She is our mother

What is Mother’s Day about?

The celebration of our human mothers only goes back to 1914 in the USA, where it is celebrated on May 9th, the anniversary of the death of the mother of its American promoter, Anna Jarvis.

The custom of celebrating motherhood in Lent started here in 1920 when Constance Smith suggested that the Bible reading for the Fourth Sunday of Lent would be a suitable pointer to thanking God for our mothers:

“But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.” (Galatians 4:26)

There is huge value in reminding ourselves annually of the care shown by our mothers and honouring them in this way through sending flowers, cards and Simnel cakes. The care shown by mothers also reminds us of the “brooding” of God’s Spirit over chaos before creation began (Genesis 1:2) and of Jesus’ longing to protect his own Jewish people in Jerusalem (Luke 13:34). We celebrate motherhood as an image of God’s love creating life and protecting his children.

Mother’s Day (as it is known outside the Church) has largely ceased to be a religious occasion in the UK, as in the USA. Anna Jarvis regretted the growing commercialisation of the day, even to disapproving of pre-printed Mother’s Day cards. “A printed card means nothing,” she said, “except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world.”

As we nonetheless continue to thank God for his gracious provision of motherhood, we can also reclaim the original meaning of that text for the Fourth Sunday of Lent about the Church. The Church, wonderfully composed of all in Christ from east to west, young to old, on earth and in glory, gathered around His throne, is our mother. For centuries Mothering Sunday has seen people gather at their local “mother” church or cathedral.

In the text from Galatians above Paul is making the point that God’s people are free in Christ. In the context, he draws the contrast between the children of Hagar, Abraham’s slavegirl, and the children of Sarah, his wife. He then makes a radical claim that those who see Jewish law, instead of faith in Christ, as the way to be right with God are not children of Sarah but of Hagar, because only those in Christ are free from sin and law. Those who are children of the promise by faith in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile, are free, children of God’s heavenly city Jerusalem. She is our mother.

I think it’s brilliant that in the middle of Lent we have this text. It reminds us that:

  • earthly mothers are remarkable, but belonging to our heavenly mother the Church matters even more
  • membership of God’s family rests not on what we do but on what Christ has done in fulfilling the Law of God, and paying the price on the Cross for us who broke it

Paul goes on in the remainder of Galatians to apply these truths by calling us who are free in Christ not to let ourselves become slaves either to law or to sin again.

Let’s pray that the Freedom message of Mothering Sunday will set many free to know and live for Christ, secure in our heavenly family as we honour our earthly one.

 

 

“Is it true?” is still the question

Questioning the truth

There were over 100 talkative students packed in to the marquee which had been set up in a prominent spot at the centre of the university campus, and the guest speakers for this week of gospel-sharing events were wrapping up the final sessions. What struck me was not only the level of spiritual interest within this supposedly post-Christian generation, but the topic: is the resurrection of Jesus “true”, and what does it mean for us today? The speakers did a great job of outlining in an attractive and compelling way both the evidence for the physical resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning, and the implications of it for our life today.

I am used to hearing speakers enthuse about the “difference Jesus makes”, and even also the hope he to argue that the “post-modern” unconverted need to see that faith “works”, and are not asking “is it true?” The seekers that I meet want to know both, and they are smart enough to know that one (pragmatic relevance) rests upon the other (historical truthfulness). So what a joy to find that in 2017 spiritually interested undergraduates are hearing about the truth of the resurrection.

The resurrection of Jesus is true?

One speaker rehearsed the historical probability of the gospel accounts being literally true when they speak of a tomb with no body in it, and of appearances to a number of disciples on different occasions. He had clearly read and spoken on this theme many times before.

He offered Karl Venturini’s  swoon theory, proposed early in the nineteenth century and later adopted in form by Friedrich Schleiermacher (and more recently, Michael Baigent and Barbara Thiering). According to this, Jesus fainted on the cross, and then revived in the tomb and was rescued by his followers. The experienced student evangelist pointed out the historical improbability of this theory, given the professionalism and effectiveness of Roman execution, and the powerful effect of Jesus post-resurrection on all who met him.

The theory that the women who were the first at the tomb on Sunday morning mistook an empty tomb for the grave of Jesus was rightly dismissed as not only sexist (!) but as poorly fitting the gospel accounts. These record that multiple visits were made to the tomb by followers of Jesus, who had noted his burial place carefully. Furthermore, if they got the wrong grave, why did the Jewish authorities not immediately point out the mistake?

The speaker then alluded to the idea that Jesus’ body had been stolen by the authorities, and pointed out that if this was the case, the corpse is very likely to have been revealed since, but it has not. The suggestion that the disciples were creating a hoax about Jesus’ resurrection to achieve public fame for themselves was shown to be equally unfit as historical theory, given the same absence of a body, and also that most of them soon willingly faced prison and execution for this claim.

Finally, the theory that the disciples and women who saw the risen Jesus according the first written sources were hallucinating was recounted, and against it, the evidence of eminent psychiatrists that the appearances in the accounts do not remotely fit the pattern of hallucinations.

The speaker finished by challenging his sceptical listeners to come up with a better theory that has not been thought-of in the last 2000 years, or to accept the truth of the resurrection.

Time and again, historians and lawyers (see further reading, below) have trawled through the historical evidence and concluded that the interpretation of the eyewitness authors of the gospels is the most likely: on Easter morning Jesus had left the tomb and was about to appear to numbers of people over the following days and weeks showing his victory over sin and death to be complete and commissioning his Church to tell the world this news.

Evidence for God?

There are other strong arguments for the existence of God:

The cosmological (the existence of material objects and causes point to the existence of an immaterial Being who was before creation and initiated change and motion)

The teleological (the order, design and purpose in material objects point to the existence of a final cause, or Being, who has sovereignly overseen their creation to his own glory)

The ontological (the fact that we can imagine a Being as perfect as God points to the existence of such a Being)

The existential (the presence throughout history of a sense of the divine in human culture, especially in the witness of Christians to a transcendent and personal encounter with God through Jesus Christ, points to the existence of God as the source of these experiences)

The moral (the universal sense of right and wrong in human culture points to a Creator whose moral goodness has left this spark of conscience in us)

The aesthetic (the presence and awareness of beauty in the cosmos, whether in the form of music, art or nature, points to the perfect beauty of its Creator, of whom these things are each a taste or scent)

The ecclesiological (in the 2000 years since Jesus’ incarnation, the Church has made mistakes, but its influence upon culture, education, art, compassion, community life, and upon our attitudes to the sick, the disabled, slavery, race, women, and children, has been overwhelmingly good)

Even if some of these evidences for God are arguably stronger than others, I personally, like many, find these evidences for God compelling when gathered together.

Historical evidence that it’s true

But for me the most compelling and reliable place to look for the existence of God, and even more important, for His knowledge, is in His self-revelation in the historical events of the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, for which the historical accounts of the eyewitnesses provide testimony. One of Jesus’ first followers, the apostle Paul, writing within two decades of the events, underlines the centrality of the historical resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:14, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith”. The reliability of the gospel accounts, on which the truth of the resurrection largely rests, has endured more than a century of sceptical attack from those arguing that the stories are embellished or concocted, but most of this attack has been upon the records of Jesus’ words (not the resurrection accounts), most of it has been well refuted by Biblical scholars, and none of it has yet found a convincing means or reason by which the gospel writers could have invented the resurrection as an explanation for Jesus’ extraordinary influence.

Further reading

Frank Morrison, Who moved the stone? (Authentic Media, 2006)

Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Zondervan, 1998)

John Wenham, The Easter Enigma: are the resurrection accounts in conflict? (Wipf and Stock, 2005)

N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (SPCK, 2003)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tim Keller on doubting our doubts

I have not yet read his new book Making Sense of God but saw this very helpful excerpt on The Gospel Coalition website in which Mr Keller tim-keller-making-sense-of-godsummarises some neat work by Michael Polanyi on exposing the wrong beliefs that sit underneath our sceptical questions. As I am preparing a sermon at the moment on Doubt, I liked the head-on confrontation of the big triggers which make us sceptical, such as unjust suffering, moral atheists, and religious hypocrisy, and the call Polanyi makes on us to see the “defeaters” or unchallenged beliefs which undermine the doubt each time. I look forward to reading the rest of Keller’s book!

The two-thirds Word?

Scrolls-2This month I had the privilege of leading two seminars for our church introducing the Old Testament. I started from the position that for most of us this is a largely closed book (barring Genesis 1-3 and Psalm 23), but that if it is 2/3 of the Bible, we cannot leave it that way.

The Bible after all tells of one covenant (albeit seen from different angles from Noah to Jeremiah) and one God (even if we caricature the God in each “testament” as at odds with that in the corresponding one). The New Testament writers have the Jewish Scriptures running through their veins and regard the two covenants as a continuity through Jesus, who of course lives and quotes “the Bible Jesus read” at all points in the gospels.

It was a rich experience to approach the Old (or better, “first”) Testament through Hebrew eyes in the threefold division of the Hebrew Bible. That is:

The Law (the first five books)

The Prophets (which include not only Isaiah and the others we think of here, but also many “historical” books such as Joshua and Kings, which are profoundly “prophetic”.

The Writings (perennial, proverbial and poetic works headed by Psalms and including Daniel, Ruth, Lamentations and Esther). It was a great exercise to come up with a summary title for each book: so Proverbs is “For when life is complicated” and Job “For when life is tough”.

The audios of the sessions are now on our church website here.

Recommended Books Introducing the Old Testament

I highly rate Alec Motyer’s “Loving the Old Testament” which is as pastoral as it is clear and brief. For heart-warming theology through evangelical but critical use of selected OT books I love Walter Moberley’s “Old Testament Theology”, but those who want a more detailed student-level introduction I’d point towards Dillard and  Longman, or the older and drier, but exemplary, Introduction by GW Anderson. Fee and Stuart’s “How to Read the Bible Book by Book” does the work of a study Bible excellently for those coming cold to, say,  Deuteronomy or Obadiah. For fine print on origins and documentary formation Georg Fohrer’s Introduction is a key reference a serious student can’t ignore, even if a very critical one.

Has evangelicalism forgotten to teach about God?

Teaching a recent series on the nature of God over recent weeks I was asked by several members of our congregation, most of them quite mature Christians, why they had not heard  about some of this stuff before. We like to teach doctrinal series as an alternative to the usual pattern of preaching through a book of the Bible in any one season. Recent series on Christian belief have included The Work of Christ, The Apostles’ Creed,  and The Atonement, but none previously have provoked this puzzlement or felt so  fresh for contemporary evangelicals.

It got me thinking why that would be. Do we not believe that God has a nature or essence at all? Do we believe that if He does, we cannot teach about it because it is too holy (holiness being part of his essence, ironically) or too unknown (which is a denial of the doctrine of revelation and of Christ all in one go).

Our series was not especially “new”. We explored God’s

  • unchangeableness (immutability)
  • majesty (infinity)
  • eternity
  • wisdom (omniscience)
  • oneness (simplicity)
  • holiness
  • love

All of these and more have for centuries been standard ways of naming God’s “attributes”, whether we see each of them as incommunicable (true of God fully, but of us never) or communicable (true of God fully and of us potentially). None of them alone describes God fully, and no words are ever able fully to describe the immortal, wise and invisible God (Romans 16:27, 1 Timothy 1:17) in any case. Yet that should not stop us humbly saying as much as we can about God, for the sake of honouring his majesty and grasping his perfection.

So why do so many evangelical churches rarely, if ever, preach about them?

One answer might be that they are not seen as biblical, since some of these words such as ‘immutability’ or ‘simplicity’ are not used explicitly of God in the Scriptures. In part they owe their language to Greek philosophy such as Stoicism and Platonism. So God’s unchanging character, his “faithfulness”, is a huge Biblical theme, but  his inability to change or develop in knowledge or in nature from his eternal perfection is less so. Calvin preferred to preach about how God acts towards us, not what God is in Himself, feeling this to be the focus of Scripture.

Yet it is hard to argue that these ideas are not fully Christian as theology has adopted them. They are an accurate picture of the God of the Bible in his essence. They have been preached and written about from the earliest Christian centuries in the works of theological greats such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Augustine and Aquinas.

So if we as evangelicals should welcome and not be fearful of speaking about the nature of God, why do we not do so more? I can see two reasons:

The emphasis on Biblical Theology as a way of interpreting Scripture has led us to a focus on the activity of God and a neglect of his nature. Biblical theology in the work of Graham Goldsworthy and others has been an invaluable approach to tracing the patterns and purposes of God’s work in salvation history. It has rescued the one Biblical gospel from death by a thousand cuts at the hands of liberal fragmentation and existentialism. Yet I wonder if this focus on the activity of God through the Biblical story has made us neglect systematic theology in general (which attempts to put together the overall truths of God) and the doctrine of God in particular. It has been striking to me how hard it is to find recent works at a popular or undergraduate level about the nature of God. Pete Sanlon’s excellent “Simply God” and Gerald Bray’s “The Doctrine of God” are notable recent exceptions, but there is a dearth of evangelical writing in this area, leaving JI Packer’s “Knowing God” as still to my view the best around, though written over 40 years ago.

The other reason I suspect evangelicals have steered clear of exploring the nature of God is that within our own movement we have emphasised the immanence (closeness to us) of God at the expense of his transcendence (greatness over us). Both aspects of God’s relation to us are precious. However evangelicalism in the last hundred years has moved away from seeing God as majestic, holy and “other”(with notable counter-voices such as Karl Barth and, more conservatively, JI Packer again, along the way) in pursuit of a God who is primarily forgiving, helping and guiding. Puritans such as Stephen Charnock preached sermons about God’s simplicity (meaning His perfection, not his being easily understood!) and in the early 1900s AW Tozer wrote about “The Knowledge of the Holy”, but more recently, God has become “smaller” to us. Put bluntly, we have created an image of God as a “plastic Jesus” who fits in our pocket, ready to bring out when we need him to fix a problem, but not one who awes us, humbles us, and leaves us lost for words.

What can we do to rediscover the otherness, greatness, purity, and perfection of God? I’d love to see more evangelical churches preaching on these themes directly, or when they arise in expository sermons, as a healthy corrective to the “how to” practical sermons that have become common. Let God become bigger to us again.

Such topics as those above are not dry or irrelevant. They bring us face to face with God as He truly is (Isaiah 6), and nothing changes our lives as much as that encounter.

 

Ten tips for being salt and light

Saltshaker.jpg

Daily readings at home this month have included the early chapters of Matthew and majestic mountaintop experience of Jesus’ sermon in 5-7. Here, Jesus challenges his would-be disciples to be “salt and light”, and the sermon given at our church last week reminded me of this, with the invitation of Paul in Colossians 4:6 to “let your conversation be seasoned with salt”.

As commentators 1 note, the “salty” conversation image was common in the ancient world, and reminds us that our witness to Christ is not to be dull or predictable but alert and provocative.

So how do we cultivate a life in which we commend Jesus “in word and deed” (to use good Anglican terminology)?

Last Sunday’s preacher pointed us to the wisdom of “ten tips for evangelism” delivered by Tim Keller and recorded, best we can find, not in print but on Martin Salter’s blog. With the kind permission of that writer to repeat them, here they are:

  1. Let people around you know you are a Christian (in a natural, unforced way)
  2. Ask friends about their faith – and just listen!
  3. Listen to your friend’s problems – maybe offer to pray for them
  4. Share your problems with others – testify to how your faith helps you
  5. Give them a book to read
  6. Share your story
  7. Answer objections and questions
  8. Invite them to a church event
  9. Offer to read the Bible with them
  10. Take them to a discover/explore course

Why not save these tips somewhere useful for you as you pray for those you meet in daily life?

There are two useful additional notes about how to use this list so that God can use us to “pray, walk and speak” in sharing Christ’s message.

Firstly, the points become generally more challenging to us as we work down them. Some of us cannot imagine trying to answer objections to faith, or inviting someone to church, but for most of us making sure everyone we come into contact with in daily life knows we are a Christian is much easier. Try telling them how interesting your church service was, next time they ask how the weekend went – no more than that needs to be said!

Secondly, as we pray for our family, friends and daily contacts, we will find it may take some time to progress further down the points – we may need to repeat points 1-4 (the easier ones) several times before we find ourselves lending them a Christian book, or discussing why we think Jesus is the answer to our deepest needs. It’s about being patient with God’s timing, and recognising that although most  non-churchgoers have no objection to faith, they need a long time to start thinking it important for them.

1 See CFD Moule, “The Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon” (Cambridge, 1991) and NT Wright, “Colossians and Philemon” (IVP, 1986), comments on this verse

Faith and reason: a long and painful divorce

Aristotle Oxford Mus Nat Sci
Aristotle – Oxford Museum of Natural History

You are probably familiar with the polemical rhetoric of church father Tertullian, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” It set the tone in the early Christian centuries for the rejection of philosophy (his target then being neoplatonism). His reason for doing so was a laudable desire to affirm the simplicity and availability of knowledge of God through faith, in contrast to pagan metaphysics and dialectics in the style of Athens’ Plato, and his successors. Tertullian’s key text in doing so was Paul in Colossians 2:8 saying, “see to it that noone takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ”.

He was not however the only voice in the church of the first three centuries, because other Christian theologians like Clement of Alexandria and Origen, schooled in the philosophical air of Alexandria, were much more aware of the vital need to connect faith and reason, Bible and philosophy, in order to convince educated pagans to become Christians. They recognised (as did Calvin later) that Paul’s target in Colossians quoted above was not philosophy per se but only philosophy that is incompatible with Christ as sufficient Saviour and sovereign Lord. Origen for instance quotes Plato and has been accused of adopting the “middle Platonism” of his day; yet he was first of all a Bible commentator, and always saw the Bible’s account of creation and the Fall as deeper and more accurate than that of Plato. There is bad philosophy, but there is also good philosophy.

The debate continued through the later church fathers. Athanasius and Augustine welcomed ideas drawn from prechristian philosophy, whilst recognising how Christ transforms its ideas about God, the soul and immortality. In the middle ages great thinkers like Anselm, and particularly Aquinas, recognised the validity of drawing upon reason, whilst relying upon faith, in the pursuit of knowledge of God and in finding ‘analagous’ language, however imperfect, to describe Him.

The Reformation and subsequent enlightenment periods saw an increasing separation of faith and reason, perhaps not helped by the failure of the Protestant theologians to engage in serious metaphysical analysis, and Luther’s description of the philosophy of men like Aristotle as “the devil’s whore”! The Church became (not entirely justifiably) suspicious of the influence of Aristotle, with his emphasis upon this-worldly knowledge. Then following Descartes, rationalist philosophy through David Hume and others appeared at least to disconnect what can be known by reason from the experience of faith.

The consequence was the separation of science as a discipline of objective “knowledge” from religion as an exercise of subjective “faith”. This has proven inaccurate as an understanding both of science and of religion, but it remains influential in public perception and policy.

This long painful divorce will be destructive for religion and for society. Faith is and needs to be reasonable, and seen as such. In a secular culture which is growing more and more hostile to faith, it is my guess that the separation will be held up as evidence that faith is “unreasonable” and worthy only of marginalisation and muting. A brave new world of human reason and devoid of faith is the future some wish for already, but cries of “freedom and equality” fail to recognise that enforcing one inevitably requires crushing the other.

Faithful Christian philosophers and thoughtful apologists are going to be needed.