Thursday, 31 December 2009

A new year, a new you

2 Cor 5:17: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!

New years are a good time for big changes. Time to move house. Or look for a new job. Maybe time to start a new diet & exercise routine. But - change is difficult. That’s why new year’s resolutions are so depressing. It’s so much easier not to have any changes. It’s so much easier to just give up. This is who I am, this is what I do. I’m not gonna change.

When TV ads talk about “a new year, a new you”, they mean makeup and gym classes and clothes. But it’s not actually a new us, it’s the old us, with makeup on. Or the old us, with new clothes on. That’s why the changes don’t work most of the time. It’s not actually a new us.

But 2 Cor 5 tells us we can actually have a new “us”. But this passage tells us – we actually can have a new you! It’s so new, that Paul can call it a new creation. The old person’s completely gone; it’s a whole new you. And there’s three great things about it.

First, God does it. We don't have to do this big change ourselves. When we go to the gym, we have to work out, we have to sweat and strain. But this change that Paul’s taking about is more like getting your hair and nails done. You just sit there, nice and comfortable. Someone else fusses over you, and you leave looking and feeling marvellous.

Second, the way God fusses over us is by fixing up our sin problem. We reject God; but God does the work needed to fix that. Most of the time, if someone upsets us, we get angry and wait for them to come and say sorry. And if they do, we might forgive them – slowly – because we really want to punish them. God’s not like that. He comes to us first – even before we say sorry – because he wants to fix up the relationship more than we do.

Thirdly, this change now gives us a new identity. We don’t belong to ourselves any more – we belong to God. We can give up our boring, petty, self-obsessed, world-bound ambitions and values and priorities. We can trade them in for much more interesting, eternal, useful ambitions and values and priorities. Like living for God-in-Christ, every hour of every day.

Nice for a change, isn’t it?

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Biblical Theology and Geerhardus Vos

Sydney Evangelicalism is known for its Biblical Theology. Biblical Theology means more than just theology that is based on the Bible - any Christian theology should do that. It means a detailed, sophisticated approach to reading the whole Bible as a single, connected narrative, which climaxes in Christ. Biblical Theology is based on three premises:
1. the whole Bible, old and new testaments, is one connected story...
2. ... which climaxes in Christ: the old testament looks forward to him, the new testament looks back to him...
3. ... and especially Christ's death and resurrection.
Through the work of Graeme Goldsworthy, generations of ministers - both "professional" and laity - have been trained to think of the Bible in terms of God's people, in God's place, under God's rule.

Goldsworthy's approach to Biblical Theology, indeed the whole project of a Calvinist-Reformed integrated understanding of the Bible's overarching narrative, owes a lot to one man: Geerhardus Vos. He was a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, who taught at Princeton Theological Seminary in the late 19th - early 20th century, as its first professor of Biblical Theology. His inaugural address, The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline, is still considered a classic defenition of the nature and scope of Biblical Theology.

Biblicaltheology.org is now making Vos' work available to the public for free. A great resource for learning. Enjoy!

Friday, 25 December 2009

A Christmas meditation

A great and mighty wonder,
Redemption drawing near,
The virgin bears the infant,
The Son of God is here.

Repeat the hymn again:
"To God on high be glory
And peace on earth to men."

The Word becomes incarnate,
And yet remains on high,
And angels sing their anthems,
To shepherds from the sky.

Repeat the hymn again:
"To God on high be glory
And peace on earth to men."

He comes to save all people,
The earth shall hear his word,
The infant born in Bethl’em,
Is Saviour, Lord and God.

Repeat the hymn again:
"To God on high be glory
And peace on earth to men."

All idol forms shall perish,
And error be no more,
For Christ shall wield His scepter,
our Lord for ever more.

Repeat the hymn again:
"To God on high be glory
And peace on earth to men."

(Words originally by St. Germanus, 734AD. Slightly altered & modernised. )

* * * * *

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

The benefits of taking Christ out of Christmas

Why do we celebrate Christmas on 25 Dec? There's at least two possible reasons:
  1. Nine months from the date when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would become pregnant (generally taken to be March 25 - but I dunno why);
  2. A Christian adaptation of the Roman, pagan celebration of the northern hemisphere winter solstice. At the winter solstice, the days stop contracting and start getting longer. So it's the sign that the world won't spiral into endless winter. Pagan, earth-worshiping religion take that a sign to celebrate the continuity of life.
I don't know how reliable the dating of the annunciation is - I'll sideline that issue, if that's okay.

I want to propose something. How about we deliberately ditch 25 Dec as being Christmas, and rename it "summer festival of life"? The benefits are:
  1. It's more in line with the original pagan festival - Christians can just pick a different day, some other time in the year;
  2. That's what it is for most people anyway - an excuse to eat & drink & generally enjoy unrestrained indulgent pleasure, which, in a radically hedonistic society, is what it means to 'really live';
  3. For the less crassly indulgent among us - it's a chance to catch up with friends & family and enjoy a holiday from work;
  4. We can get rid of the traditional clutter that pushes Jesus out - Santa Clause, the angels, the shepherds, the wise men, trees, gifts, carols...
  5. As Christians, we agree with point 3. above, and even, to a limited extent, with point 2. God gives us all good things to enjoy - including food and drink, but especially friends and family and relationships. In Australia, we are so wealthy, as a society, that we can take a week or two to rest from our normal work, and refresh our bodies and our relationships. These are all good things, from a Christian point of view. If we call this time of year the "summer festival of life", we can point to the God who gives us life - both the good life in this world that we all enjoy, and eternal life, in the death & resurrection of Christ - and call people to worship him.
Thoughts, anyone?

Monday, 21 December 2009

Calvin's political theology - is it Biblical?

This is my last post on Calvin's political theology

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I think Calvin rightly explains the breadth of Paul and Peter’s command to submit to authority. Both Rom. 13:1-7 and 1 Pet. 3:12-14 call on Christians to submit to authority. Paul says that a pagan, Roman ruler was instituted by God. Peter and Paul both assert that secular rulers do good by punishing evil and praising good. They thus evidently envisaged some duality of government, where a pagan ruler, who did not serve God in the religious sphere, and enacted evil in that realm, could still serve God and do good in the civil sphere. Similarly, Jesus’ reply to the Pharisee's famous question concerning taxation - "give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar" - implies the possibility of simultaneous loyalty to God and an ungodly civil authority – a possibility which subverts the basis for the Pharisees' trick question. In Rom 13, Paul notes that the ruler’s bear the sword because of human propensity for evil – just as Calvin asserts. Paul’s appeal to the conscience, and Peter’s appeal to God's will, indicate that, just as Calvin says, such obedience should not be merely external and coerced, but from the believer’s new, internal, Spirit-wrought disposition.

But the new testament does NOT assert that civil government must establish and defend true religion, nor does it indicate a preference for conciliar, republican government. For that, Calvin relies on the old testament, especially pre-monarchical Israel. The hermeneutical manoeuvres he undertakes, and key texts he relies on, are:
  1. the old testament law illustrates the universal moral law (Rom. 2:14-16);
  2. pre-monarchical Israelite polity, which is part of the law, was democratic-republican and upheld true worship (Exodus 18:13-27; Deut. 1:9-18);
  3. therefore, the best biblical pattern for civil government is a democratic-republican theocracy.
Calvin did NOT assert that republicanism was the one biblically mandated form of civil government; but it was the best one, a ‘fixed and a well-ordered government […] by the common consent of all.’ He got around the Davidic kingship by focusing on the problems of monarchy set out in 1 Sam. 8, and connecting the Davidic kingship with Christ.

These hermeneutical manoeuvres are all contestable. But Calvin’s general view of the need to limit power rests on a simpler basis: his doctrine of sin. Calvin scholar Douglas Kelly says:
Governmental principles for consent of the governed, and separation and balance of powers are all logical consequences of a most serious and Calvinian view of the biblical doctrine of the fall of man. But some generations would pass before these consequential concepts were clearly drawn out and defined, under the impact of varying historical circumstances and intellectual currents.
Douglas F. Kelly, The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World: The Influence of Calvin on Five Governments from the 16th through 18th Centuries, Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1995 page 17

Sunday, 20 December 2009

21 today

Today, my parents & I celebrate 21 years in Australia.

We landed in Melbourne in the morning of 20 Dec 1988. Lived with my uncle (mum's brother) for three weeks, then moved to Sydney because mum had a job offer at what was then the Cumberland College of Health Sciences - which later became part of the University of Sydney - which job mum still has.

Lots has happened in 21 years. Amongst other things:
* Visited New Zealand, England, Belgium, France, Germany, Thailand & Canada;
* Got myself 3 undergraduate degrees (Bachelor of Commerce, Bachelor of Laws, Bachelor of Divinity);
* Lived in Homebush, Parramatta, Minchinbury, Rooty Hill, Newtown & Croydon;
* Changed careers from accounting to church ministry;
* Became a Presbyterian;
* Got 1,260 friends on Facebook - and yes, I do actually know them all, even if only remotely;
* Got this blog.
Wonder what the next 21 years hold - if the Lord gives me that long? Check back in 2030.

Morrow Music Online

'Nother news flash.

Michael Morrow's an up & coming evangelical music writer - keep an eye on him. The scores for his songs are available for free download from his website, morrowmusic. I think "I know your love" is my favorite so far. Or maybe "nothing but the blood". You can buy Michael's CD from the EMU online store.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Calvin on Submission to Government

This continues my series on Calvin's political theology

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Calvin calls the people to respect and submit to the rulers that God has providentially put over them. He does not permit the people to rebel, even against bad rulers, for they too have been instituted by God. Even a tyrannical ruler enacts some aspect of good governance.

The one apparent exception is if an ungodly ruler exceeds the bounds of civil authority and coercively legislates false religion. Even in this case, the disobedience must be both passive and limited, so it is not a true exception to Calvin’s general non-resistance. The people must privately refuse to participate in the particular area of false worship. They must not actively, publicly rebel against the ruler, and therefore the whole system of government which God has providentially placed over them.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Sovereign Grace comes to town

New flash!

Sovereign Grace ministries plan to plant a church in Sydney, probably somewhere around Hornsby. Dave Taylor, their founding pastor, explains here that one of the main reasons Sovereign Grace are coming to Sydney is because people have asked them to do so!

For more info, have a look at their Sovereign Grace Oz website.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled program...

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Calvin on the Form of Civil Government

This continues my series on Calvin's political theology

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Calvin did NOT believe Scripture mandated a particular form of civil polity. Calvin affirmed that monarchy and democracy were legitimate, but he preferred ‘aristocracy, or a system compounded of aristocracy and democracy’, not because it was divinely mandated, but because it limited the excesses of monarchy. Calvin saw monarchy rapidly degenerating into tyranny, and democracy to anarchy. He preferred a system which contained checks and balances to power, and which reflected, at least to some extent, the consent of the people.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Calvin on Civil Law

This continues my series on Calvin's political theology

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John Calvin was no theonomist – he did not hold that the Bible prescribed precise laws which must be applied today. He, along with other magisterial reformers, followed the medieval division of old testament laws into ceremonial, civil, and moral. Ceremonial laws were specific to the old testament forms of worship and are fulfilled, therefore abrogated, in their ceremonial capacity, by Christ. Civil laws were specific to the nation of Israel, and in the internationalisation of the gospel in Christ, they too are fulfilled and abrogated.

But the moral law ‘is the true and eternal rule of righteousness, prescribed for men of all nations and times, who wish to conform their lives to God’s will’. Indeed, the ceremonial and civil laws are themselves expressions of the moral law – the ceremonial pointing to the first table of the decalogue, illustrating what it means to love God, and the civil pointing to the second, as examples of love of neighbour. Hence, while ceremonial and civil laws have been abrogated in their ceremonial and civil functions, they are still binding in their moral aspects.

Calvin was not, strictly speaking, politically egalitarian: he did not hold to the radical equality of all people in all aspects which has become the post-Enlightenment norm. But he was adamant of the equality of all people before law – both God’s law and human. He affirmed the right to sue, and ‘held to an equality of disciplinary treatment for all Genevans, rich or poor, celebrated or inglorious’.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Calvin on the Role of the Magistrate

This continues my series on John Calvin's political theology

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Calvin divided political order into the magistrate, who rules the people by law; the laws, by which the magistrate rules the people; and the people, ruled legally by the magistrate. When these three elements work together harmoniously, they would create a healthy civil society, where all people could flourish. This visible, peaceful civil society would be both an expression of Christian piety, and an analogical witness to the gospel’s invisible, internal peace and harmony.

Contra the Anabaptists, Calvin affirmed the legitimacy of political office, going as far as to call it ‘the highest gift of his beneficence to preserve the safety of men’. God providentially raises up civil rulers as his ministers, carrying out God’s judgements. God gives this authority to the magistrates, not to feed their own lusts, but to serve him, though serving the people and enhancing the common good. While rulers are primarily accountable to God, because God invests them with authority for the people’s sake, not for their own, they should also consider themselves accountable to the people.

Godly rulers use the law to establish true religion and care for the people. They exhibit modesty, both in the pomp of their office, and in the burdens they put on the people, including tax. They establish wholesome civil behaviour, through achieving the right balance in promulgating and enforcing the law, avoiding both severity and undue clemency. Tyrants, in contrast, contradict the rightful relationships of magistrates, laws and people. Instead of using the law to serve the people and advance God’s kingdom, tyrants serve themselves, break the law, oppress the people, and often explicitly oppose God.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Calvin on Church and State: Two Co-ordinated Governments

This continues my series on John Calvin's political theology

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Calvin did not hold to a two-kingdom view of church and state, properly speaking, but a two-government (duplex regimen) view of God’s unified kingdom.

This was different from the Lutheran view, which drew a sharper antithesis between internals and externals, the world and the spirit. It was also different to the Anabaptist separation of church from state. Both these views effectively denied that the state had any useful role in establishing piety.

Calvin also differed from the Zwinglian delegation of church governance to secular authorities. Calvin insisted that church officers, not secular magistrates, control spiritual matters, including the right to communicate. This insistence caused his 1538-41 exile from Geneva. To achieve their independence, Geneva had relied upon military assistance of the Swiss Protestant cities of Fribourg and Bern. In 1538, the Senate instituted a Zwinglian submission of the church to the state, which conformed with Bern’s ecclesio-political arrangement, but which Calvin opposed. The Senate responded by exiling Calvin.

Calvin maintained a distinction, though not separation, between church and state. The church establishes God’s inner kingdom, in the believer’s conscience, through word and sacrament. The church must not bear the sword – it must not use coercion to achieve Godliness. We experience a true, partial realisation of the Kingdom of God in the church, not the state.

The state’s jurisdiction is ‘secular’ insofar as it is focused on ordering external, visible, ‘public’ life. The state must not intrude into the internal realm of conscience, nor attempt to use its weapons of coercion in that realm. ‘[N]either the laws and edicts of men, nor the punishments inflicted by them, enter into the consciences.’

Nevertheless, this outward public order is an aspect of true piety, and, by analogy, a testimony to the internal peace and order that the gospel establishes. Negatively, civil government restrains sin. Positively, it establishes humane relations among all people, and establishes true religion. Human government is therefore not just a necessary evil, but is God’s good provision for human flourishing. It is a providential aid to Godliness, which helps us enact the earthly aspects of our heavenward pilgrimage.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Calvin on Government and Freedom

This continues my series on Calvin's political theology

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Calvin’s view on secular government intersects with his view on Christian freedom. In the first edition of Institutes, the section on freedom immediately preceded those on ecclesial and civil power.

Against Rome, Calvin asserted that the Christian’s conscience was freed, through justification by faith in Christ alone, from slavery to rituals, works-righteousness, and earthly authority in this justificative sense. Christians are saved not by being rightly related to Rome through the institutional church, but by being rightly related to God, in Christ, through the Spirit. Against the Anabaptists, he asserted this freedom was not for license or insurrection, but for obedience to God’s commands, expressed in an ordered life, submissive to earthly rule.

Monday, 7 December 2009

The Political Significance of Calvin's Institutes

This continues my series on Calvin's political theology

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Calvin intended his Institutes to be an introduction to the study of Scripture, and thus nourish piety. It is not first of all a political manifesto.

Nevertheless, it begins and ends with political statements. In the prefatory address, Calvin reminds Francis that a ‘true king’ must ‘recognize himself a minister of God in governing his kingdom’, and warns him that a king who ‘does not serve God’s glory exercises not kingly rule but brigandage’, and that a kingdom which is ‘not ruled by God’s sceptre, that is, his Holy Word’ will not prosper. The whole preface is a plea that Francis give the Protestants a fair hearing, and not associate them with Anabaptist turmoil. These themes are repeated and expanded in the Institute’s final chapter, which remained virtually unchanged from the first edition of Institutes to the last.

Calvin’s Institutes is an apologia for the magisterial reformation, and therefore a highly political document. It is an appeal to secular rulers to exercise their God-given privilege and responsibility of leading their subjects into true religion.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Calvin's Geneva

This continues my series on Calvin's political theology

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Calvin first arrived in Geneva in 1536. Geneva had recently become theologically Protestant, freeing itself from the Roman prince-bishop, who, along with the cathedral canons, had wielded political, economic and ecclesial authority. It had also recently become politically republican, freeing itself from the French Duke of Savoy – who was Catholic. Geneva’s republican form of government was expressed in its hierarchical councils, headed by the Senate of twenty-five native-born citizens, elected annually, supervised by four executives called Syndics, also elected annually.

Calvin invented neither political republicanism nor ecclesial presbyterianism. Other Swiss and German cities had previously experimented with hierarchical conciliar rule since the 14th century. Calvin’s contribution was to develop and formalise them in his civil and ecclesial constitutions, the Ordinances for Offices and Officers, and the Ecclesial Ordinances, which he drafted upon his return to Geneva in 1541. The way he structured the consistory was a novel contribution to co-ordinating without confusing the two spheres of church and state. The consistory was a church court, not a civil one. But it heard cases concerning public behaviour – theft, lying, vandalism, marital issues, etc. Calvin wanted the consistory, as the highest church court, to hold the power of excommunication. But it took until 1555 to establish that power. Until then, the consistory could only admonish, and recommend excommunication to the Senate.

Catholic persecution of Protestants in places like France, Italy, England and Scotland brought a flood of Protestant refugees into Geneva. This brought Calvin into close contact with the effects of persecution, and also disseminated his ideas all over Europe. But it also caused unrest by local Genovese patriots, led by Ami Perrin, who happened to be a hero of the recent independence from the French Duchy of Savoy. Xenophobia against the (mainly French) refugees led to the 1555 riot where the anti-Calvin Perrinistes were defeated, and Calvin’s status strengthened to a position he enjoyed to the end of his life.

Friday, 4 December 2009

AFES National Training Event


I'm off to Canberra for AFES National Training Event ("NTE"). More than 1,000 Christian uni students from all over the country are descending on Canberra to get trained for ministry, then heading out for various mission locations. My church, Merrylands East Presbyterian Church, is hosting a mission team next week. Stay tuned for updates.

Meanwhile, through the power of scheduled posts, my series on John Calvin's political theology will continue :)

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Calvin's political theology

Political theology is the art of analysing human government – the state, the polis – through the lens of theology. It asks: what does God say about ordered human community in this world? How, according to God, may we create societies which maximise human flourishing? Evangelical political theology finds the answers through a Christ-centred understanding of the Bible.

I just handed in an essay on John Calvin's political theology, in his context in 16th century Geneva. Here's some of my thoughts.

John Calvin was never a ‘politician’ in the sense of holding public office. In Geneva, he was officially Lecturer in Holy Scripture, and for his whole life he saw himself as a pastor-teacher of God’s flock. His personal impact upon Geneva, and perhaps on the whole Protestant movement, was due mainly to his preaching. Calvin preached several times a week. His preaching was clear, simple, and rhetorically powerfully. Through it, he shaped the minds of the Genovese population and their leaders.

However, Calvin saw politics as a necessary aspect of godliness. Consistent with the medieval church, other magisterial reformers, and indeed most of history, he saw an ‘indissoluble link between religious faith and public order’. The ‘secular’ state was not a ‘faith-free zone’ – this is a modern, post-Enlightenment innovation. For Calvin, both church and state had been established by God, as distinct but coordinated jurisdictions, which serve God by establishing true piety. Even pagan philosophers founded their political philosophy upon theology and piety.

Calvin’s desire for a Godly, republican commonwealth stems from at least four sources: old testament Israel’s polity; classical Greco-Roman polity; existing European republicanism; and the medieval Catholic tradition of conciliar governance. He was trained as a lawyer, a training which included philosophy and theology as well as legal studies. Civil government was a major theme in his 1532 Commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia. He sometimes preached in light of political incidents, eg: on November 4 and 11, 1545, Calvin preached on Psalms 115 and 124 in light of a military incident involving the Schmalkaldic League and a German Roman-Catholic duke. He wrote letters to politicians all across Europe, and dedicated commentaries to Protestant rulers: his commentary on the Epistles to Edward VI of England; his commentary on Isaiah to Elizabeth I; and his commentary on Hebrews to Sigismund, king of Poland.