How Jesus Destroyed the Devil’s Work

Jesus defeating the devilFrom Destroy the Devil’s Work, a post by Jeremy Myers:

Jesus certainly did come to destroy the devil’s work, but His route for doing so was not conventional. Or at least, it was not the way any human would seek to do it. He did not rain down fire and death from the skies. He did not raise up an army and march off to war. He did not call on political leaders and those with money, power, and prominence to exert their influence and bring about change.

No, Jesus destroyed the devil’s works by doing the exact opposite things of the devil. He loved the unlovable. He forgave the worst of sinners. He healed the chronically sick. He fed the hungry. He empowered the weak. He extended grace to those who showed none. He was patient with repeat offenders. He did not seek to control. He never sought to enslave. He always refused to punish or condemn.


Book: The Biblical Revelation of the Cross

Several years ago, at a time when there was a lot of discussion, on this blog and elsewhere, of different views of the atonement, Norman McIlwain kindly sent me a free copy of his book The Biblical Revelation of the Cross. Norman, like me, was critical of the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, and was looking at other ways of understanding the biblical material about the death of Jesus. I intended to read the book and review it here, but to my regret I never did so.

The Biblical Revelation of the CrossNorman has now revised and expanded his book and published it again, but for now only online, and free of charge. The extra material is about the early church’s teaching on the atonement. This is not formatted as an e-book but as one long HTML page, here: The Biblical Revelation of the Cross. See also Norman’s main Bible study website.

I have not read most of this material and so cannot review or endorse it. I can say from what I have read that it seems well argued. His conclusions seem to me on a skim reading a little too close to saying that Jesus’ death was only as a moral example. But I appreciate the way in which he links our salvation in with the Resurrection and the ongoing Christian life:

Our atonement, therefore, is achieved for us through our being raised up in Christ, who gave Himself for us that we might know God through Him and the power of the resurrection.

This is surely a book worth looking at for anyone interested in the atonement.

The Ancient Conspiracy of Sexism

Here is part of what I wrote in response to a Facebook friend, a pastor, who was promoting blatant sexism – in this context concerning women serving as combat troops, but he has similar views about women in church leadership:

it is all part of  it is all part of an ancient conspiracy, arguably going all the way back to Eden, to deny to half the human race their status as equally made in the image of God.

Over the top? Maybe. Discuss!

Restoring the Church of England to Sanity

An ancient poet, not Euripides, wrote:

Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.

Archbishop Rowan Williams after today's voteIf we replace “gods” with the three persons of the Trinity, is this what is happening to the Church of England?

Certainly the church seems to have gone mad. Having decided in principle that it wants women as bishops, it has spent years going round in circles trying to find an acceptable formula for this, only to reject its chosen formula today, by a narrow margin. That is not the action of a sane and rational body. And it is a sad farewell for outgoing Archbishop Rowan Williams.

I’m not quite saying that today’s vote was irrational, because it may be that the proposed compromise with opponents was so insane that it was rational to reject it. Surely one can doubt the sanity of anyone who tries to push through a compromise which is completely rejected by one of the parties involved. But would that party have accepted any compromise?

It seems to me that the only way ahead now is the one suggested by Sam Norton in his post Please can we now do women bishops the right way? There is no future in trying to compromise between black and white. As the Apostle Paul asked, “what fellowship can light have with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14, NIV) Of course, each side will say that they are light and their opponents are darkness, but that just proves the point. So, just as on the first day of creation God “separated the light from the darkness” (Genesis 1:4), at this point there needs to be not a compromise but a separation. We just need to make sure that the kinds of procedures Sam outlines are followed. Then, unlike what has happened in The Episcopal Church in the USA, the separation can hopefully be an amicable one which does not lead to lawsuits and mutual anathemas.

Archbishop-elect Justin Welby before today's voteOf course if the Trinity really wishes to destroy the Church of England, no human scheme will be able to preserve it. But it may not be too late for that body to repent, put its house in order, and find itself again under God’s blessing. Archbishop-elect Justin Welby looks like a good choice of leader for this difficult task. Today’s vote will have made the task harder, but the long term result just may be a cleaner and so stronger Church of England.

New Mayan Calendar Find: World Won’t End in 2012

The BBC reports a new find of “the oldest-known Mayan astronomical tables”, as part of a find of wall paintings at a site in Guatemala. Indeed, Mayan art and calendar at Xultun stun archaeologists, and should also stun armchair predictors of the end of the world. For it seems that among the discoveries are
Mayan art from Xultun

astronomical tables, including four long numbers on the east wall that represent a cycle lasting up to 2.5 million days … representing a calendar that stretches more than 7,000 years into the future.

So no longer can it be claimed that according to the Mayan calendar the world will end this year. There is apparently no more basis for predicting an apocalypse on 21st December 2012 than there was for Harold Camping’s similar predictions for 21st May and 21st October 2011. (Why does everyone go for the 21st of the month?) And it looks likely that these New Age doomsday merchants will end up with as much egg on their face as Camping already has.

Well, Harold Camping has repented of his false predictions, although only after the event. We can only hope that the people looking to the Mayan calendar will do the same, preferably before the day, and spare us all a circus in the build-up to that date.

“No” to Christian Political Parties and to Theocracy

Today is polling day for local elections here in the UK, in London and in many other areas, but not here in Chelmsford. So the discussion I am having here is primarily about the UK political scene. But the same principles apply in other democratic countries, and so I recommend this post, and the ones I link to here, to all my readers.

Houses of Parliament and CrossA few days ago Gillan Scott caused some controversy by posting an Interview with Malcolm Martin, Christian Peoples Alliance candidate for the London Assembly. In response to this debate, including to some of my own tweets, he asked the question Are Christian political parties really a good idea? Meanwhile Danny Webster responded to the same controversy with Why I don’t think Christian political parties are the best option. Both Gillan and Danny have been posting other good material on faith and politics over the last few days.

I can basically agree with what both Danny and Gillan have written about Christian political parties. I don’t want to condemn those who choose to join or support them, especially in the UK context where votes for them are more likely to be wasted ones than to usher in a theocracy. There is nevertheless a real chance that the CPA candidate will be elected for one of the proportional top-up seats in the London Assembly – and if so that is likely to be because of the party’s stance against gay marriage, an issue which is divisive even in London’s churches.

Gillan makes a good distinction between parties like CPA which “puts faith at the heart of its politics” and those which promote “a whole raft of biblical principles such as the basic human rights of every individual, social justice and the importance of marriage”, but not a specific faith. Neither Gillan nor I object to the latter – but are they really Christian? However, he has some serious reservations about the former:

If a party stands up and says that it represents the Christian faith, then the implication is that all Christians should agree with its policies.  As we all know though, Christians don’t agree on a lot of things and party politics is one of them.  The added danger is that such a party will be perceived as working towards a theocracy where the government subjects its people to what they believe is God’s will and of course because it’s God’s will it can’t be questioned.  Where this is taking place in the world in countries such as Iran, theocracy inevitably leads to oppression.

I’m not saying that theocracy is the CPA’s aim.  But they do want to promote faith in God and put him at the heart of politics. …

There’s nothing I can find in the Bible about Christianity gaining political power.  Israel in the Old Testament was a theocracy, but it was never intended to spread beyond the Jews who lived under the Mosaic law.  Instead in Romans Paul talks about us submitting to the authorities, not usurping them.

Indeed. It is parties like this which, if they become more than fringe groups like CPA, are seen as promoting theocracy, and are rightly condemned as teaching some kind of “dominionism”.

Gillan concludes as follows:

I would suggest that there are two ways God’s values will become prevalent in our society. One is through revival, which I long to see, but will only come through prayer and not politics.  The other is by Christians working their way into positions of power and influence where they can live out kingdom values.  That includes politics.  There are some fantastic Christian MPs and political activists who are doing just that.  They are working through the existing frameworks to influence what happens in government and in our nation.  They haven’t chosen to go up against the existing structures, but work in them and through them and I admire them for that.  Realistically, they will have more effect and do far more good than by looking to do something exclusively Christian and will gain the support of many more people, Christian or otherwise, in the process.

I completely agree. This approach is not “dominionism” and will not lead to a theocracy. But it will help to bring our society to work more according to the principles of the kingdom of God.

Hell: Evangelicals and Universalists Share an Error

FireKurt Willems has followed up his interesting series Hell Yes. Hell No! Or Who the Hell Cares? by publishing a guest post by Dan Martin Burn-them-all vs. Universalism: A false choice. In this post Dan explains why he rejects both universalism, the teaching that no one goes to hell but all are saved, and what he calls the “Burn-them-all” position, that the great majority of human beings are sent to eternal punishment. He also calls the latter “the Evangelical position”, but I would prefer to call the conservative evangelical position, as by no means all who call themselves evangelicals would take this line. John Stott was well known as an evangelical who taught something very different.

To me the most interesting part of Dan’s post is in a parenthesis:

(Note, of course, that the error of universal immortality is one committed by those who espouse eternal conscious torment as well; it’s not just a universalist concept)

This follows his discussion of how universalists seem to assume that every human being, or at least every soul, is immortal, and the only alternative to eternal punishment is eternal bliss. The point of the parenthesis is that conservative evangelicals seem to make exactly the same assumption. But where does this assumption come from? The immortality of the soul is a fundamentally Greek concept, not a biblical one. Dan explains further:

It is quite possible that only God’s followers actually go to heaven–for that matter, that only these win immortality–and that the rest die or are annihilated …  Furthermore, this concept has some circumstantial biblical support…from Genesis 2 & 3 where man is only immortal when granted access to the tree of life, to John 3:16 which posits life-vs-death, not eternal-good-life vs. eternal-bad-life.

I would suggest that the biblical support for this is more than “circumstantial”, but is actually quite strong. It is a consistent theme in the New Testament that eternal life is the inheritance only of God’s holy people. The alternative seems to be destruction: there is remarkably little in Scripture to suggest that the wicked survive beyond the final judgment, when they are thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:15), surely an image of annihilation rather than of torment.

Some will surely object by pointing to the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), where the rich man is said to be in torment in Hades. Now Hades or Sheol is where, according to the Old Testament, all the dead went, and indeed we see that righteous Lazarus is in the same place, although in a separate section of it. In the New Testament we learn that this stay in Hades is only temporary, until the general resurrection and the final judgment. It is at that point that, it seems, the wicked are destroyed in the lake of fire, also known as Gehenna or “hell”, and only the righteous are admitted into the fullness of God’s kingdom.

This is basically the annihilationist or conditional immortality position held for example by John Stott. As Kurt Willems notes in part 7 of his series, it was also the view of some of the church fathers. It is more biblical than the traditional evangelical one, which is strongly influenced by Greek ideas of the immortality of the soul, as well as by mediaeval images of torment in hell, which were introduced in a fruitless attempt to frighten people into correct behaviour. In Kurt’s words,

The idea that humans are innately immortal is foreign from biblical thought. Greek philosophy fuels this assumption.

This position also resolves the neatly the apparent contradiction involved in a God of love sending most people to eternal punishment. In Dan’s words:

The idea that immortality itself is a gift to the faithful and not the nature of all souls, actually fits the bill both for the reward of those who love God, and the exclusion/damnation of the rest, without making God into the torturing monster we read in (for example) the works of Jonathan Edwards.

Dan concludes his post as follows:

So…will all but a few burn in hell, or will everyone eventually be saved?  Biblically, probably neither.  But after all, “what is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:22, out of context!)


Jonathan Edwards, the Holy Spirit and the Incarnation

Jonathan EdwardsI was fascinated to read today’s guest post on Peter Enns’ blog Jonathan Edwards, The Holy Spirit, and Evolution: Part 1, by Brandon G. Withrow. In fact this Part 1 is not at all about evolution, so I am waiting to read about that in subsequent parts. But it was interesting to read about what Jonathan Edwards, the 18th century hero of today’s conservative evangelicals, had to say about the Holy Spirit, and especially of his role in the Incarnation, i.e. the coming of Jesus Christ as both God and man. It is not at all what I would have expected from a strict Calvinist. The first part is not so controversial, perhaps:

The Spirit, according to Edwards, unites the human nature of Christ to the divine nature and actively maintains the integrity of both, all the while not becoming an addition of a divine being to the person of Christ.

In doing this, the Spirit can ensure that the limitations of the human mind of Christ are maintained, otherwise, if the divine attributes were allowed to mix or rewrite the human nature, he would lose his genuine humanity, since the finite cannot contain the infinite.

Well, that certainly makes sense, and offers a good explanation of why the incarnate Jesus did not appear to be omniscient. It also accords with what I wrote here a few years ago in a post Jesus is Our Fully Human Example, that Jesus had some supernatural knowledge and could perform miracles not because he was divine but because the Holy Spirit was working through him.

The main point I was making in that post is that if this was true of Jesus, it is also true today of us Christians, filled with the Holy Spirit. And Jonathan Edwards seems to have made the same connection, and taken it somewhat further than I did, as Withrow writes with a quote from Edwards:

As the Spirit unites Christ’s humanity to the divine, so also the Spirit unites the human Christian (like Edwards) to God through Christ.

All…communion of the creatures with God or with one another in God, seems to be by the Holy Ghost. ’Tis by this that believers have communion with Christ, and I suppose ’tis by this that the man Christ Jesus has communion with the eternal Logos. The Spirit of God is the bond of perfectness by which God, Jesus Christ, and the church are united together (WJE 13:529).

Christ’s human nature is united to his divine nature thanks to the Spirit’s work. Likewise, the same Spirit unites Christians to the divine.

The implication of this seems to be that, for Edwards, the union between Christians and the divine through the Holy Spirit is of the same nature as the union between Jesus Christ and the divine. This opens up the question of the uniqueness of Jesus as the Son of God. If, as the New Testament clearly teaches, every Christian is a son or daughter of God and partakes of the divine nature, was Jesus really unique, or was he just the firstborn of many brothers and sisters? At first sight, both answers can be found in the New Testament, and in different strands of Christian theology. But the doctrine of the Trinity seems threatened by any idea that the second Person, God the Son, was not unique – or is every Christian an incarnation of the one second Person?

I am not familiar enough with the theology of Jonathan Edwards to know how far he took the implications of the teaching which Withrow describes here. Very likely Withrow explains it further in his book Becoming Divine: Jonathan Edwards’s Incarnational Spirituality Within the Christian Tradition (affiliate link – see also this description), which I have not read. But it seems clear that Edwards by no means followed what has become the traditional evangelical line on such matters, with a rigid distinction between the divine as well as human Son of God and his human and utterly sinful people. And I would suggest that Edwards was the more correct here.

On Being Uncertain, on theological issues

In a comment on a recent post here Robert Kan asked me,

How certain are you that a particular teaching in scripture is not relevant for us today because “times” have changed?

I think I surprised Robert with my reply, because he made no further comment on that post:

… The answer is: not at all certain. Christians come to different conclusions on many of these matters, and I don’t think one is objectively right and the others objectively wrong.

In practice each of us finds our own footholds on the slippery slope. I’m not sure that is a bad thing. It’s only a bad thing if we use it as an excuse to break Christian unity or start condemning others for choosing different footholds. Paul outlines the principles of the strong and the weak, and I think they may well apply here.

A clarification here: as the broader context shows, I am not denying objective truth in matters of fact, but rejecting only the objective status of positions on issues of ethics and morality.

In a further comment on the same post, Iconoclast helps me to unpack further Paul’s teaching on the strong and the weak, and how it applies in this case.

Austin and Allison FischerProbably independently, Austin Fischer has written a guest post at Roger Olson’s blog Certainty Not, in which he criticises the theological pretension (not “pretention” – Fischer mixes up the two spellings) of “young, restless and Reformed” neo-Calvinists:

And lots of things go into pretention: pride and projection, arrogance and insecurities, knowledge and ignorance. But at its very core pretention, especially theological pretension, feeds on certainty. We become pretentious when we get certain, when we become convinced that there is simply no way we could be wrong about this, when we cannot see any truth in alternative positions, when we can no longer feel the weight of dissenting voices and as such seek to squelch them out.

But of course when it comes to theology, certainty is impossible. Finite human beings are trying to make sense of an infinite God. We always know God subjectively, never objectively. Perhaps the most certain thing we can say about God is that we cannot be certain about anything. This is not to say we cannot be confident, that we cannot have good reason to believe what we believe. But it is to say that certainty will always lie just beyond our grasp. Certainty? No. Confidence? Yes.

Indeed. Sometimes it is good to be confident that we are right, especially concerning central matters of the Christian faith. But even here we need to avoid the kind of pretentious certainty which only repels others and divides the church. Probably more often we need to recognise that our own conclusions are provisional, based on our own limited understanding of the issues and of the relevant Bible passages.

And that implies that we should treat Christians who differ from us on these issues not as enemies to be defeated or as apostates to be shunned, but as our brothers and sisters in Christ. Concerning our attitude to them the world should be able to say, in the words quoted by Tertullian in the 3rd century (see also John 13:35),

See how they love one another.

A Breakthrough on Paul and Women (1 Timothy 2:8-15)

Trace JamesTrace James, of Studies in Grace, offers an interesting post A Breakthrough on Paul and Women. (Thanks to ElShaddai Edwards on Twitter for the link.) He writes:

It is not very often that I experience a real breakthrough in biblical studies. Perhaps that is because I do not have very many “problem passages,” texts where I think I know what a text says but I disagree!

Yet, here is such a text: I Timothy 2:8-15! The passage where we all “know” Paul the apostle instructs Timothy to forbid women from teaching because Adam was created before Eve, because Eve was deceived first (before Adam) and because women have better things to do, that is, to give birth to and to take care of babies!

But the interpretation which Trace comes up with is diametrically opposed to this one. This is because he asks the right questions:

Anyone who has ever taken classes from me knows the importance of context in reading the Bible. Every bible book was called forth by an occasion and was continually preserved and re-copied because it continued to speak powerfully to new generations even when the contexts had changed. So what context might help us to understand the above passage in a new way?

Trace looks at the likely context of what Paul wrote to Timothy, including the background of proto-Gnosticism. Read his post to see the course of his argument. This may be new to Trace, but it is not entirely new to me. However, it is a clear and concise statement of this way of looking at the passage. It provides a convenient and freely accessible resource for rebutting the position that in this passage Paul intends to forbid for ever all women from teaching.

Trace concludes

that Paul had no problem with female teachers any more than Jesus did and that the problem under discussion is rebellion, not women as teachers.

I agree.