Friday, 29 May 2009

Holiness

We all know that ‘holy’ means ‘separate’, right? Well hang on a minute! Despite this being the gloss given in countless sermons, Bible studies, popular Christian writing, and even some heavy dictionaries, where is the evidence for this? I have no doubt that it does have this as an implication, but is this its fundamental meaning? What holiness is really about is ... No, why should I reiterate here what you can read in the latest Reformed Theological Review?
Congratulations, by the way, to the editors of RTR for the new look and expanded journal with four or five articles plus reviews from mainly Australian biblical scholars and theologians.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

James Le Fanu, Why Us?


James Le Fanu
Why us? : how science rediscovered the mystery of ourselves
Hammersmith, London. Harper Press, 2009
xv + 303 pp. ; ISBN 9780007120277; Hardcover RRP $45.00

James Le Fanu is a London based medical practitioner (since 1974), a published author (since 1986), and a regular journalist (since 1992).

He has written an excellent work here, not so much entering the already over-stocked field of “Christianity v. Science” or “Creation v. Evolution” type of book, but actually penning a fact-filled exploration of what science has NOT been able to answer, despite all of its advances. In fact, this is not a “Christian” book at all, but rather an exploration of the power and limits of science to penetrate the deep mysteries of existence, challenging the certainty that Darwin’s Origin of Species seemed to provide, that we are no more than the fortuitous consequence of a materialist, evolutionary, process.

Le Fanu sees the challenge arising, unexpectedly, from the two major projects that promised to provide definitive proof for this most influential of theories: the astonishing achievement of the Human Genome Project which, it was anticipated, would identify the genetic basis of all human distinguishing characteristics; and, the phenomenal advance in brain imaging that now permits neuro-scientists to observe the brain ‘in action’ and thus account for the remarkable properties of the human mind.

But that, he says, is not how it has turned out! It is simply not possible, he states, to get from the monotonous sequence of genes in the Double Helix to the near infinite diversity of the living world. Nor to translate the electrical firing of the brain into the creativity of the human mind.

This is not a matter, he assures us, of not knowing all the facts, but rather science has inadvertently discovered that its theories are insufficient to conjure the wonder of the human experience from the bare bones of our genes and brains. The brain, it seems, may now be thought to not actually contain the mind, so much as the ‘mind’ may contain the brain.

He finishes with a prediction of a major shift in our understanding of ourselves that will witness the eclipse of Darwin’s materialist evolutionary theory and the rediscovery of the idea that there ‘is more than we can know’.

Hopefully good Christian apologists will be at hand when science gets to this point, and can introduce Christian truths of our God and His creation into their debate.

An excellent and very honest overview of scientific advances and the claims that can no longer (and, possibly, never could) be explained by the available facts.

More on the church of Scotland

In my last post I asked what happens next in the Church of Scotland after the decision to uphold the induction of minister who is a practicing homosexual? What will the evangelicals do?

Here are some hints.

Willie Philips of the Tron Glasgow announced the decision to his congregation the next morning. He speaks with impressive calm and resolve and then leads the congregation in prayer. He deplores the precedent which the Church of Scotland has set. He says that they will not recognise the authority of a church court to call holy that which God has called sin. He affirms his love for Christians who struggle with homosexuality.

He also explains why they are not going to leave the Church of Scotland and gives two reasons. One reason is that they would lose an opportunity to proclaim the gospel from the building in the centre of the Glasgow. That is a claim that has some merit. I can understand that their ministry would be impaired by losing their building and their status as a congregation of the Church of Scotland. Though I wonder if it is already impaired by being part of a denomination which has moved so far from the truth.

More interesting is his claim that "the denomination is not the church". That is a theological issue which the evangelicals in the Church of Scotland will have to wrestle with. It is certainly not a classic Presbyterian view. I'd agree with him that the visible church is fundamentally congregational, but I don't think that the questions they face can be resolved simply by saying that wider denominational structures are not the church. Later on in the statement he asks the congregation to pray for the churches in the Presbytery of Aberdeen whose position is more difficult than that of the church in Glasgow. Perhaps he means that their problem is simply 'political', but it sounds as if he thinks they have a 'theological' problem. I am not sure why the problem arises at Presbytery level but not at the level of the whole church of Scotland.

He announces that there will not be an offering that Sunday since that would be an expression of fellowship with churches with which they can no longer be in fellowship. He says that the central church authorities take a percentage and I'm sure he said 80%! He says that the session will be considering further steps in the next few weeks. I assume that withholding funds is going to be a major way of protesting.

He also warns the congregation that they can expect to be criticised and mocked in the media. In the Scotsman article reporting the decision the Equality and Human Rights Commission Scotland was quoted as being "delighted" with the decision. Alyson Thomson, head of communications for the Commission described the Church of Scotland as "a modern church for a modern Scotland" which had "decided that the values of fairness, equality, dignity and respect are of more worth than those of ignorance and intolerance." So the evangelicals know where they stand in the public discourse, they are committed to "ignorance and intolerance". It underlines how out of step the evangelicals are with their socety (or at least the elites) over this issue. I'm sure there will be more to come along these lines. (I have trouble imagining an Australian government authority making a statement like this about a church decision, but perhaps I am being naieve!)

David Meredith suggests that the way forward would be for evangelicals to join the Free Church and for the Free Church to make accommodation in its worship for that.

The position in which the evangelicals in the Church of Scotland find themselves is very difficult. Let's keep praying for them and asking the Lord to give them immense wisdom and courage.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Another step in long slow decline

News has just come through that the Assembly of the Church of Scotland has not upheld the appeal against the induction of Reverend Scott Rennie into a charge in Aberdeen. Rennie is openly living in a homosexual relationship. The Fellowship of Confessing Churches in the CoS has been outspoken in its opposition. But the Assembly has endorsed the decision of the Presbytery to go ahead with the induction.

Carl Trueman has a point when he wonders why homosexuality is the line in the sand. However we on the other side of the world can't say too much about the strategy of our brothers and sisters in Scotland, since we aren't directly part of the battle. Now we can grieve with them that the Church which has its Reformation origin in a bold declaration of the truth takes yet another step away from the truth. The church historians can debate how long the decline has been continuing, I guess it goes back into the 18th century at least. The Presbyterian Church of Australian followed the example of the CoS for many years in the colonial period and much of the 20th century. I'm glad that we no longer do.

I wonder what happens next?

More importantly what should we pray for the Church of Scotland now?

Thursday, 21 May 2009

New Principal Nominated

Yesterday afternoon Robert Benn, the convener of the Theological Education Committee which governs the PTC as a committee of the Presbyterian Church of NSW (all a bit complicated!!) released the following announcement.

"During recent months the Theological Education Committee of the NSW Assembly has carefully considered several applicants for the position of Principal of the PTC to commence on 1st January 2010.

Rev Dr John Davies, who has served the denomination as Dean and Principal for 23 years advised the Committee of his intention not to seek reappointment as Principal, although the Committee hopes that he may continue to serve the PTC in other roles.

It is our pleasure to announce that the vice-principal, Rev. Dr Ian Smith BA, Dip Ed, MEd, MTh, PhD will be recommended for principalship to the NSW Assembly in July. Ian brings qualities, qualifications and experience to lead the PTC forward to a new era. He has had significant pastoral experience, has served as missionary in Vanuatu, has been a lecturer at the PTC for 14 years and has been Acting Principal at the PTC on three occasions. The Committee warmly commends Ian to the Church.

Rev Robert Benn
Convener of the TEC."

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

The book that had to be written!

In the PTC library the other day I picked up a new book: Power and Poverty by Dewi Hughes. It brings together two very disparate themes. The front cover tells you that it is about global poverty. But the table of contents is redemptive historical and shouts "biblical theology". The structure is what you might expect in a biblical theology - Genesis 1-11, Abraham, government in Israel, laws in the Mosaic covenant; Christ as ruler, teacher and judge, the gift of the Spirit; and then the church and its place in God's world. Books on Biblical theology often show the rich thematic connections in Scripture, but do not have a strong connection with ethics, espcially social ethics. There are exceptions to this in the work Brian Rosner, Craig Blomberg, Tim Chester and Chris Wright.

Hughes continues in the trajectory of Chris Wright, and looks at the theme of power and poverty in the Bible. Often studies of those themes are entirley focussed on social ethics and do not relate the themes to wider redemptive history. Hughes does this well. Not only does he look at the social ethics of the Old Testament he relates that to God's purpose for Israel, and considers Israel in its biblical-theological position. More than that he traces these themes into the New Testament through Christology and then into the church.

Hughes makes the case that poverty and injustice are Biblical concerns and are not impositions from an illict political perspective. I went through a stage when I thought that a faithful Christian had to be apolitical, but over time I kept noticing that so many passages demand that we should take notice of political issues. That does not mean taking strong views in party politics, but it does mean a concern for justice and care for the poor. I've also seen more and more of that Christian social ethics has to come through the church. The church must be a community of justice and mercy. When it is this it is a witness to the world of what it should be, an anticipation of the new creation and a centre from which justice and mercy may flow. I've seen this, not by moving away from Biblical Theology, but by reflecting on the Bible as it present redemptive history. It is exciting to read Hughes making this case so well.

Hughes does not claim that Power and Poverty answers the practical questions of addressing poverty. What he aims to do is to show that Bible believing Christians have to be concerned about it, and that the Bible gives us very important perspectives on global political issues.

Hughes is the Theological Advisor for Tearfund in the UK and a member of The Lausanne Movement's Theology Working Group.

Monday, 18 May 2009

The danger of public theology

There's lots of talk about Public Theology. But it gets a whole lot harder when you actually have to do it in public. This morning Jim Wallace of the Australian Christian Lobby was on Sunrise with "Mel and Kochie" talking about gay marriage. On the other side were Peter Furness from Australian Marriage Equality and his long term partner Theo Phillip. You can watch the video here.

Jim began with the argument that this could be extended to allow someone to marry their cat. That seemed like bad move. First of all it is a reductio ad absurdum, and that is usually a weak argument. More importantly it sounded as if he was saying that homosexuality was equivalent to beastiality: and that didn't seem a great opening line! His next argument was that the gay lobby was trying to make the lifestyle of 1.2% of the population to be 'normative'. I don't think this worked, since they are not trying to make gay marriage 'normative' but allowable. Finally he argued that heterosexual marriages are more stable and therefore better for children (I think that was the argument it got a bit messy at this point). That was a complicated argument to run on breakfast TV, and Kochie thought he was saying that homosexual couples would abuse children (or least that's what he said he thought Jim was saying, which raised the temperature of the debate nicely!)

So Jim's argument seemed thin. Not suprisingly so since he had to argue about consequences, when the real difference between the two views is a view of what is according to nature, and what role nature (i.e. created order) has in deciding how we should act. Jim raised that issue slightly, talking about what was "natural", but the argument was not clear.

Jim's best argument was that our society regularly restricts the rights of some people (e.g. smokers). But that doesn't explain to people why the right to marry should be restricted to heterosexual couples.

The interchange showed how hard it is for Christians to make positive arguments in the public square. That doesn't mean we shouldn't work at it. I don't know what I would have said if I was in Jim's role. I know that I don't want Australia to have legal gay marriages and I know why I don't want that. The reasons don't make sense apart from my Christian commitments. Conclusion - more worked needed on this issue from ACL and any other Christians who want to try the argument in the media.

There is a blog on the Chanel Seven site with lots of comments.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

A proverb for students (and teachers)

Ever left a lecture or a sermon thinking how brilliant the speaker was, but still not entirely clear what it was all about, perhaps even more confused than before? Or have you been in a Q&A in which the questions were really a chance for people to show off how much they knew.

Proverbs 18:2 rings too true in the world of academia. “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing personal opinion.” (NRSV). Understanding takes humility and patience. You have to be ready to learn from the object of study and let it set the terms; and also be ready to learn from others. None of that appeals to the fool,.

One of my pet peeves is how quickly people (and I’m talking about orthodox evangelicals here) make sweeping dismissals of classical expressions of theology, without making the effort to actually understand what was said and why. But I didn't write this post to air that "peeve", I read Proverbs 18:2 and saw that it warned me. Maybe its a warning you need as well.

Pursuing understanding is a challenge in all study and teaching, but specially in theology. How awful to turn theology – the study of God – into self-expression rather than quiet, humble, disciplined attention to God himself. Some theological approaches collapse theology into anthropology or into clever word games. However even when we say theology is the "science of God" and that theological statements have a genuine reference to a God we can still be fools. (I'll leave the discussion of how theological statements refer to another day).

Is reading, thinking, writing,and teaching all about you or about what (and who) you are studying?

Monday, 4 May 2009

Twitter in church

This morning Eugene had a tweet about twitter in church linking to an article in Time magazine about pastors encouraging their congregations to tweet during church!

Bizarrely enough it's something I've been thinking about. It is easy to sit with your mobile in hand (on silent of course) and send a few messages. I'm not admitting to doing it, because I don't think I have, but I've certainly thought about it. Students do it via laptop in lectures (I know they do, because sometimes they send me emails). It can be a way of people connecting with each other and with the 'experience'. Yet is is "virtuous", is it being the kind of people we want to be? Maybe there is a place for sitting and listening without having to publish a response?

I am struck by the contrast with the instruction in the Westminster Directory of Public Worship (1645) which tells worshipers that "The publick worship being begun, the people are wholly to attend upon it, forbearing to read any thing, except what the minister is then reading or citing; and abstaining much more from all private whisperings, conferences, salutations, or doing reverence to any person present, or coming in; as also from all gazing, sleeping, and other indecent behaviour, which may disturb the minister or people, or hinder themselves or others in the service of God."

It is a very different world. But maybe there is some wisdom in the Directory. What do you think?