Monday, December 28, 2009


Extended visits with the relatives means time to watch random things on youtube, and blog about them. I hesitate to blog about the documentary that I've just watched because it was difficult viewing, but in the end I had to because it was so fascinating. 'Marjoe' was an Academy Award winning documentary released in 1972 which tells the tragic story of Marjoe Gortner. Marjoe, whose name is a bizzare combination of Mary and Joseph, was a child preacher in the 50s and 60s in the 'Holy Roller', Pentecostal, revivalist circuit in the States. Trained and encouraged by his overbearing parents, Marjoe was preaching, 'healing' and even taking weddings from the age of four. He was basically pimped out by his parents in order to make them pots of money. By the time he was 16, his dad had run off with the money, and Marjoe left his mum and dropped out into the late '60s California hippie scene. He went back onto the preaching circuit in his early '20s, purely to make a living, he didn't believe in God by this point. Apparently he could make enough in 6 months to take the rest of the year off. After a couple of years of doing this though, he realised he couldn't keep up the double life and that's when he decided to team up with the film-makers in order to make an exposé of the whole travelling evangelist, money making scam. The film intersperses clips of Marjoe in action with behind the scenes footage where he explains to the film crew how the whole thing works. You can read a bit more of his story on Wikipedia here.

To the likes of Christopher Hitchens, who highlights this story in his book, 'God is not great', the story of 'Marjoe' is the story of religion, full stop. He sees it as proof positive that all religion is man-made, usually for profit, or power, and is only bought into by the gullible, the desperate and the stupid. It is of course nothing of the sort. This is just Hitchens' typical characterisation of Christianity, and all religion, by its extremes. Sure enough, it shows the dangers of a particular brand of experience driven Pentecostalism, and it should remind us of the importance of discernment, but it hardly discredits all of Christianity. In fact, the New Testament warns us to expect such frauds speaking in Christ's name.

However, the film is very close to the bone for anyone with experience of charismatic Christianity. The reason I said I hesitate to blog about it is because I think for some Christians, maybe some that I know, the dynamics at work in the meetings, and the techniques being used by Marjoe will be recognisable. I think of the internet and God channel sensation that was Todd Bentley, at the Lakeland 'revival', and his subsequent fall. There are many parallels that could be drawn with the kind of hucksterism on display in Marjoe. I know of plenty of Church of England vicars who bought into the whole thing and jetted off to Lakeland to receive 'the annointing.'

It is disturbing to see the way Marjoe can switch so easily from his preacher mode into his normal self and back again, taking advantage of desperate people for money. He appears so brazen and shameless. Before we are too quick to judge though, we should remember that Marjoe basically lost his childhood. The treatment he received from his parents was nothing short of abuse. Having seen the fraudulent scam of revivalism from the inside, what hope did he have of coming through with his faith intact? When he was desperate for money, he turned to the only 'trade' he had ever known. I see it as a tragic but fascinating human story which raises many questions about the way we do ministry. Uncomfortable viewing as it is, it is also an extremely compelling and insightful documentary.

Above is just the first 10 minute clip of the documentary. The film is 1 hour 23 minutes long and can be watched in parts on youtube, or on google video. Well worth a watch if you can stomach it.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Snow Day 2009

4 days before Christmas and it's a snow day in Bristol! The Taylor family hit the slopes (Shirehampton golf course).

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

God is Love

Thanks to Robin Parry for publishing this quote which sums up what we can't be reminded of too often: God is love.

'God is not anger though He can be angry, God is not vengeance though He does avenge. These are attributes, love is essence. Therefore God is unchangeably love. In judgment He is love, in wrath He is love, in vengeance He is love – ‘love first, and last, and without end.’ Love is simply the strongest thing in the universe, the most awful, the most inexorable, (not to be moved by entreaty) while the most tender.'

Thomas Allin. Christ Triumphant. 1878. Rpt. 9th ed. Canyon Country, CA : Concordant, n.d. 76 - 77.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Selling on Ebay: white iPod video 30GB

We are selling Su's iPod on ebay

White Apple iPod Video 30gb 5th Generation. Comes with USB lead and brand new white apple headphones (unused as we had another pair), and box. A few scratches but nothing major (not really visible when screen is lit). Good working order.

Go grab a bargain

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Tom Wright and Jimmy Dunn - New Perspective on Paul

These little videos produced by St. John's College, Nottingham are quite good. See the rest here

Tom Wright - Paul and Empire

Justification - 4: covenant

Justification includes people within and defines the people of God.

So far what we have covered is not too controversial within a Protestant understanding of justification by faith. We must now move onto more contentious issues which would lie at the heart of the various New Perspectives on Paul, and the Wrightian view in particular.

It must be noted that most of the passages which talk about justification can be found within the letters to the Galatians and Romans. In both of these letters there are serious issues to do with Jewish-Gentile relationships. In Galatians, for example, Paul's opponents seem to be saying that in order for the Gentile Galatians to enter the covenant people and inherit the promises of Abraham they must be circumcised (the men anyway!), and submit to the 'works of the law', in other words they must become Jewish. No, argues Paul, Gentile Christians can be full members of the people of God because of Jesus, the faithful Jewish Messiah, and through faith in him.

As Longenecker says ‘The issue being debated in Galatia was not the question of more modern, individualistic forms of Christian theology: “How can I, a sinner, be saved by a just God? Is it by my works or by my faith?” Instead, the issue is one of covenant theology.’ 1.

The story of God's covenant with Abraham is massively important in Wright's understanding of justification. Wright believes that Paul, in his use of scripture, is invoking a whole narrative, the story of the covenant family of Abraham. This story is the background, especially, he argues to the third chapter of Galatians. The purpose of the covenant was always to deal with sins and bring God’s blessing to the world. The dilemma was that the people who God had chosen to be the means of this blessing were themselves part of the problem. As a nation they had incurred the Deuteronomic curse of exile, a situation which was ongoing in the 1st century, the Romans having continued the oppression of previous overlords. Jesus, Israel’s representative Messiah had taken the curse onto himself thus bringing about the climax of the covenant and the end of exile. The blessing could now flow to the Gentiles.2. Following the climax of the covenant and the end of exile, according to the prophets, comes covenant renewal. Membership of the covenant people is now through inclusion in Christ, which is through faith by the Spirit. God's faithfulness to his covenant is seen as being high up on the list of meanings for 'the righteousness of God.' If all this sounds unfamiliar, it is probably because the covenant with Abraham, the story of Israel and the Jew/Gentile issues were routinely ignored in older discussions of justification.

Wright argues that justification is not a matter of how one enters the covenant community, but how you can tell someone is a member. It is not so much how one is saved (soteriology) but how the people of God are defined (ecclesiology). The dichotomy between soteriology and ecclesiology is a false one, as we shall see.

The corporate dimension of justification stresses the importance of Christian unity for Paul. It was crucial for Paul that there should be no divisions in the church along ethnic, racial or cultural lines -'there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female for you are all one in Christ Jesus.'

We have touched on many puzzles which are connected to the New Perspective debates on justification. What is meant by 'works of the law'? Is it faith in Christ or the faithfulness of Christ? What is understood by the 'righteousness of God', and our 'righteous' status within this covenantal framework? How do the law-court image and the covenant story fit together? First we must look at the fourth of our quadrant of headings for understanding justification. Justification is present and future. It is eschatological.

1. Longenecker, 1998, 106
2. Wright, 1991, 137-174. Not many scholars have followed Wright’s curse=‘extended exile’ thesis see e.g. B. Longenecker, 1998, 137-139

Monday, November 30, 2009

Justification - 3

Justification sets people in right relationship with God.

The new status of 'righteous' that a person has as a result of being justified sets them in right relationship with God. They have right standing with him. He has found in their favour. Justification, however, is not primarily about 'my personal relationship with God'.

It is here that Wright believes we need to be careful. Although 'righteousness' in the bible is a relational term, it is not strictly about what we would call a personal relationship. Just because the judge has declared someone righteous does not they are going to 'go off arm in arm for a drink' together. Justification effects relationship between God and humans, but justification and reconciliation are not the same thing, Wright argues. It is perhaps here, more than anywhere, that Wright may be accused of hair-splitting. He is determined, however, to keep justification in the law-court and not confuse it with the interpersonal relationships which are its outworking (reconciliation).

He quotes from Alistair McGrath in his huge volume on the history of the doctrine of justification -

'The doctrine of justification has come to develop a meaning quite independent of its biblical origins, and concerns the means by which man's relationship to God is established. The church has chosen to subsume its discussion of the reconciliation of man to God under the aegis of justification, thereby giving the concept an emphasis quite absent from the New Testament. The 'doctrine of justification' has come to bear a meaning within dogmatic theology which is quite independent of its Pauline origins...' 1.

I can appreciate that Wright is aiming for clarity in the way Pauline language is being used. However, I must admit, I'm not sure the Pauline usage will sustain the kind of precision Wright is attempting. Paul seems to be able to slide between justification and reconciliation pretty quickly, see Rom. 5:9-11.

'Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life.'

Wright says of this passage in own commentary - 'The fact that this deeply personal notion (reconciliation) is offered in explanation of, rather than in addition to, the mention of justification in the first half of v. 9 indicates that the meaning and effect of justification is to bring humans into the forgiven, reconciled family of God.' 2. (emphasis mine)

This last reference to being brought into the 'family of God' brings us to the next aspect of justification we shall look at, the covenantal. Justification by faith includes us within and defines the people of God.

1. A. McGrath (1996), Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification from 1500 to the Present Day (Cambridge: CUP)
2. N. T. Wright (2002), Romans in the New Interpreters Bible Vol. X, 393-770 (Nashville: Abingdon)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Justification - 2: Declaration

Justification is a declaration.

When a person is justified by God he declares that they are in the right. He has found in their favour and they have right standing before him. This is the language of the law-court and is therefore sometimes referred to as the forensic, judicial or juristic understanding of justification.

Both Piper and Wright acknowledge the place of the law-court within justification, and they both accuse the other of down-playing this imagery! This does make one full of hope for a resolution to this debate.

This declaration is what we call today a 'speech-act'. Through his declaration, God has created a new status for the person justified. The status that someone has when the court has found in their favour is what is called 'righteousness'. This status implies the forgiveness of sins, since within this setting humanity is seen as being in the dock facing a guilty verdict. Within this law-court setting 'righteousness' has nothing to do with moral righteousness. This is why this view is sometimes seen as a legal-fiction. We will need to go on to examine the language of righteousness, particularly the 'righteousness of God', and to ask what is going on in this declaration. What is the relationship between the 'righteousness of God' and the 'righteousness' which is ours as a status as a result of God's declaration?

Augustine thought that justification was more than just a declaration. He thought that justification involved a transformation as well. We are actually made righteous. This was thought to be through an impartation of some of God's own righteousness into the believer. We shall go on to explore the difference between this and the reformation view of imputation, and how this differs (or not) from what Wright is saying.

Wright is keen to set this law-court imagery within a Jewish setting, and within the framework of the covenant, rather than some later version of a law-court such as in the time of Anslem, or Calvin.

Of course there are many other things involved in someone 'becoming a Christian' including baptism, unity with Christ, reception of the Spirit which enables us to say 'Abba Father' and 'Jesus is Lord', reconciliation, regeneration etc, etc. Part of what Wright is trying to do, is to be specific about what Paul meant by justification in context without using it as a short-cut term for all of these things. Lots more that could be said about declaration of course but that will have to do for now.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Roll Away Your Stone

'It seems that all my bridges have been burnt
But you say that's exactly how this grace thing works
It's not the long walk home that will change this heart
But the welcome I receive with the restart.'

Justification -1

Romans 3:28 'a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law'

Galatians 2:16 'we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law. But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin.'

What does it mean to be 'justified by faith apart from works of the law'?
'I'm justified - just as if I'd never sinned!' was the slightly cheesy answer that I grew up with. Justification was seen to be synonymous with 'becoming a Christian', and 'forgiveness of sins.' Well, I think it is indeed connected with these things, but to identify justification with them hardly does justice (ahem) to this complex theological term. For one thing, it makes it all about me as an individual. It says nothing about God, his purpose or his people.

Here we will try and examine the idea under 4 headings - justification is a declaration of God, it sets people in right relationship with God, it includes us within and defines the people of God, and it is present and future. In other (more theological) words, it is forensic, relational, covenantal and eschatological.

Things get quite complicated quite quickly when we scratch the surface of what is going on with this significant Pauline concept. Many further questions will be raised. What is the relationship between 'justification by faith' and works? How is justification by faith connected to the 'righteousness of God' (whatever that is!) What is the place of justification by faith in Paul's thought? How has justification been understood through church history? Does any of this really matter? Or is this whole discussion just 'text trading and theological arm wrestling', 'a curious indoor sport for those who might like that sort of thing but not enormously relevant to wider concerns facing the church.'? 1.

1. T. Wright (2009), Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision (London: SPCK)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Justification and Righteousness

I had the pleasure of leading a seminar on 'Justification' and 'Righteousness' in Paul for the first years at college as part of their 'Introduction to the New Testament' course. We had 50 minutes to discuss what is one of the most hotly debated and complex topics in New Testament studies. I enjoyed the opportunity to get my head back into the debate but it made me realise just how nuanced and complicated the subject has become. The seminar also made me away just how far removed this complex debate is from the average Christian, and even the average ordinand. However, being a self-confessed theology geek of the highest order, I do enjoy trying to get my head round the subject.

The debate over the meaning of justification and righteousness, particularly what is meant by 'the righteousness of God', was at the heart of Luther's reformation. In recent times it has been central to the discussions of what gets called 'the New Perspective on Paul' (NPP). A would-be student of Paul could literally spend all their time following developments on this topic. For a taster see the excellent Paul Page. On a popular level, the most recent manifestation of these discussions has been the debate, in print, between John Piper and Tom Wright. Tom Wright has long been one of the names associated with the NPP, although he would be the first to point out that there is no one monolithic view which may be labelled the NPP and that he is himself critical of many of the views lumped under this label. Tom's views have filtered down onto the popular level enough to cause concern amongst some (mainly) Reformed/neo-Reformed theologians and pastors who think he is dangerously distorting an important doctrine. John Piper wrote a book responding to Tom Wright, which may be found online here Tom Wright responded to Piper in his book 'Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision'. See an interview with Tom Wright about the whole thing here.

One of the things I have found interesting is that whilst the debate has become unfortunately characterised and polarised as Piper vs Wright, there are plenty of Pauline scholars who have taken on board at least some aspects of the NPP and Wright's views. One example would be Michael Bird, who whilst being fairly conservative, and Reformed, seems to have drunk fairly deeply at the Wrightian well. Here is a summary statement of his of what justification is:

'Justification is the act whereby God creates a new people, with a new status, in a new covenant, as a foretaste of the new age.'
(from A Bird's Eye View of Paul, p96)

At the risk of boring any readers who are not particularly theologically inclined I thought I might spend a couple of posts looking at Justification and the Righteousness of God, more for my own benefit than anyone else's

Thursday, November 19, 2009

New Atheist Campaign

In a move not entirely unrelated to my last post, a new poster campaign from the British Humanist Association has been unveiled.

The posters follow their previous 'bus' campaign which stated 'There's probably no god, now stop worrying and enjoy your life.' They seem to be part of a campaign to get rid of faith schools.

Richard Dawkins said on Radio 2 today that it was a consciousness raising exercise, to encourage the media and others not to label children as 'Christian', 'Muslim' etc. People should not assume that children automatically follow the faith of their parents. They should just say 'children of Christian parents', 'children of Muslim parents' and so on. Dawkins said he was not wanting to interfere with the way parents bring up their children, what values and beliefs they pass on etc, but this is a little hard to swallow.

Bishop Nick Baines and Kevin Brewster have already done a better job than I can at showing some of the flaws in the views of the poster campaign, of which there are many.

Children are not a blank slate religiously, until they grow up. To think this completely buys into the myth of religious neutrality. They are like sponges absorbing and learning all the time. They are bombarded from all sides with messages and images, ideas and worldviews, many of which are antithetical to the Christian faith. As Bishop Nick rightly says 'to not tell a child that there is a God is not to leave that child philosophically neutral, but to positively indoctrinate the child into the assumption that there is no God. Why is that more rational or less bad?'

It also strikes me as rampantly individualistic. It denies the reality of the Christian family, or the Muslim family. It is my Christian belief that William and Emily can be full members of the Christian family, the covenant community, the church. (This touches on debates about infant baptism, but I'm not going there now!). I'm sure Muslims and Jews feel the same way about their children in their respective faith communities. The idea that children are just autonomous, free-thinking, individuals whose minds we should 'leave alone' is naive beyond belief.

What is interesting is that there have been a variety of Christian responses. Jonathan Bartley at Ekklesia seems to firmly support the campaign, largely in connection with the faith schools issue. I'm not sure if Jonathan is completely against faith schools or just against the idea of them (or at least CofE ones) having selective admissions policies. (I would agree with this second complaint). In their article Ekklesia says that the Bible Society thinktank Theos gave money to the campaign. If this is true, then I think it can only be because they think it will start discussion. They completely disavow the ideas involved in their own article on the subject. Ekklesia also say that Bishop Nick Baines welcomed the campaign, which is true in so far as he thinks it will generate discussion, but is selective quoting considering he also slams the views involved.

The Evangelical Alliance also say they welcome the campaign, being glad that the humanists agree with evangelicals that children have to make their own decisions about faith. What, I wonder, do they consider children of Christian parents to be until they have made this decision. Neutral? Outside of the church? Pagans?

Finally, there is the response of Jan Ainsworth, who is the Church of England's Chief Education Officer, who obviously thinks the whole campaign is misguided, and I tend to agree with her.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Atheist Fundamentalism?

I got into a bit of a debate recently on twitter with someone who objected to my use of the term 'atheist fundamentalists'. My use of the phrase was in something of an offhand remark (as is the nature of twitter) to an article in the Guardian in which atheist philosopher Michael Ruse argued that the 'New Atheists', the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens etc, bring atheism into disrepute. I thought it was quite a reasonable and refreshing article but some of the comments showed that Ruse had touched on a raw nerve. These comments, to my mind, exhibited the classic behaviour of fundamentalism. By fundamentalism I meant an unthinking, narrow-minded, dogmatism, unwilling to see the other's point of view, and absolutely convinced of its own correctness. There is no such thing, my objector insisted, it is a misnomer. For one thing atheists, it is claimed, have no fundamental beliefs. For another thing, the term 'fundamentalist' has a particular provenance within a certain section of American Protestant Christianity. It is insulting, it was claimed, to genuine fundamentalists, to apply this term, willy-nilly, to people of other worldviews, of other faiths, or no faith.

On the one hand, I have to acknowledge that it was a bit of a cheap shot. Fundamentalist has become such a pejorative term that it is basically only used as an insult. I certainly wouldn't like to be called a fundamentalist, and by the rules that I claim to live by I thereby shouldn't apply this label to other people. I admit that part of my reason for calling some atheists 'fundamentalists' is that I know that it will wind them up. However, I would like to push back a little on my claim that atheists can be 'fundamentalists' as much as 'religious' folk.

Firstly, I have to disagree with the view that atheists have no fundamental beliefs. Whether you say atheists hold the view that there is no god or, as many atheists prefer to phrase it, they hold the view that there is not enough evidence to convince them of the the existence of god, this is a belief. Science is unable to adjudicate on the existence of God.

Secondly, like it or not, the word 'fundamentalist' has entered the popular discourse. 'Fundamentalist' is regularly applied to narrow-minded and dogmatic people of many different religions and worldviews. This may be unfair to the North American Christians who self-identify as fundamentalist but that is too bad. We talk of 'Islamic fundamentalists' or 'freemarket fundamentalists' and it is usually clearly understood what is being said. We don't have to be wooden literalists about the use of the word 'fundamentalist'

Thirdly, I'm in good company (in my opinion) as Alistair McGrath (who is nothing but gracious in his interactions with Dawkins et al) has labelled the viewpoint of 'the new atheists' as 'atheist fundamentalism'. See the subtitle of his response to Dawkins

'Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine'

It is perhaps not a coincidence that Michael Ruse supplies the blurb on the front cover of this book - 'The God Delusion makes me embarrassed to be an atheist, and the McGraths show why'. It is no wonder that Ruse has become anathema in some atheist circles. He has denied the faith.

Lastly, the 'New Atheists' themselves acknowledge that atheists can act religiously. When Hitchens is reminded in debates of the atrocities committed by prominent atheists in the 20th century he says 'ah, but they were acting religiously. They learnt all of their worst tricks from religion etc, etc.' I tend to agree, because I believe that all human beings are religious at heart. If people do not worship God they will devote themselves to something else and this can include worldviews. Atheists are just as capable of being narrow-minded and dogmatic as 'religious' people. That's what I saw in some of the responses to Ruse and, it seems to me, is something akin to fundamentalism.

So what do people think? Is there such a thing as an 'atheist fundamentalist'? Is it acceptable to apply the label fundamentalist to other people, or is it too much of a pejorative insult?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Theology "Quiz"

I don't usually respond to quizzes on facebook, or anything where you get 'tagged', but I'll make an exception for this one as Steve Bishop and Jon Swales have already done it. (I suspect there will be a lot of overlap in our answers!)

1) What's your favourite theology book?
N.T. Wright - Jesus and the Victory of God
made me realise that Jesus was far more radical and exciting than I'd ever thought, got me into NT studies, and made me want to go and study theology.

2) What Christian(s) book has been most influential in your thinking? Why?
anything by Tom Wright, who is also mainly to blame for me becoming an Anglican.
The Divine Conspiracy - Dallas Willard
anything by Fee
too many others to mention

3) Where do you attend church?
St Mike’s, Stoke Gifford Bristol

4) What is your denominational affiliation?

5) Who is your favourite theologian/Christian philosopher?
Lesslie Newbigin, N.T. Wright, Jurgen Moltmann

6) Who is your favourite preacher?
(of all time?) Martin Luther King

7) What is your calling as a Christian (if you've figured that out!)?
to love God, to follow Jesus, to be a son, and husband and father, to minister the love of God and the word of God to people, helping them to grow as disciples of Jesus

8) What spiritual virtue do you desire most?

9) What is the greatest challenge to the church today?
to be turned inside out, to realise that they exist for the benefit of those who do not yet belong to her

10) What bothers you most about the local church?
it bothers me if the local church becomes inward looking, obsessed with petty squabbles about irrelevant minutiae

11) What encourages you most about the local church?
that it can be a community of hope and love. a place where very different people can come together in the name of Christ and be accepted, healed, transformed and sent out to be agents of transformation in the world.

12) Pre, post, or Amil?

13) Antichrist...past or future?

14) If you could only keep 5 Christian books with you on a desert island, what would they be?
(I'll assume, like on Desert Island discs, that I already get the bible. I'll also assume a Greek NT, and a BDAG lexicon!)

A Theology of Hope - Jurgen Moltmann
Surprised by Hope - Tom Wright
Calvin's Institutes -only chance I'll ever get to read them
Church Dogmatics - Karl Barth - ditto
Does Lord of the Rings count?

15) What got you thinking theologically?
Trying to figure out where the Vineyard movement was theologically, and then defending them against accusations of heresy.
Which, like with Steve, is a lot to do with George Eldon Ladd, the now and the not yet of the kingdom of God.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Can't wait to see this 'Debate Movie'. Collision shows the course of several debates between atheist Christopher Hitchens and Christian apologist Douglas Wilson. It seems to be well produced, and both participants seem to think the film represents them fairly. The two actually seem to get along pretty well and they seem fairly evenly matched. Quite amusing how they are selling it like it's some high-octane action movie. It's out on DVD and Video on Demand in the US but I'm not sure when (or if) it will get a UK release.

See some more video clips here

I hope Wilson holds up better than Ann Widdecombe and Archbishop John Onaiyekan who got an absolute kicking in the 'Intelligence Squared' debate from Hitchens and Stephen Fry shown on BBC world on the subject of 'Is the Catholic Church a Force for good in the World?'. Widdecombe and Onaiyekan were embarrassingly poor as Andrew Sullivan pointed out.

Spruced Up Blog

I've given the blog a bit of a spring autumn clean in the hope that it might inspire me to do a bit more blogging. I've mainly just tidied up the side-bar a bit and added some shiny new buttons. I realise I'm probably talking to myself here but hey, it keeps me happy.

Firstly, I've removed the flickr widget. Being too tight to fork out for the flickr pro account it was only showing the most recent 200 photos that I'd uploaded, which were pretty old. I mainly upload photos to either facebook or picasa these days. When I put a new album up I'll put a link to it on the blog. There is a button to access the old flickr photos.

I've also removed the My Delicious widget. Although I will probably still bookmark links with delicious I'll try and keep it for the really interesting pages and just use twitter for the more ephemeral stuff. You can access My Delicious links with this button

There are various other buttons for twitter, facebook, youtube etc.

I've put my rss feed for the blog through feedburner and the new feed is You can subscribe to it with your rss reader of choice with this button

You can still subscribe to the comments feed here

Lastly, I've added a little 'share' gizmo to the bottom of each post (courtesy of blogplay) so you can more easily share my wisdom/drivel with the world.

Many thanks to Bruno Maia of IconTexto for the buttons.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

How To Worship

Too funny.

H/T Peter Ould

More on Labels

Since I posted about labels a few weeks ago, there have been a number of other posts on the subject (not that I'm claiming there's any connection with my post). Both Church Mouse and Bishop Alan pick up on the same Nicky Gumbel quote that I did. They both advocate consigning labels to the fiery pit, believing they are more a hindrance than a help, particularly in relation to those outside the church. Jonny Baker also expresses his dislike of labels such as evangelical, liberal etc (he is very complimentary about Fulcrum though). However, as so often, it is Richard Sudworth who offers one of the most nuanced and thoughtful pieces on the subject. Whilst acknowledging the shortcomings of labels, and the way they can be abused he stresses the importance of owning our heritage. Speaking from his own experience of moving in ecumenical circles, he suggests that people are actually looking for us to bring our heritage to the table. Having recently returned from an 'ecumenical' trip to the Bossey Ecumenical Institute and the World Council of Churches I concur. I found both that my 'evangelical' heritage was coming to the fore, and that it was looked for and listened to. This also emphasises the importance of our 'story' and heritage though. Labels need unpacking if they are not to miscommunicate. To some within 'the ecumenical movement', evangelical means something like unthinking, fundamentalist who is not interested in ecumenism. The fact that I might be able to engage with such people, whilst owning my evangelical heritage, would confound expectations and hopefully bring something important to the conversation. So I guess, like Richard (and also, it seems from the comments, Jason Clarke) I am both 'yes' and 'no' on labels, and the evangelical label in particular.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

ABC on Newsnight

I thought Rowan Williams was good on the newsnight special about the banking collapse last night. He condemned the excesses and pointed out that there had been no repentance, from the bankers, or anyone else.

I particularly enjoyed this exchange towards the end, talking about why we all, as a society went along with the excesses of spending and debt: (starts at 57:17 on iPlayer)

Rowan: 'Why exactly were we seduced by this?'

Paxman: 'well nobody's got an answer to that yet, have they?'

Rowan: 'Well, I could say original sin, which is a good start, but I'd need to spell that out...'

Paxman: 'I don't think you really believe that, do you?

Rowan: 'Original sin? Oh yes'

Paxman: 'You really think original sin is the cause of our delusion about this?'

Rowan: 'There is, inbuilt into human beings, a sort of dangerous taste for unreality

Paxman: (pauses) 'Right, that is far too complex a thought for this time of night.'

Friday, August 28, 2009


I don't know if anyone has been following the Guardian's Comment is Free - Belief series where Adam Rutherford (an editor of Nature journal) has been attending an Alpha course and writing up his reflections. Adam is a convinced atheist, but he has a fairly good understanding of Christianity, and he gives a fascinating and fair appraisal of the course, whilst remaining utterly unpersuaded.

Anyhoo, this week, instead of going on the Holy Spirit away day, he goes and interviews Nicky Gumbel. The whole thing is interesting, but one bit that jumped out at me was where Nicky says the following -

'This may sound pernickety but I wouldn't describe myself as an evangelical. These are labels, which I don't think are helpful. If I was going to use any label it would be Christian, and if you push me any further I'd say I'm an Anglican - that's the family of the Church that I belong to. There's nothing wrong with any of the other labels, but if you have any of them I want them all. If you're going to say, 'I'm Catholic, liberal, evangelical…' let's have them all. But I wouldn't want to isolate one of those. Personally I think labels are terribly unhelpful because they enable you to dismiss things.'

So there you have it. Nicky Gumbel, perhaps one of the most influential people in 'the evangelical' world, says he wouldn't describe himself as an evangelical.

This is pretty much where I am. Labels such as 'evangelical' have become unhelpful, if not completely meaningless. To those outside the church, 'evangelical' either mean nothing, or it means 'fundamentalist'. To those inside, again, it either means 'fundamentalist' (to those on the liberal/progressive/radical wing) or it leads to endless and tedious discussions of 'what sort of evangelical' you are (open or conservative, charismatic or not) etc, etc. Typically, this search for increasing definition is, as Nicky says, either so you can be dismissed, or so you can be proved to be not evangelical enough or the wrong stripe of evangelical.

So I am a Christian. I realise this 'label' has its own baggage, but it's good enough for me. If pushed further I would say I am a stumbling, faultering, trying to be follower of Jesus. Somewhere down the line, I am an Anglican. I am glad to see I am in the company of such a wonderful and humble Christian man as Nicky Gumbel.

See the full transcript of the interview here

Friday, June 19, 2009

Wrestling with Retribution

For my research I have somehow ended up focussing on 2 Thessalonians. My actual title is going to be something like 'A Critical Examination of the Significance of the Roman Imperial Order as a Background to II Thessalonians'. Basically I am going to look at the three main issues in the letter, steadfastness under persecution, eschatological teaching about the "man of lawlessness", and the issue of idleness, and examine them all with the imperial cult and imperial patronage as a background. I have done a general literature survey on the imperial cult, and am now researching the history of Thessalonica with this in mind.

Anyway, in the process of reading the letter, and working through the commentaries, I am realising that 2 Thessalonians in one of the most unpleasant and difficult books of the New Testament, if not the bible, and I am struggling with it, and to be honest it is getting me down. Why so? Well, for a Pauline letter (if indeed it is by Paul, which is a major question) it has few of the key Pauline themes, there is no mention of the cross, or resurrection, there is very little grace, no discussion of the Spirit and salvation seems to be expressed entirely in future terms of escaping the wrath which is about to fall. What there is a good dose of, on the other hand, is retribution.

Paul (or whoever) writes 'For it is indeed just if God to repay with affliction those who afflict you.' (1.6) Here it seems clear that Paul is writing to comfort and encourage the Thessalonians with the thought that those who are persecuting them will get what's coming to them, their just deserts as it were. So far, so good. However, he goes on to say that this will happen 'when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.' (1:7b-9)

Here, many commentators move from seeing Paul giving a description of those persecutors (they don't know God and have not obeyed the gospel) to seeing a universal condemnation of the vast swathes of humanity that are outside the church. Furthermore, most commentators are at pains to explain that the 'punishment of eternal destruction' cannot mean annhilation, but is referring to a conscious punishment and devastation which is everlasting in duration. This is a move which, as you can imagine, I am not comfortable with.

Bear in mind that the Thessalonian church was probably tiny at this stage. Estimates range between 25 and 75 members. The population of Thessalonica was probably around 100, 000. Is Paul really saying that God has chosen this tiny elect, less than 0.1%, for salvation, whilst the 99.9% (most of whom will clearly have never heard the gospel) are to suffer the vengeful wrath of God for all eternity? Was Paul really this myopic?

One perspective that may help is the correlation between apocalyptic and persecution/social alienation. Paul's teaching here is certainly apocalyptic in style, with its dualisms of heaven and earth, present and future, the elect and the lost. When this worldview is combined with a situation of social alienation and persecution, the context and the theology reinforce one another. The closest parallel in the New Testament is probably the book of Revelation. This was also probably written in a situation of persecution (interestingly, almost certainly connected to the imperial cult) and is full of colourful and lurid language of vengeance. So I need to unpack how the language is being used in 2 Thessalonians. Is it hyperbole? Is it literal? How should we interpret this extreme language of vengeance and eternal destruction?

Rather than being the basis of a doctrine of eternal conscious torment for 99.9% of humanity, I think it is far more likely that Paul is wanting to stress to the Thessalonians, in the strongest possible terms, that there will be a great reversal - those who are suffering persecution now will be granted relief, and those who are doing the persecuting will get what's coming to them.

There is another thought that I struggle with though. I can understand how, on one level, it is comforting for those who are being persecuted, to contemplate the future punishment of their tormentors. But, I would like to think (and here I am probably being naive and showing that I've never experienced persecution) that I could try and cultivate the attitude of Christ, who said 'Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you'. He after all, when he was undergoing the ultimate persecution, prayed for his torturers and murderers 'Father forgive them, they know not what they do.' On the face of it, there doesn't seem to be too much of this attitude exemplified in 2 Thessalonians. In the first letter, however, Paul does instruct them to 'abound in love for each other and for all' and to 'see that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all'

So there you are, my current struggles. If you're the praying type, then please pray for me as I try to study, understand, and be faithful to the scriptures. It's not always easy.


Well, as is my habit, I've had a bit of a hiatus from blogging. Just one of the things that's had to go on the back burner since Emily came along. Thought I'd better get back into it though, so here we are. My main news is that I've found out that I've been successful in my application to stay on at college for another 2 years in order to upgrade my MPhil to PhD. This is a huge privilege and I am extremely grateful for the opportunity. I do have that nagging feeling that one day I'm going to be found out, and they will discover what a doofus I really am!

It is great for us as a family to be able to stay where we are in Bristol for the time being. We have a lovely little house and it's a fantastic place for the kids to be at this stage. I'm getting the chance to do something which a few years ago was only a vague dream, and I hope that I'll be able to make the most of it. It has dawned on my though, now that I have my funding, that I have a huge amount of work to do, which is quite scary. I am conscious of the fact that the church has invested a huge amount in me and failure is not an option. Studying full time at this level is an incredible honour which I hope I won't take for granted. Having said that, it does come with its own struggles which I intend to blog about next.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Emily Rachel

Isn't she lovely
Isn't she wonderfull
Isn't she precious
Less than one minute old
I never thought through love we'd be
Making one as lovely as she
But isn't she lovely made from love

Isn't she pretty
Truly the angel's best
Boy, I'm so happy
We have been heaven blessed
I can't believe what God has done
through us he's given life to one
But isn't she lovely made from love

I said I'd break my internet fast to bring news of our new arrival, so here she is. Emily Rachel was born on 26th March, which was the day after her due date. Su woke up with a start at 1.00 as her waters broke. We called our friend Mary, who came round to look after William. The contractions started at 6 minute intervals. We called the birthing suite at Southmead, who told us to call back when they were every 4 or 5 minutes. As soon as we put the phone down, they were every 3 minutes, so off we went. We arrived at the birthing suite at about 2.55am. At 3.26am Emily arrived! A less that 2.5 hours labour!
Emily weighed 9lbs9oz! Being such a healthy size, she caused a third degree tear on the way out, which I won't go into, but let's just say it's not very nice. Su had to have a spinal block and go into theatre for a repair job. This meant she had to stay in hospital for an extra night, which is a shame, but she's doing really well now. We brought Emily home this evening and William loves her to bits. I am so proud of my amazing wife Su and my wonderful daughter Emily. Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Lent Internet Fast

So I've been thinking about what to give up for Lent. Whilst I'm well up for the whole idea of taking things on for Lent rather than the whole sackcloth and ashes thing, I do still think there is a real place for fasting, and Lent is a good time to do it. Fasting is supposed to be giving something up as a spiritual discipline for God. It is saying to God, I need you and want you more than this thing. It is not meant to be easy, because this would be no discipline at all. I think for me, the most difficult thing to give up at the moment is the internet; more difficult than chocolate, or alcohol, or TV, or coffee (ok, maybe not coffee). So for the next 40 days, not including the Sundays (I'll have to think about Sundays) I will not be using the internet, except for strictly academic research purposes. So that means no blogging, no facebook, no Twitter, no BBC iplayer, no BBC news, no Youtube, no nothing. This is going to be rock hard for me, 'cos I love the internet. I practically live on it. When we have been away to Su's dad's or somewhere, when the broadband has been down, it has been a nightmare for me. I even take my laptop to bed with me. Which is probably why it's time to have a break. What am I going to do for my quick fix of news, for that random blog entry, for that stupid video? What will I do with my time? I may even have to start talking to my wife again :)

There will be one exception to this internet fast. When our second child arrives, at some point during the next 4 weeks or so, I will of course let the world know, and get some piccies up. But this, hopefully, will be the only break in the fast (like I say, apart from academic articles relevant to my research). Wish me luck. Signing off.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

My understanding of the Gospel

I was looking through my application for my Church of England Bishop's Advisory Panel Selection Conference (snappy I know) today and I came across this. The question was 'Summarise the most important elements of your own Christian faith. Why are they important to you? What is at the heart of the good news you want to share with other people?' My answer could be accused of being somewhat 'Wrightian' but it is still a fair summary of what I believe:

Amongst the most important elements of my Christian faith are: a sense of being loved by God, of being forgiven, of a peace with God which leads to peace with other people, a sense of meaning and purpose in life, a hope and a future, a belief of being called by God to participate with Him in his putting the world to rights, renewing and redeeming all of creation. These elements are important to me because they have changed my life, they help me make sense of the world, and I believe they are based on truth.
My current understanding of the gospel is as follows:
God the creator has given us all good things to enjoy and look after. However, we have taken these things, and rather than enjoying them with thanksgiving, we have turned them into idols, worshiping the creation, rather than the creator. We become like what we worship, so that, rather than becoming image-of-God-bearing fully alive, whole human beings, we have marred God’s image and become broken, dehumanised slaves to sin, subject to death. All of humanity and indeed all creation has been affected by this rejection of their creator. The good news is that in the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus, God was reconciling the world to himself, winning a decisive victory over the powers of darkness, sin and death. This gospel is the message of God’s inbreaking kingdom (rule), which has begun through what Christ has done, continues through the work of the Spirit, and will one day be complete. Its announcement in word and deed, challenges all other would-be rulers, and demands a response of the obedience of faith, or rejection. The good news is not an invitation to have a new religious experience, or to follow a new moral code, but the message that Jesus, the crucified messiah of Israel, is the risen Lord of all who now reigns. The resurrection of Jesus, was the 1st day of God’s new creation, and the promise of God’s future renewal of all creation. In the mean time, in the power of the Holy Spirit, the people of God work and pray and announce the message in anticipation of that day when evil is destroyed and God’s reign of justice and peace is complete.
This is a big picture overview of the multi-faceted gospel. The results for the individual who accepts this message are the love, forgiveness, peace, purpose, hope and future I mentioned above. How I share this news with other people will depend on their context.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Tom Wright on the Resurrection, Heaven and Hell

Some great little clips here of Bishop Tom responding to questions on Resurrection, Heaven and Hell.

It is his comments on hell that I am interested in here. I have long struggled with the concept of hell, at least in it's traditional form. I fail to see how so many Christians throughout history, have so easily accepted this idea, at the same time as believing that God is love. The gospel, so often, has been presented as a 'bait and switch'. God loves you unconditionally and wants a relationship with you, and for you to have fullness of life (oh, and by the way, if you decide to reject his love, he will punish you forever in hell.).

Anyway, I think Tom's thoughts are helpful, although I lean more myself towards annihilationism.

He rejects the traditional notion of heaven and hell as two separate 'places' of post-mortem destination. This, he argues, is more of a medieval picture than a biblical one.

On the other hand, he rejects universalism, although he admits there is part of him that wishes it were the case. But he also does not go along with annihilationism. He maintains that those who have determinedly rejected God and his offer of salvation, will become dehumanised to the extent that they will cease to be human. This is not really a place, as in the new creation, God will be all in all, but it is rather a state. (this, he suggests in one anecdote, is more akin to the eastern orthodox view).

He admits that this is a dreadful fate which he doesn't like to contemplate or speculate too much on, but that the choices we make do have real consequences. He doesn't like talking about it, because he is aware of many people, who by appearances seem to have chosen this option. It is, he admits, a terrifying possibility.

He places the emphasis firmly on the choice of the individuals who end up in this state, not in some divine decree or even in punishment. In this sense he follows C.S. Lewis who said that the door of hell is locked on the inside. Those who end up in this state have chosen it for themselves. (I don't know, if pushed, if he would have some way of marrying this with a sense of God's sovereignty in salvation, but the emphasis is definitely squarely on the person's choice here). The idea that God, from all eternity, has determined those who, with no other possible option, will end up in hell is (in my admittedly limited and fallen opinion) a diabolical doctrine. The corollary of this emphasis on the choice of the individual (in my logical conclusion) is that everyone will get a meaningful opportunity to make this decision.

Whilst it may be possible to argue with Wright, or critique him on various points, I think his overall emphasis is helpful.
-He takes the possiblility of final loss seriously.
-He doesn't speculate on the details or on exactly who ends up in this state, other than those who persist in rejecting God and 'colluding in their own dehumanisation'
-It is not the main emphasis of his gospel.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Second Week of College

The first 'normal' week at college after the superb 'plenary' week. I don't feel like I achieved an awful lot workwise. I did however finish off Seyoon Kim's Christ and Caesar which is a fairly substantial critique of the 'fresh perspective on Paul'. Should I just give up my research now? Well, not quite, but I can certainly see ways in which my work is going to have to be nuanced. I submitted an abstract for the Bristol University theology post-grad conference. That should give me an incentive to get some work done if nothing else does.
This week I started learning Hebrew again, taught by AJ Culp, another post-grad here at Trinity. Amazing how much I had forgotten, but it is coming back to me now and it is lots of fun. If I could be paid to learn Hebrew and Greek and research stuff that I'm interested in I'd be a happy man...wait a minute - that is what I'm being paid to do. So that's why I'm applying to stay on another two years. Sent off a few letters for funding this week, but need to do lots more.
I also got the Trinity Media blog up and running which I'm pretty chuffed with.

Finished off the week with a session @ Shirehampton Working Men's Club (now there's an irony) with the lads, then hanging out with the Barnes and the Swales on Saturday, topped off with a Chinese takeaway at our place.

A bit concerned that our house in Coventry is going to cost us a fair bit to get the electrics and stuff sorted out ready for the new tennants, but hey, at least we've got some new tennants.

All in all, a good week.

Always Be Prepared For A Worship Experience

I enjoyed this, one of ASBO Jesus latest offerings.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Eddie Gibbs - Plenary Week

First week back at college after Christmas break. I have to say I wasn't really looking forward to it but as it happens it has been fantastic. We have had a plenary week on 'Transformation Leadership' with Eddie Gibbs from Fuller Theological Seminary. Well, what a week! I can honestly say that I think this has been the best and most inspiring week since I started at Trinity. (sorry Jon, who was ill for most of it)
Eddie is an amazing guy. He is 70 years old and yet he absolutely has his finger on the pulse both in terms of the trends that are occurring in society and the various ways the church is (or ought to be) responding.
He was very inspiring to listen to because he is not only switched on, but so full of the grace and joy of the Lord. At the same time he was prophetic in speaking to the problems of the church and yet remains hopeful and is not into deconstruction but positive change .
He was a personal friend of John Wimber. He told us the story of when he visited the snake handling pentecostal church with Wimber. I had always heard that story go round, but Eddie was actually there. He reminded me a lot of my Vineyard days and church planting and why I signed up for this whole thing in the first place.

You can listen to the talks and view his powerpoint slides at the new Trinity Media blog

Monday, January 12, 2009

Trinity Media

I've been helping to set up a new blog for Trinity college:

On this blog we will make available recorded talks, sermons and seminars given at Trinity College as downloadable mp3 files.

This content may also be subscribed to as a podcast.

Click on the following link to subscribe.

Subscribe to Trinity Media

New Year - New Diary

An entry I wrote in my diary just after new year -

Well, it's the end of one year and the start of a new one. A time for reflection and for looking forward and time to start a new diary. I thought I'd go for one of these fancy moleskin ones (I must be becoming a vicar by osmosis, because looking around at college, everyone seems to have one of these now), with the idea being that I might actually use it. I have been so disorganised this year at college, which I put down to 'death by paper.' In the end I began to just ignore the many and various bits of paper that arrived in my pigeon hole, and hence I missed a few appointments. This year, as well as the diary I have a triple back up system - iCal, google calendars, and the calendar on my phone (oh, and on my iPod as well) all synced and with various alarm systems, so I've got no excuses.

In 2008 I began running, which I love. I've lost about a stone and I feel a lot better for it. I decided to pursue a PhD, rather than get ordained in 2009 and start a curacy. This both excites me and fills me with dread, although not as much dread as being a vicar. This year at college, I have felt a bit less full of self doubt, although this does go up and down. Towards Christmas I felt a bit out of things (e.g. college green, pastoral group etc) simply because we had so many weekends away. This year we should be around more, not least because our second baby is due on March 25th! Looking forward to this obviously but a bit nervous about fitting in all the work I will have to do, including all the application forms for funding. Should definitely be an exciting year though!