Thursday, 30 August 2012

Is government God? (Part 5331...)

I notice in the UK press discussion of the idea of a "wealth tax".

The idea is that the rich should have their assets raided, to help the country out of an emergency.

This idea calls for theological and moral analysis. People who have earnt money paid tax on it when they earnt it. The government took what was supposed to be its portion at that point. It will also take a further portion when that money is spent, e.g. in sales taxes.

But government reaching into your pocket and deciding to take money, simply on the grounds that you own it, is a far-reaching idea. It means ultimately that you own nothing, and the state owns everything. If a "wealth tax" is even on the table for discussion, then it means that nothing is your own. Its all only on loan. You are a steward, but the state is the possessor. At any time the all powerful state can claim back exactly as much as it pleases, and re-assign it to other uses as it sees best.

That means that the state is God. Traditionally in British thinking, only God has those kind of rights. The earth is his (Psalm 24:1), and he lends it out to us, as stewards. He can claim it all back, through his providential interventions, or through withdrawing us from the earth, when he pleases. Governments had much more limited rights. They can levy taxes for their legitimate functions; but they do not have an absolutely ownership that allows them to treat what has already been taxed as up-for-grabs again, to take or allow you to continue with as they please, as and when the political winds change.

Secularism pushes out God from the public square. That's its goal. But it's not possible for man to be god-less. Something else has to take God's place. The counterfeit God is the state. The state owns everything. If you own too much land or money, it simply decrees by fiat that it is taking it back from you again. Thought you earned it? Wrong - it was only on loan. If a people won't let God rule it, then they can't escape being ruled; hat's not possible. They will be ruled - but by someone or something far worse. Your judgment is to be ruled, not
mercifully, but by arbitrary despots who do not recognise your ultimate right to possess anything at all. A politician may wake up tomorrow and decide that all you has is now the state's again. When God is no longer God, the result is man's tyranny.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

First things first

The first petition of the Lord's Prayer : hallowed be your name.

First things first. The world - and our lives - would and can be quite different if we get that bit right.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Male and female

Carl Trueman asks why some evangelicals make a fuss about the Bible's teaching on role relationships between man and woman... and Douglas Wilson answers. I agree with Wilson. A few of Wilson's recent posts have been making the point that we need to discern where we are in the story. Sexual rebellion is one of the primary characteristics of our age. You can't be faithful to the gospel today - the gospel which calls us to repentance - and yet agree to put aside one of today's primary rebellions for some greater purpose.

Online gospel presentation

This is well done. HT: Gervase Markham.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Christ first, Christ always

I am preaching on Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42 this weekend, God-willing.

Such a simple message, but so easy to lose track of.

Christ is the foundation. Christ's service to us is needful - our service to him is derivative from that. Christ must be all, otherwise we'll go astray. You can serve Christ and get exhausted, and have made the wrong choice in doing it, unless you prioritise sitting at his feet and letting him minister to you. It's not what we do for Christ - it's what Christ has done and is doing in us.

Changing the label makes no difference

I saw a question asked in a Christian magazine, which began with this line:
My wife and I don’t watch porn, but do sometimes get turned on by sex scenes in mainstream films and TV programmes.
What is the questioner's definition of "porn" ? Apparently it's something different from "displays of other people having sexual relations".

If you watch other people in sexual intimacy, whether they are on "mainstream" media or sold to you by filthy Mick down the market, then by definition, you watch porn. Porn is porn, regardless of whether those purveying it to you wear suits and sit behind desks in White City, or whether they climb out of sewers with filthy leers on their faces.

"Mainstream" just means "what's in our current cultural setting". Your current cultural setting might be jammed full of porn. It doesn't become not-porn just because there's more of it around.

The question finished off with "is this OK?", to which the magazine replied "Yes, I think that's great!". Oh, wow. With Christian magazines like this one, who needs worldly ones?

Watching other people have intercourse is watching people have intercourse. If the question had begun...
My wife and I don't watch porn, but sometimes the neighbours invite us around to watch them making love. Is there a problem with that?
... then I hope most Christians would have been able to answer "Yes, that would be a problem."

And it would be no less of a problem if your neighbour "merely" filmed their escapades and then shared the video with you later.

And it would be no less of a problem if they were not your next door neighbour, but living across the other side of town and employed by the BBC to do the very same thing. The people we see on television are people, and according to Scripture, the people you come across are your neighbours (Luke 10:25-37). If you can perceive a moral problem with your neighbour knocking on your door and asking you "fancy seeing some videos of me and the wife at it?" then you ought to be able to see no less a problem with the BBC piping the same question at you through the TV listings.

Recent content

I recently added various bits of new writings and sermons at my website; do take a look... - there's a new "recent updates" widget down the right hand side.

Plus a few posts in recent days at, largely at Richard Dawkins' expense.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

The Good Samaritan, again

It is traditional amongst commentators of recent centuries and the present day, to pooh-pooh the idea that the Good Samaritan was ever intended to be read allegorically.

(Under the allegorical interpretation, the wounded man is the needy sinner; the priest and Levite represent the inability of the law and sacrificial system to save; the good Samaritan is Christ. This can be fleshed out beyond this, with increasing doubtfulness the further we go, but those are the essential points).

I'm not convinced by the pooh-poohing. I think it's a valid reading, by which I mean that Jesus may have intended his hearers to hear it that way. (This in no way undermines the literal reading as a simple illustrative story and the points taught by Jesus through it).

The lawyer's question, "who is my neighbour?", we are told, was an attempt at self-justification. His answer, as a good Pharisee, would have been "my fellow Jews, or perhaps just those faithful to the law (my fellow Pharisees), are my neighbours".

We know that this was a hot point of controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees. Jesus fellowshipped with tax collectors and sinners - unclean people. Jesus made a deliberate point of doing so. He came and fraternised with them to rescue them. The Pharisees did not.

This was well known to everyone by the time we get to Luke 10. The question "who is my neighbour?", when asked by a lawyer to Jesus, has big undertones. "Jesus - you treat these dogs as your neighbours; you must be unclean like them! Why don't you justify what you're doing?" That's a question that's being asked, and is expecting an answer.

If I'm on the right track with that, then you have to then read Jesus' reply in that light. I outlined that answer in my previous post, as amounting to "go and sacrificially serve first, using acts of self-giving love to make people to be your neighbours - that's the way of my kingdom".

That being so, then it follows pretty much as night follows day, that Jesus was casting himself in the role of the Good Samaritan. (We remember too that his opponents insulted him at times by calling him a Samaritan - and he deliberately passed through Samaritan country at one time in John 4 in order to preach the kingdom to them). Jesus is the one who crosses the boundaries erected by religious self-righteousness in order to save the needy. That's not an illustrative analogy; it's part of what Jesus was telling the lawyer. Thus, the story is indeed meant to also be read allegorically.

The good Samaritan

This Sunday, God-willing, I'll be preaching on the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

The structure of the story is interesting and puzzling. I've learnt that one basic matter in Bible interpretation is that when you see a puzzle, you're getting closer to the answer. Puzzles are not to be defined away; they are to challenge our approach. The problem is not in the puzzle's existence so that the solution is to get rid of it - the problem is in the way we approach the issue - the puzzle is placed there as a bump for us to stop, consider our direction and then climb higher upon.

The question from the self-righteous lawyer was: who is my neighbour? Jesus' answer is in terms of "who was a neighbour in the story which I told?" That actually reverses the issue. It's not "who is my neighbour, so I know who to serve?", as the lawyer wanted - it's "who can become your neighbour, when you go and serve him?"

Some traditional expositions - I just read Calvin's - do appear to quickly move past the puzzle. Calvin answers "my neighbour is every human being". True enough - but is that actually what the story says? It certainly implies that every human being can be my neighbour; but it does not straightforwardly say he is - it says something more complex. It shows us someone treating his fellow man as a neighbour - and that came first. Is that reversal of the question actually the question's answer? Calvin does not consider that possibility. It puzzled me and I was looking for answers - and a quick note in the .Net Bible was where I first saw the suggestion that this anomaly is in fact actually the key.

The priest and the Levite looked at the injured man, and defined him to be outside of the category of "neighbour". So with their consciences intact, they walked by without concern of having broken God's law.

The Samaritan took a different approach. He saw the man and served him. Thus he became his neighbour.

And that's what the kingdom is like. (The lawyer's question "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" is essentially asking that question - what does the life in the Messiah's kingdom look like, and how can I obtain it?). In the Pharasaical approach, the "holy huddle" defined others to be outsiders, and then felt content to ignore their needs. In the approach of Jesus, the outsiders were embraced in love, whoever they were - and welcomed to then become insiders. The parable is not a moralistic answer to the question "please accurately define my neighbour for me?" (though that's what the questionner wanted), but an invitation to love first and ask questions later - when the love will have actually changed the situation.

That's what Jesus did for us. He didn't say "these aren't my neighbours - they're hell-deserving sinners", and then pass by, safe in the knowledge that he could do that and not be accused of any omission. He said "I'm going to make them my neighbours, however much it costs me". He came and died to welcome us in. And we should go and do likewise.

A few thoughts from "Jesus and the Victory of God"

I've been reading N T Wright's "Jesus and the Victory of God". I've not got all the way through yet, though it's fairly repetitive and there's plenty of sign-posting of what's coming later, at greater length.

Amongst other things, it is interesting, insightful and irritating. It illustrates Wright's strengths and weaknesses quite well.

Chief among those weaknesses is his downgrading of the Bible's words, so that they are no longer the words of God. Again and again we read things of the like of "and Jesus probably really did say this" or "and it is not unlikely that Luke was telling the truth". (Those aren't particular quotes - I'm summarising). Yea, did God really say? Wright answers, "there's a reasonably good historical probability in its favour". That's not a passing answer for a teacher of the church.

Another weakness is his inexcusable and incessant caricaturing of conservative evangelicals - especially inexcusable as that's his background, so he ought to know better. Convert syndrome? Trying-to-hard-to-distance-myself-so-that-my-friends-in-the-liberal-academy-like-me-better? Does he so routinely push conservative evangelical exegesis out of the picture with a dismissive wave because it better helps him present old, familiar insights from the conservative tradition as if they were a brilliant and original discovery and he wants to appear brilliant and original? A combination of the above? Something else? Who knows? It's sad to see such a clever and accomplished man doing it, whatever the cause is.

Another big weakness is that once Wright picks up his hammer, everything is a nail.

The exile/exodus theme is a critical one for Biblical theology. Wright sees that and appreciates it (though again, he should no better than to present it as a new insight; it's only a new insight for those in the liberal academic guild who've spent decades and even centuries (I prepare my sermons each week using Calvin and Matthew Henry, and it's always surprising how much is "old hat") deliberately ignoring conservative scholarship - see above...).

So, he sees the importance of the exile/New Exodus themes. But he proceeds from there to not just see its explicit invocations, and then to see its relevance, and parallels, and the like at other points. He can see nothing else. Forgiveness of sins? That's a code phrase which basically means return from exile. Repentance? That's a code phrase which at the root means the return from exile. Jesus' forming a new community? That's a way of indicating that the exile is over. The kingdom coming? At heart, that means the return from exile. The parable of the sower? That's a discussion of the return from exile (I kid you not). Etcetera, etcetera... and I really mean, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera (etcetera...).

I believe that D A Carson once very insightfully remarked something to the effect that Wright has a great gift for bringing out what is in the background, and placing it in the foreground - together with an infuriating knack for booting what was in the foreground into the background; or even out of the picture altogether. This could be expanded on; but it's enough for now.

Monday, 13 August 2012


One of the unfortunate fruits of the rise of the charismatic movement has been the wholesale devaluing of religious vocabulary. (Yes, I know that the phenomena is now widespread. But if you want to trace back to where it came from and where it is most marked, honesty would require you to say what I just did). Where once believers valued care and precision, now it is a rare thing. Case in point: an email arrived from a UK Christian radio station.

Opening line:
We thank God for the performance of Team GB at the Olympics, believing the medals are a prophetic sign that this is the time for Britain to arise and shine.
Now tell me - what does that mean? They believe it is a prophetic sign... why do they believe that? Is there a reason to do so? Did God reveal that to you, or to someone else? Is this a nice platitude on a level with "have a nice day, I hope everything is great" or are we meant to take it seriously? "Arise and shine" - pardon? Again, what does that mean? This is the time to do so - why is that? What particular planets have been aligning that lead to this conclusion? Who knows? The medals are a prophetic sign... so, are our athletes now prophets? Of which religion? The same as ours or a different one? Who can say?
"The time has come," the Walrus said, "To talk of many things: Of shoes and ships and sealing-wax; Of cabbages and kings; And why the sea is boiling hot; And whether pigs have wings."
When religious proclamations are becoming difficult to distinguish from the rantings of the walrus, it's not a great sign of spiritual health.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Discipling the nations

Justin Taylor provides a lengthy quote from George Eldon Ladd, under the heading "When will Christ return?"

Eldon Ladd's answer is summarised in two basic points:
  1. It will be when the nations have had the gospel preached to them (been evangelised)
  2. Nobody except God knows when that has been done - all we know is that we have not preached it enough yet

This answer is reached by Ladd by:

  1. interpreting Matthew 24:14 ("And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.") to refer to the end of the space-time cosmos, and
  2. using it as an interpretive guide to the Great Commission

It stands out to me that when Eldon Ladd quotes the Great Commission (towards the end of the quote), he omits the crucial words: make disciples and teaching them to obey all things that I commanded you. Ladd's commission is "make sure the world hears the gospel"; but Jesus' actual commission was "make sure the world believes and obeys the gospel" - a rather striking difference.

To be sure, it would be hard to know if the nations have been evangelised enough, or not. But it's rather less hard to look at the nations and then answer the question: "So, has the church discipled these nations such that they submit to the will of the almighty Lord Jesus? Do they now obey the things which Jesus gave the original twelve to pass on to them?" Obviously, the answer to that question is not hard at all: it is "no, no, they don't, not yet". Again, there is some validity in Ladd's point - who can say precisely at what point such obedience has reached the mark Jesus had in mind? There is no tension here, in the same way that a man commissioned to "build a really high sky scraper" may not know just how many floors the owner had in mind, whilst also being sure that since so far he's only paved the parking lot and dug the foundations, he's certainly not got there yet.

Ladd's error is in conflating the end of the Jewish age with the end of the world. Yet, Matthew 24 does not make it difficult to discern which age Matthew 24:14 was referring to (the one that the disciples were then living in!):

  • Here is Matthew 24:1-3, which sets the context for Jesus' speech: "1 Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. 2 But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” 3 As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?”" The disciples asked Jesus about the destruction of the temple - an event that history records happened in AD70 - and the end of the age. There is no evidence in the Bible (or outside, that I know of) that contemporary Jews thought that the destruction of the temple necessarily meant the end of the space-time cosmos. To imagine this concept in the disciples' minds is anachronistic. Rather, the destruction of the temple would signify the end of the then-existing dispensation of Judaism as then configured, ruled by corrupt Sadducees and Pharisees, and presided over by the semi-pagan Herod. That "coming" that the disciples, as all the gospel evidence shows as they puzzled and questioned, looked for was Jesus' ascension to kingship over Israel and over the nations. They were not thinking of the end of the cosmos, but of the Messiah taking his rule.
  • In Matthew 24:34, Jesus said "Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place." In Matthew, "generation" always refers to those Jews then living (Matthew 11:16, 12:39-45, 16:4, 17:17, 23:36). And as a matter of historical fact, the temple was destroyed during that generation's life time, approximately 40 years later. Ladd's point of view was that "generation" meant "the Jewish race", which would make for an absurd statement. Are we supposed to imagine that Jesus answered the question "please, just when will the temple be destroyed?" with the utterly redundant and vacuous non-answer, "it will be whilst there are still Jews in existence" ? Not much of an answer, is it?

In context, in Matthew 24:14, Jesus was explaining the "mini-apocalypse": the destruction of the theocracy and the end of the then-existing world order. To be sure, it is an anticipation of the mega-pocalypse - the end of all things - and its shape foreshadows it. And it would not happen until the gospel had been declared throughout the nations (those that were accessible from Judea in those times). And indeed, it did not, as Paul later declared (Colossians 1:6). But to simply bear a testimony was not the Great Commission. Our task as Christians is not just to shout out the words so that the world has opportunity to hear them. Our duty is to disciple them, so that they learn to obey. Our duty is to see the world brought under the fruitful dominion of the Last Adam, through his cross and resurrection.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The life cycle of heresy and error

I've come to notice a common pattern in church history, in the teaching of error.

In the initial stage, when the teaching is introduced, it is taught as an improvement open the traditional, orthodox view. The traditional and orthodox openly reject is as erroneous.

But later on, it is introduced as if it were the traditional, orthodox view - or equivalent to it. Instead of contrasting it with the truth, it pretends to be the same thing, more or less. It re-appropriates orthodox terminology, with a heretical meaning. It uses the old words, but gives them a new, altered, reduced meaning.

For example, the heart of the Christian gospel is that Christ died for our sins - which means that his sacrificial offering was penal (his death was on account of an offence, that of sin) substitutionary (it was not a penalty for his own sins - but for ours). Liberalism, however, re-appropriated the language. Re-appropriating language so that it is being used ambiguously by different speakers tends to empty it of meaning. So now "Christ died for our sins" simply means that his death benefits us in some, as-yet-to-be-defined way. When liberals define it, the words "Christ died for our sins" means the same as a view which one of the orthodox could quite happily mean by the phrase "Christ did not die for our sins".

Similarly with the deity of Christ. To make ourselves precise and clear when choosing terms, we can no longer say "the divinity of Christ", because liberalism - whilst pretending to be orthodox, or orthodox enough to avoid being excommunicated before it had got sufficient power within the institutions - reduced the meaning of "divinity" to mean just "like God in some as-yet-to-be-defined way". After defining it, you knew that when a liberal said "Christ is divine" the actual content could be reduced to "Christ is not divine".

But what about closer to home? Liberals threw off their pretences of taking the Bible seriously generations ago. Now that they have got their power bases, they no longer hide what they mean. Where's the real action today amongst those seeking to subvert the historic teaching of evangelical churches?

Within the camp, one major battle is that for the Biblical doctrine of creation. Historically, the Christian church has confessed that God made the world out of nothing in the space of six days, as an immediate act of his power through his spoken word. The world was very good, but the sin of the first man Adam brought about a cosmic fall. But in the hands of many evangelical leaders today, the doctrine of creation is simply that God is the one who made creation, without specifying anything more.

And as they describe their doctrine of creation, its content turns out to be the same as what the orthodox meant if they were to describe one of the main options previously available under the heading "God did not create the world", namely, evolution. When the new evangelical leaders say "I believe in a historic Adam", then once you unpack what he means, you find that it was previously listed by historic Christianity under the possible meanings of "I do not believe in a historic Adam". "I believe in the Fall" means the same as "I do not believe in the Fall" and "Genesis is a historical record" can be further explained as "Genesis is not a historical record".

We've seen how well this worked out with liberalism. It destroyed churches from within, just as Peter said it would: "there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies" (2 Peter 1:1). Evolutionary teaching is destructive of the foundation of the Christian doctrine of creation, which is in turn the foundation of the coherence of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It's no use pointing out that some of these teachers are nice people, and that their creeds are otherwise orthodox enough. Once you allow termites to start chewing up the basement whilst you avoid going down there to do battle with them, you have in principle accepted the destruction of your house. That is so whether you or they rejoice in that outcome or not.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Roman Catholicism and authority

There has been a great deal of discussion at CTC about the rational superiority of the Catholic interpretive paradigm over the Protestant interpretive paradigm. As Michael Liccione, and others, have pointed out, Protestantism has no principled way to differentiate dogma from theological opinion – no coherent way even to identify the contours of Christian doctrine – that does not reduce to question begging or subjectivism. Catholicism, by contrast, posits an objective way to draw such distinctions.

Protestants, such as myself, claim that the Bible is the final authority for faith and practice - which sits over and judges all the fallible opinions of men.

With the the above paragraph, the Roman Catholics give their typical claim - that the Protestant standard is no standard at all. For, how can we know what the Bible says? One group says this; another group says that. How do you know whose is the true interpretation? Result: confusion.

And their solution, is the Pope and the Roman Catholic hierarchy, which they claim has been gifted by God to give an infallible interpretation of the Bible to us, so that we can have the longed-for certainty.

What a totally pathetic argument.

Even Roman Catholic theology teaches that the Bible is the word of God. So, are we really supposed to believe that:
  • The word of God (as its status is agreed by both sides) given in the Bible is unclear, and we cannot know how to interpret it rightly.
  • The word of God, according to Roman Catholics, given through the mouth of the Roman hierarchy, is clear, and needs no interpretation.

It's rather ironic for the Roman writer above to complain of Protestant "question begging". How is it that the Bible needs interpreters, yet the Roman pronouncements apparently need none? How is it that God, apparently, can explain himself so clearly and straightforwardly when he speaks (allegedly) through the Papacy, but did not manage to do so when he spoke through the Bible? When we read the Bible and try to understand it, it is doomed to inevitably be an unanchored, subjective pursuit - whilst when we try to make out what the Pope was talking about, its a task of a different order?

Jesus once said, "But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God", Matthew 22:29. The teaching that nobody could know what the Scriptures were saying until a few centuries later when the Roman hierarchy arose was apparently unknown to him.

Gay super-rights

Apologist James White has pointed out from time to time the true agenda of the "gay rights" lobby.

It's not "gay rights". It's gay super-rights. Rights which trump everybody else's rights. The first stage of their operation, when they pretended to be in favour of tolerance, was a deceitful sham. It was simply a step-up to the present stage: where they behave with radical intolerance to anyone who dares to speak (just speak) with views that disagree with theirs. In the present stage, they seek to police everybody else's speech and thoughts, and to ostracise anyone who is not in precise lock-step with their own opinions.

Case in point: the Chick-fil-A "gay kiss-in".

In case you've not seen the story so far, Chick-fil-A is a fast-food chain in the US.

As the company said in a statement, "The Chick-fil-A culture and 66-year-old service tradition in our restaurants is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect - regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender". Anyone can be served, equally, in their restaurant, without any harassment or even reference to what other activities they might get up to or prefer in other settings.

However, the owner of Chick-fil-A, Dan Cathy, also claims the right to hold to his own, Christian, principles as he runs his organisation. He feels free to donates his own, earned profits from the business he has built up to causes he chooses, not ones that the "gay rights" movement dictates to him.

For that crime, of not agreeing with them, the gay rights movement is protesting loudly and aggressively. Why is that? Because it's not really about the right to indulge in homosexual activity. It's about the supposed "right" to do so and to censor anyone who dares to believe or (horrors) say that such activity is immoral. Not just the right to do as you please; but the right to silence anyone who holds a different opinion. Gay super-rights - the right to have the "values" of homosexual intercourse trump every other value in a society.