Humanism and Deathless Hope

28 11 2008

Last week we spent four days in Edinburgh, along with Carolyn’s Mum and Dad. It was a really refreshing break from box packing and deputation, and we have come home feeling refreshed and rested. I hope to post a couple of things from our time there (not least from Edinburgh’s rich repository of evangelical history) but one particular part of our visit captured my imagination.

In walking around Edinburgh Castle we entered the Scottish National War Memorial. More details can be found about this building here, but it was a moving experience to walk through the hushed halls of remembrance reflecting on those who had given their lives in bitter conflicts ranging across continents, decades, and now centuries.

One of the guides, named Paul, was fascinating to talk to. Born into a family with enduring military connections, Paul took the root of training to be a welder, before taking a temporary job at the memorial, which opened out into permanent employment. He is now studying part time for a history degree, and demonstrated a knowledge, passion and pride in his national history which was enriching. I enjoyed a terrific chat with him, ranging from the history of the building, to the hugely beneficial impact of Calvinism on world history…

One feature of the memorial which moved and intrigued me was a stained glass window within one of the chambers. It depicts a horseman (perhaps one of Revelation’s Four Horsemen), upon whose cape is emblazoned what appears to be a swastika! Incongruous as such a symbol might be in such hallowed halls there is a bitterly ironic background to this depiction. The Memorial was built in 1927 following the horror and terrible loss of life which World War I had represented for a generation. Amidst the aftermath there was a deeply harboured hope that this really had been the war to end all wars, and that such bloodshed and carnage would never be witnessed again. And this is where the swastika comes in…

Prior to World War II this motif was symbolic of hope rather than hatred, of an auspicious view of the future, rather than a aggressive extermination of other nations and races. The symbol, probably of Hindu origins, was meant to symbolise the possibility that human nature could prevail and ultimately find peace. The builders of the Scottish War Memorial included the ‘swastika’ in their structure as a means of expressing their sanguine perspective on how history would pan out in the wake of World War I. A few short years later Hitler and the Third Reich appropriated the symbol, and the rest is dreadful history.

As I stood looking at this feature it struck me that this is a powerful metaphor for the humanistic view of history. Believing ourselves to be capable of overcoming our faults and failures we assert our belief that mankind is moving forward, moving away from its savage roots, and advancing to a new day. In actual fact the very words we use to express such hopes return to mock us, and show us the insurgent depravity of our own hearts, minds, and wills. We are more profoundly vacuous in moral terms than we can possibly conceive.

Such sentiments did not die in 1927, nor in 1945, nor on September 11th 2001, but live with us today. Coming home tonight I listened to a live concert from London, as Keane’s new track ‘Perfect Symetry’ echoed around the O2 arena, and across the ether via Radio 2. Lead singer Tom Chaplin announced at the beginning of the piece that it is the best song they have written as a band, as it encourages us all to live in peace and love. The refrain of ‘Perfect Symetry’ is that we should leave behind all firmly held belief, all divisive doctrine, all thought of heaven or hell, and live lives which express harmony and help to all around us – apparently we live in ‘perfect symetry, what I do to others will be done to me’.

Somehow I doubt that anyone is singing along in Mumbai tonight…

ESV Study Bible: Why not?

26 11 2008

Last month the ESV Study Bible was published amidst widespread acclaim and euphoria. The combination of a modern formal equivalence translation and the best that evangelical scholarship has to offer in terms of notes and introductions has proven a winning formula – with the first 100,000 copies selling like proverbial hot cakes. So great is the interest in the release of this Bible version that certain bloggers have even posted photographs of them opening their new arrival!

Given all of the popular rush and flurry around the ESV it might come as a surprise that I’ve opted not to make a purchase. I thought that I’d share some of my reasons here, both as a means of raising discussion about study Bibles generally, and the ESV Study Bible more specifically. I’ve grouped them into two categories:

1. Personal Reasons
A Surplus of Bibles
At the moment we’re packing our home and life into cardboard boxes in anticipation of leaving for Peru. This has served to focus the mind and to distil a number of priorities. One of the really challenging things is a box marked ‘Bibles’ which is currently hiding under our study desk. These are editions of God’s Word which we have been blessed through in the past, and that we can’t bear to part with for a variety of sentimental reasons. (This is not even to mention the bag of other Bibles now going to the charity shop as well!)
Then there are the study Bibles! My brother and sister-in-law bought me a copy of the MacArthur Study Bible when I commenced my ministry in Armagh in 2002, and in this past year my father-in-law bought me an NIV Study Bible. Both of these are wonderful resources, and provide insights from differing perspectives on God’s Word.
In the light of all of these, buying another Bible represents a major decision which at present I can’t justify.

An Excess in Size
Everything is viewed by us with an eye to weight at the moment. Will it fit in a box? Will it add to our payload of goods being transported in January? The ESV Study Bible is simply ENORMOUS. This is not a problem if you’re keeping it on your coffee table or study desk, but for our needs it’s just a bit too big.

A Lack of Self-Discipline
Recently I’ve moved away from using a study Bible as my main Bible for daily readings. The reason is that my eye is too often tempted to the notes while I’m working my way through a passage, making it all too easy to accept the author’s ideas about the meaning of a difficult section, rather than taking the time to meditate, dig in, and find out for myself what the passage is saying. Such a temptation is basically inherent in the concept of a study Bible, and it takes a disciplined mind indeed to resist it. I now keep my study Bibles near at hand so that I can read through them at my leisure, at a time separate from my devotions. For an excellent post on this issue please see here.

2. Doctrinal Reasons
All of the foregoing is merely personal preference, and can (and perhaps should) be written off as such, but the doctrinal issues I have with regard to the ESV Study Bible are arguably more serious. It is incumbent on me to preface what I say here with a balancing statement: much if not most of what is located in the notes of this Bible will be of tremendous benefit to the reader and will deepen their love for God and faith in Him. In other words, I’m not writing the ESV Study Bible off completely. That being said, however, I still harbour a few concerns.

As bloggers began to receive their copy of the Bible in the post I read their reviews and initial responses with great interest. No-one can possibly give an exhaustive account of the ESV Study Bible’s benefits and drawbacks, given the quantity of time required to work through the biblical text and notes, but a couple of unsettling observations have been made about its Genesis sections. A sample can be read here. Among difficulties being identified are the lack of affirmation of six literal days of Creation, and the favouring of the flood of Noah’s day being a local rather than a global event.

The problems inherent in these positions are obvious. I’m aware that there is a division of opinion among evangelicals about how best to reads Genesis 1-2, and what is meant by the six days. I’m a literal six day Creationist and can see no warrant for moving away from that position in favour of a supposedly scientific position, but I can live with the differences which arise in interpretation in this regard. The issue of local or global for the Flood casts a much longer shadow across how one reads the remainder of the Genesis account, and the entirety of Scripture. Having gone through the notes in the ESV Study Bible on this whilst browsing in a Christian bookshop I was surprised to find that the reason for positing a local Flood are explained by the more ‘limited’ view that ancient people had of what constituted the whole world.

At best this teaching is partisan, at worst it is thoroughly unbiblical. In denying the global nature of the Flood are we not in danger of discrediting the statements made in 2Peter 3:5-7, where a universal flood is shown as proof positive of God’s impending judgement on all ungodliness? How do we account for the specificity of the narrative of Genesis 7, in which we are told that ‘the water prevailed more and more upon the earth, so that all the high mountains everywhere under the heavens were covered'(7:19)? Questioning this seems to place scientific concerns above those of plain biblical scholarship.

This is not to say that the ESV Study Bible is to be written off, or that it will not richly bless many who use it. But the problem with assertions like these in the notes is that many who read this Bible will not perhaps use a wealth of commentaries, or have the resources to balance the opinions given in it with that of other biblical scholars.

It seems a shame that what appears to be an excellent resource for Bible Study is somewhat sullied by such a controversial perspective in Genesis.

They Were Pilgrims: Marcus L. Loane

10 11 2008

Last November Carolyn gave me a copy of this book as a 30th birthday present. I had casually mentioned it to her weeks before (I wasn’t hinting, honestly!), and was astounded to open the wrapping and find that she had gone to Belfast to get me a copy in the intervening time – what a wife!!!

I had wanted to read They Were Pilgrims in light of the fact that the four individuals portrayed within it each died before, or around, their 30th year. These were men who accomplished much for God in a short span of time, and I felt that it might be a suitable challenge to my own indolence and mediocrity to read of them at this period of my own life. I spread my reading of the book out over a year, and have benefitted enormously through taking my time with these great men of God.

In They Were Pilgrims Loane writes extended biographical sketches of David Brainerd, Henry Martyn, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, and Ion Keith Falconer. His aim is not to provide incisive and criticially nuanced analyses of their lives and ministries, but to celebrate the incredible worth of handing over all of our hopes, plans, ambitions and personalities to God for His glory.
For a little more detail about Loane’s other literary output please see Gary Brady’s brief summary here.

The accounts of Brainerd, M’Cheyne and Keith-Falconer were particularly rich. I had already enjoyed a brief encounter with Brainerd’s biography through one of John Piper’s audio biographies, had read Bonar’s Memoir and Remains of M’Cheyne last year, and knew nothing of Keith-Falconer at all. To follow the progress of the Gospel amongst native Americans through Brainerd’s ministry, with his pioneering concern to see them won for Christ regardless of personal or physical cost made a deep incision into my own inherent sense of self-protection in Christ’ service. There is much talk in Christian ministry circles at the moment of ‘self-care’ (which is vitally needed), but this can at times be at the expense of challenging men and women to sacrificial service. Brainerd’s life serves to bore holes in any sense ministerial self pity. M’Cheyne’s sweet piety, his diligent pursuit of holiness in ministry, and his tireless efforts in a settled local church ministry refreshed me once again. It is clear that Loane relies heavily on Bonar’s memoir, which made my reading of his sketch all the more enjoyable, given my recent readings in that text. One niggling concern which I harbour about our view of M’Cheyne is the lack of critical material regarding his life. The Memoir was written by a close friend of M’Cheyne and, as Loane acknowledges, follows a Victorian approach to the writing of his life. One feels that the great preacher of Dundee might prove to be even more of a challenging role model if we saw and sensed more clay mixed with the iron of his devotion to God. Keith-Falconer was a stranger to me, and it was a blessing to read of his labours in Aden to reach Muslims. Keith-Falconer was a linguist of the highest academic acumen, and his willingness to devote intellectual and financial resources to the cause of Christ was stirring. Some of the incidental details of his life – like his expedition on a Victorian large wheeled bicycle from Land’s End to John O’Groats provided light relief amidst the rigours of his labours to Christ. Keith-Falconer was a contemporary of C.T. Studd and John G. Paton, and his work among Muslim communities is highly informative, given our world mission context of the 10-40 window.

The only low point in the book for me was Loane’s treatment of Henry Martyn. While there was much to bless me, I did feel that too much detail and time were devoted to his doomed romance with Lydia Grenfell. Whilst this was a cause of much vexation and heartbreak to Martyn, Loane’s focus on it did at times draw one’s attention away from his life and labour in Persia. This is a trifling criticism, and Martyn’s life still proved to be a deep challenge as I read the treatment of it contained within these pages.

Loane’s writing style is quite simply beautiful. Biographical details are conveyed to the reader via language which is lyrical, succinct and deeply moving. The book is presented in typically good Banner hardback quality with a beautiful dust jacket, and large easily readable typeface. I would readily recommend this title to anyone who wishes to gain an introductory insight into the lives of these great men of God, and would definitely commend it as an excellent gift idea for anyone who is reaching the ripe old age of 30!

For a survey of Loane’s other writings see Gary Brady’s brief overview here.

Irish Biblical Reformation Conference (1)

1 11 2008

On Saturday my brother and I attended the Irish Biblical Reformation Conference at Edenmore Golf Club at Magheralin. The yearly conference has featured some of the best known speakers of a Reformed persuasion over the past years, but this was the first time that I’ve been able to attend in person. Running from 9:45am to 1pm the programme consisted of coffee, a ministry session, some more coffee and scones, a second ministry session, followed by a Q&A session.

This year’s speaker was Dr James Renihan of Westminster Seminary California (more details here), who had been given the subject of biblical church leadership. Coming as it did on the heels of a hectic couple of days in London at the Peruvian Consulate, I went along with a slight concern that my concentration and engagement levels might be a bit lower than normal. I need not have worried, as Dr Renihan brought two staunchly biblical and stirringly practical messages on the vital area of leadership in Christ’s Church. Much of what he said resonated deeply with my own experience of ministry, and provided me with rich food for thought as I contemplate being involved in local church work in Peru.

The following are the main points from his first address, and I will post the second set of notes in a couple of days.

The Mandate for Biblical Church Leadership
The topic given is suggestive of an underlying assumption that there is a biblical authority for the leadership of a local church, and authority which comes from Scripture. Several abuses of this authority have been evident in history. On the one hand those in authority have rountinely abused their position, as was evident in NT times in terms of individuals such as Diotrophes. There has also been abuse by those under the authority of church leadership, a pertinent case in point being the Corinthian church, as evidenced in 2Corinthians. Occasionally men are derelict in authority. There are those who are called, but simply won’t act, and others who have their own ideas of what leadership is without any reference to Jesus’ teaching. Sometimes churches are sloppy about leadership – either because of traditions within a denomination, or alternatively because of a desire to pursue pragmatic innovation. Another school of thought is that the NT simply has no settled pattern of what leadership is about.

Any study of biblical church leadership must take the Lord Jesus Christ as its starting point. He is the One who has authority, and all of our ideas about leadership are necessarily derivative from Him.

The text of Matthew 28:18-19 clarifies many of these issues for us.

Firstly note the setting. These are Jesus’ last recorded words prior to His departure, and thus they take on great significance. Notice secondly the audience – Jesus words are addressed to the 11 apostles who will carry His message into the world. Note the speaker, it is the Lord Jesus Christ, He is the subject of Matthew’s Gospel and all of the foregoing material in the text has led up to this point. Note also the content of these verses. They speak of Christ’s possession of authority, the extent of His authority (‘all authority’) the dominion of His authority (heaven and earth, referring to the whole moral universe, which is subject to Him) and the grant of His authority (it has been ‘given’ to Him, the purpose of which is that His Church might be built).

Taking all of the foregoing into consideration, it can be asserted that when we speak of leadership we must speak first of Jesus Christ: He is the One with all authority. Ephesians 1:15-23 fleshes this out further for us. Jesus’ authority is unique, and the resurrection saw the consumate demonstration of this.

As a result, the authority of Christ in the Church encompasses all of the subordinate offices. Jesus is the real and true Apostle to the Church, He is desribed by Peter as the Shepherd or Overseer of the church, and Romans 15:8 speaks of Him as a deacon. Whatever office we think of within the church must be thought of as belonging primarily to Christ. We thus look to Jesus as the One who epitomises these offices. We might ask how He functions in these offices? The answer is that He founds and builds the Church, He rules and administers the Church, and He vivifies the Church by giving gifts to it (Ephesians 4).

If we divorce our authority from the authority and headship of Christ we are in danger.

All of this leads us to consider the next reality with regard to Church leadership: the Apostles. Ephesians 2:19-22 makes their role clear. As the chief Cornerstone, Christ gave Apostles and prophets to the Church. The Apostles were hand-picked companions of Jesus. They were to function as representatives of an authoritative sender, and their mission thus carries His authority, having been covenantly commissioned to fulfil God’s purpose. The Apostles were commissioned to communicate truth, calling for people to turn to Christ. Apostleship also encompasses all other subordinate offices. Peter describes himself as an elder, and Paul as a deacon. The Apostles are mentioned first in listings because they were foundational. Ridderbos has described them as ‘guarantors of the deposit of faith…the canon of the church to come’.

The Apostles fulfilled their role (a) personally, as they spoke as Christ’s representative and (b) by letter, ministering as representatives of Christ in writing. When the Apostles died, what happened to their office? It is still theirs! No others can hold this office, and they continue to administer their authority through the Apostolic writings. It is foolishness to try to relay a foundation.

A third reality can also be observed, that of pastors and deacons. In the NT several terms are used of leadership:

(a) ‘Elder’: which literally means older man. In the culture of the NT an older man was 50+. The term was frequently used of leaders in a Christian church, and this was based on contemporary Jewish and Greek usage. In terms of the NT, it had lost all, or at least some, of its connotation of age. The term is always used in the plural, and refers to one’s spiritual maturity. An immature man (spiritually) cannot hold this office.

(b) ‘Bishop’: this term was also found in the language of mediterranaen culture. It literally means to watch over, to guard, to protect. Elder and bishop are synonymous: in the NT both terms are used of men in the local church.

(c) ‘Pastor’: this is the term most used by us, but least used by the New Testament. In Acts 19 Paul used ‘pastor’ along with ‘elder’ and ‘overseer’, thus tying them together. The pastor nurtures, feeds, exercises, leads, gives direction, heals, fends off wolves, and keeps the sheep safe.

A number of wonderful pictures in the New Testament depict the role of the pastor. Such leaders are portrayed as:
*A shepherd over a flock of sheep
*A parent over a household
*A mother caring for a baby
*A good father to his children
*A watchman in a city
*An overseer in a group
*A governor over a city
*A teacher over pupils

How is such a man to function? By looking to Christ and the Apostles. Such a servant of God is to be meek, approachable, compassionate, empathetic, sympathetic, a man of disinterested love, and of Christ-like diligence.

The office of Deacon denotes a servant. Philippian 1:1 envisions a complete church as encompassing both offices of pastor and deacon. A Deacon is one appointed to serve others. Great good can come to the cause of Christ when Deacons show leadership in their office. This is a work focussed on benevolence and goodwill, expecially helping fellow-believers, but also extending care to those outside

It is so important to think in terms of the structure that Christ Himself has established. We look to the Apostles in their Word, and by looking to Jesus Christ in His offices and ministry.