Thursday, February 28, 2008

Puritan Preaching

Scattered thought arising from approximately four hours today spent discussing Puritan Preaching (material from a variety of sources).

1. Preaching puts forward the will of God from the word of God for the edification of the people of God.

2. Ministers must be bible experts, knowing the scriptures better than they know any other book.

3. Given the goal of edification, application is of most importance in preaching.

4. It is a sin to preach and have no application.

5. Application should be specific, direct, clearly arising from the teaching in question.

6. Application can console, exhort, admonish.

7. Exhortation involves spelling out the means of change as well as calling for such change.

8. Speech should be simple, and as unaffected as possible (the more affected the less effective - thanks Pete M).

9. Preaching should anticipate and deal with doubts and objections to the teaching in question.

10. Application should make listeners 'feel the word of God to be quick [i.e. alive] and powerful, and a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart' (Westminster Assembly Directory for the Publick Worship of God).

And a great quote (by a guy called Ryken, via a guy called Maclure) to round things off:
"For the Puritans, the sermon is not just hinged to Scripture; it quite literally exists inside the word of God; the text is not in the sermon but the sermon is in the text...listening to a sermon is being in the bible."

I have to admit to feeling rather like we are pygmies when we compare ourselves with these older brothers of ours. And I am a dwarf among the pygmies. Sometimes it feels like we are playing at sermons when we preach. Or half-starving the people. Or asking them to live off MacDonalds and Haribo. Or trying really hard to make the word of God boring.

But God is good, gracious, wise and sovereign. So, it must be time to pray more, devour more bible, think harder, graft longer, and focus more intently.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Against Relativism (by ER)

This is really very good.

"I need someone who will look me in the eye and tell me how to find forgiveness, because I am running out of time."

(Thanks Dave Bish)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Faith in Public Life

For Public Theology last semester we had to write a script for a ten minute talk on 'Is faith in public life good for Britain?' to be given to a mixed audience of Christians, secularists and agnostic fence-sitters (you can read about the real event this assignment was based on here). Below is my attempt. Reading it now, I'd make a couple of changes (more eschatology for a start). What I was trying to do was briefly and winsomely argue that the Christian faith ought to be the basis for public life, and that until that's the case, Christians will still love and serve in the public sphere where they legitimately can.


There are two things that us Brits are not allowed to talk about - religion and politics. Today we’re breaking all the rules by talking about both.

I have only a short amount of time, so I’ll dive straight in. I have two things I’d like to contribute to the discussion.

1. Faith and Public Life are inseparable.

Now, I am taking ‘faith’ here in a broader sense than is often used, though one that I think is actually more accurate. Possession of a faith, a system of beliefs, a way of looking at the world, a set of values and presuppositions, is common to all people. In this sense secular humanism is a faith just as much as Christianity or Buddhism are. Everyone operates on the basis of a set of beliefs about the world. I think once we’ve acknowledged that then it becomes clear that faith and public life cannot be separated. No-one can operate without presuppositions, values, a worldview, in any area of life. Someone can be inconsistent, or can dip in and out of or amalgamate several all at once – but no-one can be worldview-neutral.

Therefore, the call for ‘faith’ to be kept out of public life is really a non-starter, and a rather paradoxical one at that. In calling for a secular state, secularists are simply doing what the advocates of other worldviews have been doing for a long time with varying degrees of forcefulness, arguing that their worldview/faith is the right one for basing national public life on. Now, those who are secularists are entirely welcome to that opinion in one sense. But it can’t be claimed that secularism offers some kind of neutrality for public life. What secularists want is for people of every persuasion to adopt the values, the principles of the secularist worldview by leaving their Christianity or their Hinduism at the doors to the houses of parliament or the school gate.

This poses specific issues for Christians of course, since Christians believe (when they’re being consistent) that it is the message of Jesus Christ that provides the best basis for public life. Christians, of all people, should have massive problems with living out their faith in the private sphere of the home or church but in the public arena.

Which actually leads to my second point.

2. The Christian Faith provides a great basis for public life.

My argument is that national public life can only really work where there is a common worldview, or faith. The dream of a pluralistic state runs into problems the moment someone tries to write the constitution. A pluralist constitution would either have to be blank, in which the authority of the state is groundless and therefore tyrannical by definition, or else it could say something about everyone being right or everyone being wrong, which hardly holds promise for coherent and workable legislation. Can any state really refuse to take an ideological stance?

But I’d want to argue not just that we need a basis for public life, but that in actual fact the Christian Faith as such a basis is extremely beneficial. Because Christians believe their God to be the Creator God, the outrageous claim is that life based on Christianity is life lived according to the Maker’s just and loving standards, and therefore the best way of living, in the public as well as the private sphere.

(Of course there are historical examples of abuses in Christianity’s name. I don’t think it’s my job to make excuses for these and I wouldn’t want to try. I do think overall Christianity has brought enough prosperity, freedom, justice, to outweigh the genuine pain and sometimes horror that has been caused by some of the distortions and mistakes of its followers.) Aside from any historical arguments that can be made I want to argue that Christianity itself provides us with principles that are truly good for public life. There are many that could be highlighted (some that we are so used to enjoying we often forget their origins in Christianity), I want to briefly mention two.

a. The value of human life

Christians believe that murder, rape, violent assault, theft of property is wrong as do most people in our society. The difference is that Christian faith bases these values not on biology, evolutionary theory or the gut ‘yuk’ instinct of how distasteful such actions may seem. According to Christianity, human life is valuable because it is valued by its Creator. Human life is valuable because God makes, sustains, and preserves his creatures. Human beings are valuable because the Creator values them enough to work transforming justice and forgiveness where they’ve gone way off course. Because it teaches that God so highly values humanity, Christianity provides the basis for a society that treasures life.

b. Servant Leadership

In Christianity, leaders are servants. Leadership is not so much a position to be lorded over others, but a service to be exercised for the interests of others. This other-person-centredness flows from the very source of the faith himself – Jesus – the very epitome of ‘servant leadership’. A society following Christian principles would be led by servants not despots. That’s also why much current Christian involvement in the public square is characterised by service and love of neighbour.

Of course, us Christians would love to see our whole society voluntarily committing itself to a public life ordered on the principles of Christianity. But where that’s not the world we live in we’ll still serve, love, debate, comment, help in the public sphere alongside those who disagree with us as far as we are able and for as long as we are allowed. We’ll keep suggesting ways that the principles of our faith can benefit everyone. That’s because it’s only Christianity that provides a basis for genuinely serving those who, from a worldview perspective, might be in direct opposition to you. Because it’s only the founder of the Christian faith who gave his life for the sake of even his enemies.

Monday, February 11, 2008

"We live in a political world..." Bob Dylan once sang. And here in the UK the hoo-ha over Rowan William's comments about Sharia Law has proved that religion and politics can't really be separated.

I've posted before about this sort of stuff (see 'public theology' posts), but here and here are two recent posts by David Field saying what I'd already thought about the RW thing but in a much better way than I'd have said it.

Secondly, here's another David Field post on some lectures given at the weekend somewhat pertinent to the same issues.

Philippians 2:9-11.
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Quiet Day

Today is our annual college quiet day. But, what's so good about being quiet?

I've been (quietly) reading through the Psalms and have noticed that sometimes being placed in silence is a sign of judgment:

Let the wicked be put to shame;
let them go silently to Sheol.
[Psalm 31:17b]

Whereas, sometimes, being in the midst of noise is a great thing:

You surround me with shouts of deliverance
[Psalm 32:7b]

And sometimes making a noise is a good thing too:

Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, O righteous,
and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!
[Psalm 32:11]

Quiet times? Quiet days? Here's to a far more noisy spirituality in the future.

(But, so that I don't go overboard in this anti-quietness thing, and remember the balance of scripture, sometimes shutting up is exactly the right thing to do: Job 40:3-5)

Chuckle-headed Calvinism

The Mrs and I greatly enjoyed Doug Wilson's visit to college last night in which he shared wisdom and stories from his 30-year pastorate. He talked winsomely of his becoming a postmillenialist, a calvinist and a paedobaptist (it did happen in that order), and of his church's involvement in making Christian schooling happen.

Of course, it is unfair to boil someone's words down to mere soundbite, but there were a few memorable nuggets on offer last night (the quotations are not exact, but hopefully capture the spirit and intention of the originals):

"Whoever came up with the phrase 'limited atonement' was no doubt a theological genius, but he was a PR chucklehead."

"Christians fighting over baptism is like fighting over the ring at a wedding."

"Of all the theological shifts I've made over the years, becoming a postmillenialist was the only one that was fun."

Wilson also spoke of the need for churches that disagree to have a strong-headed partnership in the gospel, of how pastoring involves patiently leading for change in people rather than expecting instant conforming to the ideal in our heads, and of how liturgy vs emphasis on the bible is a false dichotomy. Therefore, we were encouraged, by example, to be about reforming the church and the world, by God's grace and by God-given means.

[NB. David Field puts it all a lot better than I have HERE]