Friday, 29 February 2008

The UK's moral confusion

On the BBC news website today:

"Abortion tablets in wife's food: A baker put abortion tablets into his wife's breakfast to try to make her lose their baby, a court has heard."

Quote: "Mrs Abraham suffered pain and bleeding but the child survived unharmed. ... Magira, 36, of Holmebrook Drive, Hendon, north London, admitted 'using an instrument to procure a miscarriage' - the first such charge in 30 years."

According to the story, Mr. Magira's wife was 11 weeks pregnant at the time. What's wrong with this picture?

What's wrong with this picture is that the only reason this was a criminal offence, and the only reason the young one was considered a "baby" or a "child" whose life needed protecting, was because the wrong person administered the tablets. Had his wife administered the tablets to herself, then instead of "baby", "child", "baby", "child, the little one would have just been identified as a non-entity - an impersonal mass of tissue - and there would have been no question of any prosecution. The young life would have been defined out of existence, the courts and the BBC would have cared nothing for it, and the professionals involved in killing it would have used the politically correct terminology of "foetus" or "foetal tissue", or the like to make it sound like nothing notable happened.

Did you get that? Whether the baby was a real person, and whether artificially ending its life would constitute a crime or a non-event, was decided by who put the tablets in the food.

Welcome to the UK!

The Federal Vision And The Language Of Appearance (1)

I like Doug Wilson very much - he's Christ-centred, Bible-centred, up front, clear thinking, clear writing and many other things. On the other hand though, I also think that his theological baby, the "Federal Vision", is two steps forward and then either two or three steps back again.

My basic take on the "FV" is that it's a more self-consistent theological system than the more usual Presbyterian position, but a less Biblical one. Lots of young evangelicals today are looking for a coherent, confident, comprehensive way of framing the doctrines of the faith in a secular society. The FV offers them one - but not, to my mind, a Biblically satisfying one.

The FV takes really seriously the idea that the New Covenant should be assumed to work just like the Old, unless we're explicitly and unambiguously told otherwise. Presbyterian apologists  in my judgment normally only take this "rule" seriously when it comes to the question of infant baptism. Most of the time, they instead apply the correct rule of Biblical interpretation: that the New Covenant interprets the Old and not vice-versa. As a Reformed Baptist, I think that's a happy inconsistency. The FV-ers, though, are having none of that. I don't think it's a coincidence that Pastor Wilson is a former Baptist - with such a systematic mind as he evidently possesses, I don't think that having dropped Baptistic principles he could have been satisfied to stop half-way. I once asked a Pastor what his assessment of the FV was. His answer was delightful for it directness and to-the-point nature: "The Federal Vision is... an attempt to recreate ancient Israel in modern society".

What I'd like to do in this post is make one of my criticisms of the FV. One of the ways in which the FV is most consistent than its Presbyterian rivals is that it takes seriously the idea that you are either a covenant member or you aren't. Classical Presbyterianism, in an attempt to hold together both the idea of the superior efficacy of the New Covenant and that the New Covenant retains members who aren't finally saved, has to hold to the idea of two "phases" in the covenant. There are external members, who merely enjoy external privileges - and then then are the "true" members who are elect of God, and enjoy true saving union with the Lord Jesus Christ. There is an outer phase and an inner phase to the covenant - the dividing line between them being faith in Christ. To avoid the error of baptismal regeneration, Presbyterians maintain that there is no intention to imply that infants belong to the inner phase - until they profess faith for themselves, they enjoy a secondary status, of being "covenant youth" - a kind of probationary stage. They really are in covenant (otherwise it would be wrong to baptise them), but nobody's saying that that means that they will certainly arrive in heaven.

The FV, correctly in my view, observes that this doctrine of a two-phase covenant has no real support from the New Testament or from the Old. Either you were a member of the covenant, or not, and either you enjoy its privileges, or you don't. There's no hedging, where covenant members are urged to become a different kind of covenant member. To be sure, the Old Covenant often speaks with two voices - but never on the subject of Old Covenant membership itself. The problem, though, is that faced with this fork in the road, the FV turns the wrong way. The "right" fork is the Baptist one: 1) That the Old Covenant was essentially a national covenant, and not salvific; it contained earthly promises which foreshadowed and typified - promises which the elect would have received savingly, but the non-elect would have remained blind to, but without this being an essential difference in their membership of the Old Covenant qua Old Covenant 2) That the New Covenant is made with the elect only, and is perfectly salvific to all its members. 3) That there has, therefore, been a substantial development in the inauguration of the New Covenant - the Old Covenant scaffolding of all the earthly/temporal/external privileges has all been taken down, because the reality of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ has arrived. The FV instead takes the other available fork (consistent with the "rule" mentioned before): That the New and Old Covenants work on the same basis: there are no essential distinctions in the privileges which its members enjoy, either amongst themselves within a single one of the two covenants, or between the two of them. When the Old Covenant gave way to the New, the names changed but the realities remained the same. We, living post-resurrection, enjoy more clarity in the truths that are proclaimed (and hence in our responsibility to believe them) - but there has been no essential change in the nature of the Covenant itself.

In the next part, I'd like to examine one of the lines of argument that FV proponents use to argue this case. I'd like to do this by using as an example part of a recent blog post by Anglican and Oak Hill graduate Matthew Mason, available here: I knew Matthew when I was a student in Oxford, where he was a faithful and godly "apprentice" in the church we both attended at the time.

To be continued...

Arise you dead - and come to judgment!

Jerome said that these words were always ringing in his ears: "Arise you dead - and come to judgment!"

Unless the Lord returns first, one day I will hear them.

And so will you.

Thursday, 28 February 2008

"We are not yet in glory, but glory is already in us"

"We might be surprised that suffering and joy can go together, but we should not be. This is often God's way. Believers suffer, because there is a great battle going on. The devil, the world and the flesh are fierce and relentless enemies. But believers must rejoice, because Christ has already won the war. The outcome is certain, and the church's enemies are already doomed. We are not yet in glory, but glory is already in us. We do not have the fullness of the Spirit; but we have the firstfruits, which means that the fulness is guaranteed."

Good without God? (2)

Continuing from where we left off....

Now we're trying to enter an atheistic universe. We need to drop all of our pre-conceived ideas - the ideas about right and wrong God stamped upon us in creation - and ask what idea of morality is logically consistent with atheism. Just what, in an atheistic universe, is morality?

British atheologian Richard Dawkins says "Atheists and humanists tend to define good and bad deeds in terms of the welfare and suffering of others. Murder, torture, and cruelty are bad because they cause people to suffer."

Defining good and bad in terms of welfare and suffering sounds reasonable - pretty close to the Christian commandment to love our neighbour. Hurting them is bad, helping them is good. Problem with that? Yes - huge problems. The thing to look at though in Dawkins' first sentence isn't actually the latter half, but the former. "Atheists and humanists tend to define good and bad..."

Actually, there's no reason to read anything that comes after that point. Whether choosing to define good and bad in terms of helping society, or in terms of crushing it with an iron fist, makes no difference at this point. If good and bad are merely what atheists, humanists or anyone else chooses to define them as, then good and bad are merely a construction of the human brain. They have no binding moral authority over us, any more than any other mere construction of the human brain has. They exist only within our cerebral chemistry, and nowhere outside of it. Like opinions on the best England football XI, or on the finest vintage of South African wine, morality is no more than one of the moveable feasts in our intellectual landscape. With no external, transcendent source of values, Richard Dawkins' opinion on what is good or bad has no more authority or objective basis than my preference for classical music over grunge. Both have precisely the same foundation - the transient activities of the human brain: it's the way I like it. Dawkins likes the idea of defining morality in terms of not causing suffering; rapists like to define morality in terms of maximising their personal sexual pleasure - and there's no authority we can appeal to to ask which is better. Both are equal: human brain activity, without any ultimate reference point of right or wrong to evaluate it by.

Morality, though, is a matter of authority - you "ought" or "ought not" to do this or that. It's very essence depends upon transcendence. It is bigger than you, and tells you what to do. Dawkins' morality is not morality at all - it's a personal preference. The professor wants to tell us that this is rational thought? Please!

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

An introduction to Tom Wright, part six

Part five was here:

The interview we're examining, to help us understand Wright's teaching is here:

Trevin Wax:
You have said in many of your books that justification is not  how one becomes a Christian but a declaration that one is a Christian. What language do you use to explain how one becomes a Christian?

N.T. Wright:  Let’s be clear about this because many Christians in the evangelical tradition use words like “conversion,” “regeneration,” “justification,” “born-again,” etc. all as more or less synonyms to mean “becoming a Christian from cold.” In the classic Reformed tradition, the word “justification” is much more fine-tuned than that and has to do with a verdict which is pronounced, rather than with something happening to you in terms of actually being born again. So that I’m actually much closer to some classic Reformed writing on this than some people perhaps realize.

What most Reformed apologists, like myself, feel when reading this is "sort of, yes, OK... well, no." The use of a number of important Bible words has become rather loose in the last few decades in evangelical circles. It is good to tighten this up, and aim for more, Biblical, clarity. Wright's statement that he is "much closer to some classic Reformed writing on this than some people perhaps realize" though exhibits a number of frustrating features which permeate his responses to his critics.

When reading Wright responding to his conservative critics, he often takes quite a different tone from when he is writing in another context - either setting out his own case positively, or critiquing someone else's. When setting out his own case, Wright will often freely and openly attack classic Reformed doctrine, and leave us in no doubt that it contains major errors, and that his reconstruction is basically the first faithful reconstruction of Paul's thought since apostolic times. He will freely attack, as he did for example the recent book setting out the case for penal substitution, his critics as being "profoundly unbiblical".

This ambiguity is frustrating. At some times, Wright recognises that his reconstruction contains fundamental and irreconcilable differences to the historic scheme, and says so openly; but when this same fact is stated by his critics, he goes all coy.

In the context of the above statement, Wright and the Reformed agree that justification is specifically a legal declaration - a "verdict which is pronounced". It is not a synonym for regeneration as a whole, or the like. That statement on its own is fine (though actually Wright means something more than that, but I think it'd be better to move quickly and bring that out later). This is all fine. But that is a rather superficial similarity. It's a declaration - but of what, and when made, and what the effects of it are - remain as points of profound disagreement. To talk about being close to the Reformed position here is very misleading.

We could say that the Reformed and the Roman Catholics agree that justification is to do with a state of ethical righteousness. To then go on, though, and have a Romanist say that on that basis he's actually far closer to being Reformed than he's granted credit for, would be ludicrous. The Reformed say it is an announcement that believers are counted as righteous for Christ's sake; Rome say that it is an announcement about our actual state in ourselves because of our faithful use of the sacraments and good works done in response to grace; these two contradictory beliefs represent two entirely different systems of theology. The same is true with Wright. He believes that justification is a legal verdict - good, but nowhere near good enough.

The other somewhat frustrating feature of Wright's response is one that I've noticed not only in him, but in many of his fans on the Internet. It's the feature of identifying those who he disagrees with very non-specifically. He claims to be closer to "some" Reformed writings - closer than "some" people have realised. Which writings? Which people? I realise that this is an interview - we can't expect chapter and verse. That would be nit-picking. The point, though, is that this vagueness which is legitimate in an interview is never rarely sorted out anywhere else. Wright often uses an image of a never-quite-identified bogey-man to promote his theology - playing it off against something which we're never told where we can find it, or as being anyone in particular's position.

To be continued...

C. S. Lewis on evolution, again

One commenter on my previous post pointed me to this page with some great extended quotes:

I've found a few quotes over the last few days showing that Lewis was well acquainted with the view that sees "Science" as a replacement for any and every idea that sees a non-material aspect to reality. Whilst atheists such as Oxford's Richard Dawkins present their views as the latest findings of neutral science, reading writers like Lewis shows firstly that these views have been rehashed for decades (actually centuries and even millennia in a number of aspects, but that's for another time) - the "new atheists" aren't very new.  Secondly, it will show you that many of the refutations of these views have been made for a long time too - which makes Dawkins and co's lack of engagement with the responses culpable. As I tour the web I find that many of the "new atheist" crowd seem scarcely even aware of such arguments. Time to start questioning just how "critical" and "rational" your leaders' thinking is, folks!

Here's Lewis setting out in his own words the fact that Christianity can give a coherent explanation of reality, itself and its opponents, whereas the so-called "scientific" outlook cannot even explain itself. Lewis wrote before the discovery of DNA, and so couldn't ask the question "how can we rely on our minds, if they are just the result of random genetic copying mistakes?", but he didn't need to to make his point:

I was taught at school, when I had done a sum, to "prove my answer." The proof or verification of my Christian answer to the cosmic sum is this. When I accept Theology I may find difficulties, at this point or that, in harmonising it with some particular truths which are embedded in the mythical cosmology derived from science. But I can get in, or allow for, science as a whole. Granted that Reason is prior to matter and that the light of that primal Reason illuminates finite minds, I can understand how men should come, by observation and inference, to know a lot about the universe they live in. If, on the other hand, I swallow the scientific cosmology as a whole, then not only can I not fit in Christianity, but I cannot even fit in science. If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees. And this is to me the final test. This is how I distinguish dreaming and waking. When I am awake I can, in some degree, account for and study my dream. The dragon that pursued me last night can be fitted into my waking world. I know that there are such things as dreams: I know that I had eaten an indigestible dinner: I know that a man of my reading might be expected to dream of dragons. But while in the nightmare I could not have fitted in my waking experience. The waking world is judged more real because it can thus contain the dreaming world: the dreaming world is judged less real because it cannot contain the waking one. For the same reason I am certain that in passing from the scientific point of view to the theological, I have passed from dream to waking. Christian theology can fit in science, art, morality, and the sub-Christian religions. The scientific point of view cannot fit in any of these things, not even science itself. I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else. -- The Oxford Socratic Club, 1944. pp. 154-165

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

I don't believe in evolution

By which, of course, I mean unlimited evolution rather than change within limits. The fish to philosopher type of evolution, not the this-breed-of-dog to that-breed-of-dog type.

I have many reasons for this disbelief, scientific, philosophical and religious. In fact I think that evolution is the great fairy story of our time. We laugh at the thought that there are people in the world who think that trees can be inhabited by spirits. Those people would no doubt have a good belly ache if they knew that we think that we and the tree actually share a common ancestor.

Here are some of my biblical (as opposed to scientific or philosophical) reasons for not believing in evolution:
  • Evolution is an attempt to describe how life could develop through completely natural processes. On the other hand, the Bible explains that creation was super-natural. Evolution seeks to explain how life can develop without any outside intervention; the Bible explains that outside intervention is the actual cause.

  • Evolution is a long, slow process. The Bible describes a short sequence of instantaneous events. "And God said... and it was so."

  • Evolution teaches that man has ape-like ancestors, and exists in continuity with the rest of the living world. The Bible says that man was a direct and unique creation, made from the dust (Genesis 2:7). Evolution says that man bears the image of an ape; the Bible says that he is made as a distinct being in the image of God (Genesis 1:28).

  • Evolution teaches that man has appeared in the universe only in the last "minute" of the universe's existence, in cosmic time. Jesus said (Mark 10:6) that man had been created at "the beginning".

  • Evolution teaches that the first woman was the descendant of an ape-like creature; the Bible says that she was created directly and immediately from the first man (Genesis 2:20-25).

  • Evolution teaches that the cycle of birth-mating-death is the means by which life has developed. The Bible teaches that death only entered the world after creation was finished (Genesis 3, Romans 5:12ff).

  • Evolution teaches that the world has been on a continual upward path since the beginning - improving, improving. The Bible teaches that the world was created "very good", and then fell (Genesis 1:31, 3).

  • Evolution teaches that the living world can vary in an unlimited way - the simplest living cells can evolve into men, or fish, or a coral reef, or a nettle, depending on which path they take. The Bible teaches that the living world was created to reproduce itself with limited variation - each within the boundaries of its "kind" (Genesis 1:11-12, 21, 24-25).

  • Evolution claims that life developed over a period of hundreds of millions of years. The Bible says that it took place in six days, where those "days" are of the sort that have a morning and an evening, are marked by the sun and the moon, that come in batches of seven made up of six of work followed by one of rest (Genesis 1:1-2:3) and are spoken of without qualification in the same breath as ordinary days (Exodus 20:8-11). It's not too hard to work out what kind of day the author wanted us to believe he had in mind!

  • Evolution teaches that birds developed from land creatures (from dinosaurs, is the most common theory). The Bible says that birds were created before land creatures, and hence could not have developed from them (Genesis 1:20-25).
Some Christians tell us that the Bible isn't intended to give us a scientific account of creation. Far enough. It is, though, intended to give us an account of creation which isn't a work of fiction - it is at least a work of history rather than fantasy. Unless the words of Genesis 1 are actually telling us that creation was supernatural (not natural), perfect-when-made (not chaotic and then improving), a sequence of distinct events (not a slow, gradual process), completed in six ordinary days with evenings and mornings (not over billions of years), and so on, then Genesis 1 isn't just telling us nothing at all - it's telling us something false. To say that both evolution and Genesis can both be true is to embrace the absurd. We may as well say that Bill Clinton is both a former president of the USA, and also was never the president; that today is Tuesday and also Friday; and that I am both sitting at my desk and swimming in the ocean never having even owned a desk. "Theistic evolution" is not a noble harmonising of two complementary ideas; it is a contradiction in terms, and intellectual suicide.

Would the world's speed-walking champion run if attacked by a Samurai?

Last October I fulfilled a dream I'd long had by running a marathon - the Dublin marathon.

I ran at an average of just over 8 minutes per mile (eventually finishing in 3 hours 40 minutes). At that speed you don't get to see anyone stopping to walk until people start hitting the "wall" at around 20 miles. Except for one man dressed in red who I saw a bit at around 16 miles who, much to my puzzlement, appeared to be going at the same pace as me despite walking. It was a bit unnerving at first - you've kept up your intended pace for over two hours, and then someone walks past you! Or at least, he looked like he was walking - it was rather a strange style; he was moving at a good pace, but I couldn't see that his feet were leaving the ground! I saw him for the last time when he stopped to stretch his muscles - I presume he got cramp.

This got me interested in the curious "sport" of speed walking. And eventually, I came across this amusing little video...

"Would the world's speed-walking champion run if attacked by a Samurai?"

Monday, 25 February 2008

Good without God?

I want to discuss a little bit now the question of God and morality. To what extent must we depend upon the reality of God to be good? Can we be good without God? "Ah," said the politician. "It depends on what you mean by..."

Actually, though, in this case the politician is right. It really does depend on what you mean by "good", "without" and "God", though unlike the politician I see no need as yet to question the import of the words "can" or "we", or talk the whole question out via a filibuster.

First of I'd like to concede, and even argue that it's necessary to concede, that atheists can and must be good without God. The Christian position requires that they should so be. If they are indeed made in the image of God as explained in Genesis 1, then they must even though fallen (like all of us), retain an innate sense of the reality and importance of right and wrong. Unless we actually find atheists routinely arguing that X, Y or Z is moral or immoral, and that it's important, then Christianity would start to look suspect. If they were able to throw off all the shackles of morality and just live out the selfish genes or survival of the fittest or life is ultimately all without meaning or purpose hypotheses, I'd be worried. It would be a sign that maybe they weren't creatures made by God after all, and that atheism might actually be true. The fact, though, that most atheists find themselves unable to do this and find it necessary to live as if morality was a fundamental and universal part of reality (rather than an arbitrary human construct) and to hunt around for (far-fetched) arguments for justify this, is something rather re-assuring. There are of course some who have been more consistent in their atheism, at least in their theoretical thinking. Believing that man is a cosmic accident, they realise that after A and B you've got to travel to C - morality is a construct of the human mind, which is no more binding upon our behaviour than any other activity of that human mind. It's got know more "you ought to do this" compulsion than anything else thrown up by our brain cells - such as, for example, immorality. In real life, though, a punch on the nose will soon bring the atheist back to his senses. The old feelings regarding the reality of right and wrong will soon override the nice systems of a-morality they were trying to work out in their writings, and they'll begin speaking like a theist again.

None of this, though, is actually being good without God, is it? It's the opposite - being good with God. To actually talk about being "good without God", we need to journey into a different universe - the mental universe of atheism. Escaping reality, we need to forget our assumptions about what the statement "many atheists are moral" means, and talk about something more basic. Because the image of God is impressed upon our nature as created beings, we've all assumed some ideas about right and wrong. In an atheist universe, though, we need to drop those assumptions and start again from scratch. In a universe in which we're just highly-evolved pond goo, what does morality actually look like and how does it work?

Did I say "highly" evolved? Actually that's a value judgment, and that's not actually allowed until we've established just what the source and authority of values is. At the moment we can only say that we're much-evolved pond goo. Whether we're any "higher" than the dolphins (who can communicate over longer distances than we can) or bats (who can navigate better in the dark) or camels (who can go for weeks without water, which we can't) is a decision we can't yet make without doing some more intellectual donkey-work. If passing on your genes is the ultimate point of life, then I'd have thought that those expert breeders, bacteria and beetles must be the most "highly" evolved beings around, so we'll drop that word for now.

At this point I'd also like to question the meaning of the word "we". It seems to imply distinct personal beings. I'm pretty sure that an atheistic universe of mere matter cannot account for that either. More than one atheistic philosopher admits that we can't, and that we need to accept that consciousness is merely an illusion (experienced by we're-not-sure-who).

Filibuster over for now - to be continued!

Praise her in the gates!

The picture below is the front cover of the latest edition of "The Practising Midwife", which is read by most midwifes in the UK:

The Practising Midwife

The picture is of the "Osani Community Health and Development Centre" in South Nyanza, Kenya. This centre was the brainchild of my wife Liz, and Ann Beard, a missionary to Kenya prior to retirement. Osani is a poor community which had no health provision, and people had to walk for many hours if they wanted any. That of course means that there was no health provision for many hours walk around, either. Many people died of very treatable illnesses such as malaria, including children.

After visiting Osani in 2002, my wife, together with her fellow trustees and many other helpers, took this vision from an idea to reality, and now a clinic is run daily, and teams of with more specialist skills visit regularly. The are various ambitious plans for future developments, including maternity care - hence the article in the above magazine, which Liz wrote.

To say I'm proud of my wife would be an understatement! You can read more and make online donations for the ongoing costs (please!) and future expansion plans at their website here:

Saturday, 23 February 2008

The Evolution Crisis

Earlier this week I mentioned the book written by Professor Anthony Flew, the Richard Dawkins of his day, explaining why he now believed that atheism was mistaken.

In the book "The Evolution Crisis", five atheist scientists explain how they changed their minds and became creationists. Debunking the atheist myths that "scientific progress" means the inevitable abandonment of religion, these five explain how viewing the world as an orderly creation from a divine mind made much better sense of their fields of study than their previous atheist assumptions did. For them as for many others, increasing scientific knowledge in the last century has made the ideas of divine creation and design in the universe significantly harder to refute.

That book is now available online and you can read the accounts of Dr. David H. Stone, Professor Gary Parker, Professor Arthur E. Wilder-Smith, Dr. Roy Spencer and Dr. A. J. Monty-White here:

Friday, 22 February 2008

The horse and the rider

The old tale goes that the horse was looking for some help - so he called in a rider.

Seemed like a good decision at first, as the rider guided and directed him. Later it looked like a less good decision, because the rider gradually took over completely. The horse now only went wherever the rider told him to go. At first, he didn't like this very much and protested. Years later, the horse had completely forgotten about how things used to be. He just did what he was told, and didn't bother to even ask why.

In Britain today the government thinks that it's part of its remit to bring in something so ridiculous as compulsory cooking lessons. Apparently, this is all in aid of tackling the problem of obesity. Reading in between the lines, parents cannot be trusted to teach their children rightly, so we need the government to stick its oar in and make the "right thing" compulsory. Even the schools themselves aren't up to deciding what's necessary - it's compulsory cooking for all. The central body has complained that children are spending too much time decorating pizzas, and so its issued new rules to sort the thing out. It's even issuing new rules on who should pay for the ingredients, in case the local schools bungle that one too. I must have missed the news item where the government solved every worthwhile problem that actually belonged to its domain, leaving them free to spend the taxpayers' money on this.

Nobody bats an eyelid because we've been used to this kind of thing for years. I could have picked hundreds of other examples. I expect that if average Joe Punter from the UK pops along to this blog post, he may think I'm being a bit odd by even talking about this. According to the BBC, the significant organisations actually expect the government to be poking its nose into this kind of thing - "compulsory cookery lessons had been demanded by the Children's Food Campaign, a coalition of more than 50 health organisations, teachers' unions, children's charities and others."

Read more here:

In the beginning, inviting the government to do our educating for us probably seemed like a good idea to our ancestors. Some years later, now that Whitehall has decided that parents, local headteachers and governors are so incompetent that they need central government to tell them such a simple thing as how much instruction in cooking to give their children, and that they've been spending too much time with pizza toppings for central government's liking, this idea is looking decidedly less good.

The most significant event in the history of the world...

The most significant event in the history of the world was... the death of a Jewish carpenter-become-preacher by Roman crucifixion, just under 2,000 years ago.

Empires have risen, and empires have fallen. Great and powerful men have built dynasties, reputations and earned themselves fortune and fame. For a time. But the the centre of all human history was when Jesus of Nazareth, a man who never wrote a book, died penniless and in shame and rejected even by his own brothers, was crucified.

Because of that great event...
  • Millions of people who would have spent their unending existence in misery will instead spend it in unbroken bliss and delight.

  • All around the world, people whose lives were miserable, pointless and empty now rejoice that they know God and are learning day by day to delight in him.

  • Though I have many things to regret, at the end of each day I can go to sleep with a clear conscience, knowing that God loves me.

  • You don't have to be in doubt over the question "can I be sure that God loves me?", but need only remember - "yes he does, because he delivered up even his own Son for me." (Romans 5:1ff).

  • The human race can be what it was originally created to be - a race working under God to have dominion over his world for his glory (Genesis 1:28).

  • Whole countries that spent thousands of years in ignorance, superstition and wickedness have been transformed.

  • Instead of living in anxious fear of other people, I can be released from it all so that I only need to be in the delightful fear of God (Luke 12:1).

  • When the time for death comes, as it has done to all who have gone before us, instead of terror there can be peace - we're going home. The one who has loved us before we ever were - we shall now see.

  • Every legitimate desire for justice and righteousness is going to be fulfilled, and we can know it with confidence. God is just, and Calvary is the proof (Romans 3:21ff).

  • The wicked will not inherit the earth - one day they will not defile it any more, but will not be found, even if we search carefully for them (Psalm 37).

  • Death is defeated. It is no longer the awesome enemy of men, but the gateway to glory. It's strength has been sapped, and even our bodies shall rise from the grave to immortality (1 Corinthians 15).

  • I can now understand that salvation is all God's work. There is nothing I could ever give to breach the gap and atone for my sins - but he has given, and he gave enough. What could be of greater value than the offering of his own Son? How could the Father not be pleased with and accept one in whom he so much delighted?

  • It is the proof that "though we are more sinful than we can ever knew, we are more loved than we could ever imagine" (quote from Rico Tice). And the one who has so loved us, we will one day see, and be in his presence forever.

  • There is a great message of hope for the nations. "Go into all the world and preach the good news" (Matthew 28:18ff.).

What were you thinking was significant today? Here's one more result of that great event:

  • And all the above remains cast-iron true, even when we foolishly begin to forget it.

Atheism and rationality (a footnote)

A friend who had read the posts on atheism and how to account for rationality (one, two, three) sent me this comment:

I read your blog last week and was interested in your atheist rational thought argument series. I tried to find some good atheist arguments on the internet but the starting point seemed to be rational thought is atheist, this is an axiom not something you need to prove. People like to think they do think straight, particularly atheists who believe they are the pinnacle of evolution. Christians believe in a bigger much smarter being and also that their whole nature including their mind is fallen.

New Scientist had some interesting articles on this, filing all religion under irrational thought, some of the letters are interesting:

I thought that was quite insightful. Atheist apologists routinely discard religious positions or statements to the realm of the irrational simply by fiat. Now, I'm sure that some religious positions are not just irrational but anti-rational. Take for example as the pantheist's belief that our experiences of personal consciousness are ultimately illusions. (Who exactly is experiencing these illusions, I wonder?). But campaigning atheists generally go way beyond this, and take it as axiomatic that any statement that can't be verified empirically (as opposed to through other methods) is either meaningless or irrational.

This axiom itself, though, as with any other axiom of philosophy, is not subject to empirical verification, and hence refutes itself. You only believe things that can be proved by repeated test and observation? Fine - but on those grounds you've got no reason to believe that repeated test and observation is the only way to derive valid truth, so you can't even establish your own starting point.

When you hear your local village atheist saying "science disproves God", what he actually means most of the time is "my philosophical assumptions are constructed so as to forbid the possibility of God", and as my friend discovered from his searches of the Internet, this isn't a set of assumptions which the "rational" atheist set is normally in any hurry to give a critical examination to.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

A critical evaluation of paedobaptism

Since I've had a couple of posts about infant baptism lately, here's a link to Professor Greg Welty's booklet:

"A critical evaluation of paedobaptism"

See also Stan Reeves' FAQ:

"FAQ on the Reformed Baptist View of Baptism"

From the year 1659 but still relevant:

A Short Catechism about Baptism by John Tombes, B.D. (1659)

Tom Wright on Justification (N T Wright series, part 5)


Trevin Wax: If the “gospel” itself then is the declaration of Christ’s lordship, where does the doctrine of justification come into play?
N. T. Wright: The doctrine of justification comes into play because the whole plan of God is and has been right since the Fall to sort out the mess that the world is in. We British say “to put the world to rights.” I’ve discovered that that’s not the way Americans say it and people scratch their heads and say, “Funny… what does he mean by that?” It means to fix the thing, to make it all better again.

 And that is there because God is the Creator God, he doesn’t want to say, “Okay, creation was very good, but I’m scrapping it.” He wants to say, “Creation is so good that I’m going to rescue it.” How he does that is by establishing his covenant with Abraham.

The covenant with Abraham is designed therefore, not to create a little people off on one side, because the rest of creation is going to hell and God just wants this folk to be his friends, but to be  the means by which  the rest of the world get in on the act. And that’s so woven into the Old Testament.

So that when we then get the New Testament writings, we find this sense that God has now done this great act to put the world to rights and it’s the death and resurrection of Jesus that does that, which sets up a dynamic whereby we can look forward to the day when we will be fully complete (Romans 8), when the whole creation will be renewed.

Then there is this odd thing that we are called by the gospel to be people who are renewed  in advance of  that final renewal. And there’s that dynamic which is a salvation dynamic. God’s going to do the great thing in the future, and my goodness, he’s doing it with us already in the present!

And then the justification thing comes in because within that narrative, we have also the sense that because the world is wrong and is out of joint and is sinful and all the rest of it, this is also a judicial, a law-court framework, and that’s the law-court language of justification.

So we say that the future moment when God will finally do what God will finally do, he will declare, by raising them from the dead: “These people are in the right!” That’s going to happen in the future.

And then justification by faith says, that verdict too is anticipated in the present. And when somebody believes in the gospel of Jesus Christ, even if their moral life has been a mess, even if they’re not from the right family, they didn’t go to the right school, they have no money in their pockets… God says, “You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased.” The verdict of the future is brought forward into the present on the basis of faith and faith  alone, and faith is the result of God’s grace through the gospel of Jesus crucified and risen.

Now, of course, there are so many different things which cluster around justification. The debates of the last four hundred years have swirled around. But  that  is the shape we find in Paul. Paul is the beginning of the real exposition of this. And that’s where I always go back to.

In the last installment, I said what I liked about this answer - that it avoids the trap of jumping from the present decline in the secular West to an overall picture of what was promised as the big picture of church history. The sky is not falling in - in fact, Jesus the Lord is today bringing light and life to nations that had been in utter spiritual darkness for thousands of years before his coming. The gospel is God's plan to restore creation, and that's going on now - as people believe and live in response to the gospel - as well as being something that will be perfected with the second coming.

What we shouldn't, if we believe that the orthodox Protestant faith is true, like about Wright's answer is not so much what's in it, but what's missing. Did you notice what was missing?

Where's The Moral Content?

The main problem here is the one that permeates Wright's restructuring of the gospel. Wright's doctrine of justification, as is reflected in the above answer, is like this:
  • The primary "justification" is at the last day
  • Any justification during history anticipates this final verdict
  • Justification is God's legal declaration about the identities of those who are already God's people
The question that Wright was asked was as to how justification fitted into the gospel. His answer, when put in a more condensed form, was that justification is about identifying God's people, or if we're talking about justification before the last day, the anticipation of the identification of God's people.

What's gone wrong here is that the ethical aspects of justification have been pushed out of sight. Justification is, to Wright, not primarily about the things that Protestants have always proclaimed that it is:
  • The offended majesty of a holy God
  • God's righteous determination to deal with sin
  • The self-giving of Jesus on the cross to make atonement for his peoples' sin
  • The just declaration of God that he sees no sin in the believer, but only the perfection of his Son, because of what Jesus did: a verdict made corporately regarding all God's people in the resurrection of Christ in history, and then again individually as each one of those people comes into saving union with Christ by faith. This verdict is already made and is publicly revealed on the last day, rather than that being the primary declaration.
In other words, justification has, for Wright, ceased to be about sin, God's righteous character, and atonement. It is just about identifying who's in and who's out - identification, not moral satisfaction.

Now, with Wright's it's always necessary to point out that he does not explicitly deny most of the above points (apart from the righteousness of Christ being gifted to the believer). For most of them, he happily affirms them, though sometimes ambiguously. He just wants to say that they're not part of the gospel. They may be closely related to the gospel, it may be right and proper to declare them as the gospel is declared, they may be implied by the gospel, and so on, but they're not the gospel itself. The gospel, for Wright, is about identity - Jesus is declared to be Messiah and Lord, and those who believe are declared to be the ones who will be part of God's people on the last day.

At first glance orthodox Protestants can take some parts of Wright and find them reassuring. In common with historic Protestantism, Wright teaches that justification is a legal declaration, not a process. It is God's court-room announcement about his people - not a process by which Christians use the sacraments to become more personally righteous. This agreement with Protestant teaching against Rome though only gives Wright's teaching a superficial resemblance to Protestant orthodoxy. Wright actually contradicts both Rome and Protestant orthodoxy by teaching that justification is primarily a declaration about identity (how to spot God's people), rather than being to do with moral righteousness acceptable to God. On this crucial point, we should actually prefer Rome.

Wright's doctrine will be a lot more acceptable to many churchmen of our age and to our age in general precisely because it refuses to confront sinners with the blazing holiness and wrath of a righteous God. Whilst not denying these things, it shunts them into the background where we find them a lot easier to deal with - not so threatening. It is no coincidence that Wright's vision of the Christian life correspondingly has little emphasis on personal holiness, and a lot more emphasis on other issues of dubious moral import. I'm thinking here particularly of Wright's ecumenicalism, socialist economics and anti-American polemic - all of which are views he is well entitled too, and even to defend as being Biblical - but according to Wright, are actually part of the implications of the gospel. That's the result of blunting the gospel's moral thrust, and is something that God-willing we'll examine another time. There's plenty more to say about Wright's actual doctrine of justification itself, and Wax's following questions will bring it out.

How the world's most famous atheist changed his mind

For decades, the world's leading atheist (and David Hume scholar) Antony Flew attacked theism as irrational. In his new book, "There is a God", he reveals why he has changed his mind and has  abandoned atheism. Here is an interview with him:

"My Pilgrimage from Atheism to Theism: A Discussion between Antony Flew and Gary Habermas"

HT: The C S Lewis Society ( Flew appears to have abandoned atheism for deism rather than orthodox theism; nevertheless, his explanation of how he decided that rational inquiry and ruled out atheism as a live option is highly informative.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

A moral universe

We're getting a bit of a theme going...
In each of these posts, we've been doing the same thing. Take an aspect of reality and ask the question - "Which understanding of reality as a whole best fits with this particular feature?". I want to do that again - this time with morality.

Morality - what it is

The essence of morality as morality is "ought". You ought to do this, because...

Morality is an essential part of human experience. It appears to be almost impossible to escape from. Without thinking about it or questioning it, we daily weigh up different courses of action on the basis of right or wrong. We get offended or annoyed because someone else has violated the standard. We handle the concepts of right and wrong as if they are obvious, universal and handed down to us from heaven on a plate. Which is because they were, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. Though we often find it difficult to work out exactly where the line dividing right from wrong is, and will sometimes have to change our minds, we never question that the dividing line actually exists or that we ought to land on the "right" side of it. We treat our consciences not as if they were the ultimately meaningless off-shoot of a random evolutionary process, but as reliable guides to "ought". When somebody does manage to escape from morality and decide that they will do whatever the heck they please without feeling the slightest pang of remorse or asking any moral questions about it, we call them a psychopath. We then lock them in a locked room with no handle on the inside, before they hurt us.

Morality - what it isn't

It's important to note that morality can't just be collapsed into pragmatics. The moral imperative of ought does not mean the same as the practical guideance of this is a better strategy. It's not just about choosing a choice that helps the species to survive. This is just to turn morality into a matter of guesswork (for the future depends on many things we can't yet see) and personal preference (one man would like to see different characteristics of our species survive than the next). Hitler believed he foresaw a better future for Germany if he cleansed it of Jews, black people and the disabled. His morality, his "ought", then became that we ought to shovel those people groups into the ovens and gas chambers. This though isn't how morality works - as the rest of the world then sought to teach him. To say that morality is really a matter of "doing this or that because it works out better that way" is really to deny that morality exists at all - it turns moral statements into meaningless statements, mere truisms. "We ought to do this because it'll be better that way" is a redundant non-statement. Why will it be better? The point of morality is that "we ought to do this because there is an objective, real line dividing right and wrong which is greater than us, beyond us and makes demands of us which we must yield to". There is no real "ought" without that objective element.

So, we live in a moral universe. Or at least, all people everywhere, until they turn into psychopaths, behave as if that were a non-negotiable given. The question now, of course, is to ask which view of reality can best explain that fact of reality? What system of belief best accounts for the way that we live?

How to account for it?

It surely isn't atheism or agnosticism. Atheism posits a material universe - one in which everything can ultimately be boiled down to matter/energy. There's no "ought" there. Sure, Hitler gassing the Jews might reduce the diversity of the gene pool, which could be a bad thing. On the other hand, though, in the struggle for survival we need the weak to be eliminated so that the scarce resources are used optimally. Those with defective genes who can't impose their will on others are doomed to destruction by the principles of natural selection in any case, so there's nothing unnatural or wrong about being part of that process - it's inevitable. And in any case, under the atheistic view of reality, there's really no difference between millions of people by Hitler being gassed and millions of bacteria being wiped out by Mumma Anderson when she gets the disinfectant out. According to the atheist, the bacteria and the Jews are part of the same one family tree - we're not a special creation, but are developed from the same roots. They took this branch, we took that - and at the end of the day we're both matter/energy. The only "ought" is ultimately "I like it that way" for the atheist. Atheism can come up with some quite creative "just so" stories to make morality seem plausible - but it cannot account for the fundamental nature of morality that human beings take for granted from day to day.

Agnosticism, whether hard or soft, fares no better. Uncertainty is no basis for morality. Nobody can live their life in a consistent way from day to day if the whole basis of our beings and actions is indeterminate or up for grabs. If morality is an "ought" on Monday, it has to be so on Tuesday as well. That's its nature. We can't say that gassing our fellow men is a gross sin that violates inflexible laws on Wednesday and then decide that we're just super-evolved bacteria anyway on Thursday. Neither can we just go and shut ourselves up in a nice secluded part of the universe where it doesn't make any difference whether morality is real or not - we have to live our lives day by day. Agnostics, leaving out the pyschopaths, are all precisely as inconsistent as the atheists are - they live as if morality were real, but without being able to justify it.

The image of God

On the other hand, if we start with the assumption that the Bible gives us an accurate account of reality, then morality is accounted for very easily. Human beings are a unique creation, made by God to reflect parts of his own being - that is, we are made "in the image of God". God is himself all righteousness, all moral goodness and perfection. He does right at all times, and hates what is evil with a perfect and holy hatred. He made us to do the same - though we don't, because of our rebellion against him. Morality is treated by us as an essential component of the fabric of the universe because it is - God made a moral universe. We treat right and wrong as if they were real phenomena and not just abstract inventions, because they are. We can live life as if morality were an essential component of it, and our consciences as if they were saying something we need to listen to, because that is actually how it is. Human beings, whether they choose to espouse this set of values or that one have to ultimately espouse some set of values, because God has made them moral beings. Even in rejecting God's revelation of right and wrong in the Bible, we have to choose some other standard of right or wrong - and it'll have to be something that at least approximates the Biblical one - because that's the way we're made. We can no more get away from it than we can grow a second head or grow fur; it's not how we're put together.

Can't get away from it...

And hence atheists, even though they reject the Creator's standard, still feel that it's really necessary for them to explain how atheism might support morality. It's really hard to get away from their constitution as divine image-bearers and instead argue that morality actually is arbitrary and man-made. Even if some of them might admit that in their writings, they find it hard to live out. When someone punches their wife in the face, not many atheists will say "So? We're just a re-arrangement of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen", even if they managed to admit it in in theory. Atheism isn't a creed that you can actually put into practice in a consistent way - you have to keep on living as if Christianity were true instead.

This is a moral universe. Atheism cannot account for that fact, and atheists and agnostics must live inconsistently with their belief system. Christianity accounts for this fact very easily, and the Christian does not need to feel daily pain in living inconsistently with his own assumptions. He just needs to feel the daily pain of not living up to the mark which God sets - and going to Jesus for forgiveness. The conclusion is obvious!

Not meant to be like MTV

‘Public Worship

"[The church is failing] to catechise and instruct the children in the great truths of Scripture, preferring to spend the majority of the time competing with video games and rock concerts. According to Gallup, one of the reasons many young people give for leaving the church is its failure to provide profound answers to their deepest questions in its headlong pursuit of marketing success. They have MTV already. What they need is a church that answers their questions"

‘Public Worship Moody Press.,Chicago: Horton, Michael, The Law of Perfect Freedom, 1993, p. 145.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Examining an interview with N T Wright (part 4)

Part 3:

Trevin Wax: If the “gospel” itself then is the declaration of Christ’s lordship, where does the doctrine of justification come into play?

If you've been following so far you'll understand where this question is coming from. Wright has just explained that the gospel is (not includes) the declaration of Christ's Lordship - and hence what has historically been held to be at the centre of the good news, namely the announcement that Christ through his atoning death has offered a full satisfaction for the sins of everyone who believes in him, is relegated to one of the off-shoots of the good news, rather than being the good news itself. Historic evangelicalism has always proclaimed that the doctrine of justification by faith is right at the heart of the gospel - it announces that everyone who trusts in the crucified and risen Christ receives a free pardon at the moment they believe: they are declared justified. If, though, the gospel is an announcement about the identity of a person, then where do we fit in the great declarations of God about the status of believers in Jesus? Hence Wax's question. Here's Wright's answer:

N. T. Wright: The doctrine of justification comes into play because the whole plan of God is and has been right since the Fall to sort out the mess that the world is in. We British say “to put the world to rights.” I’ve discovered that that’s not the way Americans say it and people scratch their heads and say, “Funny… what does he mean by that?” It means to fix the thing, to make it all better again.

 And that is there because God is the Creator God, he doesn’t want to say, “Okay, creation was very good, but I’m scrapping it.” He wants to say, “Creation is so good that I’m going to rescue it.” How he does that is by establishing his covenant with Abraham.

The covenant with Abraham is designed therefore, not to create a little people off on one side, because the rest of creation is going to hell and God just wants this folk to be his friends, but to be  the means by which  the rest of the world get in on the act. And that’s so woven into the Old Testament.

So that when we then get the New Testament writings, we find this sense that God has now done this great act to put the world to rights and it’s the death and resurrection of Jesus that does that, which sets up a dynamic whereby we can look forward to the day when we will be fully complete (Romans 8), when the whole creation will be renewed.

Then there is this odd thing that we are called by the gospel to be people who are renewed  in advance of  that final renewal. And there’s that dynamic which is a salvation dynamic. God’s going to do the great thing in the future, and my goodness, he’s doing it with us already in the present!

And then the justification thing comes in because within that narrative, we have also the sense that because the world is wrong and is out of joint and is sinful and all the rest of it, this is also a judicial, a law-court framework, and that’s the law-court language of justification.

So we say that the future moment when God will finally do what God will finally do, he will declare, by raising them from the dead: “These people are in the right!” That’s going to happen in the future.

And then justification by faith says, that verdict too is anticipated in the present. And when somebody believes in the gospel of Jesus Christ, even if their moral life has been a mess, even if they’re not from the right family, they didn’t go to the right school, they have no money in their pockets… God says, “You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased.” The verdict of the future is brought forward into the present on the basis of faith and faith  alone, and faith is the result of God’s grace through the gospel of Jesus crucified and risen.

Now, of course, there are so many different things which cluster around justification. The debates of the last four hundred years have swirled around. But  that  is the shape we find in Paul. Paul is the beginning of the real exposition of this. And that’s where I always go back to.

In order to examine that answer, I think it would be helpful first (since my aim in this series is more to explain Wright to newcomers to his thought rather than anything else), to summarise it. On the first few readings you might read Wright, read him again, and still be scratching your head saying "how does this answer the question?". What's being said here is this:

Wax: So, if the gospel is about Christ's Lordship, then what about justification?

Wright: The world is a mess. God's plan is to sort out the mess, not to scrap it and start again with a few select individuals. God's way of fixing this mess is through a covenant with Abraham which culminates with the resurrected Christ. Through the resurrected Christ, the world will be put to rights. Ultimately that's in the final renewal, but in fact it's already begun because Jesus is already risen. Justification comes in here. The real announcement of God's verdict as to who are his renewed people is in the future - but it is anticipated now. We can already identify who will be part of that final renewal - it's the people who have faith in Jesus (not the people who had the right credentials in this life or did the right things).

Actually there's a lot of this answer, especially the first part, that I like and think that evangelicals today ought to emphasise more. The failure to emphasise it is part of what's opening the door to the bits of the answer that I have severe problems with. I do believe that many evangelicals have a far too truncated view of the gospel and its intention. Because the West has experienced a severe back-sliding over the last century or two, many have adopted the view that the picture of a tiny remnant struggling to survive amidst enormous apostasy is the whole picture. We're meant just to huddle together whilst the world collapses, waiting for Jesus to return, and then he'll bring in a state of perfection. This age gets progressively and inevitably worse, before we're rescued by the second coming. Jesus saves a few shavings of humanity, whilst the nations as a whole are doomed. To talk about working out the implications of Christianity in culture, in the arts, in science, in politics, etcetera, is just wasting our breath (so they say), because Jesus' purpose is just to rescue the remnant before everything else is wiped away in the general fire. If we looked at the world as a whole then in fact the last century has been the most dramatic advance for Christianity since the times of the apostles.

I don't think that this gloomy picture does justice to the Bible's big picture of what Jesus came to do and what he is doing. Indeed, I do see a fundamental conflict between this picture and the Lordship of Christ. This picture is acceptable to dispensationalists who believe that Christ's Lordship belongs to a future age. However for evangelicals who believe that Jesus has now received all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18-21) and is now reigning at the Father's right hand, putting down his enemies (1 Corinthians 15:25), just as the Father promised he would (Psalm 2), this proposition is an unacceptable one as the big picture. Put bluntly, it would mean that Christ has received this power and authority, has the ability to rule, advance, reign and conquer, being enthroned at the position from which to do so - but for some unfathomable reason has decided not to. Instead, he's going to allow the preaching of his gospel to be a general failure, overcome and defeated by the various opposing strategies of Satan (in our age, secularism, atheism, humanism, etcetera), until the end when he'll suddenly turn it all around not through the preaching of the gospel, the proclamation of the truth and the power of the Holy Spirit, but by sheer force of might at the second coming. As if his kingdom was like the kingdoms of this world (in terms of the way it wins its victories) after all.

So, I appreciate Wright emphasising that the plan of salvation is to put this world to rights, and not some disconnected future world. The gospel, not the second coming, is the plan to restore the world. What I think we see in Wright's theology, though, is an inconsistent working out of this insight. At later points, the practical outworking because little distinguishable from old-style liberal ethics - and this is because of the structural alterations Wright has made in the gospel. I don't want to start talking about that yet though - we're getting ahead of ourselves. Just keep in mind that whilst I'm with Wright on the matter of the gospel being designed to restore creation, we're going to disagree later on on the matter of how this restoration works out.

That's, then, the substance that I like from Wright's answer itself. I don't like it too much, though, as an answer to the question he was being asked. I don't like, either, the bits that come next, either on themselves or as an answer to the question at hand. What do I mean by that? Next time...

Christianity affects everything

"... the Christian gospel is about facts of history. It is not a “religious” message that just floats in the air. It is not just a set of ideas that nobody could ever test or prove. It is not something just offered for discussion, as we please. It is about real events, which happened in the real world. It is to do with real times, and real places. It is a message which is either true or false, but not somewhere in between. It must be either true for all, or not true at all. It cannot be good for some, but not for others. It claims that the Son of God came in the person of Jesus and that he is the Lord of all. It tells us that he was promised from the start, that he really lived, and really died. It claims that the tomb is empty, because he really rose again. It claims that he, and he alone, is our final judge and that he alone can and does offer us the forgiveness of our sins.

With all these claims, there is only one real question that can be asked in response. Is the gospel true, or is it not? Jesus is not offering us some good suggestions to help us get on in life. He is claiming to be the Son of God and the only Saviour. His first preachers were witnesses (Acts 1:8), who testified and insisted that these things were true. They had seen them, had touched, had spoken and had heard (1 John 1:1). It was true for them, and so true for everyone.

It cannot be correct to call the Christian faith “one of the world religions”. If it is any kind of path to God, then it is the only one. If it is not the only one, then it is not one at all. Either Jesus is alive, or he is dead. There is no middle ground! We live at a time when we are told to keep our faith private. Religion, people say, is personal and should not become public. The early Christians knew nothing about that idea! Their faith affected their whole lives – because it was real and true. If Christ is risen on Sunday, then he is on Monday too. Sacred and secular cannot be two different worlds – there can only ever be one. We must never forget that. If Jesus affects anything, he must affect everything. Do you believe that?"

(From some Bible reading notes on Acts 10:34-43).

Monday, 18 February 2008

Answers to some questions about baptism

Jam Cary was kind enough to read my response to his thoughts on paedo-baptism:
  1. - Jam's original article

  2. - my reply, part one

  3. - my reply, part two

In between tending to his own new little one, Jam asks some good and necessary questions:

I would be interested to know your views on what you do with your own children? At what age would you baptise them? And would you consider them Christians before that baptism? How would you know there [sic] profession was genuine? And if you baptised them and then rejected their faith as an adult, would they still be a member of the Elect? You are of course more than welcome to ignore all of those questions!

My answers...

Thanks Jam. The big question which I think is tying all of this together is the question of how we consider the New Covenant - what it is, who is a member (and how that relates to being one of the elect) and the link between membership of the New Covenant, the church and its ordinances. When talking about infant baptism, this is often tied up with the question of how the New Covenant relates to the Old, and how all the other subsidiary bits (the link between Old Covenant membership, membership of the nation of Israel, reception of its ordinances, etc.) changes or doesn't in coming over to the New.

Presbyterian writers such as Doug Wilson tend to emphasise continuity - infants were members of the Old Covenant, received its sign (circumcision), etcetera - and because God's has only essentially one people and not two, we would expect, unless there's been some radical change in the nature of infants, that this would be the case under the New Covenant also. The alternative seems unthinkable - that under the New Covenant God has become less generous, and now tells our infants to hop it until they're a bit more mature.

Baptists like myself have tended to point out that this argument is made fairly inconsistently - Presbyterians have historically generally excluded infants from the Lord's Supper, for good, Biblical reasons. They make sound arguments about the discontinuity with the arrival of the New Covenant with its emphasis upon personal faith and the second birth over against the Old Covenant with its hereditary membership relying only on the first birth which, if they were applied to baptism as well as the Lord's Supper, lead to the Reformed Baptist position. This argument though doesn't work against Pastor Wilson and other Federal Vision advocates, because they've taken the other fork in the road, and actually do argue for paedocommunion.

>From the Reformed Baptist point of view, though, this increased internal consistency in the paedobaptist positions comes at the cost of decreased consistency with the statements of the New Testament on the relationship between the covenants and the nature of the New Covenant. It also leaves behind a good deal of inconsistency in other areas. Presbyterians feel no difficulty in arguing that the physical territory promised to Abraham was a type and shadow of the spiritual inheritance actualised under the New Covenant, and ultimately realised in the new heavens and the new earth - so that no promise of the land of Palestine is given to us living here and now. Israel doesn't belong either to natural Jews or to Christians; the promise was a temporary one; a piece of the scaffolding as the house was being built. The house itself is much more glorious and the scaffolding gets taken down. The kind of Presbyterian argument that goes "look - these littles ones have had their privileges taken away unless we baptise them!" can be made for the Lord's Supper, and also for the land promises - and is invalid in all three cases. Wilson has increased his consistency by adding the Lord's Supper to baptism, but hasn't yet gone the whole way and argued that we must have the land promises as well otherwise our New Covenant privileges are less than the Old Covenant ones.

What this is leading to is this. Under the Old Covenant, Abraham's fleshly children were admitted to the covenant family and received its signs and privileges, but this was merely part of the scaffolding whilst the house was being built. Now that the reality - Christ - has come, the scaffolding gets taken down. The New Covenant is viewed by the (Reformed) Baptist as an era of fulfillment and reality; Abraham's children are those who share Abraham's faith, whether they have some fleshly relationship to anyone else in the Covenant or not. All such distinctions of the first birth - whose family we were born into - were temporary and abrogated.

The New Covenant, then, is truly made only with the elect - those who'll end up in heaven. Nobody will be in heaven merely because of who they were born to, but because they were actually in union with Christ. We live during the period of the "overlap of the ages" - the "already and the not yet". Christ has brought in all that he intends to bring in - but it's not yet been received in all of its fulness. What this means is that the church now is intended to be composed of those who are truly united to him, but because we haven't arrived in the eschaton yet, it still admits some who ought not to be in it - those who are amongst us, but not of us (1 John 2:19). Reformed Baptists see this line of thought as being explicitly taught in the New Testament,  Hebrews 8 being a particularly striking example, comparing the temporary and breakable nature of the Old Covenant with the permanent and unbreakable nature of the New:

6 But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises.
7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second.
8 For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah:
9 Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord.
10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people:
11 And they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest.
12 For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.
13 In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.
All the members of the New Covenant "know the Lord". It was part of the imperfection of the Old that some (many) of its members actually didn't share Abraham's faith, only his physical descent - they had to be evangelised and exhorted to know the Lord truly, not just outwardly. The New Covenant, though, is made only with the elect.

This means, then, that those in the church who don't truly "know the Lord" are not true members of the New Covenant - not true Christians - whether they be baptised, eat the Lord's Supper, or not. They are those who John says are in the church, but not of it (1 John 2:19). Because we cannot see into a person's heart and know whether their professed love to Christ is the real thing or not, we have to admit people to the church on the basis of their profession of faith - whether it is credible or not. If they live exactly as they lived before they professed to know Christ, then their profession is doubtful. If they live differently, then it is creditable, and we baptise them. We might turn out to be wrong, and our error might only get discovered on the day of judgment.

At this point I've contradicted the scheme of the Federal Vision several times, though I've agreed with historical Presbyterianism as far as it deals with adults. My beef with historical Presbyterianism is that it says that there is a different set of rules for children - they belong to an "external" or "secondary" phase of the covenant, until they have faith (that's an oversimplification and many will disagree, you'll have to pardon me!). My beef with the FV is that whilst it says that the rules are the same for children and adult - they both become covenant members upon baptism - it gets the nature of covenant membership wrong.

That's laying the foundation which I hope will make my answers to your questions more intelligible...

I would be interested to know your views on what you do with your own children? At what age would you baptise them? And would you consider them Christians before that baptism? How would you know there [sic] profession was genuine? And if you baptised them and then rejected their faith as an adult, would they still be a member of the Elect? You are of course more than welcome to ignore all of those questions!

I agree with Doug Wilson that a Christian is the same as a member of the New Covenant. However, I disagree with him by saying that a member of the New Covenant is the same as a member of the elect, someone who is in saving union in the Lord Jesus Christ through his death and resurrection and who will hence persevere to the end.

The same standard is to be applied to children as to adults, namely that they evidence the reality of their relationship to Christ by showing the hallmark of New Covenant membership - faith. That is, that they have received and believed the gospel, and rested on the Saviour who it is all about.

Now, the difficult bit of course is that faith, as expressed by a little child brought up in a Christian household, will look a bit different to faith expressed by someone who used to, as Wilson would say, ride with the Hell's Angels. In one it's more likely to be more like the gradual flowering of a plant, rather than a radical shift from darkness to light. The question then becomes more about how to identify and encourage infant faith, avoiding the twin dangers on the one hand of squishing it by failing to support it and treating our children like heathens (!), or on the other hand preventing it from developing properly by encouraging presumption - telling our infants how they're elect, going to heaven and saved, just because they said a few words about loving Jesus just to please mummy or daddy.

This is a difficult balancing act I think, and the main thing we need is lots of patience and trust. God uses means - faithful Christian parents - to bring little ones to faith. I understand the desire of Christian parents to define their children into a specially privilege category (covenant youth, presumptively regenerate, or even actual Christians through baptism), but what we actually need to do is just exercise patience and trust, and allow time for the reality to show itself.

I can't lay down any hard and fast rules about age, as the child's own level of understanding and development and own personality will all play a part. Baptists are vulnerable to the charge that we deny our children the benefits of baptism and church membership - means which are meant to help them grow - but we're tied up to this by our understanding of the New Covenant. We appreciate that the sphere for Christian growth is inside the church and not outside of it and so are eager to see them baptised if and when they can give a credible profession of faith relative to their age - but it's not as if we leave our children in the car-park on Sunday's and tell them that they can't come in until they show us they're elect. They get the teaching and admonition too. It's only a sacramentalist theology that makes actual eating of the Lord's Supper essential for every stage of Christian growth that can insist that we're making a mistake.

I might well suspect that my children are Christians a good while before being baptised, and be cautious about baptising them prematurely. I see this as a lesser danger than giving them false assurance, because their initial expressions that they love Jesus may just be that they want to please their parents by saying so. I'd like to see the evidence of dislike of sin and true remorse when caught in wrongdoing before I have confidence that they're really sorry over their sins and not just saying so because they know it's the right thing to do.

What I'm saying is that there's no neat and packaged answer. When is a little one's profession of faith credible? We all agree that it can't be credible at age 1 month, as all they can say then is "gaa". We all agree that by 10 or 12 or whatever the reality ought to be visible (and I've seen it in many younger than that; I was converted at 7). So, at some point they cross the line from one to the other - but there's no one-size-fits-all answer for all of them. Raising children is tough - as I'm sure you're already appreciating!

How do we know their faith is genuine? We don't, any more than with an adult. We don't, contrary to the caricature in many paedobaptist books, baptise upon the belief that we have an infallible knowledge that their faith is genuine, any more than we do with an adult. We baptise on the basis of a credible profession, just as paedobaptists do with their adult converts. It's just that with little ones there are several more complicating factors for working out this credibility, and for some of the little ones they're not yet up to making a profession that could be weighed and judged by the church, even though their faith may actually be geniune, saving faith and if they die tomorrow they will certainly be with the Lord Jesus. (I'm not discussing the subject of infant salvation here, BTW!).

And if you baptised them and then rejected their faith as an adult, would they still be a member of the Elect? I'm not too sure I understand this question! (Who's doing the rejecting? Me or them?). In general, though, Baptists understand the real members of the New Covenant to be the same as the elect. A person who apostatises is evidencing that they were never really in the New Covenant at all - though of course they may repent, in which case they'll demonstrate that they were. I find no Biblical evidence that Pastor Wilson's analogy with marriage - a public covenant with lists so that you can work out exactly who is in and who isn't - is the correct understanding of how the New Covenant works. It makes no allowance for statements such as John's, about those who were with us but not "of" us - on Pastor Wilson's understanding the two are one and the same up until the point where we break covenant and leave.

Whew! Hope that wasn't too long.

Go to Christ first

“In Believing, what you first look at, you expect stability from, and make the foundation of your hope. Go to Christ in sight of your sin and misery, not of your grace and holiness. Have nothing to do with your graces and sanctification, — they will but veil Christ, — till you have seen Him first. He that looks upon Christ through his own graces, is like one that sees the sun in water, which wavers and moves as the water does. Look upon Christ only as shinning in the firmament of the Father’s love and grace, — then you will see Him in His own glory, which is unspeakable. That will comfort you.”

- Thomas Wilcox, “Honey Out of the Rock“

HT: "Of First Importance"

Saturday, 16 February 2008

You are what you eat?

Many anti-Christian philosophies can be refuted easily - simply ask them to pass their own tests. Sometimes this can be done quite amusingly.

Ludwig Feuerbach was a contemporary of Karl Marx. Like many contemporary atheists, he was a determinist and reductionist. That is, he believed that the universe can be completely explained without reference to any outside forces - everything that happens is caused from within the universe, not by any transcendent or supernatural being. Ultimately, everything can be explained by the laws of physics. Applied to man, this means that man is basically a machine, driven by the chemistry of his brain, which ultimately lives and operates and is physically constituted of what we ate. Feuerbach was responsible for the famous phrase, "Man is what he eats", which was a slogan of his atheism. Man's behaviour isn't determined by any spiritual component - any soul - but by the physics and chemistry of what he had for breakfast.

Which brings us to author John Gerstner's amusing dismantling of this same idea, as introduced by John Blanchard:

"... the trouble with that statement is that the man who wrote it must be what he eats as well as the man who reads it. ... 'Bt if that is the case, then some of [Feuerbach's] ideas may have been the product of the spinach he had for supper, and things he wrote in chapter twelve may have been produce by pie a la mode. And the conclusion of all his volumes may have come right out of a can of beans... We should be wondering what the books would have been like if the author had eaten the spinach on Thursday instead of on Friday, and how different the conclusions might have been if it had followed a banana split rather than the beans. Moreover it is conceivable that if Feuerbach had had some smoked herring, he might have concluded that man is not what he eats. There is one thing we dare not do with such an author, and that is take him seriously. If man is what he eats, then he is not what he eats. If he is not what he eats, then there is some possibility that food, whatever influence it may have on him, does not altogether determine what he is.'" (John Blanchard, "Does God Believe In Atheists?", Evangelical Press, p152).

Friday, 15 February 2008

Could this be your church?

One terrible blind spot of many otherwise very encouraging contemporary evangelical churches is the lack of Biblical teaching or example in raising children and young people, and the correspondingly vacuous youth work of the church itself. Sadly it's not uncommon to find that a church which, in other areas is applying Biblical principles very well, has disastrous policies for evangelising and discipling its youth, or teaching its members how to train their own children in godly wisdom.

Unfortunately churches have been busily absorbed some of the world's most foolish ideas about young people:
  • That they can only be taught if they're entertained too.

  • Preferably the entertainment must come first, and occupy three-quarters of the time.

  • That young people must have separate activities provided from the rest of the worshiping congregation until well into their teenage years.

  • They certainly can't be expected to listen to sermons, or indeed anything over 10 or 15 minutes in length.

  • That the best or necessary companions for young people are other young people.

  • That the way to be relevant and respected is to be cool.
And so on. One tragic fact of this kind of dumbing-down approach to youth work is that it's so deeply patronising and offensive to young people, and many of them know it. It's a sure-fire way to put off the proportion of them who don't care about whether or not they're the cool kids, and actually are hungry to learn something substantial! Young people are ready and willing to respect leaders who will sit down with them and teach them the deeply serious things about God, life, death, heaven and hell - who will show them that Christianity isn't just like the world with a few God bits stuck on the end, but actually the fundamental truth about all of reality. The UK desperately needs young people who are willing and ready to live differently in this world for Jesus' sake - and it's parents and church leaders who need to prepare them for that task.

The following (lightly edited to preserve anonymity) quote comes from a frustrated homeschooling mother posting on a mailing list that my wife lurks on. She's struggling because her children don't fit in at her church - not because they're odd, but because they're normal, or at least what normal ought to be. This isn't one of those churches you couldn't distinguish from the Wacky Warehouse - notice that the church she speaks of is "is doctrinally sound [and] our minister is very supportive of us as a family." Notice as you read it that the struggle of her children isn't to be godly in an ungodly world - that's part of life in a sinful world, and no-one gets exempted. The struggle is to be godly amongst the other young people in the church, who are indistinguishable from other worldly young people and obviously feel no expectation that they ought to be. Could this be your church?

I am struggling with the impact of our choices as parents on the lives of our children. We have a son and a daughter, just starting the teenage years. It is one thing to choose a lonely path for yourselves i.e. to follow God and to homeschool as part of that choice, but I am suddenly hit with the full impact of these choices on our children's lives.

At our church we have chosen to keep our children with us during the sermon and not send them to junior church. This Sunday our children were the only ones standing up and joining in the worship. After church our son went to play snooker and for much of that time my husband was present in the room although at a distance - church rules that the children are not unsupervised. Our son found the conversation of the other lads he played snooker with foolish, unkind (not to him) and much of the time they were messing around with mobile phones. He came home to tell us he feels he doesn't fit in and he would rather play snooker alone. Our daughter went and sat with a group of teenagers - the boys spoke to her in a way which seemed to her as though they were teasing but to my mind does not sound thoughtful to a much younger child and my husband says is not the way to treat a lady.

She also witnessed a 15 year old girl kissing etc. with a lad - a different lad to the one she was kissing the previous week. I felt I wanted to ban my daughter from spending time with this group but felt God holding me back. Within minutes our daughter decided she would not sit with them anymore after church. Much of the conversation seems to be about who fancies who, calling people gay and mobile phones.

Where does this leave my children ? Our church is doctrinally sound, our minister is very supportive of us as a family and we have a few good friends. But I am beginning to realise our children are not going to be interested in the youth work at our church and are going to struggle to build friendships. They do have some good homeschool friends but I know my daughter paticularly would like more friendships.

Both the children are showing an amazing resilience to the whole thing and are being faithful to our teaching and instruction as parents. I am so proud of them both. But I am really struggling !