Thursday, 22 January 2015

A return to regeneration, indwelling and the coming of the Spirit

Almost exactly a year ago, I began tentatively exploring the nature of belief and salvation; specifically regeneration and the indwelling of the Spirit before and after Pentecost. Briefly stated, I considered passages such as Ezekiel 36:24-28 and John 16:7, among others, which speak of a distinct difference between the pre- and post- coming of the Spirit. However, the Reformed ordo salutis (to which I subscribe) insists regeneration must occur prior to receipt of the Spirit. To state the problem briefly: if the Spirit is required in the work of regeneration and this precedes repentance in the ordo salutis, how did believers come to repentance prior to Christ's ascension when the Spirit was not present in their hearts?

You can read my three previous posts on this issue here, here and here. I last left this discussion having arrived (very tentatively) at the following conclusions: first, and never really in doubt during discussion, salvation was always by faith alone. Second, regeneration was always necessary to counter Total Depravity in both the OT and NT. Third, there appeared to be a distinction between the Spirit 'on' individuals in the OT and the Spirit 'in' believers in the NT (broadly speaking). The mechanics of how this all held together was left unclear.

I was (relatively) OK with this broad position until a recent discussion pointed out 1 Peter 1:10-11
Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and enquired carefully, enquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.
This verse appears to suggest the prophets had the Spirit of Christ indwelling their hearts prior to the coming of the Spirit himself. This sent me back to the issue for a reappraisal. Here are some further (still tentative) thoughts on this topic.

Before I go on, it's important to affirm what I uphold. Principally, I maintain salvation - in both OT and NT - was by faith alone. Similarly, I maintain the Reformed ordo salutis that Total Depravity demands regeneration by the Spirit prior to conversion. However, I want to uphold a legitimate distinction between Christ's going and the Spirit's coming. I also want to maintain a reasonable distinction between Ezekiel's comment (related to a future reality) and the present experience, at the time of writing, of OT believers.

In previous discussions, I posited the idea the Spirit may not necessarily have indwelt OT believers (though they were regenerate). The question follows: is it possible to have regeneration without indwelling? Certainly, the ordo salutis would allow for this. Further, there is no scriptural reason to insist - just because the Holy Spirit indwells believers as a sign and seal of their faith today - that excludes God's work on unbelievers prior to faith. Even in the church age, where we certainly receive the indwelling Holy Spirit, we believe regeneration occurs prior to conversion from which indwelling follows. Indeed, John 16:8-11, Titus 3:5 and James 1:18 would bear this reading out. If such is true, we have good grounds to argue regeneration occurs without indwelling (though receipt of the Spirit follows for believers today). If it is true that regeneration occurs prior to indwelling, this could readily apply to OT regeneration irrespective of their indwelling.

Given that, Jesus words in John 14:16-17 would also bear out this reading:
I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.
Notice Jesus' construction here. His disciples know the Spirit because he dwells, or abides, with you (present tense) but he will be in you (future tense). As John Hendryx helpfully points out:
This is a future tense of an indwelling. Apparently the saints of the OT enjoyed regeneration but may not have enjoyed indwelling... Regeneration and indwelling are not exactly the same for in regeneration the Spirit works to illumine our minds and renew our hearts prior to our faith in which He comes to indwell us. That pre-salvific action is not called indwelling. "WITH YOU" and "IN YOU" appear to demonstrate qualitative differences.
So, just as the OT believing Jews experienced a type and shadow of things to come, so it may be they were regenerate - that is the Spirit worked on the hearts and minds of OT believers - without indwelling their hearts. Today, the ordo salutis is largely logical (not necessarily sequential). That is, regeneration is logically prior to conversion which is logically prior to indwelling and sanctification though the latter three (broadly) occur simultaneously and end in glorification. For the OT believer, the same logical sequence would be true but regeneration and conversion happen in quick succession, whereas indwelling, sanctification and glorification may all occur later in a much more rapid succession.

There is an argument that OT believers were both regenerate and indwelt by the Spirit. Yet, this quashes any meaningful difference, as outlined in Ezekiel 36 and John 16, pre- and post- the Spirit's coming. It is often argued the difference was between a partial experience of the Spirit and the fullness after his coming, the emphasis falling upon Joel 2:28-29 and the post-Pentecost signs and wonders. However, it can't escape our notice that such things also happened in the OT. Visions and dreams were experienced and miraculous works were done as well. This doesn't really provide us with any quantitative or qualitative difference.

How then do we explain OT believers doing miraculous works and specific tasks? It seems, in the OT, the Spirit came upon people and anointed them selectively and temporarily for particular works (cf. Judges 15:141 Samuel 16:12f2 Chronicles 20:14; et al). It is notable that the Spirit of the Lord came upon Saul (1 Samuel 10:10) and yet he is widely regarded to have died in unbelief. As such, the Spirit coming upon an individual did not necessarily indicate their spiritual state. The Spirit thus moved individuals to specific acts without necessarily indwelling. Again, such causes a problem for the view that Pentecost was the dawn of the fullness of the Spirit's coming (these acts of the Spirit were occurring in the OT). 

How then do we explain verses such as Numbers 27:18; Ezekiel 2:2; 3:24; Micah 3:8Luke 1:15, 41, 671 Peter 1:10f? They are best understood as the Spirit moving these individuals at particular times for particular tasks. So, the prophets who enquired "what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating" could be read less as a reference to their ongoing, permanent indwelling and more a reference to the empowering of the Spirit at the point they were prophesying. In other words, this is a manifestation of the selective, temporary anointing of the Spirit. It does not speak to permanent indwelling but their anointing by the Spirit as prophets, spokesmen for God, whom the Spirit also anointed to write the canon.

This reading allows us to make a qualitative difference between the pre- and post- coming of the Spirit. It stops us from quashing all meaningful difference in the words of Ezekiel and Jesus. It also allows us to uphold Paul's statements in Romans that the Spirit - the same Spirit who descended on Jesus, anointed him at his baptism and on whom he relied to live out a perfect human life - will empower us to keep God's law in a way OT  believers could/did not. This reading maintains the continuity of Covenant Theology - salvation by faith alone requiring the regeneration of the Spirit of God to overcome our Total Depravity - without flattening any sense of discontinuity from when the Spirit begins to dwell in the hearts of God's people.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Are we called to ignorance and credulity?

"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." (Philippians 4:8)

Many are the verses often ripped out of context to press particular points in the church. Matthew 18:20 is one such favourite (see here), Matthew 7:1 is another and John 16:23b is often handled this way too. Ignoring the context of these verses will inevitably lead us to false application (sometimes dangerously, sometimes less so). As Don Carson has often stated, attributing the quote to his father, "a text without a context is a pretext for a proof text". The above verse, Philippians 4:8, is another such example.

This verse is rarely used in its contextless form as an encouragement to other believers. Rather, it is typically wheeled out when one party wishes to stop another from acting a particular way. Such is a shame given a plain reading of the verse, even while ignoring the wider context, suggests it was intended as an encouragement to the believers in Philippi, not a warning to stop doing something in particular.

Those who employ a contextless reading tell us to think about those things that are true, honrouable, pure, excellent, etc. That is a plain reading of the text. Therefore, they aver, it follows we are to avoid thinking about those things that are not lovely, commendable, excellent, etc. As such, they go on, anything we can deem unlovely, not commendable or less than excellent must be shunned by the believer. It is here we run into some trouble.

On such a reading, the range of things condemned as unedifying is enormous. The usual suspects in view are such "worldly" pursuits as TV, music, film and then a whole host of other things dependent on the particular hobby horses of the individual. However, what they singularly fail to take into account on their reading is the logical conclusion of this position. 

If we can only focus on what is true, any form of fiction must be discarded because it is not (and that would presumably include such classics as Pilgrim's Progress.) Pursuing regular news coverage must be ruled out. Rarely is the news commendable, excellent or worthy of praise. In fact, any thought of considering the state of the world around us must be removed from our thoughts because, though it may be true, it is not pure, excellent or always worthy of praise.

But the view must be pressed further. Evangelism suddenly becomes impossible because, as often happens when one engages with the world, conversations may be less than excellent and praise worthy. We may have to listen to views, and language, that do not equate with Paul's exhortation. Paul himself was wrong to do evangelism because he was regularly flogged, beaten, stoned or imprisoned - hardly lovely and commendable. 

Then we are faced with portions of scripture itself. What precisely is lovely, pure and worthy of praise in certain descriptive parts of Old Testament narrative? Consider (or don't, if you take this reading) passages such as Genesis 4Judges 19:22-29 or 2 Samuel 13. Of course, in their appropriate context and with proper thought, there are valuable principles to be drawn and understood. But the events themselves, that we must consider if we are to understand what God would have us learn through such passages, cannot be meditated upon if we follow this contextless reading to its logical conclusion.

This approach to Philippians 4:8 is a charter for ignorance and lack of thought. We can only really consider the lighter, fluffier parts of the Bible because they are pure, excellent, true, etc. We cannot consider, with meaningful thought, anything that is not wholly true, honourable, just, pure, excellent, etc. Engagement of any sort with the world, and worldviews apart from the Bible, are out. Even portions of scripture describing unsavoury events must also be ignored if we are not to fall foul of considering things that are fundamentally unlovely. The Bible simply does not call believers to a state of credulousness and ignorance this way.

Instead of this approach, putting the verses in context can help us out. The preceding verses, Philippians 4:4-7, are dealing with our potential for anxiety. Paul is telling us to be anxious in nothing and to bring our prayers and petitions to God with confidence. The following verses, vv-8-9, are offering a solution to our anxieties. Moreover, the only thing to truly meet all the criteria outlined by Paul in v8 is Jesus Christ himself. Thus the solution to our anxieties as Christians is to focus upon the Lord Jesus (who himself will guard our hearts) and will allow us to thus bring our prayers with confidence to the Father.

Paul's point is that Christ should be our ultimate focus. As per v4, we are to rejoice in the Lord. Thus his exhortation in v8 is to make the Lord Jesus our central focus. Where we do this, our anxieties will be cast aside and we will bring our prayers and petitions to the Father with confidence. As Sinclair Ferguson points out, in the space of 3 verses, Paul calls us to constantly rejoice in Christ and reject anxiety. He comments "the two are related; the joyful person is not likely to be dominated by anxiety; the anxiety-ridden spirit cannot be a joyful one".

Paul is not calling us to credulousness, nor ignorance, nor circling off certain activities as unlovely, lacking excellence and unworthy of praise (though such things undoubtedly do exist.) His point is that Christ should be our focus. Where he is, our anxieties certainly will not prevail. Where he is the centre of our thoughts, film, music, tv and all other manner of possible activities can be assessed rightly and hold nothing for us to fear. Such a position does not lead us to cut ourselves off from the world, or meaningful engagement with it, but rather causes us to make proper and valid assessments of the things we see around us in light of Jesus; the object of our faith, the pivot around which we assess all else and the definition of the qualities of Philippians 4:8.

Paul makes this same point in v9. He tells us to shape our thoughts and minds around the apostles teaching and to practise such things. And the focus of the apostles teaching was the person and work of Jesus Christ. If our thoughts and actions are focused upon him, our minds will be focused on the things of v8. When our minds and thoughts and actions are focused this way, we may assess all else - not in a spirit of credulity or ignorance - but in the Spirit of Christ himself, which he gives to all true believers. 

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Jesus' humanity, deity and the power of the Spirit

I posted some time ago, here and here, regarding Jesus' humanity, mission and anointing by the Spirit. It seemed to cause quite a stir in certain quarters. There was particularly some concern expressed over Bruce Ware's The Man Christ Jesus.

In my previous posts, I argued the miracles of Jesus did not prove his divinity. Rather, they proved his anointing by the Spirit for his specific mission from God. I went on to argue that Christ lived his life in the Spirit, yielding perfectly to his power, such that the works he did were not acts of his deity but were done in his humanity by the Spirit's power. It is his perfect human life accounted to all true believers and this same Spirit given to all true believers.

Following his excellent The Good God, I recently received Michael Reeves latest book Christ Our Life for Christmas. Thus far, it is excellent and can be highly recommended. One particular point pressed by Reeves is that the Son (or Word) of God never acted alone. He always worked in conjunction with the Spirit (as in Genesis 1, when the Word of God is spoken into the darkness borne by the Spirit). Reeves argues, in relation to the incarnation, "And as it had always been,so it was when the Word became flesh: he did all that he did in the power of the Spirit".

I was particularly struck by the force of his argument. He goes on to comment:
Born in the power of the Spirit, he lives and acts as a man in the power of the Spirit. At his Baptism in the Jordan, the Spirit anoints him, then sends him into the lifeless wilderness just as he had once sent him into the lifeless void in Genesis 1. Returning to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, he announced and defined his ministry in the synagogue at Nazareth using the words of Isaiah 61: 'The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour' (Luke 4:18-19). So he healed, did good, and drove out demons - all in the power of the Spirit (Matthew 12:28; Acts 10:38). Later he would offer himself up on the cross by the Spirit (Hebrews 9:14) and be raised from the dead by the power of the Spirit (Romans 8:11)
In line with Ware's argument, Reeves states "Christ shows what it is to be a human, fully alive in the Spirit. And he is the head of a new, Spirit-filled humanity: all in him share in this anointing of his".

The importance of this cannot be missed. Though the impeccability of Christ must be defended, we mustn't miss the distinction between why he couldn't sin and why he didn't sin. As God, Jesus Christ could not sin yet, in his humanity, the reason he did not sin was because of his perfect reliance upon the power of the Spirit.

It is this distinction that means Christ's perfect life, lived in the Spirit, can be fully accounted to those who believe by faith in him. If the perfect righteousness of God could simply have been accounted to us, as God, Christ's humanity would have been unnecessary. Likewise, if Christ shifted at will between his deity and humanity during his ministry, it seems there would be aspects of his perfect humanity that could not be accounted to us (as he would have lived them out under his deity). Similarly, the call to "walk as he walked" must be rendered wholly impossible because he would have walked as God, in his deity, something we can never aspire to do. Instead, in his humanity, Christ perfectly yielded to the power of the Spirit - the same spirit he gives to all those who believe by faith in him and who are united with him in his death.

It is equally why believers, who receive the Spirit upon conversion, are now able to live lives that are truly and actually pleasing to God. Not in our own power, suddenly changed to be "good", but in the work of the Spirit in our lives when we yield to his power. Thus, when we sin as believers (and we always will until we reach glory), it is not because we have no means to put sin away (as when we were unbelievers) but rather because we are not fully yielding to the power of the Spirit at work in our lives. It is a tendency to yield to the call of sin (which we could only do as unbelievers) rather than the power of the Spirit (which we are now able to do as believers).

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

A Christmas detail I've long overlooked

I have sat through dozens of carol concerts, Christmas services and festive homilies in my lifetime. I know the story of Jesus' birth, and the surrounding events, inside out. I suspect most of us who have grown up in Christian homes (or even around families that only go to church at Christmas) feel the same way. What new thing are we possibly going to hear this Christmas that we haven't heard before?

But the Bible is a wonderful book. No matter how many times you read it there is often something new to find. Yet, I am always surprised when I see something new in a passage that is particularly familiar to me. Though this is a detail that many of you have probably noted long ago (and therefore can't understand my wonder), here is something that only just struck me this year.

In Matthew's account of Jesus' birth, he writes:
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (Mt 2:7-12)
I wonder if you have seen the new thing too (which may not be new to you)? It's not the lack of mention of three wise men - everybody knows that old red herring!

Perhaps some of Matthew's following comments might help. He says in 2:16 "Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men."

Can you see it now?

I knew about Herod's command to kill all the children in Bethlehem under 2. I knew about Mary & Joseph fleeing to Egypt so they wouldn't be caught up in the melee. What I (rather unthinkingly) failed to clock was the reason for Herod's decision to aim for everyone under 2 (I know right!? How dense am I?!)

Here are two little details that I have failed to notice for the best part of 30 years. Mt 2:11 clearly tells us Jesus was found by the wise men in a house. The wise men - despite all the Christmas imagery to the contrary - were not rocking up the day Jesus was born to give him presents. Well, granted, there would be at least a few days between their visit.

But, Mt 2:16 makes clear that Herod took a while to realise he had been tricked by the wise men and sought to kill all males under 2 "according to the time he had ascertained from the wise men". In other words, the wise men were visiting Jesus up to any time within 2 years after his birth. That's why Herod goes mad and wants to kill all males in Bethlehem under 2 - this usurper could be any age within that bracket and this is the least messy option to deal with him.

Anyway, there you go, a small Christmas detail I've never really noticed. Jesus was probably just under two when the wise men saw him and Herod got after him. He wasn't in a manger, he was in a house. Life had returned to some normality (for nearly two years) before the wise men rocked up.

It's not exactly hidden away in the account at all. Staggering what an unquestioning look at Christmas imagery will do for you!

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

CofE's first female Bishop and what business is it of yours?

It cannot have escaped your notice that the Church of England have just appointed their first female bishop. Details can be found herehere or at any other newspaper you prefer. Rev'd Libby Lane has been promoted to the vacant post in the See of Stockport. Greater Manchester will no doubt see this as something of a coup, maintaining it's reputation as a liberal, progressive region. Two comments from opposite ends of the spectrum can be found here (by the Archbishop Cranmer blog) and here (from Reformation 21).

As I commented here, quite the cause of the hoopla is beyond me. Irrespective of my own position on the matter, I can entirely understand the internal machinations of Anglicanism determining this as "a time for change". I can fully comprehend those within the church wishing to see their own personal views worked out within the church itself. I can also understand the strength of feeling on both sides of the debate and the difficulties this will cause to those currently within Anglicanism who do not share the view this marks a momentous step forward. I can even grasp why those Christians outside the Anglican church would take an interest on the basis that which affects Anglicanism will affect the rest of Christendom. The idea that the little Independent Evangelical Church will in no way be affected by the decisions from within the Anglican communion is nonsense.

However, what I cannot get my head around is the desire of people outside the Anglican church - those who have no attachment to Anglicanism, involvement in other denominations who will face knock-on effects, nor even identify as Christian - who insist upon a say in church matters. It seems such people believe a church to which they don't belong, which they deemed an irrelevance long ago and for whom their decisions will have not the slightest effect on their life, ought to do what they want. It is the ecclesiastical equivalent of a Spaniard, who has never left Spain and has no link to the UK, insisting on the right to determine Home Office policy in Britain. They neither suffer nor benefit from the decision, they have no right to make that decision and yet they insist their voice must be heard in the decision-making process and, more than that, should prevail above all. Maybe I am missing something but, to me at least, it seems totally crackers!

I have no doubt there are strong, and probably majority, voices pressing for such changes within Anglicanism. Such are entitled to their position. For those less inclined to the new direction, they too are entitled to voice their views and (certainly now) face a decision as to whether to remain within the communion or to jump ship. But, of course, the predominant fanfare has come from neither of these quarters. Much has come from the mainstream media and those with little to no connection to the church, or Christianity, at all. 

At last, those underrepresented voices - the many who neither identify as Anglican, have any love for the church nor belong to other denominations for whom such decisions have knock-on effects - can rest safe in the knowledge that an institution for which they ordinarily care not one jot has finally come into line with their views. What a relief this news will be for them!

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

3 doctrines to which we assent in word but not always in practice

There are several key doctrines to which confessional evangelical churches subscribe and to which the entirety of the membership assent upon joining the church. Yet, very often, though the membership claim assent to what is written in the doctrinal basis/statement of faith, it is apparent many do not in practice really believe such things. Here are three doctrines to which we often assent but in practice do not always hold:

The sufficiency of scripture
Most evangelical church members would confess a high view of scripture and have no problem assenting to it as the final authority in matters of faith and practice. Yet, it seems to be one of those doctrines that is most commonly ignored in practice. It never ceases to amaze me when people sign up to such a doctrine in a statement of faith but fail to seek to conform their church practice, or more commonly, their own lives to scriptural principles.

I have had more than few conversations with people, over many years, who claim assent to this doctrine. Yet when it comes to matters of church practice or personal holiness, the Bible suddenly becomes subservient to whatever they happen to feel is right or what their reason tells them is appropriate. In either case, scripture is not the final authority in matters of faith and practice, one's logic or feelings on a matter become the arbiter of right and wrong. 

I was staggered when I first had a conversation with somebody about a matter of personal sin. They agreed with my interpretation of scripture; that what it said was precisely what it meant. It was equally obvious that interpretation didn't tally with their ongoing choice of action. Nevertheless, they were going to continue in their sin nonetheless because they felt it was OK - they had peace about it. That sort of action is not submitting to scripture as one's final authority in matters of faith and practice.

The work of the Holy Spirit
There is obviously some debate about the nature and extent of the work of the Holy Spirit. It is not my intention here to rehash all those arguments or even make a case for any particular view. It is not the issue of gifts and the empowerment of the Spirit for service and mission that is in view here.

Rather, on pretty much all evangelical views of the Holy Spirit - irrespective of the scope and nature of all his work - most agree that one aspect of the Spirit's work is proper understanding of scripture, conviction of sin and regeneration of true believers. This is a standard article of faith in most confessional evangelical churches. Most members are happy to assent to this position.

However, in concert with the non-practice of the sufficiency of scripture, the Holy Spirit - far from giving proper understanding of the Bible - is often reduced to a feeling which simultaneously manages to contradict scripture. The Spirit becomes a tool, not for the conviction of sin, but to press the particular desires the individual claiming the Spirit's guidance happens to hold already. The Spirit unerringly agrees with the predisposition of the person claiming his guidance, irrespective of whether it contradicts scripture or not (which the individual usually agrees was written under the inspiration of the same Spirit they now claim contradicts portions of God's word). When we don't accept the sufficiency of scripture, the work of the Spirit normally extends to guiding us in all sorts of ways that readily contradict God's word.

The doctrine of the Church
Most are happy to assent to the concept of the universal church made up of all true believers. The outworking of this for personal practice has very few implications. Members will also assent to the idea of the universal church being expressed in the local church. They will even go further and assent to local church being - as the FIEC statement of faith puts it - "congregations of believers who are committed to each other for the worship of God, the preaching of the Word, the administering of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; for pastoral care and discipline, and for evangelism."

Yet, in practice, many members are dumbfounded when the church is not keen to admit to membership those who actively refuse to commit in any meaningful way to the local body. Likewise, it is often not well received when an individual is refused membership for ignoring scriptural commands. They are similarly perturbed when the church enacts biblical discipline against members in unrepentant sin.

I was amazed when I first heard somebody insist a church at which I was a member must admit an individual who gave no credible testimony and refused to follow basic scriptural criteria (despite agreeing scripture demanded them) on the basis "their heart is right". There was no concern for the heart of the individual to follow scripture nor for the individual to give a clear testimony of how they came into a relationship with Christ. On another occasion, I recall an individual seeking membership despite stating outright they didn't always fancy coming to church, attending Sunday or midweek meetings and often didn't really want to spend time with other believers in the church. They were flabbergasted - despite assenting to the view of local church above - this view didn't really fit.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Extremism, free speech and mother's logic

Sir Peter Fahy - Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police - has today voiced concerns that Britain is in danger of becoming a police state. His comments, reported in the Guardian, come in the wake of Theresa May's recent advocation of Extremism Disruption Orders (EDOs). Fundamentally, he believes the police are being asked to increasingly define and determine extremism rather than being asked to enforce a clear set of guidelines. This blog has previously commented on this issue here and here.

Sir Peter is concerned that police constables are having to make snap decisions about what does, and does not, constitute extremism. He cites several examples in which it is less than ideal for police officers to make spur of the moment judgments on whether an incident must be considered extremist. Whilst he states his support for EDOs, he argues the definition of extremism and extremist behaviour ought to be determined by other members of civic society. In effect, he suggests the police ought to be told what constitutes extremism and then given the task of enforcing such parameters.

It is certainly true that the police are increasingly asked to go beyond mere law enforcement. At a basic level, they make legal interpretations - whether within a clear set of guidelines or not - that are routinely not borne out in the courts. There have been several examples of police arresting street preachers, protestors and others under the guise of 'extremism' or 'hate speech' that subsequently never led to charges or were thrown out of court. So current efforts to interpret the law are not going terribly well and to ask the police to now define the law on the spot is unlikely to go any better.

Fahy said government, academics and civil society needed to decide where the line fell between free speech and extremism. But this is rather troubling. Why need there be a line between free speech and extremism? Surely the very nature of free speech is that it is free, extreme or otherwise. If we begin drawing lines around acceptable words, we are on the fast track to only being allowed to utter state authorised orthodoxies. Free speech and free debate are disallowed under such a system.

Fahy is right that police shouldn't be about enforcing what can and can't be said. Sadly, he is wrong that such should be the preserve of others in civic society. We already have laws against violence, harrassment, terrorism and the rest. Such actions are dangerous and are rightly controlled. Speech does not cause such actions. Even in cases of an individual "inciting" violence, it is the one who makes effort and plans to carry out the act who should be found guilty. Unless there is some evidence of coercion and duress, it's difficult to see how speech can be held accountable. 

Most of us can surely remember a time, as I certainly can, when we responded to parental punishment with the enduring line "but he told me to". I can also recall my mother's incredulity and typical response (as I'm sure I employed it more than once) "if he told you to stick your hand in the fire, would you do that too?" 

Sadly, it seems, the government no longer take such a sensible line. Now, according to government, the one who even suggests a course of action is guilty. Worse yet, most will not suggest a specific course of action but will talk in generalities around a point. So now, even if they only infer or suggest an action, they may be guilty. Indeed, they may neither infer nor suggest but build a framework within which one might conceivably draw a personal conclusion to act. For such they would be guilty too.

I think I prefer my mother's logic.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

God, Utilitarianism & Deontological Ethics

I have been struck by two interesting (almost certainly not original) thoughts. The first is clear and obvious: God's law exists for our benefit. Though it shows how sinful we are, when we receive his Spirit we are capable of keeping it with the Spirit's help. As such, our actions can be deemed good or bad according to whether we are living in line with his divine decrees. In essence, God calls us to live under a framework of deontological ethics.

According to Kantian deontological ethics, consequences do not determine whether an action is morally good. Rather, good actions are determined by individual motives which are borne out of adherence to universal morals. For Kant, a good will and right motive determines whether an action is good, not the consequences of the action itself. In simple terms, Kant argues for a model of personal integrity. He says individuals should only act (1) according to laws they wish to be universal and (2) treating humanity as an end, not merely a means. This is a remarkably similar statement to Jesus' "Golden Rule" in Luke 6:31 and his comments in Matthew 22:39. It is little wonder then that many deontological ethicists are moral absolutists and often hold to Divine Command Theory.

That God's word calls us to personal integrity, based upon the moral law (summarised in the 10 Commandments), is clear enough. The Penal Substitution model of atonement encourages a guilt-righteousness worldview. All are personally guilty of breaking God's moral law - and thus liable to judgment - and are only counted personally righteous once found in Christ. On this view, our guilt is determined by our ability to keep God's moral law. Our actions are only morally good when motivated by a desire to keep God's law and when we positively manage to do so.

The second thought, in contrast to the first, is that God (in a sense) is the ultimate utilitarian. If Divine Command Theory is to be believed, an action is only morally right when God decrees it morally right. But this means God cannot himself be held to a Kantian ethical model because he is not governed by any external moral law. His motives cannot be judged according to a set rule because he sets the rules. Though his law flows from his divine character, God's goodness is not determined by adherence to a prescribed list of rules. Rather, his goodness is essential to his nature thus he cannot be deemed good according to Kantian ethics.

If we dispense with the Benthamite terminology of 'the greatest happiness principle', it is possible to see that God works for the greatest ultimate good of mankind (a fundamentally utilitarian view). God's greatest desire is that all men everywhere be saved. On both the Calvinist and Molinist views, God has ordered the world such that the greatest possible number of people will freely choose to turn to him. Both the Calvinist and Molinist views differ on the mechanics and order of how he does that, and more fundamentally over the nature of what constitutes freedom, but they do both agree God orders events to win the greatest number freely to himself (1). In essence, God seeks to implement the greatest possible amount of good by his activity in the world.

It is also clear from scripture that God orders the events of the world to work out his greater plan. He orchestrates good and restrains evil to achieve his purposes. He permits - without being the author of - sin and wrongdoing where such will serve his ultimate glory. Plenty of examples can cited from scripture, such as the story of Joseph or the roles of Daniel or Esther during periods of judgment for Israel/Judah, but is seen most clearly through Jesus Christ's death on the cross. A gross act of sin and injustice on the part of those who tried and crucified him. Yet, this was an act of sin permitted by God and determined before the foundation of the world, to achieve his greater salvific purposes. God ordered the act, without being the author of the sin, to achieve his good ends.

So why does God, who appears to be the ultimate utilitarian, demand that those who trust him follow a deontological system of ethics? It is specifically because God is the ultimate utilitarian that deontological ethics are necessary for his followers. Because God is omniscient - holding knowledge not only of all actual events but also of all possible events - he can see how each universal event, from the greatest to the smallest, can work for ultimate good. Further, because God is God, he alone can determine, without interpretative fallibility, those actions that can truly be deemed good and those which are objectively bad. 

As mere human beings, our subjective attempts to determine ultimate good are liable to fail as we cannot see the bigger picture and only know good from bad as a result of God's divine command and general revelation. God requires a deontological ethic of his followers because we cannot truly determine utilitarian principles. God is the ultimate utilitarian because he is the only one in any position to determine the greatest possible good. Our subjective attempts to figure that out will fail because we cannot see the bigger picture and have no knowledge of future possible events (and subsequent consequences). God, on the other hand, is perfectly capable of this and in his sovereign goodness divinely decrees those good actions that will work for the greatest possible good. In such circumstances as individuals fail to obey his divine decrees, it is only because God has permitted their disobedience to bring about an even greater good as part of his ultimate plan of redemption in Christ.

Utilitarianism fails at a human level. We cannot possibly know what actions will bring about the greatest good. The only one who can truly know this is God himself. He gives us divine commands and orders the world so the greatest possible good may come about. He calls us to live under a deontological framework of ethics because to do anything else would result in sub-optimal goodness. 

In layman's terms: if we're charged with bringing about the best of all possible worlds, we'd make a right hash of it. God gives us good commands because he knows (a) what is ultimately good and (b) what direction we need in order to attain it.

  1. For a more full discussion of these issues see herehere and here. For further reading see William Lane Craig's book The Only Wise God, Bruce Ware's God's Greater Glory and John Frame's Doctrine of the Knowledge of God

Thursday, 27 November 2014

How do you sell God in the 21st Century? More Heaven; less Hell

I came across this article in today's Guardian online. The piece recounts a conservative Evangelical journey away from their faith. It outlines the story of somebody growing up in an Evangelical baptist family, going to Moody Bible Institute (a conservative, Evangelical seminary), engaged in evangelism and yet becoming increasingly disaffected with theodicy and theology of Hell. In many ways, it is a common story of an Evangelical unable to square what they see in scripture, the apologetic arguments and theology they are taught and their own internal sense of what is just, fair, moral and right. Though lengthy, the article is certainly worth reading.

Nevertheless, the article's emphasis isn't really autobiographical. The writer isn't ultimately trying to share how they became disaffected with Evangelicalism (though they do share that and do so - in my view - in a way that still exhibits fondness for Evangelicals if not for Evangelicalism nor Evangelical theology.) Rather, the writer is trying to address why the perception of Hell - and certainly the formulation of the doctrine of Hell at a popular level - has changed over time.

The article contends that 30 years ago - whilst the writer was growing up in Evangelical baptist circles - Hell was taught in, what would now be considered, an anachronistic way. It was all fire and brimstone, eternal torment and attempts to scare folk into Heaven. It notes a shift in emphasis, focusing on the preaching and writing of Bill Hybels, toward less of a focus on Hell itself. Certainly when Hell was mentioned, it was brought into focus by empathetic appeals to sin and evil existing in all people. The writer then considers how this has changed again, focusing on the writing of Rob Bell. It argues Hell is now either (a) something to be experienced here on Earth; or, (b) a purgatorial refinement leading to ultimate, universal reconciliation and the end of Hell itself.

The article misses the mark in various respects. Principally, it argues the way to avoid Hell, according to protestant Evangelical theology, is to say the sinner's prayer. It states "For contemporary evangelicals, it’s solely this act that separates the sheep from the goats." Though there are undoubtedly people who hold this view, most at a personal level, it is not mainstream Evangelical belief. 

Paul Washer, a well-known conservative Evangelical couldn't be clearer when he states "We call men to repent and believe. And if they repent and believe, truly in that moment they are saved in that moment. But the evidence is more than just the sincerity of a prayer. It is a continuation of the working of God in their life through sanctification." He has also argued "We have taken that truth [that if you truly believe and you confess Christ, even if it costs you your life, you will be saved]… we have taken that beautiful truth and reduced it down to, “If you pray a little prayer before a bunch of people in a church in America, you can be guaranteed you were saved if you think you were sincere.”"

Denny Burk - Professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College (Southern Baptist seminary) and associate pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church - has published this comment by David Platt - president of the International Missions Board, the mission agency of the Southern Baptists (a conservative Evangelical denomination). Platt states:
Do I believe it is “wrong” for someone to pray a “prayer of salvation”? Certainly not. Calling out to God in prayer with repentant faith is fundamental to being saved (Romans 10:9-10). Yet as I pastor a local church and serve alongside pastors of other local churches, I sense reasonably serious concern about the relatively large number of baptisms in our churches that are “re-baptisms”—often representing people who thought they were saved because they prayed a certain prayer, but they lacked a biblical understanding of salvation and were in reality not saved. This, in addition to a rampant easy believism that marks cultural Christianity in our context (and in other parts of the world), leads me to urge us, as we go to all people among all nations with the good news of God’s love, to be both evangelistically zealous and biblically clear at the same time (Matthew 28:18-20).
Plenty of other conservative Evangelicals can be found stating categorically that nobody is saved simply because they prayed a "sinner's prayer". Though a prayer of repentance may be an outward expression of the repentance that has already taken place in the heart of a believer, it is this ongoing state of repentance and trust in Christ's atoning work that saves.

However, the article is helpful in pinpointing where the boundaries of belief lie. It quite rightly sees the arguments advanced by Rob Bell as demonstrating "the potential pitfalls of the church’s desire to distance itself too quickly from fire and brimstone." As the writer comments:
Bell claims to address the exact theological problem that motivated me to leave the faith, but rather than offer a new understanding of the doctrine, he offers up a Disneyesque vision of humanity, one that is wholly incompatible with the language biblical authors use to speak about good and evil. Along with hell, the new evangelical leaders threaten to jettison the very notion of human depravity – a fundamental Christian truth upon which the entire salvation narrative hinges.
The issues for the writer were plain enough. The Bible teaches the doctrine of Hell. An internal sense of that which is just and merciful couldn't accept the doctrine of Hell. One either accepts the teaching of the Bible or rejects it. Bell's attempts at "disneyfying" the doctrine seemed too hollow and shallow for credible belief.

What the article helpfully states in the clearest terms is the following:
what made church such a powerful experience for me as a child and a young adult was that it was the one place where my own faults and failings were recognised and accepted, where people referred to themselves affectionately as “sinners”, where it was taken as a given that the person standing in the pews beside you was morally fallible, but still you held hands and lifted your voice with hers as you worshipped in song. This camaraderie came from a collective understanding of evil – a belief that each person harboured within them a potential for sin and deserved, despite it, divine grace. It’s this notion of shared fallibility that lent Hybels’s 9/11 sermon its power, as he suggested that his own longing for revenge was only a difference of degree – not of kind – from the acts of the terrorists.
Without a clear and defined understanding of the doctrine of Hell the message of the gospel is liable to be lost. No amount of rebranding is going to help. For a reformulation of the doctrine of Hell means the gospel, the message of salvation in Christ, ultimately loses its power. No Hell soon leads to a watered down, or non-existent, statement of sin. No sin means no need of salvation. No need of salvation means no need of Christ. No need of Christ makes Jesus a pitiable character indeed.

Efforts to rebrand Hell, or to push it to the sidelines, are misguided at best. That is not to say our preaching must be fire and brimstone every week. Nor is it to say Hell must be the centre of all our gospel presentations. It is to say, that to pretend it doesn't exist or to speak of it in such ways as it seems little more than trifling irritant - like a small wart on God's created order - is to undermine the gospel.

A right view of sin - to see it as God sees it - lends credence to the existence of Hell. To do anything other than present Hell as scripture presents it damages our understanding of sin, salvation and the work of Christ. Whatever else the article made clear, it is apparent that changes to the doctrine of Hell were ultimately unconvincing and - despite the title of the piece - more Heaven and less Hell doesn't do much to win anybody. If anything, it undermines the achievement of Jesus on the cross and the reality of our standing before a holy God.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

3 things my 1 year old son has taught me about God

This last week, on the 13th November, my son turned 1. During this time, I have learnt an enormous amount - far more than during my theological studies - about God and myself. It is not that I didn't know these things before but they have become more real, and painfully obvious, to me since becoming a father. And, of course, it is no coincidence God is cast as a Father in scripture. There are a whole ream of things I could share but here are three things my son has taught me about God and myself this year:

God is always faithful; I am impatient and lack trust
Even this morning, my son and I went through our usual routine. I got him up and dressed - during which he played and was incredibly happy. I took him downstairs and poured some milk into his bottle (at which his eyes lit up). I took the bottle over to the microwave to warm it for 30 seconds. It was then he decided to get angry. This is a daily occurrence.

Clement loves his food. He doesn't tantrum a lot (praise God) but, when he does, it is usually over food and drink. Either he wants some, wants more or wants it quicker. This morning, when he got angry, I said to him "I get you your milk every morning, warm it and have never yet failed to give it to you. What do you think is going to happen?" Lo and behold, when the milk appeared again, Clem had his bottle and all was once again well.

It was a poignant reminder that God has never yet failed to sustain or uphold me, even during times of difficulty. He has never once failed to deliver on his promises and has, over the course of my life, given me all sorts of things which I acknowledge come from him and for which I thank him. Yet, so often, I throw little tantrums of my own effectively questioning whether God will give me this or that. They are the sort of things he hasn't yet failed to give me, so I have no reason to doubt he won't give them to me now, but so often I do. I am either impatient, wanting them now, or question that he will give them to me at all. My son has taught me the truth of Mt 7:11.

God wants my good; I am defiant
It is undoubtedly true that Clem knows the difference between right and wrong. Not all right and wrong but certainly he knows what 'no' means. I know this because sometimes, when I say no, he turns around and stops batting the thing he was touching. Equally, I know he is defiant because sometimes, when I say no, he turns around with a big grin and sticks his hand straight back on the front of the fireplace we have repeatedly told him not to touch.

Most of the time, my son's desire to touch stuff is irksome rather than grievous. He has a mountain of toys we use to distract him. The toys are eminently more fun than touching the tivo box or poking a plug socket. Nevertheless, toys become boring compared to the sheer delight of doing something he knows he shouldn't. The actual value of that decision, objectively speaking, is minimal (touching a glass front on a fireplace really isn't that exciting!) But the very act of defiance is what makes it appealing. What he doesn't realise is when we ask him not to touch the fire we aren't out to spoil his fun. Rather, it is something for his own good.

Every time I say no to Clem (especially when he defies me), I am reminded of how gracious God is to me. He has given me all sorts of good things to enjoy in the world. Yet, often, I think the most appealing things are those to which he says 'no'. When I pursue them, their value turns out to be minimal - or, more usually, detrimental - to me. Yet, pursue them I do. Rico Tice, in Christianity Explored, gives the example of a beach in Australia with signs up saying "Beware! Sharks." We have to ask whether the signs are there for our own good or simply to spoil our fun. In the same way, we must ask whether God's word is there to stop us enjoying ourselves or if he intends it for our good. When he says no, it is always for our benefit. When we defy him, just like my son, we say we know better and touching a fire seems like a good idea.

God loves me; I question his care
When my son does what he shouldn't, discipline usually follows. Typically, this involves some sort of "time out" or being held so he can't play. It is inevitably accompanied by tears and screams as he hates being stopped from doing what he wants (even if what he wants is eminently stupid!)

Now, I don't stop loving my son when he defies me. I'm certainly not full of hate and contempt when I discipline him. Usually, especially given his age, his little acts of defiance are little more than a bit irritating. Often, it's not even that - it's just a bad habit for him to get into (such as touching the fire). The discipline is a corrective measure more often than not. It is occasionally meant as a punishment too but, even in those circumstances, is a corrective to his behaviour. To leave him to it, and ignore behaviours that I know will be destructive, would be a surefire sign that I don't love or even care about my son.

In the same way, I am reminded how much God loves me. Not only has he given me a world to enjoy and his word for my good but he also disciplines out of love. Both Proverbs 3:11f and Hebrews 12:3-17 make this truth clear. His discipline is a sign that we are his children. Though no discipline is pleasant at the time, as the writer to the Hebrews says, "it later yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it". God disciplines his children out of love just as I do my son. He does it to train us, to refine our characters where they need refining. To enact no discipline when we err would be to suggest we are illegitimate sons - one's whom he doesn't really care for at all. Discipline is for the good of the one being disciplined and is a sign of love and care. It is a sign of wanting the best and seeking to stop destructive behaviours (1).


  1. The same applies in the church. Church discipline is a sign of love and care for an individual. To enact no discipline is to suggest we don't care about destructive behaviours for them or the church