A wedding break

I am getting married to my wonderful Lorenza on Saturday. This afternoon her mother and sister are arriving from Italy. So I expect to be too busy to blog for a bit, at least until the beginning of November. I will still be monitoring comments for the next few days, but perhaps not in the week after the wedding. When I’m back I hope to be able to post some photos.

Believing the words of a donkey

I remember hearing a folk tale from Central Asia, about a well known character called Molla Nasraddin, which went something like this:

One day Molla Nasraddin’s neighbour knocked on his door. “Molla, may I borrow your donkey”, he asked. “I’m sorry, but no”, replied Molla, “my donkey isn’t here.” Just then they both heard a loud “Hee-haw, hee-haw” from Molla’s back yard. “Shame on you, Molla!”, said the neighbour, “You lied to me!” “Shame on you, neighbour”, retorted Molla, “for believing the words of my donkey and not my words!”

I was reminded of this story by a post by David Matthias at The Road to “Elder” Ado, Dudley Outpouring on the BBC, and by the subsequent discussion in the comments. I had already seen this BBC programme (which has probably now disappeared from iPlayer) as my attention had been drawn to it by a comment here at Gentle Wisdom, to which I replied twice.

The issue I take with David’s post, and all the more with the comments on it by Eutychus, is the way that they seem to put more store by the words of the sceptical BBC presenter than by those of the respected Christian leader Trevor Baker. David makes it clear that he believes Trevor’s claims; Eutychus seems to imply the opposite, as I explained in the following comment which I repeat in full here because it has not yet been approved:

Eutychus, sorry if I misrepresented you. I accept that you didn’t exactly suggest that anyone was lying.

But you did criticise the fact that “people automatically assume the reliability of what others tell them”, which implies that you expect people to be sceptical of what others say. That is not a specific accusation of lying, but it does imply that you think that some Christians do lie about such things. The context in which you write suggests that you have Trevor Baker in mind.

Also you DID summarise your position on healing: “it’s become my casual opinion that healing, along with other spiritual gifts, genuinely occurs in christian contexts …”

We can agree on this last point (although not on the continuation of your sentence). So suppose that you, or I, do at some stage witness a notably miraculous healing. We are sure enough of it that we want to tell others of it, to glorify God and bring them to seek him. But we do not have medically verified proof of the healing, or perhaps we do have it but not permission to make it public. Should we keep quiet? If so, why? Only in an attempt to placate scoffers?

So, do we believe the words of a donkey, or of an unbelieving television presenter whose understanding of Christian healing ministry seems about as profound as a donkey’s? After all, as Jesus recognised (Luke 16:31), people like her will not be convinced by any amount of evidence, even if someone rises from the dead in front of their eyes. Or do we believe the words of our Christian brothers and sisters, unless we have good evidence on which to doubt them?

Yes, God can speak through the words of a donkey. He did once, to Balaam, and thereby, in the apostle Peter’s words, “restrained the prophet’s madness” (2 Peter 2:16 TNIV, cf. Numbers 22:28-30). So maybe he will indeed speak to us even through the words of sceptics.

But Peter went on to write that “in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires” (2 Peter 3:3 TNIV). The apostle warns his readers not to listen to their scoffing, and writes that he is writing to them

to stimulate you to wholesome thinking. 2 I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Saviour through your apostles.

2 Peter 3:1-2 (TNIV)

The words we should ordinarily listen to are not those of the scoffers, but of the biblical authors and of Jesus himself.

The Name High Over All

You my readers, and especially those of you who live within easy reach of my home town of Chelmsford, are invited to the meeting I am advertising here. This is taking place in the building of my home church, which is just across the road from my home. The meeting is intended mainly for Anglican evangelicals in the Chelmsford diocese, but all are welcome. This will also be a chance for you all to meet me, as I will be in charge of the refreshments.

The Name High Over All

How evangelicalism can live

In my post last night The death of evangelicalism? I dealt only with John Richardson’s post relevant to this topic and with the first part of the paper of his own which he linked to in his comments there. I didn’t discuss the remainder of the paper because my post was already rather long, and because it was nearly midnight.

In a comment John rightly took me to task for not dealing what he wrote about J.C. Ryle’s position as well as about J.H. Newman’s. He denied abandoning Newman’s second approach in favour of his first one, and wrote:

Rather, I have laid out two approaches – Newman and J C Ryle’s – each of which has something to commend it (Newman in his negatives, Ryle in his positives) but each of which is also problematic (Newman in his positives and Ryle in his negatives).

I responded to John with a long comment. But it was so long that it probably works better as a post of its own. So I am now publishing it again, slightly edited, as a new post.

Ryle’s position is indeed much more acceptable to me than Newman’s. But I read John Richardson as accepting it only “In the wider world of human inquiry” but rejecting Ryle’s words

You are not to believe things in religion merely because they are said … by Churches, Councils, or Synods …,

stating instead that we should not

set our private judgement against the Church’s collective witness.

I could have gone on to express my shock (anticipated by John) that a Protestant and self-declared evangelical could write:

it is entirely appropriate for any Church to operate something like the Roman nihil obstat—a declaration that a work contains nothing contradictory to its doctrinal standards.

I take John’s point about how publishing houses in effect do this. However, publishing houses are mostly independent and people can choose which to buy their books from. This is quite different from the entirely un-Protestant, un-Anglican approach which John proposes of giving some kind of a power of censorship to a body of

those charged with guarding the Church’s teaching ministry not just for its skill but for its orthodoxy.

To whom would such a body be answerable? Would it too be expected to have

the humility to say to other Christians, “Do you think I have got this right?”

It is this attitude of John’s which makes me think he would be more at home in Rome.

Let me go on to this question which John asks:

What is the point of being a denomination if the disagreements amongst ourselves are greater than our differences with those outside our supposed ‘boundaries’?

What indeed? Is there any point in being a denomination? It still seems to me that there are two logical positions here, the same ones Newman outlined. One is to follow the authority of tradition which leads to Rome, or perhaps to Eastern Orthodoxy. The other is to follow the authority of sola scriptura which leads, whether we like it or not, to the kind of free for all which Robbie Low caricatured.

There is, it seems to me as it did to Newman, no logically tenable middle way by which, for example, we reject the authority of the church up to 1517, accept the right of a few Reformers to their private judgment, and then imply that suddenly in about 1611 or 1662 everything changed and we have to abandon sola scriptura and follow the authority of a new Protestant magisterium and inquisition.

Then we have to ask, is Robbie Low’s caricature really a fair one? Yes, I know that there have been cases of individuals setting themselves up as “a pope in his own parish or in his own front room”. But since John and I agree that “gospel unity cannot be preserved by legal impositions” we cannot stop this happening.

What we should look at instead is how for nearly 500 years since the Reformation, and in a smaller way even before that, there have been (at least where they have not been persecuted out of existence) successful more or less informal associations of more or less independent congregations which have got on reasonably well. Sometimes they have been nominally within denominations but have remained at arm’s length from formal denominational structures and doctrinal standards – as for example the majority of evangelical and many other congregations of the Church of England. Most Protestant churches in the UK and in North America more or less fit this picture.

It is of course very sad when these informal groupings start bickering in public, and they should be encouraged not to. Nevertheless the system is not disastrously bad. Of course some of them have come off the doctrinal rails. But this is where the Gamaliel principle comes in: in most cases congregations which have become seriously liberal gradually decline and die, even though Anglican system tries its hardest to keep these dying congregations alive. The congregations which grow and divide are almost always those which are faithful to the word of God.

So, to summarise, while the current system has its problems, it isn’t completely broken. So let’s stop arguing publicly about second order issues, like the details of the Atonement or ordination of women, show love to one another, and get on with proclaiming the gospel.

The death of evangelicalism?

John Richardson probably didn’t intend to do this with his post at The Ugley Vicar What hope for Evangelicalism?, but at least in the comments he seems to have managed to announce the death of evangelicalism.

In the post itself he is explicit about the serious problems it faces, at least within the context of the Church of England. He writes of how at a recent meeting

it became increasingly clear to me —and I suspect to others —that evangelical unity is a façade, and a very poorly-preserved one at that.

No wonder, since we have the sight of evangelicals condemning other evangelicals (at least, both sides claim that name) with terms like “unbiblical”. John is certainly right to quote Paul writing to the Galatians:

“If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”

John sparked off my interest when he wrote in the post:

One of the tragedies is that some of these issues have been worked over (and, one would have hoped, worked out) at the Reformation, but of course one of the features of ‘new’ evangelicalism is a readiness to critique the Reformation as fundamentally mistaken.

To this I responded in my first comment:

One of the most serious failings of the old evangelicalism is a refusal to critique the Reformation or to allow for the possibility that it might even in part be fundamentally mistaken. This presupposition that the Reformers must have been right is an abandonment of the principle of Sola Scriptura, which has rightly been addressed and reversed by what you call “‘new’ evangelicalism”.

In a further comment I wrote:

I would say that the only hope of achieving unity on doctrine is to go back to the Bible and seek to understand it, without presupposing that any historic interpretation of it is correct.

Then John wrote:

Peter, it can’t be done. Even if we agreed to abandon the historical creeds and start from scratch, we don’t have a ‘from scratch’ from which to start. On the contrary, we come with our understandings and our history. Even our rejection of historical conclusions is conditioned by those conclusions.

Here is my response to that:

John, you may be right that it can’t be done, but that does imply an abandonment of sola scriptura, and its replacement by Scripture plus “our understandings and our history”. That sounds to me like abandoning evangelicalism in favour of relying on tradition. Is that what you want? It’s not what I want.

I certainly cannot accept as fellow evangelicals those who try to impose on me their particular tradition, calling it “our understandings and our history”, especially if they also condemn others as “unbiblical” for having different “understandings and … history”.

Do you mean to proclaim the death of evangelicalism? Because that’s what it sounds like you are doing.

In response to this, John pointed me to a paper he presented in May this year at Oak Hill School of Theology, downloadable (PDF) from here. This paper is certainly an interesting read, but also a very worrying one. There is of course a very real concern in the words John quotes there from Robbie Low:

In rejecting the authority of the Pope the Western reformers did not abolish autocracy but rather set in train a process the logical end of which is that every man is a pope in his own parish or in his own front room.

John then examines the principle of sola scriptura:

The difficulty, of course, is in deciding what Scripture says. Does Scripture, for example, support penal substitution? Some say yes, some say no. But simply saying we all believe the Bible is not enough.

And in this regard sola scriptura was understood by the Reformers to involve an important corollary, namely that the ultimate arbiter was not what the Church said Scripture says. …

Who, then, is to decide what Scripture says, if not the officials or the councils of the Church? Typically, the Protestant answer has been that we must rely, ultimately, on private judgement. I want to suggest, however, that far from being the solution, this is part of the problem.

So far, so good. But then, very worryingly, John invokes and quotes John Henry Newman:

Now, my dear brethren, consider, are not these two states or acts of mind quite distinct from each other; —to believe simply what a living authority tells you, and to take a book such as Scripture, and to use it as you please, to master it, that is, to make yourself the master of it, to interpret it for yourself, and to admit just what you choose to see in it, and nothing more?

Indeed these are two quite different approaches. Newman took the first approach, and followed the logic of it into the Roman Catholic Church. I respect him for that. But the evangelical approach based on sola scriptura has always been, at least in principle, the second of these.

Yes, of course this second approach has its problems if taken to its logical conclusion, just as the first leads by reason to the unreason of accepting the infallibility of an ordinary mortal man.  But the way to rescue the second approach is not to abandon it for the first one, “to believe simply what a living authority tells you” having selected this living authority by private judgment. If evangelicalism abandons this principle of interpreting Scripture for oneself for reliance on some authority located in the church, then indeed evangelicalism is dead, has committed suicide.

John, if you really want to take Newman’s first approach, follow its logic as Newman did and go over to Rome. Then leave the rest of us evangelicals to our sola scriptura. We won’t find perfect unity of doctrine through our private judgments. But if those who harangue us for not always agreeing with the Reformers leave us alone, we will achieve sufficient unity to put vain arguments behind us and credibly proclaim the gospel to a world which is perishing.

Experiencing God and believing the Bible

James Spinti makes an interesting point, in his musings at the end of his review of  The Bible Among the Myths by John Oswalt. James writes about how he approaches the historicity of the biblical text, probably thinking mostly of the Old Testament:

I would be classified as a “maximalist” by most. The reason I would be a “maximalist” is that I have seen and experienced God breaking in on my life and the lives of others. Once you have experienced that, the stories in the Bible are not so hard to believe. If you read the archaeological reports and the biblical text with a “hermeneutic of sympathy” rather than a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” you can see that it is possible for the text to be correct.

Don’t misunderstand what I just wrote! I am not saying that archaeology “proves” the Bible! I don’t think that archaeology can “prove” anything. Archaeology can be used to interpret what we see, and what we see depends on our theological paradigm. If you have a paradigm of non-divine intervention, you will come to a radically different conclusion than one that allows divine intervention.

One view is not more scholarly than the other! To believe in a God who can—and does—intervene in human affairs is not naïve and unlearned; it is taking the given data and analyzing them just as carefully as possible. As Sherlock Holmes used to say, if you look at the data and you have dismissed every other possibility, the remaining one must be true—however illogical it seems!

I would echo all of this. I too “have seen and experienced God breaking in on my life and the lives of others”. So I too have no trouble believing the stories in the Bible, at least from Genesis 12 onwards. That doesn’t mean that archaeology proves the Bible. It does mean that I trust the biblical text unless archaeology disproves it – and I don’t think it ever has done, although it has prompted some reinterpretation.

Very often when “minimalists” claim that archaeology disproves the Bible they are arguing from silence. For example, they hadn’t found the ruins of Jerusalem from the time of David and Solomon, so they argued that it never existed. But the real reason those ruins hadn’t been found was that no one had looked for them in the expected place, because this place was under an Arab village. In recent years, controversially, Israeli archaeologists have been looking there, and guess what they have found: ruins of a significant city provisionally dated to the time of David and Solomon! But have those “minimalists” eaten their words?

Of course there are also those whose argument that the Bible is inaccurate is basically that miracles and predictive prophecy cannot happen, and so stories with these elements cannot be true. I can understand that argument as it follows logically from that world view. But from what I have seen and experienced I know that that world view is inadequate, that God can do what appear to us as miracles and can reveal what will happen in the future. So I have no trouble believing these stories.

Yes, indeed the genuinely Christian approach to the biblical text is not the scholarly “hermeneutic of suspicion”, meaning an assumption (usually applied to the Bible far more than to other ancient literature) that the text is unreliable unless it can be proved right, but a “hermeneutic of sympathy”, an expectation that the text is right unless proved wrong.

ESV translation chair to work on NIV update

Bill Mounce, who “was the New Testament chair of the ESV translation”, has just announced on his blog that he has joined the Committee on Bible Translation which is preparing the 2011 update of the NIV translation. I thank Mike Aubrey for bringing this news to my attention.

This is certainly interesting news, in the light of the campaign led by  some of the other ESV translators against the CBT’s last offering, TNIV. Mounce realises that his move could be misunderstood:

Here is my concern. I don’t want anyone to think that I am unhappy with the ESV or that I am “jumping ship.” I am not.

Indeed Mounce himself has been quite critical of some TNIV translation decisions. Only a week ago, while he must have been considering his invitation to join the CBT, he wrote:

I am being reminded how fundamentally different formal and functional translations are. The ESV is a good example of one, and the TNIV of the other, but never the two shall meet, I suspect.

So this news is indeed something of a surprise. But perhaps not so much a surprise – it may be that behind the scenes negotiations about the 2011 update led to an agreement to invite some more conservative scholars to join the CBT. As such Mounce is an excellent choice who will certainly strengthen the Committee and improve the updated NIV. It should also help to head off criticism of the update from Mounce’s former ESV colleagues.

But what are the consequences likely to be for the controversial aspects of TNIV, such as its gender related language? Will they survive in the NIV update? Mounce makes it clear that he will not try to change NIV to make it like ESV:

I strongly believe in different translation philosophies … I have no trouble looking at the NIV’s translation philosophy and working within those guidelines.

He is clearly not entirely happy with TNIV’s gender language, but

I have been absolutely assured that the gender language is truly on the table for discussion, and since so much of the committee has changed, it is not a forgone conclusion as to how this committee will vote. Without that assurance, I could not have joined.

He seems to believe that “mankind” and “man” can still be used gender generically at least in some contexts. But he has no problem with TNIV’s controversial use of singular “they”. Well, I hope the CBT will make such decisions based primarily on input from experts in the English language, not from biblical scholars like Mounce. I am glad to see that his attitude seems to be one of deferring to actual English usage, and certainly not that of some of his ESV translator colleagues who denounce legitimate translation decisions as deliberate distortion.

I would be a little concerned if several scholars with Mounce’s views were invited to join CBT. That might be seen as an attempt to hijack the committee. But I do welcome Mounce’s appointment and look forward to his positive influence on the updated NIV.

Archbishop preaches to Queen, Blair and Brown about "wickedness in high places"

It seems to have been the kind of sermon which an Archbishop would only dare to preach at a memorial service, and one which only at such an event he would have had the opportunity to preach to this kind of congregation. The Queen and much of the Royal Family, Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his predecessor Tony Blair were among the congregation in St Paul’s Cathedral as, in Ruth Gledhill’s words in The Times (see also her blog post on the same subject, and the BBC report of the event) Archbishop Rowan Williams

condemned policymakers for failing to consider the cost of the Iraq war as he led a memorial service today for the 179 British personnel who died in the conflict.

It was in the second reading at the service, from Ephesians 6, that these sentiments were expressed:

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

Ephesians 6:12 (KJV, as quoted by Ruth Gledhill)

Now I’m sure Her Majesty, Blair and Brown are all biblically literate enough to understand that these words “the rulers of the darkness of this world … spiritual wickedness in high places” refer not human leaders like themselves, but to the devil and his minions. Maybe not all of the congregation would have understood this so clearly. So it is good that, according to the words from this verse which Rowan Williams quoted, the reading actually seems to have come from NRSV, which makes the enemy unambiguously other-worldly:

For our* struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Ephesians 6:12 (NRSV – thanks to Rachel for the link)

So Ruth Gledhill was being somewhat naughty to quote the potentially misleading KJV rendering of this verse, rather than the clearer version read out at the service. In NRSV the reading was clearly not referring to anyone in the congregation, and the archiepiscopal sermon was not directly so either. Instead, it contained something even more shocking to some.

We have come to expect bishops to abuse worship by condemning political leaders in their sermons. But we no longer expect them to preach about the devil or any other evil spiritual forces. Somehow it is not considered politically correct within the liberal establishment. Now even this morning the Archbishop was apparently politically correct enough not to use the words “evil” or “devil”. But he did speak of the “invisible enemy”, and in the context the meaning of that phrase was clear.

So what exactly did Archbishop Rowan attribute to this “invisible enemy”? Apparently it, or he,

may be hiding in the temptation to look for short cuts in the search for justice — letting ends justify means, letting others rather than oneself carry the cost, denying the difficulties or the failures so as to present a good public face.

The implication behind these words seems to be that during the Iraq conflict short cuts were taken, indeed perhaps that the whole western invasion of Iraq was a short cut and “letting ends justify means”. So the Archbishop was suggesting that Satan tempted our political leaders, in the UK context primarily Tony Blair but with Gordon Brown then his right hand man, into launching this invasion, and the leaders gave in to this temptation.

This is not so much Blair the Antichrist as Blair the devil’s dupe. Perhaps the Archbishop’s sermon was after all an indirect criticism of the leaders who sat in front of him. So no wonder that

Mr Blair looked solemn as he listened intently to the Archbishop’s address.

Essex vicar: "worship is useless"

I don’t always agree with blogging Essex vicar Sam Norton. Indeed only a few days ago I expressed my strong disagreement with one of his posts. But in his current series Some thoughts on Worship I have found many sentiments that I can accept, along with some that I cannot but have certainly made me think. While being puzzled by his insistence on worship being “sacramental”, I agree with his concern that some charismatic (e.g. “New Wine”) worship is not explicitly Christian and not grounded in the Scriptures, and with his reasoning:

not least on grounds of spiritual warfare.

Sam’s latest post in this series, subtitled “worship is useless”, is especially interesting. Here he first expresses then expounds this rule:

Sam’s first rule of worship: worship is useless, and as soon as worship is used for something else, it ceases to be worship.

Indeed. If we make our worship a tool for doing something else, whether mission, performance or political activity, it ceases to be true worship of God. Indeed, although Sam misses this point, the same is true if we make worship a tool for teaching, whether through hymns packed with doctrine rather than adoration or through a sermon about practical Christian living. Sam is right that in worship our focus must always be on God.

But I think where I would differ from Sam is in something I infer from his words, that all of what the church does together, at least on a Sunday, should be worship in this sense. Now there is rightly also a sense in which everything that Christians do together is or should be worship. But that is a different, broader sense of the word. The church should be doing useful things, like mission and social action. It should also be teaching its members about doctrine and the practicalities of Christian life. These things, at least on Sam’s definition, are not worship, and should not be the focus of worship services. But it would be quite wrong to use this as an argument that the church should not be doing these things.

Nevertheless Sam’s point is right, and aligns well with the material I linked to yesterday from Frank Viola. The church needs to be focusing first of all on God and on Jesus Christ, and this should be the core of its worship. Then, in Frank’s words,

it no longer chases Christian “things” or “its.”

But these “things” or “its”, in so far as they are good and right, should flow out of this worship, into teaching, mission and practical service to the world.

Christian doctrine can make one mean

Frank Viola has posted on Deep Ecclesiology, taken from the Afterword of his book From Eternity to Here. I found in it this interesting passage, from which I have emphasised a very quotable quote:

After I got off the eschatology bandwagon, I was introduced to something called “Christian theology” and “Christian doctrine.” I was taught that the most important thing that God wants for His people is that they know and embrace “sound doctrine.” So I rigorously studied the Scriptures, along with the views of Calvin, Arminius, Luther, and many contemporary theologians and scholars. …

But during that season, I made another discovery. Namely, that Christian doctrine can make a person downright mean. I observed that the men who were the most schooled in Christian doctrine and the most concerned about “sound theology” did not resemble Jesus Christ at all in their behavior. Instead, they seemed to center their lives on making the unimportant critical.

The spirit of the Lamb was altogether missing. They were harsh personalities who appeared to almost hate those with whom they disagreed. Granted, there is a doctrine in the New Testament. But majoring on Christian doctrine and theology can turn Christians into in­quisitors. The words of Thomas Aquinas are fitting: “Lord, in my zeal for love of truth, let me not forget the truth about love.”

This is only one of several areas of today’s Christian life about which Frank expresses his concern. Others include “Revivalist Theology”, “The Power of God”, and eschatology. Frank describes his personal journey through all of “things” until he realised that

We do not need things. We need Jesus Christ. … Jesus Christ is the embodiment of all Divine things.


Frank then goes on to apply this to his vision of the church. Read it. Almost at the end he sums up his message:

When a church is centered on the ultimacy of Christ, it no longer chases Christian “things” or “its.” Knowing Christ, exploring Him, encountering Him, honoring Him, and loving Him becomes the church’s governing pursuit.