Saturday, September 30, 2017

Going to church with Martin

Martin Luther (1483- 1548) 

I came across this passage from Luther not long ago:

So it is not irreligious, idle, or superfluous, but in the highest degree  wholesome and necessary, for a Christian to know whether or not his will has anything to do in matters  pertaining to salvation. `Indeed, let me tell you, this is the hinge on which our discussion turns, the crucial issue between us; our aim is, simply, to investigate what ability ‘free will’ has, in what respect it is the subject of Divine action and how it stands related to the grace of God.…..For if I am ignorant of the nature, extent and limits of what I can and must do with reference to God, I shall be equally ignorant and uncertain of the nature, extent and limits what God can and will do in me…

By free will here is not included the question of whether we are robots or puppets . Luther and Erasmus agree at least in this: neither thinks we are robots or puppets. Rather, it is about the moral and spiritual condition of our wills, and  about  the rather different attitude to the human will disclosed in Scripture than we entertain of our own wills.  [Since being brought up short by this passage I have idly wondered if in churches of the Reformation in these days, in preaching and in the construction of services of worship, this theme is given its due, or whether it is covered up. When did you last hear a sermon on the human will? Me? The same.]

Luther’s response to Erasmus is to argue that, if we cover up the questions,  in what respect our wills are subject  of divine action and  stand related to the grace of God,  we shall go radically astray. In fact if we cover these matters up it is rather more serious than that: he says that we shall be ‘no Christian and the Christian’s chief foe'. We need proper biblical statements (‘assertions’ is Luther's word) about ourselves, and then we shall have appropriate expectations of ourselves, and of God. Like Calvin, Luther believed that the knowledge of God and ourselves are interrelated.


Are we going to  the supermarket? Cash? A card? Good. Thus armed, we toddle off. What was it for? Soapflakes? Ham? Eggs? Not a problem, as they say at the till. Perfect. Let’s say that that in these circumstances we are fitted to go to the premarket.

What corresponds to being fitted when we go to church to hear the gospel?  What fits us? When are we ready? We know where to go. We don’t need any  money. What else? Luther would ask us, have you forgotten something? What about yourself?

In some  respects church  is a deceptive.  An ordinary  building, ordinary people. In these respects, like the supermarket, the holiday venue, the concert, the school. But God is present in his church. Does that make a difference? Certainly. As we enter church, we are in a uniquely serious place. Are we ready for what can follow?

We are used these days to coming to church just as we are. We are casual, relaxed. It’s like visiting the places we have already mentioned. We take our seats, see our friends, and so on. But as we wait for the service to begin, are we fitted for what is to come?


That sort of question, 'Are we fitted?' is scary for some, unsettling. Fitted for what is to follow? Don’t we come just as we are to a Christian church? Isn’t this sort of question legalistic? Isn’t everything unconditional here?

In the passage from Luther that we had to start with, he continues:

….[I}f I am ignorant of God’s works and power, I am ignorant of God himself; and if I do not know God, I cannot worship, praise, give thanks or serve Him, for I do not know how much I should attribute to myself and how much to God .  We need, therefore, to  have in mind a clear-cut distinction between God’s power and ours, and his work and ours, if we would live a godly life. (78)

Knowing God is first of all knowing what his power is.

For Luther grace is unconditional, but coming to church isn’t a matter of being relaxed and easy. Coming to church is a matter of first getting prepared and then of being prepared. Not of course by doing things that undermine receiving  the grace of God, but by doing things – specifically, by knowing things – that prepare us for receiving his grace.

For there are barriers in the way of such preparation,  barriers kept up by the working of own sinful nature. So Luther’s concern is to know about free will, or rather about our lack of free will. Otherwise if we are blithely ignorant we shall not know what we need and how to receive it.

Have you usually come to church  thinking that things are OK? Or that they can soon be OK once I have sung a hymn or two? Have you forgotten, or perhaps have never realised,  that we  ourselves resist and distort the offer of God’s free grace? And that we can’t get ourselves right, because our wills are in bondage to sin, and that we cannot get right automatically,  just by coming to church. The grace God  which frees  us to come to Christ, must come from God.  And that our innate self-righteousness that has erected barriers to  this  only God can deal with? We must prepare ourselves for the necessary changes - our feeling of helplessness and the need for repentance - will to begin with be decidedly uncomfortable. Church is unique because there and only there we need strength that we do not have. When we realise this we are on the way to being fitted.

So it is also a fallacy to think that because grace is free, not earned but given, everything about our relation to  the Lord God of all grace is free and easy as well. Is God so good that his goodness may be taken for granted?


Luther’s differences with Erasmus’s view, that it is safe to be ignorant of the spiritual bondage of our wills and how it leaves us,  is not just an academic matter. Christianity is not simply a religion of maintaining a cultural tradition, of reciting general facts about  Jesus and the resurrection. Or about attending church to listen and to sing ‘in community’.  If we are not fitted it is a personal, existential, factor. How otherwise than by coming to know God and ourselves can a person, coming into church, be ‘convicted by all…called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you’. (1 Cor. 14. 24-5)

*The passage from Luther is on p.78 of the Packer and Johnston edition of his The Bondage of the Will.
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Thursday, June 01, 2017

BO and 2K

I have not yet read The Benedict Option. But I have been exposed to quite a bit of what Rod Dreher (who is Greek Orthodox) has to say in the book, which has  been foreshadowed in his very readable and informative blog. He has boundless energy and often good judgment in assessing political and social questions. Above all he is concerned with the survival of the Christian faith and Christian culture alive in the current American climate. He writes against the background of the sudden disappearance of ‘Christian America’ and the withering of the assumption that with the right appointments in the Supreme Court, and the electoral success of the Republican Party, the safety and prosperity of the Christian Church in America would be assured.  Not so, as we clearly see. See in the US and (with the corresponding changes), and see in the UK and in Western Europe more generally.

The link with St. Benedict and the monastic life with Dreher’s proposals of what to do  is a bit misleading, I think. It suggests (despite protestations to the contrary) to Reformed Protestants  the formation of groups who flee to the wilderness, and who set up a monastery, or similar, devoted to the liturgy of the Church and to works of charity  But I think that the substance, or the centre of gravity, of the BO is rather different. This is not an argument to flee from all that is anti-Christian. Dreher’s recommendation is not this. He is concerned with the Christian family, with the education of the young, with the inter-generational support of the young and the fear of being lost or at best marginalized. Particularly he is concerned with the induction of the rising generation in the traditions and identity of the church,  and of being a Christian. And to weigh these of things against a manner of life that will currently and forseeably leads to Christian compromise.

But there will be no advice from Dreher  to instruct one’s Benedict group in 2K and its implications, for he adopts a more relaxed view to church traditions. After all, his is a reaction to a situation in which Christianisation of society is declining. It is an exercise in re-christianisation.

Take for example the issue of education. Forty or sixty years ago the state system could be relied on to uphold a general moral framework, regarding behavior, language and sexual morality. So that to seek Christian education for one’s children by attaching them to a Christian school was regarded by the education by the state system as over-protection. The simple argument was ‘If sooner or later children grow up and have to take their place in the wider world, the sooner they meet such knocks as they’ll receive when they grow up the better’. The state school was regarded as a microcosm of wider society. Knocks received at school foreshadowed the wider knocks of life. We did not realize that what was then regarded as normality, permanence, was rather fragile and rose-tinted. ‘Normality’ was in fact the last waltz of Victorian and Edwardian social mores, kept in place by legislation. Remove that legislation (as it is now largely removed) and it lost its support in the new generations. What was change to the older was normality to the newer. One of the features of modern western societies hastening change is how they have come to identify morality with legality.

If it is self-consistent, 2K takes a different generational approach than this. The presence of two kingdoms is a fundamental teaching of Jesus, not a political re-positioning for tactical advantage. The Benedict Option does not recognize it as mandatory. In Christianity there is always the kingdom of God and of his Christ, and the kingdom of this world. In not recognizing this the BO was making a serious error.

It is not that the phrase ‘the kingdom of God’ is a woolly metaphor for which by alliances with kings and emperors, with the ‘elites’ as we now talk, the church can ‘Christianise’ politics and so protect its own identity, and secure its flourishing, is a serious theological error. Christ refers to ‘his kingdom’ as having spiritual, ethical and political consequences, and it is defined or characterised without any positive references to the kingdoms of this world.

A glance at data in the NT shows that the kingdom of God, or of Christ, is closely integrated into the work of Christ for us……It is the subject matter of his teaching, and of umpteen of his parables, in which the growth of the kingdom - secret, inexorable -  is emphasized, and its sharp contrast with the kingdoms of this world is clearly defined.  It has a manifesto, but not one such matters as housing, or social care, or Brexit, or the cost of domestic electricity. Not even policies on education. For it is a kingdom that is not of his world, ‘else would my servants fight’, or drum up electoral support, or identify it with certain political or social initiatives, or a foreign policy for the Middle East.

Its central soteriological significance can be seen in texts such as Luke 7.28, Christ’s assertion that whoever is least in the kingdom of God is greater than John the Baptist. The kingdom is a dispensational matter. Or ‘For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.' (Rom.14.17) Glossing that, we might say that the kingdom of God has not to do with social policy of any kind, particularly, (in this instance) with dietary regimes. Being obese or skinny is not a matter of the kingdom. Or how about ‘He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son’? (Col.1.13). Being in the kingdom is the result of the enlightening and vivifying work of the Father. Or, ‘Therefore, brothers,  be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fail. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’. (2 Pet. 1.10-11) The qualities referred to are the various virtues outlined earlier in the chapter.

What such data underline in the reference to 2K, is  that  there is a serious equivocation of ‘kingdom’ as between the this-worldly kingdom and other-worldly kingdom. A person with a British and a Swedish passport (say) may be said to be a member of two kingdoms, but this is not a case of 2K. Such a kingdom may be a member of the United Nations, but Christ’s kingdom can never be. How we relate to a decaying culture and society is a matter of the individual Christian and the family. You may think that the Benedict Option is for you and your house. Others may be able to make a career in Caesar’s household, or as a slave, or as tentmakers, (to give New Testament options). Let everyone be fully persuaded in his own mind.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Mass Destruction

Melvin Tinker, Mass  Destruction (EP)


It is a great pleasure to be asked to write some words of introduction to the latest book of my long-time friend, Melvin Tinker. He has many gifts, one of which, not the least, is as an apologist for the faith. Melvin’s contemporary  style, his wide reading, his knowledge of the Bible, and his theological grasp enliven and inform all that he has to say.

The new book may be thought of as an exercise in consistency, or better in Christian integrity. None of us have any difficulty in finding warm and comforting words from the Bible: Psalm 23, or Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, or the way Jesus welcomed children, or fed the hungry and healed the sick. But the Bible has a darker side. Not only Jesus’ kind words and deeds, but his anger, his driving men from the Temple with a hand-made whip, his pointed remarks about the division his teaching will cause, and his statements on Hell as well as on Heaven, for example.

In this book Melvin is dealing with this darker side. If the Christian teaching about the Bible being one book, with one overall theme or message, is true, we must not overlook its darker side. The  darker side of Jesus’ ministry, but also the deeds of the ‘God of the Old Testament’. In a day when the Bible is dissected by the critics, or divided by specialists, this in itself is a welcome emphasis.  The Bible is the one word of God, and its entirety is to be taken seriously and faced honestly. The darker side cannot simply be brushed under the carpet. Apart from anything else, this is simply to push the culture further away from the sunnier side of its teaching. For as was aptly said, ‘If you belittle the disease you belittle the physician.’ The Lord our God is one Lord. Integrity demands that we form a consistent judgment of both the shadows and the sunshine.

Preparatory to this, we need to be reminded of God’s character. Any attentive reader of the Bible can see that it is impossible to make sense of it without the idea that God has a mind of his own. He is not simply the rather ineffective help to satisfying the latest desires of men and women. In any case, these are constantly shifting, with an ever-enlarging portfolio of ‘rights’ to benefit from.  God is not a human agent, not even a human prime minister or president or business leader, but our Creator and Lord. He is not driven by his desires to please us, but is just and holy. Because of this his love, disclosed in his covenant with Abraham and in Jesus the Mediator of the Covenant, is not moody, but deep and unwavering, rooted in his own unchanging character, and involving the humiliation and death of God incarnate. God did not spare his Son but delivered him up for us all.

God has a plan. Much of the detail of this plan is hidden from us, but it is clear that it involves the choice of a people, the people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and of blessing of them through a gracious covenant. This arrangement both allows for the  people’s chastisement if and when their fidelity to the covenant falters, and their protection from the attacks of surrounding nations intent on snuffing them out. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, says that in the Old Testament the people of God were under age, ‘under guardians and managers’ while being surrounded by bitter enemies. Both the correction  and protection of his people required that their God  undertook acts of holy discipline and destruction. 

In other words, Melvin is arguing from the Bible itself, that it is necessary to contextualize the darker side of things. These are not isolated events which show us that God, is capable of losing his temper, or of being vicious and bloodthirsty. This is not how the destruction of the Canaanites is to be seen. Rather they are instances of his protective care of his people, just as the disobedience of his own people has to be visited with the destructive-corrective action of God. These are parts of one consistent picture, what Melvin refers to as the non-partisan action of God. Not an isolated case of bullying or of loss of composure, but the understanding of God as ‘the judge of all the earth’ who ‘does what is just’. Though God is high and lifted up, nonetheless he has a deep commitment of grace and love to his unprepossessing people. The nations surrounding Israel were not pure and innocent, but idolatrous and abominable. Their actions revealed their detestable character, calling for righteous  punishment.

God does not suddenly grow up, as if the caterpillar of the Old Testament becomes the butterfly of the New Testament. However, his revelation does develop from being focussed exclusively on Israel to his concern for the international church of Jesus Christ.  This is the true, the full, ‘Israel of God. ’It is in Jesus Christ, the Suffering Servant, that we see God’s wrath and grace best refracted.

To spell out these dark themes in some detail is characteristic of the courage and commitment to the truth that is Melvin’s outlook. Some of this makes uncomfortable reading, but then Melvin’s  aim is not  to ‘speak to us smooth words….illusions’, but to be faithful to the God of Israel and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. As he says, both Testaments portray ‘God in his holiness as implacably opposed to all sin which issues in judgment, and yet in his love he shows mercy which calls for repentance’.