Monday, 30 June 2008

It's moments like these...

I wasn't expecting it. I was talking about our sure hope of seeing God face-to-face. Rom 5:1-11. It came from one of the - ah - more mature members of our congregation who - ah - might be seeing God before most of the rest of us. I said "being reconciled to God means when he sees us, he'll call us by name, throw his arms around us and welcome us home!"
That's when we heard it. Loud and clear. "Hallelujah!"
She didn't stand up & wave her hands around or anything. Just said it. Loud, but not yelling. Dignified, but with conviction.
Jonathan Edwards said "true religion consists in holy affections." I obviously stirred a holy affection in that dear old saint. She obviously was genuinely looking forward to seeing her Lord.
It's moments like these that make preaching worthwhile.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Bible Bloopers

Found these rib-ticklers at the Merrie Theologian, http://www.theologynetwork.org/.

In the 1562 edition of the Geneva Bible, Matthew 5:9 read ‘Blessed are the placemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.’
A 1716 edition of the King James Bible has Jesus say ‘sin on more’ in John 5:14, rather than ‘sin no more’.
A 1795 edition had Jesus say in Mark 7:27 ‘Let the children first be killed’ instead of ‘Let the children first be filled’.
Probably the worst mistakes, however, were made in the 1631 and 1653 ‘Wicked Bibles’. In the 1653 edition, 1 Corinthians 6:9 read ‘the unrighteous shall inherit the kingdom of God’ and the 1631 edition had the seventh commandment as ‘Thou shalt commit adultery.’ The bibles were ordered to be burned, and the sloppy (one hopes it was just sloppiness) printer fined a then-hefty £300.

Friday, 27 June 2008

Gerald Bray on Rescuing Theology from Theologians

Yesterday I discovered the published version of Gerald Bray’s 1998 John Wenham lecture, and had a riotously good time reading it. Gerald Bray is one of the few theologians I know who can write with hilarity and profundity at the same time. Here’s some gems from Gerald Bray, “Rescuing Theology From the Theologians,” Themelios 24.2 (February 1999): 48-57.
Page 49:
The first qualification for any true theologian is a personal encounter with the living God, which can only come as his Holy Spirit convicts us of sin, points us to the righteousness which has been won for us by Christ’s atoning sacrifice, and assures us that the prince of this world has been judged by the Father’s acceptance of that atonement. Once we are clear about that, we can go on to the rest, but only once we are clear, because the rest is really no more than an elaboration and application to different areas of life of the great themes of the gospel.
Page 52:
The subtlety, and therefore the great danger, of heresy is not that it is so palpably false that no well-meaning person would ever go near it. On the contrary, heresy is usually made up of half-digested truths, juxtaposed in ways which lead to the wrong conclusions.
Page 54:
One of the main tasks of the preacher, and one of the main reasons why a preacher should have the best theological training available, is that they are supposed to be able to unpack abstract theology in a way which will mean something to the person sitting in the pew. That this classical understanding of the preacher’s role now sounds strange to many people is a sign of just how far we have departed from the traditional Reformed understanding of the professional ministry.
Page 55:
Any form of address which is not the exposition of a Biblical text is not really preaching at all… any sermon which does not open up to us a portion of God’s Word has no right to the name, however true or uplifting it may be in other ways. As a nineteenth-century wit put it, congregations come to hear the ministry of the Word, not the words of the minister…
Page 55:
Christian doctrine is the systematic exposition of Scripture, and its importance for preaching is that it provides the framework within which the particular passage and sermon being preached must be placed… the true minister of the Word will always have their theological framework in the background to challenge the reading of the text in preparation for the message… We do not often realise it, but the real effect of any sermon will lie in the degree to which it is theologically grounded, and theologically coherent. It is because so few preachers today have any real notion of these things that so much preaching is ineffective, even if it manages to be entertaining, erudite and encouraging… [the sermon’s] effectiveness… can only be measured by the substance of the message, in other words, by its theology.
Pages 55-56:
I do not for a minute wish to suggest that, after getting a good theological education, a preacher has a licence to blind the congregation with erudition. This is the common failing of young theological college graduates… The trick, however, is so to absorb this material that it becomes second nature, that it gets transposed in heart and mind into something which is genuinely believed, and can therefore be expressed with conviction in the preacher’s own words.
Page 56:
An incomprehensible theologian is a contradiction in terms, because his theology is unpreachable ― nobody will understand it. I have to read more than my fair share of it, and if ever I get a chance ― in a book review, for example ― I always condemn it unreservedly, even if I happen to agree with what the author is trying to say. Indeed, perhaps I condemn it more severely in such cases, because there can be nothing more distressing than to find that the words of eternal life are being hidden behind a veil of obfuscation so thick that no-one can gain access to them.
Page 56:
[T]he third element in a good sermon is application. If you have good exegesis and excellent theology but cannot apply it to the needs and concerns of your hearers, then you are not only wasting your time, you are confirming your congregation’s worst fears ― that theology and everything to do with it is basically irrelevant to everyday life.
Page 57:
An ability to communicate is essential to any good preacher, and it is the ultimate test of any theology. Is this, or is this not changing my life? If the answer is no, then forget it ― it is not the real thing… True preaching must be a challenge ― not a destructive, iconoclastic harangue which does nothing but reinforce the preacher’s sense of spiritual superiority in their own eyes, and give the people the unspoken conviction that he or she is really a hypocrite, but a penetrating and positive analysis of the human heart which is primarily designed to heal and restore, not to uproot and condemn. This can only be achieved if the preacher is conscious that in the first instance preaching is always preaching to oneself, because the preacher needs to hear the word of grace every bit as much as those who come to listen do. Being convicted by their own words is the ultimate test both of truth and of communicability, for what will come across more than anything else is the sense that here we are dealing with a person of a humble and a contrite heart.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

The Gospel Coalition

A lot of you may know about this already... but if you don't, you should...
The Gospel coalition (http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/) is a network of American pastors who are trying to maintain (reclaim?) a truly Evangelical approach to ministry. That is, ministry that really is driven first of all by the Gospel - driven by Christ, his death and resurrection; pattered according to the Bible; not fundamentally driven by numbers, being "contemporary" or "relevant", or anything else. Some of the Council members I recognised were Don Carson, Mark Dever and John Piper (Reformed Baptists), Ligon Duncan and Tim Keller (Presbyterians), C. J. Mahaney (of Sovereign Grace ministries) and Paul Zahl (Evangelical Anglican).
What I found most interesting was their "theological vision for ministry" - part of their foundational documents (http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/foundational_documents.pdf). It's a statement of how their convictions shape their approach to ministry. It's got sections on the nature of truth ("epistemology"), how to approach to the Bible ("hermeneutics"), how to approach the non-Christian world ("contextualisation"), and ministry generally. I highly recommend having a read.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Natural Theology vs a Theology of Nature

Natural theology is the knowledge of God that can be arrived at through general revelation, independent of the Bible and the person and work of Jesus Christ. Classical medieval theology, following Aquinas, had a high view of human reason. It therefore accorded natural theology an independent status, co-ordinate with Scripture.
But this does not take sufficient account of the noetic effects of sin. All people do have knowledge of God; but this ‘natural’ knowledge does not bring them into relationship with him, but only condemns them. Natural philosophy and natural worship, independent of Biblical revelation, inevitable rejects God in favour of idols. This is the burden of Rom 1:18-3:20. Paul's Areopagus speech in Acts 17 on the one hand affirms that the Athenians do know something of God, but is quite stinging in his criticism of their idolatry.
God never intended creation to be sufficient for a relational knowledge of him; that has always required a covenantal word. Even in the Garden of Eden, God didn't leave Adam & Eve to empirically observe the Garden and say "wow - what a cool place - God must really love us!"; God spoke to them. Relational knowledge of God has always required a revelatory, covenantal word.
Furthermore, sinful humanity suppresses knowledge of God that they have. This rebelliousness can only be corrected by God’s Spirit, working through the Word. Natural theology has always had an incipient dualism. By prioritising "rational debate", it assumes there is a realm of "reason" that is free from sin.
The Reformers made natural theology dependent upon revelation. They demoted it from being an independent source of knowing God, to be part of Christian, Biblical doctrine. This manoeuvre is sometimes termed a ‘theology of nature’ rather than a ‘natural theology’. Such a theology still provides rich resources for life, worship, apologetics and evangelism. A regenerate mind can see how God uses creation to mediate elements of salvation. In Christ, the holy God re-sanctifies this fallen creation, so that it can fulfil its original doxological purposes. The gospel points to the God of order re-ordering his disordered creation. Seen through the "spectacles of scripture", creation is the "theatre of his glory" (Calvin).
A theology of nature provides many "points of contact" between the gospel and world. The incarnation demonstrates that a normal human body is a fit receptacle for divinity. The phenomenon of prophecy, and the existence of the written word, demonstrate that ordinary human language is a fit receptacle for the word of God. The sacraments of baptism & the lord's supper are effective because God uses ordinary physical elements - water, bread, grape juice - as effective signs to strengthen faith in him. The Bible makes sense of science's discovery that all of life is ordered and organically inter-dependence. More deeply - the ordered, life-giving God of the Bible provides the fundamental basis for the scientific presupposition that nature is instrumentally observable, and that experiments are replicable.
Demoting natural theology from being an independent source of the knowledge of God, and making it dependent upon revelation - a "theology of nature" - seems to keep all the benefits of providing "points of contact" between the gospel and the world, while avoiding the problems of dualism.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Gospel. Community and the Cyberchurch of God

If I may blow my own trumpet for a minute... I've got an article in the latest CASE magazine. "Gospel, Community and the Cyberchurch of God". Pages 20-21 in CASE Newsletter no. 15. In it, I examine the recent phenomenon of Cyberchurches - Christian communities on-line.
CASE is the Centre for Apologetic Scholarship and Education. It's the apologetics arm of New College, the Evangelical residential college at the University of New South Wales. It provides training courses, and the CASE magazine, in order to help Christians engage the non-Christian in an intelligent, informed way; and also challenge non-Christians with a coherent world-view in dialogue with their own.
I highly recommend becoming a CASE associate - which subscribes you to the mag, and gets discounted (sometimes free) enrolment into CASE courses. See http://www.case.edu.au/.

Hebrew went okay

Thanks everyone for praying for that Hebrew exam I had on Tuesday - and for asking how it went. I think I'll pass. I nailed the three paradigms (for those who understand - Qal perfect, Qal imperfect, and Piel perfect. And all strong verbs. Piece of cake). I got most of the vocabulary - although there were a couple of words I blanked out at. And I got out enough of the rest of the paper that I think I'll get more than 50%. So it should be okay.

Monday, 16 June 2008

Facing my nemesis

To be a minister in the Presbyterian church, you have to be able to read the Old Testament in its original language - Hebrew - as well as the New Testament in Greek.
Languages have always been my weak point. I bluffed - er, I mean struggled - my way through four years of Greek at Moore College. But Hebrew's my worst subject. I've failed it twice (which is why it's my nemesis...). This is the third time I've enrolled in it. I feel much better than the previous two attempts - but I'm still not enjoying it.
I have a Hebrew exam tomorrow (Tues 17 June). Would appreciate your prayers.
Right - back to the study.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Knock, knock, knocking...

Tomorrow (Sat) my church, St David's, is conducting an outreach day. It's part of our HEAT week (Heightened Evangelistic Activity Time). We're going knocking on doors in Homebush & trying to chat with people about Jesus. Our opening line is: "we were wondering what we have to do to live forever. Do you have any thoughts?" We're using that line because the passage for Sunday's sermon is Luke 18, the rich young ruler, who asks Jesus "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
Door knocking isn't usually much fun. Or productive. Makes me think of another kinds of knocking:









Why do we bother?
Because we want them to hear about the one who died that we could live. Surely it's worthwhile putting our egos at risk for that...?
Rev 3:20: "I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me".

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

What I've learned in the past five months

Last weekend, a final-year ministry student asked me what it's like in "real" ministry. Well, what he actually asked was: "what have you discovered over the last few months that you wish they'd told you at college?" My answer didn't exactly fit his question - because I don't think a college can teach you about these things - but here they are anyway:
1. Take your day off. It's vital for everything that follows.
2. Love your wife. She really is your first ministry.
3. Love your children. They're your next ministries. When you retire, you may look back and feel like everything you've done has been a failure - your church / congregation / ministry was always struggling, never got into three-digit attendance, never got written up in a ministry magazine - but if your wife is happy, and your kids are believers, and are living normal, balanced, healthy lives, I reckon that's a "win".
4. Love your congregation. You're their shepherd, their pastor. You're job isn't first of all to preach at them or counsel them or manage & motivate them, but to love them the way Christ loves them - regardless of how cranky, eccentric & exasperating they are are.
5. Be patient. Expect irrational resistance to your initiatives and suggestions. Change is difficult. Everyone always feels tired & stretched & stressed - even if you think they shouldn't! Repentance is scary. Sinful habits are hard to break. The status quo is easier & more comfortable - even if people know it's wrong! Geneva wasn't built in a day. (I'm a Protestant - I don't give two hoots how long it took to build Rome...)
6. Use the "means of grace". Read the Bible, just for fun. Pray, just for the sake of chatting with God. Go to church, just for the joy of being with God's people and praising him together. (When you're on holidays, you may want to go to a different church than where you regularly minister. That's a good idea, to avoid being drawn back into the "regular" web of ministry relationships. But go somewhere!).
And last but definitely not least:
7. Love God; love Christ; love the cross. Live your life "coram deo" - before the face of God. Keep your passion for telling people what Christ has done for them - ie, evangelism. Ministry's not a "job"; it's calling, a mission. Remember, we have the empty cross and empty tomb behind us; we have Christ's glorious return ahead of us. Make all your decisions from that perspective - and encourage everyone else to do so too. Nothing else really matters.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Holman Christian Standard Bible

Speaking of beautiful translations (see previous post, The ABCs of Bible Translation) - has anyone used the Holman Christian Standard Bible much? It's the third option in the TNIV-ESV debate. I've used it a bit & so far, really like it. What do you think?

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Presbyterianism & immigration

Becoming an official Presbyterian candidate made me think of when I became an Australian citizen.
I became an Australian citizen in Sept 1991. I'd been living here since 20 Dec 1988. But it took that long to go through the procedures required to get citizenship status. Once I had citizenship, I had access to all the privileges that came with it - passport, social security etc.
It's been a bit like that with Presbyterian candidacy. I've been attending a Presbyterian church since Feb 2007. I've been a member of the Presbyterian denomination since March 2007. But it's taken this long to go through the process of becoming a Candidate. And accessing all the benefits that come with it.
The biggest benefit is I get the respect and authority of "officially" belonging to this particular denomination, with its history, culture & way of doing things - a history, culture & way of doing things that, as you all know, I really like and identify with. I now "fit" the denomination in two ways - I've always fitted ideologically, and now I fit officially.
The biggest practical benefit is an added layer of ministry support and guidance. I'm now under the supervision of the Presbyterian dept of Ministry & Mission. They're job is to see that I get the best possible training & support, and then the best possible ministry role that "fits" my skills & personality. It's nice to have that kind of support - reduces the fears & uncertainties of what'll happen when I finally (!) finish all my training, and get launched into real ministry.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Presbyterianism has been good for my health

A couple of days ago, in our pastoral care group at the Presy college, we did an exercises to see how much under stress we're under, and how close to burnout we are. My results: although I was supposedly under a lot of stress, due to significant lifestyle changes - new place to live; new work routine; new study routine - I'm not under any danger of burnout. In fact, I realised that so far this year, I've been healthier than any other time since leaving Uni in 1999 (constant minor sickness indicates significant stress; overall good health indicates absence of stress). The reasons are probably:
1. Living in Croydon, with the family from St David's church, is a healthier environment than Newtown. Newtown was musty & dusty; Croydon is clean & cozy. And that makes me happy.
2. Although on paper, I have a lot of responsibilities at St David's church, people's expectations of me are reasonable, and they appreciate what I do. So I feel supported & appreciated - and that makes me happy.
3. I feel comfortable and accepted - not just as "the minister", but just as myself - by people at both St David's and SBM. And that makes me happy.
4. All these years of ministry training are bearing fruit: I feel competent to preach weekly, and attend to pastoral issues, and generally get on with ministry. It's not that I depend on God less - still need to pray! - it's just that the activities of ministry aren't scary, alien, or overwhelming. It feels natural, I feel "at home". And that makes me happy.
See? Presbyterianism has been good for my health...

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Accepted as a Presbyterian candidate

I've just returned from meeting of Sydney Presbytery, at which I was accepted as an ordination candidate. At last, after all these years of floating around, I have a clear "path" for ministry. Praise God.
As a candidate, I get formal access the Presbyterian ministry network - local, statewide, national & international - for ministry opportunities, and general fellowship and fraternisation. And, as you all no doubt are aware, the whole point of me wanting to be Presbyterian rather than any other denomination is that I fit the Presbyterian way of doing things.
So - I'm now officially part of the Presbyterian world - let's explore it...

The ABCs of Bible translation

Last Friday, Robyn - one of the missionaries our church supports - visited our youth group. She's been translating the new testament into Ramoaina, an indigenous language of one of the people groups in Duke of York Island, PNG. She spoke about the ABCs of a good Bible translation. It has to be:
Accurate - say what the Bible actually says;
Beautiful - sound like how people in the target language would say it; it can't sound like a foreigner saying it;
Clear - it has to communicate clearly.
The "beautiful" category intrigued me. The Bible must be heard not only in the local language, but with a local accent. There's no point if it's in the local language but speaks with a foreign accent. That still sounds alien. It needs to sound local. And that's foreign missionaries need local assistance. So they know what it really "sounds" like. 'Coz God ain't a foreigner - he's a local.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Normal sociable evangelism

I'm encouraging people at St David's church to organise a social where they introduce their non-Christian friends to their Christian friends (ie: us!). And that's not a big intense evangelistic thing, with a speaker and an altar call & response cards & all that. It's social, friendly - a dinner, a movie, bushwalk, whatever. "Come meet some of my friends from church. You'll like them".
At the event, we Christians don't have to be all serious & intense & evangelistic. We just have to be normal - just be ourselves. Many of the guests will be from church, so it's perfectly natural to talk about church & Jesus & "spiritual" matters. Even if Christians are in the minority, Christ is the centre of our lives, so it should be normal to talk about him in a social setting. At least as normal as talking about the other significant relationships in our lives - like our spouse, children, or work. If we're not comfortable talking about Jesus in this way, then that means our relationship with him is not strong. And that's a problem.
Hopefully, these friendly, "normal" conversations will be the first step in bringing people to church, where they'll hear the Bible taught, and eventually repent and be saved. But even if not - who cares? We've given them a positive impression of Christ and Christians - that's worthwhile in itself. And, relationships with people - Christians and non-Christian - have value in themselves. Meeting people socially is not just a means to an end, it's a worthwhile end in itself.
So... anyone wanna do some normal, sociable evangelism...?