Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Position Vacant: Lecturer in Biblical Studies (Old Testament), Presbyterian Theological Centre, Sydney

John Davies, old testament scholar and founding principal of the Sydney Presbyterian Theological Centre, is retiring at the end of this year. PTC is looking for an OT lecturer. For more info, see the PTC news or download the job description. Applications close 13 April 2012. Applications to the PTC Principal, Rev. Dr. Ian Smith,

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Speech act theory in a nutshell

A Facebook friend just asked me: "Just quickly, what is speech act theory in a nutshell?"

My response:

Words do things. To speak is to act. We don't want people to simply listen to us, but to be impacted by what we say and respond in some way. Eg: you asked me a question - you want your words to act upon me in such a way that I respond by providing you with information concerning speech-act theory. Which I have now done. I take it you don't want me to respond to your question by writing a thesis on speech-act theory, rolling it into a scroll, squeezing it into a nutshell, and handing it to you...

The intended impact of a particular unit of discourse depends on its context.
Eg: Fred says to George: "the door is open."
Does Fred mean:
  • It's cold - could you shut the door, please;
  • Take the opportunity while you have the chance;
  • Get out!
  • Something else...?
It depends on context - what Fred & George's relationship is like; where they are; what they've been saying to each other... etc. When communicating in person, we discern nuances of meaning from body language. When dealing with a written text, we need to pay attention to genre ("writing style"), literary and historical context, and author's particular writing style... etc.

Eg: your request for info "in a nutshell" depends on a shared assumption between you & I that by "nutshell" you don't literally mean you want information stored inside the empty shell of a nut, but you want a brief answer. This rambling discourse proves my complete inability to answer anything briefly, nutshell notwithstanding.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Evangelical use of Speech-Act theory

Recently, Evangelical theologians have been applying Speech-Act theory to various elements of theology. They include:
Anyone know any other significant ones that I've missed...?

Here's my summary of the theological use of speech-act theory:
  1. The Bible, as God's word, is not "dead" - it's not passive, just sitting there waiting for us to breathe life into it through our hermeneutical manoeuvres;
  2. On the contrary, it is "alive", because it is God's active speech to us.
  3. In the Bible, God proposes the means of relating to him - viz, Christ, the Gospel. The Bible is God's word and Jesus is God's word. The Bible is living and active because the risen Jesus is living and active as the divine communication of the living, active God.
  4. That divine proposal, by it's very nature as God's word to his people, achieves its desired result of causing those people - "the elect" - to take hold of those proposed means of relating to God.
  5. Putting it Trinitarianly: the Father speaks - the Son is the content of that speech - the Spirit applies the Word to our "souls" - our hearts & minds, the internal aspect of human being - such that we willingly & wholeheartedly turn to God in Christ in repentance and faith.
My questions to you are:
  1. Have I got it right? Is this a good summary of the Evangelical use of Speech-Act theory?
  2. Have they got it right? Does this faithfully represent God, and his means of relating to the world and the church?
Thoughts, please.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Marriage & radical individualistic voluntarism

Over at Big Think, Peter Lawler has an interesting secular article on the recent trend to re-define marriage in terms of radically individual voluntarism - that is, defining marriage as a "contract" by an individual, to whom "society" must grant the freedom to marry whoever they want (= voluntarism), and if they don't get that freedom, they're being "oppressed".

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

God's love and human romantic love

Seeing as it's Valentine's day, I got to thinking - is there any connection between God’s love and human romantic love?

Some Old Testament passages describe The LORD’s attitude to his people in emotional terms. He delights in his people and considers Israel, even in exile, precious and honoured, the very apple of his eye (Deut. 30:9; 32:10; Is. 43:4; 62:5; Zech. 2:8). Yahweh ‘desired’ [hashaph] Israel (Deut. 7:7; 10:15), akin to how Shechem desired [hashaph] Dinah (Gen. 34:8), or an Israelite may desire [hashaph] a war-captive woman (Deut. 21:11).

The New Testament also portrays God as desiring his people, and this desire motivating him to redemptive action. Christ felt compassion [splagzomai] for needy people, and this compassion motivated him to acts which eradicated the effects of sin – healing the sick (Matt. 14:14; Mk. 1:41), feeding the hungry (Matt. 15:32 = Mark 6:34; Mark 8:2), giving sight to the blind (Matt. 20:34), raising the dead (Lk. 7:13). The virtuous characters in his parables demonstrated similar compassion attitudes and merciful actions: the ruler in the parable of the unmerciful servant forgave the servant’s debt (Matt. 18:27); the Samaritan cared for the Jewish man (Luke 10:33); the father of the prodigal son did not hold his sins against him but rejoiced at his return (Luke 15:20). Saul discovered that to persecute Christians was to persecute Christ (Acts 9:4-5). This all demonstrates that God, in Christ, ‘desires’ his people: he sets his affections upon them, identifies with them, and therefore acts to redeem them.

The analogy must be handled cautiously. First of all, the the doctrine of God’s asceity indicates that, in his eternal, Triune self-giving and mutual constitution, God is replete – he is fully satisfied with himself.

[I]n their interpersonal reciprocal relations the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are the Communion of Love which the One God eternally is in himself… It is as this ever living and acting Communion of loving and being loved that God is who he is… (T. F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, London: T. & T. Clark, 1996: 5-6.)

Shechem and the Israelite men were attracted to the women for their beauty; Yahweh did not redeem Israel for any attractive feature they possessed, but because his consistent character moved him to fulfil his promises to their fathers (Deut. 7:7-8). God’s affection for Israel is unilateral and often unrequited; Song of Songs and 1 Cor. 7 show us that healthy marriages are characterised by mutual affection. Jealousy drives humans to excessive anger (Prov. 6:34, 27:4; Eccl. 4:4; Acts 5:17, 13:45, 17:5; etc), while Yahweh is slow to anger (Ex. 34:6; Num. 14:18; Neh. 9:17; Ps. 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jon. 4:2; Nah. 1:3).

Nevertheless, the analogy is there. The God of the Old Testament acted to redeem his people because he ‘desired’ them – he ‘wanted’ to dwell with them. So he acted powerfully to rescue them from oppression and take them to himself in the promised land. To say ‘God loves’ is to say he, of his own gracious will, binds his well-being with the well-being of his people, and this alignment motivates him to redemptive action, supremely in the cross of Christ.

God's redemptive love is unique. We cannot "save" anyone by our love. Only God can do that through Christ. Missionary dating is a disaster. Do not marry an unbeliever (1 Cor. 7:39; 2 Cor. 6:14). The first point of contact for this analogy is that we who trust Christ should feel absolutely comfortable in his love, expressed and enacted in Christ.

But, I think we can say that God's love in Christ reflexively validates human romantic love, in the sense of the goodness of a desire to be with someone, and share life in mutual blessing. This isn't "redemptive" in the proper sense - doesn't save us from sin - but it does fulfil our genuine created relational needs. We were not made to be alone, we were made to be in relationship with each other, especially the relationship of marriage. Human romance is, at its best, an expression of this appropriate need. And this need is connected to the gospel of the God who does not need us, but voluntarily chooses to be with us.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

First vs Second generation ethnic ministry

Here's some thoughts on Subcontinental ministry I put together for a ministry working group. Feedback appreciated.


All humans are created by God, responsible to God, sinful before God, redeemable in Christ, and, depending on their status in Christ, heading for ultimate glory or judgement. The gospel is the same for all people everywhere.

Subcontinental churches potentially become expressions of Subcontinental Christian culture rather than the gospel. I see no difference between this and Australian, Western ecclesial traditionalism – “we like it this way ‘coz it’s always been this way and it makes us feel comfortable.” The difference is that ethnic churches are tolerated, even celebrated, by both the broader church and the world, when they say this. The broader church encourages ethnically enculturated churches because of the HUP and a (rightful) interest in communicating the gospel clearly. The world tolerates ethnic churches because of multiculturalism. In contrast, Western churches where culture > the gospel become historic relics, opposed by Evangelical churches and ignored by the world.

Because these highly enculturated ethnic churches are tolerated or celebrated, they could be blind to the highly enculturated nature of their teaching, worship and formation. Even if they don’t intend to – even if the leaders are converted & mean well – they could end up with culture > the gospel. They too will be in danger of becoming historical relics, irrelevant to both God and the world. This tendency will be accelerated if the church has successfully contextualised the gospel in the home, Subcontinental context – that is, if local believers in the Subcontinent thoughtfully worked out how to express their devotion to Christ in their particular situation. The problem is: there’s no point simply transplanting something that’s culturally appropriate for the Subcontinent to Australia!

This will happen, in part, because second-generation Christian Subcontinentals do not share their parent’s Subcontinental Christian enculturation. In all other aspects of life they mix freely with Aussies, and their parents will encourage this, because that’s what they came here to Aust for – to give their children a chance at a “better life”, where “better life” = Western materialism. Second-generation immigrants are hybrids – they behave in certain ways very “traditionally” – more like their parent’s Subcontinental ways of behaving than their Aussie friends – but are in other areas of life very Western.

This hybrid-ness may occasionally cause conflict in the home. But it will certainly cause conflict with their Christian identity. If, for the ethnic church they attend, Christian culture > the gospel, their church experience will be culturally oppressive rather than evangelically challenging. These young people will eventually reject both the gospel and their inherited Christian culture, because they are not intellectually sophisticated or personally mature enough to distinguish them, nor should we expect them to be.

As these young people reject the gospel, they will instinctively trend towards Western materialism instead, because the whole purpose of immigration is a “better life”, where “better life” = Western materialism. But because of their Christian Subcontinental traditional values, they will probably not adopt a self-evidently destructive hedonistic lifestyle. Ex-Christian Subcontinentals become nice, clean, moral, healthy, wealthy, dignified materialists – the type you’d really love to have as your neighbour.

This is not inevitable for every single ethnic church; it is inevitable for an ethnic church that has not learned to distinguish between the gospel and their inherited Christianised culture. Fixing this is not as simple as creating an English-language service. Such a service could still be highly ethnically enculturated and oppressive. It requires deep self-insight and a critical view of both church and ‘liturgy’. It requires a deep enough grasp of what the gospel actually is, so that we can communicate it to the next generation, and then, having entrusted it to them, liberating them to enact it in a manner appropriate to their social situation – which we cannot assume is the same as ours. It is up to church leaders, not the children, to engage in such thoughtful, honest reflection. I suspect that most churches (not just ethnic?) tacitly expect the opposite: “we’re going to do things our own way, coz that’s how we like it; the kids can take it or leave it”.

Such thoughtful self-criticism is possible. The gospel will enable it, indeed demand it. A truly Christian church is a church founded on the gospel of Christ crucified and risen. Ecclesia semper reformanda est – the church is always being reformed. Second, such thoughtful self-criticism is a return to the individual church’s origins – to its history as a community of people working out what it means to live for Christ in a particular historical culture that ignores or denies him. Ad fontes – back to the source. Also, ethnic churches need the church ‘Catholic’ – they need to be examined and held accountable by other churches. If the church leaders are converted, then when other churches challenge them that it looks like culture > gospel, the leaders will listen.

Second-generation English-language churches are not necessarily the solution; the gospel is. It is tempting to contrast cultural oppression with evangelical liberation – but I think that’s the wrong dichotomy. The real contrast, I think, is between cultural comfort and gospel challenge. Sinful human beings seek comfortable self-affirmation rather than God’s approval – that is, we seek our own righteousness instead of God’s. Such comfortable self-affirmation could come through a familiar social context – a group and place where we do and say familiar things that make us feel welcome and valued – a ‘culture’. First-generation immigrants seek to replicate their comfortable culture; the second generation resist this and seek their own comfortable culture. The gospel cuts across both. It calls the parents to seek the children’s well-being over their own comfort; to desire that the children be converted and following Christ more than happily married and wealthy with a nice career; and to entrust the gospel to those converted children and trust them to grow in it and take it to future generations. It calls the children to submit to the parents, value their insights, and be patient with their foibles. “Honour your father and mother…” “Do not rebuke an older man harshly”. (Note: the verse does not say “do not rebuke an older man”, but “do not rebuke an older man harshly”. Also, the logic of the comparison with exhorting one’s father assumes that it is possible to gently upbraid one’s elders without disrespecting them).

Second-generation Subcontinental immigrants need the same that first-generation Subcontinental immigrants need, which is what the whole world needs – to be challenged, through the gospel, to worship God in Christ.