Why Christians Should Vote, and How

election2016Today, Thursday 5 May, is the day of the Scottish Parliament election. In the last election, national turnout was 50% – hardly a ringing endorsement of our democratic process! Anyone with the right to vote should vote. And especially Christians.

Most of us are probably familiar with some of the arguments as to why we should vote in elections. Voting gives the people a voice, and it places power in the hands of the people, not in the hands of elites. Perhaps we’re a little less clear on these today because the voices of large media organisations, lobbying groups and parties often drown out the voice of the people, and because wealthy and privileged elites, despite our democratic process, still hold a lot of power.

But, we have to remember that in many countries around the world the people have no power at all, are ruled by dictators, and have, will, and do risk their lives for a chance of democracy. Even in Britain, it’s less than 90 years since women achieved equality in democracy. Many women campaigned and suffered to eventually gain an equal franchise in 1928. We shouldn’t take our democratic process for granted. Democracy (especially Western democracy in the 21st Century) is flawed, but we have to remember Churchill’s words:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.  Sir Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965), Hansard, November 11, 1947

But why should Christians vote? Surely our business is the kingdom of God, not any earthly kingdom? I’m afraid that some radicals have argued this view. It doesn’t stand up to scrutiny – not biblically, not theologically. My view is that Christians, more than any other kind of person, ought to engage with the democratic process through voting. Here’s why…

  • Let’s start with Jesus. Jesus said, when asked about paying taxes, ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s’ (Matthew 22:21). That’s not exactly a radical cry for dissociation from the state.
  • The Apostle Paul writes that we ought to be subject to governing authorities, and pay taxes (Romans 13:1-7). He tends to couple this attitude with showing love and courtesy to everyone, whoever they are (Titus 3:2). He writes that we ought to pray for rulers, and all in authority (1 Timothy 2:1-2), so that we can live quiet and dignified lives.
  • The Apostle Peter echoes Paul’s words (1 Peter 2:13-17). Christians in the Roman empire ought to submit to the emperor, or his governors. When we remember this is during the period before the Roman empire accepted Christianity, these words take on a radical (and contemporary) nature. Peter puts it well: ‘Live as free people, but don’t use your freedom as a cover for evil, but for serving God. Respect all people, love the Christian family, fear God, honour the emperor.’
  • Back in the Old Testament, when God’s people were in exile in pagan Babylon, God’s word came through the prophet Jeremiah (29:7): ‘Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’ If we, as God’s people in our generation are going to take God’s call seriously, we cannot disengage from our democratic process.

In the Reformed tradition in which the Free Church stands, it’s been understood that God’s Common Grace to all people means that we share common interests and common goals. The State and the Church are two bodies seeking the common good in different ways in God’s world. That’s why in the confessional document of the Free Church we read a call for Christians to get involved in the political system:

It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate, when called thereunto: in the managing whereof, as they ought especially to maintain piety, justice, and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth (WCF 23.2).

If it’s lawful, then it’s good. We’re not all called to be politicians, but we must at the very least, engage in the democratic process with our vote. And the fact that we’re generally voting for people with little or no Christian conviction doesn’t exempt us from our responsibility:

It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates, to honour their persons, to pay them tribute or other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience’ sake. Infidelity, or difference in religion, does not make void the magistrates’ just and legal authority, nor free the people from their due obedience to them (WCF 23.4).

So how should Christians vote today? Here’s my recommendation:

  • First, we should vote with an eye to how the candidates and parties stand with respect to the Church. That’s important. Do they see a place for the church in our society? Do they listen to the views of the church? Are their policies going to make life difficult for Christians, or make it less likely that others get to encounter Jesus in the Gospel? These are all important, and we have to take an interest and make a judgement.
  • Second, we should vote with an eye to the prosperity of our communities. Christians ought to believe in the local church, and ought to believe in seeking the good of their local communities. Which candidate will be best able to represent the local community? Which party’s policies will be best for my community?
  • Third, I’m struck by how the apostles link in our relationship to the state with the idea of respecting all people, and seeking their good. We’re not just voting for our own interests. We have to take seriously the call of God to care about the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed. How will my vote work for those who have no voice, who live in social and economic deprivation? I’m afraid that too many Christians buy into the mantra that it’s solely my family, my pocket, my wallet that’s important.
  • Fourth, we should vote with a more biblical idea of human prosperity. The idea behind Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign phrase, ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ is rampant. There’s more to life in our communities than money. We need to think about the environment, the family, the culture. We need to reject the narrative (which is so depressingly prevalent in the Brexit debate) that votes will follow the money. Let’s not be gerrymandered.

That’s a lot to think about, but that’s why Christians should be engaged as they’re able; should talk about and discuss politics; and should engage with their local MSP. And all prayerfully, and in the attitude of seeking the Kingdom of God. Different Christians are going to take different views – and that’s fine. The church should reflect the political differences that are out there in our communities. Christians of all political hues should be involved and engaged.

If we’re going to make a difference, we as individuals and churches need to be engaged. Let’s vote today.

Westminster: Subscription in America

warfieldIn a previous post I pointed to John Murray’s views on subscription to the Westminster Confession. Murray, who taught at Princeton and then at Westminster Theological Seminary, argues against an overly-strict subscription to the confession. The idea of ‘system subscription’ to the Confession has been the historical view of the Presbyterian Churches in America. In a very interesting quote, B B Warfield, writing just three years before the Church of Scotland’s Declaratory Act, compares the situations on either side of the Atlantic vis a vis the Confession:
We observe, then, . . . [t]hat so long as we remain a Calvinistic Church, the American Church, with its free and yet safe formula of acceptance of the Confession, is without the impulse which drives on some other churches to seek to better their relation to the Standards. We have always accepted the Confession only for ‘‘the system of doctrine’’ contained in it, and hence since 1729 have possessed what the great Scotch churches are now seeking after.     Presbyterian Review 10, no. 40 (1889): 656-57.
In another previous post, I also related the warning of Dr William Barker, given whilst he was a member of faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary, against strict subscription as a de facto elevation of the Standards to the same level of authority as scripture. Peter Enns (an elder in the PCA and a former professor at WTS) can write about his oath of subscription to the Confession whilst at Westminster in the following terms:
I believe that this oath—whether at WTS or the PCA—does not mean that someone living today is bound to every word and expression found in the Westminster Standards, but to the “system” of faith that the Standards articulate. In other words, my oath is a system subscription oath, not a strict subscription oath. I have never confessed in any other way, and this is the manner of confessional commitment that was modeled and taught to me by my professors during my MDiv years at WTS (1985-89), not only by Harvie Conn in Eternal Word, Changing Worlds, but the rest of my professors (Ray Dillard, Bruce Waltke, Tremper Longman III, Al Groves, Moises Silva, Manuel Ortiz, Sam Logan, Tim Keller, Will Barker, Clair Davis, Sinclair Ferguson), three of whom are still on the faculty today (Dan McCartney, Dick Gaffin, Vern Poythress). System subscription is, in my view, the dominant WTS perspective on the matter and needs no significant clarification or defense. It is stricter views that are not only out of line with the particular iteration of Reformed thought at WTS, but run the risk of calling into question the authority of Scripture.
A couple of things can be noted. First, that the ‘system subscription’ paradigm was the accepted understanding in the vibrant Reformed environment of WTS. Second, Enns is also on the money to identify the risk to scriptural authority of ‘strict subscription’.

John Murray on Subscription to the Confession

MurrayJohn Murray writes very helpfully on ‘The Theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith’ (Collected Writings 4.241-63). Murray doesn’t just provide a description of the content, but an assessment of it. And it’s also an appraisal of the place of the Confession in the Presbyterian church. So, it’s important reading on a number of fronts.  Murray reserves high praise for the Confession: no other creedal confession ‘attains to the same level of excellence’ and ‘no other is its peer’. However, he also identifies the dangers of assessing the Confession too positively.
To appraise it as perfect and not susceptible to improvement or correction would be to accord it an estimate and veneration that belong only to the Word of God. This would be idolatry, and would amount to the denial of that progressive understanding which the presence of the Holy Spirit in the church guarantees (p260, emphasis added).
Murray judges the 350 year old Confession as requiring little in the way of revision. However, he judges amendments as possible, and indeed necessary. But, he makes the point that the ‘system of truth’ of the Confession remains the same.
When the Confession is examined carefully in the light of Scripture and in relation to the demands of confessional witness in the church today, the amazing fact is that there is so little need for emendation, revision, or supplementation. And of greater importance is the fact that justifiable or necessary amendments do not affect the system of truth set forth in the Confession. In other words, the doctrine of the Confession is the doctrine which the church needs to confess and hold aloft today as much as in the l7th century (p261).
Here we find some background to the idea of ‘system subscription’. After describing several areas where the Confession is in his view inaccurate in designation or statement, or unsatisfactory in other ways, Murray again refers to the ‘system of truth’.
It is with something of an apology that attention is drawn to these blemishes. But they serve to point up and confirm the observation made earlier that any amendment necessary does not affect the system of truth set forth in the Confession, and they remind us of the imperfection that must attach itself to human composition so that we may never place human documents or pronouncements on a par with the one supreme standard of faith (p263).
Verily Murray speaketh sense.

John Murray on the Westminster Confession

John MurrayIn my previous post, I wrote about tensions in confessional Reformed Christianity. John Murray (‘The Theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith’ in Collected Writings 4.242-3) highlights three aspects of the nature of the Westminster Confession and its use within the Reformed church (emphasis added):
  • ‘[I]t should be borne in mind that the creeds of the church have been framed in a particular historical situation to meet the need of the church in that context, and have been oriented to a considerable extent in both their negative and positive declarations to the refutation of the errors confronting the church at that time. The creeds are, therefore, historically complexioned in language and content and do not  reflect the particular and  distinguishing  needs  of subsequent generations.’
  • ‘[T]here is the progressive understanding of the faith delivered to the saints. There is in the church the ceaseless activity of the Holy Spirit so that the church organically and corporately increases in knowledge unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ. The progressive correction and enrichment that the promise and presence of the Holy Spirit insure should find embodiment in a confession that is the precipitate of the church’s faith. No Confession in the history of the  church exemplifies  this   more  patently  than  the  Westminster Confession. It is the epitome of the most mature thought to which the church of Christ had been led up to the year 1646. But are we to suppose that this progression ceased with that date? To ask the question is to answer it. An affirmative is to impugn the continued grace to which the Westminster Confession is itself an example at the time of its writing. There is more light to break forth from the living and abiding Word of God.’
  • ‘Finally, it must be borne in mind that all human composition is fallible and is, therefore, subject to correction and improvement.’

The tensions and issues surrounding subscription to the Confession cannot be adequately understood and resolved unless all three of the above are recognised, especially the second one.

Tensions in Presbyterian Confessionalism

For one reason and another, I’ve been thinking recently about the inherent tension in Presbyterian confessionalism. The tension arises between two poles. First, the Westminster Confession holds the scriptures alone to be the authoritative rule of faith and life and the only infallible rule for their own interpretation. Second, confessional subscription for Presbyterian ministers requires a commitment to the doctrine of the confession. For some, this is understood as a strict, unvarying approbation of every detail. The confession takes on the role of an authoritative rule. You see the tension.

This tension mirrors a tension which resides close to the heart of Reformed theology. This second tension can be understood as being between the poles of ‘being Reformed’ and the (necessary) corollary of ‘being reforming.’ Those who try to adhere to the first pole without recognising the second are not true to the Reformers’ principle of Ecclesia semper reformanda est (the church is always to be reformed). There always seems to be a vocal party within the Reformed family who want to over-emphasise the former at the expense of the latter. Perhaps some words from Bavinck would be helpful (they usually are):

All the misery of the Presbyterian Churches is owing to their striving to consider the Reformation as completed, and to allow no further development of what has been begun by the labor (sic) of the Reformers. . . . Calvinism wishes no cessation of progress and promotes multi-formity. It feels the impulse to penetrate ever more deeply into the mysteries of salvation…
Herman Bavinck, “The Future of Calvinism,” The Presbyterian and Reformed Review 5 (1894): 23 cited by Harvie Conn, Eternal Word and Changing Worlds, 221.

To return to the original tension, resolving the difficulties inherent in confessional subscription is no straightforward matter. This is clear from a debate on confessional subscription held at Westminster Theological Seminary (California) at the end of the last century. The debate was between Dr William Barker, professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) and Dr Morton Smith, professor of biblical and systematic theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The former spoke in defence of system (or loose) subscription and the latter in favour of full (or strict) subscription. One report of the debate relates the following:

Smith submits that there is biblical warrant for insisting on full subscription and the church must prohibit any teaching contrary to the standards in order to preserve orthodoxy. The Westminster Standards teach “nothing more or less than the very doctrines of the Word.” If exceptions are allowed to be taught, then ruin is inevitable…

Barker objected to the claim that the Westminster Standards teach “nothing more or less than the very doctrines of the Word.” According to him, this is de facto elevation of the Standards to the authority of Scripture.

Smith defended himself against the charge of elevating the Westminster Standards to the authority of Scripture by appealing to language within the Confession itself which teaches that the Scripture is our single rule for faith and life. If the Confession says this so clearly, then certainly one cannot charge the Confession with being elevated to a position which itself denies.

Here is the tension in black and white. For me, the position argued by Barker displays a greater level of intellectual honesty. No genuine defence of the charge of elevating the Standards was given by Smith: no-one charges the Confession with anything, but people certainly can be charged with elevating the Confession to a position which it denies itself. If there is to be honesty about the tension between confessionalism and reformation, then there must be an acceptance that subscription to the Confession, however it is labelled must involve a certain freedom of interpretation. Otherwise there is indeed a de facto elevation of it to a position of authority on a par with scripture. And yet, the debating of that freedom is always where the rub is.

The Westminster Confession is an incredible statement of the Reformed Faith. I have affirmed it as the statement of my own faith. However, we mustn’t forget that, in the words of the Confession itself:

All synods or councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both (WCF 31.4).

Defending Religion

DSC_0296I’ve been busy writing and taking a holiday (two important activities) and the blog has been quiet. But, I’m taking up my keyboard again to defend religion. It’s not the first time. The blanket attack on religion seems to be a well-established evangelical meme – I come across it with alarming regularity. It’s dangerous and I want to resist it.

The meme usually goes something like this:

  • religion is about doing good works so that we get saved
  • Christianity is not about doing good works so that we get saved
  • ergo Christianity is not a religion
  • ergo religion is evil

There are several fundamental problems with this. The definition of religion is wrong for a start – wrong definitions usual spell disaster. But, far more significantly, one serious objection to this meme comes straight from the pen of one of the apostles:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:27

The apostle James knows that religion (that’s θρησκεία in Greek)  is important. And he knows that Christians are ‘doing’ religion. The outward rituals of inward faith are important. Living a holy life, whether in caring for the afflicted or avoiding sinful behaviour, really matters. That’s James whole point throughout his letter. Religion is not just about believing, it is about doing. To be even clearer: Christianity is not just about believing, it’s about doing. Christianity is a religion. The Church has always rightly understood itself as an entity practising a religion. In my own tradition, Christianity-as-religion is the language of the Westminster Standards. For example:

What is the visible church? The visible church is a society made up of all such as in all ages and places of the world do profess the true religion, and of their children. Longer Catechism 62

The apostle James’s concern is whether people’s religion is true or false (1:26,27). He’s not writing about people of other religions, but about people who profess to be Christians. People who profess to be Christians, but who can’t control their tongues, for example (1:26), have a worthless religion.  People who care for others and seek holiness (a different set of values from God’s word, not from the world around), have a religion that is pure and good (1:27). The irony is that James is actually stressing the importance of good works. True religion involves good works as well as faith. Of course, it’s true that Christianity is not about doing good works so that we get saved. But, we won’t be saved without good works, because faith without works is dead (2:17). If you say you’re a Christian, but your life does not display the good works that come from following Jesus, then is your faith real? This particular evangelical meme illustrates a larger problem: an incorrect separation of works and faith.

We can’t be put right before God on the basis of the good things we do, or try to do. That’s the only part of the four-part meme that’s actually correct! We are put right with God, entering into a new relationship with our Creator, through faith in Jesus Christ – thank God for that! But that faith is not merely mental assent. It entails an all-embracing change of priorities called repentance, and that leads to a very different way of life. It’s not fundamentally fired by our desire for self-improvement. It is fundamentally fired by our desire to love Jesus Christ in obedience, which in turn is fired by Jesus’ own presence with us through the Holy Spirit.

Christianity is a religion. A religion with Jesus the Messiah at the centre. Christianity is about doing good works. Good works for Jesus the Messiah. And the meme begins to unravel…

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.

Did Isaiah See Jesus? John 12 and Isaiah 6

isaiah2[A slightly revised version of this post can be found here]

Over the past few weeks I’ve heard a number of times the view that when Isaiah saw the vision in the temple (recorded in Isaiah 6), it was Jesus he saw. This idea is based on John 12:41. Now, there’s no nice way to say this: statements like that are theologically illiterate. They make me worry about what people are being taught in church.  Jesus was born in Bethlehem, of a virgin named Mary – that is surely basic to the Christian creed. Before that Jesus didn’t exist.  The logos did the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God – but Jesus didn’t. In the words of the Confession:

The Son of God, the second person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon Him man’s nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin; being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God, and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man. (WCF 8:2)
It is the incarnation of the logos, the addition to the nature of the logos of a human nature (a human body and soul) that brings Jesus the person into being. The logos has an eternal divine nature, and so has always existed. But the logos is not Jesus. The name Jesus (or Yeshua, as Jesus’ family and friends would have called him – Joshua to you and me) was given to him at his birth. Jesus is a human being. Jesus did not exist before his birth. Isaiah did not see Jesus in the temple.
Only marginally better, but in my opinion usually misunderstood, is the term ‘the pre-incarnate Christ’. Some may argue that what Isaiah saw in his vision was the pre-incarnate Christ. But again, Christ – or Messiah – is a title bestowed upon a human being. It is not a title of the logos, it is a title of Jesus. Jesus is the Messiah. The logos is not the Messiah. The terms ‘pre-incarnate Jesus’, or ‘pre-incarnate Messiah’ might be used to mean the logos, but are somewhat misleading, if not given careful definition. There can be no simple identification of the logos as the pre-incarnate Jesus, or the pre-incarnate Messiah. There was a pre-incarnate logos – and that expresses the most important point, and therefore is the term which ought to be used. A whole mythology has grown up about where Jesus (or Christ) can be found in the OT – standing on the banks of the Jordan with Joshua, wrestling with Jacob, sitting in Abraham’s tent. Even if we allow that the logos is meant, it is far from clear that the logos could be manifest in isolation from the Trinity (apart from in the person of Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God).
Why does all this matter? Some would say that it is needless theological precision. I beg to differ. Too many Christians believe that Jesus has always existed. That, in a nutshell, is a denial of the incarnation. If Jesus is actually a spiritual being who slotted into a human ‘shell’, then he is not actually human (it’s the old Apollinarian heresy). To cut to the chase, you can see the theological fallout from this mistake in the effective silence about resurrection, and about the worth of embodied human existence, and in the almost ubiquitous impression that Christians give that we are solely looking forward to a spiritual existence in heaven. If a pre-existent Jesus wrapped himself in a human ‘shell’, then logically Jesus can be raised without that ‘shell’ and still be Jesus. Which perhaps explains why many Christians haven’t really taken on board that the resurrected Jesus has a human bones-and-flesh body now. The incarnation is the affirmation of human existence – God’s statement of intent to redeem it, body and soul. John wrote: the logos became flesh; not Jesus became flesh.
Anyway, back to John 12. The only option that is available is that Isaiah saw the logos in the temple, but that’s not what John 12:41 says.  The claim that John 12:41 says that Isaiah saw Jesus in the temple is just not true. The Gospel quotes first from Isaiah 53, a passage about the Servant of the Lord. Then from Isaiah 6, the vision in the temple. Both quotations are used to show that the unbelief of the people in Isaiah’s day is fulfilled in their rejection of Jesus the Messiah. These ‘things’ Isaiah said (that’s Isaiah 53 as well as Isaiah 6) because he ‘saw his glory and spoke of him’. That just means that Isaiah foresaw the glory of the Messiah’s day (in the Servant Songs and in Isaiah 7, 8, 9, which follow closely on the temple vision) and that his words are fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah’s life. The assumption that the words ‘saw his glory’ refer to the temple vision has no basis. In addition, there is no textual connection: Isaiah never says that he saw the glory of the Lord in the temple. The account of the temple vision in Isaiah 6 only contains one reference to glory, on the lips of the angelic beings who speak of the glory of God which fills the whole earth.