Saturday, October 24, 2020

The Mystery of Godliness

This is my second series for Freeschool Court church, of which I am an elder. I decided to do a series on godliness, a.k.a. spirituality, after we studied 1 Timothy in our home groups over the past year. Godliness is an important theme of that letter and I felt compelled to explore it further for my own benefit as well as for the benefit of others. The more I meditated on this theme, the more I found in Scripture so that I developed a whole series on it, that frankly could go on a long time! Although I had quite a bit more material that I could have developed on this theme, I decided to bring it to a close with 10 messages. The last thing I would want is for people to get bored of godliness! Better to leave people wanting more.

I have found the writings of Jerry Bridges - especially, The Practice of Godliness - helpful, as well as various writings I have been able to pull off my shelves from over 40 years of buying good books. These include works by J. I. Packer, Thomas Watson, John Owen, Tim Chester (Enjoying God), Iain Hamilton. But mostly I have sought to meditate on Scripture and not try to reproduce what others have said. 

You can click on the links below to access the videos:

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

The Tie That Binds

With the retirement from our church of our minister, Stephen Clark, I have been doing a fair bit of preaching, which, predictably, has been a challenge and a joy.

I decided to preach a series on fellowship to start with. (I have only preached one other series in my life before - 25 years ago in Nepal!)

I thought it would be helpful for the church at this point in our life together for three reasons: 
  1. In a time of transition for the church while we pray and search for a new pastor it is important for us to understand what we are and why we are still a body of believers covenanted together even still;
  2. We have been able to meet only on Zoom for months now. What is fellowship when you can't even touch each other and you only get to meet each other virtually? Can we even call our gatherings that when we are not in the same physical space?
  3. Our cultural moment - what the Bible calls the 'world' - is one of increasing fragmentation. Everyone is encouraged to do their own thing, be yourself, 'do you'. What are we in this context? How can we swim against the tide and watch out that we don't get pulled downstream instead?
So that is what I have preached on over the last six weeks.

I called the series The Tie That Binds, from the hymn:

Blest be the tie that binds
  Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship our spirit finds
  Is like to that above. 

Before our Father's throne,
  We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one--
  Our comforts and our cares. 

We share our mutual woes;
  Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows
  The sympathizing tear. 

When we asunder part,
  It gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart,
  And hope to meet again. 

This glorious hope revives

Our courage by the way,

While each in expectation lives,

And longs to see the day.

From sorrow, toil, and pain,
  And sin we shall be free;
And perfect love and oneness reign
  Through all eternity.

Friday, May 1, 2020

The Southgate Fellowship: Theological Distancing and the Problem of Tribalism

This is the last of my series of posts on The Southgate Fellowship. You can use the label at the bottom to find the others. Here I pick up on yesterday's thread...

Harvie Conn (1933-99) taught at Westminster Theological Seminary after a significant period of ministry in South Korea. In his seminal and still important book, Eternal Word and Changing Worlds: Theology, Anthropology, and Mission in Trialogue, Conn argued that it is precisely because the faith “has travelled to Asia in confessional carts and wagons made in the West for a Western context” it has never taken root in Asian soil as it should have done (p. 246). As so few have taken heed of Conn’s warning, it is no surprise that it is still seen as ‘foreign religion’ to the vast majority of Asia’s people.
Sadly, Conn’s august institution no longer even has a resident missiologist. As I have argued before, since Conn went to be with the Lord, there has been a retrenchment of Reformed thinking on mission. I can only hope that, with the publication of the TSF statement, this slide has reached its nadir. But I am not confident of a change any time soon for the following reason.
I have already noted that the TSF statement is endorsed by a panoply of the great and the good of the Reformed world, many of whose works have greatly blessed this writer and some of whom I have had the privilege to meet. These leaders had the opportunity to read the statement before its publication. It is worrying enough that they were happy to endorse it.
What is more worrying, however, is that a number of additional endorsements have been made astonishingly quickly since its publication. Did these signatories read and digest the entire document and give it the thought that it demands before endorsing it?
I make no judgment, but it strikes me that, who would want to jeopardise their ministry by being accused of ‘error’ for not signing up? Sometimes leaders get in touch to give me some encouragement for writing material like this. And they tell me they can't speak out publicly. In at least one case, they have been subject to a barrage of unrighteous emails for stating views like those that I have stated.
I don’t know the hearts of those who drew up the TSF statement, so I don’t pass judgment. However, I am concerned that some who endorse the statement will do so purely out of an evangelical tribalist motivation.
I am concerned that many are far too quick to make judgments about ministries and their statements on the basis of the endorsements of celebrity leaders than on hard, prayerful listening and thinking. Aping the polarized politics that has characterized both the UK and USA recently, we retreat into our favourite conferences and, like the Pharisee, pride ourselves on who we are not. 
While we are busy nailing our theses of theological precision on the front door, the devil sneaks in the back door and infiltrates our attitudes. Our worldviews are nicely sanitized, but the virus of evangelical identity politics catches us unawares. 
Paul had some strong words to say about such posturing: “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul” (1 Cor 3:5)?
The men of the TSF council (there are inexplicably no women) may have had no intention to exacerbate this problem. But the law of unintended consequences may well kick in.
So, I plead with my brothers to avoid such tribalism with the same effort we are giving to saving lives in the current pandemic. Let us learn to listen not only to each other across the North Atlantic, but also to those who are in Asia, Africa and Latin America; not only to those with whom we get along but also to those with whom we do not. And may the Lord use such brothers and sisters to sharpen our thinking and make us more faithful and fruitful.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Southgate Fellowship: Categorical Fallacies

I want in this post to wrap up my series on The Southgate Fellowship by going back to the core convictions of the group. Tomorrow, Lord willing, I will make a final plea.
Under ‘Who We Are,’ the TSF states that it “exists to advance biblical thinking and practice in world mission.” And their aim is “that God’s name will be glorified among the nations.”
Very good, and something I truly rejoice in. We all need to work, by the Spirit, on our understanding and application of the Word on our ministry practice.
It is their observation, however, that,
due to a convergence of forces in contemporary theology and the global church, many in the study and practice of world mission have strayed methodologically from the sure foundation of Scripture; they functionally deny the categorical uniqueness of the Christian faith, and impose non-biblical and even anti-biblical interpretive grids upon people, religions, culture, and the work of mission.
It is my conviction that the TSF have made precisely the mistake that they accuse others of making, in that they too have imposed a “non-biblical interpretive grid on people, religions, cultures and the work of mission”.
After all, as I have repeatedly asserted, they are looking at traditions through the Enlightenment grid of ‘comparative religions.’ I have argued this before in my critique of Dan’s book:
A major problem with Strange’s construction, then, is his failure to distinguish sufficiently between “religion” and “religions”. This is most plainly seen in his explanation of his approach (36-38). Acknowledging that the term “‘religion’ as a defined category is more ‘Western’ than biblical”, he nevertheless wants to use it inclusively “in terms of one’s ultimate heart commitments and presuppositions concerning reality” (37): so far so good. But Strange then explains that his “focus will be on what are often called ‘world religions’”. The argument is suddenly and with little explanation turned away from ultimate heart commitments to “rival social realities... that are competitors to Christianity”. And so we are introduced to the world of “‘other religions’”. J. H. Bavinck, as Strange himself recognises (70), warns us that, in dealing with the “adherents of other religions” “[e]ach generalization, every systematization, carries within itself the danger that one will do injustice to the living person.”[15] But Strange is happy to argue that “Religions are hermetically sealed interpretations of reality (worldviews) and as such are incommensurable” (242). No place seems to be allowed for the phenomenon of syncretism or of someone following Christ within a non-Christian religious tradition.[16] This, it seems to me, is a problem inherent in the method that Strange has adopted.
And this is a problem inherent in the method of the TSF. 
I have argued that the TSF has elevated systematic theology to such a status that it becomes the rule to interpret every other theological and missiological endeavour. Only Scripture should have this status.
And so, the question arises as to what we should make of the great confessions and creeds of church history. In an important chapter in Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity, edited by Craig Ott and Harold A. Netland, Kevin Vanhoozer has this to say about the great confessions of the faith:
At their best…confessions are more than ephemeral performances, more even than a series of local theologies. Confessional theologies are rather ‘great performances’—responses to their own historical context that contain lessons for the rest of the church as well.” (“‘One Rule to Rule Them All?’ Theological Method in an Era of World Christianity,” p. 109)
This is precisely what I am arguing for. Let us give the ‘great performances’ the attention they deserve. Yes, let’s even translate them into the vernaculars of our brothers and sisters in Cameroon and Cambodia. But let us give our brothers and sisters the freedom to express the truths that they find in the Scriptures in their own ways and not burden them with having to sign up to a statement that has ‘From the West to the Rest’ written all over it.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

The Southgate Fellowship: Ideals and Realities

The issues discussed below flow on from those of my previous posts, especially here and here.
Repeatedly, the TSF statement revels in ideals. Take this for example:
53b) We deny that the Holy Spirit would ever lead and empower any movement outside of the church of Jesus Christ or any movement in the name of Christ that pits one part of the evangelical faith against another.
The Apostle Paul disagreed. He was able to rejoice even when people preached out of selfish ambition (Phil 1:17-18). He seems to have been able to hold up an ideal and rejoice even when the reality did not match that ideal. This is a huge challenge to many of us who would rather the Holy Spirit worked in a different way.
Under the heading ‘The Holy Spirit and Non-biblical Religion’ a number of affirmations and denials are targeted at those who, in the words of the statement, seek to ‘remain’ ‘embedded’ in an ‘alien faith system.’
It starts off in this way:
55a) We affirm that the only way of faith, hope, and life is to be a member of the Body of Christ.
Since we are told explicitly that when we are joined to Christ, we become members of his body (1 Cor 12:12-31) it is hard to imagine anyone disagreeing with this affirmation.
55b) We deny that claims about the work of the Holy Spirit or any other claim can be rightly used to justify a person’s remaining within a Bible-denying or Bible-subjugating faith system.
However, many societies do not separate the spiritual and the secular, the ‘religious’ and the mundane. So, all of life is lived in a religious milieu, including family life.

Which leads me to ask two questions:
1.     Is the newly believing son, daughter or wife of a serious-minded Jewish, Sikh, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist householder under moral compulsion to leave the home? It would appear that the TSF think so. Paul argues otherwise (1 Cor 7).
2.     How should this work out in a country that has a totalitarian government, say North Korea, where any amount of open dissent from its juche ideology can land you in a prison camp or worse? In the West we are blessed to live in lands that allow for free association.
The statement continues:
55c) We deny that the Holy Spirit works to affirm, adapt or improve non-Christian religions.
Without a definition for ‘religions’ this is impossible to evaluate. Does Roman Catholicism count as a ‘non-Christian religion’? 
The next affirmation states as a fact a situation that is clearly not true, unless we cast doubt on all those, and there are probably millions, who have chosen, for their own reasons, for a time at least, not to express their discipleship in a visible church.
55d) We affirm that when Christ saves those of other faith systems, he leads them by the power of the Holy Spirit from their false religion into the visible Body of Christ.
If this were so, then anyone claiming to have become a secret believer in, say North Korea or Saudi Arabia, has not been led by the Holy Spirit and is not saved by Christ. Do the TSF really believe that? If not, then they surely need to revise that affirmation.
Section 56 continues in the same vein:
56a) We affirm the Holy Spirit working through the Word is the ultimate authority for a godly and ethical life.
56b) We deny that anyone may live in a manner pleasing to God by embedding a professed faith in Christ within an alien faith system that denies the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The TSF states that, 
… though a superficial appearance of being a-religious is possible, all human beings are necessarily religious at a more fundamental level, on account of their being divine image bearers. Romans 1 reveals authoritatively that human ultimate commitments are always religious. (§90e)
Surely this must mean that late-modern Western culture with its widespread acceptance of secularist notions of privatised faith and its expressive individualism is an ‘alien faith system’.
If this is so, those of us who live and work and witness in this system, including the TSF, are living in a manner that cannot please God.
But, as I have observed (ad nauseam, you will be forgiven for shouting) since there are no definitions of ‘religious,’ ‘remaining,’ ‘embedding,’ and ‘faith system’ it is impossible to be sure if this is so.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The Southgate Fellowship: The Antithesis

The TSF make much of the doctrine of the antithesis, the "radical distinction between the Christian and non-Christian religions."
I have already interacted with the following section:
84a) We affirm that theological teaching can legitimately adjust its teaching style, phraseology, selection of content, use of illustrations, and many other ways that prove significant in facilitating the communication and grasp of truth in the audience’s target language and culture.
But there is more:
84b) We deny that such adaptation may rightly interpret any culture, religion, faith, and practice apart from the comprehensive authority of Scripture concerning the radical distinction between the Christian and non-Christian religions, between believers and unbelievers, and between the moral and religious antithesis that exists between those in Adam and those in Christ Jesus.
As religion is undefined, it is really difficult to understand what exactly this is denying. It seems to be saying that the doctrine of the antithesis is so complete ‘non-Christian religions’ have nothing to admire, nothing to appreciate, nothing to celebrate. And yet, the importance of extending hospitality to strangers, the demand to respect the aged, the value of modesty, to name but three, are all features of many communities hardly touched by the Bible.
One might respond that these are merely cultural and not religious. But since the TSF have not adequately defined the difference between those two terms that recourse is not open to them.
And can it really be that only those in Christ are able to help in interpreting a ‘culture, religion, faith, and practice’? If this is so then there can be no point ever in asking those in Adam why they are doing anything. Why do you give flowers to your wife? Why do you applaud a great performance? Why do you play rugby? Why do you attend the funerals of your relatives? Why do you sing in the bath? All are pointless. 
An attempt is made to expand on the TSF definition of culture here:
87a) We affirm that the word ‘culture’ is used generally to describe the shared set of artefacts, characteristics, meanings and values that give shape to the total corporate life of a group of people.
87b) We affirm that culture is complex and multi-faceted and operates at many different levels—the external and observable artefacts of culture always expressing more deeply held beliefs and value systems.
But this creates even more problems: do external and observable artefacts of culture always express more deeply held beliefs and value systems? If this is so, then what would they make of the custom of having bridesmaids at a wedding, widely understood to have originated as decoys for the evil eye?
On this, J. H. Bavinck had a wise word to say:
Numerous customs and practices originally based on pagan ideas and conceptions are gradually secularized and have lost their original meaning. Certain forms of politeness originally expressed respect to the divine majesty of the ruler and were forms of religious adoration, but now they have become civil formalities, the meaning of which is scarcely understood by anyone. Other customs of dress were connected with magic and superstition, but now they have completely lost their original meaning. There are burial customs, even in Western countries, which originally arose from fear of the dead, but which now only bear the character of tradition. Thus, even though a national culture is basically an indivisible whole, so that the meaning of each component is determined by religion, nevertheless, in practice, many customs are detached from this coherence and lost their original character. In such cases it is foolish to go back to the original meaning of a custom, because it is now no longer experienced and felt as it had been originally. (An Introduction to the Science of Missions, 1960: 174)
The paradigm expressed in the TSF statement is cut loose from reality.

Monday, April 27, 2020

The Southgate Fellowship: Religion and Culture

The TSF statement is frequently muddled where it seeks to establish a position on religion and culture.
Throughout the TSF statement the following terms are employed: ‘faith’, ‘faith system’, ‘worldview’, ‘religion,’ and ‘spirituality.’ Yet none of these terms is defined or distinguished from one another. This would not be such a big problem if it was a piece of popular writing. But this is a statement which the group has been working on for four years.  
The result is that it leaves a large number of affirmations and denials ambiguous or even incomprehensible.
Perhaps we are to understand them to be synonyms. If so, then why, for instance, is faith distinguished from religion in the following?
4e) We deny that the Christian faith and religion are purely human constructs.
Despite this lack of definition, religion is supposed to be connected to culture. Hence:
90a) We affirm that culture and religion are interrelated, interdependent and inseparable, the latter informing the former.
But this is incoherent: how can two phenomena be interdependent with only one informing the other? 
Likewise, the following:
90d) We deny the existence of any human culture that functions disconnected from or uninfluenced by human religious thought and expression or by the spiritual forces of darkness.
However, if culture is the expression of religion the denial is meaningless: they are saying that ‘religion externalised’ (their definition of culture) cannot be disconnected from ‘religious expression’. 
Moreover, what are we to make of the following denial?
6f) We deny that non-Christian religions and worldviews also offer ways of salvation.
Is this a denial of the phenomenon (the offer) or a denial of the claim (salvation)? Many religious traditions offerways of salvation. This is surely undeniable. So maybe they mean that people cannot receive salvation by those ways. But they have already said that here:
6d) We deny that the adherents of any non-Christian religions and worldviews can receive salvation, except through faith in Christ alone.
If this is so, 6f is redundant.
But 6d is itself problematic: the way it reads, one might be forgiven for thinking that adherents of ‘non-Christian religions’ can receive salvation through faith in Christ alone, while they remain adherents.
Section 6 has, in fact, multiple intractable issues that arise because of a lack of precision in the language. 6a tells us that the ‘practice of false religions’ makes unbelievers ‘blind to saving knowledge’. 6b is in reference to someone who ‘holds a false … religion’. So, we have people adhering to, holding to, and practising false religions. But with no definition of religion, we are left wondering just what it is to which people are holding or adhering.
So, what is the way forward? Let us stop trying to divide the world into neatly distinct religious mega-communities. It is a figment of the imagination. It does not reflect the reality. 
Bernard Adeney puts it like this: “The very word religion is problematic, since it groups together the ways diverse cultures understand and interact with ‘the real’ as if such ways had certain common characteristics. In fact, different cultures construe what is real in radically different ways.” “The category of religion,” Adeney continues, “reflects the dichotomizing tendency of Western thought to separate the spiritual from the material world. ‘Facts’ and ‘values’ are considered unrelated” (Strange Virtues: Ethics in a Multicultural World, 1995: 173).
The problem throughout the TSF statement is that an Enlightenment, essentialist construction of world religions has been adopted uncritically. The simple fact is that the religions as they are experienced ‘on the ground’ (as opposed to the way they are described in theological statements) are not nearly so neat and tidy that one can demark true religion (Christianity) from false (everything else – all the other ‘isms’) as the TSF wants to do.
This is not the first time I have argued the inadequacy of this approach.