The Breath-taking Beauty of Catholicity

font2I’ve been reading and re-reading Herman Bavinck’s ‘The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church’. This 1888 address, delivered at Kampen, has really grabbed me. Our church structures and relationships must assist us never to lose sight of the great truth of the catholicity of the Church of Christ. Different traditions, different doctrines, different understandings, but where there is orthodoxy, there is unity. One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. Too often we want to respond to these kind of sentiments with a ‘Yes, but…’. Can we just pause and reflect on the Unity of All Christ’s People? One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism.

This catholicity of the church, as the Scriptures portray it for us and the early churches exemplify it for us is breath-taking in its beauty. Whoever becomes enclosed in the narrow circle of a small church (kerkje) or conventicle, does not know it and has never experienced its power and comfort. Such a person short-changes the love of the Father, the grace of the Son, and the fellowship of the Spirit and incurs a loss of spiritual treasures that cannot be made good by meditation and devotion. Such a person will have an impoverished soul.  

By contrast, whoever is able to see beyond this to the countless multitudes who have been purchased by the blood of Christ from every nation and people and age, whoever experiences the powerful strengthening of faith, the wondrous comfort in times of suffering to know that unity with the whole church militant that has been gathered out of the whole human race from the beginning to the end of the world, such a person can never be narrow-minded and narrow-hearted.   

Herman Bavinck The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church
Within our denominations, in the realisation of fellowship and partnership between our congregations, in the unity of vision and adventure for the kingdom in our presbyteries, in the vision for the nation and our speaking truth to power, and in a multitude of other ways, we are aware of the church being bigger than our own small church, congregation or conventicle.
Through our denominations and their ecumenical relationships with other churches both in the UK and around the world, we are aware of the global beauty of the Church. Let us work hard in our own work, but let us shun parochialism. Let us hold to our own distinctives, but be passionate about ecumenism. Let’s not lose sight of the breath-taking beauty of the catholicity of the Church.
One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism.

Contraction and Expansion

MenorahThis from Bavinck’s ‘The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church’, as published in Calvin Theological Journal in 1992:
Our attention is unavoidably drawn to the fact that the five books of Moses, which begin with the grandeur of Creation, with a vision of the entire cosmos and the whole of humanity, conclude by focusing attention on a small and insignificant people and its minute concerns about holiness and cult. There seems to be an undeniable disproportionality between this sublime beginning and this narrowly focused conclusion….
In Israel itself revelation dominates everything. A separation between the cult (godsdienst) and the rest of life is altogether impossible. All dualism is eschewed in the unity of God’s theocratic rule… Here we encounter an inner catholicity, a religion that encompasses the whole person in the wholeness of life…. In this way Israel’s theocracy is a by of the coming kingdom of God that shall take up into itself all that is good and true and beautiful. The prophets unveil for us the mystery that Israel’s religion will not be restricted to national Israel. The universal kernel breaks out of the particular husk in which it is enclosed…  In the future all nations will be blessed by Abraham’s seed. Torah, history, and prophecy, each in its own way, point to this glorious future. The day is coming when through the servant of the Lord, the light of Israel will shine upon the nations, and the Lord’s salvation will reach to the ends of the earth.

One Church’s Unity

stgilesAt the 2013 General Assembly (GA) of the Free Church of Scotland, a call was made for evangelicals to leave the Church of Scotland and join the Free Church. Last weekend, Church of Scotland evangelicals met in Perth and formed a network committed to staying within the Church of Scotland in order to seek reform and renewal.

The Free Church GA was also reminded of the Free Church ideal of seeking the prosperity of the Church of Scotland so that one day the Disruption might be reversed. In the Free Church today, I wonder how many really do still hold to this ideal. History has landed us where we are as denominations (Free Church and Church of Scotland). Even after 170 years, the events of the Disruption still upset many in the Church of Scotland. And some in the Free Church still see the Disruption as for ever defining the denomination over and against the Church of Scotland. The GA address reminded those of us in the Free Church that the Church of Scotland is our mother church. Even if it has demoted the confession, and continues to struggle with issues of biblical authority, it has not ceased to be a church, it has not ceased to be the national church (even if its claim to be so is eroding), and it has not ceased to be the mother church whose prosperity we seek. It has not ‘forfeited the right to be called a church of Christ.’

Reformed people have long-argued about the rights and wrongs of secession. In the last century, Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John Stott argued the same issue. Stott, not Lloyd-Jones, was right – and history, it seems to me, has judged it that way. Stott’s position best reflects a Reformed ecclesiology. He said:

I would only contemplate seceding if the official doctrine of the Church of England denied the Gospel as I have been given to understand it in any fundamental particular. Then, and not till then, would be the time to secede.

Should people leave the Church of Scotland right now because of the GA fudge on non-celibate homosexuals in ministry? Has the Church of Scotland ceased to be a church because of this? Does it represent the abandonment of a ‘fundamental particular’? I’m sure there is a need for reflection and discussion, but it is not as clear cut as many suggest. Of course, those who suggest it is clear cut tend to hold the a particular ecclesiology, and see it very simply: evangelicals should leave the impure behind. But, is that the ecclesiology of the Reformers, or of the Anabaptists? Herman Bavinck writes of the tendency amongst those who hold this kind of pietistic ecclesiology:

Instead of making a broad and inclusive survey of all churches, carefully distinguishing between true and false, not throwing out the wheat with the chaff, they simply with one fell swoop condemn all churches as false, call all believers to secession and frequently elevate separation itself to an article of faith.… What is the fruit of all this? Not a reformation of churches but an increase in their number and a perpetuation of division. The Catholicity of Christianity and Church

There is a great need in Scottish Presbyterianism for a return to Reformed ecclesiology. Too many have turned to the ecclesiology-lite of Evangelicalism. There needs to be a return to Reformed doctrine on the nature of the Church, and a fresh appreciation of the biblical importance of Christian unity (and of the terrible track-record of Scottish Presbyterianism in this regard). There needs to be recognition of the  need for improved ecumenical relationships between the churches, and the gravity and difficulty of the situation facing Church of Scotland people with orthodox, biblical views on homosexuality. And, within the Free Church there needs to be a commitment to the ideal of praying for and seeking the good of the Kirk. Putting all this together, Church of Scotland congregations holding to the orthodox faith of the Confession need support and encouragement, especially on the ground at a local level. Calls for Christians to leave the Church of Scotland and join the Free Church are a case of one church’s unity being another’s disunity. If calls are made to those who have already left, that’s a different thing. Those members and congregations who have already left the Church of Scotland need to be persuaded most of all not to further abandon the ideal of unity within Scottish Presbyterianism.

I’m not Scottish, and the only Scottish church I have belonged to is the Free Church of Scotland. I love the Free Church. I love its people, its values, its theology, its history. Through this church, the Lord has greatly blessed me, my family, my children. However, I also feel a deep love and concern towards the Church of Scotland. I’ve worshipped with my family in her congregations, and been blessed. I’ve met many extremely gracious and gifted ministry candidates, ministers and members – a lot of these during my time at Highland Theological College. I love the Church of Scotland and pray that those who fight to uphold orthodoxy and resist heterodoxy within it would weather the current storm, as they did the storm of the old liberalism. The Church of Scotland is still one of the Lord’s churches. Impure, yes – as all are. Moving in the wrong direction, yes. In great danger, yes. But still part of the Lord’s Church. Those within the Church of Scotland who seek to follow the agenda of the world and disregard the authority of scripture need to be opposed. They need to be opposed from within the church by those who seek faithfulness to the Word of God. For the good of Scotland we must seek the peace and prosperity of the national Kirk.

So, I’m glad that a couple of days ago, 350 Church of Scotland evangelicals decided to stay within the Kirk to work for reformation and renewal. May the Lord bless their witness and work.

φθορα and Creation

phthora1A few days ago, on The Life Scientific (BBC Radio 4), there was a discussion on biological ageing. Professor Jim Al-Khalili said this:

Ageing is one of the biggest mysteries in science. We still don’t understand what makes our bodies age.

He was interviewing Linda Partridge who has conducted work on fruit flies and other simple organisms to try to understand the genetic basis for the ageing process. In the course of the programme, she highlighted the fact that ageing is an extraordinarily complicated process and yet, as she explained, it is a process that is seen in all organisms in a surprisingly similar way.

Many mechanisms are extraordinarily similar…You can take a human gene and place it in a yeast cell and it works extraordinarily well.

This fact highlights to me again the connection between humans and the rest of the creation. Often, in interpreting Genesis 1, the emphasis is placed on humans as separate from the rest of creation, due to men and women being made ‘as the image of God’, without any balance provided from the fact that humans are made ‘from the earth’ in the same way as other life. They are also the product of the same creative impetus that gives rise to the rest of the cosmos. Humans belong within the cosmos. Humans belong with other creatures. The incredible connection between humans and other life is seen in the functioning of human genes in yeast cells and in the fact that 80% of genes in mice and humans are like-for-like. When you consider only classes of genes, then humans and mice are 99% similar. The uniqueness of humans doesn’t consist in our being made of a different ‘stuff’ to other life.

When it comes to ageing, we also share this with other life. Ageing is part of the natural processes that are seen in the Genesis narrative even before the Fall of humanity. Plants are created with seed, so that they can reproduce fruit and other plants. The cycle of the seasons, where life ebbs and flows is part of the created cosmos. The cycle of life and death amongst animals is eulogised as part of the glory of God’s works (indeed, of the glory of God himself) in Psalm 104:27-30. And yet, Genesis 1 is clear: death is not God’s intention for humans. The Tree of Life in the garden represents God’s design for human life uninterrupted by death. After the sin of Adam and Eve, the way to that Tree is forbidden.  John Walton points out in his commentary on Genesis that the processes of ageing are fundamental to the human body itself, with skin being a product of the ageing process in cells. But he sees in the Tree of Life the presence of something only available to humans, something which counters the process of ageing and death which is present in all life – something that rejuvenates and restores. The idea to be derived from Genesis 1-3 is that the ageing process is part of the created order, operating in all creatures, including humans, but that in humans God’s design is for an on-going renewal of human life that counters this. But this renewal has been removed because of human sin. Humans are now subject to decline into death in the same way as other creatures.

The Apostle Paul addresses the ageing process, and its inevitable result in death in his letters. The Greek word that comes close to the idea of ageing is φθορα (phthora). Phthora is the corruption of something, whether food that gradually rots, or bodies that decay. In 1 Corinthians 15:42, the present human body is susceptible to phthora, but the resurrection body of humans will be raised aphtharsia, that is, not susceptible to phthora. It is released from phthora as part of inheriting a renewed creation that is itself aphtharsia (1C15:50). This idea of a creation released from phthora is explicit in Romans 8:21. Jesus Christ is the pioneer. In his resurrection, he has been released from death into that aphtharsia existence. As the divine man, he is the forerunner – the first-fruits of those who have died. Paul also describes the aphtharsia human body as pneumatikov (1C15:44). It is a body fundamentally reconnected to the creative, life giving power of the Holy Spirit who hovered over the chaotic cosmos at the beginning. Our reconciliation to the Creator is redemptive of body as well as soul.

In writing this way of the release of the cosmos from phthora, Paul is responding to Genesis 3, not only in terms of human death and God’s redemptive response to it in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but also to the effect of the fall on the environment (G3:17-18). A renewed creation, freed from phthora, will not eliminate the wonderful life-cycles and ecosystems which so delight the psalmist and bring glory to God in Psalm 104. But it will fundamentally alter the relationship of humans with their environment. There will be a removal of the damage and despoiling that has come by our hands, a stop to habitat-loss and extinctions. The balance of the earth will be restored as humans discover what it means to live as the Image of God in Jesus Christ. And when scientists predict the extinction of all life on earth in 5 billion years because of the life-cycle of our sun, they are not accounting for the removal of phthora from the cosmos through the divine, restorative intervention of the creator-Christ, who holds all things together.

(Picture Credit: Erin Davies)

What is a True Church? Looking Beyond the Constitution

DSC_0043Here’s a helpful passage from Professor Donald Macleod’s ‘The Basis of Christian Unity’:

The converse of this is that a church may have a defective constitution and yet preach the gospel. To take one example: the current effective constitution of the Church of Scotland is theologically minimal. While giving a courteous nod to the Westminster Confession, in practice the Church is bound to nothing except the doctrine of the Trinity and ‘the Scottish Reformation’. Because there is no standard of theology, the most bewildering theological pluralism prevails. The constitution does not safeguard the gospel. Yet, there is no denying that the gospel is preached: fully and brilliantly in some pulpits, adequately in others, minimally in yet others (and probably not at all in some).

In any judgment of a church then, we have to look beyond its actual constitution. Some with admirable constitutions do nothing by way of evangelism; while others, with radically defective constitutions, do a great deal.