Category Archives: theology

Is N T Wright the Chuck Norris Of Biblical Scholarship?

A little bit of theological fun with some ‘Wright Facts’.

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The ‘Four Alls Of Methodism’ For Today

My church at Knaphill is redesigning its website. I’ve been asked to write a ‘Statement of Faith’ for it. While Methodism doesn’t generally produce doctrinal statements in the way many Christian organisations have since around Victorian times, I have drafted something based on core Methodist beliefs. This is what I have come up with – although I’m sure it will need tweaking:

What do we believe? The Methodist Church holds the same basic beliefs as all the major Christian traditions. These are summarised in documents such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.

We are historically connected to the Protestant Reformation, and John Wesley was particularly influenced by the warm devotion of Moravianism and Arminianism’s stress on human free will.

In particular, historic Methodist belief can be summed up as ‘Four Alls’:

All need to be saved
All can be saved
All can know they are saved
All can be saved to the uttermost

What do these mean? Here is a brief outline:

All need to be saved
We believe that human selfishness (‘sin’, if you want the religious word) separates us from God and makes us deserving of divine judgement.

We are unable to change this of ourselves, but God can. Jesus’ death on the Cross absorbs the power of evil and the cost of forgiveness, putting us right with God. His resurrection gives us new life.

Our response is to trust this good news and turn away from our selfish ways of living in gratitude for what God has done in Jesus.

All can be saved
We believe no-one is beyond the possibilities of God’s transforming love. This good news is for everyone. God does not exclude anyone from the offer of his love. That means you and me!

All can know they are saved
What’s more, God wants us to be sure that he loves us. We believe God wants us to have that assurance. It comes through both the promises God makes us in the Bible and in an inner personal experience of God’s love through the Holy Spirit.

All can be saved to the uttermost
The Christian life isn’t just about being forgiven now and waiting for heaven. It’s about our lives being changed for the better here and now. We believe God wants to do that through the power of the Holy Spirit. We want to live differently as a sign of gratitude for God’s love. We want to make a difference in the world as a result.

Live On TV! The Second Coming!

Direct from the crazy world of Christian television, two networks are jostling to cover the Second Coming. Yes, it’s the ultimate ratings war. No longer is the Parousia the great doctrine of hope, it’s the great deliverer of commercial success. You’ll need all those extra viewers to sell your advertising when the Lord returns, won’t you? And as a guy called Leo, who was the second person to comment on Matthew Paul Turner’s post about this, says, if they believe in the ‘Rapture’, who will be operating the TV equipment? Only those ‘left behind’. Won’t it be a shame if Jesus has signed an exclusive deal with a different channel?

Am I being sarcastic? Probably. Should I be? I guess not. But I’m annoyed at another religious stunt which brings our faith into disrepute. It is not that I believe the doctrine of the Parousia should be spiritualised or demythologised. I don’t believe that the coming of the Holy Spirit fulfils the prophecies of this event. Rather, I believe that Christ will appear again (note that word ‘appear’ – it translates the Greek parousia). He is invisibly present in creation but will appear again ‘to judge the living and the dead’. This carrying-on has all the likelihood of becoming the religious equivalent of that early Internet phenomenon, the webcam that was trained on some coffee in a Cambridge University lab. The sceptics will mock ever more loudly. Looks like a case for Tom Wright, in my opinion.

Theology Degrees And Spiritual Growth

Churchleaders.com has some interesting articles and videos; I’ve included some here before. But a piece that was highlighted in their daily email the other day bothered me.

The content of the post is fine. A man called Rick Howerton argues that pastors should not assume that because they have a Theology degree they are spiritually mature. Churches seeking new ministers should also not be seduced by that error. Spiritual growth is demonstrated in the fruit of the Spirit and increasing embrace of kingdom ethical standards, amongst other things. Quite right, too.

The problem came with the headline: ‘Are Theology Degrees Keeping Pastors From Spiritual Growth?’ It didn’t seem to me that was quite the thrust of the article. Moreover, a headline like that risked playing into the anti-intellectualism of some popular evangelicalism: “Don’t go to theological college, you’ll lose your faith.” Yes, the issue of pride in one’s academic knowledge must be confronted, but at best I want to argue good theological knowledge can enhance spiritual growth, when detached from pride. When I read a Tom Wright book and his vision stretches me, I end up in worship. Didn’t Jesus call us to worship with ‘heart, soul, mind and strength’?

For me, George Carey put it best. When he interviewed me for a place at Trinity College, Bristol, he told me, “Trinity is not just about information, it is about formation.” I think the two can hold hands. What do you think?

Inculturating A Doctrine Of The Creator And Creation

Regular commenter Pam has sent me a poem from Australia by William Hart-Smith (1911-90) that is based on an Aboriginal creation story. It speaks of Baiamai, whom Pam says

is usually considered an over-arching creative figure whom missionaries could usefully compare with the god of Genesis.

So this already raises interesting questions about how we communicate our faith in a different culture. This practice, though, has honourable precedent, given the near-certainty that Genesis 1 uses ancient myths, particularly from Babylonia, but then changes the theological message. Here, then, is Hart-Smith’s poem:

Baiamai’s Never-failing Stream

Then he made of the stars, in my mind,
pebbles and clear water running over them,
linking most strangely feelings of im-
measurable remoteness with intimacy,

So that at one and the same time I
not only saw a far white mist of stars
there, far up there, but had my fingers
dabbling among those cold stones.

One thing it certainly does, in terms of classical theology, is it seems to speak of a divine being who is both transcendent and immanent. What do you make of it?

And what do you think about using material from other cultures in the service of the Gospel? Isn’t it what Paul did in Acts 17 at Athens, where he quoted Greek poets favourably? What does this say about other cultures? Does it not lead us more thoroughly into the conviction that ‘All truth is God’s truth’?

Evolution, Faith And Apostasy

Read this important lecture by Scot McKnight.

N T Wright Sings The Theology Of Creation And New Creation

It doesn’t get better than this for me. A great theologian – N T Wright – putting theology to music. Here, he sings ‘Genesis’ – words that he and Francis Collins, of the Human Genome Project put to the Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’.

(Originally featured at The Rabbit Room.)

Evangelical Scholarship And The New Perspective On Paul

For many years, I’ve been suspicious of the so-called ‘New Perspective on Paul‘. It’s only in recent years, as I’ve read the works of people like Tom Wright, that I’ve come to see it as far more biblically respectable than I previously thought.

Recently, Frank Viola has interviewed two scholars who propound this view. The conversations are about far more than this issue, of course. I commend them to you. He has interviewed N T Wright himself and he has interviewed Scot McKnight. They are well worth a read.

What Do We Do With Anger? Walter Brueggemann On The Psalms Of Vengeance

Someone once said that most of the Bible speaks to us, but the Psalms speak for us. Enter the famed Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann:

HT: the Pastors’ Weekly email from ChurchLeaders.com.

Brueggemann proposes there are three things we can do with our anger when something unjust has happened to us:

1. We can act it out – but surely Christians don’t want to do that;
2. We can deny it – but then it comes out somewhere else, perhaps in our family;
3. We can give it to God.

It is that third way which he says is present in the ‘imprecatory Psalms’.

I love Brueggemann’s illustration of the parent who has to deal with two children, where one has been hurt and accuses the other of having caused the injury. The wise parent doesn’t say, “Don’t be angry,” but, “Let me deal with it.”

Yet so often I see options 1 and 2. I see option 1 in the way some Christians support aggressive international policies by their governments. I see option 2 among those Christians who know they need to forgive, but mistakenly think that means denying their anger. Brueggemann is right, it does come out somewhere else. Either they take it out on an innocent party, or on someone who has only wronged them a little. Or they suppress it and it turns into something like depression. (Not that I am saying all depression is caused this way – it isn’t.)

Option 3 is the ‘healthy option’.

Singing The Faith: A First Look

Singing The Faith is the first new official British Methodist hymn book for nearly thirty years, superseding the (in my opinion) deadly dull Hymns and Psalms. My copy arrived in the post on Friday, and I’ve been skimming through it for some first impressions.

Hymns and Psalms just had to go, and many churches were voting with their wallets. It had the misfortune to come out just before the explosion in contemporary worship music (twelve months too early even for Kendrick‘s ‘The Servant King’,

I seem to recall). But you got the feeling that even if it hadn’t, that stuff would probably not have been included. It was published around the high water tide of liberal antipathy to evangelical and charismatic Christianity in Methodism. Furthermore, the musical arrangements were, as one friend put it kindly, ‘for musicians by musicians, to interest musicians’. I can’t judge the truth of that as a non-musician, but it may explain why they were largely deadly dull to me.

It had its bright spots – and I think particularly of the additional verse it includes in ‘When I Survey The Wondrous Cross‘ (retained here) that I’ve never seen elsewhere, the scholarship applied to restoring original texts and the Scripture Index in the music edition.

Methodist Conference and the panel that put together Singing The Faith faced the implications of several cultural revolutions that have deeply affected how Christians, Methodists included, approach faith and sung worship. Revolutions in communications (especially the Internet), transport (you can more easily get to a church whose style you prefer) and ecumenism (people are exposed to other traditions more easily and frequently) mean that fewer Methodists will be easily satisfied with ‘what we already know’. Some would argue (myself included) that technological changes and the fact that churches had already bought all sorts of supplementary books, such as Songs Of Fellowship, Mission Praise and The Source, meant that a new hymn book probably wasn’t the answer, and another approach was needed. The moment of publication is the beginning of fossilisation today. However, Methodism is almost umbilically attached to hymn books, and so a new book it was.

Given that fact, the new book, then, would need to embrace a diversity of musical and theological styles. Centralised or hierarchical control of doctrine may technically be still present in our system, but for many people it is long gone. There is therefore a huge question here of how Methodism maintains her doctrine in this central aspect of our piety, our singing. It may be that the forthcoming additional resource Singing The Faith Plus will act as some kind of clearing house to reflect on which of the newer material that is published from now on is consonant with Methodist doctrine, but we’ll see.

When it gets to the handling of theological diversity, there certainly is a spread in Singing The Faith. It embraces both the neo-Calvinist emphasis on the wrath of God at the Cross in Stuart Townend‘s ‘In Christ Alone’

and at the other end we have Marty Haugen‘s ‘Let Us Build A House (All Are Welcome)’

which some have criticised for allegedly extended the universal offer of salvation into universalism. So the issue of acceptable diversity is alive and well within the book!

It is also worth noting the considerable reduction in Charles Wesley hymns – very significant for Methodists, this. Hymns And Psalms was originally to be edited by an ecumenical committee, but when Methodist Conference insisted on at least two hundred Wesley hymns, the United Reformed Church pulled out. And for the URC to withdraw takes quite something! In the new book, at a quick count Wesley is down to seventy-nine contributions. Much as I love Wesleyan theology, I think this is the right move. Indeed, if many in our churches who have been most vocal about singing Wesley hymns had been as fervently aligned to his doctrine as to the music, Methodism might be more vibrant! Here is a prime example of the argument that allegiance to hymns, however central they are to Methodist spirituality, has not always maintained and fed our faith in the ways to which we might aspire.

Two more traditional-style contemporary Methodist hymn writers, Andrew Pratt and Marjorie Dobson, both participated in the STF committee, and both are represented in the final collection. Both have nine entries. With those numbers, I don’t think anyone can accuse the compilers of favouritism. I imagine the STF panel did what the HAP committee did, and required authors who were members of the group to vacate when their potential contributions were being discussed.

On, then, to think about those writers who have come more out of the explosion in contemporary worship styles. Matt Redman (also) features nine times, and the observation that interests me here is how it isn’t always his ‘hits’ that have been chosen. It looks to me like the committee has taken a real interest in what he writes about struggle and suffering. So as well as the popular ‘Blessèd Be Your Name’ we get ‘When We Were In The Darkest Night’ (‘God Of Our Yesterdays’)

and ‘We Have Nothing To Give’. No sign of ‘The Father’s Song': one hopes that isn’t about avoiding male language for God, in the way that Fred Pratt Green‘s ‘For The Fruits Of His Creation’ has been altered to ‘For The Fruits Of All Creation’.

Having said that, the compilers are less confident that middle of the road Methodist congregations are ready for much by the late Delirious? Martin Smith and Stuart Garrard get in a couple each, but that’s it. This might be about some of the slightly unusual ways the band expressed itself lyrically, or it is about the more performance-oriented style, or possibly some other reason.

There is also evidence of taking into account the effect of contemporary worship trends on older hymns. It has become popular, particularly under so-called ‘Celtic’ influences, to sing the afore-mentioned ‘When I Survey The Wondrous Cross’ to the tune ‘O Waly Waly’ as well as ‘Rockingham’. This is recognised in Singing The Faith.

But beyond the contemporary worship movement, one area where I am particularly pleased to see innovation is in children’s worship songs. Mark and Helen Johnson of Out Of The Ark Music have been producing worship songs for primary schools for many years. Indeed, that is how I was introduced to them – by a primary head teacher. It’s a delight to see songs such as ‘Everywhere Around Me’

included, along with songs about the Incarnation and the Crucifixion (which actually doesn’t feature that often in their lyrics). Sadly, the wonderful ‘Harvest Samba’

isn’t in. Did it lose out because it has a middle eight, and that would confuse some older congregations? I wonder.

However, overall, as you will gather, for someone who stays on the fringes of the Methodist establishment, and who is usually quite uncomfortable about it, I greatly welcome Singing The Faith. I still think a new book wasn’t the right approach in a fast-moving creative and digital world, but given that the decision was made, I think what has been produced is far better than many of us might have hoped.

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