Monday, 28 September 2009

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (26/50) – The Key to Scripture

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the twenty-sixth of the fifty emails.

He said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself… When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’ They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem.
Luke 24:25-27, 30-33

As we move from the old covenant Scriptures to the new covenant Scriptures, this short but compelling scene provides a lens by which to view the whole story. It also captures suggestive truths about our engagement with God through his word.

Cleopas and his companion are able to summarise what has happened, and to do so accurately, but they fail to understand its significance. ‘We had hoped that he was the one…’ (24:21) expresses their sense of loss and disillusionment. What can make sense of it?

Interestingly, they needed more than just an experience of the resurrected Christ. Note that Jesus does not say to them: ‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe that I have risen.’ Nor does he say: ‘How foolish you, and how slow to believe all that I have spoken.’ He says: ‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken.’ He takes them back to the Scriptures. And he does so in a way which shows how the Scriptures make sense of the situation in which they find themselves. And he does so in a way that they say afterwards that their hearts burned within them while he talked.

We’re not told what he said, although Luke – like the other gospel writers – provides some pointers, showing how the significance of Jesus’ own story is not found in isolated passages here and there, but is woven into the yet larger story of creation and covenant, of Abraham and Moses, of David and Jerusalem, of law and monarchy, of priesthood and temple, of visions of restoration beyond exile. For us, it is a reminder that Jesus cannot be understood apart from the Old Testament, and the Old Testament cannot be understood apart from Jesus.

Even so, the moment of full recognition awaits the fellowship at the table, alluding back to the Last Supper and the reminder that God’s purposes would be carried out through suffering and death, so that sins could be forgiven and the covenant renewed.

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that the result of all this is the compelling need to tell others! Engagement with Scripture and the story it tells, which has come to its culmination in Christ, results in the ongoing transformation of disciples as hearts burn within, as eyes are opened, and as feet are energised to pass on the good news.

For further reflection and action:

1. Reflect on moments in your life when Scripture (a) has made sense of a situation you have been facing, (b) has given you fresh insights about Jesus, and (c) has motivated you to tell others about Jesus.

2. Read the next episode in Luke 24:36-49, noting the similar moments of how Jesus comes to a group of disciples in need, explains Scripture to them, makes himself known to them in fellowship, and inspires them to tell others.

3. In Luke 24:47, Jesus’ explanation of Scripture includes the dimension that ‘repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem’. Try to discuss with someone else this ‘all nations’ aspect of the biblical story, how Jesus brings about the fulfilment of God’s plan for the nations, and what it might mean for disciples of Christ living in today’s world.

Friday, 25 September 2009

2009 Gifford Lectures

I’ve just seen that the 2009 Gifford Lectures are available online.

They were delivered this year by Alister McGrath under the title of ‘A Fine-Tuned Universe: Science, Theology and the Quest for Meaning’.

The synopsis says that the lectures explore ‘the human quest for meaning in the universe, especially in the light of its apparent “fine-tuning” to permit the origination of life. Why do we long to make sense of things? Do we possess some kind of “homing instinct” for heaven?’

The individual lectures are available as pdfs here:

Lecture 1 – Introduction: Yearning to Make Sense of Things

Lecture 2 – Why We Still Need Natural Theology

Lecture 3 – The Mystery of the Constants of Nature

Lecture 4 – The Enigmas of Evolutionary Biology

Lecture 5 – Natural Theology and the Quest for Meaning

Lecture 6 – Conclusion: Clues to the Meaning of the Universe?

Barry G. Webb on Esther

In the run up to the publication of the ESV Study Bible, several samples were made available online, including Esther – with notes written by Old Testament scholar Barry Webb. For the moment at least, the sample is still available here (as a 2.4MB pdf file).

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Happy Birthday, Charles Simeon!

Over at Between Two Worlds, über-blogger Justin Taylor draws attention to the 250th anniversary of the birth of Charles Simeon, and posts a short piece by David Helm which briefly outlines Simeon’s life and ministry, preaching, and legacy.

Academy of Religious Leadership

I stumbled across this recently – The Academy of Religious Leadership – a group of scholars and students who collaborate in order to:

• Enhance leadership education in theological institutions;
• Convene a scholarly roundtable of leadership educators for the purpose of faculty development and community; and
• Foster and disseminate leadership education and research in institutions of theological education.

They produce a journal, Journal of Religious Leadership (linked in the menu on the left-hand-side of this page), the archives of which contain some intriguing looking articles – ‘Chaos Theory and Paul’s Organizational Leadership Style’?!

I’m particularly interested in the combined Spring and Fall 2004 issue with a set of essays on the relation of leadership to particular situations, the wider culture, hermeneutics, and theological reflection and practice.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

John Stott on Theology as a Multidimensional Discipline

John R.W. Stott, ‘Theology: A Multidimensional Discipline’, in Donald Lewis and Alister McGrath (eds.), Doing Theology for the People of God: Studies in Honour of J.I. Packer (Leicester: Apollos, 1996), 3-19.

For years I tried to teach theological method to third-year degree students at London School of Theology. I had a sevenfold scheme moving from exegesis through the various theological sub-disciplines (biblical theology, systematic theology, etc.) to discipleship. My headings were wordy, complicated, somewhat earnest, as well as a little tentative here and there.

Then I came across this essay by John Stott on theology as a ‘rich, multidimensional discipline, which demands a cluster of complementary responsibilities’ (4), and his six characteristically clear headings:

1. Christian theology is biblical theology (theology and revelation)

2. Christian theology is historical theology (theology and tradition)

3. Christian theology is systematic theology (theology and reason)

4. Christian theology is moral theology (theology and ethics)

5. Christian theology is contextualized theology (theology and mission)

6. Christian theology is doxological theology (theology and worship)

He concludes:

‘One might sum it up by saying that Christian theology is a serious quest for the true knowledge of God, undertaken in response to his self-revelation, illumined by Christian tradition, manifesting a rational inner coherence, issuing in ethical conduct, resonating with the contemporary world and concerned for the greater glory of God’ (17-18).

The Bible in Transmission (Summer 2009): Contemplation

I’ve referred in an earlier post to this excellent publication from the Bible Society.

The latest issue is devoted to ‘Contemplation’, and contains the following articles:

Tony Graham

Melvyn Matthews
Is Mysticism Merely Medieval?

David Spriggs
Aspects of Christian Contemplation

Malcolm Glaze
Light Into Fire: Verifying the Experience

Thomas Keating
The Classical Monastic Practice of Lectio Divina

Tess Ward
Contemplation and the Rhythm of Life: Drawing on the Spirituality of the Celtic Tradition

Richard Rohr
Contemplation and Compassion: The Second Gaze

Tessa Holland
Contemplative Fire: Creating a Community of Christ at the Edge

James Catford
News from Bible Society

Monday, 21 September 2009

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (25/50) – A Partial Restoration

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the twenty-fifth of the fifty emails, this one written by Margaret Killingray.

You have wearied the LORD with your words. ‘How have we wearied him?’ you ask. By saying… ‘Where is the God of justice?’ ‘I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the LORD Almighty. ‘But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?… Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace…’ says the LORD Almighty. ‘Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays.’
Malachi 2:17-3:2; 4:1-2

Still disobedient, still wearying the Lord, the exiles found that their return had only partially fulfilled the promises to Abraham, Moses and David. There was a measure of return, a measure of rebuilding – temple, walls – a measure of restoration for Jerusalem and her people. Yet even as Ezra led the worship in the newly built temple, might they recall in their hearts the great days of David and Solomon when their kingdom was powerful and prosperous, the envy of their neighbours? And that first generation back from exile, would they not remember the Jews left behind in Babylon, and the graves of those who had died there? Would they not look at the neglected villages and fields and the strangers living around them with little knowledge of the Lord God? Did they wonder when other conquerors would come?

There must have been great joy as they sang God’s praises in a rebuilt temple and city. But just as their joy was tinged with some regret, some sadness, some sense of repentance that their ancestors had brought it on themselves, so is all human joy tempered. Whether it’s love in relationships, beauty in art, music and nature, or whether it’s seeing health restored, some justice delivered, some of the hungry fed, our joys are tempered by the partial nature of all good things.

For them and for us these glimpses of joy are heralds of promise – that one day all the promises of God will be fulfilled, that joy will be complete. Malachi looked forward to the day when the Lord’s messenger would come and prepare the way for the Son of righteousness with healing in his rays – the Lamb, the Saviour and Redeemer. He would come, as a man, to this earth as it is, with its broken walls and ruined cities, exiled people, conquerors and conquered. And his death and resurrection would speak of eternity in place of fleeting time. A promise fulfilled for us, who wait for the day of his final coming as judge and king, when we shall see the glory of a world made young again, death defeated and his kingdom complete, a new Jerusalem, with no temple in the city ‘for its temple will be the Lord God and the Lamb’ (Revelation 21:22).

Margaret Killingray

For further reflection and action:

1. Read Isaiah chapter 60. See how the imagery of the land, the exile and return is used to express God’s promises of restoration and salvation. The chapter also speaks of God’s people as a light and beacon, to which peoples and nations flock not as enemies but as suppliants and gift bearers. How would these images apply to the church today?

2. Next week we move into the New Testament. Jesus was born into all the ambiguities and messiness of a nation ruled by puppet kings and priests under Roman conquerors. Some would see John the Baptist as the messenger promised by Malachi, and Jesus as the Messiah. Others would oppose John and Jesus. Reflect on the continuity here with the return from exile – and with the position of the church today.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

John Stott on the Context of Mission

‘To go “into the world” does not necessarily mean to travel to a distant country or primitive tribe. 'The world' is secular, godless society; it is all round us. Christ sends us “into the world” when he puts us into any group which does not know or honour him. It might be in our own street, or in an office or shop, school, hospital or factory, or even in our own family. And here in the world we are called to love, to serve and to offer genuine, sacrificial friendship. Paradoxically stated, the only truly Christian context in which to witness is the world.’

John R.W. Stott, Our Guilty Silence (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1967), 67.

Today’s daily thought from John Stott, a service provided by Langham Partnership International and John Stott Ministries.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (24/50) – The Reality of Life After Exile

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the twenty-fourth of the fifty emails, this one written by Helen Parry.

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
‘The LORD has done great things for them.’
The LORD has done great things for us,
and we are filled with joy.
Psalm 126:1-3

‘The Return’ is one of the great themes of history and of literature. And none more so than the return of the Israelites to Jerusalem after seventy years in captivity. But it was only when Babylon was superseded by Persia that the time of release finally came.

Cyrus was an enlightened ruler, who followed a policy of ‘multiculturalism’ throughout his empire. Prompted by God, he proclaimed the release of as many Jews as wished to go, to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Unlike many other ‘returns’ – of refugees or exiles, whose first concern is to find their families and homes and retrieve their possessions – this first return was focused on the temple.

The Jewish people’s relationship with God was intrinsic to their identity. It was expressed in terms of place – the land, the city, the temple. The land was lost and the buildings destroyed, but when the time came for the return the first opportunity that was granted to them was to reinstate the worship of God at the centre of their corporate life.

Against opposition, the temple was completed in twenty years amid great rejoicing, but it wasn’t until sixty years later that Ezra, ‘a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses’, led a further wave of immigration. Once again, the emphasis was on the temple and its worship, but Ezra was given administrative and disciplinary authority as well.

The walls and gates of the city, however, were still in ruins, and it fell to Nehemiah, a decade or so later, to organise the rebuilding. Like Ezra, Nehemiah had the blessing and concrete help of the Persian king. Both Ezra and Nehemiah were conscious of the ‘good hand of the Lord’ over all their plans and actions. But what of the people?

They, too, entered fully into the vision of their leaders. They flung themselves wholeheartedly into the building projects. The walls were finished, houses rebuilt, towns resettled. But rather than settling back into a purely material way of life, they never lost sight of the Lord.

When all the work was finished they asked Ezra to bring out the Book of the Law of the Lord, and as they listened, understood and responded to it, they recognised that the restoration of their community rested on the restoration of their relationship with God.

Might this be a recipe for the restoration of health to our own society today?

Helen Parry

For further reflection and action:

1. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah show how the restoration of God’s people involves ‘practical’ matters (like rebuilding the broken Dung Gate in the city wall) as well as ‘spiritual’ matters (like confessing sin). And it deals with both these things in a way that suggests that there’s actually not much difference between what we sometimes think of as the ‘practical’ and what we think of as the ‘spiritual’. What is your equivalent of ‘rebuilding the broken Dung Gate’ today, and how will you serve God through it?

2. How might the church take the lead in challenging the ‘sacred-secular’ divide in society day?

3. For further reflection on this period in the history of God’s people, focusing on Nehemiah 8, see the article by Antony Billington – ‘The Word of God and the People of God’ – available online here.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Forrest S. Weiland on Esther

Forrest S. Weiland, ‘Seeing the Unseen’, Kindred Spirit Magazine 29, 3 (2005).

In 2002, Weiland published a series of four essays on Esther in Bibliotheca Sacra (the theological journal published by Dallas Theological Seminary), looking at history, genre, plot structure, literary conventions, etc. This shorter piece offers a more ‘devotional’ take on the book, seeking those places where God has left his ‘fingerprints’, working through the events recorded in the story.

In a marital squabble
Queen Vashti’s refusal to appear at a banquet at the bidding of King Ahasuerus’, which set in motion a series of events that made it possible for Esther to become queen of the Persian Empire (1:12).

At a beauty contest
Esther’s beauty provided the opportunity for her to enter and win the beauty pageant, to become the king’s wife (2:7, 9, 15, 17).

At the job site
Mordecai’s employment at the king’s gate (2:19, 21) gave him the opportunity to overhear a plot to kill Ahasuerus, the recording of which made it possible for the king to discover it four years later (2:21-23; 6:2).

In the throw of the dice

In chapter three the casting of the lot before Haman ‘in the first month’ falls out so that the destruction of the Jews is to take place in the ‘twelfth month’ (3:7), giving eleven months to prepare their defense.

In the words of a concerned cousin
When Mordecai asks Esther to intercede on behalf of the Jews, he adds, ‘And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?’ (4:14).

During the silence at a special dinner
Esther’s unexplained failure to speak up and request help from the king at the first banquet allowed several important events to unfold, notably the king’s insomnia and his discovery of Mordecai’s good deed that occurred four years earlier (2:16; 3:7; 6:1-3).

In the late-night reading of a dull book
After reading about Mordecai’s deed in the chronicles, the king decided to reward him at the same time Haman planned to have him hanged (6:4-10).

When a wife changed her mind

After Zeresh essentially said to her husband regarding Mordecai, ‘Hang him!’, she reversed her counsel, saying, ‘If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of Jewish origin, you will not overcome him, but will surely fall before him’ (5:14; 6:13).

After a short walk in the garden
Ahasuerus’s return from the garden at the exact moment when Haman was falling on Esther’s couch led the king to misinterpret that action as an attack on the queen and resulted in the execution of Haman (7:8).

At the gallows
Haman ended up hanging on the very gallows he had prepared for Mordecai (7:9-10).

In the heat of battle
Dread of the Jews had fallen on many of the people (8:17; 9:3) and not one Jew was listed as killed in the fighting.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

IVP’s Academic Alert

Academic Alert is a regular bulletin produced by IVP (USA), made freely available as a pdf.

The latest issue – 18, 3 (2009) – is out.

In addition to offering brief sketches of new titles, it contains interviews with Ben Witherington III (about his forthcoming two-volume set on New Testament theology and ethics) and John Goldingay (about the imminent release of the final volume in his trilogy on Old Testament theology). It also profiles a new ‘Christian Worldview Integration’ series, with volumes promised on education, psychology, communications, politics, history, philosophy, biology, business, and literature.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Christian Doctrine in Global Perspective

This is a series of books produced by a partnership between Langham Literature and IVP. It is published in the UK under the title ‘Global Christian Library’, and in the USA under the title ‘Christian Doctrine in Global Perspective’ (which I think is better suited to the series).

The series preface (available here) draws attention to the shift in the Christian centre of gravity – that ‘there are now many more Christians in Africa, Asia and Latin America than there are in Europe and North America’ (9).

The preface notes that the basic theological texts available to Christians in the southern hemisphere have been written by western authors from a western perspective, which the series seeks to address by having an international authorship. It also expresses the hope that the series will provide an opportunity for western readers to learn from non-western authors, such that ‘biblical understanding will flow freely in all directions’ (10).

These are the titles to date, linked to the USA website, which makes available sample pages.

Samuel Escobar, The New Global Mission: The Gospel from Everywhere to Everyone (2003).

John Stott, Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity and Faithfulness (2005).

Joe M. Kapolyo, The Human Condition: Christian Perspectives Through African Eyes (2005).

Ida Glasser, The Bible and Other Faiths (2006).

Roland Chia, Hope for the World: A Christian Vision of the Last Things (2006).

Christopher J.H. Wright, Salvation Belongs to Our God: Celebrating the Bible’s Central Story (2008).

Ivan Satyavrata, The Holy Spirit: Lord and Life-Giver (2009).

‘Peace, Peace’, Where There is No Peace?

[I contributed today’s ‘Connecting with Culture’, a weekly email service provided by London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.]

A generation of people know where they were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I missed that by (ahem) a few years, but I belong to those who will forever remember where they were when they heard the news of the hijacked planes being flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C., eight years ago today.

How do you remember it?

Maybe your recollections will be coloured by the convictions earlier this week of Abdulla Ahmed Ali, Assad Ali Sarwar, and Tanvir Hussain, who were found guilty of a plot to use liquid bombs to blow up transatlantic airliners.

Maybe you’re still wondering about the whys and wherefores of the recent release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing.

In all this, Christians are not immune from questions about balancing justice with compassion, or from the shock and sense of outrage that comes with attacks on a nation’s territorial integrity, or from the feelings of fear that might arise as a result.

As always, though, our engagement with these issues is rooted in a life of discipleship nurtured by relationship with Christ and reflection on Scripture. Our faith is defined by gospel interests before it is defined by geopolitical interests.

What we know of God assures us that nothing falls outside his providential rule. What we know of sin reminds us that ‘wars and rumours of wars’ will be a mark of the present age, one of the many consequences of our rebellion against God and our alienation from each other, and that we are on shaky ground when we divide the world into ‘evil’ people and ‘good’ people without recognising that the axis of evil runs through each of our hearts. What we know of redemption tells us that far from abandoning the world, God has loved it so much and given his Son for it.

Christians of all people, then, are ideally placed to understand the reality and seriousness of evil, telling the story of the God who will one day still the forces of chaos and make all things new. The gospel of God – as revealed in Scripture and testified to by the Church – shapes our engagement and gives the resources to respond, offering peace and hope to a confused and hurting world.


For further reflection on this topic, see Nick Solly Megoran, The War on Terror: How Should Christians Respond? (Nottingham: IVP, 2007). Check out the publisher’s page here and the author’s homepage here.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Direction 37, 2 (2008) on the Body and the Soul

Direction, which often contains some helpful pieces, is a journal supported by Mennonite Brethren higher education institutions in the United States and Canada. Back issues are available online.

Direction 37, 2 (2008) is devoted to the topic of ‘Can the Soul be Saved?’ – focusing especially on the ‘abandonment’ of the soul in biology and neuroscience, and interacting especially with Nancey Murphy’s work in this area as a Christian theologian, and her view of ‘nonreductive physicalism’ (rejecting the notion that humans possess an immaterial substance normally called the ‘soul’, but also rejecting the notion that this requires her to reduce humans to material causes), a case for which is made more fully in her Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Vic Froese provides the editorial and an annotated bibliography of books in the area of theological anthropology, especially those working at the interface of neuroscience and Christian theology.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Kenneth M. Craig on Esther

Kenneth M. Craig, Reading Esther: A Case for the Literary Carnivalesque, Literary Currents in Biblical Interpretation (Westminster John Knox, 1995).

Craig’s study of Esther draws on the work of Mikhail Bakhtin particularly his notion of the ‘carnival’, which he developed most fully in Rabelais and His World (1965).

In his Introduction, Craig offers an overview of Bakhtin’s work along with an apologia on the appropriateness of using Bakhtin (whose work focuses mainly on the novel genre) for an ancient narrative such as Esther. He argues that what Bakhtin means by ‘novelistic discourse’ is not restricted to the novel, but may be found in a variety of genres, ancient and modern.

The ‘literary carnivalesque’ is characterised by parody, reversals, crownings and uncrownings, a sense of play, and the relativising of so-called stable structures. Craig argues that Esther represents an early example of such ‘literary carnivalesque’, in which a ‘folk-carnivalesque base… has been collected and artistically rendered’ (34).

The images of the banquet and the market, according to Craig, suggest a function of creating an unofficial culture of the ‘folk’ which is opposed to the ‘official’ culture of the king and his court. The ‘reversals of situations’ in the Esther narrative are also seen as evidence of the carnivalesque, where such reversals are a central feature. Furthermore, the violence of Esther 8 and 9, out of proportion to what has gone before, is explained as an element of the carnivalesque. In all, Craig’s work suggests a virtual one-to-one mapping of Bakhtin’s notion of ‘carnival’ on to elements in Esther.

It may come as no surprise to hear that, according to a number of reviewers, the links in some places are somewhat artificial and forced. While there are clearly comic moments in Esther, the narrative as a whole is quite different from forms of carnivalistic discourse. For instance, the threat of extinction of an entire people is serious and dark, and quite removed from a playful, relativistic, folk literature reveling in egalitarian values.

On balance, while Esther may reflect elements of the literary carnivalesque (as well as other genres), it probably should not be classified as a literary carnivalesque.

Monday, 7 September 2009


[I was asked to write a recommendation of lyfe, a resource from Bible Society, was happy to do so, and came up with the following.]

If you’ve ever struggled with reading the Bible on your own (who hasn’t?), or if you’ve ever found it difficult to see how the Bible relates to everyday life (any takers there?), then you might find Bible Society’s ‘lyfe’ to be a fresh way of encountering God through his written word.

The three-step ‘read–reflect–respond’ approach adopted by lyfe has been well tested, and combines different levels of engagement – encouraging a move beyond simply reading and understanding Bible passages (crucial though that is) to reflecting on their significance and then responding appropriately.

We can do that on our own, of course, but lyfe comes with added dimensions…

Reading the Bible with others
Lyfe encourages people to read the Bible with others in small groups. The Bible itself is clear that there is an integral relationship between the word of God and the people of God, where Scripture shapes the way we think and the way we live – together – as part of an ongoing commitment to serve God faithfully – together.

Reading with others helps prevent privatised readings of the Bible, and corrects some of the biases we may bring to certain passages or topics. Others see things I don’t see; others have insights I don’t have; others face challenges I don’t face. All of this means that, especially where a group grows to trust each other, there is great benefit in reading together and sharing together.

Reading the Bible for life
Lyfe encourages groups to read the Bible together in public spaces – coffee shops being an obvious favourite. Once again, there are enormous benefits in doing so, aside from the empowerment that comes with doing something in a group that we might not do if we were alone.

Perhaps most significantly the context helps to ‘normalise’ reading the Bible, making it natural to seek connections with life, encouraging us to think how it relates not to just to us in our everyday contexts, but to the people around us – the harassed mother, the young accountant, the lonely pensioner.

I heartily recommend lyfe as a way of engaging with God, with others, and with life itself.

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (23/50) – The Restoration That Follows Exile: All Change

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the twenty-third of the fifty emails.

I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.
Ezekiel 36:24-28

Even while the exile takes its toll, warnings of judgment give way to promises of restoration. Under God’s direction, the prophets who addressed the people with words of condemnation now bring words of comfort. They do so to provide hope where there was no hope, and reassurance where there was remorse. And they do so in terms the people would understand.

Thus it is that Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah between them envision a return to the land, a return which would be a replay of the exodus, as God’s people come back home. They would benefit from the wise reign of a king from the line of David, who would be a good shepherd to them. The temple would be restored, everything in its place, with God himself once again dwelling with his people.

But something more fundamental than land, kingship and temple was required. At the heart of God’s promises is the restoration of the people themselves – inward renewal – which God himself will bring about, as he pledges to cleanse his people and give them a new heart and a new Spirit. That this is nothing less than a resurrection is confirmed to Ezekiel in a powerful vision, showing how God can bring piles of dry bones together, put flesh on them, and breathe his Spirit into them, just as he did with Adam at creation.

The words ‘You will be my people, and I will be your God’ express in a neat formula the covenant between God and his people, and Jeremiah likewise sees the goal of restoration to be a re-establishment of the covenant relationship, with a new covenant written on the heart (31:31-34) – an internal rather than an external reality, and available to all.

Of course, with restoration will come recommitment and responsibility – to be the servant community, a light for the nations. No wonder the latter chapters of Isaiah envisage not just the rebuilding of Jerusalem, but a city filled with the glory of God that finds itself at the centre of a new heavens and a new earth – reminding us once again that the prophets hold out a vision of hope not just for the people of God, but for the nations as well; and not just for the nations, but for the whole of creation.

How good is the God we adore!

For further reflection and action:

1. Given the very specific context in which this promise of restoration is given, how far is it legitimate to use the words of Ezekiel to convey hope today? What sorts of contemporary situations would count?

2. From the period of exile flows predictions of judgment, cries of lament, pleas for forgiveness, instructions to build, warnings of persecution, promises of restoration, etc. Think about when it might be appropriate to take up this language in prayer, and draw on the different types this week as you read magazines or watch the news on TV or engage with colleagues, or as you reflect on your local church situation or where you’re at in your own walk with the Lord.

3. Alongside all these windows into understanding the renewal of the people of God are various ways of conceiving a figure who would bring or mediate salvation. In addition to a ‘shepherd king’ from the line of David, several passages in Isaiah speak of a ‘servant of the Lord’, who seems to represent Israel, and yet who also acts out the fate of Israel and suffers a sin-bearing death on behalf of others. Daniel 7 records a vision of the people of God being oppressed by different world powers in turn, until one ‘like a Son of Man’, who represents God’s people, brings God’s sovereign rule over the whole world. Think about how these resonances carry through to the New Testament where they inform Jesus’ understanding of himself and his mission.

Frederic W. Bush on Esther

Frederic W. Bush, ‘The Book of Esther: Opus non gratum in the Christian Canon’, Bulletin for Biblical Research 8 (1998), 39-54.

In summary, Bush here argues that ‘Esther offers readers an insightful satire of the pagan world and yet at the same time provides a glimpse of the dangers the Jewish people have faced in the diaspora’ (39).

The world of the story is the Jewish dispersion. Outside Daniel and Esther, there is little in the Old Testament about those who remained in exile. Nehemiah starts off in Persia, but his attention is on the restoration of Jerusalem; Daniel, like Nehemiah, serves in the Persian court, but his concern is likewise for the Judean community in Palestine, and he faces Jerusalem when he prays (44-45). The Book of Esther provides a contrast, with its seeming lack of interest in Jerusalem and the temple. The welfare of the Jewish people in the diaspora is its concern (45).

If this is the case, it’s interesting to note the characterisation of the king and the world in which he rules (45-47). The opening chapter can be seen as a satire, which mocks the world in which the Jewish people must live – a mocking which instructs and not just ridicules. However, ‘the satire has a sinister side. It reveals a society fraught with danger. Though it is ruled by law, this does not guarantee either security or justice, for it is easily manipulated by buffoons whose tender egos can marshal the state’s whole legislative and administrative machinery for the furthering of selfish causes’. There are dangers ‘that lurk below the seemingly ordered society of the world of the diaspora’ (47).

Although God seems absent, ‘the book nonetheless predicates the providence of God, as does the rest of the OT, for the deliverance of the Jews is effected not only by the loyalty of Mordecai and the cunning and courage of Esther but also by a series of truly remarkable and dramatic coincidences with which the story abounds’ (49).

Bush concludes:

‘On the grounds of this study of the characterization of the world of the story and its characters, the theme of the story can be stated as follows: In the dangerous world of the diaspora, with its opulence, uncertainty, and evil, the loyalty of Mordecai to the Jewish people and the king, the courage and shrewdness of Esther, and the reliable providence of God delivered the diaspora Jewish community from the terrible threat of annihilation, demonstrating that a viable life for the Jews of the diaspora is possible even in the face of such propensity for evil’ (50).

Along these lines, the institution of the feast of Purim is a celebration from the relief of persecution, along with the joy of deliverance.

‘But the character of the festival of Purim has a word to speak to the Christian, as well as to the Jewish, community. Christians at times have also lived in a dangerous and unfriendly “diaspora world,” marked by hatred and persecution… The story of Esther also holds out to the Church the hope that “relief and deliverance” may indeed be effected by the combination of the providence of God and human effort. Esther and Purim call the Church to celebrate the joy of deliverance in the face of unmitigated and unthinkable evil’ (54).

Sunday, 6 September 2009


The T.F. Torrance Fellowship has released the first issue of a new journal – Participatio: The Journal of the Thomas F. Torrance Theological Fellowship – whose purpose is ‘to apprehend the significance of Torrance’s work and to advance the evangelical and scientific theology he articulated for the benefit of the Church, academy, and society’.

The first volume, available here as a pdf, is devoted to ‘The Theological Significance and Legacy of Thomas F. Torrance’ (with personal narrative accounts and theological reflections by living relatives, colleagues, students, and friends of Tom’s impact upon them in their personal encounters with him and their estimation of his legacy for the future of an evangelical and scientific theology).

It contains eulogies by Alasdair Heron and George Hunsinger, recollections and reflections by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Elmer M. Colyer, Jock Stein, Howard Taylor, David Torrance, Kenneth Walker, and Robert T. Walker, along with the following three essays:

Ray S. Anderson
The Practical Theology of Thomas F. Torrance

Alister E. McGrath
Thomas F. Torrance and the Search for a Viable Natural Theology: Some Personal Reflections

Paul D. Molnar
The Centrality of the Trinity in the Theology of Thomas F. Torrance

Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart on Esther

Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 118:

‘The book of Esther tells the story of God’s providential protection of his people during a bleak moment in the Persian Empire, thus preserving them for the future gift of the Messiah.’

Friday, 4 September 2009

Mary Midgley on Charles Darwin

As part of their ‘Rescuing Darwin’ project, exploring ‘the extent and nature of evolutionary and non-evolutionary beliefs in the UK today and their perceived relationship with theism and atheism’, Theos, the public theology think tank, have published another booklet, this one being an extended interview with Mary Midgley, available for purchase in hard copy, and also online as a pdf.

Discussing Darwin: An Extended Interview with Mary Midgley (London: Theos, 2009).

It contains four main chapters:

• Chapter 1 – Contextualising Darwin
• Chapter 2 – Science and Darwin
• Chapter 3 – On Mammals and Morality
• Chapter 4 – Christianity and Darwin

Midgley discusses Darwin’s theory of evolution as it was received in its own time, as well as some of the issues surrounding it today.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

The Top 10 Worst Bible Passages

Justin Thacker, Head of Theology at the Evangelical Alliance devotes this week’s Friday Night Theology to ‘The Top 10 Worst Bible Passages’, published in The Daily Telegraph. The newspaper is reporting the results of a survey by Ship of Fools, who have been asking for people to vote on their least favourite verse.

Here’s the top 10, as summarised by Justin:

1. The ban on women teaching in church (1 Timothy 2:12)
2. Samuel’s instruction to ‘totally destroy’ the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15:3)
3. Moses’ command: ‘Do not allow a sorceress to live’ (Exodus 22:18)
4. The ending of Psalm 137: ‘Happy are those who seize your infants and dash them against the rocks’
5. The gang rape and murder of a concubine (Judges 19:25-28)
6. The condemnation of homosexuality (Romans 1:27)
7. Jephthah’s vow which led to his daughter being sacrificed (Judges 11)
8. God’s instruction to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22:2)
9. The instruction that wives submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22)
10. The instruction that slaves submit to their masters (1 Peter 2:18)

I was reminded of the remark which is often associated with Mark Twain: ‘It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.’

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Willow Creek Classes

A colleague has directed me to Willow Creek Classes, where Willow Creek Community Church are uploading their teaching and training classes, with quite a bit of material worth browsing.

The classes are described as a ‘gathering of individuals for the purpose of learning, growth and development’, the goal of which is ‘to build a strong Christian foundation and catalyze spiritual growth’. The curriculum appears to be divided into four main areas:

• Bible & Theology
• Spiritual Practices
• Faith in Action
• Training

As my colleague points out, it’s interesting to see what they’re doing in the area of teaching following the results of their Reveal survey.

A few years back, Willow Creek released its findings from a multiple-year qualitative study of its ministry. They had wanted to know what programmes and activities of the church were actually helping people mature spiritually. They discovered that it was flawed to think that a church will generate Christian disciples by getting people to show up for activities. People need to take responsibility for their spiritual growth instead of just ‘participating’ in events. The results were published in a book, Reveal: Where Are You? (2007), put together by Greg Hawkins, executive pastor of Willow Creek.

Speaking at a Leadership Summit, Hybels summarised the findings this way:

‘Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually, when the data actually came back, it wasn’t helping people that much. Other things that we didn’t put that much money into and didn’t put much staff against is stuff our people are crying out for.’

No wonder that Hybels called this research ‘the wake-up call’ of his adult life. As he said:

‘We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become “self feeders”. We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their Bible between services, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.’

The Word of God and the People of God

[A version of this article was first published in eg 23 (September 2009), a publication of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.]

Building projects – in Ezra it’s the temple, in Nehemiah it’s the city walls. Bricks and mortar. Hard work. Hot work. Heavy work. Blood, sweat and tears.

No less real – and no less hard graft – is the rebuilding of the people themselves. A restored temple and rebuilt walls to be sure, but at the centre of it all a renewed relationship with God, in community with others. Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of how God restores his broken people after they return home from exile. And at the heart of that renewal, the means by which restoration comes, as Nehemiah 8 portrays, is the word of God. Often overlooked, the chapter suggests some key features of how God works through Scripture to breathe new life into his people. It begins, as we might expect, with reading and understanding (8:1-8).

1. Reading and understanding
Picture the scene: thousands crowd into the public square; Ezra stands on a raised platform large enough for other leaders to stand on either side of him, adding to the seriousness of what’s going on; unusually, the people have asked him to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses; when he opens the scroll they stand up, he blesses them, and they respond in worship. Ezra reads the book of the Law from daybreak to noon, for about six hours. And the people listen attentively (8:3) and reverently (8:5-6).

But reading and listening alone is not enough. God’s word has to be explained in order to be understood. To ensure those gathered do not struggle (not least because the Law was written in Hebrew, and by this time most of the people spoke Aramaic) some Levites ‘read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read’ (8:8).

Already the passage strongly suggests that the growth and renewal of God’s people depends not just on hearts hungry to read and listen to his word, but on those who will explain it so that others will understand.

But even this, it seems, is not the final goal…

2. Responding and celebrating
Reading and understanding leads in turn to responding and celebrating, with weeping first, and then with joy (8:9-12). We’re not told why the people wept, but it’s not hard to imagine – especially as the rest of the story goes on – that they were convicted by what was read. Now they know how far they have drifted from God’s word.

We should not miss the emotional nature of their response to God’s word, and the people are not discouraged from responding emotionally. In this case, however, weeping is an inappropriate response. It would appear that lengthy reading, attentive listening, and careful explanation do not automatically guarantee a fitting response to God’s word. There would be a right time for confession, as chapter 9 goes on to show, but this was not it. Meanwhile, the leaders are concerned not just that the people respond to God’s word, but that they respond appropriately, and the response called for here is celebration and rejoicing – that the people might discover that the joy of the Lord is their strength (8:10). Engagement with God’s word becomes engagement with God himself, which brings joy and strength to his people.

And still there is more…

3. Remembering and participating
The rest of the chapter shows the people remembering and participating (8:13-18), celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles, living in tents – like some early Greenbelt festival – recalling how their ancestors lived in the wilderness, with everyone taking part, acting out God’s provision for them. We’re told there had been nothing like it since the days of Joshua (8:17), and it becomes a seven-day festival of reading and celebration (8:18). They are recovering what it means to be the people of God because they are hearing, understanding, and responding to the voice of God in the pages of his word.

This rich chapter tells of the importance of the word of God to the life of the people of God. It reminds us that God renews through his word, that it’s a word for men and women and children, that his word addresses the whole community, that it is to be listened to attentively and reverently, and explained and understood too, and responded to appropriately, and that it makes a difference to how people live. Minds informed, hearts touched, lives changed – God renews through his word.

If Nehemiah 8 speaks of renewal through the word of God, it becomes clear in chapter 9 that at the heart of renewal is restored relationship with God. As the biblical story is recounted, from creation right up to the present day (9:5-37), the people confess their faithlessness and God’s faithfulness in his dealings with them. When renewal comes through God’s word, it will lead – through confession – to restored relationship with him. And, as chapter 10 goes on to show, it comes to the people as a whole. The renewal of the covenant in chapter 10 flows from the awakening by the word of God in chapter 8 and the confession of sin in chapter 9.

Of course, there is a need for ongoing renewal at the personal level. But what’s going on in Nehemiah, crucially, is corporate renewal, renewal of the people of God. A restored relationship with God leads to a restored relationship with each other, to a concern for the welfare of the whole community. That’s the vision offered by these chapters – renewal through the word of God, renewal in relationship with God, and renewal as the people of God.

All of this reminds us of the important relationship between Scripture and church communities, where Scripture shapes the convictions and practices of churches as part of their ongoing commitment to live and worship faithfully before God. None of this is to detract from the importance of individual study of the Bible. But, giving Nehemiah 8 its proper due may mean recognising that the reading and interpretation of Scripture is most appropriately carried out by, and in the context of, the church community. It helps to prevent privatised readings of the Bible, and to correct some of the biases we may bring to certain texts. Our appropriation of Scripture takes place in recognition that we belong within and are answerable to a community of readers, not just those to whom we belong now, but to brothers and sisters in Christ extended through space and time.

This has been a major emphasis of some current thinking, especially by those who are seeking to redefine evangelicalism apart from modernist assumptions, and who borrow from postmodern thinkers the notion that knowledge is mediated through communities and traditions with distinctive stories and language and practices. There are important insights here: there is a communal dimension to the Christian faith, which evangelicalism has not always been good at paying attention to. But, occasionally the Christian community gets it wrong (which might not come as a huge surprise), just as the communities of faith in the Bible occasionally got it wrong. And when we do, we are brought back on track by Scripture. The church stands under Scripture, not alongside it, and certainly not above it. Authority lies not in the community, but in the God who speaks to the community through Scripture. Scripture must stand in a place where it might, if necessary, critique the teaching and practice of the church, where it might renew the community of faith, as it did in Nehemiah’s day.

As we submit to God’s word, may our use of Scripture in churches – in preaching, in Bible studies, in disciple-making courses, in children’s ministry – issue in a whole-life discipleship that connects us with previous generations of faithful believers and extends that same faith into the very specific contexts in which we find ourselves in today’s world.

This represents something of LICC’s vision and hope for churches – that the whole people of God might engage with the whole word of God in a way that touches and transforms the whole of our lives, individually and together, and for the sake of the world in which we are called to live.