Monday, 31 October 2011

"Biblical theology" and "systematic theology"

A section from a handout about Joshua's conquest for my Bible college students:

* * *

Biblical theology and systematic theology

What we will discuss in this handout is the meaning of the conquest. When I say meaning, I mean in terms of “Biblical theology”. What is “Biblical theology?”

Biblical theology” is when we try to understand each part of the Bible in its historical setting (historical context). “Biblical theology” is often compared with “systematic theology”. “Systematic theology” tries to look at the whole of the Bible and answer the question “what does the Bible teach?” Biblical theology, on the other hand, tries to understand how the Bible's story develops over time; how God's revelation came and grew. Biblical theology helps us to preach rightly from different parts of the Bible. Noah was not Moses. Moses was not Abraham. Abraham was not David. David was not the apostle Paul. They all had one faith – they loved God and trusted in the promised Messiah. But what they knew and could respond to, and how that love and trust were expressed in their lives, differed very much. So:

Systematic theology tries to “systematise” the Bible's teaching – i.e. organise them. It answers questions like: “How are we saved?”, “What is the Trinity?”, “What happens at the end of the world?”, “What is the church?” and so on. When we write our confessions of faith or doctrinal statements in our churches (“We believe in one God who exists in three eternal, distinct persons...”) we are doing systematic theology. But...

Biblical theology tries to deal with each part of the Bible in its own setting. It answers questions like “how did God reveal Christ before he came?”, “what did Abraham know about salvation?”, “if David had many wives, then does that mean I can too?”, “should we hope to be rich like Solomon was?”, “how are we related to Israel?” and “how should I preach from the book of Judges?” When we try to understand our place in the world, and the place of other people from the Bible in the world, and how we relate to “old” parts of the Bible, then “Biblical theology” is the tool we use.

Systematic theology” and “Biblical theology” are not contradictory to each other. They are not competing; we do not choose one or the other. Rather they are complementary; we need to do both. Both together help us to get a good understanding of the Bible. Do not misunderstand the words, but note the way they are being used - “systematic” theology should of course also be “biblical” in that it comes out of the Bible; Biblical theology should also be “systematic” in that it is not chaotic or contradictory, but it is also consistent and organised.

It is true to say that many Westerners have been strong in systematic theology, but weak in Biblical theology. Western churches have often tended to treat the Bible as if it were “timeless” - as if it just gave us simply a list of eternal truths about God, sin, salvation and so on. A list of things to believe or to not believe. They have often overlooked the Biblical story and its progress and development. Westerners do not always see the need to see their story. Westerners often do not think so much in terms of stories; they just want a list of doctrines to accept or reject. Often people outside the West are much more sensitive to the story. They want to know who their people are, what their history is, and where we are all going. Westerners are often much more focussed on the individual person and their salvation, and they forget about God's big plans for his creation and for history as a whole. If we can get better at “Biblical theology”, then we will often be more useful preachers and teachers in Africa and other non-Western countries. It will also help us to become better at “Systematic theology”.

Humanistic freedom is bondage by another name

Atheist Jeremy Paxman, writing in the Daily Mail, has the honesty to confess that selfishness has been the basic policy of his generation.

He doesn't admit the next bit quite so clearly, but it still comes across: his generation fought for so-called "freedom" in the moral revolution of the 1960s... and it turns out that the results of "freedom" for the following generations will be increasing bondage.

Since Paxman hasn't apparently abandoned any of his humanistic assumptions, it is appropriate that the article only describes the way down, with no suggestions of what a way back up would look like. Being an atheist, Paxman isn't yet ready to concede that the real problem is in the human heart, and that true freedom consists in what he today would still consider bondage: submitting to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Man's "freedom" brings bondage; God's "bondage" brings true freedom. That freedom is much deeper and solves more problems than simply the economic and social ones which Paxman discusses.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Overpopulation - a point I've not yet read

Here's a piece, by a Telegraph blogger, discussing the alleged problem of over-population.

Since I live in Sub-Saharan Africa, which is where most of the population growth in the world is happening, I've read several such pieces with interest.

Much could be said, but one point that I've never yet read is one that is very obvious and ought to be. If not for the losses due to corruption, tribalism, dishonesty, political infighting, cartels and laziness, Sub-Saharan Africa could easily support many more people at a higher level than it does today. Poor morals are a, and quite likely the, major cause of suffering amongst the peoples of East Africa.

I'm not yet sure if Westerners who write about the over-population "problem" (yes, those are "scare quotes"!), either are not aware of it, or whether it's politically correct to ignore it. A writer in a Kenyan newspaper I read this week did point out the same thing in reverse, and various writers do this: that if Westerners didn't throw out a third of their food (Europe), or half of their food (USA), then that would support quite a lot more people than they do (and that could be extended to the other parts of life - technology etc; does it need to be the case that the average smartphone user replaces his gadget every 18 months?). Why all this talk of education and birth control when you could just not chuck your resources in the bin? Again, fixing poor morals would lead to a quick solution that would make others redundant pretty quickly. But, fixing morals needs a change of heart because of original sin, but that's a hard matter for today's secularists to face up to.

But the truth is, that if and when the gospel takes root more firmly amongst these peoples and begins to change their culture, a lot of other supposed problems largely deal with themselves. The West's best gift to improve standards of living in Africa would be the same divine gift which laid the foundation of the West's progress: sincere and joyful servants of Jesus Christ.

Friday, 28 October 2011


One great challenge in teaching the gospels in Kenya is that people have been taught to think of Jesus' miracles in quite a wrong way. Many preachers and crusades have banded together to do this.

They see the signs of power and are led to desire similar demonstrations in their own lives - healing diseases, taking away misery and pain. They think that was the main point; which it was not.

Jesus' miracles were signs - that pointed to himself. As I teach through the gospels, one of my aims is to change peoples' responses to the miracle passages, so that they no longer first ask "Is it possible to see the same miracles today?" but instead ask "What is this revealing about the glory of God's Son?"

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The church and culture

First, read this blog post by Justin Taylor. The gist of it is - the church is meant to be in the world, but shouldn't have any hopes of radically changing it; we "engage" culture, but don't "transform" it.

I could weep. Did someone shove Christ back into his tomb again? Thankfully there are some clarifications in the comments that seem to show Taylor's quotes aren't giving the full picture of the views of at least one of those he quotes from.

What I find puzzling about that kind of analysis is its anachronistic nature. Were our forefathers, who did transform culture in the name of Christ, not meant to do that? Would it have been more Biblical if they'd just handed over the culture to the rebels against Christ's Lordship, and said "actually, this is all yours; sorry for taking it from you and your evil master; we were only meant to 'engage' with you and we've been overstepping."

Then read this by Douglas Wilson, in which he points out that whilst believers can have fellowship in the gospel whilst disagreeing on these issues, yet we can't actually perform our Christ-given mission together effectively whilst in that state.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Newsflash: buildings without foundations collapse!

Here's a sad entry from Peter Hitchens' blog:
I don't normally think of Dame Joan Bakewell as an ally in my campaign to re-moralise Britain. I tend to feel she did her bit to
de-moralise it in the Sixties. But I think she should be praised for pointing out what is missing in our country.

She said: ‘Religious commitment to charity and kindness has declined. Nobody learns that. They don’t learn it in their homes, they don’t learn it in their school, it’s seen as soft. It’s not what you’re about.

'You’re meant to stand up for your own individual personality, make your way in the world and good luck to you. Kindness, empathy,
generosity are all in short supply and people used to learn it from the churches – I learnt it at Sunday school. Where do you learn it now? I don’t know.’

Nor do I.
People who campaigned vigorously to remove Britain's moral foundations in the Christian faith, are now beginning to realise that buildings without foundations can't stand. If you cut the tree's roots off, then that works its way up to the fruits too. This isn't the first such confession from Dame Bakewell - see also, "As Joan Bakewell now admits, Mary Whitehouse was right about a lot of things".

It was easy for secularist revolutionaries to point out that pre-sexual-revolution Britain had a lot of moral hypocrisies. But replacing one set of moral hypocrisies with open moral decadence and rebellion plus a different set of moral hypocrisies was never going to be a solution - as people such as Mary Whitehouse pointed out and were widely ridiculed for doing. Modern secularism has no moral foundations, and cannot stand. Dame Bakewell learnt a lot of things from Sunday School, but played her part in engineering a society where, as she says now "nobody" learns those things. She enjoyed the privilege of living in a society where a lot of Christian assumptions still existed and the rebellion was still a "Christian" rebellion - that is, people still expected Christian standards to be observed in many areas. They relied on vestigial Christianity for many things. But though those fruits of Christianity may persist in vestigial form for a generation or a few generations, they can't last forever. In the end, the secularist assumptions have to drive everything else out. And then what are you left with? What solutions do you then have, in Dame Bakewell's case, the answer is "I don't know". Tragic.

In the Christian's case, we are left with a lot. Christians have shaped societies before, and can do so again. That a secularist settlement in the West is quickly falling down is no cause for dismay. When, under God's providence, one settlement falls down, it is so that in due time another may rise. Christians need to get down to the daily graft of teaching their children to walk in God's ways, and school them in Christ-centred, not secularist, ways of thinking. The end of the West is not the end of the world. The West as it has been is just one of many stages in the advance of Christ's purposes. It has been 2000 years since he ascended to receive all power and authority. Many settlements have risen and fallen since then, and will continue to do so, as he "puts every enemy under his feet". But a first part of our task is to actually understand our task and place in history, and many Christians in the West still need to understand this. Now is not the time to start embracing "the end is nigh!" visions of history as if the modern West were the be-all-and-end-all of existence; such leads to despair and inaction. Rather, now is the time to press forward with confidence. The question is not "should we fear secularism?" - the writing is clearly on the wall for secularism; it is an unstable and declining settlement. The question is how to build a God-glorifying future in post-secularism, whether it takes 10 years or 100 years to arrive. We don't know God's timetable, but we do have the instructions on daily living in the Bible to prepare our children and children's children for it.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Genetics and a historical Adam and Eve

Several Christian supporters of Darwinism, e.g. Denis Alexander, state with great confidence that genetics proves Darwinism. Others go further and state that it rules out any kind of historic Adam and Eve (even the kind that Alexander prefers, which isn't itself compatible with the teachings of Scripture). Usually - and this is said especially for Christians trying to address other Christians - this is stated without any examination of contrary evidence. Many Christian Darwinists seem to have adopted the campaigning tactics of the new atheists: state your conclusions with great confidence and bombast, skip the critical step of careful and responsible presentation of counter-arguments, and simply employ scoffing and scorn to dismiss any objection. Do this in the name of science, and claim that nobody sane disagrees with you. This approach intimidates many people into piping down or following suit (lest they become objects of scorn too), but this is not the way that servants of truth should behave.

Here is one good article giving some of the other side of the case: The Non-Mythical Adam and Eve! - Refuting errors by Francis Collins and BioLogos.

Monday, 10 October 2011


Over at Uncommon Descent, Gil Dodgen points out another of Dawkins' errors.

You should download Gil's free piano albums, they are here.

Dawkins is one exponent of what we should call the "atheism-of-the-gaps" argument.

When theists point out something that materialism (which Dawkins often mis-labels as "science") can't explain, the atheist often replies, "Ah, that's just a God-of-the-gaps argument - one day, science will explain that - and then your God will no longer be needed to explain it!"

This is a circular argument. It assumes, in advance and without proof, that materialism is true and can somehow account for everything. It assumes that the gaps can actually be closed.

If materialism isn't true, then there will be things that materialism can't explain. "Gaps", if you like, in materialism's explanatory capabilities. The village atheist's error when he makes this cheap rejoinder, is in failing to distinguish between "gaps" which are of the "I don't understand X, and therefore X cannot be understood" type, and gaps which are of the "we understand X very well, and there is a demonstrable disconnect between X and the explanatory possibilities of the model we're discussing" type. The former do not necessarily prove anything; the latter are significant.

Materialism cannot explain the origin of matter or of life or of the coded information in the genome. That's not just because we don't know how these things can happen. It's because all the scientific knowledge we have positively accumulated testifies that these things do not "just happen". The village atheist crowd are guilty of using "atheism-of-the-gaps" arguments when they say, as Dawkins in the above article, that "science is working on it". "Science" has been working on it, and the work done shows that materialism doesn't cut it as an explanation. The evidence points to intelligent intervention, a.k.a. supernaturalism.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

The greatest news in one sentence

On his excellent blog "Between Two Worlds", Justin Taylor offers us these two attempts at "The Greatest News in One Sentence":
“That the greatest good (God) offers the greatest action (love) to the greatest need (wrath-owed sinners) by sending the greatest treasure (Jesus) in the greatest invitation (to everyone) into the greatest life (everlasting).”

—Jared Wilson

“The death of Christ is the wisdom of God by which the love of God saves sinners from the wrath of God, all the while upholding and
demonstrating the righteousness of God in Christ.”

—John Piper, Desiring God, pp. 61-62.
That's certainly great news. If we even got he smallest extra grip upon those things, then it would be wonderful.

But as I'm presently teaching a course in Biblical Theology at a nearby Bible college, I can't help noticing what's missing. The vision in these two quotes - even though a glorious one - is not the full vision.

Both of those quotes present a vision which stops with the individual's salvation and the glory of God in that. They both jump from that individual salvation to the eternal outcome (eternal life, safety from final wrath).

Is that the fulness of the Biblical vision? No. God's vision when he made man was a beautified, subdued, fruitful and flourishing Creation, through which he would reveal his glory. The gospel is not simply a scheme for individual salvation, but for God to reveal the fulness of his wonderful image through man and his work in creation.

Adam aborted that task, through sin. After God "remade the world" through the Flood, Noah was recommissioned; but the watching angels learnt the lesson that it was not a washed world, but washed hearts that were needed - because there was a new "Fall" at the Babel and the darkness afterwards seemed worse than before.

God's plan, which he announced to Abraham, was that through his seed - the same seed as promised to Eve - the effects of the curse would be overcome. The gospel is not "mission aborted" (Jesus saves us and gets us to heaven); the gospel is going to be "mission completed": the last Adam by the power of his Spirit complete the task that the first Adam abandonned. The gospel is cosmic, and is about Jesus overcoming, not just working around, the forces of evil.

Therefore, I much prefer the one-liner given by Doug Wilson that Taylor linked to on another occasion:
"Scripture tells us the story of how a Garden is transformed into a Garden City, but only after a dragon had turned that Garden into a howling wilderness, a haunt of owls and jackals, which lasted until an appointed warrior came to slay the dragon, giving up his life in the process, but with his blood effecting the transformation of the wilderness into the Garden City."
Or, if you prefer something more systematic, just borrow from Isaac Watts: "In Christ the tribes of Adam boast more blessings than their father lost". Or, borrowing from Watts again and from 1 Corinthians 15 but giving a fuller answer:
"Because of his obedience even up to the dreadful, wrath-enduring death of the cross, Jesus as our 'last Adam' has atoned for the sins of his people and risen from the dead and thus been appointed to reign and to reveal the glory of God wherever the sun does shine; his kingdom shall grow until he has put down all opposition and he delivers all things up to the Father, ushering in the final glory which our first father lost the opportunity of."

Friday, 7 October 2011

Will Richard Dawkins be honest?

Here's some blurb for the latest attempts of the non-existent one to explain how you can be an "intellectually fulfilled atheist":
The Magic of Reality - Richard Dawkins - Royal Albert Hall

Wednesday 19 October 2011, 8.30pm

Chaired by James Harding, editor, The Times.


The Magic of Reality - An Evening with Richard Dawkins will see him discussing his new book, The Magic of Reality, which uses stunning words and pictures to present the real story of the world around us, taking us on an enthralling journey through scientific reality. Richard Dawkins and Dave McKean have created a dazzling celebration of our planet that will entertain and inform for years to come.
The question I'm interested in, is whether whilst trying to persuade everyone that being an atheist is just as "magical" and "dazzling" and "enthralling" as loving the Creator, he'll be honest about the implications of his beliefs. Will he be at any pains to explain this:
The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no
good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.
-- Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (1995)
There's quite a difference in tone between those two quotes, isn't there? The first is atheist PR... the second is atheist honesty. When on his magical atheism tour, will he be bringing the honesty out on display or keeping it hidden?

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Christ's Empire

A very pithy quote from the Vatican on the BBC's using of "BCE" and "CE" instead of "BC" and "AD":
“The BBC has limited itself to changing only the description, rather than the computation of time, but in doing so, it cannot be denied that it has made a hypocritical gesture: the hypocrisy of those who pretend not to know why years began to be counted precisely from that moment. (Link)
Indeed so. When someone says "BCE" and "CE", they may as well mean "Before Christ's Empire" and "Christ's Empire", because we all know which event marks the beginning of the so-called "common era". You can't erase history, even if you don't like it. Even when trying to wipe out mention of Christianity, the BBC is forced to keep the obvious reference to it.

If the BBC really believed that "Before Christ" was somehow offensive to non-Christians, then surely they should change the "computation of time" and not merely the "description"?

That'd be a bit tricky, though. Secularism, being such a boring, empty, sterile affair, doesn't really have any great dates to mark, or notable figures worth celebrating. Shall we date it from the founding date of the National Secular Society? When was that - anyone know without looking it up? Thought not!

Since secularism is so sterile, secularists as a result tend to being pursue tedious and empty causes. Religious people always reflect their religion, whether their religion is called "Christianity" or "secularism". Thus secularists, instead of carrying out something of cultural significance, are left to spend their time getting professionally offending on behalf of people who weren't actually offended, and arguing that in order to avoid offence we should testify to Christ's conquest without mentioning his name. Is that what victory is meant to look like? If that's victory, one wonders what a secularist admission of defeat would be...

As the Vatican point out, even if you hate Christ, it's a simple matter of honesty to state that his coming has been the most revolutionary event of human history. Like it or not, Christ is the Lord of history; he will reign and the nations shall submit to his sway - sometimes, whether they can bring themselves to name him, or not.

Monday, 3 October 2011