Saturday, 27 November 2010

Free Church of Scotland permits hymns and musical instruments

News flash: the Free Church of Scotland, one of the most significant Presbyterian denominations which split in the 1800s from the Church of Scotland, has permitted hymns and musical instruments in its churches. To be precise, they have given "liberty to its congregations to sing hymns and use instruments, if individual Kirk Sessions [Church Elder's Committee] so choose".

Yes I know that sounds really lame, but bear with me while I explain why it's important.

The Free Church is theologically conservative, but has also been historically energetic. They set up New College at the University of Edinburgh, which now hosts the School of Divinity - that is, the university's theological faculty. They sent missionaries to Africa, India (Calcutta, Bombay, Poona and Madras), Canada, Australia (!) and the Middle East. Their theology was probably the closest to the Old Princeton Presbyterianism of Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield.

A lot (most? all?) of this energy has come from the Free Church's theological strength - their focus on the Bible, allied with a thoroughgoing Westminster Calvinism. An aspect of that theological strength has been a conservative view on the Regulative Principle - the view that Sunday church worship (and all of life) must be regulated by the Bible. If it's not permitted in scripture, it's not permitted in church. That's why this church historically hasn't used musical instruments, or sung anything beyond Psalms - which of course are inscripturated songs therefore permissible.

But now, as noted above, they've permitted musical instruments and songs beyond the Psalms.

I think this is a step forward, in that I don't subscribe to such a biblically prescriptive view of the regulative principle as noted above. I think the Bible gives us principles which regulate our response to God - our "worship" - in any and every situation. But I also think God gives us the responsibility of thinking deeply about how to apply those principles in any particular historical and cultural context.

So, let's speak to and teach and admonish one another through psalms, hymns, and Spiritual songs (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16). God breathed out the Holy Scriptures for our teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). So if we meditate deeply upon the Bible, and express Biblical teaching in songs that are carefully crafted so that they're easy to sing, memorable, and with tunes which fit the mood of the words, then we'll be achieving what Paul means in these verses. I think this step by the Free Church will lead to more evangelism, and more authentic worship - worship which is simultaneously biblically faithful, culturally engaged, and deeply personally satisfying.

But of course I could be wrong. This could be a step backwards - a compromising with culture, a loss of biblical and theological clarity, the beginning of the end. We'll have to wait another 50 or so years and see.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Kingdom and Eternal Life in the Gospel of John

John Dickson, director of the Centre for Public Christianity, is at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. He posted the following summary of an exciting paper by German NT scholar Jorg Frey, in which, John says, "with one simple insight, he resolved a major 'problem' concerning the differences between John and the three other Gospels." He kindly let me re-post it:

* * * * *
Scholars have long pointed out that the central theme of Jesus' preaching, according to Matthew, Mark and Luke, was 'the kingdom of God'. It is everywhere in those Gospels. John virtually ignores that theme, preferring to speak of a nebulous 'eternal life' instead. This was seen as one serious against John's reliability. It does look like a serious problem.

Prof Frey, after outlining the problem, pointed out that in John 3 in the Nicodemus story we find the first and only references (two of them) to 'kingdom of God' AND the first references to 'eternal life'. In fact, if you read carefully - especially in Greek - they are parallel expressions. After this point, John drops 'kingdom of God' and has Jesus speaking consistently of 'eternal life' instead.

So, what's going on? Simple, said Frey. John has flagged for readers that 'eternal life' will now be the synonym for 'kingdom of God' in the rest of his Gospel. Frey explained that the sensitive context of John's social situation may have made 'kingdom' language sound subversive against the Roman empire, and so he dropped it, not in a wholesale way, but by giving us a more acceptable equivalent expression.

Moreover, if we ask: But how could John have felt permission to do this? The answer is provided by Daniel 7 and 12, Old Testament texts which were very influential in early Christianity. There we discover a huge reference to 'kingdom of God'. But we also find references to God's people reigning 'forever and ever; yes, forever and ever', expressions very suggestive of 'eternal life'. In fact, in Dan 12 we find the exact expression 'eternal life'.

In other words, John hasn't perverted Jesus' 'kingdom of God' preaching'. He has transposed it into biblically appropriate and sociologically acceptable language.

That's the gist.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Schreiner, Thielman & Wright on Justification

N. T. (Tom) Wright is famous (or infamous) for his view on justification, which many (myself included) take to be closer to a Catholic, synergistic view than the classic Protestant view - which we insist is the Biblical view.

To simplify the debate (without, hopefully, distorting it too much): Wright says "justification" refers to the church - God accepts those who identify with Christ as the mediator of the covenant. The "Lutheran" or "traditional" response is that such a view makes our act of identification with Christ meritorious - it waters down the idea that justification is an entirely gracious act of God, springing entirely from his willed generosity. The "Lutheran" view of justification is that it is a judicial declaration which sets the sinner in a perfectly right relationship with God. God is therefore the active agent in justification; humans are merely passive recipients. Wright replies that the Holy Spirit is active in empowering the believer to trust and obey. This achieves the same result as the "Lutheran" view - God is still the active agent in justification - but, Wright contends, his view is theologically and anthropologically richer, in engaging the whole Trinity in justification, and seeing faith and obedience as a whole-person response.

Both sides of course claim to be Biblical and publish books and blog posts and beat each other round the head with Bible verses (*sigh*).

Anyway... the Evangelical Theological Society just hosted a debate between Wright and two of his critics: Tom Schreiner, professor of New Testament at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Frank Thielman, Presbyterian professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School. Unsurprisingly, the blogosphere has promptly gone ballistic. The foll. ppl have posted summaries & comments:

Friday, 19 November 2010

In the future, our sexuality will be fulfilled and transcended

In our previous post, we saw that Christ restores our sexuality in the present, by reaffirming heterosexual marriage, and modelling contentment and self-control. In the future, our sexuality will be transcended in God’s new creation.

The restoration of our sexuality, while real, will always be incomplete in the present - as will be all aspects of our human restoration. The Bible looks forward to a new creation, a new universe, where everything that is corrupt and painful will pass away, and we will only ever enjoy life and peace and safety. Only in this new creation will the effects of sin – of our willed rejection of God – be finally dealt with, and our human wholeness completely restored.

In this new creation, our sexuality will not just be restored, it will be transcended. The bible talks about God’s relationship with his people as a bride and bridegroom. In one of the final chapters of the bible, the Apostle John sees this vision - Revelation 21:2, 3:
2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”
The image is of God taking his people home, to live with him, like a husband taking his wife to their love nest. The new creation is like an eternal honeymoon. The joys, pleasures and fulfilments of sexuality will be fulfilled, and transcended, in the eternal joys, pleasures and fulfilment of relationship with God.

This future hope empowers present contentment and self control. People with a regular sexual partner can enjoy sex, without demanding it be ‘perfect’. Single people can affirm their sexuality, without expressing it, because it will be fulfilled and transcended in the new creation. We can control our desires now because the pleasure of seeing God face-to-face will be, literally, better than sex.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Healthy sexuality in the present

In our last post, we saw that Christ restores our sexuality - but we yet await a final restoration. In the present, sexual restoration involves three things: (1) the normativity of heterosexual marriage; (2) contentment; and (3) self control.

We have already seen Jesus validate marriage in Matt 19. Committed heterosexual marriage remains the context wherein to enjoy sex. If sexual partners are committed to each other for life, then sex is part of that shared life together. It is not just a one-night stand. We can encourage them to conduct their sexuality in such a way as to serve each other, and give each other the best possible sexual experience, over their whole life.

The normativity of sex within marriage calls for sexual contentment, both within and outside marriage.

Life with a regular sexual partner, married or not, still involves unmet sexual desires. Constant sexual satisfaction is a myth – it only happens in the movies. So, within marriage, we are called to contentment – to be grateful for what our partner can give us, not constantly demanding more. If we are content and grateful like this, then sex becomes an act that draws the sexual partners together in genuine mutual joy. Lack of contentment turns sex into a weapon – something to be used to get what you want.

Because sexuality is intrinsic to being human, single people can still view themselves as sexual beings, even if they don’t express their sexuality actively. Singles are to be content – that is, genuinely comfortable with themselves, happy, fulfilled – until they get married, or even with a lifetime of celibacy. Jesus was single and celibate. It is possible to be a fulfilled, happy virgin.

This contentment is allied with self control. Sexual desire is, prima facie, good. But we are called to manage those desires. The bible assumes that we are not merely victims of our passions, but that we can use our minds and will to control those passions, and channel them into useful, healthy, constructive pursuits.

And this contentment and self-control is also fuelled by a future hope of a fulfilled, transcended sexuality - which will be the subject of our final post.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Christ restores us to wholeness - in hope of final restoration

In our last post, we saw how our rejection of God - sin - affects us all, including our sexuality.

Because we’re all broken people, we need someone to fix us from the outside.

Jesus forgives us for rejecting God. And, he restores us to human wholeness. This is what he achieved in his cross and resurrection. Think of Jesus’ death on the cross as the ultimate sickness – sickness to death. And think of his resurrection as the ultimate healing – so healthy that he can never die again. He takes the consequences we deserve, so we can enjoy the life God always planned for us.

So, Christians are always hopeful. It doesn’t matter how bad a situation is, how much someone’s failed themselves, or failed anyone else – they can be restored by Jesus. We can always say to anyone: hang in there; don’t give up; there is hope.

This restoration is real, but in this life, partial. We'll explore this more over the next few posts.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Our rejection of God damages our sexuality

In our previous post, we noted God's pattern for healthy sexuality is heterosexual monogamy.

We've already seen that sex is not the original sin. Sexuality is implicated within our sin - but it's a victim of sin, not the perpetrator of it. The Bible presents sin as damaging our sexuality, along with the rest of our humanity. In Genesis 3, sin is presented as a willed rejection of God’s rule over our lives. It’s an attitude: “I don’t want you, God, to be in charge of my life; I want to be in charge of my life.” This active rejection of God affects our whole being – including our sexuality.

In Genesis 3:16, God lays out one of the consequences of rejecting him:
To the woman he [God] said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
This turns the previous blessings of sexuality, in Genesis 1 and 2, upside down. In Genesis 1, man and woman were commanded to have babies – “be fruitful, and increase in number”. Now, childbearing is painful. In Genesis 2, man and woman were madly in love with each other. Now they’re going to fight each other.

So I take it that sexual problems are a normal abnormality. They’re normal in the sense that everyone will have some problems in the area of sexuality – from unrealistic expectations of amazing sex (how come it's always so perfect in the movies…?), to unmatched desire ("not tonight dear, I've got a headache"), to acute gender dysphoria. Everyone is going to have some struggle somewhere, because we all reject God; we’re all broken people.

They’re abnormal in that we know it shouldn’t be like this. We long for that joy, honesty and fulfilment which was there at the beginning. And that longing is true – because that’s how God meant it to be.

How can we escape from this body of death? Next post...

Saturday, 13 November 2010

God’s pattern for sexuality: Heterosexual monogamy

In our previous post, we saw how sexuality is a good gift, from God, for our pleasure and for procreation of life.

Sex is so good, that God gives us a pattern within which to enjoy it. It’s like driving a car. A car is a good machine, useful for getting from place to place. But if we don’t control the car – if we deliberately break the rules, or if we just let it go wild – it’s dangerous. It can kill people.
Similarly, sex is good. But it needs to be managed and controlled, or else it can be dangerous.

Both Gen 1 & 2 present sexuality between a man and a woman, in the context of a committed relationship.

It's heterosexual. Genesis 1:27 says “male and female he created them”. In Genesis 1:28, the command to “be fruitful and increase in number” presupposes child-bearing sexual activity, which, until very recently, was heterosexual. In Genesis 2, God creates a woman, Eve, as a companion – to stand beside the man.

And it's a committed, lifelong relationship, ie: marriage. Genesis 2:24 says “a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” That one-flesh union indicates a lifelong, intimate sharing. Jesus himself confirms this in the New Testament. Matthew 19:4-6 records Jesus as saying:
4 “Haven’t you read,” he [Jesus] replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’, 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”
But we mustn’t just assert this pattern, as if everyone who conforms to it is a good, clean-living Christian. When we contemplate God’s pattern for our lives, it becomes clear how we all fall short of it. More on this in our next post.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Sex as a good gift from God

In our previous post, we thought about the implications if sex were intrisically sinful.

In contrast, the Bible tells us sex existed before sin. The first two chapters of Genesis have the stories of how God made the world. Sin only comes in chapter 3. So chapters 1 & 2 are about pure humanity – humanity before sin.
Genesis 1:27-28a:
27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth…”
To be in God’s image is to be like God, while not being God. One of the first aspects of being like God is having babies - which would, for us humans, involve sex.
Having children images God because God gives life, and loves life. God is Father - and fathers have children. God is not sexual in himself; but our sexuality is an irreducible element in our imaging of God's life-giving nature.
So, our sexual nature is tied to being in God’s image – which means it’s tied to our basic humanity.
Then in Genesis chapter 2 we have the story of Adam and Eve. Genesis 2:23-25 records Adam's response when he first met Eve:
23 The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’, for she was taken out of man.” 24 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. 25 The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.
Notice how physical and visual this is. The man and woman are ‘bone of bone’ and ‘flesh of flesh’ – it’s very carnal, very physical. And they were naked before each other – it’s very visual. So, the physical pleasure of sexuality is good. And the visual stimulation of sexuality is good. God made it that way.

In fact, it's so good that God gave us instructions on how to best enjoy it. We'll explore God's good pattern for sexuality in our next post.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

God, self and - er - sex...

Back to everyone's favourite topic: sex!

These posts are adapted from my presentation a couple of weeks ago at the 'sexuality and religion' panel at the annual conference of the Australian Soceity of Sex Educators, Researchers and Therpists (ASSERT). It represents my continuing efforts to arrive at a comprehensive, Biblical view of sexuality, with a view to helping all people - Christian or not - to live healthily with this very important aspect of human life.


Some people think Christians believe that sex is the original sin. That is, God considers all sexual activity to be intrinsically and irredeemably wicked and offensive. To have sex is to offend God.

If this were true, it would have two effects.

First, it would give us a warped view of God. God becomes the cosmic killjoy. Because the one activity that gives us greatest human pleasure is deemed to be the one activity that most offends God.

Secondly, it gives us a warped view of ourselves. If we believe in God, we don’t want to sin; we want to please God instead. So sex becomes an activity full of guilt and shame, instead of joy and happiness. And to be saved – to have a full relationship with God, to “go to heaven” – means to become asexual. The more holy you are, the less sexual you can be.

In contrast, the Biblical view is that sex is immensely good, because God created sex, and created us as sexual beings. More in the next post.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Shout outs: kids staying Christian; Stuart Townend on Corporate Worship

Couple of excellent posts out in the blogosphere:

Monday, 8 November 2010

What is it about late winter - early spring?

September is a flat month for me. And has been for the last coupla years. As in I find myself running on empty, not really motivated to do anything. The results are lagged - witness my lack of blog posts in October.

I suspect it's just mid-year exhaustion. Especially with a hectic winter - MYC, SweatCon and Religion in the Public Square conferences.

I'm not too worried coz I'm not alone. When commented on this to an older minister, he nodded and said "[school] term three is death term." Even Erik Raymond of Irish Calvinist says he's been suffering from blog coma... although when I scroll down his blog he's been posting every day for the last coupla weeks... oh dear... (*intimidated*).

Anyway... I'm back in the blogosphere now. More posts on the way.