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The first chapters of everything

Alasdair Paine: The first chapters of everythingThis recent (2014) book on Genesis 1-4 by Alasdair Paine (of St Andrew the Great in Cambridge) is a joy to read. The emphasis is on how the chapters make sense of the world in which we live. Indeed, the book’s subtitle is, ‘How Genesis 1-4 explains our world’. Summing up the value of these chapters, Paine notes how they make sense of ‘the magnificence of the world we inhabit’, its orderliness, the ‘dominance of the world by the human race’, ‘the extraordinarily mixed nature of life in our world’, ‘hatred, and the power of sin to master us’, and much more (p. 179-181). The book grew out of a preaching ministry — and it shows. Issues beyond the concern of the text are kept in their proper place, and dealt with in a sensitive way, and the book is filled with vivid illustrations and pointed applications.

However, despite the excellent material in the book, and despite having the right approach to Genesis (‘Persistently asking the question “what is the message here?” is the correct way to handle the book,’ p. 8), I’m not sure Paine quite hits the target. The reason for this is the lack of attention to the context.

Genesis 1-4, as well as being the first chapters of everything, are also the first chapters of the Book of Genesis. And Genesis, like every book of the Bible, has an immediate context. It was not written for us as isolated human beings trying to make sense of the world around us. It was written for the covenant people of God — for the (physical and spiritual) descendants of Abraham. Assuming a (basically) Mosaic authorship, as Paine does, we can focus still more sharply on the primary audience, which must surely have been Israel in the wilderness.

And when we do that, the text suddenly opens up in a fresh way.

Genesis 1 can now be seen not only as teaching us about God the Creator, but as teaching us more about our God: the God who has just set us free by triumphing over the gods of Egypt, who has entered into a covenant with us, and who has promised to give us the victory over the people of Canaan. The emphasis on God’s word in chapter 1 can be traced through the rest of Genesis, with its emphasis on God’s word of promise. Will the people of Israel trust God’s promises as they enter the promised land? Will we trust God’s promises? Then, just as God finished his work of creation, so he will most certainly fulfil all that he has promised to do. And he will work out each step of his plan, so that someone like Joseph (who, incidentally, ended up having dominion over much of the earth) can look back and say that ‘God meant it for good’ (Gen. 50:20, ESV), clearly echoing the language of the creation week.

Genesis 2-3 come to life when we think about the Tabernacle (as Paine does, very briefly). Eden was a garden sanctuary, in which God was especially present. In the same way, Israel in the wilderness has become a mobile sanctuary, with God present in their midst. And just as Adam and Eve faced the choice of life or death, so Israel was about to face the choice between life and death as they entered the promised land: ‘I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live,’ (Dt. 30:19, ESV). Would they listen to the Lord, or would they listen to the serpent, enticing them to serve other gods? And what about us?

I have found this to be a very fruitful way of approaching the first chapters of Genesis. Just as when we read a New Testament letter, we try to hear it first through the ears of the original recipients, and only then begin to apply it to ourselves, so it should be with Genesis. We shouldn’t bypass the Exodus and the wilderness wanderings in order to hear Genesis more directly. God speaks to us today through the word that he spoke to his people in the past. We need to keep them in mind if we want to hear what God is saying to us now.

On the Green Party's policies

A couple of people asked me what I made of the Telegraph’s recent article on Green Party policy, Drugs, brothels, al-Qaeda and the Beyonce tax: the Green Party plan for Britain. So I thought I’d jot down a few notes for a (potentially) wider readership.

  1. The Green Party has some crazy, wacky, ludicrous or disturbing polices, and if you are willing to wade through 161,403 words, you will find them! The party’s policies have been built up over decades. The only way policy can be changed is by the party conference. This makes the policies very democratic, but also gives them a tendency to grow, and grow, and grow. Few people in the party spend much time reading the policies, and members are far more likely to propose additions to policy than deletions from it. Have a quick look now at policy.greenparty.org.uk.

  2. Only a small subset of the policies are important at any given time, and these policies may be found in manifestos and heard in media appearances. It’s much more important to pay attention to those.

  3. The broad principles are more important than the individual policies and that’s what attracted me to the Green Party. Green politics, internationally, is built on four pillars: ecology, social justice, grassroots democracy, and nonviolence. Derek Wall’s book, The No-Nonsense Guide to Green Politics is a good introduction to this: see my posts here and here. If you like the sound of that, don’t be unduly put off by the minutiae.

  4. A vote for the Green Party could influence negotiations in a hung parliament even if your vote doesn’t directly contribute to a Green MP being elected. The small number of MPs the party ends up with would be able to say they represent the views of a huge number of people around the country. So they might have a disproportionate amount of bargaining power — still not very much, though — but only in respect to the party’s most prominent and realistic policies. This might be on energy, welfare, benefits or scrapping Trident, depending on how willing the other parties are to make accommodations. There’s absolutely no risk that any of the party’s more idiosyncratic policies will get implemented.

  5. Other parties don’t disclose their policies and either keep them secret or make them up as they go along. When I joined the Green Party I familiarised myself with the core principles underlying party policy and, for comparison, tried to find something similar on the websites of the other major parties. Could I find anything? No.

  6. You can change Green Party policy for the better. Just join the party and go to the conference! That’s what I’ll be doing in a few weeks’ time. Or join some other party and get involved in that one. But I doubt there is another party in the country that is shaped so directly by its members as the Green Party is.

(No, that wasn’t a listicle!)

Christians in Politics: will you #ShowUp?

In politics, it has been said, decisions are made by those who show up.

Christians in PoliticsChristians in Politics launched a new campaign today:

The Show Up campaign aims to encourage positive Christian engagement in the run up to, and beyond, the 2015 General Election.

The launch video is below, and puts it very clearly:

We have a choice as believers in the UK. Are we going to spend the next few years just commentating and complaining about the state of our country? Or are we going to follow the biblical precedent of people like Joseph, Esther and Daniel, who served in the midst of regimes that make present day politics look positively virtuous. Surely it’s time for Christians to Show Up.

What could you do, beyond just voting?

Christian same-sex marriage?

Jeffrey John: Permanent, Faithful, StableI recently read one of the most prominent books of its kind: Jeffrey John’s Permanent, Faithful, Stable: Christian Same-sex Marriage. It’s the first such book that I’ve read; I understand it might not be the best example, but it is certainly short.

Jeffrey John is Dean of St Albans, and made the headlines in 2003, when he didn’t become the Bishop of Reading, following a big fuss about his stance on same-sex relationships, not least his own. The book was first published in 1993, then again in 2000 and 2012. This most recent edition has a new preface and postscript, lamenting the lack of progress on the issue within the Church of England, and rejoicing in the developments in the UK, with civil partnerships introduced in 2005, and with same-sex marriage looming on the horizon at the time (see here and here for a couple of my posts on that particular development). You can get a clear impression of the hurt and sense of injustice that people in John’s position have experienced. Any pastoral response needs to take that into account.

The core of the book consists of three chapters: ‘Is it Scriptural?’, ‘Is it Moral?’, and ‘Is it Achievable?’. John argues that the biblical texts speaking against same-sex sexual activity are either against only some such activity, or are intended simply to make a sharp distinction between Jews and Gentiles. A couple of pages are devoted to the centurion and his servant, with the suggestion that ‘Any Jew … would almost certainly have assumed they were gay lovers’ (p. 14). On the moral question, he sees sex within marriage as ‘good in itself, quite apart from any possibility of childbirth’ (p. 26). Thus he sees no reason to consider same-sex relationships to be morally inferior. The achievability chapter tackles both the question of promiscuity and fidelity and whether it could conceivably find acceptance within the church.

I found John’s biblical exegesis strained at times. But rather than deal with that here, the thought occurred that, even supposing his interpretations are correct, his case still wouldn’t be settled. First, with one exception, John doesn’t make a positive case from any passage; he merely tries to deflect the negative case. The one exception is the centurion and his servant. John takes Jesus’ words and actions to at least hint at approval of their (alleged) relationship. I find this far from compelling. But, second, I don’t think I would make the case against same-sex relationships primarily on the basis of those few verses that address the matter directly. A broader perspective is needed.

What is completely missing in John’s approach is any sense of the significance of ‘male and female’. As NT Wright makes clear in the superb video below (prepared for the recent Vatican conference on the topic), the complementarity between man and woman is intimately entwined with a thread that runs unmistakeably through the whole Bible. The marriage relationship, between a man and a woman, is one of the clearest signposts we have, to point us towards ‘the fulfilment of God’s good purposes for creation: the coming together of all things in heaven and on earth in Christ’ (16:20).

I realise this leaves a thousand questions unanswered. Some other time, perhaps!

Election 2015: Christian comment from KLICE

The excellent Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics (KLICE) has a new page devoted to the 2015 (general) election.

You can read all about it in their recent KLICE Comment: Beyond Pantomime Politics: KLICE pauses for thought before May 2015.

Here’s the introduction from the page itself:

KLICE is commissioning a range of thought-provoking election pieces between January and April 2015. These will provide serious theological reflections for readers as they prepare to engage with the election issues and reflect on how to vote. Our major offering is a special series of eight Ethics in Brief on the main British political parties. These won’t advise you how to vote but may help to think more critically about your political allegiance.

Make sure you sign up for KLICE Comment for email updates.

Steel Angels: the personal qualities of a priest

Magdalen Smith: Steel AngelsThe Church of England puts people forward for ordination based on nine criteria. Those criteria form the basis for this 2014 book by Magdalen Smith, who is the new Diocesan Director of Ordinands (DDO) for the Diocese of Chester.

Such a book could potentially be extremely dull. It could end up reading like an interminably long ‘person specification’, with essential and desirable characteristics of the successful candidate sprawled out for page after page. It could be like this or this, but only longer.

Mercifully, that is not the approach of this book. Rather than stating what the criteria are, Smith instead shows us what they look like. Vivid images, such as ‘steel angels’ (a reference to The Angel of the North) are combined with real-life anecdotes to give us an attractive portrait of the kind of person the criteria are intended to select. As such, I found the book had the effect of opening up possibilities and stimulating my imagination, rather than restricting and narrowing, as dry criteria can easily do. It makes me want to pursue ordination, rather than just giving me a huge list of reasons why I might not be suitable.

The book has the fairly standard parish priest in mind; it might not be so relevant for people serving or seeking to serve in less typical contexts.

On feeling called to be ordained

Francis Dewar: Called or Collared?The most helpful parts of Francis Dewar’s book Called or Collared? are those dealing with the idea that you must believe that you are ‘inwardly moved by the Holy Ghost’ in order to be ordained. (These words, from the Book of Common Prayer, have been removed in more recent ordination services, I’m pleased to note.)

This requirement, Dewar explains, ‘is relatively recent in the history of the Church’, not appearing ‘in church ordinals before the sixteenth century’ (p. 9). He quotes H. L. Goudge, who described it in 1938 as ‘nothing less than a disaster’:

It has probably lost to the ministry hundreds of men who might have made admirable clergy; and it tends to cause painful searchings of heart in times of depression to many rightly ordained (p. 11).

Instead, Dewar emphasises the role of the church in the process of ordination:

Remember, you do not choose yourself for the ordained ministry. Nor does it depend on your personal feelings about it. ‘You did not choose me: I chose you.’ It is Christ in his Body, the Church, who chooses you. Rest in that assurance, and know that if you are chosen, he will be with you in your heart and beside you in those who are, please God, pastors to you (p. 116).

What of the rest of the book? This kind of thing:

Blessed are those who follow the deepest law of their God-given nature (p. 89).

Most of the book is not far from saying, ‘God calls you to be true to yourself’. Now, there is undoubtedly something to be affirmed in our culture’s longing for individual authenticity. But to make that the heart of Christian spirituality, as Dewar appears to, strikes me as somewhat, well, syncretic.

Ministry in Three Dimensions

Steven Croft: Ministry in Three DimensionsI’m writing this from the Bible Belt of the Netherlands: a strip running from the south west towards the east of the country, in which there are many conservative Protestant Christians. As a result of the pillarisation of Dutch society, for well over a century, there has been a whole ‘pillar’ of society shaped by Protestant or Reformed Christian thinking. Many or most Christians send their children to Christian schools, read Christian newspapers, listen to Christian radio stations, watch Christian TV stations (or don’t watch TV at all), and vote for Christian political parties. This has allowed the church to remain strong, even in an increasingly non-Christian society, and has allowed it to continue to operate largely in what Steven Croft refers to as ‘inherited mode’ in his book, Ministry in Three Dimensions: Ordination and Leadership in the Local Church.

Steven Croft was Warden of Cranmer Hall in Durham when he wrote the first edition of the book (1999). The second edition (2008) was written while he was Archbishops’ Missioner and Team Leader of Fresh Expressions. Since 2009 he has been the Bishop of Sheffield.

The ‘inherited mode’ he refers to is a legacy of Christendom. Church congregations are sustainable and largely self-perpetuating. Children are born into the church, nurtured in the faith, and remain in the church into adulthood. In the Dutch Bible Belt, or in certain towns and villages in England, the churches are large and exist comfortably as part of an existing community, in which people encounter one another outside of the church context in their day-to-day lives, and in which church involvement is an accepted part of many people’s lives. Or in many smaller, conservative churches in England, the church family forms a closely-knit alternative society to the world around, and is largely self-perpetuating in the same way. In either of these cases, the pastor or vicar can focus almost exclusively on what Croft calls the ‘presbyteral’ dimension of ministry, which is centred around the ministry of the word and sacrament.

However, in many churches, and perhaps most Church of England churches, this kind of ministry has not been sufficient. (Nor is it likely to be sufficient in many others in the years to come, except in certain ‘magnet’ churches in prominent cities.) The faithful have been growing old and dying, and the younger generations have not replaced them, either because they have fallen away, moved away, or not been born in the first place. Some churches have simply been shrinking and closing. Others have sought to reshape ordained ministry as ‘leadership’, drawing on secular models of management. Neither of those approaches is ideal, for obvious reasons.

Into this context, Croft seeks to draw on the rich biblical material on ministry and leadership. In particular, he seeks to draw on two often-neglected dimensions of ministry: diakonia (service) and episcope (oversight).

Many will be familiar with the historic threefold ordering of ordained ministry into deacons, presbyters (elders, priests) and bishops. Croft is by no means opposed to this (and sees hints of its emergence even in the New Testament), but his purpose is to see these primarily as dimensions of all ordained ministry, with the different orders reflecting a different emphasis. So, for example, the ministry of bishops will have an emphasis on episcope, but will nonetheless be shaped by diakonia, and have a strong presbyteral dimension. This reflects the New Testament usage, perhaps most strikingly in Acts 20, in which Paul speaks to the elders in Ephesus, emphasising the importance of both service (diakonia) and exercising oversight (episcope).

The book deals with each of these dimensions in turn, first diakonia, then the presbyteral dimension, then episcope. In each case, the biblical material is examined, followed by the Christian tradition, and then many practical lessons are drawn for contemporary ministry, primarily for those serving in a local church context. All of this is extraordinarily helpful. However, the final chapter, added for the second edition, hints at how the book might have taken a different shape, had a rewrite of the book been possible.

On episcope, in this final chapter, Croft now places the emphasis on the ordained ministers watching over themselves (‘Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock’, Acts 20:28). Other elements of episcope include enabling the ministry of others, and giving vision and unity to a church while helping it to navigate change. For this essential dimension of ministry, ‘There is much that the Church can learn from good practice developed over many years in the commercial world or in the public sector’ (p. 27). However, this wisdom should be appropriated without turning ordained ministry into a form of ‘leadership’ modelled on the surrounding culture.

In particular, and in contrast to models of leadership and management, all ordained ministry should retain the dimension of diakonia: Christian service. This is ‘the most important of the three dimensions if ministry and leadership are to be truly Christian and Christ-like’ (p. 45). This will include simple, hidden, practical acts of service, service to the community, competent and careful administration, listening to others, humility and integrity.

The final chapter of the book takes diakonia in an interesting direction. Croft draws on the work of John Collins, who ‘argues that the root meaning of [diakonia] in the New Testament is actually better understood not only as loving service but also mission or agency. A diakonos is primarily someone who is sent on behalf of someone else’ (p. 202). Croft links this closely with the ‘Fresh Expressions’ movement of the past decade or so, which is not so much about sustaining existing communities, as about ‘forming new communities through contextual mission’ (p. 201). Someone whose ministry is shaped by diakonia will be a pioneer, seeking to take the gospel beyond the world of the existing congregations and into new ground.

Like the church reflected in Ephesians 4, we need our pastors and teachers (the focus of presbyteral ministry) but also our evangelists (the focus of diaconal ministry) (p. 208).

The book’s final paragraph provides a good summary:

Like the apostle [Paul in Ephesus], we too are called to these different ministries within one body of Christ: to sustain existing communities through the ministries of word and sacrament; to pioneer new communities to connect with those who are right outside the churches and to exercise oversight over the whole church, connecting the different parts together and enabling the church to be built up and God’s kingdom extended. The calling of all of the ordained is to ministry in three dimensions (p. 210).

Do you feel called by God?

Michael Bennett: Do you feel called by God?You don’t need to!

That’s the main point of Michael Bennett’s 2012 book, Do you feel called by God? (Matthias Media). From the back cover:

When Michael Bennett took the first steps towards full-time, ordained Christian ministry, he dreaded being asked whether he ‘felt called’. Because in all honesty, he didn’t.

Many years later, and after extensive biblical research, he came to the conclusion that the common idea of needing to feel a subjective call from God before entering the ministry is misguided and unbiblical.

It’s a readable, short and engaging book. The substantial part is an examination of the biblical material. He notes that, in the Old and New Testaments, people do indeed find themselves being called by God, such as Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Mary, the Twelve Apostles, Paul and Jesus himself. But the call these people receive may be described as follows:

The word of God comes directly and personally to one of God’s people, specifically directing that individual to assume a defined role or task as God’s chosen leader, representative or spokesperson (pp. 37, 48).

As such, this kind of ‘call’ is clear, undeniable, and external or objective. It hardly needs to be said that elders (presbyters) in the New Testament are not appointed on the basis that they have received a ‘call’ of this nature. Nor is their appointment described using the language of ‘call’. And, crucially, nowhere in Scripture, Old or New Testament, is there any concept of feeling called.

You do not find Isaiah, for instance, saying later that he experienced an inward spiritual impression that he should take up the prophetic role (p. 40).

So if a deep, subjective, inner sense of call is not the decisive factor, then what are the qualifications that should be required of an ordained minister?

The helpful answer comes under two headings:

  1. He must be rightly motivated for ministry (p. 122), and
  2. He must be rightly tested for ministry (p. 125).

The less helpful answer verges on denying that there is such a thing as ordained ministry.

After pointing out that all Christians are called into ministry (compare the different translations of Ephesians 4:11-13), Bennett seeks to find appropriate words to describe the kind of ministry done by pastors. It isn’t ‘full-time’ ministry, ‘as all believers are in “full-time” ministry from the moment of conversion’ (p. 115). After some struggle, the best way he can find to describe this kind of ministry is ‘career ministry’ (p. 115).

By ‘career minister’, then, we mean a person who sets aside normal means of secular employment for the sake of being more fully devoted to gospel work, and who usually is supported financially in this work by other believers (p. 116).

I’m not sure this is entirely satisfactory. Admittedly, it is a small book, and this isn’t a major part of it, so I shouldn’t dwell on this. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood? But I do think some comments are in order. First, ‘career ministry’ unhelpfully excludes those ‘amateurs’ and ‘part-timers’ who have a secular career but labour away at pastoral ministry in their free time. (The Apostle Paul springs to mind: see 2 Corinthians.) Second, it makes no distinction between those who are legitimately authorised for their ‘career ministry’ by a church and those who are not. There are plenty of self-appointed charlatans who exploit the generosity of other believers in order to support their ‘career ministries’. And, third, it does seem that pastors (elders, presbyters) in the New Testament are nouns as well as verbs. For comparison, Jane believes that God wants her to spend today teaching, not only because she is good at teaching, but because she is a teacher. Jim believes that God wants him to spend today practising nursing, not only because he is good at nursing, but because he is a nurse. In the same way, John believes that God wants him to spend today exercising pastoral ministry, not only because he is good at doing that kind of thing, but because he is a pastor. There is a sense in which someone is objectively appointed to pastoral ministry, beyond simply being resourced to do the work.

So what should you say if asked, for example, ‘to articulate a sense of vocation to the ordained ministry’? I suppose you could simply speak about why you want to be an ordained minister. Why does the prospect excite you? There is (or should be) no need to gaze deep into your navel, searching for some illusive inner sense of ‘feeling called’.

God with us (in the lab)

There’s a post of mine on the Faith in Scholarship blog this morning. It begins as follows…

It’s hard to predict how I will feel at the end of the Christmas break. Will I be refreshed and eager to get back to work? Or will the thought fill me with dread? Or both?

It can be especially difficult when your day-to-day work is somewhat mind numbing. Every PhD has these phases. (If yours doesn’t, I want to know your secret!) How can you go from pondering the birth of Jesus Christ one week, to spend the next week wrestling with your data, poring over arcane ancient texts, fighting with test tubes, dredging through reams of articles, or debugging your spaghetti-like code?

It all depends on how we approach Christmas. …

Read more…