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Sunday, 20 April 2014

The resurrection and the grounds of Christian hope

Good Friday is the day we remember the death of Christ. As I commented here, the cross is neither the object of our faith nor the basis of our hope. Rather, it is the place at which Jesus fulfilled the work of his mission and secured the salvation of all who believe in him.

Easter Sunday is the day we remember the resurrection of Christ. Unlike the cross, the resurrection is the basis of Christian hope. In Romans 8:24, Paul reminds us "hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?" As such, the Christian hope is by definition some future event or happening for which we wait.

As Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:20 "Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep". Firstfruits signal the start of a harvest and prove there is more fruit on the way. If Jesus' is the firstfruits of those who have died, his resurrection must signal more of the same to come. The resurrection acts as God's pledge to all believers that they will be raised to glory. Jesus rose as the firstfruits of the resurrection of all believers to come. According to Paul, the basis of our hope rests on the historical event of Jesus' resurrection.

If one can disprove the resurrection, one can destroy the Christian faith. Christian belief rests on the historical resurrection of Jesus. Without it, there is no future hope. Jesus did not rise, he is not in glory and  no believer is going to be there with him for eternity. Evidently, this is what the apostles themselves recognised when they returned to the very jobs from which Jesus first called them in the aftermath of the crucifixion.

The question that remains is this: what best accounts for the empty tomb? What best accounts for the sudden emergence of the Christian church? What best accounts for the willingness of the dejected followers of Jesus suddenly being willing to die for a faith based solely on the resurrection of their Lord? 

The evidence for the resurrection is quite astounding. The points of agreement among scholars on the basic historic facts surrounding the resurrection are enormous (see here for an outline of this). If the answer to the above questions is that Jesus actually, bodily rose from the dead then Christians have remarkable grounds for their current faith and future hope.

Friday, 18 April 2014

The nature of the cross and why Good Friday is still good

In an article I read recently, it was pointed out - via the questions surrounding when Christian was saved in Pilgrim's Progress - that we are not saved by the cross. Having outlined his position on when and where Christian was saved (at the wicket gate, if you are interested), the author states:
“Are you saying that someone can be saved without the cross?” a concerned student asks.
“No,” I answer, “No one can be saved apart from what Jesus accomplished on the cross, but the Bible proclaims that a person gets saved when he receives Christ, and the Bible does not say that a person gets saved through believing that Jesus died for him. Christ himself is the proper object of saving faith, not some part of his work.”
The author rightly goes on to say: 
virtually everyone has been told that if he will believe that Jesus died for him, he will be saved, but I repeat: this is not found in the Bible. A person is saved not when he believes in right doctrine (substitutionary, penal atonement, in this case) but a person is saved when he believes in the right person, namely Christ. So the object of saving faith is not a doctrine but a person. Christ himself is the treasure chest of salvation. Receive him, and you receive all that is in him.
The article correctly notes that penal substitution is a vital, indispensable part of the gospel. However, it is not the whole gospel and it is not through proper understanding of this doctrine that one is saved. In short, "all who receive Christ the risen Lord as Lord and Savior are saved".

It is also worth noting that none of the apostles seem to ground their hope in the cross either. Their hope seems to rest, not on the cross but, on the resurrection event. So, the cross is neither the object of salvation nor the basis of Christian hope.

Before we go throwing out Good Friday and ignoring Jesus' death altogether, here is why the cross is vitally important and Good Friday is still good. Despite the cross neither being the object of our faith nor the basis of our future hope, the cross is where Jesus ultimately and finally secured our salvation. The cross is the place whereby Jesus paid the penalty for sin, once for all, and completed the mission for which he came. At the cross, the price for sin had been paid, the debt cleared and - unbeknownst to them at the time - the salvation of all believers finally secured.

Although our future hope is not based upon Jesus' work of the cross (more of which on Sunday), without the cross our salvation would not, and could not, exist. The cross is of vital importance because it marks the point in salvation-history at which God punished, in himself, the sins of those for whom Christ died. The cross is neither the object of our salvation, nor the basis of our hope, but there would certainly be no salvation without it. 

That is why Good Friday remains good.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

A collection of snippets from the interweb

Here are several posts, articles and videos that seem worth a moment of your time:

Schreiner on the New Perspective on Paul - "the Reformers were fundamentally right. What Luther and Calvin said in their day was a right understanding of Paul. They had a good and right understanding of the gospel."

The Church needs Philosophy which, likewise, needs the Church - "if history teaches us anything, it is that we are fickle. We are too easily tossed to and fro by the winds of popular culture, base appetites, and short memories. We need to take the long view, and now, because of the influence of prominent Christian philosophers such as Dallas Willard, Alvin Plantinga, and William Lane Craig it is a good time to remind the church of the usefulness, indeed the necessity, of philosophy in service to Christ."

When is Christian saved in Pilgrim's Progress? - One of my favourite books, through which I was saved. A must read for all Christians (and, preferably, unbelievers too). Nonetheless, a problem has plagued many, including Spurgeon, in that Christian's burden only rolls away at the foot of the cross despite having already entered the wicket gate. So, was Christian saved at the gate or the cross? Spurgeon said of Bunyan: "“If he meant to show what usually happens, he was right; but if he meant to show what ought to have happened, he was wrong.” Was Spurgeon right or had Bunyan something else in mind?

Why moralism is not the gospel - Al Mohler talks through the difference between moralism and the gospel message. "We are justified by faith alone, saved by grace alone, and redeemed from our sin by Christ alone. Moralism produces sinners who are (potentially) better behaved. The Gospel of Christ transforms sinners into the adopted sons and daughters of God."

Friday, 4 April 2014

Why on earth are evangelical statements of this kind treated differently?

I was surprised to read in today's Guardian two particularly good comments, within the same article, by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Here, Justin Welby outlined the difficult position in which the Anglican Communion finds itself regarding gay marriage.

The first comment, which really outlines the difficult position, was the headline of the article. Welby suggested that African believers will be killed if the CofE accepts gay marriage. He told of the mass grave he had seen in Nigeria of 330 Christians who had been killed by their neighbours. He said this atrocity was justified by those who committed it this way: "If we leave a Christian community here we will all be made to become homosexual and so we will kill all the Christians".

Welby went on to say "I have stood by gravesides in Africa of a group of Christians who had been attacked because of something that had happened in America. We have to listen to that. We have to be aware of the fact". If the Church of England celebrated gay marriages, he added, "the impact of that on Christians far from here, in South Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria and other places would be absolutely catastrophic. Everything we say here goes round the world".

Welby is right to outline this issue. The Anglican Church does not operate in a Western Liberal bubble and its pronouncements are felt across the world. Moreover, it is not only those who subscribe to Anglicanism who are affected. All Christians will feel the brunt of their decisions and statements, irrespective of whether they themselves are Anglican communicants. Most people do not have enough theological nuance to differentiate between denominations and theological views. Typically, whether believers like it or not, Anglicanism is seen as the authentic voice of Christianity across the world. As such, not only do CofE pronouncements affect Anglican believers, they have knock-on effects for all Christians, especially those in countries in which Christianity is less than welcome.

However, the far more interesting part of the article came later, almost as an aside. The article stated:
Welby also condemned homophobia in England. "To treat every human being with equal importance and dignity is a fundamental part of being a Christian," he said. Although he continued to uphold what he called the historic position of the church, of "sex only within marriage and marriage only between a man and a woman", he agreed with the presenter, James O'Brien, that it was "completely unacceptable" for the church to condemn homosexual people more than adulterous heterosexual people.
This is the closest statement to the scriptural position on gay marriage I have seen from the Archbishop and it was this that caught my attention. 

As a caveat, I appreciate there are some fundamentalist, and fewer evangelical, churches who would not frame the Christian position in this way. There are those who would major on homosexuality in a thoroughly unhelpful (and unbiblical?) way. I also appreciate there are those who, though they would make similar comments, say and do a series of other things that rather undermine their stated position. Again, however, I think these churches are in the minority within both fundamentalist and evangelical circles.

This was the thing that interested me most. The Guardian, the paper most likely to cry foul play on this issue, reported fairly that the Archbishop "condemned homophobia". They rightly stated the scriptural position that all people should be treated with dignity and respect - irrespective of whatever sin they may have committed - as "a fundamental part of being a Christian". All of this was stated alongside the clear view of the Archbishop that sex is for marriage between a man and a woman but that it is nevertheless wrong to condemn homosexual behaviour more than adulterous heterosexual behaviour. All of that, I completely endorse.

Why then, given the Archbishop of Canterbury was deemed - by the Guardian no less - to have "condemned homophobia", do evangelicals who make exactly the same case get castigated as homophobic? Almost every evangelical church I have known (with few exceptions), would state the position of scripture and their individual, independent churches in almost exactly those terms. 

Recently, evangelical writer and rector of St Ebbes, Oxford - Vaughan Roberts - expressed precisely this view in an interview for Evangelical Now, as well as in his book Battles Christians FaceIn both interview and book, he bravely spoke of his own personal struggle with same-sex attraction. Other evangelical writers have written similar articles and books making much the same case. It simply beggars belief that this statement from the Archbishop of Canterbury can be deemed to condemn homophobia whilst nigh on identical statements from evangelical quarters are roundly condemned as homophobic.

If the scriptural position stated by Justin Welby is recognised as condemning homophobia, continual claims of evangelical homophobia need to be addressed. If it be homophobic to call homosexual acts (whilst still respecting the rights and dignity of those attracted to people of the same-sex) sinful, in precisely the same way as calling adulterous heterosexuality (whilst still respecting the rights and dignity of those people) sinful, then it is hard to see how Justin Welby's comments escape this charge. If, however, the scriptural view is not deemed fundamentally homophobic - that all people irrespective of the particular sins they commit (of which, we all commit some) are worthy of dignity and respect but that any sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage does amount to sin - then Justin Welby, the CofE and the majority of evangelical churches cannot, and should not, be labelled uniformly homophobic.

I would love it if this signals a change in media reporting. I would be delighted if this means the genuine nuances of the scriptural view, and majority position within evangelicalism, are reported fairly. It would be great if Christians are not simply denounced as homophobic when they differentiate the choice to commit homosexual acts from the homosexual people who do not choose to be attracted to people of the same-sex. This is exactly the same as the differentiation between the heterosexual people who do not choose to be attracted to people of the opposite sex but do choose when, and with whom, to engage in sexual activity. 

When evangelicals speak of homosexuality as sinful, they rarely mean same-sex attraction is of itself sinful, intentional and chosen. I hope these nuances are reported fairly and this marks a sea-change in the way evangelical, and broader Christian, views of homosexuality are seen in the media and the public square. I hope this is the case but I shan't hold my breath.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Christian parenting and emotional abuse

The Guardian report that the government are seeking to implement a law that would see parents face jail for harming a child's "physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development". In a column in the same paper, Oliver James - author of Not in Your Genes: The Truth About the Findings of the Human Genome Project - has offered a comment here explaining why he believes this is a good move. In truth, this move strikes me as more than a little troubling.

There are some things to which most normal, sensible people who function as good citizens will assent. One such thing is that the physical and emotional abuse of children is a terrible thing. Good Christians should assent to this too since Paul tells parents to love, and not to provoke, our children (Eph 6:4; Col 3:21; Ti 2:4).

Whilst most people can spot the obvious extremes, the boundaries of that which constitutes physical child abuse are a little hazy and the cause of some debate (is smacking abusive? What level of force is acceptable? is any physical chastisement acceptable?). Across most of Europe, the answer to that last question comes in the form of a definite 'no'. In Britain, the edges are a bit more fuzzy. Regardless of our personal opinions on such questions, if we are unclear on that which constitutes physical abuse, how on earth are we supposed to navigate that which constitutes "intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural" abuse?

Though these questions are tricky, as with physical abuse, legislation and case law will draw the line somewhere. In respect to the physical, the furthest the line may be drawn would be to say all forms of physical chastisement represent abuse. At worst, this would mean any use of force - no matter how minor - could be forbidden. In reality, this would simply amount to a ban on open-hand smacking which, at the risk of alienating some christian readers, is not an attack on scripture, christian parenting nor a major undermining of all discipline.

However, what concerns me most about these new proposals is precisely where does one draw the line in respect to emotional, intellectual, social and behavioural abuse? Of course, as with physical abuse, most of us could point out extreme examples. Of course, extreme behaviour being what it is, most people are not engaging in it. Where the issue lies is in the fuzzy edges - where exactly do the boundaries of intellectual, emotional, social and behavioural abuse begin?

If the writing and twitter ranting of Richard Dawkins is to be heeded, then all forms of religious upbringing are most definitely included. If the writing and twitter ranting of some adherents of religion are to be heeded, all beliefs apart from their own are included. Similarly, some ardent political activists are bound to shout indoctrination at any child brought up under the oppressive views of competing political theories. All of that is before we even get to those confused notions of tolerance that will tolerate anything but intolerance and would castigate all as abusive who do not assent to the acceptance of culturally approved views.

Nobody should want to see a child emotionally abused any more than they should want to see one physically abused. My concern is that, in a no doubt well meaning attempt to address particular noxious behaviours, we inadvertently (or, if one is to be cynical, actively) proscribe certain beliefs and views as abusive that are no such thing. Indeed, that which is abusive may well change in accordance with the cultural zeitgeist. 

If it is unpalatable for the church to speak negatively of homosexuality, one can only presume that to hold to the scriptural teaching on this issue in the family will be deemed emotionally abusive. To not allow your child to indulge all the sinful desires of their heart, no matter how deeply felt, could this in turn be deemed abusive? In truth, as potential parenting problems go, for Christians this is far bigger than any sort of ban on smacking.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Gay Marriage (again)

It was reported in Tuesday's Telegraph that UKIP would "strip Christian weddings of their legal status". Similarly, ten days earlier, Simon Hughes - Liberal Democrat justice minister - said Christian wedding ceremonies "should have no legal status". In both cases, an argument was advanced for the separation of Church and State. Under such rules, all religious groups (not just Christians) would be expected to undertake two ceremonies: a state-recognised marriage followed by a religious ceremony if the couple wish. Hughes argued "you would have a ceremony by which the state recognises the marriage, the wedding, and then the faith community has the ceremony which gives that the authority”. The Archbishop Cranmer blog has commented on the UKIP story here whilst The Christian Institute report on Simon Hughes' comments here.

This blog has made no secret of its position on either Church/State separation (see here, here & here) or gay marriage (see here & here). Rather unusually, one finds oneself in agreement with both UKIP and the Liberal Democrats simultaneously.

For Cranmer, the issue revolves around the disestablishment of the Church of England coupled to his rampant Euro-scepticism. The position espoused by Farage and Hughes would necessitate the disestablishment of the state church which, to His Grace, would be anathema. For the Christian Institute, much of the issue revolves around parity for homosexual marriage. Having previously denounced civil partnerships as "gay marriage in all but name" (see here & here), it is difficult for them to maintain "although the media and some homosexuals like to call civil partnerships ‘gay marriages’, they are not marriages in law or in reality" as they have since tried (see here). Their argument revolves around the existence of civil partnerships which, they claim, make gay marriage null and void. In truth, the objection is less about legal parity as cultural equality, an issue on which the boat sailed some while ago.

For the Christian, it is always difficult to work one's faith out in the public square. What are the issues on which we ought to legislate? Should we seek to implement scriptural commands in civil law? If so, which? How far do we allow for cultural mores that seem antithetical to scripture? Before we can answer the questions surrounding gay marriage, we must first address these basic first principles (my attempt to answer some of these can be read here). 

The non-conformist, dissenting tradition to which I belong has a long history of seeking freedom as a disenfranchised group. How sad it is that many now view evangelicals, most of whom belong to this camp, as limiting to themselves the freedoms for which they fought bitter battles. It is equally unfortunate that those who holds such views often fail to recognise it is precisely those battles won long ago that allow minority groups the freedom to campaign for their own interests over and against the opinion of many evangelicals.

On the issue of gay marriage, the proposals outlined by Farage and Hughes provide an opportunity for Christians to support another minority group's right to freedom (as we ourselves would expect from others) whilst maintaining a clear, scriptural view of the issue at hand. The State may grant legal, contractual living agreements to whomever it will whilst, with the separation of Church and State, the Church may provide ceremonies for whomever it will too. This solution removes discrimination at state level, the absurdity of certain churches forbidden to carry out ceremonies against their wishes whilst affording no protection to those who cannot countenance carrying them out, and grants legal parity to all whilst making provision for each to carry out their marriage (both institution and individual) in the manner befitting their belief and culture.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Ought we to fast for lent?

It is clear that a number of good Christian men have advocated the practice of fasting. Luther, Calvin and Wesley all advocated fasting as part of their Christian walk. More recently, John Piper has argued here in favour of making this an ongoing practice. 

However, Zwingli - who was not averse to disagreeing with Luther (cf. the Marburg Colloquy) - opposed fasting during lent, defending his co-workers during the "affair of the sausages"! Similarly, George Wischart rejected the practice of fasting. More recently, Curtis Mitchell has argued here that private fasting may be permissible but is not commanded, required or necessary. Rather, it is a legitimate but unnecessary emotional response to a felt need.

Piper notes that Jesus' response to a question on fasting in Mt 9:14-17 either refers to an effective revocation or a change in general practice. Either the bridegroom is taken away between the crucifixion and the resurrection or between the ascension and parousia. Piper goes on to make a case for the latter option and Don Carson argues similarly in For the Love of God.

Piper notes in his article that "fasting was by and large associated with mourning in that day. It was an expression of broken-heartedness and desperation, usually over sin". G. Campbell Morgan, in The Gospel According to Matthew, comments:
A wedding ceremony in an Eastern country lasted for seven days. It was a week of unbounded and unceasing rejoicing, of songs and music and mirth. And Jesus, said, These men are the sons of the bridechamber, and you must not expect them to fast while the Bridegroom is with them, but, “the days will come, when the Bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast.”

This is Christ’s defence of the right of His people to be merry; and that right to be merry is the fact that He is with them. If that be true, then we have the right to be merry always. What He said about sorrow was fulfilled. He was taken away from them, and they fasted and were sad through those days of darkness; but He came back, and, standing on the slope of Olivet, He said, “Lo, I am with you alway.” Then there is no more room for mourning; no more room for the sad face of agony; but there is room for mirth, room for joy, and room for gladness.
Taking these three things together - (1) fasting is related to mourning, usually over sin; (2) Jesus' followers will mourn when he has gone away; and, (3) Jesus is with us always - we are rather led to the conclusion that fasting is unnecessary. Indeed, if Christ is forever with us by his Spirit and has dealt with our sin once-and-for-all, what place has fasting in the life of the believer?

Not to be undone so simply, Piper notes the issue and rightly draws our attention to the spanner in the works: (1) the early church fasted after the resurrection; (2) Jesus pictures the second coming as the arrival of the bridegroom in Mt 25:1-13

The second issue is rather easier to explain away. We all know the bridegroom is coming again only, next time, he is coming to judge the world. Though he is always with believers now, he will return bodily. Nevertheless, being with us now and having dealt with our sin, fasting has no place. There is nothing to mourn as the bridegroom is still with us. So, Pipers appeal to Mt 25 doesn't particularly advance the argument. What does represent a significant issue is this: if Christ is with us and has dealt with our sin, why do the church in Acts continue to fast?

Before going further, we should note there is no NT command to fast. Whenever Jesus discussed fasting, it was almost always in the context of cultural religion. It is hard to press Jesus statement in Mt 6:16-18 as an assumption his followers will/should fast. Rather, he is making a broader point about the outward show of religion and, where such outward forms exist, they should at least be genuine.

Nevertheless, we are still left with the issue of the early church fasting post-resurrection. We should note there are only two examples of this (Acts 13:1-3 and Acts 14:23). Piper seeks to offer 2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:27 in support of early church fasting but, although the translation may be taken that way in 11:27, the context rather bears out the given translation. So, what are we to say of the two examples in Acts?

It is difficult to press them too far. For one, both times of fasting are linked directly to the sending out, or appointing of, people to particular roles; namely, missionaries and elders. If we are trying to deduce a pattern from these two examples, we are forced to say fasting is reserved for such appointments in the Church. Further, given much of Acts relays particular events that are specific to salvation-history, we may want to be careful in suggesting all things as normative for the church. For example, are we to expect the same outcome as Acts 13 every time we fast? Given that Luke comments neither positively or negatively on these fasts, they are merely stated as having happened, we have no reason to presume this is normative for the church.

It is entirely possible that fasting was an issue of the same order as those in the Jerusalem Council. It is equally possible that this was merely a cultural practice brought over by the Jewish believers. It has surely got to be significant that the issue is only ever mentioned as a point of fact in Acts and is not raised in any of the letters; neither commanded, suggested nor even referred to as an already existing practice. It is perhaps a stretch to press, but nonetheless remarkable, that it is not mentioned in either of Paul's letters to the Corinthian church. He neither mentions it in relation to their culture of "spiritual" one-upmanship (a ready tool for such showy, faux-spiritual behaviour) nor as a counter to their gluttony when they meet together (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:17-34). Similarly, in all Paul's commendations of churches, fasting is simply not mentioned.

So, what are we to make of fasting? Faced with Jesus words about the presence of the bridegroom in Mt 9, and given his comment that he is with believers always, we have positive reasons to reject fasting and mourning. In the face of any New Testament command to do so, and in the absence of any reason to presume the two instances in Acts are normative for the church, it seems legitimate to view fasting as obsolete.

Does that mean fasting is wrong? Not at all. Jesus himself fasted and John, whom Jesus commended, did so too. That the early church did so as well tells us, if nothing else, it is a legitimate practice. If an individual finds it somehow personally beneficial, then they are entitled to fast if they wish. Nevertheless, what has the believer to mourn if the bridegroom is forever with them and their sin has been dealt with once-and-for-all? If that is the state of the believer, then it seems we have little to fast.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Mark Steel is half right... nobody will abandon religion simply because an atheist bangs on about science

I generally like Mark Steel. He is usually funny and happens to take a political stance in his comedy that appeals to such as me. I was interested to read his piece in today's Independent in which he (rightly) argued nobody is going to abandon religion simply because "some atheist is banging on at them about science".

Steel is apt to recognise religious belief - as with almost any other firmly held position - is more than a mere matter of assent to facts/ideas (delete according to your predisposition). He comments, "dealing with the intricacies of people’s ideas requires more than yelling science at them" and offers the example of the anorexic who believes they are fat to underline the point. What passes as obvious for one may seem totally irrational to another specifically because of the intricacy of belief and the presumed facts each one of us deems "properly basic".

He correctly points out the issue with the modern atheist appeal to heinous acts committed by those who profess religious belief. He states: 
isn’t it the actions of these people that are vile, not the religion itself? Unless your attitude is: “Those priests are a disgrace. They sexually abused children, covered it up for decades, then to top it all they give out stupid wafers in their service. How sick can you get”?
This point rather hits at the heart of the issue. Richard Dawkins has argued the heinous acts of several atheist dictators had nothing to do with their atheism whilst simultaneously wishing to maintain the heinous acts committed by Roman Catholic priests were somehow prompted by their religion. For many of the New Atheists (cf. Christopher Hitchens' God is not great: how religion poisons everything), the attitude is precisely the one stated above.

Nevertheless, it is nice to see Steel observe "I spent a morning at a Sikh temple recently, where 4,000 free meals are provided for anyone who wants one" whilst pointedly remarking "if you turned up at Richard Dawkins’s house with 4,000 mates, I’d be surprised if you all got a meal out of him".

For all that, Steel's piece is to be commended. It is funny, endearing and recognises the truth that religious belief - in fact, belief of any sort - is more complex than simply assenting to a series of ideas. Somebody once remarked (and I forget who it was now, so I can't honestly credit it), the means by which we reach conclusions is a convoluted and intricate exercise influenced by many things. Reason is merely the device we use to convince others we are right. Often, we expect others to conclude  by reason alone when, for most of us, it is but one of many tools we use to reach conclusions.

Here, however, is where I think Steel is a little unfair. The very title of his piece presumes that the religious are scientifically deficient. Equally fallaciously, he tacitly gives rise to the view that science is the primary form of knowledge (as opposed to other areas that handle issues science cannot and upon which science is often based e.g. philosophy). For all his denunciation of Richard Dawkins, his concern is more that Dawkins patronises believers, has a problem in principle with all religion and clearly ignores the good that many religious believers do. This rather conveys the belief that atheists are the guardians of science and reason whilst believers - who should nevertheless be entertained in their fanciful views so long as they do no harm to others - are not. Steel's concern is not the specific beliefs of Richard Dawkins but the patronising and/or aggressive rhetoric he employs. It is not his views with which Steel finds a problem but the tactics Dawkins uses to convey them. Ironically, this is rather patronising.

Steel says he finds the "contradictions of religion" confusing - as well he should! The example he cites of a guru continuing to fight a battle having had his head chopped off plays directly to our Western, post-enlightenment sense of that which is "properly basic". Of course that could never happen, says Steel, but look at the good these Sikhs are doing in a community setting, offering meals to people. It's the as-long-as-they're-doing-no-harm form of patronage; "yes, their views are ridiculous but look at the lovely things they do as a result"! At least Dawkins doesn't patronise like that.

It is true that belief is a complex thing and represents more than mere assent to a set of ideas. It is also true that reason is but one of many tools we use to reach conclusions. However, that does not mean religion itself is baseless and one must park one's reason to be a believer. I equally don't believe a guru fought a battle after his head was chopped off. That's not because I simply dismiss it as something that could never happen (a position Philosophical Naturalism and Atheism are forced to hold). Rather, if there are good grounds to believe in a God (and, without rehearsing them all here, I believe there are) all sorts of possibilities are open to us. Nevertheless, I don't believe this did happen because of the positive reasons to reject it (again, all of which I will not rehearse here).

By contrast, Christianity is not a religion beget by presumption and story-telling. Scripture itself records God inviting us to "reason together" and the very basis of Christianity - the spark that ignited it as a movement - was based on the evidence for the resurrected Jesus Christ. Throughout the New Testament, the Apostles argued that their hope - and the whole basis of Christianity - stood or fell on the proof of that one fact. Establish the resurrection as a fraud (as many have tried) and Christianity dies overnight. Establish it as fact (in my view, the historical facts are extraordinarily compelling) and Christianity is based on far more than presumption. It compels us reasonably, philosophically and historically.

Where Steel is undoubtedly correct, it will take much more than atheists banging on about science to convince religious believers to abandon their beliefs. Interestingly, Christians recognised this fact long ago. Whatever the compelling reasons for Christianity (and I believe there are many), Blaise Pascal noted nearly 400 years ago, in his Pensées, that reason was but one step (and not even the first one) on the road to belief. No doubt this is where New Atheism is going wrong, merely "banging on about science", but is probably where a lot of modern evangelical Christianity gets it wrong too.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

What do we do when justice fails?

The 2006 St Andrews Agreement has always been something of a tentative conclusion to the problems in Northern Ireland. Voting remains as polarised as ever - Protestants still overwhelmingly vote Unionist; Catholics still predominantly vote Republican - with the Ulster Unionists and SDLP continuing to play second fiddle to those parties once deemed (perhaps unfairly) more "radical" but certainly more virulently disposed to the aims and desires of their respective communities. The DUP, over the last 30 years, stood on a platform of being more Unionist than the Ulster Unionists and more robust in their rejection of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) to great effect. Likewise, Sinn Fein have positioned themselves as greener than the SDLP. That the DUP and Sinn Fein are the majority parties within their respective communities speaks to the nature of voting cleavages in the region and the primary concerns of both the Protestant and Catholic communities.

Given all that, what are we to make of the recent revelations that secret backdoor deals, including immunity, had been given to terror suspects? Unsurprisingly, such revelations are now threatening to tear apart the already fragile St Andrews Agreement. Peter Robinson, First Minister of Northern Ireland, is threatening to resign unless there is a full judicial review into what went on. David Trimble, former Ulster Unionist leader who was central in the formation of the GFA, has stated he was unaware of such deals and reiterated that no such provision was made in the GFA to grant immunity to terror suspects. In particular, the St Andrews Agreement marked the desire of Sinn Fein to submit to the rule of law and specifically the authority of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). The recent revelations of backdoor deals rather undermines the very agreement that led to power sharing in the first instance.

Sadly, this was all rather too predictable (indeed, I commented to that effect as an undergraduate student just prior to the signing of the St. Andrews Agreement). The central flaws in the power sharing arrangement were threefold: (1) The Arend Lijphart consociationalist model for Power Sharing giving the minority side a veto on any "petition of concern"; (2) As Col. Tim Collins argues, "the Good Friday Agreement was in fact a “peace at any price” deal where a militarily defeated IRA and the chaotic so-called loyalist paramilitaries were given the working-class populations of their respective communities as a blood dowry, to do with as they pleased in exchange for keeping the violence off the TV screens. The knee-cappings and beatings carried on out of sight. Only once – the brutal murder of Robert McCartney in 2005 – did the mask slip, but this was quickly covered up." St Andrews never dealt with this underlying and ongoing issue; (3) The DUP rampant rejection of the GFA was based on several factors, but one central issue was early prisoner releases. St Andrews never addressed this issue and these recent revelations were bound to reopen this old wound.

What hope of justice exists for the families of the victims of those who have been given immunity? Sadly, at the present time, not much. Unless a judicial review determines the letters granting immunity to be void (and one finds it difficult to see how they could do) terror suspects of historic crimes will remain immune. All the while, I think Tim Collins is right to feel aggrieved that "the Hyde Park murders, we are told by [Peter] Hain and others, are so far back in time that it is an outrage that anyone should be held to account. Yet he would be the first to bay for the prosecution of any soldier even vaguely associated with the event of Bloody Sunday, 10 years earlier in 1972". In the end, justice at the present time seems unlikely to be forthcoming. Expensive enquiries into the historic actions of state service men and women continue whilst equal energy is put into covering up the historic actions of terror suspects (on both sides). 

Nevertheless, none of us will escape the justice of the Lord. Whether British service men and women, Loyalist or Republican terrorist, the Lord sees all and knows what each has done. He will hold to account. For the Christian, though we may often feel like David in Psalm 73, we know that "it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgement (Heb 9:27)". Likewise, "it is time for judgement to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1 Pet 4:17)"

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Whose faith prompted the healing of the paralytic man?

And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven." - Mt 9:2

On seeing this paralysed man, Jesus goes on to forgive his sins. But it appears on first glance there is no mention of the paralysed man's faith. The "their", whose faith Jesus saw, seems to point specifically to the man's helpers rather than to the man himself. This throws up several possible questions: does this mean the friends' faith saved the man? Was the man saved without expressing faith of his own? Did Jesus forgive the paralytic man's sin without addressing the salvation of those who brought him?

There are at least three possible solutions:
  1. "Their" actually includes both the man and his friends
  2. Although Jesus specifically highlights the faith of the friends, we can presume the man had some faith given he was willing to be taken to Jesus. So, "their" refers to the friends but the man must have had some faith too
  3. The friends' faith was in Jesus' ability to physically heal the paralysed man. Jesus was concerned to demonstrate that forgiveness, as with healing, is entirely a work of God. Thus, Jesus forgives the paralysed man, knowing (a) his sin had been forgiven in eternity past and (b) he will exhibit saving faith upon seeing the proof his sins had been forgiven
The key drawback to option 1 is its lack of consistency with the object of the sentence. It seems apparent the friends are the object of "their", not the man. It also begs the question why Jesus pronounced the man's sins as forgiven when he already had possession of saving faith. Similarly, why was the man forgiven when his friends, whose faith Jesus saw, were not?

Option 2 appeals in several respects. It makes the friends the object of "their" whilst allowing for the man's own faith to be the basis of his forgiveness. The major drawback is that the only grounds to presume the man had faith is the forgiveness Jesus grants. We have no grounds to presume they approached Jesus with any expectation other than physical healing (and, for the paralysed man, we don't know even that). Further, if they already had saving faith, why would Jesus need to pronounce the sins of the man forgiven (a) when this was already known and (b) without pronouncing the same of his friends, whose faith prompted Jesus in the first place?

Option 3 is also appealing in several ways. It maintains the friends as the object of "their" and makes sense of the surprise that came with Jesus' pronouncement (it does appear that nobody presumed the man already forgiven). Further, this reading fits nicely with the effectual calling of Matthew immediately following. The major drawback of this reading is that it might imply some are saved without possessing saving faith. As an initial riposte, we might note (a) the ordo salutis expects a work of the Spirit prior to recognition of our own conversion and (b) if election means anything, it is that God knows in eternity past that our sin is forgiven even though we do not.