Thursday, November 25, 2010

About This Blog

vorsprung You’ve stumbled across a blog which chronicles the experience of someone studying theology at Highland Theological College, after leaving a career in engineering consultancy behind and moving to the Outer Hebrides!  Most of the posts are reflections on the various modules studied over the four years.  But, there are plenty of other posts on a variety of other things too.
This is the last post on the VdT blog.  It was only intended to run for as long as I was an undergrad at HTC.  It is now parked – permanently.  If you are interested in studying theology, might I point you in the direction of the HTC site (link on the left).

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Concluding Postscript

For the record, I graduated with a First Class Honours Degree from Highland Theological College on 17 September, winning the HTC UHI Student of the Year Award for the 2009-2010 session.

Whatever I have achieved, whatever benefit I have drawn from this course, is in huge measure down to the faculty and staff of HTC, past and present.  Special thanks must go to Principal Hector Morrison, Vice-Principal Jamie Grant and Dr Michael Bird – all formative influences upon me, who have rescued me from travelling down false alleys, have taught me truth and provided an example of grace in the Way.  It has been a privilege to sit at the feet of such teachers.

Also, special mention must go to Martin Cameron, who has quite rightly been described to me as the best theological librarian you could wish for.  He has also become my good friend (and supplier and co-consumer of Chinese food!).  And to my fellow students, in no particular order: Ross, Joe, Stuart, Eilidh, Emily, Eileen, Ross, Andrea, Alex, Morag, Stephen, Annie, Liz, and many more.  Grace and peace to you all.

And also to my friend, ex-pastor and colleague the Reverend Iain MacAskill, who lent me books and provided a constant example of grace and zeal for the kingdom of God and for the salvation of the lost during my studies, helping me to ‘keep it real’!  He has been of more help to me in the Way than I can express.

And finally to my wife and children – suffering a husband and father late with the dinner, and often in the shedquarters studying.  Strength and dignity are her clothing; my children are like olive plants around my table.  My family: a great gift and blessing from the LORD. 

Soli Deo gloria.

Monday, October 25, 2010


htc Well, I think that’s more or less it!  I hope that you’ve found (and will continue to find – since I’ll leave the blog up) the reflections of a 30- and 40-something theology student helpful in some way.  If you are considering studying theology, especially later in life when family and church commitments can make things more difficult, may I recommend that you take time to look at Highland Theological College.  Take the trip up to Dingwall and visit, talk to the staff there about their excellent open learning facilities and how they can help you.  If you can get to move up close to Dingwall for the duration of your studies, even better.  If you would like more information, please feel free to contact me, as some have been doing.

HTC is a rare bird in the UK.  It’s a truly Reformed and evangelical college that sits within a wider university system in a similar way to the old divinity departments.  It has an amazing story and amazing staff.  If you want studying theology to be about studying theology (as opposed to just focussing on practical ministry or on a narrow tradition), then HTC has an excellent academic approach.  If you want Reformed to be as much about semper reformanda as about the rich history and heritage, this is the place.  It is a true community of faith and scholarship.  I have found studying there to be a truly uplifting and exciting experience.  I pray that HTC and the University of the Highlands and Islands both prosper and go from strength to strength.

I believe more than ever that the Church and individual Christians must return to theology.  It is what we believe, and why we believe it, that is at the heart of our faith.  God has spoken – we must listen and understand.  We must study, we must teach, we must be taught.  We must grow in wisdom and in the knowledge of God.  This is no stuffy or merely cerebral exercise; it is about faith, and the truth that sets us free.  For the revival of the Christian cause, for life in the Church, for the growth of the Kingdom of God in Britain today – advancement through theology.

Friday, October 22, 2010

From Baptist to Presbyterian

knox When I arrived here in Scotland, I was a doubting Baptist (that's doubting about being a Baptist, not about being a Christian) and had been such for many a long year.  Soon after arriving, I read several things that brought my doubts to a head and satisfied my questions about paedobaptism.  Perhaps one of the most helpful was Marcel’s classic work, The Biblical Doctrine of Infant Baptism.  Since then, my studies at HTC have brought even greater conviction regarding the ecclesiology of the historical Reformed Church. 

The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. WCF 25.2

For the first time I can truly say and appreciate: ‘I believe in the holy, catholic church.’  It is actually a return to my own theological roots – my mother’s family were Presbyterians, or as they would have preferred it, Calvinistic Methodists.  Of course, back in Wales, evangelicalism has largely abandoned the stance of the Reformers, which was also the position of the Fathers of the Awakening (Jones, Williams, Harris, Rowland) and of Calvinistic Methodism (Elias, Charles).  The Associating Evangelical Churches of Wales arose from the Evangelical Movement of Wales, then a mix of Baptists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians united by their evangelical stance.  However, it is now almost exclusively baptistic.  I cannot really explain this shift, except perhaps to posit that the pressure for unity around what is defined as ‘the gospel’ has gradually persuaded former Presbyterians to remain silent about their convictions about the nature of the church.  This has meant that, untaught about these things, the default position of the hearers has become baptistic.  This shift followed the flight of some evangelicals from the denominations; my own move from independency to a denomination highlights to me just how detrimental to unity the move to independency has been in Wales.  The Presbyterian Church of Wales (to which my mother’s family belonged), although facing serious decline, still has over 30,000 members in over 700 congregations.

Anyway, I now live in Scotland – one of the seats of the Reformation and of Presbyterianism.  So there’s no looking at you askance when you say you’ve baptised your children!  As I’ve written before, John Franke described visiting Edinburgh as the Presbyterian equivalent of a pilgrimage to Mecca!  Students come to both HTC and to the Free Church College from Presbyterian denominations around the world to suckle at the breast of the Mother Church (!), returning to serve in far-flung regions.  That sense of the world-wide Presbyterian family is important.

I count it a joy and privilege to have served as an elder in the South Uist and Benbecula congregation of the Free Church of Scotland during my undergraduate studies.  This denomination has close links to other denominations around the world, sister churches in India, Peru and South Africa, and has its own congregations in other lands (England(!) and North America).  I’ve met so many people within the Free Church (both ministers and laypeople) for whom I hold a deep respect and who have had a deep and lasting influence upon me.  I’ve come to share in the rich heritage, the stories, the theology.  The congregation here in South Uist has been a joy from day one.  It’s small, but it’s alive!  To see folk come to faith in Jesus, to see folk grow in wisdom and the knowledge of God, to worship together – this is what it’s about.  The opportunity to minister to these folk as an elder continues to be a privilege.  And it is very useful to me to live as part of a community where most folk are Roman Catholic, with the opportunity to experience Roman Catholic piety and religion and to learn more about our shared common ground and our essential differences.  My prayer is for continued reformation in all Churches and denominations, so that God might be glorified and the lost might find life through faith in Jesus Christ.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

From Glamorgan to the Outer Hebrides

PB010005 So, four years of reflections on my time studying theology at undergraduate level are now complete.  I thought I would conclude the Vorsprung durch Theologie project with a few brief reflections on various aspects of the last four (or more) years, beginning with my move from Wales to the Outer Hebrides.

I have been privileged, whilst studying for my degree, to live in an extremely beautiful and remote part of Scotland.  The island of South Uist is unique: blessed with wild, treeless landscapes – expansive white sands backed by dramatic mountains, and studded with a multitude of lochs and lochans.  Its remote location on the edge of the North Atlantic gives it the qualities of wilderness.  Here, the rare fauna and flora of the mainland become commonplace: otters, red deer, seals, hen harriers, golden and white-tailed eagles, curlews, orchids...  This backdrop to my studies has, I’m sure, had an impact on my theology.  The importance of creation theology has been one of the key emphases arising from my time at HTC.  The relationship of man to the planet and the cosmos is inseparably forged by the interlinked relationships between God and the cosmos, and between God and humanity, created as stewards of the planet.

Apart from the constant presence of the natural world – in both beautiful and challenging ways - my removal from the hustle and bustle of life working in Cardiff, surrounded by relentless advertising and retail opportunities, has given opportunity to reflect upon what is probably the fairly homogenous experience of a professional in cities or in the suburbs throughout Britain.  Whilst our family income has reduced significantly, so have our outgoings.  At the same time, whilst life is still busy, it is easier to find time for family and for reflection.  The Western Isles are also one of the most Christian parts of Britain.  Here in South Uist, a majority Roman Catholic island, Christian morality still undergirds so much of society.  So, my life here could be thought of as having assumed some monastic qualities!  I do think there is a place for a kind of monasticism in the Christian life – but not for all, and not for all of the time.

However, any monastic facets have been cut alongside a greater awareness of the lost and the desperate.  Although these islands still have a strong Christian heritage, the last twenty years has seen, by all accounts, a significant decline in regular church attendance, across all denominations.  Faith is under fire.  And, even in Christianised communities, people are still people, and the dark side of human experience is never far away.  Some folk come here and see an idyll.  But living here, working in addiction support and being involved in ministry has made me more aware than ever of this dark side.  Wherever human beings are, be it a shanty town or an exclusive resort, an urban estate or a remote island, they are still human beings.  And outside of Christ they are still dead in their sins, lost and bowed down under their burden; they are rebels and victims, perpetuating and being destroyed by, the kingdom of This World.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The Heavens Opened

jacob Only one module Reflection remains from my whole time at HTC.  This is the double-module assigned to the Honours Year Dissertation: 10,000 words on a subject of your choice.  The title of my work: The Heavens Opened: Intertextuality and Meaning in John 1:51.

For a long time I've suspected that common interpretations of this verse owe more to later Western projections onto the text than they do to approaches that arise from the text and its historical setting.  Such interpretations include the widespread view that Jesus portrays himself as the Way to Heaven using the imagery of Jacob's Ladder (or Stairway) in Genesis 28.  I wonder whether folk who hold this view stop to think of the imagery going through the minds of the disciples in response to Jesus’ words.  If this interpretation is correct, then it is necessary to believe that when Jesus spoke the words ‘you will see the heavens opened and the angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man,’ the disciples immediately imagined the Son of Man akin to a huge colossus with his feet on the earth and his head in the clouds, angels traversing the divide by means of his colossal body.  If you think that sounds a likely scenario for Galilean Jews in the Second Temple period, then I’m not sure how to respond!

I’ve pondered this question for some time and posted on it early in 2007.  In my dissertation I attempted to explore this in more detail and to try to tease out the implications of how we interpret John 1:51 in terms of how it fits contextually within the opening to the Gospel.

The Hebrew text of Gen 28:12 can be read as portraying the angels ascending and descending towards Jacob.  The targums demonstrate that such readings were likely to be extant during the first century.  I think it far more likely that the disciples imagined, not a huge colossus, but the scene portrayed in Genesis 28, but with angels ascending and descending over Jesus, in the place of Jacob.  If that is true, then where do we go with the interpretation of the verse?  Of course, the Son of Man motif there is critical, and I propose, using the recent work by Casey along the way, that the title The Son of Man is used by Jesus as a unique self-designatory title.  The conjunction of Jacob and The Son of Man can then be explored.  And it is, I believe, a fruitful avenue.

Here’s a summary of the dissertation:

John 1:51 presents unique interpretational challenges within the Fourth Gospel. Approaches tend to focus on either the background to the Son of Man motif in the verse, or the intertextual reference to Jacob's encounter with Yahweh at Bethel, recorded in Genesis 28. In this dissertation, intertextuality with both the Bethel narrative and 'son of man' material is examined in the light of recent developments in the Son of Man debate. A consideration of the literary context of the verse is also brought to bear. As a consequence of this approach, a meaning is identified for the verse which is consistent with its historical and literary context and which connects the Son of Man motif and the Bethel narrative. A Jacob-Jesus nexus is proposed as the interpretational key which unlocks the meaning of John 1:51. This nexus gives a strongly representative emphasis to the Fourth Gospel's first Son of Man saying. In this regard, links can be detected between Jesus as Messiah, Suffering Servant and The Son of Man. The promissory content of the Bethel narrative is fundamental to Jesus' description of a symbolic recapitulation of Jacob's encounter with Yahweh. As Jacob inherits the Abrahamic promises as the representative of Israel, so the Son of Man inherits them as the representative of a redeemed humanity. Thus, the title The Son of Man here conveys Jesus' self-understanding as the locus of that new humanity. The 'greater things' of John 1:51 are the signs of the Johannine Signs Source, designating Jesus as the inheritor of these promises. These signs constitute the opened heavens, the apocalyptic revelation of Jesus as The Son of Man. Thus, the narrative location of John 1:51 immediately prior to the 'beginning of the signs' at Cana assumes significance. Implications for other interpretations of the verse are briefly explored.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Reflections on Reformed Theology

john-calvin The second of my Level 4 systematic theology modules was this one: Reformed Theology.  Now, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this module, but that was more down to me.  I’ve come from a fairly narrow, very conservative (Reformed with a capital R) background, heavily influenced by the Puritans and dominated by systematics.  My encounter with biblical studies at HTC was really a kind of awakening for me, and I thank the Lord for that.  So, what was I to make of going back into the world of Reformed dogmatics, right into its heart, with the Reformed Theology module?  Well, I’m so glad I did.  Why? Because this module restored my faith in Reformed theology, and expanded my horizons. And I thank the Lord for that!  Oh…and the tutor: Dr Rob Shillaker!  Here are some of the reasons that this course was still a highlight for a biblical studies person like me…!

  • Calvin and the Puritans – I read Calvin’s Institutes (well, most of it) when I was maybe 19 or 20.  Around the same period of my life I was living on a diet of Puritan Paperbacks (this may mean very little to you – they are published by the Banner of Truth) and Berkhof.  So, let’s just say I had a particular take on things back then!  During the module you look at the debate about Calvin and the Calvinists, as Paul Helm put it, in response to RT Kendall’s Calvin and English Calvinism.  Now on the face of it, this might seem a particularly dry and academic debate.  However, for me it opened the possibility that the English Puritans were not the true guardians of Calvin’s thought.  This would have been anathema to me before, but how things can change.  So, I read Calvin through fresh eyes, proving that our presuppositions have such a significant impact on how we understand and interpret what we read.  Now I don’t happen to sign up to Kendall’s particular version of pseudo-Amyraldianism – far from it.  But the wider context of Kendall’s argument is the point.  The module also brings in the debate on Calvin and Westminster theology at the hands of the Torrance brothers.  I don’t concur with the Torrances, but again, for me, this invited me to read Calvin with fresh eyes.
  • Calvin on Election – There were many points at which Calvin came alive to me again in a fresh way.  Perhaps one of the most interesting was reading Calvin on election.  I’ve already posted several times on this.  Suffice to say here that later developments of Calvin’s thought did not keep his particular emphases in election.  That’s interesting to me in the context of Welsh evangelicalism.  Why is it that evangelical independency today, whilst claiming deep roots in Calvinistic Methodism, is almost exclusively Baptistic?  I think it likely that, at least to some extent, Puritan developments in election and soteriology, so influential in Wales, undermined the doctrine of the covenant, such that even Presbyterians struggled to delineate a satisfactory doctrine of the covenant and the church.
  • Dutch Reformed Theology – Before I moved to Scotland, one of the first major influences that I came into contact with through reading Scottish theology was the work of the Dutch Reformers.  There are strong connections between the Scots and the Dutch (and, as an aside, I was privileged to study alongside a Dutch student this year on the course – he taught me how to pronounce Hoekema!).  Kuyper’s initial proposal on the importance of common grace has several difficulties.  Bavinck provides a better delineation (of course!), placing less emphasis on an antithesis between nature and grace, and rooting all common grace in Christ; he is closer to Calvin in proposing a more moderate assessment of the unbeliever.  The overall Dutch Reformed emphasis on common grace is a desperately-needed corrective in some traditions.  One of the great legacies of this Dutch tradition is that Calvinism is not just about soteriology, it is a total worldview.  The anabaptist ‘flight from the world’  is still around today sadly.  The Dutch tradition invites a full involvement in all of life and society for the cause of the Kingdom.
  • Federal Vision – As well as looking at important historical debates in the development of Reformed Theology, modern debates are part of the mix in this module.  That is fantastic, because Reformed Theology, probably more than most is open to the accusation of being stuck in the past.  One whole unit on the module is given over to Semper Reformanda.  We looked at two areas: first, Franke’s proposals for Postmodern Reformed Dogmatics; but the one I really enjoyed was the second: the Federal Vision.  Suffice to say (this post is already too long) that in my view the FV central proposition of a more objective covenant needs to be listened to.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Presuppositional Argument for Belief in God

Fractal-clusters Our assessment paper for the Reformed Apologetics course was to write a presuppositional argument for belief in the existence of God.  My own paper was more Framean than Van Tillian in its approach.  I have reproduced the text of the paper as a standalone page, accessible via the link in the left sidebar.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Reflections on Reformed Apologetics

reid Looking back over four years of module choices at HTC, they have been largely focussed on biblical studies and biblical theology.  However, in my final semester I took two more Systematics modules: Reformed Apologetics and Reformed Theology.  These are both taught by Dr Rob Shillaker.

The Reformed Apologetics module aims to show something very important: the relation between philosophy, scripture and theology in determining apologetic method.  It covers the three main apologetic traditions within the Reformed theological community: evidentialism, foundationalism, and presuppositionalism.  And, it was a most enjoyable module – Dr Shillaker uses video and audio excerpts to illustrate the various arguments (made easier by the incredibly flash IT systems newly-installed in the HTC classrooms – Warp Factor 6, Mr Sulu!).  Some very brief highlights and reflections follow:

  • Listening to a reading of Plato’s ‘The Cave’ when looking at ontological arguments in class.  Excellent!
  • Alvin Plantinga and Reformed Epistemology.  This part of the course was a real highlight for me.  Looking at the roots of Reformed Epistemology in Scottish Common Sense Realism was hugely instructive.  Plantinga’s work on basic and non-basic beliefs, and on warranted belief is particularly important.  Clifford’s classic statement of modernism: ‘It is wrong, always and anywhere, for anyone to believe anything without sufficient evidence’ was challenged by Reid’s argument that everyday life is based upon beliefs which are not supported by evidence.  Plantinga has taken this on: he attempts to demonstrate that theistic belief is properly basic.  Of course, Reformed Epistemology is subject to critique: it is too reductive; it is too broad.  However, I think it has a lot to offer.  The ‘fuzzy logic’ of Reid and his successors works in the real world, whereas the sterile, rigid logic of rationalism ends up being unworkable in its hubristic self-reliance.
  • Presuppositional Apologetics.  Of course, this is the meat and potatoes for any self-respecting Reformed (Calvinistic) apologist!  Van Til’s work in Westminster was refined in the crucible of the battles with liberalism within the Church, where one of the main foes was the tyranny of reason.  Van Til rightly swings the pendulum back to revelation and the need for faith, but I do think that (like many positions forged in the heat of battle) his resultant views were not nuanced enough.  I was helped a great deal by Frame, who backpedals somewhat from his tutors certainties.  For me, Van Til almost becomes Kierkegaardian in his emphasis on faith and revelation.  I think some kind of synthesis (not Hegel again!) between Presuppositionalism and Reformed Epistemology might offer dividends (seeing as they do share some common ground and common roots) – but such an analysis is beyond me!
  • Theodicy.  One of our assessment papers was to review Plantinga’s book, God, Freedom and Evil.  It’s a very good book, and surprisingly easy to follow, due to Plantinga’s accessible style.  I was dubious about some of his arguments (on side issues) but in the main his approach is promising.  It stops short though of being a theodicy – which Plantinga acknowledges; it is cast as a Defense.  Fair enough, but as such it represents the first stage of what ought to be a significant and more satisfying project.  For some more stimulating thought on Theodicy, see Blocher’s work.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

John Muir

muirThree quotes from John Muir, Scotsman and lover of wilderness:

“The battle for conservation will go on endlessly. It is part of the universal battle between right and wrong.”

“A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease. Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life, every fiber thrilling like harp strings, while incense is ever flowing from the balsam bells and leaves. No wonder the hills and groves were God's first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself.”

“The mountains are calling, and I must go.”

John Muir (1838-1914)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Reflections on Biblical Theology I & II (Part III)

roots2 I thought I would post a few reflections on the Biblical Theology II module – that’s the practical module of the HTC BT experience.  Our four three-week seminars were addressing biblical theological questions (which the student must develop) on Marriage, the Spirit, the Nations and the City.  In the final week of the seminar the student must present an outline for a methodological approach toward answering their question.  Then, two of these must be fully written up as assessment papers.  There follow my questions and a few brief thoughts:

Marriage.  The question: ‘The Genesis creation narratives portray a foundational role for male-female relationships within the created order.  Can biblical theology reconcile this with Jesus’ teaching on marriage and resurrection in the synoptics?’  Specifically in view here are Jesus’ words to the Saducees in Mark 12:18-27 (and parallels) to the effect that ‘in the resurrection men do not marry, women are not given in marriage…for they are like angels’ (my paraphrase of the synoptic variations).  Some thoughts: interpreters who see marriage as simply transitory typology, fulfilled in the relationship between Christ and the Church, overlook (i) the relationship between male-female and the image of God in Gen 1:27, and (ii) the foundational statement in the creation narratives that it is ‘not good’ for the man to be alone, even before the Fall; this is answered by male-female relationships. As an aside, they often also reverse Paul’s metaphor in Eph 5 to say: look at your marriage and you’ll understand the greater truth of Christ and the Church, when in fact Paul is saying, look at Christ and the Church and then take that example back into your marriage.  The Church sometimes comforts lonely single people by effectively saying ‘well, we’ll all be single in heaven!’ (the dreaded gift of singleness), whereas perhaps it is better to say ‘ the Lord will answer your loneliness with perfect companionship in the resurrection.’ The answer in a nutshell: the male-female complementarity that is fundamental to the constitution of humanity will continue in the New Earth, although it cannot be sufficiently depicted by the concept of human marriage institutions in this world.  Being ‘like the angels’ means not being subject to mortality (this is clear in Luke’s account).  It is not a reference to another (heavenly-ethereal) form of existence.

Spirit.  The question: ‘The synoptic Gospels and the Fourth Gospel contain the tradition of the descent of the Spirit in the form of a dove upon Jesus at his baptism.  Explore whether there is an Old Testament background to the imagery of the Spirit as a dove.’  Some thoughts: in his account Luke is clear that what he saw had ‘a physical appearance like a dove’ (Lk 3:22 My trans).  Yahweh is depicted at several points in the OT using avian imagery.  However, the only place where the Spirit is depicted in this way is in Gen 1:2 (and only if you interpret ruah as spirit, not wind).  Interestingly 4Q521 Fr2 contains this: ‘over the poor His spirit will hover and will renew the faithful with his power.’   I do wonder about texts like Pss 18:10 and 104:3 – should we read in these the term ‘on the wings of the spirit', (al-canepey-ruah) rather than ‘on the wings of the wind’?  The key OT connection with Jesus’ baptism is with Is 42:1 where the spirit of Yahweh is put upon the servant.  The answer in a nutshell: the broader avian metaphor of the OT provides background to the appearance of the Spirit in a form akin to a dove.  However, the descent imagery is a departure driven by the ideas in Is 42:1.  There is no connection with Noah!

Nations. The question: ‘To what extent does the New Testament, and in particular the event of Pentecost, portray a reversal of the genesis of diverse languages and nations through God’s intervention at Babel in Genesis 11:1-9?’  Some thoughts: many interpreters see Babel as a curse upon an hubristic humanity trying to ‘storm heaven’. Pentecost is the redeeming act that reverses this curse.  There are three problems with this: first, a close reading of the Babel narrative gives little evidence for this interpretation (the scattering is referenced without a negative assessment in Gen 9:19; 10:18; 10:32 – God’s act rectifies humanity’s decision to huddle in Babel in disobedience to the divine command to populate the earth in Gen 9:7); second, the details of the Pentecost narrative do not allow such an interpretation (many languages are spoken, not one; only one nation is present, not Gentiles – there is a tribal reconstruction motif here for the house of Israel and the house of Judah, in fulfilment of the Jeremaic covenant promise); and third, the result of this interpretation is cultural and linguistic negativism – diversity of culture and language is a curse to be overcome.  We thus come close to justifying cultural imperialism and the destruction of minority cultures.  The answer in a nutshell: Yahweh’s action at Babel was a gracious intervention for the good of humanity, in opposition to the introspective rebellion of humanity. The separation of languages and nations secured the divine intention for humanity to spread over the earth and diversify. Hence, the diversity of the nations, including their languages, is good. Far from portraying a reversal, the Pentecost narrative reinforces this view.

City. The question: ‘Is there any theological counterpart in the New Testament to the exhortation found in Psalm 48 to consider the architecture of the city of Jerusalem as a picture of Yahweh?’  Some thoughts: Ps48: 3, 14 seem to indicate that the physical city of Zion acts as a visual representation of the God of Zion, Yahweh.  Such iconographic thought is rare in the OT.  Perhaps a consideration of the defences of Zion are intended to prompt recollection of the story of Zion, and hence the God of that story, but the visual metaphor on the face of it seems more direct -  Ps48:15 MT begins with the literal phrase: ‘for this is God’.  The only place perhaps in the NT where similar iconography is encountered is in Revelation 21.  The city of Jerusalem there has ‘the glory of God’ and its architecture is described in great detail.  God, the Almighty, and the Lamb are its temple/sanctuary.  Answer in a nutshell: architecture (the work of man) here does supply a metaphor for God, just as features of the creation often do in scripture.  This is an interesting point for a consideration of all of the arts.  That the geography of Zion supplied a metaphor for God is part of the theology of Zion expressed elsewhere in the Songs of Zion.  The larger theological point is perhaps that the creation of the city of God as a redeemed human society, comprised of individual image bearers as ‘living stones’, will indeed bear some of the attributes of God himself.  Thus the city of John’s Apocalypse bears the glory of God.  For Zion, and for the new Jerusalem, the glory of the city reflects that of the God who dwells within it.  In the Church, we consider the logos made flesh as the icon – he who has seen me has seen the Father - ‘for this is God.’   We also consider one another as the works of God, showing Christlikeness as new creatures.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Reflections on Biblical Theology I & II (Part II)


Further to my previous post on the Biblical Theology modules, I’d better proceed with my reflections proper, so here are a few of my highlights:

  • Discussing the origins of BT (studying, for example, the text of Johann Gabler’s 1787 inaugural lecture in Altdorf) and the definition of the discipline.  Childs is helpful here: he sees that from one perspective, the entire modern history of the discipline of Biblical Theology can be interpreted as the effort to distinguish between the views that  (i) BT is descriptive, historical task seeking to determine what the theology was of the biblical authors themselves (a theology contained within the Bible), and (ii) BT is a constructive, theological one that attempts to formulate a modern theology compatible in some sense with the Bible (a theology that accords with the Bible).
  • Reading B S Childs.  My first B S Childs reading was a few years back in his excellent OTL Exodus commentary.  However, reading Childs’ Biblical Theology: A Proposal as part of the BT I module was a great introduction to Child’s canonical approach to BT.  It’s only a short book, but crystallised in its pages you find a brief history of BT, a discussion of the issue of the canon, and an outline of his canonical approach to BT: the two testaments; text and interpreter; shaping; witness and subject matter.  Of course, you then have to plunge into Childs’ Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments!
  • Apostolic Hermeneutics. This was the subject of the assessment paper for BT I.  Why do the NT authors seem to do strange things with OT texts?  Can we follow their example? Many say ‘no’, preferring to urge a straightforward grammatico-historical approach.  There’s a lot that I could write, but I simply offer what follows.  The fact is that strict grammatico-historical exegesis of OT texts will not yield Christian readings of those texts.  So this approach will not suffice.  Some form of midrashic exegesis is required. To correctly constrain the enterprise, the horizons of the OT author, NT author and present day interpreter need to be understood.  The OT author occupies a unique eschatological and canonical context (he is situated before the advent of Messiah and before there is any canon); the NT author shares an eschatological location with the present day interpreter (post Messiah), but the canonical location is different: the former is situated post-OT canon, but pre-NT canon, the latter is situated post-canon.  The Church’s task of theology then is to reflect upon the whole canon in a way that would have been impossible for the NT authors.  Enns’ description of this task as Christotelic midrash is I think correct.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Reflections on Biblical Theology I and II (Part I)

roots2These are the modules that caught my eye right back before I started the HTC course: two consecutive Level 4 modules, taking you through the year, 26 weeks of Biblical Theology tuition.  This comes on the heels of the Old Testament Themes year 3 module, which is an excellent biblical theology primer, being a kind of introduction to Old Testament Theology.  If you’re thinking of studying theology in a genuinely Reformed setting, then these are two of the modules that should make you travel north to Scotland (if you’re not already here) to find the road to Dingwall.

Biblical Theology I is the theoretical module, Biblical Theology II the practical module.  So, in BT I you look at the history of BT, the issue of the canon, NT use of the OT, and a range of methodological approaches to  BT.  You study salvation-historical approaches (e.g. Vos, Goldsworthy), canonical approaches (e.g. Childs, Seitz, Watson), and the approaches of Barr and Brueggemann.  In BT II, you get to deploy what you’ve learnt.  So, you get four three-week blocks where you research and develop a biblical-theological question relating to four subject areas, and then answer it using your chosen methodology.  Our subjects (they are chosen by the seminar) were Marriage, the City, the Spirit, and the Nations.  This of course is all overseen by Dr Jamie Grant.

For now, some brief reflections follow:

  • The neglect of Biblical Theology.  BT is a closed book it seems in some circles where people who feel quite comfortable operating theologically within the categories of Systematic Theology talk about Biblical Theology in vague terms.  It soon often becomes apparent that they’re talking about theology that’s ‘biblical’ – usually that means plucking Systematic Theology from the Bible!
  • The relationship of BT to ST.  Systematics is very important (don’t try to cast me as a BT flag-waver in the BT-ST war!  I attend Dogs in Edinburgh every two years for Pete’s sake!).  However, an over-reliance on ST is not good.  The development of BT as a discipline has accompanied the Church’s developing appreciation of the historical nature of the Faith.  Although Gabler’s original proposals for BT were off-beam in some respects, at least he was right in this: that BT ought to form the foundation for ST.  It’s my humble opinion that both BT and ST flag-wavers need to recognise the inter-related nature of their disciplines in the service of the Church.  The Church needs ST.  The Church needs BT.  And successful ST needs BT.
  • BT, History and Categories.  The fact remains that ST presents theology within an artificially imposed framework.  The categories of ST are often not the categories of scripture.  The framework within which scripture is placed per se in the canon is an historical one (notwithstanding the presence of the wisdom literature, Von Rad’s infamous nemesis).  BT fundamentally operates within, and presents its results within, this framework, whereas ST does not.  There is a great need for the Christian in the pew to recover the historical and eschatological component to the Faith.  BT is assisting this in the Church.  It is of huge importance at this time.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

The Problem of History

jerusalem For what it’s worth, here’s a bit more on the hermeneutical problem of history, an extract taken from the conclusion to my paper on the subject:

‘…According to Troeltsch, it was the Church's insistence on seeing all of history within the framework of supernaturalist theology that hindered historical enquiry for 1500 years, up until the Renaissance. Whilst Troeltsch's view is undoubtedly conditioned by the over-confidence of the modernist project, it is true that the Reformation alliance of epistemology and theology was a much-needed development. Calvin's correct insistence on the link between knowledge of God and knowledge of the self has enabled philosophical investigation to contribute to the field of biblical hermeneutics. Thiselton's defence of the role of philosophy in hermeneutics is important for any reassessment of biblical hermeneutics. Practitioners must recognise the modernist substructure of the historical-critical method. Post-modernism's challenge to this substructure presents three contenders for a philosophy of history: realist/empiricist; idealist; or postmodern. The Church, with the benefit of two millennia of history, has an opportunity to re-examine these alternatives. This is why new proposals from scholars such as Meyers and Wright (for a new foundation for historical investigation based on critical-realism) are such an important development. To aid the Church's task, the Church can reflect on pre-modern interpretation. The recognition of different levels of textual meaning contrasts with the reductive modernist view of a single layer of meaning. The lectio divina emphasis on subordination to the text contrasts with modernisms critical judgement of the text. The 'rule of faith' as appeal to community tradition and the metanarrative of scripture contrasts with both the sterile individualism of modernism and the metacriticism of postmodernism. These positive pre-modern traits are seen in many postmodern approaches. However, the postmodern total collapsing of hermeneutics into the horizon of the reader is incompatible with the claims of Christian truth. The metacritical approach, which denies the metanarrative of Christian truth, must be countered by the Church. Pannenburg shows the way in viewing history as metanarrative in the widest sense of the word, embracing not only the past, but, through eschatology, the future – even if that future is only 'provisionally and proleptically accessible'. Modernity has established an awareness of temporal distance and impelled the Church to take the historical phenomenality of scripture seriously...’

Reflections on Hermeneutics

wittgenstein For various reasons, I ended up taking Hermeneutics under the rubric of the Year 4 Guided Reading module, although a Hermeneutics course is offered at Level 4.  The advantage of this approach was that I could tailor the module (in discussion with my supervisor – Dr Jamie Grant).  So, I ended up writing three assessment papers:

  • Barriers to interpretation in ancient texts and the methods that have been adopted in an attempt to overcome them throughout the history of the Church.
  • a book review of Words and the Word: Explorations in the Bible and Literary Theory.
  • Human authorship and scriptural authority with special reference to Enns’s Inspiration and Incarnation and McGowan’s The Divine Spiration of Scripture.

A brief thought on each of these follows:

  • barriers to the interpretation of ancient texts arise fundamentally because of the ‘problem of history,’ the problem of the ‘pastness of the past.’  So, in my paper I examined the historical Church’s awareness of this problem.  It is only since the Reformation that the Church has begun to truly get to grips with the historical nature of our faith, based as it is on divine intervention in human history, and the associated problem of bridging the historical distance.  After the existential disconnection of post-Bultmannian theologies and the sterile criticism of modernity, it’s time for the Church to get to grips with the problem of history constructively.  And, I think it is (beginning to get to grips with it).  I’ll post some more on this (perhaps).
  • Being borne in the womb of Imperial College, trained as an proper engineer, then as a policy-making ‘soft engineer’, literature has been for a long time on the fringes of my education (O’ level English Literature is the fringe I’m talking about!).  Of course, studying theology has put paid to that.  And I had a lot of catching up to do on literary theory etc.  So, this essay enabled me to get to grips with an area of hermeneutics that still appears, to many scholars it seems to me, like the Land of Mordor, shielded from view on all sides by high mountains.  Well, I passed Shelob’s Lair and went in for a look!  And lo, ‘twas a fearsome land!  But I returned alive and better informed about Wittgenstein (that’s him above, by the way), speech-act theory, poetics and rhetoric (although to be fair we’ve done lots of rhetoric as part of the NT courses).
  • This one is the (extremely) hot potato, especially with the furore over Divine Spiration, the book by HTCs former principal.  I was dismayed over the attacks made on a good man, who is honestly grappling with a subject where amongst some evangelicals there is little desire for honest and open discussion and doctrinal development.  Few of the attackers engaged with the substantive issues.  Anyway (avoiding fresh potato burns), I posted plenty at the time on this subject...

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Reflections on 1 Corinthians (Greek Text)

paul5 And so begins the final series of reflections on my time at Highland Theological College as a theology undergraduate.  The 1 Corinthians module is a Greek text module and is a first semester Year 4 module, meaning that I was taught this module by Dr Mike Bird during his last semester at HTC.

The module aims to equip the student to interpret this letter in its historical setting, to discover its theological and ethical significance for today and hopes (according the the blurb) to discover the student demonstrating ‘comfortable familiarity with the methods and resources required for Greek textual exegesis’!

Here are a few of my highlights:

  • Mike getting us to read and translate from a copy of the p46 manuscript (not easy when you’re attuned to UBS4)!
  • Reading on historical setting and archaeology in Corinth.  Thiessen on social stratification was hugely interesting for gaining an insight into the background of the letter, as was Murphy-O’Connor on archaeology at Corinth.  I think it was Bishop Stephen Neill who wrote about the need for eminence in the fields of the exegete, the theologian and the historian in order to be successful in probing Christian antiquity.  I think the successful exegete or theologian (or Christian) must be at least mindful of the importance of  history, even if he or she cannot achieve eminence as a historian!
  • Reading Richard Hays on ‘The Conversion of the Imagination’ in NTS 45 (1999).  If you have the slightest interest in Pauline eschatology then try to get your hands on this paper.  I think this really was one of the most important things I read all year.
  • Interacting with Pete Enns’s stuff on the extant ’Moveable Well’ tradition that seems to stand behind some of Paul’s material in chapter 10.
  • Writing the assessment paper on the resurrection body in chapter 15.  The role of vv38b-41 in Paul’s argument is not immediately apparent, but it seems clear to me that in this chapter Paul is making a direct allusion to the second triad of the creation narrative of Genesis 1.  Therefore, far from this section inviting limitless conjecture as to the future ‘glory’ of the resurrection body being like the glory of the stars, Paul actually sees the resurrected body taking its appropriate place within the second triad of a renewed creation, where each body has its appropriate ‘glory’.  It would seem to me that this indicates a continuance of the framework provided by the first triad of creation, which is not mentioned but assumed.
  • Grappling with psychikos and pneumatikos (again, for the assessment paper).  It’s not easy to decipher the significance of psyche, especially since in 1 Corinthians it appears with negative connotation in 2:14 and 15:44 and without negative connotation in 15:45.  I can’t go into details here, but basically I think that the answer lies along the same trajectory as Paul’s use of sarx, which can possess both negative and neutral meanings.  In short, there is an aspect of psyche and sarx that must be done away with, but nevertheless the bodily nature of the resurrection is maintained, such that we will still be psyche (but not psychikos) and sarx (but not sarkikos) - our existence will be best described as pneumatikos.

Friday, September 03, 2010

China and the Authority of Jesus

china The VdT silence is broken!

Soon, I will post reflections on my final year modules at HTC (yeah, yeah…you said that before), and perhaps a few other reflections on my time at HTC.  But I wanted to post something before that…

On Sunday last, I was preaching on Matthew 28:16-20 in a Church of Scotland congregation in North Uist.  The words of Jesus, recorded by Matthew, are pregnant with prophetic power.  I was citing the growth of Christianity in China as a powerful example of the fulfilment of the words of Christ: ‘all authority has been given to me, in heaven and on earth.’

How wonderful it was, then, to listen to Crossing Continents on Radio 4, reporting on this phenomenon, and to hear new Christians being baptised ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,’ in obedience to Jesus’ command.  Of course, Christianity’s growth in China is not straightforward; there are many issues and potential problems.  However, it is a cause for praise.  In the words of one of the interviewees: ‘God is doing a great job in China!’

China is quickly becoming one of the most prominent global economic powers, and hence political powers.  The waxing of the dominance of the West, especially in Old Europe, reminds me of the words of Moore in his Zephaniah commentary: ‘The kingdoms, powers and governments of world history are the scaffolding for the kingdom of God, to be torn down when their purposes are accomplished.’

Saturday, May 29, 2010


When I started this blog back in October 2006, my aim was to blog my way through my degree. What started as a briefly-lived team blog with a few friends has become a record of my own reflections whilst (and sometimes about) studying theology; a record of my own advancement (Vorsprung) through theology, both chronologically and, I hope, spiritually and intellectually. Vorsprung durch Theologie also expresses my own conviction that only theology will give the Church its advancement under Christ in the world. Theology is for the Church.

Along the way I have become somewhat sceptical about blogging and have almost abandoned the VdT project at several points. But for my very few readers I hope that something of value has occurred in your occasional encounters with VdT. And I hope that for those contemplating studying theology, VdT has given some kind of insight - and I hope it's encouraged you to consider HTC, which is an outstanding community of faith and scholarship in the Reformed tradition.

Anyhow, the VdT project enters its final stage. All Honours year modules are now complete - my final exam was yesterday. All that remains for me is to post some reflections on those modules, and perhaps a few reflections on my time at HTC as a whole. Then the End Will Come!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Progressive Creation

After Bruce Waltke's words about the evidence for evolutionary process and his subsequent resignation from RTS, some will (of course) adopt the myopic narrative that this is the Church listening to modern, rationalistic science instead of to God (in fact an article on Reformation21 has stated just that, in a disservice to Bruce Waltke).
Unfortunately (or fortunately) this unbelievably simplistic analysis is...well, unbelievably simplistic and wrong. The idea that the six creation days ought not to be taken literally has a long history that goes back to the Fathers (it can be seen in Augustine, Origen, Clement, and others). Here in Scotland, some of the Free Church's own Fathers, men like Hugh Miller and William Cunningham, were happy to embrace an old earth and a progressive creation process moving from simplicity to greater complexity. I'm glad to say that prominent Free Church theologians today are similarly inclined.

To stress the unity and eternity of God; to insist that the whole universe is His work; to emphasise that we live in a world of order, not of chaos; and to put the gods of Egypt and Babylon firmly in their place: these were the intentions of the author of Genesis 1. I suspect that if we had asked him, 'But how long were the days?' he would have looked blank. He was assuming a natural science rather than advocating it.

The Parable of the Mustard Seed would soon lose its effect if we became obsessed with the question, 'But is it really the smallest of all seeds?' And our Lord's encounter with Nicodemus would teach us little if we focused only on the question of reconciling John 3:8 with modern meteorology. I am not sure that our treatment of Genesis 1 has been much more intelligent. (Macleod, A Faith to Live By, 60).

If I am not hostile to the notion of a universe thousands of millions of years old and if I am prepared to accept that life-forms emerged according to a progressive pattern, from the simple to the more complex, does this make me a Darwinist? Not for a moment! I draw a very firm distinction between such a position and the position of consistent evolutionism. (Macleod, AFtLB, 62).

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Genesis and Genre

I didn't post when, a few weeks back, Bruce Waltke resigned his post at RTS (announced April 6) after a controversy about the orthodoxy of theistic evolution. From what I have read from the pen of Bruce Waltke, and what I have heard from people who know him, he is a gracious, deeply respected brother. As I've reflected on what's happened to him, and on some of the reaction, I felt I should post by twopenneth. So, what happened? You can read about it at CT here, but basically a video had appeared on BioLogos (which has subsequently been removed at the request of RTS) in which Waltke questioned whether Christianity can seriously ignore scientific data that seem to point to an old earth and to evolutionary theory. Waltke has since re-affirmed his belief in a historical Adam and Eve (you can read Waltke's Statement of Clarification here), but this it seems is insufficient. BioLogos themselves hold that young earth theories are untenable and that the ID movement has reached a 'dead end'. Waltke probably isn't so definite about the latter of these, but perhaps it's another case of the dreaded Guilt By Association. Have we really reached the point where any concept of theistic evolution is viewed as heresy in Reformed thought?

Such a broad concept allows perfectly well for an Adam and an Eve, for the divine fiat, for man as the Imago Dei. In fact, it allows for all of the truths that Reformed Christianity holds to. I might not be a confirmed theistic evolutionist according to one specific model, but I can see that the earth is very old. Evolutionary processes at some level are contributing to biology today and have done so in the past. It seems probable to me that death existed in the animal kingdom even before the fall (from looking at the Genesis narratives, not from ignoring them). However, I still think that teleological arguments for design have got stronger and stronger in recent years, in the realm of microbiology and elsewhere. After all, it is this type of argument that eventually proved persuasive for Anthony Flew. Evolutionary process, the divine fiat and design are not mutually exclusive.

At heart, this problem is (again) centred around the doctrine of Scripture. If Scripture is to be read as a genre-less, ahistorical monolith, then we should all be young earth, six day creationists. However, if we believe in divine accomodation in scripture; if we believe that scripture is a human as well as a divine work, written to make sense to the first readers, as well as to us; if we believe that incarnation is some sense helps us understand the nature of scripture (if you argue with this concept, you are arguing with Warfield, Hodge, Bavinck, Ridderbos as well as with Enns - and you need to read this); if we believe in hermeneutics, then other options are available for the interpretation of the Genesis narratives. Why is it so hard for Reformed theology to recognise its own view that Scripture is human and divine, is itself an accomodation to human understanding? The Genesis creation narrative is expressed in the context of the ancient NE. Its genre reflects the aNE stories of origins. And at the same time it is true; it is the Word of God. The Genesis narratives convey critically important truths about God, about man, about the cosmos, about sin, about redemption. It is my firm opinion that if Christians spent less time trying to defend a literalistic, scientific reading of the Genesis protology, and more time reflecting on its theology, then the Church would better understand not only protology, but also eschatology, and a whole lot of ologies in between.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Covenant and Election (Lillback on Calvin)

In his The Binding of God, Lillback summarises the relationship between Calvin's conceptions of predestination and covenant in the following terms, in agreement with Hoekema as cited in the previous couple of posts.

The doctrine of sovereign election is that which explains why the covenant operates as it does. While Calvin hints at the idea of an eternal covenant in the Godhead, he is very clear that the covenant operates in time in union with the doctrine of election. This is true not only of the Israelites, but of Christians also. The covenant is not the same as secret election that infallibly secures salvation. Rather, the covenant is a general election that offers the promise of the benefits of the covenant. Only secret election ratifies the covenant in the case of any individual. Such is the covenant as viewed from the decree of God.

Nevertheless, the covenant has duties for men to execute. Thus man must not look to the decree for his salvation, but to the promises he finds in the covenant that he embraces by faith. Hence, the covenant creates an intermediate category of persons between those who are the ones rejected by God, and those who are elect. It is from this intermediate category that hypocrites arise, who later break the covenant by unbelief and disobedience. This type of covenant-breaking can even happen in the new covenant, since there are those admitted to the Church by baptism who will not be elect and who will not obey the covenant. Further there are those who come by profession of faith without a genuine working of grace. These too will ultimately show themselves to be non-elect by failing to fulfill the duties of the covenant. Nevertheless, those who enter the covenant sphere by baptism, even if not secretly elected, are really in the covenant.

For Calvin, the covenant is the place of salvation, but not all who are in the covenant will receive that salvation because of the mystery of divine election. Those who do not receive the grace of election are responsible for not fulfilling their covenant duties. They are those who have degenerated from sons of the covenant into illegitimate children. Such is Calvin's view of the hypocrite. Here we corroborate the views of Hoekema, Eenigenburg, Van Der Vegt, and Vanden Bergh vis-a-vis Polman and McClelland.


Friday, April 30, 2010

Covenant and Election (More from Jean)

Further to my post a couple of days ago, here is another extract from Hoekema's article in CTJ:
The distinction between covenant membership and particular election is explicitly stated in the following words:
But that the general election [generalis electio] of a people is not always firm and stedfast, a reason readily offers itself: because to those with whom God makes a covenant God does not invariably (Hoekema's trans. of protinus) give the spirit of regeneration by virtue of which they would persevere in the covenant even to the end; but the outward change [externa mutatio] without the interior efficacy of grace which might have availed to keep them is a kind of middle way [medium quiddam] between the rejection of mankind and the election of a small number of the godly.
Here Calvin clearly teaches that the adoption of people into the covenant of grace does not mean that each covenant member will invariably be saved. Rather he calls the covenant here a kind of middle way (medium quiddam) between the rejection of mankind and the election of some. You could say that covenant membership is here pictured as a circle wider than particular election, but narrower than mankind as a whole.
[A A Hoekema, 'The Covenant of Grace in Calvin's Teaching', CTJ 2/2 (1967)]
Perhaps a couple of points. First, this is essentially the understanding of covenant found in Shepherd, which I referred to earlier, and definitely that found in Marcel, whose work on baptism was so influential in my finally adopting a presbyterian theology. This understanding of covenant is to a large degree my understanding, and resolves the difficulty that some presbyterians still seem to have in delineating the doctrine of baptism. Secondly, Calvin's distinction between general and particular election does raise again in my mind Paul's use of eklegomai in Ephesians 1:4. I have posted before on Paul's use of pronouns in Ephesians 1 and 2 and must confess that it seems at least possible to me that in 1:4 Paul is writing of the choice of the nation of Israel. That point, however, is likely to be more controversial!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tom Wright back to Academia

I read with some surprise on the Times Mobile site last night that Tom Wright is resigning from his post as Bishop of Durham to return to academia at St Andrews. Although a loss to the diocese, this must be good for those awaiting the final volumes of NT's magnum opus and further popular volumes from Tom. Anyway, here's a link to read.

Covenant and Election

The current Reformed Theology module has given a chance to read more on the above subject, on which I've posted before, and also before that. Here is a quote from A A Hoekema, tracing the idea that the covenant of grace is a wider category than election back to Calvin himself.
As is well known, certain Reformed theologians have insisted that, strictly speaking, membership in the covenant of grace is identical with membership in the circle of the particular elect— in other words, that only the elect in this particular sense are members of the covenant of grace. This position was held, among others, by Abraham Kuyper in the Netherlands and, more recently, by Herman Hoeksema in this country. It has even been contended by proponents of this view that the conception of the covenant just described was the only one which was genuinely Reformed. I propose to show, however, that this view of the covenant of grace is not the one we find in Calvin.
In Book III of the Institutes, Chapter 21, sections 5 to 7, Calvin makes clear that he does not identify membership in the covenant of grace with particular election. (With the exception of two paragraphs, the material found in these three sections was added in the 1559 edition; it therefore represents Calvin's mature theological thought.) In III, 21, 5 Calvin asserts that God's choice of Abraham and his posterity was an example of his gracious election. He means here, not election in the usual theological sense, as referring to individuals chosen from eternity to be saved, but election in a wider sense, as the choice of a nation to be the recipient of God's special revelation and the object of his special care. In section 6, however, Calvin introduces a distinction into his conception of election:
"We must now add a second, more limited degree [gradus restrictior] of election, or one in which God's more special grace [gratia magis specialis] was evident, that is, when from the same race of Abraham God rejected some but showed that he kept others among his sons by cherishing them in the church."
The "more limited degree of election" must mean what we have previously identified as particular election.

[A A Hoekema, 'The Covenant of Grace in Calvin's Teaching', CTJ 2/2 (1967)]

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Natural Evil

I've recently been grappling with the Problem of Evil for an essay for the Reformed Apologetics course. Most theodicies or defences discriminate between moral evil and natural evil. For example, the Free Will Defence of Plantinga focusses on moral evil, but also addresses natural evil. Plantinga's proposal that natural evil is also a consequence of the actions of non-human free moral agents seems to me a little bizarre. A more fundamental question is: is natural evil actually evil? I'm sure that a nuanced answer is required, but my own view is that things that are often labelled as 'evils' are not in fact evil. Here's Henri Blocher on sin being the worst evil, the foremost evil, the essence of evil, the thing that makes humanity susceptible to all other evils:

Of course, this proposition appears exaggerated or strained to some: was it not God who created viruses and volcanoes? Did not the law of the jungle shed blood for thousands of centuries before the human race appeared on the scene? These objections are not insuperable. In his original, sinless and flawless state, mankind was bursting with health, so that viruses and other pathogens, which are all the more dangerous when an organism is weakened, caused him no harm whatsoever. He no doubt had intuitive wisdom and such finely tuned premonitory senses - far sharper than those of the most amazing of today's animals - that volcanic eruptions were incapable of causing him any danger. As for the manifestations of violence in the animal kingdom which shocked Wilfred Monod so profoundly, it is debatable whether they can be considered as evil...

The idea that before mankind's creation Satan might have caused the transformation of peaceful, loving animals into parasites and predators, or even that the fall in Eden was its cause, finds no support in the Scriptures; the speeches in the book of Job (38:39ff.; 39:29f.; 40:25ff.) and Psalm 104 (vv. 21 and 27f.) reveal in the behaviour of the carnivores the wisdom of God the Creator. This wisdom gives us a sense of wonder indeed, when science unfolds the intricate ordering and complex control of various ecosystems. Pain undergoes a radical change of category, depending whether there is or is not a reflecting consciousness that is able to relate sensations and experiences to a personal centre ('I'). Where there is to be found a similar consciousness, suffering certainly seems evil - that is, in human beings; but you cannot draw the hasty conclusion that it is the same in the case of animals. Evil and the Cross, 58-59.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

He has Risen!

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might come and anoint Him.

Very early on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. They were saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?" Looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away, although it was extremely large.

Entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them,

"Do not be amazed; you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has risen; He is not here; behold, here is the place where they laid Him. "But go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘ He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you.’ "

They went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?

At the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice,

which is translated, MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME? When some of the bystanders heard it, they began saying, "Behold, He is calling for Elijah." Someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed, and gave Him a drink, saying, " Let us see whether Elijah will come to take Him down."

And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed His last.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Reflections on Old Testament Themes

The Old Testament Themes module is taught by Hector Morrison, now principal of HTC. Its title seems to be a little simplistic for a Level 3 module - it sounds like something you might do on a Saturday course! However, this module is really akin to an Old Testament Theology primer. It's a great introduction to the Biblical Theology modules of Level 4. It is a superb module! Many highlights could be highlighted, but I will be brief:
  • Chaoskampf. One of the seminar themes - focussing on possible occurrences of the motif in the Psalms and writing prophets. I preached a mini-series on some of the Songs of Zion a few months ago and the chaos motif is clearly present in Ps46, contrasted there with the life-giving qualities of the Edenic Gihon spring on the slopes of Zion. The order displayed in the Sinaitic Law, whilst burdensome to the people, should perhaps be understood (at least to some degree) as a recreation of the world in the nation of Israel, which rises from the chaos of Egypt. Our God is a God of order!
  • Isaianic Portrait of the Messiah. This seminar caused disquiet for some by disallowing a simple reading-back of NT perspectives into the traditional Isaianic passages. However, important methodological decisions must be taken when intepreting the OT. One of them is to ask: what did this passage mean in Israel? If we do not ask this question, if we do not impose a historical ordering principle on our hermeneutic, then we will never properly understand the revelation of Christ.
  • Covenant. Dr Mike Bird used to harangue me (in jest) about the number of times I mentioned covenant! In this module, working through the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic covenants enables your thinking to crystallize in this foundational area. A seminar on the New Covenant ('not like the covenant I made with their fathers...') was then an opportunity to build on this. Especially useful for me was time spent considering the fact that the New Covenant is made with the houses of Israel and Judah. Some want to interpret this spiritually, but I think that's a mistake. A literal understanding is what we need, if we are to understand what's happening at Pentecost (and before that, for example, at the well in John 4) and what Paul is getting at when he uses his vine imagery in Romans 11 (on a personal note, this kind of thinking a few years ago now was critical in my own ecclesiastical shift from being a Reformed Baptist to being a Presbyterian. In fact, thinking about it, does that move in itself make me a reformed Baptist?!). It also makes me wonder whether in some of the ways in which the Samaritans feature in the Gospels, we are in fact seeing some kind of tribal reconstruction motif - a rehabilitation of the northern tribes?

Monday, March 08, 2010

Proclaiming God's Redemptive Purpose

Re-reading my last post put me in mind of something I posted last year (prompted by studies in Paul's letter to the Romans) about the dangers of a gospel which is perceived in narrower terms than that proclaimed in the NT (and OT for that matter). The Near-Disaster of the Simple Gospel.

Kerygma, Didache and the Cross

Further to my reflections on Luke-Acts, I reproduce here a couple of excerpts from my assessment essay for the Luke-Acts module on the apostolic kerygma:

We have already noted the relative absence of atonement theology from the kerygmatic speeches of Acts, and contrasted this with its significance in Paul and elsewhere. Whilst CH Dodd's strict dichotomy between kerygma and didache expresses an unwarranted polarisation between the content of evangelising proclamation and the content of teaching in the Church, a case can still be made that the theology of vicarious atonement appears more strongly in the context of didache than in the context of the type of evangelising kerygma that we find in the book of Acts. This is not to say that the atonement did not feature at all in the kerygma of the early church. Such a view must contend with the evidence of passages like 1 Cor 15:1-8 and the fact that what is presented in Acts can only be a summary of the kerygma or didache of the church. However, it may still be the case that the salvation-historical emphasis of the kerygma necessitated that the atonement received less emphasis than it did in the didache of the church. The salvation-historical emphasis of the kerygma places the cross in its context as part of the work of Christ, and in the wider context of its role in fulfilling the purpose of God for humanity and creation. The didache, such as we find in the NT epistles, is where the riches of the doctrine of vicarious atonement are taught and explored. It is certainly pertinent that the sole explicit reference to vicarious atonement in Acts occurs in the context of Paul's address to the Ephesian elders, a context more akin to didache than kerygma.

...Luke contextualises the cross within the whole work of Christ, which in turn is contextualised within salvation-history. Therefore, the role of the cross does not receive a detailed exposition. This is also true of the largely salvation-historical kerygma of the apostles. It is in the didactic material of the NT that we discover this exposition. This observation itself perhaps challenges the practice of the contemporary Church at a number of points.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Reflections on Luke-Acts

The Luke-Acts module was (when I took it in 2009) taught by Dr Mike Bird. Aiming to investigate the literary and theological relationships between Luke's two volumes, the module draws out the main theological themes through thematic lectures backed up by exegesis sessions from the text in translation. There were many highlights, but one will suffice here: the Apostolic Kerygma in Acts. This was the topic for the assessment essay.
Are challenges to the centrality of the cross in the apostolic kerygma justified? An analysis of the seven apostolic kerygmatic speeches (as opposed to other types of speech in Acts) shows that the death of Christ is referred to in all but one of them, with the cross explicitly referenced in all but two. The resurrection is always mentioned. However, Dodd's challenge (also that of Conzelmann) that the cross is not linked to the forgiveness of sins by Luke was significant. Key in refuting this view is Acts 20:28 - a prominent reporting of words of Paul which clearly support the idea of vicarious atonement. Textual difficulties in this instance are minor and sometimes exaggerated. Also significant are references to the cross as a 'tree' on the lips of Peter and Paul. The reference to the cross as a tree is unusual and due to its multiple use (and its use by Paul), Morris writes that 'it is difficult to escape the impression that Luke is alluding to this (Jesus bearing our curse)'. And, of course, the Suffering Servant in the preaching of Philip in Acts 8.

However, this said, it must be acknowledged that Luke's particular focus on salvation-history and eschatological fulfilment means that the significance of Jesus' death is not necessarily seen in terms of the mechanics of salvation, but in how it fulfils God's purposes for salvation in history.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Telling the Truth

In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act, George Orwell

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Reflections on Amos

Continuing my very late reflections on the last of my third year modules, we reach Amos. The Amos module is translation and close textual exegesis of the Hebrew text of the whole of the canonical book, taught by Hector Morrison. Very briefly, highlights included:
  • Discussion of the canonical form of the book; Amos' words are introduced by a narrator; in chapter 7 Amos' visions are related in the first person, and his conflict with Amaziah in the third person. How were these sources and oracles, proclaimed against the Israelite elite (perhaps in a cultic setting), eventually set in their canonical form?
  • Amos' profession: was he a poor shepherd or a wealthy landowner? Not only was Amos a sheep-keeper but also a sycamore fig farmer - diversification is the key to succesful farming! Or was he actually a seasonal manual labourer who moved between both? The former view has some merit.
  • The plumb line. Or not? In 7:7, what exactly is the import of the vision? Whatever it is, it seems almost certain that it is not a plumb-line that is in view. Rather, it seems as if the weakness of the wall is in view here, anak being the material in mind. Dealing with a hapax like this just reinforces the difficulties that can often be encountered in the art of translation.
  • Of course, the huge theme is judgement - contectualized amongst the nations, but also crystallized against Israel's apostasy. Yahweh's indictment of the war crimes of the surrounding nations speaks in our world to the accountability of leaders and soldiers engaged in conflict. The indictment of the northern kingdom in the midst of their material prosperity speaks to the Church in the west, where wealth can so easily displace genuine, countercultural worship.
  • The Day of Yahweh - this prophetic leitmotif rises here in Amos. Discussion as to its origin is fascinating, including the classic treatment by Von Rad.
As always, much more could be said...

Tuesday, March 02, 2010


Over the last few weeks I've been dipping in and out of Walden by Henry David Thoreau, much like Thoreau himself dipping in Walden Pond! Thoreau's prose is beautifully constructed, but it's the prophetic quality of his observations of life in the mid-19th century that I find most striking. Walden was published in 1854. Early in the work, Thoreau muses on the the importance of shelter for life...

No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience. Henry David Thoreau

In the savage state every family owns a shelter as good as the best, and sufficient for its coarser and simpler wants; but I think that I speak within bounds when I say that, though the birds of the air have their nests, and the foxes their holes, and the savages their wigwams, in modern civilized society not more than one-half the families own a shelter. In the large towns and cities, where civilization especially prevails, the number of those who own a shelter is a very small fraction of the whole. The rest pay an annual tax for this outside garment of all, become indispensable summer and winter, which would buy a village of Indian wigwams, but now helps to keep them poor as long as they live. Henry David Thoreau

Monday, March 01, 2010

Reflections on Greek Texts III

I'm quite a few months behind on my reflections on my course modules. Given that this blog is primarily about my experience studying theology at HTC, this is not good! So, over the next couple of days reflections will follow on my modules from semester 2 of year 3 - yes, I really have neglected it for that long!
First up, Greek Texts III. To get to Greek Texts III, you've already been through Greek Grammar I and II, and Greek Texts I and II. That's about 600 hours of Greek! So, with Greek skills more developed, Greek Texts III becomes an enjoyable journey through Acts 2, 2 Thess 2, Hebrews 6, Revelation 5, Psalm 41 LXX and selections from the Didache. Highlights include:
  • looking at citations of Psalms in Peter's sermon, comparing LXX and MT;
  • the relationship between repentance, baptism and forgiveness in the ministries of John and Jesus;
  • the meaning of Acts 2:39, always a bone of contention; the reference here to offspring is clear, and unless you abandon anchors in the Abrahamic covenant (therefore abandoning quite a bit of Paul, not least the all-important olive tree of Romans 11) then this message of Peter only leads to one conclusion;
  • discussions on the man of lawlessness and the parousia in 2 Thess 2; including Calvin's (I believe) view that the parousia would occur in Palestine;
  • more discussion on the warnings against apostasy in Hebrews; on this, I believe that Shepherd's idea of Observable Covenant Reality brings a much-needed emphasis in interpreting these passages;
  • Working in Psalm 41 LXX and the Didache was encouraging - here we are venturing outside the relative safety of the NT!
I will post some further reflections on Revelation 5, this being the text for our exegesis paper.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Creation, Worship and Life

Here is a typically thought-provoking excerpt from Brueggemann's Theology of the Old Testament (p532). Even without his particular assumptions on the dating of the Genesis account, his point still stands. This particular strand of interpretation of the Temple was introduced to me in my first year Pentateuch class and has been one of many abiding and fruitful insights from the time here at HTC. Anyway, here's Brueggemann...
Creation as Counter-Experience in Worship

One other peculiar practice in Israel’s worship life bears on our theme. It is evident in Gen 1:1–2:4a that creation and its gift of blessing are understood to be accomplished through (a) utterance, (b) separation of day from night and the waters from the waters, and (c) in the culminating practice of Sabbath.
It is widely held that creation became a crucial claim of Israel’s faith in exile, when Gen 1:1–2:4a is commonly dated. This setting for creation faith suggests that affirmation of creation as an ordered, reliable arena of generosity is a treasured counter to the disordered experience of chaos in exile. If this critical judgment is accepted, creation then is an "enactment," done in worship, in order to resist the negation of the world of exile. As a consequence, creation is not to be understood as a theory or as an intellectual, speculative notion, but as a concrete life-or-death discipline and practice, whereby the peculiar claims of Yahweh were mediated in and to Israel.
This assumption has led a series of scholars to notice that the Priestly construct of the tabernacle in Exodus 25–31 has an odd and seemingly intentional parallel to the creation liturgy of Gen 1:1–2:4a. That is, the instructions for the making of the tabernacle, given by Yahweh to Moses, consist in seven speeches, matching the seven days of creation, and culminating, like Gen 2:1–4a, in the provision for the Sabbath (Exod 31:12–17). Moreover, the assertion that the tabernacle is finally "finished" (Exod 39:32, 40:33) corresponds to the "finish" of creation in Gen 2:4.
This parallelism suggests that while creation may be an experience of the world, in a context where the world is experienced as not good, orderly, or generative, Israel has recourse to the counter-experience of creation in worship. Such an exercise, we may suspect, permitted Israelites who gave themselves fully over to the drama and claims of the creation liturgy to live responsible, caring, secure, generative, and (above all) sane lives, in circumstances that severely discouraged such resolved living.
Thus creation, in such a context, has concrete and immediate pastoral implication.