Why careful language matters
Christians can sometimes be rather sloppy with theological language. There are many reasons for this: laziness, misunderstanding – and perhaps some of us who stand at the front of churches get too pedantic. But on the other hand, some doctrines (and I'm thinking particularly of the Trinity) are hard to understand anyway without people confusing things even more. So, whilst we ought not to be criticising those who speak from ignorance, we ought at the very least to be helping them get to grips with such matters.
I was struck by this whilst reading a very short and simple book on the Trinity by Stuart Olyott, What the Bible teaches about the Trinity, just reissued by EP. It's a great little book for giving to church members (and, dare I say it, refreshing the understanding of church ministers?). There's a chapter on errors to avoid, where Stuart writes this about Sabellianism (essentially modalism):
Sometimes, Sabellianism is found in a Christian's prayers. Often he begins by praying to God the Father, but shortly afterwards thanks him for dying on the cross. He thus falls into the mistake of saying of the Father what can only be said of the Son. He may then proceed to thank him for his indwelling presence – something which can properly be said only of the Holy Spirit. Fortunately God does not listen to our words, but looks upon our hearts, and the mediation of Christ guarantees that our prayers are presented in heaven without fault. Yet it is always dangerous to have wrong views of God, and if such prayers are public they may sometimes be positively harmful to those who hear them.
This was reinforced for me when visiting a church building yesterday for a school prize-giving. I was sitting at the back next to a stack of leaflets that said "What Christians believe." I took one to read in the duller moments of the assembly. This is what the leaflet said about the Holy Spirit.
We believe the Father is always with us and we call his presence the Holy Spirit
What do you think? Sounds to be like modalism. There is truth within it, but the Spirit is God himself, one of the three persons of the Trinity and not simply the Father's presence. Careful language does matter.
Book review: A minister’s wife
“It takes all sorts to be a minister’s wife”. That’s what Rachel Lawrence writes in ”The Minister’s Wife”. If that’s true, is it possible for one book to help every sort of minister’s wife?
Well, this book does a pretty good job. This is due partly to the fact that eight different sorts of minister’s wives contribute from their own different experiences. This brings all sorts of styles and ways of approaching the topic.
I think it is also due to the way that it addresses the real cause of our issues as minister’s wives. No, I don’t mean our husbands or even our churches but our hearts. The book contains a very helpful chapter on maintaining our relationship with the Lord and one on humility and contentment. These remind us that dealing with the practicalities of being a minister’s wife requires more than a list of handy hints and recipes.
Having said that, there are also some very down to earth practical answers to the “How to…?” questions with a chapter particularly for those starting out in ministry. We are also reminded of the many privileges of being a minister’s wife.
This is a great book to dip into again and again whatever sort of minister’s wife you are. It will challenge you to think about your responsibilities and priorities as well as encourage you to keep on serving God as you serve your husband.
[Ed: boys, buy this for your wife, but here's a tip – don't make it your only Christmas present to her. She may not appreciate that.]
It’s not just the preaching…
We tend to focus here on preaching, and are right to do so, but preaching has a context which is normally (narrowly) a worship service in church and (more broadly) a pastoral ministry exercised in the church. So, to answer the first context, here is an order of service I put together for last Sunday evening when I was preaching on "Gospel Encouragement" from 2 Corinthians 4 (more specifically, "therefore, we do not lose heart"). I'll try and explain what I was thinking:
Welcome – I always introduce myself, sometimes there will be new people there or people who don't know the church leadership team. I explain what we're going to do, and sometimes (though not this time) read a Scripture to call people to worship.
Sing: Great is the gospel of our glorious God. This great Vernon Higham hymn linked into the morning sermon which was about the glory and wonder of the new covenant foreshadowed in the promises made to David (2 Samuel 7). It provided a link for those who were there in the morning and information for those who were not.
- Prayer: I led the congregation in prayer. I often write notes for my public prayers to keep them focused, correct (theologically) and Trinitiarian.
- Reading: 2 Corinthians 4. We were a bit radical at this stage and I asked the congregation to read to one another in twos and threes. All did. I did offer for some people to duck out as I know there are some who are not fond of reading aloud and others who cannot. Worked well, though wouldn't want to do it every time. We all said "Amen" together at the end (unscripted!)
- Sermon: yes, at the beginning. The sermon was about not losing heart when things don't seem so glorious. It was based on 2 Corinthians 4.
- Sing: We sung two songs in response to remind ourselves about the glory to come (which is the climax of the passage). This felt like we were singing the sermon in – very useful. We sung I will glory in my Redeemer followed by There is a higher throne.
- This service included the Lord's Supper so we then had a time of open prayer (we can do this because we are about 70 in the evening) when I asked people to pick up on themes from the sermon and then focus on the Lord's Supper.
- Sing: in memory of the Saviour's Love. Beautiful 17th Century hymn about the Lord's Supper which we sung to a very slow version of Amazing Grace. New to us, but worked well.
- Lord's Supper: at this point led by our pastor (it's difficult for me to handle bread because I'm a coeliac and I easily get ill).
- Sing to close: In Christ alone – a bit anthemic, but described the points in the sermon and the Lord's Supper very well.
All takes about 75 mins which is what we plan for. What would I have done differently? There was not enough time for petition which was a weakness.
BTW, the picture is really us! Well, some of us anyway.
Why evangelicals may have got quiet times completely wrong
It's the standard evangelical application; worthy if a little predictable – read your Bible more; pray more. But what if we've got those two essential ingredients of our quiet times wrong? Tipped off by my pastor I've been thinking about the puritan view of personal devotions and, interestingly, they had three elements, not two. This is best explained by Richard Baxter in the Saints Everlasting Rest. He said that we have to have three ingredients:
- consideration – what we would call reading/understanding the text
- soliloquy – more of this in a moment
The soliloquy is the "talking to yourself" part and the Puritans saw this as a key component of quiet times. The Bible exhorts us to meditate on God's word again and again and the Hebrew word means to chew over – to digest, if you like. How much of this do we actually do? How much of a discipline is it? No wonder our quiet times are sometimes turgid and difficult. We're quite possibly missing a piece of the puzzle.
Interestingly, last week I was reading Eric Mataxas' bio of Bonhoeffer and noticed that when he set up his Confessing Church college he got his students to find a quiet place each day for one whole hour and chew over a small part of Scripture; to talk to themselves about it; to work it through in their minds over and over again; to let it sink into every fibre of their being. These students, coming from largely mechanical-Christianity backgrounds, hated it! But we, we believers should love it.
And we need it. There is something profoundly wrong with a quiet time that reads/understands and prays without the soliloguy. We need to take the word of God into us and let it transform us. As Baxter puts it, we all need to find our Isaac place (somewhere away from the bustle of the day) and, basically, chew on God's word, preaching to ourselves.
A not-so-quiet time…
Calvin on John’s gospel
Had the privilege of sitting in on some Cornhill teaching last week as they embarked on a mammoth series in John's gospel. Christopher kicked off with this helpful Calvin quote.
A gospel is 'the glad and delightful message of the grace exhibited to us in Christ, in order to instruct us, by despising the world and it's fading riches and pleasures, to desire with our whole heart, and to embrace when offered to us, this invaluable blessing.' In the gospels, the evangelists do not just record the facts, 'but also explain for what purpose he was born, and died, and rose again, and what benefit we derive from those events.' John 'dwells more largely (than the Synoptics) on the doctrine by which the office of Christ, together with the power of his death and resurrection, is unfolded' or 'the power and benefit of the coming of Christ'. The Synoptics 'exhibit his body' but John 'exhibits his soul.' So, this gospel 'is a key to open the door for understanding the rest.'
Spent a day at a theological college this week and met up with some past Cornhill students. Delightful. One told me that, when it came to preaching, it was noticeable (even after three years) those who had done our Cornhill course and those who hadn't. We're convinced it still has an important part to play as an adjunct to a theological degree or further training – they complement one another nicely. The Cornhill course is able to do what college courses cannot do – that is focus entirely on public teaching and preaching ministry. It is its strength and the reason people still come. It's almost time to start thinking about applying for 2012/13.
- Perhaps you are thinking about ministry and the Cornhill course (alongside a church placement) would be a great way to develop nascent gifts?
- Perhaps you are already in ministry and the Cornhill course will help sharpen your preaching and teaching?
- Perhaps you are approaching a change in life (children left home, redundancy etc) which frees you up to serve in the church and you would really like to develop your teaching ministry?
New is not always better, just different (for 2 Corinthians, at least)
I'm not talking about the covenant of course!! I'm thinking about commentaries on 2 Corinthians. (What? You didn't spot that?) One of my favourite commentary sets is Eerdmans New International Old and New Testament commentary. I find that they have just the right mix of language, technical and application which enables me to study a book well.
The series used to be called The New London Commentary and volumes are gradually being replaced. That means that the original volumes are disappearing and in some cases that is a great shame. Take 2 Corinthians. The NICNT volume by Paul Barnett is majestic, thorough and well written and researched. I warmly commend it. It was punlished in 1997. But it replaces a volume written by Anglican scholar and later professor at Westminster Theological Seminary Philip Edgcumbe Hughes. A replacement was probably necessary to update the scholarly side of the book. However, Hughes' volume will be missed. It is in many respects superb. I might write to Eerdmans and ask them for the copyright! I don't want either/or but both/and. In the meantime, if you see a second hand copy of Hughes around, grab it while you can.
BTW, Hughes also wrote one of the original Pillar commentaries on Revelation. I see that the Donster will be rewriting that (I eagerly anticipate….). I can't comment on the Revelaton volume as I haven't seen it, but I guess it's worth hunting down too.
Why good arguments often fail
Review of Why Good Arguments Often Fail by James Sire (IVP). This is one of those increasing rarities, an IVP US book that makes it onto the IVP UK catagloue. We're richer for it though. It was published in 2006 and I remember reading it a few years ago and thinking, hmm, that should help my preaching. So this last week, I determined to read it again. It's both an incredibly strong book and an inherently weak one – both at the same time.
It's strength comes from the very careful analysis of argument (much of which can be applied to preaching) with the specific view of informing evangelism (in the author's case campus evangelism). But it also has an inherent weakness, namely, it's just not quite spiritual enough….. Let me explain before I return to its strengths.
There is, of course, a reaons why good arguments fail. Funnily enough, I'm preaching on it this Sunday:
the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Cor 4.4)
Therefore, the answer to failing arguments is primarily spiritual and the remedy must be spiritual too – to preach God's word in the power of the Spirit, soaked with prayer. I am sure Sire would not disagree with this, but he says very little about it in the book. However, it is also true that in that same passage, the Apostle says:
on the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God (2 Cor 4.2)
Perhaps I'm being pedantic? After all, what follows in Sire's book is superb. But I would not want anybody to read it (least of all impressionale young campus evangelists) and just think that we've got to make a good argument. However, proclamation is surely not less than that, and this is why the book is ultimately helpful.
The book starts with a chapter borrowed from another, namely Love is a fallacy from The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis by Max Shulman (1951 – collection of short stories which later became a TV series). You can read the chapter here (quicker) or even watch it on youtube (keep going to the end for the punchline….).
The first half of the book is then dedicated to explaining the various logical fallacies people use and then showing how they can be avoided. I think this is a rich vein for preachers (and I even wonder whether the short story should be required reading on Cornhill!). For example, we have:
- unqualified generalisations: "statements that contain a grain of truth but are so unqualified that they almost succeed in being false" – e.g. "Christians know the truth about God."
- hasty generalisations: statements that contain truth but extrapolate too far. "Church is a wonderful place." Listeners are going to see through that!
- false cause: arguments that simply claim too much. "Everything that is great about the UK comes from our Christian heritage" – just not true, but I've heard preachers use similar arguments.
- contrary hypotheses: arguments that are not internally consistent. We once tried to hire a church for a conference but were told by the vicar that we could not as "they were an inclusive church" – think about it!
- hypotheses contrary to fact: something that expresses what we wished were true, but may well not be. "If only you would read the gospels you would see clearly that Jesus is the Son of God."
- false analogy: drawing distinctions between wrong things. Perhaps this is where many of our illustrations suffer?
- poisoning the well: perjorative statements up front that simply turn some people off. "the new atheists don't understand anything about Christianity" Really?
- non sequitur: an argument where the conclusion doesn't really follow the points made.
All of these are very cleverely illustrated in the Love is a fallacy short story…..
I find this sort of challenge really helpful. My preaching has got to stack up. And it's easy when you're in monologue to abuse the audience and not argue carefully. Of course, the type of preaching we espouse guards against this – mostly because we're using the logic and argument of the text to make our case (although that presupposes we've done the careful work to understand the logic of the text).
The remainder of the book deals with other reasons why arguments fail: attitude, misreading the audience, gaps in worldviews between us (important one that), moral blindness – and ends with a worked example through Paul's Athens address, plus loads of recommendations for resources.
I don't think this book will transform your preaching, but I do think it will help it.
Now, I'm off to see Christopher to tell him about Love is a fallacy….
New online journal
There's a new online journal out called Credo. OK, so it is written by baptists (hoorah!) but it looks very serious and thoughtful and I've enjoyed the one or two articles I've read so far. Contributors include Bruce Ware, John Frame (so not all baptists…), Timothy George and Tim Challies. Free, and worth a few moments of your time – especially this launch issue on the doctrine of Scripture.
A one page article interested me (and made me smile). It was a series of short one line interviews asking a variety of men how difficult it is to interpret Old Testament Scripture. I love Walt Kaiser's entry "2 (on a scale of 1-10) relatively easy"!!
New strategies for reading the Bible
The front page headline in this month's Christianity Today caught my eye
Why leading evangelical scholars are arguing for a new way to interpret Scripture
Got me worried! Novelty is not necessarily wrong, but we are right to be wary of new things. It turns out that this "new" way to read Scripture "turns out to be not so new and will deepen our life in Christ." So, not so new. And, without wanting to go all "I told you so" what we've been advocating for years. It's a long article and addresses some particular American problems with reading the Scriptures, but they are problems that appear to be more and more prevalent over here. So, here is the breakout box on 1 Samuel 17. It's worth repeating in full and if you can get access to CT, then go read the article.
Consider the well-known story in 1 Samuel 17 in which David faces and defeats Goliath. Let me give two possible approaches to preaching or teaching this text. Neither sees it as simply an account of a border skirmish in ancient history. Both approaches understand the Bible as authoritative.
In the first approach, the character of Goliath becomes a metaphor for the challenges faced in daily life. Hearers are encouraged to identify the “Goliaths” in their own life – low self-esteem, financial challenges, or a family problem. David becomes a model of the underdog who dares to step up to his own inner “giants” and “challenges.” The Bible is the answer book, showing us the way to face challenges in our personal life: visualize a positive outcome like David (17:36), act with confidence in the face of a challenge (17:37) and take risks (17:48-9). In this way, the Bible helps us solve our problems. Who is the hero of this rendering of the story? David – more specifically, his courageous human will. David’s faith in God may be noted, but it is David’s faith that is highlights. The living God is not a major character in this reading of the text.
In contrast, a theological interpretation of Scripture tries to understand the text as part of a God-centered drama. In this approach, God’s saving action is at the center of the narrative. While the mighty Goliath can taunt the people of Israel, David confesses, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine” (17:37). Rather than seeing David as the self-actualized hero, the emphasis here is on the saving action of the almighty God, whom David actively trusts. For as the text repeatedly notes, it was not a “sword” of David that brings deliverance from the philistines, for “the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand” (17:47; cf. 17:37; 17:50). Although David appears to be ill-prepared to encounter Goliath, David acts with covenantal trust in God that “The Lord…will save me from the hand of this Philistine” (17:37).
Thus, we are invited to actively trust in this same God – the God of Israel who finally reveals the nature of his victory over his enemies in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Indeed, the 1 Samuel narrative shows how God’s surprising way of working contrasts with worldly appearances of power. Paul reflects on this mystery as it culminates in Christ crucified: “God chose what is weak in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor, 1:27b-30). As disciples of Jesus, we are called through the David and Goliath narrative to renew our trust in God’s deliverance, acting in confidence as we love God and neighbour and witness to God’s power in Christ crucified. Our confidence is in the Lord (not our faith or our commitment), for it is the Lord who uses even those who appear weak and lowly to accomplish his purposes.