Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Creation care - a time for action

Lots of us know that we should do more to care for God's world, but are not quite sure what to do. Lots of the groups which want to act have a pagan worldview, or a version of eco-theology which is syncretistic. So what do we do?

A Rocha is Christian ministry with good theological foundations and a commitment to creation care. This video below explains more.

A Rocha is trying to get started in Australia and is holding a meeting at PTC on Saturday 19th July, 9:30-3:30 pm. The meeting will hear from Ian Packer the Director of Public Theology for Australian Evangelical Alliance on "Loving God Caring for His creation" and will talk about establishing A Rocha in Australia.

This is an exciting development and I'd urge Sydney folk to get along. You can get the details from the PTC website and download a poster which you can put up at church. If, like me, you can't make it then get in touch with  Stuart Blanch (details on poster) to register your interest in the project.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Mugabe the theologian

It turns out that Robert Mugabe is an amateur theologian - and at first glance not a bad one.
If we are to believe the press (which admittedly is often dangerous,) the latest exchange in the Mugabe election drama is Mugabe's claim at the end of the week that "Only God who appointed me will remove me..." I believe that he is right.
Scripture tells us “The bows of the warriors are broken, but those who stumbled are armed with strength... The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up. The LORD sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts. He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor. He will guard the feet of his saints, but the wicked will be silenced in darkness. " (1 Samuel 2)
Given Scripture's exalted vision of a God who appoints the leaders of the nations, and dismisses them, it is perfectly true to say that he "alone" appointed Mugabe to his place of honour, and will dismiss him.
In order to be a more satisfactory theologian however, Mugabe should also note, that rather than offering him a divinely protected status (Mugabe: “Only God, who appointed me, will remove me — not the MDC, not the British. Only God will remove me!”), the Scriptures offer many examples where God holds leaders to account - and uses a successor as his agent of judgment.
Mugabe should also note Hannah's humble advice (1 Samuel 2:9) "It is not by strength that one prevails."
A good theologian must balance texts alongside each other, much like a good leader with the interests of his people. I wonder if Mugabe has much talent at either.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Jordan Cave May Be Oldest Church

In a recent press release, reported by the BBC, archaeologists claim to have uncovered evidence of the oldest Christian church – a cave (serving as both home and meeting place) at Rihab in Jordan, dating perhaps to before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. While I’m not going to get overly excited (too often have such finds turned out to be less sensational or convincing than first claimed), this one could shed light on the practices of the early church and take back by well over a century our material evidence of Christian places of meeting. If the dating is correct, this may be a refugee congregation from Jerusalem after the persecution recorded in Acts 8:1. Were any of the seventy Christians who met here among the 500 eyewitnesses of the resurrection, we wonder? We await the official archeological publication and scholarly interaction.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Christian language

For our discussions about our faith, we use some words not in general use (like “sanctification”) and invest some words with specialised meanings (like “justification”). In this, we are following the example of the Biblical writers who coined new words and added freight to others, and are no different from many other sub-groups in having some in-house language.

Where it becomes a problem is when we persist in using our jargon and redefinitions beyond our sub-group, and particularly when we adopt a condescending attitude to “outsiders” who don’t use words in the “proper” way. “Church” is people, not building, right? The problem is that in the wider linguistic community of which we are a subset, one of the meanings of church is a building, and it seems counterproductive not to recognise this.

The word I really want to blog about is “Christian”. Our sub-culture wants to be more or less restrictive in its application of the term. I was once told that there were only two or three Christians in a congregation I was about to pastor. This narrower definition of Christian is at odds with what our language community generally understands by the term.

More than this, it is not even one that we can find Biblical warrant for. The word “Christian” (at least in those versions which transliterate the Greek Christianos) is found only three times in the New Testament (Acts 11:26, Acts 26:28 and 1 Pet 4:16). Modelled on the pattern we see, e.g., in “Herodian”, it is used, as we see from the Acts 11:26 reference, to apply to the “disciples” (followers and learners) of the one acknowledged as the “Christ”. To understand who are included in the category of “disciples”, we could turn to Matt 28:19-20 where discipleship begins with the expression of commitment in baptism and continues with instruction in obedience to Christ’s commandments. That, I take it, was true of all of the members of the congregation I pastored. While I and all Christians have a lot more discipleship ahead of us — a lot more working through the implications of our commitment, a lot more learning, a lot more growing in obedience — I don’t believe that we can meaningfully or helpfully deny the term to any who so wish to acknowledge and be identified with the name of Christ.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Punishment and retribution

A horrific story has broken today involving a huge number of arrests for pedophilic pornography.  Amongst the comments one by Bob Debus, the Federal Attorney-General and my local member, caught my eye. He said "The fact that people are being caught with hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of images of abuse proves that the threat of long jail terms isn't enough to stop people." The view that punishment is justified by its effects primarily is very common (since most modern social ethics are developed on that utilitarian basis). This comment seems to reflect that view. Debus is not suggesting that we should stop punishing people even if it doesn't seem to 'work', and I am glad he isn't because punishment should have a retributive element as well. There is in his comment at least the hint that maybe we could find a way of stopping people from committing this crime. That, I think, is to put too much hope in technique and policy. We should be ever ready to punish those who do wrong, but we are deluded if we think we can devise ways of stopping wrongdoing.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

How to waste a theological education

Derek Brown, a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (in Louisville, Kentucky, USA), has a great post about "How to waste your theological education". He gives forty-five (count them, forty-five) different ways. Here are some of my favourites:
2. Perfect the fine art of corner-cutting by not really researching for a paper but instead writing your uneducated and unsubstantiated opinions and filling them in with strategically placed footnotes.
4. Nurture an attitude of superiority, competition, and condesension toward fellow seminary students. Secrectly speak ill of them with friends and with your spouse.

8. Practice misquoting and misrepresenting positions and ideas you don’t agree with. Be lazy and don’t attempt to understand opposing views; instead, nurse your prejudices and exalt your opinions by superficial reading and listening.

9. Give your opinion as often as possible - especially in class. Ask questions that show off your knowledge instead of questions that demonstrate a genuine inquiry.

17. Convince yourself that you already know all this stuff.

19. Save major papers for the last possible moment so that you can ensure that you don’t really learn anything by writing them.

24. Do other things while in class instead of listening - like homework, scheduling, letter-writing, and email.

26. Avoid chapel and other opportunities for corporate worship.

31. Master Calvin, Owen, and Edwards, but not the Law, Prophets, and Apostles.

33. Pick apart your pastor’s sermons every week. Only point out his mistakes and his poor theological reasoning so you don’t have to be convicted by anything he says.

34. Protect yourself from real fellowship by only talking about theology and never about your personal spiritual issues, sin, and struggles.

36. Don’t serve the poor, visit the sick, or care for widows and orphans - save that stuff for the uneducated, non-seminary trained, lay Christians.

41. Love books and theology and ministry more than the Lord Jesus Christ.

42. Let your passion for the gospel be replaced by passion for complex doctrinal speculation.

45. Don’t really try to learn the languages - let Bible Works do all the work for you.

He is thinking about how to waste your education while you are in the middle of it. I'd love to see some ideas about how to waste your education after you've finished.

Here are a few:

1) Forget all about Greek and Hebrew.

2) Never read anything that you disagree with.

3) Never disagree with anything you read.

4) Remember that theology should never get shaped by pastoral experience, keep it safe in the text-books.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Putting the good back into good works

In the circles in which I move, it seems to be almost impossible to utter the phrase “good works” without putting a “not” in the sentence. Good works have a bad press. The strange thing is that these are circles that seek to uphold the Bible’s teaching, yet when I read the Bible, I never find “good works” used in a negative way. I count 17 instances of ergon agathon(and 2 Thess 1:11 is very close, “good resolve and work of faith”), and 16 of ergon kalon in the NT, mostly in the plural. Being a mere OT scholar, I can’t detect any real difference between these two Greek expressions generally rendered “good work(s)”.

In the first instance, the expression refers to God’s work in us (Phil. 1:6) and then (most references) to the lifestyle of a Christian believer lived in service to God and others as the outworking of this – ethics with a strong social dimension (Matt 5:16; Acts 9:36; Gal 6:10; Eph 4:28; 1 Tim 2:10; 5:10; 6:18). Christian leadership is inherently a “good work” (1 Tim 3:1) and Christian leaders are to model high ethical probity (Tit 2:7). Christian ministry and our Christian meetings are to be used to promote good works (Tit 3:1; Heb. 10:24).

Good works are what Christians are to be passionate about (Tit 2:14). Our remaking in Christ (Eph 2:10) is as part of God’s new world, which, like his original creation, he declares “good”. Our lives are to be worthy of this (Col 1:10; 2 Thess 1:11).

Perhaps our problem with “good works” is that we confuse them with the (peculiarly Pauline) expression “works of the law” (e.g. Gal 2:16) which is used negatively, in contrast to faith. This blog is not the place to deal with this expression (even if I were competent to) except to note that it is treated very differently from “good works” in the NT.

For some of us the most striking set of passages in which “good works” play a part relates to their role in God’s ultimate verdict, e.g. Romans 2 where we learn that “to those who by patiently doing good seek glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Rom 2:7; cf. Matt 19:16; 2 Cor 5:10; Rev 20:1,13) and shortly after, in contrast to those who do evil, “glory and honour and peace is the prospect of everyone who does good” (Rom 2:10). It is this lifestyle of “good works” which will be brought to completion on the last day (Phil 1:6) and will be held up for display for all to see and glorify God for (1 Pet. 2:12).

I’m just doing my usual thing here of making a plea that we allow the Bible to speak in its own terms, rather than filter it too heavily through a grid which is an outcome of controversies of a past age.