Friday 31 July 2015

Just a Job?

I contributed this week’s ‘Connecting with Culture’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

‘We may love our work, hate our work, find meaning in our work or none, but it’s what we do all day long, and it shapes us.’

So writes Joanna Biggs at the start of All Day Long: A Portrait of Britain at Work. It’s an enjoyably absorbing read, offering brief glimpses into the lives of 30 or so different people. So it is that we meet a pot-glazing supervisor from Stoke-on-Trent, a fishmonger from Belfast, a care worker from Newcastle, along with shoemakers, baristas, a stay-at-home mum, a goldsmith’s apprentice, a rabbi, and so on.

There are struggles – the baristas who lose their bonus if they don’t display ‘passion’, the cleaner who fights for a living wage, the legal aid lawyer who wrestles with budget cuts. Yet what also emerges is how hard people work even though they have seemingly little to show for it, how much satisfaction people get from working, and how (in many cases) such satisfaction is not dependent on the salary earned.

All this resonates with a Christian perspective. Work is part of our DNA, one of the ways we’re made to function as those created in the image of the God who designed work to be fulfilling not frustrating. But work – like all things – was impacted by human rebellion against God and alienation from each other. Here is a daily reminder that the world remains out of kilter with God’s design, where it’s possible to make too much or too little of work. So, for instance, we can succumb to idolatry, where our job becomes the primary object of our passions and source of identity. Or we can slide into idleness, unable to see God’s purposes in work or the value of work in and of itself.

Yet there is hope, for work is not just a way to pass time and make money, but a service we render to Christ himself (Colossians 3:23). Work is a crucible for discipleship, a place to grow as a follower of Jesus, even in the mundane tasks: writing an email, placing an order, servicing a boiler, tightening a bolt, changing a nappy. Seeing our work – paid or unpaid – as an arena to serve Christ won’t necessarily deal with all our frustrations, but it will put them in proper perspective as we take our place as God’s stewards in his ongoing governance of the world.

Thursday 30 July 2015

Journal for the Evangelical Study of the Old Testament 4, 1 (2015)

The latest issue of the Journal for the Evangelical Study of the Old Testament is freely available online. The main articles (listed below with their abstracts) are available from here, with a pdf of the entire issue available here. As always, it’s worth checking out its book reviews as much as anything else.

Greg Goswell
Assigning the Book of Lamentations a Place in the Canon
Lamentations is one of a number of books that is found in more than one position in the different canons of Scripture. These canons are a product of different reading communities, each with their own interpretation of the biblical books. The present study is based on the premise that where a biblical book is placed relative to other books reflects an evaluation of the book by ancient readers, with the ordering of books viewed as a paratextual phenomenon. With regard to Lamentations, two different positions (each with its own rationale) are found in the Hebrew and Greek canons. The alternate placements of the book of Lamentations reveal that the compilers of these canons viewed its theological and historical meanings in different ways. These two different contexts are intended to shape the reader’s perception of what the book is about. Consciously or unconsciously, the contemporary reader is influenced by the positioning of a biblical book. Thus, canonical placement is not value-neutral and needs to be critically evaluated.

Charles Meeks
Will the Real Job Please Stand Up? Politico-Pastoral Exegesis of Job 38 in the Wake of Nicaea
Ancient Christian commentaries on the Book of Job, and specifically reflection on Job’s direct theophanic interaction with God in Job 38, offer important insights into the contexts of their writers and the writers’ congregations. This is especially clear in the case of two roughly contemporary “commentaries” produced by John Chrysostom and Julian the Arian. These are two of the earliest extant works on Job in the Christian East in the wake of the Nicene and non-Nicene theological and political disputes occurring at the turn of the fourth century. For these two exegetes, Job becomes a moldable figure identified with the key tenets of their theological systems, experiencing direct revelation as a result of his exemplification of the exegetes’ favored spiritual charisms and political biases due to his ambiguous place in the scheme of salvation-history. Despite each theologian sharing similar methodology, their exegesis produces two vastly different depictions for their readers of what is involved in leading a godly life in general, and how one should attempt to emulate Job himself to become closer to God.

G. Geoffrey Harper
The Theological and Exegetical Significance of Leviticus as Intertext in Daniel 9
Daniel 9 is renowned for the textual and theological problems it raises for interpreters, and for the diverse readings it generates. Yet Dan 9 also presents a fascinating tapestry of inner-biblical quotations and allusions. Within this matrix, however, the voice of Leviticus has not been fully appreciated. Nonetheless, Levitical terminology and thought forms pervade the chapter and perform a significant function. The combined force of these parallels suggests the raison d’être for Daniel’s prayer, elucidates the mediated response and suggests a theological coherence to the chapter as a whole. Thus, this article argues that intertextual sensitivity to the array of Leviticus connections made can constrain exegesis of Dan 9, while at the same time generating new insights into its theological perspective.

Russell L. Meek
“I Was King Over Israel in Jerusalem”: Inerrancy and Authorial Ambiguity in Ecclesiastes
Solomon has been traditionally regarded as the author of Ecclesiastes; however, a review of the evidence for the book’s authorship is inconclusive. Because the authorship of Ecclesiastes cannot be proved definitively and the book itself makes no explicit claims of authorship, it is crucial to disentangle the conversation over the book’s authorship from the issue of inerrancy. In our defense of God’s inerrant and infallible word, evangelical scholars must be careful not to argue more than the text itself will allow. There are compelling arguments for and against Solomonic authorship of Ecclesiastes, but ultimately the ambiguity of the biblical evidence cautions against dogmatism on this point. Therefore, the debate over Solomonic authorship should not be couched in terms of one’s view of inerrancy.

Book Reviews

Wednesday 29 July 2015

Work: Great Expectations?

An edited version of this piece was published in the September 2014 edition of EG, a magazine published by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, but I don’t think I posted it on the blog. I had been asked to write something on the frustrations that often come with work. I’m currently writing another short piece on work, and I may be redrafting or even reusing some of this material.

Perhaps you’re one of those people who bounces out of bed with a lightness in your step and a song on your lips. Your morning routine is purposeful but relaxed. You smile on your commute. You breeze into work, cheerily greeting your colleagues, looking forward to all that the day holds. Perhaps. If so, the rest of us are really pleased for you – though we secretly wonder whether you’re in deep denial or taking something that may or may not be readily available over a pharmacy counter.

For many of us, though, work can be a drag. Not all the time, to be sure, but with enough periods of frustration and futility and sheer hard graft to make us wonder about escaping to a simpler life without jammed photocopiers, rude customers, demanding managers, and unrealistic deadlines.

If God created work, we should expect it to be fulfilling, shouldn’t we?

Getting a fuller perspective on work

As it happens, we are created in the image of the God who finds satisfaction and delight in work, and who designed work to be fulfilling not frustrating, pleasurable not painful. But work – like all things – was impacted by human rebellion against God and alienation from each other.

Work itself is not cursed, but nor does it escape the distorting effects of sin, such that it has become ‘painful toil’ (Genesis 3:17). We’re able to enjoy the fruit of our labours, but only by the ‘sweat of [our] brow’ and by tackling ‘thorns and thistles’ along the way (Genesis 3:18-19). Here is a daily reminder that the world remains out of kilter with God’s design, where it’s possible to make too much or too little of work.

Getting a realistic perspective on ourselves

For instance, it’s possible to succumb to idolatry, where our job becomes the primary object of our passions and source of identity. Or we slide into idleness, wittingly or unwittingly, unable to see God’s purposes in work. Both are problematic. In seeking self-fulfilment through work, we risk forgetting that our purpose and identity is found first in Jesus, who then helps us make sense of our jobs. Or we risk not seeing that work has value in and of itself.

Ecclesiastes provides a voice for the frustrations we might feel – work can appear to be ‘meaningless’ (2:11, 17-23). Even so, toil is still seen as a ‘gift of God’ (3:12-13), to be enjoyed (3:22), which brings satisfaction (5:18-19) and joy (8:15). The key, in 2:24-26, seems to be not seeking delight in what one gains from work, but seeing good in the work itself, as from ‘the hand of God’.

Getting a proper perspective on Jesus

So, there is hope. Work is not just a way to pass time and make money, but a service we render to Jesus himself (Colossians 3:23). Working for Christ not only gives us a new master, but a new freedom to worship through our work, a new desire to serve others, a new confidence to trust God in our jobs, and a new motivation to work well – even during times of frustration and seeming fruitlessness. We have sufficient examples in Scripture – Joseph, Ruth, Daniel, Esther – to show that God works through us in difficult and morally ambiguous situations, often in spite of our flaws.

Work, then, is a crucible for discipleship, a place to grow as a follower of Jesus, even in the mundane tasks: writing an email, placing an order, servicing a boiler, tightening a bolt. Seeing our job as an arena to serve Christ won’t necessarily deal with all our frustrations, but it will put them into their proper perspective as we take our place as God’s stewards in his governance of the world. Think about that when the alarm goes off tomorrow morning.

Ethics in Brief Volume 20, Nos. 3 & 4 (2015)

Two issues from Volume 20 of Ethics in Brief, published by The Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, are now available online:

Most Christians believe in kindness to animals, but few see it as an ethical priority. By contrast, evangelicals of the past showed a passionate kindness towards ‘God’s beasts’, and were pioneers of animal welfare reform from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. Today, Christians in general, and evangelical Christians in particular, are more likely to be seen as part of the problem than as pioneering solutions. This article discusses the theological differences behind this contrast, and the practical implications for evangelism in a world of growing animal advocacy.

This article examines the rise of the Thomas Cook travel company, founded 150 years ago on Christian foundations, and its recent demise. We find that having Christians in charge of a business is not enough. Rather, what is required is an approach that is sensitive to the diversity and complexity of human social life. One such approach is deployed in analysing why Thomas Cook was originally successful but has now got into trouble. It is significant that it emerges from a Christian root.

Friday 24 July 2015

Going to Extremes?

I contributed this week’s ‘Connecting with Culture’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

Monday this week saw David Cameron deliver a speech announcing plans to tackle Islamist extremism. Calling for the promotion of ‘British values’, the Government, he said, will confront ‘groups and organisations that may not advocate violence – but which do promote other parts of the extremist narrative’.

The unease, voiced by some commentators, is that a wide definition of what counts as ‘extreme’ leaves the door open for attacks on anyone whose views differ from the Government. Writing in The Independent, Abdul-Azim Ahmed expressed concern that the speech ‘casts the net of extremism so wide it undermines some very basic civil liberties’. In The Telegraph, Brendan O’Neill wrote of a ‘dark, twisted irony’ to Cameron’s speech, warning that attempts to clampdown on ‘non-violent extremism’ will extinguish freedom of speech and debate.

All this in a week when Tim Farron, new Liberal Democrat leader and self-confessed Christian, had to tackle pointed questions about his views on same-sex sexual relationships, and whether he would seek God’s guidance before making policy decisions. To many, it seemed a bit unfair. As Farron himself pointed out to John Humphreys on the Today programme, ‘everybody comes to every situation with a set of value judgments’.

Indeed, every political vision operates out of some overarching perspective on life; every policy decision is supported by moral considerations of some sort. But there still seems to be a lingering presumption that a so-called ‘secular’ perspective is more neutral, less in danger of ‘extremism’, and so more appropriate for the public square. That is surely open for debate.

Does the belief that Jesus Christ is Lord mark Christians out as ‘extremists’? Maybe so. But it ought also mark us out as civil, seeking the good of others. The ongoing challenge will be not just to continue to contribute to the common good wherever we find ourselves, but to do so as Christians, with all that our discipleship to Jesus entails.

Seeking neither to take over the institutions of society nor abdicating responsibility altogether, we can feel confident about bringing a Christian vision into everyday life, including the public sphere. As theologian James K.A. Smith puts it: ‘The public task of the church is not just to remind the world of what it (allegedly) already knows (by “natural” reason), but to proclaim what it couldn’t otherwise know – and to do so as a public service for the sake of the common good.’

Currents in Biblical Research 13, 3 (June 2015)

The latest Currents in Biblical Research recently arrived, with titles and abstracts of the main articles as below.

Dermot Nestor
Merneptah’s ‘Israel’ and the Absence of Origins in Biblical Scholarship
This article examines the Merneptah Stele and its role in recent efforts to reconstruct Israelite history and identity. Though necessarily concerned with the issues of translation and location as they relate to the entity named in the stele, this review is dominated by an assessment of the various ways in which biblical scholarship has related to this singular reference. To that end, issues of theory and method, both archaeological and anthropological, are prioritized as the review appraises the various attempts to isolate this entity as the Archimedean point of Israelite historical and ethnic development. Though certainly critical of what it perceives as the sterile reproduction of long-held beliefs, it is a review that, in its appeal to the work of Pierre Bourdieu, looks to identify prospects for further study of the stele, rather than foreclose the very questions that it raises.

Hughson T. Ong
Ancient Palestine Is Multilingual and Diglossic: Introducing Multilingualism Theories to New Testament Studies
This article surveys some key works that address in one way or another the linguistic situation of ancient Palestine. It also examines that linguistic situation by way of introducing several multilingualism theories from the field of sociolinguistics, specifically explaining and demonstrating how they are pertinent to the investigation of the available linguistic evidence. The objectives are to show that previous studies that have utilized multilingualism theories have not yet been able to apply them either adequately or appropriately to the linguistic evidence, that use of multilingualism theories is the way forward to assess the available linguistic evidence, and that the linguistic situation of ancient Palestine must have been ‘multilingual and diglossic’.

Arie W. Zwiep
Jairus, His Daughter and the Haemorrhaging Woman (Mk 5.21-43; Mt. 9.18-26; Lk. 8.40-56): Research Survey of a Gospel Story about People in Distress
This article examines the history of interpretation of the pericope of the healing of the haemorrhaging woman and the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mk 5.21-43; Mt. 9.18-26; Lk. 8.40-56). It starts with the earliest attempts to harmonize the synoptic accounts, and reviews medieval allegorical interpretations, historical-critical theories, including the apparent death (coma) theory, D.F. Strauss and mythical interpretation, form-criticism, the question of sources, literary and narrative approaches, socio-critical (feminist) interpretation, psychoanalytical criticism, and contextual (poststructural) readings.

Daniel Ullucci
Sacrifice in the Ancient Mediterranean: Recent and Current Research
This essay provides a summary and critical assessment of scholarship on sacrifice in the ancient Mediterranean over the last two decades. It focuses on Greek, Roman, Judean and Christian evidence from approximately the eighth century BCE to the fifth century CE. Significant attention is paid to theoretical models, which have deeply affected the study of sacrifice. Archeological evidence for sacrifice is considered. The following areas of current scholarly debate are addressed and assessed: (1) the reach and role of religious experts; (2) sacrifice as communication and failed sacrifice; (3) the notion of spiritualization; (4) metaphorical and symbolic uses of sacrifice; and (5) sacrifice and identity. Sacrifice is theorized not as a static category or ontological thing, but a nexus of competitive ritualizations and/or discursive claims, the boundaries of which were actively contested by ancient practitioners and cultural producers.

Wednesday 22 July 2015

Kevin Vanhoozer on Improvising Theology

Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ‘Improvising Theology According to the Scriptures: An Evangelical Account of the Development of Doctrine’, in Gregg R. Allison and Stephen J. Wellum (eds.), Building on the Foundations of Evangelical Theology: Essays in Honor of John S. Feinberg (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), 15-50.

The above volume contains an impressive-looking set of essays. Crossway kindly make available here a pdf excerpt which contains the table of contents, introduction, list of contributors, and the opening lengthy essay by Kevin Vanhoozer.

David Ceri Jones on the Evangelical Revival

David Ceri Jones, The Fire Divine: An Introduction to the Evangelical Revival (Nottingham: IVP, 2015), 184pp., ISBN 978-1-78359-290-6.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this overview of the eighteenth-century evangelical revival. I’ve been trying to read more Church history and Christian biography recently, so this was enormously helpful for putting in place a slightly bigger picture of the period covered. It focuses particularly on John Wesley, George Whitefield, and (though to a lesser degree) Jonathan Edwards, and the revivals in Britain and America associated with their ministries – all of which have left their legacy on evangelicalism today. 

The posture of the work suited me well; it’s courteous about its subject matter, but keeps enough distance in its account to allow me to make my own value judgments. I particularly appreciated its transparency around the evident ‘flaws’ of those whose work is described. It’s respectful, but far from hagiographical, and (I think) the better for it.

I had been wondering whether to buy and read Thomas S. Kidd’s recently-published Yale biography on George Whitefield. This book persuaded me it would be a good next step to do so.

Monday 13 July 2015

Jon Thompson on Conscience and the Common Good

The latest Cambridge Paper from the Jubilee Centre is available online, this one by Jon Thompson:

Here is the summary:

‘The Christian’s conscience is increasingly set in opposition to some of the values and political aims of wider Western culture. This fact is evidenced by an increase in ‘conscience cases’, where Christians are sued or dismissed for acting in accordance with their conscience. This paper outlines a liberal conception of conscience. It then explores a distinctly Christian conception of conscience – as a faculty which involves both emotion and discernment of the requirements of God’s law. It then argues that Christian conscientious objection is similarly distinct from the liberal version of conscientious objection. Finally, it gestures towards justifications for conscience protections in the political sphere.’

Thursday 9 July 2015

Foundations 68 (Spring 2015)

Issue 68 of Foundations: An International Journal of Evangelical Theology, published by Affinity, is now available (here in its entirety as a pdf). This issue looks at the Lord’s Supper from several perspectives within evangelicalism, with the following contributions:

Ralph Cunnington

William B. Evans
Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper and its Relevance for Today
Calvin’s approach to the Lord’s Supper, which sought to mediate between the local-presence theologies of Rome and Luther on the one hand and Zwinglian memorialism on the other, is closely connected with his soteriology, eschatology, and ecclesiology. In the Supper, the incarnate humanity of Christ is objectively offered and subjectively received by faith and by the power of the Holy Spirit, and through this union with Christ’s “flesh” both the power of his deity and the forensic benefits of salvation are received. However, subsequent developments in Reformed theology rendered Calvin’s formulations implausible to some, such that by the nineteenth century outright opposition to Calvin’s doctrine of the Supper was being expressed by Reformed luminaries such as Charles Hodge, William Cunningham, and R.L. Dabney. Others, such as J.W. Nevin and J.B. Adger, vigorously supported Calvin’s intentions. Nevertheless, Calvin’s doctrine of the Supper is rooted in Scripture and in the great tradition of the church, and it offers important resources for the renewal of Reformed and Evangelical theology and practice.

John Stevens
Not Reformed Enough: Critiquing Contemporary Practice of the Lord’s Supper
The celebration of the Lord’s Supper is central to the life and worship of most evangelical churches. However contemporary practice of the Lord’s Supper is far removed from that described in the New Testament. Whilst the magisterial reformers overturned the theology of the Roman Catholic Mass they retained its essential shape and failed to introduce a truly biblical pattern to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The contention of this article is that we need to recover the New Testament practice of the Lord’s Supper as a community celebration meal of the New Covenant, eaten in the presence of the Lord Jesus as he dwells with his people by his Spirit in the new temple that is his church. A carefully reading of the key New Testament texts demands a reform that goes beyond resolving the well-trodden differences between a Calvinist and Zwinglian understanding of the Lord’s Supper to a practice that embeds the identity-shaping, assurance-building and community-forming functions of the Lord’s Supper.

Richard Wardman
The Lord’s Supper in England: Then and Now – A Look at How Thomas Cranmer’s Eucharistic Theology Compares with Today
What happens in the Lord’s Supper? To answer that question this article critically explores the mature Eucharistic theology of Thomas Cranmer. Cranmer’s theology is then used as a point of reference for discussing the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper in contemporary English Evangelicalism. The relevant scriptural passages are also explored when discussing both Cranmer and contemporary Evangelicalism. The conclusion seeks to offer comparative remarks and also provide a basis for further discussion.

Ian Hugh Clary
Throwing Away the Guns: Andrew Fuller, William Ward and the Communion Controversy in the Baptist Missionary Fellowship
Since the Baptists first emerged in seventeenth-century England the question of open vs. closed communion has been strongly debated. The majority of Baptists in history were closed communion, believing that only those who have been baptised by immersion on profession of faith should be admitted to the table. This debate had the potential to ruin the Baptist Missionary Society in the eighteenth century. Were it not for the friendship of men like Andrew Fuller and William Ward, who were on opposing ends of the controversy, and their shared sense of mission, the society may have been derailed. This essay traces the history of the debate in early Baptist history and pays particular attention to the BMS. It concludes with brief thoughts on how differences over important doctrines can be handled in the church today.

Oliver Gross
Review Article: Messy Church Theology (ed. George Lings)

Martin Salter
Book Review: Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice (ed. Kelly M. Kapic)

Wednesday 8 July 2015

Journal of Missional Practice (Summer 2015)

The Summer 2015 edition has just been posted, containing four story articles with an opening editorial by Martin Robinson and Alan Roxburgh on ‘Changing the Conversation’.

Friday 3 July 2015

Exegetical Tools Quarterly 1.1 (July 2015)

The inaugural volume of Exegetical Tools Quarterly has just been made available online.

It’s described as a ‘resource-driven publication to help keep you up to date on the latest and greatest resources for you, your ministry, and your research’. Each issue will contain all posts from the Exegetical Tools’ blog for the three months previous to publication, including ‘book reviews, featured resources, new books, research resources, and... posts on current issues’.

The first volume is available as a pdf here.

Wednesday 1 July 2015

Centre for Public Christianity (June 2015)

Among other items, the Centre for Public Christianity has posted an audio download of a conversation between John Dickson and Peter Harrison (formerly Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford, and now Director of the Centre for the History of European Discourses at the University of Queensland) on ‘atheism, Galileo, Darwin, and the persistence of the science-religion conflict “myth”’.