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.