Friday, November 30, 2007

Gospel Optimism 9: Headlines and Eschatology

Simply put, one of the reasons optimistic eschatology fell from a place of dominance to occupy the sidelines of the evangelical world was that two world wars and the social-moral upheavals of the 20th century seemed to suggest things really could only get worse. But of course, it's bad news for theology to be based on the newspaper headlines rather than thoughtful, careful examination of the scriptures.

The Jollyblogger thinks postmillenialism might be making a comeback, and that this might be linked to brighter headlines in the US. He (not a post-mill) thinks it would be quite a good thing for postmillenialism to come back, but that any comeback shouldn't be based on the news headlines. I (a post-mill) agree with him on both counts.

Also of note, the article he links to includes an intriguing comment;
These days many evangelicals talk like premillennialists but act like postmillennialists. They expect the world to get worse and worse but preach the gospel, lobby politicians, and fight for social justice in order to make it a better place.

"Be still and know that I am God"

Really great stuff yesterday in chapel on Psalm 46 where (watery) chaos in creation and rebellious chaos among the nations are linked together. Psalm 46 shows that the God who can subdue creation with his word, will also subdue the nations, save his city, end war. And he'll do that by his word also - his command to be still and know that he is God. The echoes of Psalm 2 (the raging of the nations) lead us to expect that God to do it all through his anointed Son/King.

Of particular help on thursday, therefore, was the connection made between vs10 and Mark 4:36-41. Jesus calms the storm as the Son/King with God's authority to rule. The calming of the storm thus indicates not only (!) Jesus' power over the physical elements of creation as the one who can speak chaos into order, but, in the light of Psalm 46:10, we should link that same 'chaos into order' re-creational authority with his destiny to be exalted among the nations. The Lord Jesus is the master of all the chaos in his creation, whether that's human rebellion or natural disaster.

So it's not surprising that in Mark the calming of the storm comes straight after a section which emphasises the need to trust the word of the king to build the kingdom, despite apparent failure and the rejected/ hidden identity of the King himself. The Psalm 46-echoing events out at sea were a visible manifestation of the kingdom-establishing, creation-restoring, God's people-protecting authority and potency of Jesus' words. The waves were told to be still, and the disciples should've known that here in the boat was their God.

Psalm 46:10 continues to be the Lord Jesus' command to all that is chaotic in his creation.

“Be still, and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!”

Monday, November 26, 2007

Through New Eyes 4

James B Jordan is a transformationist. He thinks culture matters, and that Christians should develop Christian culture.

One of the arguments against Christian involvement in transforming culture is that cultural produce doesn't last, so is only good in the sense that it can help us to learn how to be more godly, or in as much as it might be useful somehow for evangelism. Jordan's view is different.

This second aspect also gives perspective to the transitory nature of human works. The great paintings of the Reformation era are darkening and cracking with age. Many have been destroyed in wars. Of Bach’s five great Passions, only two are extant. All our works are like castles of sand. Thus, it is sometimes argued that human work in the creation has meaning only in that it trains men: Adam himself is progressively transformed and glorified through the six-fold action. While this touches an important truth, the problem is with the word “only.” By itself, the notion that human labor exists only to train men reduces the value of work only to the subjective dimension. The objective foundation needed is the confession that human labor, if it is ultimately worthwhile, progressively reveals and glorifies God. Even if the artifact does not itself endure, like the crude sketches of a child, the revelation of God and glorification of the creation is cumulative (p124).

Our task is to 'do' the being human/ Genesis 1-2 thing called 'culture' in such a way that God's glory is reflected back to him. That can never be a worthless activity, or useful only in the sense that it morally has an impact on me.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

More on Jacob

Here's some stuff that didn't go into the chapel meditation on Genesis 29:21-30 (mostly inspired by or directly stolen from Wenham, Jordan and Cotter).
  • Rachel's name means (apparently) 'ewe' or 'lamb' or something like that. This makes an interesting parallel between her and the flock(s) Jacob gains from Laban, and of course the flock Jesus snatches from the clutches of the 'strong man.'
  • Rachel is therefore the bride of the heir, and as such is his flock/lamb, but also she is described as a Shepherdess (and is the only person thus designated in the scripture). Cue some thoughts on the church as the bride/flock/shepherdess of Christ the husband/shepherd. The Church both receives Christ's shepherdly care as well as partnering him in it.
  • This also sets up an interesting parallel with Leah, whose name means 'wild cow.' Not sure what to make of that.
  • The key to the whole Jacob narrative seems to be when the LORD wrestles with him and we find that all of Jacob's struggles have been divinely appointed as the means to his prevailing. Jacob's limp becomes a sign of victory-through-weakness.
  • Jacob's question in 29:25 resembles the LORD's (to Eve) in 3:13, Pharaoh's (to Abraham) in 12:18 and Abimelech's (to Isaac) in 26:10. They all refer to occasions of deception.
  • Also, there must be something in the fact that Jacob has to work seven years for each wife, and that the seven-day wedding feast is called a 'week' , especially given that this is Genesis - the book that begins with the first ever week. But what I'm not sure yet.
  • The positive portrayal of Jacob flows in some senses from the somewhat more negative portrayal of Isaac. Given how much of the Abraham narrative is about the birth of Isaac in some way or another, given that he's the child of promise, his whole part in the story is a bit of a let down to some extent. If anything, we might have expected him to be the one who had lots of sons and gave birth to a nation. But in some senses his part in the story doesn't move the promises on to fulfillment very much at all. That is left rather to Jacob who plays a far more significant role in the founding of the nation, and whose sojourner experiences mirror the future experiences of Israel. Could this relate to the way that Jacob talks about Isaac in 31:42 where he says the LORD is the God of Abraham but the 'fear' of Isaac?

Jacob, Leah and Rachel

I had the privilege of preaching on Genesis 29:21-30 this morning in chapel. Here's the gist of it.

The passage is not really about Jacob getting a taste of his own medicine, but comes as part of a wider narrative which emphasises the hardship the LORD puts him through en route to promised blessing. Genesis is more positive than negative about Jacob - every time the LORD speaks to or about him it is to promise blessing. He has, after all, chosen Jacob over Esau, and Jacob is described as a 'blameless' or 'complete' man back in 25:27 ('quiet' in the ESV seems an odd translation).

The route to blessing in the land is paved with hardship as a sojourner and a servant (32:4) in a foreign land. Jacob faces exclusion from his family (Laban treats him as a hired hand), deception and exploitation, and has his claims to being heir mocked by Laban (in 29:26 Laban echoes God's choice of Jacob over Esau and says 'that's not how we do it round here mate!'). The one whom the nations were supposed to serve (27:29) becomes a servant himself.

Yet, this is the LORD's doing. In fact, the LORD uses the hardship instrumentally in his fulfilling of the Abrahamic promise. All four women mentioned in the passage feature in the very next section as mothers to Jacob's children- the patriarchs of Israel. Whatever we may want to say in another context about polygamy, here the LORD turns Laban's deception into Jacob's blessing. A similar pattern follows, such that when Jacob leaves Laban Exodus-style to head to the promised land he has wives, servants, children and sheep all in tow.

As such, Jacob serves as an echo of Israel's own experience in Egypt and eventually in exile too. Moreover, the heir par excellence to the Abrahamic promises undergoes treatment like that Jacob faced. He is the heir who takes the place of a servant, who submits to his enemies deception and exploitation in order to win his bride, is excluded from his family and has his claims to sonship mocked. Yet, this is all used by God to fulfill the promise to Abraham. The Son will have his bride, his children and his land. The nations will bow down and serve him.

As God's heirs we too should expect to receive the blessings of the covenant via hardship. Whether it is blessings we experience now or the final blessing in the new creation-land, the route there is paved with hardship. We know that, whatever hard times we go through, God has designed them to be our necessary route to glory and blessing. So, we must learn to be like Jacob by grabbing a hold of Jesus' coat tails and following him.

Monday, November 19, 2007

O come all ye faithless...

There's something wrong with this promotion that bookshop Borders have notified me about: a special Christmas promotion of Dawkin's The God Delusion in which each copy comes with a 'come all ye faithless' Christmas card.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Postmillenialism and Suffering 3 (updated)

The Christian life is characterised by the cross. Does this refute postmillenialism - the idea that the gospel will triumph in history?

1. Of course, we must affirm that the Christian life is characterised by the cross. To say anything less is an over-realised eschatology. However, we can say more (and a-mill brothers and sisters would of course want to agree with this) – the Christian life is characterised by the cross because of union with Christ.

2. Union is with the whole of him, and therefore his resurrection as well as his cross.

3. In fact the two (cross and resurrection) cannot be separated. For the cross is the route to glory, the cross is (because of the resurrection) an example of victory through suffering. The Christian life is a life of cross and resurrection.

4. But what shape does this victory/resurrection aspect of the Christian life take in the present (i.e. before its ultimate in bodily resurrection at the 2nd coming)?

a. Patient endurance despite persecution and suffering.
b. Justification.
c. Regeneration.
d. Sanctification (progressive, though not perfect, victory over sin in the life of the believer, increasing moral conformity to Christ, etc.).

Few would disagree with a. through d. However, are there any other manifestations of resurrection-life/victory-through suffering spoken of in the scripture? I would say yes. Consider these verses from 1 Peter - an epistle in some ways majoring on the 'Christian life involves suffering and persecution' theme;

1 Peter 2:11-12. The suffering of the Christian under persecution results in the conversion of the persecutor.

1 Peter 2:15. The good living under fire of the Christian silences the ignorance of the persecutor.

1 Peter 5:10. God establishes and strengthens the church after she has suffered for a little while.

The poignant thing here is how these promises of victory are connected to persecution. Now, we could argue forever about ‘when’ 5:10 happens – is it within history or only at the 2nd coming? But, it is pretty hard to argue that 1 Peter 2:11-12 and 15 are only to be experienced at the 2nd coming. Even if ‘the day of visitation’ is ‘end of time judgment day’ (which I don’t think it is) then what is being predicted in that verse is still undoubtedly conversion – a within-history victory of the gospel over some of the church’s persecutors.

Also, just because Peter seems only to be putting forward 2:11-12 as a possibility doesn’t undermine the point. It’s clearly something that does happen (Saul of Tarsus anyone?) – I assume Peter’s uncertainty to be related to his not knowing the elect status of the specific persecutor’s in mind, rather than his doubting that this is a strategy for gospel growth that God uses! That he even puts it forward as a possibility shows that we have a further category to add to a. to d. with regard to the sort of victory that the Church can experience within history.

e. Gospel-conquest through the cross-living of the Church.

Peter doesn’t see this silencing and converting of former persecutors as being in conflict with the cross-shaped reality of the Christian life. Rather he sees the cross-living of Christians as instrumental in the whole thing.

The point is not that these verses somehow prove postmillenialism (there are many other passages and themes that we could turn to for mounting that argument) but rather that, even before considering 'proof-texts' for postmillenialism it can be demonstrated that e. is a part of the resurrection/victory side of union with Christ experienced by the Church prior to Christ's return. That the Christian life is cross-shaped does not mean the gospel won't win, or that persecution can't be reduced by that victory. Postmillennialism argues that what the apostle Peter is suggesting could happen on a local scale for the believers in Asia Minor, the bible elsewhere predicts will eventually and gradually happen on a massive scale before Jesus Christ returns. Cross-shaped living is instrumental in the victory of the gospel.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Typology and my 'never gonna do it' phd.

I sometimes wonder that if I had the inclination/ discipline/ ability/ time to do a phd, I would do it on something to do with typology (here for some stuff on someone else's thought on typology).

I'd want to investigate the possibility that typology (as a view of history) is the fundamental presupposition/ basis for the way the different phases of the bible relate to one another, in particular for the relationship between the new and the old testaments. I'd probably want to investigate in particular my hunch that typology undergirds the ways the apostles and other NT authors interpreted the OT, and that all the different ways of describing how we 'get to Christ' from the OT are bound together by typology in some way.

I think some of the cash-value would be;
  • Rescuing apostolic exegesis from those who want to say we can't imitate their methods.
  • Opening up a greater appreciation for some patristic exegesis (and providing a proper framework for assessing when analogical stuff goes too far).
  • Moving towards developing a philosophy of history that is biblical and Christological.
  • Increasing people's appreciation (including my own) for Hebrew narrative (which, it strikes me, has a fair bit of typology in it).
  • Thinking through issues of referent and fulfilment(s) of prophecy in all the bible.
  • Opening up levels of typological allusion that will enrich the church's understanding of scripture and combat exegetical minimalism.
  • Moving towards providing a framework for a balanced assessment of maximalism and its proper bounds.
  • Give some tools for genuine word ministry among not-so-wordy cultures (I suspect typology, with its associational way of thinking has lots to help 'less booky' people)..
In other words, it would help me (and hopefully others among God's people) gain a better grasp of the richness of history, Christ, the old testament, prophecy, and teaching ministry.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

God is Love

Today in Doctrine of God we had a disputation (a bit like a debate) on the following proposition;

'God is an eternal trinity of love. This means that it is unthinkable for him to act toward any creature in a way that does not pursue that creature’s highest good. We cannot, therefore, believe in the Calvinist doctrine of election, the limitation of the atonement to the elect, or the abhorrent idea that anyone might be abandoned to eternal punishment.'

How should such a statement be argued against? Some of the points emerging from class-time were;
  • All depends how you define 'good' and 'love'.
  • God is love, but he's also a lot of other things too. These attributes are not in competition - God is 'simple' in this sense.
  • A lot of biblical texts seem to talk about election/ particular redemption/ eternal punishment. How can we just write them off?
  • God is most concerned for his glory. That is, his trinitarian love commits him to seeking the good/ honour/glorification of himself. He is glorified when he punishes sinners as well as when he saves them.
  • The Father really really loves the Son and wants him to be firstborn of many brothers.
  • The Father really really loves the Son and that is bad news for those who disobey the Son.
What did emerge is that those arguing from a reformed perspective need to reckon with the fact that (in many communication situations in present-day UK) the truth of the proposition above carries a great deal of emotional weight. This is especially true when someone presses the question of just how God can be glorified/ find pleasure in the sending of many people to eternal punishment. "How can a loving God send people to hell?" is an instinctive question to ask, and people feel that the bible is on the back-foot on this one. If we want to win over hearts to God's word, we need to think about how to defend the truth emotionally as well as logically.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Ephesians and the Armour of God

We've just come back from a great weekend in the peak district with Christ Church Central. Humble, lucid, timely teaching from Ephesians was provided by Simon Austen from Carlisle.

Simon focussed on what we learn about the Church in Ephesians . We saw that the Church is the
  • apologetic for the power of the gospel
  • new humanity/temple/household built on Christ in the Spirit
  • outpost of the kingdom of Christ
  • plan of God for creation and history
  • product and agent of gospel progress
Particularly exciting were his insights into Ephesians 6:10-20 and the armour of God. Austen argued that the armour belongs to the conquering Messiah as described in Isaiah 11:1-5, 49:1-3 and 61:10 (also Psalm 18:35?), and is ours because we are united with him (hence, 'be strong in the Lord and in the might of his strength').

So, Christ sits victoriously enthroned above all powers (Eph 1:20-22), and through his church (which is dressed in his armour - no wonder since it's his body, 1:22-23) wages war on the very same powers and authorities (6:12). As the church stands against the schemes of the devil and pushes forward with the sword of the Spirit, Christ is bringing all things under himself in accordance with the Father's plan (1:10, 20-22).

I'll try and remember that the next time I feel disappointed with/ tired of or grumpy about [the] [C/]church.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Postmillenialism and Suffering 2

There's some helpful distinctions made here for anyone interested.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Postmillenialism and Suffering 1

One of the big big problems some people have with the idea that Jesus will return to a majority-Christian earth at his second coming is that such a situation would presumably require a very significant reduction in persecution. And, after all, doesn't the bible say that Christians should expect persecution?

The obvious thing to say upfront is that Christians will always suffer until the second coming (in their struggle against sin, in their coping with a dying and decaying body, in their having to set aside their own interests to serve and honour others etc.). But should all Christians at all times in history expect to experience suffering of the persecution variety? Here are my initial problems with such a view;

A. It hasn’t been true for all Christians throughout every period of history.

B. It isn’t true for all Christians throughout the world now.

C. A and B haven't always been because of unfaithfulness/compromise/laziness. Sometimes it has just been because of significant levels of gospel progress. (I wonder if one of the reasons white western middle class Christians might feel uncomfortable about postmill'ism is because we carry a lot of guilt about not being persecuted and fear, perhaps correctly, that this might be because we aren't being that faithful)

D. Once we’ve allowed for A-C, and if we think that the bible does predict a time when the gospel will have made such significant progress across the whole world that it can be said to have ‘conquered’, or the kingdom can be said to be the largest of all the kingdoms in the world, then it follows that persecution would be strikingly rare in some parts of the world at that time.

Or, put it another way. I imagine that after his conversion, there was a significant reduction in the persecution of Christians who (so to speak) lived on the same street as Saul of Tarsus. All postmillenialism is doing is saying that what God did to Saul of Tarsus' neighbourhood he is progressively doing (not necessarily in a linear fashion) throughout the world across history.

Sometime soon I'll blog some more about this, perhaps especially about the nature of the cross-shaped Christian life and how this is in no way incompatible with an optimistic eschatology.