Tuesday 26 February 2019

Theology Magazine Issue 1

The first issue of a new theology magazine called, er... Theology Mag has been published and is available (including a pdf download) from here.

It looks interesting, though it’s not immediately apparent – to me, at least – who’s publishing it and sponsoring it.

According to Brandon J. O’Brien in the Editorial:

Theology Mag aims to be a digest of clear thinking and fresh perspectives on essential theological subjects. It points you to both classic and emerging voices that have something meaningful to say.’

The first issue is devoted to the Trinity, and contains pieces by Fred Sanders, Frederica Mathewes-Green, Mike Reeves, Tim Chester, Kevin DeYoung, among others.

The email notification I received said the first issue was free, which suggests there might be a charge for subsequent issues.

Monday 25 February 2019

Shaped by the Story #3: Under New Management?

Then Samuel said to the people... ‘Now then, stand here, because I am going to confront you with evidence before the LORD as to all the righteous acts performed by the LORD for you and your ancestors... If you fear the LORD and serve and obey him and do not rebel against his commands, and if both you and the king who reigns over you follow the LORD your God – good! But if you do not obey the LORD, and if you rebel against his commands, his hand will be against you, as it was against your ancestors.’ 1 Samuel 12:6-7 & 14-15

Like Moses and Joshua before him, Samuel calls the people to covenant faithfulness at the dawn of a new era in their history – the transition to Saul’s kingship. Again, like Moses and Joshua, his instruction is informed by the biblical story to this point. How will the monarchy relate to what has gone before?

Samuel begins by ensuring his own integrity is not under dispute, and the people happily agree that he had neither cheated or oppressed them. But he goes on to show that the Lord, likewise, has been faithful to them in his ‘righteous acts’.

His historical sketch begins with God’s liberation of the people from Egypt, through Moses and Aaron. It takes in the period of the judges, as Samuel makes it clear that the Lord repeatedly raised up leaders to deliver them when they rebelled against God and fell into enemy hands. In the context of the people wanting a king ‘such as all the other nations have’ (1 Samuel 8:5), the clear upshot of Samuel’s telling of their story is that God himself, as ruler over all, has consistently provided leaders to rescue his people in times of need. The ongoing problem, it appears, is not the system of leadership in and of itself so much as their constant turning away from God.

Even now, in spite of their request for a ruler, God remains committed to Israel. But the king will not guarantee their future success. That will be down to their ongoing trust in, and obedience to, God whose covenant still stands – for the king as well as the people. Kingship will be allowed, but both leader and people are to serve the one who is Lord of all.

As it turns out, later generations would come to know that kings do not and cannot save. And the biblical story anticipates the need for a ruler who would reign forever, who would bring about a salvation that Israel’s kings could never achieve. Now, as then, as 1 Samuel 12:22 makes clear, the basis for our confidence and delight in serving God is his saving grace towards us: ‘For the sake of his great name the LORD will not reject his people, because the LORD was pleased to make you his own.’

Friday 22 February 2019

The Gift of Power

The below article was written for the WorkForum at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ So says Uncle Ben to his nephew, Peter Parker, at least as the line appears in the 2002 movie version of the Spider-Man story. That’s good advice for superheroes, perhaps, who might be tempted to use their powers for personal gain, fulfilling Lord Acton’s famous dictum that ‘power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.

But we don’t have to look too far to see the corrupting tendency of power. In Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A New History of Power (London: Penguin, 2013), David Priestland offers an intriguing account of history as a competition for power between the three major groups of his title. These ‘castes’ (as he terms them) – symbolic of capitalists, militarists, and the intelligentsia – are locked in a struggle for power which triggers a crisis (war, revolution, or economic collapse) when any one of them gains prominence. Hence, according to this account, the West is now paying the price for succumbing to the values of the ‘merchants’ with their belief in the market and their pursuit of profit.

Inevitably, whether and how far Priestland has overplayed his hand is up for grabs. In addition, there is a yet bigger story against which we, as Christians, might understand power. According to Andy Crouch, in Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (Downers Grove: IVP, 2013), Christians often see power as a danger to be avoided rather than a gift to be stewarded. But we best understand power, Crouch says, as we see ourselves made in the image of God, called to cultivate creation, to ‘make something of the world’ – building houses, designing software, writing poetry, baking cakes, teaching children. In this way, all of us – not just those thought to be ‘powerful’ – have ‘great power’ and are responsible for using it well.

For instance, we image God when we manage people. When we do that well, and in a way that reflects our union with Christ, we’re countering the argument that power and authority can’t be trusted. If I use my authority as a boss or a leader or a manager well, I’m painting in a positive light God who is the source of all authority. It’s no surprise that in Ephesians 6:9, Paul connects the master’s authority with God’s authority: ‘you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven’, he tells masters. In stewarding well what God gives us – including our leadership roles – we say something of who God is and what God is like.

Robert comes to mind as an example. When he was promoted and made head of his department, Robert was concerned that his opportunities for evangelism would disappear. Most of the people he worked with would be working for him, and he’d have to be sensitive to this and not abuse his position. As it turned out, he found he had more opportunities to share the gospel, and it almost always came from using his authority for the benefit of his team instead of his own benefit. Robert’s way of exercising power was different, and people would talk to him about it.

To be sure, in a damaged and distorted world, power has the potential to be misused and misdirected, abused and abusive, leading to idolatry and injustice. But true power is exercised on behalf of others, and is concerned with cultivating the best environment for someone or something to thrive – in line with God’s original design for his world.

Here as elsewhere, Christians take their cue from Christ himself, in whose image we are being recreated. In this way, we exercise the gift of power every day, often in mundane ways, but infused with love and seasoned with confidence in God’s plan to restore all things.

Monday 18 February 2019

Shaped by the Story #2: The Promises of a Settled People

Joshua said to all the people, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: “Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshipped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the Euphrates and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants...” Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness... As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.’ Joshua 24:2-3 & 14-15

Towards the end of his life, Joshua gathers the people and recites the story of all that God has done for them. His account intersects with Moses’ earlier summary in Deuteronomy 1-4, but is also influenced by the new situation at hand. Having now entered the land of promise, they have stopped journeying and must decide how they will live as a settled people.

Joshua reminds them of God calling Abraham, defeating the Egyptians, bringing them through the wilderness, and dispossessing the Canaanites (24:2-13). The Lord is repeatedly the main actor in Joshua’s account – the one who ‘took’ and ‘led’ and ‘gave’ and ‘sent’ and ‘brought’ – emphasising that it is only by his grace that the people now stand where they do. Moreover, like Moses before him, Joshua shuffles between ‘they’ and ‘you’ in his telling in a way that interweaves his audience with their ancestors, such that the foundational story of the covenant people becomes their story too.

Not to be missed, however, is that Joshua tells the story of Israel’s past as a journey from a ‘foreign’ land to the promised land by the descendants of people who ‘worshipped other gods’. Just as Abraham made the journey from the worship of many gods to faith in the one true God, so Israel’s future depends on the acceptance of this same journey as their own.

So it is that Joshua tells the story in a way designed to bring Israel to a decision. On the basis of God’s great acts for them, he appeals to the people to dedicate themselves to the Lord, announcing his own commitment to do so: ‘as for me and my household’, he says, ‘we will serve the LORD’. Now that they have stopped journeying, they can live as Terah did ‘beyond the Euphrates’, or they can serve the one who delivered them from idolatry and slavery. One way or the other, the story of God’s people will continue to unfold.

For us too, the call of Jesus to ‘follow me’ flows out of what he has already done on our behalf. And we do so with the confidence that he has brought us this far and will be with us always, to the very end of the age.

Thursday 14 February 2019

Mission Catalyst 1 (2019) on Freedom

The current issue of Mission Catalyst, published by BMS World Mission, is now available. This issue is devoted to ‘Freedom’, asking the question, ‘What does it look like?’

Mission Catalyst is available as a free subscription, or can be downloaded as a pdf here.

Tuesday 12 February 2019

Shaped by the Story #1: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

This will be a lightly edited re-run of a series I’ve already posted on this blog. I’m sending them out as a weekly series for the people in the church whom I serve, but will also post them here.

Christians have often seen the Bible as telling one long story of salvation, stretching from Genesis to Revelation, from creation to new creation. As it happens, that’s a strategy that goes right back to Scripture itself. In this new series of weekly reflections – Shaped by the Story – we turn to some of those places where the Bible itself tells its own story, where each of the tellings enfolds a new generation of people into God’s ongoing plan for the world...

These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel in the wilderness east of the Jordan... Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. Remember the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb...
Deuteronomy 1:1 and 4:9-10

It’s surely significant that at the heart of the Bible is not a list of rules to be obeyed or even a set of promises to be claimed, but a grand, sweeping story that is told. It’s an account of God reaching out in love to sinful men and women, drawing them into relationship with himself, forming them into a people who then become the main ingredients in a plan – centred in Christ – which ultimately involves the restoration of creation itself.

Nor should it come as a surprise that several summaries of this story are found throughout Scripture. The story is narrated up to the point of telling, of course, but each of the tellers is concerned to place themselves and their listeners or readers into that larger story, in such a way that it becomes their story too.

So it is, as Deuteronomy begins, that God’s people find themselves on the verge of entering the promised land. In the opening four chapters, Moses reviews their history since leaving Sinai; but he does so in a way that folds the audience into what has happened. Many of the original hearers were no more present at Sinai than twenty-first-century readers were. And yet – in a way that also speaks directly to contemporary Christians – Moses makes it clear that these foundational events become part of our history too.

God’s words and deeds are recalled with a view to what lies ahead as the people will live in the land. Israel’s story will continue into the future, in continuity with what has taken place in the past, and it’s on the basis of the story so far that Moses calls his listeners to covenant faithfulness. We can trust God going forwards because of who he has shown himself to be in years gone by.

For us too, the story of God’s dealings with his people is to be remembered and passed on, treasured and taught to succeeding generations who will themselves be written into the ongoing story. And those of us who have experienced the grace of God and his call on our lives will likewise benefit from the reminder of how he has already acted on our behalf, and be strengthened by the confidence that he himself will go ahead of us, today and always.

Sunday 10 February 2019

Recommendations on Biblical Wisdom

I wrote the following mini reviews for a recent edition of Highlights, produced by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

The Bible Project – Wisdom series

With their combination of creative animation and careful narration, The Bible Project videos – freely available online – say a lot and say it well. Their ‘Wisdom Series’ introduces Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, exploring how all three show what living well in God’s world looks like, each one offering their distinctive perspective on the ‘good life’, and all affirming that the journey to becoming wise begins with the fear of the Lord.
Tremper Longman III, The Fear of the Lord is Wisdom: A Theological Introduction to Wisdom in Israel (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017).

This is the best work for those looking for a comprehensive treatment of wisdom in the Bible. In addition to introducing the main biblical wisdom books, Longman explores the presence of wisdom elsewhere in the Old Testament, the characteristics of Israelite wisdom in its ancient setting, some debated issues in the study of biblical wisdom, and the presence of wisdom in subsequent Jewish writings and the New Testament. Highly recommended.

Elaine A. Phillips, An Introduction to Reading Biblical Wisdom Texts (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2017).

Reading this book is like having a personal tutorial with an expert teacher and guide, someone with that rare ability to communicate complex ideas concisely and well. With brief chapters, engagingly written but rooted in careful scholarship, Phillips offers a wonderfully accessible introduction to wisdom and an overview of the Bible’s wisdom books (including Song of Songs), with a mixture of reflection on content and discussion of issues of interpretation.

Thursday 7 February 2019

Mission Frontiers 41, 1 (January-February 2019)

The January-February 2019 issue of Mission Frontiers, published by the U.S. Center for World Mission, contains a number of articles responding to the questions: ‘Is the end of extreme poverty in sight? What’s working?’

According to the introductory blurb:

‘This issue takes a closer look at extreme poverty and examines the problems as well as potential worldwide solutions. Extreme poverty is a state of life for many that warrants significant concern, but this issue looks at ways to address that poverty globally that could potentially make it a thing of the past. You may be challenged to rethink some of your own ideas about poverty, foreign aid and financial assistance as you delve into this issue about what works and what doesn’t. Could we see the end of extreme poverty in our lifetime? Our January-February 2019 issue addresses that hopeful possibility.’

Individual articles can be accessed from here, and the whole issue can be downloaded as a pdf here.

Monday 4 February 2019

Resolved #5: To Boast in the Cross of Christ

May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule – to the Israel of God.
Galatians 6:14-16

We might well resolve to do the things Paul calls on us in Galatians to do – to stand firm in our freedom, to walk with the Spirit, to fulfil Christ’s law, to do good to all people – but where, when all is done, will our confidence finally lie? For Paul, not in our own achievements or the approval of others, but in the cross of Christ.

Removed as we are from the first-century world, where crucifixion was looked upon as shameful by Jew and pagan alike, it’s not easy to feel the scandal of that claim. And yet, the cross is not something Paul returns to only when he has to, and then in slight embarrassment, but is at the centre of his message about Christ. For it was there that Christ became a curse for us (3:13), delivering us from slavery (4:5). And it is there, Paul says, that our old self has been crucified (5:24), echoing his earlier testimony that he has been ‘crucified with Christ’, and that he lives now ‘by faith in the Son of God’ who loved him and gave himself for him (2:20).

As Michael J. Gorman explores in his Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), Christ’s death not only provides the source of our salvation but the shape of our salvation, such that our daily life ratifies our core allegiance to Jesus – as we take up our cross to follow him.

More than this, however, the effects of the cross are cosmic in their extent, reaching beyond individuals to embrace heaven and earth – bringing about ‘a new creation’ no less. Small wonder, then, that whatever privileges might have given grounds for honour for God’s people in the past are nothing compared to what really counts. Circumcision is the specific example Paul mentions, though it doesn’t take much effort to imagine other ‘badges of honour’ we like to wear. But none of them can compare with belonging to the new age that God has begun through the cross of Christ.

And with that comes peace and mercy for the whole family of Abraham – Jew and Gentile alike – to all who ‘keep in step with’ this rule, whose identity is now derived from the new creation God has brought about through the Spirit and in Christ.

Friday 1 February 2019

Theos Report on Debt

The latest report from Theos has just been published:

Here are some paragraphs from the Theos website:

‘Over 16 million people in the UK have less than £100 in savings. Personal debt is now at 90% of GDP. Debt is clearly a serious economic issue – but it is also a profoundly moral one. How should we distribute the risks and responsibilities inherent in debt? How should we treat people with severe debt problems? Should there be limits on borrowing and rates of interest?

‘This report draws on the wealth of Christian thought on the subject to highlight the moral and relational dimensions of debt and suggest practical ways to address some of its problematic aspects at the personal, corporate, and public levels in the UK today.’

A pdf of the full report is available here.