Archive for April, 2011


Let’s get something clear…

Today we discussed the clarity of Scripture.  This is the idea that the Bible is inherently clear.  Or to put it another way, that you don’t need any special information or a particular person to tell you what it means, you can work it out for yourself.

Is this what the Bible actually says, though?  Yes, but not directly.  Jesus implies it by the way he uses the OT.  Let me show you.  Take Matthew 12:1-8, for example.  Jesus answers the challenge of the Pharisees with three quotes from the Old Testament.  And he introduces those quotes this way: “Have you not read…”, “or have you not read…”, “And if you had known what this means…”.  The implication from these three statements is that what he is quoting from the OT is clear.  If they had read it then they should have understood.

We anticipate that the Scripture is clearly understandable because it has been given and inspired by the God who has the power to communicate.  To say that the Bible is not clear is to say that God is either not able to speak clearly through the Bible, or he is not willing.

But some parts are really hard to understand?  To say that the Bible is clear is not to say that the Bible is equally easy to understand.  There are some easy and plainly stated things, and there are obscure and difficult parts.  But it is the easier parts that help us to understand the harder ones, so that the overall effect is a Bible that is clear.

But what about when people disagree?  To say that the Bible is clear does not necessarily mean we will understand it correctly.  We all come with our own prejudices, short-sightedness and cultural baggage.  That’s why we need to read in community, humbly discussing the word together, and reading other opinions from other cultures and other times.

What an amazing privilege it is to have God communicate clearly with us.  What a tragedy it would be to ignore that…

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As many are aware, the protestant churches, such as the Anglican, Baptist, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches trace their history back to the Roman Catholic Church.  There was a stage when the vast majority of Europe called themselves Roman Catholic.  Before taking a closer look at early church history I assumed that Roman Catholicism was very early idea, and that the distinctive teachings of the Roman Catholic church went all the way back to the beginning.  So it was quite surprising to find out that many of their distinctive teachings were quite late coming and most evolved quite accidentally.

Take for example the case of Irenaeus.  Irenaeus was a bishop in Lyons, in modern day France, late in the second century.  Irenaeus was particularly concerned with heresies (Gnosticism) popping up and claiming a direct link back to Jesus independent of the recognised Christian churches.  They questioned the authority of the books that now make up the Bible (not yet collated) and claimed to have their own, independent sources.  Irenaeus responded by listing the bishops of Rome, Smyrna and Ephesus from the time of the apostles until his present time.  He did this to show an unbroken link between Jesus’ teaching, the apostles’ teaching and the current teaching of the church.  This ruled out the claim from the Gnostics that the teaching of Jesus could have been found independent of the recognised churches.

How has this been used since?  The succession of bishops from the apostles to the present is largely irrelevant now that we have the apostles’ teaching safely preserved in the Bible.  I suspect that Irenaeus would have been surprised had he known that his argument would be used today to claim an unbroken chain of succession back to apostolic times, granting superiority to the pope, the bishop of Rome, as the supreme authority in all matters of Christian truth.  Yet this is the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and Irenaeus is called upon as an early supporter of the idea.  The supremacy of the pope did not emerge as a doctrine, however, for about another three hundred years after him.

So it took quite some time for the Roman Catholic church to take shape, and Irenaeus contributed to it quite by accident.

‘As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”’ (1 Peter 1:14-16)

What do you think when you read these verses from 1 Peter?  If you’re like me you’re tempted to think that what Peter is talking about here is moral purity.  He is calling us to moral purity, which we can’t achieve because we are all sinners, and so therefore this requirement has been fulfilled in Jesus for us.  That’s what I’m tempted to think.

But that’s because of my impoverished understanding of holiness.  Holy is a slippery word (sanctify is the same word, it’s just that we don’t say in English ‘holify’).  The core meaning is to be set apart, as God is set apart.  He is not one of us.  This includes moral purity, but a whole bunch more.  For us to be holy it is to be set apart for God’s special purposes.  This means moral purity, but it also includes our purpose in life, our identity, our lordship.

Now, back to our passage.  Notice Peter calls us to be ‘holy in all your conduct.’  Clearly he expects us to change our behaviour.  Clearly we are also sinners, but we can still be holy in our conduct despite our sin.  We can live for God’s purposes, not our own.  We can live with our identity found as God’s children.  We can live obeying God.  And yes, we can aim for moral purity.  And though we sin, we can still strive to live in this way – set apart for God.

Something occurred to me the other day as we were being taught about preaching.  Preaching, we were told, is a combination of Logos, Pathos and Ethos.  That is, content, passion and life.  And the most powerful impact out of those from people is your life as a preacher lived out before your congregation.  Or to put it as Paul does, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim 4:16).

It occurred to me that if this is true, then my local pastor is a far more effective preacher to me than Mark Driscoll, Phil Jensen, John Piper or any other great preacher that I download from the internet.  They might have great logos and pathos, but I know nothing of their ethos: how they live their life in the ordinary, day-to-day.  So don’t compare your pastor to the preachers you can download, but appreciate the man that God has given to shepherd you, the one who will pray for you and look out for you.  In the end, they are far better for you than Driscoll.

Jesus teaches in 1 Cor 9 that ‘those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel‘ (1 Cor 9:14).  In the last blog article I suggested that rather than follow Jesus’ teaching we use secular thinking in paying gospel ministers.  Instead, I think, if we are going to be faithful to Jesus’ teaching we should aim for equality.  What does that mean?

By equality I mean that the gospel minister should receive a living roughly equal with those he ministers to (in a church context that is).  This would allow a gospel minister a prime opportunity to model giving to his own congregation.  He could show what he means by generosity and be a visible example of not taking more than he needs to support himself and his family and giving generously to the poor and the work of the gospel (including the very ministry he is involved in).

What about the drawbacks?  I find it hard to see any that stand up to scrutiny:

Maybe it will make ministry prohibitively expensive?  If he only kept what he needed and sowed the rest back into the ministry it may actually be cheaper.

Can we trust him with more money?  You don’t trust him with money but you do with God’s precious and powerful word?

Won’t it make him greedy?  Does that mean that you, who earn that wage, are also greedy?

Maybe there’s something I’m not seeing here?  What do you think?

I gave a sermon a few months ago on 1 Cor 9 and was struck by how secular our thinking on supporting gospel ministers is.  By gospel ministers I mean our church pastors, fighting words staff workers, missionaries, etc.  The principle that Paul gives in 1 Cor 9 comes direct from the teaching of Jesus: ‘the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel‘ (1 Cor 9:14).  Notice he says a ‘living’, not a wage.

How do we tend to think about paying ministers?  I think we go for the ‘value for money’ approach, which is the way secular business works.  Maximum output for minimum cost.  Just as business has a regulated minimum wage, so ministers have a stipend: a set minimum wage.  We pay them according to the stipend, which increases as experience increases, that is, (in theory) as output increases. But Jesus commands a ‘living’.

What is the thinking behind a living?  It’s like a big family where all put in money so that one family member can be set aside for the work.  So how would you set the living?  On equality.  That may mean less income for a gospel minister, but in most situations it would mean more.

There’s plenty to talk about there (in part 2), but what are your initial reactions to that?

(http://strathfield.presbyterian.net.au//index.php?option=com_docman&task=doc_download&gid=97&Itemid=4 if you’re interested in hearing the sermon)

I don’t know if you’ve heard it.  I’ve heard it several times.  The Bible never teaches the Trinity, they say.  The word is not even mentioned in the Bible.  It’s a later invention of the church.  What do you think?  How would you go answering that challenge?  Does the Bible actually teach the Trinity?

Well the Bible may not use the word Trinity, but the idea is definitely there.  What does Trinity mean?  It means that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and that God is one.  Three separate persons, but one being.  But does the Bible teach this?

I want to say that the Bible clearly teaches the following 10 points:

  1. There is only one God (1 Cor. 8:4-6)
  2. The one Jesus called Father is God (Matt 6:1)
  3. Jesus is God (Jn 20:27-29)
  4. The Holy Spirit is God (Acts 5:3-4)
  5. Jesus is not God the Father and God the Father is not Jesus (Jn 14:6)
  6. The Holy Spirit is not Jesus and Jesus is not the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:34)
  7. The Holy Spirit is not God the Father and God the Father is not the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 15:24)
  8. Jesus is the Son of God the Father (Jn 17)
  9. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and the Spirit of the Son (Jn 14:16-17,23)
  10. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one (Matt. 28:18-20)

You add those together and I think you have the Trinity.  It doesn’t come out in the same language as the early creeds, but it is the same point.  Why not take a look and see what you think?  Are there any points that can’t be backed up?  Is there a part of Trinitarian teaching that is missing?

I was reflecting recently on the power of God.  Yeah, yeah, I hear you say.  They’re God is so big.  This is Sunday school stuff.  Sure, but have you stopped to think about it as an adult?

God is infinitely powerful.  There is nothing he cannot do.  His power is unlimited.  He does whatever he wants.  No-one can stop him.  And he runs this place.  He controls the relative movement between galaxies and the movement of electrons around the nucleus of an atom, and all things in between, and all things bigger and smaller than those that we maybe don’t even yet understand.

Not only that, but God perfectly works everything out with his plan.  He has considered every permutation and combination of every interaction in the universe and makes sure that they all work exactly as he has planned.  We get a hint of how incredibly difficult that is from movies like ‘The Butterfly Effect’, but God does it all exactly the way he has planned.  God is all powerful.  And he is good.

Now here’s the rub.  If God has absolutely everything, without exception, in his control, and he is good and has our best at heart (Rom 8:28), then why are we ever afraid?  Why are we anxious?  I can think of only one reason: lack of faith.  Why am I such a coward?  Because of my lack of faith.

There seem to be distinct flavours of Christianity out there.  There is the traditional flavour, such as Roman Catholic or Orthodox Christianity.  There is the liberal flavour with an emphasis on keeping to what is reasonable.  Charismatic is another flavour with a strong taste of experience and let’s not forget the good ole evangelical, big on the Bible and evangelism.  But is that correct?  Is Christianity divided into flavours?  How do you know which flavours are legit?  How do you know what is the best?

I was very taken by a comment made by John Woodhouse the other day in a doctrine lecture.  He said, ‘The character and nature of Christianity is determined by the fact that God has spoken.’  Christianity is at heart about knowing God and the object of our knowledge shapes the experience of knowing.  What is God like?  He is a God who speaks.  What does he speak?  He speaks promises and commands.  What will knowing him be like?  Believing his promises and obeying his commands.  It will not be by mystical experience, submission to tradition or the independent use of reason.  Knowing God is believing his promises and obeying his commands.  Hence a high value on his word – the Bible.  Evangelical Christianity, for all its faults, is not just a flavour of Christianity, it is Christianity, because God is a God who speaks.

Biblical Theology (BT) is studying the Bible as a whole, taking particular interest in how God has revealed himself and his plans progressively, over time.  I used to think, before coming to college, that the art of BT was largely arbitrary, that you picked a big idea of your choice and then traced it through the Bible, reading everything somehow in line with that.  So one author would choose covenant as the big idea and read everything in light of a covenant framework.  Someone else might choose the kingdom of God and read the kingdom into everything.

Lately I’ve come to see a way forward in Biblical Theology which I have found quite enlightening.  It comes from recognising where we enter into BT.  We don’t start at Genesis 1 because that is not where we are.  We start with Jesus and the Gospel, because we are Christians and are responding to the teaching of Jesus Christ.  If we look at what he teaches us we see what ideas Jesus thinks are key, especially to understanding him and his message.  When we listen to Jesus we see that he presents himself and what he’s about most often in the framework of the kingdom of God.  Jesus is called the ‘Christ’ (promised king), preaches about the kingdom, and passes on the gospel (royal proclamation of good news) to the apostles.  And so, starting with Jesus, we then go back and work out from the OT exactly what that means.  We might trace other ideas back of his as well, like covenant, but at the forefront of what Jesus teaches is the kingdom, so I think (at the moment) that kingdom is the big organising idea of the Bible.