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Friday, 20 December 2013

What shall we think of Christmas?

First memories
My first memories of Christmas had nothing to do with presents or trees, we had none of either. Instead it is the memory of an enormous nativity pageant running across a park in Karachi, Pakistan, with real camels and real hills and a star which ran on an invisible wire across the sky, and most of all the hauntingly beautiful and worshipful words of "O Holy Night" urging us to fall on our knees and worship.....

Oh holy night, the stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior's birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till He appeared and the soul felt His worth

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices
Yonder breaks a new and glorious morn
Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices
Oh night divine, oh night when Christ was born
Oh night divine, oh night, oh night divine

 Since then, of course I've grown up, a little in age and a little in understanding too. Here's what I think now.

A matter of Christian conscience
Nowhere in Scripture are we encouraged to celebrate Christmas, Easter or any other festival, so if someone wants to back out of these for reasons of conscience, no issue should be taken with them. For myself, if I didn't have children, wasn't married and wasn't a pastor, I could quite happily spend those days in seclusion, away from the maddening crowd.

A matter of Western tradition
But Christmas is built into our western tradition. It is no longer associated with any of the pagan festivals it
replaced, so it is theologically-neutral and no different from celebrating the FA Cup Final, the Ashes, the Proms, or any other cultural event. It's now simply a western tradition, like Cheese Rolling: In December people put up trees, send cards, buy presents, eat a large meal with family. That's it. 

There is nothing wrong with cultural traditions that are theologically-neutral, and to jump out of them is to invent yet another tradition (the new tradition: "I don't do Christmas".) Not to celebrate is just as traditional as celebrating. 

Human nature needs seasons of celebration
There is something about human nature that needs seasons. Just as God has built into the year beautiful seasons of change, so we humans seem to need seasons. It would be a boring year without repeating annual events. So in the Old Testament God instituted for his people annual feasts, which provided wonderful opportunities for people to meet. Perhaps our need of seasons of celebration is an echo of the Garden and a hope for heaven.

So if it wasn't 'Christmas' it would be something else, and most likely something far worse....

I think there is a good case to be made for how the nativity story, still at the heart of western Christmas celebrations, has saved our culture from worse debauchery than it presently revels in. If our culture still reveled in the pagan festivals Christmas replaced; if there was no salting influence of the story of the incarnation, I wonder how much worse would be the drunken debauchery of this season.

A time for rest
In our hectic western lifestyles, it is wonderful to have a period of a few days when you know you can rest from your labours, spend time with relatives and family and with the Lord's people. What can be wrong with rest?

And the spiritual significance?
If I am honest Christmas means nothing to me spiritually. I do not particularly reflect on the incarnation more than at other times of the year. I love the rich theology of the carol-hymns, but it is not a spiritual 'high' for me. That doesn't mean it couldn't have deep meaning for other Christians, but for me, I don't feel anything.

I do think, however, as a pastor, that holding Carol Services and Christmas Day services is important. First these things say to our neighborhoods that we are not a wacky bunch of Christians. The unconverted frankly can't get their heads round a church that won't remember the birth of their Saviour, and my guess is that such an act would simply lump us, in their minds, with the JWs and every other weird cult. Second, it provides a wonderful opportunity to gently share the Good News with people who otherwise would never hear anything of the love of God for sinners.
So while I try to distance myself from most of Christmas' madness and excess, I thank God for the rest we can enjoy at this season, and I thank God I live in a culture whose mid-winter festival has been salted with the Good News of a Saviour born to save his people from their sins.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Can God Change?

The opportunity to explore
I am glad we live in an age where we are allowed to ask questions without having our heads cut off, or being excommunicated by the theological thought police. It's one of the many advantages of living in a post-modern world. (Don't get me wrong, there are more disadvantages than advantages).

In a bygone age, if you began to explore something (and every exploration begins by asking questions that can be misunderstood in and of themselves) you had to do it in secret lest you were branded a heretic and lost ye head before ye had a chance to reach a mature understanding. 

Did God change with the Incarnation?
The question I want to ask is Can God change? And in particular did he change with the Incarnation? Actually, it's a smaller question, I'm interested in. Can we say that God acquired experiential understanding and empathy with us humans by the Son of God being born as a man? I mean, while the God who knows all things, knew what we pass through as human beings before the Son of God came to earth, was that knowledge more theoretical before the incarnation and more experiential afterwards?

Can we say that since the incarnation, God understands our human plight in a way he did not before?

The reason some people might not like this is because it implies change in God, and God is, in the language of the theologians impassible (without passions [old word for emotions], without the ability to change. If he was to change, goes the argument, then he would be a different God after the change than before, and that's impossible. Why is it impossible? Two reasons, The first is Scriptural -Malachi 3:6 says "I the Lord do not change", The second is human logic, particularly from the Greeks, which states that God cannot change).

Why God is impassible, according to the theologians
The earliest theologians said God could not change for at least three reasons. (1) They were wanting to protect God from being likened to all the Greek and Roman gods who were just blown up human monsters. So God, they argued could not change as we change. They wanted to protect God from human sinful passions, and in that they were absolutely right. (2) The Scriptures make it clear that God does not change, "I the Lord do not change" (Malachi 3:6), but we need to explore what that means. Certainly God does not change in his character and promises, but that does not mean he cannot feel emotions. The Bibles says he is angry and that he laughs (Psalm 2). (3) Human logic. The Greeks thought that everything above the earth was perfect and unchangeable (for that reason they hindered astronomy for ages, the orbits of the planets are ellipses, not perfect circles for example), and there is a tendency to follow the Greeks (=follow human logic) and tie God up if you don't understand him. So, if the Bible says God cannot change and the Bible also says God can be angry (which surely implies a temporary change from non-anger to anger) it's safer to say "God cannot change" than to allow any ambiguity. We want to tie God down to our understanding. Dangerous?

Change can co-exist with no-change
But surely we can accommodate both change and no change.  No change in his character and promises, but change in the sense of angry/not angry. An illustration might help....

DC + AC?
There are two kinds of current, direct (dc)  and alternating (ac). And you can add them together. When you do, you always have the stable dc part there, never changing. But superimposed upon it is an alternating current which does change. Change and no change happily coexist.

God could be unchanging and changing at the same time. 

And surely the incarnation implies some kind of change in God. For before the incarnation God did not have a human nature, but afterwards the Son did. In the words of an old theologian, "He continued to be what he always was and became what he was not." That is somewhere in the "change" spectrum, surely.

So back to the question, Did God change with the Incarnation?
Does God understand us better now than he did before the incarnation?  I would argue "yes". Because we were made in the image of God, all the emotions we have are pale reflections of God's emotions, so God did not have to add an understanding of emotions to his experiential knowledge. But since Jesus came into a broken sinful painful world as a man, he experienced things such as physical temptations (turn those stones into bread) and physical pain, that God had never experienced before. And indeed that is exactly why he came into the world, to live our life, carry our sorrows, and ultimately to die our death.

Does it really matter if the Son of God coming to earth is 'change' or 'not change'? We can put it in the mystery category and simply rejoice that in heaven we now have a great high priest who is able to sympathize with us because he has been tempted as we are yet without sin. We can come to God's throne of grace with confidence knowing that our Great High Priest understands our plight and longs to pour out his grace and help.

In the end, as with so many of these 'debates' it is not really about head stuff, it's about simple heart stuff: because Jesus understands our sorrows we can go - even boldly! - to him in prayer.

Monday, 9 December 2013

The Profound Influence of the Doctrine of the Trinity

The Foundational Doctrine - What is God Like?
There is hardly any truth (doctrine) that influences a man's religion, more than the answer to the question, "What is your God like?" Everything springs from your answer, absolutely everything. If your God is harsh, so will you be, if he is loving so the worshiper.  The inspired prophets of the OT understood this and hence their constant rebuking of the nation of Israel for running after false gods. This is how the Psalmist descirbed the similarity of a worshiper to his or her 'god' Psalm 115:

Their idols are silver and gold, made by human hands.   
Those who make them will be like them 
      and so will all who trust in them.

The Trinity
Christians worship a Triune God and that truth shapes everything about their faith. God has revealed himself as Three Persons who are God in themselves and yet who dwell in perfect unity. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Here it is in three steps (no theological pun intended):

There is One God. 
There are Three who are God
Yet there are not "three gods" for the Three are One

The finest simple explanation available is The Trinity by Stuart Olyott. Somehow the One God unfolds into three different Persons who all relate to one another in eternal love.

 Out of this wonderful high and Glorious Mystery flow numerous implications - here are some of them:

 Life Changing Implications of the Trinity
(1) The only way to come to God is by faith. Since God is transcendent, not only in his being (we can't understand the Trinity), but also in his works, his ways and his thoughts, we do not approach God as we do any one or anything else.  These we can understand, they are below us, we might expect to have some dominance or control over them. We are the observer, they the subject. But God is above us, and the only way to approach him is by simple Faith, as a little child approaches his or her parent. There is no access to God through proud reason.

Apply - if you want to approach God, you have to humble yourself before his majesty right at the start. For our walk with God not only starts with Faith, it continues by faith till the end.

(2) Relationship is at the heart of God. Three Persons in blessed communion with one another. We catch a glimpse of this loving intra-divine fellowship in John's Gospel, between the Father and the Son.

Apply - relationships are actually at the heart of life. If relationships are going south we feel sad, if they are good we feel happy. That's the way we are wired, made in the image of God. And that's why relationships are the top priority of our lives.

(3) We can know God because he is personal. The reason we can have a relationship with God is because relationships come naturally to him. Why? Because from all eternity he has been in relationship with himself. A non-trinitarian religion that was monotheistic would have a God who was not used to any relationships and thus could hold out no prospect of us knowing him. That is why in Islam God is unknowable. Of course. He has never had any relationships, so why would he have one with us? He wouldn't know how to!

Apply - We can know God!

(4) Love comes from God. Now we understand what John means when he says that love comes from God. Love can only exist in a relationship with another. So a God who is not triune, cannot be loving. And indeed this helps us understand why Islam's Allah is so harsh. But a God who has dwelt in eternal loving relationship becomes the source of love - the one who has poured out his love on us in the sending of his Son. No Trinity, no love. 

Apply - God is love

(5) Diversity can live together in unity. The Father is so different from the Son. The Father tells the Son what to say and do; the Son doesn't do that. The Son became a man suffered and died; the Father didn't do that. The Spirit was sent from the Father and from the Son, not the other way round. And yet they dwell in perfect unity, the Father and I are One, said Jesus. God loves diversity and declares it can live in unity.

  • in marriage, the very different male and female can dwell as one
  • in the church, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, can live as one
  • even in creation different plants and animals all live together in unity
  • in the bigger cosmos, large objects (ruled by Relativity) and small objects (ruled by Quantum Mechanics) dwell together in harmony

All of this is an expression of the glorious unity-and-diversity found deep deep within the Godhead.

Apply - accept diversity and work towards unity

Ever wondered why all Jehovah Witness churches are the same? They deny the Trinity, and without them even realizing, this denial has a deep deep impact on their church life. A one-god isn't into diversity and loves mono churches. By contrast the vast diversity of true Christian churches demonstrates the amazing Trinity which binds these churches together in love and worship:

Holy, holy holy, Lord God Almighty

Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee

Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty

God in Three persons, blessed Trinity”

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Tate Modern vs National Gallery

The National Gallery versus Tate Modern
One good test of an art gallery is to be found on a random day-time visit, when schools are able to bring their children to look around.

A recent visit to both the above-named galleries revealed a stark difference: there were no children at the Tate Modern.

Happy groups of children were crowded around great and wonderful paintings in the National Gallery enjoying wonderful works of art explained by animated teachers.
All over the sound of happy children.

But I did not see a single school party at the Tate Modern, and frankly I am not surprised: there was nothing worth seeing. As you go from high-falutin floor to high-falutin floor, one vacuous pretentious folly after another assaults the eye. A couple of trees here, a pile of lava there.

I even found a mirror. Yes folks, a mirror on the wall, entitled "Untitled Canvas 1965" with these words of description:

"Since the Renaissance, painting has often been likened to a window upon the world, with central perspective giving the viewer a sense of surveying what is contained within the picture frame. In a bold gesture, Art & Language turn this century-old convention upside-down by replacing the painting’s surface with a mirror. Rather than look at an image of the artist’s making, viewers are now confronted by themselves, thereby questioning a long-held notion of painting transcending reality."

Another floor described itself like this:

You must be told there is something higher, deeper and more profound in the work, because for sure there is nothing for the eye to see.

Visitors aren't fooled
But if you read the faces of  the ordinary visitors, you find they are not fooled. Sometimes you read incredulity, sometimes laughter, sometimes anger, sometimes sadness.You get the impression they'd like someone to stand on a platform in the museum and scream, "the emperor has no clothes."

There is a very good reason schools don't bring their kids here - the place would be filled with laughter, not joyful laughter but mocking derisory laughter. You can't pull the wool over the eyes of children. They'd be saying "those two trees aren't art, that pile of lava isn't art. I don't need to come to a gallery to look in the mirror."

The Tate Modern is a Tower of Babel, a monument to godless folly and a tragic reminder of just how far  our culture has moved from God, and hence moved from reason or even common sense. Our culture, having lost any sense of truth no longer knows how to distinguish between art and non-art, between what is good and what is pretentious, between what is art and what is banal, what will last and is of worth and what is ephemeral and worthless.

It is not at all surprising that the National Gallery works of art were made in a more god-fearing age, and the Tate Modern ones made in a godless age. Belief or unbelief stands behind art.

Fortunately there was a wall where you could write your comments, and so I wrote the only words that rang around my head for the brief moments I had to tolerate the tragic darkness and madness:  

Monday, 2 December 2013

The Creation-Evolution debate - all in one blog

Someone recently asked me for advice on how to negotiate the big bad (or at least big hot) world of the Creation-Evolution debate. Instead of an e-mail to one person, here goes a blog to two... 

Love before Knowledge
You can know lots of stuff, but if you don't have love, you are nothing. That's what Paul says and that's the starting point for this blog. Genuine Christians are to be found on both sides of this debate (I mean by genuine, Christians who are orthodox in their doctrine, believe in atonement and the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and so on); so even if we think the other side are completely wrong (and both can't be right), we are to love one another.

The two Camps
OK, so first there are the 'theistic evolutionists'. They believe that God is the Creator of all things (you can't be an orthodox Christian without that basic tenet), but that he employed the process of evolution and the remarkable laws of nature to create. So first God used the Big Bang to bring about the basic structure of the universe, then planets formed around stars in a natural evolutionary process and finally life evolved on earth by natural processes. The Genesis account is not designed to be a historical retelling; it is more poetry than narrative.  I'll critique this view in a moment.  

There are actually many positions, but for the sake of simplicity let's keep it to two camps.

 Camp Two are the 'creationists'. They take Genesis literally and insist on a 6-day creation approximately 10,000 years ago. They critique the 14 billion year age of the universe and 4 billion year age of the earth, and critique the power of evolution to accomplish anything except tiny little changes in an organism. 

Before we critique the Camps
Some of the most important doctrines of Genesis 1-3 are these:
  1. God alone is the Creator of all things, seen and unseen (Genesis 1:1)
  2. There was a beginning to the universe (God alone is eternal, not matter)
  3. Only mankind is made in God's image (consequently there is an-almost infinite gap between animal and humans - in spite of every unsuccessful attempt to ape mankind). Mankind is therefore absolutely unique and precious, bearing the image of God. No animal compares to man in splendour and glory - something it takes but three seconds to prove upon comparison of any animal to man.
  4. God created mankind heterosexual, male and female, Adam and Eve
  5. Men and women are different, there is male Adam, and female Eve
  6. There is a divine order between the sexes, Adam was created first, Eve was created second
  7. The fall of Genesis 3 has messed up everything, most of all our relationship with God: we now hide from him and suppress the truth about him, and are in desperate need of a Saviour
Could it be a subtle tactic of Satan to get Christians to fight over the details, when it is teachings 1-7 that are really under attack in our culture today?

We are facing a tide of homosexual sin, and out-of-wedlock sin, the former being justified as 'natural' (Genesis says it's not the way God made us) the latter is being justified as the excusable spin off from the evolutionary pressure to sire as many offspring as possible in order to survive. Our law-makers are increasingly taking into account the 'rights' of animals - because we are considered a species just as they are. The same law-makers are devaluing unborn life, because it is only 'animal'.

We need to realize that the most important truths that emerge from Genesis 1-3 are not scientific ones.

Don't brothers and sisters in both camps agree on more (e.g. 1-7) than they disagree on? Let's fight the true enemy folks. 

A word about Genesis
My first instinct about the book of Genesis is to assume it is all historical narrative. That's what we have in most of Genesis, in the stories of Abel, Noah, Abraham, Jacob and Joseph. But I have to acknowledge that there are indications in Genesis 1, only chapter 1, that we have here 'elevated prose' if not poetry, rather than straight historical narrative. For example, there are repeating words and phrases such as "there was evening and morning the X day". There is a similarity between days 1 & 4, 2 & 5, 3 & 6. These sorts of  rhythm/pattern indicators surely point to at least some uncertainty in how we must interpret that chapter.

A word about Science
Before we move to a critique, a word about the nature of science:
  1.  Science is governed by paradigms. The nature of the human mind is such that we cannot abide a collection of isolated facts - we must integrate them into a theory, a paradigm, a way of viewing them. We simply can't help this. 
  2. Paradigms change. But because the data base changes, inevitably the theory you come up with will be subject to change. One paradigm or theory will give way to another over time. In the 20th century, for example, two major scientific paradigms changed. Plate tectonics became the dominant way of understanding the structure of the earth (rather than the drying apple, shrinking skin idea) and in cosmology the eternal universe which never changes (the steady state theory) gave way to the Big Bang theory (universe had a beginning). 
  3. Don't buy into any paradigm. Since paradigms change, it is unwise to buy into any of them. Listen to them, appreciate them,  but you'd be a historical fool to say "this is the truth". Anyone who has read science books even a brief century old will know not to make this mistake. Think of it like this: the dots (facts) on the painting are often credible, but the joining up of the dots, the picture, the paradigm, may be seriously wrong because more dots (facts) may turn up which change that 'hand' into a  'wing'.
  4. There are two kinds of science: historical and operational, and the former MUST be led by philosophical considerations. Some people don't like this, but it's true. Historical science is all science which deals with the past. You weren't there, nor was I, so we need to make some assumptions. And guess what, those assumptions are informed by your philosophy, and in particular your assumptions about God. Example. Where did all living things come from? Let's suppose you don't believe there is a God, then you have only one source - matter plus the laws of physics plus time somehow resulted in life. Excluding God gives you no other options, except agnosticism
  5. In the area of historical science,  we must acknowledge the powerful influence of doctrine (7) above. If mankind now naturally suppresses the knowledge of God (Romans 1 &2), then we cannot expect an unbelieving science to acknowledge for one moment, the existence of an intelligent designing hand in creation. Though it may be plain to see, it will be radically denied. 
  6. Science is a western god - that's why so many people believe it. Because it has so successfully given us a thousand comforts and helps (though these have more come from its daughter technology) science has been granted the status of a "God" in western culture. All cultures worship gods, and ours happens to have a  suite of minor and major ones (other ones include Knowledge, Pleasure, Democracy, etc.). What's true of science is true of scientists: they are the high priests of our culture. One Chinese scientist was critiquing Darwin in an English university. He was surprised at the gasps of horror! "In my country, we can criticize Darwin but not the government" he said, "in your country you can criticize the government but not Darwin." Why not? Because science and scientists are the modern day gods. 
  7. The Bible and the book of nature must agree. Since both come from God,they must say the same thing. If there is disagreement, it can only be apparent disagreement, the fault is with our understanding.
Now for that critique
Theistic evolutionists.  As a general rule, I find these guys are:
  • Scientists first and Christians second. They have been trained in the scientific world, accepted all its paradigms, are good at their day jobs, but often lacking (sometimes woefully) in their theology and  in their understanding of the Scriptures. In other words, of God's two books, the Book of Scripture and the book of nature, they start with the book of nature and then try to fit the Book of Scripture around it.
  • Too uncritical of their disciplines. I guess I understand that; after all, you'll have a hard time in some departments if you swim against the tide.
  • Unable to see - or to accept -  that some things cannot be explained by natural law plus time plus chance.  Steve Meyer has done an excellent job recently, in exposing the impossibility of any natural phenomena to explain the origin of the cell and the Cambrian explosion (see his two books, Signature in the Cell and Darwin's Doubt).
Creationists, as a general rule,
  •  Are Bible people  first and scientists second. Surely that can't be a criticism?! On the one hand it isn't, and if there was a side to err on, this is the side to fall.  But according to Psalm 19, both the book of Scripture and the book of nature reveal the glory of God. We must take both seriously for all truth is God's truth, though we must recognize that the Bible sets the context for interpreting creation. Creationists don't engage seriously enough with the book of nature.
  • Try to do too much, leave too little room for mystery.  In wanting to line up the Bible and the physical world (the Bible with the book of nature)  they sometimes come up with all encompassing theories which leave no room for mystery or uncertainty. Example. Take the age of various matter on the earth, as judged by the annual clock God has placed in nature (ice cores, varves, and so on). The figure from science always comes out to be way way past 10,000. Instead of accepting any of these dates (I am here only arguing for dates that arise out of the natural annual cycle; i.e. from stuff made up of layers, each one formed over one year) creationists deny them, because they don't fit into a pre-packaged chronology. Could there be another way to deal with this apparent discrepancy? Couldn't one say "I just don't know how the Book of Scripture ties up with the book of nature on this one? I mean from the genealogies it looks as though the earth is only 6000 years old, but from the book of nature we have much higher readings. I don't understand how the two can fit together." And leave it at that. After all we don't need to know or understand everything?
Which brings me to a criticism of both camps, they are not humble enough. Both want all encompassing theories that will integrate all data. But isn't this impossible, for we are not God?  What's wrong with living with apparent contradictions if they drive us to the truth about ourselves, that we cannot fully understand it? What if they drive us to worshiping the God who does?

Where do I stand?
I am often asked this and this is how I reply:
  1. I have more sympathies with creationists, because they are more rooted in Scripture and take it with the deadly seriousness it deserves.
  2. I cannot accept any of the creation myths of modern science (all cultures have creation myths, and since we live in a scientific culture, our myths just happen to be scientific ones, but they are no different in principle than the creation myths of any other culture in history). Therefore I cannot accept the Big Bang theory as fact and refuse to accept the theory of evolution as fact.
  3. There are other and better ways to integrate the data of origins than evolutionary theory. Intelligent design is far more successful than evolutionary theory.  Micro-evolution is a good gift of God to his creatures to enable them to survive a wide variety of environments over time but it can never result in   macro-evolution. New designs require new information, and nature has absolutely no means of generating new information (all it has the power to do is to take existing information and destroy it).
  4. I simply cannot tie up the Book of Scripture with the book of nature in some areas, especially the age of the earth, and I am really happy with that incompetence.
For by it I am aware of how great God is - and how little I am.