Monday 29 July 2019

Echoes of Blessing #1: A Favoured People

The LORD said to Moses, ‘Tell Aaron and his sons, “This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them:
‘“‘The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face shine on you
and be gracious to you;
the LORD turn his face towards you
and give you peace.’”
‘So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.’
Numbers 6:22-27

How would it feel to go into the rest of this week joyfully confident of God’s favour resting on you? What difference might it make to how you’d approach the things you’ll do, the conversations you’ll have, the decisions you’ll make?

Confidence comes in knowing that God is the source of every blessing.

We see something of his intent on the first page of the Bible when God blesses the creatures he has made – to be fruitful, to multiply, and flourish. And he blesses human beings too – as made in his image and called to steward the earth, to exercise loving rule over other creatures. God’s plan to bless creation is reinforced with the call of Abraham in Genesis 12 when God promises to form a people through whom he will extend blessing to all nations.

The Lord reinforces his larger purpose in the ongoing blessing of the Israelites mediated through the priests. Somehow he knew they’d need a regular reminder.

For them as for us comes the reassurance that the Lord and the Lord alone is the one who blesses his people. For them as for us the blessing declares that God cares for us and keeps us, delights in us and forgives us, watches us and restores us. That’s how God marks out those who belong to him. No wonder that these words of blessing shaped the worship of Israel through the centuries as, in different contexts, the people of God echoed the promises made and occasionally glimpsed how it would spill over to others.

And the words speak to us and shape us in the process of doing so. It’s somehow too easy to look for blessing in all the wrong places, to be uncertain of the father’s love for us, unaware of his enfolding grace, unsure of his gift of peace. It’s too easy to forget that every day his face lights up as he sees us, because his favour rests on us.

Because of the God he is, we’re not only encouraged to live under the reality of being treasured by him, but emboldened by the conviction that there is nothing worth having that he withholds from us. This God who, as Paul says in Ephesians 1:3, has ‘blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ’, is the same God today.

Saturday 27 July 2019

Denis R. Alexander on Healing, Enhancement and the Human Future

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

Here is the summary:

‘This Paper reviews some recent examples of genetic engineering and brain science that make human technoscientific enhancement a pressing moral question. Healing and different types of enhancement are compared. Two rival world-views are considered, Transhumanism and Christianity – with contrasting visions of life after death – world-views which come to strikingly different conclusions concerning the path that leads to true human enhancement.’

Thursday 25 July 2019

Southeastern Theological Review 10, 1 (Spring 2019)

The most-recent issue of the Southeastern Theological Review is online, containing the below essays, available as a pdf here.

Benjamin L. Merkle

David G. Firth
Some Reflections on Current Narrative Research on the Book of Samuel
The development of narrative criticism as a discipline within Old Testament studies and study of the books of Samuel are integrally related. This essay examines the significance of Samuel for the ways in which narrative criticism has developed, arguing that it is the narrative poetics of Samuel that have come to be largely definitive for our understanding of the poetics of narrative within the Old Testament. At the same time, the developing understanding of narrative criticism has shaped the ways in which Samuel is interpreted, with narrative criticism becoming a dominant model. This development is explored through major studies of Samuel published as and since this shift took place, showing the fruitfulness of this approach for contemporary study, while also showing that issues left unaddressed in the rise of narrative criticism leave important questions about their interpretation unresolved.

David Seal
Communication in the Lukan Birth Narrative (Luke 2:1–20)
The Gospel of Luke was written in an oral culture and it documents events that transpired in the same first-century Mediterranean world. This is apparent in chapter 2 where there are references to various means of information being transmitted that were typical of an oral society. First, the chapter opens by recounting a decree issued by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1–3). Second, the declaration by an angel that a Savior has been born (2:11) was also proclaimed to the shepherds by word of mouth. Third, the victory acclamation recited by the divine army (2:13–14) mimics acclamations vocalized by the Roman army. Finally, the narration by the shepherds of their experience visiting the Christ child and of the angel’s message was conveyed to others by word of mouth (2:17–18). This essay will explore each of these modes of communication and discuss their implications for understanding the birth narrative. 

Alexander E. Stewart and Jacob D. Ott
Show Me the Money: Pedagogy, Numismatics, and the New Testament
Roman imperial and provincial coins are important for understanding religion, politics, and culture in the first century. They are also able to make a unique and valuable pedagogical contribution to classroom teaching in both the academy and the church. In an effort to promote this pedagogical use of ancient coins, this article will (1) provide a brief introduction to biblically relevant coins from the Old Testament, intertestamental, and New Testament periods; (2) briefly illustrate the relevance of numismatics for New Testament studies; and (3) provide practical guidance for the acquisition and pedagogical use of ancient coins.

David Moss
Infinitive Tense-Form Choice: Ephesians as a Test Cast
Verbal aspect and its involvement in the Greek verbal system has been intensely debated since Stanley Porter and Buist Fanning published their dissertations after independently researching the role verbal aspect plays in the Greek verbal system. This essay seeks to take the research done in verbal aspect studies over the past three decades and apply it to a particular test case, namely Paul’s use of infinitives in Ephesians. Greek, like most languages, makes distinctions that do not directly translate well into English. Since the Greek infinitive mostly occurs in the Present and Aorist tense-forms, an author has a choice in which to use. However, the choice is not purely subjective but has contextual, lexical, and aspectual influences. This essay explores these influences and shows their exegetical significance in the book of Ephesians.

Jesse Payne
An Uneasy Ecclesiology: Carl F.H. Henry’s Doctrine of the Church 
This article evaluates Carl F.H. Henry’s ecclesiology and argues that he highlighted regenerate church membership and mission while he downplayed the local aspects of the church (such as polity and the ordinances). The accent of Henry’s ecclesiology was always placed over the wide swath of churches in the Reformation tradition, rather than a particular stream located therein. This was due to Henry’s unique historical context and calling. This article both affirms and expands upon Russell Moore’s previous work on the topic. The strengths of Henry’s approach lie in the value of a unified evangelical voice in the face of encroaching secularism. The weaknesses lie in the neglect of denominational riches and the possible minimization of God’s ordained vehicle for Christian discipleship: the local church.

Zachary Breitenbach
An Epistemically-Focused Interpretation of C.S. Lewis’s Moral Argument in Mere Christianity and an Assessment of Its Apologetic Force
C.S. Lewis’s moral argument in Mere Christianity is rightly lauded as an influential contribution to moral apologetics. Yet its structure, which Lewis never formalizes, is often misunderstood. I will first defend an interpretation of Lewis’s argument that views it as centering on moral epistemology. Although moral ontology plays a key role in his argument insofar as it affirms the reality of objective morality and a transcendent communicator of the moral law, many wrongly view it as making the further ontological claim that God must ground objective morality. I emphasize how Lewis’s primary aim is to show that a mind-like Guide is needed for humans to know the moral law. My other key objective is to evaluate the apologetic effectiveness of this understanding of the argument. Although I will show how he could have strengthened his argument—and his conclusion, which stops short of arguing for classical theism—in significant ways, I will contend that Lewis does offer a sound argument that carries much apologetic force.

Book Reviews

Monday 22 July 2019

Proverbs #6: A Wisdom That Works

Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
Honour her for all that her hands have done,
and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
Proverbs 31:30-31

The book of Proverbs closes with a poetic celebration of a woman who ‘fears the LORD’. Significantly, we reach the end of the book and discover that the model to emulate is not a religious ‘professional’, like a priest or a prophet or a scribe, but a woman whose faith is shown in her daily life.

In fact, this remarkable portrayal is the Bible’s fullest description of the regular activity of an ‘ordinary’ person – a woman whose fear of the Lord is demonstrated in her everyday activities of being a wife to her husband, a mother to her children, providing for her family, managing her household, engaging in international trade in cloths and textiles, negotiating the purchase of fields, looking out for the poor, and more besides!

The book which begins with the affirmation that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (1:7) ends with praise of one who embodies it.

No wonder we are called on to honour her for ‘the fruit of her hands’, as more literal versions translate the phrase in verse 31. In what does this fruit consist? How is it demonstrated? The ‘fruit of her hands’ is the result of her work, that which allows her to plant a vineyard (31:16). Her spinning of yarn and reaching out to the poor are also actions performed by her hands (31:19-20). Whether it’s savvy commerce, technical competence, or tender compassion, all are attributed to the work of her fruitful hands – the deeds that bring her praise.

In keeping with the command to our first parents in the Garden of Eden, the fruit of her hands is a life which brings forth the potential of God’s good creation. As such, the woman becomes a model for all of us – men as well as women, attached or unattached – who are called to be faithful stewards of all that God has given us, in a way that’s productive and beneficial to others.

And, as the book of Proverbs makes clear, the call to fruitful living is applicable in different spheres of life – at the city gates and in the market squares, in our homes and in our workplaces. Far from being removed from the rhythms of everyday life, such fruitfulness embraces a range of skills and tasks, worked out concretely in the kitchen, on the field, at the desk, wherever God has placed us.

Sunday 21 July 2019

Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 22, 4 (2018) on Vocation

The current issue of the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology is devoted to ‘Reflections on Vocation’, with the below contributions.

In the Editorial, Stephen J. Wellum writes:

‘A crucial area in which we can demonstrate a practical difference between a Christian and our society’s view of humans is in the areas of vocation and work. It should not surprise us that how we view our vocation and the dignity of work is directly tied to our theology, especially what we think of God and ourselves as his image-bearers. From a biblical view, work is tied to the purpose of our creation and it is intrinsic to who we are as creatures and image-bearers created to rule over the world as God’s vice-regents. No doubt, our work has been affected by sin (Gen 3; Rom 8:18-25), but in Christ, God the Son has assumed our human nature to reverse the effects of sin and death for us by his cross and resurrection, and to restore us to what God created us to be in the first place. As we await the consummation of Christ’s glorious new covenant work, believers are to be about the task of growing in grace, knowing and enjoying God and one another, and living out what God created us to be as his redeemed creatures and image-bearers.’

Individual essays are available from here, and the whole issue can be downloaded as a pdf here.

Stephen J. Wellum
Editorial: Reflections on Vocation

Gregory E. Lamb
Living is Christ and Dying is Gain: Paul’s Reimagining of Human Flourishing in Philippians

Daniel S. Diffey
The Diligence, Justice, and Generosity of the Wise: The Ethic of Work in the Book of Proverbs

Nathanael J. Brooks
The Sluggard and Covenant Faithfulness: Understanding the Nature of True Virtue and the Call to Industry in Proverbs

Richard C. McDonald
“They were not Brought up in Idleness”: Matthew Henry, the Old Testament, and Work

Jacob J. Prahlow
Rules and Roles for Women: Vocation and Order in the Apostolic Fathers

Chris H. Smith, Jr.
Celibacy as Discipleship or Vocation? A Protestant Reading of Gregory of Nyssa and Thomas Aquinas

Book Reviews

Wednesday 17 July 2019

Centre for Public Christianity (July 2019)

Among other items, the Centre for Public Christianity has posted an audio interview with Michael Ramsden, International Director of RZIM, ‘about commitment, fulfilment, his conversation with politicians and terrorists, and his personal faith’, along with a further one on ‘how we respond to injustice: as nations, groups, and individuals’. The one asks, Are we commitment-phobes? The other asks, Are we victims?

Monday 15 July 2019

Proverbs #5: A Wisdom That Prays

Two things I ask of you, LORD;
do not refuse me before I die:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonour the name of my God.
Proverbs 30:7-9

Apart from what we glean from the sayings in Proverbs 30, we know nothing of their author, Agur son of Jakeh. But he gives us the only prayer in the book – a two-fold request describing how he wants to live his life before he dies.

First of all, having declared that God’s word is ‘flawless’ (30:5), he expresses a desire to be a man of truth and integrity in his own words – ‘keep falsehood and lies far from me’.

His second request also begins with a negative petition – ‘give me neither poverty nor riches’ – which is then stated positively – ‘but give me only my daily bread’. The prayer goes on to reflect that life at either extreme of the socioeconomic spectrum might lead to faithlessness. The self-sufficiency that results from wealth might lead to a denial of the Lord. The insufficiency that results from poverty might lead to crime, profaning God’s name in the process.

It’s easy to see why the Bible has been claimed to be on the side of both the rich and the poor. The sheer breadth of its teaching on riches means a wealthy Abraham or Job over there can be set against the warnings of an Amos or the letter of James over here. The book of Proverbs itself recognises that money brings undeniable advantages even while it also carries inevitable drawbacks. Proverbs encourages neither prosperity nor austerity; it allows us neither to idolise a life of luxury nor to idealise a ‘simple life’.

Agur’s ‘just enough’ principle is reiterated in different ways throughout Scripture. His request calls to mind God’s provision of manna in the wilderness, sufficient for the needs of the day (Exodus 16), and it reaches forward to the petition for ‘daily bread’ in the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6:11). Raising financial help for those suffering a famine, Paul calls churches to give generously of their ‘plenty’ so that others who are hard pressed might be relieved (2 Corinthians 8:13-15).

Agur’s prayer also provides a model for us as followers of Jesus today. Alongside an awareness of his own weakness is a recognition of God’s power to make poor or rich, a concern about the consequences of sin, and a desire to stay faithful above all else. This much, at least, we know about this ancient follower of the Lord God.

Friday 12 July 2019

Theos Report on Faith and Belief in Universities

A new report from Theos has just been published:

Here are some paragraphs from the Theos website:

‘Universities are a symbolic battleground in today’s debates about our shared values. They are accused on the one hand of restricting freedom of speech, and on the other of being hotbeds of extremism. Polling conducted by YouGov for Theos in January 2019 found that over half (52%) of British adults think freedom of speech is under threat in UK universities, and a sizable minority (29%) think “Islamic extremism” is common in them. As the places where our future leaders develop their values, how universities accommodate debate and diversity is a critically important issue for the health of our society.

‘This report considers these difficult matters through the eyes of students who attend faith and belief societies on campus. It finds that tensions and controversies over religion or belief issues do sometimes arise on campus, but these are exceptions to the norm of peaceful campus relations between different groups.

‘Faith and belief societies play hugely important roles on campus in building community, supporting students pastorally and spiritually, and driving social action. However, they often face challenges which limit the contribution they can make to campus life, including their capacity to build bridges across different groups. While they are strong sources of “bonding social capital”, building bonds among their own members, they are less effective at being sources of “bridging social capital” between groups. They need better resources and support from universities and students’ unions in order to meet their potential of being key sources of cohesion on campus.’

A summary of the report and its recommendations can be found here.

A pdf of the full report is available here.

Wednesday 10 July 2019

Mission Frontiers 41, 4 (July-August 2019)

The July-August 2019 issue of Mission Frontiers, published by the U.S. Center for World Mission, contains a number of articles on the theme of ‘A Call to Foster Movements in All Peoples’.

According to the Editorial:

‘On very rare occasions we take the time in MF to honor a remarkable individual who has made a significant contribution to our understanding and pursuit of the ultimate goal of world evangelization. This issue of Mission Frontiers pays special tribute to the extraordinary vision and work of just such a person: Dr. Steve Smith. Through his books, Kingdom Kernels columns in MF and leadership of the marvelous 24:14 Coalition, Steve pointed the way forward to achieving the goal of movement engagements in every unreached people and place by 2025. In this issue you will read more about his great desire to see Matthew 24:14 fulfilled in our generation and the tremendous legacy he has left...

‘[W]hat we are seeing in these Kingdom Movements is a return to first-century, book-of-Acts like, family-based churches in homes. As you read through the book of Acts, you will notice that believers gathered together in homes as families which often included extended family members and servants, but no dedicated church buildings. The modern Kingdom Movements reflect this pattern as the gospel multiplies through disciples making disciples and home based churches multiplying as the gospel spreads from family to family. This is increasingly how the unreached peoples are being reached.’

The issue is available here, from where individual articles can be downloaded.

Monday 8 July 2019

Proverbs #4: A Wisdom That Evaluates

Do not answer fools according to their folly,
or you yourself will be just like them.
Answer fools according to their folly,
or they will be wise in their own eyes.
Proverbs 26:4-5

Do not answer. Answer. So, which is it? Even some rabbis struggled with the ‘contradiction’ between the two sayings, deciding that one should correct the fool only when interpreting the Torah was at stake.

As it happens, the seemingly random mixture of individual proverbs throughout the book mean the sayings would work on their own if they were isolated from each other; placed side by side, however, they do something more.

As the second line in each case indicates, there is wisdom in both courses of action. On the one hand, in responding like a fool, we risk becoming like the fool. On the other hand, it’s not always wise to let fools have the last word, in case they mistake their folly for wisdom. All of which is even more significant when there are others around, listening in – during a team meeting, a presentation, or a coffee break conversation.

On their own, the pair of proverbs say nothing about the circumstances which require which type of response or even how the ‘fool’ should be identified. The point is that, at such and such a time one response is to be favoured over the other. Wisdom, in this case, is a matter of what is fitting and what is timely – knowing what to say and when to say it.

The two aphorisms also provide a helpful pointer to how proverbial sayings work more generally. Implicit in the book of Proverbs is the call to live with the ambiguities of life, often in relationship with others, and to navigate wisely through alternate courses of action. In such situations, individual proverbs are not moral commands which apply in all circumstances. No single saying on its own contains the whole truth on a particular matter. And so the application of them requires discernment – careful reading of the proverb itself and the situation in which we find ourselves.

And we do all this with the encouragement that if any of us ‘lacks wisdom’, we may ‘ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given’ to us (James 1:5).

Saturday 6 July 2019

Ben Patterson on Five Ways to Pray the Psalms

In God’s Prayer Book: The Power and Pleasure of Praying the Psalms (Wheaton: Tyndale, 2008), Ben Patterson outlines five ways to pray the psalms:

1. Say Them Out Loud. Just read the Psalms slowly and thoughtfully, assenting to what they say with as much understanding as you have, intellectually and emotionally. Don’t just read them, pray them; say them from the heart.

2. Festoon Them. Think of a psalm as a Christmas tree. Read it and then festoon it with your own prayers, as you would decorate a tree.

3. Paraphrase Them. Meditate on and study a psalm until you understand it well enough to put it into your own words. Then paraphrase the psalm as you have come to understand it, and pray your paraphrase.

4. Learn Them by Heart. Memorize the Psalms – but not by rote. Rather, learn them by heart; make their words your words.

5. Marinate in Them. The soul should marinate in Scripture by repeated, thoughtful, slow, comprehensive, and Spirit-enlightened reading.

Thursday 4 July 2019

Calum Samuelson on Just Pay

The Jubilee Centre has published a booklet taking a look at the issues surrounding ‘current excessive pay packages’ which create ‘a sense of burning injustice in the wider population’:

Here’s the blurb:

‘A CEO is paid hundreds of times more than the “everyday workers” in their own company. The market seems to allow it, but is it morally right?

‘This report proposes a biblical framework for exploring remuneration, which has three major components – justice, dignity and reward. Justice is concerned with the fair amount of pay, to ensure families are protected from destitution. Dignity is concerned with the right kind of work and protects the agency of workers. Finally, reward is about working for the right reasons, and leads to the common good. Together, they provide new insight into the ethics of remuneration.’

More information available from here, from where a pdf of the booklet can be downloaded.

Monday 1 July 2019

Proverbs #3: A Wisdom That Observes

Go to the ant, you sluggard;
consider its ways and be wise!
It has no commander, no overseer or ruler,
yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest.
How long will you lie there, you sluggard?
When will you get up from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest –
and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.
Proverbs 6:6-11

Four things on earth are small,
yet they are extremely wise:
Ants are creatures of little strength,
yet they store up their food in the summer...
Proverbs 30:24-25

Solomon, internationally famed for his wisdom, composer of thousands of proverbs and songs, was also a student of the natural sciences. In line with the original mandate the creator God gave to the human race, Solomon’s wisdom incorporated an accumulation of insights from the natural world, his proverbs speaking about ‘plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls’, and ‘about animals and birds, reptiles and fish’ (1 Kings 4:33).

This grounding in creation is seen in the book of Proverbs itself, where acquiring wisdom involves not just the careful observation of daily life, consideration of personal experience, rumination on the know-how of others passed down through the ages, but also reflection on the created world.

Within this wider perspective, on two occasions, the wise teacher draws attention to the industriousness of one of the smallest creatures on the face of the earth – the ant.

In this case, the lesson is for the lazy person who is called to ‘go... consider... and be wise’. The sequence is important: go (shake off your inactivity), consider (observe, reflect on, and learn from the ant’s diligence), and be wise (internalise the lesson and make it habitual in your own life). Parents and teachers might like to note that the description of the ant’s commendable behaviour and the three commands are combined with rhetorical questions – ‘How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep?’ – along with warning – ‘poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man’. Description, commands, questions, and warning – with some gentle mocking! – are all artfully blended together in a concern for the welfare of the community as a whole.

Centuries later, one greater than Solomon called on his listeners to ‘look at the birds of the air’ and ‘see how the lilies of the field grow’ (Matthew 6:26-30). Such wisdom, far from being a special source of knowledge for the select few, is still available – to all who have eyes to see.