Wednesday 27 May 2020

On Dying, Death, and What Comes Before

The below is an excerpt from an email written for the congregation where I am one of the pastors.

It was Woody Allen who quipped: ‘I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.’ He echoes the sentiment of many who say they would prefer to die in their sleep, quickly and quietly, with no warning or suffering, and without being a burden to their nearest and dearest. We’d prefer to skip the ‘dying’ part that comes before death.

And yet, for centuries, Christians prayed for the kind of death that most of us would now prefer to avoid. They wanted to ‘die well’ – to have time to get their spiritual lives in order, to make sure loved ones were provided for, to prepare themselves for what lay ahead.

John Wyatt explores this in his moving book, Dying Well (IVP, 2018), reflecting on what it means to die faithfully in the light of the hope the gospel brings. In the 14th century, when the Black Death was sweeping across Europe, killing more than 25% of the population, documents on the ‘Art of Dying’ started to circulate. Essentially, they were self-help manuals encouraging the dying person to prepare for the journey ahead. John Wyatt holds that we have much to learn from the practical wisdom that helped Christian believers of the medieval period face the ending of their lives on earth.

If you’ve read this far, you may feel this is all terribly morbid for a sunny Wednesday afternoon! Except that death really is the one eventuality that none of us can avoid.

While death has largely disappeared from the fabric of our consciousness as a society, we are now having daily reminders of its reality in every news bulletin. Sadly, with the passing of friends and colleagues, some of us have already been bereaved during this period; many more of us know people who have.

Critics of Christianity sometimes claim that belief in an afterlife devalues life in the here and now, and discourages action that would help people live longer and happier. The argument is that those who are fixated on the ‘life to come’ don’t really care about life now.

Just to be clear, the reality is the exact opposite. Many studies show not only that religious people tend to live healthier and more fuflilled lives than non-religious people, but that belief in an afterlife provides a sharper focus about what’s truly important in this life.

For many Christians through the ages, the certainty of death freed them from the mistaken idea that wealth or power would protect them from it, freeing them to live full lives in loving God and serving others. As C.S. Lewis said: ‘If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next.’

Indeed, according to the apostle Paul, confidence in what comes after death provides a motivation for how we live now. At the end of his long chapter on our future life, he writes: ‘Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain’ (1 Corinthians 15:58).

By the grace of God, we are able not only to die well but to live well. May it be so.

Christian History Magazine on Science and Technology

The latest issue of Christian History Magazine is devoted to ‘How the Church Fostered Science and Technology’.

Here are some excerpts from the Editorial:

From the very earliest years of the Christian church, creation was taken to be a gift, made and given to us humans by a good God. And human reason was seen as an important part – even the most important part – of the image of God implanted in us at creation...

Furthermore, the Scientific Revolution was led by people of faith who pursued scientific and technological innovation out of Christian motives and understandings...

‘The thinkers we discuss in this issue – ranging from the late ancient period through the twenty-first century – knew that mathematical and naturalistic explanations do not preclude theological ones and that scientific understanding does not rule out awe and wonder. In fact it may aid them. They saw their study of science as reflecting their deeply rooted faith and their faith as being enriched by their increasing understanding of the scientific world. They weren’t scientists in spite of being Christians; they were scientists because they were Christians first.’

The whole magazine is available as a 19.1 MB pdf here.

Tuesday 26 May 2020

More from the Centre for Public Christianity (May 2020)

Among other items, the Centre for Public Christianity has a ‘Life and Faith’ podcast (here), on ‘Ode to Nurses’, released to mark International Nurses Day, featuring six nurses who share moving stories about their work – including, for some, caring for patients with Covid-19.

Thursday 21 May 2020

Journal of Language, Culture, and Religion 1, 1 (2020)

The Journal of Language, Culture, and Religion is a new, somewhat niche open-access publication ‘devoted to explorations of how language intersects with culture and religion’, published by Dallas International University.

According to the website, ‘this first issue contains two articles from DIU alumni working with the Kwakum people in Cameroon, introducing the people group and publishing their orthography, which they helped to create. Two other articles focus on Bible translation consultation: one focusing on power dynamics and the other focusing on training locals in their own language’.

The entire journal is available as a pdf here.

Wednesday 20 May 2020

On the Ascension (and Being Creatures of the Calendar)

The below is an excerpt from an email written for the congregation where I am one of the pastors.

It’s become something of a joke that many of us have lost our sense of time through this period. As someone posted on Facebook a few weeks back, ‘for those who have lost track, today is Blursday the fortyteenth of Maprilay’!

It’s been a reminder of how much we live according to the rhythm of particular calendars. Whether it’s school terms, the football season, summer holidays, or planting the vegetable patch, we are calendar-driven creatures.

As it happens, God made us this way. It’s not long after Noah and his family emerge from the ark that God reaffirms the creational pattern of ‘seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night’ (Genesis 8:22). The Israelite year was punctuated by moments to remember what God had done in saving his people and his ongoing provision for them – Passover, harvest, tabernacles, and so on.

Beyond Christmas and Easter, those of us in free churches don’t tend to pay much attention to Christian festivals. But fellow Christians in other church traditions are far more alert to the changing seasons of the Christian calendar, and they often find their walk with the Lord enriched as a result of reflecting on where we are now in the year.

In any case, all of this is introductory burble to say that tomorrow (Thursday 21 May) is Ascension Day. I wonder if you’ve ever marked it before? We tend to bundle Jesus’ ascension with his resurrection as a single event, but they were separated by nearly six weeks, and Ascension Day is traditionally celebrated on the 40th day after Easter Sunday. (Yes, it’s really 40 days since Easter!)

The early disciples knew this, because they lived through those days. So, Peter is clear on the Day of Pentecost that the climax of what God has done in Jesus is not the resurrection, but Jesus being ‘exalted to the right hand of God’ (Acts 2:33), fulfilling the hopes expressed in Psalm 110 of the Messiah taking his seat at the right hand of the Lord.

If the resurrection affirms that Jesus lives forever, the ascension confirms that he reigns forever. And Jesus’ ascension opens up a new era in God’s dealings with his people and with the world – the era of the giving of the Spirit, the era of Jesus’ ministry as our heavenly High Priest, the era of God’s mission to all nations, the era of hope for what will be when Jesus returns just as he left.

All that is worth marking – and pondering – not least during these times in which we live.

Coming back to where we started, it’s perhaps also a reminder that the church calendar at its best changes the way we experience time and understand reality. It’s all too easy for me to to map my year onto the calendar of the dominant cultural reality, whether that be sports, holidays, or education – important though they are. But part of ‘numbering our days’ in order to ‘gain a heart of wisdom’ (Psalm 90:12) is to live according to a more ultimate reality – one that marks time with the coming of Christ as the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes and his coming again at the renewal of all things.

All of which is to say, Happy Ascension Day!

Monday 18 May 2020

Mission Frontiers 42, 3 (May-June 2020)

The May-June 2020 issue of Mission Frontiers, published by the U.S. Center for World Mission, contains a number of articles on the theme of ‘Tokyo 2010: Why it Still Matters’.

According to the blurb:

Ten years ago, almost 1,000 delegates from 73 countries got together for the Tokyo 2010 conference. In this issue we look back over the last ten years to see what impact this meeting has had on the course of world evangelization and answer the legitimate question of “Why does Tokyo 2010 still matter today?” Is it really possible that a meeting of 1,000 mission and church leaders could actually be making a difference 10 years later? That is what we want to look at in this issue and to take note of what God has done over the last 10 years and see what still remains to be done. In the midst of the worldwide coronavirus situation, Editor Rick Wood reminds us that when a viral pandemic infects the world, bringing fear and isolation, we need the viral spread of trained disciple-makers and church-planters to spread the love of Jesus to a world in chaos. God is hard at work despite our uncertainties and has a plan of hope for our future.

The issue is available here, from where individual articles can be downloaded, and the entire issue can be downloaded as a pdf here.

Friday 15 May 2020

Vern S. Poythress on Reading and Understanding Genesis 1-3

Vern S. Poythress, Interpreting Eden: A Guide to Faithfully Reading and Understanding Genesis 1–3 (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019).

No doubt due to someone’s generosity, a newish book by Vern Poythress on handling Genesis 1-3 has been made freely available in its entirety. Here’s the blurb:

Christians have long discussed and debated the first three chapters of the Bible. How we interpret this crucial section of Scripture has massive implications for how we understand the rest of God’s Word and even history itself. In this important volume, biblical scholar Vern Poythress combines careful exegesis with theological acumen to illuminate the significance of Genesis 1–3. In doing so, he demonstrates the sound interpretive principles that lead to true understanding of the biblical text, while also exploring complex topics such as the nature of time, the proper role of science, interpretive literalism, and more.

The book is available here as a pdf.

Thursday 14 May 2020

Centre for Public Christianity (May 2020)

This month, the Centre for Public Christianity has two ‘Life and Faith’ podcasts (here and here), in which ‘Simon Smart and Tim Costello explore the impact of coronavirus on individuals and communities, and discuss whether the pandemic will change our priorities going forward’.

Wednesday 13 May 2020

On Waiting

The below is an excerpt from an email written for the congregation where I am one of the pastors.

How good are you at waiting?

Are you the kind of person who drums your fingers on the steering wheel as you sit in your car at yet another red light? If only the car in front had been going a little bit faster, you both could have made it through the junction. Instead, you have to add another 45 seconds to your journey time.

Or do you calculate which queue at the supermarket checkouts is going to move fastest, based not only on how many items people have in their baskets and trolleys, but on your perception of how quickly they’re going to pack and pay, and whether or not the cashier is likely to engage anyone in conversation longer than brief pleasantries? Oh, just me then?


It doesn’t come easy to some of us. But that’s the situation we find ourselves in at the moment. We weren’t sure how long we were going to have to be doing this, but it now looks like it could be even longer than we were expecting.


I’ve been struck how Jesus said on two occasions, ‘My time has not yet come’ (John 2:4 and 7:8). Jesus himself was in a time of waiting, yet continued to carry out the work the Father had given him to do. In the church calendar, this period between Easter and Pentecost is a time of waiting... waiting for what God will do next.

There’s something about waiting which characterises the Christian life.

All of us are waiting in hope for what God has yet to do for us and for this planet – when Jesus comes again, when the dead will be raised, when we’ll be given new bodies, when there’ll be a new heaven and a new earth. Whatever else we might be waiting for meanwhile, we’re all waiting for that.

We wait for this kind of future not in a passive waiting-room sense but in an active living out of an alternative vision of what really matters here and now. Christian hope is not about sitting back and waiting for something better to come along, but a confidence which allows us endure and be patient and resilient in the face of setbacks. If we’re going to have to wait at the moment, let’s wait like that.

Sunday 10 May 2020

Themelios 45, 1 (April 2020)

The latest Themelios is online here (and available here as a single pdf), containing the below articles.

Brian J. Tabb
Theological Reflections on the Pandemic

Strange Times
Daniel Strange
‘The Things We Think and Do Not Say: The Future of Our Business’

Jonathan Leeman and Andrew David Naselli
Politics, Conscience, and the Church: Why Christians Passionately Disagree with One Another over Politics, Why They Must Agree to Disagree over Jagged-Line Political Issues, and How
Today many evangelical churches feel political tension. We recommend a way forward by answering three questions: (1) Why do Christians passionately disagree with one another over politics? We give two reasons: (a) Christians passionately care about justice and believe that their political convictions promote justice, and (b) Christians have different degrees of wisdom for making political judgments and tend to believe that they have more wisdom than those who differ. (2) Why must Christians agree to disagree over jagged-line political issues? After explaining straight-line vs. jagged-line political issues, we give two reasons: (a) Christians must respect fellow Christians who have differently calibrated consciences on jagged-line issues, and (b) insisting that Christians agree on jagged-line issues misrepresents Christ to non-Christians. (3) How must Christians who disagree over jagged-line political issues agree to disagree? We explain three ways: (a) acknowledge leeway on jagged-line political issues; (b) unite to accomplish the mission Christ gave the church; and (c) prioritize loving others over convincing them that your convictions about jagged-line political issues are right.

Katherine Smith
Should the Local Church Resist Texts in Scripture that Clash with Western Culture? The Test Case of Leviticus 21:16–24
Leviticus 21:16–24 instructs the Aaronic priest with a permanent physical blemish to refrain from serving YHWH in his presence. In today’s western culture, such exclusion would be deemed deplorable and so this clash of cultures raises the question of how the local church can appropriate Leviticus 21:16–24 as Christian Scripture in the present cultural climate. In addressing this question, this paper argues that the theological basis of Leviticus 21:16–24 is that only those who exemplify a whole condition are acceptable in YHWH’s presence. Thus, when a person does not exemplify this condition of wholeness, there is restriction and exclusion. Understanding the condition that leads to exclusion requires a holistic view of purity and impurity and, when we understand Leviticus 21:16–20 with this holistic perspective, the passage reflects a theological reality central to the person and work of Christ.

Etienne Jodar
Leviticus 18:5 and the Law’s Call to Faith: A Positive Reassessment of Paul’s View of the Law
Paul’s use of Leviticus 18:5 in Romans 10:5 and Galatians 3:12 is generally understood as showing Paul’s negative view of the Mosaic law. The apostle would be using Leviticus 18:5 to show that the law comes short of the principle of faith. This paper shows that the difficulties with such an understanding of Leviticus 18:5 in Romans 10:5 and Galatians 3:12 are both theological and exegetical. The proposed thesis is that Leviticus 18:5 powerfully brings trust in God into play, and thus can be used by Paul to show that the law calls to faith. Leviticus 18:5, then, would not come short of the logic of faith as some commentators assert. Informed by Second Temple Judaism’s understanding of Leviticus 18:5, this manuscript follows an exegetical method that gives particular attention to words like γάρ, δέ, αλλά, and εκ in Paul’s unfolding argument. The article shows that interpreting Leviticus 18:5 as a call to exercise faith makes good sense of Paul’s train of thought in both Romans 10:5 and Galatians 3:12.

Daryn Graham
The Genesis of the Jerusalem Donation
The Jerusalem Donation was the Apostle Paul’s largest charity drive. However, it did not begin by his own initiative. In this article, it shall be shown using biblical evidence and other ancient sources, that the movement to provide the Jerusalem church with considerable added finances to alleviate suffering among them due to the Great Famine, began with the ordinary Christians of Achaea, Macedonia and Galatia. This article proves, contrary to the claims made by some commentators, the movement behind this collection was not driven by Jerusalemite coercion or pressure from James, Peter and John upon Paul, but rather, it began and progressed out of Christian solidarity and love between Gentile and Jewish believers in those provinces, and genuine concern for their brethren suffering from the effects of famine sustained in Jerusalem.

Jordan Atkinson
Paul’s Overlooked Allusion to Joel 2:9 in 1 Thessalonians 5:2
This article argues that Paul compares the day of the Lord to a thief in the night in 1 Thessalonians 5:2 because of the influence of Joel 2:9. While the scholarly consensus is that the thief imagery owes to Jesus’s thief imagery for his second coming in Matthew 24:42–44 or Luke 12:39–40, Joel 2:9 better fits the criteria for allusions identified in G. K. Beale’s Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Paul’s contextually faithful interpretation of Joel 2:9 is a model for how Christians should continue to interpret OT prophetic literature.

Jared M. August
What Must She Do to Be Saved? A Theological Analysis of 1 Timothy 2:15
In 1 Timothy 2:15, Paul asserts “the woman will be saved through the childbirth.” This essay asserts that this “woman” is Eve and that this “childbirth” is the birth of the Messiah. Although this interpretation is by no means new, the contribution of this essay rests in its proposal of the evidence for this view, namely, Paul’s use of the Adam/Christ contrast. This essay first analyzes the grammar and context of 1 Timothy 2:15 to assert that a messianic reading of this passage is an exegetically viable option. Subsequently, each instance in which Adam is mentioned by name in the NT is examined (Luke 3:38; Rom 5:14 [x2]; 1 Cor 15:22, 45 [x2]; 1 Tim 2:13, 14; Jude 14), thereby proposing a pattern for when to expect Paul to develop the Adam/Christ contrast.

Dane Ortlund
On Words, Meaning, Inspiration, and Translation: A Brief Response to Bill Mounce
This article is a brief response to Bill Mounce’s recent Themelios essay in which he argues that functional equivalence translations such as the NIV are the most effective approach to Bible translation as they carry over the meaning of the original text. I offer some clarifying remarks and reflect on three areas of disagreement: the usefulness of “literal” as a label, the relationship between words and meaning, and, most significantly, the nature of the divine inspiration of the Bible.

The Southgate Fellowship
Affirmations and Denials Concerning World Mission

Book Reviews

Wednesday 6 May 2020

On the Coronavirus Conspiracies

The below is an excerpt from an email written for the congregation where I am one of the pastors.

By now, you’ve probably heard some of the conspiracy theories around the ‘real cause’ of Covid-19. Perhaps you’ve read an article or been sent a link to a video by a well-meaning friend.

In some cases, it has to do with a plot on the part of China to develop biological weapons. Or it has to do with the rollout of the 5G data network (which has led to acts of vandalism and arson against mobile phone masts). Or Bill Gates is said to be using the virus as part of a plot to control the world’s population through immunisation. For Christians, permutations of these theories often get combined with a large dose of the book of Revelation!

You might think differently, but – even apart from the fact that there is no credible evidence for any of these links – I tend to sit light to such theories.

In times such as these, there’s an innate human tendency to want to find explanations for what’s happening or to attach blame in some way. There is something about a sense of powerlessness which generates the need for some overarching explanation.

So far as we can tell, this has happened throughout history. Writing in The Guardian, Tim Adams notes that ‘at the time of the great plague in London, the spread of miracle cures and scapegoating prophecy was almost harder to contain than the infection itself’. Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, set in London in 1665, records the popularity of superstitions during that deadly time: ‘The apprehension of the people were likewise strangely increased by the error of the times... They were more addicted to prophecies and astrological conjurations, dreams and old wives tales than ever they were before or since.’ Examples could be multiplied many times over.

Sadly, conspiracy theories like this often tap into suspicion of ‘foreigners’. Again, there are many historical examples. In the spread of syphilis across Europe in the 1390s, it was known as ‘the French sickness’ in Germany, ‘the German sickness’ in Poland, ‘the Polish sickness’ in Russia, ‘the disease of the Christians’ in Turkey, ‘the disease of the Turks’ in Persia, and so on. As Richard Evans points out, ‘since pandemics by definition spread across the globe, everywhere they arrive they come from somewhere else’.

Conspiracy theories perpetuate the sense of powerlessness and isolation people feel, feeding the idea that ‘evil forces’ are at work, offering little sense of hope.

It’s understandable that this period should raise questions that many people – Christians included – have not grappled with before. But Christians are able to reflect on the issues in a different way. Our faith in Jesus and the salvation he brings provides true hope, not because it ignores reality, but because it points to a deeper reality. We of all people know that God has addressed the sin and suffering of the world head on. We of all people know that Jesus’ death and resurrection are the climax of God’s plan to restore the whole of creation back to himself.

We can be people of truth, wisdom, and hope at this time, not because we have everything stitched up, but because we know the one who does – and his love is stronger than death itself.

Monday 4 May 2020

David Corbett on the Housing Crisis

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

David Corbett, ‘“Birds Have Nests”: Biblical Reflections on the Housing Crisis’, Cambridge Papers 29, 1 (March 2020).

Here is the summary:

‘UK housing prices have risen faster than wages since the mid-1990s, leading to a reduced ability of young people to live in secure homes, and a housing affordability crisis. This paper argues the dominant supply and demand model misdiagnoses the causes of the crisis, and evades difficult questions. Biblical categories prompt a searching critique and can offer insights economics alone cannot provide. By emphasising the concepts of “stewardship” and “home”, there are opportunities for Christians to make a significant contribution in addressing the housing crisis.’

Friday 1 May 2020

Crucible 11, 1 (March 2020)

The latest issue of Crucible, published by the Australian Evangelical Alliance, is now available online here, with the below articles (abstracts included, where available).

The Cauldron: peer reviewed articles

Peter A. Frith
Hitting the wall: Clergy Encountering the Emotional System in their First Parish
This paper summarises a research project which explored the lived experiences of Anglican clergy as they encountered their church’s emotional system in their first incumbency. Eleven vicars from three Australian dioceses were asked, in a phenomenological study, to describe the main challenges they faced as they led a congregation for the first time. All the participants identified the uncooperative and uncivil behaviour of influential church members as their chief concern. They also disclosed their own stress responses to the behaviour they encountered. These were distilled into five core themes: shock, inadequacy, alienation, relinquishment and hopelessness. Insights from Murray Bowen’s Family Systems Theory were introduced in the analysis phase in order to extract the emotional and systemic dimensions of the data. The study concluded that more highly differentiated clergy achieved lasting, systemic change even though they encountered the most intense conflict. Moderately differentiated clergy achieved temporary change while lower differentiated clergy, who faced the least intense conflict, were changed by the system. The findings in this study are applicable to church authorities, theological training institutions, clergy formation curricula, and aspirants to the pastorate in that they confirm that the emotional system constitutes a major challenge faced by modern church leaders.

Abraham Wu
Eating out in the Open: The Centrifugal, Missional Significance of the Eucharist
Throughout Scripture, and in the history of the Church, the Eucharist has been strongly associated with the Kingdom of God and the Missio Dei. This seems to be in stark contrast to how the Eucharist is often, in modern, Western Christianity, associated with rigid institutionalism, ecclesial division, and theological question – such as those around the nature of Christ’s presence. While these are important questions and issues for the Church, this paper argues that they fail to capture the inherent meaning of the Eucharist, which acts as the sign and sacrament of the Kingdom. Indeed, this paper explores how the Eucharist is not merely centripetal but also a centrifugal force that holds the key to the Church’s missional renewal. By exploring how the Eucharist reveals the Church’s identity as a missional community, how it initiates and challenges the Church’s mission of hospitality, and how it catalyses a sacramental approach to creation care and stewardship, this paper seeks to offer an integrative, sacramental approach to the Church’s mission that reclaims the Eucharist’s central place in ecclesiology and missiology.

Paul Kolawole Oladotun
God Will Supply All Your Needs According to His Glorious Riches: The Problem of Extreme Materialism among Nigerian Pastors
Over the years, the church in Nigeria has been God’s agent, turning the heart of a people to God. But recent activities in the church today betray the expected role of this agency in different parts of the world; to the point that many see Christianity as the root cause of major problems in society. In the past, churches in Nigeria stood up against immorality, corruption in moral defiance of societal norms. The reverse is the case today. Contemporary pastors in Nigeria are aids for committing modern-day fraud because of extreme materialism. Some ministers of God in Nigeria today have turned the church to money making venture. It is disheartening that in the recent time, many pastors’ measure success in the ministry by the size of congregations, numbers of houses as well as cars owned, and many more. The Nigerian pastorate has replaced the goal of faithfulness in the work of God with material, temporal things. In Nigeria, the church is seen as a means of filling one’s own pockets using various illegal and unbiblical means. As a result, this paper engages the vice ravaging Nigeria pastorate via the biblical lens of I Corinthians 9:13. In view of this, material things are not bad in themselves but ‘extreme materialism’ and the ‘lust’ attitude which has enslaved the contemporary Nigeria pastorate must be addressed through a correct re-definition of Call to ministry as well as a deeper level of faith on the path of the so called ‘pastors’.

The Test-tube: ministry resources

Barbara Kathleen Welch
Existential Shame: A Liturgical Approach to Soul Care of the Victims of Child abuse
This article offers suggested ways to help create safer worship environments for those who have been wounded in mind, body and spirit from child abuse. Most often Existential Shame distorts his/her faith; and his/her basic trust has been distorted or even aborted through child abuse. Pastors may offer safer worship opportunities through safer liturgies and rituals. Sensory liturgies may contribute to the healing process of the Limbic System/the emotional brain through the process of neuroplasticity because positive worship experiences help to create new neural pathways and connections in the Limbic System.

Ben Chenoweth
Doing Biblical Exegesis by Distance Well
This article suggests how theological educators may improve student learning in the area of biblical exegesis in on-line mode. It suggests a way forward would be to encourage student-to-student interaction on the biblical text itself, utilising exegetical worksheets to focus the discussion, while at the same time providing students with sample exegesis material. In that way the educator would be modelling what is expected. Assessment, too, should be focused on the real-world uses of biblical exegesis.