27 02 2008

I’m going to be making myself scarce at the blog for a few days: I have a mountain of essays, and a foothill of speaking engagements over the next week, and so there will be a brief hiatus here. Do call back around next Tuesday/Wednesday when I hope to have some more posts freshly prepared, and served to your taste!.


Showbiz Holocaust

23 02 2008

In the world of popular culture, it really does appear that nothing is sacred anymore. According to the BBC News website, a new musical has been released in Spain, which depicts the life and diary of Anne Frank. This is the Holocaust, showbiz style. The show consists of set pieces which provide caricatures of Frank’s plight, and the Nazis behind the suffering inflicted on the Jewish community in Europe. There are strobe lights and lame metaphors galore, as one of the greatest evils of the 20th Century is ‘played out’ night by night.

Frank’s only surviving relative has (rightly and understandably) snubbed the show, stating that, ‘Anne and millions of Jews died during the Holocaust – her story wasn’t made for a lovely evening at the theatre’.

Reading this story touched a nerve for me this morning, particularly in the light of what I have been reading in Laurence Rees’ book ‘Auschwitz’. It is reflective of Western culture’s preoccupation with entertainment, and the trivialisation of all that is significant, profound or powerful.

It also gives me food for thought about how this culture can penetrate our worship and approach to God. In a world where literally everything is entertainment based, it falls to us as Christians to resist any attempts to make God as small as everything else around us. In our private walk with Him, as well as in our public worship, we must not fear transcendence, wonder and awe, nor must we mindlessly trade them for entertainment, accessability and cultural sensitivity.

There are certain things which ought to be left alone – left to stand in powerful and bold relief against a background of triviality and banality. The enormity of human suffering inflicted by the Holocaust is one of them – and surely our worship of the living God ought to be another.

A New Best Friend

22 02 2008

Someone recently blessed me by buying me a copy of the NIV Study Bible Compact Edition, and I have quickly become best friends with this edition of Scripture. Although my translation of choice tends to be the ESV (because of its more literal approach to translating the original languages) the NIV Study Bible has won my affection by the sheer thoughtfulness and evangelical conviction behind its notes. This is a Bible for those who wish to get to grips with understanding the background to Scripture, and who want to go deeper in their walk with God. The notes are unobtrusively placed on the page (rather than embodying the ‘Pentateuch by Scofield with notes by Moses’ approach which certain study Bibles can sometimes embody). The authors of the notes are concerned to present a balanced view of evangelical scholarship on each section of God’s Word, and are often at pains to give differing views on areas of controversy a full hearing. The book introductions also engage issues of authorship which can arise within undergraduate theology, and give compelling reasons for accepting the traditional evangelical approach to Scripture.

There are a wide variety of editions on the market, ranging from very reasonably priced hardbacks, through nice touchy-feely trutones, to the luxury of leather…

I heartily recommend this Bible to anyone with a longing to know more of God through His Word.

Romans and the Reich

20 02 2008

We often hear it said that the twentieth century began as a period of optimism, but that the cataclysmic events of two World Wars tarnished this happy view of life and humanity. In reading through Laurence Rees excellent book ‘Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution’, I have been beginning to see the depth to which this statement goes. Rees seeks to write an historically accurate, non-hysterical account of what happened in Nazi Germany, with particular reference to the Death Camp, Auschwitz. The soberness of his tone only serves to reinforce more fully and tragically the horror of what happened in Europe less than a century ago.

As I have been reading some of the accounts of terrible inhumanity and suffering, one main theme has been pulsing in my mind: the authenticity of the book of Romans’ analysis of human nature and fallenness. To my mind secular discourse struggles to explain two things convincingly – the complexity of the cosmos, and the wickedness of the human heart. I remember reading Bill Bryson’s ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, and coming across occasion after occasion when he had to use the phrases such as ‘by some miracle’ to explain the origin of our world in all its glorious design and beauty. The same is true of Rees when he handles humanity’s destructive and contemptible realities.

Over the next while I hope to post some thoughts about the relationship between events described by Rees in the Third Reich, and the picture painted by Paul in Romans about our rebellion from God. I think that, with me, you will see the undeniable logic of a gospel shaped view of humanity, and that we are a world desperately in need of a Saviour.

The Advocate

14 02 2008

You’ve got to respect Steven Spielberg for his principled stand about the Beijing Olympics. He is deeply moved by the terrible suffering of those within Sudan, and is calling on China as a powerful ally of that nation to exert pressure for the alleviation of pain and trauma within the African country. Undoubtedly Spielberg’s action will entail a certain amount of cost and loss to him financially and professionally, but it is refreshing to see someone act on conviction and out of compassion.

As I watched the news footage yesterday, however, my mind instantly skipped to the silent sufferers within communist China itself – my brothers and sisters in Christ. No celebrity (as far as I know) has foregone prestige and paypacket to speak for the insufferable conditions in which many of them live, and violent oppression they face, for simply following Christ.

But such a reaction is all too human on my part. I’m not seeing the big picture. They have an Advocate, one who marks their pain, and has shown an identification with their suffering which goes beyond the abandonment of a media project. I am speaking, of course, about Christ. My heart is drawn to Revelation and to the voices of those who are incensed by the suffering of Christ’s church on earth – who cry out ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’. Christ’s response is heart melting. ‘Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed’ (Revelation 6:10-11).

Our brothers and sisters in China (and a whole host of other lands) live under the care of a Sovereign before whom all the kings and rulers will take a knee, and confess HIS Lordship over all. How we need to pray for the Church in these lands, that they would rest in the recompence of their Saviour, and in His intimate concern for their situation.

Uninspiring Inspiration

13 02 2008

As mentioned last week, A.T.B. McGowan’s most recent book ‘The Divine Spiration of Scripture‘ is causing something of a stir in evangelical circles, mostly because of its ‘novel’ approach to the issue of inerrancy. I’m not fond of judging a book by its cover (nor by its controversy) and have been working through the text, seeking to get to the root of what he has to say about the inspiration of Scripture. The end result of McGowan’s research seems to me to be a mixed bag, providing thought provoking analysis in some areas, and mind-numbing non-argument in others.

On the positive side, McGowan writes with a passion to think clearly and intelligently about how evangelicals use and describe Scripture. Some of his early thoughts are genuinely helpful as he seeks to set the work of the Holy Spirit in breathing out God’s Word at the centre of his theological task. He offers some novel and cogent thoughts about the vocabulary used to speak of inspiration. Rather than divine ‘inspiration’ he urges the use of the term divine spiration. McGowan contends that most translations of Scripture have adhered to the KJV ‘inspired’ rather than a literal translation of ‘theopneustos’ or ‘God breathed’ (cf. NIV;ESV). He also takes issue with the phrase inspiration because of its modern English usage as applied to other works of literature or art, where inspiration is reduced to a merely human process. His argumentation here is linear, lucid and helpful. I think he makes a good case.

McGowan also argues that the traditional phrase for the meaning of Scripture being revealed to the mind, ‘illumination’, be replaced with recognition. Here, again, the logic applied is persuasive in that as McGowan suggests illumination can make it sound as though Scripture is lacking in clarity and must be ‘illuminated’, whereas it is the mind of man which is lacking in spiritual understanding and must be enabled to understand or recognise what the Bible teaches.

He also proposes the replacement of ‘perspicuity’ with comprehension. Perspicuity, he contends, has the potential to make it seem that spiritual truth can be discovered solely by human reason, whereas we need the Holy Spirit to make its meaning known to us.

McGowan then begins an overview of theological history, showing the Englightenment roots which underlie much of liberal theology, and demonstrating responses to this both in terms of neo-orthodoxy (a la Barth and others) and conservative evangelicalism (a la Machen, Van Til etc.) This chapter is excellent, and would serve as a very good in-road for undergraduate students seeking to get a handle on the history of critical thought.

It is following this chapter, however, that McGowan’s arguments become less defined, a little fuzzy, and much less convincing. He assesses Fundamentalism and inerrancy, providing a brief history of the movement’s roots, and showing how certain theories about the inspiration of Scripture emerged. While McGowan seeks to show a measure of balance in his analysis of those who uphold inerrancy (referencing Carl Henry and others who did not fall into the ‘Fundamentalist’ camp) his assertions do at times lapse into caricature. He cites some who uphold inerrancy in terms of the KJV being the only inspired English translation, those who uphold inerrancy only in the Textus Receptus, and finally those who hold to inerrancy in the original autographs. For me, McGowan fails to make an adequate distinction between the first two (somewhat irrational) theories of inerrancy, and the latter which is backed by solid scholarship and research. Whilst he acknowledges that the last kind of inerrantists do not hold to a dictational concept of inspiration, he regularly alleges that they have an implicit leaning towards this, which handicaps their view of Scripture.

In the pivotal chapter of the book, ‘Infallibility: An Evangelical Alternative’, McGowan seeks to elucidate his own view of the inspiration of Scripture. He takes as his starting point the work of Scottish theologian James Orr, along with Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck. My issue in this chapter is not so much with what is asserted through quotation of these scholars, as with what is left out. McGowan appears to be wrestling a straw man throughout. His caricature of inerrancy leaves him free to continually assert that leaving aside this view means that one is free to emphasise not only the divine origin, but the human agency by which Scripture came about. McGowan does not meaningfully engage with any modern inerrantists in this chapter but continually asserts that infalliblity means that both aspects can be justly served by forgetting about the original autographs. As a scholar he is not denying the authority of God’s Word, but he is also not really offering any credible alternative to the traditional view of inerrancy as held and explicated by most Reformed theologians. The problem is that McGowan sets up an unneccessary dichotomy of his own, which flings the door wide open for lower views of Scripture than he himself epouses or asserts. His alternative is not so much leaning toward non-inspiration as it is to non-inspiring – he leaves a glaring void in our understanding of the origin and power of Scripture which the remainder of his argument leaves unfilled.

The penultimate chapter deals with the relationship between confessions and Scripture. Here, McGowan is incisive and extremely balanced in the way he handles Protestant understanding and emphasis on their own doctrinal heritage. The final chapter gives a stirring analysis of Calvin’s method in preaching and how it emphasised the authority of God’s Word. While both of these sections are interesting, it is hard to discern their relationship to the rest of the book which is so geared towards the ‘evangelical alternative’ to inerrancy that McGowan espouses

In his conclusion McGowan summarises the teaching of the book, and makes a plea for a measured, balanced response to his thesis. He makes it clear that he is not erring towards an errantist position, but that he wishes to modify what he views as dangers inherent within the inerrantist worldview. He pleads that the differences between infallibility and inerrancy represent ‘a family disagreement, rather than a cause for division and mutual condemnation and recriminations’ [p.212].

In summary, McGowan’s book raises some interesting points, particularly in its opening and closing chapters. It must be stated categorically that he is not intentionally or explicitly identifying errors in Scripture, nor lowering its authority or status. It is to be wondered, however, if the arguments outlined in this book may not provide a springboard for others to do just that. For me, McGowan does not provide a coherent or beneficial alternative to inerrancy, and for that reason this is a flawed book which carries a somewhat confusing, problematic and potentially dangerous message.

Call to Prayer. Call to Faith

12 02 2008

There has been lots of noise in the British press over the past few days about Islam and Christianity. Most of this has been fueled by the breathtakingly silly statements of Rowan Williams about Sharia law, and the backlash from all quarters about his comments.

In last Friday’s Times there was a string of correspondence about Islam – this time with regard to the impact of the call to prayer issued from mosques. It seems that this sound, repeated throughout each day, is causing annoyance and grief in non-Muslim communities which are within earshot. The opinions expressed in readers’ letters ranged from the hugely tolerant to the narrowly intolerant, as people gave voice to their concerns.

For me, the most interesting letter by far was from John Gudgeon in Norfolk. His comments begin with a tongue in cheek reference to his student son, but end on a deadly serious note. This is what he writes:

It always seemed to me a pity that we don’t hear the daily call to prayer in the early morning – especially when my student son was lodging close to the mosque in Leeds. As long as it’s not overdone, it’s a very atmospheric and moving sound, a nice foil to the English church bells, and, who knows, this reminder of daily observance might encourage backsliders of other faiths like me’

In one short paragraph Mr Gudgeon manages to sum up the tragedy of modern Britain, and much of Western Europe. It is a picture of people living in a culture which has lost its own spiritual and moral centre, and which envies that embodied by other faiths. There is something in the human psyche which longs for transcendence, which senses a deep desire to believe in something bigger than itself, and the closest approximation that the writer can find is in admiring the ‘daily observance’ of Muslims.

Mr Gudgeon’s letter gives voice to a hunger which many feel, but few express – a sense that we have sucked God out of the centre (and out of any significant place in our lives) and that now we long for something more.

How pitiable that as a nation we have so forsaken the fountain of living waters that we envy those who are drinking from broken cisterns! How far we are from God, and as Christians how we need to issue our own ‘call to prayer’ – that men and women might turn again to the only true and living God for salvation.