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.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Sunday morning and the first of October. It is till very warm in October not the weather I used to associate with this time of they year. Next week is our Harvest Festival! Today I post the text of the first of my radio talks on Calvin.

Talk One: Calvin

This year is the anniversary of the birth of one of the most influential Christian theologians. The 500th anniversary to be precise. His influence has been immense and reaches far beyond the Church. Indeed, some credit the movement that he gave rise to with being the source of modern capitalism. His name? John Calvin.

John Calvin was a 16th century French theologian who alongside such people as Zwingli and Luther worked for the reform of the Church in Europe. Calvin and those like him believed that the Church had become corrupt and infected with error. He is particularly associated with Geneva where he worked and was based for many years.

Originally from France, he was heading for a career in law when he was converted to the cause of those protesting against the state of the Church. It is, of course, from this protest that we get the word ‘protestant’. He never sought fame, indeed, it was an accident that saw him drafted to the protest and the cause of reform although for Calvin there was nothing accidental about it. He felt God was calling him.

Calvin’s influence was to be far more lasting than that of the other reformers. For Calvin was the theologian par excellence of the reformation. He is a theologian whose thought and writings continue to be of influence even today. Calvin wrote profusely. He lectured. He preached. He wrote a commentary on almost every book of the Bible. He preached at one time 5 sermons a week, many of which are still in print. His letters fill many volumes.

Calvin himself was a deeply humble man and insisted that upon his death he be buried in an unmarked grave so that the place of his burial could not become a shrine. After his death, though, his writings and theology were to have a profound effect on the Church throughout the world and not just in Europe. The 39 Articles of the Church of England, which are the theological foundation of the Anglican Church, are deeply indebted to Calvinism – embarrassing though this may be to Anglicans today who do not always wish to acknowledge their indebtedness to him.

Why should anyone be embarrassed to be connected with such a theological giant and genius? Well, even in his own day Calvin was a controversial figure as well as an influential one. After his death, he attracted many critics as well as many admirers. And it has to be said that he has not always been well served by his followers. Calvinism has acquired the image of a hard, austere, demanding and often joyless form of Christianity. And it has to be said, there is some truth in the accusation.

In Scotland, where I ministered before coming to Hong Kong the dominant form of Christianity owed much to Calvinism and it could be very judgemental and exclusive. No matter how sincere its adherents may have been.

Despite this, I confess to being one of Calvin’s admirers. I may not always be drawn to Calvinism and those who claim to be following Calvin, but Calvin himself is one of my theological heroes. This is not to say that I agree with everything Calvin said and did. I am not even sure had I met Calvin I would have particularly have liked him. I am almost certain he would not have liked or approved of me. But there is in Calvin and his writings a profound theology that transcends such considerations of personality and celebrity.

Christians are called to follow Christ. Knowing how to do so, can at times be difficult and challenging. The New Testament tells us that one of the gifts of God to his Church is that of a teacher. All human teachers have their faults and weaknesses. No-one is infallible – a sentiment that Calvin would certainly have agreed with. But we do well to value the gifts of God and hear what he is saying to us through his servants. The wisdom of people like Calvin is something we can still learn from today.