The Non-Miracle of Healing the Whole

23 04 2008

These days I’m doing quite a bit of thinking about secular theology. The past year’s study has driven me into the critical works of various Bible scholars, and it has been a bewildering, broadening, infuriating and fulfilling experience. Academic theology is not, as some would suggest, without merit. When I listen to D.A. Carson and others like him, I am blessed to find that they engage with and profit from some of the arguments which hostile considerations of the Bible bring to bear. Scholars of their standing have an incredible ability to drink the juice and spit the pips of those writers who do not hold to an evangelical understanding of Scripture. My prayer is that in the days to come, God would help me to emulate even a fraction of this wise approach.

Having said all of that, however, there are times when academic theology reaches the heady heights of ridiculousness. I’m presently working on an exegetical essay on John 5:1-18 – the healing of the man at the pool of Bethesda and its aftermath. Reflecting on the events of the chapter, one scholar writes:

‘There is no clear proof that John regarded the healing of the man at Bethesda as miraculous, nor need we do so. The patient obeyed a sudden, authoritative order to stand up and walk, and when he tried he found that he could do it’ [Bernard, p.231].

Now, even by critical scholarship’s standards, this is speculative and foolish beyond degree! If one follows this line of reasoning it is discovered that John, in writing a Gospel specifically designed to engender belief in Christ as the Son of God, decides to include an account of ‘the non-miracle of healing the whole’. Such a story of nothing happening would obviously serve its purpose in convincing non-believers! Under this reading, Jesus is a kind of life coach who enables the man to do what he could do all along!

Perhaps oddly, such faulty statements serve to encourage me in my faith. This is the best that man can do with God’s book. Left to his own devices, without the constraint of holding Scripture to be the Word of God, he resorts to conjecture, speculation and folly – not all the time, but on enough occasions to bless my heart!!

The evangelical’s high view of Scripture is no desperate clinging to a relic-like belief, hopelessly hoping that the Bible might be God’s Word. It is a reading of Scripture which takes the text on its own terms, which reads as the writers intended, and as the Author inspired, that we might know, fear, and trust in God. It leaves miracles as miracles, and refuses to see human reason as the benchmark for belief. That’s the position I take, and I have found nothing in the world of academic theology to shake me from it. God is good!


Ministry Blog Up and Running

19 04 2008

We have just launched a new blog, which will carry details of our preparation for missions work in Peru, and our work for God once we get there. It is called ‘The Road to Peru’ and can be found here. It will be updated periodically with news and views about mission.

I will post a fresh link to it from Double Usefulness each time new content is added.

I Think I May Be Coveting the Bible

18 04 2008

There’s a hilarious – and tragically realistic – episode of The Simpsons which shows how the erstwhile Reverend Lovejoy moves from being an idealistic young minister, to being a hackneyed, cynical clergyman. The reason for all of it is Ned Flanders. The excessive conscience of Flanders, with his incessant questions about his own moral behaviour, wears Lovejoy down. Eventually he suffers from complete emotional fatigue, and settles into a long ministry of not caring.

A classic question from Flanders, which I find funny every time I hear it is:
‘I…I think I may be coveting my own wife!’

At the risk of sounding a little Flanders-esque, I have my own conscience qualm which may be justified, or which may be just plain stupid. Is it possible to commit the sin of coveting with regard to the Bible? I’m not thinking here of bibliolatry – a charge which misinformed non-evangelicals routinely level at evangelicals. Instead I’m thinking about the Christian mass media, and the marketing which goes on for Bibles of varying stripes and shades.

You see, there appears to be a different kind of Bible appearing all the time. Devotees of the MacArthur Study Bible in NKJV are tempted to repurchase when it appears in the NASB. Owners of the Reformation Study Bible in the NKJV are urged to update their old edition to the ESV. Those who have discovered the joys of the NIV Study Bible are invited to move to a more literal translation, even if that entails the loss of the very beneficial notes found in that edition.

And then, when things seemed as bewildering as they could possibly get, along comes the ESV Study Bible. What should owners of multiple edition MacArthur Study Bibles, Reformation Study Bibles, and secretive hoarders of the NIV Study Bible do now? Should they augment their already bowing Bible shelf with yet another edition? Should they give away all of the Bibles they already own and make the ESV Study Bible their version of choice? What does this mean for those who mark their Bibles, or who like the feeling of a Bible getting loosened up and used?

What compounds my malaise is the sense that this is a specifically Western problem. We have brothers and sisters living in the world today who don’t own, and can’t obtain, a single copy of the Scriptures for themselves in their own language. I have posted before about church leaders who are forced to resort to extreme measures in an effort to get a single page of Scripture. There are tribes and peoples, and entire nations, who have not heard of Jesus and where the Gospel Word has not yet been translated into their indigenous language. I’m not engaging in the ‘if you don’t eat your dinner, poor people will starve’ logic which was rammed down the collective throat of my generation in childhood. Instead, I’m just trying to divorce my emotional response to good advertising and marketing from conscientious Christianity.

Advertising relies on covetousness. The whole purpose of banners, billboards, commercials and pop-ups is to make us feel that we are not complete in knowledge, well-being, or identity without a certain product. It is to be feared that this can be true with regard to the Scriptures.

To leave these meditations hanging in the air isn’t entirely fair either, though. Many people will buy the ESV Study Bible, not because it is faddish or well-advertised, but because it will ultimately be to their spiritual gain to own it. They have a desire and hunger to learn more of God in His Word, and purchasing the ESV will be a step forward in their discipleship, and may ultimately be used by God to send them out to reach the very people groups which I have already alluded to.

Perhaps a practical suggestion is in order, one which my best friend brought to my mind. When purchasing a new copy of the Scripture it would be a great idea to take a vow not to buy any other editions until the present Bible has been read right through. This could stand as a safeguard against Bible covetousness, and lead to genuine growth and discipleship.

I pray that the ESV Study Bible will be a rich source of blessing to all who purchase it. I know that it will have been produced in good conscience, and with a sincere desire to benefit the body of Christ. I don’t doubt the good will of those who have endorsed its contents, nor their integrity as Christian leaders. I’m not even necessarily ruling out that I may one day own a copy for myself. I just have a fear that’s all. Maybe it’s a Flanders fear, perhaps it is well founded, but it’s definitely worth thinking about before buying another Bible.

‘Godliness with contentment is great gain’ 1Timothy 6:6

Wiki Worship

17 04 2008

I like Wikipedia. It is limited in its scope, and sometimes the information can be a little hazy around the edges, but by and large I find it to be a good resource. One of the things which I most like is the element of interactivity which it allows. Readers can look up a topic, and add their piece of information or research to the existing base of knowledge – thus enhancing the usefulness and accuracy (hopefully) of the site.

Recntly I’ve been thinking about what wiki worship would look like.

At the moment, the way in which we receive the hymns we sing is a pretty one way affair. Hymnwriters and musicians pen the pieces which are then passed on to the Christian public to employ in their praise. Interactivity is limited to a group of end users (believers gathered together) to use the production of one or two people.

Now, that arrangement works very well. Most of us are neither lyricists nor musicians, and we are happy to pass on the task of writing quality material for public worship to those who have been gifted by God to do so. For my own part I feel like I’d run a thousand miles from writing a hymn, given the responsibility that it entails. If I make a theological error in my preaching it may only be heard once, and I can retract statements if my ministry has been unbalanced. But if I write a hymn it will be found in the mouths and written on the minds of God’s people for months, years, even generations to come. That’s a big responsbility.

This is where my idea of wiki worship comes in. There are occasions – and they are few and far between – when an excellent hymn, with good theological pedigree puts a foot wrong doctrinally. It might simply be a matter of phrasing and emphasis, or it might be the writer’s way of seeking to express timeless truth in novel language, but sometimes a hymn just slightly misses the mark. On those occasions I think that it would be good for the people of God to exercise some corporate editorial rights over what they sing.

Here are a few examples of what I would like changed through wiki worship.

‘And can it be?’ – the lines ’emptied himself of all but love’, are a very problematic way of describing Christ’s incarnation. Surely the way in which the ‘Praise’ hymn book has phrased the line is to be preferred ’emptied himself in all his love’. Wiki worship at its best.

‘From the Squalor of a Borrowed Stable’ – this is part of Stuart Townend’s back catalogue, and a very worthy hymn. But are the following words really true ‘He fights for breath, he fights for me’? Did Jesus fight for breath? Is the wonder of Calvary not in some way connected with the intentionality of Christ’s death, with His self surrender, with the fact that no one took His life from Him, that He laid it down? How about this suggestion in wiki worship: ‘He yields His life, as He fights for me’.

‘O Church Arise’ – another great one from the Getty/Townend stable, full of inspiring truth about the basis for and obligation of the Church’s mission in the world. But is the following line the best way to describe the Resurrection: ‘And as the stone is rolled away/And Christ emerges from the grave/A victory march…’? Does Matthew 28:2 not suggest that Christ was already risen before the stone was rolled away? The wiki worship way of phrasing this couplet might be something like ‘And now that sin is put away/And Christ is risen from the grave/Our victory march…’

This all may sound like pedantry, but given the nature of the world in which we live, and the communication of information which is viable between Christians worldwide, would it not be possible to refine the pieces that we sing so that they are as close to biblical truth as possible?

Got any wiki worship suggestions of your own on the pieces I’ve mentioned, or on other hymns? I’d love to hear from you.

*After writing the above article I discovered someone else using the term ‘wiki worship’ here, but it is in a different context, and makes a radically different point from the one I make here.

The Bald Truth

16 04 2008

It’s official – baldness is not a disability. That’s the message which has emerged from a recent court case in Scotland, reported by BBC news. James Campbell is engaged in an employment tribunal which revolves around his claim that he was discriminated against in his teaching job because of his baldness, which he claims is a disablility. Pupils would taunt him about his lack of hair, and according to the article he even feared physical assault. In seeking to be compensated for this discrimination, Campbell has been informed by a judge that his lack of follicular finesse does not qualify as a recognised impairment. A bit of a slap on the mouth (or the head?) for Mr Campbell, one would assume.

As anyone who knows me can testify, I’d be the first person to show sympathy to any man whose head is outgrowing his hair. I am currently in the process of obtaining my own ten inch parting, or tefal tonsure, and have had to come to terms with the loss of most of my fringe benefits. (I’ve opted for a shaved head by the way, rather than an ill-conceived bouffant or comb over).

I am also delighted that workplaces and colleagues cannot make a difference on the grounds of disability and that the stone age attitude of some within our society towards disability is being challenged and defeated. There are those in our community who need protection from discrimination, and who deservedly pursue their rights through the courts in an effort to make the way easier for themselves and others.

But by no stretch of the imagination is baldness a disability.

My issue with this story is the social problem which it highlights. Everyone wants to be a victim of discrimination, and being a victim can be a lucrative occupation. Our legal system offers rewards to those who can prove that they have been the butt of some kind of cruelty. Our televisions are bombarded with grinning sharp suited sharks who promise ‘no win, no fee’ compensation to everyone who has stubbed their toe on a desk, or slipped on the diet coke which one of their colleagues has spilled on the canteen floor. It seems that to get cash for cruelty one need only focus in on a prevailing weakness or sensitivity and make that the grounds of litigation.

How different this is to the practical message of the New Testament. The Christian faith is one where wrongs are to be endured, where extra clothing is to be offered to those who would take our coat, where the face is to be turned rather than the fist raised when confronted with violence, and where joy is to be found when all the world turns against us because of Christ. How I need to guard my heart from the temptation to self pity, to assume victim status when assailed by the more difficult providences of life. How I need to count it all joy, rather than counting on compensation, when faced with various trials.

That’s not to say that if anyone calls me a ‘slap head’ in the next few days I won’t quote 2Kings 3:23-25 at them!!

A Meditation on Global Providence

16 04 2008

In 1884 there wasn’t a single Protestant church in South Korea.

That’s a heartbreaking statistic.

By the year 2000 there were 60,000 congregations.

That’s cause for heartfelt praise.

In the land of Turkey Western missionaries struggle to be accepted, owing to the political tensions of recent years.

That’s the terrifying nature of modern life.

Korean missionaries are pouring into Turkey at an exponential rate.

That’s a blessing beyond words.

They are readily accepted by Turks because of alliances during the Korean war.

That’s a cause for rejoicing.

The reality is: people are being reached in a land which is hostile to the West, by missionaries from the East, who were reached by workers from the West.

The encouragement is: none of our work for God is in vain, nor limited to the context or continent on which it is exercised.

That’s the global providence of God.

A Moving Account of Terror

5 04 2008

My good friend Gary Cousins is currently ministering in Poland with CEF. Today he had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz, and shares movingly on his blog about his experiences there. He has managed to put into words what I imagine must feel impossible to express – the horror of man’s cruelty to man, the lasting legacy that it has left, and the lessons which remain for us today in the 21st century. Read his post here.