Saturday, December 26, 2009

Happy Christmas Everyone!

Thank you for continuing to visit my blog even though it can a bit erratic!

I have to confess to feeling a bit drained at the moment.  Just as the Christmas services finished yesterday, we had, today, a large wedding and then I am out tonight.  Of course, tomorrow it's Sunday with services as usual.  Strictly speaking, we do not normally conduct weddings on Boxing Day, but it is not easy to refuse an earnest request, is it?  And then Monday is back to normal.  Batteries are running a bit low, I am afraid.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

I truly am very sorry not to have been able to continue posting last week.  I am trying to get all the building work here at Christ Church finished for Christmas.  It's a long story, but we are nearly there.  The trouble is that to bring it to completion involves dealing with 5 different contractors and getting them to co-ordinate their work is no easy business.  And today all the School services for Christmas have started.  Great fun!

On a positive note, the Church was very full last Sunday.  This is not traditionally a busy Sunday so it's quite encouraging with Christmas coming up.  This week, in common with many churches, we will be having our Sunday School Nativity in the morning and our Carols by Candlelight Service in the evening.  I know it is not all about numbers, but you can't get your message out if there's no-one there to hear it.

I have always thought that Christmas was our best time of year for reaching out to people.  I was more than a little surprised then to read of a British Bishop criticizing the words in traditional carols.  Now he may be right (I am not sure he is, but that's another matter), but it is truly appalling timing.  I can't imagine Marks and Spencer announcing that some of its Christmas range is rubbish in the middle of the Christmas shopping season.  Doubtless, M&S will review their range and performance in the New Year.  Maybe that would have been a better time for the Bishop to invite comments on what for many people is an essential part of Christmas.

I always try to use only those carols that I feel convey the Gospel message, but at the same time surely a bit of poetic licence is allowed.  In the bleak mid-winter by Christina Rossetti, for example, is clearly inaccurate when it comes to the meteorological details of the Nativity, but right on when it comes to what Christmas is or should be all about:

What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him -
Give my heart.

I hope that neither Bishops nor busyness are spoiling the Christmas season for you!

Friday, December 04, 2009

I really wanted to post this next blog in the series on Using the Bible in Ethics much earlier, but I have so many baptisms, weddings, and sadly, funerals, going on at the moment, not to mention much building work - you get the idea!  Anyway, I was determined to post before the weekend.  I will try to tidy it up a bit over the next few days, but I hope you get the point of what I am trying to say.

On the same day as I posted about real Christmas cards, I got some!  The prize for the first one to be sent (that means, the one that was written first) goes to Bill and Diana, two dear members of the Christ Church community world-wide. Unbelievably, Bill and Diana live in Bedford, where my parents and brother and sister-in-law live.  Bill and Diana, if you read this, thank you!  We hope to see you soon.

It truly is a small world after all!

9. Using the Bible in Ethics: Divorce (Part Four - A Changed World and A Changed Institution)

We have seen in the previous post in this series how difficult it is to understand even seemingly obvious statements about ethics in the Bible.  (For previous posts see: Using the Bible in Ethics)  Jesus’ words on divorce, although apparently clear on the surface, occupy just a few verses.  This should warn against assuming that we know everything that Jesus would have said in answer to the questions we would like to ask today or even was asked then!  We can, I think, be certain that Jesus did not think divorce a ‘good thing’, but would he have ruled it out completely, as some argue?  That I think is a more difficult question to answer as St Matthew and David Instone-Brewer illustrate!

And this is all before we stop to consider the way society has changed today from the way it was at the time of the New Testament.  I am afraid that too many fail to take these changes on board before reaching conclusions on what our Lord may or may not have allowed.  Let us then be clear about some of the changes, pastorally, that have taken place when it comes to marriage since the time of our Lord and Paul:

Firstly, women have far great economic freedom now than they did and are not as dependent upon their husbands as generally they have been in the past.  The past century has witnessed great technological change.  It has witnessed great social change as well.  While not all would want to sign up for the feminist cause, there has been a particularly radical change in the role of women in society.  It is all too easy to forget that women weren’t expected to go to university not so long ago.  Their job was to stay at home and have babies.  Now, despite continuing inequalities, the expectation, in the developed world at least, is for them to pursue a career in their own right.

Secondly, and linked to this, is the way women have greater control over their fertility.  A baby has become for most couples a choice to be made and not an inevitable fact of life.  The woman’s role now is not to produce and manage a constantly increasing brood of children.  There is life apart from motherhood and child-rearing, even if for many women it still doesn’t always feel like it!

Thirdly, people today delay getting married much longer for educational and career reasons amongst others.  It is all too easily forgotten that at the time of the New Testament women would marry as soon as they reached puberty.  In my own ministry, I have seen great change in the age of those I marry.  When I was first ordained, it was not at all uncommon to marry people still in their late teens.  Then people started delaying marriage until after university.  Now, if they decide to marry at all, they delay marriage until after they have become established in their career.  Normally, the couples I marry are at least in their 30s and, let it be said, are also already living together.  Apart from anything else, this challenges us also to think about our attitude to sex and marriage, but I will resist the temptation to be side-tracked!

Fourthly, people live longer and so potentially could have much longer marriages.  Again, it is forgotten how easy it was to die in the world of the New Testament.  Life expectancy for a child born in the Roman Empire would have been under 30 years.  Now we expect to live way beyond that.  It’s just a fact that people change over time and if the time is a long time, how does that effect what we expect of marriage?

Fifthly, expectations of what the marriage relationship is about have changed.  It is not now primarily an economic contract designed for the production and rearing of children.  In fact, each partner may have economic independence and neither may want children.  We may deplore the romanticized and sentimentalized view of love all too common in popular-culture, but it remains a fact that this is what most people see as most important in relationships in a way that is simply off the radar in the New Testament.

How then do we apply Jesus’ teaching?  At one extreme, are those who argue that social changes are not relevant.  God’s purpose for man and woman in creation remains the same.  So divorce and remarriage are not allowed, except perhaps in cases of adultery (for some, not even then), and may be when an unbelieving partner walks out.  But that’s all!

At the other end of the scale, are those who argue that the process of pastoral application of Jesus’ teaching, seen in the Bible itself, should be continued and extended to today.  They would argue that it is illogical to argue that Paul (and perhaps Matthew) could modify Jesus’ teaching, but we can’t.  Those who take the first position would reply that Matthew and Paul were inspired in a way that we are not and never can be.

Personally, I find it very hard to resist the conclusion that when Jesus was talking about marriage, he was talking about something very different to what we think of as marraige today.  Insisting that the Bible’s teaching on marriage as it is now is the same as it was on marriage then seems to ignore the huge changes that have taken place in the nature of marriage itself.

This is not for one moment to argue that the Bible’s teaching can just be set aside or quietly ignored.  It is, however, to argue that applying the Bible’s teaching is not as simple as some like to think.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Campaign for Real Christmas Cards

Advent Sunday is the time when I start thinking about Christmas cards.  Anyone who has been reading this blog for a few years will know that while I love hearing from people by email, when it comes to Christmas cards, I really don't like virtual ones.  I really enjoy displaying Christmas cards around the house over the Christmas period.  I am now eagerly anticipating the arrival of the first Christmas card.  Who will it be from I wonder?  

Sunday, November 29, 2009

I am one of those dinosuars who still prefers to write his sermons by hand.  This means that I can't easily post my sermon for Advent here. There is so much going on this weekend and I just don't have the time to type it in.  If you are so motivated, you can download it or listen to it on the Christ Church, Kowloon Tong website.

The theme is 'God in himself and God as he chooses to reveal himself'.

I love Advent and the lead up to Christmas.  I love Christmas Trees, and Christmas Cards, the dinners and parties, and all the celebrations.

Scrooge is not allowed in this household.

But above all, I love the Midnight Eucharist: On this most Holy Night ...

I am trying to persuade a brilliant singer I know and love to sing as part of the Christmas Night Eucharist.  She is proving to be a bit of a shrinking violet at the moment, but I have four Sundays to persuade her ...

I hope you have a great Advent!

The Collect for the First Sunday of Advent

Almighty God,
give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life,
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day,
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
  to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Friday, November 27, 2009

As we have been celebrating the birthday of Christ Church this past week, a number of people have asked me about the history of the Church. I have written this short introduction that I thought I would also post here. It clearly isn't definitive, but it gives an idea of the Church and its past.

It is Advent Sunday, this coming Sunday and the start of the preparations for Christmas.  Hooray!  We have some repair work going on at the moment and I am hoping it will all be finished by Christmas.  I need a break from building works!  There have been rather a lot of them, but as I say in what follows, this is inevitable given the age of our building and the climate in Hong Kong.

Christ Church – A Short Introduction

The beginnings of Christ Church are quite unusual. Many people even in Christ Church don’t realize that Christ Church is a rebirth of another Church, Saint Peter’s, West Point. Two dates are especially significant: September 2, 1933 and October 29, 1938.

St Peter’s Church had been built in 1872 as a mission Church for seamen. It was supported in its work by large shipping companies. Their support for this work stopped after the first world war. Furthermore, as many of the congregation had moved to Kowloon Tong, the decision was made to open a Church in Kowloon Tong and to close St Peter’s. A Church house was acquired at 3 Duke Street. Worship at St Peter’s stopped in August, 1933 and the Church House was hallowed by Bishop R O Hall on Saturday, September 2, 1933. Worship took place in a large room in the house. The altar and furnishings were those of St Peter’s. At this stage, the Church was known as the Kowloon Tong Anglican Church.

Subsequently, the decision was made to build a Church. The site of the present Church was chosen in January, 1936 and with government assistance a Church was built. The Consecration Service was held on October 29, 1938 and the Kowloon Tong Anglican Church became Christ Church! The Church bell came from St Peter’s. It is rung before every service and at the moment of consecration during the Eucharist.

The date, of course, is significant. Every year Christ Church celebrates the Feast of Christ the King in a special way. Prior to 1970, the feast of Christ the King was observed on the last Sunday in October. However, the reformed calendar approved by the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church that took effect in that year changed the date to the last Sunday before the next liturgical year's Advent begins (Advent marking the start of the liturgical year). Other Churches have followed this change.

Christ Church celebrated its 75th Anniversary as a worshipping community in Kowloon Tong in 2008!

From the beginning, Christ Church has been comitted to the education of children. In fact, a Sunday School was opened before the Church. Many of the original congregation had close links with DBS, a relationship that continues to this day. In October, 1950 a primary school was opened. Built on Church land, the Dioceesan Preparatory School quickly established itself and its reputation. A redevelopment of DPS in Febraury, 1971 saw two more schools coming to the present site, Christ Church Kindergarten and Mary Rose. Mary Rose was opened to provide education for children with special needs and was named after the wife of a former Vicar of the Church. When Bishop Hall Jubilee School was opened, Christ Church was to have an association with this School as well. Although involvement with education has not been without its problems, it remains a major part of the work of Christ Church and one that it takes very seriously.

The building itself has become a major landmark. On December 7, 1941, shortly after it was built, worship ceased in the building as a consequence of the Japanese invasion. The Church was used as a stable for Japanese horses during the occupation. Originally Waterloo Road was a quiet road leading nowhere. Now it is a major route to the New Territories and to China itself. A building over 70 years old requires constant care and attention. The congregation have in recent years completed major renovation works to the exterior of the building and to the area known as the Committee Room. It is our hope that it will not only be a landmark, but the home of Anglican worship in Kowloon Tong for many years to come!

Christ Church is a both local and global in outlook. Although English-speaking Christ Church has always been locally rooted. This is particularly true since 1997 with the majority of the congregation now being ethnically Chinese. Nevertheless, Christ Church has also always had an international feel with many expatriates joining the Church while they live in Hong Kong. Many other members have been educated or have worked abroad.

Our present Vicar, the Reverend Ross Royden, comes originally from the UK and has been with us since September, 2000.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Yesterday went very well, I am pleased to say.  The weather was sunny and warm and people were generous in their contributions to the lunch, which was just as well as we had a lot of people turn up for it.  The service celebrating our Church's founding was also very well attended: our largest congregation this year.  So I start the week with a sense of gratitude as well as relief!

There has been much talk here about the Pope's recent overtures to disaffected Anglicans, especially those in the CofE.  I find the whole thing rather sad, not because I don't respect the Pope, but because I do.  This move seemed ill-timed and ill-conceived.

Anyway, I came across this flow chart and thought that while it too was sad, it, nevertheless, made the point in an amusing way.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

It's Saturday before our big event tomorrow for the Feast of Christ the King: our Patronal Festival, or, as I try to explain in our School Assemblies, our birthday celebration!

Christ Church was founded 76 years ago and has always been a Church rooted in the local community, while, at the same time, always open to people living in Hong Kong from abroad.

As you will know, I am very proud to be the Vicar of Christ Church, Kowloon Tong, while accepting the challenges it brings.  (See previous blogs!)

Nowadays, we are ethnically about 80% Chinese and 20% people from overseas (including me!)  In the past, our ex-pats would have been predominantly from the UK, as would befit a British Colony, but now, thankfully, our expats are from all over the world.  On a Sunday, we have people from Australia, Canada, the Philippines, the USA - and, of course, the UK - and many other places besides!  For me, we are living out what it means to be 'one body in Christ'.

The 'Feast of Christ the King' is much like a wedding: masses of preparations beforehand and then it is all over so quickly.  There is no point trying to explain: you either get it or you don't!  Our Bishop is coming and we will be: Confirming new members; Celebrating the Church's foundation; and having a Communal Banquet.

On the day itself, we begin with a Eucharist at 8.00am followed by the Confirmation Eucharist at 10.00am.  The Confirmation is taken by our Bishop.  Afterwards, we invite everyone back to the Vicarage for lunch!

The Banquet is on a 'bring and share basis'.  People are genuinley very generous!  Nevertheless, while most are happy to contribute, some need a little encouragement!

Anyway, we are a bit worried at the moment.

One year we had rain.  We coped.  This year the temperature has fallen.  It's not cold, but it is cooler.  It will be up the Obervatory tell us tomorrow.  But people the world over worry about the weather ...

I said it was like planning for a wedding!

Anyway, we are working hard to make sure everything goes well.

I will tell you next week whether it did or not.

Have a great Sunday wherever you are!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

President Obama is in China and has been given a warm welcome by people here. Upon arrival he used the occasion to lecture the Chinese people on the importance of 'universal rights' to free expression, worship, political participation and access to information.

What, of course, he did not say was that freedom of expression in the West has led to the most degrading pornography being freely available to even the youngest of children, that in some countries you are not allowed to display a crucifix in public, that most voters are so disillusioned with politicians that they won't even get out of bed to vote, and that western governments secretly keep their citizens under surveillance in a way that the KGB would have been proud of.

Western politicians need to deal with their own issues of freedom and democracy before lecturing others. I have to tell you that I feel a lot more 'free' walking around Chinese cities at night, for example, than I do in England. In England, I am far more likely to have my freedom taken away from me by muggers or drunken binge drinkers.

Anyway, back to the latest series of blogs!

The thing for me a
bout writing blogs is that while I may have a general idea for a series, the blogs themselves are not planned in advance, but develop as they go. The last few blogs on divorce have turned into a mini-series on its own within the one they were intended to be just a part of - if you see what I mean. Nevertheless, these blogs on divorce are meant primarily as a way of asking the bigger question of how we use the Bible to make ethical decisions today. I hope they are not becoming too rambling or repetitive!

8. Using the Bible in Ethics: Divorce (Part Three – Clarifying the Questions)

Let’s try and sum up what we do and do not know about what the Bible and Jesus, in particular, teach about divorce.

1. It is certain that Jesus taught about divorce. It is certain too that he took a strict approach and did not approve of frivolous divorces or divorce whenever someone happened to feel like it.

2. It is not clear whether he personally allowed any exceptions to this ‘no divorce’ rule. Certainly Matthew did, but scholars are unable to agree what Matthew’s exception is. The majority view seems to be that Matthew allows divorce in cases of ‘sexual immorality’.

3. Paul knows our Lord’s disapproval of divorce and repeats it. He finds himself having to apply it in a very different context, however, and distinguishes his teaching from that of Jesus, allowing divorce when an unbeliever who is married to a believer wants it.

4. It is clear that Jesus bases his criticism of divorce on God’s purpose in creation and on the fact that in marriage a man and woman become ‘one flesh’. It should be noted that this does not logically mean that the union is therefore automatically indissoluble. After all, Paul says that anyone who has sex with a prostitute becomes one flesh with her! He is not presumably arguing that an indissoluble union is formed with her.

So what happens when we try to interpret and apply Jesus’ teaching today? Some Christians think it is all very straightforward. Some such as John Piper, who is very influential amongst evangelicals in the States, argue that divorce is always wrong and remarriage is never permissible for a Christian. Other evangelicals would modify this to allow for divorce and even remarriage when one of the partners has committed adultery.

Other Christians argue that while permanent, lifelong marriage should be the norm and divorce discouraged and avoided as much as possible, marriages do breakdown for any number of reasons, not just sexual, and divorce then becomes a legitimate option with the possibility of remarriage.

In addition to the question then of what Jesus actually taught is a question that people don’t like asking. Is what Jesus taught then binding on us now? Christians don’t like to ask this because understandably they want to be loyal followers of Christ. Interestingly, they do not normally apply the same approach to other parts of the Bible. Simply put: because Paul, for example, forbids women to speak in Church would not mean for many that women shouldn’t speak in them to day.

When questioned about this difference of approach, they would, if pressed, argue that Jesus is different to Paul, and that it is one thing to ignore what Paul said today and another altogether to ignore what Jesus said. Actually, I think this is just plain wrong thinking. Not only was Paul an Apostle of our Lord, Jesus was himself incarnated in the society of his day and shared the same humanity as Paul. If there are good reasons for not following Paul’s teaching today, then there may be equally good reasons for not following our Lord’s, hard though this may be for some to accept. I am not arguing that we should not follow it today only that we need to be consistent in our approach.

We have two questions then:

1. What did Jesus teach?

2. What authority does his teaching have now and how do we apply it?

If all this isn’t hard enough, there is, I think, yet another question: what about what Jesus doesn’t teach? This is where Instone-Brewer would argue that we should assume that Jesus in keeping with others in his day would have allowed divorce in cases of abuse and abandonment. This is difficult because, in the first place, it is an argument from silence and, secondly, we don’t know if abuse and abandonment were specific grounds for divorce in Jesus’ day.

This does, however raise an important point. Jesus was asked a question about divorce in general. Many in his day favoured easy divorce; Jesus does not. That much is clear. But what if Jesus had been asked the more specific questions about abuse and abandonment, and, indeed, about adultery? Would he then have qualified his teaching? If he had qualified his original reply to the Pharisees, it would have dramatically lessened its impact, but does his reply admit to any qualification?

With some reluctance, I think we have to assume from what we have of Jesus teaching in the Gospels, as also reflected by Paul, that when Jesus spoke about divorce, he completely opposed it without qualification. There is the possibility, and it is no more than a possibility, that he made an exception in cases of adultery. We are left to speculate on how he would have answered the questions we would now like to ask.

So what authority does Jesus’ teaching have now and how do we apply it today?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A long and difficult post to follow today, but I hope it is not impossibly so. It seeks to show how difficult it can be to understand what the ethical teaching of the Bible is even before we try to apply it today!

7. Using the Bible in Ethics: Divorce (Part Two - Trying to Understand the Teaching)

As if Jesus’ teaching on divorce is not hard enough, understanding it has been somewhat complicated, paradoxically, by a recent attempt to clarify it! Dr David Instone-Brewer, a senior researcher at Tyndale House in Cambridge, has researched and written extensively about divorce and marriage in Israel at the time of Jesus. His writing is scholarly and pastorally sensitive, and represents a genuine attempt to understand what Jesus taught.

In the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 24:1 says that a man may divorce his wife ‘for a cause of indecency’. This was the text referred to in Jesus’ discussion with the Pharisees about divorce. Instone-Brewer argues that originally this phrase meant sexual immorality. However, at the time of Jesus, he continues, a new interpretation of the clause was taking it to mean that a man could divorce his wife ‘for any cause’. This was the interpretation favoured by the followers of a Rabbi called Hillel. Others following another Rabbi, Shammai, argued that the phrase was restricted to sexual immorality.

Instone-Brewer argues that by the time of Jesus this new ‘any cause divorce’ had become very popular. The Pharisees in the Gospels are asking Jesus, not about divorce in general, but about what he thought about this new type of divorce. Instone-Brewer’s interpretation is given some weight by the fact that in Matthew 19:3 the Pharisees ask Jesus whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause. Instone-Brewer further argues that in Mark’s formulation of the question in Mark 10:2 (‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’) while Mark does not have the words ‘for any cause’ most people at the time would have understood the question that way. In the same way as today when you ask someone if they drink, the question is readily understood to mean, ‘Do you drink alcohol?

Jesus, he concludes, is thus not giving a complete statement about divorce and remarriage, but about the narrower issue of a particular type of divorce that was becoming very popular.

In fact, says Instone-Brewer, in the Old Testament there are two texts governing the grounds for divorce not just one. In addition to Deuteronomy, which is quoted in the discussion between Jesus and the Pharisees, there is also Exodus 21:10f. Deuteronomy allowed divorce for immorality, but Exodus 21:10 allowed divorce on additional grounds: for a failure to provide love, for abuse and for abandonment. Jesus, he says, never revoked this text and these grounds for divorce were accepted by both schools of Pharisees and, more importantly for our purposes, implicitly by Jesus himself. Jesus gets rid of the ‘any cause’ type of divorce, but allows divorce on the four Old Testament grounds of sexual immorality, failure to provide love, abuse, and abandonment. This fits well, he also argues, with Paul allowing a Christian to divorce and remarry if abandoned by an unbelieving partner.

What are we to say about this?

1. If right, it means Biblical teaching becomes what most people think it should be! That is, that marriage is important and should be taken seriously, but that divorce is allowed when there is adultery or serious unreasonable behaviour by one of the partners in the marriage. Jesus thus sounds far more reasonable and less harsh. Rather like an Anglican, in fact.

This, however, should itself urge caution. Is Jesus’ otherwise strict teaching being re-interpreted to soften it? One can applaud the desire to be pastorally sensitive, but we need to be honest about what we are doing. We cannot solve the problem by refusing to admit it exists. We should not be tempted to adopt Instone-Brewer’s approach simply because we like the sound of it.

2. Instone-Brewer effectively sees Matthew as giving the more nuanced account of the discussion between the Pharisees and Jesus rather than Mark. This reverses the normal way of looking at it. As we noted in the previous post, most interpreters would see Mark as being the more accurate and original with Matthew trying to soften what Jesus said. Instone-Brewer may, however, be right and Matthew, because of his Jewishness, might have been in a better position to understand what was really going on.

But this means that whereas in the normal interpretation of the Gospels, Mark records the original and Matthew softens it, on Instone-Brewer’s interpretation, Matthew records the original meaning, if not the original words. Matthew, on this view, is not softening, but explaining. Mark, then, has either misunderstood what Jesus was saying or, as Instone-Brewer believes, has recorded it in such a way that Jesus’ words were misunderstood once read in a non-Jewish setting.

3. So is Instone-Brewer right in his interpretation of the passages in the Gospels? Quite simply, I don’t know! I just do not have the knowledge of the ancient sources to be able to make a judgement. A person who does have such a knowledge is J P Meier. Meier in the fourth volume of his consideration of the Historical Jesus, A Marginal Jew, specifically rejects this reconstruction of Instone-Brewer’s. Meier argues that ‘any cause’ divorces far from being new were the norm in mainstream Judaism and always had been. He also rejects a dispute between two rabbinical schools as being the context for Jesus’ teaching. In the way I lack the detailed knowledge to be able to assess Instone-Brewer’s position, so too I lack the knowledge to be able to asses Meier’s.

But that I think is the problem. As Instone-Brewer readily admits, on his position Jesus has been misunderstood as forbidding all divorce from the very beginning of the Church: as soon as his teaching was taken out of a Palestinian setting, in fact. This means for years the Church has sentenced people to a life of misery, refusing to allow divorce, and causing all sort of guilt and hang-ups, because it believed it was being faithful to Jesus’ teaching and because that seemed to be the obvious way of understanding it. The truth for Instone-Brewer, however, was that Jesus never intended such a blanket restriction on divorce in the first place.

It wasn’t that the Church was being cruel. And nor was it that the Church was being stupid. It just couldn’t have been expected to know that Jesus was only dealing with a question about a specific type of divorce and the interpretation of a specific text. To understand Jesus’ teaching, if Instone-Brewer is right, needed the resources only now available to us through modern scholarship and even then two respected specialists, Instone-Brewer himself and Meier, reach opposite conclusions! If the Bible is so hard to understand on something so basic and important to all our lives, what use is it? If we cannot know for sure what it means on something upon which it appears to speak directly, how on earth can we know what it teaches on issues about which it is less direct?

4. Even if Instone-Brewer is right and the context of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels is a question about ‘any cause’ divorces, Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees does seem to go beyond this question. Jesus, on any understanding, has a very high view of marriage and opposes divorce using very black and white language. Instone-Brewer argues that had Jesus been asked about what happens in cases of abuse and abandonment, he would have allowed divorce. This is an argument from silence and such arguments are always dangerous.

For our purposes, though, this brings us back to the conclusion in the last post. We today still have to answer questions Jesus did not address and we have to do so in a much changed context. If this were not difficult enough, apparently we have to do it without even being sure what Jesus said and meant in the first place!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Today I post the final in my series on Calvin (for previous posts see under Calvin).

Talk Five: God’s love is inclusive

God is in control and God loves us in Christ. These are two of the themes that I have identified in the theology of John Calvin, the 500th anniversary of whose birth is celebrated this year. The third, and the last one in these talks that I want to focus on, is that God’s love is inclusive.

This is not, perhaps, a theme that many people would associate with Calvin’s teaching. Calvin is all too often portrayed as stern and harsh: someone more likely to exclude and reject people than include and accept them. The most controversial aspect of Calvin’s theology and the one that many think, wrongly as it happens, was his main emphasis is the idea that God chooses some and not others. As I have been trying to argue, there is much more to Calvin than this particular idea. Equally, there can be no doubt that Calvin believed and taught it as one idea amongst many.

Now whatever you may think of this idea, and I imagine that many may find it difficult, to put it mildly, there is no question that it has its roots in the Bible and in Biblical language. No-one would dispute that the word, elect, meaning chosen, is a Biblical word used in the Gospels by Jesus himself. It is used throughout the New Testament to describe those who believe.

Calvin, in other words, did not invent the idea that God’s people were chosen, he was simply trying to understand and explain it. Many before and after Calvin thought along similar lines. It may be repugnant in our own day and age when we hate the idea of anyone making decisions on our behalf and like to deceive ourselves into thinking that we are in control of our own destiny. Previous ages have been more realistic about the limits of human freedom and power.

Still, even if we don’t want to go all the way with Calvin, it is perhaps worth seeing the positive side to what Calvin is saying rather than focusing all the time on what his critics see as the negative side. Calvin asserts God’s freedom of choice. God’s choice is not dependent on human standards and is not in any way influenced by them. In fact more than this, God’s choice, challenges and contradicts human wisdom and prejudice.

To put it another way: God’s elect opposes human elites. The alternative to God choosing is us choosing, and human choice always gravitates to those who are powerful and popular, rich and connected, famous and fabulous. It is not God who rejects people, but us, even us who claim to be God’s people who follow the example and teaching of Christ.

St Paul wrote the following words to Christians who were making judgements about people based on appearances and background:

‘Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.’ (1Corinthians 1:26-29 NRSV)

All too often we exclude people on the basis of human wisdom and prejudice. We create churches where your face has to fit if you want to belong. Calvin would encourage us not to worry about what other people think. It doesn’t matter if you are poor or socially insignificant, unconnected or uneducated, weak or ugly, it only matters what God thinks of you. But it also follows from this that all that should matter to us is what God thinks. It shouldn’t matter to us what school a person did or did not go to, how they speak or do not speak, what job they may or may not have, whether they are rich or poor. All that matters is that they belong to Christ.

This then is the teaching and theology of John Calvin: belief in an all-powerful God who loves us unconditionally in Christ and whose choice challenges the false values of power, position, and prestige embracing us – just as we are.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

In my series on Using the Bible in Ethics, I now turn as promised to the difficult issue of divorce. In this the first part, I want to look at the texts in the New Testament. In the second, I want to look at suggestions that we have misunderstood Jesus' teaching. Finally, I want to move on to how we should apply Jesus' teaching, whatever it was, today.

6. Using the Bible in Ethics: Divorce (Part One - Texts)

I have been contrasting two types of approach amongst those who wish to give the Bible a prominent role in arriving at ethical decisions. The first focuses on the actual text of the Bible, while the second seeks to identify broad themes within it that are then applied to specific ethical issues. This is done even if the application contradicts or appears to contradict individual texts. (See previous posts in this series under Using the Bible in Ethics)

One area where these two - texts and themes - would seem to come together is over the subject of divorce. In the New Testament, at least, our Lord no less, seems explicitly to forbid divorce giving the theme or principle upon which he bases his prohibition (see Matthew 5:27-32, 19:3-11; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18). Even the more sceptical scholars seem to agree that Jesus took a strict, rigorist stance when it came to divorce based on his understanding of God’s intention in creation.

There is one problem, of course, the so-called ‘exceptive clause’ in Matthew (Matthew 5:32, 19:9). Jesus forbids divorce ‘except for unchastity’. Mark and Luke, however, do not allow any exceptions in their version of the text as it stands. So did Jesus say it, or is it, as many argue, an addition by Matthew to soften Jesus’ otherwise strict demands?

And then there is the problem of what the word translated in the NRSV as ‘unchastity’ actually means. Some take it very narrowly to mean something like marriage within the forbidden decrees of the Old Testament, so that the text would mean that you could only divorce if you discovered you had married a close relative. The obvious question is why you would only find out you were closely related after you got married! Others take it more broadly to mean that divorce is allowed if the partner has sex outside of the marriage.

So even though we may conclude that Jesus was strict in his approach to divorce, we are still not sure how strict he was. If we take the position that he allowed divorce for adultery, then it is interesting that Mark does not include the permission! If he did not allow divorce at all, then we have the interesting position within the Bible itself of one evangelist feeling able to modify Jesus’ teaching, perhaps in the light of pastoral realities in his own church community.

Again, the text based approach runs into some difficulty and may have done so from the beginning. Jesus’ theme seems clear enough: that God’s original purpose in creation was that man and woman should live together as one flesh. Given that God has joined the man and the woman together, no-one should now divide them. The problem remains of how rigorously to apply it: strictly, as in Mark or Luke, or less so, as in Matthew.

This ‘no divorce’ teaching has, of course, led the Church into difficult pastoral situations. What do you do when one of the partners in the marriage – usually the woman – is physically abused by their husband? Even Christians wanting to stick to the letter of what Jesus said, have accepted that the wife should separate from her husband, even if they would not let her marry again. But why stop with physical abuse, what about mental cruelty? And what constitutes evidence of mental cruelty?

Jesus’ teaching was found to need further explanation from the very first. Even if Matthew does have Jesus’ original words, Paul found in Corinth that he had to do some serious pastoral thinking about separation, divorce and re-marriage (see 1 Corinthians 7:10-16). Jesus’ context was that of Israel, where people were expected to keep God’s law. He was, after all, speaking to those who historically were God’s people. Paul, however, is dealing with a Gentile context. Paul seems to have been asked by the Corinthians about separation and divorce, in general, and more particularly about separation and divorce when one of the partners was not a Christian. In some of the marriages one of the partners in the marriage is an unbeliever. In general terms, Paul feels it is clear. Paul repeats the Lord’s teaching, making it plain that he is quoting Jesus: believers should not divorce, but if they do separate they should not remarry.

When it comes to marriages in which one of the couple is not a believer, Paul makes it clear that what he has to say is his teaching and not that of Jesus. He doesn’t mean by this that what he says isn’t authoritative, but rather that this is his teaching in the light of what he knows Jesus to have said. He is applying Jesus’ teaching to a situation and context that Jesus had not addressed.

His teaching is that in marriages where one of the partners is an unbeliever, the believer should still stay married and not divorce his or her partner. However, if the unbeliever separates from the believing partner, says Paul, the believer is not bound. Divorce, in other words, in this situation is allowed. A new pastoral reality, not addressed by our Lord allows Paul to adapt our Lord’s teaching to the changed context. Now it is clear that Paul isn’t keen on divorce and wants to avoid deviating from our Lord’s teaching, but he does recognize, as may have Matthew, that changed pastoral realities may require an interpretation and application of it.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The weather here in Hong Kong is at last a little bit cooler! We are now getting ready for some big events over the next few weeks not least our Feast of Christ the King on November 22 when we celebrate the founding of our Church.

Today I post the fourth in my series of radio talks about Calvin.

Talk Four: Loved in Christ

Calvin’s theology defies easy summary despite attempts in the past to do so. Certain themes do occur regularly, however, themes which are often neglected in the preaching and teaching of the Church today. One theme is that God is in control. No matter how hard life may seem and how bad things may get, God remains in charge and is able to bring good out of evil.

People often accuse Calvin of being hard and cruel and of projecting these characteristics onto to God himself. So that, it is said, in Calvin’s theology, God becomes distant and unforgiving. I think, sadly, that this may have been true of some versions of Calvinism, but it is certainly not the God of Calvin himself, the God he devoted his life to serving and worshipping. The God who is in control is for Calvin the God who loves us in Christ.

When was it that God first loved us? Scientists tell us that the universe came into existence some 13 billion years ago. St Paul in his letter to the Ephesian Christians writes that God chose us in Christ before the creation of the world. It is all too easy to read words like this without grasping what they are saying. Think for a moment about this means. It means that before everything went bang, before the stars were born, before the dinosaurs roamed this earth, before the emergence of human life, before we were even a thought in our parents’ mind, God loved us.

Jesus said that ‘no-one could come to him unless the father drew them’. We didn’t choose God, he chose us in Christ before we were born, and then, at the right time, he called us to himself. This ought to give us massive reassurance. God loves us absolutely and unconditionally. He knew from before the universe began what we would look like, think like, and behave like. He know everything there is to know about us. He knows even those things about us that we don’t want to admit to ourselves and certainly not to other people.

And yet knowing all this, he still loves us and goes on loving us. No wonder then that St Paul asks, ‘if God be for us, who can be against us?’ We need have no fear of being rejected by God and no fear of anything getting in the way of us being loved by God. This is the point of that wonderful passage in chapter 8 of St Paul’s letter to the Romans:

‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Romans 8:38-39 NRSV)

The Bridget Jones books and films have deservedly been very popular, and I am delighted to learn that another is in production. Renee Zellweger is brilliant as Bridget. Bridget is very susceptible to the opinions of others. She is constantly trying to please people. She worries about how she looks, what she wears, what she weighs and tries, normally unsuccessfully, to change to win approval. An amazing moment for her comes when Mark Darcy, played by Colin Firth, tells her that he loves her just as she is. Just as she is. She doesn’t have to be someone else or pretend to be someone she isn’t. He loves her just as she is.

If we wonder whether God loves us and accepts us or not, the absolute assurance that we have is that he did so a long time ago and nothing can change this acceptance. Jesus in his life showed us the love of God. He accepted the very people that the society of his day marginalized and rejected. He reached out to them no matter who they were, where they came from, or what they had done. God knows us better than we know ourselves and in Christ he reaches out to us still – just as we are!

Friday, October 23, 2009

It's Friday and I am very excited that my brother, Charlie, and my sister-in-law, Corinne, have come to Hong Kong for a visit. Charlie will be preaching at Christ Church on Sunday. You will be able to listen to his sermon on the Christ Church web-site.

Below I post the third in my radio talks on John Calvin. Coincidentally, in it I mention an incident that happened over the Summer when we were on holiday together!

I notice that Paul Helm has a series of posts on John Calvin on the Guardian newspaper web-site. They are excellent and complement what I am trying to say. Read them here:

I am about to have a cup of coffee now and listen to the Archers!

Have a good weekend!

Talk Three: God is in Control

Calvin’s ‘big idea’ to use the words of one Calvin scholar was that we know ourselves when we know God and we will come to know God when we know ourselves. In other words, the secret to finding the meaning and purpose of life lies in finding God.

It is common for people to sum up Calvin’s theology using the acronym TULIP. This is supposed to give us the five points of Calvinism. So taking each letter in turn: T stands for Total Depravity: the idea that we are all infected and affected in every aspect of our being by sin. U stands for Unconditional Election the idea that God chooses those he wants to save and know him without any reference to who they are or what they have done. L is for Limited Atonement: Christ died for those God chose and not for everyone. I is Irresistible Grace: those so chosen and for whom Christ died are called by God in such a way that they cannot resist his calling. And P, the Perseverance of the Saints: those called by God will be kept by God in such a way that they cannot and will not fall.

These ideas are certainly to be found in Calvin, but this summary describes Calvinism better than it describes Calvin. It may sum up the beliefs of his followers, but it is totally inadequate as description of the theology of the person who wrote the Institutes of the Christian Religion one of the greatest works of Christian theology in the history of the Church. Calvin’s theology defies easy summary and simple acronyms. Rather than attempting to describe it, I would instead like to pick three themes from his theology that I think speak to us today.

Teenagers I know use the word random to describe things. As in, ‘Ross that was so random’. It is used somewhat pejoratively to describe something that seems to have no meaning, something out of context and unexpected. For many this is what life itself is like. It’s so random. It is an idea constantly reinforced by the media. Life is portrayed as being unpredictable. The spirit of our age tells us that life has no ultimate meaning. There is no grand plan. No great purpose. You have to make up your own story, find your own meaning, make the most of now. After all, life is not a dress rehearsal.

And life can seem very random. Sickness, tragedy, death: what’s the point? Where’s the meaning? In the Summer, I went back to Scotland on holiday. On the way home from Scotland I was driving on the motorway. Suddenly and without warning, while driving, I got a puncture. Fortunately, no-one was hurt and nothing was damaged - apart from the tyre that is! We were, however, severely held up. We had been in the middle lane. We weren’t going particularly fast. There was nothing we could have done to prevent what happened: it was so random.

For some this is a metaphor of what life is like. You never know when it is going to go wrong and there is nothing you can do to prevent bad things happening. Some versions of Christianity seem to go along with this. God, they say, has given us free-will and leaves us to get on with it. We make our own luck and write our own story. Yes, of course, we try to follow Christ’s teaching, but essentially it is up to us.

Whatever else this is, it’s not Biblical Christianity. In the Bible, God is the God who moves nations around and even when they are at their most powerful and evil, he uses them to achieve his will and purpose.

In all he wrote and taught, Calvin emphasized above all the greatness of God.

St Paul writes: ‘We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him’. Let us make no mistake. Pain is pain and it hurts. Sickness, tragedy and death are all horrible. In this world we have suffering, and we weep and we cry and so we should. But no matter how bad things may be and at times they can be very bad, nothing can thwart God’s plan for his creation and for us.

No matter what the appearance to the contrary may be, it’s not random: God is in control.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

5. Using the Bible in Ethics: An Aside

I am currently reading for pleasure a biography of one my favourite writers, Somerset Maugham, by Selina Hastings. Maugham described himself as in 'the front row of the second rankers'. In his time, he was immensely popular as a writer, but was never regarded as quite being up there with the literary greats: the sort who get their books listed on university English Literature courses. As I find most of these often incomprehensible and, frankly, boring, I do not see this as a particularly bad thing.

One thing you can be sure of when you read Maugham is that his books are very readable and never dull. His stories, for he was essentially a story-teller, translate easily and effectively to the big screen. The latest adaptation, the Painted Veil, is of special interest to me being set as it is in China! My recent shoulder injury required me to hang around the physiotherapist's for quite a while each week. To pass the time, I read a volume of Maugham's short stories. I came to look forward to those sessions of enforced idleness! Our Lord himself was, of course, known for his gifts as a story-teller.

What has struck me most so far in the biography, however, is how much the world changed during his lifetime. Maugham was born in 1874 and died in 1965. He lived through a period of incredible social, political and industrial change. Maugham himself wrote of this when 'looking back' on his life:

'In my long life I have seen many changes in our habits and customs.

The world I entered when at the age of eighteen I became a medical student was a world that knew nothing of planes, motor-cars, movies, radio or telephone. When I was still at school a lecturer came to Canterbury and showed us boys a new machine which reproduced the human voice. It was the first gramophone. The world I entered was a world that warmed itself with coal fires, lit itself by gas and paraffin lamps, and looked upon a bathroom as a luxury out of the reach.'

I was born in 1955 and I suppose my memory kicks in at about the time of Maugham's death. In the years from then to now, change has continued at a constantly increasing pace. I was watching Fawlty Towers not long ago and the thing that struck me was how they used a typewriter with not a computer in sight and this only 3 decades ago.Maugham himself was a great traveller. It is one of my many reproaches against myself that I always resisted the idea of travelling when I had the time and freedom to do so. It was said of the Beatles that it was a big deal for them to make the journey from Liverpool to London. It was! I made the same journey just a little later and was not in any mood to go further. Now living in Hong Kong and, in the past ten years having travelled more than in the rest of my life, I wish I had travelled more and regret what I have missed. Yes, I know God willing, it is not too late to travel, but it is too late to see what life used to be like in different parts of our world even just a few years ago. (See under: Personal Journey)

When I visited the Taj Mahal in India a few years ago, I was able to ring my mum from it on my mobile phone. To me, this still seems incredible, but not to any of the young people I know and minister to for whom the worst crisis in life is their mobile phone going dead or not being able to access their Facebook. But I am beginning to get nostalgic.

My point (yes, there is one) is that the world we now inhabit has, over the past 100 years or so, changed beyond recognition from the world of the Bible. This was the point that Bultmann was making when he famously said:

'It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.'

I don't as it happens agree with him, but living in the world we now inhabit does make it harder than we realize to understand the New Testament world and even harder to know how to apply the New Testament to ours. It also raises the question of whether rules which were designed for and worked in such a different world still work in the one we live in today.

The first commandment God gave human beings in Genesis after their creation was to 'be fruitful and multiply' (Genesis 1:28). It was also the first commandment he gave Noah and his family after the flood (Genesis 8:17, 9:1, 9:7). Most of us would, I think, feel that while human fertility is a great gift, it now needs to be controlled in a way it didn't in the past. We do not hesitate to over-ride God's most fundamental commandment to men and women because of changed social conditions. What was right then is not right now. What other commandments in the Bible are there, I wonder, that were right then, but are no longer right now?

Anyway, I recommend Somerset Maugham's writing to you if you want a really good read!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

St Luke's Day

It's Sunday afternoon and I am trying to catch up on the backlog from the week. Taking a break I came across this report about the Hadron Collider in Switzerland, which broke down not long after being switched on:

'In an article worthy of the mantle of truth being far stranger than fiction (science fiction or otherwise), the New York Times writes of two prominent physicists who propose the setbacks at Hadron — and the failures of other physics facilities intent to seek out the same physics holy grail, the Higgs boson — may not be accidental at all (just a bit strange for us lay folk to wrap our minds around).

It goes like this:

The Higgs boson, a proposed but not yet documented elementary particle, is theorized to be that which gives matter its properties of mass. But physicists Holger Bech Nielsen and Masao Ninomiya speculate that the particle is, to put in vernacular terms, not a toy.

As the Times’ Dennis Overbye writes:

"A pair of otherwise distinguished physicists has suggested that the hypothesized Higgs boson, which physicists hope to produce with the collider, might be so abhorrent to nature that its creation would ripple backward through time and stop the collider before it could make one, like a time traveler who goes back in time to kill his grandfather."

The pair fully understands how batty it all sounds, and that neither the recent Hadron failure, nor the U.S. pulling the plug on its large collider project in the 1990s, provides proof of anything. That’s why they did the math, showing all their work, indicating the theoretical viability of their strange sounding notion.'

Friday, October 16, 2009

After something of a frenetic week, I am grabbing a few moments to continue my random series on Using the Bible in Ethics. So below is a post picking up on some points in the last post in the series about themes and texts. I realize that there is some repetition in these posts, but I did say they were going to be somewhat random! In the next post, I want to look at an issue that the Bible does discuss and where themes and texts seem to come together: divorce.

4. Using the Bible in Ethics: Two Types of Approach

I have been trying to identify some of the problems facing those of us who take the Bible seriously when it comes to using it to make ethical decisions. I realize, of course, that for many Christians the Bible just isn't that important, and you solve the problem by not letting it be a problem. Instead, you just get on with making decisions without worrying too much about where the Bible fits into the picture. Many of us, however, whether evangelical or not, feel we cannot just dismiss the Bible this way, and so for us there is a problem.

To generalize, there are two types of approach amongst those trying to use the Bible to make decisions today:

1. Firstly, there are those who feel it is a question of identifying texts and then applying them to whatever the issue may be. The trouble is those who adopt this approach are not always consistent in the way they do this. For example, there are those who reject the validity of homosexual relationships on the basis of specific Biblical texts, condemning homosexuality while at the same time accepting women's ordination, even though specific Biblical texts seem to tell against it.

2. Secondly, instead of focusing primarily on texts, there are those who prefer to identify themes within the Bible and then to work out their logic, even if that means contradicting specific Biblical texts. So, for example, the theme of 'equality in Christ' is taken to justify women's ordination, even though Paul, who champions the theme, did not himself apply it in that way and even though Christians for nearly two thousand years didn't apply it that way either.

Now I accept that there are some Christians who are entirely consistent in their attempts to apply texts to today's ethical challenges even if it puts them in a minority amongst other Christians. I think Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle is probably an example of someone who takes this approach. Where, of course, people like Mark run into problems is when they are confronted with an issue that the Bible simply does not address, issues such as genetic engineering, medical research, nuclear power, and so on. Of course, for many in this camp, ethics is primarily about sex and so this is not so critical - or this a cheap shot on my part?

I also accept that some of those who take a thematic approach simply do not care whether Paul or anyone else has seen the implications of what to them is glaringly obvious. What matters is not whether anyone has seen or applied a theme in the past, but whether we do so in the present. Most liberal Christians, for example, would feel such freedom.

I, however, start from the position that while we do indeed need to understand the themes of the Gospel message, the way we work them out also needs to be consistent with the text of the Bible and with the way the Bible itself works them out.

As an orthodox Christian, I would also argue that in applying the themes and texts of the Bible, we need to listen more to the saints and teachers of the Church in the past and less to the prophets of the secular society in the present. It remains a nagging suspicion in my mind that had non-Christian society around us not adopted certain positions on certain issues, it would never have even occurred to the Church to do so.

What I am suggesting is that in many areas, it is not that we are trying in the Church to apply either themes or texts, but rather to find them so that we can bring our attitudes and behaviour more in line with the accepted wisdom of society around us. I know that many Christians would not have a problem with this. I am afraid, however, that I do!

Yes, Christians have to accept that the world has changed and we shouldn't do this hesitatingly or reluctantly: change is neither necessarily good or bad, it is just inevitable. This means we have to ask how we behave and what our attitudes should be in such a changed world. This is the hermeneutical challenge that faces Christians in whatever age they live and especially in ours. But asking how we should think and live today in a world much changed from that of the Bible is very different from manipulating the Bible and its teaching so that we can live lives in our world that are fundamentally no different to anyone else's.

Using the Bible in Ethics demands that we take seriously the difference between our own age and the age in which the Biblical texts were produced, but it also means taking seriously the Biblical texts and the themes which emerge from them, rather than trying artificially to force them to justify ideas and beliefs that we have arrived at, not from Biblical study and Christian theology, but from society around us.

One thing the Bible should teach us is that God doesn't like it when his people follow the customs and manners of the nations surrounding them. If we want to be pagans, then that is an option open to us. What we certainly should not do is to try and dress paganism up so it looks like Biblical Christianity.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Deliver us ...

I took delivery yesterday of two books. The first, The Indelible Image is by one of my favourite writers, Ben Witherington. It is the first volume in a two volume work on New Testament Theology and Ethics. As I teach Ethics and with my main interest lying in the New Testament, it is a book which brings together my two principal concerns. As is to be expected, Ben's book is scholarly, well-written, full of insights, and devout: the fruit of many years of research and study. I expect to not only enjoy reading it thoroughly, but to be referring to it for many years to come.

What to say about the second? It is the Deliverance of God by Douglas Campbell. At 1,218 pages, it certainly is not a light read, but it is, nevertheless, getting rave notices on the Internet. Many are claiming, including Campbell himself, that it will revolutionize our understanding of Paul's theology and change Pauline studies forever. You get the idea.

The book clearly covers a great deal of ground tackles many difficult and controversial areas and, again, represents a large amount of research. I am always worried, though, when people claim to be the first really to understand Paul or some other part of the Bible. I find that a bit difficult to believe and not a little arrogant! Campbell basically dismisses most other interpreters of Paul as simply wrong and mistaken. He alone has decoded the mystery which is Paul.

I am looking forward to reading it fully, if only to see what all the fuss is about. I have, however, read parts of it and am a bit bemused. You will know the story of the Emperor's new clothes. How a group of tailors convince everyone that they have made the Emperor a magical new set of clothes that only the wise and clever can see. Everyone pretends that they can see the clothes not wanting to appear foolish. It takes a little boy to shout out, 'The Emperor has no clothes on!' before anyone realizes the deceit.

I wonder if this book may be an academic set of Emperor's new clothes. Campbell in interpreting Romans, for example, claims that in Romans 1-4, Paul is, in fact, saying precisely the opposite to what basically everyone has ever thought that he was saying. Paul, Campbell alleges, is arguing with a 'Teacher' in Rome (although Paul never actually says this is what he is doing) with whom he disagrees and in doing so quotes his argument at length. So, for example, Romans 1:18-32 is a 'speech in person', that is, Paul is giving the Teacher's argument not his own.

Now I know that there are some things in Paul, which, as Peter puts it, are hard to understand, but if Campbell is right then Paul is not only hard to understand, but basically impossible. It would mean that for 2,000 years no-one has been reading the most important work of Christian theology in anything like the right way. If this is the case, then I would suggest that we just abandon all study of the Bible as a waste of time and get on without it.

I don't think it is the case, however. The book is clever, no doubt. Just as the tailors who made the Emperor's clothes were clever. But the joke is on us if we let ourselves be convinced by such extravagant claims.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A fantastically busy week!

Here is the second of my talks on Calvin.

Talk Two: Calvin’s Big Idea

This year is the 500th anniversary of the birth of the French born theologian and reformer, John Calvin. I expect some of you, at least, will have read Marilynne Robinson. She is a prize-winning American author. Her latest book, Home, has won the 2009 Orange prize for fiction. She has also written Housekeeping and Gilead - all books I would recommend if you are looking for a good and thought-provoking read. She has written and spoken of the influence of Calvin on her and on her writings. She is an example of a modern day Calvinist turning up in an unexpected setting.

There is on the BBC in the UK a radio programme called Desert Island discs. It is a long-running and very successful one. A guest each week is invited to choose 8 discs that they would like to have with them if they were to be marooned on a desert island. At the end of the programme, they are also invited to choose a book apart from the Bible and Shakespeare, which they are given anyway, together with a luxury item. It is a simple, but effective format, and a good game to play at home with friends. It tells you quite a lot about someone!

Certainly on my shortlist of books to have on a desert island would be Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. It is Calvin’s most influential piece of writing. It underwent several revisions before reaching its final form. Calvin intended it for pastors to teach them about the Christian faith and to be used by them as a resource for teaching their congregations. It begins with what one Calvin scholar has described recently as Calvin’s big idea. Let me read it:

‘Nearly all wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern.’

What Calvin is saying and what he continues to elaborate on is that we can only know the truth about ourselves and find our place in the world when we know the truth about God. And we will only seek to know the truth about God when we know our own inadequacy and need of God. This is important. For Calvin, knowing ourselves, does not mean what it means in self-help books where we are encouraged to tell ourselves each day how great we are. Rather it is about knowing how great our need of God is.

For Calvin, it is the greatness of God that is the focus of his writing, theology, and worship. For some people, this is something that he takes too far, but even if we don’t want to go all the way with him, this is surely a message that we need to hear today more than ever. God in too much that passes for Christianity is no more than a genii in the lamp: there to serve us and to grant us what we wish for. Someone to make us feel good about ourselves and wanted. For Calvin, the truth is the other way round. Calvin believed that everything begins and ends with God and that we will only understand ourselves and the world in which we live when we come to know God.

Calvin was an admirer of another of my own favourite theologians, St Augustine, who said: ‘you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.’

We were created by God for God and can have no peace without God.

We desperately need to rediscover this truth today if our lives are to have meaning and our existence is to have purpose. Too many of us are drifting, not knowing where we came from, why we are here, or where we are going. We sense that there must be more to life than frequent visits to the mall and greater goals in life than owning the latest designer handbag or the newest gadget, but how to find what it is alludes us.

Calvin encourages us to get back to basics. To come to know the One who created us and loves us and wants us to know Him. Strangely, it is when we lose ourselves to find God that we come to know our true selves and find real meaning and purpose in life.