Friday, August 31, 2007

Edinburgh Dogmatics: Homeward Bound

I'm sitting on the ferry leaving Skye, very tired after my 4.30 start this morning, and listening to Sigur Ros for a bit of Nordic relaxation to ease me back into the wilderness, but reflecting on a profitable week in Edinburgh at the 12th Dogmatics Conference - on the Person of Christ. It was great to spend time with current and old friends, to make new friends, and to worship with fellow disciples, brothers and sisters. Fittingly, the final words of the final paper (from Steve Holmes) were 'thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift'. Amen! I have a few good quotes to take home, a mountain of food for thought, and the memory of a bumbling (on my behalf!) interchange with Bruce McCormack about Barth's Imago Dei theology! Note to self: do not engage a Barth scholar on Barth as a first year undergrad! I hope to post some reflections on the papers and some issues raised by them over the next few days.

You heard it here first (or firstish): the subject of the 13th Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference in 2009 will be the Doctrine of the Church. Unlucky for nobody, I would say.

Monday, August 27, 2007

12th Dogmatics Conference

Rutherford House's 12th Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference takes place this week and today I'm on the boat and heading to the capital. The conference in on the subject of The Person of Christ (interestingly, the subject of the Affinity Conference this year). Speakers include Andrew McGowan, Donald Macleod, Jamie Grant, Oliver Crisp, Richard Bauckham and Henri Blocher. I hope to post some reflections on the papers from the conference here during the week. If that doesn't work, it will happen when I return.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Wright on Faith and History

Wright writes on the necessity of a historical approach to the Gospels...
But does it really matter? Many faithful Christians find themselves disturbed and irritated by this emphasis on the historical, and on the vagaries and uncertainties of historical research. Is this what faith is all about? Does not faith move in an entirely different realm? Certainly it is not the case that we can be saved by the acceptance as true of certain historical phenonena in the past. Certainly it is true that Christian faith will not collapse, if this or that historical detail is shown not to be true. Certainly it is not the case that, if every single detail of the Gospel narratives was faithfully and exactly authentic as history, faith in Jesus Christ would automatically result.

But having allowed all this, I still think that it is possible to gravely underestimate the significance of the historical in Christian faith. Theologically, history is important. If we believe that in Jesus Christ God did finally and definitively intervene in the world of men, we are committed to the view that history is the chosen sphere of his working, and that therefore history, all history, including the history of you and me today, is related to the process of revelation. But there is something even more important than this. Professor Bultmannand his colleagues inssit again and again, and rightly, on our encounter with God in Jesus Christ. But whom do we encounter? Is he, as Giovanni Megge has paraphrased the thought of Bultmann, one who is no more than the geometrical point, which has position but no magnitude?...When the believer comes to the Holy Communion, what does he imagine himself to be doing?

Interpretation of the NT, 311

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Neill on Heilsgeschichte

Neill, speaking about Luke's bringing together of history and theology, and the fact that some scholars (from the form-critical school) have seen this as an unpardonable heresy, says this...

What is the relation between Heilsgeschichte, salvation-history, the record of the mighty acts of God, and ordinary history, those banal things that happen from day to day? Some would answer 'there is no connection...'. (Luke's) answer to the question is perfectly clear; Heilsgeschichte and secular history are the same history; each from a different point of view is the story of God's providential government of the nations, all of which he holds in the hollow of his hand. It is for this reason that, at the outset of his gospel, he so carefully relates the ministry of Jesus to the rulers of the secular and religious worlds. For him, the world since Pentecost is the scene of the new mighty acts of God in history. History can be understood in no other way; it is the scene of the forward march of God among the nations, as God goes out through his Word to gather out from all the nations a people acceptable to himself. For this reason the Church is all-important, since it is only through the Church that the march of God among the nations can become manifest.

Interpretation of the NT, 287

The Interpretation of the New Testament

I'm in the closing pages of Bishop Stephen Neill's seminal work, updated by Tom Wright. IMHO this book should be required reading at some point in a seminary education. It is a historical survey of NT Interpretation from 1861 to 1986 (I suppose you can see that from the pic!). For someone brought up within a somewhat parochial, non-conformist evangelicalism in which the Puritans seemed to be the last word (I was reading the Puritans in my late teens!), and for which it seemed any biblical criticism was an unholy, modernist exercise undertaken by dodgy Germans, reading this book has been a stimulating part of my on-going theological education.

You meet Lightfoot, Westcott and Hort near the beginning as they tackle the reliability of the NT texts, you go on to look at the impact of archaeology - Ancient Near East finds, the Nag Hammadi documents and of course the Qumran documents; the interplay between philosophy, history and philology as the three fields in which the successful theologian must be able to operate; you are taken into the discussions on the significance of Hellenism and Second Temple Judaism, the Quest for the Historical Jesus (Schweitzer and the second and third quests), the relio-historical school (Bultmann et al). You read discussion of the issues of diversity in Gentile churches, Early Catholicism and Gnosticism. Perhaps most refreshing for me is that the positive and negative positions in the thought of the theologians is evaluated fairly and openly. Even in Liberal theology there are lessons to be learned. As Denis Hickey (not the rugby player) says
Anyone interested in Jesus will want to know not only his story, but how we have come to read (or misread) that story.
I hope to post a few quotes from the book over the next few days.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Buechner's Call to Preachers

I've been reading Beuchner's book, Telling the Truth. I'd like to bring to you Buechner's call for those who preach the gospel...

With this fabulous tale to proclaim, the preacher is called in his turn to stand up in his pulpit as fabulist extrordinary, to tell the truth of the Gospel in its highest and wildest and holiest sense. This is his job, but more often than not he shrinks from it because the truth he is called to proclaim, like the fairy tale, seems in all but some kind of wistful, faraway sense too good to be true, and so the preacher as apologist instead of fabulist tries as best he can to pare it down to a size he thinks the world will swallow. Too good to be true implies a view of truth, of course.

And again,

Let the preacher...preach to us not just as men and women of the world but as children too, who are often much more simple-hearted than he supposes, and much hungrier for, and ready to believe in, and already in contact with, more magic and mystery than most of the time even we are entirely aware of ourselves...Let the preacher stretch our imagination and strain our credulity and make our jaws drop...

And finally,

Let the preacher tell the truth. Let him make audible the silence of the news of the world with the sound turned off so that in that silence we can hear the tragic truth of the Gospel, which is that the world where God is absent is a dark and echoing emptiness; and the comic truth of the gospel which is that it is into the depths of his absence that God makes himself present in such unlikely ways and I laugh till the tears run down our cheeks. And finally let him preach this overwhelming of tragedy by comedy, of darkness by light, of the ordinary by the extraordinary, as the tale that is too good not to be true because to dismiss it as untrue is to dismiss along with it that catch of the breath, that beat and lifting of the heart near to, or even accompanied by, tears, which I believe is the deepest intuition of truth that we have.

Buechner, Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairytale, 91, 97, 98.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Mac or PC Christian?

Faith Visuals have come up with a six-video series based on the Mac advertising campaign, entitled 'Christ Follower'. You can watch them on the Faith Visuals site here. They are well-produced, entertaining and cogent although at points a little disappointing (the 'I'm a big dork' bit in the first video is both creatively poor - ouch! - and also self-defeating). The really interesting thing about them is the reaction they've caused from Christians. In the videos the PC character is the Christian, the Mac is the Christ-Follower. The Christian wears his faith 'on his sleeve', wears his best suit on a Sunday, reads the AV, only listens to Christian music, has all the jargon, etc. The Christ-Follower is obviously less traditional. My own personal favourite is this one...
These videos are definitely provocative and I think we need to learn to deal with 'provocative' in a good way. The challenges faced by the church in mission to a post-modern culture are considerable and we need to discuss them without getting up tight. For me, the Emergent movement has credible insights to offer into mission and worship today. It's a shame that many cannot hear the word Emergent without going rant-nuts. Anyway, you can read an interesting article here on the purpose of the videos from Tom Greever of Faith Visual's perspective.
I use a PC by the way.

Bultmann on the Gnostic Redeemer Myth

Gnostic Redeemer Myth? Bultmann offers this handy summary, quoted in Neill and Wright:

The basic elements in the Gnostic myth of redemption, the concrete features of which can very in details, are as follows: A heavenly being is sent down from the world of light to the earth, which has fallen under the sway of the demonic powers, in order to liberate the sparks of light, which have their origin in the world of light, but owing to a fall in primeval times, have been compelled to inhabit human bodies. This emissary takes a human form, and carries out the works entrusted to him by the Father; as a result he is not cut off from the Father. He reveals himself in his utterances ('I am the shepherd', etc.) and so brings about the separation of the seeing from the blind to whom he appears as a stranger. His own harken to him, and he awakes in them the memory of their home of light, teaches them to recognise their own true nature, and teaches them also the way of return to their home, to which he, as a redeemed Redeemer, rises again.

Bultmann, Article on the Fourth Gospel in Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart

Of course, Bultmann thought the gnostic redeemer myth helped to explain John's Christology. But, as Neill points out, the evidence for a pre-Christian gnostic redeemer myth is non-existent...

In pre-Christian Graeco-Roman religion there was no redeemer or saviour of a Gnostic type...The most obvious explanation of the origin of the Gnostic redeemer is that he was modelled after the Christian conception of Jesus.

R M Grant, Gnosticism (1961), 18

April de Conick holds that there was no discrete gnostic 'religion' and that gnosticism developed first within Judaism in an attempt to reconcile it with Middle Platonism. Check out her views here. It's all interesting stuff.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Gospel: Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale

Beuchner's book has been a rewarding read: provocative, heartfelt and considered; explaining the true nature of the gospel and the Way Things Are from the point of view of literary genres. It's always been an interest of mine to consider the connections between art and culture and The Way Things Are as revealed in the word of God. Why does comedy work? Why is tragedy so poignant? Why do fairytales and superheroes have a base resonance with us?
No matter how forgotten and neglected, there is a child in all of us who is not just willing to believe in the possibility that maybe fairy tales are true after all but who is to some degree in touch with that truth.
Beuchner's casting of truth as the Way Things Are, as the TV news with the sound turned down is powerfully evocative. On the comedy of the gospel he says people are
prepared for everything except for the fact that beyond the darkness of their blindness there is a great light.
His retellings of the tales are funny and powerful. Parables are holy jokes,

the kind of joke Jesus told when he said it is harder for a rich person to enter paradise than for a Mercedes to get through a revolving door...than for Nelson Rockefeller to get through the night deposit slot of the First National City Bank.

Along the way you meet The Bard, Dostoevski, Manley Hopkins, CS Lewis, Melville, Tolkien, the list goes on. On the gospel as fairytales he says 'You enter the extraordinary by way of the ordinary', a feature of fairy tales that surely has resonance with the Lost Eden. He speaks of seeking the jewels of 'joy and beauty and holiness beyond the walls of the world'. This book has been the perfect antidote to your average textbook! Rooting the gospel in the real world of real experience of tragedy, seeing the amazing grace of God and the absolute comedy of the gospel and the fairytale of reversal that it brings. Especially if you like your literature, read it.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Ten Years in South Uist

It's Ten Years since Rev Iain MacAskill came to South Uist as an evangelist for the Free Church of Scotland. We've just celebrated this at two services in the Lochboisdale Mission Church:

  • yesterday, the Tenth Anniversary service, where Iain spoke on 'Ebeneser' from 1S7 and we all enjoyed lunch together after Donald MacDonald OBE had spoken of his support for the work in South Uist;

  • tonight, a meeting with May Nicholson from the Preshal Trust in Glasgow. May is the author of Miracles to Mayhem, her own story of becoming a disciple of Christ after living life as a notorious alcoholic in her community.

Both Donald and May spoke of the need for faith to lead to works. This has been a feature of the Free Church work here from the beginning. Through setting up the Caladh Trust, creating community through the cafe and drop-in, through supporting those struggling with addiction and their families, through furniture recycling for low income families and assisting people in getting out of debt, the emphasis that Iain brought to the work here has always had a very practical component. This, I suppose is why we were excited about coming here ourselves in 2004. Organised social ministries have not been one of the strong points of Reformed churches, at least in recent history. In celebrating Ten Years of the Free Church work here in South Uist, our relatively new congregation can reflect on being a New Community seeking to proclaim the Gospel of new life in Jesus Christ and the Coming of His Kingdom, trying to live together lives of worship and witness through the power of the Holy Spirit, and trying to support and minister to the outcast, the stranger, the suffering, the orphan and the widow. Over the last Ten Years, many have come to faith here who have moved on, some now serving in ministry elsewhere in Scotland and the world. Over the last two days new people have come to the church for the first time. We are renewing our vision to be: A Church at the Heart of the Community, With the Community in its Heart. Glory to God. Your Kingdom Come, Your Will Be Done On Earth.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Reflections on Greek Grammar I

The last of my Reflections on the Semester Two modules...and not a moment too soon! What can you say about Learning Greek? What you mustn't say is 'It's all me' (I couldn't even bring myself to write it). You mustn't say it, but you do and you will. I've said it. Several times. It's so cliched, inevitable and rubbish, but you still say it - and you find it fairly amusing to boot. Shame, shame!

Learning Greek is just 'learning Greek'. I could tell you about the excellent book by Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek (the module uses the workbook and the textbook), which comes with an excellent CD-ROM that allows you to hear Mounce's own lectures on each chapter, practice your vocab with intelligent learning in the program to identify which words you're struggling with (21st Century answer to flashcards) and practice verb parsing - all on your laptop. Mounce's book seems excellent as far as method goes: Mounce has a paradigm-reducing approach which seeks to explain why, rather than rely on expanses of rote learning. Fewer paradigms means less memorisation. I could also tell you about the excellent teaching style of Dr Jamie Grant who teaches the module. But then it's just 'learning Greek'.
Here endeth the Reflections. There are still a few weeks till Year 2 starts. With school term about to start it's reading time. I hope to be spending some quality time with the books - including Mounce (well, the CD-ROM anyway!).

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Reflections on Introduction to Systematics II

The second essay question in the Introduction to Systematic Theology Module was 'Is Assurance essential to Christian Faith?' I can humbly offer a selection of observations from my answer:

  • Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and Bucer all saw assurance as a normative component of faith - however, Calvin at least (and I assume the others) acknowledges that the level of assurance can vary. Reformed thought gradually diverges from this position: the Canons of Dordt and the Westminister Standards disconnect assurance from faith, putting the grounds of assurance additionally in the testimony of the Spirit and the doing of good works.
  • Like the Imago Dei, the subject of assurance is conceptualised in systematics several degrees beyond its conceptualisation in the Bible. In Schreiner and Caneday's book, The Race Set Before Us - a Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance, the biblical warnings on 'falling away' are considered as a touchstone for a biblical doctrine of assurance. It's my view that Reformed dogmatics has struggled to reflect the biblical data in failing to maintain the distinction between the experience of the believer and (i) the secret elements of God's counsel, (ii) the salvific state of the soul. If these distinctions are maintained, the possibility of 'falling away', which seems a very real possibility in the NT epistles, causes fewer doctrinal problems.
  • Berkhouwer highlights another much-needed challenge to systematic formulations around assurance: the NT emphasises salvation as a process, not a singularity in the experience of the individual. The future aspect of salvation is required for a correct formulation on assurance: faith as the assurance of things hoped for. So, for me, assurance is essential to faith since it is the conviction that 'I am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him, until that day'.
  • Rather controversially, I say this at one point: 'continuing in assurance of salvation is essential to faith, but not necessarily to salvation'. And also this: 'We need not baulk at McKnight's statement that final salvation is 'conditional, and that single condition is persevering faith', since this is the commanded pattern and normal expectation for the experience of the believer'.
  • Basically, the conclusion is that Calvin was right in proposing that assurance is a component of faith and therefore essential to faith. No surprises there then. But wait...that means that the Westministers standards went a bit wonky...? What I do say is that 'attempts at systematising soteriology have falsely sanctioned the intrusion of the secret elements of the divine counsel into the experience of the individual.' Indeed.
Finally, I have several thoughts about the module itself. It's a great shame that an introduction to systematics module barely mentions biblical theology. John Murray, as I am always keen to point out, wrote in his lectures on Systematics that Biblical Theology is the true foundation for systematics, and that awareness of this is a key corrective to the inherent tendency in systematics to get taken up with systematising, sometimes at the expense of a biblical balance in emphases. I would prefer to see an Introduction to Theology module: beginning with a short overview from the Fathers to the present of trends in theology. This would allow the development of biblical theology as a discipline, and its relationship to systematics, to be set in context. Then the need to connect Systematics with Biblical Theology could be explored before moving on to a fast-paced setting out of the main sections of a popular Reformed systematic theology. Of course, you'd want to be using Bavinck, but perhaps a more-manageable one volume would suffice for an Introductory module! In closing, my thesis is that some of the controversies that feature in reformed theology at the minute have resulted from systematicians not heeding John Murray's words. In some quarters dogmatics is 'it' - biblical theology remains an undiscovered discipline. A new generation of theologians and preachers should not follow this path.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Reflections on Introduction to Systematics I

Continuing to hold a mirror to the modules of Year 1, Semester 2 at HTC, we arrive at Introduction to Systematic Theology, taught by Dr Rob Shillaker. Rob is from Porthcawl, Wales, so this places him top of the Where-I-Come-From score card for HTC lecturers. The module itself is scored over two essays. This year we were troubled with Image of God theories and whether Assurance is essential to Christian Faith. Whilst struggling with this, we also struggled with the main course text: A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith by Reymond. Being troubled and struggling can be good things! Again, the essay experience was excellent - spending time getting to grips with the theology. First, Imago Dei:

  • The striking thing about Imago Dei theologies is that they can become huge edifices built on a very small foundation. Many theologies begin with the Genesis 1 statements, but quickly launch into pretty uncritical linkages with 'image' statements in the New Testament, mainly in Pauline writings. A thorough biblical theological approach which recognises the gulf in salvation-historical terms between these two sources, let alone linguistic and cultural distances, is a rare thing, it seems to me.
  • The Structural Paradigm for interpreting the Imago Dei (seeing the image as an analogy of God's being) is everywhere: the Fathers, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, to different degrees and varying formulations. However, this paradigm owes just as much to Platonistic paradigms as it does to any biblical structuring. The Functional Paradigm sees the image as the mediation of power or rule by man in the world, as it is delegated by God. Dominion is the function and the physical body (peripheral in the Structural Paradigm) becomes central. Ancient Near East parallels play a much bigger part in deriving theologies from the Genesis 1 data.
  • How about this for a fascinating quote from Hendrikus Berkhof: 'By studying how systematic theologies have poured meaning into Genesis 1:26 one could write a piece of Europe's cultural history'
  • So, after the exercise, my conclusions were: 'Structural Imago Dei theologies, including the classical Reformed position, are built on serious methodological flaws. The synthesis of prevailing philosophies with the biblical data in order to make headway has continued.'..Ouch! In the functional paradigm, man is created not in the image, but as the image (a position consistent with the Hebrew in Genesis 1).
My favourite text in preparing the essay was JR Middleton's The Liberating Image. An excellent book published by Brazos. Middleton holds to a Functional Paradigm, but admits its major shortcoming (when compared to the Structural Paradigm) is that often scholars have not elucidated the theological or (especially) the ethical implications. This task has, however, been taken on by some Reformed theologians, especially those who, like Middleton, hold Kuyperian views. Middleton himself presents an 'ethical analysis of the positive characterisation of God's rule' and identifies the need for systematic theologians and biblical scholars to engage in an 'extended conversation' on the meaning of the functional paradigm.

Reflections on the Assurance essay will come in the next post, along with some other reflections on the module in general.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Telling the Truth

I'm currently reading Buechner's book, Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale. It has achieved more in the first 50 pages than Mr Scarisbrick, my O'level English teacher, ever did. Today, without threats or arm-twisting, I borrowed the complete works of Shakespeare from the library and started reading King Lear. This is because Lear is quoted and alluded to frequently during the first section of the book. Just in the last few pages I've read, Beuchner also quotes from Dostoevski, Herman Melville, and Gerard Manley Hopkins when dealing with the Gospel as Tragedy. If you like your literature, you'll love this book. Perhaps I can leave you with a quote for now:
The preaching of the gospel is a telling of the truth or the putting of a sort of frame of words around the silence that is truth because truth in the sense of fullness, of the way things are, can at best be only pointed to by the language of poetry - of metaphor, image, symbol - as it is used in the prophets of the Old Testament and elsewhere. Before the Gospel is a word, it is a silence, a kind of presenting of life itself so that we see it not for what at various times we call it - meaningless or meaningful, absurd, beautiful - but for what it truly is in all its complexity, simplicity,
mystery. p25