Sunday, May 31, 2009

Revealed in Jesus

"Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son..." - Hebrews 1:1-2a

The word 'God' is loaded with baggage. When someone hears it, they instantly recall a set of ideas about God that were handed down to them, or that they read in a book, or that they just conjured up in their own minds; most probably that set of ideas is some concoction of the three. N.T. Wright tells an amusing story related to this 'God confusion' (although I've cut out the amusing part, so now it's merely a story).

When he was chaplain at an Oxford college, he used to make it a goal to briefly meet each of the first year students; it was a sort of "I'm the chaplain, and feel free to come to me at any time" kind of meeting. Of course with many of the students attending the college being learned folk, they used to quip, "I'm afraid you won't be seeing much of me. I don't believe in god, you see." N.T. Wright would then respond with a question: "Which god don't you believe in?" This would take the students by surprise, so they would stutter out a few phrases about the god they didn't believe in: a being up in the sky, looking down on the world disapprovingly, waiting to punish bad people and reward good people, and occasionally intervening for the odd miracle or two. To this Wright would say, "Well, I'm not surprised you don't believe in that god. I don't believe in that god either. Rather, I believe in the God I see revealed in Jesus of Nazareth".

When Christians use the word 'God', who are we talking about? How do we know who God is? I think that too often we bring to the table the "spy in the sky" theology mentioned above, or some other notions of God that we have derived from a book, a television program, or even a misreading of Scripture. We then try and fit Jesus into that theology. The trouble is, He doesn't fit. Jesus of Nazareth simply doesn't conform to many of our ideas about God.

I'm only echoing Wright when I say that this needs correcting. That opening verse in Hebrews, along with numerous others in our New Testament, tells us that Jesus is the definitive revelation of God. If you want to know who God is and what He is about, look at Jesus. Don't try and fit Jesus into some other concept of God that you have developed. Start with the man born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth. Start with the witness of the Gospels.

We will only understand the word "God" as a Christian should when we understand Jesus. The Father has chosen to speak to us through His Son made flesh, and it is to Him that we must listen. Jesus, through His words and through His deeds, reveals the Father to us, and when this is our starting point we are a million miles removed from any "spy in the sky" theology.

When I use the word "God", I need to be clear who I am talking about, because I too easily create a god who is far removed from the One exposed in Jesus. And also, when people like those in Oxford say they don't believe in God, I need to be sure that the God they don't believe in is the God I believe in. I need to be sure that they are not rejecting some abstract notion of God, but that they are rejecting the God revealed in the person of Jesus. I regret that too often, through my words and deeds, I have done the Christian understanding of the word "God" a disservice. I need to get back to basics and affirm with Wright, "I believe in the God I see revealed in Jesus of Nazareth".

Friday, May 29, 2009

To Borrow a Term

In Him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised Him from the dead. - Colossians 2:11-12

I've been thinking about the significance of this passage since last Sunday. Not all the time obviously. There is a limit to how much a man can think about circumcision. Anyway, the fairly straightforward indicative remark made by Paul is that when you are joined to Christ by faith (i.e. "in Him"), you are considered circumcised.

Circum-what? As a male "Gentile" this is a slightly odd thing to think about, so I can only imagine how strange it must be for a woman "in Christ" to consider herself circumcised. Truth be told, none of us probably think of it very much. But while we're of course not called to consider (nor indeed undergo) circumcision in the physical way, Paul appears to place a lot of significance on the "circumcision without hands" that has been performed on our hearts on account of our union with Christ.

In fact -- and here is crux of my week-long musings -- this circumcision without hands seems for Paul to have always been the true meaning of circumcision. Forget about having a fraction of Mr Knish snipped. That was never the sign of who truly belonged to God. Paul affirms this loud and clear in Romans 2:

"For circumcision [of the flesh] indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God."

No wonder Jews didn't take too kindly to Paul's teaching - "No one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly..." Had Paul asked you to show that you were a Jew, and had you the cajones to show him your circumcision of the flesh, he would have probably said, "So what? That means nothing to me, and more importantly, it means nothing to God. Also, please never do that again. It's just weird". For God, and thus for Paul, circumcision is not nor has it ever been merely outward and physical.

Finally, and this is what I have been pondering: Had Paul asked you to show that you were a Jew, and had you never been circumcised nor gone through any of the other external rigamorole, yet you demonstrated a life lived by the power of the Spirit through faith (which looks like a life in harmony with God's law), then he would have proclaimed you a "Jew". What a role reversal! "Jews" are not actually Jews, whereas Gentiles can be true Jews, who get their praise (where the word "Jew" originates from) from God. Later on in Romans Paul declares that Gentiles have been engrafted to the "olive tree" (11:17ff.) which began with Abraham and the other patriarchs, thus giving extra credence to what he swiftly mentions in chapter 2.

To tie all of this together, the circumcision discussed in Colossians is not some rite of passage to become part of a new religion which finds its origins in Jesus, or even Paul. Jews (based on Paul's definition of a Jew in Romans 2) didn't have one circumcision while we Christians now have another. To be sure, in Christ we are new creations, and members of a new covenant. However, this covenant isn't new in the sense of separate from the one established with Abraham. It is new in the sense of being the definitive fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant; we now live in the age of the Climax of the Covenant, to borrow Tom Wright's term. Our "circumcision of Christ" means that we are in fact true sons of Abraham and heirs to all of the blessing that were promised to him. (As an aside, is there any greater motivation to get immersed in the Hebrew Scriptures than this?) We are true Jews, and yet we are not Jews at all. Nor are we Gentiles. For there is neither Jew nor Gentile in the family joined with the Messiah Jesus, but we are all one in Him.

What is the fruit of this sonship, this belonging? What does it look like to be a covenant member? Is the proof in the penis? By no means! It looks like a heart moved by the Spirit of God and enabled to fulfill the law by loving God and loving others; it looks like a life characterised by The Jesus Creed, to borrow Scot McKnight's term (I'm just borrowing terms all over the shop, amn't I?).

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Reading Scripture Faithfully

Here is a piece of wisdom I heard recently that should transform the way you and I read our Bibles. It was Richard Hays's first point on a talk entitled The Art of Reading Scripture Faithfully:

The Bible is about God.

What's that? It's not primarily about me and my salvation? It's not simply about what's relevant to me? It's not a tool I can use to help me accomplish my purposes?

No sir. As much as I want the Bible to be a book about me, it isn't. The first question I usually ask when I approach a text is, how does this apply to me? Or, what is this text saying about me? Now of course those are pertinent question to ask of any passage of Scripture, and they have their place in Bible reading. But the Bible -- as simple as this sounds -- is about God, and approaching it with that thought front and centre will actually be the key to finding out where we fit in to this dramatic story concerning our Creator. After all, God is the one with the plans and purposes, and more importantly, He is the one with the power to achieve them. Therefore reading Scripture with Him as the subject makes sense practically as well as theologically. Think of an orchestral analogy. If I learn only the parts relevant to me and play them on my own, the piece won't sound very impressive. But if I fall in line with the rest of the orchestra and place the supreme value on the collective (as originally envisioned by the composer and guided by the conductor) rather than my own individual part then the music will sound as it is supposed to sound and I will be caught up in something much more brilliant than I had ever imagined when I sat playing the triangle on my own.

Back to the Bible. This book we have is, among other things, a documentation of various revelations of God throughout history. He is Creator, He is the covenant maker, He is the Redeemer of the people of Israel, He is the Law giver, He is the Judge, He is the Holy King whose glory fills the earth, and definitively, He is the man Jesus. The pages in our Bibles are full of these self-revelations of God; revelations of His character and His purposes. And yet all I want to know is what can God do for me? Well, it should please us self-centred people to know that God can do (and has done) something for us individually. But the scope of the Bible is much bigger than my personal relationship with God (though it certainly incorporates that). The Bible is about God, and His relationship with creation. N.T. Wright makes this simple and yet absolutely crucial point in his book on Justification. We are not the centre, with God orbiting around us. God is at the centre, and our lives revolve around Him.

That's the first step to reading Scripture faithfully. It's about God.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Grand Story

I'm, like, really "into" Richard Hays at the moment. I've quoted him on the blog already here, here, here and here. His book Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul is one of the richest, most eye-opening books I've yet to read, and I'm very much looking forward to tucking into The Conversion of the Imagination as soon as I can. I of course don't agree with everything he writes -- heck, I probably don't even agree with everything I write -- but he writes so well and so persuasively that it's hard not to get caught up in the whirlwind he conjures up.

I mention him again because he has fed my new-found fascination with the grand narrative of the Bible. I mean when all is said and done, what's it all about?

Well, in a lecture entitled The Art of Reading Scripture Faithfully, Hays tells the grand story of the Bible in three sentences. Here they are:

The God of Israel, the Creator of the world, has acted astoundingly to rescue a lost and broken world through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The full extent of that rescue is something we don't yet see, but God has created a community of witnesses to this good news - the Church. While we wait for the final conclusion of the story, the Church, in the power of the Spirit, is called to reenact the pattern of the loving obedience of Jesus, and to be a sign to the world of God's redeeming purpose.

Soft on Scripture

Do you ever think that Evangelical Christians try to turn the Bible into something it never intended for itself? Most Christian's doctrine of the Bible includes the word "inerrancy", but what is actually meant by that, and can the Bible stand up the definition attached to the word?

Wayne Grudem says that "The inerrancy of Scripture means that Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact."

I have to admit, I have problems with such a definition. The Bible seems to have problems with it too. Take the events surrounding Holy week for example. According to John 12, Jesus was anointed in Bethany on a Saturday. According to Matthew 26, Jesus was anointed in Bethany on Wednesday. One or both of these witnesses is affirming something contrary to fact.

Now according to Grudem, we can happily say that in the original manuscripts no such discrepancy existed, but to me that just sounds like a cop out; it sounds like someone trying to fit the Bible into a mould that it never intended for itself. You may think I'm opening a can of worms here - If we can't trust the Bible with one piece of information, then why should we trust any of it? If it errs in its witness to the events of Holy Week, then surely nothing else affirmed in the Gospel accounts can be said to be reliable

I don't claim to have sufficient answers to those questions, but one important thing to remember is that our trust is never -- never! -- to be placed in the Bible. Not once does Scripture seek us to put our faith in it. Scripture is always pointing away from itself, and more specifically, towards a person - The Messiah Jesus. The Word of God has indeed become flesh, and our lives should be wrapped up in Christ. Only then will we truly understand what is written on the pages of our Bibles. But make no mistake about it - owning a Bible is not a prerequisite for being a Christian. You don't even have to ever read a Bible in your life in order to be included in God's covenant family. I say this confidently because there are people in the world who simply cannot read for one reason or another. Are they therefore exluded from God's offer of grace? Certainly not! That's not to say that we can all just toss our Bible's into a dustbin. If a year in Scripture School taught me anything, it's the richness and benefit of deep meditation on the Bible. But as soon as your faith gets wrapped up in a book, you're in trouble.

Where then does that leave the Bible as the Word of God? There can be no falsehood in God, so when He speaks, He speaks truth. This is where Grudem's claim of inerrancy is based. Word of God = inerrant, Bible = Word of God, => Bible = Inerrant

I'm not saying I fundamentally disagree with that line of reasoning, but what I wonder is the following: Are John and Matthew's accounts of all of the events surrounding Holy Week part of the Word of God? When Jesus is said to be the Word incarnate, does He embody John's witness of what happened on the Saturday of Holy Week and Matthew's witness of what happened on the Wednesday? What does a dinner in Bethany have to do with anything, and is it of crucial importance to the integrity of Jesus (and the Bible) that John and Matthew's Gospels allign perfectly in all of the details?

As I showed above, they don't, and there are other examples I could cite to strengthen that position. Perhaps Grudem addresses this in Systematic Theology in a more satisfactory way than saying the original manuscripts contained no such discrepancies, but if not then where does that leave us? Do we simply fall in line with Grudem, or are we forced to disregard everything that is written in the Bible and pretty much abandon the Christian faith entirely? Personally, I'm not content to do either. Not because I'm a renegade who's "soft on Scripture", nor because I'm choosing to hold blindly to Jesus and scream "la la la la" at everyone who points out inerrancy in the Bible to me. There must be a third option, right? A position where the integrity of Scripture is highly valued, and where the Bible as God's words to human beings -- Scripture as "God-breathed" -- is rightly understood.

Finally, how are we understand Paul's words in 1 Cor 7? He says that this is him speaking, not the Lord. But then if these words are in our Bibles, shouldn't we understand them as God's words? Paul didn't seem to think so, so where does that leave us?

It leaves me asking too many questions, but perhaps I can address some of them over the coming weeks/months/years.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Increase Faith

What does it mean to have faith? And if you don't have a lot of it, what does it mean/look like to build up your faith? Specifically, what does one do if one finds their faith in Christ lacking to the point where one is unsure if they have any faith at all?

I sometimes find myself faced with these questions, which leave me looking within in order to try and muster up some more "faith" as if it's some kind of power in and of itself, all the while ignoring the reality that faith is nothing without an object. Nobody simply "has faith". We all have faith in something or someone. It's similar to love, in that you don't just have love. Your love must have an object, a person or thing which you can say you love or that you are in love with. And in much the same way that love grows, one of the sure ways to increase faith is intimate knowledge of the trusted object. This is how it should be with regards "faith in Christ". Christ is the object, and faith in Him grows through deep, piercing knowledge of His person, character and work.

This truth is beautifully articulated by Clement Read Vaughen in a letter written to theologian Robert Lewis Dabney (a text I came across in the book Why Johnny Can't Preach). Dabney became blind and weak in his latter years, and knew that death was imminent. He wrote to Vaughen, wondering if he would have faith strong enough to face his end. Vaughen replied with an illustration of a traveller encountering a chasm over which a bridge crossed:

What does he do to breed confidence ion the bridge? He looks at the bridge; he gets down and examines it. He don't stand at the bridge-head and turn his thoughts curiously in on his own mind to see if he has confidence in the bridge. If his examination of the bridge gives him a certain amount of confidence, and yet he wants more, how does he make his faith grow? Why, in the same way; he sill continues to examine the bridge. Now my dear old man, let your faith take care of itself for a while, and you just think of what you are allowed to trust in. Think of the Master's power, think of his love; think how he is interested in the soul that searches for him, and will not be conforted until he finds him. Think of what he has done, his work. That blood of his is mightier than all the sins of all the sinners that ever lived. Don't you think it will master yours?...

Now, dear old friend, I have done to you just what I would want you to do to me if I were lying in your place. The great theologian, after all, is just like any other one of God's children, and the simple gospel talked to him is just as essential to his comfort as it is to a milk-maid or to a plow-boy. May God give you grace , not to lay too much stress on your faith, but to grasp the great ground of confidence, Christ, and all his work and all his personal fitness to be a sinner's refuge. Faith is only an eye to see him I have been praying that God would quiet your pains as you advance, and enable you to see the gladness of the gospel at every step. Good-bye. God be with you as he will. Think of the Bridge!

Your brother,

Deep-seated knowledge of the Messiah whom Paul claims is in you is a sure way to increase faith in Him, but of course the necessary knowledge is not merely information held in the head. To extend the bridge illustration, it's no good examing the bridge every which way possible, concluding that it is a well built bridge, but then deciding to stay on the same side of the chasm. There must be an experiential knowledge of the bridge's trustworthiness for the knowledge to be incarnated and complete. This is where a cerebral person like me falls down. I want the knowledge without the experience, the reception without the response, but that just won't do.

When encouraging others in faith, we would do well to remember the strategy employed by the author of Hebrews. Relate to others:

Who Jesus is
What Jesus has done
How we should respond - with confidence, but not with complacency

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The "Look"

My best Michael Scofield look. Not bad, eh?

The God of the Bible

If the God you serve is a God unwilling to dine with prostitutes and scoundrels, then yours is not the God of the Bible.

And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?" And Jesus answered them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance." - Luke 5:30-32

Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. - Matt. 21:31

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

We're Missing Something

The story of Christianity in four words:

Creation, Fall, Jesus, Salvation.


Wrong! At least according to N.T. Wright. He says we're missing something in that industry-standard list that will actually shape how we read the entire Bible, and thus to ignore it is to miss one of the keys to unlocking who Jesus is and therefore who God is. Wright's list looks like this:

Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus, Salvation.

Scot McKnight's is something very similar (though aided by its alliteration):

Creation, Cracked Eikons, Covenant Community, Christ, Consummation

This is starting to look like a page from one of Rob Bell's books what with all the gaps, but I just thought it was interesting how quick we as Christians are to ignore Israel when it comes to the gospel of God.

Perhaps we need to introduce the song "Father Abraham" into our corporate worship times. I'll let you know how that goes...

Monday, May 18, 2009

A Litmus Test

As I ponder the words of John Stott in The Cross of Christ, I am left wondering how far away we have veered from Paul's affirmation that "we preach Christ crucified". When it comes to Christian preaching, is that what is being heard around the world? Stott says that the only authentic Jesus is the Jesus who died on the cross. P.T. Forsyth states that "you do not understand Christ till you undertsand His cross".

I remembering hearing of someone who uses the following question as a sort of litmus test for preaching: In order for your sermon to be true, did Christ have to die?

A sort of corollary question might be asked of the congregation: In order for a sermon to have a genuine impact on you, does Christ crucified need to be proclaimed?

The message of the cross may have been a stumbling block to Jews. It may have been foolishness to Greeks. But one fears we are in an even more precarious position now, because to the 21st century inhabitants the message of the cross is seemingly irrelevant.

Friday, May 15, 2009


For Paul, theosis is “transformative participation in the kenotic, cruciform character of God through Spirit-enabled conformity to the incarnate, crucified, and resurrected/glorified Christ.”

I couldn't ha
ve said it any clearer myself.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

All Things New

"He is the image of the invisible God..." - Colossians 1.15 (not referring to the above Pegasus)

Remember that catchy song One of us? Well, the quite startling claim of Christianity is that God became one of us. Just a slob like one of us. The earliest of Christians believed nothing less than Jesus being God. "My Lord and my God" said doubting Thomas after seeing the nail-pierced hands and wounded sides of Jesus. It seems to have taken the resurrection for the disciples to get Jesus' own confession that if you have seen Him then you have seen the invisible God, but once they got it there was no turning back. And rightly so. If I were to meet a man who claimed to be equal with God, and then proved to me that He was equal with God, by, say, coming back to life after a few days of deadness, I'd probably want to be a part of whatever He was up to.

And what is this image of the Invisible up to? In short, He is creating other images to be part of a world-wide community which is a reflection of the glory of God. That's the why of creation, and specifically, the why of the creation of human beings. "Let us make man in our image", declared the Triune God. The man from dust, Adam, corrupted that image. The man from heaven, Jesus, restored it to be something even greater than it originally was.

This is the good news of Christianity: the man Jesus is God, and He is once again making man in that image. The pivot which this re-creation turns on is the cross, a subject Paul briefly touches on in Colossians 1 having declared Jesus to be the image of God:

For in Him [Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross.

The Passion of the Christ, while flawed in numerous ways, has a couple of awe-inspiring scenes. One of those is courtesy of Mel Gibson's artistic license, where he films Jesus staggering along the Via Dolorosa with Mary too traumatised to look on. However, having recalled a moment from Jesus' childhood where He falls over and she rushes to aid Him, her maternal instincts take over in the present and she flings herself towards the blood-soaked Messiah and embraces His torn body. Here Gibson inserts the words of the risen Christ from the book of Revelation: I am making all things new. This way of suffering is what the image of God had to endure in order to restore His broken images, and make us new.

The problem many have is that they can somewhat grasp the image of God sitting on a throne displaying all manner of supernatural powers which wow the world into submission. What they can't grasp at all is the image of God dying in obscurity on a cross.

"God became man to turn creatures into sons; not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature." - C.S. Lewis

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Witnesses of Old

I may not be an apologist, historian, or scientist, but I am a communist creationist. For me, either life starts with an Other with the power of being (someone eternal), or there is no life at all. And more specifically, that Other is the God of the Bible. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the God who stepped into His creation in the person of Jesus. I don't intend to give a rigourous proof for these statements, but there is one thing to note when confronted with the Bible's dramatic opening line, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth" and what immediately follows.

This account of creation was not written in a vacuum. Not according to Jewish tradtion anyway (whether you want to believe what Jewish people have to say is another matter entirely). Moses didn't write about God as Creator because of some philosophical musings that popped into his wandering mind one day. Moses wrote about God as Creator because he witnessed this God turn water into blood, bring a plague of locusts upon Egypt, and lead His chosen people to freedom by parting a sea. Moses and the children of Israel experienced God the Creator in dramatic fashion, which is why it ain't no thang for Moses to begin the chronicles of God's dealings with His creation by stating the fact that God is the Creator of everything. I mean they claim to have seen Him manipulate creation in all manner of ways, and their existence as a nation is at least some kind of evidence that they might just be telling the truth.

The upshot of all of this is that one can't ignore the witnesses of old when drawing conclusions about creation. Some of these witnesses claim to have seen God control creation in miraculous ways. Other witnesses claim to have seen the same God begin a new creation through the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Isn't there a chance that they might actually be telling the truth?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Geeky Christian Circles

Imputation is one of those words you generally only come across in theology. It and its cognates are used in the context of how one is justified before God. The theology of justification (I'm boring you already, aren't I?) most Christians who read this blog have been brought up on is something not unlike the following:

We have The Law, but no matter how hard we try to keep it we will never be made right with God in that way. God's standard is perfection, and all fall short of it. Therefore in order for us to be made right with God, Jesus lived the perfect life, died on a cross, which led to this exchange: Our sin was laid on Him so that by faith His "righteousness" or perfection could be laid on us.

This exchange is what is known in geeky Christian circles as double imputation: Our sin is imputed (or attributed) to Christ, and His righteousness is imputed to us. For those of you still with me, this sounds reasonable, right? Perhaps you would use different words, but I imagine you'd be describing the same process as the one I have outlined when talking about our justification.

Up until just over a week ago I'd have signed up to this description of justification without a second thought. Me bad. Jesus good. Jesus gives me His goodness meaning me not considered bad anymore. All done by faith. Yay.

That all sounds rather lovely (and it is, don't get me wrong), but as Tom Wright (aka N.T. Wright) shows in his book Justification (I know - a whole book on Justification), this notion of imputation does not appear to be as scripturally sound as those sola scriptura Reformers once thought, and as sound as most of the Protestant Church thinks today. This may appear to be pointless theological sparring, but if so then why not just erase the first half of most of Paul's letters, which deal almost exclusively with Christian doctrine? Because pointless theological sparring is sometimes important. Of course I don't pretend that any of what I say on the matter is interesting or correct, but surely these theological debates have a purpose, right?

Anyway, I think one of the most obvious places where double imputation falls down is the entire New Testament, which doesn't once mention "the righteousness of Christ" or the "righteousness of Jesus". Surely if Jesus' righteousness or moral perfection was imputed to us we would see the phrase somewhere, but alas, it is conspicuous by its absense.

The theory of double imputation also runs the risk of presenting God as somewhat of a legalist, which is ironic since legalism is what Luther battled so hard against in coming up with this divine exchange. In this view, what God requires of us is perfection. Since we couldn't deliver, God, out of sheer grace, decided to send someone to earth who could. Therefore we stand before God on the basis of Jesus' moral perfection and our gettin' some of that by faith in Him and His sacrificial death. Perhaps that's an unfair caricature, but when I boil my own thoughts on the matter down I end up with something not disimilar to it, and it just doesn't seem to fit with the metanarrative of Scripture.

In this line of reasoning, the story of our justification starts with our inability to keep the Law. I don't deny that inability for a second, but as Scot McKnight says and as N.T. Wright implies, God is a covenant maker before He is a Law maker. Therefore the basis on which we are justified was never intended to be on the Law, but on the covenant. It's not a case of the Law not working, therefore God coming up with plan B instead. There is no plan B. God's dealings with us are based on plan A: His covenant with Abraham in which He promised that He would bless all the nations of the world through Abraham's seed. This is where double imputation -- while not completely wrong -- again falls down, or at least short. For me, it's emphasis is still on Law, and our standing before God is seen in terms of moral perfection, albeit Christ's and not ours. As Wright says however, the basis for our justification is God's covenantal faithfulness, which he basically equates with "the righteousness of God".

Therefore what is revealed in the gospel (Rom. 1:16-17) is not primarily the moral perfection of Christ made available to us by faith, but the faithfulness of God to the covenant He established with Abraham, which finds its fulfilment in the Messiah Jesus, who remained faithful even unto death so that God's plan A -- His plan to reconcile the world to Himself through the seed of Abraham -- might be accomplished.

A third issue I have with double imputation is the distance it creates between the Messiah and His people. I've seen it illustrated through the use of two circles, with our sin being shown to hop over to Jesus' circle and His righteousness coming over to ours. Almost like the equivalent of swapping Ricardo Scimeca for a "shiny" in the Merlin Premiership Sticker Collection of yesteryear. As Wright argues however, it is our being "in Christ" that justifies us. Transferal of merits doesn't quite do justice to the relational nature of our justification, whereby we are declared right with God on the basis of our intimate connection with His Son.

I'm only scratching the surface of a topic which has produced countless books over the years and quite a few recently. And what's more, I'm still thinking through this stuff myself, having been fed on double imputation for so long. I know there is a paucity of Scripture references in this post, but believe me - Wright's book is full of them. I'd be interested to know what others think. Does any of this matter when it comes to Christianity? Clearly Tom Wright and John Piper think it matters, since they've dedicated books to proving the other misguided. And what's more, they approach the topic as pastors as well as scholars, indicating concern for the sheep God has given them to look after. I'm not quite sure of the pastoral implications of all of this, but when I find out I'll let you know. I'm sure you'll be thankful for another post on double imputation [?].

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Confusion With Regards Homosexuality

Following on from the previous post -- which oh so briefly outlined the corporate dimension of sexual behaviour within the church -- is the issue of homosexuality, which is the specific issue addressed by Hays in the quote I highlighted. His chapter on homosexuality is quite short and only skims the surface of what seems like such a large issue today, but it is food for thought nonetheless.

He makes it clear that the biblical view on homosexuality -- while sparse in terms of content (roughly 6 references) -- is that it is a sin. There are those who will claim otherwise by either ignoring the Bible or mistreating its texts, but Hays makes it clear that the biblical voice on this topic is univocal in its classification of homosexuality as something contrary to the created order. One of the most relevant passages in the discussion is Romans 1, where Paul writes that,

"For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error."

This may sound like a harsh condemnation of homosexuality; it being a thing which provokes the "wrath of God". However, as Hays argues, this passage isn't speaking of homosexuality as that which is a provocation of the wrath of God but rather as something which is a consequence of God deciding to "give them up" to their desires. But who are the "them"? Gay people? Well, yes, but certainly not exclusively. The "them" is those who refuse to acknowledge God as God; those who substitute created things for the Creator, which is the essence of sin. Homosexuality is therefore a symptom of that great exchange. But it is not the only one.

For Paul, the same exchange which leads to homosexual acts also leads to envy, strife, gossiping, dishonouring of parents, and other such things. This is why he can write in chapter 2,

"Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things."

Note: He doesn't say those of you who gossip may judge homosexuals, since theirs is the more abominable sin. For Paul, the overarching sin of humanity is human beings substituting themselves for God. Homosexuality is a symptom of this substitution, but it doesn't appear to be any greater a symptom than lying. Is that not a sobering thought for those of us who pat ourselves on the back for at least having the right sexual orientation?

One could be forgiven for thinking that the above is not actually good news for homosexuals but simply bad news for everybody. However, as Hays rightly points out, God's "giving up" of sinful humanity, and specifically homosexuals, is not the last word. Our sin is substituting ourselves for God, but God has dealt with this by substituting Himself for us in the person of Christ. Romans, far from being a book concerned with condeming homosexuals, is a book about the gospel, and the gospel is good news about the love of God shown forth in Jesus, which is a love that reaches to gay people as much as it reaches to the rest of us. God's mercy does not cease when it encounters homosexuality. YHWH has been branded as a homophobe by some, but this accusation clearly fails to take into account the sacrificial death of Jesus on behalf of homosexuals. As Hays puts it, homosexual persons "are the objects of God's deeply sacrificial love". Not the first sentence you think of when Christianity and homosexuality collide, eh?

I write this as I grapple with my confusion with regards homosexuality. No no. Not that kind of confusion. Being straight may not have been a resounding success so far, but I'm not going to give up on it just yet. My area of confusion is rather dealing with the issue should it arise in my sphere of life, like say a friend who has homosexual tendencies looking to make an advance on me for some kind of advice from me. Thus far nothing like this has happened, but I honestly don't know how I'd say if it ever does, which is why I have turned to Hays' book on ethics. It certainly doesn't present me with all of the answers I'm looking for, and this post is by no means the final word on homosexual tendencies within the church, but I can sense a shift in my outlook as I wrestle with its contents. This shift is summed up in Hays' response to the question, "Can homosexual persons be members of the Christian church?":

"This is rather like asking, "Can envious persons be members of the church?" (cf. Rom. 1:29)...De facto, of course, they are. Unless we think that the church is a community of sinless perfection, we must ackowledge that persons of homosexual orientation are welcome along with other sinners in the company of those who trust in the God who justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5). If they are not welcome, I will have to walk out the door along with them, leaving in the sanctuary only those entitled to cast the first stone."

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Affects the Whole

The New Testament never considers sexual conduct a matter of purely private concern between consenting adults. According to Paul, everything that we do as Christians, including our sexual practices, affects the whole body of Christ.

Come to Christianity, where your sex life is a matter of public interest.

Not quite. In fact not at all, at least in my experience of church life. But for the apostle Paul, dealing with sexual ethics was part of the challenge he faced at Corinth. A son was sleeping with his mother-in-law, and some members of the church were making the most out of the high prostitution levels at Corinth. If something like that came out in a church today I'd imagine the building would be burned down along with everyone in it. But what did Paul do? Well he sent a letter, explaining that our sex lives matter to Christ and to those who belong to Him, so how about reflecting that in our behaviour people!? He put it more eloquently and more theologically than that, but his point was, as Hays wrote above,

"...everything we do, including our sexual practices, affects the whole body of Christ."

The consequences of this are legion, but to finish this late-night post here's one that springs to mind: When dealing with any kind of sexual misconduct within the church, love for a fellow member of Christ should be the motivation behind the words said and the actions taken. It's just unfortunate that that is not always the case.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The 'Link' Ploy

Sequels are said to almost always be inferior to the originals. A look at Disney films of the 90's (for want of a more adult case study) is proof. The Lion King we love, but The Lion King II: Simba's Pride? Pocahontas is a classic, but Pocahantas II: Journey to a New World? No thanks. In fact I didn't even know the latter existed until I stumbled across it a few months ago while looking for something -- anything -- with which to entertain my two nephews.

This post is following the pattern of a Simpsons episode, because my point has nothing to do with sequels, but rather spin-offs. I don't know the popular concensus with regards spin-offs -- though I do know that Joey was tragic, as was That 80's show -- but I imagine it's something similar. Which eventually takes me to the point. Those of you in the know are perhaps aware that this mothership of a blog sent a reasonably sized ship -- a daughtership, if you will -- to hover over the footballing world. Lean Not has had a spin off since the end of August, which concentrates solely on matters pertaining to a small, spherical object being kicked around by flimsy, overpaid objects. I'm sort of pleased to say it's actually doing better than the original. Much, much better in fact, if the hits counters at the bottom of each blog are to believed (perhaps a big 'if', but still).

This indicates to me a few things:

- I know more about football than I do Christianity. As a Christian, and not a footballer, I should probably work on that.

- Apart from about three people, all the other people I know who are aware of my blogging haven't really got the slightest interest in football. Where did all this interest in Football Beauty come from? I find it hard to believe that people just stumble across it.

- Football is a more popular topic than Theology. Who knew?

I can account for some of the discrpeancy between the two blogs by looking at the output of each. Football Beauty gets updated a lot more regularly, and so it's only natural that the more one puts into something there more one gets out of it. I intend to rectify the situation however. Lean Not will come out from under the shadow of its wildly popular spin-off, the Frasier to its Cheers. The impending Summer almost demands it. I intend to get the oringinal back to the dizzy heights of 10 hits a day, by whatever means necessary. One way is to simply put a link up for it on my football blog and hope that brings in the football public. Another way is to start producing a higher quality of output that engages the reader and encourages them to think about that which transcends even football, and thus gets them to spread the word.

I think I'll go with the 'link' ploy for now...

Friday, May 1, 2009

A Community Project

The first step towards formulating my best man's speech has finally been taken. It involved typing "tips for best man speech" into google and perusing a few pertinent websites. The next step is Wikipedia, after which I'll have pretty much exhausted by research ideas. I did get one helpful tip from my initial google search, which is why I'm here writing about the speech in the first place. The tip is that the speech should be a community project, with the best man feeding on the input of those who know the subjects in question - in this case, my brother or his bride-to-be.

So with that, I am opening the floor to those who either have an anecdote or observance that can be incorporated into my speech. Or perhaps you just know more about speeches than I do and can give me some generally helpful tips. If these sound like the words of a desperate man bereft of ideas, then make no mistake about it - they are. In six weeks I will be expected to be funny/intelligible in front of a couple of hundred people, many of whom will probably not know who I am (and I include relatives in that).

Your support won't be so much beneficial as it will be necessary, so please, donate generously either by leaving a comment, an email, a text, or whatever. And be as disparaging as you like. The purpose of my speech is to make the bride seriously question her decision to marry my brother*.

* I'm kidding.