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Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Cross-Shaped Christianity

I was once listening to a preacher walk through Paul's letter to the Colossians (crawl is a better analogy). We had arrived at the section which includes "For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit...." (2:5). This unusual and perhaps 'spooky' verse was left untouched, almost as if the preacher hadn't noticed it or had no theological apparatus to interpret it.

The fact of the matter  is that we all wear filters and one of the reasons we must listen hard to what the Spirit says to the churches is because we cannot, or worse do not want to, hear the voice of God.

The no-suffering filter is universal, but it's a larger one in the West where it is so easy to believe in Christ. We read verses about carrying the cross and suffering for him and our glazed eyes slide over them as though they weren't there. "For it has been granted (a charisma word no less) to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him but also to suffer for him..." (Philippians 1:29).

Paul and the Cross
For many of us, the cross of Jesus Christ is a 'way back then' event. A great event - the greatest event - a life-giving, a life-saving event. Nothing less, but here's the rub: nothing more.

How different for the Apostle Paul. Paul viewed the cross as a shadow that fell across his whole life and ministry, a mould into which he would pour himself, a paradigm against which to test the authenticity of his discipleship.

Far from being a "way back then' event, it was a present living daily reality.

Take for example his expectation of how a premier theologian, church planter and missionary should be treated. What would you say? Red carpets, OBEs, CBEs, honours? Paul would ask himself, How was Jesus Christ treated? Ah, he was despised and rejected by men - and so that is what he expected: beatings, lashings, prison, nakedness, hunger..... (2 Corinthians 11).

Take for example how Paul would preach to clever types. It's not that he didn't enter their world, but he asked the question, "How can my message be cross-shaped ?" "The cross is weak, the cross is foolish, how can my message reflect the cross?"  And so he determined to preach Christ and him crucified.

The only route to Resurrection power
The cross of course is not the end of the story. Paul knew another secret; he knew that the only route to glory was through suffering. If Jesus was exalted because he humbled himself, if he got to glory through the cross, there was no other way available to us. There is no success, no holiness, no fruitfulness in ministry, no influence, except through suffering, hard work, sacrifice and every other thing symbolised by the cross.

So Paul's view of suffering was not morbid, it was filled with expectant hope; that if he bore the cross, resurrection would follow as day follows night. Godliness would flow, churches would be planted, lives would be transformed.

But only if the seed first fell into the ground and died.

The Diagnostic Cross
Over my years of ministry I have come across Christians who think they can buck this Divine Trend and pass straight to glory, influence and power without the cross. They want to be big shots before they wait on tables. They want Gospel success without self-dying, hard work and self-sacrifice. But no fruit appears. And this is the diagnostic reason their ministries never bear fruit, never impact lives, never transform communities: they don't want the cross.They wonder as they reflect on their Christian service "why did I achieve so little, impact so few lives, do the world so little good?" And the answer is they served Christ when it was convenient, when it was easy, when it fit in with their schedule and when it cost nothing.

Those who take up their cross and follow him will prove true disciples and those who suffer with him will ultimately reign in glory.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

The Uncontrollable Mystery on the Bestial Floor

Zero Stats
I'll check the stats in a month or so: I expect no-one will read this blog. Not a zippy title, I have to agree.....

......but since the title is not my creation, spend a moment unpacking it. Start at the end "Bestial floor": it's Christmas remember, and what happened in a shed-for-beasts two thousand years ago? Move a little further to the left: "mystery": the child in a manger was God and Man; not a little bit God and a little bit Man, but fully God and fully Man. Who can understand that? Uncontrollable? I'd guess the author meant something like unfathomable or ineffable or sublime.

The title came from the very first edition of what was meant to be a popular theological magazine that, as a young theologian, I had subscribed to. Fancy opening the first page and being confronted with such a fog of incomprehensibility!

Fog everywhere
But it isn't only theologians who obscure the meaning of the babe in a manger. A Christian said to me this week "we've castrated the message of Christmas" and after listening to a vicar waffle at my child's nativity play I can see what he means.

We have sanitised and sandpapered the edges off that first Christmas.

The naked (ugly) truth
The naked truth is that the birth of Jesus was something of a scandal and embarrassment. Jesus was born, viewed by the world, out of a questionable relationship (she was not yet married) to an unknown woman betrothed to a poor unknown man in a backwater town in pitiable and no doubt smelly conditions. No kings or politicians announced his arrival, and the only ones who knew he was born were a pretty dismal lot. Shepherds? Low life. Astrologers? Dirty pagans. Simeon and Anna? Doddery old folk. And that's about it. Let's not smarten up the story or whitewash it in any way. Let's leave it pitiable, pathetic and foolish....

The Way it's Supposed to Be
.....because that is the way it is supposed to be. The Son of God came into this world in obscurity, shame and poverty for a very good reason. It was the way it was supposed to be. Because in this way, there is not one man nor woman living on the planet who can say "God doesn't understand me". The very lowest, the dirtiest, the saddest, the most ashamed and the poorest, can know that he understands our human life from the inside. One of Jesus' most wonderful titles is "Immanuel" which means God with us. Not God Above us, not God Judging us, but the God who has walked in our shoes and understood our plight, and who, amazing though it may seem, welcomes us, by his incredible grace, to dine with him in his Royal Court, as his Sons and Daughters, for free!

Monday, 6 December 2010

Christian Slaves

Christian Slaves?
A report on some new atrocity against the church? No, a question that arises out of Paul's letter to the Galatians.

Christians are free? Christians are slaves? Christians are free? Christians are slaves? Which is it? Remarkably, according to Paul, it's both!

Christians are free!
Believers are radically free. We can do anything we want (except sin). In particular we are free from the Jewish law - which even the Jews found impossible to bear. The Old Testament law was like a vine whose tentacles found their way into every nook and cranny of life. You could scarcely move without either obeying or disobeying some law. Imagine the burden of tithing, which the Pharisees extended to their herb gardens. Give ten percent to the temple. Well, one year 34 stalks of Basil come up, that's 3.4 stalks for the temple. Should you round down to 3 or round up to 4? If you round down, will your conscience trouble you for having broken the tithe law? What a burden, what slavery, what a heavy, heavy load.

But for people without the Spirit to control them, law is essential; without it you have anarchy and extinction. But imagine the burden of the law. So much time spent on making sure you obeyed it and so much time worrying if you hadn't and so much more time sacrificing for breaking it. What a time-consuming, energy-sapping joy-busting drag...

Jesus has set us free from all of that! And it is for freedom that he has set us we are free. We must never allow ourselves to come under law again (Galatians 5:1); not Jewish law, not church law, not tradition law......

Christians are slaves
But how then should we use all our vast time and resources and energy? How should we use our new freedom? We have a choice, well sort of choice. Either we will use it to gratify the sinful nature -  go with the flow of our fallen natures, but that is not much of a choice, for if our facebook accounts mirror the acts of the sinful nature (Galatians 5:19), we will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Or else we will use our new found freedom to become a new kind of slave. A slave of others, now driven not by fear or necessity or law, but driven by love. Instead of spending all our time in exhausting devotion to the law of Moses, we will spend our time in the joyful service of others.

Not slaves to law, but slaves to others out of love.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Creation and Judgement: why our doctrine of creation really matters

Many reasons for the First Article of Faith
There are many reasons to hold firm to the fundamental, first doctrine of the Christian faith, expressed in the Apostles' Creed like so: "I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.." One is this: the Scriptures continually refer to God as Creator and hence to deny this role for God is to disbelieve Scripture's witness. Other reasons include the dependent nature of all reality: only God is self-existent, "the fount of his own existence."

The connection between Creation and Judgement: 
Creation as witness to God
But a Gospel reason to hold firm to God as Creator is found in Romans 1, where Paul says that on the day of judgement, creation will be called upon as witness to his existence to those who say "there is no God." Here is the text:

"Since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse." (1:20)

In other words God has wired us like this: as the human mind (any human mind) looks out at the beauty and design of the universe repeated at every level of existence from small to large, from living to inanimate, it is wired with a processing system which says "this is the work of  Someone, this reveals the handiwork of Someone with greater power than a human and with a different nature than a human, Someone truly, truly great."

It is actually the same reasoning process that works in every area of life: we infer the presence of intelligent beings from design or purpose, whether in archaeology, crime or the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).  This natural process will be called upon on the last day as witness to God's existence: "You knew I existed because you saw design that could not be attributed to natural forces." Creation + mind wired for inference from complex to God = basis of Judgement on the last day.

The Theological and Gospel Peril of theistic-evolution
Those then who promote theistic evolution (TE), and mean by it that beauty, planets, galaxies and all life arose naturally and spontaneously without the help of a Creator (who was only in the background, capital B), strike at the very heart of God's witness in the world, and undermine the force of God's powerful witness to himself. Where God says "look at this intricacy, it points to me, and one day if you reject me, you'll stand guilty", TE says "look at this intricacy, it all came about by itself, no God anywhere." OK, they may add that a clever God wired the constants of the universe so that it self-evolved, but by then they have undermined the power of God's universal witness to his being and character.

We tamper with the first article of faith at our peril, and perhaps worse, we tamper with it at the peril of the lost.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Formal Church Membership, the Gospel and the Law

A long standing puzzle
For many years I have loathed formal church membership and have wondered why. As I preach through Galatians, I can see more clearly just why it is one of my pet hates.

Initially, the hatred was born of experience.  I remember church meetings at a Baptist Church which were no different from political hustings: members with the least knowledge, experience and godliness made the most noise. They were there to whinge and moan. My next experience of church membership was worse: church decisions were made around a patriarch's dining room table and then smuggled into the church meeting as 'the mind of Christ'. In between these two dreadful experiences was a pleasant church experience with no formal membership. If you were committed to the fellowship then you could come, pray, hear and contribute to the decision-making in the life of the church. My present experience of formal membership is positive.

Experience is a guide
Theologians will say "you can't shape your beliefs by experience". On the one hand, no, Scripture must shape our beliefs, but on the other hand bad experiences get you asking 'What is wrong?'

So what is wrong with formal church membership?

Some positives
There are some positives. If it is used as a means of communication and wider counsel this is good. If it is used to gain consensus over major decisions in the church this too is good and helpful: we find examples of the wider church being involved in decision making in both Acts 6 and Acts 15.

Many negatives flow from a wrong focus of unity and from law
There are however, many negatives to formal church membership, primarily flowing from two facts:

(a) formal church membership introduces a non-Gospel basis for unity. The moment you announce a meeting to which not every believer is invited, you introduce a focus of unity that is not found in the New Testament and consequently you divide the church. The only basis of our unity is faith in Christ, not formal membership. Everyone who has faith is in, full stop. 

(b) formal church membership introduces man-made law. Man-made rules surround membership expectations and more man-made rules control church meetings. It becomes then very easy for members to judge one another as to whether or not they are fulfilling those rules. "He isn't a very good member because he doesn't come to the prayer meetings", "She is a half-hearted member because she doesn't join in with the fellowship groups" and so on.

Add to this, the fact that formal membership is no sign of spiritual vitality. It is possible, therefore, to have the least spiritually minded people, the least prayerful, making the big decisions and the most spiritually minded on the sidelines. Add to this the feeling that if you have been a member longer than someone else you have more rights, power and influence! 

All of these are the natural consequences of the church introducing man-made ways of organisation into church life. 

Of course someone could argue that if church membership was better policed then it would be more effective. What, introduce another layer of heavy-handed law into the church!!!?

A better method
A better method than formal church membership is the Biblical way, where elders lead the church - with consultation from the flock. Rather than placing the burden of leadership on the flock, they take it on their own shoulders. How might this work? Suppose they wanted to recognise a new elder or deacon. They could hold a meeting of believers who are committed to the church and put forward the names they consider meet the New Testament requirements and ask for comments in public or in private over the next month. If no adverse comments return, the elders would then appoint the persons concerned.

Perhaps in a western culture so shaped by the idol of democracy (and false god if ever there was one, for it counts votes rather than weighing opinion: it is more concerned with the will of man than the will of Christ; democracy was why the children of Israel didn't enter the promised land - 10 unbelieving votes against 2 believing ones) such a better form of government may be impossible.

Perhaps a very loose form of formal church membership, to paraphrase Churchill when talking about parliamentary democracy, though the worst form of government, is better than all the others!!

Thursday, 18 November 2010

The Most Critical Doctrine of the Bible

What would you say?
What, I wonder would your assessment be? The most important/critical doctrine/teaching in the Bible? The letters of Paul to the Galatian and Roman Christians answer this question clearly: Justification by Faith in Christ Alone - or if you prefer, The Gospel.

Not just a "Reformation conviction"
This is not just a protestant answer flowing from our reformation heritage: it is the clear teaching Romans and Galatians, especially the latter. In the hot letter of Galatians, dispatched urgently to prevent churches in a whole region from deserting the Gospel, Paul shows the dramatic effects of the Gospel and the tragic effects of departure from it. Three of these effects, explained in chapters 3 and 4 are below...

1. The Gospel Unites the Church (any move from the Gospel divides it)
Since the only door into the Kingdom of God is faith in Christ, the Gospel has an amazing ability to unite people from every conceivable background. Jew, Gentile, men, women, upper class and lower class, or what other distinction you can come up with,  all have to walk through the same door: and that makes them one in Christ. This is wonderful and completely unique. The moment a church adds to the Gospel anything (gifts of the Spirit, heavy doctrine, whatever), the church is divided into haves and have nots.

2. The Gospel causes us to think of God as our Father (a move back to law makes us think of him as a master)
During the era Moses-Messiah, God's people, though sons were in effect slaves, for as young sons they were under the care of a disciplinarian (the law). A son who is under such a disciplinarian (a pedagogos) is no different from a slave in practice. When Jesus came God's people grew up and received the Spirit of sonship. We are absolutely secure in our relationship with our Father in heaven. We do not go to bed thinking "I've blow it today, God doesn't love me." A son doesn't think like that, though a slave does. Going back to the law means going back to the era of law and the era of slavery and the era of master.

3. The Gospel allows the fruit of the Spirit to grow (a move back to law returns us to the era without the Spirit)
The church that moves back to law, moves back to the era without the Spirit, and therefore without the fruit of the Spirit. Such a church quenches the Spirit and is filled with back-biting and joylessness: everything opposite to the fruit of the Spirit.

There is no other doctrine which shapes the life of the Christia and the church more than justification by faith. And therefore we need Luthers to run through the church with new fire, not once every 15 centuries, but every week, so that the precious fruit of the Gospel will be maintained among the churches.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Why we need the Holy Spirit

Excess: A clear Satanic Strategy
As I reflect back on my Christian journey I am nothing but amazed at how many stumbling blocks were placed in my path to confuse me over the work of the Holy Spirit. To be blunt, I could have been completely put off of the Holy Spirit by people in the church. Here are some of those stumbling blocks...
  • Excess - I was once a member of a church which went through a 'Holy Spirit' phase where every sermon every Sunday for six months was on the Holy Spirit: if that isn't excess, I am the Pope. I have attended "Toronto Blessing" meetings where people barked like dogs and giggled like idiots - I couldn't find dogs or idiots in Acts (fools for Christ, but not idiots). 
  • False Prophets - I  heard prophecies that were never fulfilled and manipulation dressed up as "words of knowledge." One prophet said in public that a particular church was soon to grow to 3000; that was thirty years ago, nothing has happened yet. 
  • Pseudo-healings - people claimed to be healers or claimed they were healed, but of little more than back-ache, head-ache and the sort of things that might  go away with nothing more than an aspirin, Ovaltine and a good night's sleep: not exactly Gospels and Acts types of radical healings.
  • UnChristlikeness - worst of all, the people who most spoke about the Holy Spirit seemed often to be the least filled with him! People who boogied on Sunday turned out to be unChristlike witnesses on Monday.
All of these experiences, had the effect on a whole generation of Christians, of frightening us away from any talk or the work of God's Spirit. We would label these people "charismatics" and run a mile from - and here is the Satanic tactic - not only everything excessive, but everything "Holy Spirit"......

A better look
.....but we must overcome this Satanic tactic. And for myself, I have become more and more aware, not only from the Scriptures, but from experience of the necessity and work of the Holy Spirit. 

He is absolutely necessary and precious to the church (We know that in our heads and theology, but need to believe it in our hearts and act upon it in our lives).

It is only through the Holy Spirit that we are converted (John 3:5-8), empowered for service (Judges 14:6), given courage (Acts 4:31), encouraged (Acts 9:31), comforted (2 Cor 1:3-4), directed (Acts 13:2), sanctified (2 Thess 2:13) and formed into the character of Jesus (Galatians 5:22-23).

I now seek to be led every day by the Spirit, I ask for his power in my life and ministry and pray that he would direct and lead the church. 

The author Jim Packer put it helpfully like this:  

“The Christian’s life in all its aspects—intellectual and ethical, devotional and relational, upsurging in worship and outgoing in witness—is supernatural; only the Spirit can initiate and sustain it. So apart from him, not only will there be no lively believers and no lively congregations, there will be no believers and no congregations at all.”

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Evolutionary Theory II: How is it flawed?

Deep Problems
After exploring the popular appeal of evolutionary theory we consider its weaknesses.....

Weakness #1: No rivals are allowed or seriously explored
Every scientist and every member of the public ought to be alarmed that no other integrating theory is allowed debate and discussion. When evolutionary scientists discuss for example Intelligent Design they do so without the kind of seriousness they would give to any other theory. They simply write off any explanation that may require an Intelligence and give it no further serious thought. Even those scientists who display a surface sympathy with Intelligent Design, such as Stuart Kauffman refuse to engage with it deeply. The approach is: "this idea is by definition wrong, by starting point; but I guess we'd better look as though we are taking it seriously".
Weakness #2: There is no evolutionary solution to complex systems
The Intelligent Design community have legitimately pointed out the complex systems demand intelligence. The classic problem of the flagellar motor is a case in point.....

....the flagellar motor is a tiny motor which powers a whip-like structure which in turn powers bacteria through liquid. So integrated and tuned are the various components of this motor that it is impossible to imagine it being assembled over time: every part is finely-tuned and necessary for the motor to work (and therefore to be selected). Like a watch, each cog is the right size with the right number of teeth and so on.

Evolutionists explain this away by saying that the various parts can be found elsewhere in nature and all that happens is that those components are being used together in a new way. It takes very little mental effort to find holes in this idea, but this mental effort is simply not expended by evolutionists who wave off the flagellar motor with talk of Darwinian pre-adaption.

Here is the problem and it is simply insurmountable: suppose you decide to make a new machine - a TV for example - out of pre-existing machine parts from say a radio, a microwave and an oscilloscope. First of all you will need to adjust the properties of each component so that they can work together: you can't throw pre-existing parts together and expect it to work. Secondly, it takes intelligence to re-configure and assemble these components to fit the new purpose. No tornadoes in a junkyard of old electronic equipment will ever give rise to a a new machine: intelligence is required. And this is exactly the problem, so deeply is design and intelligence ingrained in our thinking, it is possible to overlook its role and blithely suggest it could all come together by itself. 

Weakness #3: Evolution cannot ever explain the origin of the incredibly complex factory we call a cell
It is evolution-speak to call single-celled creatures 'primitive' or 'simple'. Darwin could be excused, but not we. Each cell is a complex factory, and one that builds itself to double the wonder. There is no non-intelligent explanation for the origin of a Samsung, Toyota or Cell factory which self-builds.

Weakness #4: Nature is limited in its ability to generate complexity
Law plus chance can give rise to a certain amount of complexity, but no more. Sand dunes and salt crystals all exhibit a certain amount of spontaneous complexity. But there is a clear limit to the complexity that naturally arises in nature. On a scale of 1 to a million, the complexity of a cell is at the top, the complexity nature spontaneously builds is say 1.

Weakness #5: Riding against the second law of thermodynamics is possible, but it requires a (designed) machine
Someone may protest, "Isn't it possible to ride against nature's natural tendency to disorder in a thermodynamically open system?" The second law of thermodynamics teaches that all systems tend to disorder (your car and your house fall apart as time advances). The answer is yes you can buck that trend, but only by courtesy of a machine (a designed machine). Take the heat pump, which many Americans use to heat their homes with. Normally heat travels from hot to cold, but actually you can make heat travel from a freezing Minnesota winter into a warmer house. To do this you need a machine. And guess what? Machines need intelligence.

Weakness #6: Common Descent and Common Designer integrate the same data with equivalent power
The theory of evolution derives its explanatory power from its observation that similar structures seem to point to common origin. This works not only at the level of similar limb-structures but at the level of the regulatory genes which build eyes and limbs. It turns out that the same toolbox of genes are used to build different limbs and different eyes: evidence of common Something, but what? Common descendant or common designer? Both are equal explanations. In the case of common Designer, it points to economy of design: why re-invent a limb when tweaking a regulatory  gene in another direction will do the trick? Clever stuff.

This explanatory rug is therefore pulled from under the feet.

Weakness #7: Evolutionary theories work in the same way that conspiracy theories do: they construct meaning out of an infinite sea of facts
Conspiracy theories arise for two reasons: (a) an event (e.g. murder of JFK or 9/11) generates an enormous body of data, (b) the investigator (who has an axe to grind - every investigator has an axe to grind) in making sense of infinite data has no option but to pick and choose. What is picked and what is left behind depends on the investigator. In exactly the same way the number of facts in the universe are nigh on infinite (at least to us puny humans). Somehow we have to arrange them into some order, and the method we choose will depend on the philosophy we start out with.

The evolutionist assumes that the present great diversity of species can be arranged from simple to complex and that this arrangement can then be transposed back in time to indicate how living things arose: from uncomplicated to complex. So they discover eyes, from simple light sensitive to complex eagle eyes and with the evolutionary paradigm firmly fixed in the mind, naturally suggest "this is primitive" "that is late". There is of course a wholly alternative explanation for the diversity of species and eyes: the amazing creativity of a Designer who delights in creating not one way of seeing but ten.

Imagine an alien inspecting all "wheeled vehicles" in England, from simple to complex. He puts them in an evolutionary sequence: wheelie bins and bicycles are primitive he says, since they are simple, while cars and trucks are late since they are highly developed. Actually, Mr Alien, your theory is upside down. Wheelie bins came after cars. The point is that simplicity/complexity is no necessary sign of age/history, it may be nothing more than a sign of appropriateness: why give a flatworm an eagle's eye when all it needs is a light sensitive cell?

Weakness #9: Darwin's fatal step: micro to macro
I will never forget the first time I read Darwin's Origins. Darwin begins with the incredible way human breeders can produce certain features in animals by selective breeding. Anyone who has seen the amazing variety pigeon fanciers can produce will know exactly what I am talking about. It is helpful to call this micro-evolution rather than macro-evolution (though evolutionists like to blur the distinction) because it never produces new species or novel features, but merely works on what is already there: put all those pigeons back together without the creative hand of the selector and these novel features would disappear. Darwin then makes the fatal step in his book of arguing from these wonderful small changes to massive man-mouse changes. But there is a world of difference between the two. The former are merely yet another instance of the remarkable way the Creator has built into his creatures a certain amount of flexibility so that foxes can survive in both hot climes and the Arctic; so that finches can survive a drought when there is nothing but hard nuts to crack. Darwin, without faith in a gracious and kind God, interpreted these small changes wrongly.

Weakness #10: We now know the edge of evolution
Michael Behe in his marvelous book The Edge of Evolution, shows that we now have knowledge from both mathematics and experiments with microbes (where reproduction rates are so fast that the effect of mutations over millions of generations can be explored) which show that there is a clear limit to what evolution can do: "Despite huge population numbers and intense selective pressure, microbes... yield minor evolutionary responses.." (p.140)

Weakness #11: Many great scientists refuse to buy into it
There are a great number of scientists from many different disciplines who simply will not buy into evolutionary theory. These are not dimwits, but men and women at the top of their game, who totally refuse to accept the theory. There must be a reason for their refusal....

Weakness #12:  Evolutionary theory can explain away anything
No matter what the problem, evolutionary theory can come up with a hypothetical solution. The trouble is that since it is a historical science, it doesn't have to, it can't, prove the hypothetical suggestion that happened way back when....

Weakness #13: Evolutionary Paradigms hold back science
In his wonderful book "Endless Forms Most Beautiful" Sean Carroll again and again says - clearly unwittingly - that certain findings were totally unexpected by the biological community. When for example it was discovered that the same gene toolbox is used to build many different kinds of eye, researchers were surprised, because they had assumed that eyes had been invented from scratch (his word, invented - implying a designer) 40 different times (p.66). In other words, their evolutionary paradigm prevented them from seeing connections between eyes. A creationist scientist in the same lab would have made far faster progress, because he or she would have been looking out for likenesses across the species, knowing that the same Designer built them all. Discoveries may have been made years or even decades earlier were it not fro Darwinian dogma. This is the problem when we are blinkered by a paradigm.

For all of these reasons and more, no-one should feel bullied into accepting the theory of evolution.

Christians, who take the Bible seriously, have additional reasons for questioning the theory. The doctrine of creation and the doctrine of the fall cannot be squared with evolutionary theory. But we are not ostriches who put our heads in the sand, ignoring the data around us, for we can't see evolution in science, and nor can we see it in theology.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Evolutionary Theory I: Why is it so Popular?

Not Without Some Reason
A recent e-mail  ridiculed evolutionary theory and dismissed it with a joke. But we ought to be more serious and  ask why it is believed so widely. We can't see the weaknesses and fatal flaws of evolution until we understand it. In a future blog I will explain what I see as evolution's fatal flaws, but in this blog, I try to understand its wide appeal......

But what is evolution?

Unbeknown to many, evolution is the dominant integrating principle in all university historical science (the science of the past) from physics to biology. At base it says that everything in the cosmos can be explained according to physical principles at work today - without the intervention of God. Given chance and natural law, this universe will gradually develop and appear.

So when you ask, Where does the universe itself come from?, evolutionary theory is the explanation: slight instabilities in the Big Bang led to the natural development of stars and galaxies. Where do planets come from? Clouds of dust around new stars accreted to form planets.Where did life come from? Molecules got together to form the first primitive cell; cells in turn clubbed together to form the first multi-cellular organism and so on and so forth.

Here are some reasons evolutionary theories are so widely held....

Reason #1: The human mind needs an integrating principle
We have amazing minds which refuse to leave any sea of facts uncoordinated. We simply can't collect data  without asking the question, How does A relate to B and C? We do this with people, for example: we take the things they say and do and use this data to work them out, we do this to families, communities and nations. Every subject you study at university, involves some attempt to correlate otherwise disparate facts.

Reason #2: Scientists need an integrating Principle
Scientists are no different. They want to know how this fossil relates to that one, this rock to that one, this star to that one, this galaxy to that one,  and then up the explanatory tree, how this theory relates to that theory. The theories of evolution provide such an integrating principle and this satisfies the human mind of the scientist.

Reason #3: Evolutionary Theory Has Explantory Power
Evolutionary theory appears on the surface to possess explanatory power. Where it draws this power from is another quetsion. I'll work this out further in a future blog, but there is an almost sinister parallel between evolutionary theory and creation theory. I would argue that evolutionary theory draws its explanatory power by being pseudo-correct. I am thinking of biological evolution here which teaches that common features point to a common ancestor. Take one example: the fact that so may animal limbs are based on the pentadactyl (five part) structure (wings, forearms, legs, etc, all have five components, see fig.) points to a distant common source, they say. But there is another explanation: similar features could equally be explained by a common designer. One Mind instead of 'reinventing the wheel' simply tweaks it in a multitude of directions to produce a leg here, a wing there. Amazing ingenuity, remarkable economy. Common Designer is just as sensible an explanation as Common Descent. Perhaps evolutionary theory draws its explanatory power by providing a false explanation of a true phenomenon.

Reason #4: The human soul needs a Creation Myth
Much deeper than all of this, the human soul needs a Creation Myth - I mean by that some Big Story in which it can locate itself and make sense of the cosmos and world. Since we live in a scientific age, it is no surprise that our culture has created a scientific creation myth.

Reason #5: Evolutionary theory is the only option available to an unbelieving mind
Scientists do not generally abandon one theory until a better alternative is available. But in the case of evolution, due to the false constraints some scientists place on science, there is no other theory available, and hence scientists will never give it up. Evolution is accepted simply because there is no other alternative. This mode of thinking in any other field would be regarded as dangerous - that a theory is doggedly pursued and no other alternatives are considered. Why is no other theory possible? Many scientists believe (against the founders of western science) that divine intervention renders a theory nonscientific. And thus the only alternative to evolution is ruled out before it has any chance even to be thought about or tested.

Reason #6: More effort has been expended shoe-horning the data to fit evolution
As a consequence of Reason #5, most of the energy of scientists has been spent attempting to squeeze the data to fit the theory of evolution. If that much energy had been expended on The Alternative, evolution would long be dead and buried.

For these six reasons, evolutionary theories remain the dominant explanation of origins.

The real reason some scientists will not consider The Alternative is that it involves a God. According to Paul we suppress the knowledge of God. According to Jesus people prefer darkness to light, because their deeds are evil. 

And the tragic human outcome of evolutionary theories is sheer and utter hopelessness. We discover a vast discrepancy between the inevitable philosophy of life which flows out of evolutionary theory (that in the end we are the aimless and pointless products of time+chance) and the longings of our hearts, which tell us there must be meaning and significance to life. 

We all long for meaning and significance (X factor reveals that, if nothing more). Where does this longing come from if evolutionary theories are true?

We'll talk again.....

Monday, 25 October 2010

Gospel+ among we Evangelicals

Trouble in Amish Country
Ephraim is a young father who, along with his friend Jess has been excommunicated from his Amish community. Three hundred years ago a small band of believers from Europe settled in Pennsylvania in an effort to establish a pure Christian community. But while the motive was good, since the method was bad, it was bound to fail; and so it did.

Over time a thousand man-made rules entered the community and eventually defined the community. The German Bible they brought with them, which was 'the only true Bible' became unintelligible to the vast bulk of the community. Eventually the Gospel was smothered by tiny little rules such as no phones in homes, men must wear trouser suspenders in a certain way, no cars, certain clothes for church, ad infinitum.

Lessons from Amish Country
The blunt fact of the matter is that any true Christian community can drift over time from the Gospel in exactly the same way. Often for good reason, layers of tradition creep in and soon the Gospel is lost from sight. The tragedy is this: if you add to the Gospel in the end you subtract from it. That is the message of Galatians and the lesson from the Amish community.

Here are five all too common Gospel+ issues around today.....

Gospel Plus #1:  Gospel plus KJV
Some true Christian communities have made translation the real test of Gospel faithfulness. Normally it's the KJV which is held up as the only translation. Proper, true Christians are those who not only believe the Gospel but also read the KJV. The antidote to this plus is to read the original preface of the KJV translators, where they explain the limitations and fallibility of their translation.

Gospel Plus #2: Gospel plus temperament
This is altogether more subtle. It works generally like this: Unless a church worships in a certain sombre mood - which altogether excludes any kind of humour, their worship is not true worship. This is dressed up in religious language such as reverence and respect, but at root can be traced back to the natural temperaments of the leader(s). We may sometimes lack due reverence to God, but those who think reverence = sad and stony faces must remember that we no longer worship around a fearsome mountain burning with fire (Hebrews 12).We have come, instead to "thousands of angels in joyful assembly."

Gospel Plus #3: Gospel plus Creation Science
Some Christians and churches establish a certain interpretation of Genesis as a touch-stone of Gospel fidelity. Unless you believe the world is 10,000 years old, you are not a proper Christian, for example. This binds the conscience of believers and excludes many true Gospel preachers - not least of which would be men like Tim Keller of Redeemer, NY. All believers hold to the first article of faith, "I believe in God the Father, Creator of the heavens and the earth." And many of us are totally and radically against the poor theory of evolution. But there are aspects of the doctrine of creation which must be left to a Christian's conscience, not brought into the inner circle of Gospel truth.

Gospel Plus #4: Gospel plus Tradition
This takes place when Christians believe that some church tradition is so important, that you can't be a proper Christian if you don't hold to it. This may be a mode of worship, form of church government or some other tradition. Tradition is good, necessary and inevitable. (Church tradition is merely the way things are done; even people who change things all the time have tradition: "We don't have a tradition" is a tradition!). But when it is elevated to the status of the unchangeable and a test of orthodoxy, we are in danger of losing the Gospel.

Gospel Plus #5: Gospel plus middle class traditions
No, seriously. Many Western churches are made up of middle class Christians who unwittingly add the ways of their class to the Gospel. Middle class people think and plan a long way ahead, for example. It is too easy for this characteristic to be expected of all believers and to think of those who don't plan ahead as second class believers. Middle class people prize order and formality and easily look down on folk who's homes and lives are not so orderly. But where is advanced planning and a tidy home Gospel issues? No wonder men like William Booth had to start churches for ordinary folk who were rejected by many in the churches.

All these five and more can threaten the Gospel by subtly over time obscuring it.

Ephraim realised that in the end many of his fellow Amish were trusting in their traditions rather than Jesus. As he began to read the Bible for himself, he saw that his community was ordered by a bunch of man-made rules rather than the Bible. Returning to the Gospel brought him and his family great joy and freedom.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Why Preaching is Not Enough

I am convinced that all true preaching must contain a prophetic element. Prophets saw what no-one else did: the discrepancy between the way things were and the way they ought to be. They spoke out against the difference. This we see in the ministry of The Prophet Himself. Moneychangers in the temple courts were just the way things were and everyone came to accept it. But not so the Son of Man who overtruns their tables.

Courage then, was the other string to a prophet's bow. Lots of it. For the moment you point out the difference, expect fireworks from 'the establishment'. And so it was that many of them became outcasts among the very people they were called to serve.

All genuine preaching must likewise contain an element of the prophetic if it is to fall in line with the Scriptures. Now you're prepared for what is to follow.

A noble tradition
Many of us come from a  tradition which greatly esteems the role of preaching in the life of the local church. This must be good for it lines up with a priority in the New Testament where we read the first Christians dedicated themselves to the apostles' doctrine.

The Word is the Church's sword of the Spirit and her double-edged sword; we leave it in it's scabbard at our spiritual peril.

A tradition that needs renewing
In a day of widespread ignorance of the Word, this emphasis needs renewing in many contemporary churches. Five minute epilogues tagged onto a meeting as a last thought will never grow the church.  

A reactionary tradition
In reaction to these surrounding trends, people in the preaching tradition become entrenched and insist that preaching is virtually the only important thing in church life. I have heard it said that all a young believer needs is to come twice on Sunday and once mid-week and they will grow in Christ......

.........the trouble with this kind of thinking is that it is nowhere to be found in Scripture. If preaching alone was the way in which a believer grows in grace, we could all join an online church where we would hear a sermon preached each Sunday, or listen to sermons on the radio. If preaching alone is required to grow a Christian, let's just give a set of Spurgeon's sermons to each new believer and instruct them to read two per Sunday and one per midweek.

A sometimes ugly tradition
The tragedy, learnt from observation and Scripture is this: preaching alone does not make Christlike Christians. In fact one can find just the opposite to be true: believers who have come from the most preaching orientated churches are often  unChristlike.

Let me explain.

They know truth, they can argue doctrine, but they have all too little grace about them. Put them in a situation where they disagree with someone and they soon get angry and upset.

They have grown in knowledge but not in grace. They are not like Jesus in character, and you wonder what kind of a witness they are in their neighbourhoods and places of work.

No, preaching alone is absolutely insufficient to grow to spiritual maturity.

A sometimes harmful tradition?
I would venture further. This preaching-alone tradition could actually be harmful. First, if all we insist on is preaching, we may well generate hypocrites: believers who are outwardly religious (in and out the church faithfully three times a week) but whose real lives are an unreformed mess.

Secondly, we could end up with "Preacheritis". This is an undue attachment to the preacher (whose role has been so highly elevated). Numerous Christians and churches have got so used to one preacher, so dependant on one man that they really are in danger of man-worship.

A tradition in need or reform
Against the view that preaching is all you need is the clear insistence of the New Testament that believers grow by being connected to a body of believers which in turn is connected to the Head, who is the source of all Life. We grow together as each part does its work (Ephesians 4:16). The image we are given is of a body with many different parts each contributing their different functions to the whole (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12). This makes each of us a one dimensional believer needing the support of everyone else. I need encouragers and teachers and admonishers and a whole range of gifts to grow.

A fuller ecclesiology
What the preaching tradition needs is a fuller ecclesiology - a fuller doctrine of the church. We need to see that the church is not a pyramid with a pastor/preacher at the top, but a body with eyes and ears and legs and hands all contributing to the movement of the whole.

A fuller discipleship
Then we need a more profound discipleship model, based on the training of the Twelve and the work of the Apostles. We grow when in relationship with others we can see our faults more clearly and observe other graces more closely. Where we can have all our rough edges rubbed off.

You can tell Christians who come from preaching-only churches. They are good at theology but often poor at relationships and community life. They speak out against the sins of immorality and sabbath-breaking but are  oblivious to the equally wicked relationship sins such as judgementalism, a critical spirit, slander, bitterness and anger!

What the church needs is knowledgeable and Christlike believers who will then be salt and light as they hold out the word of truth in a wicked and perverse generation. Believers who will grow in both dimensions: grace and truth.

Here is how Wesley described the 'preaching is all you need' theology:

“How much regular preaching there has been for these 20 years in Pembrokeshire! But no regular societies, no discipline, order or connection; and the consequence is that nine out of ten of the once awakened are now faster asleep than ever. Preaching like an apostle, without joining together those that are awakened and training them in the way of God is only begetting children for the murderer.”

The problem may be that Christian leaders who have a vested interest in  perpetuating preacheritis won't teach these things....

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Paul's Great Passion and Deep Discontent

A Missed Opportunity
A few years ago I attended a pastor's get-together where the invited speaker told us that God's new agenda in England was big churches. He himself was already a member of an exclusive group of pastors of 600+ churches and he believed that this was what God was up to in our day.

I was screaming inside but like The Scream, some stupid fear silenced me. Where, O where, I cry, is one half verse of holy writ to support such foolish and ignorant baloney?

As you will know congregation numbers are rare in the NT; thus, when mentioned they are pregnant with significance. We read that the church in Acts grew from 3000 to 5000 - why? To show us the dramatic powerful nothing-but-Godness of the church. After these dramatic numbers we hear virtually nothing about numbers..... We have not a  clue how large the churches of the NT were. And not one church is rebuked for being small.

The real problem with 600+ club mentality is plain and simple worldliness; they are taking their cue from Fortune, not Scripture.

When we come to Scripture we see an altogether different set of priorities. Take Paul for example: his priority was Christlikeness.

The great heart of the apostle Paul
I have often read Paul's passionate letters and wish I loved like he did. I wish I loved Christ the way he did, and I wish I loved  people as Paul did. His heart beat - and often burst - with divine love.

But consider one little verse, Galatians 4:19. Paul has been astounded at the desertion of his Christian friends from the Gospel of grace to a no-gospel of works. (I once heard Stuart Olyott describe the 'strange mathematics' the Gospel obeyed: add to or subtract anything from the Gospel and it turns to zero - mathematicians work out a Gospel algorithm if you can!).

In his distress over them Paul says to his dear children "I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you."

Mother in labour love
What an amazing expression! Paul thought of himself as a mother in labour who must suffer pain to see her child brought to independent life. In the same way Paul struggled and worked painfully to see these young believers come through to real new life, which he describes as Christ being formed in them.

The challenge to Pastors and Leaders
Two challenges emerge from Paul's example. First, the sheer amount of hard work, toil, pain, suffering and energy he exerted to see them grow in Christ. This cleverly crafted letter is one example of that energy, which came from God.

The other challenge is the the end for which Paul worked: Christlikeness.

He was deeply unsatisfied with mere "churchanity" "profession" "numbers" or however we might describe believers merely gathered on a Sunday morning. He wanted to see Jesus formed in them; he wanted to see Christ likeness emerge in their character and obedience in their lives. He was discontent with mere profession, unhappy with mile-wideness which was inch deep.

In sum he had caught the spirit of his Master who commanded the church to make disciples of all nations baptising and teaching them to obey everything he had commanded.

In our age of numberitis we do well to return to spiritual priorities like these.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Wanted: Christian Murderers

Should all killing come to an end?
In our enlightened western culture, we have long - and rightly - given up on a philosophy which drove the crusades, namely the right or even duty of Christians to take up weapons and 'fight for the truth'. That was Old Testament thinking, when Israel was a theocracy under the direct rule of God, and when the very survival of God's people as a nation required armies and fighting and war. (I'd like to see how long the Dawkins's of this world  - who criticise the wars of the OT - would survive in that environment without bearing arms: as long as it takes for them to be discovered by an enemy: we're talking minutes).

All that fighting disappeared with the coming of the Prince of Peace - not least because the people of God no longer were located in any single nation, but were now spread throughout every nation of the world. Since the coming of  Jesus we no longer take up the worldly weapons of warfare to fight spiritual battles and swords and armour, blood and guts are a thing of the past.....

....or are they? Is there no place at all for killing?

Quite to the contrary, the New Testament insists that Christians assume the work of murderers. Not of people, we hastily add, but of sinful desires which wage war against the soul.

A Missing Truth
According to the Scriptures, we are called "by the Spirit put to death the misdeeds of the body." (Romans 8:13). A Christian is someone who has "crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires." (Galatians 5:24). We may have done away with outward bloody battles, but we new covenant believers are still called to bloody messy warfare, just as intense, just as brutal as anything we might see in Lord of the Rings.

Perhaps our easy going age filters out truth that doesn't resonate with its spirit. And so we don't  preach on battles, outside - or inside.

The result of this failure to murder, says Paul, is death. If we do not put to death our sinful desires we will 'die'; it's either them alive or us alive. Death in NT-speak is much more than r.i.p. type of death. Death is sadness, death is joylessness, death is quench-the-spirit ness and death leads to Doubting Castle and Giant Despair.  If we don't put the misdeeds of the body to death we will die in all these ways, and  more.

So many Christians who talk about the Spirit, never mention this aspect of his work; his sanctifying work, his enabling us to put to death the misdeeds of the body. It's why I take so much Spirit-talk in the western church with a big pinch of salt. Unless the first part of his title and personhood "Holy", is acknowledged, you at best distort him, at worst blaspheme him.

How does it work?
Putting sinful desires to death is no different from putting any living thing to death; I mean when does a living entity like being put to death? It will struggle like mad to stay alive. So will sin. John Stott in his commentary on Galatians chapter 5, helpfully develops the metaphor of crucifying sin like this.

We must be pitiless with our sins.  Crucifixion was reserved for nasty people, and we must regard our sin - even our pet sins - as wicked entities to be put mercilessly to death. Do we regard greed and lust and dissension as evil wicked things? We ought to if we don't. And in spite of all the protests and struggles we must pitilessly put sin to death.

We must expect pain. The old man will yelp and scream with the pain as we murder him. So connected to the old man are we in this present age that killing the old man will sometimes feel like killing ourselves, or at least like killing someone dear to us and we will feel pain. We must not give up just because we feel pain!

We need to be decisive. You didn't hang about with a murderer hooing and haaing over whether or not to crucify him. You followed one instruction and as brutal or as nasty as the event would turn out, you went ahead with it until he breathed his last. So too with sin, we must make the decision "greed is going to be killed", "lust will die", "divisiveness must go", "jealousy and envy are history", and then proceed with the bloody business of murder.

Rewards for genteel folk
You say, all this is too much for we poor sanitised westerners. Well you can't do it on your own, that's for sure. You need to pray for the Spirit's powerful coming-along-side you. But the rewards are nothing less than life, which means light and joy and happiness and clarity and usefulness.

So decide today to become a Murderer for Christ.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

God's Grand Design - second light

The real agenda
The thinly disguised real agenda behind Stephen Hawking's latest book "The Grand Design" is to show that science has now replaced philosophy and religion as the arbiter of the Big Question - Is there a God? And more importantly to declare to the world science's answer to the question, "It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going" (p.180). A reader is helped if they understand from the outset that this is the grand design of the book.

A second helpful sidebar for any reader is to understand that over the last few decades science has marvelled at the fine-tuning of the universe. Wherever we look, whether it's at the incredible uniqueness of ordinary water to the remarkable way the constants of nature are tuned to just the right value, we find evidence that everything is 'just right' for life. This of course, to the normal mind, points suspiciously to the work of a Grand Designer. But to other minds, it points to the need to work even harder at getting rid of him. 

Within the second paragraph he dispenses with the philosophers "philosophy is dead" (page 5), and deals similar blows to religions, but in more subtle ways. First, to ridicule religion, he (this should probably be 'they')  brings up the creation or nature myths of ancient cultures (e.g. Viking, p.15, Boshongo people p. 123). The sheer folly of these does not need a condemnatory note, and thus all religious views are damned together. Clever trick. Then to condemn One Religion further he mentions the old chestnuts Bishop Usher (p.124) and the Galileo affair (p. 87). The ground is thus cleared for the demonstration of science's grand new declaration. Here is how it works........

A brief history of the grand design
You and I are fortunate to live at a pretty crucial and sensible set of sizes and speeds. (I Wonder Why?) What I mean is this: If we lived in the tiny world of elementary particles, we would experience very weird effects. For example, we could not travel in our quantum cars at any speed we wanted to but only at say 10, 20, 30 and 40 mph! 11,12,13.....mph would all be forbidden speeds. If, on the other hand we were really heavy people (think sun mass and beyond), gravitation would begin to warp the space around us, and if we moved around at speeds close to the speed of light, strange things would happen to time and space and mass. But at our sizes, masses and speeds, everything around us is sensible. (I Wonder Why?).

Crazy things happen down at small sizes (quantum effects, which no-one really understands) and it is here that Hawking plays his games.

First of all he assumes that the universe began with the Big Bang - in this way you can get the whole universe to play quantum games. Secondly, he employs Richard Feyman's interpretation of quantum mechanical effects "sum over histories". Thirdly, he invokes M theory which is the current attempt to reconcile theories of the really big (relativity) with the theories of the really little (quantum). What comes out is the multiverse theory with knobs.

The multiverse theory says that way back at time not far away from zero, countless universes were born. Each of these universes possesses its own set of different numbers (the numbers that shape the laws in that universe). If you tweak these numbers much differently from what they are in our world you can't have life. So we assume that most if not all of these other universes are infertile. How does this help dispense with God? It means that there is nothing very special about the finetuning of our universe. It is just a fluke. If you throw a dice enough times your bound to get 6, if a near infinite amount of universes are created at once, at least one of them must contain life!

The 'knob' on Hawking's theory is that by clever substitution of time as just one other dimension of space, we can dispense with the idea of time-at-the-beginning altogether.

Some big problems
There are many problems with this book. My primary one is that the book assumes final science. It assumes that theories such as the big bang and M theory represent final science. This is a fatal assumption made in every age of rapid advance by the guys at the top. Even the most preliminary study of the history of science will reveal that the theories regarded as firm today will be the stuff of comedians tomorrow. The Big Bang Theory, for example, is under attack by reputable scientists (see Of course no establishment scientist will tell you this, for their whole reputation is based on today's science. (Reader understand that scientists work in the same way as anyone else, proud of their reputations, etc. They are just as human as anyone else, subject to the same protection of personal influence and reputation.)

Secondly, the authors fall into old explanations of historical episodes, for example the Galileo affair. They need to study other trees in the field of knowledge; a good start would be Patricia Fara's Science: A Four Thousand Year History. (Better still, pre-order The X Club: Power and Authority in Victorian Science, Ruth Barton. This is interesting: it seems to take women authors to prick the balloon of male dominated science and bring out the uncomfortable truth).

Thirdly, other equally knowledgeable scientists are already wading in to water down the 'findings'. Roger Penrose, for example: "unlike quantum mechanics, M-theory enjoys no observational support whatever"; it is widely believed that these other universes would be forever beyond observation and therefore proof.

My theological reflection on the book was, here is yet another classic illustration of Romans 1:18-20. So loud is the voice of the Creator that no-one can deny his Grand Design. So dark is the human heart that he will do anything to suppress the knowledge of that God, even use wonderful science as a weapon to suppress that knowledge.

This is not a science book, it's a religious book. This is not science, it is a terrible abuse of science. It is one thing to explain the wonderful findings of modern science, it is quite another to turn them into weapons of  warfare.  For all such misuse of science, "the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.."

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Why you must take the ramblings of scientists with an ample pinch of salt

The Great Tree of Knowledge
I shall never forget one of my lecturers being asked what he had actually done in order to be called "Dr. Hathaway". He was one of the rare breed of humble scientists who explained to the class that knowledge could be likened to a growing tree. Each branch is a different subject, biology, physics whatever. The leaves - thousands of them - are like the individual and often esoteric offshoots of knowledge that emerge from each subject. He explained that we undergraduates were mastering a branch, and that someone with a PhD had, in addition, mastered one tiny little leaf: that's all.

He was right and rightly humble with it. He stands in the line of the really great scientists of all time who realise they are just learners. "I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me" is how the great Isaac Newton put it.

The Hubris Gang
Today however, a new breed of scientists - fortunately in very small numbers - are emerging who don't take the humble view at all. They think - for some odd reason - that science has reached the stage where it can answer every question in life. Richard Dawkins and now Stephen Hawking are found among the Hubris Gang.

One blight of all working scientists is that they are so involved in their leaf, branch or in rare instances tree - that they fail to notice that their tree is but one of a thousand trees on the landcape of life. They can't see the forest for their tree.

I picked up Stephen Hawking's latest offering "The Grand Design" and decided to read it through the eyes of someone whose marriage had just broken down. Here is a book that pupports to answer all of life's mysteries and more. Surely then it would then give succour to my imaginary personage. 

It failed to bring an ounce of comfort.

For one thing, I can't imagine many people getting to the end of the book (let's call it the Hawking effect - millions bought A Brief History of Time  for their coffee tables - to show off that they have the latest cool book - but few read them). As a physicist, I myself struggled in places. If you get to the end of the book you will marvel at the amazing material universe The Grand Designer has created, but none of that will comfort you in sorrow.

The Limits of Science
There are many good reasons science has no answers for the most important questions of life. For one, science deals only with the material world of particles and forces. As fascinating as that world is, it's not where we live our lives. We live in the trees of meaning, emotion, fear, hope, dream, relationship, prayer, plans, work - and none of those have anything to do with quarks or gluons. Someone put it like this, "Science says an awful lot about nothing". 

In  the second place, science changes with the seasons. Hawking admits as much by telling us on the fifth page that his new ideas have emerged only in the last decade or so. So imagine building your life on the last set of ideas. Imagine taking science as your guide in life, 20 years ago. You drop dead and soon afterwards it is found that all the ideas you built your life upon were in fact sand. Great.

This is where we fail in our teaching of science at school and universtity. It ought to be compulsory to learn the history of science - and in one instant this would make better scientists, for instead of thinking today's science is 'final' they will question everything, knowing it will all change in fifty years. (If you don't believe that consider the changes in geology - plate tectonics, and cosmology - big bang, that have taken place over the last fifty years). Science - particularly the big stories - are all interesting, but you'd be a fool to take them as gold. Of course establishment scientists wouldn't want you to learn much about the  history of science lest you questioned present science - upon which all their prestige has been built.

In the third place, science is limited because like all men and women, scientists are flawed. Through pride they claim too much for their discipline or like the X Club of Victorian days, they actively seek power over the public mind. 

More often they are flawed through a spritual blindness that doggedly seeks to suppress the knowledge of God that continually pushes to the surface. That's the biggest enigma in "The Grand Design". We get a glimpse of the counter-intuitive wonder of the universe together with the blindness of the authors who will do anything to deny the existence of a God: the universe self-created and spawned such a large number of other universes, that it is not surprising that ours is tweaked in such a marvelous way, for in all the other infertile universes the numbers are different. "These multiple universes arise naturally from physical law" (p.9). OK, where does physical law come from?

The title itself gives the truth away. I think it was Stephen Meyer who said that so ingrained is the idea of intelligent design that like the water a fish swims in, we can't see it. The very title implies what the authors seek to deny. And without knowing it  they have named their book after the work of His hands.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

When is a church too big?

Different perspectives, different answers
If you are after fame, the answer is at the infinity end of the spectrum: the bigger, the more well known you will be; golly you'll soon be on the Telly. And in our fame-mad culture, glory is all that really matters.

But what might be a New Testament approach to the question, When is a church too big?

When real discipleship is no longer taking place
The commandment of Christ is to make disciples of all nations teaching them to obey everything he commanded them to (Matthew 28). The process Jesus used, if we note carefully his method, was to gather believers into small groups - i.e. The Twelve - who would teach one another and learn from one another as well as learn from Him. Over time, they would, by the Spirit and Word, integrated into the body of Christ, become more like their Master.

When believers are no longer maturing in Christ - advancing in knowledge and Christlikeness - then the church is too big.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

The Narrowing, Part III: Bible Babble

Wonderful Books
Today, Christians have access to wonderful books which open up the world of the first century and genuinely throw light on the New Testament. I am reading one at the moment, but I shan't tell you the title since in one- fatal - respect it is flawed.

Sadly this flaw runs like a vein through most of contemporary biblical scholarship. It mars so much of it, rendering it - for the purposes of the church -  partial at best and useless at worst.

I Blame The Narrowing
The moment we set reason as King (I blame The Narrowing for this - the so-called Enlightenment), we begin to ask all the wrong questions and get all the wrong answers. We ask, for example, who wrote the letters of Paul. We won't believe the simple written verdict "Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus... to the saints in...." but minutely dissect the grammar, style etc., and come up with the Scholarly Verdict - "not Pauline". We trust in our mind's verdict, we trust in the verdict of the Scholarly Community - which tomorrow may change its opinion based on the 'latest research' of a single clever paper by Joe or Jane Babble.

As if a guy can't write in a thousand  different styles? Particularly if you have just had a beating from a particularly nasty prison guard or you are trying to craft the letter to suit the needs of a different culture. I sometimes review sermons I wrote just a decade ago and wonder who the author was. One day they will say of  The Radical Disciple, "This book does not belong to the Stott corpus". As a student I remember the tedious boring arguments against authenticity and found a 1000 immediate common sense responses to every one of them......

The fallout of all this Reason is King stuff is tragic. These guys then reduce the number of Paul's  letters they take seriously, and thereby distort his teaching. And they have the cheek to say in the title of their books "Paul's view of X".

The tragedy is that even us evangelicals are enticed by academia. In pastors' conferences you sometimes hear "you must get the latest commentary on Y by Z", Z turns out so often to be a university scholar and the commentary turns out to be as interesting as a Haynes car manual and as dry as dust to the soul. The devil must be laughing.

Take with a big pinch of salt
So the book I am reading which purports to tell me what Paul thought about community is going to be a let down. The author has already ruled out Ephesians and the Pastorals - four out of thirteen letters. So I shall take everything he says with a very large pinch of salt. There is gold among the dross, but sadly the gold has lost its shine.

Distanced from the Church,  Writing for Peers
The real problem, of course, is that so much of this stuff is written by men and women in ivory palaces, who have little connection with the church, no concern for the impact of their words upon the man in the pew, but every concern for how their work will be viewed by their peers: they are writing for the gallery.

Not surprisingly, these books come and go like actors on the stage. Unlike some of the mighty scholars of the past, their sun soon sets never to rise again. 

Scholars who take the Scriptures seriously, and make the glory of God and the good of the saints their great passion will discover, along with the Augustines, Calvins, Bunyans, Ryles, Spurgeons, Stott's and Lloyd-Joneses that in the centuries to come, the saints will rise up and call them blessed.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

From whence doth money get its claws?

An important question
Where does money get its claws from?

The New Testament warns again and again about the terrible damage the love of money can do. It can keep a man out of the kingdom (Matthew 19) and make it impossible to love the right Master (Matthew 6). Jesus warns against all kinds of greed (Luke 12:15) and Paul insists that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6).

With this persistent New Testament warning against the dangers of the love of money we had all better presume we are guilty and humbly work to establish our innocence.

But why does Money exert such an influence over us? What are its claws? Surely not the mere amassing of paper and nickel - greed is not stamp collecting.

The love of money comes from what money says it can do. Money makes promises, which Jesus says are all a pack of lies (the 'deceitfulness of wealth' - Mark 4:19). Money mimics God and promises to do what only God can do.

Money says "I will make your tomorrow secure", so we amass it and begin to trust in it, rather than in God. Tomorrow we may loose every penny of it, of course, but we believe the lie.

Money says "I can make you happy - buy a holiday in the sun, or a concert ticket for your favourite band". We believe the myth rather than praying to him alone who can satisfy us in the morning with his unfailing love (Psalm 90).

Money says "I can protect you - if you get in trouble, I'll get you a lawyer; if you get ill, I'll sort out the best doctors." And we believe it and dispense with our need for God.

Counterfeit god
In other words Money gets it's power from being an idol - a counterfeit God.

In our western world with such vast riches (in spite of the recession) we need to take Jesus' warning seriously, "Be on your guard for all kinds of greed", lest we find ourselves in fact trusting in wealth more than God.

The antidote to the love of money is to have our hearts captivated with Another Passion. And just as Zachaeus' love for money fell away when he exepreinced the overwhelming love of God, so we too need a fresh vision of God's love for us through Jesus so that we can say, truly, "My soul finds rest (or trusts) in God alone." (Psalm 62).

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Protestant church idols? Naa.....

Churches and idols
While pondering personal idols, I have begun pondering church idols. Protestant churches don't have idols do they? The evangelical community? Pastors? Surely not!

Oh yes they can!

Some years ago Os Guiness and John Seel wrote a book "No God but God" designed to expose how the idols of our age had infiltrated the church. They found some idols and then some more. I wonder how well the book sold - perhaps the real question is how well the book was read (this can be called the Hawking Question: lots of people bought A brief History of Time, I have met few who actually read it). Here are four of the idols I have found in the conservative evangelical churches I have served in and loved.....

"This is the way we have always done things...."
This is a universal idol, I know, and we are surprised perhaps to find it in Bible believing churches, but the traditional impulse is surprisingly just as strong here as anywhere else. As a result, nothing can be changed, from format of worship, to new forms of evangelism, to new patterns of leadership.... Result? Instead of being the living organism a church is likened to (a body, the body of Christ, no less), it traditionalises and fossilises into an institution, incapable of any change.

"Celebrity Culture"
A second common idol is celebrity culture. This is the worship of leaders who have carved out a reputation either by speaking, writing books, playing in famous bands or pastoring large churches. We thank God for godly leaders and recognise those whom God has gifted with extraordinary gifts. That's not celebrity culture. Celebrity culture is when the church apes the celeb community: for example when it holds a public event it feels pressure to get in the latest author, singer, writer and whatnot on the Christian celebrity circuit to make the event worthwhile. Where in Scripture does popularity or fame equate with usefulness or godliness in the kingdom of God?

"Climbing the corporate ladder"
This is a third idol that plagues pastors in particular who view the ministry much as a business man might view the world of commerce - as a ladder to climb. How do they do this? Well you have to write books, get a big church and get yourself known as the founder of this or that. You would be amazed at how many pastors and Christian leaders think that the way up in the kingdom of God follows the same contours as success does in the world. Actually true greatness comes from descending rather than ascending. It comes, as it did for Jesus, John the Baptist, Paul and every true follower of Jesus in becoming the servant of all, and in so doing being despised and rejected by men.

A fourth idol found in the conservative evangelical world is the church aping the world when it comes to training its workers. For one thing we stick them in  lecture theatres rather than sending them to needy towns and villages. And then we ape the foolish scholarly traditions of the university. I recently came across a lecturer who stated that his present interest was "the relationship between eschatology and missiology. I am also fascinated by Johannine theology and the interaction between theology and culture." Now can you imagine Jesus sitting down with his disciples or Paul teaching trainee pastor Timothy this kind of stuff? "Thomas, I want you to spend the next three years exploring the relationship between eschatology and missiology!" Or Paul to Timothy, "Timothy my son, what you need to get to grips with this year is Johannine theology. Find out who the authors of the Johanine literature are and write me a 2000 word essay!" (Yes I know the 'Johanine literature' was probably written later than Timothy's time...). How did Jesus teach his disciples? How did Paul teach Timothy? It's there in the New Testament, but we are so shaped by the schoolroom we instinctively follow it rather than following Scripture. Then we are surprised when the preachers who emerge from this sausage machine have little more life in them than you'd expect from a production line. 

I am not arguing against the deep study of Scripture. I am arguing that we must shift our emphases in training to the priorities of the New Testament - we need to prize, faith, courage, love, character, servanthood more than knowledge.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The Biggest Worshipper in Great Britain?

GK Chesterton commented that when men and women do not worship God, they do not worship nothing, they worship anything.

Who then might win the prize for being GB's number one worshipper? Of course we don't know, and I would hope a Christain would come out tops, but perhaps it would be Richard Dawkins. Of course the object of his worship isn't God (nor the natural world) but an idol - let's call it scientism or naturalistic philosophy - big words for the view that the only thing that exists is matter and the only things that act are forces. 

Worship involves the trinity of love, trust and obedience. And since all three describe Dawkin's attitude to naturalistic philosophy, that makes Dawkins a worshipper, and since he loves, trusts and obeys with great passion that puts him up there with Britain's top worshippers.

The problem with all idols is that in the end they must fail. They cannot provide what only God can. In private moments idol worshippers must know that their idols are foolish, empty and weak.

May God have mercy on Richard Dawkins and open his eyes and turn him from idols to the living God, the Creator of this amazing wonderful universe.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Of God and Idols

Yesterday I preached from 1 John 5:21 on the subject of God and Idols. "Dear children, keep yourselves free from idols." This is a synopsis of the sermon.....

Only God can meet the deepest desires of our hearts
"My soul finds rest in God alone" (Psalm 62:1).  David's soul is not content, is not satisfied, does not trust any thing or person apart from God. His ultimate help, ultimate worth, ultimate significance come from God alone. God is his chief joy and delight. All other things in creation are secondary; they may be precious but they are not ultimate.

Idols keep us from loving God
An idol is some good thing (most of the time, good thing) which we elevate in our hearts to such an extent that we find ourselves expecting from it / him / her, what only God can provide. They can appear in our lives suddenly or slowly, and sap away our spiritual energy; they are lovers or mistresses in the marital home. One of the chief messages of the prophets was "stopping running / whoring after other gods". Today we live among a people whose hearts run after other gods, and since the human heart is an idol factory we too have the disposition to forge foreign gods. G.K. Chesterton described the "must worship" habit of the human soul well when he said that people who don't worship God, don't worship nothing, they end up worshipping anything. Homes, husband, wife, pleasure, food, drink, children, grandchildren, career, hobbies... the list is almost endless.

Idols not only sap away our spiritual energy, they disappoint, end up burdensome and can ruin the very gift being idolised. All of this flows from the impossibility of idols to fulfill the role of deity; it's like expecting a drop to fill an ocean. When we idolise our children we ruin them, for we then expect from them more than any child can bear. We over-discipline them because we want them perfect or under-discipline them because we can't bear their displeasure when we inflict pain of some kind. Only parents who put their children second to God can truly love them - which means allowing them to fail, and allowing them to follow  God's (often bumpy) pathway in life. I mention children, because family is the great idol of Hollywood. Think of how many films end with 'happy family ever after'. Lots.

"Come to me all you who are weary and burdened.."
In Matthew 11:28, Jesus gives the antidote to burdened idolaters. He says that he can re-connect them to God, who alone can satisfy the deep longings of their hearts.

The prophets, idols and reaction to preaching on idolatry
The prophets had a rough time when they dealt ruthlessly with idols. Why? Because idols touch our hearts, touch our worth. They were hounded and persecuted because they said "stop worshipping idols." The same will happen today. We live in a culture filled with idols, and a church filled with idols. We can expect dark reactions when we too preach on idolatry, for we are touching matters of the soul. I am waiting.....

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

The Narrowing, Part II

They say that missionary kids do not feel at home either in their family culture or the culture their parents serve in: they are 'third culture kids'. One of the strengths of such a perspective is that you can see the faults of both cultures; one of the weaknesses is that you never feel at home in either.

Every Christian should be 'third culture' in two ways: (1) we find ourselves critical of the culture in which we live and (2) our home is not in this world.

Concerning the first, Christians should be aware of how much their culture has been shaped by The Narrowing (the so-called enlightenment) - and how much they have imbibed that spirit.

Our individualism is a chief sign of that influence. As Western born-again believers, we just cannot see the New Testament's insistence that we think and act as a body, as a community, rather than as individuals. Every decision we make affects the people around us. For example, when we join in we encourage our brothers and sisters, when we stay away we discourage them (Hebrews 10:25).

This individualistic attitude is an inheritance straight from The Narrowing. (Yes I know it goes further back to the Fall....). These thinkers (1680s-1780s) believed that human reason alone, not faith or tradition, should guide human conduct. "Have courage to use your own reason" was their motto. "The Enlightenment valorized the individual and the moral legitimacy of self-interest." (The Portable Enlightenment Reader, p.xii).

The Western Church is profoundly affected by this attitude. We make decisions without due concern for or reference to their impact on others. This is one reason the Western church is so weak. Instead of working together as a body, Christians often act as dismembered limbs and body parts: not a pretty sight, not very functional either.

It is a real blessing to experience the reverse! And in the Western church there are blessed examples of groups of believers who have, by the Word and Spirit, been made sensitive to their interconnectedness and the impact of their actions upon others and who love each other as family members do.

They are true 'third culture' Christians who have seen the sinful self-centredness of their own culture and in obedience to Christ come to truly love their eternal family.

Monday, 23 August 2010

The Big Problem with Western Thinking

Christian turned atheist
I am reading a book about a Christian who turned into an atheist because he was convinced by the arguments of atheistic thinkers.

There are too many issues in the book to take up here, but the core issue, which surfaces in all sorts of other places too and reveals a big problem with all western thinking, is the issue of 'epistimology'. Let me explain.

Epistemology is the study of how we know things, how we become sure of things, the reasons we believe things. Western epistemology is almost exclusively intellectual: we are convinced of something if it can be proved with reasoning or proofs. If you can give me enough proofs I'll believe it. In other words we believe things because of mental reasoning processes. This kind of epistemology owes itself squarely to a movement called The Enlightenment (a better title would be better The Narrowing, though I am sure that name won't stick!) and the Greeks. 

The enlightenment (those that praise it prefer it to begin with a capital e) narrowed down knowing to the mind, to the reasoning processes of the mind, and that is a massive mistake. Reasoning processes play an important part in how we know things, but they are limited.

There are many ways we become sure of things which have nothing to do with logical proof. This is because being finite creatures, we simply cannot base all our beliefs on reasons - there is simply no way we can prove everything. Nowhere is this more true than in science. A scientist takes as given a thousand facts and formulae which he or she finds in the literature. Life is too short to prove each one so they take these 'on trust', they believe them not because they have proved them, but because they trust the people, the community which have established them. This is nothing short of faith - there is nothing wrong with this kind of faith provided we admit it and don't deceive ourselves.

So, apart from reasoning ourselves to the conclusion, there are other ways of knowing things are true; and faith is a prime example.

Other ways of knowing
In the New Testament  John says things like this. He says that as poor people in the church are cared for by the better off, as we care for those in need, this spontaneous and divine generosity provides evidence that we belong to the truth (when our hearts might suggest otherwise, see 1 John 3:16-20). In other words we can know through experience.

Jesus said on one occasion that people around the church will know that we are followers of his by the love they observe in the church. They will 'know' by the experience of love.

Reason, faith and experience are all ways in which we come to conviction that things are true. The enlightenment narrowed down knowing to logic and reason.

Back to the book written by the convert to atheism. If we live by the sword be die by the sword. If we live by reason we can easily die by reason. This is why reason alone is no sure foundation on which to build our lives and why it is so fickle: what if all the research on which this author has based his new-found atheism is one day found to be false or partial? Then his new found faith will lie tattered on the ground.

Reason is good and reason is important but it is never sufficient ground to believe. It turns out that even when people say it is the sole ground on which they base their belief, it isn't. The author in question abandoned his faith not merely because of reason, but also because he felt let down by Christians - a bad experience.

Christians should appreciate the wonderful minds God has given them and thank God for the gift of reason. But they shouldn't buy into the enlightenment's (inconsistent) lie that reason is King. There are many reasons we believe and some of the most important lie outside the realm of tiny little human reason. Nor should Christians imagine that people are won to Christ by naked apologetics. They are just as likely or more likely to be won to Christ - humanly speaking  - by the pure holy other-worldly example of a simple humble Christian.