Archive for January, 2016


Act and Being

I finished reading today Colin Gunton’s book Act and Being. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and again count myself grossly underqualified to offer a review. So let me reflect.

9780334028925Who’s this book for? I suspect formal theological education, or at least familiarity with heavy theological books is a prerequisite for reading this book. What made the book stimulating is Gunton’s characteristic big claims to be providing something fresh and new. I’m not widely enough read to know how new his work is, but he takes aim at about the last 2000 years of theologians, so he is certainly intending to be controversial. His main idea is that when it comes to discussing God’s attributes, theologians have typically followed pagan Greek philosophy instead of God’s self-revelation in the Bible. The height of that self-revelation is Jesus the incarnate Son, the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15).

I thought he made a good case against the ‘negative theology’ of Greek philosophy (which is actually pagan Greek theology), but I was waiting for the sustained exposition of what a positive theology of God’s attributes looks like. Instead Gunton interacts in a lot of debates and along the way sketches some components of what that might look like. By the end of the book I was still left waiting for him to give me the properly constructed doctrine of God. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention enough along the way?

What I did gather, I think, was that the core of God’s attributes ought to be that which God decides to communicate, not what the Greeks said. So what is the core? Holy love. Although Gunton didn’t quote it, my mind immediately went to Exodus 34:6-7

“The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness,  7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”

This is God’s self-disclosure to Moses and I think holy love summarises these verses well. The other key statement about God is that he is spirit (John 4:24). Spirit doesn’t make him the exact opposite of people, since we humans also possess a spirit. Another interesting concept that Gunton addresses is the communicable and incommunicable attributes of God. Gunton points out that though the entirety of the incommunicable attributes cannot be given to us, portions of them can. God is omnipotent. We don’t become omnipotent, but God can empower us by his Spirit.

Gunton wants the emphasis to fall differently than classical theology, with holy love at the centre, and the other attributes used in the service of holy love. So God acts omnipotently in the world for holy love. He is omnipresent for the sake of holy love. Also, the stress on the unknowability of God has come to us again from the Greeks. The testimony of Scripture is that God has made himself known through Jesus (John 1:18). Whatever our doctrine of God we can’t say God can’t be known when God himself has acted in history to make himself known. That’s not to say that we know God completely. But God reveals true things about himself through Jesus, by the power of the Spirit.

The book is highly readable, even though the material is heavy. But make sure you pay attention along the way. I made the mistake of thinking the detailed teaching section was just around the corner, but it never came. You’ll have to pick up the details as he interacts with other authors along the way. I have one other gripe. He lapoons the last 2000 years of theologians for proof-texting their way through the doctrine of God, but then never offers more than one verse himself at a time. I almost feel like there’s another book waiting to be written, where the doctrine of God is set forth plainly as a teaching text, arranged appropriately with exegesis rather than proof texts.

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park1_smallMy counts are continuing to go up, except for red blood cells, which have stabilized. So they let me go for a walk in the park. I went out for about an hour and walked around Carlton Gardens. It was very pleasant. I felt very normal. One thing I noticed was that people don’t greet you in Melbourne, even if

you look them in the face and say, ‘G’day’. The exception to that was a guy sitting on a step on the street, smoking a cigarette and drinking a bottle of coke. He was very friendly. I found out some interesting facts about the Exhibition building I didn’t know. That famous painting of the very first Australian parliament was from inside the Exhibition building. Maybe you already knew that, but it was cool to put the two together.

Reflections on 1 Kings 22:1-40

Another bizarre and humorous story. At the start we see that Ben-Hadad didn’t keep his word to give back all the cities that he took (20:34) and Ahab will break the treaty that he set up so quickly with Aram. We also see Judah is no longer at war with Israel, and Jehoshaphat seems quite unwisely willing to ally himself with Ahab. Jehoshaphat is unconvinced that Ahab’s 400 prophets are actually of the LORD (22:7), and Ahab gives us arguably the best whining in the Bible (22:8,16). We get an interesting picture painted by Micaiah of God’s inner council, with God determined to punish Ahab for his idolatry and a spirit volunteering to deceive the false prophets. In this we see God’s sovereignty even over Ahab’s sin, without God being guilty of sin himself (22:19-23).

Ahab’s attempt at avoiding the destruction God decrees fails spectacularly when a ‘random’ arrow penetrates his armour, mortally wounding him. Everything turns out exactly as Micaiah predicted. We see here the descent of Ahab from being weak and passive to active opposition to God, with disastrous consequences. Obviously his former repentance did not last (21:28). We see the foolishness of Jehoshaphat, hanging out with the wrong crowd (Ahab), demanding a prophecy from the LORD and then ignoring it. But before you are too harsh on Jehoshaphat ask yourself this: how many times have you read the Bible and then ignored God’s word and done the opposite? Jehoshaphat is the foolish man who built his house upon the sand (Matt 7:26-27). It’s no good just knowing our Bibles well. We need to live it out. On the other hand, Jehoshaphat does better than those who have God’s word but don’t bother reading it. They’re content with their limited knowledge and want to live out a ‘child-like faith’. Ignorance is never a virtue in the Bible. God has spoken to us for a reason. We ought to be people of the word who live it out in their lives.

Counts Are Going Up

marketing-budget-increaseMy counts today continue to improve. My neutrophils are now 0.5. At 1.0 I’ll be allowed to go home for a week. My platelets are also going up quite quickly. It’s good to know I still have some bone marrow that works! My hair continues to fall out and my fingertips are still numb, but other than that I have no real side effects. Praise God. He is good.

Reflections on 1 Kings 21:1-29

If ever there was a story to confirm two characterisations, then this is it. Ahab behaves like a petulant child. He’s as affected by Naboth’s rejection as he is that God will end his life and punish the people of Israel (compare 20:43 and 21:4). Jezebel shows no regard for Israelite lives and has Naboth callously slaughtered. Then Elijah comes back on the scene, with the standard prophetic formula ‘the word of the LORD came to Elijah’ (21:17). Does Elijah pass on the word faithfully or does he improvise again? Hard to say. There’s little resemblance between what God tells Elijah and what Elijah says to Ahab. So did Elijah just make it up? I think you could probably make a case both ways. Either way, this time Ahab repents and throws himself on God’s mercy (20:17). Again the word of the LORD comes to Elijah, who seems to keep it to himself (20:29). Again it’s ambiguous whether he was meant to pass the message on. Either way, Ahab has received a reprieve because he humbled himself before the LORD. As we saw yesterday, God is compassionate and forgiving and will always respond with grace to those who humble themselves before him. And if God is willing to forgive a weak-minded fool married to a maniacal murderer with blood on his hands, then he will forgive you too for whatever you’ve done or not done but should have.

Not About Demons?

tol_081813_herzog_phariseesI was reading through Matthew 12 the other day and this verse caught my eye: “That is how it will be with this wicked generation.” (Matthew 12:45) Why did it catch my eye? Because I’d never noticed it before. I was familiar with the teaching about a demon being cast out and then getting seven other demons and re-entering the original person. But I’d never noticed that last sentence in 12:45 before. It changes everything. At first blush it seems that Jesus is teaching us about demons. But that last sentence turns everything he’s said to be about ‘this wicked generation’.  It’s an analogy. In the same way that after a demon-possessed man is cleansed of a demon he is open to even worse demon-possession (unless the Holy Spirit should come and take residence in his heart), so that entire generation that received the ministry of Jesus is endanger of great spiritual peril unless they decide to follow Jesus.

Jesus’ ministry was extensive. He cast out demons and healed thousands of people. They went from unclean to clean by Jesus’ ministry. But being made clean by having a demon cast out or physical healing doesn’t mean they’re spiritually safe. The key to spiritual safety is to follow Jesus. But that’s where ‘this wicked generation’ went so badly wrong. This was the generation that crucified Jesus and rejected his apostles. Though some Jews became Christians (thousands within the first week), the vast majority of that generation rejected their Messiah. And it was a disaster. By 70AD the Jerusalem temple was destroyed and they were living like a remnant in their own land. By 125AD they’d been kicked out of Palestine by the Romans, sick of the endless insurrections. But even more disastrously they passed on to future generations of Jews a hard heart that rejects the Messiah. Even today the Jewish ethnic nation reject Jesus. Though I have wonderful Jewish friends who are Christian, and there are many more like them, as a whole most Jews in the world reject Jesus. It’s illegal in Israel to share with others the gospel of Jesus. Where did this long-term rejection of Jesus begin? With that wicked generation.

My New Do

So I decided to get my head shaved. It wasn’t as short as I hoped and I still don’t feel bald. But the hairs on my pillow this morning are a lot shorter. I’m finding that my hair is very sensitive now and by morning I’m struggling to lay my head on the pillow. Can’t wait for all this hair to go so that I can sleep better. One of the nurses did the shaving with a number one comb on the clippers. She wasn’t willing to go shorter because my platelets are too low and she doesn’t want to cut me. One of the male nurses, though, claimed that he does the closest shaves on the ward. Who’d have thought nurses would secretly want to be barbers!

Reflections on 1 Kings 20:35-43

This is a very confronting passage. Firstly some random guy gets mauled to death by a lion because he wouldn’t do some absurd thing that a prophet wanted. Then the king of Israel is informed that both he and his people will suffer because he didn’t kill a captured king. It all seems so very unreasonable. How can we as Christians come to terms with a God that seems by today’s standards so, well… brutal?

Tim Keller makes a good point that’s worth repeating. If you are comfortable with everything you know about God, then there’s a distinct possibility that your ‘God’ is actually just a figment of your imagination. It’s when God makes us uncomfortable that we can be sure we are meeting the God who is actually there. We know this truth from meeting other people. There is always something about someone that is surprising, some element of their personality that we didn’t expect. Wouldn’t it be even more likely with God, who is so unlike us in perfect love and holiness?

So what do we learn about God here? We learn that God expects to be treated as God. He demands obedience, because that is how you relate to the lord of the universe. You obey. When the prophet asks his companion to strike him he does so ‘by the word of the LORD’. It’s not the prophet’s request, it’s the LORD’s. His refusal to obey the word of the LORD is serious, and has serious consequences. It’s also a smaller picture of the larger problem with Ahab. Ahab doesn’t think of himself as someone bound to obey the LORD. He does what he wants and with disastrous consequences for his people. He is a weak, bad king. But as king of Israel he’s also God’s instrument for justice, and he has not brought justice upon Ben-Hadad. He didn’t even seek the counsel of a prophet before deciding Ben-Hadad’s fate. God saved Ahab twice, he gave him incontrovertible proof that he exists on Mt Carmel and yet Ahab still thinks God is a joke, and he can run his kingdom any way he likes. But this is sin, and God will punish Ahab for his sin.

Don’t be too harsh on Ahab because the same sin dwells in your heart and mine. And God has pronounced the same judgement on us as Ahab – death. What should Ahab have done when he heard the news? Responded like King David and thrown himself upon the mercy of God. This is how God describes himself: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness,   maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” (Exodus 34:6-7) If Ahab had known the LORD like David then he would have thrown himself on God’s mercy confident that God would forgive, because that is what God’s like. We too ought to, like David, throw ourselves on God’s mercy because he is quick to forgive, and has shown us the lengths that he will go to forgive by giving his only Son for us on the cross. So in this incident we see that God is no pushover and takes sin very seriously. Yet, unlike us who struggle to combine such powerful characteristics in one personality, God is also quick to forgive. Praise God that he is not like us. We are all the better for it.

Took a shot from the window the other night of the big storm hitting Melbourne. Enjoy.

storm_small

One Forever

one-foreverOne Forever is a beautifully written book that’s easy to read and passes on great truths in a simple, understandable and elegant way. Rory uses union with Christ to move through doctrines such as creation, incarnation, salvation, justification, sanctification, ecclesiology (church), and eschatology (end times). He uses union as Paul does, the web that joins us together with big doctrines of Scripture, and so in that way is really helpful. This is a great book for the keen church-goer. The ideas are profound but the language is not too hard.

To be completely unfair to Rory, I approached this book thinking it was something entirely different. Some basic investigation should have corrected my fault. I approached this book thinking it would be the popularised version of Con Campbell’s Paul and Union with Christ. Given that both books were published in 2012, and Rory’s book is based off National Training Event lecturers from 2011, it was never going to be that book. So a question remains, are we still waiting for the popular book that will take Con’s work to the average pew-sitter in church? I think we are. Rory’s book covers some of the key concepts and links that union draws, but doesn’t cover the full breadth of the definition of union that Con concludes with. Now, I could be wrong about that, and if I wasn’t so lazy I’d work out exactly what the overlaps and gaps were. Perhaps someone else has already done that. But I still think, even though Rory’s book is very good, there’s room for another, using a similar approach to Rory: clear, simple, accessible, practical, that picks up on Con’s work and makes it accessible to Mr. Joe Average.

So in summary, I highly recommend Rory’s book and look forward to someone writing another like it that popularises Con’s hard work. Maybe Con will write it?

bruce-willis_3023404bMy hair has finally started falling out. I had a fairly rough night’s sleep and now I know why. With my hair falling out my scalp has become more sensitive to the pillow and the bands from my eye covers. When I woke up my pillow was covered in hair. Every time I rub my head hair falls out. They said this would happen and it’s finally begun. The nurse offered to shave all my hair off and I’m seriously tempted to take up her offer, just to reduce the shedding dog fur kind of existence over the next couple of days. I’m starting to feel like a proper chemo kid now I’m losing my hair.

Reflections on 1 Kings 20:26-34

Amateur international hour part 2. Ben-Hadad assembles a much bigger army and comes back to do what he couldn’t the first time with a change of tactics that will allow him to make more use of chariots, the main-battle tank of the ancient world. But the story conceives this battle as between Aram and the LORD. God won’t let Aram believe that the LORD is a hill-god (20:28), so he will save Israel against the odds. Israel’s salvation will also be yet another sign for Ahab that proves the LORD exists, while Baal and Ashteroth are fakes (20:28).

God follows through on his promises, but Ahab shows himself incapable as a leader. Just knowing that the aggressor who only last year tried to destroy him is still alive is enough for Ahab to forget everything that has happened and call him his brother (20:32). The reaction of Ben-Hadad’s advisers show just how lightweight Ahab is. How will God respond to Ahab’s ‘peace in our time’ solution?

Perhaps as you read the story you’re thinking that Ahab is a good bloke for so easily letting everything go with Ben-Hadad. The problem with Ahab’s response is that it doesn’t do justice to Ben-Hadad’s crimes. For two years in a row he has invaded Israel with the intent of increasing personal gain and glory. For Ahab to sweep that under the carpet is to say that the lives of his people, not to mention the 100,000 dead Aramean soldiers are all of no significance. Ben-Hadad my brother smacks of an aristocratic attitude, where the bond of kings is greater than the superfluous lives of the peasants. Ahab’s people-pleasing was unlikely to please his people.

Losing Touch

digital-fingerprint-ashford-universityNo, not going insane. Just starting to lose the feeling in the very end of my fingers, mostly in my left hand. They said this might happen and now it has. To balance that out, though, my taste buds have returned to normal. Praise God for that. My counts are still rock bottom. No significant movement upward yet. Please pray they’ll come up soon so that I can head home for some time with the family

Reflections on 1 Kings 20:1-25

We left the story with Elijah and 3 tasks to achieve. He anointed Elisha (kind of), but no mention of any interactions with Hazael or Jehu. The story then crosses live back to Ahab and the current king of Aram, Ben-Hadad. We are expecting to see the names Jehu and Hazael pop up, but they don’t yet. Rather, what we get is a bizarre story of international warfare amateur hour.

Ben-Hadad begins a campaign against Ahab by besieging Samaria. Commentaries will tell you the exact nature of his requests, but it seems largely along the line of seeking a tribute and subjecting Ahab as his vassal king. Ahab rolls over straight away, but then when the demands get higher he freaks out and asks his advisers for help (20:7). They tell him to man up (20:8), which he passes on to Ben-Hadad, but having never seen Ahab man up yet we’re left wondering whether this is within his capacity. By God’s grace a prophet of the LORD arrives just in time, gives him the assurance of victory and the order of march to achieve it. What picture of Ahab do we get here? He seems pretty passive and wimpy, easily influenced. No surprise then that Jezebel was wearing the pants in the royal family. No surprise then that Elijah could order all of Israel to the top of Mt Carmel without the king just killing him on the spot. But now God is rescuing Ahab. It will be interesting to see how Ahab responds to God’s rescue.

Fast-forwarding to the end of the story, the attack works, the siege is broken and Ben-Hadad reorganises his army for another campaign next year. Far from being weird that they attribute their loss to the superior hill gods of the Israelites (20:23), ancient warfare was conceived of as a fight between the gods of the two warring parties. The Bible is unique in that context in that God never battles other gods in any wars recorded in the OT, because no other gods exist. God uses nations against nations and wins battles because he is the God who is lord of all.

Here we see an amazing picture of God’s grace. God saves the lame king who wouldn’t stand up for Elijah against his own wife even after he saw incontrovertible proof that Baal is a fraud. Though God has declared he has a successor lined up he still saves Ahab from danger. This is so like God, who sends the rain on the righteous and the wicked alike (Mt 5:45). God is patient in a way that I am so not. Ahab has an opportunity to respond to God’s patience with a decisive move to worship the God who saved him. We’ll see which way he goes. God is patient with you as well, giving you plenty of time to respond. How will you respond to his patience?

Ways of Judgment

9780802863461Well, it’s taken me over a year, but I’ve finally finished off Oliver O’Donovan’s Ways of Judgment. I won’t pretend to be in any way qualified to offer a review of the book. I barely understood it. It’s a very heavy read and required all my concentration. At times I wasn’t sure I really understood what he was saying and at other times I knew that I definitely didn’t. Yet it’s not like it was a waste of time. The book is about political ethics, the sequel to The Desire of the Nations, which is political theology.

Rather than go into any details of the book (which I will almost certainly misrepresent), let me give you a little tidbit which has stuck with me from reading the two books, which is perhaps relevant in our current context. O’Donovan says the Kingdom of Yahweh from the OT can be divided into three aspects: salvation, judgement and possession. All aspects are fulfilled in Christ, but a temporary role of judgement has been handed to the secular (i.e. of this world) leaders to carry out. Judgement is more than just purely running a court system, but it must be distinguished from possession and salvation. What does that mean in practice? One outcome is that it is not the role of government to transform society (for better or worse).  From a Christian point of view that is the role of the church, through preaching the word, love, example, etc. Governments that set themselves that task do so in opposition to God. They take more authority to themselves than he has given.

This is interesting in the marriage equality debate and the growing gender debate. Many are calling on the government to empower itself to begin transforming social institutions such as marriage and redefining gender terms, in order to protect the dignity of vulnerable communities. While we ought always be concerned for the dignity of our fellow image-bearers, to give the role of assigning dignity to the government is a very strange and dangerous turn. Why should the government get to decide who can and cannot have dignity? Why would we trust them with that power? The proper place to find dignity is as an image bearer of God. This insight may not be much use as I try to talk to my local member about his support for same-sex marriage, but it does help make decisions about what political issues matter. I think that’s been the chief help for me from the long slog through both books. That’s about all I’ve got to offer. If you want a useful review then there’s always google…