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Five rings, five things

Luke's blog - 4 hours 10 min ago

There were 3,000 hours of Olympic coverage on BBC television and online. The radio was there when those methods were unavailable - and even more immediate in some ways because it can switch between sports so rapidly. The website even showed which athletes have the most similar body shape to you. As a proportion of my annual licence fee, this all cost me £6.

My only complaint (apart from the monotony of montages) is that I wish the presenters and commentators would stop saying that history was being made, and asking the athletes how they felt about it.

Many of the best moments, and others you would never have known about otherwise, were captured by press photographers: The Guardian’s daily gallery has been a highlight in itself.

Two incomprehensible adverts

London 2012 still makes me emotional when I recall it. We may have won more medals at Rio but only the athletes and coaches were involved in this one – despite the National Lottery's claims to the contrary. We were the hosts, our culture set the tone, our land was the dramatic backdrop - and we loved it. The Games Makers exemplified this, and we lived as vicariously through someone cheerfully pointing the way to a venue from a Tube station as we did Mo Farah's triumph or Gemma Gibbons' emotions.

Blaming Rio's desperate (and disinterested) residents for not attending felt like criticising the wind for not blowing enough for the sailing competitions.

One of the best photos I've taken

My toddling niece says “Wow” to just about anything, which is a sort of sanity, when you think about it.

The best of sport can make us say “Wow” and no other sporting event packs in so much that is wow-worthy than the Olympics: Usain Bolt running in the only lane of the race track not covered in treacle, Neymar slotting home a gold mdeal-winning penalty with the weight of 200 million hysterical compatriots on his shoulders, Simone Biles exploding across the gymnasium until the very moment she wanted to be suddenly still. I would give a gold medal to every person who did a handstand on the edge of the 10-metre diving board. Even in what seems mundane by comparison, the sheer variety of the people involved and what they do is wondrous.

British athletes gave us plenty to smile about, and everyone will have their own favourites. I think Laura Trott is mine, combining as she does the wide-eyed pleasure of just being there that used to be the only consolation British Olympians had, with imperious strength and determined dominance of the Lottery era. Funding fuels organisational excellence, which harnesses and thus releases the talent and determination of so many athletes. We’ve found another thing we’re brilliant at, it seems.

To the criticism that this fascination with success is an insidious form of nationalism, I’d refer to London again, when we welcomed and cheered for everyone. I’m more concerned that we’re making sport an idol: something that we assign more value to than it truly has, setting it up in God’s place as our joy and hope and consolation. In its right place, however, it can still make us smile and say "Wow".


The modern Olympics were conceived as a showcase of what we are capable of. It always succeeds in this, but not perhaps in the way it intends. Along with the brilliance, from dodgy boxing decisions and lying swimmers to government-arranged doping and the plutocratic robbery of the city itself, the Olympics is yet another arena in which humans prove their wonder and their wickedness. None of this surprises the Christian. We celebrate the good knowing that it comes from humans being in made in God’s image; we mourn the bad keenly aware that the same self-inflicted sickness resides in our hearts too. God’s Word has told us these truths and the Olympics merely demonstrate them. What has been unique about these Games is the display of a greater hope than ourselves. Towering over the city stands the statue of Christ the Redeemer.

Justin Gatlin cannot escape his past as a drug cheat. He reminded us that he'd served his time for doping offences but we insist that a temporary ban is insufficient. We want him to apologise profusely, and probably to remove himself from the competition. We want a price to be paid.

A redeemer pays a price, like a ransom, to set you free. We are all slaves to sin, even the best of us, tugged willingly or not by its promptings, doing things that damage others and ourselves. So Jesus came to set us free, settling the cost when He died on the cross. The Christ the Redeemer statue stands in victory and His arms are still stretched out as they were on Good Friday. He offers welcome and shows how it was won for us. An Olympic dream can be achieved by blood, sweat, and tears, but redemption only comes through Jesus’ blood (Ephesians 1:7).

The BBC repeatedly spoke about inspiring a generation. I'm feeling inspired, though I'm unlikely to be competing at the next Games, despite an occasional sense of empathy with the cyclists as I pedal to the shops against a stiff breeze.

I've been inspired by seeing the fruit of teamwork. It doesn't just deliver success, it multiplies and magnifies joy. The deep commitment and love for each other that you see when teams celebrate is a beautiful thing. Of course winning hides a multitude of sins but it also shows the truth of team. God is Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Spirit have existed and loved and shared for beyond always, and when we work or serve or live or play as a team we display something of Him.

When they weren't being asked how they felt, so many of the athletes spoke of the effort they'd put in to becoming an Olympian. This dedication is as old as the Games themselves, as is the application for the Christian who is struggling to keep going:
"Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified." (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)A prize greater than gold awaits, ready to be awarded to us by Christ the Redeemer.

The Importance of Satire

Newfrontiers Theology - Mon, 22/08/2016 - 08:00

In what is probably the best Mere Fidelity episode yet recorded—and, sadly, this may be related to the fact that I was not on it—literature professor Karen Swallow Prior discusses satire with the rest of the crew. It is an immensely interesting conversation, partly because the topic is so talked about at the moment, with influential Christians arguing that (despite Job 38-42, 1 Corinthians 4 and the rest!) Christians should never use it, but mostly because Karen is such an interesting person, and comes at the issue with a lot of learning (she is something of an expert on Jonathan Swift) and some good practical distinctions. She begins by defining satire as "the ridicule of vice or folly for the purpose of correction," which clears a lot of clutter out the way, and then the discussion begins: whether satire is loving, whether it is conservative, how to do it well, the language of "punching up" and "punching down", and so on. I highly recommend it.

Here’s just one excerpt (at about 30 minutes) that I found particularly helpful:

Satire is the most conservative of all forms of comedy—which, again, arises out of a conservative impulse, the understanding of rules and norms—because satire not only understands the existence of rules and norms, but actually wants to preserve them, and point them out by mocking and ridiculing any departure from them ...

But here’s the thing: good satire actually depends greatly on empathy and understanding of the Other, because for satire to work well, you have to understand the perspective and voice of the Other (the object you’re satirising) convincingly. So that’s why satire is easy to do so poorly ... Satire may not seem loving, but if it’s good satire, it actually reflects the ability to identify with the object of the satire, by taking on that persona, taking on that mask, well enough that it’s convincing.

Categories: Front Page

Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 34

Newfrontiers Theology - Sun, 21/08/2016 - 08:00
Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 34 primary image

[Heidelberg only quotes four texts at any length--the Apostles' Creed, the institution of the Lord's Supper, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer--reflecting its overriding concerns with the gospel, the sacraments, the Christian life, and prayer. Here, in quoting the Ten Commandments in full, it implies something significant: that they represent the best summary of Christian ethics that there is. Evangelicalism today, understandably nervous of anything legalistic, might balk at such an idea, but in Heidelberg's favour, it is at least how Jesus did it. Love God, love your neighbour: Christian ethics in a nutshell.]

Q92. What is God’s law?

A92. God spoke all these words:
“I am the LORD your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of slavery;
you shall have no other gods before me.”
“You shall not make for yourself an idol,
whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above,
or that is on the earth beneath,
or that is in the water under the earth.
You shall not bow down to them or worship them;
for I the LORD your God am a jealous God,
punishing children for the iniquity of parents,
to the third and the fourth generation
of those who reject me,
but showing love to the thousandth generation of those
who love me and keep my commandments.”
“You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God,
for the LORD will not acquit anyone
who misuses his name.”
“Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.
Six days you shall labor and do all your work.
But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God;
you shall not do any work—
you, your son or your daughter,
your male or female slave,
your livestock,
or the alien resident in your towns.
For in six days the LORD made
heaven and earth, the sea,
and all that is in them,
but rested the seventh day;
therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day
and consecrated it.”
“Honor your father and your mother,
so that your days may be long
in the land that the Lord your God is giving to you.”
“You shall not murder.”
“You shall not commit adultery.”
“You shall not steal.”
“You shall not bear false witness
against your neighbour.”
“You shall not covet your neighbour’s house;
you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife,
or male or female slave,
or ox, or donkey,
or anything that belongs to your neighbour.”

Q93. How are these commandments divided?

A93. Into two tables.
The first has four commandments,
teaching us how we ought to live in relation to God.
The second has six commandments,
teaching us what we owe our neighbour.

Categories: Front Page

Nicene Theory

Newfrontiers Theology - Fri, 19/08/2016 - 08:00
Nicene Theory primary image

I've just started Robert Jenson's theological commentary on Ezekiel, and he's won me by the end of the introduction. Look at this:

I will make no room for the supposed contributions of the various critical theories currently on offer in academia and sometimes invoked to guide biblical and other exegesis - each projected from the viewpoint of a class, a gender, a race, and so on. Critique in the relevant late-modern sense is the effort to discern what a text “really” says, as against what it may to unsuspicious eyes seem to say; and a labeled critical theory (e.g., feminist theory, postcolonial theory, queer theory) is a specific set of instructions for achieving such discernment. There is indeed a critical theory at work in this commentary, and it might be called “Nicene theory.”

Categories: Front Page

Making Moral Decisions: A Worked Example

Newfrontiers Theology - Thu, 18/08/2016 - 08:00
 A Worked Example primary image

Yesterday, I chanced across the most appalling news story. A mother whose daughter was threatening to jump off the roof of a 10-storey car park had to stand by and listen as onlookers shouted "Jump!"

It’s awful. The girl’s mother described it as ‘the worst of humanity’

I saw people sitting in the gutter for three hours watching with their children.


“Because I was behind the cordon, and had been given a chair and coffee, people had realised I was her mum. “Quite a lot approached me and asked why she was up there and what she was doing. “One said, ‘Stupid cow – why doesn’t she just jump?’

Apart from tone, though, what is the difference between those shouts and the calls for the legalisation of assisted suicide?

I suspect many readers of the iPaper, where I saw the story, would be appalled that anyone would shout such a thing. And as the girl herself said, “What did they hope to see? Did they really want to see me splattered on the pavement?”

Yet many of those same readers would likely be in favour of assisted suicide. Indeed, a Populus poll in 2015 found that 82% of respondents supported Lord Falconer’s Bill to make it legal.

I blogged about this weird dichotomy on my own blog yesterday, noting:

If you’re shocked at one you have to consider why you’re not shocked at the other.

I’ve commented before that we seem to hold some weird distinction between mental anguish and the physical variety. That is apparently changing too, however - this article in The Economist supports, with caution, assisted dying for the mentally ill, despite its own assertion that no one wants it:
“The hardest question is whether doctor-assisted dying should be available for those in mental anguish. No one wants to make suicide easier for the depressed: many will recover and enjoy life again. But mental pain is as real as physical pain, even though it is harder for onlookers to gauge. And even among the terminally ill, the suffering that causes some to seek a quicker death may not be physical. Doctor-assisted death on grounds of mental suffering should therefore be allowed. [Emphasis mine]”

I couldn’t comprehend how we’ve got to this point, where a national newspaper can come out in support of a position it thinks nobody wants. How is that paragraph even possible?

And then I read Andrew’s post and it all made sense.

When you understand that in our culture “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second” and there is little concept of the idea that “there [might be] more to morality than harm and fairness”, it all becomes clear. We have trained ourselves to reason like elephants with a third of a tongue (or something!).

So here’s a worked example for you: Given that

1) Most people would think it was wrong to shout ‘Jump’ to a suicidal person on top of a building, and
2) 82% of those people would likely think it’s right to help someone die if they are terminally ill and consider their suffering to be unbearable (though the Economist article says even this is too limited, and “The criterion for assisting dying should be a patient’s assessment of his suffering, not the nature of his illness”), and
3) The stats are little different for those who self-identify as Christians (see p3 of the Populus poll),

how would you begin to teach through this in your church? How would you talk about it to individuals? How do each of Andrew’s/Jonathan Haidt’s five points help?

As Andrew says, you may need to buy the book. I know I’m going to.

Categories: Front Page

Tears Every Night

Newfrontiers Theology - Wed, 17/08/2016 - 16:34
Tears Every Night primary image

Being away on holiday in the South of France with very limited TV coverage meant I missed most of the first week of the Olympics. But what I did manage to pick up revealed how perspectives differ from nation to nation: in France, you’d think the Games were only France against the rest of the world, and that judo and swimming were the only sports. Similarly, when we popped over the border, suddenly the Olympics became nothing more than Spain versus the world, and tennis and volleyball the only sports. And then, once back in the UK, it is Great Britain against the World, and an awful lot of cycling, and quite a lot of other sports too.

Perhaps the UK-focus is not altogether misplaced as we are doing so well in these Games, with (as I write this) Team GB lying second in the medals table. A bit of national backslapping is probably in order, that once again this minnow is outcompeting some whales.

I love the Olympics. I love sport. Yet there are always moments during my hours transfixed before the screen that the thought flits across my brain that it is all a little childish. Jumping into sandpits and chasing other people round in circles on a bike is what I used to do when I was eight years old. Perhaps not childish, but childlike is better. Childish is pejorative, childlike is good. Childlike is the opposite of cynical, tired, adulthood. It’s the attitude that is eager to try – that is unembarrassed about running and jumping and tumbling.

At the Olympics this childlike activity is pursued to the point of perfection, which makes it sublime. There is a sense in which the sublime childlike activity of elite sport is where we see man at his most god-like. It is why sport matters, and why it so transfixes us: it points to a heavenly reality, that one day we will all be Olympians. And that means each evening I sit on my sofa with tears in my eyes.

Categories: Front Page

The Most Important Book I’ve Read This Year

Newfrontiers Theology - Wed, 17/08/2016 - 07:00
The Most Important Book I’ve Read This Year primary image

Back in January, prompted by a challenge from Tim Challies, I set myself the target of reading one hundred books by the end of the year. I've currently read seventy, most of which have been Christian and/or theological, and some of them have been absolutely superb (regular readers will know which ones, and I'll probably post the highlights at the end of the year). But the most important book I've read so far has been written by a secular Jewish social psychologist named Jonathan Haidt. I have rarely read a book that illuminates and reframes so many different areas as his The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Countless reviews have appeared online, most of them glowingly positive, so I don’t want to rehash any of that here. But because I think his book is so helpful, I do want to draw attention to the three main points Haidt makes about the way we make moral decisions, and the three controlling metaphors he uses, before reflecting a bit on why they are so significant in our current cultural situation.

The Rider and the Elephant: intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. Haidt pictures the relationship between reasoning and intuition like that between a rider and an elephant: though it looks like the rider (reason) is in charge, and though the rider can do some important things (learn new skills, explain what the elephant is doing, change the elephant’s direction with a lot of effort), the chief mover is actually the elephant (intuition). People don’t reason their way to which things are right and wrong; they sense emotionally and intuitively that they are right or wrong, and then use their reason to explain why. In that sense, to switch metaphors, moral and ethical decisionmaking is more like a politician looking for votes than a philosopher looking for truth. (The transcript of a liberal-minded Western person trying to explain why incest is wrong, and gradually coming to the realisation that she doesn’t know why it is wrong but knows it is anyway, is fascinating on this point.)

A Tongue With Six Moral Taste-Buds: there is more to morality than harm and fairness. Human beings, Haidt argues, use six different foundations for moral reasoning - the six “taste-buds” of the righteous mind - but some of us use more of them than others. For WEIRD people (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic), like most readers of his book and this blog, the most obvious bases for morality are (1) care vs harm, and (2) fairness vs cheating, to the point that many WEIRD people will not be able to fathom why anyone would regard something as wrong if it wasn’t (1) clearly harmful to someone or (2) demonstrably unfair. Yet Haidt’s studies in psychology, especially in the non-WEIRD world, presented him with a range of other foundations: (3) loyalty vs betrayal, (4) authority vs subversion, (5) sanctity vs degradation, and (6) liberty vs oppression. The profusion of case studies here, again, is fascinating, and indicates that even within the US and the UK, where foundations (3), (4) and (5) seem not to exist at all, there are certain extreme scenarios (consensual cannibalism is one particularly gruesome example) that indicate they still do.

The Hive Switch: morality binds and blinds. In Haidt’s provocative metaphor, we are 90% chimpanzee and 10% bee. That is, we spend most of our lives operating like chimpanzees - selfish individuals who are trying to maximise our own chances for survival, comfort, progeny and security - but in certain situations, a “hive switch” gets flipped, and we become like bees, working together in startlingly groupish, selfless and apparently irrational ways, and prioritising the benefit of the group over our own. Triggers for the hive switch include team sport, national tragedy (Princess Diana, 9/11), dance (he uses the example of raves), and of course religion; and those religions that make the largest demands on their adherents tend also, perhaps counterintuitively, to be the most successful.

All very interesting. But so what? Well I’ve taught through The Righteous Mind on two separate training courses since March, and I think there are a number of ways in which Haidt’s insights can, and should, shape our preaching and our leadership. For example:

1) Speak to the elephant as well as (if not more than) the rider. This is an important idea in both evangelistic and pastoral contexts, but particularly applies to preaching and apologetics: if the people you’re speaking to have their intuitions and emotions against you, then it is almost impossible to win over their minds. (In many ways this is the same point as Pascal makes in the Pensees: you have to “make good men wish it were true” before you “show that it is.” But it comes complete with a really nice metaphor.) This, in practice, probably involves a combination of acknowledging emotional objections, telling stories, using humour, finding early points of agreement, and so on.

2) Understand that disagreement may result from different moral foundations. We can be inclined to assume, like the person who speaks English to French people but simply louder and slower, that disagreement comes when people share moral foundations but disagree on whether a particular thing contravenes them, so the best strategy is just to lay out your reasons as clearly as possible. Haidt’s argument suggests that the moral foundation that grounds your conviction may barely even exist for the other person, so you need to think things through more carefully. It occurs to me that, in the abstract at least, one of the most important changes wrought by the sexual revolution is the profound weakening of three of these six moral foundations, to the extent that many WEIRD people no longer know how to use them. (Gay sex harms nobody, goes the argument, so it can’t be wrong; your appeals to authority, loyalty and sanctity, as vital as they are for you, do not have any purchase in the other person’s moral framework.) This doesn’t mean proving that all our moral imperatives are somehow about harm, because that would concede that WEIRD morality is all there is. But it probably does mean laying out these frameworks, and explaining where they come from, rather than assuming them.

3) Go beyond telling people what the Bible says is right or wrong; explain why it is right or wrong. It is difficult to communicate a central biblical theme like holiness in a world without temples, or the supreme authority of Scripture in a world in which authority is not seen as a foundation for morality (and, indeed, is often seen as a foundation for immorality). Christian congregations in the US and the UK, let alone the towns and cities all around them, simply do not use some of the moral foundations necessary for understanding the Bible, and may even assume that their own foundations must be shared by the Bible. (Gay sex is wrong, they reason, so it must harm somebody. Now, who might that be? Children? Me? Society as a whole? To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.) So we need to explain the basis on which the Bible declares something to be true, good or beautiful, using categories like Haidt’s (among others), not just the fact that it does.

4) Continue to call people to lives of sacrifice and commitment. At one level, you don’t need a moral psychologist to tell you that: it’s right there in the Gospels. But there is certainly a temptation, and I imagine many of us feel it, to dial down the requirements in a generation that looks like it has too many choices and not enough sticking power. Don’t. Not just because it’s unbiblical (though that too), but because it doesn’t actually work; it sounds like it would make people more likely to participate, because fewer demands are placed on them, but ultimately it actually makes people less likely to participate, because fewer demands are placed on them (in Haidt’s terms, it doesn’t flip the hive switch). Religions that thrive, historically speaking, have been the “expensive” ones (a point that is also made in another great book I read this year, Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity). And don’t be fooled into thinking that lower commitment to the church, in time and money, will increase people’s activism outside it. As Haidt explains, “Common sense would tell you that the more time and money people give to their religious groups, the less they have left over for everything else. But common sense turns out to be wrong. Putnam and Campbell found that the more frequently people attend religious services, the more generous and charitable they become across the board.”

5) Learn to disagree well. Understanding the moral foundations people use, and how they use them, is of enormous importance both in representing their arguments fairly and in critiquing them thoughtfully. One of the most interesting asides in Haidt’s book is the reference he makes to the ability (or not) people have to articulate what their opponents actually believe; it turns out moderates are reasonably good at explaining what those they disagree with believe, conservatives are less good—and worse at it the more conservative they are—and the worst are liberals, who are worse at it the more liberal they are. (Just after reading Haidt I read an op-ed by Polly Toynbee in which she explained how the right hates the poor, which made his point fairly emphatically.) No matter where we are politically, or even theologically, understanding why good people might disagree with us about something important, even if it is something we feel passionately about (marriage, abortion, war, etc), is immensely important in disagreeing with them well, let alone persuading them. It’s what Tim Keller often says: describe your opponent’s view in such a way that they would say, “that’s better than I could put it.” If you can’t do that yet, don’t critique it.

I’m sure there are other points of application that will emerge, but this has been a long enough article already, and to be honest, you should really get the book. But even if you don’t, think about these things.

Categories: Front Page

Life Imitating Architecture

Newfrontiers Theology - Mon, 15/08/2016 - 08:00
Life Imitating Architecture primary image

Larry Siedentop's Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism is outstanding. It traces the origins of concepts like equality and individuality—starting with the earliest societies, worshipping around the ancestral fires, and then moving through the classical period, the early church, Christendom and the Renaissance, and finishing with the modern West—and it gives a good deal of the credit to Christianity. In the midst of the story, which is beautifully told, there are some asides which really make you stop and think. Here's one on the differences between pagan and Christian architecture, and the powerful difference in worldview they represent:

Christianity was turning outward and visible things inwards. The basilicas built in Rome by the Emperor Constantine, after his conversion in 312, gave architectural expression to the difference of focus between paganism and the new moral beliefs. In place of the ancient temple, with its splendid columns and decorations on the exterior, the Christian basilica was simple, unadorned brick on the outside, with columns and decorations reserved for the interior. The change was symptomatic. Where paganism had concerned itself primarily with external conformity of behaviour, Christianity now concerned itself especially with inner conviction.

Never noticed that.

Categories: Front Page

Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 33

Newfrontiers Theology - Sun, 14/08/2016 - 08:00
Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 33 primary image

[What does genuine repentance, or conversion, look like? What I love about Heidelberg's answer is the passion and emotion it contains. Repentance is not just about living differently, or even thinking differently—although it is about those things—it is to be "genuinely sorry" for sin, to "hate" it, to find "wholehearted joy" in God through Christ, and to "love and delight" in the will of God. Conversion involves sorrow, hatred, joy and delight, and if it doesn't, it isn't true conversion.]

Q88. What is involved
in genuine repentance or conversion?

A88. Two things:
the dying-away of the old self,
and the rising-to-life of the new.

Q89. What is the dying-away of the old self?

A89. To be genuinely sorry for sin
and more and more to hate
and run away from it.

Q90. What is the rising-to-life of the new self?

A90. Wholehearted joy in God through Christ
and a love and delight to live
according to the will of God
by doing every kind of good work.

Q91. What are good works?

A91. Only those which
are done out of true faith,
conform to God’s law,
and are done for God’s glory;
and not those based
on our own opinion
or human tradition.

Categories: Front Page

Week 32 miscellany: check your prejudice, Olympics photos and faith, mascots, and trees

Luke's blog - Thu, 11/08/2016 - 16:02
A bee amongst the lavender of Drummond Castle Gardens
Everyone has prejudices but not everyone realises this. Serina Sandhu shares research which proves this, and Ross Douthat comments on the myth of cosmopolitanism. This is perhaps the loudest voice in our culture presently (though votes for Brexit and Trump say something else) so it's important to be aware of what it's really saying.

The Olympic Games are upon us, and if they don't have quite the same magical atmosphere as London 2012 for some of us, there are still some wonderful things going on. The story of sport photography is told by George Vecsey (the photo of the BASE jumpers in Utah is my favourite), and David Matthias introduces Christians to C.S. Lewis' idea of "transposition" - seeing the ultimate things of God through the things around us, for which the Olympics are a great setting.

Vinicius and Tom are the Olympic and Paralympic mascots; Neil Steinberg explains the rise of a cartoon bear in Japan who has become much more than just a cuddly toy.

There's a Greek proverb which says that a society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in. The National Forest is a rare example of Britain apply this wisdom, as John Vidal reports.

The Wonderful World of Water

Newfrontiers Theology - Thu, 11/08/2016 - 08:00
The Wonderful World of Water primary image

Back in the spring I went on a guided prayer retreat in Spain (suffering for Jesus!). On the last day we took a trip to the beach and did a Bible study on the theme of water, to stimulate our praying.

Now, water is pretty impressive. I’ve seen films about it, heard sermons about it, heard it used in multiple illustrations. I’ve even, on occasion, been known to drink the stuff.

But what more could there possibly be to learn? And how could that inspire me to prayer?

Here are just two things that have been buzzing around my head ever since:

Streams of living water

First, God promises us streams of living water, not just a really big vat or ‘unlimited jars’. Why? Well, standing water soon gets stagnant and undrinkable; it needs to keep flowing to stay fresh. But what God also said to me was that this means it is new every morning.  Even though it has been running through the water cycle for millennia, it is fresh and new for me at its source. Daily.

That’s quite an exciting thought – that I’m not just running on what he’s given me in the past, but he makes it new day by day. Nice.

Water formation

Second, water is, as far as I know, the only element that both erodes and creates. It actually makes rock formations.

When we were kids, our parents often took us on day trips to visit underground caves, like the one pictured above. (In England, in the summer, a cave is often the best option for a day’s activity!) We grew familiar with the idea that as water drips down through cracks in limestone rock it takes microscopic bits of the rock with it and deposits them on the floor below or, if it is particularly slow-moving, on the ceiling. Over the years, these deposits build up into whole new bits of rock.

I’ve got a postcard somewhere of one immense pile that looked (with the lights shining on it the right way, if you squinted and used just a pinch of imagination) like a man in a voluminous Victorian cloak, playing an organ. I can’t find any pictures of it on the internet, so I imagine the water has continued to drip and the formation now looks uncannily like a vast, rippled lump of rock.

Of course, wind blows sand and other light objects around, and shapes the landscape, but not like that.

I’ve thought before of God’s streams of water smoothing out my rough edges, and washing away all that is not of him, but it was only as I pondered the stalactites and stalagmites that I realised he also builds new things in me. As his Spirit flows through me, it leaves deposits of himself which build up into pillars of strength and spires of beauty.

How truly amazing water is. There always seems to be more to discover about it - and it definitely inspired me to worship that day.

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Original Sin: the Zwinglian Alternative

Newfrontiers Theology - Wed, 10/08/2016 - 08:00
 the Zwinglian Alternative primary image

Many of us confuse original sin with original guilt. I have. It had never occurred to me that the doctrine of original sin might mean anything other than the idea that I was morally guilty, culpable and blameworthy for what Adam did, with all the moral and apologetic difficulties that creates. Until, that is, I read Oliver Crisp's essay, simply entitled "Sin", in Michael Allen and Scott Swain's Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic. Crisp presents what he calls the "Zwinglian alternative."

Crisp summarises the historical consensus on original sin as follows:

1. There was an original pair from whom we are all descended.
2. This pair introduced the morally vitiated condition from which all subsequent humans suffer.
3. All humans after the fall of the original pair possess the condition of original sin and are in need of salvation, without which they will perish.

To these affirmations, Crisp argues, some theologians (especially Augustinian ones) want to add another:

4. All humans after the fall (barring Christ) bear the guilt of Adam’s sin, so that in addition to possessing the condition of original depravity they also bear original guilt.

This fourth notion, he argues, “is not a doctrine universally affirmed and has generated a number of significant problems, as we shall see.” These problems are chiefly the moral, legal and apologetic ones that we all know and love.

So what is the Zwinglian alternative? This:

Zwingli characterised original sin as analogous to an inherited disease or defect that inevitably gives rise to actual sin, for which humans are culpable. Possession of original sin was not itself culpable, Zwingli said, any more than being born a slave is a circumstance for which one is culpable ... Much as a human may be born with the property of being capable of conscious thought, so, on this way of thinking, fallen humans are bearers of a property that means they are morally disordered in some fundamental respect, such that they will inevitably sin on at least one occasion.

This view, Crisp argues, ameliorates the moral, legal and apologetic objections which are brought against the concept of original guilt (which, he argues compellingly, should be marked off as a different doctrine to that of original sin). For instance:

In answer to the immorality objection to the transmission of original sin, the Zwinglian can say that it is not immoral for God to allow Adam to freely choose to commit the primal sin. Nor is it immoral that the consequences of this act are transferred to all his progeny as a spiritual disease, moral defect, and inherited condition on analogy with the inheritance of serious medical conditions that are recessive in nature. This is just the natural outworking of Adam’s primal sin, just as, in a different context, the selling of oneself into slavery is the reason why one’s offspring and their offspring, and so on, are all born into slavery. In a sense, and metaphorically speaking, that is just what Adam has done: he has sold his offspring into a condition of bondage to sin.

In other words, Zwingli (and, following him, Crisp) is not denying the doctrine of original sin at all, but denying that it has to involve original, transmitted or imputed guilt. Food for thought.

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The Crusades Turned Upside-Down

Newfrontiers Theology - Mon, 08/08/2016 - 08:00
The Crusades Turned Upside-Down primary image

Rodney Stark is nothing if not provocative in his sociologically-driven, historical reconstruction of the story of Christianity. Here's a paragraph from his The Triumph of Christianity which upsets the apple-cart more than most:

Thus, it is the accepted myth that during the Crusades an expansionist, imperialistic Christendom brutalised, looted, and colonised a tolerant and peaceful Islam. These claims have been utterly refuted by a group of distinguished contemporary historians. They propose that the Crusades were precipitated by Islamic provocations, by many centuries of bloody attempts to colonise the West, and by sudden new attacks on Christian pilgrims and holy places. Although the Crusades were initiated by a plea from the pope, this had nothing to do with hopes of converting Islam. Nor were the Crusades organised and led by surplus sons, but by the heads of great families who were fully aware that the costs of crusading would far exceed the very modest material rewards that could be expected. Most went at immense personal cost, some of them knowingly bankrupting themselves to go. For example, Godfrey of Bouillon sold the entire province of Verdun and also heavily mortgaged his province of Bouillon to finance his participation. Moreover, the crusader kingdoms that the knights established in the Holy Land, and which stood for two centuries, were not sustained by local exactions, but required immense subsidies from Europe. In addition, it is utterly unreasonable to impose modern notions about proper military conduct on medieval warfare - both Christians and Muslims observed quite different rules of war. Even so, the crusaders were not nearly as brutal or bloodthirsty as they have been portrayed. Finally, claims that Muslims have been harbouring bitter resentments about the Crusades for a millennium are nonsense: Muslim antagonism about the Crusades did not appear until about 1900 in reaction against the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the onset of actual European colonialism in the Middle East.

Fiery stuff. For more details, check out Matt’s review.

Categories: Front Page

Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 32

Newfrontiers Theology - Sun, 07/08/2016 - 07:24
Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 32 primary image

[Last week it was a question nobody asks; this week, it's a question that everybody asks. If rescue in Christ is truly without merit, but by grace alone, then on what basis should we do good works? This was the Roman Catholic question in the Reformation, obviously, but it remains today in debates about antinomianism, the "free grace" or "hyper-grace" movements, and even some forms of the "Father's heart" teachings. Heidelberg gives four answers: (1) because Christ is restoring us not just redeeming us, so (2) because works show our gratitude and praise to God, (3) because good works assure us of our faith, and (4) because good works win our neighbours. Nice.

The second question, on whether people can be saved without repentance, is also well worth considering.]

Q86. Since we have been delivered
from our misery
by grace through Christ
without any merit of our own,
why then should we do good works?

A86. Because Christ, having redeemed us by his blood,
is also restoring us by his Spirit into his image,
so that with our whole lives
we may show that we are thankful to God
for his benefits,
so that he may be praised through us,
so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits,
and so that by our godly living
our neighbors may be won over to Christ.

Q87. Can those be saved
who do not turn to God
from their ungrateful
and unrepentant ways?

A87. By no means.
Scripture tells us that
no unchaste person,
no idolater, adulterer, thief,
no covetous person,
no drunkard, slanderer, robber,
or the like
will inherit the kingdom of God.

Categories: Front Page

Does God Love All People Equally?

Newfrontiers Theology - Fri, 05/08/2016 - 08:00
Does God Love All People Equally? primary image

Few books make you feel as much of an intellectual pygmy as Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica (which, if you haven't read it, I recommend getting in Peter Kreeft's nicely abridged version). Yet somehow, in feeling small, you thank him for it: his clarity of reasoning is both an example to all teachers and a bracing source of humility to those who, like me, like to think we are pretty clever. Here's a great example of him in action, from I.20.3:

Article 3. Whether God loves all things equally?

On the contrary, Augustine says: “God loves [1] all things that He has made, and amongst them [2] rational creatures more, and of these [3] especially those who are members of His only-begotten Son; and much more than all, [4] His only-begotten Son Himself.”

I answer that, Since to love a thing is to will it good, in a twofold way anything may be loved more, or less.

In one way on the part of the act of the will itself, which is more or less intense. In this way God does not love some things more than others, because He loves all things by an act of the will that is one, simple, and always the same.

In another way on the part of the good itself that a person wills for the beloved. In this way we are said to love that one more than another, for whom we will a greater good, though our will is not more intense.

In this way we must needs say that God loves some things more than others. For since God’s love is the cause of goodness in things, as has been said, no one thing would be better than another, if God did not will greater good for one than for another.

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Week 31 miscellany: what's happening in the world

Luke's blog - Thu, 04/08/2016 - 21:12
This is the view from The Knock in Crieff
If you're still wondering how the Brexit vote happened, you're probably just as perplexed by anyone finding Donald Trump appealing. J.D. Vance can give you some serious answers.

The story of the church in China is one of the greatest of modern history: you can find out more about it and what life is like for believers there today from Yu Jie.

On a very different note but continuing the international theme (just about), Present &; Correct have found some wonderful-looking pocket calendars from Hungary.

Also colourful but generally more prosaic, Jonn Elledge shows how the growth rates of the UK's cities isn't what you'd expect it to be.

I'm part of a worldwide family of churches called Newfrontiers. In this interview, its founder Terry Virgo explains how things have changed and grown over the past five years:

God in Three People?

Newfrontiers Theology - Wed, 03/08/2016 - 08:00
God in Three People? primary image

I've often joked that there are only three contexts in which the plural of person is persons. The first is the Trinity: "God in three persons." The second is a lawcourt: "wilful murder, by some person or persons unknown." And the third, for reasons passing understanding, is a lift: "maximum load must not exceed eight persons." Everywhere else in the English-speaking world, the plural is people. What is that about?

I’m assuming that the lawcourt thing is simply arcane language, and the lift thing, though harder to fathom because lifts are relatively recent inventions, is an attempt to sound official by invoking bureaucratic legalese. (There may be a far more prosaic explanation, and if anyone knows it, I’m all ears). But I realised recently, while reading Michael Allen and Scott Swain’s Christian Dogmatics, that the use of “persons” rather than “people” when it comes to the Trinity is actually very important, has nothing to do with invoking bureaucratic legalese, and carries a lot of theological freight. Even if it sounds linguistically awkward.

One of the perennial problems of teaching the Trinity is that the English word person doesn’t mean quite what the Latin word persona means, which in turn does not mean quite what the Greek word hypostasis means. So most English people, if they were to hear that there was “one God in three people,” would assume that meant there were three distinct centres of consciousness, three distinct wills, three distinct minds, and so on. This, of course, is heresy - and the fact that it is, as an aside, has been a significant factor in the recent Trinitarian debates - but it is easy to see how it would emerge, quite naturally, from using the word “people.” Heresies have emerged from much less.

Using the word “persons” does not, of itself, protect us from that mistake. But it does two things which really help. The first is that, by sounding official and arcane and even odd, it creates the impression that we are talking about something that needs to be thought through and articulated carefully; I don’t want to overread an English word, but it seems to me to carry with it a sense of mystery when you use a word you would never normally use, and it invites us to consider it in more depth. And the second is that it ties the word to the Latin persona, with its slightly different resonances (person, mask, character, and so on), and eventually back to the Greek hypostasis, of which persona was an early translation. Combined, these help preserve us from the idea that God is somehow comprised of three individual centres of thought, and help us recognise the unity of the three, and the threeness of the one.

That said, those lift manufacturers should really stop being so pretentious.

Categories: Front Page

Vanhoozer on the Triune Scriptures

Newfrontiers Theology - Mon, 01/08/2016 - 08:00
Vanhoozer on the Triune Scriptures primary image

I've just got hold of Michael Allen and Scott Swain's edited collection, Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic. The chapter on Holy Scripture is from Kevin Vanhoozer, which makes it doubly worth reading, and he draws out two points in particular which I had not previously grasped. The first is that the divine authorship of the Old Testament is affirmed in the Nicene Creed: "I believe in the Holy Spirit ... who spoke by the prophets." (That might sound trivial, but if you scan the Internet for the ways in which people claiming orthodoxy deny the divine authorship of Genesis or Joshua or whatever, you'll see that it isn't.) And the second is that the Scriptures, as the speech of the Trinitarian God, are themselves triune. Here's his summary of the chapter:

Scripture is holy because God, its ultimate author, commissions just these texts to play a vital and authoritative role in the triune economy of covenantal communication whereby the Lord dispenses his light (i.e. revelation, knowledge, truth) and life (i.e. redemption, fellowship, salvation). The Father initiates, the Son effectuates, and the Spirit consummates the discourse that Holy Scripture preserves in writing. Scripture is a means of God’s self-presentation, a collection of diverse forms of discourse that, taken together, are ingredient in the extraordinary ministry of God’s Word by which the risen Christ announces the gospel, administers his new creational kingdom, and imparts his light and life to readers made right-minded and right-hearted - fit for communion with God - through the illumination of the Holy Spirit.

Vanhoozer then quotes Packer’s rather crisper summary: Scripture is “God the Father preaching God the Son in the power of God the Holy Ghost.” Dogmatics, he adds, “is the attempt to give an orderly account of the biblical logic of God’s ‘gospel preaching’.” Nice.

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Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 31

Newfrontiers Theology - Sun, 31/07/2016 - 08:00
Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 31 primary image

[What are the keys of the kingdom? And how do they work? In ten years of training pastors in theology and leadership, I have never once been asked this question—but to my mind, that is a reason to post on it, rather than a reason not to post on it. In any case, Heidelberg makes the decision for me by making it the subject of an entire Lord's Day's worth of Q&A, and the answer it gives is both clarifying and full of pastoral love. Which is just as answers on this subject should be.]

Q83. What are the keys of the kingdom?

A83. The preaching of the holy gospel
and Christian discipline toward repentance.
Both of them
open the kingdom of heaven to believers
and close it to unbelievers.

Q84. How does preaching the holy gospel
open and close the kingdom of heaven?

A84. According to the command of Christ:
The kingdom of heaven is opened
by proclaiming and publicly declaring
to all believers, each and every one, that,
as often as they accept the gospel promise in true faith,
God, because of Christ’s merit,
truly forgives all their sins.
The kingdom of heaven is closed, however,
by proclaiming and publicly declaring
to unbelievers and hypocrites that,
as long as they do not repent,
the wrath of God and eternal condemnation
rest on them.
God’s judgment, both in this life and in the life to come,
is based on this gospel testimony.

Q85. How is the kingdom of heaven
closed and opened by Christian discipline?

A85. According to the command of Christ:
Those who, though called Christians,
profess unchristian teachings or live unchristian lives,
and who after repeated personal and loving admonitions,
refuse to abandon their errors and evil ways,
and who after being reported to the church, that is,
to those ordained by the church for that purpose,
fail to respond also to the church’s admonitions—
such persons the church excludes
from the Christian community
by withholding the sacraments from them,
and God also excludes them from the kingdom of Christ.
Such persons,
when promising and demonstrating genuine reform,
are received again
as members of Christ
and of his church.

Categories: Front Page

Augustine and Australia

Newfrontiers Theology - Fri, 29/07/2016 - 08:00
Augustine and Australia primary image

I've made the point before that if our reading of Genesis is challenged by evolution, or dinosaurs, it should also be challenged by Australia. What I only discovered this last week, while reading Augustine's City of God, is that this is far from a hypothetical scenario, let alone a joke. For all the brilliance, scope, readability and genius of the book as a whole, here's what he writes in Book XVI, Chapter 9:

But as to the fable that there are Antipodes, that is to say, men on the opposite side of the earth, where the sun rises when it sets to us, men who walk with their feet opposite ours, that is on no ground credible. And, indeed, it is not affirmed that this has been learned by historical knowledge, but by scientific conjecture, on the ground that the earth is suspended within the concavity of the sky, and that it has as much room on the one side of it as on the other: hence they say that the part which is beneath must also be inhabited. But they do not remark that, although it be supposed or scientifically demonstrated that the world is of a round and spherical form, yet it does not follow that the other side of the earth is bare of water; nor even, though it be bare, does it immediately follow that it is peopled. For Scripture, which proves the truth of its historical statements by the accomplishment of its prophecies, gives no false information; and it is too absurd to say, that some men might have taken ship and traversed the whole wide ocean, and crossed from this side of the world to the other, and that thus even the inhabitants of that distant region are descended from that one first man. Wherefore let us seek if we can find the city of God that sojourns on earth among those human races who are catalogued as having been divided into seventy-two nations and as many languages.

Which is interesting, to say the least. It reminds me of what he writes elsewhere in his The Literal Meaning of Genesis:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world ... Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn ... If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?


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