Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Church and Kingdom

The relationship between the Church and the Kingdom is an interesting question, no?! I'd like to read Gerhardus Vos' on it, but in the meantime I came across this by Michael Green:

...the church is not the kingdom, although the association between the two is close. Thus can Jesus say in almost the same breath, 'I will build my church...I will give you the keys of the kingdom' (16:18-19). But the church is like the net, containing good fish and bad. The church is like the harvest field, weeds and wheat together. The church is at present a 'mixed economy' and at the end of time the day of judgement will sort it out....No, the church cannot be identified with the kingdom, but it does represent that part of God's kingly rule which is no longer in open revolt against the rightful King, but professes to have surrendered to him.

Michael Green, Gospel of Matthew, Bible Speaks Today (pp46-47)

Reflections on Church History

My continuing reflections on the first semester at HTC bring me to the Early Church History module, taught by Nick Needham. Perhaps one of the most interesting things to come out of this module is learning to think and write from a historical standpoint. With two essays (Cyprian and Nestorius)....plenty of opportunity for that! We always want so much to comment on things (when I say 'we', I mean in the sense of 'I', but maybe you too?), but holding back on judgement and analysing what happened, how and why can be so much more rewarding. Learning to listen rather than always speaking is what it's about! Picking up on some of the main points I've taken out of this module, we get...
  • A respect for history, a sense of history. Studying early church history has reconnected me with an ancient past and challenged me to find roots in that past. I read 'A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future' last semester (find it in Christianity Today, September 2006), which is a challenge to the church to recover 'ancient' views on the primacy of the Biblical Narrative, to take the visible nature of the church seriously (a Big One) and other ways of recovering a biblical narrative for life. The authors state that 'individualistic evangelicalism has contributed to the current problems of a churchless Christianity' and also appeal to evangelicals to 'recover their place in the Church catholic'. We need to take the Church seriously, and to see ourselves as part of the Church that is the continuation of God's narrative. In a postmodern society yearning for authenticity, for something that stands outside of the changing trends and fashions of consumerism, I wonder about the wisdom of chasing after oh-so-contemporary forms of worship. Perhaps authentic, practical love, genuine honesty, quiet meditation and simplicity are what seeking Westerners crave in a world of fickle infatuation, shallowness, spin and media bombardment. The early church speaks to us of the essentials.
  • Christological controversies. We spent several weeks looking at the Christological controversies of the 4th and 5th centuties. What is striking about these are the violence (literal) and abuse that seemed to be based largely on semantic arguments. It's that terrible realisation that your mortal enemy is actually saying the same as you, only in a different way! Of course, some were saying not-the-same things in a very bad way. But, there seemed to be a distinct lack of humility in realising that the nature of Christ is something largely hidden from human thought and language. I realise that I need to find out where Christology is at today - it's been a long time since Chalcedon!
  • Perhaps the most incisive indictment of the early church on todays church is in exposing the narrowness of a graceless orthodoxy. Many of the early fathers held 'dodgy' (to be polite) views on certain aspects of theology and yet the genuine nature of their faith and the way in which they were used by God is not seriously questioned (nor should it be, imho). For example, Origen held that the Father only possessed divinity in an absolute sense, that the Son was inferior. However, today, we pillory those who hold equally dodgy views. We seem unable to cope with the diversity which is always going to be present in the church.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Theology of Rambo

What most people forget is that First Blood, the first Rambo film, is actually a good film. The awfulness of the subsequent Vietnam and Afghanistan sequels, which were jingoism at its finest, has obscured this fact. First Blood is the tale of John J Rambo, a Vietnam veteran who is lost in civilian life. Provoked by a bigotted and arrogant Sheriff and his men, he fights back by instinct (as a special forces soldier awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery). Plenty of people before have pointed out this film's powerful comment on how veterans were treated in the aftermath of the Vietnam conflict, but what struck me on watching it recently was the irony in the way that the local police perceive John Rambo.
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From the instant that Rambo arrives in town looking for something to eat (after finding out that his only surviving friend from his unit in Vietnam has died) and is moved on (driven out of town and told to keep on walking) by Sheriff Will Teazel, the bigotry and arrogance of the Sheriff is clear. The policemen in the station violently mistreat Rambo once he is arrested and enjoy humiliating him, sneering at his dishevelled appearance. All the while, they refer to Rambo as a freak, as 'crazy', a 'psycho'. When Rambo escapes, a parabolic reversal occurs - they are shown not to be the powerful, but the powerless. With ego all over their faces, their pride hurt, their hatred of him ratchets up. The reversal exposes the blindness of these men: they are the psycho's, the 'crazy' men, the 'freaks'. Their hatred, arrogance and thirst for revenge are clear (they are far uglier and more dangerous than John Rambo) and yet from their perspective they are never in the wrong - Rambo is the outsider, the 'reject', something less than a human being. Once Rambo has escaped and is pursued into the backwoods, the lust for his death shown by local policemen and national guardsmen is contrasted with the mercy shown by Rambo: 'I could have killed you all'. He is trying to exercise restraint, something totally lacking in the hatred-fuelled approach of the town authorities. The 'judgement' that finally comes on the town as Rambo 'returns from the dead' recalls High Plains Drifter, another film about how blindness to our own sins has huge consequences. This final part of the film prophesies to the US nation, and indeed to all societies.
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First Blood pinpoints for all of us, and particularly to those of us in 'small town' settings, the need to see strangers and 'outsiders' as true people, image bearers of God, and to welcome and identify with them. The third section of the Book of the Covenant (Ex 22:21-23:9) makes this a requirement of Israel, which brackets the whole section that reveals God's heart concern for the poor and the outcast:
...you shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt...and you shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger (Ex 22:21, 23:9)
Despite his efficiency and aggression as he fights to keep away his pursuers and execute judgement upon them, at the end John Rambo's vulnerability as a human being is seen as he breaks down because of his loneliness, bereavement, the trauma of all that he has seen in war, and his reception on his return to the US. 'Rambo' is also 'John'. Having served his country, he is left broken and forgotten. For him there is, in the words of the Jerry Goldsmith title track, a real war right outside his front door each day. Our attitude to strangers, to the marginalised and damaged, will mark our path in life and in the judgement, which Jesus speaks of:
Come...inherit the Kingdom prepared for you. For...I was a stranger and you invited me in...Depart from me, accursed ones. For...I was a stranger and you did not invite me in...
What a pity Sheriff Teazel didn't read his Bible.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A Means to an End

'After all, the death of Jesus, for all its wonder, is a means to an end, which is not merely that we may be right and clean but that we may be His, which involves personal relationship in love.'

William Still in The Work of the Pastor (Rutherford House)

Reflections on the Pentateuch

OK, these are my reflections on the Pentateuch module taught by Hector Morrison. There have been moments during this module when I have been totally inspired, 'revelatory' moments of the total excellence of God's purposes for his creation. I was reflecting on this up on Beinn Mhor yesterday - how the church can easily lose sight of the Big Explanation of the Bible, the meta-narrative from God, defying the postmodern mantras. You cannot truly understand the gospel, without understanding the Pentateuch - it lays the foundation for salvation-history. The themes of Relationship, Posterity and Land in the covenant promises to Abraham are all fulfilled in the New Covenant. Making these rich connections has been inspiring. LaSor says of Genesis 12: 'here at the beginning of redemptive-history, there is a word about it's end'. Alexander says the promises to Abram 'set the agenda for all that follows in the Pentateuch and beyond' (Alexander's book on the Pentateuch - From Paradise to the Promised Land, really is good). If the gospel narrative is understood within the parentheses of the trees of Genesis 2 and Revelation 22, then it speaks to the world in a way that a formulaic gospel never can. For me, there is a flag raised by this for Reformed churches (imho): a church pre-occupied with Systematics runs the risk of losing sight of the narrative.
Anyway, the highlights of the course have been:
  • Exegesis of Genesis 1 to 3. This was fantastic. The class was excellent, but what contributed to the fantastickiness was that I was using Bruce Waltke's commentary on Genesis in parallel. It's a great book: well set-out, accessible and provocative (in a good way). Waltke avoids the ridiculous dogma that often dogs (too many dog-words) attempts at reasonable discussion of the primeval prologue. I found his identification of 'surd evil' in the world before the fall began to answer questions on the nature of life which I had carried with me for a long, long time.
  • The work on the development of the Relationship element of God's promise to Abram. Seeing the special nature of the Decalogue and understanding the structure of the Book of the Covenant was new to me - which is a shame, but I don't think that I have ever heard this preached. I did hear an excellent sermon series on the Decalogue by Steve Tinker at Kensington Chapel, Bristol, but I don't think that set the Decalogue in the wider context of the covenant at Sinai.
  • Material on the Tabernacle. During the lectures on the Tabernacle and Sacrifices, there was one of the most incredible moments of the whole semester as Hector Morrison, with a grand sweep, connected the Tabernacle and Sacrifices to Christ, expecially with relation to the symbolism of the Tabernacle. He drew a huge arrow, representing Christ's work, slicing through the Eastern Entrance, straight through the altar, laver, curtain, incense altar, slicing through the curtain and into the Most Holy Place, then from the footstool of Yahweh and Up and Beyond, into the heavenly realm....whoosh!
  • Tabernacle as Garden. I have never heard presented an overarching metaphor for the Tabernacle that has satisfied me. There's lots of detail there, but what is the Big Idea? The idea that the Tabernacle is a representation of the Garden of Eden is, I would boldly venture (!), the over-riding metaphor. The Eastern entrance, the altar representing the sword, the menora - these all reflect the lost Garden. If this is right, then the Tabernacle not only represents God's establishing of a Garden sanctuary where men and women can again meet with him, but this piece of Holy Land that moves with the people of Israel points forward to the fulfilment of God's purposes in the Kingdom of God and the Return to Eden, when the promised Land becomes an eternal reality, secured by and ruled by the Son of Man.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Paul's Odyssey

I'm taking some time off from the theology books (you can't possible begrudge me that)! I'm reading Homer's Odyssey - I read the Iliad last summer and, what do you know, it's actually good! I think I've been privileged to miss out on a classical education - you don't grow to hate these books while you're at school. Anyway, early in the book, in a speech to Odysseus' son Telemachus, the god Athene says this:
You are no longer a child, you must put childish thoughts away
A similar thought to Paul in 1 Cor 13: 11:
I used to speak as a child, think as a child...I did away with childish things
Was Paul paraphrasing a pagan god? Christopher Stanley, in his paper 'Paul and Homer: Greco-Roman Citation Practice in the First Century CE' (published in Novum Testamentum, Vol. 32, Fasc. 1. (Jan., 1990), pp. 48-78 and available to read on JSTOR), sees that by the time of Paul the Homeric texts had been standardised to a large degree and that Paul may well have received education in these texts.
As an aside, this paper makes an interesting read, as it compares Paul citation practices with contemporary Greco-Roman authors. It concludes that Paul was 'freer' with the citations from Hebrew texts than his contemporaries were with citations from Homeric texts. The papers cites a study by Koch which identifies 52 out of a total of 93 citations by Paul, where he alters the cited text significantly. If multiple alterations to citations are included, Koch identifies 125 instances where significant alterations to the text may be attributed to Paul's editorial activity. That was an aside!
In Acts 17, Paul quotes the poet Aratus to the Athenians at the Areopagus: 'we are his offspring', referring to Zeus, from Aratus' Phaenomena. Paul was obviously familiar with his work. Aratus also produced an edition of Homers Odyssey. Interesting, eh?

Monday, January 22, 2007

Reflections on NT Introduction

This is the first of my posts reflecting on my first semester at HTC. Overall, it has been a hugely positive experience in many ways - but I want to get to the nitty-gritty and reflect on each of the semester modules. First up is NT Introduction, taught by Mike Bird. The main textbook for the module was David deSilva's excellent Introduction to the New Testament. It's impressively thick and dSilva's penchant for long-winded prose doesn't do anything for its accessibility, but the work of reading it pays off. He is challenging, technical and pastoral. The excellent sections on Ministry Formation at the end of each chapter really ground the content in the real world. If you want to buy it, click the link on the left (but hurry, new books of the moment will be along soon). Looking back on the module, what stands out?
  • Connecting with the first century world and getting to grips with the soil in which the church and its kerygma grew. Understanding more of the lie of the land within Judaism and in the surrounding Jewish and Gentile cultures, really puts you 'there'. And here's the key thing for me - this sheds new light on interpreting the NT for today. If you don't know what Jesus meant to the people who heard him, you're going to be struggling to communicate Jesus' message to people today. The 'spiritualisation' of texts, the 'lifting' of texts from their context in history and, more importantly, salvation-history, is pretty common it seems to me - and that's a problem.
  • Noticing the 'inclusio' structures in Mark's gospel certainly sheds new light on the message. The Fig Tree Inclusio in chapter 11 directly relates the tree to the Temple, which is important. 'Jesus comes to the Temple looking for fruit, just as he went to the fig tree looking for fruit. Both have the appearance of flourishing, but both are found to be barren.' The following statement of Jesus about saying to this mountain 'be taken up and cast into the sea' can be seen as a direct reference to the Temple and not some vague reference to the power of faith. For deSilva, the problem with the use of the Court of the Gentiles by the money changers was primarily that it spoke of the failure of the Jews to invite the nations in to worship: 'the Court of the Gentiles is so empty and irrelevant to their concern that it serves as a convenient place for the moneychangers and vendors of animals for sacrifice'. A narrative that has been interpreted as 'cleansing' the Temple is actually an indictment.
  • Who dares to grapple with Revelation? When you see the main themes of Revelation as being: the Unveiling of the realities of everyday life; God's commitment to Justice; the Lamb who is reigning...then it roots it in the present as much as (perhaps more than) in the future. If you think about the OT prophecies about Messiah, they too were rooted in their own time, speaking of contemporaneous situations, but also spoke of greater things to come. I've always thought that the contemporaneous element of Revelation was largely ignored. For example, deSilva describes the aim of the apocalypse as being the 'deconstruction of Roman ideology'. Now that is the Revelation that I read! But, you don't hear that too often. If Revelation is about exposing the bankruptcy, injustice and eventual defeat of the Roman political, economic and social system by the ascendent and victorious Kingdom of the Lamb, then it has a message for every generation.
  • I can't finish without mentioning New Testament Theology. We had but a single lecture on this immensely important subject (but then it is a NT Introduction module), but I chose to complete my module Essay on the question 'What is the Centre of NT Theology?'. Preparing the essay was a highlight of the semester. I've felt for some time that far too much emphasis is placed on Systematics in the Reformed church. I was introduced to Berkhof years ago, but only came across Biblical Theology fairly recently. The problem with an obsession with Systematics is that it wrenches truths from their context and from the framework of revelation and places them in an artificial framework. This might help the Western Modernist mind to understand them (might), but I wonder whether, without seeing the primacy of Biblical Theology (Bib Theol must be the foundation for Systematics), we lose more than we gain - we lose touch with salvation-history and the narrative context for biblical revelation and we introduce boundaries of dogma which just aren't there. The penchant for the New Birth Experience as a touchstone for Christian Experience in some churches is a result of this kind of thing - imho. Anyway, Intro to Systematic Theology this coming semester, so I'll be put right!

If you get a chance to check out Mike Bird's blog 'Euangelion', then do it! Link is on the left. It's well worth a read. Mr Bird has been an excellent teacher - his enthusiasm is contagious. He's currently working on a book where he deals with the New Perspective. One of his (four) recent papers to the ETS conference in the US was 'Meeting the New Perspective Halfway'. I myself like the sound of that. I don't think he reads this so I can say this without embarrassing him!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Back to the blog

It's over a month since I last blogged. I take comfort in this: it shows that I am not a blog-head. I live in the real world of flesh and blood people - hooray! Anyway, I'm back on the blog because I missed it - it's been torture, not blogging. Ah, I have longed for this moment...there's nothing like the smell of a new post being....created....mmmm. So, what's happened while I was in the real world? There was the final week of HTC lectures - a whole week at the college in Dingwall, which was great. The Christmas meal was fantastic: at a castle, loads of people there, santa hats all round (with Obelix pigtails, of course), good food and great conversation - perfect! The Friday post-lectures curry should also become a tradition - it's what we do best! Then, after the de-mob elation of finishing lectures came the awful realisation of essays and exams. Anyway, here I am on the eve of my second and final exam - NT Introduction - with all essays dispatched. In a few weeks it will be second semester! I'm planning a return to the blog over the next few days with: my reflections on Term One of The Course; how I've changed in theology since becoming a Free Kirker; theological reflections on Rambo (!) and looking forward to Term Two on The Course. Back to the revision...genre and interpretation of Revelation anyone?