Sunday, 30 March 2008

Thinking about disciplines and jobs

Yesterday I spoke at an Interweave event about study and Christian worldview. It was a chance to try to be concrete about how a Christian worldview can help us think, and work, in different areas. Here is some of what I come up with.

 The framework of Creation-Fall-Redemption-New Creation is a great way to think about a Christian worldview.

 A Christian worldview will recognise that creation is valuable, purposeful and structured. So a Christian should think about how their discipline or vocation values creation and looks at and responds to the purpose and structure of creation.

 A Christian worldview will value people and recognise that we are image bearers, and are covenantal and cultural. So we can look at our disciplines and vocations and ask how they are part of how we live out our calling to be covenantal, cultural creatures and how they help others to do the same.

 A Christian worldview will be realistic about sin and the disorder, distortion and decay that it brings. All work and study are affected by sin, so we need to think about how our fields are affected. It is possible that a job may be so corrupted that Christians decide that we can’t be part of it, or that we have to stage a strategic withdrawal from some area. We won’t always agree on these decisions but they are important to ask about.

 A Christian worldview will celebrate redemption in Christ by the Spirit. So we will think about how our study and work can share in God’s redemptive work. One area of this will be how we are part of evangelism and discipleship. Another way that we share in God’s redemption is to be part of responding to the effects of sin in the field we are working in, as well as responding to what is wrong with the world.

Monday, 24 March 2008

The Divine Spiration of Scripture

Over this Easter weekend I was able to find some time to do some reading, and thoroughly enjoyed reading Andrew McGowan's new book "The Divine Spiration of Scripture". As one who spends most of his time in Biblical Studies, it was a pleasant change to spend some time in Systematics. The basic thesis of the book is that some of the traditional "i" words regarding the authority of Scripture are unhelpful. Instead of "inspiration" which is often interpreted as referring to the author, McGowan suggests "Spiration" may be a better term as it refers to the text. At one level I agree with the thesis, but as my Oxford Dictionary is not big enough to have the word "Spiration" it may not be the most user friendly word to use. The book also claims that the word "inerrancy" is unhelpful, as it is a category that "inerrantists" apply to Scripture and thereby to God, which to say the least is a bit presumptive. God is free to work in the ways he chooses, not in the ways that conform to our logical deductions. A more helpful term, according to McGowan, is "infallibility".

There are a couple of things that really excited me about the book:
1. McGowan places the Doctrine of "Spiration" of Scripture as an outworking of the Doctrine of God. He notes how the Westminster Confession commences with Scripture (rather than God) - and argues that we should be careful not to bind God in ways he (and Scripture) have not bound him.
2. The book has a very helpful survey of the arguments concerning the authority of Scripture. It gives insights into the rise of liberalism, neo-orthodoxy and fundamentalism. It helps the reader to understand why issues of "inerrancy" are discussed with greater vigour in North America than is the case in Europe.
3. Without going down a neo-orthodox line, McGowan shows the role of the Holy Spirit - not only in the writing of Scripture, but in recognition (which is a better word than illumination) and in comprehension (which is a far better word than perspicuity). There is something very liberating about this discussion of the Spirit's work in regard to Scripture, especially in the realm of preaching. It is as though the Bible is being rescued from the empirical world of Newtonian science and that life is being breathed into it - indeed the Spiration that has always been there. And yet in all of this, the authority of Scripture is always upheld. In fact, grounding it in the doctrine of God, I think it is actually stregthened.

One of the reasons I read this book is that Andrew McGowan is giving a series of lectures at PTC in August this year (see the PTC website for details). Having read this book, I am sure that the lectures will be worth attending.

Church planting questions

Bruce Frost, who has done some study with us over the years, got in touch to ask "I am wondering if there is anyone interested in the strategy and theology of church planting who can help me decipher a baffling array of information that is available on the topic. I see concepts like emerging church, organic church and Acts29 and dont know where to focus."

It's a big question. Here are my comments, and other people may want to add something.

First of all it is great that Christians around the world are recognising that "church planting" is the key mission strategy. Sometimes the term is used for ministry that is just shuffling Christians between services, but when it is done well it should involve setting up congregations which are Christian communities and part of communities which are not touched by the gospel. These may be defined by geography or some other social grouping. The day of the mass rally or the individual rally being the key to mission is over (I think). Church planting is truer to the New Testament gospel, which creates communities in which non-Christians encounter the word proclaimed and lived.

Emerging church is a growing trend in the US. It is a movement which makes sense against the backdrop of US evangelicalism. It is marked by a desire to question both church practice of the baby-boomer mega-churches and traditional evangelical doctrine. It includes people who are radically questioning traditional doctrine, and people who are more interested in changing ministry models. Scot Mcknight, who is a theologian in the emerging movement has explained his take in an article in Christianity Today. There was an interesting discussion among some of the 'insiders' at the AAR conference last year. Mark Driscoll was part of the movement in the very early years, but has become a strident critic as he explained at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary last year. There was an interesting conference at Westminster Seminary in 2006 and we have the CDs of that at PTC. There is an Australian 'version' of Emerging church, which as a different feel to the US.

Acts 29 is related to Mark Driscoll and his Mars Hill Church in Seattle.

I haven't come across "organic church". I see some links to it on google, but I'm not sure where you have got the term from.

What do you focus on? I think we need to focus on how we help churches in Australia to communicate and live the gospel in our society. We need to look at new ways of 'doing church' and our ministry models, but not get excited by the novel just because it is novel. I know some of the Queensland Presbyterians are planning to get church planting material from Tim Keller at Redeemer Church in New York. I'm sure that will have some interesting things for us.

There are plenty of Australians thinking about planting and you might be interested in a conference Plan to Plant in Sydney in July. I can email you the details since there dosen't seem to be a website at all. NCLS did some research on Australian church planting in 2003.

Sydney Evangelicalism and a social conscience

Katoomba Easter Convention is one of the flagship events of the Sydney Evangelical scene. This year there were interesting signs of a new social conscience developing.

The theme of the conference was money. In the past Katoomba has tended to have a pietistic view of the issue in which the teaching has emphasised that the Christian must not love money. There has also been a call to give generously to ‘gospel’ ministry (i.e. evangelistic agencies).

Both those emphases were far more balanced this year. John Dickson named the pietism in question time, saying that “people sometimes say to me that what matters is our attitude to money, but I say no what matters is what we do with it!” All three speakers, John, David Jones and Mervyn Eloff were very clear that Christians have a responsibility to care for the poor, and that our generosity must extend to that as well. Mervyn, a pastor from Cape Town, South Africa had great insights from the African context in which he faces obvious poverty on a daily basis.

I did not hear every talk, so others may not see it like this, but for me the climax of the conference was John Dickson’s exposition of James 2:14-26. It was one of the best expositions I have heard from the Katoomba platform. In all his talks John’s awareness of the historical context was obvious and well used. In this talk the punch of James 2 was driven home. He finished the talk with a series of statistics about the paucity of Australian giving for all charity and for overseas aid, and a challenge that we should be as generous to the poor as we are lavish upon ourselves, a provocative yet practical idea. I found it personally challenging, and at the same time delightful. It felt more like a TEAR conference, or a Tony Campolo talk or even a Bono rally (John will like that!). I could hardly believe that this was Katoomba!

It will be interesting to see what the reaction is to the conference. My impression from the buzz and the question times at Mountain Camp was that people saw the point and were wrestling with a proper response.

I hope and pray that KEC 2008 may be something of a landmark in the Sydney evangelical scene. It may have helped catalyse a concern which has been growing for a while, that ministry and mission must include care for the marginalised and poor and an attempt to impact the structures of society for the sake of mercy and justice.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

SSEC Conference

I’ll be attending the (one day) annual conference of the Society for the Study of Early Christianity "Decoding the Canon" at Macquarie University on 10th May. Speakers this year include Assoc. Professor Kim Haines-Eitzen (Cornell University), Professor Larry Welborn (Fordham University, NY), Professor Ben Witherington III (Asbury Seminary) Dr Alexander Weiss (Humboldt Scholar, University of Leipzig). To add this this impressive line up, our own Peter Moore will be speaking on “Plain talk with a gilt edge” which, if I can do my own bit of decoding, will have something to do with his beloved Chrysostom.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Rev George Stubbs - preacher to dying men

Two or three years ago I was chasing up some Australian history and spent some time thinking about the Rev George Stubbs. At the time I searched his name on the internet without much success, so I am afraid I can't tell you much about him.
Except that I can say that he hailed from N.S.W. (Sydney?) and that his final resting place has now been found.
George Stubbs was the chaplain on the HMAS Sydney and was onboard when the Sydney went down with all hands on 19th November 1941 having been fatally damaged by shells from the German Cruiser HSK Kormoran. In the last few days both wrecks have been found and it made me think again of what it might have been like as a chaplain on a naval vessel in wartime.
Richard Baxter famously encouraged us to “Preach as if you will never preach again and preach as a dying man to dying men.” That certainly ought to apply to a naval chaplain and I hope Stubbs knew it on those last days on the Sydney. I hope he preached the gospel and that the men heard him gladly.
There are chaplains out there today, serving men and women on battlefields. Only God knows how many sermons they have left in them - or how many there are left in us too for that matter!
(I wonder if the Kormoran had a gospel preaching chaplain?!)

Monday, 17 March 2008

Trinity in the OT?

A student has emailed to ask whether the plural references to God as "us" in the OT can safely be taken as trinitarian references.

I don't think there is any single verse in the OT OR IN THE NT we can point to as in itself "safely" capable of being read as teaching the doctrine of the Trinity. I believe that from Gen 1:1 the references to God are to our Trinitarian God, but I can only say this on the basis of a theological construct, putting together the whole of Biblical teaching and the benefit of Church reflection for hundreds of years. The "us" references used of God, e.g. in Gen 1:26 and 11:9, can hardly be taken as proof of a Trinitarian understanding of God within OT times. That would be anachronistic. These plurals are better taken, I believe, as referring to God portrayed as deliberating in the presence of his heavenly court, letting them into his counsels.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Going Public


Tonight the PTC blog has gone public for the first time. We've been trying it out and making sure we had some content on board. Now we want to be out there in the blogosphere and we're interested to know if you call in and have a look.

I've just come back from church, where I was preaching on Ephesians 1:15-23. It is one of the best nights I've had for good discussions afterwards. How wonderful to spend time talking about the exaltation and ascension of Christ and our hope in his final victory and what it means to 'know' that - tasting, living, walking the reality of being in Christ. The conversations reinforced my impression that lots of people think of the Christian life and being forgiven by Jesus death and going to heaven when we die and trying to be good in between: with no real role for the ascension, Christian experience or New Creation eschatology. I know the latter are sometimes promoted in contrast to the former, but surely we need all these themes (and more).

Training and education

In an article about John Caligari, a rising star in the Australian Army, in the Sydney Morning Herald on the weekend there was an interesting quote about training. He explained that the modern army is putting more emphasis on education which helps people know how to think, rather than training which tell people what to think.

It pulled me up with a start and made me wonder if I have become too apologetic for theological education. I've been convinced for a long time that the a theological education which helps students develop skills in handling the scriptures and thinking about issues and ministry is the most significant type of ministry preparation available. However we live in a society which is obsessed with 'how to' and it rubs off on the church and we often value 'training' above 'education'. I find myself focussing more and more on 'training'. Then I read that the Australian Army is discovering that education is primary, something which reformed Christianity has known since its inception almost 500 years ago.
It isn't that I think that there is no place for training. Resources such as the Ministry Papers are terrific. We want people to come into PTC with well developed ministry skills and to leave with even better skills. However for the long term skills need to be underwritten by theological thinking.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Graduation and Commencement

Last night we had our graduation and commencement service. About 20 graduates received a range of awards, and academic prizes. Everyone looked very smart in hoods and gowns, a bit different to usual college attire.
It was wonderful to celebrate the evening with family, church members and friends who have supported the students through their studies. It is exciting to think about how people have developed during their years at PTC and the obvious work of God's grace in their lives.

Simon Wong's interview and Steve Mannyx's comments on behalf of the graduating students were very encouraging.

The evening finished with a stirring 'address' from Paul Cooper, who used to teach at PTC and is now minister at Beecroft Church. He talked about 'preparation for ministry' from Luke 12 in terms of not underestimating the battle ahead. He warned us to: "be on guard against hypocrisy" (v1); "to fear God who can destroy both body and soul" (v9); and to remember that to disown the Son of Man (which is to sin against the Spirit) will mean we are disowned (vv8-10). All rather somber, though very realistic. Paul started by talking about the fallout from public ministry. We can be like Blackadder's nutty Edwardian British officers who think that the Great War will be a bit of fun. Having called us to take the battle seriously Paul encouraged us that the Lord promises his Holy Spirit who will give us words and strength (vv11-12). A good reminder of the serious work of ministry.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Hermeneutics Quiz

Christianity Today has a hermeneutics quiz. It rates your hermeneutic, with the lower the score the more conservative or literalist you are. What title is the right one for each position would be a matter of debate itself.

I scored 60, and 53-65 is moderate, so I guess I am a moderate moderate! Lots of the questions I wanted to write an essay about and struggled to fit my response in any category, but you've got to give some answer or the quiz dosen't work. Scot McKnight, who crafted the quiz, gives his commentary on it, and some of the views that he thinks are contradictory don't seem that to me. I think there is a consistent redemptive-historical hermeneutic which deals with many of these questions.

I'll be interested to hear what everyone else scores!

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Moses high on Mt Sinai

Moses was high on drugs when he allegedly heard God speaking to him on Mt Sinai. Or so says Israeli scholar Benny Shannon of the Hebrew University. Apparently the drug is found in the bark of the acacia tree found in the Sinai region. What Shannon doesn’t tell us (or at least the report of his research) is whether Moses smoked it, chewed it or injected a potion brewed from it. But what a relief it is for the world to learn that we no longer need to take seriously the standards called for by a holy God. Though why Moses would have come up with laws discouraging adultery, theft, murder, false testimony and the like, when experience suggests that mind altering substances have a tendency to loosen up our “inhibitions” in these areas, is not explained by this professor of cognitive psychology. Oh, I just noticed. His knowledge about the drug is the first-hand knowledge of a user.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Love in the everyday

We had a great retreat over the weekend. A chance for students, faculty and their families to get to know each other better. The weekend ran at a good pace, with plenty of time to hang around and chat. It was wonderful to see how many young children there were. On the Friday night the room was full of 3-6 year olds playing a frenetic game of 'chasies' !

One of the highlights of the retreat was two excellent talks on Galatians 5 by C.S. Tang. He avoided the temptation of trying to be scholarly and simply laid out the teaching of the passage vividly and applied it quite tellingly. As he talked about love he had a quote from Luther about the fact that love is lived out in the everyday. I asked CS for it - and here it is.

To serve one another means "performing unimportant works such as the following: teaching the erring; comforting the afflicted; encouraging the weak; helping the neighbour in whatever way we can; bearing with his rude manners and impoliteness; putting up with annoyances, labors, and the ingratitude and contempt of men in both church and state; obeying the magistrates; treating one's parents with respect; being patient in the home with a cranky wife and an unmanageable family, and the like". (From Lectures on Galatians, 1535, LW 27:56). That is vintage Luther: earthy, to the point and worth pondering.