Monday 30 April 2018

Powerful Deliverance

I contributed this week’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. This is a lightly-edited re-run of one from August 2013.

LORD, how many are my foes!
How many rise up against me!
Many are saying of me,
“God will not deliver him.”
But you, LORD, are a shield around me,
my glory, the one who lifts my head high.
I call out to the LORD,
and he answers me from his holy mountain.
Psalm 3:1-4

Psalms 1 and 2 are clear and confident: the righteous prosper and the wicked are blown away like chaff; God is in charge of the world, and the nations will serve him and his Messiah. Except it doesn’t always feel that way, does it?

The need for the assurance of Psalms 1 and 2 becomes clear with the first lines of Psalm 3. But that Psalm 3 comes so early in the Psalter seems appropriate, given how many of the psalms arise out of the experience of being attacked, of feeling ashamed, isolated and abandoned, of wondering why the ungodly prosper when those who serve God suffer. That bundle of emotions and more was likely true of David who, according to this Psalm’s title, wrote it when he fled from his son Absalom, a story told in 2 Samuel 15-18.

Interestingly, David’s foes were not saying that God does not act; they were saying that God does not act for David – ‘God will not deliver him’. They consider David to be cast aside by God, a failure, defeated. Of course, we don’t always need the ‘help’ of others to think that way about ourselves.

But as the Psalm progresses, David’s prayer becomes less a statement about his enemies, himself, or even his trust, and more a declaration about the Lord: ‘But you, LORD, are a shield around me.’ Shields are normally held in front of a person, but this shield encompasses him. In the place of prayer, where we see things we might not otherwise see, David confesses that God will protect him from attack, whatever direction it comes. It is the Lord who will lift his head high, removing his shame and restoring his dignity.

The final note of the Psalm is one of deliverance – ‘from the LORD comes deliverance’ (3:8) – even though it’s not clear that David’s situation has altered. For us too, the ‘problem’ itself might not immediately change – that illness we’re facing, or situation we find ourselves in, or task we have to do. What changes is our sense of dependence on God. Peace comes not primarily because we’re clever enough to work things out, but because of his power and promises of protection. Through prayer he moves us from fear to faith, from peril to peace, from a place of saying, ‘How many!’ to a place of confessing, ‘But you, LORD’.

Monday 23 April 2018

Malyon Preaching Resources

I’ve enjoyed receiving Malyon Preaching Resources, an online resource from the Preaching Centre at Malyon College (available for free subscription here). Each edition contains a mix of feature articles, podcast reviews, book reviews, sample sermons, and other features.

Thursday 19 April 2018

Perichoresis 16, 1 (2018) on European Baptist Theology and History

Perichoresis is the theological journal of Emanuel University, Romania, published twice a year.

The latest volume, freely available from here, contains the below essays, continuing a series on ‘Celebrating 500 Years since the Reformation, 1518-2018’, with this issue devoted to ‘Insights into Contemporary Baptist Thought: Perspectives on European Baptist Theology and History.

Tim Noble
Nowhere is Better than Here: The Strengths and Weaknesses of Early Sixteenth Century Utopias
This article examines the utopian vision present in the eponymous work by Thomas More and in the early Anabaptists. In the light of the discussion on the power and dangers of utopian thinking in liberation theology it seeks to show how More struggled with the tension between the positive possibilities of a different world and the destructive criticism of the present reality. A similar tension is found in early Anabaptist practices, especially in terms of their relationship to the state and their practice of commonality of goods. The article shows that that all attempts to reduce visions of a better world to a particular setting end up as ideological.

Rupen Das
Becoming a Follower of Christ: Exploring Conversion Through Historical and Missiological Lenses
Conversion is a critical part of Evangelical theology and missiology. It has been defined as a crisis experience or a decision at a specific point in time. However, there is always an aspect of development, a process, involved. Increasingly, the phenomenon of conversion of those from non-Christian backgrounds, for example from other world religions, indicates that how they become followers of Christ is often characterised by a gradual journey, sometimes accompanied by visions and dreams. This paper looks at the phenomenon of conversion through a historical and missiological lens to explain and understand the dynamics of the conversion.

Marion L.S. Carson
In Whose Interest? Ante-Bellum Abolitionism, the Bible, and Contemporary Christian Ethics
Christians look to Scripture to inform their ethical decision-making, believing that God speaks through it. However, disagreement as to what the Bible requires us to do can often lead to acrimonious splits within the church. So long as sharp divisions amongst Christians over ethical issues remain, injustices continue, and the reputation of the church is undermined. This article suggests that lessons may be learned from the story of the use of the Bible in the American Abolitionism debate which can help the contemporary church to discuss and perhaps even resolve some enduring ethical questions which are dividing Christians today.

Stuart Blythe
Open-Air Preaching: A Long and Diverse Tradition
For many people, open-air preaching is associated with a particularly limited understanding of the nature of the event. In part this is related to the fact that open-air preaching has received relatively little serious academic study. From a variety of sources, however, it is possible to piece together something of a critically analytic sketch of the practice. This sketch demonstrates that not only can open-air preaching claim longevity but that in turn it is a practice with considerable diversity as open-air preachers seek to make meaning through their gathering and encounter with audiences.

Anthony R. Cross
The Place of Theological Education in the Preparation of Men and Women for the British Baptist Ministry then and Now
Using principally, though not exclusively, the learning of the biblical languages, this paper seeks to demonstrate four things. Firstly, from their beginnings in the early seventeenth century the majority of British Baptists have believed that the study of theology is essential for their ministers, and that the provision of such an education through their colleges is necessary for the well-being of the churches. Secondly, and contrary to misconceptions among Baptists and those of other traditions, Baptists have always had ministers who have been highly trained theologically, and that this has enriched their service as pastors. Thirdly, it reveals that Baptists today have a wealth of both academically-gifted and theologically-astute pastor-theologians and pastor-scholars. Finally, it argues that theology has always played its part in the renewal of Christian life and witness for which so many Christians today are praying.

Lina Toth
Strangers in the Land and True Lovers of the Nation: the Formation of Lithuanian-Speaking Baptist Identity, 1918-1940
How does an emerging community of faith develop its identity in the context of a semi-hostile and increasingly nationalistic culture? The story of the early years of Lithuanian-speaking Baptists provides an interesting and informative case study. This article focusses on the formative stage of the Lithuanian-speaking Baptist movement during the interwar period of the independent Republic of Lithuania (1918-1940). It considers four main factors which contributed to the formation of Lithuanian-speaking Baptist identity: different ethnic and cultural groupings amongst Baptists in Lithuania; the role of the global Baptist family in providing both material and ideological support; the community’s relationship with the Lithuanian state; and their stance towards the dominant religious context, i.e. the Lithuanian Catholic Church. Out of this dynamic emerges a picture of the particular ways in which these congregations, and especially their leadership, navigated their understanding of loyalty to the Kingdom of God in relation to their belonging to a particular national grouping.

Tuesday 17 April 2018

9Marks Journal (Spring 2018) on Political Witness

The latest issue of the 9Marks Journal, available from here in various formats and here as a pdf, is devoted to the topic of ‘Church Life: Our True Political Witness’.

Its North American provenance means some adjustment might need to made for other contexts, but there would seem to be wider applicability and thoughtful provocation in the articles.

In the Editor’s Note, Jonathan Leeman writes:

The goal of this 9Marks Journal is to redirect our political gaze from the nation to the church. Our political hope must not be in the next presidential election, or in trying to win the country “back” or “forward” to something different. Believe it or not, the political hope of the nations is in local churches...

Do you know where the world should first witness... just and lasting peace? In the life and fellowship of the boundary-defying local church. It’s in the local church where we first beat our swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. It’s in the church where one-time enemies learn to love one another.’

Friday 13 April 2018

A Problem Like Syria

I wrote this week’s Connecting with Culture, a weekly email service from the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. As it happens, it’s a lightly-edited rerun of a piece I wrote in August 2013, when Parliament was recalled to vote on whether or not to intervene in Syria in an armed response, resulting in what was widely seen at the time as a humiliating defeat for David Cameron.

Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) should be enough to persuade us of the deeply ambiguous nature of existence in the time before the final harvest. There is ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and both grow together until the end. Until then, we take seriously the inevitable messiness of life and the requirement for caution in some moral judgments. Unambiguous clarity is not always possible.

The alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime on its civilians has reignited debates on the principle of armed intervention. This week has seen threat and counter-threat, risking the escalation of conflict. Promises of action from Trump, May, and Macron have been countered with promises of reprisals from Putin, with Syrian civilians caught in the middle. While non-intervention is seen by some as appropriately cautious, others see it as an abdication of moral responsibility. There are MPs on both sides, campaigners on both sides, Syrians on both sides. And Christians – including Syrian Christians – are on both sides too.

For all of us, a bigger picture may provide some perspective. The Old Testament prophets make it clear that God holds nations to account. A nation or a people cannot conduct itself as though it were an ultimate end in itself. It must understand its own life in the context of a larger dynamic of which it is a part – and which will answer ultimately to God. There isn’t a direct match between ancient nations addressed by the prophets and their modern counterparts, but there is an uncanny resemblance in the reasons for which they are indicted – pride, greed, violence, injustice – and no one nation has a monopoly on those.

Indeed, the line between good and evil, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (who had good reason to yearn for regime change) reminded us, runs through our own hearts.

Prophetic sayings against the nations weren’t designed to deal with nitty-gritty decision-making in international politics. But they brought hope to the people of God – of his unrivaled supremacy in the world, and of his plan to bless all nations even while holding them to account.

Ambiguity about the best way forward needn’t lead to inaction or despair. Even when we can’t see it now, Christians of all people have reasons for hope and confidence. And to pray and work purposefully for things that make for peace now.

Monday 9 April 2018

Rodney Green on Integrity

The latest Cambridge Paper from the Jubilee Centre is available online (here, from where a pdf can be downloaded), this one by Rodney Green:

Rodney Green, ‘Integrity’, Cambridge Papers 27, 1 (March 2018).

Here is the summary:

‘Knowing to whom we are accountable lies at the heart of integrity. Is it self, public opinion or God? This paper aims to distinguish self-referential integrity from a Christian understanding of integrity that is accountable to Christ. Integrity faces counter-currents and riptides capable of causing our scattered self to drift, sometimes to drown. We will describe examples of these undercurrents to warn of their force; they are not always easy to discern and continually change direction and intensity to sweep us off our feet. We will also examine some of the flawed solutions that we fondly hope will be adequate to protect our integrity, but turn out to be a wholly inadequate selective moralism. Finally, we will attempt to define the key ingredients of Christian integrity in terms of moral accountability, relational consistency and personal discipline.’

Thursday 5 April 2018

The Bible in Transmission (Spring 2018) on Challenging Church: Growth, Change and Diversity

The latest issue of The Bible in Transmission, from Bible Society, is available online here, offering a collection of articles on the theme of ‘Challenging Church: Growth, Change and Diversity’.

I have taken the ‘tasters’ of articles below from Chine McDonald’s editorial.

The prevailing narrative coming from research into church attendance suggests that the Church in the UK could now be in irreversible decline. In our opening article, David Goodhew, the Director of the Centre for Church Growth Research in Durham, raises the disturbing question as to whether this decline has, in part, theological roots. Goodhew argues that we need to be liberated from such thinking. As he says, ‘Having a nuanced theology of church growth will assist churches in growing numerically, but doing so in a godly way.’

Although the prevailing narrative is of a Church in decline, the picture is perhaps a little more complex than we might think, as Dr Rhiannon McAleer, Bible Society’s Head of Research, explores in her article. McAleer’s statistical overview of the UK Church demonstrates that although there is decline, there are also pockets of hope, in which denominations are seeing signs of flourishing in terms of church planting and growth. 

Israel Olofinjana, a member of the training team at the Centre for Missionaries from the Majority World, explores the impact of black majority churches in Britain and world mission.

Dr Harvey Kwiyani, lecturer in African Christianity and Theology at Liverpool Hope University, explores growing churches, migration and multiculturalism in more detail.

Examining the issue of migration from a theological and biblical perspective, Father Beck challenges Christians to properly understand migration so that the Church as a community may more closely reflect what it means to be the people of God.

Growth is a sign of life. As Linda Rayner explains, the Fresh Expressions movement is just one of the ways in which churches are adapting to the times, changing where they meet and the way in which they do things in order to fulfil the Great Commission.

Another movement that has begun to emerge in recent years is Together for the Common Good. In her article, Jenny Sinclair explains how the principle of seeking the common good can untap the potential of churches, build relationships and strengthen communities.

A story we seldom hear in discussions about church growth is the signs of hope and flourishing taking place within rural churches. But it is time to tell a new story, writes Jill Hopkinson.

Tuesday 3 April 2018

Centre for Public Christianity (April 2018)

Among other items of interest, the Centre for Public Christianity has posted a ‘Life and Faith’ interview with Garth Davis, director of Lion, about his new film, Mary Magdalene, telling the story ‘of one of the most elusive, controversial, and misinterpreted figures in ancient history’, and a podcast with author Tim Winton on ‘unlikely friendships, masculinity, and grace’.

Monday 2 April 2018

Mary Evans on Judges and Ruth

Mary J. Evans, Judges and Ruth: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (London: IVP, 2017).

I was recently asked to attend a book launch at London School of Theology of, among others, Mary Evans’ recent addition to the Tyndale Series, and to offer a commendation of it – which I was very happy to do.

For thirty years or thereabouts, Mary taught at London Bible College, now London School of Theology, where she was Senior Lecturer in Old Testament and also served as Vice Principal.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that Mary is a long-standing friend. I sat under her teaching as a young, slightly cheeky, wet-behind-the-ears undergraduate student, and then I became her slightly less young but still slightly cheeky and still wet-behind-the-ears colleague for 16 years. Mary had a reputation among students for down-to-earth Bible teaching, and a reputation among her colleagues for being an innovator in ways of doing theological education at a time when everything had become a tad stale and samey. Mary has been a visiting lecturer at colleges for different lengths of time in a number of countries around the world, has served on the boards of several Christian organisations, and written and contributed to many books.

The following is a lightly-edited version of what I said at the launch:

This is going to be less a book review and more a personal testimony. I really enjoyed reading through Mary’s commentary on Judges and Ruth. And as I did so, I found myself feeling grateful for three things.

First of all, I found myself feeling grateful to God for his word, the Scriptures.

It would be easy to become cynical at what might feel like a never-ending stream of commentaries on the Bible, each with their own distinctive slant. That, I think, would be a shame. Commentary writing has an ancient pedigree. It reminds us of our place as the most recent in a long line of those who have gone before us, who themselves have sought to understand the Bible for the benefit of others. But most of all, commentary writing keeps us close to Scripture. I see our ongoing writing and reading of commentaries as a mark of a commitment which says that this collection of texts matters.

A good commentary – like this one – reminds us that God always has yet more light to shed from his word. And that’s something to be grateful for.

Then second, I found myself feeling grateful to God for London School of Theology.

Not only did Mary write this commentary, as a former long-standing member of LST faculty, but the general editor for the series is David Firth, a former LST student, and the theological editor at IVP (named by Mary in the Preface) is Phil Duce, also a former LST student! Plus, Mary’s contribution to this series puts her in the company of Dick France and Donald Guthrie, also significant figures in the history of LST and of evangelical biblical scholarship more generally.

I say this not as a line for the next marketing campaign, but as a grateful reminder of the work LST has been directly or indirectly responsible for over the years, and the significance of good scholarship done for the church.

I know that Mary didn’t write the commentary whilst being employed at LST, but those of us who have worked at the School know that our experience becomes part of our iceberg when we move on. It takes a certain type of person nurtured in a certain type of community to produce a book like this. It’s a certain type of institution which says this type of work matters and that we will not only allow, but actively encourage our people to give good time to it.

So, third, I’m grateful to God for Mary.

For those of you who don’t know Mary as well as I do, this commentary is just a single slice of a highly productive life serving God by serving others.

And it reminds me of the things Mary does really well – like its down-to-earthness, like the way I’m drawn into the story so that I have to imagine the force it would take for a woman to crush a man’s skull with a pointed-but-not-necessarily-sharp tent peg, like the quirky asides such as telling us that Judges has one tenth of all the references to donkeys in the Old Testament!

There were new things for me, too. Like many, I’ve seen the references in the final few chapters of Judges that ‘there was no king’ as an apologetic for the monarchy that would follow this period. But Mary reminds us that the kings didn’t do that much better! And I think Mary is distinctive in suggesting that the writers of Judges are asking about the possibility of good government, and that while kingship could be blamed for many things, it couldn’t be blamed for the situation described in these times.

I think also I’ve tended to see the opening reference in Ruth, ‘In the days when the judged ruled’, to provide a contrast with what’s gone before. But as Mary points out, even in the book of Ruth not all is as it should be in Israel.

But the thing that really sticks out is Mary’s commitment to the text. Many commentaries are actually meta-commentaries – commentaries on commentaries. What we get is: ‘So-and-so says X, but such-and-such says Y.’ And there’s due acknowledgement of scholarship in this commentary, but it never gets in the way of Mary’s own running reflections on the text.

This commitment to go where the text goes shows up in Mary’s treatment of gender-sensitive passages, of which there are many in Judges and Ruth. Helpfully, in my opinion, Mary writes from a stance of trust in Scripture rather than suspicion of Scripture. Mary writes from a perspective that listens for the critiques of patriarchy where they occur – and they are there – but which recognises that the questions and issues of the original audience aren’t necessarily ours, and it does no-one any favours to turn Judges and Ruth into protofeminist texts!

The constraints of the Tyndale series means that there isn’t a lot of space to reflect on implications for Christians today of this period in the life of God’s people, but Mary makes the most of what there is. The commentary certainly drew me in to reflect on my own way of life as a member of God’s covenant people, and left me thankful for the one, the only one, who truly can save us.

So, with all that in mind, I give thanks to God for his word, for LST, and – on this day – for this book and for Mary too. Thank you.