Category Archives: Theology

Death: by Karl Barth

Commenting on Romans 5:12 (some paragraph breaks added) –

Death is the supreme law of the world in which we live. Of death we know nothing except that it is denial and corruption, the destroyer and destruction, creatureliness and naturalness. Death is engraved inexorably and indelibly upon our life. It is the supreme tribulation in which we stand. In it the whole riddle of our existence is summarized and focused; and in its inevitability we are reminded of the wrath which hangs over the man of the world and the world of man.

So completely is death the supreme law of this world, that even that which, in this world, points to the overcoming and renewing of this world, takes the form of death. Morality appears only as the denial of the body by the spirit; the dying Socrates is the only fitting emblem of philosophy; progress is no more than a restless negation of the existing natural order. No flame – except the flame of the Lord! (Exod. iii. 2) – can burn without destroying. Even the Christ according to the flesh must die that He be appointed the Son of God (Rom. i. 3, 4).

We too must pass through death, if we are to render unto God the honour due to Him. We have to learn that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. We would like to turn our backs on all this, if we could. We would like to protest against death in the name of life, if it were not that the protest of death against our life is far more venerable, far more significant. We try to bury out of sight the suspicions and reservations which accompany every unbroken affirmation we make, and to protect our eyes against the grey light of the final negation which is preceded by a whole host of preliminary negations. But we are unable to persist long in our attempt; for it is all too evident that the grey light does not proceed from our caprice, but has a primary origin. It envelops our whole life (Rom. i. 10), for there is no vital and creative human action which is not born in pain and revolution and death.

We are powerless; we are lost. Death is the supreme law of our life. We can say no more than that if there be salvation, it must be salvation from death; if there be a ‘Yes’, it must be such a ‘Yes’ as will dissolve this last and final ‘No’; if there be a way of escape, it must pass through this terrible barrier by which we are confronted.

From The Epistle to the Romans.

Review: A Reformed Approach to Science and Scripture

A Reformed Approach to Science and ScriptureA Reformed Approach to Science and Scripture by Keith A. Mathison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A good thing about buying a book that really is a book is that you get a sense of what kind of book it wants to be. A 600 page treatment is a different beast from an 80 page piece – neither is necessarily better, but the aims will differ.

With an ebook, this is harder. And, perhaps, easier to be disappointed. ‘I thought this was going to be in-depth, but it’s only a brief guide.’ Or, ‘I just wanted something simple, not the history of the universe.’

So let’s explain the intangibles of this book. A Reformed Approach to Science and Scripture is a big title, huge. Science! Scripture! Reformed! Wow. Yet it’s not broad, deep, and exhaustive. It is a short work, so does not aim to cover all things.

Even more important, it’s not even really trying to be a reformed introduction to the philosophy of science. (Which I thought it might be – my mistake.) Instead, it is an expansion on some comments made by R.C. Sproul. At a conference, Sproul was answering the question, ‘How old is the universe?’

Sproul’s answer is wonderful. He did not merely indicate young or old, but in a few sentences touched on science, Christianity, and the relation between them.

The answer is quoted in full (tidied up a little for publication purposes). Sproul notes some of the issues:
* The Bible does not state how old the earth is, but some hints suggest it’s young
* Science has plenty to say that is relevant: expanding universe, astronomical dating, etc
* All truth is God’s truth, scripture and nature
* God’s revelation in scripture is infallible as also God’s revelation in nature is infallible
* We know times when natural revelation has corrected the church’s understanding of special revelation
* Nonetheless, that which is definitively taught in the Bible is never overthrown by science
* That is, scientists can be wrong, theologians can be wrong, and we privilege neither
* In conclusion: ‘I don’t know how old the earth is.’

This book by Mathison expands on these points. It has some theological points (eg, Augustine, Aquinas). It has some history (eg, Calvin and Luther on the geocentrism). It does not have much science or philosophy of science.

The crux of the book – and of Sproul’s answer – is the double infallibility of God’s double revelation, special and natural. This is, I think, both the strength and the weakness of the book’s argument.

It is strong, because it highlights the unity of all truth in God. Let God be true, though all men be liars (Romans 3:4). The saying catches it nicely: all truth is God’s truth.

Yet there are problems with the book’s argument. I think these are in the theological terminology used, as well as it’s application in the book. Imprecision is introduced: it does no real damage to this book’s argument, because it has a narrow focus. But such imprecision is problematic if it flows through the (huge) scope of science-theology understanding.

The problem: Mathison persists in speaking of natural revelation, when I think he would do better to speak of truth.

In speaking of natural revelation, Mathison has in mind the knowledge of God accessible to all humans through creation. As Romans 1:19-21 indicates, this knowledge is about God, and it makes us without excuse, because natural revelation cannot save. He helpfully quotes and alludes to Romans 1.

But the book then slides from this knowledge about God to science, without any reason put forward for the connection. Yet it is not evident that knowing more about the planets’ arrangement adds anything to natural revelation. We know more truth, certainly, but no more about God.

In other words, Mathison makes no convincing argument that the theological category of natural revelation also applies to science.

This imprecision has other effects. I note just one – the use of infallible.

Mathison return more than once to a group of seminarians asked two questions by Sproul.

“How many of you believe that God’s revelation in Scripture is infallible?” They all raised their hands. I then asked, “And how many of you believe that God’s revelation in nature is infallible?” No one raised his hand. It’s the same God giving the revelation.

Two helpful and provocative questions to put! Natural revelation is, indeed, infallible – it does not fail but achieves its purpose. The purposes of natural revelation succeed: people of faith praise the Lord (Psalm 19:1), and rebels against God find they have no excuse (Romans 1:20).

Infallibility is a term of theology, and relates to God’s purposes in his revelation. But Mathison, having assumed a tight link between natural revelation and science, has thereby partly imported infallibility into science, where it does not belong.

Now, that’s a long discussion about being precise in terminology. So let me emphasise this: I think this work well worth reading. Have a read, think well, and thank God that all truth is his.

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The ape and the lamb

I wonder which false theologians C.S. Lewis had in mind in this section of The Last Battle.

“Please,” said the Lamb, “I can’t understand. What have we to do with the Calormenes? We belong to Aslan. They belong to Tash. They have a god called Tash. They say he has four arms and the head of a vulture. They kill Men on his altar. I don’t believe there’s any such person as Tash. But if there was, how could Aslan be friends with him?”

All the animals cocked their heads sideways and all their bright eyes flashed toward the Ape. They knew it was the best question anyone had asked yet.

The Ape jumped up and spat at the Lamb.

“Baby!” he hissed. “Silly little bleater! Go home to your mother and drink milk. What do you understand of such things? But the others, listen. Tash is only another name for Aslan. All that old idea of us being right and the Calormenes wrong is silly. We know better now. The Calormenes use different words but we all mean the same thing. Tash and Aslan are only two different names for you know Who. That’s why there can never be any quarrel between them. Get that into your heads, you stupid brutes. Tash is Aslan: Aslan is Tash.”


 

Whose hope?

Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the poor.’ Disciples of Jesus are armed in an odd fashion: we don’t take up weapons, but daily take up the cross.

Therefore, it makes sense that Christian hope is not for those who entertain high hopes in this world. Here’s a quotation that captures this powerfully:

The hope about which it [the Bible] speaks is valid for the hopeless and not for the optimists. It is valid for the poor and not for the rich. It is valid for the downtrodden and the insulted so that they will learn to walk uprightly, and all this as it will be in heaven, so already here on this earth. As the book of the promises of God, the Bible … points beyond itself into the future which does not yet fill our present.

(Jürgen Moltmann, quoted in New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology.)

 


 

Science causes natural theology

In the mid seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes identified that science does not undermine theology. Rather, science tends towards (problematic) natural theology.

Curiosity, or love of the knowledge of causes, draws a man from consultation of the effect, to seek the cause; and again, the cause of that cause; till of necessity he must come to this thought at last, that there is some cause, whereof there is no former cause, but is eternall; which is it men call God. So that it is impossible to make any profound enquiry into naturall causes, without being enclined thereby to believe there is one God Eternall; though they cannot have any Idea of him in their mind, answerable to his nature.

From Leviathon, Chapter XI.


 

St Marcion’s Modern Church

Are you interested in joining this church?

I have lost their web address – or perhaps the website has been taken down. But I did manage to salvage the church’s own description from the page. Here it is:

Welcome to St Marcion’s

Here at St Marcion’s, we love to keep up to date and new. Why? Because Jesus is so good that he makes everything else old and unhelpful.

So we read the Bible! Well, we read the new part of the Bible. (Obviously the Old Testament is old and so different – nothing good there.) No, actually, we read some of the new part of the Bible (even the New Testament has some ‘Old Testament’ hangovers, they’re easy to spot and to ignore).

Yes, we’re completely people of the Bible.

Hmm. Maybe not for me. I’m glad that Marcion was second century AD, now long gone. No one would be so crazy or arrogant nowadays to assume that new equals good. We’re all reading Old Testament as well as New Testament.

Aren’t we?

 


 

The gospel in two points

The Christian announcement – the gospel – centres on Jesus. That’s the simple and joyful reality.

The Christian message also is beautiful and profound, open to expression in a rich variety of ways. After all, there are four New Testament gospels.

The simple complexity of Jesus’ truth means there are many, many great ways to speak truly about Jesus. I love that! And have a quick two point option to throw into the mix.

  1. We all judge Jesus as worthy of death
  2. God invites us to share his own view of Jesus, as Lord

«‹›» «‹›» «‹›» «‹›»

The events of Jesus’ life were remarkable: teaching, wonders, healing, gaining followers and enemies. Without doubt, Jesus’ impact came to its pinnacle in Easter week.

Jesus’ death at Easter was caused by … everybody.

Disciples abandoned Jesus or became traitor. Religious leaders condemned Jesus. The crowds who followed these leaders easily agreed to call for execution. And the world’s power, exemplified through Roman law, decided death was the only option for Jesus.

But God raised Jesus.

So now Jesus is alive. God’s view of Jesus has been established for all time: Jesus is the ruler of God’s people, and Lord of the world.

Thankfully, we can recant from our mis-judgement of Jesus. We can repent, and trust Jesus’ for forgiveness and new life.

«‹›» «‹›» «‹›» «‹›»

The biblical material I have in mind for this two point outline is mainly the preaching of Acts. Here are some of the verses from Acts, so you can test and see it this two point gospel is a fair summary.

Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.
(2:23-24)

Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.
(2:36)

The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him.
(3:13)

let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead– by him this man is standing before you well.
(4:10)

They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear
(10:39-40)

And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead
(13:29-30)

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.
(17:30-31)

[Testifying] that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.
(26:23)


 

Jesus, history & faith

Here are some thought provoking words on Jesus in history: the historic events are open to historical understanding, and at the same time are only understood by faith.

The Jesus of whom the Gospels tell us is a unique event in history, not to be confused with other personalities in history. His uniqueness in this general historical sense is an essential part of the fundamental confession of the Christian faith. …

The atonement and redemption which was achieved through the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross is an event which does not lie in the dimension of the historian. It is for that reason not something which the historian as such can recognize, but which is only apprehended by faith. It is an action of God, an act of the self-disclosure and self-communication of God, and thus is something which cannot be perceived as a historical occurrence. While the uniqueness which the historian apprehends in the Person and history of Jesus is only something relatively unique, that which faith apprehends in this historical fact as God’s deed and God’s Word of atonement and redemption is something absolutely unique, it is something that by its very nature either has happened once and for all, for all times and for every man, or else has not happened.

From Emil Brunner’s Dogmatics, Volume III.

 


 

Grace & karma

A quick thought about grace and karma. Definitions are not hard to find for each. Those below are from Dictionary.com. (OK, I changed it to English spelling. I can’t seem to write ‘favour’ without the ‘u’.)

Grace: the freely given, unmerited favour and love of God.
KarmaHinduism, Buddhism the principle of retributive justice determining a person’s state of life and the state of his reincarnations as the effect of his past deeds.

It strikes me that grace and karma both share a humility and a confidence. They are humble and confident, however, in different ways. Karma relates these primarily to the individual. Grace considers these primarily in relation to God.

  • To one in trouble or suffering, karma humbly says: I do not know what you did.
    Yet with confidence adds: I do know you deserve it.
  • Grace says: I do not know the way of God here.
    And: I do know God is in control for his good.

If I have this right, many consequences flow. And it helps explain the practice of different faiths. I suggest, for example, that Christianity has a history and reputation for compassion that is not the same as for Buddhism. On the other hand, Christianity always faces the question of theodicy – justifying the ways of God – that is not an issue for the believer in karma.

Both of these fit the ‘humble confidence’ sayings above, I think.

What do you reckon? And can you think of other outcomes of these different views of justice and reality?

 


 

Quick review: Joined-up life

Joined-Up Life: A Christian Account of How Ethics WorksJoined-Up Life: A Christian Account of How Ethics Works by Andrew Cameron

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book.

Each chapter is written to be clear in its own right, and Cameron invites readers to dip into whichever topic interests us. I chose to read right through, however, and can recommend this approach. Though each chapter does stand, there is a clear sense of building the overall argument from chapter 1 to chapter 47.

There are seven sections. Awareness notes common approaches to ethics. Unawareness uncovers factors too often overlooked as we decide what’s right and wrong. Jesus versus ethics explores the various way the Bible’s message, centred on Jesus, shapes ethics. Five things that matter is where Cameron constructs his ‘unified field.’ Living our lives brings biblical input into contact with an approach not as popular now as it was historically: character or virtue. Life packages looks at some broad life situations (singleness, marriage, work, …). Six hotspots gets into some of the particular issues that often are controversial points of revelation for our differences of opinion.

In this short review it would be neglectful to quickly pass by Cameron’s unified field. His book, I believe, has two parts: constructing the unified field, then employing the unified field. What is it?

In my understanding, the unified field is a set of interconnected inputs for ethical thinking. There is not ‘an answer’ or ‘a single approach’ to ethics – life is more complex and nuanced than that. Therefore ethics is, likewise, more complex.

The elements of the field are these:
Creation: God made things with an order that we can (partially) perceive or learn
Jesus-shaped community: the work of Jesus creates a group of his people dedicated to living a better way, devoted to being in relationships that are shaped by God’s ways
The new future: history has a goal, set by God. This reality will last, and is to impinge on present life
God’s character: God himself has patterns of right and wrong that become normative for his people
Commands: commands are not ‘the’ ethical method. Yet God’s commands give us a quick insight into each of the above four elements

This field is a most helpful way to focus our approach to ethical questions. They do not neglect the major story arc of the Bible – the unfolding of the Saving Lordship of Jesus. Instead, they honour this story arc enough to see how the story of Jesus changes everything in our own story.

 


 

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