Liberalism and the Church

ChurchI’ve just finished reading “Christianity and Liberalism” by J Gresham Machen. It was written nearly a century ago (1923) but it’s still an excellent book. He argues throughout the book (and, to my mind, demonstrates conclusively) that Liberalism – in the sense of liberal Christianity – is actually a different religion to Christianity. Given the age of the book it’s not surprising to find that some of the liberal beliefs he criticises are less relevant to the Liberalism of today. However, I think the points he makes about Christianity are very insightful – in particular I appreciated the first chapter on doctrine. It would be well worth investing your time in the book.

So why do I write about it here? Well, reading the book got me thinking about the church today – in particular, the Church of England after the Pilling Report and the House of Bishops pastoral letter. Many people in the church who believe in same-sex marriage are questioning why they are essentially being forced to adopt a different position on this. Why is it that they are being held to a standard which they do not personally believe in?

If you’ve been watching ‘Rev’, you’ll have seen the episode a few weeks ago where Adam Smallbone (the vicar) struggles with this issue – how to deal with the church’s official position on this even though he doesn’t actually believe in it.

One thing which struck me – which I touched on last year – is that the question goes far deeper than beliefs about sexuality. The problem is fundamentally about the nature of the church. Is the church held together because it is an institution and nothing more? In other words, would it make sense for there to be Buddhists, Muslims and people of other faiths within the Church of England – simply because they were within the institution? Or, is there something doctrinally – i.e. some common beliefs – which unite the church?

I think most people would agree that it wouldn’t make sense to have people of any religion within the Church of England – because the CofE is a Christian church. It is united around the gospel, around the Bible, around the historic Christian confessions of faith. What Machen would argue, however, is that Liberalism does not fall under that: Liberalism is a different religion from Christianity.

Why is this significant regarding the CofE’s current situation? Because over the past few years the Church has basically brushed this question under the carpet. It has, to put it bluntly, ignored the question of what the Church of England actually is. This is no longer possible – the question must be confronted. Is the Church of England a Christian church in any meaningful sense? And if it is, what implications does that have?

If the Church of England is to remain a Christian church, I believe it has some serious decisions to make over the next few years: what do its historic confessions of faith actually mean, and what does it mean to be part of the church now? We cannot be inclusive at any cost. The Pilling Report, I hope, will expose these kinds of questions – difficult though they may be – and force us to make some uncomfortable decisions.

Jesus vs the Bible

A Bible“You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” – Matthew 22:29

I’ve come across a lot of people recently who seem to pit Jesus against the Bible. It seems like this is a growing trend. People say things like, “Jesus is the only Word of God. The Bible was written by human authors and it might be wrong” – that kind of thing. The point is: we can trust in Jesus, because he was God and is therefore infallible. We can’t trust completely in the Bible, because it was written by humans and therefore fallible.

I don’t see how this works logically: how do we know what Jesus said and did? Well, it’s written down here in… oh.

OK, that was a cheap shot. But I think there are nonetheless good reasons for not pitting the Bible against Jesus: Read the rest of this entry

Review: What’s Best Next

What's Best NextI’ve just finished reading What’s Best Next by Matt Perman. It’s a book about productivity, and unlike many other productivity books it’s written from a specifically Christian perspective.

I must confess to not really reading productivity books (there are so many of them, it’s difficult to know where to start) – but I’d heard good things about this one, so I decided to give it a go. It’s definitely worth the money.

Here are a few things about the book I found helpful:

  • I really appreciated the focus the book had on the ‘big picture’. Although I haven’t read much in the way of productivity books, you see a lot of blog posts about this kind of thing around and most of them focus on how to improve your efficiency - how to do things more quickly, or get more done in a certain space of time. This is all good, but this book argues that efficiency is no use if you’re doing the wrong things to start with! So the first part of the book deals with how we assign our priorities and goals.
  • The focus on creating a schedule, rather than simply blocking in a list of things which need to get done. I hadn’t really thought about this aspect of productivity before, but it’s very helpful.
  • Only after discussing pretty much everything else does the book talk about efficiency and creating lists etc! This seems to me to be a workable and effective solution to a lot of problems around time management.
  • Finally, the ‘Christian’ focus of the book I found particularly helpful – i.e. orienting things from God’s perspective rather than just giving us licence to do whatever we want to do better.

All in all, I think this will be a book I will come back to – there is a lot of wisdom here for organising your time. Don’t worry if you – like me – have never read a book on productivity before!

Is Evolution becoming a religion?

This other day I read Nick Spencer’s article “The big fat lies of evolution” (you’ll have to read it to understand the title). He talks about the way a layperson – not a scientist – casually used an evolutionary mechanism to explain obesity. He concludes:

But the use of this narrative [i.e. the evolutionary narrative], by someone who is not by profession an evolutionary biologist … does show how deeply such evolutionary Just So stories have penetrated into our culture, neatly bypassing our cognitive faculties and settling down into the comfortable positions of reserved for received wisdom.

Oscar Wilde once remarked that “everything to be true must become a religion”. Just so with evolution, as it accumulates the myths and legends that no respectable religion would be seen in public without.

I found this fascinating. I’ve been thinking about this a little bit recently – how it seems that evolution has reached the “no-one is allowed to question it” stage, at least in wider society. Just this morning on Twitter I saw another round of creationist-bashing (although I imagine pretty much every second on Twitter, someone is ridiculing creationism – it’s apparently an easy target). Now, I’d just like to put my cards on the table and say I’m not a 6-day creationist. However - I wonder if there’s more going on here than meets the eye. The attacks on creationism seem to happen with a religious fervour you don’t find in other places. People rant and rave against it with a shiny-eyed religious zeal. Read the rest of this entry

Always talking past each other

Earlier today, I had a conversation with someone on Twitter about the Bible. One of the comments he made was that people from my particular ‘tribe’ in the church – i.e. conservative evangelical – aren’t always very good at engaging in a way which people can understand.  I’ve been thinking about this a bit recently: Steve Chalke and Andrew Wilson recently debated our understanding of the Bible (there are a series of four videos all available from that link, as well as written articles from both of them).

One of the things that particularly struck me about the debate was their different approaches in terms of communication: Andrew Wilson seemed to be along the same lines as my approach. In contrast, virtually every time Steve Chalke opened his mouth he said something like “Let me tell you a story…” In other words, Chalke spoke almost entirely in anecdotes.

This seems to be a fairly common thing - for example, see the conversation between Mark Dever and Jim Wallis on Justice and the Gospel. In both cases the two people just seem to think differently: one thinks in fairly abstract propositions, the other in concrete narratives.

The problem is, are these two modes of thinking reconcilable? Are we doomed to forever talk past each other? I’m not sure there’s an easy answer to that question, but I think it’s important for us to recognise different ways of thinking and accommodate. I say this to myself as much as anyone – if there’s anything this blog has proved, it’s that I’m not very good at talking to people whose thought processes are somewhat different to mine.

This issue with communication is particularly acute on the internet – so much content is written quickly, responded to quickly, without ever really being thought about properly (just look at the comments on any online newspaper article).

A while back, I read a brief blog post: “What you have to do first before you can agree or disagree with someone“. The idea is, before you can agree or disagree – you first have to understand. This strikes me as wise advice: our first task should be to make sure that we have understood correctly, rather than diving straight in with our own thoughts. I am far too guilty of diving in before understanding – I find it helps to take a few minutes before replying to something to clear my head a bit.

Also, it’s important for Christian communicators in particular to realise the validity of different methods of reasoning: the Bible contains narrative, poetry, history, proverbs, as well as logical / forensic – all different ‘discourses of truth’. These are all valid and should be used appropriately.

To bring this back to earth in a concrete example: I think one of the failures of the Christian campaign against same-sex marriage was the fact that it didn’t actually tell a story. The pro-same-sex-marriage camp had lots of stories about two people in love who wanted to get married. Which is more appealing?

As with many of my blog posts, I don’t really have a big take-away point here: now it’s over to you. How do we bridge the communication gap? Is it possible?

Thomas Watson and God’s Infinity

As part of my college course this year, I’m studying the Doctrine of God. It’s been great so far, I’ve really enjoyed it. I was doing some reading for the assessment today – Thomas Watson’s “Body of Divinity” was on the list. This is a collection of sermons he preached on the Westminster Assembly’s Catechism, and it is available for free online. I found it very helpful for me personally – it made me realise once again how much Christians lose if they ignore the rich history of Christian literature there is out there.

Given most of what I’ve written about here hasn’t been that cheerful recently, I think it’s high time for me to take a back seat and put something encouraging up, so I will hand over to Watson. This is him talking about what it means for God to be infinite (I’ve highlighted a few bits to hopefully make it a bit easier to read, as it is a bit wordy. He was a puritan, after all):

If God be infinite by his omnipresence, then see the greatness and immenseness of the divine majesty! What a great God do we serve! 1 Chron 29:91. ‘Thine, O Lord, is the greatness, and the glory, and the majesty, and thou art exalted as head above all.’ Well may the Scripture display the greatness of his glory, who is infinite in all places. He transcends our weak conceptions; how can our finite understanding comprehend him who is infinite? He is infinitely above all our praises. Neh 9:9. ‘Blessed be thy glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise.’ Oh what a poor nothing is man, when we think of God’s infiniteness! As the stars disappear at the rising of the sun, oh, how does a man shrink into nothing when infinite majesty shines forth in its glory! Isa 40:15. ‘The nations are as a drop of the bucket, or the small dust of the balance!’ On what a little of that drop are we! The heathens thought they had sufficiently praised Jupiter when they called him great Jupiter. Of what immense majesty is God, who fills all places at once! Psa 150:0.

If God be infinite, filling heaven and earth, see what a full portion the saints have; they have him for their portion who is infinite. His fulness is an infinite fulness; and he is infinitely sweet, as well as infinitely full. If a conduit be filled with wine, there is a sweet fulness, but still it is finite; but God is a sweet fulness, and it is infinite. He is infinitely full of beauty and of love. His riches are called unsearchable, because they are infinite. Eph 3:3. Stretch your thoughts as much as you can, there is that in God which exceeds; it is an infinite fulness. He is said to do abundantly for us, above all that we can ask. Eph 3:30. What can an ambitious spirit ask? He can ask crowns and kingdoms, millions of worlds; but God can give more than we can ask, nay, or think, because he is infinite. We can think, what if all the dust were turned to silver, if every flower were a ruby, every sand in the sea a diamond; yet God can give more than we can think, because he is infinite. Oh how rich are they who have the infinite God for their portion! Well might David say, ‘The Lord is the portion of mine inheritance. The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places, and I have a goodly heritage.’ Psa 16:6, 6. We may go with the bee from flower to flower, but we shall never have full satisfaction till we come to the infinite God. Jacob said: ‘I have enough;’ in the Hebrew, ‘I have all,’ because he had the infinite God for his portion. Gen 33:31. God being an infinite fulness, there is no fear of want for any of the heirs of heaven; though there be millions of saints and angels, which have a share in God’s riches, yet he has enough for them all, because he is infinite. Though a thousand men behold the sun, there is light enough for them all: put never so many buckets into the sea, there is water enough to fill them. Though an innumerable company of saints and angels are to be filled out of God’s fulness, yet God, being infinite, has enough to satisfy them. God has land enough to give to all his heirs. There can be no want in that which is infinite.

Doesn’t that warm your heart as you read it? It does mine. God is infinite – he is infinitely above our praise, and in him there can be no lack.

I do encourage you to read the rest of the book – I am planning to when I’ve finished my current reading. He seems to be a wonderful theologian with a real pastoral heart – a rare gift.

Questioning Biblical Christian Pro-Gay Assumptions

I’ve noticed recently there seems to be a trend amongst many Christians who would claim the Bible as their authority of endorsing same-sex relationships. The other day, for example, I was reading about Matthew Vines’ book God and the Gay Christian. Last year, Steve Chalke came out in favour of same-sex marriage, and there have been others.

I don’t want to deal with the Biblical case for or against same-sex relationships here (I’ve talked a little bit about it before), but I just want to pose a few questions which people who like to talk about the Biblical case for same-sex relationships don’t talk about very much (or at least, not as far as I can see). These are all aspects of the gospel which I think are pretty key to what it means to be a Christian, although none are directly linked to sexuality. Read the rest of this entry

Is Atheism Rational?

Alvin Plantinga… or indeed, irrational? Last week I read a very interesting interview with the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga called Is Atheism Irrational? I’d recommend reading it – particularly the last section at the end, which I found fascinating.

It’s to do with the belief in naturalism or materialism – i.e. the belief that the natural world is all there is. Nothing exists apart from the natural world, which obviously rules out God or supernatural beings etc.

One of the points that Plantinga makes is based on viewing our brains as purely the products of naturalistic evolution. Read the rest of this entry

Sermon: The Wedding Banquet (Luke 14:15-24)

This is the text of a sermon preached at the 9AM service at Christ Chuch Cockfosters this morning. It was part of a series going through ‘Uncover‘, the subtitle of this talk was ‘Go Out’. Unfortunately no audio is available but I stuck pretty much to the script on this one!

Hope you enjoy.

The Wedding Banquet – Luke 14v15-24

Steve Chalke and the Bible vs Hebrews

Steve ChalkeSteve Chalke wants to start a global discussion about the Bible – see the video here or the document here. You may remember, he made his views on same-sex marriage clear last year, and I commented then that I didn’t agree with his understanding of Scripture. He’s gone one step further this time, but I don’t want to waste time discussing it here when others have already written an excellent response. The gist of it is basically that what Steve Chalke is proposing ultimately undermines confidence in the Bible, the opposite of what he was intending!

Over the past few weeks I’ve been studying the book of Hebrews as part of my college course. Hebrews is a difficult book (I remember reading it as a student and being baffled by much of it!), but it has some important things to say to us regarding how we understand Scripture. Hebrews is interesting because it’s preaching a sermon about Christ, but it uses exclusively Old Testament texts to talk about Christ (it hardly refers to his earthly ministry at all). As such it teaches us a lot about what it means to understand the Old Testament.

As we all know the best place to start is the beginning – this is how Hebrews kicks off:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.

Read the rest of this entry


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