Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Intermediate State

The intermediate state is a part of classic reformed doctrine. The Westminster Confession puts it like this. "The bodies of men after death return to dust, and see corruption; but their souls (which neither die nor sleep), having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them. The souls of the righteous, being made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies; and the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgement of the great day. Besides these two places for souls separated from their bodies, the scripture acknowledgeth none."

I’m not so keen on the term of “immortal subsistence”. If it is taken to mean the possession by humans of an immortal essence, then this is unfortunate phrasing. The Bible never uses the term the ‘immortality of the soul’. ‘Immortality’ is a divine attribute (Rom. 1:23, 1 Tim. 1:17, 6:16) or a blessing shared by God with his people (Rom. 2:7, 1 Cor. 15:53-54, 2 Tim 1:10). Human existence is radically contingent on God sustaining it. If immortality simply means the statements which follow in the section, then it is unobjectionable.

I do think that the affirmation of the intermediate state is important. It means that upon death the righteous are in the presence of God waiting for the redemption of their bodies. The phrase ‘highest heaven’ implies that there is no in-between position which could be construed as limbo or soul sleep. The proof texts offered in the WCF are Heb 12:23 (which speaks of “the spirits of just men made perfect”); 2 Cor 5:1,6,8; Phil 1:23. Acts 3:21 and Eph 4:10 are also referred to, both of which speak of Christ’s place in heaven, presumably because believers are with him.

The NT presentation of the ‘intermediate state’ is as a positive but incomplete state. This is clearest in 2 Cor 5:1-10, in which Paul hints that he expects to be ‘unclothed’ before he is ‘clothed’ in the resurrection. Even ‘unclothed’ is still to be ‘at home with the Lord’. The same pattern is found in Philippians, in which Paul longs to be “with the Lord” after death, but also looks forward to Jesus' transformation of his body (Phil 3:20-21). 

The most common objections I hear runs, "after death we are in eternity, so the idea of waiting does not have any place" and "we don't understand how time and eternity operate, so we can't say anything about what happens between death and resurrection.  The insight which convinced me that we should think about the intermediate state was A.T. Lincoln pointing out that "the heavenlies" are part of creation and participate in history and in time. He writes, “the image should not… leave the impression of the heavenly dimension as a static reality, for it signifies a reality which is, but is yet to come… the heavenly realm is part of the forward-moving history of salvation… it has a dynamic effect on the believing community, as its mother providing life and as realm of freedom making possible liberation from the bondage of the old age”. A.T. Lincoln, Paradise Now and Not Yet, (Cambridge/ New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981) 29. 

The intermediate state has three important implications. One is that it shows that for the believer death never conquerors, not even for a while. Further it says that there is no need for further purgation or sanctification for believers after death.  It also means that we really do dwell in the communion of the saints. We are raised with Christ in the heavenlies (Eph 2:6) and share in the life and worship of all the saints. We do not pray for the dead, and there is little Biblical idea of them praying for us, but we do pray with them.

I have not said anything here about the intermediate state for unbelievers. That might wait for later.

For an extended defence of the ‘intermediate state” see C.P. Venema The Promise of the Future (Banner of Truth, 2000), 35-63. D. Bloesch The Last Things (IVP, 2004), 133-47 offers a very carefully developed view that of “an interim state of partial happiness and mitigated suffering between death and the final resurrection on the last day”.


Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Announcing "Crucible" a new on-line theology journal


Crucible is a new on-line theology journal sponsored by Australian Evangelical Alliance and a group of Australian evangelical colleges, including PTC. A few of us have been working on this for a year or so. It is amazing how much work is involved in getting something like this up and going. It is great to see it all live.

Crucible will have three sections: The Cauldron which will carry peer reviewed articles; The Test-tube which will offer more general ministry resources and The Filter which will have book reviews. This should be a good contribution to the Australian theological. We'd welcome contributions to any of the areas. 

The Cauldron articles in this edition (if that is the right word for an online journal) are "Can Evangelical Theology Move Beyond Foundationalism?" by  Brian Harris from Vose Seminary (formerly the Baptist College in Perth) looking at the thought of Stan Grenz and on a similar theme, "The Gospel as Public Truth" by Cheng Eng Hwa pastor of Praise Evangelical Free Church in Singapore. There is also a discussion of the importance of metaphors in the Biblical presentation of God in "The Metaphor of "Yahweh As Refuge" in the Psalms" by Melinda Cousins who teaches at the Bible College of South Australia and "Kenosis of the Spirit into Creation" by Bradford McCall who is doing a PhD at Regent University in the US. As you can see a wide range of topics.

Enjoy the first edition and think about a contribution. If you are interested in doing a book review or two let me know. My plan is to have a few reviews, but to try to get new books reviewed quickly (and well).

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Singing in the Reign

One of my favourite Roman Catholic blogsites is Singing in the Reign. If only most Protestants had the insights into biblical theology that Michael Barber and Brant Pitre often demonstrate. Two of Michael’s recent posts are particularly illuminating. The one on the Good Samaritans of the Old Testament gives the generally overlooked OT background (2 Chron 28) to Jesus’ story. The other is on Pentecost's "Tongues of Fire and the Heavenly Temple", which is a fine example of the use of Second Temple (intertestamental) literature as the link between the theologies of the OT and the NT.

Growing Strong

This week we had the Growing Strong conference looking at Family Ministry. It was a great time. Glenn Davies (Anglican Bishop for Northern Region) a good friend of John Davies and of PTC explained the place of family in biblical theology so well. His talks tracing the theme of 'the seeds' through the Bible were gold and it will be great to get them out on DVD in the next few months. He made the case for a covenant view of children very well. The text that he used to capture his view was Ps 128:3 
Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; 
your children will be like olive shoots around your table. 
Glenn pointed out that the image is not of children who are bramble bushes waiting to be grafted in, but as olive shoots which should grow. He also talked about the passage which seems to me to be most compelling, Eph 6:1-3, in which Paul addresses children as members of the saints in Ephesus and tells them to obey their parents in the Lord. That is, the children are in the Lord and so in his church.

The other sessions of the conference presented some excellent material on how churches can reach and care for families as well as great insights into families and parenting. The Lord has given people great gifts of wisdom and it was generous of them to share with us.

Another highlight of the conference was the wide range of people who attended. Some were ministers and church staff, some were involved in church ministries, some were chaplains and counsellors. The mix was enriching. One of the students who went along said that in each of the four workshops he'd gone to people were really engaged and keen to get all they could from it.

All in all a good couple of days. The Presbyterian Counselling Service will produce DVD resources from it over the next few months and we will let you know when they are available.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Visit of Prof. Robert Jewett

Leading Pauline scholar and author of the Hermeneia Commentary on Romans, Prof. Robert Jewett of the University of Heidelberg is to give a lecture at the PTC on Thursday 5th June. See the ptc website for details. This is an opportunity not to be missed by all who are interested in finding out what's been happening in recent years in Pauline studies – especially Romans.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Fairtrade again

Paul Harris made a comment on my last post and pointed out Tony Payne's post on the solapanel about fairtrade. I'd already noticed it and had planned to make a comment. I thought it was worth a new post rather than just continue the discussion in the comments. Tony makes three points in his post: 1) that fairtrade may be poor economics and may do little good or even do harm and that the free market would be a better mechanism, 2) that scripture suggests that the complexity of these kind of social and economic issues means that we can't really hope to have any clear insights into how to deal with them and that 3) the church's (or perhaps he'd prefer churches') mission is to "proclaim" Christ so people hear his call to "repent, trust and serve Christ in love" , "in the fellowship of his disciples while they await his return". Here are my comments.

1) I'm not sure the economic case against fairtrade is that clear. (Another friend emailed me in respone to my previous post to make a similar comment to the one Tony makes). I am certainly no economist so I am miles outside my exepertise here (but then so is Tony I believe). However the model presented by Hays and Moore seems to me to make a reasonable case. Their argument (if I follow it) is that at the local level fairtrade organisations are a form of collective bargaining which gives them some power in the market and so aids the producers who are part of them and that on the international level buying fairtrade products is a way of making a donation to these organisations. Of course this all depends on the organisations doing what they say they do, but that is a problem we face in almost all international aid. I am surprised that Tony is as optimistic about the free market as his comment implies. I certainly am not.

2) I agree that economic and social policy questions are very complex and we seem unlikely to be able to penetrate them completely. However I am not so sure that Ecclesiastes rules out any progress in social sciences any more than it rules out progress in the physical sciences. It seems to me (again as an amateur) that the recent market instability and the challenge the Australian economy faces are being better managed than similar situations in previous years. That doesn't mean we should think we are now immune from economic disaster; but I don't think that the fallenness of the world rules out the possibility of human knowledge and its application for human good. On Tony's argument it sounds as if there would be no place for the consideration of consequences in ethics, since we could never foresee what they may be. We will never know all the possible consequences, but I think love demands that we do our best to assess possible consequences and take them into account in our decision making. We will have policy debates (such as Tony is offering in the first point) and we won't all come to the same view on them, but that does not mean there is no point thinking and talking about policy issues.

3) I can only hope that Tony is indulging in a rhetorical flourish at the end of his comment when he gives us two options — either "improving the world" or the mission of God to proclaim the gospel. "Improving the world" could cover a huge range of expectations. I'd say that the concerns of fairtrade are better captured in terms of 'loving our neighbours' than in a project of world improvement. Sometimes loving our neighbour does seem to improve the world — such as the abolition of slavery in Britain and British colonies or the eradication of smallpox. I'd rather live after each of those events than before them. Surely when people "serve Christ in love" they will seek the best for their neighbour, and to fail to be concerned for the poor and do what we can to improve their lot is to fall short of God's expectations of his people. John Dickson's exposition of James at Katoomba Easter Convention made this point very clearly (I commented on that at the time).

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Reading 1 Kings

Reading the Bible, now that's a novel thing for Christians to do. At PTC chapel yesterday that's what we did. John Davies read us 1 Kings 11-16, for the first week of a series looking at the second part of 1 Kings. John read the "Davies version" which was colloquial, dramatic, expressive and very earthy. It was great to sit and listen to the story unfold, though of course the story itself is depressing in the extreme. The tragic failure of the people of God doesn't make easy listening. Two things struck me. One was how angry God was with Judah and Israel, with very good reason. The other was how awful chapter 14 is, in which Jeroboam's wife hears that their son will die and their whole family will be destroyed because although the Lord had given Jeroboam the kingdom, Jeroboam had completely ignored the Lord. It is interesting that he says that Israel  could have been faithful as well as Judah.

John told me before hand that preparing the reading took as much time as preparing a sermon. Not only had he prepared the text but he had obviously put a lot of work into getting the expression and timing right. I hope that John might comment on how he went about the preparation and any thoughts he has about  doing this kind of reading in churches.

In lots of churches which say they take the Bible seriously we read 10 verses and they listen to someone talk about the Bible for half an hour. Maybe we'd do better to read more and preach less. What do you think?

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Fairtrade?

A story on sydneyanglicans.net puzzled me. It is about churches holding fairtrade events for the community. Seems fair enough in fairtrade fortnight ! But one theme through the article is the question "does getting involved in fairtrade help the church connect with the community?" In fact that seemed to be a more important question than "is fairtrade a good thing to support and could churches bless the world and their community by promoting it?" Grant Murray, who promotes fairtrade, is quoted as saying it helps in the church to show its integrity. However if the main premiss of any involvement is "Will this help us build contacts to grow?" then the integrity seems to be put in doubt. I think there is a danger of assuming that promoting the mission of God is equivalent to promoting our church. It seems to me that we have to make sure that our churches participate in God's work in the world, rather than equating the two. That will mean that sometimes we'll do things which have no apparent benefit for our church simply because they fit with God's mission. Mind you I haven't done anything about fairtrade at our church or at college - but I am about to look into it.

New Aussie Blog

Matthias Media have just launched a new blog "the solapanel" with an impressive group of contributors. Since they are all Sydney people and committed to "classic Reformed Evangelicalism" we have a lot in common. It will be interesting to see how the solapanel develops, and we wish it well. Obviously the blogosphere is growing in our circles.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

nothing new under the sun...: "In my Father's house": further reflections on John 14

Byron Smith has some interesting comments on John 14, saying that Jesus' promise of being in the Father's house is realised in the coming of the Spirit, in which the Father and Son dwell with the disciple. I'm sure he is right, see what you think.
nothing new under the sun...: "In my Father's house": further reflections on John 14

Friday, 2 May 2008

Centre for Public Christianity and the PM

The newly established Centre for Public Christianity has received a letter of encouragement from the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd to mark their official opening. That is great news for Greg and John who have got the Centre up and going. I am praying that the Centre and the letter both mark the fact that there is a new engagement of Christians with the public sphere. 

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Biblical Studies Carnival (XXIX)

Jim West conducts the very impressive Biblical Studies Carnival, which is now in its 29th edition. ( I can't think of a better verb for someone who runs a carnival). It is a wonderful roundup of biblical and theological discussion in the blogosphere. John Davies' post on Jesusanity scored an honourable mention . This edition opens with Jim wondering if he should find a new name. I like the idea that the Biblical Academy could be a carnival: colourful, unpredictable, riotous and fun. The word derives from almost the opposite meaning. The Latin "carnelevarium" was used to refer to 'Shrove Tuesday' and the 'putting off of the flesh'. If Biblical Studies can help us put off the flesh in the Biblical sense (Rom 13:14) and be a carnival at the same time, then blessings upon it.

Is Predestination Doomed?

Ben Witherington III has a thought-provoking challenge to predestination on the basis of his reading of Matt 18:18: “I tell you whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." His point is that it is the earthly initiative which receives subsequent ratification in heaven. “The Greek here is straight forward [sic], and the contrast between the present and future tenses have clear enough implications.”

My observation is that the implication of the Greek tenses is nowhere near as straightforward as Witherington suggests. The tense of the verbs “will be bound” and “will be loosed” is not simple future (which Greek is quite capable of), but a more complex “periphrastic” construction involving a future + perfect passive participle. The only other instance in the NT of this construction, apart from the parallel Matt 16:19, is Heb 2:13 (where the verb is peitho, which regularly uses a perfect form in the sense of “be confident” and no simple future perfect passive tense form exists). Arguably, the employment of this rare construction in the two Matthew passages is intended to avoid the implication of sequentiality. If there is one thing we learn from the debates about tense and aspect in the last couple of decades, it should be not to base a doctrine on our understanding of tense, so I’m not going to draw the standard Reformed conclusion that it must be a future perfect (“will be [what has already been] bound / loosed”), though this at least arguaable. We can neither safely conclude that Jesus’ point in Matthew is the priority of the divine decree, nor of the human decision. Taken with the following verse (“Again, I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven”), the point is rather the congruence of leadership decisions in the church with the mind of God, particularly, I would add, those concerning admission to or exclusion from the Christian community, taken in the context of prayer. What this does suggest to me is that, rather than adopting an antipredestinarian stance, I ought to be reticent to declare some members of the earthly church as not part of the heavenly church (much as I am sometimes tempted).

Predestination will have to fall or stand on some other basis.

Gospel and culture

Does the gospel make a long term difference in a culture? Christians have argued that it makes a big difference for the better. One of the illustrations often used is the influence of Hinduism on Indian culture has often been anti-human and it was the gospel that has helped make the culture far more caring for the weak. Two stories illustrate the ongoing issue in India: Indian doctors refuse to treat untouchables and Manmohan Singh the Indian PM denounces the rate of abortion of females. Of course the once Christian West is heading the same direction, a culture that has no way of affirming the value of the weak must become less humane and less human.

John's prologue

I've been looking at John's Prologue (1:1-18) getting ready to preach on it this Sunday. I've had one of those wonderful experiences of finding a whole new perspective on a passage that is so familiar. I'll try to outline it here, though since I am still trying to work it out, I may not be entirely clear.

I skimmed through a few commentaries yesterday evening and as I did I started to notice all the OT references. Of course I knew they were there, but this time they stood out. So many of them are about 'wisdom', for 'wisdom' is with God in the beginning (Prov 8). It is common (and convincing) to see wisdom in Prov 8 behind the "Word" of John 1. Moreover the law is the wisdom of Israel (Deut 4:6 and also the apocryphal Sir. 15:1; 19:20; 21:11; 39:8 ). 

Then I started to see a wider pattern. It is not just that there are many references to the OT. The references develop a theme. The prologue re-reads the history of Israel: the creative wisdom-word of God coming to Israel (who are the children of God). In the exodus God's glory revealed to Moses (that God is 'emet' and 'hesed' - true and gracious) and that glory settles in the tabernacle. Now the prologue announces that the true creative word of life and light has come, and allowed people from all backgrounds to become children of God and grace and truth abound from him as they never did from Moses for the reality of the temple/tabernacle has come in the word incarnate. I think in the past I'd read the prologue against the Greek idea of the logos, but the whole thing starts to have greater coherence when the main background is the story of Israel. So the prologue shows us that what we have in Jesus is the truly divine word who becomes truly human so that we may know God in his faithful and gracious glory. What was prefigured in Israel's story is true in Jesus.

In one sense this is just what John says in the rest of the gospel anyway, but I'd never quite seen it in the prologue.