The Expendable Backdrop

A must-read quote from George B. Caird…

“Too often evangelical Christianity has treated the souls of men as brands plucked from the burning and the world in general as a grim vale of soul-making. It has been content to see the splendour of the created universe … as nothing more than the expendable backdrop for the drama of redemption. One of the reasons why men of our generation have turned against conventional Christianity is that they think it involves writing off the solid joys of this present life for the doubtful acquisition of some less substantial treasure … the whole point of the resurrection of the body is that the life of the world to come is to be lived on a renewed earth … Everything of real worth in the old heaven and earth … will find a place in the eternal order” G.B.Caird

“The Christological Basis of Christian Hope”, in Caird et al., The Christian Hope (London: SPCK, 1970), 22-24.

Interacting with God

Brueggemann3For my thesis, I’ve been looking long and hard at Psalm 8. It contains a fascinating verse which does not enjoy the attention that it ought to do.

Yet you have made him (man, or humanity) a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour. (Psalm 8:5 ESV)

The concept of the glory with which humans have been crowned receives woefully little attention. In terms of popular theology, the idea of humanity’s glory is generally blasted off the map by the idea that it is God alone who matters. Or, even that it is Christ alone who matters. But, I’m pleased to say, humanity matters to God. And in Christ we see this truth’s astonishing demonstration.

In reflecting on the testimony of the Old Testament in this area, Walter Brueggemann (Theology of the Old Testament, 457) gets good (as he does in many, many places):

The human person, in this tradition, is assigned an extraordinary role of authority and entitlement, not only in the service of God, but even over against God. There is indeed a second side to the covenantal, transactional quality of this relationship, which tilts the God-human encounter toward human initiative.

[I]t will be evident that I have set up in dialectical fashion a profound tension in this relationship, a tension that is, I believe, reflective of the text and derivative from Israel’s own disputatious relationship with Yahweh. As humankind deals with Yahweh’s sovereignty, obedience is the proper order of the day. As humankind deals with Yahweh’s fidelity moving toward pathos, humankind is authorized to freedom and initiative.

There is a profound tension in this relationship, for dealing with Yahweh’s sovereignty and fidelity does not permit compartmentalization. I fear that in practice we incline to compartmentalization, being excessively scrupulous in some areas of command (such as money or sexuality) and completely autonomous in other spheres of life (such as money or sexuality).

In a footnote here Brueggemann expands upon his hitting of this particular nail on the head, striking it more firmly:

The practical outcome of this compartmentalization in the contemporary church is that so-called conservatives tend to take careful account of the most rigorous claims of the Bible concerning sexuality, and are indifferent to what the Bible says about economics. Mutatis mutandis, so-called liberals relish what the Bible says in demanding ways about economics, but tread lightly around what the Bible says about sexuality.

Brueggemann concludes:

In this relationship, however, as in any serious, demanding, intimate relationship, matters are more troubled and complex than such a sorting out might indicate. The human person, like Israel, is invited, expected, and insistently urged to engage in a genuine interaction that is variously self-asserting and self-abandoning, yielding and initiative-taking. As this tradition of testimony does not envision human persons who are arrogantly autonomous, so it does not envision human beings who are endlessly and fearfully deferential to Yahweh.

A Christianity that functions on a level of fearful deference to God is not a Christianity in which the truth of the Creator’s love for human beings has come to the surface. A Christianity that compartmentalizes its interaction with God has not confronted the truth of the breadth of God’s calling.

Thoughts on Christian Identity: God’s Presence

davinci2God’s presence with the Christian is a fundamental part of Christian Identity. In 1 Corinthians 6:19, the apostle Paul writes:

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you?

Earlier in his letter (3:16), Paul has written something similar, but he emphasises there the teaching that corporately the Christians can be described as a temple of God. This thought is also found in Ephesians 2:19-22 where the whole Church is being built as a temple on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, but where the readers of the letter are also ‘being built together into a dwelling of God.’

But, getting back to 1 Corinthians 6, it is something more personal here. It is the body (the context shows the physical, human body of the individual is in view) that is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Paul does not write: your soul is a temple of the Holy Spirit. We might have thought that more likely. But, it is your body that is the temple. What are we to make of this? How does it impact how we think of ourselves as Christians?

Paul is using a metaphor. In the Old Testament, the God of Israel dwelt amongst his people in a tent, and then in a temple. These structures were outposts of a lost Eden in the fallen world (the tabernacle and temple both contained garden & creation imagery). The temple spoke of the re-instatement of that pre-Fall, perfect connection between God and humans. Theologically, humans cannot be human in the truest sense without the restoration of a lost dimension to their lives. That dimension is their living experience of the presence of God in their lives. That is what gives ‘true life’. Saying ‘presence’ might be confusing. Really, the idea is one of God’s influence on us, not coercively, but in partnership with us. A kind of enabling, but with a deeply personal component too – which is why ‘presence’ is ultimately the right word. It’s not merely a ‘spiritual’ thing. Because of the fundamental co-existent connection between the spiritual and the physical, both aspects of our person are involved in God’s presence.

If the presence of God in our body seems an odd concept, think about this: when you have an idea, an insight, or an intuition, where does it come from? From stored experiences in cells of your brain; from firing synapses and intercellular chemistry bringing experiences, memories and knowledge together (of course, I’m no expert on brains, but no-one on the planet really understands how this stuff really works!). Yes, of course that’s true. But, when we accept that the ‘spiritual’ and physical are intimately connected, we realise that through the Holy Spirit, God himself is influential in these processes. So, God can give insight. He can bring motivation to action. He can bring about answers to prayer when someone is praying for help and there’s a knock at their door. When we respond to reading God’s word, what is that? When we worship in Church and feel a deep-seated peace, or a rising up of joy, what is that? I don’t think a purely materialist perspective on these things is adequate. And, of course, when our knowledge, experience, etc. are formed by our interaction with God’s word and our interaction with God himself through prayer and worship, then all of this forms a rich tapestry of God’s presence in our bodies.

Obviously, I’m not saying that Paul thought of it in these terms – two thousand years ago the human body was a bigger mystery than it is today. But I am building this on the fact that Paul saw it as entirely appropriate to describe God the Holy Spirit as being ‘present’ in our bodies.

Through faith in Jesus Christ, God is present in us. What is lost to humanity – due to the entry of sin into the human psyche and the alienation of God from humans – is restored! But not only is God present, but in some sense so is the human Jesus Christ himself, who is the incarnated logos, the second ‘person’ in the divine Trinity (when we think of the connection between God and humans, the fact that God has become a human is extremely important, but no space here for that!). In John’s gospel we find the same idea expressed in a striking manner.

I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper…the Spirit of truth…; you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you. “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you… In that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you…. Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him. John 14:17-23

Does the way we imagine Christianity reflect this? Does our relationship with God reflect this? When we are praying, do we imagine we are praying to someone far off? And what about our relationship with Jesus? Are we talking to a Jesus lost in the past, or somewhere off in heaven? Talking to someone who doesn’t understand, or know about your life, your hopes, fears, sins, joy? In Jesus Christ, the Father truly has embraced the prodigal! And Paul’s main purpose in writing what he does in 1 Corinthians 6 is ethical. When we face temptation, shouldn’t the real presence of God in our bodies act as some kind of restraint? And give us real hope for choosing the right path? Our God, our Lord and Master Jesus is present in us through the Holy Spirit.

Thoughts on Christian Identity: You Are Not Your Own

cross3In my previous post I looked at how a true understanding of the human person is important to Christian Identity.

Ethicists of every stripe agree that identity, how a group or individual defines itself, is fundamental to their moral formation. A frequent summary of the logic of Paul’s ethics is the maxim ‘become what you are’. Ciampa & Rosner, 1 Corinthians, p.158

In 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 Paul teaches Christian Identity.

Flee immorality. Every other sin that a person commits is outside the body, but the immoral person sins against their own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.

Fundamental to Christian Identity is the idea that we belong to God. Modern thought emphasises the complete freedom of the human person. Freedom is important, but a true understanding of human freedom must recognise that it is often illusory and has limits. Western capitalism and democracy are built on freedom of choice. But are humans truly masters of their own destiny? Are we free to do as we please?  The scriptures tell us that human beings are ‘slaves to sin’. We cannot free ourselves from our condition of moral compromise and inability to act consistently in righteous ways that benefit ourselves and others. We are destructive and self-destructive. The reason for our lack of freedom is that we are fundamentally alienated from God our Creator.

The Christian finds freedom in being reconciled to the Creator. Christians are redeemed, bought back by God. Therefore, we are not our own, we have been bought with a price. This is the same idea as is found in 1 Peter 1:18-19:

…you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your ancestors, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ.

This fact of Christian Identity ought to give us pause for thought. It’s not just a truth to be confined to the ‘theological’ category to be dug up and reflected on every once in a blue moon. You are not your own when your married work colleague is flirting with you. You are not your own when you’re choosing your holiday. You are not your own when you’re caught up in that dispute that flairs up at work.  You are not your own when you’re choosing coffee in the supermarket.

I preached on Christian Identity the Sunday after the factory collapse in Bangladesh that highlighted again the oppression that enables rich Westerners to buy cheap clothes, rich Westerners who have ‘freedom of choice’. You are not your own, when you’re in the queue for the till in Primark. We are not our own. Jesus Christ did not give his life for us so that we could partition off a part of our lives as beyond his jurisdiction, using a body-soul, sacred-secular dualism to justify it.

Thoughts on Christian Identity: The Lord is For the Body

davinciA couple of Sundays ago I preached on Christian Identity from 1 Corinthians 6:19-20. Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner, in their commentary (p.158), write:

Ethicists of every stripe agree that identity, how a group or individual defines itself, is fundamental to their moral formation. A frequent summary of the logic of Paul’s ethics is the maxim ‘become what you are’.

In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul teaches Christian Identity in the harsh reality of a fledgling church where pagan converts to Christianity are struggling to cast off the habits of their pagan world. It is part of Paul’s attempt at, in the words of Richard Hays, a conversion of the Corinthians’ imagination. The same appeals to a right conception of Christian Identity are applicable to all Christians today.
Paul’s insistence that the Corinthian Christians live holy lives flies in the face of the views of some in the church who are clinging to pagan views of the human person. These people say that what’s done in the body ultimately doesn’t matter, since the body is a transient feature; the body is incidental, and not essential, to being human. Paul summarises their view – and counters it:

You say, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.” The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also.

As an aside, the NIV has the best translation here. Although there are no quote marks in the Greek, the section only makes sense if Paul is here quoting the Corinthians as marked above. Quote marks can be the only way to ensure a good translation – especially in 1 Corinthians, where Paul quotes the views of the Corinthians a number of times. The NASBs omission of quote-marks isn’t helpful. The ESV, earlier NIVs and NLTs have the quotes in the wrong place.
Pagan views that the body is dispensable to human identity are definitely not shared by Paul. The body is part of the human person. The Lord is for the body, pro-body. If we want to talk about soul and body, then these are equally as much a part of who we are. They are best thought of, not as two parts, but as two aspects of the same person. We are not spiritual beings temporarily inhabiting physical bodies. We are spiritual-physical beings. My body is no less the real me than my soul is. My body is no less important to me being me than my soul is. There is a fundamental link between the spiritual and the physical. Modern science emphasises the psycho-somatic unity of the human person. That would be closer to Paul’s view than the extreme dualistic view that is common in modern Christianity and which finds its roots in the philosophy of Plato. The Church has often given the misleading impression that God is about saving souls, but that our bodies are dispensable. That’s wrong. Salvation is as much about bodies as it is about souls.
Where do we see the fact that ‘the Lord is for the body’ demonstrated? The answer lies in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. God raised Jesus from the dead – and he will raise us also. Salvation embraces our whole human ‘self’, body and soul. And, for Paul, because salvation embraces the whole person, the body as well as soul are also both involved in God’s work of sanctification, the outworking of our salvation. We see this in 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul concludes his argument showing his hope of human resurrection in Christ, with these words:
Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.
Our work for God in this world is not in vain because of the future hope of the resurrection. Paul believes that because our bodies will be raised in the resurrection, what we do with our bodies now is fundamentally important to our salvation. This is the background to 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, and it’s why Paul finishes this whole section with the words:
Therefore, glorify God in your body.
One broader implication of the above is that the Christian life is not just about ‘spiritual disciplines’: going to church, reading the Bible, praying every night. It’s about our whole lives. It’s as much about the physical side of marriage as it is about the spiritual. It’s as much about what we do with our hands when they’re not together in prayer. It’s about what we do with the money that’s not in the plate on a Sunday.

Death and Challenge

snowleopardIs death part of the natural world as part of the Divine Intention? To answer that we need the Genesis narratives. Can we see death in Genesis 1 and 2 – death before the Fall? I don’t mean human death – that was a result of the Fall. But, did animals and plants die? The more I meditate on these chapters, the firmer my belief that this is the case.

In Genesis 1 and 2 we meet the world we know – sun, moon and stars, day and night, earth and sea, animals, birds, fish, and plants. It is the familiar world. In Gen 1:24 and 2:20, wild animals are mentioned alongside domesticated (or domesticatable) animals. Wild animals includes carnivores (like snow leopards), which are part of our familiar world. So, death would seem to be implied in this classification of familiar animals. In Genesis 2 we meet familiar humanity: working the ground, sleeping, needing food, having flesh and bones (and ribs). As John Walton points out, the first humans had skin (he translates basar in 2:23 as skin) and skin is a layer of dead cells. So, at the cellular level, death is implied. Certainly, the fact that plants are for food shows that the usual metabolic cycles are present, with cells requiring energy. Perhaps even more fundamentally, in Genesis 1 God creates plants and trees with fruit bearing seed. In the botanical life cycle, seeds are only required because of biological death. In a world without death, why would seeds be required? The plants are given for food (1:29,30), and are consumed. So plants are certainly dying. And if biological death is present in the plant kingdom, where is the objection to a similar situation in the animal kingdom? The sixth day connection between animals and humans might be used as basis for an objection, but the botanical/zoological divide seems an unlikely boundary for the principal of death. A far more likely boundary for death is between animals and humans, who are created in (or perhaps preferably, as) the Image of God. Humans are not created to die because they mirror their Creator in a way that animals do not.

To my mind, theological objections to the principle of biological death in the animal and plant kingdoms falter in the light of the above. In Genesis 3, it is specifically human death that results from the Fall. The Divine Intention for the immortality of humans is part of the distinctiveness of humanity as God’s image on earth.

Animals that survive through the death of other creatures, whether bacteria, spiders, flies, birds, whales, fish, pumas, wolves or seals – these creatures display the glory of the Creator in the brilliance and wonder of their design, in the amazing beauty of their function, and in the complexity of the ecosystems in which they participate. The redemption of creation will reverse the effects of the Fall, and the glory and beauty of these ecosystems will remain. The world as created had to be ruled, or subdued (1:28) and even the Garden in all its beauty had to be worked and cared for (2:15). The work of humanity is in a sense a continuation of God’s work in fashioning the world from its formless and empty watery darkness. The created world was a world containing challenges –  of growing food, keeping livestock and coping with wild creatures. It was a world where there was a Garden, but also wildness. In redemption of the fallen world, there is also challenge; sin has increased the challenge beyond all boundaries. The life and work of Jesus Christ testifies to this. There is challenge in the process of redemption and there is challenge, albeit of a different nature, that remains in its realisation.

The Church’s Obsession with Sex

handsA few days ago on the BBCs Today programme, Ben Summerskill (Chief Executive, Stonewall) again accused the church of an obsession with sex – and of being happy to turn a blind eye to poverty or to disease. This has become a mantra for those arguing in favour of a departure from traditional (biblical) sexual morality.

Now, it is true that the affluent, modern church in the west has, generally speaking, been woefully inadequate in addressing issues of poverty, social justice, disease, environmental issues etc. Mea culpa. The church ought to be obsessed with Jesus Christ and with his Kingdom – and these issues are part of this.

However, that does not endorse Mr Summerskill’s point. The church is right to be obsessed with sex, because personal, sexual relationships are at the heart of the fabric of society. Any objective assessment of the post-50s sexual revolution must acknowledge that in its wake have come vastly increased levels of family breakdown, social breakdown, sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy. The departure of British society from traditional (biblical) morality has not been a successful experiment.

That’s not to say that the church always gets it right on sex. The church’s traditional attitude to women needed reformation – and continues to do so, far too many chauvinist remarks are still heard in church, often as an attempt at humour. That’s unacceptable. And, the church’s generally negative attitude to heterosexual sex still needs reformation. The essential place of sex in a marriage as a God-given gift, and the fulfilling joy that comes from it – these aren’t the themes the church has been known for. These problems arise in the church because the church takes on the attitudes of The World.

But to come to the practice of homosexual sex and so-called gay marriage. Society in general may accept these, but the Church must be obsessed with what is a departure not simply from its own practices, but from the design of the Creator for stable and fulfilling expressions of human society. It’s not just the Scriptures that tell us that human society is designed with lifelong male-female relationship at its heart. Nature itself shows us – teleology is fundamental in this debate. Experience through long years of history shows us. And the statistics bear it all out in front of our eyes in Britain today.

Holy Creatures

P1010070Just a couple more quotes that I’d marked in Webster’s Holiness. As an account of the human condition and God’s redemptive response, I like this. It’s an account rooted in our relationship with God as our Creator. The foundational place of Creation Theology in scriptures does not always feed into our accounts of salvation. The way in which Webster writes here places our status as creatures (made as the image of God in the physical world) at the centre.

Christian holiness is holy fellowship; it is the renewal of the relation to God which is the heart of holiness. To be a creature is to have one’s being in relation to God, for ‘to be’ is ‘to be in relation’ to the creator, and only so to have life and to act. To be a sinner is to repudiate this relation, and so absolutely to imperil one’s life by seeking to transcend creatureliness and become one’s own origin and one’s own end. This wicked refusal to be a creature cannot overturn the objectivity of the creator’s determination to be God with us, for such is the creator’s mercy that what he has resolved from all eternity stands fast. But the sinner’s failure to live in acknowledgement of the creator’s gift of life means that the creature chooses to torment and damage his being to the point of ruin, precisely by struggling out of the ordered relation to God in which alone the creature can be. (p84, emphasis added)

A little further along…

However, evangelical sanctification is not only the holiness that the gospel declares but also the holiness that the gospel commands, to which the creaturely counterpart is action. Holiness is indicative; but it is also imperative; indeed, it is imperative because it is the indicative holiness of the triune God whose work of sanctification is directed towards the renewal of the creature’s active life of fellowship with him. (p87)

The Earth He Has Given to Man

earth2Psalm 115:16 is undervalued and somewhat unnoticed. It tells us that:

The highest heavens belong to the LORD, but the earth he has given to man.

This verse has been on my mind for a good while. It contains a very important truth. The theology it expresses it very close to that in Psalm 8: 5,6:

You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet…

The kingship of humans over creation is a neglected doctrine. It finds its root in the Genesis narratives where humanity is created as the image of God to steward the very good creation. As the image of God, humans are to exercise a kingship of harmonious care, not a kingship of exploitation.

There are many places you can take this truth, but one that has impressed itself on me is in the area of theodicy – why do bad things happen? Psalm 115:16 helps us with the age old conundrum of how to balance God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Yes, God is sovereign (the highest heavens belong to him), but responsibility for the earth has been devolved to humanity. This helps us to understand the effect of the Fall itself and why human sin is portrayed as having an environmental effect. It also helps us to answer the question often asked by those wanting to impugn God for the way the world is: if God is all powerful why didn’t he stop X? Where X is something bad, ranging from personal illness, through to war or even a natural disaster. God could stop X, but perhaps doesn’t because ‘the earth he has given to man.’ This is obviously helpful when it comes war, but even in the realm of personal difficulties it helps us to understand that the world is the way it is because of humanity’s disconnection from the Creator through its rebellion. Humans must live within the human story with all of its consequences.

One more thing: this is not the same as seeing God as an absentee landlord, a God who is ‘watching us from a distance.’ God’s involvement with his creation is specific, unceasing and permeates all of reality. But the Creator works within the paradigm of order expressed in Psalm 115:16. Which is why in order to put the world right, He became a man.