Wednesday 28 December 2011

Blessing (2)

PrayerWorks, a new venture from the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity starting in early January 2012, seeks to encourage prayer for the workplace by providing creative ways of praying and developing pathways of prayer for Christians together. From 1 February, this will include a 40-day journey of prayer for work using the prayer pathway of blessing. As part of this, I have been asked to write a supportive piece on what the Bible says about ‘blessing’ – what it tells us about God and the way he works, and its implications for our response in praise to God and in praying for others.

Earlier posts:

Blessing (1) – Introduction

In our exploration of the significance of blessing, we begin (where else?) with God himself.

1. Blessing comes from God

The Bible is clear that God is the source of every blessing, which are his to give and administer. God operates out of love and grace towards his world and his people, and we are to understand blessing in the light of that. In particular, blessing is bound up with two major aspects of his work – creation and covenant.

(a) The creator God

In Genesis 1, having first declared them ‘good’, God then blesses the creatures he has made – fish in the sea, birds in the sky, people on the earth (1:22, 28; 5:1-2). Blessing in this case relates to their capacity to multiply and flourish in their allotted space. In addition, humans – as God’s image-bearers – are called on to steward the earth, to exercise loving rule over other creatures. That God’s blessing remains on humanity even after the entrance of sin into the world is seen in its restatement to Noah after the flood (Gen. 9:1-3), where blessing is God’s generous giving of good things to his creatures and ongoing provision for them, with Genesis 8:21-22 promising the unending provision of times and seasons. God’s continual care for the created world is also reiterated in the New Testament (e.g., Matt. 5:45; 6:25-33; Acts 14:17; 17:25; James 1:17).

So significant is this theme that one biblical scholar, Claus Westermann, made a distinction between blessing as God’s ongoing activity in sustaining creation through natural processes, and deliverance as God’s isolated acts of saving his people through remarkable events. Arguably, as we shall see, God’s acts in creation and salvation shouldn’t be distinguished too sharply, but it’s still worth noting that God is present not just in his mighty acts of ‘saving’, but in the ongoing results of his activity of blessing humanity and his constant sustaining work in all realms of life. To be sure, the Bible tells of a series of events in which God works powerfully on behalf of his people, but he is as much a part of our ongoing existence in the giving of life, the bringing up of children, and the cycle of the working week. God’s blessing in these realms is continuous and often unnoticed, but no less real for that.

Even so, the opening chapters of Genesis also show how sin results in rebellion against God, estrangement from each other, and the ensuing struggle to live and work in a fallen world. It becomes apparent that sin is all-pervasive as well as destructive, and brings about death. What now of God’s intention to bless? All this is backdrop for what follows with the call and promise to Abraham, the beginning of the story of salvation, where God’s blessing on humanity becomes particularised in a special people.

Bible Reading Plans for 2012

As usual at this time of the year, Justin Taylor (of ‘Between Two Worlds’) has an excellent post on various plans for reading the Bible through in a year.

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Blessing (1)

PrayerWorks, a new venture from the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity starting in early January 2012, seeks to encourage prayer for the workplace by providing creative ways of praying and developing pathways of prayer for Christians together. From 1 February, this will include a 40-day journey of prayer for work using the prayer pathway of blessing. As part of this, I have been asked to write a supportive piece on what the Bible says about ‘blessing’ – what it tells us about God and the way he works, and its implications for our response in praise to God and in praying for others.

The language of ‘blessing’ is used in everyday speech more than we might imagine. Most often it has to do with something that contributes to a person’s happiness or wellbeing. ‘Bless you’, we sometimes say after someone has sneezed, a practice which appears to be related to asking God to protect someone, traceable back at least to the first century ad. Or maybe we wish our friends ‘every blessing’ when we sign off emails. ‘Count your blessings’, a well-meaning person urges us when we’re feeling sorry for ourself. Indeed, on some occasions, we may consider we have been ‘blessed’ by someone’s kindness, or something good happens to us and we describe it as a ‘blessing’ – perhaps even an ‘unexpected blessing’ or ‘a blessing in disguise’. Whereas on other occasions, truth be known, something is more of a ‘mixed blessing’.

Then, perhaps, a superior at work says she is happy to give her ‘blessing’ to a project we’re working on, or a father-in-law gives his ‘blessing’ to the marriage of his daughter to her future husband. Some of us may say a ‘blessing’ before a meal as a way of acknowledging God as the giver of all good things. Or, we may attend a church where services end with a ‘blessing’, or even where bread and wine is ‘blessed’ before it is distributed. More controversially, we’re aware that people talk about whether it is appropriate to ‘bless’ same-sex partnerships in church.

What ‘blessing’ means differs from context to context, a variation which is reflected in the Bible too. In Scripture, the concept of blessing is related especially to the Hebrew root brk in the Old Testament and the Greek eulogia in the New Testament. Even limiting ourselves to occurrences of these, words related to ‘blessing’ appear over 300 times in the Old Testament and 65 times in the New Testament – constituting an important biblical theme.

Sunday 25 December 2011

Let Earth and Heaven Combine

Here is one of my favourite Christmas hymns that I haven’t sung for a while. It’s by Charles Wesley. I will be forever grateful that I spent my formative Christian years in a church tradition where hymns like this were de rigueur – sung, believed, preached, and lived.

Looking at it again, the second verse now sounds a little docetic to my ears! I strongly suspect that can’t be the case with Wesley. Moreover, the whole tenor of the hymn speaks of the mystery of what God was doing in becoming flesh, captured wonderfully in those lines in the first verse – ‘Our God contracted to a span/Incomprehensibly made man’. That always made me smile as each member of the congregation would invariably fit the words to the music in slightly different ways. But, just to sing it, to think about matching the music, required thinking about the lines and then being taken up – even just for a moment – in wonder.

Let earth and Heaven combine,

Angels and men agree,

To praise in songs divine

The incarnate Deity,

Our God contracted to a span,

Incomprehensibly made Man.

He laid His glory by,

He wrapped Him in our clay;

Unmarked by human eye,

The latent Godhead lay;

Infant of days He here became,

And bore the mild Immanuel’s Name.

See in that Infant’s face

The depths of deity,

And labour while ye gaze

To sound the mystery

In vain; ye angels gaze no more,

But fall, and silently adore.

Unsearchable the love

That hath the Savior brought;

The grace is far above

Of men or angels’ thought:

Suffice for us that God, we know,

Our God, is manifest below.

He deigns in flesh t’appear,

Widest extremes to join;

To bring our vileness near,

And make us all divine:

And we the life of God shall know,

For God is manifest below.

Made perfect first in love,

And sanctified by grace,

We shall from earth remove,

And see His glorious face:

His love shall then be fully showed,

And man shall all be lost in God.

Charles Wesley (1707-1788)

Saturday 24 December 2011

Jeff McSwain on the Incarnation in the Pastoral Epistles

Jeff McSwain, ‘The Christmas Epistles: A Most Human Understanding of Godliness’, Christianity Today (22 December 2011).

Setting up his theme, McSwain writes:

‘The event of the birth of Christ... contains all the others. Bundled in the manger is the salvation of the world. The Cross, Resurrection, and Ascension are all present implicitly in the baby Jesus, only to be unpacked over the next thirty-plus years. Far from being secondary, the Incarnation is in a very real sense our saving moment! At Christmas we can thank the Lord with Simeon: “For my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:30).We say this not only because we are looking backward through the Cross to the crib but also because, from the very beginning, even before Adam fell, God was looking “forward” through the crib to the Cross!’

It’s an interesting piece, interspersing lines of Christmas hymns throughout what is essentially a set of reflections on the incarnation in the pastoral epistles. As McSwain says, ‘it is in the Pastoral Epistles... that we find most profoundly this idea that salvation comes in the person of Jesus Christ, and for this reason I call these pastoral letters the Christmas Epistles’.

Byron Borger on Books for Life-Long Learners 12.0

Here is the twelfth in a series of notes by Byron Borger on recent books, including Richard Mouw’s The Challenges of Cultural Discipleship: Essays in the Line of Abraham Kuyper, Brian J. Walsh’s Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination, and Salvation Means Creation Healed: The Ecology of Sin and Grace by Howard A. Snyder with Joel Scandrett.

Marilynne Robinson on What Literature Owes the Bible

Marilynne Robinson, ‘The Book of Books: What Literature Owes the Bible’, The New York Times (22 December 2011).

I read Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson’s first novel (published in 1981), during the summer this year and was utterly beguiled.

This is a short piece by her on the influence of the Bible on literature in English, from which the following is excerpted:

‘The Bible is the model for and subject of more art and thought than those of us who live within its influence, consciously or unconsciously, will ever know.’

‘Biblical allusions can suggest a degree of seriousness or significance their context in a modern fiction does not always support. This is no cause for alarm. Every fiction is a leap in the dark, and a failed grasp at seriousness is to be respected for what it attempts. In any case, these references demonstrate that in the culture there is a well of special meaning to be drawn upon that can make an obscure death a martyrdom and a gesture of forgiveness an act of grace. Whatever the state of belief of a writer or reader, such resonances have meaning that is more than ornamental, since they acknowledge complexity of experience of a kind that is the substance of fiction.’

I see she has a collection of essays due out in March 2012, which will be worth looking out for. The blurb tells us: ‘In this new collection she returns to the themes which have preoccupied her work: the role of faith in modern life, the inadequacy of fact, the contradictions inherent in human nature. Clear-eyed and forceful as ever, Robinson demonstrates once again why she is regarded as a modern rhetorical master.’

Friday 23 December 2011

Scott Kauffmann on Common Grace

Scott Kauffmann, ‘The Problem of Good’, Q Ideas (2007).

Scott Kauffmann’s essay on common grace takes its cue not from the problem of evil (if God is good why is the world so bad?), but from what he calls the problem of good – ‘if we’re all so bad, why is the world so good?’

He takes in the fundamentals of common grace, common grace in Scripture, living common grace – in personal relationships and in cultural engagement – and the dangers of common grace.

Here’s his closing paragraph:

‘Yes, God’s greatest gift to humanity – the Cross, the ultimate sacrifice, the ultimate expression of saving grace – answers the number one question of humanity, the problem of cosmic and personal evil. And common grace, God’s second greatest gift to humanity, the answer to the problem of cosmic and personal good, is just as close beside you – as close as the gravity that keeps you from sliding off the earth. May you learn to receive both kinds of God’s love, embrace both kinds of God’s grace, and celebrate both kinds of God’s goodness wherever you find them. May grace begin to replace a fear you couldn’t defend, with a hope you cannot resist.’

Carl Trueman on Sex and Song of Songs

Notwithstanding the ‘theological’ readings of ancient and more recent times – even the restrained ones – I’ve been persuaded for many years that (what G. Lloyd Carr calls) a ‘natural’ reading of Song of Songs is more appropriate, and the best fit for the evidence – historically, literarily, and canonically.

Recent years, however, have seen an increasing proliferation of approaches which, in my opinion, then go too far the other way in effectively over-sexualising the poetry of Song of Songs, making it more crude than it probably really is, losing the richness and subtlety – and the romance – in the process. (How easy it is to do that when it comes to sex.)

So, I wholly agree with Carl Trueman in a recent post (‘No Sex Please, I’m British’) when he writes that ‘the turning of the Song of Songs primarily into a sex manual is arguably a greater act of reductionism than jumping straight from the text to Christ and the church’. He helpfully points out that while Scripture does occasionally use crude language to talk about sex, ‘it never uses such language to describe a properly functioning marriage’; he has wise words for those of us who preach and teach, calling us to pay ‘respect to the form which scripture uses to speak of such things’.

Thursday 22 December 2011

L’Abri Papers from Jerram Barrs

The Learning Resources page at L’Abri Fellowship England contains a number of useful pieces, including the following from Jerram Barrs:

Christianity True to the Way Things Are

The Christian and Society

The Christian Mind

These are transcripts of lectures; there’s some overlap in the material, but I think the one on the mind is the best of the three.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Equip to Disciple Issue Four (2011)

The fourth 2011 issue of Equip to Disciple is online here (5.6 MB pdf), with its usual assortment of articles and reviews (in amongst slightly too many adverts for my liking, but I’m glad if it helps pay the way for the publication).

Most significantly, the editor, Charles Dunahoo, contributes the second installment in an ongoing series on the kingdom, this one asking the question: ‘Should the church separate, identify, transform or... effectively be salt and light in the world?’

Pew Forum Report on Global Christianity

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has published a report on Global Christianity, on ‘the size and distribution of the world’s Christian population’.

For those who are really interested the full 130-page report is available as a 11.7 MB file here. Meanwhile, here are the first few paragraphs of the Executive Summary:

‘A comprehensive demographic study of more than 200 countries finds that there are 2.18 billion Christians of all ages around the world, representing nearly a third of the estimated 2010 global population of 6.9 billion. Christians are also geographically widespread – so far-flung, in fact, that no single continent or region can indisputably claim to be the center of global Christianity.

‘A century ago, this was not the case. In 1910, about two-thirds of the world’s Christians lived in Europe, where the bulk of Christians had been for a millennium, according to historical estimates by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity. Today, only about a quarter of all Christians live in Europe (26%). A plurality – more than a third – now are in the Americas (37%). About one in every four Christians lives in sub-Saharan Africa (24%), and about one-in-eight is found in Asia and the Pacific (13%).’

Monday 19 December 2011

The Extraordinary in the Ordinary (2): What if God Was One of Us?

[I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. It’s the second of two reflections on the Christmas story as told in Luke’s gospel. I’d been wanting to write something constructive on the ‘guest room’ in Luke 2:7 for a long time, and it was really hard to get it below the absolute maximum of 400 words. Lots of notes now lie shredded on the electric cutting room floor of my hard drive.]

Joseph... went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

Luke 2:4-7

Yes, you read that right – ‘no guest room’. That’s how the revised New International Version translates Luke 2:7. It comes as a surprise to some people to discover that there is no mention of a stable or an inn, let alone an innkeeper, in the Christmas story.

Given that Joseph was returning to his home town, it’s highly unlikely he would not be able to find shelter there. Even allowing for the shame of a child conceived out of wedlock, hospitality codes meant that strangers could expect some welcome, let alone a member of the family expecting the birth of a baby. Moreover, that Jesus was born ‘while they were there’ suggests plenty of time to arrange suitable housing.

Luke uses the regular word for ‘inn’ when relating Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (10:34). The word used here, however, is the same one he uses for the ‘upper room’ of a house where the last supper took place (22:11). It refers to a lodging or guest room, usually part of a private house.

This, and the mention of the manger, fits what is known of peasant houses from this period. They typically had one room where eating and sleeping took place, with a lower section for animals. Mangers were often cut into the floor of the living accommodation. In some homes, a ‘guest room’ could be built on the flat roof or at the end of the house. Luke tells us that this room is already occupied, so Mary places the newborn child in the most comfortable place in the house – the manger in the main family room. It’s lowly, but more domestic than destitute.

Somewhat ironically, the effect of the stable scenes on our Christmas cards might be to distance Jesus from us, perhaps allowing us to forget that he was born as ‘one of us’. As it happens, the most striking feature of Luke’s account is its decided ‘ordinariness’, with Jesus born in the normal surroundings of an everyday peasant home.

To be sure, he is the Saviour, Christ the Lord (2:11), and yet he takes his place with us in the mundaneness of the everyday world. And the salvation he brings comes in the context of real life, and to people just like us.

Sunday 18 December 2011

Michael Horton on Christ and Culture Once More

Michael Horton responds here to the recent post by Tim Keller on ‘Coming Together on Culture’. I suspect the ‘Once More’ in the title of his piece is either wishful thinking on his part or a complete misnomer.

He recognises that Keller is ‘encouraging healthier conversation’, yet sees ‘even in his post’ what he ‘would regard as some misunderstandings about the 2K [two kingdoms] position’. He thinks Keller’s description ‘makes it sound as if 2K folks are more neo-Anabaptist’. ‘On one point,’ he says, ‘I think that’s true. Neo-Anabaptists like Stanley Hauerwas and Scot McKnight argue that the church is called to be a new society in this fading evil age, not to create one. Beyond that, though, we are worlds apart.’ He then goes on to point out that Luther and Calvin opposed radical Anabaptists ‘who disparaged God’s common grace in culture’.

My blog entries over the years will testify to the esteem in which I hold Michael Horton and his work, but he has not convinced on this issue – even if I do feel as if I’ve been helpfully warned away by him and other 2K advocates from the worst excesses of a transformationist position.

For my own part, nothing he says here detracts from the essence of what Keller was outlining in the earlier post. Horton says he is ‘often baffled by the gross caricatures of the 2K position’ but, while he declares this isn’t the case with Keller’s interaction, he still looks as if he is trying to fine-tune what really is the 2K position. Fair enough, I think, providing the warning against building caricatures and the generosity to allow fine-tuning is allowed both ways.

He also notes that David VanDrunen, one of the main current proponents of the 2K position, has a new work in the pipeline, ‘defending the position with exegetical and biblical-theological depth’. I’ll look forward to seeing that. I’m very interested in what Luther and Calvin and the Anabaptists thought, and how we place ourselves in relation to them; but I’m so much more interested in Jeremiah and Jesus and Peter and Paul, and how we place ourselves in relation to them...

Meanwhile, we can expect this discussion to run and run...

Friday 16 December 2011

IVP Academic Alert 21, 1 (Spring 2012)

The latest Academic Alert from IVP (USA) is available here, profiling forthcoming titles, with a special focus on Gillian R. Evans’ Roots of the Reformation and the Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets (edited by J. Gordon McConville and Mark Boda).

Tim Keller on Coming Together on Culture

For those who are following the ongoing debates in some circles about the nature of Christian engagement with culture – with the ‘transformationists’ on one side and the ‘two kingdoms’ proponents on the other side – here is a short but helpful article by Tim Keller which critiques both sides, and draws attention to some of those who are trying to steer a ‘middle way’ or reframe the discussion in different ways.

Douglas Wilson on Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

Douglas Wilson, ‘Christopher Hitchens Has Died’, Christianity Today (16 December 2011).

Following the death of Christopher Hitchens last night, Douglas Wilson has written a sympathetic piece for Christianity Today reflecting on his life and death. At one point, he says:

‘I came to know Christopher during the promotion tour for his atheist encyclical, God Is Not Great. True to form, Christopher did not want to write a book attacking God and his minions only to have the release be a wine and cheese party in Manhattan with a bunch of fellow unbelievers, where they could all laugh knowingly about the rubes and cornpones down in the Bible Belt. So he told his publicist that he wanted to debate with any and all comers, and in the course of promoting his book, he did exactly that.’

Wilson himself debated online and live with Hitchens...

‘One time we shared a panel in Dallas, and I told the crowd there that if Christopher and I were not careful, we were in danger of becoming friends. During the time we spent together, he never said an unkind thing to me – except on stage, up in front of everybody. After doing this, he didn't wink at me, but he might as well have.’

Thursday 15 December 2011

Foundations 61 (Autumn 2011)

The second online edition of Foundations: An International Journal of Evangelical Theology, published by Affinity, is now freely available (here in its entirety as a pdf).

Here is the editorial summary of the articles which are also listed below:

‘This issue of Foundations offers a range of articles and reviews which will be of interest to our readers. Dan Strange’s article is the substance of the paper that he gave at the Affinity Theological Studies Conference in February 2011. John Legg provides a provocative exegesis of the parable of The Good Samaritan. Thorsten Prill identifies key issues in world mission today and challenges churches, missions and missionaries to be caught up in a missionary movement with God. Ralph Cunnington provides a critique of the views of Francis Turretin on the authority of Scripture. Eryl Davies provides a detailed review of a number of recent books dealing with the doctrine of the Trinity. There are also a number of other book reviews.’

Dan Strange

Not Ashamed! The Sufficiency of Scripture for Public Theology

John Legg

So Who is My Neighbour?

Thorsten Prill

Evangelical Mission Organisations, Postmodern Controversies, and the New Heartbeat of Mission

Ralph Cunnington

Did Turretin Depart from Calvin’s View on the Concept of Error in the Scriptures?

D. Eryl Davies

Review Article: Trinitarian Theology

Book Reviews

Catalyst 38, 1 (November 2011)

The latest of Catalyst (still, probably, my favourite free theological journal) is now online, with a selection of short articles, mostly excerpted or adapted from fuller works by the authors:

J. Todd Billings

Premodern Biblical Exegesis:Why Does it Matter for Preachers and Teachers Today?

Randy L. Maddox

How John Wesley Read the Bible

Kenda Creasy Dean, edited and abridged by Nathan T. Stucky

Teenagers and the Art of Translation: Parents Matter Most

Henry H. Knight III

Consider Wesley

Monday 12 December 2011

Tyndale Bulletin 62.2 (November 2011)

The latest Tyndale Bulletin contains the below articles with their abstracts:

David Seccombe

Incongruity in the Gospel Parables

Evidence is given of deliberate use of incongruity and the outright bizarre in some of the gospel sayings and parables. This is sometimes smoothed away by translators and commentators, who appear uncomfortable with it. Yet it has the marks of being one of Jesus’ characteristic teaching devices, the tendency of the transmission being to smooth out discordancies. With this in mind the parable of the leaven is re-examined, and it is argued that it contains three incongruities which strongly suggest its authenticity and could have made it a startling piece of communication for its original listeners. The results gained are employed to clear the way for a correct approach to the parable of the ten minas.

Carsten Vang

God’s Love According to Hosea and Deuteronomy: A Prophetic Reworking of a Deuteronomic Concept?

One of the most evident shared themes between the books of Hosea and Deuteronomy is the theme of God’s love for Israel. The usual scholarly explanation goes that Hosea fathered this notion which later was taken up in the Deuteronomy tradition. A close scrutiny of this theme in Hosea and Deuteronomy establishes that the lexical and structural agreements in the theme are considerable. However, it also reveals some major differences within the thematic parallel. The simplest solution seems to be that Hosea has reused an available Deuteronomic concept.

Allan Chapple

Getting Romans to the Right Romans: Phoebe and the Delivery of Paul’s Letter

How did Romans reach the people for whom it was intended? There is widespread agreement that Phoebe was the bearer of the letter (Rom. 16:1-2), but little investigation of or agreement about the exact nature of her responsibilities. By exploring the data available to us, especially that found in Romans 16, this essay provides a reconstruction of the events surrounding the transport and delivery of the letter to the Roman Christians. In particular, it proposes the following:

• Phoebe conveyed the letter to Rome, probably by sea;

• the church in Rome at this time consisted of house-churches;

• Phoebe was to deliver the letter first to Prisca and Aquila and their house-church;

• Prisca and Aquila were to convene an assembly of the whole Christian community, the first for some time, at which Romans was to be received and read;

• Prisca and Aquila were to be asked to arrange for copies of Romans to be made;

• Phoebe was to deliver these copies to other house-churches; and

• Phoebe was to read Romans in the way that Paul had coached her at each of the gatherings to which she took it.

Rodney K. Duke

Form and Meaning: Multi-Layered Balanced Thought Structures in Psalm 24:4

The complex literary artistry of Psalm 24:4 reveals it to be the focal point of this song of procession to worship. Standing in a catechism-like section, this verse provides the answer to the question about those qualified to approach God. This text exemplifies how artistic form was used to set this verse apart, complement the content, and highlight its theological message. It employs four levels of balanced thought structures that emphasise the total purity that is expected from one who would draw close to God. Theologically this verse functions as a call to holiness in response to God’s grace.

Gregory Goswell

Isaiah 1:26: A Neglected Text on Kingship

In recent studies of the theme of kingship in the book of Isaiah, Isaiah 1:26 has been neglected. This article seeks to demonstrate that this text is relevant to the theme. The future of leadership within the city of Jerusalem-Zion as forecast in Isaiah 1:26 is theocratic in shape, with Davidic kingship notably absent. The judges and counsellors spoken of are leaders appointed by Yhwh the King and act as judicial officers under him. The setting of Isaiah 1:26 in Isaiah 1, the immediate context of the section 1:21-26, the absence of any mention of kings in Isaiah 2–4, and the portrayal in the first half of Isaiah’s prophecy of Judaean kingship as a dying institution, all confirm this reading. Isaiah 1:26 is one of a number of texts in the first half of Isaiah that prepare the reader for what would otherwise be a radical shift to an exclusive focus on divine kingship in Isaiah 40–66.

Andrew J. Wilson

Hebrews 3:6b and 3:14 Revisited

Hebrews 3:6b and 3:14 have been central to Reformed interpretations of the warnings in Hebrews for several centuries. Today, however, there is something of an impasse in scholarship: on one side, there are those who see these verses as an interpretive key to the letter, and thus understand the warnings to refer to spurious or false believers; on the other, there are those who argue that since Hebrews warns real believers away from real apostasy, these two verses cannot mean what, at a grammatical level, they appear to mean. In this paper, I appraise the scholarly discussion so far, identify three key issues relating to grammar and context, and then propose a way through the impasse that has not been considered in modern scholarship.

David Instone-Brewer

Jesus of Nazareth’s Trial in the Uncensored Talmud

The Munich Talmud manuscript of b.San.43a preserves passages censored out of the printed editions, including the controversial trial of ‘Yeshu Notzri’. Chronological analysis of the layers in this tradition suggests that the oldest words are: ‘On the Eve of Passover they hung Jesus of Nazareth for sorcery and leading Israel astray.’ This paper argues that other words were added to this tradition in order to overcome three difficulties: a trial date during a festival; the unbiblical method of execution; and the charge of ‘sorcery’.

John Nolland

The Thought in John 1:3c-4

With a working assumption that the final words of verse 3 belong with verse 4, the article seeks to clarify the thought in the three clauses making up verses 3c-4. It concludes that the thought expressed is this: the mystery of animate life, existing as it does ‘in the Logos’, shines as a light upon humanity, a light intended to light up the divine presence in the world in that it reveals the presence and working of the Logos. A second alternative is possibly viable: creation is life-giving, and the life it gives acts as a light revealing the Logos.

Daniel S. Diffey

The Royal Promise in Genesis: The Often Underestimated Importance of Genesis 17:6, 17:16 and 35:11

There are three specific instances in which a royal promise is made to an individual in the book of Genesis. Scholarship has largely viewed these as incidental within the larger framework of the major themes found in the book of Genesis. This short note seeks to correct this misunderstanding by demonstrating that the promise that kings will come from Abraham, Sarah, and Jacob is integrally linked with the themes of fruitfulness, seed (offspring), and land. Thus, the theme of kingship is a much more important theme than is often held.

Dissertation Summaries

Andy Harker

Spiritually Called Sodom and Egypt: Getting to the Heart of Early Christian Prophecy through the Apocalypse of John

This work engages with and refreshes the debate regarding the nature of early Christian prophecy – a debate that has become somewhat deadlocked and stale – by placing Revelation at the centre of the debate and finding there a tertium quid challenging both sides of the debate. It is argued that Revelation is much more likely to be representative of regular early Christian prophecy than is often assumed and that what constitutes John’s prophecy (and potentially early Christian prophecy generally) as prophecy is essentially the way in which the text moves the affections – by a particularly powerful use of allusive metaphor to ‘name’ features of the contemporary world in such a way that the referent is completely swallowed up by the allusion.

The Extraordinary in the Ordinary (1): There’s Something About Mary

[I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. It’s the first of two reflections on the Christmas story as told in Luke’s gospel; this one owes much to the inspiration of friend and former colleague, Conrad Gempf, Lecturer in New Testament at London School of Theology.]

The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.’

‘How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’

Luke 1:30-34

While it has always been possible to make too much of Mary, it has been all too easy to make too little of her. Because, even if she is not an object of faith, she is an example of faith. And a very real example too.

Her story is elaborated in later Christian literature and art, with accounts of her own miraculous birth and childhood, accompanied by regular angelic visitations. Annunciation scenes sometimes portray Mary as reading Scripture or praying, or spinning purple thread for the temple veil – none of which is found in the gospels. Instead, like the fishermen and tax collectors who would be called, her heavenly encounter comes in the midst of everyday life – as an ordinary Galilean girl engaged to be married to Joseph. And, like the rest of us would be, she’s surprised and scared by the arrival of Gabriel.

Her response to his message is just as human, and wonderfully real. Faced with the increasingly amazing announcement – child, then son, then great, then Son of the Most High, then king, then eternal – Mary is frozen back at step one. A child? She’s young, but she’s not stupid; she knows how babies are made, and she knows she’s not been with a man. And so she says: ‘How will this be, since I am a virgin?’ No deep theological question. No amazing insight. No request for a sign. And no objection: ‘I am the Lord’s servant... May your word to me be fulfilled’ (Luke 1:38).

It’s a staggering response. Her reputation would be at stake, and her husband-to-be might want nothing more to do with her. She will play out something of the scandal of the gospel in her very self, and yet consents to do so as a servant of the Lord. She believes the word that is spoken to her, even if she doesn’t fully understand it, and her trust exercises itself in submission.

Then, as her story goes on, faith and obedience will give rise to joyful singing and quiet reflection – all appropriate responses of ordinary, everyday servants of God since, at Christmastime and all times.

Sunday 11 December 2011

Willem J. de Wit on Herman Bavinck

Willem J. de Wit, On the Way to the Living God: A Cathartic Reading of Herman Bavinck and an Invitation to Overcome the Plausibility Crisis of Christianity (Amsterdam: VU University Press, 2011), x + 208 pages, ISBN 9789086595860.

Fans of Herman Bavinck will be interested to see that this book by Willem J. de Wit is available for free download here.

The blurb says:

‘Post-Christian Amsterdam is a place where life seems to be good without God, where Jesus is seen as a figure of a distant past, and where only a few people still go to church. However, it is also a context from which a deeply reflected invitation springs to face and overcome the plausibility crisis of Christianity.

‘By telling the story of the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck (1854–1921) and his struggle to remain standing as a Christian over against the modern worldview of his day, this study offers interested readers all over the world a mirror in which to face their own struggle.

‘Moreover, in a world explained without God and marked by evil, it extends the invitation to adopt a binocular worldview and to live with open eyes on the way to the living God, even if this implies dying with Christ.’

The author, Willem J. de Wit, is Lecturer of Biblical Studies and Systematic Theology at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, Egypt. Earlier he worked as a junior research fellow for the International Reformed Theological Institute at VU University Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Saturday 10 December 2011

Evangelical Alliance Reports on UK Evangelicals

The Evangelical Alliance UK is producing a series of reports from surveys into the beliefs, habits and practices of evangelical Christians in the UK.

They kicked off with an initial survey of more than 17,000 evangelicals (which I mentioned here), and they have followed it up with two further reports – one on ‘Does Belief Touch Society?’ and another (released last week) on ‘Are We Communicating?’

Friday 9 December 2011

Adam Nicolson on the King James Bible

The December 2011 edition of National Geographic magazine carries an article by Adam Nicolson on ‘The Bible of King James’, which is available online here.

As the opening blurb says:

‘First printed 400 years ago, it molded the English language, buttressed the “powers that be” – one of its famous phrases – and yet enshrined a gospel of individual freedom. No other book has given more to the English-speaking world.’

Books on Christianity for Non-Christians?

At LICC today, we were asked what books about Christianity we might recommend to an unchurched person which could be given with confidence, without cringe or embarrassment. I thought Tim Keller’s Reason for God might fit the bill, and responded with the below blurb.

Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Scepticism (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2009).

A best seller, and rightly so, widely read and respected by believers and sceptics alike. The first part of the book examines seven of the most common objections and doubts about Christianity, while the second part explores seven reasons to believe in the claims of the Christian faith. Compelling without being forceful, Keller writes with intelligence, elegance and compassion, drawing on personal conversations as well as literature and philosophy.