Monday, 22 August 2016

What Love Looks Like

I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practise hospitality.
Romans 12:9-13

Paul will come on to how we live with outsiders to the Christian faith – and those of us who are mission-minded might be eager for him to do so – but he doesn’t rush there. He insists we hear first that central to our life in Christ is how we love one another in the body of Christ.

That’s where he begins this section – ‘love must be sincere’. What that love looks like is then unpacked in one long sentence.

Grammar aficionados might be interested to know that Paul uses participles where most English versions translate with commands. Here’s an approximation: ‘Love is genuine, hating the evil, clinging to the good, devoted to one another in love, outdoing one another in showing honour, not lacking in zeal, being fervent in spirit, serving the Lord, rejoicing in hope, being patient in affliction, persevering in prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practising hospitality.’ To be sure, Paul wants Christians to do those things, but they’re expressed in a way which describes a character to be cultivated not merely commands to be carried out.

As elsewhere in Romans 12, hearing what Paul says through the ears of those in first-century Rome brings home the radical implications of belonging to the new humanity God has brought together in Christ. To take just one example, in a culture where giving and receiving honour was a central driver, a master honouring a slave above himself would be a strong signal that a completely different set of values was at work in this community. The principle remains just as potent today. In a world where race, gender, age, wealth, and status often either bring privilege or deny access, Christians model a different way of living.

Not that it’s easy to do so! But Paul is gratifyingly realistic in his assumptions about what the Christian community will look like. Yes, we will find it difficult to outdo one another in showing honour; yes, suffering will come; yes, there will be needs to be met. But it will still be possible to serve the Lord, to rejoice, to be patient, and to persevere in prayer.

In doing so, we will display to each other – and perhaps to a watching world – that what God has begun to do in the church stands at the heart of his reconciling work which will one day be extended to all things.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Crucible 7, 1 (May 2016)

The latest issue of Crucible, published by the Australian Evangelical Alliance and largely produced by the faculty of the Australian College of Ministries, is now available online here, with the below articles (abstracts included, where available). This one is billed as a ‘Malyon College Special Edition’.

The Cauldron: peer reviewed articles

Donald L. Morcom
Was Peter Capable of Writing the Greek of 2 Peter? An Exploration
Among the many arguments advanced against the notion that the Apostle Peter was the author of the New Testament letters bearing his name, it is alleged that as an uneducated Galilean fisherman Peter was not capable of writing the kind of Greek found in these letters. This paper challenges that particular allegation. Utilising evidence from elsewhere in the New Testament, exploring the history of investigation into the language/s spoken by Jesus and his disciples, and harnessing some recent advances in our understanding of the extent of the Hellenisation of Peter’s Galilee, this paper explores the plausibility of Peter possessing the necessary Greek linguistic skills to be the genuine author of 2 Peter.

Peter Sondergeld
Peter: A Biblical Basis for Self-Worth
Self-esteem has been, and continues to be, a critical concern for those in the helping professions, both in an academic context and also in a popular cultural context. There have been many proponents, and many critics of the concept of self-esteem and its remedy, self-love, for many years. The continued existence of the concepts of self-esteem and self-love, in both academic and popular thought, suggests that these concepts accurately describe a particular aspect of the human experience – that a common existential struggle for humanity is a low sense of personal value.

Within Christian thought and practice there are many different approaches to self-esteem, self-love and personal value. These approaches range from those who see no value in the self-esteem construct, and are opposed to any kind of self-love, to those who think self-esteem and self-love are essential and have made them central to an understanding of the core human condition. This article will challenge the adoption of the self-esteem construct as an explanation of the core human condition, and will argue that human value will not be derived from self-love, but from a return to our original created anthropology as worshippers and imagers of God.

We will begin with a short discussion of the problem of personal value and its remedy, and then move on to an analysis of humanity’s original biblical anthropology (that humans were created in the image of God and are unceasing worshippers), and the effect that the corruption of this anthropology (idolatry of the heart) has had on personal value. We will conclude with a further discussion of self-love as a remedy for low personal value and see that it is not virtuous; in reality it is idolatry of the heart, leading to further idolatry, as created things are enlisted to shore up a lack of personal worth. The only remedy for the restoration of personal value is for humanity to return to imaging and worshipping God.

Anne Klose
Church and Mission in Redemption: Exploring Church and Mission through the Communal and Missional Priesthood of All Believers
This article proposes that any perceived contest for priority between church and mission is based on a failure to understand both as penultimate phenomena which are only comprehensible in light of God’s redemptive plan. Such redemption as it is revealed across the narrative scope of Scripture is trinitarian and, therefore, communal in nature, and in consonance with this, both church and mission must be viewed in such terms. Whilst this may already be the case within academic circles, a broader more thorough-going shift in paradigm will require richly drawn canonical narratives with the power to strengthen the imaginative and practical grasp of church communities on their being and function. One such narrative is that of communal and missional priesthood expressed through representation of both God to his world and the world to God. 

The Test-tube: ministry resources

John Sweetman
Maintaining Personal Health in Pastoral Ministry

Peter Francis
The Challenge of Contextualisation, Presence and Proclamation in Short-term Cross-cultural Mission

The Filter: book reviews

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Every Square Inch, Every Waking Hour, Every Good Thing

I wrote the following mini reviews for EG, the quarterly magazine produced by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

Bruce Riley Ashford, Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2015), Benjamin T. Quinn & Walter R. Strickland II, Every Waking Hour: An Introduction to Work and Vocation for Christians (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2016), and David W. Jones, Every Good Thing: An Introduction to the Material World and the Common Good for Christians (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2016).

How far does the lordship of Christ extend? Answer: to every square inch. How much of our day can be spent glorifying God in our everyday callings, including work? Answer: every waking hour. How much of the material world are we to take care of as those entrusted by God to be his stewards? Answer: every good thing.

These three small-format books, individually and together, offer short primers on what it means to be a whole-life disciple of Jesus in God’s world. Every Square Inch briefly outlines a theology of culture and calling before exploring how we can engage with the arts, the sciences, politics and the public square, economics and wealth, scholarship and education. Every Waking Hour offers a concise perspective on work and vocation, looking at what the Bible says and in the light of the wisdom Christ brings and the kingdom he proclaims. Every Good Thing reminds us of the goodness of the material world and the significance of economics and stewardship, work and rest, and wealth and poverty in God’s design for human beings.

All three books tackle truncated views of Christianity which have been hindered by an adherence to a sacred-secular divide. All three understand that believing the gospel brings with it a comprehensive worldview which carries implications for every area of existence. All three root this perspective in the story told in the Bible, from creation to new creation. With action points and recommended reading at the end of each chapter, the format would work well for discussion in a small group, with the books being beneficial for those just starting out on the journey of discipleship as well as those further down the road.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Radical Belonging

I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
Romans 12:4-8

By the oversight of the Holy Spirit, while Romans was written for us, it wasn’t written to us. As Peter Oakes invites us to imagine in Reading Romans in Pompeii: Paul’s Letter at Ground Level, it was written to Holconius the craftworker and the Christians who gathered in his workshop every Sunday. How would it have been heard by them?

Almost certainly, as residents of the Greco-Roman world of the first century, they would be familiar with the use of ‘body’ as a metaphor for harmony and cooperation. Except that where the analogy was used to call the commoners to work for the good of the senators or the state, here those who are gifted work for the good of the whole body – and all are gifted.

A body where ‘each member belongs to all the others’, where a householder and a slave are equally interdependent, would undermine the status system of first-century Rome. Centuries later, whenever we’re tempted to feel superior to fellow members in the body of Christ, it still does. How could it be otherwise when the different gifts flow from God’s grace to each of us and are given for the good of the whole body?

The similarities and differences with other lists of gifts in Paul’s letters suggests it’s not intended to be a complete catalogue. Of the ones mentioned here, several of them have to do with the practical assistance of those in need. While some would be exercised during the time of meeting, others would be more applicable outside that context. All of them are concerned with our responsibility to one another, and are to be exercised with diligence and passion. None of them require calling to a special office.

The overall picture is of a community marked by the inspired disclosure of God’s word, a wellbeing that comes from service, teaching that builds people up, encouragement which helps fellow believers live out their obedience to Jesus, sharing generously with those in need, which is led diligently and well, characterised by a cheerful mercy that imitates God himself.

Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

It would be all too easy to bemoan how we fail to live up to that picture rather than ask instead how we might contribute to it, how we too might belong to the body of Christ.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Reformed Faith and Practice 1, 1 (2016)

Reformed Faith and Practice is a newish online journal, published by the Reformed Theological Seminary. According to the website, it ‘will publish three times a year, and each issue will contain several sections: articles and book reviews, a few discoveries from our Reformed past, and occasional tastes of campus community life’.

The entire first issue, whose contents are below, is available to download as a pdf here.

Introducing Reformed Faith & Practice

Michael Allen
Divine Fullness: A Dogmatic Sketch 

Richard B. Gaffin Jr.
The Life-Giving Spirit

Sean Michael Lucas
Owning our Past: The Spirituality of the Church in History, Failure, and Hope

Gregory R. Lanier
“It Was Made to Appear Like That to Them:” Islam’s Denial of the Crucifixion

Timothy J. Keller
Redeemer City Ministry as a Model of Ministry Preparation for the City

Roger Nicole
From the Archives: The Five Points of Calvinism

Conversation: Q & A with J. Todd Billings

Book Reviews

Monday, 8 August 2016

How to Think of Yourself

I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.
Romans 12:3

How would Holconius the cabinet-maker hear this? What would Sabina the stoneworker make of it? Or Iris the barmaid, or Primus the slave, or any of the others who belonged to the small Christian community in Rome?

Those are the questions Peter Oakes encourages us to consider in his fascinating book, Reading Romans in Pompeii: Paul’s Letter at Ground Level. From a guided tour through the remains of houses in Pompeii and a reconstruction of their possible occupants, making due allowance for differences in Rome, he invites us to imagine the social makeup of a house church in Rome. There are about thirty people: several householders with their spouses, children, and slaves; some, including slaves, from other households where they are the only Christian, and a few homeless people. When they meet, they squeeze into the largest room they have access to – a workshop rented by the wealthiest person among their number.

Just in case they were in any doubt, Paul’s message is for all of them: ‘I say to every one of you’, he writes. In God’s design, each of them has the amazing privilege of living out the renewed mind in how they think about themselves: ‘do not think of yourself more highly than you ought’.

We can so easily dismiss a call to humility as a truism. Doesn’t everyone believe it to be a good thing? But that simply wasn’t the case in first-century Rome. As Peter Oakes points out, in a society which was fiercely competitive for honour and status, Paul makes it clear that ‘there is no basis for seeing oneself as superior when the only measure is faith, a gift from God’.

Away from first-century Rome, there is something here for those of us whose egos are just about held in check by a sense of decorum (because it would reflect badly on me) rather than any exercise of spiritual discipline. There is something here, too, for those of us who are self-deprecating in the hope that someone else will feel obliged to praise us. Where is my source of self-worth? In what others think of me? In my latest achievements? In the need for constant acclaim?

For us, as for Holconius and Sabina, we are no more than what we are before the cross of Jesus. The measure for how we think of ourselves flows out of the gospel, and it’s the same fixed standard for all of us.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Mark Meynell on a Wilderness of Mirrors

I wrote the following mini review for EG, the quarterly magazine produced by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. Mark is a friend, but that has in no way biased my reading of his superb book!

Mark Meynell, A Wilderness of Mirrors: Trusting Again in a Cynical World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015).

One of the significant currents swirling around society today is the breakdown of trust – in politicians, businesses, authorities and institutions, including the church. Hand in hand with that goes cynicism and a sense of betrayal. How are we to live in such a world?

Addressing these issues, Mark Meynell serves up a well-researched, well-written book, with much to delight pundits of politics, history, philosophy, and popular culture. Here Thomas Hardy rubs shoulders with Monty Python, U2 with John Le Carré. But it’s deeply sensitive as well as informative. And ultimately hopeful too, because of what Mark believes about the way God works in the world, because of the self-giving love of Jesus in serving the powerless, and because of the community that gathers around him and his word.

A Wilderness of Mirrors calls us to rediscover the radical implications of the gospel for a disillusioned world, a world more than ever in need of Christ’s trustworthy goodness.