Monday, 30 November 2009

Anyone for a bit of Swastika?

In our part of Africa, the unusual is routine! Sometimes I think, "hmmm, let me take a photo of that, as my friends/family will never believe me if I don't." But then I think, "Not now... there'll be another one along tomorrow." Well, I got round to snapping one today, from the shelves of the supermarket... 

Anyone for a bit of Swastika-brand Sat-Isagbol? I'd be surprised if they sell this in the West. Let me know if you see it in Tesco. It's a fiber dietary supplement; yours for just 185 shillings.

(The Swastika was a symbol used in the East for many years before the Nazis commandeered it - it can be seen round here on lorries belonging to Indian-owned transport companies too).

Is penal substitution Biblical, continued

Nick replied to my post "Is penal substitution Biblical?", as follows. As that post has been buried under a few others, I'm posting it as a new item and am interacting with it here.


I was away from the computer during Thanksgiving, but I am thankful that you made a new post on this addressing the issue.

Here are my thoughts:

1) Dying for sin does not entail a penal substitutionary framework. In otherwords, you're quoting 1 Cor 15:3 and such, but you're inserting the notion of 'punished' into it, as if a judge sentenced someone to receive the electric chair but was legally transferred so that Jesus received it in their place. I don't believe Scripture is describing that concept.

I did not simply arbitrarily "insert", but explained why "for sin" in 1 Corinthians 15v3 should be interpreted as penal substitution - you've ignored the explanation. We won't go far if you do that. Let me state again. In 1 Cor 15:3 in the phrase "for sin", "for" can only mean "on account of", "because of". And in Pauline and Scriptural theology, the reason why people die on account of sin is because death is the penalty for sin. This context is fixed from the beginning; Genesis 2:17 - "But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it: for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die." Romans 6:23 - "for the wages of sin is death". "The soul that sins, it shall die", Ezekiel 18:20. Please interact with this argument and don't simply say I'm "inserting" things without reason!
2) Regarding 1 Jn 3:16, you said I was making a grammatical error. I would hope "lay down life for" means the same thing when used twice in the same verse. My point was that "on account of" does not necessitate a legal transfer of punishment, because using the parallelism indicates believers will undergo that as well. So, simply turning to a passage indicating Christ died "for" sins, that is not evidence for Psub in particular but only atonement in general.
You've side-stepped my argument here too. The grammatical error I said you made is including that "for" in one verse necessarily must mean the same as in another (such as 1 Cor 15v3). I actually agreed with you that for (Greek "huper") in 1 John 3:16 cannot carry the sense "in the place of"; what I denied was your deduction that therefore it cannot carry that meaning in a different verse. If your theory here that a preposition can only carry only meaning in every usage is correct then every lexicon of the Greek language is wrong.
You said: "the only way that someone dies on account of sin is because death is a punishment"
I'm not sure how what you mean here. Christians still die physically, so Christ didn't take this punishment.
Though Christians still die physically, they no longer die penally. Death is no longer the gateway to eternal misery, but ultimately to glory because of resurrection. Thus in the essential substance of it, Christ has indeed taken this punishment for us. 1 Corinthians 15:26 states that physical death is an enemy which is destroyed through Christ's death and resurrection. Christ has removed the sting from death for us because having paid the price for sins, death is no longer penal.
 Also, your quote from 1 Cor 15:17-18 is about Christ being resurrected, not His death.
You have made an arbitrary separation here. Christ's death and resurrection in Scripture are different nodes of a single event, e.g. Romans 4:25 (and these verses in 1 Corinthians). In those Corinthian verses Paul says that if Christ was not raised then we are still in our sins; this is just after saying that Christ died for our sins. Obviously the death-resurrection is a single sequence because according to Paul in these words it had one great end in view - dealing with our sins.

3) Regarding the scapegoat: I still don't see how keeping the penal substitute alive helps prove Psub.
Well, surely the fault is in your vision if you cannot see! The Bible is full of warnings that we cannot see, not because the glorious light is not shining, but because we are blind to it, e.g. John 9:39-41. It's dead (!) simple: penal substitution takes place when there is a punishment (penalty), endured by a substitute. The scapegoat fulfils these conditions, and is therefore an example of penal substitution.
4) Regarding the punishment of hell: What is the "equivalent" of suffering in Hell?
What a daft question. The acceptable substitute for all of God's people suffering in hell is obviously the death of Christ at Calvary. That's the whole thing we're discussing. The only way to deny this is to a) assert that you, the guilty sinner, are a more competent judge of the fit punishment for sin than God, the righteous judge, is and/or b) to deny the value of the person of Christ as the Son of God and to put a lesser value on his death than God does.
5) I should have been more clear on my comment regarding transfer of punishment in the Mosaic Law. When it comes to 'confessing sins over' with the hands, the scapegoat is the only time such instructions are given.
In a debate, you only need to concede a principle once to allow its validity. Once it is established once that the OT contains an example of penal substitution, then that is all I need to do. If the scapegoat is a shadow to teach us about Christ's death (which it is, Hebrews 13:12-13), and if the symbolism of the scapegoat exemplifies penal substitution, which you've conceded, then that's what was being argued for.
6) You said: "Nobody claimed that every sacrifice in the Bible was penal and substitutionary."
True, but then two issues arise: (1) the example I gave was of the sin offering, and if Psub isn't taking place then, then I don't know what other offering you can look to; (2) other sacrifices, not relating to atonement, entailed the death of an animal, which means a death need not correspond to Psub.
Your logic here in (1) is wonky. You're arguing that:
1) The sin offering could be substituted with grain for the very poor
2) Therefore, the sin offering was not substitutionary as grain cannot endure punishment
3) Therefore, the sin offering was never substitutionary
The fallacy is of failing to consider alternative explanations. The sin offering could exemplify penal substitution in its normal and usual mode, but God could make a provision for the poor Israelite so that they could make an offering. The substitution of the grain here would then simply be a social provision for the circumstance, and not intended to alter the essential meaning of the normal offering. You cannot prove that this is not the case (and I assert it is the case), and thus it cannot be a grounds for an absolute assertion as you've made.

In relationship to (2), you need to substantiate this point. Are you talking about a bloody sacrificial death, offered by a priest on an altar, or some other animal death? Are you making a comparison that is truly valid? I can't know this until you give examples of what you mean.
7) You said: "All such examples are in principal moot. Read Romans 3:25-26"

Rom 3 has not been established as a Psub proof, so I don't think they are moot. Rom 3 mentions 'atonement', the very term I'm demonstrating doesn't require Psub. Further, Rom 3:24 mentions "redemption," which is likewise not a psub term but instead indicates a buying back at a price (Ex 21:28-30 is a good example).
You've missed the argument I was making in citing this Scripture, which is as follows:
  • Christ's death, in Romans 3:25, is said to be an act in which the subject performing the action is God. "Whom God has set forth".
  • Furthermore, the verse tells us the reason why God set him forth as an atonement: it was "to declare his justice for the remission of sins that are past."
  • In other words, the death of Christ was an act in which justice is satisfied on account of sin. Which is as much to say that Christ's death was penal, unless you want to deny that justice in regard of wrong-doing means punishment!
  • Whose sins? Not Christ's, of course. According to the verse, "sins that are past" - in other words, the sins committed by people before the coming of Christ. Which is to say, that his death was substitutionary.
Romans 3:25 says that God satisfied his own justice in respect of certain people's sins, through the death of Christ. Cunning parsing of certain words, such as "atonement" or "redemption" can't get you off this hook - the whole context makes the meaning abundantly clear.
Next, you went on to address my atonement passages, here are my comments:

-"Phinehas slays the sinner."
The sinner wasn't the only guilty party, the Israelites as a whole were engaging in sin and under a plague. Killing the guilty individual is not making atonement. Verse 25:11,13 is clear God's wrath against the whole Israelite camp was propitiated.
I have no problem in accommodating this observation. As explained above, the true and ultimate atonement for sin was at the cross of Christ - Romans 3:25 - when Christ made the true atonement for past sins. All previous atonements were symbolic, shadows and anticipations. Here you're finding fault because you're demanding that every anticipation should be whole and entire - it must shadow every single aspect, perfectly. This is an arbitrary and unreasonable demand. But in any case, you've still missed the point - which was simply that you can't use these verses to establish that death is not a penalty for sin, when in actual fact a sinner died.
-"Exodus 32, the Levites go out to slay the evildoers."
You're not addressing Deut 9:16-21, esp 9:18-19, and Ps 106:23 where God spared them on Moses' intercession. The fact some of the guilty were killed off does not address the fact the nation as a whole was guilty for engaging in sin and had to be atoned for as per Ex 32:30.
Again you've missed the impact of Romans 3:25-26. Why could Moses' intercession be accepted? Why could anyone be accepted under the Old Covenant? Because of the great act of justice at the cross that would actually pay the price. And again I'd assert that you can't use verses to prove that death is not the legal penalty for sin, when in the same incident a sinner endures a penal death.
-"Num 16, lots of people die in a plague - and it is stopped using implements from the tabernacle"
That some of the guilty died is irrelevant to the fact more would have died had not atonement been made. The atonement required no Psub.
Same here.
-"Surely you're not seriously suggesting that Proverbs 16:6 and 14 are intended by the author as statements about the wiping away of a man's sin before God?"
The main purpose was to show "atonement' need not require Psub, and those verses say that.
You're loading an unbearable burden onto these verses. They were never intended to teach a complete theory of atonement, and to make them carry that weight is something someone would only do if they were fishing around for a hook to hang their pet theory on, instead of believing the Bible's own explanations of what Christ's death achieved in the key and primary passages. Using this method we could prove anything. If "The wrath of a king is as messengers of death: but a wise man will pacify it" in verse 14 was intended by the Holy Spirit to teach that God's justice does not require that the wages of sin be death and that Christ's death was not a penal substitution, then "In the light of the king' countenance is life" in verse 15 could equally mean that looking at the face of an earthly king will deliver you eternal life. This is arbitrary exegesis, reading in your own ideas.
The Biblical idea that atonement can be made without Psub has not been overturned by what you've said. Just so people don't misunderstand me: I believe Christ made atonement for our sins, but I don't believe the form of atonement was PSub.
It would be difficult for me to even begin to overturn a Biblical idea which is not in the Bible, so I won't be too sad about my alleged failure! To say that Christ can make atonement for sins without paying the penalty for them is a nonsense statement; it's like saying that you believe that Christmas Day comes in the last month of the year, but not in December. The very core of the Biblical teaching on atonement is that "without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sins" (Hebrews 9:22) - where there is no just penalty exacted, there is no atonement.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

There was a man

There was a man who ...
  • Was glad to hear the word of God
  • Did many things in response to it
  • Had a conscience which was spoke to him clearly
  • Resisted sin and protected God's servants from evil
... and who was on the road to damnation. That man's name was Herod Antipas, the murderer of John the Baptist. His story is in Mark 6:14-29. We can do all the above, but it can fall far short of the repentance that God actually requires of us. Herod would not actually repent of the particular sin that was his and that John preached to him about. Because of this, everything else in him was useless. Spiritual interest is not spiritual life, and religion is not salvation.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Should Christians Embrace Evolution?

The new book has a very nice and comprehensive website. The publisher is obviously taking it very seriously, which I think is absolutely right. I had no idea there was a website until someone on a mailing list told me today. No need for me to say any more - it's all here:

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Is Penal Substitution Biblical?

The other thread, "Is Penal Substitution immoral?" spawned a different question in the discussion - is penal substitution Biblical? I've moved it up here to give it more visibility as it's another vital question to discuss.

My discussion partner identifies himself by nothing more than Nick. Let's hear him...

Let me highlight some specific points then, and I will be arguing along the lines of Scripture and leave the philosophical issues of morality aside for now:

1) You began by saying the phrase "Christ died for our sins" signifies Penal Substitution

Yes. I was referring to 1 Corinthians 15:3. Penal substitution contains two ideas:

1) Someone is punished for some wrongdoing, i.e. endures a penalty (it's penal!)

2) That punishment is endured on behalf of another (it's substitutionary).

When Paul says "Christ died for our sins", it fulfills both criteria:

1) His death was specifically for sins - i.e. it was penal

2) His death was not for his own sins, but for ours - i.e. it was substitutionary

So there it is. But if I was making a full case, I'd go to many other even more direct Scriptures such as 1 Peter 3:18, "For Christ also has once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust" or 2 Peter 2:24, "Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes you were healed" or Galatians 3:13, "Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us". If those verses don't contain the very definition of a penal substitution, then I think words have no definite meaning.

, but note what 1 John 3:16 says:

"Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers."
Notice the parallelism here, if "lay down life for" means a PSub framework, the second half wouldn't make sense; it would be calling Christians to be Penal Substitutes for other Christians.Thus, saying "Christ died for our sins" and other such phraseology does not indicate Psub but instead put the burden on oneself to correct a problem, in a similar sense the way a father takes the burden of providing for his family on his shoulders (1 Tim 5:8).

This is multiple misunderstanding.

1) It is a grammatical error - you imply that "for" (Greek, huper) must carry a single meaning in all contexts. (Which you say, because it can't be "on account of" in 1 John 3:16, must therefore be "in order to help correct the problem of" because that meaning fits there). This is a lexical novelty and you won't find it taught in any Greek language resource.
"For" does not carry a unique meaning in English either. Prepositions simply don't work like this in any language I know. "I played for England", "I died for lack of water" and "I took a bullet for Fred" are three different meanings. To insist that "for" must mean the same in each sentence is gratuitous.

2) Secondly, I never intended to imply that penal substitution was implied simply by the word "for". As explained above, its the context that fixes the meaning. The word "for" in this context carries the meaning of "because of, on account of". But in the context of Scriptural theology, the only way that someone dies on account of sin is because death is a punishment for sin - the wages of sin is death. Hence later in the same chapter of 1 Corinthians 15 (verse 17) Paul states that if Christ did not do this, then you are still in your sins and (verse 18) will perish. Why do people perish because of sins? Only one reason: they are being punished for them. Moreover, the alternatives are absurd. Yours doesn't work - you make "for our sins" to mean "for us, to help us with our sins", changing the object of "for" from an impersonal entity (sins) into a person (us, who need help). This is rewriting the verse instead of learning from it.

2) You mentioned the scapegoat was an example of Penal Substitution, but the fact is the scapegoat was never killed, in fact it was set free (i.e. kept alive)!

You're confused here. If I'd said "the scapegoat is an example of a penal substitutionary death" then you'd have a point. But "penal substitution" simply means 1) penalty 2) substitution. The scapegoat was an example of these things, even though it did not die. Your thought here would ultimately rule out all teaching in advance by God to symbolically represent Christ's penal substitution, because the only thing that would exactly match all the details is the event itself!

3) You stated that hell was the primary punishment for sin, but using Penal Substitution means Jesus had to undergo hellfire in your place. The Bible simply nowhere teaches this, nor does it fit Trinitarian orthodoxy.

This is an arbitrary and unjustified assertion. Penal substitution does not mean that the suffered must experience precisely the same experience; it simply means that they must suffer a penalty of equivalent value. When the Kenyan government found my burglar guilty, they didn't sentence him to having the precise same items stolen from his own house - that would be impossible. Instead, they sentenced him to what they considered an equivalent punishment (ended up being 8 weeks in jail, since you ask).

4) Nowhere in the Bible is there a model for transferring punishment either in the Mosaic Law or in other cases of the atonement.

Well, we've been discussing one - the scapegoat. If there was no (symbolic, typical) transfer of guilt onto the scapegoat, then these verses have no meaning:

Leviticus 16:21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: 22 And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.

Hands are laid on the goat, symbolising transfer of sin. He is then said to go away outside the camp (into the wilderness), bearing the iniquities. If that's not transfer, then there must be no such thing as  transfer.

Consider the sin offering in Leviticus, note especially 5:11 where an animal could not be provided for the sin offering so a sack of flour was used instead. That is impossible if Psub were the framework, for you cannot kill a bag of flour. Further, the sin offerings were made for sins which did not require the death penalty, thus a 'life for life' model would not make sense.

Here you're attacking a strawman. Nobody claimed that every sacrifice in the Bible was penal and substitutionary.

As for turning away God's wrath and making atonement, the Bible gives many solid examples of where a hero turns away God's wrath and makes atonement without recourse to Psub (i.e. the hero getting punished in their place), consider:
-Num 25:1-13 (Ps 106:30-31);
-Deut9:16-21 (Ex 32:30,Psalm 106:19-23);
-Numbers 16:42-49
-Proverbs 16:6 says: “Through love and faithfulness sin is atoned for,” and 16:14 says, “A king's wrath is a messenger of death, but a wise man will appease it.”

All such examples are in principal moot. Read Romans 3:25-26, which explains that all the forgiveness given under the Old Testament era was predicated upon the future death of Christ, by which God could then be just. Without a death, it seemed (according to Romans 3:25-26) that God had passed over sin and left it unpunished.

But in any case, none of these sections establish your point. In Numbers 25 Phinehas slays the sinner. Likewise in Exodus 32 at the golden calf, the Levites go out to slay the evildoers. In Numbers 16, lots of people die in a plague - and it is stopped using implements from the tabernacle which are typical of the work of Christ; thus none of these prove that no penalty need be inflicted. Surely you're not seriously suggesting that Proverbs 16:6 and 14 are intended by the author as statements about the wiping away of a man's sin before God? That's torturing verses, not reading them.

What I've learnt from this Nick is that you don't like the idea of penal substitution. Of course you don't; nobody does. It implies that we're so sinful in God's sight that we can't save ourselves - the only remedy is as drastic as the Messiah suffering in our place. That's the humiliating truth of the gospel, and why you need to be born again - to accept God's verdict against you, and then to receive penal substitution not as a humiliation to be fought against, but as a saving truth in which we receive the love of God for all eternity.

A rationalist replies

Over at Simon Hutton's blog, an atheist replied to yesterday's post on penal substitution. Here's his reply:
Simon I’ve read his piece and am even less impressed by his logic than some of your musings. Again he fails to acknowledge facts outside of theology. He seems to think because his sacred book can be interpreted by him in a certain way, then it must be true. For example, he seems to be woefully ignorant of the historical premise of scapegoating. Look up Pharmakos (Meaning magic man) such an individual would be a scapegoat, who symbolically took on the sins of a people and was expelled from a city or put to death. Osiris/Dionysis was a sacred Pharmakos, who supposedly like Jesus, died to atone for the worlds sins. The fate of the Pharmakos, was to be insulted, beaten and put to death. These rituals predate christianity and are predated by sheep, goats and lambs suffering the same fate for the sins of a tribe. Now I could just as easily ask you to enter into the framework of these more ancient religions in order to figure out wether Osiris or Dionysis or Attis are in fact moral when being sacrificed for the sins of others? And if there’s an internal logic, would that mean Attis is god? He preceded jesus performing similar feats, healing, turning water into wine, raising on the third day after being executed for the sins of the world, being called the lamb of god. The most salient question posed by a historical evaluation of Jesus’ supposed sacrifice is, why is he plagerising (I’ve used the word correctly) moral frameworks and feats from other religions? Surely he’s god, couldn’t he think of a more original way of forgiving sin?
The gist of Mahmut's reply is that ancient Greek scape-goating concepts pre-date the New Testament, and therefore it is reasonable (or perhaps necessary) to believe that the New Testament authors lifted ("were plagerising [sic]") the concept from ancient Greek religion.

 Apart from committing the chronological fallacy ("X comes earlier, therefore X is the source"), this argument is totally insane. It can be demolished with 3 simple and uncontroversial facts which seem to have bypassed Mahmut:
  • The concept of the transfer of guilt (a scape-goat, if you like), is taught repeatedly in the Hebrew Scriptures, in particular the laws of Moses (the Pentateuch) which I referred to.

  • The New Testament writers everywhere self-consciously and repeatedly claim that when writing about Jesus they are writing the fulfilment of the story of the Hebrew Scriptures. They nowhere point to ancient Greece as an inspiration for their ideas.

  • The Pentateuch pre-dates the existence not just of ancient Greek mythology but ancient Greece itself by several centuries.
In other words, the New Testament says "here's where we got our ideas from", the ideas can indeed be found in the place they claim to have got them from, and those ideas come way, way, way before there even was an ancient Greece. Game, set and match.

It might be reasonable from here to start investigating whether any elements of the ancient Greek concepts of substitution were derived from the Hebrews; but to flatly assert the opposite is totally bonkers - you're out by several centuries. I blogged on this issue in regard to Philip Pullman arguing similarly here. Is Mahmut simply uncritically parroting something he heard from a fellow atheist? Certainly nobody with even a thumbnail idea of what century any given culture existed in could make such a gargantuan blunder - which makes Mahmut's confident declaration that I must be ignorant of anything outside of the field of theology all the more silly. I challenge Mahmut to study the Old Testament Scriptures and acknowledge that they teach the same concept of penal substitution that the New Testament writers took up, and then to abandon his absurd theory.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Eldoret on the BBC

Eldoret featured on the BBC today. There was a radio clip someone e-mailed me - I don't know where to find it. The website has a story with some overlap here.

Very interesting. Street children are part of life in the town - interesting to hear an outsider's perspective having moved ourselves from being outsiders to insiders. He accurately describes some problems and others (in my perception) reflect his own provenance from a materialistic Mammon-worshipping society. I certainly don't share his liberal sympathy for the seller of the illegal brew ("one way of raising a few coins to buy food") - these people are dealers in human misery. The coins raised by selling it are the coins that an addicted husband stole from his own wife and family for their food. The sellers make the choice to support themselves at the cost of the misery of others. Eldoret has 250,000 people, and only a few of them are sellers of illegal brew, so I don't buy the reporter's suggestion that it's a necessity.

In our church we had a member who lived in the Kipkaren estate where the interviewed seller lives. He would not shake the habit of drinking illegal brew with the money that his own family needed for food, and after much loving admonition and practical assistance from the church, was eventually excommunicated. Perhaps he bought some from the guy interviewed! On the other hand, we have people in the church who are equally poor as the illegal brew seller, but who choose to love Jesus, trust God and make hard decisions of honesty and soberness, declining immediate gain or cheap pleasure. And these people have joy in the Lord. What the BBC will never tell you is where the real answer to these kinds of problem lie...

Is penal substitution immoral?

This is inspired by something I read on Simon Hutton's blog.

Is penal substitution immoral? This is a stock charge made by liberal theologians and by atheists against the Christian gospel ("Christ died for our sins"). Here's atheist Christopher Hitchens explaining the objection (sorry for the lack of a reference - copied this from Simon's blog):
“Is it moral to believe that your sins – yours and mine, ladies and gentlemen – can be forgiven by the punishment of another person? Is it ethical to believe that? I would submit that the doctrine of vicarious redemption by human sacrifice is utterly immoral. I might if I wished … say, “look, you’re in debt, I’ve just made a lot of money out of a God-bashing book, I’ll pay your debts for you” … I could say, if I really loved someone who’d been sentenced to prison, “if I could find a way of serving your sentence, I’d do it” … I could do what Sydney Carton does in A Tale of Two Cities … “I’ll take your place on the scaffold,” but I can’t take away your responsibilities, I can’t forgive what you did, I can’t say you didn’t do it, I can’t make you washed clean. The name for that in primitive Middle Eastern society was scapegoating. You pile the sins of the tribe on a goat and you drive that goat into the desert to die of thirst and hunger; and you think you’ve taken away the sins of the tribe: a positively immoral doctrine that abolishes the concept of personal responsibility upon which all ethics and all morality must depend.”
Now, if I was responding directly to Hitchens my first move would be to take him to task for making dogmatic pronouncements about what ethics and morality "must" depend on. Such assertions make sense in a Christian context where there is an all-supreme God who lays down the law for his creatures. But for an atheist to just bandy those ideas around as if they came down from heaven and whose obviousness was written upon our very human nature is for the atheist to jump up and down crying out "There is a God! There is a God!". Hitchens also abombinably misrepresents the scapegoat of Leviticus 16 - which the Bible everywhere teaches was symbolic; the idea that it was believed that the goat itself took away people's sins is a pure invention out of Hitchen's brain with no support from the book itself. But I digress. Let's take the point about penal substitution. Is its very nature immoral? Here's my two-part answer.
  1. Let's grant that it's immoral. Then we're all damned. If I must bear the responsibility for all my sins because of this alleged immutable principle, then I must bear the responsibility for all my sins. According to the the law-giver (God), the wages of sin is death - eternal death, the unending punishment of hell. It's pointless for Hitchens to start arguing about whether God's standards of justice are wrong and that eternal hell isn't deserved. Everybody knows that condemned criminals who are found guilty of the most appalling crimes (in this case, rebellion against our God and Creator), make the very worst judges of what their crimes deserve. They're incompetent, because they're totally biased.

    So if nobody can pay the penalty except the sinner, then that's very bad news indeed. God, though, spent many centuries teaching mankind that substitution was possible, using such means as for example the symbolism of the scape-goat. Hence nobody should make this mistake!

  2. Hitchens does not understand the cross of Jesus because he misses out a vital part of the Bible's teaching. He argues using three analogies, but fails to understand why they fail in this case. Jesus was not punished for the sins of his people despite a lack of any real connection between Jesus and his people. On the contrary, he had a unique relationship to us, which does not exist in other cases. The missing element is the doctrine of the "covenant", and the ensuing idea of a "federal headship". Here, "federal" means "representative". Christ was, by a covenant, appointed to be the head of his people. He agreed to take upon himself their responsibilities and to perform what was required of them.

    Now, this idea of federal representation, far from being the end of all morality, is the very basis for a great deal of the transactions in the world. The government (in the US, the "federal government") acts on the behalf of its people. For them, it negotiates treaties, passes laws and goes to war. One soldier shoots another soldier, but isn't arrested for murder as Hitchen's ideas require - because both were acting on behalf of a people. Hitchens is actually propounding a hyper-individualism. His assertion is only logically consistent with total anarchy, in which every individual acts only for themselves, and nobody can ever act on your behalf. No employee can act for his boss; no father can take a decision on behalf of his infant child and no government can act for its people. If they did, according to Hitchens, it would end all morality. Hitchens is a modern Westerner, and promotes the individual above all other federations to such a level as to completely destroy them - but it's a bit rich for him to do this in the same breath as committing the chronological fallacy and sneering at the foolish beliefs of those in the ancient east.

    Jesus took the punishment for his people justly, because he was joined with them in a divine covenant. This is the same reason why Adam's sins can be imputed to us - he was appointed the federal head of humanity, given authority to act on their behalf. Will Hitchens dare to tell God that he is not allowed to make such appointments? That he must run every covenant or other arrangement he wishes to make past Hitchens first, to get his approval? He's forbidden to appoint anyone to a representative role without the atheist's agreement first? Hitchens seems not to understand who is the potter, and who is the clay in this setup.

    At this point Hitchens might argue that personal responsibility cannot be taken by a substitute without an individual's prior and personal consent. Again, this would make him a radical individual anarchist. Will the government of Kenya or the UK agree to exempt me from its laws and taxes if I simply declare that I no longer consent to them being my government? I withdraw permission, therefore I am now a law unto myself? If an infant Hitchens suddenly announces to his daddy that said daddy no longer has permission to represent or act for him in anything, will Hitchens senior immediately agree?

    But again, let's grant him this point. If Hitchens decides to use this granted authority to positively forbid Christ to have anything to do with him in representing him, or atoning for his sins, or pleading before God on his behalf, then so be it. What is the outcome? Hardly joyful, is it? Insisting on the rights of one's own individuality to claim one's very own share in damnation isn't really a great use of that right, don't you think? OK, let him - if Hitchens wishes to have no part in Christ's saving work, then God shall accept his choice; but that really won't turn out well for him. We can, though, admire the righteousness of God's justice: he gives the Christ-rejecter nothing more than they themselves demand.
It would be immoral for my crimes against the government to be heaped upon another innocent victim who had no interest or part in my case. That's why Sydney Carton could not go to the gallows for another. But in another case, if a contract has been taken out such that someone had agreed that whatever debts I ran up in the course of my trading, he agreed to take them all, then it would be perfectly moral. Such contracts are routine. What Hitchens has to do to establish his case is to prove that the transaction recorded in Scripture in which Christ became the covenant head of his people definitely belongs to the former category and not to the latter. He hasn't done this - he hasn't even seemed to appreciate the need for it. He can't, because in fact God is at liberty to constitute whatever relationships between his own creatures that he pleases to constitute, consistent with his own holiness and justice. He simply assumes that we must and can all be related only on a hyper-individualistic basis and leaves out the authority of God. Of course he does - he's an atheist. But that's ultimately nothing more than arguing in a circle.

Christ can die in our place, and that is the good news of the Christian gospel. Jesus can die in our place because God appointed him to it. Where is Hitchen's good news? The doctrine that our sins are our own and we must be punished for them is horrible. To proclaim it as gladly as he does is a kind of madness which only sinners in determined rebellion against their Creator are capable of.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

More missionary musings

2 years is almost nothing in a foreign culture - we're still scratching the surface of understanding people and beginning to fathom their mysterious way of life. 2 years is hardly enough to understand a different part of the UK, let alone a different continent. It ought to have been enough to learn far more Swahili than I have, but that's another story!

If we can't say much that's deep about the people we're with yet, we can at least try to understand ourselves. So here's another observation.

Being a missionary is spiritually dangerous - really dangerous. These factors may vary depending on the type of missionary and situation, but what I mean is this. Many missionaries I know, like myself, are on their own. We might meet up to fellowship with others from time to time - but here in Eldoret, I've not met a single British citizen living here who's still in the country (we met one couple who've since gone to Hong Kong). Neither do I know any other local-church based missionaries. And being from the West, I'm the richest man in the church - this bit wasn't hard. You would be too, and I don't need to ask your income to know that - I just need to know you have a computer to read this! (A typical church member in Grace Baptist, Eldoret will pay about £10 rent for a single room in which the whole family lives). The missionary will often be vastly more educated and be in the highest social class of the church. Add to that, he's the teacher. He might also be the gateway to Western funds for this or that project, and pay the salaries of a few or many people. (Well, he may not pay them - but he sources the money, and that's all the same to the person receiving the salary).

In short, if things follow their natural, fleshly course, then the missionary can soon be being looked up to as a superior being and because he has so few peers, starts to imagine that he is. Others are servants, needy people and those needing teaching and advice. Soon the missionary can stop seeing himself as a servant of the local church, and more like some sort of semi-divine being who descends from on high to dispense his wisdom, favours and cash to the grateful locals. With no-one around to put the brakes on by telling him that he's becoming a self-centred jerk, you can see how it could easily spiral. Instead of being the lowest in the church, he starts to see himself as set apart - and how privileged the locals are to have him around! Any visitors from his homeland or mission organisation won't necessarily identify the problem, because the missionary may be the visitor's only key to local goings on - they have no independent standpoint to evaluate him by. The problem can be compounded on home visits. Home-land churches may have read too much 19th century missionary hagiography, and also treat him like some semi-deity who has descended from a higher plane and be in awe of all of his reports of his great deeds in a far-off place. Christians will naturally offer him loving hospitality and treat him like royalty especially if he's from a third world country and they want him to enjoy some rest during his visit. But if the man's soul is going the wrong way, this can all re-inforce the sense of entitlement as a superior being.

I was genuinely shocked a few months after arriving in Eldoret when I spoke to someone other than my co-elder who was self-confident and articulate. (This was a leader of the law school Christian Union. Of course there are oodles of people wealthier and higher up the social scale than myself in Eldoret - they're just not in our church). I was pulled up short - I'd forgotten what it was like to relate to such people! A conversation as equals - this is a blast from the past! Nothing particularly remarkable in the conversation - the kind of interaction I might have with anyone back in the UK. But I realised I hadn't had such a conversation in person except with one individual for a long time. And so if when I'm next in the UK you feel like I'm talking or preaching to you as if you're an idiot, do be patient with me...

The answer to all this is quite simple. If the missionary believes the Bible, he'll see that God describes him (and every other minister of the Word) as a servant of servants. Christians are servants, and ministers are their servants. To lord it over the flock is the way of the world - the world which is under God's wrath.  Does the missionary believe what God spoke, or not? If that question is remembered and by the Lord's gracious help answered properly, that'll go almost all the way. To visit some dirty little shack that someone causes home and drink tea with them (that might turn your belly out before the day's done), in the name and service of Christ, is a far more immense privilege than to be the new President of Europe. Do you believe that? By God's continuing kindness, I do. Van Whats-his-face and Baroness Ashton may be getting all the newspaper headlines today, but that's because the world in sin is ignorant. Thousands of servants of Christ do far more important work every day - and it's not the work of being the (self-deluded) "Great Leader". It's the work of getting themselves out of the way and ministering the word in the name of Jesus to those who are willing to receive it.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Two years ago today

First - the new creation/evolution book is published today. Read more about it here. (I blogged about it first here).

Two years ago today I and my family arrived in Kenya. What an interesting time it has been! I've certainly not had any problems with feeling bored since. God has been very good. Almost nothing has turned out as expected, but God's ways are better.

Today I'm a member and elder in Grace Baptist Church, Eldoret (in the Rift Valley - Kenya's 5th largest city/town) and a teacher in a nearby Bible college.

One big lesson is how little we knew about or understood missionaries before we became one. Too much of our thinking about missionaries came out of biographies of bygone years. I already knew that missionaries sin as much as anyone and that the hagiography was wrong. But I hadn't realised just how much else was off the mark too.

It's not the 19th century any more. You can telephone my mobile for 4 pence per minute from the UK, or even (since earlier this year when Kenya got a nice big Internet pipe) video Skype us. As it happens, basically nobody does contact us this way outside of our immediate family circle (or from the mission organisation). This was despite many newsletters mentioning how much my wife would appreciate calls from friends to encourage her, especially as we found our way about. We've spent 2 years wondering why nobody calls. Is it because missionaries are supposed to be isolated, people who've disappeared from the face of the earth, gone on some six-month boat-ride that they'll never return from? To appear on their computer screens would lessen the romanticism of it all and reduce the brownie-points they earn for enduring such things? Just not something missionaries are meant to do? Keep 'em humble? Beats me - answers on a postcard!

Another thing. When in the UK I used to hear about the poverty and financial needs of foreign churches. And what most UK churches then do is try to raise some money to help - of course they do. I never knew what kinds of incredible and chronic problems free money has caused and is causing to Kenya and to Kenyan churches. Are these problems worse that the problems there'd be without that money? No, they're not. Please keep sending money to worthy causes of course.... but do you actually have any idea how to evaluate what a worthy cause is in an African church, and do you know what'll happen when you send money to causes which would be better funded another way (or not at all)? I didn't. Shudder.

Here's another. I've come to see a lot of missionary newsletters as works of fiction. Apologies to any fellow missionaries reading my blog and all that. I probably don't mean yours! :-) I include many of my own newsletters in this. "I did this, we did that, X number of people came" - sounds fantastic; so much being done, quite unlike the slow scene in the UK. Ha! Now I read them more critically. Activity is one thing. Progress in building an indigenous, national-led church can be something totally, utterly, completely different. All the reports of activity can very well disguise a dearth of real progress. Propaganda for supporters, whose funding and encouragement keeps us going. Easy to do because it's natural in newsletters, of course, to say what you've actually done. The long-term and wider picture is harder to summarise quite so succinctly... so we don't.

And another. The holiday visitor's impressions of African Christianity are not worth the paper they're written on. They're evaluating it from a Westerner's point of view, against the backdrop of the problems of the Western church. Because you don't see those problems, you conclude that all is well. The church in Kenya is immeasurably, immeasurably weaker than the UK conservative evangelical church. Your average well-taught teenager in a conservative Christian family is far ahead in Biblical understanding of the typical pastor in a Kenyan church. If someone visits here for a summer and tells you that the Kenyan Christianity they saw is about to save the secular West, they're talking through their hat. Really. Africa's not called "The Dark Continent" for nothing.

I've seen too more evidence that many Christians in the UK have a false sacred/secular divide. I can think of several cases (so this isn't about any person or instance in particular) where I know of people who really, deeply support our work here - but if asked to do some boring, practical job that would help, think it's too much trouble and don't feel inclined to assist. They don't see it as part of the chain of necessity in the mission work, because it's not the exciting, glamorous preaching to untouched savages that they think counts as mission.

This perhaps sounds negative - it's not meant to; it's part of my own learning experience, which is positive. Perhaps I'll post more again later

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Missing something important

Justin Taylor asked Gerald Bray three questions to help us understand the genealogies e.g. of 1 Chronicles 1, here.

The answers were helpful but missed out the most important bit. The genealogies were given to lead up to their great climax in Christ, Luke 3 and Matthew 1. They are emphasising the flesh-and-blood historical character of the redemption we have received. They prepare for and teach the coming of the Son of God in authentic human nature, as a real man to die in the place of real men. They are part of the story of redemption - a redemption that is not worked out in some ethereal, intangible, private spiritual realm that fits in with modern secular mores. Rather, it is a redemption that took place in the very same earthy dimensions that we live, breathe, vomit and all other things in. This world belongs to the Lord - not some private thought world, whilst the real world belongs to man. He created it, he redeemed it - every part of it, seen and unseen; it was not just a redemption touching our "personal value choices" or somesuch. Jesus really did come as one of us, to save us.

Dr. Bray's answers all had something of a timeless nature about them - truths that apply in all generations. There was nothing wrong about those truths in themselves - but if we only have that bit and not the climax of it all in Christ, then it's the road to Gnosticism. Christian redemption is grounded in history - a history running from Adam down to Christ, carefully documented by the Bible writers so that we are without any excuse if we neglect it. In these days of new Gnosticising doctrines such as theistic evolution which try to have a de-historicised redemption, this needs underlining all the more.

I've expounded upon this at length and in a more rigourous fashion in my chapter of the new IVP book, released tomorrow, £7.49 including delivery from Amazon...

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Back - again!

Back on January 3rd I wrote, "Today I ran 10 miles in under 80 minutes... the first time since October 2007. A good feeling - this is the level at which I'm getting a bit fitter, more in control of the running so that huffing, puffing and chugging increasingly become a thing of the past (except on the really long ones!)".

Well, today is a day I've waited some time for. Today I ran 10 miles in under 80 minutes (79:48) for the first time since March this year. In the meantime, a few things intervened. Mainly a metatarsal stress fracture, but also runner's knee, burglary and illness. God is good - those 8 months since March have seemed long! (My record, set in 2007, is 73:01, so there's still some way until I'm really back to my best!).

The Bible tells us that "the righteous man stumbles seven times, and rises up again" (Proverbs 24:16). Life in a fallen world is full of setbacks. I was motivated to go through them one by one by one by one until today - but that was just in some ordinary, temporal thing. Of course, the Bible verse is speaking of higher things. There are setbacks in the Christian life and in ministry. No question about that. The question is if we have the will and the trust in God's goodness to keep pressing forward even to reach the point we were at or hoped to be at yonks ago. It's either that or falling and staying there. "The righteous man never stumbles" is not in the Bible; "the righteous man stumbles seven times, and rises up again" is. If we can do this in lower things, why not in the things that are eternal too? How are you doing?