished praying, I usually leave a gap. And during this gap I generally formulate what I'm going to pray for when I open my mouth. And quite often, someone else will start praying before me, and - weirdly - will start praying for the exact same thing I was about to pray for.

This has happened to me too many times for it to be coincidence. Clearly there is a dynamic going on in prayer beyond me just phrasing the words to say and saying them. Something external to me inspires me to pray certain things.

Of course, I'm assuming that this external factor is the Spirit of God.

It happened on Sunday morning this week. I was praying with two others for a guy in the church. During a moment's silence I decided that I would pray for God to bless the guy's business - which was not really connected to the things we'd just been praying for. And just as I was about to open my mouth, one of the other guys jumped in and started praying for the profitability of the guy's business.

So what I'm noticing is this - in a corporate prayer setting, the Spirit of God inspires you to say certain things to God. In other words, God decides what we ask him for.

So who benefits from such a prayer? If God knows what we're going to pray for, because he Himself decided it, what is the point? Why bother involving me in the process?

I once heard it said that when we pray, we move the hands of God. But if we're moving the hands of God to the place that he decided to move them to anyway, what is our involvement in it worth?

Is it for the benefit of me - the person doing the praying, or for the benefit of the guy being prayed for? Indeed, I have had this experience in settings when we've been praying for people far away, so I guess its - in part - for the benefit of the person doing the praying.

But I find it an odd dynamic.

Anyone else have this experience? Anyone got any insight?

Saturday, May 29, 2010


I've recently discovered the 'Unbelievable' podcast from Premier Christian Radio. Its quite good, if a bit biased, and cheesy. The basic format is to have a Christian guest and a non-Christian guest on each week to debate the issue of the week. Occasionally they break from this format to have, for example, a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim on the show to debate some topic. On other occasions they have Christians with different viewpoints debating the issue.
I've just listened to the podcast on 'Hell' (from August last year). On the show they had three Christians representing two different viewpoints: James White was defending the "eternal conscious torment" position while Roger & Faith Forster were defending the "conditional immortality" position, that is, that at some point the people in hell will be utterly destroyed and will not live forever.

I found the whole debate to be a bit pointless, quite annoying and, to be honest, the in-built beliefs of both sides were pretty distasteful at points.

Its amazing what you can end up believing if you build your world view and your belief of God on certain selective verses.

The most distasteful (in my opinion) belief that the "conditional immortality" camp put forward was this: that the sinner cast into hell would experience suffering and torment for a period of time, more or less proportional to the amount of sin, after which they would be annihilated and would cease to exist. In other words, they believe in a God who tortures people before killing them. There is no love in that picture. Sorry, but I can't reconcile that with an awful lot of statements about God which are in the bible.

However, I have to say that on the whole, if I had to ally myself to one side or the other in this debate, theirs was the more agreeable position. I found much more to disagree with in the other opinion.

The other opinion seemed to rest on this assumption - that any sin committed against an infinite God requires infinite punishment. Sorry, what? How do you come to that conclusion? The bible never paints God as being infinite for a start (infinity is a mathematical concept that cannot be applied to real things; if God were infinite, there would be no room in the multiverse for anything else except God, so if its true, then we're all God, and so is the devil, and so is the internet, etc. - this is clearly not the case), but beyond that, the bible is quite clear that the punishment should always fit the crime. There is no logic in this deduction, a finite crime should always have finite consequences.

Where the debate really broke down, for me, was when they came to the subject of the Cross. Somehow - in the mind of James White at least, and in the others to a lesser extent - Jesus was able to pay for all the sin of all those who believe in his name in a period of suffering and death that lasted about a day, followed by up to three days in hell (according to some). Meanwhile, it is not possible for one sinner to atone for his own sins in an infinite eternity of suffering in hell. Sorry, I just can't go along with that view of the atonement.

If sin can be atoned for by suffering & death, then finite sin can be atoned for by finite suffering and death. Therefore hell should not be eternal.

If sin cannot be atoned for by suffering and death, then an eternity of suffering counts for nothing, and a loving God would not impose this on anyone. Therefore there should be no hell.

Am I missing something here? Or over-simplifying it?

Personally I hold to the opinion that 'hell' is the destroying fire where the rubbish is thrown. The fire may be eternal, but the rubbish is consumed and destroyed. It is not a place of consciousness, but of annihilation. Anyone cast into hell will cease to be. But this is not a belief that is foundational to my belief system, and I admit that I may be wrong on this. Its just what I currently believe. Listening to this debate has not provided me with any compelling evidence or reasoning to change my stance on this belief.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Am I a hypocrite?

There was some discussion of a minor issue in a bible passage at housegroup on Thursday. Doesn't really matter what the passage or issue was.

I have my own personal opinions on the subject under discussion, some honest doubts that are really quite technical and not really suitable for the level of discussion we were having in housegroup.

But I also knew the 'orthodox' answer. And so when the discussion started to get messy, I stepped in, quoted the appropriate verses from the appropriate passages and resolved the discussion to the satisfaction of the group.

Thing is, I have some serious issues with the passage I quoted and (along with some proper bible scholars) am reasonably convinced that it is a very late-written passage, written by someone other than the person it claims as author. Basically, I'm not sure that the passage has any right to be included in the canon of scripture. Thus the reasoning I used is (in my opinion) false.

Does that make me a hypocrite?

In my defence, I did it 'for the sake of the weaker brother'. It was the appropriate way to deal with the discussion and it probably helped boost the faith and understanding of some of the group. But I do feel a bit of a hypocrite.

I wonder, do ministers often have this feeling? Presenting the opinion that the congregation needs to hear, even if they personally disagree? If you're a minister reading this, please let me know. Anonymously (or, preferably, pseudonymously) if you like.

Monday, May 03, 2010

The Apostles' Creed

The Apostles' Creed (3rd Century, or thereabouts) says this:
I believe in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth:

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead, and buried:
He descended into hell;
The third day he rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost;
The holy Catholic Church;
The Communion of Saints;
The Forgiveness of sins;
The Resurrection of the body,
And the Life everlasting.
What I find interesting about this creed is not necessarily what it says, but rather what it doesn't say, and what is implied from the things it does say. Of course - and this will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog - I don't agree with all of it. Its not necessarily that I disagree with all of it, but just that I think some of it is treading on that shaky ground where I'm happy to say 'I don't know' and not happy to land on one side or the other.

Most of the 'I believe' statements actually need some unpacking. When it says 'I believe in the Holy Ghost' what does that mean? For example, it doesn't say 'I believe that the Holy Ghost is the third person of the Trinity'. Its more like 'I believe that there is something or someone called The Holy Ghost', but it tells me nothing about what the claimant believes about the Holy Ghost.

And what about the 'Communion of Saints' - we say these words, but what do we actually mean by them? As I understand it, Catholic teaching traditionally means that there is some mystical unity between Christians who are currently alive and those who are currently in Purgatory or Heaven. But I've never, ever, in nearly 40 years of church-going heard this preached upon, and I very much doubt that the majority of Evangelical Christians actually believe this, although they might repeat these words in Church every now and again.

What else? Well, why is the virginity of Mary such an important point here? If I believe all of this, except the virginity of Mary, does that mean that my salvation is lost? I doubt it, so why specify it? Even more than that, why include 'under Pontius Pilate'? The only conceivable reason for mentioning Pilate here is that, at the time the creed was formulated, there must have been some debate - some voices must have been claiming that Christ died at some other point in history, and this creed was aiming to stamp out the heresy.

And what about the 'descended into hell' bit? Is there a hell that is a physical place? Is it below? Was it there 2000 years ago or is it a future thing, like Revelation seems to imply? So much of Jesus's teaching relates to lifestyle-choices which will keep you out of hell, surely he is the least likely person ever to have gone there, if such a place even existed?

But what doesn't it say? It says nothing about how to live, it says nothing about love, relationship, service of others, acts of generosity or sacrifice. It doesn't acknowledge that Jesus did or said anything during his earthly life. The only thing he was born to do was suffer and die, if this is any kind of basis of faith. His commands were clearly not fundamental to faith.

The more I think on these issues, the more annoyed I get. I reject this creed and all others.

Monday, April 12, 2010

'What the Bible really teaches: A challenge for Fundamentalists' by Keith Ward

I can't remember how this book ended up on my Amazon wishlist, but somehow it did and I bought it.

To be honest, I found it a bit of a struggle to read, but not for good reasons.

The basic purpose of the book is to demonstrate that the range of "Bible based" beliefs of fundamentalists are not 'what the Bible really teaches'... This purpose, the book sort of manages. But it fails in other regards.

The main problems with the book are:
  • the author occasionally uses a really clunky writing style
  • he repeats himself far too much
  • that the word 'sublated' is used several times per page (if I never read that word again, it'll be too soon)
  • and that the author attempts to give a 'true' picture of what the Bible really teaches while demonstrating that the fundamentalist view is false...
You see, the author does a pretty good job of demonstrating that several views of fundamentalists are flawed. And if he'd stuck to that, the book would have worked (although it would have been very negative). But instead he proposes an alternative belief/interpretation for each view and ends up proposing something that is equally as flawed as the fundamentalist view he has just trashed.

I think the main problem is that he tries to maintain that 'the Bible' has a single, unified message. Of course, a simple reading of it will show that this is not the case. There are disagreements and inconsistencies within the bible. For example, does the follower of Jesus have to follow the Torah law? - absolutely yes, if you go by the teaching of Jesus in Matthew's gospel, absolutely not, if you go by some of the letters of Paul. The author can't bring himself to admit that it is possible that Matthew had a biased opinion which colours his gospel, so he ends up explaining how Paul's writings 'sublate' the teaching of Jesus. Hang on. He's saying that the incarnated Son of God appears and teaches a simple message, which is then overturned and superceded by the teachings of a mere man less than a generation later and before the original teachings had even been written down? Seems a bit unlikely.

Me, I think its more likely that the Son of God preached a message that would stand for all time, and both Matthew and Paul interpreted it through their own preconception-filters, and its this interpretation which they then wrote down. Of course, that doesn't allow the Bible to be infallible, but that's probably a blog post for another time.

But its not all bad. I really quite liked the discussion of belief in the 'Second Coming' (to be discussed in a future blog post) and the bits about Jesus's death as atonement or otherwise. But the take on 'Salvation' was bamboozling and inconsistent, as was the discussion of morality.

So I can't recommend this to anyone. But there was some interesting stuff in there. You might like it.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

"I hope you've got your bibles with you..."

The church seems to go through seasons of repeating this refrain, but I have noticed it as a recurring theme in recent weeks, not just in church services that I've been at, but also in podcasts I've listened to: "I hope you've got your bibles with you..." (or words to that effect).

Generally, the stated purpose of this is along the lines of: "If you don't have your own copies of the bible with you and read along, you have no idea if I'm deceiving you or not..."

Eh, what? You know, in all my years of attending church I don't think I have ever heard anyone deliberately misquote the bible in order to teach a non-biblical message.

So why should the congregation members have to bring their bibles along and read along? For most of history this would have been impossible for people to do - before the invention of the printing press bibles were only for the very rich, and beside that the majority of people were illiterate. Back then, the ordinary believers had to trust the reader and preacher, so why not nowadays?

But I've just realised that this refrain can actually be used for a slight deception if the people do bring their own bibles along and read along. For you see, the preacher will generally be preaching an interpretation of a bible passage or a message resting on the foundations of several biblical passages. And if the congregation member sees that the bible passages referred to are genuine, then that lends support to the interpretation or message presented. Even if the interpretation is not good or the message is flawed in some way. If the congregation member sees that it has its roots in the bible, they're more likely to believe it.

Now I'm not saying that everyone who encourages their congregation to bring their bibles along is doing this, but it might be happening somewhere...

Think I'll leave my bible at home this morning.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Witness vs demonstration

Further to my earlier post, I have to comment on one aspect of one of the talks from last year's Vineyard Leaders Conference (UK) that I've been listening to. The rather uninspiringly titled "The reformation today: Theology 2" (link to mp3) is one of the best and most challenging talks I've heard in a long time. Highly recommended, even if the audio quality is a bit lacking.

One of the points made in the talk was that when Jesus sent out his disciples (Matt 10, Mark 6, Luke 9) to preach, his instructions were simple:
  1. Preach the simple message "the Kingdom of Heaven is near"
  2. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with leprosy, drive out demons
  3. If anyone is unwelcoming, simply move on to the next place
At no point in there is the instruction to debate non-believers, or attempt to convince anyone of anything - if people don't want to hear, just move on, leave them alone, someone else will want to hear.

How come nobody seems to view evangelism in those terms today? Some folk seem to go out of their way to try and persuade those who aren't interested about the reality of the gospel.

Oh, hang on, the problem with the 'proclaim and demonstrate' model of witness is that (for the most part) we don't seem to be willing or able to do the 'heal the sick' bit these days. Or rather, it is easier to try to engage with non-believers on an intellectual level, because if they don't believe this is due to some fault in their perception of reality. Whereas if we tried to heal people and nothing happened then it would be our lack of faith, our fault.

Hmmm. Maybe we should be more about demonstration than debate.

“Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words” as St Francis of Assisi once supposedly said.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Witness vs Gospel

I have a bias.

I don't think I ever really thought of it as a bias until last week. It concerns the content of sermons, or talks at Christian events, whether it be a Sunday morning church service or a weekend conference or an event like Greenbelt.

The bias is this: speakers who preach from the bible and expound what it says = good / speakers who preach about their own life and experiences of God, occasionally using seemingly random verses and passages to support what they're saying = bad.

I know where the bias comes from, I was raised with it. This is exactly the opinion of my parents and the church I was raised in. It was instilled in me from a very young age. So I never really noticed it before, or that it might be a bad thing.

You see, I've always thought that witness really involved telling people about what Jesus did 2000 years ago. And it kind-of annoys me when people / preachers talk about what happened in their lives last year, even if what they're telling is what Jesus did in their lives last week. I suppose my bias could be summed up by saying: 'if it isn't in the bible, its not worth preaching'.

Is this a good bias? Is it right? I'm not so sure.

For about three years now we've been attending a Vineyard church, and the teaching style generally treads the line between the two styles - generally there's a lot of preaching from the bible, but there's also the personal experience stuff too. Sometimes I like this balance, sometimes I wish there was more exposition. Usually I don't notice my bias. But it generally comes out when we have visiting speakers - most of the visitors we have had over the past few years have preached their experiences of God, not expounded. And as a result I have been biased against them without realising it. It came to my attention this week as I've been listening to the talks from the Vineyard Leaders' Conference from last year (I actually meant to listen to this year's talks but downloaded the wrong ones by accident, doh!).

The main speaker, Steve Nicholson, tells some fascinating stories of what God has done in his life and church, with only occasional reference to the bible. And along the way he mentioned that 'witness' is talking about what you've seen. And I realised that he's right. I didn't witness anything 2000 years ago, indeed, I have only hazy memories of the 1970s! If I'm to witness it must be about things I've seen - better still, it should be about what God has done in my life.

So, I've finally realised that witness is not equal to gospel.

Hopefully I can work around this bias, now that I'm aware of it.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Kingdom Theology: Part 1- Inaugurated Eschatology

My housegroup has started doing a short course from the Vineyard Biblical Institute called "The Nature of the Kingdom". Its one of the basic 'School of Ministry Level' courses. We're doing one session every few weeks, so we won't be getting through it in a hurry. But I'll post my thoughts on each session as we go.

The only really theological part of the first session consisted of the assertion that Jesus message was one of 'Inaugurated Eschatology' - a phrase that clearly baffled some members of the group.

Eschatology is: "The branch of theology that is concerned with the end of the world or of humankind."

Inaugurate is: "to make a formal beginning of; initiate; commence; begin"

So Inaugurated Eschatology is to formally begin the end of the world. Which sounds a bit worrying.

I understood the point of the explanation (there was a video of a talk explaining all this), but I'm not sure I totally agree.

You see, in my opinion, Jesus' teaching of the Kingdom is only inaugurated eschatology if you assume that 'the Kingdom of Heaven' is the thing that is only fully realised after you die, if heaven is your future state after the end of the world.

Is this what Jesus taught? Is this what his listeners would have understood by the phrase 'the Kingdom of heaven'?

I don't think so.

I used to think that way. That heaven was the place you go when you die (if you've been good). But now (and for a few years now) I have understood that the place of future hope is not heaven, but a restored 'new earth'. So heaven is not an unrealised future ideal, but heaven is the place where God rules now.

This is somewhat supported by the fact that the gospels use the phrases 'the kingdom of heaven' and 'the kingdom of God' reasonably interchangeably. God isn't a future hope, he's a present reality, so the kingdom of God isn't some future thing, its a present reality.

Does this actually change things? Well, perhaps not much. But maybe it does - if your hope is fixed in some (far?) future event your actions will be different than if your hope is fixed on some achievable near future event - the kingdom being (at least partially) realised on earth now...

Larry Norman once sung "I'm only visiting this planet. This world is not my home. I'm just passing through..." but I'm not sure if that's the way things are - this world is our home. This world will be redeemed and transformed and will continue to be our home. My hope is to see the kingdom established here, not to endure here until I can go elsewhere to the kingdom.

Surely by imagining the kingdom as a future thing we are changing the message of Jesus - who proclaimed that the kingdom is near and the kingdom is here?

Friday, January 15, 2010


Luke 19v 1-10
He entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man called by the name of Zaccheus; he was a chief tax collector and he was rich. Zaccheus was trying to see who Jesus was, and was unable because of the crowd, for he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to see Him, for He was about to pass through that way. When Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, "Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house." And he hurried and came down and received Him gladly. When they saw it, they all began to grumble, saying, "He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner." Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, "Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much." And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost."
I've heard a number of sermons that touch on the subject of Zaccheus, and most of them point out that he was (as far as the Jews were concerned) in the pay of the evil Empire and therefore a sinner.

What never occurred to me before was that at no point in the story does Zaccheus quit his job. Salvation comes to his house, yet he remains in the pay of the evil Empire.

What does this tell us about the way we relate to certain employers or occupations?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Ezekiel 20:25

Ezekiel 20:25 (New American Standard Bible)
I also gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not live
Eh? What's going on here? This is one of those 'thus sayth the Lord' passages. So here it appears that God himself is saying that he gave the Israelites laws that were 'not good' and impossible to live by...?

Can God give bad laws? More importantly, did God give bad laws, and if so, which of the 613 laws are the bad ones?

And all this is just the run up to verse 26 that implies that one of the bad laws involved human infant sacrifice:
I let them become defiled through their gifts — the sacrifice of every firstborn — that I might fill them with horror so they would know that I am the LORD.
So many questions here...???

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Between two stools

I seem to have fallen between two stools...

I've been reading a lot of stuff recently that critically examines the Bible. This has brought me to the point of questioning my own long-held beliefs on the bible itself. OK, I haven't subscribed to the 'infallible' opinion for a very long time, possibly never, but I have still believed that the book contained the Word of God, even if not every word in there was inspired. But when viewed from a critical perspective, it certainly appears that the many books of the Bible (specifically the New Testament) do not speak with a common voice.

The writer of the gospel of Luke would appear to disagree with the writer of the gospel of Mark. Not just on minor details, but on the very essence of what Jesus was about and who he was. And then the writer of John comes along and changes everything. Not only is his interpretation of the events different from the other three, he has different events totally.

And how can we deal with the issues surrounding the epistles? The evidence seems reasonably compelling that Paul did not write several of them, whoever wrote the letters allegedly by Peter lived far too late to actually be Peter, and so on. Its enough to make you fall off the stool of belief altogether...


The Christian life works. Worship works (as I've said before). Healing happens. It still seems like God reaches through to touch us... but who is this God? If most of what we know comes from an unreliable and biased book, and only a little comes from experience, can we really say we know God?

I want to know the God who is there. The problem is, I'm becoming more convinced that he is not the God described in the bible - for the bible itself does not describe one God. It gives various people's perspectives on what they believed their God was like at various points through history. But hidden somewhere behind this is the real God, its just really hard to see him! [See also my old post called "Old maps"]